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The Rebirth by Travis Anderson

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

Chapter One

The world around Brin Macen was nebulous at best. But three beings appeared to him. One assumed the guise of T'Kir. Another of Ro Laren and the third was portraying Starfleet Admiral Nechayev. Macen knew he was being contacted by the Prophets.

Those elusive, translinear aliens who dwelt in the stable wormhole linking Bajor with a system in the Gamma Quadrant, the Prophets were worshiped as Bajor's gods and the wormhole was their Celestial Temple. Macen's own people, the El-Aurians, had dealt with the Prophets, the Organians, and the Metrons once upon a time before the Borg assimilated most of his culture. They'd even dealt with the Q Continuum but such encounters were rarely pleasant for either side.

"You are less, yet you must become more," T'Kir's image reminded him of his last conversation with the Prophets.

"This reality no longer requires your services," Nechayev spoke.

"Yet another desperately does," Ro spoke next.

"Please tell me that the Terrans don't require my services," Macen pleaded.

"The Terran universe is dimmed and shall remain so," Nechayev informed him, "It does not need you."

"Whereupon the reality where the Veridian star exploded has been conquered by the Borg and the Dominion. The two great rivals now beat each other senseless. They do not require your service," T'Kir told him. Macen was pained to see her even as this incarnation. Her death had nearly broken him and her second death had been a relief as her clone was a mockery of T'Kir.

"Linear timelines are grouped in fours it seems," Nechayev seemed surprised.

"We do not understand," Ro admitted.

"So, if those universes stacked like the known dimensions, and three of those, including the one I currently occupy, which alternate reality has need of me?" Macen asked.

"Open your eyes and behold," T'Kir instructed. Suddenly, Macen's cabin aboard the Nova-class NDR-74315 SS Obsidian came back into view. His wife, Celeste Rockford, had the same startled expression he wore.

"You too?" he asked.

"What the hell was that?" Rockford had been confronted by her former identities and personalities now purged from her. The one-time Angosian Augment Infiltrator had been born Annika Ryst on her native planet but had been "erased" while Detective Rockford retained her memories if not her personality.

"Welcome to a visit with the Bajoran Prophets," Macen shrugged.

"Well, they can keep of my head from now on," Rockford grated, "Did they give you the same shuk about alternate universes needing you?"

"Yup," Macen confirmed it.

"I wonder who else they tortured tonight," Rockford warily admitted. When Annika Ryst left Angosia, one of her covert identities had been the private investigator, Celeste Rockford. It was the identity that all the suppressed personalities eventually wanted to be. So they'd sacrificed themselves so Rockford could live on for them. Macen and Rockford had merged her detective agencies with his security contracting Outbound Ventures well before they married. In fact, T'Kir had still been alive then.

"Computer, what is the stardate?" Macen asked and it answered.

"That was three frinxing years ago!" Rockford yelped. Suddenly comm panels lit into life, comm badges began beeping, and the door chime was accompanied by loud pounding on the door.

"I think those are the answers to your question," Macen said ruefully.

After begging off answering questions, Macen convinced the Special Investigations Division team he led and the Obsidian's senior officer corps to get dressed and meet in the team's briefing room. Together they began to search for answers. Two team members were racing through historical documentation holographically displayed above the table as fast as Macen and Rockford were scrolling through the data. everyone else had searched the manned areas of the ship to find it empty. So they awaited the answers with a sense of dread.

"These interfaces are incredible!" "Angelique Kerber" enthused. Their computer expert had been born on Ardana IV as Anara, a Troglyte slave to the Stratosian's ambitions. Her partner-in-crime was "Bailey Smith", born Maarta, and was third in the hereditary succession of power over the sky city of Stratos that dominated their mutual world. Both had worked with the Troglyte Liberation Front. As such, both had been branded as traitors by both sides of the geopolitical and ethnic conflict. Anara had forged their new identities but Macen offered Smith and Kerber relative safety and a newfound purpose.

"Well, the good news is also the bad news. We're all presumed to be dead," Macen announced, "The SID never began here. But when the Iridian Enforcers encroached on Federation territory, Outbound Ventures was hired to supplement Starfleet regulars and our counterparts were lost in action during a covert, and wholly officially unsanctioned mission. The conflict ended far bloodier, if briefer, than our own." Macen reported.

"Also the Typhon Pact and the Khitomer Accords planets never coalesced in this universe," Rockford told the group, "And several weeks ago, the Hobus star exploded in a supernova that destroyed Romulus and Remus. Captain Picard volunteered to lead a massive resettlement evacuation to get Romulan colonists out of the blast zone before the shock wave would eventually ravage their worlds as well."

"Picard was promoted to admiral and given access to large scale transports in which to undertake the mission," Macen picked up on that thread, "Ambassador Spock and a team of Vulcans led an effort to use an experimental singularity causing 'red matter' to blunt the worst of the shock wave. However, Spock was lost and presumed killed in the effort."

"But we're talking a million upon millions of people in dire need of relocation," Rockford warned, "Even with the Romulan military and civilian transports, it's estimated that if Starfleet doesn't deploy their full resources to the effort, tens of thousands if not millions yet, will still die."

"Aglaia, you checked out our relative position?" Shannon Forger, whom the computer still recognized as ship's captain, asked the Chief Flight Control Officer.

"We're relatively safe orbiting a gas giant in a system with a number designation because no one has cared enough to investigate it further," the Platonian answered, "Which makes us roughly twenty light years from Deep Space Four."

"So these Prophets moved us through time and space, and the ship, but not the crew?" Gilan, the Deputy Chief Engineer asked.

"At least the ship's systems check as normal as ever," the actual Chief Engineer, the Orion woman named Parva, commented.

Her husband, another Angosian Augment named Rab Daggit, grunted, "Small favors."

"OPS checks out," Edwin Zimbalist reported.

"So does Sickbay," Tessa, the Emergency Medical Hologram, assured them. Holo emitters had been installed throughout the ship that enabled Tessa to travel anywhere, "But I seem to have overwritten a Mark I EMH."

"And your personal mobile emitter?" Macen inquired.

"Fully functional and as large as life," Tessa remarked regarding her backpack sized unit, which was a first attempt to reverse engineer the Doctor's 29th century era badge sized mobile emitter.

"We could've been asked if we wanted to come with," Shade, one of Rockford's detectives, grumbled.

"Even though we would've said 'yes'," Arianna Forte, Rockford's teen protege from the duplicate Earth called "Miri" and constructed by the mysterious Preservers, promised.

"I'm not so certain," Lee Kang had been a chief inspector on a colony world before being framed and ostracized on Chung Kou before enlisting in Rockford's agency.

"Look, we all got the shaft," Tracy Ebert, who'd served as a teen beside Macen in the Maquis, "But how many others that we know have gone through this as well?"

Comm alerts began coming in.

"Commander, those holographic feeds can project our callers as real as life," Bailey Smith promised.

"Do it," Macen decided. The assortment was as surprising and yet expected as one could hope. The SID Director in their former life, Forger's older sister, Amanda, was represented. From Deep Space Nine, Captain Ro Laren and Commander Elias Vaughn were represented. From the Federation starship Intrepid, Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson and Captain Jim McKinley were there as well. Tom Riker and Lisea Danan reported in from Outbound Ventures' own Serenity Station. And lastly, the Bajoran who had devoted her life to the Prophets' works, Neela, commed in as well from a Bajoran monastery.

"Can I simply say what a relief is to see you all?" Macen smiled broadly.

"The relief is mutual," Riker promised, "Lees and I awoke after that vision to find history altered and none of our crewmates remembering anything about the three years we lost."

"Kort and Radil are even together again and raising their daughter together," the Joined Trill, Lisea Danan, happily explained one of the oddities. Kort was a Klingon physician and Serenity's CMO. Radil Jenrya was a Bajoran and the station Deputy Chief Security Officer. All four were former SID agents. But not in this universe.

"We're back in the original DS9," Ro was amazed, "And Elias is my XO again."

"So much for my retirement," the centenarian Commander Elias Vaughn chuckled.

"The worst bits haven't reached you yet. This Federation began mass producing synthetic life forms based on Dr. Soong's designs. They went nuts and killed the entire Mars colony and destroyed Utopia Planetia where they were building arks to carry the Romulans to safety. The Federation has banned all production of synthetics and their components. Furthermore, Starfleet has canceled the relief effort. Picard tried to force the issue by delivering an ultimatum and Starfleet Command called him on it and he was forced to resign in order to keep his dignity and righteous indignation intact," Admiral Amanda Forger informed them, "As of today, the Special Investigations Division has formally been approved and like we did before, it will be comprised of both Starfleet and civilian elements. I personally persuaded Nechayev to let me hire Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies. With all of this in play, it's little wonder the Wormhole Aliens decided we needed to be here instead."

"At least your return from the dead will be heralded," Neela said grimly, "My counterpart was executed ten years ago by the Jem'Hadar. The prylars and vedeks here have been in a flurry of prayerful and meditative consultations with the books of prophecy to explain why I'm suddenly back from the dead."

Macen and Ro had served alongside Neela when she'd been partnered with the Bajoran Special Forces officer, Major Anara. But more than that, the two had been lifelong friends and served in the same Resistance cells together. Even joining the reconstituted Militia together and their histories intersecting at DS9. Where Anara left the station to wide acclaim and ambition and Neela was imprisoned for heeding the murderous intent of Vedek Winn Adami.

"Although, I happily received the news that the Allies won the war against the Dominion and that Bajor had joined the Federation," Neela added, "Which sort of counterbalances the grim news we've also heard."

Macen and Ro noted that Neela hadn't aged a day in the ten years after her disappearance from their reality. It seemed she'd moved through space and time as they had to this reality. But from an earlier entry point. they'd traveled back three years and Neela had pushed forward ten years.

"This universe's Starfleet is still on the defensive after the Dominion and Shinzon," Admiral Forger explained, "The loss of Mars and Utopia Planetia has just drawn them into being more insular than any other period in Federation history."

"What's the word on Section 31?" Macen grimly asked. A situation such as this could easily be exploited by the shadowy organization.

"Actually, Captains Picard and Ro, assisted my double in exposing S31. The Federation officially disbanded it," Vaughn was well pleased to state. He and Macen had spent fifty years trying to shut Section 31 down for good in between Macen's involvement in the Border Wars with the Cardassians and then with the Maquis before the Dominion began their road to attempted conquest. They'd owed Macen for many lives lost beginning with Admiral Elijah Waters' own.

Waters had come out of retirement to be Macen's Starfleet Intelligence handler while he was with the Maquis. Waters had also supported the Maquis logistically and financially through a cargo commissioning agency and that was why S31 Agent John Browder had targeted Waters. Nechayev had wished to normalize military operations conducted by the Maquis and direct them to inflict maximum damage to the Cardassian war machine.

Browder, along with Luther Sloan, had wanted to radicalize the Maquis so that they indiscriminately inflicted death and destruction on soldiers and civilians alike. Thereby demonizing them in the eyes of Starfleet and the Federation Council but popularized throughout the population and they'd largely succeeded before the Jem'Hadar massacred the bulk of the Maquis. The few survivors had either been enslaved in Cardassian labor camps or escaped into Federation incarceration.

Ro and her survivors had been enlisted by the Bajoran Militia and issued amnesties. Macen's crew continued to serve with him through the Dominion War before receiving official pardons and being released back into society. But some, like Ebert, had nursed a grudge and rejected life in the Federation and became a criminal stringer until Macen offered her a second chance. Again.

"My senior staff, the admiral, and I found ourselves aboard the actual Intrepid-class prototype that had been converted into a carrier variant," McKinley stated.

"And Ian Delaney is still happily married to an alive Hannah Grace. But the Grace of this universe who has been stripped of all rank by the Kelvans and never joined S31," Johnson said with great relief.

"She's actually Liz Liefers' squadron leader," McKinley referred to the ship's CAG officer.

"I just found out Will and Deanna stepped down from active service. I'm an uncle. But my nephew, Thad, is terminally ill. Kestra is their youngest. They've gone into semi-retirement while trying to obtain a treatment for Thad now that the only viable treatment is outlawed by the synthetic ban," Riker was reeling.

"But with the entire family stationary, they on Nepenthe and us on Serenity, there's no more having search around looking for the Titan," Danan was thrilled to be able to easily locate her in-laws. She and Riker had been looking to start their family but there had been some initial difficulties bridging human and Trill DNA. Yet another of a multitude of reasons it was best that Macen and Danan had separated a decade before, his Delta Quadrant derived DNA was totally incompatible with most humanoids in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants despite his human appearance.

"So we're rising from the ashes?" Macen inquired.

"I'll inform Nechayev," Admiral Forger was thrilled. Alynna Nechayev had been Macen's patron through his later Starfleet career. She'd taken "his" resignation after the Dominion War concluded rather personally.

"We'll set course for Serenity," Forger instructed her crew.

"I'll need you in Engineering," Parva insisted of Gilan.

"I could use your help in Sickbay," Tessa requested of their Eminarian scientist, Galen 3. Galen 3, for his part, was besotted with the holographic MD.

"Of course," he enthused.

"Meanwhile, the rest of us will be busy researching the last ten years to find out what's different so we don't stand out," Macen informed the Obsidian crew, "We'll update you as we find out."

"The Intrepid crew by and large doesn't remember our shared history," Johnson advised everyone, "So we have to tread lightly before we get our footing."

"Same with our station crew," Riker affirmed, "But on a brighter note, the Solstice is still intact and on reserve service for your team."

The Blackbird-class scout had been a purpose built starship for the Outbound Ventures team by the Starfleet Special Project Yards in their original reality. In this one, she was an ordinary specs replacement for the Odyssey. But reinforced to enable her accomplish some atmospheric maneuvering, they'd find out in their researches. The original Odyssey, Macen's command during the Maquis struggle and Dominion War, had been destroyed in the war in this universe. It was odd how many convergences there were between realities. Many of their missions and objectives remained the same in this parallel universe. Despite the obvious lack of Starfleet support. Which made Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies all that more impressive.

"Commander, we've got incoming for you," Macen could hear Shannon Forger's smirk, "You might not wanna take this."

Rockford shrugged at his inquisitive look, "Patch it in."

"Macen!" he heard Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd snarl, "What the frinxing hell have you done to me?"

"Harri?" Macen was as delighted as he was alarmed.

"I'm not the futzin' Easter Bunny," Mudd grated, "My ship is ruined. And it's your damn fault. Futzin' wormhole aliens would've left me the frinx alone if not for you!"

"Patch in your coordinates and we'll come get you," Macen promised.

"I know you will or when I die of exposure I'll haunt your miserable ass for eternity," Mudd threatened. the signal ended.

"Some things are universal constants," Rockford broke into a fit of laughter. Forte joined her. Shade and Lee were more restrained. Kerber and Smith were locked away in the Data Womb but had undoubtedly listened in. Ebert was double checking all of the systems on the single support craft, a Danube-class runabout christened the Corsair. Macen double checked with Forger make certain they'd rescue Mudd. it turned out she was stranded near their current position.

"CONN checks out fully," Aglaia reported mid-jaunt.

"Tactical also checks out," Jaycee Miller was happy to discover.

"OPS is as ready as ever," Zimbalist declared.

"Engineering what's your status?" Forger inquired.

"Five by five, Captain," Parva purred like her engines.

"Warp core is exceeding previous specs," Gilan was giddily discovering, "I don't think this is our Obsidian."

"Explain," Forger frowned.

Too many systems upgrades than even we had are accounted for," Parva replied, "Check out the MSD display and you'll see them ship wide."

"Holy shit! She's right!" Zimbalist had moved from OPS to the panel and then back to OPS to double check the affected systems, "Somebody poured in a lot of effort to maximize performance where we tried our best to stay within Starfleet rated specs."

"How far beyond Starfleet norms?" Forger inquired as Miller and Aglaia strained to overhear.

"It's the little things," Parva explained, "The standard Nova-class is about 99.6% efficient overall. We're 99.99% in energy and processing capacities. We still can't exceed slightly more than Warp 8 but we expend less fuel and strain doing so. And Kerber and Smith have obviously redone the entire computing networks with bio-neural processors to augment the isolinear systems and Cochrane Effect crystalline cores."

"We definitely didn't have that before," Forger recalled the litany of complaints Kerber had filed with Macen and her.

"So basically, our ship wasn't crossed over with us," Parva reasoned, "And I'm guessing the ship had been abandoned when we turned up and found it on low power standby."

"Forward that to Macen's team," Forger knew Parva served a duel role being with the crew and the team. She decided to check with Kovic, "What's your situation, Jelena?"

"Jebem ti awful, Captain. The armories have been stripped bare," Kovic reported.

"That can't be a coincidence since we've determined the ship was abandoned before we 'took up' residence," Forger scowled.

"I haven't checked the cargo bays yet," Kovic admitted, "I expect they'll be bare as well."

"We have to make certain," Forger sighed. Next she tried to check in with Sickbay, "Tessa? Galen 3? Are you there? What's your status?".

Nothing came back. She tried again to no avail, "Jaycee, check it out."

Miller drew her weapon and headed for the turbolift.

"Try not to prematurely shoot anyone," Forger recommended.

"Hey, it's Sickbay," Miller shrugged, "At least first aid will be easy to apply."

And the doors swooshed shut.

"Captain? I found the crew," Kovic reported.

Rockford and her team were leading the investigation into the mass "grave" the bodies of the Obsidian crew had been stacked into.

"Yup, we're all accounted for," Rockford said grimly two hours later, "All disruptor wounds to the head, point blank range."

"But why leave the ship?" Forger didn't understand.

"They obviously didn't want or need it," Lee pointed out.

"And the wound types suggest Iridian weapons were employed," Tessa was embarrassed that Miller had broken in on her and Galen 3's "naked time".

"And the Enforcers don't conscript foreign ships into service," Macen recalled.

"So what we do with...the bodies?" Forte wondered. Everyone was avoiding the fact they were represented amongst the dead.

"Commander, I beamed Harri Mudd aboard and she's headed your way," Telrik warned.

The doors to the main briefing room swooshed open and Mudd charged in straightaway, "Macen! Do you realize not only is my ship dead but I am too?"

"We all are," Ebert said quietly.

"Oh, so I guess you're as disturbed by this as me?" Mudd was hopeful, "Because whoever shot my face off needs to get a phaser burst applied through their asshole."

"It was the Iridians, Harri," Rockford maintained her composure, "And the history we've dug up points out that major changes from what we're used to wrap around this timeline."

"This, this is the Prime timeline we should've been in," Macen said quietly.

"Bullshit! Otherwise my doppelganger would still have a face," Mudd snarled.

"Starfleet's discovery of the Terran universe and others led everyone to believe we were the primary time branch. But this one feels even stronger. It's more stable, I guess you'd call it. And, whatever Ambassador Spock did, there's another branch off from here that began just before we were dragged here, kicking and screaming," Macen confided.

No one had literally done so but mentally and emotionally they had.

"Is it just us?" Mudd inquired. Macen filled her in on the key personnel that had been swapped out by the Prophets.

"Everyone else seems to have replaced a living being," Rockford concluded, "So they're having to ramp up to speed even faster than we are."

"Except for Neela," Daggit observed.

"Who was supposed to have died ten years ago," Macen remembered it all too well.

"So did the body snatching include Major Anara?" Daggit asked.

"You can be certain Neela will find out," Macen promised him.

The four day journey to Serenity station went without any further delays or tragic discoveries.

"What is that?" Miller asked as she peered into her sensor displays, "It's futzin' incredible"

"And pretty," Aglaia agreed as they beheld an Inquiry-class battlecruiser for the first time.

Forger was pulling up classified Starfleet records that Kerber and Smith had provided an entry point for, "They're meant to supplement and then replace the Defiant-class. They have hull orders for hundreds of them."

"Shows here there are delays because of the loss of the Utopia Planetia Yards," Zimbalist read.

"I'll say this for my sister. She knows how to show up in style," Forger grinned.

"Welcome back," Riker announced as the team and crew dismebarked. It was clever theater for the Outbound Ventures administrators and starship crews. Kathy Tyrol, the taciturn corporate CEO, was actually crying. Bryce Fanning, Macen's personal aide, had completely broken down. Christine Pike was collecting latinum slips from everyone that had bet against her concerning their survival. The Starfleet Liaison then took up her post beside Admiral Forger and beamed proudly.

The transplants had already ceremoniously shot their counterparts into a nearby star. The remaining corpses would receive services and confirmations to their families regarding their ultimate fates. Kerber and Smith had rewritten the Obsidian's last days and demonstrated how massive repair efforts had hindered their reporting until now some nine months after their disappearance.

The admiral was ostensibly here to contract the agency to supplement the newly created and still forming Starfleet Special Investigations Division. Tyrol would handle the contracts that Forger's team would complete. The Starfleet team even included the SID's appointed JAG/IA boss, Commander Michelle Prentiss. Who no longer had any scope that another her had ever known Macen's team or first antagonized them and then defended them from Starfleet inquiries into their activities and methodologies.

Fanning took a moment to throw her arms around Macen and sob into his chest, "I'm so glad you're still alive. I couldn't lose you too after T'Kir."

"I still miss her too," Macen promised.

"I'll check out my end of the corporate empire," Rockford softly informed Macen as he soothed the frayed Fanning's nerves. The assorted Outbound Ventures captains and command staff also wanted to confirm with Macen the scuttlebutt Riker and Danan had been telling them regarding their new retainer with Starfleet's newest division. A retainer that had begun negotiations in good faith just hours before the "lost" Obsidian crew made contact with Serenity once again. All the fortuitous timing seemed too good to some and just the tipping point into bliss for others.

Radil and Kort remembered their time with the group far differently then they did as Riker and Danan had warned them. They were part of the surviving Old Guard. Only Daggit and Parva were still with Macen after the others, which included Danan and Riker, had departed to settle down and except for Hannah Grace, it seemed the body count had remained just as high in this strange, new reality. Grace had reactivated her Starfleet commission to serve aboard the Intrepid with her husband. Liefers was just as thrilled to have Grace aboard as Delaney. Grace being a pilot of some repute only rivaled by the Sulus of the past and Tom Paris in this brave new future.

Paris and his wife, B'Elanna Torres had been gifted the Delta Flyer II and they were contract scouts for the Federation and Starfleet after resigning their brevet commissions. Their daughter, Miral, was kept safe from Klingon zealots by their keeping on the move. Tuvok also retired from active service. Seven of Nine had enlisted with the Fenris Rangers, a group of frontier law enforcement agents in an increasingly lawless environment now that the Federation had contracted in on itself. Admiral Kathryn Janeway was still a member fo the Admiralty. Chakotay and Harry Kim were the CO and XO of the USS Voyager-A, respectively.

Geordi LaForge commanded the Enterprise-E and Worf was his XO after Martin Madden received his own separate command. Benjamin Sisko had retired after reemerging from the Celestial Temple and settled on Bajor with Kassidy Yates as they welcomed their daughter into the universe. Jake Sisko had also married, a Bajoran woman from Kira's beloved Kendra Valley, and he'd become a famed writer with his first book. Julian Bashir and Nog still served aboard DS9 and the O'Briens had returned after finding themselves dissatisfied with Earth and its relative calm. But the Command Master Chief's marriage to Keiko had settled into a graceful rhythm of shared expeditions into the reopened Gamma Quadrant thanks to Odo's sway over the Founders.

Ro and Vaughn had spent a few sequestered days getting caught up on their "new/old" environment. A surprise to everyone had been the war against the Klingons in 2255. That hadn't occurred in their native universe. The war had retrograded Starfleet and Federation technology as they rebuilt from the veritable ashes and the loss of one of the most experimental starships, the USS Discovery, had ended the speculative development of spore drive technology. Only two Crossfield-class starships had ever been constructed and both were lost in separate actions and/or accidents during and after the devastating war. It seemed the Starfleet of that period abandoned many designs that were more difficult to construct in quantities quickly. The twelve Constitution-class starships being an exception and even then, only the Enterprise and the Yorktown survived until the refit era began with the famed Enterprise. It seemed Captain Kirk and Commodore Una were far more accomplished and luckier starship drivers.

And it was still an oddity that the Federation still revered Jonathan Archer but seemed to disavow the efforts of the Earth Starfleet that led the Federation's eventual founding. Of course, vessels such as the USS Archon and others also attested to the dire need for a Prime Directive to be implemented in guiding further exploration. Another universal constant seemed to be Sigma Iotia II, the founder of the self-proclaimed "Iotian Federation". But the Itotians had only recently achieved a mid-23rd century technological status through their stolen means enabled by their obtaining Dr. Leonard McCoy's communicator. Here also, Ekos and Zeon's mutual populations had barely escaped a test firing of a Romulan trilithium weapon.

Captain John Harriman and the crew of the Enterprise-B had led the evacuation efforts just as in a less than a century later, Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise-D through the "Big-E" would attempt so with the Romulans themselves. Picard's XO, Martin Madden, had been promoted and given his own ship just weeks before the Hobus crisis and Picard's own elevation to admiral. Even at 80, he wasn't the oldest serving human officer. Vaughn had reached one hundred and ten mere weeks ago subjectively. Objectively, from their original timeline, he was one hundred and thirteen and was still ranked as one of the fittest officers in Starfleet.

His own revived ambitions for a command after leaving Special Operations Command to become Kira's XO at DS9 were fulfilled in his missions in command of the Defiant. The rugged ship able to penetrate and escort explorers deeper into the Gamma Quadrant. but always towards the Alpha Quadrant delineator rather than deeper into the Gamma Quadrant as an agreement reached with the Dominion after the war ended.

The brief skirmish with the Iridians had cost lives and older hulls pitched against the Enforcers. But when Starfleet sent its newer, more capable vessels and more experienced crews, Admiral Johnson had been the one to work out the peace settlement before a fully fledged war broke out just eleven short months ago.

