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Tidal Forces 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

Agent Double 0086 grimly took in the scene beside Agent Single 0212.

"I have my work cut out for me," James Smart said to Sarina Douglas. The elite Starfleet Intelligence operatives gazed in upon the local franchised Quark's, owned by an Orion female named Treir, and mentally reviewed what they knew of Treir. Smart knew that she'd accompanied a Starfleet Special Investigations Division team based on this space station, named Serenity, and left Treir behind on Sigma Iotia II. Hence SI Director Admiral Alynna Nechayev's interest in the Orion.

Smart was to run the tables and eventually seduce Treir into surrendering all she knew about Indendent Kira Nerys and her plans to conquer the Federation. Sarina Douglas was actually assigned to Deep Space Nine with her husband, Doctor and Commander Julian Bashir, the station's CMO. Douglas was very familiar with Quark himself and his infamous bar/gambling den/family entertainment center on DS9. She was the purse strings that could authorize or deny Smart access to the Federation's hard currency reserves.

"We're seriously overdressed," Douglas frowned. She was bedecked in an evening gown and her wore an impeccably tailored tux.

"Nonsense. There's no such thing," Smart said crisply and went to the cashier's to collect his chips. Douglas almost bolted when he asked for five hundred bar of gold pressed latinum's worth of casino currency.

"That only leaves us five hundred in reserve," she angrily reminded Smart.

"We'll never need it," he promised as he went to take a seat at an opening at a gaming table. Douglas sat back at the bar and ordered synth-ale while she noted Smart imbibed hard liquor.

"Vodka martini, stirred, not shaken," he ordered his first of over a dozen in the next two hours. She knew his liver had been augmented with a detoxifying implant, but still, twelve drinks in less than two hours meant it could barely keep up. Douglas watched with some relief as Smart began collecting winnings rather than losses and repeated the pattern at differing tables at differing times, leaving before his welcome had completely waned. But still, Starfleet was happy just to break even but Smart was collecting a tidy profit in the process. And, he'd finally come under Treir's personal scrutiny.

The house always made money but it wasn't making nearly as much since Smart joined the tables. The staff didn't mind since Smart was wisely, and generously, tipping them at every occasion. But only from his winnings. And he was still in excess of three hundred bars in the black. Douglas had watched the chips as Smart handed them off to employees. He'd given over one hundred bars worth of latinum so far with no end in sight as long as he was left alone to run the tables. Treir had had enough and personally intervened.

"I see someone is lucky tonight," Treir said with an inviting smile, "Care to join me for a drink?"

"Yes, and no," Smart said with a charming smile that oozed confidence and indifference to the pheromone load that making his fellow male card players drooling idiots. The two women seemed to be suffering migraines.

"That's rather overt, wouldn't you say?" he asked in a stage whisper.

"You're done for the evening. You can accept that quietly or after I summon station security," Treir alerted him.

"Why not both?" Smart simply shrugged and collected his chips, "Anyway, confidence in the house had been broken by this little confrontation. I suggest you make it up to me so my fellow gamblers can see that I went willingly and not by coercion"

"What do you want?" Treir was sullen.

"We have all night to discuss that," Smart went to the cashier's booth and Douglas signed off on the bank transfer. The original five hundreds bars were returned to Starfleet's hidden coffers. Smart collected a padd with four hundred and thirty-three bars registered to it, "I'll sign this amount over for the pleasure of your company for the evening."

"Cheeky bastard, aren't you?" Treir sniffed.

"I don't want sex, if that's what you think you're getting being cheated from the right amount," Smart explained, "I simply want an introduction. With a political official in the Iotian Federation. I have a trade deal that needs negotiating. And I don't need to dicker with Oxmyx or Kracko. I want to speak with the Indendent. Directly, face to face."

"You're well informed," Treir admitted.

"I have worlds wanting arms and Starfleet tends to object," Smart shrugged it off, "It pays to stay ahead of them and the Orion Syndicate."

"And if I take umbrage and refuse this bribe?" Treir's eyes narrowed , offering a challenge.

"Then you keep the tidy sum and I offer to buy you a drink and see where that leads me," Smart wore his cockiest smirk.

"Next time, lead with that," Treir laughed.

"Never too old to learn," Smart turned to Douglas, "Darling, I'll be...indisposed this evening. You can take the rest of the night off."

"Yes, sir," Douglas nodded her assent and vanished.

"A lover? An underling? Or both?" Treir cocked an eyebrow.

"God forbid. That one is far too glacial for my tastes. She wouldn't know passion if it crawled between her thighs," Smart was offended, "She's an assistant. A tender of my accounts so I don't overspend past my personal stipend."

"And you're prone to do so?" Treir's interest doubled.

"Never a dull day or night when I'm involved," Smart promised.

"We'll see, won't we?" Treir wore her sultriest smile and the two began their games.

Radil Jenrya observed as Douglas vacated Quark's and Radil knew she was being observed in return. The Deputy Chief of Security had drawn plainclothes duty that evening so she'd been wandering the Promenade's shops when the severely overdressed Smart and Douglas waded through the crowd. She was also aware that Douglas was perfectly aware of Security's discreet observations of her. The formally dressed woman had lost her escort, obviously an employer or even co-worker, in Quark's.

Radil had people inside that reported that the other human had broken the casino's bank and opened negotiations of some sort with Treir herself. Latinum had obviously already traded hands and now the pair seemed to be socializing...with predetermined purposes. The frustrating part of everything was that Douglas seemed intimately aware of a Nor-class station's commonly built sensor network. She'd avoided or hidden her face from visual recognition thus far.

Radil wanted to know the how and why of it. Agent 0212 ducked into a blind corner and Radil hurried to catch up only to find that Douglas had entirely vanished. Douglas had headed directly for Outbound Ventures' corporate sector. Every ship's captain maintained offices as well as Lieutenant Christine Pike as Starfleet's official liaison with the company. Radil was all too aware of Starfleet's retainer that promoted their interests ahead of other potential clients. Radil was more than happy to search office by office if she had to.

"Can I help you?" Bryce Fanning, Brin Macen and Celeste Rockford's aide asked Douglas.

"I need to speak with Macen or Rockford, preferably both," Douglas informed her. Kathy Tyrol was the public face and CEO of Outbound Ventures. But Macen and Rockford co-owned the security contracting company and the Rockford Detective Agencies. Every corporate agent and crew were frequently hired by the SID but Macen, Rockford and their cohorts were almost exclusively SID contractors. They got the hazardous assignments that even the regular active-duty Starfleet crews assigned as SID troubleshooters couldn't fulfill.

Radil burst in and Douglas deflected Radil's attempt to grab a hold of her and roughly shoved the Bajoran into the wall. Radil spun and reached for her discreetly carried sidearm. Only to find Douglas aiming it at her, "Macen. Rockford. Now!"

Fanning had already hit the panic button. The signal went out to Security as well as select SID agents. Security responded in force and Rockford's chief detectives, Lee Kang, Arianna Forte, and Shade parted the human sea. Lee Kang had been a Chief Inspector on Chung Kuo before being ousted. Forte was a hundreds of years old teen from the Earth-duplicate world of Miri. Shade was a Fabrini exiled from the Yolanda for thievery.

Douglas slowly lowered Radil's weapon, put it on the deck, kicked it aside towards Radil and raised her hands, "I need to speak with Macen and Rockford."

"Why is that?" Lee asked.

"Because I know the truth about Captain Ro and Commander Vaughn. And about you all," Douglas inferred to the unspoken secret they all shared.

"We'll take custody of the woman," Lee instructed Radil.

"This is a station matter," Radil argued.

"Bryce?" Forte asked, "What happened?"

"She asked to see Commander Macen and Detective Rockford when Jenrya burst in and tried to arrest her. Our mystery guest reversed the situation and you all arrived."

"What are the charges against her?" Lee asked.

"Suspicion of conspiracy to commit a crime," Radil answered.

"You know that can't stick," Shade snorted, "The best you'd get is a twenty-four hold while the Barrinoran justice aboard convenes an inquiry."

Serenity orbited the Class-P glaciated world of Odin, the fifth system in the Barrinor system. Barrinor, the primary M-Class planet in the system was the third world and an independent banking world. The fact that nearly every stellar nation in the explored Alpha and Beta Quadrants banked with Barrinor granted it neutral status. Protected by every otherwise rival power. As such, Serenity operated under Odin's legal jurisdiction, and by proxy, Barrinor's through its colony.

"She won't be leaving the station. When we're done with her, if we do find out something chargeable, we'll hand her to you," Lee offered.

"Not good enough," Radil growled.

"Save the wounded pride. The judge will eat this hold alive and you know it," Shade countered, "Do you really want to embarrass yourself?"

"She's yours. For now," Radil snorted, "But Tyrol will hear about this."

"I bet she'll look forward to it," Forte shrugged.

"I've contacted Macen and Rockford but they're off of the station. They're supposed to return in a few hours. They may respond sooner now," Fanning offered.

"You played your part well, Bryce," Lee promised, "Now, if you'll come with us?".

"Of course," Douglas allowed.

The detective trio escorted Douglas to the local Rockford Detective Agency office. Inside, they shared half of the office space with the resident private investigator. The woman manning the desk was appropriately named Friday. The detectives activated their privacy screens and offered Douglas a seat in the interview room.

"Care explain your earlier statement?" Lee asked.

"And who the hell are you?" Shade cut to the chase.

"My name is Sarina Douglas. Lt. Commander Sarina Douglas of Starfleet Intelligence. I'm assigned as Deep Space Nine's IO. My husband is Dr. Julian Bashir," she explained, "There are two relevant co-factors in play here. I'm genetically enhanced and so is Julian. We've noted the differences in Ro and Vaughn and Julian discreetly conducted a quantum phase scan and detrmined both of them are from an alternate reality."

Which Ro Laren and Elias Vaughn weren't the only ones.

"It wasn't hard to deduce that most of Ro and Vaughn's close associates were as well as well as newer connections being established," Douglas continued her explanation.

"The other factor?" Forte asked with a strained voice.

"I'm also a Single O agent on assignment. I'm 0212 and the I'm here with a Double 00 agent. Agent 0086," Douglas sighed.

"Which means.?" Lee prompted her.

"Macen will explain it to you," Douglas replied, "Or you can contact either Captain Ro or Commander Vaughn to corroborate my statements. Or perhaps even Admirals Nechayev, Forger, or Johnson? They're all fellow refugees alongside you all."

The truth was that Alynna Nechayev, Amanda Forger, and Robert Tavar Johnson were just the highest placed so-called dimensional 'refugees". Captain Jim McKinley and the Senior Staff of Johnson's flagship, the USS Intrepid, were among them as well. Captain Tom Riker and Commander Lisea Danan, the husband-wife administration of Serenity were also brought to this Prime Universe from a "pruned' divergence by the Bajoran Prophets utilizing the power of the Nexus Ribbon. Nechayev and Forger had pushed the creation of the SID through Starfleet Command upon arrival. Some fifteen years later than in their original home universe. The Senior Staff of Macen's Nova-class surveyor, the Obsidian, also came through. Neela, a servant of the Prophets and an ex-convict, traveled though time and space to arrive in the Prime Universe in 2385, ten years after her "death". The others had all been pushed three years into their subjective "past".

"All I need to know at this time, before I confide in Macen, Rockford, and the rest of your SID team, is what happened to our original versions of you all?" Douglas inquired.

"We...don't know," Lee confessed, "Neela, who seems to be in touch with her Bajoran 'gods', says they transported the people replaced. If they weren't already dead, into alternate versions of this universe where they thrive and prosper."

"And your universe?" Douglas was well aware of the Prophets translinear and transdimensional natures.

"It's dead," Forte said sadly, "Everyone we knew is supposed to be...gone. Simply...gone now."

"So you don't know anything definitely?" Douglas asked.

"It's all a mystery to us as well," Lee explained, "We're not even certain of how the switch happened. We just went to bed in one universe and woke up here in a dead starship full of corpses. Dead versions of us."

"Yet everyone else outside of yout team and crew replaced living beings," Douglas processed that.

"Except for Neela. She was supposed ot be dead in both universes," Forte pointed out.

"So that was the 'miraculous' return that has Bajor abuzz," Douglas slightly smiled at that news.

"She and the Commander seem to know the most about our situation. And are sharing the least," Lee revealed.

"Who else knows? Julian and I are alone on DS9 in this," Douglas shared.

"Ian Delaney told his wife, Hannah Grace. She was dead in our home universe," Lee told her, "Macen has shared with some of his ex-Maquis contacts he's been hiring. Other than that, no one has shared anything."

"Considering you're all considered borderline criminals in my universe, no one would probably believe you anyway," Douglas stated matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, we were pretty shocked about that," Shade admitted and she was an honest to God ex-criminal.

"Our histories here are nothing like our actual pasts," Forte complained.

"I take it that's a good thing," Douglas assumed, "Given the trust you've engendered amongst high ranking Starfleet officers prior to crossing over, it seems that there's more to you all than our history portrays."

"Small favors," Shade grumped, "Someone finally gets it."

"So you're partner on this mission is unaware of our status?" Lee asked.

"Agent 0086 wouldn't pull his head out of his own ass to save his own life," Douglas complained, "He thinks seducing Treir right now to get info on Indendent Kira and Indendent Ro. Instead he's just made us targets."

"We've had Treir under surveillance since she made her way back from Sigma Iotia II," Lee informed Douglas, "Both Serenity Security and various Outbound Ventures agents."

"Let me guess, primarily the ex-Maquis you mentioned before?" Douglas grinned.

"Let's bump this up," Shade suggested, "Riker and Danan can figure out the legal headaches."

"I'd like to meet the 'other' Captain Riker," Douglas' grin grew wider into a smile.

The detective squad left Douglas with Riker's Senior Staff in his CO's office beside Station Ops. They included his wife and XO Lisea Danan, Svetlana Korepanova, and Kristine Liu, the station's Strategic Operations Officer and Logistics Officer as well Korepanova being the 2nd Officer and Liu being next in the chain of command. Sveta Korepanova and Kris Liu had served in those roles for the Maquis after defecting from Starfleet.

"So, you and Bashir just...figured it out?" Liu was aghast.

"That's right," Douglas confirmed it.

"I knew Bashir by proximity when I ran the Maquis' Architect program from DS9 and the Bajoran Militia revived it for the Dominion War," Korepanova recalled.

"I was there during the Dominion War," Liu forced her to recollection. They were Prime Universe natives.

"Back then it was Constable Odo and Major Kira that shut us down," Korepanova countered Douglas' assertion.

"Perhaps Julian suspected or he was too distracted to mention anything before then. He was trying to keep his genetic status a secret," Douglas shrugged, "And your program was fairly insignificant to the Federation's security."

Riker face palmed, "Can we focus?"

"Agent 0086 is in the midst of...acquiring actionable intelligence as we speak," Douglas switched topics.

"Our reports have him bedding Treir right now," Danan scowled.

Douglas gave the slightest of shrugs, "That's his preferred method of interrogation it seems."

"You wouldn't know with certainty?" Riker was aghast.

"I've never met the man before five days ago," Douglas suppressed her own inner revulsion, "But his records indicate sex and violence are his preferred means to acquire anything."

"She's a former elite Orion. She'll eat him alive," Korepanova predicted.

"I'm sure he's hoping so," Douglas allowed herself the smallest of smiles, "Meanwhile, he has filters imbedded in his sinuses that block her pheromones. So, they're each trying to gain the upper hand in a sexual contest of wills."

"Isn't that every sexual encounter?" Liu grumbled.

"We need to find you better partners," Danan sympathized. before Lisea had been joined with the Danan symbiot, her own love life had been rather pathetic she reflected. Not that later being caught between Macen and T'Kir had been any thing less than tragic. She was happy for her former partner that he'd finally found a stable relationship with Rockford. Despite, or perhaps because of, their recent transition Macen's life was no longer a constant roller coaster of one disaster following another.

"Commander, you wanted to be informed of when the Solstice docked," the deck officer reported in.

"Thank you, Cherrah," Danan replied, "It looks like you'll finally get your audience with the king and queen."

Finally, I'm getting somewhere, Douglas impatiently thought to herself.

Macen, Rockford, and Macen's former crew and cohorts from his Odyssey days with the Maquis had taken a weekend trip to Barrinor to relax at Macen's chateau on the planet's surface. As some of the wealthier residents, at one point, Macen and T'Kir had bought a mountain retreat. Despite T'Kir being dead, and Macen's income barely at base salary level for an Outbound Ventures employee, he'd retained the chateau. Riker's briefing en route had he and Rockford eager to speak with Douglas.

"So much for having a clear week," Macen sighed. Rockford was perusing Douglas' secure records thanks to Ro.

"Seems our 'guest' was qualified and approached to make Double 00 status and turned it down, three times," Rockford was impressed now that Macen had explained the 0 and 00 programs to her.

"Sort of like Tom's twin," Macen snickered, "Or Tom himself."

"Brin," Rockford lobbed a padd at him.

"What?" Macen light heartedly protested, "Tom turned down three commands other than the Eclipse, the George Kelly and the Obsidian herself before accepting the CO position at Serenity. A perk is his being in command of the Indomitable."

Rockford had learned not to belittle the Emden-class escort named after Ro's Maquis raider. She and Riker had come to their rescue more than once. Rockford herself was a former Angosian Augment Infiltrator born Annika Ryst. She'd been a ground pounder throughout her military and mercenary days. She hated space travel and was frankly pleased that they were spending less time aboard the Obsidian even if they were still generally in a space station.

In an effort to avoid overstretching his SID Investigative Team and the Obsidian's crew, he'd divided them. The specialists had no true duties aboard ship that didn't pertain to whatever mission they were attached to at the time. That suited Rockford since Celeste didn't have the slightest idea of how to operate a starship even in the most menial capacity.

As Ryst, she'd once purchased a luxury runabout. Fortunately, its automated systems took care of everything. The originating Ryst persona, as had the others, had sacrificed herself so the preferred Celeste Rockford absorbed their memories but not the different personalities contained within her mind. Insanity and suicide were the driving reasons behind why Rockford alone was the last Augment Infiltrator left alive. Without her mental fusion, she doubted that she herself would've lasted so long.

"We predicted that if anyone would quickly overturn our secret it would be Bashir and Douglas," Macen reminded his spouse.

"Too true," she sighed, "At least they've been willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt."

"Only after intense scrutiny proved out that Laren and Elias weren't threats. Which in turn, spoke well for everyone else," Macen sagely pointed out.

"Even with our supposed pasts, I presume?" Rockford reminded him.

"Probably why she took the opportunity to knock on our door. Other than the Intrepid, there's nowhere else with as high a concentration of 'transfers' and especially ones with such pathetically criminal pasts," Macen suggested.

"You really need to get over this," Rockford admonished him, "How did you ever get past being a Maquis?"

"I had right on my side," Macen replied.

"So did Annika. We all saw how that ended," Rockford deadpanned. the minute throbbing of the impulse engines died away and the thruster began to fire.

"We're docking so I guess we'll find out soon enough," Macen stood up from the table they shared in the Mess.

"She'll send us on a contract," Rockford predicted.

"You can't know that," Macen held to a flimsy hope.

"I know Nechayev. Douglas will have brought a mission Nechayev wants done and Amanda will have signed off on it," Rockford further predicted. Macen's team was the only one that received direct contracts rather than running them through Pike.

"I know you're right but I really hope you're wrong," Macen replied.

"Frequently and often but seldom if rarely," Rockford retorted. Macen had no comeback.

Danan personally handed off Douglas.

"Do you ever miss being in the Maquis?" Douglas probed Danan.

"Not ever," Danan readily replied.

"Then why did you join?" Douglas was intrigued.

"Why do we do anything foolish? It seemed like a good idea at the time," Danan waved Douglas off to the waiting Fanning.

"They'll see you now," Fanning said reassuringly. Douglas was unaware of her need to be reassured. Instead of reporting to either office to the right, she was steered to the left, which proved to be a united reception space. As in the Rockford Agency and again in Station Ops, a privacy screen was engaged.

"I'm glad you met with me," Douglas admitted.

"You're the best lie detecting test we could take," Macen readily admitted.

"True," Douglas was convinced that while she or Bashir could defeat a bio reader, no known species could defeat her sensory perceptions and eye for details. Once Bashir had synced her perceptions to her mental acuity, she'd marginally outclassed him in those arenas. But her husband had a greater width and breadth of experience with differing species. That outweighed her superior sensory perceptions.

