Mission Archives: Season 2

Episode 9: Do No Harm

Chapter 1: Centennial
Chapter 21: Diplomatic Maneuvering
Chapter 2: Scientific Dilemmas
Chapter 22: The Curse of an Open Hand
Chapter 3: Doomsday
Chapter 23: Echos and Stardust
Chapter 4: Meanwhile, Back in the Alpha Quadrant
Chapter 24: Hope and Virtue
Chapter 5: A Tricky Diagnosis
Chapter 25: Innocent Pursuits
Chapter 6: Of Flesh and Metal
Chapter 26: Blood on Red Sands
Chapter 7: Opportunities
Chapter 27: Turning the Tide
Chapter 8: Operation Salvation
Chapter 28: The Closed Fist
Chapter 9: Dinner with Delores
Chapter 29: Public Relations
Chapter 10: Viral Thoughts
Chapter 30: At Journey's End
Chapter 11: Come What May
Chapter 31: Power of the Press
Chapter 12: Do No Harm
Chapter 32: Grethig-Kindra
Chapter 13: Film at Eleven
Chapter 33: Misguided Optimism
Chapter 14: Opportunity Knocks
Chapter 34: Fragments of the Heart
Chapter 15: Interlude
Chapter 35: Desperation and Consequences
Chapter 16: Into the Breach
Chapter 36: Intersections in Real Time
Chapter 17: Aspirations and Assumptions
Chapter 37: Fate, Destiny, or Whatever Else
Chapter 18: Assets and Ascertainments
Chapter 38: Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 19: Privilege of Rank
Chapter 39: Shades of Gray
Chapter 20: Time Neither Waits, Nor Hurries    

 

Like the prow of an ancient sailing ship, the bow of the mighty ship cut through the interstellar dust clouds that co-mingled to make up the Ash'aar nebula. Gliding across the silent void with grace and purpose, the substantial vessel cast out harmless beams of sensor energy in all directions. The data accumulated as a result scrolled across the consoles of the men and women who worked and lived within, yet nothing of particular interest piqued their abundant curiosity. Those same electronic signals did however arouse the interests of the men and women aboard a small scout concealed within an unusually thick pocket of stellar particles. Through learned covert discretion, they used those same signals to gather information about the new comers while avoiding discovery.

The commander of the scout was an old man by his people's standards; having been born over one-third of a century ago, he had been in his youth when the world had fallen down around him. He had seen what his world once looked like before the skies had become gray with ash, the ground black with death, the rivers orange with blood. Had seen the promise presented by travel amongst the stars, had even dreamed of pursuing a career in stellar exploration. Instead, he had spent every year after his tenth fighting for the survival of himself and his people. Only now that they had prevailed in battle had they ventured back out beyond their world; but not to explore. Exploration was a lofty luxury that, if his world survived the next decade, he hoped his grandchildren might be able to enjoy.

The only reason to return to the stars now was to defend against any others who might threaten those few of his world who had survived.

"What do you make of it, Tor? Is it Centennial?" the commander asked from the astro-nav console as he re-aligned the stabilization dials.

"I hope the drek not. That thing's about ten epochs larger than the Centennial arc itself." replied his 13-year-old subordinate, the ship's scan-tech.

"Watch your mouth," Karu chastened, forgetting for a moment that Tor, though a subordinate, was still a colleague. He had always had trouble with entrusting anyone of such youth with positions of responsibility; his generation had been kept out of the actual combat until they were of age; of age being 20 years old in those days. Those ideals had faded shortly after, when the Centennial had ceased to show mercy to youth by using them as a slave work force rather than slaughtering them with their elder siblings, parents, and grandparents. "And tell me something I don't already know. I've read it's dimensions, I need to know it's disposition."

"I'm trying, but these signals are all over the place. None of it makes any drekking-" Tor stopped abruptly, catching himself, "-sense. Sorry." he offered. In truth, Karu had no place telling him how he should or shouldn't speak. It had been the father in him that had snapped at Tor, not the commander. 'You're not a father anymore, though,' he reminded himself bitterly. To loose a child was said to be the worst thing any individual could experience. Karu had lost four over the course of his life. One at birth, two in combat, and the last to the illness that now continued the Centennial's slaughter in the shadow of it's downfall.

"Show me." Karu ordered, edging over in his seat to look over Tor's shoulder at his indicator meters.

Adjusting the knobs and dials below the indicators, Tor pointed to one particular indicator - the one that measured subspace energy - and furrowed his brow. "How does a ship produce multiple independent subspace emissions?" he asked rhetorically. "The only subspace energy that thing should be giving off is from it's propulsion. But I'm getting subspace results from their scan-beams, and a third type that I can't even begin to make sense out of." Tor explained. "And then there's this," the youth continued, adjusting another dial, "No radio emissions. What kind of a craft doesn't have any radio antennae or transmissions? How do they communicate?" Tor questioned.

For a moment, Karu felt sorry for his young colleague as he realized the potential Tor had as an outright explorer. As he always did when such trivial thoughts took hold of him, though, he brushed passed them. 'Live in the moment or die in the moment,' he told himself, recalling the mantra of one of his own commanders, 'the worst thing you can do under fire is think too hard. Just act or you may never get the chance.'

"What's that?" Karu asked, ignoring the ship's apparent lack of communication abilities and focusing instead on an atmospheric monitor.

"Environmental indicator." Tor said, his eyes growing wide with wonder. With all the other confusing readings, he hadn't even noticed that one before. "A Centennial ship would never have atmosphere! There must be people on board, like us!" Tor proclaimed, his youthful exuberance cracking his tone of voice. "Maybe they can help us!" Tor thought aloud before he could consider it.

"No! Absolutely not!" Karu snapped harshly, shutting Tor down before he could pose an argument. "Order 01-A; no contact with any other persons, places, or things, under any circumstance, without prior and explicit approval of the protectorate assembly." Karu quoted. Easing his own tone, he offered the explanation he knew he didn't have to, the explanation Tor knew as well as everyone else aboard. "We know nothing about these people. If they even are people. They could just be machines like the Centennial's, only these need atmosphere. And even if they are flesh and bone, they're still a massive risk our people cannot afford."

"I know, I know!" Tor responded, feeling and looking defeated, frustrated and chastised - which only made him look more his age.

Turning back to his own neglected astro-nav console, Karu adjusted the pitch lever and angle dial, compensating for their drift. He felt bad for Tor, for so many reasons. Now, most of all, for having trampled upon the idealistic hopes of youth, just as his own idealistic dreams had been crushed by his first commander. He wanted to say something to ease the blow he had just delivered to Tor, but couldn't come up with anything that didn't sound forced or fatherly.

"Uh, Karu..." Tor said, trailing off.

"Listen Tor, I didn't mean to be so harsh, I just meant-" Karu began. He stopped abruptly as the approach alarm began to flash and wail. Snapping his attention back to his controls, he checked the proximity detector and blanched. The behemoth of a stellar craft they had been so observant of from their position of cover was all but on top of them. How it was possible was beyond Karu's wildest theorizing. "Nothing that big should move that fast, even in a vacuum!" he shouted out, realizing as he did that an edge of fear had crept into his voice. "How the hell did we not see it coming-" Karu questioned, stopping suddenly as the light-speed propulsion unit's overload began to chime in.

"Veneth to Karu! What the drek is going on up there!?" asked his mechanic through the intercom from the engine room.

"Never mind that! What's wrong with the engine matrix!?" Karu shot back as he adjusted their position in reverse, trying in what he knew to be a vain attempt to avoid being seen by the massive vessel now less than a tepoch distant and still closing.

"The matrix is fine! The alarm's are just drekked up!" Veneth shouted.

"How is that possible?!" Karu asked, trying to make sense of so many confusing things at once.

"Drek if I know! But if the matrix was overloading, I'd be pretty dead and crispy by now!" Veneth replied.

Amidst the wail of alarms and the incomprehensible scanner readings, the random realization that Tor had likely picked up his own vulgarity from Veneth occurred to Karu. It was perhaps the most unimportant thing in the universe that he should be thinking about at this moment in time. They had been spotted by an alien craft, his ship was behaving like a feral gralun in heat, and through his failure as a commander, he may well be the unwitting fool responsible for bringing another apocalypse upon his race. All the mattered now was that he carry out his final duty. Entering an access code into the computer prompt, he released the locks to the only control lever in the cramped control room that had never been thrown.

"Karu, wait!" shouted Tor.

"There's no time! This is the only chance our people have!" Karu shouted back as he reached for the bright orange lever that would, when pulled, reverse the light-speed matrix alignment and cause the ship's destruction.

"Drekking listen to me, old man!" Tor insisted, putting his own hand on the destruct switch, intent on fighting Karu if he tried to pull it. "You may be my commander, you may be twice my age, you may be a father and a veteran, but you're also blind and stubborn! Just like the assembly! You're not ignorant like them, though! You're a smart man with a mind of his own! That's why you're out here instead of in the assembly chamber! So listen to me for one minute before you condemn us, and just maybe, all of our people in the process!"

So stunned by Tor's outburst was Karu that he drew his hand back from the destruct switch without even realizing it. For his part, Tor took advantage of the moment and said his peace.

"A quarter-century ago, our people leapt out into the stars faster than light itself. The first and only thing we found outside of our world was a machine, a being, an artificial intelligence that spent two decades trying to exterminate us. Because of that one expedition, because of that one encounter, nine billion people died. And now, after we've beaten the damned thing, we hide in fear of what else might be out there. What other terrors amongst the stars might try to finish the job. We're so scared of what else might hurt us, though, no body ever stopped to wonder what might help us." Tor argued.

Before Karu had a chance to consider Tor's words though, another voice spoke out. It was one Karu didn't recognize, in a language he had never heard. It was coming from their transmitter; from the alien ship.

"Talk to them, Karu," Tor urged. "I know it's a risk, I know it's against everything we know. But it was against everything we know to engineer a cyber-virus to fight the Centennial; and that risk rewarded us with victory and salvation."

As the voice spoke again, repeating the words it had said a moment ago, Karu felt something within him surge. Something he hadn't felt since before he was Tor's age. Hope. Not even when the Centennial had fallen had he felt it. Something in the alien's voice, though... something in Tor's words... something had awoken the hope buried deep within him. Moving his hand to the transmitter button, he hesitated for a moment before finally pressing it. Words did not come easy to him, though. So he said what little he could think of...

"...My name is Karu. My people... my world is dying. Can you help us?"

He knew the aliens would never understand him. He hoped though, that in the same way he had sensed something in the alien's voice, they too might sense something in his. He didn't expect a response; not one he could understand. But he got one.

"This is Captain Kimberly Roth of the Starship Republic..."

Karu's mind raced with questions as he listened to the alien female and found that he actually understood her words as if they were his own. How could such a thing be possible? How could an alien speak their language? How could they even be communicating when their own scans had shown the alien craft lacking in radio emissions or antennae? So many questions raced through his mind. The questions an explorer would ask; not the questions of a combat commander. 'The worst thing you can do under fire is think too hard,' he reminded himself. Even though they were not truly engaged in combat, he hastened to treat this situation as such, despite his hopes. Hopes that he was risking his entire world's fate upon.

"...How can we be of assistance?" asked the alien female Roth - or at least, she sounded feminine to his ear. Perhaps they did not have genders. Perhaps they had more than two. Again, he pushed those questions away and focused.

He could see the amazed expression on Tor's face, knew the same questions - and likely a hundred more - were running through the youth's mind. He could see another form of hope in the youth's eyes as well, distant as it may be. A hope that salvation lay with these strangers. That by the time Tor reached Karu's age, the fear of what lay beyond their horizon might not be an overwhelming thing that quashed the dreams of so many who looked up at the stars and wondered. For Tor's sake, and for his two young grandchildren who had lost their respective parents - his children - in the final battle against the Centennial, Karu let hope guide him.

"You can understand me?" he asked, yielding that curiosity to also be a question of reason. It made little sense to try to explain such complex issues if he could not be understood in the same way he had understood them.

"Yes, we can." answered the alien. "We're equipped with a device that allows us to decipher and translate languages rapidly." the alien explained.

Fascinated as he was by such a device, he did not inquire about it. It was irrelevant at the moment. "I am the commander of this vessel. Our mission is one of defense, and of concealment. You're detection of us violated that protocol. Our policy in that event is to sacrifice ourselves in the hope that we might not lead another enemy back to our home. I am violating that protocol by even breathing right now, and certainly by communicating with you. However... as I said, our world is dyeing. Someone recently pointed out to me..." he continued, glancing at Tor briefly, "that we are so clouded with fear of what else might try to harm us, we have not allowed ourselves to wonder... what might help us. Or who." Karu explained.

After a moment silence, the voice of Roth returned. Her new, more somber tone, seemed genuine. "I'm very sorry to hear of your people's situation, and I apologize if our approach startled you. It wasn't our intention. You see, we too have encountered beings who would do us harm, though thankfully, the great majority of our encounters with other beings have been peaceful. That's why we're out here. Our mission is to make peaceful contact with new species. We're explorers. You're concealment within this pocket of nebular gas piqued both our curiosity and, to a degree, our concerns." the alien - Roth - said. "I'm curious what exactly is the nature of the danger posed to your people?"

Now it was Karu's turn to hesitate. His internal struggle between hope and caution was raging full on, with no resolution in sight. "That is a very... long story. One that, to be honest, I am hesitant to share with someone whom I know nothing of. I appreciate that you appear to be open to assisting us, but, our only other contact from beyond our world caused over 9 billion deaths. I can not risk exposing my people to anything else. I must know more about you before I can share anything of us." Karu answered. He could see the doubt in Tor's young face. It was obviously not what the scan-tech would have said in his place. He was far too young to understand the true gravity of that which presently occurred, though. His hope may have convinced Karu to take the initial risk of contact, but it would not blind him to caution.

"I can understand your reluctance," Roth offered, her tone seeming to soften in the specific knowledge of so many deaths. "Perhaps if we were to meet, face to face, if you were to see our ship, you would feel more assured."

Intrigued as he was by the idea, Karu knew it could not be. "I am afraid that can not be. Our ships have been designed specifically to repel any who might try to board us. The only hatch aboard has been sequenced with a volatile explosive locking mechanism, designed to ensure the destruction of our databanks - indeed, our entire ship - in the event we are somehow captured. It can only be disarmed at our orbital facility."

After aother long pause, the alien woman Roth's voice returned. "We have a technology... a device which allows us to convert matter to energy, and back again. I realize the concept of such might be... frightening. However, it's a technology we have used for nearly two centuries with great success. If you are willing, we can remove you from within your vessel, and deposit you on ours, in virtually the blink of an eye, with no harm to you or your ship."

Before Karu could offer a reply either way, Tor interjected. "Let me go, Karu. Send me."

Flicking the switch that muted the audio outputs, Karu shook his head from side to side. "We have already taken too many grave risks, I will not take more based on... fantasy!"

"I'm willing to take the risk, Karu. I'm willing to risk my life for this." Tor shot back, the stubborn teenager that he was showing itself.

"Well I am not so willing and eager to send you to that death, scan-tech." Karu replied harshly. Perhaps too harshly.

"Think about it, Karu! If they can do what they claim, they would be ten times as advanced as the Centennial was. Twenty times as advanced as we are. Think of what other wonders they might have. How such things might be able to help us. We've come this far... why stop now? What do our people have to loose by playing this out other than a slow and painful collective death?" Tor argued with passion.

Karu had to face the reality that the young scan-tech was right. They did have nothing left to loose. As much as his instincts told him to use caution, he was tired of hiding and running after so many years. It would take action now to save his people. Drastic action. No longer could they wait and see, and allow fear and caution to rule them. Not here, not now, not ever again. They had fought for twenty years to preserve their species and to free their world from the Centennial. If it they died now, though, it would be in part because of their own inaction. He refused to be complicit in the deaths of the last of his race.

Flicking the audio output switch back again, a look of new found determination masking his features, he addressed the alien Roth. "There are four of us aboard my craft. Is your device able to remove us all?" he questioned.

"Yes, it is." Roth answered.

Karu knew what he must do. What risks he must now take. Looking at the orange destruct lever, he queried Roth again. "How long does the process require?"

"Seconds. Once you give the word, you'll be aboard before you know it." Roth informed him.

That was all Karu needed to know. Tor's eye has followed his to the destruct switch, and he could see the look of concern across the youth's face. He offered him both reassurance that his intent was not the obvious, and warning to say nothing that might alert Roth. For his part, the youth maintained silence as he prepared himself as best he could for the experience of a lifetime. A difficulty to be sure, since he had no idea what to expect or how to prepare to be converted to pure energy and back again.

"Very well, Roth. Please begin." he requested.

In the next moment, he felt a change in the air. The temperature seemed to dip a kelaak or two in an instant. The air seemed to become charged with static electricity. The sensation common to a limb deprived of appropriate blood flow seemed to cascade across his body, and it became bathed in an aura of blue and white particles smaller than an individual cell, yet still distinguishable to his eyes. Before his body lost all substance of matter, Karu pulled down upon the orange destruct level with all his might. As his vision clouded into a haze of white light, the contrast of orange alert lights bathed the cramped cockpit. Part of him expected death. When his vision cleared though, such was not what greeted him.

The room in which Karu now stood was unlike anything he had ever imagined. Light seemed to radiate from everything. The muted green hues of the walls and blue of the carpets off-set by the colorful graphics of a computer control. Glancing around to either side, he found himself in the front of his crew. Tor to his left, his mechanic Veneth to his right, and his sci-med advisor Teya behind him. She appeared to most startled of all, as she had been off shift and likely resting. Turning his attention back to the room, he zeroed in on it's other occupants. It suddenly occurred to Karu as if he had been struck by thunder's light that he was standing face to face with an alien.

"Bridge to Transporter Room Two, do you have them?" asked the familiar voice of Roth, concern and alarm evident.

"Affirmative, Captain. Our guests are aboard." replied a tall man of equal height and build to Karu. For all intents and purposes, he was not so alien as Karu might have envisioned. His hair was shorter, his ears were certainly strange, and his face was hairless, and his skin seemed very pale, but otherwise, he was very similar to any other Ash'aarian Karu had ever seen. "Commander Karu, I presume?" the man asked him. Karu could only nod in affirmation, so in shock was he by everything.

"That was amazing!" shouted Tor, his voice cracking with age. "Can we do it again?" Tor impertinently asked the alien.

"No" was the common response of the alien and of Karu; though the alien's tone was laced with amusement and Karu's with irritation.

"I'm afraid something has happened, we're not sure why... you're vessel seems to have... exploded." the alien man informed them.

"I'm aware of that," Karu replied, "I felt it prudent to destroy my vessel. This device of yours... I feared if it could remove us with such ease, it might allow your people to be placed aboard in turn. Protecting the information within the databanks and preventing an unknown alien species from finding our world unless I so choose was of critical importance." he offered in his own defense, despite not truly needing to.

"I see." replied the alien man without any indication of his true feelings on the matter. "Well that was certainly you're prerogative. It wasn't necessary, I assure you, but... it was your decision to make." he judged. "Though, if you choose not to trust us, how will you and your people return home?" the man inquired.

"We do not." replied Teya, stepping forward. "Our lives are nothing compared to the security of Ash'aar."

Karu thought to silence his sci-med advisor, but elected not to. Teya was a vocal isolationist. To awake from her slumber on the deck of an alien vessel and learn their own had been destroyed by Karu's own hand was beyond unacceptable to her. Still, her answer had been the truth, so Karu let it stand.

"Well, I realize that this must all seem a little overwhelming, but, if you'd all follow me, Captain Roth will be waiting for us in the briefing room." said the alien man as he gestured towards the door. In response, the door parted down the middle, much to Tor's shock. Karu of course was old enough to remember such devices from his own youth, but Tor had rarely encountered an actual door in his short life - let alone one that opened itself. As the alien man lead them out into the corridor, Teya placed a firm hand upon Karu's arm, holding him back. "What you have done..."

"What I have done," Karu interrupted, "is what I felt best as commander." he stated, his intentions clear. His people had a tradition of obedience to one's commander or death at said commander's hand, and Karu made it plain to Teya that such was still very much the case, even here aboard and alien vessel.

"What you have done, Karu, is destroy out world." Teya proclaimed. Without waiting for a response, or for her commander, she moved out into the corridor to follow the alien man, Tor, and Veneth.

Looking after her for a moment, Karu wondered if she was right before moving to follow after them.

The Republic, being a Galaxy-Class starship, was not a single-role austere space vessel with only the bare essentials to maintain its crew. By her very design, she was intended to provide a multi-faceted environment for the 1000-plus inhabitants on extended missions in deep space. Each living compartment was borderline luxurious by common Federation standards, and the facilities available to the crew for relaxation and mental stimulation were many. For most non-Starfleet crewmembers, being assigned to a vessel like the Republic was similar to a prolonged vacation, and they were often the envy of family and friends. It was for these reasons that the Galaxy-Class was favored as a diplomatic platform to alien species as well as a preferential inspection candidate by high-ranking flag officers. For when it came to comfort and leisure, no ship class like the Republic and her sisters could be matched.

Leon's five-day mandatory reprieve from sickbay was well spent, interrupted only by a brief physical in order to return Nat Hawk to duty, and for that, a medical kit coupled by a stopover in the lieutenant's quarters was all that was required. Otherwise, the doctor spent his time as far away from the Starfleet crew as he could. His first stop was at the Cetacean facilities where he joined the ship's oceanographer, Susan Hayworth, in preparing the artificial reef system for residency by a delegation of ambassadors from Pacifica due to visit in the next few months. Next, he spent some time in the arboretum's desert biome, where he enjoyed an afternoon helping Miss Henderson's elementary school class plant some Saguaro seedlings for their lesson on CAM photosynthesis. During that time, Leon was invited to speak to several members of the senior secondary school class about their shared interests in the medical profession, and he topped off his mini-vacation by spending his last day perusing the ship's stores for belated birthday presents and trinkets for friends and acquaintances back in the alpha quadrant.

Perhaps not so surprising, Doctor Cromwell completely avoided the holodeck.

On his first night back to work, Leon showed up at 2400 for gamma shift. He still retained his usual, ivory turtleneck sweater in lieu of a uniform, and while the rest of the staff had planned a surprise "welcome-back-to-Starfleet" party for him, the doctor caught wind of it and abruptly switched his work hours thus avoiding it, much to the disappointment of his peers. As he walked into sickbay, absent was the doctor's open-book, grouchy demeanor that his comrades came to know and depend upon to bring amusement to their work. In it's place was a more subdued Leon: Staying to himself, and offering the merest glint of a hello before briskly walking to his office and shutting the door behind him. This change in attitude was unsettling for many, as their CMO had overcome many obstacles in recent weeks, not the least of which was passing the bridge test and being offered an honor that few individuals could ever hope to ever achieve: becoming a fully-fledged, command-grade Starfleet bridge officer. Despite that accomplishment, he acted like nothing had happened, and in fact, appeared to be eschewing the accolade altogether.

Inside the office, Leon expelled a deep breath that he had, up until that moment, been unaware he was holding. He stood by the door, scanning his office. Upon a superficial review, he felt confident that everything was were he had left it a week ago, and proceeded to sit down at his desk.

"Coffee. Three cc's of sucrose," he announced to the beverage dispenser in the corner, and as he swiveled around in his chair, Leon retrieved a newly-replicated, steaming mug from the dispenser carafe.

In silence, he spent a few minutes sipping from the vessel with both hands, enjoying the warmth of the mug and a moment of solitude. His eyes stared beyond the walls of the office, and Leon's mind wandered into nothingness, lowering the burden of conscious thought before a metallic glint caught his attention. A stoic face turned to a curious frown as Leon noticed his desk placard had been altered. Normally, it was a black-on-white nameplate that read "Dr. Leon Cromwell, MD", but as he looked at it now, the nameplate was changed to a gold strip of engraved metal that read roughly the same as the previous label, except that "Dr." was replaced with "LTCR". Angrily, Leon grabbed the device off the surface, and was about to toss it across the room until he noticed that the suffix had also changed: "MD" was replaced with "MD, PhD".

As quickly as the flash of anger arrived, so it subsided. Leon reviewed the gift from his subordinates with closer scrutiny due to the thoughtfulness of their actions, and embarrassment that he might had broken the gift in a moment of selfish fury. He mused over the reflective surface, admiring the workmanship, and without noticing, rubbed the "PhD" a few times before placing it back on the desk. With a sigh of both nostalgia and surrender, he glanced at the gift one last time before turning to the computer console to review the medical logs from the past week.

It had been almost a year and a half since he had been aboard the Bremerton, and Leon had nearly forgotten that part of his life. He was a scientist -- and it took an obscure piece of etched alloy to remind him of that.

Normally, when he put on his "doctor's hat", Leon's policy was to drop the "PhD" from his idiom to remove the impression that he was an stuffy, uncaring armchair MD. Bedside manner was important in the medical profession, and before Republic, his medical skills were called upon for only brief instances since the end of the Dominion War. However, since the recall to Starfleet, and subsequent posting to the Republic, being a medical doctor was his only job description. Anything else was a self-delusional luxury that could not be afforded while managing what amounted to a small, warp-capable hospital in deep space.

Leon sighed again as he reviewed the medical logs:

Nat Hawk's case was still open, but since he went back to duty, all there was to do was monitor him remotely. While Leon's inclination was to hover around him like a mother hen, he knew that Nat wouldn't go for it, as he made it plainly clear that he hated hospitals.

Commander Carter's one-month post-operative physical was due for his eye. "Why bother?" Leon grumbled to himself, knowing full well that John disliked visits to the doctor's office just as much as Nat.

Due to personal religious beliefs, Ensign Kolanii from transporter control continued to refuse treatment for his post-pubescent hormonal imbalance, despite the fact that his disproportionate body growth, development of large horny protrusions from his fore-head, and of excessive integumental scaling on his skin, was scaring the blazes out of the crews' civilian family members.

Petty Officer Hildabrant's elderly mother still won't submit to a geriatric exam because 'those damned doctors are nothing but a bunch of ignorant sadists.

Lieutenant Getty's wife has submitted a request to forgo having her baby in sickbay because she wants all-natural childbirth, and doesn't trust the ship's medical staff to 'do it right.'

The final entry broke the straw on Leon?s back:

Captain Roth has refused her in-processing physical for a fifth time since reporting onboard with the recurrent excuse of a "schedule conflict."

"That does it," he bellowed to himself. In one swift keystroke, he closed all the medical files on his computer and sat back in his chair with arms folded. His enthusiasm for the medical profession had just reached a new low.

He glared at the blank screen for a moment, his face contorted into a scowl. After a minute, his expression softened and he let out an audible sigh. Leon was not satisfied with his current situation in life, and was not able to come to a conclusion as to why. He had thought that a successful completion of the bridge officer's test would bring about some sort of renaissance in his attitude; that it would solve his feelings of uselessness and apprehension. It didn't.

Leon's eyes once again wandered the room. He gazed upon a picture of the spaceship Bremerton; a gift given to him from the crew nearly a year and a half ago. "For Loyalty and Dedicated Service" it read below the photograph. Nostalgia washed across the doctor's face as he thought back to his yearlong cruise aboard the research vessel. "Damn them," he whispered, recalling how he was pulled away from his research due to the Starfleet reactivation orders issued by Admirals Janeway and Krockover.

He was a scientist, and Leon felt that no one gave him credit for it. While he longed to be spending more time pursuing research in the life sciences field, the powers that be preferred him to stay where he was: old Doc Cromwell with his box of tongue depressors. Resentment, which had already taken up residence, had tightened its cold claws on Leon's heart.

A moment passed where Leon seriously entertained the thought of resignation. While there had been brief moments in the past where he felt like he "belonged" on Republic, recent events suggested otherwise. Yes, he had friends here, but deep in the pit of his stomach, there was the feeling that it simply wasn't enough.

Surreal. That was the only word that seemed appropriate to everything he and his crew had seen and learned aboard the mighty Starship Republic during the past few hours. Though he found much of what he had been told difficult to believe, the physical evidence provided to back up many other unbelievable claims was forcing Karu to contemplate the stark reality of everything he had been presented. The concept that the Republic was one vessel of thousands like her, part of an organization built upon exploration with a reluctant duty of protection, attached to a greater government founded upon shared culture and knowledge that united hundreds of species through peace... it was the most fantastic concept he had ever heard.

His own people where still so divided on so many topics, even after twenty orbital revolutions united in defiance of the Centennial. How could hundreds of separate species have not only achieve harmony amongst themselves, but with each other as well? Not only that, but how could these humans have achieved all that they had in such a brief time? They had broken the light barrier only 300 revolutions ago, and yet their achievements in technology, diplomacy, and exploration and medicine where twice as many centuries beyond what they should have been in Karu's estimation. All of the knowledge he had gained of the Federation, of Starfleet, of the galaxy at large, made Karu's head spin. It also filled him with a sense of hope beyond anything he had ever known before.

He had gauged his own reactions to all they had come to learn against those of his crew. Tor was as transparent as a viewport with astonishment and wonder. Veneth was impressed, but kept his reactions in check as best he could. Teya was far from convinced of these Federations benevolence. While Karu was optimistic, he could not find fault in her unease. It was all very difficult to accept at face value. A society that existed for the betterment of both themselves and the galaxy at large? A culture devoid of any monetary system of trade? That they appeared not only willing, but eager to aid Ash'aar in it's recovery from the destruction wrought upon it by the Centennial... it was all too good to be true. It was beyond his wildest dreams; beyond even Tor's wildest dreams.

Their initial discussions and briefing on the Federation and Starfleet in the ship's observation lounge had lead to a tour of the ship and it's facilities by Roth herself. Her second in command, a man of comparable build to Karu named Carter, had also accompanied them while the others of Republic's leaders whom had been present at the briefing had not. In the middle of their tour, Veneth had become so enraptured by the ship's drive systems that he had been permitted to remain with behind to learn of them in as much limited detail as possible under the escort of a female named Merrick. Though Karu was hesitant to split his people up, he quickly realized that should these people wish to separate them, they could easily do so by force and likely by means beyond any of their understanding.

"And last but not least, our final stop; the bridge." Roth had said as the conveyance their party had been riding in slowed to a halt, it's doors opening in response to their arrival. Taking a cue from Roth's extended limb, Karu stepped forward first and was taken aback by the room in which he found himself.

The spacious oval shaped room reminded Karu more of a grand room in a comfortable estate home than of a vessel's command center. Though the touch screen computer interfaces where present, manned by the various alien crew in their non-threatening militaristic uniforms, the furnishings and scope where nothing like Karu would have imagined for a center of operations. Least of all for a vessel of such magnitude. Their engine room had been small to Karu's mind, but it had at least been brimming with computer interfaces and crew, suggesting it's functionality. Such was not the case with what Roth referred to as the bridge - an abstract name, no doubt, as their seemed to be nothing in the room to bridge to or from.

Though he could hear Roth's informative speech on the room's functions and capabilities, he had trouble focusing on her words as he ran his hands along the wooden surface of what appeared to be the primary command console for the ship. The large semi-circular station wrapped around a triad of observational seats below it, and it's geographic position of height overlooking two lower seated stations towards the forward of the room suggested it's importance to Karu. From the center observational seat, the alien with the unusual speech pattern arose and watched the tour party. For a moment, Karu considered him to perhaps be the ship's officer of security, but his gaze was not predatory or cautious, rather fascinated and amused.

"So, what do you think commander Karu?"

Startled by Roth's words, Karu turned on his heal and regarded the alien commander for a moment as he struggled to process her question and find an appropriate answer. He had been so concerned with his own thoughts that he had nearly forgotten where he was. Thankfully Tor had no such difficulty surmising his own thoughts, as was typically the case.

"Unbelievable."

Amidst amused looks from a number of Republic crew, Karu nodded in agreement with those sentiments and added to them. "Astonishing."

"And ya'll ain't even seen the holodeck yet," commented the human with the odd speech pattern, who continued to stand in the center of the lush command center. For some reason though, he seemed pained to be doing so. Beads of perspiration had built up on his forehead and upper lip, even though the environment was quite comfortable in Karu's assessment. Indeed, none of the other aliens seemed to be suffering any difficulty, leading him to ponder the other man's ailment.

"Hollow-deck?" Karu echoed, questioningly. "Aren't all of your decks hollow, in essence? A solid deck would serve no purpose I can think of." Karu mused, not wanting to voice his thoughts concerning the oddly spoken man's condition.

"I don't think he means hollow as in solid or otherwise, I think he means holo as in holo-gram. Image projections and prisms." Tor replied promptly, beating Roth to the punch.

"That's correct." Carter informed them, explaining, "We use holograms in conjunction with other technologies for recreational and training purposes." He didn't offer further details, and Karu was far too overwhelmed as it was to press him for such. Feeling a bit foolish at his misunderstanding, Karu turned his attention to Roth. "I believe I have learned... as much as I can handle. You're people are truly amazing, Roth. If you still wish to learn of mine, I believe I am ready to tell you."

As the words left his mouth, he could see the slightest tense in Teya's posture. He paid her no heed, having come too far to back-pedal now due to stubborn ignorance. Smiling, Roth bowed her head, "I'd like that very much." Gesturing across the command deck toward a set of doors, she continued, "The observation lounge is right through those doors." To Carter, she addressed, "Would you escort our guests Commander? I'll join you in a moment."

With an affirmative nod, Roth's subordinate took the lead and escorted the trio of Ash'aarians across the command deck. Karu spared a glance back as Roth turned her attention to her other officer, the one who spoke so oddly. "Lieutenant, have Doctor Cromwell, Counselor Tolkath, and Lieutenant Beauvais join us, and then do so yourself." Karu heard her command. Tolkath, he remembered, had been the one to meet them in the transportation chamber upon their arrival. He had yet to encounter Cromwell or Beauvais, however. From his title though, Karu knew Cromwell would play a key part in things to come.

"Aye aye, Cap'n." The Lieutenant acknowledged. As Roth took a step towards the observation lounge, Hawk remarked to no one in specific, "Figures ma first day back on the job that somethin' interestin' would happen."

 

Location: Chief Medical Officer's office, deck 12, USS Republic

"Bridge to Doctor Cromwell."

Leon winced.

"What?" he tapped his badge curmudgeonly.

"You're wanted in the observation lounge. Captain's orders."

So it was.

"More damned tongue depressors," he mumbled.

"What was that, doctor?"

"Nothing," he surrendered. "I'll be there in a minute. Cromwell out."

Glaring one more time at the picture of the Bremerton, Leon decided to take a stand. He would report to the observation lounge, as ordered. But contrary to protocol, he would keep his ivory turtleneck sweater and be out of uniform. Marching from the office and into the corridor, the doctor took no notice of the sickbay personnel who watched his egress from the main ward with uncertainty. It was a small protest for him to visit the bridge in this manner, and one that would likely get him in hot water with John, but he was tired of feeling as if his life was being controlled by someone else. There was a twinge of rebellion simmering in Leon's soul, and whether or not it was inspired by Nat Hawk's non-conforming attitude, he had to find an outlet, no matter how miniscule.

As the doctor strode up to the Observation Lounge door, he prepared himself for the oncoming argument with the Captain and XO. Inhaling deeply, the doors parted only to find the entire senior staff staring at him from the table, along with an entourage of alien visitors.

Leon swallowed his breath.

"Welcome to the meeting, Doctor Cromwell," the Captain said matter-of-factly, and without a trace of disdain. "Please have a seat. I'd like to introduce everyone to our guests."

John Carter simply lifted his eyebrows slightly as the doctor sat down at the table across from him. No matter how many times they played cards, Leon still had trouble deciphering the commander's poker face, and now was no different.

Leon listened quietly to the diplomatic discussion. Commander Karu of the Ash'aarians was a verbose and eloquent speaker. Throughout the historical explanation of the Ash'aarian's plight, the doctor could feel the eyes of the other members of the alien delegation fixed uncomfortably upon him. At first, Leon vainly thought it was because he was the only Starfleet member around the table without a uniform, but as Karu continued into the description of the artificial plague that ravaged his homeworld, the Republic's doctor soon realized the Ash'aarians interest in him.

To Karu's knowledge, no Ash'aarian had ever needed to tell the whole story of their end of days. When someone lived something, when they where born into it, raised surrounded by it, only the beginning needed to be told. The truth of what had happened to his race was experienced by one and all, and needed no explanation. So it was with some difficulty that Karu began to tell these strangers, these aliens, the tragedy that had become his world. The facts of history that he had lived, and thus could not remove himself or his emotions from, as much as he might wish to. He could not hide his grief. Grief defined Ash'aar now. It was as much a part of his world and of his people as anything else. His world a brutal and beaten ruin of a monument to it, and to death.

He was determined now to bring back hope.

He told them of their space program, that in his grandfather's youth had first set foot upon the twin moons that encircled Ash'aar. How by the time his own father had been born, they had achieved so much more by leaps and bounds, setting foot upon the other worlds capable of receiving them in their solar system. That by his own infancy, his people had begun taking their first steps into the great unknown void of interstellar space. First with warp capable probes, and by his 6th year of life, manned expeditions beyond their home system. That it was the third of those manned expeditions that had been the beginning of the end of their way of life. The end of 9 billion lives. The end of hope on his world.

The third manned mission beyond their sun, the Eversio missions, had returned to their world with findings that encouraged great hope and speculation. An alien transmission had been monitored and received by the Eversio III from the depths of space. It's source language was beyond their ability to understand at the time, and had even disabled the ships powerful computers for a time. That transmission that had been the source of such wonder at the time, the transmission that was their first true proof of life beyond their sphere, was not a simple transmission at all. It had only been believed as such due to their own ignorance of other possibilities. Of other forms of life besides that of flesh and bone.

When converted to binary, the transmission had repeated the same three numbers again and again. One, zero, zero. It had been a layman who had decided upon it's designation as 'the centennial signal'. As it was studied by more and more of Ash'aar's great thinkers and scientists, mathematicians and theoreticians, the meaning of the signal remained undecipherable. Eventually, the transmission was even released to the public at large through the planetary information data center. Billions studied it, trying in vain to understand what it might be trying to tell them. It's existence in every data center across the globe had caused something no one had anticipated.

Intelligence.

Whether the signal had always had such and simply been unable to manifest itself prior, or whether it had become more due to it's contact with the data centers of Ash'aar, no one knew at the time, and still did not know to this day. As it began to manifest it's abilities of thought, accidents began to occur. Traffic control computers began to malfunction. Automated power stations began to fail and return to operation for no apparent reason. National defense systems began to run simulations and drills without the command to do so. That the 'centennial signal' could have anything to do with any of these incidents was dismissed as backwards-thinking paranoia. The 'centennial signal' had been on Ash'aar for more than a year without incident, after all.

And then, in a brilliant flash of blinding white light, everything changed.

Karu had watched as a boy of 10 as the data center information reports showed the destruction of city after city as fire reigned down from the sky. The national defense systems had gone berserk, unleashing their payloads of cobalt-fusion bombs across the globe. In less than one hour, 4 billion people had been incinerated, and life as it had been known had ended. The after effects of the blasts caused anarchy. Billions fled from the surviving cities, determined not to be victims themselves. The fallout from the initial attacks caused hundreds of millions more to die over a matter of weeks. As Ash'aar began to recover from the shock and come to grips with the tragic events that had occurred, it began to become evident that no accident had occurred.

Six weeks after the first wave of attacks came the second wave. The abandoned cities where not targeted as they should have been in the event of an error. The make-shift refugee cities that had appeared across the open plains where laid waste instead. The 2 billion people who had fled their cities to avoid being victims had suffered the same fate. When the last victim of fallout had perished, six months after the second wave of attacks, the estimated death toll stood at 7 billion, 400 million. Blame was placed back and forth upon everyone and everything that could be held responsible. Governments, militaries, scientists, computer technicians, all became responsible in the eyes of the survivors. Fighting, rioting, anarchy, and random violence raged across the world on a scale never imagined.

By the first anniversary of the attacks, the death toll had climbed to 8 billion.

As rumors of the 'centennial signal' having corrupted the world-wide data centers began to spread, so too did rumors of automated war machines. Refugee camps found devastated by conventional weapons and no sign of those responsible except for tank tracks and indications of weapons fire from aircraft. By the time the survivors stopped fighting amongst themselves and banded together, it was too late. The truth of what was happening to Ash'aar was extinction. Slowly, relics of the old military forces rose up as leaders. People learned to hide, and to fight, and most important of all, how to survive. The automated war machines no longer shrouded themselves in mystery, and the responsibility for all of it became proven once and for all as the planetary data center locked down, leaving all surviving interface terminals to display only three numbers over and over again: one, zero, zero.

Between the day of the first attack, and the day that the resistance defeated the Centennial once and for all, 22 years had passed, and 9 billion people had died. Only 231 million of all of those souls lost had been lucky enough to give their lives in defiance and eventual defeat of the Centennial. Today, even after it's defeat, the Centennial continued to kill them. In the end days of it's reign, it had experimented with cybernetic war machines made of metal and flesh. With the loss of the Centennial to control and maintain them, they too had shut down like their all-machine counterparts. The organic parts of the cybernetic war machines had 'died' and decayed, and become the source of an artificial plague. One which in their state of ruin, they had little chance to safeguard against or counter.

At mention of such a disease, the assembled aliens of Republic shifted their emotions from empathy to concern. Concerns which Karu quickly offered his reassurances of. "We do not carry the disease. All stellar forces are kept in quarantine for five days before we are permitted to launch. The disease manifest in less than three. Also, we have been at space for nearly two months. No one exposed in the slightest has ever gone more than three days without symptoms, and never survived beyond that for more than three weeks. I would never had permitted you to bring us aboard had there even been a chance of us being carriers." Leaning forward against the large table, Karu made eye contact with every member of the Republic crew before settling his attentive gaze upon Roth once again. "My people are dying. We are at your mercy. I am asking you to help us. It will not be an easy task - the fear that grips many of my people will require a monumental effort to overcome. When children are afraid of things they do not know or understand, they must be educated, they must confront what they fear. So too, must my people, if we are to live. So I am asking you, Captain... help us."

The words hung in the air for a moment like storm clouds on the horizon. Glancing at the face of each of her officers, she could tell that each one of them was ready to do whatever they could to help these people. Nodding soberly, she spoke to Karu directly. "Of course we'll do anything and everything we can to help you and your people, Commander," she offered, "however, there are some issues we need to consider."

Karu felt his eyebrows rise. 'Consider?' he thought silently. 'What could they possibly need to consider? With technology like this, I could change the face of Ash'aar forever.' And then it hit him. That was the problem. The technology on Republic was so far beyond anything he'd previously known that it could quite possibly do anything. However, he had to concede, there was a difference between doing something and doing the right thing. "Of course, Captain," was all he admitted to.

Roth could sense some part of Karu's inner struggle. Leaning forward against the table on her elbows, she folded her hands together as she offered Karu an explanation. "As I mentioned earlier, our highest law dictates that we not use our technology to interfere with a society's natural development."

"Seems like someone's already done that." Leon Cromwell interjected without missing a beat, his tone firm and a touch bitter, but not accusatory.

"Agreed," Roth offered. "But that doesn't mean we have carte blanche to do as we may."

At the end of the table, the young boy, Tor looked at his Commander as he moved further towards the edge of his seat, then to Republic's Captain. "Cart what?"

Next to Roth, Counselor Tolkath smiled, raising his hand slightly. "She means we can't just do anything we want."

Roth nodding in agreement, and explained. "We have to be sure that whatever aid we render is effective, but not any more invasive than necessary."

"Captain." Leon Cromwell sat up straight and swiveled slightly in his chair, to better address Roth and their guests. "The Prime Directive just doesn't apply here," he said curtly. "The damage has been done. And then some. The Ash'aarians found us, and they have developed warp technology. We have the power to fix this, and I believe also the duty to do so."

"With respect, Leon," Counselor Tolkath interjected, "it's not quite that simple. We don't want the Ash'aarians to feel as if they're trading one alien invasion for another, however benevolent we might see ourselves as being." Tolkath turned to look at Karu, and then directed his attention to the female, Teya. Tolkath had not even needed his empathic abilities to sense the resistance, fear, and to a degree, even hatred coming off of the sci-med advisor. "You, more so than your colleagues' have been especially... resistant to contact with us. Am I correct in assuming that not everyone on your planet will not welcome our assistance?"

Giving Teya a quick glance, he knew Teya's beliefs made even her attendance at this meeting an hypocrisy. She would sooner exit the nearest airlock before she would respond to the Counselor's query. "That is true, I'm afraid." He said gravely. "Even I was reluctant. You must understand that our only contact with an outside species came within a breath of destroying our world. It certainly destroyed our way of life, our civilization. It's generally made the majority of us isolationist and justifiably paranoid. The plague has only made things worse, as the communal sense of survival and cooperation we survivors have shared for so long has begun to break down out of panic and fear to avoid infection. All things considered, I think you'll understand why most Ash'aarians don't trust their neighbors, let alone strangers from the stars."

"Exactly my point, Commander," Tolkath confirmed. He turned his attention to Roth and Carter. "I'd like to recommend that anything we do be as covert as possible, Captain. The Prime Directive may not apply directly, but we risk untold social damage, not to mention potential violence, where those not in whatever government system exists to learn of our presence. The planet's population is likely too psychologically fragile at this stage."

"Well now wait a moment," Hawk chimed in, "I can see the logic a keepin' things need-ta-know at the start, but, these folks've been through hell b'cause a some damned alien computer virus gone bonkers. If we're able ta fix this bug they got runnin' 'round, wouldn't it do a might bit a good to let 'em in on that tid-bit a information after-the-fact? I mean, if we're gonna help these folks, shouldn't we go all in? I don't think we can just give 'em a band-aid by fixin' this plague, then leave 'em ta fend fer themselves. If the prime directive don't apply, tha Federation might be willin' ta give 'em a hand rebuildin' an such. Right?"

Roth nodded. "You make a valid argument, Lieutenant. One we'll have to consider when the time comes. Initially, though, I'm inclined to agree with the Counselor. What happens if we're successful is a bridge we'll have to cross if - and hopefully when - we come to it. In any case, the first order of business is to move further into Ash'aarian space and get some hard data. Doctor Cromwell, assuming of course that Commander Karu and his crew consent, I'd like you to do a thorough examination. Find out as much as you can about their physiology.

Hawk, Beauvais, get us only as close to the planet as our scans absolutely have to be. Engineering, I want to extend our sensor range without decreasing resolution. Coordinate with Lieutenant Merrick. I'll also want continuous sensor sweeps for any other Ash'aarian vessels. Once we have scans to work from, we'll go about making initial contact with their government. Hopefully, we'll be allowed to at least contain this plague with minimal disruption to the planet. Give me as many options as you can." Roth's tone was forceful and, a bit more direct than usual, perhaps due to the truly dire straits the Ash'aarians were in.

Roth turned to address Leon Cromwell. "Which leaves the lion's share of the work up to you and yours, Doctor. If and when we get a sample of this disease for analysis, I'll want you to consult with Doctor Bashir. Find out what it is and if it can either be contained, controlled, or ideally, cured."

Cromwell nodded, almost begrudgingly so at Bashir's mention. "I'll have quarters assigned to our guests as soon as we finish up in sickbay," he added. Turning to the Ash'aarian delegation, Leon stood up and motioned to the door. "Commander Karu, if you and your people are ready, I'd like to begin examinations immediately."

With a simple nod, Karu, Tor, and Teya followed the doctor's gesture towards the door, and the tending security guard escorted them through followed lastly by Leon.

"I'll come by later doctor, to check on your progress," Carter announced from the table, causing Leon to pause in the open doorway. He looked at John still seated at the table as the XO cast him a stoic glance that suggested they had more to talk about than simple medical exams. The doctor met the commander's stare with the briefest regard before exiting.

As the doors slid shut, the tense atmosphere around the table relaxed as the gathered officers felt less restrained to speak their minds in the absence of the Ash'aarians.

"Now." Roth leaned back in her chair, prepared for an active discussion. "Tell me what I'm missing."

The officers knew that they were walking on untested ground. Regardless of Doctor Cromwell's reminder of the inapplicability of the Prime Directive, there were still several unanswered questions - not to mention unvoiced ambiguities - about how they could help these people without endangering the Republic, and drawing her into the middle of total anarchy on a planetary scale.

Lieutenant Vance Devloch, the new chief engineer, had not, up until this moment, attended a full meeting of the senior staff. So, it was most unusual for him to be the first to voice an opinion.

"Captain," he addressed Roth, his tone abnormally serious and sobering. "I've seen entire worlds devastated by Jem'Hadar warships during my tours in the Dominion War. Continents that were once brimming with advanced cities were laid wasted, and despite Starfleet's best efforts, no amount of Federation assistance was able to help their populations recover. I'd be lying to you if I said the Ash'aarians were any better off than those worlds, and I can't at all see how the Republic can make any bit of difference in these peoples' lives."

"So, what, ya dun even wanna try an help 'em?" Hawk asked. He an Devloch had become friendly when the Engineer had first come aboard, but had drifted some in the wake of his death and resurrection even though they had cleared the air on such early on. Nat couldn't put his finger on why that was, but he had been fairly preoccupied with his own recovery to really ask. His demeanor and tone suggested to Nat that there was something more on the mind of the Engineer. Devloch was normally as laid-back as he was. This wasn't the man he knew at all.

"I'm not saying that at all. I just don't know, beyond our potential to help them survive this plague, what we expect we can do here. We're just one ship, and we're on radio silence," he explained, glancing to Hawk as he did so, "we don't even know if they'll let us help them yet. I just don't think we should be giving them or ourselves false hopes of being able to do as much as we might want to. I mean, there are 232 million people from what commander Karu has told us. We can't even provide basic medical supplies, rations, or blankets for a fraction of them." Devloch pointed out.

"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves," John Carter stated, "our priority here has to be to address this plague of theirs, if and when we're able to obtain the permission of whatever leadership the Ash'aarians have. Considering anything beyond that is putting the cart before the horse." the XO concluded.

"Agreed." Roth replied. "Right now, I'm most concerned with how we approach the Ash'aarians. Obviously, commander Karu is the logical choice to make the introductions. But from what he's just told us, those introductions are not going to go smoothly."

"From a security stand-point, the risks of transporting anyone to the surface, even commander Karu, are too great." Beauvais offered. "Any contact we make with the Ash'aarian leadership should, in my opinion, be done aboard the Republic."

"These folks ain't keen on 'aliens' in the first place. Abductin' them fer a lil chit-chat, even with some a there own people at our side, just don't seem like the smartest idea ta me." Hawk argued.

"Whomever we make contact with is going to be alarmed, no matter if we go down to the surface, or they come aboard Republic. There isn't much way to avoid that reaction, apparently. That being the case, I think it's wiser and more tactically sound to have them 'on our turf' so to speak. We can ensure they're unarmed and unable to respond with violence should their fear get the better of their judgment." Beauvais surmised.

"This is certainly going to be tricky, whatever we do." Roth stated, not siding with either argument for the moment.

"Ya know, we keep talkin' 'bout gettin' permission ta help these folks, but... what if we don't? I mean, we really gonna let two-hundred-plus-million people die just cause they're 'fraid a aliens?" Hawk asked - a question that was on everyone's mind yet no one had yet to voice.

"I'm not sure we have much choice if they refuse our assistance." Roth replied, displeased with that fact.

"Well, there are some precedents for aiding a people either against their will or without their permission. The Enterprise-D under Picard once accidentally made contact with a child from a pre-warp civilization. Her planet was destroying itself through natural means. Though it was quite a gray area, they did eventually intervene." Carter offered. "On that basis, commander Karu's request could be seen as a request on behalf of the entire planet."

"There are some key differences, though." Tolkath pointed out. "I think this situation is more closely related to one of the final missions of Voyager prior to it's return from the Delta Quadrant. They encountered a world that has been devastated by war, much the same as Ash'aar, and developed a way to reverse the ecological consequences, nuclear winter and radiation poisoning, but there de facto leader was unwilling to allow the procedures. He took hostages, and insisted on transportation for his people to another world - something that would have taken years to accomplish. Captain Janeway saw little alternative but to reverse the damage to the planet without permission."

"Yeah, but wasn't the damage caused in tha first place by some old Earth warp probe? Kinda made it our fault in tha first place, so we had ta fix it." Hawk pointed out.

"I'm sure there are plenty of other scenarios similar to the one we now face, but like snow-flakes, no two are exactly alike. We're going to have to figure this one out as we go, and on our own I'm afraid." Roth summed things up.

"On our own?" Devloch spoke up again with a touch of incredulity. "With all due respect, captain, let's look at the numbers: Two hundred and thirty two MILLION survivors. Assuming Doctor Cromwell finds a cure, how are we supposed to give it to them? Set up a distribution point on the ground, unfurl a Federation flag, and yell 'come and get it'?"

"With the ship's replicators, we could manufacture auto-injectors," spoke Beauvais. "We could beam them down to strategic areas and provide instructions on what to do with them."

"Again, let's look at the numbers," the engineer swiveled his chair towards her. "First, we have to replicate the auto-injectors: A disposable one-use auto-injector with instructions would be about four by four by twenty centimeters. A box of twenty-five would be about twenty by twenty centimeters. A single, one SCU shipping container is one meter cubed, so we could fit maybe 125 boxes in one crate, and that's 2,500 doses in one crate. Assuming our replicators were running at top efficiency, and with medical doing quality batch checks on the serum, we could, at most, manufacture fifty to 100 crates a day, making our maximum output of 250,000 doses a day. According to my calculations, we would have to be in orbit for . . . over two and a half YEARS . . . all the while manufacturing these auto-injectors and beaming them down. That's not taking into account equipment maintenance, down time for eventual repairs, and breaking orbit to collect more deuterium with our Bussard collectors."

Devloch paused and looked around the silent table as his words sunk in. His neurological implants, though rudimentary, assisted in complex calculations on occasion, and such quick math was useful in both engineering tasks as well as logistic problems involving rates of production.

"Again, we're only one ship," he stated with emphasis. "We have extreme limitations in this instance, and no amount of technological magic is going to make any difference in these people's lives."

"There's an old earth saying, lieutenant," Captain Roth spoke next. "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime. I'm not suggesting that we provide everything for these people. I don't even think Bajor has the means to provide a mercy mission on this scale, assuming we send a courier back to Deep Space Nine to arrange for one. What I - and what most everyone else at this table - is suggesting is that we make this a first-contact mission. That we gather the heads of each governmental body down there, explain their options, and try to assist them...to help them help themselves."

As before, a few seconds of silence persisted as Roth's words were digested by the officers.

"In any case," she continued. "I'm not willing to send these people back home with only our sympathies. We're going to help them, and that's not up for debate. HOW we help them is a different story, and we're going to have to figure that out as we go along. I expect each of you to keep the ideas coming as this mission unfolds, but keep in mind that we're not going to simply abandon these people. We'll leave once we determine that we've done all we can for them, making sure that they have a lifeline back to the rest of the Federation for further assistance. So, if there's no further questions or comments?"

The Republic's commander looked around the table for further input before concluding the meeting.

"Very well. Let's get to work. Dismissed."

Loction: Kiev, Ukraine Free State, Sol III

Vladimir Kostya had always considered himself a patient man. Patience, he knew was the key to everything. Political victories, military strategies, even business decisions. In Vladimir Christoff Kostya's mind victory went to the patient man. Now, as he was enjoying a bright afternoon, surrounded by the gleaming cupolas and gothic arches of one of Earth's oldest cities, he wondered if even the familiar streets that had been his home could keep his patience from killing him.

'No,' he thought silently as he sipped his tea... a rather mild blend with a hint of cinnamon and mint, 'and not too much milk this time' his mind added unbidden. "It's not patience. It's endurance." He wondered aloud. "What's the old phrase?"

"Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory." The voice was a mellow baritone that Kostya wasn't expecting. "It's from William Barclay, I think. Though at this moment, I'm afraid I couldn't tell you exactly what he did."

Kostya looked up in surprise, feeling a rush of adrenaline that he hadn't realized he'd missed until just that moment. He felt his eyebrow arch in what had come to be a universally recognized gesture of surprise, and not incidentally, perhaps the second greatest contribution of the vulcans to galactic civilization.

Looking up at the man who'd shaken him out of his contemplative haze, Vladimir blinked, then took a second to register a stern looking Effrosian just behind the speaker's right shoulder. He looked back at the speaker. An older man, distinguished to a degree, and with the unmistakable bearing of a starship captain. Kostya felt his temper flash. 'Captains... ' he thought. 'Bunch of insecure men with god complexes, but so easy... and fun... to control.'

Letting his face become a mask of caution, Kostya was careful to give nothing away. "Do I know you? Captain..."

The distinguished man waved his hand, as if brushing the title away. "No Captain, Mister Kostya. Not anymore. It's just Ben now." The visitor looked around. The streets of Kiev were quiet for a late fall afternoon, and he smiled slightly. "May we sit?"

Kostya extended his had to the empty chairs on the other side of the small wrought iron table. "It's a free country."

"Is it?" the visitor said. "I was starting to wonder."

As the visitor and his aide sat, Kostya stirred his tea idly pretending to be neither annoyed, nor interested; which of course he very much was. "To what do I owe the pleasure... Mister Maxwell?"

The visitor smiled as Kostya spoke his name. "Just thought you might like a little chat. One felon to another?"

Ben Maxwell had once been the captain of the Phoenix, a Nebula class starship that had survived the Cardassian wars, and seen Maxwell through many campaigns. All, in fact, except his last. Maxwell KNEW that the Cardassians were readying for war, and had used his ship and the loyalty of his crew, to wage a guerilla war against the 'spoon heads' in the hopes that he could prevent a coming war. In the process, Maxwell had killed civilians, and while he himself thought the loss regrettable, he also knew that they had been utterly unavoidable. Unfortunately, Starfleet Command hadn't seen it that way, so they sent Jean-Luc Picard to rein in their loose cannon.

Picard: the puppet of the establishment. Puppet of the Borg if one wanted to get ugly about things. Here was a man that would sooner resign than besmirch the high and mighty `principles' that were drummed into every cadet to ever set foot in San Francisco. He'd followed every order, no matter his personal feelings.

Maxwell had been right about the Cardassians though, and what was worse? Picard knew it. But the "Captain of the Enterprise" must always do his duty. Mustn't he?

Jean-Luc had even told Maxwell that he'd wished things hadn't gone the way they did. That wish, however, did not stop Picard and his ship of sycophants from doing EXACTLY what the Cardassians wanted. Sure enough, barely a year later? Shooting between the Cardassians and the Federation, and Maxwell was sitting in a cell. All of that of course was because Maxwell had been willing to do what few in Fleet would. Thankfully, though, that number had grown quite a bit in recent years.

"Chris," Maxwell offered. "May I call you Chris?"

"No." Vladimir added curtly.

"I know what you were trying to do, and God knows I appreciate it. More than most, in fact."

"Of course you did." The bitterness in Kostya's voice was almost physical.

Maxwell's face pulled into a frown. "Listen to me!" he hissed in a crisp whisper, "You can either sit here and sip your tea, while the Federation crumbles around you," the former captain offered, "or you can prove to Krockover, Paris, Janeway, Roth... all of them, that you were right."

"Maxwell," Kostya huffed. "Leave me alone. I tried. I manipulated, lied, ordered, bullied, even killed...to accomplish what I thought was right, and I'd do it again, but I got beat, pure and simple, so you know what? I'm done."

Maxwell squinted. "Six months in this self-imposed exile?" he hissed louder. "Six months?" Maxwell leaned back and let the contempt slide into his voice like a round into the chamber of a gun. "That's all it took to break you?"

Kostya looked at his tea.

"Carter's on your ship."

Kostya looked up with a fiery glare.

"Ah," Maxwell's eyes twinkled with pride when he saw that Kostya wasn't completely dead inside. "Thought that would get your attention."

"You have thirty seconds, Maxwell."

"Thank you, Chris. See... the problem last time was, you just didn't go far enough up the chain."

Kostya slapped his hands on the table top, causing the tea cup to jump. "I was the damned Chief of Starship Operations!" Kostya shot back. "Just how much higher do you think I'd have had to go?"

Maxwell shook his head. "Not Starfleet," he offered. "Across the street."

Despite his discipline, Kostya felt the shock come over his face, before he could will it away. "Paris was right about you," he said simply. "You're insane."

Maxwell felt his blood-pressure rise. He clenched his fists. He wanted to haul off and knock Kostya on his self-pitying ass. But the future of the Federation was too important to him.

In Academy parlance, 'Across the street' meant off the San Francisco campus, away from Fleet. Most cadets used this to refer to someone who resigned or washed out of the program. Among Flag Officers however, 'Across the Street' meant politics. Specifically, civilian politics. To most officers though, facing a legion of Jem'Hadar was preferable to a Federation Council Oversight Board, to say nothing of sitting on one.

"I told them this was a bad idea," Maxwell explained. "Told them 'Vlad the Impaler'... "

Kostya winced when he heard Maxwell use the former's academy nickname.

"...had gone soft, but they told me you'd at least listen."

"Who, Maxwell?" Kostya asked, disbelieving, "Who thinks that MY entering politics is a good idea?"

Maxwell shook his head again. "Uh-uh, " he cautioned, "only if you say yes."

"I can't run for office, you idiot! I'm a criminal!"

"No, you're not." Maxwell offered simply. "You resigned from Fleet. Everyone knows that, and sure... you could ASSUME that it was because of the Republic Eight case. But I could just as easily argue that you saw how bad things had gotten in 'Fleet and left for your own good.

The Effrosian next to Maxwell finally spoke. "A sign of the tragic corruption in a once proud institution, to be sure."

"I've got some Spican flame gems to sell you if you think..."

"You were never on trial, and you were never convicted."

"Even if I wanted to," Kostya held up his hand, as if to deflect the idea from him, "the elections are what? 18 months away? It's too late."

"We have people in the media, Kostya," Maxwell continued, "and they can turn you from disgraced conspirator to patriot in search of redemption in a hot minute."

Kostya's heart raced, and he felt another adrenaline rush. "What do you have in mind?"

"Let's just say that a quantum torpedo is nowhere near as powerful as a President's pen."

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic (Gamma Quadrant)

"Look, I'm not here to hurt you," Doctor Bashir's reassuring voice beckoned to a pair of icy eyes glaring back at him from the biobed. "I'm a doctor," he reasoned, holding up a tricorder diagnostic wand. "This is just an examination device. I only want to take a look at..." As he slowly brought the instrument closer to Teya, the Ash'aarian took a spiteful swipe at his hand, knocking it away.

Releasing a breath of exasperation, Julian's eye dropped to the floor in surrender. "We're not going to be able to help your people if you don't cooperate," he suggested in the friendliest demeanor he could muster.

The sickbay staff watched on as Doctor Bashir tried for the eighth time to reason with Teya. While Doctor Cromwell took Centurion Karu into Exam Room One, and Doctor Harris escorted the boy, Tor, to Exam Two, Julian was left with the task of dealing with the Ash'aarian woman. At first, he thought the idea brilliant, as the young officer was quite attractive, but over the course of an hour, his patience was running thin.

Teya, on the other hand, needed no words to communicate her seething hatred of the technologically addicted humans. While she was willing to allow Karu the indignity of being probed and prodded by the vile instruments of torture, she would not allow her own body to be violated. More times than she cared to remember, Teya saw what happened to biological flesh that came in contact with infected hardware. It took every ounce of her will to stay put until Karu returned.

***

Karu, meanwhile, was quite impressed with the exam room, let alone the whole sickbay. He was inquisitive about each piece of machinery around him, and it took Leon at least fifteen minutes to divert the conversation to actually performing the physical. Even when lying on the exam bed with the large motorized overhead scanner slowly tracking across the length of his body, Karu did not stop asking questions.

"So tell me again, doctor. How many different plagues ravaged this land you call Europe?"

"Over a period of four centuries," Leon answered while working the computer controls. "About one hundred. Altogether, they killed off at least twenty percent of Earth's population during their medieval period."

Leon spent a majority of the exam scrutinizing the full-sized, wall-mounted viewscreen that reproduced a digitized image of Karu's internal biology. As the data slowly poured in, Leon answered Karu's questions with detachment, as he more interested in the computer screen that spat out information as fast as the scanner could translate it.

"And Earth is where you're from?"

"Me?" Leon returned without taking his attention off the computer screen. "No, I'm from a human colony about a hundred sectors away. But a lot of the human crew is from Earth, and Starfleet Headquarters is located there."

"Your species has colonized other planets?" Karu inquired.

"Hundreds over the past two centuries. And together with other species, the Federation now spans thousands of worlds."

"Amazing," the centurion replied.

After the first full scan, Leon switched from tissue analysis to cellular analysis. The scanner slowed it's lengthwise, bi-directional track over Karu, while the luminescence of the scanning head changed from blue to violet. Every cell within his body was now being analyzed from membrane to nucleus while the computer sifted through the readouts, categorizing the cellular functionality in a hierarchical format so Leon could interpret them.

"And the plagues?" Karu continued his line of questioning. "You cured them?"

"Well, not ME personally," Leon admitted while pressing a few buttons on the wall-mounted control panel. Without fail, he maintained his focus on the floor-to ceiling medical viewscreen. "The Black Plague was cured with the advent of antibiotics about five centuries ago. The human race didn't make it's first steps into space until about 150 years later."

"But you still had plagues?"

"Of course. Even after humans settled other worlds, plagues still cropped up. Several worlds had the potential of being completely wiped out by plagues, and unfortunately, not everyone has access to the medical technology or materials needed to combat each and every one of them. But because there were enough of us spread out across the galaxy, with some worlds and populations able to assist, we've been able to cure these plagues."

"So, by colonizing other worlds, your species has been able to preserve itself?"

"That," concluded Leon. "And the ability to work together with other species for mutual benefit."

It took fives minutes to complete the cellular scan, and with another re-configuration of the controls, Leon changed the operating mode of the scanner yet again, this time to biochemical analysis. As before, the scanning head changed colors, this time from violet to red, and the speed slowed to mere crawl. A mass-spectrometric chart of every different chemical compound within the Centurion's body flowed through the scanning buffer at a phenomenal rate, and the computer translated each byte of information nearly instantaneously. Even still, it took over ten minutes to complete the molecular scan, all the while Karu inquiring into every aspect of Leon's medical knowledge.

During that time, Commander Carter entered the room. While Karu was happy to see the ship's XO, Leon was phlegmatic.

"I hope I'm not interrupting?" he apologized.

"Not at all, commander," Karu piped up. "Your doctor was just telling me about your species' astounding medical advances."

"Pretty interesting stuff?" John replied while strolling into a non-obtrusive corner of the room, not willing to interrupt the CMO in his work.

"Yes," Karu remarked proudly. "I'm amazed at how well you've been able to coexist with other space-faring beings that you've encountered over the centuries."

Just as he completed the sentence, the intercom sounded.

"Chief Oberstad to Doctor Cromwell."

Without hesitation, Leon tapped his comm. badge. "Cromwell here. Go ahead, chief."

"Can you please have Karu come back out to the main ward? The Ash'aarian officer Teya has locked herself in the break room, and Doctor Bashir has been unable to coax her out."

While Leon exhibited a mild expression of surprise, Karu was less than enthused. The doctor dialed a combination of inputs into the scanner's control console, interrupting the non-invasive medical exam.

"I've got enough information here, Karu, if you'd like to see to your officer. Thank you for your cooperation."

"My pleasure, doctor," Karu replied while standing up from the exam table. "And my apologies for Teya's behavior. I hope that this won't sour our relations?"

"Not at all," Leon answered. "I've had much more unruly visitors to my sickbay, and they've mostly been human."

"If you'll excuse me commander," Karu excused himself with a nod to John. The Ash'aarian leader proceeded to the door, pausing briefly with wonder at the seemingly magical motions of the opening of the portal. Walking through, the doors closed behind him leaving John and Leon alone in the exam room.

"So, what can you tell me, Doc?" John beckoned, as soon as Karu left.

Leon looked at the screen, putting on his best poker face. "They have a unique physiology," he commented, sitting down on a nearby stool. "Even with a humanoid bipedal form, they still exhibit a singular metabolism indicative of independent evolution. Their master gene sequences don't correspond to any species in the medical database. We're starting almost from scratch."

"Do we know anything more about the disease they're fighting?"

"I'm seeing cytotoxic heterologs that could be endogenous antigens representative of an immune response, but without an isolated specimen of the disease, it's impossible tell what they represent. It could be a response to our own environment here on the ship, for all I know."

"You need infected tissue to begin an analysis?"

"Pretty much," admitted Leon. "I can't diagnose something I haven't seen yet."

"If we can get you a culture, how long will it take to make a diagnosis?" John tilted his head to the side in a contemplative pose.

"Fairly quickly I think." He answered. "If it follows a known pathology, I can match the recorded protein markers in Karu's cytokines and maybe extrapolate from there. Otherwise, I may have to run an entire T-Cell assay ... every species, every database. If that happens, we might as well drop anchor and stay a while."

"Okay then," John replied. "I'll recommend that the captain make collecting a tissue culture a top priority."

"Sounds good to me," said Leon, swiveling on his stool to face a computer station. "I'll continue my analysis of the medical scans to get a better model of their metabolism." He began accessing the datalogs, considering the topic closed.

A momentary silence passed, and John wasn't leaving the room. Apparently, he had more to talk to Leon about.

"You want to tell me what's going on?" John asked the uncomfortable question.

Leon could have feigned ignorance at the inquiry, but he knew what John was getting at. Now that they were alone in the room, there was no more excuse as to why they couldn't talk about the obvious.

"I take it the captain wasn't too pleased with my attire at the meeting?" Leon replied over his shoulder.

"Captain Roth could've cared less if you wore an EVA suit," John admitted. "When she took command a few months ago, she made it plainly clear that daily operations and officer conduct were MY department, not hers. Quit dodging the question and answer me, Leon. What's going on?"

"What do you want me to say?"

"Anything, Leon. Mostly though I'd like you to say SOMETHING. As it is you've got a lot of people, my self included a little confused." John stated flatly. "You've got an entire sickbay staff on edge, wondering what the sprock is wrong with you!"

Leon hung his head. He was conflicted. On one hand, he still felt as though a trusted friend had manipulated him. Forced him to compromise his principles. On the other, he was ashamed to be so angry at a friend of his who, the rational part of his brain told him, was 'only doing his job'. Now, he was feeling attacked again, and hated having his competency questioned.

"You want to talk to me about my staff?"

"You're damned straight I do!" John shot back. "I met with Saal for a drink at the Hill two nights ago. He told me you read him the riot act for an `unauthorized use of department time and resources." He put his hands on his hips, looking at Leon, puzzled. "He was throwing you a party, Leon. Since when do you do something like THAT?"

"Since my best friend made me order a man to his death and there was nothing I could do about it!" Leon's face turned blank as he heard the words flow out of his mouth. "I'm not you, John," he explained. "I can't keep parts of my personality in a box."

"I'm not asking you to, Leon. I just..."

"Let me finish, damn it." There was firmness, but finally, not much anger in Leon's voice. "My return to Starfleet has been a blur. One minute I'm off in a quiet corner of the galaxy studying genetics at Pacifica, and the next minute I'm watching my father put on trial for terrorist acts. Leading to the losing my homeworld to the Gorns... Good lord, John, I've lost my mom, my sister, Y'lair, Captain Marshall - not to mention Nat. Countless more have been lost to the Kreltans and Tholians, and to top it all off, one of my closest colleagues turns out to be a hologram. You want to know how I feel? I'm angry. I'm trying to control my life. ANY part of my life, and then... when I think I can finally make concrete decisions about my OWN career? You, of all people, put me in a position I find utterly repugnant! And you know what's worse?"