It also seemed Bertram Sindis' reach extended between realities. In this universe, he had killed this T'Kir as well with Macen avenging her. But it seemed that he'd nearly become unhinged afterwards. Just as it seemed he'd never married Rockford in this alternate timeline. So it seemed an announcement of their "surprise wedding during their absence" was called for and Forger would named as the officiator. A "confidence" Macen shared with Fanning at a private moment and she began crying again. But this time from joy. She was also overjoyed at his seemingly revived vigor and personal happiness. She burst into happy tears again when Rockford paid him a visit to report that all was still well within the Rockford Detective Agency family.

"You couldn't wait?" Rockford said as Fanning clung to her tightly.

"She deserves it," Macen shrugged.

"It's okay, Bryce. We're back and not going anywhere," Rockford pledged to the assistant. After Fanning was happily dispatched to investigate the progress made between Tyrol and her team with Admiral Forger and her legal representatives, Rockford grimaced, "This would've been easier had our counterparts already moved in together."

"Agreed," the revelation had come aboard the Obsidian when it was found that Macen and Rockford weren't married and maintained separate quarters and a distant, professional relationship.

"At least Tom and Lees were married beforehand and Ian and Hannah," Rockford mentioned, "Not to mention Rab and Parva."

"But Elias lost his marriage and retirement because they never happened here," Macen reminded her.

Rockford and Vaughn had briefly been lovers, "That sucks."

"Doesn't it though?" Macen concurred for his oldest friend's sake.

"I did some digging and Bailey and Angelique's positions are even more threatened here," Rockford grumbled.

"Bailey's uncle seized control of Stratos now that she's in exile and hunted by his agents," Macen had discovered the same on his own.

"The Troglytes here still want Angelique's head on a pike," Rockford mentioned.

"They also still killed poor Hal," Macen said darkly. She knew his anger stemmed from the fact Hal Dracas' people had killed him for being a sexual deviant. They had no tolerance for homosexuals in their culture. All of it seem d unjust and backwards to them as Federation citizens and diplomatic pressure was useless because of the zenite that Ardana IV possessed and the Federation required. Dracas' cloned offspring, Joachim Dracas, had never existed so he hadn't been killed by Sindis while they locked themselves in mortal combat. the only time Dracas had lost a sword fight against an implacable foe with no mercy in his blackened soul.

"Maybe with the SID just starting up in this universe and S31 dissolved." Rockford began.

"Or just deeper in hiding," Macen snorted.

"...maybe we can get justice for Bailey and Angelique," Rockford continued as though no interruption had occurred.

"I love the fact you dream big," Macen smiled.

"Hey, I once saved the futzin' galaxy, buddy," Rockford reminded him.

"Just not in this universe," Macen sighed.

"Congratulations!" Fanning reappeared with a cake, "Not only are you happily married now, or at least I hope so, but you're officially secret agents!"

"Not so secretly if you shout it out loud," Macen smirked.

"It's wonderful, Bryce," Rockford shot a warning glare at Macen.

"One nice side effect of covert ops, they won't throw a party or make a press release," Macen grinned.

"That is a relief," Rockford agreed as she accepted a slice of cake. Macen replicated coffees for everyone, including Fanning. Admiral Forger and Tyrol appeared with Pike alongside them.

"Why not invite Prentiss?" Macen joked.

"Good idea," Forger concurred and stepped out.

"I was kidding," Macen deflated.

"Amanda knows that and just doesn't care," Rockford snickered.

"You sound like old working partners," Tyrol realized.

"Amanda served as Nechayev's protege during my last years with Starfleet," Macen smoothly sold the cover story.

"Just as Commander Prentiss is Admiral Forger's," Rockford did her bit, "They came up through JAG and Internal Affairs."

"Congratulations, you two!" Pike enthused between bites of cake and swigs of coffee, "Bryce told us the happy news after the contracts were signed."

Macen rolled his eyes. This Fanning was no different than the old one...so far, at least.

"This'll mean a lot more work will come your way, Chris," Rockford warned Pike.

"I know," the Asian woman descended through the famous Starfleet Commodore and Captain Christopher Pike's family through his brother taking a Chinese wife. His son had also taken an Asian bride and his son after that. So few recessive Eurasian features were left in Pike. But she did prefer to go blonde.

Tyrol only displayed one Boslic feature thanks to a great-grandmother. Her hair was a vibrant purple and like Ebert, she couldn't tolerate the Retnox series of eye treatments for correcting vision. So fortunately for Tyrol, unlike Ebert who required full time correction, she only needed her glasses for reading. Fanning proudly displayed her emo hair, multiple piercings and tattoos.

"I have a staff briefing the captains regarding their roles," Tyrol explained, "I was actually surprised Amanda came prepared with mission orders for everyone."

"I take it that includes us," Macen deduced from her verbage.

"Correct," Pike confirmed it, "But she wants to brief you privately."

"We've barely unsealed our quarters," Rockford complained.

"Take it up with the client," Tyrol drolly replied. Admiral Forger returned with Prentiss in tow. Fanning scrambled to get more chairs and beverages.

"Who knew my office could hold so many?" Macen snarked. Riker arrived with padd in hand.

"Ladies and gent," he nodded as he handed off the padd, "The Obsidian is scheduled for repairs ASAP. In the interim, the Solstice has been prepped and readied for action."

"Thanks, Tom. That's really appreciated," Macen signed off on the repair requisition.

"Lees is informing the crew and team. Fortunately, everyone that arrived with you can consist of your entire SID team and crew. Most of your people can double up as relief crew for the regulars," Riker recalled.

"And the Solstice hasn't been modified in any way?" Macen wondered.

"Just her original specs with some augmenting of her shield emitters, sensor platforms, upgraded torpedo capacity, and a new warp core," Riker recited from memory, having consulted the padd. He didn't resent Macen's skipping that part at all. He'd been Macen's XO for a time, aboard the Eclipse and the Solstice. Riker now commanded both the station and her outrider. The Emden-class starship was an early escort vessel decommissioned by Starfleet before the Defiant- and later Inquiry-classes had been designed and constructed. The Indomitable was named after Ro's Ju'day-class Maquis raider she'd traded off with enterprising Iotians overseeing the Terra Nova Sector Starfleet Ship Depot. A mecca for decommissioned Starfleet vessels.

The Iotians were stripping early 24th century ships of technology to sell back to their own people as well selling 22nd and 23rd century hulls to interested buyers of every spectrum. The Maquis and Bajorans having been notable customers. The Odyssey and the Solstice both derived from the depot in this reality rather than the Solstice having been laid from the keel up by the SPYards. The scoutships, like Macen's Nova-class surveyor, were registered with the Federation as surveyors, scouts, and scientific vessels thereby carrying the NDR registry indicator rather than a NDT transport registry tag. The Starfleet NCC registries having been removed.

The rest of the Outbound Ventures vessels, other than Captain Marta Haggit's Newton-class Copernicus, were all equally registered as NDT vessels despite their being decommissioned Starfleet light and heavy cruisers. The other exception was the Andor-class Lug Nut. It had been designed as a Starfleet transport vessel from the very beginning. The Copernicus and Lug Nut primarily served as colonial support vessels. the others had contracted with the Fenris Rangers several times now as they began to equip themselves with adequate patrol vessels. With Starfleet limiting exploration efforts and primarily patrolling core systems or existing borders, that left many colonies to their own defenses. Which were primarily ground based or consisting mainly of small arms.

Macen could easily understand why Picard had been so frustrated to offer up his resignation as the final negotiation tactic to force the Admiralty's hand and instead, they'd forced Picard's. The most highly decorated Starfleet captain in Federation history, only rivaled by Kirk and Pike, left Starfleet under a cloud of anger and disgrace. with a nondisclosure mandate forced upon him. So he'd retired to his his chateau in France. Zealously guarded by two loyal former Tal Shiar agents, Joban and Laris. His life was now weighed down by guilt and regrets. The words that James T. Kirk had spoken to him as advice in the Nexus spurring on his feeling of strategic impotence. Data's death saving his life burdened the most, even more than failing to achieve the Romulan evacuation efforts. He had been a man accustomed to being being able to insure his promises were met. That had been stripped from him and he was now a synonym for the futility of making vows and pledges one couldn't hope to fulfill.

The unexpected party had ended and Admiral Forger was finally free to explain the mission she had in mind for Macen's team in particular.

"The Cardassian Information Bureau is a nice euphemism for what was the Obsidian Order," Forger complained, "They're making inroads to DS9 and other Federation starbases surrounding the borders. We have to plug the leaks. But the only way to to do so is to cultivate your old image as an information broker."

"That's easier done than said in this universe. My counterpart managed to avoid being outed by the Dominion but he was still known for Outbound Ventures," Macen stated.

"Brin, this version of you actually was a spy for hire," Forger said sadly, "That was why Alynna was so resistant to my hiring your agency. But I managed to document cases where your double supposedly worked for me in exposing crimes committed by Starfleet officers and enlisted. My other pitch was that it's better to hire you on nearly exclusive terms rather than let you run amok on your own."

"Deity help me," Macen groaned.

"The Cardassians will lead you to the leaks," Forger was certain, "Starfleet rebuilt the sensor grids around the border. They'll direct you going in and out. That'll attract the attention of the people we're looking for. And the Cardassians will confirm that you're a player on their side."

"The Cardassians will want hard intel," Macen reminded her.

"And Nechayev cleared that hurdle already. We have gigaquads of actionable intelligence to give away. It's stuff that isn't vital to our defense but it's still unattainable by the traitors we're trying to root out," Forger explained the strategy.

"Why not let IA handle it?" Rockford interjected.

"Because every IA agent that's gone in, regardless of starbase or Deep Space station had ended up missing or dead. All through 'unexplainable' or 'inexplicable' circumstances. Quote and end quote," Forger revealed.

"So you need criminals," Rockford stated.

"As short explanations go, you nailed it," Forger conceded, "And you've got Mudd on your side."

"Who actually is a criminal," Rockford said ruefully.

"So were we," Macen reminded her of her mercenary past as Annika Ryst, her baseline personality. Other personalities had been far more criminally inclined. Macen had been a Maquis serving as an "information broker" which had later served him in good stead in the Dominion War. He'd partnered with Ro Laren every time.

"And Ro is in on it," Forger read his mind it seemed. Even "this" Ro had been inducted back into Starfleet when it became open to aspiring Militia officers. She'd been reinstated as a lieutenant and assigned as DS9's chief of security, the post she'd held previously for the Bajorans. When she made lt. commander, and Kira was bumped from colonel to general, Vaughn had temporarily assumed command while Ro served as XO. when she ranked up to match his own, she was handed command of the station and he resumed being XO.

Macen and Rockford had theorized with their teammates what had happened to the people that had been "replaced" by the Prophets. At least their counterparts had died but many of the exchanges had been with living people. In time and examination of personal logs, the "replacements" would find that their contemporaries had been growing dissatisfied with their duties and were considering retirement or resignation. Only Mudd's scheming counterpart had seemed to prosper in this Prime Universe. She'd been delighted to learn she was a person of considerable means now but her sense of belonging wrapped around those sharing her new existence. So Harri Mudd was officially on the team now.

And she was the first to speak up when Macen presented the new mission to the team and crew, "So it's a con."

"It's an undercover assignment," Lee argued.

"It's a con," Mudd jovially retorted, "I am so in."

"Harri's right," Rockford sighed, "It's a confidence game but on the side of supposed angels."

Mudd blew Lee a raspberry.

"This I can do," Shade agreed.

"Sure, why not?" Forte threw in.

"This is the Maquis and the Dominion War all over again," Ebert snickered, "Of course I'll help."

"Let's kick some Spoonhead balls," Parva snarked.

"I'm a fan," Daggit decided.

"I go where the ship goes," Tessa had been relieved to learn holo emitters had at least been installed in the Solstice's Sickbay so she wouldn't have to completely rely on her mobile emitter.

"I go where she goes," Galen 3 declared.

"That's so sweet!" Tessa practically swooned.

"I've always wanted to fly a Blackbird-class," Aglaia was gleeful.

"These ships are legendary," Zimbalist was another crewmen that hadn't been with the group long enough to ship out in their original scoutship by that name.

"As long as they've got a weapons board or Tactical system, I'm five by five," Miller voiced.

"I love crawling around different engine rooms," Gilan happily admitted.

"She's an old friend," Captain Forger declared. That left Kovic and Telrik.

"Please tell me there's more than just a cargo transporter this time," the Tellerite transporter chief begged.

"Yes, but there is additional cargo to bring aboard," Macen advised him.

"What kind?" Telrik enthusiastically inquired.

"Loads of contraband," Rockford happily told him.

"I am so in now," Telrik decided.

"Jelena?" Macen prompted her.

"Are we looking for a fight?" Kovic asked.

"Definitely," Macen answered.

"I'm in," she said confidently.

"In this universe, the Cardassian Union is barely a democracy. The royal family is still in exile with Mariska guarding them. Garak is still the ambassador to Earth and Rekena Garan is the Castellan of the Detepa Council. That's the politics," Macen explained, "The practical is that the Obsidian Order morphed into the CIB. Valo VI is still a listening post and we're going to sail up to it and offer them holo-porn and Romulan whiskey. Then we're going make our way down the border of what was the DMZ before the war and trade with every forlorn colony and especially the governors who will report our activities to the CIB."

"The plus side is that the CIB will contact their informants within Starfleet and determine who and what we are," Rockford took over, "After we fleece the Cardassians, we head for the starbases with cargo holds full of Cardassian contraband."

"And we get to keep the leks, right?" Mudd was practically coming.

"That we do. Good point, Harri. We'll work our way towards DS9 and eventually put into port there. IA hints that we should be contacted by the spy ring by that point," Rockford added, "So, we play up to our criminal image and see what happens next."

"Ye-es!" Mudd seemed to wet her panties completely at that declaration.

"You really get off on this stuff, don't you? I mean, literally," Shade observed.

"You have nooo idea," Mudd was flushed now.

"Let's not explore that topic any further," Macen pleaded, "Now, we each have roles to play when we get to Valo VI and beyond."

 

Chapter Two

Three Saber-class vessels closed in on the border entrance the Solstice had made into Cardassian Union space.

"And they're scanning us," Miller reported.

"Too little, too late," Forger smirked, "Aglaia, set course for deeper into the Dorvan Sector. Get us to the Valo System and we'll see how the Cardassian Guard reacts to us approaching their 'secret' listening post."

"Should we look for Bajoran life signs in the system?" Galen 3 asked from the Sciences station.

"I think that ship has sailed," Miller retorted, "Remember what Macen and Daggit reported about their previous activities here?"

"The Dominion wasn't very forgiving," Forger concurred.

"Still, they might have missed somebody," Zimbalist added his voice to Galen 3's.

"Engine room, status?" Forger had toggled the comms button.

Steady as she can be," Gilan reported but Orion curses and clanging could be heard in the background.

"Is there an actual issue?" Forger verbally prodded the Gideonite.

"Um...no?" Gilan hedged. Further crashes could be heard in the background.

"Holy futz!" Gilan signed off.

Forger switched tactics, "Jelena, get to Engineering and find out what the hell our engineers are up to!"

"Copy that," Kovic was calm as a placid lake.

"What the hell?" Forger grumbled.

Engineering was a veritable disaster of pulled EPS conduits and plasma relays. Only the warp core happily thrummed away.

"Why did you tear that out while I'm trying to fix this?" Parva could be heard practically screaming at Kerber and Smith.

"Look, you worried about powering everything," Kerber got back in the Orion woman's face, "We're about processing lags. The longer it takes for our systems to relay data from the core back to the stations can make the difference between life and death."

"This ship is barely isolinear and we're trying to adapt into to neuro-gel processing packs," Smith quietly asserted, "That takes a fair degree of adaptation."

"We understand the need to adapt the systems," Gilan tried smooth things out, "But we've been at this for a couple of days now and this is a yard worthy attempt. We need time to modernize this ship to the point she can accept your upgrades."

"We don't have time to modernize. We do it now or we get KIA!" Kerber snarled.

"You're about to get KIA ASAP!" Parva snarled back. A phaser burst shot between them.

Everyone turned to see Kovic holstering her Bajoran made sidearm, "Back to your corners, ladies."

"You discharged a phaser in this mess?" now Gilan was losing it.

"Stand down or I'll stun you," Kovic's hand drifted to her weapon's grip, "You all need a breather. Now you can voluntarily take one or I'll stun every one of your asses and get Daggit to help drag you to the brig where you can occupy the two cells that we have until you're rational again. Zimbalist can hold things together until you clear yout heads. Tracy is also a fair mechanic with nothing to do right now. Are any of you catching my general drift here?"

"Valo VI is a pretty straight approach, right?" Parva asked.

"From what the tell me," Kovic agreed.

"I'll comm the bridge have Shannon send down Edwin and Galen 3. You get Tracy here. The more minds we have on this the better off we'll be in the long run" Parva offered.

"And I'll also call Rab to help me babysit you all," Kovic decided.

""What the frek happened here?" Telrik walked in, "The Captain is getting techy."

"You just got drafted too," Parva decided.

"Jelena is a genius," Macen remarked to Forger.

"You're sure you want to man OPS?" she asked him.

"I'm used to sitting in your seat," Macen chuckled, "So, I'm bored to tears."

"I'm waiting for the damn ship to blow up," Miller grumbled from the Tactical console behind the center seat. The Blackbird-class had pioneered the bridge layout later incorporated as the Galaxy-class' battle bridge. The Sovereigns and other ships also mirrored their secondary bridges after the design.

"Captain, this is Kovic. We have a miracle. Harri figured out how to interface everything and Engineering is being put back together as Kerber and Smith reel out additional ODN lines to pull through the access panels." the report came in.

"Harri's another technical genius. You should've seen her ship," Macen chuckled.

"I saw her ship outrun the Obsidian. Pretty fast for a damn freighter," Forger muttered.

"Ever hear that old 'fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy' quote?" Macen was softly laughing, "It was so apropos."

"Valo system in ten minutes," Aglaia warned.

Forger stabbed her comms button, "We're in fast approach to the Valo system. All hands man your actual stations."

Zimbalist and Galen 3 made record time reaching the bridge. Telrik hung with Ebert in Engineering as Parva and Gilan slammed the last panels into place. Kerber and Smith completed their first round of lacing ODNs through neuro-gel packs and connecting them oto the primary computer core.

There were twelve crew's quarters intended for twenty-two crewmen and officers. Macen and Rockford shared the Captain's Quarters while Forger luxuriated in the relatively large Exec's quarters all to herself...and Miller. Daggit and Parva made due in a junior officers' double as did Kerber and Smith whose quarters doubled as an ersatz data womb, or at least it would when they finished installing their equipment. Everyone else except Galen 3 shared enlisted racks. He slept in the intern's bunk in Sickbay.

"At least on the Odyssey there were only five of us and we all got decent room," Ebert loudly complained.

"At least I used to have my own damn ship!" Mudd grated as she exited Engineering.

"Reducing to sublight," Aglaia announced, "Approaching Oort Cloud in three minutes."

"Proceed at half impulse," Forger instructed.

"They've dredged channels through the Oort Cloud," Macen advised her from a corner.

"I have one on nav sensors," Aglaia announced.

"Make for it and increase to full impulse," Forger amended her previous order, "Anything in the outer planets we should know about?"

"There isn't much in the outer system. Starfleet and the Allies cleared the nastier ordnance out of the gas giants and asteroid belts. The inner system is composed of six planets. Valo I, V, and VI are lifeless but II and III are Class-M with IV being Class-L. Valo I's moon has an oxygenated underground. Valo V is actually Class-K and could be adapted by terraforming or just employ pressure domes to keep humanoids alive," Macen recalled, "But the Bajorans hadn't had the time to invest in the project before the Cardassians invaded Bajor and refugees came flooding into the system."

"And we sure as hell know the Spoonies won't invest in Bajoran lives," Mudd announced as she exited the turbolift.

"Harri, what are you doing here?" Forger almost accused.

"Making sure the Cardies buy Macen's pitch," Mudd shrugged.

"Get off-" Forger began to snarl.

"We could use her help," Macen intervened.

"Fine," Forger sullenly replied.

"They're scanning us," Miller announced, "Because of course they are."

"Shall I return scans?" Galen 3 inquired.

"Light 'em up," Forger decided, "Jaycee, broadcast general hailing frequencies."

"I have been," Miller replied dryly, "And now they're playing mousy mouse."

"Galen 3, burn out their passives," Forger decided. Mudd glanced across the bridge at Macen. He merely shrugged.

"Now they're raising shields and locking weapons on," Miller announced, "Which consists of two weak disruptor cannons."

"That's it?" Forger was surprised.

"They relied on stealth to stay out of everyone's attention," Macen stated.

"Should I be raising shields?" Miller asked.

"How 'bout it?" Forger inquired.

"Tell them you just want to talk. About merchandise they can't obtain through official channels," Mudd dictated.

"Send it," Forger was resigned.

"Now they're hailing us," Miller gloated.

"Works every time at these lonely outposts," Mudd bragged.

"They're requesting an inventory and suggested market price," Miller stated.

"Send the list and then have them make on offer for the items they want," Mudd took over the mercantile negotiations.

"Better you than me," Forger muttered.

"You're doing fine, Shannon," Macen encouraged her, "When the Obsidian is repaired the bridge won't be so crowded and you'll have a full crew aboard. Celeste and I are the names that'll be sold later down the food chain. Harri's the negotiator. You're supposed ot keep us alive long enough to root out the double agents."

"How did you do it all those years?" Forger saw he was bewildered, "Without a dedicated crew. Before you assumed command of the Obsidian, the team was your crew."

Macen shrugged, "Different times and different team. Obviously your presence here is meant to mean something. We're all finding our niche in this brave, new frontier."

"Our counterparts didn't seem to be very nice people," Forger had observed through her reading.

"No, they weren't. Fortunately, we don't have to be them. I think if they were supposed to be here, they would still be," Macen opined.

"Well, your Prophets certainly swapped out a lot of people in key locations," Forger had come to realize.

"And yet all in the family," Macen mused.

"Whoa!" Miller exclaimed at seeing the opening bid.

"The worse the shit hole the better the pay," Mudd had to appreciate, "And now comes our counteroffer."

"You're sure?" Miller asked.

"Work with me," Mudd cajoled her, "These guys are getting fat and lazy with swelling bank accounts with nowhere and nothing to spend their barely earned leks on. Trust me, we can bump these numbers by a comfortable margin. In the meantime, they're bumping our credentials to the CIB where the unhappy investigators will begin running a profile on us."

"We play this out a few more times and then we move across the border to check in with the starbases lining it," Macen reminded Forger, "After undergoing a few nondescript inquiries, we'll eventually be approached to do something incriminating."

"Hot damn, girl!" Miller exclaimed as Mudd threw figures back and forth with the "secret" outpost.

"Aaannnddd, we're done," Mudd had doubled the original offer and cut a third of the intended cargo transfer down. A chime announced the funds transfer.

"I have coordinates for Telrik," Miller awed.

"I'll grab Daggit and Kovic and we'll get the cargo pods we've sold unloaded," Mudd volunteered.

"God, she's hot!" Miller fanned herself. Forger scowled. Normally she was the target of Miller's lascivious side. She felt insulted.

"You're not being replaced just yet," Macen counseled her quietly, "But you might want to make an overture to insure it stays that way."

And he exited the bridge. Forger felt grumpy and depressed.

The Solstice made the rounds across a dozen Cardassian colonies along the reestablished border. The Federation had conceded the DMZ colonies as a gesture of goodwill. One the Detepa Council had barely reciprocated. Even all the reconstruction aid the Federation had provided seemingly went unnoticed, but, in a magnanimous gesture, Bajor led the way on providing and administering the aid. Sisko's emergence from the Wormhole coincided with Bajor's admission into the UFP as a grateful government welcomed an equal partner. That had nearly been ten years ago and Bajor still remained the point contact between the Cardassian Union and the Federation. The Emissary of the Prophets and Kassidy Yates celebrated their daughter's tenth birthday while the Solstice made her run before crossing back across the border to approach Starbase 47.

That grand tour would begin at Starbase 47, deviate to G-8, return to the border with Starbases 211 and 310 before transiting off to Starbase 375, and eventually winding their way back to DS9. Fanning had arranged clientele to meet with Macen and Rockford throughout Starbases 47, G-8, 211, and 310. Information was exchanged at port of call with increasingly sensitive investigations being asked fo them before they made port again to deliver their findings.

Mudd handled the contraband and helped Ebert rendezvous with several privateers and smugglers who would move into further territories within and without the Federation. Kerber and Smith provided the means for Rockford's investigators to plumb the breadth and width of Starfleet databases. Macen and Rockford themselves guided the explorations, tailoring them to the specific requests and demands made of them. True to Admiral Forger's behest, the operations were technically illegal in order to add legitimacy to the team's credentials.

They were all astounded by Fanning's aplomb with arranging blatantly illegal data sales. Talents only rivaled by Mudd herself. Another testament of how far the Outbound Ventures family had strayed in this reality. But also seemed Macen and Rockford had kept the illegal portion of the company's activities strictly to themselves. Unfortunately confirming the bad news Forger had delivered first to them and finally to her own sister. Since the captain and her crew were complicit in every crime committed. But Nechayev was clearing up Starfleet Security's warrants for the team and crew.

As it turned, they'd still maintained a code of sorts whereby they would not exchange classified information that would harm Federation citizens or leave Starfleet vulnerable. But the diplomatic and first contact realms took a beating because of their activities and crime lords and merchant royalties engaged in hostile actions against one another because of the frequently supplied secrets from one antagonist to another. Thereby reaffirming Nechayev's long held trust in that Macen's motives if not his deeds. It had also been the leverage Forger used to persuade Nechayev to only finally authorize the existence of the SID but also to contract Outbound Ventures as civilian agents. They were already bonded and flagged as Federation security consultants and providers so it wasn't a radical step to license them by endorsing them as official agents of Starfleet's newest division.