They went through some fairly standard questions regarding the couple's, and everyone else's, general transfer experience. Douglas found the Prophets cryptic messages to Macen and Rockford as confusing as they did themselves. She knew already Riker and Danan had shared the truth as they knew it. But they'd decidedly left out whatever personal riddles the Prophets had left for them. She wondered, after Macen confided with his long term friends, Ro and Vaughn, if they could be persuaded to share theirs in order to gain further insight into the matters.

Douglas moved on to comparative history but Macen quelled the request for information, "Since we come from a short-term alternate future, I think discussing the particulars of where our timelines deviated isn't conducive."

"But you are aware of the changes?" Douglas asked.

"Still in the past here," Rockford interjected to shut the matter down.

"Are you criminals?" Douglas asked forthrightly.

"No, and yes. In a strictly legal sense that we're acting as double agents for the Cardassians," Macen answered.

"Were you ever criminals?" Douglas rephrased.

"Yes," Rockford answered for both, "And until ten years ago, our histories coincided well enough for you to know the how and what."

"Do you serve the Federation?" Douglas asked.

"Indirectly and directly both," Rockford answered before Macen could, "We undertake some of the SID's most hazardous missions and serve the Federation and Starfleet by doing so."

"Very...legalese fo you," Douglas allowed, "Commander Macen, you're perspective?"

"Every one of us were orphans before we switched. We made these people, this place our home. That remains a constant wherever we end up being. I chose the Federation as my adopted home. I'm certain you looked into my history, so you know the motives my counterpart and I shared until he resigned from Starfleet. I may not be in Federation space. I may not be joined into Starfleet. I furthermore may not technically obey Federation law but I respect and defend its society and its right to make decisions both good and bad. Those I agree with and those I don't. That's where everyone involved experienced separation from our counterparts' lives," Macen answered with great intensity.

"That spark of renewed determination is what first alerted Julian and I," Douglas revealed, "Both the Captain and Commander had become weary to the bone and were actively seeking to retire. To do what, I have no idea."

"And then there was Quark," Rockford surmised.

Douglas smirked, "And indeed, there was Quark. The turnaround from her usual brand of rejecting him was transwarp speed."

"And he's too besotted to care why and as long as it remains," Rockford gave him credit for his intentional and wanton blindness.

"Which was worrisome," Douglas admitted, "A Starfleet captain romantically involved with a known part-time smuggler and confidence artist?"

"My question is: why do Bajoran women keep falling for the men in that family?" Macen inquired. The allusion to Grand Nagus' wife, Leeta, was plainly obvious.

"Lt. Commander Nog has fully embraced interspecies dating," Douglas gave him the slightest smile, "And we believe it's mostly due to Quark's influence. He's cavorted with every type of trollop from every species that would bed him or give him oo-mox," Douglas continued, "That, despite Quark's ablest protests, showed he had an open mind."

"Did you just besmirch your CO?" Macen grinned.

"Captain Ro is hardly above reproach," Douglas gave a subtle smirk, "In fact, a Board of Inquiry has been called to ascertain whether or not she was aware of illegal tampering of code transfers occurring on her station in regards to orbital Bajoran refueling depots scattered across the sector and in the Gamma Quadrant colonial space."

Macen groaned.

"You know something," Douglas realized.

"We're also bound to silence," Rockford disappointed the Single 0 agent.

"But everyone knows it's Quark but no one will produce evidence or give testimony against him," Douglas was very frustrated and it showed, "This is the type of collusion that Starfleet was worried about."

"If the Board recommends criminal charges be filed?" Macen asked.

"The least that will happen is Ro will be removed as station CO and will be busted back to Commander," Douglas predicted, "Certain members of the Admiralty have long worried about Ro's ascent through the ranks after being convicted in her fellow officer's deaths on Garon II while she served aboard the Wellington. If Admiral Kennelly hadn't placed her aboard the Enterprise for his own Cardassian schemed plans, Ro would have never earned Admiral Picard's patronage. Even then, Picard sheltered her when she transferred from the Bajoran Militia to Starfleet Security. Now Picard has resigned and no one is left to protect Ro's interests."

"And a serving starbase commander that was sentenced to the stockade on Jaros II and later defected to the Maquis leaves a bad taste in Starfleet Command's collective mouths," Macen understood, "Which, her otherwise impeccable record until now never afforded them a reason to lash out at her."

"With Vaughn on her side, the Admiralty was willing to sit back and wait for her to make a mistake. Protecting Quark is that mistake," Douglas stated, "If you have any influence with your friend, you'll convince her to cooperate. JAG and IA would more than happy to either demote her her or remove her from her command. But her continuing silence will insure she receives both punishments. It's an open secret that Admirals Jellico and Ross as well as Starfleet Commander Clancy want her head on a pike."

"She'd resign first," Macen made his own prediction, "You do realize that this is an affair of the heart? Laren knows Quark is guilty but she'll go down in flames rather than be the one to throw him to the voles."

"Which is an admirable trait for a Maquis cell leader but rather impetuous and blatantly illegal in a Starfleet commanding officer," Douglas sighed.

Rockford punched in a few archive searches into her padd. Their private link to Serenity's Starfleet classified files access was unique amongst the Outbound Ventures commanders and agents. Only their hacker renegades could accomplish it on their own merits. The Troglyte Anara had been reborn as Angelique Kerber and the Stratosian Maarta was now Bailey Smith. Both Maarta and Anara had been sentenced to death on their native Ardana IV, despite Maarta being the legitimate heir to the crown of the ruling sky city of Stratos.

But Kerber and Smith had been Troglyte separatists. They'd committed many acts of terrorism but not the one crime they were convicted of by both Stratos' courts and the Troglyte clans. Maarta and Anara would never see home while they were alive again and their corspes would be desecrated should the bodies be sent back. But as Macen had inferred regarding his entire team, they'd made a new home with the SID in general and the Investigative Team in daily life despite Starfleet's willingness to hand them both over to Ardanan authorities to face their death sentences. Macen had a long festering grievance against Stratos and the Troglyte clans after what had been done to the team's first engineer, Hal Dracas. A fate shared by this universe's Dracas.

But one where he'd never been cloned on planet 492 IV, also known by the natives as Magna Roma. That planet was still under Federation quarantine after its incidents with the crews of the Beagle and the Enterprise. General Order One, the Prime Directive, had moved beyond the "Prime Suggestion" stage and become sacrosanct in the minds of Starfleet commanders and personnel. So it didn't surprise many that most of James T. Kirk's ealry missions violated the modern interpretation of the Prime Directive and, in fact, had helped breed the growing crisis posed by the Iotian Federation and its growing list of client states and allies. Newly acquired allies or conquests included Capella IV, Argelius, Omega IV, Troyius, and they had their sights set on the former Federation colony of Omicron Ceti III. The matriarchy of Angel One was also under threat of "persuasive arguments" to join the Iotians' "protection" racket. Basically, sailing starships into the system and threatening the natives with orbital bombardment if they didn't enlisted in the "Federation" and pay taxes in the form of materials, technology, and conscripts for the ever growing "Starfleet".

It was a cultural imperative that stemmed back into the Iotians' imitative past whereby they modeled their society around the Chicago mobs of Earth's 1920's and 30's. They'd simply blended those imperatives into their versions of what they saw the "Feds" as. The arrival of Indendents Ro and Kira from the Terran Universe hadn't stemmed the tide of their ambitions. Rather, it fanned the flames to the point of super nova strength.

Kira and Ro had transferred over some years ago and convinced the Iotians to build secretive shipyards where the two Bajorans would hand over modern Starfleet vessel designs stolen from the Federation the same way the Terran Rebellion turned reborn Empire had. In exchange, the Iotians would also tender construction of advanced Cardassian and Klingon designs stolen from the Prime Universe's Cardassian Union and Klingon Empire. Manned by personnel gleaned from the House of Duras and troops Supreme Legate Dukat could spare from the conflict with the rising tide that was the Terran Empire. The Terrans and their alien allies had pushed back against the Cardassian-Klingon Alliance and gut it in half. Roughly reclaiming the same spatial coordinates as occupied by the Federation in the Prime Universe.

Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, Tellar, and over hundred other worlds had been liberated from Alliance control. The Terrans had led the rebellion so the newly reforged Empire carried their name and upper echelons of power but alien cultures had greater access to the corridors of power than in the old Terran Empire where they were considered slaves. Simply third-rate subjects and slaves to be thrown against enemies therefore saving Terran lives from meaningless sacrifices. Unless, of course, those same sacrifices furthered the ambitions of the sitting Terran Emperor. Until the 23rd century USS Defiant fell into the hands of the 22nd century Terran Empire, the Empire had struggled to retain its conquests. But fielding technology a century in advance of local stellar nations and subject worlds, the rebellions were swiftly crushed.

The destruction of Qo'nos had inspired the Klingons to ally themselves with the Cardassians after the Terran Empire bombarded Cardassia Prime. At first, the Bajorans had rallied to aid their Cardassian allies. But as the Alliance became victorious, it became complacent. Under Regent Worf, the Alliance had actually lost footing to the allied Taurus Pact, consisting of the Tholians, the Gorn, the Breen, the First Federation, the Talarians, and every power that hadn't been conquered yet by the Alliance.

The Terran Rebellion began and festered under the Alliance's skin as the Klingons and Cardassians were repelled from one border to the other. Meanwhile the Terran cancer grew within them as more slaves threw off their shackles. The besieged solar systems of Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, Tellar and Rigel pushed a wedge to meet with the Terran Rebellion leaders on the captured Terok Nor to finalize Worf's ultimate humiliation by sending him back to the Alliance's "tender" embrace and the Klingon Houses, fueled by Dukat's ambitions and outrage, crucified the former Regent. But no House gained dominance to claim the Regent's throne.

A political reality Dukat had banked upon. As Dukat maneuvered to hold Cardassia's expansive borders, he singled out the House of Duras and offered the vision of a new Alliance. One that spread across an entirely different universe as well as regained footing in their own. By the time Indendent Ro persuaded Dukat to launch his scheme, the Terran Empire had taken and fortified not only Terok Nor, but also Empok Nor, Antok Nor, Kerok Nor, Ketok Nor, Litok Nor, Ampok Nor, and Tetrok Nor, effectively ringing in Cardassia's border with the self-proclaimed Terran Empire. It wouldn't have surprised anyone concerned to discover that Ampok Nor occupied the same coordinates in both universes. Ampok Nor being the Cardassians' name for Serenity Station.

Serenity, so dubbed by Riker, was a haven for Outbound Ventures crews returning from potentially hazardous assignments, both in the public and private sectors atop their SID contracts. It had also removed the corporate headquarters from Barrinor's surface to the station orbiting Odin. Connecting the corporate officers with their agents and employees in a very tangible way. Tyrol had once remarked that the move was "sheer brilliance."

The economic factors had driven both Macens to have a Cardassian station built without ore processors but rather large scale industrial replicators for ship repairs. Two nearby drydock slips could effectively manage the refitting of entire starships should the need arise. the Obsidian had recently undergone a series of upgrades, both by Outbound Ventures and Starfleet's Corps of Engineers. Since Outbound Ventures' Federation licenses and Letters of Marque allowed the company to acquire early to mid-24th century built decommissioned Starfleet vessels, the company was always looking to upgrade recent and older acquisitions to the most recent specs available.

Owing to other economic and staffing issues, no starships were operated by their rated crew complements. Rather partial crews served thirteen hour watches to make for Barrinor's 26.3 hour daily planetary rotation. Which was why the crews deployed for short duration assignments rather than long-term contracts. with the Federation mandating that Starfleet not cross its own borders in the wake of the Mars Massacre, so dubbed in the press, the SID irregulars were Starfleet's primary means to reach out across its own "wall of silence" imposed by the Federation Council. Seemingly abandoned colonies and protectorates that weren't full Federation members or lucky enough to be within its patrolled borders were given access to 23rd century vessels and "training advisors" to bring the locals up to speed in manning them.

The SID provided intermittent Outbound Ventures support as well. But they were only six vessels, eight if the Obsidian and Serenity's own outrider were included, against a sea of stars spread across two quadrants. Independent agents provided shuttles and runabouts also crisscrossed the planets involved to render discreet assistance at Starfleet's behest as well.

However, Starfleet Command took issue with selected crews and agents. The Blackbird-class Solstice was one such vessel. Manned entirely by Macen's former Maquis crew and select associates, the Solstice also served as the Investigative Team's secondary option should employing the Obsidian be untenable. Individual Maquis agents were also employed such as Hakatay and Sekona. Despite the Obsidian's defensive systems and sensors having been upgraded to the newer and superior Starfleet NovaX-class standards, the ship retained its civilian model exterior rather than rebuild the secondary deflector and warp nacelles to the standards of say, a USS Rhode Island.

The commercially available starship was still a surveyor rather than a tactical responder. which better fit the current non-military profile of the Investigative Team. Once, the team could've easily handled solidly military missions but no longer. Rockford's detective squad, the Data Team, and even Macen's other technical experts left two field agents with extensive combat training and experience.

The former Angosian Augment commando, Rab Daggit, and the former Starfleet Special Operations Command operative, Tony Burrows, were those elite two. Macen had fought beside Daggit since the Dominion War began. Burrows had come to the team at Vaughn's recommendation. Burrows had once been one of Vaughn's direct subordinates before his catastrophic knee replacement. That same biosynthetic replacement qualifying him for any Starfleet duty other than SOC. Burrows refused to accept any duties not pertaining to active SOC assignments and resigned from Starfleet. Vaughn persuaded Burrows to apply to Outbound Ventures and subsequently convinced Macen to take him on. Burrows hadn't been among the team members when they "crossed" over. He'd met up with them later from a different crossing point.

It had taken weeks for Macen, with Neela and Guinan's assistance, to determine how the Prophets had managed the lateral shift of personnel and why such items, such as their own original Obsidian, had been left behind. But Macen and Guinan's space-times senses couldn't fathom what had occurred to the alternate universe. The Prophets would only tell Neela that "that time is over". Which would have been an oddity except that Sisko's time with the Prophets had enlightened them in the ways of the linear universes they beheld and instructed him in the multi-reality existence of the Prophets. An existence Starfleet still had difficulty reconciling. But the Bajoran people happily accepted. Knowing their gods hadn't abandoned them to the Cardassians but rather had been shepherding "cousins" of a sorts in an alternate reality.

General Kira and Bashir knew from personal experience that the wormhole aliens didn't interact with every universe. The Indendent Kira had found the notion of the Prophets and the Celestial Temple laughable at best until it swallowed the fugitives' runabout and subsequently vanished from that space-time continuum. A realm even the Q avoided. Macen's people, the El-Aurians, had negotiated a peace settlement following a conflict between them and the Q. Certain boundaries and stipulations had been established between interactions between the two races. Boundaries that included "younger" uplifted races as the Prophets, the Organians, and the Metrons. The Melkots and Medusans only being a step behind them.

Guinan theorized that since the El-Aurians tethered themselves to the Prime Universe, the differing choices made by Brin Macen had created the unstable reality the stabilized Macen had come from. Whereas the stable universe had possessed an unstable incarnation of Macen. The Q had simply destroyed the errant breakaway reality without any interest in rectifying its origins. The Prophets had taken notice of Macen during the Dominion War and how he could serve Bajor's interests. So they clumsily, one would say, "solved" the situation by bringing the surviving Macen to replace the dead version within the Prime Universe. Thereby solving the schism problem created throughout both universes.

But the Prophets, by simply being themselves, wouldn't answer a direct line of questioning regarding their motives. It had taken Macen and Guinan together to lace together the question fo how the transfer had occurred. The answer came from their mutual experience within the Nexus and Jean-Luc Picard's tying the fate of the Prime Universe into the Ribbon itself. But the greater question of why Macen's closest friends and associates had also been brought here with him was left as unanswered as was the fate of those living beings that had been judiciously "replaced".

Neela promised everyone involved their counterparts prospered in other corners of a multiverse. But Macen knew Neela was lying. She simply didn't know either but recognized the need for reassurance. Macen also recognized Neela's fluid relationship with objective "fact" versus subjective "truth". She, like him, frequently manipulated facts to form "truths". But like him, also realized the value behind a commonly shared objective truth.

El-Aurians valued the representational aspects of food and liquid. They collectively cherished the power of words and songs, hence their esteemed, and not so-esteemed, nature as Listeners. They held the Q accountable for their travesties and misdeeds. Which the Q Continuum could barely tolerate and for a brief instant in time, hadn't. The Q Picard and the Enterprise, Voyager, and DS9 crews had come to know and regret doing so, was a provocateur that even his own race had to rein him in he'd so grossly violated the terms of the peace treaty brokered between the Q and the El-Aurians. Even the mysterious Supervisors protecting the Temporal Accords hadn't the sway or power over the Q that Macen's race had and yet, Deity had sacrificed the vast majority of the El-Aurians to the Borg. Giving the Borg Queen access to their knowledge and their power over the Q.

A motivator behind Q introducing Picard and the Enterprise to the Borg. Humanity's power to overcome the Borg on multiple occasions vexed the Queen and delighted the Q. Which was another factor in Q's "trial" of humanity choosing Picard as the fulcrum point by which to judge. Q warned Picard that the trial was never over. Yet no one knew what outcome any potential verdict would render. The Q had obliterated most of their "Olympian" and "Asgardian" competition, leaving a few scattered, like Apollo, to wither and die. The other "pantheons" had died out of their own accord.

Picard's pivotal role was vitally demonstrated beyond his encounters with the Borg but by his reshaping the Prime Universe itself by resisting the lure of the Nexus and harnessing its power to rewrite history. Making the previous events of the destruction of Veridian and its planets an aberration rather than the norm. That divergent Borg infested reality was also destroyed by the Q.

Picard would never realize how the galaxy's very nature had shaped those events. It was no accident that Guinan had been present, 76 years prior to enter the Nexus and leave a remnant impression of herself to guide him within the Nexus itself, as well as her physical presence aboard the Enterprise for those events. Also too, that she'd survived the Enterprise hull's plunge into Veridian III. Guinan returned to Earth afterwards, her immediate role in Picard's life had ended and her destiny would play out again at a later date. As it had in the Earth year 2024 and also the fateful events that brought Guinan into Picard's sphere in the early 24th century.

 

Chapter Two

Douglas' takeaway was that the transfers could be trusted. Their precise role in history as of yet undetermined even by themselves. But their selection hardly seemed random. Rather, remove the deistic elements, and it seemed that the Prophets had engineered a response to a specific problem or series of problems. Which was a natural conclusion since the aliens themselves were translinear and existed outside of conventional space-time. past, present, and future had always been one "moment" to them. But Sisko's time with the Prophets had shown them the totality of a linear existence.

Upon accepting that basic tenet, they'd released him and returned him to Bajor in time to witness the birth of his second child, this time with his freshly married and then-deprived of his company wife, Kassidy Yates. General Kira had been on hand for Sisko's momentous return and the childbirth occurring within mere hours of each other. Rather than subject his newly born offspring and Kassidy to the life of shifting from one command to another, Sisko retired to his house on Bajor. Becoming an even more iconic figurehead to the Bajorans. Who largely respected the family's privacy.

Yates even returned to working as the captain of the Xhosa during its intermittent runs for the Bajoran Commerce Guild. Sisko settled down to tending to his now-nine year old daughter and guiding her along life's paths during Yates' absences and faithfully sharing the experience with his wife during her frequent down times. Sisko had accomplished tremendous things as a Starfleet officer and as the Emissary of the Prophets but now he just concentrated on being and sharing that being with his loved ones. It was the most contented Sisko had ever been. After all the struggles and tragedies, his life had been richly rewarded. So despite Starfleet's winnowing calls to return to service, Benjamin Layfette Sisko was finally home.

"Julian and I will keep your secret," Douglas pledged, "In the meantime, Admiral Nechayev requested that I personally contact you and arrange for an assignment."

"Told you," Rockford gloated.

"Fine," Macen said sullenly.

"Starfleet Intelligence has confirmed that the Iotians made overtures to Capella IV, Argelius, the former colony on Omicron Ceti III, and Troyius. All have accepted membership into the Iotian's joke of a Federation. Omega IV is being scouted out as a potential resource extraction site. Those resources would include the Yangs and Khoms. SI cannot stress enough the imperative that the Iotians not get their hands on the viral agents that originally wiped the civilization out. The Gideonite scientists working for the Iotians could probably engineer the virus into a more effective form, resistant to modern treatments, despite environmental factors neutralizing it. The Exeter's crew proved that the virus is still extant. The Iotians have no fear of Starfleet enforcing the quarantine under the current restrictions because Omega IV is outside of Federation space."

