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Second Coming - Part I by Travis Anderson

The Spy, the Rebel, the Daredevil, the Fighter, the Lightbulb, the Muscle, the Fixer, the
Rock, the Brain, and one ship shared by all. The tale continues...

Chapter One

Nearly six weeks had passed since the mysterious subspace pulse had delivered the ominous message to the planet Omicron. That message had simply said, "We are coming." No one, including the Omicron, knew who the "we" referred to.

The starship Endeavor had been engaged in a study of the Omicron for almost three months now. It had been a Starfleet team that discovered the mysterious monolith that sent and received subspace pulses. Both times that the monolith went active it had sent and received pulses that registered far beyond anything Starfleet had ever seen outside of a planetary scale shockwave before.

Captain Adolae Thrax sat in his Ready Room and reviewed reports from his Away Teams. His XO, Commander Sela Hennessy, was coordinating the research effort on Omicron. "On" Omicron meant they were all inside of a mountain range. Thrax had recently finished reading a human fable entitled The Hobbit and horrific creatures within its pages had created habitats inside of caverns and caves secreted within the Misty Mountains.

At one time, the Omicron presented themselves as a threat, both direct and indirect. The indirect threat had been their organizing and arming thousands of terrorist and insurgent cells throughout the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. The Omicron had even briefly intervened personally on these groups' behalf.

That brought one to the direct threat. The Omicron used biotechnology they way other species used water. They even engineered their own kind. No Starfleet vessel had been found to be able to overcome their bioships.

50,000 year ago the Omicron Empire had been crushed and their homeworld razed. This accounted for their retreat underground. They'd secreted themselves away and played with their own genome. The catalyst for their genetic experiments was a fragment of "ultramatter". A substance thought to be a fragment from the celestial egg that birthed the current universe. The full capability of these fragments, yes, fragments for there were two; because the extragalactic Kelvans that destroyed the Omicrons' fleet also ejected the ultramatter out into the void between galaxies. Astronomers were even now eagerly studying the stellar nursery that the fragments had created between the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies.

A unit of Starfleet's nebulous Special Investigation Division had first encountered the Omicron and unlocked what secrets had been known before this expedition. If the Cardassian Union hadn't joined the Khitomer Accords then they'd have to worry about their skirting the Cardassian Farside border. Still, the Omicron homeworld was far enough beyond Breen and Cardassian space to lend neither the Typhon Pact nor the Union claims to this region.

Besides which, the SID had secured an invitation from the Omicron for Starfleet to send a vessel. One vessel. No more, no less. The decision to send in a Sovereign-class explorer had been logical enough. What Thrax saw as a grand chance to wave the flag and showboat a little, Starfleet Command saw as an opportunity to occupy Thrax in a remote system where he couldn't complicate matters between the Typhon Pact and the Khitomer Accords.

Thrax hadn't risen in Starfleet due to his stellar career. He'd risen because his uncle controlled the Federation Council's Appropriations Committee. This wasn't to say that dozens of Thraxes hadn't achieved prominence in Starfleet. They were almost as great a Starfleet family as the Parises. Sadly, the current scion of the family enlisted in Starfleet was a disaster waiting to happen.

Thrax had graduated from Starfleet Academy at the bottom of his class. Not in the periphery of the bottom but dead last. Starfleet officers across two Quadrants shook their heads and wondered how a nincompoop like Thrax had achieved command. So while the bulk of Starfleet wondered, Starfleet Command sat safely on Earth and prayed he wouldn't screw up a routine survey.

Thrax sat behind his desk and lifted one padd after another. He dutifully perused them but he had to admit that most of it went waaay beyond him. The sociologists were dissecting Omicron behaviors and the archeology and anthropology people were taking their artifacts and society apart piece by piece.

What had become glaringly apparent was that the Omicron had lost their ability to create specialized lifeforms. That meant their biotech had been reduced to a level comparable to that of the Breen. Thrax was certain that the Omicron had done it on purpose just to make him look bad. Well, his scathing reports regarding the Omicron would settle up the karmic debt.

He picked up the latest report from Commander Sonya Gomez. His Chief Engineer had been examining the monolith since the initial subspace pulse erupted from it. She'd been on hand for the reception of the second. While she still had no clue as to how the monolith functioned, she did know what it had done.

It had emitted a pulse, everyone knew that, but it had shot it through mountains that arose above them. The trace minerals and metals laced throughout the cliffs and peaks channeled and amplified the signal. It was an elegant solution as to how to transmit across space from a literal hole in the ground. A hole that was buried under a million tons of rock.

Gomez noted that she'd arrived at this solution with the aid of Lieutenant Tim Prentiss. Prentiss was the ship's Archeology and Anthropology Officer and headed the department that was scattered across the Omicron's domain. Thrax had been considering putting Prentiss on report because he hadn't provided these very answers in short order.

He thought better of it now but he would demand that Prentiss be removed from his post and demoted. What good was an A & A Officer that couldn't immediately cough up answers when you asked a question? He'd let Hennessy handle the dirty work. He'd already approved a transfer request in reply to the inevitable protest.

Now we just have to determine the origins of these ugly buggers and determine who is planning on joining us, Thrax thought to himself. His comm badge chirped and he tapped it, "Captain Thrax."

He always added his rank, just in case the petitioner wasn't aware of it. Gev's voice entered the room, "Captain, you wanted to be apprised when our probes detected something unusual."

Gev was Thrax's Tellarite Second Officer. He liked Gev. If Hennessy weren't in the way he'd install Gev as the First Officer. He'd logged a thousand fitness reports reporting that Hennessy was unfit for her position and that Gev was better suited for it but Starfleet Command refused to see his side of things. They hated him.

"How close is the disturbance?" Thrax asked. The unspoken question was, Can this wait?

"The subspace distortion collapsed at the edge of the system. We have readings on three massive objects headed into the inner system," Gev replied.

"Are they headed for us?" Thrax asked. He knew his voice quavered with fear. Hopefully Gev didn't detect that.

"Straight for us, sir," if Gev knew his captain was terrified out of his mind, he hid it well.

"I'll be right there," Thrax groaned.

Thrax stepped out of the Ready Room and went straight for his chair. Gev sat in the XO's chair as if he were born to be there. He was, Thrax glumly thought.

"Status?" he asked. It was always a good icebreaker...and it established his absolute authority in the situation.

"I don't know what these critters are using for propulsion but they are hauling!" T'Lisa Park reported from Science.

Thrax stared at the Vulcan-Korean hybrid, "Care to rephrase so we can all understand?"

"These things are travelling at .99c but there are no time dilation effects from travelling at relativistic speeds. It's like they're bending time to suit their purposes," she reported.

Thrax tried to grapple with that but the implications went right overt him. All he saw was a potential threat that could bend space-time in order to travel faster without resorting to subspace.

Suddenly a new thought gripped him, "You said ‘critters'."

Park nodded, "Our outer system probes indicate that these, ships for lack of a better word, are alive."

"Ships?" Ice stabbed through Thrax's guts.

"Yessir, three of 'em," Park bobbed her head enthusiastically. She was excited beyond belief whereas her captain was terrified out of his mind.

"How big are these ‘ships'?" Thrax inquired.

"Roughly the size of Earth's moon, sir." Park happily replied.

A moon? Thrax's mind quailed. Outwardly he asked, "Are they spherical? Like the ships of the First Federation?"

"No, they're almost fish shaped," Park mused.

Thrax chewed on that while his OPS Officer of the watch reported, "Sir, the unidentified craft are entering visual range."

Thrax wanted to go hide in his Ready Room but starship captains juts didn't do that. At least not yet.

"Put it on visual," Thrax ordered.

The screen shifted and three monstrous fish appeared on approach. They even swam through space. They were all sleek lines except for some bulbous protrusions sticking out of their flesh.

"What are those...bulbs?" Thrax asked.

"Mechanical implants," Park answered as she studied her sensor readings, "It's almost as if the Borg assimilated these creatures."

"Borg?" Thrax was instantly galvanized. When the Borg had invaded with murderous intent just a few years ago, he'd been shuffled to the sidelines escorting refugee convoys. Now was his chance for some action.

"Shields up. Arm phasers and quantum torpedoes," Thrax ordered.

"Sir, what are we doing?" Gev quietly asked.

"You heard her. It's the Borg. Now we can have revenge against them," Thrax answered with a malicious gleam in his eyes.

"Sir, Captains Picard, Dax, and Riker all stated the Borg threat was ended. They were reintegrated into the Caeliar civilization that inadvertently spawned them," Gev inquired.

"What do they know? Who are these Caeliar anyway? Everything about them is classified. All we have to say that the Borg are free and benevolent now are those officers word for it," Thrax argued.

"Sir, these forms resemble whale sharks," Park desperately tried to salvage this First Contact scenario.

"Aren't sharks predators on your planet?" Thrax wanted to know.

"Most sharks. Whale sharks are benign hence the appellation whale shark," Park tried to explain.

"A predator is a predator, Ensign. These creatures, benign or not, have been assimilated by the Borg. The last time the Federation saw the Borg they were trying to annihilate us as an unredeemable source of imperfection in their merry world. They've been hiding but they're back now and I intend to blow them all straight to hell," Thrax outlined his plan, such as it was.

Park leapt to her feet, "But this is a First Contact encounter. These ships don't have any of the Borg's power signatures. In fact, most of what they have is so exotic we can't identify it. They haven't initiated hostilities yet you want us to open fire on them. Where in the hell did you learn your First Contact protocols?" Park had to ask.

"At Starfleet Academy in a class that you obviously failed," Thrax demeaned her, "You're relieved, Ensign. Report to the brig where you will await your court martial."

"Gladly," Park huffed and she stormed off the bridge.

Thrax looked around and the entire bridge crew was staring at him, "What?

They all looked to their instruments and he began to make demands, "Target all power sources and look for anything that a ‘whale shark' would consider a vulnerable point."

Seeing resistance he shouted, "Move!"

"Sir!" the OPS Officer cried, "Our computers are being tapped."

"Disconnect the core," Thrax ordered. Seeing his officer's surprise, he added, "Now! Or I'll have you up on charges."

"How will we target the weapons and modulate the shields?" Gev asked.

"Manually," Thrax said with pride, "I have the best crew in Starfleet. They'll defeat these cybernetic monsters."

"Have you thought about hailing them?" Gev asked.

"And listen to them blather on about how ‘Resistance is futile'? I think not," Thrax huffed.

"Sir, we don't know if this is the Borg," Gev snorted.

Thrax gave Gev a baleful look. How could he? How could Gev of all people betray him?

"Commander, you're relieved," Thrax commanded.

"Sir?" Gev couldn't believe his ears.

"I said you're relieved!" Thrax thundered, "Report to the brig. The charge is insubordination."

Gev stood, "I'm going to love testifying at my court martial."

For a half second Thrax wisely felt fear but then his bluster overrode all concerns, "Just go before I add treason to the charges."

Gev snorted his disgust and departed.

"Where's my damn firing solution?" Thrax demanded.

"Locked in, sir," the Beta Watch Tactical Officer reported.

"Keep that in mind, sonny," Thrax retook his seat, "Helm, take us down the throat of one of those things."

"Yes, sir," the CONN Officer sighed. Frankly, she knew she was about to die. Anything that could utilize creatures like this as ships obviously had a tech base far beyond the Federation's. To antagonize them seemed like certain doom.

"Tactical, apprise the Helm of your targets. Helm, angle our approach to maximize the effectiveness of our attack," Thrax ordered.

"I'm sorry, sir. I can't lawfully obey your orders," the CONN Officer, one Sheila Walsh, stood from her post, "Should I report to the brig now?"

"Yes, dammit!" Thrax snarled, "Ensign Pottipher, abandon whatever the hell it is that you're doing and man the CONN."

"Yes, sir!" the young Egyptian yelped.

"Anyone else have an objection?" Thrax loudly inquired, "Anyone else want to suggest that we're not handling this like a First Contact mission? I know we're not! These creatures have been assimilated by the Borg. These are replacement for Borg cubes. They think we won't attack their craft because they have a biosignature. Well, I say the hell with that! These frinxers have invaded our territory and by Draxis I intend to make them pay for it!"

At the helm, Pottipher tried not to contradict his CO by pointing out that they were a hundred light years outside of Federation territory. These were clearly the beings that had received the monolith's signal and replied in kind.

He wanted to be brave and object like the others but he was ambitious and he didn't know if a blot on the record like a court martial ever truly went away. Rather than risk it he'd stay at his post and see of you could mitigate Thrax's madness. And it was madness. Every junior officer and enlisted crewman on the bridge could easily tell that.

"Helm, are we on course?" Thrax wanted to know.

"Yes, sir. I vectored us so that..." Pottipher began to explain.

"Shut up, Pottipher. You're just an ensign. No one wants to listen to you unless they have to," Thrax snapped, "Tactical! Where's my barrage?"

"We'll be in position in!" the ensign railed off.

Quantum torpedoes were thrown into space and they headed for the lead bioship. Type XII phasers lashed out and stretched across the gulf to wreak havoc. The weapons dissipated hundreds of meters away from the mechanical portions of the tremendous creature.

"What happened?" Thrax demanded to know.

"Our weapons just...dissipated," the Tactical Officer explained.

"Launch a second spread," Thrax ordered. He turned to the reluctant Tactical Officer, "Now!"

A second salvo went forth with the same results. Thrax was apoplectic, "Analyze what happened and adjust our weapons accordingly."

"Sir," the Tactical Officer said. He could barely refer to his CO by that title, "I'm registering massive power build-ups at key points across the creature's body."

"Why?" Thrax asked in an almost childlike tone.

"We fired upon them. My guess is that they're charging their weapons," the Tactical Officer dryly retorted.

"But why?" Thrax was plaintive now.

The Tactical Officer held his gaze and his eyes possessed no mercy or remorse, "You just essentially declared war on these people. If the readings I'm seeing are correct, then they have planet busters."

"Evasive action!" Thrax squawked.

"Too late!" the Tactical Officer reported.

The salvo lasted three seconds but that was enough to destroy the Endeavor. Ironically, Thrax was the only member of the bridge crew to survive. Those in the brig had been freed and led the scant survivors to the escape pods and headed for Omicron after ejecting.

Thrax numbly heard the computer reciting a 60 second countdown until the warp core lost containment. He managed to situate himself into his seat and remarkably his control panels still functioned. He downloaded everything he could of the encounter into the log buoy and ejected it. Hopefully the Federation would receive it before these creatures arrived.

Even at the end, he didn't see the fault as being his. He rather expected to be recognized as a hero for his actions particularly the launching of the buoy. He died with his delusions intact.

The massive bioships took up station thousands of kilometers from Omicron. They essentially became the moons it was lacking. They swam in a three point formation, covering every square centimeter of the planet at every moment. They hailed the Omicron but there was no reply.

Seeing the devastation wrought upon the planet 50,000 years ago, they debated before sending down a representative. In the end, a low ranking contact specialist was dispatched in a manner very similar to a transporter's effect.

The Argyn rematerialized in the long abandoned comm center. The Omicron, abandoned by their creators, had forgotten about the chamber and its monolith 100,000 years ago. Their factual origins were replaced by myths and theories. They forgot the language of their creators and subsequently didn't know how to operate the monolith when the Federation scientists found it.

The garbled message sent by the Omicron, after millennia had past, greatly vexed the Argyns. The Omicron had been their greatest success and their greatest failure. Where Argyn society fostered the notion that life was meant to be shaped and nurtured, the Omicron had deluded themselves with the concept that life was meant to be enslaved and used for their own selfish motives.

The Argyn had abandoned the Omicron to fend for themselves. The Omicron weren't barbarians. They possessed the secrets of non-organic technology and space flight. Some of them also remembered the arcane secrets of genetic manipulation and biotechnology. The discovery of the ultramatter and its potential availed the Omicron with the ability to tap into the birth of the universe itself.

They spent 40,000 years mastering their techniques and then they set out on a mission of conquest. 10,000 years later, their subjects rebelled and decimated the homeworld. They then spent 50,000 years rebuilding in secret. When they were defeated it was by an inferior mammalian species and their extragalactic allies.

To make matters worse, the Lowlies arose and rebelled. The cast off failed genetic experiments, the Lowlies represented the antithesis of Omicron's society. Instead of a rigid caste system determined by genetic purity and ability, the Lowlies were egalitarian to an extreme the Omicron had never even considered.

Led by an outsider cast into their midst, the Lowlies followed Rab Daggit as he marched on the Omicron and crushed them even as Brin Macen and the SID attacked them in space with the support of the Kelvans. The Omicron had transferred every able bodied soldier to the fleet's manta ray-like bioships and therefore the Overlord was vulnerable.

The Lowlies dethroned the "First One" and executed him just to prove their point. All Omicron were equal, no matter their genetic make-up. Those that felt moribund under the oppressive yoke of caste regulations quickly embraced this philosophy. Those that had lost power and prestige plotted against the newly installed democratic government.

The former leaders felt Omicron was now guided by the least capable. They waited for an opportunity to strike. Starfleet's arrival had opened an unexpected door as an up swell of support became apparent because of the aliens' presence.

All of that was a moot point as the Argyn gazed upon Tressib, Commander Hennessy, Commander Gomez, Lt. Prentiss, and a half dozen other engineers and archeologists. The appearance of the Argyn disturbed them. It was a gumdrop shaped blob with a snail's lower torso. A dozen tentacles extended from its body. Four of these contained true hands with four fingers and two opposable thumbs.

Perhaps most disturbing to the Starfleet crew was the presence of a wide, ovular mouth with rows of razor sharp fangs. There were also at least twelve eyes. All of them were focused on the team that had been examining the monolith.

"What are you doing?" it asked.

Hennessy was startled that she could understand it. She looked to Prentiss. He grinned.

"He spoke in Omicron. Our universal translator is geared for Omicron," Prentiss explained. Addressing the alien presence, he asked; "Do our devices allow you to understand us as well?"