It seemed the SID had been a proposal made after the Dominion War and kept on the books as a contingency. The Hobus disaster and the shuttering of Section 311 made the SID, with its greater transparency and answerable to Starfleet Command, more attractive at long last. Admiral Forger had easily moved from IA to the SID with even such staunch opponents in her home universe, such as Admiral Edward Jellico, easily condoned the new agency and its future activities. Amanda Forger felt faint as the process had unfolded. Dozens of operations were launched simultaneously and everyone potentially threatened by the moles placed with Starfleet. So she kept a close watch on Macen's reports for more than personal reasons.

Admiral Bill Ross had returned to Starbase 375. His career prospects had diminished after the Dominion War when his active complicity with S31 had come to light or at least public scrutiny. In this reality, the Gulag hadn't been discovered until Starfleet Security raided Section 31's command complex in St. Petersburg. It came to light that other prisoners were housed more closely since S31 had reopened the dreaded Lubyanka Prison beneath Moscow. Ross wasn't disciplined but he knew his career advancement opportunities had ended. Starbase 375 and its nearby sectors were as great of responsibilities as he'd be allowed ot oversee until he retired.

Macen guessed most Section 31 had been driven deeper underground. While others privatized as his doppelganger had. He began to wonder if those types were his intended targets. Ultimately at least. Rockford and her investigative team were in dogged agreement with this working theory. Kerber and Smith were scouring S31 databases for clues.

Mudd already had Ebert running cargo with rented shuttles. The pilot's own experiences with being a smuggler were paying high yield dividends. Only Daggit and Kovic looked completely bored. At least Telrik got to beam cargo over to Mudd's intended shuttles. Like most starbases, 375 had a civilian port of call that had been shut down during the war effort. But it was up and running again and it seemed to be flourishing.

The latest contacts Fanning had delivered took their purloined data and scarpered off. leaving two nondescript contacts wanting overlapping information and intelligence files.

"Those two are definitely Starfleet," Rockford chuckled as she gazed at Macen through the steam rising from her freshly refilled mug of coffee as she drew it to her lips.

"Security and Intelligence. We must be annoying the right people," he returned her affectionate look.

"We having incoming noncoms," Rockford softly informed him.

"That should be our targets," he concurred before drawing a pull from his own mug.

"Commander Macen and Detective Rockford, I presume?" one of the enlisted men asked. Rockford had noted the Petty Officer watching them from another table. She was young but jaded. She'd also thought she'd surreptitiously summoned her compatriots.

"Amateurs," she thought to herself.

"You already know the answer," Macen shrugged, "Why don't you get to the part where you reveal you're a stringer for the CIB?"

The Senior Chief almost bolted.

"Don't worry, we're not reporting you or your two friends," Rockford nodded in the Petty Officer's direction.

He beckoned for her to approach.

"They made you, Sandy," he shrugged, "They made all of us."

"Not your co-conspirators aboard Starbases 47, 211, 310, and G-8," Macen stated, "At least not yet."

"Why would you want to?" Sandy sharply inquired.

"We're always looking for new work and new contacts. You could be an in to the CIB handlers. Not yours, of course. But they could easily assign an agent to liaise with us," Rockford explained.

"We even have one in mind," Macen grinned, "Agent Ziva Delain seems to be a good fit for our agency."

"Why not approach them yourselves?" the Senior Chief inquired just as sharply.

"I have a record with the Cardassians," Macen grimaced, "It can impede business relationships."

"And, you don't approach Cardies. They approach you," Rockford stated the obvious, "Or no contact is made at all."

"They got that right," the accompanying Crewman snorted.

"Stow it, Stiles," the Senior Chief flexed his perceived authority again, "I'm Zhao, by the way."

"Macen," he said with a smirk.

"Rockford," she did too.

"How do we know you won't roll on us?" Sandy asked.

Macen drew a full sized Bajoran Militia phaser from the small of his back where his jacket had hidden it, "Because I could've already stunned you and summoned Security so they could sweat it all out of you."

Rockford opened her jacket to reveal an identical weapon in a shoulder holster.

"Point taken," Zhao relaxed a bit.

"How did you get those past the sensors?" Sandy demanded to know.

"Trade secrets," Macen shrugged nonchalantly.

"Damn! We gotta find out," Stiles insisted.

"You don't really believe your handler is unarmed when he or she arrives. Do you?" Rockford scoffed.

"Like I said, you made us and you made your points besides," Zhao tried to smooth his companions' fraying nerves, "We'll pass your request along. Where will you be for the next week?"

"We're shipping out for DS9 in six hours," Macen told them, "We'll be there for three days before returning to our corporate station in the Barrinor system. Delain can look up Outbound Ventures and get the general contact code."

"All right. I have a feeling we'll all see each other again," Zhao moved off and Stiles and Sandy went with him.

"That went well," Rockford decided.

Macen tapped the comm badge on his belt, "You get all that?"

"Of course," Forte replied. Shade and Lee were with her and Daggit and Kovic were nearby as well. Forte's job had been to capture and relay the signal to Kerber and Smith aboard the Solstice. The station's security logs would assume it was simple intership commercial traffic.

"Pack it up people. We have a brief departure window in six hours," Rockford reminded them.

"I'd worry about Ebert and Mudd rather than us," Shade snarked.

"Stow it. And I hope you bought everything in to-go cups and take out," Macen retorted.

 

Chapter Three

Captain Ro and Commander Vaughn personally greeted Macen's group at the airlock.

"Captain Forger," Ro nodded Shannon's way. Forger and the crew had a three-day liberty. Tessa went with Galen 3 since she wasn't overtly involved in the operation. The Investigative team also fanned out to enjoy some time off. Except Kerber and Smith who would remain aboard to continue their projects and provide ship's security. The former terrorists/freedom fighters were well equipped to handle any intruders.

"Blackmer swept the pylon for bugs and we isolated you to a lower pylon to deter interest in your business," Ro explained, referring to Lt. Commander Jefferson Blackmer, the station's Chief of Security. He sometimes felt micromanaged by his CO who was also a former Chief of Security for the station.

"You're sure it's wise to involve Delain?" Vaughn asked.

"She's a known quantity. At least as much as anyone else we used to know," Macen shrugged.

"We have to sell our cover to the CIB and using someone who Brin can partially expect to believe us is helpful," Rockford said as they waited for the next turbolift car to bring them down to the Promenade. It had taken three trips to relocate everyone else so far.

"If you're certain, we're certain as well," Vaughn conceded. Ro wasn't giving in quite yet. But she kept it to herself.

"How's life on the former Terok Nor?" Macen asked.

"Like the step back time it is," Ro shrugged, "It's like living in a flashback."

"Same with the Solstice while the Obsidian is in the yard," Macen concurred.

"How's Forger handling having two former captains aboard?" Ro snickered.

"You mean how are Brin and Harri staying out of the way," Rockford knew, "Barely, and we'll leave it at that."

"Speaking of Mudd." Vaughn sounded as concerned as he truly was.

"Fitting in like she was born for this life," Macen smirked.

"You owe me two slips of latinum," Ro crowed to Vaughn.

"Blackmer still wants to know how you pulled that info from Quark," Vaughn reminded her.

She wore a guilty smile, "He talks in his sleep."

"You finally went full throttle," Rockford hugged Ro, "Congrats!"

"I'm not getting any younger," Ro pawned it off, "Despite the official calendar."

"You've fallen hard," Macen grinned.

"Damn Listeners," Ro muttered, "You and Guinan should take a quick hop back to the Delta Quadrant."

"How are you and this Prynn getting on?" Macen asked his oldest living friend.

"We've made a breakthrough," Vaughn admitted, "We're getting personal on top of the professional now that she's accepted that I couldn't prevent her mother's assimilation by the Borg or that I had any choice for my team than to put her down afterwards."

"That's a huge step," Rockford knew from similar experience.

"And she's fast tracked for her own command," Ro added proudly on Vaughn's behalf, "She's already made it from boot ensign to lt. commander while stationed here."

"Soon she'll outrank her very old father," Vaughn chuckled.

"You could still accept a promotion and a command of your own," Macen prodded Vaughn.

"I have the Defiant. She's enough for me while we undertake scouting and scientific support missions. We've started colonial support runs now that the Bajorans and other Federation planets have begun settlement efforts again," Vaughn was obviously content.

"Starfleet has begun doling out decommissioned Vladivostok-class freighters now," Ro said conspiratorially, "And there's no seeming end to civilian acquired Java-class transports."

"With Starfleet recommissioning mid-24th century ships, the Iotian franchises manning the decommissioned fleet yards hardly have anything else to sell off," Vaughn chuckled darkly, "And the Iotians here are mid-23rd century tech level."

"They specialize in selling NV-, NX-, Mercury-, and Kremlin-classes to pre-warp to barely space faring cultures. Then they hook them into that Federation parody scheme of theirs," Ro snorted angrily.

"But they keep stockpiles of Miranda-, Asia-, and Constitution-classes of light and heavy cruisers for themselves," Vaughn added.

"And they keep them exceptionally busy," Ro lamented.

"She's just upset because the Militia just purchased a dozen Mercury-class frigate analogues from the Iotians for home and colonial systems' defense," Vaughn explained.

"Some of the better supported Gamma Quadrant colonies have also acquired NV- and NX-class ships for defensive and scouting purposes," Ro groaned.

"After the Starfleet's re-prioritization following the Mars attack, it's easy to see why they'd feel abandoned," Vaughn admitted.

"Not that we have any experience with that," Macen said ruefully, reminding them of his and Ro's days in the Maquis. She elbowed him in the ribs.

"Ow," Macen deadpanned. Rockford did the same to him.

"Ow! What was that for?" Macen complained.

"Why should she have all the fun?" Rockford asked innocently.

"You'll pay for that later," Macen warned her.

"Yummy," Rockford smirked. Ro also smirked. Macen always seemed, other than with Lisea Danan, gone for the crazies.

The SID had taken over the supposed data archive that had been Section 31's headquarters located in downtown London. It seemed the James Fowler of this universe was as adept at secreting operation within operation as his counterpart in Admiral Forger's home universe had been as well. But in a twist, her assistant, once again Lt. Commander Ambril Delori as her choice, wasn't a S31 mole in this here and now. The Bajoran was just as sincere and earnest as her counterpart had been but truthfully this time. Taking some greater getting used to was the fact her own doppelganger had kept her married name despite her estranged husband's infidelities. Getting called "Amanda Drake" was like a gut punch. So she'd already applied for a legal name change and a divorce. Bearing the name of the man that had paralyzed her from the waist down in her original past was just too much to bear.

Prentiss had been the one to question her regarding her spinal shunt implant that transferred neural impulse data from her undamaged spinal cord to below her damaged portions to allow her to walk and maintain other functions far more easily again. It had been easy for Kerber and Smith to forge a medical emergency procedure in Forger's records to indicate she'd been injured in a skiing accident and received the emergency procedure as a test trial of Starfleet Medical's own recent innovation. The surgeon who "performed" the procedure conveniently died in reality two weeks afterwards. So the matter was dropped and her fitness eval was signed off by Starfleet's Medical Director, Admiral Katherine Pulaski, herself.

The Intrepid had docked at the original Spacedock to relieve Jim McKinley's crew and to have Bob Johnson report in to the Starfleet Commander. Hannah Grace had immediately spotted the differences in her husband. Her Kelvan-derived senses and hyper-awareness had immediately clued her in to the fact that the entire Senior Staff had been substituted. But given the strain she and Delaney had been under prior to this event, she found his heart warming reaction to her continued existence in this brave new universe as reassuring as it was welcomed.

Forger would be reuniting with the command crew to discuss who, or if, they should let in on the secret. Particularly with Macen's reports beginning to come in involving a network of enlisted officers suborned by the CIB. Ro and Vaughn had marginally included Blackmer in their search as well as Colonel Cenn Deska, the Militia liaison, in the screening of potentially corrupted loyalties. So far the working group had identified three potential candidates: two Starfleet noncoms and one Militia sergeant.

Cenn's distaste for collaborators rivaled or even exceeded Ro's own. No matter how much guarded goodwill Cardassia had with the Bajoran government and the Federation at large. With the Romulans in crisis and an entire colony world and shipyard destroyed next door to the Federation's capitol planet, rival powers had increased their saber rattling. The Tholians, Gorn, Tzenkethi, and Breen were all testing their borders with the Federation. Activities which seemed to appeal to the ultra-nationalists amongst the Cardassian Detepa Council, keeping Castellan Garan on the defensive. Another refreshing change in this universe was that Sarina Douglas had never joined S31 either.

She was a Starfleet Intelligence officer still and based out of DS9 but she'd never betrayed Bashir and they'd married just weeks ago. Captain Ezri Dax, also of the Aventine in the new here and now, had even been the Maid of Honor. Captain Sisko, still registered with the Starfleet Active Reserves, had officiated the ceremony. O'Brien served as Best Man while Worf and Garak each sent their regards. Kira Nerys had made it back the station between her duties as Head of the Militia Joint Chiefs. Her loyalties to Bajor outweighing her obligations to Starfleet. Largely because Starfleet "nationalized" the station when Bajor joined the Federation allowing Militia officers the opportunity to transfer with some allowed to remain as a courtesy.

Kira's first and foremost duty was to her world so she accepted promotion and transferred from her home for nearly a decade back to her planet of birth and was set in charge of Colonial Defense. It had been Kira's prevailing recommendation that Bajor have a strong planetary defense for assisting her colonies and defend her world while Starfleet rallied to assist. So her visits to Sisko were as frequent as time allowed and her inspections of DS9 few and far between. That's what Colonel Cenn was there for. Bajoran starships purchased from Sigma Iotia II were still hopelessly outmoded by Starfleet's current standards but they'd already proven an adequate defense against most pirates in both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants and tentative aggressors in the Gamma Quadrant.

Having realigned the Founders' outlook, Odo was able to visit Kira on several occasions but he'd insisted she move on. She knew it for his own sake that he made that demand since she was growing older and essentially he was unchanged other than his ability to perfectly mimic a Bajoran now. When they last parted, it was a permanent separation and they both knew it. It was in this environment Ro and Vaughn found themselves thrust into.

Upon returning to Serenity Station, Parva and Gilan entered the final phases of the Obsidian's repairs. The Outbound Ventures' engineering corps had expedited the repairs and instituted a series of secondary systems upgrades. Pike was managing the Starfleet SID assignments for the Outbound Ventures crews while Fanning maintained Macen and Rockford's "side" business. With Captain Forger and her crew finalizing repair and calibration work, Kerber and Smith were also haunting the ship. Tessa and Galen 3 oversaw improvements to their departments while the investigative team, along with Forger and Kovic, vetted potential crewmen.

Ebert busied herself with last minute upgrades and modifications to the Danube-class runabout the team employed. The original Corsair had never brought up to current specs so she happily did the chores herself. As the weeks progressed and the surveyor began her shakedown cruise, a long gestating development finally birthed an opportunity. Ziva Delain arrived on the station.

"I might say, my superiors were quite impressed. Few outside of the Bureau know of my involvement and even those rank amongst a handful of key personnel," Delain stated, "May I inquire as to the leak?"

"No," Macen said bluntly.

"We'll find them," Delain said confidently, "In the interim it was decided that you would prove a better informant than a target."

"Well, that's the bright side," Macen allowed.

"Detective Rockford, what is your involvement in this development?" Delain inquired.

"Brin is my partner. In all things," Rockford replied coolly.

"It seems your months away cemented your professional relationship at long last," Delain allowed, "A change we just became aware of. We'd written you off as a threat or an asset until Starfleet issued contracts for your agency to 'consult' on particular situations. Your blatant attempt to draw me out also provoked greater interest in you than has been present since the Dominion War ended and you resigned from Starfleet."

"Life is coincidental in nature," Macen was as evasive as any Cardassian spymaster.

"If I may be blunt, why approach us now?" Delain asked.

"My detectives found some incriminating details regarding one of your contacts during a routine and unrelated assignment. But those details turned into a broader picture of widespread discontent among Starfleet enlisted crews in the ass ends of space and therefore enabling your approaches. Largely successful ones at that," Rockford explained, "It seems illicit debts and activities play a large role in your recruitment opportunities."

"Opportunities aided by the complicit cooperation of the Orion Syndicate," Macen laid it bare. All of which Macen, Rockford, and their team had unearthed during their "tour" of the Cardassian border.

"The Orions were most helpful in disposing of the Starfleet crewmen you contacted on Starbase 375 and outed me," Delain waited for a reaction and found there wasn't one, "No moral objections?"

"I've killed my fair share. Generally your own people, as I recall," Macen retorted.

"You know my past," Rockford offered the slightest shrug.

"I find it odd you had a Nor-class station built for your corporation when you and your previous wife were both ex-Maquis," Dealian admitted.

"Captain Ro serves aboard Terok Nor despite her own past," Macen pointed out, "And the price was right."

Seeing her reference to T'Kir failed to raise any ire amongst either of the participants in this meeting, Delain delved further, "The Orions were loath to inflict harm upon you when you had assisted them against Bertram Sindis. In fact, you are the cause for the continuation and flourishing criminal empire enjoyed by their Syndicate. Any comments?"

"I don't inform on former clients," Macen said evenly. Although the team's discovery the Orions had paid them to engage Sindis rather than Starfleet had been dismaying to most.

"It is thought that killing Sindis, however an act of passion that it was, provoked the Iridians into avenging him upon yourselves," Delain was fishing now, "And thought on the matter?"

"The Enforcers cut all power to my ship and left us to freeze to death or suffocate. Whichever came first," Macen said simply, "They made the mistake of keeping the two best engineers I've ever served with alive. And that says a lot since I've known Hal Dracas, Tom Eckles, Heidi Darcy, and Emjin Thool."

"Impressive credentials," Delain confessed.

"Never underestimate Parva or Gilan and never, ever leave them alive together to repair a crippled starship," Macen said coldly.

"I'll make a note of that," Delain offered a slim smile.

"For future reference no doubt," Rockford observed, "We know you'll try and dispose of us as soon as you feel we're inadequate to your needs anymore. Far better and far worse have tried and failed."

"I'll note that as well," Delain's smile turned glacial since she was already well aware of the truth behind the statement. The CIB hardly required the aid of the Orion Syndicate to eliminate potential threats. But it was felt by her superiors that any agents sent out wouldn't be returning and the Orions' dupes were expendable. It was cheaper to buy loyalty with currency.

"I have been authorized to offer you a retainer to prioritize your working schedule should we ever require your services," Delain finally got to the point of her mission, "I assume Cardassian leks laundered though corporate interests are suitable, given your affinity for Cardassian items?"

"My accountants have no qualms whatsoever in exchanging currencies from most stellar nations," Macen allowed the slightest smile, "Provided Barrinor's bankers will do the exchanging?"

"Of course," Delain nodded, "Who do I negotiate the sums with?"

"Kathy Tyrol will personally oversee this retainer contract. My assistant can contact her and alert her before escorting you to the appropriate office," Macen offered, "Will you be staying overnight?"

"The next commercial shuttle will be returning to Barrinor in three hours' time. I expect I shall be ready to board by then," Delain rose. Macen merely summoned Fanning and gave her the appropriate instructions. If Delain was insulted, she hardly showed it.

"Was your Delain such a cool customer?" Rockford asked after sweeping for eavesdropping devices.

"No, but it's hardly surprising given the relative animosity between Cardassia and the Federation still prevalent in our new environment," Macen stated.

"You think we'll ever go back?" Rockford wondered.

"I doubt it but you never know. Who would've thought we'd ever be here to begin with?" Macen mused.

They spent the next hour briefing everyone involved in a round room conference filled with holographic avatars as well as warm bodies.

"So our first mission is on hold while we wait for the Cardassians to make up their minds of how to best exploit us and our new position with Starfleet," Macen offered.

"They'll probably want developing details about the SID," Admiral Forger grunted, "So would I."

"It's not that bad, Amanda," Johnson offered her some consolation.

"The Obsidian checked out," Captain Forger reported.

"So did the Corsair," Ebert added.

"So do we have our next mission package prepped and ready?" Rockford seemed eager to get back out there.

"Sadly yes, the Iotians are conducting weapons sales with the Nova Romans. Integration offers are being made as well," Admiral Forger sighed, "Considering the divergences in their histories here, they never went to war and so they could settle up rather amicably. The last thing we need is Roman styled aggression complementing Iotian criminality."

"We never went to Nova Roma here?" Daggit found that surprising.

"There was no need," the Admiral explained, "Just as the Omicron threat never emerged."

"So the Iotians will play up to my counterparts criminal past," Macen said.

"You mentioned knowing Dracas to Delain. She's going to try and track that down," Rockford realized.

"We're on it," Kerber promised. The cybersciences dynamic duo would naturally know the ins and outs of Ardanan record systems. Kerber still dressed the part of a Stratosian-indentured Trogylyte while Smith habitually wore vintage styled clothing from Earth's 1940s. The less said of her Stratosian nobility the happier she was about it.

"Shouldn't the Iotians and Nova Romans be the purview of the diplomats?" Macen wondered.

"Sadly, the Federation cut off all diplomatic relations with the Iotian Federation and the quarantine is still in effect around 492 IV," Johnson said sadly, "So no Starfleet efforts will be made nor will the Federation Council authorize any diplomatic envoys."

"So once again, it's us," Admiral Forger sighed.

"Some things are universal constants," Riker said.

"What little scuttlebutt there is here, coming mostly from Morn, is the Iotians found the Romans had reverse engineered elements from the Beagle and had launched their first warp capable craft outside of their own system while an Iotian Kremlin-class scout was passing by," Ro supplied, "The Iotians, ever eager to open a market or plant the flag, introduced themselves."

"Laren's relationship with Quark seems to be paying off increasingly valuable dividends," Vaughn chuckled.

"Quark has generously offered his services as go-between in exchange for a real meeting with the Iotians," Ro continued.

"We'll finance the trip but making it appear Quark is hiring you on a fishing expedition will make things more palatable to certain foreign powers, the Cardassians notwithstanding," Admiral Forger explained.

"But isn't he coming with?" Rockford worried.

"The little vole is happy to charge a commission for his name but won't step foot aboard any starship with Brin aboard," Ro smirked.

Mudd chortled, "I've got to hear this one!"

"Most of the new crew are ex-Starfleet noncoms. There are a few Bajoran Militia and even Resistance fighters signed aboard," Captain Forger related to everyone, "So they at least will know what they're doing."

"And they'll buy the cover story," Macen had approved already before warning, "Most of the Outbound Ventures crews are still on assignment, so we'll be short on reinforcements."

"I can take the Indie out. An Emden-class escort can help even the odds against the best the Iotians can throw at us even with Roman aid," Riker offered, "I could use a little sight seeing trip."

"Which means he's leaving me behind," Danan grumped.

"I'm sure with Brin involved the situation will escalate rapidly or not at all," Riker grinned.

"Thanks," Macen felt disheartened by that assessment.

"And Celeste, Quark might not be coming with but he's enlisted the local franchise owner aboard Serenity to negotiate on his behalf," Ro wore a devilish smirk.

"Shoot me now," Rockford groaned.

"It gets better," Danan warned, "The franchise owner is an Orion, not a Ferengi. An Orion female to be precise. Her name is Treir."

Parva spat out her last drink, "No, no, no! Not her!"

"You know her?" Daggit was startled.

"She sold me into bondage," Parva growled.

"Yet she's aboard Serenity," Johnson seemed amused, "How the mighty have fallen."

"I am not going to let her live!" Parva swore.

"After the mission," Macen informed her, "She gets us in and you can deal with her afterwards."

"Fine!" Parva huffed, "Just expect it to get messy."

"Duly noted," Macen sighed.

"This Barrinor may not have joined the Federation but we're still vaguely under its legal jurisdiction since we occupy the same solar system," Riker warned her.

"But we orbit Odin, which is a sovereign colony," Parva argued.

"We can have Chris look over the legalities," Macen promised.

"Barrinor is a Federation Protectorate but an independent stellar nation. I'd have to look over their colonial statutes regarding their legal jurisdiction over their colony on Odin and how it applies to Serenity Station since its corporately owned and not operated by either government," Johnson scratched his beard.

"And Lt. Pike is a serving Starfleet officer even if she is out of uniform," Admiral Forger reminded everyone.

"But she's a JAG Officer TDY with the SID," Macen countered, "Which would lend her a greater understanding of how much legal authority Outbound Ventures has towards enforcing corporate policy as legal writ aboard our own station."

Captain Forger smirked as her older sister massaged her temples, "Fine. Have Pike review the legalities. As to the mission, Lt. Pike should have received the brief to deliver to you. When can you get underway?"

"When will Treir be ready?" Macen asked Ro

"The Admiral briefed me as to Quark's participation a few hours ago. Given his greed, he should've contacted Treir as soon as he reached his office," Ro replied, "I understand she isn't one to waste time to seize an opportunity."

"She isn't," Parva sneered.

"Any ideas of why we were all kidnapped and placed here in this reality?" Vaughn asked.

"Strategically and tactically, Starfleet and the Federation feel vulnerable given the attacks on Mars and the Utopia Planetia Yards. The SPYards were destroyed alongside them. Culturally, the citizenry hasn't felt this threatened since the Dominion War. When a man like Picard resigns in protest, there's a vacuum needing to be filled," Johnson stated.

"And the loss of Will Riker just compounds the issue," McKinley voiced.

"But his standing down makes perfect sense since Thad needed a positronic transplant and the recent ban on synthetic development and further research denied his family the necessary treatment," Riker grumbled, "Thad is going to die. There's no stopping that now."

"Will and Deanna are just trying to make him as comfortable as possible before that happens as well as give Kestra her first real home life experience. She and Thad were born on the Titan and have never been planet-bound before. I understand they're both enamoured with Nepenthe now that they've been there for several months now.," Danan added.

"La Forge and Worf are honorable men but they don't have the moral authority Admiral Picard and Captain Riker had," Dr. Andreja Sikorsky added as the Intrepid's CMO.

"Starfleet is hard pressed to gain additional moral support now that Admiral Janeway has been sidelined and Captain Chakotay is under scrutiny under false pretenses," Ro snorted, "With General Kira adamantly against joining Starfleet, it's up to officers like Captain Dax to carry the burden of inspiring younger officers."