"That's a military mission," Macen quickly shot the idea down.

"Yes, but the Iotians routing construction convoys and starships through Turkana IV and Angel One. They're constructing K-, J-, and G-class stations at an alarming rate. And they've secured the Ekos system to mine its debris fields for mineral and metal resources. It's devoid of life so there's no native competition left alive after the supernova," Douglas countered, "All Nechayev is asking for is a scouting mission to determine the nature of the relationships between the Iotians and the peoples on those choke points."

"Again, a military mission easily accomplished by agents such as yourself," Macen argued.

"You won't go?" Douglas was temporarily frozen by her own disbelief that she could've been so wrong about this couple.

"I think what Brin is trying to get to in his own obtuse fashion is we'll gladly accept an assignment to a world or worlds we can more or less easily get in and out of relatively unnoticed," Rockford interpreted for Douglas.

"A lot of trading and exchanges get done on Argelius," Douglas allowed, "It's last on my list of asks but will you accept a mission to determine the Iotians' full reach and intentions there?"

"Now I'll agree to those terms," Macen happily said.

"If we can avoid a second Redjac incident," Rockford snickered. Douglas failed to see the humor so Rockford explained, "My poor, benighted husband is a great admirer of James T. Kirk and his infamous career."

"I suppose there's some overlap because of the Lakul incident and saving the Enterprise-B being Kirk's last heroic act," Douglas reasoned.

"Being beamed out of the Nexus wasn't a choice any of us would've made. But most of us learned to cope," Macen preemptively struck down any potential conversations pertaining to his maternal great-uncle, Dr. Tolian Soran. Like most El-Aurians, Soren had been denied the longevity drugs that sustained explorers and interstellar scientists far beyond their natural centuries spanning lifetimes. Guinan had first come to Earth as a social observer in its 19th century.

Macen had toured the Alpha, Beta, and Delta Quadrants with the Survey Corps as an A & A Officer in the late 22nd century through the late 23rd century. He'd first enlisted in Starfleet as an Anthropology and Archaeology Officer in 2309 as well before being transferred to the developing Cardassian desk inside Starfleet Intelligence's Department of Analysis. He'd stayed an analyst until being cross trained by Vaughn as a field operative and sent to the Cardassian border in 2351 and there, both Macens had stayed until 2375 when the divergence began and the surviving Macen ended up on the wrong/right side of history. Depending on one's perspective.

"Nechayev sent you personally rather than relay a request through Admiral Forger, knowing Forger would shoot the bulk of her wish list down," Rockford had surmised.

Douglas shrugged, "It was a gamble."

"And in the end, Alynna still received what she really wanted all along," Macen had also deduced.

"I suppose you would know her better than anyone other than Commander Vaughn," Douglas was well aware of the long standing working relationship shared between those three.

"We'll need time to recall the crew," Macen informed Douglas, "Best guess? We'll ship out in forty-eight hours."

"0086 and I will be long gone by then and on our way to Angel One," Douglas decided ot reveal, "Afterwards we'll take an excursion to Sigma Iotia II. Hopefully we can sabotage the supply trains at both locations."

"Making our presence irrelevant in the first place," Macen hated Nechayev's gambles and mind games.

"Meanwhile, 0086 is pumping Treir for information and an invitation to meet with Oxmyx and Kracko and ultimately with Intendent Kira herself," Douglas divulged the full scope of Nechayev's plans.

"How much 'pumping' are we talking about?" Rockford grinned.

"I'd say he'll last approximately five hours before she wears him out," Douglas estimated, "Afterwards, it depends on how generous she's feeling."

"Have we ever 'pumped' for five hours?" Rockford asked Macen.

"Once or twice," he confessed.

"Time must've flown," she smirked.

"Admittedly we weren't clock watching," Macen retorted, "But on both occasions we were actually interrupted by the good Amanda Forger."

"I knew I hated her for something," Rockford snickered.

"So, we're good?" Douglas interrupted the banter.

"You tell us," Macen replied.

"We are. And good luck on your assignment," Douglas rose to finally retire for the evening.

"Commander Douglas, please inform the Admiral Nechayev-type person that we require contracts to undergo assignments," Macen told her before she could withdraw.

"You have bought into this mercenary motif," Douglas allowed.

"It behooves us to keep our cover intact," Rockford explained away rather than admit to Douglas that Macen had become quite a mercantile trader as the half owner of Outbound Ventures and the Rockford Detective Agencies.

"I'll tell her straightaway," Douglas departed at that point. Macen and Rockford exited as well.

"Bryce, please inform Captain Forger that a contract has been accepted and we have a forty-eight hour departure window. Sooner if could be" Macen requested.

"I was on my way out so you just caught me in time," Fanning admitted.

"Imagine how poor Shannon will feel," Rockford consoled their mutual aide.

The Obsidian was actually prepped for departure three hour s ahead of schedule. Macen commended Forger and her senior staffers as he briefed them on their current objective. The Investigative team stood in as well.

"We're headed for Argelius. For those of you, unlike Harri, that haven't heard of it or been there, it's a planet of hedonistic delights. It's the darker side of Risa," Macen referenced Harriet Fedora Mudd's past excursions to hand off that part of the brief to her.

"The local mantra is if you want it, and can afford it, it's yours no matter what it is. The planet specializes in the narcotics and skin trades," Mudd explained, "The Orion Syndicate has a sizable foothold here but so do other vested interests. It's natural for arms dealers like the Iotians and others to parlay here. For the right price, anything goes unnoticed or embraced."

"Our specific task is to unravel just who the Iotians' customer list is comprised of and what are they reaping in return. We know the Iotian Starfleet is poised to deploy their newest cruisers. This next generation of ships is only a design generation behind modern UFP starships. The Alliance allowed the Iotians to leap from mid-23rd century tech to mid-24th century analogues. Which means they have a mini-fleet of outdated ships to unload to less advanced cultures and other interested parties. In the wrong hands a starship of almost any pedigree can be dangerous to traditional shipping. These cruisers, light cruisers, and frigates still have the wherewithal to eradicate a civilization. And the Iotians will be more than happy to sell the ordnance needed to do so as long as it serves their own interests," Macen explained, "We have no definite plan because Starfleet Intelligence has barely looked Argelius' way. So our first, best case scenario is getting and out with our necessary intelligence without drawing attention and avoiding a conflict."

"Like that ever happens," Edwin Zimbalist, the ships OPS Officer snorted.

"Once in a while we succeed at sneaky," Galen 3, the Eminiaran Chief Sciences Officers argued. The scientist was also dating the CMO, the EMH known as Tessa. Tessa's ongoing survival required that she avoid Federation citizenship and/or activities within the UFP after the Synthetics Ban took effect. Even Voyager's famous Doctor had been required to depart Federation space in order to secure his own ongoing activation.

Admiral Kathryn Janeway had advocated for the Doctor but the Federation Council made the policy and enacted it into law following the Mars catastrophe. The law regarding holographic programs prohibited their ongoing activation to last long enough for their adaptive software take on artificial intelligence. Thereby mandating their deactivation until such time as the ban was lifted. A fate Tessa would share should she return to the Federation's borders and be discovered by authorities. Tessa operated throughout the ship because of the extensive holo emitter network Macen had had installed.

He'd once posed the question, "What use is an Emergency Medical Hologram that can't get to the emergency?" Off the ship, Tessa utilized a prototype "mobile emitter" developed by Reginald Barcley. Unlike the Doctor's 29th century palm sized emitter, Tessa's was a large backpack that she was forced to wear in order to use it. Her recent excursion to Izar had been enabled because Commander Vaughn, who had escorted Macen's team to a Section 31 training facility, readily overlooked Tessa's presence and omitted her taking place on the mission from his official logs. Neither crews of the USS Defiant or the Hood had known of Tessa's involvement or very existence as an independently thinking holo program.

"Security will be up for anything," Jelena Kovic promised.

"So will my Tactical squad," Jaycee Miller vowed as well.

"My relief will need to know Argelius' system entry protocols well in advance of our arrival," the Chief CONN Officer, the Platonian named Aglaia, warned.

"It's a matter of public record," ship's Captain Shannon Forger let her know.

"So we're being discreet?" Rab Daggit asked.

"Exactly," Macen encouraged that line of thinking.

"We can do discreet," Tony Burrows boasted.

"No, we can't," the Orion Chief Engineer named Parva laughed. She wa Daggit's one true love and knew his and the team's inherent limitations since only Daggit had been a member with Macen longer than anyone else. The team's pilot shared that distinction to a degree. As a teen, she'd flown Macen's Blackbird-class scoutship, the Odyssey, for his tenure with the Maquis and through the Dominion War. Ten years later, he'd reconnected and recruited her as his personal pilot once again. Her "own" ship was the Danube-class runabout registered to Outbound Ventures as the Corsair. Readily assisted by Mudd, Ebert handled most of the runabout's maintenance, modifications, and repairs on her own. That left the data and detective teams accounted for as well.

"Since we have nothing going into this, any suggestions or ideas of how to pull this miracle off would be greatly requested," Rockford confessed for the leadership team, "We have a four day journey to reach Argelius so it's not a pop quiz. You can study for the exam and it's open book."

Everyone looked relieved.

"We have ship to disembark, so everyone that has a watch station, be at your watch station," Forger ordered.

"Lee, Shade, Arianna, please stay here," Rockford requested, "We can do some brainstorming together."

Everyone else exited the Situation Center the detective squad used as their collective work space. Macen retired to his own office. Daggit and Burrows went with Kovic to use her office for a joint strategy session. Smith and Kerber vanished into the Data Womb. Leaving Mudd and Ebert alone. There was personal history between them that Ebert wanted to forget and Mudd wanted to relive. But they'd called a truce.

"I'm checking in with the Commander," Ebert told Mudd.

"Why not?" Mudd asked rhetorically with a roll of her eyes. Macen made a habit of leaving his office tripped to open to a petitioner.

Ebert and Mudd entered while Macen was having a conversation with Ro, "Laren, why didn't you mention the Board of Inquiry?"

"It's a done deal," Ro shrugged pessimistically, "They've recommended I resign. If I sign off, I avoid a court martial and a return to Jaros II. Even if it's for just a year, I can't take going back. Not anymore."

"So what happens next?" Macen wondered.

"Kira was very understanding, she arranged for a lateral transfer at the rank of Colonel into the Militia. I won't be on the station but I still be on Bajor," Ro explained, "She has an opening at Colonial Forces. My experience lends itself to fighting skirmishes across several worlds as well as probing security leaks and threats."

"And Quark?" Macen inquired.

"He threatened to turn himself in but I told him he wouldn't avoid jail whereas I will," Ro shrugged.

"And Elias?" Macen wondered.

"Will assume temporary command until a permanent CO is assigned. They offered to rank him up or even just give him the posting but he refused on both counts. He's a stubborn man," Ro offered a sad smile.

"I know better than most," Macen admitted.

"I already submitted my resignation. It became retroactively effective yesterday," Ro gave a wan smile, "I'm catching a transport in two hours. It took me fifteen minutes to pack."

"You're getting slow," Macen forced the humor.

"Happens to everyone eventually. Even you," Ro warned him, "I get my starship command as part of the deal. It's only over a century out of date."

"You're use d to that," Macen allowed.

"Once upon a time at least," Ro chuckled humorlessly, "Look, I'm going to get morbid here. So let me go gracefully."

"I still wish all the best at your new posting," Macen offered.

"So does everyone else," Ro terminated the connection.

"Ladies?" Macen turned to face them.

"What will happen to Captain Ro?" Ebert was stunned by the revelation.

"Colonel Ro will graciously and gratefully rejoin the Militia," Macen shrugged.

"How is that 'The Plan'?" Ebert refused to accept it.

"I don't know. Not even Neela knows," Macen confessed, "And it's already done."

"I thought you could see the future?" Mudd snarked.

"I can sense probability fluxes," Macen corrected her, "All my people can. That's how I navigate crux point s that will create temporal divergences."

"Sounds like a headache," Mudd commented.

"It can be," Macen confessed, "But back to Laren, she's made her choice."

"I just don't understand how this helps anything," Ebert complained.

"Neither do I but we have to have faith," Macen argued.

"Faith? Faith in what?" Mudd snorted.

"Faith that the universe will unfold as it should," Macen replied.

"That's a pretty damn big give," Mudd said snidely.

"We've already seen how our decisions played out in two universes. Now we're expected to walk through those again with an entirely different set of circumstances. I can't explain why I just know we must," Macen told her.

"How can you know?" Ebert asked almost plaintively.

"Because we're here. Not only here but back three years from what we knew. We're needed in this here and now because there was a void we needed to fill and we weren't considered expendable," Macen tried to explain.

"And you're absolutely certain of this?" Mudd asked sharply.

"We're here and our 'home' is gone. How can I be any less certain?" Macen asked in reply.

"But why us?" Ebert had to wonder.

"I don't know," Macen admitted, "I do know we're not the major players in this drama. Picard resigned. Sisko settled down. Ro has been forced to resign. Hannah Grace is still alive. Ezri Dax isn't the captain of the Aventine. There is no Captain Data of the Enterprise. The Borg are still out there. These are all major changes from our reality. Mars is burning. Will Riker and Deanna Troi stood down. And I think bigger changes are still forthcoming. All I know with dead certainty is we're meant to navigate all of this and help bring hope back to the Federation."

"That's a pretty tall order," Mudd was dismissive.

"It's what we've got to work with," Macen replied.

"That sucks," Ebert grumbled.

"I don't like it either," Macen readily admitted, "But I won't run from it either."

"It's not like we haven't faced impossible odds or fought for lost causes before," Ebert recalled her own past with Macen in the Maquis.

"It is for me," Mudd confessed, "My motto was always to run away and flee another day as well."

"You still can, Harri," Macen reminded her, "No one is keeping you here."

"Don't tempt me," Mudd scoffed, "But...I'm here too for whatever reason. Call it a definite second chance at who knows what. But if I really did cheat death again then I'll stick around around long enough to find out why."

"We appreciate it, Harri. All of us," Macen pointedly stared at Ebert.

She sighed, "He's right. Even I'm grateful."

"Good to know," Mudd muttered.

Macen suppressed a smile. He knew Ebert had sworn of the heartbreak of getting involved with bad boys, girls, and non-binaries' and Mudd was a stereotypical bad girl. Who happened to have it bad for Ebert what seemed to have been an exceptionally erotic drunken encounter with Ebert on Sigma Iotia II. Ebert had defiantly put the skids on a repeat performance and Mudd had strained the relationship by pushing. It was only since Izar that two were on general speaking terms again. Which was a good thing since they frequently collaborated on all things Corsair.

"So do we have a plan or we just winging it like it seems to be the norm around here?" Mudd was understandably curious.

"Celeste I discussed posing as interested corporate partners in acquiring some recently decommissioned Iotian starships," Macen confided.

"How serious are you?" Ebert wondered.

"Enough to actually make some purchases," Macen admitted, "Outbound Ventures needs to expand to keep up with our existing client base before the Starfleet retainer took effect. Even mid-23rd century analogues are better equipped than most threats to commercial shipping or raiders attacking planets."

"Why not raid Starfleet?" Mudd wondered.

"Because every available vessel is spoken for," Macen informed her, "Starfleet might have orders to only defend the Federation member worlds and inner colonies but they are supplying obsolete starships and training advisors to the systems left otherwise undefended."

"And we can't get access to more advanced vessels?" Ebert was irked by that.

"The Federation Council is holding all remaining early- to mid-24th century hulls in reserve. Actually, the edict pertains to any vessel built or refitted post-2271," Macen explained, "Which means we no longer have our former pool to draw from."

"But they just decommissioned all those Miranda- and Excelsior-class ships!" Ebert hotly protested.

"We might lay our hands on a Constellation-class or two but that's about it or so the official word goes," Macen told her, "And since Starfleet can't show favoritism, we're bound by the same restrictions as everyone else. With the SID handing selective retainers to security contractors, the lines have already formed for every remaining hull. Even Earth Starfleet vessels are up for grabs. Which means the market is perfect for the Iotians to offload the ships they no longer want. They also can now get the prices they want because Starfleet's available depots have been emptied."

"No wonder Starfleet wants the Iotians' presumed client list," Mudd came to realize.

"They're also hoping we can get a basic tab on what ship classes are replacing the ones they're selling," Macen said with some frustration.

"Information is a valuable commodity on Argelius. It buys better than latinum," Mudd shared, "Trade some state secrets and you'll have your list."

"Selling who is patrolling what, when, and where usually sells first," Macen mused, "Tack on the Klingon patrols and we can probably broker an acceptable deal."

"Leave that bit to me," Mudd offered, "It's kinda the thing I'd normally do."

"The Iotians would probably also buy how to hack past the jammer buoys surrounding their border with the Federation so they can access the public nets again," Ebert suggested.

"The Alliance has already given them the tech base they want," Macen shook his head, "Great idea but the Indendents invalidated it."

"Well that sucks," Ebert complained.

"Information comes with an expiration date. Which those patrol postings had better be fresh that morning," Mudd reminded Macen.

"They will be," he promised.

"Will Admiral Forger by honked off at you for selling that kind of info?" Ebert wondered.

"I hope she is," Mudd snorted.

"It's within the purview of my cover so there shouldn't be any official flack. But unofficially, it'll probably set Admiral Clancy off on another warpath," Macen answered.

"What is her deal?" Mudd exclaimed in frustration, "Did a vole climb up her ass and die?"

"Probably," Macen couldn't help but smile that time.

"Look, we really need to cover our bases here," Mudd warned, "The markets on Argelius can be dangerous when dealing with arms and black market goods. The sellers are a bit...twitchy. And God knows how the Iotians will react to you trying to buy starships from them after they know it was us poking poking the bear inside 492 IV."

"Magna Roma," Macen corrected her.

"Not yet it ain't," Mudd corrected him, "That was then, the old then. In the new now everyone still just knows it as 492 IV."

"I stand corrected," Macen grinned.

"Good," Mudd huffed, "Mistakes like that will get me killed. I don't care if the rest of you die. Just leave me outta it."

Macen knew her jaded facade was reinforced by her fear of losing her newly adopted family. As a member of the Mudd clan, Harri hadn't had the most stable of upbringings. Her fears of loss and rejection had made her the lone operator she'd been. But when the Prophets utilized the Nexus to transport Mudd to the Prime Universe, they'd put her aboard a crippled freighter facing down her own corpse. A scene that also been played out on the Obsidian. Both ships had been struck by the Iridians months before.

Strange as that had been, Admirals Nechayev, Forger, Johnson, the Senior Staff of the Intrepid, Tom Riker, Danan, Ro, and Vaughn had found themselves replacing still living people. Roughly inserted into "their" lives with barely a warning from the enigmatic Prophets. They'd all found themselves three year s into "their" past. Neela had found herself waking up ten years into her future. She'd also awoken to suddenly find herself the center of religious fervor as she'd "returned from the dead". A shit storm that drew in General Kira, Colonel Anara, and Sisko.

Anara, Neela's oldest living friend, had been overjoyed to have her friend back. Neela confided in her the truth od what had happened. Anara subsequently reinforced Neela's claims of ignorance regarding the Prophets' intentions regarding her "return" from the seeming grave. The fact that Neela had been KIA in the Dominion War added emphasis to her claims when she was still unaware that the war had been finally won and the Allies had been victorious. Also surprising to her was Bajor's entrance into the Federation. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the betrayal of her patron, the Kai Winn Adami, of the Prophets in favor of their traditional enemies, the Pah-Wraiths hadn't fazed her in the least.

It seemed, even to the loyal Neela, that Winn's ambition and treachery knew no bounds. After all, Neela had served as her personal "troubleshooter" since her early release from prison on murder charges in 2373 just prior to the Dominion War's outbreak.

Neela had been paired with then-Major Anara to strike out at the Cardassian True Way. Neela and Anara continued their renewed professional association throughout the war. Closely tied to Ro and Macen's efforts with a platoon fo Angosian Augment commandos, Neela and Anara had used their "stolen" Karemma designed troop transport, the Ark of the Prophets, to move supplies and personnel for the Bajoran Militia across the war zone and beyond. Neela had been amused to discover Anara still had the ship, off the books, of course. Anara gave the Ark to Neela to enable her to relocate to Serenity and join the Outbound Ventures team.

