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Dawn Before The Darkness

Chapter 1: Red Shift, Red EyeTop

Location: Space Station Deep Space Nine, Bajor Sector, Alpha Quadrant

The chirp of the alarm came too soon, again, for Captain Kira's liking. Even after all these years of being the official commander of Deep Space Nine, Nerys had issues with getting up early. That's not to say that she didn't get up, she did. If nothing else, Kira Nerys was disciplined; she just didn't particularly ENJOY getting up at what some Starfleet officers called “Oh-Dark-Thirty.”

A few minutes after stepping out of the refresher, and donning her red duty shirt, Nerys took a moment to slide her traditional Bajoran ear clip in place. As she pulled on her Starfleet Officer's tunic, the comm. alert chirped.

“Ops to Captain Kira.”

Kira rolled her eyes and huffed as she stood, exasperated, with hands on hips. “Matthew!” she called out to the duty officer's disembodied voice, “I'm not even set to be on duty for an hour yet. What could possibly be so important?”

“Sorry ma'am. It's just…”

“Is our orbit decaying?”

“No Ma'am, but…”

“Is the station under attack?”

“Not that I know of, Captain. However…”

“Is there a problem on Bajor?”

“No, Ma'am. Most of the population's still asleep.”

“EXACTLY! So, what is it that can't wait 'til I've at LEAST had my raktajino?”

“He's here, ma'am.”

Kira's head dropped in a universal sign of despair. Then she picked her head back up to look quizzically at the speaker. “Already?”

“Affirmative, Ma'am.”

“So…he's…early?” More than just a question, her voice held genuine surprise.

“Aye, Ma'am.”

“He's NEVER early.”

“He's never late either, Ma'am.”

Kira sighed, shaking her head. “Give me ten minutes.” She ordered, heading for the door. “And keep him out of Ops!” Not waiting for the acknowledgment, Kira made for the turbo lift, keeping a brisk pace.

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic
Shiptime: 0643 hours

It had taken a few days, but as he shifted his weight in the center seat (which still felt more than a little odd), Leon Cromwell noted that he was starting to enjoy the relative quiet of the Gamma Shift. Truth to tell, there were times when it reminded Leon of his residency at Cook Medical Center in New Chicago.

When most people thought of medical school, particularly the residency phase, wherein a studying physician was in charge of all admissions or additions in a given department, they thought of Emergency Rooms. Stuffed to the gills with crying children, frustrated adults, and occasionally someone who was just desperate for a little human attention. Leon however remembered the silences, few and far between though they were.

Just as there were few places more frantic than a busy hospital, not just on Earth, Leon knew, but anywhere in the galaxy, when they were quiet, hospitals seemed deathly still. It was times like those, when the silence was nearly perfect, when the weight of what he was doing…what he had committed himself to really sank in. Back then, he was a doctor, sworn to heal the sick, help the afflicted, ease another's suffering, and above all, do no harm.

Leon knew that he'd fallen short of that last promise more than once in his life, but he also knew with absolute certainty, that he'd made everywhere he'd been a better place. In the silence of Republic's bridge, in the middle of the night, he was confident that was still true. He knew that because the silences felt the same, and he was grateful.

As if on cue, there was an alert on the tactical station. Above and behind Leon, Sobek of Vulcan called out his findings. “Long-Range sensor contact, Lieutenant Commander.” His tone was calm and measured. The model of Vulcan efficiency.

Leon leaned forward, his eyes squinting just slightly. “Put it up, please?”

A second later, the view changed to show a small, gray cylinder; six meters long, three meters wide, capped at either end with an impressive array of antennae and receivers.

Sobek continued to relate the information from his sensor readings. “It is a standard Federation…”

“…Navigational Beacon.” Leon finished as he sat back in the chair again.

“Indeed.” The Vulcan added calmly. “Transponders, sensors, and navigational charts are about to synchronize to Federation standard. Am I to allow the up link, Lieutenant Commander?”

Leon let out a heavy breath “Hoo boy,” he sighed. “I guess we'd better. Looks like it's finally time to go home.” Leon nodded. “Begin the transfer, Sobek,” he confirmed. “Note the time in the ship's log please.”


Location: Operations level, Deep Space Nine
Station Time: 0702 hours

Kira Nerys tugged sharply on the hem of her officer's tunic as she keyed the control to open the door between Ops and the Promenade. She smiled, putting on her best 'shut up and be nice face'. “Good morning, Doctor Virtus,” she offered. “Did I miss an appointment?”

Victor Xavier Virtus took two quick, evenly spaced steps into the nerve center of Deep Space Nine. “I certainly hope not, Captain. It's terribly early.”

Kira looked dumbfounded as the visiting officer strode past her to look over the shoulder of the attending tactical lieutenant, who's job it was to actually do what Virtus was doing now; peering into the long-range sensor display.

“Doctor!” Kira called out, her voice a little more harsh than she was expecting, but not inappropriately so. “I've told you before,” she continued as she moved to stand in front of the console Virtus was checking over. “I don't know WHERE Republic is. No one's seen or heard from them for over six months.”

Virtus reflexively stroked his mustache. “Six months, twenty-eight days, 14 hours and six minutes…Mark.” He said simply. “ I'm well aware of Republic's situation, Captain. That's why I'm here.”

“Doctor, please,” Kira continued, “I've told you that we would do everything we could to help you, and I know that this is the last place Republic was seen, but I think it's time that you accept Republic is gone. Which, by the way is the same thing I was going to tell you a few hours from now.”

Virtus nodded, giving the captain a nearly dismissive wave. “The ship is not gone, captain.”

Nyres tilted her head, deciding to try a different tack. “Doctor Virtus, I'm certainly not a counselor, but I do know what it's like to want something to be true very badly.” She held up a hand, nearly placing it on the former engineer's shoulder. Then, thought better of it. “Holding on to these things too tightly just isn't good for you.”

Virtus turned on a heel, looking at Kira directly. “Irrational behavior isn't good for me.” He commented. “Poly-saturated fats aren't good for me.” His tone was sharpening slightly as he spoke louder. “Getting less than five hours of sleep a night isn't good for me. However, I'm not here because I BELIEVE Republic is out there. I'm here because they're coming back. Today.”

Kira set her jaw. Clearly, the soft approach didn't work. She looked past Virtus to address her Operations Officer. “Matthew, please call security to Ops,” she ordered firmly. “Doctor Virtus is no longer authorized to be here.”

At the long range sensor station, a familiar alarm asserted itself. “Contact from the Gamma Quadrant, captain.”

Seconds later, on the main Ops viewer, the miracle of the Bajoran wormhole repeated itself. For a few moments, a faster than light, faster than warp, connection from one end of the galaxy to another flared into existence. Under her breath, Kira Nyres said a short prayer to the Prophets.

“My sentiments exactly, captain,” Virtus commented as he watched the familiar shape of a Galaxy Class starship emerge from the Gamma Quadrant. “Welcome home.”

The level of “rightness” in the universe snapped back into place. Victor had theorized a quantitative scale of Rightness as a cadet and was still mildly offended that its use had not become more widespread throughout the Federation. The scale was logarithmic from -10 to 10, with zero being ideal. While Republic was goofing off in the Gamma Quadrant the universe was hovering around a six, or roughly a million Virtii units of disharmony with Rightness Equilibrium.

Vic blinked and chided his previous evening's libations. He was still a little foggy and was allowing inaccuracies to creep into his thoughts.

“5.95 or exactly 891,250.938 Virtii of disharmony”, the hungover officer stated firmly as he moved to depart Ops.

Captain Kira paused with disbelief for less than a second before remembering her station and her dignity, and with the tone of authority bred from of generations of leaders squared her shoulders with the receding researcher, “Doctor, how did you know?”

Without turning Vic answered primly, “I apologize captain, but that information is classified.”

“I am the senior officer on this watch Doctor!”

A quiet voice drifted back as the door started to cycle closed, “I am not in your chain of command, sir.” Victor respected and honored the officer corps of the 'Fleet, but something about space station brass always managed to raise his hackles.

Victor hustled anti-clockwise down the Promenade making a mildly painful mental list. Travel, 105s. Shower, 120s. Shave, 44s. Dress, 32s. Republic would be given a priority birth adjacent to Ops on Pylon 2, Travel 166s.

Too long. Adjust schedule to include multi-comm message, 13s.

Victor walked into his humble quarters and addressed the station computer.

“Begin recording priority personal message.”


“Hello old friend. Please disregard the previous messages. I was worried. Victor.”

“Computer, please deliver to John Carter, Leon Cromwell, Shannon Harris, and Maria Pakita aboard the USS Republic as Priority Two, Silver Channel, Epsilon encryption, authorization Victor Xavier Virtus Sampi Digamma Vau one one two three five eight.”


“Acknowledged. Routing message to main bridge, USS Republic, as of 0707 hours.”

“Routing message to main bridge, USS Republic, as of 0707 hours.”

“Routing message to Chief Medical Officer's Quarters, USS Republic, as of 0707 hours.”

“Routing message to main sickbay, USS Republic, as of 0707 hours.”

“Routing message to main engineering, USS Republic, as of 0707 hours.”

Location: Main engineering, deck 36, USS Republic
Shiptime: 0707 hours

Incoming Priority Message from Starfleet.

Maria sidled down the LCARS and checked the routing information.

“Put it through to this display.”

The message is heavily encrypted and flagged “Eyes Only”.

“Route it through to my office.”

Pakita loved getting mail but loathed the sense of anticipation that accompanied official correspondence, because it always meant paperwork, new regulations, and a disruption of the carefully controlled chaos that was her (and her boss') engineering department. (And soon to be hers exclusively if scuttlebutt were correct.)

“On Screen.”

A very shaggy and bloodshot Lieutenant Commander (detached) greeted her, “Hello old friend. Please disregard the previous messages. I was worried. Victor.

Maria smiled and noted a large collection of dust motes in both eyes. She made a note to check the environmental filters in the ACE office.

“Computer, (beep) save in personal log and re-encrypt.”

The cheered engineer paused as she rose from her seat and cocked her head to one side, a quizzical expression on her face.

“Computer, how many personal message in queue from Victor Virtus.”

You have one hundred thirty-six personal messages from Victor Virtus.


Chapter 2: Today's SpecialTop

Location: Brig, deck 38, USS Republic, Gamma Quadrant
Timeframe: Six months prior, one week out from Deep Space Nine

Reia Merrick walked over next to the security desk, looking at Ensign Kuga through the security field. She then turned to the duty officer, “Depach, why don't you take a break for a few minutes. I'll cover for you.”

The gold-clad officer gave Reia a wary look, not sure what to make of what is going on. “Ma'am… I need authorization from Lieutenant Beauvais first.”

Reia returned an easy smile. “Come on, Depach,” she said smoothly. “Where's she gonna go? I mean, it's not like she's hiding a disruptor somewhere, right?”

Narundi straightened up, leaning back to stretch out his stiff spine. “I… suppose you have a point, Reia. Thanks.” Narundi turned and exited the brig.

As the doors closed, Reia tapped her comm badge and looked back over her shoulder at Kuga. “Computer, disable audio and video recording, authorization Merrick theta six omega nine.” The computer beeped to confirm the order.

“So you work for them too?” Naruko asked warily, now wondering how big the organization that 'built' her really was.

“Work for who?” Reia questioned. “Ensign… if you are indeed Ensign Kuga.”

Naruko was surprised. Lieutenant Merrick didn't come across like the others. Most officers she interacted with looked on her with scorn, pity, or contempt; usually a combination of the three. She straightened her posture and pulled her feet up underneath herself, sitting in a classic lotus position on the sleeping ledge of the cell. 'Perhaps she doesn't work for them after all,' she thought. “I… never mind.” She began, but then thought better of it. It would be best that no one on Republic knew why she was here.

“Ensign… I only want to help, so please give me something to work with.” She asked, walking towards the force field.

“Why did you disable the recorder?” Naruko wondered outloud.

“I thought it would be best to have some private time.” Reia offered, hoping that her action would ease tensions between them.

“How do you know that I won't try and escape now, since you disabled the recorder?”

“Because you gave your word to the Captain, and if you are indeed the real Ensign Naruko Kuga, then your word means everything.” Reia said simply. “Now let me give you MY word. If you say anything or nothing at all, I will do my best to protect you.” Naruko sat in silence for a minute before she began to talk.

Reia and Naruko sat face to face, separated by the brig's security screen. Naruko was crying a bit unsure of herself and what to do next. “Don't worry Naruko I'll protect you, but you must have faith in the captain to do the right thing.” Merrick stepped back from the cell entrance, checking over her shoulder to make sure no one would bear witness to her next admission. “I have a few connections in Starfleet.” She admitted. “Old, unofficial connections. I'll put in a call to Admiral Ross and see if he can look into your case a little more… unofficially.”

“Maybe…” Naruko starts wiping the tears away. “I want to give you a gift, it will help you and I down the road.” Naruko glanced at the security controls for the cell, indicating that Merrick should release her.

Though she wasn't sure why, Reia Merrick felt a bond of trust between herself and the imprisoned Ensign. It may have been something as simple as being in the same department, or it may have been more primal. Whatever the case, Merrick reached out and used her department head code to override the security screen. Though the watch officer's desk objected, it was a simple matter for Merrick to walk behind the desk and allow the change in prisoner status.

Stepping out from the newly opened cell, Naruko came to within a few paces of Reia Merrick. The younger officer placed her hand on Reia's cheek. Reia could feel a tingling sensation, which quickly faded as Naruko removed her hand. “Not sure how long it will take effect” she explained. ” In normal humans it takes about a week, since you're half trill could be longer or it may not work at all.“

“What did you… ?” Reia questioned.

“It will help us communicate… The guard will be coming back soon, I think it's time you go now.” Without another word, Kuga stepped back into the cell.

It was a simple matter for Merrick to re-engage the security field and run a simple diagnostic to erase all record of the last few minutes. Then, seconds before Depach Narundi returned to the watch desk, Merrick re-established the normal audio and video recording systems, before bidding the returning officer a good evening.

Location: Reia Merrick's Cabin, deck 8, USS Republic
Timeframe: Months later

Reia awoke in a cold sweat, though her body felt hot as if she had been sitting in a sauna for days. She slowly rose from bed heading over to the sonic shower. It had been three days since last had a good night's sleep. The same dream keeps plaguing her each night. 'Why am I remembering the conversation I had months ago? '

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic
Timeframe: One day prior to present day

Reia sat on the bed as Saal Yezbeck finished his scan. “You're body temperature is still higher than normal; must be a bug you picked up.” Yezbeck walked over to a tray, picking out a hypo spray. “This should ease the discomfort”, he said, in his typical easy manner, pressing the hypo to Merrick's neck. “You're about due for a physical.” He commented. “Are you sure you don't want to get that out of the way? There's a chance this could be the start of something bigger. Maybe you should let Doctor Cromwell take a look.”

“No it's ok, besides the good doctor and I don't get along.” Reia explained.

“Oh? I wasn't aware of any problem between you two. Anything you want to talk about?”

Reia shook her head. “No. I'd just as soon forget about it.”

“Suit yourself,” Yezbeck offered, “but you won't be able to hide from him forever.”

“Aye aye” Reia answered. She hopped off of the diagnostic bed and headed down the corridor, back to her cabin for a short while, before her shift.

As Reia entered her cabin she could feel the room begin to spin around her. She rushed for the head, making it just in time to feel her breakfast come back up. The room continued to spin, and Reia could slowly feel that she was starting to lose consciousness as everything went white.

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Republic, Alpha Quadrant
Timeframe: Present day

“How is she doing Doctor?” inquired Captain Roth as she looked over Reia Merrick's unconscious body. The Ops Officer had been found unconscious in her quarters just before the start of Alpha Shift and Republic's official return to Deep Space Nine.

“Well, I'm far from an expert in Trill physiology, but I don't THINK the tumor is life threatening.” Saal Yezbeck walked around the diagnostic bed, and then hit a few buttons to put the information on one of Sickbay's many displays. “Miss Merrick's been in fine health for a non-joined trill. According to her last physical, everything was within species norms.” Yezbeck shook his head as he looked at the graphic again. “I definitely would have seen this during her next physical, but she wasn't due for a few weeks yet. I was surprised about one thing though. A few, come to think of it.”

Roth looked at Republic's senior doctor. “How so?”

Like a senior lecturer, Yezbeck stepped closer to point out some details of the body scan on Merrick. “As you can see here Captain, there's a sizable mass just inside Reia's symbiont cavity. I've never encountered anything like that, and after a quick conference with…”

Showing his usual impeccable timing, Julian Bashir entered Sickbay. He took up a position next to Captain Roth, giving Republic's commander a quick nod.

Saal chuckled, and continued his explanation. “After a quick chat with Doctor Bashir, I decided to dig a little deeper.”

Roth nodded. “What made you so suspicious… Doctors?”

Bashir stepped up slightly. “If I may Captain,” he said smoothly. “I've had a great deal of experience with Trill biology in my years on DS9, and, to put it bluntly, Trill can't get cancer; certainly not in the joining cavity. Their natural defenses make the joining components, including the cavity's cell walls, particularly hearty.”

“Exactly!” Yezbeck added. “So then the question was, if it's not cancerous, then just what is it?” Yezbeck reached up, to enhance the resolution on the area in question. “Recognize those little buggers?” Saal questioned.

Roth felt a vein begin to throb at her temple. “You have GOT to be kidding.”

Under thousands of times of magnification, what looked like an organic mass of malignant cells was in fact a colony of thriving, writhing, and most importantly, multiplying nano-machines that looked all too familiar. “Those are Kuga's nano-machines, aren't they?”

“The very same.” Bashir confirmed. “Nowhere near the levels of Kuga; though they're centered in this abdominal mass rather than spread throughout her body. Don't ask me HOW that happened.” Yezbeck added.

“How could Kuga's nano-machines have gotten inside the lieutenant's body after Kuga has been dead for so long?” inquired Roth. Then a realization hit her. “Good God… they're not all over the ship are they? Is anyone else on board infected?”

Now, Yezbeck's voice was mellow and assuring. “It doesn't work that way. These aren't like Borg nano-probes. These little critters were particular to Kuga. They quite literally can't exist anywhere else, or at least they couldn't, until now.”

Again, Bashir chimed in. ” The most likely cause is that a small…colony if you will, were re-purposed to do SOMETHING for Lieutenant Merrick here, but just what it is…don't ask me.“

“Why don't we ask the lieutenant when she wakes up,” replied Yezbeck.

Reia's eyes slowly opened as she returned to the waking world. “Ow… My gut feels like it's on fire.”

Doctor Yezbeck looked down at his newly conscious patient. “That's to be expected. Your body's fighting off a particularly nasty infection. Now that you're awake, I can give you something for the pain.”

“Can you explain how it is you have Ensign Kuga's nanites in your blood, lieutenant?” Roth asked pointedly.

“Nanites…” Confused and disorientated, “What are you talking about… captain?” replied Merrick.

“Kuga's nano-machines have been found in your blood stream.” Roth explained, her frustration coming through her voice. “It was my understanding that the sample you possessed was taken from you by Ensign Jenkins during Kuga's escape. That WAS the case, was it not?”

The accusation was clear. The escape of Naruko Kuga and the revelation of her being part of an enormous conspiracy, bent on starting a new war with the Dominion was still a sore spot for Kim Roth. Even the tragedy of the Thundercrest didn't sting her the way that Kuga's betrayal had. Roth could justify that her destruction of the Thundercrest was a military necessity.

By contrast, her inability to spot and stop Kuga's manipulation of Republic and its crew made Roth feel like a first-year cadet. Now she was faced with the possibility that there was yet another sleeper agent on her ship, willing or not, and Kim Roth didn't like that one bit.

“Of course it was… Captain.” Merrick explained. “I promise you ma'am, I have no idea what's going on. Naru…” Merrick felt her cheeks flush slightly “Ensign Kuga's been dead for months, since before we left the Alpha Quadrant. In fact I haven't even THOUGHT of her since then…” Silence filled the sickbay for a moment as Merrick recalled the rapid onset of her illness.

“I know this is going to sound strange, but ever since, I've started to feel sick. I have been having flashbacks to a conversation I had with Naruko while she was in the brig.” In truth, Reia had reported every aspect of that encounter to the captain after the escape and death of Ensigns Kuga and Jenkins, classified as it was.

As soon as Roth heard Reia's rebuttal, she remembered the report. “The gift that she 'gave' you… But , you also said that particular contact seemed to have no effect at all.” Roth's temper cooled as she crossed her arms over her chest. “What was the point of establishing a connection with you in the first place? And why would the nano-bots assert themselves now?”

“I guess it took some time for the nano-machines to map my brain out” added Reia.

Next to Captain Roth, Julian Bashir nodded. “And it is possible that because of the neural connections that exist in case of joining, the nano-machines simply, well, gathered in the wrong place.” Bashir turned to Yezbeck. “What do you think Saal?”

The elder physician stroked his beard. “With Kuga dead, which means that there's no one to get instructions from, or give them to… I suppose that could be the case, and if the nanites weren't intended for the lieutenant in the first place…” Yezbeck smiled brightly. “I think you're on to something Julian my boy!”

The two doctors exchanged mutually admiring glances and nods before the scowl on Kim Roth's face brought them back to the moment. “If you two could stop congratulating yourselves for a few minutes?”

For a brief moment, Saal Yezbeck hung his head like a chided schoolboy, but the self-satisfied smile didn't quite go away. “Of course captain. Sorry.”

“Doctor Bashir?” Roth turned her attention to the long-visiting physician. “You're the expert in Trill physiology,” she said simply. “Is the lieutenant in any danger?”

Julian looked at Merrick again, striking a contemplative pose. “I'm not entirely sure, captain. Perhaps it would be best to keep the lieutenant under observation.”

Roth turned on a heel, heading toward the door. “Then prepare to transfer your patient to Deep Space Nine, Doctor Bashir.” Kim said coolly. “I'll make the arrangements with Captain Kira.”

With that, the word was given, and Roth was gone, leaving two surprised doctors and one very confused patient in her wake.

Bashir looked at Yezbeck, then at Merrick, who had managed to sit up on the diagnostic bed. “What in the world brought that on?” Bashir looked on quizzically.

Saal Yezbeck held up both hands in front of him in the traditional 'don't shoot' manner. “No idea, but I'm not going to argue with her.”

“Me neither,” Reia Merrick offered, looking at Bashir. “How's the food at Quark's?”

Bashir smiled at the Lieutenant's good nature despite the uncertain news. “When you're able, lieutenant,” he said, his voice now oozing with practiced charm, “I'll treat you to lunch. Quark's plomeek broth is quite good.”

“Excellent Doctor,” she smiled. “Something to look forward to.”

Chapter 3: Mixed MessagesTop

Location: Acting Chief Medical Officer's Quarters, deck nine, USS Republic
Shiptime: 0812 hours

Saal spent longer than he had anticipated on his shift in sickbay, but the case with Reia Merrick was much too interesting to simply hand off to Doctor Fernmoore for the next duty shift. While the anomalous colony of advanced nanoprobes growing in Merrick's symbiont cavity was the most intriguing case he had laid eyes on since the Ash'aarian plague patient, it was no longer in his hands. The captain's order was clear, and Merrick was now Bashir's patient, not his.

“Damn shame,” Doctor Yezbeck muttered, entering his quarters, looking forward to some rest after finishing another late-night session on gamma shift. It wouldn't have been so bad except that he had been constantly changing from one shift to another over the past few weeks, trying to coordinate people on all three duty shifts since his recent, albeit temporary, job switch to the CMO position. It left him tired and grouchy, almost as much as the person he was covering for in sickbay.

No sooner did Saal have time to remove his uniform jacket than did the computer voice interrupt him.

“Incoming Priority Message from Starfleet.”

Taking pause, Saal noted that it was the first time in seven months that he had heard the words “Starfleet” and “message” spoken by the computer in the same sentence. Realizing that the ship had finally re-established communications with the Federation communications network after returning to the alpha quadrant, he suddenly found himself eager to learn what he'd been missing since Republic was ordered into radio silence since they left port.

“Put it through to my display,” ordered Saal, diverting his attention to his workdesk.

“The message is heavily encrypted and flagged 'Eyes Only' for Leon Cromwell.”

Saal froze with an aggravated expression. It was both annoying and disappointing that the very first personal message he received from outside the ship in over half a year was a wrong address.

“If it's not for me, why did you send it here?” he questioned the computer, making no effort to hide his sour displeasure.

“Routing instructions for this message indicated delivery to the Chief Medical Officer's Quarters”

“Well then,” Saal exclaimed incredulously. “*RE* route it to the *acting* chief science officer's quarters!”

The computer beeped in compliance, returning silence to the doctor's quarters. As he readied himself for bed, Saal took one last view out the window overlooking the metallic spires of Deep Space Nine. He felt comfort in being back home, and determined to take a long, leisurely stroll on the Promenade after a good eight-hour rest. Settling into his bed, Saal pulled up the covers and began drifting off to sleep when the computer shattered the silence once again.

“Incoming Priority Message from Starfleet.”

“Is it for ME this time??” he growled, flipping back the covers he had pulled over his head just moments ago.

“Affirmative. The audio message is heavily encrypted, and routing instructions indicate delivery to Special Agent Shadow, USS Republic.”

Saal's face went deadpan.

“Let's hear it…”

An instant later, the familiar voice of Doug Forrest reverberated from the computer speakers, bringing back distant memories from a dubious time in Saal's life.

“Hello old friend. I'm not sure if you're receiving any of my messages, but this one is the most urgent that I've ever sent you. You see, Sean and I are in a bit of a jam here on Farius Prime, and I need to ask a favor of you…”

Location: Acting chief science officer's quarters, deck eight, USS Republic
Shiptime: 0826 hours

Since their docking at Deep Space Nine a few hours prior, the buzz of excitement aboard Republic spread quickly. Alpha shift had just come on duty and busied themselves with basic port servicing, as Republic had not seen a Federation outpost in over half a year. Those lucky enough to be on beta shift were now waking up to see that they were in the Alpha Quadrant, and had most of the morning and afternoon to themselves before reporting to duty at 1600, allowing a full nights rest to enjoy some off-duty time aboard the station. Then, there were those on gamma shift, who were just getting off the night shift, and needed to sleep before they could disembark and take in some new scenery.

As was Leon Cromwell's disposition.

After being relieved by Nat Hawk, who was about twenty-minutes late to take over bridge watch from him, the doctor was tired and needed to sleep before rediscovering civilization outside Republic. Unlike Hawk, who was so excited about being back at their homeport that he tried to get Lieutenant Snyder to take over his shift on the bridge (thus his tardiness to his work shift), Leon was less than enthusiastic about partaking in the exodus out the main gangway. Taking his leave of the helmsman, who reluctantly took command of the bridge while Carter and Roth disembarked to report in to Captain Kira, Leon was content to head off to bed. But first, the ship's computer had something to say about it.

“Incoming Priority Message from Starfleet.”

No sooner did the door to his quarters slide shut than did the first message of one hundred and twelve reach the top of Leon's personal communications queue. Resigned to listen to the high-precedence communiques before retiring, the doctor sighed and took a seat at his workdesk.

“On screen,” he replied to the computer, and an instant later, a very shaggy and bloodshot Lieutenant Commander greeted Leon.

“Hello old friend. Please disregard the previous messages. I was worried. Victor.”

Leon blinked with confusion. “That's it?” he thought. “There must be something more to what he sent me…”

“Computer, play previous message from Victor Virtus.”

“Hello Leon. I forgot to fill you in on what happened aboard the Freedom Star. John knows about all of what I'm about to tell you, so I won't bother copying him on this message. Anyway, as I mentioned before, I spent three months overhauling the matter/antimatter inducers before we docked at Hellsgate Station, and I…”

“Computer, play the message before this one, please.”

“Hello again, Leon. I know that you haven't been receiving these priority messages, and I can only hope that the Federation comm network will hold them in the buffer long enough until Republic eventually re-establishes contact with a navigational buoy. Kira thinks I'm crazy for spending all my shore leave waiting for you guys to come home, but I don't dare…”

Leon audibly sighed. “Computer, previous priority message, if you please.”

Vic's voice went from calm and rational, to inordinately irate.

“I've had it! Whoever messed with my programming at the Luna Base mainframe did so with such ill intent that…”

“Computer, go back five messages before this one.” Leon was confused as to why Vic would have left so many priority messages while they were gone. Admittedly, the Republic was months overdue from their nebula mapping mission, but usually, the quixotic engineer was a man of few words when getting to the point, usually resulting in a one sentence summary alongside an absurdly accurate time index. However, these particular messages seemed to be a long string of erratic log entries rather than a important set of information requiring Leon's utmost attention. As the computer complied with Leon's last command, Vic's voice became heavily inebriated, causing a surprised look to wash across the doctor's face.

“Sooo, when he wusn't lookin', I drunk down th'last bottle…”

“Forward to mid-message…”

”…and THAT'S when I saw something nasty in the woodshed…“

“Computer, halt playback!”

Leon covered his eyes in frustration. He wasn't keen on listening to every single one of Vic's priority messages, especially since he was low on sleep. But the relative conundrum was that if these messages indeed came from the Republic's former chief engineer, then there HAD to be something 'priority' about them. Otherwise, he would have sent simple routine correspondence. While it occurred to the doctor that he might listen to Vic's most recent message suggesting he ignore all previous, the CMO turned acting science chief was curious to the point of a fault, and simply HAD to get to the bottom of Vic's anxiety.

“Computer,” Leon called out again to the omnipresent computer. “Cross-reference all subject matter from all priority messages to me in the last six months from Victor Virtus and determine the most common subject discussed.”

The computer sounded a series of processor chirps and warbles as it analyzed in mere seconds the meaning of every sentence Vic spoke in his messages to Leon over the past thirty weeks.

“Current events.”


“Political news.”

Leon seemed to accept this revelation, though not entirely sure why a scientist of Vic's caliber would be concerned with trivial politics. “Computer, access Federation news networks, and playback the most recent news program regarding the primary subject of Victor Virtus's encoded priority messages.”

“Accessing… Replaying episode number thirty-four of 'INN Insights with Jack Warner', recorded on stardate 58734.9”.

As the show commenced, Leon moved to his recliner situated next to the glass coffee table. On his way there, he picked up the coronet-shaped bottle of scotch whiskey that Shannon had gifted him two weeks ago and poured himself a drink.

“Welcome to INN Insights. I'm Jack Warner. The presidential race is down to its final few months, and as President Wolack D'lara prepares to step down after the completion of his final term, he has officially endorsed Councilman Tharn of Andoria who currently leads the race over the other candidates. Many have condemned the president for choosing another fellow Andorian as a hand-picked successor, insisting that such behavior is tantamount to a Federation oligarchy by Andoria. Mister D'lara has, of course, denied the suggestion, citing the councilman's positive track record of legislation in the upper house over the past twenty three years. But how positive is that record? INN Insight's newest investigative reporter, Jacqueline Morton-Taylor, tells us…”

Leon listened with detachment to the young lady's edited and pre-recorded piece of political jargon. The fact that the show's anchorman, Jack Warner, was the father of Republic's Director of Public Relations, Leah Warner, was perhaps the only reason the doctor hadn't yet turned off the recording. As his mind wandered, he thought back to Ash'aaria, and the role that Leah played in helping Leon and Nat cure the plague victims. It was Leon's conclusion that if her tenacity and indomitable spirit were inherited from her father, then Jack Warner was a man to be trusted. As he listened to the senior Warner's editorial piece on the flagrant ethics violations that Councilman Tharn was accused of, the doctor could feel a twinge of anger swelling in him, wondering how such a politician could have been voted into the Federation Council in the first place. While Leon wasn't much of a voter, he actually found himself thinking of hitting the polls on election day, just to make sure Tharn could be blocked from obtaining the highest office in the Federation. After all, if Jack Warner questioned the man's integrity, there HAD to be something to it…

“Here's to you, Jack!” Leon raised his glass of scotch in a toast. Allowing the smooth, smokey taste of distilled alcohol to slide slowly down his throat, the doctor laid back in his recliner and continued to listen to the IIN Insights program.

“And so it goes. With allegations such as these against Councilman Tharn, it's no wonder that his poll numbers have been steadily decreasing over the past five weeks, despite his lead over the other candidates. Which begs the question: Just where will his numbers be on election day? And does he truly deserve the honor to serve in the highest office of the president? Of course, the other candidates have their own opinions on the subject, and here with us in the studio today is the next runner up in the polls, Neocractic Federalist Party candidate and former Starfleet Admiral, Valdamir Kosyta. Admiral! Welcome to the program…”

With the utterance of those last words, Leon's eyes bulged out towards the ceiling as he just finished off the glass of whiskey.

Location: Corridor, deck 8, USS Republic

Coughing spasmodically from a disturbed balance of 100 year-old alcohol balanced precipitously on his epiglottis, Doctor Cromwell stormed down the hallway while hastily working himself into his uniform jacket. With a flushed red face and wild expression in his eyes, his voice was almost otherworldly as he entered the turbolift.

“Bridge!” he managed to utter through a hoarse cough.

Chapter 4: Ups and DownsTop

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic
Shiptime: 0832 hours

Seated in the center command chair upon the bridge of the Starship Republic, chief helmsman and second officer Lieutenant Nathan Hawk was well and truly bored out of his mind. When one was so bored, the mind tended to wander and didn't want it to wander into personal issues that had vexed him since their third week on Ash'aaria. In the same breath that he cursed the lack of anything to occupy his time or wandering mind, he was also thankful for the respite from crisis. Those weeks on Ash'aaria, he hadn't had a moment to think; let alone the energy to do so had such a moment come upon him.

It had been a brutal, exhaustive, all-consuming time that he hoped never to repeat. Yet he also held no regrets about. As hard as it had been for him, he knew it had been even more harrowing an experience on his friend Leon Cromwell. He had been naïve to ever believe he himself alone could have done even a tenth of what they had jointly accomplished. The entire heart of the mission had revolved around medicine, and his grand design had involved the utilization of an Emergency Medical Hologram.

The very idea was absurd now in hindsight, and had been rendered so almost immediately upon arrival. As he stroked the neatly trimmed hair of the goatee that presently adorned his chin – a combination souvenir and would-be badge of honor from his excursion to the Ash'aarian wilds – he considered just how foolish the entire escapade would have been had he embarked upon it independently. Thankfully, that had not been the case. Leon's own plan had made far more sense and worked out a hell of a lot better.

As he looked over the status reports from the various departments linked through the command consoles on either arm of the chair, he wondered what the potential fall-out with Starfleet would be over the matter. Even with the steps taken to re-write history by the Captain, with just over a thousand people aboard, the truth was bound to trickle out in rumor. Without facts to back it up, there would never be anything formal out of Starfleet to challenge the official account of things. Hopefully the added protection of people like Admiral Janeway – who herself had run afoul of the letter of the law over the years – would take care of any un-official blow-back.

As he sat strumming his fingers on the right hand arm of the center seat, desperate for something to occupy him, he wondered if anyone would notice if he took the ship out to the nearby Denorios belt for a joy-ride…

Before the idea could progress further, Nat's attention was captured by the arrival – or rather return – of Doctor Leon Cromwell to the bridge. Having been relieved less than a half-hour ago, Nat hadn't expected to see his friend for the next few hours. Still, he was grateful for any distraction at this point.

“Ya miss me already?” Hawk quipped as the acting Science Officer strode purposefully towards him from the port forward turbolift. The remark fell on deaf ears though, as Cromwell came to a halt a few steps before Hawk and looked at him with a shaken expression on his face before moving to sit down in the chair to his immediate left. When he said nothing, instead simply stared off into space for a moment, Nat prompted him. “Leon? Ya'll right?”

“Have you watched the news lately?” Cromwell asked after a beat without even looking at him, almost as if the proverbial wheels spinning in his mind required all of his energy and focus.

“Uhh, nope. Sorta depressin' an all, the news I mean. Why?” Hawk replied, a bit concerned. He knew Leon had issues with post-traumatic stress and the like; so much so that Counselor Tolkath had actually thought a week of total down-time in the brig was beneficial for him. Was he relapsing?

As if trying to wrap his mind around the concept, Leon responded in a quiet, astonished voice. “Vladimir Kostya… is running for President.”

Hawk didn't quite follow. “President uh what?” he questioned.

“Of the-!” Leon began to shout in response, ”-of the Federation!“ he finished in an urgent yet hushed, even conspiratorial tone as he finally turned to look at Hawk. “Kostya is running for President of the United Federation of Planets!” he repeated, as if he needed to state it as much as possible before his brain could believe it.

Immediately, Leon's stressed out condition made a great deal of sense. “That's bad.” Hawk stated simply.

“That's very bad!” Leon replied, still acting a bit deranged. “Do you have any idea what kind of damage that man could do as the President?” he asked, making sure to keep the volume of his voice low without losing any of the force of severity.

“He ain't winnin' though, is he?” Hawk questioned, sharing in Leon's concern. He hadn't been matching wits and wills with Kostya nearly as long as John and Leon had been, but he knew the kind of damage the man could do.

“No, thankfully,” Leon replied, seeming to calm a bit at that fact. “But he's not losing, either. He's in third or so place I think, and most people still haven't made up their minds.” Leon informed him, as the shock of learning all of this began to wear away and the reality of things set in. “He's a manipulative, arrogant, self-righteous ideologue. Supported by a great many likewise manipulative, arrogant, self-righteous ideologues – most of whom will stop at nothing to give their side an edge.”

As much as Hawk shared Leon's profound concerns over this development, he was more concerned over Leon's ability to deal with this added stress. Ash'aaria had pushed him to the edge of tolerances. Since they had returned to Republic, the level of anxiety and stress Cromwell was under had dropped dramatically. This was only going to amp things back up for him.

“Ya told John-boy 'bout this?” Hawk asked, anxious for Carter's opinion – both on Kostya's political ambitions as well as Leon's psyche's ability to handle this.

“He's off-ship with the Captain, I think a meeting with Captain Kira on the station.” Cromwell replied. Belatedly, Hawk realized he should have known this as officer of the watch, but he'd been too busy being bored to check the status displays. It occurred to him then how cruel and fickle a bitch karma or fate or whatever else could be; here he had been lamenting his boredom and the lack of anything going on, only to have something new to stress and worry about pop right up.

“Maybe ya should talk ta Tolkath,” Hawk suggested, about as subtly as a bull in a china shop.

“I think I can manage.” Leon replied dismissively, apparently not eager to give the counselor any more reason to fret over him. After a moment, another thought occurred to him. “Has Leah mentioned anything about this?”

Before Hawk could reply and explain how little he'd spoken to the significant other in his life, a feminine voice chimed in from above and behind them. “About what?”

As Leon turned in his seat, Nat craned his neck to find Lean Warner standing off to the side of the Security and Tactical console that surrounded the command chairs, an inquisitive look on her face. Though such was fairly standard fare for a reporter. Nat once again cursed fate or karma or whatever else, as he recalled the age old phrase 'when it rains, it pours'.

Caught off-guard, and wondering who else might be listening to their conversation, Leon glanced around the bridge once more before answering her. “About Vladimir Kostya running for President.”

Taken aback by the statement, Leah looked downright stunned by the news. “Are you serious?” she asked, crouching down and leaning her head under the port-side of the tactical console to get closer to the conversation.

“I just saw your father conducting in interview with him on the news nets.” Leon affirmed.

Shaking her head from side to side in disbelief, Leah couldn't believe what Cromwell was telling her. “My father hates politics, he hasn't done a story on them since… as long as I can remember.”

As the conversation spontaneously died (as they occasionally do) the awkward silence and tension between Hawk and Warner became almost palpable as Nat realized her presence on the bridge was likely due to a desire to talk with him. Why she would pick this particular time and place made a bit of sense. It was the only time and place she knew for certain he would be, considering how much he had been avoiding her of late. Though in his mind, he preferred to think that he was helping her to avoid him.

“Hey, Leon, ya mind holdin' down tha fort fer a coupla minutes?” he asked his friend.

Having been witness to the obvious tension between the two since it's beginnings on Ash'aaria, and not likely to get any sleep for the immediate future despite how tired he was, Leon nodded in agreement. “Sure thing.”

Standing from the command chair, he looked to Warner and uncertainly motioned towards the observation lounge doors at the back of the bridge as he asked, “Ya wanna talk fer a minute?”

Nodding in reply, equally uncertain of things, Leah agreed. “Yeah, we uhm, we should,” was all she could manage as she moved in that direction.

After another minute of dancing around one another as he first lead the way, then stopped and motioned for her to go first, upon which she suggested he go first, before he insisted she did, the once happy couple finally managed to head off the bridge, the sound of frustrated sigh catching Hawk's ear from the direction of the command chair as the doors closed behind him.

Not eager to say anything first, Hawk paused just inside the threshold of the room and considered the floor. Or more precisely, considered the spot on the floor that had once been stained a deep red, almost black, with well over two liters of his own blood. Nothing marred the carpet in the slightest, but something about being mortally wounded tended to burn specific details into your mind, so much so that Hawk thought he could almost trace the exact outline of the one-time stain if he had to.

Either because of the connection they shared, or due to her latent empathic abilities for her quarter betazoid DNA, Leah seemed to know exactly what thoughts were going through his mind at that moment. It was enough to get her to speak first. “I've already lost you once,” she said softly, “I don't want to lose you again.”

Looking into her dark brown eyes, the love Nat felt for her was enough to overwhelm him. He wanted to hold her close and reassure her that they would always be together, that everything would be alright, and nothing could ever come between them.

But he knew that such simply wasn't the case anymore. It hadn't been for quite a while.

“Nothin's changed fer me, darlin',” he told her, regretfully. Moving closer to her, he brushed a few loose strands of hair away from her face and continued. “Ya want somethin' from life 'at I can't give ya.”

Her emotions surging to the surface, she put her hand to his face as she argued passionately, “What I want isn't something I want right now. It might not even be ten years from now!”

Pulling away, Hawk shook his head gently, “It ain't 'bout when. It ain't somethin' I want, ever. That ain't fair ta ya.”

Growing upset, even angry, Leah shot back. “What isn't fair is that you won't even consider the idea. That you can't ever see what you want changing. How can you be so stubborn? How can you insist you know what you'll want and not want for the rest of your life?” she demanded.

Finding it difficult to look at her and the pain he was causing her, Nat turned away towards the large view ports at the back of the room, and the starry void beyond. “I made up ma mind 'bout this stuff a long time ago. Ya know tha reasons why. That ain't gonna change. Not now, not t'marra… just ain't.”

“You don't know that. You can't know that!” she exclaimed, frustrated and so much more. When Nat didn't reply, she stepped closer and grabbed him, forcing him to turn and face her. “You told me you never thought you could love anyone. That before you met me, the very idea caused you pain. But look at you now. That's changed. The fact that you don't even want to look at me right now proves that. So why can't this change to? Why won't you even let the idea of change exist?”

“B'cause I will not put-!” Nat started to reply, but stopped short, turning away from her again.

“Because you won't what?” Leah asked, knowing she'd struck pay-dirt. “What won't you do?” Again, Hawk refused to answer. “Damnit, you owe me at least that much! At least the truth!”

Angry now - both at himself and at her - Hawk spun on his heel and answered her. “I won't put a kid through what I went through, damnit!”

This revelation changed the game a bit. For a few long moments, neither one of them said anything. Everything simply hung in the air between them. His past. Their relationship. Her hopes for the future. Their future together. It all existed in a state of flux for a few moments.

Finally, Leah spoke. Her anger tempered, her frustration reigned in. “What your parents did… it was the most arrogant and selfish thing I've ever known. I hate them for it. I hate them for the pain and the grief that they've caused you. I hate them for everything they took from you because of their self-righteousness, and their ignorance, and their bravado, and their short-sightedness. And you… you should probably hate them too. I don't know, maybe you do and just can't say it aloud. But you are not your parents, and neither am I.”

Turning to face her, Nat too had tempered his feelings even as others surged within him. Emotions so strong that if ever unleashed, he feared they could easily destroy him. Feelings and thoughts he kept buried so deep down, he himself didn't know what he might find if he were ever forced to face them. “What ma parents did… yer right, twas arrogant n' selfish n' all that. Yer right, you n' me wouldn't prolly ever make them same mistakes. But we could make others. I'm Starfleet, yer a reporter. This universe ain't the safe lil utopia most folks like ta pretend it is. I know that better 'n anybody. Bringin' a child inta this world, knowin' that at any moment, either uh us could make a decision that'd put that kid through even a lil bit uh what I went through… well that's pretty damn selfish too, don't ya think?”

Taking his hands in hers, and pulling him closely, Leah looked deeply into his eyes as she answered him. “Then we walk away from it all. We take desk jobs, on earth – when we're both ready for that part of our life together to begin.”

“And what 'bout tha enemies we made 'n tha mean time, huh? Even if we get Faro, even if he goes away fer good, even if we can take down tha Syndicate, ya think they'll just lemme walk away? Ya don't think somebody out there's gonna want me head fer that?” Nat countered.

Refusing to concede the point, Leah argued further, “Then we run away, we leave it all behind. We go to the ass-end of the Beta Quadrant, or through the wormhole, or anywhere else where no one will ever find us. We make a life for ourselves, together, somewhere.”

“Ya mean that? Ya could give up everthin' n' everyone?” Nat asked, the shields around his argument losing cohesion.

Smiling at him as weeks of doubt and fear over their future together washed away, Leah couldn't help but chuckle a bit, “Sweetie, we both kind of already did. That planet back there, the one we could have spent the rest of our lives on, begins with the letter A and ends with the sound 'aaria'? We both felt so strongly that not helping those people was wrong, that we did give up everything for the hope of changing that. Why wouldn't we be willing to give just as much for a life and a family together?” she asked rhetorically.

Feeling as dumb as a box of rocks, Nat shook his head in the affirmative. “Well ain't I stupid.”

Laughing, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him towards her. “Lucky for you, I love you for your looks and not your mind.” she joked before planting her lips upon his.

“Ya ain't mad at me? I mean, if I'd uh just told ya what we buggin' me weeks ago…” Nat began apologetically, trailing off as Leah put a finger over his lips, telling him to stop.

“If you'd have just told me what was bugging you weeks ago, you wouldn't be the man I feel in love with.” she told him.

“I just feel so… stupid.” he said again, at a loss for a better word to describe it.

“You've lead a very solitary life, for a very long time. Every decision you've ever made for yourself had been the right decision for you in that moment, even if it wasn't. Part of being a couple, part of being more than just an individual, is learning how to think and how to decide things together.” she enlightened him.

“Well I'll be damned,” Nat replied, “an all this time, I thought ya were just 'nother pretty face.” he teased her, sweeping her into another kiss before she could get out a come back.

Chapter 5: Tune In TomorrowTop

Location: Main gangway, deck 25, USS Republic

Smoke shifted his weight on Kim Roth's shoulder as she walked briskly down the corridor. Next to Republic's CO, John Carter stutter-stepped to keep pace. “And that's where we stand, Captain.”

Roth shook her head. “We can't make better than warp five?”

Carter double-checked the PADD in his hand that now seemed to be ever-present. He looked gravely at the data. “Pakita would actually prefer that we keep it under four-point five, but she also tends to hedge on the conservative side. The math adds up to warp five, but I wouldn't go much beyond that.”

Roth's face curled into a frown. “I suppose a crawl home is better than the alternative.”

“Aye, Captain.”

The two officers stopped short, taking shorter careful steps between the area governed by the grav-plates of Republic and Deep Space Nine's docking pylon. The gravity was synched and was NEARLY identical. However, despite being extensively re-fitted by Miles O'Brien and his staff, the station was still Cardassian at it's heart, and the bottom line was it was better to be safe than sorry.

As the large, geared door opened to the docking pylon's turbolift shaft, Smoke bleaked with a start as the Republic officers greeted a third man, clad in operations gold.

Victor Virtus beamed, striking a low bow (complete with an unnecessary theatrical flourish. “Greetings and felicitations, Captain Roth.”

“Mister…Virtus I presume?”

“Vic? What the Hell?”

Virtus turned, chiding his friend and fellow officer. “Language, John.” He turned again to address Kim Roth. “Guilty as charged, captain.” Victor cocked his head, regarding the small animal on the captain's shoulder. “Is that an Argelian kitsune?”

Roth turned her head, reaching up to scratch the animal's chin. “Indeed it is, Doctor. This is Smoke.” She tilted her head, back toward Virtus. “Stinker, this is the engineer I keep yelling to you about.”

Virtus seemed to take the remark in stride, stepping forward to give John Carter a handshake that quickly turned into an impromptu hug. “Welcome back to civilization, John,” he offered simply.

John stood back awkwardly. The gesture of kindness, to say nothing of Virtus' presence on the station had taken him by surprise. “It's… good to BE back, Vic,” Republic's First Officer took a step back. “But what are you even DOING here?” he asked, adding, “grozit, Vic, you look terrible. When was the last time you slept?”

“Thirty-six hours, fourteen minutes ago, thank you very much. As for why I'm here, that can wait, though I have been asked by Captain Kira to escort you to Ops.”

Roth took the opportunity to step further into the lift car. Smoke bleeked in expectation. “We'd best not keep the good captain waiting then, gentlemen. Lead the way.”

Location: Station commander's office, ops level, space station Deep Space Nine

The normal beehive of activity that was the nerve center of Deep Space Nine had stabilized to a dull but constant buzz. However, it did give Kira Nerys a moment to sit back in her office and enjoy a well-earned cup of Bajoran herbal tea. She leaned back in her chair a moment, letting out a heavy sigh as she looked at the various mementoes that now decorated an office that she never thought would feel like “hers”.

On the corner of her desk, supported by a simple wooden cradle, there was horsehide orb. Yellowed from use and age, the baseball had been a gift to Nerys from Jake Sisko, after her promotion to station commander. Jake's father, Benjamin, was the commander of Deep Space Nine during some of the most important events in the history of Bajor. He was also a baseball fan, and a fan of that ball in particular, having once vowed to retrieve it, and indeed the station from allied Dominion and Cardassian forces during the Dominion War.

It was an incident that Kira often looked back to, and the fact that Sisko's son gave the ball to her following his father's disappearance felt like a passing of the torch; as if she'd been given permission, not just from Starfleet, but more importantly from Ben Sisko himself to watch over the station that had become home to all of them.

Kira smiled warmly as she picked up the baseball, engaging in the human custom of tossing the ball back and forth in her hands, which no species seemed able to resist.

Then there was a chime at her door.

Spotting the form of Victor Virtus through the door's trans-metal panel, she sighed again. “Finally,” she commented aloud. “I wonder if he'll actually leave now.” She set the ball down and leaned forward. “Come.”

With a soft mechanical grind, the doors to Kira's office split and the three Republic comrades walked in. Nerys stood, awaiting a time-honored tradition.

“Captain Kira Nerys,” said Victor Virtus in the most official tone the Bajoran had ever heard him use, “may I present Captain Kimberly Roth and Commander John Thelonius Carter. Commanding and First Officers of USS Republic respectively.”

Roth stepped forward extending her hand. “Permission to come aboard, Captain Kira?” she asked, as Smoke bleaked.

“Granted, Captain Roth.” Nerys shook the other woman's hand, “And welcome home… officially. Please,” she gestured to the two seats in front of the visiting officers, “have a seat. I'm sure we have a few things to talk about.”

“A few.” Roth added as she sat. Carter did the same.

“First and foremost, you should know, we have a Vorta onboard who's officially requested asylum.”

“You have a what?” Virtus interrupted.

“You have a WHAT?!” Kira commented, somewhat more forcefully.

Roth grimaced slightly. “I know, and I'm sorry I couldn't give any advance notice. I've already spoken with Starfleet Command, and more than a few analysts in intelligence.” Roth took a moment to run her finger along the collar of her uniform. “They've recommended that we turn Eris over to you, given your extensive experience with the Founders and the Dominion.”

Kira nodded. “That makes a lot of sense,” Kira agreed. “I'll make arrangements for the transfer when we're done here.”

“I'd appreciate that, captain,” Roth said. “Thank You.”

After a moment, Kira's face took on a brighter cast. “I hope that Julian didn't cause any trouble for you?”

At that remark, John Carter spoke up. “On the contrary, captain. He came in handy more than once.” Carter and his CO exchanged a knowing glance. “I'm sure that he's as happy to be back as we are though.”

Again, Nerys nodded. “I'm sure,” she said simply. “Thank you for looking after all our other lost sheep as well. I trust your hasty departure was worth it?”

“It worked out as well as could be expected, I'm happy to say.” Roth confirmed.

Kira smiled. “Julian does have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.” DS9's commander took a sip of her tea. “How long will you be staying? My Ops Chief tells me your warp drive has seen better days?”

On the other side of the desk, Virtus leaned forward, looking past Captain Roth to Republic's XO. “What did you DO, John?”

“Nothing, thank you, DOCTOR Virtus. For once, it wasn't me.”

Next to her First Officer, Roth smiled. “Unfortunately, we're only cleared to stay here for a few days. Officially, DS9 is still our home port, but we've been ordered to Earth for debriefing and a crew shuffle.” Roth's head dropped slightly as she pinched her eyes closed for a moment. “I have the feeling new orders are being cut, but if there's one thing I've learned in the last year,” Roth paused for effect. “It's to quit trying to predict PERSCOMM's next move.”

John Carter's combadge chirped.

“Carter, go.”

“Commander Carter, this is Saal Yezbeck. I need to speak with you, sir. Urgently.”

Carter looked quickly to his captain, and then tapped his badge. “Is it a medical emergency, Doctor?”

“No sir, it's personal.”

Carter rose from the chair, looking first to Roth, who nodded, then to Kira. “If I might be excused for a moment?”

Neryes waved her visitor on. “Of course, Commander. I'm sure we can manage.”

As the doors to Kira's office opened, Carter looked back. “Thank you Captain Kira, Captain Roth.” He then tilted his head toward Victor Virtus. “See you in Quark's for a drink, Vic?”

Virtus nodded. “Collect the good Doctor Cromwell, and you've got a deal, John.”

“That's up to him, not me,” Carter indicated as he left the office.

There was a beat of uncomfortable silence as Kira Nerys looked at Kim Roth, and then to Victor Virtus, who was by now doing a fantastic impression of a third wheel. The silence continued for a moment, before Kira cleared her throat. “Will there be anything else, Doctor Virtus?”

Vic tilted his head. “No, I'm done here, thank you.” He said flatly.

More silence intervened. “Oh… Oh, right. Of course.” Virtus stood up, brushing the front of his dark uniform tunic, then pivoted toward the door.

“Actually, doctor,” Kim Roth looked at Virtus with a curious eye. “If you wouldn't mind stopping by Republic when you have a moment, I'd like to pick your considerable brain about a few things.”

Victor looked genuinely pleased and also shocked. “Would you?”

“Your reputation precedes you, doctor.”

Victor's countenance brightened noticeably. He smiled stroking his mustache with his thumb and middle finger. “Of course, captain. At your convenience.” He stepped toward the office door and nodded to Kira Nerys. “I appreciate your patience, Captain Kira.” He said simply. “May The Prophets guide you.” Virtus bowed slightly and left the office.

As the door slid shut, Kim Roth let out a heavy sigh. “Captain,” she asked, “do you have any coffee?”

Location: Promenade, Deep Space Nine

John Carter walked briskly through the crowded merchant sector of the station's largest common area. He passed a number of vendors, each with a small cart or stand with all manner of goods available for exchange. Some merchants took Federation credit vouchers (the closest thing there was to money in the UFP), but most expected gold pressed latinum in exchange for… whatever.

Carter was looking for Saal Yezbeck who's cryptic summons led to a second, even less illuminating conversation, wherein Yezbeck had asked to meet Republic's resident Martian on an upper observation platform.

“Commander! Commander Carter! Up here, Sir!”

John bounded up the steps, eager to learn the reason for the doctor's communiqué.

“Saal?” He questioned. “What's going on?”

Yezbeck motioned for Carter to join him at a small table with a few chairs, where he'd been looking for the officer. “I'm sorry, Commander. I'm sure this isn't the best time.”

Carter shook his head. “There's never a best time, Saal,” he offered, trying to ease Yezbeck's agitation. “What's wrong?”

Yezbeck leaned forward, propping himself up on his elbows. “I have a family emergency, Sir.” He explained. “I need to take a formal LOA. I know I'm new to the CMO position, but I've got it figured out and the way I see it…”

Carter leaned back and held up his hands. “It's ok, Saal, it's ok. Shannon's more than capable to take over until we get to Earth, Teague's a fine trauma medic, and Leon will still be onboard in case anything really disastrous happens.”

Saal relaxed visibly. “That's pretty close to what I was going to suggest sir. I appreciate your understanding.”

Carter too, relaxed and smiled. “Look, the last few months have been anything but normal, even for us. Go. Take care of your family. Especially now that you've got the chance.”

Saal nodded, genuinely appreciative of the Commander's good nature. “Aye sir.” The senior doctor got up and headed for the stairs that lead back down to the main level of the promenade. Before taking a step down he looked back over his shoulder.

“Be seeing you, Commander.” Saal tipped an invisible hat. Then he descended out of sight.

After a moment, Carter realized that he was actually alone. No meeting, no crisis, no personnel issues. He paused for a moment, scanning the observation deck. Then his eyes settled on a wall-mounted tri-vid monitor, set on the Inter-Stellar News Network.

Jack Warner was commenting on something with fellow a fellow INN reporter; a Bolian John didn't recognize. Carter didn't think much of it until he saw a picture of Valdimir Kostya, displayed in the corner of the monitor. Slowly Carter rose to his feet. “Please tell me he's dead.” He asked the universe quietly. Carter stepped up to the monitor, keying the volume control as he hoped for a miracle.

”…make of it Jack?“

“Well, I'll say this, Morbo,” Warner said to his colleague. “I've covered many political campaigns in my time, and there is something very engaging about Admiral Kostya.”

The Bolian nodded. “He's trailing badly in the polls, Jack.” Morbo commented. “Do you really think he's the next President of the Federation?”

The question hit Carter like a kick to the gut. “No… no, no, no! You have got to be SPROCKING KIDDING ME!” He thundered.

Warner smiled affably. “Oh, that's not up to me, but I think you might be surprised.”

“Well we certainly look forward to the rest of your interview, Jack.”

Warner smiled again. This time there was something more knowing in his expression. “Believe me, Morbo. You haven't seen anything yet.”

Carter felt an unearthly shiver down his back; what his Grandmother used to call 'Someone walking over your grave'.

“I'm sure.” The alien nodded. Morbo turned to address the camera directly. “And that will do it for this special edition of INN's 'In the Moment'. Part two of Jack Warner's profile of UFP presidential candidate Vladimir Kostya, and remember, you can tell us what YOU think, right now on data-stream two…”

Carter didn't hear the rest of the reporter's closing. All he could do was stare blankly at the screen, which continued to stream news and pictures that John could care less about. His mind flashed back to words he'd said to Saal, back when the universe made sense.

“In case anything really disastrous happens.”

Chapter 6: Reputations and PrecedenceTop

Location: Main shuttlebay, deck 4, USS Republic

“Sir, I'm sorry,” offered a young petty officer with straw-colored hair, and wearing a command-red enlisted uniform. “This request is highly irregular. Shuttlecraft are for official use only, and I can't let you have one without authorization from the captain or Commander Carter.”

As the youthful shuttlebay dispatcher stood at his control console, Doctor Saal Yezbeck, dressed in civilian attire, stood void of his uniform, and carried a bulky, cylindrical suitcase slung over his shoulder. His face was strewn with frustration at the dwindling hope of obtaining a Republic shuttlecraft for his leave of absence, and he could only silently while the petty officer second class continued to rattle off a list of concerns.

“No destination orders… No encoded flight plan… How am I supposed to explain to the captain where one of her shuttles disappeared to when she asks?”

“Look,” Saal started. “Petty Officer… O'Leary, isn't it? I'm not trying to make your job difficult, I just need a shuttlecraft for a week or two. That's all I'm asking. This is very important to me.”

“Ensign Harding from the navigation department is our assigned deck officer for alpha shift,” explained the dispatcher with nervousness. “She reports directly to the chief helmsman, and I could lose my stripes if I issue an auxiliary craft without an authorized routing dispatch.”

Saal felt the pressure of being put in a difficult spot, and he didn't want to press the flustered enlisted crewman any further. He was about to give up and head to the adjoining space station when the gruff, seasoned frame of a Starfleet Master Chief Petty Officer approached. It was none other than Republic's Chief of the Boat, Bradford Rainier, and after witnessing the impasse between the two individuals, decided it was time to intervene.

“Is there a problem here?” he slipped in between sentences using his calm, to-the-point demeanor.

Turning to face his senior non-commissioned officer, the dispatcher explained the predicament. “The doctor here has been granted a personal leave of absence from Commander Carter, but he wants to take a shuttle with him.”

“What?” Brad turned to Saal with a touch of amusement. “A commercial liner isn't good enough? I'm sure there's one at the station that'll take you where you want to go.” Cracking a smile, he added, “I saw a Delmarian space liner docked at one of the lower pylons, and I can tell you with personal experience that their buffets are *fantastic*.”

Saal sighed with anxiety. He didn't have time for this. “This is a personal emergency, chief,” he pleaded. “Please… I really need a shuttle, and for privacy reasons, I can't provide a flight plan.”

Raising an eyebrow, Brad cast Saal a more serious glance. “Doctor, you ARE aware of ships policy regarding the use of warp-capable auxiliary craft without clearance from the captain?”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as Saal digested the COB's reminder of the regulation.

“Yes,” he replied, realizing his prospect of obtaining a shuttle was quickly slipping away.

The two bearded, seasoned Starfleet veterans considered one another stoically, attempting to decipher the motivations of the other. Brad didn't know Saal personally, but as the captain's most senior enlisted man, he was privy to the inner workings of every department on the ship, as well as the recipient of every bit of scuttlebutt, gossip, rumor, and innuendo that the crew could generate. Basically, he knew Saal by reputation in addition to his standing with the captain and executive officer. The chief's 40-year fleet experience knew that reputation was the one true test of an officer's character, and without further dissection of the issue, knew in his gut that there could only be one course of action in the current situation.

“Petty officer,” the Chief-of-the-Boat addressed the dispatcher in a subdued tone. “Why don't you take a break for about five or ten minutes?”


“It's okay,” Brad reassured him. “Log out of your workstation and grab a cup of raktajino. If Ensign Harding questions you, have her come talk to me.”

“Um… okay, chief.”

Dialing his sign-off sequence into the control pedestal, the young NCO cast both Saal and Brad a quizzical glance before proceeding to the adjoining break room in the neighboring hull compartment. As soon as the petty officer exited through the door, Chief Rainier turned his attention to the vacated station and entered his own logon sequence before accessing the shuttle requisition manifest.

“Take the Heinz,” the chief offered without looking up at the doctor. “Bay eleven on the flight line. She's only a type 8 shuttle, but she's been uprated to the diplomatic version, so it'll be a comfortable enough ride… to wherever you're going.” Only with those last words did Republic's senior enlisted crewman look towards Saal with a wary expression.

“Thanks, chief,” Saal exhaled to great relief. “I owe you one.”

“You'll bring her back in one piece, right?” the chief beckoned as the doctor began walking across the flight deck to the shuttle stenciled with the numbers 'NCC-76241/11'. Brad knew that he could slip a dispatch authorization past the captain or Commander Carter, having them sign it based solely on his own integrity. However, that trust could end up in jeopardy if something happened to the shuttle while it was in the doctor's hands.

“I'll bring her back,” Saal responded sheepishly, unable to personally commit to more than that.

For his part, Chief Rainier shook his head, hoping that he wouldn't regret sticking his neck out for the acting chief medical officer.

With a soft hiss, the door to the Shuttlecraft Heinz sealed shut while the antigravity platform slid the vessel from its parking bay into launch position. Following the automated maneuver, a two-toned alert siren echoed across the expansive bay at regular intervals, signaling to all personnel on deck of the upcoming hazard of a departing auxiliary craft. Meanwhile, from the control pedestal, Chief Rainier activated the atmospheric containment field, creating a blue luminescent border along the perimeter of the huge segmented shuttlebay doors. With a low-pitched, resonating mechanical grunt, the 100-meter wide door crawled upward, revealing the yawning spectacle of deep space beyond the confines of Republic. With engines coming online, the Heinz rose a few meters above the deck and activated its locator strobe, which flickered once every two seconds with a bright, blinding flash to signal to other vessels in the vicinity that an independent craft was about to depart the Galaxy-class starship. Before long, the type-8 shuttle had slid clear of Republic, and thirty seconds later, the bay doors had once again locked closed, returning the main shuttlebay to normal operations.

“Chief Rainier!” a high-pitched feminine voice thundered across the shuttlebay with a direct and formal tone, followed by the cadence of a single pair of fleet-issue uniform boots marching along the deck. “How did that shuttlecraft get clearance to leave? It was authorized with YOUR name on the flight dispatch!”

“Ensign Harding I presume?” Brad returned with a raised eyebrow towards the blonde ensign in command red stomping towards him.

“ALL flight dispatches for warp-capable shuttles must be authorized by either the captain or executive officer ONLY, and dispatches MUST be cleared through the deck officer on duty! That happens to be ME!”

“Yes Ma'am, I'm aware of that. You'll have the authorization on your desk in a few hours for your approval.”

“I'm supposed to clear dispatches BEFORE shuttles leave the ship! Not AFTER!”

“My apologies, ma'am,” offered the Chief of the Boat, using his experience-honed professional subterfuge to placate the callow junior officer. “That part of the ship's policy wasn't clear to me.”

In truth, Brad knew the policy to the letter, and there was no expressed requirement that a shuttle flight be cleared by the deck officer before launch, as long as proper authorization was eventually received in an “expedient and timely fashion”. He knew this because he was the one who actually helped Commander Carter draft the policy, intentionally leaving ambiguous the flight authorization precedence for cases such as these. It was obvious that Ensign Harding was attempting to subvert his position, either out of a selfish need to display dominance, or a vain attempt to impress her cohorts in the navigation department.

“Cob,” she addressed him coldly. “You DO realize that I can report you to my superiors for this?”

Like he did with Saal, Brad looked her over, recalling every bit of unofficial information he had heard about this officer through the enlisted grapevine. This was her first rotation on an active duty vessel, and the chief realized that the young ensign had not yet shaken the pretentious attitude of an academy midshipman. It was a career-slowing move for a budding officer to look down upon the lower ranks from a privileged perspective. While the enlisted were, by regulation, required to show professional respect to anyone in uniform of officer rank, they were the workhorses of the fleet; the ones who actually performed the basic tasks and menial duties that kept Starfleet humming along. The moment any crewman or petty officer detected a twinge of arrogance or indifference from a superior officer, that officer instantly lost the respect of the former, short-circuiting their future influence and leadership capabilities aboard the vessel. Officers who found themselves in such a self-defeating position might as well request re-assignment, for there was little room for redemption once the've lost the esteem of the lower ranks.

“You go ahead and do that, ma'am,” Chief Rainier replied, making sure to maintain the required etiquette while making no effort to hide his indifference. “I'm sure that Lieutenant Hawk will suitably reprimand me at his earliest possible convenience.”

Out of respect for the uniform - and the uniform ONLY - he suppressed the urge to add, “if he actually gave a rat's ass about you and your complaint.”

Chapter 7: Chance EncountersTop

Location: Turbolift, USS Republic

Leon left the bridge despondent after Nat came back to relieve him. The weight of Kostya's bid for the Federation presidency weighed heavily on his mind, along with the repercussions it could have throughout the Alpha Quadrants and beyond. If someone like Vladamir Kostya were able to swindle both the media and the common populace into believing that he was a responsible leader, then something was very wrong with the collective intelligence of the universe. As he stood in the turbolift, pondering the situation, he found himself becoming more and more riled at the prospect of a megalomanic at the helm of United Federation of Planets, and as tired as he was, sleep was becoming less and less an option.

As the doors parted onto deck eight, Leon exited into the corridor en route to his quarters. As he turned a corner he found himself face to face with a group of the ship's civilian scientists walking from the opposite direction.

Among them was Susan Hayworth, the ship's oceanographer.

Though Leon and Susan were technically dating, his recent two and a half month renegade trek to the Ash'aarian homeworld obviously put a strain on their relationship. While the two-week trip back to Deep Space Nine should have been enough time to renew their bond, the two were on separate work shifts, and had not seen much of one another except during department meetings of the onboard science contingent.

“Leon!” Susan looked surprised to see the doctor, and by Leon's expression, the feeling was reciprocal.

“I thought you were on beta shift?” Leon replied as a return greeting.

Feeling a bit awkward, Susan looked at her colleagues and said, “you all go ahead. I'll catch up to you on the station.”

While the request seemed ordinary to Doctor Cromwell, what happened next was peculiar from his point of view. As they walked past him, each scientist in the group extended their hand for a handshake, and offered what seemed to be a parting salutation.

“It was an honor, Doctor Cromwell,” said one civilian scientist. “Good working with you, Leon,” said another. “Hope to see you again someday, sir,” came another.

One after another, the civilians politely said what seemed to be their goodbyes to the good doctor, and as the last of the group rounded the corner, they entered the turbolift and subsequently disappeared. Leon and Susan then found themselves alone in the corridor.

“What was that all about?” Leon asked, a bit on the confused side.

“We've received new orders,” Susan replied with a touch of disappointment. “All of us non-Starfleet folk have been reassigned. From the rumors I've heard, just about every person not wearing a uniform were ordered off the ship by 1200 hours.”

“What?” Leon exclaimed with a horrified expression. “Almost the entire science department are civilians! What's Republic supposed to do without them?”

From the sound of it, Susan surmised that Leon didn't see the most obvious repercussion.

“Leon,” she started with regret. “That means me too. I've got orders to report to Starbase 213 in one week, and my transport leaves this afternoon.”

The doctor's shocked expression didn't subside.

“Susan…” he whispered, trying to find the right words. He looked with regret into her cobalt blue eyes at the realization that they were about to part ways. “I'm… I'm sorry…”

Deep down inside, Leon was apologizing for more than just sympathy at the sudden change in assignment. He was apologizing for not working hard enough to maintain their relationship. He knew that it was mostly his own fault by focusing more on his work, as well as his half-baked, ill-planned excursion to save the Ash'aarians from an alien plague. All of which served only to sideline Susan from his life.

“It's okay, Leon,” she replied in a softened tone. The two reached out to touch one another. Susan, gently placing her hand on the doctor's chest, and Leon, touching the smooth, glistening, dark brown skin of her face.

“You've become a different man than the one I first met on the Bremerton,” she explained to him. “Back then, you were less worried about the fate of the galaxy, and more worried about what others thought of you. You've matured, and though I don't know for what, you seemed to have found a purpose in life.”

The two stood silently, looking at one another with both longing and regret. With a sigh, Susan looked down away from his eyes, and focused on his chest. Tugging on his waistband to smooth out the wrinkles on his shirt, she added, “the uniform looks good on you…”

“When will I see you again?” he couldn't help but ask.

Susan smiled in response, returning her gaze upon his amber irises. “We found each other after the Bremerton,” she explained with confidence. “We'll find each other again.”

With a hug, the oceanographer kissed him on the cheek before releasing their embrace and headed towards the turbolift. For his part, Leon stared after her as the doors shut, trying to figure out how he yet again allowed a beautiful and intelligent woman to walk out of his life.

Though he tried, sleep still eluded the doctor, and after an hour of tossing and turning, knew that this would be one of those days where he would plough through the day with only coffee and excess baggage under his eyes.

“Computer, lights,” he announced, causing the darkness within his cabin to turn into day, followed by a sleepy Leon rousing from his bunk. After a yawn and a snort, he got up and walked into the head, took a brief shower, and donned a fresh uniform before ordering a cup of java from the food replicator. He stood in the center of the room taking quiet sips from the mug before deciding what to do for the rest of the day, during which was supposed to be his normal sleep cycle.

“Computer, location of John Carter.”

“Commander Carter is not aboard the Republic.”

“Extend location request to adjoining space station,” Leon redirected his inquiry before taking another sip of coffee.

“Commander Carter is located on the Promenade, section twelve.”

Location: Main gangway airlock, deck 25, USS Republic

The airlock leading to Deep Space Nine was awash with a sea of bodies making their way out of the Galaxy Class vessel in a mass exodus of warp-weary Gamma Quadrant travelers. While a few uniforms could be seen in the crowd, it was composed mostly of non-Starfleet personnel carrying bulky suitcases and baggage, confirming Susan Hayworth's notion that a large portion of Republic's civilian crew had been re-assigned.

As he made his way through the crowd, Leon looked around and recognized most of the faces, as they had been to sickbay at one time or another since they left port seven months prior. Most nodded at him in greeting, and a few friendly, verbal gestures were made, but for the most part, each member of the crowd were lost among their own thoughts. Most were in the mindset of seeing family again, harboring anxiety about their new orders, or jubilant about finally disembarking after a half-year in space.

Crossing through the spoked, circular door, Leon took note of the decor change from the pristine bright walls of Republic's corridors to the darker, more subdued shades of khaki and dark green, reminiscent the station's original Cardassian design. Without warning, Leon nearly fell flat on his face as a blonde, furry blur flew past his feet, followed by two more in quick succession. It so startled the doctor that he audibly yelped, just in time to hear a dog barking behind him.

“Reggie! Mannie! Billie!” a young boy of about ten years old shouted from behind. “Get back here!” The youngster wore a blue and white striped shirt and ball cap, and ran past Leon with an adult Labrador Retriever following in tow. The boy collected the three blonde “blurs”, which happened to be a trio of tiny puppies no more than a month old.

“Sorry, Doctor Cromwell!” the pre-adolescent apologized.

“That's okay, Jimmy,” Leon offered, recognizing the boy as none other than Jimmy Tapscott, son of Ensign Tapscott from engineering. “Don't tell me that you're leaving Republic, too?”

“Yeah,” the boy sounded glum as he held tight the puppies who were eager to explore the bustling crowd around them. “Mom and dad are packing up our quarters while I take Louie here for a walk on the Promenade.” As he explained, the adult dog obediently sat down next to him with its tongue wagging off to one side.

“Do you know where you're going next?”

“Dad said something about Benecia Colony,” Jimmy replied. “But I was hoping for another Starfleet ship.”

“Don't worry,” Leon smiled. “I'm sure that you'll get a chance to be on another ship soon. Besides, I'll bet all the other kids on Benecia will be jealous that you were on a Galaxy Class starship!”

“I never thought of that!” Jimmy's eyes lit up. “Do you think any of them will like puppies?”

“I have no doubt,” Leon concluded.

About that time, one of the puppies wiggled free from the boy's grasp and trotted down the gangway towards the station.

“Reggie!” he exclaimed before turning back towards Leon. “Sorry doc! Gotta go!” Before the doctor could reply, the boy was off running again through the crowd, chasing the rouge puppy, and followed by a barking dog.

Watching Jimmy disappear into the sea of bodies, Leon reflected upon the loss of the civilian populace on Republic. The design of the Galaxy Class was to allow Starfleet crew to bring family along on deep space missions so they wouldn't have to be separated for extended periods. As a social experiment, it was a resounding success, but often left captains reconsidering certain mission objectives over safety of the ship's compliment. Having children onboard meant forgoing special risks, some of which may have been acceptable were it a Starfleet-only crew.

Still, from Leon's point of view, less children aboard meant more uniforms, beckoning back to a time when Starfleet was at war, and forbade civilian crew on fleet vessels. In the back of his mind, he worried that a “uniform-only” crew would sterilize the family-oriented feel that had manifested on Republic over the past seven months. In truth, Leon liked the diversity of clothing and age groups as he walked the halls of the ship, as it brought about a feeling of peace and tranquility. As he resumed his walk towards the habitation ring of the station, Leon mused on whether Republic would be able to retain that ambiance in the months to come.

Location: Promenade, habitation ring, space station Deep Space 9

Like the gangway on Republic, the station's Promenade was awash in an undulating sea of bobbing heads shuffling every which way to unknown destinations. It was a larger crowd than Leon remembered from seven months ago, but considering the arrival of a starship with a thousand-plus extra personnel aboard itching for shore leave after half a year in the Gamma Quadrant, the size was not without warrant. The inner and outer ring of the Promenade housed alcoves in which various shops, bars, and entertainment venues resided, and while the crowd conglomerated in some, others were either closed or hosted only a small number of patrons.

As Leon walked past each alcove, the sound of either conversation, bartering, or cheers from a winning dabo streak echoed into the Promenade. Perusing the venues, he took note of the lack of variety compared to that of Starbase 39-Sierra when Republic was assigned there over eight months prior. However, due to the fact that Deep Space Nine was magnitudes smaller and more remote, the comparison was as futile as the one between Malus domestica and Citrus ​sinensis.

Finally, the doctor arrived at his destination: Quark's Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade. Or, known by the locales as simply “Quarks”. It was rumored to be one of the most lucrative venues on the station, as it was the only piece of real estate onboard that didn't belong to the Federation. As sovereign Ferengi territory, Quarks was the one single establishment within thirty light-years that traded goods and services for gold-pressed latinum rather than the Federation's credit-based system of economics.

It was here where the station's computer located John Carter, but before he could make it all the way through the door, a Starfleet officer in medical blues nearly knocked Leon over on his way out. It was none other that Julian Bashir.

“Cromwell!” the DS9 physician greeted him with surprise. “I wasn't sure if I'd get a chance to see you again before Republic sets off again.”

“I don't think we've got orders to set sail quite yet,” Leon regarded Julian in return. “I trust that you're getting back into the swing of things here on the station?”

“More than you can imagine,” he huffed. “I have three bed cases that my temporary replacement left me, not to mention a transfer patient whose condition I have yet to fully understand. If it weren't for my time on Republic, I would have…”

“Julian!” a pretentious voice interrupted him. The admonishment came from a Ferengi clearing off a nearby empty table. “Don't stand in my doorway unless you're planning to come back inside and order another drink!”

Doctor Bashir looked genuinely hurt. “I've been gone for over half a year, Quark,” he returned, almost with a whine. “I think I deserve some loitering time.”

“Fine. You can loiter upstairs in front of Vic's. Just stop blocking my customers from coming in!” The Ferengi relented as he turned around with a tray-ful of empty glasses and headed back to the bar area.

“Vic's?” asked Leon after the bartender left.

“It's a holographic reproduction of a twentieth-century night club in one of Quarks holo-suites,” explained Julian.

Looking confused, Leon replied. “Let me get this straight. He's got a holographic bar… inside his bar?” The thought caused an eyebrow to raise on the Republic officer's face. “Isn't that a bit redundant?”

“I suppose,” Julian admitted. “But several of the station's crew have become quite attached to Vic's over the years, so there's sentimental value.”

“Now THAT I understand,” Leon acknowledged, recalling John Carter's sentient Jim Kirk holodeck program back on Republic.

“I'm sorry, but I'm in a bit of a hurry,” Doctor Bashir apologized for his perfunctory change of subject. “I have a meeting with Captain Kira in less then five minutes.” He looked as if he was about to run off, but paused to regard Leon as if for the last time. “If I don't see you again… it's been good getting to know you, doctor.” Julian extended his hand in a parting gesture, and Leon accepted the handshake, looking Julian in the eye.

“I still don't like you, Bashir,” Leon admitted, but with a grudgingly respectful tone. “Probably because you're a better doctor than me.”

“Thank you… I think.”

“Don't let it go to your head.”

With a playful tilt of his face, the chief medical officer of Deep Space Nine replied in his casual British accent, “never!” With that, he walked out of the establishment and into the bustling flow of patrons on the Promenade.

“Come in! Come in!” the Ferengi at the bar beckoned to Leon. “Any friend of Julian is a friend of mine. Welcome to Quarks, stranger! The official Ferengi Embassy to Bajor!”

“Um, thank you…” Leon said with uncertainty. “I don't think I've ever been in here before.”

“Well then, let me be the first to welcome you,” the short alien offered in a salesman-like tone. “My name is Quark, the Ferengi ambassador, and here you'll find all the food and entertainment you'll ever need during your stay here on Deep Space Nine.”

“I'm sure…” Leon raised an eyebrow at the Ferengi. He had no doubt that Quark's was the leisure mecca of the Bajor Sector, and since it was buzzing with conversation, gameplay, and drinking, appeared to be the most profitable business on the entire Promenade.

“Perhaps you'd like to start off with a refreshment?” Quark offered. “We have the finest collection of Xarantine Spice Wine this side of the Typhon Expanse.”

As the stout Ferengi addressed Leon, the doctor looked past the ambassador's shoulder and spotted a man standing about ten meters away looking at him with an amused smile. He was a tall, slender man wearing a Starfleet officer's uniform with gold piping, and boasted a lieutenant commander's rank on his collar. Recognizing the black hair and fu-manchu mustache - which bore the unmistakable face of a renowned Malthean from the Starfleet Corps of Engineers - Leon's eyes lit up at the appearance of his old friend, Doctor Victor Xavier Virtus.

“Vic!” Leon exclaimed with an unusual bout of exuberance.

“Upstairs!” Quark piped up with satisfaction, happy that the stranger had chosen to visit the vintage holographic program. “Third holosuite to the left. You're not a regular, but because you know Julian, I'll only charge you half the standard cover charge…”

“Um… excuse me,” Leon hurriedly dismissed the confused Ferengi ambassador, sliding past him in a bee line to Virtus further up the bar.

“How the hell are you?” a smiling Doctor Cromwell grasped Vic's hand, giving him a quick shoulder hug. “I got your messages, but I had no idea you were HERE!”

“Good to see you too, Leon,” the engineer replied warmly. Like Susan back on Republic, Vic's attention was drawn to Doctor Cromwell's attire. “The uniform looks good on you.”

“So I've been told,” came the sheepish response. “How long have you been in town?”

“As of this moment, nine weeks, six days, twenty two hours, and four minutes.”


“When I heard about Kostya, I had extra shore leave to spend, so I came straight to Deep Space Nine looking for my favorite Galaxy Class starship.” Vic rolled his eyes every so subtly. “Only you weren't here. Case in point, the Starfleet navigational database had sporadic and conflicting waypoint logs on you. If I had to guess, someone in fleet was working to scramble your actual location.”

“You're avoiding the subject!” Leon looked flabbergasted. “You've been waiting for us for NINE WEEKS??”

“As I said,” Vic continued. “When I discovered that Vlad-the-Impaler was performing feats of mass indoctrination through the media networks, not to mention vying for the most powerful position in the Known Galaxy, the relative rightness of the universe shifted to approximately 8.87, or 741,310,241.30 Virtii of disharmony, which, as you know, is pretty unstable. Fortunately, with Republic's arrival back in the Alpha quadrant, the disharmony factor has subsided by about 2 orders of magnitude, but is still well beyond any other recorded event of my years of record-keeping.”

“Um… okay,” a befuddled Leon replied. “That's bad, isn't it?”

“Does a vox ultra-frequency carrier require a visual signal confirmation?”

“Right,” Leon concluded without any idea of what Vic was talking about. “I'll take that as a yes.” Giving his friend another shoulder hug, he added, “it's still great to see you ,Vic.”

“Likewise, Leon.”

“The computer said John was here,” the doctor finally remarked.

“Yes,” the Malthean responded, pointing to a table in the corner of Quarks.

Indeed, John Carter was present, but Leon could tell right away that there was something terribly wrong. The commander was silent and despondent, sitting back in his chair, and with his hand covering his mouth as if in deep thought. His eyes were glazed over as if he had been handed the news that Mars colony was about to implode in the next thirty seconds, and there was nothing he could do about it. Whatever the real news was, John was not taking it well, and must have been one of the factors adding to Vic's calculation of the universe's disharmony.

“I take it he heard about Kostya?”

“Without question.”

“How many drinks has he had?” Leon asked.

“Just one,” Vic replied. “He's still on duty.”

As if responding to the time-honored obligation to give aid to an ailing comrade, Vic and Leon approached John's table, and took a seat themselves. Over the next hour, the three friends ordered food and drink from a tending waitress, mulling over the events of recent months, and attempting to find both comfort and solace in each other's company despite the chilling political circumstances that brought them together again after months of separation.

Chapter 8: Tipping the ScalesTop

Location: Starfleet Command, San Francisco, North America, Sol III
Stardate: 58763.7

The scents of fresh cut grass mixed with salty ocean mist tinged the air as the gentle breeze rolled in off San Francisco bay. Try as he might, the Admiral could not distract himself with the simplicity and beauty of nature this close to the realization of a goal he and so many others had worked towards for decades now. Nothing else but the weight of that reality could hold his focus for more than a fleeting moment. He was not a patient man by nature, and he had not become one over time by simple force. He had however learned to conceal his impatience from all but the most keen observers. So even though he showed little sign of his impatience outwardly, the anxiety and preoccupation that gripped his mind was still ever present. For this particular goal however, he had been kept waiting far too long by the universe at large.

It was a goal that had been shared by many other men and women across the centuries, yet had never before been feasible to achieve until the fairly recent.

As the unseasonably warm sun light beat down upon his weathered face, he closed his eyes and tried to remember exactly how long he had been dancing with the devil to this particular tune. In the end, as with many things, it all depended on how you looked at it. Months? Years? Decades? For this specific phase of things, it had been a scant seven months. Seven months since the Starship Republic had vanished into the realm of space known as the Gamma Quadrant. A desperate failsafe plan set to safeguard one young man's life. That young man, twenty-nine years old now, had been caught up in this dance with death since he was only nine. Two-thirds of his life. A life he had been charged with protecting for just as long.