Republic's CMO finally took a breath, letting some of the color seep from his hotly flushed face. "Now I'm mad that I'm mad at you!"

Despite the weight of the conversation, John felt his professional mask crack just a bit with the barest hint of a smile.

"I just want something in the galaxy to make some damned sense!"

John gave his friend a side-long look. "You through?"

"For now."

"Okay then." Carter huffed, letting some of the tension out of his body. "Look, Leon. I'm sorry that you feel like you've been on a treadmill," he said simply, "and, If you're really not happy here I won't make you stay. You write-up a resignation. I'll make sure Captain Roth signs it." Carter crossed his arms across his chest again. "But there are a couple things I'd like you to consider."

"Oh?" Inwardly, the last thing Leon Cromwell wanted to do was think more about his situation. It seemed to him like that was all he'd been doing for a long time.

"You turned in an outstanding performance on the Command Test. It's not easy, and it's not for everyone. So, you EARNED the right to wear that uniform", John explained. "The fact that you're not actually wearing it? Well that's up to you. But you shouldn't cheapen your accomplishment.

"Second," he continued, "I can't walk ten meters without someone asking me how your test went. Everyone here cares about you, because you care about them. That's a powerful thing, and if I were you, I'd be grateful."

Leon was taken aback. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that this was all about you."

John shot Leon a look that made it clear he was skating on thin ice.

"Leon, you're my friend, but don't you DARE blame your lack of motivation on me. You want control over your life? Take it! No one on this ship has the tools you do, but if you don't stop being an ass? All of those people will find someone else to care about. Your situation doesn't solve your problem. Your location doesn't solve your problem. YOU DO."

Carter looked into Cromwell's face trying to ferret out a spark of understanding, but it wasn't there... yet.

"What's the first rule of medicine, Doctor? The one thing you promise to do?"

"Do no harm." Leon said the words quietly, soberly, with a sacred reverence.

"We've saved hundreds of lives. Stopped AT LEAST three wars that would have made the galaxy burn, and there are people. Human, alien, and gods know what else who are alive today because you were in the right place at the right time.

"So ask yourself, Doc...where can you do the most good?"

Carter waited barely a second before continuing. "Tucked in around a little blue jewel looking at blobs of protein? Or here. Holding the line against corruption, murder and genocide?"

Carter didn't wait for the answer. He took a step toward the door, pausing only as it slid open. "Do no harm, Doctor. That means you stay here. I'll make sure you get your sample."

Leon stopped as the door slid shut, marking Carter's exit. Then he smiled.

"Son of a bitch," He whispered to no one. "Damned if I don't feel a little better."

Leon stepped toward the door, pausing slightly as it opened. "Hang on, Oberstad..."

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Saratoga, NCC-75841 (Alpha Quadrant)
Stardate 52539.4 (six years ago)

Amongst the busy crew, a tall, clean-shaven man with a full patch of straight brown hair stood at the head of the expansive, Galaxy-class bridge. While he wore the rank of captain on his collar, he appeared to be in his mid-thirties, and did not possess the solid, veteran aura that most starship commanders resonate. As the crew worked around him readying the ship for departure, the captain's face wore an annoyed expression as he addressed a young Starfleet lieutenant on the main viewscreen.

"Look, I don't care what 'flag-officer protocols' you think I should implement. We're two hours from launch, and I'm not about to divert half my crew to assemble in the main shuttle bay! If Vice Admiral Kostya wanted me to make special preparations for his visit, he would have told me himself."

The junior officer's reply was dripping with pretentiousness.

"Captain, I'm the admiral's adjunct, so when you're talking to me, you're talking to him. You WILL extend to him full military honors upon his arrival, and in addition ..."

"Don't tell me how to run my ship, lieutenant!" the captain returned with irritation. "And for the third time, it's pronounced 'adjutant'!"

"Look captain, the admiral is preparing to beam aboard as we speak, so if I were you, I would..."

"Stand down, Jim," another voice interrupted from the portside turbolift. "I'm already here." Strolling onto the bridge was the domineering figure of Vladimir Christoff Kostya. His grey hair was streaked with a few patches of his original black, and his penetrating gaze was as sharp as ever. He stood tall and masterful over the other crewmembers of lesser rank, and for a brief moment, he paused to survey the busy command center.

Meanwhile, upon hearing Kostya's voice, the nervous lieutenant on the viewscreen appeared quite flustered. Before he knew what he was saying, he stood to attention and shouted:

"Admiral on the bridge!"

Although the announcement caused the heads of the bridge crew to turn and regard the newly-arrived flag officer, the captain, who had already noticed the admiral, slowly looked back towards the viewscreen with incredulity. "You're not even ON the bridge, lieutenant!" he exclaimed.

A brief moment ensued where the young man on the viewscreen stammered in embarrassment, suddenly realizing his transgression.

"Um... now that the admiral is actually onboard... I think our conversation is finished here... don't you think, captain?"

"Yes," he nodded his head emphatically. "Saratoga OUT." The vexed starship commander quickly signaled to the tactical officer to close the channel, and instantly, the abashed lieutenant's face was replaced by the wreathed Federation logo. With a sigh of relief, the captain turned back to Kostya with a smile and an extended handshake. "Chis!" he greeted him. "Glad you could pay us a send-off visit!"

"Don't mind Lieutenant Marshall, Ted," the admiral apologized for the young adjutant. "He's one of mine. A headful of steam, and always looking to make that next step up the ladder."

"He'd better be careful," the captain remarked. "If he keeps up that attitude, he's going step on some hands on the way up."

"He already has, and he made me proud by doing it," Kostya said to the captain's surprise. "You watch him, Ted. He did a heck of a job on the Gettysburg, and I'm going to send him to command school soon. After he graduates and assigned a new ship, I'm going to recommend that his next captain promote him to lieutenant commander. If you don't take him, I'll bet the USS Chekov will want him."

Ted frowned with disaspproval. "Don't you think he's a little young for a senior officer post?"

"Were you much older when I put you to pasture?" Kostya asked rhetorically.

The captain raised his eyebrows in embarrassment. "No, I guess I wasn't."

"Well," Kostya concluded with a smile. "There you have it."

Ted smiled in return before changing the subject.

"I read over your mission orders, Chris," he started. "I'm worried about the Dominion buildup in sector twenty-five. Outpost Gamma-Six lost eight gunboats in that area last week. I know you've got some cruisers on standby in case we run into trouble, but I'd rather have one of Sara's sisters nearby. I know they've recently lost some of their command crew, so I need to know without doubt: Can I trust them?"

"Don't worry, Ted. When Starfleet placed me in charge of the Galaxy wing, I made them my own. They're my ships. All of them. And Sara's their flagship. They'll be there if you need them. I promise you that."

The captain smiled. "If we run into any Cardassians, we'll give 'em one hell of a fight!"

"I'd expect nothing less."

While the two officers spoke, the portside turbolift opened yet again, and a young female lieutenant junior grade emerged. Her uniform was similar to the rest of the officers; a grey collared undershirt with a combination black and gold-colored duty over-jacket, denoting her departmental branch as operations. Her long, scarlet-colored hair was a stark contrast to her bright green eyes, and as she scanned the bridge while striding forth from the elevator, she spied the captain talking to Admiral Kostya. Suddenly, her face lit up with a smile.

"Ted!" she called out to the skipper.

While unusual to the common observer, the informal nature of her pronouncement was not without warrant, as the captain broke off his conversation by turning to the young officer. Like her, the captain's face also lit up, and he grinned from ear to ear at the sound of her voice. Turning towards the newcomer, he walked out of the command pit to meet her halfway up the ramp.

"Are you sure you want to spend your leave on the Saratoga, honey?" the captain spoke, obviously expecting her arrival. His voice was not the hardened male-to-male tone he used with Kostya, but more of a soft, crooning melody reserved for someone he cared deeply about. "I'm happy to have you onboard, but we might run into some trouble on this patrol. I'd feel better if you stayed back on Earth."

"Theodore!" she pouted. "We've been married three months, and thanks to the Dominion, we have yet to go on our honeymoon! You should be happy I was able to get away from my post for a few days."

The captain smiled admiringly at the young lieutenant junior-grade. "I am happy."

In the background, Vice Admiral Kostya hovered nearby, watching the two officers. The young redhead looked over her husband's shoulder and took note of the high-brass dignitary.

"I see Vlad-the-Impaler is here to send us off," she said sourly.

"Now dear," he chided her. "Chris is a close friend, and I won't have you talk about him like that. He's treated you like a father, and you should be grateful he gives me enough shore-leave to spend time with you."

Interrupting the couple, a young ensign male in command red walked up to the Sara's commanding officer. "Captain Stryker?" he greeted him. "The chief engineer has the warp field diagnostics completed for you. He's waiting in your ready room to go over the report."

"Thank you, yeoman," the captain replied. He turned back to his wife with a smile that never faded. "Work calls, my dear." Raising his voice slightly, he turned partially towards the vice admiral, and offered a suggestion. "Why don't you entertain the admiral for a few minutes while I meet with my engineer?"

She raised an eyebrow to her husband, giving him a non-verbal scolding at the blatant attempt to warm the relations between her and the admiral. "Of course!" she accepted politely, looking to Kostya. "Why don't I show him to the officer's mess for a quick cup of coffee before we launch?"

"That sounds splendid," the admiral remarked.

"It's settled then," the captain concluded, turning to smile again at his spouse. "I'll join you two as soon as I can get away." His wife returned the smile, though they dare not kiss each other goodbye. The bridge of a starship - or any public place aboard ship for that matter - was no place for a captain to show affection for another officer, even one not in his chain of command.

As the captain walked away to his ready room, Admiral Kostya approached the young officer.

"Good to see you again, lieutenant," he greeted her. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Three months since the wedding, sir," she replied nervously.

The duo proceeded back up the ramp, and made their way to the portside turbolift. As soon as they were alone inside, the atmosphere between the two officers changed dramatically. It was no longer a conversation between a sage, fatherly admiral and a young, recently-wed junior officer. In fact, the synergy between them indicated that they both knew each other quite well, and that their previous exchange was more of a facade intended to mask their true relation to one another. Gone was the innocent expression on the lieutenant's face, and it was replaced with a more jaded look. As for Kostya, his expression turned from casual to businesslike.

"How was your... meeting... with Doctor Zimmermann at Jupiter Station?" he asked as the hum of the turbolift reverberated in the background.

"Grueling, as usual," the scarlet-haired lieutenant returned. "He never cooperates with me. I had to steal the holomatrix design from his laboratory computer while he was asleep."

"That's my girl," Kostya smiled with pride and allure. "Did you secure the command codes from Starfleet Security?"

"Yes," she replied matter-of-factly. "I didn't have any trouble. I packed up my equipment at the end of maintenance cycle, and signed out on vacation. The computer custodian was none the wiser."

"Taking leave was risky," Kostya commented with concern. "It might leave a trail if something goes wrong. Does Admiral Thomas know you're on board?"

"No. He thinks I'm on sabbatical back in Sydney."

"Good. He'll never see this coming." Kostya's eyes shifted back and forth in cunning thoughts. What insidious musings he had were his own, and he dare not reveal them to anyone else but his most trusted confidants. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the young woman watching him. She stared at him with anticipation, and with admiration. Kostya often knew the thoughts of others before they voiced them, and as he locked stares with her, he could sense her veneration... her longing.

"Computer, halt turbolift."

The Vice Admiral knew what he wanted, and he often got it. As the turbolift car came to a stop, he closed the distance between him and the lieutenant. As he entered her personal space, their combined pulses jumped as did their breathing. The lieutenant could feel what was happening, and she liked it. There was something exciting and taboo about her relationship with the vice admiral, and while she had been held by him before, each time it only became more and more intoxicating. He was a man more than twice her age, and as perverse as it was, she yearned for him ... she always wanted more. Something about him excited her. This was a man of destiny, and to be by his side during a time of war was absolutely irresistible to her.

"Shannon..." Kostya whispered lustily as he embraced her with desire.

At the sound of her name, the momentary passion was lost. It wasn't Ted's voice. This wasn't their bedroom; it was a turbolift. Something inside her shutdown, and she needed to return to the present... to focus on the task at hand. Self-fulfillment would have to wait for another time.

"No," she resisted, pushing him away. "Not now. We have work to do."

Kostya's face hardened. If he was insulted, he showed only the barest hint. Releasing his grip on her body, the admiral stood back with a stone-like scowl. "Are you still angry about the Ajax?" he asked, his annoyance bleeding through.

"It wasn't right then, Chris, and it's not right now." Her words were filled with regret and guilt. "Ted trusts me."

"Come on!" Kostya spat back in disgust. "Don't patronize me! I know your game! You're just as devious now as you were eight years ago! Ted's what? Your third husband? You obviously haven't told him about your past exploits, otherwise you'd be looking for your fourth right now."

Shannon exhaled with anger and frustration. Chris was right. Ted can't be told about her past, no matter how much he deserved the truth.

"He's under your command," she vexed, hoping to slide a blade of contrition into the admiral. "How could you treat him like this?" It was clear that Shannon took no responsibility for her relationship with Kostya, and instead, focused it all on the vice admiral himself.

"He's in charge of Saratoga because it's convenient for me," Kostya declared, shrugging off Shannon's feeble attempt at morality. "Every officer and every crewman is there because I made it so. When the Sara's keel was laid, I was there; I placed the ceremonial first bolt. When the Sara was launched, I was at her christening. When she completed her shakedown cruise, I did the inspection tour. She's my ship, Shannon. I put your husband in charge because I needed someone there who was loyal and predictable."

"What about me?" Shannon inquired, wondering if he was at all concerned about her own well-being. "What about us?"

"The only reason you're aboard right now is to make sure Ted stays on track. This project is too important. You and I both know Ted's psych profile. He has the tendency to become unglued -- he could crack under pressure. As soon as he starts losing his crew, he's liable to panic, and we can't have that. He needs someone he trusts to be there when the uplink takes control."

"What if he doesn't listen to me when the time comes?" she interjected. "What if he tries to take control himself?"

"Don't worry. The usual backups are in place."

Realizing full well what "usual backups" meant, Shannon rolled her eyes and sighed with exasperation.

"Chris!" she scolded him. "Did you issue *another* interdiction order? You can't just keep waving that magic wand of yours! It'll end up exposing us!"

"Don't you DARE tell me know to run my fleet!" Kostya bellowed, his eyes blazing. "If it weren't for me, you'd still be playing with hyposprays at that backwater clinic I found you at! Or are you forgetting who it was that got you into the Academy in the first place?"

Shannon's eyes filled with horror. "I'm... I'm sorry..." she writhed in panic. Over the years, she learned that upsetting Vladamir Kostya can be a dangerous gamble, and even a forbidden romance could not always save her from his wrath. "It's just that... we've worked so hard to recruit officers to our cause ... I don't want anything to undermine that. Every interdiction order you manage to get past the Council risks public scrutiny."

"The Council is impotent," Kostya declared. "We're at war, and the only thing that any politician cares about is how they're going to keep their office. The Federation Council has no authority to stop me, even if they wanted to. They're so scared at being conquered by the Dominion that they'll rubber-stamp anything that comes across their desk, as long as it comes from someone in uniform. We're their only protection. If they turn us down, they're signing their obituary, and they know it. Whether the Council likes it or not, Starfleet is in charge of things. That means I'M in charge..."

She felt his confidence; his power. He was so sure of himself, and as usual, he was right. Chris was always right. As before, Shannon's look of longing returned, and it did not escape the rapacious eye of Kostya. Once more, he slipped into her personal space, and with the glint of a predator in his eyes, the two locked in a lustful embrace. They did what they pleased in the privacy of the halted turbolift, and neither of them seemed to care that they were late for coffee with the captain.

***

The departure lounge was mostly empty, with a few family members watching as the titanic spaceship cleared the main gangway. This wasn't her first patrol mission. Since her maiden voyage almost three months ago, Saratoga had been on over a dozen missions, and for most of them, non-combatants were forbidden to deploy with the Starfleet crew. Such was war. The small collection of relatives waved through the expansive viewport at the departing vessel, hoping that they would see their loved ones again soon.

In one corner of the lounge, Vice Admiral Kostya and Lieutenant Marshall stood by themselves as Saratoga cleared her berth. Although the admiral was stoic, and sipped leisurely on a cup of coffee, the junior officer had the wide-eyed expression of a child as he remained transfixed on the Sara.

"She's a beautiful ship," Marshall remarked, awestruck by the departing vessel. "All Galaxy-class ships are beautiful."

"Stick with me, Jim, and you might find yourself in charge of one someday," Kostya replied between sips.

Prying his eyes off the ship, he turned to the admiral ecstatically. "Is that a promise, sir?"

"I don't make promises, Jim," said Kostya with a fatherly tone. "I make deals. If you want a ship like the Sara, you'll have to give me something in return."

"I'd give anything..." the lieutenant said while turning back to the now-distant ship.

"In that case, I'd say we can probably come to some sort of agreement."

Watching the blue-white streak of the Saratoga's engines, Marshall mused while the vessel entered warp.

"Captain Stryker sure is a lucky man."

"Yes," Kostya mumbled while he took a sip of coffee. He reminisced about his previous engagement, catching a faint scent of perfume still on his uniform. His thoughts were far from the captain of the Saratoga, focusing instead on the the two prizes that his subordinate captain commanded. For the first time since being promoted to the admiralty, two jewels that Valadmir Kostya held sacred were together in one place: One made of flesh, the other of metal. Staring into space ahead of him, he reminisced with Marshall, but on a completely different subject altogether. "A very lucky man, indeed."

***

Location: Sol III, North America, just outside of Amarillo, Texas
Stardate: 58532.6 (present day)

The flat plains of the southern midwest stretched as far as the eye could see. The blustery wind blew sand and dirt in all four directions under a cloudy sky, and along a cast-iron fence with rust etched into every inch of it's bars, a pair of iron gates creaked with each passing breeze. Above the gates, ancient letters were carved into a metal archway: CEMETERY. Inside the gates, each grave was interspersed along the gravelly surface, spaced wide enough apart to give a feeling of randomness and uniqueness which transcended the ages. There was no grass in this arid environment, and the dates on the gravestones spanned over 500 years. The earliest date was from the mid nineteenth century, and the latest from only a few months ago.

Much like he did in the Saratoga's depature lounge six years prior, Vladimir Christoff Kostya stood at the foot of a grave, reminiscing by staring into the space in front of him. He wore a buckskin jacket with a sheeps-wool liner, and a red handkerchief was wrapped around his neck for use when the wind whipped up too much dust for him to breathe. On his head, the Ukrainian native sported an anachronistic head garment, that being a white, wide-brimmed ranching hat, with a slight fold down the center in true Texan style. With hands in his pockets, the former admiral read the words on the headstone in front of him:

'James Richard Marshall, 2347 - 2380, The Hero of Cestus III'

Kostya was fixated on the last few words on the tombstone. Rachael Blake pulled a lot of strings to get Jim's body a proper burial back on Earth, and a public petition was endoresed to make sure he went down in the history books as the lone Starfleet officer who actually fought back against the Gorns. The entire Galaxy watched as Jim was cut down by a Gorn officer, the visual newsfeed compliments of the Republic crew.

The Republic.

Kostya's anger fumed inside his chest, and he swallowed coarsely. Ever since the Saratoga was found adrift near Cardassian space five years ago, he felt a knot in his stomach that wouldn't go away. Fortunately, there wasn't much for the salvage crew to report. They had no black box, and subsequently, could not piece together what had happened. All they knew is that the crew had up and disappeared, and the computer core was wiped clean -- at least the part that mattered to Starfleet. Sure, there were a few scavengers who took equipment that some in Fleet considered vital: material replicators, transporter parts, plasma relays, warp components. But to Kostya, they were minor compared to what was still left aboard.

Sure, Starfleet may have wanted her back in operation, but Saratoga was HIS ship. He knew every nook and cranny, and his knowledge about her extended far beyond what the Corps of Engineers had on file. When he ordered her to be rechristened as the Republic during refit, he did it only as a minor adjustment to keep the doves off track. Nobody truly knew what she was capable of, or was she was designed to do.

Well, almost no one.

Kostya spoke outloud to Marshall, hoping that his soul was somehow able to hear him from across the chasm of death.

"Well Jim, things didn't quite work out the way we expected them to, did they?"

In some ways, James Marshall was all he had left. His circle of trust had grown smaller in recent months, especially with the assassination death of Fleet Admiral Morozov. When the C-in-C staff scattered, so did Kostya's chances of getting the Republic back. Paris was only willing to play ball once. After that, the new C-in-C made it clear that there were no more free rides.

"Paris is Janeway's lap dog," he muttered. "She put Republic out of my reach."

It was true. Despite the fact that he was head of Starfleet Operations, there were still some areas in the uniformed bureaucracy that he could not reach. Plus, with the miscreant Carter punching holes in the Republic Eight trial, he no longer had the moral authority to direct the forces as he saw fit. Carter and Tuvok hamstrung him, and the council started snooping around his connections to Starfleet Intelligence, forcing him to cut them. Even the Federation president himself made it clear that Kostya was under the microscope.

"So I quit," Kostya concluded his thought verbally. "My tour of duty with Starfleet is done."

He choked up when the words came out. Thrity-eight years. He had thrown away more than half his life over this whole matter with Republic, and there wasn't much left to do except go home and wrap things up with his life. Two months after he moved back to Ukraine, he hit rock bottom. Starfleet was all that he had left. There was no family for him. No brothers, no children. Just the cool summers and frigid winters along the Black Sea; places where only old people went to die.

Then there was Maxwell. When Ben approached him with his unique proposition, Kostya was frosty - even hostile - to the idea. A week later, after he had time to think about it, the former admiral finally realized that even without the uniform, the hawks had not given up on him... a signature of true loyalty. There was still more that he could do, and they wanted him to lead the charge.

"I'm going across the street, Jim," he said with determination. "I'll be damned if I let Janeway and Carter make me tuck tail and run."

A wry smile came to Kostya's face. If he could make it in the political arena, he had plans for the power that might be bestowed upon him. Ben was right. The pen, if wielded correctly, could be quite a bit mightier than the sword. In the past, more than once politicians had gotten in they way of his plans, and until Maxwell approached him in Ukraine, it never occurred to him that he could beat the bureaucrats at their own game.

"Janeway will get what's coming to her," he chuckled. "And as for Carter, our Romulan connections have already shown some interest in him."

With purpose and care, Kostya bent over and placed a quaint, old-style Starfleet uniform insignia at the foot of Marshall's headstone. The shiny gold surfaces were a stark contrast to the rough, dull stone slab, and as the jewelry sparkled in the murky, cloud-filtered daylight, the metallic glint produced a hypnotic effect which seemingly put the former admiral into a trancelike state.

"Republic will be mine again," he said distantly. "And so will all of Starfleet."

A disturbed expression crept into Kostya's face. It was a mix of delusion and connivance, with a splash insanity. Altogether, they spawned a distinct glimmer of megalomania, and had there been any soul present that weren't already dead, they would have recoiled in horror.

"You were right, Jim," he whispered dryly. "The whole Federation has become weak and diseased. But with the right remedy, we'll become strong again."

Location: Deck 38, brig, USS Republic (Gamma Quadrant)

A high-pitched warbling hum echoed through the mind of the Operative as she sat in a lotus position deep in mediation. Slowly, she concentrated on her breathing to help keep her thoughts concentrated on one task. As a Vulcan, she possessed emotions, but like her ancestors of ages past, the very core of her being was driven by the instinct to keep them under strict control, no matter how strongly they burned.

"We can't send you back to Deep Space Nine," she recalled Captain Roth's voice at her informal sentencing. "It would be signing your death warrant if the Syndicate catches wind that you left the ship. Therefore, you'll have to stay on Republic until we return from our mission."

The warbling hum persisted. The Operative knew that mainstream Starfleet had no records of her, and so, would appear that she was impersonating an officer. Truth be known, had their positions been reversed, she would have done the same thing as the captain did, but that didn't stop the simmering rage her inner psyche resonated.

"Despite mitigating circumstances, you're probably still facing prison time, and while I could simply confine you to quarters, I have no doubt you'll find a way to escape off this ship. So, I have no choice but to let the security department do their job and sentence you to the brig for the remainder of our current cruise."

Unwavering, the high-pitched electronic warble continued to cut through her trance-like state. Logic dictated that the captain was correct. Escape was normally the first order of business under these circumstances, but the situation was far from normal.

"Twenty-four hour watch, three meals a day, and one hour of supervised exercise under heavy guard. You are not to have any contact with the crew, nor are you to be allowed access to any other part of the ship. You're a semi-permanent inmate now, until we can safely hand you over to Starfleet Security."

They were reasonable precautions, but made her job harder by orders of magnitude. The warble ebbed and flowed, moving closer, then further away before moving closer again. The captain's pretentiousness was of the same variety that could be expected from any human, but even still, she'll never forget how Roth attempted to put a positive spin on it.

"The upside for you is that Starfleet JAG will credit time in the Republic brig as time served in the stockade, and your overall sentence will be reduced. So, whether you choose to believe it, I'm actually doing you a favor."

A favor ... That was four months ago.

It didn't matter. Her words meant nothing, and escape was pointless anyway. Before being incarcerated, the Operative's last precious drop of outside information told her that Republic's mission was to chart an obscure nebula a thousand light years from the nearest known spaceport, let alone any habitable planet. She wouldn't get very far, even if she managed to get off the ship. Republic's sensors were vastly superior to any other Federation vessel in the Gamma Quadrant, and the only thing out there right now was a whole lot of nothing. A shuttlecraft would be spotted weeks before she could find safe harbor, and Roth would just put her back in this cell with another charge to add to her legal brief.

Finally, the incessant warble ceased, followed by the sound of a medical tricorder snapping shut.

"Well," announced Doctor Harris to the guards outside the confinement field of the cell. "That's it. Her monthly checkup is done, and she's in the best of health, just like last month. If there's nothing else, I have to get back to sickbay. Doctor Cromwell needs me in preparation for our arrival at the A'sharraan homeworld."

The Operative showed no outward response to the doctor's words, but inside, it set into motion a series of carefully laid calculations and extrapolations. While the Vulcan could feel when the ship changed speed by the nearly impercevable vibrations of the deckplates, she assumed that recent changes were routine course adjustments associated with their nebula-mapping mission. The holographic doctor just gave her the first clue that something else was going on. Apparently, something more than just space dust was lingering outside the ship.

"Did you issue the prisoner the required hygiene kit?" a gruff, professional security guard responded from behind the watch desk in the main cell block area.

"She's got a name, you know," Harris remarked humanely. "Not just 'prisoner'. You security guys really need to loosen up."

"Did you issue the prisoner the hygiene kit?" he guard repeated, unfazed by the doctor.

Without saying anything, Harris simply pointed to the sink where a package of hygine wipes, dental appliques, and a clean prisoner jumpsuit sat neatly folded.

"By regulation," she concluded. "And if you ask me, a few extra luxuries couldn't hurt any. It's not like she's going anywhere."

"That'll be all, doctor," the guard excused her. "Your work here is done."

Without so much as a whisper, Doctor Harris vanished as she redirected her holographic program back to sickbay through the Republic's optical circuits. Only then did the Operative open her eyes from the medative state she was in. The first form her eyes focused upon was the guard outside the cell, typing commands into the computer console at his desk. Slowly, she shifted her eyes away from the guard and towards the holographic projector that allowed the doctor to perform her checkup inside the cell. After a momentary pause while staring at the inaccessible apparatus, the Operative's eyes scanned the spartan prison cell. Other than a bunk, a sink, and a toilet, all that remained was the hygiene kit that Doctor Harris left behind.

Dental appliques were unique cosmetic products. They were nothing more than thin wafers of electron-etched silicone that dissolved into simple molecular nanomachines upon contact with saliva. Moistened, they were designed to scrub tooth enamel clean of tartar and plaque before natural enzymes in the mouth eventually broke them down into inert compounds. However, if kept dry, they remained as finely etched sheets of silicone that, with enough time and patience, could be carefully reworked with the aid of tiny foil implements rendered from empty hygiene wipe packets.

Of course, human eyes and hands could never accomplish the workmanship needed to carve a rudimentary integrated circuit. They just didn't have the finely-tuned tactility required. A Vulcan, on the other hand, did. Centuries ago, integrated circuits formed the core of sophisticated computer systems on many planets, and while such systems were built from much more intricate silicone wafers, the Operative didn't need processing power of that magnitude. All she needed was what Starfleet regulations made available to prisoners by interstellar law.

While the security guard sat at his desk only meters away, the Operative opened her hand to reveal a small, four month-old hygiene wipe packet containing a large collection of tiny dry dental appliques - each one partially etched with rudimentary electronic programming language. What purpose they served was known only to the Operative, and with nearly imperceptible movements of her hands, she carefully continued her excruciating work on the small silicone wafers.

Location: Transporter room four, USS Republic

Transporter Room Four was buzzing with activity when Captain Roth entered the reception foyer. The ensign in operations gold at the control panel snapped to attention before Commander John Carter, who was manning the second position at the console, could advise the Ensign to return to work.

"As you were, ensign." He put in, giving Captain Roth a polite nod.

The captain paid Carter and the ensign no mind, and instead focused at the four individuals assembled on the transporter pads: Lieutenant Beauvis, Counselor Tolkath, Doctor Cromwell, and the Ash'aaran, Commander Karu.

Beauvis was the example of Starfleet security at it's finest, sporting no less than three personal beam weapons, the largest of which a slung phaser rifle. The counselor and doctor were not as well armed, but locked into their holsters the standard Type 2 phaser pistols on their equipment belts, directly opposite their stowed tricorders. The doctor, in addition to his hard shell backpack medical kit, also carried two cases in each hand: one a specialized specimen collection kit, and the other a bulky suitcase containing an EVA suit.

"What that for?" Captain Roth inquired about the latter article as she stepped up to the transporter pad.

"Biohazard protocols," Leon replied. "A little extra protection if I have to work with a patient that's still contagious."

"Understood," she nodded, double-checking her own phaser as she spun around on the transport pad to face forward.

"You won't need those," Karu commented to the captain, regarding the phaser.

"We'll see." Zoe commented.

"I don't suppose there's anything I can say to change your mind, captain?" John Carter asked from the control panel pedestal.

"Not this time, Commander." She answered with a small shake of her head. "It's a first contact mission, and it's my policy to be the only person responsible if something goes wrong. That means leading the away mission. If this whole thing flies south, I want you here on the ship, ready to take action."

There was a degree of finality to the captain's voice, leaving no question as to who would be heading up the away-team. Carter liked a good argument on ship policy, especially if he felt that he was in the right, but his experience told him that this was not the time nor place to question the orders of his superior officer.

"Aye, Captain," Carter replied. Raising his head from the transporter's display, the executive officer turned his attention to the security chief, Lieutenant Beauvis.

"Remember what we talked about," he reminded her firmly.

The counselor and doctor exchanged silent glances, remembering all too well the speech that John had just given the lieutenant moments earlier. It was the standard 'you-are-responsible-for-the-life-of-the-captain' invective that many an experienced tactical officer had to endure at one time or another, and while tense to watch for an outsider, it was a commonplace ritual between tactical officers and their execs, especially since John had once been a chief of security himself in the not-so-distant past.

Calmly, Beauvis nodded. "With my shield, or on it, Sir." A firm response, that reinforced Carter's faith in her resolve.

The Exec's face didn't seem to soften any, but he did return a silent nod to Beauvis, satisfied that the two had a mutual understanding of each other's role in the mission about to unfold. Turning to the transporter chief, John released a held breath.

"Energize ..."

***

As the veil of transporter energy subsided, the five-person away team beheld a devastated landscape. The charred, uneven terrain was strewn with rubble and debris, and on the distant horizon, the skeletal remains of tall skyscrapers stood; their twisted metal frames splayed forth towards the sky, the somber remnants of a devastated civilization. Above, black and gray clouds roiled about in ominous witness to the thermonuclear maelstrom that had recently ravaged the surface, and the dry, melancholy breeze carried with it the stench of rot and smoke.

"Unbelievable," Kim Roth whispered. She'd seen planet-wide catastrophes, even caused a bit of destruction in her day, but this was far beyond the pall of anything she'd seen. The impact was made all the more personal by the fact that she was standing in the middle of it, and not looking at a tri-vid or holo-deck facsimile.

Strolling up to stand next to her, Karu looked on in grim familiarity. His eyes swept across the charred landscape, and despite how well he recognized the scene, he still felt a boiling rage somewhere deep inside.

"The capital city was once home to fifteen million," he told Roth while gazing in the direction of a burned-out skyscraper. "Now, the radiation levels are far too high for any humanoid life to exist."

Behind them, the humming of tricorders came to life as Tolkath and Cromwell scanned the area under the watchful guard of Beauvis.

It was Tolkath who spoke up first. "The perimeter is secure".

"Tell me again," came the gruff voice of Leon Cromwell. "Why can't we just beam directly to the government bunker?"

"Trust," replied Karu. "Our subspace message was enough to startle them to say the least," he explained. "By giving them a time and place to meet, it shows them that we're willing to confer on their terms."

Beavis flexed her fingers, tightening her hold on the grip of her now un-slung phaser rifle. "What are the chances they'll attack?" Zoe asked. "They may not let us talk at all." She stayed perched on a higher pile of rubble, carefully scanning the surrounding area, looking for any sign of movement.

"Make no mistake," warned Karu. "They won't be happy. They'll likely come armed and ready to fight. Like I said before, I'd suggest you all be calm and compliant... Make no sudden moves, and do exactly as they say."

As in the transporter room, the doctor and counselor exchanged silent glances, this time of uncertainty and wariness.

"Well, we're here", Roth said, consulting her own tricorder as she swept an errant lock of hair from her face. "Now what do we do?" she asked.

Karu raised an eyebrow while crossing his arms. "We wait."

***

John Carter never liked waiting, even though the rational side of his brain told him that was all he could do just now. He wasn't used to being on this side of the sky while an away team was out, and having his Captain be a member of that away team certainly didn't help. He shifted his weight in the center seat, leaning his elbow on the command chair's left armrest and finally let out a tense sigh.

Next to John, Shannon Harris sat in the seat normally occupied by the Chief Counselor, but with Tolkath on the planet surface, Republic's pediatrician and some time EMH took advantage of a rare opportunity to spend time with the First Officer, however she could. She glanced over at Carter, noting the tense muscles that made the lines of his jaw stand out. "She'll be fine." She finally said softly.

Carter didn't move his eyes from the acid yellow and brown ball that spun on the ship's main viewer. "I know." He offered, Beauvis will see to it." Carter turned his head slightly and allowed a thin smile to slip onto his stony expression when he saw Shannon sitting next to him. "Do you know what the last thing she said to me was?"

Shannon Harris shook her head. "No". She lied. In reality, Harris could access the ship's internal sensor logs nearly instantaneously and essentially relive the moment as if she'd been there. However, Harris actually liked talking to John, and enjoyed keeping their interaction as `normal' as possible. She liked the sound of his voice and genuinely enjoyed when he shared insights with her.

"With my shield or on it." John said after a few tense beats.

"Pfft" came the noise from the helm and navigation console. "What n'Hell duzzat mean?"

The question came from Nat Hawk, whom Carter suspected was just as anxious as he was about NOT being included on the away team. Carter straightened in the seat, about to vent some frustration in Hawk's direction, but before John could unleash, Shannon Harris' soft alto voice interrupted.

"It's from old Earth history," Shannon said. "Something Spartan mothers would tell their sons before they went off to war." She looked back toward John, who seemed genuinely impressed that she knew the reference. "Return WITH your shield, or ON it." She explained. "It means they expected total effort, and victory at any price".

"Great." Hawk drawled. "Sounds like so much Klingon hooey, y'ask me. I know ya didn't, 'cause no one ever does, but that ain't the point, I 'spose."

"There is one, Mister Hawk?" Carter asked rather sharply.

"Capn's a smart one, Cyclops," Hawk offered. "You know she'll keep her cool."

Behind Hawk, Carter nodded, conceding that in his own way, Hawk had made a point.

"Besides," Hawk continued, "Doc's with 'em. "Wait'll they git a load a the Cromwell 'Bedside Manner'."

***

"This is RIDICULOUS!" Leon Cromwell hissed, careful not to let anyone other than Kim Roth hear his voice. "It's been at least 40 minutes since they finally let Karu talk to them! Are seriously considering just beaming back out of here?!"

Kim Roth held up a hand. "Shields down please, Doctor." She cautioned. "We're asking these people to take a VERY big step. They've never known aliens that DIDN'T try to enslave and destroy them. These things take time."

Still watching from her elevated position, Zoe Beauvis checked and re-checked the calibration of her phaser rifle. The Ash'aaran

delegation they'd been expecting had arrived with amazing stealth over an hour ago. Beauvis had made four of them, though she was certain there were at least two she couldn't see; likely taking up sniper's positions. 'After all,' she reminded herself, 'thats what I would do'.

Karu had stepped forward to meet them quickly enough, but from what Beauvis had been able to make out, it took some serious smooth talking, despite the advance notice, pre-appointed meeting, and general urgency that Zoe had thought permeated the situation at hand.

The four visitors, three men and one woman, were all wearing the same dark, head to toe combat armor. Beauvis assumed that the matte cloth covered energy or impact resistant ceramic plates; probably not unlike the security armor Starfleet used a century ago. She could certainly see the need for it, but she was put more on edge by the large and brutish weapons all four of the Ash'aaran

's carried. Each of them had a large pistol-like sidearm, twice as large as a hand phaser, made of some dark metal that Zoe was unfamiliar with. These, she reasoned were electro-magnetic slug-throwers; in all probability the only weapons small enough and powerful enough to allow a soldier to take down the genocidal robots that once terrorized the planet.

From bits of conversation that she could overhear, when the welcoming party finally addressed Karu directly, the female among them was the leader. A dark-haired woman with deeply set eyes and pale olive skin, who Zoe thought was named Athra.

Zoe could see how anxious Doctor Cromwell was to get to business, but what fascinated her more was the fact that Counselor Tolkath had remained almost completely still since the newcomers had made their presence known. Only now, perhaps because of Cromwell's frustration, did Tolkath step closer to Captain Roth.

"I don't know what he said to them, Captain," Tolkath offered, but I think they're open to what we have to offer."

Roth crossed her arms over her chest, as Cromwell took two steps closer to the Counselor, moving further up the hill where Zoe kept her charges under a watchful eye. "They'll do it?" Cromwell asked. "They'll let us treat them?"

Tolkath held up a cautious hand. "I didn't say that Doctor." The Counselor took a long look again at the Ash'aaran party, tasting the emotion in the area. "Their leader... at least I THINK she's the leader... seems excited, not agitated like the rest. At this point, I'm ASSUMING that's positive, but..."

"But it's only a guess, Counselor?" Roth queried.

"An educated one, Captain," Tolkath admitted, "but if they really wanted us dead, we'd be dead already."

"The day's not over yet, Counselor." Roth quipped with a hint of a smile.

From the bottom of the hill, Karu looked back toward the Republic landing party. "Captain Roth! Doctor Cromwell!" he bellowed, "May we have a word?"

Zoe Beauvis tensed slightly as Roth pivoted to walk toward the waiting Ash'aarans. "Of course Karu," she answered calmly. "Time to make our case, doctor."

The Ash'aarans formed a crescent with Karu waiting in the center where he was joined by Roth and Cromwell after a few cautious steps down the hill of sliding, charred rubble. When Kim and Leon were just behind Karu, the dark-haired woman stepped forward.

"I am Legionnaire Athra." Her tone was clipped, her voice firm. Roth could tell right off that this was a woman accustomed to authority.

"Captain Kimberly Roth, Legionnaire." Roth said with a slight nod. "On behalf of the United Federation of Planets, I'd like to offer you whatever assistance I or my crew can..."

"This one's a chiurgeon?" Atra interrupted Roth brusquely as she looked squarely at Cromwell.

"That's right." Leon offered simply.

Athra nodded with a smile. "Well, whatever tales you've told Karu, he vouches for you... no matter how foolish your claims."

Leon tensed, about to say something when Roth, placed a hand on the Doctor's shoulder. "I'm sorry if we've made some offense Legionnaire. Is there something I can clarify for you?"

Athra's eyes were cold steel as she regarded Roth with barely hidden contempt. "Why?" was all she said.

Roth nodded. "I see," she said simply. "I could give you some lofty speech about peaceful coexistence or mutual reward," Roth met Athra's gaze with an equal amount of resolve, "but were I in your situation, that would seem empty and hollow. After all... words can't keep children from screaming can they?"

Leon was surprised that Athra visibly paled. From her talk in the briefing, Leon had expected a soft sell. This, however, was a far more aggressive approach. Clearly he didn't know everything about his Captain, at least not yet.

"Indeed not," Athra answered, "and so I ask again. Why?"

"Because it's the human thing to do." Roth offered. "I won't pretend to understand the pain other outsiders have brought you. But I'm here as proof that there's more to the galaxy than death and fear."

Athra seemed to regain her breath as the fire of defiance returned to her cheeks. "Ah..." she nodded, "the benevolent strangers. No doubt here to remake our world? Hmm? Save us from our backward, primitive ways?" Athra's hand slipped down to pat her sidearm. "I've heard that before, Captain." The last word dripped with contempt as Athra looked back at her colleagues. "There's always a price. And I think we've paid enough. Don't you?"

Roth nodded again. "I'd say so, yes." She looked again at Cromwell who was slowly flexing his fingers in an effort to remain calm. "All I can do is offer."

"And I suppose our refusal ends in death?"

Roth shook her head. "Quite the contrary. Your refusal ends my involvement. My government's highest law dictates that I not interfere with or alter a civilization's progress unless specifically ordered or invited to do so. If you refuse further contact with me or anyone from my ship, we'll disappear as quickly as we came."

Roth spoke the truth. Athra could sense that much from the woman's conviction, but judging by the reddening face of the man next to her, that opinion might not be as iron clad as the Captain had wanted it to appear. "And you..." She turned her attention to Leon, and then looked at Karu to refresh her memory.

"Cromwell."

"You do not share your Captain's opinion?"

"No, Legionnaire, I do not." The Doctor admitted. "I took an oath to preserve life and alleviate suffering as best I could, wherever I could."

Athra nodded. "Then you will speak for your people, chiurgeon." Athra put her index and middle fingers together motioning back the way the party had come. The other three Ash'aaran's drew their weapons. "Come along, Cromwell."

Roth shot a quick look to Tolkath, who nodded, somewhat surprisingly, in the affirmative. Zoe Beauvis on the other hand...

"Orders, Captain?" she called out, tensing slightly, fighting her instincts to raise her weapon and make sure that Doctor Cromwell stayed right where he was.

Across from Roth, Karu looked to Athra. Legionnaire, this man is a scientist, an academic. He's no threat to us whatever."

"Which is precisely why he," she looked again at Roth, "and ONLY he, will meet with the authorities."

"Now hold on just a second!" Leon shouted, a little louder than he'd meant to. "There's no need to make this difficult..." he backed toward the case that held his EVA suit. "But if I'm going with you, I'll need a few minutes to prepare."

Next to Cromwell, Roth gave the doctor an appraising look. "Seems it's your call after all Doctor." Roth turned her head, calling back over her shoulder. "Stand down, lieutenant!" She shouted. "The doctor's got things in hand."

Karu again turned to address the Legionnaire. "As I explained before, Athra. He's here to study the infection. Surely you don't mean to..."

Athra looked at Cromwell, then looked past him to Roth. "It makes no difference, Karu," she explained. "But his enthusiasm amuses me. Make whatever preparations you require, Cromwell. For all the good it will do you."

***

Leon Cromwell entered the dim and dusty room with wide, cautious eyes. As the air grew stale, fear knocked at the front door of his brain as Leon's heartbeat doubled and his breath turned rapid, fogging up the visor of his EVA suit. Even with ample warning from the Ash'aaran

s and proper cross-contamination protocols being utilized, Leon's trepidation was quite apparent as he approached the dark figure lying on the bed in the corner.

Leon had expected a rag-tag collective. Something like his father's Shadow Force during the Gorn occupation of Cestus III. This however was a level of organizational breakdown he was unprepared for. The Ash'aaran ruling council, or whatever it called itself was, as near as Leon could tell, a few dozen humanoids in various stages of an almost certainly fatal infection. During the walk into the 'command bunker' such as it was, the streets were eerily quiet. Even accounting for the Ash'aaran's xenophobia Leon had to assume that there were far fewer people on the planet than anyone onboard Republic had guessed. 'Athra might be right' he admitted silently. `This might all be for nothing. Was there some acceleration of the infection? Something Karu's crew didn't know?' The dimmed light in the bunker didn't help to give Leon any answers, so he reluctantly pressed on.

***

Still perched on the hill where they'd arrived, Kim Roth checked the archaic wristwatch that had been a gift from her father to celebrate her graduation from the academy. She watched as the smooth sweep of the second hand arced past the '12' on the clock's brass face. She tapped her communicator. "Roth to Republic. Still have him?"

"Carter here, Captain. We've got him. Sarenk was able to get a lock even through the bunker's armor and whatever hardening they tried to do.

"And we can pull him out any time?"

"Roger that, Captain. Doctor Harris says his pulse is elevated, but he's not in any danger. At least not that we can tell."

"Understood XO. Keep us in the loop, and for god's sake, keep us locked. Roth out."

Republic's Captain stood, pausing a moment to arch her back, working out a stressed muscle. "You're sure you read them right, Counselor?"

Tolkath nodded. "Still, Captain. There was no deception or intent to do the Doctor harm. I believe that Athra simply didn't think any sort of treatment was possible, to say nothing of having any chance at success. If I had to guess, I'd say that the Legionnaire intends to enjoy the Doctor's failure."

"And I do so look forward to disappointing that woman."

***

Leon Cromwell was a seasoned medical professional. His life was dedicated to hard sciences; cell division, chemical bonds, which hormones act how, to cause what reactions. It wasn't guesswork. It was predictable, reliable, solid. Inside his EVA suit he was as safe as he could possibly be from any biological or chemical agent, and despite their almost mocking cooperation, none of the Ash'aarans had threatened him in any way. Yet, a sixth-sense inside him was sending pulses of danger down every inch of his nervous system. As he approached a patient whom Athra had said could use his help. Initially, Leon had assumed it would be someone who had only recently become symptomatic. Now though, he was beginning to suspect that Athra was sicker, and perhaps more dead than anyone else on the planet.

With a shaky hand, Leon produced his tricorder and activated the diagnostic wand. At the sound of his approach, the body on the bed rolled away from the wall and turned it's head to face the space-suited doctor.

Leon audibly gasped in horror at the sight before him.

While the body of this infected individual was humanoid in shape, nothing organic or flesh-colored remained, as the skin had been mutated into a mesh of finely-spun metallic strands. It's eyes were illuminated vials of crimson light, and geometrically-perfected irises suggestive of camera shutters stared back at the doctor with a steely menace. It's teeth were no longer bone, but a chrome-like alloy protruding from a metal vestigial structure that may have once resembled a humanoid skull. Tubes and wires replaced veins and hair, and as the otherworldly aberration fidgeted restlessly against the restraints of the bed, electromagnetic solenoids clicked and hummed, signifying that organic muscle had been transformed to nightmarish analogs of mechanical origin.

Trembling, Leon closed his tricorder and opened a small, rectangular case sporting a medical logo. From inside, the doctor obtained a manual, syringe-based serum collection device. Searching his patient for an organ or some sort of blood vessel, a close inspection of the diseased patient revealed very little organic tissue remaining, but the doctor's trained eye soon spotted a pale, dark-red conduit indicative of a last bit of dying flesh.

Using the collection device, Leon plunged the sharp implement into the pressurized vesicle, and almost immediately, the hypodermic filled with not blood, but a shiny liquid substance resembling mercury.

The creature barely stirred at the invasive procedure, and only kept its eyes fixated on the doctor. The gaze was menacing, and Leon struggled to keep his composure in the face of panic. After filling the syringe, he quickly capped it and returned it to it's sealed case. Tapping the communications console on his wrist, Leon contacted the ship.

"Cromwell to Republic," he announced with an anxious voice. "Still there John?"

"Roger that, Doc. The sights in this town are lousy, so we decided to stick around. Shannon's says you're... agitated. Everything all right?

"No, but I'm almost done here. Lock onto the sample case and beam it directly to the isolation lab using the medical transporter. Cromwell out."

Within seconds, the case had vanished, and as Leon turned to leave the room, a spectrum of digitized tones warbled forth from the cybernetic creature. The reverberations were so modulated and distorted that even Leon's universal translator could not decipher them. Whether it was a gruesome threat of xeno-robotic origin, or a last desperate plea for help from a dying humanoid, Leon would never know.

Location: Quark's Bar, Grill, Gaming House, Holosuite and Embassy to Ferenginar; Deep Space Nine (Alpha Quadrant)

Douglas Forrest and Sean McTaggert sat in dim, secluded area of Quark's, a pair of drinks sitting on the table between them, both were dressed in civilian clothes, nothing flash and by some standards a little on the well-worn side. McTaggert's discomfort provided a small amount of amusement for the obviously more at ease Forrest.

"So Commander," began McTaggert as he leaned closer in a conspiratorial way, "what's our plan of action."

Forrest leaned further into his chair, his body language taking on that of a down on his luck spacer, took his drink off the table and slowly took a sip, letting the Andorian brandy burn it's way into his stomach.

"You can stop with the Commander stuff," he began. "Call me Douglas or Doug. We're about to get involved with some people who would have no problem killing us if they find out we're Starfleet."

Forrest looked around the bar casually his eyes taking in every detail.

"We sit here and wait," he continued. "We relax, play some dabo,maybe get stinking drunk. Relax, Sean, enjoy."

"How can you just be so casual?" asked McTaggert, obviously upset by the lack of concern being displayed by his "partner". "This is a load of bull, we need to start doing something, asking questions,getting some answers."

Before he could continue his tirade, McTaggert noticed the approach of a very attractive Trill woman. Her red hair was worn long, framing her face in a very dramatic way. She was dressed in a pale green dress that hid little of her magnificent physique, the whole ensemble designed to do only one thing, fulfill a fantasy.

"Would one of you gentlemen be interested in buying a lady a drink?" she asked, her voice rich and full of sultry promise.

Forrest casually reached his leg out and pushed the third chair away from the table in a form of disinterested agreement, his eyes lingering on the woman and placed his hand on the arm of McTaggert, who was starting to rise, his Starfleet training and manners on automatic.

"I'm Delor", the woman purred as she settled herself between the two men. She raised a her hand to a passing waitress and looked at the two men, as she sized them both up, a touch of mischief in her eyes.

"Doug," responded Forrest. "And this is my friend Sean. I'll have to admit,you really did stop by at the right time. I was just explaining to my friend here that we needed to take in the sights and find something to entertain us while here."

"Fortunate indeed," the Trill replied, her tongue quickly licking her bottom lip.

McTaggert stared at the two as they exchanged their almost inappropriate banter, obviously uncomfortable where this conversation was leading.

"I think I can guarantee the two of you have an amazing visit on Deep Space Nine," Delor continued. "I know an amazing program that we could use in one of the holosuites. I just hope you are both well rested?" She leaned close to Forrest and rested her hand high on his thigh, her eyes however locked with McTaggert leaving no doubt as to her intentions.

The look on McTaggert's face clearly showed how he felt about the blatant offer the woman had made. It wasn't that he was a prude, he simply had been raised to keep certain details private. And this was one of those times.

Forrest watched as McTaggert slowly blushed and then burst out into laughter,no longer able to contain himself. At his outburst the woman quickly sat pack, a look of disappointment on her face, but the overt sexual demeanor completely gone.

"You are a cruel man, Dragon", she said a slight smile spreading across her lips.

"I'm sorry, Cheshire", Forrest responded as he quickly gained control of himself. "but I really couldn't resist myself. Beside Sean here needed to loosen up a bit."

McTaggert slowly began to realize that he had been being put on and began to laugh. It wasn't the first time he'd been hazed, and he could appreciate a the effort Forrest was taking to make him feel like they could trust each other. Trust would play an important part in everything they were about to undertake.

"At least he can take a joke", Forrest smiled. "Otherwise I was going to be worried."

"He is kind of cute when he blushes," added Delor. Everyone at the table now in a better more relaxed mood.

"So",interrupted Forrest. "Are things ready for us?"

"You two have passage on the freighter Le'vosh, leaving tomorrow morning, early" Delor began. "The captain owes me a favor, so no one will mention your being aboard. He's also willing to make a quick stop at Farius Prime. He wasn't to happy about that little detail,but he'd rather make that stop then spend a decade in the Bajoran penal system form smuggling. Any idea where you plan to start."

Forrest smiled widely, but his eyes became suddenly intense.

"I think I'm going to look up a man named Raimus."

 

Location: Farius Prime
Timeframe: Two weeks later

Sean McTaggert leaned against the bar and stared at the Bolian bartender with all the animosity he could muster. Which considering the way he was feeling was quite a bit. Nine days spent in the cramped quarters of a dirty freighter, five more days following leads, fourteen days without a shower or shave, all added up to an incredibly short-tempered, Starfleet officer.

The Bolian for his part, seemed relatively relaxed and didn't seem all that put off by McTaggert's demeanor. Sean longed to reach across the bar and drag the bartender across the room and see how smug he would look with a boot on his throat.

"Listen Graife," Douglas Forrest scowled from next to McTaggert. "We both know you know how to get in touch with Raimus. Either you get in touch with him or my friend here is going to direct a lot of violence in your direction."

"I'm sorry sir," the bartender replied, as he continued to wipe down the bar. "But I'm not familiar with anyone named Raimus. Perhaps you've mistaken me for a different Bolian bartender. Many humans often have a hard time telling my people apart."

Forrest made a slight gesture, a signal prearranged with McTaggert and without warning the undercover Tactical Officer reached across the bar and grabbed the taller Bolian by the front of his shirt and dragged him across the bar. Graife yelped in surprise as he was lifted from his feet and settled rather uncomfortably on the opposite side of the bar.

"Wrong answer," snarled McTaggert, playing the role he was assigned to. "Now I'm going to tear you a new eating hole."

The music in the bar stopped and the sound of seats falling back drew the attention of the two Starfleet officers. A half dozen men stood around the bar, ready to step in. Forrest had figured that it would take something like this to get the right attention.

McTaggert released his hold on the Bolian and stood to face the men, assessing the the threats they presented. They all looked pretty tough, the kind of people used to a bar fight, the kind of men that would have no problem killing him if the felt like it. McTaggert was pretty sure they all wanted him dead.

The Tactical Officer took a few steps forward and waited for the first of them to come at him, settling into a relaxed Savate stance.

"You okay?" asked Forrest, starting forward to stand by Sean's side.

"I've got it," McTaggert responded. Never taking his eyes off the men slowly moving towards him.

Forrest stepped back and shrugged at the men, a slight smile across his face.

The first of the men reached McTaggert and swung a heavy punch at the Starfleet officer. McTaggert quickly stepped inside the blow catching the man's arm on his shoulder and countered with a standard crochet strike, a power hook attack, to the side of his attackers head, dazing him instantly. McTaggert followed up with a lighting quick figure fouetté, or roundhouse kick, to the side of the man head, snapping it back sharply and sending the first attacker to the floor, unconscious.

The next man that advanced on McTaggert, came in more cautious, keeping his attention on McTaggert's moving feet. That was his mistake. The Tactical officer quickly closed the distance and threw two direct bras avant strikes, quick jabs, at the man's head, connecting with both. The blows did little damage but they brought the assailant's eyes and guard up and took his attention away from McTaggert's feet. McTaggert responded with a median chassé, a piston-like kick front kick that caught the attacker square in the chest, lifting him off his feet and hurling back onto a table, unconscious.

McTaggert spun quickly to his right and continued the momentum to connect with a figure revers, a high hooking kick that caught the next attacker on the side of the face and sent him spinning out of the fight.

Doug Forrest whistled with appreciation as he watched the younger man eliminate three attackers in less than forty-five seconds. He had to admit that McTaggert knew what he was doing. A movement from the corner of his eye, drew his attention back to the Bolian, who was trying to quietly reach for something behind his back. Forrest made a quick step toward the Bolian, stepping down with all his weight on Graife's spread fingers. A scream of pain erupted from the Bolian as his fingers broke and shattered.

McTaggert moved away from the remaining three attackers, opening up some distance. In the process he scooped up a heavy mug from the table, spilling the beverage it contained. With a fast whip of his arm he hurled the mug at the furthest assailant, catching him right between the eyes, completely by surprise. The attacker went down like the proverbial sack of potatoes.

The next two attackers came at McTaggert together, forcing him to go on the defense, blocking well-timed blows on his forearms, protecting his head in a classic boxer's defense. Both attackers, sensing the upper hand to a moment to gloat and made a big mistake. Sean responded with a sharp coup de pied bas, a low front kick, directed at the unfortunate target's shin. The bone snapped with agonizing force sending the man screaming to the ground instantly.

The remaining assailant came at McTaggert fast and hard, delivering a series of short, quick punches that landed on McTaggert's ribs with enough force to hurt and knock some wind from his lungs. The two remained close, exchanging a series of quick, inside blows that made it hard to determine who was connecting and how much damage was actually being done.

McTaggert found his back against the bar with no more room to retreat and his attacker showing no signs of tiring. A surprise punch caught McTaggert on the side of the face, splitting his lip. McTaggert ignored the pain and ducked under the next punch and spun away from the bar and forcing his attacker's back against it. Without waiting he reached in close and grabbed his opponents head and drew it down in a classic clinch move. As his opponent struggled against the downward force McTaggert leap from his left foot, bringing his knee hard up into the man's exposed face, feeling his knee shatter bone, spraying blood everywhere. The force of the blow lifted the last man off his feet where he landed heavily on the bar, unconscious.

McTaggert looked around the room at the damage he had caused and winced slightly as he realized just how much he hurt.

Forrest leaned close to Graife, now holding his hand in obvious pain.

"When you call Raimus," he said in a calm and firm voice, "tell him Connelly is looking for him."

 

Location: Farius Prime
Timeframe: Later that night

Douglas Forrest and Sean McTaggart turned from the main sidewalk and headed down a side street, away from the lights and crowds of the late night town. The side street was filled with small stalls, most covered for the night but a few still had merchants, trying to move their goods. At this hour none of the things for sale would be all that legal, but a person had to make money any way they could.

The two men passed a small group of men engaged in a sale, one of them handing a sizable stack of the currency, standard to this world, to another in exchange for a vial of bright blue liquid. Another salesman made his way toward the two, but thought better of it when he saw the cuts on McTaggart's face; some sense of self-preservation outweighing any idea of making a profit.

"You feeling okay?" Forrest asked as he noticed a slight wince from McTaggart. "I can do this part alone."

"I'll be alright," the injured McTaggart responded. "It's probably just a bruised rib or two. I've had worse."

Forrest smiled as he realized that he was beginning to like his partner. Forrest knew McTaggart had been sent along with him by Commander Carter to keep an eye on him and make sure he stayed on the up and up. The Starfleet Intelligence officer had to admit that all things considered Carter was right in not trusting him. He was just glad he'd been "partnered" with someone who could handle working outside the normal parameters.

Forrest was caught off guard when McTaggart suddenly stopped moving. He was also a bit upset with himself for letting his mind drift. He'd been trained better than this, plus certain implants in his head were supposed to keep him focused, but for some reason they had failed. He would have to deal with that situation at a later time, right now he had to stay alive.

A group of men, a mixture of species seen around the town, had blocked their path. Behind him he could hear the sounds of others as they blocked that way as well. All totaled about a dozen. After what he'd seen in the bar he was pretty sure he and McTaggart would be able to take them. The thing that stopped him from taking any action was the fact they all held disruptors. A few of the weapons looked Klingon in origin, but mixed in the group were some of Romulan design and a few Cardassian. The kind of weapons found on the black market.

Forrest was glad to see that his partner wasn't going to try anything stupid, as McTaggart slowly lifted his hands away from his sides in a universal gesture of surrender.

A Farian stepped through the group of men blocking the way, his dark hair was well groomed and unlike his associates his clothes were spotless and very expensive looking. The newcomers presence both emboldened the gang of men and frightened them. This was man used to leading by fear.

"Raimus," Forrest stated both to inform McTaggart as well as to let the man know he was known.

"It seems you know who I am," Raimus chuckled, but not really amused. "I understand your name is Connelly? I knew a Connelly once but you look nothing like him."

Forrest smiled back at the leader of the Orion Syndicate on Farius Prime and as well as most of this sector of space.

"I guess you could say we're related. He said I should look you up if I was ever in the neighborhood. He regrets not being able to visit you himself, something involving repaying a debt."

The slim smile on Raimus' face disappeared immediately. His sense of humor gone at the implied threat.

"I could simply have you killed," the criminal mastermind spoke. "There would be no bodies to be found. Granted someone would eventually miss you, but even Starfleet Intelligence would find itself at a loss to figure out who was responsible. So, exactly, why should I stop from giving such an order."

"Because," began Forrest a conspiratorial smile crossing his lips. "I'm about to make you the most influential man in the Orion Syndicate."

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic (Gamma Quadrant)

As soon as the Ash'aaran blood sample was beamed to the Republic's isolation lab via the closed-circuit medical transporter, sickbay personnel were standing by in protective suits to retrieve it. The primary concern was release of the contagion to the rest of the ship, and this was the first time the sickbay's level IV biohazard protocols were in effect. Starfleet Medical authored these protocols for use throughout the fleet, and were first devised by Doctor Katherine Pulaski of the Galaxy Class starship USS Enterprise on stardate 42501 after investigating an unknown contagion from the planet Gagarin IV. During that mission, Pulaski required the use of a shuttlecraft to perform a close examination of a suspected carrier of the contagion because a level IV isolation room was not available aboard the ship. Since then, specialized isolation labs were incorporated into capital vessels such as Republic, and soon formed the crux of any medical investigations requiring strict biohazard precautions.

While the isolation lab was, by itself, sufficient to contain any chemical or biological pathogen within the one-meter thick diburnium-osmium alloy walls, extra protections were in place to prevent ship-wide contamination. These included a bench-top mounted isolation chamber with a self-contained atmosphere inside the lab proper, and into which the sample container was beamed. Outside the lab, a pressurized personnel airlock ensured that nothing entered or left the isolation lab without hold time for decontamination procedures and observation. The hallway outside was a terminal side-corridor off the surgical ward, and contained only two other ancillary compartments for sickbay: the medical lab and the morgue, both of which were off limits until the biohazard protocols were lifted. The terminal corridor itself possessed only one secure egress door to the surgical ward, and the door was a sliding, single-panel, negative-pressure hatch physically locked with a coded latching mechanism that could only be opened from the outside. The final measures for the level IV protocols included a series of force-fields throughout the surgical ward prior to entering the main ward, evacuation of all non-essential sickbay personnel, and finally, posted guards just outside the main doors to the medical complex.

By the time Doctor Cromwell and the away team returned to Republic, the Ash'aaran blood sample had been processed, and every cellular and sub-cellular anomaly identified and catalogued within the medical database. Now, with millions of microscopic sub-samples of the blood isolated into grid-patterned, micron-sized testing vesicles in the isolation lab, teams throughout sickbay could get to work on identifying the pathology of the cybernetic plague.

The process was slow and arduous, as allocated grids of isolated sub-samples were utilized for tests against Ash'aaran protein markers and T-Cell selections from the medical database. Doctor Cromwell had hoped that the pathology of the disease would be simple to trace, but as hours of lab analysis turned into days, it became clear that the plague would not give up it's secrets so easily. Leon turned to every mind aboard ship who had a professional background in biochemistry and immunology and put them to work in sickbay. Since the science department was now primarily composed civilian specialists from the Office of Research and Exploration, the result of the ship's transfer out of the main Starfleet Operations command structure several months ago, there were now more civilian scientists in the science department than Starfleet crew. Unfortunately, when Leon requested their help in sickbay, their presence created friction with the uniformed Starfleet staff, as the individualistic egos of academia clashed with the rank-and-file dogma of disciplined officers.

Doctor Julian Bashir was not overlooked during Leon's search for additional research expertise. In fact, the Deep Space Nine CMO was assigned as group leader in the main medical laboratory with three civilian junior scientists as his research staff. The weeklong exercise was not the least bit gregarious, as Julian found his team members to be overly concerned about protecting their own hypothetical interpretations of the research than serving the overall goals of the project. More than once, he found them arguing about the best way to use a simple, sub-cellular reference database, despite it being common knowledge that there was no single, best way to use one. Each of them thought that they were better than the other, and even after swapping team members with other civilian science specialists involved in the project, the same individualistic egos existed, and Julian felt he was spinning his proverbial tires. As their research entered its second week, the team was relegated to work independently at their own workstations, with Doctor Bashir forced to hand them tasks on an individual basis to prevent infighting. This lead to apathy and indifference, not to mention a slowdown in progress, especially since the civilian scientists felt no time constraint to get their work done. It was all Julian could do to keep them motivated and focused on the project, and as time went by with no major breakthroughs on curing the plague, it brought his patience to the breaking point.

"Here," Julian muttered in his British accent, handing to one of his team members a Petri dish of synthesized T-Cell cultures imbued with activated Ash'aaran RNA heterlogues. "Check this assay for resistance." He spun around and headed back to his own workstation when the man grumbled, "looks negative to me." With detached indifference, the researcher placed it on the counter next to him in the 'completed' stack. As the crotchety bald biochemist returned to his computerized database search, Bashir stopped dead in his tracks. It was the fifth time that he had handed the man a culture dish, and it was the fifth time the researcher had responded as if it were a photoluminescent assay. Never mind that Starfleet laboratories hadn't used photoluminescent testing for over 150 years (and Julian was especially surprised to hear that the ancient procedure was still being done at some of the Federation's backwater colony worlds, or so commented the researcher when he joined the team). What made it worse was that the man carried the attitude of expectation in which Julian had already done the work for him, staining the dishes with luminescent dye as if he were an undergraduate lab tech.

It was the last straw.

With a clenched jaw, Doctor Bashir spun around and marched back to the man, snatching the Petri dish from the discard pile. Immediately, he turned to place it onto the scanning plate of the bench-mounted micrographic analyzer, followed by flipping the 'on' switch, thus lighting up the display.

"Use the SCOPE! You, wanker!"

While he was sure that a formal protest of indignation would make it to Doctor Cromwell or the captain, Julian no longer cared. Working with these insufferable academicians was tantamount to torture, and even Doctor Cromwell admitted during staff meetings that some of the civilian scientists were difficult to get along with. Not waiting for a response from his team member, Julian marched out of the lab to take a work break and regain his composure.

Before long, he found himself wandering out into the main ward. It was evening, and beta shift was on duty. The lack of patients resulted in empty biobeds, but the activity wasn't surrounding any of the diagnostic equipment, it was around two separate countertops at the opposite end of the room. Tending each were a pair of medical technicians reviewing micrograph samples of synthetic T-Cell assays, and all were far too busy to regard Julian as he quietly strolled up behind one of them.

"Where's doctor Cromwell?" he asked humbly, not wishing to disturb the researchers.

"In his office," a young female blond petty officer replied without turning away from her console.

"Thank you."

***

Another vital project, another sleepless evening. Leon was used to nights like this. Whether it was the bridge officer's test, a cramped survival shelter on a Demon-Class planet, or a pregnant and psychologically unstable first officer, Doctor Cromwell was always on top of his game with less sleep. Usually, he blamed the increase in productivity on extended work hours and large doses of caffeine, but in truth, he worked best under pressure, even if his bedside manner gained a rough edge. On this evening, he sat at his work desk, reviewing the latest results of the T-Cell assays, and cross-referenced them within the Starfleet database in hopes to find some sort of biological anomaly that could be used as an advantage against the Ash'aaran plague. So far, the answer was elusive.

"Doctor?" a smooth British voice echoed from the direction of the door.

"Bashir," Leon greeted curmudgeonly. Like the petty officer in the main ward, he didn't take his eyes off his screen, and the very fact that he even acknowledged the Deep Space Nine CMO was a social breakthrough in and of itself.

"I hope I'm not bothering you."

Leon still had not turned to look at the doctor, opting instead to stay focused on his task. "Something I can do for you?" he mumbled, adding a touch of irritancy to his voice.

Julian slid into Leon's office, attempting to be as unobtrusive as possible. With hands folded, and eyes edgy, he slowly approached the desk. "Look, I know you and I aren't on the best of terms, and I can accept that. I also appreciate you giving me a role to play in this research project."

"I needed all hands on deck for this project," he replied, still focused on the screen. "I may not like you, but that doesn't mean we can't work together on a professional level."

Doctor Bashir, while perhaps not privy to Cromwell's inner circle of friends, was still a smart man, and knew that Leon was trying to get rid of him. However, he needed to talk to the Republic CMO, and decided to walk that fine line between being polite and being annoying. Brushing aside Leon's non-verbal warning, he took the bold move of sitting down in the chair directly across the desk.

Leon, with his back still turned to Julian, turned his head slightly in his direction.

"Again... Something I can do for you, doctor?"

"Possibly," he remarked cryptically. "But I'm not sure how to approach the subject."

Resigned, Leon pressed the 'pause' button on his console before swiveling around to face his medical rival. The two had not started out on the best of terms since Julian had come aboard, despite his valued assistance with recent medical situations. Basically, Doctor Cromwell still didn't know why the Deep Space Nine CMO was still on the ship.

"You could start by just saying what's on your mind," he offered while holding back a sneer.

"Alright," Julian started. "It's Doctor Finlay."

"What about him?"

"This is the third stack of culture plates that I've had to re-analyze because he refuses to accept me as the team leader."

Leon shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sure this isn't the first time you've had to deal with erratic personalities," he stated with disinterest. "Besides, we've already had to reorganize six other research teams on this project, and I'm not about shuffle everyone around again just because you're having difficulty with Doctor Finlay."

"But it's not just him!" Bashir blurted out in frustration. The minor outburst caused Leon to raise his eyebrows. "Most of my team is composed of armchair scientists! There's no research paper in this to put their names on, so they have no motivation to make any of this go faster!"

"I don't want speed!" Leon countered with rising frustration of his own. "I want accuracy and precision! If Finlay is messing up his culture evaluations, then it's your job to review his work! I can't coddle everybody working on this project, it's too big!"

"I'm not asking you to coddle anyone, doctor! I'm only pointing out that we've been at this for over a week, and the people you've assigned to me aren't trained to work at this level! They're civilians, not Starfleet!"

"I'm sorry, but I don't have time to administer the bridge test to everyone here." Leon's remark was both sarcastic and sober. "This isn't Deep Space Nine... We don't have the luxury of calling for backup from Starfleet Medical... We're thousands of light years from any Federation facility, so we have to make due with what we've got."

"What we've got is a boat-load of self-serving, egotistical, and undisciplined grant-beggars!"

A moment of tense silence filled the room as Julian and Leon stared at one another. For his part, Doctor Cromwell was, at first, taken aback by the indirect insult. He too was just a "grant beggar" only a year and half ago aboard the Bremerton, and the thought of an arrogant Starfleet surgeon calling him such was repugnant. But then, the notion floated through his mind that not only was he a former Starfleet enlisted recruit, but he had just recently passed the bridge officer's course himself. Leon had already been walking the line between Starfleet and the civilian world like a tightrope, and the realization that the famous Doctor Bashir from Deep Space Nine didn't have the personal tools to do the same brought about a sense of amusement. In one simple emotional sentence, the medical prodigy of the Bajor sector was reduced to a run-of-the-mill elitist MD, and the elation forced a chuckle from Doctor Cromwell.