Now as an OPS engineer aboard the Solstice, Neela also served as a conduit of the Prophets' wishes and intentions to those relocated from their original reality to this one. Members of the ex-Maquis crew had been aboard both Ro's Newton-class Asimov and Macen's orginal Blackbird-class Odyssey during the war serving the Militia's needs beside Anara and Neela. Those events, and Neela's apparent death, preceding the divergence that created their unstable alternate reality. A reality the Q had collapsed in on itself. But why the Q had taken just drastic measures was a mystery to all, perhaps even to the Prophets.

The most infamous Q had always seemed obsessed with humanity, particularly Picard, And for a season, Janeway. But Picard's first mission to Farpoint aboard the Enterprise-D introduced the Q to mankind and he'd been "testing" humanity and especially Picard ever since. But the Q as an entire Continuum had been quiet until the destruction of selective alternate quantum realities, or so the Prophets stated. Guinan had had contact with the Organians and the Metrons and they'd confirmed the Q's recent rampages. The remaining so-called "elevated" races marshaling their strength to defend the Four Prime Realities. They'd also revealed the recent events had unsettled the Borg Queens across the quantum realms. The Talosians, Melkots, and Medusans were also agitated by a recent schismatic event. Silicate life forms such as the Horta and the Excalibans were disturbed by whatever it had been.

But the Romulans had possession of a Borg cube that contained sections that seemed blown out from the interior for no apparent reason. In addition, the synthetics and androids on and surrounding Mars had gone homicidal, destroying all life on the colony and the Utopia Planetia Yards themselves utilizing Mars' own defense grid and interceptors. There was no answer as to why the violence erupted so suddenly. Or why it ended there. The "surviving": androids had gone inert and were captured and dismantled. All forms of synthetic intelligence were then banned in the Federation. computer systems were carefully monitored and governed so as to prevent sentience from taking hold. Artificial intelligences captured from across Federation space were isolated from all cybernetic systems and locked away.

But Vaal and Landru had been intentionally repaired and restored to their primacy by parties equally unknown. But both systems had made arrangements with the Alliance to insure their mutual survival in the Prime Universe. Holographic rights debates had ended as well. The citizens of Fair Haven had been "deleted", their program erased rather than stored. The Doctor was a Mark I EMH and physically modeled after his creator, Dr. Louis Zimmerman. Tessa was a Mark IV and physically resembled Dr. Anissa Lyons, a famed medical practitioner from 2393-2459. She'd died on Setlik III during the Cardassian massacre of the bulk of the civilian population. She'd come with a Doctors Without Borders team to render assistance to the beleaguered colonies swept up in the Border Wars. Survivors recounted her incredible calm reassurances in the face of certain death. She'd even offered to treat the Cardassians' wounded.

Gul Evek ordered that she be last to die, bearing witness to every other death. But the incident strongly affected Gul Macet, who began to question his superiors' orders and methods in the conflict. Macet had been called upon to negotiate with Picard regarding a potential treaty between the Federation and the Cardassian Union. Macet had later been transferred to the Cardassian Farside border as negotiations broke down and the brief Second Border War initiated. Captain Edward Jellico led the effort to establish a Demilitarized Zone between the two stellar powers.

Jellico was promoted to Admiral in reward for his efforts. The Federation and the Cardassians earned the Maquis as a reward for their arbitrarily handing over Federation colonies to Cardassian control. Even the DMZ, ostensibly administrated by a Colonial Council with Starfleet and Cardassian Guard "advisors", held little sway over the Cardassians' overt intentions to seize control over the colonies within the DMZ. Starfleet, under the Federation Council's orders, gave the Cardassian de facto administrative control over the colonies through puppet governors.

Commander Calvin Hudson, Starfleet's official representative, favored the Federation colonists and organized the Maquis to safeguard their interests. Hudson was exposed as the Maquis Commander and founder and resigned from Starfleet. Starfleet Command refused to accept his resignation since he hadn't filed the paperwork but rather demonstrated his intent verbally and by disintegrating his uniform in from of his life long friend, Sisko. They declared him AWOL and a terrorist renegade. As they branded every Maquis. Sympathies ran so high amongst Border War veterans and other Starfleet officers that the merest mention of such sympathies could result in disciplinary action. Of particular concern to Starfleet were the defections of Hudson, Chakotay, Ro, Sveta Korepanova, and Michael Eddington.

Hudson was a career Command officer. Chakotay was both a graduate and instructor at the Advanced Tactical Training Program. Ro was another graduate of ATT. Korepanova was a career Strategic Operations planner. Eddington had been Starfleet's Chief Security Officer aboard Deep Space Nine. Starfleet ordered Captain Janeway, on Voyager's maiden mission, to capture Chakotay and the crew of the Maquis Raider Val Jean. She'd placed Lieutenant Tuvok undercover with Chakotay. Then she recruited Tom Paris, a disgraced Starfleet and Maquis pilot, to aid her in her apprehending Chakotay. That first mission ended with both crews ending up deep into the Delta Quadrant thanks to the being known as the Caretaker.

Fortunately, after a seven-year journey, Voyager utilized transwarp conduits to arrive in Sector 001. With them were members of the Val Jean and USS Equinox crews. Of the five Equinox survivors, only Marla Gilmore, stripped of her rank of Ensign, reenlisted in Starfleet and quickly rose to become a non-commissioned officer. The other four vanished into lives of infamous obscurity. Of the Maquis, only Chakotay remained in Starfleett. His brevet promotion to full Commander permanently instated and he quickly earned a second promotion to Captain and command of the new Voyager-A. He'd chosen Lt. Commander Harry Kim as his XO.

Janeway was famously promoted to Admiral, Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres left Starfleet as did the Doctor. Seven of Nine went her own way after arriving in the Delta Quadrant to further explore her humanity and her dawning awareness of her own sexuality. Tuvok retired, again, to spend the remainder of his days beside his wife and to counsel his children as they navigated life.

"I wonder what Celeste is saying to her squad?" Ebert voiced.

"Helluva question," Mudd mused.

"So ask her already," Macen urged. They departed and Macen decided to check in with Daggit, Burrows, and Parva's scheming.

Rockford had explained the weapons buy strategy to her detctives, "But we need more. That's where you come in. We need information on who is receptive to the Iotians' influence and how openly the Alliance is influencing decision making in the area."

"We'll need currency. Information is a precious commodity on worlds like Argelius," Shade reminded her boss.

Rockford handed over a financial padd, "You'll have this account at your disposal. Spend it wisely."

Shade looked at the numbers displayed on the proffered and accepted padd, "Whoa!"

"Starfleet is taking this seriously," Lee agreed with Shade's surprise when the padd reached him.

"I thought official policy was to ignore the threat," Forte put in.

"It is. But it's easier ignore the potential adversary that you know them intimately," Rockford counsled her. She handed over a second padd, "This is the wish list for intelligence finds."

"Not gonna happen," Shade whistled upon viewing the list.

"Why do you think I employ a professional thief?" Rockford smirked. The door chimed and instructed the computer to allow access. Mudd and Ebert entered in.

"We're here to save your day," Mudd extolled their present virtues. Ebert explained the plan thus far.

"This could work," Shade conceded, "Between our efforts and Harri's we should get somewhere."

"Where is Brin?" Rockford wondered.

"I have no idea," Ebert shrugged, "No one has a role for me yet?"

"How would you like to consult on buying starships?" Rockford grinned.

"That's futzin' awesome!" Ebert enthused.

"You definitely know more about these things than I would," Rockford admitted with a smile, "So, Brin is probably doling out other assignments so I'll go with the squad and leave Harri and you to your missions."

"What're Angelique, Bailey, and Tessa gonna do?" Mudd asked.

"I can only imagine," Rockford sighed, "My man is nothing of not notoriously sneaky in any universe."

Macen found his intended targets confabbing over a quick lunch.

"Parva! Just the engineer I was looking for," he plopped down into seat next to Burrows, "Actually, I was looking for all of you."

"We have plans?" Daggit perked up.

"We do. Or at least a rapidly growing nucleus of one," Macen shared.

"Give," Parva demanded, "I gave up overseeing our departure for this."

"You wouldn't have if you didn't have complete faith in Gilan," Macen countered.

"Got you there," Burrows chuckled.

"You want your sword shoved up your ass?" Parva snapped.

"He's right and you know it," Daggit said softly. Parva snapped out of her emotional outburst mode. She realized that her instabilities since her genetic enhancement were showing. And growing. So far, only Macen and Rockford knew what had been done to Parva. Everyone else bought the cover story that cognitive therapy had helped Parva reconnect with her memory and reasoning "backups" in her mind. Which was essentially true. But the genetic re-sequencing had infinitely sped up the process.

"I need an engineer," Macen shifted the focus back to the mission.

"I'm your fem," Parva eagerly stated.

"I'm going in my status as a corporate co-owner entrusted with buying new starships to equip new Outbound Ventures crews to relieve those being driven to madness between our existing clientele and Starfleet's demands. Which is actually true," Macen explained, "Harri is going to sell semi-classified info that I'll give her to get the status of what the Iotians are replacing their existing fleet with. By now Celeste will have recruited Tracy to help the buy team. Tony is going to provide Harri with muscle. Rab, you'll join Parva with me going over starship specs and considering which hulls ot buy from the available options."

"We're seriously supporting the Iotians now?" Daggit was worried.

"Rab, those ships are going to sell anyway. We might as well get the benefit," Parva explained the rationale.

"So, what're the detectives going to do?" Burrows asked.

"Celeste will have them gathering up the gaps in our knowledge. Our priority, beside s getting good deals, is obtaining a list of who bought what from the Iotians thus far."

"What about the others?" Daggit asked.

"We need to restock our pharmaceuticals. Tessa can handle that from here. If she needs a meet with a seller, Telrik can security lock them as they transport aboard. And Jelena and Abby will be more than happy to have something concrete to do."

Abigail Collins was the third highest ranked Security Officer aboard. Technically, Miller was in charge of both Security and Tactical. That worked on paper but the reality was Kovic ran the department as her own. Collins was her choice of chief deputy. A choice echoed in their past in which that Collins had given her life for the crew. hopefully this one wouldn't have to. And so far the "new" Collins hadn't displayed her counterpart's penchant for sleeping with her immediate superiors regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. Those that rebuffed her got earfuls of innuendo until they either fired her or caved in and began sleeping with her. That obvious difference was a welcome relief.

In their shared past, Radil Jenrya had transferred to Serenity Security rather than carry Kort's baby to term while fending off Collins' advances. Kovic had replaced Collins but the strange coincidences of quantum realities still placed Collins in Outbound Ventures' employ. Just later rather than sooner.

"I have plans for Angelique and Bailey," Macen smirked.

"This can't be good," Parva face palmed.

"This is a happening system," Forger had to remark.

"System Traffic has helm directions," Zimbalist reported.

"Transfer them to the CONN," Forger shrugged.

Aglaia studied them, "They want take control once we reach the inner system. They've cleared a traffic lane. Someone also built a J-class starbase here."

"I wonder who," Miller said snidely.

"It's why we're here, after all," Forger sighed, "Belly of the beast and all that. Okay, take us in."

Forger contacted Macen, "Commander, you'll want to see this."

"We're pacthed in to the ship's viewer and nav sensors. Everything seems to be as we expected," Macen replied over the comm circuit.

"Yeah, but can't we ever be wrong?" Forger complained.

"Usually, when we are, it's in the worst possible way," Macen jogged her memory.

"Copy that," Forger signed off, "Jaycee, Edwin, keep sensors one everything and everyone. I don't want any nasty surprises."

Every one agreed wholeheartedly.

"No wonder this place is on the 'not recommended' list by Starfleet. This is like the who's who of the undesirables banned from Risa," Forger realized as the scan data scrolled down her screen.

"The Bridge is reporting an incoming signal just for you on an encrypted channel. The cipher is handshaking our system right now," Lee noted.

"Angelique and Bailey will ascertain if there's ever a threat," Macen promised, "But they came through on the private meet with the Iotian Commodore in charge of these sales and sector security."

"Which this is undoubtedly him," Rockford stood beside Macen as the viewer came on. An Iotian male in an updated uniform appeared. As with all of the Iotians' mimicry, they'd adapted the Starfleet "Horatio Hornblower" militant uniforms Starfleet had kept largely unchaged from 2280-2340. Afterward, Starfleet had removed the undershirts and the wide buckled belt until 2360 when a new uniform came into brief vogue just to be replaced in 2368.

Starfleet had then adopted a second Class-B jumpsuit uniform with divisional colors on the shoulders rather than the body. The two existed side by side until 2373 when yet another uniform was popularized until 2380. Yet second contact ships wore yet another uniform during that same period. The current Starfleet uniform harkened back to the Class-B jumpsuits yet remained a two-piece replacement. Which was kinder to those that detested the three piece popular uniform proceeding it. Yet, some had even wore the optional vest beneath it.

Outbound Ventures itself utilized Starfleet surplus replicator patterns to uniform its crews. Ship's crew wore the blue Earth Starfleet jumpsuit of the mid-22nd century. Captains and execs wore a customized green variant. Macen's SID team had begun wearing uniforms as well to signify they were Outbound Ventures agents. They wore two-piece variants of the Class-B jumpsuits with a different divisional color scheme. As keeping with the Command jumpsuit, Macen and Rockford wore forest green shoulder panels with gray mock turtlenecks. The detective squad wore a sandy earth tone and Burrows and Daggit wore gray panels with black turtlenecks. Ebert wore a powder blue jumpsuit modeled after many astronaut's flight uniforms of the 20th and 21st Centuries on Earth. Parva wore a crew's uniform marking her as the Obsidian's Chief Engineer as did Tessa. Kerber, Smith, and Mudd wore what they damn well pleased.

"Commander Macen? I understand you're not actually the Captain of your vessel," the Commodore said briefly, "I'm Commodore Galt. I lead the Starfleet's delegation to Argelius. My actual command is aboard the station. I'd be pleased to welcome you and your technical advisors in say, two Earth hours? Before then you'll speak with my resident A & A Officer."

"I'd be pleased to," Macen agreed, "Just transmit the appropriate coordinates to the ship's Transporter Chief."

"My staff will to it," Galt promised, "I understood from the communique that your corporate partner had business on Argelius?"

"I'm said partner," Rockford interjected at that point, "I'm the Celeste Rockford of the Rockford Detective Agencies."

"I assume this is a joint financial venture?" Galt wondered.

"It is. But I have no background or love for starships or other space vessels," Rockford readily admitted, "I barely tolerate living aboard a space station."

"I see why you'll be absent," Galt allowed.

"You really don't," Rockford chuckled.

"I'll concede that fact right here and now," Galt stated, "Argelius would welcome whatever trade you can offer. The locals are always looking for new customers. As are we."

"I've seen your starships in action. I, unlike some, know the craftsmanship that goes into every one of them," Macen baited the Commodore.

"So I understand. Frankly, your presence initially alarmed my superiors but they understood your pretext for your past actions within our territories. One can't always choose their clients or their wishes. And your latinum spends as well as anyone else's," Galt explained why the meeting was granted.

"As long as there are no misconceptions. That was business and so is this. Only this time, events favor you. We'll be coming unarmed, of course," Macen assured Galt.

"That would be appreciated. I'd have to confiscate them anyway if you did arm yourself. You will be thoroughly scanned, of course," the Commodore informed him.

"But of course we will," Macen nodded once in acknowledgment.

"Until then," the viewer went dark.

"That is one unhappy man," Macen commented afterward.

"He seemed fine to me," Shade said, "And I'm the suspicious one."

"It's in his voice. Galt disagrees with his superiors' decision to allow either a meet or a purchases from the Iotian Starfleet" Macen told them, "Despite the commission he'd earn on every sale."

"He called it 'the' Starfleet," Lee had noted.

"Everybody wants to be the the in their own story," Forte sagely reminded him.

"Good point. Okay, squad, we're breaking down into civvies to better blend in with the crowds on Argelius," Rockford urged them on, "Shannon has our ETA in forty-five minutes. We'll be disembarking as soon as we make orbit."

"Because you never stand out in a crowd," Macen snarked after the detectives had left.

"Takes one to know one," Rockford passionately kissed Macen and then whispered, "Don't get dead."

"Neither should you," He whispered back before kissing her farewell.

While Rockford and the Detective Squad prepared, Macen met with his "advisory" staff.

"We'll be transporting over in twenty minutes," he warned them, "So get any last minute business concluded by then."

"We're good," Parva vouched for them all.

"Then we might as well reconvene in the Transporter Room," he advised.

There, the Tellarite Chief, Telrik, awaited them, "First off the boat?"

"Always," Daggit almost smiled. Burrows arrived, his sword sheathed on his back and looking utterly disreputable.

"Lookin' the part, Tony," Ebert enthused.

"Harri helped," he shrugged.

Mudd arrived in her usual leather attire, "What? I have an iconic look to preserve."

Rockford and the squad squeezed in.

"Luck to you all," she urged the first away team.

"Need I say it?" Macen grinned before Telrik energized the transporter.

"Give it twenty minutes and we'll be in place t'transport you lot as well," Telrik informed them all.

"Brin give what you needed?" Rockford asked Mudd.

"Yup. Every patrol in Federation and Klingon space for the upcoming week barring emergencies. Every ship, commander, and crew in one tidy package," Mudd enthused, "Should give us some currency with the local data brokers."

"Shade will be brokering our hard currency transactions on our end," Rockford shared.

"Good call," Mudd agreed.

"Since Harri here provided separate coordinates for'n you all, y'll be goin' down in different transports," Telrik advised them, "And it seems t'be that Detective Rockford's team is goin' down first."

"Suits us," Rockford and the others stepped into transporter pads and vanished in a halo of light.

"Keep a lock on both teams," Mudd urged Telrik, "We might need faster exits than we had entrances."

"That bodes well," Burrows muttered.

"Shut it and come on, Muscles," Mudd warned him.

"See'n ya when ya git back," Telrik energized them and then returned to his seat and opened his latest Tellarite romance novel.

"If'n I could only dream," he sighed over an exceptionally erotic portion.

 

Chapter Three

A phalanx of armed Iotians and a very perky female non-comm awaited Macen's team in the J-class station's transporter. It turned, as so many other Iotian ships and bases, to be named after a human mobster. Only this one was from the latter 20th century.

"Don't mind the Capote's security detail. They watch out for all new arrivals to make certain they really are unarmed," the Chief Petty Officer said brightly, "I'm Chief Silsi. I'm an A & A Officer. I'll be handling your transaction today. Commodore Galt will be made available if we should reach an unexpected impasse."

"I'm met one of your A & A officers before," Macen told her, "In the UFP that stands for Anthropology and Archaeology Officer rather than Assets and Acquisitions."

"Sounds terribly boring," Silsi confessed, "If you'd follow, I can take you all to our Asset Management Center and you peruse the available vessels and call up all specifications and parts and ordnance replenishment programs. A standard purchase comes with all equipment operational and activated as well as a full load of ordnance. You can either purchase replenishments as needed or contract for regular replacements as intervals you deem fit."

"As security contractors we generally need a lot of both. But Serenity Station is equipped with industrial replicators. All of the parts and equipment in your vessels will be in our files. But we will require a steady stream of photon torpedoes since we can't replicate ordnance."

"Easy enough," Silsi brightened even more, "At a slightly higher retainer, we can guarantee shipments regardless of political climate."

"We're registered as citizens of Barrinor. Nearly every stellar power in the two quadrants recognizes Barrinor as neutral territory so your shipments should get through but I'm guessing added security never hurts."

"You would know," Silsi was even more energized at hearing these words. Macen had to come to realize she received a commission from all sales and services purchased here. Probably an ongoing royalty for retainers.

"If you'd turn this way and we'll be off down the corridor and to the right," Silsi made certain everyone stayed with the group. They entered an observation room with a wide port with Argelius in the not-so-distant view.

"All displays are interactive and access can be achieved either through verbal command or touch screen controls," the Chief promised them, "This bank possesses the largest viewer."

It was larger than that carried by most starships. Macen touch activated the panel and began scrolling through inventory lists. It seemed the Iotians were selling off every pre-2271 analogue they had excepting the Archer-class scouts they'd built.

"I don't see any Archer-classes," he stated.

"The Fleet has decided to refit them to our current standards rather than sell them off and build a new substitute," Chief Silsi explained.

Macen found listings that surprised him and he said so, "I was unaware that the Starfleet had constructed UFP post-2370 refit analogues."

"Oh yes," Silsi enthused, "Those are our high ticket items. They were completed and underwent trials before our current fleet upgrade program went underway. Now they're slightly obsolete in comparison and we still have manpower issues concerning fully staffing all the hulls we have available to us."

"Take a look at this," he said to Ebert.

"Omigod! Constitution-, Constellation-, Miranda-, and Excelsior-classes? Howcum no one knew about these?"