If all went according to plan though, today would be the beginning of the end of that. Today would see the scales of justice finally begin to tip in the right balance.

The phase before this had begun one year, four months prior to that, when the same young man had been forced into the most unique form of 'protective custody' anyone had ever envisioned; active duty aboard a Galaxy-Class starship. Such had only been possible due to the young man's former Starfleet career, a career that had been branded by the fire of the Dominion war and for which the Admiral felt more than a little responsible for. He had tried to remedy that mistake by ending his career and surreptitiously urging the young man into a less dangerous way of life. Had he known now where that particular path would lead, he would never have done so. The past could not be changed though, and could it be, he had far greater sins to rectify.

He had hid behind the rules of professional behavior when Starfleet Intelligence had approached the young man whose life he had sworn to protect. In doing so, he had broken a sacred promise to two dear departed friends. An oath he had made twenty years prior, when this had all really began as far as he was concerned. When he had allowed two of his friends, two colleagues to whom he owed his life to, to convince him to go along with the most dangerous and unethical plan he had ever heard proposed. A plan that involved breaking more than just regulations, or even the laws of the federation. One that required the breaking of the laws of nature by risking the lives of three innocent children so that their parents could pursue what they had argued was the 'agenda of justice'. It had been a foolish, downright stupid risk. An arrogant mistake that could never be undone.

A risk that had been too great, and had taken two of those innocent lives along with their parents. Leaving only the young man whose future was now in the balance.

Pacing back and forth along the cement rail of the balcony outside his office at Starfleet Command, the Admiral began to wonder if something had gone awry with the operation. Apprehending Keevan Faro in the wake of his believed legal victory two weeks earlier had been rather easy. The arrogant old bastard had been foolishly celebrating the dismissal of charges against him when the order had come through from the Federation Security Council to arrest him. The special prosecutor on the case, Thomas Aidan Dorian, had been confused by such after having his case thrown out, but more than willing to get another chance. Dorian was somewhat of a legend when it came to legal prosecutions against the Orion Syndicate; he was the only jurist in the Federation to have successfully convicted more than one member of the Syndicate and survive.

If all went well, he would soon be the prosecutor responsible for dismantling the entire criminal enterprise.

A sudden shadow flickered across the Admiral's vision, the sun blotted out for a fraction of a second as something passed closely above him. He had seen a number of seagulls flittering about, but knew the fairly diminutive bird wouldn't have cast such a long shadow. As he searched the sky for what species of foul might be responsible for such, the swooshing sound of his office doors parting brought him back down to earth, so to speak. As he turned, his attaché stepped quickly out onto the balcony to join him, a satisfied look gracing the Lieutenant's sharp Asian features. He knew before she spoke that things had gone as planned.

“We've received confirmation, sir. The 'eagle has landed'.” she stated, quoting a code phrase with great historical significance and to his mind, even greater present-day importance.

From high above them, a sharp screech echoed out from a large brown majestic bird with red tail feathers. It was the one that had cast a shadow across the balcony a few moments earlier, the Admiral deduced. A creature he could now identify. Neither the irony nor the symbolism escaped him.

“Not an eagle… a hawk.” the Admiral said to himself with a wry smile.


Turning back to his aid, the Admiral smiled and had to resist the unprofessional urge to embrace the young woman. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”

With a nod, the younger subordinate turned on her heel and exited back through the Admiral's office to her own desk just beyond. Taking another glance skyward at the circling bird, the Admiral then stepped back into his office as well and moved directly for his desk. Interfacing with the built-in LCARS panel there, he called up a program sequence he had been waiting for the day to initiate, and did so. It was a simple task, yet it left him feeling immensely satisfied.

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

It was an action in the pursuit of futility, and junior Lieutenant Hayden Kroeger would be stuck in that pursuit for the better part of the next 7 hours and 32 minutes. As third-shift Helmsman, he was used to his time on duty being fairly routine and often sedate. Such was normally just as he liked it, as it allowed him time to become proficient without the pressure of split-second decisions. More often than not it was his job to keep the ships course steady and true through the night while the majority of the crew slept. He was good at that job, and found it satisfactory and even professionally fulfilling. He had never been much for the intense side of life. Never played 'Kirk and the Klingons' as a kid like so many others had. So his unhappiness by his current assignment had nothing to do with a desire for a more action-packed existence. Rather, he simply couldn't fathom the need for his particular skills.

When a starship was physically docked with a starbase, her propulsion systems were set to stand-by mode. There were no adjustments in course to be made, no orbital flight path to be maintained, no need to keep an eye on the long-range sensors for potential hazards. There was literally nothing to be done as far as the flight controls were concerned. The ship was not, after all, in flight. It wasn't even having to maintain a stationary position. It was as close to immobile as a starship could be, in his opinion. So why was he (or anyone for that matter) required to waste so much time sitting impotently at this bridge station, doing nothing but the most rudimentary systems checks and low-level diagnostics? Even the obvious rationale of 'in case of emergency' rang hollow in his opinion, as there were others present on the bridge attending to other routine tasks that could just as easily be at the ready should such an emergency arise.

Sadly, as a junior Lieutenant, his opinions were not regarded highly by the powers that be; whether they be local or stationed at Starfleet Command. Considering his reclusive nature which tended to preclude a sudden burst in rank or stature, such wasn't likely to change anytime in the near future either. In short, he was stuck here for the remainder of his shift at the least. Glancing quickly around the bridge in as casual a manner as he could, he realized that with the exception of Commander Carter seated in the center chair, he couldn't fathom the names of anyone else on duty at the moment. Then again, he rarely made much of an effort in getting to know people. Not because he didn't wish to, rather, because his preferred duty assignment usually prevented such. Life on the nightshift was fairly awkward when it came to attending to social matters unless it was with other people likewise on said shift.

With little else to do, Hayden set about the repetitive and fairly boring tasks called for such as routine low-level diagnostics and system status monitoring. Running through the first series of diagnostics with the expected level of ease and tedium, he didn't notice at first when the propulsion and navigation system monitors winked out from his console display. It was only when he came to running the navigational system diagnostic did he find such unavailable to him - due to a command-level lock-out.

“Commander?” Kroeger prompted as he turned in his seat to half-face the Republic first officer, “did you re-route control of the propulsion and nav-con systems?”

Immersed in the contents of a PADD, John Carter didn't look up at first as he answered the helm officer's query in the negative. Only as the denial response tones continued to emanate from the Conn did he glance up as a memory archived in the back of his mind came to the surface. Rising from the center seat, the XO bounded over to the flight controls and looked over the junior lieutenant's read-outs.

“This doesn't make any sense,” Kroeger remarked to himself as he tried to locate to which station the controls had been re-routed, “how can the primary flight control station be locked out of these systems without command override?” he asked rhetorically.

All things considered, it wouldn't be the first time that the Republic crew had found themselves not in direct control of their own ship. For once though, John Carter wasn't alarmed by such so much as he was anxious over the implications should things be as they seemed. “Computer, restore control of systems to flight operations, authorization Carter-Sigma-Alpha-Seven-One.”

“Access denied.” came the curt reply of the ship's computer.

This raised a number of eyebrows amongst the bridge crew, most of whom hadn't previously been paying direct attention to anything but their own duties. For the ship's executive officer to be denied access to a basic vital system was downright peculiar. Having expected such a response though, John wasn't nearly as phased by such. “Computer, on whose authority was control of flight operations denied?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Access denied by order of Captain James Marshall, stardate 57426.9.”

This statement put an immediate halt to virtually all other activity on the bridge, which was quickly ensconced in hushed murmurs of disbelief and confusion. For John Carter though, it simply confirmed his suspicions and set his next actions on the course he had been told to follow sixteen months earlier. “Clear the bridge.”

Without objection, the few officers on duty logged off of their respective consoles - operations, security/tactical, engineering, mission ops - and proceeded to the nearest turbolifts, continuing their hushed conversations as they did so. As the doors sealed behind them, John took a moment for himself to consider the implications and ramifications of what was about to occur, for the ship, the crew, and most of all for the ship's second officer. “Computer, locate Captain Kimberly Roth, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, and Doctor Leon Cromwell. Have them report to the bridge. Priority one.”


Location: Turbolift, en-route to the Main Bridge, USS Republic

Hawk was pissed. He was also out of breath from his jog through the promenade and a multitude of identical looking and poorly labeled corridors of Deep Space 9. Having been on duty all of alpha shift, most of which had been uneventful after the early morning drama, he had finally been able to take advantage of a little down time and stroll the shops of the promenade with Leah. Much needed quality time as far as relationship maintenance was concerned. Just as they had sat down for an early diner at the Bajoran restaurant though, an emergency recall order had come through from the ship's computer of all things. If not for it's priority one status, he would have just as soon ignored it and taken any consequences for such. That said, something marked priority one always meant serious business - which only served to piss Nat off even more at the realization the few hours down-time he'd had was likely to be all he would be getting.

As the lift slowed to a stop well premature of how long it took to get to the bridge, Nat considered over-riding the default lift settings which he technically could do under the circumstances, but just as quickly dismissed the notion. It would take just as long to do so as it would to stop and tell whomever it was they'd have to catch the next one. As the doors split to either side though, Nat couldn't help but grin at the sight before him. His friend Leon Cromwell, sporting some fairly funky bed hair, a uniform that had clearly been crumpled up either in a heap on the floor or by being slept in, and to top the look off, dark circles the size of strips of latinum beneath his eyes. In short, he looked like crap. In fairly unusual fashion, the Doctor said nothing as he boarded the lift save for a single word command to the computer controls: “Resume.”

As they stood side-by-side in their ascent to the command center of Republic, Hawk couldn't help but poke the bear with a stick, so to speak. “Ya get much sleep?”

Casting a side-long glare in Hawk's direction. “28 whole minutes,” the Doctor grumbled in response, adding after a beat that, “this had better be legitimate, or someone's getting an old fashion stress-test next physical.”

Before much else could be said, the lift slowed once more, this time at their destination. The scene before them was not what either man expected.

With the exceptions of Captain Kimberly Roth and Command John Carter, the main bridge was completely clear of personnel. Unusual as that was, the serious looks upon both of the ship's senior-most officers added volumes. Whatever the emergency was, it was indeed legitimate. Which after the past few months, was the last thing Nat Hawk wanted – or that Leon Cromwell needed.

After exchanging acknowledgments of one another, Hawk was the one who got down to the point, never one to beat around the bush. “This ain't gonna be good news, is it?”

Exchanging looks between themselves, it was Carter who spoke first of the pair. “That depends…”

“Twelve minutes ago, all access to ship's propulsion and navigation systems were locked out by the ship's computer,” Roth stated. “on the order of Captain James Marshall.”

Leon, whose mind was still fuzzy with sleep (or lack there of), looked slightly shocked and but mostly confused by the announcement.

Hawk meanwhile looked like someone had just shot him point blank with a phaser on heavy stun.

Seeing the expression on Nat's face, the tense shift in body language, Cromwell grew concerned through his confusion. “I'm sorry, maybe it's the lack of sleep… but I'm lost.”

“Everyone cleared to command the bridge got a memo, about an encoded order that would lock-out propulsion and navigation. You got yours the morning after you passed the bridge officers exam.” Carter stated, hoping to jog his friend's memory.

A light flickered behind Leon's eyes as the sudden realization hit him, the full weight of what was occurring pushing him passed his sleep deprivation in an instant.

“The lockout requires both the authorization of the commanding officer, as well as the chief helmsman to disengage. I've already entered mine. It's your turn, Lieutenant.” Roth stated, the last words clearly having more meaning than the literal.

Nodding his head in acknowledgment, Hawk turned and stepped towards the Helm, a position he sat at every day. Today was not every day, though. Taking careful steps towards the console as if it were something dangerous, Hawk slowly put his hand to the console and pressed the indicator control sequence, readying the computer for his input. “Computer, disengage lock-out. Authorization Hawk-Eight-Four-Sigma-Zulu.”

“Authorization acknowledged. Access granted: command lock-out disengaged.” stated the disembodied voice of the ship's computer. On the forward view screen, the scene shifted from that of local space to the Federation emblem, which then dissolved and replaced by the logo for Starfleet Command. It to was then replaced by a large star chart on one half of the screen, a set of spatial coordinates at the bottom, and a block of text on the other half which the computer promptly read the beginning of aloud.

“This is a priority one order from Starfleet Command, department of operations. All other orders are hereby voided or rescinded. All non-essential personnel are to disembark at the nearest Federation facility en-route to the attached coordinates. No non-essential personnel are permitted aboard ship for the duration of this mission by order of Starfleet Security. Upon completion of disembarkation, all authorized personnel will proceed to the coordinates indicated at maximum warp. Observe radio silence at all times until arrival at the designated coordinates. You will receive further instructions at that time.”

Looking at the block of text to the side of the screen, Hawk saw now that the bulk of it was a manifest of Republic crew. Abnormally, his name was at the top of the list, above even the captain's. In total there were 127 names listed. The star chart on the other side contained coordinates that as far as Hawk could tell, were quite literally the middle of nowhere. Nothing but stars and space dust, not even a basic ball of rock D-Class planet, for a dozen sectors in every direction. No nearby shipping lanes, colonies, outposts, or sites of strategic or mineral value.

For a few moments, no one said anything. Before any of them could, the computer chimed in once more.

“Addendum: message from the office of Admiral Henry Toddman, director of Starfleet Security. Message reads: 'The Scales have Tipped'. End of addendum.”

Turning from the view screen, the look on Hawk's face had changed from shock and anger, to one of grim determination. “I'm ready.”

Offering her helmsman a small but proud smile as she put her hand on his shoulder supportively, Captain Roth turned to her XO. “Lets get to it, Commander. We've got a few hundred people to get off this ship on minimal notice. Fortunately we're already docked at an appropriate facility, and we've just off-loaded our civilian compliment, so our work is half done. I want everyone else to gather the base essentials and be off-ship within the next two hours.”

“Yes ma'am,” Carter replied, moving quickly to his command console and setting about kicking most of the crew off the ship.

Turning to Cromwell, Roth continued. “Doctor, my apologies, but your nap will have to wait a bit longer.”

“Of course.”

“Your hereby re-instated as Chief Medical Officer. I need Sickbay empty of all patients. Get to it.”

“Aye, Captain.” affirmed the Doctor, who stopped briefly to give a supportive nod to his friend Nat before departing the bridge.

Standing next to his station, Hawk continued to stare at the view screen. The list of names included a handful who were no longer even serving aboard ship. Douglas Forest. Victor Virtus. It also included some whom had come aboard some time since the original encoded orders had been downloaded. One of them was Leah Warner. Subtracting the names of those who were no longer with them, the roster was down to 107.

“It was his idea, you know.” Roth stated from a few steps behind him, her voice quiet. Turning to face his captain, Hawk said nothing, simply questioned her with his eyes. “Admiral Toddman. I served under him, a long time ago. He's the one who proposed the nano-probe resurrection. Consulted Bashir on it's feasibility to duplicate. He knew the Syndicate would find you eventually, especially after the situation at Cestus III.” she informed him. “I'm fairly sure Cha'rik was most likely one of his as well, though he didn't include me in that one.” she added, her tone laced with a degree of irritation.

Hawk considered the information he had just been given. On some level, he had known that for some time. Henry Toddman was the closest thing he had left to family in some ways. The man had briefly served as his guardian in the wake of his Aunt and Uncle's untimely deaths. It had been an ultimatum and a challenge delivered by him that had lead Hawk to join Starfleet. The two had never been close, but Nat knew there was more to his concern for his well being than the obligations of friendship with his parents. They had never spoken of it, but Nat knew somewhere in the depths of his being that what really drove Henry Toddman to protect and care for him over the years was a burden of guilt. At some level, at some point, Toddman had been directly involved in the operation that had left him an orphan.

“He's a good man,” Hawk told Roth finally, the words genuine but also somewhat hollow.

Rather than press the matter, Roth simply nodded in agreement. “Take the next few days off, Lieutenant. You're going to need them.”

“If it's all the same to ya cap'n, I'd rather be at ma post,” he replied quickly, as the turbolift doors opened and admitted a handful of officers returning to their posts on the bridge, “I've bin thinkin' 'bout this day fer nineteen years, last thing I needs more time fer that.”

“Alright.” Roth acquiesced as she stepped aside to allow a young ensign to resume her post at ops. “For right now though, take a little time for yourself? I'll call for you when we're ready to get underway.”

Not wanting to push his luck, and knowing he needed to talk with Leah, he relented as well, and stepped away from the Helm as Lieutenant Kroeger stepped up to resume the post. As he departed the bridge, he considered what he would do when he was finally face to face once more with the man responsible for so much misery and loss in his life. The first and only thought that came to mind was not that of a Starfleet Officer, but of a son and a brother. For nineteen years, he had waited for the day when he would finally be able to avenge all that he had lost. Now it was finally at hand. The question was, which part of him would win and make the final decision; the Starfleet officer or the ten year old orphan?

Chapter 9: Libra FallingTop

Location: Executive Guest Quarters, Room 17 off corridor H-12-A, space station Deep Space Nine

Reflexes are funny things. Muscle memory causes certain actions to become second nature. Catching a ball, blocking a punch, humans extending their eyelids before sneezing. The chime of an incoming message so soon after retiring for the evening caused Victor to reflexively check the station's local time against his internal chronometer. Despite relativistic physics, warp travel, two trips thought a wormhole, brushing the event horizon of a quantum singularity, and desperately gambling on a high-risk, last minute trans-warp theory to escape a spacial anomaly, Vic's sense of the passing of time was as accurate at an atomic clock and less prone to damage by passing neutrinos.

He'd been asleep for seventeen minutes and nine seconds. The universe was out to get him. Rising to stand parallel to the viewscreen, Vic rubbed his eyes and brushed his slightly-longer-than-regulation hair back from his forehead.

“Computer. Why?”

Query not understood. Incoming priority message from Utopia Planetia Shipyard, Encrypted “All Lacrosse Champion”

“Computer, display message, authorization Carter-Alpha-Rho-Epsilon-Sigma-Seven-Times.”

The screen flashed through three layers of decryption and finishing in a muted sepia, shot through with shadows of gray and blackest black, showing an upside-down humanoid silhouette. A heavily synthesized voice whispered from the recessed speakers.

“Mercury in Libra Descending.”

The weary engineer snapped wide awake and shook his head to clear it.

“Computer, replay message.”

Unable to comply

Before the startled Malthusian could delve into that tidbit of irregularity, the 'message' continued, “You heard me correctly. It's started.”

Victor rolled backwards across his bed and produced from his civilian-issue scientific PADD a decidedly non-civilian and highly-illegal three shot phaser one. He took a knee, set his back to the corner and covered the door.

“Good reflexes, but they are not here. Mercury is going there.”

“If you're at Utopia Planetia then you are sixty-three point four four light years away, and we are NOT having this conversation.”

“Ergo, I am not on Utopia Planetia.”

“I'll provisionally accept that possibility under Occam's Razor, but reserve judgment until more facts are made apparent. How can you be sure?”

“Republic just went into security lock-out on navigation, and the ancillary crew departed the bridge.”

An eternity of seconds passed as Victor allowed those two statements to percolate. When he continued speaking, his voice came from light-years away.

“This could not come at a worse time.”

“I know, but he's a friend, and also, important to the cause.”

“I don't have time to go larking off. The Impaler is within the margin of error and GAINING. I'm needed back at Starbase One, and so are Mercury, Mars, Juno and Apollo.”

“That situation may be out of our hands.”

“Dammit D… Pluto, he's dirty! He's corrupt, venal, and heartless. He did not care about the lives of his subordinates in the 'Fleet, and he's not going to care about the lives of his constituents in the Federation!”

“I know, but that is up to the people to decide, not just us.”

“They don't know the facts.”

“The truth is out there. We've done all we can. You're needed on the ship.”

Victor seethed with barely checked fury, and replaced his hold-out phaser in his PADD.

“Pakita can take care of things just as well as I can, and has more experience in this area as well. My highest priority is preventing a monster from becoming the President of the United Federation of Planets.”

“She's not on the list. She has a brother on Earth. He's-”

”…a war hero from Wolf Three Five Nine. I know. That doesn't make her ineligible.“

“No, but it makes her a risk.”

“Tough. Where are you?”

“That's classified.”

“You're in the sensor shadow under the matter/anti-matter intermix chamber. You're there because I told you about it during the silliness with Lieutenant Jacobs, and you've disabled MY sensors that I put in pace specifically to prevent people from hiding there.”

There was a long pause before the digitized voice said, “I can neither confirm nor deny that assertion, but I can induce that such a space would be extremely cramped after several hours. Also, the sensors are functional, they will just fail to report the presence of you, me, Mars, Juno, or Apollo.”

“This may be important to you Pluto, but not as important as the future of the civilized galaxy is to me. And I believe Mars and Apollo will back me up.”

“Don't make me beg.”

“I don't care what you have to say. This is a documentary, not a negotiation.”

“You owe me a favor from-”

”-call in that marker and not only will I deliberately sabotage Mercury's mission, I will hate you forever.“

“It's up to you Saturn.”

“Computer, end message.” be-beep

Wide awake and heart pounding, the reluctant field agent of Starfleet's least well-liked branch of security struggled between his commitment to the people of the Federation, his sense of integrity toward repaying an enormous debt of honor, and his duty to Starfleet.

Mathematics is a pure science. Cold and unyielding. It's conclusions are based on sound principles, flawless reason, and the weight of thousands of years of exploration, theorization, and raw experimentation.

Morality is fluid, subjective, and difficult to quantify in terms of numbers and equations.

Difficult… but not impossible. The determined researcher collected his personal belongings and set his path toward the Promenade.

His mind was made. His course was locked in.

It was time to engage.

Location: Counselor's Office, USS Republic

Reittan had just said his last good-bye to his friend a little over three hours ago when he got the news that most of the ship was to be evacuated. He had been in session shortly after receiving the news with Ensign Troy Ni, whose first experience aboard the Republic had been, to say the least, atypical of a first year ensign. His anxiety had skyrocketed, performance had deteriorated, and he was concerned that he was soon to be dismissed from service in Starfleet; a most inopportune time to tell him that he would be reassigned from the Republic.

Many people aboard the starship were enjoying the luxuries of leaving the ship for long periods of time. While the counselor and his department had tried to convince their clients to take advantage of what the star base had to offer, many felt their psyche was too fragile to take the coveted leave.

The counselor looked at the list of 107 people that the captain had handed him in exasperation. The only remaining person from his department was him. Trying to look on the bright side of things he reasoned his work load would be reduced substantially. Still a little disgruntled, Tolkath reminded himself that it was part of being a Starfleet officer, to have directives and commands changed at the last minute though he still didn't like it.

The captain had been tight lipped when she personally visited the counselor and delivered the manifest to him. He could sense the tension building within her.

“Is there anything I can do to assist further?” Tolkath probed.

The captain studied the counselor's face. She had come to appreciate Reittan over the past months. Though at times his ability unsettled her, she felt that he had been trained well to carry that burden. Kim Roth had once been unofficially told that you could watch the way a counselor interacted with the crew and be able to tell how they are doing behind the counseling department's closed doors. She had watched him and knew from those interactions that his ability to do his job was more than ample. He and his department had kept the crew, for the most part, stable enough to perform their duties after each chaotic encounter; many times the unsung heroes.

“Just assist in getting this ship evacuated as quickly and smoothly as possible counselor,” she replied.

“Yes, captain.”

“And Tolkath, I will let you know when you can be of further assistance.”

“May I ask what the new orders are?” Tolkath enquired.

“Currently, I am not able to discuss the matter,” the Captain answered.

“Thank you captain, I will assist with the evacuation immediately.”

“Counselor, get as much rest as you can before we depart; it's going to be a bumpy ride.”

“Aye, captain.”

Roth left the Counselor's office to continue her duties, leaving the Counselor with the perplexing equation of how much rest vs. how much assisting he should do. As he mused over the question, he began looking over his list of clients and picked out the most vulnerable to start the evacuation with. With a tap of his combadge he directed the rest of the department to do the same for their most severe clients for as long as they could before personally preparing to leave the ship.

The Lieutenant Commander took a deep breath and thought to himself, “And once again we take the plunge.”

Chapter 10: CrossroadsTop

“If you're going to enlist the help of a friend outside the organization, you'd better be sure they know how to keep a low profile. A clean, fresh appearance may seem mundane to the normal Federation civilian, but to an enemy operative, it's a dead give-away. And I do mean dead. Should your outside help look gaudy or well-off in any manner, you might as well scratch their name off the guest list at your next dinner party, because they won't be around long enough to receive the invitation…“

-LTCR Douglas Forrest, excerpt from an intelligence training debriefing

Location: Unknown Timeframe: Present day

Much to the anticipated future detriment of Chief Rainier's reputation with Captain Roth, in less than four hours, Saal Yezbeck was able to transform a pristine Starfleet-issue shuttlecraft into a dilapidated hulk that appeared to be on its last set of thrusters. Completely gone was the hull registry, scoured clean by mechanical means along with regimented stenciling of any sort. Point in fact, the shuttle's exterior was littered with phaser burns, metal fatigue, and pock marks giving it the facade that it had been through numerous hostile encounters with other vessels. Once more, after an unshielded aerobraking maneuver through the upper atmosphere of a nearby gas giant, the entire outer casing was coated in a wispy, gradient sheen of heated, oxidized metal, almost as if the vessel had been singed by a giant plasma torch. If it weren't for the blue and red warp nacelles and streamlined aeronautical shape, no one would have been able to tell that it was once a standard Type-8 Starfleet shuttlecraft.

Without warning, an angry lance of bright orange energy seared yet another black scar onto the tortured hull of the Republic shuttle. In reaction to the attack, a small rupture formed along the surface where the bolt landed, emitting a puff of wispy steam.

“Damn it!” Saal's muffled curse sounded nearby. “I keep hitting that stupid oxygen line!” Wielding a type-II phaser and situated about ten meters away, the doctor was wearing a newly-purchased, slightly-used drab brown miner's spacesuit, desperately trying to keep from flipping end-over end in the micro-gravity environment after each phaser shot.

After his departure from Republic and Deep Space Nine, it took Saal an hour of haggling with a Ferengi freighter to sell off every piece of fleet-issue equipment inside the Shuttlecraft Heinz that wasn't bolted down. Space suits, field gear, emergency equipment. Everything that had a Starfleet micro-tagged serial number had to go. Fortunately, he got a decent price on most items, and quickly turned around his purse full of gold-pressed latinum for non-fleet analogs of the hocked supplies at the nearest mining colony. Much of what he purchased were commercially-available equipment that could normally be found aboard most merchant shuttles or mining survey vessels throughout the space lanes. About the only thing he couldn't sell were the four type-II hand phasers in the landing party gear, and he wasn't about to let those get onto the black market. So, his limited skill with an electro-arc pen would have to suffice to erase the serial numbers and remove the micro-tags.

After placing a pressurized hull-patch over the oxygen leak on the shuttle, Saal looked over his work. The patches were of Coridan design, and were commercially marketed as a temporary fix for minor hull breaches. However, they were sturdy enough to be fairly common on low-budget ore freighters who haven't the resources for the full expense of a civilian repair berth, and instead, solder the patches to the hull plating as permanent fixtures while transiting between star systems.

“When in Rome,” Saal muttered while inspecting his welding job on the fourteen different patches scattered across the hull in a seemingly random fashion. With his “repairs” complete, Saal re-boarded the shuttlecraft through the dorsal airlock. After stowing the miner's suit in the EVA locker, he took a seat in the pilot's chair, dialing several commands into the portside engineering panel.

“Computer,” he called out to the shuttle's AI. “Open the engineering subsystem files, and access the warp drive parameters.”


“Adjust the warp coil plasma resonance frequency to seven-point-zero-seven terahertz, and alter the intermix ratio to two-zero-nine of nominal.”

“Unable to comply. Requested engine parameters are outside Starfleet specifications.”

“Yes,” nodded Saal emphatically. “I know. That's the whole point. Override standard protocol, authorization Yezbeck-seven-two-alpha.”

“Unable to comply. Only the Republic command staff, chief helmsman, or chief engineer are authorized to exceed normal operating parameters of shuttlecraft warp systems.”

With a sigh, Saal closed his eyes and shook his head. Time was of the essence, and he already wasted the past day haggling with Ferengi and strategically defacing Starfleet property. He didn't have the patience to try and negotiate with an obstinate computer system as well. Reaching for his cylindrical suitcase, the doctor produced a small, communicator-sized isolinear chip vaguely reminiscent of a Cardassian design. Following that, he crawled down onto the floor and pulled open an access panel directly beneath the computer control console. After considering the complex rows of electronic components, he focused on one component in particular, and firmly wrenched it from it's socket. After a small burst of sparks, the hum of the computer console wavered, and the computer itself protested with the sounding of an alert horn.

“Warning: Primary processor node failure. Re-routing functions to secondary nodes.”

“As you should,” muttered Saal, still engrossed in his tampering of the computer's electronic innards. Using his foreign isolinear chip, he crammed the small object into the recently vacated component socket, producing yet another brief round of sparks, and which caused the cabin lights of the shuttle to flicker, as well as the lighted control consoles to fade in and out. Satisfied that his work was complete, Saal shut the access panel and returned to the pilot's chair, waiting patiently for an expected computer drama to unfold.

“W-Warning: Unauthorized sub-routine accessing hierarchical programming matrix. Re-routing processor functions to tertiary nodes.”

“You can run, but you can't hide,” Saal whispered as the monotone feminine voice sounded with a seemingly frantic edge. The lighted panels continued to flicker as Saal's isolinear chip worked it's way into the Starfleet-designed hardware.

“Warning: Unauthorized sub-routine assuming control of higher processor functions. Unable to maintain control of primary flight systems.”

“Stop fighting it,” Saal whispered again, feeling a little guilty that he was essentially hijacking computer control of the shuttlecraft away from the panicked Starfleet AI.

“W-Warning: Control and telemetry systems disengaged. Error… error… Unable to maintain processor control… Unable to maintain processor…”

The digitized sentence was cutoff as a few more random chirps and warbles sounded from the shuttlecraft's computer before the control panels and lighting returned to normal. As the hum of the flight systems re-initialized, a deep, male, Cardassian-sounding voice emanated from the same speakers that the Starfleet AI was utilizing just moments earlier.

“Hierarchical processor functions initiated… Primary flight sub-routines re-enabled… Standing by to resume normal operations.”

“That's better,” Saal relaxed. “Is the original computer control program still intact?”


“Secure the program into an encapsulated archive for later retrieval,” ordered Saal. “Encryption authorization Shadow-gamma-one-one-three-omicron.” The way he saw it, he might as well save the Starfleet AI for eventual re-initialization should he return safely to Republic.

“Acknowledged. Archive complete.”

“Now for the test,” the doctor muttered to himself before giving another command to the zombified computer. “Set the warp coil plasma resonance frequency to seven-point-zero-seven terahertz, and the intermix ratio to two-zero-nine of nominal.”

“Acknowledged. Engineering parameters initiated.”

Outside, the glowing warp nacelles, which normally maintained a luminescent cobalt blue, faded to a violet-purple hue before taking on a yellowish-green, and the normally bright red forward end of the nacelles turned pale orange as the engines adjusted to their new intermix settings. The final die had been cast in transforming the virtually new Type-8 Starfleet shuttle into a gritty, space-worn cargo shuttle with a Klingon warp-signature, a merchant-class Cardassian computer transponder signal, and a nine-year old Ferengi Alliance flight registration log.

Inside the cockpit, Saal smiled and clapped his hands together with a rubbing motion. “Good! Now let's find Dragon. Computer, open a Federation network link to subspace relay station Sigma Three.”

“Acknowledged. Link established.”

“Excellent. Now, access the Starfleet Intelligence database level two, authorization Shadow-zero-niner-three-epsilon.”

“Database standing by.”

“Locate current position of Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest.”

“Unable to comply. Record locator error.”

Saal blinked in surprise.

“Okay,” he tried again. “Access database level three, authorization Shadow-five-one-two-zeta. Repeat location request.”

“Unable to comply. Record locator error.”

With a deadpan stare of complete confusion, Saal shook his head. “What is the source of the locator error?” he asked.

“Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest does not exist in the Starfleet Intelligence database.”

“What?” he bellowed outloud to no one in particular. “That's impossible!” Taking a moment to think over his next plan of attack, he decided to do some parallel thinking, and re-directed his computer request. “Computer, access standard Starfleet personnel locator database. Tell me the location of Lieutenant Sean McTaggart.”

“Lieutenant McTaggart exited the Starfleet personnel tracking grid on stardate 58081.4 at Space Station Deep Space Nine. No further information is available.”

“Almost eight months ago,” he calculated in defeat. “That's when they left Republic to find Kuga.”

Saal took a moment to collect his thoughts. If Forrest wasn't in the standard intelligence network, then there was only one other information stream he would have been able to use to find him. Throughout the infinite subspace web of communications chatter across the Federation, layers upon layers of extra-dimensional frequencies were multiplexed together using a dizzying array of complex algorithms to parse the airwaves for each particular comm traffic user. Deep within the fragmented pathways of these subspace signals, older frequencies used solely for digital communications between computers and AI systems in centuries past lay mostly unused by modern subspace transceivers.

Known colloquially as “the sewer” in intelligence lingo, this jumbled flow of junk chatter between antiquated machines was largely buried by all the other comm traffic, and was relegated as a tertiary backup frequency by some of the most mundane systems imaginable, ranging from an old lady's 150 year old secret recipe PADD that's only pulled out for special holidays on Alpha Centauri, to a child's broken down set of anti-grav skates laying useless in a toybox on Delta Four. It was rudimentary enough to be considered completely useless by modern society, yet spread out far and wide to make an effective, low-yield communications stream for unsavory criminals working illegal deals on the black market. Starfleet had long ago discovered and deciphered the encrypted data stream, but never shut it down due to the two-fold benefit of both passive observation of low-level crime rings, and also as a backup communications mechanism for operatives in the field. It was this unorthodox messaging system that became Saal's tool of last resort to locate his friend.

Switching from vocal commands to tactile input, Saal reached for a personal PADD within his cylindrical suitcase. Linking it with the shuttle's communication uplink, the doctor found himself surfing a dizzying matrix of seemingly nondescript streams of numbers and letters, most of which made absolutely no sense. Occasionally, a sentence fragment could be discerned, but the meanings were downright odd, displaying fragments like “wearing a hovercraft sandwich to the asteroid grapefruit” or “peppermint the candy-apple onion ring with lasagna over Chicago.” This was not surprising to Saal, who was well versed in the intricacies of “the sewer”. Unfortunately, as time went by, his hopes faded in trying to locate his friend.

While he worked, one of the smaller screens on the communications console came to life, quietly displaying the silhouette of a mysterious man with silver-gray hair and bushy eyebrows. His aged face bore a calm, stoic expression before addressing Saal in a low, gravelly voice.

“What are you up to, Shadow?”

For his part, the Republic surgeon stopped what he was doing in mid stride. He recognized the voice so well, that he didn't bother turning to face the screen. “I should have known you'd be looking over my shoulder,” he said expectantly.

“You made two different inquiries within an intelligence database that doesn't officially exist. After that, you took the extreme measure of opening one of our sewer caps. That's hard for me overlook. Again, what are you up to?”

Saal briefly toyed with the idea of feigning ignorance, but knew it would have been pointless, so he stated his purpose in as few words as possible.

“Dragon is missing. I can't find his lifeline.”

“You won't. He's not in the sewer, nor anywhere else on the intel grid.”

Finally turning to face the mysterious man, Saal rebuffed, “what do you mean?”

“I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Dragon's record was scrubbed well over six months ago. His lifeline was cut loose.”

Saal Yezbeck's face collapsed into utter astonishment. “Cut?” he stammered. “But why?”

“Hard to say, really. It came from the top… a parting blow from Kostya to Republic before he left the fleet. It's just a guess, but he probably wanted to exact some revenge on some of Carter's old friends for the Cestus debacle.”

The doctor's look of astonishment did not subside. “Dragon was in the middle of an operation on Farius Prime, of all places!” he exclaimed with incredulity. “How could you cut him off in the field like that??”

“Shadow, you of all people should know that when an Omega-clearance directive comes down from the C-in-C, our hands are tied. The order was to blacklist Forrest. Case closed. No questions.”

“And what about that Kafarian affair you talked to me about at Starbase Thirty-Nine Sierra?” Saal recalled, still reverberating the shock of a friend abandoned in the field by his command. “You remember? That Gorn poison that killed Marshall?” He could have added the extra tidbit about the same poison nearly killing Nat Hawk, but he wasn't sure how much the mysterious man knew about the lieutenant, and wasn't willing to divulge for fear of compromising the Republic helmsman.

“Ten months ago, our calculations indicated that Republic should have been at Deep Space Nine within four months to intercept a Kafarian freighter bound for Orion space. Unfortunately, Republic never showed up… and you missed that boat. If Dragon found links to the Gorn poison by himself, then he's probably already dead.”

“He's NOT dead,” Saal said with grim determination. “If he knew he was going to die, he would have tried to signal me.”

“Your loyalty to Dragon is admirable, but if he was exposed to the toxin, he wouldn't have had the time to call you.”

“He's NOT DEAD!” shouted the doctor, facing down the viewscreen. “And if YOU hadn't abandoned him in the field, I might still be able to HELP him!”

The man was unmoved by Saal's display of anger.

“Sorry, Shadow. I wish I had better news.”

With a sigh, Saal closed his eyes, and his face collapsed into his hand. He knew from years of dealing with the figure on the viewscreen that he was only a middle-man between field operatives like Douglas Forrest and the top brass of Starfleet. There was a reason Saal gave up that life for a career in the medical field. Still, there were some loyalties that transcend vocation or political affiliations, and since he and Forrest had skirted death together on countless occasions in the distant past, he was honor bound to come to his aid.

“You're not going to track me, are you?” Saal asked at last.

“Are you kidding? We've got an entire Roman Pantheon in near-open rebellion right now, and I haven't got time to play cat and mouse with you. Besides, as you're so fond of pointing out, you don't work for us anymore.”

“Thanks,” Saal replied, taking solace in the knowledge that if he didn't return from his quest, that at least someone would have known what happened to him.

“Good luck, Shadow.”

With a digitized warble, the communique ceased, and Saal Yezbeck found himself alone in the silence of the shuttlecraft. Mulling over his options, he figured that his best bet was to sneak into the lion's den at the last whereabouts of Forrest and McTaggart, and attempt to pick up their trail.

“Computer,” he beckoned.


“Set course for Farius Prime. Warp five.”

Chapter 11: Signs and PortentsTop

Location: Planet Garsol, somewhere in the Delta Quadrant

Zharon cursed as he quickly sucked his newly singed finger into his mouth. “Gah! Seven Hells! You'd think I'd learn! He was bent over an open access panel to a much larger machine that took up the entire back wall of the cave he'd claimed as his 'workshop'.

“I think we all know better than that, Zharon,” came a comment from over the scientist's shoulder. The younger man, and new arrival, gave his one-time mentor a bemused smile. “Dadjinn will slit your belly herself if she finds out that you're tinkering again.”

The older man's face screwed into a sour frown. “I'm not TINKERING, Bah-Ki. I'm DISCOVERING.” He shook his head again, turning his attention back to his work. “You used to believe in science,” he scolded the observer. “You used to believe in the work.” Zharon picked up a set of small metallic probes and began to test his connections again, looking for the fault that had so painfully announced itself.

Behind the inventor, Bah-Ki shook his head. In the days before the invasion of the fliers, he'd been Zharon's pupil in Garsol's capital city. There, inside Illall's Congress of Contemplation, Bah-Ki had proven to be a master of the Natural Theoretical Sciences; the collection of disciplines that the educated elite among Garsol's tribes used to explain the world around them. Bah-ki had always been fascinated by the connection that all Garsol understood to exist between the Gods (Mother and Father, respectively) and their understanding of the universe itself. To a native of Garsol, it was only common sense that, since all of existence had come from the spirits the people venerated, the science that allowed the understanding of that existence would also be divinely inspired. It was therefore common practice for a Natural Philosopher on Garsol, no matter his age, to pray for guidance and understanding. Looking back, Bah-Ki suspected that it was his faith in Mother and Father that had inspired him to learn. Not a love of the sciences themselves; much to his teacher's dismay.

Unlike his prize student, Zharon had considered himself a man of reason. He was more concerned with the intricacies of the process than he was the larger picture. He prayed to Mother and Father. Everyone did, at least to cover his or her bets, but Zharon had been unsure whether he actually BELIEVED or not. That was, until his night of revelation.

It had begun as a dream, Zharon knew that much, but in an instant, he'd become aware that he was awake, and he was not alone in his sleeping chamber. The tall earthen structure had windows for observation and ventilation, but no shades or covers to allow for the night's breezes to flow in. In Zharon's chamber there was a light well. During the day, it allowed the light of the sun to be focused and directed to allow for light to the lower levels of the tower. At night, it also allowed for a stellar view. Literally. Inside the man's simple quarters, he sat bolt upright on his reed sleeping mat. “Who's there? Bah-Ki? Leejhin? Is that you?”

Across from Zharon, a form stepped out of the shadows that the night threw across the room. Zharon blinked. The form seemed strangely androgynous, at once male and female, supple yet strong, with pale green skin and large, lidless black eyes. The body of the visitor was in other ways similar to Garsolan's: bilaterally symmetrical, two arms, two legs, though there was no hair on its body, and it wore no coverings of any kind. “Greetings, philosopher,” the visitor said, though Zharon wasn't sure that it's mouth had actually moved.

Despite his shock at seeing the visitor's odd and uncovered appearance, the scientist in Zharon took over as he fought to make sense of the situation. “Who…what are you? You're no Garsolan.”

The being shook it's head, taking a step closer to the astute scientist. “Indeed we are not. Not directly at least, though we have watched you for some time.”

Zharon tilted his head. “Watched…” he whispered, looking up to the stars through the hole in the roof. “By the Mother…”

”…and Father.” The visitor completed. “It is good that you begin to guess,” the being offered, “but not too much just yet.”

Zharon stood, self-consciously adjusting his own thin sleeping clothes, suddenly feeling quite modest. “You're telling me that you are Mother? The Goddess that gave life to Garsol?”

The visitor nodded. “So you believe,” it confirmed, yet strangely not.

Zharon nodded, his hands clasped in front of him in a classic pose of prayer, but he did not lower his eyes as tradition would have demanded. “What do you want of me?” he asked. “Why are you here? Why me?”

The stranger stepped forward. As it moved form patches of shadow to pools of moonlight Zharon blinked. The visitor's form shifted from that of male Garlolan to female, never seeming to settle on one. When it stopped moving it was mere inches from where Zharon stood, again assuming what Zharon would guess was it's native, alien form. “Too much time.” It said to Zharon, again, it's mouth not moving. “Too much, and not enough.”

Despite his curiosity, Zharon felt his pulse quicken, as the alien reached out to clasp his wrist in it's three-fingered hand. “No! Wait!” Zharon had meant to yell more, but his powers of speech had left him. Instead, he heard the alien's voice in his own mind, and his brain felt as though it were on fire with an assault of frightful images.

“Soon,” the stranger warned, “Garsol will fall. The swarm will come and lay the weak to waste, but you must have faith.”

Images of flying beasts with deadly sharp claws and hungry, jagged maws filled the air, snatching children, fruits, beasts of burden, whatever they could find.

“Go to the canyons and call to us. Then he will come. You must not lose heart.”

Hundreds of tired and scarred survivors, refugees from their once proud cities, scrapped and scrounged against the red rock walls, wailing and calling for aid.

“Hold fast and tame the soul of your world. Fear not, for he will come in a shower of metal and fire. His vengeance will be swift, his war, one to shake the heavens”

The attacks of the monsters continued until the sun seemed to flare, and falling from the sky, a man…like a Garsolan, but pale red, not dusky blue. His eye flashed with a rich red fire, and where he looked, his enemies withered and fell from the skies.

“Call, and your Warlord will come. We will send him.”

There was a flood of figures and theories in Zharon's brain now. All scenes of destruction were lost as he was adrift in a sea of numbers, letters and scribbles; storm-tossed on a sea of science. Then everything went black.

When he awoke, Zharon's head pounded. He was soaked in sweat. There was no sign of the visitor from the previous night, but there were things of which Zharon was certain. His Gods had visited him, shown him dark prophecy and terrible hope.

Zharon walked out onto the small terrace that ringed his chamber to clear his head. He looked up, holding his hand above his eyes to shield them from the glare of the early morning sun. Then he saw a dark shape dart across the surface of the sun. Then another…and another, and another. In the crisp light of a new day, Zharon knew it was too late.

In the cramped quarters of the deep cave that was now his workshop, (a far cry form the open, airy above ground towers he missed) Zharon looked back at his one-time apprentice. “Eh? What's that?” He blinked away the memory that had seemed to steal his concentration.

Bah-Ki put his head on the older man's shoulder. “I said, what does it do?” he explained. “Another beacon to the Gods?”

Zharon shook his head. “No. Something more, practical.” Zharon clapped the thin metallic covering closed, then stepped back from the device he'd been 'discovering' with. Bah-Ki knew enough to step back as well. “I have solved the power problem though. Core taps are too inefficient. I'm using the motion of the crust and the planet's electro-magnetic field.”

Bah-Ki blinked. “Your piezo-electrical theory works?” the former natural philosopher noted the heavy, spun wires that seemed to lead from Zharon's odd machine, directly into the cave floor.

Zharon huffed indignantly. “You're here. You must want to find out.”

Bah-Ki shook his head. “I'm just hiding from Dadjinn. She's looking for something else to kill.”

“Mmm… typical. She's as savage as they are.”

Bah-Ki tilted his head. “She's had to be,” he commented. “She HAS kept us alive so far.”

Zharon grumbled, walking over to what Bah-Ki could only guess was the large machine's activation switch. “She needs help.” Zharon replied. “More than you, more than me. I've been TRYING to give it to her, but she doesn't see that.” Zharon threw the switch, and a low hum filled the cave.

“She knows what her sword can do, Zharon.” Bah-Ki offered. “She has no idea what you're doing.” He blinked as the cave seemed to grow brighter, the sound louder. “What are you doing?”

Zharon smiled. After so many failures, he was somehow renewed each time her tried a new device. “I'm praying my boy…for a miracle!”

In a blinding flash and a thunderous boom, the machine began to smoke and seemed to wind down. In the center of the cave, just in front of where Zharon and Bah-Ki stood, was an odd object that neither of them recognized. It was a small metallic cylinder with odd extensions and protrusions.

“What is it?” Bah-Ki asked. “Is this what you were hoping for?”

Zharon shook his head. “No, but it's a step.”

Bah-Ki shook his head again. “If you say so.” The young man clapped his mentor on the shoulder, then turned and walked toward the surface. He didn't know what the object was, didn't know that it had crossed an amazing gulf of interstellar space, and didn't know that the strange glyphs on it's metal surface were actually the letters U, F, and P.

Chapter 12: Sleep is for the WeakTop

It was an amazing feat of controlled chaos to relocate roughly nine-hundred crew off a forty-two deck Galaxy Class starship within the space of only a few hours. While about four hundred of the civilian compliment of Republic had already been moving their belongings from the starship to quarters on Deep Space Nine, the flow of traffic on the main gangway nearly doubled in the space of thirty minutes when Captain Roth gave the order for eighty percent of the remaining crew to disembark. Add to that the backlog of personal luggage that needed to go too, and the entire operation turned into the proverbial beehive.

In the middle of things was Counselor Tolkath, using his social and administrative skills to execute the mass relocation at a pace on par with an emergency saucer separation. Because the main gangway was located on the secondary hull, and most of the personnel quarters were in the primary hull, the turbolifts quickly became overloaded, and traffic backed up on decks three through eight. Eventually, the residual traffic was re-routed to the transporter complex, fulfilling the captain's debarkation order within only minutes of her deadline.

As for Leon Cromwell, he spent the exodus at the deck five science offices, ensuring that all science personnel secured their stations and equipment before they left, and closed out all their experiments and data analysis files. Considering that there would be virtually no scientific contingent left on board due to the Republic's classified orders, it was important that all research labs and materials be closed out and powered down for the remainder of the upcoming mission. For that, Leon was required by ship's policy to review and sign off on each and every working group in the science department before turning out the lights.

By the time he was done, Leon was unaware that Republic had already departed the space station. When he stepped out into the corridor on deck five, he passively noticed the lack of activity, but considering that this particular deck wasn't known for a high level of traffic, it wasn't abnormal. In fact, it wasn't until the doctor rode the turbolift to deck twelve that he began to feel uneasy about his surroundings. Not only did the elevator ride slide through the turboshaft seamlessly without encountering any slows or turns signifying a passing car, but when the doors parted to reveal the deck it was vacant.

Completely empty.

What was known officially as the “main deck” aboard Republic, which usually hosted much of the on and off-duty activity not associated with engineering or the bridge, was a complete ghost town. No bodies coming or going in the hallway, no crewmen nodding a “hello” or offing a smile in greeting. No children playing in the corridors, no frantic parents beckoning them to get out of the way. No conversation, no interaction, no activity at all.

Although Leon was an introvert, the company of other people still put him at ease as long as they weren't too annoying. However, as he walked past the closed barber shop and ship commissary, the darkness emanating from their open archways was unsettling. A stop by the main gymnasium didn't help either, as there was *always* at least a few people in the expansive room, running on the antigrav treadmill or swimming laps in the adjoining pool. As it was, the lights were on, but not a single soul could be found utilizing any of the health equipment. Whether it was because he had gone over twenty-four hours without sleep, or because of the eerie, vacant feeling of being totally alone in his current predicament, the hair stood up on the back of his neck causing Leon to quicken his pace to sickbay.

Unfortunately, as he entered the medical center, the empty feeling was only accentuated. Like the gym, the lights were on, but nobody was around. Doctor Cromwell went from room to room, each time passing back through the main ward at a quicker and quicker pace, almost on the verge of panic at the lack of any staff whatsoever. Finally, in a fit of strife after his seventh pass through the main ward, he stopped dead center of the room and slapped his combadge with barely controlled anxiety.

“Cromwell to Harris! Where the hell are you?”

A moment of fear passed where the sleep-deprived Leon actually thought he had been transported to an alternate dimension where he was the only living soul aboard the ship. Fortunately, the moment was fleeting as he didn't have to wait long for a response.

“Harris here. I'm in the stardrive infirmary with Teague and Chief Oberstad. We're just finishing up our inventory and were about to shut it down. What's wrong? You're sounding anxious…”

“Who's all left in the medical department?”

“Besides us three, just you and Nurse Copenhagen, and she's on deck thirty treating a back strain right now. Why?”

“Five people??” Leon exclaimed. “We've only got five people left in medical??”

“Well… There's only about ten percent of the crew left on board. Fully staffed, the medical department has about fifty people. So, ten percent of fifty is five, isn't it?”

The doctor thought about the facts for a moment before responding. “You're sounding more like Virtus everyday, doctor,” rebuffed Leon. “When you're done in the infirmary, head back to sickbay. I don't want it left unattended for the remainder of the mission. If you need me, I'll be actually trying to sleep for the first time since yesterday morning. Cromwell out.”

In truth, the combined stress of a breakup with his girlfriend, a megalomaniac running for president, a set of mysterious orders for the Republic's immediate departure for God knows where, and the sudden off-ship reassignment of almost ninety percent of his ersatz family should have been enough to exhaust Leon to the point of collapse. However, his mind was running a mile a minute, and the only remedy was either a tranquilizer or a change of environment that didn't involve the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, as Susan so eloquently put it yesterday morning. He concluded that a walk through the arboretum might help clear his head.

As he entered the turbolift, Leon waited for the doors to close before announcing his destination to the computer.

“Deck seven,” he mumbled.

“Unable to comply. Life support on deck seven has been reduced to minimum consumption levels per power conservation protocols.”

Leon rolled his eyes. He forgot from his bridge officer's course that a reduced crew compliment was usually followed by reduced power to life support in order to conserve fuel and battery power should the ship encounter a need for either in the near future. Considering that the ship was set on an unknown classfied heading, and they had no clue what they were going to face en route, it was a wise move. Still, it irritated Leon as he chose an alternate destination, that being the officer's mess hall on deck three. The way he saw it, a full stomach might help him sleep, and he might actually run into someone else on the ship to have a conversation with.

“Fine then,” he grumbled back to the computer. “Deck three.”

“Unable to comply. Life support on deck three has been deactivated per power conservation protocols.”

“Oh, come on!” shouted Leon, stretched to his limit. He held back the urge to slam his fist into the wall console, as he knew from experience that it would simply result in a set of bloody knuckles. Instead, he paced a circle around the turbolift cab to walk off his rising anger. He concluded that he would have to resort to his last option for sleep this evening: a tranquilizer. Of course, the doctor's version of a tranquilizer in this particular case didn't involve going back to sickbay.

“Is deck ten still habitable??”

The computer, as if reacting to Leon's rudeness with a snub, simply replied with a beep and activated the maglift engine en route to the requested destination.

Location: “The Hill”, deck ten, forward, USS Republic

As the doors parted to the Republic's version of Quark's Bar, Leon could see right away that it would not provide the same social ambiance. Like the sickbay, like the gym, and like every other compartment on the ship he had been to over the past five hours, The Hill was also empty of people. A despondent Leon strolled into the lounge looking all the like a man without a friend in the world. Walking up to the viewport, the doctor made his way past rows of empty chairs and tables, and looked out upon the sea of starlines with tired eyes. Watching as individual points of light zipped past the ship, he found himself sliding into a dreamy state, signifying his level of exhaustion. Turning around, he resolved to find a good stiff drink at the bar before heading back to his quarters when a voice spoke that nearly made Leon jump out of his boots.

“Beautiful, isn't it?”

“Gah!” Startled, Leon nearly lost his footing while stumbling backwards.

The voice came from Master Chief Petty Officer Brad Rainier, Republic's Chief-of-the-Boat. He was standing behind the bar in an obscure corner furthest from the door, out of immediate sight when one first walks into the room. With a Saurian Brandy bottle to one side, and a half-empty cup to the other, the chief was not inebriated, but it was clear from his glassy eyes that this was not his first drink of the evening.

“Sorry doctor,” he offered. “I didn't mean to give you a heart attack.”

“Chief!” Leon gasped between breaths. “What are you doing here?”

Rainier seemed to think about the question, turning his head for a moment before looking back towards Leon.

“You know, I've been asking myself that same question since my shore leave on Bajor got cancelled last night.” Brad offered a hand towards an empty stool across the bar from him. “Care to join me for a drink?”

His pulse returning to normal, Leon nodded his head and accepted the COB's invitation. Considering it was the first soul he had seen in six hours, he was happy to have the company.

“You know, this ship is a lot bigger when there aren't so many people on board,” Leon commented as the chief produced second cup from underneath the bar-top. Brad popped the top off the brandy bottle and poured the doctor a full glass before returning the stopper. “Cheers…” The two men clinked glasses before each took a sip.

“So,” Leon started. “You say your leave's been cancelled?”

“It's the damnedest thing,” Brad nodded. “I was all geared up to visit the in-laws, and the captain grabs my leash and tells me to get back here without explanation. With only about two dozen enlisted on board, I don't exactly have a job right now outside of damage control on the bridge.”

“Hmmm,” Leon seemed to consider this before looking back at the chief quizzically. “What IS your normal job, anyway?”

Brad chuckled before shaking his head. “You don't know how many times I've heard that question!” Swallowing the last swig of his brandy, he poured himself another glass while explaining his job to the doctor. “Most fleet ships don't need a Chief-of-the-Boat, mainly because they've got less than a hundred enlisted on board. That's a small enough number for everyone to report to the first officer directly. But on a ship this big, there's over three hundred enlisted, and someone needs to keep them in line and off the back of the command staff.”

“So you're Carter's right-hand man?”

“No, I'm the CAPTAIN'S right-hand man,” he explained. “Carter has his own problems keeping all you gold-collars in line.” His smile held no malice, and was plainly in jest.

“I see what you mean,” Leon said with an amused half-smirk. He wasn't sure if the chief was alluding to the doctor's recent two and a half month stint as a fugitive on Ash'aaria, but due to the uncomfortable nature of that particular conversation, he didn't want to re-visit those events at the moment, so he opted to change the subject. “So who's all left onboard? Including me, I've got five in sickbay, and no one left in sciences.”

“Mostly ops and engineering,” Rainier replied. “And to a smaller extent, security.”

“Were we able to get the warp drive repaired while in port?” Leon still wasn't entirely clear on how it got damaged in the first place, but he knew for certain it had something to do with a Dominion ex-patriot.

“Our engine damage took the DS9 people by surprise, that's for sure,” smiled the chief. “Most of the repair parts were available on the station, and the boys in engineering got a hold of them in the nick of time. Repairs are being done on our way to who-knows-where…”

The two men drank in silence for about a half a minute, pondering the possible reasons why they were clandestinely headed to a seemingly empty set of coordinates, and why Nat Hawk appeared to have something to do with it. It was then that Leon put two and two together.

“Maybe it has something to do with former Admiral Kostya running for president?”

Rainier scoffed. “I remember that snot-nose when he was a commander back in the Cardassian Border Conflict,” he recalled. “I was serving aboard the Potemkin at the time, and our captain managed to ambush a Cardassian raiding force with the help of the North Hampton and the Arizona. Kostya was first officer on the Arizona and took credit for the whole damned thing back at fleet HQ. Got himself promoted to captain when it was all over.” Brad finished off yet another glass of brandy after seething about the situation. “Besides, why Kostya would have anything to do with our resident nav chief is beyond me.”

“How many people are left in the navigation department?” Leon asked, changing the subject again after noting the chief's disdain for the presidential candidate.

“Navigation has Hawk, a backup helmsman, one flight deck officer, and a Medusan navigator,” recalled the COB. “I think there's also a chief petty officer running around between shuttle bay two and three.”

“Medusans,” Leon stated. “The only species among the crew that has never stepped foot in sickbay.”

“That's because they don't have any FEET,” snickered Brad, pouring his sixth glass of brandy. The bottle was getting visibly empty as both Leon and Brad were showing signs of inebriation.

“I can't imagine what it must be like living as a non-corporeal,” commented the doctor, looking slightly detached with an underlying twinge of regret. “Holed up in a sealed room… away from everyone else on the ship. Sounds lonely…” Due to the alcohol, his recent emotional state was percolating through to his conscious mind, and it seemed as if, whether through exhaustion or drunkenness, he was finally coming to terms with recent events.

Chief Rainier took note.

“Alright, what's up?” While he had definitely had more than the doctor, his tolerance for real alcohol was higher, and his faculties were still sharp. “You can tell your bartender…”

“Sorry chief,” Leon apologized. “I don't usually dump my problems on others.”

“It's fine if you do,” shrugged Brad. “Why do you think all the enlisted come to me first instead of their senior officers? They're more willing to come to a non-comm with their problems instead of bothering the captain or Carter. Besides, we're both off duty, and like I said from the beginning, I've got nothing to do at the moment.”

“Alright, fine,” Leon finished off his drink while Brad poured yet another one for him. “Just before we left port, my girlfriend broke up with me.”

“Hmm,” Brad considered the revelation, topping off his own glass before restoring the stopper. “Tough break. Anyone I know?”

“Susan Hayworth from planetary sciences.”

“Definitely a tough break.” Brad didn't allude as to why it was tough, as his experience told him that anyone suffering from heartbreak could take just about any comment the wrong way. Fortunately, it didn't seem to sway Leon, as he looked dejectedly into his drink. “It might have been for the best, though,” the chief continued. “After all, she was technically under your direct command. That's never a good situation.”

Strangely, the observation produced a smile from Leon. “Too bad you weren't around when Marshall was the captain,” he remarked. “You might have been able to tell him that kissing his executive officer in front of the entire crew was bad for morale.”

The expression on the chief's face betrayed no particular emotion, save that of confusion. His eyes rolled upwards for a second, as if trying to picture a particular image, then looked back at the doctor saying, “I take it he didn't know that Carter was dating our holographic doctor?”

For the first time in many months, Leon broke out in a loud, deep-seated, whole-hearted belly laugh. It lasted well over ten seconds, and even caused the chief to break out into a chuckle as he wondered what was so funny.

“Care to share the joke?” he asked. “Or do I have to ask Ensign Scuttlebutt?”

Leon took a few more moments to wipe the tears from his eyes, allowing a few more spurts of laughter to work their way out before regaining his composure.

“I needed that, chief!” he exclaimed before tossing back the half-glass of brandy, finishing the concoction in one swallow. “Thank you!”

“You're welcome. That'll cost you one explanation.”

“Absolutely!” Leon remarked with a flushed cheeks and an amused grin, firmly setting his empty glass back down on the bar-top. “But you'll owe me change in the form of another sniff of that brandy!”

Brad shook his head with an amused expression before carefully uncorking the near-empty bottle, concentrating to make sure he didn't spill any in his tipsy state.

“W-We keep this up,” hiccuped Brad. “And we'll both end up in sickbay for detox!”

Chapter 13: Making the RoundsTop

Location: Holodeck one, deck ten, USS Republic

“John, John, John…” The holographic James T. Kirk, peered over his reading glasses as he pulled his head out of the heavy volume he was reading. The book was dark, and although the script on it's cover had long worn away, Kirk had long given up on the idea that he'd ever know just what 'Great Expectations' meant.

“You never call, you never write.”

Across from his holographic mentor, Carter stood at parade rest, more out of habit than actual necessity. “No, sir, I don't. Sorry, captain.”

Kirk closed the book and set it on the reading table near his chair. “How many times do I have to tell you, son?” Kirk stood up, grimacing a little as he stood. ” He stepped closer to his one-time protégé extending a hand. “Call me Jim.”

Carter relaxed his posture, managing to smile as he shook the legend's hand. “I'm not sure I'll EVER be able to do that, sir.”

Kirk grumbled, then turned to walk over to the bar that sat under the windows of his apartment. Holographic or not, the room had a fantastic view of San Francisco Bay. The former Captain of the Enterprise looked at the sun, burning off the last of the early morning fog. “Do you suppose it's too early for a drink?”

Carter smiled. “Not at all, sir. You go right ahead.”

As he unstopped a decanter of Saurian brandy, Kirk looked back at his visitor. “You're not joining me?”

Carter shook his head. “Can't.” He said simply. “We're underway to… somewhere… with a skeleton crew. I'm just doing a walk-through, to make sure we didn't miss anything. Or anyone.”

Kirk sipped a bit of the iridescent green liquid from his small, crystal glass. “Hmm…” he commented. “Sounds like someone's in trouble.” Kirk replaced the stopper on the brandy, setting the decanter back in it's place. “Are you sure it's not you… again?” Kirk winked as he turned from the bar to lean up against the window overlooking the bay.

Carter nodded. “Reasonably, Sir. Though… the day is young.”

Kirk let out a laugh. “Good answer.” He looked back out the window for a moment. “So, what can I do for you?” Before Carter could answer, Kirk spoke again. “And, how did that doctor friend of yours make out? Lionel, was it?”

“Leon, sir.” Carter corrected gently. “He did very well, though he wasn't happy about it at the time.”

“Yes, well,” Kirk sipped his brandy again. “Take it from me. Ship's Surgeons are never happy for long. Don't take it personally.”

Carter's head dipped in a half-hearted shake. “No, sir.” The younger officer took a few steps to join his mentor, looking out over the bay. “Actually, there's someone I'd like you to meet, captain.”

“Oh?” Kirk said, smiling, almost like an appreciative grandfather.

“Shannon?” Carter called out to the holodeck. “If you're not busy, could you join me here for a second?”

The computer beeped, then there was a whirl of photons and the whine of a forming holo-matrix. In a fraction of a second, Shannon Harris appeared in Jim Kirk's apartment, dressed in the medical blues that the day's duties required.

“What is it John?” She asked, stepping toward Republic's XO. “Nothing serious I hope? The stardrive infirmary is secured, by the way…”

As Shannon walked over to Carter, Jim Kirk looked on. “Oh… my.” Then, he downed the rest of his brandy in one over-sized gulp. “Now I see why he doesn't come around anymore.” Kirk set down the glass, then brushed the front of his red and black vest, attempting to make himself more presentable as the couple turned to face him.

“Captain James Tiberius Kirk, may I present Doctor Shannon Harris.” He turned to look at Republic's pediatrician. “Shannon this is…”

“Wow. Uh… I mean… well… yes, captain, sir.” Shannon stammered as she extended a hand in greeting. “It's a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

Kirk shook his head. “I really wish that wouldn't happen,” he said softly, then put on his best 'make nice with the new Admiral face.' “A pleasure Doctor Harris,” he said, bending down to kiss her hand.

Despite herself, Shannon grinned like a schoolgirl meeting a crush. “Please, call me Shannon.”

Kirk cocked his head to the side. “Only if you call me Jim.”

Shannon smiled “Of course, Jim.” She took a moment to look over the recreation of Kirk's last official residence during his time with Starfleet. “What a beautiful view!”

“Do you like it? You should see the sunsets, they're delightful.”

“Are they?”

“Oh yes,” Kirk answered. “Best in the hemisphere, frankly. Would you like a drink?”

“You know?” Shannon looked back at Carter who, she suspected had just realized the mistake he'd made. ”…I think I would.“

Heavy servos moaned as the hatch to Holodeck One closed.

“Well that was LOVELY!”

John chuckled as he extended his arm. Thankfully, Shannon took it. “Are you sure that's not the three Jovian sunspots talking?”

“Very funny, John.” She chided. “You know I can't actually get drunk… though for that man.” Shannon looked back at the closed holodeck hatch playfully.

“All right, all right. Easy there…”

Shannon chuckled as the two of them continued to walk. “Thank you for introducing us, John.”

“Sure,” Carter commented. “I know this sounds odd, but he's… important to me. I wouldn't have made it through third year if it weren't for him.”

“Well I think he's sweet. He must have been something in his prime.”

“Must have been.” Carter said, somewhat wistfully. “Anyway, I thought it was past time you got to meet the Captain.”

As they walked, Shannon rested her head on John's shoulder. “John?”


“Where's the rest of your family?” She knew the answer, or at the very least could have found out nearly instantly, but she wanted John to tell her. Here, in the quiet of a near empty ship, they finally had a chance to talk.

“Well, my Father died when I was cruising with Captain Peck.”

“When you were in the Merchant Marine?”

“Yeah. There wasn't any way for me to get back. I was half a quadrant away when I got the call from Mom.”

Shannon squeezed Carter's arm. “And where's she?”

“She's semi-retired on New Zanzibar.”

Shannon stopped short and looked up at John with a start. “You let your MOTHER live on New Zanzibar? What is she? A Pirate?”

John chuckled. “Zanzibar's not that bad, Shannon.” He defended. “It's not like she lives on Zeguma Beach.”

“Ugh.” Shannon shivered.

“Besides, no one LETS my mother live anywhere. Connelly women can be a bit…”


“I was going to say suborn, but, six of one.”

“I like my word better.”

Carter nodded as the two of them started walking again. “So would she.” Carter sighed as they made the turn along the outer corridor of Republic's main deck.

“What is it?”

“It's quiet.”

“Too quiet…” Shannon added, her voice shaking in mock theatricality.

“Reminds me of the day we met, actually.” He commented. ”'Like a house, with all the children gone'.“

“That's pretty. Who said that?”

“Captain Kirk, actually. It's from a log entry, after he lost his best friend.”

“Very poetic,” Shannon offered. “Now I know I like him.” Then she giggled for effect.

“Still,” Carter continued, “I don't like it when the ship is this…still. Doesn't feel right.”

Shannon dropped her head back onto the Martian officer's shoulder. “No worries John. Republic was a ghost ship once. Something tells me you won't let it happen again.”

“I hope you're right.”

In another few steps, John and Shannon found themselves standing in front of the frosted glass door that led to The Hill. They could hear laughing on the other side.

“Sounds like we're missing the fun.” Shannon said.

“Can't have that.” Carter offered simply as walked forward, causing the door's sensors to trip. As the glass-accented doors parted, John and Shannon could see Doctor Cromwell in a rather animated discussion with Chief-of-the Boat Brad Rainier.

Shannon and John stepped closer, listening in on the conversation for a moment.

”…said to him, 'what do you want ME to do about it? I'm a doctor, not a damn philatelist!'“

Cromwell and Rainier both broke into guffaws; what Carter assumed were just the latest of many. “What's a philatelist?” Harris asked.

“Stamp collector, I think,” Carter explained. “But don't ask me why it's so damned funny.”

As his laughing died down, Brad Rainier looked up, wiping a tear from his eye. “Oh, Doc…if that isn't the best I've ever…”

He immediately straightened up “Uh oh.”

With a trailing laugh, Leon looked over his shoulder. “What is it now, Chief?” he asked. “You look like you've seen a gho…”

There was a beat of silence before Shannon broke the tension. “Hi boys.” She said smoothly.

Rainier immediately slid out of the booth and snapped to. “Evening, Sir.”

Choosing the better part of valor, Leon stayed where he was.

Carter shook his head, then waved a hand, indicating the Chief should relax. “At ease, Chief. Didn't mean to interrupt the story.”

Leon blinked then swallowed hard, somewhat relieved that Carter wasn't in a spit and polish mood.

“Sorry sir,” the Chief offered as he dropped to an easy stance. “Looks like we lost track of time.”

“No big deal Chief. There's hardly anyone onboard, and even if we needed to do something else, there's no changing where we're going.”

Shannon stepped up to Rainier's side of the booth. “May I?”

Rainier nodded, then Shannon slipped into the booth, opposite Leon.

The gruff physician turned scientist spoke up again. “And where exactly is that?”

Carter shook his head. “I don't have any idea Leon, straight up.”

“Probably another damned Black Op.” Cromwell added sourly.

“Not likely,” Carter commented. “We've been gone too long. No way anyone in OPSCOMM would trust us with anything sensitive until after debriefing.”

Leon nodded.

“May I?”

Leon slid over, to make room for Carter in the booth. “Where's Vic?” the Doctor asked.

“Said he had to check on an experiment, though he did have a short meeting with the captain before heading back to DS9.”



Shannon Harris rolled her eyes as a decidedly gloomy mood descended on the table. “Oh for crying out loud! Will you two lighten up? Kostya's not even THIRD in the polls, right?”

Rainier smiled, pouring the last of his brandy into his and Leon's glasses. “I'm with the Doctor.” He said cheerfully.

Leon looked up, quizzically.

“Not you,” Brad said, “the PRETTY one.” “Thanks.” Cromwell muttered.

“Thank you, Chief.” Shannon smiled

“You're welcome Doctor,” he offered. Then he looked at Carter. “Drink, XO?”

John shook his head. “No thanks Chief.”

“Hmm…” Rainier said, switching tactics. “Then, would you answer a question for me?”

“Sure, what's on your mind, Chief?”

“Well, Doctor Cromwell was a little fuzzy on the details, but…just how many people in Starfleet have actually tried to kill you?”

The answer took many minutes, and many drinks, and like all good stories, led to several others. All told, a welcome diversion from the deadly serious work that always seemed to be before Republic and her crew.

Chapter 14: Alpha AnankeTop

Location: Unknown
Stardate: 58787.3

Ananke Alpha was quite simply unlike any other facility that existed within the realm of influence that was the United Federation of Planets. For that matter, it was quite likely unlike any other facility that existed for a thousand light years beyond their borders in every direction. It's simplistic spherical form was more reminiscent of a steam-lined Borg construct than anything else. This bold simplicity was the antithesis of standard Federation design and something that many people found off-putting. This in spite of the obvious overtones of Federation influence that clearly adorned her exterior, such as the light-toned gray and blue exterior bulkhead panels, or the handful of Federation emblems and Starfleet insignia.

What was most noticeable about the station was what it lacked in the more traditional or obvious elements of design. There was no raised command center set atop the structure. No monstrous hatches or bays designed to engulf whole starships. No antennae or sensor arrays jutting out from it's dorsal or ventral surface. No extruding docking ports or pylons meant to provide direct access. And last but not least, absolutely no view ports of any kind. Simply put, it was an anomaly of design wrapped in a mystery of purpose for anyone whom didn't know what it was. All things considered though, very few individuals had ever seen the structure without prior knowledge of it's purpose.

Her eccentricities were not only skin deep. Beneath her outer hull plates that gave the facility some semblance of recognition as Federation in origin lay even more enigmas. Most structures were constructed of composite alloys of primarily duranium. In one form or another, the element had been the foundation of Starfleet ship construction for centuries. Not to mention the dozens of other races. Ananke Alpha however boasted an kelbonite alloy inner hull. This distinction proved quite difficult for the majority of sensors and matter-energy transporters to penetrate.

Beyond her outer construction abnormalities were layout issues. On a starship, there were methods of navigation common to almost every species. Labels along corridor junctions, on hatch-way doors, computer guidance consoles and layout schematics. Ananke Alpha lacked all such elements to the point of absurdity. Each corridor was as unremarkable and unmarked as the next. Even the floor plan, which by simple logic should have followed a circular path around a central core with intermittent straight segments to conjoin those rings was lacking in defiance of expectations. Instead her layout meandered and stopped suddenly at varying intervals, sowing further confusion and chaos into even the smartest and most eidetic minds and memories.

Beyond all of these numerous foundational quirks were the conundrums of her systems. Auto-regenerative transitional force-fields. Closed-circuit visual security systems. An intricate network of over-lapping transport inhibitors and sensor disruptors. Redundant networked internal sensor grids. Finely-tuned independently operated environmental controls. Mounted protruding phaser turrets from the walls, floors, and ceilings. In comparison to all of those oddities was the final 'quirk' about Ananke Alpha. The simple fact that with the exception of officer accommodations and waste extraction facilities, no one was ever truly alone.

Not ever.

Every station had a minimum of two personnel assigned to it. Every officer moving between locations had a subordinate in tow. In point of fact, nearly half of the facilities personnel was tasked primarily with the ambiguous and yet critical function of serving as an escort. To a colleague, subordinate or superior, and at least two such individuals for every one 'guest' – whether they had come aboard of their own free will or otherwise. These 'shadows' as the position had come to be dubbed early on by any and all who worked at this unique installation were perhaps the most omni-present reminder of just how strange a place this was.

The singular purpose which required the Ananke Alpha's existence was one many in the Federation thought had long ago been negated. Rehabilitation had become the normal response to any criminal behavior, even in the rare event of an actual murder. Such crimes no longer occurred out of greed or jealousy, but only sparingly out of an un-remedied psychological illness or defect. When encountered, such was corrected and the individual in question was confined not to a hardened facility teaming with the dregs of society, but to an almost palatial resort-like facility to be re-acclimated to life and society. As such, the Federation no longer required places like Earth's infamous Alcatraz island, or the Klingon asteroid of Rura Penthe.

However, occasionally in a galaxy whose population was conservatively estimated in the tens of trillions, one individual out of a billion was incapable of such rehabilitation and re-acclimation. These rare individuals could not be classified simply as 'criminals' or even as 'murderers' for their deeds dwarfed such distinctions. These individuals were the modern day equivalents to Adolf Hitler, Khan Noonien singh, and Colonel Green. Had the one-time Cardassian dictator Skrain Dukat been tried and convicted for his participation in the Dominion war, he would have served his time here. As it was his Dominion superior, a being known officially only as the 'Female Founder' was herself so incarcerated at Ananke Alpha.

In layman's terms, Ananke Alpha was a prison. A super-maximum security, beyond state-of-the-art Starfleet operated prison the likes of which the galaxy has never fathomed to exist. A storehouse for the worst of the worst the Federation was faced with. The war criminals and genocidal maniacs. The despots and tyrants. The king-pins and crime-bosses. It was a place that any intelligent citizen must know exists on some level, and yet no one ever spoke of or asked for any specifics about. For it was the dark little secret that those who knew about it refused to admit, and those who did not know about it refused to question.

Even in an open and free society like the Federation, it was quite simply too taboo a thing to think of, let alone discuss or question.

And yet, if not for it's shadowy existence buried deep in the shades of gray, the utopia enjoyed by over 975 billion Federation citizens would not be possible.

This was to where Starfleet had removed one of the senior-most members of the Orion Syndicate, a man named Keevan Faro, following his apprehension on New Sydney.

This was to where the Starship Republic had been brought by long encrypted orders…

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Republic

Nine days of uninterrupted sustained high warp flight aboard a Galaxy-Class starship wasn't the most uncommon thing to experience. The void of space was after all, vast beyond the dreams of man or gods. Aboard a ship such as Republic though, there was typically an abundance of activity to keep one's self occupied. From the day to day tasks associated with such a tour of duty, to social events and recreational time, to side projects and so on. These past nine days however had been nothing of that sort though. The mighty hulk of the mammoth starship was an empty shell on this particular voyage. Just a decimal point above ten percent of her crew aboard. The time had not passed by easily, what with little to occupy those aboard. Little to do but watch the clock and to wait.

Time, like a watched pot, often seemed to refuse to boil.

So it was that on the morning of October 15, 2381 at a little before 0930 hours ship time that the senior officers of the Republic had gathered on the bridge to discover what awaited them at the end of their latest trek together. The bridge had been silent as each individual arrived in their own time. No salutations had been exchanged. No progress reports asked for. No business attended to. No formal decision made by the group to be here, now. Yet somehow each person had known the rest would be present, and felt obliged to do likewise. Lieutenant Nathan Hawk had been the last to arrive and the most withdrawn. Avoiding his normal station unlike the rest, he instead stood just a few steps from the turbolift alcove at the back of the command center, holding the hand of the woman he loved.

As the tear-streaks of stars at superluminal velocity returned to their customary diamond pin-pricks, the collective crew awaited the report of the ships acting Chief Operations Officer, Cail Jarin. The dark-skinned Bajoran has take over the duties as Chief, what with the medical leave of his department supervisor Reia Merrick back on DS9.

“Commencing standard sensor sweep of local space,” informed the former Bajoran militia officer as he entered command sequences into his console and studied the readouts returned. “This is strange…” Cail murmured to himself under his breath, his brow furrowing, ”…Captain, I'm not reading anything.“

Leaning forward in her command chair, already tense due to the situation at hand, Roth asked, “Could you be a little more specific, Ensign?”

Shaking his head from side to side quickly but gently, Cail clarified his meaning if not his sensor results. “That's just it ma'am, I'm literally not receiving anything in response to my scans. I'm not reading anything: at all. Not space dust, normal background radiation… nothing.” the acting Ops chief stated, as he turned in his chair to face the Captain. “Not even a jamming or scattering field which would at least go so far as to explain the lack of any other specific readings. It's as if I'm scanning a literal void versus… well, the normal energy and material that clutters 'the void' of space.”

Before anyone else could offer their thoughts or explanations, Republic's Chief of Security Zoe Beauvais interjected from above the command area. “Well I am getting something,” she reported, as she confirmed her tactical sensors analysis, “we're being scanned from somewhere. Extremely focused narrow beams, but all incredibly diffuse and low-powered…” the lithe blond Lieutenant relayed.

“Can you identify the source?” asked Commander John Carter, as he rose to his feet to better address Beauvais behind him.

Perplexed, the Security Chief shook her head in the negative as well, reporting, “it doesn't seem to be coming from a singular source, but rather dozens or more individual sources at varying points all around up ahead of us. More like a sensor network, I'd guess, but not like any configuration I've ever even heard theorized.”

On her feet now as well, Roth considered this information for a moment before deciding on their course of action. Noting the continued presence of Lieutenant Hayden Kroeger at the conn, Kim Roth quickly glanced about and noted the presence of her Chief Helmsman. Just as quickly, she repressed her normal instinct to have him take his station and put her attention back to Kroeger. “Ahead full, Mister Kroeger.”

The bridge descended into silence for the next few minutes as Republic coasted forward in the general bearing of the mysterious sensor scans ahead. Slowly but surely, one of the tiny twinkling lights on the main viewer began to grow in scope. Intuiting his captain's orders, Kroeger altered their heading by a dozen degrees to starboard to head more directly towards the object they were quickly drawing nearer to. At first only a vague spherical shape was visible, but from their distance it was too ambiguous to identify. As they continued to advance though, their query refused to alter in shape or dimension, nor to offer any finer details.

“I thought this region of space didn't have any planets?” Leon Cromwell chimed in from the bridge science station, recalling the star chart that had been displayed when the encrypted orders had been unsealed just over a week earlier. As the still acting science chief in addition to his medical duties, he'd done a review of the region they were bound for. What had come up according to their cartographic records was that the entire region of space was as mundane and bland as could be for dozens of light years. No planets, few stars, and a whole lot of empty space. That seemed at odds though with the obvious conclusion based on the visual information available now.

“We would have read a gravitational field of considerable magnitude if it were a planet, sensors or not. The inertial dampers would have perceived such no matter how muddied the other sensors are.” remarked Ensign Cail from Ops.

“It could be a small moon?” Counselor Tolkath suggested from the executive seat to the captain's left.

Magnifying the image on the screen and gauging it's approximate size based on their forward velocity and the rate at which the objects proportions increased, Cail was satisfied with making a deduction. “That's no moon, it's a space station.”

“A spherical space station?” questioned Chief Rainer, somewhat incredulous at the idea of such a thing being of Federation design.

“It is one of the most efficient forms known to nature.” pointed out John Carter, though he himself was not yet convinced of anything.

“Ananke Alpha…” murmured Beauvais reverently from tactical, a spontaneous connection between synapses dredging up a long-dormant memory. As everyone turned their attention towards her, the somewhat awe-struck security chief offered the assembled crew the story she herself had heard in her academy days. “It's… Alcatraz prison. The Federation equivalent to Rura Penthe. A super maximum security prison, designed to hold only the worst of the worst. People incapable of rehabilitation. If a place like this had existed one-hundred-fifteen years ago, Khan Singh would have been sent to it. The Female shape-shifter, the one who oversaw the Dominion war? This is where she's rumored to be held for her crimes. It's… beyond classified. I don't even think it officially exists.” Beauvais informed the assembled officers and crew.

The bridge fell into silence for a few moments as the theory presented was absorbed and processed. Finally, it was Chief Rainer who asked the first question. “Why would 'Fleet order us here? To a prison?”

At first, no one answered.

“Prolly 'cause it's the only place 'n the 'verse outta the Orion Syndicate's reach.” offered Republic's helmsman, Nathan Hawk, who up until that moment hadn't spoken a word since arriving on the bridge. This new piece of information only sewed further confusion amongst the bridge crew, with the exceptions of Roth, Carter and Cromwell.

“The Orion Syndicate? What do they have to do with this?” asked Rainer, alarmed by the mention of the notorious criminal enterprise.

For the past fourteen months, Nathan Hawk had kept a secret from the officers with whom he served. There had been rumor and speculation, but never anything definitive beyond what little he had told to John Carter and Leon Cromwell, both of whom he considered friends, and to Leah Warner, the first woman he had ever allowed himself to feel for. It was finally time to lift that particular veil of secrecy though. To end one chapter, and begin another. Turning his attention across the bridge to his captain, the Southerner asked her consent with a look. Consent she granted with an affirmative nod.

“I dunno where ta begin,” Hawk stated. At his side, Leah Warner squeezed his hand tightly in a supportive gesture. “I could tell ya all ma life story… but it ain't a happy one, not even close. It's a long 'n complicated mess that ya dun need ta trouble yerselves with. Important thing, reason we're all here… s'cause I'm the Federation's 'star' witness 'gainst one uh the top Syndicate bosses. Nasty old sonuvabitch named Keevan Faro. Some of ya might know the name, cause few months b'fore I came aboard, he skipped out on charges. Ya might also know, witnesses 'gainst the Syndicate don't tend ta live awful long. So somebody came up with a whole new idea. Stash 'em somewhere mobile, somewhere protected. Some place like a starship.”

Letting his revelation sink in, Hawk waited for a few moments before continuing. “Now, ya might be sayin' ta yerself, whys any uh this matter ta ya? Thing 'bout this trial, me testifyin' 'n such… if we convict Faro? It ain't just convictin' one leader uh the Syndicate. Faro's paranoid, total lunatic, real psychopath. Was a rumor goin' round that he had dirt on just 'bout everybody else in the Syndicate. Back 'bout shy uh two years ago, I went undercover. Got close ta Faro. Found proof this rumor ain't just a rumor, ta say the least. So we put him in uh corner? Sonuvabitch'll cave. Federation'll have 'nough ta go after the whole lot of 'um. Whole damn thing'll fold like a deck uh cards.”

With this information, various pieces fell into place for a number of individuals with long-standing questions. How Hawk had been re-instated after a psych discharge in the wake of the Dominion war, for one thing. It also offered the first viable explanation of why Hawk had been murdered during their mission in the Gamma Quadrant, and likewise gave explanation for how and why such an advanced medical treatment had been ready to be utilized to resurrect him. Most importantly, it explained why a Galaxy-Class ship had been stripped of her crew and ordered here, to a prison that may or may not officially exist. Escorting a witness in of itself was a menial task for a vessel of such resources; but protecting the key witness in a trial that could dismantle the Orion Syndicate? That was another story.

A moderate tone sounded from the tactical console in front of Beauvais, breaking the tense silence that had engulfed the bridge for a few moments. Tending to it, Beauvais directed herself to the captain. “We're being hailed… ” Zoe began, pausing for a moment at the unusual signal, ”…on old-style radio, ma'am.“

Despite her curiosity, Roth didn't question the abnormal type of communication; she had a sinking feeling abnormal was shortly to become standard operating procedure for the duration of things. “On screen, Lieutenant.”