"She is a younger officer," Commander Jonathan Striker, McKinley's XO, spoke up as well.

"My people had me infiltrate Starfleet before I stepped down and I joined up with my Macen and T'Kir," Hannah Grace reminded them, "They were good people but frustrated with the system after what happened to the Maquis survivors after the war ended. Even celebrating the successes of Chakotay and his Maquis aboard Voyager upon its return did little to change official opinion regarding them. That's why they stayed outside of the Federation and its laws. Most of the released Maquis prisoners immigrated to Barrinor on Macen's recommendation. After T'Kir died, I turned my back on my people's ambitions and rejoined Starfleet at Liz's request and I married my Ian. But I can't honestly say I'm unhappy that he's gone now."

"All I can say is I'm so grateful to have another life with Hannah," Lt. Commander Ian Delaney confessed.

"We're all happy for you two," Liefers admitted.

"Hannah's already shown me some helm maneuvers I wouldn't have dreamed of," Lt. Alessandro Pedrossi, the Intrepid's Chief Flight Control Officer, admitted.

"I think it's safe to say we're all relieved we could confess to her what happened with us," Commander Robert Caplan, the Intrepid's Chief Engineer said gratefully.

"You're strangely silent, Neela," Macen observed.

"I believe we were sent here to be the light to cast away shadows on the soul of the Federation now that Bajor is a member. The Prophets have taken an interest in this reality now and shied away from our original home. They expressed interests in you both during the Dominion War," Neela indicated Macen and Ro, "That interest extended to this development. We aren't alone in this universe because the Prophets will guide us if we continue to seek the opportunities and fulfill the mission they've laid for us."

"But you haven't received specifics?" Rockford asked.

"Not as such. They've guided me to prophecies made centuries before and now they make sense," Neela admitted, "But I don't comprehend they're full meaning or scope yet. I emphasize 'yet'."

"Have you managed to reach Major Anara yet?" Kerber wondered about her namesake.

"Colonel Anara was astounded as I expected at my sudden 'resurrection'," Neela smirked, "But after what we endured throughout the Resistance and the Dominion War before my counterpart's demise, I shouldn't be surprised that she no longer is surprised about a great many things. What thrilled me the most is that Anara finally reconciled her faith in the Prophets after my double's death," Neela related to them.

"We're so happy for you both," Smith offered.

"Thank you, Bailey. It means so much coming from you. I know how hard it is for you to speak in groups," Neela bowed her head in appreciation.

"Yeah, the Princess gets stage fright," Kerber gloated. Smith punched her arm. Kerber rubbed it, "But she's got a royal temper."

"About the departure?" Admiral Forger hated to interrupt the good natured ribbing.

"Shannon?" Macen inquired.

"Give us four hours to get the crew boarded and our guest situated," Captain Forger answered.

"Then I suggest we all get to it," Admiral Forger said as a dismissal. Her avatar vanished. Johnson and the Intrepid crew all gave their best wishes before winking out. Neela struggled with saying something and decided against it before cutting the connection. Most of the team and crew had exited when Ro and Vaughn requested that Riker and Danan remain behind for a moment for a brief, private conference. Afterwards, Macen and Rockford retired to the quarters to pack and discuss matters further.

"Sigma Iotia? Is she kidding?" Rockford complained.

"You've had dealings with Iotians in the past. So have I, even in this reality we both have," Macen shrugged.

"Our doppelgangers stole starship and weapons designs for them. Not the same thing," Rockford protested, "And Nova Romans? Again?"

"Yup. Rab has some stories as well," he pointed out, "So do Tom and Lees."

"Is that why they look so worried?" Rockford inquired.

"Yup," Macen confirmed her nightmare scenario.

"Brin, despite the veneer the Iotians put on that they copied from the Federation cultural advisors that the Federation sent to them, they're still criminals at heart," Rockford complained, "Shade will fit right in. Lee Kang will go ape shit. And Arianna."

"Will blend in," Macen promised her, "Your Mirian protege is as much a delinquent at heart as your Fabrini thief will ever be."

"What kind of defenses are we looking at?" Rockford angrily began stuffing clothes into a duffel.

"Standard mid-23rd century Starfleet issue and analogue starships. They've begun constructing K-class space stations throughout their territories. They have a K-class starbase in orbit over their home planet," Macen had already some checking on the Iotians just in case.

"K-? Like the original Deep Space K-7 and what-not?" Rockford was amazed.

"Some of those stations are still operational," Macen chuckled as he packed as well.

"Ye gods," Rockford muttered.

"Celeste, we'll be fine. Even in a new reality, this version of the team is the best equipped version to ever confront the Iotians," Macen promised.

"Having a female Orion aboard is always trouble," Rockford reminded him.

"I think Parva will take care of that issue," Macen grinned.

The Obsidian made way for Sigma Iotia II while Riker and the Indomitable stayed just within sensor range as the surveyor made way. Treir happily annoyed Parva but Kovic set a guard, an all-female guard, on her at all times armed with anti-nausea meds supplied in bulk by Tessa. The Andorians aboard especially seemed to want Treir to cause to cause trouble in order to give them an excuse to act out. Treir tried seducing a few willing males but Kovic's guards quickly intervened every time. Despite her preference to stay in the mess, Treir looked bored the rest of the way.

The SID contingent studied up on the "new" Iotians they'd be meeting. Starfleet had erected signal jamming buoys around the common border in order to block the Iotains' access to the Federation's public databases. Occasionally an Iotian starship would venture forth to destroy a few buoys in an attempt to get the signals through. The Border Patrol quickly responded in every case and every starship assigned to the patrol were provisioned with a multitude of jammers. The forays were rather infrequent now.

Trade goods still easily flowed but the Federation Security Agency monitored every nearby starbase and colonies for data breaches. Local law enforcement deported the offending Iotians. The Iotian Starfleet was equipped with the original Starfleet model Antares-class freighters and seemed ot be shifting their supply of Kremlin-class scouts for exporting while constructing fresh Archer-class scout analogues for their own fleet purposes. These scouts were allowed access across the borders in conjunction with escort duties regarding the freighters. The scoutships' sensor platforms were the most advanced designs that the Iotians had copied so far. Rivaling their larger cousins' capabilities but only requiring a fourteen man crew.

Foreign members of the Iotian Federation were now serving beside the Iotians since the population was beginning to face a manpower shortage given the great demand for construction and trade exploration and expansion duties. Armed with Federation stellar maps, the Iotians happily traveled to where Starfleet was prohibited by the Prime Directive in interfering or planets that had rejected their overtures. Generally these less advanced but industrial cultures wanted the trade good sand opportunities the Iotians would assist them in skipping past years of troals and developments into space faring technologies. Even granting access to their own fleet personnel rolls to supplement their learning as the "aliens" served the Iotians as enlisted crewmen. It bordered on the Terran Empire in yet another alternate reality known to Starfleet.

A few privileged races served in the officer corps. Orions and Acamarians alike were so honored and embraced. Devolved cultures such as the Betans from Beta III and Gamma Triangulians freed from computerized overlords or the Scalosians, now freed from their sterility and hyperacceleration, now served with distinction as officers aboard Iotian starships. Others included former Ansoto separatists from Rutia IV that had abandoned their struggle and sought asylum in Iotian territorial holdings. Macen and Ebert were familiar with the Ansoto thanks to Finn Riley and his family's involvement with the Maquis. Others included wayward Bajorans that had become generational pirates during and after the Cardassian Occupation.

Interesting facts included the Iotian government, divided amongst familial mafias and overseen by a Godfather. The Iotian Starfleet Admiralty was trained and appointed by the various mafioso heads to organize and oversee the military. Each Family controlled a division fo starships. Those starships in turn protected the individual interest of the varilous families versus the collective of Sigma Iotia II itself. Even a century after the famed visit of James T. Kirk and his crew, the Iotians simply wanted a "piece of the action" but now on an interstellar platform and they frequently found themselves at odds with the Ferengi. So Quark's offer of an olive branch was endorsed by both the Godfather and his own brother Rom, who was still the Grand Nagus despite everyone's best efforts to dispose of him. The Ferengi Alliance was partially broken with several mega-corporations having split off and disavowed the Nagus.

Quark's original bar was still able operate on a currency basis because of his being excluded from the Federation's cashless society by administrative exemptions from the station's administrative staff. Kira had argued for the policy with Starfleet before standing down as CO. Since Quark largely dealt with vendors expecting an actual payment, it was only logical that he should still accept, and even demand, monetary compensation for his services. Vaughn had mirthfully extended the exemption and Ro had followed up with it. She was the station's longest serving CO as of the year before, the "new" Ro had inherited quite the legacy. One she approved of. And because of Quark's eagerness to sell his name, Treir had acquired the franchise rights to open a Quark's on Serenity. No one on the station knew how Treir had been expelled from the Orion Syndicate or why. She wasn't talking, especially not to Parva.

The Obsidian was challenged by a Starfleet vessel before she entered Iotian space. Forger easily handled that as well answering the captain of the Iotian Mercury-class analogue that challenged her as soon as the surveyor crossed the invisible border. The CO of the frigate was an impossibly young Acamarian lt. commander judging by the braid on her mustard Command Division uniform minidress circa Federation Starfleet 2266-2070.

She introduced herself with a certain amount of bravado, "I'm Lt. Commander Shaylei, Captain of the ISS Larceny. State your business and intent."

Outbound Ventures, for its various crew complements, issued Earth Starfleet surplus blue jumpsuits. Except for COs, who wore an olive drab variant.

"I'm Captain Shannon Forger, commanding the SS Obsidian. I'm delivering an envoy from Quark's Emporium to negotiate trade sales into the United Federation of Planets territories. The envoy is expected," she explained.

"Of course, I'll have to confirm that with my superiors and then as I'm relieved from picket duty so I can escort you to Iotia itself," Shaylie explained.

"Not a problem," Forger honestly hoped it would be that smooth. While they waited, Shaylie transmitted the Iotian Starfleet's standard protocols for visiting ships entering and transiting Iotian Federation territories. It was fairly straightforward except the concept of "toll lanes" within traffic routes. It seemed Iotion starships on customs duties would intercept visiting ships and freighters and charge a "transit fee" for entering and conducting business within that solar system. Such charges were applicable at every solar system visited.

It was an exceptionally Cardassian and Ferengi means of conducting trade and the various enforcing captains would receive a commission off the top. Fees and duties varied by solar system depending on which Family or capo administrated the system. A list of planets and stellar cartography map of Iotian Federation space was provided as well as paid advertising enticing interested businessmen and women to various worlds. 492 IV wasn't listed as of yet but its solar system was marked as a "prospecting zone". while waiting for what would turn out to be the Asia-class ISS Pickpocket, a Constitution-class vessel passed by on patrol.

No one aboard had seen such an infamous vessel in action. The museum reconstruction NCC-1701 USS Enterprise-M gave tours of the Sol system and enlightened people regarding Starfleet's past explorations, gave facts regarding the Constitution- ship class, and titillated visitors with tales of famous captains of the long lived starships. The original Enterprise, Exeter, Constellation, Lexington, Yorktown, Endeavor, Intrepid, and Defiant being the most celebrated of all. The subsequent Enterprises always being the flagships of the Starfleet. Three of the names were now applied to starship classes. As well as the first vessel in service of each of those self-same classes.

It was very likely that the Iotians had never beheld a Nova-class vessel before, civilian or UFP Starfleet. The Larceny hailed the Obsidian as the Pickpocket entered sensor range. Lt. Commander Shaylie happily conducted the latinum transfer that would grant the Outbound Ventures ship access to the first stop on its tour of the Iotian Federation, proving that the Iotians were tied into interstellar banking systems and worlds such as Ferenginar and Barrinor itself.

The K-class space station in orbit near Iotia was also a seeming museum piece in perfect working order. Deep Space K-7 had a notoriety because of the Enterprise's encounter with tribbles, Koloth, and other Klingons there under Captain Kirk's command. Starfleet had built eight K-class Deep Space stations and the prior G-class stations. Four K-class and six G-class stations and starbases were still in operation. While the various J-class stations had been laboriously upgraded over the past century-plus. The former included Deep Space K-7 itself and Starbase G-8. The Starfleet Corps of Engineers going above and beyond to upgrade each station to modern technical standards. The system had four iron-nickel Class-D planetoids and dwarf planets. Its three asteroid belts were also rich in metal deposits.

So two yard construction facilities were busy building various starships and supplying parts and modular components for building space stations in further systems. The activities easily mirrored the destroyed Utopia Planetia Yards and the still-extant Antares Yards and Copernicus Yards. For the UFP Starfleet Intelligence, the loss of the SPYards was a crippling blow. Fortunately the Starfleet Provisioner, or P, was still in operation within Spacedock.

P oversaw the development and doling out of secretive technologies to SI agents, and now presumably the SID as well. P had served Starfleet for thirty more years than Vaughn and had filed for retirement. He intended to spend the rest of his natural born days fishing on Pacifica. His replacement, a young and eccentrically brilliant woman code-named Pretty, was to be the new P when the original left. Nechayev had signed off on P's long overdue promotion to Captain as a retirement bonus. He was also receiving dozens of service medals that had been hung in Starfleet Intelligence's offices but could now be publicly awarded. P's promotion putting him on the Captain's List would draw scrutiny from the Federation's rivals, as well as the notation that he was retiring the day after the official paperwork went through.

The Iotians were such rivals. Their ability to pass as near-human granted them the ability to infiltrate the strata of UFP society. Convergent evolution dictated that most mammalian humanoid life followed certain patterns. The seeding of key amino acids throughout the larger Alpha and Beta Quadrants by a mysterious race keying their own DNA into natural evolution had also aided the genetic compatibility of disparate species. so the Iotians were freely sexually co-mingling with the Scalosians, Betans, Acamarians, and other races and producing mixed blood offspring. Worlds like 492 IV, Omega IV, were near-Earth duplicates repopulated with humans and Miri was a replica of Earth created and populated with other humans by the enigmatic and long vanished Preservers. The same as those that relocated Amerind tribes to a far flung world as the Europeans began to settle the Americas.

The Preservers' relationship, if there was one, with the "Foremost" that seeded countless planets still remained an utter mystery. It was largely theorized that such races had passed beyond this existence before the Metrons and Organians, possibly even around the time the Q and the One moved into the Continuum. Also pre-dating the race that claimed the self-proclaimed "god" Apollo. Beings whose memory provoked the both ire and envy of the Platonians. As Aglaia herself could readily attest to.

The novelty of seeing classic starships broadened as skeleton crews departed the system to deliver other 22nd and 23rd century designs. The supplied star charts indicated other shipyards had gone up as well in the oldest "expanded" territorial claims. Galen 3, who was comparing the charts to Kirk's original second contact mission groaned audibly as he saw his own home planet on the "Too Be Approached" list. Eminiar VII might have recently developed warp drive after warring with its closest inhabited neighbor for a century before Starfleet's intervention ended that conflict. Again, relegating the Prime Directive to "Suggestion" status. He knew the collective Eminiarian civilizations were fast tracking their own defensive postures to prevent a Starfleet-styled intervention into their affairs from occurring again. Thus making them vulnerable to the Iotians' enticements.

"Forger to Briefing Room, are you prepared to make contact?" she commed.

"We've been watching our progress," Macen shared, "Treir is eager to make contact with the Iotians reps. Harri has 'volunteered' to 'assist' in the negotiations."

Forger could almost hear Macen's smirk and Mudd's scowl. She idly wondered how he'd conned Mudd into it.

"I will be escorted by my pilot and my fellow negotiator," Treir announced to the Iotian Starfleet Admiral at their Starfleet Command on the surface. The Starfleet screened petitioners wishing access to the Families and the Godfather. the Oxmyx dynasty still held the hereditary position of power as the Godfather and the Kracko family controlled the Starfleet through their dynastic line serving as the Starfleet Commander-in-Chief. All the original mob leaders that signed on to Kirk's outline for leadership became the various Family heads.

Within Families were hereditary lieutenants and capos who'd proven their ability and loyalty. Treir weaved her through the entangled webs to gain permission for Ebert to pilot the Corsair to the surface to deliver her and the unexpected addition of Harri Mudd. Of course, Ebert's own criminal past made Treir want to enlist her aid anyway. It seemed that the Iotian Starfleet Commander would be attending the negotiations alongside the heads of each of the Families. Their desire to enter Federation trade space overwhelming their usual rivalries.

Treir had also paved the way for the Obsidian to explore Iotian territory to "explore trade possibilities to a grater detail". Macen and Rockford became the official point personnel for the fact finding mission. Not surprisingly, a Constitution-class heavy cruiser was assigned escort duties.

The ISS Bonnie & Clyde's CO was an Iotian named Wyrbucks. Wyrbucks actually looked forward to granting the full tour treatment and offered cultural exchanges while transiting between star systems. One such exchange was Forger relenting, under extreme pressure, to allow an Iotian officer to board the Obsidian. The Petty Officer 3rd Class was an A & A Officer. Which in Iotian lexicons wasn't an Archaeology & Anthropology Officer but rather an Assets & Acquisitions Officer. Her name was Slylocke and one of her ancestors had been a gun moll for the original Kracko.

Kovic was assigned to "acclimate" the young watchdog. Slylocke was particularly impressed with Parva. It seemed the Orion women in the Starfleet were frequently officers but of various tracks other than engineering. The fact that Parva was the Chief Engineer sent a visible shudder down Slylocke's back. Parva, Gilan, and Kovic shared a common expression of, What the hell was that about? But if Engineering, and the Chief Engineer, stunned Slylocke, the Bridge left her breathless.

"I never imagined," she softly breathed in a reverent tone. Kovic mirthlessly wondered how Slylocke would react to Tessa and the Sickbay or Kerber and Smith's Data Womb that they'd painstakingly upgraded with fresh components on the heels of their installations aboard the Solstice. Of course, their opposite numbers had begun with a head start but it was still lacking compared to what they'd shared aboard their original starship assignment.

"So, Petty Officer, how do you like my command?" Forger asked. Slylocke had been invited to sit in the vacant XO's chair.

"It's breathtaking, Captain," she adopted a shrewd look, "But I noticed you said command and not ship."

"In a roundabout but very real way, Commander Macen owns the Obsidian. His company, Outbound Ventures, owns the ship outright and he and Detective Rockford own the corporation," Forger explained.

"Even we've heard about Outbound Ventures," Slylocke admitted, "When can I meet them?"

"Now if you like," Forger nodded towards Kovic.

"If you'd follow me," the Security Officer intoned a command rather than an interrogative. If the A & A Officer took offense, she didn't show it.

Ebert guided the runabout to the space and shuttle port near the capital city of Sigma Iotia II. Nearly all of the freighters were of non-Iotian Federation origin. The Iotian freighters that had been spotted were largely of Federation Antares-class origins. But Bajoran privateers had enlisted a great many friends and even the competition to running Iotian trade goods across Iotian and neutral space.

After the Hobus disaster, and given its near proximity, the Iotian Federation had entered into a vast trade alliance with the remnants of the Romulan Star Empire. The Romulans had not only pushed forward the development of 3rd Generation Warbirds but authorized upgrades and refits of their D'deridex-class and Valdore-class battleships as their patrol and relief rotations came to a close. They were also reactivating and selling off their 23rd century Bird of Prey- and Bird of Vengeance-class cruisers to localized warlords drifting across the Neutral Zone as well as employing them for internal patrols. Even 22nd century Bird of Prey-class cruisers had been recommissioned for internal anti-piracy operations. But there was no external market for them...yet.

Romulan scouts and science vessels served as visible border patrols while more powerful warships lurked nearby, daring interlopers to engage the weaker craft. But the Star Empire had re-closed its border to other non-diplomatic traffic. So with the Iotian Starfleet escorting its trade delegates into Romulan space, defending Iotian Federation territories, expanding those territories, and exporting weapons and starships, the veritable empire was thriving. The Iotians were an imitative people but not entirely innovative. They were slowly progressing towards the UFP Starfleet's warp core redsigns and refit nacelles, boosted phaser banks, and higher yield photon torpedoes. Which would eventually lead them further to abandon duotronics in favor of isolinear processors, advancing ODN cabling, plasma conduits, and various other very late 23rd century and early 24th century technological advancements in starship and space station design.

It would also redefine their ground based antimater/matter based power cores on planetary surfaces and thereby augment existing power grids by a thousandfold. Fusion reactors had been a notable step early in the Iotians progress utilizing their purloined data. They'd managed to skip the dangerous fissionable stage of most Atomic Ages. Like the UFP designs, the warp reactors found in Iotian ships were powered and managed through matter/antimatter mutual annihilation energizing and super heating plasma for distribution of power throughout the vessel's systems and structure. The impulse engines and emergency batteries were fusion based.

Replicator technology was still beyond the Iotians' reach but the Romulans were trading it to replace the culture's protein based synthesizers and fabricators. Fortunately for all concerned, the Romulans adamantly refused to part with cloaking technology or the secrets behind their singularity drives. But the designs for 23rd century disruptors and early low yield plasma torpedoes were on the market for barter and exchange for services and materials rendered. It was into this rising level of infamy and prosperity that Treir and Mudd found themselves navigating.

The hubris of the men representing the Families was incredible. But, as fortune would have it, the latest Oxmyx and Kracko were both female. Treir was unknown to them, unlike Quark, but the name Mudd carried serious weight with them all.

"The Harri Mudd?" Oxmyx practically glowed in delight.

"I'm sure everyone present is recalling my great-grandfather, Harcourt Fenton Mudd. He was a contemporary of Captain Kirk. Great-granddad delighted in tormenting Kirk," Mudd said with uncharacteristic modesty.

"No," Kracko interjected, "You're Harriet Fedora Mudd, correct?"

"Yup, that's me. But call me Harri," Mudd confirmed it.

"I knew it!" Oxmyx crowed.

"You're something of IsBella and I's personal idol," Jilliete Kracko confessed.

"Really?" Mudd was astounded, as was Treir, "I mean, of course I am."

Ebert rolled her eyes.

"And you're the Tracy Ebert? The famed smuggler?" Oxmyx turned to her next object of adoration.

"I was," Ebert demurred.

"You're role in the Maquis has become legendary as well as your methods for evading UFP Federation customs cutters," Kracko stated, "We've studied your methods extensively."

"Sadly, Starfleet reacted to them rather quickly," Ebert sighed. Treir felt rather left out having been denied legendary status with these people.

"If we could get to the refreshments phase so we can all relax and get to know one another better?" Treir suggested. It was undertaken with all due haste. But she was irritated as Mudd and Ebert dominated the Iotians' attentions. She began releasing pheromones into the air to reclaim superiority in these upcoming negotiations. Soon, the Iotian males at least would be her willing slaves granting her every business concession Quark, and Treir on the side, wanted to acquire.

"So, the third contact mission undertaken by the USS Cerritos discovered that the Betans had reactivated Landru and reverted back to their simplistic ways yet you've recruited hundreds of them into your Starfleet?" Macen inquired of Captain Wyrbucks as he visited aboard the Obsidian at Slylocke's adamant request. Macen and Rockford had personally escorted Wyrbucks through the ship and the captain was amazed at how far UFP tech had come.

"Yes, but some Betans refused to cow under Landru again. Thousands of them have applied for political asylum with the our Federation. The Starfleet just reaps a tremendous benefit from it. Despite their seeming devolvement, the Betans are quite clever engineers and are spearheading our new starship design initiatives to try and bridge some of the obvious gaps between our two Starfleets," Wyrbucks proudly answered, "Of course, our Bajoran and Acamarian recruits also brought modernized technology samples with them that we're reverse engineering beside the tech we've traded the Romulans for."

"Our sensors detected you're building a J-class station out past your furthest moon," Forger interjected.

"Yes," Wyrbucks was equally proud of that developing construction, "Just another byproduct of our recent gains."

"The new station will be a commercial hub and additional repair station in addition to its services to vessels from every race we've encountered and we anticipate meeting even more," Slylocke, the young A & A Officer preened.

"What my Petty 3st is trying to say, more and more races are beginning to view us as a viable trading partner versus your Federation," Wyrbucks offered a skewed observation.

"We inhabit the Barrinor system. The colony there refused Federation membership but accepted Protectorate status since much of the United Federation of Planets' latinum reserves are held in Barrinoran vaults," Rockford reminded Wyrbucks as she replicated another drink as they solely occupied the Officer's Wardroom.

"I noticed your personnel go armed while few of the ship's crew share in that," Slylocke had rightly observed, "Why is that?"

"Unlike rumors have it, we don't go looking for fights. And if we do manage to get in one, the Investigative Team generally has instigated it or drawn one's attention and defends itself," Macen explained the psychology, "As a general rule the ship and crew avoid getting involved in overt combat. And in case of a boarding action, Chief of Security Miller and Deputy Chief Kovic have proven themselves handy at dealing with such...unpleasantries. Their efforts helped save the officers when the Iridians seized us."

Macen had now sold them the official story and his Listening skills indicated they believed it wholeheartedly.

"Chief Miller also runs the Tactical Division aboard ship?" Wyrbucks had noted.

"Every Security officer doubles down when it comes to Tactical duties," Rockford answered, "But for those of us who hate space travel, we simply endure and shoot whoever comes aboard uninvited."

"Tales from the Rockford Detective Agencies even reach our territories as do the fabled stories of the Outbound Ventures crews," Wyrbucks confessed, "I'd thought they were flights of fancy but having seen your crew and met your teammates, I don't think that anymore. It's really a shame I missed meeting the infamous Harri Mudd and your Tracy Ebert. Your past with Ebert is well known, Commander, but how did you convince Captain Mudd to join you?"

"She literally had no alternatives," Macen grinned, "She had no ship and no options left to her. I'd say giving her an extension on her life bought us a modicum of loyalty."

Rockford wore a wolfish smile, "Even Harri is honorable enough to adhere to such a social contract."

"But is there truly honor amongst thieves?" Wyrbucks shared her lupine expression.

"We aren't thieves, Captain. We simply reacquire lost possessions for our clients if need be," Macen was feeling enigmatic, "As well as practice wealth redistribution."