The Argyn nodded with its entire body bobbing once. It unleashed a squishy sound, "Indeed, young one. Who are you?"

Hennessy took over, "We're representatives of the United Federation of Planets."

"Like those fools that fired upon us?" the Argyn grew irritable.

Hennessy held up her hands to shoulder height, "I have no knowledge of what you speak of. However, I can assume the worst. The commander of our vessel was...incompetent at best, dangerous at worst."

"He is no longer either," the Argyn announced with grim finality.

"You killed him?" Hennessy was shocked.

"He fired upon us while we peacefully approached. He did not attempt to communicate with us. He only reacted with violence. He reaped what his violence provoked," the Argyn explained.

"I see," Hennessy could. She honestly could. She'd repeatedly warned Starfleet that Thrax's stupidity would provoke an interstellar incident some day.

"It seems we're at your mercy then," she replied, "I'm Commander Sela Hennessy."

The alien pondered this overture and finally he chuckled, "Well played, Commander. I am Beriel. I am the Contact Specialist for the bioship Neffyndr."

"May I ask if there were any survivors from our ship?" she inquired.

"Yes, they are being recovered by the Omicron as we speak," he informed her.

"I'm assuming you're the species we inadvertently contacted with this communications device?" she asked.

"We are," he said simply.

"My species is called human. What are you called?" she prodded him.

"Your ship's history tapes indicated that your federated species were explorers. We are collectively called the Argyn." Beriel answered.

"We received your reply that you were coming," Hennessy revealed, "Why did you come?"

"We came to see the progress of the Grand Design. We sensed that it had gone astray and we came to put it right again," Beriel shared.

"Pardon me, but what is the Grand Design?" Hennessy inquired.

One of Beriel's true hand tentacles waved towards Tressib, "This is an example of the Grand Design and as you can see, it has horribly gone awry."


Chapter Two

"Oi! How've I gone ‘awry'?" Tressib demanded to know.

Beriel waved a true hand in front of him, "You are not a true Omicron. What has happened to you?"

"I wuz an experiment. Y'see, the Overlord and the military were always lookin' to ‘improve the breed'. They turned me into this. When they didn't like what they saw, they threw me into the chasm with the rest if the Lowlies," Tressib explained.

"The Lowlies?" Beriel asked.

Tressib gave him a brief breakdown on Omicron history over the last 100,000 years and the Argyn shuddered, "You have descended into madness."

"Maybe before but we're digging our way out now," Tressib boasted.

"Too little, too late." Beriel replied, "But there is no cause for concern. We are here now and we shall help you attain greatness once again."

"No offense, but just who are you?" Tressib asked the obvious question.

"We are you creators. Without us, the Omicron would not have come to be," Beriel said, "Even as other of the First Races seeded worlds with their DNA, we ventured forth and shaped life on dozens of worlds."

"So the Omicron are a result of genetic engineering?" Hennessy asked.

"Yes, they were our greatest success and our darkest failure," Beriel admitted.

"And you've done this with other races?" Hennessy sought clarification.

"Yes, those races live closer to us in the Core. We have formed a Collective and we all pool our resources and strengths in order to further the Grand Design," Beriel explained.

"Not to be rude, but what does that mean for us?" Hennessy inquired.

"You seem rationale but your first act was mindless violence," Beriel said.

"That was the act of one man. A very flawed man," Hennessy argued.

"Still, he was given a position of great authority. That indicates a flaw in your system. We shall examine your cultures and make a determination," Beriel proclaimed.

There was something in his tone that Hennessy didn't like, "What kind of ‘determination'?"

"Whether or not your races deserve to live," Beriel said nonchalantly.

Hennessy and the others just gaped at the arrogance behind such a statement. Finally she found her voice, "What gives you the right to judge our worlds?"

"We are among the First Ones. We strode the stars while your peoples were microbes. Billions of years of experience and wisdom give us that right. If your worlds are as benighted as your historical records claim then you have nothing to fear from us. However, if you are not what you proclaim we shall exterminate you," Beriel declared.

"And what does that mean for my officers and crew on this world?" Hennessy wanted to know.

"The Omicron have welcomed you therefore you will treated as guests. You will be observed and we shall make a determination of your case based upon your individual actions. And if your worlds are found worthy you shall be returned to them," Beriel promised.

"Can I be allowed to contact my superiors and inform them of your coming?" Hennessy wondered.

"No," Beriel said flatly, "They must be surprised as your Captain Thrax was caught unawares. Only then will we see their true natures through their response to us."

Hennessy could only hope that cooler heads at Starfleet would prevail. Between the Borg and the Typhon Pact, hysteria and paranoia had never found a greater foothold in Starfleet Command and the Federation Council's chambers.

One week later...

"Congratulations, Captain Ro," Brin Macen grinned as he sat across from Ro's desk.

Ro Laren squirmed, "It's not a big deal. Alfonso already made a big fuss. Getting command of the station, that was a big deal. This, not so much. It comes with the territory."

The ‘territory' she was referring to was command of Deep Space 9. Commander, and later Captain, Benjamin Sisko had been the inaugural CO of the Cardassian built, Bajoran space station. Bajoran Militia Colonel, later Starfleet Captain, Kira Nerys had succeeded him. Commander Elias Vaughn had briefly commanded when Kira was bumped up to flag officer rank. Ro, then a Commander, took over as Vaughn stepped down and retired. "Alfonso" referred to Captain Alfonso Reyes, CO of DS3, and Ro's paramour.

Given her spotty past, it was nigh unto a miracle that she achieved such an assignment. Ro had been court martialed as an ensign on her first deep space assignment. She'd been sentenced to the stockade on Jaros II and stayed there several years. Conditionally released by Admiral Kennelly to the Captain Jean-Luc Picard's custody, she aided him in tracking down a Bajoran Resistance cell. She'd also been instrumental in proving that the admiral was willing to supply the cell with arms in order to draw them out so the Cardassians could eliminate them.

Picard had been impressed by her performance so he offered her a position aboard the Enterprise. As Flight Control Officer she manned the CONN and directed shuttle activities and missions. Her tenure at the post served to make her rise in Picard's seasoned eye and he recommended her for the Starfleet Advanced Tactical Training course.

Being one of the few graduates from her class, Ro returned to the Enterprise and was tapped by Admiral Alynna Nechayev to infiltrate the Maquis. Her checkered past provided her with the perfect cover. She integrated herself into the cell on Ronara Prime but she soon found that her sympathies lay with the Zone colonists. Her loyalties soon followed.

Betraying her mission, Ro went AWOL and quickly rose in position to Cell Commander. Constantly at odds with the Maquis Council over their targeting "soft hits", Ro frequently found herself alone and vastly outnumbered. Which for the Maquis was saying a lot.

Brin Macen had joined her cell and became its Intelligence Chief. His lover, and fellow Starfleet infiltrator, Lisea Danan came with. Macen and Danan turned the tables on Starfleet and became double agents. They presented the "human" face of the conflict.

The fact that neither of them was human aided in their cause. Macen was an El-Aurian and Dana was a Trill. Both had seen and experienced institutionalized forms of injustice before so they were seen as perfect witnesses. The fact Macen was over 400 years old and Danan had 7 lifetimes worth of experience also abetted their cause.

The Dominion's purge of the DMZ had crushed the Maquis. Ro made it out with a handful of Maquis veterans and offered her services to the Bajoran Militia in exchange for amnesty. They accepted and those Maquis that didn't retire served behind the lines alongside Angosian "Augments". Macen acted as her Intelligence Chief once again, having been reinstated back into active Starfleet service, and she led the Angosians on virtual suicide missions.

Somehow she survived and when the war ended, she found herself at a crossroads. The Militia saw her as a potential liability. She had also proven to be a great asset since she could integrate with Starfleet so easily. Since Odo was gone, probably for good, they transferred her to DS9 as Chief of Security. She stayed at her post as Bajor joined the Federation and all external security elements of the Bajoran Militia were absorbed by Starfleet. She remained there as Chief until Vaughn assumed command and then she filled his former place and became XO. When he left she was surprised, and a little intimidated, to find Starfleet wanted her in the top job.

Promoted first to Commander and now to Captain, Ro's career prospects looked higher than ever. Of course, she'd aided Kira and Vaughn with the Cardassian refugees, the Dominion's surge, and the invasion from the Mirror Universe. She'd proven herself to be invaluable during each and every crisis so it made sense that Starfleet would overlook her "indiscretions" and keep her where they needed her most.

Ro smirked, "You know, this is the first time I've ever outranked you."

"What are you talking about?" Macen wondered, "You were the cell leader. I was just an Intel weenie. I was your flunky."

"Not in the Maquis. In Starfleet," Ro explained, "I was a snot nosed Lieutenant and you were a full Commander with forty years in grade."

Macen snorted, "Like it ever mattered."

That much was true. Macen had gone to great lengths to convince Ro that her rank was irrelevant in the Maquis. What counted was ability and Ro had that in spades.

Danan had been a Lt. Commander in the Sciences Division. She was a stellar cartographer by trade and had next to nothing in the way of combat experience. She'd been more than happy to defer to Ro's expertise. Such expertise had been earned as a youth with the Bajoran Resistance and honed by Starfleet.

Macen had seen fifteen years of combat on the Cardassian border. She'd later learned that Vaughn had ceded Macen into an apprenticeship program that trained analysts as covert ops field agents. Macen had been one of his star pupils. Macen had never discussed it but Vaughn had wrangled a high enough clearance for Ro so that she could read the sanitized versions of the files. The full details were still classified above her grade, even as a Captain and a CO of a Deep Space station as well as the USS Defiant.

After the war, Macen had joined the Special Investigations Division. Hell, he'd practically birthed it. He and his merry band were their very first Ops Team. They'd all been actively serving members of Starfleet or civilians granted brevet ranks.

That changed in time, mainly because of Macen exceeding his orders and being court martialed. He and his group became licensed privateers. Granted Letters of Marque by Starfleet and the Federation Security Council, they could operate on behalf of Starfleet in defense of Federation law. This made them the perfect assets for engaging in missions outside Federation borders. They weren't official and they could easily be disavowed and written off.

The SID eventually shifted all of its assets into being privateers, private investigators, or security contractors. This small force of civilians had access to areas formerly denied to Starfleet and discretion to use means forbidden by regulations. All of that and Macen still found ways of getting into trouble.

"So, I hear you're still on Admiral Johnson's shuk list," Ro's smirk was nearly insufferable.

Macen sighed, "Save a man's life and he wishes you'd obeyed orders and killed him instead."

"Johnson was expendable. What was important was keeping Felkor III as a protectorate. It gave us a nice wedge into Typhon Pact territory," Ro prodded him.

Felkor III was wedged in between Tholian and Gorn space, both members of the infamous Typhon Pact that was currently engaged in a cold war with the Khitomer Accords worlds. The intensity, and delicate balance, of this cold war made the prior troubles with the Klingons seem warm and fuzzy.

A union of the Romulan Star Empire, Tholian Assembly, Gorn Hegemony, Breen Confederacy, Tzenkethi Coalition, and the Holy Order of the Kinshaya, the Typhon Pact represented the most restless and aggressive worlds in two quadrants. They were constantly on the prowl.

Recently, the Breen had secured a copy of the plans to construct the newly developed slipstream drive. The slipstream drive safely allowed a ship to exceed Warp 10. It was one of the few remaining technological advantages that Starfleet still held over the Pact worlds. Of course, only the newly constructed Vespa-class of starships could utilize the drive.

"Blek had already promised Felkor to the Typhon Pact so keeping them under the Federation's sway wasn't an option," Macen retorted.

"You may be right but being right doesn't win you any points with Starfleet Command," Ro pointed out to her oldest friend.

"Tell me something I don't know," Macen grumped.

"Okay, change of topic: what's going on with you and your lady love?" Ro inquired.

It was Macen's turn to smirk, "You're awfully cozy with the idea of my being with Celeste. You were never that supportive of T'Kir and I."

"Celeste isn't insane. T'Kir was," Ro opined.

Macen was amused, "Celeste has multiple personalities or have you forgotten she was born as Annika Ryst?"

"Didn't she just change her name?" Ro wondered.

"Nope. When the Angosians augmented her they made her an Infiltrator. Infiltrators were the elite of the elite. They literally subsumed their identities in order to make way for fully functional aliases that took on a life of their own," Macen explained.

"So Celeste Rockford isn't just an alias that Annika Ryst uses, she's an entirely different personality?" Ro asked.

"Yup," Macen confirmed it.

"What is it with you?" Ro demanded to know, "You can't avoid the crazies? What happens if Annika Ryst comes bubbling to the surface some night while you sleep? She has tried to kill you in three separate occasions."

"There's a difference this time around," Macen assured Ro, "This time Annika wants to be Celeste. It isn't a matter of convenience. It's a lifestyle choice."

"She sounds like a frinxing time bomb waiting to go off," Ro argued.

"You said the same about T'Kir and look how that turned out," Macen replied.

"Did she really come back from the dead?" Ro wanted to know.

"Yes," Macen said. Seeing that Ro wanted more he added, "I had her essence stored in my head. Tessa had cloned her body. A Vulcan Adept reunited the two."

"So why are you tearing around the quadrant with Celeste and not rejoining your wife?" Ro demanded.

"The legalities are pretty murky. Our marriage ended when she died. As far as her rebirth goes, she was legally born when the refusion of mind and body occurred. Besides, she's on Vulcan," Macen explained.

"That never stopped you before," Ro snorted.

"She's T'Kir but she isn't my T'Kir," Macen tried to describe it. He could see Ro's lingering doubts so he plunged ahead, "There was nothing when she saw me. I mean absolutely nothing. The Adept requested that I stay away from her while she comes to grips with being alive again but it goes deeper than that."

"Tessa ‘cured' the mutation that provided her uncharted telepathic abilities. Without those her experiences are different than before," Macen stated, "She contacted me a few weeks ago and she was the epitome of a proper Vulcan."

"T'Kir?" Ro couldn't believe it.

"Yes, T'Kir. There wasn't a trace or flicker of emotion in her voice or expressions," Macen stressed this point, "She wore a disciple's medallion which means she's studying Kohlinar."

Ro was stunned. The goal of the aforementioned discipline was to purge all emotion. T'Kir had been one of the most emotional beings she'd ever known.

"The crux of it was to be found in her eyes," Macen added, "She was at peace. T'Kir was many things but peaceful wasn't one of them. She's found serenity and I'm not going to strip that from her to relive the past."

"So how did the conversation end?" Ro had t know.

"We said our farewells and wished each other well on our separate endeavors," Macen's expression was rueful, "She disapproved of my goals and methods for achieving them. After she'd spent twenty minutes trying to convince me to change my ways, she surrendered and we parted on less than good terms."

Ro just stared at him, mouth gaping. Macen gave her a wry look, "So much for the fairy tale romance."

"I wouldn't call you two's relationship a ‘fairy tale'. It was more like a tale of wanton lust winning the day for almost twenty years," Ro commented.

"Twenty years?" Macen repeated.

"We all got together nineteen years ago," Ro said ruefully.

"I had no idea," he admitted.

Ro replied with a dismissive snort, "No reason you should. You still look the same. I, however, am now a forty-eight year old woman."

"Personally, I think you're more beautiful than ever," Macen confessed.

Ro rolled her eyes, "I'm not your boss anymore. You don't have to suck up."

"I'm not kidding," Macen said sternly, "You've always been beautiful but now that beauty is seasoned. It enhances your allure."

"Oh, listen to the shuk you're shoveling," Ro laughed. Seeing him scowl she could barely contain her mirth, "Alfonso has told me the very same thing and I didn't believe him either. If I can't take it from him, what makes you think you even remotely stand a chance?"

"You may protest but deep down you enjoy it," Macen countered.

"Says who?" she taunted.

"My people are low level empaths as well as being Listeners," Macen warned, "I can feel your inner radiance at the thought."

Ro grinned, "Okay, but don't tell anyone."

"I'll only tell Celeste and Lees," Macen promised.

"Lees" was the nickname for Lisea Danan. The Trill scientist had stayed by Macen's most of the passing years despite their break up and his subsequent marriage to T'Kir. Now she was married to Tom Riker. Riker was the transporter generated doppelganger of Captain Will Riker. Both Rikers had achieved their dreams of starship command. Will Riker was the CO of the Luna-class deep space explorer USS Titan. Tom Riker was the CO of the Nova-class surveyor SS Obsidian.

The Obsidian was a civilian ship but she served the SID by ferrying Macen's SID team around and serving the team's needs. Macen had been the ship's original commander but when he and T'Kir were incarcerated for murder Riker went from being XO to CO. Upon his release from the penal colony, with Starfleet's apologies, Macen had been content to let Riker stay in the center seat.

Riker had absolute dominion over the ship and her crew but Macen was the Mission Commander and she went where he sent her. His team was off limits to Riker. They generally lent a hand where their talents lay but they were outside of the ship's chain of command.

Initially this had caused friction between the two commands but they'd since resolved their differences. The only SID agent that nominally sat under both commands was Danan. She was the ship's Chief Science Officer as well being the team's Sciences Specialist. Fortunately she wasn't required to engage ion much field work.

Ro was about to make a snarky comment when her comm chirped, "Captain Ro, please report to Ops."

Ro frowned. Ops lay outside her office doors. They couldn't have someone deliver the message personally?

Ro stepped out and Macen followed. His Starfleet rank of Commander may be inactive but his Starfleet and Federation Security Clearances were rated far above Ro's. Her Chief of Operations waved her over to the comm panel.

"Ma'am, we started receiving a subspace signal ten minutes ago. We thought it was an echo of some kind but it appears to be legitimate," she said.

"What kind of signal is it?" Ro asked.

"It's a distress call from the USS Endeavor. I queried the deployment logs to see where she was broadcasting from but it came up as a classified operation. I thought you'd want to know," her Chief told her.