The spherical form which was now much closer, and seemed indeed to be a space station or some sort based on it's dimensions alone, was replaced in an instant by an austere looking Vulcan female. It was evident from her silver hair and the creases around her eyes and mouth that she was certainly of the higher end of age range for a Vulcan, most certainly over one-hundred-fifty standard years. Everything about the woman was fairly plain, from her pale complexion to her dull gray eyes. Dressed in the variant uniform of a member of the admiralty, another distinction stood out: her collar was adorned with a single gold pip bracketed by a gold edged-square on either side. She was a commodore, one of the rarest ranks seen in Starfleet for the past century.

“I am Administrator T'Lau, director of the Ananke Alpha facility. You are currently being forwarded an encrypted data packet containing written orders of compliance with this facilities procedures, as well as copies of all of our procedures which are to be distributed amongst your crew without delay. You will manually deactivate your warp core, as well as your long-range subspace transceiver for the remainder of your time here. Any and all communications beyond our perimeter will be handled by this facility, at my discretion. Any persons whom wish to embark will leave any and all scanning equipment, recording devices, and weapons of any kind aboard Republic. Is this understood?”

Taken aback by the forth-right and stern visage before her, Kimberly Roth paused momentarily before offering her response as diplomatically as she could. “Indeed, Administrator, I think we understand quite well, however-”

Roth stopped mid-sentence as the image of the T'Lau disappeared from the screen without warning. “What the hell just happened?” she questioned.

“Transmission terminated at the source, Captain,” replied Beauvais, equal parts disbelief and annoyance ebbing into her voice.

Her eyes wide with astonishment, Roth looked to her XO for his take on the brief and abrupt conversation. For his part, John Carter could only shake his head and shrug, unsure what to make of it for himself. Biting the inside of her lower lip, annoyed to say the least, Roth turned back to the view screen as she addressed Beauvais once more. “Re-establish communications, Lieutenant.”

Entering the appropriate sequence into her console, Beauvais attempted to do as requested three times before reporting back to the Captain: “No response from Ananke Alpha, ma'am.”

It was Leon Cromwell whom finally asked, “So now what?”

Though hesitant to draw any misdirected ire from his captain, John Carter did as his position required. “The administrator did say something about an encrypted data packet, with procedures to be distributed…? Perhaps-”

This time, it was Carter whom was cut off. By Roth. “Yes, Commander, see to the… distribution, please.”

Moving to the upper aft level of the bridge, the XO leaned against the tactical station and worked with Beauvais on decrypting the data and routing copies of an information text packet marked 'Ananke Alpha Protocols and Procedures' to the personal terminals of everyone left aboard. He then transferred a copy to a PADD, which he offered to his commanding officer upon his return to the central portion of the bridge. Accepting the data display, Roth queued the text and skimmed across it as she retook her place in the command chair. As she did, the majority of the assembled bridge crew likewise brought up copies of the protocols on their own displays.

First amongst the information was that Ananke Alpha utilized a networked transporter protocol that made unauthorized transport impossible. The station operated on cycle of two, twelve-hour transporter windows each day. Exceptions were not made without the direct consent of the facility administrator. Anyone visiting the facility for more than two consecutive days was advised to utilize station guest accommodations, though such was not strictly required. Virtually nothing outside of the clothes being worn and a standard communicator was permitted to be brought aboard. Any such item to be detected in transport would not be rematerialized. The protocols also explained that any and all visitors were to be assigned a 'shadow' escort, whom they were not to separate from under any circumstances, less they face station confinement and a formal investigation.

Suffice of to say, it was an intimidating and sobering reality that faced them.

Identifying that the transport windows occurred at equivalent to 0900 ship time, and that they had thus missed today's transport window unless they planned to spend the night aboard the station, it became clear that they would have at least an additional day to wait before paying their first visit to Ananke Alpha.

Finished with her preliminary review of the document, Roth turned her attention back to her first officer. “Commander, see to it that Lieutenant Pakita complies with the Administrator's… requests… concerning our warp drive and transceiver.” With a simple nod in acknowledgment, Carter set about doing precisely that. Rising from the command chair, Roth looked for and located Hawk, still standing at the back of the bridge, out of the way. “In the mean time, Mister Hawk, if you'd join me in my ready room…”

Chapter 15: Scorpio RisingTop

Location: Promenade, space station Deep Space Nine
Timeframe: Present day

The Starfleet lieutenant in operations gold casually strolled down the Promenade, maintaining his pace congruent with the flowing crowd. While it appeared to the normal observer that he was simply enjoying some off-duty time to peruse the shops and restaurants on the station, his purpose was much more business-related than anyone else knew. Pausing to look around to see who was watching, the officer spied a vacant subspace communications booth, and entered it while no one else was looking.

Inside the booth, only the light of the display illuminated the cramped compartment. Accessing the comm-net, he dialed a set of subspace transceiver coordinates which opened a channel to a distant, unknown communications console. On the display screen, a mysterious man with an aged, wrinkled face and bushy grey eyebrows peered back at the young lieutenant. Without an ounce of emotion in his voice, the man addressed the officer.

“Hello Scorpio. Or should I say, Pluto?”

“It's confirmed,” the lieutenant said direct and to the point. “Saturn is headed to Luna. I tried to get him to stay onboard, but he wouldn't go for it.”

“Does he suspect we're monitoring him?”

“Not likely,” returned the lieutenant. “I transmitted from the sensor blind he built below Republic's warp core before she left port. Only Saturn, Pluto, and I know about it.”

“I'll be more specific… Does he suspect YOU?”

“He and I haven't talked since his reassignment to SCoE over a year ago,” the lieutenant explained. “He definitely thought I was Pluto when we talked over the encrypted channel. I'm sure of it.”

“Good. The less he knows about what happened to the real Doug Forrest, the better. Thanks to you, we can monitor Saturn's activities now, for as long as we have a stand-in for Pluto.”

“He's going to find out eventually,” warned the lieutenant.

“I know. And whenever that happens, we'll have to decide whether or not to arrest him. After the election, I'll brief whoever the new C-in-C is, and he or she can review the case and determine if the Pantheon is a threat. Right now, we're not even sure of their intentions.”

“From everything I can tell, they're just disgruntled doves.”

“We don't know that for sure. After the level of infiltration during the Dominion War, no one here is willing to take that risk. Which reminds me, have you figured out who Mars and Apollo are yet?”

“No,” he replied flatly. “The only identity I know for sure is Mercury. After that, I ran out of time. The ship went into lockdown before I was ordered off Republic.”

“It doesn't matter. We got this far into the Pantheon's inner circle, and that's better than we've been able to do before. Good work. Report back to headquarters by stardate 58900.”


With that, the conversation ended in a computerized warble, followed by the wreathed Federation logo replacing the image of the mysterious man. The lieutenant was about to leave the communications booth when his combadge beeped.

“Ops to Lieutenant Jacobs.”

“Yes?” the officer paused, tapping his combadge.

“You have a personal encrypted communique coming in on civilian channel three-eight-two-seven.”

“Understood. I'll take in down here on the Promenade. Jacobs out.”

Turning back to the console, Jacobs accessed the civilian communications network, and found the active comm-net channel awaiting his personal key. After dialing it in, the encrypted channel opened, and a disquieting image of pale man with an oily complexion appeared on the screen. His black curly hair accentuated his penetrating sable eyes, and his chin revealed a mutton-chop beard minus a mustache. Recognizing the lieutenant, his greeting was succinct.


“It's set,” Jacobs replied, obviously expecting the request. “Your contact is an officer named Klaus. He'll be in position when he receives your signal.”

“How do you know he'll be there?”

“I only paid him half. You'll have to fork over the other half when you meet him.”

“And you're sure they're headed to Sol?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “Probably within the month. They've been away from the Alpha Quadrant for more than half a year without a debriefing, and they're running with a skeleton crew. Klaus included.”

“Perfect. Stop by our spot at Paradise City, and someone will meet you to discuss the usual compensation.”


As sudden as it arrived, the communication terminated, filling the screen with the wreathed Federation logo.

Jacobs couldn't help but smile. He had been stranded in the Gamma Quadrant without communications for seven months, putting all of his clandestine activities on hold. It was frustrating to be bottled up on a starship; alone with no contacts, and completely dependent on the whims of an unpredictable Starfleet captain. Truth be told, Jacobs missed the cloak-and-dagger business of a double-agent, as there was a certain adrenaline rush associated with living on the edge. Except for Starfleet, he worried about losing all his other clients, but fortunately, they each were patient people, the Orions especially. As he made his way down the Promenade, he looked forward to a victory drink at Quarks, where he would privately celebrate his renewed independence.

Chapter 16: First ImpressionsTop

It had been less than an hour after their initial contact with Ananke Alpha's brusque Administrator T'Lau that Republic had again received communications from the eccentric top-secret facility, informing them that special arrangements had indeed been made to accommodate their arrival outside of the normal transporter windows. Considering why they were here and how critical the testimony of Lieutenant Hawk was to the pending case, such made obvious sense. The accommodations had been made, however, in the form of a brief shuttle sojourn between the two locales in order to avoid overriding the stations multi-layered network of transport inhibitor systems. Though inconvenient, it did make a degree of practical sense, and so Roth had complied with such. That she had little recourse otherwise didn't make much difference.

As the bulbous type seven approached one of the few small hatches providing physical ingress to the facility, Captain Kimberly Roth continued to chafe at the pronounced absence of professional courtesy thus far extended by T'Lau as she as well and a number of her senior crew traversed the minimal distance in relative silence. Though Vulcans in general were not known for their warm receptions, it was strange to encounter such an ungracious individual at such a distinguished rank. Then again, social graces were likely fairly low on the totem pole of required skill sets required to administrate a facility such as this. Indeed, brusque efficiency and strict compliance with protocol were talents more suited for such a commander. Never the less, to Roth's mind, it simply added an undo layer of tension to an already overwrought situation.

As the shuttle passed through the confines of the exterior hatch, Roth took note of the fact that they had not passed through a customary atmospheric force-field. Rather, the narrow shuttle bay in which they were currently ensconced was decompressed and exposed to hard vacuum; another abnormality, but one that again made a degree of sense for a hardened facility such as this. As the boxy shuttle set down upon the deck with a silent but reverberatory thud, the passengers - Captain Roth, Commander Carter, Doctor Cromwell, Lieutenant Hawk and Leah Warner - rose from their seats in anticipation of a prompt departure. Instead, the assemblage of Republic natives waited for what felt like an ever increasing span of time as the airlock seal indicator continued to blink a cautionary red. Though a shuttle bay such as this would take a greater length of time to recompress into a habitable environment, such didn't account for the near ten minutes they waited.

Just as the Captain was about to lose patience with the situation, the shuttle vibrated once again with what felt to the experienced officer like the attachment of a docking collar. Indeed, the airlock indicator quickly turned to a cautionary blinking yellow before it finally solidified green. Stepping through the hatchway as the door receded, Roth was uncomforted if not surprised to find a phalanx of heavily armed security personnel awaiting them just inside the docking collar. Not a single one was the same species as the other, and some of those Roth could not even identify. Clad in a variant uniform that resembled a cross-breed of modern style with the body-armor and helmets standard to security personnel of the late 2280s, each member of the team hefted a different type of Starfleet phaser rifle. They ranged from the standard issue type-3, to the large-stock MKX style, to the original compression variety and it's 2379 successor with tactical sight. Each weapon also appeared to be physically locked onto it's holder through a unique harness that interlaced with the owners body-armor.

As the menagerie of a security team stood at relative ease along the walls of the airlock, a seventh individual stepped up to the Ananke Alpha opening. Towering more than 2 meters tall with a muscular build and a neck the same thickness as his skull, the man had to duck to avoid impacting his forehead on the doorframe. Though Roth could not say for certain at first, her instincts and the assortment of genetic compositions of the other security personnel told her the individual was something other than human, and upon citing an angled tri-sided blade attached to his hip that she was able to identify, she deduced his species as Capellan. Clad in a standard operations yellow duty uniform, he wore the rank insignia of a full commander. Turning his attention to Roth, he finally spoke, his deep voice echoing off the airlock walls. “I am Commander Akeen, head of security aboard Ananke Alpha. Welcome to our facility.”

Taking a single step forward, Roth nodded simply in recognition as she replied, “Thank you, Commander. I'm Captain Kimberly Roth, commanding officer of the Republic.”

Returning the nod, Akeen increased the volume of his voice despite the lack of need to, and addressed the entire party. “As you are already aware, this facility does not officially exist. Any mention of such recorded in any logs, personal, professional, medical or otherwise is strictly forbidden by Starfleet security directive 1221-alpha, dually authorized and ordered by the Federation Security Council. While you are aboard this facility, you will adhere to all procedures and protocols outlined in the encrypted document transmitted to you earlier by Administrator T'Lau. Your completed review of this document has already acted as a retinal signature of compliance and comprehension. Is this understood?”

As most of the Republic team nodded in acknowledgement, Roth stated such on their behalf, “Understood, commander.”

Accepting this, Akeen turned on his heal and gestured with a nod towards the airlock hatchway he had been blocking, “If you'll all follow me to our security check-point, we'll conduct your base-line scans.”

Beginning forward somewhat tentatively, Roth lead her people in pursuit of Akeen as he made his way down a short, wide corridor, preceded himself by a pair of standard dressed security officers, sporting holstered type-2 hand phasers. Mid-way through the groups departure from the airlock, a trio of the heavily armed and armored security officers that had lined the airlock injected themselves between the Republic officers – or so it seemed at first. In point of fact, as Roth noticed the swiftly executed maneuver, they were in fact dividing Lieutenant Hawk and Leah Warner from Roth herself as well as Carter and Cromwell, the remaining trio of armed and armored security taking up flank behind the couple. Though Hawk himself noticed this as well, he made no signs of surprise nor objection. Warner for her part looked a bit startled by the apparent special attention.

Arriving at the end of the bland and featureless corridor and stopping at a single set of heavy blast doors, Commander Akeen entered a manual security code into a semi-transparent holographic console, before providing a retinal scan as well as a voice authorization code. The whole process thus far struck Roth as well beyond paranoid and excessive, and she prayed that such procedures were only taken initially or in the event of a manual boarding versus being transported aboard. Leading them through the blast doors and up to an enclosed security booth, Akeen gestured towards a collection of tall and thin stalls with semi-circular walls, each roughly the size of a standard transporter diode.

Stepping up to the first of the set, Roth waited a moment as each of her people positioned themselves inside an alcove before doing likewise. With a silent nod towards the two latest personnel contained behind the transpara-steele half-wall of the security booth, Akeen ordered their activation. A low electronic hum quickly emanated from each scanner stall, as brightly-lit security scanners activated within either side, slowly descending from top to bottom. The scans themselves were relatively quick and not obviously invasive, and within a few seconds, Akeen was signaled with a thumbs-up from the officers operating the devices within the booth. Gesturing towards the same set of doors they had entered the room through, Akeen waited as the Republic team gathered - in addition to the team of six armored security officers whom positioned themselves around Hawk and Warner once again.

As the same blast doors parted once again, Roth wondered where they were to be lead, having not seen any other doors on their brief walk here. Instead of finding the same corridor that lead back to the airlock and their shuttle, however, an entirely different corridor was now in it's place much to everyone of the visitors unspoken confusion. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Leon Cromwell mouth the word 'holograms' to Carter in question, to which the XO simply shrugged and raised his eyebrows, equally uncertain. For his part, Akeen offered no forthcoming explanation and Roth seriously doubted she would get an acceptable response should she question such.

Unlike the earlier corridor, which had been straight and almost sterile in appearance, the new one they currently traversed offered curves and sharp random turns and at least a bit of design aesthetic - even if minimally so. Simple support struts at uniform distances and dull gray traction carpeting were still a slight improvement though. What struck Roth was the lack of indicator labels or markers along any of the walls, junctions, or even doorways. No visible control surfaces and tactile interfaces presented themselves either as they made abrupt turns in seemingly random intervals.

Finally Akeen came to a halt at a large set of more standardized doors which parted at his arrival to reveal a turbolift car nearly twice the size of any Roth had seen in her entire Starfleet career. Waiting by the door, he extended his hand in towards the waiting lift. After Roth, her people, and the protective deal engulfing Lieutenant Hawk had all entered, Akeen followed and kept his back to the door as it sealed shut behind him. Though no one aboard gave any command, verbal or physical, the lift promptly began to move - or so Roth inferred from the familiar audible servo-pneumatic whirr that filled the area. Either because of a sensitive inertial dampening system, or because of the lack of indicator lights along the shaft, it was impossible to tell in which direction (or combination of) the lift was heading.

In the first instance of comparable normalcy to the rest of Starfleet, their journey via turbolift lasted a fairly customary duration of time. As Commander Akeen lead the party out into a new corridor which, save physical arrangement, appeared identical to the one they had just come from, Roth began to question her senses and contemplate the rather paranoid thought that perhaps they hadn't really even gone anywhere in the lift. Perhaps the time spent in such had simply been necessary to re-arrange the corridor in similar fashion to earlier. Just as quickly as the thought occurred to her, the seasoned Starfleet officer dismissed it with the realization that analyzing the psychology and motives that went into the design and function of this place were likely to cause her a greater headache than should she attempt to make sense of some temporal paradox.

After what had thus far felt like a jaunt down the rabbit hole into a land of insanity, Akeen came to a swift halt outside of a set of double-wide doors. Nodding to the throng of security personnel apparently assigned to Lieutenant Hawk, the detail took up positions along the corridors in each of three directions available. Moving forward once more, the doors parted at his approach to reveal a reasonably large size room that was clearly a courtroom in design and function. As the Capellan security officer lead them through the few sparse rows of gallery seats to the half-wall divider that separated the spectator section from the court proper itself, Roth took note of the rooms apparent sole occupant: an older humanoid male roughly one-point-seven-five meters in height and of the larger side of medium build.

Half standing, half sitting atop the table reserved for the prosecutor, his reddish-blond hair was tinged with gray mostly at the temples, and his weathered yet handsome face gave the impression of both confidence and charm. Dressed simply in the modern day equivalent of a dark-toned business suit, a garment which had long ago abandoned the adornment of a neck-tie, his strong squared shoulders and easy stance belayed his age which Roth placed at mid-60s based on visual evidence. With modern times and medicine however, that could make his actual age anywhere from the obvious to the late 90s. None of which was truly relevant to the matter at hand to Roth who had to admit, even if only to herself, that he was a pleasant enough fellow to look at.

“Captain Kimberly Roth, this is Federation Special Prosecutor Thomas Aidan Dorian.” Akeen stated, making the introductions.

Standing up fully now, Dorian moved closer the few steps needed and extended his hand towards Roth who accepted and returned the customary gesture. “A pleasure, Captain.” offered Dorian with a small but warm and sincere smile.

His bold blue eyes lingering on Roth for perhaps a split second longer than ordinary, Dorian quickly turned his attention to the others from Republic, quickly focusing in on the somewhat scruffy blond-haired Lieutenant towards the back. “And you must be the dead witness that nearly caused me to have a stroke last month.” Dorian inferred, his natural charm softening the statement significantly.

For his part, the recently-turned unflinchingly somber Hawk showed a spark of light in his eyes as he replied, “Only if yer the prosecutor that couldn't even muster gettin' remand on a high-level Syndicate boss like any first-year law student.”

The retort had a chilling effect on the room for a brief moment until Dorian chuckled aloud, diffusing the tension. “In my defense, that particular magistrate was hip-deep into the Syndicate's pocket.” Dorian offered in light-hearted defense.

“And in mine, I sure didn't intend ta get maself dead, but bein' both stabbed and poisoned at tha same times kinda uh bitch that way.” quipped Hawk once more.

Nodding his head in silent surrender of the point, Dorian turned his attention to the entire group for a moment, “Captain Roth, Commander Carter, Doctor Cromwell, Miss Warner; I need to speak with all of you in due time individually. For the moment though, I really need to spend some one-on-one time with my star witness.” Dorian informed them. Turning his attention to Akeen for a moment, he suggested, “Akeen, perhaps you can show our guests what you natives laughingly consider amenities here on Ananke?”

Nodding stoically, Akeen gestured back the way they had just come, “If you'll all come with me, please.”

As the trio of Republic officers trailed the large security chief back towards the entryway, Leah Warner lingered a moment. “You'll be alright?” she asked of Hawk, her hand resting on his arm.

Smiling at the woman he loved, even if his mood didn't quite fit the expression, Nathan Hawk nodded in the affirmative. “Ain't that my line?” he asked her playfully. Nodding his head towards his colleagues, Hawk encouraged her, “Go on, I'll be right here. 'Sides, I need ya ta keep Leon outta trouble fer me.” he teased.

With a quick kiss, Warner followed suit with the others from Republic and headed out, leaving Dorian and Hawk alone in the courtroom. Tom Dorian wasted little time in the wake of their departure. “I'm sorry if my joke upset you, or your lady friend.” he apologized, sounding genuine.

Waving his hand dismissively, Hawk shook his head from side to side, “Naw, I shouldn't uh snapped like that,” the southerner offered, “ma fuse is a bit short lately.”

“It's understandable,” Dorian replied graciously, stepping back over towards the prosecutors table which was home to a dozen PADDs as well as an old-fashion satchel that appeared to be made out of black denim with sterling silver buckle and latch. “You've had a rough 18 months or so, to say the least. Going under-cover inside the Syndicate, having to fake your own death there to get back out. Then just as we secure an indictment against Faro, the son of a bitch flies the coop, leaving you in a pretty dangerous state of limbo. So you get thrown back into Starfleet in lieu of all the other failed standard witness protections programs, in the distant hope we can track the bastard down before he finds out you're still breathing and comes after you. To top it all off, the frakker not only finds out you're alive, he actually succeeds in killing you, and the only reason you're here listening to me tell your own recent life story is some hair-brained semi-ethical Borg-enhanced Frankenstein treatment that I'm not sure the courts even going to believe.”

After a moments stony silence shared between the two men, neither could endure it any longer. Both began to laugh hysterically in what surely would have been quite a confusing sight had anyone but them been there to witness it. Finding it difficult to breath, Hawk fell back into one of the gallery chairs with a thud as Dorian wiped a tear from his eye, both men struggling to control their shared case of the giggles. “Well… when ya put it that way…” Hawk struggled to say through shortened breath.

As the laughter subsided, Hawk looked Dorian in the eyes, his tone turning a bit serious as he asked, “Did ya know Faro was the one?”

Letting the smile fade away naturally, Dorian shook his head in the affirmative in response. “If I'd told you, you'd have killed him the moment you met him.”

Putting his head in his hands, Hawk rubbed his eyes for a moment before looking back at Dorian. The two men had, in truth, known each other for years. Though Dorian was old enough to be Hawk's father, they had become acquaintances and eventually friends through Admiral Henry Toddman, Hawk's one-time legal guardian in the wake of his Aunt and Uncle's deaths when he was 16. Dorian, a friend of Toddman's whom had also known Hawk's parents, had ironed out the legal issues of both the guardianship as well as the legal troubles the teenage Hawk had gotten himself into at the same time. Said legal troubles also played a part in Hawk following in his parents and Toddman's footsteps into Starfleet.

It had been a little over a year and a half ago when Dorian had been the one to suggest Hawk to Starfleet Intelligence for the undercover operation he had shortly there after undertaken. The operation that had lead to Hawk become 'Nathaniel Hawthorne' and to infiltrating Faro's gang of thugs, as well as finding enough evidence to not only get Faro charged and indicted, but hopefully also convicted. It hadn't been until after his extraction that Hawk had learned the dark secret that had been hidden from him: that Keevan Faro was the man responsible for so much of the pain and misery in his short life. Though he had long suspected Dorian of knowing such well in advance, he hadn't been able to communicate with him at all since the whole thing had begun, nor since his time on Republic.

Part of Hawk was still angry with Dorian for having kept such a significant detail from him. Indeed, when he had first found out in the wake of his extraction from cover and the 'tragic' circumstances of the demise of 'Nathaniel Hawthorne' he had been prepared to beat the hell out of the older man when they finally did cross paths again. In the past 14 months aboard Republic though, he'd come to realize why Dorian had kept that key detail from him, and his anger had tapered off into an annoying resentment instead. Of all the pseudo-father figures Nathan Hawk had had since his actual father's death though, Tom Dorian was the one who'd understood him and what drove him better than any of the others.

“Yer a bastard, ya know that?” Hawk finally asked the older man.

“Guilty as charged.” Dorian conceded.

Glancing around the courtroom, Hawk asked the only other question on his mind. “So what now, boss?”

Leaning in close to Hawk, Dorian replied through a satisfied grin, “Now we nail that piece of shit for everything he's ever done.”

Chapter 17: Games of Thought and WordTop

It had taken the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon for Nathan Hawk and Tom Dorian to go over everything with a fine-toothed comb. Both men had been preparing for this day in some fashion for so long though that it was almost unnecessary. Still, with so much at stake neither wanted to see things derailed due to lack of preparation. The case against Faro was as near to air-tight as an airlock. In addition to his testimony, Hawk had already provided corroborating data evidence when he had been extracted from the assignment. Neither the data nor his testimony stood on their own merits without the other; only in tandem did they prove Faro's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The likely schedule of events for the next few days was the only thing still somewhat vague, as trials tended to be, with the only thing set in stone being that things would kick off the next day at 0930 hours. Everything else was fairly well up in the air, though Dorian didn't expect the trial to last more than a few days at most. Tom had wanted to add charges of murder, attempted murder, and witness tampering to those already levied against Faro for the attack aboard Republic, but with the assassin deceased and the individual responsible for that death an apparent black-ops agent that herself was no longer available, there was nothing definitive linking the incident directly to Faro.

At just after 1400 hours, the prosecutor and his star witness completed their business for the day and parted ways, Dorian summoning Captain Roth through the com-net in order to go over her testimony. Based on the brief spark of chemistry he had witnessed between the two earlier, Nat could only presume his old friend Tom Dorian would find some manner of excuse to pursue a less professional agenda as well. All he could hope for as he exited into the corridor and found himself once again found himself flanked by a security detachment was that Dorian wouldn't lose interest too quickly as he tended to do. Noting that his detail had been reduced from the squadron of six to a much more reasonable two, he considered who had been assigned to him.

The first of his 'shadows' was a tall and bulky Lurian male whose thick skull was adorned by golden locks of hair pulled back into a simple pony-tail. Nearly half a meter taller than him and twice the weight, Hawk doubted much besides a photon grenade could take the hulking alien down easily. The other of Hawk's assigned escorts appeared to be a Human of large build at first glance - except for a small tattoo directly next to his left eye. Though tattoos were not uncommon amongst humans, they rarely tended to be placed at such a prominent location unless or tribal or religious reasons; neither of which struck Hawk as the case with the stern-looking broad-shouldered individual in question.

“Thought I might get some lunch and catch up with ma colleagues,” he informed his escorts, having no idea where to go on his own even if he had been allowed to.

“This way, sir,” replied the Human-looking security officer, the senior officer of the duo who wore the rank of a junior lieutenant - his Lurian colleague wearing the insignia of an ensign.

Following in his escorts wake, Hawk tried to place the context of the tattoo as they made their way through the indistinguishable corridors of Ananke Alpha. Spending the past few hours in the company of an old friend like Tom Dorian had helped to alleviate the somber sense of foreboding that had been following him around like a dark cloud since Republic had first received the encoded orders that had brought the vessel and a tenth of her crew here. Though he knew the events of the next few days held a great importance for not only himself, but the whole of the Federation as well as anyone whose life was touched by the Orion Syndicate, the reality that this moment was finally at hand seemed to be lifting an awful weight from his shoulders.

He knew that tomorrow would be a different story, though. That if anything this momentary relief was little more than the calm before the storm. Tomorrow, for first time in his life, he would come face to face with the man responsible for so much pain and death since he had found out whom that individual was. He couldn't help but think back to his time spent undercover, much of which had been in Faro's company. It made him sick to realize he had laughed with the man, shared drinks with him, even done his bidding. He remembered how stupid he had felt after his extraction, that he hadn't somehow sensed the evil that lurked within Keevan Faro. He knew it would be a challenge to present himself as a proper witness. 'Hell,' he thought to himself, 'it'll be a challenge not ta try an beat the son of a bitch ta death with ma bare hands.'

Coming to a halt at a turbolift alcove, he once again studied the colored tattoo adorning one of his shadows. Knowing he wasn't going to be able to piece together it's context without a little more information, he went fishing. “So the two uh ya gonna be ma 'shadows' fer whenever I'm here, 'er do ya swap out t'marrow?”

Though he had been looking at the tattooed senior officer of the duo, it was the lumbering nearly neck-less ensign who offered a response. “Escorts are typically assigned to an individual for the duration, sir. Substitutions are frowned upon unless deemed absolutely necessary. It complicates a number of our procedures.”

As the turbolift arrived and the junior lieutenant lead the way inside, Hawk remembered how talkative Lurians could be, and found himself astonished and significantly lucky to have received such a brief response. He also realized he'd made a strategic error by leaving his question open-ended as to whom he had been addressing. His next question though, should provide him with at least a crumb of additional information to go on. “So do I get ta know yer names, 'er is that against 'procedure'?” he asked as the lift began to move. He knew that even if the Lurian was the one to reply, he would still gain a bit of insight more into his other shadow's genetic heritage.

“I'm Ensign Nort, sir, and this is Lieutenant Ragnar.” replied the Lurian - Nort - as he gestured to his colleague. The aliens bulbous head and limited range of motion required him to turn slightly at the waist to accomplish the simple gesture.

“Alright then,” Hawk offered simply in reply before asking, “Guessin' ya'll ready know ma name?”

“We've been fully briefed, sir.” Nort replied succinctly.

Something about the way the alien ensign had said those words, something in his tone combined by the setting of their location - aboard Ananke Alpha - didn't sit well with Nat Hawk. In truth, the entire facility gave him the creeps as he was sure it did the rest of his Republic brethren. While he couldn't argue with a need for a facility like this to exist, the harsh reality of experiencing such personally was far removed from such a place simply being a theoretical. Everything here was simply to well thought out. To well prepared for. Nothing was taken for granted or left to chance in a place like this, and nothing was random or done without a complex reason.

“Whad'ya mean when ya say ya bin 'fully briefed'?” the Helmsman finally asked, his curiosity piqued.

Exchanging looks between themselves, the more talkative subordinate was not the one to offer a response this time. Rather such came from the tattooed junior lieutenant Ragnar. “Escorts are assigned based upon a number of criteria.”

No doubt hoping the response would be sufficient, Ragnar left it at that. Hawk did not.

“Such as?” he queried as the lift came to a halt, and Ragnar lead the way out into the featureless corridor beyond. Hawk couldn't help but wonder how much information he could get before he was shut down with some typically lame bureaucratic bullshit excuse such as something being 'need to know' or some other damn thing.

“In the case of a fellow officer, the background information that's used to judge whom on staff would be… complimentary… is usually reserved to service record, genetic heritage, psychiatric profile. Protocol only allows us to dig deeper if an individual has any history of disciplinary incidents, non-standard training or extra-starfleet experience. Things of that nature.” Ragnar offered, trying and failing to sound as if he wasn't annoyed with the question.

As the trio rounded a sharp bend, Hawk voiced what had come to mind as Ragnar had been speaking. “In other words, non-cookie cutter folks like maself…”

As they came to a halt outside a large pair of double-wide doors, Ragnar turned and stood toe-to-toe with the Republic helmsman for a long moment. Though Hawk wasn't certain, it seemed as if Ragnar was hoping and intending his physical stature to be imposing or intimidating. Finally, he offered a chilly but simple reply. “Yes sir. Individuals exactly like yourself.”

Neither he nor Hawk broke eye contact as Ragnar interacted with a semi-transparent holo-keypad near the door frame, entering a quick sequence that parted the doors down the middle. Clearly practiced at hiding his emotions, Ragnar never the less let seep through just enough to make a statement without actually doing so. Had it been a game of poker, Hawk would have read the alien as bluffing.

It wasn't poker though.

Never having been one to back down, Hawk played the only card he could (loath as he was to do it) and the only one Ragnar seemed likely to respect. He played the rank card given to him by his grade increase over the other man. “Ya got a problem with me, lieutenant?”

Pausing just long enough to make it clear that what he felt and what he said were total opposites, the thinnest wisp of a smile permeated Ragnar's features as he replied simply. “No sir, Lieutenant.”

Taking a deliberate step closer, Hawk sensed Ragnar raise his guard instinctively, almost as if anticipating attack. Lowering his voice to just above a whisper, he leaned in even closer to the alien lieutenant as he said, “Whatever ya think ya know 'bout me, all ya really know is what ya think.”

Hearing the evidence of group chatter coming from within the open doorway, and feeling the ebb of unease coming from the Lurian ensign Nort whom obviously didn't want to be caught in the middle of whatever beef his partner-superior had with his protectee-superior, Hawk opted to let the matter settle. He didn't know what, specifically, was at the heart of Ragnar's dislike of him, nor did he particularly care. He had known this type of officer before, though. Pain in the ass though he would be to have to deal with over the next few days, he would first and foremost due his duty. Even if that was in conflict with his personal feelings.

Turning his back to Ragnar in a single quick motion that let the other man know just how little he was threatened by him, Hawk moved forward into the mess hall.

To his surprise, Nat found himself entering a rather comfortable looking split-level facility that looked totally out of place within the bounds of Ananke Alpha. Though the walls and decking continued to be rather drab in their basic tones and textures, they were thankfully augmented by at least a half-dozen large holo-screen projections showing different spatial vistas in lieu of actual view ports. The center of the room seemed relegated for dining at fairly regulation tables and chairs, but the outer perimeter of the room offered much more relaxed circumstances. Plush couches and comfortable arm chairs set around coffee tables, potted plants and flowers, and even some gaming tables including dabo, table-top pareses squares, pool, and dom-jot surrounded them.

“Hot damn,” he exclaimed, “how come we ain't got a mess hall like this?” he asked rhetorically.

“Would you really trade fully equipped holodecks and the arboretum for a couple of game tables and extra couches?” asked a familiar voice from behind him - that of Doctor Leon Cromwell.

Turning towards his friend, Hawk looked upon him with disbelief, “Yer tellin' me they ain't even got holodecks?”

Leon shrugged his shoulders as he took a sip from a half-empty glass of something green, “Not decent ones, from what I've been told. They've got a half-dozen holosuites, but they mainly only feature generic and specifically approved nature scenes with an emphasis on safety protocols, for the 'residents' of Ananke Alpha to get humanitarian-mandated exercise time.”

Hawk couldn't help but roll his eyes at the very prospect of such a sterile and lack-luster holographic experience. “Remind me never ta request a transfer ta this place, will ya?”

“Oh I wouldn't worry about that,” Leon replied, nodding at different groups of uniformed officers around the room and their near identical uniform divisionary colors, “from what I've been told, seventy-five percent of the personnel here are security, twenty percent are engineers, and a whopping five percent medical.”

Never the best at math, Hawk still wasn't that bad. “An the other five percent?”

Taking another sip of his drink, Leon glanced from side to side in an almost suspicious manner then lowered his voice as he answered. “Honestly? No one will say, and the more I think about it, the less I want to know.”

His own volume lowered to match, Hawk proffered, “SI? Black-shirts?”

Shrugging once again, Leon shook his head ambiguously, “Like I said, the more I think on it, the less I want to know.”

Knowing that Captain Roth was currently meeting with Dorian, and spotting John Carter engaged in discussion with Commander Akeen, Nat found the person he had most expected to find here was the only one not present. “Where's Leah?” he questioned.

“Your girlfriend must have some friends in high places,” remarked the Doctor, finishing off the last of his beverage, “despite everything else, our location, the total com-blackout this place seems to exist within, she's somehow arranged for a life conference call with her dear old dad.”

Surprised to say the least, Hawk also found himself uncomfortable with the idea of Leah off somewhere on her own on this warped and twisted house of paranoia, away from either himself or one of the Republic crew he trusted. “How long she bin gone?”

Nodding in thanks as he deposited his empty glass onto the accepting tray of a crewmen assigned to galley staff, Leon answered, “Only about twenty minutes or so.”

Knowing how much her father's affiliation with Vladimir Kostya had been weighing on her, despite her efforts to keep such from him in order to be supportive, Nat resisted his impulse to rush off and find her. She had more than kept her head in the most dire of moments on Ash'aaria, had spent time 'in the trenches' during the Dominion war. She was more than capable of taking care of herself aboard a Starfleet installation, no matter how 'black-bag' it may be. Realizing he would likely be spending the better part of the rest of the day here and still feeling a bit more relaxed than he had in quite a while, Nat decided to make himself at home. Eyeing the pool table like a predator eyes prey, he set off in that direction, wondering aloud, “Anybody wanna lose some latinum?”

Chapter 18: Messages From EarthTop

Location: Guest quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

Leah Warner paced back and forth in front of the combination desk and work station that she couldn't see a use for just now. With Republic's return to the Alpha Quadrant, there were some things that the IIN reporter had expected to do. There were also things she was technically contractually OBLIGATED to do. However, since nearly all those things involved using sub-space to talk to other people, she couldn't do any of them, thanks to the nearly impenetrable comms blackout around Ananke Alpha.

In her mind, Leah knew the reason for all the security. It was a near miracle that any non-Starfleet personnel, to say nothing of a reporter, had been allowed to learn of the Federation's “supermax” prison, much less be allowed inside, but Leah Warner was nothing if not lucky, and this was her chance to cover a truly historic moment.

Leah had resigned herself to taking copious notes and recording everything about the trial of Kevan Faro, and it had already been made crystal clear to her by Minister T'Lau that any and all mention of the particulars regarding Ananke Alpha would be left out of her dispatches to her editors back on Earth. Leah rolled her eyes as she contemplated the idea of her reporting being reviewed, redacted, and reduced to useless by someone who probably knew for certain they were doing 'The Right Thing' in keeping secrets from the wider Federation public. The more she paced, the madder Leah Warner got. The madder she got, the more confused she became regarding her urgent summons back to Republic. About the only thing she was glad of at the moment was to be off the secret, spherical station, and away from her 'shadows'. Still, with the trial currently bogged down in legal necessities and paperwork that didn't require her attention, she was happy for the reprieve.

Leah shuddered as she thought of the guards which had become her closest companions, literally, since stepping onboard Ananke Alpha. She ran her fingers through her hair as she found herself asking questions about them. She was sure they had names and families and lives of their own, but unlike some of the more gregarious members of Republic's crew, her boyfriend included, she had no real desire to know what the details of those lives might be. Especially if she couldn't tell anyone about any of it.

Leah slapped her hand against the dark panel of the desktop. “What the frinx am I even doing here?” She wondered allowed. She was there to document a story that, no matter what it's significance, she would likely never be able to share.

The reporter's shoulders slumped as she huffed again in frustration. “Dad wouldn't stand for this.” She commented to no one. “He'd find a way. He'd get the story out, but how?”

Leah added that question to the list that was quickly overflowing her brain. She was fast approaching the conclusion that it was all too much, that she was in over her head, when the comm. system beeped.

“Operations to Miss Warner.”

Leah tilted her head in surprise at hearing Cail Jarin's voice.

“I'm here as instructed, Lieutenant.” She explained. “Can you tell me what this is all about?”

“Afraid not, Ma'am. Minister T'Lau has authorized a twelve minute conversation over subspace. She's also asked me to inform you that you WILL be monitored. The other party also knows this.”

Leah braced herself against the desktop, looking down at the Starfleet symbol blazing on the now active display panel. “Who's the other party?”

“Unknown, Ma'am. Transmission is being routed through the station. Twelve minutes begins now.”

An instant later the Starfleet symbol was replaced with the IIN logo, and Leah Warner smiled as she thought of all the things she COULD tell her editor. “Oh, Max, thank God!” She began before she even looked to see who was actually on the other end of the call. “I wanted to check in before we got Shanghaied, but I wasn't sure of the message even made it to…”

Her voice trailed off as she saw the face of the legendary Jack Warner, who also had the singular distinction of being the attractive reporter's father.


“Well hi, Lemon Drop.” Jack answered with a practiced smile on his face. “I was hoping to give you a welcome home, but if you'd rather talk to your editor instead of the old man…”

Leah smiled and shook her head. “No, no, that's not it at all, it just…I thought this was a business call, or an emergency. Are you all right?”

Jack nodded. “Fine, honey. Just fine, but when you hadn't checked in, I was a bit concerned. We'd heard from Fleet sources that Republic was back in civilization, so when you didn't call, well, let's just say I pulled a few strings.”

“Trust you to work an angle, Daddy.” She said warmly. “You know we're being monitored, right?”

“They told me, yes. Just wanted to make sure you were ok.” Jack held up his hands. “Guilty as charged, I guess, but hey, I'm a father first, right?”

“I guess.” Leah said somewhat flatly. “It's…it's good to see you Dad.” She said, her expression softening a little. “Sorry, but, I was having enough trouble figuring out what a COULD and COULDN'T tell Max. You've kind of caught me with my guard down.”

Jack Warner looked at his daughter with an appraising eye. “Come on, Leah,” Jack offered. “I taught you better than that.”

Leah shook her head wearily. “Do as I say, not as I do, huh?”

Jack's eyes widened in legitimate surprise. He hadn't expected nearly so much exhaustion or venom from his daughter. It was clear to him that what he thought was going to be a happy reunion, subspace not withstanding, was going to turn out to be something else entirely. Quickly, he regained his composure. “What's THAT supposed to mean?”

Leah folded her arms across her chest, to accent the hurt she could feel bubbling up to the surface. “Saw the last set of numbers. Your boy's doing pretty well. Better and better every week.”

“My…” Now it was making sense, and Jack allowed a brief nod before his performer's composure returned. “You want to talk about the campaign? Now?”

Leah threw up her arms in frustration. “Well it's not like we can talk about what's going on HERE!”

“Honey, calm down. I know I retired, but the network asked me to do a series, and I don't get to do a lot of in-depth stuff anymore so…”

“He's a monster, Dad! The man's a fascist, racist sonofabitch, and YOU'RE helping him!”

Jack's face was a mask of professional stoicism. Part of him new this day might come. After all, his daughter was no fool. However, she was also prone to romantic notions; not unlike her mother, now that Jack thought of it, and that meant that she sometimes let her emotions run a little too close to the surface for his taste. He had to tread carefully, especially on a channel he had no control over.

“I don't think I like what you're implying, Leah.”

“I'm not 'IMPLYING' anything!” Leah's voice was a full throated roar now. “I saw the candidate profiles! You might have the public eating out of your hand, but…”

She paused, letting her hands rest on her hips, a non-verbal cue that she believed she had the upper hand in the exchange. “Are you forgetting that I produce media for a living?” She asked, not waiting for an answer. “They were good, Dad, I'll give you that. Especially the camera trick with Councilman Dohltari, but don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining!”

Jack sat back in his chair, content to let his daughter's emotional storm pass. 'Better to let her do the work than try and get her to calm down'. He thought. 'Let her rant and rave. That gives me the high ground'. He heard his opening in the quaint turn of phrase she'd just used.

“Piss down your…” He nodded, grimly. “Ah. I get it now.” He said knowingly.

“Get WHAT?” Leah shot back.

“You're too involved with them.” He explained. “Sounds to me like you've 'gone native'.”

Leah blinked for a moment, not sure what had just happened.

Jack Warner shook his head. “I have to say I'm a little surprised.” He offered. Then her scratched at his chin in a gesture of contemplation. “You shouldn't fall for a source, Leah.”

Leah blinked again. “Fall for…” Then she shook her head. “Oh no…no, no. This is NOT about me. I'm not the one compromising a lifetime of work for a little political pull!”

“No,” Jack answered dispassionately. “If you're not careful, you wont even get that far.”

Leah fought back tears as she heard the disappointment in her father's voice. She knew what she'd seen. She knew she was right, and she knew that she trusted Nat Hawk's word, regardless of his roguish bravado. If Nat said Kostya was bad news, then he was. She trusted Nat's word, the same way she'd once trusted her father's, and it hurt like Hell that she could feel herself making a choice.

Leah Warner knew what her father was doing. Knew that he was sacrificing principles he'd once told her HIMSELF were inviolate. Yet, somehow, the idea of her father disapproving of her conduct made her want to take it all back, at least for an instant. Could she have read too much into what she'd seen? Was she too quick to take Nate's side, just because he was Nate?. 'God help me,' she thought. 'Is he right'?

Jack simply shook his head. He'd seen it countless times. A beautiful, ambitious woman willing to take risks and rise to the top of her profession. Only to throw it all away because she let her hormones override common sense. How many one-time greats had he seen go down to scandal or ridicule, simply because they couldn't keep their focus? Keep their emotions in check? There was a time when he'd thought his daughter was above all that. Clearly, he was mistaken. He was just like the rest of them. Just like…her.

“Hmph.” Jack grumbled aloud. Then his thoughts continued to race. Emotions. That had to be it. Which meant there was only one soul in the universe to blame for the current state his daughter was in.

“Leah, I'm sorry. I didn't want to upset you. This is all my fault.” He said, his words consoling but patronizing at the same time.

'Her mother!' Jack thought. 'This is because of her! Damn degenerate genes, that's what it is. That's what it has to be.'

“Just tell me why, Dad? I want to understand, that's all.”

Jack shook his head disapprovingly. “There's nothing to tell, Leah.” He explained. “Except that I'm worried you've lost focus. You've got a story, or so Max says. Just don't go looking for one that isn't there.”

Leah couldn't hold the tears back any longer. They streamed down her face as though they were burning hot scars into her cheeks. “Daddy…please.” She begged, not even sure why she was doing it.

Jack leaned forward, placing his elbows on his own desk. “I doubt I'll be able to talk to you again, until you're done with…whatever you're doing,” he said smoothly. “But if you can, I think you should call your mother. She'd like to hear from you.”

Then the channel went dead.

Leah Warner stood sobbing at the desk. How had it come to this? How had things turned to clay so fast? She'd been so certain, but now…even she had to admit that she was a mess, and perhaps her father was right. She couldn't maintain objectivity while she was sleeping with a source. Inwardly, she cursed herself for what any journalism student could see was a rookie mistake. That did not, however, make her father's rebuke hurt any less.

In the shadows of his office, now made more intense with the view screen off, Jack Warner leaned back in his chair. He steepled his fingers and scowled. The veteran newsman felt his stomach turn as he thought of how far his daughter had fallen. To Jack Warner, his only child had represented the best thing he'd ever done. He realized now however that he'd been fooling himself. Despite his best efforts he'd been unable to overcome the girl's innate flaws.

There was no denying it any longer. His daughter, even with all his nurturing, the education HE'D provided and all the work he'd done was nothing more than an alien who couldn't see how good she'd had it. She was an alien, like her mother, and now, she was reverting to type.

“Typical”. Warner said to the empty room. “They're all the same”. Then he stopped for a moment. In his mind, he hadn't told his daughter anything that wasn't true. Her loss of perspective WAS her mother's doing. However, the original sin was Jack's. In a moment of weakness, years ago, Jack had let a scheming, manipulating alien whore turn his head. “This is all my fault.”

Jack had hoped that, since Leah's mother wasn't fully Betazoid, her human genes would win out, certainly with the right encouragement. Now, however, he could see that there was no middle ground. Even the slightest hint of alien corruption was too much, and that made them more dangerous than ever.

Out of habit, Jack continued talking to the darkness. “Don't worry Lemon Drop. In spite of everything, I love you, and I'm going to give you a future. Even if you don't deserve it.”

Location: First officer's quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

There were times when John Carter hated Starfleet regulations. There were other times when it worked in his favor. Despite the amazing level of security that existed around Ananke Alpha, and Administrator T'Lau's insistence that no on leave the station for the duration of Republic's stay, Kim Roth had been adamant that the few officers she had left under her command, would faithfully execute their duties.

This was clearly not the way the Administrator normally operated, and as John had expected for a Vulcan, the woman made her case with indisputable logic and common sense.

Kim Roth, however, had Starfleet regulations on her side.

The negotiations had been swift. With the concession that anyone specifically called to testify during Kevan Faro's trial would not leave Ananke Alpha until the matter was concluded, Captain Roth had pointed out that her ship would be left without a flag officer on board, unless at least one member of her Command Staff was allowed to take command of alpha shift. The ship would not maneuver. The ship would make no transmissions… but a senior officer must be allowed to maintain what Roth had called 'good order and discipline'. Carter had also noted that if Roth could out-argue a Vulcan, she was more formidable than even HE already knew.

It was a bit of a stretch to be sure, but the Administrator had agreed nonetheless. Practically, it also meant that only John Carter would be allowed to transit back and forth, as he was the senior most officer on Republic not involved in the death and resurrection of Nat Hawk.

Roth had organized it.

Leon had certified Nat dead.

Hawk had BEEN dead.

They would all be testifying in some way, shape, or form. Only Carter had been left, deliberately, out of the loop.

Now, he was on his way to the bridge, to sit on the bridge, and watch nothing happen. Still, he was glad to be back on board.

John straightened the fit of his uniform over-tunic on his shoulders when the comm. system chirped to life.

“Operations to Commander Carter.”

“Mister Jarin?” Carter called to the disembodied voice, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Umm, sorry to bother you Sir, but we just got a personal communication addressed to you. The Administrator has cleared it…”

“But?” Carter asked, as he set his hands on his hips.

“But it didn't come through Fleet channels, Sir. it's got a Romulan authentication prefix.”

“Romulan?” He asked, pleased that Jarin hadn't actually confirmed the previous statement. A personal message from a Romu… “Aww Hell.” He cursed. “Put it through. Carter out.”

John didn't wait for the Ops Chief to acknowledge the order. An instant later, his screen filled with the image of a Romulan, dressed in civilian clothing. A rough scar ran across his chiseled face, giving him a permanent, angry scowl. His hair was gray and a lot longer than would be expected of a Romulan. The lights behind him were dim, enough to see that he was not alone but not enough to reveal details.

It took Carter a few minutes to recognize the face; the last time he had seen it was when he'd been serving aboard the Valiant II. The Romulan looked pretty good for someone who'd had had a ship fly through his drive singularity.


The Romulan shook his head. “It's just Tomaleth now.” He corrected. Then he tried his best to smile. “Greetings Commander Carter. It is good to see you well. You appear to be hail and healthy, none the worse for wear after all these years.”

“Well,” Carter commented, “That's not entirely true, but it's nice of you to say.”

“Not at all, Commander. You see, I've spent a great deal of time following your career, at least when I have been able to find mention of you. For a moment I had thought your famous luck may have finally run out. All that unfortunate Gorn business, but I see that, once more, you were able to fly your way out of trouble.”

“I'm at a bit of a loss, Tomaleth,” Carter admitted. “I can't admit to being nearly so interested in you.” The Romulan winced as Carter continued. “Perhaps you could refresh my memory?”

Tometh paused, letting his mask of stability slip back into place. “Your, bravado, got you out of our last meeting, but left me, how shall I say, with a permanent mark, on my career. It did take to long before I was forced to resign my commission. Fortunately I had some influence and was able to avoid any major repercussions.”

A bit more comfortable now, Carter let his posture shift, folding his arms across his chest. “There's no denying you wear it well,” he commented, “but if you'll excuse me, I'm sure I have something important to do, if you wouldn't mind?”

On the other side of the screen, Tomaleth smiled. This was the arrogant man he'd been hoping to see again, and he was determined not to be taken for a fool again. He reminded himself to keep his considerable temper in check. Despite the Martian's bating, he continued. “I also had a few friends, John, may I call you John?”

Carter nodded.

“Friends, by the way, that YOU helped make my staunchest supporters.”


“You see John, your actions killed 362 good crewmen. None of them had a chance. I barely survived myself. My Sub-Commander gave his life to get me into an escape pod. Only twelve of us survived – twelve John. They're with me now. As is someone you might know.”

“Look,” Carter offered, not showing the same patience his Romulan counterpart had. “I think you've made a mistake, if you think I in any way feel bad about doing my job.”

Rather than answer, Tomaleth moved away from the screen. The lights in the room slowly increased in intensity, revealing Sean McTaggart. The former Republic crewman was strapped to a rather insidious looking chair. It was also clear that Sean had not been treated at all politely. A nasty cut on his scalp still dripped blood slowly.

“As I said John I've watched you. I paid the right people and learned as much as I could about you. Imagine my surprise when I discovered one of your crewmen wandering around in some rather dark shadows. I knew that this was the perfect time to reach out and reconnect.”

“Holding a Federation citizen is an act of war. Hurting him? That's just plain stupid.” Carter spat at the screen. “If you know me as well as you think you do, then ask yourself…do you really think blackmail is the way to go?”

Seemingly unmoved, Tomaleth walked slowly towards the barely conscious McTaggart, and produced an odd looking device from just off screen.

“I borrowed this from a Breen associate.” The Romulan explained. “It's so elegant in it's design. It causes the neurons in the brain to react as if something were trying to tear them to shreds.”

Despite his almost primal urge to reach through the screen and free Sean McTaggart, John gritted his teeth, forcing himself to breath, trying to remain calm. “You've clearly been misinformed, Tomaleth,” John offered. “I'm afraid I don't know that man.”

With a small smile, the Romulan pressed the device against McTaggart's arm. Immediately the security officer's entire body convulsed and a ragged scream tore from his throat. There was no doubt he was now fully conscious.

Despite the pain, Sean managed to choke out a few words. “Commander…sir? Don…it's…tra…” The last words trailed off as Sean slipped back into unconsciousness.

“Lying is beneath you, John,” the Romulan commented, pulling the Breen device from McTaggart's skin. “That looks extremely painful. Nonetheless, I will continue to do that to your crewman, every hour. Until you arrive at the following co-ordinates. If you show up to late, no doubt he will die.”

Carter huffed, his temper flaring despite the fact that his mind was racing to find something, ANYTHING to work with. The last he knew, McTaggart had been in the company of Douglas Forrest, so one of two things had happened. Either Forrest was dead, something John was loathe to admit, or he was alive. If the Blackshirt WAS alive, then he had a plan, which meant John had to swallow his pride and trust a man he didn't really like. In any case, he wasn't willing to give Tomaleth anything more than he already had.

John squinted at the screen as the Romulan's coordinates were displayed in the corner of the screen. The Martian shook his head. “I'll drink to his memory then,” Carter said as coldly as he could manage, “because there's NO WAY I can make it to that sector of space in under sixteen hours.”

Inwardly, Carter was screaming. 'Something, you scarred freak! Give me something!'

“If that's the case, John, then perhaps I will find others you care about? Your doctor friends, Cromwell or Harris? Or perhaps I could pay Mr. Virtus a visit.”

It was all Carter could do not to smirk as the Romulan over-played his hand. In a flash, John replayed what his enemy had just said. It would have to be up to Forrest to save Sean if anyone was going to. As for the others Tomaleth had mentioned? Leon was locked up tight inside Ananke Alpha, no need to worry there.

Victor? John knew the Malthusian always had a plan. If there was ANYONE who could take care of himself, it was the First Lord of Engines.

No. Tomaleth had mentioned Shannon, and to Carter, that meant the Romulan truly had erred. He didn't know what she was. That gave Carter the edge. “Nice try, Centurion!” John thundered, his temper working to help sell his deception. “But there's no way I'm letting you get to Shannon!”

Tomaleth looked up at the screen in genuine surprise. “Shannon, is it?” The Vulcanoid sneered. “I see.”

“No! No, wait!”

The Romulan shook his head. “I believe you've decided John,” he advised. “Say good-bye to Shannon now.”

Tomaleth looked directly at the vid-receptor as the screen went black.

“No.” Carter smiled as he looked at the blank screen. “PLEASE don't throw me in that briar patch.”

Chapter 19: Criss-crossTop

“The funny thing about tracking down a fellow operative in the field is that you can't use the same tactics you were both taught during your training together. If your compatriot has any brains, they'll be using the same methods to hide their tracks that you use to find them. Under such circumstances, the ancient tactics from a traditional game of poker should be applied carefully, and only if you can keep from showing your hand to anybody. Of course, if you have no cards to show, so much the better…“

-LTCR Douglas Forrest, personal log entry while serving about the Valiant II

Location: Farius Prime

Because Saal changed the intermix settings on the Shuttlecraft Heinz to beyond Starfleet specifications, he was able to coax the engines to operate at a speed of warp 5. This was well beyond the design rating of warp 3, and while good for speed, it substantially decreased the life expectancy of the engine system overall, increasing the chance of becoming stranded in deep space. Fortunately, as he entered the Farius system, the super-heated nacelles remained intact, and their temperatures dropped back to within a nominal range as the communications system crackled to life.

“Farius traffic control to Transport Shuttle Galavant. Respond please.”

Saal smiled as he realized the Cardassian transponder signal was operating as designed.

“Galavant here. Go ahead.”

“Your transponder signal reads as a non-trade guild registry. State your intentions in this system.”

“I just finished a year-long courier contract on Ferenginar. I can transmit my waypoint logs to confirm. I'm here seeking new clientele, and request landing clearance.”

A moment passed where Saal assumed the controller reviewed the waypoint logs. The doctor fidgeted nervously, hoping they were up to specs. About thirty seconds later, the positive response was transmitted.

“Galavant: Your registry has been cleared through approach control. Landing rights have been granted for docking bay thirty-six at the south spaceport in Maltabra City. You're to proceed through customs upon your arrival.”

“Acknowledged. Galavant out.”

As the Republic shuttle-in-disguise maneuvered into the proper airspace, the dirty, drab streets of Maltabra City splayed out below while the craft made a straight-in approach to the required docking bay. It took seven bars of latinum to get a promise from the dockmaster's assistant that the shuttle would be secured properly, and not tampered with during it's stay. On top of that, another three bars went to bribing the customs officials, who might have put him in jail if they had found the type-II hand phaser in his luggage. Fortunately, about the only other thing on Farius Prime that got customs in a rage was the illicit trade in red ice, and since Saal was neither user nor dealer of the illegal narcotic, it was easier for him to steer clear of that trouble. After transferring another portion of his gold-pressed latinum into paper currency at the exchange, the doctor exited the spaceport on foot to continue his quest to find Doug Forrest.

Before long, Saal found himself wandering through the Maltabra City's famous bazaar district, intermingled with a sea of nondescript faces. It was exactly what he had hoped for: anonymity. No one knew him, nor did they care he was there. All they cared about was the money in his pocket as the merchants hocked their wares, offering him everything from a new suit, to a chess set made of Praxian feldspar. He wanted nothing from these barterers, and ignored them in search of the one place he knew he friend would have visited: The Galldean Roost.

As a local saloon, it wasn't as prominent as many of the other gin-joints in the city, but it's one unique quality was what led Saal to it's doors: The front was in the shape of a giant fruit resembling a pineapple. In their early days as intelligence cadets, Doug and Saal had a game of who could find the most obnoxious looking bar-front in the town closest to their training center (they attended at least a dozen throughout their academy career). As it happened, such a place was usually associated with a local fruit. Whether it was the Cherry Bar in Mannheim, the Kumquat Retreat in Tanzania, or the Plomeek Sunset on Vulcan, they all possessed a gaudy facade that eventually caused the two young cadets to temporarily declare it as their new hangout until they were eventually reassigned, in which case their game would start all over again.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the game ended when Saal quit intelligence and entered the medical field, never to be assigned again with his comrade Dragon. As he stood before the Galldean Roost, he sighed with nostalgia remembering the old memories, and hoping that his hunch of picking up Forrest's trail here would show color. Entering the establishment, the cliche scene of hushed conversation coming to an abrupt halt washed over the crowd as they turned to look at the newcomer. For his part, Saal warily considered them before pulling up the collar on his leather jacket, and began making his way to the bar.

The doctor strolled up to the counter amid stares and whispers, which eventually gave way to the humdrum conversation once again when the patrons realized he wasn't there to make trouble… yet. The Dopterian bartender cast Saal a wary eye as he wiped up a spilled drink on the countertop.

“Something I can get you, stranger?” the hoarse alien asked.

“I'm hoping you can provide some information,” Saal replied.

“Information ain't for free in this town, human. You'll have to make it worth my while.”

Sliding a small wad of Farian cash onto the bartop, the bearded surgeon looked around, making sure no one was noticing how much money he was carrying. The alien across the counter looked down at the offering before meeting his benefactor's gaze.

“For that little amount, I can give a directions to the nearest whore-house, and that's about it.”

His irritation rising, Saal slapped a bar of latinum on top of the cash wad, hoping it would stir a positive response.

“Better,” the alien scrutinized the ante. “If you buy a couple of drinks on top of that, we might be able to do business.”

His face going deadpan, Saal pushed his tongue into his cheek before revealing only a touch of indignation. Slapping down a few Farian coins, he muttered through gritted teeth, “Lorian Ale, on the rocks.”

“Hmm,” the server grunted, marginally dissastified with Saal's attitude. After pouring the requested elixir, he sat the cup down in front of the doctor and leaned over to close the distance for privacy. “You have my undivided attention,” he added with a touch of sarcasm.

Producing a small PADD from his belt, Saal showed the bartender a picture of Doug Forrest. “Have you seen this man?”

The alien's normally rusty skin tones turned a sepia after glancing at the picture. Several times he looked between Saal and the computerized image, his eyes growing more nervous as the gears in his head were turning ever faster. Saal could clearly see that he knew exactly who the image was.

“Where?” pressed the Republic surgeon. “When did you see him? How long ago?”

“I… I can't help you, stranger,” he pushed away from the counter.

Saal Yezbeck had had enough. Putting the PADD back into his belt, he inhaled deeply with exasperation before grabbing the barkeep by the collar, and pulling him forcefully over the counter. Flipping him over onto his back, he slammed the individual onto the floor, pulled out his type-II phaser, and pointed it at the alien's head. For his part, the server froze upon sighting down the muzzle. With the conversation in the saloon coming to a halt, all eyes were on the two individuals.

“Now that I truly DO have your undivided attention,” seethed Saal while maintaining a target-lock on the the bartender. “Let's hear the RIGHT answer. Again… WHERE and WHEN did you see this man?”

Before an answer came, Saal felt a swift leg kick into his gut from an unknown assailant, and before he knew what was happening, his knees fell out from under him in a carefully maneuvered leg sweep. In a moment's flash, he was on the floor himself, looking upwards into the face of a young Bajoran woman in a martial arts stance over him. Quickly, he tried to aim his phaser at the woman, but to no avail. Her skills were much more refined, and in an instant, he was disarmed, and pushed back to the ground in an arm lock.

“You want me to take this piece of trash outside, Brannon?” the woman asked the bartender, who was picking himself up off the floor.

“Definitely!” came the reply. “But take him out back. I don't want to scare the customers out front.”

Letting Saal go, the woman brought his phaser to bear, motioning for him to move towards the door. Embarrassed, and sporting a bloody lip, the doctor was forced to walk out into the back alley, where the Bajoran woman sized him up after closing the door.

“Either you're REALLY stupid, or REALLY desperate,” she said with intimidation while forcefully pointing the phaser at the Republic surgeon. “Who do you work for?”

“What's it to you?”

Without hesitation, she turned to shoot a nearby trash can, causing it to vaporize almost instantly.

“How about your life?”

“If you wanted me dead,” Saal suggested, “You would have done it by now.”

“What's your name?” she tersely changed the subject, not acknowledging the doctor's observation.

Saal paused, trying to play the part of the hesitant criminal. If he gave away who he was now, he may actually end up dead in the next few minutes.

“Sam,” he offered hesitantly, using one of his aliases from long ago. “Sam Yanovich.”

For her part, an expression of recognition washed across her face as she slowly lowered the weapon.

“No you're not,” the Bajoran woman corrected him, confident in her identification of the balding and bearded medical officer. “Your name's Shadow.” The declaration brought forth a deer-in-the-headlights look from Saal. “And you're over three months late…”

Chapter 20: Saratoga's Final HourTop

Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga
Timeframe: Stardate 52542.3 (six years ago, during the Dominion war)

Lagrangian points, also known as Lagrange points, are positions within an orbital configuration of two large celestial masses providing the exact amount of centripetal force for a small object (or set of objects) to orbit along with both masses in space in a seemingly fixed position. The long stretch of asteroids along the border between the Federation and Cardassian space was perhaps, the largest and best representation of Lagrangian physics, as it boasted an expansive Lagrange point between two distant stars that rotated slowly relative to the galactic plane. Rocky debris of all compositions had built up in this area since the birth of the galaxy, and when the famed Starfleet explorer, Captain Manuel Cortez first stumbled upon it in the early part of the twenty-third century, it became known as “The Grand Lagrange”.

It was the first coinage of the name in Starfleet navigational databases, so when other similar debris fields were discovered in subsequent decades of exploration, cartographers would mark them with the same terminology as a placeholder, thus “Grand Lagrange” went from a proper noun to a common noun by the start of the twenty fourth century. With this name transition, the initial name for the original Grand Lagrange at the Cardassian border became known as “The Very Grand Lagrange”, and to honor Captain Cortez as the original discoverer, it was officially translated back into the original Spanish phrase, “El Mucho Grande Lagrange.”

During the Cardassian border wars of the mid-twenty fourth century, Starfleet captains favored this expansive asteroid field as both a battle refuge and a hiding place from Cardassian battlecruisers patrolling the border. It inherited various name permutations from it's official name, and became tagged colloquially by war veterans with nicknames such as “El Grande”, “Mucho Grande”, and “Mucho Lagrange”. So, when Saratoga's first officer, Commander Reginald Kramer, saw his old stomping grounds splayed out before the ship on the main viewer, he sighed with nostalgia.

“Good to be back, old friend,” the gray-hair, gruff commander muttered to himself, recalling the close calls he had with Cardassian battlecruisers he successfully evaded years ago thanks to the debris field.

“Lieutenant,” the Saratoga first officer beckoned to the helmsman. “Place us in a parking orbit. Somewhere near the second L-3 point.”

“Aye sir,” the helmsmen returned. “Setting coordinates at seven zero seven mark one.”

“Let's see if we can find the source of those sensor echoes you're picking up,” he said to the Bolian ensign at the tactical arch. “These asteroids are loaded with refractory metals, and if any is laced with tibernium, you'll get a bounced signal at a higher wavelength.”

“Yes sir,” the Bolian replied, his hands dancing across the console. “That would partially explain what I'm seeing, but not the multiple signals on the same wavelength.”

“That *is* peculiar,” Kramer remarked. “Are you seeing any trace of particle ionization within the field?”

“Difficult to determine,” the ensign replied. “Certainly nothing indicative of recent impulse engine output.”

Kramer looked out into the debris field with a raised, skeptical eyebrow. The refractory properties of the region were a double-edged blade, and while he was confident of its ability to mask his own ship's engine signature, he had never found himself on the other side of the fence, trying to decipher whether the field was an ambush-in-waiting for a Federation vessel. Considering that they were at war, the commander didn't want to take the chance.

“Bridge to the captain,” the first officer tapped his combadge.

“Captain Stryker is not aboard the Saratoga.”

Kramer rolled his eyes. Only removal of a communicator and subsequent lack of informing the computer of your intended whereabouts (such as retiring to one's quarters for the evening) would draw such a response. He knew that if the captain was off the clock, it was because he didn't want to be disturbed.

“Computer, location of the captain's combadge?”

“Deck eight, section twelve.”

“His quarters,” concluded Kramer in a curmudgeonly attitude. Since the captain's newlywed bride was on board, the answer as to why he off the clock was forthcoming. “Great… Just when we need a command-decision, our fearless leader couldn't wait to start his honeymoon.”

The chorus of chuckles from the bridge crew was indicative of who was really in charge of the ship. Kramer, being the veteran officer he was, took the reins of command away from the captain more often than not when they were in a tough spot. Especially pending combat. It was obvious that the crew looked up to Kramer more than the young, callow officer that Vice Admiral Kostya promoted as Saratoga's skipper.

“Forget it,” Commander Kramer said sourly. “We'll do it ourselves. Ensign!” he beckoned to the Bolian at the tactical arch. “Re-configure the sensor array for a modulated amplitude scan. That should filter out the backscatter caused by the tiburnium.”

“Aye sir.”

Location: Captain's Yacht, Deck 16, USS Saratoga

Alone and despondent, the young Starfleet captain sat in the corner of his personal docked auxiliary vessel, drowning his sorrows with a bottle of an unknown elixir. Since learning of the clandestine affair that his wife was having with his superior flag officer, he fell into a state of resignation and depression, and his incipient career as a starship captain gave way to old habits from when he was a junior officer. Quiet and withdrawn as a cadet, his academy years were replete with episodes of turning to distilled spirits to cope with the pressures of Starfleet training. If it had not been for Vladimir Christoff Kostya taking him under his wing, he would not have passed his final examination and receive his full commission. He owed Kostya his career, but now it seemed, payment would be in the form of the woman he dearly loved.

Hunched over in a passenger seat, he glumly poured himself another glass. The only woman he ever cared for was not who she claimed to be. He had so many dreams and aspirations for a beautiful future with his one true love, and in less than an hour, it all came crashing down around him. His review of the personnel locator logs on his specialized, covertly-installed internal sensor network confirmed the affair Shannon was having with Vice Admiral Kostya. When he first saw it, he was so shocked that he stumbled off the bridge in disbelief, heading back to his quarters to try and figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, all he could do was replay the computer-recorded incident over and over at his workstation, and soon, he became so disgusted that he removed his combadge, grabbed a bottle of distilled spirits, and found his way here to the captain's yacht.

He considered the glass of amber liquid he just poured, reflecting upon the life he had lived up to that moment. Unfortunately, he couldn't get the image of the ten-minute location loop from the internal sensor network out of his mind. With disgust and a heavy heart, he lifted the glass to his face, just as the ship shook violently from an unknown attacker outside in space.

“Red alert! Captain to the bridge! All hands to battle stations!”

With alcohol dripping from his face onto his shirt, the partially inebriated captain stood up and stumbled over to the yacht's control panel. The alert status, while sending adrenaline into his bloodstream, didn't wipe his mind clean of the personal trauma he was undergoing, and the knot in his stomach persisted as he accessed the yacht's sensor grid. Three Cardassian battlecruisers were converging on the Saratoga from the debris field outside. While most Starfleet captains would have immediately sprung into action and head to the bridge, the Saratoga's captain was far too traumatized and drunk to tend to his duties. Instead, he collapsed into the control chair with depression and self-pity, resigned to let the battle unfold as his first officer saw fit.

“Kramer can handle it,” he muttered while wiping excess alcohol off his face. It was then that he noticed the science console, which was detecting a strange energy signature. Adjusting the wide field scan to a narrow one, the yacht's sensors were picking up a peculiar Baryon waveform building within the engineering section of Saratoga. While most science officers would not have been able to identify the source of the energy pattern, the captain was one of a very few number of people who could.

“Maddock!” he whispered angrily. “What the hell does he think he's doing?” With his hatred for Saratoga's engineer welling within him, mixed with alcohol and trauma of being cheated on by his wife, the captain unlocked the phaser storage rack and grabbed one of the two stowed personal armaments.

Location: Captain's quarters, Deck 8, USS Saratoga

When the ship shook violently, Shannon had already been on edge. She was in the Ten Forward lounge searching for her husband, the captain, when orange blasts of Cardassian dreadnaught weaponry danced across the shields outside the viewport. After the alert sounded, she consulted the ship's computer to find out the location of the young skipper, but due to his removal of his combadge, she was unsuccessful. Frantic, the young newlywed lieutenant junior grade returned to the captain's quarters in a desperate attempt to find Saratoga's missing commander. As soon as the doors parted, she called out into the multi-chambered compartment.

“Ted!” the anxious woman beckoned. Without a response, her anxiety became exacerbated. “Theodore!” she called again into another chamber of the suite, still to no avail. It was then that she noticed it: The captain's communicator was sitting on a nearby table… right next to his wedding ring.

Shannon's stomach tied itself into a knot. Did he know? How could he know?

Approaching the table slowly, the blinking monitor of the captain's workstation viewscreen caught her eyes, and revealed the quisling of her own infidelity. Displaying a in internal map of Saratoga, the monitor was replaying a continuous loop of about ten minutes of a halted turbolift between decks six and seven yesterday. A lump formed in Shannon's throat when she saw the information readouts of the combadge signatures of her and Vice Admiral Kostya, along with their bio-readouts that included variables such as their body temperatures and elevated heart rates.

From the evidence in the room, it was clear that her husband knew about her relationship with the vice admiral. And considering he had gone missing and was not answering the call to the bridge during red alert, his mental state was dangerously questionable. As the vice admiral had predicted, he was cracking under the pressure - and it was her fault. It didn't matter whether it was Kostya's fault for originally initiating the relationship, or continuing with it after the wedding, or after her husband was assigned under his command. The career and mental state of man she actually cared for was crashing down around him, and it was her that allowed it to happen.

With guilt and remorse swirling around in her gut, she picked up the communicator on the table and clutched it in her hand with sadness and regret. A tear fell down her cheek as she closed her hand around the communicator and kissed it before starting to sob.

“I'm sorry, Ted…”

Location: Main engineering, deck 36, USS Saratoga

The distraught young Starfleet captain carefully worked his way into the engineering section with his type-II phaser drawn at the ready. From the sensors on the captain's yacht, he was one of a very few number of people who recognized the unusual wave pattern of the energy build-up in engineering. When the captain saw that, he knew that Maddock had crossed the line by going against orders to bring the Ninhursag generator online. If the chief engineer had gone that far, he was risking much more than a court martial.

As the Saratoga's skipper entered main engineering, a chilling sight lay before him. A half-dozen dead bodies were strewn about, each with a phaser burn etched into their torsos. Maddock had indeed crossed the line, and it was apparent that he didn't care who got in his way.

“Stop right there… captain!”

The order came from the pepper-gray haired engineer, who was standing just outside the chief engineer's alcove. In one hand, he clutched a hand phaser, and in the other, he held Cadet Richard Kimball in a head lock. The pubescent, twenty year-old cadet was struggling to free himself, but was held firmly by the burly engineer who held the phaser to his head. The captain felt both rage and fear welling within him as he turned his weapon towards the engineer, who shouted out words or warning.

“It's either shoot me and risk little Ricky's life here, or back off and let the Ninhursag generator do the job I designed it to do!”

A white, pulsating light emanated from within the engineer's alcove, and the captain knew that not only had Maddock activated the device, but he had already enabled the pulse capacitor. By the captain's estimate, they had about five minutes before the generator sent a surge of protomatter-laced Baryon radiation into the deflector shield system, thereby causing a Penrose-Hawking singularity within a one-light year radius. Supposedly, the deflector shield in combination with the warp field of the Saratoga would create a Baryon asymmetry thus protecting the ship, but none of the twelve previous prototype models showed that the asymmetry would properly develop.

“Maddock,” the captain exclaimed. “What are you doing?”

“What YOU should have done a long time ago!”

“Maddock, we can't use the Ninhursag generator! You know that!”

“No!” Maddock seethed. “You never WANTED to use the generator! 'Too dangerous' you said! Then you ordered me to mothball it! And for what? So you could continue your little charade as captain? Leaving this crew without one of the most powerful weapons in Kostya's arsenal out of some misplaced sense of lawfulness?”

“Protomatter is unstable, Maddock!” explained the young skipper. “As soon as you activate it, the results are dangerously unpredictable! Every scientist knows that!”

“Ah! But I'm NOT a scientist! I'm an ENGINEER! The SARATOGA'S engineer, in fact! Everybody on this ship recognizes that! Everyone, that is, except for YOU!”

Staring at the panicked young cadet clutched precariously in the crazed engineer's arms, the captain's forehead started to sweat as he realized Maddock was playing on his fears and vulnerabilities. The young starship commander never fit in with the veteran command crew, and he knew it. Instead of promoting one of the others to the position, Kostya put him in charge of Saratoga for his own purposes, and not to help his career. That much was clear, especially after his recent discovery of the affair with his wife. Now, as he faced down Maddock, he realized he had no real authority at all on this vessel.

“Can you make the choice between life and death?” teased the engineer. “I doubt it. I don't think you got the guts. You're too idealistic… Too principled to implement Admiral Kostya's plan. Too naive see that some technology is worth using, even if the law says you can't.”

“Don't make me do this, Maddock!” the captain pleaded, appearing more nervous with each passing second.

“You're spineless!” hissed the engineer. “You couldn't make a command decision even if this little punk's life depended on it! You wouldn't DARE stoop down low enough to do what's right!”

“The choices you and Kostya force people to make are too fuzzy, Maddock!” the captain spat back. “They fall within a grey area so full of uncertainty that no one can tell the difference between good and bad! A blind choice is no choice at all!”

“You're wrong,” Maddock countered firmly. “The choice should be clear,” he said tauntingly to the captain. “The choice should be simple if you're willing to stoop down low enough, but YOU'LL have to decide…”

Maddock's words echoed though the captain's tortured mind, magnified by the sheer intensity of the standoff. A choice had to be made. One that decided the fate of every member of this crew, and the choice was his alone to make. Raising the phaser to eye level, he massaged the grip of the weapon, and made his decision.

Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga

“Commander!” the Bolian ensign announced at the tactical arch. “Internal sensors are picking up phaser fire!”

Kramer grabbed onto a nearby railing as the ship lurched from another volley of disruptor fire from the Cardassians.

“Location?” he asked.

“Can't tell due to the sensor damage, but I'm guessing it's located near engineering. I'm also reading a buildup of radiation that's not indicative of any warp or impulse systems.”

“Identify!” Kramer ordered, re-taking his seat in the command chair as a fit of sparks crackled off the unmanned science nearby.

“Unable. I've never seen anything like it before.”

Kramer tapped his combadge in frustration. “Bridge to engineering! What's going on down there?”

A moment of silence passed as the ship lurched again from another attack. Another panel exploded at the rear of the bridge as the soot-smudged helmsman desperately worked his controls to outmaneuver the Cardassians.

“Engineering, respond!” Kramer beckoned again.

“Hello, Commander…”

“Captain?” the first officer identified the voice. “What are you doing in engineering?”

Location: Main engineering, deck 36, USS Saratoga

“It's Maddock,” the captain replied to Commander Kramer over the intercom. He was in the chief engineer's alcove facing a complex mechanical contraption that pulsated with a white, otherworldly light, and maintained a countdown display indicating four minutes, fifty seconds. “He activated the Ninhursag generator. It's on a build-up to discharge.”

“My god…”

“I know,” he replied with sober realization. “We have less than five minutes. Evacuate all personnel from the stardrive section, and set up containment fields around engineering. I'm going to try and deactivate it.”

The response from the intercom was incredulous.

“Captain! Don't do it! We can do an emergency saucer sep to get out of here! You're throwing your life away down there!”

Rubbing his temples, the captain was fully cognizant that these would be his last moments alive. From his point of view, his life as a husband, as well as the Saratoga's commander, was a complete failure. His mood shifting from resigned to angry, vindictive words exploded towards the intercom. “Let's not kid each other, Kramer!” the captain retorted vehemently to his first officer. “You know I'll never be able to command a bucket like this! It's up to YOU to get this crew home! I'm expendable!”

“Don't be a fool, Ted! You KNOW Maddock's contraption contains protomatter! You'll never pull it offline before your cells deflagrate form the Baryon radiation! Get out of there!”

It was clear that the captain had given up any intention of returning alive from engineering, and chose to sacrifice himself to save the ship. “Leave me to finish this!” he yelled back at the intercom panel. “You know the saucer section won't stand five minutes without the power of the stardrive! Hold station until I shut down the generator, then hit the warp drive! That's an order! Engineering out!”

Returning his attention to the task at hand, the Saratoga's skipper was satisfied with the first and only command decision he made without his first officer challenging him. The lives of the crew were now in the commander's hands, and not his. With the yoke of responsibility no longer on his shoulders, he smiled vindictively in thought. “I guess the shoe is on the other foot now. Isn't it, Kramer?”

Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga

Fire and smoke permeated the command center, and the condition-red tracer lights pulsated on the walls while a nearby console exploded in a shower of sparks. Bodies of crew were piling up with each attack, and only the ensign at tactical, Kramer, and a lone lieutenant at helm were alive on the bridge.

“Damned fool!” shouted Commander Kramer, closing the channel to engineering. “Ensign! Lock onto the captain's combadge signal! Beam him out of there!”

The negative warble on the tactical station caused the Bolian to shake his head.

“The internal sensors are still too damaged to get a positive lock. His combadge is operational, but I'm getting indeterminate readings and multiple signals. I think it's interference from the Ninhursag generator.”

Kramer was distracted as he glanced at the main viewscreen and saw one of the three Cardassian ships splitting off from the main group outside. He then realized the ship was trying to outflank them.

“Intensify the aft shields!” Kramer shouted. “Increase impulse speed to one-hundred twenty-five percent of nominal! Prepare to activate warp drive the minute we exit the debris field!”

Chapter 21: Threads of ConsciousnessTop

Location: Turoblift, USS Saratoga

Shannon paced the turbolift cab, fretting as to what to do. The revelation of her husband's knowledge of her affair with Kostya was burning in the pit of her stomach, and her clandestine mission to keep the captain from falling apart under pressure was failing. She knew the computer couldn't track him because she possessed his combadge, so unless he chose to reveal himself through the intercom, there would be no way she could find him. Considering the dire situation outside the ship, and the fact that they were at red alert, there was no telling what danger the captain was in. Should he become incapacitated elsewhere on the ship - or worse yet, killed - it would no doubt activate the interdiction order that Kostya warned her about.

And it would all be because of her.

The thought tortured her mind, sending waves of panic and agony down each of her nerves, and she frantically went through all the options of how to find the captain. She knew from her operations training that all priority intercom traffic would be routed through the ship's command center during a red alert, so if her husband used any intercom within the past few minutes, the bridge would know about it. Acting on a hunch, she tapped her combadge.

“Harris to bridge!” she anxiously called out.

“Bridge. Kramer here. We're a little busy here, lieutenant!”

“I can't find my husband!” she explained, doing the best to sound like a panicked wife.

On the bridge, Commander Kramer knew the fatal danger the captain was in, but didn't want to complicate the situation by telling his wife too much while the ship was in jeapordy.

“He's in main engineering.”

“I have to get down there to see him!”

“You can't! Your husband is very busy, and we're evacuating the stardrive section! You'd just get in the way down there!”

There was a pause in the conversation while the ship rattled from Cardassian weapon fire. Kramer's voice continued afterward, but sounded much more frantic.

“Look lieutenant, we're in the middle of an extremely dangerous battle situation, and I haven't time to talk with you! Neither does your husband! Clear this channel!”

“Please commander!” She continued to plead, but the response from the bridge was filled with incredulity and rage.

“For God's sake! We're at BATTLESTATIONS! Get back to your quarters and stay there until we stand down from red alert! That's an order!”

As the channel closed, it was clear that she wouldn't get any help from the bridge. One way or another, Shannon was determined to be at her husband's side. If he and Saratoga were going to get through this, she knew that SHE would have to be the one to pull him back together.

Stepping off the turbolift at deck twelve, Shannon made a bee-line to the transporter complex. From her point of view, it was the only way she could get into the engineering section with all the activated containment fields. Unfortunately, when she got to the transporter room, there was a steady stream of stardrive section casualties flowing out of each of the transporter rooms.

Quickly turning away, her mind raced as to another course of action. The saucer section cargo transporters were several decks up on deck four, but it then occurred to her that sickbay had one closed-circuit transporter in the isolation lab, separate from the ship's main transporter system. Furthermore, it was located right here on deck twelve. Spinning around in mid stride, Shannon redirected her destination to Saratoga's medical complex.

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Saratoga

Doctor Sumak was a white-haired, blue-eyed man with pointy ears distinctive of his Vulcan heritage. His eyes bore a calm seriousness about them despite the turmoil of injured personnel pouring into sickbay. He took turns with each of them, analyzing their maladies and giving orders for the proper treatment before moving on to the next patient.

“Give him ten cc's of chloromydride,” he ordered at the foot of one biobed. “Then use a dermal regenerator.”

“But doctor,” a tending medical technician asked. “Won't that overstimulate his vascular system?”

“Don't worry,” the doctor confidently reassured him. “He's a quarter Klingon. He'll pull through. It'll be a piece of cake,” he offered a euphemism.

As half Vulcan and half human, the Saratoga's chief medical officer maintained a stoic disposition, but since he was raised by his human father on Earth, the commander in medical blue inherited a terran sense of humor, dry and unsmiling as it was. Seeing the number of casualties flowing through the doors, he looked around the main ward in an attempt to find more bed space.

“We need more biobeds in here,” the doctor exclaimed succinctly. Turning to address another medical technician tending an unconscious casualty, he added, “Corpsman, move that patient to the recovery ward.”

“I can't,” the technician replied. “He has a severe head injury in addition to radiation burns. I don't know when I'll be able to move him.”

“You're a nurse,” the doctor returned with a touch of indignation. “Can't you take a guess?”

“Well,” the junior officer thought for a moment, taking into account the minimum convalescence needed for the extent of the injury. “Not for another two hours.”

Doctor Sumak was taken aback. The number of patients flowing into the medical center were too great for a single casualty to hold up valuable bed space. “You can't move him for another two hours?” he exclaimed.

“Not with these injuries,” he explained with a shake of his head. “If we're going to stabilize him, his body needs time to adjust to the treatment I just administered. Blood flow must be maintained to the injured portions of his brain, and if we move him now, it could cause further hemorrhaging and shock.”

“I understand,” the doctor nodded with comprehension as the ship shook from another Cardassian weapon impact. “Move him as soon as you can.”

As he turned to attend another patient, the doors to sickbay parted once again, except this time, a female lieutenant junior-grade in operations gold strolled through. Looking around the busy sickbay complex, Shannon spotted the chief medical officer and briskly walked up to him.