"What's so funny?" Julian asked with confusion mixed with irritation.

Leon continued to chuckle as he opened up his desk drawer to produce a flask of shimmering orange and crimson elixir. Before Julian knew it, a glassful of the concoction was in his hand, and Doctor Cromwell was kicked back in his chair with his feet on his desk, coveting a brimming glassful himself. Doctor Bashir, not wanting to turn away from the first friendly gesture that the republic CMO had ever shown him, remained in his chair, sipping politely.

From Leon's point of view, sharing a drink was his way of dropping formalities and getting to the heart of the matter. It opened up the atmosphere to whomever he was drinking with, and let them know that he was listening to them, and willing to entertain opinions.

"Bashir," Leon started. "All I can say is... welcome to my world."

"Come again?"

"Since this ship was launched from Sol Four, I've had to learn to act like Starfleet again. The difference back then was that I didn't have the luxury of having a few civilian doctors onboard to empathize with when things got tough. I was on my own, and before I knew it, I had an overflowing sickbay of critically injured crew."

"I'm sorry, but what's your point?"

"No point, just irony," Leon commented. "Here I am, once a proud civilian scientist thrown into situation where everyone around me was in uniform. An now, here you are, a Starfleet MD thrown into the mix with a bunch of civilian researchers."

"I'm not unfamiliar with working with civilians," Julian retorted. "They're everywhere on DS Nine."

"But what you're NOT used to is working with equals in your profession that are used to working under a different set of rules than you. Rules that, from your point of view, throw up barriers to getting the job done."

"Not to insult how you do things here, doctor," Julian started, causing Leon to roll his eyes with a 'it-wouldn't-be-the-first-time' expression. "But if we were doing this on DS Nine, we likely would have found some sort of treatment by now."

Leon's eyebrows raised with an 'oh-really?' appearance, and looked uncomfortably at Doctor Bashir. "And what makes you say that? We've got some of the best Starfleet equipment here, and good people who know how to operate it all."

"Well," Julian began, a little embarrassed to have brought up an argumentative point. But, he had opened Pandora's Box, so he felt that he'd better follow through. "First, I'm not sure I would have began right away on T-Cell assays. You're trying to find a cure without fully characterizing the disease."

Leon shrugged. "It's a common practice in virology when you're trying to be expedient. All it takes is one positive result to send you quickly in the direction of a cure."

"Yes, but do we even know exactly how the plague operates?"

"Not completely, but we know how it doesn't operate," the Republic CMO admitted. "We know that it follows no known pathology; it possesses no DNA, no RNA, undergoes no reverse transcription, doesn't replicate through retroactive RNA, nor does it utilize bacteriophage, viroids, satellites, or prions. It's not a programmable Borg nanite, nor does it utilize any process that leaves behind a biochemical signature."

"How does it interact with cell membranes?" Julian asked.

"We've been over this in the morning team meetings," Leon sighed. "It doesn't enter a cell. It's molecular structure is dynamic, and expands to a size bigger than the cell it infects, absorbing it membrane and all. It hijacks all cellular functions and utilizes the lysosomic enzymes for energy to reproduce by a means that we can't decipher."

"Right," he agreed. "So it doesn't matter how many different T-Cells we throw at them, it's just going to swallow them up and reproduce."

"Bashir," Leon huffed. "We've been over this. You brought this up three days ago, and we agreed that if we find the right T-Cell complex, we can stimulate the immune response to completely overwhelm each molecule of the plague. They'll over-eat and eventually overstuff themselves, unable to reproduce."

"I'm not debating that that's what we agreed upon," Julian countered. "But that was three days ago, and we should have seen some sort of response that started us down the right path by now."

"We need to give it more time," Leon stated, unmoved.

"What if we tried a different approach?" offered Julian. "What if *we* started thinking like a virus? What if we introduced a virus that it couldn't eat?"

Leon closed his eyes in frustration. "We tried that," he added. "FIVE days ago. Remember? It ate the viruses we introduced. Membranes... nuclei... everything. It was candy to them."

"So what if it wasn't so much the cell it eats, but something we imbued the cell with?"

"It doesn't matter what chemical we use," Leon added. "It identifies it, neutralizes it, and turns it into energy. You know that."

"Fine," Julian followed the through with the thought. "Suppose we introduced something that it identifies as harmless? Something that it doesn't realize it's ingesting before it's too late?"

"Like what?" Leon exclaimed.

The two sat in thought for a few seconds before a light of realization sparkled in Julian's eyes.

"How about hemoglobin?"

 

Location: Observation Lounge, deck 1, USS Republic

The backdrop of the Ash'aarian homeworld was a suitable setting in the conference room, as the gray and white maelstrom of clouds cloaked the planet's devastated surface. At the meeting table, the Republic's senior staff was in attendance, absent Lieutenant Hawk who was currently in charge of the bridge, and the addition of the Ash'aarian representative Commander Karu, the Deep Space Nine medical officer Doctor Bashir, and Lieutenant Buttenhoff from engineering. The subject at hand was, of course, that of the Ash'araan people, and how the Federation might possibly lend assistance to the race of xenophobic humanoids who were only a heartbeat away from extinction. The focus of the conversation was on the ship's chief medical officer, Doctor Cromwell, who was in the midst of explaining in detail the new promising treatment for the cybernetic plague that was ravaging the Ash'aarian population below.

"Our problem," he addressed the table. "Is that we've been looking for a way to help the body overcome the Ash'aarian cybernetic plague by using the body's own defenses. At the beginning of this project, we found that specialized radiation treatments, genetically altered viruses, reprogrammed Borg nanites, or simple biochemical eradication were non-responsive. Therefore, as with any other disease, we began a lengthy series of T-cell assays from the Starfleet database to come up with a cure, or at the very least, a vaccine. However, due to the dynamic and non-organic origins of the plague, nothing we did showed any prospect of a positive result, nor were we able to successfully identify how it reproduces. All we could determine was that the plague 'cells' - and I use that term loosely since they act like no standard prokaryote or eukaryote I've ever studied - envelope and consume any and all organic cells, and neutralize any chemical antigen we set against it.

"However, thanks to our recent encounter with a bio-engineered humanoid organism - a one Naruko Kuga who was once a member of our crew - a new field of quantum-based, sub-atomic physics has emerged. While this field is still in it's infancy, and will likely take decades to yield any useful application in materials design, it does hold a hopeful solution to our problem. Thanks to the in-depth physics research of Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, an answer to our current medical dilemma came from his recent paper entitled 'Quantum-level inversion of subatomic particles results in neutrino-based positronic neural networks interphased with chemically-active organic analogs.' What Doctor Bashir and I propose is a radical treatment that, in effect, replaces Ash'aarian red blood cells with a chemically and structurally identical analog that differs from standard blood in one unique way..."

Doctor Cromwell dialed a few buttons on the smooth black table console in front of him. On the large, wall-mounted viewscreen opposite the observation windows, an image appeared of a gray globular shape that resembled a wart-covered ornamental gourd. In the center of the translucent shape, a small, rust-colored sphere blinked at regular intervals to draw attention to it.

"Instead of an iron atom mediating the transport of oxygen within the hemoglobin molecule," Leon continued, pointing to the image on the screen. "Doctor Virtus has been working with the stabilization of 'anti-iron'; the antimatter equivalent of iron. Based on sub-atomic scans of Kuga's physiology, Virtus has characterized and successfully reproduced a phenomena he calls the 'positron/electron stabilization flux', or in other terms, a way for matter and antimatter to interact at the atomic level without causing mutual annihilation. At the present time, this can only be done reliability at the single-atom level, and then, only with anti-iron, primarily due to it's magnetic properties. Doctor Virtus' research has yielded a way for us to insert a particle of anti-iron into the molecular structure of hemoglobin, and have it remain stable and chemically active until the hemoglobin is broken down by chemical means."

"With the help of Lieutenant Butenhoff from engineering," Leon glanced at the former life sciences head, who gave a smile and a nod in acknowledgment. "We've utilized Doctor Virtus' research and devised a simple and efficient way to produce anti-iron hemoglobin in sickbay using standard synthetic blood replicators. The basic treatment we propose is to modify our personal plasma generators - the same ones we use in the field that strap to the shoulder of our patients for generating synthetic blood on demand - and retrofit them to produce synthetic blood cells imbued with our anti-iron hemoglobin. They'll chemically do the same job as regular Ash'aarian blood cells until an infectious plague cell encounters and envelops one of the new-and-improved blood cells. As soon as the blood cell is consumed, the released enzymes will degrade the molecular structure of the hemoglobin, the positron/electron stability of the atoms will be interrupted, the anti-iron will encounter standard subatomic particles, and... boom. The plague cell and the blood cell are both annihilated."

There was a momentary pause where all individuals around the table somberly absorbed the impacts of the treatment. What Doctor Cromwell was proposing was to, in effect, cause countless micro-explosions throughout the body tissues of an infected individual as the plague cells came in contact with what was, for all intensive purposes, a Trojan horse. Literally, atom-sized explosive devices disguised as regular blood cells would detonate once inside the cybernetic pathogen.

"What sort of affect would this have on the patient?" Captain Roth asked slowly, and with pragmatic curiosity.

"We predict that the treatable side effects will include anemia from a reduced blood cell count, possible autosplenectomy of the reticuloendothelial system, and precipitation of dissolved gasses in the bloodstream producing symptoms similar to decompression sickness."

"The bends," Commander Carter concluded.

"Precisely," Doctor Bashir piped in. "The treatment will be very painful, and could last from hours to days per patient. They will have to be kept under constant medical observation throughout the procedure."

"Furthermore," Doctor Cromwell added, "this treatment can only be used on carriers, or patients in the early stages. Because it's a deleterious treatment, it cannot reverse the effects of the disease, and the amount of time required to rid the body of it will be directly proportional to the amount of organic tissue that has been transformed by the plague. Life support equipment, convalescence, and recovery time required per patient will depend upon how many of the vital organ groups have been affected, and to what extent they can function on their own. The possibility for cardiovascular complications could be extensive if the diseased has progressed significantly into the heart muscle, to say nothing of the pulmonary system."

It was enough that the Starfleet officers appeared ambiguous about the harsh effects of the proposed treatment. They looked at one another with uncertainty, leaving Doctor Bashir, Doctor Cromwell, and Lieutenant Butenhoff to sit nervously, awaiting a consensus. However, it was Commander Karu who appeared the most distraught, as he fidgeted restlessly in his seat.

"Doctor," he started with emotion. "I don't mean to be overly-critical of all the work you and your staff have done, but it seems to me that introducing bio-engineered blood cells into my people to inflict further pain and suffering seems a bit contrary to what we're trying to achieve here."

"Well, I agree it's not without risks," admitted Leon. "But I see little alternative..."

Karu appeared torn. He wanted to be enthusiastic that Doctor Cromwell had apparently found a treatment for the plague that had decimated his planet. But he knew that the treatment would be more than a just tough sell. The concept of intravenously administering tiny artificial microbes laced with a with a microscopic, albeit powerful explosive seemed to set the stage for even more anguish and suffering, and his planet had already suffered enough.

"I can tell you with experience that my people will not take kindly to your proposal, doctor." He was careful with his words to ensure he remained polite while getting to the point. "The thought of injecting their bodies with experimental and artificial microbes will be seen as repugnant. Furthermore, strapping patients to a bed and hooking up a multitude of electronic life support equipment for days on end would be tantamount to torture."

"Well then, we have to try and convince them," Leon replied, as if it we're only a simple stumbling block.

"I trust you doctor," Karu stated clearly. "And were I infected, I would gladly submit to your treatment. But before we test it on an actual victim, we would need the permission and blessing of our government. I think that, after our last meeting with Legionnaire Athra, you can agree that it would be a fruitless task. Is there no other method we can develop that would accomplish the same task without injecting artificial organisms into the veins of my people?"

Leon was at a loss. He couldn't understand Karu's trepidation anymore he could understand why someone would willingly jump off a cliff. "None," he shook his head. "The whole point to the treatment is to trick the virus into thinking that the synthetic blood cells are normal Ash'aarian blood cells. There's no way to deliver the anti-iron without incorporating it into a specially-designed hemoglobin chemical structure."

"Then," concluded Karu. "I'm afraid we're at an impasse. You can try to convince the Legionnaire yourself, if you'd like. But I don't think you'll be successful."

"We have to try..."

***

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

There had been limited contact between the Republic and the surface over the course of the past week and a half while sickbay worked to produce the treatment to the cybernetic plague. The government bunker, while possessing visual two-way communication capability, moved after every transmission in order to avoid tracking by sensors. Apparently, it was standard protocol to prevent detection and elimination by the genocidal Centennial robots, and while some information exchange had occurred where Roth offered selections of literature from the Federation database in a show of goodwill, the response was tepid, and the Ash'aarians grew annoyed at having to relocate every time the Republic tried to talk to them. They sometimes ignored repeated attempts at contact, and it took nearly ninety minutes of hailing before they were able to raise Legionnaire Athra to discuss the newly developed remedy.

Doctor Cromwell, as in the observation lounge, went into great detail about the "Trojan horse hemoglobin" that he and Doctor Bashir developed, and went to lengths to emphasize the similarities of the synthetic blood to that of Ash'aarian blood. He also related the pain and suffering that the Ash'aarian people had endured throughout the course of war and the plague, and reiterated that the side effects of the treatment were reversible and manageable. "Just a little longer," he pleaded, "and your suffering will be over."

While it would have been a great denouement to any humanistic speech, little emotion stirred in Athra's eyes, and as her face was occasionally obscured by random fits of static and distortion due to battle-worn communications equipment, she stoically waited a few moments in silence before responding.

"Well Roth, your chirgeon appears to have... how would you put it? 'Thrown the baby out with the bath water'?"

"Excuse me?" the captain replied quizzically.

"I've been reading the cultural materials you transmitted to us five centons ago," Athra revealed. "In my study to learn about your idea of jurisprudence, I came across the works of a human named Thomas Murner. His satire spoke often of a 'Great Fool' who wielded destructive doctrine under the guise of innovation. An ironic bit of reading, captain, especially since what your chirgeon offers us is no more a cure than it is another gruesome invasion of our species."

"I assure you, Legionnaire. Doctor Cromwell has devoted all his time and expertise to develop this treatment. While it has some drawbacks, it still shows promise if you would allow us to test it."

"Out of the question," Athra admonished. "You're 'treatment' is no different than how the Centennials operate. You hijack the natural functions of a living organism and bend it to do your own bidding. If you had worked to improve the natural defenses of the body, it would be a different story. But you didn't."

"I think we've made it clear that that branch of research is not possible due to the way that the disease operates."

"Then apparently, you require time to reconcile your inefficacy."

"But it's NOT ineffective!" blurted an astonished Leon, much to the dismay of Captain Roth's diplomatic efforts. "All our tests show this will eradicate the Ash'aarian body of the cybernetic plague! You're not giving this treatment a fair chance!"

Athra's eyes narrowed coolly, indicating her irritation. "And the great fool continues to wield his destructive doctrine." Turning her head slightly on the viewscreen, the Legionnaire addressed the Ash'aarian commander who stood bleakly beside Captain Roth with an air of melancholy. "You brought them here, Karu," she concluded. "They're your responsibility. See to it they leave our solar system at once. They've worn out their welcome." With that, the communique was discontinued, and the screen returned to the slowly rotating face of the doomed Planet Ash'aar.

"That coulda' gone better," commented Nat Hawk at the helm control after a silent pause.

Another moment of silence passed where the gravity of Athra's directive sank in. While most wore somber expressions, only Doctor Cromwell displayed incredulity and shock. After a deep sigh, Captain Roth was next to speak.

"Well... I guess that's that."

"Captain??" a flabbergasted Leon exclaimed.

"I said, that's that," she declared more firmly. "We've done all we can."

"No we haven't!" continued Leon, raising his voice to a level just below a shout.

"General order thirteen, doctor," the captain matched the auditory level of Doctor Cromwell. "'Except when orders state to the contrary, Starfleet personnel will respect the territorial integrity of independent planetary systems and governments, and will not violate territorial space belonging to such worlds.'"

"But there are people down there that need and want our help!" he pleaded. "Athra can't speak for ALL of them! They're dying! Their whole WORLD is dying! And we can SAVE them!"

"That's ENOUGH, doctor!" a booming third voice interjected. It was Commander Carter, and the fact that he was siding with the captain drew complete disbelief from Leon. He stared at his friend intently, trying to find the words to respond.

"All those words..." he managed to reply with a raspy voice. "Being in the right place at the right time... Being where we can do the most good... That all didn't mean one damned thing, did it?"

"I'm sorry, Leon..." Carter offered in a more conciliatory tone. But it didn't help. Doctor Cromwell had already stated his case, and from his point of view, one of his best friends chose not to back him up when he needed it the most. Leon took one last look around the bridge at everyone staring at him before returning to meet John's gaze.

"So am I."

Without another word, the doctor walked out of the command pit, up the ramp to the turbolift, and exited the bridge.

Silence again ensued as crewmembers returned to their stations, and Roth, Carter, and Commander Karu conferred one last time.

"I'm sorry we couldn't do more for your people, Karu," the captain offered.

"It's okay, captain," Karu replied somberly, his eyes welling with tears. "I understand your predicament. While I appreciate your efforts, and Doctor Cromwell's zeal to save our people, sometimes all an emotionally-scarred animal can do is stare blankly into oblivion."

"We'll make sure you have all the information on our research of the plague before we leave orbit," John added. "Who knows? You may still be able to beat this thing even without our help."

"Most kind, commander," he closed with heartfelt gratitude. "Thank you."

It was late - well past 0300 - when Leah Warner woke gently and reached out across the right side of the bed for the man she loved. She found instead only the room-temperature fabric of the sheets. Forcing her eyes open in spite of her mind and bodies desire to fall blissfully back to sleep, she confirmed what her senses had already told her. After a moments pause to let her mind clear from the fog of sleep, she pushed away the covers and sat up. Slipping on a silk robe draped across the Starfleet standard issue chair in the corner, she made her way out into the primary living space where she found him.

Nathan Hawk, clad in a pair of loose-fitting pants - his standard sleeping attire - stood with his back to her. More accurately, he stood facing the windows that looked out upon the void, windows currently filled with great swathes of colorful stellar matter. His left hand, she noted, was reached behind him; his fingers mindlessly tracing along the skin where a small scar existed -- a scar that existed due only to his own insistence that modern medicine not correct the flaw. The mark was innocuous and barely noticeable to anyone who might have seen it, even if it was fairly unusual to see such a thing in this century. To those who knew what it represented though, and especially to those who knew and cared for Nathan Hawk, it stood out like a supernova.

She said nothing as she stepped up behind him and slipped her arms around him from behind, leaning her head against his strong shoulders, feeling the warmth of his skin on hers. He didn't startle; he had felt her presence absence of conscious thought as people close to one another often do. His left hand ending it's subconscious actions, he grasped her soft hands in his as they held him.

"Did I wake ya?" he asked, his southern draw subdued but ever present. Most professional people these days worked hard to rid themselves of local accents, but she was glad he wasn't one of them. It was a part of who he was, one of the few parts about himself he had long ago reconciled, and it said something about him. It also added a bit of flavor to a universe that sometimes sound far too monotone courtesy of devices like the universal translator.

"No." she answered him, as she gently kissed the back of his neck. She didn't need the gifts courtesy her one-quarter betazoid genetics to tell her something was bothering him. A year ago, if something was troubling him, he would have drowned the problem in some kind of liquor. Three months ago, he would have rushed off where angels fear to tread, and said or done whatever he thought needed to be said or done. Ever since his death and resurrection - or what he had come to jovially refer to as his 'one-man freak-show' - that thick-headed instinctual part of him has become further and further subdued.

Despite being a reporter, she had never been one to pry. At least, not into emotions and personal issues. Maybe it was a personal counter-measure to her mother's ancestors and their gifts. When you had any level of ability to feel what someone else does, it can influence you, she had found. He wasn't just anyone, though. When she was on intimate terms with someone, such was part of the bargain. "You want to talk about it?" she asked, not sure how he would respond.

For a long moment, he didn't say anything in response. Finally, with a deep breath, he confessed what he was thinking. "Tha Cap'n really dropped tha ball on this one. We all did. Only one who even made a fuss 'bout leavin' was Leon. Shoulda bin me. I wrote tha book 'bout makin' a fuss. I shoulda said somethin' more. Dun somethin' more."

"So why didn't you?" she asked. She had been feeling the exact same way about the entire Ash'aarian incident since their departure yesterday. Though she knew less than the senior staff, her position as an embedded journalist made her privy to more than most of the crew. Unlike those who wore a uniform, she hadn't had the prime directive drilled into her skull at warp speed for four years. The concept of leaving the few million survivors of a horrific apocalypse to their doom due solely to their own ignorant fears and Starfleet's blind obedience to the sacred prime directive was atrocious to her. But she had learned a long time ago to keep those sentiments bottled up.

Again, Hawk didn't answer her question immediately. She could feel the torrent of emotions and thoughts flooding through his mind more intensely now than when they had, she now realized, awoken her. The subdued instinctual nature that he had been pushing away since his assassination was battling within him. But against what, she couldn't quite say. Before she could nail down just what it was he was fighting within himself, he realized such, and everything shifted from a battle of conflicting desires to a stream of self-loathing. So sudden, it was like an electrical shock. "What is it?" she questioned, concerned.

The intensity of what he was feeling ebbing away, he turned to face her and took hold of her. "I've never bin 'fraid a nuthin. Ain't never had ta be. I'd faced death so much 's a kid, wasn't much left ta be 'fraid of, ya know?" he asked rhetorically. "Never bin 'fraid a dyin' 'er loosin' what I got, cause I ain't never had nuthin' ta lose... until now."

Suddenly, she understood. Taking his face in her hands, she looked deeply into his eyes. "Following your conscience... doing what you know is right... will never effect how I feel about you." she told him earnestly. "I didn't fall in love with a Starfleet officer; I fell in love with you. Come hell or high water, I'm in this for the long-term."

As they kissed then, Hawk wanted little else than to live in that particular moment in time. He knew that he couldn't, though. And so did she.

"You have to try." she told him, knowing his thoughts as if they where her own, and not because of any empathic abilities.

 

Location: Deck 38, USS Republic

In all the time since his resurrection, Nathan Hawk had not made any attempt to speak with the Vulcan woman whom slept on the other side of the force-field. The Operative whom had masqueraded as their science officer Cha'rik for more than a month. His would-be protector, sent here surreptitiously by an Admiral whose name she didn't even know. She had failed in that mission, and knowing her type, would bare that heavy burden for the rest of her days. Only the well laid plans of Julian Bashir, Kimberly Roth, and Saal Yezbeck had kept her failure from being of the epic proportion. Still, here she sat within the confines of a security holding cell in the bowels of the might Republic. Her indefinite detention a result of the unique circumstances Republic and her crew found themselves in, do in no small part to the price on Nathan Hawk's head.

Part of him felt guilty for not at least offering some sort of token gesture of gratitude towards her. While she had failed to protect him, she had avenged him and eliminated his assassin. He couldn't imagine how he would be feeling right now if the person who had taken his life where sitting in a cell like this. After he was well enough, he had considered advocating for her release to confined quarters with the Captain, but he'd realized the futility of such. This woman had been the latest, greatest black-eye to Kimberly Roth's pride, and regardless of who had given the order assigning her covertly to the Republic, she would not get off with a slap on the wrist if Roth had anything to say in the matter. As he considered her, considered Roth, and everything he was contemplating, Hawk couldn't help but feel a nagging doubt at what was to come.

Roth had showed more faith in him than almost anyone he had ever known, and for reason he couldn't begin to fathom. He certainly hadn't done anything to garner such. Now, he was standing on the edge of betrayal. Having had the wool so thoroughly pulled over her eyes so many times before, he knew that once he crossed this particular bridge, he could never undo the damage. Faced with the very real prospects of loosing everything he had aboard Republic, or standing on the sidelines as an entire civilization blinked out of existence due solely to an order that had remained controversial for centuries after it's adoption, he knew he was standing on a precipice. The only question was, would he jump?

"You reek," said Vulcan woman lying atop the rigid bunk, her features placid, her body motionless.

" 'scuse me?" Hawk replied before he could think about it, not even sure at first if the words had come from her.

"You reek of anxiety and desperation," the Operative said, remaining prone atop the bunk with her eyes closed.

"Last time I checked, force-fields 'er air-tight." Hawk replied, not sure what else to say. It felt odd to him to be on the 'logic' side of an argument.

"Why are you here?" she asked, still unnervingly motionless.

Why was her here? It was a good, solid, direct question. One which he didn't quite have a complete answer for. One which caught him off-guard. He had been standing engulfed in the shadows of the detention area for the better part of twenty minutes, contemplating just that. His indecision continued to plague him even when confronted. Leah had told him what he knew all to well; that he had to try. Part of him wanted nothing more than to retreat to the sanctuary of the quarters he now shared with her, content that he had indeed tried simply by considering the course of action he was setting before himself. But he knew he hadn't yet begun to.

"I'm here... 'cause I've offer I dun think yer gonna be able ta refuse."

For the first time, the Operative opened her eyes, simultaneously turned her head, and arched her left eyebrow, all in one deliberate motion.

 

Location: Shuttlebay 2, deck 13, USS Republic

Like bad news, subterfuge invariably came in the middle of the night. Finding a reason to convince the sole flight technician on duty to leave his post unmanned was easy enough; nothing a midnight call from a department head couldn't accomplish. Getting the Operative into said shuttlebay was considerably more complicated, though. The litany of betrayals endured by Captain Roth had driven her to enact stringent security protocols in recent months, including a lock-out on the site-to-site transporters without medical or security override. Even then, a corresponding message alerting the Chief of Security and the Captain was dispatched in such an event with the new protocols. One transporter system that had been overlooked though where the independent systems of the auxiliary craft.

His original plan had been to utilize the Operative for a covert departure, and then use a runabout's EMH program copied with Leon's medical notes on the Ash'aarian disease. The Operative would be provided with the runabout escape pod, where upon she would spend a few days en-route to a nearby trading post. From there, she could book quiet passage through the wormhole to Deep Space 9 and beyond. All of that had become more complicated as things had gone along. Drifting in an escape pod for up to a week wasn't enough for the Operative; she would only settle for the runabout itself. Considering his entire plan rested upon actually being able to both escape Republic and somehow prevent her from pursuit, he'd been backed into a corner on that issue.

The second complication had come when he had returned to his quarters to fill Leah in on his plans. Before he'd had the chance though, she'd announced her intentions to go with him. He knew she was a formidable and capable woman who had seen a lot of the same horrors of war and life that he had. Still, he balked at the idea of subjecting her to the risks of this venture. Her obstinence and refusal to budge on the issue had won out (with some help from her convincing argument that a first-hand account of his 'one-man crusade to save a dyeing race' would be sure to sway enough public support for him back home to avoid any long-term prison sentence). As if that wasn't enough, the Operative had yet to reveal exactly how she would achieve the feat of enabling their escape while preventing Republic's pursuit without endangering the ship.

Approaching the runabout Fowler and finding it's cockpit door open, he had a sixth-sense that the complications where going to get worse before they got better...

Location: Medical laboratory, main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic
Timeframe: Three hours after departing the Ash'aarian star system

The sickbay's main medical laboratory was an expansive chamber, and well-equipped to process tissue cultures and fluid samples in addition to performing medical research on an as-needed basis. Two large floor-to-ceiling viewscreens adorned the far walls perpendicular to one another, while workbenches and equipment stands filled out the rest of the plentiful workspace. Here, small projects could be carried out either on the countertops, or, for larger projects, on the workspace floor itself. The latter configuration usually required the installation of specialized equipment, some of which was stored in the adjacent, large-equipment storage room. Normally, standard medical equipment which was not being immediately used in sickbay could be stored in the cargo holds, as storage space is always at a premium aboard a starship. However, there was need for some equipment to be on hand at a moment's notice, and available to patients when they need them. Equipment such as life support modules and portable trauma kits were kept in this storage room, as well as antigravity stretchers and various landing party gear. Slightly less important devices like research equipment and bio-monitoring apparatuses could also be found here, but were located more towards the rear along with portable biobeds and specialized operating tools.

In the wake of the hectic research project to unlock the mysteries of the Ash'aarian plague, the medical laboratory had returned to it's normally dormant state, and the crews throughout sickbay had already put the lab back into order, readying it for the next analytical task when called upon. So, with the exception of Petty Officer Third Class Christopher Teague, who was present only to do a simple equipment check, the lab was completely unoccupied. For his part, the young medical technician simply stood next to the door leading to the storage room with ambiguity and consternation on his face. He had been there for no more than five minutes when Doctor Saal Yezbeck strode into the lab wearing a quizzical expression.

"You called me?" he took note of the medtech.

"Yes sir," the young man replied. "I came here to do my weekly maintenance on the landing party equipment, and I can't get into the storage room."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said, sir. It's locked."

"Locked?" Saal scoffed while walking up to the access console to the left of the storage room door. "Why would anyone lock it?"

"I don't know, sir," Teague shrugged. "It's never been locked before when I've come in."

Doctor Yezbeck dialed a few combinations into the wall-mounted console, and a negative electronic warble indicated that the locking mechanism could not be coaxed open.

"Computer," he beckoned in mid-air. "Disengage lockout to medical lab equipment storage room."

"Unable to comply. Command lockout functions engaged."

Blinking with confusion, Saal muttered, "command lockout? How could there be a command lockout on it? It's just a storage room!"

Teague shook his head. "Maybe it's a malfunction," he suggested. "We had trouble with the interlocks in Exam One about a week ago. We had to get security to fix it."

With a frown, Saal tapped his combadge. "Yezbeck to security."

"Security. Narudi here. How can I help you, Doctor?"

"Ensign, can you please disengage the command lockout on the equipment storage room in the main medical laboratory?"

"Stand by, doctor"

An instant later, the access console beeped a positive signal, the lock disengaged, and the door to the storage room finally slid open.

"There we go!" Saal exclaimed with satisfaction. "Thanks, Narundi!"

"No problem. Security out."

As Yezbeck and Teague walked curiously into the storage space, the younger medical technician gasped in surprise. Instead of a cramped, claustrophobic storage compartment brimming with neatly stowed medical equipment, the two crewman were staring into a completely empty room. The clean white walls contrasted with the low-profile beige carpet, accentuating the stark voidness. The two slowly wandered inside, gawking at the vacuity, attempting to figure out how the space had been cleaned out so perfectly without the duty nurse in the main ward noticing anyone coming or going.

"I think... I think we've been robbed..." Teague ogled.

"Pillaged and plundered is more like it..." Saal shook his head in puzzlement. "Who would do this?" he asked rhetorically. "Command lockouts can only be engaged by senior..." He caught himself in mid-sentence as a thought dawned upon him. "...bridge officers." Turning back to Teague, Saal asked pointedly, "have you seen Doctor Cromwell?"

"Yes sir," came the affirmative reply. "He came into sickbay about an hour ago."

It was about then that a glint of metal from the floor caught his eye. It was so small, and so well camouflaged by the color of the carpet, that he didn't notice it when he first walked in. But the angle of the light changed as they stepped into the room, and the reflective object flickered long enough for Saal to notice it. As he bent down to investigate, the shape of the metal item was unmistakable: it was a Starfleet communicator. Slowly, the doctor picked up the device and scrutinized both sides of it, as his mind settled upon the most obvious owner of it. To confirm his suspicion, he simply tapped his own communicator.

"Yezbeck to Cromwell."

"Lieutenant Commander Cromwell is not aboard the Republic."

***

Location: Runabout Fowler, shuttlebay 2, deck 13, USS Republic

With a swift pull, Leon tightened the final cargo strap and firmly secured the last of the huge cache of supplies to the inside bulkhead of the runabout. Nearly every empty space within the craft that wasn't essential for flight operations was filled to capacity with medical equipment, consumables, and pharmaceuticals, leaving little room to maneuver in any area except the cockpit. Taking a moment's rest, Leon surveyed the parcels he had acquired from sickbay using the isolation lab's closed-circuit medical transporter. He had to be careful that no one was loitering near either the storage room or pharmacy when he swiped the materials; Doctor Harris especially, as she could easily have foiled his plans had her program been active in the main sickbay. It was perhaps one of the most cavalier stunts he had pulled since reporting aboard a year and a half ago, and definitely the most half-cocked. He shook his head in displeasure as he realized his first mistake: he had beamed the largest crate containing the 1000+ modified plasma generators right in front of the bathroom door, blocking a semi-vital portion of what would normally be a spacious living compartment for long-duration spaceflight. While the generators were previously fabricated in anticipation of a positive reply from the Ash'aarian government, the declination and subsequent eviction of Republic from the solar system was more than Leon could bear. What was once a Starfleet mission to relieve death and suffering on the devastated planet turned into a personal one.

Now, with enough supplies to outfit a small hospital, Leon was about to embark on this new mission. The doctor turned his body sideways, and engaged an obstacle course of cargo crates by shuffling between two supply pallets that were no more than eighteen inches apart. Passing the small entrance alcove containing the sealed planetfall hatch, he slipped through the adjacent door leading to the flight deck. As the door slid shut behind him, he took a seat in the pilot's chair, and looked out over the shuttlebay floor. As if in mourning, he realized it might be the last time he viewed the ship as a free man, assuming that he would even be alive in the near future to view it one more time.

What he was about to do wasn't trivial nor trite. It was, at the very least, disobeying direct orders. At worst, it was a criminal court martial offense. But, if there was anything that Leon had learned during the past several months, it was that the best moral course of action was not always the ethical one, and that the rules shouldn't always be allowed to stand in the way of making the right decision. The worst part was that it took the straining of a friendship to teach him that... and the breaking of one to learn it. Deep down inside, he knew that John was only doing his job by backing up the captain on the bridge, and Leon didn't want to throw away their relationship over it. However, what he was about to do was completely unforgivable from the standpoint of authority, and he could see no way that even John Carter would wish to continue cultivating a friendship with an officer who betrays his captain. With a momentary sigh of trepidation, he turned his thoughts to the mental checklist of items he had to cover before performing his final act as chief medical officer of the Republic.

Beaming quietly into the runabout was the easy part. After transporting all the cargo from sickbay, he had a window of few seconds when beaming himself onboard before the deck crew would be alerted to his presence. With a swift keystroke on the security panel in the cockpit, he set up an internal bio-dampening field using the emergency batteries, completely bypassing the main start-up sequence. Once the field was active, internal passive sensors could not detect him, leaving him free to complete his clandestine activities. The hard part was yet to come. As soon as the runabout's main power was brought online, the engines would automatically begin their pre-ignition sequence, and all hell would break loose. The bridge would focus an active sensor scan onto the craft, and unless he could raise the runabout's shields right away and begin rotating shield frequencies, the bridge would be able to lock onto him and beam him out, presumably to the brig.

So, Leon devised an alternative.

One of the protocols he remembered from his bridge officer's course was the emergency shuttlebay protocols for damaged shuttlecraft: If a shuttle's warp core is overloading, deactivate the magnetic deck moorings and initiate emergency explosive decompression of the entire shuttlebay. Of course, Leon had no intention of putting the Republic in *that* kind of jeopardy any more than he would hover a hypospray full of arsenic over an ailing patient. Instead, he would have to trick the shuttle deck crew, not to mention the bridge, into thinking there was an engine overload in progress. It was a simple enough procedure - disengage the computer uplink to the Republic's main computer to prevent remote access, and under manual control, reduce the strength of the magnetic field of one of the runabout's antimatter bottles. This would cause an increase in localized radiation that would be picked up by the ship's internal sensors as an overload. What neither the deck crew nor the bridge would know, however, was that the antimatter would not be in danger of being released, as Leon would also be leaching the antimatter from the "malfunctioning" bottle to one of the adjacent empty ones. It would be a hair-raising event for the crew, but if Leon played his cards right, it would be over quickly, and he would soon be clear of the ship and free to navigate within thirty seconds.

Unfortunately, that's where the hard part began. Leon was seasoned field doctor; he had survival training and knew how to use a phasor. However, he was no pilot. Sure, he could tell the computer where he wanted to go, and the complex programming of the runabout could perform all the flight control functions through automated means, but if he didn't get away quickly, there would be no out-maneuvering a Galaxy-class starship. Furthermore, he hadn't a clear idea of where to find safe harbor once he arrived back at the Ash'aarian homeworld, or even how to hide from Republic once he got there. All he knew is that the Ash'aarians were dying, and he had the cure in the palm of his hand. If there was any justice in the universe at all, he would be successful even if he managed to save only a few thousand of them from extinction.

"Do no harm," Leon whispered with conviction as he turned his attention to the control panel in front of him. With his fingers hovering over the power control systems, he paused briefly prior to committing his life to a new chapter.

"Doc?" a familiar, southern-accented voice beckoned from the open cockpit door behind Leon. "What'n the hella ya doin'?"

Leon froze. While he was startled and surprised at Nat's sudden appearance, his hand was so close to the antimatter controls of the runabout that one wrong twitch would send them both careening across the A'shaar Nebula after being broken down into their component chemicals.

"Um, hello Nat..." came Leon's bewildered reply. He turned to look at the helmsman, displaying a face wrought with guilt and subterfuge while catching a glimpse of the main cabin beyond Nat's shoulder, brimming with stolen medical supplies.

The sixth-sense of foreboding that had come over Hawk as he had approached the occupied runabout vanished in a nano-second. In truth, he had to fight to keep a straight face as he caught his friend red-handed. Though the past two hours had been tense and filled with doubts, he now found he couldn't resist having some good-humored fun at his friends expense. "Ya goin' somewhere, Doc?" he asked, keeping a straight face.

The doctor grinned with false pretense. "Would you beleive that I was performing a load test to see how much sickbay equipment could fit in a runabout?"

"Considerin' that sorta tests usually done by computer, rather 'an actually stockin' a ships hold ta the brim... nope, not really." Nat replied, fighting to keep it together.

"Well, I guess this kind of looks bad then, doesn't it?"

Nodding his head in the affirmative, Hawk simply muttered an "Mm-hmm" in lieu of any other verbal reply for fear of busting out laughing.

"I'll tell you what," the doctor reasoned nervous grin. "If I promise to put all this stuff back in sickbay, can we keep this just between the two of us? It'll be our little secret..."

About that time, another individual entered the runabout from the planetfall hatch adjacent to the cockpit door. The prisoner jumpsuit wasn't so much a giveaway to her identity as was the straight black hair and pointy ears. Char'ik looked to her left towards the cluttered main cabin before turning to see Nat talking to Doctor Cromwell.

Leon, whose grinning face hardened at the sight of the former science chief, added "... ours as well as the Vulcan spy..."

Nat turned to regard Char'ik before turning his focus back to Leon.

"At least she'll be able to keep a secret, right?" Leon inquired with building nervousness. "I mean, at least she's not a..."

Leon was interrupted yet again as Char'ik moved aside to make way for Leah Warner to step into the entrance alcove behind Nat.

"... a news reporter..." Leon's face went deadpan. After a moment of silence, the doctor stood up, shaking his head in disbelief "Forget it!" he surrendered. "I give up! You caught me red-handed!"

"Doctor, we..." Leah attempted to interject.

"No need to call for backup," Leon continued naively. "I'll go to the brig without a fight. Just promise me you'll let Carter and the Captain know that I went willingly, okay?"

"Doctor," Char'ik addressed stoically. "It would be illogical for us to return to the brig, as we went to great lengths to ensure that ship security would not force us to go back there."

Leon hesitated. "You mean... You're NOT here to arrest me?"

"Cap'n would have ta have a wicked sense a humor ta send me flanked by a civie and a prisoner ta arrest ya." Hawk replied with a chuckle, a grin taking over his features. "Damn, Leon. If only I'd had a holo-imager, so ya'll coulda seen the look on his face when I walked in here." he remarked to Leah and Cha'rik. "Like the cat an the canary, Doc." he said, smacking Leon on the shoulder as he moved past him to the other pilots seat.

It was both a comfort and an astonishment that Leon had inadvertently encountered collaborators, as the probability that another member of the crew outside sickbay would have come up with the same idea to jump ship as he did was astronomically low. But as Nat took a seat next to him, Leon realized that in one swift stroke, the ship's helmsman hadn't only agreed with the doctor's clandestine operation, but approved of it, and was already working on the next step of implementation as a combined team. As Nat looked at Leon expectantly, it became clear that, on an unspoken level, THIS was they was it was intended: They were friends, and there was no way that Nat was going to let Leon do this by himself.

As for the rest of the "team", from Leon's point of view, they were unknowns. While it was easy to understand why Nat would embark on this act of disobedience due to his rebellious attitude, the additions of a reporter and a fugitive double-agent made for an odd set of personalities. The latter individual worried Leon, not so much because she was operating aboard ship under false pretenses (a situation that was becoming all too familiar), but because Captain Roth would never have sent someone to the brig if she thought they we weren't a threat to the crew.

"What about her?" Leon pointed to Char'ik as politely as possible.

"Considerin' she was sent here ta save ma life, an she's only in the brig cause she pissed off the cap'n, I dun think we got anythin' ta worry 'bout from her." Nat replied, as he ran through a pre-flight check-list like the trained professional he was.

"I guess I can't argue with that", he admitted. "But, I *can* argue one point: I can't ask any of you to do this." Leon's change of subject had a somber undertone of guilt. "None of you have any stake in sticking your neck out for these people, and there's a very good chance that this won't succeed. Assuming we make it back to the planet at all, we still have to find the people who might be willing to give this treatment a chance, and you can bet your asteroids that they'll be just as many people who'll try to stop us."

Cocking his head to the side, Nat eyed Leon as if he was spouting nonsense. "First off, ya ain't askin' any of us ta do nothin'. I'm doin' this cause it's what's right. Leah's comin' along fer pretty much the same reason, amongst others, not the least a which is havin' a heroic news story'll pluck the heart-strings back home enough ta maybe keep us outta irons." he stated. "As fer missy-miss there," he said, indicating Cha'rik, "I ain't got any other ideas fer gettin' off the ship without a tractor beam snaggin' us after about twenty-seconds. Now, If yer finished fallin' on yer sword all pre-emptive like, lets get this show on the road."

"It's a little... cramped... back there." Leah interrupted, as a container of empty hypo-sprays fell off of a stack of containers taller than she was.

"Oh, sorry about that," Leon apologized while slipping from out behind the pilot's chair. "I hadn't counted on having others onboard." He took a step to the cockpit door and scanned the cluttered main cabin. "If you unstrap those boxes of field rations and move them on top of the surgical support crate, you can free up a pair of acceleration chairs. There won't be much leg room, unfortunately."

Leah looked back at Leon with trepidation. "Exactly what was your plan once you got away?" she asked with a raised eyebrow and an uncertain tone.

"I figured my best shot was to high-tail it back to the planet and try to find Karu, or at least someone OTHER than Legionnaire Athra who will listen to reason."

"No offense, Doc," Nat replied from the cockpit. "But ya ain't too good at the whole renegade thing, ya know? I mean, what was yer plan after stealin' the Fowler? Just hope no body noticed ya leavin'? Not ta mention what where ya gonna do if ya made it to Ash'aaria? Try some old snake-oil sales pitch?"

"No," Leon defended himself with a touch of hurt pride. "I figured I would fly around until I found a place to hide the runabout and set up a makeshift treatment center. The Runabout has everything I need to survive: food replicators, transporters, living quarters. There's nothing onboard that I wouldn't have on any other basic Starfleet vessel to take care of my survival needs."

"Uh, minor point a interest; price fer missy-miss ta help us is one Danube-class runabout, mint condition." Hawk replied as Cha'rik sat down in Leon's vacated pilot's seat, activating a computer up-link to Republic.

"Her?" Leon scowled, raising his voice. "Why would you hand over a piece of Starfleet equipment to her?" The doctor didn't have anything against Char'ik, but his whole plan of setting up a makeshift hospital was reliant on having the runabout as a home base. "I need the Fowler for her support systems, not to mention getting around the planet. Why can't she just use one of the escape pods?"

Leon was almost whining, as he secretly didn't like the idea of not having a cup of coffee or decent meal while at large on the devastated planet, and the thought of sleeping on a camping bedroll instead of a comfortable bunk for the rest of the foreseeable future left a bad taste in his mouth. But from a tactical point of view, having the replicator produce specialized tools or materials was an important capability to have, not to mention vital role the transporter could play in beaming to and from any potential hiding spot or isolated patient ward.

"Escape pods are not warp capable." Cha'rik replied simply, keeping her focus on the console before her.

"We may not have a runabout, Doc, but we'll have what we need. I'm sure missy-miss here won't mind partin' with the Fowler's site-to-site transporter, an there's a backup field replicator in the survival equipment locker. Figure we can set up in one a the standin' city buildings near ground-zero. Rads levels are too high for the Ash'aarians, but we've got anti-radiation meds they don't."

"I suppose it's better than nothing," Leon agreed while clattering echoed in the main cabin where Leah was moving boxes as the doctor suggested.

As Nat waited for Cha'rik to finish her work, he turned to look at Leon. "I'm just curious; how where ya even gonna get off the ship?"

"Easy," Leon shrugged his shoulders while leaning on the cockpit doorway. "I was planning to trick the ship's sensors into thinking there's a core overload in the runabout. Shuttledeck protocols dictate a cutoff of gravity and magnetic moorings, followed by explosive decompression. Before you know it - boom. We're blown out of the shuttlebay and we're free as a bird."

"Actually, that's just fer shuttles cause they don't got ejection systems. Protocol with a runabout is usin' the bay tractor ta stick 'er nose out far 'nough fer the core ta get ejected b'fore pullin' 'er right back in ta the bay."

"Oh," Leon replied sheepishly. "I guess I wouldn't have known about that, eh?"

"Like I said, ya ain't exactly the renegade type."

"Well then, what was your idea?" Leon asked.

"Simple. We go ta warp from inside the bay." Hawk stated, checking the matter/anti-matter reaction rates.

Leon looked as if someone had slapped him across the face. After a moment of gawking at Nat, his face compressed into an incredulous expression. "Are you crazy?" he shouted.

"Never diagnosed, but ya ain't the first ta ask." Hawk replied with a grin.

"Well what about the Republic?" Leon continued his questioning. "It won't be long before they figure out what happened to us."

"I'm ready," Cha'rik stated finally.

"Come on, doctor," Leah tugged on Leon's shoulder, escorting him into the main cabin. "Let's strap ourselves in and let the experts do their job."

"What?" Leon looked confused. "Now? Can't we have a longer discussion about this?" The doctor's trepidation was clear as Nat keyed in the sequence lowering the bay doors. "I mean, there's a lot of sensitive equipment back here, and if it gets rattled around too much, it'll likely..." The door to the cockpit slid closed as Nat activated the RCS thrusters, causing the runabout to hover over the deck. A moment later, he keyed the controls, sending the runabout to warp...

"Like the man said; lets rock n'roll!"

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

Gamma shift on the bridge was a quiet affair. With lights at half-illumination, the normally buzzing command center did not escape the shipwide lull in activity as the majority of the crew were asleep in their quarters. The ops console was vacant, as was science and engineering, and in fact, the only occupied stations on the bridge at this hour were helm, tactical, and of course, the command chair. The ship's counselor, Lieutenant Commander Reittan Tolkath, was the occupant of the latter station, as his training as a bridge officer allowed for his primary duties to be supplemented by an occasional turn on command watch. In a recent move to supplement his tactical experience aboard ship, Ensign Depach Narundi from the deck five armory was also taking his turn at bridge watch, diligently manning the tactical station and keeping tabs on the long-range sensor array.

Finally, the most experienced late-night watch officer, Lieutenant Hayden Kroeger, had recently earned the dubious title of the ship's "dead-head": the most senior member of the crew who actively remained on the graveyard shift despite the fact that it was a rotating crew roster. The truth was that nobody else really liked gamma shift except for Lieutenant Kroeger, who time and time again requested to remain on the roster, preferring to be awake during the relaxed, quiet hours of Republic's late-night activity cycle.

It was precisely this experience on gamma shift that allowed Hayden to notice subtle changes in ship operations which would normally go unnoticed during other shifts due to their routine nature. Normally, he would not have seen any activity on the ops data feed, as the operations department had no more than a dozen people on duty at this hour throughout the ship, and the bridge station was closed for the night and re-routed to helm. So, when he glanced at the power distribution matrix, his eye caught a not-so obvious discrepancy in shuttlebay two... the lights were on.

"That's odd," the third-shift helmsman muttered to himself.

"Lieutenant?" the counselor looked up from the PADD he was reading.

"It's probably nothing, sir," Haydon remarked. "I'm just seeing a sign of some possible activity in shuttlebay two."

Riettan put down his psychology journal and stood up. "What kind of activity?"

"I'm not really sure. There's no lifesigns in there, it just looks like... well, it looks like somebody forgot to turn off the lights before they left for the day."

The counselor was a unique man. His half betazoid and one quarter Vulcan blood allowed him access both his logical faculties - which told him that there was a mathematical improbability that the lights were on without anyone being in the shuttlebay, and his telepathic abilities - which confirmed that there were, indeed people in there. But before Reittan could identify who it was, Hayden interrupted.

"Um, sir... I'm now reading an open bay door in shuttlebay two... and nobody has filed a flight plan with the navigation department!"

Immediately, Reittan re-focused his telepathy to identify the occupants. A flood of emotion entered his mind, and without a moment's hesitation, immediately recognized one of them from numerous counseling sessions for PSTD.

"Leon..." the counselor whispered with concern. Spinning around on his heel, Lieutenant Commander Tolkath addressed Ensign Narundi. "Tactical, prepare a tractor beam."

The ensign did not have time to reply before the ship shuttered hard enough to knock Reittan off balance. As the alert klaxon sounded, the lights on the bridge immediately returned to standard illumination, and the counselor turned back to Lieutenant Kroeger.

"What was that?"

"A runabout has launched from shuttlebay two! It went immediately into warp and intersected with the Republic's warp field! We'll have to drop to impulse and re-establish it in order to pursue!"

"Do it," Reittan ordered. "Tactical, activate the tractor beam... quickly! Before they're out of range!"

"Tractor beam is non-responsive, sir!" Depach shook his head while working the controls on the tactical arch, a stream of negative tones emanating from the console. "We've just lost long-range sensors, too!"

"What?" the counselor asked with incredulity.

"What the hell!" shouted Kroeger as he stabbed his fingers at the console in front of him with futility. "Our sensor logs where just wiped! We've lost everything from the past five minutes; hell, from the last week!"

"...Including the coordinates of the planet Ash'aar, I presume?" Reittan asked through a thinly veiled sigh as he put two-and-two together.

"Roth to bridge! What's going on up there?"

With a sigh of frustration, Reittan tapped his combadge. "You and Commander Carter better get up here, captain. We have a situation..."

Location: New York, Pan-American Zone, Sol III (Alpha Quadrant)

"I certainly respect your point of view Councilor Ahrn, but I must point out that none of us truly believes in democracy."

Ahrn Doltari smiled as if he'd just been given his most longed for present on Christmas. He looked frantically at the host of Fifth Estate, Earth's preeminent political information program. "You see Mister McKenzie?" the Effrosian councilor questioned, "He even admits that he's a fascist. I really don't think I need to say any more."

On the opposite side of the triangular table, Vladimir Kristof Kostya simply shook his head. "I did nothing of the sort Robert," he said, addressing the Fifth Estate host directly. "I simply pointed out that I don't believe in democracy." His tone was matter-of-fact and dispassionate. "I don't. You don't, Councilor Doltari certainly doesn't. In fact... most of the Federation doesn't either."

The sandy haired host of Fifth Estate, Robert McKenzie, nodded and turned a hand palm up to Kostya. "Then, perhaps you'd like to clarify your position, Admiral?"

Kostya nodded. "I'd be happy to Bob," he said simply. "And please, it's just Mister Kostya now. I haven't been an Admiral for quite some time."

McKenzie simply nodded. "Of course... my apologies, sir. Still, could you please explain the meaning of your comments"?

"Absolutely. In point of fact there hasn't been a functional 'Democracy' on earth, or any other planet of appreciable size, since the Eugenics Wars. As any schoolboy knows, The Federation is a representative republic. So, whatever we call ourselves, whatever label we choose to put on our parties, our allegiances, our groups, we're all republicans at heart".

Across from Kostya, Doltari simply took off his traditional Effrosian spectacles, not to actually clean them, more to buy him self some time before he started his response. "Mister Kostya can split all the hairs he likes, but he and all the 'Neo-Crats', or whatever it is they're calling themselves, represent a dangerous step backward to the Federation Council."

"That's just fear-mongering Bob, and pretty trite at that."

"Now, now, Mister Kostya," McKenzie cautioned, "I want everything here to be on the up and up. Please. Go ahead, please Councilor Doltari."

Again, Doltari nodded. "Thank you, Mister McKenzie. As I said, the ideas put forth by these Neo-Crats remind me of nothing so much as a dangerous chapter in Terra's own history. If Admiral Kostya wants to discuss history, then by all means we should."

For his part, Kostya looked on with a barely hidden scowl.

"Before the founding of the Federation, Earth was largely in chaos, and it was a dangerous time. Territories, city-states, fiefdoms... hundreds of petty dictators, and one of the worst was a man named Herbert Walker... The self-styled Governor Walker from... " he tilted his head slightly to look at Kostya directly, "Texas, wasn't it, Mister Kostya ?"

Vladimir nodded. "It was, Councilor."

"Indeed it was. At any rate, Governor Walker preached the gospel of safety in return for loyalty. An admirable sentiment surely, but to the Governor, loyalty had to be absolute. So much so, that after a particularly dry few years, when the crops failed, Herbert Walker ordered that those who broke his conservational edicts... he was QUITE conservative, after all... He ordered that those who broke the law... for the good of the community of course, were to be but to death, and do you know what the worst part was?"

Kostya nodded curtly "Enlighten me, Councilor." Kostya answered.

Doltari let a small smile cross his lips. "The worst part was that out of fear of what life without the Governor's protection would be like, children informed on their parents for the crime of sharing water. Not too much different from Kodos the Executioner, come to think of it."

A few beats passed before the Councilor spoke again. "Eventually of course, there was a trial, and the only thing Walker would say before he took his own life... on the stand, if you can believe it... was 'If you're not with me, you're against me', and that was that."

Kostya huffed in frustration. "Your point is?"

"My point is, Mister Kostya, that I don't want to see you elected as governor, or anything else. The Neo-Crat philosophy seems perfectly reasonable on the surface; Security at any reasonable price. Of course, we all want that. However, when you look at it. I mean really see it, it's the same all or nothing, and sooner or later, even the most unreasonable things can be made to seem reasonable."

"Computer, freeze playback." The voice came from Oliver Rhymer, a media consultant on the Neo-Crat payroll. This was the fifth time he'd gone over the interview segment from earlier in the week, with both Vladimir Kostya and Ben Maxwell.

The two former officers were seated on a couch in Rhymer's well-appointed office. Maxwell hunched forward, throwing up his hands. "Do you really need to see this again, Rhymer? I don't care what happened, I care how we fix it!"

"To fix it, Maxwell, we need to understand it. HE needs to understand it." Rhymer turned to indicate Vladimir Kostya, who was still silently fuming on the couch.

"I. Don't. Know." He offered with barely contained fury.

"You asked him a question. You gave him an opening. You gave him control. He's better at this than you. Even WITH McKenzie serving up softballs, you still barely recovered. For shit's sake Kostya! He all but called you Kodos the Executioner, and you LET him!"

"Just tell me," Kostya asked. "Am I cooked? Are we done?"

Rhymer shook his head. "No, I can fix this, but I'm going to need very particular help."

"What sort of help?" Ben Maxwell asked.

"Not what, Maxwell... Who. We need Leah Warner."

"Damn it to Hell," Kosya spat.

Location: Main brig, deck 38, USS Republic (Gamma Quadrant)

Petty Officer First Class Brent Murdock had been on the gamma shift guard duty roster for almost a week. It wasn't his first time on the list, but it certainly wasn't his favorite assignment, and at this late hour he would have given anything just to get a cup of coffee and a break from the routine of hourly security checks and log entries. So, when Nat Hawk came strolling into the cell block with a pat on his shoulder and a suggestion to take a short break, Murdock didn't bat an eyelash. The security department had been keeping watch over the lone Vulcan prisoner for seemingly forever, and even though the captain's standing order was to not allow contact with the rest of the crew, such an order rarely ever included the ship's senior officers. Besides, like most of the crew, Murdock knew Nat from numerous social events at the Hill, not the least of which was a double-date a month ago with him, Leah Warner, and a young med-tech from sickbay. Brent and Nat got along well, as they were both fun-loving and outgoing, and swapped numerous war stories over after-dinner drinks.

After Murdock's return from break, Hawk smiled his usual "devil-may-care" grin and thanked him before leaving the brig. The young guard nodded back with a smile before re-taking his seat at the monitoring station, logging Nat's visit into the security log as part of standard procedure. Glancing at the prisoner, he noted her usual lotus-position on the bed; a state of deep meditation that she usually maintained during her waking hours. Confident in her disposition, Brent returned to his PADD novel, hoping that gamma shift would pass quickly so he could head back to his bunk and get some rest.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, his shift refused to end without another interruption. Less than an hour after Nat's visit, the ship rocked suddenly as the warp engines hiccuped under some unknown strain. It knocked the petty officer out of his chair, and as the alert klaxon sounded, he immediately scrambled back to his station to key in his status report to the bridge. Seeing that Cha'rik had not moved, he dialed "station secure" and transmitted it to the tactical station on the bridge.

With a sigh, Brent looked around nervously, wondering what was going on outside the ship that would have caused such a late-night ruckus. His eyes made one more scan around the cell block, and after a second glance at the prisoner, he quickly looked back at her, sensing that something was out of place: She STILL had not moved. Not even after the room shaking. A force that knocked HIM out of his chair should have at least startled the Vulcan out of her lotus position. Something inside Murdock told him he'd better check on her.

"Prisoner, on your feet," Brent ordered to Cha'rik as he stood up from his station.

She did not stir from her meditative state.

Murdock took a step towards the force field. "Prisoner!" he ordered louder and with a more authoritarian chord. "I said, on your feet!"

Not a single movement came from Cha'rik.

Concern swelled in Brent's stomach... something wasn't right. Tapping his combadge, his voice betrayed a heightened sense of urgency. "Murdock to security! I need cell entry support in the brig! On the double!" With the main security office just down the hall, a pair of burly security crewmen were at Murdock's side within twenty seconds. Quickly, the petty officer dialed a combination into the wall panel which lowered the cell's force field.

The three security crewmen gawked as the image of Cha'rik disappeared as soon as the field dropped. Panic-stricken, Murdock scrambled into the cell to find an empty bunk, and series of strangely-shaped dental appliques pasted to the cell wall in an end-to-end configuration. They led from the upper edge of the force field emitter to the holo-projecter at the top of the wall, where an adjacent access panel sat half-exposed. As for the projector itself, it's power source was shut down by the deactivation of the field emitter.

Wide-eyed with horror, Murdock tapped his combadge again. "Brig to security! Intruder alert! We have an escape!"

As security alert sounded throughout the ship, Brent's face collapsed into his hands as he realized he had been duped by the ship's helmsman earlier that evening.

"Damn!" he voiced with anguish. "Chief Rainier is gonna have my stripes for this!"

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

There are literally hundreds of ways to disable a starship. The amazing concert of force, counter-force and mechanical to electronic, to kinetic conversion that made the huge ships work so well was, at times, disrupted by the smallest of things.

This was one of those times.

Republic's sensor logs had been deleted, which had the effect of essentially removing the ship from the rest of the universe. Essentially, Republic was blind, and without knowing where it was going, the ship's computer would go into a kind of lockdown, allowing only life-support and station keeping from reaction thrusters, until some contact with the outside world told Republic that it did, in fact, still exist.

Kim Roth slipped through the turbolift doors to Republic's main bridge before they'd finished opening. "Tolkath," she barked firmly, but with no hint of anger, "Short version. Now."

Reitan Tolkath moved quickly to vacate the center seat in the command pit. "Unknown parties have made off with the runabout Fowler, Captain. Tractor beams failed due to loss of sensors."

Roth settled into the Captain's chair, smoothed down a wayward strand of brown hair and checked the repeat status display on the chair's left arm. True to what Tolkath had stated, the display was filled with far too much red.

"Tactical." Roth issued crisply, "How soon 'til we can pursue?"

Depach Narundi grimly looked at his board. "No way to tell, Captain. Sensors are still dark. It will take some time for us to get a baring."

"It'll probably take longer than we have," Came the words of John Carter as he stepped from the turbolift, still straightening his duty jacket. "In this soup?" Carter was referring to the nebula that Republic had been somewhat ironically sent to the Gamma Quadrant to charter in the first place. "We likely won't get a good reading, and without a Federation beacon to triangulate from..."

"We're dead in the water." Roth commented. She looked at Carter as he took a seat on her right. "Three guesses who arranged this little accident."

Carter nodded. "Agreed," he offered, "but Leon didn't do this...at least, not by himself." Carter shook his head. "This has Hawk written all over it."

"Bridge, brig." Was the call from the comm system.

The Captain looked at her XO for a moment, wondering how out of control the situation really was. "Roth, Go."

"Petty Officer Murdock, Captain. We've had a...well, a jailbreak, Ma'am",

"A what?!"

"There you go," Carter mused.

On the Comms, Murdock continued. "The prisoner, Cha'rick, Ma'am. She escaped."

Roth rubbed her temples to try and stop the headache that was building, but it was too late, and once again, the headache's name was Nat Hwak. "Understood, Mr. Murdock. Coordinate with Tactical; set Condition One throughout the ship. Just in case."

"Aye, ma'am."

Next to his Captain, John Carter bristled. "Don't worry, Captain," he offered. "Next time I see Hawk, I'll kill him for you."

Roth quirked an eyebrow. "Kill him? Hell!" she commented. "Get him to write this stuff down!" Roth looked back over her shoulder, at Narundi. "Damage Report?"

Depach checked the status board again. "No actual damage, Captain. Engineering's reporting in now."

"Bridge? Engineering." The voice of Maria Pikita called out from nowhere. "Warp core and other essential systems are fine, but without sensors..."

Unable to brush a nagging thought aside, Carter tapped his Comm badge. "Shannon, everything ok?"

After a few seconds, the holographic form of Doctor Shannon Harris whirled into existence on the bridge. "I think the core is intact," Shannon explained, thanks to her intimate connection to the ship's computer, "Put there's no telling until we try to move again."

Roth nodded, calling back to the ACE. "How long, Pikita?"

"Not sure, Cap'n. But, is the XO up there with you?"

Roth looked to Carter. "I'm here, ACE. Whatta ya got?"

"Right now? Half an idea, but as soon as the alert went off, I asked myself, 'What would the Chief do, and I don't mean Mr. Davloch. No offense, Sir."

"None taken, Pikita," Carter replied, amused that the Assistant Chief Engineer of Republic still referred to the long re-assigned Victor Xavier Virtus as 'The Chief'. "What's on your mind?"

"I'm on the way up, Sir. I'll tell you in a few."

 

Location: Captain's ready room, deck 1, USS Republic

"See, the thing is, everyone on a starship forgets about auxiliary craft, which, if you'll pardon me for saying, Ma'am..." Pakita explained, is the reason we're in this mess right now."

Carter and Roth exchanged bemused looks. "Point taken, Pikita," The Captain agreed.

"So I figured, why not use that to our advantage. I mean, we have a couple runabouts left, but anything actually assigned to the ship by Fleet is going to cross-check with the computer core to verify sensor logs. At which point, they go blind too. So, what we really need is another, independent ship."

"Which we don't have." Carter answered.

Pikita shook her head. "Which we DO have, sir. Isn't there a Peregrine fighter in Shuttle Bay Two?"

From behind her desk, Roth smiled. "Good."

Carter felt the familiar smirk cross his face. "Pikita, you're a sprocking genius!"

The dark-haired officer smiled, batting her eyes, more for effect than necessity.

"I know, Sir."

 

Location: Shuttle bay two, deck 13, USS Republic

Inside the cockpit of the vintage, Peregrine fighter, John Carter wriggled uncomfortably in the pilot's couch. "Funny how Hawk spent all that time getting this thing back together, and I seem to be the one logging all the hours in it."

He glanced over the readouts in the cockpit, and looked to his right. Kneeling on the deck, Maria Gisselle Pikita finished her visual check of the fighter's undercarriage, the patted her palm twice on the glass of the canopy, followed by a quick thumbs up; the universal symbol to pilots that their craft was safe to fly.

"Carter to bridge."

"Bridge, go."

"Pikita's given me the green light. I'll be off the deck in ten seconds."

Roth nodded, then looked over at Shannon Harris, and looked back toward the Engineering substation, where Chief Engineer Vance Davloch was waiting. He also nodded. "We're good up here XO," Roth said, finally allowing for some hopefulness in her voice. "Standing by for data link."

"Roger that. Ghost Rider is wheels up... now!"

There was a burst of ionic plasma as Carter nudged the seasoned fighter's impulse drive to life. Like a dog let out of its pen after too long, the small ship leapt out of the shuttle bay, clearing Republic's massive warp nacelles, and finding it's way to open space in a matter of seconds.

Easing the fighter into a gentle bank, Carter arced back to his left, pitching down slightly, and leveling out to pass directly over the bridge.

The normal background of Republic's busy status was momentarily disrupted as the rumble of powerful impulse engines kicked out ionized drive plasma mere feet from the larger ship's hull.

Contrary to popular belief, space is not totally silent. Get close enough to a large enough object, say, the hull of a starship, and the waves that would produce sound in a atmosphere use any intervening medium to travel. This was happening at that moment, as a low, resonant "thoom" traveled through the skin of Republic.

On the bridge, Kim Roth blinked, then smiled and looked at Shannon Harris as the unexpected sound faded. "Did he just..."

All Shannon could do was smile. "Aye, Captain. The XO just buzzed the bridge. God knows how long he's been wanting to do that."

A comm chirp served to bring the crew back to the task at hand.

"Ghost Rider to Republic. I'm getting decent sensor returns. Stand by to initiate data-link."

From the Engineering station, Vance Davloch keyed in a few commands, and nodded as pleasant chirps answered. "Link established Captain, we can see what he sees."

Roth sat back in her chair, nodding. "Good work. Now it's only a matter of time before Carter can build us enough of a picture for the ship's sensors to realize where we are."

Next to the captain, Shannon Harris tilted her head. "Then what do we do?"

"Then, Doctor," an undertone of icy dread crept into the Captain's voice. "Then, we haul ass to the Ash'aarans and hope that Leon hasn't committed any crimes."

"Do you really think he'd do it? I mean... cure those people against there will?"

Roth nodded. "Doctor, you've known Leon longer than I have, and there is no doubt in my mind. Ask yourself, how far is Leon Cromwell willing to go on principle alone?"

Harris nodded soberly. "Point taken, Captain."

Location: Starfleet Intelligence computer interface node, Luna Colony, Sol III (Alpha Quadrant)

The figure slipped through the door with the ease of someone long practiced in the art of remaining unseen, quickly moving to the center of the room where a computer access station waited in standby. The woman slipped a PADD from the satchel at her hip and let it against the stations interface panel and keyed in a series of command codes.

Deep within the core of the computer data base, authorization codes opened a set of highly classified files and displayed them on the LCARS display in front of the woman. As far as the computer was concerned the proper person had just gained access to Starfleet Personnel Files.

A satisfied smile crossed the mysterious woman's lips as she began to review the files in front of her. The PADD began to download protocols programmed days ago. In a matter of minutes information began to change in the selected file, very important information.

Deep within the database codes and information began to be routed to various parts of Starfleet Operations. Database files, once available to the right people, began to close. Communication protocols altered along special ordered sequences. Command codes twisted and warped, no longer valid, replaced by updated ones. Automated communication reports began to be sent to the far reaches of Starfleet; every station, starbase and starship in the Federation soon had the new authorizations and updates. It was simple and standard Starfleet protocol, no one would question anything that had happened. It was part of a long standard routine. It wouldn't change anything for anyone. Well, one person was going to be pretty upset.

"Computer," the woman's voice spoke out loud for the first time. "Initiate and begin full system purge of file five-five-four-Delta. Authorization Delta-Omega-Alpha."

Throughout the system the indicated file began to disappear. It was over in a matter of moments.

The woman retrieved the PADD from the console and placed it back in her satchel. She pulled a small spray from the bag and pressed a button and a thin mist filled the room quickly evaporating, and taking any trace elements of herself with them. Always a handy tool to have.

She turned one last time as she began to slip through the door and smiled.

"Let's see how you like being on your own, Dragon."

***

Timeframe: Later that evening

The hatch to the airlock rolled quietly open and the man stepped into the corridor, finally glad to be off the freighter. He'd spent the last seven weeks hoping from one ship to the other to make his way here. He was tall and well-built, dressed in worn and faded clothes, and definitely in need of a shave. His eyes quickly moving and taking in his surroundings. He ran his fingers through his long, brown hair and resettled the duffel bag across his shoulder. Quickly he joined the flow of others walking down the corridor it had been a while since Douglas Forrest had left Deep Space Nine. It was good to be back to a 'civilized' part of the world.

Flashing lights, loud cheers and exciting laughter called to him from one entryway, a place called Quark's, but unlike most people, Forrest walked by, his eyes lingering on an attractive, red-haired Trill female, dressed in an outfit that left little to the imagination, revealing each of her markings from head to toe. Her glance, in return, contained a sly tease.

Forrest continued on his way and soon found himself in one of the outer habitat areas and realized that the corridors were rather empty. It was then that two men stepped from a side corridor and blocked his path. Both men were big and burly, the kind of men who had done hard labor most of their lives. Both had intricate tattoos on their faces, above and below their eyes. Forrest turned around to avoid the two men only to be blocked by another man, equally menacing and tattooed.

"Syndicate-hired assassins," he thought to himself. "So much for an easy day."

"Uh, look fellas," Forrest said aloud, his voice taking on an uncharacteristic tone of meekness. "I think there's been some sort of mistake. I think you picked the wrong guy to rob, I'm just a space tramper."

One of the men responded by pulling something from behind his back, a d'k tahg, a Klingon dagger, a very unmistakable weapon, is razor sharp edge catching the gleam of the corridor lights. He held the knife like a man used to fighting with one. He was obviously the most dangerous.

"No, Earther," he spoke his voice, gruff and raspy. "You right guy."

Before the men could react, Forrest moved into action. With a heave he tossed his duffel bag straight at the knife wielder, the heavy bag knocking the man back and out of his stance. He continued the movement with spin and slight duck, kicking out behind him. The sound of a shattering knee and the accompanying scream of agony, confirmed the odds had just been evened a bit more into Forrest's favor.

Using the momentum, Forrest threw his body left, and avoided a blow that would have caught him in the back of the head. He quickly recovered and aimed a quick strike at one of the others, the blow crushing the bridge of the nose and sending blood spraying across his opponents face. A sharp upward thrust of his knee caught the second assailant right in the vulnerable area between his legs, instantly dropping him to the ground and forcing him to lose the last meal he had eaten. Forrest aimed a devastating kick at the man's head, but before the kick landed a sharp, burning pain ripped through his side.