"Commander, I understand you were a Starfleet A & A Officer before joining Starfleet Intelligence," Slylocke veered the conversation intro a new direction.

"Which bears an entirely different context in our Starfleet. I was an Archaeology & Anthropology Officer. It wasn't until I became an information broker supporting the Maquis that I became a thief," Macen let her down easy.

Iotians lived slightly longer than most humans but Macen had over four hundred years on her twenty-two. He was also completely smitten with his wife. He'd been forced to kill his first wife, a mad El-Aurian named Arinaea. T'Kir, his one-time soul mate, had died at Sindis' hands in both realities. Rockford was his best friend before she became his lover. None of the relationships were rated one above the other. Macen simply embraced the differences between them.

But each had earned his monogamy as a gift to his partner in a show of respect. If that hadn't been willingly reciprocated, then the relationships would've taken different paths. He and Lisea Danan, now Tom Riker's wife, had shared intimacy at one time. Just as he'd shared a different form of it with the Cardassian, Lyoti Mariska. That last one had come as a complete surprise given his own past in the Border Wars and the Maquis. When romance had faded, the permanent bonds of deep abiding friendships remained. This reality's Macen had served in Starfleet for 78 years and like himself, he'd taken occasional lovers until meeting Danan. But his three wives held the dearest and nearest loyalties from him despite the tragic endings of two already.

Rockford, as an Angosian and now that the cellular stasis treatment he'd received on El-Auria had been reversed, could easily expect another two centuries of life as she and Macen grew old together. Tolian Soran, Macen's mad uncle, had been a fit and untreated over 300 years old when he died. Guinan, who'd also been given the rare treatment reserved for explorers, was into her seventh century and it was taking its toll now as the centuries began to weigh in on her. The treated were like that. They enjoyed relative youth for six or seven hundred years and then expired within another century. After the destruction of the Enterprise-D, Guinan had resettled on Earth and opened a hard to find but very exquisite bar in Los Angeles. As it turned out, she'd merely reopened it. It was as beloved by the community as Guinan herself.

Guinan had never burdened Picard with the knowledge that he branched off an alternate reality from that in which the Veridian star was destroyed. Macen's home universe had branched away even later after the Dominion War. Somehow the Terran Universe interwove with this one but also with the team and ship's officers home universe. The other timeline that resulted from the Veridian destruction gifted the universe with the Borg's imminent assimilation of the Federation after they took the Sol system in 2373. just as another timeline was branched off in 2373 when the Borg assimilated Earth in the the past and Picard and his crew valiantly saved their future, an alternate future from the Borg conquest.

The El-Aurians labeled all of this the Currents. The Prophets were among those beings that flitted back and forth between them. The Q were another. The Metrons and the Organians were still content to ride out whatever reality they felt best suited to. Which largely explained why they resided in this reality but seemed to have abandoned that where Macen and his people originally derived from.

He'd kept it even from Rockford that Guinan had discreetly contacted him while they were still in Cardassian space. She jovially congratulated him on his "resurrection". Meaning she, like all their people, recognized the truth of his origins. How could they not? She confirmed what he had felt: their originating universe had been destroyed. Some galactic-wide disaster had befallen it. The non-linear races had abandoned it to its ultimate fate. Guinan's question echoed his own: to what purpose had he and his "family" been saved to fulfill? Given the theoretical butterfly effect, they could make minute changes that would have drastic consequences a thousand years from now but as always, dwelling too greatly on one's legacy in history could drive one insane. All everyone involved could do was plow through the life they'd been given making the best choices they had available and sometimes creating unexpected ones.

Perhaps that was their destiny. Everyone thrust into this strange new universe were masters of adapting and finding unorthodox solutions while still striving to attain a brighter common future. He also suspected that those living that had been "replaced" had been shunted into realities where they prospered and thrived. Perhaps the Nexus itself.

"It's all for the best," Guinan had promised him and he took her at face value. Perhaps that's why their second SID involved the Iotians and Nova Romans. They'd prior experience with them whereas the UFP here at closed off access to the Iotian Federation to most citizens and quarantined 492 IV. The Talosians were happy to have their quarantine extended through the ages. But the cultural contamination of the Beagle crew had altered Roman destiny. The Enterprise's own factoring into just complicated it. But Starfleet had militarily set watch posts over the 492 system so what exactly were they afraid of?

They'd returned to Beta III to examine the cross-cultural contaminations resulting from episodes involving the USS Archon and later Kirk's Enterprise and how they'd continued to affect the Betan social evolution. Only to find they'd repaired and restored Landru to power. But the super-computer had learned to ignore Starfleet because they always walked away when they weren't disabling Landru itself. But the Iotians had gladly evacuated thousands of Betans from Beta III and Landru had been happy to purge the "flock" of malcontents.

The Iotians had even recruited many of their client planets into enlisting Betans into their own fledgling fleets. The same was true of the various alien refugees, and or wanted criminals, that sought a safe haven in the Iotian Federation's territories and "protectorates". The Protectorates eventually became aware of the fact that the Starfleet actually did defend them from foreign threats as well technologically leap frog them and the recruitment drives to sign up fresh enlisted personnel for work aboard starships and space stations as well yard facilities just brought a greater wealth of technological competence back to their worlds. The Iotians' drive to build more ships, stations and yards as well as train personnel to man them was the undercurrent that held the Starfleet together.

It was akin to the Italians enlisting the aid of the Irish mobs, the Yakuza, the Triads and the Bratva for one large, expansive endeavor and throw in Acamarian Wanderers and Orions to boot. All revolving around the Families and the autocratic Godfather. Who happened to be a woman regardless of the official title. But Oxmyx blood ran true and the current head of the Families ran her burgeoning empire with clarity and efficiency and everyone seemed to be thriving. Just as the latest Kracko kept the Starfleet running smoothly.

As Wyrbucks and Slylocke spent the evening extolling the virtues of their system, Rockford exchanged a wry glance at Macen that broadcast her thought loud and clear, I wonder how Harri and Tracy are doing?

"Girl, you are shhhiiitfashed," Mudd slurred. Ebert could hardly walk. But then again, neither could Mudd.

"Shez you," Ebert huffed as she walked into the Corsair's hull.

"Bwah ha ha ha!" Mudd fell over as she laughed.

"Serves you right," Ebert decided. Of course it sounded like, "Shurvs yaaaa riiighth." Fortunately the hatch was secured by the main computer that utilized the ship's sensors to determine that Ebert and Mudd had clearance to board but they had to step up into the hatch, which proved to a long comedy of errors of trying push Ebert through the hatchway. Then Mudd collapsed on Ebert as she was pulled aboard.

"You're kinda soft and cuddly," Mudd attempted to say but it devolved into, "Yer ginta crimbly."

"Gidda offa me," needed no translation as Ebert rolled Mudd off of her.

"Wha' id da katch 'tuck?" Mudd slurred.

"Cuz yer daaammmnnn leg id ib da way," Ebert explained.

"Oh," Mudd drew her leg in and the hatch sealed. She was rather disappointed in how their "homecoming" was going so far. She was under the impression that Ebert was open to a great many forms of sexual expression and Mudd was pretty damn horny at the moment.

"D'ya wanna..?" Mudd played with her exposed brassiere.

"Nooo," Ebert weaved towards the aft living space.

"Why nob?" Mudd was irked.

"Nob lied dis," Ebert tried to reason it out. Mudd found herself back on her feet and lurched towards Ebert and managed to actually land a kiss on Ebert's parted lips.

"Whibe ya gotta be sooo haught?" Ebert asked as she melted into compliance.

The planet Scalos had been technologically advanced enough to nearly destroy itself yet find a way to survive through hyper-accelerating their bodies. Yet even that "salvation" came at the price of sterilizing the male population. Forcing the Scalosians to basically kidnap and seduce viable male partners to continue breeding. Partners that would be consumed by their own hyper-accelerated states within weeks. Plenty of time for torrid, and hopefully impregnating, sex.

The Gideonites hadn't been much gentler when they used sexual contact to infect their race with viral elements they had eradicated centuries before. Those that survived the plagues largely left their world. Many, like Gilan, had ended up in the UFP. The bulk of the population was relocated by the accommodating Iotians. The Gideonites' pharmaceutical and genetic therapy wherewithal made a fortune on the black market. The survival of their race had re-educated them in virology and taught them how to develop customized biogenic weapons on demand. The Iotians harnessed those capabilities.

Although, some would say they exploited the Gideonites. The fleeing inhabitants had relearned warp technology and therefore were a space faring race as their long ago ancestors had been. Which explained Gilan's basic skills. He'd made Senior Chief Petty Officer with Starfleet before being recruited to Outbound Ventures after a disastrous encounter with the Orion Syndicate had found Gilan demoted back to Chief Petty Officer by Starfleet's JAG Corps. Starfleet was fickle about the careers of Senior Chiefs and above. Once one reached that rank, or rose even higher to Master Chief or the vaunted heights of Command Master Chief, Starfleet began investigating how best to exploit the obvious talents of an exceptionally gifted non-commissioned officer.

The Iotian Starfleet was no different. Starfleet generally made Senior Chiefs and above, in Engineering, Chief of Operations aboard starbases and Deep Space stations but these were remote commands where similarly qualified officers refused to be posted. For officers, they were seen as "penal" duties. For enlisted, they were a track to continue to the lofty heights of Command Master Chief. There was only one Senior Chief or above per command.

Nova-, the venerable Oberth- and Newton-class surveyors and science ships generally had Engineering departments run by chiefs rather than commissioned officers. The Equinox's Ensign Marla Gilmore had been an exception but it had been more of a penal duty for the maintenance engineer to be assigned to the ill-fated starship rather than the usual Chief. Light cruisers, frigates, and scouts also generally had non-coms leading departments rather than junior officers who were vying for more glamorous departmental commands. Those assignments were seen as fast tracks to ranking up and earning more responsibility...and the resultant chance to shine even greater to the higher ups aboard ship and the Bureau of Personnel.

Warrant Officers also served in the UFP Starfleet. Seen as a bridge between enlisted and commissioned officers, Warrant Specialists were also referred to as "Chiefs". They held an equivalent rank to Senior Chief Petty Officer up to Master Chief. Miles O'Brien had been a Warrant Specialist aboard the Enterprise-D before being promoted to Senior Chief Petty Officer to assume his position as Chief of Operations aboard Deep Space Nine. Owing to his position of Operations Chief, the commissioned officers that became assigned to his department answered to him directly, and through him, the higher ranking Command track officers.

Commander Sisko had given his Department Heads greater responsibility than was usual aboard a Starfleet Command owing to its mixed command structure with the Bajoran Militia. O'Brien, Dax, and Bashir each oversaw their departments and made recommendations regarding the career path trajectories of those under their command. Sisko had the final say before he signed off on the recommendation or added his opinion to it. Major Kira was tasked as the Ops Manager, the Militia Liaison, and as the head of the Militia detachment on DS9. Even Odo and the Militia Constabulary, despite being given near autonomous status by Kira, still answered to her. As the station's official XO, Sisko leaned into Kira's opinion but equally weighed it against his Starfleet Department Heads' own as his trust and faith in Kira's abilities grew over time and as he himself was promoted to Captain and earned himself even greater responsibilities regarding the direction of the rehabilitation program the Federation was applying to Bajor and her colonies as well as mapping and exploration further into the Alpha Quadrant as well as their unique opportunity to reach the Gamma Quadrant at the other nexus point through the Celestial Temple.

Picard fire balling his career over the Romulan evacuation and Starfleet's rescinding its relief effort affected more than just himself. Admiral Kathryn Janeway had also applied a great deal of pressure upon Starfleet Command regarding the effort and Starfleet Commander Clancy saw little reason not to encourage Janeway to slip away in retirement as well. All of Picard's vocal supporters found themselves under a cloud of repression and suspicion. They either accepted dismal postings or bent into conformity and retired as was Clancy's intention all along.

Janeway just fueled Clancy's ire by refusing to cow under the pressure and instead flourished in the eyes of her peers and Clancy's personal anger was increasingly seen as petty and spiteful. But, Clancy was strongly supported by Captain Oh, the "Vulcan" Deputy Chief of Starfleet Security, being groomed to replace the celebrated Edward Noyce. Nechayev and Jellico hadn't voiced open support for Picard's drive to rescue the Romulans but they'd fallen under a cloud of suspicion thanks to Oh's insinuations that they'd utterly failed to predict and prevent the Mars Massacre as the horrendous tragedy was labeled early on. The fact that synthetics had rebelled at all had come as a surprise to everyone, including and especially to Dr. (and former Commander) Bruce Maddox and his colleague and fellow cyberneticist, Dr. Agnes Jurati. In fourteen years, the Mars Mystery would be resolved and the Federation's ban on synthetic life forms and research would end. But terrible costs and tragedies would be exacted beforehand, as the Riker family was learning first hand so in one fell swoop, Starfleet lost three of it s guiding voices.

Without Admiral Picard, Captain Riker, and Commander Troi, there was vacuum in the moral centers of Starfleet. Captain (and Doctor) Beverly Crusher swiftly resigned in protest regarding the Olympic's inability to render aid to any species not on Oh's pre-approved list of "friendlies". A list seemingly cut from the Federation's own membership rolls, and excluding the Protectorates, causing many of them to recant their permissions for Starfleet access and support. Decisions that often left them vulnerable to more militant or exploitative Federation rivals. Janeway's own supporters were dwindling. The Doctor had assumed a private practice and championed holographic rights, which would never be granted under the synthetic ban. Captain Chakotay received command of the newest starship Voyager, itself a newly built and christened Intrepid-class as the multi-phasic tech infused original was dissected by the Starfleet Corps of Engineers. Commander Harry Kim was being fast tracked to receive his own command, the USS Rhode Island when she went operational.

As Starfleet relinquished many of its scientific pursuits, the weaponized Nova-class variants would serve as scout ships and tactical responders as the surviving yards fed the all consuming "need" to build a fleet of the new Inquiry-class battlecruisers, as fear gripped Starfleet's mentality. Building multi-role explorers such as the Galaxy- and Sovereign-calss starships ended with the destruction of Utopia Planetia. The less capable Excelsior- and Miranda-class ships were finally laid to rest and mid-24th century era starships were being decommissioned for a second time as Starfleet had recovered from its tremendous losses in the Dominion War. The California-class production was ramped up as they became the multi-role transports for Starfleet's purposes.

The Luna- and Vesta-class had limited construction orders while the Obena- and Parliament-classes were now now taking the places of the Galaxy- and Sovereign-class vessels lost in the war. Even Centaur-, Akira-, Saber-, Steamrunner-, Nebula- and Norway-class vessels had ended their hull orders. The Nova-, Newton- and Oberth-classes were limited to civilian orders now while Starfleet ramped up the orders for the Nova-class derivatives: the NovaX- and Pathfinder-classes. The civilian orders retained their full sensor and shielding capabilities but phasers were limited to Type V and the photon torpedo launchers were omitted.

The Obsidian had retained its Type X phasers by special dispensation as well as its photon launchers. As had all the various phaser emitter types and photon launchers reinstalled into all Outbound Ventures ships. But as quantum torpedoes became Starfleet's new normal, surplus photon torpedoes and new ordnance orders still flourished amongst Federation security apparatus and security firms. The Iotians gladly built older photon torpedo types for their own clientele.

Scalos hadn't received UFP support because of their former piracy. Starfleet made remote observations regarding the population's ethical development. After the Iotians met a favorable response, the planet stood condemned in Starfleet's eyes. In fact, it seemed a disproportionate number of first and second contacts made by Kirk's Enterprise were also conveniently ostracized. Convenient for the Iotians, at least.

Perhaps another disturbing development was Starfleet and Klingon Defense Force's abandoning the Briar Patch after the Hobus disaster. It was listed as quarantined but the quarantine wasn't enforced. Rather they let its unique environmental structure defend the Ba'ku. No one ever checked to determine of the Son'a continued to work alongside their former parents or if they'd simply gone ahead and conquered the Ba'ku after the Enterprise-E departed. Starfleet had definitely found itself fortunate that Picard had never brought the matter up, thus sparing themselves another futile tongue lashing.

"My how times have changed," Macen observed from the Situation Center.

"I wouldn't know," Forger was on the comm circuit.

"Massive industrialized reconstruction work going on down on the surface," Galen 3 reported.

That K-class station is fully operational," Miller was making her sensor sweeps.

"Bailey's running the local binary language through her version of a universal translator," Kerber reported in from the Data Womb, "We should eyes inside their networks and databases within a few minutes, if that."

Smith's expertise in linguistics extended to machine languages from across the Alpha and Beta Quadrants.

"Keep me posted," Macen requested, "Jelena, please bring Petty 3rd Slylocke to the Situation Center."

"Aye, Commander," Kovic sounded relieved since Slylocke was vociferously protesting being locked out of both the Center and from the Bridge.

"We have an uplink from the surface," Forte announced even before Kerber could.

"Angelique hacked the station as well," Lee was continually impressed by the Troglyte's skill set.

"Shannon hailed the Bonnie & Clyde right on schedule," Shade made her smirking announcement, "And we're in the starship's computer core."

The door to the Center swooshed open with a shhkktt! All the doors still did even after Macen had been aboard UFP vessels for almost a century, complaining about it through the entire period. He'd even shot one with a Type 2 phaser before just to prove his point. At least the damn Cardassians had a different design ethic and his Nor-class Serenity station shared the rolling doors with Deep Space Nine, the former Terok Nor itself. Empok Nor had been brought back online when the Bajorans planted their own flag in the deserted system and established a tender base from it and of course, the Cardassian builders had christened Serenity Ampok Nor and it still appeared on Cardassian stellar maps as such. The Cardassian Union kept reserve hard currency on Barrinor. Because, really, who didn't? At least Tom Riker had saved Outbound Ventures from that indignity.

"What are you doing?" Slylocke shrieked at seeing the flowing data, "What is this room?"

"Assessing future business opportunities dependent upon actual needs and wants," Macen calmly lied.

"You can't just." Kovic clamped a hand on the pressure point in the nexus between the Iotian's neck and shoulder. It seemed they shared that very common physiological feature.

"We can and we have," Macen informed her, "I thought that was the Starfleet's business ethos. If it it isn't, you'd best start talking now before Jelena applies some judicious pressure."

"I don't...Ow!" Slylocke's knees nearly buckled.

"We don't don't have time to spend on prevarications," Macen warned her, "Captain Wyrbucks is under the impression that, one, we don't realize the full scope of your Federation's ambitions, and, two, that we won't hurt you to get the information we require."

"Commander, the Starfleet has fast tracked the construction six J-type starbases," Lee reported, "They already have three operational stations of the type."

"Show us," Rockford instructed. The map of the Iotian Federation and Territories displayed on the main screen. Three pronged symbols displayed the locations of the twelve K-class stations already built. The three completed J-classes were green circles and red circles registered the six construction sites. Yellow circles were also present in selected systems.

"The yellow are.?" Macen inquired.

"G-type stations," Shade easily answered from the scrolling data displays.

"Notice anything?" Rockford asked ruefully.

"Bordering 492 IV, Tholian Assembly space, and the Gorn Hegemony," Macen noted, "Cestus III will become a target. The others will secure ties with the Orions and others including...Turkana IV? Why there?"

Macen's sharp tone and Kovic's applying pressure tears in Slylocke's eyes as she answered, "The survivors settled their differences and we use their underground as a storage depot to move contraband. Humans from the colony serve in the Starfleet."

"Ashara Yar found a way to win the conflict, didn't she?" Macen asked.

Slylocke yelped as Kovic prompted her with a squeeze, "Y...yes."

"It seems obvious we weren't supposed to learn any of this," Rockford blandly stated.

"We...we.we." Ebert groaned as she awoke.

"Five. Times," Mudd sighed, "I've never come that many times with anyone. Not even with four Orions and they can coax an orgasm out of a rock."

"Where are my glasses?" Ebert wondered.

"My top bunk," Mudd gleefully answered, "They came flying off as we were tearing each other's clothes off. Too bad these bunks are made for one."

"Probably a good thing," Ebert decided, feeling the scratches raked down her back. Retrieving her eyewear, she noted the blotches where she'd bitten Mudd's naked flesh and knew she shared the blemishes.

"Look, I dunno, maybe we have time for a quickie...or two or three?" Mudd bit her lip suggestively.

"What happens on Iotia stays on Iotia," Ebert decided as she hurriedly dressed.

"But...but. Five! Times! Five times! Five! Times! You had at least four," Mudd protested.

"What I had was a major flashback to most of the romantic mistakes in my life. I go for bad boys, girls, non-binaries, all just plain bad. I lost my virginity in every way conceivable with a half-platoon of Angosian Augment soldiers when I was seventeen. I've been stuck on heart breakers and ball breakers ever since. I'm trying to break that habit," Ebert grouchily explained, "And you're all of the above."

"Well...I'm definitely a bad girl, not a non-binary," Mudd snickered.

"But you are a definite heart breaker," Ebert stated flatly, "And I'm done with that."

Mudd felt a sharp pang of longing as Ebert left the compartment. As she dressed, she knew Ebert was right about her. But, it hadn't been the alcohol that let Mudd drop her guard. That was all Ebert and she'd had five explosion worthy farking orgasms to rattle the hull with as a result. Mudd knew Ebert was right about her right now but could she change? Or was it too late for that already?

"Harri! Haul your ass up here!" Ebert shouted through comms.

"What?" Mudd practically screamed as she was struggling into her boots and gun belt as she reached the cockpit.

"We've got orders for an immediate dust off and to head for the Federation border," Ebert explained.

"Treir ain't gonna like that," Mudd muttered.

"Just lock onto her and beam her over," Ebert ordered. Mudd was startled by her opposite's command demeanor. It was rather sexy.

"Go!" Ebert ran her pre-flights. As Mudd locked the transporter onto Treir's comm badge, she frlt the jolt of the lift even through the inertial damper's attempts to keep up. Mudd beamed up Treir's comm badge and jacket.

"Frinx," Mudd muttered and sent it back. Using the targeting scanners she found an Orion near the comm badge. Along with a Bajoran, two Iotians, an Acamarian, a Scalosian, and no less than six Gideonites. All intertwined to such an overlapping degree she couldn't isolate Treir from the others...and Treir was most decidedly ignoring Mudd's hails.

"Treir's a lost cause. She'll make her own way out," Mudd announced while Ebert argued with Traffic Control. Ebert shot her an annoyed look.

Mudd held her hand in surrender, "Don't ask if your mores are prudish."

"We're clearing the gravity well and laying a course for the closest checkpoint," Ebert announced over Traffic's protests.

"You just put us past Warp 5," Mudd was impressed by the Corsair's performance.

"Just a few decimal places. We can run flat out at Warp 5.27 for twelve hours before the warp coils begin to overload thanks to Parva," Ebert explained, "In the meantime we have to find a way of ducking past the Iotians' border patrol."

"How long do we have?" Mudd asked.

"Twelve minutes at this speed. Longer if we have to drop out of warp and run at full impulse," Ebert explained.

"I know the physics," Mudd rolled her eyes, "Unfortunately sensors are picking up two starships moving into an intercept vector."

"Our sensors are better so they're probably going by our last known trajectory given to them by Traffic Control," Ebert mused.

"Hold on," Mudd scowled, "A heavy cruiser is navigating the home system. They'll outrun us."

Ebert dropped out of warp took a leaning glance had Mudd's displays and altered their vector, "We'll be in Iotian space longer but we'll evade those two light cruisers."

"What about the Constitution-class trying to mow us down?" Mudd asked.

"Therein lies the problem," Ebert agreed as she sped them back into subspace at runabout's maximum emergency acceleration, "Transfer Tactical controls to your console. We may have to fight our way out."

"With the two light cruisers in the neighborhood?" Mudd was adamantly opposed to any such plan.

"Harri!" Ebert growled.

"Okay! Okay, already," Mudd made the transfer. Her LCARS display altered to accommodate the shift.

"Okay, my specs' HUD has Navigation and OPS displays running now," Ebert tried to quell Mudd's displeasure, "We'll still see them before they see us."

She made a curving turn to plot a more direct course to the border.

"You really were a smuggler," Mudd said appreciatively.

"For years," Ebert stated grimly, "Everyone on the team was considered a criminal at some point even in our home universe."

"Try not to bring that dismal situation up ever again," Mudd counseled her, "No one wants to hear it."

"The criminal pasts or the home universe?" Ebert took on a slightly teasing tone.

"The latter," Mudd said defiantly, "We should all embrace the former."

"I'll tell everyone you said so," Ebert slightly smirked.

"Good," Mudd decided.

"This is more than a mercantile empire. They're building a strategic one as well," Macen had realized.

"But they're hemmed in by more advanced cultures, the Romulans, the real Federation and even the Klingons if you stretch far enough," Rockford argued, "Hell, that's if the Tholians and the Gorn don't turn on them."

"They're trading with everyone but the Federation so they're importing the tech and reverse engineering it. Like the Terrans shooting the Vulcan crew of the T'Plana Hath and going on the warpath with a huge leap forward in technology," Macen recounted.

"That never happened," Rockford protested.

"Here," Macen replied, "But in what we laughingly refer to as the 'Mirror Universe' that's exactly how the Terran Empire went into space."

"How do you know?" Forte asked. He just gave her reproving stare.

"It's an El-Aurian thing," Rockford sighed.

"There's something driving all of this," Macen said, "I've been sensing something odd ever sense we arrived. A displacement of some kind."

"Are you certain it isn't just our own relative displacement?" Lee played devil's advocate.

"Everything around us is relatively odd to my temporal senses but this is even further stretch. I haven't ever encountered it before," Macen shared.

Shade was studying the plot, "This took over a century to start building up, even with their tech lag."

The Fabrini native was inclined to agree with Macen, "Something besides criminal enterprise is pushing this on this magnitude."

"But crime does pay," Rockford rebutted her.

"The Iotians are imitative not original," Forte recalled from their briefings, "This sounds more likr what Commander Macen mentioned before."

"So we wouldn't be the only ones mucking about with the local timeline?" Rockford wondered.