"To be fair, the other Federation has stonewalled our exports through their territories for some time. In order to deliver your purchases we'll to go through neutral and friendly space. But there approaches to Barrinor still available to us," Silso happily informed them, "Negotiations are underway at many of the neutral planets to incorporate them into our Federation. We also have several Asia-class equivalents per those drive specs."

"You mentioned these were the high ticket items," Macen repeated, "How many do you have of each class and how available are older style vessels?"

"To be honest, you're rather late to be getting older model starships unless you want to delve further back to our econo-line of 22nd Earth Starfleet type vessels. Those are more popular amongst our 'just getting out of the solar system' crowd," Silsi said sadly, "However we have a four of each of these classes. Only a few each have been previously sold due to the higher costs."

"And the fact the UFP has been handing starships out to former Federation colonies and former protectorates," Macen said dryly.

"There is that too," Silsi was pained to admit, "But those are older ships in need of advanced upgrades to become completely relevant factors again. Whereas our ships haven't even seen service yet and are yard fresh."

"You had me at 'hello'," Macen quipped.

"Excuse me?" Silsi didn't grasp the expression or its origins.

"Human 20th century pop culture. Look into it sometime,"Macen breezily explained, "How much latinum is being asked for per vessel?"

Silsi greedily activated the price quotes per ship per vessel class and type.

"And do you provide bundle packages?" Macen wasn't fazed by the pricing.

Silsi gulped, "I can definitely look into that if you give me a preliminary 'want' list"

"Well team, recommendations?" Macen turned to Daggit, Parva, and Ebert.

"You're seriously serious?" Daggit was almost alarmed. The pricing was staggering to him.

"We covered that already," Macen sighed.

"Engineering and maintenance wise, you're correct in telling her we can frabricate every known and necessary component for these ships. We could customizes refits to upgrade them to standards closer to contemporary, say mid-24th century, standards," Parva was happy to explain.

"Tracy?" Macen wondered.

"Every ship listed has identical interfaces and controls. Rewrite the computers into Federation Standard and we'd be golden."

"Every ship computer is already coded into Federation Standard English," Silsi promised.

"There you go," Macen grinned, "Rab?"

"Of course there's tactical superiority fo a Constitution-class heavy cruiser over a Miranda-class light cruiser with a subtler upgrade to a Constellation- with the Excelsior-class being the big gun. You'll note these are Enterprise-B standard refit models," Daggit assessed.

"And if I want two of each with options on all four of each class?" Macen inquired. Silsi looked as though she were ready to faint.

"Chief?" Macen grew concerned.

"Commander, there have been entire planets that haven't purchased that many ships or optioned that many at a single turn," Silsi stammered.

"Dare to be the first," Macen grinned.

"A word?" Parva inquired.

"Please check in with the Commodore to begin our negotiations," Macen requested as the engineer stepped aside.

"Can you afford that many?" Parva whispered.

"Outbound Ventures can now that we're flush with Starfleet latinum," Macen shrugged, "We could pull off the entire order without a discounted rate. But that's just bad business."

"I deserve a raise then," Parva demanded.

"Parva, I get the same wage you do and it's very comfortable," Macen promised her, "You live on a space station where most of your intrinsic needs are met for free."

"Like you said, it's just bad business," Parva was still gaping at him.

"How about I convince Kathy to raise everyone's retirement fund?" Macen offered.

"We have a retirement plan?" Parva was amazed to hear .

"Of course we do," he laughed.

"Commander, I have a quote," Silsi handed him a digital stylus and he perused the numbers, "Bring that down by fifteen percent and reclaculate for the entire lot."

That time Daggit had to catch the Chief as she did start to swoon.

"Chief Silsi? Can you carry on?" Macen asked.

"You bet I can!" she said hungrily.

"Does Serenity have enough empty quarters for everyone you'll have to hire after this?" Ebert asked, "And can you pay them?"

"We have more jobs to do than we have available personnel," Macen told her, "And we're at slightly less than forty percent capacity for assigned quarters. That's 880 people out of a potential 2200 without considering pairing off and sharing quarters."

"And everyone will get paid the same wage? Regardless of seniority?" Ebert wondered.

"Incentive bonuses will come as duly needed and recommended by acting Commanding Officers. Inflationary wage hikes have been allotted in the proposed budget. You multiply our backlog of cases with our current workload and factor in expanding the number of our hulls by twenty ships, hiring crews and command staff, and we'll actually need to look for work again."

"I guess it pays to be us," Parva murmured.

"More than you can imagine," Macen caught the comment.

"I don't know. I can imagine quite a lot," Parva retorted.

"Is this more to your liking, Commander?" Silsi handed over the stylus again.

"That's only a ten percent discount. Twelve or we walk away from the deal for all twenty ships and return back to the original ten," Macen advised her.

"I'll sure he'll see reason," Silsi marched off to tell her Commodore he was a fool to walk away from this opportunity. Owing to his elevated rank, Galt received the same commission Silsi did without the grunt work. He'd used up a lot political and financial capital to ensure he received this posting. Silsi was certain he wouldn't throw that away. And he didn't.

"The Commodore had met your terms but as made one counter proposal that it hinges on, you have to sign for an ordnance replenishment contract for no less than five years," Silsi fretted over that contingency.

"Done," Macen wouldn't dicker over an option he was already going to buy anyway, "So long as we lock in the price of each torpedo for the entire length of the contract"

"All right," Silsi sighed and trudged off to her desk with visions of latinum flying away. but the Commodore knew a gift horse when he saw one.

"It's done!" Silsi was practically humming with excitement when brought the legal contracts to him to authorize with a thumb print. Macen carefully studied the contracts, presented on a modern Ferengi manufactured padd. Unlike the Ferengi, there were no hidden clauses. It was a straightforward arms deal arrangement.

Macen pressed his thumb to the bio sensor and the funds were transferred from one Barrinoran corporate account to three separate Barrinoran accounts. One for the Iotian Starfleet, another for Galt, and the third consisted of Silsi's own swelling, private account.

"Now, to make arrangements for delivery," Macen went to Silsi's desk to negotiate the further terms of both the handover of the starships and their replenishing stock of photons. The Chief happily brought over the scattered chairs so the advisory board could watch in wonder as Macen bandied about with sums they had never considered realistic before.

Rockford and her squad materialized on a public transporter station in Indera, Argelius' capital city. The Iotians and several other larger "trade" consortiums kept headquarters there. Of course, the Iotian Starfleet itself based off of Capote Station. But the Iotian Federation maintained an embassy as well as conducted business with other trading partners there. Rockford and the others easily blended into the interstellar humanoid population. Argelians and Iotians shared similar traits as humans. Far more closely than a Bajoran and a human. Though the Argelians were far more ethnically diversified than the homogeneous Caucasian appearing Iotians. This allowed Lee to blend in more effectively.

But the squad wasn't attempting to disguise their racial identities. Although Forte's racial identity would be blurred since genetically she was human despite her otherwise extraterrestrial 20th century past. The fact that the mysterious beings known as the Preservers had artificially constructed three planets to be identical to Earth: 492 IV, Omega IV, and Miri, as well as preserved Amerinds, only suggested at their power. Yet they mysteriously vanished with little impact beyond such increasingly identified project s that extended beyond humanity. Whether they truly were "preserving" cultures threatened with extinction or otherwise conducting social experiments was still relatively unknown. But in the other reality the four stemmed from, Preserver obelisks had been found on each identified planet and dozens more as well. Each designed to protect the populations from external harm, but as Miri and Omega IV aptly demonstrated, not from self-inflicted harm. As promised the street vendors and shop signs enticed passerbys with every form of vice known or even imagined.

Shade was amused by Forte's innocence in the face of such displays. Lee's umbrage, and Rockford's jaded indifference were also telling. Of course, Forte had come from a decimated world of neo-barbarian children. Lee was a former law enforcement officer. and as Ryst, Rockford had been a mercenary in the employ of two of the greatest criminal organizations in the known galaxy. The Fabrini herself had learned to navigate such warrens after her exile from the Yolanda. She never did know if it ever reached the Fabrini "promised land" they'd striven to reach for so many generations. She didn't even yet know if they'd ever managed to disembark upon arrival. The corridors of the colony ship having become their "natural" environment.

She had contacts in Indera. Some of whom would even be happy to see her again. others would be well pleased that she could afford to pay of her debts to them as scheduled. Her personal salary handled the debts. Outbound Ventures would cover the costs of the questions she would be asking and salve the consciences of those that would be breaking faith to answer them.

After Shade's fifth stop to pay off creditors, Lee began to complain, "How often do we have to do this?"

"Often enough to draw attention," Shade told him, "If I can't pay off my debts, then I have no credibility to afford the type of information we're seeking. And we'll run the risk of antagonizing people that can't provide those same answers."

"It makes perfect sense," Rockford agreed.

"Still." even Forte was beginning to tire of the routine.

"One more stop then this gets very real," Shade promised.

"We can hold out that long. Can't we?" Rockford pointedly asked.

"Okay," Forte said chipperly now.

"If we must," Lee grumbled.

In the canton aptly named Wanton, Mudd and Burrows transported to find the heart of Argelius' illicit trades.

"Well this is all kinds of." Burrows couldn't find the words.

"Great! Isn't it," Mudd enthused.

"I think we have different interpretations of what that word means," Burrows muttered.

"Oh, shut up and follow me," Mudd insisted, "Just look pretty and menacing."

"Can't I just look pretty menacing?" Burrows asked.

"Not if you're my boy toy slash bodyguard you can't," Mudd flashed him a wicked grin. Burrows simply rolled his eyes and followed her.

As they wandered the street sand confines, Burrows finally remarked, "I suppose you grew up in places like this."

"Yup," Mudd revealed, "In fact, I spent a few years on one of these streets."

"I hope you weren't working them," Burrows scowled.

"Not in that way. But thanks for caring," Mudd gave him another naughty grin, "My Pops would show up once in a while between jail terms and big scores. My brother Harry Mudd IV and I ran con games and worked as pickpockets when we were really young. Harry tried selling narcotics once or twice but Pops beat the snot outta him for doing it. A few stints in the med center cured him of the inclination."

Mudd explained as they wove between crowds of junkies and drunks celebrating God knows what. She caught and slapped around a few of the latest pickpockets as they proceeded through the various watering holes and flesh houses. Unlike Macen's team, the two landing parties were visibly, and in most cases invisibly as well, armed to the teeth. As was most of the semi-lucid crowd.

The ones who were fully awake were the predators amongst the intoxicated sheep. Of course, many of those just inebriated by spirits were heavily armed as well. But most of them could reasonably hold their liquor. The drug addicts had either sold or lost their small arms to street crime long ago. A few of the more outre prostitutes from varying species were dressed on nothing but belts and flashing knives. They openly ogled Burrows' sword and rubbed their genitalia in desirous thoughts of the trade they could pull in with such a weapon at their disposal. More than a few attempted to barter physical pleasures for the weapon. Mudd and Burrows chased them off at every turn. even the implied threat of violence heightened the arousal of most of that particular crowd.

"Where are we going?" Burrows finally inquired impatiently.

"You know why you make such an excellent bodyguard? 'Cause you don't open your mouth except to pleasure me," Mudd chastised him, "Now shut it before someone catches on. We're almost to a district where I can finally start shopping around for Macen's list of answers that he wants me to buy. You stand by to kill anyone I tell you to and to pull it outta your pants if I ask you to. No questions. Just do it. 'Kay?"

Burrows was seriously beginning to regret being chosen as Mudd's backup.

"Data Womb, how long are you going to need this encrypted subspace bandwidth?" Forger asked from the Bridge.

"As long as it takes, Captain," Kerber irritably replied.

"An ETA on that problematic event?" Forger persisted.

"Commander Macen wants a buyer's list of who the Iotians have sold to," Kerber found it annoying she had to explain this to the starship captain that already knew it, "That data is in the Capote Station memory banks. By utilizing a coded frequency Starfleet Intelligence knows the Iotian Starfleet uses, we can crack their system and get the list."

"I know all that," Forger was also getting irritable.

"Then why did you ask?" Kerber grated. From beside her Smith diligently worked away at supplying key ciphers and translation matrixes to the Iotians' Alliance based machine coding.

"This system is filled with potential hostiles," Forger reminded Kerber, "We may have some goodwill amongst the criminal elite of this universe but I don't want to unnecessarily press our luck. And if the Iotians or some stray Q-ship figure out you're tight beaming that starbase wannabe, then we'll have to answer questions we have no legitimate sounding answers for, capiche?"

Smith was softly laughing as Kerber pinched the bridge of her nose, "I understand, Captain. I also know these thinsg happen organically despite their being digitally based. So. Don't. Bother. Us. Again!"

Forger's reply never came through the circuit because Kerber cut it before it could and she heaved an aggravated sigh, "Some people."

Tessa greeted her guests in the Transporter Room, "Hi folks!"

The various "pharmaceutical representatives" all stink eyed the other ones. Telrik had their weapons stored in the transporter buffer so only the threat of physical violence remained. Which was why all four of Kovic's on-duty Security personnel were present as well.

"If you'd follow me to the Mess we can discuss the ship's needs and negotiate pricing," Tessa happily told them.

"No one said anything about dickering for price," a Tiburonian angrily lamented, "You either buy or you don't."

"You really want to give bulk sales away from your, literally, closest competitors?" Tessa shrugged, "Beam her back down to the surface."

"Wait!" the rep protested, "I'll at least look over your want list."

"Good," Tessa was pleased by that, "Telrik, alert Galen 3 to meet us in the Mess."

"Will do, Doc Tessa," Telrik saluted her. The deference the Chief showed Tessa went far in impressing the reps. Which it was intended to do.

"Help yourself to the replicators," Tessa pointed at a wall with replicator banks.

"What is that smell?" a rep asked while visibly drooling.

"Chef is making dinner for the watch coming off shift," Tessa shrugged, "There's Galen 3!"

She waved him over, "Meet our Chief Sciences Specialist. He'll be placing orders as well."

The reps grew even more eager to view the list of requested compounds to fill the formularies.

"What does a security contractor need with scientists anyway?" a second rep, this one from a "neutral" race outside the Federation asked.

"You're a Quillian, aren't you?" Galen 3 asked.

"Yes?" the Quillian rep seemed uncertain how to answer.

"Then you should respect the fact that science can provide answers to questions that brute tactics can't," Galen 3 lectured him.

"He just called you a pansy," a Ballchinian rep laughed.

"Who are you calling a pansy, Numb Nuts?" the Quillian grew hot tempered. Quillians were renowned black market scientists and designer narcotics developers. Ballchinians were frequently hired as muscle despite their obvious vulnerability.

"Is that fungi I smell roasting?" the snail-like invertebrate rep, a Corloon, inquired.

"Chef is making pizza. One of the most popular toppings is mushrooms," Tessa explained, "She makes entire vegetable based pizzas for our more herbivorously inclined crew members."

"I would most interested in partaking of one," the Corloon admitted through its membrane mounted translator.

"I am not watching you eat," the Tiburonian declared.

"So look the other way," the Corloon happily gurgled.

"I'll still hear it," the Tiburonian said with disgust. Galen 3 gave Tessa a pained look. She could only shrug.

"Oh, come on! You have to know something, Shrekt!" Shade cajoled the massive Thallonian sitting before her. The ordinarily two meter tall aliens were commonly dwarfed by the renegade Shrekt. Shade's head was level with his and he was seated and she was standing.

"And what would have for me in return, Little Mouse?" Shrekt asked.

"A very high asking price," Shade told him.

"I can't get you what you want," Shrekt shrugged, "But, for a commission I can steer you to who can and make an introduction."

"How steep of a commission?" Shade asked.

"Fifteen percent of the total fee," Shrekt offered.

"Make it ten," Shade countered.

"Twelve, Little Mouse," Shrekt counter offered again.

"You just made it eight," Shade told him, "You know I hate that nickname."

"But you're such a good little mouse. Always getting in through the smallest of holes to grab the tastiest cheeses," Shrekt chuckled.

"Stick with ten and we have a deal," Shade grated.

"Ten is fine," Shrekt honestly would've settled for eight percent. It'd been a poor month for his trade as a fence. He handed her a comm badge, "I'll contact you when I've arranged a meet."

"Don't take too long. I won't be on Argelius for too much longer," Shade advised him.

"You're loss, Little Mouse," Shrekt needled her again.

"Whatever!" Shade thrust a hand at his face and stomped off.

"Little Mouse, huh?" Lee chortled once they were outside.

"Don't even start with me on that!" Shade warned him.

Mudd had inquired with several data brokers before a runner was dispatched to collect her and Burrows.

"Now it's gonna get real," Mudd warned him. They were presented to an Orion merchant prince. His controlling princess stood behind him.

"How scrumptious, Harri. You've brought me a morsel," the Orion woman, one Kerrik, exclaimed, "I want him!"

"I'll trade you a go in exchange for seven percent off the trade price," Mudd offered.

"Take the deal," Kerrik instructed her "suitor", Fentz.

"The trade is acceptable," Fentz ground between his teeth.

"What just happened?" Burrows asked Mudd.

"Remember when I said to whip it out on command?" Mudd inquired.

"Yeah?" Burrows didn't like where this was going.

"Whip it out, Big Boy," Mudd snickered.

"Waitasec!" Burrows proetsed.

"Oh, thou doth complaineth too much. You'll have fun. I promise," Mudd patted him on the butt.

"Come here," Kerrik commanded as she approached and lifted Burrows' chin with her finger.

He blinked several times, "I...uh."

"Follow me, Lover," Kerrik took his hand and led the confused but increasingly giddy Burrows away.

"Now Fentz, to business," Mudd distracted the aggrieved Orion prince.

"What is it you want, Mudd?" Fentz snarled.

"The Iotians are selling off everything but the bathroom sink. I want to know what they're replacing their fleet with. And anything about their allies' hulls and capabilities as well," Mudd told him.

"You don't ask for much, do you?" Fentz asked scornfully.

"I have info you'll want," Mudd enticed him.

"Like what?" Fentz's foul humor soured even more as Kerrik's ecstatic sex cries began exuding from the back room.

"I have every ship, crew, patrol route and ETAs on where and when the entire UFP Starfleet and Klingon Defnse Force will be over the next week," Mudd told him, "Good as of four hours ago"

"Really?" Fentz was intrigued despite Kerrik's repeated orgasms.

"The sooner we deal the sooner can interrupt them," Mudd tantalized him.

"I'll see what I can find out," Fentz offered, "Don't be wasting my time, or my charity."

"Kerrik certainly thank you for the charity bit," Mudd snickered. Fentz conferred with a subordinate who scurried forth while Fentz's mood darkened with every cry.

Every rep had been given a list of demands and each returned the padd with an uploaded list of ability meet said demands and the price for each fulfillment. They slid these across, protecting their bids as though they were state secrets. Tessa didn't need the padds. When the criteria for fulfillment was uploaded to the computer through the padd, she was automatically updated with that information.

She perused the padds for show anyway. As she'd come to suspect, no one supplier could meet the entire list. But between the four of them, they could fulfill the entire list completely. She also made a show of manually updating her counter offers on price despite her intentions being automatically relayed to the padds. Despite some price gouges in certain sectors, she'd met her and Galen 3's needs and many for Kort's Infirmary on Serenity as well. Various Outbound Ventures starships would also benefit.

She handed back each individually with the buy spread across them all. They all seemed pleased and disgruntled that most of their offers, if not all of their proffered wares, were accepted in the bids. All the reps accepted their final offers within two more rotations of offers and counter offers. Finally, Galen 3 had the authority to authorize the sales. That seemed strange to the reps but they remained silent. As an EMH, Tessa's programming could ultimately be corrupted or invaded so she wasn't allowed financial liberties. Which was one reason why Galen 3 was present. The other was simply that she was in love with him and wanted to spend time with him and fortunately for everyone involved, he felt the same way in return.

"Bye now!" Tessa waved farewell seconds before Telrik energized the transporter beams. The reps, caught by surprise, reflexively returned the wave.

"We did it!" Tessa demonstrated some serious PDA with Galen 3. Telrik wished he had a holo imager to capture the moment.

"And we're good," Kerber informed Forger.

"About time," Forger replied, "We have customs cutters veering in on us. I think Capote Station alerted them that someone was transmitting to them and pulling classified data without the proper authorization."

"But we didn't get caught," Kerber voiced confidently.

"Yet," Forger grumbled. Kerber and Smith had to give her that one.

"I'm pleased beyond belief that our negotiations went so well, Commander Macen," Galt admitted.

