Trek Fan Fiction @ EAS (2024)

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Trek Fan Fiction @ EAS (2)

Trek Fan Fiction @ EAS (3)
A new era for the team develops as a universe finds its need
for a Starfleet Special Investigation Division. The same team in a different reality.

The USS Intrepid had returned to Caroliniusian space escorting the Patriots then-extant raiders. The Iotian Federation happily supplied them with formerly Bajoran-owned Mercury-, Detroit-, and Kremlin-class frigates, light cruisers, and scouts from their "gentlyused" catalog of starships as well as new Constitution-class models from the same era. Captain James McKinley and the crew stood by restricted from interfering by Rear Admiral Robert Tavar Johnson's unfolding negotiations with the so-called Patriots in their own "Confederate secession zone".

The Iotian Starfleet openly instructed the newly minted crews in starship operations and frequently used the Intrepid as a target in their war game scenarios. It was easy to see who the Patriots were potentially arming themselves against. Yet the addition of the Romulan Star Empire obtaining the neighboring Rekena Sector also broadened the threats facing the would-be Confederacy of Worlds. That included in the growing list of enemies were on the nearby planets that had "purchased" the Federation colonies from then-President Ardra for the sake of enslaving the populations. The Romulans openly declaring themselves the buyers of said slaves who'd paid in advance. Now they wanted satisfaction for their purchasing power.

Starfleet was promising increased patrols...should the Confederate Zone remain in Federation hands. But the colonists felt so strongly betrayed that they were still seriously contemplating independence. Even given warnings relayed through Johnson from Rear Admiral Amanda Forger of Starfleet's Special Investigations Division of Starfleet Commander Kirsten Clancy's proposed hostile takeover of the colonies should they vote to remain independent. Several key Federation Councilors backed her proposed action plan as well the Secretary for Starfleet, Akifa Chol. Chol secretly remaining a member of Cell 51's Political Action Arm.

Johnson knew the settlers' greatest secret: the amphibious natives to the "abandoned" planet were alive and well and relocated to hidden caverns having adapted themselves to fresh water after their shorter lived surface dwelling fellow natives had poisoned the oceans before abandoning their world in an effort to expand their Ocampa-like life spans.

One such survivor, named Ar'kana, had entrusted Johnson with the fate of her people.

He would not fail her.

But the Federation, the Romulans, and the slavers were pressing in, leaving Johnson with less and less room in which to maneuver a peaceful settlement. The fact that so many of the Patriot leaders came from former Maquis worlds in the former Demilitarized Zone only exacerbated Johnson's difficulties. The Federation had officially ceded their homes to the Cardassian Union after the Dominion withdrew.

They'd suffered under the yoke of slavery once already during the war years. The second time the Federation negotiated away their colonies they'd willingly left their home worlds rather than end up as slaves again as inhabitants of Cardassian Subject Worlds. So their resentments towards the Federation ran deep.

The colonists in the twenty-two planet Patriots Confederate Zone just echoed their frustrations. Ardra's backdoor dealings being the final straw in abandonment since the Mars Massacre left the Outer Federation worlds in the Deeper Beta Quadrant vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers. Foreign powers that also wanted to see the colonists enslaved. So they were literally forced to entreat with the Federation again. But Ar'kana's empathic assessment of Johnson told her they could trust him. So the various leaders did so. With a few noted exceptions.

Roger Townsend and Vlad Buckyanko being chief amongst them. But Johnson won the trust of most of the other leaders. Especially Raining Waters, Gerald Englund, Inkhut, and Chofi Arkhura as well as the overwhelmingly enthusiastic support of the xenoarcheologist, Doctor Estella Barnes. But a new arrival potentially threatened Barnes' work on Carolinius II. Thereby threatening to expose the truth regarding Ar'kana's people and their hidden survival.

Doctor Taryn Argus was a known threat to the USS Intrepid crew thanks to their long association with Brin Macen. Argus was a rival archeologist as well as a devoted treasure hunter. Her specialty was unearthing rare weapon artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder. Argus was a convicted felon and fugitive in Federation space...which the Patriots Zone self-proclaimed it no longer was. She also possessed known ties to Cell 51's Acting Agency Director, Dylan Sorbo. Possibly Starfleet's easiest lead to follow to him.

Johnson explained the threat Argus represented to both the Patriots and to Ar'kana on one of her outings from the underground civilization her people had established beneath the planet's mountain ranges. Ar'kana understood that she and her people needed to stay hidden until word was sent that it was safe for them to emerge again. Argus' interest in Carolinius II was suspect at best and actively life threatening at worst. Just whose life remained to be uncovered.

Captain James McKinley took an active interest in Argus as soon as she arrived. Johnson and McKinley negotiated a shared watch program over Argus. The Patriots assigned visible minders to escort Argus with Barnes' oversight and academic "cooperation". While McKinley tasked his Tactical and Security Chief, Lt. Commander Ian Delaney with covertly observing Argus with the Patriots' active participation. Some of the old Maquis hands proved quite adept at it.

Jim McKinley was heartened to learn the SID had a presence in the Confederate Zone and they were coming to Carolinius II at Brin Macen's behest. Even more heartening was learning that Macen and Celeste Rockford were leading their SID team into the Zone and would be there within a week and a half. Rather than employ their full, and very new crew, in the Nova-class Obsidian, Macen would personally command the Blackbird-class Solstice with the SID performing as her crew. The decommissioned Starfleet scout being identical to the Odyssey which he commanded during his tenure with the Maquis. He even had the same pilot. The rest of the old Odyssey crew was with Christina Noble on an Outbound Ventures Ju-day-class Maquis raider, the Eclipse.

Tom Eckles and Heidi Darcy still ruled the engine room with Emjin Thool's support while Christine Lacey operated the weapons systems aboard. Moving Aric Tulley to Communications while Elfi Hendryks manned OPS. Noble herself flew the ship with Thool having bridge side engineering station duties. They were all ex-Maquis and known to the leaders that had survived Cardassian servitude. Even before they'd been recruited into the private security contracting corporation, Outbound Ventures, many had fought alongside Macen and Ro Laren against the Dominion. While most felt comfortable back in a raider, Eckles, Darcy, and Lacey longed to be back aboard a Blackbird-class scoutship. The starship class was still feared amongst the experienced Cardassian Guard officers and senior enlisted personnel.

McKinley and his XO, Commander Jonathan Striker, updated Noble and Macen via subspace comm relays. Striker, himself a former Starfleet Intelligence man, worked alongside the ship's Intelligence Officer, Lt. Commander Jennifer Marie Massoli, on working out why Argus had arrived when she had and to what purpose. Massoli was also dating McKinley so Striker took every opportunity to egg on the relationship. The encouragement was appreciated but completely unnecessary.

The Chief Engineer and the Flight Operations Officer needed far more coaxing. Commander Robert Caplan loved Lt. Commander Elizabeth "Liz" Liefers but he was so used to pining away he forgot to actively pursue now that his feelings were revealed to her. Fortunately for them both, Caplan's deputy in Engineering, Lieutenant Emily Johnson (no relation), prodded and dragged Caplan into forward motion sometimes against his better judgment. But he was always grateful afterwards.

What was an open wound was Massoli's relationship with the Chief Medical Officer, Doctor Andreja Sikorsky. Massoli had recently knocked two of the doctor's teeth loose with a single punch over Sikorksy's threat to relieve McKinley of his command if he revealed his true origins to Massoli. He had, she'd accepted them, and then knocked the CMO to the deck. Sikorsky refused to file a report or press charges, much to the angst of some of the Security detail, led by Ensign Brad Turner, and a quiet lower decks investigation had been launched despite Sikorsky trying to avoid that very fate.

McKinley bowed to regs and confined Massoli to quarters for three days. Joining her there when he was off duty. The punishment becoming a cause to celebrate. If Admiral Johnson, McKinley's mentor and former CO had a contravening opinion, he kept it to himself. Johnson may have been the ranking officer aboard the Intrepid but he wasn't in the chain of command. He was a VIP diplomatic troubleshooter for Starfleet. They ferried him from one crisis to another. But he was also a beloved counselor and friend.

Johnson had been the captain of the eventually ill-fated Galaxy-class USS Intrepid.

But he'd had a storied career as a starship captain beforehand. McKinley had been his XO. Sikorsky, Caplan, and Striker had all been members of that same crew. Delaney and Liefers had signed on with the new Akira-class version of the storied starship.

They'd temporarily been assigned to the prototype Intrepid-class USS Intrepid but received special dispensation to carry the name with them when they moved to their new command and rechristen her the new Intrepid.

The original of the Intrepid-class starships was given the honorific USS Bonaventure as she began a new life as a test bed platform for new technologies with the Advanced Starship Design Bureau. Many of Starfleet's cutting edge test beds had been christened Bonaventure so the ship carried on a fine tradition.

Delaney's wife, Hannah Grace, was secretly a Kelvan infiltrator that had decided she liked her life in Starfleet so much so preferred it to being Hanoi, the scout-spy for the Kelvans arriving at the galactic rim from the Andromeda Galaxy and taking human form to survive in their new environment. Grace herself being a descendant of Drea and Hanar. As more Kelvans arrived, their cultural imperialistic drive shifted more towards survival and isolation than conquest. But Hanoi, along with others, were dispatched to outer Federation colonies to disperse and gather intelligence on the Federation and its neighbors.

The reports were all positive regarding the Federation and the Kelvans reached an accommodation with the UFP. But Grace was one of a minority of infiltrators that decided to remain in her human life. Progress had been made on the belt-worn Attuners that Kelvans utilized to access extreme telekinetic abilities. Before a central processor/power convertor managed the psychic energies and relayed that refined power to the individual Attuners, gaining strength from united presence and purpose. Grace's re-imagined Attuner only harnessed her inborn ability. But she was still capable of inhuman feats with it.

She carried the device wherever she went, earning a Starfleet exemption for "religious" purposes since the true nature of the Attuner wasn't shared and the Enterprise logs considered apocryphal by modern historians. Delaney and the Intrepid's senior staff knew since she'd confided in them. Grace's own role was as Alpha Lead of the first of two fighter squadrons based off of the carrier variant of the Akira-class.

Alpha Lead and Beta Lead maintained a friendly rivalry but everyone in Starfleet knew Hannah Grace was undoubtedly the finest fighter pilot in Starfleet service. A distinction that made former pilots like Liefers and the Commander Strikefighter Group, Commander Verity Jones aboard the USS Hood, envious. The Galaxy-class Hood replacing its venerable Excelsior-class predecessor. Its captain, Merry Limerick, being of the Elven race that had visited Earth in its distant past and inspired the myths of elves and fairies.

Elvens all appeared female even when they possessed male sex organs. Making distinguishing them impossible except in intimate settings. Starfleet registered Limerick as male because he'd stated he was so. Perky Lyrics, the Elven Chief of Staff to the Elven Federation Councilor, was known to be female. Lyrics was also secretly a member of Cell 51. Cell 51 was an open secret amongst the Elvens. Many of whom supported their philosophic stance of peace through power. Limerick was one of the few dissenters. But even he, as a dedicated crisis manager for Starfleet Intelligence, embraced many of Cell 51's values.

The recently demoted Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev, the Director of Starfleet Intelligence, sent three dedicated crisis managers and their commands in to support the Intrepid and the USS Aventine's mission within Patriot Confederate space. Captain Ezri Dax was CO of the Vesta-class Aventine. Captain Alec Prine was the commanding officer of the Defiant-class USS Merrimack.

Regular Starfleet patrol vessels were due to take up station in the Patriot Zone as Johnson had been negotiating but may weren't due to arrive for some weeks. Two were on station already though. The Saber-class USS Sentinel under Captain Cera Neva's command and the Akira-class USS Fearless under Captain Sarah Divine's command were already in position. The two women were studies on contrasts.

Cera was a Bajoran who'd remained in Starfleet even after being relieved of her command and detained for simply being Bajoran during the recent war between the Federation and the Bajoran Republic. Divine was a skeptic who harbored deep and abiding doubts regarding Fleet Admiral Clancy's ambitions and motives following the Mars Massacre and the policies that followed. Divine was from a colony world that had largely been abandoned by Starfleet after Clancy's insular policies took effect.

If not for contractors such as Outbound Ventures, Divine's home world would have been left defenseless before aggressors such as the nearby Breen Confederacy or Tzenkethi Coalition. Even the Bajoran Militia, through courtesy patrols, insured her colony's safety far more than Starfleet had in the year since the Mars colony and the Utopia Planetia Yards were destroyed. Cera was still a true believer in the cause, even being branded a collaborator by her own people.

Divine was beginning to feel uncomfortable in her uniform. She'd fought the Bajorans and found them far more honorable in combat than her own fellow Starfleet commanders such as Captains Mandy Morris or Ben Poole. Both seemed slightly unstable to her. But they blindly followed orders unquestioningly even when those same orders were later proven out to be illegal. Captains such as Morris and Poole didn't care. They believed in the cause of the moment, not of tradition or legal precedent.

Divine came from a long line of Starfleet enlisted personnel. She'd been proud to make it into Starfleet Academy and to graduate with honors. She'd been the first in her family stretching back to the United Earth Starfleet to achieve command of a starship. The Divine family had provided Starfleet with many Master Chiefs and a handful of Command Master Chiefs but never a starship captain beforehand. Yet Clancy and the Starfleet Security Director, Commodore Oh, threatened her belief in the organization.

Divine had too many questions now to blindly follow any directives. Which was why she'd volunteered the Fearless into the defense of the Patriots Zone and its twenty-two colonies. But she deeply resented the colonists' separatist ambitions as well.

The burgeoning Confederacy might soon have kin across other former Federation colonial and Protectorate territories. These weren't people Divine would gladly lay down her life to defend. Nor entrenched bureaucrats on Earth. Captains Dax and McKinley represented the best Starfleet could be. She didn't know much about Limerick and Prine given the sensitive nature of their standard missions. She just couldn't understand Cera.

Cera was under constant scrutiny after the Bajoran Republic accepted the Federation's apology for illegally expelling them from the Federation but refused re-entry. The mass migration of Bajorans exiting Starfleet and the Federation had cast a long shadow across those that remained in the ranks or in their homes. Public sentiment driving even many of those stalwarts to migrate. Yet Cera clung to her command seat despite the shuk being shoveled at her.

Divine would have been placing primed phasers up some asses by now and firing. Yet Cera endured with a dignity Divine didn't know if she could manage under similar circ*mstances. She looked forward to getting to know Cera better and determining whether or not Cera was delusional or well grounded. She supposed time and proximity would tell.

"Captain Noble, I'd like you to meet..." Johnson began as Noble had people enter the conference space he'd met the Patriots' leadership in.

"Raining Waters, Inkhut, Gerald, good to see you all again," Noble interrupted.

"It is good to see you all as well as my tribal brother, Hakatay," Raining Waters gladly embraced Noble and Hakatay. Sakonna gave a polite nod to each and every one present. Tulley clasped hands with the three former Maquis leaders. Townsend alone was isolated by his fuming anger and refusal to wear more than scraps of cloth. A habit he'd picked up as a Cardassian slave and refused to surrender it. Introductions were made to Arkhura and Buckyanko. Doctor Barnes was off busy babysitting Doctor Argus.

"This is a waste of time!" Townsend angrily paced back and forth, his loincloth flapping in the breeze he himself was making.