Forrest took a quick moment to assess his wound and was pleased to discover that the cut was very shallow and not life threatening. He stood unarmed, face-to-face with a larger armed opponent. All things considered it wasn't that bad of a position to be in.

The assailant made several wide slashing motions, testing his reach and daring Forrest to attack. Forrest saw an easy out, and with amazing speed moved to rush past him, a move he had perfect on the lacrosse fields years ago. Or at least that was his intention. As he closed in and made his move to pivot right, an intense burning sensation ripped through his side and his muscles locked, turning the spin into an ungainly lurch. A second slash ripped across his arm, Forrest once again cut by the dagger.

As he struggled to recover, Forrest realized his vision was becoming blurry around the edges and he was having a hard time making his body do what he wanted it to. Whatever poison was being used it was acting fast. The really was no way he could win this fight. Unless he cheated.

Forrest activated a numerical sequence hid away in the implant located in his skull. With almost the speed of thought, a sub-dermal hypo-injector shot a cocktail of various drugs directly into his bloodstream. Theoretically the concoction could counteract most know poisons and dumb a huge amount of endorphins in his his system. The pain immediately went away and Forrest felt the burning sensation fade away. It looked like it was going to work, but there would be hell to pay later. If he survived.

Forrest let out an animal growl and moved straight into his assailant, knocking the knife out of his line of attack and began hammering blows into the massive mans face and body. Forrest was pretty sure his assassin managed to land a few blows in return and the specks of blood splashing the corridor were probably indications of more cuts happening. But right now he didn't care. He need to win this fight fast.

Forrest managed to get his arm around the attackers neck and started chocking. There was no elegance in the move, just sheer brutality. Arm muscles struggled to crush the assailants windpipe and the attacker began to slow down as he had trouble getting any oxygen. In a matter of seconds the attacker went limp and Forrest released him to fall heavily on the ground.

The ground began to sway and bright circles began to explode in his field of vision. Forrest started to move away from the scene, realizing he did not need to be found by station security, but his muscles betrayed him and he fell heavily against the corridor wall. Struggling to hold himself upright, he understood he wasn't going anywhere. It was a race to to see what would happen first, unconsciousness or hitting the floor.

If anyone had been there to see him fall, they would have declared it a tie.

***

Waking up with a gasp, Doug Forrest found himself soaked in sweat. The anxiety of getting this close to the source of the neuro-toxin had him on edge, and it was cutting deep into his sleep cycle. As the strange dream about the attack on him at Deep Space Nine faded from his memory, he looked out the window and saw the dark streets of Medara City outside, realizing he was still on Farius Prime. Shaking the sleep from his mind, he looked at the chronometer before banging on the bunk below, stirring Sean McTaggart out of his slumber. As the Republic security officer groaned, Forrest hopped down off his bed.

"C'mon," he beckoned. "We're going to be late."

***

Forrest hated to admit when he was wrong, but there was no denying this was one of those times. Three days ago he'd made contact with Raimus, an influential member of the Orion Trade Syndicate. And for three of those days, he'd been a "guest" ever since. But things could have been much worse, he and McTaggart were still breathing. As Forrest stood in front of the Orion agent, he realized he was going to need to up the ante a little bit.

"All I need is some information about a certain neuro-toxin," began the Intelligence Officer. "I know that the Syndicate has dealt the toxin around the galaxy, I simply want to know where they got from. In exchange I'm willing to tell you the location of something highly prized by the Syndicate. Something that could put someone like you on top."

Douglas hoped that McTaggart wouldn't give anything away; what he was about to offer would definitely go against everything Starfleet drilled into it's officers about loyalty.

"What could you possibly offer me, Mr. Connelly, that would get me to help you or keep you alive," the Orion asked.

"That's easy to answer", Forrest responded. "You simply tell me the source of this neuro-toxin and in exchange I'll tell you the location of Nathan Hawk."

Forrest watched the looks of surprise on the faces of Raimus and McTaggart, and was happy to see the Security officer quickly recover from his shock. Raimus, however, was not so successful in hiding his emotions. Forrest knew he had him hooked. Now to make sure Raimus would leave them alive once the information was exchanged.

***

Hiding in the shadows was not the way it should be done. A real warrior would have no fear and simple walk into the building, shoot anyone that stood in the way and drag the target out of the building. A few hours of interrogation would be force the information out; the true and proper way to handle the problem. But years of training and an understanding that sometimes honor was found in other ways; ways that served the Empire better, were what kept Atul in check. The Klingon Intelligence officer settled deeper in the shadows of the doorway and looked to see if he could spot his partner Borak, but had no luck. Patience was a trait many Klingon lacked, probably one of the reasons he had gone far in his career path. The results of his failure was also an incentive for succeeding. Ever since the debacle a few years back on Deep Space Nine, Atul had been climbing his way back into the graces of his superiors; only his family connections had kept him from being exiled. Atul straightened, as he saw the four figures begin moving closer to his target's building. They were using cover to avoid a direct line of sight, meaning no one in the building was going to see them. They also moved fast and well, trained. The Klingon noticed a movement across the way as his partner revealed his location, but not to the four strangers. Things were about to get exciting.

***

Forrest and McTaggart walked out of Raimus' headquarters, still alert and ready for a some sort of trick. Forrest didn't notice anything out of the ordinary, except for a Klingon leaning in a doorway, looking drunk.

"See I told you I had a plan", Forrest began. "Granted I had to give up Hawk, but considering he's on a Galaxy-class ship in an entirely different quadrant, I figured I had some leeway. Just remind me to warn him when we get back."

"I still don't like it." replied the security officer, obviously upset.

"And you really trust Raimus to deliver the information. I mean we gave up Nat without actually getting the name of who supplied the Syndicate with the toxin."

Forrest chucked at the security officers comment.

"He did give us the source." At that Forrest held up a small isolinear chip. "Raimus couldn't be seen as helping out anyone, he had once of his men slip it to me as we were being shown the door."

McTaggart turned toward the Intelligence officer with a look of disbelief and tackled him to the ground. An instant later a green beam of energy passed above the two. Both men let instinct take over and rolled in opposite directions, their eyes scanning the surroundings. Four figures had positions in a semi-circle around them, each armed with energy pistols. Forrest came to a stop behind a small, crate and began to process the information. He recognized the weapons as Romulan in design; right about now a phaser would be handy. He glanced around and saw McTaggart sprawled behind a low, concrete planter. The security officer held a type one phaser in his hand. Forrest was going to ask him were he managed to hide that after being searched by Raimus' men.

Another beam of energy struck the crate near Forrest's head and there was no explosion; the weapons were set to stun; whoever was after them wanted them alive. Forrest made a quick few gestures at his partner, hoping the security officer understood the not-so-universal signal for "lay down covering fire while I flank them". Forrest moved as McTaggart started firing, keeping low and moving at an angle toward another building. The Intelligence officer made the distance without drawing any fire, which was a bit surprising. As he crouched, he looked back to see McTaggart being struck by two of the beams and going down in a lump.

The attackers moved forward as a unit, closing on the downed officer, quickly. Forrest swore under his breath and charged the closest of the four, his feet digging furrows in the soft ground. The first attacker turned just as Forrest left his feet in a flying tackle. The attacker staggered back a few steps and grabbed Forrest, who was stunned like he had just hit a brick wall. Forrest struggled to escape the grasp and twisted his hips for leverage, and stared into the face of a Romulan. The Romulan smiled and threw Forrest through the air, his fall broken by a stack of durasteel crates. The last thing he saw, before darkness took over, was McTaggart being carried away.

Location: Planet Ashaaria, Ashaar Nebula, Gamma Quadrant

Like a funeral shroud, gray and black clouds blanketed the planet Ashaaria; a testament to the "final solution" that doomed this world to nuclear winter in perpetuity. Multi-layered cloud decks rose up and diverged between altitudes to invoke angry pillars of cumulus-shaped radioactive water vapor. Precipitation, while life-giving on most M-class planets, was a scourge on Ashaaria, and when the rain fell, it brought with it renewed contamination and lingering death.

The lowermost cloud deck was an undulating mix of cumulus, stratus, and mammatus-type formations, with a scattering of vertically-sweeping scud clouds reaching downward as if they were actively blaming the surface dwellers for unleashing this environmental disaster years ago. At this altitude, the wind billowed and howled with turbulent updrafts, and convective vortices produced shear forces that could rip through any human-made aircraft that had the bad luck of crossing it's wake.

Well, most aircraft, anyway...

Like lightning followed by a clap of thunder, the luminescent red and blue hues of miniature warp engines tore through the cloud layer as the Runabout Fowler completed its atmospheric entry sequence.

"What the frinx was that?" shouted Nat Hawk as the craft gave a sudden lurch to portside following a raucous clatter of sonically-propelled fragments crashing into the forward viewport.

"Hail," the calm Vulcan voice of Cha'rik replied.

"I KNOW it's hail!" he returned gruffly. "Where'n the heck did it come from? I was aimin' for the upwind side of the storm! Not inta it!"

"The mesocyclonic patterns on this planet do not conform to any known meteorological phenomena," she explained while translating the sensor data. "The convective cell we were tracking from orbit dissipated and re-strengthened directly below our atmospheric window."

"Great!" Nat shot back with annoyance. "Hold on!"

With another lurch to the starboard, the entire craft entered a vertical spiral followed by several bow-over-stern flips before leveling off to a normal cruise attutide several miles above the ground.

"Nat!" came Doctor Cromwell's voice over the intercom. "What the hell's going on up there? We're about to lose our lunch back here!"

Nat smiled. "I guess it's a good thing yer a doc then, Leon!"

"C'mon!" the doctor pleaded. "A crate of rations already broke open! Keep this up, and they'll be nothing but a pile of useless junk back here!"

"Keep yer shirt on! We're past the worst, so just sit tight n'til we find a place ta land."

"Where were you planning to establish your base of operations?" Cha'rik asked.

"The capt'n said somthin' about seein' a bombed-out city a few kilos from th' beam-down site. Figure we can find'a place high up above the ground. Maybe a skyscraper er somthin'."

As the runabout flew off toward the west, the moving horizon revealed the skeletal remains of blasted buildings in the distance. Minutes later, the craft was hovering between twisted, rusting steel trestles reaching hundreds to thousands of feet into the air. Each contorted spire was linked precipitously together by eroded and sagging horizontal cross-beams, and like towers made of toothpicks, many were on the brink of collapse. The scene was reminiscent of an abandoned ship-yard, with the ribs of ancient metal seafaring vessels floundering on the shoreline; their hulls long-ago decayed by the constant wash of seawater rendering them useless. Where smaller buildings may have existed between the enormous corroded frameworks, nothing but sand and rubble remained. Where streets may have once marked a grid pattern of thoroughfares, only rivers of dust lingered, clogged by the occasional protrusion of half-buried girders or cement slabs.

What was most startling about this spectacle of devastation was that they were far from center of the city. As the runabout slowly slipped past the mangled latticework of trusses, each disfigured edifice became more and more crumpled and strained. The tangled girders seemed to have a directional slant that became more pronounced the further along they went, and soon, they reached a point where the tortured metal lay nearly flat, and the ground ahead was scoured clean of anything but bedrock and radioactive dust. In the distance, it became apparent that the terrain led to the edge of a cliff where the surface dropped off steeply, forming the lip of massive mile-wide crater.

They had reached ground zero.

The runabout hovered to a halt, turning its viewport out over the expansive void. Both Hawk, and yes, even Cha'rik, were shocked into silence. While both had experienced destruction in their lives, this was beyond anything they had expected to see. It became clear that here, among the ruined ironwork and cement rubble, there was no shelter... No skyscraper, no landing platform, not even a cave. The nuclear firestorm that once robbed this metropolis of it's life also robbed it of its soul, and all that remained was an empty grave.

So it had proved.

After a half a day of following a slow, spiraling reconnaissance course away from the city center, the four refugees from Republic realized that finding a viable, semi-permanent abode in this hostile environment would be elusive. The afternoon wore on, and the ruined landscape changed from urban wasteland to a desolate suburban necropolis. The variety of structural ruins shifted, and instead of twisted iron girders, the runabout floated above eroded circular foundations of various diameters. The edges, when visible and not half-buried by sand dunes, revealed the base remnants of walls that may have once been domed structures. Occasionally, distorted and blackened stack pipes protruded from the center of these foundations, indicating that fire was the primary fate mechanism of the destroyed structures. Like lilypads on a pond, these ruined foundations formed a patchwork landscape across vast stretches of flat, desolate fields of rubble. They were devoid of color... they were devoid of life.

As they moved across the despondent remains of suburbia, there was random evidence of dome-shaped architecture by way of scarce, half-collapsed multi-storied buildings. They were far and few between, and while the sheared facades revealed open residency levels, wind-blown sand filled each of them, rendering the structures useless for habitation. One such dome, which appeared to be some sort of repository or bank building, originally held promise for the runabout crew. But those hopes were quickly dashed when the craft hovered nearby to investigate, and the wind vibrations whipped up by the engines caused the dome to collapse inward.

Finally, towards the end of the afternoon, another promising candidate came into view. It was a medium-sized dome, no more than ten stories high, and surrounded by the remains of four smaller outbuildings that had long since turned to rubble. These outbuildings were obviously once connected to the main building by way of cylindrical walkways that projected outward like spokes on a wheel. However, the walkways collapsed long ago, leaving four gaping chasms along the base of the main structure. While the chasms first seemed to suggest that the building structure was unsound, especially since the ubiquitous wind-blown sand nearly filled the lower levels, Cha'rik's sensor scans indicated that the overall dome was relatively stable. Furthermore, the sensors also indicated that the upper levels were still intact, with only the outside rooms compromised due to windows blown out long ago by the initial blast wave from ground zero.

Inside the runabout, the four fugitives from Republic planned their next step. With Cha'rik manning the sensor console, the other three filled the cramped cockpit, closely observing the rotating 3D rendering of the detailed sensor scan of the domed structure.

"We can use the construction foam sprayer from the emergency shelter kit to seal off those old elevator shafts to the lower levels," Leon explained while pointing at the screen.

"Good idea," Leah Warner added. "We can also use it to seal off the blown-out windows in the outer-rim rooms."

"That's assumin' that they're not filled with that damn radioactive dust," Nat warned. "Speakin'a which... Cha'rik? How's the radiation levels?"

"The outside the structure, the radiation levels approach 38 centisieverts per hour," the science officer explained. "The hot particle concentration inside the structure averages 19 centisieverts per hour at level 5, increasing to 26 centisieverts down at ground level. Most of the upper levels are between 5 and 6 centisieverts per hour."

Leon audibly exhaled.

"Doc?" questioned Nat.

"I know of an officer from Theta Cyngi Five who suffered unprotected radiation exposure in the warp core of his starship. He received a total of 62 centisieverts. He was dead in less than a day. All we could do was make him comfortable as his organs liquified... If we stand outside this structure unprotected, we'll receive a lethal dose in minutes."

"Unprotected? What about hyronalin?"

"Hyronalin will reverse the effects of radiation exposure of about 20 centisieverts, but I can only administer it safely every 24 hours without ill effects. On an unexposed individual, it will offer radiation protection up to about 15 centisieverts for the first hour, 5 for the second hour, and down to about 2 for the third hour. The protection wears off after about 4 hours. I recommend EVA suits starting out, and begin room-to-room decontamination procedures until we can seal off a large enough area to suit our needs."

"What about keeping us safe in the long term?" Leah asked. "Can we use some sort of force field?"

"We could use the shield generators from the runabout," Nat suggested. "It'll do the job just fine."

"Shield generators?" Cha'rik inquired. "You've already claimed the runabout's site-to-site transporter. I supposed you'd like the phasor array next?"

"Nuthin' ta worry 'bout," Nat smiled back. "We'll let ya keep the nav deflectors. Yer just gettin' the basic model runabout!"

"It'll be dark soon," Leon warned. "Let's find the EVA suits and get to work."

***

Grim discoveries awaited the four fugitives at large. While initially they were delighted to discover that the building was once a hospital, the upper levels were no more than simple patient wards, and they were brimming with long-dead corpses. Based on the available physical evidence, the last living days within this hospital were beyond horrendous. Rooms originally designed for one or two patients were packed with up to twenty people in various states of dying repose. Radiation levels prevented bacterial decay, and the faces of the bodies were preserved into leathery, contorted expressions of shock and anguish. Many bore blistery lesions of flash burns, while others were hairless, toothless, and emaciated with starvation. There were so many bodies, and so many scenes of ghastly morbidity, that no one was able to sleep that first night back aboard the runabout. While they initially considered finding a new harbor to set up base camp, the exhaustive search the previous day led Nat and Leon to conclude this was the only place they could possibly achieve their goals.

Two days later, the crew of four were able to clear out most of the bodies by simple vaporization with phasers. There wasn't enough information available about Ash'aarian religious rites, so Leon said a few words before each room was cleared. By the end of the week, decontamination of the top five levels of the structure was complete, and as Leon had suggested, they sealed off the upper levels from the lower levels with emergency shelter construction foam. After the windows were sealed, the shield generators were put in place, and the group offloaded their supplies from the runabout. Soon they began settling in and taking stock of their situation.

Unfortunately, the group of four was a temporary arrangement. While Nat, Leon, and Leah were preparing for a much longer stay, Cha'rik's commitment was coming to a close. Nat and Leah, knowing full well that Cha'rik was not in need of a lengthy thank-you or goodbye, bid her a short farewell. For his part, Nat held to the conviction that he would see her again, but Cha'rik was less than convinced. With the standard Vulcan valediction, she offered the split-fingered "live long and prosper." Nat simply smiled as said, "Thanks ta you, I will..."

***

Because the building was once a hospital, a small, flat landing pad was situated on top of the structure's dome for the loading and unloading of patients from a flight vehicle. It was here that the runabout was parked for the past week, accessible via a roof-top stairwell vestibule made of concrete. When Cha'rik walked out in her EVA suit, she was greeted by Doctor Cromwell on the landing pad.

"I guess this is goodbye," Leon offered, his voice muffled from within the visor of his own EVA suit.

"Indeed," Cha'rik replied stoically. The two had never really had time to get to know one another aboard Republic, especially since she had spent the past four months in the brig, so she didn't feel it necessary to stretch out a goodbye. Instead, the former Vulcan science officer simply walked past Leon, enroute to the nearby runabout.

Leon, on the other hand, had something on his mind.

Doctor Cromwell's face bore a concerned expression as he watched her walk towards the craft, feeling a knot in his stomach that he could not reconcile. "Um... Cha'rik?"

The Vulcan stopped in mid-stride, turning back to Leon with her usual calm, restrained appearance. She silently waited for him to say what he had to say.

"...Remember our surface position, okay?" he requested nervously.

If Cha'rik knew anything about the doctor, it was that he was overly-emotional. His mannerisms and human smugness were disdainful, and since he had made the personal decision to be part of this completely illogical expedition to save a planet that was unwilling to save itself, assumed that the doctor was making another human joke. Instead of a verbal reply, she simply raised an eyebrow before continuing her walk back towards the runabout.

Leon, however, was far from a joking mood. The knot in his stomach grew magnitudes larger with every step Cha'rik took towards the runabout. Looking back and forth across the distant horizon, Doctor Cromwell's expression seemed to border on panic before beckoning her once more.

"Cha'rik?" his voice sounded again. This time, it was much more tense and nervous.

The ever-patient and emotionless Vulcan turned back around just as she reached the door of the runabout. As before, she silently waited for Leon to speak his peace.

"What IS our position?" he pleaded.

Cha'rik suddenly realized that the doctor really had no clue how dire his situation was. Of course, she could not feel pity, but it was only logical to explain the gravity of the situation to him.

"Doctor," she started. "Lieutenant Hawk arrived here by navigating along the surface of this planet using outside visual cues only. The heavy turbulence upon our re-entry sequence, combined with the surrounding ambient ionizing radiation, has rendered onboard planetary navigation instruments useless. I will not be able to establish any localized navigation fix until I reach solar orbit, which by then, I will be outside Ashaaria's radiation belt and far beyond communication range."

"Are you saying that you don't know our position?" Leon asked, slightly short of a breath.

"I'm saying, doctor, that I cannot even be sure that I'll find my way out of the nebula, to say nothing of getting back to Alpha Quadrant."

A lump formed in Leon's throat to compliment the knot in his stomach. "I guess we're on our own then, huh?"

Cha'rik decided that there was no logic in restating the obvious. "Good luck, doctor," she offered before entering the runabout.

Leon watched as Cha'rik sealed the hatch, and brought the engines from a dormant state to active state during the start-up sequence. The doctor knew that the runabout was the only space-faring vessel on the planet, and that he was hundreds - perhaps thousands - of kilometers distant from another living soul - benevolent or not. In a wisp of wind, the runabout levitated above the landing pad, made a slow turn towards the horizon, and in one swift thrust, accelerated skyward.

The doctor stood there on the landing pad, watching as the Fowler became a distant speck in the sky. A minute later, it was gone. Around him was silence. Complete, utter silence. Not a sound drifted upward on the wind; no birds... no insects... no traffic, no children playing, no dog barking, no neighbors arguing. Not even the breeze itself dared to interrupt the deathly stillness. The devastated horizon stretched toward infinity, yet he felt completely alone...

"Hawk ta Cromwell, you comin' back downstairs, doc?"

The sound of the communicator startled the doctor to such a degree, that he almost lost his footing. Tapping his wrist-panel, he replied, "On my way, Nat."

Timeframe: Two weeks later

He watched as the rain fell. Watched the horizon. Searched for any sign of life that might guide him forward. For the sixth day, he found none. Crouching, he took a handful of the wet rock-strewn gray soil beneath his feet. Sifting through it with his thumb, he let it fall away. He, like it, was soaked through and through. His hair, his skin, his uniform. After six days, he was beginning to forget what it felt like to be dry. He couldn't imagine any of the planets meager few million survivors taking refuge here, nor anywhere as far as the eye could see. The rain simply never seemed to let up. Not for a day, not for an hour, not for a minute.

For the first time, he doubted himself and his resolve to come to this world. It was a thought unworthy of a Starfleet officer, but it was human, and lying to ones self served no purpose. As far as he could tell, what had begun as a career-ending errand of mercy was quickly becoming a fools errand. Without an afflicted and willing Ash'aarian to treat, they had no means of spreading their cure for the virulent plague that ravaged these people. Without the runabout or other superior sensors, they had no idea where to find any such individuals. The tricorders already limited range was hampered even further by the ambient radiation, and what little power they had could not be replenished. Which left only one viable option: search by sight.

Six days out from the suburban medical facility they had established as base camp, that desperate option was looking to be yet another aspect of failure.

Trudging on through the thick gravel-flecked gray mud that caked his boots, he scratched at the weeks worth of facial hair on his chin and considered how he had gotten to this point. After a week of setting up shop, the four fugitives from Republic had become three with the departure of the covert agent they knew only as Cha'rik. She had done more to assist them than they had agreed upon, which told him the only other bit of truth about her that he could tell; whatever else she was, she was Starfleet first. The day after her departure had been one of relative calm, as they formulated their plan of action. As much as there was still to prepare, the most critical component they lacked was a patient. A living, breathing, and willing Ash'aarian plague victim to treat.

Having encountered no one, nor any indications of live approximate to their base in the past week, their initial ideas had all involved scanning for Ash'aarian life-signs. A tricorder on its own was limited in range, and so they had set about to combine and jury-rig something more capable. None of them being engineers though, the results had just been a days worth of wasted effort and the loss of two of the six tricorders contained in their supplies. It was on the tenth day of their illegal and unsanctioned mission of mercy that Leon, whilst administering the days routine medical scans to ensure no one had picked up any undue radiation somehow, came upon a paradox. One that would eventually lead to the only viable option present for them.

After they had sealed up what had since been dubbed Suburbia base, their EVA suits had been relegated to a corner of the room until needed again. Which meant some miniscule ambient radiation exposure, not to mention the possibility of worse should they have missed something during their fortifications. The radiation levels of all three had remained well below any concern thus far. The paradox had emerged as the ambient levels in Hawk's own blood had begun to decrease rather than rise. Six hours worth of scans and tests hadn't made much sense of it all until Leon had stumbled upon it when musing aloud about how it seemed as if Hawk's blood was adapting to their environment.

Sure enough, Leon found that to be the case. The heavily modified nano-probes that had been utilized to resurrect Hawk from the dead a few months ago, and had continued to be administered up until only a few weeks ago, had adapted of their own accord. A days worth of debate, eventually devolving into a full-on shouting match between Hawk and Cromwell, had eventually lead to the testing of a hypothesis. After extracting a blood sample from Hawk, Leon exposed it to an ever-increasing level of radiation, even transporting the sample as close to ground zero as the transporter could manage. Each successive test came back the same; no matter how high the radiation level, the nano-probes adapted.

Leon had argued against it from every potential angle, first amongst them that he couldn't say for certain if long-term exposure would have a different effect. The potential hazards in such an environment alone where almost incalculable. The Ash'aarian tendency towards xenophobia bordered on violent, a point which even Leah joined him in making. When all was said and done though, there was nothing to truly stop him. Leon had even briefly tried the argument of it being beyond the acceptable medical risks he would allow anyone to take on such a mission. Absent Starfleet authorization for this mission though, they where both equally absent any authority to command the other.

In the end, Hawk had put the final nail in the coffin of the debate by pointing out the one inescapable truth: it was the only option they had. Adapted to the radiation, able to tolerate it's exposure at levels that would have been devastating to most humanoids, Hawk would set out on foot in search of what they needed most for their mission to continue. The plan was simple: accounting for the weather, terrain, and radiation levels, it was estimated that at best, he could travel for seven days before going beyond transporter range. Which meant that at seven days, if he had found nothing, he was to contact Suburbia base, and be transported back. He would monitor his own vitals and contact base at least every eight hours, or if anything changed.

He had kept to this schedule fairly well thus far. He spent the majority of his time in communication with Suburbia base conversing with Leah. He could sense that being alone with fairly little to contribute was a strain on her. She and Leon barely knew each other outside of as passing professionals, which added a bit of awkward tension to the mix. Her reporters instincts howled to be out here, with him, where the 'real story' was at the moment. The preparatory science and tests Leon was running where not quite the dramatic mission of mercy angle she would be painting with her story in the hopes of saving them from any long-haul time in a stockade when Republic eventually found them.

For the most part, he had avoided the residential districts. Not only where the housing units spread out to accommodate families, but the sights associated with families and children made the grim spectacle even more depressing. The business districts though where much more spartan of such trappings, the buildings built almost on top of each other for efficiency, which made searching any of them with potential for long-term survival easier. As he avoided the residential districts, sleep had been avoiding him since his departure from Suburbia base. It has been easy enough to find shelter when night came. There was nothing to worry about in terms of lower life-form predators according to his scans. Yet he hadn't been able to convince his mind to let his body rest for more than three or four hours at any given time.

So he had taken to exploring what he could of pre-apocalyptic Ash'aarian society during the other half of the eight hour Asha'aarian night. He had downloaded a number of books and video recordings from what he presumed to be an information kiosk, and had spent a fair amount of time reviewing them on his tricorders small screen. Being a random sampling though, they didn't paint much of a picture of the world that this had once been, or the culture that had once thrived here. They where a snapshot. Perhaps even less than that. What, he wondered, would an alien race make out of a smattering of such media from his culture? A news report on unfamiliar politics and issues, a holo-novel about an early Andorian ice-cutter , a sports report on a Klingon bat'leth competition, a play of Shakespeare. What would any such things say about their culture, their ways of life, in the wake of such devastation?

Catching his right boot on something as he made his way to the top of a shallow-sloping street, he stumbled, but thankfully kept from falling face-first into the mud. Something he had already done once and wasn't eager to repeat. At first, he couldn't make out what he was caught on. After a moments struggle, enough of the object came loose from the richly saturated soil for him to make out the bones of an Ash'aarian rib-cage. Two weeks ago, the sight would have at least shocked him into a moments revulsion. After clearing the corpses from the mausoleum that had become their home base and six days out amongst the bones - figurative and literal - it barely phased him. This entire world, after all, was one giant rotting corpse already. Or at least it soon would be if they failed.

Crouching down, he stuck his hands deep into the muck to try and pry his boot free of the bones, or the bones free of the muck. Before he could do either, a sharp pop and a splash of dirty water across his face made him stop in his tracks. A half-seconds worth of confusion was replaced by a dawning sense of alarm as his mind processed and recognized the sharp pop he had heard: gunfire. Not wanting to draw any further attention or alarm any potential shooter with sharp movements, he slowly surveyed his immediate field of view first without moving a muscle beyond his eyes. When nothing caught his eye, he slowly moved his head from side to side as his eyes scanned the buildings. When no shots rang out, he questioned the accuracy of what he had thought he heard until a metallic glint drew his attention from the corner of his eye.

Behind a half-shattered pane of dirty-strewn glass on the third story of what Hawk could only presume to be a hotel of some sort, he could barely make out the battle-worn scuffed barrel of some time of firearm. Calculating his odds of drawing his phaser, checking its setting, taking aim and successfully hitting whomever had their finger on the trigger of that firearm, he came to the quick conclusion that even if he got off the shot, so too would the other party. He considered contacting base and transporting back, but dismissed the thought. He was out here specifically to find an Ash'aarian. As much as he had vainly hoped he would run across Commander Karu out here, this was the first real opportunity he had come across. Knowing the universal translator would handle the language barrier, he took the latest in a long line of stupid chances in his life.

"Don't shoot!" he shouted out, forcing as much of the accent from his voice as he knew how in an effort to sound a little less alien. When no immediate shot followed, he took that as a hopeful sign and kept talking. "My name is Hawk. I'm from uh... space ship... we met yer people. Commander Karu. Tor. Veneth. Teya. We even met with Legionnaire Athra." he said, hoping the familiar names would give whomever was behind the trigger some pause. Waiting once again, he went on when he didn't find himself shot. "Listen... we're here ta help ya. All of yer people. The plague. We've got a cure. Athra... yer leaders are afraid. They're willin' ta risk lettin' ya'll die. Let us help."

For the first time since they had landed on this gods-forsaken ruin of a world, the rain stopped falling. The closest thing to silence he had yet to experience here fell over the area. The sound of the rainfall had been so ever-present these past two weeks, a part of him had forgotten what a world could sound like absent such. Some sounds, like the background whirs and hums aboard a starship, or the throbbing pulse of a warp core, you simply got used to and tuned out. He hadn't had any such luck with the damn rain. Maybe because of his words, or maybe because the rain had stopped for the first time in forever as far as he could tell, the first new sound he heard in days was the sloshing of foot-steps through the mud from his left.

The long rifle held at her hip, an Ash'aarian girl no more than twelve stepped slowly towards him, her eyes full of both curiosity and suspicion. Her long unkempt hair and baggy disheveled attire attested to the rough life of scavenging and survival she had no doubt endured. Despite himself, the first thought to run through his mind was how embarrassing it would be to have survived the Dominion War, evaded the Orion Syndicate, and been resurrected from the dead only to end up being shot dead by a 12-year-old girl whose race he had risked his career and his freedom in the hopes of saving. He said nothing as she slowly moved across the street, stopping finally a half-dozen meters from him. Scrutinizing his appearance, she fixated on the phaser on his hip for a few seconds before deciding it either wasn't a weapon or wasn't a threat.

"Did you make it stop?" she asked, her voice hoarse and small, as if she rarely had reason to speak aloud. The long rifle in her hands, he could see now, was literally taller than she was. Though clearly burdened by its weight, she held the rifle steady, refusing to show any sign that she could not handle the weapon.

"Make what stop?" he counter-questioned, confused but curious and wanting to keep the dialogue going rather than risk a return to a shooting match in which he would be at an extreme disadvantage.

"The tears." she replied, her tone laced with that teenage attitude that seemed to insinuate the word 'idiot' without ever actually saying it. It was somewhat of a relief to hear that some things, no matter what planet you where on, or in what state its society was in, where still universal constants.

"Tears?" he questioned once more, still unsure of what she meant.

"The angel's tears... " she said, trailing off before adding with some difficulty, as if the word was strange to her, "...the rain." she finished as she risked a glance skyward at the overcast but inactive storm clouds.

Dawning awareness, he smiled in what he hoped was a friendly manner, and shook his head slowly from side to side. "No, I didn't stop the rain."

"Good." she said, nodding in apparent approval as she allowed the rifle to lower but an inch or so from her mark.

"Ya like the rain?" he asked, confused once again.

Furrowing her brow, she looked at him as if he had two heads. "How could anyone like rain?" she asked rhetorically, shaking her head. "I meant your answer was good." she explained, lowering the rifle a bit more and easing her stance.

"Oh? How so?"

With a blank expression she answered, "If you had said yes, I would have known you where lying and shot you. I might still, if I ever do think you're lying to me."

Considering her statement for a while, he simply nodded. "Good ta know where I stand."

Before another word could be exchanged between them, she withdrew an object from a small satchel she carried over her should and opened it with a flick of her wrist, revealing a sharp blade. Tossing it with the right amount of skill and force, it stabbed the ground next to him. "Cut yourself free of the bones and lets be on our way." she said succinctly.

Momentarily taken aback by both her skill with the blade and her nonchalant attitude towards going off who knows where with a strange alien twice her size, he paused before taking the knife by its worn wood handle and doing as she had instructed. Indeed, the Ash'aarian rib bones where laced with barely noticeable spurs that made it obvious any attempt to pull his boot free would simply tear the material. By sawing at each of the three spurs lacerating part of his boot though, he was free in under a minute.

Closing the knife, he handed it back to her as he got to his feet, he muscles relieved to be out of the awkward crouched position he'd been in for far too long. "So, what now?" he asked, uncertain how to proceed. Did she expect to take him to meet with others? To accompany him back to Suburbia base? In all his mission preparations and his days alone searching for an Ash'aarian, he had never actually considered what to do when he found one, let alone gained enough trust to proceed with the mission.

"You said you had a cure? That you had met with that shrew Athra, and she would rather us all die than take help from an alien?" the girl asked as he nodded in confirmation. "She doesn't speak for all of us. Just the ones like her, the ones who control the food and the space ships and the medicine. They're the spawn of those who made the old ships. That brought the Centennials here in the first place. She had no right to speak for us." she proclaimed defiantly and with the self-assured arrogance only a teenager (or a Vulcan) could manage.

"Then why does she? Why do the people let her?" he couldn't help but wonder.

"The same reason people do most stupid things. Fear." she answered.

Struck by the blunt intelligence behind what she was saying, he couldn't help but wonder how one so young, in such an inhospitable and terrifying environment, could come to such keen insights and awareness of how the world worked. Then again, he had never been in a scenario like the one she had been raised in. The broken worlds he had seen in his life where the result of politics, corruption, greed, war and famine. Never a full-on Armageddon.

"If Athra doesn't speak fer all of ya, who does?" Hawk asked her.

"You met him already. He said it was in part because of your people that he rejects the old ways." the girl informed him. "Premier Karu speaks for the people."

Location: Forward support outpost, subterranean infirmary complex, Planetoid Theta Cygni Five (Alpha Quadrant)
Timeframe: Six years prior, during the Dominion War

The chief petty officer in operations gold laid on the biobed, his chest rising and falling erratically due to irregular breathing. His skin was ghostly white and mottled by red splotches of necrotized flesh. Looking straight ahead at the ceiling above him, his eyes were bloodshot and swollen. It was clear that he was not lucid, and teetering on brink of death.

Earlier that day, the warp core of his ship had lost coolant pressure; the protective barrier around the core that doubles as a neutron absorption medium. He risked his life to save his shipmates by staying in engineering a few seconds longer to activate the core ejection sequence. By the time he was finished, the isolation door had closed. While his fellow officers had beamed him directly to sickbay after the disruptive effect of the ionization had dissipated, there wasn't anything anyone could do for him. As soon as the ship arrived in orbit of Theta Cygni Five, they beamed him to the medical dispensary where the corpsman was informed that he had received a dose of 62 centisieverts of radiation.

62 centisieverts.

Hyronilin, if used correctly, could reverse the damage caused by 20 centisieverts, but because it over-stimulated the hepatic, lymphatic, reticuloendothelial, and renal systems, one dose needed 24 hours to work itself through the body and allow it to return to normal. More than one dose would shock the body into such a high metabolic rate that no amount of breathing would be able to keep up with the speed of blood across the alveolar membranes. The heart would quite literally explode, and every capillary and artery would burst under the upward cascade of systolic pressure. Put simply, there was no helping the chief petty officer. His body was so damaged that it would not survive a hyronilin treatment. As he lay dying, his crewmates stood vigil around the biobed, watching helplessly during his last few breaths.

Leon looked into their war-torn, bloody faces. They showed the classic signs of PTSD with their distant stares and lack of outward emotion over a dying comrade. They stood silently as the medical monitors tracked the last beats of the chief's heart, and before long, a steady redline on the synaptic monitor indicated the inevitable. After reaching over to close the man's lifeless eyes, Leon turned to his longtime friend and head nurse. "Higgins, get the grav-stretcher..." Nodding, she turned away as Leon looked back into the distant eyes of the crew.

"I'm sorry," he offered. "He received four times the lethal dose... there's nothing I can do."

The crew stood in place, staring blankly at their dead comrade. They were silent. Completely and utterly silent.

Too silent.

As Leon looked closer, he saw that their forms were unmoving, and the luminescence of the infirmary bathed them in a pale, otherworldly light. Their skin bore dark, leathery complexions, and their hair became sparse, gray strands of lifeless texture. Unblinking, they continued to stare lifelessly at the chief petty officer. Quickly, Leon turned back to look at his dead patient. The corpse's eyes were open again, staring forward at the ceiling. Like his crewmates, his dark, leathery skin suggested that he had been dead for not seconds, but years, and his preserved body laid frozen in time with no one to bury it.

Startled with fear, Leon stood up as the redline monitor went silent. A split second later, the infirmary itself turned silent. Nothing stirred, save that of his own, rapid breathing. "Higgins..." Leon beckoned. Turning his head, he took fright when he found his head nurse standing motionless immediately next to him in the same deathly repose as the others. Leon's heart raced as he saw that she was but one of hundreds standing around him - all members of the Theta Cygni Five medical infirmary. Turning around yet again, he saw everyone he ever knew... his father... his sister and mother... the entire Republic crew... Nat Hawk, John Carter, Kimberly Roth... They were dead; all of them. Each were long dead... for years... for decades... maybe centuries.

Each corpse collapsed inward on top of him. Kicking and screaming, he failed about in attempts to escape the suffocating heap, but to no avail. He was alone. Alone, and buried alive; his shrieks of horror deafened by the silence of death and decay.

 

Location: Planet Ash'aaria
Timeframe: Present day

With a gasp, Leon sat up suddenly. Perspiration trickled down the side of his grimy, whisker-strewn face as he scanned his immediate surroundings with wide, fearful eyes. Machines steadily hummed, and computer equipment blinked at regular intervals. The silver bedroll in which he lay was soaked in sweat, as was his clothes. He was indeed alone, but this wasn't Theta Cyngi Five, it wasn't the Dominion War, and he wasn't buried alive by corpses.

As he regained in composure, Leon took stock of where he was: Suburbia Base. The same place he had been the past two weeks.

With a deep breath, the doctor stood up and calmed himself. It was the sixth nightmare in as many nights, and his sudden awakenings to a sweat-soaked sleeping bag were becoming all too common. As before, he picked the bedroll up off the floor, turned it inside out, and hung it up on the wall to dry. Leaning against a nearby counter, Leon closed his eyes and hung his head in despair.

"How did it come to this?" he asked himself dryly.

In the beginning, Nat, Leon, and Leah had worked hard to put Suburbia Base into some semblance of order following Cha'rik's departure. Level eight possessed a central room that once passed as a communal emergency room in the former hospital. Prior to the Republic fugitives' arrival, it was strewn with debris, petrified trash, and numerous corpses. After clean-out and decontamination, the area became a wide, empty, circular space with metal counters lining the wall, and a few antiquated contraptions like an electric cardio-stimulator device and a decompression chamber. None were operational, and even if they were, they would have been inferior to all the modern equipment that Leon had brought along. Nevertheless, it was this room, dubbed "The Core" by the three Republic refugees due to it's centralized location of the entire complex, which became their main operations and control center.

The Core contained all the equipment that kept Suburbia Base running. The portable fusion generator pumped out several terra-watts of power, and Leon had found a home for it within the broken decompression chamber in order to mask any residual electromagnetic emanations from active sensor scans - either ground based or orbital. Most of the generator power was used up by the runabout's shield generator which Nat had fine-tuned to produce a combination defense field/structural integrity field surrounding the complex, terminating just short of the exterior walls to again, to mask it from active sensor scans. Any residual power left over after the shield generator was rationed out for limited replicator and transporter use, and only a trickle remained for powering a few monitoring stations and power cell recharge outlets. All other equipment would have to possess its own autonomous power system or utilize rechargeable power cells.

Actually getting the rest of the makeshift hospital up and running was a grueling task in and of itself. The ancient design of metallic electrical conductors was how the structure was originally powered. It was a very inefficient way to distribute power and light, not to mention precarious, as the insulating material was either worn or burned away on over 70% of the network, and any attempt to re-electrify the conductors would undoubtedly cause systemwide short-circuiting and fires. So, for the simple task of room-to-room lighting, Leon was forced to utilize numerous disposable emergency flares; tiny half-globes of isolated liquid chemicals that, when mixed together, glowed a bright 10 million candlepower for 24 hours. The size of a personal communicator, these flares came in a box of 200 each, and Leon found that by injecting a hyposray of buffering agent into the half-globes, he could slow down and control the chemical reaction. This way, he was able to reduce the brightness of each flare to a more standard 150 candlepower, and stretch the lifetime out to several months instead of hours.

Room-to-room heating and cooling posed an entirely different problem altogether. There was no way to pack more than three portable heating devices into the huge cache of supplies that Leon squirreled away in the runabout, and in a survival situation, Starfleet protocol stated to simply set a phaser to thermal disruption and heat up a nearby rock for warmth. However, such a procedure was not feasible for long-term, controlled heating of an entire medical treatment facility, so Leon was forced to improvise yet again.

One of the side effects of fusion power is that it generates a huge amount of waste heat. The portable fusion generator that Leon brought along controlled this waste heat through a self-contained, cryoliquid-based cooling coil. While automated to maintain the temperature of the exterior casing to that of the immediate outside environment, through simple manipulation of the pre-programmed controls, Leon found he could generate either excess heat or excess cooling. In one of his "Eureka" moments, the medical doctor found a dual use for the decompression chamber in which he first installed the fusion generator: Instead of just masking the EMF signature of the device from outside sensors, the chamber could also double as heat-exchanger if the ventilation ductwork of the structure were routed through it.

In a feat of jury-rigging that Victor Virtus would have been proud of, Leon utilized a series of glass desiccators (found as refuse in the original clean-out of The Core) and a pair of rocket boots from an EVA suit accessory kit to build a magneto-venturi circulation pump complete with a chemical-based carbon-dioxide scavenger, oxygen generator, and ozone scrubber. The contraption was a messy device, requiring the replication of base chemicals such as lithium hydroxide and sodium chlorate dissolved in water, but it efficiently flushed air from the ventilation-return ducts and re-processed it into purified gases. Unfortunately, Leon was so excited by his invention that when he first put it into use, he had neglected to ensure that all ventilation shafts from the contaminated lower levels were completely sealed off from the upper levels of Suburbia Base. It took Nat, Leon, and Leah the better part of a day to decontaminate the affected rooms, and another day to purge the ventilation system. Nevertheless, in the end, Suburbia Base was treated to its first tastes of clean, fresh, and temperature-controlled air as the system came into full operation.

However, there was another vital element to their survival (and their patients' survival) that Suburbia base required: Potable water. While Nat was sent off on his excursion to find Ash'aarian patients with a vapor canteen - a personal device that could condense about a liter of pure water out of the air each day depending upon humidity conditions - Suburbia Base required much larger amounts of the life-giving liquid. At first, Leon suspected that they could have used the replicator for water, and while it was true that Leon and Leah could have relied on it for their own needs, should they suddenly receive an influx of 100+ patients, it would be a different story altogether.

So, in another "Eureka" moment, Leon used the last of their emergency shelter construction foam to build a five cubic meter cistern on the uppermost level of Suburbia Base. Using a three square meter sheet of flexible solar panel from the emergency shelter kit, Leon fabricated a rainwater collection flume on the north end of the rooftop landing pad, and shunted the rainwater to the cistern using old metal pipes from the destroyed plumbing network of the structure. Finally, in another feat of Virtus-inspired jury-rigging, Leon used the three portable heaters available from the supply cache and built a three-stage distillation mechanism that allowed for a near constant stream of purified water down two levels to The Core. While this provided plenty of drinking water, the liquid was far too precious for general use such as bathing, and one of the many daily tasks of Leon and Leah was to find clean receptacles (such as empty crates or jugs) in which to collect it.

Within one week of Nat's departure from Suburbia Base in search of Ash'aarian patients, The Core was a complex hive of beeping consoles, whirring machinery, and burbling pipes, not to mention a storage and work area replete with laboratory instruments, tools, spare parts, Starfleet supply bins, ration containers, and of course, wall-to-wall with water containers of every design imaginable.

Shaking off his morning haze, Leon set to work on his first order of business: Checking the overnight water collection line from the cistern. As the base had run out of rigid containers days ago, Leon had resulted to replicating a stack of flexible plastic bladders to hold their ever-increasing supply of water. Each transparent bladder held about three liters, and took an hour to fill up. For overnight water collection, Leon had devised a series of ten bladders - suspended from a horizontal rod affixed above an overflow tub fabricated out of a lid from a ration crate - to fill up one after another so as to be able to constantly fill the entire night without having to replace them. However, as he looked at the collection of ten completely-filled water bladders, the last one the series was trickling from its overflow valve into the tub below. He had forgotten to replace them the night before.

With a frown on his face, Leon turned off the stopcock on the water inlet line, and the pressure on the leaking bladder came to a halt. As the overflow valve automatically closed, he removed the inlet line, and with a pain-filled grunt, moved the 30 kilogram rack of filled bladders back against the wall, where 50 more bladders hung from collections from the previous days. From a nearby stack of empty bladders, Leon aligned a new set of ten, attached the inlet line, and re-opened the stopcock, watching silently as the first bladder in the set slowly began filling.

Content that the apparatus returned to its normal function, Leon sighed as he looked down at the overflow tub where about two liters of pure water lay in a pool. Without a moments hesitation, Leon took advantage of the situation, and with cupped hands, he reached down to scoop out a few ounces of water and splash it across his face. It was so cool and so refreshing that Leon kept his eyes closed while looking towards the ceiling, feeling the water droplets run past his nose, ears, and chin, lifting a nights-worth of sweat and grime from his skin. His fingers slowly wiped the water off, and he could feel the abrasive, two-week old stubble on his face.

Two weeks... He hadn't had a hot shower in two entire weeks.

As the water slowly evaporated from his face, Leon pondered upon the life and friends he left behind. "I wonder what Republic is up to?" he thought. "Is she in orbit?" The thought had crossed his mind. But even if she was, there was no way for the crew to find either Nat nor Suburbia Base, as all automatic transponders in their communicators, EVA suits, and landing party equipment were disabled - Leon had made sure of that. The clouds were saturated with radioactive condensation nuclei, and without transponders uplinked to Republic's computer, her sensors were utterly blind to anything on the surface.

"How much damage did Cha'rik actually do? Did Roth cut her losses and head back to DS9?" The questions floated through Leon's mind, but they were rhetorical at best. Unless Nat, Leah, or himself actually attempted to contact Republic with a communication device, there was no way to know for sure. "It'd be pointless," Leon reasoned. It was either stay on Ash'aaria and be a prisoner at Suburbia Base, or attempt to leave and maybe become a prisoner in the Starfleet stockade, assuming that they could even leave in the first place. No. He had made his choice. Here is where he could do the most good now, not in some jail cell back on Earth.

A clatter sounded near the door to The Core, breaking Leon out of his day trance. Leah Warner had entered the room, and knocked a wrench off a nearby workbench. "Sorry," she offered nonchalantly after returning the tool to its previous location. Leon watched her as she walked over to the replicator and dialed a selection. Seconds later, a small pile of clean, white bed sheets lay neatly folded in the materialization tray. She repeated the process three more times, and soon, she had an armful of hospital linen.

"More linen?" Leon asked sourly. Moments ago, following his quick, refreshing encounter with wash-water, Leon had found himself craving a hot, filling breakfast for the first time in two weeks, and began contemplating whether he could abscond with a precious drop of replicator power for the purpose. Since they were forced to keep phasor power cells in reserve for the transporter - just in case Nat actually *finds* someone besides himself who might need beaming back to Suburbia Base - they limited themselves on replicator power; allocating just enough for vital daily supplies such as stocking up on medical supplies.

"Yes," Leah responded to Leon on her way out the door. "I've almost got the supply room on level nine fully stocked."

After she left, Leon sighed with disdain. "So much for breakfast," he grumbled. Turning to a nearby storage crate, he pulled open a drawer full of metal-foiled packets of field rations. Flipping through the limited selections, he skipped over the usual dinner entrees, attempting to find something that might remind him of a civilized breakfast. He settled on "Ham Omelet" with a grimace, closing the drawer and peeling open the pouch. As he sat down and attempted to sate his morning appetite, he thought about Leah, and how studious Nat's reporter girlfriend was.

In truth, Leah had made herself a niche at Suburbia Base as the stand-in quartermaster. Aside from vacant storage closets, empty operating wards, and about a half-dozen non-attended nurse stations, there were approximately 50 patient rooms throughout the habitable upper five levels of the structure. After the initial clean-out, decontamination, and sterilization, all that remained in these rooms were plastic-cushioned patient beds, metal/plastic composite tables, and occasionally a few spartan items like chairs and stools. Nothing organic such as cellulose-based bed sheets, pillows, towels, patient smocks, surgeon gowns, or simple bandages remained. While Leon stowed many vital hardware items aboard the runabout, he considered replicator-replenishable items to be low-priority when he initially packed, especially since he hadn't expected to have access to so many empty beds. Therefore, once Suburbia Base became fully operational, the replicator was put to near-constant use, filling patient rooms and storage closets with all the needed disposable supplies that a hospital would need. Everything from aspirators to zinc-oxide were replicated, catalogued, and neatly stored away by Leah Warner as part of her daily routine.

With restraint, Leon slowly shoveled spoonfuls of his cold, vacu-packed ham and cheese omelet into his mouth. The rations were easy enough to consume at first, especially after heating them up with the flameless survival stove. However, the bland taste became a monotonous routine, and soon, Leon realized that heating them up was only delaying the torture, and he began eating them cold directly from the packet. About the only fortunate aspect to the field rations was the coffee: No matter how hard Starfleet tried, they still couldn't completely ruin the first cup of the day, and as Leon prepared his reconstituted morning elixir, Leah came back into the room.

The former Republic PR agent silently regarded Leon before returning back to the replicator console. Tapping a few buttons, she frowned and looked towards another monitoring console that displayed power flow output calculations.

"Do we have enough power for another stack of linen?" she asked quizzically.

"Not if we want to have enough power to beam Nat back in an emergency," Leon replied while taking a sip of his coffee. He paused for a moment after catching a rather pungent scent on the air. In a subtle manner, the doctor took a short sniff of his own mottled ivory turtleneck sweater, not sure if the offending scent was of his own creation, or of Leah who just entered the room. Living together for two weeks without a shower was starting to desensitize his nose.

"That reminds me," Leah interjected with a touch of upbeat excitement. Her bubbling aura was a twice-daily ritual in which the doctor loathed: It was time for her to check in with Nat. Before she even reached the communication console, Leon rolled his eyes and immediately left the room. He was getting tired of being the odd-man-out when it came to Nat and Leah's little love affair. The doctor tolerated their murmurs of endearment over the tight-beamed, low-power audio stream for the first few days of Nat's excursion, but whether through jealousy or recognition of his own staggering loneliness, Leon's tolerance wore thin, and slowly shifted into seething anger at the sheer audacity of their openly affectionate displays. It was almost as if Leon didn't even exist in their eyes, and this whole trip to Ash'aaria was strictly an attempt to build upon their own selfish relationship.

"Damn kids," the curmudgeonly doctor muttered as he walked through the empty corridor outside The Core. With a cup of coffee as his only companion, Leon slowed his pace, content with the increasing distance between himself and the sickeningly cute conversation that was currently taking place between his two other comrades. Spaced every ten meters along the upper wall, the modified chemical flares lit up the hallways, revealing the clean, off-white facade as a testament to their efforts to decontaminate and sterilize the entire facility over the past dozen days. For a brief moment, Leon actually felt as if he were walking the corridors of Republic. However, as he passed several carefully prepared patient wards, complete with fresh clean sheets and stocked supply cabinets untouched by medical hands, the lack of occupants became a stark reminder of where he was and the seemingly indefinite length of his tenure here.

Walking down a level, Leon continued his impromptu inspection of Suburbia Base. The intensive care units housed the six portable biobeds he smuggled aboard the Runabout Fowler. Most of their emergency medical equipment was kept in these rooms, ready for any transfer of critically injured patients from the decontamination suites one level below. It would be here where the cure for the Ash'aarian plague would be administered, as the special cache of modified plasma generators stood in waiting to release the modified hemoglobin that Leon and his staff worked so hard to prepare for the people of this decimated world. How long would they have to wait?

Finally, Leon took the stairs down to the lowermost level of the habitable portion of Suburbia Base: level six. The transporter and containment facility. This was the heart of the whole operation. Portable isolation field generators were set up in two separate rooms, ensuring that any incoming travelers from the transporter would be beamed here for decontamination - and if necessary, restraining. That latter thought made Leon bristle, but was a necessary precaution in the event that the plague had so ravaged a victim's mind that they became violent, necessitating the containment contingency. The site-to-site transporter they salvaged from the runabout was installed in the most central location of this level. With a direct power cable leading up two levels to the fusion generator in The Core, this is was their only gateway away from Suburbia Base. Leon dialed a few diagnostic commands into the transporter console to check the reserve power status. Six phaser power cells were in standby mode; each one signifying a single use of the transporter. While others could be charged up by the power feed from the The Core if needed, a direct transfer from the generator would require a "power dump" from the shield generators protecting Suburbia Base, potentially exposing the facility to radioactive contamination from the outside environment. Therefore, transporter power, like replicator power, would have to be carefully rationed to ensure that all potential needs were met.

The stage was set, the scene was written, and the stagehands at the ready. All that was needed were the actors, and for this performance, any audience was inconsequential; for this was the final performance of their careers. Calmly, Leon found his reassurance that everything humanly possible was being done to resolve the situation of the Ash'aarians. With a final sip of his coffee, he made his way back up the stairs, and returned to the buzzing hive of activity that was The Core. When he arrived, he saw that Leah had finished her morning conversation with Nat. However, something was amiss. The expression on her face was indecipherable, as Leon had not encountered it before. With trepidation, he sat down in a chair opposite hers, and regarded her with concern and curiosity.

"How's Nat's vitals?" Leon asked, unsure of what was going through Leah's mind. "Did he transmit his daily medical scan?"

Location: Neocratic Federalist Party Headquarters, Paris, France, Sol III (Alpha Quadrant)

The party boardroom was larger than his previous workplace at Starfleet Command, but between meetings with the press corps and campaign donors, Vladimir Christoff Kostya was able to retreat to a smaller meeting chamber reserved exclusively for him and any guests he chose. The decor was quaint and traditional, with Victorian-style draperies adorning the windows overlooking the Paris skyline, and matching chairs and sofas arranged around coffee tables at random intervals. At the corner wet bar, the former chief of Starfleet operations stood in a civilian brown business suit, mixing liquors into a glass decanter on the bar counter.

Across the room, and sitting in an upholstered armchair, was a lean, short Starfleet flag officer of vice admiral rank. His jet-black hair complimented his tan skin, and the thin mustache and brown eyes accentuated his oriental ancestry. He was the only occupant of the room, and sat with a rigid, businesslike posture indicative of a military-style demeanor.

"As you know, I already tapped Ben Maxwell for my chief of staff," Kostya addressed the vice admiral. "His experience and insight with the Cardassians will serve us well on the diplomatic front. That is, IF we win the election. We still have candidates from nine other parties to beat first."

"You're up by double digits in the polls, sir" the vice admiral replied stoically. "Your invocation of Norah Satie's final resignation speech had a standing ovation at our party caucus."

"Admiral Satie was one of the NFPs most influential members," he explained while pouring an amber liquid into a pair of crystal goblets. "She had a knack for ferreting out those who would subvert the Federation. Even a decade after her death, her words still strike a chord with anyone concerned about where our union is headed, especially after everything that happened during the Dominion War."

"I'm still surprised that you want me for the job," stated the admiral, returning to the business at hand. "I only recently made vice admiral, and I'd be jumping over the heads of senior members of the admiralty."

"Nonsense," Kostya dismissed the notion while handing the admiral a full goblet. "There have been false rumors in the media that I might choose Janeway for the position," he chuckled with amusement at the notion. "She's only been a vice admiral for 22 months, and no one's making a fuss about her as an option."

"But there are hundreds of full admirals in the fleet," explained the vice admiral. "I need the loyalty and respect of ALL of them if I'm to lead. I might not have either if I skip a rank on the way up."

"What most people tend to ignore is that the C-in-C position is NOT earned by time-in-rank," Kostya reminded him. "Sure, the practice has been to choose one of the most senior admirals, but it's not a prerequisite. The truth is that I have the right to pin the fifth pip on the collar of ANY admiral I choose. If there are those in the admiralty that don't like it, then there'll be a nice retirement bonus for them when I accept their resignation."

"But still, why me?"

"You've been a loyal party member for years, Faku," Kostya smiled. "Remember when we first met on Starbase 666?"

"I was just a commodore back then," he reminisced.

"Yes, but you helped me out of a tough spot when I really needed it. Admiral Teagarden blew it when he diverted funding towards upgrading Task Force One. If you hadn't stepped in and kept Captain Redden from reporting the incident to the auditor general, our whole operation would have been compromised. I haven't forgotten that, and so I'm returning the favor."

"That was nothing," the vice admiral waved his hand, apparently dismissing the notion that Kostya owed him anything. "I had bigger problems than that at the time. I had officers in open rebellion against me during my tour at Hellsgate Station. Did you know that an engineer from one of my ships actually had the nerve to HIT me just because I ordered upgrades to the fleet?"

"Yes," Kostya replied quickly and to the point. "Lieutenant Commander Virtus of the Freedom Star."

The vice admiral was surprised at the recollection. "You knew him?"

"He was a defendant in the 'Republic Eight' trial. He was one of those responsible for my decision to leave Starfleet."

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as Kostya let his words sink in. Virtus' court martial was a long time ago from the vice admiral's point of view, and was no more than a footnote in his career. The incident was so trite, that he could hardly believe Kostya had taken the pains to research such an obscure piece of trivia, and the scrutiny made him feel uncomfortable. Obviously, the Kostya was hinting towards one of his "special deals" for loyal service, except that the vice admiral wasn't entirely sure what the catch was.

"So, you're offering me... what? Revenge? With all due respect sir, I have more pressing concerns than dealing with a two-bit criminal from my past."

"I'm asking you to look at the bigger picture, Faku," Kostya explained ominously while taking a seat in an identical armchair directly opposite the vice admiral. "There are many others in Starfleet besides Virtus who are on their way up the ladder. Satie tried to warn us about them years ago. Janeway... Riker... Picard... All of these people have weakened the Federation by lulling us into peace with our neighbors, and leaving Starfleet to rot."

Kostya lowered his voice and faced the vice admiral eye-to-eye, as if subconsciously sharing a secret that only they alone were aware of.

"You know it, and I know it -- Our defenses are so weak right now that a hand laser could cut through them, and the Gorn invasion of Cestus Three was only the beginning. Virtus is just one member of a huge renegade faction in the fleet who escaped justice over the years, and they're tearing the fleet apart. I need YOU to be my Norah Satie -- I need YOU to ferret out these criminals and bring the fleet back up to par." He leaned forward with intensity to accentuate his final sentence. "I need YOU to help me make the Federation strong again."

The uniformed flag officer met Kostya's intense gaze, pondering his words. Despite what was spoken about Kostya owing *him* a favor, the truth of the matter was that the vice admiral actually owed *Kostya* a favor, and they both knew it. The only reason that the vice admiral wasn't court-martialed back at Hellsgate Station several years ago was because Kostya stepped in and shielded him from blame for a Romulan incursion into Federation space. After Teagarden's accidental death, the road was paved for the vice admiral's promotion from commodore to rear admiral, and with Redden in the stockade, Starbase 666's technological secrets remained intact despite what interstellar treaties they were breaking.

Hellsgate Station held a treasure trove of alien technology surreptitiously acquired over the years by Kostya's collaborators, and he wasn't afraid to use it. Every "custom" modification that he made to Starfleet ships diverted to Hellsgate weren't exactly approved by the Corps of Engineers. In fact, most modifications never made it into the Federation databanks, let alone to the top brass, and Kostya made sure to give the vice admiral a loose reign when applying the technology. For that alone, the former Hellsgate commander could have been locked up for life. He owed Kostya everything... his career, his rank, even his life. The truth of the matter was that Chris Kostya wasn't RETURNING a favor... he was ASKING for one, and they both knew that there was no way he could turn the man down.

With an unblinking stare at his former boss, the vice admiral replied, "I'll do it."

A minute later, after a warm handshake and a smile, their glasses clinked as Kostya offered a toast. "To FLEET Admiral Fakunakue Kaito!" he offered. "Future commander-in-chief of Starfleet!"

Location: Captan's ready room, deck 1, USS Republic (Gamma Quadrant)

It was irrational, and she knew it, but that didn't stop Captain Kimberly Roth from being annoyed. Sitting on her desk, the small marsupial known as smoke, looked at her with dark, flashing eyes as he happily munched on a stalk of celery and 'bleeked' at Republic's Commanding Officer.

Roth looked at Smoke and wagged her index finger. "No way, Stinker" she chided, "you know two pieces a day is your limit."

The small creature almost made a frown, but then seemed to remember that he had celery to eat and went back to it. The small episode was enough to rouse the Roth out of a cloud of anxiety. Republic had already spent more time than she'd wanted to re-mapping the local sector of space, but there seemed to be no other viable solution. Roth knew the science, and she knew that collecting enough data would take time, but that didn't mean she had to like it.

The chime of the door made Kim turn her attention away from the dilemma as she tapped a control on her desk. "Come."

Assistant Chief Engineer Maria Pikita entered and stood in front of her Captain, waiting to be addressed.

"At ease, Pikita." She said. "Where do we stand?"

Pikita glanced at the PADD in her hand to confirm her assessment. There was no need to. She'd already memorized the data. Victor Virtus would have settled for nothing less. "We're on pace, Captain. Chief Engineer Davloch is finishing up the latest data gathering flight in the Peregrine, and I've coordinated with Butenhoff in Sciences. This last batch of information should be all we need for the computer to figure out where we are."

Roth let out a heavy sigh, placed her hands on her desktop, and stood up. "Well, that will be a relief. I don't mind telling you that waiting these three days to establish local star drift and gravimetrics has seemed more like three months."

"Sorry about that, Captain," Pikita offered, though she didn't have to. "'Science neither waits, nor rushes for the whims of man'."

As she strode to the door of her Ready Room, Roth stopped and turned to look at the young engineer. "That's awfully profound, Pikita. Is that Vulcan?"

"Nope," Pikita said with a wink. "Virtus."

"Ah yes," Roth nodded as the two women exited to the bridge. "I should have known. Let me know if you two ever meet over drinks or something," she offered. "I'd like to meet my Chief Engineer Emeritus."

Pikita chuckled as she turned to head up the ramp and off the bridge. "Will do, Captain, and I'll let you know as soon as we can proceed."

As the Captain approached the center seat, Commander John Carter stood up and took his customary seat to the right of the Captain's position. "All quiet here, Captain," Carter reported. "Davloch just called in from the flight deck; he's all powered down. According to the folks in Astrometrics, the data feed is already in. All we need to do now is wait for Republic to do the math."

"Which she's already doing, thank you." The smooth alto voice followed a quiet swish of collecting photons, and from the seat on the Captain's left, Shannon Harris, Republic's holographic pediatrician and ersatz computer avatar came into existence. ETA until we can make our first warp jump: four minutes thirty-seven seconds... mark."

"And after that, it's a quick dash until we have to stop again and ask for directions." Carter quipped.

Roth nodded. "It beats standing still, XO," Roth explained, but it does mean more time on Ashaaria for Hawk and the good Doctor to finish their work."

"Work, Captain?" Carter queried. "You think you've worked out what they're up to?"

From the third position on the bridge, Harris looked in Carter's direction. "There's really only one thing it could be."

"Agreed." Roth answered. "He's going to cure them."

Carter nodded grimly. "Yeah," he tilted his head down, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I know. The question is," he continued, "Once we hopscotch back to Ashaaria, what do we do? Stop him?"

"Depends on what the Ash'aarans say when we get there, doesn't it?"

"Meaning what?" Carter continued. "You know they won't be happy to see us Captain, and once we tell them what Hawk, our Chief Medical Officer, and a civilian Federation reporter have done..."

"Which is why we're not telling them anything."

"Beg"...

"Pardon, Captain?" Carter and Harris asked in near unison.

"They've already explained they don't want our help, XO. Which I am perfectly willing, not to mention duty-bound to let stand. However," she continued, "one could argue, and I'll likely have to when the I.G. finds out about this, that getting all Federation citizens out of a hostile environment is also our duty."

From his seat on the bridge, Carter leaned forward. "You're expecting a call from the Inspector General's office?"

"After Command reads our log?" she asked. "Absolutely, Carter."

"Great, another court-martial."

From the Counselor's seat, Shannon piped up again. "Technically, it'll be your first John," Harris clarified. "The Cestus Three affair was a civilian case."

"Thanks."

"No worries John," Harris giggled. "I like bad boys."

In the captain's chair, Roth tapped a command on the left arm.

"Engineering. Pikita.".

"Please tell me we can go to warp? Burns and Allen up here are killing me."

"Pardon, Captain?"

"Yes or no, Pikita?"

"Board down here is green Captain. Warp drive on your order."

"Excellent," Roth offered. "Helm, engage. Warp five, please."

At the Helm station, the position normally filled by Nat Hawk, Republic's Second Officer, Lieutenant Jg Margot Allard nodded, keying in commands to take the Galaxy Class starship to faster than light velocities.

 

Location: Dominion Sector 2814, Not far from Ash'aaran space

The Vorta was loathe to admit it, but she was fascinated, with herself. She knew better, of course. All Vorta did. After all, where they not the perfect servants? Did the most powerful Gods the universe would ever know not breed them?

Of course they did. To question their design was folly; to doubt their genius? A death sentence, and to spend so much time concerned about the welfare of one's self and not the glory of the Dominion? Well, the more that Eris 5 thought about it, the more she knew, that was plain ungrateful.

On the bridge of her flagship, (though if she were honest, it was just the lead ship in her formation of three) Eris adjusted the tactical communication device that rested over her left eye and sighed. 'If only SOMETHING would happen' she thought. 'Something that would make the design seem to make sense.'

Behind her, one of the Jem'Hadar, specially trained to serve as ship's crew felt his pulse rise; his breath catch, ever so slightly. He looked at the display again and read the data to confirm what his eyes told him. "Control, sensor contact. Galaxy Class." The tone was clean, clipped and clear, just as it was engineered to be. Although there was urgency, there was no panic, no fear. Just duty.

"Their velocity is comparatively low. Shields are down. They appear not to be aware of us."

"Really?" The Vorta leaned forward, the barest hint of a smile on her lips. "Perhaps this WILL be an interesting day." Her blue eyes flashed as she sat up. "Plot an intercept course. Charge weapons and prepare to engage."

Location: Arboretum, deck 7, USS Republic

The data was clear the two cytotoxins and their effects correlated too well for the Republic's pediatrician to allow going unnoticed. She didn't know how, but was sure that the plant that Morganth Talloc had created could produce an antidote to the serum that stole Hawk's life. As Doctor Harris entered the arboretum, she recognized Morgath's life signs next to his beloved plant. The look on his face was that of a parent who was visiting their child in the brig. Though the room was filled with abundant flora that radiated a spectrum of color, the one inhabitant's face was paled by the hue of a blue containment field.

After Talloc's previous encounter with the plant, which landed him and the Ship's Counselor in sickbay, the plant was ordered to be destroyed. However with Morgath's pleas, and some assistance from Doctor Harris, it was agreed that the plant be spared for further research; in vegetative isolation. Morganth caressed his plant with protective gloves. He wasn't going to risk another episode of nearly losing himself to the insanity the plant produced; he almost didn't come back the first time.

"I have a proposition for you."

Talloc started when Shannon began speaking in her soft Australian accent.

Morganth turned to see who the empathically undetectable hologram was talking to him.

"And what is that, kind doctor?" he replied.

"I didn't mean to startle you, but your plant and your green thumb can be put to good use."

Talloc paused for a moment trying to predict how, then replied when he realized that he couldn't read the Pediatrician's mind. "Go ahead."

Shannon continued, "The Republic recently had an encounter with a poison that acted much like the effect of your plant's . . . venom."

Morganth winced at the word venom; however he resigned himself to the fact that the clear liquid the plant produced was just that. His eyes turned to the plant behind the protective barrier. His eyes returned to the doctor.

"I don't currently have anything to do," he paused, then continued, "When do we begin?"

"How about now?"

Shannon led Morganth to the nearest console and began showing him the readouts from the reaction that Hawk's body had to the poison that had killed him.

As Talloc scanned the data, he asked many questions and used his knowledge of botany to understand, however he lacked some knowledge needed to understand what was happening. Shannon answered his questions with a lot of patience, it wasn't until she showed the data compared side-by-side that Talloc's understanding grew exponentially.

Morganth rubbed his chin with his right hand while the console glowed with the data from both instances. After a moment he turned to the Republic's pediatrician and stated to himself more than to Shannon. "I think we can do this, after all most medicinal remedies are based on plants."

And so, Morganth and Doctor Harris went about analyzing the genome of his plant, taking several hours before they were able to isolate the genetic domains that allowed it to produce the neuro-venom that besieged Morgath's emotional state those many weeks ago. Soon, after discovering a few distinct enzymes that could have held the key, they summoned Counselor Tolkath to assist. With his help, the trio were able to find a matching anti-venom that was a plausible antidote to Hawk's malady. Just as they were about to celebrate, the Republic shuttered from unknown weapons fire, and Doctor Harris was ordered to the bridge.

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

Klaxons blared as the bridge was rocked by another polaron burst from the passing Dominion fighter.

"Sensors confirm three Dominion attack ships. No command ships detected!" Margot Allard's voice was clear and solid. Her training was hiding the panic that was running through her.

"I know what they are. What do they sprocking want?!"

"After we even the odds, you can ask them, XO. Take Tactical please."

"On it!" Carter rose to his feet and moved up the port side ramp to the tactical rail as the bridge was rocked by another blast.

At the command chair, Roth felt her gaze narrow as she scanned the Tactical Plot on the main viewer. She keyed a command on her chair's arm, seeing far too much red for her liking.

The three fighters had appeared out of nowhere, following standard Dominion doctrine. The attack was fast and precise, made all the worse by the fact that Republic only had navigational deflectors up at the time.