Ro frowned, "I don't recall being briefed on the Endeavor being in our area."

"That's just it, ma'am. This signal has been bounced off a few dozen subspace relays. I queried the signal ID markers and all of the relays were placed by the Endeavor herself and fairly recently. There's no record of them in the Starfleet Subspace Comm Network."

"You're certain?" Ro inquired. She was beginning to like this less and less all the time, "How long ago was this signal sent?"

"Time stamps put it as being a week out," the Chief answered.

"Do we have clear reception?" Ro wanted to know.

"Fairly clear. Something partially jammed the signal at the source. However it doesn't appear to be deliberate. It was more like a distortion caused by a massive energy burst," the Chief went on to explain.

"Could weapons fire account for the distortion?" Ro asked.

The Chief nodded, "That's one possibility."

"Have you viewed the transmission?" Ro hated to ask.

"No, ma'am. I figured if I was cleared to know anything the computer would've told me where the stupid ship was," the Chief grinned.

"Good thinking," Ro smiled in return. She turned to Macen, "Want to see what's going on?"

Macen smiled back, "I wouldn't miss it."


Chapter Three

Macen and Ro first accessed the Endeavor's mission profile and then they watched the transmission from the doomed ship. It was a multi-tiered transmission. Sensor data, flight recorder logs, and previous logs from the captain and crew were included. When the flight recorder's transmission terminated, Ro angrily deactivated the monitor.

"What an idiot!" she angrily declared.

"You'll find no arguments from me. The question is: what are you going to do about it?" Macen idly wondered.

"I'm passing this off to Starfleet Command," Ro hastily said.

"I think you should flag it for Starfleet Intelligence," Macen suggested, "The Endeavor was at Omicron at their behest. Alynna should be the first to get this report. She'll disseminate it as she's fit."

Ro grimaced, "The way she ‘disseminated' information through you during our time with the Maquis?"

"It wasn't that bad," Macen chided her attitude, "You got access to Starfleet Intelligence's data files and Lees and I all in exchange for being prodded into a mission or two."

Ro stabbed a finger in his direction, "Don't play coy with me, mister. You don't think I didn't know you were tailoring your findings in such a way as to guide me and our cell towards creating as much damage as possible all for Starfleet's benefit?"

"Of course I thought you knew. I actually told you on occasion. You willingly went along with though so everything was copacetic," Macen argued, "You do realize that all of the top Starfleet officers in the Maquis had their minders?"

Ro glared at him, "What?"

"Chakotay had Tuvok serving undercover so that Voyager could apprehend him. Tom Riker was observed by Section 31. Cal Hudson had Bret Collander and Svetlana Korepanova was watched by her lover," Macen described the situation.

"Kem Terl was Section 31? He was a Bajoran for Prophet's sake!" Ro exclaimed.

"A Bajoran that had served in Starfleet Security," Macen reminded her, "I haven't uncovered Eddington's Section 31 observer yet but I know he had one, if he wasn't Section 31 himself. That would explain why the identity has remained so elusive."

"You're saying Michael Eddington belonged to Section 31?" Ro couldn't believe her own ears.

"It appealed to his romanticism. He was saving the Federation from foreign foes. The Maquis just became a microcosm of that struggle. It became a cause he could wholeheartedly throw himself into,"

"You're nuts," Ro accused.

"You only think so because I'm probably right," Macen countered.

"Look, I had my differences with Eddington but that doesn't mean I think he was manipulating the Cause at the behest of an ultra-clandestine agency that doesn't officially exist," Ro struggled with the idea.

"He's not my only suspect," Macen disclosed, "Sarina Douglas is stationed aboard this station now, isn't she?"

"Yes, Starfleet Intelligence allows her to operate off the station so that she had Dr. Bashir can shack up together," Ro confirmed what Macen already knew.

"Her SI file is an interesting read. She's a probable candidate for S31. We already know they reached out to Bashir," Macen continued.

"He refused. Twice," Ro wanted to end this conversation now.

"What better bait than a lover?" Macen asked.

Ro gaped at him, "Has T'Kir's death and resurrection made you a total cynic? Whatever happened to the beauty of love? It took a long time for those two to get together. Why do you want to spoil it?"

"Alfonso has been a bad influence on you, Laren. A few years ago you would have stared into the abyss and never flinched," Macen commented.

Ro glared at him long and hard but she also considered his words. Slowly, ever so incrementally her expression softened and eventually settled on wary incredulity.

"Okay, you may be right. What can be done about it?" Ro wondered.

"Being an S31 agent isn't illegal," Macen admitted, "But a few discreet observations regarding her travels might yield where her true loyalties lay."

"I've read your, Bashir's and Elias's reports on S31. I have to say I'm not surprised they exist and I have to confess sometimes I'm glad they do," Ro stated, "After all, they were the original SID. Your whole agency was created in response to Section 31 so that Starfleet would have that type of flexibility."

"The SID never spawned a Cell 51," Macen retorted, "S31 did."

"Cell 51's coup was stopped. You were part of the process in stopping them. Your friend Bob Johnson and the crew of the Intrepid are more directly responsible for that success than anybody," Ro reminded him.

"That's how I met Bob. Breaking him out of that lunar prison Cell 51 had him trapped in began our history," Macen recalled.

"A moment that both of you regret from time to time," Ro quipped.

Macen shot her a dirty look. Ro grinned, "Look at it this way, if you didn't know Johnson you wouldn't have another ally on the Council of 5."

"You're not even supposed to know about the Council," Macen accused.

Ro's grin blossomed into a smile, "Elias thought I should be apprised. What're you going to do?"

Macen considered his options. The Council of 5 was Starfleet's ultra top secret committee on interstellar and domestic security. The Heads of Starfleet Security, Starfleet Intelligence, the SID, the Alpha Quadrant Theater Commander, and the Starfleet Diplomatic Envoy were the members.

Macen's nemesis, Admiral Edward Jellico, had been the Alpha Quadrant Commander but now he'd been bumped up to Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet. He'd weathered the Borg invasion and now he was embroiled in the cold war with the Typhon Pact. He wished he had his old job back.

Leonard James Akaar was the Capellan that had replaced Jellico. He was over a century old and wise beyond his years. However, he was a stern believer in proper procedures, protocols, and regulations. While he saw the necessity of the skullduggery that SI and the SID engaged in, he was less than enthusiastic about it. He was often a vocal opponent of the SID's methodology. That frequently put him at odds with Macen.

Starfleet Security was headed by Edward Noyce, a long time friend of Robert Tavar Johnson. Noyce had helmed Security for over a decade now. The man was over 80 years old but still as sharp and vital as ever. If Elias Vaughn were any indicator, Noyce had decades of service ahead of him. Vaughn had retired at 114 and was still an active security consultant. Macen's oldest friend had given Starfleet 93 years of active service. Macen had known him for over half of those.

Alynna Nechayev, more frequently known as the "Ice Queen" of Starfleet had sat as Director of Starfleet Intelligence since 2369. During her 19 years of service, the agency had been totally revamped. It was now nearly unrivaled amongst the Khitomer Accord nations. And that was saying something when you were dealing with Cardassians. Of course, the Romulans' Tal Shiar had matched SI move for move. Commander P'ris was an example of this.

The Romulans survived the loss of Romulus and Remus and managed to maintain control of their empire. While many had predicted that the Romulan Star Empire would become a second rate power within the Typhon Pact, Nechayev had argued the reverse. She'd been vindicated and now she wielded a voice amongst the Federation Council and its allies. Fortunately, she was wise enough to rarely use it.

Her protégé, Amanda Forger, sat as Director of the Special Investigations Division. Forger had risen through the ranks in Internal Affairs before transferring to SI. Her keen intellect and nearly unerring instinct had led Nechayev to groom the younger woman. She'd been at the top of a very short list to head the SID when it was created.

Forger had been at odds with Macen at first. That antagonism had evaporated as the agency switched to employing civilian assets. Starfleet regulations no longer applied so they were enthusiastically damned.

Bob Johnson occupied the final seat on the Council. He'd served as the original CO of the Galaxy-class USS Intrepid. He'd been promoted on the advent of her destruction. Now his former XO, James McKinley, served as CO for the Akira-class ship that had been christened USS Intrepid-A.

Bob had always relied more on his diplomatic skills than his ship's firepower. Starfleet recognized this and appointed him as Starfleet's Diplomatic Envoy in appreciation of his work. What this meant was he and his flagship served as roving troubleshooters putting out brush fires wherever they were sent. And of course, McKinley and the rest of his old crew served as the stick that put the teeth in Johnson's diplomatic pitches.

"I trust you with the secret," Macen assured her, "I just wouldn't mention it to The Powers That Be."

An impish twinkle lit up in Ro's eyes, "Where's the fun in that?"

"Just send a copy of the transmission along with any observations you have regarding it," Macen advised.

Ro sketched off a mock salute, "Yes, sir!"

Ro tapped in a few choice comments and then transmitted. A perfunctory message from SI appeared. She looked over to Macen.

"I'm off duty in three minutes. Want to catch dinner?" she asked.

"Sure. It'll give me a chance to round up Celeste," he smiled.

"You do realize that I'm never going to look at her the same again?" Ro cheekily inquired.

Macen sighed, "Of course."

Rockford and Hannah Grace had utilized a holosuite. Grace wanted to go rock climbing and since they weren't going to be in port long enough to avail herself of some real cliffs on Bajor, she'd recruited Rockford to tackle some fake ones. Rockford had Quark whip up a customized special on the spot and he equipped them replicated gear and target pistols.

"What're these for?" Grace wondered.

Rockford flashed her a Cheshire grin, "You'll see."

An hour later...

Grace and Rockford stumbled out of the holosuite and made it down to the bar where they returned all of the rented equipment. Seeing the scrapes and bruises covering the two women, Quark had to ask one question.

"Did you break my holosuite?" he wondered.

"No," Rockford chastised him for thinking such a thing.

"Then why are you two so beat up?" Quark asked.

"Remember when I asked you to incorporate tactical simulation WEX-1138?" Rockford asked.

"Yes," Quark didn't understand yet.

"Look it up some time," Rockford smirked as she walked off.

Out on the Promenade, Grace wheeled on Rockford; "What was the big idea putting a Tzenkethi base on top of the mountain?"

"Haven't you ever seen the human movie, the Eiger Sanction?" Rockford asked.

"Why would I?" Grace demanded to know.

Rockford smirked, "If you're going to keep passing yourself off as human you may want to look up some of their pop culture."

"But I'm not human," Grace pouted.

"So go ahead, announce to everyone that ‘I'm not human. I just look this way because my extragalactic ancestors tried to invade your galaxy and discovered they couldn't survive here without adopting your forms.' That'll be a good icebreaker at a party," Rockford quipped, "Besides, it's not like another Kelvan will have anything to do with you. You've gone ‘native' and you're a bad influence."

Grace planted her fists on her hips and goty into Rockford's face, "What about you? You're an Angosian Augment. Your own people didn't know what do with you so they traded you off to the Federation in exchange for membership in the UFP. I'm not the only one pretending to be human here. You just count on enough people being ignorant of that little purple and blue scar on your right temple. 'Cause if they recognize it, you're blown and they know what you really are."

"Touché," Rockford said dryly.

"Well, I learned for the best," Grace said sadly.

"You really miss T'Kir, don't you?" Rockford asked.

"She commed me a few weeks ago and it was like she was dead or something. Sure, she knew all of her facts about her and I but the connection wasn't there anymore," Grace complained.

Rockford prompted Grace to move off to the side, "Yeah, she made the rounds a few weeks ago. She commed Brin too."

"How'd that go?" Grace wondered.

"About the same as what you endured," Rockford shared.

"How'd he take it?" Grace was protective of her commander.

"It bothered him but he also knew it was a possibility. He'd moved on without her and she decided to do the same. The thing was, he was happy for her. He'd said she was at peace, which was a first."

Grace thought about it, "No, peaceful definitely didn't describe T'Kir. My description of her when she called would be ‘serene'."

"Which I don't ever recall seeing her as," Rockford commented, "Does that bother you?"

"I guess not," Grace said glumly as she accepted defeat. She'd known for some time now that her friend wouldn't return. Grace had warmed up even more to Rockford after T'Kir died. Before she'd accepted Rockford but on T'Kir's behalf.

After the Vulcan's death, Grace had begun to seek Rockford out and engage her in different activities. That had intensified in the last few weeks. Rockford had guessed that T'Kir had also contacted her when she touched bases with Macen. Now that suspicion was confirmed as fact.

Despite the knowledge that she was playing second fiddle, Rockford didn't have the heart to turn Grace away. The simple truth was that she needed a friend as badly as Grace did. She'd inherited a lot from T'Kir. First her man and now her closest friend. Rockford wondered what else lay lurking in the shadows ahead.

"Hey!" Macen called out as he and Ro approached.

Rockford smiled and waved back. She turned to Grace, "He's going to ask you to dinner. Are you coming with?"

"I'd better not," Grace deferred, "I can..."

Rockford grabbed her arm and began to drag her on an intercept course, "You're coming with."

"Then why did you ask?" Grace pouted.

"To give you the opportunity to make the smart decision. You didn't. Now we do it the hard way," Rockford blithely informed her.

"Okay, I'll come. You can let go now," Grace insisted.

"You run and I will tackle you," Rockford warned her.

"Yes, mother," Grace sing-songed.

Rockford grinned. For all of her apparent youth, she was over eighty Earth years old. Grace wasn't even half that yet. It was good for her to bow before the Angosian's hard earned wisdom.

They stopped in front of the other party. Rockford smiled, "So where are we eating?"

"You must be a detective to have figured out we were going to ask you that," Ro joked.

"It was a fair bet," Rockford shrugged, "What I don't know is what mission info you two are waiting on."

Ro's eyebrows went up as her face registered her surprise, "How did you...?"

"It's in your body language. You're fairly aggressive most of the time but something has got you on edge right now," Rockford explained, "Of course, you're the hard one to read since I don't know you all that well."

She pointed at Macen, "Him, he's like an eager kid at the sweet shop."

Macen exchanged a proud glance with Ro. She shrugged, "We were thinking the Bolian diner."

Rockford smiled her approval, "Good enough. While we're waiting for our meals, you can explain what the fuss is about."

"I don't know if..." Ro started to protest.

"Laren, I'm going to tell her sooner or later. We might as well make it sooner," Macen advised.

Ro scowled, "Life would be so much easier if you learned to hide things from your partners."

"Really bad idea," Macen retorted.

"But she's not a telepath. It's not like she can root around in your head to get the info," Ro grumbled.

"Really bad idea," Macen repeated, "It sets a bad precedent."

Rockford smiled, "Is it any wonder why I love him?"

She leaned in and kissed Macen on the lips, "Don't you dare change."

"Yes, ma'am," he grinned.

"Whatever. Let's eat," Ro urged.

The pair described the gist of the Endeavor's final transmission. Rockford and Grace were immediately intrigued...and a little frightened if they'd ever admit it. The meals had been finished and they were settled into coffee when Ro's comm badge chirped. She exchanged a knowing glance with Macen.

She tapped her comm badge, "Ro here."

"Incoming message from Starfleet Intelligence," the comm officer reported, "Admiral Nechayev is holding for you."

"Inform the admiral that I'm on my way," Ro replied.

Ro looked to Macen, "You know she'll ask for you so you might as well come along."

"Celeste is joining us," Macen insisted.

"Brin..." Ro growled.

"She's my second in command. She needs to know the op before the rest of them team does."

Ro jerked a thumb in Rockford's direction, "You're coming too."

"Why thank you," Rockford dryly replied.

"Don't get sassy. Thank your boyfriend and not me. If it were up to me you'd stay here and cool your heels," Ro declared.

"I'd have never guessed," Rockford replied in faux shock.

"Cute," Ro opined sardonically, "Are you coming or what?"

Rockford took one last sip of her coffee, scooted her chair back, and rose, "Right behind you."

"We've all got some bad news coming so be ready for it," Ro warned.

"Trust me. That's the story of my life," Rockford replied.

For some reason, Ro didn't doubt. Not even a little bit.


Chapter Four

Ro sat behind her desk and utilized her monitor mounted there. Macen and Rockford shared the office's two chairs and viewed Nechayev's image on a wall monitor. The admiral received a split screen view that revealed a close up of Ro and a widescreen shot of the SID agents.

Nechayev's expression was baleful one, "Brin, are you certain you want to have Detective Rockford here for this brief?"

"She's my deputy. What I know she'll know," Macen promised.

"Captain, Detective, if you'll clear the room for a moment?" Nechayev requested.

Ro ushered Rockford out of her office and the two women stood outside on the landing situated before the elevated office. Rockford dryly noted, "I seem to be a problem."

"I really hope you're not. For your sake," Ro warned.

Rockford arched an eyebrow, "Do you have something to say, Captain?"

"Yes, a lot of things, Detective," Ro said crossly.

"Then feel free," Rockford urged, "I certainly won't hold back."

"You're trouble. Maybe right now while you're Celeste Rockford, Private Investigator; but you won't always be Rockford. Someday, somewhere, Annika Ryst is going to want her body back and what happens then? Ryst doesn't like Brin, much less love him. And do I even have to mention she keeps trying to kill him?"

Rockford smirked, "It seems you already have."

Seeing Ro's death glare, Rockford continued; "Annika wants to be me. She's a broken vessel. Of all of us, I'm the only option that offers a life with hope."

"I take it Brin is largely responsible for Ryst's condition?" Ro asked.

Rockford squirmed, "Um, yeah."

"That raises the same question all over again, doesn't it?" Ro's question was snarky.

Rockford's eyes bored into Ro, "That's a hypothetical. What's the real problem here?"

Ro met her gaze unflinchingly but there was a glimmer of doubt in her eyes, "I don't know what you mean."

"It's because I'm not T'Kir," Rockford pronounced, "Well get used to it. The past is over and she's not coming back. She's made that abundantly clear."