"So am I, Commodore. Business, as they say, is simply business. I harbor no ill will towards the Iotian peoples or their allies as I'm relieved to find they hold none against me," Macen confided.

"You will understand that though you're welcome to trade in Iotian Federation space, you will be closely monitored in the future?" Galt hoped.

"I have no immediate or future plans to ever invade Iotian territories again," Macen explained, "That contract engendered more potential ill will than my company can afford."

Selsi was still counting the hundreds of gold pressed bars of latinum lining her account now.

"You're welcome to await the return of your ship in our Observation Lounge," Galt offered, "I'm certain Chief Selsi and I can now afford to buy you a round of drinks. It's the least we can do."

"We humbly accept. Let me alert the crew that we are awaiting a pickup," Macen requested.

"Your comm lines have always been open," Galt promised him.

"Chief Kovic, please respond," Forger requested. As Deputy Chief of Security, a misnomer Forger resented on Kovic's behalf, the Serbian descended Kovic held an Outbound Ventures' rank equivalent to a Starfleet Chief Warrant Officer. Chief Petty Officer Collins held the equivalent to the same Starfleet rank. Gilan held a rank equivalent to a Starfleet Master Chief while Parva, and the ship's officer's were the rough equivalents to lieutenants or lt. commanders.

Miller being the confirmed Lt. Commander as the officer who assume command should catastrophe strike Forger. The ship only stood fourteen hour watches since it was based on the same solar day as Serenity Station. Serenity in turn maintained the Barrinoran 27.3 Earth hour day. But all Outbound Ventures crews were streamlined to the two watches because of manpower issues. Issues that were rapidly declining thanks to the increasing infljux of latinum the corporation had received in wake of Starfleet's investiture.

The Rockford Detective Agencies were having to decline clients they would normally accept due to the same manpower issues. There simply weren't enough private investigators within the company to handle all the prospective clients pouring into it now that Starfleet had taken the stink eye off of its corporate partner. The same held true with Outbound Ventures. Solarian Security Systems and other competitors were benefiting from the slack. Solarian hadn't taken a fall in this reality because they'd harassed Outbound Ventures' ships and personnel but never broken out into outright hostility. The Omicron named Ezexial had never plotted his revenge against Macen and the SID manipulating Solarian because the Omicron had never emerged from their home world here.

The Lowlie Revolution had occurred without Rab Daggit being needed to inspire Tressib and the others into action. Which suited the veteran team members that still remembered that past conflict and the enormous costs it had borne. But as a result, the planet named 492 IV by the Unite d Federation of Planets and as Magna Roma by its inhabitants, had remained isolated until the approach was made by the Iotian Federation at the Alliance's behest. So the Alliance-led Federation had an army of shock troops which included Germanic and Northman Berserkers.

Here too were drastic changes as the Roman Empire had successfully consolidated its control over the planet despite the resistance Nova Roma had faced at its outset led by the one its generals from Germania. Alaric's sister, Livia, had led the resistance forces against Aurelius and her brother had led the Roman campaign against her. Her forces had been crushed by Alaric's Legions. She herself was put into the Games where she held a record of victories achieved until she was pitted against a Klingon from the Alliance's House of Duras and Livia finally fell years into her role as a general-turned traitor- turned gladiator. Indendent Ro had completely undermined Aurelius until even Alaric swore allegiance to her as the First Citizen of Magna Roma and so the Alliance from the Terran Universe took its first conquest in the Prime Universe without a shot being fired.

The Romans respected strength and Ro was nothing if not iron backed and steel nerved. Despite her being a Bajoran from another quantum reality, the Romans loved her and would lay down the lives of every subject, slave, freeman and Roman citizen at her command. Loyalty like that could not be bought.

"Yes, captain?" Kovic promptly responded to Forger's request.

"You're rated to pilot a runabout, correct?" Forger tried to recall.

"Abby and I both are fully rated," Kovic replied.

"I need you both to deploy to the station in the Corsair and retrieve Commander Macen's team," Forger explained.

"Is this a combat mission?" Kovic wanted to know how to prep.

"A simple pick up and extraction, Jelena. We'd do it ourselves but we're still watching over our landing parties," Forger told her, "But we'll take you back aboard or rendezvous with you should the landing parties meet their first deadline and be recalled to the ship"

"We're on our way," Kovic promsied.

"I know," Forger said with complete confidence.

"Sorry for rousing you so early but we have an op," Kovic explained as Collins joined her aboard the sole runabout.

"No problems, Chief. I'd just finished breakfast anyway," Collins said perkily.

"I had time to run through the pre-flights. Signal the bay controller we're ready to launch," Kovic ordered.

"Yessir," Collins happily talked to the Bay Chief. When they received clearance, Kovic used maximum thrust to eject the Corsair from the shuttle bay. Once cleared of the Obsidian's protective womb, she applied impulse engines and the runabout took flight once more.

Shrekt made the introduction to another dealer in rarified objects and information. This one an exiled Suliban named Salik.

"I hear you have the information I require," Shade decided to forgo the preambles.

Salik, a very aged survivor of the Temporal Cold War that nearly eradicated his species, merely nodded, "Can you meet my price?"

"I can and will, if the data is accurate," Shade told him.

"I received it directly from the Iotians themselves in exchange for other favors," Salik promised.

"Let me see a preview," Shade requested. Several hired mercs emerged from the shadows. Their leader halted them with a rasied fist.

"I'm sorry, Sergeant Ryst. We didn't recognize you," the merc leader apologized, "They're good, sir."

"Very well," the Suliban huffed and handed Shade a padd.

She reviewed first set of entries, "I'll pay."

She handed back the padd. Salik authorized the full release of information while Shade authorized payment. Salik then cut Shrekt in for his percentage "finder's fee".

"A pleasure as always, Little Mouse," Shrekt chuckled and departed.

"Why does he always start and end with that?" Shade asked the ceiling. It was as responsive to her plea as the Klingon gods.

"We should go and not bother Mr. Salik any further," Rockford suggested.

"Please do," the ancient Suliban implored.

"Why did his name sound familiar?" Lee asked as they quickly departed.

"Salik and Selik are common Suliban names. Or at least as common as Suliban are these days," Forte replied.

"We need to get back to the ship before someone realizes what we're carrying," Shade told Rockford.

"Easy enough," Rockford tapped her comm badge on her belt, "Telrik, four to beam up immediately"

"It'd be my pleasure, Detective," Telrik was quite pleased to hear from her it seemed. The annular confinement beam took hold of them and they dematerialized just before a team of Iotian Starfleet Security officers came looking them. The arrangement made with Salik had included the capture of the mystery buyers. Now they had harsh words to exchange with him and a price to be exacted from his hide if necessary.

"Have fun?" Mudd smirked as a very fatigued but gratified Burrows returned to her.

"I want him," Kerrik pouted.

"That was a test drive. If you want one like him, find your own," Mudd caressed his cheek, "This one is mine."

Fentz's lieutenant returned with a padd, "Let me see your data."

His mood had not improved after seeing Kerrik's satisfaction at having a romp with the upstart human. Even if Burrows had been seduced by the Orion's pheromones, Fentz still found it insulting that Kerrik's choose another over him. Mudd knew that going in. She gave him her padd.

He looke d over it, "It's complete and I recognize the Starfleet and KDF authentication codes as today's."

"Don't sound so disappointed or I'll my bodyguard here to 'safe keep' Kerrik from now on," Mudd threatened.

"Here!" Fentz snapped as he thrust his padd towards Mudd, "Take it and leave."

"You're a joy to behold," Mudd saluted him after snatching the padd from him. As they exited the parlor, Kerrik made a show of pouting. Fentz had assassins stationed around the canton to kill them and Mudd knew it.

So as soon as they made it out the door, she contacted Telrik, "Chief! Beam us out now!"

They dematerialized even as disruptor bolts flew through their energy halos. Fentz was a festering boil of resentment until Kerrik graced him with seducing him again to distract the merchant prince from putting bounties on Burrows and Mudd's heads. She wanted a second chance at bedding Burrows and Mudd would gladly trade him off if the price were steep enough. Or so Kerrik was certain but Mudd wasn't anymore.

"We've takn up station keeping with Iotian Starfleet's permission," Kovic informed Macen, "Abby is going beam two of you aboard at a time."

"Copy that," Macen replied, "The station's transporter techs are awaiting your signal."

"Abby, you're a go," Kovic urged. Macen and Ebert were the first to come aboard. Daggit and Parva quickly followed.

"I suggest we leave," Macen urged.

"I'll take the CONN," Ebert insisted. Kovic knew better than to come between Ebert and her baby. Kovic took OPS. Parva manned Engineering and Daggit took over Tactical.

"I suggest we raid the armory just in case the Iotians have second thoughts about letting us go," Macen told Kovic and Collins. The Corsair's four optional modules included two linked as an emergency medical center to triage patients before transporting them to the Obsidian and Tessa's care. One was fully stocked armory, as Macen mentioned. The third was a single occupancy brig intended for use when the contract required taking a specific prisoner.

"Are we really gearing up for a fight?" Collins wondered.

"The Iotians are still basically gangsters at heart. So we'll test their sense of honor and obligation now that they have thousands of bars of latinum added to their coffers. Particularly Commodore Galt and Chief Silsi's," Macen explained.

"Why are we always in trouble?" Kovic wondered.

"You'd be bored otherwise," Macen shrugged. Kovic had to concede that point.

"Cap'n, all landing members recovered an' accounted fer," Telrim informed Forger.

"Thank God," Forger breathed a sigh of relief before cutting the channel.

"I've received coordinates for an extra-system rendezvous with the Obsidian," Ebert announced.

"Take us there at Warp 5," Macen ordered.

"I love going to Warp," Ebert relished the thought as she cut in the warp engines and the runabout slipped into subspace and surpassed the speed of light.

"Aglaia, take out at Warp 5 as soon as we clear Capote Station," Forger ordered, "Jaycee, get ready on shields and weapons, just in case. Edwin, scan the system and let me know if a fly sneezes."

"Aye, Captain," Zimbalist crisply replied.

"On it," Miller promised.

"Here we go again," Forger commented to herself.

 

Chapter Four

"You're sure the Organians won't be pissed that we're in their solar system?" Miller asked worriedly

"Macen says they're long gone," Forger shrugged, "He'd know."

"We hope," Zimbalist muttered darkly.

"How is the docking going with Corsair?" Forger sternly inquired.

"Tracy brought her around and the Bay Chief is tractoring her in. We should be secure in ten minutes," Zimbalist reported.

"Aglaia, signal the shuttle bay you want an alert when the Corsair is secured and plot us a course for Barrinor and lay in at Warp 5," Forger ordered.

"Aye, sir," Aglaia acknowledged her.

"Aglaia, I haven't been a 'sir' since I was thirteen," Forger chided her.

"Aye, Captain," Aglaia replied. Transgenderism was known on Platonia but sexual reassignment wasn't. Trans men and woman on Platonia merely dressed acted their gender identities rather than physically transition into them. Modern TSs in Federation space were so passable it was difficult to know when one met one. Generally the only tell could be found in their hormone altered voices. Most surgeons abstained from altering vocal chords. Too many complications could derive resulting in multiple corrective surgeries. So since the TS and transgender communities were now broadly accepted amongst Federation member worlds, most people didn't worry about completely altering their voices to match their corrected sexual identity.

Starfleet of the 22nd and up to the mid-23rd Centuries had been a tad regressive. They embraced the gay and lesbian community but would not allow TS officers and enlisted time off from their duties to undergo SRS. So, especially during the infamous "minidress" female uniforms of the 2260s, some embarrassing moments occurred when pre-op women got aroused and their chosen male or female partner at the time wasn't yet aware of their genetic identity but rather only their corrected identity. Just as men or women were equally embarrassed to undress pre-op transmen missing certain sexual organs. Of course, there were always an increasing influx of progressive Starfleet personnel that either didn't care or were delighted to make such discoveries.

Fortunately, Starfleet began hammering sexual equality for all gender types beginning in the enlisted and Academy courses of the 2270s. By the 2290s, the conflicts had nearly died out as attitudes of universal acceptance regardless of race, species, or gender became pivotal to Starfleet to match its broad acceptance of sexualities. There were still religious enclaves on Earth, certain, colonies, and member worlds that decried such acceptance. Just as there were political or cultural motives for some to do so. But Federation law made discrimination impossible and while the internal affairs of member worlds were left unopposed, when traveling abroad, such discriminatory attitudes had to be held in check. Not even the freedom of speech or religion gave rights to hatred.

A lesson humanity had struggled to embrace for centuries. In the decades leading up to World War III, the denial that others had a right to exist of they opposed your opinion, ideology, or religious fervor led to nuclear holocaust as extremists of every wind and doctrine resorted to violence to be the "One True Way" that would guide humaniiy's future. In the end, they obliterated one another and the survivors were left to rebuild from the ashes.

Zefram Cochrane and First Contact turned humanity's aspirations to the stars to ensure the survival of tbeir species. Intolerance had led to near annihilation. So they opted to explore tolerance and where that could lead. At long last, humanity began to flower with a united purpose, as it had at similar turning points after radical self-imposed disasters in the past. But near-extinction seemed to finally drive the point home within the common psyche. They could finally embrace the "other".

That was why humans led the founding of the Federation and dominated Starfleet for so many centuries. It wasn't just an innate desire to explore the unknown and "strange new worlds", it was an act of redemption. Humans had finally learned from their greatest mistakes and were eager to share enlightenment with their fellow races, brothers and sisters, from alien worlds that still struggled with the inability to fully accept others and so humans brought the antagonistic Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites together to forge a bond of peace and friendship that would allow them to explore their neighbors and their own prejudices with newly opened eyes. From that starting point, the road to the United Federation of Planets began.

It was that point the SID was trying to return the modern Federation to. From that vantage point the Federation could address the Iotians' ambitions and frustrations without resorting to bloodshed. Little was truly known of the Terran Universe's Cardassian-Klingon Alliance but there could be the hope of resolving matters with them without drawing the proverbial sword as well despite their coming from a literally darkened universe.

"Commodore Galt, you've done well. But are you certain we should honor this contract with Brin Macen and Outbound Ventures?" Hereditary Starfleet Commander Kracko sharply inquired, "There have been those incidents."

"I truly believe Macen when he states that he no longer desires any conflict with our people. His own vessel is a poor excuse for a warship and his corporation currently employs decommissioned starships of a vintage caliber, lesser equals or inferiors to our own Starfleet," Galt replied, "To put it bluntly, Outbound Ventures, even after they receive their orders, will hardly be equipped to fight a modern war. They're designed to pacify criminals and protect cargo convoys. Let them continue to do so and even contract them to do the same for our own interests. That will buy a modicum of loyalty and protection from them."

"And if the rumors of the connections between the spies that purchased relevant details to our planning and capabilities are true?" Kracko demanded of him.

"Grand Admiral, the other Starfleet was bound to discover them anyway. Let Macen make his profit selling the data to them and simply hasten our plans. We're already staged to begin. Why not simply do so now rather than later?" Galt questioned her.

Kracko slowly licked her upper lip before stating, "I'm certain the Indendent can be made...aware of the necessity to proceed now."

"I'm just as certain you can sell it," Galt chuckled. Word of Kracko and Oxmyx's sexual escapades with Indendent Kira had reached the entire fleet. Everyone knew just as well that Kira and Ro now ran the Iotian Federation through their proxies consisting of Grand Admiral Kracko and the female Godfather, Oxmyx. Ro operated through sheer force of will and personality whereas Kira depended on seduction and guile. Making Ro ideal to lead the Alliance forces gathered in the Prime Universe and Kira the provocateur that shaped Iotian destinies.

The Bosses of old had kept gun molls at their side for pleasure and protection. The molls in turn generally kept a favorite man or woman on the side. The current scions of the Oxmyx and Kracko dynasties had never hidden the sexual nature of their professional liaison. It had taken the Indendent seconds to recognize it and begin exploiting it for her own ends. Ends that ultimately sharply contrasted with Indendent Ro's.

Ro truly was loyal to Supreme Legate Dukat. Which had served her well as his mistress for the past forty years, first coming to his bed as a fourteen yea old girl. She then replaced Kira Meru as his favorite comfort woman and had eventually driven the wedge that cost Meru her life. Thus creating the rivalry that existed between her daughter, the Indendent Kira Nerys, and Ro.

But Kira lost Terok Nor and Bajor to the Terran Rebellion that had formed up under her watch. Some even said she was directly responsible for the creation of the movement. She was either too soft or too weak. Either trait earning a quick death in the Alliance. Yet she clung to life and a vestige of her influence over the Regent Worf. Again, the blame for his capture had besmirched Kira for a time. But the knowledge that the self-proclaimed Terran Empire reborn acquired its technology from the Prime Universe, Kira attempted to sway Duras and Dukat to reverse the trade away.

Ro knew that Dukat played the field with younger Bajoran women as she aged. She had no qualms as long as her voice was the only one that influenced him. Tora Naprem had bore him a half-Bajoran daughter, Ziyal, that he dearly loved. Another Bajoran named Mika had also bore him a child. Ro had intentionally prevented conception, preferring to influence him through strength of will and persuasion.

Ro persuaded Dukat of the viability of the plan, contingent upon her leading the Alliance forces in their conquest of an alternate reality. Kira conceded the point in order to select their first target in the Prime Universe. So Kira had chosen to partner with the Iotians given their remarkable ability to replicate technology and their simmering resentment towards their "parent" in the shape of the UFP. The bastard sons and daughters wanted to inherit the crown and Kira promised to deliver it.

Ro only had a select number of cadres and crews whereas Kira had an expanding empire in the form of the Iotian Federation. This imperfect copy of both the Terran Empire and the original Federation would eagerly throw themselves into the fires of war if it brought them closer to humbling the exalted United Federation of Planets and bringing new revenues, subjects, and accolades to the Iotians. Kira and Ro found it amusing that the Federation had created a rival that far more Terran than human. All through neglect. Kira and Ro gave the Iotians what to them was advanced technology but still a generation or two removed from their rival Starfleet. They were the pawns to break the Federation's ranks so that the Alliance forces could reap a whirlwind of conquest.

"I leave you to your methods of...persuasion, Fleet Admiral. May you enjoy doing so," Galt chuckled and signed off as Kracko flustered.

"You what?" Admiral Forger pratcially screamed into her monitor.

"You heard me," Macen scolded her.

"I understand the costs involved in acquiring the data you transmitted. Alynna's people are already pouring over it. But you just bought a small fleet from the Iotians? Are you insane?" Forger clarified her position.

"Starfleet wouldn't give me the ships I requisitioned options to buy so I had to seek alternatives since our caseloads are growing exponentially," Macen explained...again, "I told you I'd seek out alternate vendors. You should have anticipated I'd include the Iotians among them when you received word they were clearancing off their entire fleet. I bought the remnants of what they had to offer excluding their 'econo line' of 22nd century era stasrhips"

"Thank heaven for small favors," Forger grumbled.

"I prefer to consider the fact that they were going to sell the ships and raise the capital anyway. This way those ships and their ordnance gets to be utlized for better purposes than piracy or belligerent actions against other planets," Macen stated.

"Both of which the Iotians are intending to do and you just funded their campaign," Forger grieved.

"Semantics," Macen shrugged, "Sometimes negotiating with terrorists actually achieves the seemingly opposed goals of both aggrieved parties."

"God, I liked you better in the old universe," Forger's head hung low.

"That's neither here nor there and neither are we," Macen reminded her.

"I can dream," Forger grumbled.

"Meanwhile, we have the reality that the Iotians constructed one Galaxy-class flagship for Indendent Kira and a Nebula-class flagship for Indendent Ro who will led the actual Alliance forces. Kira will command three squadrons comprising a fleet of Iotians starships. The three squadron commanders will each command an Amabassador-class vessel. The parade of vessels replacements just reads off as a nightmare," Macen told her.

"Give it to me," Forger grimly instructed.

"They completed construction of six of each vessel type. They include the less popular Starfleet cruisers, light cruisers and few a transport and cargo classes. The list is comprised of the Andor-, Barracuda-, Bremen-, Buennos Aires-, Eagle-, Eagle- carrier variant, Emden-, Himilaya-, Hydra-, Java-, Lancelot-, Mosquito-, Pacifica-, Patria-, Shogun-, Sirius-, Splendor-, Tanganyika-, Tenochtitlan-, Venus-, and Vladivostok-classes," Macen recited the long list as a he read from a padd, "Some of whom were vessel types I requested further access to and was flatly denied by Starfleet Command.".