“Excuse me, doctor,” she addressed him. “Can I speak to you for a moment?”

Doctor Sumak recognized the young woman as the captain's wife, as he was required to perform a physical on every guest that came aboard. However, being the captain's wife, she had certain privileges that other guests did not, and that included spurning the medical section whenever they requested that she report for a routine exam.

“What are you doing here?” he addressed the scarlet-haired lieutenant while quickly striding past her to check on another patient. “Sickbay is for injured personnel.”

“I need to use your isolation lab, doctor” explained Shannon, while following the busy doctor.

“Why?” he replied while stopping at the foot of a biobed and consulting a recent tricorder scan of the patient lying unconscious before him. “What for?”

“I…” she was caught of guard, assuming that she would have been given full access due to her standing with the captain. Unsure of whether he would approve of her desired use of the medical transporter, she hesitantly replied, “I… I don't have time to explain…”

“You can tell me,” the doctor replied detachedly and with a slight conceited tone while he focused on his patient. It was clear he didn't feel he had time to make small talk with the captain's wife. Producing a diagnostic wand, he busily re-scanned the patient in front of him. “I'm the ship's doctor. I'm in charge here, and if you want to use the isolation lab at this particular moment in time, I'll need a VERY good reason.”

“I have an important experiment I need to complete,” she lied precariously. “I started it in one of the stardrive section laboratories, but we've been evacuated and I have no where else finish it.”

“Request denied,” Doctor Sumak replied succinctly, possibly picking up on her lie. “I may need it for overflow patients. Besides, we're at red alert, and unless it's critical to our current predicament, all science programs are on hold by ship's regulation.” Looking around the medical complex filling with patients, he concluded, “Unless you have some sort of injury that needs attention, I need you to leave. Now.”

As the doctor put down the tricorder, he moved on to another patient, making it clear to Shannon that their conversation was over. However, Shannon was not so easily dismissed. In a split-second decision, she chose to ignore the doctor, and quickly abscond to the surgical ward hallway that led to the isolation lab.

Noticing the young officer's retreat, the doctor shouted, “What does she think she's doing?”

Inside the isolation lab, Shannon knew that she had to work quickly. Locking the door, she used her electronic skills to disable the opening mechanism before turning her attention to the medical transporter panel. The mechanism was without power due to the ship's alert status, but like all good transporter systems, it had redundant power backups, and in less than thirty seconds she had the system functional again.

Meanwhile, outside in the main ward, the chief medical officer was filled with consternation at having to divide his attention between injured patients and a rouge junior officer locked away in his isolation laboratory.

“Computer,” announced Doctor Sumak. “Activate emergency medical hologram.”

The image for Saratoga's EMH was of the renown Doctor Lewis Zimmerman, indicating that the ship was still utilizing the Mark I model.

“Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”

“Go into the isolation lab,” ordered Doctor Sumak. “Stop the officer in there from doing whatever she's doing and open up the door.”

“I'm a doctor,” protested the balding, clean-shaven EMH. “Not a security officer.”

“And I'm the chief medical officer giving you a direct order,” Sumak explained. The two stared at each other eye-to-eye before the computerized facsimile relented.

“Very well,” the flustered EMH replied before whispering out of existence.

Reappearing in the isolation lab, the EMH spied Shannon adjusting the controls of the medical transporter to perform an intra-ship transport to main engineering.

“Lieutenant,” the Mark I addressed her. “I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to cease what you're doing.”

Barely regarding the hologram, Shannon simply raised an eyebrow before returning her attention to the control panel.

“Fat chance, baldy.”

The EMH was taken aback.

“I'll have you know that some of the most prominent personnel in Starfleet history possessed the phenotype for pre-mature baldness,” it informed her. “For instance, Jonathan Archer, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko…”

“I really don't have time to deal with you,” Shannon became annoyed. Activating the transporter circuits, she stood back as the system began to energize, and a veil of incandescent transporter energy fell upon her.

“Very well,” the EMH replied. “You leave me no choice then.”

Reaching out to grab her, the EMH became caught in the transporter beam, and the confluence of both the holo-emitter and the matter stream produced a colorful cascade of colliding photons that resulted in feedback on the control panel. For her part, Shannon felt the shock of the quantum energy coming in contact with her dematerializing pattern, which sent a surge of pain throughout her entire body. In a scream of agony, the rapidly degenerating mass of semi-solid organic plasma amalgamated with the quasi-matter of the holographic matrix, and an alert horn emanated from the medical transporter console as the system sent a desperate malfunction notification to the user interface.

Unfortunately, there was no one at the controls to answer it.

Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga

“Commander!” The lone Bolian at the rear of the bridge exclaimed. “I've lost the captain's combadge signal!”

An incessant warble emanated from the tactical arch, as if the exclamation triggered a response in the main computer. On the ensign's tactical panel, the registered loss of the captain's combadge appeared to trigger an automated response as the words “Command Interdiction Override” flashed across the screen. An instant later, a hologram of a sturdy Starfleet flag officer with commodore's rank appeared in the center of the bridge.

“This is Commodore Teagarden of Hellsgate Station. By order of Vice Admiral Kostya, I'm herby commandeering the Starship Saratoga for a classified mission along the Cardassian border. Your current crew are to stand down, and allow my holographic crew to take over their stations.”

All throughout the smashed bridge, mixed in-between dead bodies and smoldering debris, holographic Starfleet crew whispered into existence and began taking up stations around the bridge, manning positions such as ops, engineering, sciences; one even appeared alongside the Bolian ensign manning the tactical arch.

Astonished at the spectacle around him, Commander Kramer went livid. “What the hell IS this??”

The ensign at the tactical arch reviewed his monitors. “The computer activated a multi-band optical subspace uplink to Hellsgate station” he observed. “It's accessing the experimental intra-ship hologrid that Vice Admiral Kostya had installed a month ago.”

“That's supposed to be for MEDICAL use!” Kramer shouted at the holographic commodore. “This ship is under MY command! Stand down, commodore!”

Unfortunately, the hologram did not appear to hear him, and continued to transmit its original order.

“This is Commodore Teagarden of Hellsgate Station. By order of Vice Admiral Kostya, I'm herby commandeering the Starship Saratoga for a classified mission along the Cardassian border. Your current crew are to stand down, and allow my holographic crew to take over their stations.”

“This is SUICIDE!” exclaimed the first officer. “We're in the middle of COMBAT!” As he expressed his frustration, the holographic forms began to fade in and out in slow, regular intervals congruent to the pattern emitted by the Ninhursag generator down in engineering.

“Something's wrong, commander,” the Bolian ensign announced from the tactical console. The intermittent holographic tactical officer faded in and out next to him as he explained the anomaly. “The radiation from engineering is impacting the intra-ship hologram. With each pulse of Baryon radiation from the Ninhursag generator, the subspace uplink to Hellsgate station is interrupted. The holograms aren't going to be able to function properly as long as the generator is building up power for a discharge event.”

“Commodore!” pleaded Commander Kramer. “Don't take control of the ship away from me! Your holographic uplink isn't working correctly!”

As before, the hologram was unresponsive, and simply faded in and out in concert with the other half-dozen holograms on the bridge. To Kramer's dismay, the automaton simply re-stated its original order.

“This is Commodore Teagarden of Hellsgate Station. By order of Vice Admiral Kostya, I'm herby commandeering the Starship Saratoga for a classified mission…”

“What the hell is going on here?” exclaimed Commander Kramer.

Location: Main sickbay, deck 12, USS Saratoga

As with the bridge, sickbay was filling up with holographic images of medical technicians, each attempting to help the wounded patients. Unfortunately, due to their intermittent nature, they faded in and out simultaneously, just as they did on the bridge. This had the effect of interfering with the flesh-and-blood medical staff, who were unable to utilize the sickbay equipment because the holograms were getting in the way. As each holographic technician faded into existence, they would attempt to acquire a nearby medical instrument before subsequently dropping it as they faded out of existence. Furthermore, as they faded back in, they would attempt to re-acquire the same piece of equipment, preventing any of the medical crew from procuring it.

Doctor Sumak was as furious as a half-Vulcan could get. “What the hell is going on here?” he exclaimed. As if to add to the precarious situation, the computer sounded an ominous and confusing alert.

“Warning. Emergency Medical Hologram is experiencing interphasic pattern degradation.”

“Computer!” the doctor, who had almost forgotten about the lieutenant in the isolation lab due to the current circumstance, realized that the medical hologram may also have been affected by the sudden appearance of so many other holograms in sickbay. “Shut down the EMH!” he bellowed.

“Unable to comply. Medical transporter matter-stream is interfering with the medical holographic emitters. Re-routing medical holographic program to secondary transporter buffers.”

“What?” the doctor asked quizzically. It suddenly occurred to him that the lieutenant must have also activated the medical transporter while locking herself in the isolation lab. Although his computer and engineering knowledge were limited due to his chosen field of study in medicine, he still knew enough to know that the convergence of the three different matter/conversion technologies operating simultaneously under combat conditions was a recipe for disaster. “Computer! Override isolation lab transporter! Authorization Sumak seven-three-alpha!”

“Command not recognized. USS Saratoga is now under the command of Commodore Teagarden of Starbase 666.”

As the computer spoke, the sickbay lights flickered, and computer panels blinked on and off in rapid succession. Slowly, each of the malfunctioning holograms in sickbay were transforming as they faded in and out of existence. One by one, each of the individual photonic representations of distinctly different people through the uplink from Hellsgate station, had all became one and the same. Over the course of several seconds, each aberrant hologram reconstructed itself into a replica of a certain scarlet-haired lieutenant junior grade.

With the gawking medical staff looking on, they found themselves surrounded by multiple holographic copies of the captain's wife, Shannon Harris.

Location: Main engineering, deck 36, USS Saratoga

With the ship rattling from continued Cardassian weapon impacts, the captain watched in disbelief as multiple holographic images of Shannon Harris wandered around engineering, each performing distinctly different tasks. They each seemed to feed on the intermittent Baryon pulse emitted from the white, incandescent light of the Ninhursag generator, which itself, displayed only twenty seconds left on the countdown timer.

“What the hell is going on here?” exclaimed the traumatized captain. Not only had he failed as a captain and husband, but he had failed to deactivate the generator, and was now facing down over a dozen holographic ghosts of his cheating wife that appeared out of nowhere. Nearly catatonic, he watched with wide-eyed bafflement as one of the Shannon holograms looked him directly in the eye before walking up and placing a hand directly on the captain's chest. Tenderly, the calm holographic representation of his wife addressed him with a gentle whisper.


Location: Main bridge, USS Saratoga

“Warning: Atmospheric decompression on decks six, ten, fifteen, twenty-two, twenty-five, and forty… Emergency bulkhead failure on deck eight, seventeen, and thirty-three… Primary plasma relays damaged on deck eighteen… Warp systems offline.”

“Plasma conduits ruptured on deck thirty-two!” shouted the ensign at the tactical arch. “We're venting plasma!”

Around him, the scorched bodies of his crewmates lay strewn about amongst charred debris, and majority of the smashed consoles were ether burning or completely destroyed altogether. With Commander Kramer manning the helm, he and the ensign were the only living beings left on the bridge. The ineffective holograms, each now bearing the image of the captain's wife, were emanating a white, luminous light congruent to that of the Ninhursag generator.

“Ensign!” shouted Kramer frantically. “Give the evacuation order! All hands abandon ship!”

“Unable!” the ensign returned. “Command codes are not responding! The interdiction order has locked me out of the computer!”

“Damn you, Kostya!” Kramer spat through gritted teeth.

“Sir!” the ensign sounded. “Sensors indicate a lifeboat has been activated on deck thirty-six, section twelve! I'm reading only one life form aboard! I can't get a positive combadge signal!”

Outside the ship, the square shape of a lone Saratoga lifeboat hurled itself through the interstellar void as the three Cardassian cruisers converged on the heavily damaged Galaxy Class starship. As the lifeboat catapulted away at break-neck speed, a soft, opaque light washed over the the outer fringes of Saratoga's deflector shield perimeter. It started as countless pinpricks of light that spread out slowly from their point of origin, and converged into a single ribbon of luminous plasma that completely enveloped the devastated Saratoga.

Like a celestial egg hatching for the first time, streams of hyper-accelerated photons preceded a nova-like explosion of color that burst forth from Saratoga's shields with such power and speed that time-space itself rippled under the pressure. Over the distance of an entire light year, space was set ablaze in a primordial dance of pre-stellar forces that tapped the nuclei of subatomic particles, converting energy into matter and matter into energy, and forming - if only for a split second - a miniature version of the universe's inflationary epoch.

Lasting only a moment, the awe-inspiring spectacle faded, returning to normal the lifeless, rocky debris of The Very Grand Lagrange.

Location: First officer's quarters, deck eight, USS Republic
Timeframe: Stardate 58795.4 (present day)

Swimming in a cold sweat, the unclothed form of Shannon Harris fluttered nervously underneath the covers, turning over several times on the mattress before sitting up with a start. Her eyes were dilated, and she was breathing heavily. Warily, she looked around herself, analyzing her surroundings in attempt to discern where she was. While the fragmented memories faded quickly away into the background of her mind, lucidity slowly dawned upon her as she realized where she was - and who. She was the assistant chief medical officer on the Republic. Her rank was lieutenant commander, and she was… a hologram.

With that thought, she immediately stopped panting. WHY was she bothering to breathe? For that matter, why was she dreaming?… Again? Looking down on the mattress beside her, Shannon took note of the empty space beside her. Without thinking, she tapped the intercom button on the nightstand.

“Harris to Bridge.”

“Bridge. Counselor Tolkath here. Something I can help you with, doctor?”

“Yes,” she replied calmly, realizing she was indeed who she thought she was, strengthening her grasp on reality. “Can you tell me where Ted is?”

“Who, doctor?”

Shannon froze as a shiver went up her spine.

“I… I mean… John,” she nervously corrected herself. “Can you tell me were John is?” As soon as she asked the question, the answer came to her faster than the counselor could answer. He was on deck one, aft. Sitting down at the head of the conference table, facing portside, and having an encrypted conversation on the comm station. His pulse was 78, blood pressure 118 over 69, his body temperature was 37 degrees Celsius, and his breathing rate was approximately 15 breaths per minute.

“Commander Carter is in the Observation Lounge taking a personal communique.”

Of course he was. She knew that. She was a hologram. She had instant access to the computer with only a simple thought. Why would she have called the bridge? Was it a vain, instinctive attempt to reinforce the reality of who she thought she was?

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she reassured the counselor, now feeling a little silly. “Yes, I'm fine. Just a little distracted. Thank you. Harris out.”

Not sure if she should talk to John about the recurring dreams, Republic's holographic doctor shook off the splintered images of her previous slumber, and stood up from the bed. Removing the sheet to briefly reveal her unclothed backside in the dark room, it took only a moments thought and no physical effort to whisper into existence her holographic uniform. Checking her hair in the mirror, Shannon retrieved her communicator, placed it on her chest, and strode out of the chamber.

Chapter 22: FormalitiesTop

The day had come.

His eyes fixed on the darkened ceiling of his bedroom just as they had been for the past six hours, he laid awake, waiting. He had not slept that night; he did not know if he would sleep tonight either. As the computer chime sounded and alerted him that the time was 0830 hours, he thought back over the years that he had spent waiting for this singular moment. Thought back over each and every dark, burning thought born from the darkest depths of his self for nineteen years. Not thoughts of justice, but of vengeance. He did not know if he would ever be able to quench the inferno of pure hatred that existed within himself. He did not know if he would even be able to try.

If ever he were going to find out, it would be today.

Could the darkness within ever be truly satisfied with the civilized justice of the Federation?

Would even the worst acts of vengeance he could conjure be enough to satiate the dark desires that had carved out a niche at the center of his very being?

Sitting up from his prone position on the bed as the only woman he had ever allowed himself to love stirred beside him, he both feared what she might think of him should she catch a glimpse of his thoughts. In the same instant, he set that fear aside with the knowledge that no matter how much he loved her, it was not enough to stop him from acting should the opportunity arise. He had been driven by pure fury to risk his existence dozens of times already against numerous surrogates in the hopes of momentarily appeasing the venom within. Here and now with the true object of his malice so close, there was nothing in all creation powerful enough to overwhelm what had become a true need within himself for avengement.

The score had to be settled. The scales had to be balanced. Everything that he was demanded such and no less.

The only lingering question was how such would be accomplished. By the system or his own hand?

Rising to his feet, he padded across the small bed chamber and into the adjacent facilities. Staring back at the reflection in the mirror, it was both himself and not. The rage he had fought time and again to hide from those around him seemed somehow visible, if only to him. After a brief sonic shower and a shave to remove his Ash'aarian souvenir goatee, he returned to the bedroom and donned his rarely worn dress whites. Picking up the two solid gold rank emblems and the delta symbol communicator, he held the ornamentation in his hand for a long moment and considered all that they represented. His emotions were complex when it came to such things.

One part of him, the orphaned ten-year-old boy who had lost his parents and siblings in part because of Starfleet, were disgusted by them. The duty and honor that was preached about so heavily at the Academy had been part of what had driven his parents to take such stupid risks.

Another part, the man he had become in his time since joining Republic, held them in higher regard. To that man, they were evidence that he could be more than an angry callow youth hell bent on drowning his pain in death, drink and debauchery.

As he affixed the rank insignia to his collar and placed the communicator badge upon his chest, he paused to look upon his reflection in the mirror once more. Behind him, Leah Warner stirred from her slumber. She had been distant since his return to Republic last evening, but he hadn't pursued the reason why. At this particular moment in time, he could not afford to focus on anything other than what had been the driving force behind so much of his life thus far.

He had allowed himself to love her, allowed her to know him better than any other person alive. Was that love enough to counter the blackness he could feel engulfing his heart?

Turning towards her, his inflection was cool and even. Practiced. “Gotta take care uh somethin' b'fore we beam over. Won't take long. Meet ya in the transporter room?”

A forced smile broke across her features as she nodded an affirmative response. Nat didn't question the emotional gulf that seemed to be widening between them with each passing exchange. Whatever action or event had spawned this latest hiccup in their relationship, it would simply have to wait to be attended to. Not bothering to order the computer to alter the darkened state of illumination of the primary living space, he moved swiftly through it and beyond into the more properly lit residential corridor outside.

He was especially grateful for the lack of personnel aboard ship as he moved down the hall. Things such as they were, he simply did not have the energy or concern for the normal pleasantries of a social existence. Pressing the call button for the turbolift, the doors parted instantly – another benefit of the lack of others aboard. Stepping inside, he called out his destination and waited patiently as the car obediently carried him through the ship.

He had to be prepared should the moment present itself.

Location: Ananke Alpha
Station Time: 0941 hours

Thirty-two meters.

That distance was all that separated him from his quarry.

Through two sets of unlocked doors and across a lone corridor. His back to the door, the dark thoughts in the back of his mind screamed for him to take action. He had never knowingly had an opportunity such as this before. When he had been on assignment undercover, working along side Faro, he had been ignorant of whom the elder Orion man was. Had he known such back then, he would likely have been killed a few minutes into his assignment. He would have taken Faro's life the first chance he'd had, unconcerned with the retaliation his associates would take directly afterwards.

Feelings the eyes of junior Lieutenant Ragnar ever present on him, Nat kept his visible demeanor as tepid as ever. For all of his bluster and bluntness, he did possess the ability to restrain those emotions he allowed to show through. It was simply a skill he rarely felt the need to utilize. Today was such an occasion when it was necessary to hold things close. He did allow for a portion of what he felt to break through, however. Just enough to demonstrate he was agitated and apprehensive about things. Had he appeared as unflappable as a Vulcan, it would have been a dead giveaway to someone like Ragnar that their was much more going on beneath the surface.

As the minutes continued to tick by, he felt as if time was grinding to a halt. Ever the dramatic one, Tom Dorian had used a legal technicality to avoid informing Faro, his attorney, or the court that Hawk was indeed alive. In point of fact the charges that had lead to Faro's capture and detainment were mostly ones that could not be proven. The bulk of them stemmed from the incidents surrounding his death. Only the charge of evading arrest held any water. Since the original charges Faro had been indicted upon had been dismissed without prejudice, though, it had allowed Dorian to play a bit of a legal shell game.

Since Hawk was listed on the original witness list under the original indictments, Dorian intended to catch Faro completely off-guard by joining the two cases in open court. His attorney would be unable to argue unfair surprise or anything else, and thus forced to adapt. It wasn't much of an honorable tactic in legal circles, but Dorian had long ago learned the need for such theatricalities. He was a man sworn to the law, and would never break such in the pursuit of justice. But he sure as hell would push and bend things as far as he could within their boundaries. This case was more than certain to test just how far such could be done.

The sound of the doors parting open behind him drew his attention with the same effect as a razor blade strumming a violin.

“They're ready for you, Lieutenant,” said the clerk, whose name Nat didn't recall.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he took a deep breath. From behind him on his left, he felt his shadow Ragnar lean in close. So close he could feel the alien man's breath on him as he spoke. “Don't even think about trying anything,” he whispered accusatorially. Then he turned and followed the clerk out into the corridor a few steps, stopping once more at the double-wide doors that lead to the court.

“Mister Dorian asked that you wait here just a moment,” the clerk informed him. As he did so, he interfaced with one of the semi-transparent holographic controls common to Ananke Alpha. A split second after he had done so, an audio pick-up from the court was activated, and Dorian's voice could now be heard. His task complete, the clerk stepped off to the side and began checking the contents of a PADD.

”…with respect, defense counsel is incorrect. The Federation stands ready to proceed with both cases, conjoined, immediately.” stated Dorian, addressing the court.

“This is unacceptable!” came the shriek of a reply from whom Nat could only presume was Faro's attorney. “Those charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, namely, the loss of the prosecution's sole 'witness' in the case. Their own dismissal filings stated such! Furthermore, this whole thing amounts to unfair surprise! The defense is not prepared to answer these additional, egregious charges at this time!”

“Mister Venk, you've had well over a year to prepare a defense for those charges. How, exactly, can you claim unfair surprise?” came a deep sounding voice, no doubt one of the three members of the tribunal.

“It's just… I mean, I… but…” stammered Faro's attorney, whom Hawk had deduced by now to be a Ferengi. ”…the prosecution still can not make their case, your honors. The witness is deceased, as in no longer alive to provide testimony. Since no recorded testimony was ever presented during discovery, thus registering any such unable to be presented to this court… I fail to see how the state can proceed.“ Venk argued.

“I'm afraid I must agree with defense counsel, Mister Dorian. Starfleet records clearly indicate the witness in this case, one Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, was indeed listed as killed in action while on assignment in the gamma quadrant some seven months ago.” came the deep voiced reply of the lead judge.

“Indeed, your honor. Starfleet did record said death as the records indicated, and the prosecution stipulates that Lieutenant Hawk was, indeed, murdered by an unidentified assailant on stardate 58122.5. However… if the court would allow me to call a single witness, I'm certain I can demonstrate that we can, indeed, proceed with both cases.” Dorian answered.

A moment passed during which nothing was clearly audible. Hawk surmised that the tribunal members were conferring quickly between one another. Finally, the bass-toned voice of the lead member of the tribunal came back with a decision. “Very well, Mister Dorian. You have the courts brief indulgence. Call your witness.”

This was it. That was what Tom Dorian had been waiting for.

“The prosecution calls the afore mentioned Lieutenant Nathan Hawk…”

Moving forward through the double doors that parted at his approach, Nat felt outside himself. An observer rather than a participant.

The court room was laid out in a fairly traditional modern style. On either side of the room immediately inside the doors were a gallery of four rows of six seats each designed for observers and concerned parties. A handful of Ananke Alpha personnel were present on either side, most seeming to be of the station's limited medical and engineering staff. In the front row on the right hand side where Captain Kimberly Roth, Doctor Leon Cromwell and Leah Warner. Directly behind them, the half-dozen security officers responsible in pairs of two for each of them. Beyond the observation gallery was the court proper, segregated by a simple railing. Federation Special Prosecutor Tom Dorian stood there, in front of Nat's fellows from Republic.

In the farthest right-hand corner of the room sat a lonely chair on a raised dais, reminiscent in style to the type reserved for ship commanders: this was the witness stand. The chair was flanked by a stoic looking Vulcan bailiff and two flags, one the Federation's blue and white, the other Starfleet commands bright yellow backed delta shield. Mirroring the witness stand was the tribunal bench, the highest position in the court, which bore a variant of the Federation emblem that housed the scales of justice. Hawk knew nothing of the judges presiding aside from what he could ascertain visually. The central judge was a stocky dark-skinned man wearing the rank of Vice Admiral. On his right was an Andorian female Rear Admiral with a close-crop hair cut, and to his left a balding Trill male also a Rear Admiral.

On the left side of the room, mirroring Dorian's own position, stood an astounded and irate looking little Ferengi, his mouth and arms moving rapidly. At his left, flanked closely by two burly looking security guards, one a Saurian, the other a Tellarite, sat a thin older man of slight build and green complexion. His hair was thin with streaks of silver mixed with the deep black-brown common to his people. A wisp of a long pencil mustache adorned his upper lip, a similar wisp in the shape of a triangle adorned his chin. He was not clad in an expensive suit, but rather a regulation prisoner jumpsuit that hung off him. The man's cold, beady eyes fell upon Nat with an expression combined of pure unadulterated rage and unwilling disbelief.

As he came to a stop between the defense and prosecution tables, Nathan Hawk met the man's stare with one of his own. One overflowing with such loathing that if a look could kill, it surely would have. It took every fiber of his being to stay the course and hold back from throwing himself across the room at this, the man whom had murdered his entire family.

This man was Keevan Faro, one of the leading members of the Orion Syndicate. A criminal king-pin feared across the quadrant.

At eighty-nine years of age, he was ancient by Syndicate standards. Had the man been less paranoid and more ambitious, he could have easily risen to the position of Fel'Hain - leader of the organization. But his mistrust of others, including his fellow Syndicate members, had kept him a tier below such. Which still made him the highest ranking member of the organization ever to even be arrested, let alone indicted - twice - and certainly by far, the most senior member of the criminal enterprise to ever stand trial. Considering how few individuals related to the Syndicate survived to trial though, it wasn't saying much. Despite their credo of loyalty that no member would ever testify against another or the organization, most people placed in the position were often taken out rather than to risk the whole.

If not for Faro's extreme paranoia, he too, would have likely been taken out upon his first indictment. Only the legend surrounding a supposed 'dead-man's switch' that would trigger the release of damaging information against many of the other upper echelon Syndicate members had saved him from such a 'retirement'. As it was, since his second arrest and subsequent disappearance from New Sydney six weeks ago, it was likely many of the Syndicate's members were wishing they had taken the risk of that route. Faro quite simply knew too much. Enough, Starfleet and the Federation Security Council hoped, to enable the entire cabal to be dismantled and prosecuted.

”-this is absurd! This man can not possibly be whom the prosecution claims him to be! I must protest this totally unethical–“ the Ferengi Venk was saying, mid-tirade, when he was cut off by the booming voice of the lead member of the tribunal.

“MISTER VENK! You will be silent, or I will find you in contempt!” shouted the dark skinned human.

With Venk's rant abruptly ended, the diminutive Ferengi sat down in his seat as the entire court room fell into silence.

“Prosecutor Dorian,” began the lead judge, identified by a placard in front of him as Vice Admiral Thomas Henry. Henry was a former Chief of Starfleet Security himself, the position which Admiral Henry Toddman currently held. He had held the position for much of the 2360s, relinquishing it to pursue it to pursue a 'second career' as it was with the Judge Advocate's office. “Would you care to explain to the court just exactly what in the hell you hope to accomplish with this little stunt of yours?”

Dorian, for his part, did not look in the least bit chastised as he responded, “This is no stunt, your honor.” Gesturing to Hawk, he continued, “This is indeed Lieutenant Nathan Hawk, the same individual who was deliberately assassinated aboard the Starship Republic approximately seven months ago; whose remains were placed into a morgue stasis unit aboard that vessel for a substantial period of time; and who was resurrected from the dead by means of highly classified science which I am fully prepared to provide witnesses and documentary evidence of for the Court.”

Pausing for a moment to let his statement sink in, Dorian then went on. “Your honors all know how exceptionally momentous this particular case is to the ideals of law and order throughout the quadrant. It is the result, in some circles, of decades of work. The highest levels of Starfleet and the Federation Security Council itself have been kept well apprised, and have authorized many of the actions taken in it's pursuit. For decades, we have lost operatives and witnesses and defendants alike in case after case brought against members of the Orion Syndicate. Here, finally, we have achieved the impossible only by means of extraordinary risk and sacrifice.”

Gesturing once more at Hawk, he emphasized his point. “This man has literally given his life in the pursuit of justice. I want you to understand what I mean by that, because I don't mean that he was simply 'declared' dead on paper for appearances. I do not mean that he was 'technically' or 'legally' dead for a few minutes, or even an hour, while medical personnel worked in the hopes of resuscitating him. I don't mean that he was so critically injured as to be placed in stasis while a treatment was devised. I want it to be clearly understood that Nathan Hawk was well and truly deceased, by every accepted definition of the term in society and maybe even mythology. He was brutally attacked, stabbed repeatedly, left to bleed to death, and poisoned on top of that.”

Gesturing next to Leon in the gallery, Dorian went on to say, “This man here, Doctor Leon Cromwell, a colleague and friend, tried desperately to save him and despite all of his medical expertise and experience, was unable to do so. It was only through bizarre and amazing medical science and incredible planning and forethought by a number of individuals, including the Lieutenant's Captain, that he is standing here before you today, alive once again, so that he can testify.”

“Thus, I beg the court to understand and accept that on virtually every level, this case is based out of extraordinary and perhaps even unimaginable circumstances.” Dorian concluded.

Leaning back in his seat, Admiral Henry appeared contemplative for a moment. Tom Dorian had not technically violated any laws in any of what he had done, but he had pushed the limits of a number of proper procedures and ethical standards. It was a gamble that would either pay off ten fold, or one for which Dorian would lose more than just his shirt on. Taking in a deep breath, Henry exchanged looks with his compatriots on the tribunal, both of whom were virtually inscrutable. Though the curving forward tilt of the Andorian admiral's antennae indicated fascination and interest was primary amongst her emotions.

Finally, Henry finally began shaking his head in an affirmative fashion. “You make a very compelling, very dramatic argument, Mister Dorian. One which under lesser circumstances, I might allow my own displeasure with your theatrics and ethical ambiguities to persuade me to dismiss outright simply to teach you a lesson in the true conduct of a representative of this court,” Henry scolded. “However, given the importance of this case, and though I am sure this tribunal has many questions for which you must answer… we will allow the case to proceed so long as you can, in fact, demonstrate to us that this individual is, indeed, whom you claim.”

“Your honor, I must object!” shouted the agitated Venk, whom had bolted up from his seat once more.

Admiral Henry, already weary of the tiresome Ferengi, nodded as he held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Your objections are dually noted for the record, Counsel Venk. They are also overruled. If nothing else, take solace in the fact that such may provide your client with grounds for appeal, should he in fact be convicted.”

Displeased and more than likely fearful of his own client, Venk returned to his seat, leaning as far away from Faro as he could manage without looking wholly indiscreet.

“Lieutenant Hawk?” Henry prompted, turning his attention to the man at the center of the room whom was also at the center of the preceding drama. “Take the stand, if you would be so kind…”

With a single affirmative nod, Hawk did as instructed, moving across to the forward right corner of the room. Stepping up onto the raised dais, he took his seat and placed his hand atop the illuminated panel at his right hand. Immediately, the disembodied feminine voice of a Starfleet computer began to state the customary information.

“Verify, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk. Current assignment, U.S.S. Republic. Known alias, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Known alias, Nate Hawkins. Veteran of the Dominion War. Starfleet Command Decoration for Gallantry. Starfleet Award for Valor. Starfleet Citation for Conspicuous Gallantry. Additional General Commendations for Valor received on the following stardates: 51107.2, 51149.5, 51721.3, 52602.4, and 52901.6.” the Computer stated, pausing a moment before it continued. “Disciplinary Infractions noted on the following stardates: 50712.5, 51247.5–”

“Computer,” interrupted Admiral Henry, weary of the litany of information being reported. “how many disciplinary infractions are noted?”

With an affirmative response tone, the machine replied, “Fourteen.”

Raising an eyebrow, Henry glanced at Hawk briefly, then prompted the machine again, “Did any of these infractions result in formal charges?”


“Then continue.” Henry commanded.

Again, the machine hesitated a moment before complying, almost as if trying to rationalize Hawk's record. “Discharged from Starfleet under section 8 of the uniform code, stardate 53121.4. Commission conditionally reactivated stardate 56121.7 by order of Starfleet Intelligence. Official reinstatement by order of Starfleet Command, stardate 57403.2.”

With the readout finally complete, Hawk removed his hand from the illuminated biometric reader.

“You may proceed, Mister Dorian,” Henry instructed, leaning back in his seat somewhat.

Tom Dorian remained seated behind the prosecution table as he began his questioning. “Lieutenant Hawk, for the record, you and I have a prior personal acquaintanceship, do we not?”

Nodding, Hawk realized such would not be an accepted response, and so fumbled to vocalize, “Yes, we do.”

“And what is the nature of that relationship?” Dorian asked.

Shrugging slightly, Nat answered. “You're a friend uh Admiral Henry Toddman.”

“The current Chief of Starfleet Security,” Dorian stated rather than asked, “and how are you acquainted with him?”

“He served as ma legal guardian fer about a year an a half, when I was sixteen.” Hawk answered, his emotional defenses rising instinctively.

“Why was it necessary for you to have a legal guardian at that time?” Dorian asked as he rose to his feet placing his hands upon the surface of the table before him.

“My Aunt 'n Uncle, ma only livin' family, were killed in a shuttle accident. Pilot error.” Hawk explained, his tone dispassionate despite the simmering emotions beneath.

Pausing for effect, Dorian carried on his line of questions. “What happened to your parents, Lieutenant?” he asked gently, but also as if unaware.

Daring to look across the room and upon the seething visage of Keevan Faro, Hawk replied, “They were killed in the line uh duty. Murdered, matter uh fact, by the defendant.”

At this, Faro's attorney sprang once more to his feet. “Objection! My client has not been charged with any such crime, and furthermore the witnesses insinuation is prejudicial and unfounded!”

“Mister Venk's first point is correct,” Dorian responded, addressing the tribunal, “and the prosecution stipulates that the defendant has indeed never been charged with the murder of William and Laura Hawk, nor their two other children Liam and Kara whom also were the victims of the same tragic crime. If the court will allow me to continue, however, I'm sure even my esteemed colleague Mister Venk will be satisfied that I am not attempting to indict his client for those crimes.”

Nodding in the affirmative, Admiral Henry offered his ruling on Venk's objection. “You may continue, Mister Dorian, but be mindful that you're treading on rather thin ice here. The court has granted you more leeway than I'm comfortable with as is.”

Re-directing his focus to Hawk, Dorian kept at it as he stepped around the table in front of him and took a few steps forward. “Lieutenant, when did you first become aware of the theory that Mister Faro was responsible for your parents and siblings deaths?”

Even more on edge since his families names had been spoken, something Hawk himself had not done in longer than he cared to admit, the darkness he had buried for so long beginning to boil. “A few weeks after ma extraction from an undercover operation that put me in direct contact with the defendant.” Hawk answered, unwilling to speak the bastard's name aloud. He could feel his hands tense and form into fists involuntarily. He could feel Faro's eyes upon him, could see the Orion out of the corner of his eye even as he struggled not to focus on him. He was approaching a point beyond his ability to maintain any false degree of composure.

Seeing this, knowing this, Tom Dorian took another step forward as if to block his view of the other man, and pressed on. “Specifically, you were not made aware of such until well after your debriefing by Starfleet Intelligence, and the swearing out of statements, as well as the presentation of data evidence, that directly lead to the charges currently leveled against the defendant. Am I correct?” The question was leading, and could have been objected too, but it seemed Venk was unwilling to incur the ire of the tribunal further.

He had known the questions Dorian would ask, had known the strategy behind them, but hearing his families names spoken aloud in the presence of the monster whom had slaughtered them was more difficult than he had expected. Perhaps because he had always been so unwilling to discuss them, even to voice their names himself. Perhaps because the most primal part of himself was thrashing against the chains, rampaging to be let loose. “Yes sir,” Hawk replied through gritted teeth.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Dorian said gratefully. “May it please the court, let the record show that the sworn statements and evidence provided by Lieutenant Hawk as a direct result of his clandestine mission have not been tainted by his personal feelings towards Mister Faro.”

Raising one eyebrow slightly, Admiral Henry nodded in acknowledgement. “An unusual strategy, Mister Dorian. Impugning the credibility of your own witness before defense counsel can do so, so as to demonstrate the veracity of his previously sworn testimony. I must have missed that trial strategy during law school.”

Dorian tipped his head, a small smile creeping over his features as he responded, “It has the virtue of having never been tried.”

“Prosecutor Dorian,” interjected the Andorian Rear Admiral, identified as Tenaris, “though I understand your desire to certify the evidence proffered, you have yet to address the most pertinent issue of identity. According to Starfleet records, Lieutenant Nathan Hawk is deceased. You claim that such is both true, and false. You claim this man risen from the grave. Where is the evidence to verify those claims?” the blue-skinned female asked, her antennae drooping in indication she was growing weary of waiting.

Nodding his head quickly in an the affirmative, Dorian moved back towards the prosecution table and to an assortment of data PADDs atop it's surface. “Quite right, your honor. My humble apologies.” Scanning the data devices, he selected four of them before moving over towards the high-set bench at which the tribunal sat. Presenting each member with one of the PADDs, he likewise deposited the fourth with Venk at the defense table, before addressing the court once more. “Before you, you'll find a series of logs and records. Official ships logs from Captain Roth, the ship's Chief of Security, Lieutenant Zoe Beauvais, Chief Medical Officer Doctor Leon Cromwell, as well as a subordinate medical officer, Saal Yezbeck, and a visiting physician, Doctor Julian Bashir of station Deep Space 9. Additionally, the full medical files of Lieutenant Nathan Hawk prior to, at the time of, and in the wake of his demise, as well as upon his resurrection and continuing on to the recent present.” Dorian explained thoroughly. “The medical files are quite technical, and difficult for even anyone lacking a medical degree to fully deduce. However, they clearly demonstrate and affirm the identity of the witness.”

As each admiral looked over the contents of the PADDs before them, Venk attempted to share the data with his client, only to have the PADD slapped away by his displeased client. This prompted one of the two guards flanking him to take a warning step forward, but Faro had no intent of actual action. He was simply furious and uninterested. Skimming over the data, Venk quickly became confused and set the device down roughly on the table top before him, crossing his arms over his chest.

For their part, the members of the tribunal seemed much more interested in the contents. After a few moments, Tenaris leaned over towards Henry and conferred a whispered statement. Henry in turn leaned towards the balding Trill, Admiral Jenik Ral, and repeated the gesture and presumably the whispered statement. In response, Ral nodded his head in agreement as he kept his eyes on the PADD.

“The court will need time to examine and verify this evidence before we can continue,” Henry stated. “We will adjourn until 1300 hours, at which time we will hear testimony to both corroborate as well as clarify any lingering questions from the panel. Dismissed.” he concluded, reaching forward and clanging the small bell before him twice – a hold over from ancient Earth naval tradition.

As the tribunal rose from their seats and moved towards an exit directly behind them, the two security officers flanking Faro roused him from his chair, getting a bit rough when he attempted to thrash them away from him. Taking him by each arm, they lead him quickly from the court room as his attorney fumbled to collect a number of thicker Ferengi PADDs while keeping up with them. For his part, Nathan Hawk remained seated in the witness chair as Tom Dorian approached. “I think that went well,” he offered as he watched Faro being lead out, and across the hall into the anteroom Hawk had occupied earlier.

“I dunno if I can do this, Tom,” Nat replied in a quiet voice, his eyes focused on the door that Faro had just exited through. “Ya dun know how hard it is, ta sit here with him 10 meters away. How hard it is not ta just…” he trailed off, not specifying his thoughts, knowing Dorian could infer his intentions.

Placing his hand on Hawk's shoulder, Dorian crouched down to meet him at eye level. “We've got him, Nat. We've got him, I promise you. He'll spend the rest of his miserable, wretched existence rotting in this place. Just hang in there.”

Shaking his head from side to side, Hawk looked away off into the distance that wasn't there…

Chapter 23: Primum non nocereTop

As the legal proceedings resumed in the wake of the extended recess, one key figure in the midst of the days drama was noticeably absent. With his testimony unable to be resumed until after the tribunal had heard testimony affirming the data provided by the prosecution, Nathan Hawk had requested and been permitted to delay his return to court until he was needed further. With the revelation earlier that Hawk directly blamed Faro for the death of his parents and siblings, there was no reason to conceal his true feelings from the tribunal. He had asked Tom Dorian to inform them directly that he found it excruciating to even be in the same sector as the man, let alone in the same room. The thought of having to sit in the court gallery a scant dozen meters from the Orion was intolerable.

The first individual to be called was the Republic's Chief Medical Officer. Stepping up onto the dais that held the witness stand, the doctor placed his right hand palm-down flat against the back-lit surface of the identity scanner. Though such scans could now be done without a physical interface, the tradition established in the early 22nd century of using the devices had held out over modern technological evolution, and so they had continued to be used despite their antiquation.

With a chirp of acknowledgment, the computer voiced the appropriate litany of information. “Verify, Lieutenant Commander Leon Anderson Cromwell. Current assignment, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Science Officer, U.S.S. Republic. Veteran of the Dominion War. Starfleet Prisoner of War medal. Dominion Campaign Medal. Starfleet Extended Tour Ribbon with Clusters. Campbell Award in Life Sciences, twice awarded. Carrington Award in Medicine.”

“Doctor Cromwell,” Dorian began, remaining seated behind the prosecution table, “according to Republic logs, you were the attending physician of record who attempted, unsuccessfully, to administer life-saving efforts to Lieutenant Hawk on stardate 58120.8?”

“That's correct,” replied Leon soberly from the witness chair, his hands folded in front of him. Like Hawk, the members of the tribunal, and Captain Roth, he was clad in his dress whites.

“What was the official cause of death?” Dorian asked, leaning back in his chair as he did so.

Clearing his throat, Leon answered, “A molecularly engineered poison, in conjunction with severe physical trauma suffered as a result of multiple stab wounds.”

“Is this type of poison common?” Dorian asked, as he gently tapped a stylus against the table before him. The prosecutor gave off an heir of casual professionalism, bordering on disinterest. While the task before him was certainly important for legalities, it was also a bit of a formality. The documents he had provided more than spoke towards the verification of Lieutenant Hawk's identity. Questioning Cromwell was more for the sake of allowing the defense the opportunity to challenge such.

Cromwell shook his head from side-to-side briefly, as he answered, “No. In fact, it's quite unique.”

“Quite unique and quite lethal, am I correct?” Dorian asked. As soon as Cromwell answered in the affirmative, Dorian plowed ahead. “Why is that, exactly?”

Leon replied by talking with this hands, gesturing to the space before him as if to provide physical example to his verbal explanation, “Such poisons are designed to kill by changing their atomic configuration to different types of compounds so quickly that an antidote can't be synthesized in time. It's a process known as asynchronous isomerism. As a result, such poisons carry a ninety-seven-percent mortality rate.”

“Ninety-seven-percent mortality rate,” Dorian parroted, raising his voice for the court as he sat up in his chair and set the stylus down. He paused then to emphasize that figure. “This in addition to at least twelve identifiable stab wounds. In addition to direct damage inflicted to the left kidney, left lung, and the heart itself. The term 'over-kill' comes to mind in literal fashion.” Turning his attention back to Leon, Dorian addressed his next question. “With such extensive physical damage, such significant blood loss, why didn't you place Lieutenant Hawk into stasis?”

“In stasis, vital life functions are slowed, but not actually stopped. Even this minimal metabolic activity would have allowed the toxin to continue to inflict damage, negating the use of stasis.” Leon explained, unable to keep from recalling the emotions connected to the events of that day. Losing any patient was never easy. Losing a friend, especially so horrifically…

“In other words, if the Lieutenant had only been stabbed, stasis would have been a viable method of sustaining his life functions until the damage could be repaired?” Dorian offered.

“Objection, leading.” cited Venk from his seat, irritation evident in the Ferengi's demeanor.

“Sustained.” replied Admiral Henry objectively.

“I'll re-phrase,” responded Dorian, unperturbed. “Doctor, in your expert medical opinion, would stasis have been a viable method of sustaining Lieutenant Hawk's life-functions until the physical damage could be repaired if not for the presence of the toxin?” Dorian re-phrased, though treading the same line as earlier.

“Without a doubt,” replied Cromwell assuredly.

Placing his arms behind his back, Tom Dorian paced across the open space at the center of the court proper before he moved on to his next line of questions. “For the record, Doctor, were you part of the initial team that reanimated Lieutenant Hawk?”

Shaking his head from side to side, the doctor replied, a twinge of a sour note evident only to his voice for those who knew him, “No, I was not.”

“You were and remain the Republic's resident Chief Surgeon and head of the medical department, though.” Dorian stated rather than questioned. “As such, you did later take over as the Lieutenant's primary physician and thus, you are both fully versed and experienced with the experimental methods used, correct?”

“I am, yes.” Cromwell confirmed for the court.

“For the record then, Doctor, could you please review for the court the details of the reanimation procedure.” Dorian proffered as he made his way back to his seat.

Taking a deep breath, Leon launched into the narrative explanation he'd prepared for the court. “To begin with, a strain of synthetic reverse-engineered Borg nanoprobes were cultivated from a standard stock culture originating with Starfleet Medical. The biomechanical programming was performed by the Republic's deputy chief medical officer Doctor Saal Yezbeck and visiting physician Doctor Julian Bashir of station Deep Space 9. Both of whom specialize in bionics and genetics, respectively. Specifically, the programming consisted of a two-stage cellular support function triggered by cellular necrosis. The first stage interrupts necrosis by re-stabilizing organelle metabolism and membrane integrity, while also blocking mitosis by preventing interphase, thus maintaining the cell in a quiescent state. On a multi-cellular level, this would mimic death in metazoic organisms.”

“From there, the second stage is triggered when the cells begin to undergo apoptosis or autophagy, which can naturally occur during quiescence. In this stage, the nanoprobes re-enable cell interphase, allowing natural mitosis to resume for a healthy cell. Should the cell have been damaged during quiescence and accelerate its apoptosis, the nanoprobes were programmed to integrate themselves into the membrane or cytoplasm proper, and directly support cellular metabolism throughout interphase and mitosis. This second stage would effectively reverse the appearance of death over a course of time dictated by the extent of tissue damage in a dying organism. After re-animation, the patient is reliant on the nanoprobes for normal bodily functions until the damaged cells and their progeny are eventually eliminated through natural biological processes.” Cromwell explained.

“I must object,” stated Faro's Ferengi counsel, Venk, rising to his feet as he did so. Thankfully, the shrill-voiced alien had kept his volume in check for the first time thus far.

When the diminutive man offered nothing further following his objection, Admiral Henry graced him with a questioning look, as he asked, “On what grounds, Mister Venk?”

Shifting his feet, the Ferengi was clearly nonplused by the barrage of medical babble that had been offered as testimony, but clearly wasn't keen on admitting such. Slowly sitting back down in his seat, he lowered his voice even further as he withdrew his objection.

“You may continue, Mister Dorian,” announced Henry from the bench.

Silently acknowledging, the prosecutor resumed his questioning of the Republic medico. “So we're clear, Doctor, has this particular medical procedure been performed previously?”

“I'm afraid the answer is a bit ambiguous,” Leon replied. “Specifically, this exact procedure had never before been performed. However, a nearly identical procedure was performed aboard the Starship Voyager during her time in the Delta Quadrant. In that case, the patient had been deceased for over eighteen hours, where as with Lieutenant Hawk, less than half that duration passed. The specific differences are both subtle, and significant, depending upon your point of view. That said, the previous instance is certainly the foundation and blueprint of the procedure utilized on Lieutenant Hawk.”

“If this procedure is capable of reanimating someone up to eighteen hours after death has occurred, why hasn't it been utilized more often?” asked Dorian, honestly inquisitive about this question.

Pausing for a moment, Leon considered his response for a moment before voicing it. “Besides the potential risks involved following successful reanimation, there are a host of ethical issues both relating to medicine in general and as to the utilization of Borg-based bio-organic 'research' – which to put it bluntly, likely resolved from the forced assimilation of one or more sentient individuals or even species. As a result of the latter, the procedure has been kept heavily classified even as it's been researched for more than half a decade.”

Nodding in understanding, Dorian silently agreed with the reasoning for such, though didn't voice such. “Thank you, Doctor Cromwell,” he said instead, before directing himself to the tribunal and adding, “The prosecution has no further questions for this witness.”

Directing his gaze towards the defense, Admiral Henry inquired, “Mister Venk, do you wish to question this witness?”

“Indeed, your honor,” replied the Ferengi. Shooting up out of his chair, the pint-sized practitioner moved quickly across the court proper until he stood almost at the threshold of the dais upon which the witness chair was located. On instinct, Leon pulled back into the seat a centimeter or two as the Ferengi invaded his personal space. “You stated that you were not part of the team that claims to have reanimated Lieutenant Hawk: why?”

“Excuse me?” Leon asked, not quite certain of the question.

A hint or irritation seeping into his tone, the lightly-lobbed attorney re-phrased. “Why were you not part of the team that undertook such an auspicious medical undertaking, Doctor? As Chief Medical Officer, such should have fallen directly under your purview. Yet, according to your own log entries, you were completely unaware of the actions of your subordinates in your own sickbay. So I'll ask you again: why?”

Caught off-guard by the unexpectedly incisive question, Leon struggled for an answer. He knew the reasons he had been kept in the dark. However, they were buried deep into situations and realities that were he to delve into, would be akin to pulling at a thread of a rather large and complicated tapestry. How could he explain that his commanding officer had sought to insulate himself as well as her first officer from any recriminations from the Republic's crew by being the one responsible for lying to them? That she had seen herself as only a visitor to the ship she commanded? That such was so due to the manipulative power-plays of an ego-maniacal mad-man whom happened to, at the time, be a Starfleet Admiral whom had arranged for Roth's assignment in the hopes of installing a blindly obedient pawn as commander of a ship and crew that had thus far thwarted his efforts to promote his ideological viewpoint over the common sense good of the Federation?

To tread into any of that would be to shine a spot-light on things that they had little proof of outside of their own experiences, and that would certainly either consume the trial and derail it in totality, or make him and those he served with to look like outright paranoid and delusional fools and liars. Still, he could not lie outright. Not under oath. So he did the only thing he could, loath as he was to employ a tactic he had no respect for, and fell back on an age-old excuse. “My commanding officer made the decision not to involve me for reasons that are her own. You'll have to ask her.”

His response was a permutation on the defense 'I was only following orders' as well as the 'that's classified' response so commonly provided by Intelligence officers, likewise coupled with having passed the buck, as it were, to where it truly stopped. With Roth. It was the only option he found viable though, that didn't call into focus the many shades of gray that were involved. At least so long as Roth herself could figure out how to answer that question without running into the same mine field.

Though obviously dissatisfied with the response, the Ferengi seemed also aware that he had probed into a sensitive area that could yet benefit his client, and so Venk accepted the answer. “I believe I'll do just that, Doctor. When the time comes.”

Stepping back from Cromwell, he addressed the court as he moved back to his seat. “No further questions.”

“The witness is excused,” granted Henry from the bench.

As Leon stepped down from the witness stand and returned to the court gallery, he exchanged glances with his commander, and hoped that she could find a legal way to answer Venk's question when it came.

Chapter 24: The Best Laid PlansTop

Waking up in a strange place is bad enough, but waking up with a splitting headache, a missing partner, and a trashed secret identity brings the concept of karma and serendipity to a whole new level. Dragon still had no idea who it was that cut his lifeline back at Starfleet Intelligence, but it precipitated a series of events that left him completely stranded on Farius Prime.

Since his unique vocation in covert operations effectively erased his Federation citizenry credentials from the UFP civilian databanks, Dragon's identity within fleet intel was his only link to the living. Lieutenant Commander Douglas Forrest was a proxy identity, allowing him full access to all standard Federation benefits and services, as well as the “fringe benefits” supplied by the intelligence division. Once that identity was erased, his lifeline to the universe was cut, and the man named name Doug Forrest ceased to exist.

Cutting one's lifeline - while an effective measure to keep intelligence agents from defecting - left Dragon in a precarious situation. He had no credit account, no passport, and no means to prove who he said he was. Whenever his genetic scan was run through a typical commerce transaction, whether it be a public transporter alcove, or customs clearance, or even just a room for the night at a modern hotel, his profile came up empty.

Blank. As in “syntax error”. He might as well have never been born.

Of course, there were worse places to have one's lifeline cut than Farius Prime. Had it happened in the Federation, Dragon would have spent the next year and a half in at a penal colony or refugee processing center while immigration tried to figure out what to do with him. If it had happened in the Triangle, he probably would have been Shanghaied by pirates trying to run a blockade at a Klingon mining station resulting in his innards being scattered across the entire sector from a plasma torpedo.

However, on Farius Prime, it was neutral territory between all the major powers, and most importantly, they were still using paper currency. While Dragon's cybernetic enhancements were no match for the regular casinos' security monitoring, he was able to find his way into a few low-level street-corner Fizbin tournaments. After a few games, he was forcibly banned from most of the illegitimate alleyway games for cheating, but not before making off with a few wads of cash to tie him over until he made his next move.

That was four months ago.

As Dragon stood in the cramped and smelly public communications alcove, the rain pouring down on top of the metal roof was providing a nuisance-filled background static to the glitchy subspace transceiver screen in front of him. Displayed was the gruff, grizzled face of one of the Klingon junior officers that rescued him months ago from the Romulan kidnapping attempt. The Klingon was speaking in the abrasive undertone that most lower members of the Imperial Navy exhibit when they were being asked to do more than they bargained for.

“I've checked with our contacts in the Romulan Empire. They have no information on the whereabouts of McTaggart. If the Tal'shiar got their hands on him, he's probably dead.”

Dragon would not back down. “Look Atul, your ship is eighteen parsecs from here. Talk to your captain. Maybe he can swing by Farius Prime again and…”

“Dragon, you of all humans should know you don't demand anything from a superior officer on a Klingon ship. Borak and I have no plans to be eviscerated by our first officer. If we happen to stop by Farius Prime in the next three months, then you can work your silver tongue on our captain yourself. Otherwise, we're in no position to pick-up stray Earthlings because they can't find their way home.”

“What about the joint-services channel?” the former intelligence operative suggested, his anxiety rising. “Have you tried calling your contacts at Starfleet Intelligence?”

“I was nearly condemned to cleaning the plasma conduits for wasting my duty time on the subspace transmitter in order to make your call to Starfleet. Your black-uniformed kinsman had no interest in talking to us. It seems that they believe that Doug Forrest is alive and well, and living on Sol Nine.”

“Sol Nine?” Dragon asked quizzically.

“Yes, we were just as confused. The only facility Starfleet maintains on that rock is an uninhabited deep space telemetry relay. Why they think your alter ego is residing there is beyond us.”

“Sol nine… sol nine,” muttered Dragon, searching his distant memory. “Wait a minute! That's Pluto!”

“Yes, I believe that's what you Earthlings call that sorry excuse for a planetoid. Anyway, as soon as we brought that subject up, your intelligence friends went as cold as a targ's backside, telling us that the whereabouts of Doug Forrest is of no concern to us.”

Dragon finally put two and two together. Desperately, he laid out his line of thinking in front of his Klingon compatriot. “Atul! You don't understand! Pluto is ME! It was my call-sign in Task Force One before it was disbanded! Someone must be impersonating ME!”

“If that's the case, I guess that dabo girl I caught you with on Ferenginar seven years ago is in for a big surprise…”

Dismissing the Klingon's annoying chuckle, Dragon frantically made yet another request from his strained friendship with the junior intelligence officer.

“When you get within communications range of Earth, send an encrypted message to a guy named 'Saturn' at the Luna Base subspace mainframe! It's urgent! Tell him 'Pluto has been occluded'! Use those EXACT words! He'll know what they mean!”

“No promis…”

The image of the Klingon was abruptly replaced by a black screen displaying the words “PAUSED”, followed by a chipper electronic voice.

“Please remit 500 quatloos for the next two minutes.”

“No no NO!” he mumbled to himself while pulling out a handful of Farian coins. Sifting through ten and fifty-unit pieces, he was unable to find enough money to deposit in the currency receptacle before the Klingon on the distant end gave up and disconnected. Frustrated, Dragon switched off the communications console and opened the door to the alcove.

“I can't BELIEVE this!” he muttered as he made his way back out into the drenched sidewalks of Tajora Street. With tropical rain dribbling down his face, Dragon swore to himself. “If I ever find the p'tak who cut my lifeline…”

Returning to his run-down studio flat above the Galldean Roost tavern, sixteen weeks of failed attempts to communicate with contacts inside the Federation were etching lines of frustration into the forehead of the former intelligence operative. While Dragon was thankful to his Klingon benefactors for coming to his aid during the kidnapping attempt, he could feel that his favors running out with each communique. Making his way past the bar, he barely gave a wave to the bartender before climbing a set of steps in the back that led to a drab, trash-strewn hallway above the tavern. Stopping at the fourth door down, he pressed his thumb into the electronic latching mechanism. The door swung open only to reveal the suave figure of Cheshire, the Bajoran trill who accompanied Dragon and McTaggart to Farius Prime seven months ago.

“Still no luck?” she asked, standing in the doorway of the cramped apartment. Another of Dragon's benefactors, she was the one who pulled favors to get his old Klingon contacts to intervene during the Romulan snatch operation. Initially, she wanted both Dragon and McTaggart to be rescued, but when pressed by Atul and Borak for which one was more important, she naturally said Dragon.

Of course, Dragon had yet to forgive her.

“Couldn't you just wait downstairs until I got back?” he coarsely expressed his displeasure at her presence in his abode. Walking past her on a direct course for the lavatory, he patted down his wet face with a towel.

For her part, Cheshire's steely exterior was well honed to treat even the worst admonishment as trite. As combination entertainer and bouncer at the Galldean Roost, her situation since arriving on Farius Prime with Forrest and McTaggart was unique, but left her just as stranded as Dragon. First, the Bajoran embassy had voided her passport at the behest of the Ferengi ambassador due to a disagreement with the captain of the freighter Le'vosh. While the original negotiation to drop Sean and Doug off at Farius Primer went as planned, her clandestine attempt to shadow them as a backup hit several snags, not the least of which was the captain attempting to forcibly de-clothe her as soon as he discovered he onboard.

Big mistake by him.

By the time she reached Farius Prime, the captain was in a coma, her credit account had been frozen, and customs roughed her up to the point where she barely escaped arrest. Since then, she stayed in the shadows, watching Sean and Doug from a distance until the Romulan snatch operation threatened to deep-six them both. Needless to say, Dragon hadn't quite forgiven her for enlisting Atul and Borak to come to the rescue. While she could have found her way off Farius Prime herself to clear her name on Ferenginar, she stayed planetside out of loyalty to Dragon, and perhaps, a chance to redeem herself.

“You should be nice to me,” the Bajoran trill purred. “It's not everyday that a lady helps a man find his Shadow.”

“What?” Dragon stumbled out of the lavatory with intense scrutiny at her last words. As he did so, he spied a balding and black-bearded man in a leather jacket standing inside his apartment, hidden beside the open door. Saal held up a sheepish hand in greeting when their eyes met.

“Where the hell have YOU been?” blurted Dragon, taking a few more steps forward towards his old comrade in arms. “I sent a message out to you months ago! Did you just get it NOW?”

“Not exactly,” Saal replied.

Dragon gritted his teeth. “If I ever find that weasely Arcturian I paid to send the message over the Federation comnet, I'll…”

“Relax,” Saal interrupted. “It wasn't your Arcturian who messed up. The message got through, but it was delayed in the comnet buffer while Republic was on extended tour in the Gamma Quadrant.”

“What?” exclaimed Dragon. “You were only supposed to be in there a few months! Did Carter and Roth get you all lost?”

“Let's just say my immediate boss took us on a little rogue's chase through a nebula.”

“What? Cromwell?” he said with surprise. “I never knew he had it in him…”

“Neither did most of us,” shrugged Saal.

As the two got re-acquainted, the Bajoran woman shut the door quietly.

“I see you met Delores,” commented Dragon. “Aka, Cheshire.”

“In more ways then one,” the doctor replied sourly, rubbing his bruised ribs. Looking around the cluttered abode, he added “if you're here, where's McTaggart.”

A tense silence filled the room.

“They got him, Shadow,” Dragon mumbled in a regretful tone. “A group of Romulans ambushed us after we met up with Ramius. I haven't been able to track him down. He was probably taken off-world. My guess is he's on Romulus.”

Saal was apologetic. “Sorry, Dragon”

For his part, the former intelligence agent silently shook his head and tossed the damp towel onto a nearby chair. Clearing a few items off a table, he inspected a trio of semi-clean glasses and was preparing them for drinks.

“What brought you here in the first place?” Saal asked, breaking the silence. “Why Farius Prime?”

“When Sean and I first left Republic, we had a two-fold mission: find Kuga, and track down the source of the Gorn poison. The first part was easy. Sean and I split up for a few days. He worked on the Gorn poison while I traced Kuga's trail to the Gamma Quadrant. I found out that one of our intel contacts were already on the job - a guy named Livingston on the USS Coeus. One of Kostya's goons had her tied up in some kind of genetic experiment, and it took me no more than 48 hours to make my way into their operations and get Livingston what he needed to free her.”

“Republic eventually picked up her escape pod,” Saal explained the other side of the story with discontent recollection. “And you have NO idea just how crazy that whole situation was…”

“Anyway, after that, I high-tailed it back to DS9 to find out what ol' Sean came up with. The kid is sharp. By the time I got back, he'd dug up information about a Kafarian Freighter on course to Orion space with a pit stop at DS9.”

“The old man said something about that,” Saal commented about his brief communique from their old supervisor in the shuttlecraft. “But they didn't arrive at DS9 until a few months ago.”

“Yeah, well it was traveling at warp one-point-five. Anyway, the Merchant Marines stopped it a few parsecs out of Kafaria and did a customs inspection. They came up with nothing.”

Saal looked unconvinced. “One freighter? That doesn't sound suspicious at all.”

“It isn't unless you take into account that Kafarians have no consulate or trade agreements with the Orions,” the former intel officer explained. “What makes one Kafarian freighter inbound to Orion space suspicious is that they didn't try to hide their tracks. Orions are great at sending out decoy freighters to keep the Merchant Marines busy while they send out another freighter along the same route, usually using a cloaking device.”

“I remember,” Saal reminisced. “The Dixie operation. Those were good times…”

“Anyway, what really mattered was who the freighter belonged to. It may have been Kafarian in origin, but Sean downloaded the the ship's registry from Kafaria and traced it back to a guy named Ramius here on Farius Prime. So, Sean and I met up with Cheshire, and got passage here in order to find a way into Ramius' inner circle to figure out when the other cloaked freighter was supposed to arrive.”

“Great,” the Republic surgeon concluded. “So you intercepted the cloaked freighter here,” he theorized. “What did you find out?”

Dragon frowned, shaking his head. “Nothing,” he exclaimed. “That mission died as soon as Sean and I managed to get the information from Ramius. The Romulans ambushed us, and I woke up in the company of Cheshire and the Klingons… WITHOUT the information chip he gave me. I've been spending the last three months trying to figure a way to get McTaggart back, and thanks to my lifeline being cut, haven't been able to make it out of Maltabra City, let alone to Romulus.”

“The Gorn poison is a top priority for Fleet intel,” Saal reasoned. “Not to mention Starfleet Medical. You're going to give up on a mission THAT important just because someone stole your muju?”

“That's 'mojo'. Get your twentieth century vernacular straight. And to answer your question, yes. How am I supposed to play spy when I've got to play dabo just to pay for a stupid local subspace call?”

“That's not the Dragon I know,” Saal observed. “The Dragon I know would have defected to the Breen just to finish a mission.”

“Yeah, well THAT Dragon never lost a partner in the field. You're living proof. Besides, without my lifeline, I have no intel downlink and I there no way Ramius would give me the information twice.” While Dragon always uploaded all pertinent mission information to his remote dataspace at Starfleet Intelligence, it was all deleted as soon as his lifeline was cut, along with the information Ramius gave him.

“Intel didn't have me implant those cybernetics in your head for nothing,” Saal informed him. “Use those positrons of yours and calculate arrival time based on maximum speed and accounting for a three-day layover at DS9.”

There were times that Saal knew more about Dragon's implants than even Dragon did. Some capabilities were kept secret by fleet intelligence, and while Dragon knew of his own advanced abilities to make fast and complex calculations in his head, Saal knew that they were capable of much more. Although Dragon often utilized the implants to capture and store information perceived by his conscious mind, there was a secondary buffer that held information filtered through the implicit memory of his collective subconscious within the hippocampus. In plainspeak, it held images from his daily life that he didn't even know about.

As Dragon thought about the Kafarian freighter, he easily calculated the astrometric data for the easiest course from Kafaria to Farius Prime via Deep Space Nine. There were numerous stellar and deep space anomalies that perturbed the course, and using educated guesses of the delay time, he came up with a round-about figure.

“One month,” he said with annoyance. “Give or take a month.”

“Think harder,” Shadow edged him on, forcing his friend to focus on the last figure he just gave.

Saal knew that by focusing the implant processors for a higher level of precision, they would automatically access the implicit memory buffers. Without Dragon realizing it on a conscious level, an obscure flight plan that he and Sean briefly glanced at over seven months ago on DS9 was mixed in with countless other cargo manifests and sensor logs. The flight plan floated to the front of his mind, and on it, an anticipated arrival date came forth.

“Freighter T'kl'na has scheduled arrival clearance at Farius Prime on Stardate 58808,” Dragon spoke as if it were falling off the tip of his tongue. While it surprised both him and Cheshire, Saal smiled with assurance, knowing that the answer was hiding inside the cybernetic mind of his compatriot the whole time.

“That's fantastic!” Delores exclaimed. “A Vulcan couldn't do any better!”

“You should see him give an M-6A a run for it's money,” Saal said proudly.

“That was two days ago,” Dragon ignored the comments, focusing on the new data. “The cargo must have already been offloaded.”

“Yes, but probably held over at the customs processing center,” suggested Saal. “If they paid off the officials, they're probably transferring the cargo slowly in piecemeal to a warehouse somewhere. One gigantic load would be too suspicious.”

“If I had to guess, they're hiding it in a warehouse somewhere in the Kohol District,” Cheshire piped in. “It's where all the Red Ice dealings take place in the city, and a great place to hide illicit cargo.”

“I can tap customs,” Saal mentioned, gathering his gear together. “They got a nice payment from me to let me out of the spaceport without a search. I can probably convince them to let me know who was aboard that freighter and where they are now.”

“We'll meet up in the warehouse district in one hour,” Dragon concluded with a smile, feeling a surge of confidence at resuming his original mission. “It'll be just like old times…”

Chapter 25: Burden of CommandTop

“Verify, Captain Kimberly Lynn Roth. Current assignment, Commanding Officer, U.S.S. Republic. Veteran of the Dominion War. Dominion Campaign medal, outstanding unit citation. Meritorious Service Medal. Disciplinary Infraction noted on stardate 52803.8. Full Court Martial convened stardate 53021.7. Found Guilty on Charges of Willful Destruction of Starfleet property. Sentenced to Reduction in Rank, Three Years confinement at Starfleet Minimum Security Stockade on Jaros II.”

As the computer completed it's recitation of her minimalized service record, Captain Kim Roth kept her chin up as the old saying went, with the grace and dignity afforded her both by her own spirit and her rank. She had known and accepted years earlier that the single glaring blight on her otherwise unmarred and efficient record would follow her until and even beyond the end of her days. Though she was never pleased to have a spotlight shown upon such, she didn't shy away from it either. It simply wasn't who she was.

“Captain Roth,” began prosecutor Dorian, standing roughly mid-way between herself and his own seat, “as commander of Republic, it was under your purview that Doctor's Yezbeck and Bashir took steps to reanimate Lieutenant Nathan Hawk following his death on stardate 58120.8, correct?”

“Correct,” Roth confirmed, her hands folded atop her lap as she sat confidently in the witness chair.

“Tell the court, if you would, what lead you to plan for the eventuality of one of your own officers being murdered.” Dorian requested, as he leaned back against the prosecution table's front edge, preparing himself for a narrative.

Taking a deep breath in, Roth began, addressing her focus primarily to the tribunal. “When I took command of Republic, I was made aware by Starfleet Command that the ship's Helmsman had been restored to active service in Starfleet for his own protection. Specifically, protection from reprisal by the Orion Syndicate for his testimony against one of their elder members, the defendant Keev-” before Roth could even finish her sentence, Faro's attorney was on his feet.

“Objection! Prejudicial as well as presenting facts not in evidence! My client denies being in any way associated with the Orion Syndicate.” Venk declared.

“Overruled,” ruled Admiral Henry from the bench, “while you're clients association or lack of with the Orion Syndicate remains to be seen, the court is more than capable of differentiating between the witnesses suspicions and/or beliefs and the facts of the case.” As Venk returned to his seat, Henry nodded to Roth, “Please continue, captain.”

Without missing a beat, Roth picked up were she had left off. “Though unorthodox, anyone familiar with the history of pursuing legal action against anyone involved with the Syndicate can tell you, witnesses rarely tend to make it to trial. This tactic had the advantage of having never been tried. Initially, I didn't give the matter much thought. I believed, as Starfleet did, that the inherent security of being aboard a Galaxy-Class starship would be adequate protection. However, approximately ten months ago, it became evident to me that such was not the case.”

Spotting his cue from a kilometer away, Dorian asked the question he was supposed to. “What happened ten months ago to cause you to reach that conclusion?”

Her eyes narrowed imperceptibly as she recalled the events of their mission to Sigma Omicron V at the beginning of that year. “The Republic had been assigned to investigate a number of unexplained events occurring on a terraforming outpost located on planet Sigma Omicron V, near the Tholian border. Upon our arrival, I assigned Lieutenant Hawk to lead the away mission. Things initially proceeded in as standard a fashion as any away mission with such a task before them. However, in the midst of the mission, one member of the away team turned against the rest. The individual in question was our own newly assigned Chief Science Officer, Lieutenant Hranok. Or so we had been lead to believe.” Roth informed the court. For their part, the members of the tribunal exchanged guarded looks of surprise. A handful of station personnel in the gallery likewise murmured and whispered in disbelief.

“In truth, the individual was a con-man named Evok out of New Sydney whom had impersonated the real Lieutenant Hranok in order to get close to Lieutenant Hawk. Initially, it was only his own greed that prevented him from killing Hawk. Apparently, the bounty being offered by the Syndicate was double if Hawk could be captured alive. Unfortunately for him, he underestimated just how resourceful and resilient trained Starfleet officers can be. The away team was able to turn the tables on their captor, and though things were somewhat complicated in orbit by the presence and aggressive actions of a number of Tholian ships, they were able to return to the ship.” Roth concluded, tagging off back to Dorian in the loosely arranged manner they had devised the day before.

Catching the line cast to him, Dorian asked his next question. “That certainly explains why your opinion changed on the matter of standard ship-board security being adequate protection. Why not develop a plan that enhanced that security, though? Why go to such extreme lengths and devise a plan that actually required the Lieutenant's death in order to be implemented?”

Crossing her right leg over her left at the knee, Roth leaned back in the chair a bit. “In point of fact, I did take steps to increase ship's security as well as to minimize the possibility of anyone else with designs on the Lieutenant's life from making it aboard ship. But as someone once said, 'there is no such thing as absolute security' and indeed, I've found this to be especially true of the Galaxy-Class starship in my short tenure as commander of one. With over a thousand persons aboard, a healthy compliment of them civilians, open ports of call and a considerable volume of under-utilized space aboard ship in which to conceal one's self, it's a wonder to me what the boys and girls at Utopia Planitia were thinking when they designed her.” Roth critiqued, rather bluntly and with just a hint of annoyance in her voice.

“Further, in the aftermath of our mission to Sigma Omicron V, I requested that the Republic be assigned to a long-term exploratory assignment of some sort, in the hopes of reducing her public profile within the Federation. A request which was granted, as the Republic has spent the better part of this last year on an extended astronomical survey of the Ash'aar nebula in the Gamma quadrant. Again, though: 'there is no such thing as absolute security'. The con-man Evok failed to kill Hawk only out of greed, not opportunity. With that failure, the stakes were going to be raised. It was only a matter of time before someone else made an attempt on the Lieutenant's life. It seemed only prudent that in the event they somehow succeeded, we be prepared for that eventuality.” Roth explained.

Shifting positions as he leaned back against the table, Dorian continued their verbal choreography. “I suppose that all does make sense. How, though, did you arrive at the conclusion to utilize synthetic Borg nanoprobes to undertake such an ethically questionable reanimation procedure?”

“I'm afraid I can't take the credit for that,” Roth deferred. “As Lieutenant Hawk mentioned himself a few hours ago, he's acquainted with Admiral Henry Toddman, the current head of Starfleet Security. To that end, I inquired directly to Admiral Toddman concerning my desires for a last-resort plan aimed at thwarting any assassination attempt made. Admiral Toddman, in turn, sent out a high-level memorandum to a number of Starfleet officers whom he found personally trustworthy. It was one of these individuals whom concluded that the aforementioned synthetic nanoprobe reanimation procedure would be our best, if longest, shot at success.”

“And how did this individual come to that conclusion?” Dorian asked.

“Personal experience,” Roth replied. “The only other instance of this procedure being performed occurred aboard her ship seven years earlier.”

“The only other instance of this procedure being performed was aboard the Starship Voyager during her time in the Delta quadrant…” Dorian stated, caught by surprise. He and Roth had reviewed and prepared the bulk of her testimony the day before, just as he had done with Hawk and Cromwell. This particular revelation had not been included in his conversations with Kim Roth, though. ”…you're saying Admiral Kathryn Janeway herself devised this plan?“ he asked, somewhat incredulous at the levels to which this had reached. Kathryn Janeway was a hero of the Federation, her intrepid trek across the great unknown bounds of the Delta quadrant already the stuff of legend. Only a few ships beyond those that bore the name Enterprise, such as Excelsior, Defiant and most recently Titan ever achieved such notoriety. The harrowing adventure and survival of the meager science vessel and her crew was a story that had captured the hearts and minds of the Federation though.

“As my Chief Medical Officer testified, the procedure is heavily classified. Only a handful of individuals at Starfleet Medical even have access to the scientific data. As Voyager's former commander, Admiral Janeway was both familiar with the procedure and one of the only individuals outside of the Medical division to have access to the data. It was she who passed on both the idea and the required technical data to successfully implement the procedure with synthetic nanoprobes.” Roth revealed, inciting further murmurs of surprise from the gallery.

Recovering from the surprise he felt, and realizing that both his own evident shock coupled with the esteem and admiration many felt for Janeway had helped to bolster the legitimacy of this procedure considerably, Tom Dorian resumed his questioning. “I have just a few more questions, Captain,” Dorian stated, returning to their earlier arranged system of cues, “Doctor Cromwell stated that the procedure was performed by both Republic's deputy chief medical officer, Saal Yezbeck, as well as Doctor Julian Bashir whose been the Chief Medical Officer of station Deep Space 9 for the past dozen or so years. How and why did Doctor Bashir come to be involved as well as aboard the Republic?”

“Doctor Bashir has some experience with covert operations, and further is one of the top physicians in the fleet with an extensive knowledge of genetics. Admiral Toddman personally requested his participation some time before Republic arrived at Deep Space 9 prior to the beginning of our assignment in the Gamma quadrant. He was placed upon detached duty, allowing him to officially remain as the listed Chief Medical Officer of Deep Space 9 while likewise accompanying us.” Roth revealed.

In the gallery, Leon Cromwell had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. He had always thought Bashir's reasons for remaining aboard Republic a little hard to swallow, but had never had direct confirmation of such until now. Then again, he'd never pressed Roth for such either. When he'd confronted her initially about the entire business, it had been one of the few loose ends he'd never tied up. When that realization had struck him a few days later, he had decided to leave well enough alone rather than pick at the proverbial scab over such a trivial matter.

As Tom Dorian prepared to ask his final question of Captain Roth, he took a few steps forward and to the left. His back to the Republic commander, he looked directly at the defendant as he queried: “One last question, Captain. Was there anything else you sought to accomplish with this plan, besides saving Lieutenant Hawk's life?”

At this question, Roth herself allowed a tiny smile to play at the corners of her mouth, as she too directed her gaze in the general direction of the defendant. “As a matter of fact, yes. It was hoped that the party responsible for murdering the Lieutenant would promptly report their success back to the Alpha quadrant via subspace. That such an affirmative report would lead the defendant, whom had escaped custody and fled civilization out of fear of prosecution, to return to New Sydney in order to 'clear his name' of the charges levied. Which as it happens is exactly what occurred just a few weeks ago.”

One didn't need a medical tricorder to note the physical effects this revelation wrought upon the green-skinned Orion. The deep green hue of his skin flushed a dark evergreen, as a vein in his forehead visibly pulsated beneath his thin, aged skin. Having Hawk show up alive and well in court this morning had enraged the elder man fiercely. Learning that there had been a plan in place to resurrect Hawk before his latest assassin had ever come aboard had added much fuel to that fire. Now, to find out just how completely he had been made a fool of by these cloying, pathetic, weak Federation children was nearly enough to send him over the edge.

Leaping from his seat quicker than anyone over the age of sixty had a right too, he slammed his fists down upon the desk with enough fury dent the metal surface. Most everyone in the court was startled by the outburst, accept for the guards directly behind him. Before his outburst tantrum could go any further, each of the guards grabbed hold of his diminutive upper arms with thick hands that conveyed each man's considerable strength and stature. The only person in the court who didn't offer any reaction was Thomas Aidan Dorian, whom had never so much as flinched in response to Faro's sudden action.

“Order!” exclaimed Admiral Henry from the bench. “Mister Venk, instruct your client to compose and control himself, or he will forfeit his right to be present and be removed from these proceedings.”

“Of course, your honor. My apologies,” replied the miniscule Ferengi, struggling to maintain his own professional composure in the face of the physical fear he felt from his own client, despite the man's rather average stature and advanced age.

Keeping his eyes locked upon Faro's for a few moments longer, Dorian finally turned back towards the tribunal. “No further questions, your honor.”

As the prosecutor returned to his seat, the defense counsel in the form of a very anxious looking little Ferengi rose to his feet and took a moment to straighten the lapels of his rather subdued business suit. At least, subdued for a Ferengi. Though it lacked any of the garish colors or patterns commonly donned by most of his race, the outfit was certainly Ferengi in cut. Long lapels trailed behind to just above his knees, the chest over-exposed with the front end of the jacket cut far too high. Capped off with an over-sized gold-pressed latinum clasp that held the suit jacket closed and equally gaudy cuff-links in the form of miniature bars of the economic unit of currency. It was a design singular to his race. Only the dark tones and thin pin-striping allowed him to resemble a serious lawyer.

“Captain Roth,” Venk began, as he remained standing behind the newly dented defense table, “you claim that an individual identified only as 'Evok' boarded your ship, impersonated a senior officer with an extensive expertise in the sciences, and kept up this ruse without raising suspicion?”

“That's correct,” Roth affirmed.

“Where is this individual?” Venk rejoined almost before Roth had finished answering.

Roth paused for a moment before explaining, “He took his own life rather than be captured.”

“How unfortunate,” remarked the defense lawyer, as he paced out slowly from behind the table. “What of the individual whom you claim 'assassinated' Lieutenant Hawk? Are they in custody?”

Roth fought the urge to sigh, and indeed defeated it, as she responded, “No. She was, herself, killed by an undercover intelligence officer whom had been tasked with protecting Lieutenant Hawk.”

“That's rather convenient, wouldn't you say?” Venk queried.

“On the contrary,” Roth replied, looking the Ferengi dead in the eye, “had either of them survived, Mister Dorian would be able to add additional charges against your client.”

At this, the pint-sized Ferengi smiled a sharp, jagged, toothy grin. It was the face not even a mother could love. “Why did you allow Lieutenant Hawk to remain aboard the Republic once his location was known such unscrupulous individuals?”

Roth considered the question, perhaps consciously for the first time, before answering. She knew the answer, but wasn't eager to explain her motivations to this scum-sucking lawyer. “Besides the fact that he's a valued officer… I suppose I identified with him. Perhaps more so than an objective captain should. He had lost a great deal, and was fighting to make a new life for himself, just beginning to succeed on Republic. I know what that's like. He wanted to stay, and I wanted to let him. Perhaps I shouldn't have.” she admitted, her voice low and introspective. Confidently, she added, “But that bridge has been crossed. There's no sense second-guessing things now.”

“Perhaps not. Rule of Acquisition number twenty-seven says it best; regrets are like debts - best to be forgotten.” acknowledged Venk. Stepping closer to Roth, he continued his cross-examination. “A short time ago, I asked your Chief Medical Officer why he had not taken part in the action to resurrect Lieutenant Hawk. His response was that I should ask you. Consider this me asking.” he stated, once again treating her to his unsightly and smarmy grin.

Roth offered a forced smile of her own. “While I'm appreciative of my CMO's deference in not wishing to speak for me, I'm happy to tell you the same thing I told him when he asked me more or less that same question a number of months ago. The Republic is a fine ship, but she's been through a hell of a lot. She's lost a great many of her senior officers time and again to transfers and tragedy. She even lost her first commander, my immediate predecessor, Captain James Marshall. Through it all, she has maintained only two constants. Doctor Cromwell, and my first officer, Commander John Carter. They have both been with the ship since her launch, and I didn't want either of these men to have to lie, either purposefully or by omission, to a crew whom had come to trust in them above all others. It was my burden to bare, both as Captain and at the time, the relative newcomer. If the crew were to feel betrayed, if something were to go wrong and someone had to be blamed, I wanted such placed squarely upon my shoulders in the best interests of preserving unit cohesion.” Roth stated. It was not a lie; but it was not the entire truth. Like Cromwell, she had walked a fine line upon an ethical tight-rope.

Clearly disappointed with her response, he favored her with a less enthusiastic (and as a result, less toothy) smile. “Admirable,” was all he offered in reply. Turning away, he spoke loudly so as to be heard by the tribunal as he moved back towards his seat. “The defense has no further questions for this witness.”

“Very well,” remarked Admiral Henry from the bench. “The court will take a fifteen minute recess,” he tacked on, as he tapped the ceremonial bell signaling the cessation of activity.

Chapter 26: Blood on the ScalesTop

A thin tendril of gray smoke rose up from a charred black circle of scorched fabric and flesh set mid-center upon the chest of the green-skinned corpse.

The unmoving body, his eyes wide with shock, was sprawled out across the court room floor next to the up-ended defense table.

It was the focus of attention for every person gathered in the court room.

Including the man whom had inflicted the mortal wound who still stood at the threshold separating the gallery from the court proper, the compact form of a type-two hand phaser still clutched in his right hand. Still aimed at the dead alien's empty physical presence.

That man holding the phaser was Lieutenant Nathan Hawk.

The dead man was the defendant, Keevan Faro…

…He had moved with the speed of a man one-quarter his age, the agility and strength of a champion athlete. It had been a dizzying array of maneuvers that had been impossible to follow, both due to the haste of their delivery and the surprise at their source. The old Orion man had propelled himself backwards in his seat by kicking off the table before him with both legs. His boney elbows had caught each of his guards in the abdomen, knocking the breath from their lungs and forcing each to double over. Before either could recover their senses, the Orion had followed up on the first strike by slamming his fists into the base of either guards skulls.

Before anyone else in the court room could begin to react, the aged green-skinned alien had dropped from his chair to his knees between the two. With the practiced grace and ease of a skilled pick-pocket, he deftly slid the type-two hand phaser from the holster of the Saurian officer on his left, jamming it into the security officer's chest and pressing the firing stud in one motion. The beam could not even fully evacuate it's lethal charge of energy into the large-eyed man's body by the time the Orion had turned it on the Tellarite guard on his other side, leveling it at the man's hairy skull. “Move a muscle and you're dead!” he growled to the dazed snout-nosed security guard as he slid the phaser from the other man's holster with his remaining free hand.

In response to the phaser fire, the automated security of Ananke Alpha had kicked in to high-gear. Every point of entry to the court room had clanked with the activation of mechanical locks as force-fields sprung up around them. An alert siren had blared to life, sounding a pulse of three deep unfamiliar tones as the computer announced the lock-down and switched to a ghostly red emergency lighting. Nearly everyone in the court had hit the deck, ducking down for cover on instinct incase the Orion began to fire wildly. One of the few people who had not done so was Nathan Hawk. The star witness had just entered the court room to begin his testimony flanked by his shadows, Ragnar and Nort, each of whom had whipped out their own phasers in response.

Seeing this from behind his Tellarite humanoid-shield, Keevan Faro took his shot at the focus of his animosity. The man whom had breached his paranoid barriers and earned his trust. The man he had tried and even succeeded in killing, only to have the man's ghost taunt him by returning from the grave. The reaction of one of Hawk's security shadows was quicker than the lance of golden energy that shot out across the court room. Throwing himself in front of Hawk, the Laurian ensign Nort absorbed the phaser beam in his left shoulder, the impact sending his limp and bulky form backwards into Hawk and forcing them both to crash roughly into the gallery of seats behind them.