"That's all true. Believe me when I say I'm used to having to leave things in the past otherwise I'd be haunted by so many ghosts I'd never eat or sleep again. That still doesn't make you the best choice for Brin," Ro asserted.

"I didn't make that choice. He did," Rockford countered.

The pair just stood there studying each, gauging one another. Finally a smirk appeared on Ro's face.

"You don't flinch or back down. You'd have made a hall of a Maquis," she opined.

"I'm nothing. You should face Annika," Rockford counseled.

"So I've heard," Ro conceded, "Okay, you passed the first test. You've convinced me to give you a chance. I didn't approve of T'Kir either but she eventually convinced me. She was crazy too so I should trust Brin's judgment and give you that chance."

"Gee, thanks," Rockford quipped.

"Don't push me," Ro growled, "I'm trusting you with the life of my closest friend. Don't take that lightly."

"I won't," Rockford promised, "Trust me."

She gazed through the office window, "I wonder what they're talking about now."

"Whatever it is, he doesn't look happy," Ro observed.

"What is your problem with Celeste?" Macen asked.

"Maybe because she's also Annika Ryst, a known operative for the Orion Syndicate and wanted for a murder on Barrinor?" Nechayev asked tartly.

"She isn't Annika Ryst anymore!" Macen countered.

"Yes, Amanda filled me in on the psychobabble. She was a Lone Ranger operative for the Angosians. What the hell makes her qualified to be second banana for a SID team?" Nechayev demanded, "Being your lover automatically grants her command prerogatives?"

"If it's any consolation, she wasn't my first choice, or even my second," Macen admitted, "Gantz was my first choice. Sindis took care of that option."

Nechayev blanched, "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"Radil was my second choice but she flatly refused. She's quite content with her shipboard duties as Chief of Security for the Obsidian and as Security Specialist for the team. She wants to be no more than a mid-level grunt. I can't push her to go further. It'd be a bad fit," Macen shared, "Celeste stepped in after Gantz's death and T'Kir and I were incarcerated. She held the team together while Tom did his best to destroy it through neglect. She had no support whatsoever and a hostile ship driver yet she managed to keep them together and they even managed to stay sharp. That was because of her."

"Yet you set a precedent with T'Kir," Nechayev accused.

"T'Kir got the job because of our telepathic rapport. Our years of serving together during the Maquis Rebellion helped but it was our years together with the SID that were the clincher. She had access to my plans, all of them, even the ones that had remained unspoken. We could synchronize units with an inhuman precision because it was inhuman," Macen explained.

"Still, it was highly irregular," Nechayev sniffed.

"How? You let Elias and his wife serve together. It also cost her her life. That fact allowed Elias to offer comfort to a greater degree than anyone save Rockford," Macen shot back.

"Yes, she was highly motivated," Nechayev snorted.

Macen grew very quiet. Nechayev knew she'd crossed a line. Macen's eyes bespoke of an inner fire. The last time she'd seen this reaction was when she'd belittled T'Kir after her inclusion to his SID team. She'd wondered how deep his feelings for the Angosian ran. Now she knew that he loved her with the depths of his soul.

"Brin, I..." Nechayev uncharacteristically faltered.

"Save it," Macen advised, "Celeste has done nothing but validate my trust in her since I put her on the team and if you're too blind to see that we might as well skip any further conversation. The plain truth is that she's going to sit in on this briefing or I'm not going to either."

Knowing he was deathly serious she consented, "Bring Ro and Rockford back in."

Macen retrieved the ladies and they retook their seats. Nechayev noted that Ro looked rather bemused. Macen still looked intransigent while Rockford looked like the proverbial cat that had nabbed the canary while its owners were out.

Nechayev opted to ignore Rockford's smug expression. Mentioning anything about it would just start another fight. A remote part of the admiral was jealous. She wished she had a paramour that would sally forth to her defense, especially since she didn't typically need it.

"The Endeavor was dispatched on a follow up mission to the SID's encounter there several years ago. The overture you made gained us permission to study their culture and technology." Nechayev acknowledged Macen's contribution and then she continued, "The ship was commanded by one Adolae Thrax. Thrax was less than stellar officer."

Ro snorted and Nechayev scowled, "In fact, Thrax entirely owed his position to his uncle, Rogul Thrax, who is the Chair of the Federation Council's Appropriations Committee. He knew his nephew was a miserable failure so he flexed his bureaucratic muscles to secure Thrax a command of his own."

"The point being, Adolae Thrax would never have been promoted above the rank of Lieutenant J.G. if it hadn't been for the Councilor. Seeing as how the usual protocols had been usurped during the Dominion War, Starfleet Command, particularly the Bureau of Personnel, continued to look the other way," Nechayev was unapologetic despite her own feelings of regret regarding the matter, "Captain Thrax assumed command just prior to the Borg incursion two years ago. We kept him out of the way buy having him escort refugee convoys to the outer systems."

"Sending him to Omicron was more of the same," Nechayev confirmed what her audience already suspected, "The Omicron are no longer hostile so it seemed that Thrax couldn't get himself, or the Federation, into any trouble. We loaded up his ship with specialists and gave him a command staff fully aware of the necessity to...interpret his orders."

Nechayev was downcast, "His response to the presence of unknown lifeforms was exactly as it had always been feared it would be. Confronted with a fusion or organic and inorganic technology, Thrax assumed the Borg had returned and assumed a hostile posture. He attacked without warning and no attempt at communication was ever made with these people. For all we know we're now at a state of war with them."

Nechayev was grave when she next spoke, "The sensor readings of these bioships are off the charts. Their masters have harnessed technologies we haven't dreamt of yet."

"Could these ships house the originators of the Omicron genome?" Macen suddenly asked.

Nechayev nodded, "That's our suspicion."

"What does Starfleet intend to do about it?" Ro asked.

"We're assembling a special diplomatic task force under the command of Admiral Johnson," Nechayev answered.

"Isn't a task force a little provocative?" Macen wondered, "Especially since we fired first?"

"The President, the Secretary of Defense, the Starfleet C-in-C, and the Council believe a display of strength is now necessary to ward off any aggressive response from these unknowns," Nechayev fed them the official line.

"But you feel differently and I'm betting Bob does too," Macen guessed.

Nechayev wore a rueful smirk, "My feelings are irrelevant. As for Admiral Johnson, he did suggest we show a modicum of restraint and only send the Intrepid into Omicron space."

"But he was overridden," Macen pointed out the obvious.

"Admiral Jellico felt we should negotiate from a position of strength. Admirals Akaar and Noyce agreed. The greatest factor came when President Bacco and her Cabinet endorsed Starfleet's current plan. The Federation Council's Committee on Interstellar Security also approved of the measure. So the die is cast," Nechayev explained.

"Famous words," Macen commented.

"Admiral, which ships are being assigned to this task force?" Ro inquired.

"The USS Intrepid, the USS Enterprise, the USS Hood, the USS Monitor, the USS Merrimack, the USS Aventine, and the USS Defiant," Nechayev counted down the roll call. Seeing Ro's stunned expression, she added; "Yes, Captain. You're included in that list."

"I couldn't help but notice that list is comprises the bulk of Starfleet's dedicated ‘troubleshooters'," Macen observed.

"It is a rather large problem," Nechayev dryly retorted.

"Then may I point out that Captain Calhoun and the USS Excalibur are missing as well as Captain Will Riker and the USS Titan. And what about Captain Chakotay and the USS Voyager? They negotiated their way through half the Delta Quadrant." Macen asked cheekily.

"Calhoun's and Chakotay's commands have already been redeployed to lead a fleet-wide counterstrike should the negotiations fail," Nechayev grimly reported, "Riker's ship is being held as a last ditch reserve."

"Why him?" Macen wondered.

"He saved Earth from Locutus and the Borg. Command has every confidence he can do so again," Nechayev again listed the official rationale.

"That's frinxing stupid," Macen opined.

"Brin, I'll tolerate a lot from you but I won't accept disrespect from you," Nechayev warned.

"Does this mean you're not going to ask me to go to Omicron space?" Macen sarcastically inquired.

Nechayev sighed, "No. I discussed the situation with Amanda and she made the proposed contract you're being offered."

"Do you want to cover the salient points or should I wait for the official contract?" Macen was far more agreeable now.

Nechayev pursed her lips and gave him a withering glare as if to scold him. It didn't matter. Macen was unfazed.

"You are to proceed to the outskirts of the Omicron system. There you will spend three days observing inner system and you will recover the Endeavor's log buoy so. All while going undetected, of course," Nechayev smirked.

"Of course," Macen quipped, "And when am I supposed to set out and accomplish this little miracle?"

"Yesterday," Nechayev teased, "So you're late and should cast off ASAP."

"You do realize that my crew hates you?" Macen asked.

"Spare me, it comes with the territory. Besides, I'm not involved. This all officially rests on Amanda's head," Nechayev retorted.

"Trust me, there's enough hate to go around," Macen replied.

"You're contract should transmit upon termination of this conference. Good luck, Brin. I think you'll need it more than ever," Nechayev left a lot unsaid.

The screen returned to the Federation seal. A few minutes later, Ro's comm badge chirped.

"Ro," she simply said.

This time it was her XO, Prynn Tenmei, that delivered the news, "Sorry Captain but a document squirt came through for Commander Macen. It also looks like we have operational orders for the Defiant. Want to look at them?"

"Transfer them to my desk and then report to my office. You're going to love this one," Ro predicted.

"Sounds interesting," Tenmei remarked.

Moments later she was in Ro's office reviewing the ship's standing orders on a padd. She grinned, "Looks like I'll be up to my eyeballs with fancy flying."

Lt. Commander Tenmei was the Defiant's XO and CONN/OPS Officer. Like any true child of Elias Vaughn, she relished a challenge. Ro warned her to be prepared for what she was about to see. Tenmei watched the destruction of the Endeavor. Afterwards, she whistled appreciatively.

"That took how long?" she asked.

"Three seconds ticked off the clock between the enemy firing and the near destruction of the Endeavor." Ro explained.

"I think it's a little early to call these people, whoever they are, enemies," Macen interjected.

"They destroyed a starship. That makes them enemies," Ro argued.

"Bull," Rockford insisted, "We fired first. They were simply defending themselves."

"Hell of a response though," Tenmei added, "You'd think with that kind of tech they could gauge their response better. We don't know them which means they don't know us. Why not take prisoners and find out more about us?"

"It may not be in their cultural imperative," Macen stated the option no one wanted to consider.

"Who doesn't take prisoners?" Tenmei pointedly asked, "Even the Jem'Hadar take prisoners."

"If they're ordered to," Macen amended her statement, "The Metron are another species that was willing to slaughter the losers of their 'little contest' between Kirk and the Gorn captain. Their methods of judging a species seem awkward to us but they're perfectly logical to their mentality. This species may see First Contact as a moral litmus test."

"We'd better hope not," Ro said darkly, "Because we utterly failed."

UFP President Nenietta Bacco prowled around her office. The former Governor to Cestus III had weathered the several storms during her tenure in office, the most drastic of which had been the Borg invasion. She had four more years in office and then she would have to seek re-election or step down. Both options looked appealing right now for completely different reasons.

Joining her this afternoon were her Chief of Staff and her Federation Secretary of Defense. Her Chief, one Esperanza Piniero, was a former Commander in Starfleet. Piniero had once been Admiral Nechayev's Chief of Staff. She'd resigned after the Battle for Cardassia, which she participated in aboard the USS Gorkon. She'd returned home to Cestus III to find her parent's old friend, Bacco, serving as Governor. It was Piniero that had convinced her to run for the Presidency and even managed her campaign. When Bacco won she rewarded/punished Piniero by making her the President's Chief of Staff.

Raisa Shostakova served as SecDef. She was from a high gravity world and was built like a squat brick. No one on the Palais had ever dared test her strength. They simply didn't want to get pounded into the mat.

Bacco was enjoying a red wine while Piniero nursed a Jack Daniels whiskey. Shostakova was completely ethnic and was imbibing with chilled vodka on ice. The ladies shifted to Bacco's desk, which dominated a curved corner of the room. The two chairs laid out before it shared an end table.

"So how bad is our scenario with these mysterious entities? Really?" Bacco asked, "Did Thrax totally screw the pooch and we'll be unable to salvage the pieces?"

Piniero and Shostakova exchanged a wary glance. The SecDef addressed the question, "We have no hard intel to support any conclusion. However, Commander Macen suggested a few theories to Captain Ro before he and Detective Rockford departed her office to assemble his crew and plan for their mission."

"This is that Brin Macen that Delane warned me about? The one that lost us Felkor III?" Bacco wanted to know.

"In all fairness, Macen didn't lose Felkor. Chief Conciliator Blek had already negotiated their entrance into the Typhon Pact's hegemony. The Orion Syndicate was there to make sure the exchange took place. They saw Blek's ouster as the guarantee of their success. Macen's participation secured the release of Ambassador Blevins and Admiral Johnson," Piniero clarified.

"I know Macen is Nechayev's former golden boy, Eppy, so you don't have to defend him so vigorously. The matter remains, we got thrown out of the area and the Typhon Pact absorbed our forward stating area into their territory," Bacco complained.

"I believe Macen did what he had to do," Shostakova suddenly declared.

Bacco wore a wry expression, "That's not the tale you were telling six weeks ago, Raisa."

Shostakova looked rueful, "I know but I've had more time to process the data. The Typhon Pact was in and we were out regardless of what we did. Blek is only alive because our forces extracted him and we have him in contact with a burgeoning resistance movement on Felkor as we speak. Macen's orders were, quite frankly, an impossible pipe dream. No one could have accomplished them."

"Not even Captains Picard or Calhoun?" Bacco raised an eyebrow.

"They may specialize in accomplishing the impossible but so does Macen. We finally just asked too much of him," the SecDef shared.

"Admiral Nechayev has utilized both Macen and Calhoun as assets and she even fostered a competitive spirit between them. With the abilities both possess it is no wonder they've become overachievers," Piniero shared.

"And both were hated by Admiral Jellico," Shostakova grinned, "Although Calhoun and Jellico kissed and made up."

"Okay!" Bacco held up a hand to ward off any more verbal assaults from the two women, "Maybe I've been wrong but we won't be able to tell until our negotiations with the Ekosians and the Zeons conclude."

"Great, now we're dependent upon Nazis," Piniero groused.

"They're small and we can contain them," Bacco countered, "Unlike the Typhon Pact."

Piniero rolled her eyes, "Famous last words, Nana."

Bacco's expression soured, "You were saying about Macen's theory?"

"He compared these entities to the Metron," Shostakova ignored Bacco's derisive snort, "He suggested that they didn't take any prisoners because they'd already applied a moral litmus test to us and we failed."

"And what is he basing this on?" Bacco inquired sharply.

"I believe he muttered something about the ‘prerogatives of godlike aliens'. We certainly know from experience that higher lifeforms have a finicky relationship with us ‘lesser' beings. The Q wanted to destroy us at the outset. The Metron pitted us in a life and death struggle with winner take all. Apollo wanted to enslave us," the SecDef recited.

"Apollo wasn't a god!" Bacco insisted, "He received his power from an external source."

"That may be but it took an advanced civilization to build that power source," Shostakova shot back.

Bacco wanted to argue. She really did but she knew the stocky woman had her, "Continue."

"The Organians were pacifists but even they handed down ultimatums like they were the end all, be all. The aliens living in the Bajoran wormhole have also interfered with our lives," Shostakova reminded everyone.

"And I'll remind you that is the so-called Bajoran ‘Prophets" hadn't intervened we would have been facing legions of additional Dominion troops with a never ending supply waiting on the other side of the wormhole," Bacco brought up the niceties of the situation.

"This is why we can't count anything out from our mysterious guests. They may be quite literally capable of anything," Piniero said.

Bacco pondered these facts before speaking again, "Gant Delane thought very highly of Macen. Most of the Council of 5 does as well. Even Jellico grudgingly admits he gets the job done. Just how good is he?"

"He's survived the Cardassians, the Dominion, and the Borg," Piniero answered.

"He was safely tucked away on a penal colony when the Borg attacked last," Bacco retorted.

"No, the Borg assimilated his homeworld over a century ago," Piniero corrected her.

Bacco gave her a quizzical look so she explained further, "Macen is an El-Aurian, with all of the mysteries and extra sensory abilities that entails. The El-Aurians don't discuss their transit through the Delta and Beta Quadrants. They've seen things we've only glimpsed at and scratched the surface of. Before that he was an equivalent of a Starfleet's A & A Officer. During the refugees long flight here, he served as 2nd Officer aboard the Lakul."

"Once he joined Starfleet, SI grabbed him up after his first assignment as an A & A Officer. His career path from that point on is legendary. He was one of those first tapped by SOC for a second billet and he was first on the ground on the Cardassian Border when all hell broke loose. He stayed there throughout the undeclared and declared wars," Piniero explained,

"He formed the very first SID team and has served that agency ever since," Piniero concluded her presentation.

"You left out he joined the Maquis and we had to bribe him to put the uniform back on," Bacco said dryly, "And then he was convicted of murder. A conviction that was overturned on a technicality."

The two staff members gave her quizzical glances and she adopted a predatory smile, "Oh, I know the juicy bits. They're some of the highlights Delane left as part of a sitrep on Federation affairs."

"My question is: can he succeed this time? Or are we asking too much of him again?" Bacco's unbridled sarcasm dripped.

"He has the ship, the crew, and the experience," Piniero replied confidently, "If anyone can do it, he can."

"Let's hope you're right and he can simply play observer. Because if he digs us any deeper with these strangers, I'm going to crucify him and the agency that spawned him." Bacco vowed.


Chapter Five

Macen and Rockford rounded up Shannon Forger. Forger was two extraordinary things. She was XO for the Obsidian and she was Admiral Amanda Forger's younger sister. There was ten years difference in their ages but they truly had bonded as sisters.