"Settle down," Tulley ordered him.

"And who hell do you think you are?" Townsend wheeled on the taller man, "You sat out the war in a comfy Federation penal colony. I was a Cardassian slave!"

"Which you remind us of every time we hold a meeting," Raining Waters sagely pointed out, "My entire colony was butchered by the Cardassians yet I bear no recriminations against Tulley, whose family shared the same fate."

"Not man enough to protect them?" Townsend snarled. Tulley started forward and Lacey intercepted him.

"It's not worth it," Hendryks softly told him. Thool and Noble were coming up from behind Townsend.

"You'll either behave or leave," Noble told him.

"Or you'll what?" Townsend spun on her.

She thrust her phaser into his groin, "Or I'll change your gender forever."

"You don't have the balls," Townsend sneered.

Noble fired. Townsend dropped to the floor and screamed like a spanked child.

"That was the 'stun' setting. Should we try again at a stronger output?" Noble asked while he took a breath.

"I'll kill you!" he vowed.

"Better men than you have tried and failed," Noble holstered her phaser, "Dispose of him. Keep him. Your call."

"I believe Townsend has learned the value of silence," Inkhut opined.

"You're not so tough," Townsend blubbered.

Noble finished him off with a second stun burst, "I recommend disposal."

Buckyanko summoned two guards to haul the insensate Townsend away.

"I hate bullies," Noble massaged her own neck.

"Too bad Tom and Heidi are getting fresh foodstuffs. They would've enjoyed the floor show," Lacey chuckled.

"He's been a growing problem," Englund confessed.

"Has anyone tapped his communications?" Tulley asked. Even Noble looked surprised.

"There was a lot of confident menace in his threats," Tulley remarked. He had been Ro Laren's chief of cell security once upon a time and was now a security deputy under Gerrit Gren aboard Serenity Station.

"We'll take this under advisem*nt," Noble warned the others.

"I can set up a monitoring program that'll be non-invasive. It'll only record transmissions with suspect parties," Arkhura promised.

"We're really doing this?" Buckyanko protested.

"We have too much lose this time around," Inkhut advised him, "You never were in the DMZ. You don't know what the Federation is capable of. And never turn a blind eye towards the Romulans."

"I can help you set up the program," Hendryks offered. Computer systems were her forte.

"Now, we're just advance scouts. What does Commander Macen and Detective Rockford need to know?" Noble asked them all. So the discussion began in earnest.

Meanwhile, Townsend nursed a wounded ego and harbored a barely suppressed rage.

He'd been contacted through intermediary channels about making a backdoor deal to secure the safety of his colony. If the others wouldn't support him, then frinx them.

He reached out and was surprised by who answered. The Director of the Tal Shiar herself answered his page.

"How can I assist you, Mr. Townsend?" Sela smiled like the proverbial cat.

"I have twenty-one problems you can help me with," he referred to the other colonies within the Confederate Zone.

"Do tell," now Sela swallowed the canary.

The SID team had mostly settled in as a crew to the Blackbird-class Solstice. The decommissioned USS Charon had served as Macen's primary vessel before he purchased the civilian model Nova-class Obsidian and upgraded it to Starfleet specs.

The Obsidian was even halfway upgraded to Nova X-class specs. She was lacking only the secondary deflector array modifications and the enhanced drive system. Still, she was a tough little ship.

The even smaller but estimably tougher USS Charon had forged an enduring reputation as an "executioner" amongst the Cardassian Guard during the First Border Wars. The scoutship maxed out at a 22 member crew so the SID filled in as a skeleton crew.

Tracy Ebert was back in her element, having flown the identical USS Tiberius reflagged as the SS Odyssey.

Harriet "Harri" Fedora Mudd was the relief CONN Officer. Angelique Kerber and Bailey Smith rotated as the OPS Officer. Rab Daggit and Tony Burrows switched off at Tactical. Parva had invited S'harr, a Caitian female who was one Parva's newly recruited engineers from the Obsidian along for the ride to fill in at Engineering while Parva rested. Still, their schedules overlapped quite a bit so the Chief Engineer got to know her subordinate quite well on the nearly two week voyage to the Patriots Confederacy Zone.

That left the members of Celeste Rockford's Detective Squad, and Rockford herself, as standalone passengers. Mainly they helped out in the Galley and delivering food and beverages. Commander Macen was once again Captain Macen for this voyage.

A development cheerfully greeted by Ebert and generally produced ambivalence amongst the others. S'harr had never served under Macen as a starship commander so she had no opinion. Or an inkling of how dangerous that could be. So Parva attempted to explain to her but most of the stories were dismissed as hyperbole. She'd learn soon enough.

The Solstice had a briefing room attached at the rear of the bridge. The bridge module itself a forerunner of the Galaxy-class Battle Bridge. It was there that Macen seconded the room as an office space. Rockford joined him as he received Johnson's first real-time message. Johnson's image was displayed on every viewer in the room and Johnson himself received visual and audio pickups from both husband and wife.

"Good to see you, Bob," Macen offered.

"We already have a brewing situation," Johnson warned them right of the start, "Boromov is the primary weapons supplier for all the gear the Mudds and Okona are bringing in."

Thadiun Okona and the Harcourt Fenton Mudd III and Harry Mudd IV were merely in charge of delivery to the Patriots on the neutral world of Isegaard. Pytor Boromov, the infamous supplier to "lost causes" and terrorist groups the galaxy-wide was now revealed as the principal weapons supplier. Boromov had also moved large caches of weapons on Cell 51's behalf in the past.

Needless to say the SID, alongside Johnson and the Intrepid crew, had a mixed record with Boromov. Once upon a time, Johnson, McKinley and the crew with some assistance from Macen and his Vulcan wife, T'Kir, had saved the Federation from splintering under Cell 51's ambitions. It had been a very different universe and time back then. The times and places and drastically altered since then. The seemingly impossible was now commonplace.

"The Romulans and Starfleet are saber rattling," Johnson began to explain his earlier comment, "But Dax, Cera, and Divine have the ships in the area and ready to respond to Romulan aggression or hostile moves by the 'legal' owners of the planets."

"I was told Merry Limerick and Alec Prine were also moving in," Macen told him.

"They are but unofficially,"Johnson shrugged, "Why Nechayev is making the paper trail disappear baffles me."

"Why Alynna gave the Romulans the Rekena Sector still baffles me," Rockford unhappily admitted. She didn't tolerate unsolved mysteries. It was bad for her business model. The Rockford Detective Agencies were built on solving mysteries and getting results. It was her agency platforms that were expanding now that she had more potential clients than investigators to assist them.

She'd moved Edward "Eddie" Wong and Adai Kushin to management and recruiting as well as relocated them and their families to Serenity Station. For both it meant wives, since Eddie was a transbian, and their children. Mrs. Wong had just re-upped her four-year marriage contract after her wife agreed to move to Serenity with her.

As a chef by trade, and a recent opening on the Promenade by chance, the other Mrs. Wong was opening a restaurant of her own. For Kushin, it meant his family could indulge their passions for winter sports on Odin. Kushin's wife had already secured a lease for a boutique she was in the process of opening. So both families were making long term investments in Wong and Kushin's careers with the Rockford Detective Agencies' Administrative Branch and everybody was happy to get their spouses out of field work. Even private investigators frequently faced harm or mortal injury.

Kushin and Wong acted as recruiters, background investigators, and as internal affairs for the Rockford Detective Agencies. They'd assembled an elite team to assist them.

All of whom had been involved in the investigation of then-Federation President Ardra. They were even rehabilitating the criminals that served as witnesses against Ardra and now resided on Odin.

Except for Thadiun Okona who'd only filed a deposition rather than commit to actual testimony before the Federation Council and the Interstellar Criminal Court. Outbound Ventures was having the mutineers from the Obsidian charged and tried under ICC jurisdiction. Since Outbound Ventures was licensed to operate within the Federation and her vessels were co-registered as Barrinoran and as Federation flagged starships and runabouts, the fleet didn't adhere to the SS naming system but they did carry NDT- NAR- BDR- registry prefixes as well as NDR- prefixes assigned to civilian security contractor scouts/surveyors.

Outbound Ventures had two vessels registered with NDR- registrations. The Newton-class Copernicus and the Obsidian were both research vessels assigned to scouting duties and surveying. They just happened to primarily survey for hostiles and pirates.

The rest of the fleet varied between the ubiquitous BDR- and transport labeled NDT- registries.

Ro Laren had successfully utilized a Newton-class science vessel like the Copernicus during the Dominion War campaign behind enemy lines. Of course, her legend was as a partner to Macen's "Information Brokerage" services. A polite euphemism for commercial espionage. The Dominion believed they'd co-opted two ex-Maquis when in truth the pair used their clearances and access to place Angosian commandos behind enemy lines to wreak complete and total destruction. The Vorta named Kilana even frequently had Ro and Macen investigate their own handiwork. After the war concluded, their Maquis crews managed to escape detention on looming charges of terrorism. Hendryks and Thool by seeking amnesty on Bajor.

Ro surrendered to Starfleet, was court martialled for desertion and terrorism and imprisoned as part of the plea bargain she made to affect Hendryks and Thool's release.

Ebert, Lacey, Eckles, and Darcy made it out to the neutral Kalendra Sector while Macen officially resigned from Starfleet. Unofficially he founded Outbound Ventures with the seed money from his work as a freelance spy. Equally unofficially he still accepted work from Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev. Macen's official rehabilitation wouldn't occur until the SID was created and began paying Outbound Ventures a retainer for primary consideration in taking assignments.

Selected crews and their starships were vetted by Starfleet for SID contracts and Lieutenant Christine Pike came to live on Serenity as the SID's official liaison. Equally disturbing to Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy, who vehemently opposed the entire plan, was the fact that the Bajoran Militia and Cardassian Information Bureau also paid retainers and had liaisons living aboard the Cardassian built Nor-class station.

But Clancy was currently under investigation for potential crimes committed in encouraging other prospective security contractors to vie for retainers and they embroiled Outbound Ventures into a shooting match for their very survival. Even the Rockford Detective Agencies had been under threat since Macen had partnered with the Agency and married its founder, Rockford herself.

Commodore Oh, the Director for Starfleet Security had gone a step further and "disappeared" those illegal combatants and housed them in Cardassian black site prisons. The location of whom was leaked to Commander Sam Lavelle, the new CO at Deep Space Nine. Lavelle, uncustomarily assumed command of the USS Defiant and led a task force assigned by Vice Admiral Bill Ross to liberate the prisoners. For both the admiral and commander it was a chance to vindicate themselves after the end of the war and the allegations made by Section 31 captured director, James Fowler.

Before Fowler committed suicide, he named names, times, places, and dates. The backlash of which implicated Ross in several operations and Lavelle as part of a cover up on a breach of Starfleet protocols and regulations during the war concerning firing on disabled ships who'd surrendered.

In the meantime, Ro had been rehabilitated in Starfleet's eyes reinstated by Starfleet Intelligence alongside Starfleet Security and eventually assumed command of DS9 for eighteen months before being disciplined again and busted back to lt. commander whereupon she resigned and re-enlisted with the Bajoran Militia as in the Dominion War and was granted a field commission of colonel in the Colonial Defense forces by the Chairperson of the Militia Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Kira Nerys. Starfleet recently made an offer to reinstate Ro at her reduced rank as a stringer for Starfleet Intelligence's counter-terrorism efforts. Another condition was that she would never be promoted above the rank of commander again. But her security clearances would exceed those she'd possessed as a sector commander.

In exchange, the Militia Colonial Forces would become a joint operation between Starfleet and the Militia, its members holding commissions in both services. Their Starfleet ranks being lowered rather than commiserate with their Bajoran equivalents.

Kira had accepted the slight as a colonel given a Starfleet commission during the war.

Lavelle still referred to her by her standing Starfleet rank of commander despite her being the highest ranked general in the Militia.

Kira took it in stride and advised Ro to do so as well since her contribution would promote a renewed solidarity between the services. A much needed renewal after Starfleet and the Federation's betrayal of Bajor. It was Commodore Saavik, finally accepting promotion and releasing her command as the only captain the Ambassador-class USS Endeavor ever had, that inspired both services to accept the arrangements.

Especially necessary on Deep Space Nine since the Bajoran officers outnumbered Starfleet personnel three-to-one now.

.

Lavelle's own senior staff had relieved him of command when the Bajorans disinvited Starfleet from administrating operations aboard the station prior to the invasion force arriving. Outbound Ventures and key Starfleet commanders and crews sided with the Bajorans during the unjust war. Bajor and Cardassia also supported one another, after Bajor was ejected from the Federation for defending Cardassia in Council sessions. The political alliance also then became a military one.

Starfleet was rebuffed by its own traditional allies, the Klingons. Under intense political pressure, Fleet Admiral Clancy freed up what spare ships she had and invaded both the Cardassian Union and the Bajoran Republic. Only to be repulsed four successive times.

In the end, under yet another new President, the third in as many weeks, the vaunted Federation sued for peace.

The required reparations payments left the Federation's hard currency reserves dangerously depleted. Returning President Kilbrek plunged the Federation into debt for the first time since its founding. Gross Domestic Product increases leveraged to re-purchase the colonies that Ardra "sold" into slavery, hence founding the Patriots Confederate Zone unintentionally.

But the slavers had already pre-sold colonists and wanted the asking price plus a commission to turn their backs on the original buyers who'd already pre-paid. The evidence was mounting against the Romulan Star Empire as being the buyers guided by the Director of the Tal Shiar, Sela, herself. Prominent Romulan families had placed orders for Federation domestics. It was now a badge of honor to have acquired one or more. Humans were especially high value targets of acquisition in repayment for the treaty ending the Earth-Romulan War.

Macen had lost his contact within the Tal Shiar. Talera P'ris might not even be aware of his existence now. So much had changed and yet remained the same. He suspected they all felt it...

"Bob, Chris Noble briefed me on the particulars regarding Carolinius II," Macen didn't speak of Ar'kana and her people over an interceptable channel, "What are the feelings across the other twenty-one colonies?"

"They're united in purpose for the most part," Johnson explained.

"Meaning?" Rockford wanted to pin down that distinction.

"A single colony, represented by Roger Townsend, is making noises of forging a separate understanding with the Romulans and is urging the other colonies to do the same," Johnson stated, "You remember my remarks concerning Townsend?"

"We do," Rockford smirked. Johnson had been uncharacteristically undiplomatic about Townsend in his private remarks.

"Then you understand the dilemma," Johnson decided.

"You're concerned that any public denouncements would be seen as personal and vindictive," Rockford assessed.

"Which Townsend is plenty of both," Macen said, "We're close enough to catch real-time news broadcasts now. Clarice Starr and Anna Snow are doing their usual investigative reporting. To Townsend's regret."

"Starr and Snow broke the story that Townsend is trying to deliberately isolate his colony and negotiate peace terms that sells out the other colonies," Johnson scowled, "Information they could have only obtained from a rival representative. We've been discreetly monitoring Townsend's negotiations with Sela. This level of leak is counter-productive"

"Or perhaps Townsend himself is the leak," Macen countered, "The shock value would certainly encourage other colonial governments to attempt private settlements with Sela."

"Either way, it's disturbing,"Johnson admitted.