Roth shook her head at the memory of her rookie mistake. In fact it had been weeks since Republic had been in contact with any other vessels, and there had been no indication of Dominion presence in the immediate or surrounding sectors. Still, the fact remained that this was the Gamma Quadrant; by definition, Dominion territory. However, since the end of the war, the forces of the Dominion had been remarkably, even disturbingly quiet. Like many commanders, Roth had let herself slip into a place of complacency where her one-time adversaries were concerned. She was paying the price for that now, and she worried that this as yet unexplained attack might be the beginning of a renewed Dominion offensive, and in it's current state, she was doubtful that the Federation could withstand another attack.

"Pikita! Status! Can we get back to warp?"

"Negative Captain. They knew right where to hit us. Tactical systems are green, but warp is a no-go."

"Of course not." Roth commented. "Too easy." Roth turned her head, calling up to John Carter, who had made it to the Tactical rail. "Even the odds, Carter."

John Carter's fingers flew across the Tactical controls, sending mega-joules of energy through the phaser conduits of Republic. Outside, in the black silence of space, orange lances of energy spat out from the dorsal array, battering against the shields of the Dominion fighter on the right wing of the formation, to no discernible effect.

They were consistent, Carter knew, and that was the strength of the Dominion armed forces. Absolute loyalty and adherence to orders. They arrived en masse and attacked as a unit. In most cases, resulting in relentless firepower destroying targets with near impunity. However, what was often seen as the Dominion's chief advantage could also be seen as a weakness.

"Helm! Ninety degree roll, Starboard! Then, bring the nose down twelve degrees, but don't make the turn! You hear me? Don't pull!"

"Aye Sir!" Margot said, but a beat later, "Wait. What?"

The ship's computer blared a warning at Carter, telling him that he was presenting the ship to multiple enemy contacts, not to mention over-charging the secondary phaser grid. The ship's AI knew that this was ill-advised and wanted to make sure that John knew it to. Carter hit the flashing key on the Tactical arch to silence the warning.

"I know, I know." He grimaced as he shook his head. "Like I'm not gonna hear about this in the morning." Carter shifted his attention to the junior officer at the Conn position. "I want the odd angle!" Carter explained. "We can't out-turn those ships, but we can fake `em out!"

Allard shook her head to bring herself back to the moment. She didn't see the point of not completing a turn that the ship could easily perform, but her training had taken over. She didn't HAVE to understand, she just had to do as she was ordered. Margot Allard was however damned sure that she was going to get clarification when the engagement was over. "Starboard roll, down-angle, Aye!"

Republic rolled in space, her primary saucer angled down slightly, but there was no change in direction. Rather than twist or turn and try to shake her attackers loose, she continued on the same vector, albeit at a strange angle.

On the bridge of the lead fighter, currently taking position at the back of an inverted "V", Eris-5 blinked, as she divided her attention, trying to pay attention to both the unfolding events on the screen as well as the tactical display projected over her left eye. "What are you...?"

Seconds later, the two fighters ahead of Eris' command-ship peeled off to pursue Republic in the turn she SHOULD have made. Eris' eyes widened as she realized what was happening. "Yes, yes...that's it." She commented. "Most impressive."

On Republic's bridge, Carter smirked. "Gotcha. By the book."

In the center seat, Kim Roth nodded coolly. By rolling and tilting the ship, but not changing it's vector, she could now fire on the remaining pursuer with Republic's ventral saucer phaser, as well as the often ignored weapon that ran across the vessel's belly, and two supplemental phaser arrays placed at the base of each warp nacelle support. While the supplemental phasers were smaller and less powerful, they could be independently targeted, and if the first shot were strong enough, could deliver very surgical strikes. "Nice job, XO. Fire!"

At the moment of first contact with the Dominion, a small task force had come through the Bajoran wormhole and without warning, proceeded to attack Deep Space Nine as well as destroy the USS Odyssey. Like Republic, Odyssey was a Galaxy Class starship; one of the queens of Starfleet. Yet, she was utterly destroyed by a single Dominion fighter on a kamikaze run. Since that time, starship commanders have done well to remember that despite their size, these ships were dangerous, and a captain underestimated them at her peril. In this case, however, both Kimberly Roth and John Carter appeared to have learned their lessons well.

The first shot from Republic's main ventral array shattered the fighter's shields. They would, of course, shortly reform, but not before the starship's smaller phasers could follow up. In rapid succession, three angry shots flared out from Republic, impacting the fighter's unshielded hull. Early on in the Dominion War, the composition of the aggressor's vessels proved tougher than anyone in Starfleet had expected. Later, it was shown that very specific modulations could all but negate that advantage. Now, the experience of the war meant that rather than destroy one's opponent, they could be disabled. "Tac." She called to Carter. "Hail them please. Let's see if we can find out what they wanted."

In seconds, the main viewer showed a clearly distressed Eris, the bridge of her flagship bathed in the rich amber lighting that the Dominion used to indicate damage and distress. Like her Wayoon series cousin, Eris was genetically engineered to be the liaison between the all-powerful Founders and the JemHadar legions that were the backbone of the Dominion. As such, they were literally bred for strategy, decorum, and composure. Now, despite the state of her ship was crippled, she showed no sign of panic, or desperation. There was an odd air of serenity that was apparent, even over Republic's viewer.

"Greetings, Captain...?"

"Roth." Republic's Captain confirmed. "Forgive me, but..."

"You were expecting a Wayoon, of course. That's only natural. Forgive my rudeness, Captain Roth, I am Eris-5."

Roth nodded. "And is there a reason that you've committed an act of war against the Federation?"

Eris gave Roth a dismissive wave. "Oh hardly, Captain, though I can certainly see how it would appear that way. In point of fact, our two governments have an armistice, and in lieu of any...guidance from the Founders, a condition for which I should one day like to thank Odo VERY much, by the way... "

Eris dropped her head slightly and blinked.

"At any rate, without a central authority, I can hardly be blamed for acting somewhat... rashly, can I? After all, you have asserted your superiority in battle. As a show of good faith, I've ordered my escorts to stand down. This engagement is over."

Roth glanced down at the repeater display on the arm of her command chair. For the moment at least, Eris was being true to her word. The other two ships in the flight were remaining close, no doubt to protect their leader, but they were not engaging the starship. "You certainly have my attention, Eris, but that may not last long. Get to the point please?"

Eris bowed slightly.

"As you say captain. Though technically, you are traveling, uninvited, through what is Dominion space. By the letter of the armistice, it is you, not I, who have committed an act of war. I do however have a counter proposal."

Roth felt her eyebrow arch. The Dominion representative may have been correct as to the letter of the treaty between the Founders and the Federation, but she also knew that Starfleet had been sending ships on mapping missions like the one Republic had been on for years, with no incident. Still, there was a chance to end this situation here and now, and though Republic could probably eliminate the remaining ships in the flight with little trouble, battle meant that unfortunate things could happen, and Kim DID have a big picture to worry about.

Roth rose to her feet, looking confidently at Eris' image on the viewer. "You have a point, Eris." Roth offered.

"Thank you."

The Vorta added with a nod and a smirk, her purple eyes, flashing slightly.

"Just what is this proposal of yours?"

Eris straightened up, clasping her hands in front of her.

"I am hereby requesting asylum in the United Federation of Planets."

Kim Roth and her XO exchanged quizzical looks, each being careful not to give too much away to the Vorta on the other end of the screen. John Carter, however, had failed.

"I'm sorry...Eris. Say that again?"

On the view screen, the vorta rose to her full height. Though she wasn't tall by Jem Ha'Dar, or even human standards, there was something regal about her when she stood tall, and the change in her bearing was obvious.

"As I said. I hereby request asylum in the United Federation of Planets. I believe that my life is in imminent danger if I remain with the Dominion."

Kim Roth remained more impassive than her Executive Officer. With her arms crossed in front of her, she tilted her head. "I hope you'll understand if I'm somewhat skeptical?"

The Vorta nodded. "Naturally." The alien's tone was just on the edge of condescending, as if she somehow knew that no human would ever trust her, or that the poor solids would ever really be capable of it.

Kim Roth continued. "Might I know the nature of your...disagreement?"

The Vorta looked to either side of herself, as if checking to make sure she wasn't being listened to.

"I would be happy to discuss my situation on your ship, Captain. I assure you, I'll attempt no subterfuge."

Roth looked at her XO, who already looked as though someone had ruined his morning coffee. "You'll understand if I need a moment to confer with my crew?"

On the screen, the Vorta looked puzzled.

"As you wish Captain. I will await communication."

A second later, the viewer returned to depicting local space. "No way. No SPROCKING way!" John Carter spat, as he turned to look at the Captain. "You know it's a trap, right?"

Roth took two steps heading up the ramp form the "command pit" of the bridge to the turbolift, looking back to Carter. "I'm not so sure, XO." She offered. "They had us dead to rights when they opened up. If she'd wanted to destroy us, I think Eris could have done it already."

The two officers waited for a moment as the lift doors opened. "I'm not saying we share any state secrets," Roth explained, "And I certainly think she's up to something...Conference Room, Deck Seven." Roth called out to the ship's computer. "However," she continued, "I'm going to exercise Captain's Prerogative, and let her show her hand. I'll admit it. I'm curious."

***

"Vorta, forgive my impudence," the Jem H'Dar on the Dominion 'Flagship's' bridge said, "This is a ruse, is it not? To strike at our enemy with their defenses down?"

Eris could not hide the fact that she was visibly annoyed "The plan...soldier," she added wait to the last word, with just a touch of scorn, "is not for YOU to question. I speak with the voice of the Founders. I am the instrument of Their Will."

The soldier bowed his head. "Of course, Vorta," The soldier dropped his head so as to not look at one who was clearly above his station. "Forgive me."

Without a word, Eris turned, dismissing the soldier with a wave as she left the bridge of her small ship, her mind making calculations...moves and counter-moves, for all the ways that the next few moments might develop.

Location: Officer's briefing room, Deck 7, USS Republic

"And that's our situation, ladies and gentleman." Roth said curtly. "Thoughts?"

Around the table, The available senior staff which included Maria Pikita, Saal Yezbeck and Swen Butenhoff, looked at each other, waiting to see who would speak first. Finally, Pikita broke the ice. "I'm with the XO, Skipper," she explained. "It's gotta be a trap, or a scam, or something. Right?" She looked around the table for some sign of confirmation.

It was Saal Yezbeck who spoke first for the counter-point. "Not necessarily. As the Captain already explained, they could have blown us to atoms before we knew what hit us and they didn't. I think we should hear her out. If this is the beginning of some sort of insurrection, or rebellion inside the Dominion, we really ought to know, and tell Fleet as soon as possible."

The Doctor's argument brought a few nods around the table. Representing the Tactical Department, Zoe Beauvais was the next to speak. "I'm pretty sure we can take them now that we know they're here, Sirs." She offered. "I think it's worth the risk."

Roth nodded. "Agreed, and though in this isn't really a democracy, I appreciate your input." Roth rose to her feet. "Consider the ship to be on Red Alert. Prepare to receive our 'guest' in Shuttle Bay Two."

 

Location: Shuttle bay two, deck 13, USS Republic

The whine of a transporter beam filled the cavernous space of the shuttle bay, as the thin form of the Eris-Series Vorta solidified on the deck. Kim Roth, accompanied by John Carter, and two armed Tactical Officers, stepped forward. "I'm Captain Roth, Eris, " Kim offered with an outstretched hand. "Welcome aboard Republic."

The Vorta looked around with a near child-like amazement, as if she couldn't quite believe just how big a Galaxy Class starship actually was. "By the Founders..." she commented absently.

"By Utopia Panetia actually," John Carter corrected her.

Roth shot her Executive Officer a sour look, as if to silently chide, 'you're NOT helping!'

Carter cleared his throat.

Eris stepped forward, cautiously taking Roth's hand in her own, though she was clearly unsure of what to do with it. "Thank you," she offered with a bow. "I appreciate you're agreeing to see me." The Vorta seemed to regain her composure a moment later, standing tall once again as she looked Roth in the eye. "I respectfully and officially request asylum in the United Federation of Planets."

Again, Roth looked at her second in command, who had still not managed to relax. "Before I can accept, Eris, regulations require that I know the nature of the threat against you."

The Vorta blinked in a way that Roth was beginning to find familiar. "Of course, Captain. I no longer accept the divinity of the Founders."

 

Location: VIP Quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

Kim Roth looked on in what could best be described as shock as the Vorta seated across from her seemed to enjoy the rakeg tea that Republic's replicator had provided. Every piece of intelligence about the Vorta as a race told Kim that they were genetically incapable of disobeying the shape-changing race known as The Founders, and, it was assumed, that the belief in the Founders' divinity was just as absolute.

And yet, here was a Vorta, not only admitting to doubting The Founders, but also seeming to enjoy the taste of something other than a rippleberry; another circumstance, which simply should not be. Roth looked at her guest for a long moment before speaking. "I'm glad the tea is to your liking Eris." She offered. "And, I also appreciate your willingness to answer my questions."

Eris closed her eyes, letting the earthy aroma of the tea spread across her pallet. "Not at all, Captain." She explained. "You have every right to be suspicious. I certainly would be, if the situation were reversed."

Roth nodded again. "It was my understanding that the Vorta as a race were incapable of doubting or disobeying The Founders because of genetic engineering." Roth explained. "Is that somehow incorrect?"

The Vorta's eyes fluttered open. "I can't speak for the entire race Captain," she offered. "But as I understand it, there have been occasional variations within a certain genetic strain or crèche set."

"So, you are all clones then." Roth said, matter-of-factly.

Eris waved a palm dismissively. "Oh no, no, Captain." She shook her head slightly. "All Vorta are extremely similar, but only a few in The Dominion's history were actually, genetically identical." Her head tilted in the odd, bird-like way that most Vorta seemed to have as an affectation of surprise or interest. "You are, I assume, most familiar with the Weyoun who had interaction with Sisko?"

Roth nodded again "You are correct". Kim began to think about what she'd known of Captain Ben Sisko, the one-time commander of Deep Space Nine, who had been at the center of political, and if one believed the rumors, spiritual and cosmic events around the Bajoran Wormhole Junction for the better part of fifteen years before he mysteriously disappeared.

Rumors persisted that Sisko would visit Earth from time to time to check in on his father's restaurant and the career of his son Jake. However, despite numerous eye-witness accounts and even an official Starfleet Intelligence investigation. The continued existence of Benjamin Sisko could not be conclusively proven. As a scientist, Kim Roth therefore considered the matter of his existence closed. Unaware of Roth's mental reminiscence, Eris continued. "Weyoun was a direct clone, Captain." Eris explained. "A perfect copy. However, I myself am one of a series, within which there are often a number of variations." Her eyes blinked for a moment in several rapid pulses. "I believe that one of my predecessors exhibited a measure of telekinesis. Why that trait was not continued, I'm not sure..." Her voice seemed to trail off in contemplation for a moment. "Why wouldn't they keep that?" Eris looked down, contemplating her tea for a time.

After a few moments, Roth spoke up again. "I can tell you that I'm inclined to accept your request Eris, but I want to discuss a few conditions, as well as give you an idea of the welcome you can expect once we return to Federation space."

Eris nodded calmly "Of course, Captain."

"While you are onboard Republic, you may go to any other areas that would be open to any civilian passenger." Roth explained leaning forward slightly in her chair. "However, I am going to insist that you be accompanied by a guard at all times, not only for the piece of mind of my crew, but for your own safety."

Again, the Vorta nodded. "A reasonable precaution. I will offer no resistance, I assure you."

"Thank you. Once we cross the wormhole and re-enter Federation space, you will be handed over to a member of the Diplomatic Corps and can expect to be in Colonel Kira's custody for quite some time. Provided there are no incidents onboard during your stay, I would be happy to speak on your behalf during your trial."

The Vorta flutter-blinked again. "Trial, Captain?"

Roth's expression turned serious. "This is a matter of regulation, Eris." She explained. "As a member of formerly hostile government, members of our civilian leadership will want to investigate your reasons for seeking asylum as well as determine if you may have committed crimes against the Federation during the war."

Eris' expression turned more serious as well. "I expected that to be the case Captain." Her head tilted again in that curious, Vorta manner. "I will of course cooperate," she continued, "but you should understand that I will not knowingly or willingly betray any confidences."

Roth looked back, unblinking. "No one's asking you to, Eris." She explained, but you will be asked questions, and not everyone in the Federation will be happy to see you."

"Hmm..." The Vorta looked back into her tea. "A bit of reality seems to have encroached into our conversation."

Roth leaned forward, preparing to leave the room. "I understand. We can continue this discussion later." As she strode toward the door, Roth turned to regard her guest. "One more thing Eris."

"Yes, Captain Roth?"

"You're certain that your patrol ships will withdraw once you give the order, despite your request?"

Eris' expression seemed to brighten. "Captain. You have my personal guarantee that they will follow my orders to the letter. As far as they are concerned, my will is the will of The Founders, and is therefore divine."

 

Location: Command Deck, Dominion Attack Craft 6819

"It's heresy!" The normally steady pulses of ketracel white that flowed through the system of the Jem H'Dar patrol leader seemed to race through the clear tube in his throat at amazing speed. An indication of just how agitated he was.

"Calm yourself, Patrol Leader." His compatriot offered. "The Vorta has a plan for our enemies. I've never known an Eris that didn't."

The older soldier's nostrils flared as he reached back and struck his subordinate with the flat of his hand. The younger shocktrooper spiraled down to the deck. "You're too young to know ANYTHING!" he bellowed, turning the rest of the assembled squad in the small ship's cramped galley. He pivoted slightly to look at each of the observers in turn. "I know that none of you would dare speak it aloud," he continued, "but we all know that the Eris onboard that Federation battleship is no ordinary Vorta! Am I the only one who's heard her seditious thoughts? Wondered at her questionable decisions?" The Old Soldier looked down at the colleague he'd just struck. "We haven't reported in, in months! Or supply of the white is dangerously low, and we need to act now!"

"There are no secrets on this ship!" he continued. That Vorta is dangerous because she is a non-believer. And yet, she still expects our allegiance? Her authority stems from her belief in The Founders, and if she does NOT believe, as each of you knows she does not, then our continued allegiance to her makes US criminals as well!"

By this time, the younger Jem H'Dar had gotten to his feet. "To question a Vorta is to question The Founders." He commented.

The Old Soldier glared at the young trooper again. "To question a LOYAL Vorta, yes!" He roared. "But if she does not believe and WE have followed her, then we must atone."

The young soldier could feel the temperature rising in the room, as the Old Soldier seemed to sway the crowd further toward action. He squared his shoulders and looked his adversary in the eye. "And what would you do? Attack the Federation ship? Destroy them?"

"They are enemies of The Dominion, and shall be crushed under our heel!" The Old Soldier thundered. "We are the Fist of the Founders! We are the wrath of the gods! If we do not act, what are we?"

The young trooper felt his pulse begin to race as he fought to keep his calm. "All this talk is fine", he shot back, "but are you really prepared to kill Eris?"

A wave of calm seemed to wash over the Old Soldier as he unclenched his fist. "Meaning that you are not?"

"No," the young trooper said simply.

In a blur of motion, the veteran's arm shot up from his side, powerful fingers snaking out to take hold of the young trooper's white tube; his literal lifeline. Before the young trooper could bring his own hands up to protect himself, the Old Soldier closed his fingers and jerked his hand back.

There was a wet "splitching" noise as the Soldier ripped the white tube from the trooper's neck; a splash of the thin, white liquid hitting the battle-hardened chest armor of the veteran.

The young trooper twitched as his fingers tried in vain to hold the precious liquid in his body...but to no avail. In moments, the younger fighter was dead, his body reduced to a twitching mass of muscle and randomly firing nerves, flailing briefly on the deck of the galley, before finally lying still and cold.

The Old Soldier looked down with contempt. "Coward."

 

Location: Deck 10, inner corridor ring, USS Republic

"I'm still surprised you went for it John." Shannon Harris commented as she walked alongside Republic's XO.

John Carter looked at Harris with a slightly disbelieving expression. "Look Shannon," he explained, "she IS the Captain, and she's taking precautions. Plus, the procedure we're following is within regs. Technically, there's no problem."

"Technically." Harris chided with a chuckle. "Actually, John, I think it's very big of you." The duo came to a stop at a set of turbo-lift doors. "If Captain Marshall or Bombay had proposed this, you'd be climbing the walls." Harris stepped into the lift car as the doors opened. Carter soon followed.

"Marshall would have blown them up," he commented, "and Bombay would have surrendered, so it's a moot point," Carter tilted his head to call out to nowhere. "Bridge." He leaned back against the wall of the car. "Still, I guess that was a compliment."

Shannon turned with a smile, resting her head just below John Carter's chin. "It was, John. Thank you for noticing that, though." Harris closed her eyes, enjoying a rare quiet moment before the world turned red, klaxons blared, and the lift car rocked to a halt.

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

"Tactical! Return fire on Attacker One! Warn them off!"

"Shields at 45 percent, Captain." At the Tactical Arch, Zoe Beauvais tapped at virtual buttons that directed mega-joules of energy through super-conducting circuits. On the viewer, a lance of orange phaser energy lashed out at the first Dominion Attack ship that was currently in the lead of a delta formation.

There was a flare of energy as the attack ship's shields dissipated the energy of the phaser shot, and the small craft continued to loom larger in the view screen.

"Attacker One shields at 30 percent, Captain!" Zoe called out. "Number two's following the pass!" Without waiting for an order, Beauvais keyed the command for another series of shots at the second of the three small ships. Those shots also seemed to hit home, severely weakening the second ship's protective cocoon.

"Nice shot, Tac. Come to port two-eight-five." Kim Roth ordered. "and send a detail down and get Eris up here. Looks like she'll need to call off the dogs sooner than we thought."

"Aye Ma'am," Beauvais answered, simultaneously tapping at communications relays. "Narundi's on his way."

The second attack ship crossed it's leader's vector rather than follow along and Republic's Tactical Officer continued to take shots of opportunity. Then, with little warning as a sixth and then seventh shot struck home, but no shields intercepted the starship's offense.

There was a brilliant bloom of white against the darkness of space as the second Jem H'Dar ship was vaporized in a matter/anti-matter explosion. The crew on Republic's bridge shielded their eyes or looked away in the split second that it took for the viewer to change opacity because of the explosion, but it was enough.

As the shape of the third attack ship became visible though the fading explosion of her sister ship, the size of the attacker's image continued to grow amazingly fast.

"No! No, no, no, no!" Beauvais called out in clipped tones from the tactical station, trying to force Republic to turn or dip faster than physics would let her.

Kim Roth rose to her feet, ignoring years of combat theory and practical training. "Sound Collision! All Hands! Brace for impact!"

The third attack ship, untouched during the beginning of the engagement raced forward at full speed, powerful charged particle engines pushing it, nearly instantly, to a fraction of the speed of light. The shields of USS Republic functioned as designed and the energy shell around the galaxy class starship bled an incredible amount of energy off of the speeding ship, but against the over-charged engines of the Dominion Attack Ship, it wasn't enough.

The small, beetle-like craft slammed nose first into the Bussard collector that capped the front of every Federation designed warp nacelle for almost two-hundred years, catching the red, glowing construct on the starboard side. There was a brilliant flash and terrific release of energy as the attacking ship crumpled like a fly on the windshield of an onrushing car.

Onboard Republic, anything not nailed down or otherwise secured clattered, or spewed, or crashed against any nearby surface. Crewmen were thrown form bunks, patients jostled from beds, and a few officers once again engaged in the time-honored tradition of cursing artificial gravity when it meant that one's head slammed into the deck.

In space, Republic's starboard nacelle flickered and then went dark, as the plume of escaping plasma from the dying attack ship was extinguished by the vacuum of space.

***

"Damage Report!" Kim Roth called out, picking herself up form the deck and cursing her own stupidity.

The chorus of replies came in:

"Warp Drive, offline."

"Dorsal deflector emitter, offline."

"Dorsal phaser emitter, offline."

"Inertial dampeners, offline."

"Main power offline on decks seven and eight."

In the red, smoke-filled haze, punctuated by the popping sparks of blown LCARS panels, Kim Roth gritted her teeth. "Do we have photon torpedoes?"

"Aye, Ma'am!" Beauvais called back.

"Fire!"

 

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic

Saal Yezbeck watched as the casualties flowed through the main doors to the ship's main medical complex. Fractures, burns, concussions; mostly simple cases - just lots of them. With the ship's alert status being brought to red, all shifts were reporting in, and the remaining five doctors arrived to tend to the injured... one less than normal.

"Sickbay to bridge!" Saal hit the intercom button.

"Bridge. Go."

Roth's voice sounded very much in a hurry.

"Captain, we've got wounded filling up our beds quickly," Yezbeck informed her. "We need Doctor Harris down here."

"Negative, doctor. We've got a sprock-load of damage reports coming in, and Harris is the best interface we have with the ship's computer right now. We need her talents up here for the moment."

A frown formed on Saal's face - he wasn't in the mood to play political games.

"Captain, may I remind you that Doctor Cromwell left her in charge of sickbay? She's next in the chain of command down here."

It was a moment too long in waiting for a reply, and Saal was about to call back to the bridge and ask what the hold up was. Fortunately, he didn't need to.

"Doctor Yezbeck, under my authority, you're hereby in charge of sickbay. Harris stays here. Bridge out."

Saal looked as if he was just slapped in the face. In a time-honored maneuver, the captain insulted him, and stole another hand out from underneath him in one fell swoop. With consternation and annoyance, Saal grabbed a red surgical smock and mask from the wall-mounted replicator dispensary.

"You heard her people," he shouted to the staff over the clamor about him. "Let's get busy." Pointing to an open head wound case on one of the two center diagnostic beds, Doctor Yezbeck ordered, "That one... surgical suite two... Stat."

As medical technicians swiftly followed the order, Saal reflected upon how easily the captain had just overruled him. If Doctor Cromwell were here, he probably would have spent at least thirty seconds arguing with Roth, assuming he wasn't elbow-deep in a trauma case. He might have even annoyed the captain to the point of letting Harris report back to sickbay for the remainder of the emergency.

But Doctor Cromwell wasn't here, and Saal didn't have time to argue. People were hurt, and every MD on the ship needed to be at their best right now. As the medtechs gave the "thumbs up" indicating that the head trauma case was ready for surgery, Saal Yezbeck tied the surgical mask to his face and muttered a few words before entering the suite.

"Damn it, Leon... Where the hell are you..."

 

Location: Arboretum, deck 7, USS Republic

Reittan turned to his friend Morganth and recommended he stay in the arboretum, as it was one of the safest areas being in the center of the ship. Half joking, half serious Reittan told his comrade that if anything should happen and Morganth needed a weapon, no one would suspect a plant. With that, Reittan turned and quickly headed to the nearest turbo-lift. Red flashing lights laminated Tolkath's mad rush to the turbo-lifts. In all the commotion it was pure chance that he entered the turbo-lift just as the last Ensign hurried out to his station.

"Bridge!" the Counselor barked as the doors slid closed behind him. He had to risk it, there was no quicker way to the bridge, and if the turbo-lift should experience a power failure, Reittan would have to try another approach. The vessel shuttered a second and third time as it sped its way through the various decks to the main command center of the ship. But the movement went unnoticed; Reittan was lost in deep thought.

He didn't trust her, even when she had boarded the ship. Tolkath was keeping himself in check; he didn't want his past experiences to further feed his counter-transference and interfere with his duty. It was evident that others surrounding the procession felt his unease. No one was comfortable with the idea that a Dominion Jem Ha'Dar was onboard the Republic, Eris.

Reittan's conscious was momentarily interrupted and he quickly scanned the ship. The damages around the Republic seemed minor, for now; most of the wounds occurred from the jarring of the ship, though there were some who suffered burns as from what, he didn't know, nor would take the energy required to find out. Then he returned to the thoughts of his interactions with the Dominion warrior. He had played his part very convincingly while around the visitor, and his medical records had been locked down so no information about his ancestry could be leaked. She had passed him of as a Vulcan, and had voiced the irony of a Vulcan counselor; the ruse, as he could tell, was holding up. But, now the time for the facade was over he would need his full wits about him. They were in battle, lives were at stake, and mistakes were costly.

The turbo lift doors opened allowing the smoke of the room to pour into the lift. He quickly stepped out into the controlled chaos of the bridge. Sparks flew as severely wounded individuals were being rushed into the recently vacated turbo-lift. Starfleet uniforms were manning their stations and struggling to keep the ship on one piece.

The Counselor registered the Captain's voice as she gave the command: "Fire!"

As he took his place in the Counselor's chair and opened the console to assist in the battle. The movement caught the Captain's view that had previously been locked on the screen.

She gave Reittan a look and commanded, "No, not yet." Though cryptic to others, the message was clear to Reittan.

He replied "Yes, Captain."

Both the Captain and the Counselor's eyes returned to the screen showing a ship making, what seemed to be, a kamikaze run.

Lieutenant Commander Tolkath could feel the chaos around him, the fear, and the desire to live. Suddenly a rage, that he had known only once before, consumed him like plasma.

The view screen on the Republic, though dimmed by smoke, showed one of the photon torpedoes find its mark and, in a spray of light, removed the threat.

Reittan's mind had disassociated from the Republic, though his body was reacting to the shuddering of the Republic and remained upright, a distant look occupied his eyes. He knew he had to remain alert, yet the anger was there; taking over.

Suddenly a familiar voice from decks below entered his mind.

"Rei Rei, what's happening? Stay with us, just breathe. What good is all that Vulcan stuff if you don't use it?"

Morganth had made contact with his friend and though emotions were high, psionic energy was able to reach Tolkath. Reittan could feel the voice of his friend; it was clear, concise, and calming. The Counselor was able to retake control of his anger with some effort and issue back a telepathic "Thank you." Only a few seconds had passed during the ordeal, but that was precious time lost.

Location: Docking pylon 31, Deep Space Nine, (Alpha Quadrant)

Victor's boots hit the runabout's ramp with a staccato burst of speed and he was heading for the causeway at slightly less than the cruising velocity of a Meezan IV chipper-hawk. Trouble was coming and the late Mrs. Virtus didn't raise no dummies. Trouble with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "V" and that stands for Vlad. The sudden rise in Kostya's political capital could have been a complete and total coincidence given the Admiral's sudden retirement from 'Fleet service, but Victor placed coincidence in the same category as the Yuletide Bunny, Mister Tooth-Collector and M-113 Salt-suckers.

Pure science was a noble and laudable goal in and of itself, and the young-looking scientist hated to be pulled away from his duties aboard the Apex, but if "The Impaler" were about to make a bid for a high-ranking civilian office then pure science was about to take a back berth to dirty, imprecise, chaotic and fluid social reality.

Vic ran his hand through his slightly-longer-than-regulation hair, brushed his knuckles across his less-than-clean-shaven cheeks, and slowed his dash to a mere lope as he took stock of his assets. One regulation Starfleet-issue duffel. Two months accrued leave from his grueling tour aboard the U.S.S. Apex. Three new theories on subspace micro-fracture repair. Four friends that were about to be in a world of hurt if Vic couldn't find them pretty soon. Five hours of sleep in the past three days throughout a harrowing journey aboard the universe's oldest transport vessel. Six point three three light-decades between himself and Kostya. Seven advanced degrees in hard, stoic, immutable SCIENCE! Eight untested contingency plans for quietly getting off the station without causing a massive security alert. Nine troy-ounces of gold-pressed latinum, for bribes and for confusing the Ferengii Alliance with non-standard units of weight measurement. And ten minutes until the stimulants wore off and he collapsed in a heap on the deck.

The slender Malthian shuddered to a halt in front of an LCARS and keyed in a series of overtly subtle commands. He had to find John before the fecal matter hit the rotary impeller, and the Apex listed the Republic as currently attached to DS9 for scientific and diplomatic missions.

"Computer," bedee beep, "where is Commander Carter of the U.S.S. Republic?"

Commander Carter is not aboard this station.

Victor glanced around to check for spies, hidden audio recording devices, shrouded Jem'Hadar, Founders disguised as potted plants, and cloaked birds-of-prey. Seeing none of them, Victor carefully identified himself as Agent Victor X-Ray Victor of Task Force One Special Operations and queried the database for the last known location of the Republic. Although prepared for all manner of weirdness from Captain Roth's crew, the results of his search left Victor with a renewed respect for his erstwhile brothers'-in-arm's abilities.

The Republic was in five different locations.

Starfleet sensor logs put it twelve days out from DS9 bearing one one five mark seven two, in the Corridon system. UFP Telemetry Control listed the Republic on a winding course through the Alpha Quadrant to 40 Eridani A, but Vulcan Orbital Command did not show any Galaxy-class ships in their triple-star system. The 'Fleet Quartermaster's Office had Lieutenant Merrick signing off for a resupply of non-replicatables at 39-Sierra two days ago. Stardock showed them in the queue for early maintenance and impulse engine inspection at 0900 tomorrow. Task Force One reported NCC-76241 destroyed with all hands in the Neutral Zone over a month previous, and the incident was listed as classified with an investigation of possible mutiny and a self-destruct order.

Agent VXV perused the data-feed more closely. Someone with serious clearance was altering data at an extremely high level to mask the Republic's whereabouts, and were even going so far as to change service records of the crew. John's new service pic looked nothing like him; with shorter hair, a goatee and an honest-to-goodness eyepatch. Captain Roth's former command was now an Orionian garbage scow. Leon's record had been forged to make him a Lieutenant Commander. Shannon's academy record showed two different birthdays. And in an overwhelming bit of poor taste, the hacker had pulled Hawk's death certificate and recommissioned him.

As the weary engineer covered his electronic tracks his thoughts raced. If Roth's Raiders were on the lamb it was going to be a pain in the posterior to find them. If Kostya's Kabal was trying to discredit the crew that had drummed him out of 'Fleet then things were about to get much worse much faster. And to top it all off, Forrest had told Victor this was going to happen...

Two years ago.

The chipper-hawk, renowned for its death-defying three hundred fifty kilometer per hour dives, was named for its extremely human-like and happy-sounding calls of "Hello!" Archival footage of a chipper-hawk striking a sixty kilo marmalope hard enough to shatter its spine all the while shouting pleasant "Hello"s would be forever seared into Victor's cerebellum.

The strung-out scientist couldn't help but feel rather marmalope-y right then, and was on edge waiting for a friendly greeting followed by a runabout-wreck of Kirk-ian proportions. Despite his ever-present security concerns, Vic couldn't help but mumble a quiet curse under his breath, "The only thing I hate more than Black Shirt predictions is *accurate* Black Shirt predictions."

Location: Planet Ashaaria (Gamma Quadrant)

Nat and the girl travelled by foot for what seemed like hours. In truth, it was only about ninety minutes, but since neither of them exchanged words while traversing the endless obstacle course of concrete slabs, rock piles, and barely recognizable gravel streets, it felt like an eternity.

The girl was much more dexterous and maneuverable than the tall, scraggly Starfleet helmsman. In fact, she was forced to pause several times as Nat ungracefully slid over debris heaps and slogged through evaporating puddles. The most recent obstacle was more of a small pond than a puddle, as the lieutenant found himself tripping head-first into knee-deep grayish-black soup.

"Watch'yer name?" Nat beckoned while crawling out of the muddy mess on all fours.

"Name?" The unemotional yet innocent adolescent returned. She patiently waited with her rifle slung and with penetrating eyes that calmly watched the out-of-breath Nat regain his composure.

"Yeah," he said between puffs of air. "Yer name. What does yer daddy call ya?"

"My father's dead," she replied stoically. "The Centennials made him sick."

"I'm sorry," Nat apologized. "I didn't know."

"It's how most people die," she shrugged nonchalantly. "That or the Angel Tears."

Nat stood up and brushed as much of the mud off his uniform as he could. The 'angel tears' as the girl so eloquently named the rain, was indeed a lethal mix of alpha and beta particles acting as condensation nuclei, whereby extended exposure could cause long-term damage to individuals without Borg nanites in their blood. Since the girl was taking care to dodge the puddles and avoid getting radioactive mud all over her, Nat assumed her dexterous nature allowed her to survive out here between the downpours.

"Ya still didn't answer my question," Nat replied.

"Tillav'naara" she said after a moment.

Nat tried to mouth the words, then realized that his southern accent would probably distort the syllables to such a degree that he would massacre the intended title. In his current position, he felt that it wouldn't be prudent to make a new enemy at this time.

"Sorry," he admitted. "That's a lil' hard on my pucker-factor, if ya know what I mean. I think I'll just call ya 'Tweena'"

"Why?" the quizzical, innocent response came.

"Because, yer betweena 'bout ten and twelve years old, aren'tcha?"

The young girl looked at the helmsman with an expression that suggested he was crazy.

"I'm four and a half..."

"Oh," Nat admitted, suddenly realizing that Ashaaria's orbit around its sun was much wider than Earth, and that the annual time differential was more than two to one.

"But I like the name anyway," she said with the barest hint of amusement.

"Tillav'naara!" a deep-throated voice echoed off the debris piles around them. It made both Nat and Tweena flinch; Nat out of tactical response, but the girl out of anticipation of being confronted with an anger adult. A scraping sound came from the surrounding escarpment followed by the clatter of scattering gravel. Before Nat knew it, there were four individuals converging on there position from all sides. They were tall, burly, and heavily armored soldiers with full-containment battle suits. They each were wielding large, gas-propelled slugthrowers, and their armor were replete with scrapes, dents, and surface deformities congruent to decades of war. In addition to the battle damage, they also bore hand-etched livery of similar design indicating that they were all from the same fighting unit.

"Hello Dreygg..." Tweena greeted one of the soldiers with hesitation.

"You've compromised our position!" The deep-throated voice revealed its origin as the individual who Tween address. "You've been gone for days... and you bring back a NON Asha'arian?"

"I haven't put us in danger!" Tweena protested. "He's not a Centennial!"

Another of the armored figures stepped closer to the girl and Nat, presenting a large, crude handheld device reminiscent of an old, pistol-grip Starfleet-issue tricorder from the late 23rd century. It beeped on and off between random fits of static, suggesting a marginally operational state. "No," said an electronically-modulated voice from the tricorder-bearing individual. "But he IS contaminated."

"Grab Tillav'naara," a third armored figure chimed in. "Leave the outsider to die in the rain..."

"That WON'T do you any good..." Tweena stubbornly added. "I tracked him for a long time outside... the Angel Tears didn't have any effect on him." The declaration of her extended observation drew a surprised glance from Nat, as he had no idea that Tweena was tracking him at any time before they met.

"WHY did you bring him here?" The first soldier demanded.

"He said he needs to see premier Karu," Tweena acknowledged.

"I'll BET he does..." the fourth individual finally sounded. "Probably to infect him..."

Tweena remained defiant. "No, he said he's from Republic."

Up until that last sentence, the conversation wasn't going well from Nat's point of view, and he was over fifty percent sure that he was going to end up dead in the next five minutes. However, when Tweena mentioned Republic by name, the moment of silence that passed was remarkable, as the soldiers slowly lowered their weapons. For her part, Tweena enjoyed the moment looking very much like smug third-grader who just won a classroom argument.

***

Even looking directly at it, you wouldn't have known it was there. The entrance to the underground stronghold appeared to be just another pile of debris and rubble. Splintered scraps of concrete, warped and melted pieces of metal, assorted mud and gravel, even a few bones - which thankfully he couldn't identify as either Ash'aarian or animal. Unlike the infinite number of other such heaps of wreckage though, this one was by design rather than devastation. After a rather harsh and invasive decontamination procedure, Nat watched as a trio of Karu's revolutionaries closed the meticulously concealed entrance. This despite the fact that they would be returning through it in likely less than a minute. Though it at first seemed paranoid to him to undertake such efforts rather than simply leaving it ajar for a few minutes, he reminded himself of what these people had been through.

This behavior had no doubt arisen from necessity to protect themselves from the Centennial forces locating them. Whether or not it was still necessary, it had become ingrained into them as a matter of life and death. Simply shrugging off such learned survival behaviors wasn't an easy thing. It was something he knew from first-hand experience from his service in the Dominion war. Obsessive or otherwise extraneous behaviors that were often seen as foolish at first often became recognized as critically important. He himself had rejected wearing a standard duty uniform throughout the dominion war. Instead opting for a flight suit, even on the rare day off. Though it was against regulation, it had shaved a half-dozen critical seconds off of his launch-time. It hadn't seemed like much at first, but the day it had enabled him to intercept and shoot down an inbound Cardassian torpedo before it could impact the Honshu was the day it become standard operating procedure for the rest of his squad.

But that was years ago, and Starfleet was at war; fighting a recognizable enemy with advanced weapons. This planet was light years away from all that, and the Ash'aarian's were not at war. At least not that Nat could see. The Centennials were long gone, and with the exception of the plague, the only other threat to their existence was their dying planet. In the hallway and across from a closed door, Nat sat silently on a corridor bench with Tweena, accompanied by two guards on either side of them, and listening to indistinguishable, muffled voices from behind the door. After about twenty minutes, the door swung open, and an unidentified Ash'aarian man stepped out and looked at the helmsman and the girl with resigned eyes.

"Come on, then," he beckoned. "He'll see you now."

The expansive room appeared to be a combination storage room and control center, much the The Core back at Suburbia base. About a dozen people all turned their eyes uncomfortably towards Nat as he and Tweena entered, some coming to their feet in obvious anticipation of important meeting. Walking into the center of the room, and looking much more sage and diplomatic rather than his melancholy disposition on the bridge of the Republic weeks ago, Karu approached and waited for Nat to speak first.

"Howdy," Nat finally offered as a salutation, trying to fit into the awkward shoes of a Starfleet diplomat. "It's... er... good ta see ya again... premier."

Pushing aside Nat's attempt to establish pleasantries, Karu looked at Nat with scrutinizing eyes, trying to place the helmsman somewhere in his memory.

"You were on Republic," he recognized him. "In the meeting room looking over the stars."

"And on the bridge," Nat admitted. "I was there when Athra told ya ta ditch us."

The recollection of Athra's dismissal brought forth a flash of anger in Karu's eyes. It wasn't focused at Nat, but it disturbed the helmsman nonetheless. There was a very obvious chasm that formed between Karu and Athra since their communique on the bridge of Republic, but how deep it went had yet to be revealed. As quickly as the flash arrived, so it disappeared as Karu focused back to the present.

"Your presence back here at Ash'aaria is in direct violation of Athra's order. You're risking war by being here."

"Beg yer pardon, premier, but yer people don't exactly look like they're ready ta fight an interstellar war right now," Nat offered. "Besides, she ordered *Republic* out of orbit. She didn't say anythin' about some of us wantin' ta stay around a while."

"So Republic isn't in orbit?" Karu replied, sounding somewhat disappointed.

"No," Nat admitted. "Just'a few disgruntled employees kickin' back an tryin' to figure out how ta help out around here."

"How many?" the premier asked.

"Just me an' two others."

"Three?" Karu sounded incredulous. "Out of a thousand people on your vessel, only THREE come back to help us?" He was visibly disturbed and paced in a circle. "We have a government who crushes all opposing views, hordes all the food, water, and technology for themselves, and only *three* people from your Federation come crawling through..." he gestures to Nat and his uniform caked with dried mud. "Who knows what just to say you're here to HELP??"

"With all due respect, yer premiership, that's better than nothin'"

Hawk's platitude was little consolation to Karu's visibly tormented emotions. "How can you say that? For all I know, Athra's troops tracked you here and are waiting to ambush us the moment we step outside!"

"Athra doesn't know we're here, Karu," Nat pressed with a touch of frustration. "I can guarantee ya that we worked hard ta conceal our base, just like you."

"And this base of yours?" Karu mocked. "I suppose it's a few kilometers from here? So, when Athra eventually does find it, they'll be at our doorstep!"

"Wrong again, premier," Nat revealed. "It's over a thousand kilometers away near that destroyed city where you first introduced our captain to Athra."

There were murmurs among the crowd at the lieutenant's location of Suburbia Base.

"The capital city?" Karu balked. "But... That's impossible! The radiation levels are the highest there than anywhere on the planet!"

"Yeah, I'll second that," Nat admitted. "It's about the hardest place ta set up camp, but we managed ta make a cozy little hospital in the middle of nowhere."

The murmurs became more pronounced among the crowd. Those who were still seated at Nat's entrance stood up with decisive interest in the intercourse.

"...Hospital?" Karu said stunned.

"Yep," Nat smiled assuredly. "And staffed by none other than Doctor Cromwell himself."

***

Stirred from his memories by the familiar high-pitched cascade of sound that was a transporter beam coalescing into existence, Nat turned as the billions of individual blue and white particles of energy formed into a silhouette before resolving into the environmental-suit clad form of Doctor Leon Cromwell. For some reason, Nat always found Leon's appearance in the suit to be humorous. He had reasoned it was the mustache, an uncommon feature in the 24th century esthetic for most humans, and accentuated by the gruff, growing stubble not unlike his own. After six days of isolation though, he was simply glad to see his friends familiar face. Stealing a quick glance at the Ash'aarians that abounded, he saw the expressions he had expected; shock, wonder, caution. Only Karu, who himself has experienced the technology, wasn't taken aback by it. Was it the sign of an open mind and ability to adapt, he wondered? Or the result of a war which left you little time to marvel at anything before compartmentalizing it as friend or foe?

Before any greeting occurred between the new arrival and the revolutionary leader, Leon promptly glanced at the readout of information displayed on the compact large-button interface control on his left forearm. Satisfied that the radiation levels where, indeed, within safety tolerances as Nat had reported, he moved his thick gloves to the clasps connecting the helmet to the torso of the suit and unsealed them. An audible hiss of air indicated the breaking of the micro-vacuum barrier created within the suit. Knowing from first hand experience how difficult it could be to remove the helmet while unable to raise ones arms above a certain point, Nat stepped forward and assisted his friend.

"Leon, I think ya know C'mander--scratch that--Premier Karu." he said, gesturing to the alien leader with one hand as he held Leon's helmet at his side with the other.

The doctor raised his eyebrows at the change in title and strode forward to greet Karu. "It's been quite a few weeks, Karu," he remarked. "I hope we're not intruding?"

"To be frank doctor, I had thought that Republic all but abandoned us," admitted the premier. "After I returned to the planet, I tried to present your research to the government once again, hoping that Legionnaire Athra would see reason. But, she ordered your research confiscated, and sent me into exile."

Strangely, the thought caused Karu to smile.

"That's when I became determined to bring about a change of administration. My ship and crew followed me into exile, and fortunately, I kept a spare copy of your research. When presented the option of choosing between Athra's path of now and forever, and the option of hope and change, almost everyone I made contact with chose the latter. We banded together and have formed the 'New Ashaaria' movement. And so... here we are. Our ranks are swelling with each passing day."

Doctor Cromwell was surprised, to say the least. "You're telling me that you based an entire planet's political future on my plague research?"

"Not the research itself, per se, doctor. But when offered hope, it was an amazing phenomena to watch how my people flocked to the opportunity. They're tired of the old ways. They want change."

Karu's declaration brought positive voices of support on the crowd around them. "And you, doctor," Karu continued. "How were you able to convince your captain to let you come back here?"

"Well," Leon replied sheepishly. "Let's just say neither my captain nor Athra have been... 'consulted' about this mission."

"I see," Karu smiled with comprehension. "Then you've returned with the idea of presenting your treatment directly to the people than to Athra?"

"That's what we're here for. My staff on Republic went to great lengths to provide a solution to your dilemma, and neither Lieutenant Hawk nor I were willing to let politics lead to the extinction of your people."

"Then," Karu agreed. "It would seem that you and I have a common goal. Do you have the resources to achieve it alone?"

"Unfortunately, no," Leon admitted. "Aside from Hawk and myself, we have only one other person currently staffing our base of operations. Over the past several days, while Hawk here has been searching for you, we've been converting a derelict hospital complex into a treatment facility for the plague."

"Yes, Mister Hawk explained that part to me. Are you able to start taking patients immediately?"

Leon allowed a glint of a smile for the first time in two weeks. "Yes," he replied. "We're fully equipped to handle about 100 patients at a time. Our only limitation at this point is staff... and time. If we don't find a willing test patient soon, those in the early stages of the disease will progress to the advanced stages, and I won't be able to help them."

During the conversation, the crowd of Ash'aarians surrounding Leon, Karu, and Nat had increased incrementally with each passing moment. Each of them gawked as none of them had ever seen aliens before. Unbeknownst to Nat, his young pre-adolescent benefactor, Tweena, had stayed at his side ever since entering the stronghold. Turning to a middle-aged woman standing next to her, Tweena silently tugged on the woman's tunic. She looked down to the child with an air of trepidation mixed with exhaustion - a common expression among the crowd. No words were exchanged between the two, but as each met one anothers eyes, they both knew what the child was attempting to communicate. With hesitation, the woman turned back to the center of the crowd and hesitantly raised her hand.

"Premire," she started. "If this is the Chiurgeon Cromwell that you spoke of upon returning to the surface, then I think you know very well who would be the best test candidate for the treatment."

Karu regarded the woman for a moment. "Doctor Cromwell, may I present Shara. She's our surviving senior medical supervisor. She oversees the hospice treatment of patients who contract the plague."

"Ghrune fell sick six centons ago," Shara addressed Leon. "He's the most knowledgeable about the Republic medical chronicles that Karu brought back. Ghrune studied them carefully and was quite vocal about the prospects of the treatment. It is my belief that he would have tried it on himself if given the chance."

Karu paused in thought, pacing back and forth for a few moments as if coming to decision.

"Shara," Karu came to a decision. "Take Ghrune back with you to Doctor Cromwell's hospital. Test the treatment on him. While you're there, I want to assess the needs of their facilities. If the doctor agrees, I'd like to see if we can combine our efforts and bring this treatment to the people who need it as quickly as possible.

"Agreed," Leon declared.

Tugging again on Shara's tunic, Tweena declared, "Mother, I want to go too."

Surprised, Nat looked at the girl, then to the woman. It had not occurred to him that Tweena's mother might already be in the room, or why she hadn't immediately come to the girl's side when word got out that she had brought an alien back to the stronghold. Nat suspected that after what had happened to her father, that Tweena was, like him, an orphan. However, as the flesh-and-blood middle-aged woman stood next to Tweena, he realized his suspicions were incorrect, and that the girl did in fact have a surviving parent.

"I'm not sure this would be a place for children," Karu admitted.

"It'll be alright," Leon interjected. "We've worked hard to make it a safe, comfortable place."

"I second that," Nat piped in.

"Very well," Karu agreed.

"We'd better get going then," Leon acknowledged with urgency. Turning to Shara, he asked, "please take me to the patient." As Shara led the doctor away through the winding corridors of the stronghold, Tweena paused prior to following, glancing back towards Nat.

"I'm glad you didn't lie," she said with a touch of innocence in her voice.

"'Scuse me?" Nat replied.

"The rain," she reminded him. "I'm glad you didn't lie about the rain."

Nat smiled with recollection. "Me too."

Location: Suburbia Base, Planet Ash'aaria, Gamma Quadrant

In an effervescent swelling of light, Leon, Shara, and Tweena appeared in the improvised transporter alcove at Suburbia Base. The alcove had once been a recessed reception desk for the hospital in its former life, but after installing the runabout's matter-stream emitters and associated hardware, the Republic fugitives brought the once spartan cement walls alive with silvery, luminescent paneling. However, unlike the Republic's integrated transporter systems, they had also erected a medical isolation field across the open wall of the alcove, anticipating that incoming personnel would be laden with radioactive dust.

"Stand by for decontamination," Leah announced from the portable control pedestal a few meters away.

Leon nodded while standing prominently in his EVA suit, his detached helmet tucked under his arm. Confused, Shara and Tweena looked around with a concerned expression, but before they could ask what was happening, a static zap sounded, followed by a shimmering electrical field that combed the surfaces of their bodies for hot particles. When encountering the latter, the decontamination stream held the offending particle in a micro-magnetic bubble before injecting it with a focused beam of anti-neutrinos, thus accelerating the subatomic components past the speed of light and reducing them to nothing more than accelerated photons. Each hot particle was instantly vaporized in a tiny flash of blue light, and before the recipients in the alcove could wince at the fleeting sensation of a hundred electron-volts dancing across their skin, the process was complete, and Leah lowered the isolation field.

Without hesitation, Leon marched up to the control pedestal alongside the news reporter, and took a glance at the readouts.

"Do you have a lock on him?" he asked.

"We're down to minimal transporter power," she explained. "But we can bring him in."

"Do it," the doctor ordered while pointing to an adjacent alcove opposite of the transporter pad. "Isolation room one."

Unlike the main transporter alcove, the isolation room contained a single, Starfleet-issue portable biobed, compliments of Leon's clandestine plundering of Republic's sickbay facilities. In another effervescent cascade, the horizontal form of the infected patient, Ghrune, materialized onto the bed, and while Leah initiated another decontamination sweep, Leon was already removing his EVA suit and donning a more dexterous bio-hazard suit. While Shara and Tweena looked on, Leah donned her own suit, and a minute later, the two Republic fugitives checked each others' protective garments for deficiencies prior to walking through the isolation field to tend to their first patient at Suburbia Base.

In a well-rehearsed concert of doctor/assistant procedures - practiced by Leon and Leah for several days prior in anticipation of a mass influx of patients - the two worked side-by-side at a dizzying pace. Leon called out for an instrument, and Leah, who memorized their locations on prepared instrument trays, firmly handed off the item to Leon. For his part, the doctor occasionally glanced at bio readouts while he worked, paying little attention to the cosmetic appearance of his patient.

The unconscious Ghrune was pale, and tiny abhorrent patches of scar tissue on his skin glinted with a silvery sheen as an ominous testament to what lay ahead if his condition worsened. Though his eyes were closed, a thin thread of luminescent crimson shined through the slits, and his once warm, blood-infused cheeks were cold, rubbery folds of dying flesh with a bluish tint. Leon and Leah remained steadfast in their pace, resolved to ensure that the horrifying advanced stage of the disease would not manifest.

Twenty minutes later, Leon emerged from the isolation field, leaving Leah to tend Ghrune and transfer him to the recovery ward. Removing the translucent white hood from his biohazard suit, he approached Shara and Tweena who were waiting tensely in the receiving area.

"Only time will tell," Leon began. "His system is responding well to the synthetic hemoglobin, so all we can do now is wait to see if the progression of the disease is halted. He still has a lot ahead of him."

"I'm sure you did your best, Cromwell..." Shara replied. "Ghrune was more enthusiastic about your procedure that even Karu, so even if it fails, he would still have wanted it this way."

Leon's expression went from that of a stoic professional to concern. Even though Shara was a firm follower of Karu, thus fervent in her belief that the status quo on the planet needed to change, there was still an air of hopelessness about her that was reminiscent of Athra. Leon could not even begin to imagine what horrors Shara had seen in her lifetime, let alone Tweena, but surely she could allow some sense of optimism? Could the thought of success truly be an inaccessible luxury to these people?

"All we can do is wait," Leon replied, with a touch of upbeat resignation. He refused to allow Athra's dictatorial melancholy descend upon the current situation, so in a moment of resolute determination, Leon promised to use all of his emotional and mental faculties to push aside his normally cynical attitude and bring a ray of hope into the lives of his guests. "So... let's get you two settled in for the evening. First, a small tour, and then we'll see what we can do about finding something to eat."

***

As a diversion, it worked. While Tweena was less than enthusiastic about a pair of adults dragging her through a large, empty, and boring old building, Shara was impressed with the work that Leon, Nat, and Leah had put into Suburbia Base since their arrival. She had many questions, most of them dealing with medical issues, but some with regards to how the facility operated, and how well it was protected. The foremost question, however, was how the doctor had planned to run the entire facility by himself, with only two marginally-trained ad hoc nurses, that being Nat and Leah.

For his response, Leon simply shrugged his shoulders. "It isn't something I haven't handled before. You'll note that most of the beds are for recovery and convalescence, and I directed Miss Warner to make timed, periodic visits to each room once they're occupied. As for Lieutenant Hawk and I, we would be handling most of the workload in the reception areas where we received Ghrune. Once we've performed the initial stages of the treatment a few times, we should be able to receive, treat, and send to recovery one patient every ten minutes. Working on a 16-hour workday, we should be able to fill almost all of our beds within a single day."

"That's a lot of work for a group of outsiders who have no vested commitment to our planet," Shara remarked with a raised eyebrow. "Why would anyone work so hard for a people they hardly know?"

If Leon was perturbed by the comment, he didn't show it. Case in point, he was expecting to encounter xenophobia, especially after what took place on the Republic weeks ago. Therefore, like any good scientist, he had prepared responses to anticipated skepticism about their purpose for being on Ash'aaria.

"Well, we didn't throw our careers away and risk our lives by coming down here to watch entertainment holo-vids all day," Leon replied in an upbeat, chipper tone, careful to avoid any accusatory demeanor. "Besides, as a former life-sciences researcher, scientific reasoning presumes that increased survivorship and diversity of other species will allow an ecosystem to thrive. By helping the Ash'aaran people, we're maintaining biological diversity throughout the galaxy."

"And what if our survival becomes a detriment to your own?"

Leon shrugged his shoulders again. "It's a calculated risk we take anytime we make contact with another species. The Federation has a history of botched first-contact missions. Several of them with empires that later became our enemies, and with which we hold a tense peace with to this day."

"So why bother trying?" Shara replied as she, followed by Tweena, were led into the main operations center by Leon.

"My species has an uncanny knack for both curiosity, and finding our way into predicaments in which we can't get out of..."

Spreading his arms out to the circular control room, Leon changed the subject. "Here we are... The Core. The central nervous system of Suburbia Base." Leon shifted his eyes back towards Shara. "Not to mention our home for the foreseeable future..."

Shara and Tweena looked around the sprawling work center, taking note of the blinking consoles, whirring machinery, and stacks of cargo crates and water containers. To them, it was an ominous site, and Shara herself looked upon it with suspicion. Even though she was briefed by Karu prior to her arrival, a pinging at the back to her mind was warning her about the dangers of too much technology. The Centurions came to this world talking peace and bringing with them advanced machinery that later turned out to be the bane of their existence. It was difficult for her to push aside her trepidation of Doctor Cromwell's technologically-driven approach to medicine. Spying a large, cylindrical decompression chamber, she warily sized up the contraption, and looked quizzically at the strange orange glow emanating from it.

"Where's the power source for this room?" Shara finally asked, wondering what was causing the glow.

"You're looking at it," Leon explained. "That's our fifteen-terrawatt portable fusion generator. It runs everything here. It's completely automated, and will crank out power for years as long as it's properly maintained."

Shara nodded in comprehension. "Our world used something similar for municipal power sources back before the war. Unfortunately, our tritium supply relied on lunar sources, and when the Centurions arrived, our capacity to mine extraterrestrial hydrogen ended abruptly..."

"I would have liked to have brought an antimatter generator with me," Leon commented. "It would have solved a lot of our power problems, and we could have beamed more people over from your stronghold. However, our antimatter generators are much too large and bulky for us to have brought one from Republic. So, we had to settle for this instead."

"We've only been able to utilize antimatter to a small degree, and then only for space travel," replied Shara.

"Your people have developed antimatter?" Leon inquired with surprise. "Why wasn't it weaponized and used against the Centurions?"

"It was strictly controlled by the government," she explained. "A particle accelerator facility on the southern continent produced only a small amount each year, and it was used only for spaceship construction. When the Centurions attacked, the particle accelerator was one of their first targets. Now, the only functioning antimatter reactors are those found aboard the dozen or so government space vessels, and they're all controlled by Athra. Well... all except for Karu's vessel which was disassembled and hidden."

"Why did you do that?"

Shara grimaced. "So Athra couldn't take it from us. It's bad enough that her government hordes all the food and equipment. We weren't about to let our only piece of space-worthy technology fall back into her hands."

Doctor Cromwell felt the icy wave of hatred wash over Shara. The change in her tone threatened the positive atmosphere that Leon promised himself he would do everything within his power to establish. After a moment of silence, the doctor took in a deep breath and forced a change in subject.

"Speaking of food..." he chimed. "Dinner tables are wherever you can find them," Leon pointed to around the room at various work surfaces before turning towards one of the open cargo crates. Thumbing his way through neatly filed drawers of meal packets, he chose a few selections of Terran cuisine for Suburbia Base's first local guests.

Five minutes later, the three were gathered together around the systems monitoring station, each focused on their respective dinners. Leon had barely touched his foil packet of minestrone, watching instead how zealously Shara and Tweena devoured their own Starfleet-issue emergency rations. He felt a little guilty about his disdain for the vacuum-packed meals, realizing that food of this caliber must have been outrageously lavish compared to what Karu's people were forced to eat on a daily basis. Hesitant to ask them due to both politeness and trepidation about the local food sources, Leon simply took an occasional bite from his own meal while he waited patiently for Shara and Tweena to finish theirs.

"That," Shara started after a subdued belch, "was the most exotic - if not the most delicious - alien meal I've ever had..."

For her part, Tweena simply looked at her mother with bewilderment. "Yeah, right. It's the ONLY alien meal you've ever had."

"Perhaps," she returned with amusement. Turning to Leon, she asked, "what did you call this food, doctor?"

"Chicken ala king," Leon replied with a chuckle. "And it's not exactly my favorite menu option."

"And mine?" Tweena asked innocently, holding up her dinner packet and not wanting to be left out of the conversation.

"Beef stew," Leon remarked. "I find that one much more palatable."

After finishing her meal, Tweena took a sip of water from a metal mug. "Where does all the water come from?" Tweena asked, looking around the room at the scattered racks of water bladders - one of which they were sharing as a post-meal libation.

"Yes," Shara jumped in. "The underground aquifers in this area are heavily contaminated, judging from the surface radiation levels. Do you use the replicator technology that Karu told us about?"

"You don't miss much, do you?" Leon cheerfully asked the child. Answering Shara's question, he continued. "If we had the power, we could generate as much water as necessary. Unfortunately, we have to ration our power between the transporter, shield generator, and replicator activities, so we've devised a series of high-temperature purifiers to collect rain water and distill it."

"What's a replicator?" Tweena asked again, her curiosity swelling.

Leon thought for a moment, calculating the amount of power he could spare for a demonstration of the field replicator they brought from the Republic. Considering that Leah was done stocking the hospital stores for the moment, and that enough power cells were charged for emergency transporter use, he felt that a slight diversion of energy for non-essential purposes would be appropriate for diplomatic pursuits. Walking over to the one-meter tall free-standing unit, he accessed the surface display console and sifted through several pattern choices before settling on one he thought would most befit the situation.

With a smile, Leon exclaimed, "let me introduce you a concept that humans call 'dessert'..."

Shara and Tweena watched with intrigue at the swelling and fading of incandescence from the replicator alcove, producing a small bowl containing a colorful collection of brown, white, red, and yellow confections of varying shapes and consistencies. Offering the glass container to Tweena, Leon stuck a clean ration spoon into the gooey center.

"What is it?" she asked with trepidation.

"It's called a banana-split. It was one of my favorites when I was your age."

For the first time since Leon had met her, Shara smiled with a warmth he hadn't seen before. Her daughter... a child whom she brought into this dark, sinister world without a hint of hope or expectation for a better future... a little girl whose innocence was lost among the horror and agony of war, tyranny, and terror... was given a gift that no one her age had ever experienced: happiness. With each mouthful of rich, syrupy euphoria, Tweena became more and more engrossed; her smile growing with every spoonful, and her eyes glowing with wonder and delight.

"I think she likes it," Leon whispered to Shara, as she watched her daughter relish the concoction. Brimming with pride, Leon was satisfied that he had finally broken the wall of ice that surrounded the lives of his newfound Ash'aarian comrades. Once more, he did it with technology; something that these people would normally have found abhorrent and disdainful. However, through the innocent inquisitiveness of a curious child, Leon was able to introduce a subtle change in her life, with hopes that it would light the path to a better future.

For the first time in years, Leon felt that he was making a difference.

Location: Somewhere in the Delta Quadrant

Wind kicked another hail of red dust into the afternoon sun as a slender, pale blue figure looked down into a craggy box canyon. He perched carefully on a rocky out-cropping, holding an elegant but fragile brass contraption to his eye. As he gazed below, he inhaled sharply.

The plan had worked. Zharon's idea of setting snares in the canyon walls that marked this area of the continent had caught one of the planet's airborne tormentors, and now, he saw that Dadjinn was about to meet out some long-overdue justice.

Inside the box canyon, Dadjinn stepped closer to the thrashing alien invader, her hips swaying with a slow, strong grace.

Like the rest of her people she'd watched in wonder as the strange creatures arrived three plus years ago. No one had seen anything like them before, and at first they were a welcome diversion to the harsh existence in this dry, windswept desert world. Garsol had its share of fauna, but like the plants and other non-humanoid life forms on the world, they were largely solitary and quite small. The lithe woman had seen all manner of birds and gliding mammals that would fling themselves from one side of Garsol's Byzantine canyons to the other in the never- ending search for food, but no one had ever seen a creature so large. Especially not one that could sail through the air on powerful membrane wings.

The nomadic people of Garsol told the story of the strange sight, and soon it was all that anyone in the trade hub cities could talk about. That, however would be one of the last happy days in Garsol's history, because the first avian visitor would not be the last.

No one was completely sure where the creature came from, though the scientists among the tribes (they all had at LEAST one in there immediate circle) thought it might have come from a nearby moon. How it crossed the gulf of space was anyone's guess, but that didn't really matter, because soon, there wasn't just one.

The dark shapes in the sky came, first in a trickle, then in a flood. The visitors were individually larger than most inhabitants of Garsol, but the creatures resembled nothing so much as a large, skeletal bird with a fiercely hooked, serrated beak, large compound red eyes, exaggerated fore limbs, and powerful back legs with a thin membrane stretched between them, lending the beast a truly predatory and nightmare-ish look up close. They descended like locusts, pulling anything they could carry off the ground to the ready perches that they found in the planets miles of canyons. Nothing was safe. Tents, livestock, fruit and goods, and eventually, children were taken away.

At first, the raids were nearly predictable. Every few weeks or so, but once the creatures developed a taste for Garsolan blood, everything changed. The raids became savage and brutal. They didn't eat because they were hungry, or because they needed to. They ate and took, because they could, and what was worse? There was little anyone on Garsol could do to stop them.

Dadjinn shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. There was a single musical note as she pulled her light, bronze metal blade out of its scabbard that hung low on her left hip. She hefted the light, curved blade into her right hand and smiled. "Hrmm..." the growl was predatory to be sure. "Not so sure what to do, now, are you, thief?"

The creature thrashed and snapped, wailing at her as it struggled to escape form the micro-thin, nearly invisible fiber that it had blundered into. Its powerful maw, snapping at the statuesque woman as she moved.

She brought the blade up high over her head. "Some people say that you speak through each other's minds. If that's the case, then, I want you all to die!" She brought the blade down hard, putting all of her weight behind it as she felt the blade sink deep with a solid, meaty thunk. "I'll kill you all one at a time if I have to."

The creature twitched as what was left of its life oozed out of the terrible wound making a deep purple stain on the sandy canyon floor. Dadjinn wiped the blade off on the creature's carcass and slid it back into its scabbard, then turned to look up at her observer. "Get down here! We need to reset the snare and get back into the rocks before we're swarmed! Besides, I can't dress this carcass by myself!" She reached down, setting her hand into the warm puddle, then brought her hand up to put a dark purple hand stain on her right shoulder. Compared to her own, dark blue skin, the stained ichor made an intriguing mark.

High on the rock wall, the observer collapsed the odd collection of lenses in his hand into a small disk that slid into a pouch that rested on his right hip. He waved quickly at the sword-wielder, then turned, scrambling back down the path that had brought him up to his lofty vantage point. Soon, he'd be back to the safety of rock, but then, he'd have to face Zharon, and his messianic ravings. "Some choice," the observer commented as he descended swiftly, "A target for the fliers, or a target for a madman? How by The Elders did it come to this?"

Location: Planet Ashaaria (Gamma Quadrant)

Following dinner and dessert, the atmosphere at Suburbia Base became much more light-hearted and friendly. In a timeless, cross-culture ritual practiced by all species, full stomachs replaced anxiety and stress with a quiet calm that descended upon the feasters. In the post-meal atmosphere, Shara's wall of cynicism fell, if only a bit. Her questioning of Suburbia Base and Leon's motivations subsided, following through to a more familial conversation as she told about the early years of Tweena's upbringing, and how the few years of early motherhood helped her to forget the dire circumstances into which her daughter was born.

"Since she was three," explained Shara. "She was wandering off into the wastelands with nothing more than a slugthrower and a knife."

"I was exploring!" exclaimed Tweena defensively.

"You scared us to death!" returned her mother with a smile. "What if something had happened to you?"

"I can take care of myself!" Tweena remained unrepentant.

"Anyway," she continued the conversation while casting a wary eye at her daughter. "Sometimes, she would go off on one of her little adventures leaving her slugthrower behind. Without any protection, she could have been kidnapped by marauders or conscripted by the government."

"Hey!" she exclaimed defiantly. "I had my knife!" Tweena patted the hilt of a blade sheathed onto her belt. The plastic sheath was unusually large, and seemed out of place in the possession of a young, pre-adolescent girl. Despite it's aged, worn appearance, it was obviously kept in good condition, possibly out of a high regard by its owner.

"That's not a knife for whittling..." Leon commented in good humor.

"It's a Greem Blade," explained Shara. "It's an old-fashioned knife made for harvesting at Kaaba tree plantations."

"Kaaba tree?"

"Kaaba trees were a species of flora that bore highly-prized fruit used for food and libation. Before the Centennial war, there were thirty provinces around the planet who continuously competed to refine the quality of their Kaaba fruit. Kaaba farmers were considered elite businessmen, and to carry a Greem Blade was a sign of prominence."

"Where did it come from?" Leon inquired.

"It was my father's," Tweena chimed in. "It belonged to his father, who got it from his father before him."

"Is that wood?" Leon scrutinized the surface of the smooth, worn handle, looking past the years of scratches and nicks, and taking note of the creamy-brown texture infused with streaks of purple.

"The handle is made from the root of a Kaaba tree."

"I haven't seen anything made of wood ever since arriving on Ashaaria," Leon observed while still studying the knife.

"There hasn't been any vegetative growth on the planet for generations," Shara informed him. "Most of it was incinerated during the final solution against the Centennials. Anything left on the surface lingered for only a few years afterward, and was slowly burned for fuel by the survivors."

By this time, Leon had gotten used to the grim stories told by Shara, and perhaps as an emotional defense, chose not to ask further questions on the subject. Instead, he raised an eyebrow, and stroked his scruffy chin with curiosity. Had one of his colleagues onboard Republic been present, they would have immediately recognized the dawning of an idea from the doctor's expression, but as it was, he was in the company of newer acquaintances who did not know his idiosyncrasies.

"May I see that?" the doctor asked the young girl politely.

Quizzically, Tweena handed the wooden-handled blade over to Leon, who carefully took possession of it. Swiveling his chair, the doctor placed the implement onto the scanning tray of an electron micrograph, and set the instrument to scan to the Angstrom scale. A moment later, he was sifting through multiple strands of DNA on the computer screen.

"What are you doing?" Tweena asked to a focused Leon.

His response wasn't a direct answer, but more of a distant rambling of his thought process as he manipulated genetic sequences through the digital reprocessor.

"Transcribe control factors to lactose restriction enzymes..."

While Shara did not understand the verbiage that Leon was using, let alone the technology, she was curious nonetheless. Moving closer to her daughter, her face contorted into a puzzled scowl as she watched the doctor's work.