Amanda had entered Starfleet, as her father had before her, and excelled in the Security Division, quickly earning a transfer to Internal Affairs where she excelled. Shannon had also gone into Starfleet and tried to make a name for herself despite being in her relative's illustrious shadows.

Shannon also opted for the Security route quickly becoming a Tactical specialist. Whereas Amanda was a born investigator, Shannon was a natural fighter. The younger Forger had served as Tactical Chief aboard the USS Kwanza during the Dominion War. Her ship was lost and nearly all hands died, following a strategy she herself had devised. The ensuing investigation cleared her but there was an unwritten black mark on her record afterwards.

Amanda was scouring Starfleet to recruit officers for the SID. They would be retiring their commissions into the inactive reserves and serve as civilian operatives. They would retain their full rank but as on a brevet basis during joint ops with Starfleet regulars.

Shannon had taken great pains to distance herself from her elder sister over the course of her career but this once, she heeded her advice. Forger joined the crew of the SS Obsidian as Chief Tactical and 2nd Officer. She'd been given the role of XO earlier but the constant pressure and demands of the job had enticed to rely upon stimulants and she became psychologically addicted to them.

Tom Riker returned to from his own abbreviated command and he once again filled the XO slot thus returning Forger to the 2nd Officer's slot. When Macen was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a penal colony Riker resumed command of the Obsidian and he asked Forger to step up as XO. Still somewhat hesitant, Forger accepted and now the crew and ship ran more efficiently than ever before.

Forger met the news of their imminent departure with dismay, "The crew has had it rough. It wasn't just the SID team that got hammered this time out. We got bludgeoned equally across the board."

Macen nodded, "Shannon, I know. I can also say this might be our highest profile mission yet."

"Even more important than taking out the Omicron?" Forger pointedly countered.

"We may be dealing with the beings that created the Omicron," Macen revealed.

"Oh shuk!" Forger blurted.

"Exactly," Macen agreed, I need you and Tom to spend the next four hours assessing the ship and crew. If we aren't up to it then it's off and Starfleet can find some other kamikazes to take our place."

Forger weighed her options, "Sounds fair."

"So scoot!" Macen urged.

Forger darted through the crowds of freighter crews, Starfleet officers, and civilian specialists. Macen and Rockford sought out Grace. She could be found in Quark's stripping people of their latinum over a game of darts.

Grace's enhanced physical attributes guaranteed that she was the winner. Usually. Some species had nearly equal hand/eye coordination. Rockford broke up the game and guided Grace to the table she and Macen had secured. Quark was personally seeing to their order.

"I've heard rumors that Captain Ro and the crew of the Defiant will be setting out soon," he said ingratiatingly, "Some kind of task force."

Macen gave him a wry look so Quark leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "So are you Starfleet types going up against the Tzenkethi or the Breen?"

"Quark, I'm not Starfleet. What makes you think I'd know anything?" Macen inquired.

"Sure, you're not Starfleet. But you work for them. I'm just saying, Ferenginar is a member of the Khitomer Accords. We're on your side. And as the official representative to Bajor I think I'm entitled to know whether or not the space station housing my embassy is going to come under attack," Quark confided.

"Quark, the only reason I haven't squished you like a bug is because you have done me some favors in the past," Macen warned.

"So you owe me," Quark switched tactics.

"I let you put a franchise of your bar on Serenity Station. I think the debt is paid for," Macen opined, "People come from all over the entire system to cavort at Quark's and you get a percentage besides the franchise fee. So you're essentially getting free latinum. Trust me, you've been repaid."

"But..." Quark began to switch gears.

"We've placed our orders. Go fill them. Now," Macen insisted.

They all remained silent while Quark brought back a tray with their beverages upon it. Included was a basket of chips. The Ferengi had invested in an authentic deep fryer and now he had a runaway hit on his hands. People the quadrant over loved English pub grub.

It took a little longer to wait for Quark to give up and move out of his considerable earshot. Macen gave the all clear and Grace immediately asked what this was about.

"I'm afraid I can't brief until we're aboard the Obsidian. What I need to ask you is whether or not you think your people would accept a signal from me?" Macen asked.

"The Kelvan Conclave broke off relations prior to the Borg invasion. Starfleet had me try to reach Parvac on their behalf and the door was slammed in my face," Grace answered.

"But it wouldn't be you. It would be me," Macen angled the concept.

"What makes you think you have a chance when they won't listen to one of their own?" Grace dryly asked.

"It was worth a shot," Macen sighed.

Comm badges across the room went off as Forger began issuing the recall orders. Most grumbled as they left. Macen and company received a few harsh comments or glares.

"Shouldn't we go too?" Grace asked.

"This first part is Tom and Shannon's show. They have to determine whether or not the crew is in any shape to perform the mission," Macen explained.

"Must be a doozy of a mission," Grace guessed.

"You have no idea," Macen replied, "At least not until we finish these chips and go aboard the ship."

"Hey! They're almost gone!" Grace yelped.

Rockford flashed her a victorious grin, "You've been too busy talking to attend to business."

"I don't know how you stay so skinny while eating everything in sight," Grace grumped.

"Get off it. Your metabolism is just as wonderful as mine. You spend half the time in the gym that I do and you've got twice the body. You've got professional athlete tone and you've got boobs and a butt. That's just not fair," Rockford reported.

"Heh heh," Grace gloated.

Rockford rolled her eyes and then she looked to Macen, "Do we really need her?"

"No," Macen said bluntly.

"Hey!" Grace protested, "I'm right here!"

"Yeah, but she is adorable. And she's getting married next month. So maybe we shouldn't send her to the bread line just yet," Rockford suggested.

"Okay, but only because you said so," Macen allowed.

"You two are even worse than when T'Kir was here," Grace complained.

Macen and Rockford exchanged a knowing look. Macen grinned, "So I have a ‘type'."

Rockford shrugged, "Such is life."

Macen drained his mug, "Are we done here?"

"Sure. Why not? Somebody already ate all the damn fries," Grace bemoaned.

They departed and returned to the ship.

Aboard the Obsidian Riker and Danan were consulting Tessa. Tessa was the ship's EMH. She'd also taken T'Kir's place as resident nymphomaniac. Tessa often prescribed sex with her as a part of the recovery process. She had patients lining up, male and female alike.

Her popularity was about to increase. While the Obsidian was at port, Tessa's main squeeze, Galen 3, had modified her physical appearance. Tessa now sported a fully functional penis in addition to a vagina. She was fully functional and now classified as intersexed. The Hermat's were a representative of such species. They demanded a complicated set of pronouns be applied to them. Fortunately for the crew, Tessa still identified as female. She just had an extra member to deal with now. She'd already given it a test drive with Galen 3 and the possibilities now seemed endless.

While Macen was CO, he'd had holoemitters installed in every compartment of the ship. After all, what was the point of an Emergency Medical Hologram if she was confined to the ship and couldn't travel to the emergency? Macen had solved that quandary with the emitters.

The versatility of the system had been proven when they'd augmented their security force with holograms and beat back a boarding action. Unfortunately, the system could only handle transmitting a maximum of five holograms at a time. Tessa usually used this capability to create whole environments in the Cargo Bays. Galen 3 was her most frequent playmate but other joined in if they were available.

Riker and Dana were inquiring as to the health of the crew.

Tessa shrugged, "They needed a release after our last mission and I can only cover so much ground."

Riker ignored the potential implications of her words, "But can they accept another mission? Right now? As they are, assuming they aren't fully recovered?"

"I'd say they are but I'm going to be extremely busy over the next few days," Tessa warned.

Riker and Danan exchanged a wry glance. Tessa planted her fists on her hips, "What was that about?"

"Honey, T'Kir said it best when she labeled you a slut," Danan gently explained.

Tessa grinned, "But I'm a happy slut."

"So you are," Danan didn't know how to argue with that.

"Tessa, you can't distract the crew, no matter how much fun it is. Crewmen almost got into fights before we made port and they were all vying for your attention. I hate to intervene but this affecting the crew's performance," Riker said.

"So what are you saying?" Tessa sought clarification.

"You are forbidden to have sex with any crewman but Galen 3, effective immediately," Riker declared.

"But what if they really need...?" she began to ask.

Riker held up a hand to silence her, "They don't need it that bad. If they need a release that bad they can act as their own best friend and take care of the problem. Understood?"

Tessa deflated, "Yes, sir."

"You used to have a plethora of hobbies. Maybe you should get back into those," Danan suggested.

"Yeah," Tessa sighed, "Sounds good."

Riker and Danan departed, leaving a disappointed EMH behind. They headed for the bridge. Once there they found Forger having an argument with someone via comm badge. She was really frustrated.

"Just report to the damn ship! Now!" Forger finally growled.

Forger cut the line and massaged her temples. Riker sat down in his seat beside hers and asked her the obvious, "What's wrong?" question.

Forger gave him a dead eye stare, "It's Kalista. Apparently she's hooked up with members of a Talaxian freighter crew and she's refusing to budge until she's indulged herself."

Riker rolled his eyes. What was it with this crew and sex?

"How many members of the crew are we talking? We might make a small accommodation," Riker offered.

"It's the whole crew," an exasperated Forger exclaimed.

"That's a helluva indulgence," Riker quipped.

"Tell me about," Forger grumped, "And where the hell have you been?"

Riker grinned and told him about Tessa's new standing orders. Forger sighed, "About time. She was really screwing with crew morale."

"Yeah, but her morale was higher than ever," Riker teased.

"Spare me," Forger requested.

"Did you ever...?" Riker grinned.

"No!" Forger blurted. Composing herself, she added, "I like men."

"She's got a penis now," Riker nonchalantly dropped that bombshell. Noting Forger's shock at that revelation he asked, "Haven't you known any transgender men and women?"

"Sure, I went to school with a few. I had a couple of girlfriends in the Academy that were transsexual but they all underwent Sexual Reassignment Surgery before graduation. With today's techniques it's common enough procedure especially now that they can stimulate the body to make the right hormones and you don't need to take them externally," Forger described those she'd known.

"Then why are you reacting to Tessa's change so...badly?" Riker wanted to know.

"Is she transsexual or is she intersexed?" Forger asked.

"Intersexed," Riker answered.

"Figures," Forger said darkly. She stood abruptly, "I have to make an appearance in my office and let the crew complain."

The turbolift doors closed behind her and Riker turned to Danan, who occupied the Science station, "What did I say?"

Danan smirked, "How extensively have you reviewed Shannon's records?"

"I liked up her Starfleet career. Why? Is there something I should be aware of?" he asked.

"Shannon Forger was born Sean Forger," Danan revealed.

"She's transgender?" Riker was stunned. He'd had no idea, "When did she undergo SRS?"

"She hasn't," Danan stated, "She opted to stay a transsexual."

"She has a...?" Riker gaped.

"Yes, Tom. She has a penis. So do you. Is this going to be an issue?" Danan inquired.

"No, but she should have told me," Riker grumped.

"She opted not to because it really isn't your business. I'm only telling you so you can cheer her up," Danan explained.

"Why would she need cheering up?" Riker wondered.

"Because until now she filled a unique niche in our little community. Tessa's transformation means there's competition for the affections of the few men aboard willing to have relations with her," Danan described the situation.

"Men have sex with her?" Riker shuddered.

"Thomas Riker, you are an absolute cad. Shannon is a sweet woman who has done nothing to you to deserve this treatment. She simply is and you're being prejudiced about it. What's so threatening about her? She's straight. She only sleeps with men. That means all the women are available for you. But you'd better not touch any of them or I'll kill you," Danan remarked.

"Is it really that she's straight? After all she's got a penis," Riker argued.

"She's straight because she's a woman that desires sexual relations with the opposite sex. By the Pools, Tom, have you been living under a rock all of these years?" Danan demanded to know.

"It's just every transgender woman I've known underwent SRS," Riker protested.

"Did you sleep with any of them?" Danan pointedly asked.

"Yes, as a matter of fact. But they had vaginas," Riker summed up his argument.

"You're a caveman," Danan accused, "Right now I can't believe I married you."

Danan moved away from her station and headed for the lift, "I think I'd better make sure the labs are up and running."

"Lees, I..." Riker faltered.

She held up a finger to ward off anything he had to say, "I don't want to talk to. Not until I don't think you're an unbearable prig."

Danan dropped by Forger's office and informed her that she'd spilled the beans. Forger was stunned by the description of Riker's reaction.

"I'm no threat to him," she said plaintively, "Besides, even if I was a lesbian, he's off the market."

"He might be back on it in a damn hurry if he doesn't knock some sense into himself," Danan growled.

Forger squeezed her hand, "Thank you, Lisea. You don't know what you're support means."

"I've been a men, women, and once I was transgendered, so I understand," Danan shared.

"Really?" Forger perked up.

"I'll tell you all about tonight at dinner," Danan promised, "My ‘husband' might be an optional accessory."

"He's not the first to react that way," Forger sadly commented.

"Well, he shouldn't. It's the 24th Century for goodness sake. The Federation has enjoyed 200 years of sexual equality. It's just primitive of someone to still harbor prejudices because of what sex you were born and/or transitioned into," Danan complained.

Forger grinned, "Preach it, sister."

Danan moved to exit the office and Forger called after her, "Does Commander Macen know?"

Danan graced her with a warm smile, "Honey, he knew before you ever came aboard."

Macen gathered the SID team in their dedicated briefing room. Besides Riker, Danan, Rockford, Grace, and Tessa, Radil Jenrya, Rab Daggit, and Eric McMasters were present. Daggit's Orion wife, Parva, was the ship's Chief Engineer and she was sounding out the ship to see if she was up to the task ahead.

Daggit was another Angosian Augment. He'd met Macen during the Dominion War while Ro led a commando unit comprised of Angosians. Macen was the unit's intelligence officer. Ro and Macen experience with DMZ territory and the worlds to either side of the border allowed the unit to operate deep behind the front lines.

After the war, Daggit had been transferred to the Enterprise while he was aboard he advised Captain Picard to fire upon then-Captain Macen over conflicting orders. As an act of penance, Daggit requested a transfer off the flagship of the fleet and volunteered to serve in the SID, specifically Macen's team. At one point he filled the role now occupied by Rockford. He'd retired from the team and became a teacher at the inaugural Security Alliance Academy.

Daggit's decision had largely been shaped by a grave and permanent injury that Parva had sustained. Left with irreparable brain damage and a faulty heart she couldn't serve as Chief of Engineering any more. A heart replacement operation later, combined with re-education classes, she was back at the top of her game and she wanted to serve aboard the Obsidian again. Ever a dutiful husband, Daggit came with and he was back on the team but not as its deputy. He flat out refused to become Macen's lieutenant.

Radil Jenrya had been a mercenary working for the Orion Syndicate when Daggit inadvertently kidnapped her. Given a death mark by the Syndicate, the Bajoran joined the SID team. Reluctant to fully assimilate at first, Radil subsequently threw herself wholeheartedly into her work and into her comrades' hearts. Particularly two comrades in particular.

Radil had rediscovered love with her former deputy, Abigail Collins. Abby Collins had approached Radil and Radil put up a fight but she eventually succumbed to her heart and fell in love with Collins. They'd enjoyed a brief but passionate affair before Collins was killed in the line of duty.

Her other great love was Kort. A Klingon doctor, he was an exile from the Empire who had been selected for the team on short notice by Nechayev. Their relationship had been built on a sliver of mutual respect bulwarked by a tide of lust. They eventually fell apart and Collins came into Radil's life. After Abby's death, Radil turned once again to Kort.

The Klingon had been greatly transformed by the course of his life and he demonstrated to her that he truly and deeply loved her. He loved her in the way that she'd always wanted to be loved. While Macen and T'Kir were incarcerated Radil and Kort were married. It was an open relationship that allowed Radil to fornicate with any woman she wanted to as long as she came home to Kort. They seemed to be genuinely happy despite, or perhaps because of, this arrangement.

McMasters was the newest recruit to the SID. He'd once served as the chief redesign expert that retrofitted Maquis raiders. Virtually every Maquis ship underwent modification at his hands. Only the decommissioned Starfleet scoutship Odyssey had eluded his greedy grasp. The Odyssey had served as Macen's command and was a dedicated intelligence gatherer and scout.

McMasters had served a 5 year stint on a penal colony after being arrested by Starfleet Security. His shop had been confiscated and dismantled. After his release, the Maquis Rebellion had been crushed by the Dominion and the Dominion subsequently had been defeated by Starfleet and its allies.

McMasters moved to Dulces VI where he sat up a shop simply called McMasters Refits. He specialized in modifying, designing, and constructing high performance spacecraft. His reputation had earned him Macen's attention. He was looking to replace the slain Joachim Dracas as the team's Engineering Specialist and he hit McMasters at a good time.

McMasters was bored with his business even though it was a booming one. In the Maquis, he'd gone into the field on several occasions and the adrenalin rush had proven addictive. Macen also had another enticement on his team. Lisea Danan was a member.

Danan and McMasters had shared a week during the Maquis Rebellion. That time had revolutionized McMaster's life. He was hopelessly smitten with her from that point on. Even knowing she was married now didn't dissuade him. He had time.

The team was fully attentive so Macen handed out padds with the pertinent information. The holographic display presented the flight recorder's visuals. They all looked a little stunned when the Endeavor was finally destroyed in the span of 3 seconds. He looked around and simply asked one question.

"Opinions?" he inquired.


Chapter Six

The cacophony of noise just kept increasing. Finally Macen placed two fingers in his mouth and blew a shrill whistle that drowned out the noise. That served to get everyone's attention.

"If we could go one at a time?" Macen suggested. Everyone spoke at once and Macen shushed them again, "Tom, you have something to share?"

"Is Starfleet nuts?" Riker hotly demanded, "This ship is lightly armed. Those things wiped out a designated explorer and those things are armed to the teeth because they have to be. They never know what they'll run into. Sending us in a surveyor is tantamount to suicide."