"Snow and Starr are too good to let this go and Shaw will want to counterpoint it and bolster Townsend's position," Rockford had observed the reporters in action for ten years now. Starr and Snow had worked the Cardassian border towards the end of the border conflict leading to the creation of the DMZ. They'd stayed in the DMZ to report on the Maquis' struggles.

Shaw had become more of a political pundit than a reporter over the last decade, frequently taking a confrontational, hawkish perspective. Whether for ratings or honestly held beliefs was unknown. But she was the Federation News Service's biggest attraction when it came to talking heads. Her hourly broadcast was watched by billions every day. The fact that she was in the field indicated that the strife was an open invitation for agitation. But which side would Shaw fall on?

So far she'd pushed for recognition of Ardra's sale of the colonies and the colonists themselves. The colonies had announced their intentions to secede from the Federation prior to Ardra's wheeling and dealing. Shaw advocated the position the colonists had landed themselves in their predicament. Let them dig their own way out of it regardless of "allegations" of the illegality of Ardra's actions. The Federation was "morally bound" to support the actions of such Presidents as Chavy Sok, Juliette Perez, and Ardra rather than "fruitlessly criminalize" their policy decisions.

If Townsend's appeasem*nt of the Romulan Star Empire's powers-that-be indicated that Sela was willing to talk than perhaps Praetor Tal'aura and Proconsul Donatra were as well. It had become well known that Ambassador Aurelian was still in the area finalizing the Star Empire's official role in the Rekena Sector. Perhaps Townsend should request an official meeting with Aurelian and Empress Taralin while they were still in the region.

Shaw made it sound oh-so reasonable but these settlers were attempting to stave off lives of slavery to a hostile power. Shaw decried the presence of the USS Intrepid and the recent arrivals of the USS Aventine, USS Sentinel, and USS Fearless. In Shaw's estimation, Captain Dax was too junior, Cera was a Bajoran and therefore automatically suspect in her mind, and Divine had failed to take back Deep Space Nine on the Bajoran front. Shaw laid the blame of Starfleet's stalemate squarely on Divine's shoulders alone during a recent broadcast.

Starr and Snow were debunking Shaw's claims as quickly as they could but they needed facts and evidence. Shaw just needed innuendo and conviction that her lies were the truth. At least enough belief to sell it her audiences. Her private opinions never came out following one disastrous libel suit against FNS where Shaw's private correspondences were put before the court refuting everything she claimed to believe to be true while essentially destroying a politician for decrying the war effort against Cardassia and Bajor. It didn't help that the necessarily maligned Ministry of Propaganda, recently renamed the Ministry of Information, supplied Shaw with her own data sets and "incontrovertible facts".

Messages by Starfleet notables as Commander Tuvok and others resisting Oh's profound silences on the matter tried to demonstrate the point that Divine did in fact serve during three invasive attempts into the Bajor Sector. Divine had been unable to return from Starbase 375 to the Bajoran front on that last abortive attempt to take the Valo system owing to the critical repairs being made on her command. So she hadn't refused orders, she'd simply been unable to carry them out. The assault, led by Captain Mandy Morris had been captured wholesale by the Militia and their starships seized while the Starfleet crew were provisioned and marooned inside the moon of Valo I.

Shaw had already aired specials accounting for the "treasonous war crimes" of the DS9 crew and crew of the USS Defiant. Other notables included Jim McKinley and the Intrepid crew for actually refusing to fight the Bajorans and instead securing their flank from the Tzenkethi and Breen. The captains and crews of the USS Voyager. USS Excalibur-A, USS Endeavor, USS Trident, USS Challenger, USS Enterprise-M, and the USS Honshu had been reviled by Shaw. Legendary Captains such as Chakotay, Geordi LaForge, Mackenzie Calhoun, Katarina Mueller, Montgomery Scott, Morgan Bateson, the recovered James T. Kirk, and Saavik had all been targeted by Shaw's "expose".

Captains Merry Limerick, Alex Prine and Hev Callas were never officially at Bajor.

So the USS Hood, USS Merrimack, and USS Monitor were never implicated.

Vice Admiral Ross bore a great deal of blame as well and the discharge of his dereliction of duty charges on the grounds he wasn't negligent by virtue of being unable to conquer Bajor was also considered suspect in a massive conspiracy in Starfleet Command to undermine the authority of Fleet Admiral Clancy. The Starfleet JAG, Admiral T'Lara, was blamed for that. As were Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway, Rear Admirals Forger and Johnson, Vice Admiral Edward Jellico, Admiral Leonard James Akaar, and then-Admiral Alynna Nechayev for defying Clancy's imperatives to go to war.

Equally "criminalized" was Commander Michelle Prentiss of Starfleet Internal Affairs, Lt. Commander Senecka of JAG, and Commander Robin Lefler, on extended leave from the Excalibur, for the inquiries into possible criminal actions taken by the lionized by Shaw, Clancy and Commodore Oh. Frankly, Snow and Starr's responsible and ethical reporting couldn't up with the rhetorical barrages and they had serious issues to report on besides. But Shaw's rhetoric was having its desired effect. Protests were being staged outside of Starfleet Headquarters demanding the removal of Starfleet's most legendary captains and crews. The fact that these starships crews had gone to extraordinary lengths not to harm opposing Starfleet crews went unnoted in the denouncements. In fact, no lives of one member of the invading side had been lost in combat.

The same couldn't be said of the defending starship crews. Starfleet captains, including Divine, had been ruthless in their prosecution of the war. Yet the seemingly outnumbered and outgunned Bajoran Republic had won the conflict in fact if not in treaty terms. The Bajorans were even so forgiving as to re-institute their ties with Starfleet and the Federation, if on their own terms this time.

The Cardassian Guard, under the elected Castellan, Rekena Garan, had shown remarkable restraint and the Guard stayed to their own side of the border when Starfleet invasion forces were routed. The Cardassians' restraint won them favorable treaty terms when the war was ended and decried as President Chavy Sok's "mad ambition" by the liberal press and politicians. Her internment of Bajoran citizens within the Federation and the detention of Starfleet officers and personnel were the root behind mass immigration of Bajoran Federation citizens back to the Bajor Sector and Bajor's colonies.

The vast majority of Bajorans in Starfleet resigned en masse and joined the Bajoran Militia, which was rapidly upgrading its defensive forces and expanding its frontiers in the Gamma Quadrant. The recent discovery of the Ascendant, an offshoot race of mixed Bajoran and Sinheran cultures, and their Cardassian Emissary of the Prophets, one Iliana Ghemor, also strengthened Bajor's hand in the Gamma Quadrant.

Through it all, the Iotian Federation, had supported Bajor and now was arming the Ascendancy. Business was booming and the Iotian Federation was rapidly expanding as an alternative security arrangement for races deemed too undeveloped to join the Federation or were too concerned about the traditional Federation's many rivals that could be galvanized into real threats against their populations. The Iotians' were running a protection racket, blending Starfleet with the Chicago mobs. They had no qualms about selling starships, small arms, and ships' ordnance and maintenance packages to any and all with the latinum and dilithium to buy regardless of technological development.

It was a saving grace for the UFP that the Iotians were still two generations behind Starfleet's current vessel types. That caliber of starship wasn't for sale. But anything predating UFP Starfleet designs circa 2300 was open and fair game. Using engineering primers and collegiate textbooks, the Iotians had copied starships starting with Cochrane's Phoenix and rapidly developing through the Earth's 22nd century to squarely land in the 23rd. And that range was their sales catalog.

The Bajorans had just upgraded their fleet from mid-23rd Century standards to post-2271 standard, including two experimental designs that the Iotians had actually developed natively. One was a Constitution-class with a 24th Century warp drive. The other was more eclectic but even more powerful than the Excelsior-class vessels delivered as ordered.

Kira made this ship her flagship while Ro chose the other one. Ro was balancing a dual role as the Militia colonel effectively in command of the Colonial Defense Forces and as a Starfleet Intelligence lt. commander assigned to counter-terrorism. Kira knew Ro would eventually choose Starfleet but she was grateful for each additional day Ro ran the Colonial Forces for the Militia. Ro's path with Starfleet had been a rocky one at best.

court-martialled and imprisoned as an ensign, she was granted a second chance by Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Ro graduated from Starfleet's most arduous training course, the Advance Tactical Training that most candidates washed out of and was promoted two grades to lieutenant.

She went AWOL and joined the Maquis to guide a cell off of Ronara Prime.

Surrendering to Starfleet, she was court-martialled again and returned to Jaros II where Starfleet Intelligence recruited her. She was placed overtly as the Chief of Security at DS9. Rising to officially command of the station and the rank of captain, she was forced to resign and joined the Militia as colonel.

Now she was reinstated back into Starfleet reduced by two grades as a disciplinary action she'd resigned to avoid. With it came the promise Ro would never advance past commander ever again. But her security clearance was drastically boosted and she was an agent without portfolio. Which meant she could choose her own cases. Kira knew that would be the eventual draw that caused Ro to resign from the Militia...again.

Kira was already planning on moving Colonel Anara into Ro's posting. As a Special Forces veteran she was being wasted as the Outbound Ventures Liaison in Kira's opinion. Kira had granted Neela a reserve commission as a major in Special Forces to justify her missions for the Prophets that Neela undertook since her "resurrection". Kira knew the Prophets were involved since Neela hadn't aged a day in ten years and still thought the Dominion War was underway when she suddenly appeared in the remote monastery where her life began anew.

The Vedek Assembly and Kai Tila Trus herself branded Neela the "Hand of the Prophets" after extensively examining the circ*mstances of her "death" and return to the mortal plane from the Celestial Temple. The same name given to Kira flagship. She didn't believe in coincidences when it came to the Prophets. Which was why Kira pushed the Joint Chiefs into approving Neela's reinstatement. Then she'd pushed Neela into accepting it. The Prophets must've have finally spoken to Neela because she eventually relented.

Kira knew from Benjamin Sisko's example that was difficult being a military officer and a religious figure all at once. But Sisko had managed it over time and Neela would too.

However reluctantly. Kira had actually been in a quandary over whom to replace Ro with until Neela spoke up. Giving her the Prophets' plan for Anara. Kira, as so many others, had come to understand at Sisko's insistence that the Prophets did speak through the convicted murderer.

Only Starfleet's request for clemency had spared Neela the prescribed death penalty under Bajoran law. Kai Winn Adami, Neela's hidden patron, persuaded First Minister Shakaar Edon to release Neela as an "expendable agent" to deal with the Cardassian True Way. Neela was pardoned afterwards and became Winn's official troubleshooter.

In truth she worked beside Major Anara for Militia Special Forces the largest percentage of the time.

But before Neela had supposedly, and Winn actually did, died, Neela had informed Winn of her sparing all of Winn's political opponents she'd "dealt" with on the Kai's behalf. Smuggling entire clans off of Bajor to the colonies or the Federation. Winn had been furious but Shakaar was already impressed by Neela's actions on and off the field so she remained freed despite the Kai's demands Neela be returned to prison and finally executed. Now Johnson wished that Neela was present to help advise them on what the translinear Prophets saw in the Patriots' future and he said as much.

"You know the Prophets are rarely that direct," Macen chided his friend, "Unless they want something."

"Now would be a good time for them to be less obtuse," Johnson complained.

"You know Sela will make a play for the Zone," Rockford reminded him, "So start there."

"Sela is rarely that straightforward," Johnson admitted, "She thinks sideways."

"She thinks treacherously," Macen clarified that point, "So this Townsend is the exploitable weak link. You have him recorded speaking with Sela?"

"Yet she doesn't say anything of substance," Johnson considered it, "Which is her ploy much the way it was in Rekena."

"So privateers rather than traditional military forces," Macen mused, "It's awfully Breen of her."

"I'll be certain to tell her that," Johnson smiled.

"We know Tekana and Solara are her favorites. Have Starfleet Intelligence track them down," Rockford suggested.

"I have. They're supposedly still in the Rekena Sector," Johnson stated, "Yet if Ambassador Aurelian and Empress Taralin were to make an appearance it would likely be with either privateer commander providing support and security again."

"Why Taralin?" Rockford wondered, "Why risk the life of a powerless but popular empress?"

"To dispose of her is my guess," Johnson assessed, "Tal'aura's position isn't secure and the average Romulan is clamoring for a return to normalcy. Making Taralin Empress in fact as well as name is being floated by the Senate."

"A move supported by Donatra," Macen had seen the same briefs.

"And Tomolak?" Rockford asked.

"Doesn't care as long as it strengthens the Imperial Fleet," Johnson shared.

"And Sela's opinion is an unrevealed mystery," Macen told her. Rockford pretended to pout over the fact that her next inquiry had been preempted.

"The more things change the more they stay the same," Johnson chuckled. T'Kir had been the character in the room as well. He could only imagine what a handful Arinea, Macen's El-Aurian, and first, wife had been. Of course, Rockford covertly letting him know Macen and Argus had also been lovers had alarmed him but made a certain sense given Macen's proven predilection for strong and rebellious women.

It was why he was such an ardent friend of Ro's. It was also why he was successfully forging ties with Kira. Macen was a polarizing figure like the women he admired. But Rockford was also a consensus builder. As Macen had proven able to do as well when needed to. It was little wonder they'd built a private security-investigation empire together. Something that hadn't happened while T'Kir was still alive. She'd kept Macen distracted and from realizing his full potential. A potential, like many of his closest friends and allies, the Prophets had deemed fit to expand upon for their own purposes. Some of which had been revealed as others yet to be discovered.

Neela was their lightning rod for learning about the Prophets' intentions. The recent discoveries of the Pah-wraith cult expanding to include non-Bajoran members and the existence of an Orb of the Kosst Amojan that could unseal the Fire Caves and liberate their Emissary, Dukat, bode ill for the galaxy at large.

Cell 51's resurrection also was a foul portend. But at least Section 31 was finally dismantled and most of its agents incarcerated. Cell 51, a covert splinter faction, seemed to have inherited S31's yet hidden assets and materials. Recently, it had come to light that Cell 51 possessed a Political Action Arm that had seated the last three failed Federation presidential administrations. All in an attempt to reshape the Federation in the Terran Empire's image.

S31 having become aware of the Terran Universe as early as 2252. The USS Discovery's infamously classified crossover followed by James T. Kirk's fifteen years later revealing the USS Enterprise's encounter with the transphasically shifting Constitution-class USS Defiantwas the harbinger of the vessel reappearing in the Terran Universe back in 2154

Which seismically shifted the balance of powers in the Terrans' favor for two centuries until they were toppled by the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance.

Which renewed crossovers in and around Deep Space Nine led to the fracturing of the Alliance and the revival of a slightly more humane Terran Empire. The balance of powers once against shifting because of an ISS Defiant. The Terran Rebellion having stolen the Federation technical design plans and copied the starship. The Imperial remnants merging with the Terran Rebellion and forging a new dynastic Terran Empire.

General Smiley O'Brien retaining his tenure as CO of Terok Nor.

Generals Luther Sloan and Michael Eddington were placed in command of the Security apparatus. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, having led the Terran Imperial Remnant into victory over the new Klingon Regent Duras the First, became the new Terran Emperor after slaying his rivals, Captains William Riker and Geordi LaForge. Reg Barclay became Picard's personal Imperial Guardsmen Commander. Admirals Elizabeth Shelby and Tasha Yar split the war effort between them. Shelby focused on the Cardassian campaign against Supreme Legate Dukat and Yar fought the shattered Klingon Empire.