"Apply auxin indoleacetic acid complexes to growth regulators..."

Both Shara and Tweena became annoyed at Leon's apparent snubbing, but the rising excitement in his voice, tempered by the scientific methodology, made it obvious that he was so engrossed in his mysterious work that he couldn't bother to acknowledge them at that moment.

"Insert new lac operon to the homeobox sequence, and... Presto..."

Before another word could be exchanged, the doctor transferred the modified genome to the replicator computer and activated the materialization subroutine. After a wash of photons, a cylindrical container the size of a soup can sat on the conveyor plate. Grasping the article, Leon held out the new gift to Tweena who looked upon it with inquisitiveness. Without words, both the adolescent and her mother looked to Leon expectantly, awaiting an explanation.

"Seeds," he stated proudly.

His declaration was met with blank stares.

"Seeds," Leon explained again, recognizing the confused faces of the Ash'aarian mother and daughter. Pausing to wait for their reaction, Leon looked into their befuddled eyes and realized his words were foreign to them. "You know... For the Kaaba fruit tree... I spliced some growth factor initiators and radiation resistance into the genome."

"Are you..." Shara started hesitantly. "Are you suggesting that you're going to GROW a tree from NOTHING?"

"Not me," Leon explained. "You. Gene splicing and hybridization of food crops are common practice for planets without replicator technology. Surely you've got some sort of subterranean food garden or greenhouse?"

As before, he was met with blank stares.

"No one has tried to grow anything on this planet?"

"Doctor," Shara's voice turned once again to the icy, emotionless dirge that preceded a reiteration of how hopeless the plight of the Ash'aarian people was. "Our topsoil is gone, the rain is toxic, and our oceans are dead... they went anoxic years before I was born. We survive on protein gels re-sequenced from foundering waste systems barely able to sustain our current population, supplemented by a dwindling supply of ancient, non-perishable rations that the government occasionally decides to distribute to the populace. We haven't the means in which to grow a single stalk of grain, let alone establish any sort of sustainable agriculture."

The two adults stared at one another while the pre-adolscent Tweena looked between them with uncertainty. Doctor Cromwell was slowly comprehending just how dire a situation that these people were in. While he knew that they were already on a precipitous slope to oblivion, the magnitude of the situation was emphasized by what appeared to be a mounting planet-wide food crisis. Unbeknownst to his guests, Leon had extrapolated the chilling impacts of their cure for the Centennial plague: Instead of a lingering populace in equilibrium with life and death - the plague providing most of the latter - there would be a sudden growth in the number of mouths to feed. The "natural" equilibrium would be offset by a new reality: Starvation. Without a means to feed themselves, Tweena, her mother, and everyone associated with Karu's growing "New Ashaaria" movement would not survive into the next annual.

It was a quandary Leon never thought he would face. Galactic food supplies were often taken for granted in the Alpha Quadrant, and the thought of one lone star system with a single class-M planet going it alone in the interstellar void was a tenuous existence at best. All it would take was a sole catastrophic event - whether it be an extra-terrestrial impact, global climate change, an intra-sector gamma-ray burst, or thermonuclear holocaust - and widespread floral and faunal die-offs would quickly follow. With luck, life could hang on; reseeding and re-establishing itself, evolving into more robust species suffering only minor genetic drift over time. But unfortunately, history had often showed the opposite, and if the resident sentient species could not traverse the vast distances between stars to find safe harbor elsewhere, they were doomed to extinction.

Yet here they were: A dead planet, no food, no way to evacuate, and with millions of lives hanging in the balance. Leon hadn't the heart to explain this new, terrifying reality he had just fathomed to Shara and Tweena. Yet, even with the overwhelming sensation that things were about to get a lot worse despite the cure, a voice echoed in the back of his mind: "Turn death into a fighting chance to live." Leon turned to look back at the food replicator. Taking stock of his resources, he counted the replicator, a limited power supply, and a library computer with the stored genomes of over a billion plant species from the Federation databanks. At least ten percent of the species were drought-resistant, and about one percent of those were genetically bred to withstand varying degrees of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. In all, he guessed that there were only a handful that would be able to grow quickly in Ashaaria's lifeless, desolate landscape, and it was anyone's guess as to how well they would thrive. From Leon's calculation, two chances were all they had: slim and none.

He chose the former.

With a thoughtful expression, Doctor Cromwell handed the canister of Kaaba fruit seeds off to Tweena, then leaned up against a counter with his arms crossed. "We have a lot more to do here than cure a plague," he started soberly. "But first, I need to tell you a story from ancient Earth history. It's about a human named Johnny Appleseed..."

Before the good doctor could begin, the Core's communication panel came to life.

"Warner to Doctor Cromwell"

Leon had all but forgotten about Leah since they had left her down in the reception area to tend to Ghrune after his treatment. Judging from the anxiety in her voice, it wasn't a routine status report. Reaching over to the comm panel, he acknowledged.

"This is Cromwell. What's wrong, Leah?"

"Doctor, you'd better get down here... Level 7, recovery room 2."

Without a moment's hesitation, Leon had grabbed his medkit and began sprinting towards the door before coming to a halt. His mind briefly reminded him what the advanced stages of the Centennial plague looked like, recalling the dying patient he performed an examination on weeks ago. With that thought, Leon returned to the equipment counter and snatched a phaser from its charging cradle, expecting the worst. Looking somberly to Shara, he said, "it's up to you if you want to go."

"It's best that I do," she replied void of emotion. Turning back to Tweena, she ordered, "stay here."

 

Location: Suburbia Base, Level 7

There were moments when Leon Cromwell was startled. There were also moments when he was puzzled, or completely awestruck. At this moment in time, he happened to be awash in all three emotions as he came storming to the recovery room expecting to rescue Leah Warner from a crazed, homicidal cyborg. As he came to a stop in the doorway, what he saw could not have been further from the truth. As Leon jaw fell open, he looked around the room: Starfleet-issue life support and monitoring equipment, a medicine tray stocked with several kinds of pain medications and hyposprays, and of course, the patient bed, complete with interwoven tri-titanium restraints that would keep a Centennial plague victim from flailing about as they endured days of decompression-sickness, inflamed lymph nodes, and blood-borne inflammatory symptoms. However, the patient, Ghrune, was not being held in the restraints. Point in fact, he was sitting up on the bed, drinking a glass of water, and was engaged in conversation with Leah outside the isolation field.

Ghrune had none of the outward signs or symptoms of the Centennial plague that he was admitted with.

"Impossible..." a flabbergasted Leon exclaimed. "He's only three hours into the treatment..."

The patient turned to look at Doctor Cromwell with life-filled eyes brimming with humanoid emotion and completely normal irises that showed no sign of the incandescent crimson from earlier.

"You must be the chiurgeon Cromwell!" A boisterous voice greeted him. "Your assistant here told me about your long journey from Republic to find Premier Karu! I must say, I'm delighted to see that you've made it this far, and both humbled and honored that you chose me to be your first patient! When the premier entrusted me to study your cure, I had no idea that I would become its first trial candidate! What a privilege!"

Leon was completely detached from the one-sided conversation, for he was far too caught up with the disbelief of what he was seeing. Up to that moment, Ghrune had been nothing more than a test subject; a dying patient that, if left unattended would have succumbed to the plague. His name bore no more meaning to Leon than did the name "John Doe". Therefore, to have him awake, sitting on a bed, and chatting up a storm was something so entirely foreign to him that it was beyond the scope of his psyche to process. Ever the skeptic, Leon flipped open his tricorder and began scanning.

"The anti-iron hemoglobin is present at the expected concentration," he muttered with a scowl. "Cells are showing a heightened rate of mitosis... pulse rate and lymphocyte count elevated... all indications of the latter stages of recovery from an infection. Everything including..." Leon looked back into Ghrune's eyes, maintaining his expression of shock. "Cytokine control factors!"

"Isn't it amazing?" Ghrune replied jubilantly. "Before I fell sick, I was working on a computer model that tracked your synthetic blood treatment alongside immunological responses in my own medical database. Ash'aarians have a standard immune response to infection that includes hypercytokinemia," he explained, only adding to Doctor Cromwell's shock as he was not used to having one of his patients explain the prognosis of his own treatment. "Except that our cytokines, when encountering a foreign substance that acts FOR the immune system rather than AGAINST it, automatically forces the body into an extreme state of system-wide coagulation."

"Catastrophic antiphospholipid syndrome," Leon finished the sentence.

Ghrune was caught in mid-thought, but rolled with it. "...I suppose it would be called something else by another sentient species... but yes. Basically, the body mimics the last moments cellular degeneration, and the Centennial plague, faced by both your cure and the prospect of infecting an already dead body, simply gives up. By my measure, they secrete a chemical hormone that tells all other plague cells within the body to self-destruct. Then, the body... the *Ash'aarian* body... already flushed with cytokines of every type and form, begin an accelerated healing process."

"I don't believe it!" Leon shook his head. "Are saying that your body's own immune system pushes your life to the brink, then snatches you from death's grip when the infection is gone?"

"Precisely!" Ghrune replied. "Only mine was only a recent theory - but you actually PROVED it!"

Leon stood there, looking back and forth between his tricorder readings and Ghrune, first denying the truth, then slowly believing it as the medical instrument confirmed everything that his patient explained.

"No..." came a shaky voice from the door, causing Leon, Leah, and Ghrune to look in that direction. "You're dead..." An ashen Shara stood in the hallway looking in, exhibiting a greater state of disbelief than even Leon.

"Shara!" Ghrune's voice lit up, and as he slid off the bed, he took a step towards the isolation field. "It's me!" he exclaimed with both joy and desperation.

She would have none of it. Clutching her chest, she sprinted away down the hallway.

Leon, not entirely sure what had just taken place, looked quizzically between Ghrune and the empty doorway before chasing off after her. Shara had made it halfway to the other end of the hallway before Leon could confront her. When he did, he realized her eyes were filled with shock and tears.

"What is it?" Leon queried, out of breath. "What's wrong?"

"I..." she sobbed. "I just came to terms with it!"

"To terms with what?" he came back with exasperation. "Aren't you happy? The treatment worked beyond our wildest dreams!"

Shara leaned up against the wall, crossed her arms, then slowly slid to a sitting position on the floor. "You don't understand!" she declared. "Ghrune and I... we..."

Leon's eyes softened, putting two and two together. "It's okay..." he crooned, kneeling down next to her. "You don't have to feel guilty. Lots of people seek out another mate after losing the previous. If you and Ghrune were special to one another after your husband's death, that's okay. Now you have the chance to continue."

"No..." she shook her head again. "Ghrune IS my husband..."

"Oh my god..." Leon exclaimed, closing his eyes in realization. It hadn't occurred to him, until now, that both Shara and Tweena had written their husband and father off completely. While Leon had assumed that Shara's significant other had dies long ago, he had not asked about him because he didn't want to pry too far into their personal lives. Apparently, the social behavior of treating a Centennial plague victim as a pre-mature death upon infection was a social norm on this planet. However, "as good as dead" was not a mantra that Leon had ever given in to. He never gave up on a patient until the last heartbeat was heard, or the last dying breath was expelled. Yet, it went unnoticed to him that with all the death and suffering on this planet, not to mention the behavior exhibited by Athra and her ilk, that the disillusionment of defeatism was not only rampant among the Ash'aaran's, it was ingrained in every aspect of life, such as it was.

With a slowly exhaled breath, Leon touch his hand to Shara's arm.

"We'll take this one step at a time," he consoled softly. "First you, then Tweena, then Karu. Then maybe afterward... everyone."

Location: Main Bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

Kim Roth looked to the viewer with a grim satisfaction as she watched a spread of three photon torpedoes slam into the shields and defractive armor that protected the Dominion ship in battle. Zoe Beauvais had done her job well, and the torpedoes hit home. Unfortunately, Kim Roth hadn't counted on the fact that the Jem'Hadar onboard the remaining attack ship would be modulating their own shield frequencies to counter any tactical, or technical advantage that the Federation might have.

The photon torpedoes hit home, but it wasn't enough, and in Republic's wounded condition, the cycling of the torpedo systems was slowed to a crawl. At this point, Roth wasn't sure how long it would take to get another shot, or if she'd even have the opportunity to fire again.

"Tactical. Status of target?" Roth called out crisply.

Zoe Beauvais checked her Tactical display and relayed its grim news. "Torpedoes hit, Captain, but damage to the attacker is...minimal. Their shields are at seventy-two percent. Armor unaffected."

"Damn it." Roth hissed. If she could get through the shields, then the torpedoes themselves would make short work of the attack ship, but with the shields in place, that wasn't at all likely. The mood on the bridge was already tense enough when the turbo-lift to the bridge opened.

As she looked around the chaos of the bridge, the turbo-lift at the back of the deck opened, revealing Shannon Harris, tending to the body of John Carter, who moaned and rolled over onto his back, revealing a sizable cut across his forehead.

"Sickbay to bridge!" Saal Yazbeck's voice was over the intercom.

"Bridge, Go." Roth answered, though she sounded very much in a hurry.

"Captain, we've got wounded filling up our beds quickly. We need Doctor Harris down here."

"Negative, doctor", she answered, looking toward the downed form of John Carter. As she might have expected, Shannon Harris had all ready "rezzed" into existence to tend to the ship's Executive Officer, though Roth had other concerns on her mind. "We've got damage reports coming in, and Harris is the best interface we have with the ship's computer right now. We need her talents up here for the moment. Roth out."

Roth immediately looked to the ship's EMH/Pediatrician. "Doctor Harris? Is the XO all right?"

Shannon finished running her medical tricorder over the gash in Carter's head and looked up. "He could use a dermal regenerator," she commented, "But yes, he should be fine."

"Good." Roth said coolly. "I need you to synch to the computer and find out what's still working. Most of our interface panels are out of commission."

Harris blinked. "I appreciate that ma'am, but shouldn't I...?"

"Now. Doctor. I have to know if the ship's going to go critical, or if we're leaking atmosphere, or god knows what!"

Harris nodded, though she didn't like the thought of having to ignore patients. She could see that the welfare of the ship itself might well be paramount at the moment. "Aye, Ma'am."

A moment later, she whisked out of existence, her consciousness now divided between understanding the ship's condition, and one particular patient in the arboretum.

"Attacker, coming around again!" Beauvais called out from Tactical, as charged polaron bursts from the Jem'Hadar ship filled the main viewer.

"Conn! Evasive! Zee plus twenty, Now!"

 

Location: Arboretum, deck 7, USS Republic

The Republic shook from the latest blow snuffing out the lights in the arboretum. It was a few seconds before the emergency lighting kicked in, casting the normally peaceful setting in a decidedly sinister light. The violent jarring motion sent Morganth to his knees.

Near the main entrance to the arboretum, there was a faint whisking of photons as Shannon Harris looked around her environment. She'd tried to re-route herself to sickbay, despite the Captain's orders, and somehow ended up back down in the ship's green space. In the red, emergency lighting, she stood slowly and called out. "Hello! Is anyone here?"

Morgath muttered unintelligibly. With the last blast he had hit his head and fallen down on all fours. As he realized what had happened, he struggled to his feet like a crazed man. In a calculated mad dash he carefully secured his plant. He didn't want the plant to be harmed; it was his child. It wasn't until things were secured that Talloc registered that someone had called out.

Shannon saw the blur of motion as Morganth came out of the shadows in the reddened room. "Sure...there had to be someone down here. Wait...Morganth? What?" Shannon blinked again to make certain of what she was seeing. Morganth was a civilian, so that explained why she hadn't detected a comm. signal, but he should have been evacuated as soon as red alert sounded. "Morganth? What are you still doing down here?" Morgath started as he heard the pediatrician's voice pierce the red-bathed room. "I guess I did it again. I sometimes get so involved in my work that the outside world fades away . . . a strength or weakness of mine. " He muttered something to himself about failed relationships because of the ability. It was evident that he still wasn't fully aware of the situation.

Morganth Talloc was a civilian in every meaning of the word; he preferred time with his work and plants and had no desire to explore anything except what was in front of him. Shannon regarded the man with some skepticism. Even though the Ship's Counselor seemed fine with it now, it wasn't that long ago that Morganth had psionically attacked Tolkath. Thankfully, Shannon had been there, and her holographic nature had come in handy. She wondered if now, it wasn't happening again. "It's all right, Morganth." She assured him, as she stepped toward a small rocky outcropping. She sat down, hoping that her ersatz patient might take the hint. "Does the counselor know you're down here?"

Morganth looked around dazed. Suddenly, he seemed to snap back into his surroundings. His senses were being overloaded with emotion all around him, fear, and controlled panic filled the air. "He told me to return to my quarters, but . . . I got distracted, had to make sure my plant was secured. . . What happened? What is happening?"

Shannon did her best to try and calm Morganth's agitation." The ship's been attacked." She looked back toward the door, locked down now, thanks to the ship's red alert status. "Our Vorta guest wasn't as infallible as she thought."

Talloc's face went pale. It was as if he had seen death itself. "Uh . . . uh . . ." He muttered something unintelligible. Dr. Harris could tell something was dreadfully wrong as she watched Morganth stutter and trip over his words like a drunken sailor top-side in a hurricane. Suddenly it all burst out. "Where is Reittan? Do you know where he is? Is he alone? I someone with him? Is he ok?"

Harris focused on Morganth, noting that his eyes had seemed to come alive with laser-like focus. "Morganth, please. Try to relax."

"I know you have the ability to read his vitals . . .what's his brain activity like right now?? Is it at normal levels?"

Shannon held up her hand. "Calm down, Morganth." She asked. "He's on the bridge, with the Captain." Shannon closed her eyes for a moment to communicate with the ship's computer, which she essentially was. "His bio-readings are all in the green. Is there some reason they shouldn't be?"

Morganth sighed a breath of relief, and began to speak but stopped mid-breath. He eyed the Dr. carefully. "Is our conversation going to be recorded?"

Shannon almost chuckled. She could see how, in his more lucid moments, Morganth coud really be quite charming. "Not...if you don't want it to be, though I will retain a perfect memory of it. There's nothing I can do about that I'm afraid."

Morganth made a decision, one he knew may save his friend in the future. He again began then paused. For a Talloc their word was their bond. Morganth was a better friend to Reittan than they both led on. They had grown up together, for the amount of time Reittan was on Betazed. He knew information about the Counselor that took an admiral's clearance to get.

He had promised his friend and friend's family that he wouldn't share this information with any person; which is where he got his loop-hole. Dr. Shannon Harris wasn't a living person per-say. "He was different from the day he was born," he began as if finally getting some big secret off his shoulders.

"We have to start at beginning to understand it all." Morganth began, "The Council of Houses nearly forbade his mother and father from having kids, if that was possible."

Shannon nodded in understanding, then made her way to one of the many convenient benches in the arboretum. Better, she reasoned, to keep Morganth talking, than scheming a way to get out of the safest part of the ship.

"Reittan's father's family is one of the few lines of Vulcans that can use telepathic powers beyond touch. Add that to a Betaziod's genetics, and no one knew what would happen." "They were scared," Morganth spat.

"Sounds like a difficult combination. I always wondered about Tolkath's heritage. Vulcan and Betazed is an odd mix."

"My mother always said it was a perfect balance for Reittan; Reason and emotion all balled up into one." Talloc chucked slightly as another shudder rocked the Republic, once again, Morganth was back in his dissociated world, responding only to the Doctor.

Shannon leaned forward. "Don't worry about the ship, Morganth. This is one of the safest places we could be. Tell me more about how you and Tolkath became friends?"

"Oh . . . we were neighbors. We were born a few months apart. I am the oldest." He continued. "Our mothers were best friends as they grew up. I was always told to stick up for him, because he was different." Talloc continued, "at least I did my best while he was on Betazed."

"I'm sure you did. Was your childhood difficult?"

"Not really. I grew up in the second house of Betazed. Where life was often politics. Between us and the Tolkath's I think we had someone from every party, every committee." He winked at the doctor. "Perhaps that was just a SMALL over-exaggeration." The Betazed smiled again and continued. "I grew up a normal life. I learned to love plants when my friend Reittan was gone to Vulcan . . . they had more feeling and kindness than many of the people around me. At least it seemed that way."

Shannon fought her programming to turn away from Morganth. She had to remind herself, 'keep him talking, keep him calm,' "That's an interesting point of view."

Morganth looked at the being focusing him. "I can't read your thoughts, but I'm not crazy if that's what you are wondering." His comment was pointed, but not entirely hostile. "I'm not as fragile as many believe me to be." He smirked, "At least not mentally."

Again, Shannon held up a hand, to dismiss the 'patient's' concerns. "No, no. Not at all. It's a heavy burden. Being responsible for someone else."

"I was able to take out quite a few of the Dominion when they took over Betezed you know. I was a hero back home. A...hero."

"You were on Betazed during the attack? I had no idea. I've heard the fighting was intense; house-to-house in some cases. Is that true?"

"Yes . . . I hated it, every minute of it. Having to use our gift as a weapon for war. To grab every dark emotion, to light up every pain receptor within a being...to drive them mad . . . I hated it, and yet we did it to survive. And here we are, once again, here we are being attacked, even during a time of "peace" by the monsters.

Talloc flickered again . . "How's Reittan? Is it possible that you can keep an eye on his brain? Let me know if it lights up?"

"We're fine, here. Tell me more about Tolkath. I know he's a gifted empath, but the authorities were clearly worried about more. Correct?" Shannon thought about Morganth's request. "I can...monitor his pulse, blood pressure, and adrenaline levels. Will that due for now?"

"Yes," Morganth acquiesced. He sighed and began again. "They were preparing him to send him off to the "special school" for those with overdeveloped pre-fontal cortexes when his Paternal Grandparent's stepped in and took him to Vulcan. He scared a lot of kids and parents because of his ability. He was Rei-rei the crazy guy. He got into a lot of trouble. So they shipped him of to Vulcan to "De-emotionalize" him.

He did learn to control things better. In fact it helped him hone his powers and he was able to return to school, getting his degrees in nothing other than telepathic studies." He paused. "That's the reason I'm concerned about him right now."

Shannon looked on skeptically. "You say he scared a lot of people with his ability. What exactly was it?" "On earth they used to have a thing called a blow-horn, his grams called it." He cocked his head to the side, trying to recall in more detail. "He could go up to someone and show loud enough into your mind to be compared to someone shouting into a blow-horn held up next to your ear. Sometimes when he'd get mad, it'd happen. I'd have to calm him down at school until his parents got there."

"Hmm..." Shannon blinked, using the moment to recall the public version of Counselor Tolkath's file. "There's nothing in his file about being that powerful." She offered. "Perhaps Vulcan was the best place for him? He seems to have learned quit a bit of control."

"If you'd notice Doctor," he offered, almost as if he were aware of her actions on some instinctive level, "there isn't much in his file about him at all." He shifted his weight slightly, leaning forward on the rock that had served as his perch. "Admiral Janeway, a family friend, had it all sealed off. I think one might still have to go through her office to get the full picture... and yes, he did learn a lot of control. That's the reason he could fend me off when I was without any inhibitions. Remember? I killed people with this." Morganth tapped his index finger against his right temple.

"I...see." She looked the man over, yet again. "So...you watched over Tolkath, but what about you? What did you do after the war? And how did you end up on Deep Space Nine?"

"Well, after the war, I followed my family and became a diplomat for a while, and just kept up with my plants. Reittan's family had mentioned that he was serving onboard the Republic, and offered me passage to the station so that I could see him. I of course said yes, as it'd been some time since our last visit, so we got on the Republic, I got distracted by a beautiful girl. They got off; I didn't and so after going nearly mad, here we are. More adventure in a short amount of time than I ever could have expected."

Shannon took a chance as she considered what to do next. "And, it was a plant toxin that caused you to attack Tolkath, and the others. Is that correct? Some sort of thorn?"

"You know, that was strange?" He tilted his head again. "It was unsettling. I was going off pure impulse. Right and wrong didn't exist any more for me. Luckily Reittan was there to push back." Morganth smiled, a look of genuine appreciation on his face. "He saved me this time."

"Lucky, indeed. But, it's really not that simple, is it?"

"You mean why do I keep asking about him so incessantly?"

Shannon nodded.

"Do you remember something I said to Reittan when I was at the peak of the madness . . . about not having to see anyone anymore to use my telepathic powers?" "I remember," Shannon offered. "I was there," She said, coolly.

"Ah...so you were. Well, the truth is that I think Reitan's there too. In the right circumstances, his powers could be...unpredictable."

Shannon's expression turned grave as she registered a sudden elevation in Tolkath's pulse, respiration and blood pressure. "Just what do you mean...unpredictable?"

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

In the time it took for the ship's photon torpedoes to cycle back up to fire, the Dominion attack ship had made two more passes. Each time, Republic had managed to roll up on her side, exposing the still-functioning Ventral Shield Array to the incoming fire. But the shields were dropping. Soon, they would fail, or Republic wouldn't be able to maneuver correctly, perhaps both. It was Kim Roth's considered opinion that she was out of options.

"Ops," she said firmly. "Hail that ship. I want to see them." She turned her head exchanging a glance with Reittan Tolkath, who had spent the time during Republic's engagement with the remaining attack craft sitting to the captain's left. Preparing.

"Captain," he said quietly. "I don't think that will be necessary."

Roth nodded. "Do it."

Reittan inhaled deeply, subconsciously drawing on hate, fear, lust, impatience, and jealousy... every negative emotion he could think of, using the influx of emotion to super-charge his body's functions. He could hear and feel his pulse throbbing in his head, the thrum and boom of his heart like the drum on a battlefield, spurring him to action. He was finally free to revel in his natural state...that thing that for so long he'd had to keep locked down, controlled, stifled, and all it wanted to do was breathe...exist...be.

Reittan's dark emotions were like a ravenous animal, finally allowed to hunt after years of hunger. In his mind's eye, Reittan saw the people around him as warm, bright shadows...like looking at a view-screen with the color filter up to high. To him, as in fact to most Betazeds, he could sense a sentient's mind-glow long before seeing them. In a sense then, distance didn't matter. It was only an idea, a concept that his hunting dog could ignore, because he'd caught the scent. The beast would not be denied. Finally, it would feast, and on the attacking Dominion ship, three mind-glows, however dim, were snuffed out.

At the Tactical position, Zoe blinked as one particularly annoying red indicator turned green. "Captain! Attacker's shield's are...they're down!"

Roth looked at Tolkath, his jaw was set intensely...his breathing heavy, but even. She looked back at the main viewer, which showed the relative tactical position of the two ships that had been locked in combat much longer than Roth had liked. " Torpedo status?"

Zoe checked the board again. "Two birds in the tubes Captain. Third online in...another eighteen seconds."

Republic's Captain shook her head. "We'll just have to hope that two shots are enough. Fire at will, Tac."

"Firing, Aye!"

Two brilliant orange flares of anti-matter shot into view on the tactical plot, and it seemed for a moment that the entire bridge crew held their breath as they watched the warheads slam into the unshielded hull of the Dominion attacker. In seconds, the hostile ship blew apart, spinning off into two large pieces as the photon torpedoes did their bitter work.

The fight was over. Republic was victorious, and only three, perhaps four of her passengers knew the reason why.

 

Location: Arboretum, deck 7, USS Republic

Shannon Harris shook her head. Seconds after registering the severe spike in Reitan Tolkath's vital signs, the agitation seemed to be gone. His physiology was returning to normal. "That's odd," she commented.

Morganth looked wryly at his companion. He nodded, knowingly. "Back to normal, isn't he?"

"Yes."

"He's better than I thought," Morganth said. "I wonder if that's good or not?" Morganth looked away briefly, watching his foot trace figures in the dirt. "Thanks for keeping me company, doctor, but I think you can go now."

 

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

Yellow warning strips and indicators showed the change from red to yellow alert, but the damage was done. Though one of the attacking Dominion ships had been destroyed in the early going, the second ship had hit it's mark, landing what for all Kim Roth knew, was a death blow to Republic's drive systems. At the very least, there was severe damage done to the physical structure of the ship's warp helix and the port warp nacelle. Moving the ship through warp, she knew, would be a near impossibility.

Her ship was stuck. The warp core was still producing power, but most of the ship's primary systems had been knocked off-line. Now, she was missing her First Officer and had a Vorta onboard who had nothing left to bargain with. "Tactical, dispatch Damage Control Teams, and have Narundi secure our prisoner."

"Aye, Ma'am."

Her use of the word prisoner reflected her change in attitude. She was, in the more familiar human vernacular, `pissed'. Not only at Eris, for not being able to control her soldiers, but also herself, for falling into such a position in the first place. She looked over at Tolkath, whose deep breathing had become calmer since the destruction of the last Dominion ship. A few beats later, the Counselor's eyes opened and he straightened his dark duty tunic. Roth looked at her officer with an appraising eye, searching for anything out of place. Finding nothing, she decided to break the silence. "Are you all right, Counselor?"

Tolkath let out a heavy sigh and straightened his posture. "I believe so, Captain," he answered.

"Good. You'll let me know if that changes?"

"Of course, Captain."

Location: Science laboratory, "New Ashaaria" stronghold, Planet Ashaaria
Timeframe: Two months later

Nat Hawk frowned at the dozen or so one-meter high tranparent aluminum cylinders in front of his computer console. Inside, they were laiden with a mix of water and a slimy sludge of varying colors ranging from dark green, to deep red, to purple. Percolating through the cylinders were small bubbles of an unknown mix of gases, and the former Republic helmsman was at the controls, making minor adjustments to the partial pressures. At his control panel, the words "GROWTH CHAMBER GERMINATION STATUS" headed up the smooth black surface of the Starfleet issue LCARS electronic display, and each of the sludge vats had their own set of indicators and illuminated buttons on the control surface.

For his part, Nat had undergone a transformation over the past several weeks. First off, gone was his standard Starfleet uniform, which he replaced weeks ago with a fresh non-descript flight suit from the runabout surplus supplies. In addition, his complexion had paled noticeably, and after a series of medical tests, Doctor Cromwell had determined that it was the fault of the Borg nanites in his blood, which had evolved into extremely efficient radiation absorbers. So much so, that they had prevented the absorption of nearly all radiation, including the ultraviolet wavelength that stimulates melanogenesis, and thus, affected Nat's skin pigment. While it did not affect his health in any way, the lack of melanin caused a slight case of ocular albinism, giving his eyes a slight iridescent hue under low light. Leon believed the condition to be temporary, and theorized that extended time in a non-irradiated environment would cause the nanites to revert back to their normal state. However, in the mean time, there was much work for Nat to do, being the only member of the Republic fugitives who could survive a high-radiation environment without serious side effects.

"Hey Doc!" Nat shouted over his shoulder.

Turning around from a computer station at the other side of the room, Leon Cromwell called back. "What is it this time?"

Like Nat, Leon's appearance had also changed somewhat over the past several weeks. While his attire remained intact, boasting his ubiquitous grime-filled ivory turtleneck sweater, as did his facial hair - which was scruffier than ever - Leon's expression seemed much more robust and upbeat. Truth be told, the doctor was actually thriving in the post-apocalyptic environment of Karu's resistance movement. The cave-like dwelling was not unlike the labyrinthine chaos of the Theta Cygni Five infirmary, and the scientific work of re-establishing Ashaaria's biosphere brought out the scientist inside him, reminiscent of his work aboard the Bremerton almost two years ago. Overall, Leon was in his element: working under hostile conditions, focused intently on both medical and scientific research, and knowing full well that every decision he made had the potential to positively impact millions of lives, both now and into the future for generations to come.

"Are ya sure 'bout the locations fer these buckets'a glop?" Nat replied.

Leon got up from his work stool and walked over to Nat's position. He wore a frown on his face indicating that he didn't agree with something that the former Republic helmsman said.

"For the last time," the doctor exclaimed. "They're called radiotrophic algae!"

"Like I said," Nat rebuffed with a grin. "Glop."

Shaking his head, Leon dismissed the notion and focused on a nearby screen next to Nat.

"Karu's geographic database is extremely detailed," explained Leon, pointing to a world map of Ashaaria. "The transporter should be able to set you down within centimeters of the correct position."

"That's not what I'm talkin' about," Nat replied, pointing to the screen as well. "I mean, these areas near th' poles - ain't they suppos'ta be covered in ice?"

"What's the matter?" Leon smiled. "Forgot to pack your snowshoes?"

"That," he nodded. "Not ta mention a parka, big fluffy boots, and a bottle a hooch ta keep me warm."

Despite all the time he spent with Nat, Leon still could not completely understand Nat's southern vernacular at times. However, due to his friend's South Carolina lineage, the doctor could understand his trepidation about entering an arctic environment, even if it was for only a few hours. Turning his attention to the communications panel next to the monitoring console, Leon dialed a code that opened a two-way voice communication.

"Leah!" Leon shouted over the channel. "We're going to need an arctic survival pack when you beam over tomorrow's regular supply shipment. I think there's a pattern for it in the replicator computer."

Back at Suburbia Base, Leah Warner made a transition from medical assistant to head quartermaster after the first weeks of the plague treatment. Her current occupation had her working almost around the clock churning out foodstuffs and supplies from the replicator, as the Ash'aarian medical staff had all but taken over daily operations at the base's infirmary complex. In fact, the new staff - under direction of none other than Shara and Ghrune - refined the patient load capacity to such a degree that they were treating and releasing well over a thousand patients a day.

"You'll have to give me another day on that, doctor. Karu already has me pushing 109 percent on his antimatter reactor for food and hydroponic supplies."

Early on in the alliance between Karu's stronghold and Suburbia Base, Karu aptly noted the primary limiting resource of the latter: power. While the Republic fugitives were forced to work with a tiny, fifteen terra-watt fusion generator that provided only a trickle of energy to the matter replicator at Suburbia Base, Karu had access to something with a little more punch. His space vessel, which was originally flown under the flag of Athra's government forces, returned from Republic over two months ago, and after a last spurning by Athra during a desperate plea to test Doctor Cromwell's cure, Karu ordered the vessel dismantled before Athra could commandeer it back from him. Karu and his followers subsequently went into hiding before establishing their "New Ashaaria" movement, but not before scattering the pieces of his ship into the wastelands at hidden locales known only to him.

Karu's original thought was to eventually reassemble the vessel someday, possibly building an ark of some sort, and establishing a colony of Ash'aarian survivors somewhere else. However, with the new needs of the growing "New Ashaaria" movement, Karu saw an opportunity to boost production of vital supplies by installing his ship's antimater reactor at Suburbia Base. Now, with a steady stream of nearly limitless energy, the matter replicator from the Republic runabout was transformed into a 24-hour fabrication operation, constantly cranking out everything from blankets and food to building materials and spare parts for equipment. In fact, Leah Warner, who was heading up all replicator operations, had trouble keeping up with all the orders coming in from each allied venue, and was forced to maintain a priority list of which supplies were more vital than others. With the exception of the occasional breakdown or maintenance downtime (a common occurrence considering the heavy workload) the rapid pace of stockpiling provisions remained unfettered for the past seven weeks.

"Whenever, you've got the spare power," Leon acquiesced, not wanting to interfere with Leah's demanding schedule. "Besides, I don't think your boyfriend is wanting to go out and play in the snow any time sooner than he needs to. Cromwell out."

After closing the channel, Leon noted a scowl emanating from Nat. With a resigned look, the doctor realized what it meant.

"Haven't you two patched things up yet?" he remarked. While it wasn't Leon's nature to interfere with the personal relationships of others, he couldn't help but notice that Nat and Leah weren't exactly one-hundred percent happy with one another as of late. He had no clue as to why, but when he found Nat hanging around Karu's stronghold more often than he was at Suburbia Base, it was safe to surmise that the happy couple that accompanied the doctor to the planet almost two months ago were hitting some rough patches.

"Thanks fer yer sympathy, doc," Nat replied in a softer tone. "But she'n I are gonna hafta figure this out on our own. So fer now, I hafta ask ya ta kindly bud out."

"Whatever," Leon held up his hands in surrender. "But if she saw those eyes of yours lately, I'm sure she'd find you irresistible." The doctor couldn't help but poke fun at Nat's temporary eye coloring every now and again, and as it drew an amused smile from his friend, Leon knew that he had succeeded in lightening up the atmosphere.

"Karu to Doctor Cromwell."

"Saved by the bell," Nat commented at the crackle of the stronghold's intercom.

"Cromwell here," Leon replied. "Go ahead."

"Doctor, at your convenience, I need you in the control room. I have some questions to go over with you."

"Give 'em an inch, an' he takes a mile," Nat grinned, causing Leon to shoot a scolding glance towards his friend.

"I'll be right there, premier," Leon acknowledged before turning off the intercom. "As for YOU," he chided Nat. "Get ready to beam out this afternoon to the equatorial seeding locations. I want those algae colonies released to the tropical coasts before the seasonal currents change the upwelling dynamics. I don't want them drifting into pelagic waters too soon before they've had a chance to establish themselves in the littoral zones."

"All hail the glop commander!" Nat couldn't help but interject into the conversation. As a reply, Leon simply rolled his eyes before exiting the laboratory.

***

Karu stood in the middle of the control room, his arms crossed, and staring intently at the large, multiple monitors positioned on the wall above his head in a semi-circular pattern. Each of them displayed a black-and-white, static-laced image of a cavernous room filled with the ubiquitous, radioactive dust found just about everywhere on the surface of Ashaaria. However, a difference could be seen between the dust dunes on the surface, and those in which Karu was currently monitoring. Not only were they not outdoors, and enclosed within a low-light environment, but the surfaces were speckled with dull, white objects too small to be seen in detail. In addition, humanoid figures - apparently wearing radiation suits - were seen sporadically combing the speckled dunes, carrying with them instruments and supply trays.

As Leon entered the control complex, Karu broke away from his observations to greet him.

"Are you sure about these 'mushrooms' of yours, doctor?" he asked Leon. "While they seem to growing quickly as you promised, my people are detecting a radiation INCREASE in them as the grow, not a decrease."

"You're right," Leon acknowledged. "But if you look closer, you'll also find that the radioactive particles are concentrated in the mycelium of the mushrooms, while the edible fruiting body is free of radiation. When you harvest them, you'll have to separate the two and send the mycelium portion to the decontamination vats for disintegration. We'll vaporize the contamination bushel by bushel if necessary, and then, you'll have warehouses full of organic-rich and radiation-free soil for your next set of crops."

Karu nodded his head in approval. "I've already ordered our surface patrols to scavenge any bit of wood they can find," he explained. "So far, we've been able to come up with fragments from six distinct species of trees from pre-Centennial Ashaaria. When you're ready, I'd like to have you sequence their genome."

"Of course, premier," Leon replied obediently. "But remember, we're much too early in our terraforming efforts to think about re-seeding the surface with native vegetation. It will take generations of non-native growth to rebuild the organic topsoil with a low enough level of radiation to even attempt native introductions."

"And that may be where we've got a problem," admitted Karu. "You and your people have done miracles for us, Cromwell, but this business of using non-Ash'aarian plant organisms for food and agriculture is causing many of my people to suspect an ulterior alien motivation."

Leon closed his eyes, and rested his forehead in his open palm. "Premier," he started with frustration. "With all due respect, we've been over this. There's no way to repair the damage done to your world without introducing non-native plants. Every organism that we're using has a well-established evolutionary map on a Federation planet. Your computer systems have a direct uplink to our database, so any one of your people can research the lineage of any organism we've germinated here. We're holding back no secrets. I promise you that."

"I believe you, of course," Karu prompted. "But there are others who are less convinced."

"What more can I do to make them understand?"

"While some of my people have gotten to know you personally, and are firmly behind my decisions with regards to your advisory role, there are many, many others who don't know you. Point in fact, they've questioned my decisions, especially ones that involve your input."

"What do you suggest?" Leon asked with a touch of incredulity. "A public relations campaign?"

While it was, from the doctor's point of view, a sarcastic remark meant to highlight the impossibility of an idea, Karu looked at him with all due seriousness. Using a handheld remote device, Karu pointed it at the monitors above him and used it to change the images to that of several refugee camps. Ramshackle huts made of concrete and rusting metal sheets were conglomerated along twisting gravel footpaths carved between piles of rubble. Children and adults in rags and footwraps were outside the huts, playing and working respectively, seemingly oblivious that they were being observed remotely.

"How many are there?" the doctor asked after a moment.

"About fifteen thousand," Karu added. "And growing by the day. They've established communities right outside our perimeter, bringing plague victims to our outer door by the hundreds. Of course, we send the victims straight to Suburbia Base for treatment, but that's where our involvement ends. As soon as they're released from treatment, they go right back to their families. Now, everyone seems to be setting up camp at our doorstep, oblivious of the fact that we're trying to stay hidden."

"Has the government noticed yet?" asked Leon with concern.

"No, but you can bet they eventually will," Karu informed him ominously. "By my projections, the refugee town will sprawl about 5 kilodrams in every direction within only a few days. At that size, Athra won't be able to miss us for long. One standard aerial survey, and our cover is blown."

The two stood silently, staring at the newly-arrived refugees on the screens above, trying to come to grips with the magnitude of their new problem. For his part, Leon's foreshadowing of a mounting food crisis was unfolding in front of his eyes, not to mention an inevitable clash with their arch-nemesis in the Ash'aarian government.

"Believe it or not, Athra is the least of my worries," Karu noted. "I'm more concerned with the safety, health, and well-being of these people. They're turning to US for help, and not Athra's government. That, in itself, is remarkable. However, that also means WE are responsible for them. Not just for those who we treated for the Centennial plague, but for their families too, and everyone else that chooses to join them here."

Leon's concerned expression became more pronounced. "Is this what you mean?" he asked. "About getting people to trust in your leadership? It seems to me they trust you just fine if they're beating a path to your door."

Karu nodded. "And thanks to Suburbia Base, for the moment we can give them our excess supplies and food..."

"That explains why you have Leah working overtime..." Leon interjected under his breath.

"...but we've got a lot more to be concerned with. My militia are stretched thin trying to keep order around our perimeter, and these people are in desperate need of medical care aside from just the plague treatment."

Suddenly, Leon realized what Karu was suggesting. A public relations campaign was indeed what he had in mind, but Leon didn't see how they could implement it with their current resources.

"We have a limited number of beds," he exclaimed. "Suburbia Base can't handle that many people."

"My people have informed me that Suburbia Base consists of the upper five levels of a ten-level hospital dome. The lower five levels are much larger and more expansive that the upper five, and we now have enough power to extend your shield generator to the entire building. We can decontaminate the lower five levels and open them for standard medical treatment."

Leon was caught off guard, but pleased that Karu was taking the initiative by using the resources available at Suburbia Base - especially ones that he hadn't thought about previously. "When were you planning to start?" he asked.

"I've already sent a work crew to Suburbia Base to begin remediating the lower levels," informed Karu. "They tell me that they can have the rest of the hospital up and running by the end of the week. Shara and Ghrune have already enlisted recovered plague patients for extra medical staff, and your crewmember, Warner, has a requisition list of needed medical supplies."

"It sounds like you have everything covered," Leon remarked. "So what do you need me for?"

Karu looked back at the monitors where the refugees were gathering by the thousands. "Like you said, I need the people to trust in my leadership, and it's hard to do that when they hear about me taking advice from an unknown alien source. If they could see you in action..." he hinted. "...it might show them directly who I'm receiving advice from, instead having to constantly ask for their trust."

Leon hadn't been outside in the open since their first days on Ashaaria almost two months ago. Since then, he had either been relegated to Suburbia Base to treat the plague, or more recently, here at Karu's stronghold overseeing the ecological restoration program. The doctor was actually a bit envious of Nat Hawk, who could roam the surface of the planet without fear of radioactive contamination, and he yearned to go outside to stretch his legs in the open. The only thing that was holding him back were the horrors he might encounter, or worse still, the stifling realization of how empty and dead the planet really was. However, Karu was counting on him, and while he knew that the leader of the "New Ashaaria" movement wasn't expecting him to treat each and every Ash'aarian in need of medical assistance, he wanted to show his people the humanity in which Leon showed him weeks ago on Republic... He wanted to show them the face behind the advice he was receiving from the strangers from the sky.

"Well," Leon finally acquiesced. "Let's head out there and do something... I'll get my medkit and EVA suit. Once we gather them together on the surface, we can start beaming them directly to Suburbia Base."

"Not dressed in one of your white suits your not," Karu declared, referring to the pristine-looking Starfleet-issue space suits that Leon wore whenever he suspected radioactive contamination. "Those fragile garments aren't made for what you're about to go into. These are desparate people, and I don't want to lose you to food rioters."

Before Leon could protest, the premeire picked up a handset tethered with a coiled wire to a desk-mounted radio transceiver.

"Dreygg," Karu contacted his militia commander.

"Yes, premier?"

"The Chiurgeon Cromwell will be tending to the refugees on the surface," he announced.

"Outside the perimeter?"

"That's correct," Karu ordered. "He is to have a security escort led by you, and I want you to outfit him with a battle suit. You lost Rheygan recently to the Centennial blight. His armor should fit Cromwell just fine."

There seemed to be a pause in Dreygg's response that suggested his hesitance. Whether is was because of the security situation or the mourning of a lost comrade, Leon couldn't tell.

"Understood," the gravelly voice of the militia leader returned with resignation. "Have him meet us at the outer door in one hour."

Leon's long walk through Karu's stronghold to the outer door felt like an eternity. He was confused, and for the first time since joining the Premier's revolution movement, wasn't sure if Karu knew what he was doing. While the doctor had experience in what it was like being a medic on the front lines of an armed conflict, he couldn't see the full logic in Karu's decision. Why would he risk sacrificing the one primary asset to his cause? Was having Leon engage the Ashaarian people directly really the only way that the Premier could earn their trust?

It was then that an ominous thought crossed his mind. In truth, Karu really didn't need Leon anymore. The Premier had access to all the Starfleet-issue equipment at Suburbia Base, and he had personnel who knew how to use it. Karu might have secretly declared Leon as a liability now, and exposing him to the chaos outside the stronghold may have been the Premier's way of ridding himself of the responsibility of protecting the Republic fugitives. The government would surely be more angry at Karu for harboring aliens than they would for any other infractions he may have perpetrated.

As he approached the decontamination airlock, he saw the four security troops waiting for him. Dreygg and the rest of his team were all suited up, and as he looked through the transparent slit in their helmets, all Leon could see were four sets of icy eyes glaring back at him.

"Are you ready?" a gravelly voice spoke from a speaker on Dreygg's suit.

"Yes," Leon lied, pushing aside his trepidation and the nagging thought that he may not return to the stronghold alive.

A scraping sound echoed of the walls of the chamber as Dreygg dragged an empty battle suit into the center of the room. Like the rest of the security team, it was an eroded patchwork color of battleship gray and dark olive green, with numerous dents, scratches, and nicks in the surface. As another member of the team unlatched the turtle-like shell of the upper torso section, Dreygg tossed the lower torso portion at Leon's feet. Realizing that was his cue to suit up, Leon took off his boots and began working his way into the articulated hard-shell leggings.

As he did so, he looked around at the large, rifle-like slug throwers slung over the shoulders of everyone else in the team. They were much more bulky and menacing than a standard Starfleet phasor rifle, and the doctor assumed they were equally heavier.

"Do I get one of those?" Leon asked with uncertainty.

"No," Dreygg replied flatly, tossing a pair of armored gloves and boots at the doctor. "The Premier said no weapons for you."

"No weapons?" Leon stammered.

"Nope," said Dreygg. "Not for you. You'll be less of a target that way."

Leon felt a twinge of fear creep into his gut. Maybe his hunch was right. Maybe Karu WAS trying to get rid of him. As Dreygg helped him into the upper toro section, making adjustments on locking collar, it occurred to Leon that the suit was nearly identical in markings to the rest of the security force: There were no markings indicating that he was a medic, and since he was not being offered a weapon of his own, every ounce of his tactical training was telling him that he would be MORE of a target, not less of one.

In a near-panic, the doctor grasped at the first idea that popped into his head.

"I need a caduceus!" he declared.

All four members of the team stopped and stared at Leon.

"A what?" Dreygg asked with annoyance after an uncomfortable moment.

"A caduceus!" Leon repeated quickly. "Or a large red cross... Anything that would denote me as a medic." His battlefield training was kicking in, reminding him that as long as he could be clearly flagged as an unarmed medical professional, he had at least a small margin of safety, as even Jem'Hadar were less likely give target preferences to someone in a blue medical uniform than a gold security uniform.

"You DON'T want to do that..." Dreygg said with authority.

"Yes I do!" Leon held his ground. "I want some sort of clear symbol on my suit that I'm a doctor, not a soldier!"

"You REALLY don't want to do that..." another member of the team piped in.

With his adrenaline kicking in, and with each reply from either Dreygg or the rest of the team, Leon became more and more convinced that Karu was trying to get rid of him, and that his "security" escort was in on the conspiracy. While Leon might have had the choice to stop right there and refuse to leave the stronghold, Karu would have undoubtedly found another way to conveniently get rid of him. 'No,' he thought to himself. He had to get outside, and away from the security team. From there, he could call Leah and beam back to Suburbia Base where he could warn her and Nat about what was happening.

"Yes I do!" Leon rebuffed. "I want a medic's insignia on my chest, back, and helmet, and I WON'T leave this airlock without it!"

The team members looked at one another with skepticism. Whether or not they were communicating with each other through a secure comlink within their suits, Leon did not know, but after a few seconds, Dreygg produced a blowtorch-like instrument and walked up to the doctor. At first, Leon hesitated, thinking it was some sort of dagger or hypospray, but as the team leader pushed it into his chest, and began drawing a bright red symbol on the front of his suit, he realized they were complying with his demands.

"It's your life..." Dreygg replied forebodingly.

Immediately, Leon's stomach worked itself into a knot. Not because of Dreygg's ominous reply, but because of the Ash'aarian symbol for a medic which he was drawing on his suit: Two opposing half-circles with a smaller circle in-between them, bearing a very close resemblance to a bull's eye.

"Thaylin," Dreygg ordered over his shoulder to one of his team members. "Give the *chirurgeon* here his briefing..."

***

Leon was once Starfleet enlisted, so he knew about the physical and mental demands of hostile away missions. He had also been through Starfleet tactical training for civilian contractors, which prepared him for the battlefields he eventually faced during his service in the Dominion War as a field surgeon. However, the new role in which he was being thrust into so quickly was strangely reminiscent of a holo-vid he once saw of Starfleet Marines performing a tactical insertion. Even through the suit's speaker, Leon could tell that Thaylin's voice was hoarse and punctual, as if he's given this speech countless times before.

"Alright, sir, this is what's going to happen: As soon as the outer doors open, you'll need to follow directly behind Dreygg all the way out past the perimeter. Once we get far enough away, we should be in the clear. There's been a non-stop flow of refugees to our outer door since we began beaming supply parcels into the refugee camps using your transporter device. They've been demanding shelter inside the stronghold, and for obvious reasons, we've had to refuse them, but that hasn't stopped the crowds from growing with each passing day. Each time we've left on patrol, we've had to force our way through dozens of refugees trying to get past us."

Leon's heart was pounding with fear and anticipation of the situation he was about to encounter as Thaylin continued his briefing.

"Security sensors show that it's chaos there right now, so Haylir and Gulanda will be to your left and to your right, and they'll try to clear a way through the crowd. If you get separated from us, don't hesitate to use the electric tazer mounted on your forearm. It'll stun them just long enough so you can either get past them, or get back here to the outer door. Whatever you do, DON'T stop moving! If three or four of the mob grab onto you, they can overpower your armor. If - for ANY reason - you happen to lose your helmet, be sure to immediately activate your respirator mask to avoid breathing any contaminated air. Are you clear on that?"

Leon simply nodded his head with hesitance, unable to utter a word.

"Alright!" shouted Dreygg. "Let's move out!"

The mechanical sound of charging weapons heralded the low rumbling resonance of the parting outer doors as they slid aside. Leon was blinded temporarily as a beam of outdoor light splashed across his face; the first glimmer of actual daylight he had seen in over two months.

"Move! Move! Move!" the speakers in his ears echoed with Dreygg's insistent voice, followed by multiple gunshots into the air. As a crowd dispersant, the shots were only partially successful as what Leon had expected to be dozens of refugees turned out to be hundreds - perhaps tens of hundreds. Angry shouts and curses flowed from both the security team and the ragtag, desperate mob of refugees. The latter appeared to be filthy deviants who wore tattered clothing, bore skin afflictions of all kinds - both radiation-invoked and otherwise, and both hair and teeth were thin, rotting vestiges of lives ravaged by starvation, war, and suffering.

While the mob parted to make way for the security team's bull-rush, a baleful silence washed across the crowd as they watched Dreygg, Haylir, and Gulanda sprint past, followed by a hesitant Leon who jogged to keep up with the rest of the team. The silence was short-lived as a woman in the crowd screamed, "CHIRURGEON!" Suddenly, the angst of the horde seemed to explode, and the energy converged on one lone individual: Doctor Cromwell.

Like a deer caught in the headlights, Leon found himself thrust to the side and corralled in an endless sea of horrific, wild-eyed faces of wretched, deathly refugees. "Where are you hiding the food and water??" one man yelled at him. "What are you doing to us??" he heard another. "My baby is dying! Why won't you help??" a woman came face to face with him for a split second before being passed to another person, then to another. "You have no right to keep all those supplies to yourself!!"; "You're nothing but one of Athra's dogs!!"; "How dare you live like a king when we're all dying!!".

The world started spinning as Leon drifted among the lawless throng. More than once, his battle armor was punched, clawed at, or had a heavy stone thrown at it, and his vision was so obscured by the flailing sea of fists and screaming faces that he lost all sight of his security escort.

"Liar!"... "Food horder!"... "Government dog!"... "Chirurgeon of death!"

Before he knew it, Leon was on the ground being trampled and kicked incessantly. He tried reaching for the tazer trigger that Thaylin had briefed him on, but his arms were immobile as the mob stood on top of him, and he had no means to move. As if forced into a room full of living corpses, Leon was being buried alive, and while he tried to scream, he could not catch his breath.

"This is it," he thought. "This is where my journey ends..."

At the brink of losing consciousness, Leon heard a long round of automatic gunfire in the distance. It moved closer with each pull of the trigger. He could tell that there were multiple firearms being discharged, and while the tussling above him became more pronounced, he did not have time to do anything more than grunt before he felt himself being forcefully dragged by his foot.

The next few moments lasted only seconds, but they seemed like an eternity to Leon. He could see dirt and gravel scraping past his face as the speed of his forceful escape increased, and before he knew it, he was flipped over on his back, and found himself staring at the gray, cloudy sky above. The dragging resumed from a different direction, as this time he was being pulled by the cargo strap behind his collar. When the dragging finally ceased, Leon heard Dreygg's voice crackle in his helmet speakers.

"Welcome to the REAL Ash'aaria, Cromwell..."

Leon remained lying on the ground, looking up into Dreygg's visor. Dreygg could have simply left Leon to be devoured by the crowd, fulfilling the ulterior motives he suspected of Karu. However, as the sound of the mob faded away, the doctor realized that both Karu's and Dreygg's motives were genuine, and that Dreygg was only looking out for his welfare when warning him about the medical symbol on his battlesuit.

With a deep breath, Leon felt his adrenaline rush subside, and while he was still shaking from being terrorized, he knew he was alive, and that his journey was just beginning...

Location: Interstellar Independent News Studios, New Baja, California, Pan-American Commonwealth; Sol III (Alpha Quadrant)

Jacqueline Morton-Taylor tucked a lock of iridescent green hair behind her left ear and irritadedly tapped her stylus on the top of her glass and steel desk. She resisted the urge to call IIN security. "Mister Rhymer," she explained again, "I told you, Miss Warner is unavailable. She's on assignment. If you'd care to leave a message with her editor, I'll make sure that she gets..."

"Editor? EDITOR?!" Rhymer looked back over his shoulder as if looking for moral support from someone who should have been there, but found none. "Do you have any idea who I am? I'm representing the next president of the United Federation of Planets." Rhymer's tone was now low, and deadly serious; much more venomous than fiery. "I don't have to talk to some third-rate editor. I work for the most powerful man in the Alpha Quadrant."

Before, the green-haired receptionist could respond, a resonant voice with the weight of cut granite boomed thorough the reception room, causing the girl to jump in her seat. "He's not there yet, Oliver," someone said.

The voice belonged to a man who looked like a holo-vid star come to life, because he was. Six foot two, with broad shoulders, square, well-defined features, and a jaw that screamed `hero'. He was dressed in a fabulously cut grey wool suit and a black overcoat. The collar on the coat was turned up, lending an air of action and mystery to his already impressive visage. Coupled with a voice that oozed confidence, and a full head of silver hair with distinguished grey at the temples, there was no doubt that Jack Warner deserved to be every bit the legend that most of the Federation believed he was.

John Fitzgerald Warner, or "Jack" as he was known professionally, WAS the voice of IIN. In fact, it was his commanding presence, undeniable charisma, and unimpeachable character that had taken Interstellar Independent News from a bottom-five tabloid network, to the number two source for entertainment and information delivery in the UFP, right behind perennial alpha dog, the Federation News Network. Jack's show: IIN Focus, had been the flagship for the re-branding of IIN nearly forty years ago, but success was a long time coming.

Thanks to the timely outbreak of war with the Cardassians, and an even more fortuitous breakdown of the ship he'd been on at the start of hostilities, Jack was the ONLY Federation journalist to be behind enemy lines, and his reporting had been nothing short of perfect. Emotional, evocative, riveting, and also brutally honest, his broadcasts to the UFP home front were required viewing whenever he, to say nothing of his miraculous technical crew, were able to piggy-back a subspace signal and get word back to the network.

Ratings for IIN sky-rocketed, and in the space of a few months, Jack Warner became the most trusted media figure in Federation history. The saying was, not that Warner ever said this himself, that `When Warner says it, it's the truth.' The amazing thing was that for the most part, that hadn't been network hyperbole. It was fact. Jack Warner's word was as good as latinum, and he'd worked hard to keep it that way.

While the rest of IIN's programming was often slanted to suit the political winds of the time, or of dubious social worth, often tending toward manufactured celebrity drama, or sensationalist political scandal, Warner had managed to remain above it all. Always coming across as the voice of reason. He was always reliable. Always...right.

"Just what do you want with my little girl anyway?" Warner asked, equal parts enquiring journalist and concerned father.

Oliver Rhymer stood up straight, adjusted his tie, and cleared his throat. "I...I was," he stammered. Quite different from the hell-bent accuser he'd been a minute ago. "Pardon my manners, Mister Warner," he said, extending his hand. "I have an opportunity for her," he explained, the confidence slowly returning to his voice. "One to which I think Leah would be uniquely suited."

Jack Warner took the media consultant's hand, giving it a firm shake. The older man nodded as he sized Rhymer up. "Uh huh," he commented. "You need my girl to save your admiral's backside, don't you." It wasn't a question. Warner had been around the corridors of power long enough to know when a campaign was in trouble, and Vladimir Kostya's certainly was.

Jack removed his over-coat, resting it easily over his left arm as the two men talked. "You think that Leah Warner can put Kostya over the top?"

Rhymer nodded. "Indeed I do sir. She's good. Very good, but...with all due respect, sir, you know that all ready." The savvy consultant looked over his shoulder where the green-haired receptionist still sat. "Seems I can't get by the gate-keeper though."

Warner took a few steps forward, then smiled at the receptionist. "Morning, Jackie," he said, like a kindly uncle to his niece. "Hope your weekend was all right. Paul and the kids were all home, weren't they?"

Instantly, the woman beamed. "We had a full house, mister Warner", she said. The girl blushed ever so slightly. "Nice of you to ask."

Warner shook his head, giving the girl an easy smile. "Not at all, and please, I think we've known each other long enough for you to call me Jack. Don't you?"

Again, the girl smiled, nodding. "I'd like that, Si...Jack."

"Well then, that settles that," he offered, officially closing the matter. "Is anyone in the conference room?"

With practiced efficiency, Jacqueline tapped a few commands into her desktop display. "Nothing scheduled until noon. Jack"

"Ok then," Jack said, turning slightly to look at the glass encased conference room in the middle of the IIN main offices, known affectionately as "The Fishbowl". "I'll see if I can't calm Mister Rhymer down a bit. Shouldn't be too long. We could probably do with some coffee though, and...do make sure it's coffee please? None of that raktagino," Again, Warner gave the woman a reassuring smile. "Plays Hell with my ulcer."

Jacqueline nodded. "Of course, Mis...Jack. Right away."

"Thank you, Jackie," he said simply as he turned. "If you'll follow me, Mister Rhymer?"

***

"We have a deal then?" Oliver Rhymer asked.

"I think we do, Oliver, yes."

Rhymer smiled like a shark among prawns. "Jack, I'm thrilled of course," Rhymer explained, "But I can't help wondering. You've never endorsed, let alone campaigned for a candidate before. Why Chris? Why now?"

Jack Warner finished off his second cup of coffee (Sumatran special dark no less) and leaned back in his chair. "Oliver," he asked simply, "how old do you think I am?"

Rhymer cocked his head slightly, genuinely surprised at the question. "Well I'm not worried about your abilities if that's what you..."

"How. Old?"

"Ok, then." Rhymer leaned forward slightly, assuming a more aggressive posture. "You look to be about 65. Maybe 67, but that's not what your file says. According to IIN files, you're 81, which I'm not supposed to know, but I have a feeling that a certain doctor on Barengarius VII might tell me a different story."

Warner nodded. "I figured you boys would dig that up." He seemed as though he were admitting something, but Rhymer didn't know exactly what. "Let's just say I'm older than even you suspect. In fact, I was a young man when the Khitomer Accords were signed. I even met Jim Kirk once, in passing.

The point Oliver is, all the things that you and Kostya and the Neo-Crats are afraid of? This, "Brave New World" of ours? We tried it once before and it was a near disaster. There are more aliens on Earth than ever, and their influence is growing by the second."

Oliver nodded; content to hear the motive behind Warner's agreeing to serve as Vladimir Kostya's ersatz media mouthpiece.

"I don't recognize the Federation anymore." Warner explained. "Things are too chaotic. There's no sense of order, and I'm afraid that if we lose more ground to anyone, even some people within the Council, and don't get me started on Starfleet...Hell! The Klingons ruined coffee. Coffee! If that's not a sign of the Apocolypse..."

Warner shook his head as if willing himself to get back on track. "I want my grandkids to grow up knowing that the Federation will keep them safe, that they're part of the most dynamic civilization in human history, and I'll do anything to achieve that."

"I completely understand, Jack."

Warner shook his head. "No, I don't think you do," he added, somewhat ominously. "I'm in. That's my choice. I'll do what I have to, and that's fine, but I want your assurance that you leave my family alone."

"Jack? Where is this coming from? I have no idea what you..."

Warner leaned forward, a frown etched in his distinguished face. "I mean it Oliver. Leah is off limits. I know you came here looking for her, but instead you got me; which I'm pretty sure is a better deal on your end.

She's the one thing in my life that was really worth anything," Warner explained, looking around the offices of IIN. "All the notoriety, the travel, the fame? It's transitory. It doesn't last. It won't really mean anything. Family, on the other hand? That's real. And if I can give Leah an Earth that humanity can call it's own again...if I can give my family a home, well...that'll do just fine."

Across the table Oliver Rhymer nodded. "That's inspired Jack. It really is," he offered, using every bit of concentration he had to conceal his delight.

Not only had he just snagged the single most influential media figure in the Federation to sell his client's message, but he'd discovered that Jack Warner was for all intents and purposes a poster boy for Terra Prime. Something even Warner's fiercest critic (and there weren't many) would never have suspected. In the face of this revelation, Rhymer sat back, and let Warner take the lead in the room...or at least Rhymer let the older man think that he had.

"How do you think we should proceed Jack?"

Warner simply smiled, sitting back in his chair. "As it happens, while I'm not the anchor of INN-Focus anymore, I am still under contract with the network to do a number of specials per year. As a former chief editor, I have a free hand to decide the content of those programs, and I think we're just about due for an in-depth profile on the presidential candidates."

Rhymer nodded. "Excellent. I'll get you a copy of Chris's schedule and we can..."

Jack shook his head. "No. Your boy...strike that. OUR boy goes last, and the program needs to air exactly one month before the election."

"But, isn't that too late?" Rhymer asked, genuinely confused by the proposal.

"Not at all." Warner explained. "I'll need that lead time to establish the character, or lack thereof... of the other candidates. Plus," he added, almost after the fact, "I've seen the network's numbers on Mister Kostya. "He'll play very well with independents and the undecided. Those people who are waiting for someone they trust to...explain the situation to them. It'll take a month for the rest of the network's programming to follow suit. If INN presents a unified front, then Kostya's numbers will not only go up, but they'll remain solid through election day.

We do this right Oliver, it's a fait au complete, and I can start sleeping at night, knowing I did what I needed to for humanity."

All Rhymer could do was nod. He lightly stroked the whiskers on his chin. "I'll defer to your judgment of course Jack, `You racist bastard' he added silently. "You're the expert." `for as long as you're useful'...

Warner stood up and waited for Rhymer to do the same, then extended his hand. Oliver took it, and the two shook on the deal.

***

Three weeks later, the first of Warner's pieces on the presidential candidates aired, focusing on Andorian Councilman Tharn. For part of the interview, the translator mis-interpreted the Councilman's remarks, causing him to appear unfriendly and standoffish to the audience.

The following week, Warner interviewed the veteran Alpha Centauri leader, Alicia Connelly, who did not look at all well on camera. She subsequently cancelled a number of campaign stops for completely unrelated reasons, but the point had been made.

Finally, Jack Warner met with Ahrn Doltari, when a hapless cameraman (who was subsequently fired) mistakenly let the cameras roll after the interview's conclusion. The audience was treated to Doltari's use of `colorful' language to describe his opponents. Amongst the Efrosian people, this was an unforgivable loss of face, and despite Doltari's assertions that it had been done on purpose to discredit him, the fact remained that it had been done.

Warner ended a technically flawless inteview with Vladimir Kostya, characterizing the former admiral as a "force to be reckoned with", and ended the interview's in-studio wrap-up with his signature line: "And so it goes."

In reality, he might as well have said: "You will vote for this man now".

Such was the power of the right words, from the right man, at the right time.

Location: Refugee camp, one kilometer from "New Ashaaria" stronghold, Planet Ashaaria (Gamma Quadrant)

Dreygg watched as the spartan table of ready-to-eat foodstuffs materialized in the center of the irregularly-shaped gravel pathway. He rested his rifle with the muzzle facing skyward, and stood between the shimmering parcel and the crowd of about a dozen Ash'aarian refugees who looked very much like a flock of hungry vultures ready to feast. However, their attention was split between anticipation of food, and wariness about the battle-armored militiaman standing in their way. With their wild eyes exchanging nervous glances between their arriving prize and the soldier standing watch, their individual stances suggested a readiness to either pounce or bolt as they hovered back and forth like racehorses in their starting pens.

As soon at the veil of transporter energy ceased, the oblong table stood gleaming with mundane metal trays brimming with edible blocks of calorie-biscuits and plastic decanters of fresh drinking water. It wasn't an appetizing spread by any measure, but to a starving refugee, it was a life-saving banquet.

Dreygg lowered his rifle to waist-height, and glared at the anticipating crowd awaiting his word. His pause was intended to make sure they were listening to him, and would think twice about stampeding through him should he take his finger off the trigger.

"Alright..." he bellowed in a commanding voice. "There's plenty of food here, so no fighting, shoving, or hoarding... or it'll be the last meal you'll ever see..."

With that, he lifted his rifle and stepped out of the way. Immediately, the refugees threw themselves upon the provisions, ripping into the rudimentary subsistence with dirt-encrusted hands and sparsely-toothed gums. Their throats undulated while guzzling water between gorgings of food, and they occasionally cast a nervous glance towards Dreygg, who carefully watched them for any sign of disorderly conduct.

These ready-to-eat food benches appeared almost dehumanizing at first, as they were reminiscent of a feeding trough at a bovine ranch. Fortunately, it was only the first part of a two-part, well-practiced refugee relief operation that had been implemented over the past two weeks since Karu started his new public-relations campaign for the "New Ashaaria" movement. The regimen had shown that as soon as their stomachs were full, the crowd would calm down, and be much more likely to listen to Dreygg's next set of commands.

Strangely, this was all Nat Hawk's idea to feed the refugees this way, remembering a summer he spent at his uncle's farm near Charleston when he was a boy. "Ya want 'em ta co-operate?" Nat said one night back at Karu's stronghold during a discussion about the hostile refugee situation. "Then ya gotta feed 'em first. Ya can't tell a hungry horse where ta go or what ta do when they're only thinkin' bout food. Give'm a chance ta eat, n'maybe they'll listen afterwards..."

The second part of the refugee relief operation included a lengthy briefing by Dreygg about what Premier Karu and the "New Ashaaria" coalition could offer them: Food, water, medical treatment as needed, security, and building materials to improve their ramshackle encampments. In return, the coalition required adherence to law and order, and a collective effort to help one another and improve their living conditions. In addition, Karu requested that they work to remain dispersed and camouflaged from overhead aerial surveys by Athra's government forces. This was perhaps the most difficult part for the refugees to comprehend, and their immediate needs (primarily food) automatically took precedence over everything else. So, the request became more voluntary, as Karu's primary goal was to provide for the people.

In order to distribute non-perishable sustenance to the refugees, Suburbia Base was working overtime to produce food rations that could be transferred to the refugees for storage and distribution among the populace. At maximum production, eight ration palettes of 1000 meals each could be materialized every hour by the modified Starfleet runabout replicator system, even after allocating time and power for other supplies needed by the New Ashaaria coalition. Each food pallet was enough to feed three meals a day to about 50 people for a week, and included foil water packers and basic hygiene provisions. Since Leah Warner's replicating operation was a full round-the-clock routine, she was able to produce enough provisions to keep fed Karu's stronghold and Suburbia Base, in addition to the constantly-growing population of refugees. The Starfleet rations were easy enough to replicate, and didn't require nearly the amount of power needed for fresh and fully-prepared meals that so many Federation citizens enjoyed on a daily basis back in the Alpha Quadrant.

In total, it took about a half an hour to feed one street full of refugees by beaming in food benches followed by supply crates. Each street had about a dozen ramshackle huts scattered about the rubble, each housing a family of four or five. Utilizing sixteen-hour shifts in the field, the relief team could hit over two dozen streets with this two-stage feeding method, and during the past ten days alone, Dreygg, Leon, and the rest of the security team were able to distribute food, supplies, and provide on-the-spot first aid to a majority of the refugees.

As the current first-stage relief operation continued, a torturous scream echoed in the street from one of the nearby ramshackle huts. While a few of the dining refugees looked nervously towards the scream, they immediately shifted their wary eyes towards Dreygg who simply looked onward, seemingly unconcerned with the wail. Content that it was none of their business, the starving individuals resumed devouring their rudimentary meal.

Inside the hut, the scream echoed again, this time followed by Leon's insistent voice.

"Push!" he beckoned. "Come on! Push!"

Lying on a bed, and surrounded by three family members, a refugee woman was giving birth. The tiny one-room hut was the very definition of squalor, and the cement slabs they used as "beds" were lined with nothing but dirty, old, and shredded clothing as padding. Broken shelves lined the walls with utilitarian remnants of charred pottery and rusty, twisted metal implements that served double duty as eating implements and home defense. The open window was shuttered with cracked and half-melted plastic lathe, and the door - like the roof - was no more than a old piece of corrugated sheet metal with more rusted holes in it than swiss cheese.