"Actually, I think it's the only part of Starfleet's plan that borders on genius," Macen revealed.

"Are you finally letting on that you have a death wish?" Riker dryly inquired.

"Think about it. It's an observation mission. The Obsidian's strength isn't in her armament but in her sensor package. With the upgrades the SPYards have given us, we may possibly have the most sensitive sensor platform in the Federation. Who better to observe a star system from a distance?" Macen examined the scenario.

"Brin has a point," Danan suddenly stated.

Riker gave her a wounded look and she rolled her eyes, "I'm not disagreeing with you because I'm mad at you, which I still am, by the way. I'm saying it because he's correct. Our sensor package is better than anything Starfleet boasts. We could stay in the Kuiper Belt and still observe the inner system where Omicron is located."

"Our secondary objective is to locate the Endeavor's log buoy. Maybe there will be more answers in it than what we received in their final transmission. It would certainly be less garbled," Macen announced.

"We need to examine the sensor logs to see if they can reveal any weaknesses that the Endeavor failed to exploit," Daggit suddenly said.

"Maybe," Macen mused, "My impression is that they simply didn't have time to react."

"Well, they did launch the first, and second, volleys," Radil added, "It seemed as if the shots just...evaporated."

"According to the sensor logs, the phasers and photons were scattered by a protective field akin to our own electrostatic shields," Macen recounted Starfleet's preliminary analysis, "They did this by attuning to the frequency harmonics of the phasers and torpedoes and simply dissipated them. Their strike against the Endeavor utilized the same technique and their response cut through the ship's shields as if they weren't there."

"It does sound like the Borg," Daggit said darkly, "Which means even transphasic torpedoes are useless because they've already adapted to them."

"Actually, transphasic torpedoes are considered to be the best defense available for now," Macen shared, "Unlike Captain Thrax, Starfleet doesn't consider these visitors to be Borg or Borg related. Their technology is unique to them, as far as we know at this juncture, and it contains no traces of Borg influence."

"Then isn't too bad that we don't have any transphasic torpedoes?" Riker drolly asked.

Macen grinned, "And we're not going to be receiving any. We're a civilian operation. Transphasics are strictly a military asset."

"Figures. They can send us on a military mission but they can't provide us with the means to defend ourselves? How typically bureaucratic," Riker bemoaned.

"Why aren't they sending a Starfleet vessel to conduct this survey?" Radil wanted to know.

"Starfleet got us into this predicament. It wasn't intentional, at least on Command's part, but the individual commander got us into a potential war. The thinking is that by sending a lightly armed, read: effectively defenseless, civilian ship we can avoid the blatant hostilities that doomed the Endeavor," Macen explained Starfleet's rationale.

"And if these mysterious aliens are feeling blatant?" Riker wondered.

"Well, you're a decent ship master. I'm sure you can pull us through," Macen smiled.

"Right," Riker darkly disagreed.

Later on the bridge, Riker asked Forger to step into his Ready Room. She eyed him apprehensively as she took a seat. Riker sat down behind his desk and looked utterly miserable.

"Shannon, I'm so sorry. I've been an ass. I'd just never met someone that preferred to remain transsexual before. Rather than respond warmly and graciously, I let myself react like a Neanderthal. Can you forgive me?"

"I wish I could say that you're the first person to react to me this way. There's a lot of pressure on people like me to fully transition and undergo SRS. However, anyone that's given me a chance has never complained about my having...irregular bits," she suddenly broke into a lascivious grin, "Some even prefer it."

"Not to sound rude and prissy but I really don't need a peek into your private life," Riker said, "I'm not sharing stories of my love life with you either."

"No, Lisea does that," Forger wore a naughty grin.

"What?" Riker yelped.

"A bunch of us girls get together and share intimate details once in a while. Maybe you should drop in some time. You'd learn a lot about your crew," Forger playfully suggested.

"If you recall, I leave the crew in your capable hands," Riker reminded her.

Forger sighed, "So you do."

"So, are we ready to cast off?" Riker asked with a grin.

"You do realize that this isn't a boat?" Forger dryly inquired.

"You have no romance in your soul," Riker accused.

"I have plenty of romance. I just don't get to share it very often," Forger complained.

"Business first," Riker cajoled her, "Our departure window opens in 5 minutes. I want us free and clear to navigate in 10, and underway to Omicron in 15."

Forger was instantly alert, "Did you say ‘Omicron'?"

"Yes, I'll brief you once we're underway so the faster we depart the sooner you get the goods," Riker offered his carrot.

"Expect me back in here in 7 minutes," Forger promised.

It actually took her 8 but Riker wasn't going to quibble, "We're underway?"

"We're transiting the Bajor system now," Forger reported, "We should be clear of it in 45 minutes. What speed should we proceed under?"

"Set a cruising speed of warp 8," Riker suggested, "That'll get us there in our window of 7 days and should also keep Parva off of our backs."

"Good," Forger breathed a sigh of relief and then she grew somber, "Most of the current bridge crew wasn't with us when we faced the Omicron last time. Rhiann remembers them and I almost had to put a phaser to her head to get her to set the course. What kind of hairy mess are we sailing into this time around?"

"I thought this wasn't a boat?" Riker teased.

Forger glared, "It's whatever I say it is. Now answer the damn question."

"Starfleet sent a ship to Omicron. They were conducting a cultural and technological survey," Riker started to explain.

"Why did you say ‘they were'?" Forger's guts were crying "foul" already.

"The Starfleet crew accidently sent a signal to an unknown species at an unknown location. That species answered and announced that they were coming. A week ago, three bioships of unknown configuration arrived and destroyed the Starfleet vessel. Of course, to compound things, the Starfleet ship fired first and without warning," Riker described events thus far.

"What kind of idiot starship captain does that?" Forger wanted to know.

"A political appointee. Starfleet Command is collectively kicking their hind quarters. What that leaves us is an unknown force that can destroy a starship in 3 seconds and we're going in to ‘observe' them for 3 days before rendezvousing with a Starfleet task force and briefing them," Riker concluded.

"What kind of task force?" Forger wanted to know.

"A so-called ‘peace envoy' comprised of Starfleet's most capable heavy hitters," Riker remarked.

"Sounds real peaceful," Forger sourly commented.

"Just between you, me, and the paint on the bulkhead, I totally agree," Riker confided.

"So we just have to figure a way to stay alive if we piss off the unknown baddie?" Forger asked.

"Yep," Riker confirmed it.

"Give me a couple of days and I'll get back to you," Forger offered, "Now, I'm stepping out to babysit the slow crawl out of the system. I presume you'll be hiding in here?"

"You presume correctly," Riker happily agreed.

"Y'know, I think I'm ready for a command of my own. All there is to it is sitting in your Ready Room until called upon and then you just go out and look important while your XO does all the work," Forger opined.

"The secret of my success is out," Riker grinned.

Forger rolled her eyes and exited.

Over the course of the next 7 days, tensions mounted as they drew closer to Omicron. The newer crewmen heard tales of horror from the veterans. It got so bad; Riker had to make a ship wide announcement dispelling the rumors. Of course, he didn't tell them the complete truth either or there very well may have been a mutiny.

The SID team reviewed the Endeavor's final logs and moments until they dreamt about it. What they swiftly discovered was that there was too much interference in the transmission to easily extract anything useful from it. They needed the log buoy and they needed it before they reached their destination. Not seeing a way to accomplish that little miracle, they settled back and drew up bare bones contingency plans and then coordinated with the Obsidian's Command Staff to tailor implementing those same plans.

While the others plotted and schemed, Grace and McMasters began work on some performance upgrades to the team's Danube-class runabout, the Corsair. They'd been waiting until they got some yard time at Serenity Station but it seemed that they might need the upgrades done before that so they got to work.

On the 6th day, they completed the work but they had no way of testing anything until the Obsidian dropped out of warp and could deploy the Corsair. Their timing was impeccable because Parva finally broke down and asked McMasters for a consultation. It was a defining moment in their professional relationship. Parva was a mechanical genius and a very proud one to boot. For her to ask for his help charted a clear course in what had been some fairly murky waters.

Daggit and Radil haunted the Security Office. So much so her deputy, Gerrit Gren, kicked them out of the office for a few hours every day. Gerrit had known Radil since they'd fought in the Bajoran Resistance cell. Whereas Radil left Bajor to raise funds for the cell by serving as a mercenary, Gerrit had remained behind to keep the struggle against the Cardassians.

After the Cardassian withdrawal of Bajor, Radil remained offworld and Gerrit joined the reborn Bajoran Militia. When Starfleet seconded the Militia, recreating it as a civil defense force only, Gerrit resigned and accepted a standing offer Radil had made two years before to get him under the Outbound Ventures umbrella and specifically aboard the Obsidian. When Abby Collins stepped down as Deputy, in order to serve as Chief of Security for Riker's command aboard the SS Indomitable, Gerrit had the experience and skills necessary to replace her in her former post.

Gerrit had proven to be the perfect deputy. He stood in for ship's Security while Radil was away on SID missions. To be fair, the Security team had two modes of operation: with Radil and without Radil. Even when Radil was present, they still largely followed Gerrit's lead. Radil know this and regularly consulted with Gerrit to brainstorm training sessions and shipboard tactics.

Daggit and Radil had come to the conclusion that no matter what the Obsidian did, engaging the strange ships would be tantamount to suicide. Perhaps the Endeavor's log buoy would yield some new insights but they rather doubted it. These creatures simply outclassed Federation technology.

Macen and Rockford reviewed the fragments of the ship's officers'' logs. When they'd finished, they summed up what they'd read to each other. It all came down to the simple fact that Captain Adolae Thrax was completely incompetent. He may have started a war that the Federation would be unable to win.

"The Khitomer Accord allies are going to be useless," Rockford pronounced, "We need help from a more advanced source. What about the Organians?"

"They last took corporeal form 70 years ago to mediate a conference between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. No one even knows if they're still on this plain of existence," Macen recounted.

"The Metron?" she asked hopefully.

"Too aloof. They've blockaded their system and no one can get near it," Macen said.

"The Caeliar?" she was getting frustrated.

"They moved to the Delta Quadrant to consolidate the Borg and begin their Great Work," Macen shared.

"Great Work?" she skeptically inquired.

"Contacting an extragalactic civilization equal to theirs or even more advanced," Macen explained.

"Extragalactic brings up the Kelvans," she pointed out.

"They've completely isolated themselves," Macen replied, "I've spent all week trying to contact them and they've ignored every signal. They dropped out of communication with the UFP back in 2386 and they haven't been heard from since."

"Except they could be infiltrating every Federation world," Rockford predicted.

"A very real possibility," Macen agreed.

Well, that only leaves the Q," Rockford opined.

"Who only interfere when it suits their agenda," Macen rebutted.

"Then that doesn't leave us with a whole hell of a lot of options," Rockford huffed.

"Nope," Macen concurred.

Rockford tossed her padd onto her desk, "Want to see if Lees has made any more progress than us?"

"You just want out of the Infosys Center," Macen teased.

"Hell yeah, we've been cooped up in here for six days. When we're not in here we're either eating, exercising, or sleeping," Rockford recited.

"I hear a complaint," Macen noted.

"I want some alternative methods of exercise. I need it to unwind. So do you. Last I heard you hadn't taken any monastic vows so let's get it on," Rockford insisted.

Macen smiled, "Okay, after we visit Lees."

"She'd better wrap it up in 5 minutes or less," she opined. Seeing Macen's bemused smirk, she added, "I'm just saying."

Starfleet's task force was underway. The assorted starships had assembled at DS9 and set forth three days after the Obsidian had departed. The Command Staff of each starship had been briefed and were all chewing on the rough data that they had.

Now, three days out from Omicron, Admiral Johnson assembled the starship CO's and their 1st Officers for a conference. While he would have preferred to conduct these meetings aboard the familiar stomping grounds of the Intrepid, her facilities were inadequate for such a large gathering. Captain Picard offered the use of the Enterprise's conference room and his offer was accepted because only the Hood offered as much room. Since Picard was the senior captain, it made logical sense to let him host the conference.

Captain Picard was seconded by Commander Worf. They had a long and storied association. They'd literally saved the Federation on more than one occasion. Their insights would be valuable.

James McKinley was the captain of the Akira-class Intrepid. Commander Jonathan Striker was his XO. They'd risen through the ranks under Johnson's command and they still knew him and his style better than anyone. They'd be a bulwark of support even when others doubted.

Captain Merry Limerick and Selvin Havelick represented the Galaxy-class USS Hood. The Hood was a carrier variant of the respected explorer model starship. Commander Verity Jones, the Rascal Squadron's Flight Operations Officer, was chewing deuterium over being left behind. As it was, the Elvin Captain and Tellarite First Officer were wondering why they'd been called in for a diplomatic mission when they specialized in unorthodox tactical solutions.

Captains Hev Callas and Alec Prine felt the same way. Hev was CO of the Starfleet Intelligence operated USS Monitor. The Monitor was a Defiant-class escort. Hardly a diplomatic ship. Both Hev and his XO, one Annis Valyn, were veterans of the Bajoran Resistance and had been recruited by SI out of the Bajoran Militia. Their ship broke several rules. Hev and Annis were lovers and their entire crew was comprised of Bajorans.

Prine's XO, Lt. Commander Paige Donaldson, was a young veteran of Starfleet's Special Operations Command. It was only a slight stretch that she now served aboard another Defiant-class escort, this one named the USS Merrimack, and it was a Starfleet Intelligence operations vessel.

The final two commanders were those with the least amount of seniority but they're reputations were stellar. They also shared a common link in the form of DS9.

Captain Ezri Dax had been 2nd Officer of the station before transferring to the Vespa-class USS Aventine. She'd served as 2nd Officer for a few scant weeks before the Captain and First Officer were killed by the Borg. Dax had risen to the occasion and been promoted accordingly.

She'd recruited Lt. Commander Sam Bowers from DS9. His promotion to XO included a grade increase to full Commander. Simon Tarses had also left the station to become Dax's CMO. They'd barely begun to settle into their roles when they were called upon to assist Picard and Riker convince the Caeliar to intervene in the Borg's invasion and free the Drones and make the Collective a part of the Caeliar's Gestalt. Since that time, Dax and her crew were among Starfleet's go-to assets.

Captain Ro was the CO with least time in grade but she had a veritable lifetime's worth of experience. In the Maquis, Ro had commanded the Maquis raider named the Indomitable. The name fit the ship and her commander. Ro had waged a 4 year long guerilla war on the ground and in space. A superior tactician, she didn't know what she brought to a diplomat's table but she was more than curious enough to find out. Besides, it reunited her with Picard. She wouldn't pass up the opportunity to show off that she'd justified his faith in her.

Prynn Tenmei flew the Defiant besides acting as her XO. Elias Vaughn's daughter, she'd been station at DS9 for twelve years now. She'd originally come as a snot nosed ensign eager to test her wings flying the legendary starship. She'd never expected to make a career out of it but the Bajor Sector was always full of excitement so she'd never requested a transfer.

"So, has everyone had a chance to review what we know so far?" Johnson asked once everyone had settled into their seats, "So what do you think?"

There was a collective groan and Johnson waved it aside, "Captain Thrax's actions aside, what are our chances at a diplomatic solution?"

"I don't think we can simply set Captain Thrax's actions ‘aside'," Picard reasoned, "His opening gesture will taint whatever dialogue we can open with these beings."

"Yes, but we're approaching them peacefully this time," Johnson argued.

Ro snorted, "Hardly. Three escorts and a carrier hardly represent the heights of ‘peace gesture'."

"I have to agree with Captain Ro," Limerick admitted, "My crew is hardly used to engaging in negotiations. We're a ship reserved for times when the worst has happened and a military solution is required. Captains Hev and Prine's ships are hardly what one considers ships of the line. They're covert operations platforms. So what's our true intent, admiral?"

Johnson cleared his throat, "It's only fair that you get a straight answer to a straightforward inquiry. The Defiant, the Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Hood are to provide the big stick to back up our display of good intentions. To differing degrees the Enterprise, the Aventine, and the Intrepid are also gunslingers to prove our intent."

"So the basic message is, ‘negotiate or die'?" Dax wondered.

"Yes," Johnson sadly admitted.

The room erupted into chaos.


Chapter Seven

The Obsidian neared the Omicron system's Kuiper Belt. Macen and Rockford joined the alpha watch bridge crew on the Command Deck. They stood near the MSD console situated between the Science and OPS stations. Danan had emerged from the Astrometrics Lab to man the Science station while Ephrim Zimbalist occupied the OPS station.

Jaycee Miller was at her normal post at Tactical. Shervarhia' ann'Deri, or "Rhiann", sat at the helm. The Andorian zhen was now joined by the thaan named Chrisjian' rys'Irid, or "Chris" that monitored the bridge's Engineering station.

"We've dropped out of warp and are proceeding at 3/4 impulse," Rhiann announced.

"Slow to half impulse," Riker ordered, "Distance to Kuiper Belt?"

"100,000 kilometers," Rhiann answered.

"Hmm, better make that 1/4 impulse," Riker good naturedly amended.

Rhiann smiled and complied. She knew her abilities weren't in question. They just didn't have a good idea of the layout of the field of ice fragments that lay ahead.

"Captain, I'm receiving a Federation SOS," Miller reported.

"Ship's ID?" Riker inquired.

"The USS Endeavor, sir," Miller divulged.

"It must be their log buoy," Riker theorized, "Lees, see if you can pick it up on your sensors."

"I hear and obey," Danan teased.

She studied her sensor read outs and her brow furrowed in concentration, "I've queried the buoy and it's intact and fully functional."

"Can you tie the primary sensors into the navigation array?" Riker asked.

"Easily," Danan grinned, "Planning on recovering the buoy?"

"That is a mission priority," Riker dryly reminded her.

"Just seeing if you remembered," Danan's eyes twinkled.