"Maybe, maybe not," Macen shrugged.

"That's it?" Rockford was irritated, "A shrug?"

"Without scanning specific people for quantum variances, we'll never know," Macen said, "Unless it's a staggeringly obvious doppelganger."

"So, we'd fall prey to the same detection technique?" Forte realized but hoped otherwise.

"Presumably," Lee agreed.

"No presumably about it. Tom Riker has twice as much variance as the rest of us," Shade explained.

Daggit entered the room, "Jelena has Slylocke locked down in the brig and Shannon's waiting for the word. Parva locked down Engineering and she's ready to roll at her end."

Macen toggled the comm panel, "Macen to Bridge. You're a go."

Under Forger's pre-planned directives, the Obsidian broke orbit and jumped ot Warp 8 for a passing scan of 492 IV and to reach the edge of Iotian claimed territory.

"Why is this scheme working?" Rockford wondered.

"The Federation sets aside an expansion buffer zone for civilizations to wander through before they develop warp technology and meet other races for the first time," Macen explained. He swept arm across the main screen, "The Federation has allocated an even larger buffer to the Iotians because they're a space faring race now and every time they expand into a new system, then an enlarged buffer absorbs the native's smaller buffer and stretches out the Iotians' leeway by another twelve parsecs in three dimensional space along the galactic eliptic. All of this goes unabated because the Iotians are handled gently because of the cultural contamination begun by Earth's Starfleet in the 22nd century."

"A blood price," Daggit voiced it, "It's a guilt payment and other races are suffering because of our Federation Council's collective guilt."

"That's how official policy gets made," Rockford angrily grumbled.

"We can't prove that their natural evolution is still being altered by outside forces beyond the obvious. But we can make a case on why the Nova Romans would only provide shock troops to expand the conquests," Macen told them. the door opened again to allow Kerber and Smith to enter.

"Not that this isn't a pleasant surprise but why do I feel you're bearers of bad news?" Rockford asked.

"Computer languages are algorhythmic in nature," Smith began her revelation, "While the Iotians basic math is soundly universal but when it translates into language, their language is given to them through a filter overlapping a deeper code."

"Meaning?" Daggit was pained beyond expression.

"There's a filter decoding a deeper codification of machine language before it reduces to mathematics," Kerber thought Smith it clear enough.

"So their computers are based on someone else's language and a cybernetic universal translator converts everything into Iotian script for their displays," Macen understood that part, "But what's the original language?"

"It's an elegant polymorph of language stemming from Bajoran, Klingon, and Cardassian," Smith was waiting for the occupants of the room to catch up. Macen looked distressed and vindicated all at the same time.

"Did we ever detect any Cardassian or Klingon life signs?" Rockford paged Galen 3.

"No, Detective," he crisply reported.

"Why would anyone merge those languages?" Lee wondered.

"They're hardly compatible under most circumstances but the blend is almost beautiful," Smith delighted in that fact.

"But the Cardassians and the Bajorans are just learning to tolerate one another and the Klingons and the Cardassians hate each other," Daggit reminded everyone.

"Arianna, contact Admiral Forger and have her send every report ever filed on the Terran Universe and the Cardassian-Klingon Alliance," Macen instructed, "This is why we're here. There's an incursion underw.ay"

"You mean besides us?" Rockford asked.

"There are easier explanations, I admit," Macen conceded, "But I think the Romans are the key to this all. What we find in their system should be definitive."

"And if it is?" Shade wondered.

"Then we'll be running for our lives," Macen grimly promised them.

Kracko's communicator would not stop beeping.

"Leave it," a languid voice commanded.

"But Indendent, I need to reply. Like you ordered, Starfleet Command would only contact me if there was a problem with the UFP ship" Kracko apologized.

"Go, but hurry back," Kira commanded from her grunting repose as one of the male servants took her suddenly from behind. Except for Oxmyx, Treir, and the Indendent, the other myriad occupants were all male. But that hadn't slowed the pleasure calvacade.

"I need some of that," Treir smiled as her lips parted from Oxmyx's.

"Me too," the "Godfather" summoned those around her to attend to their needs.

Kracko burst into the room, "They bolted!"

"To be expected," Kira sighed and slapped the thigh of the Gideonite still inside her, "Who told you to stop?"

Her smile quickly returned, "Go. Destroy them."

Kracko knew better than try and gather her cast off uniform and simply marched to her palace suite stark naked to don another. The guards were used to it.

The pursuing Constitution-class ISS Dillinger bracketed the fleeing Corsair.

"They're gaining!" Mudd urgently complained.

"Their photons are more powerful than our micro-torpedoes," Ebert grimly observed, "That shouldn't be the case yet."

"So?" Mudd growled, "What're you gonna do 'bout it?"

"Dropping to impulse," Ebert warned her. The Dillinger overshot them before they too dropped from subspace. Mudd opened fire with phasers and two of their six forward micro-torpedoes.

"Their shields are dropping like mad," Mudd happily observed.

"They're also less maneuverable," Ebert corkscrewed around the Dillinger, "So keep up."

"Don't test me, little girl," Mudd fired away with the phasers. Every attempt a successful strike.

"Harri, I'm older than you," Ebert reminded her.

"Two years! Big dif. Worldly experience counts," Mudd shrugged it off as the crew of the Dillinger brought their starship about to bring their offensive weapons to bear, the Corsair went to full impulse and sailed over their primary hull towards the sensor-lined border.

"We're across!" Ebert gloated.

"So where the futz is Starfleet?" Mudd complained.

"Wait for it," Ebert cautioned her.

"They're crossin' the frinxing border!" Mudd angrily declared.

"Bad choice for them," Ebert leaned to adjust Mudd's sensor displays. Now instead of the narrow targeting sensors, her side display showed the arrival of three Starfleet vessels dropping out of warp. After a volley of quantum torpedoes sallied across the Dillinger's bow, the Iotian starship retreated.

"And of course, they're hailing us," Mudd snorted.

"This'll take a sec then we can be on our way," Ebert promised.

The Obsidian dropped out of warp just beyond the 492 System. The surveyor's enhanced sensors detected the construction yards and defensive platforms littered about the system.

"Those are incredibly modern," Rockford whistled as Galen 3's scan showed infinite details.

"Cardassian weapons implacements. Klingon-type cruisers under construction. And modern equivalents to Starfleet vessels also under construction," Macen observed.

Forger hailed him, "Can we go already?"

"Two modernized Miranda- and an Excelsior-class up and running in our direction," Miller reported hectically, "I'm scrambling their sensors as best I can."

"Get us out of here, Shannon," Macen allowed.

"Thank God," Forger breathed, "I at least know when we're not wanted."

"Touche," Macen chuckled.

"Can we outrun them?" Forte was worried.

"Rab?" Macen grinned.

"We'll be running flat-out at Warp 8. The Miranda-analogues can slowly overtake us over a greater distance than the border crossing. The Excelsior-analogue can engage us at the border. What the test will be is whether or not they'll engage at the border with Starfleet sensors on them," Daggit summarized.

"Thereby revealing their advanced tech," Lee understood now.

"Which they can't do if they're prepping for a sneak attack," Shade smirked.

"So we'll prove which conflicting desire they'll run with first," Macen stated, "Our sensor readings are damning enough but according to their best knowledge, we're untrusted freelancers. But if Starfleet itself takes notice of their impromptu developments, then the Federation Council will probably launch a diplomatic inquiry and change official policy."

"But we're an unreliable source so we won't be listened to," Rockford appreciated Admiral Forger's handiwork, "Amanda is pretty damn clever."

"You really have no idea," Macen chuckled again but darkly this time.

 

Chapter Four

As estimated the Iotians broke of pursuit precisely at the extended range of Starfleet's sensor buoys. The Obsidian was met by the USS Lexington which tractor beamed the Corsair and brought them to rendezvous with her host ship. Macen traded off Slylocke to be returned to her own people while Ebert docked the Runabout in the shuttlebay. It was obvious that the Andorian captain of the Lexington was irritated that Macen had kidnapped an Iotian national and that Admiral Nechayev had ordered her not to pursue the matter with Macen or the Obsidian's captain.

Ebert and Mudd had likewise stonewalled the frustrated Andorian. Andoria, in this Prime Universe, had never experienced a reproductive crisis therefore had never seceded from the Federation nor joined a Typhon Pact that never existed here. Riker and the Indomitable made their appearance, having shadowed the border during the Obsidian's sanctioned visit. The Emden-class escort just adding to the Lexington's senior staff's headaches. They had been ordered to remand all sensor readings to Starfleet Intelligence and any portions of their official and personal logs regarding the Outbound Ventures presence was also to be redacted and classified by Nechayev's direct orders.

Macen wasn't surprised when mid-trip back to Serenity that Admiral Forger had called for a conference of confederates at DS9. Riker and the Indie continued on to Barrinor and Odin, specifically, while the Obsidian altered course but cruised further to enter into the Bajor Sector had a relatively leisurely Warp 5. The leisurely pace allowed the Intrepid to arrive at the station mere hours before the surveyor made its appearance. Technically, Outbound Ventures was presenting their report to Quark. Instead, Quark was left sputtering about Treir's messages about being stranded on Sigma Iotia II while Vaughn escorted Macen and Rockford to Ro, McKinley, and Johnson. Admiral Forger was represented by her holographic avatar.

Riker and Ebert had added their sensor logs to Galen 3's scans of Iotian space and the 492 System. Kerber and Smith were present to to report on their discoveries regarding the nature of the computer codes underlying Iotia's latest fast track in technological leap frogging. Nechayev had discreetly confronted Cardassia's ambassador to the Federation to discover first hand if the Cardassian Union was supplying the Iotians with tech and logistical support. Despite his usual evasiveness, Elim Garak seemed both surprised and amused by the SID's discovery of Cardassian ships and weapons being constructed in the quarantined system.

The fact Klingons of whatever ilk were also implicated amused him greatly. He'd promised the CIB would conduct its own internal investigation. So Forger had her input to offer. Starfleet Commander Clancy had already tapped Johnson to make a diplomatic overture. As usual, McKinley and the Intrepid crew would ferry the admiral and secure his safety.

"Ten years ago, our last contact with the so-called Terran Universe, the rebellion had made strides and even captured the Alliance's leader, Regent Worf. Evidence seized from Section 31's detabases indicate that Emperor Philippa Georgiou established a backdoor channel with elements of the Terran Empire. An element that survived the enslavement of most of the Terran Imperial subject races as well as most Terrans themselves," Forger relayed to the participants, "S31 maintained discreet contact with this other universe throughout the 23rd and into the 24th Centuries. However, Section 31 lost contact around the same time of the last 'official' contact with the Terran Rebellion."

"So we have no idea of the status of the Alliance either," Johnson had been brushing up on the files.

"And Quark wisely decided to forget about that universe after his contact with Ezri Tigan and the downfall of the Regent," Ro smirked.

"But why would the Prophets create another interdimensional incursion to reverse an interdimensional incursion?" Colonel Anara asked, "Not that I'm not personally grateful."

"I agree," Grace concurred, "I'm eternally grateful but what happens if and or when this invasive element gets restored back to their native universe?"

"Our reality has unraveled," Neela quietly spoke, "We were spared and I doubt the Prophets will simply send us on to oblivion after we cope with whatever mission, or missions, they've purposed for us to accomplish in our new situation."

"Situation" having been coined and accepted by everyone regarding their newfound status as "refugees" of a sort.

"But they haven't told you," McKinley knew better than to phrase it as a question.

"No, they've largely fallen silent," Neela was unsettled by that.

"Don't let doubt rob you of your faith," Anara demanded, "Not after all this."

"I'll never lose faith," Neela vowed.

"Can we reopen Thirty-One's back channel?" Johnson asked.

"The interdimensional transmitter was scuttled," Forger explained, "And its blueprints were purged before my department took over the London base."

"I think Lorca is a prime example of how Terrans can infiltrate Starfleet," Macen warned, "And Starfleet's open acceptance of Emperor Georgiou is no better."

"Are we any different from those select Terrans?" Vaughn had to wonder.

"Damned good point," McKinley voiced.

"I think Anara and I can speak for the Federation when I say how greatly the Mars attack afflicted the cultural psyche of both the citizenry and Starfleet," Grace interjected, "The Federation si drawing inward and hunkering down in case of another catastrophic attack on a member world or colony from within."

"I think Amanda will agree with me that paranoia currently has taken roost at Starfleet Command and amongst the Admiralty," Johnson stated regretfully.

"Starfleet Security has never been at a higher alert status. Not even during the Dominion conflict," Delaney grumbled.

"They practically have us reporting on each other," Striker pointed out, "It's infecting the entire crew and breaking down morale."

"Fortunately here, most of the senior staff has no reason to suspect Elias or I just yet," Ro said gratefully.

"But that might not hold true for long," Forger warned, "Bashir in particular needs to be placated."

Riker and Danan's holographic images appeared in the room, Riker was the first to speak, "Sorry about the delay. There have been some administrative brush fires with Treir left behind, Tyrol looking more closely at the SID contracted deployments, and Pike getting detailed from someone to examine the Outbound Ventures accounts."

"And Ziva Delain has contacted Bryce to try and get in touch with you two," Danan nodded towards Macen and Rockford's position in the room. The advantage of Riker and Danan's location was that their Cardassian built briefing center was identical to DS9's so the layout was easy to accommodate the imaging.

"Some of the crews have completed their first assignments only to find Pike ready with the SID's next roll out of assignments," Riker chuckled.

"I have enough on my plate already to keep Outbound Ventures busy for several months," Forger warned, "With Starfleet's withdrawal from a hundred sectors, there are enough problems to go around."

"We can take up some of the slack," Riker promised. Danan looked rueful. Riker wanted action and Danan wanted to leave administering the station to him. And watches would be short handed every time the Indomitable shipped out.

But Forger was too grateful to refuse the offer, "We'll talk later."

"Count on it," Riker promised.

"Bailey and I are still sorting out the data dump we pulled from the Bonnie & Clyde," Kerber advised everyone.

"Seriously?" Delaney snorted.

"I have my team backing them up," Rockford ignored Delaney's derision regarding the Iotians' ship names.

"Tracy and Harri were chased out of Iotian space by the ISS Dillinger," Macen reported, "They violated the border to get at them."

"So they're privy to secrets they may be unaware of," Smith suggested.

"Including their sensor logs," Macen agreed, "We're reviewing the data including Harri's attempt to transport Treir from the palatial suite the Godfather put her up in. Apparently she was engaged in an orgy when they tried to extract her."

"So she hardly regrets being left behind," Ro snickered.

"So?" Forger asked the commonly shared question.

"We're checking all the bio scans for quantum phase variances," Rockford explained.

"Tessa and Galen 3 are running baselines right now," Macen shared.

"Parva and Gilan are with Rab reviewing the scans we took of the vessels in the 492 system," Rockford added.

"Cursory examination shows a century's worth of advancement in their designs including contemporary Klingon and Cardassian hulls," Vaughn scowled upon accessing the raw data.

"Yet publicly they're presenting the same mid-23rd century performance vessels that we knew for certain that they had," Ro was unhappy, "It's an obvious feint and the discovery of more advanced yard construction underway when we've just lost one major shipyard doesn't seem coincidental."

"Nor does the Iotians' open;y assisting the Romulans when we've faltered and changed priorities also belies coincidence," Johnson agreed, "So what are our real options while we're engaging the Iotians?"

"We need the Obsidian to undertake a separate mission while Macen and investigative team take the Solstice to Romulan space and pose as smugglers. The Tal Shiar will review the Cardassians records of the ship and authorize your access as smugglers and 'information acquisitions freelancers'," Forger barely repressed a smile.

"My people aren't ship handlers," Rockford objected.

"Neither are Bailey and I," Kerber angrily asserted.

"Brin? Options?" Forger was obviously coaxing him into revealing an idea he'd passed by her.

"I have a crew in mind," Macen confessed, "It's an off books idea I proposed earlier. Neela, I'll need yout help. As for the rest, Tracy and I will handle the recruiting drive."

Ro caught on, "Oh hell."

Rockford scowled. Afterwards, she appreciated his sentiment but wondered if he and Ebert could actually pull it off.

While Forger delivered the investigative team to Serenity and the Solstice, Ebert and Macen set forth in the Corsair with Neela to revisit the past. Ten years into the past to be precise. It was a short hop to Kalendra, an outlier sector easily confused with the Kalandra Sector in the heart of Federation territory. There they would check in on Christine Lacey, Heidi Darcy, and Tom Eckles, the original crew from the Maquis days and Dominion War in the Odyssey. With Eckles and Darcy aboard, Parva would have a full engineering team. Of course, persuading them to take a backseat to Parva would take some convincing especially concerning their prior expertise with a Blackbird-class' engineering systems.

Lacey would serve as Daggit's relief on Tactical. Mudd could spell Ebert at the CONN. Neela would easily man OPS. She could also double at Tactical or Engineering. That would free up the Investigative and Data teams for constant analysis as inputted to them by Neela's OPS feeds. The fateful trio had set up a quasi-legal "repair and upgrades" yard in orbit over Kalendra's primary moon. Lacey's expertise with weapons systems aided Eckles and Darcy's efforts at arming Q-ships and customs cutters.

Ebert's initial inquiries had been met with rapt curiosity. She'd left out Macen and Neela's accompaniment considering they were considered to be dead by the former crewmen. They'd been surprised enough to hear from Ebert, who had seemingly "vanished" to the best of their collective knowledge. The native Riker and Danan had informed them of Macen's loss just as Macen had once sent them news of T'Kir's death. They'd accompanied that Macen to Vulcan to have the Elders and Adepts remove her katra from Macen's psyche.

Danan had joined the conspiracy and had "warned" the trio that Ebert had a few surprises for them. The runabout was happily met at the basic station attached to the drydock and spaceport that the engineers and advisor worked from. There was a collective gasp as Macen and Neela followed Ebert out of the Corsair's primary hatch.

"Hot damn!" Eckles exclaimed, "I knew you couldn't be dead!"

He fiercely hugged Macen while Darcy and Lacey exchanged embraces with Ebert.

"But we saw you die," Lacey was hesitant to accept Neela's resurrection.

"We need to talk," was all Macen said in reply.

Afterwards the trio sat in stunned silence

"So our Captain Macen died?" Eckles finally ventured.

"Correct," Macen confirmed it, "We saw the bodies."

"Yours too?" Darcy asked Ebert.

"Yup," she grimly answered.

"And our Neela died as well?" Lacey asked.

"To the best of my knowledge. I was considered dead in our original reality it seems because the Prophets moved me through space and time to this point in this history," Neela cautiously answered.

"But why you and not ours?" Lacey was angry now.

"She may be alive in some other reality as well. I can't question what I can't fathom," Neela explained.

"So when you guided us through Picard creating another branch of reality, he actually splintered off several?" Darcy was beginning to grasp it.

"Ours was vastly different," Macen told them, "So there have been an astounding number of surprises in store for us."

"But you were a secret agent still after the war?" Eckles picked up that thread.

"Correct," Macen stated, "Unlike the man you knew, I went to work for Starfleet's Special Investigations Division straight after the war concluded."

"And that agency was just created here?" Lacey wanted to know. She needed to know.

"Unlike my predecessor, I need your help. I want you all to work for my company," Macen revealed.

"To help you with this Romulan mission?" Darcy sounded hopeful.

"Exactly," Macen confirmed it.

"But you share the company with your...wife?" Lacey was boggled that Macen could be with someone other than T'Kir or even Danan. Their Macen had been broken by T'Kir's death. He'd been inconsolable.

"Captain Macen, our Macen, offered us positions in Outbound Ventures. We thought we were sick and tired of the action so we essentially retired," Eckles explained their dismay.

"In other words, we're boring our butts off," Lacey grumped.

"So, you're in?" Ebert barely dared hope.

"Oh hell, yeah!" Darcy fist pumped.

"Chris, you'll enjoy meeting Captain Forger. She's a post-op transwoman as well," Macen alerted Lacey.

"At least someone on your staff has a brain," Lacey smirked. It was an old, running joke.

"So, here's the layout. You'll be the Solstice's crew but also station personnel between deployments," Macen explained.

"You'll love the ship," Ebert promised, "She's been radically customized."

"And that's why this Orion woman, Parva, is the Chief," Eckles accepted that.

"She just has more experience with an NX-type warp core," Macen shared.

"An NX?" Darcy's eyes went wide.

"That's just the beginning," Ebert boasted.

"Fortunately, our people can finish up our project s here. One of our chief tool pushers has been wanting to take over the business. I guess now's a good time to sell out," Eckles mused.

"You won't regret this," Ebert promised, "My life has been so radically improved by taking up a new cause."

"But another Mudd?" Lacey was skeptical, "Seriously?"

"Harri is the daughter of the Harry Mudd Ro contracted with on occasion," Macen explained, "She's good people."

"And the Prophets chose her," Neela softly added.

"And you're enlisting as well?" Eckles asked her.

"It seems to be my destiny after all," Neela gave him a gentle smile.

"Well, I'm glad," Darcy openly declared.

Neela graced the blonde Asian with a grateful smile.

"Hell, yeah," Lacey affirmed it. The redheaded Indian woman had also been friendly to Neela in any past.

"Well, I guess we should toast embracing destiny," Eckles went to a cabinet and pulled out an aged single malt whiskey, "We have real Kentucky bourbon we've been saving for our retirement party. I guess our so-called retirement is just a change in career."

The African descended engineer had always been a gentle voice of rationale and kindness aboard the Odyssey. It seemed a role he was born to continue playing.

"And, a latte for you!" Darcy enthused, knowing Macen rarely, if ever, imbibed. He was surprised as she activated and operated an old fashioned, genuine espresso machine and steamed the milk herself. Even more surprising was that they'd kept the vanilla flavoring he'd favored as well. It seemed their days aboard the original scoutship had made them addicts as well. Ebert and Neela nursed their first, and only, double while the new recruits had two and then brought the bottle along after they began to make the transfer of ownership finalized and Ebert flew everyone to Kalendra to gather their belongings.

When that was accomplished, the engineers and weapons specialist finished off the bottle in the runabout's aft quarter with Macen catching up on their post-war lives. Lives that had been much more sedate, and far less lethal, than those of their counterparts that he'd known. Ro contacted them to wish them all safe yet interesting journeys.

"But we're not done yet," Macen warned them.

New Seattle served as Izar's capital and the birthplace of the esteemed, and later disgraced, Captain Garth. It was there that the group enlisted Elfi Hendryks. Hendryks had served as Ro's OPS Officer aboard the Ju'day-class Maquis raider Indomitable and later the Newton-class science vessel, SS Asimov, through the struggles for independence, first from the Cardassians and later the Dominion. Hendryks had been granted amnesty by the Bajorans until 2376 when Bajor joined the Federation and she was able to travel throughout the Federation as a citizen once again.

Anara, then a major with the Militia's Special Forces, had tried to persuade Hendryks to stay on but the younger woman felt the need to explore the Federation she'd once hated. Settling on Izar, she used her programming skills to design OPS interfaces for civilian star craft. But like Lacey, Eckles, and Darcy, the Mars incident had stirred a call to action within Hendryks. Macen had, and hadn't, been surprised to learn that Nick Lucarno and Sito Jaxa had survived in this universe and that they'd married and still worked for Outbound Ventures aboard Serenity Station. Lucarno was a runabout pilot and Sito served in Station Security. The couple had two children, a four-year old daughter and a recently born son. Both parents were on leave to care for their newborn and aid their daughter in coping with this new and noisy intrusion on her life. But neither were an intended recruit.

But a like-wise surviving Aric Tulley was. Tulley had also settled on Izar following his sentence on a penal colony. Ro's ex-Maquis lieutenant lived like a hermit in one of the planet's copious mountain ranges. Macen traveled alone to greet Tulley. Hendryks had transported him nearly Tulley's front door. Which immediately opened to reveal an armed ex-guerrilla fighter.

But the normally taciturn Tulley broke into a broad grin, "Macen! It's been years!"

Macen easily learned that Tulley had grown bored and discontent with his decade in isolation. He was startled to discover Ro had became a Starfleet captain. Nn command of DS9 no less. He appreciated that she'd begun as Militia Special Forces in charge of Station Security before rejoining Starfleet Security, becoming station XO, and finally CO. It also became obvious he still held an unrequited torch for Ro when he learned of the burgeoning flames of romance between her and Quark. His outburst would've been censored in most civilizations. So Macen explained the truth behind the circumstances. Tulley was stunned into a stony silence.

Finally, he spoke, "Why tell me?"

"Because I need your help. We need your help. I have Tracy, Chris, Tom, Heidi, Neela, and Elfi in orbit right now, all signed up to work for Outbound Ventures and specifically as station personnel but especially as crew for the Blackbird-class Solstice," Macen explained.

"Why not?" Tulley chuckled, "It's not like I'm doing anyone, or myself, any good here."

It seemed Mars had lit a fire within Tulley as well.

"So what would I be doing?" Tulley inquired.

"It's up to Tom Riker to assign you a station role but I need an XO," Macen let that hang for a moment, "Are you still in?"

Tulley smiled broadly, "Am I ever."

"Then pack light and meet me outside," Macen instructed. When Tulley joined, Macen tapped the comm badge on his belt, "Macen to Corsair, two to beam up."

Danan and Riker warmly attended the reunion.

"It's been far, far too long," Danan told everyone.

"I barely knew most of you but Lees has told me the tallest tales imaginable," Riker grinned. He clapped forearm grips with Tulley, "Good to see you again, Aric."

When Ro had declined to personally oversee Riker's proposed taking the Defiant from Deep Space Nine, she'd delegated the planning and execution to Tulley and Kalita. Kalita had personally accompanied Riker on the mission penetrate deep into Cardassian space to expose the Obsidian Order's illegal, even by Cardassian standards, shipyards. Riker had been condemned to a Cardassian labor camp while Kalita and the other Maquis with Riker were sentenced to Federation penal colonies. Some of whom were even sent to New Zealand where Tom Paris had been serving his sentence before being recruited to the Voyager's mission to capture Chakotay and his mobile Maquis cell.