Both were genocidal campaigns.

Intendants Ro and Kira vanishing after their abortive mission to the Prime Universe Macen, Rockford and the others now occupied. No one in either universe knew where they currently were. For reasons Macen and Rockford couldn't quite fathom yet, Johnson reminded them of the fact.

"What are you thinking, Bob?" Rockford asked before Macen could.

"What if they never left but went underground?" Johnson asked, "There's certainly nowhere for them to go back to according to Smiley O'Brien's last message to Deep Space Nine."

"Your building point?" Macen asked.

"Emperor Georgiou found a place with Section 31. What if the Intendants found places with Cell 51?" Johnson conjectured.

"How does that affect this case?' Rockford had to wonder.

"I don't know but their disappearance and this situation have been jointly troubling me," Johnson confessed.

"And you don't think you're just asking for added trouble?" Macen sought clarification.

"Just a damned strong hunch," Johnson told them, "Doctor Barnes is the only one to confide in me about two Bajoran women assisting the secessionist movement. Why would non-Patriot Bajorans even care?"

"But Cell 51 might," Macen made the leap.

"And they may have found shelter with Cell 51," Rockford connected it all, "With Cell 51 continuing their move to autocratize the Federation."

"Exactly!" Johnson burst out. It was the first time his theory had been voiced aloud. It didn't sound so crazy after all.

"But why?" Rockford wondered, "Just to destroy the Federation?"

"And create a new Empire they have a role in," Macen surmised.

"A leading role," Johnson clarified.

"I doubt Sorbo would easily go along with that plan," Macen expressed his first doubt.

Acting Agency Director Sorbo still held hope of finding Jack Fowler. Could it be Fowler had been resurrected somehow after theoretically launching his positronic brain towards Dominion held space?

If so, what kind of deal had Fowler cut with the Founders to return? General Kira still received regular updates from Odo, the Changeling foundling from Bajor that had returned to the Great Link to influence it from within. Odo had reported that the Link was beginning to sway towards his position that not all solids were essentially hostile.

But there was a dedicated resistance to his view of solids and the Federation in particular. A view that could drive a portion of the Link towards fanaticism, Odo felt. He'd keep Kira posted.

Kira had accepted when Odo left that he wasn't returning to her ever again. First commanding DS9 had distracted her from her loneliness. Next the transition to the Chairperson of the Joint Chiefs had filled all of her waking hours. The war with the Federation had exasperated that. But things were calming and the Bajoran Republic had allies now.

First Minister Astris Beru and the Ministry had just committed Bajor as a mutual partner to both the Cardassian Union and the Iotian Federation. Of which, the Iotians were openly antagonizing the UFP. Garan was smart enough to let Cardassia rebuild within before agitating a foreign foe.

But the Cardassians and Bajorans had been involved in an officer exchange program even before the wars. It was how Zivan Slaine had ended up on DS9 and the Defiant crew. Now the Bajorans and Cardassians had taken up joint patrols of the neutral space between Cardassia, the Bajor Sector, and the Breen Confederacy as well bolstering patrols of the Tzenkethi border near the J-class starbase built by the Iotians for the Militia known as Free Haven Port near the colony of Free Haven.

Joint patrol operations were also underway staging from the K-class Deep Space station, Waypoint that the Militia had built in the Gamma Quadrant with Iotian support. They patrolled the Bajoran colonies and joined with Ascendant patrols of their near space. Militia patrols joined Cardassian efforts in the Cardassia Sector and Dorvan Sector. But the Republic fell short of assisting the Cardassians in patrolling their Subject Worlds. Those worlds were a sore point between the two governments.

Garan was beginning to establish limited autonomy on certain Subject Worlds as test beds for further liberation efforts and lifting of restrictions. The recent covert Starfleet Security efforts in suppressing rebellions and resistance movements had taught the populaces never meet your heroes. Cardassians would be relieved to be liberated from having to occupy these worlds. But they still wanted the resource extraction to continue and favorable trade exchanges. Unlike the Bajorans, these worlds didn't have a remnant population that still remembered independence when they began their resistance movements inspired by the Bajorans and Maquis.

Many older Bajorans were ashamed of siding with Cardassia while they still oppressed other planets and populations. But the Federation had taught the Bajorans that key allies could bring tremendous pressure to bear regarding humanitarian issues. It had taken over sixty years, and the Bajoran Resistance had made life so miserable, that Cardassia withdrew from Bajor as part of the same treaty that created the Demilitarized Zone with the Federation.

The UFP then swept in to provide Bajor with vital assistance and protections. These decisions and efforts were not lost on the Bajorans. Which is why they still agreed to jointly operate DS9 with Starfleet and allow Starfleet and the Federation unlimited access to the Wormhole. Even the Karemma were trading with Bajor and the Federation again. But they'd learned their lessons from Quark and the Ferengi Alliance too well.

Even Grand Nagus Rom was astounded by how venal and greedy the Karemma had become.

His brother Quark had barely avoided arrest and prosecution only by consigning 80% of his franchise profits to them. Seeing as how the Quark 2000 replicator was built on their technology. Bajor had paid its licensing fees in arrears from the Dominion War for their warp capable Karemma designed troop transports they'd been building under license.

So therefore re-opening trade with the Karemma and Bajor had gone smoothly.

The Federation's re-introduction had been somewhat...shakier. Though, the gift cases of Saurian brandy and Bolian crepes hadn't gone unnoticed by Karemma management officialdom. So trade ties were re-developing. But this time the Karemma were smug in their own sense of superiority over their Federation customers. The Ferengi noted it as well. But the scrappy Bajorans earned the Karemma's respect. Especially since, Bajoran officials had always kept royalty accounts open and filled as per their license agreement. That impressed the Karemma the most and made Bajor their middlemen in the newly re-established trade ties with the Federation.

Starfleet Captain Carol Freeman's negotiating 80% of Quark franchising profits also went far towards impressing to the Karemma that the Federation did indeed want to honor free trade and trade obligations. Which was why Quark's deal with Pel was so extraordinary. She'd own her franchise outright within months. Quark could even end up owing her money if he kept his stake in the bargain. It would be the first and only independently owned Quark's Bar in the Alpha or Beta Quadrants. Pel took it as a sign that Quark loved her after all. He'd also personally selected her as Serenity's Quark's owner. Macen warning Quark he wanted a trustworthy replacement for the now-fugitive Orion woman named Treir.

Treir's own dealings with the Iotians were still troubling. The rift between Treir, Macen and Rockford had created a rift between the Iotians and Gomer, the Orion Syndicate's now former leader. The Iotians favored their extensive trade ties with Outbound Ventures over their nascent agreements with the Syndicate. So Gomer was handed over to her rivals and the Syndicate moved on without her or extensive ties with the Iotian Federation.

But they still had their mutually agreed upon "understandings" of non-interference in certain spheres and territories of operation. The Iotian Starfleet wouldn't offer "protection" through membership in the Iotian Federation to specified worlds the Orion Syndicate openly operated off of. Despite pleas made by several planetary governments. But a deal was a deal...until it wasn't. Both sides eagerly awaited the other party's breaking the bargains.

Which, the Iotian Starfleet possessed three nearly autonomous starship commands that had extensive dealings with the Orions. They were the only three Iotian commands not commanded by Iotians or crewed by their member world conscripts. One ship commanded by Ishtashra Yar, the daughter of Ishara Yar and cousin to Sela and a crew of former Turkana IV settlers relocated to a world they named Turkanis. The other two ships commanded and crewed by former private security contractors formerly illegally held by Starfleet in black sites before ending up Cardassian prisons on one world. They'd been shipped out to the Iotians by Commodore Oh in exchange for their renewed freedom.

The Iotians assigned them to Ishara Yar and the Turkanis colony. Captain Yar recruited them into being fellow Iotian privateers and requested and received two additional starships from Iotian fleet yards. The Syndicate was working with Okona and the Mudds to supply the Patriots with ordnance, tactical munitions, and small arms. Yar and her compatriots were providing security for the convoy's led by the Erstwhile and the SS Fortunate Son to Isegaard.

But the Iotians themselves were selling early and mid-23rd Century used starships to the Patriots from worlds that had upgraded to newer models. Many of them coming from the Bajoran Militia. The Patriots had purchased five Detroit-class and six Mercury-class vessels that had all come from the Militia. The settlers had parlayed off the six Kremlin-class scouts to nearby neutral systems looking to expand their exploratory mission profiles. Between the sales and unknown budgetary practices, the secessionists had acquired new mid-23rd Century type Constitution and Asia-class starships from the Iotians. But the Iotians didn't believe in charity.

News coming out of the Rekena Sector continued to grow worse. As the trio discussed the latest Starfleet Intelligence reports, Rockford had to scoff, "It's hard to imagine Klingons and Romulans getting along well enough for D7 battlecruisers being sold to the Romulans."

"A number of D5 warships went their way as well," Macen recalled, "They were still in active military service alongside the Birds of Prey and Birds of Vengeance."

"And now they all belong to Romulan privateers or Border Zone warlords," Johnson grimaced.

"The sales of which were all aided and abetted by Sela, no doubt," Rockford barely knew her but despised the half-human Tal Shiar Director anyway.

"There's more to it," Johnson stated, "Starfleet Intelligence's sources within the Romulan capital were arrested a day a go. After they managed to send out word that a Romulan Senator named Eldanak is also on her way to the Rekena Sector as the privateer forces build. Get this: Eldanak is also half-human. She and Sela hate each other passionately."

"Her I might like," Rockford opined, "How's she end up with a dual heritage?"

"Her father defected from Starfleet when he was suspected of being spy for the Romulans. Of course, he was. He found himself as a manservant at a Romulan estate and Eldanak is the defector's illegitimate daughter. But when the rest of the House was killed on Romulus, the poor cousins on a colony world inherited the Senate seat. She was the only surviving member of the family of serviceable age that hadn't been on Romulus when the shock wave hit. The others are her doddering grandparents that each served in the seat one after the other since before the Romulan Commander Keras crossed the Neutral Zone, breaking a century year old silence," Johnson explained, "And Eldanak is something of an ultra-nationalist. Like Sela herself."

"Any word on any notable privateer commander other than Tekana and Solara?" Macen asked.

"Other names include Aelynn, Danaris, D'Nea, and Telena P'ris, daughter of the very deceased Commander P'ris you all knew so well. Except you never really knew her at all it seems. She died in the Hobus supernova when it destroyed Romulus," Johnson shared.

"Which explains why we never heard of her now," Macen said sadly.

"Wait a frinxing a minute!" Rockford demanded, "Talera had a daughter?"

"In the here and now it seems," Johnson clarified, "Her name is Talena."

"At least that's her public name. We all know Romulans have private names just for family and another private name just for lovers. P'ris was always an honorific bestowed upon the clan. Like Caithlin Dar's family bore the Dar honorific," Macen slowed everybody down.

"Did Talera ever share any of those names with any of you?" Johnson asked.

"No, we were close but not family and none of us were ever her lovers," Macen explained.

"Her family name was Neira," Rockford quietly shared, "She never told you because she was afraid you'd be uncomfortable with her claiming you as family."

"That sounds like P'ris," Macen softly chuckled, "Overt and outgoing except for when it came to her inner life."

"Yet she confided in you," Johnson was amazed.

"I'm a very confidential person," Rockford asserted.

"So it seems," Johnson admitted, "Anyway, the presence of Tal'aura's personal ambassador, a low ranking Senator, the Director of the Tal Shiar and the puppet Empress all in the Rekena Sector with building private forces can't bode well for the Patriots Confederacy."

"Sela and Tomolak's imperial naval forces will remain behind in the Rekena Sector," Macen predicted, "This is Aurelian's show while Sela pulls strings to set everything up. What's the status on Solarian Security Solutions in the Rekena system?"

"They pulled out once Rekena IV was pacified," Johnson said grimly, "Something we can all thank Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev for."

"Alynna and Sela are both master tradecraft experts and strategists. They came to an agreement and I'm inclined to believe it involves the Klingons now that the Duras clan supporters in the civil war have the Chancelorship," Macen stated, "That and the Federation needs to protect its interests in the Artifact."

"Which you don't approve of," Rockford alone knew him well enough to hear the slight edge to his voice.

"It's Borg. That says it all," Macen replied.

"We understand their tech and we stand a better chance at repelling them for good," Johnson voiced the official line.

"Or they finally assimilate the Federation through that reverse engineered tech," Macen snorted.

"He has no opinion on the matter," Rockford quipped.

"Apparently," Johnson nodded, "I lost friends and classmates at Wolf 359 and the defense of Earth in 2373. So I get it."

"I suppose you do," Macen conceded, "But you still approve."

"Analyze the strategic applications of what we can learn from a Borg cube," Johnson recommended, "Think of it in terms of a Cardassian super weapon. Or an El-Aurian one."

"Any ideas of why high ranking Romulans are joining the party?" Rockford asked.

"They simply want to add the Patriot Zone to their empire and rub the Federation's nose in it as well as nearly surround the Klingon Empire on this side of the Beta Quadrant," Johnson assessed, "With the Patriots claiming secession the Romulans have a pretext of not invading Federation territory. Especially if they get invited in by Townsend and his cohorts."

"We're coming up on the supposed border," Macen told him, "What kind of reception can we expect?"

"Chris Noble and the others were embraced. You'll know your interceptors because they're all flagged as CSS vessels," Johnson informed them.

"CSS flag?" Rockford wondered.

"Confederate Star Ship," Johnson hid his grimace, "And every one of them named after a naval vessel in service to the Confederate States of America."

"They are taking this seriously," Rockford groaned.

"How well equipped are they now?" Macen inquired.

"They have twenty-six starships ranging from Constitution-, Asia-, Mercury-, and Detroit-classes as well as two dozen Maquis raiders they salvaged from Eric McMasters' secret storage depot," Johnson explained, "The raiders are negligible. They've promoted the 'Blonde Squad' to commanding the Starfleet class vessels."

"Blonde Squad?" Rockford wondered.

"Two Cuban, two Puerto Rican, ten Thai, one Chinese, two Filipina, five Malaysian, three women from North American settlers, and two Pakistani women that were inspired by your Joelle Jones and the originalWaylaid crew," Johnson told them, "They're all survivors from the DMZ colonies."

"But they're not ex-Maquis?" Macen wondered.

"They were too young even by Maquis standards," Johnson explained, "But the Cardassians and Jem'Hadar made them slaves."

"Which explains they're current motivation," Macen acknowledged.

"The Blonde Squad is the single-most influential group. Their opinions matter more than most Maquis veterans, of which there are a dwindling number," Johnson shared, "But your personal credentials, and Tracy Ebert's, should get you a warm welcome."

"Harri Mudd should also help sell our story," Rockford added.

"Some of them will have heard the name Rab Daggit from leaked Starfleet records from the Dominion War. They'll know he served with you and Ro during that conflict," Johnson ventured.

A chime went off on the Solstice's briefing room and Macen interjected "We're coming up on the outer marker of their claimed space. We'll see how warm a reception we actually receive."

"Good luck, my friends," Johnson signed off.

"Bob certainly shared a lot more than Starfleet Intelligence is feeding us," Rockford noted, "I'm going to play this back for my people. We can track down some of these names and broaden our scope of what to expect."