"How are they manning all of these starships?" Forger had to wonder.

"We know Iotians and their selected allies serve as the upper officer corps and that the lower decks and enlisted ranks are conscripted from the their Federation's 'member' worlds. They've expanded their ranks far more quickly than the Federation has over the past decade," Macen was disheartened to report, "The list of Alliance ships reads even worse."

"Give it to me as well," Forger groaned.

"Indendent Ro, from her Nebula-lcass flagship, will command a small fleet made up of Galor-, Keldon-, Lukat-, Hideki-, Groumat-, and Damar- Cardassian classes. The Klingon side brings with it Vorcha-, K'tinga-, D7-, Birds of Prey-, Boreth-, and a single Negh'var-classes," Macen read off.

"Some of those are pretty outdated," Forger sought relief somewhere.

"They still fire photons and disruptors," Macen grimly replied.

Forger gave him a dead eye stare, "You made your point."

"We'll be back at Serenity in a week or so. En route we're taking our own look at the intell. For Bailey and Angelique uncovered the Iotians list of allies is even larger than we suspected. And their own trade agreement stipulates they can deliver twenty starships to the Barrinor system without crossing paths with Starfleet," Macen explained.

"That bodes ill for everyone," Forger realized.

"I thought you might appreciate that particular warning. Also you might want to have someone to deploy a starship to Turkana IV. The Iotians have been stockpiling weapons there," Macen advised her.

"I'll alert Jellico. He's Chief of Operations now," Forger concurred.

"That's all I can ask. I'll send summaries of what we find," Macen offered.

"I look forward to it," Forger signed off. Macen returned to work.

Two weeks passed on Serenity without incident. The Detective Squad and Data Team had poured over the Iotians' raw data. Parva went over the engineering aspects, summarizing the strength of the fleet they'd amassed from a technical perspective. Daggit and Burrows reviewed tactical and strategic implications in what they'd learned. The Iotian Federation had a network of allies scattered throughout the Beta Quadrant. It stretched from Deep Space Four down past the Briar Patch to Turkana IV. Not every system was aligned with them but the neutrals would allow passage through their systems in return for gratuities.

Sela had sealed the Romulan border to Iotian warships but the Neutral Zone warlords were easily bought. Signs of their influence could be seen as deeply into the quadrant as Deep Space 8. They swayed powers rim ward as sectors near Deneva and Cestus III bordering the Gorn Hegemony. They'd avoided the Tholian Assembly but had approached the Gorn, the Breen Confederacy, the Tzenkethi Coalition, and the Cardassian Union. Macen's Cardassian "handler", Ziva Delain, denied any official collusion with the Iotians.

But she did hint that power brokers within the Cardassian government and Cardassian Guard desired to see the Federation and the Klingons humbled as well as the continuing misfortunes of the Romulan Star Empire. The Tzenkethi were almost as xenophobic as the Tholians and had abhorred the Federation's ideas of equality and personal freedoms. No one knew what the hell the Breen were thinking and people rarely asked.

Pike alerted Bryce Fanning that Admiral Forger wished to speak with Macen and Rockford. Minutes later, they were assembled in Rockford's corporate office beside Macen's.

"'Lo 'Manda. What's on your mind?" Macen saw the the turmoil brewing in Forger's expression.

"Alynna has a Double 0 and a Single 0 agent missing in Iotian space," Forger quickly revealed.

"Let me guess, Agent 0086 and Agent 0212," Macen said ruefully.

"Precisely. How did you know?" Forger wasn't quit e incredulous but she wasn't far off.

"Sarina Douglas paid us a personal visit while she was en route to Sigma Iotia II. She and Bashir deduced our origins and promised to keep the secret seeing as how she determined were weren't threats," Rockford shared.

"She figured that out from DS9?" Fortger was skeptical.

"She and Bashir observed minor flaws in Ro and Vaughn's actions and memories. Figuring out the rest of the list wasn't hard for them," Macen told her.

"Damn. No wonder Section 31 tried so hard to recruit the pair of them," Forger muttered.

"They did back 'home', if you recall," Rockford reminded her.

"You want us to sail in and get them back, don't you?" Macen was disappointed.

"Normally Starfleet would disavow them both. But in light of the data you supplied and what they must have acquired over the past three weeks could be invaluable," Forger shrugged, "Nechayev is offering this contract through my office."

"So she can still technically disavow them," Rockford disapproved.

"I don't always agree with Starfleet Intelligence's handling of its operatives but the safeguards are in place for a reason," Forger said tersely.

"So you can send idiots like us into certain doom," Rockford snapped back.

"I never regarded you as an idiot until now," Forger's temper flared.

"Hey, I'm not suicidal. How does that make me an idiot? Are you coming with?" Rockford demanded to know.

"You know I can't," Forger seethed.

"You also don't want to," Rockford accused, "Not when we can jump to our feet and say, 'Sir, yes sir'."

"I never thought I';d say this about anyone, but you are as big a pain in my ass as T'Kir ever was," Forger wouldn't relent.

"Good!" Rockford retorted, "Someone needs to pull a major wedgie on you. T'Kir had a pair. What about you, Admiral?"

"Time out!" Macen yelled. Fanning popped in because the privacy screens hadn't been activated.

"It's okay, Bryce," Macen promised her.

"It is for some of us," Rockford snorted.

"Don't take that tone with me," Forger quickly bit back at her, "Sergeant"

"At leas I did my own fighting," Rockford snarled.

"You do realize that Angosia III provided treatment for their Augments here, don't you? Because of Picard and the Enterprise crew intervening" Forger spat.

"And where were you exactly?" Rockford ignored the supposed slight. Macen activated the privacy screen and pulled Rockford's chair out.

"Get the hell off of me!" she snapped at him.

"Amanda, this conversation is going end in ten seconds if you can't give one solid reason to ignore Starfleet's official disavowal and risk a major investiture we made with the Iotians," Macen warned the Admiral.

"Because otherwise they die and we can't corroberate anything!" Forger pleaded her case.

Macen's head hung low, "Give me five"

He paused the transmission service and contacted Kathy Tyrol, the Outbound Ventures CEO, "Kath, has the Iotian Starfleet offered us any contracts lately?"

"Three came in several hours ago," Tyrol confirmed, "They're cargo escort runs. I was handing them off to Pryce, Gardner, and Forgeon."

"Reroute someone to a different case and we'll take over," Macen instructed.

"Gardner wanted some excitement, we have raiders pounding away at a colony near the Rolor Nebula and Starfleet isn't doing jack," Tyrol pondered aloud, "That work for you?"

"Perfectly," Macen agreed, "Alert Shannon that the crew is up for an assignment. And double dip because Starfleet is sending us on this one."

"I like it," Tyrol grinned.

"Amanda, we're going into Iotian space but we only a brief window to look for your agents. We have a job escorting a cargo run outside of the Federated space. We can push and get there ahead of their scheduled departure but that will only buy us hours instead of days or weeks," Macen confided while perusing the offered Iotian contract.

"Anything will do. We at least have to try," Thank you. Thank you both," Forger signed off.

"We volunteered," Rockford said snidely.

"We aren't affecting a rescue," Macen told her, "Obviously their exit strategy got blown and they're either captured or off grid. If they're aren't imprisoned than they'll be looking for a way out."

"And we sail in and they find us," Rockford nodded her understanding.

"And once we're underway with the convoy, Tracy and Harri can transport them to the nearest starbase while we embark upon our slow, hopefully leisurely cruise," Macen explained his strategy.

"No sailing in for the rescue?" Rockford arched an eyebrow.

"I may rush into territory angels fear to tread but I don't piss on business partners who haven't delivered my twenty starships yet. Besides, I made an agreement with Commodore Galt that we'd stay out of Iotian space for anything less than legitimate business transactions," Macen shared.

"That's rare for you," Rockford admitted, "Normally you don't strike anyone off of your potential target list."

"The Iotians are frustrated and ambitious. I get that. If the two Federations can't reach an accord and start an actual shooting war, I'm not getting involved. We aren't military despite the militant nature of past SID teams I've led. We're a different animal now," Macen confided.

"So you really are committed to narrowing our focus down to investigative work and trade craft," Rockford mused, "I'd wondered considering the hairy schemes we were often swept up in before."

"Different life in a different universe," Macen shrugged.

"We might actually meet that thing called a ripe old age," she smirked.

"That is an ambition," Macen told her, "I've died. It was...unexpected. But that's an exploration for a far later date. Soran was obsessed with the Nexus and escaping death. I'm not him. But I've seen the gate that leads to the next step. I don't know where or when or what it leads to but I don't have a craving to find out either."

"T'Kir's death really has changed you," she'd observed for some time now, "And this reality shift just pushed you further."

"We have a mission beyond these silly contracts and working for Starfleet. We have a chance to positively impact our society and I don't intend to waste that opportunity," Macen shared.

"So is this your nascent messiah complex talking?" Rockford worried.

"Celeste, I don't want to save the galaxy. But I do want to improve it before I die," Macen confessed, "We can be a beacon of hope to this abandoned settler and inhabitants that need it."

"For a price," Rockford snarked.

"Why do you think I invested in all those ships?" Macen wondered, "Why Kathy is already posting ads for recruits? Organizations like the Fenris Rangers are cropping up to fill the void the Federation behind. We'll charge for some services and do fund raising for others. You honestly don't think the Fenris Rangers work for free do you?"

"Of course not," Rockford sighed, "And we've discussed most of this before. Pretty much everything but our role in it."

"Entire worlds need protecting. If we convert most of our profits to charitable endeavors of providing security at reduced rates for those truly in need, then how can we ignore them?" Macen had to wonder.

"I suppose we can't," Rockford grinned, "I like the new you."

"I thought you liked me before," Macen grew worried, "That's why you married me."

"True. But you were haunted. Probably broken again. But that edge is lifting from you. You have a renewed sense of purpose that you'd lost before. It looks good on you," Rockford told him.

"So, you won't complain if I try to save the galaxy?" Macen smirked.

"I'll stop you from trying that but otherwise, yeah," Rockford grinned.

"Good to know," Macen smiled back, "Want to play hooky?"

"Why?" she was very curious as to how he'd answer.

"Well, we'll have an hour or two while Shannon recalls the crew and Bryce alerts the team. I was thinking we could expend some of our renewed sense of purpose energy with each other" Macen wore a loving smile.

"We are talking about sex?" Rockford returned the look.

"And a lot of romance," Macen promised.

"You'd better make good," Rockford warned him.

"Oh, I have plans," he promised. To her delight, it turned out that he did.

"Is it my imagination or as Starfleet completely vanished from this border?" Forger asked.

"No sign of any Starfleet vessels within our scan radius, " Zimbalist confirmed it, "The border patrols seemed ot have stopped."

"But we have several Iotian ships with our sensor range. All of them Emden- or Barracuda-class or better. They can do us some serious damage now," Miller unhappily reported.

"I guess there's no longer reason to hide," Forger mused.

"They're hailing," Miller's Tactical display on the main viewer showed an Emden-class escort veering their way.

"Here we are again," Forger muttered to herself.

"Two Hydra-class analogues are also now on our scope," Miller reported.

"They're definitely screwing around with us this time," Forger said darkly. With the Obsidian, Captain Pryce's Shogun-class Spearhead and Captain Forgeon's Sirius-class Dog Star had also come along for their respective convoy escort duties. With current political tensions being what they were, it was practical for the Iotians to hire outside contractors to secure their cargo runs to planets within or near the UFP's sphere.

Macen's recent dealings with Commodore Galt pushed Outbound Ventures to the forefront of the Iotian Starfleet's "preferred vendor" list. Something which just disgruntled Solarian Security Systems even more. Captains Gardner and vec Fok had reported near brushes with Solarian ships recently aboard their respective Lancelot-class Guinevere and Andor-class Lug Nut. Neither the human nor the Tellarite captain were pleased by these events. The Solarians had postured as though trying to provoke the Outbound Ventures crews into firing on them. Solarian reinforcements were later discovered lurking about nearby. Even Captain Haggit of the Newton-class science ship Copernicus had encountered Solarian ships dogging her footsteps during colonial chartered surveys.

The Iotians were much friendlier this time around knowing that the three starships had known commercial interests on their behalf. A single Hydra-class escorted the three vessels to Sigma Iotia II. There, the Dog Star and Spearhead were then led away by Barracuda-class scout ships to awaiting comvoys made up of Java- and Andor-class transports. The Obsidian's assigned convoy was similarly composed. But, as planned, the surveyor had arrived nearly twenty hours ahead of schedule. A brief window in which Agents 0086 and 0212 would have to reach the Obsidian, if they were able to.

Agents James Smart and Sarina Douglas were dressed in rough, synthetic leathers playing the part of inhabitants liberated from Turkana IV. Most of the humans on Sigma Iotia II were of a dangerous breed but Turkanans were generally the most ill-tempered and battle hardened. Their warring factions battling until Ishara Yar tipped the scales with the unwitting aid of the Enterprise-D crew. Now Yar led her a "united" Turkana IV, since the rival faction had been decimated. But that left Turkana without an adequate gene pool to sustain the remnants of the "lost" colony. The Iotians had provided a way out.

Yar's daughter, Ishtara, led the people's interests on Sigma Iotia itself while Ishara was settling, and "recruiting" settlers through raids on other colonies. Yar had been given the rare opportunity to visit her niece. Sela had explained the strange temporal events that led to Tasha Yar being in the past decades before her birth on Turkana IV. Sela had been reared on tales of Tasha's only regret being leaving Ishara behind. Now having met the hard-bitten woman, Sela respected her aunt and intervened on the Turkanans' behalf. Enabling them to settle on a planet near the former Neutral Zone.

Additionally, the Director of the Tal Shiar decreed the humans exempt from the "taxations" of the local Romulan Warlords that had settled into the Neutral Territories as they were now known. The simple fact that the Turkanans, now allied with the Iotians, would prove to an increasing thorn in the UFP's side only delighted Sela and remained her sole motivation for the accommodation. Of course, Yar could no longer plague Picard, Riker, or Data directly but she meant them ill will however indirectly in Picard and Riker's cases. Data was now beyond retribution. Which was Sela's only regret concerning his death.

"Don't dawdle," Smart tersely snipped at Douglas.

"I wasn't the one who blew our cover bedding Indendent Kira," Douglas bit back.

"She already knew I was a Federation agent," Smart angrily hissed at her.

"Yet you verbally confirmed her suspicions anyway," Douglas reminded, "All so you could gloat about getting to her bed."

"It was more like a chamber room," Smart recalled the huge bed and its restraining points and the layers of writhing bodies he'd had to "penetrate" to get to Kira.

"I wonder if the General is as flexible," he suddenly mused. Douglas' right cross surprised him.

"I meant morally speaking," he argued. At least that was one permutation. The sight of Turkanans physically assaulting one another didn't faze the crowded streets they were traveling upon. Apparently this was commonplace. The Iotian Starfleet was looking for them but Douglas had successfully wiped all visual and scan data regarding them. A few simple cosmetic changes had sufficiently neutralized Kira's bored, generalized memories of "all humans look alike." Smart now more closely resembled Smarts of the past and Douglas was a brassy blonde. Her intermittent searches on public nets had so far failed to find them a ride home.

"I'll be damned," she suddenly murmured during her latest look.

"What?" he asked.

"The Obsidian is in orbit. If we can arrange passage, I can get us home with Outbound Ventures," Douglas informed him.

"Those security contractor shiites?" Smart wasn't impressed, "They're probably working for the damned Iotians."

"You think their being here and being a primary Starfleet SID contractor is a coincidence?" Douglas asked in a weary way.

"Look out," Smart whispered as a Rutian Ansata waited for the public data terminal.

"Here, take mine," Douglas offered her. The Iotians had settled the Ansata division on Rutia IV. Acting as peacekeepers, they insured the Ansata's independence from the Rutian continents. The Rutians were less than happy but the Ansata happily assisted the Iotians however they could. Like the Romans of 492 IV, the Cappellens made ideal shock troops for the Alliance's goals. As did the Yangs and Khoms of Omega IV.

The settlers on Omicron Ceti III had abandoned the Federation and sided with the Iotian Federation. The Betans, the inhabitants of Gideon, Eminiar VII and Eminiar VI, and Acamarian Gatherers, Bajoran pirates, and Orions as well as other formerly "neutral" planets allied themselves, united under the banner of the Iotian Federation. Ardana IV was skirting a neutral line between the Iotians and the UFP. The UFP being their largest customer of zenite ore. But politically the Ardanan Regent, ruling in Maarta's stead, was closer to the Iotians than the original Federation the Iotians' parodied so well and Maarta was hidden in plain sight as Bailey Smith. Far from the throne of the sky city of Stratos she'd abandoned when she became a Troglyte Separatist.

The most startling reveal had come from Indendent Kira taunting Smart with the knowledge that the Alliance-led coalition was beginning its expansionist march with the Iotian Federation as its leading edge. Its three pronged thrust throughout neutral territories through Federation space, claiming rights of "free passage". Which, as long as hostilities didn't officially break out and the Iotian Federation and its allies were reclassified as "belligerents", they had free access to Federation space. The deadline for these thrusts was less than three days away.

The Iotians would cross the borders and frontiers like a tidal wave. Their goal to sweep up neutral worlds and crush and pound away all resistance. Even those worlds deemed non-contact planets by the Prime Directive. A great multitude of the Ekosian and Zeonite survivors had also come to embrace the Iotians' vision for the future. Despite their abiding gratitude towards Captain John Harriman and the crew of the Enterprise-B they always remembered that the evacuation effort had been led by private cruise and shipping lines. So they'd harbored a deep resentment against Starfleet for not doing more to save more of their collective civilizations. That resentment festered a new brand of fascism within them.

No longer divided on racist lines, the Ekosians and Zeonites now bolstered the Iotian Starfleet's Command and Scientific Divisions. The Zeonites having developed warp drive for their twin worlds. They'd quickly adapted to the more advanced technologies the Iotians already possessed and to the newer advancements brought to them by the Alliance. They'd settled on the same world as the Turkanans. Their mutual hatred of the UFP enabling them to co-exist peaceably.

"We need to find a public comm station and place a call to Outbound Ventures," Douglas informed Smart.

"Why?" 0086 snorted derisively, "What possible good could that do?".

"It'll get us in contact with their ship and get us beam out coordinates, you pretentious moron," Douglas had had enough of his misogynist attitudes and patronizing attitude, "I've turned down three promotions to Double 0 status whereas you had to apply five times."

"Now who is the moron," he snorted again, this time dismissively.

"I wanted to have a life beyond the mission of the day. Can you honestly say who haven't desired the same? I know you stood down to marry once. You only returned to active duty after she betrayed you to the Orion Syndicate and committed suicide rather than face you afterwards," Douglas evoked the not so distant past.

"Don't you dare mention her!" Smart snarled.

"And you vanished after Pennyfarthing shot you on Admiral Nechayev's direct order. You felt betrayed again so you reflexively ran away," Douglas sneered, "Since then you've hidden behind cynicism, alcohol, murder, sex, and called it a call to duty. They call your discarded men and women 'Smart Trash'. Is that something you're proud of?"

"Now you see here." Smart grated.

"Will you kill me then?" Douglas taunted him, "You haven't slept with me so I guess you'll have to resort to your overdeveloped trigger finger. Or can't you outrun the truth anymore? You're irrelevant. A product of a tradition and drive for revenge that needs to be erased from the Federation and Starfleet's soul."

"Make your damn call," Smart grated between clenched teeth.

"Just tell me one thing," Douglas mused, "How did you escape Starfleet's sweep of Cell 51?"

She strode off with purpose as Smart stated at her back with a horrified look. He'd had no idea anyone within Starfleet Intelligence had ever uncovered his ultimate loyalties. He was the last of his cell cadre and presumably the very last of Cell 51 to have escaped incarceration. Yet Douglas knew. She knew and yet hadn't outed him. Maybe that bought her some loyalty after all.

Douglas used a comm station in a tavern to contact Outbound Ventures corporate office and navigated the the customer directory to reach Bryce Fanning.

"Commander Macen said to directly relay you to him if you contacted us," Fanning said brightly, "Stand by."

Their corporate logo appeared to be replaced moments later by Macen's concerned features.

"I take it you're on the run," he said without preamble.

"Yes," Douglas confirmed it.

"We have a team on the ground posing as tourists as we await deployment for escort duty for a convoy passing through Federation space. Rendezvous with them at a specified public transporter and you'll beam aboard posing as new hires. During our cruise through Federation territory, we'll dispatch you in a runabout to the nearest starbase where you can reconnect with Nechayev's people," Macen instructed.