Macen was glad to see his old friend and former lover had reconciled. Danan had shared the root cause behind their recent turmoil. Macen had been surprised by Riker's somewhat primitive reaction to Forger's news but after a gentle talk with him he'd detected the other man's remorse. He'd also seen Riker and Forger in action together and knew there were no lasting repercussions. Riker had grown and moved on.

The Obsidian slowly navigated the field of icy debris. These chunks of frozen gases were as old as the solar system itself. Truth be told, they'd coalesced before the planets themselves. Besides the drive to leave the area as pristine as possible there was another factor at work: they didn't want to be detected by the foreigners visiting this system. No one knew how sensitive or powerful the foreigners' sensors were so caution was well merited.

It took 27 minutes to reach the buoy. It was beamed into Cargo Bay 1. It was held in an isolation field until Tessa could determine that there were no biohazards to threaten the crew. Dropping the field, the Obsidian crew went to work.

From the OPS station on the bridge, Zimbalist downloaded the buoy's logs into a directory. Inside the bay, Parva and McMasters worked together to determine what the buoy had undergone on its mad flight into the Kuiper Belt. Danan shifted her attention to passive scans of the solar system.

In the Infosys Center, Macen, Rockford, and Grace tore the Endeavor's records apart. Before the data had to be sifted through a hazy filter, now it was clear and free flowing. They still came to the same conclusions over the course of the 2 days that they reviewed them. Grace added some original insights into matters that Macen and Rockford had overlooked. At the end of the alpha watch on the 2nd day, Danan called them into the Astrometrics Lab.

"What do you have for us?" Macen asked as he and Rockford entered. Grace decided to come as well. Her familiarity with advanced, alien technology had proven useful so far and she hoped it may yield more.

"Passive scans have revealed a lot of subspace chatter," Danan reported. She pulled up a visual of the inner system, "As you can see, there are now more than three of the bioships."

"Have you been able to determine how many ships are in the system?" Macen inquired.

"I've identified at least 16 individual ships. There may be more but they haven't been spotted yet if there are," Danan disclosed.

"They do look like whale sharks," Macen observed.

"Sharks the size of a small planetoid," Rockford dryly reminded him.

"Yes, there is that," he said drolly.

"The subspace signals are all comm traffic. I have the OPS teams tweaking the linguicode programs and the universal translator matrix but we still can't translate anything," Danan shared.

"I think we should set everything to translate into Omicron and see what happens," Macen suggested.

"Why?" Danan was genuinely curious.

"When the science team on Omicron's surface unleashed the initial subspace pulse, they never had a chance to record the language used. It's been assumed that it was transmitted in the unknown language the communicator's controls were written in." Macen revealed, "But the return signal was composed in Omicron. That implies that these beings can speak Omicron."

"Or their translation matrix is light years ahead of ours," Danan quipped.

"Probably," Rockford commented.

Danan gave her a droll look and Rockford defended herself, "Look, we're assuming that these beings created the Omicron. That kind of tech is waaay beyond us. Their facility with languages is probably just as advanced so unless these people have regressed to neo-barbs it'd be safe to assume they're at ten steps ahead of us."

"She has a point," Macen chimed in.

"You're just saying that because she's your girlfriend," Danan shot back.

Macen ignored the barb, "When will you be ready to begin full sensor sweeps?"

"I have everyone ready to go in two hours. That'll give us a full 8 hours ahead of alpha watch," Danan answered.

"Good thinking. Is your staff up for it?" Macen asked.

"I've had them all resting up. I've minded the passives all day alone. I'm going to grab four hours of rack time and come back to it," Danan admitted.

"Be ready to give a report at 0800," Macen advised, "Tom will be there as usual but I also want Shannon to sit in on the team brief."

Danan's eyebrow arched, "You usually keep the crew out of the loop."

"Yes, but this one could turn ugly in a heartbeat. I need both ship drivers up to speed," Macen shared.

Danan smirked, "Good idea."

0800 came even earlier than expected since most of those awaiting Danan's report didn't get much sleep. Forger whistled as she entered the briefing room.

"So this is your guys' secret lair," she quipped.

Danan already had a hologram of an Argyn bioship floating above the table. The table top displays were active and the touchscreen controlled displays were filled with imagery and star system maps. Forger was the first to comment.

"I think I went diving with something like that on Earth," she observed.

"The bioships bear a distinct resemblance to Terran whale sharks. Like those creatures, the living portion of the ship is benign. They seemed to feed off the solar winds like a whale shark feeds of krill," Danan began her report, "Red highlights lit up on the inorganic portions of the ship, "Many of these points however are lethal. Since we've all reviewed the Endeavor's logs we know just how deadly they can be. What's interesting is that we've found no corollary device to a photon torpedo launcher."

"How can you be sure?" Radil asked, "Your projections are all based on long range scans."

"Actually, we scanned a bioship as it passed by at a distance of 100,000 kilometers," Danan smirked.

"Say what?" Forger yelped. Daggit and Radil both scowled their displeasure. Riker was bemused. He'd relieved the gamma watch officer when Danan reported to the Science labs. The gamma watch had the fright of their lives as the hulking fish swam by. Riker had advised Macen so he and Rockford were already in on the secret.

"Sorry Shannon, I didn't have time to bring you completely up to speed before this briefing started," Riker grinned.

"You're just getting revenge over my ‘little secret'," she accused.

"Maybe," his grin grew.

"What secret?" McMasters blurted.

Grace leaned over and whispered in his ear. He blanched, "You're kidding."

Forger wore a wicked grin, "I'm far enough in my transition that I'm completely passable...with one exception. I'd let you find out what that is if you'd like."

McMasters looked like a deer caught in the headlights, " thank you?"

Forger shrugged, "Your loss."

"If we can get back on topic?" Danan said crossly, "What is most remarkable about this synthesis between organic and inorganic technology is its method of sublight propulsion. FTL is accomplished by warp slipstream like Starfleet's Vespa-class explorers. However, sublight is something completely foreign and exotic."

"Now this I want to hear," McMasters shot one more baleful look Forger's way.

"Pull up the sensor data on page 4 of your desktop windows. You'll find that these bioships bend time/space so that they reach speeds up to .99c without relativistic time dilation effects," Danan described.

"Man, what I wouldn't give to take one of these babies apart," McMasters voiced.

"However, this effect may be indigenous to the organic lifeform these strangers have grafted their technology to. Initial scans indicate that this is the case. This only broadens the question of whether or not this lifeform is a product of natural evolution or a result of genetic manipulation," Danan expanded on her report.

"While all of this is interesting in a terrifying kind of way, it stills doesn't answer why an alien ship passed by us and didn't detect us?" Radil brought up an obvious point.

Danan smiled, "Who says they didn't?"

Beriel found Hennessy and her fellow officers in a courtyard that served as a meeting place for Omicron in search of conversation and recreational gaming. Gev, T'Lisa Park, and Sheila Walsh had joined Prentiss and Gomez in keeping their surviving commanding officer company. The rest of the engineers and science officers joined the Omicron in their festivities. Beriel made a soft squishy noise as he approached the Endeavor's surviving command staff. Hennessy knew that sound was the Argyn equivalent of a soft chuckle.

"Still planning your escape?" he jovially inquired.

"It's every prisoner's duty to escape her captors," Hennessy replied.

"But you are not prisoners. At least not of my people. You are guests of the Omicron and we respect their wishes," Beriel declared.

"But we're your bloody lab rats while you decide whether or not we're civilized enough to deserve living," Hennessy countered.

"Do you not do the same?" Beriel wondered.

"Our peoples believe in something called the Prime Directive. We only contact space faring cultures since they are generally mature enough to handle the revelation of foreign life actually occurring. We don't judge them. We take great pains to avoid interfering in the affairs of others, even when such noninterference is a detriment to ourselves," Hennessy explained.

"My people believe quite the opposite. Life is meant to be fostered, particularly non-sentient life. It must be aided in its quest to achieve perfection," Beriel revealed.

"Sounds like the Borg ideal," Gev argued.

"The Borg were misguided. They sought to exterminate individuality. The individual need not be sacrificed for the communal good. Rather the individual drives the accomplishment of the collective good," Beriel remarked.

"That's a core tenet of our Federation," Hennessy assured him.

"We shall see," Beriel said ominously. An image of a Nova-class surveyor nestled amongst cometary fragments in the system's Kuiper Belt suddenly floated in the air, "This craft has been probing this star system. They began with passive observations but they have become overt in their efforts. We have identified it as a product of your Federation. Do you recognize this craft?"

"Not offhand. Do you know its registration?" Hennessy asked.

"It identifies itself as the NDR 745198 SS Obsidian," Beriel reported.

Hennessy frowned, "That's a civilian registry. It's not affiliated with Starfleet. There are literally hundreds of similar ships wandering around the quadrant."

"That may not be entirely accurate," Gomez said, "If I might have a word with you, Commander?"

"Excuse us for a second," Hennessy begged of Beriel. The two Commanders stepped out of what was presumed to be Argyn earshot. Gomez looked very uncomfortable.

"You are aware of my previous assignment before receiving my billet as Endeavor's Chief Engineer?" Gomez asked.

"You were assigned to the Utopia Planetia Yards," Hennessy said dismissively.

"Technically that's true," Gomez shared, "I actually worked for a highly specialized portion of Utopia Planetia."

Hennessy groaned, "Why do I think the rest of this conversation is going to be about things waaay over my security clearance?"

"Because they are," Gomez confirmed her fears, "I worked in a section known as the Special Projects Yards, or SPYards, for short. They performed highly classified performance upgrades for ships assigned to Starfleet Intelligence and the Special Investigation Division."

"And this Obsidian has something to do with this?" Hennessy connected the dots.

"She's an SID ship. At the time of her transfer to Outbound Ventures her captain was one Brin Macen," Gomez detailed.

Hennessy frowned, "That name rings a bell and not a good one."

"Macen was a Commander in Starfleet before he was court martialed and became a privateer. After that, the SID converted itself into agency that strictly employed civilian assets. Of course they're all privateers, private investigators, and private security agents but they're still civilians and not Starfleet," Gomez explained.

"But they work for Starfleet?" Hennessy sought clarification.

"At the uppermost, hush hush levels," Gomez revealed.

"Why would Starfleet send a covert ops team to rescue us?" Hennessy wondered aloud.

"After what supposedly happened to the Endeavor?" Gomez dryly asked, "I'd say the delicate approach is required. Besides, it makes a perverse kind of sense."

"How so?" Hennessy wondered.

"Haven't you heard the Omicron go off about Macen and Rab Daggit? Daggit is one of Macen's subordinates and Macen led the resistance against the Omicron. He brought the Kelvans into it and just about single-handedly reshaped the politic scene on Omicron," Gomez put all the clues together for her.

"But the Argyn know about them. What could they possibly do?" Hennessy wondered.

"They could try talking, something our dearly departed former captain neglected to do," Gomez bitterly retorted.

Hennessey knew every surviving officer harbored deep resentment against Captain Thrax, "Sonya, we don't have time to lay blame. Starfleet can do that after we've left here."

"If we leave here," Gomez said bleakly.

"Oh, we're leaving, Sonya. One way or another," Hennessy vowed, "Let's rejoin the others so Beriel can stop pretending not to eavesdrop."

The two officers approached the Argyn. He made squishy noises again which confirmed for Hennessy that he had indeed been eavesdropping, "Your assessment of this vessel, Commander?"

"It's no threat to your people. Given what I was told, and you undoubtedly have heard, the commander of this vessel and his crew are held in high regard here on Omicron," Hennessy offered.

"True. For the Omicrons' sake, we have not challenged it until now," Beriel noted.

"Until now?" Hennessy repeated archly.

"Yes, Commander Hennessy. We must know its intentions," Beriel announced.

"You could try talking this time," Hennessy suggested.

"The time for talk is over," Beriel said dismissively, "These creatures must prove themselves to us."

Hennessy wondered what that would entail.

"Captain, one of the bioships has redirected itself and is on an intercept course for our position," Danan reported over the comm.

"ETA?" Riker asked.

"I'd give them 35 minutes tops," Danan reported.

"Rhiann, set course for our rendezvous point. Starfleet should be assembled there now," Riker ordered.

"Course laid in. Recommended speed?" Rhiann asked.

"Max us out," Riker commanded.

The Andorian smiled, "Yes sir."

"You're thinking they're gonna come after us, aren't you?" Forger quietly asked.

"And so are you," Riker whispered back.

Forger smiled, "Just so we're on the same page."

Six hours later they joined Admiral Johnson's task force. Johnson hailed them, "Maximum warp, Captain? Is there a problem?"

"You could say that. Before we departed the Omicron system, a bioship set an intercept course for us. Despite its possessing slipstream drive it didn't bother to overtake us. Brin feels they want to see what we're doing and who we're meeting," Riker reported.

"He's probably right as usual. Have you reached any conclusions from your observations?" Johnson asked.

"A few technical points. They might come in handy," Riker shared.

"Broadcast your reports to the task force," Johnson ordered, "Then withdraw to the edge of the system. If you were followed you won't be in any position to help us if the worst should happen."

"We could..." Riker began to offer.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Captain, but it's time to admit you're outmatched," Johnson softened the blow with a warm smile, "You won't be completely out of an unexpected fight. Your sensors can help us objectively determine their capabilities."

"Yes sir," Riker turned to Miller, "Jaycee, transmit everything we have on our mystery guests."

She sent the data squirt and Danan commed the bridge, "Tom, a bioship is dropping out of slipstream at the edge of the system and it's headed for the task force."

"Head for the outer edge of the system, Rhiann," Riker grudgingly ordered. He could sense Forger's frustration as well. She'd come up through the ranks as a tactical specialist. It was only natural that she hated running from a fight.

The bioship stopped 150,000 kilometers off of the Starfleet force's bow. Johnson hailed them. He was surprised when a visual signal accompanied the reply. What he saw surprised him even more. Fortunately, Starfleet had encountered hundreds of non-humanoid lifeforms in its day. Several had even joined the UFP.

"Greetings in the name of the United Federation of Planets. I am Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson of Starfleet. I am that organization's diplomatic envoy. I wish to begin these negotiations by stating our profound regret over the actions of Captain Thrax. The captain was in violation of standing orders when he attacked you and he had no authorization to do so," Johnson began.

"There will be no ‘negotiation'," the Argyn contact specialist replied, "Your barbarism is made plain by the fact that you greet us with warships."

"We thought it best to negotiate from a position of strength," Johnson explained, "I can have the escort vessels depart the system."

"It is too late for that. Your motives are plain. You wish to attack the Omicron system and take the planet by force," the Argyn argued.

"We have no such intention. It is true that we are concerned over any potential survivors from the Endeavor. We have no hostile intent whatsoever. How can we prove that? Johnson pleaded.

"You wish to prove it?" the Argyn seemed intrigued.

"Yes," Johnson affirmed it.

"Stand by," the Argyn's image disappeared.

"Why do I feel like we just fell down the rabbit hole?" McKinley asked.

"I'm beginning to get the same impression," Johnson admitted.

"Captain, the alien vessel has raised shields and armed their weapons. I'm getting what appears to be a target lock," Lt. Commander Ian Delaney reported from tactical.

"Shields up. Arm phasers and transphasic torpedoes," McKinley ordered.

"This is how we prove our peaceful intentions?" Johnson idly wondered.

The ship shuddered. Delaney reported, "Starfleet's theory of constant remodulation of the shields seems to be working. They were only knocked back to 87% on that first shot."

"Your call, Bob," McKinney told Johnson.

"Order the task force to engage the bioship," Johnson commanded.

The rapidly remodulated phaser bursts penetrated the enemy shields. That was still too little compared to the Argyn's primary weapon. Several Starfleet ships faced imminent shield collapse. Johnson replied by authorizing release of the transphasic torpedoes.

The bioship imploded after three torpedo strikes. The Obsidian detected incoming slipstream tunnels. Johnson ordered a withdrawal and the Starfleet and SID ships warped out of the system. The Aventine pushed ahead with her slipstream drive to warn Starfleet ahead of time.

Beriel angrily confronted the Starfleet officers on Omicron, "Your people are barbarians! They are mindless and react to our gestures with violence. They don't deserve to live."

"Did you give them a chance to prove their intentions?" Hennessy angrily demanded.

"Yes," Beriel snapped, "We fired on them but they returned fire and destroyed our ship."

"That's self defense! You fired and they returned fire. How is that wrong? How are they supposed to react?" Hennessy asked.

"They are supposed to die," Beriel proclaimed.


Chapter Eight

The Aventine returned to Federation space in 2 days. The alarm went out and the 7th Fleet was mobilized from the Breen border to DS9. The Argyn arrived a day later. Even with Starfleet's superior numbers, the Argyn ships vastly outgunned them. The Argyn had spent time amongst their sister ship's death throes and knew of the transphasic warheads. They spared no effort in carving up starships before the wretched torpedoes could be launched. The battle was swift and decisive...and ultimately one sided.

Johnson's task force returned three days later to find two dozen gutted and ruined starships. Ro was stunned to see her command obliterated. She rapidly made inquiries with the Bajoran Militia and found that the survivors had been recovered and taken to Bajor by a massive operation put on by the Militia. Colonel Cenn Desca, her Militia liaison officer, was still acting in his capacity as her go between with the Bajoran government. Ro expressed her grief at the loss of life and Cenn quickly assured her that 2nd Officer Willow Meadows had done all she could to safely evacuate the station. Only Meadows and an all volunteer Tactical team had been wounded or died in the station's defense.

Ro promised him the fight wasn't over. Lt. Grozzit, her Sciences Officer, reported that 2 bioships have been slain. Tenmei trades a dour look with Ro. She knew her XO's thoughts. The only times that Starfleet had faced losses at this ratio were against the Borg and the opening months of the Dominion War. Something nagged at the back of Ro's mind, whispering for attention. Finally it leapt out and bit her and she commed Admiral Johnson.

"You're the best suited for the task, Jean-Luc," Johnson assured Picard.