"I never had a doubt," Macen smiled as he exited.

Rockford summoned Lee Kang, Shade, and Arianna Forte to the room.

"This is the CSS Baton Rouge," an Aenar female appeared on the Solstice's main viewer.

Her Ju'day-class raider had challenged the Solstice at the presumed border.

"State your business," she requested.

"We're to help," Macen volunteered without being specific.

"Clarify," the Aenar replied.

"We're here to help keep all the multiple wyvern at bay," Macen got minutely more specific.

"Identity," the Aenar demanded.

"Brin Macen. Bump that up to your former Maquis superiors and they'll vouch for me and mine," Macen stipulated.

The Aenar co*cked her head, "They've been listening. It seems you're correct, Captain Macen. Have a nice trip. Please report to Carolinius II for further instructions."

"Safe journeys," Macen replied and cut the viewer, "Tracy, you have the coordinates?"

"Already laid in," Ebert grinned.

"Don't bury yourself in the part," Mudd advised her from the neighboring OPS station.

"Let's set a leisurely Warp 5," Macen ordered.

Like the Nova-class Obsidian, the Solstice had a maximum emergency speed of Warp 8 for 12-hours. Warp 5 was a comfortable and interstellar capable cruising speed. Covering the distance to Carolinius II still took over an hour. The Confederates it seemed had claimed a lot of space.

Upon arrival they say a small fleet of outdated starships that the Iotians had sold the Patriots and were now training them in their operation. Captain Jaylana of the ISS Gun Moll was leading the training and exercises. Commodore Juli of Iotian Fleet Base 3 was consultation and logistical support. Jaylana's own Commander Winniw reveled in creating devilish scenarios for the twenty-six newly minted starship captains to overcome and solve.

"Captain? A word?" Tessa commed him from Sickbay. With her new arm placed mobile emitter she could have easily come to the bridge but she obviously sought discretion.

"I'll be in Sickbay," Macen informed the them, "Rab, you have the bridge."

"How can I help?" Macen asked Tessa as he entered the Solstice's rather more primitive Sickbay versus the Obsidian. A difference in sixty years' worth of developments.

"I've been reviewing the sensor logs," Tessa told him. Despite being an EMH, Tessa was dating Galen 3, the Eminiarian scientist that served aboard the Obsidian.

Tessa wasn't allowed to freely travel the Federation after the Synthetics Ban. Her mere existence as a sentient hologram broke the law. Vic Fontaine had returned to DS9 after Bajor decided to remain outside the Federation, clearing his departure from Serenity Station.

"And?" Macen was curious as to where this was headed.

"The Solstice's sensors, while advanced for their era, aren't as precise or sensitive as the Obsidian's," Tessa prefaced her impending discussion.

"I'm well aware," Macen's time aboard both the Odyssey and the Solstice had made him hyperaware of every advantage and disadvantage to the ship class.

"That being stated, Galen 3 showed me what to look for when scanning for cloaked vessels," Tessa told him, "I think we have a tail."

"For how long?" Macen scowled.

"Since leaving DS4 at least," Tessa advised him, "It has irregularities in the energy distortion field that aren't Romulan or Klingon in typical fashion."

"A Federation cloak. Like the holoship on Ba'ku?" Macen asked.

"Stranger than that," Tessa stated, "The closest analogue I can find are readings taken by the USS Enterprise-D concerning the USS Pegasus."

"A transphasic cloak?" Macen could hardly believe it, "Even the Romulans gave up on that insanity."

"It appears stable despite the unusual irregularities," Tessa warned him.

"I can only think of one entity that would still illegally pursuing that technology," Macen said grimly.

"Section 31," Tessa caught the implication, "Or now, Cell 51."

"Why the sudden alert?" Macen asked, "You said they'd been trailing us since at least since we passed DS4."

"It took this long to verify my results and their irregularities ceased. Now we're looking at a Scimitar-class perfect cloak with transphasic capability," Tessa explained.

"Two terrifying propositions," Macen involuntarily shuddered.

"My thoughts exactly," Tessa agreed, "They could appear anywhere or hide anywhere even if we could detect them. They could transphasically cloak inside our own ship."

"How large a distortion field are we talking?" Macen asked.

"Roughly Miranda-class size and shape. I guess a Soyuz-class if I was pressed," Tessa readily answered.

"So it wouldn't be another large ship disaster if the system failed and the ship was lost," Macen understood the reasoning.

"And it's proven vessel type adaptable to modern standards," Tessa added.

"Thanks you for this. Stay on it. Hopefully your primary specialty won't be needed," Macen requested.

"Thank you, for calling it my 'specialty' rather than 'function'," Tessa radiated joy.

"Tessa, you're the most human person I know," Macen promised her.

Macen used intership comms to explain the new wrinkle.

"So if Cell 51 is taking an interest, we know the situation is devolving into a crisis faster than we'd feared," he concluded.

Burrows had come to the bridge to relieve Daggit during Macen's absence. The former SOC commando unable to rest while off duty.

"Tony, make yourself useful and take the conn," Macen suggested, "I need to speak with Parva."

"Fools! My own command at long last!" Burrows manically laughed. Everyone just stared at him.

"Just kidding," he shrugged.

"He does this once in awhile," Mudd explained, "He thinks it's humor."

"Good to know," Ebert still watched him warily.

Her spectacles correcting her vision and tied into the nav sensors so she was aware through a Heads Up Display of the ship's situation as long as she was tied into the system.

"You're staring," Mudd hissed at her.

"Damn skippy," Ebert pointed two fingers at her lenses and then at Burrows.

"Um..." Burrows was uncharacteristically hesitant and Ebert far more aggressive than usual. Apparently being on the Solstice suited her. She'd spent five years at the helm of the Odyssey. During some of the most formative years of her young adult life.

Macen had declassified certain of Ebert's exploits as a Maquis operative to underscore for her peers her strengths as a pilot. Particularly in this class of starship. Everyone had been amazed by her skill piloting the Danube-class Corsair but the feats she'd accomplished with the Odyssey made those miracles pale in comparison. Of course, even an early-24th Century scout starship outperformed a mere runabout. But Ebert and Mudd, with Parva's engineering genius, was evening those odds with the Corsair.

"Captain," Parva managed to say it again without a trace of irony, "How can I help?"

"I assume you're looking at the records about the USS Pegasus," Macen said.

"Scary tech," Parva admitted, referring to the transphasic cloak.

"Scarier potential applications," Macen agreed.

"I suppose they could inhabit another ship and attempt to tap into its FTL quantum computer calculations, Giving them complete access," Parva theorized.

"They've undoubtedly already tried," Macen guessed, "But Angelique and Bailey's magic should confound them for a while yet."

Kerber was the computer expert and Smith was a natural linguist. Their collaborations on computer and machine languages made them the hacking pair to beat.

"I have them both reviewing the computation logs to see of their any unexpected data requests," Parva told him, "S'harr is still thrilled to be along for the ride rather than on the Obsidian. Her boyfriend may feel otherwise."

"Contact Shannon. Tell her I authorized two months leave for S'harr and her beau," Macen told her, "That will hopefully pacify a seemingly jilted lover."

"Celine Jones is currently overseeing the maintenance on the Obsidian. So she'll be glad to hear it," Parva admitted, "It'll cut down on Crenshaw's bitching and moaning."

"Their choice, I hope." Macen grimaced.

"Shannon and I promised them leave when S'harr returned regardless of ops schedules," Parva smirked, "Fortunately, They know S'harr is an action junkie."

"That always helps," Macen smiled now. A boson's whistle sounded. Macen activated the wall intercom, "Macen here."

"We're arriving and the Patriots have instructions to give us," Burrows replied.

"Follow orbital insertion instructions and whatever else they're asking for," Macen told him.

"They want a crew manifest," Burrows sounds suspicious.

"Send it along," Macen went to punch the off button before Burrows could object, "Out."

Burrows' years with Starfleet's Special Operations Command taught him discretion as a by-law. Openly displaying who was aboard was anathema to him. Daggit would also have his own concerns. Mudd might object at first but since her family were like smuggling royalty to the Patriots, she'd swiftly get over it. No one knew Smith and Kerber were really the fugitives Maarta and Anara from Ardana IV. Not even Rear Admiral Forger knew that. Starfleet SID had no records of it. So even Cell 51 should have been unaware of the facts. "Should have been" being buzz words that might not carry weight given Section 31's old resources that Cell 31 inherited.

"Can you counter it?" Macen asked Parva.

"Maybe given time I can design and build a detection system. The transphasic aspects are already inherently unstable. So for Cell 51 to have stabilized them just makes this that much more difficult," Parva hated to admit.

She'd been hyper-intelligent before her accident that left her partially brain damaged. The genetic re-sequencing enhancements that she'd received as an illicit treatment boosted her genius into unheralded heights. But it also lent itself to emotional instabilities.

"Take a crack at it but we'll manage regardless. We always do," Macen assured her. The boson whistle sounded again.

"Macen here," he answered.

"I was actually trying to reach Parva but we'd just to have to report to you as well," Kerber told him, "We'll be joining you in Engineering. The news isn't good."

"We" meant Smith was coming with her of course. The news wasn't as bad could have been expected.

"Something interconnected FTL quantum calculations with our computer core and attempted a hack. Fortunately, Bailey and I keep up with security on all the Outbound Ventures starships. We're prepping upgrades but they've tasted our system now. They might develop a means of unlocking our encryption." Kerber reported.

"But if they do it in vicinity to us we should be able to detect the subspace chatter carrier wave for a cipher that large," Smith relayed the good news, such as it was.

"Bailey has a fleet-wide update available. It takes what was translatable from the Shedai meta-genome and formed the nucleus of the Genesis Project and stringing it through Iconian and signal intercepts from the Kelvans and the Metron Confederacy with a little Organian thrown in amongst dozens of other races." Kerber described, "We can reboot the Solstice's core gradually once we're in orbit."

"How?" Parva had to ask.

"Captain Macen's log journals from his days in the El-Aurian Survey Corps gave us access to those and Delta Quadrant races the Federation hasn't encountered yet. Hannah Grace supplied the Kelvan portions," Smith explained her part.

"Even the Dominion doesn't have access to most of my journal's entered races and languages," Macen explained.

"You explored the Beta and Alpha Quadrants, didn't you?" Parva recalled.

"They were closer to El-Auria and we had other teams going deeper into the Delta Quadrant and even into the Gamma Quadrant," Macen told her, "So other members of my race survived the Borg assimilation. But they're few and far between."

"And you haven't handed over your data concerning the Deeper Beta Quadrant," Parva didn't guess. Macen loved his secrets.

"It's better for the Federation to learn on its own," Macen replied, confirming her theory, "Humans originally possessed the Vulcan database but used it for general references only. The United Earth Starfleet's exploration mission, begun by Captain Jonathan Archer and the crew of the NX-01 Enterprise, relied on their own impressions of races and establishing their own independent diplomatic relations. Cultural exchanges and trade ties followed."

"So you don't want the Federation to cheat?" Parva asked.

"I don't want them biased by our impressions and takeaways on individual and collective cultures," Macen clarified, "Starfleet and the Federation have been doing fine since 2293 when I returned to the Alpha Quadrant aboard the Lakul even without my log. They'll still do fine without it. Besides, most of my entries are a century or two out of date."

"You should read what he wrote about 22nd Century Earth," Kerber snickered.

"Waitasec! You were on Earth before the Federation formed?" Parva was startled to learn.

"I was there before the United Earth Government formed. I was dropped off to conduct an in-depth study following Guinan's reports of human culture's adaptation and development post-World War III and First Contact with the Vulcans. So I was there when the first Enterprise launched. I stayed through the Romulan War and the founding of the Coalition of Planets. Other teams kept tabs on the development and social evolution of the United Federation of Planet's and Archer's terms as its first President," Macen told her what he's already revealed to the Ardanans.

"You should write a history," Parva insisted.

"Humans are still irritated that other races visited their planet without announcing themselves prior to Zephram Cochrane developing and testing his warp drive. Knowing the Vulcans began visiting in the 20th Century as well as the Elvans throughout the Middle Ages would just freak them out. Having near-humans passing as their own would create a societal backlash against histories that they have known and accept now. Look at the prejudices Vulcans faced after Kirk's Enterprise crew discovered what a Romulan really looked like," Macen stated, "My people officially arrived as refugees in 2293. Let's keep it that way."

"My people never stood a chance at not standing out amongst humans so I never thought about it," Parva shrugged.

"Ardanan traders met with Federation scouts in deep space," Smith told everyone, "This was before zenite ore began being mined in bulk and the Troglytes were enslaved."

"But we were still second-class citizens because we weren't chosen to ascend when Stratos was built. Until then we were one race dominated by imperial dynasties. The imperials set aside their differences long enough to build their sky city and co-habitats and then enslave my people as a servitude class," Kerber mentioned, "The mines just exacerbated a cultural problem."

"The zenite gas making the Troglyte workers seem dull and brutish thereby reinforcing my people's prejudices against them," Smith said darkly.

"Well, everyone assumes all the women on my planet have the pheromone 'touch' when it's just a narrow few. And those few rarely get to keep their scent glands out of the males' fears of entrapment and enslavement. The male led civil war, after they seared their scent receptors, and enslaved the pheromone casters. It was only after Sindis took over the Orion Syndicate that Orion women were freed from general slavery after the war. Now it's personal slavery when a trader conscripts a desperate fem into bondage. Or a raider captain like Treir kidnaps an entire colonial population to sell off to the highest bidders. Orion males still prize fem slaves. For people like Daveed B'nner it's a status symbol."

"Even Bertram Sindis can have a redeeming quality," Macen didn't want to discuss T'Kir's killer. At least not in a positive light. Sindis had been too brutal for even the Iridian Enforcers. But the Iridians had still avenged his death. They didn't take kindly to the death of one of their own even if he was a renegade crime lord. The entire original Obsidian crew had paid the price for that death.

The Enforcers had left the ship derelict to attest to their handiwork and to warn others to stay clear of their territories and of harming one of their people. The Enforcer's brief engagement with the Federation, the Romulans, and the Klingons had ended on that note. So people had been startled to learn that Macen, Rockford, the SID team, and the Senior Staff had brought the Obsidian home to Serenity after a six month absence.

Picking up an equally stranded Harri Mudd along the way. Mudd had been a peripheral target for her association with Rockford's Detective Agencies. The original Freehold had been unsalvageable so Mudd started over with a new Bajoran warp capable scout/freighter. Tom Eckles, Heidi Darcy, Emjin Thool, and Parva in her spare time had stripped out every safety and boosted the ship's performance well beyond her rated specs. The finishing touches had recently been applied by the Bajoran Militia Special Forces engineers, Colonel Anara and Major Neela.

Anara because she was terrified by taking passage aboard the new Freehold. Neela because she thought it was fun. Both Bajorans had lived on and worked from Serenity.

Their own Karemma license built Ark of the Prophets being another example of a freighter being converted into a troop transport. An ideal covert mission platform for the two Bajorans.

Neela had been pressed back into Militia service by General Kira Nerys and First Minister Astris Beru. Bajoran society it seemed wanted external controls on the Hand of the Prophets in order to keep her from running loose and getting killed. But they preferred her to continue in a service role. Kai Trus didn't want or need a personal troubleshooter as Winn Adami had so the Militia was a compromise move on both the government and Neela's parts.