"Where and when is the rendezvous?" Douglas asked.

"The Public Directory has provided your location. There are two public transporter sites en route to a potential meeting with my team. Here the coordinates to the furthest site. My team can be there in eighteen minutes. Can you?" he inquired.

"We'll have to be," Douglas stated, "I assume you have a departure window?"

"Which you'll just meet if you make the rendezvous," Macen told her.

"Then we're off," Douglas terminated the transmission and moved to leave.

"They have eyes on," Smart quietly warned her.

"I saw them," Douglas assured him, "We can outpace them."

"Very well," he said grimly. But the Iotian Security forces began converging on them. The Starfleet Intelligence agents had to presume they hadn't been positively identified yet or they'd have already been detained.

"Make a break for it," Smart demanded when they reached the first public transporter site. Before Douglas could protest, Smart pulled his Type I phaser free of his jacket and opened fire and ran straight for the transporter. Shoving an occupant forward as an annular confinement beam took affect, Smart was transported to an unknown destination. Security converged on the operator. A full detail went through the transporters to follow Smart. Distracted by securing the transporter site, Security missed Douglas' discreet exit.

Douglas recognized Daggit and Burrows from the SID files on them. Mudd's Starfleet Security jacket was filled with allegations and near misses.

"Hurry up," Mudd hissed while wearing a fake smile as Daggit instructed the operators to transport the quartet to the Obsidian. All three were dressed to their disreputable best.

Rematerializing on the Obsidian's transporter pad, Telrik looked pleased but Macen and Rockford were concerned.

"Where's Agent 0086?" Macen inquired.

"James Smart. They renamed him James Smart," Douglas said sadly, "And he's lost to us. But I have our collected intelligence to report to Starfleet."

"Once we leave Iotian territory we can arrange for a secure, encrypted channel directly to Nechayev's Double 0 offices, "Rockford promised.

"We're cutting it close," Macen grimaced, "The convoy has formed up and is already proceeding our of the system at half impulse."

"What type of transports?" Douglas asked.

"Java- and Andor-class analogues," Macen answered.

"So they'll make good time," Douglas said sadly, "Poor Smart doesn't stand a chance."

"Not really," Rockford unhappily concurred.

"Bridge to Transporter Room. We're breaking orbit and commencing our boring ol' run. Should we delay?" Forger asked over the comm.

"No need," Macen replied, "Fulfill the contract."

"Gladly," Forger replied.

Two days later, the Corsair was dispatched with Ebert flying and Mudd standing as crew while Douglas awaited her arrival at Deep Space K-7.

The Corsair would redeploy back to Serenity rather than try to pace and eventually overtake the convoy as it headed to the Iotians' base on Turkana IV.

The underground bunkers had been converted into a military base to oversee Iotian Starfleet activities amongst its allies in the region. A degree of excitement occurred when poorly equipped Nausican raiders attempted to capture some of the cargo. The Andor-class transports closed ranks around the Java-class heavy freighters while the Obsidian directly engaged the raiders' outdated and outmoded ships.

In their "former" lives, Forger and Miller had both begun as Starfleet Tactical Officers that Forger's older sister, the Admiral, had persuaded to join Outbound Ventures. Without the existence of the SID in this universe, Forger and Miller's counterparts had much more checkered pasts. Both had been persuaded to resign from Starfleet and subsequently been recruited by Outbound Ventures. The Nova-class surveyor wasn't designed with combat in mind but it had considerable firepower compared to its predecessors, the Oberth- and Newton-class science vessels and as the fateful USS Equinox proved traversing the Delta Quadrant, the tough little ships could absorb a great deal of punishment. Which is why Parva and Gilan each had a four-person detail of engineers on staff with them on their watches. The most heavily staffed single area in this ship besides the bridge itself. Only Security matched the numbers.

"They're on our six again, Aglaia," Miller complained. All of the Obsidian's defensive systems were situated in the primary hull section. Those systems consisted of two ventral and dorsal Type X phaser strips and two forward facing photon torpedo launchers.

"On it," Aglaia growled. The Platonian took it personally whee even the smaller and slightly more maneuverable Naucican raiding ships slipped past her.

"Thanks," Miller said happily as she was able to re-engage the last three raiders. One was crippled and left to the tender mercies of the Andor-class transports. Who had destroyed two raiders on their own accord. This third was easy picking for them. One of the remaining two was destroyed by a torpedo. The last's nerve broke and it fled at warp speed away from the system.

One of the Java-class needing repairs to one of its quad warp nacelles only required a few hours maintenance before the convoy could resume travel at Warp 5. Still, after a second delay with a raiding party, this time independent Acamarian Gatherers who'd rejected other clans' embracing the Iotian Federation's offers, the convoy safely arrived intact at Turkana IV. Once the massive rails of cargo containers were sent to the surface from the Java-class super freighters, the Andor-classes transported down their own cargo stacks. The convoy master released the Obsidian from the return voyage. Empty transports were rarely targeted even in these pirate festooned sectors.

The Obsidian arrived a week later at Serenity to find twenty new starships awaiting crews. The Iotian Starfleet had expedited its deliveries seeing how successful each Outbound Ventures convoy mission was. No cargo losses and no loss of lives had occurred under the various captains' watches. The Iotians had brought their own Patria-class starship to ferry the skeleton crews home to return to duty stations before they were needed now that the Iotian Federation had begun its thrust into the galaxy beyond its "limited" borders.

As promised, the starships had been delivered without Starfleet interference by utilizing a roundabout course of neutral sectors and planetary systems with mixed alignments. Douglas' reports, which Smart had sacrificed himself to get out, demonstrated that the Iotians would not attack or pressure Federation member worlds. But they had convinced a great many former protectorates and colonies to accept protection scheme in exchange for resource extraction. Suddenly, the Federation Council was interested in re-engaging with those same territories on a diplomatic level to reintroduce Starfleet patrols into their systems and sectors as the cases may be.

In one strange convergence of realities, the USS Intrepid had been decommissioned for technical reasons as the Starfleet Corps of Engineers partnered with the Advanced Starship Design Bureau to use the original Intrepid-class hull, and now carrier variant, for testing various experimental design refits intended for eventual use in future starship classes. The ship's registry was retired. Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson and Captain James McKinley fought hard to keep the name registry alive and they persuaded Starfleet Command to commission the very last Akira-class carrier variant to be built to be dedicated as the new USS Intrepid upon launch. And so the crew, most unknowingly, came full circle. Hannah Grace being the only native to the Prime Universe in on it.

The commissioning and dedication ceremony was in two weeks. The starship had already undergone its trial runs and merely awaited it s permanent crew and fighter complement to undertake its maiden voyage. McKinley the chosen designee to mount the dedication plaque before taking the Intrepid out for her first voyage. One that Starfleet was already anxious to have commence. Johnson and the crew were the designated goodwill tour to the Beta Quadrants nonaligned worlds and colonies. Their mission was to open dialogue with the Federation Diplomatic Corps on their heels in order to sway them back into a renewed relationship with an expanding, or restored, mandate within Starfleet. the Intrepid was going in advance of the diplomats in case of Iotian belligerence.

The Enterprise-E and the Voyager-A were also being deployed on similar missions in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Commander Erika Benteen had DS4 secured and the commanders of the likewise potentially threatened DS5 and DS8 were also secured and reinforced. But the Iotian Federation was reaching out past the Klingon Empire, into the regions between and beyond Federation space in the further Beta Quadrant. They were also doubling down on their own near space territories and around Turkana IV.

The third thrust was carefully aimed at skirting the Ferengi Alliance and the First Federation to reach open territories surrounding and beyond the Breen Confederacy and the Tzenkethi Coalition. The Alliance stayed strangely inert while the Iotians spread out.

Meanwhile, Director Sela had indicated to Macen that the Romulan Star Empire had ambitions regarding the Cardassian Union. Something he hadn't reported to either the SID or the Cardassian Information Bureau. Macen distrusted this incarnation of the Cardassian Union and its Detepa Council. He wouldn't mind seeing both the Cardassians and the Romulans humbled in an unnecessary conflict so far as neither made gains but rather suffered strategic losses.

Macen had never the fought the Romulans but he had actively fought the Cardassians for over twenty years beginning with the start of the Border Wars until the end of the Dominion War. In his history, Cardassia had become a thriving constitutional monarchy and democracy. But it seemed the Cardassia Prime of the Prime Universe wasn't prepared for such developments. Embittered over their repeated losses and the staggering war reparations the Klingons and Romulans had imposed atop of the need to rebuild Cardassian Prime after the Dominion had begun bombarding entire cities into rubble to draw out former Supreme Legate Damar along with Elim Garak and acting Commander Kira Nerys.

The devastation had required a decade of reconstruction and was still ongoing. The death toll added to the wartime casualty lists compiled over fifty-five years were equally catastrophic. Dukat had allied Cardassia with the Dominion because he felt that Cardassia had been reduced to a "third-rate" power. The Dominion had barely left them that. Even their vast network of subject worlds had begun to revolt and forced concessions out of the Detepa Council.

Katreen Dervin, the Chrysalis Child of prophecy and myth, returned to Cardassia Prime to help rebuild on the condition that she wouldn't assert her hereditary monarchial authority. But she gained popularity publicly advocating for the common citizens and subjects of the Cardassian Union. Gone was the triumvirate of the Cardassian Guard, the Obsidian Order, and lastly the Detepa Council. Officially, the Obsidian Order no longer existed and the CIB was nominally under civilian control and oversight. The Cardassian Guard remained and yielded oversight to civilian managers and authorities. But the military budget still pushed the Cardassian economy near collapse.

The populace, classically scarred and fearful after the events tat ended the Dominion War and the apparent threat that the Grand Alliance members continued to pose, the Cardassians made cutting generational sacrifices as they'd nearly lost an entire generation of serving military officers. Retired guls and legates were reinstated. Raw recruits and conscripts were rushed through training. Once, the Cardassian Guard had been a prestigious voluntary service. Now six years as an enlisted man or woman were mandatorily required before one could volunteer with aspiration of becoming trained as an officer. Conscription was unescapable regardless of infirmity or gender. A familiar rally cry from Earth history drove the Cardassian people now. That cry was, "Never again!"

The colonies were further populated as citizens desperately sought to escape the squalor and deprivations facing Cardassia Prime. A world already teetering on environmental collapse, the arid planet had become ravaged by dust and debris storms. Weather systems were altered by the energy of the bombardments that nearly cracked the planet open. Mass graves littered the planet and no one knew the ultimate fate of most of their families. Everyone had just come to accept the worst. On very rare occasion that certitude was blessedly shaken by the unexpected return of a surviving and missing in action familial member but for most, numb acceptance replaced grief.

The culturally ingrained xenophobia inherent in Cardassian culture only increased after the war ended. For now, the Cardassians had the will and means to defend their existing borders but the day would rise when they would seek to expand their manifest destiny into the planets beyond their own borders once again. As a token gesture, the Federation ceded their claims to their former colonies in the DMZ. The inhabitants had all been butchered or enslaved by the Jem'Hadar anyway. The straggling survivors returned from the labor camps where they'd lived, toiled, and died beside POWs and Bajoran political prisoners.

A bitter humility embraced the Cardassian people as the Bajorans spearheaded the Federation's relief efforts. To some it was a kind gesture despite the mistreatment that the Cardassians had inflicted upon the Bajoran people. Others, like the former Dukat, saw that as a sign that the Bajorans truly wished to be conquered by the Cardassians. It was an inherent, unspoken need withing their culture. Modern Bajorans post-Occupation couldn't exist without Cardassian overlords. So elements within the Cardassian Guard prepared for the day to satisfy the Bajoran whims. This errant perspective disregarded the fact that Bajor was now a Federation member world and that Starfleet and the Federation wouldn't simply write the Bajorans off as they had colony worlds. If only for the sake of securing the Bajoran Wormhole and its strategic importance.

Once more aboard Serenity, Tyrol and Macen formed a Hiring and Advisory Committee comprised of every Outbound Ventures captain, including Forger and Riker. Tyrol arranged for the advertisements and data net postings to attract potential captains and crewmen. Their first officers, including Danan, were in charge of screening crewmen and ship's officer candidates. Forger looked for an XO out of all the applicants.

Rockford tasked her squad with assisting her in recruiting new potential private investigators to join the Rockford Detective Agencies family so they could bleeding cases. While Outbound Ventures looked into former Starfleet and localized command officers, Rockford pursued Starfleet Security, Federation Security agents, and localized planetary police forces to find the best candidates looking to move into the private sector. The searches were exhaustive and took over three weeks. Once the twenty command officers were selected, those twenty then went through the screened candidates for their ships' officer and crews.

At the end of a month, the mounting, pending contracts were assigned to every starship, veteran and new, and Outbound Ventures went into serious business for itself as the original corps of captains joined Macen in SID contracts while the new twenty crews handled the pedestrian cases. Rockford also made progress and the Agency began to stop turning away cases due to manpower shortages.

During this, Johnson and the Intrepid crew, along with LaForge and the Enterprise, and Chakotay and the Voyager crews all set out to engage with seemingly abandoned territorial powers and former colonies as the Iotian Federation surged outward. Forger found her Executive Officer to oversee the Second Watch. After years of inaction, Joelle Jones was willing to take a subordinate role in order to get back into space. She was even pleased to find that the new Waylaid ship and crew had joined up as well. Jones no longer bleached her hair platinum white blonde but she still preferred to alter her hair color a far less stark blonde. And as she had her jacket slung over her shoulder, she sported a tattoo she hadn't had when she was a Maquis.

"Macen, I hear you vouched for me with your captain," Jones smiled.

"We parted peaceably, Joelle. I saw no reason to block your chances now. Just be certain you accept being the second-in-command," Macen stressed the word.

"I'd rather be spared the headaches of a captaincy these days. I just can't bore my butt off dirt side any more. I'm a spacer born and bred," Jones explained her motives. Ebert had also been born and raised on freighters. Jones also had combat experience as CO of the former Waylaid. True, she'd been more of a pirate than a privateer but she'd "retired" without being charged and convicted with any crimes.

"I truly hope this works out," Macen offered her his hand. She took it firmly and then unexpectedly hugged him.

"I do thank you for your endorsement. I won't let any of you down," she said after startling Macen with the move.

"I'm certain you won't," Macen confided.

Teceiving Pike's "all clear" message, Admiral Forger began forwarding SID brush fire missions to Outbound Ventures. Raiders and other forms of pirates had began plaguing dozens of stars systems and their traffic. Aggressive neighbors also threatened potential clients. In the end, every Outbound Ventures ship, regardless of SID status or clearance was deployed. The only question lingering over everyone's mind at home and abroad as the Iotian Starfleet spread itself was: where were the Alliance forces and when would they deploy?

Aboard Indendent Kira's Galaxy-class flagship, she'd stretched 0086 out on an X-frame. His nudity obviously didn't bother him as she carefully studied his sculpted body and almost wished she didn't have to inflict the harm she had in mind.

"Last chance, Agent Smart. Tell me what I want to know and you'll be freed from any torture," Kira promised.

"I've heard that before," Smart glibly remarked.

Kira uncoiled a rope with a weighted ball at one end, "Oh, you'll talk. You'll tell me everything I want to know and more. The question is, how much of a man will you still be before you break?"

"I'd rather be tortured than listen to you gab on," Smart remarked.

Kira shrugged, "You did ask for it."

Over the next twenty minutes, she repeatedly swung the ball into his testicles with increasing force but Smart wouldn't even cry out in pain, causing to her exert greater and greater effort. Finally, he'd endured too much and he screamed out before he fell into blessed unconsciousness.

She clucked her tongue as she examined his ruined testicles, "Well, those will never heal. Too bad. Toss the body out an airlock."

Her guards moved quickly unsecure Smart and carry out their orders.

"Such a waste of material," she smirked.

The comm panel activated and Ro's image appeared, "Are you finally prepared to join us?"

"Ye-es," Kir a was delighted by her rival's frustration, "I'll be there in less than twenty-six hours."

"It's about damn time," Ro snapped off before terminating the signal.

"Oh, an entire universe, just for me," Kira practically giggled as she headed for the bridge. She never notice d that her guards never returned or that, because no one would report it, that a life pod was ejected and safely piloted to the surface of Sigma Iotia II. 0086 would return.

"What a helluva month," Rockford rolled her neck before Macen began kneading her tensed muscles, "I need this."

"Don't we all?" he asked mirthfully.

"Are you certain you can trust this Joelle Jones?" Rockford asked as he worked her neck, "Weren't you enemies once upon a time?"

"We were on opposing sides of argument no one won," Macen explained and he began to slide down to work her shoulders and she grunted, "Besides, I Listened to her. She's being completely honest. At least with herself. She has other motives but she genuinely doesn't wanr command of this ship and she genuinely means us no harm. But, on the other hand, she's committed to her role and her duties."

"This ship?" Rockford caught that phrase and narrowed in on it, "You think she has designs to command her own again?"

"Basically. She views this as her litmus test to prove her loyalty. Which, she isn't far off," Macen began to really apply pressure to her muscle knots riding between her shoulder blades, "I'm assuming she'll make a proclamation when she's ready to resume commanding her own vessel. She interviewed for a command and was passed over. Shannon offered this slot and she took it seeing the Obsidian as a faster track to personal command than say one of the new starships. Okay, lay down now so I can really get to work."

Using lotion as a lubricant, he began a full body massage on her now naked form.

"God, I'm going to fall asleep when you're done," Rockford groaned again.

"Sleep is a goo-ood thing," Macen soothed her.

"So what do you think about your new recruits?" Rockford inquired.

"Probably the same thing you think about yours. They'll get the job done right. But until they show themselves to be outstanding, they don't get the keys to kingdom," Macen told her.

"You know me too well," she chuckled.

"I should," Macen kissed the nape of her neck.

"Mmm, that's nice but don't get distracted," Rockford replied.

"I just want to hold the puddle of goo that will be you," Macen predicted.

"Oh God, don't start rhyming. It's creepy," Rockford chided him.

"Once you're asleep, I have things to tend to," Macen warned her.

"All-nighter?" she started worrying.

"I hope not but I don't know yet," Macen shared, "I have to run over the latest intelligence summaries concerning our new friends and check in with Delain at the CIB. They want info on the Iotians and we've had recent contact and dealings with them."

"Lucky us," Rockford sounded miffed on his behalf.

"It's all good," Macen consoled her.

He was working on her mid and lower back now.

"Please don't stop," she practically begged.

"Full body, remember?" he asked.

"Does that mean you're gonna...yup, you're playing with my ass," Rockford answered herself.

"I'm massaging," Macen said primly.

"You're enjoying yourself," she accused.

"That too," he began working down her thighs.

"If I wasn't so exhausted I'd be horny right about now," she confessed.

"Keep it together," he advised her. He dutifully kneaded her calves next before finally ending with her feet. he took extra pains here as he had with her neck, shoulders, and back. Rockford made the occasional contented noise before drifting off to sleep.

"Or, I won't hold you," he murmured. He draped a blanket over her sleeping form and headed out to his office. He'd actually learned massage and acupressure from a professional in exchange for access to his personal music collection from across three quadrants. He could even apply some basic chiropractic but generally refrained from doing so given the amount damage that could be inflicted by the amateur practitioner.

It was in his office sorting through intelligence summaries, and using those to guide him to selected raw intelligence reports, that he received word that the Alliance forces had emerged from Iotion territory. While Iotian spearheads were commanded by a commodore aboard an Ambassador-class analogue, Kira and Ro were leading their Klingon and Cardassian ships against the Gorn in their Galaxy- and Nebula-class equivalents. Making the Gorn believe, incorrectly, that Federation and Klingons had allied with Cardassians and were the ones attacking them. Making the Iotians offer of a mutual defense treaty all that more appealing. As the Iotions arrived, they "chased" the Alliance deeper across the Alpha Quadrant and rallying the Gorn against their supposed attackers.

"Very clever," Macen saluted the Indendents. They'd won the first round. Now it would behoove the Federation to engage diplomatically while they still could. Macen's estimate was they'd strike the Tholians, the Breen, and the Tzenkethi in the Alpha Quadrant unless Starfleet Command found the will to stop them first. Even the Talarians, First Federation, and Ferengi could find themselves drawn into the web. Each angry at the Federation, Cardassians, and the Klingons and entreated to join a new coalition of interstellar powers by the Iotians.

This had Ro written all over it. Which was why he'd need her help explaining the plan to Starfleet. Before the next wave of strikes began.

 

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