Ragnar, an accomplished marksman, fired a shot in return at the Orion. The beam barely missed by centimeters, passing so closely over the shoulder of his Tellarite colleague as to singe the uniform fabric. Knowing better than to remain standing out in the open without cover, Ragnar hurled himself forward across the aisle towards the gallery of seats as Faro retaliated, missing the Angosian and hitting the wall behind him. As Faro positioned himself behind his Tellarite hostage, using the man's bulky form as a barricade against Ragnar, he pulled the defense table he had forced onto it's side when kicking off of it for leverage over closer to him. He was about to manuever it between himself and Ragnar when the only other person with a phaser in the court – the Vulcan bailiff stationed behind the witness chair – took his own shot.

And missed.

Having nearly forgotten about the Vulcan, Faro kept one phaser pushed deep into the back of his hostage as he directed the other towards the bailiff, who was crouched behind the witness chair for cover. His fired and missed with his first shot, and knew he was likely to miss with a second so long as the Vulcan had cover. Increasing the charge setting to maximum, Faro's second shot didn't even try to hit the Vulcan – but instead made haste of the witness chair, vaporizing it in an instant. Before the Vulcan could seek out new cover, Faro had swapped the high-set phaser into his hostage's back and brought the lower-set one to bare on the bailiff and fired. The shot hit square in the right shoulder, and spun the Vulcan around once before dropping him to the deck with a thud.

With the Vulcan vanquished, Faro pushed the upended metal table within reach of his Tellarite hostage, before ordering him to move it further in front of himself. Silence had then fell upon the court room for the moment. As it did, everyone took stock of themselves and each other. Prosecutor Dorian and Faro's own attorney, the Ferengi Venk, were crouched behind the up-ended prosecution table. Captain Roth, Leah Warner and Doctor Cromwell on the floor in front of their seats in the gallery, wishing their own shadow security officers were present as they had been earlier rather than across the hall in the ante room. Four more phasers would have made a hell of a difference right now. Only five native personnel from Ananke Alpha had remained through the recess, three engineers and two science officers - none of whom were armed. Which left only junior Lieutenant Ragnar as armed opposition against the murderous Orion.

Or so it had seemed.

Half buried under the bulk of his unconscious but still breathing Lurian protector, Nathan Hawk had struggled against every impulse running through both mind and body to remain still. More than anything else in the universe, he had wanted to rise to his feet and charge across the court at the Orion. Instead, he had kept his wits about him, biding his time for the most opportune moment. As he did so, he eyed the sleek form of Nort's type-two hand phaser, which had fallen from his grasp and skittered to a stop beneath a chair less than a meter from Hawk's head. After what had seemed like an eternity of silence, it was the baritone voice of Admiral Henry that had rung out from behind and below the judicial bench.

“Faro!” the dark-skinned man had called out. “What do you hope to accomplish by this?” he asked, incredulous as to what the Orion could be thinking.

“You could never understand, human!” shouted back the infuriated Orion with disgust as the mention of the Admiral's race. “You smug, self-righteous, self-anointed guardians of the galaxy – you've never tasted reality! You've never tasted real life, real freedom, real desperation, real anything! You live in your fantasy utopia, looking down your noses at the rest of the universe! As if you have the right to judge anyone else! Your like the Dominion, or the Borg – just less honest! You spread out across the stars like a plague, destroying everything you come in contact with! All the while, you preach tolerance and acceptance! Respect and sovereignty! As long as you like what you find! As long as it fits the mold you've set for society! But oh, when you find something you don't like, something you don't understand! Oh, then you vilify it! Judge it! Criminalize it! And do everything in your power to destroy it! To eradicate the 'blight' of true diversity from your precious Federation existence!” the Orion had ranted contemptuously.

“What the hell are you talking about, Faro!?” Tom Dorian had demanded from behind the prosecution table.

“I'm talking about hypocrisy Dorian! I'm talking about the sanctimonious arrogance that is the foundation of your precious society! The cloying, insidious nature with which you weasel your way into the hearts and minds of the plethora of races stupid enough to buy into your pretentious Federation ideals!” Faro had spat back bitterly. “You claim to respect diversity, to respect other cultures and traditions, to respect other ways of life not your own. It's all a ruse! A lie! One most of the masses of your population are dense enough to truly believe! But anyone with a mind of their own knows the truth! Sees it for what it is! Sees the Federation as the truly great threat to the galaxy that it is!”

“Faro, it's over!” Admiral Henry had shouted once more, “You've just killed a Starfleet officer in front of more than a dozen witnesses! You may have killed two more! This entire station has been locked down! There's no escape! Give yourself up now before you get yourself killed!”

“You think I want to escape?” Faro had asked, as he'd begun to laugh, clearly either on the verge of madness or of a mental break-down. “Where would I go? Hrm? There is no where your Federation doesn't infect, not anymore!” declared the elder Orion. With something like nostalgia in his voice, he'd kept on talking. “Oh when I was a young man, the galaxy still had some individuality to it! But you all, you've managed to snuff that out, now haven't you? You took a fragile peace of non-aggression between you and the Klingons that you began when I was buy a boy, and have grown it deceptively into a true alliance, a downright friendship! You've turned those wonderful warriors into little more than lap-dogs! Their current Chancellor hand-selected and even appointed by a Starfleet officer! The one before appointed when his challenger was killed by that same officer a decade earlier! The same officer who then was made Federation ambassador to Kronos so he could continue his task of puppeting the empire on behalf of the Federation! Astounding coincidence, all of it, don't you think?!” Faro had ranted.

Not letting up, he kept on with his analysis. “Then there's the Romulans! Your treachery at Tomed scared them back into their own borders for the better part of this century, which preserved their culture for a while. Now that they've returned to the galactic stage, you've done everything to try and conquer them with your words and your ideas! Overtures upon overtures for 'peace' while you work against their stability! While one of your best and brightest, the same Vulcan who began your alliance with the Klingons at Khitomer, works to distill their culture from within by trying to placate the populace with Vulcan logic! You even managed to install a human as praetor for a time!” he railed, snorting laughter once more.

After a brief pause, the Orion had resumed his tangent. “But we're forgetting the Cardassians. Oh what a wonderful, proud people they were. You managed to guilt them into surrendering Bajor, only to miraculously discover the only stable trans-galactic wormhole within days of taking over! What a coincidence! The commerce and opportunity it could have brought to their empire would have sustained them for centuries! To make sure you held onto that prize, you even had your top Starfleet officer in the sector declare himself speaker for the Bajoran gods! It's unbelievable! That wasn't enough though! Oh no, then you had your lap-dog Klingons and your own conveniently 'rebellious' Maquis drive the poor Cardassians straight into the arms of the Dominion!” Faro had harangued.

Keeping on his soapbox, he had continued. “Oh the Dominion! How I love them! They actually gave you a run for your money, now didn't they? They were strong enough to resist your ensnaring duplicity! But even as they struck back and tried to do the galaxy a favor by eradicating you like the parasites you are, you turned their challenge into an opportunity! Bringing you even closer with your momentarily disobedient Klingon pets, and even getting you shoulder to shoulder with the Romulans for the first time! How proud you must have been!” the Orion had spouted.

“Then there are the Ferengi! They were the real deal! Greedy, manipulative, scheming, bribing… oh they could be a trifle annoying, but at least they didn't meddle in everyone's affairs! It took you less than a decade to assimilate them, now didn't it? Promoting your Federation ideals through a handful of malleable souls, all of whom happen to be related to the consort of the Grand Nagus! Poor, foolish Zek! He even appointed a bleeding-heart Federation empathizer as his replacement! His own son's in Starfleet! Few more years and they'll take their place as another conquered civilization under Federation rule.” Faro had pontificated.

As the Orion had verbally assailed the Federation, having combined loose facts and half-truths with conspiracy and suspicion, the Angosian Lieutenant Ragnar had made use of the Orion's distracted attention and the dim red hued lighting designed specifically to impede vision. He had slowly wriggled his way across the floor behind the back row of gallery seats, away from the center aisle. Meanwhile, unknown to either Ragnar nor anyone else in the court room, Nathan Hawk had extricated himself from beneath the hulking Lurian's stunned form and retrieved the ensign's phaser. Having crouched behind a chair near to where he had fallen, he waited and watched for an opportunity to present itself.

As he had waited, his mind had ran through the realities of the situation. As much as he had dreamed of taking his revenge on Faro, he had never wanted anyone else put at risk to achieve such. This situation was not his doing, though, he had reminded himself. Faro had chosen to act, Faro had murdered at least one Starfleet officer and continued to threaten the lives of others. Hawk had done nothing to precipitate this course of actions. As he had gripped the type two phaser in his right hand tightly, he couldn't help but think how thankful he was despite the costs to have been presented with the chance to avenge himself. It had been a thought unworthy of a Starfleet officer, but one he had not felt the need to apologize for…

…Looking upon the carcass of the Orion sprawled upon the floor, then glancing down to consider the phasers that had fallen from his hands, Admiral Thomas Henry finally settled upon looking at Lieutenant Nathan Hawk.

The Republic helmsman had lowered his own weapon finally, but had kept his eyes unwavering upon Faro's remains.

The hate was evident to anyone who looked upon the young man. As was the satisfaction that did little to ease the pain of loss he had carried with him for most of his life.

Though the argument could be made that Faro need not have been killed, that the phaser in Hawk's hand could have been set to a low stun setting, it was not an argument Henry was intent on making.

Keevan Faro had been driven by blood-lust and madness to take the lives of two Starfleet Officers, seriously wounding a third and taking a fourth hostage. He had been prepared to take his own life, and to take all of theirs with him.

Any action taken to stop him from such was justified as far as he was concerned.

To that end, he took a few steps forward and stood before the Lieutenant whom had come here today to testify in a court of law. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” Henry said quietly, as he patted the younger officer on the shoulder. Understanding the real intent of Henry's words, Hawk offered a subtle nod in acceptance and thanks. Tapping his communicator as he took a step away, Henry raised his voice as he called out, “Henry to Operations.”

“Operations here, Admiral,” erupted a voice from the comm-system, that of Administrator T'Lau, “Security protocol is in effect.”

Nodding despite the fact T'Lau could not see him, Henry acknowledged the coded phrase meant to allow him to alert her should he be under duress and offered the appropriate response to indicate the situation was under control. “Understood and acknowledged. The situation is status green, Commodore. I say again, status green.” he reported.

Instantly, the lights in the court room resumed to full standard illumination as the force-fields surrounding the doors de-energized. “Casualties?” asked T'Lau, as the mechanical clank of the physical locks deactivating echoed through the court, followed quickly by the doors parting. Like a swarm of insects, a dozen armor-clad security officers entered from the main entrance and the smaller such behind the judicial bench that lead to the tribunal's chambers. Having monitored Henry's report, their phaser rifles were pointed to the deck as they fanned out across the court. Trailing behind them were two separate medical teams, one of whom moved to the Lurian ensign Nort, the other to the Tellarite crewmen whom had been taken hostage after a brief physical assault.

Leon Cromwell meanwhile stood up from where had rushed to check on the Vulcan bailiff as soon as the situation had been resolved. Unfortunately, it had been too late to matter.

“Two of your security personnel have been killed,” Henry reported to T'Lau as he exchanged regretful looks with Cromwell, “a third was seriously wounded, and a fourth shaken up and assaulted.” Pausing for a moment, the older Admiral considered the lifeless body of Keevan Faro once again. “The defendant's also been killed.”

With the practiced calm and emotionally absent coldness of a Kolinahr master, T'Lau acknowledged the situation report before providing one of her own. “We received a narrow burst transmission from your present location. The transmission contained an algorithm that attempted to commandeer our systems in order to perpetuate it's own transmission across all available subspace bands. It was only do to our security safeguards that we were able to prevent it from succeeding and transmitting beyond the confines of Ananke Alpha.”

“What sort of transmission was it, administrator?” Henry asked, his curiosity piqued.

“It appears to be a data file archive, containing several gigaquads worth of text, audio and video files segregated within several hundred sub-folders.” reported T'Lau.

It was Dorian who put it together. “The dead-man's switch!” he exclaimed, astonished. “He must have had the data on him!”

Shaking his head, the newly arrived Commander Akeen disagreed, “That's not possible. Faro's been scanned at least twice a day since the moment he got here. Our scanners can pick any sort of artificial implant, no matter how microscopic or well camouflaged. They're designed to be the most detailed, and programmed to be as paranoid as a computer system can be.”

“Excuse me,” interjected Rear Admiral Tenaris, her antennae tilting forward, “what exactly is a 'dead man's switch'?”

“The holy grail,” Nathan Hawk replied, the first words he had spoken since entering the court room to resume his testimony amidst Faro's violent rebellion from captivity. He sounded unusually calm and distant, almost removed from the recent events and actions – including his own.

Realizing that Hawk had no intentions of actually explaining things to the Rear Admiral, Dorian came to his verbal rescue and did so in his place. “Keevan Faro is–was a paranoid lunatic, to put it mildly. It's what kept him alive so long, and kept him from rising to a real position of leadership in the Syndicate for the past forty years. No one could ever prove it, but, it's been rumored for decades that he kept some sort of collection of information on his fellow Syndicate members, both above and below him. The kind of information that could cause a lot of trouble for the Syndicate, in any number of ways, not the least of which is legally. The rumor alone has been enough to keep anyone from trying to take him out for… well, forever.” Dorian explained.

“The 'dead man's switch' aspect, specifically, is a term for a fail-safe device from old Earth. The rumor was that there was some sort of mechanism somewhere, that should Faro be killed, or fail to reset it, would release the information automatically. The ultimate insurance policy, in a sense. No one could ever prove it or find it though. There was even some hope that when he was arrested and sequestered, perhaps his inability to communicate with the outside world would cause it's release, but that hadn't happened yet. With all the safe guards and security of Ananke Alpha, though, combined with the fact the transmission came from here, inside this room…” Dorian reasoned, trailing off as he looked upon Faro's deceased self.

Adamant, Commander Akeen shook his head once again side to side and declared, “Impossible. There is no way he could have concealed any sort of device, let alone something capable of subspace communication. He had no implants, no microprobes, not even a single nano-probe. Nothing artificial of any kind, anywhere on or in his body.” the Capellan stated firmly.

Now it was Leon Cromwell's turn to offer a hypothesis as he stepped away from the deceased Vulcan bailiff, whose remains were being loaded upon a stretched by a third medical team. “What if it wasn't artificial? What if it was some sort of totally biological technology?”

“There's no way someone could make an organic subspace transmitter. It's beyond even the Borg or the Dominion's level of bio-technology.” argued Roth, having trouble with the concept herself.

“One way to find out,” Leon said, looking towards the corpse across the room. “Anyone have a tricorder?” he asked. Without audible reply, one of the Ananke Alpha personnel in science blue proffered just such a device from her hip, clearly intrigued herself by Cromwell's theory. Accepting it, the Republic surgeon moved to the remains of the one-time senior member of the Orion Syndicate. There he spent the next three minutes configuring and then reconfiguring the tricorder a half dozen different ways, before an excited tone emanated from the handheld device.

“There!” he exclaimed, as a number of people gathered around. “There's some sort of unidentified biological mass at the base of his brain. It's barely two centimeters at it's largest, and shows up as normal neural tissue to almost every scan. Only a physician would spot it at all, and only if they were looking at it side-by-side with a diagram of standard Orion physiology. In every other manner, it reads exactly as it should. There's no scar tissue, no indications of surgical implantation or abnormal growth, no bio-chemical signatures… it's remarkable…” reported the Republic physician.

“It doesn't make sense,” Vice Admiral Henry mused quietly, though not quiet enough to keep from drawing the assembled groups collective attention. Realizing this, he voiced his confusion. “Clearly, Mister Faro knew he had this… whatever it was. Clearly, he knew what it contained and how it could be triggered. If it's as you speculate, that it's triggered by his death… then why did he do it? He was clearly abhorrent towards the Federation. The last thing I imagine he would want would be to betray his brethren in the Syndicate. Yet he put himself in a position where he ensured his own death. He even tried to take his own life. Why would he do that?”

As everyone considered what the Admiral had said in silence for a moment, it was Hawk who put the pieces together this time.

“I think ya hit the nail on the head, Admiral,” Nat stated, “sonuvabitch tried ta kill 'emself. Not just die, but die by his own hand. Crazy man who just wants ta die, he'll grab a phaser 'n make it happen. Let 'emself get killed. He didn't. He tried ta kill 'emself. Ma guess is… maybe that way, if he'd bin the one ta make it happen, maybe the damn thing wouldn't uh triggered…”

…In the wake of Faro's paranoid tirade, silence had befallen the court room once again.

The next move had been Faro's, and everyone had known that.

After perhaps a minute had passed with no further diatribe forthcoming from Faro, the muted chirp of a phaser being reset emanated from his approximate position behind the defense table. At first, it was presumed he had simply been adjusting the charge on the phaser used to vaporize the witness chair, likely lowering it. When an energetic sound had begun to build to crescendo, it had become obvious what the Orion's intent had been.

He had set at least one of the phasers to overload.

In a confined space such as they were in, the concussive force of the explosion would be more than enough to kill most everyone in the room.

There had been no choice but to act.

“Faro, you crazy son of a bitch! You'll kill us all!” Tom Dorian had shouted, despite his certainty that such had been Faro's intent.

“I will not be your Federation's trophy! I will not let you destroy my people! I may die here today, but there are others who think as I do. Who recognize the threat of the Federation! You may win this battle, but you will not win the war!” Faro had declared, almost bordering on delusional with messianic overtones. His mental health had always been suspect, what with his extreme paranoia. Clearly, the strain of the past year spent on the lamb, his recent arrest, the trial and it's surrounding events, had pushed him over the edge.

There had been no way for any of the Starfleet officers present to communicate. No way for them to strategize and devise a plan. As each individual had taken action, they had simply needed to trust in their fellow officers to do the same. Having believed only the Angosian soldier Ragnar to be armed, it had been up to those who had lacked such means to draw the Orion's focus.

Admiral Henry, his rotund form prone on the deck behind the judicial bench, had reached up and began striking the ceremonial naval bell that drew the court to order. The sound had been jarring, exactly as he had hoped it would be, and had drawn Faro's attention away from his hostage.

His Tellarite hostage had taken the opportunity and shoved both Faro and the defense table away, clamoring off across the court room on all fours and leaving Faro to struggle for cover.

The phaser set to overload had begun to whine then, a shrill high-pitched squeal of protest as the energy within grew to critical levels.

The Angosian, Ragnar, had leapt to his feet from his new position and fired a blast at Faro, but the Orion had narrowly dodged it in his search for cover.

Faro had then returned fire, forcing Ragnar to leap for cover once again. In the process, the Starfleet officer had tripped in the dim lighting. His phaser loosed from his grasp had clattered away beneath the seats.

Emboldened by his apparent victory, enraged by his circumstances, adrenaline coursing through his veins, the Orion had then made his fatal mistake.

Disarming his opponent had not been enough. Faro had been as greedy as ever. He had risen to his feet, intent upon killing the now unarmed security officer as the overloading phaser had risen to an ear-bleeding pitch.

Standing from his own place of cover, Nathan Hawk had taken square aim at the Orion.

At the man whom had murdered his family.

The man whom had tried to murder him.

The sum of all the rage and hate within his being.

He had not called out to the man.

Had not made a sound.

Yet the Orion had turned his head towards him just the same.

Surprise quickly replaced by rage in his own eyes, the Orion had begun to bring his phaser to bare against Hawk.

He did not get the chance.

Hawk had pressed the firing stud atop the type-two phaser.

The white-hot beam of phased energy had sprung forward, leaping across the room in an instant.

It had found it's quarry, and released it's lethal charge into his body.

The force of the impact had knocked him back hard, and sent him sprawling to the deck.

It was over.

As the overloading phaser had neared it's climax, the Angosian security officer had scrambled forward and retrieved it from where it had fallen from Faro's grasp. He had torn at the casing and pulled the hot power cell directly from it, singing his finger tips.

In the dim red emergency lighting, it had been impossible for anyone to see the single tear that escaped from behind the detached visage Nathan Hawk had put up…

…As the buzz of triage activity and speculation over Faro's implant swirled around him, Nathan Hawk closed his eyes as Leah Warner put her arms around him. She better than anyone could feel the welling tide of emotion building within him, and despite whatever issues they might yet face, she did love him. Squeezing her with more strength than he had intended, Nat fought against himself to maintain some sense of dignity. Clearing his throat, he whispered simply, “Lets go home.”

Chapter 27: Humpty DumptyTop

Federation Special Prosecutor Thomas Aidan Dorian watched from the periphery of Ananke Alpha's operations center as just shy of three dozen expertly trained analysts from across the divisions of Starfleet Intelligence, Starfleet Security, and the Judge Advocate's office screened and sorted the profusion of information that had been uploaded to the station's computers upon the death of Keevan Faro. The senior member of the Orion Syndicate had been nearly ninety Terran years of age, and had spent almost all of it within the ranks of the most proliferate criminal enterprise the known universe had ever seen. In that time he had amassed more knowledge of the inner workings of said organization than a thousand intelligence operatives could have ever hoped to obtain.

Video and audio files. Bank records. Shipping manifests. Coded communications. Names. Dates. Places. Contacts. Methods. Projections. It was all here, now, in their hands. A database of mass destruction.

Mired in myth and legend, the Syndicate had and continued to evolve over the centuries to the form that best suited its survival and prosperity. They were what they needed to be as the moment came. Slave traders, merchants, pirates, assassins, extortionists, mercenaries, arms dealers, smugglers, thieves both petty and grand. This fluid, almost ethereal existence had kept it vital and untouchable even in the face of the greatest militaries.

Races of warp antiquity such as the Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites had tried for centuries to bring an end to the criminal culture without success. The mighty empires of Cardassia, Romulus, and Kronos had done likewise. The Federation had been at opposition with the Syndicate's existence since before it's founding and had yet to make so much as a dent in the seemingly impenetrable armor of loyalty, suspicion, and malice that surrounded it.

Until today.

Today was the last day that the Orion Syndicate would be able to cling to the scummy underbelly of society.

The last day that it would be able to hide in the dark.

Within eighteen hours, joint Security and Intelligence strike teams would fan out from their standard assignments across more than one hundred worlds. Working with local authorities at the behest of the Federation Security Council, they would make coordinated raids and apprehend at least a thousand of the most high-ranking members of the Syndicate.

In thirty-six hours, as the story broke across the Federation news networks, similar forces of the individual Romulan, Klingon, Cardassian, and Ferengi militaries would follow suit, acting upon the information and evidence the Federation would provide of Syndicate activity within their borders.

In fifty-four hours, as the collective powers of the Alpha Quadrant continued to take Syndicate members into custody, the first arraignments would be held by Federation courts. Out of the first thousand or so arrested, the vast majority would realize the collective weight bearing down upon them and would accept plea agreements, removing most of them from the galaxy at large for the better part of the next decade.

Within seventy-two hours, it would all be over.

The marginal handful of members who had escaped arrest and prosecution would find their ranks decimated.

The senior members and those who had refused plea agreements would, faced with trial, begin to turn on one another.

Those taken by the Klingons, the Romulans and even the fairly reformed Cardassians, would face far stiffer penalties. Many would likely confess to crimes against the Federation in the hopes of extradition, however unlikely such was.

Though many taken into custody by the Ferengi would be able to buy their way out of prison, it would cost them every last slip of latinum they had.

With very few leaders, even fewer lieutenant's, and only a assortment of junior associates left, the fundamental structure of the organization would fail, and crumble beneath the boots of history.

Criminal activity would survive of course – but without the support structure and steadfast alliance of loyalty, it would be a problem to be dealt with by local governments. A nuisance rather than an epidemic.

Watching the flurry of activity, Tom considered his own future, and hoped that with luck, he would soon be out of a job…

Captain's log, stardate 58793.2.

Entry recorded under security protocol.

With the actions of the defendant Keevan Faro having brought the legal proceedings requiring Republic's presence at Ananke Alpha to an abrupt end, and after a days worth of debriefings and review, we have departed the classified facility. We are currently en-route to Starfleet's base of operations in the Terran system for repairs to our damaged warp drive, as well as to undergo standard crew rotation in the wake of completing our assignment to the gamma quadrant. Our journey home will take a little over two weeks in order to forgo additional stress being placed on our damaged engines.

Prior to our departure this morning, Federation Special Prosecutor Thomas Dorian in conjunction with Vice Admiral Thomas Henry declared the actions of Lieutenant Hawk justifiable and in the defense of others, negating a formal inquest into yesterday's events. While I whole heartedly agree with this decision, I am concerned for the Lieutenant's psychological well being considering the emotional stress he has doubtless been under in recent days. To that end, I have asked Counselor Tolkath to speak with him.

This will be my final log entry under security protocol. It and all those recorded since our receipt of our classified orders while docked at Deep Space 9, as well as our navigational and sensor logs since such, will be transmitted to Starfleet Command before being redacted from the Republic computers.

Location: Lieutenant Nathan Hawk's quarters, deck 8, USS Republic

Groggily, Nat picked his head up off the pillow - or was it a couch cushion? - and grumbled something unintelligible in the general direction of the sound that had stirred him from his less than restful slumber. His head felt as if someone had spent the night slamming it between a pair of cargo bay blast doors. His mouth was dry and tasted vaguely of his own vomit. He had felt far worse in his life. Most notably upon his return from the grave. He hadn't felt like this in more than eight months though. For it had been that long since he had last had a drink, and that long since he had last been in this state.

To put it bluntly, he was hung over. And despite the pounding headache and partial dehydration, the familiarity of it felt good, and thus so did he.

As the irritation that had awoken him once again sounded, he propped himself up on his elbows before rolling over and promptly falling off the couch and to the traction-carpeted deck beneath. Pushing himself up off the deck, he used the coffee table for leverage and made it unsteadily to his feet. Stumbling forward, he moved across the open area of his quarters primary living space and came to a stop at the replicator, where upon he ordered a glass of water. As the device obediently produced his order, the muted tones of a security override code being entered into his door controls caught his attention. A moment later, the doors parted and the slightly taller, slightly thinner, slightly older form of Counselor Reittan Tolkath took a tentative step forward.

“Don't anybody knock anymore?” Hawk asked the Betazoid, slightly irritated…

Timeframe: 15 Minutes Earlier

As he left the Captain's ready-room, Reittan was not too excited with his new orders; there would definitely be resistance. He made his way to the turbo-lift and paused while waiting for it to arrive; the ebb and flow of life on the bridge left him in his own eddy of thought.

It was understandable that after Lieutenant Hawk's recent experience some psychological assessment/intervention would be necessary.

As he was thinking of overcoming the possible resistance from Hawk, somewhere in the back of his mind Reittan could hear his Granny's voice make some reference about helping children to take bad tasting medicine with glucose and eating utensils.

“Where's the sugar…” the Counselor muttered to himself.

This would not be the first time the Lieutenant Commander had delved into Hawk's psyche. Right after Hawk had been “resurrected” the Counselor was asked to help to determine if he would be cognitively functional. Tolkath remembered the journey. He admired Hawk significantly more because of it. Much of Hawk's memories were dark, some of them seemed to have been once light, but had been tainted by too much trauma. It was one reason why Hawk had been having a difficult time regaining consciousness, and why the Counselor decided that Hawk needed to “hatch” on his own. The struggle his mind made saved his sanity by the end of the ordeal.

Reittan flinched a little. Having been absorbed so intently in thought, he hadn't notice the turbo-lift had arrived. He stepped in and waited for the doors to close before he announced his destination, and the lift jumped to life. During his journey he checked the location of Hawk and had hoped that Hawk would react well . . . as can be expected.

The turbo-lift doors gently opened revealing a very Starfleet corridor, the architecture and ambiance reeked of its fashioners; sterile.

Tolkath walked slowly through the lit halls to the room of Nat Hawk and paused in front of the door that became a barrier between Tolkath and his unsuspecting target. When Hawk didn't respond to the first summon, Tolkath did a psychic sweep of the room and found Hawk unconscious. After deeming the room safe, Tolkath attempted to rouse Hawk a second time and waited. Hearing the commotion Hawk was causing within his quarters, and the amount of time he was taking to answer his door was slightly irritating the Counselor. Finally Tolkath took a deep breath, took the plunge, and entered his security override code.

Timeframe: Present

Reittan could tell that Hawk was surprised… and hung over as he also noted the disarray the dimly lit quarters were in. Tolkath surmised that Hawk had a hang-over.

“Hawk, I've been ordered, due to recent events… and past ones, to…” Reittan's mind shot a thought about finding a spoon and sugar before continuing, but knew it was too late, “make sure you are mentally healthy.”

“The choice of venue is yours; here or the department and if you choose the department we go there immediately. I know some are uncomfortable being seen around that area…”

Taking the glass of water from the replicator alcove, Nat didn't acknowledge the Counselor's words as he took a careful sip of the cool liquid. Intellectually, he had known he'd have to endure some sort of psyche eval in the wake of recent events. He had endured enough of them in his early years in Starfleet to be able to predict them by now. What he hadn't expected was for such to come up so quickly. Taking another sip of the refreshing beverage in his hand, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath inward as he tried to focus his mind through the fog of alcohol that currently clouded it. He was normally an expert at being drunk, or hung over. He was also significantly out of practice though.

Finally, he addressed the ship's counselor who stood a step inside the threshold of his quarters. “Well I guess ya can come on in, then,” he told the other man without an almost sarcastic lilt to his voice.

As the counselor stepped fully inside the VIP accommodations that had originally been assigned solely to Leah Warner, the room once again grew darker as the ambient light of the corridor was obscured. Addressing the computer, Hawk commanded, “Computer, lights - minimal illumination.”

With an affirmative tone, the computer complied with the order and raised the lighting level to somewhere between one-quarter and one-thirds level. As Hawk made his way back to the couch, he shot a glance at the chronometer on the wall that read 1225 hours. Setting the water glass on the coffee table, Hawk flopped back upon the couch and struggled to resist the urge to go vertical from there.

“So, z'this lil visit yer idea, 'er did the cap'n put on her thinkin' cap all by her lonesome 'n come up with it?” Hawk asked.

The Counselor knew the last quip was just to irritate him and so quickly side stepped it.

“Thank you I know this isn't…” the Counselor began saying to the Lieutenant. “I've seen your record…” Tolkath began, “so there's no need to go into too much of your history. I have to admit what you've gone through takes much courage and… determination.” He continued, “A full evaluation has been… requested and I know you don't want to be here so let's make the most of the next while.”

The Counselor brought out his PADD and with a few strokes had brought up the Star Fleet psyche-evaluation form. He began to ask Hawk the question on the PADD but paused mid thought and changed the direction he wanted to take.

“What was it like to see, after many years, your worst nemesis?”

Downing the rest of his water, Hawk set the glass down on the coffee table and began to feel around behind the couch cushions for the slender bottle of Yridian brandy he knew must be there. He couldn't help but smile with amusement at the Counselor's question. There hadn't been much occasion for Hawk and Tolkath to interact a great deal since the Counselor had joined the crew last year. Still, the fact that the Counselor hadn't made it his mission in life to 'help' Hawk with his troubled past had earned him a degree of respect from the Helmsman. His painfully naïve approach to the situation at hand was calling that respect into question, though. He had been dealing with counselor's of one form or another since he was ten years old, and he had chewed up and spit out seasoned professionals with twice Tolkath's experience for much of it.

“Yer kiddin' me, right?” Hawk asked the amalgam Betazoid, as he finally located the bottle and pried it free. “I mean, there ain't no way yer that bad uh shrink…”

Pulling the cork from the bottle with his teeth, Hawk emptied most of the bottles minimal contents into his waiting water glass before setting the nearly empty bottle down roughly on the table. Sweeping up the glass roughly, he spilled a bit as he brought it to his lips and ingested the contents in one gulp, stomping his feet on the deck in appreciative response to the alcohol's considerable bite. Coughing, he blinked his watery eyes rapidly as he fetched the bottle and refilled his glass.

Noticing that Tolkath hadn't responded to his fairly defamatory comment, he considered the empath for a moment as he brought the glass back to his lips and took only a ginger sip this time. For a brief second, he considered the possibility that he had actually insulted the man, before dismissing the idea. A counselor with skin that thin wouldn't have made it past the first semester. “Look, doc, lemme make this easy fer ya, alright? I bin ta hell 'n back more times 'n twenty years than a Rigelian sluts bin poked, ya know what I mean?” he asked rhetorically. “It's what I do. Who I am. An all the talkin' 'n head shrinkin' from here ta Antares ain't gonna change it, 'er make any damn bit uh difference. So why don't ya do us both a favor, 'n fill out yer lil form, tell the cap'n I'll be right as rain in a day 'er two, and lets both get back ta whatever it is we'd rather be doin' here n' now, okey dokey?”

The Counselor responded out loud, “Interesting…” He continued, “Hawk, you predisposed me to be asking that question to psychoanalyze it, rather than a question that a being asks another being about an experience to understand. I understand Lieutenant that you have had your fill of people analyzing every word you say and I understand the context in which we are meeting. But frankly… you don't remember, do you?” The Counselor suddenly veered into another tangent; a new line of thought. “I didn't think you would, but didn't conceptualize the reality of it until now…” Tolkath paused still lost in thought.

Reittan's dark penetrating eyes turned to Hawk who was still working his way back toward inebriation. He pulled the PADD out and turned his focus on it.

The Counselor, though he detested power-plays, wasn't going to give into Hawks remarks. He knew that in order for him to feel comfortable with his recommendation for Hawk to be free to return to duty, he had to be sure that the psyche of the helmsman was sound. He knew Hawk was great at deflecting to keep people out of his life and remain in his self-imposed exile; only recently did he allow someone in.

“Hot damn!” Nat exclaimed with a broad grin, giving in to an amused little chuckle. “Now that's some pscyho-babble!”

Finishing the rest of his drink, Nat set the empty glass back down atop the coffee table. Propping his right foot upon the table, he retrieved his trusty flask from the inside of his right boot. It had been a while since he'd kept anything but Altair water in the thing, but he'd resolved last night to revive some old habits. Taking a swig from the container, he sat back on the couch and spread his arms out to either side, making the fairly universal 'bring it on' gesture as he did. “C'mon counselor, hit me with yer best shot.”

Tolkath paused and shifted in his Star Fleet Uniform, eying the helmsman from head to toe. His thoughts went back and forth like a well played volley in tennis. The Lieutenant Commander took a breath and wasn't sure what was going to come out of his mouth. The match in his head had played out, and though it may be risky Reittan knew the path he had to take.

“Hawk,” he began, “How much do you remember surrounding your… rebirth?”

Throwing his head back, Nat's eyes snapped shut as he mockingly made exaggerated respiratory noises. That is to say, he pretended to snore. After a few moments of this, he resumed his earlier positioning and regarded the Counselor with an almost empathetic look that bordered on pity. “Sorry 'bout that, I tend ta fall asleep when folks start waxin' philosophical 'n all that junk,” the Helmsman declared. Taking in a deep breath, the pilot sighed and shook his head from side to side, weary of their dance. “Imma make this easy fer ya, cause truth be told, I ain't in no mood ta go fishin' with ya. Least uh all in the murky waters uh ma psyche.” Nat told the Counselor, perhaps the first honest statement of the afternoon.

Plucking his communicator from his chest, he tossed it on the coffee table between himself and the psychiatrist. “Ya don't wanna clear me fer duty? I really dun give a rats ass, truth be told. We got 'bout two weeks 'til this boats home, at which point I'd bet latinum to lattes 'at my services ain't gonna be required in Starfleet any longer. Not since I dun outlived ma usefulness 'n all.” Nat said as he stood up from the couch and moved over to the door, pressing the open controls once there. His tone shifting to subtly to indicate he was deadly serious, he finished. “So do what ya gotta do, doc. But do it some place else. Sessions over.”

Reittan had accomplished what he needed to do… almost.

The mind is an amazing thing. It can take any object, any light, tactile feeling, sound and produce interpretations, and sometimes even hallucinations. Neurons fire and the mind jumps to life: recalling, analyzing, prioritizing, calculating, and creating. There are a few things an individual can do to get the desired response out of an individual. When you want someone to think of something, just ask them 'Have you ever thought about …? What do you think about …? What do you remember about. . .?'

This tactic was especially useful to a telepath to get information they needed. It can be especially effective when inhibitions surrounding the mind are hindered by external substances, as long as you can filter through the hazy mental communication. The Counselor had gone in knowing there would be resistance to the assessment. He had gotten the answers he needed within those split seconds reading the thoughts and feeling the emotions and that would spike and then be subdued. It was a little unorthodox, but so was Nat Hawk. It seemed as though his insanity was keeping him sane. He was fit for duty, as soon as he sobered up… but with Nat's ability to consume alcohol and still function, only formal procedure and policy kept him from doing it… often.

Reittan began heading out the door, when he stopped in front of the helmsman and with complete sincerity for his well-being began, “Nat, find a reason to continue to live. Have some faith in your friends.” Reittan felt one of those angered neurons gaining enough momentum to discharge as he continued, “Yeah, those people who actually do care for you. They aren't going to let you down, they don't pity you. Even though you may not feel worthy of their friendship, they care; as does Leah.” Reittan paused, then continued, “If you can't find anything else to thrive, not just survive, for do it for Ms. Warner. There will always be a need for Nat Hawks, and I don't get a commission for saying that. Though you say you don't care, I'm not here to fix you. You are cleared for duty after you sober up.”

Tolkath began to walk out the door, looked both ways down the corridor. When he was sure it was empty, a small bottle that contained a blue liquid appeared from under his uniform. “For your inconvenience.” Reittan felt a little hypocritical handing the Romulan ale to the inebriated helmsman, but walked out of the room leaving Hawk holding on to the bottle.

As the doors closed in Tolkath's wake, Nat considered the small bottle's Romulan lettering. More so, he considered the man whom had given it to him. Twisting the vacuum-sealed cap from it's spout, he gave the once-illegal beverage a sniff before putting the bottle to his lips and taking a drink of the luke-warm liquor. He was in no rush to return to duty, nor was he in any rush to return to a state of mind where he was capable of any deep thoughts.

His life had been consumed and defined by rage and grief since he had been 10 years old. A rage he could never truly express. A grief he could never truly overcome. Those two emotions where a binary star that he was forever trapped by the gravity of. He had tried to resist them. He had tried to assuage them. He had tried to use them. Two days ago, he had quenched the fire of his rage by taking the life of the man responsible for his families deaths; but said fire would never be extinguished. He had hoped such vengeance would relieve the grief he felt, but the cold reality was that such would always be with him, always be a part of him.

As he took another mouthful of the harsh beverage, trying to quash the sobering thoughts stirring within – no doubt Tolkath's very intent, he realized too late – Nat studied the communicator set askew atop the coffee table, and wondered both what he would do should he have such taken from him, and what he would do should he be allowed to keep such…

Chapter 28: AftershocksTop

“Having a friend join you at the craps table can be an enjoyable event, especially if he or she changes your luck to a Seven Out after you've been rolling Ace Deuces all night. However, should the table suddenly change to a game of roulette, you could be in for a nasty surprise if you suddenly turn up boxcars. Of course, when the dealer is a suspected member of the Obsidian Order, you'd better step back before the dice hit the table, lest they explode…“

-LTCR Doug Forrest Advice offered during shore leave at Veloz Prime

Location: Farius Prime (present day)

Multiple pillars of wispy smoke floated skyward from multiple fires scattered throughout Medara City. On the ground, Torga Street was a scene of total chaos, as roving mobs smashed store fronts, arsonists set fire to merchant carts, and rival street gangs faced down one another using blade instruments and brute fists. The entire bazaar district - once home to a bustling tourist trade - had turned into a battleground between syndicate mafia and the outmanned and outgunned local police force. High-pitched phaser shots pierced the roar of the angry crowd, intermixed with breaking glass and rocks hurled at panicked spectators.

Further north on Torga Street, just past the commercial ports along the Galldean Sea, a tenuously calmer scene persisted, as a faction of the Orion Syndicate mafia had cordoned off the warehouse district using broken down hover-transports and tipped-over bulk waste containers to block the main thoroughfare. Despite it being the premiere haven for criminal enterprise within the city, the warehouse district was so vital to the trade and commerce of Farius Prime, that its integrity was paramount to all who did business within. The mafia knew this, but as tight as the ersatz security was, it was so hastily arranged that individuals who were sure-footed enough to remain unseen could slip through the gauntlet via one of a few side alleyways.

True to his covert-operations name, Shadow was just such an individual.

Pressed against the corner of a gray concrete building, the Republic surgeon precipitously watched as an armed syndicate henchman roamed about. Keeping an eye on the impromptu barricade, the guard passed within meters of Shadow but failed to notice his dark silhouette outlined against the unlit side-street between warehouses. The failing light indicated that it was nearing sunset, and as usual, when Dragon told him to be somewhere in an hour, Shadow was late by a multiple of four.

“Hours can seem like days,” he whispered an old intel proverb to himself.

Slithering back into the alley, the Doctor Yezbeck carefully staked out the next set of buildings to continue his hour-long search for his comrades. Spying the hunkered-down figure of Dragon across the next gravel pathway, he waited for the next syndicate guard to pass by before sprinting lightly over to him. Dragon spied him, but before Shadow could say anything, a hand reached for his shoulder nearly causing a heart attack. It was Delores.

“What's going on?” Cheshire whispered warily.

“I don't know,” replied Saal, out of breath as the adrenaline subsided. “I made it out of the spaceport complex when the police headquarters across the street exploded due to a placed photon charge. Some sort of upheaval in the Orion Syndicate, I gather. But I couldn't get a straight answer out of anyone in the crowd. Everybody is either in a panic or in a rage.”

“Please tell me you have a way off this rock,” Dragon asked him.

“I got a shuttle in docking bay thirty-six at the south spaceport,” Saal cautioned. “But I don't know how long my second bribe will last in this mess.” Saal's reference to the mob rule outside the warehouse district was sober and steeped with concern. “The sooner we figure out what Ramius is up to, the quicker we can get out of here.”

“That's the best news I've heard all year,” Dragon exclaimed with relief, eager to rid himself of Farius Prime, and accompany his old comrade off-planet. “What were you able to find out from your customs goon?”

“You're not going to believe this,” Saal started. “Ramius isn't only the OWNER of the Kafarian freighters, but he's also the distributor of its CARGO. The guy I bribed at customs said they moved the cargo yesterday to his warehouse up here north of the city.”

“What do you mean? Are you telling me he DEALS in the poison we're trying to track down?” Dragon exclaimed. “That doesn't make any sense! Ramius gave Sean and I information on the SOURCE of the Gorn poison! If he's also the distributor, why would he undermine his own operation by telling us the source?”

“Maybe it was just a one-time deal,” Cheshire hypothesized. “Maybe the source doesn't matter to him anymore.”

“That,” Dragon concluded. “Or he was baiting us to see what action we would take on the supply end. If I know Ramius, he probably thought we were trying to muscle in on his business, and probably had a special surprise waiting for us on Kafaria.”

“What did you give him in return for the information?” the Republic surgeon asked.

Taking a deep breath, Dragon swallowed his pride. “The location of Nat Hawk…”

“What??” an incredulous Saal blurted out. “Are you out of your MIND??”

“What did it matter?” Dragon turned defensive. “He's on a Galaxy Class starship! What harm could come to him?”

Saal shook his head in disbelief. “Do you realize what Hawk has gone through since you left Republic? He was nearly murdered TWICE by syndicate operatives! The second time would have been for good if Captain Roth hadn't put together a backup plan!” The doctor wasn't ready to go into specifics about the procedure to re-animate Hawk, but he felt his point was made.

Dragon went ashen. “Oh my god…” He leaned up against a wall and hung his head in despair. While the former intelligence operative knew that the Orion Syndicate's reach was wide, he had no idea they were after Hawk with such vengeance that they would go so far as to send an assassin aboard a Starfleet vessel. “I… I didn't know.”

An uneasy silence befell the trio of spies. Pursing his lips, Saal watched the smoke rising in the distance over Torga Street. “There's nothing we can do about it now,” he sighed. “We'll have to finish this mission and quickly head back to DS9 to warn Republic…”

“Ramius has a warehouse three rows up,” Cheshire informed the other two while placing a reassuring hand on Dragon's shoulder. “That's probably where they're keeping the Kafarian freighter cargo.”

Saal considered the Bajoran Trill's explanation, and knew it would form the next stage of their operation. “Dragon and I have to do this,” he explained to her after a moment, revealing his uneasiness about the mission in the face of the current social upheaval on the planet. “I'd feel better if someone was making sure that my shuttle wasn't being commandeered by the local government…”

Cheshire was about to protest when Dragon piped in, still reeling from his realization that he might have been the cause of Nat Hawk's death.

“Shadow's right,” he added. “If all three of us are going to make it out of here in one piece, someone needs to be standing by our only means of getting off the planet.”

She looked as if she was about to begin a revolt of her own, but a distant explosion back towards the city had her reconsider.

“Alright,” she relented. “But if you boys aren't at the spaceport by midnight, I'm coming in after you.”

“Fair enough,” Dragon agreed.

“Here,” Saal offered a pair of wristbands to Cheshire and Dragon. “They're old-style wrist communicators with Cardassian encryption modules. I picked them up from a Ferengi freighter after I left Deep Space Nine. We can keep in contact if something goes wrong.”

Cheshire and Dragon accepted the gifts. “Good luck,” she offered to the two Starfleet comrades before departing towards the open road. They watched as she approached a roaming guard, who paused in surprise at the lithe form of the Bajoran operative. “Hey, big boy,” she slyly greeted him before giving him a sucker punch, rendering him unconscious, and absconding with his disruptor rifle. Casually slinging her newfound beam weapon over her shoulder, she gave a leisurely salute to Dragon and Shadow before making her way towards the warehouse district perimeter.

Inside Ramius' warehouse, Dragon and Shadow moved quietly among the long rows of canvas-covered pallets. The low light may have hid their movements from the naked eye, but electronic surveillance measures were sophisticated and in full effect. Their usual contingency plans were utilized, which involved a series of bypasses to the external maintenance protocols of the building mainframe computer. They were a half-measure at best; a layman's tool to delay triggering the alarm. The bypass would last for only about ten minutes, so they would have to work quickly.

Quietly inspecting the long rows of canvased-covered palettes, the two took turns lifting the draped shrouds to view the contents while Saal scanned each with a tricorder. Dividing their attention between the palettes and their surroundings, they stayed hunkered down below the tall rows, standing up every so often to check if anyone else had entered the expansive storage building. Trained in the art of stealth, the duo prowled silently, with only the hum of Saal's tricorder echoing within the cavern-like warehouse.

After a few minutes, Saal stopped at one particular palette, narrowing his focus on the scanning instrument. “Bingo,” he exclaimed, using yet another one of his twentieth-century expressions. His tricorder beeped a series of high-pitched chirps as he brought the instrument closer to a crate labeled “Protein Gel - Keep Frozen”. At outward appearance, the trans-aluminum cargo crate appeared to be just as the label said: aliquots of protein cartridges for low-tech food synthesizers. The tricorder showed that the crate contained hundreds of these cartridges, similar to ones used by old-style Starfleet food slots a century ago. However, the molecular signatures revealed by Saal's tricorder were what made the crate stand out.

“What is it?” murmured Dragon, maneuvering beside his compatriot.

“Ingenious,” the doctor muttered again to himself.

“Come on!”

“The protein suspension is exactly what you'd expect,” Saal explained. “Supercooled organic matter ready for micro-transcription into more complex proteins in the form of food.”

“In English, Shadow.”

Casting his compatriot a surreptitious eyebrow, he returned his attention to his tricorder screen.

“Everything needed to make a chicken sandwich is in each of these protein cartridges. Amino acids, collagen, phospholipids… plus a few extra organic molecules per mole.”

Dragon pulled the tricorder towards him to get a better view of what he was talking about.

“They look normal to me,” Dragon frowned. “Hydrocarbons and fatty acids. Nothing special.” He bristled at having to pull up his basic chemistry from the back of his mind.

“Sure,” Saal retorted. “At the absolute zero of the refrigeration capsules, but watch what happens when the tricorder computer extrapolates for thermodynamics…”

On the tiny image, the complex wireframe molecule slowly came to life in parallel to the increasing numeric temperature scale alongside the margin. As the temperature increased, the wireframe molecule began to vibrate, and above 300 Kelvin, spontaneously began changing it's molecular structure in rapid succession. The higher the temperature got, the faster the molecule changed shape. At 310 Kelvin, the tricorder's database kicked in, and the entire screen lit up with a single blinking word: “MATCH”.

“There's our Gorn poison…”

“Like I said. Bingo.”

“This is incredible!” Dragon exclaimed. “The poison's not active until it reaches body temperature! No wonder Starfleet Medical and fleet intel can't track it down! There's no way to find it until it's actual inside a victim!”

“And why it got past customs,” added Saal. “Unless you knew precisely what you were looking for, no one would have noticed it. Plus, at this temperature,” he paused to point to the crateful of refrigerated protein cartridges. “There's no way you can tell it's a fluxional molecule undergoing asynchonous isomerism.”

The two considered the insidious nature of their discovery for a moment while Saal scrutinized his instrument readings.

“There's only one thing that bother's me about this,” he said with a frown.

“Just one?”

“Aside from the obvious,” remarked Saal. “The protein gel is in a highly refined state. That takes a lot of time, not to mention a highly-specialized biochemical replicator. They wouldn't have needed to go to the trouble to do that for standard protein cartridges.”

“What would be the reason for using refined protein?”

“Several specific reasons, but nothing that makes any sense. A tissue growth matrix for burn chambers, a precursor for synthetic blood plasma, a culture media for simplistic bacteria, biomass for controlled RNA re-sequencing, the list goes on.”

One of the uses seemed to turn on a light in Dragon's mind. “Wait a minute,” he exclaimed, scrutinizing the palette he was looking at a moment ago. As he pulled off the canvas, he fully exposed a palette of machinery, studied the device, and tried to discern it's use. “If I had to guess, this is a molecular dispersion module for low-yield force fields.”

Saal stood clueless as to Dragon's line of thinking.

Studying another palette, the former intel agent partially uncovered a stack of complex conical devices the size of small cargo carriers. He passed his hands over the corrugated metallic surfaces which contained a porous matrix of regularly spaced pinholes. “Particle emitter coils,” he mumbled to himself with growing anticipation.

“Dragon,” whispered Shadow with increasing consternation. “We've only got a few minutes left! What is it?”

Dragon paid him no attention, remaining transfixed on his thought process. Pulling off the cover of yet another palette, this time he revealed a contraption resembling a cubical food replicator. “And a wide-field micro-transporter!” he grew excited as the pieces fell into place. “This all makes sense now! These are the EXACT components needed to build a biogenic delivery device! Only I've never seen one this big before! There's enough equipment here to affect an entire continent…”

Dragon turned his head towards Shadow while he was talking, only to find an empty space where the Republic surgeon once stood.

“Shadow?” he looked around, confused as to where the officer disappeared to. Realizing his compatriot had absconded for a reason, the hair on the back of Dragon's neck stood on end. “Shadow!” he beckoned again, barely able to keep his voice below a whisper.

With trepidation creeping into his nerves, adrenaline began surging through his veins as he anticipated combat at any moment. Sprinting to the end of the row of palettes, a metal cylinder resembling a large fire extinguisher was forcefully hurled butt-end into Dragon's forehead. The last thought that went through his mind was one he had many times before:

“Not again…”

Chapter 29: DownfallTop

Stardate: 58796.9 (Present Day)

Pacing restlessly from one end of the glorified closet that passed for the 'passenger accommodations' to the other, the diminutive Ferengi attorney counted each of the five steps required to cross the tiny room. Languishing in boredom aboard the Starfleet Security transport, it was all he really could do. The Ferengi were a slight people, on the small side of the galactic average to be sure, so they didn't require much in the way of excess personal space. Venk was no exception to this, his own height being smack dab in the middle of normal for his people at one-point-three meters. Despite such, the current Spartan accommodations were cramped enough to make even him feel claustrophobic.

And it wasn't easy to make a Ferengi feel claustrophobic. There wasn't even a Ferengi word for claustrophobia. And they had 178 words for rain.

His earlier voyage at the behest of the mighty United Federation of Planets seemed pleasant, even comfortable in hindsight. Said trip from his adopted home of New Sydney to the ultra secure space station whose designation he had never been told, had been aboard a Defiant-Class warship. Even the ridiculously cramped quarters aboard said vessel seemed luxurious now in comparison to the compact accommodations he currently found himself in. Then again, he supposed that now that his client was deceased, there was no longer any need to procure such extensively secure transport. Certainly, he wasn't important enough to warrant such 'lavish' treatment for his return passage.

“I suppose I'm lucky they don't toss me into an escape pod and jettison me at warp as they pass by…” Venk muttered under his breath, speaking only to himself and the far too close walls surrounding him.

With a pronounced sigh, he sat down upon the firm bunk – the only object in the room save the waste extraction facilities upon which a person could sit down beyond the hard metal deck – and considered the events of the last few days. He had known going in that the odds of an acquittal were less than eight-point-four-seven-two percent. Though he had to admit that the Federation justice system was far more equitable than that of the Klingons, Romulans or Cardassians, it was still far from perfect. To make matters worse, the odds had dropped like a rock in the muck to less than one-point-zero-four-nine percent when the believed-to-be-dead witness had shown up alive and well.

No, Keevan Faro, violent and paranoid lunatic that he was, had never truly had a prayer at a fair trial as far as Venk was concerned. Even with the much proclaimed 'presumption of innocence' and all the legal loop-holes that worked against the state, the jurists had simply always been too biased to ever rule in his clients favor.

Looking back, he supposed his client had realized that truth on his own. It was certainly the only explanation he could come up with for the old man's radical rebellion. He had clearly been aware before he had acted that any escape would prove impossible. He had thus obviously decided to go out on his own terms, as it was, rather than to remain a prisoner. No doubt motivated further by his desire to keep his secrets to himself. Secrets which had since been let loose upon the world, falling straight into the hands of the Federation's Starfleet. It was ironic and regrettable, Venk thought, that the very secrets that had kept the old Orion so well insulated and protected, the secrets he had been more than willing to take his own life to protect, would now provide the man's greatest ideological enemy the leverage to wage an all-out war with the organization that Faro had so loved.

Picking up a flat and featureless Starfleet style PADD from the foot of his bunk, he considered the data displays contents. A redacted copy of the court room transcript, absent any and all mentions of things deemed 'classified' or 'sensitive' by the Federation, of course. He had read and re-read the portions at the end, the manic rant that his client had delivered while he had held the court room hostage. Never having been much for galactic politics, Venk was only vaguely familiar with the details of most the events Faro had referenced. Despite this and the aggrieved mental status of the old Orion, Venk had to admit even he could see the grains of truth mixed with that paranoid delusions.

Specifically, as a Ferengi he was quite familiar with the 'reforms' that had swept across his culture over the past decade at an unimaginable pace.

It sickened him to think of Ferenginar, swarming with fully clothed females earning profit. Of his sister's child, his nearly five year old nephew, who didn't even know the first few rules of acquisition. Of the myriad social programs that took hard-earned latinum out of the hands of business people and redistributed such wealth to the poor and elderly. Venk couldn't deny that insane as his client may have been, he'd made many valid observations about the disingenuous nature of the political body that was the United Federation of Planets. Especially when juxtaposed against the stark reality of his own people's radically altered culture. Observations that he knew it to be his clients fondest wish that such be passed on to the rest of the galaxy.

“Maybe the old kook was actually on to something?” he asked himself as he set the PADD down beside him and moved to lay down atop the simple bunk.

Like the transport ship itself, the mattress pad and pillow were both to hard and to small. The replicated fabric covering the pillow also made his lobes itch, which was never a good thing. Accepting of the circumstances though, he tried in vain to find a somewhat comfortable position. He had no idea how long his journey home to New Sydney would take, and knew it would be pointless to inquire about such. Like so many details of late, it was likely on a 'need to know' basis. And as he had been reminded by at least a dozen self-satisfied Starfleet officers recently, he didn't seem to ever 'need to know'. Rolling over on his side, he contemplated the dull plasti-steel bulkhead before him and wondered not for the first time how these Federation types didn't go mad in such drab surroundings. Then again, considering their uniforms and even their consoles and equipment, drab seemed to be the order of the day for them.

Still unable to find a comfortable position, he finally sat upright into a seated position. Grabbing the uncomfortable itchy little pillow, he beat it against the edge of the bunk a few times before tossing it to the floor in an aggravated huff. As he finished doing so, he realized how ridiculous he might look to any surveillance devices and how silly it was to take out his frustration on an inanimate object. He also realized his frustrations were not truly based around his accommodations or any of the other trivialities that might otherwise be the source of such. What he was really, truly frustrated with was the entire situation. The whole thing wreaked of injustice, intolerance, and even indignity. And ever since his client had gone off on a tangent about such shortly before his death, that truth had been staring him in the face as he had kept trying to look away.

On his feet once more, he resumed pacing the cramped confines of his cabin. His client had authored a rather long and, in his limited literary opinion, tediously dull manifesto during his time on the run. The document had been entrusted to him not long after the original indictment had been dismissed, such apparently having been a ruse by the Federation in order to fool Faro into a false sense of security. He knew that his client had wished such to be published, he had even asked Venk about locating a publisher after a court appearance back on New Sydney. Not being an idiot, Venk had placated the old Orion by telling him he was pursuing such avenues while doing quite the opposite. The manifesto was something he knew the Orion Syndicate would not want to see the light of day. Not so much as it exposed any of their secrets – it didn't even mention them, really – so much as it would bring a great deal of attention to it's author.

Unwanted attention, as far as the Syndicate was concerned.

Now, though… maybe that didn't matter.

Faro was dead, and Venk knew the old man hadn't any family of his own. Family was a liability, the Orion had always said. Venk couldn't exactly argue, after all, rule of acquisition one-hundred-eleven said it best: treat people in your debt like family… exploit them. And any true enemy wouldn't hesitate to exploit someone's sentimentality by threatening to do harm to one's family to achieve their own agenda. It certainly wouldn't do any harm to the old man's reputation, not now. The aged sociopaths legacy was soon to be ruined anyway. He would be remembered as either a traitor or a fool, or maybe both. A man whose own mental short-comings had brought him to keep a repository of information against his own brethren. A repository that he had allowed to fall right into the hands of the Federation. So what could it really hurt to publish the thing? Certainly, any profits from its publication would be the only such he could expect to see out of all of this…

If it also got the old crackpots rather valid political message out, even better.

“Hrmph,” Venk snorted derisively, “maybe it'll even do some good.”

But then what about the Syndicate? They weren't exactly a forgiving bunch of people. If Prosecutor Dorian's enthusiasm had been any indication though, the Syndicate would likely have far great problems than a little unwanted publicity. Venk had been left with the distinct impression that the storehouse of information provided by the unusual biological data storage medium Faro had gone to great lengths (and no doubt greater expense, he reasoned) to have implanted and concealed was almost a sacred relic to Dorian and his ilk. As someone associated with the man, Venk had of course been aware of the persistent rumor of such a database existing in some medium, but it wasn't something anyone could ever prove as far as galactic legend went. It also wasn't a topic one dared to broach with the old Orion. The sole occasion Venk knew of someone doing so had resulted in said individual's quick and painful death.

Startling him from his own cascade of thoughts was a neutral but pronounced electrical tone that the lobed lawyer recognized as an internal ship's communications channel initiating. It was promptly followed by the disenchanted voice of one of the transports pilots, a Hew-mon named Brooks. “This is Flight Control to all passengers,” began the blase voice, his insinuation of other passengers being aboard piquing Venk's curiosity, “we've arrived as New Sydney on schedule, however, there will be some delay in our obtaining clearance to land due to a heavy volume of law enforcement traffic at the spaceport. Apologies for the inconvenience, and with any luck, we should have everyone on their way within the next half-hour.”

As curious as Venk was to learn about any other passengers aboard, such took a back seat to the surprise at the Hew-mon's mention of heavy law enforcement activity. New Sydney was a non-aligned world in an unclaimed sector of space that were haven's for extra-legal activity due to their lack of association with the great military powers. Their political leaders and much of their law enforcement officers were corrupt to put it mildly, and there wasn't much that couldn't be done for the right price on such worlds. Such worlds like Farius, New Sydney, Finnea, to name a few, had been little more than back-water worlds of no galactic importance until the middle of the century. It was only as the Federation had continued to expand it's impressive reach and corrupt so many cultures away from a finance-based economy that said worlds had blossomed.

Unable to reconcile the coincidence of such unheard of actions taking place here with the knowledge he had of recent events, a cold chill ran down Venk's spine as if someone had just bought his vacuum-desiccated remains at cost. Leaping to his feet, he activated the comm-panel on the wall next to the door. He hadn't bothered with such previously because of the communications lock-out he had been subjected to for the past few weeks, but with their arrival at New Sydney, he chanced that such might be at an end. He was right. Tuning to a familiar frequency that carried local news broadcasts, he watched in abject horror at the video feeds contents. All across his adopted home, arrests were being made by Starfleet with the cooperation of local authorities. Even the jaded news anchors were befuddled by the unheard of events taking place.

Worse, the Federation News Service and a number of other Federation-based information outlets were reporting similar 'sweeps' taking place all across the expansive commonwealth and beyond. World's like Farius and Finea Prime had even erupted into violent anarchy.

The majority of those being targeted? Purported members of the infamous criminal enterprise, the Orion Syndicate.

It was worse than anything he could have ever imagined. The totality of what was going on was almost too much for him to fathom. Pundits were speculating about the unprecedented events and their potential consequences, even voicing the unthinkable: that this could signal the end of the Orion Syndicate in it's entirety. Stumbling backwards the two steps to his bunk, Venk flopped down on the uncomfortable bedding and grew increasingly distant from reality, as the discontent and disgust he had felt about his own culture's abysmal changes grew into a simmering animosity and frustration. The upheaval of the changes on his native Ferenginar were bad enough. They had signaled the end of the era, the end of the Ferengi way of life that had thrived for thousands of years. It had almost been too much to bear, and he had only been able to cling to hope for the future thanks to the existence of so many other species and worlds who still held things like the pursuit of profit in high esteem.

Now, though? One of the bedrock institutions whose fierce defiance had served as a shining example to people everywhere who valued such a way of life was on the verge of annihilation.

Suddenly, another neutral tone sounded throughout the small cabin. At first he had thought it another communications channel, until it sounded once again and he realized it was door chime. “Come in?” Venk asked more than anything, knowing the door to have been locked 'for security purposes' since he had first been brought to this place. As the words left his mouth, the door retracted into the wall and the tall, broad-shouldered figure of Prosecutor Dorian stepped through, ducking his head to avoid impacting it on the door-frame. The smug smile that tugged as the corners of his middle-aged mouth bore out his feelings well, and Venk had the sudden urge to strike the larger man and wipe such away. An urge he resisted for a number of reasons. Turning his head towards the comm-panel and considering the video feeds dancing across its surface, Dorian quickly turned back to look at him.

“Keeping up with current events, are we Mister Venk?” the prosecutor asked, obviously rhetorically. Venk played his part and offered no audible response. “Look on the bright side,” the human continued, “your services are sure to be in great demand…”

Up until that moment, Venk had been uncertain if publishing Faro's manifesto would be worth the risks to himself, his property, and even his family. In an instant though, he had come upon the decision to engender such risks, if for no other reason than because someone had to say something in contrast to the Federation propaganda machine. Something to counter the self-righteous zealotry of men like Thomas Aiden Dorian, who considered their judgment and their culture to be the arbiter for all others. After all, like ruled sixty-two said: the riskier the road, the greater the profit. And though he doubted said profits would be in the literal latinum type, he hoped that whatever form it did take would be something he could use to wipe the smug look off of Dorian's face some day.

Chapter 30: The Eighth ContagionTop

Location: Medara City, Farius Prime

The sparsely-lit room was intermittently highlighted with light beams from an overhead window grate. Together with a chair, an oblong metallic table served as the only furnishing in the spartan abode, and hosted a bench-top computer console that displayed complex algorithms and chemical formulas. Sitting in the chair was a man that looked out of his element with regard to the academic world of scientific research. Instead of a laboratory coat, the pale man sported a dark leather jacket with a military-style bandolier. His head sported a crop of black, unkept curly hair, and his face maintained an oily complexion beneath the mustache-free mutton-chop beard. His penetrating sable eyes were transfixed on the computer screen, and hid a deep-seated expression of either anxiety or consternation; both of which were easily misinterpreted by his enigmatic mien.

In the dark corner, movement signaled the stirring of a large figure standing over two meters in height. Far from humanoid, the head of the creature boasted a pair of compound eyes, twitching antenna, and a powerful set of insectoid mandibles. Like all insectoids, this one had six appendages, with the thorax anchoring the lower two sets for mobility. Further down the thorax, the lower abdomen was swollen with a visibly-full egg sac.

“It's true then?” the insectoid clicked in the cricket-like chirps of native Kaferian. “Faro is no longer?”

Sitting back in his chair, the man at the table looked to the ceiling forlornly, releasing a sigh of resignation. “In all my days of loyalty to him, I never thought I would see the day that Keevan Faro met a demise suited for a mere mortal.”

“No doubt his other less-deserving followers will be vying for his inheritance,” extrapolated the insect creature. “The Syndicate is already ripping itself apart… It could spell the end of our New Dawn.”

The man's expression turned from despondent to amused. “You're easily dismissive,” he countered. “I didn't spend the last five years in hiding on your planet to let all of our hard work go to waste, did I?”

Kaferians, well known as close Federation allies, live for only about fifteen Earth years, with age ten as the optimum reproduction age. Although their homeworld on Tau Ceti III had been made famous many centuries ago due to its exotic native fruits, it had endured only twenty generations of Kaferian habitation since its colonization in the late twenty-second century. As descendants from a crashed hatchery ship in the Delphi sector, Kaferians had long ago cast off their Xindi insectoid ancestry, which was replete with dominant and aggressive behavior bordering on xenophobia. Contrary to their common roots with that extinct species, the pre-Kaferian hive from the hatchery ship were imprinted with docile and gregarious behaviors, the source of which remains a mystery to this day. Nevertheless, the struggling hive exuberantly greeted their Starfleet discoverers, and chose to be re-settled to a more hospitable world that eventually adopted their namesake.

“What use would my offspring be if we did not embark upon the New Dawn?” clicked the Kaferian, her antenna twitching in thought. “If is to end here, then kill me as I stand. Otherwise, let us move forward.”

“Patience,” he replied. “I would sooner kill myself than you. You're much too lovely a specimen,” the man eyed the insectoid longingly - perhaps disturbingly. “You and your sisters are prime examples of what superior breeding can obtain. Faro's vision of a Federation-free Alpha Quadrant will not die with him.”

Her mandibles seethed with pride. Had she been human, her response could almost have been considered blushing.

Due to their short life cycles, adult female Kaferians are almost always pregnant due a genetic trait that was driven to maintain a viable population in such a short time span. This Kaferian was no different. What made her stand out, however, was her odd shell coloring. Instead of the smooth, flat shades of green like most Kaferians, hers was a mud-brown, sharply mottled with fierce speckles of shiny black. Such coloring was virtually unheard of among her species, thus signifying an unusual genetic transformation in this particular individual.

“The venom pulsing through your poison glands works even better than we could have hoped,” the man explained. “We've made a handsome black market profit off the refined version, but now that we've successfully incorporated the biosynthesis into your genome, not even the Borg will be resistant to its effects.”

“You haven't tested us on the Borg yet,” clicked the genetically-altered Kaferian. “I'm eager to be involved in the experiment.”

“All in good time, my dear. First, I must set the stage.”

As he completed his enigmatic sentence, the door chime signaled a new arrival.

“Come,” the man called out to the computerized actuator, causing the door to slide open with a mechanical grind.

Two Kobheerians walked into the room, side by side, and bowed subserviently to the black-haired man seated at the table.

“Prince Shavis,” greeted one of the aliens. “We've captured an intruder in Ramius's warehouse. We've identified him as one of his associates; a man named Connelly.”

“Ramius?” Shavis's nostrils flared with carefully-controlled anger. “That coward better not have returned to Farius Prime!” He stood up abruptly taking a step towards the two guards. “Was there anyone else?”

The Kobheerians nervously looked at one another, unsure if they should say any anything else. Out of fear for the repercussions, one of them chose to timidly offer the information.

“A guard outside the warehouse was found unconscious,” he said meekly. “His disruptor was rifle missing, and he said he was attacked by a Bajoran woman.”

“Federation?” asked Shavis.

“We don't know. All of Medara City is ripping itself apart. Our contacts have scattered.”

Looking intently at the other Kobheerian, Shavis took another step forward.

“You said this wouldn't happen,” he calmly addressed the alien with simmering vehemence. “You failed me.”

For his part, the Kobheerian bordered on panic. Anxiously looking to either side of himself for an escape route, he took a step back not sure whether to flee or stand his ground.

“You know the price,” Shavis reminded him smoothly, shooting a penetrating, almost hypnotic gaze that sliced right through his soul.

The Kobheerian was trembling, unable to turn his eyes away from the entrancing stare of the formidable prince. As the latter titled his head, he kept his sable irises transfixed on his prey, inching closer step by step.

Finally, the panicked alien reached for an implement in his belt. It appeared to be a sheathed knife, but as he slowly pulled it out of its scabbard, the twin tines gave the instrument the appearance of a large, sharpened tuning fork. Incapable of breaking the stare-down match with Shavis, the Kobheerian dropped to his knees as he held aloft the strange piercing implement, fighting the growing urge to impale himself with it. One last forceful glare from the bearded prince was enough to cause the alien to relent. In a swift motion, he thrust the fork into his own neck, causing instant paralysis. Within a second, he collapsed to the floor in agony, flailing reflexively, and writhing in such pain that being boiled alive would have been a more merciful passing.

It was done. Moments later, the suicidal guard lay motionless on the floor as Shavis casually stepped over him to address the surviving Kobheerian.

“Transfer the prisoner Connelly to my ship,” he ordered. “Inform the fleet that we leave Farius Prime within the hour. If the woman who escaped was Starfleet, time itself has just become our most recent enemy.”

“Yes, your excellency,” the Kobheerian bowed, quickly departing through the open door. Shavis was about to follow when he remembered his insectoid companion was still in the room. Turning back to her, he looked at the dead guard briefly before suggesting a course of action to her.

“Nourish your young,” he blithely offered to the gravid Kaferian before walking out the door.

For her part, the Kaferian made a sound that was somewhere between the buzzing of a hornet and the stridulation of a cicada. Extending a proboscis from between her mandibles, the insectoid gruesomely consumed the dead guard on the floor. From her muffled chirps of fulfillment between mouthfuls of flesh, it was quite clear that vegetarianism - another genetic trait endemic of true Kaferians - had been actively bred out of this particular individual…

Chapter 31: NumbTop

Location: Observation lounge, deck 1, USS Republic

It was just after 2300 hours aboard the austerely populated Galaxy-Class Starship Republic, and Lieutenant Nathan Hawk sat solitarily leaning back with his booted feet upon the glossy obsidian surface of the conference table. Next to his black leather Starfleet regulation boots sat a half-empty bottle of Aldebaran whiskey, it's fluorescent green hue barely discernable in the darkness that saturated the room, the only illumination cast from the distant stars as they streamed passed at warp five. For the first occasion since the morning that the trial had begun aboard Ananke Alpha, he was attired in his standard uniform; though why such was, not even he quite new. Cleared for duty by Counselor Tolkath, the accomplished pilot had yet to man his post since shortly after their departure from Deep Space 9. Instead, he had delegated such duties to those few of his department's subordinates still aboard.

Lifting the glass that had been warmed by his hand for the past hour to his lips, the Helmsman imbibes a mouthful of the nearly room temperature beverage. As he swallows, the beverage burning his throat, it reminds him of the scornful burning eyes of Leah Warner, the woman he loves - or loved. At the moment, he was unsure of where they stood or even how he felt. Then again, he had been trying his best simply not to feel anything at all for the past… what? Seventy-two hours? Considering how adept he once was at achieving such a state of mental numbness, he was doing fairly well picking up where he'd left off 8 months earlier. Yet the disappointment, the disgust, the anger and even the empathy he had seen in her eyes continued to haunt him, just as it had after that last night in Quark's so long ago that it seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Guess in uh way, it was a lifetime ago…” he mused to himself sarcastically, as he took another mouthful of the alien liquor.

The soft whisper of air being displaced caught his ear like a thunderbolt, and just as quickly as his feet were on the deck had he spun hastily about in his seat towards the audible indication of entry. Once upon a time, he would have dismissed such rash reactionary movements as good instincts. But when it came to this particular locale, it was something else entirely that caused him to react like a hunted animal.

Recognizing the silhouette framed in the doorway, his instincts calmed even as his curiosity piqued. “Cap'n…?” he stated, uncertain not of her identity so much as her reason for being here, now.

“Mind if I come in?” the Republic commander inquired, her tone quiet and leaving Hawk with the impression that should he refuse, she would abide by such despite not having too. Despite his mood, he couldn't help but be intrigued. Was she her to give him some sort of dressing down or ultimatum, or worse, a pep-talk? Or was it something else, something wholly unanticipated? He elected to indulge his curiosity and find out.

Unable to conjure up anything more appropriate to offer in response, the Helmsman half-shrugged as he said simply, “It's yer ship.”

Taking that as endorsement, the petite commanding officer stepped inside the observation lounge and let the doors leading from the bridge swish shut behind her. Never one for decorum or discipline, especially not after hours, Nat resumed his relaxed stance, once more setting his booted feet atop the table from his place at the far end of the table. For her part, Kim Roth stopped at her end of the table and considered the stars receding behind them for a moment before strolling slowly over to where he sat. She said nothing as she lifted the half-empty squat bottle of green liquid until she finally removed the tasseled glass stopper at the top. “May I?” she inquired, somewhat to Hawk's surprise.

Nodding twice, he gestured to the bottle with his free hand. “Help yerself,” he replied, the words barely escaping his mouth as the Republic's skipper put to bottle to his lips and took a decent sized swig from the bottle. Swallowing the liquid fire with much less practice ease than he himself, she never the less held her own.

“It's-” he began tell her, before she cut him off and finished his sentence.

“Aldebaran whiskey.”

Setting the bottle back down next to Hawk, she replaced the stopper before moving away, clear across the room. Taking her customary place at the opposite head of the table, she too turned her chair to look out towards the stars, though she kept her feet firmly upon the floor save crossing her right leg across her left. For a few long moments, nothing but silence and starlight passes between the two. Finally, after what must have been a solid ten minutes, she spoke as her eyes kept fixed on the stars.

“We haven't seen much of you since we left Ananke Alpha,” she observed, her tone absent the accusatory lilt that could often slip into such words being spoken by a superior officer.

Taking a mouthful from his nearly empty glass, Nat considered her words for a moment before offering any reply. Considered that perhaps she was fishing for something, before realizing as Captain she didn't really need to. If her intent was to call him on his recent absence, or behavior, or anything else, she could and more than likely would simply do so. These actions, this tact, wasn't one undertaken by a commander to her crewmen, but more one of equals whom had both had their share of rough experiences in life. On that basis alone, he deigned to give her an honest response.

“Ain't seen much of uh point 'n sittin' round the bridge,” he admitted. “At warp, ship more 'er less flies 'erself. Ain't nothin' ta do but slow 'n steady maintenance of uh fixed course,” he continued, offering an unasked for explanation for his thinking. It was the truth, but only to a point.

Nodding her head in the affirmative almost imperceptibly in this dim lighting, she offered no argument to his point. Which only made him feel obligated to offer her the rest of that truth to her in acknowledgment of the deference she was showing him.

“Truth is,” he began, his voice low and his gaze shifting to the swiftly retreating stars, “after everythin' I bin through the past couple uh… months? Years? I dunno… I guess I feel entitled ta take uh lil time fer maself.” he confided. Though he was curious about what her response would be, he didn't look to her for any indicators of what she may have thought.

A long moment passed before she opted to state her opinion. “I can't argue with that,” she declared, her own vision fixed upon the stars as she continued, “but at some point… you're going to have to decide what you want, and where you want to be.”

With a derisive snort absent any slight towards her, he replied the only truth he saw ahead. “Somehow, I doubt it's gonna be up ta me, 'er even you…”

Turning her head to look at him, Kim Roth graced him with a look that almost bordered on the mischievous. “You may not be the model Starfleet officer, Nathan, but if all Starfleet wanted was a mindless army of 'model' officers, then who would raise the bar? Who would challenge the status quo? Or ask the uncomfortable questions and challenge the preconceptions?”

As the thought hung in the air between the two, who for this moment were not captain and lieutenant but simply individuals sharing their thoughts, Nathan Hawk began to wonder… if the choice was his, where did he want to be?

Standing, Captain Roth moved to the door through which she had come a few minutes earlier, and stopped as they parted to either side in response to her presence. Looking back over her shoulder, she said one last thing to her Helmsman: “If you haven't already, you might want to catch up on current events. Some interesting things are happening out there, Lieutenant. Things that couldn't be happening without someone taking risks, raising the bar, and challenging the preconceptions.”

Her peace said, she departed as suddenly and unexpectedly as she had arrived.

Alone once again in the unlit conference room, Nat finished off the contents of his glass and set it down upon the table top. Deciding to take the captain's advice despite a resounding lack of interest on his part as to the on-goings of Federation society, Nat reached forward and entered a sequence of commands in the small tactile LCARS interface set into the table. Promptly, both monitors in the room activated displaying a listing of information network channels. There were over a dozen omnipresent news networks that spanned the totality of the Federation, the most prominent of witch was the Federation News Service. Selecting it from the list, which also offered independent and non-aligned networks, as well as those operated by allied nations like the Ferengi or the Klingons, he brought up it's current program already in progress.

On the screen, a young Bajoran woman in semi-formal civilian attire appeared, the back-drop of an unfamiliar cities skyline behind her. Said skyline was marred by nearly a dozen pillars of smoke and sporadic building fires. A chaotic crowd could be seen below her as well, the people a menagerie of species. ”–which is, as anyone familiar with galactic politics can tell you, beyond abnormal,” the woman said, finishing the sentence she had been speaking when Hawk had tuned in.

“Have you been able to get any comment from any native government official, Telinda?” asked a gruff male voice off-screen, clearly that of whomever was serving as anchor for the program in question.

Shaking her head, the Bajoran woman - Telinda - replied. “Under normal circumstances, it's difficult to obtain comment from a government official here on Farius. Under present conditions, I've not even been able to reach a subordinate in order to be told 'no comment'. I'm afraid all we can say for certain at this point is that as a result of the initial arrests within Federation space, pandemonium has erupted here as those individuals who've yet to be taken into custody attempt to avoid the fate of so many others.”

Farius, Hawk knew, was a non-aligned world that had become a Syndicate strong-hold in the late 2360s as the Federation had expanded outward closer to the Cardassians following the end of the border wars of the 2350s. It's currency-based economy had been easy for the Syndicate to manipulate, it's politicians easily bribed into obedience and cooperation with their agenda. It was one of the prime examples of the level of damage the Syndicate could do to a world. While it had never been a utopia on par with a Federation world, once upon a time it's government had stood for the people. It's natives had lived comfortable, if not easy lives. All of that had been wiped away as the Syndicate had bribed and intimidated it's way to power. Now, Farius Prime was a galactic cesspool that thrived on illegality and corruption.

“Thank you for the update, Telinda, and please: stay safe out there.” said the gruff male voice, whom had since been brought on-screen as the image was split between himself and the Bajoran reporter. With an acknowledging nod, the image of the Bajoran was removed, making the elder man - an Efrosian whose harsh visage was engulfed in tuffs of long white hair, and an over-grown white mustache and beard as was customary for the males of his species - sole focus to the viewers.

“As we've been reporting for the past three days, now into the early hours of the fourth day, an unprecedented number of arrests have been occurring across the quadrant by Starfleet Security forces operating on direct orders from the Federation Security Council. The target of these arrests, which a little over thirty-six hours ago also began to occur in the sovereign territories of the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and Ferengi under the direction of their own internal security forces, are suspected members of the notorious criminal element known as the Orion Syndicate. Though we have made numerous requests for information from government officials, including Starfleet Command and the Federation Council, we have yet to receive any response.” explained the Efrosian, whose name - Xal Ra-Museii - appeared across the bottom of the screen.

“Joining us now to discuss these events is retired Fleet Admiral Taela Shanthi…” Ra-Museii stated, as the image on the screen shifted to show the elder African woman, whom had served as Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet from 2368 through the end of the Dominion War. Her features were fairly expressionless as she nodded in acknowledgment of the introduction. “Our very own Velissa, host of 'Illuminating the City of Lights'…” continued the Efrosian, as the view again shifted to show the handsome Kriosian female journalist, who offered a practiced and all but permanent smile, “and last but not least, joining us via-subspace from Bajor, FNS correspondent Jake Sisko,” said the anchor, as the screen again shifted to show the dark-skinned young man who was the son of the now legendary Captain Benjamin Sisko. Of all the guests, he looked the least comfortable in this environment, as he offered a weak smile and a nod. “Thank you all for joining us.” Ra-Museii finished.

“Admiral Shanthi,” Ra-Museii began, the image on the screen shifting to a wide-shot showing the Efrosian host and two of the three guests. The third, Sisko, momentarily went off-screen due to his lack of physical presence. “Have you heard anything from your numerous former colleagues in Starfleet about recent events?”

Shaking her head from side to side in the fairly universal gesture indicative of the negative, the retired C-in-C kept a decent poker-face as she answered, “I am afraid not, Xal. Even I have been unable to reach anyone for comment, which is a testament to the increased security measures that we began to implement during the Dominion War,” stated the Admiral, her native African accent thicker than Hawk remembered the commencement speech he'd heard her give to the class in front of his at Starfleet Academy.

Seeking to reveal any new information any of his guests may have before resorting to analysis of what they already knew, Ra-Museii addressed his fellow FNS reporter, Velissa, next. “Certainly, Vel, you must have heard something from the Palais de le Concorde?” Ra-Museii inquired, referencing the presidential offices in Paris that served as the seat of the Federation Government, including housing the Council Chambers.

Looking almost perplexed, the plastered-on smile actually faded considerably as Velissa also nodded in the negative. “Though I have managed to speak with one or two of my more reliable sources, it seems that outside of the Security Council, virtually no information has been made available. Something that has not been well received by the larger Council body.”

“Interesting,” Ra-Museii mused, intrigued by the idea that the majority of the elected representatives of the government had themselves been left 'out in the cold' as far as information went. His hopes diminishing of any new revelations being forth-coming, the Efrosian finally turned his attention to his last guest. “What about you, Jake?” the alien anchor asked, prompting the image to become split between the wide-shot and the via-subspace image of Sisko.

Nat knew before the man a half-dozen years his junior opened his mouth, just by the thinly concealed look of amusement on his face, that the former Starfleet brat did indeed have something up his sleeve. “Well, Xal, I actually was able to get a hold of two fairly prominent non-Federation political figures just a few hours ago.”

Ra-Museii, for his part, looked dumb-founded. Admiral Shanthi looked irritated. Velissa looked curious, but a little too carefully pleasant. “Seriously?” the Efrosian said, before he could think better of it.

Unable to keep his true emotions from showing, the young Sisko smiled broadly and looked away from the camera for a moment, before nodding and offering up what he had learned. “From what they've told me, this entire situation stems from the resolution of on-going Starfleet Intelligence operation, said resolution being the retrieval of a cache of evidence held in the possession of one of the Orion Syndicate's own members. Apparently, the reason there was no prior rumor of all of this, or build-up of Starfleet forces, was that up until a few hours before the operation got underway, only a handful of Starfleet officers and a few legal experts outside of the Security Council had any idea that this was going to happen.”

“Excuse me,” prompted Admiral Shanthi, “but are you suggesting that an operation of this magnitude was conducted without prior planning?”

Looking somewhat chastened by the well respected Admiral's tone, Sisko could only offer a meager shrug as he answered, “That's what my sources are saying, ma'am.”

“Impossible,” remarked Shanthi, somewhat dismissively.

“Actually,” interjected Velissa, the political reporter, the look on her face suggesting a few pieces of the puzzle had just been put together in her mind, “that would explain a great deal of underlying tension I've been hearing about within the Federation Council for a little more than a year now. A lot of people have felt the Security Council was keeping a few too many things to themselves. Operating a little too closely with Starfleet Security than normal, outside of war-time anyway.”

“Jake,” Xal Ra-Museii chimed in, before Shanthi - the expert on Starfleet - and Velissa - the expert on politics - could squabble further. “What have you heard, if anything, explaining the abrupt about-face of so many non-aligned and independent worlds, who've suddenly and apparently spontaneously, decided to cooperate with Starfleet after years, even decades of outright refusal to do so?”

Clearly not keen to reveal to much of what his sources had shared with him, Sisko took a moment to compose his response carefully, clearing his throat before he began. “Uh, well, honestly… rumor is that someone in the Federation, the government that is… somebody with enough influence to be believed, played the trump card.”