"We'll see what we can cobble together using the Solstice's existing parts synthesizer and equipment to give us fair warning when a transphasic cloak is being used in proximity," Parva promised, "S'harr is coming down to mind the store while I and the Dynamic Duo here work the problem from every angle."

The boson whistle sounded again and Macen sighed. He irritably punched the call button, "Yes?"

"The leadership is expecting a landing party," Burrows advised him, "Ebert and Mudd are on the requested guest list."

"Anyone else?" Macen was amused.

"Just you and Rockford," Burrows told him.

"Have them meet me in the transporter room," Macen punched the off button, "Parva, if you'll do the honors?"

"I'd be more than happy to get rid of you all," Parva chuckled.

"Glad to hear it," Macen said good-naturedly, "Other than that, best luck with our current dilemma."

"Luck," Kerber snorted, "The recourse of the weak."

"We'll have the problem well in hand by the time you return," Smith assured him.

"Never doubted it or you," Macen and Parva exited.

"Ready to get to work, Princess?" Kerber asked.

"I was never a princess," Smith irritably replied.

"Close enough," Kerber retorted.

Commander Jillanic sneered at the privateer commanders gathered aboard Sela's D'deridex-class Warbird Charvenak. The privateer Supreme Commander, Rejak, was addressing his chief Commanders. Everyone that was part of Johnson's brief was there along with Commander Arlinea and the Centurions D'nece, Donatella, Fajela, Galenja, Garrik, Jarok, Kalbrek, Tinzon, and Vilena.

Commander Arlinea and Centurion Garrik would be in command of the ground attack on Carolinius II. It served as the official capital of the Confederacy of Planets. Raleigh serving as both planetary and confederate capitals. Rejak, Kolbrek, Tinzon, and Jarok having served distinguished careers in the Romulan Imperial Fleet. But they'd aged out of accepted service for their ranks.

Aboard vessels as small as Birds of Prey and Vengeance and even the D7 Klingon derived ships didn't require large crews so there were no Subcommanders unless the Commander preferred having one on staff. A Centurion generally served as Executive to both officers and enlisted. As in the Imperial Fleet, a Commander's voice was next to a god's. The Centurion was his or her chief priest.

Everyone else aboard was generally considered an enlisted man of woman. But privateers transferred crew into higher positions between themselves and new commands so advancement was much quicker in the privateer service. So other than retired Centurions looking for continued action, the ranks tended to be rather young.

Commanders were monitored by the Fleet and were offered Subcommander positions aboard standard military vessels if they excelled. A temporary demotion that could yield tremendous gains.

If not, they could stake out private fiefdoms such as the warlords of the Border Zone.

None of those opportunists were present. Sela had culled the best and the brightest privateer commands for this opportunity. The Romulans had a creed, "Never turn your back on a Breen." But the Breen had taught the Romulans the value of paramilitary assets that could mount invasions and strike targets in otherwise inaccessible territories.

The legalities of the Confederate Patriots' position were in much doubt. For their part, the truly believed they'd seceded from the United Federation of Planets. For the Federation's part, they refused to accept the secession. Generally such matters, with a rapidly militarizing presence in the so-called Confederacy of Planets, would settled by warfare. The winner either declaring permanent independence or eternal occupation.

But Rear Admiral Johnson had once again applied his "magic touch" and averted a war. So far. Several Federation starships would even assist in the Patriots' defense while Johnson finalized Starfleet and the Federation's ultimate position regarding the Patriots' ambitions towards independence. Once upon a time, before the Hobus Disaster and the Mars Massacre, Starfleet would've settled by declaring the burgeoning Confederacy a Protectorate. But Fleet Admiral Kirsten Clancy had withdrawn all such protections in favor of locking down the Federation's member worlds.

Two abortive wars later, Clancy hadn't budged regarding her policy decision and instead had doubled down upon it. That was where companies such as Outbound Ventures and Solarian Security Solutions were making their latinum. The Iotian Starfleet was also capitalizing on the uncertainties by offering the security that came with membership within the Iotian Federation. A transactional exchange of conscripts and trade quotas in exchange for protection. The Iotians adapting Federation and Starfleet ethos into their Mafia based society.

The Five Families ruled Sigma Iotia II. The hereditary Oxmyx ruled the Five Families. The hereditary Kracko commanded the Starfleet. The current Oxmyx and Kracko were unique in that they were the first women to inherit the roles and they were also the first Big Boss and Fleet Boss that were openly lovers. The consolidation of so much power in the hands of two young women made the Five Familias bosses cringe.

Oxmyx had already hit a potential rival for her seat. An Oxmyx had ruled since Kirk arranged for Bella Oxmyx to be the Big Boss. A Kracko had always been number two and evolved into the Fleet Boss as the Iotians began building up their version of Starfleet in little under a hundred years. The Federation had stopped sending cultural observers as the Iotians, using public database plans acquired from the Federation, to break the warp barrier within forty years of Kirk's departure.

Sixty years later, they'd used those databases and stolen blueprints to advance from a Cochrane's Phoenix copy to analogues of early and some early-24th Century starships.

They sold United Earth and Federation starships of every era leading up to 2293 vessel models. They kept an exclusive right to the newer vessel types for their own Starfleet.

But the Iotians had no Prime Directive.

If a planetary government hadn't achieved warp drive or even space travel, the Iotians would sell them starships. In doing so they'd abetted genocidal holocausts and unleashed predatory aggressors onto the galaxy at large. These people groups not sharing a Prime Directive limitation either. Simply put, the more primitive they were, the easier it was to conquer them.

A motif the Star Empire followed as well. But advanced species were so much more satisfying to conquer. Jillanic felt they should simply bring in the Fleet and crush this upstart Patriot Confederacy while they were still semi-primitives.

The Iotians had provided twenty-six starships and near parity to the privateer vessels.

She inherently retained the cultural sense of superiority regarding Romulan tech versus Federation equivalents from any era. A sense of smugness amplified by her own command's artificial singularity harnessed warp drive. A process using gravitational fields akin to old steam pressure derived power in fissionable fuel nuclear reactors.

Vulcan's own Atomic Age had been particularly violent. The coming of Surak and the militant colonization that followed as his tenets of controlling emotions through logic rather than martial discipline drove hundreds of thousands off of the planet. Then there were the Rigellian Vulcans. They controlled their emotional surges through carnality and sex. Which could be forms of passive or active violence so Romulans and Vulcans had no inkling of how to take Rigellian Vulcans seriously. Vulcans wanted to simply ignore them and Romulans wanted to beat them senseless or exploit their sensuality.

Rejak was outlining the plan Sela had devised for them. Jillanic hated Sela for usurping control of her Warbird's command. The crew followed the half-breed now. She had the favor of the Praetor, the Proconsul, and the grudging respect of the Supreme Fleet Commander yet Commander Jillanic would defy them all for one solid chance to assassinate Sela. And Sela knew it and goaded her on into making that fatal mistake.

At this point Jillanic's crew would cast lot for the right to kill her. Something the embittered commander would never forgive or forget. Sela still had powerful enemies even if she was shielded by being Director of the Tal Shiar. But even she answered to the Senate. Even the Praetor would acquiesce before a quorum of the majority. Jillanic just had some major, and discreet, politicking before her. After all, she had the Imperial Security forces against her. She was officially considered too unimaginative to ever be a rebel.

Rejak finished handing out details to individual assignments. Of every privateer commander present, only Aelynn's loyalties had ever been questioned when she aided the Ekosian and Zeon evacuation of their star system when Romulan forces had tested a slow and very imperfect variant of trilithium on their native star. But the humans had an expression about eggs and omelets.

"Commander Aelynn, you look skeptical," Rejak observed.

"This all is depending on the Federation remaining uncommitted to an active defense beyond a handful of starships," the veteran commander reminded him, "If Starfleet is committed, then the three starships waiting outside the border will enter in. The three that are already present are problematic enough."

"Which is why our enthusiastic and expendable forces are being committed to swarming the far more capable starships. Even an Aventine and Intrepid must fall before superior numbers," Rejak was confident.

"The fools still believe they've 'honored' with their suicides?" Aelynn snorted.

"The plan depends on the most capable commanders and crews defeating the starships the Iotians have just provided without engaging the Iotians themselves," Rejak repeated a mandate from Sela.

"And the criminals?" Aelynn sneered.

"The Orion Syndicate is more than willing to deal with the Patriots' raiders. Let them," Rejak shrugged, "They'll retain their commissions for buying these worlds from President Ardra and the Imperial Fleet will not covertly hunt them down throughout known space and beyond."

"And their own pet Iotians?" Aelynn had to wonder.

"Will be dispatched to other tasks before we begin. Captain Yar and her near-pirates will prove a hindrance if they remain," Rejak agreed in principle.

"But not Treir and her actual pirates?" Aelynn was surprised.

"Treir and her kill squad will eliminate the Patriots' united political leadership after Doctor Argus determines why Carolinius II is so special to the Patriots as a whole," Rejak shared, "Commander Arlinea and Centurion Garrik's ground attack will be greatly assisted by the confusion that will wreak. It will also throw the Patriot starship and raider captains into a frenzy whereby they will seek vengeance rather than proceed tactically and all strategy will be abandoned wholesale."

"A well conceived stratagem," Aelynn outwardly approved. Since being "rehabilitated", Aelynn had not obviously strayed from the Orthodoxy that ruled her people. She'd always been a Romulan patriot. She just disagreed with the Star Empire's enduring hostility for its greatest rival.

They had the Deeper Beta Quadrant to conquer. Why dither then with the Federation?

Aelynn's own grandfather had been a human slave taken by a commander during the Earth-Romulan War. Unlike the reviled Caithlin Dar, Aelynn had never sullied herself with a human lover. St. John Talbot had been a wastrel for decades, hence his posting in Nimbus III, before Dar secured his transfer to Romulus. But Talbot abandoned Dar during her Orthodoxy trial arranged by the Tal Shiar, preferring a disgraced return to the Federation over a life of discomfort at a Romulan re-education camp beside Caithlin Dar.

Dar had learned from her experience and became an outspoken critic of the Federation afterwards. Even securing a lower, rarely elected, Senate seat. Dar had been the mastermind behind the Star Empire's support behind the Federation-Klingon truce that assassinated Chancellor Gorkon. Dar had passionately argued that an eventual Federation-Klingon Alliance would be crippling to the Star Empire's expansionist ambitions. Something the entire Senate would rally behind.

Aelynn wasn't so hardened. Her sister was a fanatical imperialist. She'd been made a Fleet Commander in the light of the losses following the Hobus supernova. She was currently waging a war beyond the Federation's Deeper Quadrant borders. Starfleet had been advised of the conflict zone in order to keep them from entering it. As much as many Romulan commanders would've liked to destroy the famed Enterprise-E but she was already lost in action.

Former First Officer Commander Worf had entered in an exchange service with the Klingon Defense Force after transferring back to the Tactical Division. Captain Geordi LaForge commanded the Advanced Starship Design Bureau's test bed Galaxy-class starship, the USS Challenger. The Challenger was the last hull of her class to be laid following the completion of the USS Hood.

Will Riker had stood down from command of the USS Titan. Deanna Troi had followed him since the departure was a family issue. But Riker's tenure at command was already legendary and so was his Luna-class starship. Doctor Beverly Crusher had resigned from Starfleet and seemingly vanished from official circles.

Still, Donatra honored their memories and their defiance of the genocidal Shinzon.

The mad Reman's plan to pit the Federation and Star Empire into an apocalyptic war to end all wars failed thanks to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the sacrifice of the android named Data. Supreme Fleet Commander, Admiral Tomolak, at least remembered the alliance the Romulans had forged with the Federation and Klingons to end the Dominion threat in the Alpha Quadrant.

Tal'aura was cagier. She was only Praetor because she was one of a handful of Senators to survive Romulus' destruction. Being one of three that outlived Shinzon's assassination of the entire Senate. Tal-aura listened to the winds as they changed and the Romulan people needed feel an imperial greatness again following the loss of Romulus and Remus and millions of settlers on other worlds due to environmental catastrophes following Starfleet's failure to deliver evacuation arks.

Of course, the Federation had lost Mars and the entire Utopia Planetia Shipyards where the arks had been finishing construction. Tal'aura was one of the few to know that General Oh had ordered the attack that doomed millions of fellow Romulans in order to halt the Federation's increasing developments in synthetic life forms. Oh was a Starfleet commodore and the Director of Starfleet Security. The most junior flag officer to ever hold the office.

She also possessed Fleet Admiral Clancy's complete and utter trust and reliance upon her discretion. So Oh knew how Clancy had violated Federation law and Starfleet regs to illegally detain Federation citizens without arrest or trial. Oh had transferred the same prisoners to Cardassian black sites in exchange for Special Operations Command suppressing a half dozen revolts against Cardassian Union authority across their Subject Worlds. She'd also used those prisoners as a pretext for war when asked to by a political cabal wishing to subvert the Federation's democratic norms.

The politicians needed an existential crisis to justify an authoritarian regime. They manufactured two. One against the Cardassians and the second against the Bajoran Republic that was cast out of the Federation for supporting the Cardassians' positions and demands for Commander Sam Lavelle's head. The Bajorans had learned their lesson well. When the Federation called for a cessation of hostilities, the Bajoran First Minister negotiated healthy reparation payments and refused the Federation Council's offer to restore Bajor to full Federation membership.

Astris Beru brokered a mutual defense pact instead with exchange officers and cooperation aboard Deep Space Nine and on the Gamma Quadrant terminus of the Wormhole. The Bajorans retained ownership of DS9 and supplied the bulk of her crew.

Meanwhile Starfleet supplied most of the upper echelon administrative officers. Most humiliating of all was the Federation inability to penetrate Cardassian space. So they sued for peace there too.

The Bajorans' mutual defense pact with Cardassia Prime a legal thorn in the Federation's side should they choose to resume hostilities at a later date. The Federation had never provoked wars before. Neither had they ever attacked the ally of an ally. But Starfleet had done all of the above at President Chavy Sok's demand.

The result was that the Federation's gold pressed latinum reserves were badly drained.

The cashless society was bordering on a fiscal meltdown when it came to financial obligations to other worlds. They'd resorted to selling bonds to meet their obligations.

But they were perilously close to being unable to meet their future dividend payments.

Much less cash out the near term bonds rather than the heavy interest bearing thirty-year bonds.

Sela was all too informed of the Federation financial plight thanks to Oh's infiltration.

The shattered remains of the Ekosian system were littered with asteroids and planetary fragments rich in latinum deposits. So the Federation seized control of the system before the Iotians could move in. The Iotian Federation had already beaten them to Beta II. A second contact team had learned that the Betans on Beta III had rebuilt Landru.

But rebel factions fought the computer's directives and edicts.

Many Betans and conscripted into the Iotian Starfleet rather than serve Landru. Native rebels remained behind, supported by the Iotians. Of course that level of support was guaranteed to prolong the conflict for as long as possible. The Iotians provided flintlocks and black powder rather later generation firearms. But any firearm was a lethal escalation in the struggle. A return to a violent past Landru had been built to insure that it was never repeated.

The Tal Shiar was more than aware of these developments due to high number of professional snitches within the Iotian Federation and its own Starfleet. Sela had even begun witness relocation programs for those officers and Familias' informants implicated by the Five Families and the Starfleet.