For his part, Leon was wearing the Ash'aarian-issued battle armor that Dreygg gave him sans the helmet and gloves, and he was missing the latter two in order to perform his current medical role. The bright red chirurgeon symbol on his chest had worn to a dull crimson, and the scratches, dents, and scuffs from multiple past altercations gave it the appearance of blending in with the rest of the war-torn suit. Being the only person in the room with a scruffy, scraggly blonde beard, it was easy to spot Leon as an alien outsider as Ash'aarians have no facial hair. As the family occasionally cast the doctor an unwelcome glance of suspicion, they seemed more concerned about the condition of the woman giving birth than the doctor in charge of the birthing procedure.

Over the course of the past few weeks, Leon learned that in the mind of the general public, "chirurgeon" was synonymous with a combined meaning of the words "harbinger" and "promise-breaker". During his field work among the refugee camps, he discovered that during the war with the Centennials, the native medical professionals charged with finding a cure to the plague had actually been the ones primarily responsible for it's spread across the planet. While the spread was due to inadvertent exposure and secondary infection, the Ash'aarian chirurgeons were wholly blamed for not realizing that their efforts were exacerbating the situation, not helping. Despite continued promises by the chirurgeons to find cure, the plague had already raged out of control, and by the time the government enacted the "final solution" that led to the downfall of Ash'aarian civilization (and subsequently, the Centennials), what was left of the shrinking pool of trained chirurgeons on the planet were spurned, castigated, and considered the bane of the lingering population. This, above all else, was the final piece of the puzzle of why the Athra was so against finding a cure, and why the refugees were so hostile towards Leon when he first emerged from the stronghold two weeks ago. The blazing red chirurgeon symbol on his armor all but read "blame me" when the desperate crowds saw it.

Armed with this information, Leon finally came to terms with the task that Karu had entrusted him with: Turning around the attitude of distrust, and making the word "chirurgeon" synonymous with "help" once again. And difficult it had proved. Instead of being the chief medical officer for a thousand souls with a trained staff of over 50 medical professionals, Leon now found himself responsible for the health and well-being of fifteen thousand very sick refugees with only a handful of people with any medical knowledge at all. About his only asset was Ghrune, Sharna, and Leah Warner at Suburbia Base, where he could beam severely critical cases directly to the recently expanded medical facility. But even they had their limits. The addition of a hundred more beds for non-plague medical emergencies taxed the abilities of the makeshift hospital, and Leon had to be extremely selective on who he sent there for treatment. So, unless lives were in immediate danger, his field medicine would have to do.

"You're almost there!" Leon encouraged the woman giving birth. "Good! Good! Keep pushing!"

Normally, he wouldn't be caught dead delivering a baby in such septic conditions, but Suburbia Base was so overloaded with acute cases, that, like so many other decisions he had to make since arriving on the planet, Leon had to improvise where possible. The addition of a gray wool blanket from one of the supply distribution crates helped make the woman more comfortable, and he had decent access to a number of infection-fighting medicines, so as long as he worked to ensure that his hands and patient were clean and free of bacteria or radioactive dust, a home birth would suffice for this family. After a few more screams followed by words of encouragement from Leon, the tension in the room dissipated at the first pitiful cries of a newborn Ash'aarian, and as Leon wiped away placental fluid from it's face, he wrapped the infant up in a fresh silver towel from his medkit and performed a tricorder scan over it.

"Vital signs are normal," he commented with professional scrutiny. "Borderline malnutrition, but otherwise healthy. Best of all... No sign of infection."

The family looked on without a word, staring with subdued wonder at the deliverance of a new life in their home. While a few looked to Leon with expressions that suggested a hint of gratitude, they were either too suspicious or too intimidated by Leon's alien appearance to say anything. By now, Leon was used to this, as it was unusual to have any of the refugees consider him anything more than an unwelcome foreigner, whose help they reluctantly needed. Fortunately, he offered it without expectations.

As the doctor packed up his implements, he mentioned a list of future tasks to the family. "I'll be back next week for a checkup. Make sure you use the fresh formula in the infant care kit, and do NOT give him anything outside of that, as we don't want to risk deep-tissue contamination by radiation." He looked towards the family sternly, hoping his instructions would be followed.

"Grethig-kindra", Leon said as a parting valediction, which in Ash'aarian, roughly translated as "with hope and virtue" - a closing salutation that Karu ordered all field personnel from the stronghold to implement when working with the refugees. It was yet another part of the public-relations campaign he was instituting, and while the refugees were starting to respond to it, the concept of hope was as foreign to them as Leon was.

This time, however, Leon was given the rare treat of an acknowledgement. "Grethig-kindra", returned the refugee woman with a relieved smile, looking down at her newborn. "And thank you... chirurgeon..."

Meanwhile, back out in the street, Dreygg had moved to the second stage of the refugee relief operation. A large gray cubical crate, over a meter in each dimension, was open on two opposing sides, revealing neatly-stacked dark green cases the size of suitcases. One of Dreygg's security troops had slung his rifle, and was handing out the suitcases one by one to a line of refugees. Further down the street, another crate was open, with stacks of folded blankets in which another trooper was handing out to another line of refugees. Between the two lines, Dreygg stood walking back and forth, making sure that each line could hear him as he spoke.

"Each ration case has enough food, water packets, and basic supplies for one family for about seven centons," Dreygg bellowed through the speaker in his helmet. "We will return again after that time to distribute more, and to tend to any medical needs that you may have. Until that time, premier Karu asks for your cooperation in maintaining order, and for helping your fellow Ash'aarians through these difficult times. Only together will we prevail. Grethig-kindra."

Much to Nat Hawk's prediction, and as were the results from previous relief operations like this one, the crowd was remarkably acquiescent following their meal. Looking back at forth at the two lines, Dreygg relaxed his posture, and laid his rifle barrel over his shoulder, content that they had successfully sated and provided for another group of once desperate Ash'aarians. Unfortunately, his contentedness did not last. Further down the street, and several blocks over towards the north, rising smoke indicated trouble.

"Thaylin?" Dreygg spoke into his comlink, contacting his trooper on guard further down the street. "Are you detecting that smoke signature?"

"Affirmative," returned the sour reply. "We have an inbound Razor Gang about two nyms away."

"Great," replied Dreygg with annoyance. "Just what we need. Fall back to our position. We're packing up."

Pressing a button on his wrist console, Dreygg changed the channel.

"Cromwell!" he beckoned. "Finish up and get out here!"

The speed at which the security team moved was swift. The two that were handing out relief supplies increased their pace tenfold, grabbing armfuls of ration cases and blankets and literally tossing them at the crowd. As crates neared empty, they simply abandoned them altogether, unslinging their rifles and taking up combat positions. For their part, the crowd started to disperse in a hurried manner, and it was then that Cromwell finally emerged from the ramshackle hut.

"Everyone!" Dreygg shouted with urgency to the scattering refugees. "Go back to your homes and lock the doors! We'll handle this!"

Donning his battle helmet and gloves, Leon reattached his Starfleet medical kit to his tool harness and walked up to Dreygg. "What's going on?"

"We've got a Razor Gang moving in from the north."

"What's a razor gang?" Leon asked.

"Marauders," Dreygg responded while casting a quick check of his rifle. "Mutants... Rural anarchists that were overexposed to radiation during the war and remained on the fringe frontier. Against all odds, some formed family units and reproduced."

"Ash'aarians?" Leon questioned.

"Not anymore," Dreygg shook his head. "They were Ash'aarian once, but they're nothing but a violent bunch of animals now... living a tribal existence, and fighting among themselves for food and water. Some groups banded together out in the wastelands, and send periodic raiding parties to government bunkers and civilian strongholds like ours."

"Haven't you tried talking with them?"

"They don't talk," Dreygg replied with a harsh tone. "They fight. That's all they know how to do." Spinning around towards his other two troops, he ordered, "Gulanda! Haylir! Take up defensive positions... there... and there..." he pointed to two piles of rubble on either side of the debris-strewn gravel thoroughfare.

"Well," Leon contemplated "All the refugees did was fight when we first started working with them. What makes these Razor Gangs any different?"

"Oh, *you'll* see," Dreygg replied, carefully lowering his rifle and training it on the street ahead to the north. Through the gap between the two rubble piles that hid Gulanda and Haylir, Thaylin came sprinting through, his rifle drawn.

"How far behind?" Dreygg asked tensely.

"About one nym," replied Thaylin.

"Behind the line!" ordered the team leader. "Cover our flank!"

Thaylin nodded, and was about to comply, but as he looked past Leon and Dreygg, he shouted, "look out!"

Coming up the street from the opposite direction, four tall muscular humanoids approached the clearing. They were extraordinarily brawny, wearing plates of rusty steel over their chests and shoulders, and their bald heads bore lesions and pus-filled contusions. Their faces yielded grossly exaggerated cleft pallets, missing eyes, and severe underbites, marking the signs of excessive genetic mutation. With ape-like grunting and animalistic movements, the ogre-like creatures stormed forth and began accosting refugees who had ration cases in their arms. Once liberating the cases, the creatures lost all interest in the panicked refugees, and began collecting other items dropped by the fleeing crowd.

"I should've seen this coming!" Dreygg replied with exasperation. "The smoke was a diversion! Open fire!"

"No!" shouted Leon. "Wait!"

His protests were drowned out by the explosive gunfire of the powerful Ash'aarian weapons. While Leon expected the ogre-like mutants to drop dead from the hits, they simply stumbled over and began retreating. While the bullets dug deep wounds, causing streams of blood to pour forth from their arms and legs where they were hit, the Razor Gang members were surprisingly agile and sturdy, taking multiple hits and still being able to race away at the speed in which they arrived.

Dreygg stood up and took multiple shots at the nearest fleeing mutant, which eventually caused it to fall to the ground. The howls of pain it produced were strange and haunting, causing the other mutants further down the street to reply in concert. It seemed to be a dirge of sorts, communicating to the rest of the pack that this particular individual had fallen, and that the others shouldn't bother to come back for him because he was going to die. While the sound disturbed Doctor Cromwell, it caused the other members of the security force to celebrate, as they shook their rifles in mid-air in a victory salute.

"This group's not so tough..." Dreygg commented. "Gulanda! Haylir! Head further up the street and cutoff that gang that Thaylin was tracking. If their as weak as this group, we'll have no problem." Walking up to the dying mutant, Dreygg kicked it a few times, causing it to whimper in pain. "Isn't that right?" he taunted it. "You're just a little baby marauder!"

Leon had seen enough. This wasn't a defensive action anymore; it had turned into a hunt, and Dreygg was enjoying it. Ignoring the team leader, the doctor opened his medkit, produced a hypospray, and walked up to the injured creature, administering a sedative.

"Cromwell!" shouted Dreygg. "What are you doing? Are you crazy?"

"I didn't come here to take sides, Dreygg," Leon explained while opening a tricorder and passing the medical diagnostic wand over the injured mutant. "You say he's a fellow Ash'aarian. That means he gets treatment. No questions asked."

"For the sake of the Angel Tears!" Dreygg cursed. "It's an ANIMAL! Not an Ash'aarian!"

"A very unusual metabolism," Leon commented, ignoring his compatriot. "At least there's no sign of the Centennial infection."

"Of course not," Dreygg replied angerly. "Their metabolism is so mutated that they probably can't contract it. That's why there's so many of them out in the wastelands."

"Really?" Leon commented with both interest and annoyance at the tone Dreygg was taking. "Well THAT'S something important to know... I wonder why nobody bothered to bring that up before?"

"Would YOU bother telling ME that one of your Earth dogs were immune to a human disease?" Dreygg replied contemptuously. "Of course not. It would be pointless."

Leon traded the tricorder for a dermal regenerator in his medkit, and quickly healed the gunshot wounds inflicted by Dreygg. They were unusually superficial, as the mutant's muscle tissue was so dense that it actually stopped the bullets before they hit the bone or an artery. Next, he produced a hypospray, and gave the mutant a cocktail shot of hyronalin, a pain killer, and several genetic control factors to help regulate his abnormal metabolism. By the time he was done, the mutant sat on the ground, dizzy and groggy from the sedative. At about that time, Gulanda and Haylir had returned from up the street.

"The rest of them have fled," Haylir replied. "I don't think they're in a fighting mood. Too bad... I was hoping to have something to brag about this evening back as base."

"They're NOT dogs!" exclaimed Leon to Dreygg. "They have a language to communicate with each other, and a pack mentality that indicates altruism. THAT's an indication of sentience, and since their DNA is less than 1% different from your own, that makes them Ash'aarian!"

"They're viscous animals that KILL for pleasure!"

"BULL!" seethed Leon. "These mutants came here for the FOOD, not to kill! That makes them no different than the refugees! Watch!"

Using his hypospray again, Leon injected a small amount of stimulant to counteract the sedative and stood back, giving the creature room to stand up. The intimidating figure of the powerfully built mutant reaching its full height made Leon's knee tremble, but while the other members of the security team readied their rifles, Leon held his hand up to stop them from interfering.

"Grethig-kindra!" Leon offered with his arms open toward the Razor Gang member. The mutant looked confused at the sound of the words. Although Leon was expecting to be rendered unconscious any moment by a powerful left hook, he nervously looked around on the ground around him. Spotting an intact ration case lying nearby, inadvertently abandoned by a fleeing refugee, the doctor picked it up and tossed it at the feet of the mutant.

"Grethig-kindra!" he beckoned again. Ambivalent, the powerful figure looked at Leon for a moment before reaching over to snatch the case, and proceeded to sprint away down the alleyway. As it did so, it cast an uncertain glance in Leon's direction every so often before it disappeared from sight. Afterwards, Leon turned to find all four members of the security team glaring at him through their visors with incredulous eyes.

"It's a little late to be choosing sides... chirurgeon." The words came from Thaylin, and were backed up by the nodding heads of the others.

"Do you know what you've done?" asked Dreygg with contempt, and he answered the question before Leon could respond. "Now that they know where the food is, they'll be back... and trust me when I say that it'll be more than just *two* adolescent gangs... you may have just brought the entire wasteland frontier to our outer door."

"Yeah... chirurgeon," added Haylir. "What then?"

"Then," Leon replied stubbornly, holding his ground. "We feed them too. Thanks to the replicator at Suburbia Base, we'll have enough food for anyone who wants it."

Gasps of frustration echoed in the helmets of the security team.

"Wait until Karu hears about THIS one," Gulanda piped in, shaking her head. "Next thing you know, we'll be whipping up a full-course banquet for Athra."

"Grethig-kindra to you too," Leon spat mockingly.

As the four troopers pushed past Leon, he knew that he was walking a thin line. This was their planet - their culture, and he may have just interfered with something that was none of his business. As if to accentuate the new level of contempt he had just discovered in his compatriots, a crackle of thunder overhead sounded the onset of yet another radioactive rainstorm. Checking his wrist console for a quick localized radiation check, Leon sighed and followed the others back to base.

***

Location: "New Ashaaria" stronghold, Planet Ashaaria

Leon staggered into the dark room, weary from yet another sixteen-hour work day. Anywhere he went in Karu's stronghold, all he could smell was his own sweaty stench, and he longed for hot shower. Unfortunately, he had neither the resources nor the energy to obtain one, and as he ran his hand across his scraggly, smudge-filled face in the dark, he didn't even bother turning on the light to use the washbasin affixed to the wall. The cool handfuls of water felt refreshing as he splashed them onto his cheeks and neck, not caring that he was getting wet his stained, sweat-filled ivory turtleneck sweater. As he stood there looking into the mirror in the dark, a faint pair of luminescent eyes blinked lazily in the corner of the room.

"You still awake?" Leon beckoned to his roommate, Nat.

"Yeah," the helmsmen replied with resignation.

"What did you do today?" Leon asked as he laid down on his bedroll on the floor.

"Havin' loads a fun droppin' that algae swill 'n the southern ocean," Nat answered dryly. "An yerself?"

"I delivered a baby and gave aid and comfort to the enemy," Leon said nonchalantly, referring to his earlier run-in with the Razor Gang.

"Hrmph," replied Nat, who fully comprehended what Leon had said, but whose emotions were so deadened by the misery and grit of his current situation that he considered it a mundane item. A moment passed where both men simultaneously reviewed the events of the past few days, weeks, and months from their own points of view.

"You miss Republic?" Leon finally asked.

"Never thought I'd see the day," Nat admitted. "Miss the people more 'an anythin' else. Bein' second officer's bin a might more pain 'n the ass than I'd thought. Cap'n too."

"I know what you mean," replied Leon.

Nat laid his head back down and stared at the ceiling. "Guess Cha'rik did 'er part better n' I thought. Thought fer sure Republic woulda swooped in n' snatched us up by now."

"The sabotage must have been pretty bad for them to not turn around and come after us," Leon suggested.

"Ya think they'll ever come fer us?"

"Maybe," the doctor admitted. "I'm sure Roth has a bone to pick with us. Though, if they haven't come back by now, there's always the possibility they gave up on us."

Nat sat up again. "Ya really think the cap'n'll just leave us here fer good?"

Leon nodded. "If Carter convinced Roth, then yes. Carter's not the kind of person to stand in the way of personal choices. He's fully cognizant that this was our choice, and he's also cognizant of how stubborn I am. Unless Roth ordered him to, he wouldn't risk the ship and crew to return here and force us back to the ship, especially if Cha'rik's sabotage forced repairs back at DS9. No, to John Carter, we're just a few lost souls that got away with some stolen supplies and dereliction of duty. He's done a lot worse in his time. The only thing I regret is that I never had a chance to say goodbye to him. Not that he's any good at that anyway..."

The doctor briefly reminisced about the departure of Victor Virtus as chief engineer of the Republic almost two years ago, and how it broke up their weekly poker night between him, Leon, and John Carter when Vic was reassigned back to Earth. While Carter shrugged it off, Vic explained to Leon that John never really considered "goodbye" as an option in any friendship, as he always trusted they would meet up again. With a melancholy sigh, Leon reminded himself that the friendship between him and John was now likely at an end, giving him further reason to believe that Republic wasn't coming back any time soon.

"Thanks," Leon murmured in the darkness.

"Huh?" Nat replied in confusion. "What fer?"

"For not letting me do this by myself..."

"Pfft," Nat put his head back down. "I didn't save yer sorry ass back on Sigma Omicron just so ya could run off n'die alone on some rock, now did I?"

"Goodnight, Nat," Leon offered, secure that he had at least one friend still left in the galaxy.

"Back at ya, Leon."

Location: Suburbia Base, Planet Ashaaria

It was past midnight, yet Leah Warner sat up at a computer console in The Core running yet another diagnostic. The central control complex of Suburbia Base had, over the past ten weeks, evolved into a hybrid mechanical room of both Ash'aarian and Starfleet design, boasting power and operations systems to improve the vital role the base played in Karu's populace movement. The installation of the antimatter reactor from Karu's disassembled space ship was the holy grail of power systems which allowed the expanded use of the matter replicator system far beyond its original intended use.

Unfortunately, therein laid the problem. It was only a small runabout replicator, yet Premier Karu, Leon Cromwell, and Nat Hawk were using it as if it were a class-four industrial replicator, fabricating huge crates of food rations, computer equipment, and even crop seed. Admittedly, it was augmented with quantum-rated plasma buffers, extended matter-conversion modules from the surplus kit, and countless extra emitter circuits to improve output capacity, but at its heart, it was still just a humble ancillary replicator system intended to feed and clothe no more than a dozen people on extended space flight missions. What it was being asked to do here on Ashaaria would make any starship engineer roll their eyes.

In retrospect, Leah Warner would have liked the company of a starship engineer at present.

While she was a fair technician, and even excelled in her matter/energy physics classes in secondary school before she chose the career path of a journalist, the replicator system before her had taken on a life of its own. It had become such a jumble of jerry-rigged components and hindsight add-ons that it was impossible to keep track of even the most basic subsystem operation anymore. Of course, one of the first tasks performed after upgrading the power system was to replicate multiple sets of spare-parts for the replicator, but there were some parts that could not be replicated. These included the latinum-plated power inducers.

Latinum... that one confounding mineral used for interstellar trade outside the Federation's credit-based social economy. Rare in nature, and even rarer in a manufactured form, primarily because it could not be reproduced through current matter conversion technology. There were originally six power inducers in the replicator supplement kit brought aboard the runabout by Doctor Cromwell. It might even have been considered overkill had the replicator been kept in the runabout and used for its intended purpose, as under normal power usage each inducer was expected to last two years by themselves. Regrettably, because the raw energy from Karu's antimatter generator was so unrefined, and possessing a high anti-neutron ratio, that it played havoc on the latinum lining of the power inducers. Combined with the actual amount of power being funneled into the system to fabricate all the specialized tools and supplies required by the "New Ashaaria" coalition, the lining of the power inducers were eroding away at a much higher rate than normal. So much so, that they blew their first one only two weeks into the operation.

Since then, Leah worked hard to try to keep the power loads at a reasonable level, going so far as to slow down the entire fabrication operation for the larger orders from Karu's stronghold, and using liquid nitrogen to cool the inducers to reduce plating ablation. Unfortunately, the latter idea cost another power inducer when the first attempt cooled the inducer much too quickly, causing it to fracture. Since then, she was able to keep the next inducer going for a month until Karu's antimatter generator had an antineutron "hiccup", whereby a huge, chaotic stream of unfiltered plasma surged past the flow regulator and blew yet another precious inducer. That left only two in the supplement kit as Leah regrettably installed the fourth power inducer into the traumatized replicator system.

On this evening, Leah sat at the main control console with piles of PADDs to her left and right as she poured over schematics and technical manuals. Over two months of nearly non-stop replication operations, the plasma deceleration centrifuges were on the fritz, despite the accepted idiom that they're supposed to last for the lifetime of the machine. Plasma deceleration centrifuges were how a replicator system slowed down photons to below the speed of light, transitioning them to a matter state. The timing of the deceleration was critical depending upon what form the matter took, whether atomic, molecular, or crystalline, and because plasma deceleration was accomplished using rotational velocity vectors, the dinner-plate sized centrifuges had to be perfectly circular - down to the last digit of pi. This ratio, known by replicator technicians as the "pi factor", was how the efficiency of a replicator system was measured.

For every digit the pi-factor deviates from the ten-to-the-sixtieth significance level, the efficiency replicator decreased. At ten-to-the-fiftieth, microscopic inaccuracies in the replicated material start to form, and while it has no bearing on simple materials such as building supplies and foodstuffs, devices like complex quantum-based computer circuitry can no longer be accurately reproduced. At ten-to-the-fortieth, abnormalities in crystalline structures begin to take their toll, and alloys become contaminated with other compounds - usually carbon, causing most materials to be brittle and useless.

Currently, the combined pi-factor of the replicator's three centrifuges were at an average of ten-to-the-fifty-fourth, and getting worse by the day. While Leah could easily replicate new ones, the concept of diminishing returns got in the way. A replicating a new centrifuge using a centrifuge with a pi-factor of ten-to-the-fifty-fourth, results in another centrifuge with another pi-factor at ten-to-the-fifty-fourth. Complicating the problem of the failing centrifuges were the power inducers, which laced the matter stream with infinitesimal particles of latinum due to the neutron ablation, which reduced the pi-factor even more when she tried to replicate another centrifuge. So, in effect, her problem was two-fold: Irreplaceable power inducers, and replaceable deceleration centrifuges that were becoming less efficient.

She could see the endgame, and a chilling prospect lay on the horizon: The limitless flow of supplies was NOT limitless, and the only variable standing in the way was time.

But Leah was a optimist. Aside from holding out hope that she could resolve these issues, it was part of her news-reporter nature to keep a story to herself until the time was right. While she mentioned the problems with the replicator system at each weekly strategy meeting between herself, Karu, Cromwell, and Hawk, she always ended her growing list of mechanical issues with a "but I'll see what I can do to fix it." It seemed to placate everyone else at the table, and since they had their own problems with their respective, unsurmountable tasks, the replicator problems appeared under control. And for the most part, they were. However, she couldn't hold back the obvious forever, and while she tried to slip a informal notion of concern to Nat Hawk, they weren't exactly on speaking terms at the moment, and she was concerned that if she brought this looming problem to his attention, she would be further scolded and admonished for not mentioning it sooner.

"No," she thought to herself. "I can fix this." She had pulled miracles out of the technical manuals for ten weeks now, and despite the fact that most of them went unnoticed, she could do it again. She just needed more time...

As the automatic replicator schedule cycled to the next replication operation, the unmistakable hum of the plasma relays charging up resonated through the system. Leah was used to the sound, and took a glance at her status board to double check that everything was nominal; it was. She returned to her readings as the inducers whined and plasma flowed through them into the deceleration centrifuges with the standard electronic chime, followed by the high-pitched mechanical hum of the emitters which signaled the materialization of yet another non-perishable food pallet.

Without warning, an ear-piercing alert signal made the journalist-turned-technician jump in her seat.

Following the crackle of electrical cascade, the status board turn red as the replicator endured yet another anti-neutron hiccup from the antimatter generator. Leah sprang into action to cutoff the flow before it reached the power inducers, but it was too late. In the center of the room, which was the default replication location of large supplies too big for the normal half-cubic-meter delivery alcove for the replicator, the emitter plates shuttered followed by an incandescent kaleidoscope of decelerating photons cast awry of their intended materialization pattern, leaving behind a molten blob of useless, smoldering crud. As Leah pulled the fried relays from the subsystem enclosure below the control panel, sparks signaled the shutdown of the system as the emitters went dark.

With smoke still hovering in the room, Leah blew away a lock of errant hair away from her face in frustration as she looked at the status board: Another power inducer had imploded. Worse yet, large, microscopic shards of latinum had been set loose into one of the centrifuges, causing its pi-factor to drop to ten-to-the-forty-third. Pursing her lips, Leah pulled out the storage box containing the last two power inducers. As she unlatched the case, she grumbled about the prospect of explaining why the system was working on only two centrifuges, thus further reducing output capacity. Opening the lid, her frustration gave way to shock.

There was only one inducer left.

Had she miscounted? Did she use another inducer and forgotten about it? Panic-stricken, she haphazardly tossed aside old parts and tools in the adjoining storage alcove, scrambling to open more supply boxes. She rummaged through them with increasing despair. Still no inducer. She checked the repair logs. The current broken inducer in the system was still the fourth one from the kit, and remaining functioning one was the fifth. The sixth latinum-plated inducer was missing, and she had no idea where it had gone.

With a lump in her throat and tears welling in her eyes, Leah was unwilling to admit defeat.

"I can fix this," she told herself over and over again, unsure of whether now was the time to tell the others of the looming predicament. "I can fix this," she kept saying, wrenching open the primary emitter panel to replace the broken inducer. She had no idea when the next anti-neutron hiccup would occur, or if some other malady would cut short the life of their final inducer. Either way, the clock was ticking, and she was determined - perhaps too determined - to find a way to make it all better. She was in charge of the replicator... that was her role here. She was the vital lifeline between success and failure of the entire coalition. She HAD to make it better.

"I can fix this," she continued to whisper desperately, wiping away the tears rolling down her cheeks.

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Saratoga (Alpha Quadrant)
Timeframe: Stardate 52542.1 (six years ago, during the Dominion war)

Main engineering was the heart of Saratoga. Teeming with technicians and specialists of all colors, the busy complex was less than a day into their most recent patrol assignment near Cardassian space, and things had not slowed down. On the contrary, they all were on their toes, and considering the combat damage the ship saw during their last encounter with Dominion forces, none of them wanted to be caught off guard. Fortunately, this time the Saratoga was launched with some newly installed, cutting-edge technology compliments of Hellsgate Station. While the additional quantum torpedo launcher and double-alloyed warp field inducers were approved upgrades issued by the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, several other systems were not exactly approved for fleet-wide deployment. Point in fact, they were downright illegal according to some interpretations of the Articles of Interstellar Law, but to a hawk like Vice Admiral Kostya, they were considered necessary tools of war. Among these surreptitious systems was one of the most powerful and cunning pieces of technology developed to date: the Ninhursag generator.

On a technical level, the Ninhursag generator was a protomatter-based field generator that could initiate a energy/matter transformation cascade at the quantum level to all objects within range of the device. When routed through the shields of a starship, it is designed to envelop enemy vessels up to 10,000 kilometers away, turning matter into energy and energy into matter using a predetermined molecular matrix (usually a simplistic matrix such as rock or water for energy to matter, and simple photons for matter to energy). Twelve previous test models suggested that the Ninhursag generator would be devastating to any armada that converged on the ship that used it, although this final model was the first to be field tested. When she was last docked at Hellsgate Station, Vice Admiral Kostya would have no other vessel except the Saratoga be the testbed for this operational prototype.

The contrivance of Hellsgate Station commander, Commodore Fakunakue Kaito, installation and integration of the Ninhursag generator was delegated to the Saratoga's chief engineer, Commander Roger Maddock. While it was an honor to be in charge of such an innovative and cutting-edge piece of equipment, from Maddock's point of view, trusting the Ninhursag generator to the command of Captain Stryker was a poor move on Kostya's part. Partly because it was designed to be a last-line-of-defense and the captain had the reputation of panicking easily during combat. The other part was because Maddock and the captain did not see eye-to-eye. As chief engineer, the commander was one of the most senior members of the crew, and he had been there since the keel of Sara was laid. The captain, unfortunately, was a newcomer hand-picked by Kostya, and Maddock didn't like a young superior officer telling him what he could or couldn't do with the ships engines and subsystems.

Their first encounter at Saratoga's launching was cordial enough. After all, they were both on "Team Kostya", as Maddock initially put it. However, Stryker's first transgression came when he authorized an upgrade to the internal sensor network behind Maddock's back, and the captain chose to limit access to himself only, to the exclusion of of the rest of the command crew. It was anyones guess as to why, but for some reason, Captain Stryker didn't trust many people, and Maddock chocked it up to the recent Dominion infiltration into Starfleet's ranks. The captain's second transgression against Maddock came during the last stopover in drydock when the experimental shipwide hologrid was installed. The system was meant to allow a remote crew at Hellsgate station take control of critical systems in the event of an emergency. It was Maddock's brainchild, and he put his career on the line to get Kostya and Commodore Kato to approve its installation during Saratoga's construction. Unfortunately, after Captain Stryker found out about the system, he refused to allow a full system test, and ordered it to be taken offline until further notice.

The move made Commander Maddock furious at Captain Stryker. From his point of view, it seemed that his new captain was not only self-absorbed, but also pretentious, and Maddock was resentful that Kostya put him in charge of the Saratoga. At least Maddock was allowed to retain his work on the Ninhursag generator, though it was little consolation given that the captain still had final say on its deployment. As Maddock sat fuming at his engineering console, a red-haired, freckled young man in an academy jumpsuit entered main engineering with a wide, jaded smile on his face.

Cadet Richard Kimball was on his first actual starship cruise for his final academy project. Normally, an academy undergraduate would not be allowed aboard an active duty vessel bound for hostile space, but as the son of a prominent Federation Councilman, "Cadet Ricky" (as the Sara crew had nicknamed him) had an inside advantage for his study of inter-departmental crew resource management, and got the temporary posting after much nagging to his father back on Earth. Such a field project would cement his career in the operations branch of Starfleet, and from an academic perspective, it was one of the easiest ways that a student could put themselves on a fast-track to graduation. Such was the way of young, privileged cadets like Cadet Ricky, and since Starfleet needed new officers - especially during a time of war - the academy commandant had little choice but to approve the project. Wandering into main engineering, the cadet was on his usual "observation" walks, where he was supposed to be gathering data for his project. In truth, he used his walks as an excuse to hobnob and engage the crew in long, drawn-out, and pointless conversation. While the occasional annoyed officer would put the cadet in his place, most were too intimidated by his father's high stature in the Federation government to do anything about it, and they allowed him to ramble on while they went about their duties.

As he shuffled about engineering, looking for his next conversational target, the cadet noticed the aged, stout chief engineer sitting at his monitoring console. Taking a moment to look over the senior officer, he took note of the straight gray hair peppered with black streaks, and the equally gray mustache accentuated by wrinkles around his droopy, pudgy cheeks. "Wait a minute!" the wide-eyed cadet exclaimed with sudden recognition, causing Maddock to stir from his sullen thoughts. "I know you! You're Montgomery Scott! You're the Enterprise engineer who came forward in time from the past!"

Maddock was taken by surprise. While the cadet's antics to try and engage people in conversation was well known around the ship, the young man looked genuinely convinced that Maddock was the universally-renowned Mister Scott. He didn't know whether to be flattered or perturbed at the interruption of his work on the Ninhursag generator. "I'm sorry cadet," he replied. "You have me confused. I'm Commander Maddock. I'm the chief engineer."

"Oh..." the cadet sounded disappointed. However, feeling that his misidentification was not completely unwarranted due to the commander's resemblance to the Enterprise-A engineer, he continued with the conversation. "Well, you sure look like Montgomery Scott. Did you know he's over a hundred and thirty years old?"

The commander stared at the cadet, trying to figure out whether the young man was trying to pick a fight, or was just so naive that he didn't even realize that he had served an insult by suggesting that Maddock appeared to be over a century old. "I think you should go back to your station now, cadet," the engineer suggested, returning his attention to the monitoring console in front of him.

"I think Montgomery Scott's the greatest engineer of all time," the cadet rambled, causing Maddock to roll his eyes. Apparently, Cadet Ricky had found a target audience for his morning small-talk. "I met him once back on Earth at the academy. He says todays starship engineers are too spoiled with all the computer-attinuated antimatter control systems, and that they don't work hard enough on learning the basics of warp theory."

Maddock's level of annoyance was slowly rising. He didn't need the cadet's bantering on top of all his other troubles with the captain. Resolved to let the young man ramble on without an audience, he focused harder on the Ninhursag generator subsystem panel, intent on ignoring the babbling juvenile.

Cadet Ricky took no notice, and maintained his tangental dialog. "He also says that most engineers don't even bother to fine-tune the deuterium stream anymore for better engine performance, and that they don't really care about the how the engine room looks... except when the ship captain's inspecting them."

"The captain..." the engineer fumed.

Maddock lost it. His temper exploding at the invocation of his most hated commanding officer, he grabbed the cadet by his uniform shirt, and pulled the youngster closer to his face. "The hell I don't! Kid, I bust my ass colliding protons and anti-protons up and down the warp core every day just to power this damned ship! So next time you see your hero Montgomery Scott, you tell him to try coming down here and jump through the captain's hoops every time he shouts an order!" Seeing that his invective was drawing stares from his engineering staff, Maddock let the cadet go after casting him one last icy glare. For his part, the cadet was wide-eyed with shock, and slowly backed away from the officer. Without another word, the engineer returned to his console while Cadet Ricky stumbled to find his own way out of the bustling chamber.

***

Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga

Much like its engineering counterpart, the bridge of Saratoga was bustling with personnel, either stationed at their assigned consoles, or going to and fro monitoring stations as part of their assigned duties. Charting a careful course through a low-density astroid field, the Sara was more or less safe from immediate hazards as she maintained a linear direction paralleling the strategic boundary between the Federation and the Dominion-dominated Cardassian Union. They had literally hundreds of light years to patrol along this route, and the chances that the Cardassians would choose to attack a Galaxy Class vessel along this remote portion of their route was not very high. So, as part of her standard procedure, the captain handed control of the bridge off to his executive officer, content that he would be notified at any sign of trouble.

However, Captain Stryker did not leave the bridge. Instead, he remained at science station two, sifting through the recorded sensor logs of their previous headings. In truth, the external sensor logs were a cover on his main monitor so that the rest of the bridge crew wouldn't take notice of his primary focus: a small, sub-monitor to lower left of the console. The monitor displayed an internal scan of Saratoga utilizing the special internal sensor network feed he had installed while at Hellsgate Station. Stryker's previous work in the Intelligence Branch of Starfleet led him to develop a slightly paranoid disposition with regards to the functioning of his own vessel. Since the Dominion shape-changers were known to infiltrate just about any allied chain-of-command, the captain felt that neither routine medical scans nor Kostya's interdiction orders were sufficient to ensure security against the threat. So, the sensor network offered him an extra blanket of protection, allowing him to track the past and present movements of all personnel aboard, as well as their biological signatures. As long as he maintained a vigilant watch over everyone, noting any abnormalities in patterns of behavior, he felt he had a firm grasp of the threat.

Of course, the monitoring the sensor network was a time-consuming task in and of itself, and Captain Stryker felt as if he was pulling double shifts just to keep baseline tabs on the 1000+ souls aboard his vessel. He got to know the routines of just about everyone onboard; getting to know who was late or early to their shift, who was taking more than their fair share of unnecessary work breaks, and - though he tried to avoid prying into personal lives - which of his crewmates were dating whom. After all, who could ignore the fact that a young science ensign assigned to the forward end of deck 5 made numerous off-duty visits to a lieutenant in security assigned to the aft section of deck 38; especially when the body temperature and heart rate of both rose to higher-than normal levels when they were together. Of course, his intimate understanding of the inner workings of his crew had its limits, especially when it came to visitors onboard. In fact, he was all but blind to them, as well as what constitutes "normal" for their daily routines. That is, everyone but his wife.

Captain Stryker smiled.

The thought of Shannon sent his heart flying. The past few months of their marriage was blissful, despite the ongoing war around them. When they met aboard the Ajax a half a year ago, he had no idea that he would propose to her two months later. "Too early," his mother complained, but Stryker would hear none of it. Shannon Harris was the best thing that ever happened to him, and although he heard similar complaints from other family members, it served only to strengthen his resolve: He would elope and marry Shannon. Their union, still a secret to everyone back home on Alpha Centauri, would eventually be revealed, albeit slowly at the next family reunion. "It serves them right," the captain mused, as he was not in the habit of allowing the opinions of others to interfere with his personal plans.

Like a child with a loving new pet anticipating his return home after school, the captain instinctively pulled up the real-time sensor network locator and found Shannon sitting by herself in the Ten-Forward lounge. Her heartbeat was normal, and she appeared to be enjoying a drink by one of the expansive viewports. Though it had been only hours since he last saw her, his spirit fluttered at her digital sensor location, knowing that she would be back in her their quarters the moment he got off duty. He deeply loved Shannon; her beautiful green eyes and flowing red hair. When he closed his eyes, he saw her angelic form, and he longed to hold her close for just one more kiss.

By instinct, Captain Stryker toggled the "preview" button on the past recorded locations of his love. Normally, he would do this to track the previous movements of a crewmember whose activities appeared suspicious, but this time, it was simply the innocent gesture of wanting to "feel" every moment that his wife spent aboard the ship since embarking a day previous. Like sifting through a box of love notes, or relishing a vase filled with a loved one's flowers, he felt a stronger connection to her with each step Shannon took on the vessel over the past 24 hours. Whether it was her sleeping in their quarters that morning, or the dinner they had last night, or the cup of coffee they had with Vice Admiral Kostya before launching...

A quizzical frown formed on the captain's face.

Shannon and the vice admiral had spent over ten minutes in a halted turbolift between decks six and seven prior to meeting him at the officer's mess for coffee yesterday afternoon. Pulling up the detailed sensor file, Captain Stryker reviewed their moments alone in the turbolift.

His heart skipped a beat.

It couldn't be... Pressing the "preview" button again, he poured over the datalink with their combadge signals, cross-referencing them with their bio readouts on the sensor network record to double check whether it was actually them. Captain Stryker's hand began to tremble, and his throat tightened. It was definitely Kostya and Shannon, and their body temperatures and heart rate were elevated for eight minutes and 28 seconds. Ashen, and with a horrific knot forming in his stomach, the captain stood up, staring at monitoring console. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Every fiber of his soul refused to accept it, but the sensor network never lied: His commanding officer and wife were having sex in the halted turbolift.

He couldn't talk.

He couldn't breathe.

With barely a noticeable stagger, Captain Stryker stood up and shut-off the monitor. His eyes were filled with shock and betrayal, and as he reached down to straighten out his uniform shirt, he turned away from the science station enroute to his ready room. Nobody took note of his exit off the bridge, as everyone was trained on their tasks and could not register the symptoms of a shattered heart emanating from their captain. Only a sole Benzite ensign at the tactical console regarded him briefly before returning to long-range external sensors that were picking up random, intermittent echoes in the asteroid field...

The day following the incident with the Razor Gang, Karu suspended Doctor Cromwell's field work, opting instead to spread the message among the camps to bring their medical cases right to the outer door. Since the two-week long public-relations campaign was successful in reaching out to the population, Karu determined that distributing relief supplies to a more acquiescent crowd at the entrance would be a more efficient use of time and resources than deploying specialized supply teams with Leon and Dreygg.

Unfortunately, over the next two days, Dreygg's prediction about the mutants had turned out to be correct. The Razor Gangs - or relatives thereof - were massing around the outskirts of the refugee camps, periodically sending in raiding parties to wrestle relief supplies from the refugees. While there were no immediate reports of fatalities, it kept Dreygg's security teams busy chasing off the gangs within in the refugee camps, and increased the number of injury cases needing treatment at the stronghold's outer door.

As Karu and Leon watched the security monitors in the control room, they realized that they had a new problem on their hands: The refugee camps that had originally converged on the stronghold's perimeter during the past month were, themselves, being surrounded on by an outer ring of mutant anarchists bent on stealing supplies from the population at every chance they could. While it was easy enough to replenish the relief supplies by beaming them directly from Suburbia Base, Karu had promised the refugees security and stability along with the supplies, and the Razor Gangs currently flowing in from the wasteland frontier were hindering that promise. So, Premier Karu's secondary motive for halting Leon's in-situ excursions were to redeploy security personnel to the edge of the refugee camps for border security. Unfortunately, this left the security of the stronghold at a dangerously low level.

"What I don't understand," Leon started while watching the monitors suspended from the ceiling. "Is why no one had mentioned these mutants before, or that they may be potentially immune to the Centennial plague."

"Who said they were immune?" Karu asked sharply.

"Dreygg and his security cohorts," replied Leon. "The ones who seemed to take great joy in killing the mutant Ash'aarians."

"Well, despite what rumors may be circling in my militia about these so-called 'Razor Gangs', they're NOT immune," explained the Premier. "Partially resistant, perhaps, but certainly not immune."

"Has it not occurred to you that maybe this - resistance - may have been medically exploitable during your initial plague research?"

"Cromwell," Karu pleaded. "You have to understand. Following the government's final solution against the Centennials, our planet was - for all intensive purposes - dead. There was no follow-up plague research... no hospitals... no infrastructure... no laboratory facilities at all. Most chirurgeons were either dead or dying, and with the exception of Ghrune, no one was studying the plague at all."

"But his knowledge about the xeno-virus excels my own," Leon commented. "Surely the thought had crossed his mind?"

"It did," Karu explained. "He even managed to capture one of the mutants to study. Unfortunately, it broke loose in the stronghold and killed a lot of people. By the time I had arrived here and started the New Ashaaria movement, Ghrune had already contracted the plague."

"Surely he discovered SOMETHING?"

"Yes," Karu nodded emphatically. "That the mutants were just barely clinging to existence in the wastelands. Only a fraction of them can reproduce, and the rest are not only infertile, but their cells are so mutated that the plague has difficulty overtaking their systems. The viable portions of their metabolism are quickly infected, but the rest - which is mostly scar tissue or tumorous lesions - is ignored by the xeno-virus. The result is a partial transformation that's oftentimes barely noticeable through all the other mutations. They've earned their name, doctor. Razor Gangs can be fast, savage, and murderous."

"If that's their normal behavior, then it might explain why Dreygg and the security team hate them so much," reasoned Leon. "But have you thought that maybe up until now, your security forces have been dealing only with infected mutants? 'Fast, savage, and murderous' are the exact words you use to describe the Centennial xenomorphs that infected Ash'aarians eventually transform into. They DON'T describe the mutants we encountered the other day."

Karu nodded again. "It's possible. Centennial plague victims are often known to form packs and engage in killing sprees - much like the Razor Gangs do, but Dreygg mentioned that the mutants you encountered appeared to be adolescent. Maybe they were just youngling outcasts from their tribe?"

"That doesn't fully explain the differences in behavior from what you've explained about past Razor Gang encounters," explained Leon. "Infected Ash'aarians would gain the knowledge to murder and kill through manipulation of their DNA by the xeno-virus, NOT through learned hunting behavior. The adolescent mutants we found were nowhere near as hostile as you and Dreygg say they normally are. I saw no murderous intent at all. They only wanted food, and didn't appear interested in hurting anyone. And neither do these mutants..." Leon motioned towards the wide-field camera overlooking the outer perimeter of the refugee encampments where the mutants were gathering.

"And that's supposed to tell us... what?" Karu asked expectantly.

"It tells me that there's a whole other Ash'aarian culture out there on the frontier that could use your help," Leon continued to explain. "It seems to me that you have two choices here: You can either reason with them and come to some sort of compromise, or you can let them continue raiding the refugee camps and steal everything in sight."

Karu realized what Leon was saying, but simply shook his head. "You don't understand. They live an animalistic existence, and their brain development is stunted and impaired. They would be of no use to us."

"I see," said Leon skeptically. "So your compassion extends to only those whom you find intelligent enough to join you?"

"They can't even speak!" Karu faced down Leon, shouting indignantly. "How are we supposed to even reason with them?"

"I scanned them!" Leon countered. "They can't speak because their vocal chords are nothing but strings of carcinomas! That doesn't mean you don't try!"

"We've got more than our fair share of suffering within the refugee camps as it is!" maintained Karu. "We don't need another liability!"

"Liability?" Leon questioned with incredulity. Pausing to collect his thoughts, he shook his head in disbelief. "You know, there's a man from Earth's history who thought much like you do. His name was Colonel Greene. His post-holocaust policies led to the genocide of millions of humans with mutations associated with nuclear fallout radiation."

"Don't attempt contrition with me, doctor!" Karu argued. "I'm looking out for the welfare of the future inhabitants of this planet! Every choice I make has a downside, and if I have to choose between the helpless and those who cannot be helped, I choose to bring aid to the former!"

"Excuse me, Premier," a voice came over the intercom.

Karu ceased his side of the argument to answer the call by pressing a button on the wall-mounted speaker box.

"What is it?" he huffed. "I'm very busy!"

"I have a priority call from the lead field team. It's Dreygg, sir."

"Patch him through down here," Karu ordered. Following a moment of clicks, crackles, and fits of static, Dreygg's muffled voice came over the line.

"Premier, this is Dreygg. My team encountered another group of mutant raiders in sector six. We took shots at them, but they refuse to run away. I think one of them was the one that Cromwell treated a few days ago."

"How can you tell?" Karu returned.

"It spoke to me."

The Premier was obviously at a loss.

"It... SPOKE to you?"

"Yes sir. When that happened, we held our fire, and they just stood there, waiting for us to make the next move. That's when I figured we'd better call you."

Leon smirked at the report, happy to learn that his injection of genetic control factors was doing its job to counteract the tumor growth in the mutant he treated the other day from Dreygg's gunshots. It was a simple, common procedure to lock out oncogene expression throughout the body thus halting and reversing carcinoma malignancy. The doctor felt that a good dose of the treatment plus some hyronalin would help counteract the radiation damage. It was apparently working.

Karu's forehead formed a deep furrow after noticing Leon's smirk. The Premier was clearly annoyed that he was being proven wrong about the mutants with each passing moment, and Cromwell's smugness and self-righteous attitude weren't helping.

"If it spoke to you," Karu continued speaking to Dreygg. "What did it say?"

"It was difficult to understand - the voice was throaty and garbled - but I'm pretty sure it said 'chirurgeon'."

Leon's smirk collapsed.

Karu, on the other hand, showed the barest glint of amusement at the sudden change in responsibility. "Well now," he started with a touch of irony towards Leon. "That'd be YOU then..."

***

Had someone been collecting a single bar of gold-pressed latinum for every swear word that Leon spoke on his way to the outer door, they would have been mobbed by Ferengi trying to sell them the entire Alpha Quadrant. With the recent revelations regarding Ash'aarian bigotry, he was beginning to question his involvement with Karu's populace movement. Admittedly, the Premier was under extraordinary pressure, and the overall situation was dire, but surely he could see the logic in Leon's argument? Polemic demagoguery - even demagoguery that had slivers of logic and reason - were dangerous tools in desperate situations, as it led to some of the worst tragedies in human history. Hitler... Greene... Paxton... They all used it when appealing to the greater good of the people. Why would someone with as much integrity as Karu allow himself to succumb to such drastic measures?

Arriving alone at the airlock, Leon donned his field-worn battle armor, and actuated the servos which unlocked and opened the outer door. As before, a pale gray light poured into the chamber as the bleak surface terrain splayed out in front of him. A few meters away, a temporary aid station had been erected, staffed by three armored medtechs recently trained by Ghrune and Shara, and situated near several open crates of replicated Starfleet medical supplies. The medtechs were tending to a line of about two-dozen refugees who were patiently awaiting treatment for various injuries and ailments, all of which were now treatable thanks to support from the makeshift hospital that was Suburbia Base. It was a stark contrast to the scene from a few weeks ago when Leon first emerged from the stronghold, as he had been mobbed and nearly trampled to death by an angry crowd. However, on this morning, the refugees stood silent with expressions of both suspicion and curiosity as they watched Leon exit the airlock.

"Grethig-kindra" Leon raised his hand in greeting as he walked by.

As usual, the refugees remained silent, refusing to respond to the strange alien chirurgeon in the Ash'aarian battle suit. However, just as Leon was about to walk out of earshot, a young, pre-adolescent boy called back to him.

"Grethig-kindra!"

The adult standing next to the boy - obviously a parent - displayed an expression of annoyance and embarrassment, silently admonishing the child by grabbing hold of his waving hand and forcing it back down to his side. Had he not donned his helmet, Leon would have been grinning from ear to ear in amusement, grateful that Karu's public-relations campaign was having some effect - at least on the younger generation. With a wave in return, the doctor turned back around and continued on his way to meet up with Dreygg and the mutants.

It was less than two kilometers to where the security team stood in waiting for Leon, locked in a standoff between themselves and the group of mutants. Diplomacy was never Leon's strong suit, as he was usually the one generating controversy rather than solving it. Nevertheless, on this day, Karu left it to the doctor to parley with a problem that he created. As he came in sight of the two groups of Ash'aarians, he patted the suit pocket where he kept his personal, palm-sized phaser-one... just in case. As Dreygg spotted the doctor, Leon sighed heavily as he took stock of the bulky, ogre-like mutants standing near the militia leader.

Muttering to himself as he approached, Leon grumbled, "'Do no harm', my ass..."

***

The parley lasted for over an hour. Through simplistic words, the universal translator, somatic gestures, and some pictures drawn in the dirt, Leon was able to establish a dialog with the mutant Razor Gang member he had treated the other day. The doctor learned a lot, and while there were a few moments where he thought he was going to be beaten into a Legurian wood pulp, he found the conversation to be easier than he expected. By treating the mutant as if he were a human teenager - using reason and logic in the face of anger and strong emotion - he succeeded in coming to a compromise in which Leon was eager to communicate back to Karu. The two groups completed their dialog, and left one another in peace, departing for their respective tribes.

As the doctor lead Dreygg and the security team back to the stronghold, he passed the column of refugees lined up by the medical station outside the outer door. This time - perhaps because he was escorted by actual Ash'aarians with big guns - there were a few more of the refugees to responded to Leon with the ubiquitous "Grethig-kindra". Entering the airlock, Leon and the team took turns at the decontamination station, and as they removed their battlesuits, Dreygg confronted Leon.

"I have to say, Cromwell," Dreygg admitted. "When Karu assigned me to look after you, I had my doubts." Opening a suit locker, the militia leader stowed his helmet and gloves before working himself out of the upper torso. "But I watched how you handled yourself with the Razor Gang today, and I never would have guessed that they were sentient on any level." Hanging the upper half of the armor in the locker, he turned back around to face Leon with matted, sweaty hair. "I think I actually find myself believing you for once..."

It was a small conciliation, but Leon was willing to take whatever kudos he could get at this juncture. The past ten weeks had been nothing but a series of setbacks in the face of small victories, and if he could change a recalcitrant mind like Dreygg's, then Leon felt that there might be hope after all.

Unfortunately, the mollified atmosphere did not last. While Dreygg may have found the gumption to admit when he was wrong, Thaylin was another matter. "I don't," the Ash'aarian militiaman rebuffed the doctor as he made his way out of the airlock. "I still remember when Rheygan died. Remember him? The battle suit you're wearing used to belong to him. He was recovering from an attack by Razor Gangs when he came down with the Centennial blight. If it weren't for those bloodthirsty monsters you just negotiated with, his immune system might have kept him from becoming infected."

"So much for diplomacy," thought Leon, rolling his eyes. Without further discourse, Leon took his leave of the security team.

As Leon made his way through the stronghold to the control center, Thaylin's conversation gave the doctor a thought. Not about diplomacy, per se, but about the Centennial infection and its relation with the Razor Gangs. Centennial plague victims mutate into Borg-like killing machines motivated to attack non-infected Ash'aarians in order to kill, or infect them through grievous injury. Along those same lines, Ash'aarians - both Karu's people and Athra's government - have been isolating their plague-stricken members early on in the infection into order to contain the outbreaks. That alone should have been sufficient to keep the spread of the plague under control. However, new cases continue to crop up, seemingly without a cause, and defying standard viral pathology. While the current line of thinking has been that the plague is so virulent that it spreads at the moment of infection (a notion that Leon had yet to confirm since there was no way to test it without sacrificing lives), there may have been another explanation.

Enter the Razor Gangs. They originate from the wasteland frontier, and occasionally go on murderous rampages throughout the planet's populations centers (or what constitutes as such). However, thanks to Leon's recent conversation with one of the mutants, Leon and Karu's new theory was confirmed: the Razor Gangs WERE partially-infected mutants, although going unnoticed as such because of their heavily mutated disfigurements. Unfortunately, due to these murderous rampages by infected mutants, the mainstream Ash'aarians have labelled the ENTIRE mutant population as unintelligent, ravaging animals unworthy of the title of "Ash'aarian", causing them to be repudiated, forsaken and shunned by the rest of the planet. They were - for all intensive purposes - an isolated population; a PERFECT breeding ground for the xeno-virus. This left only one possible conclusion: Karu HAD to help them. If he could cure the plague among the mutant population, then the frequency of new cases would be drastically reduced.

Leon quickened his pace to the control center.

When he arrived, the door opened, and he found Karu talking to a few of his monitoring technicians at their control stations. Also, to Leon's surprise, Nat Hawk was also in the room, pacing the floor with an expression of distress.

"Nat!" Leon greeted him with a smile. "What are you doing here? I thought you were working on the western continent today with the algae propagation experiment?"

"Doc," Nat looked unusually nervous and frustrated. "I need ta talk ta ya... alone."

"Okay," Leon acknowledged with a concerned nod of his head, taking note of Nat's uncharacteristically restless and tense demeanor. "Let me get Karu up to date, and then we can talk."

It was then that the Premier spied Leon talking to Nat. "Cromwell!" Karu greeted the doctor from across the room. "I just heard from Dreygg that you defused the situation with the mutants! Excellent news!"

"Yes," Leon nodded. "I think I successfully explained the differences between us and Athra's government forces, and it sounds like they understood. Athra has been attacking and destroying every mutant encampment that her forces come across, and it's been understandably angering the mutants. However, I explained to them that we're not Athra's forces, and that we're only here to help whoever asks for it."

"What about all the raiding that they've been doing, both here and elsewhere?"

"You and I were right about the Razor Gangs," explained Leon. "The ones that have been killing refugees in the past - as well as attacking your militia forces - WERE infected with the plague. The mutants are aware of this, but once one of their people are infected - or PARTIALLY infected from our point of view - there's nothing they can do to stop them. The partially infected mutants band together and terrorize whoever and whatever they can get their hands on. I'm just now theorizing that that's why we keep seeing the plague crop up in a random fashion. The isolation protocols that you and Athra's government have implemented since before I got here should have been enough to slow or halt the spread of the plague. I'll bet you anything that the xeno-virus is hiding in the mutant population, and the infected mutants that you've been calling 'Razor Gangs' have been the infectious vector this whole time."

"That explains how Ghrune may have gotten infected," Karu surmised. "As well as nearly everyone else who had contact with Razor Gangs. But tell me, what were you able to negotiate with them?"

"As long as we keep a steady supply of food, water, and medical care to help with the infection, they'll leave us and the refugees alone. We'll have to ramp up replicator operations at Suburbia Base, but that shouldn't be a problem..."

Nat, whose expression of anxiety and consternation had already been a constant throughout Leon's conversation with Karu, contorted into exasperation and incredulity at his last sentence. Leon grew concerned, as it was unheard of that Nat got this upset about anything.

"Premier?" Leon cutoff his last sentence. "Could you excuse me for a moment?"

"Of course, doctor," Karu nodded, returning his attention to one of his monitoring stations. For his part, Leon stepped into a corner of the room and refocused his attention onto the former Republic helmsman.

"What IS it?" Leon whispered emphatically, pulling Nat aside.

"Doc..." Nat whispered ominously. "It's the replicator."

"What about it?"

"Leah called... she said the last inducer blew this mornin'."

Leon turned ashen. "LAST inducer?" he stammered. "Those things are supposed to last for years! We brought SIX from Republic! What happened?"

"I dunno," admitted Nat. "She must'a been holdin' out on us this whole time... about how messed up the replicator was."

Leon looked nervously around the room to ensure that no one else was listening in on their conversation.

"How much of a food reserve do we have built up with replicated rations?" Leon was afraid to ask.

"I was gonna say about a week," Nat replied. "But since ya just gave away over half'a that ta the mutants jus' now, I'd say we got no more'n forty-eight hours."

"And after that?"

"After that?" Nat chuckled morbidly. "After that, we're dead! We got nuthin!"

Leon was beyond stunned; he was horrified. Without any functioning power inducers for the replicator, their mission came to a standstill. The prospect of possessing no replicator technology - which laid the foundation of their continued success on Ashaaria - was very ugly indeed. The doctor ran through a mental checklist of remedies to the situation, and each one had no conceivable treatment or resolution. In truth, there was no way he could have prepared for this kind of contingency, primarily because Leon had no idea that the mission would expand as far as it did over the past ten weeks.

When he originally planned to leave Republic, Leon assumed a much smaller mission involving only himself as the leader and sole team member, with his primary base of operations being the lone, solitary runabout. He stashed extra supplies, including redundant runabout spare parts, and which contained extra power inducers for the runabout replicator. However, it was very much "grab-everything-you-can" event, and he didn't give much thought to every single item he stowed. Leon had no idea that he would have compatriots on this mission, nor lose use of the runabout, nor be able harvest said runabout's replicator system. He CERTAINLY didn't envision augmenting the replicator system to increase the output capacity, nor having an operational hospital (as rudimentary as it was), nor foreseen Karu enlisting his help to establish a new populace movement.

Least of all, Leon didn't expect the expanded mission to grind to a dead halt due to a single, fist-sized replicator component. Without it, Karu would be unable to carry out his promises to the refugees, to say nothing of the promises Leon just made to the mutants. They would quickly run out of food, chaos would soon follow, and quite likely, they would either find themselves on the run, or dead. Both prospects lead to the same mission outcome: Failure. Both prospects would lead to the same ultimate fate for the Ash'aarian people: Extinction. All because of a single tiny piece of technology that they could not replace.

With melancholy brewing in his eyes, Leon swallowed hard and asked a last, drastic request of Nat.

"Go back to our quarters... in the corner of the room next to my Starfleet EVA suit, there's a small gray box mixed in with my extra set of field gear. In there, you'll find a Starfleet emergency beacon."

"Republic?" Nat asked expectantly.

Leon nodded his head. "Or any other ship that may be nearby."

"That's a big 'if', Leon!" Nat whispered. "We got no idea if th' beacon will punch through this ionized atmosphere! Even if it did, it won't get outta th' nebula! If Republic tucked tail an' ran back ta DS9, then no one'll be out there listenin'!"

"If we're lucky, Republic placed a sensor buoy in solar orbit before she left the nebula," Leon reasoned. "It's standard practice for a charting mission, and if it picks up our beacon, it'll be relayed through the wormhole back to DS9."

"Again," retorted Nat. "More 'if's! IF she left'a buoy... IF it picks up our beacon... IF anyone gets here n'time b'fore we're a coupla corpses buried in radioactive dust!"

"It's all we got, Nat. Please do it..." The desperation in Leon's voice was haunting.

Nat nodded. "Ya gonna tell Karu 'bout our little technical glitch?" he motioned to the Premier standing next to one of his control technicians.

"I'll take care of it," Leon promised. "Just hurry."

As Nat left the control center. Leon released a held breath, and slowly made his way to Karu.

"Premier," he beckoned him, swallowing his pride. "Could I have a word..."

Karu held up his hand to cut Leon off. "Just a moment, doctor," he said without looking towards him, and keeping his attention trained on a circular radar screen in front of one of his seated controllers. "We have a problem..." Addressing the controller, Karu asked a question that was an addendum to an earlier dialog that Leon was not privy to. "What altitude is it at?"

"Almost two kilotrads," the controller replied, listening intently to his headset.

"What is it?" Leon asked Karu with curiosity.

"A government aerial drone," Karu replied over his shoulder. "Our ground-to-air radar barely picked it up on our long range perimeter just a moment ago." Turning back to the controller, he added, "what's its course and speed?"

"Velocity vectors suggest a circular course with a radius of five kilotrads, centered on us. The speed is to slow to for us to track with any accuracy yet."

"Keeping their distance," added the Premier solemnly. "And slowly studying us."

"How long has it been out there?" Leon jumped in.

"We're receiving no telemetry on incoming or outgoing contrails," the controller responded. "I would estimate that it's been hovering for most of the day. Probably since before sunrise."

"That explains how they stayed out of sight," surmised Karu. "Sneaking in at night and making sure to stay as far away as they could from our radar transceiver array."

"It's a good bet that Athra knows we're here," the doctor commented ominously.

"What now?" the controller turned to the Premier with concern in his eyes. "Evacuate?"

Flabbergasted, Karu retorted, "evacuate? With fifteen thousand starving refugees in tow? Assuming we could get everyone packed up and moving, exactly where would we go to?"

"Suburbia Base?" offered Leon.

"There's no way anyone could survive outside the shield generator surrounding the hospital. The radiation it just too high."

"Then what?" asked another controller on the other side of the radar console. "Wait here until they come up with a 'final solution' for us?"

"We won't have to wait long," the first controlled responded, looking back at his screen. "Long range telemetry is picking up twelve inbound government airsleds. At least eight have battlement signatures. I'd say we're about to have our stronghold turned into a crater!"

"Sound the alarm!" Karu exclaimed with controlled panic. "Tell all non-combatants to retreat to the lower chambers! Contact our field teams and tell them to get as far away from the stronghold as possible!"

"Won't that leave us vulnerable to ground attack?" Leon asked nervously.

"It's Athra!" Karu spat as the room became bathed in a deep red, signifying an alert status. "She doesn't invade unsanctioned non-government operations from the ground! If she can't control us, she'll destroy us! As far as she's concerned, we're all infected with the plague!"

"She'd really do that?" Leon could barely respond, as he was still recovering from the shock of Karu's explanation. "She'd bomb her own people?"

"This isn't one of your Federation worlds, Cromwell!" barked Karu. "There are no rights for anyone except those who follow the government!"

With a shaky voice, the radar controller started a continuous report on the status of the the government forces. "Inbound battle sleds will come into attack range within ten seconds... nine... eight... seven..."

Leon could hardly believe what was happening. Everything they had worked so hard for over the past ten weeks was unravelling before their eyes. Building Suburbia Base... finding Karu... curing the plague... saving the refugees... even building ties with a forsaken mutant race. Now, after traveling across the entire galaxy to the Gamma Quadrant - far from where he was born three and a half decades earlier - Leon had only seconds to come to terms with the fact that his life was going to end. Here. Now. In one giant fireball.

"Three... two... one..."

Panic rippled through the populace of refugees as the din of alert klaxons sounded both inside and out of Karu's strong-hold. Even experienced patriots - the men and women who came as close to soldiers as Karu had - where not immune. The menacing sight of inbound government war planes on the horizon only made the fear-based adrenaline surging through everyone's veins do so harder. Nathan Hawk felt the same emotions, struggled with the same desires to run for safety. His training and his experience kept him on task as he rushed against the surging tide of bodies. The odds against them had always been stacked, and he doubted their latest desperate strategy would make much difference. Yet they had to keep trying. Surrender - either to fate, destiny, or anything else - was not an option.

Reaching the glorified closet that he and Leon Cromwell shared as living space, he tore through the pile of field gear searching for the innocuous gray box that may well hold their last hope of salvation. Clawing at the seals with haste, he retrieved the small piece of familiar Federation equipment from within and paused for but a moment as he held it in his hands. So much had happened to him since he had joined the Republic's crew only a few years ago. That Nathan Hawk would never have been in this particular situation. Not because he was afraid to risk either his life or his freedom, but because he never would have had the courage of his convictions, let alone the strength to act upon them. That Nathan Hawk was a drunk, a malcontent, a womanizer; a brash and angry young man fighting everyone and everything because he didn't know how to do anything else.

"Here goes nothin'..." he said to the vacant room as he pressed the small device's activation sequencer.

He didn't know if anyone would answer the signal. Didn't know if anyone would even receive it. Didn't know where Republic was or what was her disposition. Most of all, he didn't know what the future would hold. If he or Leon, or Leah, or the Ash'aarian's even had a future.

But for the first time in a very long time, he wanted to be around to find out.

***

Location: USS Republic, Ashaar Nebula, Gamma Quadrant

"Captain's Log, Stardate 58682.2

"I'm pleased to report that USS Republic is finally underway. Following the attack by the Dominion flotilla formerly commanded by the Vorta, Eris, our Engineering Department has performed herculean work.

"Per previous log entries, the damage to our starboard warp nacelle was extensive. Repair of the nacelle's structure, as well as exterior hull composites has taken some time, but we are finally preparing to engage warp drive.

"All told, the operation has taken two months of round-the-clock EVA work, using only replicated material, and a fair amount of ingenuity. I should know by now that Captains simultaneously over-burden and underestimate their crews, especially the engineers, but those men and women are forcing me to raise the bar. Still, it's more than past time since we got underway, as the operation has taken a toll on all of us. My initial concerns about the cohesion among Engineering teams, while not effecting their work, have begun to prove correct. Chief Engineer Devloch has requested a transfer at our earliest convenience.

"While he neglected to cite a specific reason, no doubt to prevent any ill feelings among the crew, I believe that his methodology is simply too laid back to mesh with the meticulous structure initiated by Commander Virtus. None the less, I intend to grant his request and will forward the appropriate orders to PERSCOMM following our return to the Alpha Quadrant.

"The matter of Lieutenant Devloch's replacement isn't as cut and dry as it might appear. The obvious choice is to promote ACE Pikita. The advantages are clear. She's served on the ship since Captain Marshall first assumed command, her rapport with the rest of the department is unquestionable, and she's shown a remarkable capacity for non-linear problem solving. However she has also shown reluctance to promotion in the past. Still, I'll make the offer.

"PERSCOMM Note: Commendations recommended for Lieutenant Vance Devloch, Lieutenant Maria Pakita, Lieutenant Sven Butenhoff.

"On weightier matters, the Vorta Eris remains in custody, and has proven to be surprisingly cooperative. I have no doubt that a sizable contingent of blackshirts will be waiting for us upon return to DS9, but for now, she's our responsibility.

"While she is our guest, Commander Carter is taking lead on Eris' debriefing, and reports that her defection from the Dominion seems genuine. At this point, if I can trust Carter to do anything, it's read people. One of these days, I'll remember to take him up on his invitation to poker night.

"Counselor Tolkath has reported that Morganth's condition has improved, and while he still has some outward signs of difficulty with socialization, his interactions appear to be normalizing. Doctor Yezbeck reports that he has no signs of physical trauma or injury, and recommends further treatment on Betazed pending our return.

"Tolkath and Yezbeck have also confirmed Morganth's original suspicion that the plant sting which caused his initial madness during his arrival holds the key to the Gorn poison used to kill Captain Marshall. While this is low on my list of problems, I know it was something of a personal crusade for Doctor Cromwell. I'm curious to know if he'll be pleased that the puzzle has an answer, or annoyed that he missed it. Hopefully I'll be able to ask him in a few days."

-End Log Entry-

On Captain Roth's desk, Smoke bleaked while holding the last bits of a celery stalk with his forehands. His red eyes blinked as he sucked a green strand into his mouth. Roth pushed herself away from her desk and stood up. "Ok, Stinker, I'll take a break. I was done anyway." Roth walked to the small replicator unit built into her ready room wall and tapped at the controls. "Tea, iced, sweet."

A musical chime of photons washed out from the replicator bay, taking the form of Roth's new favorite beverage. Seconds later, there was a call from the comm. system.

"Engineering to Captain Roth."

Kim took the tea from the replicator and nodded upward. "Go ahead, Mister Devloch."

"I've run the simulator thirty times captain. The numbers say we don't go boom."

Roth smiled as she sipped her tea. "Is that a professional assessment, Mister Devloch?"

"Aye Captain. I've got things down here, just in case. Pakita's on the bridge. We're go for warp on your order. Warp two following successfully not blowing up."

"Understood, Mr. Devloch." Roth took one last sip of her tea, then set the glass down. In the two seconds that her arm remained still, the small marsupial who had been her companion for nearly five years scampered up her arm, finally settling into a comfortable position on her right shoulder, his tail curled loosely around her neck, more out of familiarity than for actual support. She stepped toward the door to the bridge. "Stand by to initiate warp drive."

"Aye Captain."

Roth strode from her ready room onto Republic's bridge. As she moved, Commander John Carter rose from the center seat, sliding one position to his right. "Boards are all green Captain. All departments standing by."

Roth nodded in affirmation as she settled into the Captain's chair. "Thank you, XO." She looked to her left toward the engineering station just behind the turbolift entrance. "Pakita? Are we clear to proceed?"

Above and behind her captain, Maria Grizelle Pakita checked her figures again, though she didn't have to. All Republic's engineers knew the score. "Chief Devloch reports main engineering is ready. All systems green. We are go for warp drive, Captain."

"About sprocking time," John Carter muttered under his breath.

"Agreed, XO," Roth said, the barest hint of a smile on her face. She looked at the main viewer, then turned her head slightly to address conn officer Margot Allard. "Helm, lay in a course for Ash'aaria, warp two...god willing."

A few chirps from the helm console later, Allard replied. "Course laid in, Captain."

"Engage warp drive."

***

Location: Ash'aarian System
Timefrome: 48 hours later

There was a flash of light as USS Republic made the transition from warp to real space. Despite the crippling damage done by the Dominion attack over eight weeks ago, the battered but intact ship had managed to come through bloodied, but unbowed.

Despite the fact that warp drive made faster than light travel possible, there were some laws of physics that even a galaxy-class starship was forced to obey. One of these was that warp travel inside the gravity envelope of a system's star was highly inadvisable. Given the damage the ship had sustained, it was a recommendation Kim Roth was more than happy to observe.

"Merrick, what's out there?"

"Nothing, Captain. At least, nothing we need to worry about. No comm traffic, no subspace transmissions. Astrometrics read as normal,"

Roth nodded. "Tactical. Anything?"

Zoe Beauvais evaluated all the information her tactical scans showed her. "Local scans show nothing, Captain. Nothing in the outer system, nothing in orbit around Ash'aaria itself."