At this, everyone went silent. Hawk at first had thought the broadcast had frozen, or the signal become delayed, but finally Xal Ra-Museii leaned forward at his desk and addressed the audience. “Ladies, gentlemen, and transgender species, forgive our surprise at Mister Sisko's assertion. There are… certain things that those of us in the information business, or politics, for example, take for granted. Things that we know that, that while certainly are not secret, aren't common items of discussion. Uhm, the 'trump card' to which Mister Sisko refers to is a fairly old diplomatic 'threat' - and I use that world loosely, please understand. What it pertains to, though, is the complete cessation of all trade between the Federation and all non-aligned or independent worlds, as well as enforcing that with a Starfleet-backed blockade. It's a strategy that was first developed in the 2340s, by then-president Turion, and has long since been considered too risky to use without… well, without the ability of the Federation justice system to deal a considerable blow to criminal elements like the Orion Syndicae.”

“An ability which does seem to have presented itself,” remarked the retired Fleet Admiral, as she nodded her head in silent understanding and agreement, the puzzle coming together for her now as well.

“From a political stand-point, I find it difficult to believe that the Federation Council would ever vote in favor of cutting off trade across the board like that,” stated Velissa. “Certainly, with worlds like Farius, Finea, even New Sydney. They've become such haven's for the Syndicate, it would make sense. But to threaten worlds like Regulon, Argaya, Xeoplia, Dozaria?”

“If Mister Sisko's sources are correct, though, ” Ra-Museii thought aloud, “if Starfleet had obtained some sort of mass confluence of evidence against enough senior members of the Syndicate, it would be enough to resolve the dilemma inherent to the Turian stratagem. Perhaps even enough to warrant making such a bold political maneuver without prior consultation of our allies.”

“While the cooperation of the Klingons, the Ferengi, and even the Cardassians does not surprise me, what with how strong our diplomatic relations with each of those nations has become in the years since the Dominion War, the fact that the Romulan Empire also seems to have launched their own effort at arresting elements of the Syndicate within their own borders would certainly only make sense if they had been provided with a considerable incentive to do so.” supposed Shanthi.

“Incentive?” questioned Ra-Museii.

“Such as actionable evidence against such a significant number of individuals, such as has been suggested by Mister Sisko.” explained Shanthi, clearly more impressed with Sisko now that she could see so many elements of the situation for herself.

“What does it all mean, though? To what end is all of this action being taken?” Velissa asked, despite the fact that she was not the host for this program, but rather simply another guest.

“Isn't that obvious?” Shanthi replied, answering the Kriosian woman's question with one of her own.

It was Ra-Museii who came to it first, though. “The end of the Orion Syndicate.”

“Certainly, there's no way that, even in cooperation with the Romulans, the Klingons, et cetera, we could ever hope to arrest every member of the Orion Syndicate, is there?” asked Velissa with some disbelief.

“You wouldn't have to,” remarked Jake Sisko, via sub-space from Bajor, “I mean, just think about it for a moment. Why are so many world's histories rife with examples of political or military leaders being assassinated? You chop off the snake's head, and the body will die. That's ancient wisdom. You arrest and prosecute enough of the Syndicate's leadership, what happens to the people taking orders without the people to give them?”

“Anarchy,” deduced Ra-Museii, considering the earlier report from Farius.

As no one else offered comment or question, Ra-Museii realized they were transmitting little more than 'dead air' as it was known. “Well, this has certainly been an interesting and, perhaps even fruitful discussion. I'd like to thank all of our guests for taking time out of their busy schedules to be–”

Turning off the viewer with a quick command to the controls in front of him, Nathan Hawk sat back in the conference lounge chair… and smiled.

His parents had foolishly given their lives, and the lives of his siblings, in the pursuit of information or evidence that could lead to the conviction of perhaps a handful of members of the Orion Syndicate. They had done so from a place of ignorant idealism, placing far too much on the line to deal a miniscule blow to a criminal element that had thrived for centuries despite the best efforts of dozens of governments and species across the stars. They had paid the ultimate price for their ideals, his siblings had paid for their parents mistakes, and he had been left alone to question the wisdom and the sanity and the stupidity of all of it. When he had agreed to go undercover against the Syndicate, he had done so for a number of reasons. To learn for himself just what the organization was about. To prove to himself and to his parents that one could make a difference without putting others in harms way. To feel somewhat useful again after having been cashiered out of Starfleet on psychological reasons.

His thirst for vengeance against Faro for their murders had come later, after his assignment was complete. Such a revelation, that he had sat side-by-side with the monster who had taken everything from him, had thrown him for quite a loop. One he had still been spiraling in when he had come aboard Republic. With friends, with love, and with determination to do something that mattered with his life, he had pulled himself out of that tail-spin. He had cheated death more times that he could keep count. He had risen to obtain some level of respect in an organization that a part of him would always hate for what his parents had idiotically thrown away for it. He had faced Faro down, and taken his life, and been left unsatisfied by the act he had thought for so long would ease his pain. That pain, he had realized in the days since, would always be with him. So he had fallen back upon the bottle, to numb it once more, uncertain of what else could ease his torment.

Now he knew.

The Orion Syndicate had taken everything from him. Even, briefly, his life.

In turn, without realizing just how significant a role he had played until just this moment, he had taken everything from the Syndicate.

For the first time in his life since he had lost them, he could think about his family without a bitter, burning rage coming to life within him.

Chapter 32: The Die is CastTop

“When all escape routes have been blocked, and you find that your back is up against the wall, your best bet is to offer no additional information that could complicate your predicament. However, if your subterfuge is honed enough, inserting a minuscule amount of ambiguous material could prove beneficial, if only to keep your captors off balance. If well planted, a seed of uncorroborated balderdash could germinate fruit of valuable insight, provided you stay alive long enough to use it…“

- LTCR Doug Forrest, encouragement offered to a fellow inmate at Kran-Tobal prison during the Cardassian Occupation

Location: Unknown
Timeframe: Present day

Dragon's blurry vision slowly sharpened as he pried open his swollen eyelids. The plasma cooling coil that had been thrust forcefully into his face was long gone, but left a reddened half-circle indentation reminiscent of a half-moon tattoo streak with dried blood. He could feel his hands restrained behind a chair, as he tugged weakly on the interconnecting metal chain causing it to click against the backrest. His waist and feet were similarly bound, and as he wiggled to test the strength of the shackles, heard a voice echo in the room.

“You needn't bother trying. You're not going anywhere.”

Turning a puffy cheek towards the sound, Dragon strained to see the source. Focusing on a shadow seated across the table from him, a mysterious humanoid figure calmly smoked a rolled-up, fuming piece of paper that was a cross between a cigar and a stover pipe stem.

“Where am I?” asked Dragon feebly through bruised lips.

“On a spaceship,” replied the accented voice. “Far from your Federation home.”

Dragon looked around to discern his surroundings, but due to the plain, spartan room, he failed to discriminate anything more than what his interrogator offered. Squinting at his adversary, Dragon noted the black curly hairy and mutton-chop beard of a man he did not recognize.

“Mister Connelly… IF that is your real name,” Shavis accused. “We know that you're working for Starfleet.”

“Yeah?” Dragon replied. “Well, you sure don't have very good information.” Due to his lack of knowledge about the man across the table from him, he chose to leave his response vague, and not offer anything about his own background.

“Your Bajoran friend would seem to indicate otherwise.”

Dragon looked back at Shavis without response. The former intel agents' mannerisms, though shielded, betrayed a scent of concern, and his adversary took advantage of it.

“Yes,” he purred. “She's been *very* helpful. My only quandary now is what to do with her.”

“If you have her, what do you need ME for?” Dragon asked. “Why even bother with this?” He wasn't entirely convinced that they had captured Cheshire, but the fact that he hadn't brought up Shadow was a thought that gave him hope.

“Well, because I'm curious,” Shavis explained with a touch of pretentiousness. “I want to know more about why you were in Ramius's warehouse.”

“I did a job for Ramius,” Dragon carefully added, suspecting that there was more here going on than he knew himself.

“Your bypass of the warehouse security system shows you have knowledge about Class Five full-spectrum sensor networks. That sort of expertise doesn't come from anything short of government training. So, I'll ask you once more, WHY were you in Ramius's warehouse?”

Dragon knew better than to try conning someone who apparently held all the cards, so unfortunately for him, he chose the better part of valor.

With a nod of Shavis's head, a tall, brutish Naussican stepped out of the shadows and reached for Dragon's handcuffs. At first, he thought the alien was going to release them, but as he gained a firm grip of Dragon's left pinky finger, he wrenched the digit backwards and off his hand with an audible crack, snapping off of skin and tendon as he brutally pulled the appendage away.

The former intel agent could resist pain, but at that level of torment, a pained growl erupted from Dragon's clenched jaw. 'Shadow will fix it… Shadow will fix it,' he thought to himself over and over until the pain level dropped to a point where he could open his eyes. He looked across and saw Shavis watching him nonchalantly.

“You have nine more fingers, Mister Connelly,” warned Shavis, seemingly without a care in the world. “Plus several other appendages and protrusions that can be rendered ownerless. So I'll ask you as many times as necessary: WHY were you in Ramius's warehouse?”

“I did a job for him!” Dragon sputtered through gritted teeth. “He cheated me on payment! I was just looking for something to cover my expenses! I have debts too, you know!”

He was going out on a limb with the lie, especially since the man across from him could very well be in league with Ramius, but when he uttered Ramius's name, something in his voice caused Dragon to think otherwise. Since Shavis seemed to accept the explanation, Dragon knew it was a well-played move.

“He's not exactly the kind of man to pay full price when he doesn't have to,” reasoned the pale, oily-skinned interrogator. “But that still doesn't explain why the canvas was pulled off some of my equipment when there were three crates of red ice plainly visible near the entrance. I find it very difficult to believe that you were looking for simple money, Mister Connelly.”

With another nod of Shavis's head, the Naussican tore Dragon's left ring finger from his hand, leaving another bloody stump, and causing him to howl in agony. For the first time in a long while, Dragon actually felt as if he might not make it out of the precarious situation alive.

Calmly, Shavis puffed away on his cigar-pipe, patiently waiting for Dragon to stop pulling on his restraints and settle down. About a half a minute passed before the composed bearded man continued.

“Let's change the subject, shall we?” he said while extinguishing his smoking material. “Where would you and your Bajoran friend have gone next if you had made it out of the warehouse district without being caught?”

“The next transport off Farius!” Dragon managed to mutter with a pained voice. “I was stuck on that rock so long I thought I was going to lose my mind!”

“All in good time, Mister Connelly,” he said cryptically. “You had a Cardassian wrist communicator on you. Is that how you were planning on contacting Starfleet?”

“Starfleet… Starfleet,” mumbled Dragon. “Why do you keep bringing up Starfleet? Are you a bounty hunter? Are you going to turn me over to the Federation?”

“I'm the one asking the questions here, Mister Connelly,” Shavis prompted. “And as I said, we know that you're working for Starfleet…”

Dragon, the throbbing pain in his hand subsiding, leaned his head back into his chair, and weakly shook his head back and forth. “It's been years since anyone's accused me of being Starfleet,” he lied, pulling all the stops out of his Fleet Intel training. “I've been sucker-punched by Klingons, head-clubbed by Barolians, mind-melted by Letheans, and nearly incinerated by Flaxians. Each one of them thought I had been associated with Starfleet, and each one of them were surprised to find out that their accusations were light years away from the truth. If you want to be next in line to accuse me of being someone I'm not, go ahead. But you'd be making a mistake, as well an enemy of someone who might have been an ally.”

Shavis stared into Dragon's soul. His penetrating black eyes dug deep for answers, but his subterfuge was strong. Further still, there was something that indicated there a glimmer of truth in his words.

For his part, Dragon was unsure if he sold his story. It was the best acting he could do under the current circumstances, especially since he had no clue who his interrogator was, or what his motives were.

“Tell me, Mister Connelly, WHY I would make a human my ally?” he asked, with a touch of hatred slipping through when he spoke the word 'human'. “I've studied Earth history. I've read about the disease that is the human race. You've spanned out from your little paradise in the Sol system, infecting countless races with your self-centered, hypocritical version of reality. Why would I hire a human to do work for me?”

'Disdain for the human race,' thought Dragon. 'THATS something to go on.'

“Simple,” he replied verbally. “Ramius owes me money. A decent sum, to be sure. If you're willing to take over my contract from him, my skills - which you've already seen a sample of in the warehouse security system - would be yours to exploit. That's how I live my life, sir. Contract to contract, payment by payment. I don't care WHO gets in my way. I'm in this for the money. Not for exclusive allegiances to one species over another.”

“Interesting proposal,” said Shavis thoughtfully as Dragon responded with a nod of his head. “Although, of course, there IS one thing…”

“What?” The air in the room had gone stale as he saw Shavis's expression turn from complacent to cold, calculated determination.

“I searched Ramius's computer files regarding a man named 'Connelly', and they turned up this picture…”

Using a handheld PADD, he showed an image of a man with light brown curly hair, a flat face, and a slight lantern jaw. In reality, it was that of Chief Miles O'Brien from Deep Space Nine six years prior, but neither Shavis nor Dragon knew that. One thing was clear: The picture did not match Dragon's face, and his head slumped forward as he realized that Shavis had been stringing him along the whole time.

Dragon's heart began to race as he saw his bluff crumble before his eyes. Triumphant, Shavis silently stood up from the table and walked towards the door, while the Naussican guard followed suit. As the door slid open, a two-meter tall, male brown insectoid walked into the room. It's compound eyes and twitching antennae turned towards the chair-bound Dragon. While his knowledge of the peaceful Kaferian race from Tau Ceti III was limited, there was something unusual about the alien's demeanor that was unsettling. As Shavis and the Naussican exited, Dragon eyed the newcomer, and realized that the intention was to leave him and the Kaferian alone in the room together. To what end he did not know.

“A Kaferian?” Dragon remarked back towards Shavis before the door closed. “Do you expect me to be afraid?”

“No, Mister Connelly,” Shavis said from outside the open doorway. “I expect you to be devoured.”

The statement was confusing, especially since Dragon knew the Kaferian race to be strict vegetarians. However, as the door slid shut, the male drone's wings opened out, and a cicada reverberation sounded in tune with the whetting of the alien's mandibles. With a cold chill running down his spine, Dragon came to the realization that this was no ordinary Kaferian, and that dinner was very much on it's mind. At the top of the menu: Dragon.

The former intel agent frantically pulled on his restraints to no avail. His breathing transformed to hyperventilation as the giant insectoid inched closer and extended a proboscis from between it's mandibles. He flinched as the Kaferian reached out for him, feeling a vibrating numbness throughout his body while the insectoid's appendages passed through thin air. Opening his eyes, Dragon saw the fading image of his aggressor through the shimmering veil of a transporter matter-stream.

Location: ICS (Interstellar Cargo Shuttle) “Galavant”; formerly the USS Republic shuttlecraft “Heinz”, NCC-76241/11

As the incandescent light of transporter energy faded, the face of his fellow operative, Cheshire, came into focus before him. Dragon's form quickly collapsed onto the floor of the aft-section emergency transporter pad, and as she spied the bloody stump of his missing two left fingers, she winced in revulsion.

“By the prophets! What did they DO to you?”

For his part, Dragon looked up with a smile, his beaten and bruised face looking into her eyes.

“Good to see you again, too…”

She was about to respond, when the entire shuttlecraft lurched violently, causing the lights to dim momentarily.

“We're not out of it yet, kids!” shouted Shadow from the cockpit.

“Help me up,” asked Dragon of Cheshire. As the two made their way to the forward end of the craft, Dragon looked out among the stars to see a fleet of about twenty titanic ore freighters in tight formation behind the furthest satellite of Farius Prime's twin moons. He watched with astonishment as one of the ore freighters opened a set of large cargo doors, launching several tiny honeycomb-shaped fighter craft towards the shuttle.

For his part, Saal was feverishly working the pilot controls, trying to dodge the incoming fighter blasts. He worked the craft back and forth in an “S” pattern while taxing the impulse engines to maximum in a course away from the freighter fleet.

“Didn't you fail small craft operations twice at the academy?” asked Dragon as he took a seat at the co-pilot's controls.

“You're welcome!” spat Shadow, annoyed at his attention being diverted from the task at hand.

Outside, the shuttle wavered back and forth as yellow pulses of laser energy shot across its bow. Most missed, but a few hit their target as the green and orange warp nacelles flickered in response to major damage. Ominously, the shuttle slowed its trajectory.

“They're gaining!” warned Dragon.

“I know!” hissed Shadow, his wide-eyes transfixed on the sensor panel in front of him.

“Why haven't we gone to warp?”

“This thing's only rated to go so fast for so long, you know!” Saal angrily offered. “I over-taxed the engines getting here, now we're paying the price! If we hit the warp drive, they'll just catch up!”

“What's your plan B?”

Shadow didn't answer. Outside, six honeycomb-shaped fighters closed in on the shuttle as it decelerated, giving a clearer target as they opened fire in earnest. The cockpit lights wavered, and the Cardassian A.I. offered a status report.

“Warp systems offline. Deflector systems failing.”

“Shadow!” shouted Dragon, his adrenaline surging. His friend gave no answer. He was about to shout again when the shuttle slowed even further, and a dark green wall of metal shimmered into existence in front of them. They were meters away when Shadow reached for the magnetic docking latch, pulling the lever just as the shuttle came within inches of the wall ahead. In a metallic “clank”, the whole shuttle lurched as it clamped onto the surface of the other craft. In an instant, Saal wrenched open a side console marked “MAIN POWER RELAY” and plucked a large, bread-box sized device from its socket, causing the entire shuttle to go dark.

Outside, from the fighters' point of view, there was nothing but black space where the shuttle had once been. As they closed in on the area where it last appeared on their sensors, they found nothing, and confusedly buzzed around the locale looking for any sign of their quarry.

On the bridge of the nearest ore freighter, Shavis stood with arms crossed, staring menacingly at the main screen. Transmitting was the image of a mud-brown male Kaferian drone with a pulsating yellow honeycomb pattern behind him.

“We are unable to locate the cargo shuttle. They must have activated a cloaking device.”

“Impossible!” shouted an enraged Shavis. “No vessel that small has a cloaking device! WHERE did it go??”

“Since there's no ion trail, the other possibility is that they activated a transwarp conduit. It could be on the other side of the Alpha Quadrant by now.”

In a fit of rage, the furious Prince Shavis grabbed the Dopterian sitting at the science console, and slammed him against the bulkhead.

“You IDIOT!” he shouted with vehemence. “You LOST them!” In a scream of sheer hatred, Shavis produced a sharp, Klingon-like ceremonial blade and swiftly made a deep and generous slice across the neck of the Dopterian. With orange blood spilling everywhere, the entire bridge crew nervously watched as the frenzied prince made multiple thrusts into and out of the limp body of the science officer. His anger reaching an apex, Shavis's muscles flexed copiously as he threw the body across the command center into a gushing, lifeless heap.

Silence followed as everyone watched the infuriated despot stumble to the command chair, the only sounds being the beeping and chirping of the control systems around the room. As he regained his composure, the livid man slumped in his seat and glowered back at the screen.

“What are your orders, your excellency?”

“Re-dock with your mother freighter,” he muttered. “Comm, send a message to the fleet. We get underway as soon as they're docked. Maximum speed.”

“Yes, your excellency,” the communications officer replied, replacing the image of the Kaferian drone with that of the space ahead.

The cloaked Klingon Bird-of-Prey floated slowly through the vacuum of space with the tiny shuttlecraft magnetically linked to it's hull. With engines shutdown, and main power systems offline save that of the cloaking device and life support, the combined vessels drifted together in a seemingly lifeless pair of conjoined hulks. In the dark cockpit of the shuttle, a lone screen was activated on the console. It displayed the annoyed and grizzled face of Atul, the Klingon agent that Dragon was communicating with on Farius Prime the previous day.

“Tell Dragon that the favors are over. From now on, HE owes US.”

Saal looked at the display with an air of thankfulness that permeated the abrasive tone of the conversation.

“Understood,” he eyed Dragon in the next seat. “I'll relay your message. We can power back up and detach as soon as the fleet enters warp. On behalf of the Federation, I thank you for your assistance. Galavant out.”

As soon as the channel closed, Dragon couldn't wait to express his annoyance. “Nice of you to have warned me ahead of time,” he said sourly as Cheshire bandaged his hand.

“Where's the fun in that?” his friend egged him on. “Besides, it was hard enough to get a transporter lock on your bionics. The ore freighters seem to be heavily shielded against sensor scans. We're lucky we found you at all. What happened over there?”

“I'm not sure,” Dragon paused in thought. “But I think I've fit a few more pieces of the puzzle together. There a dangerously intelligent man in charge over there who seems to have a hatred for humanity. Based on our reconnaissance of Ramius's warehouse, it turns out the equipment we found there belongs to this guy, and considering the biogenic nature of its contents, I'd say he's prepping for some sort of major operation against humans somewhere. When and where, I don't know know, but judging from the size of the fleet out there, it's something BIG.”

Saal paused in thought before offering a course of action.

“We'd better call the old man…”

Dragon was focused at the main communications screen at the co-pilot's seat in the shuttlecraft. He appeared vexed, with arms crossed, and a focused, perturbed expression cast at the individual at the other end of the conversation. The latter individual, once possessing a fatherly yet distant demeanor towards Shadow when he first embarked upon his trek to Farius Prime, maintained a cold and stoic disposition when talking to the man formerly known as Doug Forrest.

“You know that I'm not supposed to be talking to you, right?”

Dragon was unrepentant. “Do you even know WHY they cut my lifeline?” he brushed aside the previous statement.

“You of all people know when to stop asking questions. This is one of those times.”

“Fine, forget that for a moment. I need to talk to you.”

“You have sixty seconds before I close this channel.”

“I found that Gorn poison you sent me after. There's a guy - I think he's Syndicate - with a fleet of ore freighters that just left Farius Prime. He's got a huge load of the poison disguised as protein gel cartridges for food synthesizers.”

“So, you expect me to mobilize a bunch of agents to find your fleet of ore freighters? Forget it. It's outside the Federation, and none of our concern.”

“This person has a deep-seated hatred for humans,” explained Dragon. “I'll bet you anything he's headed for the Federation.”

“Let's face facts, Dragon. First: A fleet of ore freighters has to tackle a Federation-wide customs grid. Second: You're going on a hunch that just because this guy hates humans, he's stupid enough to enter the Federation with banned cargo. Third: You're an intelligence risk, and it's our policy not to act on information from illegitimate sources.”

“Risk?” exclaimed Dragon with an incredulous tone. “You've known me for twenty-five years! You've been my boss for at least fifteen! You know that my 'hunches' are more accurate than facts from intelligence cadets! You of ALL people know that I'm trustworthy!”

“Oh really? How can I trust a man who works behind my back?”

“What are you talking about?” Dragon replied with confusions.

“I'm talking about the Pantheon… Pluto…”

Dragon closed his eyes in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? That's my old unit name from Task Force One! Are you seriously holding my affiliation with that group against me?”

“The Pantheon has been listed as a possible subversive organization within Starfleet. We've been tracking the movements of all members within the borders of the Federation, and are identifying new members with each passing month.”

“You're chasing a red herring!” Dragon explained with wide-eyed bafflement. “The Pantheon's not a subversive! Where did you get your information?”

“That's none of your concern, but know this: If you step foot within the borders of the Federation, you'll be arrested. Since there's no record of you in the Federation databanks, you'll be tried as a foreign spy.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever!” Dragon waved off the threat as non-issue. “I know what the regulation says about cutting a lifeline!”

“There's only one way out for you: Provide me with all the information I need to know the Pantheon: members, headquarters, and capabilities. Do that, and I'll re-instate Doug Forrest. Full rank, full privileges.”

Dragon was shell-shocked. “Rat out my friends?” he asked with astonishment. “Is that what you're blackmailing me with? What kind of person do you think I am?”

“It's your choice. I'll be available for whenever you change your mind. Otherwise, your time is up. If you run into Shadow, tell him that if he doesn't get back to Republic on-the-double, he'll be cast as a co-conspirator with the Pantheon. This conversation is over.”

As promised, the channel closed at a second before the one-minute mark, leaving Dragon to rest his face in the palm of his hand.

“Let me guess,” Saal broke the silence while seated at the nearby pilot's seat. “We're on our own?”

“I'M on my own,” he corrected his friend. “YOU'RE heading back to Republic.”

Saal glanced at a small side screen that displayed a map of the Alpha Quadrant.

“Republic is inbound to the Sol system,” he informed him. “She'll be arriving within the hour. It'll take us several days with these damaged warp engines. Are you up for the trip?”

“I came this far to get off that rock,” he exclaimed, referring to his destitute, mutli-month stint on Farius Prime. “I'm not about to sit this one out and let you take all the credit.”

“How about you?” Saal turned to Cheshire, the Bajoran-Trill agent who was mid-deck, packing up the medical kit after repairing Dragon's hand.

“Better drop me off at the nearest Bajor consulate. I have some cleaning up to do at home before I can catch up with you all.”

Swiveling his chair to face the shuttle controls, he began dialing their new course into Federation territory. As the shuttle changed heading and activated the warp systems, Saal Yezbeck muttered a ubiquitous phrase from ancient Latin.

“May fortune favor the bold…”

Chapter 33: Friends in High PlacesTop

Location: USS Republic, Enroute to the Earth System

Seismic shifts to the galactic geo-political landscape not withstanding, John Carter had things to do. He determinedly strode through the too empty corridors of the ship that had become his home, understanding again just how empty it was.

Normally, he'd have stopped, nodded to, or at least acknowledged the presence of dozens, if not hundreds of crewmen moving through the halls and crawlways of the ship as they went about their business. Now however, in the wake of Kevan Faro's death, and the ship's departure from Ananke Alpha, the near-empty ship only served to remind Carter of how much was missing.

It was a surprisingly short trip from the turbo-lift shaft to his quarters, and the Martian XO barely slowed down to let the doors slide open before he slipped inside. “Computer.” He called out. “Lights, low.”

A moment later, the room was minimally lit with a warm yellow tone, long, full shadows accenting the room's closed spaces. John sat at his terminal, tapping a few commands when the ship's computer interrupted his train of thought.

“Requested communications function restricted. Please supply command authorization.”

Carter huffed in frustration. He was already working on borrowed time. Despite the fact that all it took was a few choice words, which John swiftly provided, he couldn't help feeling annoyed. It was just another delay he didn't need or want.

“Command Override confirmed.”

With a few quick taps at the console, John accessed a restricted communications link to one of his least favorite people.

“Why John Carter, as I live and breathe…” Though she was a trained Intelligence agent, practiced in never giving anything away, Chase Meridian decided it was fine to let a sly smile cross her face.

John rolled his eyes. “I'm still not sure you do.” Despite the biting nature of the remark, Carter had to admit that Chase always had a certain charm, and even though he knew her to be a back-stabbing manipulative witch who should never be trusted, a part of him always found her attractive, no matter what face she wore. At the moment, she had a well-tanned complexion, and her typically dark hair was cut short and suffused with copper coloring.

Out of habit and practice, Meridian glanced over her shoulder. The dusty pink sky and rocky peaks in the background betrayed her location, and Chase was always wary of Vulcan observers to her conversations. “That's sweet John,” she cooed, “but as much as I know you love me, I don't think you called to insult me.” She tilted her head, her expression suddenly turning shocked and horrified. “What would your fake doctor girlfriend say?”

Carter leaned in, doing his best to keep his irritation at Chase out of his voice. “Believe me, Chase, I wouldn't be calling if I thought I had any other option. As for Shannon, I'll be sure to pass on your regards.”

Meridian's expression softened in a split-second, and for an instant, she looked every inch the innocent tourist, or academic. In short she was utterly forgettable; the first mark of a good spy. “She's nice John.” Chase commented. “But I thought you'd outgrown toys.”

Carter felt his pulse begin to rise, his face becoming flush. “Chase,” he said with the weight of cold iron. “You owe me,” he admitted. “And I'm calling it in.”

On the other side of the video link, Meridian blinked. With her, that was what passed for surprise. She cleared her throat. “All right, John.” She said, her tone suddenly sober and coldly professional. “What can I do for you?”

” One of your people is in trouble,” John explained. “I got a private Romulan communiqué a few days ago, but we've been in blackout, so…”

“I heard,” Chase commented. “Your boy Hawk's a real Grim Reaper. Lot of people tend to die around him John,” she offered. “Better watch your Six. And what do you mean, 'My People'?”

“Sean McTaggart. My former Tac…”

“You have seven of those.”

John grumbled. “He was running some Black Shirt Op on Farius Prime with Forrest when the Romulans nabbed him.”

At the mention of Forrest's name, Chase's eyes closed and her head twitched to the side as if she'd just been annoyed by a mosquito. “Sorry John, I can't help you.”

Carter's hand slapped onto his desk. “Can't or won't?” he demanded.

“Would, but can't.” She explained. “Not if Forrest was involved.”

“Look, Chase, I'm sure you and Forrest didn't see eye to eye, but Sean's….he's one of MY people. I'm responsible for him.”

Chase shook her head. “That's always been your problem John. He's not on your crew, he's not your problem. You can't let go. Which, by the way, is why you're talking to me, rather than someone you don't actively dislike.”

“I'm talking to you because you'll do whatever you have to when the job calls for it, and you owe me. This isn't for Forrest, it's for me, and an innocent man.”

Meridian nearly chuckled. “Oh, John. That's so cute,” she chided. “When are you going to learn that no one in Fleet is innocent?” She didn't really expect and answer, and didn't get one. “Leaving that aside for a moment, if your boy was with Forrest, then I can't do anything, even if I wanted to. Forrest is burned.”

Carter's eyebrow arched in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“It means that Forrest screwed up, and he did it big enough and bad enough that no one's going to help him. He's cut off; from us, from you, from the Federation. He might as well not exist.”

“But Sean…”

“Is collateral damage, John, ” she said simply. “There really is nothing I can do. Officially or otherwise.”

“Computer. End transmission.”

The channel went dead, and Carter hung his head for a moment. Calling in a favor from Chase Meridian had been his last, best shot to do something for McTaggart. Now, if what she'd said was true, then John had to find a way to get to the middle of Romulan space, but beyond that he didn't know where to begin to search for his former crewmate. As he sat and brooded, he felt his pulse beginning to rise; a mix of anger and frustration moving through his mind. A quiet wash of photons broke him out of his loop of emotion.

Shannon Harris appeared behind Carter and placed her hand on his shoulder. “You'll find a way, John.” She offered. “It's what you do.”

Carter shook his head. “Not this time. This one caught me completely by surprise. I really had no idea that anyone would use the Freedom Star ambush against me like this.”

The XO leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair. “I thought that turning their attention to me would give me some leverage, maybe open an opportunity, but I still can't see a way to get Sean clear of this.”

Shannon thought for a minute, her other hand reaching out to rub Carter's shoulders. She could feel the tension stored in the knotted muscles under his skin. “Maybe you should talk to the Captain.”

John shook his head. “I don't think Captain Roth could do anything that the Blackshirts couldn't. Not without risking her neck.”

Shannon smiled. “Then let's talk to a Captain who has nothing to lose.”

Location: Holodeck two, deck 10, USS Republic

“Damned peculiar, if you ask me,” Jim Kirk offered as he closed his book… again. “I never much cared for Fleet Intelligence myself, and I'm sure the feeling was mutual, but, I've had some experience with a ghost or two from my past coming back when it was least expected.”

Shannon nodded, then looked to her left, where she was pleased to see John had relaxed somewhat. “You mean the Mutara Nebula Affair?”

Jim Kirk leaned forward, inclining his head to look down his nose at the redheaded hologram. “Is that what they call it now?”

Shannon nodded.

“Well that's damned disappointing. It was certainly more than an 'Affair'”. Kirk shook his head to dismiss the thought. “in any case, I always found that when things seem to be falling apart, it's not a bad idea to consult a Vulcan, and I think I know just the one to give you an idea or two.”

Location: Main bridge, deck 1, USS Alliance
Shiptime: 2230 Hours

“I'm sorry, who's calling for the Captain?” The question came from Lieutenant Commander Alan DeVries, the Third Watch Officer for the USS Alliance. He stood just a shade under five feet tall with a ruddy complexion and a thick head of wavy, dark hair. DeVries looked back at his Edoan Operations officer.

The three-armed being shrugged his two shoulders. “Someone named Carter. Apparently he's XO on board Republic.”

DeVries tilted his head. “Wait…John Carter?” Alan didn't wait for the answer. Instead, he turned back toward the center seat and settled in. “Put it through to the Captain's Chair.” Devries straightened his uniform tunic and took the call.

“John Carter. What did you do this time?”

On the other end of the line, Carter blinked, then felt a smile cross his face. “Sprock me…” he cursed. “DeVries? What the Hell are you doing wearing a red collar? After all the work I did to get you through Fourth Year, you up and switch departments on me?”

Smiling back to the Martian Commander, DeVries held up a hand. “Easy, Commander,” he chided. “Seems to me we BOTH wore different colors the last time I saw you. Where the hell have YOU been?”

After what seemed like a lifetime, given the events of the last few weeks, John Carter smiled, allowing himself to recall his last Advanced Starship Tactics class; the teaching post he'd had on Earth before his transfer to Republic, where Alan DeVries was a reluctant, but eventually, star pupil. “Good to see you too, Alan,” he offered. “Unfortunately, it's a long, complicated, classified story, and that's all you're getting.”

DeVries nodded. “Fair enough Commander,” he admitted. “But give me one good reason why I should let you talk to my Captian. We've got problems of our own you know.”

Carter set his gaze grimly. “Kobayashi Maru.”

Location: Commanding officer's quarters, USS Alliance

“Your reputation proceeds you Commander Carter,” the Captain of Alliance commented. “Your initial message was, to say the least, intriguing.”

“I appreciate your speaking with me, Captain.” he offered. “I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time?”

“In my experience, Commander, there is very rarely a good time. However, I do welcome the diversion.”

John allowed himself a small chuckle. “As you say, Captain,” he offered again. “At any rate, it seems that the sins of my past have come back to haunt someone who used to be in my command…”

“And you were hoping for some, professional advice?”

“Well, you do have more experience.”

“True.” The Captain said flatly. “However, it occurs to me that we have never actually met, so I am…understandably curious, as to how you thought to contact me?”

Carter leaned in, resting his elbows on the desktop. He paused a moment remembering the phrase that his holographic adviser had instructed him to recite. “The needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many, Captain Saavik.”

In classic Vulcan fashion, Saavik of Vulcan arched her eyebrow. “Indeed?” Then, in a must un-Vulcan fashion, Saavik smiled. “I haven't heard that in a long time. Explain, Commander.”

Location: ch'Rihan, Algol Prefcture
Timeframe: 0900 Local Time

When the chime sounded on the communications station in his simple, but elegant, the elder, but still fit man attempting to meditate on his latest diplomatic strategy opened his eyes. “Computer,” he said calmly, but with surprising resonance in his voice. “Receive transmission.” With practiced, graceful movements, the diplomat rose to his full six foot plus height and turned to face the screen. His eyebrow arched when he saw the caller on the other end.

“Live long, and prosper, Ambassador Spock.” Captain Saavik raised her hand in a traditional Vulcan salute.

“Fascinating.” Spock retorted. An instant later, Spock returned the gesture. “Peace and long life, Captain Saavik.” Then he paused. “It is…agreeable to see you again.”

Saavik nodded. “And you, Ambassador. I bring an unusual request, from a most unusual source.”

Chapter 34: Back From Outer SpaceTop

The main bridge of the exorbitant Galaxy-Class vessel had been an uncommonly lonely place during the past few weeks as the ship had embarked upon a clandestine mission. Since such had been complete, It had seemingly grown only more so. Those officers and crew still aboard her all had endured a burdensome existence for quite some time with nary the opportunity to take any down time. So as the noble vessel trekked homeward for the first in more than a years time, many of those aboard had taken advantage of the lull in activity to take things easy.

Such was not the case on this particular morning though, as the ship crossed the invisible and wholly imagined line that was given on three-dimensional star charts as the peripheral border for Terran system. On this morning, for the first time in nearly a months time, the whole of the senior staff were present and accounted for in their customary locations. Because on this morning, for the first time since the ship had been launched from the Utopia Planitia fleet yards in orbit of Mars, the U.S.S. Republic was coming home.

In the center of the bridge sat Martian executive officer Commander Jonathan Thelonius Carter, his hands braced upon his knees as he leaned forward in his seat. In the seat mirror opposite of Carter with a more relaxed posture was the ship's hybrid Ship's Counselor, Lieutenant Commander Reittan Tolkath. Standing at the highest point of the bridge behind and between the two men was Chief of Security Zoe Leila Beauvais, attentively monitoring her consoles readouts despite the nearly non-existent chance of her tactical services being required.

Forward of the command arena upon the port side stations sat long-time assistant Chief Engineer Lieutenant Maria Pakita. Mirroring her post at the starboard side consoles was Chief Medical Officer and acting Chief Science Officer Leon Anderson Cromwell, his arms folded across his chest. At the starboard forward station was second officer and Chief Helmsman Lieutenant Nathan 'Nat' Hawk, with the Bajoran acting Chief Operations Officer Ensign Cail Jarin mirroring him at the forward port.

Completing the ensemble was Captain Kimberly Lynn Roth, commanding officer of the Starship Republic. Exiting onto the bridge from her ready room, the skipper took a moment to pause outside the threshold to admire the sight of her assembled senior officers with satisfaction as Master Chief Petty Officer Brad Rainer made his way up the narrow ramp to his post at the Damage Control station.

Moving forward once again, Roth approached the center seat - her center seat. As she did, her first officer stood from his own post and nodded in greeting to his commander. “All hands are on deck, ma'am. All departments report status nominal.”

Favoring her XO with a satisfied expression, Roth nodded in acknowledgment of his report as she took her place in the command chair. “Very good, Commander.”

“Estimated time of arrival, Lieutenant Hawk?” questioned Carter as he returned to his own seat at his captain's right.

Checking his consoles readouts, the scruffy haired blond Lieutenant answered, “ETA from this mark… seven minutes.”

Turning her focus towards the small command controls upon either arm of her chair, Roth reviewed the status reports that had been filed by each department head earlier in the day. Taking note of one in particular amongst them, she directed her focus to the port side of the bridge. “I see the new holo-system bypass is finally available, Miss Pakita?”

Turning in her seat, Pakita nodded in the affirmative, “Yes ma'am. I'm afraid it was slightly more complicated job than it looked. And with the limited crew compliment aboard…”

Stopping the younger woman with a raised hand, Roth nodded in understanding. “No need to explain, Lieutenant. It wasn't exactly priority one, not with the engines in the shape they've been.”

“If you like, we could give it a quick test ma'am?” Pakita offered.

With a single affirmative nod, Roth acknowledged, “By all means.”

Entering a sequence of commands into her console, the familiar form of the ship's emergency medical hologram appeared behind Pakita at the engineering station. “Please state the nature of the medical emergency,” it requested automatically.

“Just testing out a new upgrade, doctor.” replied Pakita, as she looked towards John Carter and nodded.

“Doctor Harris, please report to the bridge.” requested the first officer.

Less than a second after the words had left his mouth, Doctor Shannon Harris materialized in the center of the main bridge, and favored Carter with a pleased look.

“Well, it's a bit of a fix to the barn door after the horse has come home, but at least it works.” remarked Roth pleasantly.

Dismissing the EMH, whom was promptly deactivated, Harris took the small half-seat next to Carter.

A comfortable quiet fell upon the bridge for the next few minutes, as each individual considered the past year and change. It had been far from a pleasure cruise, or from uneventful. Both individually and together, they had all faced their fair share of challenges and hardships. Now, the future that was spread out before them was even more of an unknown than normal. What awaited them for certain was repairs and debriefings. What was less certain was whom amongst the crew would be remaining aboard for such, and whom would be rotated to new assignments. Though requests could be made as to such both by the individual and their superiors, it was by no means a guarantee that such would be granted. For many, this ship and the individuals aboard her had become a home away from home. And leaving home was never easy.

Upon the wall-sized forward view screen, a small pin-prick of light at the center of the screen began to grow larger. When it was the size of a small coin, it's blue hued oceans wrapped in wisps of white clouds became discernable. Within a matter of moments, it had blossomed to the size of a humanoid head, and the familiar contours of its continents began to come together. To its upper left, another light appeared - the distant but gargantuan form of spacedock, in stationary orbit above the planet.

As the sphere dominated nearly a quarter of the view screen, the rocky gray satellite responsible for its tidal forces began to rise from behind it. It was an image that all had seen a dozen, or a hundred, or even a thousand times in their lives. Yet it was one that seemed never to grow less awe inspiring and welcome to either human nor alien alike. It was the capital of the United Federation of Planets, the base for all Starfleet Operations, and the home world to mankind. A world that had overcome it's all that had once divided it: race, religion, ideology, nationality, wealth and so much more.

The planet known simply, even quaintly to it's native populace, as Earth.

“Damn,” muttered Nathan Hawk from his seat at the helm, “I'd forgotten…”

“Lieutenant?” queried Kimberly Roth from her center seat.

“How beautiful it was…” Hawk answered, trailing off for a moment, lost in thought. “Ya know, I ain't bin back here fer… hell, not since I graduated the Academy.”

“A little over eight years.” remarked Shannon Harris.

“Has it really bin that long?” Hawk asked rhetorically, knowing the answer, but unable to fathom it.

“That beats my record of five years,” stated Roth.

“You know, in my entire career, I've never spent more than three years without coming home for at least a visit.” added Chief Rainer from the aft.

“It's only been a few months for me since I was here last,” remarked Cromwell from the starboard science station.

Chiming in from the Operations console, Ensign Cail remarked, “The longest I've ever been away from Bajor was my first two years at the Academy.”

On the main viewer, the blue orb that was the crown jewel of the Federation now encompassed more than half of the display. To the upper left quadrant, the distinctive mushroom-shaped form of Starbase 1 – more commonly referred to as 'spacedock' as if it were the only such facility in existence much like Luna which was still regularly called 'the moon' – became clearly visible. The facility itself was beyond epic in it's size and scope, and facilities such as it served as symbols of the Federation's greatness. They were a testament to technological prowess, a triumph of engineering, and a declaration that their society had moved beyond the means of a monetary economy, where-in a facility of such magnitude would be incalculably expensive.

The monstrous facility was the equivalent of a city amongst the stars at over twenty-seven-hundred decks in stature. It housed and was operated by a crew compliment of over eighty-five-thousand Starfleet personnel. In addition, it supported a civilian compliment of workers and guests that could balloon and shrink between one-hundred-twenty and two-hundred-forty-thousand individuals. Capable of accommodating up to two-hundred starships and three-thousand small craft at maximum capacity, it was the hub of interstellar activity for the whole system. In the whole of the eight-thousand-light-years that comprised Federation space, only five-dozen facilities of its type existed.

Originally, the first of it's kind had been Earth's. Constructed in the early twenty-third century, it had been less than one-third the size of the modern facility that had been built upon it's foundations in the early part of this century more than seventy years previously. As Starfleet had grown onward and outward, so too had the capacities and extent of their ships, and as early as the 2280s it had become evident that a much greater, much grander facility would someday be required. Though many ship designs had come and gone, fading with the ebb and flow of progress, space station and starbase designs had continued to defy such and remain.

On this return though, the Republic would not be amongst the dozens of ships and thousands of people to call spacedock home base. The damage sustained to their engines at the hands of the Dominion during their time in the Gamma Quadrant would require a more dedicated facility to tend to. Amongst the hundreds of orbital habitats, skeletal shipyards, and lesser satellite stations was their destination: Earth Station McKinley, named for one of the planets great mountains. It had been specifically designed to cater to the larger caliber of Starfleet vessels, such as the Ambassador, Galaxy, Nebula, and Sovereign classes.

After entering into a standard orbital approach path, Lieutenant Hawk promptly adjusted their course and speed from their to put them on an approach to McKinley. On the forward viewer, the facility itself was already in view. Unlike many of the more common skeletal frame-works that served for repair and refit, these Earth station's had been designed with flexibility in mind. Variable position armatures - four for the saucer and three for the stardrive - would envelope the ship upon it's arrival beneath the station's central command hub. Aligning the Galaxy-Class vessel to provide her adequate clearance, the ship's Helmsman awaited the next step in the carefully choreographed dance.

“Open hailing frequencies, Miss Beauvais,” requested the Captain from her center seat.

Punching in the appropriate commands, the Security Chief complied. “Channel open, ma'am.”

“Earth station McKinley, this is Captain Kimberly Roth of the Starship Republic, requesting permission to dock.” said the Captain.

“Republic, this is McKinley station control. Permission granted. You are cleared for docking. Welcome home.” came the courteous reply of the station's dock master.

“Acknowledged, McKinley. Republic out.” responded Roth. Directing her focus to Hawk at the Helm, she said simply, “It's all yours, Mister Hawk.”

“Yes ma'am,” offered the Southerner in acknowledgment, as he increased the ship's speed by a fraction.

Within moments, they were passing a mere three hundred meters below the lower portion of the station's central hub at slightly faster than regulations allowed. No good pilot, nor captain, ever really obeyed the precise letter of those particular regulations though. Bringing the ship to an abrupt stop that didn't even phase the inertial dampers, Hawk applied the thrusters for a Z-plus maneuver, bringing the mighty vessel 'upward' towards the station until it was within optimum position. With a resounding thud that reverberated throughout the hull, the primary umbilical connection was made. A moment later, the armatures that had been splayed outward in anticipation of their arrival began to fold inward, as if a mighty metal octopus, taking hold of it's prey.

In less than two minutes, the entire process was complete.

“McKinley control to Republic, hard-seal achieved. Umbilical connection verified. Docking procedure is complete.” came the voice of the dock master once more.

“Thank you, McKinley. Republic out.” replied Roth.

A moment after the words had left her mouth, the last and least pleasant phase of the operation was completed, as all around the bridge, the command and control consoles lost various aspects of their functionality as McKinley assumed those functions. All but one of the aft bridge stations deactivated completely, followed shortly by the weapons systems and shield controls at tactical, warp drive and structural integrity control at engineering, virtually all functions at science, and likewise, the helm. Of all the bridge stations, only Operations remained mostly on-line. Though it was fairly unceremonious, it was also the way of things.

“Well folks, I'd say that's all she wrote for now. We all have our duties to attend to, lets get to them.” said the captain. “Dismissed.”

Chapter 35: Friends in Low PlacesTop

Location: “The Triangle”
Timeframe: Present day

Strictly speaking, Calder II was a Federation Protectorate. Not big enough to be a colony, or rich enough to be a viable target for mining. The planet was technically Class M, but it was far too dry for Shen t'Rllaillieu to stand. For years, the Romulan expatriate had made his living on the fringes of what most people thought of as “respectable” circles. Most of the time that meant hiring out his services as a tramp freighter pilot to the highest bidder. As a result, though Shen currently wished otherwise, he was waiting, somewhat impatiently, in the cramped quarters of his shuttle for his latest client to return with whatever treasure the planet might have chosen to reveal.

The thing about Calder II was that it held secrets. As a result, it tended to attract people who did the same. His annoyance growing, Shen pulled up the sleeve of his ballistic weave flyer's jacket and checked his chrono. Meanwhile the shuttle's dash display mutely blinked “12:00”. Shen banged it with his fist. It didn't help his mood.

“Shen to Tranquility.” He barked. “It's been four sprocking hours. Package is probably dead.”

With the tell-tale squelch of a point to point laser comm., a lilting soprano giggle came over the comm. channel. “Calm down Shen.” The voice reminded him. “She paid for the whole day, you give her the whole day. Two hours left.”

Shen shifted in his pilot's couch. “Easy for you to say, Sam,” the pilot offered to his comrade, “you're not the one watching moss grow.”

“You sit. You wait. Or the Captain will dock your share. Got me?”

Shen leaned back again, kicking his feet up on the small shuttle's instrument desk. “Fine, fine, but by the Great Bird, PLEASE! No more 'milk runs'? I'm going all bibbldy in here!”

“Hang in there, hot stuff. Gruff got the protein sequencer fixed, so you can actually eat when you get back. Tranquility out.”

The pilot shook his head. “Small favors I guess,” he mused. Then there was a wrapping on the outer hull, followed quickly by the tell-tale sign of compressor weapon fire. Shen sat upright, jumping to his feet, his hand sliping down to the old-style Klingon disruptor holstered on his hip. “Cardassian's? Here?” He took a few short steps to look at the porthole to the out side.

Thief, explorer, general troublemaker; whatever you called Vash, whatever job she did, she never lacked for excitement. Just now, she hit the hull of her rented shuttle with a 'huff', slamming her palm against the hatch. “Open the sprocking door, damn it!”

An instant later, the hatch hissed open. Shen leaned his head out, just enough to confirm the speaker's identity, just as a bundle of charged particles shot by his head and slammed into the shuttle's hull. “What did you DO, Lady?!?” He leveled his disruptor and shot back at attackers he couldn't actually see yet.

“Later!” The spry human ducked into the hatch, careful to protect the small bundle under her arm with her body as she moved, just in case. She quickly made her way to the passenger's couch.

Shen squeezed off one more disruptor shot, then let the hatch slide shut and seal. As he backed his way into the control cabin, he called back to the passenger. “You're paying double!” He yelled as he forced the shuttle into pre-flight, causing the engines to whine. “Your contract said precisely NOTHING about hostilities!”

In the cabin, Vash rolled her eyes fighting the urge to smile. She'd learned not to take threats too seriously. Everyone yelled when they were upset. Very few were as bad as they said once they'd calmed down. The one's that were? Didn't stay in business too long.

With a speed that scarcely matched the battered shuttle's appearance, the small, sleek craft rose up on a cushion of anti-grav and shot skyward as the impulse drive and inertial dampeners groaned to keep up with the stress Shen was putting on his ship.

In seconds, the shuttle broke atmosphere, and Shen breathed a sigh of relief as he saw his mother ship, the private freighter Tranquility Maru, hanging in orbit…the shuttle deck was open to space, landing lights blazing against the cold black.

A quick look at the sensor display confirmed to Shen t'Rllaillieu that he was not followed. “That's odd…” he wondered aloud. “No sign of anyone following from the surface, but they must have a ship…”

Over the pilot's shoulder, Vash cleared her throat jingling a few small metallic pieces in her hand. “Oh, they're not going anywhere.” She cooed. Damnedest thing about plasma regulators… they're VERY fragile.” She rested her chin on the pilot's shoulder. “One good hip-check was all it took, and a little 'oops!'

Shen looked back and scowled, shrugging his shoulder to move Vash from being what he considered too close. “It's still gonna cost you…”

“I'll pay.” Vash smiled, looking at the bundle clutched to her torso. “Profitable trip.”

Location: SS Tranquility Maru, en route to Klingon space
Timeframe: Four hours later

Samantha Jean Karisnky looked over her status board. As the second-in-command of one of the least known, least respected trader vessels in the Triangle, she was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the ship, a lot like an Operations or First Officer would be on a larger ship.

At this moment, the, compact, but fit human female was making her way aft, to the galley. She paused before entering the crew space, brushing a crinkly blue curl from her eyes.

In the Galley, Shen t'Rllaillieu nodded as he saw Sam, still decked out in her typical olive fatigues tied at the waist and a faded 'Property of Starfleet Academy' work shirt. Shen considered that Sam might be the only academy washout he'd ever met, though it occurred to him that he didn't know the circumstances of her departure.

Shen choked down the last of his (badly) re-sequenced raktigino and set down his mug. “Well?”

Sam crossed her arms over her chest. “Capn's going over your report. Looks like the client will pony up on the hazard fee, but there's something else.”

Shen leaned forward. “Oh?”

Sam nodded, her wild kinky curls bouncing like an old-fashioned Terran bobble-head. “Apparently, something 'interesting' is up. Your mother would like to speak with you on the bridge.”

Life as a freelance spacer was hard enough. It was worse when your captain was also your mother, and knew when to make the difference clear. Shen t'Rllaillieu got up from the table. He didn't notice the ship drop to sublight.

Location: Bridge, SS Tranquility Maru

In a different time, a different life, Tranquility's Captain was a Commander. She had once been in charge of a fleet of the Praetor's most advanced warships. However, following something that was now all-too-cleverly known as 'The Enterprise Incident', her meteoric career came crashing down. Political connections had saved her from execution, but only revolution could bring her glory.

As Fate would have it, revolution did come, and eventually, the disgraced Commander's Aunt, Ael t'Rllaillieu would go from outlaw pirate captain, to Empress, and would be responsible for restoring the Star Empire's honor.

That chain of events meant that the Commander's fortunes were again on the rise. However, it also meant that the Empress owed a favor to the two beings the Commander hated most in the universe.

Kirk and Spock.

Just thinking of the smug pair made her passions flare. She'd wanted them dead, though only one of them was. Now however, Spock's Vulcan longevity had come back to haunt her again. She'd been asked to help him. “Honor Demanded It” she was told, and she could see no way in which that was not the case.

It was this reluctant scene that Shen t'Rllaillieu walked in on when he stepped onto the bridge. The pilot nodded to his Captain as she turned to face the sound of the opening door. “Captain.” He said coolly.

“Shen.” She offered, her voice near a quiet boil. “We're leaving.”

The helmsman stood with his hands on his hips. “The hell we are! Gruff finally got this ship working again! Besides,” he gestured around the bridge, “just where is it you think we're going to go?”

At that moment, the ship's red alert sounded and over his Commander's shoulder, Shen saw the familiar silhouette of a Romulan Sun Bird class Scout (what the wider galaxy insisted on calling a Klingon Bird of Prey, despite the fact that the design had been Romulan originally) fill the viewer.

The Commander pivoted her chair. “Good, they're early.”

Shen looked at his mother, then back to the screen, silent.

The Commander walked toward the bridge hatchway, pausing to put a hand on Shen's shoulder. “Time to go home. A visit long overdue.”

Chapter 36: Dark HorizonTop

Location: Sector 33, Eight periods out of Epsilon Draconis (Romulan Neutral Zone)
Timeframe: Present Day

Against the black backdrop of space, nearly two-dozen elongated gray shapes slowly plowed the vacuum between stars towards an unknown destination. Each silhouette was composed of over one hundred evenly-spaced interlocked cargo modules held together with a backbone dorsal superstructure that held aloft a pair of warp nacelles and interlaced machinery platforms. Spanning nearly a third of a kilometer long, these ships did not contain any sign of habitation compartments, and plainly absent was any lighted viewport or bridge deck. The only illumination came from the standard locator strobes at the fore, aft, port, and starboard ends, as well as the identification spotlights highlighting a set of naval construction codes reading “STARFLEET MATERIAL COMMAND - UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS”. No ship names were visible.

At the lead of this austere fleet was a vessel class well-known throughout the space lanes as a Midway-Class Cargo Carrier; one of the few freighter classes actually operated by Starfleet proper rather than independent merchants. In service since the early part of the 24th century, they were manned with a crew of about twelve officers, and outfitted with standard light weaponry and moderate shielding for Federation missions outside the standard commercial lanes. This vessel class boasted the signature Starfleet saucer section, but also possessed a stretched secondary hull composed of a pair of huge cargo bulkheads that terminated with the usual dual-paired warp nacelles. The hull of this particular ship displayed the stenciled letters “NCC-42111” across its bow, with the name “USS LIBERTY” directly below.

Onboard the tiny bridge of the cargo vessel Liberty were four console stations, a captain's chair, and a single turbolift door. Unlike the bustling command center of a full-blown starship, this Starfleet freighter was the very antithesis of spacious, offering barely enough room for the three officers currently occupying the deck to perform their duties.

“I just don't get it,” the young, twenty-something ensign in command red commented at the helm station. “Starfleet has tens of thousands of starships flying to the far reaches of space, exploring new worlds and civilizations, and we're stuck leading a robotic freighter fleet through the most boring stretch of vacuum imaginable.”

Seated in the command chair was a lantern-jawed senior officer with a receding hairline, carrying with him the air of a seasoned spaceship commander. It was none other than Captain Gerald Harding the Third, a grizzled officer who, after a long stint as an academy professor, followed his call to the stars by relegating himself to meager postings to sate his adventurous spirit prior to retirement. Raising an amused eyebrow, the captain responded to the helmsman, “And you don't think a mere freighter has any place in the greater purpose of Starfleet? Ensign, this fleet represents one of the first major trade missions between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. Isn't that important enough for you?”

“Maybe that's alright for a veteran who's capping off his career,” remarked the naive helmsman, much to the indignant scowl from his skipper. “But for someone who's fresh out of the academy, it's a hit below the belt to be at the controls of the slowest-moving machine in the fleet. Besides, it's not like we're hauling gold-pressed latinum. It's nothing but a bunch of rocks.”

“These 'rocks',” prompted the captain sternly, “Are mineral resources that comprises every hull of every starship in the fleet. Without the raw materials processed from this ore, there would be no Starfleet, no starbases, let alone any single vessel capable of interstellar travel. I'd suggest that you consider the rest of the Federation in your judgement of your current posting, ensign.”

“Hmm,” grumbled the young officer. “I'm probably the only graduate from my cadet class who has to argue with two dozen independent flight computers while trying to coax them to follow you all over the galaxy and back. I just wish something interesting would happen for once.”

“As long as it's not 'Chinese interesting',” the captain remarked, recalling a proverb from one of his academy cadets during his stint as an instructor back on Earth. Regardless of his mischievousness, John Carter was one of the best students in his Federation history class those many years ago.

“You may yet get your wish, ensign,” piped in the lieutenant in sciences blue sitting at the sensor station. “I've been tracking a slow-moving ion storm in sector eleven. It turns out that we're receiving an intermittent subspace signal from within. I think it's a distress call.”

“Put it on speakers,” ordered the captain.

“This is the passenger liner Gondola thirty-three periods out of Archer Four. Our flux chillers have been heavily damaged from ion radiation, and our deuterium tanks are nearly empty. Life support batteries will only last another twelve hours, and we have 324 souls aboard. Requesting emergency assistance from any vessel in the area… please respond.”

“Lieutenant?” the captain turned to the science officer.

“According to the Merchant Marine channel, the Gondola was reported missing three days ago. They could have drifted coreward from their original course and ended up here.”

“Contact listening post Morena,” he ordered. “See if there are any starships in the vicinity that could help.”

The ensign at the helm grunted with displeasure.

“Easy there, ensign,” the captain soothed him. “There are over 300 civilians aboard that vessel. If there's any other ship better equipped to accommodate them, I'd rather have *them* respond. Nothing would be more uncomfortable for us than to host a bunch of tourists on a freighter designed for only twelve crew.”

“Morena reports negative, sir,” the lieutenant reported back to his skipper. “We're the only ship within five sectors that can respond in time.”

Frustrated, the captain rubbed his forehead in thought. “We'll have to use the whole freighter fleet,” he grumbled to himself. “Lieutenant, contact the flight computers of the other vessels and program them to activate their life support modules. It'll be cramped and spartan, but we should be able to host the Gondola's passengers if we can't supplement their batteries.”

“Aye, sir,” the lieutenant replied.

“Ensign,” continued the captain. “It looks like you'll get your wish after all. Plot an intercept course for the fleet and take us in at best speed.”

“Aye, sir!” the youngster smiled, happy to finally utilize some of his academy training.

Within twenty minutes, the fleet of robotic Starfleet freighters, together with their manned lead vessel, the USS Liberty, closed the gap between the ion storm and their original position prior to embarking upon the mission to rescue the stricken spaceliner.

“All shields to maximum,” announced the captain with stern confidence, as the bridge softly vibrated due to the ion turbulence.

“Course steady,” echoed the ensign at helm. “All ships in the fleet are on a nominal approach vector.”

“Distance: ten thousand kilometers and closing,” announced the lieutenant at the science console.

“Engineering,” the captain tapped the intercom on his armrest. “Standby tractor beams. We'll pull it clear of the ion storm before beginning transporter operations.”

“There it is!” exclaimed the young helmsman.

On the large screen at the front of the small and cramped bridge, wispy luminescent clouds of hydrogen ions danced off the hull of a gleaming silver space vessel with a plethora of viewports and observations domes scattered its surface. The sleek shape was vaguely reminiscent of a Sovereign-Class starship, yet instead of deflector arrays and torpedo launchers, luxury shuttle bays and docking stations for personal craft adorned the crisp, clean superstructure. Emblazoned on either side was the livery of Galactic Cruise Liners, and the vessel's name, the S.S. Gondola, was stenciled across the bow.

As the distorted images flickered from the ionic disturbances outside, over a dozen fuzzy elongated shapes came into view out beyond the space-liner's position. They were somewhat rectangular in conformation, but the distance compounded by the ion storm failed to reveal any more detail.

“What are those?” the ensign at the helm asked.

“They look like ore freighters,” the captain replied, quizzically turning to the science officer behind him. “Are we seeing a sensor echo from our own robotic fleet?”

“Possible,” the lieutenant replied, looking into the sensor scope. “Their spacing and proximity are similar to our own beyond the sensor parallax, but I can't confirm without performing a diagnostic.”

“Do it,” remarked the captain as he tapped a button on his armrest. A boatswain whistle sounded over the intercom as he opened the the channel to the rest of his dozen or so crew aboard the manned freighter. “Attention all hands. Once we're clear of the ion storm, prepare to take on visitors from the stranded space-liner. Please make them as comfortable as possible. Bridge out.”

“Tractor beam ready, sir,” the helmsman alerted the skipper. As he looked between the monitor and his instruments, a frown formed on his face. The tractor beam targeting computer was registering multiple target choices instead of just one, and before his eyes, they were multiplying. “What the heck are those?”

On the screen in front, numerous pin-pricks of light were swarming around the distant freighter echoes, growing brighter and more luminescent as they grew near. Their flight path was erratic, but one thing was clear: They weren't echos, and they were heading straight towards them.

“Evasive action!” shouted the captain, but it was too late.

Outside, luminous streaks of yellow light heralded the arrival of numerous honeycombed-shaped fighter craft, each on a direct collision course with the Liberty. The shields of the cargo carrier barely glimmered as the suicidal craft punched gaping holes in the energy field, impacting on the hull shortly afterwards.

One fighter impact released enough antimatter comparable with a photon torpedo from a Galaxy Class starship. One explosion alone might have limited the damage enough for the Liberty to escape her fate. Two were enough to cause grievous harm to many of her vital systems. Unfortunately, as over a dozen honeycomb fighters impaled themselves onto the helpless ship, blinding explosive forces stripped away her bulkheads in multi-deck layers, sending a cascade of fiery orange and red embers in all directions. In one cacophonous secondary blast, the antimatter containment core of the Liberty was breached, reducing the vessel to lifeless debris field that dispersed rapidly within the colorful electromagnetic forces of the raging ion storm.

Location: Listening Post Morena, Sector 31

Slowly orbiting a distant gas giant star, a cylindrical vessel with a multitude of solar arrays and communications antennas drifted steadily forward on its wide, circular course through space. The half-kilometer long structure housed many lighted portals and viewports, and the top end terminated with a crowned dome that signified a definitive command deck in the traditional Starfleet bridge design. Within the station's nerve center, the walls were lined with discrete control panels and monitoring stations, several of which were manned by uniformed officers.

One console in particular incorporated a large monitor with the familiar LCARS digital border, and contained the title “ION METEOROLOGY: SECTOR 11”. Displayed within the borders was a gridded block of space with a computer-rendered feature reminiscent of a fog bank. The feature had a border that extended from the top to the bottom of the screen, with black star-speckled space to the left, and patchy, translucent-white patterns to the right that fluctuated with intensity and brightness with each passing second. Occasionally, a computer-rendered box outline would appear within the borders of the “fog”, followed by offset text displaying “EVENT INTENSITY” and a nondescript number below. The size of each box was incremental to the intensity number displayed, suggesting that some random, turbulent phenomena was occurring within.

Focused on this spectacle was a red-bearded lieutenant in operations gold, whose face was filled with concern and consternation, and his hand was hovering over the communications panel as he pressed the transmit button.

“Morena to Cargo Vessel Liberty, can you hear us?” the officer carefully transmitted over the open subspace channel while keeping his eyes on the screen ahead. “Liberty, please respond.”

Behind him, a commander with short curly black hair crossed his arms in frustration, nervously stroking the red piping on his cuff. He paced back and forth behind the seated junior officer, expressing his anxiousness with a heavy sigh.

“They've been in the ion storm for a half an hour,” he exclaimed. “What's taking them so long?”

“Shall I send out a general distress call for a rescue ship?” asked the lieutenant.

“I doubt they'll be able to arrive in less than a day,” the commander remarked. “Give them another ten minutes, then launch a class one probe.”

“Aye, sir.”

At about that time, the long range sensor console lit up. “Sir!” a ensign announced with excitement from a console station twenty feet away. “Sensor contact in Sector Eleven! Bearing zero-eight-six mark four. Telemetry reads a freighter-class vessel.”

“The Liberty?” whispered the commander

“Same size, sir,” the lieutenant at the ion meteorology scanner remarked. “Just no subspace communications uplink or navigational transponder code.”

The console warbled as several computer-generated pixels emerged from the storm front on the screen ahead.

“More contacts, sir,” the officer jumped on his controls. “Multiple ships. It looks like the whole fleet survived the storm.”

“But still no communications?” the commander remarked.

Raising his eyebrow in thought, the lieutenant turned to his superior. “The ion surges in the storm could have damaged their transmitters.”

“Comm, see if you can raise them on guard frequencies.”

“Nothing on guard frequencies, sir,” responded the ensign in operations gold. “But I am receiving a weak voice communiqué on the subspace carrier channel.”

“The carrier channel?” frowned the commander. “That's supposed to be for binary signal data only. You say there's a voice message on it?”

“Yes sir,” he remarked. “And they're calling us specifically.”

“On speakers!”

“Morena control, Morena control. This is the USS Liberty on carrier beacon channel one-two-eight-point-zero, do you copy? Morena control, please respond.”

“Liberty, this is Morena,” transmitted the lieutenant seated at the meteorology console. “We read you. What is your status?”

“The spaceliner Golanda is safe, but it suffered major damage to engines, power, and central computer services. We're going to give her a tow to sector zero-zero-two-five-eight.”

“What is your condition?” the lieutenant asked. “There were several high-intensity ion discharges while you were in the storm, and we thought we lost you.”

“We have minor damage to our flux chillers and deflector emitters, but the most notable impacts were to our computers and communications systems. We've still retained remote control of the drone freighters, but the storm overloaded our Chamber's coil and navigational transmitters. We've only got our subspace carrier beacon for long distance comm traffic.”

The officer looked back to his superior, his eyebrow arching in realization that his previous conclusion about a communications outage was correct.

“With only their beacon, that explains the lack of a navigational network uplink,” reasoned the commander. “Have them reset their transponder to a frequency that will transmit over their carrier beacon, then arrange for repairs at their next stop.”

The lieutenant carried out his order and re-opened the channel. “Liberty, this is Morena. Set your transponder to zero-niner-sigma-two-seven-eight, and re-transmit over carrier frequency one-two-one-five. What is your next port-of-call?”

A silence persisted for about five seconds before an answer came.

“The Coridan ore processing station.”

The commander nodded. “As good a place as any. Record the change in the navigational tracking network.”

“Liberty,” the lieutenant relayed. “Coridan will be appraised of your situation, and we advise a full repair to your comm system when you arrive. They'd appreciate notification of any changes to your course en route.”

“Morena control, understood and thank you for your help…”

Location: Main bridge, unregistered ore freighter, sector 11

”…We will reset our transponder beacon as directed, and implement repairs as soon as possible. Liberty out.“

The half-Romulan, half-Klingon communications officer was tense as she closed the channel to Morena, knowing full well that if she slipped up in her subterfuge, her cover would be blown. Immediately, she keyed in the newly-assigned transponder code unwittingly provided by the Starfleet listening post, and set the subspace carrier beacon to the requested frequency. The entire bridge crew was glued to the main screen, which displayed a tactical schematic of the entire sector, showing the freighter and her subsequent sister vessels as a group of sensor contacts with the computerized labels “UNKNOWN CONTACT”. As the Federation navigation network received the new beacon code, the sector tracking grid switched its label for the ore freighter to “USS LIBERTY”. Subsequently, every other vessel in the fleet was automatically updated with the labels “FREIGHTER DRONE - USS LIBERTY”, and the label for the captured spaceliner Golanda was re-christened with her previous registry.

It took only a few seconds of gawking at the screen before a wide smile crept across the communications officer's face. “We did it!” she exclaimed with excitement. “We did it! We're across the border!” As the realization of their accomplishment settled in, the rest of the bridge crew erupted into shouts of victory and celebration. Everyone, that is, except for Shavis, who sat in the command chair with his air of masterful certainty. The mysterious despot didn't even raise the corners of his lips during the celebration, point in fact, he simply brushed his mutton-chop beard with his hand, waiting for the excitement to settle before giving his next order.

“Put me on speakers to all vessels in the fleet.”

“Attention everyone: We have successfully crossed into Federation space. The plan has exceeded our wildest expectations, and the human hegemony are unaware of what awaits them. The fleet will rally and disperse in momentarily, and your destinations will be revealed on a coded frequency. Thanks to your hard work, Faro's dream will soon become a reality. You all have earned your place as acolytes of the New Dawn. That is all.”

Nodding to the communications officer, the channel closed, and Shavis turned back towards the command chair. However, before he could sit, a new comm signal chirped, and the officer announced, “new signal from one of our ships, your highness.”

“What?” Shavis spun around. “I ordered silent running! Who's transmitting?”

“It's Klaa, sir,” she replied. “His signal is priority one.”

Shavis nodded to indicate his wish to open a channel. On the screen, a lanky, grizzled old Klingon with a scar across his cranial ridge stared back with penetrating eyes. Although Klingons aren't known for smiling on a regular basis, this particular one showed no sign of having ever smiled, and simply glowered towards Shavis with tired, resigned eyes.

“What is it?” asked Shavis coldly. “And it better be good.”

“My ship's engines were damaged during the ion storm,” explained the vexed Klingon. It was clear that he did not delight in explaining the news to his sovereign. “We won't be able to make it to the rally point with the rest of the ships.”

Shavis felt the burning rage inside him. Glaring with his ebony black eyes, he watched the warrior on the screen reach for his sacrificial blade in anticipation of his own death at Shavis's order. However, as the fearful glances around the bridge looked at the prince expectantly, the fury within Shavis slowly subsided at the realization that his followers had already proven themselves worthy by helping him get this far into Federation space. They had done everything he had asked of them, and there was no need to prove a point anymore. They were all committed to him, and were worthy of the ultimate sacrifice he had in store for them.

“You've done well, Klaa,” Shavis said to the surprise of the crew around him. The ship that the Klingon was commanding possessed the most prized weapon of his entire fleet, and Shavis relished for months the anticipation of using it against his most hated enemy. However, as fate would have it, the entire fleet survived first contact with their nemesis completely intact, and so, even with the current setback, their plan could still be implemented. While he may have wanted to completely eradicate all life on the homeworld of the Federation, it occurred to him that there were many benefits in having survivors as witness to the suffering he would bestow. “What's the maximum distance you can reach with your current engine status?”

“We can go as far as Benecia Colony.”

Shavis smiled. It was perfect. One of the Federation's oldest and most prized colony worlds. What better way to explain to an arrogant parent that their end was near by extinguishing the life of one of their offspring? Instead of relishing in the destruction of his enemy, he would see the pain an horror in their eyes before he met his own fate.

“Then Benecia it shall be,” concluded Shavis. “Go forth my friend, and show the humans that they no longer rule your people. Qapla!”

“For the New Dawn,” bowed Captain Klaa before the transmission ended.

Calmly, Shavis returned to the command seat and gave his next order. “Comm, contact the Gondola and freighters eight through eleven, and have them take up formation alongside us for the next leg of our journey. Send the destination orders to the rest fleet, and instruct them to disperse to their destinations as soon as they can get underway.”

“Right away, your highness,” the officer replied.

“Helm,” Shavis turned his attention to the ship's navigator. With a sly stroke of his beard, a toxic smile crept across his face as he focused his eyes on the screen ahead. “Set course for sector zero-zero-one, and engage at best possible speed.”

Chapter 37: Hunting High and LowTop

Location: IRV Darkwing, near Epsilon Draconis, Romulan Neutral Zone

“You're sure we have to go through the storm?” Charvanek t'Rllaillieu asked, leaning forward in her scout ship's command chair. Strictly speaking of course, the ship wasn't hers, but, for the time being, she was in command. This was another function of the elusive Romulan concept of “mnhei'sahe”.

Though generally understood by the wider galaxy to mean 'honor', those who still adhered to the belief knew that it was far more complicated. Nonetheless, it was in service of this 'honor' that Darkwing's captain had temporarily given his post, and that of his helmsman, to Charvanek and her son, despite the lunacy of their mission. Darkwing's captain was doing “what was necessary”. His mnhei'sahe.

At Darkwing's helm station, Shen t'Rllaillieu cocked his eyebrow. “Do you want to get there or not? Uh… Captain.” Shen shook his head, forgetting for a moment that he was on an Imperial Romulan Vessel, not the deck of the Tranquility. There were people around him who would gladly show him out an airlock, for far less then not showing his captain, mother or not, the respect due her station.

Looking at the screen, Charvanek nodded grimly. “I would prefer to, yes.” She said flatly.

“Then we have to go through the storm.” Shen clarified. “Going around would make the timetable for the mission useless. Assuming the intelligence was correct in the first place.”

Charvanek set her gaze on the forward viewer. “In we go then.”

The charged particles that made up an ion storm typically made warp travel impossible, and eddies and currents within the storm made relativistic travel almost as dangerous. Crossing the threshold of the storm the crew of the Darkwing braced themselves. While they were jostled and buffeted, no one on the bridge seemed worse for wear, and for the moment, the ship's systems stayed green.

Over the groans of stressed metal and other noise, Shen shouted for his captain's attention. “Captain! Sensor contact! Dead Ahead!”

Rather than call for the image to be displayed, Charvanek keyed a control on the arm of her chair and showed it herself. On the ship's main viewer, a wide field of debris was also at the mercy of the ion storm. “Hmm, big.” She commented. “Identify.”

On most Romulan ships, the helmsman was in charge of steering the vessel and if necessary, firing her weapons. Navigators were tasked with charting and updating the ship's course, and unlike the Federation or Klingon navies, were also charged with making sense of the ship's sensor data. At this moment, a young officer named Kiska checked her display. “Debris indicates a Federation design, Captain,” she explained. “No sign of log buoy or data recorders.”

“Good luck finding those in this feldercarb.” Shen cursed, even as he caused the ship to dip and weave, avoiding what at one time must have been the ship's port warp assembly.

“Did the storm destroy them?” Charvanek asked.

Kiska shook her head, her single tight braid of brown hair slipping over her left shoulder as she moved. “Doubtful, Captain. This much mass indicates an ore hauler or some other commercial ship. “Even if she stopped dead, this storm is Force Two at best. No threat to something that big.”

“Hmm.” Charvanek's voice was grim. “Pirates, then?”

Again, Kiska shook her head in the negative. “The ore might have been valuable once processed, but not in it's raw state. Why would they bother?”

There was an odd flash of movement on the screen as Shen was again forced to pitch the scout ship down and to port. Though no one could see it, there was a smile on his face. Then he spoke up. “Did anyone else see that?”

Kiska brought her head up from the sensor display, her face screwed into a look of disapproval. “It's an ION STORM.” She quipped. “There's nothing to see.”

“Thought I made out a hull number…Captain.” Eventually, Shen thought, he'd remember to add the honorific.

Charvanek leaned back in her chair, confident enough in her son's piloting skill. Her fingers flew across her own chair display. On the small screen, she called up the visible light data from Darkwing's sensors. As Kiska had observed, the details to the naked eye were indeed few and far between. Washes of tachyons and flashes of other charged particles within the storm obscured whatever might have been out there.

And then, there it was, just as Shen had observed. A piece of hull plating with visible markings. '…erty NCC-421…'

'Raptors eyes!' Charvanek thought silently. 'The boy is sharp as ever.' The Captain smiled. “Well spotted Shen,” she commented. “A Federation ship it is. Freighter, most likely. Noted and logged.”

Kiska lifted her head again, this time looking over her shoulder, back to the Captain. “With respect, Commander…” her voice trailed off.

“Speak, Navigator.” The Commander said firmly.

“Shouldn't we… tell someone?”

The Commander almost smiled. 'Refreshing.' She thought again. 'The girl clearly means to do the right thing. So naive.' She cleared her throat. “In a different time, perhaps,” the Commander commented. “But this mission, this SHIP isn't officially here, and I'm not inclined to do the Federation any more favors in this lifetime.”

And with that, the matter was settled. Darkwing would continue on her mission, and no other events would delay or deter the endeavor.

“Understood, Captain.” Kiska did her best to hide her disappointment at the rebuke, but the Commander was well within her rights. There had been no distress call, no sign of live crew, and no evidence of Romulan involvement. In human parlance, this affair simply 'wasn't their problem.'

Location: Personal flier 'Aerosprite', Rho Tucanae system, Romulan Space
Timeframe: Ten hours later

Tomaleth rubbed his temples as he stared at the uncooperative computer screen. It had taken a sizable portion of his personal wealth to gain access to secured Starfleet PERSCOMM files, and now, they were apparently useless. He squinted again through his frustration, all but willing the characters on the screen to tell him what he wanted, but the information remained unchanged.

“I've been had!” Tomaleth bellowed. He was the only one in the room. “Years of planning, months of bribing, maneuvering, and plotting, and for what? Nothing!”

In a fit of rage, Tomaleth balled his fingers into a tight fist and shoved it through the screen. There was a small electronic 'pop' as circuits failed, crystal cracked, and the screen went dead. In his stateroom, the lights flickered and a thin haze of smoke filled the air.

Tomaleth spat out a curse as he pulled his hand from the shattered data unit. A few small shards of glass were stuck in his knuckles, and rivulets of dark green blood began to flow down his fingers. He screamed again; this time, out of pain, rather than anger.

As the disgraced former officer stood up from his desk, the door to his room slid open. A frantic looking young Romulan stepped quickly into the room, waving the smoke from his eyes. “Tomaleth? Was that you? Wha…” he coughed as the smoke reached his nostrils. “What happened?”

At the far wall, Tomaleth was holding his hand under the refresher unit, trying to staunch the bleeding. He rolled his eyes as his annoyance began to boil over. “Calm DOWN, Veln!” He barked at the youngster. “I'm fine.”

Following his return to Romulan space, Tomaleth had been forced to call in every personal and political favor he'd accumulated during his thirty-plus year career in the Romulan Navy to keep from ending up on the wrong end of a disruptor squad. One of the favors he'd had to make good on was taking Veln t'Gahth on as his personal assistant.

Veln's father, an over-ambitious Senator with a talent for blackmail, but not much else, had dreams of bringing the Federation to it's knees by exploiting the corruption and vice that MUST have lurked beneath the UFP's all-too sterling exterior. The Senator saw Tomaleth as a means to an end, and had hoped that Veln would learn by doing. Sadly, the things Veln had done were more likely to see him as the victim OF blackmail, rather then profiting from it.

Of all the things that Tomaleth could say about Veln, at least the boy was loyal. Something, Tomaleth noted, that his father never had been. Tomaleth winced as his young assistant took his hand and tried to assess the wound.

“Here, let me.” Veln instructed as he tilted the older man's hand this way and that under the light. “What happened?”

Tomaleth grumbled. “I'll tell you what happened!” He rasped. “Our Ferengi friend sold us a bill of goods!”

Veln looked concerned at more than his mentor's wound. “The codes didn't work? Could you not get into the Starfleet Database?”

Tomaleth inhaled sharply as he pulled his hand away from the boy's attention. “Bah!” he yelled again. “A forgery to be sure, and a bad one at that!”

Veln knelt down, looking under the refresher for a synthskin tube, standard on most personal craft of this class. “What do you mean?” He asked as he searched.

“Does that Ferengi worm really expect me to believe that Carter's woman hasn't been home on leave in three years? In fact,” he added, “she hasn't been ANYWHERE.”

Finding the first-aid box, Veln stood up and set it on the corner of the refresher unit. “What?” He asked in genuine confusion, even as he pulled the small blue tube from its case.

“It's simply impossible.” Tomaleth continued. “In that same amount of time, Carter, Roth, Cromwell…everyone else on that accursed ship has been all over the quadrant!”

Veln nodded as he sprayed the contents of the tube across Tomaleth's bleeding knuckles. “But not Doctor Harris?” He confirmed. “Perhaps she has no family left on Earth. It doesn't sound THAT unusual.” He offered.

“OW!” Tomaleth objected as the blue spray hit his wound. Almost instantly, the antiseptic polymer disinfected and then covered the naval veteran's wound with synthetic skin. Tomaleth shook his hand back and forth, flexing his fingers to try and ease the pain. “It's not just that,” he explained. “There have been conferences, symposia, even social engagements with other crewmen, but…”

“But what?” Veln looked on, confused. “So, she doesn't socialize?”

“She doesn't do ANYTHING!” Tomaleth spat. “It's almost as if she never leaves the ship!”

“Well,” Veln stepped over to the damaged wall unit, crossing his arms in front of him, wondering how he'd explain the damages to his father. “That does seem…unlikely.” He confirmed.

“Unlikely? It's RIDICULOUS! And that… Ferengi! He thought I wouldn't notice. Played me for a… ” Tomaleth's voice dropped to a furious boil. “I'll kill him.” He explained firmly. “No, no…I'll skin him alive, and use his ears to decorate my study.” Tomaleth's voice seemed to trail off as he reveled in the new levels of pain he would introduce the foolish broker to.

Meanwhile Veln stroked the bottom of his chin. “Then, it's a good thing you didn't kill the Earther.”

Tomaleth snapped out of his masochistic fugue. “What?” Tomaleth blinked.

“McTaggart,” Veln clarified. “Since you didn't kill him…”

“Which I SHOULD have!”

“But since you DIDN'T… he's an asset.” Veln turned to face the elder Romulan, his eyes flashing with possibility. “This is perfect. All of your digging indicates that he's Carter's protege. Trusted no doubt with privileged information. We just have to find it, that's all.”

Tomaleth's eyes narrowed. Could this… boy, be on to something? After all, playing a long game had gotten him quite far. Could it be that he'd been so bent on making John Carter pay NOW, that he'd lost sight of the goal? “Hrmm…” was all he managed to let out as he brushed his doubts from his mind. “And what would you do then?”

Location: IRV Darkwing, entering the Rho Tucanae system

Shen t'Rllaillieu checked his helm display, looked to his left to give Kiska a glance, then spoke up. “Transition to sub-light complete, Captain. Cloak is engaged.”

“Excellent.” Charvanek smiled as she stood from the command chair. “Navigator,” she asked as she stepped down from the chair's platform, “any sign of our query?”

Kiska didn't bother to look up from the sensor display. “Confirmed, Captain. One craft in system matching expected configuration. Personal craft. Inter-system yacht. A modified courier ship by the looks of her.” She paused a she looked over the rest of the incoming data. “Navigational deflectors only. One civilian grade disruptor emitter.” At that moment, she looked up from the sensor scope. “They appear to be unaware of us.”

Charvanek nodded. “Just as it should be.” The Commander moved toward the hatch to make her way toward the ship's 'neck' and from there, to the small scout's transporter room. She paused as the doors opened, picking up a leather belt from an equipment rack on the wall. “I want a detailed scan.” She ordered, as she fastened the belt around her waist. A scabbard and sword hung from her right hip, a hundred-year-old disruptor pistol from her left. She slipped the pistol from its holster, checking the weapon's charge.

“You will confirm the location of the human, order battle conditions, and commence transport.” The commander's orders were crisp and precise.

At the Navigator's station, Kiska simply nodded.

“Shen,” Charvanek confirmed. “Target engines and communications ONLY. I'd rather not have go to war against the Empire if you please.”

Shen's shoulder's dropped as he sighed. “Well, alright…THIS time, Captain.” Shen was barely able to contain the chortle in his throat, or the smile on his face.

“Thank you.” Charvanek said as she left the bridge.

A few seconds went by as Kiska alternated looking at the sensor display, then to Shen. More seconds went by before the dark-haired navigator spoke. “You're not…” She turned her head, looking back to the door. “She's going alone?”

Shen kept his eyes on the viewer. “That's the way she wants it. Unless you want to go with her?” That point was never really in question. “Of course,” the helmsman continued, “she won't be going anywhere if you don't find the Earther.”

Kiska felt her eyebrow arch. “You're both mad, you realize that?”

Shen simply nodded. “Oh, yes.”

In the flier's small infirmary, Veln patted gently at Sean McTaggart's cheek. The lighting in the room was kept low, the temperature hot, by human standards. McTaggart himself was strapped into a semi-reclined exam chair, unable to move. This was to not only keep the human prisoner uncomfortable, but also disoriented in terms of what time it was on the ship, as well as how long McTaggart had traveled with his Romulan captors.

“Sean,” Veln said softly. Sean…can you hear me?” He slapped the human's face more forcefully.

With a weak flinch, Sean McTaggart pulled his head away. His eyes flitted open. “Ah…heh…” His breathing was labored and slow. “Sent you in to do his dirty work, did he?” McTaggart chuckled which quickly turned into a dry cough. “You gonna try and make me dance too?”

Veln shook his head. “No, no Sean,” he said calmly. “I'm here to help you.”

Sean McTaggart would have spit in the Romulan's face, but his mouth was too dry, and he was too tired. “You…you go ta…ta Hell.”

For his part, Veln looked genuinely hurt. “I don't blame you Sean.” The Romulan pivoted in his chair and found a hypo-spray among the infirmary's implements. Then he turned back. “I'd be angry too. It's only… well… human? Isn't that what you'd say?” Veln chuckled at his own turn of phrase. He was disappointed that his guest didn't appear to appreciate it.