They lived in refugee relocation camps in the warlord dominated Border Zone.

There, they were despised by the average Romulan but they at least stayed alive. Destitute, despised, and alive. Rejak was aware of all these things thanks to Sela's briefings in geopolitical affairs and he shared them with his top commanders. Under Rejak's leadership, the privateers had transformed into a privatized fleet. A fleet Sela dominated.

Since the disaster working with the Cardassians against the Great Link, the Tal Shiar possessed few ships of its own. Heralding in the usage of privateers. Plus the sale of outdated and outmoded warships supplied needed currency to the military budget. Like the Bajoran Republic, the Star Empire maintained two classes of currency: a foreign exchange and investment unit and a domestic unit. The exchange was exorbitant in favor of the domestic currency.

The foreign denomination was the rekah and the domestic the rekal. They traded ten to one. All foreigners exchanged their latinum for rekah before investing inside the Star Empire but internal transactions and prices within the Empire were done in rekal and thus the unfairness of the exchange rate. A flat rate of five hundred rekah per bar of gold pressed latinum was maintained and ten rekah made one rekal. Or one bar of latinum for ten rekal. Everyone knew the economy was rigged in the Romulans' favor but the rebuilding contracts were vaster than domestic contractors could supply. So foreign firms were brought in.

And capital was needed so the Empire was also selling treasury bonds in rekahs but charging rekals for them. So the Romulans were effectively paid twice for each bond. First at Customs and then at the Imperial State Bank. Furthermore, the Romulans conducted all foreign transactions in rekahs. But every trader and investor knew that rather interstellar money markets valuating rekahs and rekals, they were exchanged on a flat-rate latinum standard.

Making their value commiserate with the value of latinum on each world. Therefore privateers were paid in the higher value rekals and purchased foreign ordnance unavailable in the Star Empire in rekahs. They were also paid rekals by foreign employers. But few external contracts were sought or accepted by the upper tier privateers. The Tal Shiar kept them flush in currency.

Sela was waging campaigns across the known quadrants employing the privateers.

Unlike Border Zone warlords, privateer vessels retained their cloaking devices commiserate with their age. Since the collapse of the Neutral Zone, the Starfleet tachyon detection net project fell by the wayside. The Mars Massacre further driving far more insular Starfleet policies and patrols. Clancy prioritized Federation member worlds and abandoned outer colonies and the Protectorates.

Opening innumerable opportunities for the Romulans and Iotians to exploit if planets or settlements couldn't afford or receive subsidized contracts with security companies like Outbound Ventures and its competitors. The SID helped support patrols of strategic partners. Unknown to Clancy but suspected by Oh. Who gleefully, hidden behind her faux Vulcan stoicism, reported her suspicions to Clancy. The SID being an inter-Division collaboration of Starfleet Intelligence, Internal Affairs, and Security.

With oversight given to the Judge Advocate General's offices.

As such, Forger had a "black budget" account for operations considered too secret to be on public record. Clancy publicly reported in to the President and the Federation Council. President Kilbrek promoting a "new era" of transparency. So Forger kept her secrets even from Clancy. Something Clancy actively cursed about. Employing seemingly lost derogatory terms involving copulation, fecal matter, anal orifices, and cognitive disabilities. Preferably lumped together in single sentences.

Despite Admiral Jean-Luc Picard's resignation, she still referred to him as a "self righteous prig" because his still enduring legacy within Starfleet and its conflict with Clancy's ongoing active policy decisions. Adding to her headache were the "resurrected" Captains James T. Kirk and Montgomery Scott. Scotty was distracted with the Enterprise-M Starfleet Academy project and course. Kirk had been shuffled off to the Delta Quadrant in command of the USS Voyager after Captain Chakotay was transferred to the USS Protostar.

Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway was as big a headache as Admiral Leonard James Akaar, Vice Admiral Edward Jellico, Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Rear Admirals Forger and Johnson, and Vice Admiral Bill Ross combined. Fortunately, the Protostar had dropped off the Pathfinder Array's scope and Janeway had taken out the new quantum slipstream drive equipped USS Dauntless-A and gone after the Protostar's trail.

Keeping another catastrophic headache out of Clancy's graying hair.

Although, Commodore Shelby was beginning to defend her husband, Captain Mackenzie Calhoun, too much for Clancy's tastes. Clancy would soon be laying down ultimatums regarding Calhoun's future and Shelby's career if she stayed married to him. Captain Katarina Mueller was in her sights as well.

Clancy had already decided there would be no Enterprise-F under her watch. Let the next fool who decided to vie to be Starfleet Commander have that brand of flagship headache. For her, she was designating the USS Sovereign, the first of her class, as the new operational flagship. All the advantages of a modern Enterprise without the headaches of a legacy to live up to.

Clancy was still piqued that Kilbrek wouldn't authorize her administrative revenge beyond demoting Nechayev one grade. That left Akaar, Jellico, Forger, and Johnson unscathed. Ross' persecution under Sok was clearly political therefore none of Clancy's ongoing concern. However, Ross and Captain Ignatius Freeman of Starbase 375 had learned from the experience and had little faith in Clancy's good humor anymore.

Admiral T'Lara, the sitting JAG, had authorized investigations into Clancy's conduct and legality of certain orders. T'Lara was untouchable under such circ*mstances and Kilbrek refused to ask for her resignation. Just as Clancy couldn't lash out at any of the investigators. Commander Michelle Prentiss of IA, Commander Robin Lefler of Starfleet Operations, and Lt. Commander Senecka of JAG were under T'Lara's direct umbrella.

But she'd promoted the Vulcan Director of IA to get him out of the way and placed a loyalist in office to impede Prentiss' efforts. Clancy was expending a lot of political capital on Vice Admiral Doctor Katherine Pulaski, the Director of Starfleet Medical, to certify Nechayev unfit for duty since Starfleet didn't have a mandatory retirement age.

Take a look at the one hundred and eleven-year old Commander Elias Vaughn for proof of that. But after Vaughn relieved Commander Sam Lavelle of his command of the USS Defiant and DS9, his star had fallen out of her favor.

The Bajorans may have had every legal right to ask Starfleet to leave their station but they hadn't had the moral right in Clancy's opinion. Starfleet had sweat and bled for that station. Commodore Oh was still feeding Clancy plans of how or invade Bajor and occupy her without incurring a second Resistance. Clancy wondered how well Oh acknowledged the Bajoran mindset in her plans.

Oh simply wanted to drag out another bloody conflict to clear the way for Romulan domination. Lavelle was a loyalist that had invaded Cardassian space on the slimmest of orders and intelligence. Better yet, he'd killed dozens of Cardassian troops defending the black sites and mistaken the SOC commandos assigned to warden the Federation prisoners as prisoners themselves. Then he'd simply allowed the Iotians to whisk away everyone before Starfleet could mobilize debriefing teams.

The SOC officers returned home and the corporate security contractors relocated to Turkanis, a semi-autonomous Iotian planet inhabited by human colonists. Bringing with them the first alien elements into the population.

Sela was agog with glee over the success of these and other operations. The takeover of the Rekena Sector being another proverbial feather in her cap. Now the full might of her skullduggery was on display. She was openly gathering Rejak's privateer forces. The independent operators outside of his collective being too small and provincial for Sela's tastes.

Even her perennial favorites, Tekana and Solara, were member of Rejak's guild. Sela and the Charvanek crew were only there officially as Empress Taralin, Ambassador Aurelian, and Senator Eldanak's military escort. Even the uncooperative Empress knew they were merely the pretext for an invasion. An invasion accomplished by the very security contractors hired to defend the Empress and the imperial envoys.

Taralin wasn't privy to any of the operational planning but unlike several previous addled nobles to hold the crown, she wasn't stupid. She'd seen the glyphs on the wall back on Rekena III so she knew why she was being asked or remain beyond imperial borders. Only this time Starfleet wasn't just handing away the system. Hence the privateers who could be labeled rogues after the fact in the advent of failure.

Taralin was a dupe of the Praetor and the Senate, like her entire family line had been since the Earth-Romulan War, but it was still profitable to trot out an emperor or empress once in a while. Despite their utter powerlessness, the imperial line was seen as a connection to the past. Unyielding and unbroken as the Romulans themselves.

Especially now that an entirely new Senate was seated by colonial officials. Traditionally, Senators were strictly from Romulus. Planetary governors reported to panels of Senatorial control. There were the High Senators, born into rank and privilege, and the Low Senators, having earned their place through valorous deeds in the name of the Star Empire. These were not sustained hereditary seats. Favoritism peopled the Low Senate seats. An utterly incompetent moron could win a seat if nominated and majority consensus of approval was reached.

A lots of rekals traded hands and favors were bartered for these appointments. And the nominating Senator now had a proxy vote. In truth, the Proconsul had more direct authority, though third in line of power, than a Senator. Proconsuls were always elevated military officers. Hence Donatra's appointment by the Senate.

Since the High Senate, with fewer than a half-dozen exceptions, had been decimated, the Low Senate was radically expanded and its ranks filled by colonial gubernatorial appointees. Making it far more egalitarian than ever before. Though the remainder High Senators had to confirm the appointments. Restoring the bribe and barter trade.

The old colony world of Caligula became the new Imperial seat. Or at least, that was the Federation's designation for the planet. It had been partially protected from the Hobus shock wave by the Vulcan Red Matter. There's been mild orbital shifting that barely altered the seasons or yielded tectonic shifting. So it was the oldest surviving colony. So it became at first de facto capital before being recognized as the official Romulan seat of power.

Rejak and his Centurion, Vilena, were from Caligula. Her youth belied his age as an honored elder. Just one who'd retired in peace. If Rejak were to die it would in space or in battle.

"Alert the fleet," Rejak ordered his subordinate commander, "We are on a twelve hour countdown."

Though Aelynn commanded one of the least of the vessels, a humble Bird of Vengeance, she one of the most skilled and accomplished commanders. It was she that first attracted Sela's attention towards privateers decades ago. Tekana and Solara's moral ambiguity making them her favorites. At Rejak's command, Aelynn alerted the privateer fleet. Soon, the four dozen strong vessel guild would fly into action.

Their primary target would remain Carolinius II. Townsend had negotiated limited autonomy within the Star Empire for it only to be granted, unbeknownst to him, for as long as it took regular fleet forces to quell the resistance on the rest of the Confederate Patriot planets. Then Townsend's betrayal of the Confederacy would be fully repaid by the Romulans. Sela could hardly await that delicious moment. She couldn't stand traitors. Hence her despising the Duras family.

Martok had just retaken the Chancellorship in personal combat and the High Council was so unsettled by a disemboweling followed by a beheading that they fell in line to acquiesce to every one of Martok's wishes. Including reinforcing ties with Starfleet and the Federation and going through proper channels to clear a path of conquest into the Taurus Reach.

Worf was once again proud to stand by Martok's side. Having personally convinced Martok to issue the challenge. Worf having committed to raising a subsequent challenge if Martok fell in battle. Worf was the finest warrior with a bat'leth in or out of the Klingon Empire. Duras' courage would falter and treachery and cowardice revealed for all to see. But Martok prevailed. To the High Council's fear and regret.

Worf knew the Empire had just fundamentally changed. Last time, Worf thrust the Chancellorship upon Martok and the High Council never forgot that. This time he claimed it by right of blood through ritualistic combat with a blood thirst to make the staunchest would-be opponent quail. With Worf by Martok's side, only dishonorable means would push Martok into the grave. And maybe not even then. So the plans to take the Taurus Reach intensified and the Federation Council was apprised of what was coming.

The few remaining Federation colonies within the Reach would by autonomous worlds within the Empire. They'd been provisionally independent anyway. Martok quickly signed a mutual defense pact with the Bajoran Republic. It had been negotiated with Astris Beru and the Council of Ministers while Martok was still considered a semi-renegade.

Martok downplayed President Kilbrek's request to renew the Fourth Khitomer Accords and instead assigned a mutual non-aggression pact between the Federation and the Klingons. Martok warned Kilbrek that the Federation's recent dishonorable conduct had downgraded their relationship to mere non-aggressors. Until such time as the Federation could re-prove its veracity as a noble ally.

The Federation Council bristled but accepted the chastisem*nt. After all, Martok and his crew aboard the Rotaran had fought beside the Bajorans and not against them. Commander Elias Vaughn quietly suggested it was overdue that Martok meet with Macen and Rockford.

Thanks to General Oh, Sela knew these things as well. Townsend informing her of Macen's arrival in the imminent conflict zone heartened her spirits and her ambitions.

To be even more foolish, he'd arrived in an outdated starship. One he'd assumed personal command of. Sela was aware of Macen's commanding the Odyssey during the Maquis days and the Dominion War.

But in the here and now, Tom Riker had commanded the Solstice, the Eclipse, and initially the Obsidian before settling down with Lisea Danan on Serenity. She had no idea of whom or what she was up against.

Inside the capital of Raleigh on Carolinius II, Estella Barnes was busy distracting her fellow xenoarcheologist, Taryn Argus. The point of Barnes' sleight of hand was to occlude the existence of the ancient, amphibious natives that had survived the poisoning of their ocean homes by jealous, shorter lived surface dwellers before the land dwelling citizens abandoned their planet leaving behind a rich tapestry of technological advancement and dwellings. Perfect for a colony of settlers seeking escape from the Federation Core Worlds and the DMZ.

Barnes had buried the existence of the native known to them as Ar'kana and her people from her academic reports, studies, and papers. She listed the aquatic population as exterminated in a mass genocide. Which the undersea evidence pointed towards.

What it didn't show was that scores of amphibious peoples had adapted themselves to fresh water and sought out vast underground and underwater cavern networks and deep lakes, refuges where they could build anew and avoid further contact with surface dwellers.

But the comparatively young Ar'kana had persuaded her tribe to reach out from their caverns and contact the Federation settlers. Their empathic gifts sensing kindred spirits.

Doctor Barnes buried all evidence regarding their survival. Now Argus was attempting to find out why the citizens of Carolinius II had led the secessionist movement. But on behalf of Cell 51.

Acting Agency Director Dylan Sorbo, still stung by "Jack Fowler's" even cooler than usual aloofness had been convinced by "John Browder" to conduct an investigation.

The hidden in plain sight Founders had even assigned the Vorta named Eris to the investigation aboard the USS Dibron. The Soyuz-class transphasic cloak equipped starship had achieved standard orbit as it tailed the Solstice over Carolinius II.

Robert Roy, Section 31's former Operations Director, had joined Cell 51 and was commanding the Dibron's first mission. Uncomfortably, his exec was Eris. Roy had knowledge of Project Proteus. Fowler and Browder credited their "survival" to the Dominion. Which saw a similar goal of creating a Dominion-style autocracy out of the Federation. Only dominated by humans rather than Founders. A less benighted version of the original Terran Empire, if you would.

Roy was assisted in command duties by Senior Agent Wes Petrie. Information and logistical support would be directed by Thora Collins while the Intelligence Section was being run by Katie Monroe with assistance from Lydia Martins. All were S31 veterans and like Sorbo, all had noted the profound changes in Fowler and Browder. Particularly his stance towards the Dominion as "allies" in a common struggle instead of implacable foes that he'd personally devised Proteus to harness Changelings to weaponize them and make them the perfect killers with the intent of enslaving the entire Great Link and the Founders that managed to survive the plague wrought upon them through Odo.