Introductions were made to the Investigative team. Mudd was an instant celebrity. Eckles and Darcy quickly decided Parva was a quality engineer worth following. Everyone except Tulley remembered Daggit from their excursions for the Bajoran Militia during the Dominion War. Hendryks had some potentially embarrassing stories of her trysts with Daggit during those voyages.

Riker was shipping out in just a few hours with the Indie crew for the SID. Pike was working long and hard hours dispatching Outbound Ventures vessels out on the accumulating SID missions. The sudden backlog had convinced Danan to relent and let Riker go on missions without her complaining...too much.

Delain had arranged for Macen delivering Cardassian contraband to Romulan buyers as well delivering accurate intelligence on Cardassian patrol deployments to exchange for data regarding Iotian operations within Romulan space. But the tachyon nets weren't mentioned. Lakat-class frigates patrolled the borders with Damar-class battlecruisers leading squadrons of Galor-class heavy cruisers throughout the Cardassian Union's deeper sectors. Hideki-class fighter escorts and Keldon-class transport warships stood by to mobilize garrison sized troop detachments.

After the disastrous Dominion War, Cardassia had been securing and tightening its grip on its subject races deeper into their Farside borders deeper within the Alpha Quadrant. The nearby Breen Confederacy and Tzenkethi Autocracy were also broadening their grip deeper into the Alpha Quadrant territories where the Federation hadn't managed to expand into yet. Despite the Talarians normalizing relations with the Federation, it didn't impede a joint Cardassian/Talarian venture to eradicate the threat posed by the Andergani Oligarchy. The marauding Andergani were subjugated under the Cardassian banner and pilfered technological and funds transfers were made to the Talarian Republic as a reward for their assistance.

The Romulans were hungry for news regarding the Cardassian Union despite it being across Federation space. Before the Grand Alliance of the Federation, Klingon Empire, and Romulan Star Empire against the arrayed Dominion forces, the Romulans had never been allowed transit through Federation territories. Even so, most Romulan deployments came from skirting the Federation's coreward borders. Moving past the recently discovered Iridian Enforcers, the First Federation and the Ferengi Alliance.

The Klingon Defense Forces, after renewing their alliance with the Federation and declaring war on the Cardassians, skirted the Federation's rimward borders to engage the Cardassian Union. They circumvented Tholian Assembly and Gorn Hegemony borders to do so. With the Federation suspending expansion efforts into the Taurus Reach despite the departing threat of the Shedai, the Tholians and Klingons had divided and conquered the territory. But the scientific discoveries made there had led Carol Marcus to develop the Genesis Device. All revolving around the Shedai meta-genome and the Conduit carrier wave. Medical strides regarding tissue regeneration had also been pushed into far reaching frontiers in the 23rd century that now defined the 24th century's medical practices.

The Klingons had been ceded worlds devoid of Shedai conduits and technology. But the Tholians, once enslaved by the Shedai, jealousy guarded the ancient secrets from fifty thousand years ago. At one point in history, the Shedai's empire had only been rivaled by those carved out by the Tkon and the Iconians. For raw territorial claims, only the UFP, the Dominion, and the Borg remotely rivaled these former powers.

The reunion party quickly moved to the Solstice itself where Neela, Eckles, Hendryks, Darcy, and Lacy were reacquanited with the Blackbird-class starship and discovered its various, and copious, upgrades.

"Damn fine ship if you ask me," Eckles finally commented in his best Scottish brogue.

"The Situation Center and Data Womb are mere shadows of those aboard your other ship?" Hendryks was amazed.

"Everyone has adapted this version of the Solstice as best they could but she still lacks the raw potential a modern Nova-class surveyor can offer," Macen was still proud of the venerable ship.

"And your entire Outbound Ventures vessel roster is entirely comprised of decommissioned Starfleet vessels?" Lacey was impressed despite herself.

"Any security contractor with the sufficient licenses and clearances can purchase decommissioned starships at one of the Yard Depots," Parva was happy to explain, "The company was doing well before but now that it's on SID retainer, we have access to technologies that would've been illegal to obtain before."

"Not that it seemed to stop our counterparts," Macen said ruefully.

"Fortunately, we're still under the twenty-two crewmen limit designed into the ship's design so everyone gets a private bunk if they want one," Macen happily informed them, "No definitely no hot bunking either like an Archer-class scout."

"It's been great to meet you," Darcy told Rockford.

"Yeah, we survived the Danan/T'Kir rivalry," Eckles chuckled, "Nice to see the Captain finally settled down with someone as sane as Lees."

"T'Kir drastically improved with arcane Vulcan holistic medications," Macen reminded them, "You saw her at the wedding."

"The one where the Orions kidnapped both after saying, 'I do'?" Lacey snarked.

"That'd be the one in any timeline," Macen conceded.

"I loved T'Kir like a sister," Rockford revealed, "So it wasn't all that strange that Brin I eventually became intimate in light of the fact that I was his favorite confidant other than Laren and T'Kir herself."

"The Captain and his harem," Eckles joked.

"Harem?" Rockford glanced over at Macen, "Care to explain?"

"The Odyssey's entire bridge crew and an engineer were all women. Tom and I were the only men aboard. And like it was mentioned, there was the tension between Lees and T'Kir," Macen shrugged, "It became a running joke amongst the Maquis."

"One improvement I'll appreciate is that the Tactical and MSD stations have seating now," Tulley mentioned.

"We aim to please," Ebert boasted, "But I wanna know when we're getting holographic interface upgrades?"

"Next century," Macen quipped.

"We still have a small squadron's worth of ships to update to modern LCARS standards as well defensive systems upgrades," Rockford reminded her, "With the funding from the SID we can begin that process as soon as Admiral Forger relents on handing out more assignments than we have ships and crews for."

"I know Chris Pike would appreciate the opportunity to sleep again," Macen said ruefully, "And the Cardassian construction team armed Serenity to the limits their government allowed but we've quietly been investing in upgrading the defensive systems to DS9's specs."

"Do you guys even make a profit?" Mudd had to wonder.

"So far we've managed to pay all the bills," Rockford allowed an admission, "But Brin and I haven't made a personal profit since before our counterparts were killed and their shares were invested into the station's upgrade budget."

"Sucks to be you two," Mudd verbally jousted.

"Now that we're officially 'alive' again, we've managed to procure salaries for everyone involved in the dimensional transfer. But Celeste and I may own Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies but the only funds we receive are those salaries we negotiated with Kathy Tyrol," Macen explained, "And all of our salaries are equal. That goes for all new employees I bring on because we have Starfleet contracts funding personnel expansions."

"So Tom and Lees have the headache of overseeing the station," Tulley stated.

"Tom will be ducking out for a while now that the SID has a deluge of cases and therefore assignments to dole out," Rockford grimaced.

"But the tsunami will ebb away as we catch up on everything that Starfleet Command wants unofficially addressed," Macen added.

"So they contract us to achieve plausible deniability," Lacey ventured, "Which means, if someone takes issue and captures us, Starfleet hangs out to dry."

"Essentially," Macen confirmed it, "But Outbound Ventures takes care of its own."

"So...we are the new Maquis," Eckles observed.

"Better that than the replacement for Section 31," Tulley had kept abreast of the developing news as the Federation News Service had exposed the dismantling of the autonomous, and frequently rogue, security apparatus.

"Actually...we're both," Macen cautiously counseled them. Subdued silence filled the room.

"So what?" Mudd laughed, "I've seen the numbers. Starfleet is throwing thousands of bars of gold pressed latinum at this agency. We get our fair due. No one here even came for the money 'cept maybe me. You all wanted the excitement of a mission and a just cause again. Well, you got both. Embrace it and just roll with it 'cause you'll be back in the thick of it soon enough."

The Situation Center door opened and Forte leaned in, "We're getting comm chatter from station ops. They want to know if we're meeting our departure time."

"Anyone getting off?" Macen asked.

A room full of murmured replies and head shakes came back at him, "Then we're assuming stations. Tracy and Neela, you're on CONN and OPS first. Daggit is already manning Tactical. I suggest everyone else concentrate on getting assigned quarters and then finish familiarizing yourself with the mission brief. Watch relief will occur at the posted schedules. So link your padds and get ready for action. Now if you'll excuse us, we have some work to do."

Ebert and Neela excused themselves and left with Macen.

"Arianna, can you show everyone to quarters?" Rockford asked, "And then ask Shade and Lee to return here?"

"Me too?" Forte asked eagerly.

"Yes, you too. And make certain Angelique and Bailey are set up properly. God knows they've been twisting around in this ship's innards enough," Rockford told her.

"You heard what the Captain said, we're breaking up and reviewing the mission," Tulley easily slipped back into being an XO, "And be sure to assume your duty stations when assigned to. Move it out."

 

Chapter Five

Fanning had arranged for the Solstice to visit a parade of colonies swarmed with Romulan refugees on both sides of the now de facto defunct Neutral Zone and within its former borders. Along the way, Macen and Rockford would discreetly meet with Romulan colonial officials, military advisors, and the obvious Tal Shiar agents. The Cardassian contraband was for the local warlords that were setting up in the former Neutral Zone and outlying solar systems the Federation had withdrawn from, no longer considering the Star Empire a considerable threat while it dealt with its internal humanitarian crisis as well the recent discovery of a damaged and inert Borg cube within Romulan space. They were being equipped with the aforementioned Birds of Prey- and Birds of Vengeance-class vessels.

This constitute d two strategic initiatives by the Romulan Senators that had survived the Hobus shock wave by virtue of being off Romulus when the star exploded. It raised financial capital to spend on recovery efforts and it created a series of buffer states between the Star Empire and the expected encroachment of the Federation when it returned to those abandoned sectors. The thought of the Federation retreating from territory Earth and its allies had fought so hard for in the 22nd century galled most Romulans. But the Demilitarized Zone the Federation had established with the Cardassians amply demonstrated the Federation Council's inability to stomach a protracted conflict. It also amply demonstrated the colonists' will and determination to fight against impossible odds and even begin to overthrow their Cardassian oppressors by virtue of the Klingon invasion. In the end, Cardassia had relied on the Jem'Hadar to solve their Maquis infestation.

But as many souls aboard the Solstice could testify, the Jem'Hadar's victory had been incomplete. Every former Maquis aboard, excepting Tulley, had continued to fight alongside Ro Laren and a platoon of Angosians led by Daggit fought on for the Bajoran Militia's purposes. Ro and Macen's crews with the addition of the Angosian commandos wreaked havoc throughout the Dorvan Sector and the former DMZ worlds breaking or tying up logistical support trains for the Dominion's later attempts to advance further into Federation Sectors. It was at the end of that campaign where Neela, in both realities, "died" leaving behind a grief stricken Anara in this universe.

But Neela's reappearance had been a source of instant joy for the Bajoran Colonel. Neela knew, as Macen did, that her counterpart really died in this reality. So her mysterious arrival complicated an already messy incursion created by the Prophets themselves apparently in the cause of reversing another incursion but that was mere speculation at this point. The Prophets' motives and ambitions were still murky at best. even Neela had been left in the dark after four years of constant revelations from them. It was a development she found hard to bear. Which had been Macen's deciding factor in including her in the mission. She could provide a unique insight into the situation that even he and Rockford lacked.

The voyage had gone smoothly at the beginning. The bribes were well received and passage was granted into Romulan space. At the appointed meeting place, Macen, Rockford, and Neela were greeted by the most unexpecgted official of all. The Director of the Tal Shiar herself was on hand to debrief them.

Sela wore a smug smile, "I see you recognize me."

"You're rather relaxed these days," Macen stated, "You've literally let your hair down."

"Rigid Orthodoxy is no longer in vogue among my people," Sela seemed to enjoy her new, longer hairstyle.

"And Tom Riker owes you his life. Therefore I owe you a favor." Macen admitted.

"The data you surrendered settles any debt you felt obliged to me for," Sela granted, "But, if you wish to indebt yourself again, I can give you the information you're ultimately seeking."

"Another favor?" Macen sought clarification.

"A revelation," Sela explained.

"Very well," Macen conceded.

"Good," Sela's smile grew even smugger, "Are the Cardassians prepared and equipped to detect cloaked vessels entering their borders?"

"Yes," Macen said without hesitation, "They have tachyon sweepers positioned throughout their borders."

"Are there any gaps?" Sela wondered.

"That information will cost you a favor," Macen countered.

"Very well," Sela sighed.

"The Bajoran border with Cardassia isn't swept because the Cardassians are confident the Bajorans would alert them to a Romulan presence. And the border is secured by patrols from elements of the 9th and 7th Fleets, as well as the three support vessels additionally assigned to Deep Space Nine besides its customary outrider," Macen described the scenario.

"Annoying but not insurmountable," Sela mused, "Ask your two questions."

"Are members of the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance of the Terran Universe operating within the Iotian Federation?" Macen got straight to it.

"Yes," Sela wore a predatory smile, "To cancel my debt to you, I can show you who is in command of their element."

She handed the team a Romulan padd. Displayed was the Intendent, Kira Nerys, who displayed a self-indulgent malevolence as the video and audio showed she had complete mastery over Oxmyx and Kracko.

"Do we have further business?" Sela inquired.

"I think we're done," Macen decided.

"Oh, and Captain...is it?" Sela asked pointedly.

"For now," Macen indulge d her.

"I'll give you this tidbit for free: the Indendent in charge of the 492 developments is one Ro Laren," her smile was malicious, "Just so you know."

The same Ro Laren that Section 31 had down as Supreme Legate Dukat's mistress.

"Understood," Macen allowed.

"Good," Sela wore a feral smile, "You'll quietly escorted out of our territory now. Ta ta, I believe the humans say."

As the trio rematerialized on the Solstice's transporter pads, Rockford scowled, "How quietly is she talking?"

"Probably a phalanx of Romulan Warbirds all cloaked but ready to engage if we alter our course out of Romulan space," Macen shrugged.

"Good to know," Rockford said bleakly.

"I wish I thought so," Eckles said from the transporter controls.

Macen tapped his comm badge, "Aric, plot a straight course out of Romulan space and don't deviate for any reason."

"Understood," Tulley replied. Even though the inertial damping effect, they could feel the ship breaking orbit and the impulse engines engaging.

"I'll get back to Engineering," Eckles volunteered. Eventually they went to warp. In the meantime, Macen took Kerber and Smith off their leashes and gave them specific targets to look for within the Iotian data they'd stolen from the Bonnie & Clyde. Lee, Forte, and Shade accessed Starfleet's records again looking for specifics regarding the Bajoran Intendents. Sisko, Kira, and Bashir had all filed extensive reports on multiple encounters with that opposite Kira. Even Quark had been recently debriefed again by Ro regarding his and Rom's encounters with the Alliance and the Rebellion while rescuing the Grand Nagus from his own greedy stupidity. Rom, as Zek's successor, had forbade any Ferengi from dealing with any elements of the Terran Universe. It seemed any universe where Teela rejected Rom in favor of Ezri Tigan wasn't a universe worth dealing with. Neither Starfleet personnel or General Kira had ever dealings with the Intendent Ro. Even S31 only had second hand reports regarding her involvement with Dukat and her role in the Alliance. But for Ro's other counterpart to be involved signaled greater Alliance involvement in the operation than one of Kira's schemes to reclaim her former glory. Unless the delicate balance fo the Alliance had been upended by Regent Worf's capture.

Since its inception, the Cardassians and the Klingons had vied for superiority within its ranks. With Worf gone, the Dukat of any universe would immediately begin scheming on how to assert Cardassia's dominance over the Alliance. The Klingon's would also be contesting between members of the High Council to batter and kill their way to replacing Worf as Regent. With the members of the Houses of Martok, Duras, and Gowron being the leading contenders for supremacy within the Empire. Any or all of them would reach out to Dukat.

Dukat could be easily persuaded to seek a foothold in a virgin universe unprepared for the Alliance forces. Another existence to conquer separated from the Terran Rebellion and its recruiting of various enslaved worlds regardless of race. The Alliance had access to all of the Terran Empire's records stolen from the Defiant's databanks when it crossed through time and space to depart this universe to arrive in the Terran Universe and fall prey to the Terran Empire. It's relatively advanced technology compared to the stolen 22nd century tech the Terrans had access to at the time gave them a brutal advantage taking them into the 23rd century.

But their very effective ruthlessness worked against them as the burgeoning Alliance persuaded countless Terran slaves to revolt. Spock, having used the Tantalus Field to eliminate Kirk, Chekov, and Sulu, led the Enterprise in marshaling the subject races and Starfleet officers into supporting the Alliance's drive to dismantle the Terran Empire. But the Cardassians and Klingons betrayed Spock and his confederates, planting their own banner and continuing the enslavement practices that the despised Terrans had seemingly perfected. Another century of slavery and brutality followed until the Terran-led Rebellion came underway in the Bajor Sector and centered around Terok Nor.

Thus driving Intendent Kira from her throne above her captive home world. Kira was the perfect choice to seduce Oxmyx and Kracko. While any Ro that could seduce and presumably manipulate Dukat for over twenty years was an ideal manager for the build up occurring around 492 IV. Ro's involvement hinted at Dukat's complicity. But who among the Klingons would join in the venture? That remained to be discovered.

 

Chapter Six

The Solstice beat the Obsidian back to Serenity. Introductions between the surveyor's senior officers and the scoutship's crew was a testimony in the warmth of the two crews' enduring faith in their fellow humanoids. Riker's mission had been a quick and easy one, as Admiral Forger promised Danan they would all be. Riker and Danan had arranged for station-side duties for the newcomers.

Eckles and Darcy would be loaned to the docks to work on advancing the aging Outbound Ventures starships. Hendryks and Lacey would man Ops in both OPS and Defense. Tulley was loaned to Radil's security force. While Neela was assigned to the station's maintenance crew.

Tessa returned to the Obsidian using her "mobile" emitter. She and Galen 3 had been interrupted in their looking for quantum variances in life forms found in the Iotian Federation. Galen 3 had continued independently as had Tessa but they were relieved to collaborating again. For more than the obvious reasons.

Rockford and Macen filed their report with Delain and then returned to the Obsidian and its Data Womb and Situation Center along with those respective teams to further investigate the Iotian data core's wealth of information and its underlying foundation. Smith was in an orgasmic flurry of intellectual exploration. The encryption ciphers guarding the most secretive sections of the data challenged Kerber enough to keep her relentlessly attacking the problem. Lee, Forte, and Shade analyzed the raw data provided by the data team and then Macen and Forger nuanced and summarized the findings.

Both the CIB and SID were pleased with the data, the Cardassians still unaware that Macen had given away the means to circumvent their border security. Admiral Forger was also unaware that Macen had done the same. Rockford had inquired as to his motive for doing so.

"They needed to tighten the Bajoran Sector border anyway," he said grimly and she left it at that. Their new situation obviously rekindling his buried feelings regarding the Cardassians. Different political choices and circumstances had bred a far angrier response. she knew of his inherent instabilities and he was displaying them more than ever before since they'd grown close. But the surface facade was still holding the obvious in check from the others. But even his decision to reunite his Maquis and wartime companions was telling.

Pike relayed the orders they'd been expecting. The Obsidian was specifically tasked with entering the 492 system and getting detailed scans of the robust activity present there. Macen made a fateful decision and summoned Shannon Forger.

"Shannon, you and the crew will stand down for this mission," Macen told her.

"Can I ask why?" she stiffly responded.

"Because if we're captured, we're likely to tortured and killed. I don't want that for any of you," Macen told her the half-truth.

"Then who will drive the ship?" Forger was still angered by the news.

"The Solstice crew I've assembled will man the stations. Tracy and Harri can cover CONN. Elfi and Neela have OPS under control. Rab and Chris have Tactical. And Tom and Heidi will have Parva's back in Engineering," Macen revealed.

"Sounds like we're being demoted," Forger was still simmering.

"Your Senior Staff is well tested, but your crew isn't," Macen replied, "As are their ultimate loyalties."

"And your Maquis are sadly out of practice," Forger let some of her rage show.

"Shannon, this isn't personal," Macen promised.

"Then let my chiefs and I come aboard. That'll give us full watch rotations. When we hit the system, your so-called 'specialists' can take control. Agreed?" Forger countered.

"Okay," Macen relented, seeing how much it meant to her. How much it would mean to all the Obsidian department heads.

"When do we ship out?" Forger sharply inquired.

"In four hours," Macen told her.

"My crew will be ready in two," Forger vowed.

She brusquely departed and Rockford state d the obvious, "That could've been handled better."

"There was no right way," Macen allowed.

"Letting Shannon and our veterans come along is the smart play. They know the ship better than your newbies," Rockford advised him.

"I didn't mean to hurt her," Macen confessed.

"But you insulted the hell out of her ability and professionalism to pick a crew," Rockford snorted, "How did you think she'd take it?"

"Just like that," Macen sighed, "I'll gather everyone before we depart and settle matters."

"You'd better," Rockford warned him.

Macen gathered everyone in one of the Obsidian's larger cargo bays to discuss matters, "Captain Forger will command the ship to and from the mission site. Once there, I'll assume strategic control from the Situation Center. In the meantime, the Department heads will be stand normal watches and be relieved by members of the Solstice crew and the investigative team. Any questions?"

"So, we'll crew the bridge when we enter the 492 system?" Forger wanted clarification.

"You're the experts," Macen retracted from his earlier position.

"Just so we're clear on that," Forger said sternly.

"Very clear, Captain," Macen promised.

"Very well, we're beginning on Beta Watch. The approrpriate reliefs will disembark the Obsidian and set course for 492. We'll assume a cruising speed of Warp 5. Mr. Tulley, you'll stand the first watch as XO of the ship. This will give all watch reliefs time to acclimate to this ship's systems. We detach and make way in twenty minutes on my mark. Mark!" Forger ordered. Forger oversaw the departure routines and then handed command over to Tulley. She then reported to the Macen's private office, the standard XO office aboard Starfleet Nova-class surveyors and new NovaX-class tactical response vessels.

"Thank you for that," Forger relented.

"Both you and Celeste made a good case for why I should back down and let the veterans handle things," Macen shared.

"Do we have reinforcements at all?" Forger took a seat.

"Amanda has signaled the local sector commands to increase border security. We'll be allowed in and out but we have to cross the border back to our side before Starfleet will intervene in any way," Macen warned her.

"Presuming the Iotians don't simply obliterate us before we can reach the border," Forger said drolly.

"That is the prerequisite trick," Macen replied dryly.

"And we'll be achieving what, exactly?" Forger had to wonder.

"With Galen 3 and the investigative team coordinating and controlling the sensor scans, the data team will attempt to penetrate the shipyard's database to determine how many and what kind of ships have been constructed so far," Macen explained.

"Oh, that's all," Forger rolled her eyes, "Remind me to kill my sister the next time she doles out assignment requests."

"Happily," Macen chuckled.

The Obsidian dropped out of warp deep into the 492 star system. The systems automated responses were slow. The original crew manned their sytations. Daggit assisted Kovic in prepping to repel potential boarders. With Gilan, all four engineers were on duty. Mudd and Ebert were preparing the Corsair for flight should the worst occur.

"So we ever gonna talk 'bout it?" Mudd inquired.

"No," Ebert said sternly, "What happened on Sigma Iotia II stays on Sigma Iotia II"

"Fine," Mudd huffed and resumed concentrating on her portions of the pre-flight checklist.

Forger ordered the immediate attack of the yard's screening units. Miller directed phaser and photon barrages on the defensive picket before the ships could get their shields up. The defense platforms wouldn't fire in proximity to their own ships. Macen and Rockford's team had data streaming in as they directed Galen 3 to expand or narrower sensor sweeps. Kerber cursed like an Orion pirate while she tried breaching the cyber defenses surrounding the yard's computer core. Smith assisted in supplying ciphers translated from the Alliance's underlying code.

"Ye-es!" Kerber fist-pumped as data started flowing to them.

"They'll block us in a minute," Smith predicted as she guided the search parameters.

"I'm already burning a hole through their subspace signal jamming. But they'll wise up sooner than we want," Kerber predicted.

On the bridge, Miller reported that one of the newer, more powerful starships was powering up.

"Edwin, I don't care how but delay that launch!" Forger ordered Zimbalist at OPS.

"Jaycee, I'm sending you target coordinates. Hit them dead on," Zimbalist quickly responded. Miller peppered the drydock with phaser bursts and a four torpedo spread.

"There's no damage to the ship but by the time they clear the debris field and clean out the dock purging waste and water into their bilges, they shouldn't launch until we near the border," Zimbalist estimated.

"I love that you're a sneaky bastard," Forger happily replied, "Aglaia, go to warp and slingshot us around the 492 star."

The Platonian pilot happily complied.

"Hopefully we won't have to do this again," Forger breathed a sigh relief as they rocketed out of the solar system unopposed.

"We're losing speed," Aglaia reported, "We nearly reached terminal velocity for breaking the time barrier but only reached Warp 9.28. Even flat out we'll stabilize back to our rated Warp 8 maximum emergency speed in minutes."

"I can live it," Forger acknowledged, "Edwin, Jaycee, keep sensors sweeping in case of the Iotians establishing a blockade before the border. Galen 3, did the investigators get they needed to prove the working theory to Starfleet?"

"Probably," Galen 3 hesitated, "Or just enough to disprove the theory."

"Hey, whatever," Forger shrugged.

The ship lurched as the inertial dampers struggled to keep up with a shift in the subspace field enabling faster than light travel.

"Report!" Forger demanded.

"We're dropped out of warp," Aglaia complained.

"Engineering, you'd better have a reason," Forger yelled the comms.

"The slingshot effect destabilized our warp core and warp plasma relays. It'll take a few minute s to clear our baffles and recalibrate everything," Parva reported back.

"How many minutes?" Forger didn't appreciate the ironies abounding around her.

"At least twenty.maybe thirty, best guess," Parva answered.

"Keep me posted," Forger groaned.

"Problems?" Macen's inquired next.

"Nothing much. We just dropped out of warp two light years from the border. No biggee," Forger forced herself to sound optimistic.