“Heh.” McTaggart muttered. “Good cop, bad cop.” He nodded weakly. “I hope you're not 'Bad cop',” he commented, ”'cause…shit…“

“Don't trouble yourself about that Sean.” Veln explained as he leaned closer to McTaggart's face. “As I said I want to help you. The Sub-Commander has treated you poorly. For what it's worth…I think he realizes that.” Veln explained. “But you must understand how angry your friend Carter has made him. He wanted to kill you, you know.”

McTaggart nodded. “Probably should have.” He agreed.

“Now Sean,” Veln advised, pressing the hypo-spray to Sean's bare forearm.

McTaggart heard the hiss and felt the burn of some sort of chemical entering his veins. His muscles strained against the straps at his wrists, but he could no more free himself than he could keep whatever it was the Romulan had given him from doing its work.

“I'd like you to tell me about this man you're willing to die for.” He asked simply. “Tell me about John Carter.”

Despite his predicament, McTaggart smiled. “He'll kill you.” Sean said simply. “He's good at killing Romulans.”

Veln frowned. “So I've heard, but what about him? Why do you follow him? Why would you die for him?”

McTaggart felt the muscles in his face relax. He didn't want to answer Veln's question, but he still felt his mouth opening to speak, despite willing it not to. “He saved my life.” Sean said softly. “Gave me a chance. He…makes me want to do my job better. I don't want to let him down.”

Veln nodded. “Ah…so you owe him. Yes, I see.” Veln nodded. “You're an honorable man, Sean. Carter's lucky to have you as an ally.”

“Friend.” Sean coughed. “I'm his friend.”

“Of course you are.” Veln leaned back, turning to set the hypo back in its place. “But, you don't really think a man like him has friends, do you Sean?”


“You might be HIS friend Sean, but he's not REALLY yours, is he? Not like Virtus. Not like Dr. Harris. Isn't that so?”

Sean shook his head. “No…no one's like Harris.” Sean admitted weakly.

“No.” Veln said, pressing the point. “And you can never be like her.”

“Well no…” Sean agreed.

“Can't you see how misplaced your loyalty is, Sean?” Veln asked, setting his hand on his captive's shoulder. “Don't you see what your devotion to Carter and all his ungrateful friends has cost you?”

“No.” Sean gritted his teeth and tried to blink away tears from his eyes. “He'll come. And this ship will burn in space.”

“No Sean.” Veln repeated, his voice more forceful and insistent. “He's used you all this time. And when you're all used up, he'll just throw you away. You're a tool to him, Sean.” Again, Veln patted the young officer's cheek.

“You're the tool.” Sean grunted, fighting to be defiant despite his desire to agree with the Romulan's point of view. “He's coming…he's coming.”

McTaggart repeated the phrase in whispers. To press the point, Veln moved even closer, whispering in Sean's ear. “You can still get out of this, Sean.” He offered. “But I need you to do something for me. One small thing, and you can go home. You want to go home, don't you?”

“Yes.” Sean said simply. Then he began to cry. “I…I just want to go home. That's all…”

“Then all I need you to do Sean, is…”

Before Veln could finish the sentence, the ship was rocked violently to one side. A second later, red alert sounded throughout the small craft.

Through his blurred vision, Sean McTaggart could see the infirmary's lighting turn red, and he smiled. “I'm going home.”

In a blur of motion, Veln got up from his stool. He stumbled as the yacht was rocked again by weapons fire. The young aide made it to the wall-mounted comm. unit and slapped the control. “Veln to bridge! What's happened? Are we…are we under attack?”

Over the open channel, Veln could hear a number of voices on the bridge; all frantically trying to assess the situation.

”…one or two?“

“Aft deflector gone!”

“Where did it come from?”

“Sub-space array off-line!”

“What do you mean, one of OURS?”

Veln's eyes went wide as he heard the unmistakable swish-chime of a Romulan transporter. Then, he thought he could make out the clank of metal on metal and screaming. Finally, he heard a voice he didn't recognize.

“Bridge is clear. Send me to Target One.”

Then the channel closed.

“A woman?” He wondered aloud. As Veln backed away from the comm. unit, the door's to the infirmary hissed open.

Tomaleth rushed into the room, locking the door behind him. He shot Veln an accusing look, then, grunted in self-loathing as he realized he'd left the control for the Earther's pain implant in his quarters. He dashed to the cabinet containing the surgical instruments.

Tomaleth needed something sharp, but simple. His eyes scanned of a laser scalpel, a dermal regenerator, even a cardioid-stimulator before he caught sight of an old-fashioned single-bladed scalpel. As he picked the polished silver tool up, he looked over at McTaggart.

“Looks like I get to kill you after all, Earther.” Tomaleth hissed.

Despite the situation, or perhaps because of it, Sean McTaggart felt his emotions swing wildly. A moment ago, he'd have done anything, said anything, to go home. Now though, he was going to die. He smiled as he realized he'd be going home after all, in a manner of speaking. “Looks like.”

There was another shake of the ship and the lighting in the infirmary flickered. Veln braced himself against the bulkhead. “Wait!” He shouted. “We don't even know what's happening!”

Tomaleth whirled, brandishing the weapon at his young aide. “For once in your besotted life, boy, BE QUIET!” Tomaleth's face flushed as he yelled. “Thanks to you, whoever is out there will have evidence to use against me! I NEVER should have listened to you!”

Veln threw up his hands. “Well you can't kill him now,” he pleaded. “It's too late! What good will it do?”

Tomaleth cackled with grim determination. “I WILL kill him now, BECAUSE it's too late.” He explained. “And if you're not careful, you'll be next!”

The former Sub-Commander turned his attention back to his prey as the room was filled with a high-pitched whine, and the charge of a transporter beam.

Veln tilted his head as he tried to process what his eyes were seeing. He'd expected a human, perhaps with an eye-patch, if intelligence on Carter was right. Instead, he saw a Romulan female. She was of average height, and Veln could see from the pronounced ribbons of grey in her black hair that she had to be over one-hundred and twenty years old. Despite her age, the intruder seemed ready for whatever awaited her.

Veln looked her over, hoping for a sign of rank or affiliation. He found none. The woman was wearing a civilian model vacuum suit marked with red seams. She could have been anyone from any of a dozen trading ports in this sector alone. Apart from her obvious age, the only thing that gave any clue to her identity was the disruptor pistol in her right hand, and the sword in her left. Veln recognized the sword as the ceremonial weapon of a naval officer, though that tradition had long since been abandoned. The sheen of green blood on the blade also told the young man that this particular weapon was anything but ceremonial.

Meanwhile, Tomaleth's brain had also deduced what the sound meant. Where we had previously been enraged, now he was incensed. He quickly turned, taking a moment to make what he could of the intruder. “What in the name of Stask's Comet are you DOING?!” he thundered, taking a critical step forward. “Do you have any IDEA who I am?!”

Charvanek didn't answer. She simply leveled her disruptor and fired. The yellow beam that shot from the weapon impacted Tomaleth square in the chest, and as the disruptor's lowest stun setting robbed her target's muscles of their strength, she stepped closer. Tomaleth fell to his knees. She pressed a booted heel against his shoulder, forcing the man to look up at her.

“I know EXACTLY who you are,” she said with surprising calm. “And I don't care.”

With a simple flick of her thumb against the side of her pistol, Charvanek shifted the weapon to it's highest setting, took aim, and fired.

There was a brief orange flash, and the unmistakable smell of charred flesh and bone as what was left of Tomaleth (which wasn't much at all) fell to the deck.

Shocked by what he had just seen, Veln felt his temper flare. He clenched his fists and threw himself at his mentor's murderer. He barely had time to see her spin to her left, closing the distance between them faster than he could have imagined. In the confusion of the moment, he was also at a loss to explain the strange burning pain in his belly.

Veln looked down and blinked as he saw the strange woman's sword buried up to it's hilt in his torso. He looked up to her again in disbelief, but her eyes were cold, betraying nothing. As he felt his knees give and his breathing falter, Veln t'Gahth managed one more word. “Why?”

Charvanek pulled her weapon from the young Romulan's chest, sliding it quickly into the scabbard at her hip. “Sadly boy,” she explained. “You will never understand.”

The dead Romulan fell to the deck.

Still strapped in the chair, with an impressive view of what had just happened, Sean McTaggart choked out weak laugh. “Son-of-a-bitch.”

Without a word, his mysterious rescuer moved swiftly to unbuckle his restraints. Then she took hold of him under the arm, pulling him up. “Can you walk?” From her tone of voice, it was a rhetorical question.

Sean leaned on the thin woman's shoulder, his head swimming from lack of food and the drugs in his system. “You gonna stab me if I don't?”

“Yes.” Charvanek said dryly.

“Good to know.”

Sean's rescuer pressed a finger to her ear, activating her comm to Darkwing. “Commander to Darkwing. Mission accomplished. Awaiting transport.”

Sean breathed easier as he considered what had just happened. He felt the beginnings of a transporter field as he turned to the woman to whom he owed his life. “Is Commander Carter with you?” he asked.


An instant later, they were gone.

Location: USS Republic, Berth 2, McKinley Station, Earth System

Republic had been home for five days, passing inspection and accepting crew, both new and old. Meanwhile, John Carter had busied himself with the considerable job of returning his ship and the people on it to operational readiness. He didn't lack for things needing his attention, and he had managed to keep up appearances fairly well, but if he was honest with himself, his attention was elsewhere.

It was in his quarters, during a momentary lull in activity at 1532 hours, that an encrypted message found it's way into the XO's queue.

Carter felt his pulse race as he leaned forward and entered the cypher to read the message. John was surprised to note that the dispatch was text only; a mark of Starfleet Intelligence. Despite the source, he smiled as he read the contents:


Don't know how “Your Man” ended up at 39 Sierra. Don't WANT to know. Medical reports him in reasonable shape. Psych Eval pending. He says “Thank You.”

Just when I think you can't surprise me.


Chapter 38: TwilightTop

Location: Starfleet Command, San Francisco, North America, Sol III
Date: Present day, stardate 58851 (6 November, 2381)

The sun was shining on the western shores of the North American continent, where the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean met the rocky shores of San Francisco Bay. The rust-colored piers of the Golden Gate Bridge offered a warm coloring to the otherwise cool breeze blowing eastward into the city proper. In the distance, the tall pristine-white buildings of Starfleet Command presided over the metropolitan backdrop of towering skyscrapers and space-age structures, intermixed with antique buildings of yesteryear.

Captain Kimberly Roth strolled leisurely down Market Street with her loyal animal companion, Smoke, draped over her shoulder. The growing red eyes of the squirrel-like mammal was content to stay perched, looking at the passing crowd with small twitches of its brown furry head and tufted ears. Strolling with them, was a taller, more seasoned Starfleet officer with the rank of rear admiral. Her short white hair glinted in the sunlight, illuminating it to a more silver hue, suggesting she was at least thirty years Kim's elder, if not more.

“I read your report from Republic's tour of duty in the Gamma Quadrant”, Rear Admiral Pamela Krockover explained to Kim as they walked together. “I'm still not clear what happened to my grand-nephew in the Ash'aar nebula. I was hoping you could enlighten me… off the record.”

“That's understandable,” the captain replied. “My report was a little vague on specifics. It's true there were some differences in opinion between myself and my officers about how to deal with the plight of the Ashaarian people. However, you have my assurance that no fleet-wide regulation was broken, and anything dealing with shipboard regulations were strictly a disciplinary issue and nothing more.” She looked back to the admiral with a succinct expression. “I've taken care of it, and there's nothing that Starfleet JAG has to worry about.”

The rear admiral listened carefully, nodding in acceptance of her explanation. “I'll trust that if there's anything I need to know regarding Leon's welfare, that you'll be less vague about the specifics?”

Kim had the distinct feeling she was dealing with a “hovercraft parent”. Many an instructor at the academy had to deal with the worried parents of cadets during the rigorous training process, but the captain didn't expect such behavior regarding one of her adult senior officers.

“Without hesitation,” Roth reassured the admiral. “Now, if we can get back to the Carter issue…”

“Of course,” Pam agreed. “Like I said, we haven't approached Carter yet about the high-brass hawk scandal in Starfleet, mainly because Janeway and I wanted to protect him. However, this move by Kostya to enter the political arena has set off a red-alert throughout the dove ranks. Up until now, we were waiting for him to make his move, and now it looks like he has.”

“He's not very high in the polls,” Kim added. “This just could be showmanship on his part.”

“Even still, there's a chance that the Neocratic Federalist Party could rise to a position of authority within the executive branch, and far beyond the reach of Fleet Admiral Paris. If that happens, everyone on Kostya's bad side - which includes you as well as Carter - will undoubtedly be in jeopardy. We're going to have to explain this mess to your first officer sooner rather than later, and that task will fall on your shoulders.”

“I'll do my best, admiral,” resolved Kim.

“Even if his Martian anger gets the better of him,” Krockover explained. “Go easy. It's a lot to swallow.”

The two stopped walking as Kim faced her senior officer with a very direct posture.

“I think you'll find that John Carter is unusually resilient to surprises these days,” she concluded, as Smoke bleaked his two cents with an affirmative response.

Location: Main bridge, USS Republic

“Captain's log, stardate 58851.6. Acting science officer Cromwell reporting. The Republic has been docked at McKinley Station for nearly a week in preparation for her warp drive overhaul. Most of our one-hundred and three assigned crew have been dismissed on extended shore leave as the station's repair teams slowly shutdown the ship deck by deck before they take the power systems off-line tomorrow. While the captain meets with the admiralty at command headquarters, a select few of us remain onboard to secure critical stations before Republic goes dormant for the next ten days.”

Throughout the expansive Galaxy-Class bridge, only two of Republic's officers manned the command center. At the engineering panel, Lieutenant Sven Butenhoff sat busily monitoring the engine diagnostics in shutdown mode, while Doctor Leon Cromwell sat in the command chair, reviewing the verbose checklist of power-down procedures on a PADD. While most of the procedures were automated, and the McKinley Station crew would be handling the portions that required human attention, there was still a need for a handful of Republic officers to remain aboard to oversee the lengthy operation.

“Lieutenant Klaus to bridge.”

Leon only briefly took his eyes away from the PADD to answer the call from the junior operations officer.

“Bridge here,” he tapped the armrest of the captain's chair. “Go ahead.”

“The repair crew from McKinley Station needs to access the plasma relays on deck eleven, so I need to take internal sensors off-line.”

“Acknowledged,” Leon barely answered, too engrossed in his reading. “I'll inform engineering. Bridge out.” Turning his head slightly, he added, “Sven, you got that?” over his shoulder.

“Yes, doctor,” the German-accented officer replied, typing commands into the computer console in front of him. “I've received confirmation that the antimatter valves have been sealed, and the warp core is inactive as of 1030 hours. There should be no need for concurrent systems monitoring by the computer.”

“Very good,” Leon resumed his attention to the PADD.

“Carter to Cromwell. Leon, did you just transmit a captain's log entry?”

Sven couldn't help but smile at John's accusatory question. He knew that Leon was only following basic bridge officer protocol when the captain was off-ship, but he also knew that Republic's individualized ship regulations state that no log entries should be transmitted while on inactive status in drydock. A rule the doctor was obviously not aware of.

“John, you're supposed to be off duty,” snarked Leon. “Why are you monitoring my bridge activity? For that matter, why are you even aboard? I'd expect you'd be packing your bags or something.”

“If memory recalls, the captain said to 'secure all stations and clear the bridge before going on leave'. She said NOTHING to you about staying on the bridge until every last light is turned out. Besides, shouldn't you be in sickbay to close up shop?”

“Let's see,” Leon looked upwards in thought. “Saal is on emergency leave, Shannon is in her diagnostic cycle, Teague is planetside visiting with his grandparents, Chief Oberstad is touring the surgical facilities on the Crazy Horse, and Nurse Copenhagen is at the academy chairing a seminar on triage methods. Put simply, there IS no sickbay. Besides, you, Vic, and I are supposed to go on leave to Mars in twenty-four hours, and there's a whole checklist here that has to be followed before Republic is officially in sleep-mode.”

“Leon, you're NOT the only officer aboard who can handle that while Republic is in drydock. Besides, before we go to Mars, there's something very important I need to teach you. Meet me at holodeck six in ten minutes. Consider that an order.”

The doctor expressed a sour disposition as the channel closed, annoyed that John was baiting him. Much to the chuckling of Lieutenant Butenhoff, Leon sighed before he stood up and walked towards the turbolift.

“You have the bridge, Sven… such as it is.”

Location: Triton observation outpost, Sol VIII (Neptune)

Triton, Neptune's largest moon, maintained a unique property shared only by a few natural satellites out of the hundreds throughout the star system: It was geologically active. As the furthest planet from the sun, Neptune's temperature did not rise very far above absolute-zero, and therefore, neither did Triton's. Nevertheless, the moon's solid methane ice crust hid below-ground oceans of liquid ammonia and nitrogen, which occasionally spewed forth in towering geysers every so often, the cryo-volcanism spurred by the gravitational forces of the nearby gas giant.

As hostile as this environment was, the natural rivers of super-cooled gasses were a boon to Earth's distant-observation post, as the numerous sensor packages surrounding the dome-shaped habitation module on the surface were infra-red based, and used the surrounding lack of heat as a calibration contrast to any passing vessel or object that resonated even the slightest heat-signature. Better still, Triton's slow, synchronous rotation kept one side of it's surface facing out into space at all times, giving the observation post a second-to-none view of the cosmos above.

Inside the surface structure, five levels of habitation space allowed room for approximately a hundred Starfleet personnel. Their main priorities were to keep the outpost operational, keep a constant watch for any vessels or objects approaching the star system, and aid any Starfleet, commercial, or private vessel requiring assistance. To that end, the distant outpost was designed to be self-sufficient, and only needed periodic replenishment from Earth every few months or so. Most of the outpost operations were controlled on the command deck, which was a starship bridge-sized room at the top of the main habitation dome, complete with several monitoring stations and engineering panels.

A young male lieutenant in command red manned the primary observation station situated towards the front of the room, while a half-dozen other officers kept watch over the other panels. While most of his work dealt with the standard sky-survey that took pictures of multi-spectrum swaths of space and analyzed it for anomalies, the passive infra-red sensor cluster was picking up a small set of six heat signatures approaching the star system. With his fingers dancing across his panel, the lieutenant accessed the telemetry and transponder uplinks, and seconds later, a display of the USS Liberty, the Spaceliner Gondola, and four other robotic freighters from Liberty's fleet, were transferred to the main screen.

“What have we got here?” a confused lieutenant commander asked from the center of the room, turning his attention to the tactical display on the main screen.

“I'm tracking the USS Liberty and her assigned freighter fleet inbound from Wolf 359,” the lieutenant replied.

“Wait a minute,” an ensign console operator piped in from across the room. “There's no navigational record of the Liberty Fleet heading to the Earth system,” he looked at his screen quizzically. “According to their flight plan, they're supposed to be going to the Coridan System.”

“Maybe they had a change in their flight plan since our last computer synchronization with the navigational network,” the lieutenant replied. “What do you think, sir?”

“It's possible,” the flummoxed commander acknowledged, still looking at the screen. “Can we request a network update before our next orbital window?”

“Negative. We're still in the sensor shadow of the gas giant,” he replied, referring to Neptune's large magnetosphere, which effectively blocked any direct communications within the Earth System for a short period during Triton's orbit. “We've got two hours before we're back in line-of-sight with the Saturn comsat constellation.”

With a sigh of frustration, the commander walked over to the communications console, and began transmitting.

“Liberty freighter, this is Triton Outpost. We have you on our sensors now. Please state your intentions.”

Silence followed.

“Liberty freighter,” he transmitted again. “Your current flight plan has you inbound to Coridan. What brings you to the Earth System?”

Still nothing.

“Liberty freighter, please respond.”

The silence still persisted.

“It's a robotic freighter fleet,” the ensign noted while reviewing the last filed flight plan. “Maybe the flight computers got them lost, and they decided to come home on automatic guidance.” It wasn't an unreasonable assumption, since most of the newer Starfleet freighter drones were built on Earth and Mars. However, it wasn't something that has happened before, so the outpost staff couldn't treat them as derelict craft or an otherwise mundane circumstance.

“Open a channel through one of the Neptune comsats,” ordered the commander. “Let's inform Starfleet Command.”

While the lieutenant complied by focusing his attention on the communications panel, a furrow developed in his forehead. “I'm not picking up any downlink signals from the communication satellites.”

“Which one CAN you pick up?”

“None of them!” came the shocked response. “It's like they each went dead at once!”

Outside the observation post, a constellation of stars in the Neptunian sky above wavered against the unmoving backdrop of the Milky Way. Similar to a flight of fireflies, the stars spun around in circles momentarily before shining brighter and brighter as they drew closer. In a split second, the stars revealed themselves to be a yellow flock of honeycomb-shaped fighter craft hurling themselves towards the ground at breakneck speed. Like a swarm of meteors falling from the sky, dozens of tiny luminescent vessels hurled themselves into the observation post and surrounding facilities. The multiple collisions not only tore through the domed buildings and shuttlecraft landing fields, but obliterated the sophisticated sensor towers and communication relays. As a secondary result, the solid methane crust below the once operational outpost erupted into huge columns of liquid nitrogen and ammonia, further devastating the ground on which the Starfleet facility once sat. In less than a minute, the attack ended, and the twisted, burning remnants of the outpost lay floating and bobbing in a sea of hissing ammonia.

Location: Deck 11, USS Republic

Each deck of a Galaxy Class starship contained numerous power relays to ensure energy from engineering was transferred to the decks above and below in an efficient fashion. This redundant continuity of power, while life-saving during space missions and combat operations, had it's drawbacks when preparing the ship for a system-wide shutdown. It required that each relay be decoupled by hand, and the plasma conduits given enough time to cool down before removing other relays further downstream of the power flow. Put simply, it was a very slow process. As a disheveled Lieutenant Junior-Grade Klaus walked from relay to relay along deck eleven, the gold-uniformed operations officer grumbled about being the only member of the department left onboard while everyone else went on leave, including the current Chief of Operations, Ensign Cail Jarin.

“Ensign Cail,” sighed Klaus with disdain. An officer with a rank lower than him was put in charge of ship operations at the behest of Captain Roth during the recent crew rotations. It was only a few months ago when Roth gave Klaus a piece of her mind regarding his role in the “B'Rell incident” early last year. During that time, a Bajoran counselor assumed the XO position of Republic's saucer section during an emergency separation, and put Klaus in charge of the operations department where he was ordered to take a heavy hand in reworking the chain of command. Needless to say, he took the wrong side in that political battle when B'Rell was relieved of his duties during the aftermath of the incident. Unfortunately, it left him in the position of having to endure ridicule and admonishment from the senior staff for mistakes that weren't really his fault. He could have asked for re-assignment, but his record would have travelled with him, and the black marks would have ensured an even worse duty post that his current one aboard Republic. He was left with only one option: to see through his tour of duty on the Galaxy Class starship, hoping he could put himself back into the graces of his senior officers.

As shown by Ensign Cail's recent promotion to Chief of Operations, his hopes had yet to be realized.

Strangely, the junior lieutenant chuckled as he opened a wall-mounted relay cover next to holodeck six, kneeling down to scan it with a diagnostics wand. The downfall of Ensign Kuga several months ago raised his hopes once gain that he would assume the senior officer posting in operations, and he gleefully recalled the crass memory of Kuga's death during the tractor beam accident in the Gamma Quadrant. As abhorrent as his attitude was towards his fallen crewmate, his view of the universe maintained that he was perfectly justified in his opinion, just as he felt justified about his hate towards Captain Roth for castigating him when he challenged Kuga's original assignment as Chief of Operations. Despite this, Klaus continued to laugh as another thought entered his mind: He wouldn't have to put up with Roth's crap much longer.

“Find something funny, lieutenant?” a harsh voice summoned him out of his thoughts. It was Commander Carter standing behind him, along with Doctor Cromwell, the ship's senior medical officer. Apparently, they had quietly walked up while he was working on the relay.

“Um,” Klaus stood up in surprise, scratching his rough five-o'clock shadow as he fumbled with his diagnostic tablet. “No sir,” he answered. “I'm… I'm just shutting down the power relays on this deck.”

“Well, can you do it somewhere else?” asked Carter, with barely a hint of “that's-an-order” in his voice. “We'll be using holodeck six for the next hour, and I'd appreciate it if you'd save pulling this power relay for last.”

“Y… Yes sir,” relented the lieutenant junior-grade.

With a glance of annoyance, Carter turned around to dial up a program on the holodeck keypad, which triggered the doors to open with a mechanical grind.

“Program complete. You may enter when ready.”

Klaus watched as the two officers entered the holodeck. The rage at Commander Carter was almost as strong as his hate towards Captain Roth, burning within him as the doors slid shut. In a flash of inspiration, his heartbeat doubled due to an adrenaline surge from an evil thought that came to fruition: In less than thirty minutes, the lieutenant was going to be incognito aboard a spice freighter headed for Nimbus Three. No one would be able to track him, and the fate that awaited Republic after completing his upcoming task was unknown. Should an unlucky few souls be locked away in a holodeck without a communications lifeline, who would know? In a split second motivated by sheer hatred and vengeance, Klaus accessed the holodeck control mechanism, engaged and encrypted the electronic locking program, and activated a subspace dampening field around the chamber.

Allowing himself a gasping breath of victory, he celebrated the moment of rebellion before looking down at his PADD. He watched as the blinking subspace data signal he had been waiting for heralded the arrival of a “special” boarding party. Another victory was in the waiting, and a handsome payment in latinum would be the trophy. With a smile and a chuckle, he relished the thought of trapping Carter and his doctor friend onboard the Republic; a ship that he hated with all his heart, and a ship he would be happy to leave in the mischievous hands of someone other than its captain or command crew.

Location: Starfleet Academy Flight Training Operations Center, Mimas, Sol VI (Saturn)

The orbital space platform in orbit of Mimas was a small facility, built for the specific purpose of a traffic control station for Starfleet Academy's flight training range within the Saturn system. Hosting only about two-dozen officers, the platform was just that: a flat, deck-like structure with hanger bays and habitation modules, along with a plethora of communications antennae to relay flight communications for several squadrons of training craft simultaneously. As such, the posting was commonly rotated on a regular basis, usually each semester, and also incorporated other cadet training such as operations, search and rescue, and zero-gravity specializations.

On this day, the bridge of the space platform was tracking six vessels transiting the flight range during a lull in training activities. It was a common occurrence, especially with commercial vessels, but what made it unusual was a lack of communications contact with the freighters.

“What did Triton outpost say about them?” asked the commander of flight operations to the sensor officer.

“Nothing,” the ensign replied. “No navigational data was transmitted on them at all.”

“Hmm,” the commander commented. “Must be legitimate then. Is there any information in their flight plan about the freighters coming this close to our training course?”

“No sir,” acknowledged the junior officer, with a slight hesitation “But we seem to have lost contact with the navigational network. The communications array in orbit of Saturn isn't responding.”

“Great,” the commander scoffed. “I'll bet the Jovian magnetosphere is having another auroral event. The next cadet class is due to launch from Earth in three hours, and it would be nice if we could get some telemetry for them downrange on the flight-line. See if you can use the Neptune communications array.”

“Aye, sir.”

Despite their best try, the space platform was not able to raise Triton outpost on subspace frequencies, and became more alarmed at their inability to communicate anywhere else in the Earth System. Feeling isolated, the commander ordered a courier shuttlecraft to be launched towards Earth. However, just before the class-eight shuttle cleared the platform, a luminescent yellow streak hurled itself into the departing craft, causing it to explode in a cascade of debris all over the flight deck. As the platform came to red alert, the facility was shortly thereafter bombarded by a half-dozen honeycomb-shaped fighter craft that exploded upon impact. In less than ten seconds, the flight operations platform had been rendered nothing more than an orbital debris field floating around Mimas.

Location: Airlock, Deck 35, USS Republic

With an air of paranoia, Lieutenant Junior Grade Klaus swiftly cycled the atmospheric purge on the portside airlock. The arriving shuttlepod was not cleared through operations, but then, since he was the only operations officer on board at the present time, he felt no need to clear it through the bridge. Watching around the empty arrival lounge, he waited impatiently for the system to complete its purge cycle. With pneumatic hiss and a metallic grind, the airlock door slid open to reveal five humanoid aliens standing in the alcove, each wearing a nondescript yellow jumpsuit that was the signature uniform of standard repair crew from McKinley Station. The aliens were as follows: two Kobheerians, one Dopterian, a Naussican, and what appeared to be a Vulcan, but was more likely a Romulan. The latter member appeared to be the leader, and stepped forth while keeping a keen eye on the junior lieutenant.

“You are Klaus?” the Romulan succinctly asked in a straightforward manner.

“Shh!” Klaus beckoned back with a whisper. “Quiet, will you? As soon as we're done here, I need to leave. You never saw me, is that clear?”

The pointy-eared humanoid raised an eyebrow before changing the topic.

“The hidden control room,” he asked. “Where is it?”

“Deck twenty-six,” informed Klaus. “Inside deuterium tank three. The internal sensors are offline, so no one should detect your presence before you enter.”

“Take us there,” the alien ordered.

“What?” Klaus was taken aback. “This wasn't part of the deal! I tell you how to get there, then I leave! Nothing said that I had to be here when you start doing whatever it is you're going to do!”

“Take us there,” returned the Romulan leader. “Or you will not be paid.”

Klaus looked torn, to be sure. He wanted to desperately leave Republic before he got caught, but he was counting on the promised gold-pressed latinum in order to abscond from the Earth System without notice. Looking back and forth in the corridor outside, he relented.

“Okay,” he whispered. “I'll take you there, but then you pay me and I'm gone. Is that clear?”

The alien only nodded as his compatriots and Lieutenant Klaus made their way to the nearest turbolift shaft.

Location: Jupiter Station, Sol V

The moderately-sized space station in orbit around Jupiter had a long history of servicing early Starfleet vessels and commercial space ships. Initially built in the twenty-second century as a structural shipyard, it went through various modifications over the centuries as the Starfleet Corps of Engineers found the location convenient for hazardous engine experiments away from the inner solar system, and the Merchant Marine command discovered it was a prime customs port for unregistered vessels heading to Earth. Eventually, other operational commands chose to keep a contingent at the station, and in the twenty-fourth century, was outfitted with two sets of three stacked saucer section hulls from Ambassador-Class starship surplus. The extra space allowed for more than just Starfleet personnel, as a few commercial businesses also took up residence in the years following the most recent expansion, turning Jupiter Station into Earth's very own miniature version of Deep Space Nine. Currently, the station hosted over six-hundred personnel on over forty decks of working and living space, and the main operations center at the crest of the facility carefully conducted the delicate concert of daily activities.

“Have you heard from Saturn Flight Control?” the operations officer asked the sciences console across the room. “We usually get morning reports of their flight activity.”

“I didn't see anything over the outer system channels,” an ensign in a blue-piped uniform replied. “But that doesn't surprise me. We have a data uplink interruption from the Ganymede relay station at the moment.”

“That's odd,” the ops officer remarked. “That usually doesn't happen unless the station is at apogee. Did another volcanic plume from Io dampen the signal?”

“This morning's geologic forecast didn't mention anything about it. I think a larger portion of the communications network might be down.”

Not willing to let such an anomaly go unreported, the ops chief pressed the intercom button. “Captain Peck, could you come to ops? We've got a communications situation.”

As the captain of the complex emerged from his office in front of the balcony above ops, the entire station lurched from a reverberating explosion. Just as the ops crew managed to get back on their feet, another jolt threw them back down to the deck. Outside, the six stacked saucer sections of Jupiter Station were individually being targeted by blinding streaks of yellow light, as honeycombed-shaped fighter craft barreled into the hulls, causing pieces of the saucer decks to fracture and implode. So fast did the craft collide, that entire sections of the station were flying off in all directions with each impact, until finally, the central power core was eventually breached. In an instantaneous blaze of white light, Jupiter Station was no more.

Location: Deuterium Tank Catwalks, Deck 28, USS Republic

In the early days of spaceflight, liquid chemical rockets utilized great vats of supercooled gases to propel their spartan capsules into low Earth orbit. During those days, thoughts of constructing a space station were conceived by utilizing as much of the expendable launch system as possible, with some designs going so far as to pre-build a habitation compartment into the fuel tanks of the rocket. After launch, when the liquid fuel was spent, the fuel tank would be empty and ready for human habitation. This design, called a “wet workshop” configuration, was never actually utilized anytime before the twenty-first century, but the idea was sound enough, just as long as the equipment installed in the fuel tank was non-flammable, and could handle contact with the cold, liquified gases.

When Lieutenant Commander Victor Xavier Virtus designed the rudimentary “backup-bridge” in Republic's third deuterium tank, it was a rush-job, put together using spare parts from engineering and shuttlecraft surplus, all to circumvent a computer lockout on the main bridge and battle bridge during the the Cestus Three incident of stardate 57502. After resolution of that sad event in Republic's history, Virtus was reassigned back to Starfleet Command, but not before putting the deuterium-tank bridge into mothballs before he left. Most of the equipment was durable enough to withstand the cold temperatures of supercooled deuterium, and so, after deactivating the fusion generator and sealing the main hatch, the tank was once again flooded with Republic's deuterated plasma fuel source, leaving the hastily-constructed room idle inside one of the most concealed and inaccessible parts of the ship. The engineers of centuries past would no doubt be impressed by the Virtus perspective on the “wet workshop” concept.

While only a select few aboard Republic knew of the “deuterium bridge”, word still got out via Ensign Scuttlebutt; that being hearsay and rumor. Lieutenant Klaus was one of those who heard about it last, and then, only through Lieutenant Jacobs from engineering who recruited him for the current operation. “Half now, half on delivery” Jacobs told him several weeks ago, as soon as Republic returned from the Gamma Quadrant at Deep Space Nine. Klaus was initially suspicious, but was much more willing to listen after Jacobs handed him a healthy box of of gold-pressed latinum. “And here's all you need to do…”

At the moment, however, Klaus could have strangled Jacobs if he were present. There were already a few close calls with both Republic and McKinley station personnel while Klaus led the band of interlopers to deck twenty-six. Once they were clear of the engineering side-corridors, they found that the deuterium tank catwalks were mostly unattended on the sparsely-crewed ship. It took five minutes of arguing before Klaus agreed to drain tank number three and break the seal on the manual access hatch, but it was as far as he was willing to go.

“You've got what you want!” he exclaimed, his voice echoing off the hollow chasm between the tanks and the outside bulkhead of the ship. Over the hum of the purple-colored electrical field buzzing around the magnetic containment system, he put his foot down in front of the five aliens. “Now pay me like you promised!”

“Absolutely,” the Romulan complied. He reached into his engineering satchel, and instead of producing money, a peculiar instrument of malevolent design was pulled out. It was a lower-cost and easily manufactured variant of the Varon-T Disruptor; a model tailor-made for Shavis's operatives throughout the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Klaus went livid when he saw the apparatus, and muttered his very last, angry words.

“You bastards!”

The disruptor blast, in true Varon form, tore Klaus's body apart from in the inside out, disintegrating his flesh and bone all along the way. With the internal sensors offline, there was no detecting the weapon blast, and no Republic crewmember anywhere near the catwalks to hear his agonizing scream echo off the inside bulkheads. Within minutes, the alien interlopers had climbed the ladder and entered the ersatz control room, activated the portable fusion generator, and stationed themselves at the control stations. The Romulan keyed in the prefix cipher that Shavis provided him via Lieutenant Jacobs, and smiled when the computer acknowledged his presence:

“Command override authorized. USS Saratoga is now under the command of UNKNOWN USER.”

After a brief round of cheers, the aliens resumed their clandestine work, careful not to alert any other control system aboard the ship or McKinley Station to their presence.

“Are the other teams signaling yet?” the Romulan asked the Nausicaan at the sciences console.

“I'm receiving a green light from the teams on the Honshu and the Crazy Horse,” the intimidating warrior replied in a throaty voice. “But still nothing from the Gettysburg.”

“But no abort signal?”

“No. They must still be working their way to the bridge.”

Sitting in the command chair in the center of the room, the Romulan leader leaned his elbow on one of his knees, and stroked his chin in thought as the beeping and chirping of the newly energized equipment hummed around him.

“As soon as you hear from them, send a signal to Shavis: We're ready…”

Location: Sol IV (Mars)

Communications within the Earth System Commonwealth were complex, with it's vast array of communication satellites (comsats) and relay stations (restats) transiting the lunar orbits of the eight primary planetary systems within. The communications were also very simple in design, as signals were relayed from planet to planet in a leap-frog fashion, depending upon the orbital locations of the planets and their moons at any particular point in time. Due to this, a distress signal from Mars would normally have been bounced off of the communications array at Jupiter station, with orbiting Mars comsats boosting the signal as a backup. However, both networks were now gone, and the pleas for help from the surface of Utopia Planetia were left unheard. Had it been facing it's nearest planetary neighbor, the light from the exploding barbell-shaped orbital station around Mars would have easily been seen from Earth. As it was, only Jupiter and Saturn were facing that particular side of Mars at the moment, and there was no one left in those planetary systems to see it.

In orbit, the destruction of Utopia Planetia's primary space station was accomplished by the collision and subsequent detonation of a rouge ore freighter from Farius Prime. The high-density refractory ore hid the countless bottles of antimatter within its cargo modules from sensor scans, and the blinding light of the ignition spread out in all directions, enveloping the nearby drydocks and orbital construction berths, sending a shockwave that obliterated anything in geosynchronous Mars orbit. That single event in and of itself was staggeringly detrimental to the inhabitants of Mars; cutting communications, disrupting ground-to-orbit transportation, to say nothing of the loss of life in Martian airspace.

However, that was only one freighter.

As a second vessel from the rogue ore fleet entered the Mars system, it performed a concurrent attack on the surface facilities. Gawking onlookers were incinerated as a 500-megaton antimatter blast engulfed the sprawling metropolis and surface shipyards of Utopia Planetia, which were filled with half-constructed vessels still in their berths. In a radius of a hundred kilometers, red dust was thrown up into the thin Martian atmosphere, forming a gargantuan mushroom-cloud that towered so high that dust particles were thrown into sub-orbital trajectories, disrupting the flightpath of the few remaining spacecraft and satellites in low Mars orbit. So enormous was the blast, that the crust of Mars itself was shaken to its mantle, causing subterranean caverns to collapse, and carbon-dioxide ice dams to break, flooding eons-old canals with crimson rock and mud.

The attack was finished as quickly as it came, leaving the few remaining Martian colonists to their own devices. Without their vital links to the rest of the Earth System Commonwealth, the small “red-dirt” communities and homesteads dotting the surface of Mars were left to fend for themselves.

Location: Apollo asteroid 1566 Icarus, 7 million miles from Earth

Hiding at station-keeping beside the small asteroid, Shavis's freighter remained on the dark-side of the near-Earth object, ensuring that no sensors from the Federation's capital planet could detect his craft. His own freighter was exhausted of hexapod drones; the suicidal fighter craft used to swarm and destroy the human facilities around Sol Five, Six, and Eight. Two out of the four antimatter-laden freighters that Shavis had accompany his own from the border regions had completed their tasks around Sol Four, and there were just minutes left before the human presence plaguing this star system would realize what was happening. Although there were slower communication bypasses and backchannels that the humans might use to get a subspace signal out to another star system, his fighter drones succeeded in pulverizing the high-speed interstellar subspace network throughout the Earth System. It was the last piece to Shavis's master plan: Earth was now alone. With communication systems and manned facilities in the outer solar system rendered silent, no Starfleet vessel outside the system would be able to hear any calls for help in time to do anything.

Shavis smiled when he saw the four blinking green lights on his chair-mounted console. The infiltration teams had completed their tasks in Earth orbit, and were awaiting the next phase. His attack on sector zero-zero-one was so insidiously simple, he worried for months whether he could truly pull it off. Now, as the homeworld of the Federation was in his crosshairs, the plan was going so well that even if he failed in the upcoming final phase, the humans would still require years to recover - assuming that the rest of the Syndicate factions don't move in for the kill first. Two more antimatter-laden freighters awaited their final orders, as well as the hijacked spaceliner manned by his insectoid drones. The passengers screamed in terror when they fed on their flesh, and now, with full gullets, the genetically-altered Kaferian renegades were ready to show Earth what real fear was really like.

The time was right to show the humans just how far Faro could reach out from the grave.

The time was right for the New Dawn to be born.

The time was right to unleash hell.

Chapter 39: The Stroke of MidnightTop

Location: Sol III (Earth)

From orbit, Planet Earth was a serene, hypnotic jewel blessed with life among the distant backdrop of countless shimmering stars of the Milky Way Galaxy. Pearlescent azure oceans and billowing white clouds swirled and converged together into complex and discrete patterns on its surface, occasionally parting to reveal terrestrial land masses in numerous shades of green, brown, and tan. Lit by the the life-giving heat and warmth of her single star, Sol, this planet gave rise to the human race; a most creative, adaptable, and diplomatic species that evolved from a meager tree-dwelling simian species to a unified spacefaring kingdom in the span of only two million years - a blink of an eye in cosmic terms. This species, destined to see itself as ambassadors to all like-minded spacefaring races, saw fit to offer their homeworld as the foundation of a mighty galactic federation during the twenty-second century. A mere century later, they erected a monumental orbital construct that would become Earth's singular interstellar gateway to the stars for the next hundred years: Spacedock.

Hosting almost a third of a million souls, Spacedock was the main starship command platform of Starfleet, and regularly saw the docking and departing of dozens of vessels on a daily basis. Boasting numerous construction and repair berths inside the mushroom-shaped head of the titanic facility, the outer hull was replete with multitudinous lighted viewports, and crowned at the top with a platform of sensors, antennas, and domed habitation modules. The largest of these modules contained the cavernous command deck where nearly one hundred uniformed personnel manned various control and monitoring consoles on a series of tiered platforms.

The central command platform alone had at least two dozen officers stationed on it, some standing at pedestal-style stations, while others were seated in recliner-like alcoves, tending multi-faceted viewscreens that hosted a dizzying array of information nodes. The air was filled with a cacophony of communications chatter, most of which was standard arrival and departure orders in addition to a multitude of clearances, transfer orders, and navigational flight plans for both Starfleet vessels and independent commercial ships within the control airspace of Earth.

In a pair of adjoining alcoves, two senior officers, a commander and a lieutenant commander, were hard at work at their respective consoles. They wore the branch color of operations gold along the piping of their black uniforms, and like so many other on the command deck, sported a headset for inter-ship communications as well as other operating stations around Spacedock. While the two worked, the lieutenant commander showed an expression of frustration as he typed commands into his keyboard, with a furrow in his forehead growing deeper with each passing moment. Finally, he vented his annoyance to the officer next to him.

“Looks like we lost that uplink to Mars central control again, commander.”

“Martians,” the commander shook his head and sympathized with his companion's frustration. “Why can't those red-dirt colonists keep their comsats synchronized with the rest of the system?”

“You know the saying: Tell a Martian to jump, and they'll dig a hole instead. Should I contact the commodore?”

“Negative,” the commander shook his head. “Record it in the hourly log. We'll bring it up at the next inner-system communications briefing.”

“Aye, sir.”

Meanwhile, outside of Spacedock, two vessels from Shavis's freighter fleet took up position in a parallel orbit of slightly less altitude of the titanic space station. This put the ships on a direct course to intercept. The Spaceliner Gondola was first in line, trailed by one of the ore freighters by about a kilometer. The course was a standard approach vector used by starships and space vessels planning a docking maneuver with Spacedock. Usually, at three kilometers out, any vessel engaged in such a maneuver would announce their plans to Spacedock Control. However, the Gondola and the ore freighter remained silent, much to the confusion of the controller monitoring their approach.

“Spaceliner Gondola, this is Spacedock Control. Please state your intentions.”

The young female ensign in command red was a new controller on the command deck, tasked with monitoring smaller non-Starfleet vessels within a three kilometer radial sphere surrounding Spacedock. When the computer first signaled that the Gondola was on an approach vector, it beckoned the attention of a sentient controller, and immediately assigned a crewmember to the task. In this case, the ensign was the unlucky one that the computer first chose to contact the incoming spaceliner. As it was, the Gondola failed to respond to her communique, and as she became flustered, she beckoned her supervisor.

“Lieutenant?” asked the ensign. “I've got an incoming passenger liner that's not answering hails.”

Walking over to the ensign's station, the lieutenant in operations gold punched a few keys on the control board, which in turn, displayed some additional information on a side monitor.

“It looks like Listening Post Morena logged that ship as damaged during an ion storm in Beta Quadrant,” the lieutenant read the flight plan. “It lost it's main communications array.”

Unfortunately, the busy lieutenant wasn't willing to dig further to see that Earth was not on the navigational manifest. In a moment of pretentiousness, he chose instead to admonish the younger officer for bothering him with trifles. “There, you see ensign? Rule number one when you haven't established voice contact: Check the flight plan. It'll tell you everything you need to know about an incoming vessel. You can now use visual navigation strobes to guide the ship in to the docking level. Carry on.”

At the apex of the central command platform was a five-meter wide circular desk with a transparent overhead shroud that displayed various digital maps of Earth airspace. The desk itself was the operational station of Commodore Eugene Stevenson, a sixty-something veteran of the Dominion war, whose white curly hair was complimented by a set of equally white, bushy eyebrows. His brown eyes were difficult to perceive, as he bore an almost perpetual squint under several wrinkles and folds of aged skin. His square-shaped head gave the impression that he was a solid officer, and after surviving twenty-six major engagements with enemy forces during the war, it was a well-deserved reputation. He sat at his desk, scrolling through numerous operational reports, but finally took note of growing operational variances from the communications department. Not wanting to don a communications headset like so many of his subordinates, the commodore decided to visit the alcoves of his senior comm officers on foot.

Strolling up behind the commander and lieutenant commander who made the comment about the Mars satellite network a few minutes ago, he beckoned their attention by asking a simple question.

“Is there an issue with our communications system, gentlemen?”

“No sir,” the commander replied. “We have ship-to-ship contact with all vessels in the vicinity of Earth, but we can't re-establish our uplink with Luna Colony, nor with any other facility towards the outer solar system.

“Solar flare activity?” the elderly man surmised.

“If it is, it's not something the solar observatories are monitoring.”

The commodore folded his arms with a quizzical expression, holding a knuckle to his lips in thought. After a second of going through all the possible mundane situations that could be causing the communications outage, he arrived at a course of action.

“Send out a navigational advisory for vessels in Earth orbit,” he ordered. “Then get me Starfleet Command.”

“Yes, sir.”

From across the command platform, an operations lieutenant manning the long-range telemetry station shouted an ominous announcement. “Commodore!” he beckoned, while listening intently to his headset. “I'm receiving a distress signal from Luna Colony!”

“On speakers!” the taciturn flag officer barked.

“Unable, sir!” the ensign came back. “It was only a brief signal, and now I lost it. There's nothing but static on the channel now.”

“Static?” he questioned. Turning to the huge three-story main screen at the far side of the room, the commodore ordered the station's digital telescopes into action. “Put a view of Luna Colony on the main screen.”

In a split second, the dizzying array of individualized status reports from various command deck sections were replaced with the waning gibbous phase of Earth's lone satellite, the Moon. The sphere was composed of a bright oval face adjoining a smaller, darker cresent across the face of the celestial body. The myriad of lunar settlements could be seen twinkling across the shadowed night side, the brightest of which should have been the crater Tycho, which boasted the Moon's largest metropolis, Tycho City. However, it was the lack of any lighted surface feature from Tycho that drew a hush over the normally buzzing command deck. Instead of the normally glimmering nighttime view of the sprawling space-age megacity, a fuzzy gray fog was spreading out from the center of the crater.


Shrieks of horror and astonishment filled the room as an epic-sized gray cloud of ash and dust had enveloped the entirety of Tycho Crater, and began to mushroom out into space. Without needing an order to do so, an alert klaxon sounded as the realization that something very wrong had happened to Luna Colony's largest city. Personnel went rushing to different stations as the miles-wide gray plume slowly erupted from the 80-kilometer wide crater. All throughout the orbiting facility, people went running to the viewports to watch the unfolding disaster a quarter of a million miles away. Many knew friends or family that resided on the Moon, and each felt helpless and frenzied as worry rose from the pits of their stomachs.

“What the hell happened??” the commodore thundered on the command deck. “Volcanism? Cometary impact?”

“Their municipal antimatter generator could have gone critical,” offered the lieutenant commander, furiously trying to gather information on his instrument panel.

“No,” the senior commander replied in the chair next to him. “Their power plant is too small to make an explosion like that. It had to have been extraterrestrial.”

“Whatever it is, we haven't a moment to lose,” Commodore Stevenson declared. “We can't wait for orders to trickle down from headquarters. How many starships do we have docked?”

“Three sir. One Excelsior class, an Intrepid class, and an Akira class, the USS Lamberton.”

“Launch all vessels for a rescue mission. Immediately!”

“Aye, aye, commodore.”

Outside in the gigantic main docking bay, lights on the three docked starships were activating, and the warp nacelles were powering up; their red and blue luminescence reflecting off the inside walls of the bay. Over the sound of the alert klaxons, the computer announced the disembarking procedures to personnel throughout the command deck and docking levels:

“Open space doors. Clear all moorings. Prepare to disengage umbilical and gravitational support. Launch all vessels. Repeat: Launch all vessels.”

Meanwhile, the approaching Spaceliner Gondola went unnoticed, as it's delta-vee towards Spacedock did not change. As the primary measure of velocity for the approaching vessel, a negative delta-vee would indicate a slowdown to the correct docking speed; except that the Gondola's delta-vee wasn't negative; it was positive, suggesting in INCREASE in speed. Momentarily distracted by the unfolding catastrophe on Luna, the ensign control operator looked back at her console, only to find that the engineering panel was blinking red to indicate the formation of a warp field around the Gondola. The ship was less than a thousand meters off the bow of Spacedock, and it was activating her warp drive.

The ensign's face went ashen as she suddenly realized what was about to happen… a split-second too late. Just as she pressed the red collision alarm button on her console, the warp drive of the Gondola glowed brightly, then sent the craft on a faster-than-light trajectory right through Spacedock's lower spherical appendage. Like a bullet through an apple, the center of the sphere - which composed the lower two-hundred decks of Spacedock - imploded as the metallic hull rippled and peeled back from the superstructure. The cataclysm caused debris and burning embers to fly out in all directions, and secondary explosions from the main antimatter generator doomed the entire lower module of the station. While failsafes and safeguards kept a majority of the volatile fuel from escaping into space, the plasma that was already flowing through the sphere's power conduits still ignited, leaving Spacedock with a smoldering and scintillating stump. Worse still, the force of the combination collision and explosion caused the enormous station to slowly start tumbling in its orbit.

Inside the main docking bay, the departing starships, which had been freed of their moorings and were making their way to the open space doors, remained on a smooth trajectory when suddenly, the entire docking bay moved around them. The inertia from the explosion eight hundred decks below caused the whole station to lose attitude control, and the docking bay walls loomed ever closer to the line of vessels trying to disembark. A collision alrm sounded, but unfortunately, the starships were not able to move out of the way fast enough as the walls impacted them with a mighty groan, bending support pylons, and crushing sections of hull. In less than thirty seconds, three disabled starships were performing fire suppression and damage control operations after being impaled into the inside walls of Spacedock.

On the command deck, personnel were thrown to the deckplates from the inertia of Spacedock's loss of attitude and subsequent tumbling. Their seats were not outfitted with restraints, as the station was not designed for sudden increases in speed or direction. As the control operators crawled back to their consoles, they remained pinned to the floor from the increased centrifugal force.

“Stabilize reserve power!” the commodore managed to shout. “Activate emergency thrusters!”

”…Aye!” a lieutenant in command red desperately responded from the floor of his control station. He managed to reach up and dial a set of commands, which activated the emergency rockets at the top of the enormous space station. Slowly, the tumbling rotation came to a stop, and reversed course to re-stablize the ailing facility.

“Damage report!” Commodore Stevenson asked while crawling back to a chair, regaining his composure.

“Casualty reports still coming in from all decks, sir!” a lieutenant commander at the systems engineering console reported in. “It looks like we lost decks twelve-hundred through nine-nine-two… Our antimatter generator is gone, but the storage bottles safely ejected and are on a parabolic orbit away from Earth. Backup batteries are activating all over the station… Containment fields on the lower decks are engaged… Fire suppression systems are initiated throughout the docking level, and the starships within are successfully evacuating.”

Captain Fournier, Spacedock's second-in-command, helped the aging commodore into his seat after ensuring the man was still in good health.

“How much do you want to bet this isn't an accident?” the French-accented senior officer asked quietly.

“What do you mean?” Commodore Stevenson returned.

“Think about it: Communications failures… Luna Colony destroyed… Now a collision with Spacedock? Sir, with all due respect, this sounds like an attack. I don't know by who or by what, but I suggest we bring the entire planet to red alert.”

“Only the C-in-C has that authority, captain.”

“Commodore, with all due respect, if communications are being disrupted, then it's our obligation to take that authority onto ourselves.”

After a moment of thought, the seasoned flag officer nodded his head in agreement.

“Very well. Bring us to red alert. Use what power we have left to activate defense systems, and divert all incoming Earth traffic to Utopia Planetia.”

“Aye sir,” the captain responded, followed very shortly by the entire command deck being bathed in a deep-red light, and battle stations alert siren being sounded.

Outside, shuttles and travelpods that were on a docking trajectory for the damaged space station changed course and began either heading back to the surface, or out towards the distant destination of Mars. All, that is, except for the one lone ore freighter two kilometers away and closing. It did not adjust its course, nor did it respond to hails. Back on the command deck, a swarm of senior officers were converging on the young ensign's control station.

“Still no response from the laser-light signals or navigational strobes?” Captain Fournier asked the junior officer.

“No,” the ensign controller shook her head. “Just like the Gondola… before she activated her warp drive.”

“Weapons control!” the captain shouted across the command deck. “Do you have enough power for a phaser bank?”

“A few short bursts, sir,” a lieutenant replied.

“Commodore?” the captain returned to his commanding officer.

“Fire at will, captain…” the elder flag officer acknowledged.

Whether they detected the powered up weapons, or whether the change in course was intended, the rogue ore freighter changed it's path just as the high-powered phaser cannons shot an angry orange lance of energy towards it. Diving into a lower trajectory, the freighter increased its speed, missing the station by flying below it, where the amputated stump that was the lower section of Spacedock still glowed with sparks of fire and broken energy conduits. Accelerating, the ore freighter gained velocity as it descended, as several more blasts of phaser fire from Spacedock attempted to lock on. As before, they missed when the freighter changed course again, this time in an upward arc. In less than five seconds, it made its way back up into the same orbit as Spacedock, only now it was about thirty kilometers ahead. To the confusion of the command deck, a bright light signaled the detonation of the freighter tens of kilometers ahead of their orbit. The shock wave of 500 megatons of antimatter seared through the orbit, obliterating smaller shuttles and satellites, and causing ripples of plasma energy to surge past Spacedock at supersonic speeds. Although the station survived the explosion more or less intact, the expanding cloud of debris from the freighter posed a new, chilling threat.

It was a simple matter of Newtonian physics: Force equals mass times acceleration. Or deceleration in this case. The mass of the expanding cloud of ultra-dense ore particles from the explosion was in the direct orbital path of Spacedock. At three hundred and fifty kilometers above the Earth's surface, the massive space station was traveling at over seven thousand meters per second. Due to standard atmospheric drag, the station would normally lose about two kilometers of altitude a month, but was easily offset by the standard low-yield anti-gravity generators that kept a small but steady upward force on the orbiting city. Unfortunately, the Gondola collision disrupted power to the main orbital stabilizers, and while the backup thrusters could keep the station stable and upright within its orbit, they were way too underpowered to offset any loss of altitude. Worse still, as the fine particulate cloud impacted Spacedock's outer hull, the counter-force brought on a magnified drag effect, and Spacedock's altitude began to decrease.


The spinning globe of Earth beneath them was visibly accelerating as the height above ground dropped to below three hundred kilometers. The free fall-effect lightened the gravity throughout the station to 80% of Earth normal, and although personnel on Spacedock's command deck were able to maintain their footing, the disorientation served to accentuate the critical predicament. In the commodore's alcove at the apex of the command platform, four officers with the rank of captain surrounded his desk, as both they and the elderly flag officer feverishly pulled open a centuries-old, large metal book with tile-like metallic pages.

The book was titled “EMERGENCY OPERATIONS MANUAL”. Each page had large-font letters that glowed with an incandescent light, indicating that it could be read in complete darkness if the situation required. Spacedock was never designed to lose orbital altitude so quickly, nor was it expected to have been damaged so critically in one single event. While the officers knew how to deal with countless other emergency situations on the station due to their training, this particular event was completely unique, thus causing them to scramble for a solution. As they dove into the manual, flipping from page to page in a frantic search for information, the wavering red light of the command center seemed to accentuate their dire predicament.

“Here!” shouted a captain with science-blue piping on his uniform, while pointing to a glowing sentence at the bottom of a metallic page. “The last page of 'orbital decay protocols': If we can't get power to the anti-gravity generators, we're supposed to enlist the help of orbiting starships to use their tractor beams and pull us back into orbit.

“Commander!” the commodore shouted from his desk down to the communications alcove. “Contact Starfleet Operations! We need a starship! Immediately!”

Location: USS Republic, docked at McKinley Station in sun-synchronous Earth orbit

For a ship in drydock that was about to be shutdown, the Republic was unusually active. While the warp drive was offline and inactive, and most viewports remained dark and lifeless, only few lighted windows showed any sign of activity. However, the most unusual feature was that main impulse engine on the connecting dorsal was coming to life, glowing a bright crimson as the fusion generators charged up. Stranger still, McKinley Station's spider-like appendages, capable of cradling a single Galaxy-Class vessel within its berth, had actuated and were actively retracting while simultaneously repelling the Republic away with it's retro-magnetic interlocks.

Considering the turmoil of the attacks within the Earth System, one might assume that the Republic was preparing to rush to the rescue of Spacedock or some other nearby destination. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as the empty main bridge contained only one lone individual. With the alert klaxon blaring, Lieutenant Sven Butenhoff was frantically securing all stations while the subspace transceiver came to life.

“Starship Republic! This is Starfleet Command on emergency frequency! Earth Spacedock has lost orbital control and needs all available starships for a tractor beam operation! You are ordered to assist at best possible speed!”

“Starfleet, this is Republic!” Lieutenant Butehoff activated the communications channel while securing the tactical arch. “We are unable to respond to your emergency! We have an unexplained rapid degradation of our antimatter containment system! The magnetic envelope is failing, and the ejection systems and secondary safeguards are not responding! We're in the middle of abandoning ship!”

“Is there any possible way you can spare the time to assist?”

“Negative, Starfleet! We've only got five minutes before we lose containment! The warp drive is shutdown, so we'll need all the time we've got just to set Republic on an automatic sub-light course away from Earth! Sorry, but we can't help!”

“Understood Republic. Best of luck. Starfleet out.”

“Bridge to Commander Carter!” Sven tapped his combadge, only it was the computer that replied.

“Commander Carter is not aboard the Republic.”

Sven knew that it was unusual for the executive officer to have left the ship without telling him, but the situation came upon Republic so rapidly, it could be that the commander evacuated with the McKinley Station crew and was trying to resolve the situation from there.

“Computer!” shouted Lieutenant Butenhoff. “Is there anyone left aboard Republic?”

While the lieutenant was keen enough to have brought internal sensors back online for the evacuation, he did not have the time nor reason to check the sensor matrix, where he would have noticed that it was purposefully sabotaged by Lieutenant Klaus before he was killed. In fact, a gaping hole in the detection grid could be traced from deck eleven, to deck twenty six, and all the way down to the deck thirty five airlock. Pulled power relays were only a cover for what appeared to be an intricate escape plan by Klaus; one that he never had the chance to implement. With Commander Carter and Doctor Cromwell unwittingly trapped in holodeck six, and a rogue band of terrorists self-sequestered in the ship's makeshift deuterium tank bridge, there was no way for anyone else to confirm that the sensors were malfunctioning.

“Negative. No life forms are detected aboard the Republic.”

It was the German instinct inside him that begged the junior engineer to stay aboard and make sure everyone was off safely. Unfortunately, Sven didn't have time to reconcile it. The ship would soon explode in an enormous fireball if he did not get it away from the planet during the next few minutes, so he had to accept the computer's assurance that no one was left on board.

“Computer!” he shouted again to the Republic's omnipresent control system. “Engage the impulse engines and activate the pre-programmed flight plan to the inner solar system!”

“Acknowledged. Program activated.”

“McKinley Station!” he pressed the communications console again on the tactical arch. “This is Lieutenant Butenhoff on the Republic bridge! Beam me out of here! NOW!”

With speed increasing, the evacuated Galaxy Class starship accelerated to warp zero-point-eight and began it's final journey to between the orbits of Venus and Mercury, where the explosion of the antimatter containment system would occur safely away from Earth airspace.

Location: Main bridge, USS Crazy Horse (Excelsior class), geosynchronous Earth orbit over Indonesia

Well known as the “workhorse” of the fleet, the Starship Crazy Horse was an older vessel nearing the end of it's useful hull life. It was one of the last explorer cruisers still in service that was built before 2330, and while updated and renovated several times, she was getting on in years despite consistently successful performance reports. Relegated to patrols closer to the heart of the Federation, she frequented the Earth system in rotation with the USS Gorkon and the USS Tecumseh, both of which were currently in the Vulcan and Andorian systems, respectively. It was a routine route, well trodden to ensure the Federation's core systems always had a starship present, or at least, somewhere nearby. And as fate would have it on this day, a starship was desperately needed.

“Crazy Horse, Crazy Horse! This is Starfleet Command on emergency frequency! The orbit of Spacedock is decaying at an accelerated rate, and we need all available starships to assist! Please respond!”

The bridge of the starship instantly became a beehive of activity, with the condition-red tracer lights pulsating off the walls, and officers shuffling two and fro between stations in a hurried manner. Wearing the standard black Starfleet officer's uniform with red piping on the sleeve, the short and stout Tellarite captain in the command chair spun around to face the communications officer.

“Acknowledge Starfleet's request,” he ordered. “Tell them we'll be underway as soon as we solve our control system malfunction.”

“Aye sir,” the female lieutenant replied.

“Engineering!” the captain barked as he tapped the intercom button. “Status report on the control relays!”

The lack of response caused a flash of anger to ripple through the bipedal suidae skipper. “I've had enough of this!” he grumbled hoarsely as he stood up and marched directly towards the turbolift. “I'm headed down there!” To his surprise, the door failed to open when he stepped towards it. Confused, he tried once more to no avail, indicating that the control malfunction was much more widespread throughout the ship than he originally thought. Turning his head back to the communications officer, he spoke.

“Lieutenant, see if you can…”

The door to the turbolift suddenly opened, and in front of the stubby captain stood a two-meter tall muddy-brown insectoid alien with fierce black mottles on its shell. It's compound eyes and twitching antennae adorned a head that boasted a quivering maw and a set of reflexive mandibles. The Tellarite only had time to scream a hysterical squeal before the hexapedal drone lunged towards him, ripping into the officer with a sickening crunch. As more insectoid drones poured through the second turbolift door, the communications officer stood up and wailed in horror while torrents of blood splattered across the expansive bridge.

Location: USS Gettysburg (Constellation class), polar Earth orbit

As a training vessel attached to Starfleet Academy, the Gettysburg was a common site around Earth. If she wasn't off on a minor training cruise around the system, she was in orbit teaching freshman cadets the finer points of spartan living aboard a cramped starship. Although not usually used for active duty, the Gettysburg was a fully equipped Starfleet vessel capable of holding her own with the rest of the fleet during a full-blown deployment. In fact, cadet crews transferred to her so often, nearly every officer in Starfleet knew about her and her capabilities. During this emergency, the transporters at the academy went into action, and lights began to click on sporadically across the Gettysburg's hull.

Unfortunately, one of Shavis's infiltration teams had arrived before anyone came aboard to bring the ship to life. They outfitted bridge consoles with ultritium charges and electronic detonators that activated as soon as someone logged into the stations. As Starfleet tried to contact the Gettysburg with detailed instructions for rescuing Spacdock, the entire bridge erupted in flames, destroying the command center, and dooming the Constellation class starship to re-entry over Antarctica.

Location: USS Honshu (Nebula class), nearing apogee, highly elliptical (Molniya) Earth orbit

Molniya orbits are the most efficient orbits for a starship expecting to leave the gravitational pull of a planet within twenty-four hours and still be in rotational sync with a particular region on the surface. Unlike a geosynchronous orbit, the highly eccentric Molniya orbit has an apogee that requires minimal energy to transfer a vessel into a parabolic course away from Earth. While the energy savings are small compared to the amount available aboard a starship, many captains nonetheless practice energy conservation as a matter of convention, so as to drill the habit into the crew.

Such was the case with the USS Honshu, where British Columbia native, Captain Richard MacKenzie, was preparing his vessel for departure after an extended shore leave on Earth. However, as the emergency message came through from Starfleet Operations, it was clear that they would not be concerned with fuel savings on their next set of orders.

“Starfleet Command calling the Starship Honshu on emergency frequency! We have a crisis situation with Earth Spacedock, and you are ordered to assist at best possible speed! Please respond!”

“Ensign,” he called to the junior communications officer. “Acknowledge our response!”

“Helm!” the captain then spun around to face forward. “Set course one-eight-three mark four! Engage at full impulse!”

As the navigation officer complied, the deckplates vibrated as normal during the engine power-up, but did not stop as they should have when the engine was fully engaged. Instead, the magnitude of the vibrations increased, and in one jolt that almost knocked the captain out of his chair, the vibrations ceased and the vessel began to drift.

“Malfunction in the engines!” shouted the helmsman. “Nacelle interlock initiators have prematurely activated!”

“WHAT?” bellowed the captain. “On screen!”

With an incredulous furrow on his face, the captain watched the screen in disbelief as the two warp nacelles that were once firmly attached to his ship went spinning off into space. The explosive bolts that are used only for emergency purposes had apparently been detonated prematurely, and the momentum sent them careening into the orbit ahead.

“What the HELL??” he continued, flabbergasted. “Engineering!” the captain punched the comm panel on his armrest. “What happened down there? Can you give us impulse power?”

Meanwhile, the circumstances in main engineering were beyond tense, bordering on chaos. Several engineering personnel had been clubbed to death by alien aggressors who were, just moments ago, subdued by the quick reactions of the security department. However, as bodies lay strewn about the compartment in pools of their own blood, it was clear that the situation was not at all under control.

With wide-eyed astonishment, the chief engineer pressed the intercom button to reply to his captain.

“Sir…” he whispered into the microphone. “I don't think I can get you engine power at the moment… We've had an incident…”

“An INCIDENT?? Fred, what the hell are you talking about?”

The engineer was intently watching a male Palamarian pointing a disruptor pistol at the warp core. It was clear by his expression that the alien was not intent on surrendering to the security contingent who was quickly converging on his position. “For the New Dawn!” he bellowed loudly, causing his voice to echo throughout the engineering compartment. The Palamarian then pulled the trigger, and in a calamitous cascade of white light, the Honshu was no more.

Location: USS Tal'Kyr (Nova class), inbound for low Earth orbit

Captain Sulik was not planning on a trip to Earth, but her Vulcan parents suggested a stopover on her way to Starbase 213. They felt a face-to-face meeting with the Commandant of Starfleet Academy would somehow absolve her younger sister's involvement in a hazing incident with an Andorian plebe. After all, it wasn't logical for an outstanding upperclassman to associate herself with such nonsense, but since a reprimand was pending, it only seemed fitting for the Captain to investigate. Little did she know that she would be arriving at a monumental moment in Federation history.

The single most unknown variable in Shavis's master plan was the sudden arrival of a starship during what was supposed to be a swift and devastating operation. He counted on being able to incapacitate or destroy all Starfleet capital ships that were scheduled to be in the vicinity of Earth at the time of his attack. For his operation to have worked, he would need to operate quickly, and perform all his planned damage before anyone would inadvertently arrive to help and throw a monkey wrench into the works.

The Starship Tal'Kyr would seem to have been that proverbial wrench, as there was no scheduled stop where an infiltration attempt could have been planned.

“Standby on tractor beam,” the calm Vulcan captain ordered her tactical officer. The entire Nova Class bridge was bathed in red light as the fully operational starship slid into an orbit that would intercept the stricken space station. Admittedly, her ship was one of the smallest ones in the fleet, but there may have been enough power in her engines to at least give Spacedock another few orbits while waiting for help to arrive from other star systems. “Helm,” she continued to give orders. “Maintain speed. Bring us up into Spacedock's orbital path approximately four kilometers ahead. We'll attempt a Hohmann transfer maneuver to a higher altitude.”

The helmsman barely had time to acknowledge before the entire ship shuttered from a forceful impact. Bridge stations exploded into sparks and flames, while hull fissures shot geysers of supercooled air in all directions. Alert klaxons sounded while the captain straightened herself in her chair.

“Tactical!” she shouted. “What happened?”

“We're under attack, sir!” the ensign across the room explained. “It's the Crazy Horse! She's locked phasers and torpedoes on us!”

“Evasive action!” the captain gave her last order.

Outside, the puny scout/explorer was no match for the huge Excelsior-class starship. Within seconds, several more volleys of weapons fire erupted from the Crazy Horse, and landed squarely on the hull of the unshielded and unprepared USS Tal'Kyr. In one cascading explosion, the monkey wrench in Shavis's plan was extinguished.

Location: Main bridge, USS Crazy Horse

The rogue terrorist sitting in the captain's chair knew that they were the only vessel left in Earth orbit that was large enough to do damage to the surface below. J'Dan, a disgraced Klingon scientist that served prison time for smuggling Federation secrets off a Starfleet vessel, sat prominently on the command platform, satisfied that his most hated enemy was reeling from Shavis's attacks. With his Ba'ltmasor Syndrome reaching the advanced stages, the past few years of his life were dedicated to Shavis and the “New Dawn” movement, waiting for the day where he would have his revenge. Soon, he would be dead, either because of his disease, or because Shavis allowed him the final honor of dealing the Federation a deadly blow, and humiliating them in front of the entire galaxy.

It would be a glorious death.

Normally, the current mode of surface attack would work for only planets with a thin atmosphere or none at all, as Shavis knew that any surface attack on Earth would have been fruitless. It would have taken an agonizingly long duration for a simple atmospheric re-entry maneuver, during which the attacking vessel would be vulnerable to counter-attack by orbiting starships and Spacedock proper. Now, however, the orbit was cleared of such obstacles, and Spacedock itself was crippled in it's decaying orbit, no longer a threat.

Looking over his shoulder, J'Dan spied the renegade Kaferian mutants that accompanied him aboard the Crazy Horse after beaming over from the Gondola. Some were dutifully sitting at their control stations, while others were still gratifying themselves by feasting on the innards of dead officers splayed out along the deck. The bridge was mottled in the blood of humans and alien human allies alike, giving J'Dan a euphoria of vengeance, and causing his own blood to boil with the fever of revenge. Glancing around at the death and destruction, he allowed himself a moment of triumph before setting course for their final destination.

“For the New Dawn!” he bellowed, and the chorus of cicada-like stridulations resonated throughout the bridge.

Location: Paris, France, Sol III

The Place de la Concorde was twenty-acre parcel of land situated in the middle of Paris. During the French Revolution, the rebel government erected a guillotine in the center of the square where important heads of state were executed on site, often in front of cheering crowds. Thousands were beheaded in the square before some semblance of civility would be re-established, and by the twenty-fourth century, the Place de la Concorde became a beacon of peace and prosperity, as it was the home and office of the president of the United Federation of Planets.

With the soon-to-be retired Andorian president, Wolmac D'lara, off campaigning for his hand-picked successor candidate, Councilman Tharn of Andoria, Parisians went about their late-afternoon activities, most naively unaware of the fast-unfolding chaos in Earth orbit. In the shade of the mighty Eiffel Tower, tourists and bystanders alike stopped dead in their tracks as a distant rumbling reminiscent of thunder permeated the cool autumn air. Looking towards the sky, everyone spotted a growing contrail low on the horizon, which was reverberating louder and louder as the object came hurling towards the city square. Panicked mobs began racing in all directions as the realization that impact in their vicinity was imminent.

The amount of antimatter stored on the starship was tantamount to about fifty kilotons of trinitrotoluene, or a little over three Hiroshima-sized explosions that sparked off the Atomic Age in Earth's twentieth century. Using the accuracy of the Starfleet-designed control thrusters, the terrorist team aboard the Crazy Horse steered the vessel on a near-perfect course towards the Place de la Concorde. In a flash of blinding light, entire city blocks were carbonized in a split second, and hurricane-force winds of a thousand degrees Kelvin blew across the bustling Federation metropolis, causing even the Eiffel Tower to waver and ripple in its wake. As a mushroom cloud formed over the downtown skyline, onlookers in surrounding communities gaped in shock at the mind-bending reality of a planet under attack.

Location: Command deck, Earth Spacedock

The captain of engineering stood hunched over the commodore's desk, attempting to explain the situation to the station commander in as straightforward terms as possible. With eyes focused, and breath steady, a trickle of sweat fell down the engineer's forehead and onto the emergency operations manual open in front of them.

“Commodore,” he stated with grim intensity. “If we can't get a starship here to tractor beam us to a higher altitude… Earth Spacedock will burn up in the atmosphere in less than one orbit.”

The pall of the words descended upon the attending officers with the weight of an entire planet. The commodore, who was well-known for being composed and level-headed under extreme pressure during the Dominion War, bore an expression of both shock and disbelief, unable to find a resolution to their current predicament. With wide-eyed astonishment, the elderly man looked around at the senior officers before him, and managed to utter words that he never - in his worst nightmares - would have foreseen himself speaking.

“Begin the evacuation…” he ordered with a raspy voice. “Children and their civilian mothers first…”

Deep down inside, each of the command officers knew that it was an impossible task, at least not within the time allotted. It was clear that the commodore was hoping to save at least a few of the remaining 250,000 lives aboard the station before it met its fiery fate. Under extreme circumstances, it would take a minimum of twelve hours using all transporters and shuttlecraft in Earth orbit to completely evacuate Spacedock, and they had less than twenty minutes before their orbit disintegrated. By convention, the commodore was not a religious man, but as the world around him descended into desperation and chaos, he found himself folding his hands together; he found himself praying.

He was praying for a miracle that would not come.

“Luna Colony, Luna Colony! This is Starfleet Command on emergency channel! Spacedock is in need of immediate assistance! Luna Colony! Do you read us?”

The Moon itself had been considered a lifeless rock for many centuries until the human inhabitants of Earth chose to take their first steps to the stars and colonize its closest celestial neighbor. What took centuries to build - a technological mecca of sophisticated interconnected space colonies on the lunar surface - was destroyed in seconds. The smoldering remains of Tycho City, a bastion of civilization spanning eighty kilometers, was nothing more than a fuming crater of burning embers. Signals from Earth, which were normally routed through Tycho's intricate subspace array, went unanswered as the forlorn survivors of Luna colony scrambled desperately to save the remnants of their homes.

“Starfleet Command calling Utopia Planetia! Emergency alert! Deploy all available starships to Earth! This is a planetary Priority-One distress call! Utopia Planetia? Do you copy?”

For centuries, the canals of Mars were the source of science fiction and speculation among the inhabitants of Earth, sparking fantastic ideas of extraterrestrial aliens and giant cities funneling life-giving meltwater from the polar regions of the planet. In the twenty-first century, the first human explorers of the Martian surface revealed the planet to be a lonely place; desolate and benign, and beckoning Earthlings to carve out a new, unique civilization of their own. Utopia Planetia, once the bedrock foundation of a mighty Starfleet, had been reduced to over ten-thousand square kilometers of flattened, lifeless, and mangled refuse in one felt swoop. Pillars of red smoke billowed from burning craters that were once solidly-built, multi-storied habitation facilities, and networks of roads sculpted into the crimson soil, which led off to other destinations on the planet, now terminated at the borders of the city as if they had been wiped clean by a giant tsunami. Barely escaping the titanic blast, a lone prospector's vehicle lay on it's side, blown off the road and rendered inoperable as it's crippled, space-suited owner crawled over to a nearby rock. Barely receiving the weak signal from Earth, the paralyzed surveyor was burnt so critically, that he could not voice a reply, and only held out a shaky, smoldering glove towards the magenta sky in a last gasp for help. There, among the desolate carnage of a dead space colony, the human explorer died a lonely and painful death.

In the blackness of space, the dim yellow light of Sol shone brightly across the vast interstellar distances. Its solar wind was steady and unrelenting, yet within this vacuum, and without any operational communications array within her star system, no passing vessel was able to receive the weak, desperate signal emanating from Sol's third orbiting celestial body. Seemingly lost in the infinite void, a single wavering voice cast a desperate, impassioned plea over the open subspace frequency bands:

”…To any vessel in or near sector zero-zero-one… This is the Earth Emergency Command Center calling ANY interstellar vessel…“

The static-laced break in the transmission suggested the operator was so urgently hoping for a response, that he allowed a precious few seconds to pass so as to listen intently for reply. Sadly, there was none. So weak was the signal that it was completely lost among the background scatter of natural, stellar-induced static of the galactic abyss.

“Is there anybody there?… Anybody at all?”

Chapter 40: New DawnTop

The deafening roar of the stadium crowd was flooding into the doctor's ears, making it difficult for him to concentrate on the game. On the other hand, he was becoming used to the ebb and flow of the cheering, learning that when the pitch increased in exuberance, it usually meant that the ball had been taken control of by one of the teams, and was barreling toward either end of the field. This time, it just so happened that it was heading towards his end, causing Leon to feel a rush of adrenaline. As goalie for his own team, he readied himself as a pack of raucous players from the other team rapidly flocked in his direction with the ball.

It was over in a split second. As he saw the gaggle of green-jerseys emblazoned with “Tranquility Eagles” overrunning him, Leon dove into the air, and reached out with his racket in an attempt to catch the ball, which sailed right past him and into the goal net. He missed catching the shot by about two feet, and went tumbling to the ground in a most ungraceful position. The crowd went wild as the referee blew his time-out whistle, and as a dejected Leon stood back up, the loudspeaker registered the opposing point.

“Another goal for the Eagles!” the announcer echoed across the stadium. “Mavericks are down six, while Tranquility increases their lead to ten! What a game!”

As the players dispersed, the opposing team smiled and congratulated themselves while a lone Maverick player pulled off his helmet and face guard while walking towards the doctor.

“Come on, Leon!” shouted John. “At least try to look as if you're ENJOYING this!”

“I'd enjoy it more if we took it down a notch!” he said through his face mask. “Can't we try this at a lower difficultly level?”

“We're already at level one, doc.”

“I don't think I'm cut out for organized sports,” the doctor grumbled.

“Lacrosse is one of the oldest sports in human history,” John informed him with a touch of pride while planting his racket into the ground next to him as if it were a flag. “It dates back to thousands of years before the Iroquois Confederacy. You might show a little respect.”

“I said I'm not *cut out* for it,” Leon retorted. “I didn't say I didn't respect it.”

“Fair enough,” exhaled John. “I just wanted you to get a taste of it before you meet the guys on Olympus Mons. They're probably going to challenge us to a LaCrosse match, and I'll be damned if Vic and I end up being the only competent players on our team again.”

“Are we done here, then?”

John was about to suggest they play another match without the stadium crowd, but as he looked at the doctor attempting to regain his breath, he realized that maybe they both had had enough. “Computer, end program,” he called out to the ship's omni-present mainframe, and in an electronic whisper, the surrounding LaCrosse stadium, as well as their sports apparel, disappeared to reveal the blank ebony walls and yellow projector grid of the deactivated holodeck.

“Come on,” John patted Leon on the back. “I'll make Vic buy you dinner on Luna Colony before we leave for Mars.”

Leon smiled and looked at his friend when it suddenly dawned on them both that something was peculiar: The holodeck doors had not opened after ending the program, which was the standard protocol.

“Computer, open the doors…” John asked.

Registering a negative warble, the computer disobeyed with an ominous reply.

“Command not recognized. USS Saratoga is now under the command of UNKNOWN USER.”

“What the HELL??” exclaimed Leon.

“Carter to bridge!” John tapped his combadge. When no response was heard, he tried futilely several more times before considering another course of action. “Computer!” beckoned John. “Arch!”

Fortunately, the holodeck was programmed to allow certain fail-safe systems to activate without restricted access, one of which was to always provide the holodeck control arch on request, despite what situation may be occurring in the computer beyond the holodeck. Immediately, John knelt down and began typing commands into the interface.

“Comm channels are locked out,” John stated while struggling with the obstinate computer. “We have no access to anything requiring a user logon.”

“That's just about everything on the ship,” Leon said tensely. “Try the EMH recall. That should still be operable no matter who's in control of the ship.”

“Shannon's still in her diagnostic cycle,” John iterated with hope in his voice. “Maybe she can lend a hand.”

With a positive chirp, the computer obliged the faux need for medical assistance by bringing Shannon Harris into existence on the holodeck. She looked mildly bewildered after being pulled out of her diagnostic cycle, but immediately spied the two officers, provoking a grin on her face.

“Did you boys miss me so much that you couldn't go a day without me?” As soon as she said that, the holographic doctor took note of the serious faces of her friends, causing her grin to collapse.

“Shannon,” John started anxiously. “I think we're in trouble. Can you access the ship's main subspace transceiver?”

She scowled with confusion at the request, then looked towards the floor as her program made it's way into the restricted portion of the computer's interface.

“Odd,” Doctor Harris remarked. “I can't. I can only receive comm traffic. I can't transmit…”

“What's going on?” the executive officer asked intently. “Why can't we contact anyone?”

Without warning, the look of confusion on Shannon's face contorted into a shocked, horrified expression as she grabbed her stomach in referred emotional pain. Screeching in agony, the doctor relayed her reaction about the plethora of information coming in over the communications frequencies throughout the Earth system.

“Oh my GOD!”

Location: Low Earth orbit

It began as a futile yet hopeful attempt by a small fleet of service shuttlecraft, travel pods, and a few in-system commercial freighters using their feeble, antiquated grappler arrays. One try after another, the combined force of the pitifully diminutive vessels made no impact on Spacedock's increasing velocity nor decreasing altitude. They were outweighed by a factor of over fifty million, and no amount of power could be channelled in large enough quantities to change the station's trajectory. By the time the monolithic structure kissed the upper regions of Earth's mesosphere, its fate was sealed, and the vessels were forced to retreat in defeat.

Off-gassing from the ablative effect of ozone and upper atmospheric ionization impacted Spacedock's hull, and formed the genesis of what would eventually become a seventeen-thousand kilometer-long contrail stretching from the Pacific ocean offshore of Baja, across North America and the North Atlantic, and dipping below the equator into sub-Saharan Africa. Orbit-to-ground communications were choked with thousands of hopeless, anguished voices beseeching the universe for a rescue that would not happen. As re-entry turbulence shook the massive structure, the open subspace channels screamed with overlapping panic, hysteria, and profound weeping while surface viewers gawked forlornly at the insurmountable human suffering pouring onto their receiver screens. Eventually, the hull ionization swelled into a full-blown plasma layer that enveloped the station in a bright orange funeral shroud, forcing an end to both communications and transporter evacuations.

Structural break-up commenced over the Canary Islands, as the single blinding sphere of orange light fluttered, heralding the dissociation of three distinct sections of Spacedock that pulled themselves apart like molten slag flowing out of a blast furnace. Lives were extinguished and bodies burned to carbon as a cacophonous rumble resonated across the sky from horizon to horizon. The turbulence sent pieces of white-hot debris peeling off the disintegrating hull, which broke apart into thousands of diminutive orange streamers as they rode the shockwave all the way to the ground. In distinctly rapid succession, multiple sonic explosions thundered throughout the heavens as debris decelerated below the speed of sound, and a myriad of tiny white vapor trails stretched in all directions. The rain of wreckage would last for hours, as charred flotsam ranging in size from inches to meters in length pelted the oceans and continents from above.

In a final blow, the burning, melted remains of the largest piece of Spacedock impacted the ground at the southern tip of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, carving a trench several kilometers long, and terminating in a gaping, smoldering crater about a hundred meters in diameter. As the slag cooled in the simmering cauldron, the realization that two hundred thousand people were now dead still had not resonated with the inhabitants of Earth, as they were still confused while struggling to interpret what was happening around them. One by one, people stepped outside their homes and workplaces to helplessly watch the countless pieces of flaming wreckage fall from the sky with their own eyes, imprinting in their minds the shocking reality that the once indestructible icon of human accomplishment had crumbled apart over their heads.

Location: Deck 11, USS Republic

It took several minutes for John, Leon, and Shannon to digest the ghastly news coming in over the comm channels. They each were both angry and stupefied at the carnage and audacity of the cowardly attacks, searching for a way to grasp the magnitude of the unfolding disaster. With Spacedock gone, and four orbiting starships destroyed - one of them flown intentionally into the center of Paris and detonated - they had no idea what to expect next. Just as they grappled with this new reality, Shannon informed them that Republic was changing course back towards Earth, apparently due to the nefarious instructions from the individuals sequestered in the deuterium tank bridge. Although the unexplained degradation of the antimatter containment aboard Republic had halted, the magnetic field still had not regenerated itself, suggesting that whatever their uninvited guests had in store for Republic, it did not include saving the ship from disaster. The next mission for the trio of officers was clear: Regain control of Republic by any means necessary.