"The Enterprise can..." Picard tried again only to be stopped by Johnson's raised hand.

"Captain, I need the Enterprise's vaunted scientific expertise right here examining these carcasses. We need to know what makes these creatures tick. From the reports I'm receiving from Starfleet, these creatures have carved their way through the 2nd and 4th Fleets and are headed into the Core Worlds. They're starting to strike terrestrial targets," Johnson paused there to let his words sink in.

"They're attacking civilians?" Picard's guts went cold. The Borg had just finished a genocidal campaign against the Federation. The Collective had decided that the Federation cultures were a blight rather than a resource and sought to destroy them before they could disrupt their "perfection" anymore.

What if these creatures had made a similar determination from their all too brief encounters with Starfleet? Every scrap of information that could be ascertained had to be at Starfleet Command's fingertips. They couldn't make informed, intelligent decisions otherwise.

"Very well, Admiral. My crew and I will stand by your orders. Might I suggest I also assist Bajor in dealing with the Starfleet personnel they've had to absorb?" Picard amended.

"Thank you, Captain. The Federation's fate may very well rest in your hands...once again," Johnson replied.

"That does little to warm the cockles of my heart, Admiral. I would hope that Starfleet would reach a solution as a gestalt. After all, our teamwork is our greatest asset," Picard rebutted.

"I hope so too. Until then, find out what you can," Johnson signed off. Savit, his aide, commed him, "Captain Ro is hailing you."

Johnson was intrigued. He would have thought Ro would have better things to do regarding the loss of her command than to bother him. He accepted the transmission. Ro didn't look put out or grieved, two emotions he'd expect under these circumstance. Rather, she seemed excited.

"What's on your mind, Captain?" Johnson honestly wondered.

"Admiral, what do you know of the planet Corvat?" Ro asked.

Johnson thought long and hard about it, "If memory serves, it's a colony world along the Cardassian border. When President Bacco endorsed ceding three colonies to the Cardassians, Corvat was specifically off the list. In fact, it was a Presidential mandate that we retain the world. I found it curious since it's a desert world with no valuable resources besides an abundance of kelbonite."

Ro wore a cocky grin, "Listen to me, Admiral, and I may just hand you the solution to this undeclared war. You see, Corvat has a little secret."

Johnson found her manner and her mysteries annoying, "Get to the damn point, Captain."

Ro's smile turned victorious and she shared.

Macen was unexpectedly summoned to the Intrepid. The only SID agent he was allowed to bring was Danan but he was encouraged not too so he left her behind. After he rematerialized on the Intrepid's primary transporter pad, he saw Lt. Commander Ian Delany waiting to escort him to Johnson's office.

Macen wore a wry expression, "It must be pretty bad for them to send the Chief of Security to haul my sorry butt before the admiral."

Delaney broke into an abashed smile, "Actually, Admiral Johnson wanted Savit to come and get you but I volunteered."

"Oho! Going to try and worm information regarding your fiancé out of me?" Macen chuckled.

"Something like that," Delaney shared Macen's grin.

"Lead on, Commander and I'll reveal all things Hannah Grace," Macen promised.

Savit had Macen wait for a moment while he paged the admiral. The Vulcan shared that Johnson had been in a conference with the scattered members of the Council of 5. Now he was conversing with the C-in-C. Macen fought down the urge to make a gagging sound at the mention of Edward Jellico.

Johnson's door slid aside moments later and Johnson bellowed, "Come."

Macen shot Savit a rueful look before entering. Once in, he laid it into Johnson; "I hear and obey, O Lord and Master."

"Cut the crap, Brin," Johnson urged as he massaged his temples, "One more conference call and I'm going to have Andreja put me out of my misery."

Andreja Sikorsky was the Intrepid's Chief Medical Officer. She'd served in that post near the end of then Captain Johnson's career as well. After the destruction of the Galaxy-class Intrepid, Johnson had a difficult time getting her to report to the newly commissioned Akira-class Intrepid. Sikorsky had led a medical relief team to Cardassia Prime after the close of the Dominion War. Her time there had profoundly affected her. It took a personal plea from Johnson himself to sway her.

"It's likely to be a permanent solution," Macen warned.

"Thanks God for small favors," Johnson groaned.

"Call Sickbay, Bob," Macen suggested, "Pretty soon you'll be useless if you don't."

Johnson sighed as he slumped his shoulders in defeat, "You're probably right."

He signaled Sickbay and a med tech was dispatched. Johnson pointed at a chair. Macen sat down while wearing a wry expression.

"Woof," Macen barked.

"Don't start with me," Johnson warned, "I'm liable to have you spaced."

Macen waved his hands and made an "Ooh!" expression with his mouth. Johnson gave up, "We have a few minutes before the med team arrives. Tell me what you know of Corvat."

"I know I never want to return to it," Macen immediately retorted.

"You may not have that option," Johnson said darkly.

"How'd you discover Corvat?" Macen asked.

"Ro told me. Nechayev and Akaar filled in the blanks," Johnson admitted.

"This is the best we can do?" Macen angrily asked, "Starfleet beat the bloody Borg! Few civilizations can boast that. More to the point, you convinced an even more advanced civilization to free them from the Collective. And now you want to unleash a planet killer?"

"We don't know what its true capabilities are. It's never been tested. A & A teams have scoured that planet and they haven't discovered much beyond what you and Dr. Argus uncovered. Most of what was discovered was found by you and the linguistic translation matrix you provided have given us the clues that we have," Johnson shot back.

Macen and Johnson were interrupted by the arrival of the med tech. She administered an analgesic while the admiral and the intelligence agent glared at each other. The tech beat feet out of there.

Johnson's expression softened, "Look, I can understand your qualms. If my people had built this monster I'd..."

"Who built it isn't the issue," Macen snapped, "When this thing gets loose it'll shift the balance of power. The Typhon Pact will demand to have one as well or go to war to possess it. There was a reason that Corvat wasn't used during the Dominion War. Basically everyone was afraid of how the Dominion would respond. It was estimated that they would use biogenic weapons in response to this thing. Entire planets would be killed until there were no inhabited worlds left to fight."

"We've lost five fleets. Fleets, Brin. We only have Home Fleet and the 9th Fleet left to throw at them. They've destroyed every starbase and space station they've encountered, civilian or Starfleet. They're delivering strike populations on civilian, populated areas. 7 billion people have died so far so forgive us if we want to respond in a drastic way," Johnson coldly said, "The President has issued a directive. Corvat is a go. Are you going to obey the orders of your President or are you going to sideline yourself as a conscientious objector? Think about the ramifications for your life if you opt for the latter. You'll never work for Starfleet again that's for damn sure. You'll be lucky to keep your Letter of Marque."

Macen was in a corner and he knew it, "All right. I'm in."

"Good, because we need you to operate the frinxing thing," Johnson breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'll need Taryn Argus' help," Macen stipulated.

"I ran a search on Dr. Argus. She doesn't show up on the civilian nets," Johnson admitted.

"Try the penal databases. She's interned on Yuros II. She's serving a life sentence. That should be pretty impressive for an El-Aurian," Macen's eyes were cold.

"Life?" Johnson repeated, "What was she convicted of?"

"Treason," Macen let the impact of that word sink in before continuing, "She tried to hand Corvat over to the Cardassian back in the day."

"Well, the Cardassian Union is an ally now," Johnson said weakly.

"I'd be more worried about the Typhon Pact," Macen counseled, "She has absolutely no allegiance to the Federation or the Cardassians. She can, however, buy a prestigious life within the Typhon Pact if she delivers a weapon of this scale to them."

"Can't you operate the systems without her?" Johnson held out a vague hope.

"No," Macen asserted.

"No?" Johnson was startled by the abruptness of the reply.

"No," seeing Johnson was expecting more, Macen elaborated; "The system was designed for two operators. Sort of like the Tactical and CONN stations on a starship."

Johnson grimaced, "She won't be handling the guns will she?"

"No, she'll be on navigation. We just need to find a way to encourage her to fly where we want her too," Macen shared, "I have a feeling Rab and Jenrya are going to provide lots of motivation."

"Ro can provide support as well. I'm sending her and the Defiant with you," Johnson decided, "Dax can have the Aventine pick up and deliver Argus. Hev, Prine, and Limerick can assist us in getting the hostiles attention and lead them to an ambush point."

"How about the Genesis system?" Macen suggested, "The only things out there are the planetoid Regula, the research station Regula I and it's decommissioned, and the remains of the Genesis planet and the remaining edges of the Mutara Nebula. It's big, empty, and out of the way."

"How long would you need to move Corvat from its current location to Genesis?" Johnson wondered.

"My people possessed a temporal drive that could take the planet there nearly instantaneously," Macen reminded Johnson.

"I also know what the price of that drive is so hopefully it doesn't have one and we need to start lining people up on the chopping block," Johnson commented.

"I don't recall any signs of a temporal drive. I think the system was built before my people harnessed that technology," Macen recalled, "That means it should still have a slipstream drive."

Johnson gave Macen a baleful look, "Your people have been in possession of slipstream tech all this time?"

"Yeah, so?" Macen wondered.

"Brin, we've been working on that drive system for sixty years, ever since we finally gave up on transwarp coils," Johnson admonished his friend.

"What did you want me to do about it? I'm no engineer," Macen defended himself, "Besides my people have an admonition against interference akin to the Prime Directive."

Johnson hung his head in defeat and pointed at the door, "Go."

"You're sure?" Macen inquired.

"Get out of here and set course for Corvat," Johnson ordered.

Macen sprang out of his chair, "See ya!"

"Waitaminute!" Johnson yelped, "When did you become so eager to complete this assignment?"

"If I preserve the Federation, then I preserve my own long term goals," Macen explained, "I also have a potential solution in mind for the Corvat problem when this is said and done."

"Being what?" Johnson probed.

Macen grinned, "I'll tell you later."

He exited and Johnson felt his recently relieved headache returning.

Before departing, Macen made certain that an evacuation effort was underway on Corvat. There were only two million settlers. With the temporary assistance of the Enterprise and the Bajoran Traders Guild most of the people were being moved. President Bacco also enlisted the aid of the Cardassians. While the Cardassian Militia wouldn't be involved, the Trade Conclave would assist.

The Cardassians were angry over the proposed activation of Corvat. Bacco had informed the delegates of all the Khitomer Accord nations. The Klingons and the Ferengi were just as apprehensive as the Cardassians. The non-aligned stellar nations were being left out of the loop until everything was after the fact. Now it was time to inform the Typhon Pact.

Ambassador Tezrene reported to Bacco's office already bristling. She knew the Tholian shared her race's common xenophobia. It had taken quite a push to secure the Tholian Assembly's participation in the Pact but they were a bulwark member. Their ability to access long abandoned Shedai technology made them a power to be reckoned with.

"Why am I here?" Tezrene demanded. Her actual voice was highly pitched harmonic shriek. Her translator toned it down somewhat but the apprehension was still there.

Bacco offered the Tholian a wintry smile. Tezrene represented all of the members of the Typhon Pact at once. They were a polyglot not unlike the Federation. However the Federation sought to expand its borders through peaceful means. The Pact had no such compunction. Even their ambassador was chosen for her obstinacy.

"I'd offer you a seat, Ambassador, but I'm afraid we don't have any that can suit your frame," Bacco said.

The six limbed Tholian bristled. Obviously the Terran woman had brought her here to mock her. Well, she'd be having none of that!

"I demand we get to business, Madame President. If there is such a thing," Tezrene huffed.

"All right," Bacco leaned forward across her desk and slid a padd large enough to accommodate Tezrene's claws across its surface, "We're activation Corvat."

"What is ‘Corvat' and what is its significance?" Tezrene wondered. Was this some kind of trick?

"Corvat is one of our colony worlds," Bacco explained, "It's also a weapon capable of destroying entire planets and possibly stars as well."

"I think I'd best peruse your documents," Tezrene deferred comment. She scooped up the padd and began scrolling through its data. As she read, she began to visibly tremble. The further she got in her reading the worse her tremors got.

And that's with the environmental suit hiding most of it, Bacco thought. Aloud, she commented; "I thought it best to keep your governments apprised since we are experiencing diplomatic difficulties right now."

Bacco knew that most of those recent difficulties had stemmed from the Breen planting an agent within the Utopia Planetia Yards and sabotaging the yard works in order to escape via a Romulan Warbird. The Breen had subsequently attempted to build a slipstream capable craft from the stolen plans. Starfleet Intelligence had inserted two agents into Breen society.

The Breen Confederacy had been revealed as a multi-racial society that hides their identities in order to avoid any form of favoritism. The agents, one Julian Bashir and one Sarina Douglas, successfully sabotaged the database storing the plans and destroyed the prototype ship. All that with a clean getaway.

The Breen knew what had happened but they couldn't prove it. That left them back in the position of a Cold War adversary playing shadowy games against their opponent.

Bashir and Douglas had come to the attention of the President's Office. Bashir was a Commander in Starfleet's Medical Division, hardly a place to look for a secret agent. Douglas was an official SI operative, which meant all of her records listed her as a civilian researcher. Perhaps the most surprising part of the affair was that both participants were genetically enhanced.

Records and test showed that Douglas' mental acuity was even greater than Bashir's and he was no slouch. They'd managed to integrate into society though, a rare feat for the genetically "superior". One might say Bashir had even infiltrated Starfleet by posing as a normal human for years before being discovered. He'd been CMO of DS9 ever since Starfleet took over Terok Nor and administered it for the Bajorans. Douglas was also now based out of DS9, or at least would be again once the station was replaced with a new one. If that option were handed to Starfleet.

"This an abomination!" Tezrene shrieked again.

"I quite agree. Which is why it's been held in reserve as a weapon of last resort," Bacco replied.

"You have had this in reserve?" Tezrene was aghast.

"It was discovered in the Earth year 2373. We've been storing the computer node that controls the whole thing in a weapons depot. We almost activated it at the end against the Borg but a core group of our best officers managed to save the day," Bacco described the situation, "Those same officers have attempted to communicate with our present adversary and have met with little success. They seem as intent on destroying us as the Borg were."

"Good for them," Tezrene would have spat is she were capable of the gesture, "You do realize that this weapon shifts the balance of power in your favor? My governments cannot allow that. You'd best beseech whatever deity you claim that these beings utterly wipe you out of the stars for if they do not, we shall."

"I don't think it will come to that," Bacco advised her, "Once we've eliminated the threat, we will deactivate the weapon once again."

"Deactivation is not enough," Tezrene warned, "It must either be destroyed or we must have parity. There are no other paths to peace and you claim to cherish peace."

Bacco felt the sting in the Tholian's words. The Federation did espouse peace as one of its highest goals but simple survival had to come before that. Surely the Typhon Pact could see that? If the Pact attacked en masse they'd surely mow through Starfleet's crippled reserves. The mothball fleets were being reactivated but they'd last been used in the Dominion War and sat idle ever since.

Plus there was a reason why these ships had been decommissioned. They were simply too old to go head to head with the Typhon Pact's best and brightest. Plus, the Starfleet Reserves had been called into service, both Active and Inactive branches. The only upside was that these part-time officers actually served aboard the Reserve Fleets when those ships were new. But it would take two more days to mobilize them. Could the sparse resources of the Federation hold out that long?

"I'll make a counter proposal," Bacco had a wild idea, "You come to our rescue and you can help us destroy Corvat when we're done."

Surprisingly, Tezrene didn't have a knee jerk reaction that that. It was a bold step for the diplomat. Instead she motioned with her claw holding the oversized padd, "May I keep this?"

"The information is intended to be dispersed amongst your representative governments so that you can reach a consensus regarding my offers," Bacco graciously allowed.

"Know this: there will only be one consensus. You will either destroy this monstrosity or hand it over to us," Tezrene demanded.

Bacco's back stiffened, "And you will know this: I will gladly destroy Corvat after we have dissuaded these mysterious attackers of ours from destroying us. I welcome your governments to participate in, and observe, the destruction process. However, know this as well: I will never hand Corvat over to you. This weapon possesses too much power to be wielded by your nation-states."

"Or by you," Tezrene countered.

"I think this meeting is concluded," Bacco decided, "Please inform me of your governments' decision as soon as you are able."

"I will be most pleased to throw this back at you," Tezrene confessed.

Bacco's Chief of Security showed Tezrene out. Waiting in the antechamber were Piniero and Shostakova. Bacco had them sent in.

Piniero wore the same insufferable smirk that she habitually wore every time Bacco dealt with the Typhon pact's representative. Bacco glared at her.

"Wipe that damn smile off of your face, Eppy. It went just as badly as expected," Bacco groused.

"So they're marching over the borders and coming down our throats?" Shostakova dryly inquired.

Bacco wore a pained expression, "Maybe not that bad."

"But they want it," Piniero guessed correctly.

"Yes, they want it," Bacco confirmed the worst.

"And you said...?" Piniero asked.

"I used polite speak for ‘go to hell'," Bacco replied.

"And it wasn't lost in the translation?" Shostakova wondered.

"Oh, she got it," Bacco assured her SecDef.

"And our allies won't help us?" Piniero asked in disgust.

"They're afraid of pissing these things off. I can't say I blame them," Bacco retorted.

"So, our ‘A' Plan is still a ‘Go'?" Shostakova wanted to know.

"Tell Admiral Jellico to give them hell," Bacco informed her.

"And the Argus woman?" Piniero brought up yet another topic best avoided.

"Give her a full pardon. Whatever it takes to get her in position on time," Bacco grumped.

"The Legal staff will be bringing by a document to authorize," Piniero warned, "You could make it a conditional pardon."

"And make her think we don't trust her?" Bacco sarcastically quipped, "Give her a full pardon even though we all know this bitch will turn on us the moment it suits her."

"I sure hope you know what you're doing," Piniero voiced.

"Me too," Bacco sighed.


Proceed to Part II


Last modified: 02 Jan 2023