"I'll leave you to it then," Macen sounded like the hangman to Forger's ears.

"Thanks a lot," she muttered under her breath.

"Captain! We have seven Iotian ships coming in hot!" Miller interrupted Forger's misery just to increase it.

"Classes?" Forger held her breath while she waited.

"Two Constitution-, one Constellation- two Asia-, a Mercury-, and a ship type I've never before," Miller admitted.

"Extrapolate and put it on screen," Forger requested. The image generated was that of a larger, Excelsior- sized three nacelled Constitution-class variant.

"I'll be damned. It's a Dreadnought-class," Forger said just loud enough to be heard.

"I'm unfamiliar with that class of ship," Zimbalist very formally remarked to mask his dread.

"Our Federation designed the ship but never produced any past the initial prototype. It was seen as being provocative to the Klingons and Romulans back in the day," Forger explained.

"The Klingons and Romulans hardly required provocation back in the day," Galen 3 grimly recalled.

"Too true," Forger conceded, "Aglaia, can we cross the border before they set up a blockade?"

"Negative," Aglaia sounded as frustrated as Forger felt.

"Full stop!" Forger ordered.

"Full stop, aye," Aglaia announced.

"Rig for silent running. When they split up, we'll make a run for it and hopefully have our warp engines back online by then," Forger ordered.

"All sensors have gone passive," Zimbalist began his checklist, "Running lights off, power reduced to minimum levels, auxiliary systems offline. Computer core reduced to minimum requirements"

"Bridge, what the hell are you playing at?" Parva snarled over the comm, "I'm getting complaints from everyone."

"Full intercoms," Forger instructed the computer, "All hands rig for silent running. We're attempting to evade a blockade and search grid long enough to affect repairs to the warp drive,. Captain out"

She patched into the Corsair, "Ladies, stop everything and shut down. The warp core needs to be at minimum quick restart levels."

"Mind explaining that?" Mudd retorted.

"Ignore her," Ebert interjected, "We'll rig"

"Thank you," Forger signed off, "Now, we just have to survive the next twenty to thirty minutes."

"We have a subspace comm signal being rebroadcast from the border," Zimbalist announced. The Intrepid says she's all clear."

One concern had been that even though Outbound Ventures was a private concern that Kira and therefore her Iotian girl toys would lash out at Johnson and the crew of the Intrepid once the proverbial shit hit the fan. But the diplomatic mission, though a failure, had confirmed to Johnson that Indendent Kira was the power behind Oxmyx and Kracko. Their discreetly acquired sensor scans via tricorders had detected quantum phase variances throughout Oxmyx's manor. Nearly every variant was a Bajoran or a Cardassian. The Klingon connection was still missing.

The Federation's overture, so long overdue, would likely be seen as a feint to allow the SID contracted Obsidian to make her run at the 492 system. Forger wished her sister, Amanda, had executed the raid a few days later but such was the nature of covert ops she'd learned at the investigative team's side.

"The Klingon element in the incursion is the House of Duras," Kerber reported to the team in the situation room. Daggit, Lacey, Neela, Hendryks, Tulley, and Kovic were heavily armed and armored with ablative vests and bandoliers full of photon grenades

"And before the computer began crawling, I isolated the command ciphers employed in the administration of this invasive effort. Director Sela was correct, the Indendents Kira and Ro are running the operation with Dukat and Duras' support," Smith added.

"They've concentrated on designs that stretched and served from the late 23rd century through the Dominion War," Rockford's team had filtered through that much already.

"Leaving one command cruiser for the Bajoran, Cardassian, and Klingon commanders to lead the Iotian and Roman attack on nearby Federation colonies and worlds," Macen had been sifting through the raw data as well, "The Romulans bought their security so it's going to be grudge match between opposing Federations.".

"But why the invasion?" Tulley wondered.

"For Dukat, it's a prime opportunity now that the Terran Rebellion has liberated most off its former territories and announced the formation of a new Terran Empire. One spearheaded by Terrans but generally inclusive of alien races. They learned that much at least. The Klingons' infighting has them defending their empire in a stalled holding action. The Cardassians also seem stymied at the front lines as the newly restored Terran Empire has been fabricating hull designs stolen from our Federation using yards taken back from the Alliance as well joining forces with the remnants of the original Terran Empire that survived deep in their original holdings. It seems that Vulcan, Earth, Andoria, Telar, and Rigel set aside their differences when the Alliance first arose and have been together against a common enemy ever since. But they could barely hold their home systems after first repelling the victorious Alliance so the rest of their peoples suffered in slavery," Macen was skimming Smith's translations.

"But as long as we're silent, we can't transmit the data and summaries to Starfleet without revealing ourselves," Forte summed up the general sense of frustration.

"They'll be jamming us anyway," Neela predicted.

"Won't they have to cycle the warp coils before initiating a restart?" Hendryks wondered.

"Yes, but it's a single plasma surge," Neela explained, "If they time it perfectly it'll seem like ambient discharge from the star in this system."

"How did you know there's a star nearby?" Smith quietly asked.

Neela broke into a radiant smile, "The Prophets told me."

"I take it you alerted the Captain?" Shade was fretting.

"She was grateful but her team would've derived the same conclusion eventually," Neela shrugged. The door opened and Ebert and Mudd stormed in.

"Are we gonna die?" Mudd demanded to know, "'Cause I ain't ready to yet."

"Haven't scratched off your bucket list yet?" Ebert snarked.

"I was starting to," Mudd cast her an accusing glare.

"Right," Rockford said in a dull monotone, "You can all work this out later. In private."

"Some people don't like privacy. Or intimacy," Mudd scowled.

"Bullshit!" Ebert snarled.

"Ladies? The ward room is open. I suggest you take it there," Macen advised them. It wasn't a debatable suggestion. They stormed off.

"Too bad. I'm wondering where this is going," Forte confessed.

Kerber snorted, "Ever since they got back from Iotia, Mudd's been making moon eyes at Ebert."

"Too bad Tracy isn't interested," Smith said softly.

"It would save them both from the heartache to come," Neela predicted.

"Have something to share?" Macen asked. So Neela elaborated.

"What the hell was that? What happened to 'what happened on Iotia stays on Iotia'?" Ebert demanded to know.

"Your rule, not mine," Mudd retorted.

"You are the most irritating.." Ebert grated, "Every time you open your mouth I just want to slam it shut."

"Or you could just shut me up with other methods," Mudd said suggestively.

"No!" Ebert swung a backhand to distance Mudd away from her, "Not happening again."

"What happened to you?" Mudd asked, "I'm not talking marriage, just some laughs and some debauched sex."

"Been there done that," Ebert growled, "You'll have to look elsewhere, Harri. Because I'm through even discussing it."

Ebert stormed off to return to the runabout waiting on standby in the shuttle bay. she didn't care if Mudd followed her or not.

Mudd stayed put processing Ebert's declarations and finally sighed as she ran a hand through her long platinum tresses, "Oh, well."

With a determined stride, she followed Ebert's stormy path.

"Engineering, cycle the warp coils and power up on Galen 3's mark!" Forger instructed.

"Copy that," Gilan signaled back.

"Wait for it...now!" Galen 3 almost yelled into0 the comm circuit. The power fluctuated and then restored to full.

"Warp engines restored," Parva announced proudly, "The mains are now online."

"Not a second too soon!" Forger admitted, "Aglaia! Maximum warp! Now!"

The ship accelerated forward on a rising impulse surge before the warp engines engaged and began accelerating their way through subspace. The Iotians had nearly reached the Obsidian. But Aglaia, with a little luck and foresight, had used the RCS thrusters to position the surveyor between a light cruiser and the frigate's path.

The Obsidian shot between the encroaching Mercury- and an Asia-class well on its way towards the border. The Iotian Starfleet began to come about. Despite its bulk, the dreadnought outmanuveured its lesser siblings and began a pursuit much sooner.

"Dreadnought is closing at Warp 8.5," Miller warned.

"Can we make out it in time?" Forger asked her Flight Control Chief.

"Barely," Aglaia answered, "But if they choose to pursue us across.."

"Understood," Forger said grimly, "OPS, can we burn a message through their jamming?"

"I can try," Zimbalist promised.

"Then hail those Starfleet vessels at the edge of our sensor range," Forger instructed, hoping beyond hope the message was received in time and the Starfleet border patrol would act accordingly. The ship shuddered.

"Photon torpedo wake!" Miller announced, "There was no warning before the launch"

"That's impossible!" Forger protested. The ship shuddered again.

"I'm telling you, they're cold firing," Miller explained, "The torpedoes are going active after they launch."

"But even if the warheads are on standby, we should still detect the electromagnetic mass drivers propelling them until their warp engines engage," Forger had been the chief tactical officer for the crew once upon a time.

"Look, you can argue with the sensors all you want," Miller grated, "But I'm telling you, they're going to warp in the tubes!"

"Dammit! Even Starfleet's quantum torpedoes can't match that acceleration to target," Forger exclaimed.

"Ten seconds to border," Aglaia reported, "The dreadnought is not slowing. They'll overtake us in one minute."

"What about the rest?" Forger asked before the ship bucked beneath them.

"Detonation on aft shields. They're fast but the yield is less than ours," Miller read her displays, "The shields only dropped by ten percent."

Another hit followed another.

"They've got us locked," Miller complained, "Aft shields at seventy percent."

"Drop to impulse! Now! Z-minus ten degrees ahead!" Forger yelled.

Aglaia complied at the pursuing Iotian warship passed them by still firing torpedoes.

"Incoming Iotian starships!" Zimbalist hastily reported, "Time to intercept in two minutes."

"Course heading Zero-Four-Five! Engage warp engines. Go to maximum!" Forger demanded.

"Heading Zero-Four-Five, maximum warp, aye," Aglaia happily complied.

"Iotian pursuit is altering course. None of them are rated to overtake us. But we'll be in their firing range for nearly ninety seconds," Miller warned. Photon detonations bracketed the ship.

"It's like goddamned depth charges," Miller griped as the ship bucked and swayed underneath them. Everyone held fast to their seats.

"Trying evasive but we're sluggish at these speeds," Aglaia warned.

"Straight trajectory, concentrate on outrunning them," Forger belayed Aglaia's first instinct.

"Straight course, aye," Aglaia was unhappy but obeyed the order.

"The dreadnought has altered course to intercept and will overtake us in two minutes," Zimbalist gave a warning prediction.

"Why the hell didn't Starfleet embed an aft torpedo launcher?" Miller wanted to know.

"This is not a combat vessel," Forger reminded her.

"I bet the new variant has an aft launcher," Galen 3 broke his terse silence.

"It's a combat vessel," Forger sighed as the detonations ceased.

"Aft shields holding at thirty percent. Dorsal and ventral shields each at sixty percent, and starboard shields at seventy and port shields at fifty percent," Miller assessed.

"Rerouting power from non-essentials to the secondary shield emitters," Zimbalist volunteered.

"Which us roughly to seventy percent all around," Miller said grimly, "Captain! Detonations behind the Iotains! Starfleet is on the ball"

"They're being led by the Intrepid!" Zimbalist yelled out.

"I could kiss McKinley right now," Forger admitted.

"Save it for Striker," Miller advised, "This Massolli still has her sights set on McKinley."

"Damn," Forger muttered, "How do you know?"

"Emily Johnson told me," Miller shrugged.

"Emily would know," Forger conceded. Still, Forger wondered if either McKinley or Striker would harbor a hidden hang up regarding the fact Forger had been born a genetic male. She really hoped not.

 

Chapter Seven

The Iotians broke off upon facing an equal or greater threat. Afterwards, when the Intrepid was escorting the Obsidian back to Serenity to make her report to the SID on Earth, Admiral Johnson, McKinely, and Sikorsky beamed over. Sikorksy was unrelentingly upset that Tessa had been offline the entire time since the ship went dark. Especially beings the EMH program would remain dormant after power was fully restored after silent running.

"Ass wipes," Sikorksy muttered before reactivating Tessa's program.

"What did I miss?" she asked in a wounded tone. Galen 3 hastily volunteered to fill Tessa in on current events. Sikorksy took over the dubious honors of treating Parva, Gilan, Eckles, and Darcy for mild burns, cuts, and bruises earned while working a patented Starfleet-style engineering marvel. Neela watched over Parva's precious engines while Hendryks ran a quick diagnostic over the impulse engines and their reactor. Ebert relieved Aglaia so the helmswoman could enjoy some downtime after the stress of battle. Lacey assumed Miller's place. Hendryks would arrive after Zimbalist had already left. Tulley had the dubious honor of guiding the skeleton crew through protected and patrolled Federation space.

Mudd secured the Corsair now that it was certain the runabout's services wouldn't be required. She then reported to the ward room to grab a drink and a meal with the regular bridge crew. The investigative and data teams compared notes with Johnson and McKinley's Delaney, Grace, and Jennifer Marie Massolli, the Lt. Commander being the Intrepid's Intelligence Officer, to debrief the teams on their precise findings on Sigma Iotia II. Massolli was unaware of the actual change in personnel but was pleased to discover that McKinley had warmed to her again even as Sikorsky was considering rekindling her past relationship with the captain.

the Intell Officer was obviously disappointed to be returning to the Intrepid before the teams truly discussed matters. Despite her professionalism, the fact that Sikorsky got a seat at the table rankled her. Grace undertook the honor of traveling back to their assigned starship with her as a mild concession.

"You're going to have to tell her someday soon," Johnson advised his flag captain, "She's too smart not to figure it out on her own."

"Or not," Sikorsky shrugged.

"Andreja," Johnson chided her.

"She'll report us," Sikorsky challenge d his opinion and advice.

"I'll consider it," McKinley allowed.

"So we have proof now the Alliance is operating with the Iotian Federation and arming 492 IV," Macen summed it up in one sentence.

"Or, as we knew them, the Nova Romans," Daggit shared. Parva was attending with Neela now that Eckles and Darcy had relieved Gilan and his Chief.

"That label hasn't been applied here because there has been no further contact with the inhabitants since Kirk visited. The quarantine is in question with Starfleet Command and the Federation Council now that we detected warp signatures and that the Iotions moved in on them shortly thereafter," Johnson made his own summary.

"The Alliance knew about them already because of the Terran Empire's records of them," Macen suggested.

"They'll make nasty shock troops," Daggit assessed their potential. No one contested the fact that their former Nova Roman engineer, Joachim Dracas, had been a perfect picture of disciplined lethality.

"We transmitted the basics to Admiral Forger via subspace tight beam. The cipher will only open the reports to her biometric security data," Kerber proudly explained.

"And translate them from the original Alliance codes to Federation Standard English," Smith shared as well.

"Their Kira is a known quantity. But their Ro is a mystery," Delaney complained.

"She's Dukat's confidante and probable lover. That makes her even more dangerous than Kira," Rockford counseled them.

"Laren is sooo going to enjoy that revelation," Macen grinned.

"Stop trying to torture your best friend," Rockford cuffed him upside the head.

"Where's the fun in that?" Macen wondered. Most of the people that had known Macen as long as Ro had were the Maquis crewmen. Vaughn was the only veteran friend that had known Macen throughout most of his Starfleet career. But that had been another life. In this new "life" "Vaughn" and "Macen" had barely spoken since "Macen" left Starfleet.

"I should get back," McKinley decided.

"Me too," Delaney thought of Grace.

"Anyone interested can dine with my officers at 1900 hours," McKinley offered.

"I could stand to visit Lieutenant Johnson, "Kerber decided.

"She usually dines in the enlisted mess at that time," Sikorsky provided.

"I'll come with," Smith volunteered. Which didn't surprise anyone since the Ardanans were practically inseparable. Sikorsky decided to bow out as well. Johnson took a message from Striker that he'd received orders to elaborate on why Starfleet forces had fired on Iotian ships.

"Please kill me now," Johnson groaned as he excused himself.

"Well, Telrik finally has to stay awake," Macen mused. It amazed everyone how the burly Tellarite could stay just at his station with all the excitement flying. He even brought in a cot, a chair, and a portable replicator so he didn't have to leave. The closest restroom was just two doors away from the Transporter Room.

Like Emjin Thool, Telrik had once been a Starfleet enlisted engineering rating. But where Thool's skills had evolved to general maintenance, Telrik was a one-note transporter tech genius.

No one was surprised as the Intrepid altered course to head for DS4. Thereby canceling dinner plans.

"Let's say 'hi' to Shannon and the crew," Rockford suggested and everyone took her up on it.

Rockford and Macen's respite was short lived as Hendryks called down an urgent demand by Admiral Forger for Macen and his wife to contact her for an immediate debrief. Forger's holographic image was joined by Johnson and Nechayev's.

"You could've just had Bob stay aboard," Macen remarked.

"Admiral Forger may trust your security protocols but Starfleet isn't quite there yet, Commander," Nechayev retorted.

"Good to see again, Alynna," Macen admitted.

Nechayev's features softened somewhat, "Amanda tells me you've put out feelers to contract and hire Svetlana Korepanova, Sekona, Hakatay, Kobb, Emjin Thool, and other former Maquis notables. Care to explain why?"

"I trust them and trust is a short commodity now that we have an inkling of what is transpiring inside the Iotion territories," Macen explained.

"You don't truly believe the Alliance could suborn Terrans into their invasion effort?" Johnson was surprised.

"Admiral, we know that many Terrans were put in positions of trust within the Alliance. Take Jennifer Sisko for example," Rockford explained.

"Even Smiley O'Brien had once been a Terran trustee aboard their Terok Nor," Forger added in recollection.

"The Terran Empire is not our best direct ally in this matter," Johnson warned, "Their ambitions have yet to proven out and fully revealed."

"Yet even Emperor Georgiou was eventually redeemed," Nechayev reminded him.

"In whose eyes?" Forger wondered.

"We've never been able to trust Terrans," Macen said flatly, "Our seeming goals overlapped for a time but always Terrans taking from us rather than a fair exchange. Every encounter Sisko and his crew had with the Terrans was a one-sided, opportunistic free-for-all where the gained advantage at our expense."

"Which hardly bodes well for a restored empire under their umbrella," Rockford added, "The data we've collected shows the Terrans stole more than just the plans for the Defiant-class. They've been mass producing ship designs stolen from our side faster than they can train up crews for them. But their literal fleet of escort-type warships has the Alliance fragmented and reeling. That breeds desperation and this operation is nothing if not desperate."

"How so?" Nechayev was intrigued.

"Neither side from the Terran Universe has ever established a foothold in our universe despite the Terrans knowing our entire history up until our original Constitution-class USS Defiant crossed over and back through time when Kirk and the Enterprise watched her slip away in Tholian space," Macen reminded everyone of that occurrence, "The Terrans, though they despised the Federation, never attempted a crossover until Smiley O'Brien invented the interdimensional transporter adaptation circuit after Colonel Kira and Dr. Bashir were mysteriously moved across by a disturbance in the Bajoran Wormhole."

He left it unsaid that that had also happened to a degree by everyone represented except for Nechayev herself. but she wore a sly smile, "You can skip over the part where your crew, Amanda,, Bob, the Intrepid crew, Ro and Vaughn, and Riker and Danan also shifted over from our universe."

"You too?" Forger exclaimed the inquiry.

"I was testing you all to see if I could trust you and if you'd ever figure it out," Nechayev gave the slightest of shrugs.

"That's why you suddenly pushed the SID program through," Johnson grinned.

"My 'predecessor' abhorred the idea and certainly never would have approved Outbound Ventures as a prime contracting element. Her notes on the matter indicated if she ever endorsed her Amanda's proposal, it would be an entirely Starfleet Intelligence operation," Nechayev explained, "Obviously, I was intended to change that status quo. Now someone tell me which higher life form put me here and abandoned our universe"

"The Prophets," Macen said before anyone else could blurt "Wormhole Aliens".

"Sly little devils aren't they?" Nechayev quietly, and appreciatively, mused.

"It just shows that the theories regarding their ability to view and interact throughout space-time were correct. But they seem ot select particular players from different universes and exchange them throughout the multiverse as they deem needed," Macen summarized the experience

"Or, more aliens with a god complex," Forger retorted.

"Which is hardly news since they cultivated the Bajorans' worship of them," Johnson said bleakly.

"So does anyone, anyone at all, want to theorize whether or not we're in the Prime Universe yet?" Rockford stared at her husband.

"There are several major rivers that extend from a single pool from the beginning of time," Macen shared El-Aurian philosophy at this point, "Each of four rivers cascading from it is a Prime. The branches and lesser and lesser branches from them eventually form the creeks and streams. Each division makes the flow grow weaker but the main rivers continue to grow and thrive. So there is never a single river. And we simply moved from a creek that was drying out from a stream dehydrating from the river."

"Can you be certain of that?" Forger asked, "Because this current situation looks pretty bleak in some regards."

"I'm as sure as any El-Aurian can be. I'm not experiencing time sickness so we aren't in an altered future but rather an entirely different mainstream reality."

"Strangers in a strange land," Johnson commented.

"Heinlein or not, we're still refugees and we have to be careful not to alert anyone to that fact," Rockford cautioned everyone.

"But why are we here?" Nechayev was impatient to learn.

"Neela has a theory but you won't like it," Rockford shared.

"Let me guess, we're helping civilization save itself yet again," Forger snorted.

"Something like that," Macen smirked, "Basically, the SID is the new, accountable Section 31. We get the dirty jobs Starfleet can't officially sanction but quietly rewards."

"This would have all been easier if S31 hadn't operating with Starfleet sanction between the 22nd and 23rd Centuries. They were officially closed down in 2293 after 'we' began brokering peace with the Klingons," Johnson shared, "But they simply hid from sight."

"Which elements are probably doing now," Macen conceded, "Which means a secondary objective of the SID is to locate and neutralize those rogue elements."

"Jesus, I hate it when you're right," Forger groaned.

"You'll note, in a linguistic sense that Bailey pointed, the cultural strictures regarding profanity have loosened again. Whereas Starfleet was a bastion of fairly rigid language morality codes until recently, the population here has always retained a base-level of vulgarity beyond what was allowed within Starfleet's structures," Rockford pointed out, "So simply put, Starfleet officers and enlisted are allowed to swear like nautical sailors again as long as it doesn't reach their official logs. But God help you while you watch the flight recorders and read the personal logs."

"You and your Ardanans," Nechayev said unhappily.

"They're good people, just like Hal Dracas was," Macen defended "Kerber and Smith"

"We've all got knuckle down into our legends and outwardly become the people history expects us to be. For my people it's a little complicated because we were leaning so deeply into criminality that the line was barely a smudgy blur," Macen assessed, "So while the Starfleet officers among us have to walk a fine line, ours is messier but also yields greater opportunities to deal with the opposing sides since we're considered to be rather unscrupulous with rather vague loyalties."

"Meaning your supposed to act like the mercenaries you represent now," Forger conceded.

"Which is easier here than back at 'home' because Outbound Ventures was founded on those self-serving principles. Frankly, given the disgraced officers and enlisted comprising the Outbound Ventures' fleet, I can honestly say I'm surprised they voted en masse to accept the SID's offer of redemption."

"I think everyone wants redemption from their past mistakes," Rockford knew from intimate experience.

"In the end, all of us are here as a redemption story," Macen theorized. That unsettled Nechayev, Forger, and Johnson.

"So, Starfleet will have to contain the Iotian expansionist efforts?" Forger asked.

"That's the working theory," Nechayev said grimly.

"We can hit economically by blockading every border we share but there are still those parties, like the Romulans, that won't assist us in doing so. Sanctions will be effective if we can seize every Iotian asset outside of their Federation and protectorates as well as choke off their trade," Johnson summarized, "Which, given the players, we can't effectively do. Someone has to convince Clancy to surrender enough vessels to form a fleet or two to patrol the common borders and dissuade the Iotians from attempting to break free."

"Which we'll have to nullify the Federation's usual practice of ceding unclaimed space in anticipation of territorial expansion by less advanced cultures," Forger added.

"And, the Federation Council and Starfleet Command have to be prepared to go to war," Macen said bluntly.

"Simply put, Starfleet and the Federation need to stop contracting our borders and protectorate stances and get back to pushing forward out envelopes and enlisting new cultures and allies into common purposes," Johnson said heatedly.

"You've met Clancy," Nechayev said wearily, "Do you really think she'll budge after the Mars massacre?"

"Mars wasn't the only target that the synthetics hit. And we still don't understand why it happened at all," Forger quietly admitted.

"Another vein of investigation that needs to be explored," Rockford urged.

"Easier proposed than authorized in this climate," Nechayev said bitterly.

"Ambassador Spock's death attempting to sway off the worst effects of the Hobus supernova, the synthetic uprising, the Mars Massacre, the loss of the Utopia Planetia Yards, Romulans crossing the Neutral Zone however willingly we let them, and the remnants of the Romulan government's increased saber rattling following the end of the Federation's evacuation support and closing the Neutral Zone again only exacerbates everything," Johnson ticked off, "The Federation needs hope and to feel secure again."

"When overt action can't be approved then covert action can stem the rising tide by selectively creating choke holds on potential combatants thoroughfares," Macen suggested.

"In standard Federation English please?" Rockford nudged him.

"We wage secret campaigns against potential aggressors while Starfleet secures the borders," Macen translated.

"We do have access to the Federation latinum reserves on Barrinor," Forger allowed.

"Which is off of the official books," Nechayev mused.

"It sounds like Outbound Ventures will become a lot busier," Johnson smiled.

"The official arms of the SID will probe deeper into the ultimate fate of S31 and the collective border situations. We need a follow through with the Cardassians as well crimping Indendent Kira and Ro's style. You also seem to have made an in road with Director Sela. All of these matters needs further attention. Unofficial attention," Forger warned Macen.

"Just remember, the corporate crews aren't Starfleet officers and our ships aren't ships of the line anymore. If they ever were," Macen advised everyone.

"Then let's start sketching out a basic plan of attack," Forger recommended. So they began that laborious process.

"And you wonder why I want Sveta on the team," Macen smirked.

 

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Last modified: 12 Jun 2022 
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