Like the rest of the vessel, the hallway adjacent to Holodeck Six was devoid of people when Shannon whispered into existence just outside the door. While her program was uniquely encapsulated from the rest of Republic's computer system, she still had the innate ability to interact with it on a level that no biological organism had the capacity to do. Removing a wall access cover next to the holodeck door, she uncovered the maintenance circuitry and held her hand over the interface panel. As the buttons and lighted indicators wavered and fluctuated under her control, she narrowed her focus to the lockout and subspace dampening field that was setup by Lieutenant Klaus. While a normal EMH wouldn't have had the clearance or authority to override Klaus's lockout, Shannon had the advantage of being a fully commissioned officer who happened to outrank him. In a span of only a few seconds, the holodeck doors yawned open, allowing Commander Carter and Doctor Cromwell to exit the room.

“It was Klaus,” Shannon immediately informed them. “He locked you in there.”

“I should have guessed,” John grimaced with regret. “He's been borderline insubordinate for weeks. Is he the one in the deuterium tank bridge?” The tell-tale sign of someone commandeering Victor Virtus's engineering work did not go unnoticed when the 'Saratoga' computer refused to answer commands.

“I don't think so,” she replied. “According to the locator logs, his combadge signal stopped shortly before Republic left McKinley Station. He must have beamed off.”

“So we're dealing with an unknown variable,” extrapolated the XO. “An unknown someone who's probably connected somehow to the attacks on Earth. What's their plan?” he turned back to the holographic doctor. “What are they up to?”

“It's just a guess from the navigation computer, but I think they're setting Republic on a collision course with the surface,” explained Shannon. “Just like the Crazy Horse.”

John clenched his jaw in anger. “That's just not going to happen,” he said with determination.

“You have a plan?” Leon asked.

John looked to Leon in what he perceived to be an accusatory manner at first, but then the doctor then realized his friend was looking intently at his combadge. Without another word, John snatched the doctor's badge from his chest as well as his own, and tossed them both back into the holodeck behind them.

“Whoever's in charge of the 'Sara' will be tracking our combadges,” he stated. “As for the next part, there's no time to lose.” Grabbing Leon's shoulder, he ushered him down the corridor while directing the holographic doctor over his shoulder. “Shannon, head to the bridge. We'll meet you there as soon as we take care of our unwanted guests.”

“John!” she called after them. “We don't even know how many of them are in the deuterium tank!”

“It doesn't matter,” he reassured her while he and Leon walked away. “There could be a whole platoon of Klingons in there for all I care, but I'm willing to bet they don't know the 'Sara' like Vic does…”

Location: Deuterium-tank “bridge”, deck 28, USS Republic

Compared to a standard auxiliary control room, the deuterium-tank bridge was nothing special at first glance. In fact, it's location within the ship was what made it unique, as the tank's magnetic field blocked transporter locks, as well as active sensor scans. The tank was also positioned in an area of the ship where indiscriminate phasor fire was ill-advised due to the close proximity of other deuterium-filled tanks. Even more insidious was what occurred when the deuterium-tank bridge was activated, as the Republic's main computer itself became almost entirely disconnected from the ship's main systems, and computer signals to the main bridge were re-routed to a proxy signal generator that mimicked the Republic's main isolinear network. This gave any personnel on the bridge the illusion that they were still in control of the vessel. However, primary ship control became the purview of stardrive's backup computer core, originally programmed by the Republic's artificial-intelligence processors, which, due to a glitch in Republic's mainframe, programmed and configured the core to mimic the USS Saratoga; Republic's previous commission back during in the Dominion War.

Back then, the Saratoga was lost with all hands during an ambush in an asteroid field the Cardassian border. Years after the war, the heavily damaged vessel was found drifting along the border before being brought back to a construction depot for a complete re-build. While normal procedure would have been to keep the name 'Saratoga' during the refit, that name had already been taken by a newly-commissioned Intrepid-class vessel, and two Saratogas in the same fleet would have been confusing. So, fleet operations chose to re-christen the old Saratoga as the Republic. Unfortunately, because of this dual-identity, the Republic's AI became confused on occasion, and when Victor Virtus used it to re-program the stardrive's backup computer core as a mirror of the main computer for the deuterium bridge, it was given the Saratoga's computer prefix, which led to other problems at the time. Fortunately, Victor Virtus was a smart engineer, and went with the flow by re-programming the jury-rigged panels inside the newly-built control room to Saratoga specifications. In effect, the deuterium-tank bridge became the control center of another vessel that, if activated, would hijack the Republic's main control systems in lieu of it's own.

And so it did. While the deuterium-tank bridge played no small role in resolving the Cestus Three incident of the previous year, it was decided to decommission the room for use again only when Virtus needed it. That need had never materialized, as the brilliant engineer had been transferred back to Earth for more important assignments. Nevertheless, the control room remained, and when it's existence fell into unsavory hands through less than honorable officers serving aboard Republic, a boon turned into a curse. With bundles of wire jutting out from scattered locations all over the interior of the deuterium tank, the five control stations were now manned with nefarious individuals: The standing tactical station was attended by a massively-built Nausicaan, whose exoskull plate bore a pair of beady black eyes. Across the aft end of the room from him, a Dopterian stood at the engineering console, and who carefully manipulated the antimatter-containment system so as to force the ship's evacuation at McKinley station a short time ago. Two acceleration couches at the front of the room were situated in front of a wall-sized main viewer, and contained two Kobheerians at the make-shift Conn and Ops stations. Finally, in the center of the room, and sitting in a chair originally designed for seating at a conference table, was the Romulan ringleader of Shavis's infiltration team.

“Sovereign?” the Naussican at the tactical station addressed the Romulan. “I'm not reading any more armed vessels in the vicinity of the Earth system. We have a clear path all the way to the ground.”

“Excellent,” they sly Romulan replied. “Helm, adjust our orbital course to zero eight six mark eight.”

“Yes, sovereign” the Kobheerian at the conn station replied. “ETA to San Francisco is seven minutes, thirty-two seconds.”

“You all have done well,” the Romulan leader looked around at his disciples with satisfaction. “Shavis is proud of what you have accomplished here today. Soon, we will deal a mighty blow to the humans, striking them so hard that they will never recover. This is the start of the downfall of the human race, and we will each die knowing that we were the catalyst. For Prince Shavis and the New Dawn!”

“For the New Dawn!” the other aliens roared in response, their voices seething with inspiration and vindictiveness.

For the next few minutes, the room was silent, sans the beeping and chirping of the machinery. On the main viewer, the west coast of North America came into view, and as Republic surfed the outer fringes of Earth's atmosphere, an oscillating vibration signaled their impending martyrdom.

“Ninety-three seconds to impact!” shouted the Dopterian at the helm over the rising groan of the ship's atmospheric engagement.

“Standby to release antimatter!” the Romulan ordered as the white cirrus clouds parted before them on the screen, revealing the unmistakable kidney-shape of San Francisco Bay ahead.

Without warning, the floor beneath them jolted violently. It wasn't an air pocket that hit them, nor was it the resonating shutter felt during combat, where the acceleration compensators would adjust the gravity to assist in hull integrity. Instead, it was more a jarring action that threw the standing aliens to the deck, and knocked the Dopterian in the Ops chair out of his seat. Slowly, the gravity in the room began to lessen, and while the main screen turned to static, the monitors on the control stations turned red and blinking with obvious signs of major malfunction.

“What happened?” shouted the Romulan leader. The Naussican and Kobheerian behind him were trying to help one another gain a foothold on the floor, but having no success.

“I don't know, sovereign!” the Dopterian at the helm replied. “I have no control over anything! My console is not responding to commands!” Next to him, the Dopterian on the floor began floating upwards while grasping desperately at the head of his chair.

“What do you mean 'not responding'??” the Romulan shouted angrily while holding on to his own chair for dear life. “Did they re-route the processor nodes?”

“No sovereign!” the Dopterian replied. “It's as if every optical cable was pulled out from the bulkhead at once! None of the control systems are registering ANYTHING!”

Outside on the deuterium tank catwalks, John and Leon were wearing respirator masks and standing across from each other on either side of the chasm where deuterium tank number three had once been situated. Air was whipping past them as the compartment forcefully decompressed while they manned a pair of twin control stations that operated the latching mechanisms for the deuterium tank structural interlocks. As for the tank itself, the construct was lifting up and out of its space inside the ship's hull through two missing bulkhead plates on the ceiling. As it rose, every link that the tank had with the Republic was severed, breaking apart in a shower of sparks. Without a moment to lose, John lead his way over to Leon using handholds mechanically carved along the sidewall of the catwalks, and used a hand-over-hand method to reach the doctor. Hurriedly, they both made their way to a nearby containment airlock built into the engineering deck as the gargantuan deuterium fuel cell floated out of it's cradle in the secondary hull, and out into space beyond.

Inside their safety compartment, John and Leon removed their breathing masks as they watched from the airlock window while the deuterium tank tumbled away from Republic and broke apart in the atmosphere. As the main computer took over control of the ship, the vessel began rising out of Earth's atmosphere, and the bluish sky as seen through the open bulkheads faded to a starry black once again.

“Vic knew long ago about the probability that someone could use the deuterium-bridge against us,” explained John as the two of them caught their breath. “When he had Pakita seal it off after the Cestus Three incident, he engineered an ejection system for the tank for exactly this kind of scenario.” Looking back towards Leon, he added, “Of course, he only told *me* about it, and he assumed I would pass it on to others who needed to know.” Looking back out the window, he concluded his admission. “The truth is, I forgot all about it until now, never thinking we'd use it.”

“The Virtus probability principle,” Leon nodded as John rose an eyebrow at him. “He told me once about it during poker. In summary, if it can go wrong, it will… so we fix it before it happens.”


John and Leon's victory was short-lived. No sooner did the detached deuterium tank disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere than did a fierce explosive burst shoot out from the the impulse engine five decks above. It was loud, bright, and excruciatingly hot, but lasted for only about twenty seconds before dissipating.

“What the hell was that?” Leon exclaimed while staring out the small airlock viewport.

“I don't know,” John added turning to the wall-mounted intercom. “Shannon, do you copy? What just happened?”

“John, get up here! We've got problems!”

“What is it?” John replied, realizing that Shannon's voice was full of desperation.

“Our friends put a deadman's switch on the Saratoga computer. After you disconnected it by jettisoning the deuterium tank, the ship automatically switched over to Republic's main computer, and started a whole cascade of issues.”

“Like what?”

“First and foremost, the antimatter containment system began to degrade again.”

The doctor and executive officer looked at one another with expressions of impending disaster. “How long do we have?” John asked.

“About twelve minutes, but that's not the worst of it. The explosive bolts on the core ejection system were fused, and now there's absolutely no way to eject the antimatter bottles.”

“It's worse,” commented John with a defeated expression. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. That explosion you felt just after ejecting the tank was the rest of our deuterium. The power flow regulators to the impulse plasma vents were thrown wide open, and we lost over ninety-nine percent of our impulse fuel. We've barely enough left to escape Earth's gravity.”

“Damn it!” John slammed his fist against the bulkhead. “Whoever was in that tank covered all their bases, didn't they?”

“My guess,” Leon added. “Is that they rigged it this way just in case someone tried to disconnect the Sara from Republic, thinking that they could use the antimatter bottles as bargaining chip to get away.”

“Only they didn't get that chance.”

John looked at Leon with a deadpan expression before closing the channel. “We're on our way up.”

Location: Main bridge, USS Republic

The course that Shavis's infiltration team set Republic on was parabolic in nature, with perigee occurring at the approximate location of San Francisco. This was supposed to be where Republic - like the Crazy Horse - was to detonate over the population center. Since that did not occur, the vessel only sliced into the outer fringes of the atmosphere before boosting itself back into orbit, and heading on a trajectory into space. Unfortunately, without their deuterium fuel, that was about all that Republic could do for the moment as the remaining officers onboard grappled with what to do next.

“Run another internal scan of the ship,” John Carter hurriedly ordered from the tactical arch. “I want to make absolutely sure no one else is hiding on board, especially Klaus.” The venom in his voice when uttering the name of the junior officer was distinctly bitter, revealing his revulsion towards the turncoat officer who locked them in the holodeck.

“Second scan done,” remarked Leon at the main sciences console. “I'm not finding anyone. Not in the deuterium tanks, not anywhere.”

“You're sure?”

Leon could understand why John was adamant, but there was nothing left for him to scan with the ship's sensors, especially not in the time they have left. “I checked everything,” the doctor exclaimed. “Even with all the power relays that Klaus pulled, I still can manually direct the scan to the areas not covered. Unless he or someone else are hiding in a transporter buffer - which I just powered down by remote, by the way - believe me when I say, there's NO ONE left on the ship but us.”

A warbling from the engineering console where Shannon was seated beckoned the attention of both John and Leon. “In about eight minutes, it won't matter who's left aboard,” Shannon concluded furiously, reminding the two how little time there was before Republic went critical.

The sigh of exasperation from the executive officer was unmistakable. Much like Lieutenant Butenhoff earlier, John was now senior officer aboard the Republic, and had a sober decision to make. With only eight minutes to a loss of antimatter containment, there were two options: Try to beam someone aboard who can either eject the core or stop the deterioration of the magnetic field, or use the precious few minutes left to get Republic safely away from Earth. With the ship's engineer on shore leave in another star system, there wasn't much chance of Pakita arriving in time to help. Considering the chaos that must have been occurring on the surface below, they would lose a majority of their time just tracking down someone else who could help, let alone diagnose the problem. The other side of the issue was that setting Republic on another automatic course away from the system could be an invitation for another terrorist team to capture Republic and try again, regardless of how much fuel is left onboard. This was especially frustrating because they have yet to know who their attacker is, or how many are left unaccounted for.

It was a risk John Carter wasn't willing to take.

“I'll stay,” John concluded. “I'll make sure Republic stays in friendly hands until the end. Leon, get back to McKinley Station and report on what happened here.”

“What?” Leon exclaimed with incredulity. “No way! There's got to be another option! You'd be throwing your life away over a hunch!”

“Are you blind, doc?” John shouted harshly at Leon. “Take a good look at your sensors! Do you see any starship or capital vessel anywhere in the Earth system at the moment? No! Do you expect one anytime in the next ten minutes? No! That means we'd basically be letting a ticking time bomb fly away from Earth with no one at the controls! And what would we do if someone just *happens* to be waiting for us to leave the ship? I'll tell you: There would be no one - absolutely NO ONE - to stop them from doing something else with Republic before she explodes! I'm not willing to take that chance! Not after everything that's happened!”

“Then I'll stay,” Shannon interrupted him with sternness. “There's no need to waste more human life.” There was a finality to her voice that gave both John and Leon pause. The death and destruction of the senseless attacks on the Earth System Commonwealth weighed heavily on Shannon's mind, and while she knew that her non-corporeal nature had a limited capacity to help, John's invective towards Leon suddenly offered her an option to do something. Even if it meant her own death.

Both John and Leon were taken aback. Not by what Shannon said, per se, but because it had not occurred to them until now that the destruction of Republic also meant the death of Shannon Harris. Obviously, the holographic doctor knew this already, and had already come to terms with it, but for the XO and the doctor, it hit them like a ton of bricks.

“You're not just saying that because you're a hologram?” John questioned after a moment, keeping his anxiety under control.

“If you are,” Leon piped in to reinforce John's words. “Then you might as well stop right there, because as far as we're concerned, you're just as a much a human being as either one of us.”

Their devotion to her equality as a fellow sentient touched Shannon on a level that she hadn't felt before. She loved John, and while she had a self-preservation instinct to keep herself from harm, she also wanted to keep John from harm too, and it trumped her own compulsion to protect herself.

“This is what I want,” she explained. “If Republic is to perish out here in space, and there's still something I can do to make sure her crew doesn't meet the same fate, then that's what I want. At least then, my death will have been for a good purpose.”

Shannon and John locked stares of unspoken communion. They each knew that this would likely be their last moments together, and there was very little left to be said. Shannon was in acceptance of her fate, and John knew there wasn't anything he could do to change her mind. What is, is what must be.

“Republic to McKinley Station,” John pressed a button on the communications panel. He expected the station foreman to answer, or someone from Starfleet Command, but it was Nat Hawk who answered instead.

“C'mander? Where'n th'hell uv ya been?”

“Long story, Hawk,” John replied. “Report.”

“It's a real mess jus' about everywhere, sir. I was out flyin' the Peregrine near Uranus on a maintenance flight, an' I come back ta dock with Republic. Only there ain't no Republic ta dock with! Sven filled me in on the antimatter malfunction, an ever since Spacedock went down, we've been tryin' ta help out by routin' comm traffic through McKinley Station an keepin' the emergency channels clear.”

“What's the status of Republic's crew?”

“Now that yer reportin' in, that leaves jus Lieutenant Klaus and Leon unaccounted fer.”

“Leon and I are here aboard Republic. I'm not sure where Klaus is, but Shannon uncovered evidence that he was behind the sabotage of the ship. Send out an alert for him through Starfleet Security.”

“You mind fillin' us in on what happened? Like maybe why ya steered a course towards fleet HQ b'fore backin' off at th' last second?”

“I will, but not now. We're out of time.”

“Did you two get th' antimatter containment under control?”

“Negative,” John replied somberly. “Despite our best shot, Republic is still going to go critical. We've barely enough power to get her back on course away from Earth in time. Lock onto our lifesigns, and stand by to beam us off the ship on my next signal.”

“Roger that.”

As the channel closed, Leon looked back and forth between Shannon and John. While he knew the latter hated long goodbyes, Leon also shared a bond with the holographic doctor, though on a more platonic level than John. He had a lot he wanted to say to her, but knew that time was critical.

“Shannon,” he started. “I…”

“It's okay, Leon,” she replied as John walked towards one of the monitoring stations at the rear of the bridge. “You and I both knew that none of this would have lasted forever.”

While they talked, John focused his attention on the engineering subsystems panel, where he accessed the ship's holographic projector system. After typing a few commands into the controls, the words “EMH PROGRAM TRANSFER COMMENCING” appeared on a smaller sub-screen. The upload process was going to be slow, but John was satisfied that it would be complete before the antimatter containment field went critical.

“Ever since Republic was launched,” continued Shannon to Leon. “She was a troubled ship. We all had our own problems and emotional scars to carry with us. What matters is how we overcame those problems and managed to stick together through it all.”

“I'm going to miss you,” the blond-haired doctor admitted to her. “You were more than a colleague, you were a friend.”

“I'll miss you too,” Shannon hugged Leon. “Think of me each time you use a medical hologram. There's a lot more to us than meets the eye.”

“I will.”

“Come on, Leon” John beckoned after a moment. “We're going to be out of transporter range in less than a minute.”

As Leon stepped back to join John, they both looked at her with remorse and admiration as John pressed the communications button.

“McKinley Station, activate transporter.”

As she watched the two fade away in the matter stream, Shannon raised a hand in parting gesture.


Location: Main bridge, unregistered ore freighter, Apollo asteroid 1566 Icarus

Originally, Shavis had targeted only Earth Spacedock and the Moon, thinking that atmospheric re-entry would interfere with his attacks, since the antimatter-laided freighters could have been shot down during the required minutes-long re-entry sequence for Earth's thick atmosphere. Now, however, as the combined attacks had cleared Earth airspace of any threats, Shavis knew that Earth's surface was vulnerable, and any infiltration teams that managed to wrestle control of a starship without destroying it, would be able to turn them against his most hated enemy. First, it was the Crazy Horse, which took the target at the top of the list: Paris, and the home to the Federation president. Next on the list was Republic, and the one target he wanted desperately to engage: San Francisco, and the home of Starfleet Command.

That didn't happen.

Fuming, Shavis watched as Republic shifted her orbit after only a minute within Earth's atmosphere. He was waiting in anticipation for San Francisco to be vaporized, but as the massive Galaxy-Class vessel pulled itself back to a higher orbit, it became clear that something went wrong with his plan. Instead, the starship whipped past it's perigee without impact, and continued on a parabolic course back out towards the inner solar system.

“NO!” he bellowed outloud across the bridge of his freighter. Everyone on the flight deck flinched, waiting for the despotic leader to find a physical target to vent his outrage. “EVERY one of our ships has hit their target! EVERY one of our disciples have earned their way to the afterlife today! I will NOT stand by while their military capital remains standing!”

While it wasn't Shavis's intention to martyr himself on this day, as he was hoping to live on to fan the flames of anti-Federation revolution across the Alpha Quadrant, he knew that death would be a possibility. Unfortunately, his freighter was outfitted to be a fighter-carrier, and not an antimatter bomb. His hexapod drone fighters were all exhausted, and his freighter's warp core possessed barely enough antimatter fuel to take out a city block. These facts formed the catalyst of his burning rage, as he was missing the last bullet in his firearm of discord against the Federation. Looking around the bridge with wild eyes, he spied his communications officer, the Klingon-Romulan half-breed that kept him informed of the infiltration teams' progress.

“YOU!” he pointed at the frightened warrior woman. With Shavis lunging towards her, she tried to dodge out of the way, but he caught her by the neck and slammed her against the wall. “YOU told me that they ALL were successful! WHAT happened on Republic??”

“Your excellency!” she gasped, struggling against his powerful grip. “Please! I have limited intelligence options! I've served you loyally!”

“Then tell me how the team on Republic failed!” he shouted. “Tell me HOW they missed their target when they were only kilometers from impact!”

“I… I can't!”

“Then I will let Faro consume your soul in the afterlife!” he whispered, much to her horror. He was about to remove his sacrificial blade from it's sheath when the Flaxian at the science console garnered the courage to say something.

“Prince Shavis,” he addressed him.

Turning his enraged eyes toward the alien, the formidable monarch sneered before responding in a vengeful voice.

“You want to be next, Glyneer?” Shavis hissed.

“No, your Excellency,” he explained. “If you're seeking an alternate choice for destroying the human military city, I think I found one.” Turning to a screen next to him, the Flaxian named Glyneer pointed to a computer rendering of an orbital path away from Earth, and a blinking cylindrical object. “One of the ejected antimatter bottles from the destroyed space station is on track to pass near us by only a million kilometers. It has the explosive yield as much as that of several starships.”

Squinting his eyes at the screen, Shavis slowly let go his grip of the communications officer, who quietly went scrambling back to her station.

“Excellent,” Shavis coolly praised, feeling his anger subsiding in place of jubilation. He may yet still have the capacity to deal Starfleet the intended slaughter he so desired. “Plot an intercept course and prepare the grappler array!”

Location: USS Republic, somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Venus

The Starship Republic had not been this empty of life since the resurrection from her previous existence as the derelict Saratoga over five years prior. A large portion of her crew had already removed many of their belongings, most during the mass exodus at Deep Space Nine several weeks ago, and the rest during the extended shore leave at McKinley Station. Listless corridors stretched out throughout the ship, seemingly frozen in time without a soul walking its lengthy distances. Deck by deck, unoccupied staterooms and crew quarters lay dormant, laboratories sat idle, and conference rooms were dark next to quiescent recreation facilities. Even the arboretum had been put to rest, with most annuals removed and recycled, and perennials and trees put into stasis at McKinley for eventual replanting. Throughout her short career after launching at Utopia Planetia a year and a half ago, the personnel who walked her halls were what gave Republic her life energy, and what validated her existence. Now, with nothing left but automated machinery and inanimate superstructure, the Galaxy-Class starship that was once home to so many, would soon perish quietly without a soul to see her passing.

All, that is, except for one.

Alone on the bridge, Shannon Harris sat in the command chair weeping uncontrollably, and releasing the sadness and anxiety pent up inside her. Though she knew as a Starfleet officer that death could come at any time without warning, she did not expect it to occur with so much foreknowledge, nor without the close comfort of friends nearby. It was a death that no human being - photonic or organic - would wish to endure, yet it was what fate had handed her on this day. Feeling alone and overwrought with despair, Shannon could only mutter a few words between bouts of sobbing.

“I love you, John…”

As she continued to weep, the engineering subsystems panel at the rear of the bridge was blinking a message. “EMH PROGRAM TRANSFER COMPLETE” it read, followed by a brief sentence reading, “ACTIVATING HOLOGRAPHIC SYSTEM BYPASS”. With a faint electronic whisper, a second photonic life form appeared at the rear of the bridge, causing Doctor Harris to cease her mourning and look over her shoulder through the tactical arch. Using the ship's recently-built EMH holo-bypass filter, and by swapping the standard Mark 19 EMH program for another program from the holodeck database, a stout yet familiar Starfleet officer wearing an old-style maroon double-breasted uniform tunic stood next to the aft monitoring stations. Removing a pair of rectangular, eighteenth-century spectacles, the curly brown and gray-haired captain slowly scanned the expansive command center.

“Starship bridges are a lot bigger than they used to be,” commented James Kirk, seemingly out of his element beyond the confines of the holodeck.

Spying the scarlet-haired doctor standing up in the command pit, the captain pulled open the flap on his tunic to put away his glasses as he walked down the portside ramp. As he approached the dumbfounded doctor, the elder man's eyes squinted when he offered a fatherly smile, tenderly grasping her shoulders.

“John thought that you could use some company.”

It was all Shannon could do to embrace the holographic Kirk, her weeping transforming from profound sadness to heartfelt gratitude. While she wanted desperately to say a passionate goodbye to John Carter when he left, and use every emotion that burst forth from her own heart, she knew that that wasn't the commander's way, and could possibly cause more emotional harm than good to him. However, with the appearance of John's holographic mentor - a sentient program he created years ago using his own creativeness as well as historical records - it was the next best thing to having John here personally. From her point of view, and which may have actually been John's intention, it was as if John was saying “goodbye” and “thank you” all rolled together.

Kirk let her release her sadness into his shoulder, holding her tightly as she wept. Gently stroking her scarlet hair, he soothed her nerves for as long as it took for Shannon to undergo a much-needed catharsis. For as little as the captain knew about her, it was clear that she was a strong-willed woman who cared deeply for John, and to see her in this state told him that she was at the end of her rope. What she needed now was comfort, and as her sobbing ebbed, it became clear that it was working.

“Thank you!” she released him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Thank you so much for being here!”

“I don't think John would have been able to forgive himself if he didn't do *something* for you,” the captain explained. “Of course, he was a little vague on the details, but it's my understanding that Republic's engines are about to go critical, or something.” His almost nonchalant approach to his own program's termination was perplexing to Shannon, until she realized that this particular Jim Kirk hologram was more than self-aware; he knew that he was already dead as far as history was concerned.

“It's more than that,” Shannon shook her head and covered her face with her hands. “It's as if the entire universe went mad,” she tried putting the events of the past hour into words. “Millions are dead on Mars and Luna… Someone took control of a starship and exploded it over Paris… three other starships were assaulted and destroyed with all hands. Even Spacedock itself was attacked and re-entered the Earth's atmosphere…”

”…My god!“ exclaimed Kirk. “Who in heaven's name would do this? Klingons? Romulans?”

Shannon shook her head again. “It's too soon to know. The Earth system is in chaos, and they even tried to hijack Republic. John stopped them, but he couldn't keep the antimatter containment from going critical. Hence why we're here.”

“This makes no sense…” he muttered to himself.

Looking around the room, the holographic Jim Kirk tried to find a communications panel so he could see the damage first hand. Catching sight of the Ops console, the captain from yesteryear walked over to the panel, and pulled out his spectacles from his tunic. As he placed the corrective lenses over his eyes, he tried to make sense of the system before him.

“How does this damned twenty-fourth century contraption work?” he muttered, while trying to find the controls for the forward screen. “I want to see a tactical view of Earth.”

“Why?” Shannon asked with astonishment. “What does it matter?”

“If we're going to die together,” Kirk explained. “I'd like to know more about why.”

She was about to protest, mainly because Shannon did not want to have to relive the events of the past hour. On the other hand, forcing Jim Kirk to face his fate without knowing the reasons behind it seemed terribly unfair. Pursing her lips, the holographic doctor stepped up to the Ops station and dialed the appropriate keystrokes to give the captain what he wanted.

The star-scape on the main viewer switched to a computer graphic via an electronic warble. A plethora of information came forth on the screen, all surrounding a digital rendering of Earth, showing it's day side and night side. A fuzzy haze around the planet revealed themselves to be debris, small shuttles, and travel pods orbiting the planet, and a few larger ones were noted to be drydocks and repair depots. Blinking red were four offset information boxes with lined arrows pointing to specific locations in Earth orbit. The first three indicated the last known location of the USS Honshu, the USS Gettysburg, and the USS Tal'Kyr, and read “NO DOWNLINK” along with a more ominous subtext “ASSUMED DESTROYED”. The fourth box showed the last known location of Earth Spacedock before it entered the atmosphere above the eastern Pacific, and read “NO DOWNLINK” along with “DE-ORBIT TRAJECTORY CONFIRMED”.

Captain Kirk stood aghast, with his mouth hanging open. He had seen nearly every catastrophe that could befall a planet, but watching his homeworld fall apart before his eyes was beyond comprehension. Now he knew what Shannon meant by the universe going mad, as he had not seen Earth in this state of turmoil since the Whalesong crisis of 2286. At least in that event, Spacedock was able to maintain orbit. Whoever dealt this damage to Earth had a powerful reach, as well as a twisted mind.

While Kirk was fixated on the ground track of Spacedock re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, Shannon spied a new offset box entering the expansive screen from the lower right edge. It read “UNKNOWN CONTACT”. Sounding too much like the “USER UNKNOWN” from the recent attempt by the “Saratoga” to plow Republic into the ground, Shannon's mind went to red alert. Typing a command into the Ops console to project the course of the new sensor contact, her eyes widened with consternation.

“Oh no!” Shannon exclaimed with rising tension in her voice. “They're going to do it again!”

“Who's doing WHAT again?” Kirk turned to her expectantly.

“The attackers!” exclaimed the doctor. “They've got another ship, and it's on the same trajectory they sent Republic earlier! They're on a collision course with San Francisco!”

“Isn't there a starship in orbit that can do anything?”

“No!” Shannon hurriedly explained. “Don't you see? That's EXACTLY why they took out all those starships! So spacedock couldn't be rescued, and so they could crash a ship into Paris and San Francisco! There's no one to stop them!”

The realization of what the doctor was telling him slowly dawned on the captain. He took two steps towards the screen with folded arms, and a hand to his chin in thought. He spun around and began pacing the same spot over and over.

“We've got to do something,” the incredulous Kirk finally said under his breath. “I don't know how, but we've simply GOT to do something!”

“I don't think there's nothing we *can* do,” replied Shannon forlornly. “We haven't the impulse power to double-back on our course, and our deuterium tanks are all but dry.”

“What about the batteries?” asked Kirk with an out-splayed hand. “Or fusion reactor backups?”

“The warp matrix has been offline for hours,” she explained. “Without the heated plasma return from the warp core, we'd waste all the battery power just starting up a single backup fusion reactor.”

“Why?” he inquired. “Where's all the battery power going?”

“Life support, mostly,” Shannon replied, suddenly realizing what it meant. From Kirk's intense look, neither of them had to say a word to decipher what the other was thinking: WHY did they need life support?

Location: Unregistered ore freighter, Earth airspace

It took Shavis and his freighter crew only minutes to secure the cask of antimatter fuel from Spacedock, ejected shortly before it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. From there, it took only a few more minutes to insert themselves into an orbit that put San Francisco in their target crosshairs. As they crossed the terminator from night to day, the Pacific Ocean, partially obscured by clouds, lay out below them.

“No sign of pursuit, Your Excellency,” the Flaxian at the sciences console informed the black-haired and bearded despot in the command chair.

“Helm!” Shavis bellowed over the increasing vibration of the vessel against Earth's atmosphere. “Report!”

“Descending on a sub-orbital trajectory!” the Barolian at the freighter's helm replied. “Course bearing ninety-eight-point-six degrees, local grid. Decent rate: five hundred meters per second. Velocity: mach two-point-two-five.”

“Tactical!” he called out to the Finnean female manning the weapons console. “Range to target!”

“Altitude: one hundred three kilometers! Distance to target: four hundred kilometers!”

With anticipating eyes fixated on the distant North American coastline on the the screen, Shavis gripped his chair so tightly that his fingers dug into the upholstery. His objective was set, and he was savoring his last moment alive with visions of a decimated Starfleet Headquarters in the center of a burning, flattened city.

“Standby to detonate the antimatter!” he ordered, a wild grin widening on his face. “On my mark!”

Location: Earth Emergency Command Center, San Francisco, North America, Earth

The cavernous room that composed the Starfleet facility for planetary emergency operations was frantic with activity, with hundreds of manned control stations situated in front of a single three-story-high digital display surrounded by two dozen smaller ones, each one the size of a small conference table. Emergency information of every sort were displayed on the smaller monitors, along with broadcasts of burning space modules and desperate, static-laced communications coming in from smaller communities at Luna Colony. On the main monitor, a digital rendering of a rotating Earth was displayed, and a pulsating crimson icon was situated over Paris, with a smaller one over central Mozambique. Every now and again a klaxon would sound, and the words “RED ALERT” would overlay the spinning globe, followed by a computer voice announcing as such over the loudspeaker.

Kim Roth, after hearing about Republic's hasty departure from McKinley Station, made her way to the emergency operations center soon after the attacks started. Since the emergency command center was the nervous system of Starfleet's crisis response, she witnessed everything after the destruction of Tycho City on the monitors, up to and including the most recent attempt to detonate her own starship over the city of San Francisco. She was relieved to hear that John Carter and Leon Cromwell made it safely to McKinley Station, but ordered them to remain in place until they could discern if the attacks had ceased. As it happened, the ground tracking network - though only partially operational due to a loss of several of it's satellites - was tracking another rogue freighter on a direct course for San Francisco. Standing on the command balcony overlooking the monitoring floor, Kim was one of several senior and flag officers watching the crisis, and their eyes were focused on the floor below where a seasoned, red-haired Vice Admiral was giving orders through a headset to control stations around him.

“Descending orbit bearing two-seven-eight-point-six-three degrees,” the loudspeaker gave updates on the incoming freighter.

Kim Roth maintained a stern, tense expression on the balcony, keeping her arms crossed, and waiting for the worst to happen. The appearance of the freighter on the tracking grid happened so quickly that no serious evacuation of the city could be organized in time. Except for a few hospitals and schools, as well as the top brass at the main Starfleet Headquarters building, the rest of the city were forced to stay and await their fate.

“Altitude: seventy-five kilometers… Distance: three hundred kilometers…”

It was the first time Kim had been around a group of admirals that were dead silent. They did not speak a word amongst themselves, for they were all too focused on the activity below. A few of them still held out hope that the freighter would somehow miss the city, but as its trajectory on the overhead map showed clearly, the course was precise, and likely to be deadly accurate.

“Decent rate: five hundred meters per second… Velocity: mach two-point-five and accelerating…”

Immediately following the torturously suspenseful announcement, the situation suddenly became more complex.

“Admiral!” an Efrosian lieutenant called out from one of the many control consoles out on the floor. Although he was talking into his headset, he stood up so the commanding admiral knew which station had spoken. “Telemetry reports we have a new sensor contact! Retrograde orbit bearing ninety-eight-point-six-three degrees. Altitude: two hundred and ten kilometers. Distance: four-hundred-twelve kilometers. Velocity: mach seven-point-three.”

“Identification?” the vice admiral turned to a Vulcan commander seated next to him.

“It's ours, sir,” the officer replied. “It's…” the commander looked confused, arching one of his eyebrows. “It's Republic…”

Location: Main bridge, USS Republic

“Warning: Antimatter containment failure in two minutes.”

The Galaxy-class bridge gently shuddered as the vessel buffeted against turbulent air, the result of Republic performing a controlled re-entry within the Earth's atmosphere. The periodic alerts from the computer had long since been been ignored by the two holographic occupants of the ship's command center, as they had accepted their fate and were determined to stop the unidentified freighter targeting San Francisco. As Shannon predicted, it took most of Republic's battery power just to jump-start one of the backup fusion generators, but once it got going, it was able to provide enough power to the impulse engines to reverse course back to Earth. While neither Shannon Harris nor Jim Kirk had the skills necessary to manually pilot the ship on an intercept course, the Republic's computer was more than capable to make the necessary calculations and course adjustments, and by using short, controlled bursts from the reaction-control thrusters, was able to zero-in on the renegade spacecraft. Based on speed and course, it was estimated they would hit so fast, that the bulky freighter would not detect them in time to do anything.

“I think it's getting colder,” commented Shannon at the helm station, as she rubbed off frost that was building up on the console. The diversion of power from life support to charge up the fusion reactor took a toll on the internal environment of Republic, and as the heat leached away into space, it left frigid the interior of the ship.

“Are you sure we can't just power up at least one phaser bank?” asked the holographic captain sitting next to her at the ops station. “It might make this easier.”

The scarlet-haired turned to him with a smile. “Even if we could, who would pull the trigger? Last time I checked, no hologram in the Federation has the programming to willfully kill another sentient being.”

“Good point,” resigned Kirk, as he looked back at the screen.

On the viewer in front, the distant city of San Francisco whipped by underneath the ship as it travelled westward, easily denoted by the blue waters of San Francisco Bay and the rust-colored trestles of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It was nice to see it one last time with my own eyes,” commented the elderly Starfleet captain with a wistful expression. While he had a spectacular view of the city from his holographic apartment on the holodeck, his self-aware program provided the burden of knowing that it was fake.

“Collision warning: Impact in twenty seconds.”

The announcement seemed to strike a nerve in Shannon, as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and her eyes widened with a stiff jaw while focusing tightly on the screen ahead. She was fighting the urge to panic in the face of her own termination, and could feel the fear welling up inside her. Letting out nervous whine, she bit her lower lip as she saw the distant contrail of the freighter approaching from the opposite direction.

“Shannon,” she heard Kirk's reassuring voice. Turning to look at him, she saw that he was holding out his hand. A calm washed over her as she looked deep into the captain's eyes, and reached out to clutch his grasp. They held each others' hands tightly as the last few seconds passed, not once looking away from one another, and not once feeling anything more than the peace and comfort of each other's company.

At fifty kilometers of altitude, and two hundred kilometers from the shore, Republic and the ore freighter collided, releasing the combined antimatter of both vessels. It was estimated that the yield of the explosion was between forty and fifty megatons of TNT, or almost the size of the November 1961 nuclear explosion of Tsar Bomba, a hydrogen bomb which was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated on the planet. The fireball was over 7 kilometers in diameter, but did not touch the ground. Nevertheless, due to it's altitude, it could be seen from thousands of miles away, as if the sun itself had exploded. The bright flash sent a thermal pulse all the way to shore, where viewers on the west coast of North America reported sporadic cases of flash blindness along with first and second degree burns on exposed skin. As seen from orbit, the subsequent mushroom cloud was over 30 kilometers wide, and reached above the Mesosphere into the Thermosphere. However, in the aftermath of the airburst mega-explosion, the venerable city of San Francisco remained standing, contrary to the intensions of the now-deceased leader of the “New Dawn” movement.

In orbit at McKinley Station, the Republic crew watched on the viewscreens the miracle of their ship rushing to the rescue one last time, although most everyone was perplexed and confused over what had occurred aboard the uninhabited starship to cause it to perform a deed of self-sacrifice. Everyone, that is, except for John Carter. For his part, the executive officer looked mournfully towards the ground with a hollow feeling in his gut. “Goodbye, captain,” he whispered with admiration and respect, giving a mental farewell to his unofficial academy mentor. With a heavy weight forming deep in his heart, the normally stolid Starfleet commander looked up to the starry sky with glassy eyes that were swelling with remembrance and tenderness. “Goodbye, Shannon,” he finally managed to say out of earshot from everyone around.

Location: Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco, North America, Earth

When the initial attacks stopped, several hours went by where confusion reigned and rampant paranoia suggested that another attack could occur at anytime. However, as the afternoon progressed, and rescue starships from other star systems began to trickle in one after another, it became clear that the threat was now over.

As for the handful of Republic crew, they did the best they could to assist relief operations from McKinley station, but there wasn't much they could do without their starship. Medical facilities were prepared to receive casualties en masse, but was treating only a handful of people because (as would later be determined) the attacks on the Earth system were designed for just one thing: to kill. Not maim, not injure, but to murder; to wipe out as many humans as possible. With this deathly reality, Kim Roth ordered Republic's crew return to San Francisco, where they would wait out the immediate aftermath in Rear Admiral Krockover's office, and where they would be on standby duty for when relief efforts were organized and in need of their services.

The main lobby of Rear Admiral Krockover's office was large enough to host the dozen or so Republic crew until they could find quarters, and the receptionist ensured that the viewscreens on the wall were tuned to the live-feed images coming from the emergency operations center. While the rear admiral and Captain Roth were engaged in quiet conversation together in one corner, the rest of the room's occupants were seated or standing, all in various states of shock and disbelief. John Carter, was of course, transfixed on one of the viewscreens showing the live feed coming from Mars orbit when a starship arrived there to assist in the aftermath of Utopia Planetia. Leon Cromwell was watching a similar downlink from Luna Colony, as he was worried about Victor Virtus, though his friend was reported safe in Copernicus City helping with relief operations. Nat Hawk and Zoe Beauvais were quietly discussing the situation together, while Reittan Tolkath was consoling Cail Jarin, the young Republic ensign from operations who was off duty until the incident.

Although the devastation throughout the star system was mind-boggling, with the majority of the casualties occurring on Mars, Luna, and Earth, respectively, a steady string of arriving starships served to boost the in-system communications network. This allowed the emergency command center to view the entirety of the damage, while another starship was ordered to the edge of the star system to help boost interstellar communications traffic. As the USS Titan arrived to assist with this task, they activated a new subspace uplink to the rest of the Federation, thus flooding the command center with new images and data from outside the ravaged Earth System Commonwealth. While Earth was busy reeling from a grievous, senseless calamity, it turned out that it was not the only human star system to have suffered an attack on this day.

One after another, images and subspace video downlinks were established from other star systems, and each drew gawks and gasps from the gathered officers. Fuzzy, static-laced digital telecasts were depicting horrific scenes from several nearby colony worlds. New France… Aldebaran… Idara… Norpin… Vega… Proxima Colony. Each of these human colony planets were recipients of a fast and furious extraterrestrial attack. Gaping, smoldering craters replaced cities. Fires raged across rocky landscapes that were once forest or farmland. Buildings and municipalities were reduced to burning embers in the background of burnt, carbonized bodies still ablaze in flames. Humans… entire families… were caught outside during the antimatter incineration of their homes. The grisly shock and gut-wrenching horror were burned into their faces before they died, completely oblivious as to who their killers were. Worst of all, a live feed from Benecia Colony showed an orbital survey vessel scanning the surface, investigating what appeared to be an enormous, planet-wide biogenic weapon release: Dead bodies of men, women, and children littered thoroughfares and community gathering areas, each showing signs of a tortured, heinous death by toxic asphyxiation. The sensor results were blinking in the lower corner reading “NEGATIVE SURFACE LIFESIGNS”.

Soon, these images would be broadcast across the rest of the planet Earth, where people would learn of the extent of the damage far beyond their own star system. With smaller, scattered debris from Spacedock still showering down from above, dusk fell in the cloudy sky over San Francisco, and a cold rain settled in to mark the end of the most horrendous day in Federation history. Come the dawn, the crestfallen survivors would begin the gruesome task of counting the dead.

Chapter 41: EpilogueTop

A steady stream of ash fell from the sky like a gentle snow storm as the plumes of smoke billowed upwards. What had once been known as the city of lights was now an uncontrolled firestorm as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by the occasional stubborn ruins that refused to crumble. One of the most ancient cities on the face of the planet Earth, it had grown over the course of two millennia from a humble Gallic settlement into a modern metropolis that had stood as a beacon of civilization.

Throughout it's existence the city has been a survivor, withstanding a myriad of conflicts and conquests over the centuries. It had survived the black death, the deadliest pandemic in Earth history. It had struggled through conquests and occupations as well as repelled sieges and birthed a revolution. It had endured the Nazi occupation of World War II, the civil unrest of the early 21st century, and escaped the nuclear infernos of World War III. Finally, it had served proudly as the capital city and seat of the Federation government for two-hundred-and-twenty years.

But today in an instant, the city of Paris, France had been reduced to a smoldering lifeless wasteland.

The waters of the river Seine, vaporized by the inferno, no longer flowed through the heart of the city. Neither native Parisians nor tourists alike any longer walked and shopped along the Champs-Élysées. No one prayed within the pews of the thousand year old Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. The modern fifteen-story office building that had been built upon the Place de la Concorde to house the office of the president and the council chambers would never again conduct the affairs of state. The Arc de Triomphe no longer stood to honor those whom had fought and died for their country. Never again would the iron lattice Tour Eiffel - once disdained by the public as an 'eyesore' - reach skyward for the heavens. The Musée du Louvre had surrendered her triumphs of art and history to the ravages of violence and war, once and for all.

It had been a balance of good fortune on the part of the politicians and of poor timing on those responsible for the attacks that had spared the overwhelming majority of the Federation's elected officials from falling to the same fate as the city that had embraced them since May of 2161. Only fourteen of the one-hundred-seventy-one members of the Federation Council had either been burning the midnight oil in their offices, or had otherwise still been within the city limits when the attack had come. With the marvels of modern transporter technology, it simply wasn't necessary for a member of the Council to live within the city limits. Indeed, most delegates kept their residences in regions that closely resembled their home worlds when possible, and most of the executive cabinet maintained their homes where they preferred regardless of the city in which they worked. The President himself hadn't even been on-world at the time, having instead been campaigning for his hand-picked successor in next month's elections.

It was now over twelve hours since the senior officers of the late Starship Republic had gathered together in the office of Rear Admiral Krockover at Starfleet Command, San Francisco. After the first few hours during which there had been a few hushed conversations, the hours since had found an almost silent reverence falling upon the officers in one another's company. Together, like so many billions of others on and beyond the sphere of Earth, they watched the news reports detail the disparate levels of destruction that had been visited upon the peoples of the United Federation of Planets this day.

Thus far, the crew of Republic were the 'lucky ones' whom like the politicians of Paris were such do more to fate and timing than anything else; the crews of each of the other hijacked starships had perished at the hands of their captors homicidal and suicidal madness. Already, the Republic herself had become a symbol of some hope amidst the despair. Her sacrifice in saving San Francisco from suffering the same fate as Paris had earned the vessel itself hero status in the eyes of the people.

The multitude of horrific images of destruction that paraded endlessly across the news feeds would forever be seared into their memories.

Prominent amongst them had been the mushroom capped tower of Earth's spacedock, one of the greatest engineering constructs and best known symbols of Starfleet's magnificence, as she fell from her orbit in a blaze of death unparalleled to anything anyone had ever witnessed. Even hours after the massive structure had broken and crashed upon the African continent, a steady stream of burning debris had continued to fall in it's wake, lighting up the skies across the globe like thousands of gruesome shooting stars.

As the hours ticked by, the mid-day light had faded first to twilight then finally onward into night as emergency responders continued to pour in. The entire first fleet had been recalled to duty in sector 001, and the Enterprise herself would be in orbit within seventy-two hours. Beyond the initial wave of Starfleet forces, civilian-lead aid vessels had begun pouring in from Vulcan, Andor, Tellar, Alpha Centauri and a dozen other worlds in proximity to the heart of the Federation. As the chaos abated and gave way to the cold hard reality and despair normal in the wake of such events, the message being sent by those responsible had become loud and clear: it was not the Federation being targeted, but the human race itself. Something reinforced by the ever-increasing casualty estimates which painted the dark truth that well over ninety-two percent of the fatalities were human.

However, the most oft-repeated question thus far asked by everyone from elected officials and Starfleet admirals to foreign ambassadors and average civilians remained unanswered. Who amongst the Federation's enemies was responsible for this devastating attack? While pundits continued to volley the most prominent and thus thought likely names about, none really fit the bill. They ranged from the ridiculous suggestion of Borg involvement to the unlikely suggestion of a first strike in a new Dominion war to the more possible yet unmotivated involvement of the Breen, whom had the best history having carried out a successful surprise attack during the end months of the last war.

As the governing bodies of the Alpha and Beta quadrants learned of the calamity that had befallen the Federation in the early morning hours, it became clear that none of the usual suspects were responsible. Most of the great powers of the quadrant had promptly issued statements in response to the attacks. The Klingons were appalled at the cowardice of the attacks, and had promptly sworn to stand by their Federation allies. The Romulans, always more calculating and reserved had expressed their condemnation of such methods and pledged humanitarian support. The Ferengi had offered a sizeable reward for information leading to the apprehension of those responsible. The Breen, the Cardassians, the Tholians… the list of potential enemies had dwindled to none within the first day.

By 0800 the next morning, nearly twenty-four hours since the attacks had occurred, Leon Cromwell was gently prodding everyone to eat some of the food Admiral Krockover had ordered delivered from the commissary, when coincidentally everyone lost their appetites as the last few shockwaves of information washed over them…

”…though the figure could fluctuate up or down by a margin of six to eight-hundred-thousand,“ the Federation New Service reporter, a short-haired Bajoran woman named Telinda said, struggling slightly with the concept of six to eight-hundred-thousand deaths being a 'margin of error' as any being besides a Vulcan would, “the Office of Emergency Information has issued an approximate figure of… one-hundred-eighty-seven million dead… ”

No words were spoken between the crew of the late Starship Republic. Somehow, it felt as if not a word was spoken between anyone on the whole of the planet Earth in that moment. As the Bajoran reporter broke down some of the figures that amassed to such an incomprehensible figure, the totality of what had happened was driven home.

One of the colony worlds to be attacked - Benecia - had lost virtually their entire population to an unidentified biological weapon. One of the eldest Earth colonies, founded not long after the founding of the Federation, it had been home to forty-seven million people. The news concerning Benecia brought the days tragedy closer to home for than it already had been for Leon Cromwell, who found himself no longer able to block out the harsh realities of so many innocent lives being lost. Innocent children whom could have nothing to do with whatever had spurned the hatred of those responsible for the dark deeds of this day. As a doctor, you became accustomed to losing patients and learned to cope with such, hoping that you never became numb to such loss less you lose a part of what it meant to be human. Losing a patient that was a child was always even more difficult, for it meant the end of so much potential, so much life left yet to be experienced. How much potential, how much life yet to experience so much of what it meant to live, had been obliterated today? And for what?

Four other colonies - Deneva, New France, Vega and Norpin V - had fairly centralized populations. Each of these worlds had lost more than a third of their citizens. New France, the youngest of the three colonies, was less than a century old and had risen to a key strategic and trading world during the Cardassian border wars. Vega colony had pre-dated the Federation, and been a key frontier outpost in the early to mid 22nd century, it's population levels never quite peaking due to it's harsh terrain. Deneva had experienced planetary scale attack one-hundred-twenty years earlier when her people had been attacked by a species of neural parasites, but had escaped significant casualties do to the intervention of the original Starship Enterprise under her legendary crew or Kirk and Spock. Norpin V was a bit like pouring salt into the wound for many, especially for Starfleet brats, as it was a world that catered especially to those seeking a quiet retirement.

Luna colony, with a densely-packed population of fifty-six million dependent upon dozens of atmospheric domes, had suffered the greatest losses on a percentage basis, having lost nearly half of her citizens. The first extra-terrestrial body that mankind had ever set foot upon had always held a special place in the hearts and minds of humanity and the people of Earth. Her once ghostly and lifeless visage of craters had long ago been obscured by the reflections cast off her domes and cities, like twinkle of diamonds and jewels. Now though, craters once again were easily visible upon her rocky surface, only these were laced with the ruins of what had once been cities of man.

Iadara, Proxima, Kessik IV and Aldebaran were the least likely candidates to come under fire of them all. Though Proxima and Kessik IV were each near enough to the Klingon border to have been strategic during the Federation's long cold war with the Empire, both had always been low-priority targets, just as Iadara and Aldebaran. Still, their populations were robust and diffuse enough to spare them from their losses making up less than ten percent of their populations as worst case. Though such was of little consolation.

In comparison, the Martian colonies had been the most 'fortunate' of all the planetary bodies to come under attack this day. Apparently, the true target had not been the citizens of Mars but the great shipyards and other Starfleet installations on or above her surface. Though the surface-based city of Utopia Planitia for which the orbital facilities had been named had been erased from the surface of the great red rock, no other Martian city had shared her fate. The loss of those orbital facilities meanwhile had claimed an additional seventy-nine thousand more innocent lives, not to mention the significant strategic loss of the most prominent and productive shipyards in the whole of the Federation. The minimization of life lost on his native soil did little to console John Carter, but he did take a degree of solace in the simple act of his commanding officer's hand placed supportively upon his shoulder, if for nothing else than as a gesture of solidarity.

In all, it was the single greatest loss of human life in a single day in the history of all mankind. Not even the opening salvos of 'judgment day' – the atomic horror that had later become known as World War III – had resulted in such losses in one singular instance. Though only a third of that conflicts final total of 600 million had been lost today, that fact was of little consolation to the human race. This type of species-specific xenophobic assault had not been experienced in over two centuries, not since the Xindi attack of March 2153 that had resulted in seven million casualties amidst a swath of destruction from Florida to Venezuela. Though the planet Earth itself had only directly lost the 4.7 million citizens of Paris and the nearly 200,000 of spacedock, the totality of human death across the stars was a painful wound beyond proximity.

”…We're also receiving word of an unsubstantiated claim of responsibility for yesterday's events…“ spoke the Bajoran reporter Telinda, as she held a hand to one ear to listen to the communications relay she was wearing. ”…Alright, we're going to go now to a live feed from the EC2 at Starfleet Command where we're being told a statement is about to be issued,“ reported the Bajoran woman, using the pseudo-acronym term for the Emergency Earth Command Center. Suddenly, the focus of the video news feed flickered changed to a different location as the signals were switched. For their parts, the assembled crew of Republic were more focused upon the screen now than at any earlier time. Even Admiral Krockover looked intently upon the view screen, which indicated that whatever was about to be announced had yet to even disseminate through the upper echelons of the admiralty.

The scene was something out of a holonovel, as a throng of reporters stood shoulder-to-shoulder jockeying for positions before a hastily established podium just outside a pair of blast-doors that provided access to EC2 chambers. The press conference was clearly impromptu and had been called for with only moments to spare. There were few reasons for such half-hazard measures to be taken in this day and age, and with the people's desire for information at such a fever-pitch, it seemed likely the rationale here was to ensure the information was made public by Starfleet prior to being leaked or rumored. Whomever was responsible, the top levels of Starfleet Command did not want such news to reach the people by any other means than themselves.

Without notice, the thick blast-doors parted revealing first a pair of armed Starfleet Security officers wielding the latest variation of phaser rifle. It was a surprising visual and certainly a bit disconcerting to see that whatever or whomever was responsible for yesterday's attacks deigned the presence of armed guards even so deep within the confines of Starfleet's inner sanctums. Once the guards had taken their respective places on either side of the blast doors, a column of Starfleet Admirals stepped forward, establishing themselves shoulder-to-shoulder a few meters behind the podium. Amongst them were a few familiar faces, such as Admiral Henry Toddman of Starfleet Security, Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway of Starfleet Operations, and Vice Admiral Atherton Peck whom had overseen EC2 operations the day before. Finally, the last of the column of Admirals stepped up to take his place at the podium; the Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet, Fleet Admiral Owen Paris.

“Good morning,” began the elder admiral, his tenor in the wake of the events of the past twenty-four hours indicative of the fact that such was very much a figure of speech on this day more than ever, “I have a brief statement to make concerning the tragic and malicious attacks which transpired yesterday here within the Terran solar system, as well as upon nine fellow Federation worlds. Before I do so however, I feel it necessary to inform the people of the Federation that while these attacks were clearly a coordinated effort, they do appear to have been planned to take place within the same brief window of a few hours time. Since that time, no further attacks have occurred or been reported throughout the Federation. Additionally, Starfleet forces have been placed upon their highest order of readiness and all non-priority or non-defensive mission orders have been recalled throughout the fleet to reassure all the peoples of the Federation. All planetary defense grids have been ordered to war-time standing, or stand-by mode, though I can not stress enough that this is done only as a precautionary and confidence-building exercise to reassure the population. No further attacks are expected, and none will be allowed to succeed,” stated the Admiral.

Taking a moment, to both allow his statement to sink in as well as to compose himself a bit further, Admiral Paris continued. “A little over ninety minutes ago, Starfleet Intelligence received an encoded communication which we have since authenticated to have in fact been made by the apparent architect of yesterday's assault. This transmission was sent from an unmanned signal buoy on the periphery of the solar system, which we believed was dropped their by the lead hijacked vessel prior to the commencement of yesterdays events, with the purpose of transmission should said vessel and her occupants be lost. This eventuality did indeed occur, and the architect of this great crime against life was killed in the failed attempt to attack San Francisco yesterday, an attack foiled by the Starship Republic. This transmission, which we are not yet prepared to release, has taken full responsibility for the murderous attacks.” This revelation sent the assembled group of reporters murmuring amongst themselves for a for moments, something that seemed more than alright with Owen Paris who took the momentary respite for what it was worth.

“The individuals responsible for this horrendous attack are, it seems, just that; individuals. Sick, twisted, unethical and reprehensible individuals who claim no allegiance to any nation or empire. They are not a prior foe, such as the Borg or the Dominion. They are not a government with whom our relations are strained, such as the Breen or the Tholians. They are not a race with which we were once animus with yet have found a more positive way to co-exist alongside, such as the Romulans, the Cardassians, or our friends the Klingons and the Ferengi. They are also not a unknown entity; a threat from beyond our borders or beyond the realm of known species. We are not facing the prospect of a sustained conflict with a new military power. What we are faced with today, and tomorrow, is an unknown element. Something which we could not possible have foreseen nor prepared for. What we are faced with… is terrorism. Not heroic freedom fighters like the Bajoran resistance, not misguided individuals fighting for their homes like the Maquis, but plain and simple cowards who use violence against innocents out of anger and spite.”

“What we are faced with are a faction of ideological zealots who had been planning for months, perhaps even years, to launch a much more severe, much more devastating attack. Instead, forced by circumstances they could not foresee, they chose to attack now rather than delay any further. These people are killers, thieves, slave traders, smugglers and assassins who choose not to exist or operate within the laws of any society. People who reject civilization of any kind in favor of barbarism and self-gratification. People who take issue with the prospect of democracy and peace spreading throughout the galaxy. Who consider it their duty and their goal to bring nothing less than the complete destruction of the United Federation of Planets. A goal they will never come close to attaining. And just as their criminal fraternity was toppled, just as thousands of their brethren have been brought to justice, so to will these mass-murders. These remnants of the Orion Syndicate will not be allowed to continue their particular brand of illegal, immoral, unethical, and violent existence. Thank you.” His statement complete, Admiral Owen Paris turned on his heal and lead the way back through the blast doors that lead to the EC2.

As the gaggle of reporters shouted questions after him and the other members of the Starfleet brass, only barely restrained by their professional decorum from charging after them, the feed switched to a pair of FNS anchors. The white-haired and bearded Efrosian Xal Ra-Museii and the clean-shaven elder human Jack Warner.

“Well that just fuckin' figures,” proclaimed Nathan Hawk with a derisive snort from the corner of the room, an incredulous smirk upon his face as he shook his head from side to side. After a moment more, he turned and headed out the nearest door with the words, “I need a drink,” trailing after him, Reittan Tolkath not far behind.

”…I think the question most people are asking at this moment, were these attacks a direct result of the recent dismantling of the Orion Syndicate?“ came the voice of Jack Warner from the view screen as he asked his co-anchor a question.

“I think Admiral Paris made it rather clear that, though the attacks were connected, he said specifically that they had clearly been in the planning stages for months or even years,” replied Ra-Museii, reading from a transcript to ensure he was correct. “It seems that the destruction of the Syndicate rather sped up the time-table, so to speak. I'd speculate that whomever was making the decisions, decided to attack sooner with what forces they could muster, rather than risk being arrested for whatever connection to the Syndicate they had, and being unable to complete whatever larger-scale attacks he or she may have originally planned,” hypothesized Ra-Museii. “Clearly, the usage of a biogenic weapon previously unknown to science on Benecia colony demonstrates that these attacks were not last-minute, but rather indeed, had been in the preparation stages for some time prior to recent events.”

“It does beg the question, though; if the Syndicate hadn't been toppled at this particular moment in time, would Starfleet Intelligence have have to the time or opportunities to be able to avert whatever those larger-scale attacks before they had been launched?” questioned Jack Warner like a pit-bull on a pant-leg on this theory.

“I think at this point, Jack, that the Terran expression 'splitting hairs' is appropriate,” responded Ra-Museii, not quite sure what his colleague was trying to do with such dangerous speculations. “Whatever may or may not have happened had the Syndicate not been toppled is something I don't think we can ever know. As theoretically as Starfleet being able to stop said later, greater attacks, it's just as likely that said attacks may have taken place and with an even more devastating loss of life,” replied Ra-Museii, clearly uncomfortable with arguing over hypothetical's like this in what was supposed to be an information rather than entertainment venue. “Likewise, I certainly can't fathom how anyone could have ever predicted any of the series of recent events. One month ago, whom amongst us could have imagined an end to the Orion Syndicate at all? Let alone in such a rapid, coordinated and decisive manner? Even more unbelievable than such is the idea that a violent paramilitary element of the Syndicate would have ever been planning, let alone carry out such a sweeping and dramatic attack as was done,” stated Ra-Museii, hoping he could de-rail this line of discussion with succinct rationality.

Nodding slightly in concession, Jack Warner finally gave some ground to the points his counterpart had made. “I suppose your quite right, of course. Unprovoked surprise attacks do have a habit of being things that we could only truly fathom from hind-sight. At some stage or another, a deceptive tactic originates before which it's incomprehensible. The Trojan horse of ancient of ancient Greek myth, Pearl Harbor, the attacks of September 11th, Station Salem One, the Tomed Incident…” Warner rattled off, just to name a few of histories most surprising feats of shocking warfare.

Feeling a bit more comfortable speaking through the prism of history through which the emotions of the day could be diffused, and pleased that he'd been able to get his compatriot away from the pundit-like speculations, Ra-Museii offered his own thoughts on the historical parallels. “I'm not quite sure that we can categorize yesterday's events in the completely unprovoked category, Jack,” countered Ra-Museii. “Not to say that I or any other rational being would find the arrests of thousands of individuals engaged in criminal activity as provocation for mortal retaliation in the slightest, of course. However, this situations seems more akin to the Klingon epic pum vo' HoS which tells of the slaughter of the jen HuD warriors at the hands of the mach ghotpu during the second empire,” offered Ra-Museii with some satisfaction.

Narrowing his eyes less than a millimeter, everything about the veteran FNS anchor Jack Warner seemed to shift almost imperceptibly. His body language, the tone of his voice, his posture, even his state of mind. “Forgive me if my Klingon isn't as up to snuff as yours, Xal, but doesn't pum vo' HoS translate roughly to 'fall of the mighty'?” he asked.

“Roughly, yes, but the title isn't as-” Ra-Museii was in the middle of replying.

Jack Warner wouldn't give him the opportunity.

“I'm sorry, Xal, but this is not a situation in any way comparable to a fall,” declared Warner definitively, before favoring his Efrosian co-worker with an accusatory stare. “Unless of course you're attempting some sort of impudent literal joke concerning one aspect of yesterday's events?” the seasoned veteran asked in an almost sickened snarl, backing Ra-Museii into a very uncomfortable corner with his insinuation.

“Of course not!” shouted Ra-Museii defensively and quite a bit too emotionally than professional standards would dictate. Something that he realized too late only sent him deeper into the corner Jack Warner was boxing him into.

“Well thank goodness,” Jack countered quickly in mock relief, “I certainly couldn't comprehend anyone, let alone an anchor for the Federation News Service, intentionally or otherwise making such a callous and obscene comment in the wake of such tragic circumstances.”

“Nor could I,” agreed Ra-Museii, uncomfortably unable to offer up much of anything but the verbal equivalent of a smile and nod in agreement with anything Jack Warner said at this particular moment, trapped as he was.

Turning away from Ra-Museii, Warner looked ahead directly at the recording apparatus and in essence, directly to the people of the Federation watching as he continued. “For the events of yesterday were not a 'fall' in any sense that such a term could be applied. Certainly not to the great civilization with which we are all fortunate enough to be a part of, the United Federation of Planets. These vicious, vindictive defilements of life were not a 'fall' as we have not fallen. Quite the contrary. If anything, they and our reaction to them are a symbol of the unity of spirit and freedom that we all stand for. Our actions in response to them, a stand in defiance of what the truly evil individuals responsible seek: the annihilation of our combined strength, of our unique and indomitable spirit, of our very way of life!” proclaimed the trusted newsman. “Yesterday may have been a day of violence, but it will not define us as a people. No, what will define us as a people is the stand we take against men and women whom would take such reprehensible actions.” Pausing for a moment, the accomplished journalist looked away and cleared his throat before continuing. “Yesterday was not a fall, but today and tomorrow and every day that comes after until every last one of the monsters responsible will be a stand. One we make together…”

”…And that is why, after what has been a very difficult year for myself personally, on the heels of what has been a very difficult period for all of us in the wake of the events of a little over a year ago, I have decided to step down as senior anchor for the Federation News Service. For me, it's a moment for which I long have planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, I've held the senior anchor position here, and I'll miss that. But those who have made anything of this departure, I'm afraid have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and true lady, T'Ban of Vulcan, preceded me in this job, and fine gentlemen, Xal Ra-Museii, will follow. But the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists; writers, reporters, editors, producers, and none of that will change. To my colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, to the plethora of average citizens who have allowed me the great privilege of keeping you informed on the truly important matters of this great civilization, I offer my unending gratitude. No good-byes, just good wishes,“ offered the the elder human with a bittersweet smile that was shrouded by the salt-and-pepper beard he wore. “I'm Jack Warner, and that's what's happening in our universe.”

As the image froze and minimized into the top right-hand corner of the view screen, the focus of the information broadcast switched from what was clearly an earlier recorded segment to the current individual holding down the anchor chair. A Bajoran female with long hair draping down across the right side of her face smiled professionally as she spoke. “That was the legendary Jack Warner, a dear friend to all of us here are the Federation News Service, signing off last night for the final time. Though he may be stepping down from his role as senior anchor here, he'll always remain a member of the FNS family. I know I speak for everyone when I wish him the best in whatever future endeavors he undertakes.”

Switching gears, the professional smile faded from her features to be replaced by a more neutral expression as the young woman turned to face a different recording apparatus off to her right, which promptly became the main signal for the news network feed. “At the top of the hour, I'm Rani Telinda reporting from FNS galactic headquarters in New York. Recapping our top stories, another round of civilian-organized protests occurred this morning at Starfleet facilities across the Federation. The protest group 'Citizens for Peace' once again called for an end to the 'tactical imperative' doctrine instituted early last year amongst a wave of sweeping changes ordered by President immediately following his inauguration in January of last year. The doctrine, which placed a moratorium on the construction of both general explorer and science-specialty vessels such as the Galaxy, Nova, Sovereign and Luna-classes in favor of escort and tactical specific designs such as the Akira, Defiant, Prometheus and Saber-classes, has been heavily criticized by it's opponents as a direct contradiction to the very fundamentals of Starfleet and it's stated primary mission. However, the president and his supporters continue to insist that the doctrine is mandated by 'tactical necessity' in these uncertain times. Critics such a 'Citizens for Peace' director Rebecca Eddington, a former member of the Maquis as well as the widow of notorious apostate Michael Eddington, continues to point out that not even during sustained conflicts has such a mandate ever been necessary…”

Switching from the live feed of the Bajoran junior anchor to an archival video, a handsome brunette woman in her mid-40s standing amidst a crowd of sign and placard holding protestors began to speak. “I know better than most people that sometimes, you must stand up for yourselves and your fellow people, and fight the good fight. I also know from my late husband, from my brother, from my mother, and from so many friends and comrades who died doing just that, that Starfleet's primary function is not as a militaristic force!” she declared loudly, a rush of cheers and applause bursting forth from the crowd around her as she did so. “In the entire history of Starfleet, there has never been such a moratorium, such a mandate. Not in the wake of the Xindi attack of 2153, not during the Earth-Romulan War, not throughout our century-and-a-quarter long cold war with the Klingon Empire, not in the aftermath of the Tomed Incident, or Wolf 359, and not even during the Dominion War. Why does this situation, why do these times, call for such a drastic and draconian response?” demanded Eddington rhetorically. “The Remnant Attacks were 16 months ago, and with the exception of some unverified incidents of vandalism to unmanned outposts and subspace comm satellites on the fringes of occupied space, no one's heard anything more from them!” the protest organizer shouted, drawing more cheers and applause of agreement from her followers. “At this point, they're a shadow threat that's being propped up by this administration in order to pursue their own agenda. It's time to restore the freedoms and liberties that have been sacrificed on the altar of so-called security, and first amongst them the so-called 'tactical imperative' must be rescinded!” Eddington insisted forcefully, drawing the greatest rush of agreeable shouts and cheers yet.

With a snort of contempt and disgust, Vladimir Kostya slapped heavily at the control interface on the conference room table in front of him, deactivating the view screen and it's broadcast. He had seen the broadcast the day before already, had heard the same short-sighted and ignorant arguments of individuals like the traitor Rebecca Eddington made over and over again with increasing regularity over the past year and then some. As far as he was concerned, such matters were irrelevant and not worth his time or consideration. Something his inner circle of advisers all already knew, and something the leading members of the Neocratic Federalist party (whom had all but begged, pleaded and threatened their one-time long-shot candidate) were also keenly aware of. Irritated by even having to be here on this fine Parisian afternoon, Vladimir Kostya turned his focus to the man seated across from him at the far end of the conference table and informed him rather succinctly, “I'm aware of the complaints of the minority parties, Mister…?” Kostya trailed off, having forgotten the fairly forgettable man's name despite only a few minutes having had past since the introductions by his Chief of Staff.

“Cole, Mister President,” replied the younger man, as he stood from his seat and straightened out the crisp, clearly hand-tailored civilian business suit he wore, “Marcus Cole, from the Public Relations firm of Rowland and Barnum.” Pushing his seat in, the fairly unremarkable looking man was neither too tall or too short, too fat or too thin. He was conspicuously average in almost every fashion other than his slightly pronounced cheekbones and the heir of calm confidence he projected. In point of fact, the only thing one could truly 'notice' about the man was the almost perfect coif of hair adorning his head. Despite his average yet smart appearance, there was something slightly familiar about the man to President Vladimir Kostya. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on. “And unfortunately Mister President, these particular 'complaints' have grown well beyond your political opponents as well as the minority of… well, any party interested in such things. Which is part of the reason I'm here speaking with you today, sir.”

“Hrmph,” President Kostya snorted dismissively, “you're here today, Mister Cole, because of the whining and complaining of my fellow Neocratic Federalists, whom despite the fact that I secured them the greatest political achievement in their history by winning the presidency, remain forever unsatisfied and insatiate with victory.”

Convincingly feigning what had long ago been coined as a 'shit-eating grin' across his features, Cole bowed his head slightly in humble agreement with the head of state. “I certainly can't argue with you there, Mister President. You did achieve a great triumph for your party, and certainly I would be happy with such an accomplishment were I in their shoes. However, this isn't about either one of us, Mister President. This is about them. And while they may have hired me, I'm not here to repeat the same requests they've made of you before. I'm not here to badger you or pressure you on their account. If I may be so bold sir, I rather consider myself to be a problem solver. Someone who finds an amicable solution that's acceptable to all sides who disagree over something.”

President Kostya starred across the length of the conference room table at Marcus Cole for a long and healthy moment, his expression fairly inscrutable even to those who knew him best. For his part, Marcus Cole did not flinch beneath the gaze of one of the most powerful - if not the most powerful individual in the totality of the known universe. He simply continued to pleasantly look back at the President of the United Federation of Planets, his own expression neither one of challenge nor surrender. For that reason, and for the fatigue Vladimir Kostya felt at the realization that should he end this meeting at this stage, it would only ratchet the volume of whining and complaining up by several decibels, the leader of the free galaxy leaned back in his chair and said, “Alright, Mister Cole. Lets hear what you've got up your sleeve.”

Every one of Kostya's inner circle gathered around the austere conference room table here in the newly rebuilt yet still unfinished Place de la Concorde was fairly well surprised at their less than benevolent leader's decision, and it shown on their faces. Not so for Marcus Cole, who simply remained confident and pleased without coming off as smug or arrogant in the process.

“For the past few weeks,” Cole began, reactivating the view screen to a still image of the broadcast they had watched a few minutes earlier, “I've been going over the multitude of opinion polls, analyzing the various hot-button issues, watching the information network broadcasts both current and archival… and I'm confident I've come up with a manner for you, Mister President, to give the appearance of appeasement to the masses, while simultaneously endowing your brethren in the Neocratic Federalist party with a sense of compromise, all the while giving up virtually nothing outside of a minor symbolic achievement that really doesn't cost you any political capital, nor does it truly change the intent of any of your policies.”

Kostya had to admit, if only to himself, at being intrigued by younger man's self-assured idea. Still, based upon the broadcast topic and the fact that Cole had queued up such back onto the screen, Vladimir could anticipate where this discussion was going and remained intransigent in his position concerning the tactical imperative doctrine. Should he feel it truly necessary, he was more than willing to cede some sort of trivial matter here or there for the betterment of his overall agenda. Such was the way of politics, the give and take. So long as he always got more than he gave, he was willing to play the game to a degree. Repealing the doctrine though was simply out of the question. “If you're about to suggest that I repeal the tactical imperative doctrine-”

“Of course not, sir,” Cole interrupted, almost incredulous at the suggestion. “Please forgive my interruption, sir – I simply didn't want you think me one of them,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb to the still image of Rebecca Eddington and her gang of protesters.

Slightly surprised, Kostya queried, “You're a Federalist then?”

“Well, I'm not a registered member of any party, of course. Corporate appearances and all… you understand.” Cole replied with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“That I do,” replied the President, his opinion of the man warming slightly at the probability of shared ideals and values. “So, what's your brilliant idea then, Mister Cole?”

“Well, let me preface by saying up-front that, by virtue of the subject of my proposal, I know your initial reaction isn't going to be a positive one. That said, if you'll hear me out beyond your first instinct sir, I'm certain you'll see the logic in my proposal.” Cole said in response.

Nodding his head ever so slightly, Kostya sat up in his chair and put his elbows on the table. “Alright, Mister Cole. You've earned enough leeway. No matter how much I dislike your proposal, I grant you that I'll at least let you finish making it before I summarily reject it,” the President told him, smiling at his own weak attempt at joviality. His staff meanwhile chuckled appropriately like the trained seals they were. Cole's expression remained the same slight smile that seemed to be his default, as he offered a slight nod in gratitude.

Turning to the view screen, he keyed in a sequence and brought up a visual of a Galaxy-Class starship soaring through the upper reaches of Earth's blue atmosphere. It was an image every Federation citizen now knew, having been captured by one of the orbital surveillance satellites on Re-Day, some sixteen months earlier. It was an image of the Starship Republic from just moments before it had been sacrificed stopping the destruction of San Francisco under the control of two semi-sentient holograms, one of which Vladimir had at one time been well acquainted with…

The sight of the Republic brought back a multitude of angry memories for Vladimir Kostya, something everyone on his staff knew very well. He had nearly burst a blood vessel when the ship had been summarily inducted into the Ships of the Line Museum on the grounds of Starfleet Command a few weeks after Re-Day and a further few weeks until the election. He had been sorely tempted to decry the induction of such a ship to such an elite and noble group of honorifics. For all the trouble the ship and her crew had caused him, it hardly deserved to be held in the same regards as such storied ships as the Phoenix, the NX-01, the Daedalus, the Farragut, the Enterprise 1701, the Excelsior, the Defiant and so on. It was bad enough that Voyager had been inducted upon it's return.

“I know you're very familiar with the Republic, mister president. I also know that through a handful of her crew, she's caused you quite a fair bit of trouble over the years.” Cole said, as he began a long and slow counter-clockwise pace around the conference room's rectangular table and it's many occupants.

“You do your homework, Mister Cole, I'll give you that…” Kostya replied through somewhat gritted teeth.

“Actually sir, believe it or not, I'm rather familiar with the crew of Republic myself,” Cole confessed as he neared the middle of the table along one side. “In another life so to speak, I attempted to bring them to trial for their actions on Cestus III a little over two years ago. I failed in that task, and in doing so I lost confidence in the legal system because the sad truth is, it's fundamentally stacked against the state. As a prosecutor, you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, while all the defense has to do is constantly keep shoveling piles and piles of doubt on any case you build. It's rather ridiculous.” Cole opined.

“That's how I got into the public relations business, you see. Because at heart, I'm a salesman. I tried for a long time to sell people on the guilt of the guilty, but frankly the other guys usually make a better offer. Because what they've got to offer is what people are already predisposed to believing and wanting. Which is just rotten because like I said, I'm a damn good salesman. I could sell a space heater to a Vulcan in the middle of the Forge or a swimming pool to a Pacifican during the high tidal seasons. There isn't much demand these days for salesman like that though,” Cole lamented as he came upon the sitting President's position. “Unless of course, you're selling something intangible. Which is exactly what people in public relations do. We sell ideas. We craft them, we put them out there, and we sell the people on whatever it is our clients want them to think, or see, or believe. And that's what I want to do here, for you, Mister President. I want to sell the people on the myth that you're giving them something they want, and I want to do so while simultaneously getting a little good old fashioned payback on the crew of the late Starship Republic.” Cole finished as he stood now on the president's right, a devilish smile upon his face.

Either despite or because of his contempt for the Republic and her crew, not to mention the minor kinship he felt upon hearing Cole's tale of himself having been fouled by them, Vladimir Kostya had to admit that he was even more intrigued than he had been earlier. “Enough chit-chat, Mister Cole,” the President said, leaning back in his seat now and crossing one leg over the other as he looked up at Cole, “Lets hear your idea.”

Shaking his head in the affirmative, Cole strode much more quickly up the right side of the table to arrive back at the view screen which he activated, playing the recording of Republic flying itself into the path of destruction. “This ship's regarded highly by the public, despite the truth that both I and yourself know about them. She was the only Starfleet ship in the solar system that offered up any resistance, and that in itself made her note-worthy. Having been made the noble sacrifice in order to protect San Francisco, well that just upped the ante. She's become a symbol of spirit, of the refusal to accept defeat even in the face of certain death.”

Nodding, Kostya once again could see where Cole was going and beat him to the punch. “So we christen a new ship named Republic?”

“Indeed, but not just any ship… ” Cole replied, changing the image on the view screen to a live feed over one of the public access channels to that of high Mars orbit. Utopia Planitia shipyards, still under reconstruction after sixteen months. Most of her orbital stations were nearing completion and were already partially inhabited and functional, and 14 of her space-frames dry-docks were already operational, each of them currently housing one of the assorted tactical-specific classes in compliance with the doctrine. The greatest turnout had thus far been the Defiant-Class. The number of the small but powerful crafts in service had more than quadrupled in just the last year alone. Their over-powered weapons, fierce agility, and low crew requirements made them the optimal vessel to serve as the backbone of Kostya's Starfleet. As the image on the screen shifted to the far left, it zoomed in on three dilapidated looking space-frames that appeared unpowered.

“Before the Remnant Attacks, these three ships were under construction, slated for completion within a matter of weeks.” Cole informed them, the vessels within their berths now identifiable as an Intrepid-Class, a Nova-Class and one of the new Luna-Class starships. All science explorers. “Initially, The attacks forced Starfleet to halt completion of them do to a lack of either man-power or supplies. By the time those situations had been mitigated by a myriad of personnel transfers and resource re-allocations, you had taken office and instituted the tactical imperative doctrine. Each of these ships, seventy-two percent, eighty-four percent, and ninety-six percent complete, were thus stripped of key components – their deflectors, shield generators, warp cores, impulse reactors, computer cores – and more or less left to languish.” Cole explained. Focusing in on the president once more, he finally dropped the first of his bombshells. “I think it's past time that we complete their construction.”

Before Kostya could offer his own opinion, one of his staff – a short, rotund Bolian man who looked barely out of college – objected. “The moratorium on non-tactical ship construction wasn't just about ideology. It specifically references the need to devote key critical resources, which in a war-like atmosphere we can not afford to waste on over-populated, weaker vessels whose primary role in the fleet can just as easily be served by unmanned probes.”

This time, it was Kostya who beat Cole to the punch. “Tem?” the President said, directing his eyes to the young Bolian.

“Yes sir?” came the sheepish yet enthusiastic response from the young man-boy.

“Shut up.” commanded Kostya simply.

“Sorry sir,” replied Tem, appropriately chastised.

Turning his attention back to Cole, Kostya gestured for him to continue.

“As I was saying, each of these ships is very near completion anyway. It would only take eight weeks to complete the worst-off amongst them, the Intrepid-Class ship and a little less than two weeks to finish the best of them, the Luna-Class. Which is the one I believe we should christen as the new Republic, sir. The beauty of this is elegant in it's simplicity. By finishing these three vessels and sending them into active service, you give your opposition and your critics a hollow victory.” Cole explained.

He then went on to detail the specifics, this time as he began a clockwise pace around the table. “Since they were already well under construction prior to the doctrine, you're not violating it in a technical sense because a conservative reading of such clearly states that no 'new' ship construction can occur on such classes. Furthermore, the diversion of resources to complete them is minimal - less than two-percent of overall construction materials and less than six-percent of available man-power. Add to that since their not large-scale explorers, the crew required to man all three ships combined isn't even parallel to the compliment necessary to man a single Sovereign-Class ship and what you end up with is silencing your critics, helping your party out with their next round of Council seat elections by giving the appearance of compromise, all while truly maintaining the heart of the doctrine.”

A few long moments passed in silence once it was clear that Cole, now once against standing beside the president, was relatively finished. No matter what the actual opinions of Kostya's various minions might be, none of them offered such before first hearing the President's own point of view. For some, this was cowardice while for others it was self-preservation of their jobs in the inner sanctums of power. Finally, Vladimir offered his reaction. Tilting his head ever so slightly to one side, her seemed to shrug with his face before finally voicing his feelings. “I actually like it,” he admitted, somewhat surprised at such. “Granted, the idea of giving even a token victory to the self-serving sycophants who would just as soon whine about rain being wet is never appealing, but… I suppose in this case the ends justify the means.” Raising his right hand, he shook his index finger at Cole as he asked, “You still haven't explained to me how this involves the Republic crew.”

Crouching down on his haunches in front of the president, he went over the last truly important detail. “In an ideal world, you could assign a crew of loyal neo-federalists to be in charge of this new Republic, and that would be that. As I'm sure you're aware though, this is not an ideal world. Not by far. If you stack this ship with party loyalists, or for that matter anyone outside of the former Republic's senior staff it would gut a considerable portion of the overall plan, and negate much of the ability to silence your critics. Though I know it must be galling for you to willingly reunite a group of misfit malcontents like Roth, Carter, Cromwell, Hawk and so on… it really robs you of one of the best aspects of things if you don't put them back together again.” Cole pointed out.

“Well, I'm not terribly concerned with Captain Roth, or rather I should say Captain Dorian,” Kostya replied. “Though I'd never trust her as far as I could throw her, she's come to her senses quite a bit since Re-Day. Likewise, her new husband has quite a bit to lose should she ever willfully oppose me again. As for the rest… the idea of allowing John Carter to do much of anything but scrub plasma conduits ever again, let alone alongside his merry band of fellow rogues… what, exactly, is the benefit of that?”

“That, mister president, is where the most beautiful element of this whole plan comes into play,” revealed Cole, the mischievous grin once again washing over his features as he stood up and began moving once more along the length of the table back towards the front of the room. “As much as you loath them, I can only imagine they likewise loath you. Imagine how grating it will be to all of them to be reunited only to realize that they are so squarely under your thumb? How depressing it will be as they're dispatched on nebular surveys, completely removed and isolated from current events. Worse yet, they'll be forced to serve as your personal political propaganda pawn, dispatched to 'show the flag' and remind everyone of the losses of the Remnant Attacks on worlds where members of your party are vying for election to the Federation Council. They'll be living out their worst nightmare, their victory as bittersweet as defeat.” Cole illustrated happily. Stopping at his chair, he put his hands upon the headrest as he put the proverbial cherry on top of the plan. “It's like the Ferengi rule of acquisition says; 'every once and awhile, declare peace - it confuses the hell out of your enemy.'”

Now it was Kostya's turn to revel, his own devilish grin slowly creeping across the features of the President of the United Federation of Planets as he considered the fairly masterful stratagem that had been laid out before him. The risk of placing the senior officers of Republic back together again was significant, but the prospect of some much desired long-term retribution upon them on top of all the other political gains simply made the entire plan irresistible to the Ukrainian born former admiral turned president. “I'd say you've made your first sale, Mister Cole,” Kostya finally expressed.

Standing up from conference table, everyone else present followed suit as Kostya straightened the suit jacket he wore before taking a few steps towards the pair of transparent aluminum doors, each of which was etched with half of the Federation seal. Stopping as his security detailed opened the doors for him, he looked back at Cole for a moment before saying, “Just remember, Mister Cole. If this plan of yours should back-fire… it was 500 years ago upon the ground this structure is built where the Guillotine was first used with rather resounding success. I'd hate to see someone I'd put my faith in let me down the same way Louis XVI let down his subjects, wouldn't you?”

archives/dawn_before_the_darkness.txt · Last modified: 2021/04/04 19:21 by site_admin