Next to Roth, Carter nodded. "Just as quiet as the last time we were here, with the exception of Karu's ship."

"Nice to see some things haven't changed."

"I'm still not sure whether that's good or bad. So what do we do? Scream in there and get them out, or what?"

"We need to take it slow. Helm, proceed toward Ash'aaria, one-quarter impulse."

Magot Allard confirmed the order. "One-quarter impulse, aye."

A few minutes passed as Republic began her slow glide toward the darkened world that had caused them so much trouble lately. As if on cue from fate, destiny, or whatever else, the tell-tale chirp of an incoming communication sounded from behind her at Tactical.

"I don't believe it..." whispered Zoe Beauvais to herself as she verified the signal's authenticity.

"Report, Lieutenant." Roth commanded as her posture stiffened. She rose from the center seat.

"We're receiving a signal from a Starfleet emergency beacon, ma'am." Beauvais reported, her voice laced with irony.

"Naturally." Roth replied as she bounded up the ramp towards tactical. "Is there an ID sequence attached?" she asked as she hovered over her Tactical Officer's shoulder.

"Yes ma'am, but it doesn't look like it belongs to a ship. It's just an alpha-numeric sequence; looks like spatial coordinates and a Starfleet service number." Beauvais informed her superior.

Something about the service number struck Roth as familiar. "Put a map of the region up on the viewer." she ordered Beauvais. Stepping away from tactical, she turned her gaze forward as a tactical plot of the space around them appeared on screen. A Starfleet delta in the center of the screen marked their current position, while a circular red indicator marked the coordinates. They where less than a dozen AU's distance.

"Misery loves company..." Roth remarked once more to herself.

Roth turned from the tactical arch and headed back down the ramp to retake her seat.

"Well," John Carter offered, "At least that confirms our suspicions."

Roth nodded. "True, but you didn't really need a comm signal to tell you that, did you, XO?"

Carter shook his head. "No Captain. Not at all."

Roth set her jaw, her face taking on a grim expression. "Helm, maintain course and speed. They survived this long without us, they can probably wait a few hours more."

Location: Quark's, Deep Space Nine (Alpha Quadrant)
Station Time: 2130 hours

Weeks of digging in figurative and sometimes literal piles of information, and still no sign of the Republic. No contact between the crew and planet-bound relatives, no beacon relays, no secret comm traffic between the backup warp engineering diagnostic subsystem and the Luna Base Marine Biology Department Mainframe, and he'd set that up personally so that ANY contact between the old Saratoga equipment and a Federation navigation beacon would note the stardate and the estimated location within a few parsecs.

"Can I get you anything else Commander?" the bartender drawled, eyeing the chip of gold-pressed lat in his hand. Vic couldn't remember the bartender's name, but knew it had something to do with the bar, and had to respect anyone that would name a place after a vital and fascinating subatomic particle.

The haggard engineer covered his glass and shook his head in negation. He didn't trust his voice as he'd gotten into a primal screaming match with a Naussican, or maybe a Vroon or a Breen. They were all starting to run together. He'd done more leg work in the past month than a Oronian plastic surgeon does in a year. But since her last scheduled stop there hadn't been a peep.

Pakita was an exceptional engineer; Mr. Virtus was certain that even in the face of a borg do-decahedron piloted by a legion of Q she would bear up stoically and being the ship out with her. But this level of disappearing was reserved for classic 1701-(n) trouble involving time travel, extra-galactic probes and whales. Maria could only do so much if the Captain, or heavens-forbid John, decided to start doing slingshots around the sun or explore random wormholes in transwarp.

The sixth vodka, kahlua and soda were starting to kick in, and the temporally conscientious researcher noted several chronological and spacial anomalies before deciding to hit on the miniature Andorian palm tree sitting beside the attractive Alpha Centauran in the booth by the door. Flattered but ultimately asexual, the palm tree politely said nothing. Jilted, the Centauran woman threw her drink in Vic's face and stormed out.

"Incoming communication for Victor Virtus from Starfleet Corps of Engineers."

Vic sat down beside his new best friend, Palmy, and made two unsuccessful attempts on his comm badge before locating it on the other breast.

"Weertus, go 'head SCoE."

"Commander, this is Midshipman Rory Wills aboard the Apex. Sorry to interrupt your leave Mr. Virtus but we've suffered a catastrophic failure of our primary sensor array. We're are flying nearly blind back to Starbase-14 for repair and refit. You are ordered to remain at liberty until the Apex is ready to return to duty. Acknowledge?"

"'cknowledge Apex, sorry t' 'ear about the sensors. I'll find somethin' t' do while yer gone."

"Roger that Commander. Apex out."

And just like that, a heavily inebriated UPF loyalist was given as much time as he needed to sober up, find his friends, and save the UFP. He'd need a checklist, and lacking a PADD, he'd have to memorize it.

Step One: Coffee.

***

Location: San Francisco, North America, Sol III

The campaign headquarters of Vladimir Kostya where quiet at this time of night, the throngs of volunteers having gone home long ago, leaving only a few choice staffers to hold down the fort. It was this time of day that the once Starfleet Admiral hated the most, as the relative peace and quiet gave voice to his doubts and fears. They had run a decent campaign thus far into things, yet the polls remained indecisive, as did the populace. With six candidates to choose from even at this late stage, it was still anyone's election. The nagging thought that it could be any one of the other five but himself who emerged victorious in just over six weeks ate at Vladimir Kostya. He was not a man who liked to lose. The concept of losing something as major as this was beyond intolerable to him. Even more intolerable was that neither he nor any of the men who shared his vision of the future of the Federation could come up with a way to turn the tide in his favor.

This election was one defined by comparatively trivial issues with little passion behind it or any of it's candidates. With no incumbent to campaign against or contrast to and no central decisive issue to divide the voters, the race was at a virtual six-way stale mate. What they needed was something to set them apart from the rest. Something to rally around and stand either for or against. Something that would put him out in front of the pack. Every election eventually had such; when such would become apparent and what it would be, though, was anyone's guess. So, for not the first night, nor likely the last, Vladimir Kostya nursed a glass of something definitely non-syntheholic, and waited for his moment to shine. His moment to stand apart and hopefully above the rest.

The one-time Starfleet admiral would be president, he assured himself.

Greatness was his destiny, after all.

***

Location: New Sidney colony, Alpha Quadrant

The Pale Moonlight bar and grille had known many lavish and wild parties in it's forty-plus years of operation, but few compared to the one in progress. Music blared as drinks flowed complimentarily to the assemblage of patrons and party-goers. Food stuffs vanished from the gold pressed latinum-plated trays as beautiful exotic females danced seductively upon raised daises. The generosity of the proprietor was beyond unusual. It was unfathomable. Even questionable. Yet none of the multitude of would-be patrons did so. Everyone on New Sydney knew enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Least of all when said proverbial gift horse was a senior member of the Orion Syndicate who could find a thousand easier and less expensive means of slaughtering a few hundred random strangers if he felt so inclined.

Seated in a reserved booth in an enclosed area cordoned off from the rest of the crowd, that particular senior member of the Orion Syndicate laughed victoriously as he imbibed yet another glass of exorbitantly expensive Earth wine - a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite Rothschild - a beverage he normally detested as Terran swill. On this particular occasion however, the fruity alcohol tasted like the nectar of the gods to Keevan Faro, who for the first time in years was free to return here to his home. The years he had spent avoiding arrest by the arrogant Federation authorities, their Klingon allies, their Cardassian dependants, or their Ferengi lap-dogs, had been an unbearable burden of hardship for a man of power and influence such as he. Only the weakened state of the Romulan empire and the corrupt nature of it's out-world military officers and governmental bureaucrats had found him any refuge.

The injustice that had forced him to flee like some common gutter-trash hoodlum had finally been righted, though. With the 'tragic' death of Nathaniel Hawthorne - or Nathan Hawk as he had been calling himself - the indictments that had threatened to force him before the self-righteous poorly named 'justice' system of the United Federation of Planets had been dismissed. No longer capable of making their case or corroborating whatever evidence they claimed to have without their only witness, their own foolish laws had forced them to rescind their warrants for his arrest and enabled his triumphant return. Now that he was back, he intended to live life to the fullest once again. He also intended to see to it that the imperious fools within Starfleet and the Federation Ministry of Justice received what they where due for inconveniencing him.

Reaching across the table for the ancient bottle, intent upon emptying it of it's final contents, Faro stopped short upon the tell-tale sounds of a ruckus coming from the lobby. Gesturing for his long-time body guard and lackey Zerik to tend to the situation personally - and with all due force - Faro couldn't help but wonder what fool would dare to start a bar fight during the middle of his homecoming/victory celebration. Before lumbering Zerik could make it beyond the tangle of Tholian silken curtains though, a seed of rage began to grow within him at the sight of uniformed Starfleet officers brandishing compression phaser rifles and clad in riot gear entering his bar.

"This is outrageous!" Faro proclaimed so loudly that the music stopped as he shot to his feet, knocking the ancient bottle of Terran wine to the floor with a shattering smash. "Haven't you Federation glob-flies learned your place yet? Insolent trash!"

"Shut it, Faro!" a voice responded brazenly.

A voice Faro recognized.

"Special Prosecutor Thomas Aidan Dorian." Faro stated, his tone more accusatory than identifying, "you've either got a death wish or you're the stupidest man I've ever met." Faro assessed. "The indictments have been dismissed. You're little court-room circus is over. Accept you defeat at the hands of the better man and leave New Sydney while you can still do so." Faro threatened fearlessly as Dorian and his Starfleet cadre encircled Faro.

"You know, you're right Faro." Tom Dorian finally said, much to the surprise of everyone present. "You're right that the indictments where dismissed, that is. That's why we've got new ones. On new charges."

"That's preposterous! What new charges?" Faro challenged.

"Oh, charges like intimidating a witness, solicitation to commit murder, evading arrest, solicitation to impersonate a Starfleet officer... the list goes on." Dorian replied smugly. Gesturing to two of the Starfleet officers closest to Faro, he continued. "And since you didn't want to stick around last time to face the music, Starfleet's been granted special permission by the Federation Council to take you into custody to await trial."

As the duo of Starfleet officers took hold of Faro, the green-skinned Orion seethed with fury. Once shackled, the mighty senior member of the Orion Syndicate was prodded towards the door, his associate Zerik and his consort Seya in tow. Resisting as he neared Dorian, Faro stepped in close to the prosecutor and breathed a declaration that would make any sensible man whimper and plead for mercy. "You're a dead man, Dorian. Just like your 'witness' is. Do you hear me?"

With an almost pleasured look upon his face, Tom Dorian stared back at Keevan Faro for a few moments before responding. "I already know my destiny, Keevan. It's seeing you put away. And you can rest assured, I'll stop at nothing short of raising the dead to make that happen."

As he watched Faro lead away, Tom Dorian couldn't help but hope that fate would prove him right.

Location: "New Ashaaria" stronghold, Planet Ashaaria, Gamma Quadrant

Tense, tortured moments passed by silently inside the control room. Save the humming of the machinery, and the beeping of the console displays, everyone remained motionless and cringing, awaiting their final fate. As the echoes on the radar screen grew ever closer, it became apparent that any weaponry that could have been used by Athra's forces was not deployed.

Outside, the deserted entrance to the outer door became partially obscured by dust as the wind bellowed in response to the high-pitched whine of turbine engines. Overhead, eight massive black monolithic skyships dredged forth from the horizon slowing down to hover just above the the stronghold egress. The largest of the ships, whose ancient and buckling metal hulls were worn with signatures of numerous past battles, groaned to a halt and yawned opened two pairs of blackened, rusty bay doors. With a grumbling, mechanical grind, the ship extended a set of clawed landing appendages that reached out to grab the ground like a raptor taking perch while the other ships took station-keeping in mid-air.

Back inside the control complex, sweat trickled down Leon's face as his pinpointed pupils betrayed his anxiety. Karu, also visibly nervous, watched the radar screen for any sign of an attack formation. Seeing none, he looked at the controller seated in front of the console with a puzzled expression as the radar echoes slowed their advance, then came to a halt. Confused, the young technician shook his head.

"I'm reading all stop, premier," he announced. "Negative deployment on their weapon pods."

"That doesn't make any sense," Karu mused. "Why didn't they attack? Why haven't they finished us off?"

"Premier!" the second controller on the other side of the radar station called out. "I'm receiving a carrier-beam message from them," he paused, listening into the receiver of his coiled handset. "They want to confer with you at the outer door - to discuss the terms of our surrender..."

"Me?" Karu asked quizzically.

"Yes, premier," the controller acknowledged. "They requested you specifically."

"Is it a trap?" The first controller asked. "Are they trying to render us leaderless?"

"Unlikely," replied Karu. "It's not like Athra to parley under these circumstances. What's she up to? She could invade and take over the whole stronghold in minutes!"

"Maybe she's afraid to," Leon interjected. "For all she knows, you have an entire regiment of militia down here."

"It's possible..." Karu carefully pondered. "But it's more likely a stall tactic... but for what?"

"How shall I reply to her?" the second controller finally asked.

Karu ruminated for a moment, considering all the options, and attempting to extrapolate each with hopes of determining the best outcome.

"We'll meet on the surface," Karu finally relented. "On the condition that they hold off any attack until the terms are agreed upon."

"Yes premier," the controller replied and began transmitting the message.

"Is that wise?" Leon questioned Karu. "What if it's a trap to lure you out?"

"Trickery isn't Athra's mode of operation," Karu explained. "While she often conceals her motives, and has been known to lead opponents astray of their objectives through vague messages that could be misinterpreted, outright deceit is almost as alien to her as you are, Cromwell."

"So you're going to just walk out there and give up?" a flummoxed Leon added.

"Calm down, doctor. I have no intention of surrendering," Karu assured him. "However, in order to determine what she's hiding, we have to let Athra move forward with whatever plan she currently has, if only until the point where we figure out her objective."

"And if we find out too late?"

"Then," Karu started. "We'll have at least found out, now won't we?"

As disturbing as the prospect was, the premier seemed at least marginally sure of himself, unlike the nervous doctor. With the controller signaling a positive response, Karu and Leon left the control room en route to the surface airlock.

***

The government skyship rested just outside the outer door. While massive and opposing, it was an aged atmospheric transport vessel marred by decades of war. The four pivoting turbofan engines that allowed it to hover and fly across the surface were in ominous disrepair, with the exhaust ports scored with numerous pockmarks, the intakes worn down to the superstructure, and the support pylons creaking in the wind as if the linkages were on their last bolt. Each metal-riveted hull plate was in a state of dilapidation, either pitted or blackened by projectile impact points, and buckled almost to the point of hull breach. Non-deployed weapon pods were scattered randomly across the vessel surface like blisters on a toad, and while the viewports were many, most were welded over with off-colored metal plating edged with withering rust. As the outer door to Karu's stronghold yawned open on the ground, it was followed by a shrill metallic screech signaling the lowering of an exit ramp from the vessel.

Within the open airlock, Karu and Leon prepared to face Athra's forces together. While the doctor chose to suit up and seal himself in his battle armor, Karu decided to don only a basic survival suit with a half-faced breathing mask covering only his nose and mouth. They walked a few meters out onto the gray, bleak terrain, stopping a few meters away from the planetfall ramp in anticipation of a greeting party.

Leon checked his wrist console. "Radiation levels are nominal, but they may not be for long. If the battle sled brought some hot particles with it from wherever else it's been on the planet, we may have to decontaminate."

Before Karu could reply, multiple footsteps signaled the emergence of their foe from the dark upper confines of the government war machine. Five figures in black uniforms walked down the metal plank, four of them wearing head-to-toe combat armor with integrated, impact resistant ceramic plates, and wielding the standard issue electromagnetic slug-throwers of Athra's forces. The fifth uniformed individual was obviously the leader, who wore a dark, matte-cloth battle uniform, complete with a pistol sidearm and officer's cap. However, it was the face that surprised Karu and Leon the most, as it was not only familiar to both of them, but once a close friend and confidant of Karu.

"Teya..." the premier whispered with shock.

In return, the former sci-med advisor of Karu's space vessel looked back at the two with cold detestation; as if they were the most vile, disgusting creatures that had ever crossed her path. Pausing about a meter from Karu and Leon, and backed by the two pair of battle-suited soldiers, Teya crossed her arms with commanding presence, expecting her adversaries to make the first verbal gestures.

Karu was too startled not to take the opportunity. "Sub-legionnaire?" the premier noted her black and gold epaulettes. Assuming that the years under his command were of great benefit to Legionnaire Athra's beleaguered forces, Karu recognized her promotion within the government ranks. "It appears that Athra has complete confidence in you..." He considered the revelation of Teya's new rank as entirely plausible, given the probability that the pool of worthy, trained officers Athra had to choose from was extremely small. Teya was a natural choice, as Karu knew her to be very loyal to her sovereign, and seemingly predisposed to the "second-in-command" mentality: Ready to do whatever it takes to accomplish a mission -- as long as someone else actually provides the mission objectives.

"So what next, Teya?" Karu finally questioned. "Are you going to arrest me?"

"You," she declared looking to both Karu and the battle-suited doctor. "And everyone else who has sided with you."

"You don't honestly expect us to just turn ourselves in?" Karu held his ground.

"That depends," Teya replied. "On how much you value the lives of your people. I'm authorized to offer amnesty to your lower ranking subordinates."

It was a ruse. Karu knew his former sci-med advisor, and amnesty for disobedience wasn't an option for neither her nor Athra. It was just another stalling tactic, and he knew it. Somehow, he had to get her to show a glimpse of what was up her sleeve.

"Ghrune?" Teya turned to the battle-suited Leon after taking note of the chirurgeon symbol on his chest. "Why are YOU dressed to fight? I figured you would have been sniveling back your cave under Karu's protection?"

As Karu and Leon looked at one another, they realized that Teya didn't know the existence of Suburbia Base, otherwise she would have known that Ghrune and Shara were running a makeshift hospital a thousand kilometers away. Since she had unwittingly provided them with knowledge of her information gap, they silently decided that it was time to show the sub-legionnaire just how off-base she was regarding the "New Ashaaria" movement. With a nod from Karu, Leon reached around in back of his head and disengaged his helmet lock, following the action with a twist of the headgear, and pulling it off to reveal the doctor's true identity to Teya.

"Cromwell!" her eyes widened with incredulity. "I should have known Karu was under the control of Republic! What technological abomination did you use to corrupt him this time?" she quipped.

"None," Leon calmly returned while tucking the helmet under his arm. "I defected from Republic and joined Karu here over one-hundred Ash'aarian days ago." Unbeknownst to Teya, the doctor was partially lying about the defection, as he had not completely forsaken Starfleet and the Federation as much as he simply disobeyed orders. However, he felt that suggesting defection would help soften the tense interaction.

"Republic hasn't been in orbit since Athra ordered her away," Karu added to the doctor's ersatz explanation, though careful to maintain the truth without revealing too much. "Ghrune fell sick with the blight, and since Cromwell and his fugitive group of two were withering and dying in the wastelands, we offered them shelter in exchange for his medical services."

Teya could tell when her former commander was hiding something. Although she sensed that his words spoke truisms, there were facts that he still hadn't told her. Looking back at the alien doctor, Teya studied him, taking note of his grizzled and worn expression. His appearance revealed weeks of overgrown facial hair, lack of personal grooming, and eyes that had seen what horrors this dying planet had to offer. The fact that he was wearing an ancient, decrepit government surplus battle suit that was a model years out of date accentuated Karu's claim that Cromwell had, indeed, abandoned the outrageously opulent environment of the Federation starship. Furthermore, the red, hand-painted symbol of a chirurgeon on the doctor's torso was not only an acknowledgment of his integration into Ash'aarian society, but registered his willingness to take on the notoriety that came with the title.

Stepping forward, the sub-legionnaire focused on Leon. "It's true, then?" she inquired. "What the refugees we've captured have been saying? You've been illegally distributing your so-called 'cure'?"

"Yes," Leon said defiantly. "And it works even better than we imagined due to Ash'aarian physiology. There's minimal convalescence, and works within hours, not days. We've cured thousands of Ash'aarians to date with the treatment."

The revelation did not sway Teya. She only narrowed her eyes with a predatory glint, and approached Leon with simmering rage. "Do you have any idea how angry Legionnaire Athra got when she heard about your insolence?" she said through gritted teeth.

"We can imagine," Leon countered unperturbed.

Teya used her tense, unyielding gaze to stare the doctor down in an attempt disrupt his smug self-assuredness about the plague treatment. To her surprise, he remained stoic and solid, suggesting that he was more than likely telling the truth. "I admire your commitment, chirurgeon," Teya admitted after a moment. "But I question your motives."

"Not surprising," Leon rolled his eyes with resignation. "So does almost everyone else on this planet..."

"I'm sorry that our backwards culture does not meet with your approval," she spat back at him with vindictiveness. "But *we* haven't the luxury to welcome every alien race that crosses our wake, even if they partially fulfill their promises."

Both Karu and Leon were caught off guard by the comment. Flying in the face of their assumptions, they noted the barest hint of reconciliation in Teya's voice with regard to Leon "fulfilling his promises". It suggested that Athra was fully aware of Leon's existence on the planet, and despite Teya's appearance of surprise, it may simply have been due to the realization of the doctor's allegiance to Karu.

"We could... show you," Leon offered with hesitance. "At least a quarter of the people working in Karu's stronghold have been cured, and we've got two being treated right now in the clinic down below."

"No," Teya declared. "For all I know, you've got faux patients in there ready to vain infection just to try and convince me." Her suspicion was genuine, but her expression betrayed an ulterior motive. "There is an infected patient in my ship's infirmary," she revealed after a moment. "You will treat THEM."

An expression of realization washed over Karu's face. He now knew why Teya hesitated to attack the stronghold. She *needed* Karu. Despite Athra's recalcitrance to the details of Cromwell's treatment those many weeks ago on Republic, Teya was probably disobeying orders to destroy the stronghold just to find out first if the cure worked. While Athra may have turned numb to the pain and suffering around her, it was possible that Teya may not yet have. In fact, Karu knew Teya to be a deeply emotional person beneath her stiff, introverted personality, and if indeed one of her own subordinates had become infected with the plague, she would have been torn between following Athra's orders, and her own loyalty to her infected crewmember. Either way, the logical extrapolation was clear: the only way Teya could fulfill both allegiances was to bring Cromwell onboard her vessel and perform his treatment before carrying out Athra's orders afterwards. A short-sighted goal, but Karu was deeply convinced that *this* was what Teya was hiding.

Armed with that knowledge, and determined to exploit it, the premier stood his ground and called Teya's bluff. "He's not stepping foot on your battle sled, Teya. My stronghold clinic has all the materials and instruments that Cromwell will need. If you want your officer to be cured of the plague, you will transfer him there."

Teya met him eye to eye in a showdown of wills. Karu, in his usual fashion, had peeled back her concealed motives layer by layer, and put his final ultimatum on the bargaining table. The negotiation was especially tense since the two knew each other well, having served together for years. However, after a moment where Karu met Teya's icy, unrevealing gaze, she finally relented, nodding her head in agreement.

"Very well," she acquiesced with determination in her voice. "In trade, YOU will stay with me until your chirurgeon is successful."

"Fair enough," Karu replied promptly. It was exactly what he hoped for: Time. Time to spend with Teya, both in attempts to gain more information, or possibly even find a way to convince her that Athra's ways were wrong, and would lead to the extinction of their civilization. While it was a long shot, it was his only hope of saving the "New Ashaaria" movement.

While Karu seemed comfortable with the trade, Leon was not. With an expression of exasperation, the doctor looked back to the premier, hoping to find a hint of compromise. Although Leon found none, he did sense a glint of confidence in Karu, as if he was working a plan. Since he knew that Teya was once a subordinate officer to Karu, Leon could only assume that the premier had a deeper understanding of her motives, and thus, must have known what he was doing.

***

The exchange took place as planned. Teya released the plague patient in a sealed isolation stretcher to Doctor Cromwell, who proceeded back into the stronghold with two of the government soldiers in tow, while Karu was escorted onboard the battle sled. In one of the few chambers that didn't have the viewport welded over by metal plating, Teya and Karu sat at a table looking outward from the stern, overlooking the sporadic piles of rock and concrete that constituted the refugee camps. While most of the inhabitants were hiding from the skyships within their ramshackle lairs, a few bold and curious folk could occasionally be seen moving quickly to and fro among the tangled, twisted gravel alleyways. From the high perch in the rear observation room, the two leaders sat silently gazing out the window upon the craggy, desolate terrain, lost among their own thoughts as they awaited word from Doctor Cromwell.

It was a good ten minutes before either of them chose to break the uneasy quietude with conversation, and since the sub-legionnaire was not in a talking mood, the responsibility fell to Karu.

"For just a moment," the premier started thoughtfully. "Forget Republic ever crossed our wake. Forget Cromwell, forget Athra, forget the plague. Look out there... I mean, really LOOK out there... and tell me what you see. Tell me what you see now as compared to you saw before we left home on our last mission offworld."

Teya slid her eyes sideways, as if considering whether to respond to Karu at all. Her former commander was a well-known diplomat in his day, and since there was little to do until Cromwell's results were known, there seemed no reason to fill their idle time with banter. However, it was the first chance in a long time that she had a chance to muse with Karu since they went their separate ways those many weeks ago after returning from Republic.

"I see nothing," she replied crassly, yet in a quiet tone. "I see nothing but a meager, pathetic gathering of souls huddling together for no reason other than to prolong their misery."

The premier seemed to respect the view, but also knew that there was an overtone of Athra's indoctrination in her voice. "I don't," Karu responded as calmly and as passionately as possible. "I see something else; I see hope."

"Hope is a dangerous thing," Teya countered. "It brings with it false promises that cannot be fulfilled."

"Now THAT sounds like Athra," retorted Karu. "Noble, solitary, and completely devoid of any future prospects for our planet. I want to know what YOU think, Teya. Deep down inside. I know you, and since your crewman guards outside the door aren't in earshot at the moment, I think you owe it to me as your former commander to say exactly what's on your mind."

"Very well," she changed her tone, which gained a slight edge to it. "I think you've been led astray. If you recall, Legionnaire Athra sent us out into space to patrol our solar system and prevent a return of the Centennials. YOU were the one who turned the mission into an extraterrestrial social function. In my opinion, you betrayed the trust that Athra instilled in us, and put all of Ashaaria at risk."

"Fair enough," Karu nodded solemnly, having the effect of softening Teya's expression. "I can see how many of our people would perceive my actions as such. But if it's any consolation, my decision to contact Republic was not an easy one to make. I knew the risks, and at the time, all Republic was to me was a simple opportunity. No more."

Teya turned her head more towards the premier and away from the window, interested to hear about how Karu had initially proceeded into the Republic affair with misgivings that she was not aware of at the time.

"We only needed them for one thing... the ONLY thing: To remind us once again what hope actually is."

"Legionnaire Athra would disagree with you," Teya responded cooly.

"Of course she would. Athra assumes that any promise made by anyone other than herself will be broken. She's lost the ability to hope, but she forgets that hope is the ONE thing our planet needs to survive. Hope leads to faith, faith leads to inspiration, and inspiration leads to opportunity. We left our world in spaceships carrying with us the hopes of our people. With their faith instilled in us, I was inspired to reach out and find something... ANYTHING... that would help us in our struggle. Finally, on that fateful day not so long ago, along came Republic... not an *opponent* in the traditional sense, but an *opportunity*. A dubious, opportunity, yes. But an opportunity nonetheless, and one we may never get again."

Teya was focused on Karu, but her face betrayed no particular emotion. She was listening, and from Karu's point of view, it was a step above what Athra would do, so he took advantage of the situation while he could.

"It's never been about me, Teya. Nor Republic, nor Cromwell, nor Athra. It's been about the survival of our planet. These people..." he gestured out the window. "ARE our planet. Or what's left of it. For better or worse, they've heard the promise of hope, and gathered *here* to seek faith and inspiration. This is the largest gathering of Ash'aarians ever gathered in recent history. There's over fifteen thousand souls out there, and thousands more flowing in each day. We would betray everything we hold dear not to provide them the opportunity to survive and live."

"Why are you telling me this?" the sub-legionnaire spoke with a soft overtone.

"Because Teya, I *know* you," he declared. "I know you want what's best for our people, and embracing Athra, while perhaps virtuous from the aspect of protecting our culture from outside influences, provides no hope, and no chance of survival." Karu leaned closer as if to emphasize his next words. "It's NOT a sign of weakness to seize an opportunity, but it IS a weakness to turn your back on one when it's the last -- and final -- chance we have as a species."

As before, Teya remained silent but focused. In Karu's experience, this was acknowledgement that he was getting through to her, as a lack of response indicated she had nothing to counter his argument. He had the high ground, and he had to keep her attention if he was to sway her in his direction.

"Join me, Teya," he requested passionately. "Disregard Republic and Cromwell. They're nothing. They're irrelevant and unimportant. What matters is US!" he pounded his fist on the table. "OUR planet! OUR people! Join with me, and let's face Athra together. With your help, maybe she'll listen and realize that what's happening here isn't the END of Ash'aarian civilization, but its SALVATION!"

Leaning back in her chair, Teya's face collapsed into an expression of complete resignation, as if the last brick in her wall of discord had tumbled. In it's place was neither a countenance of personal resolution, nor the fire of intractable hatred. To Karu's puzzlement, her face bore the look of a defeated general; it was filled with failure - complete and utter failure.

"I can't..." she finally whispered with a distant stare.

Karu was bewildered. He thought he had reached her, but now he realized that Athra may have done more damage than he originally thought.

"Listen to me, Teya," he pleaded. "The entire fate of our world rests on what you decide to do next. If you won't help me represent our people before Athra, then everything our civilization ever was - everything it ever COULD be - will be lost. Forever. Until the end of time. How can you let that happen?"

"You don't understand," she murmured in a low, raspy breath. "It's not that I won't, it's that I... can't."

"Why not?" he asked expectantly.

"Because," she finally admitted. "The plague patient that Cromwell took custody of... the one in your clinic right now... that patient IS Athra..."

***

Leon and Nat stood in the cramped, dilapidated exam room of the stronghold clinic, their backs turned to shelves full of glass jars and antiquated steel medical tools, and gawking over an exam table that held aloft a sealed isolation stretcher partially shrouded by a tarp. The expressions on their faces were that of genuine shock and petrified fear, not so much due to the state of the patient (which, as seen through the un-shrouded portion of the stretcher was in the advance stages of the Centennial plague), but because of the revelation of her identity.

"Sprock me," Leon swore, borrowing a phrase from John Carter's Martian profanity.

"Ditto," Nat followed with an uneasy voice in his South Carolina vernacular.

Unconscious and restrained, Athra remained motionless in the sealed capsule. Her head was partially transformed to microscopically-spun metal alloys, with half her mouth revealing exposed chrome-plated teeth, while the other half was covered by fleshy remnants of lips. The skull was equally affected, being half metallic and half encased under pale folds of necrotic skin. Her hair was still rooted to the crown follicles of the skull, but had turned jet-black and was the consistency of steel-wool. One completely-transformed xeno-robotic eye peered out lifelessly towards the clinic ceiling and pulsated in a luminescent red while the other remained hidden under a closed eyelid. Although her condition had not surpassed that of the first patient Leon encountered in the government bunker over ten weeks ago, the prognosis was just as bleak.

"There's not a damn thing I can do," Leon stammered incredulously. "She's too far gone."

"If ya don't do somthin', they're gonna kill Karu!" exclaimed Nat. "An' pr'bly us next!"

Leon didn't need to look back at Nat to know that he was telling him nothing more than the cold, hard truth. On the other side of the concrete wall, in the main patient ward, were two of Teya's soldiers awaiting the results of the "miracle cure" that the alien chirurgeon was supposedly performing. All along, Doctor Cromwell had clarified to everyone asking about the cure that it was a *treatment*, which required early application after exposure and onset of symptoms. Not once had he declared it a general curative for all stages of the disease. Unfortunately, as humanoid bureaucracy would have it, no one ever paid attention to the fine print until it was too late.

Now was such a time.

"She's at least three days past stage two!" he explained hurriedly. "The calcium in her bones have already converted to group-five metals, and only rudimentary vestiges remain of her internal organs! She's nothing but a robot with patches of living tissue attached to her! There NOTHING left for me to treat!"

"You gotta try, Leon!" countered Nat, who was beginning to pace the room. "Nuthin' but luck's been keepin' us alive today! Ya know it! It's been one thing after another, and our lucks about ta run out! If SHE dies, WE die!"

"Nat, you don't understand!" Leon was becoming agitated and unglued. "The plague works on a subatomic level! Proteins become alloys! Enzymes become silcone-based lubricants! Even the hemoglobin turns to binary crystalline structures! It's TOTAL systemic conversion!"

"But ya can stop th' virus, right?"

"Oh sure!" the doctor fidgeted by intermittently grabbing handfuls of his own hair. "I can kill every one of the little bastards! But that won't repair the damage, now will it??" In a fit of panic, he started listing all the items he would hypothetically require to restore Athra to health. "I would need a level-five surgical suite! A trauma chamber! A regen converter! A molecular discriminator! A synaptic polarizer! Not to mention no less than three Starfleet-trained medical doctors with specialties in bionics, neurosurgery, and soft-tissue reconstruction! And in case you haven't looked around lately, we're NOT on a Federation starbase!"

"How 'bout some'uv my nanoprobes?" Nat offered in haste. "Maybe they can fix 'er just long enough ta give us some extra time?"

"Do you even known what you're talking about??" the tone in Leon's voice rose to the level of stupefied. "Your nanoprobes were programmed for YOU! They've had MONTHS to adjust to your system! Injecting them into another living being - ESPECIALLY a cybernetic one - will quite likely cause them to regress back to their original functionality! Mix that with the programming of an insane killing machine? Ha! You got the power of a cubeful of Borgs right there!"

"Then reprogram 'em!" shouted Nat desperately, grabbing onto Leon's shoulder. "Ya did it before!"

"NO!" Leon exploded in a fit of rage. He grabbed onto Nat's shirt and threw him up against the wall, pinning him there. "IT WASN'T ME!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, his fiery emotions surging forth like a blast furnace. "It was YEZBECK!" he bellowed hoarsely. "It was BASHIR! THEY brought you back to life! THEY programmed the nanoprobes! THEY saved you!" At the precipice of near-insanity, Leon came face to face with an astonished Nat. Together, they realized that his sudden ballistic emotions were more than just the culmination of the inhumane stress of the past two months, nor the shock of their current, fatalistic dance on the fence between life and death. It was, in fact, the same deep-harbored resentment of once again not having control over the death of a patient -- the last time being Nat himself. Tears welled forth in Leon's eyes as he lost all emotional control "It was them!" he began to weep. "NOT me!... Not me!"

Crumbling into a sobbing heap, Leon let go of Nat and stumbled over to a doctor's stool in the corner of the room; his grit-filled face collapsing into his trembling hands. He was a man at wits' end, and had nothing left to give. The operation was over.

Nat stared at the weeping doctor with a chill running up his spine. If Leon had finally lost it, then there truly WAS nothing left that could be done, medically speaking. Slowly turning back to glance at the unconscious form of the plague-ridden Athra, the Republic helmsman defaulted to his last, desperate idiom: When all else fails, ya gotta do SOMETHING. The glint of a nearby hypospray caught his eye, and as his mind raced through the possibilities of what he could do with it, he fell back to his previous idea. Grasping the tool, he took aim at the pulsating vein on the inside face of his forearm, and prepared to take a deep, penetrating sample of his own nanoprobe-filled blood to inject into the body of the dying legionnaire...

*beep beep*

Nat paused. Leon ceased his mewling.

*beep beep*

The sound was a vaguely familiar whistle-like double-chirp of an electronic instrument of medical origin.

*beep beep*

Leon's bloodshot eyes looked up from his hands to search the archaic exam room for the outcast piece of modern equipment from which the curious noise emanated. On a slate countertop, and surrounded by cotton-swab jars, a random scattering of ancient forceps, and a barely-functional pair of hemostats, the doctor's closed clamshell TR-590 Type-9 medical tricorder formed the source of the strange warble. Abandoning the stool, the doctor retrieved the diagnostic device and considered it briefly before flipping it open. Almost immediately, the chirping sound stopped, and in its place, a red, fast-blinking square light on the flip-down control console lit up next to the vertical "EMRG" label.

"Doctor Cromwell... Lieutenant Hawk... This is Republic responding to your distress signal on emergency frequency... Doctor Cromwell... Lieutenant Hawk... Please acknowledge..."

With sweat dripping down his pale, stubbled, and grime-filled face, Nat Hawk looked silently at Leon with an expressionless mien, unable project any range of emotion whatsoever. Similarly, the doctor, who had not completely recovered from his mental breakdown, returned the stare with his gaunt, listless face still marred with signatures of recent anguish. As fate would have it on this calamitous day, luck had not completely abandoned them...

***

The time an individual spends in a transporter energy/matter stream can vary from seconds to years, depending on whether the device was set in a repeating diagnostic loop, or manually set for a specific matter re-integration time interval. However, the perception of time while actually in transit is a constant, as it feels as if the transport cycle took mere seconds no matter how much time has passed for the rest of the universe. So, while Leon's beam-up from Ashaaria seemed to have been instantaneous for him, he was actually in the transporter buffer for about ten minutes as the biofilters scanned him for traces of the plague, and the in-situ decontamination program removed any radioactive hot particles from the surface of his body.

After he re-materialized, the doctor stood motionless on the pad for a brief moment with the tricorder still humming in the open, active position. Since the device's emergency transponder could only transmit a single-frequency confirmation beacon with transporter lock, and could not provide any actual two-way voice communication, all Leon could do was to press the EMRG button before being immediately whisked away from the surface of Ashaaria to the Republic orbiting overhead.

Temporarily caught off balance by sights and smells he had not encountered in over two and a half months, Leon looked around the chamber as if he was arriving home after a twenty-year absence. Sanitary and odor-free air filled his nostrils, and he was hypnotized by clean metallic walls and well-groomed humanoids in pristine uniforms. As he regained his composure on the transporter pad, his eyes adjusted to the sterile light, and after a few seconds, was able to focus on four individuals standing in the reception foyer beyond the transporter alcove.

"C... Captain?" he recognized the shorter female standing next to a taller, clean-shaven John Carter. The grizzled and musty Doctor Cromwell was both wrought with anxiety about the situation he had just been through over the past few hours, as well as traumatized by the post-apocalyptic environment he had been immersed in for the past ten weeks. So, for him, starting any sort of explanatory greeting to a seething superior officer was not an easy task on an emotional level.

"Hawk... Hawk is in the room you just beamed me away from," Leon explained. "He's with Athra... we need to beam her directly to the isolation room in sickbay..."

"Not this time, doctor," Captain Roth informed him with a voice dripping with controlled contempt. With a nod of her head, the remaining two officers stepped onto the transporter pad and began handcuffing him.

"Please captain!" Leon pleaded while being fitted with the restraints. "If we don't treat her now, it'll be too late!"

"Whatever medical situation is occurring on the ground, Doctors Yezbeck and Harris can deal with it from here on out. YOU'RE role in this is now OVER..."

As the pair of security officers escorted the doctor down off the transporter pad, Captain Roth stepped forward and looked him in the eye only inches from his face. He could tell that his skipper was beyond outraged, and was doing all she could to keep her cool. Point in fact, the woman was more than just staring him down; she was tearing his soul apart with her eyes.

"You crossed the line."

The statement was spoken with such clarity and authority that everyone in the room knew Leon's next stop: the brig. Spinning around on her heel, Roth marched out of the transporter room as the panic-stricken doctor silently looked to John for support. Unfortunately, the XO's poker face was unyielding, and after casting Leon a brief, stoic glance, he followed his commanding officer out the door.

Above the windswept plain, the bright pale sunlight shone down through the thin, overcast sky. Leon stood in the desolate field, confused about his location. It obviously wasn't Ash'aaria, as the cloudy sky was much too bright, and the flowery, pungent scents on the air were full of life, not death. At his feet, knots of scrub grass grew, and the white, sandy soil was indicative of a desert or savannah-like terrain. In the distance, an occasional stout tree or bush outlined themselves against the horizon, and further out towards a distant mountain range, a large lake with white beaches and blood-red water splayed out across the landscape. His eyes drawn skyward, Leon observed a huge flock of birds overhead, plowing forth through the air, sounding a chorus of throaty, raucous cries. They numbered in the thousands, and their pink plumage and long necks suggested a crane-like avian species, but the blunted, bent bills made the birds vaguely foreign to his knowledge of ornithology.

Without warning, a blinding light pulsed throughout the sky, disrupting the migrating flock, and causing the ground to shake like the resonance from a clap of thunder. Below his feet, the doctor noted a stark change. The ground, though still hosting the same pale soil and and associated plant life, now possessed small stone plaques spaced at regular intervals towards the horizon. There were so many, Leon could not count them all. On the plaques read unfamiliar names subscripted with dates, suggesting the plaques were memorials or grave-markers of a sort. He shifted his eyes to look from one plaque to another, and then to another. The names were unfamiliar, and when she shifted his eyes back towards a plaque that he had previously viewed, the name had changed, as did the date. Each time he attempted to view the same stone, the information changed. Each time, the name was either human, or Vulcan, or Andorian, or then back to a different human name. The dates changed from stardates in the distant future, to the distant past, or to Gregorian dates of indiscernible significance. None of it made sense, and whenever he attempted to calculate the number of years the individual had lived, he came up with a different number each time.

Behind him, the sand shifted under the foot of another individual. He was not alone in the field of plaques. Turning around, Leon spied a humanoid a few meters away. He was man with a pale, oily complexion, a crop of black, unkept curly hair, and sported a only beard without an associated mustache. His stance was a man of victory; crossing his arms, and overlooking the field with satisfaction and smugness. He wore a dark leather jacket with a military-style bandolier, and a utility belt replete with knives, implements of personal combat, and an old-style pistol-grip phasor. He paid little attention to the doctor until Leon spoke up.

Confused, the only words he could mutter were, "what are you doing here?"

The man looked to Leon with detachment and lack of interest. His black eyes shifted away from the field of headstones and looked to him with a disturbingly calm expression, replying, "I died here."

The shock of the words sent Leon stumbling backwards, causing him to lose balance and trip on one of the headstones. From his position on the ground, another, authoritarian voice ordered him to stand back up.

"On your feet!"

***

"Prisoner!" a distant voice echoed as Leon roused from his slumber. "On your feet!"

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Leon slowly regained lucidity while lying on the bunk of his holding cell. His face had been recently washed, complete with a hair trim and beard shave, but about five days worth of stubble had grown back due to lack of access to beard suppressor or a shaver. While he hadn't occupied the brig long enough to be issued a prisoner's jumpsuit, he was wearing the standard Starfleet-issue black slacks and black undershirt, minus his usual ivory turtleneck sweater.

"Prisoner! On your feet!" the voice beckoned again from the other side of the energy curtain.

Leon sighed as he swiveled his body from a lying position to a sitting position on the bunk. For the past week, the guards had been checking on him every six hours, both at the start and end of a guard shift, usually waking him up in the middle of the night. Rubbing his eyes again, he recognized that the guard was none other than Petty Officer First Class Brent Murdock.

"Murdock..." Leon grumbled sleepily. "Do you really have to keep checking on me all the time? It's not like I'm going to disappear into thin air, you know."

It was almost as if the doctor had activated the red alert klaxon when Murdock shouted back at Leon with such animosity that it caused him to flinch.

"I SAID ON YOUR FEET!" roared the non-commissioned officer, with his face contorted into an vehement scowl.

Now fully awake, Doctor Cromwell complied by sliding off the bunk to a standing position with his hands hanging behind his back. Murdock looked over him silently for a moment before turning away and walking back to his security station without a word. Thinking that it was just a routine bed-check, Leon was about to resume his sitting position when a second pair of footsteps strolled into view from out in front of the force field.

It was John Carter.

Leon raised an eyebrow at the executive officer, acknowledging him silently. He had not seen him since the brief moment in the transporter room a week ago, and while it may have been due to the captain's standing order to only let security and Lieutenant Commander Tolkath visit him in the brig, the doctor felt that John could easily have finagled permission from Captain Roth if he really wanted to. As is was, he hadn't, adding to Leon's personal suspicion that John no longer considered their friendship of any consequence. Regarding his visitor for a brief moment, he walked away from the forcefield and over to the wall-mounted sink, where he activated the servo that slid back the washbasin cover.

"You're not the counselor," the doctor commented without emotion while he scooped a handful of water to splash across his face. Considering the sinkful of pristine water that appeared at his beckon call, he silently marveled about how much technology he had taken for granted aboard the Republic while stranded on Ash'aaria. "I'll assume his daily visits down here were for more than just to keep my spirits up?"

"Ash'aaria was worse than Styx," John Carter replied, reminiscing about their shared marooning on a Demon-class planet during the Kreltan conflict over a year ago. "You were down there for a long time, and we needed Reittan to do a full psych eval before we decided what to do next."

"Mmm hmm," Leon dried his face with a towel, sounding not-so-convinced. "Well, you can save it for my court martial. All I ask for is access to a lawyer. I don't suppose that Commander Tuvok would be willing to defend a ninth Republic officer?"

"I don't know," John crossed his arms. "You made quite a mess of things down there on Ash'aaria..."

Scrutinizing the Martian's eyes, Leon huffed in frustration after another fruitless effort to decipher John's expression. 'That damn poker face!' he thought to himself. "Look, if you're here to listen to me apologize, you can forget it! I did what I did. I stood on my principles when no one else would lift a finger to help those people. So if you want to call me a traitor, just do it. If you want to call me a disgrace to Starfleet, go ahead. I'm not sorry, and I'd do it again if I had to!"

Realizing he had spoken prior to thinking it completely through, Leon rolled his eyes upward as he mulled over his recent statement. Offering a clarification, he added, "maybe I'd change a FEW things..."

With only a brief, authoritarian look, the executive officer sternly remarked, "I came here to say only one thing, doctor..." John looked towards Murdock at the security station, and gave him a nod of his head. To Leon's surprise, the field dropped, and Carter's expression softened.

"I'm proud of you..."

***

Without another word, John Carter and Leon Cromwell had walked out of the cell block together. The doctor felt uneasy in the tense silence, since John hadn't explained exactly why he was proud of Leon, nor why he was being sprung from a week-long incarceration in the ship's brig. Without any contact with the rest of the crew, save that of the security guards and the ship's counselor, Leon had assumed he was being ferried back to Deep Space Nine for a court martial. Now, he had no idea what was going on at all.

Still wielding the silver towel from his jail cell, the doctor fell back onto his main defense against a disquieting yet unspoken situation: He tried engaging in smalltalk.

"I felt the ship's warp drive activate last night," he mentioned, as if they were on a nonchalant walk on the holodeck. "I take it we're finally underway?"

"Yes," John mentioned casually. "We left the Ash'aarian system at 2230 hours yesterday evening."

The calm response only served to deepen the doctor's agitation, as if he was being forced to wait for the other shoe to drop. As a character trait, he wasn't a patient man, especially when it came to inaction. He had many concerns on his mind, and he was pent up with frustration for the past week due to the lack of news from being locked away in the brig.

"I need to know," Leon finally asked anxiously. "What happened to Athra?"

"Always worried about your patient, aren't you?" John remarked with a raised eyebrow. "Even though she's NOT your patient anymore?"

"You're speaking about her in present tense," observed Leon without answering the question. "That means she's alive?"

John nodded affirmatively. "Doctor Yezbeck is now a bonafide miracle worker. His knowledge of bionics allowed him to save what was left of Athra's organics by reworking her cybernetics into a simplistic life support system until they could culture and re-grow her vital organs in the regen converter. While she was held in suspended animation in the trauma chamber, Doctor Rhyda was able to regenerate the portions of her brain that had been converted to a crude positronic matrix by the virus. He said it was the most delicate surgery that he ever performed."

"What's her prognosis?"

"Well, you'll have to ask the sickbay staff for the details, but she lost a lot of her cerebrum to the virus. It's affected her memory, and she'll be spending quite a while re-learning basic motor functions. It's sufficient to say that she won't be leaving Karu's hospital anytime soon, to say nothing of leading the government ever again."

"Is Nat okay?"

"Oh, he's fine," dismissed John. "A little grouchier than everyone remembers him, but no worse for the wear. His official report of the incident was very enlightening about how Cha'rik forced you and him to pilot the stolen runabout after taking Miss Warner hostage at the point of a phasor. It's regrettable that the craft was so badly damaged by the Republic's warp field after it launched that you were forced to crash-land on Ash'aaria."

John's tone sounded genuine, but when Leon opened his mouth to protest the accuracy of the report, one look from his executive officer told him it would be best if he said nothing. Leon wasn't sure if the captain's report was fabricated, or if Nat lied through his teeth, but either way, he didn't want to find out which.

"Could I... er..." the doctor was unsure if he should voice his next request. "Could I get the 'less-than-official' account of what happened after Republic beamed me back on board?" John looked to Leon with a suspicious eye, as if subconsciously warning the doctor about the nature of his question. He got the message. "...OFF the record?" the doctor added hastily.

"Okay," agreed John. "But you didn't hear it from me. The captain struck a deal with Karu and Teya. They're both now leading a tenuous but budding coalition government on Ash'aaria. In exchange for some... supplies... Karu and Teya have agreed that they would disavow any knowledge of your help in their 'New Ashaaria' movement."

Leon was spellbound at the development of the alliance between Teya and Karu, and the surprised look in his eyes was difficult to hide. "What sort of 'supplies' did the captain provide?" he asked, taking note of John's effort to add an asterisk to the word "supplies".

"Thanks to YOU," John started in a marginally accusatory manner. "The Ash'aarians were left with a massive supply deficit. What started out as an offer by the captain for some extra food and medicine turned into near-interstellar extortion by Karu for some rather complex hardware. By the time negotiations were finished, Karu ended up with an antimatter plasma conditioner, at least a dozen protein synthesizers, half of our portable fusion generators from the away team equipment supplies, and a class-four industrial replicator."

Leon came to a dead halt in the corridor and gawked at John. "A CFI replicator?" he remarked with shock. "Those things are the size of a holodeck! Don't tell me that the captain keeps one of THOSE tucked away in ship stores?"

"Not exactly," John explained while coming to a halt. "It took Pakita four days of beaming to and fro the planet to build one on the ground from engineering surplus. The warp engines were offline for an entire day while she replicated additional equipment, and even had to salvage all the non-replicative parts from the deck 40 cargo transporter."

"I suppose this all goes against the Prime Directive," Leon looked down to the floor with a twinge of guilt.

"As you know, the Ash'aarians are a warp-capable civilization," explained John in a semi-formal tone. "With the recent government shake-up, Athra's original refusal of our help was formally rescinded by Karu and Teya, so the applicability of the Prime Directive is questionable in this case. While they were about 200 years behind us in replicator technology, they had at least mastered basic protein synthesis. What we provided them was, at most, a 100 year leap in matter conversion physics. Pakita worked hard to make sure everything she built was intentionally low-tech, and cleaned up most of what you left behind at Karu's hospital, ESPECIALLY that monstrosity of a runabout food replicator you all modified. There should be minimal cultural contamination due to technology introduction. As for OTHER types of contamination..." John looked at Leon as if thrusting the rest of the responsibility squarely on the doctor's shoulders. "...only time will tell."

"What about the captain?" Leon asked, worried about her opinion. "What's she going to do?"

"As far as Captain Roth is concerned, Republic returned only to rescue you, Nat, and Miss Warner," explained John. "This second visit to Ash'aaria has been officially recorded as a rescue mission, and while we requested information from the Ash'aarian government on the whereabouts of the Runabout Fowler, they claimed no knowledge. Captain Roth has listed both the runabout and Cha'rik as missing in action and presumed destroyed."

Leon's twinge of guilt returned, causing John to ask "I don't suppose you know anything about it?"

The doctor looked as if he was about to respond, but John interrupted him before he could.

"I didn't think so," he cut him off quickly and conclusively before turning away, resuming his walk down the length of the corridor.

"So... we're just leaving them alone, then?" Leon asked while catching up to John. "No emissary from the Federation? No requests for protectorate status?"

"Karu and Teya officially requested only the supplies we left them," John explained while coming to a stop in front of the closed turbolift door. As he waited for the lift to arrive, he continued his explanation. "They wanted time to rebuild their planet all by themselves before looking to the stars again. We threw them the life preserver, and this time, they accepted it. But now, they want swim to shore on their own."

"No promise of return? No way to call for help if they run into trouble?"

"Fortunately, neither Karu nor Teya are as xenophobic as Athra was. We left a full-spectrum, long-range subspace communications satellite in orbit around Ash'aaria, along with enough surface transceivers for people to use it. We also put a relay booster buoy in deep solar orbit, and we'll deploy another one once we leave the nebula. They'll be able to transmit messages to the wormhole communications array and access the entire Federation subspace network as often as they want."

"You mean, IF they want," added Leon.

"We can only toss them the lifeline, doc," John Carter admonished with a scolding glance. "It's up to THEM if they choose to take it."

Realizing that Carter was drawing a non-verbal parallel to the plague cure he developed weeks ago, Leon fell silent as they waited for the turbolift to make its way all the way down the turboshaft from the upper levels. However, he was unable to bare the silence for long, as his current and yet-to-be-known disposition back aboard Republic was dubious at best, so the doctor couldn't help but offer small talk again.

"So," he started again uncomfortably. "Anything interesting happen while I was away?"

Sensing that the doctor was feeling the stress of his presumed notoriety with the captain, John chose to humor Leon by engaging his question. With his forehead forming a furrow, the executive officer looked towards the ceiling in rumination.

"Not a lot..." he mused while pondering every event that had taken place since their first departure from Ash'aaria eleven weeks ago. "But Jimmy Tapscott's Labrador retriever DID have a litter of puppies while you were gone..."

At that exact moment, the hum of an arriving turbolift signaled the parting of the doors, revealing the occupants as none other than the Vorta clone, Eris-5, escorted by two burly security officers.

"Honestly!" the Vorta complained to the guards. "Lieutenant Beauvis' daily-prescribed, one-hour exercise allowances should take place in the *arboretum*! NOT the cargo deck! Why shouldn't I be allowed to see other sections of the ship? It's my first stay aboard a Galaxy Class starship, after all. Oh, commander!" she recognized Carter upon emergence from the lift. "Could you put in a complaint for me with the captain? These accommodations she's provided are *quite* sub-standard! She continues to act as if *I'm* the one to blame for my Jem Hadar soldiers rebelling!"

"Quiet!" ordered one of the guards as they escorted her down the corridor. "No interaction with the crew. Captain's orders."

"This is preposterous!" she exclaimed to her escorts. "It wasn't ME who attacked your vessel! Can't you understand that? Are *all* Starfleet officers this prejudiced against the Dominion?"

Entering the turbolift, John and Leon kept their eyes fixed on the trio at the far end of the hallway, watching as they turned into the cell block opposite the one that Leon had occupied. The two officers silently regarded the exposition for a moment through thoughtful glances. Then, without missing beat, Leon turned to John and asked a single question before the turbolift doors slid shut.

"Puppies?"

***

After a minute in the turbolift, the commander heaved a heavy sigh, and his expression turned stoic and focused.

"Computer, halt turbolift," he beckoned to the ship's omnipresent computer system, causing the hum of the magnetic drive system to subside and the speaker to beep with a positive response.

"Here's the deal, Leon," John began with all due seriousness. "The captain realizes that there's no black-and-white in situations like this. She recognizes that there are shades of gray, and while her interpretation of the Prime Directive may have been a darker shade, yours was a lighter one. In truth, if she wasn't bound by regulations, Republic may never have left orbit and you would have led a full-blown planetside humanitarian mission sanctioned by the captain."

Leon looked to his friend with encouragement.

"With that said," John scolded sternly. "The regulations still stand, and she knows FULL WELL what REALLY happened when you left the ship, despite what the official record states..."

The ominous tone in John's voice turned stale the air in the turbolift, and Leon fidgeted uncomfortably once again.

"However," the commander's voice softened. "She also believes in second chances." John looked away from Leon while explaining. "It took her years after the Thundercrest incident before she was offered a second chance to redeem herself when she was handed Republic. According to her rules, we're all allowed ONE screw-up." Turning back to Leon sharply, John drove the point home. "...and this one was YOURS. Do it again, and she'll throw the book at you so hard that you'll have general order number one embossed on your forehead for a month... computer, resume turbolift."

As the elevator started again, the reverberating hum returned, augmented by the renewed tense silence. Of course, considering the doctor's anxiety level, the silence was doomed to a short life once again.

"If the captain is so damned angry at me, why in the hell are YOU so proud?" Leon finally exclaimed, referring to John's previous declaration in the brig.

John stared at his friend with that tell-tale smirk, indicating that something was up his sleeve. He then progressed to a full-blown chuckle, and began shaking his head.

"Grozit, Leon!" he exclaimed in genuine amusement, which finally broke the insufferable tension between the two. "You have sprocking guts! Maybe not all the grace in the damn galaxy, but guts!"

Leon looked both confused and stupefied. "Guts?"

"When it came down to choosing between following the rules or doing what was right, you did the latter. That takes guts. It takes even MORE guts to do it when it flies in the face of your commanding officer. It might not always be the *smartest* thing to do, but it's the sign of a good officer who sticks to what they believe in. And hell if I don't want someone on my side who's trying to do the right thing, and not just be a 'yes man'."

"So you WANT your people disobeying orders rather than agreeing with you?"

"Don't confuse discord with mutiny, doc," he remarked. "Vocal disagreements are fine, but if you're going to take action by going against the flow, you'd better be ready to pay the price. Besides, had I been in your position, I might have done the same thing."

"I doubt you would have," Leon remained unconvinced. "Stealing a runabout isn't exactly your style."

John used a breath to scoff outloud. "Tell THAT to the crew of the HMS Republic..."

"What?"

"Never mind..."

***

By the time the two had arrived at their destination, the anxiousness between John and Leon had evaporated, and before either realized it, they were laughing and cavorting as if nothing had happened over the past two and half months.

"No kidding! True story!" John was explaining as the doors to Doctor Cromwell's quarters slipped open. "As soon as Yezbeck saw Nat sitting on the diagnostic bed with his sparkly eyes and pale skin, the first thing he said was 'having sex with a Femorian Krangor Beast is illegal in this quadrant'! We couldn't help it! Even the captain busted out laughing!"

"Well, I'm glad his nanoprobes returned him to normal," remarked Leon, acting jovial but with negative emotions simmering just below the surface. He wasn't sure himself what the emotions exactly were, but they seemed to be a complex mix of uneasiness, anger, and resentment at no one in particular. He wasn't exactly looking forward to returning to duty after being out of it for so long, especially since he wasn't sure how he would be accepted by the sickbay staff. "I guess I'll look over his latest medical scan when I get back to work."

"Yeah," John replied with uncertainty and regret in his voice. The genial atmosphere between the two came to a halt while John struggled to find the right words. He paused for moment in the open doorway to collect his thoughts, as if choosing his words carefully. "About that..."

Leon had barely made it to the center of the room when he felt the hesitance in Carter's voice. Turning around, he watched the executive officer slowly walk into the room and lean against a nearby table. Without a word, the doctor's expression showed that he was expecting further explanation from his friend.

"It's like this," John started. "Based on the counselor's psych eval, the captain felt it would be wise to keep you out of sickbay for a little while."

"What??" Leon exclaimed incredulously.

"I wouldn't say she's firing you," John added carefully. "She just... wants to ease your transition back to Republic."

"I don't believe it!" Leon flapped his arms once in a sign of futility. "She throws me in the brig... springs me a week later... and now takes my JOB away?"

"It's only temporary," John raised his hands defensively. "And if we have a full blown medical emergency that Yezbeck, Harris, and the rest of the medical staff can't handle alone, you're back on the job. But since we can only manage warp two at the moment, we got at least two weeks until we reach the wormhole, and the counselor recommended that you not be thrown into a medical situation right away."

"And why is that??"

John sighed again, not sure how to break the news to Leon. "The captain and I know about your recent PTSD relapses," he informed him, causing an ominous feeling to creep back into Leon's stomach. "Roth ordered the counselor -- in no uncertain terms -- to give us everything he had about you from the psych eval. While it won't end up on your permanent record, the turmoil of Ash'aarian incident appears to have played havoc on your PTSD progress, especially since you hadn't the benefit of regular counseling sessions for the past ten weeks. Tolkath indicated that you're still fit for duty, but the captain feels that reducing your chances of PTSD relapse trigged by medical emergencies would give you some time to heal. So, until we're docked, Yezbeck is temporarily in charge of sickbay."

"Great..." Leon surrendered with a defeated expression, and feeling as if his personal privacy had been somewhat violated. "What the hell am I supposed to do now? Take a another goddamn vacation?"

"No, actually," John stated, preparing to lay yet another surprise upon poor Leon. "In case you didn't notice before you left, we got a bunch of civilian scientists running amok on board. They're not Starfleet officers, and with Cha'rik gone, there's no science chief around to keep a leash on them. Butenhoff doesn't want them, and I can't exactly put them in the brig for sneering too much, and with a light patient-load in sickbay, we have more than enough medical doctors at the moment."

"So... you want ME to do it?" the doctor was perplexed. "I'm not exactly an expert in astrophysics or computer science, John."

"You don't have to be. Pakita and Butenhoff can be a subject-area expert if you need it, but what these civvies need at the moment is someone they respect in charge of them. Right now, the only commissioned officer aboard they respect is YOU."

"Me?" he replied with bafflement once again.

"Leon, they already had positive view of you during your coordination of the Ash'aarian plague research," John continued. "The fact that you didn't let their research go to waste by taking it directly to the surface yourself only served to reinforce that respect. That, and the fact that you gave the captain a proverbial black-eye in the process. Combine that with the ecological restoration program you had Nat doing on the surface, and you've pretty much got your own science fan club onboard. In fact, Doctor Susan Hayworth was extremely interested in your... what did she call it?... 'radiotrophic algae injection' into the planet's oceans?"

Leon felt another knot forming in his stomach.

"Yes..." John nodded his head emphatically, taking note of the aghast expression on the doctor's face. "Remember her? The ship's oceanographer? Or were you in such a hurry to run off to Ash'aaria that you completely forgot that you two were dating?"

Leon know that John was right, and that there wasn't much more he could say about the issue. As for John, he waited a second longer while the doctor collected his thoughts before spying a gift he had left in the room prior to springing Leon from the brig. It was hanging on the back of the chair behind Leon's work desk, and had yet to be noticed by the doctor. Working his way behind the desk, John unhooked the black piece of cloth and tossed it in Leon's direction.

"Besides," the executive officer remarked. "You have other duties to tend to, and they're not on deck twelve. They're on deck one."

Catching the article in mid-air, Leon unfolded it to reveal a Starfleet officer's uniform jacket, complete with blue piping and lieutenant commander's rank. With both surprise and trepidation, the doctor looked silently to his friend, hoping to find a hint of a joke or friendly mockery. There was none, as John's face was serious as a Vulcan schoolteacher.

"You'll be taking over bridge watch from the counselor on gamma shift every other evening starting tonight," John informed him, working his way back around the desk en route to the door. As it hissed open, John rattled off a list of scheduled events. "The weekly senior staff meeting is Wednesday at 1200 hours. And as usual, poker is in my quarters at 1900 Friday. Don't be late." The executive officer looked as f he was about to exit before adding one last thing. "Oh, and if I were you, I wouldn't be late to relieve the counselor tonight, either." Just before the door slid shut, John's muttering trailed off into the hallway outside, "I heard his looks could kill..."

A moment later, Leon found himself alone in the silence of his quarters, absorbing all of the changes that had occurred in the past few minutes. He ruminated over the uniform shirt that John had tossed him, trying to remember the last time he had actually put one on. It hadn't been since his early enlistment years, prior to leaving for the University of Luna over fifteen years ago. Carefully, he placed the folded piece of clothing down on the desk, next to several more "welcome back" articles that various crew members gifted him. A bottle of scotch whiskey from Shannon, an old-fashioned doctor's head mirror from the gang in sickbay, and a book about the oceans of Pacifica from Susan. It was then that Leon noticed a larger box set aside from the rest, with a PADD lying next to it. Curious, the doctor opened the box to find three plant seedlings of unknown origin. While he was a fair horticulturalist, these were of a species he had never seen before. Assuming that the PADD would explain, he began reading:

Unto the Chirurgeon Cromwell does Medicus Shaara bring greetings.

Thus I use for the last time the title 'chirurgeon' to address any one individual by name, as it is the proclamation of Premier Karu and Legionnaire Teya that the title be retired as one of the many reforms to cleanse the old ways which brought Ash'aaria to its knees. It seems terribly unfair to have Republic and your name eliminated from our historical annuals, as you have had a profound effect on what is to become a new era in our planet's awakening. Nevertheless, the new government felt it was best that we stand on our own now, and that precludes reliance on any more outside help. At least for now.

Surprisingly, Athra's new condition has made her complacent, serene, and easy to get along with. She works tirelessly at learning new skills in attempts to become more independent of our medical support. Just yesterday she re-mastered drinking water from a cup, and we believe by the end of the month that she'll be able to walk again. Still, she cannot recall basic memories like her name or where she was born, and forming new memories is a task unto itself. Whether this is fortunate or not has yet to be seen, but at least she's making new friends, especially with several of our new mutant patients who are, like her, recovering from the advanced stages of the plague.

Suburbia base has been renamed 'Karu's Hope', and decontamination of the surrounding terrain outside the hospital has begun. It is the Premier's hope that we can begin building new surface structures here by next spring if all goes well. Karu's stronghold has been designated as the new capital city, and renamed 'Ecumenaaria', which means 'home of the beginning'. The special equipment your friends provided have allowed us to start constructing proper dwellings in the refugee camps, and we'll also start construction on a new aboveground government building directly over the stronghold. The premier promises that Ecumenaaria will serve as a beacon of hope and virtue for years to come.

We still have many struggles ahead of us. There is much suffering and devastation on the surface between Karu's Hope and Ecumenaaria, but there is talk of establishing a permanent road - possibly even a rail system - along the twelve-hundred kilotrad distance between here and there. The thought is that it will become the backbone of our reconstruction efforts on this continent in the coming years. However, even should we be able to re-build these lands, there are still three other continents that will need our help, and I don't expect that our planet will make a full recovery within my lifetime. Perhaps Tweena's?

Speaking of which, Tweena keeps asking where you and your friend Hawk have gone. I've tried explaining numerous times that your place is among the stars, while hers is here on Ash'aaria. Of course, since she's never seen a star, that starts a whole new batch of questions. Nevertheless, she's become quite a good gardener, and she's been able to germinate several batches of Klandon Fruit tree seedlings from the seeds you replicated for her. Enclosed are several seedlings for you, Mister Hawk, and Miss Warner to enjoy. They should produce fruit in about five of your Earth-years. Ghrune says that there's a legend stating that if they produce fruit for any one owner in less time than that, their life path will be truly blessed.

May your tree bare fruit for you early, Cromwell. Thank you for all you and your friends have done for us, and for risking everything to make a difference in our lives. Regardless of what Karu and Teya have declared, you will always be known as 'The Chirurgeon' to us, and with a much different meaning and reputation than your native predecessors have garnered. Grethig-Kindra, Cromwell.

Your colleague, Medicus Shaara

***

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic
Timeframe: 2400 hours shiptime

With a soft hiss, the doors to the turboshaft parted, and Leon Cromwell, dressed in a Starfleet uniform for the first time in over fifteen years, slowly stepped out onto the bridge. He portrayed slight discomfort in his attire, tugging at each cuff and pulling down on the waistband, yet found redeeming comfort in the blue sleeve piping that reminded him of his current temporary role as well as his eventual return to his permanent one. Internally, his stomach was full of butterflies due to the sudden change in his surroundings, as less than 24 hours ago he was asleep in the brig under the watchful eye of ship security. Now, as fate would have it, the captain had not only handed him a reprieve, but also a reminder that she and Commander Carter still trusted him without reservation. Based on current events, Leon was now soberly aware that such trust was not to be taken lightly, as no skipper worth their captain's bars would ever hand the reins of their own ship over to someone they didn't implicitly trust.

He was determined to live up to that trust.

Looking around the bridge, Leon spied only a few individuals on duty at this late hour. While the ship was technically still on beta shift, the gamma shift personnel had already reported in, with Lieutenant Kroeger taking his place at helm, Ensign Narundi at tactical, and a young female petty officer from operations using one of the rear computer consoles. All other stations were empty, with the exception of the command chair, where Counselor Tolkath sat reading a PADD. As Leon walked down the ramp, Reittan looked up, smiled at the arriving doctor, and stood up to face him.

"Good evening, doctor, he said formally, offering him the PADD. "Here's tonights situation log. Engineering reports that the damaged warp drive continues to operate within two percent of nominal at our current speed of warp two. Navigation reports a rimward course of 2-1-5 point three mark four, and a wormhole ETA of thirteen days, six hours, and twenty two minutes. Operations is performing an overnight sensor diagnostic, which is using fourteen percent of the main computer processing power, and they continue to keep the deck 40 cargo transporter offline until repairs can be made at Deep Space Nine. Tactical reports one non-hostile prisoner incarcerated in the deck 38 brig and is currently in sleep cycle. Sickbay reports two visits by ship personnel over the past eight hours, and all were discharged within twenty minutes for minor ailments. Psychology reports a high crew morale, and aside from a minor dispute in ten-forward, the civilian crewmaster reports no complaints or violations of ship policy by the non-Starfleet crew." Reittan paused with a slight half-smile before giving the status of the final department. "And of course, science reports the appointment of a temporary department head as of 2400 hours this evening."

"Thank you," replied Leon, as he hesitantly accepted the PADD. "I appreciate everything you've done," he said earnestly.

The counselor knew Leon on a deeper level than what they could talk about openly on the bridge, but he didn't need his psychic powers to know that Leon was grateful for the vote of confidence after revealing his PTSD to the captain and Commander Carter. Normally, such information would be considered doctor-patient confidentiality, but considering the extreme circumstance - as well as the captain's direct order - the counseling sessions had to be revealed to Leon's chain of command. The doctor knew this, and held him no malice.

"You're welcome, Leon," Reittan replied verbally. "And with that, Beta shift is now officially off duty. The bridge is yours. Good night."

Leon smiled silently in acknowledgement, watching as the lieutenant commander walked up the ramp around the command pit, and exited the bridge through the turbolift doors. With the bridge machinery chirping softly around him, the doctor glanced at the empty science station to the center right of the bridge. While it was over two years since he operated one on the Bremerton, there would be plenty of time on gamma shift to re-familiarize himself with it. For now, he took his seat in the command chair, turned his attention to the armrest status panel, and logged in the transfer of duty shifts from beta to gamma.

"Begin night shift," announced Leon, causing the computer to dim the lights of the bridge, as well as other public areas of the ship, to one-half illumination.

The change in lighting also allowed a more subtle change in ambiance, as the brilliant starlines of warp space on the main view became much more vivid and sharp, bathing the bridge in a soft, subtle glow of star light. The spectacle was hypnotizing, especially to the doctor, who had not experienced late-night stargazing from the bridge ever before. He reflected upon the parallax of star streaks before him, realizing that John's words from many months ago had finally found meaning within his own complex psyche. For the first time in a long while, Doctor Cromwell felt at home. For it was here, among the stars, where he could make a difference.

     
 

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