Eris overseeing Roy's mission smacked too deeply of Founder thinking. Their earlier attempt to merge with and tap the Solstice'smain computer core had ended badly and could've possibly given themselves away. That attempt had been Eris' contribution to the mission. The contrite Vorta wasn't that contrite. She still felt the attempt was justified.

Kilana, the other Vorta representative, had direct experience with Macen and would've been of greater value to the mission. But she'd been duped by Macen and Ro in the past so she was withheld from taking part by Fowler. The fact the Vorta listened to Fowler as though he were a Founder troubled everyone in the Cell 51 command structure except for the Trinity, the three Operations Managers that had replaced Roy. Two women and one man, all upstart youths in Roy's opinion, had seceded him as Operations guru. Fowler and Browder had their complete loyalty. But then again they'd never met either man until now. They'd been apocryphal legends until their "miraculous" return from the Gamma Quadrant.

The Gray Cardinal and Lauren Ryder went so far as to accuse the men of being Founders. Sorbo was undecided. But Roy and the others veteran agents were beginning to believe Ryder and Ana Johanssen. Regardless of that particular truth, giving Eris access to the Dibron was just bad strategic thinking. At least the Vortas' hand selected four Jem'Hadar "bodyguards" had been left behind with the dozen that followed them in turn. Though the Jem'Hadar seemed more concerned with protecting Fowler and Browder. Only adding to the suspicions regarding their ultimate nature.

Commander Vaughn and the Defiant crew hadn't detected any trace of potential survivors from the destruction of the ship that had carried Fowler, Browder, and L'Haan into the Gamma Quadrant and they were amongst the most competent Starfleet officers. So there was little room for miraculous tales of survival. But Sorbo was desperate to believe. So he overlooked the obvious flaw in the tale.

The Defiant's sensors had recorded a probe launch. A probe whose payload could have somehow been Fowler's positronic brain. Jack Fowler had been born with an incurable brain defect. James Fowler, unable to cope, had his son's brain removed and replaced when he reached maturity. Then he programmed Jack with every secret Section 31 had ever held. That was what went into Dominion space.

Eris found the probe and delivered the positronic device to a renegade faction of the Great Link. Not knowing that in 25th Century another renegade faction would arise allied with the rogue Borg Queen that wasn't Alison Jurati and the Queen from an alternate timeline. A Borg Queen whose plans for humanity had begun with Locutus.

And ended with Jack Crusher. In more ways than one.

For now, Roy had Petrie keeping a weather eye on Eris. Now it was time for Doctor Argus to make her final report. Only, she had nothing substantial to report. Doctor Barnes had kept her too distracted by raw data regarding the departed civilization and the "dead" undersea civilization for Argus to ever discover what was so precious that Carolinius II had led the secessionist movement over.

The Confederacy's Patriot Council had elected regional representatives that were made of largely survivors from the Cardassian-Federation DMZ. Arkhura and Buckyanko being the exceptions. Townsend wasn't even attending the sessions involving Johnson and Starfleet. He wouldn't even attend those greeting Noble and the Eclipse crew after their abbreviated tour of the Confederacy or meet with Macen and Rockford.

Townsend was a libertarian extremist. Who wouldn't even wear clothing except in situations off of his home colony or weather demanding. Even then he preferred a loincloth. He was very angry man. Still unwilling to shuck his anger over being a Cardassian and Dominion slave during the war. So angry he sold his fellow colonies out to Sela. All in exchange for vain promises.

He knew the Confederates would fight and die and he was so angry at them for allowing Johnson and Starfleet in, he hoped their blood would boil before they froze in space.

He just wished he could jerk off in front of Barnes one last time fantasizing about raping her the way the Cardassian camp commandant and taken him. He imagined she'd enjoy it and beg for more. As an extremist, it was his right to do so and even to act on it.

But Barnes never visited his colony where he would have legal sanction to rape her.

He'd certainly been kicked out of enough council meetings for simply masturbating.

Fascists! All of them! They'd see how the liked it under real jackboots. He laughed himself to sleep every night since he'd began selling secrets.

"It is good to see you once more, Captain Macen," Raining Waters led the greetings.

Inkhut tapped the floor with his cane in agreement. Englund gave him and Ebert a jovial smile. Buckyanko and Arkhura wondered what the fuss was about. Sakonna and Hakatay had remained with the Council even as Johnson had. Captains Dax and Divine were joining them as well as Noble and Tulley.

"Captain Macen, as good as it is to see you again, I'm afraid I bring bad news," Dax began her preamble, "Starfleet command has ordered Captains Cera, Divine and I out of Confederate space until Admiral Johnson's negotiations conclude."

"What?" Johnson was as stunned as the Patriots were outraged.

"On the eve of a Romulan invasion?" Tulley raged.

"Orders are orders," Divine shrugged. It seemed her role was to insure Dax's compliance after all.

"Captain McKinley is vigorously pursuing this matter with Starfleet as we speak," Dax was obviously stricken, "But until such time as the Confederacy reaches out for assistance, we're to pull out."

"What do you think we did with you?" Buckyanko's anger surpassed Tulley's.

"If you were still member of the Federation..." Divine began to claim.

"You would still abandon us," Inkhut said gravely, "Because of President Ardra's decisions and our legal troubles before the Federation Council."

"Starfleet has taken up your case before the Council," Dax promised them, "Admirals Akaar and McNeil, as well as Vice Admiral Jellico and Commodore Shelby are arguing that Starfleet itself, in tacitly endorsing Ardra's illegal activities forced your hands. A coalition of ambassadors has also taken up your side. Strangely, they're ambassadors from stellar powers that 'bought' Federation systems from Ardra. But their contention is no Federation Council but this one would have ever considered recognizing the sale of its own citizenry. To put it bluntly, they're helping shame the Council into positive action. President Kilbrek is on your side and is fighting the subcommittee that forced this decision by Starfleet Commander Clancy."

"Clancy did this one on her own," Johnson said darkly.

"Council members, now is the time to formally request Starfleet's aid," Dax pleaded.

"I don't think so," Englund said grimly and he was a moderate, "Not until we have certain assurances from Admiral Johnson on Starfleet's behalf."

An aide rushed into the room, "The Romulans! They're gone!"

"They retreated?" Inkhut wasn't hopeful.

"They simply vanished en masse," the naval aide reported.

"They're cloaked and ready to strike;" Macen told them all, "Now they'll wait until our vigilance erodes and they can freely strike out."

"Council members, please!" Dax made one final appeal.

"Without an official request, the Intrepid can only defend herself. Not the Confederate worlds or their navy," Johnson warned them all.

"The same holds true for the Aventine and the Freedom," Divine gloated. The original Freedom-class USS Freedom had been destroyed during the Dominion War over Vulcan.

Her Akira-class replacement carried a pair of fighter wings as the Intrepid did as well.

But Divine seemed satisfied to let the Confederacy die in its own obstinacy. A new breed of Starfleet commander rapidly promoted during the war. A far less compassionate Starfleet rose up in traumas dating back to Wolf 359. The infernal daily casualty lists of the Dominion War had scarred every member of Starfleet and every citizen. Yet Starfleet endured. Even Divine's empathy was eroding. Cera's was an unknown factor. The recent conflicts with Cardassia and Bajor only reinforced those memories etched into the collective consciousness. The Mars Massacre and the Dominion War were still too fresh in the cultural psyche for Cell 51's plan to have succeeded.

"It's strange and sad that the fight for the Federation's soul should be fought here," Macen suddenly broke the sullen silence, "In a backwater territory that no one but the Romulans gives a damn about. Yet, mere weeks ago, these colonists were fellow citizens. Signal Akaar and the others and tell them not to create another DMZ."

"But that's what this decision is," Johnson picked up the thread, "A battle for the Federation's conscience to be cleansed. Be their voice, Captain Dax just as I am Starfleet's voice of reason."

"Hail Mary diplomacy at its worst," Divine snorted and signaled to be beamed out.

"I have something to share with you, Captain Dax. The great secret of Carolinius II and the Confederacy. A secret that cannot be shared. Only fought for," Raining Waters began to confide in her.

Ar'kana entered the room at that point, "Hello Ezri and Hello Dax."

"You can feel both of us?" Dax was amazed.

"And the imprints of the minds that came before," Ar'kana told her, "I feel their emotions. Especially one. But others, like yourself, restrain him."

"Joran. Jadzia and Curzon, the hosts before me, dealt with Joran's influence," Dax told her, "But I've had the best success in reconciling the personality. It's even been a strength for me."

"Helping you achieve command so young," Ar'kana understood, "The youngest Starfleet captain ever now."

"You've read my public dossier," Dax smirked.

"I think I like you better than I'd like Kirk at this age," Ar'kana confessed, "Of course, that could be Dax's influence."

"You're the secret," Dax surmised.

"Not entirely. My people are. You see, we're indigenous to what you term Carolinius II," Ar'kana told her.

"The aquatic civilization," Dax realized.

"We survived our surface dwellers. Now we have to survive yours," Ar'kana said sadly.

Dax faced Johnson, Macen, Rockford and the others, "You all knew."

"I learned when Miss Ar'kana decided to share with me. Captain Noble likewise was informed after arrival. I forewarned Commander Macen and Detective Rockford," Johnson explained.

"Why the special treatment?" Dax asked Macen and Rockford.

"`Cause we're nice?" Rockford replied with a question of her own.

"Captain, I have complete trust in them. I'd trust the fate of the Federation with them. Which in a sense I have," Johnson told her.

"What haven't I been told yet?" Dax wondered.

"My people are excellent bio-engineers. We don't go in for genetic enhancements but we can use pre-existing recessive genetic material and bring it to manifestation alongside the previously dominant genes," Ar'kana told her, "This simply completes who we are."

"That rates as enhancement in Federation law," Dax frowned.

"But consider what it could mean for crops," Johnson advised her, "Disease and insect resistant plant-life with faster and more bountiful yields. People are tired of replicator food. It just doesn't get things quite perfect. And we can't feed the Federation and her allies on what we actually harvest. But if we could bolster production?"

"The realization of the Genesis Project," Dax understood now, "Only under better control."

"Successful control," Johnson informed her, "Her people have been doing this for thousands of years with no blow back."

"I see the allure," Dax admitted, "But it would take generations to study its potential."

"Doctor Barnes has prepared a 'revolutionary' discovery study based on 'findings' made in the dead undersea cities. Most of it actually comes from those. Ar'kana and her people are willing to fill in our blanks well enough for us to tailor it on our own over those prescribed generations without experiencing the nasty side effects her people accidentally developed along the way. It took them generations to master as well. It's just that their generations are measured in a hundred thousand years at a time," Johnson revealed.

"This way you can avoid 'spore people'," Ar'kana shrugged.

"I think we have enough of those," Dax had read the security reports indicating the invasive and mind controlling plant spores from Omicron Ceti III had evolved or been modified and made their way mysteriously to Cestus III. Ar'kana, it seemed, was innocently unaware of that problem. Few were aware of it.

Federation Security had quickly and quietly rounded up the exposed citizens and quarantined them. The new variant on the plant life was that it infested the humanoid host and could fire spores directly from the infected host into unsuspecting passerby.

The effect of the spores was still the classical manipulation of the host's emotions to one of elation. But a new element seemed bred into the variant.

The hosts were highly susceptible to "suggestion". Once they imprinted on a particular leader figure each and every newly infected host would obey that leader's every command. The leader seemed to be an uninfected humanoid. The only creature known to similarly affect a host were the larval stage Ceti eels. An endangered species native to the quarantined world of Ceti Alpha V.

Specially prepared habitats with host animals were constructed and provided in highly secure wildlife enclosures. The former lushness of Ceti Alpha V before its sister planet exploded was recreated and maintained. Fortunately for the infected eel hosts, the adult population bred slowly and the young often died en route to a potential host's ear canal.

Surveys had shown that certain reptile and avian predators had lived in the wilds of Ceti Alpha V. So similar species were introduced into the habitats as well to help tame the eel population. But captive eels were also kept in order to prevent an extinction event. So far there'd been no alarms raised and the eels in the enclosure seemed to be surviving and even thriving.

The plants from Omicron Ceti III however had resulted in a planetary quarantine to prevent the spread of the plant life form. Many of the original colonists had willingly and willfully refused expatriation and preferred re-exposure to the spores. Entire generations had served as the spores' hosts now, continuing the life cycle of both humanoids and plant life. New settlers, carefully screened, arrived on a monthly basis.

The numbers were small and the population entering in was emotionally disturbed.

But the spores quickly stabilized their turmoils and they lived idyllically happy lives as colonists/

A science team continued to study both plant life and humanoid adaptation to it. The team had gone silent weeks before the Cestus III incident. A Starfleet Security sweep in EVA suits revealed the team was gone and the computer cores of the station removed and taken with the team when they apparently evacuated. Dozens of registered colonists were also missing. Five of whom had appeared on Cestus III with the variant life form infesting their bodies.

They'd infected fifty-six people before the contamination was tracked to them, the plant growth under their skins making their infestation plainly obvious, and the infestation taking literal root in the newly infected. The behavioral changes in the spore laden new hosts tipped off family, friends, and co-workers. Federation Security had everyone within quarantine within seven days, the apparent gestation cycle before a new host could also project spores.

Scientists were now exploring the life cycle of the new variant. What had been discovered thus far was that the variation was genetically modified. The observation team had engineered this new form of the classic spore-plant. The original spores could be neutralized through hostile emotional states. The new, engineered version appeared resistant. Nothing could break either the hosts' placid calm or their mental susceptibility. A former station manager on Omicron Ceti III, one Doctor Elena Kita, had been brought in as an expert.

So far, Kita's research had revealed no obvious flaw or cure for the infestation.

And no life span estimates were currently available. So the infected were the control group in the new studies compared to the century's worth of data on classic infestations.

Command level officer and the execs had been briefed on the security breaches regarding both Omicron Ceti III and Cestus III. The scientific team that went missing was wanted for questioning and potential criminal charges by both Federation Security and Starfleet.

The authorities on Cestus III were angry and wanted to prosecute. At that point, no one knew Kita had led the team that developed the genetic modifications of the spores.

Or that she was a high ranking member of Cell 51. Section 31 had begun the development phase of the spores' engineering and deployment plans. Kita was the template the spore hosts imprinted on.

Sorbo had kept Kita's project in play and now was prepared to begin deployment of small teams of infected hosts to quietly build an army. The hosts wee universally loyal to Kita and Kita was unwaveringly devoted to Sorbo's vision of a new Federation. A stronger Federation that would fear no aggressor ever again. The logical construct Jack Fowler's positronic mind computed and calculated before his death and replacement by a Founder.

Fowler's own memory data supplying the fact L'Haan and Browder had been traveling with Fowler when Fowler ordered a self destruct and auto-delayed a probe launch long enough to behead himself to deliver his mind to the Dominion. He'd calculated the Founders would be amenable to his purpose of creating a Dominion-style Federation with Cell 51 as the Great Link. A faction of the broken Great Link did indeed endorse Fowler's plans.

Only to subvert them so that this "new" Federation would simply be an extension of the Dominion and Starfleet brought to heel after they'd conquered the Alpha and Beta Quadrants in the Dominion's name. With three quadrants' worth of forces and resources, the Dominion could set forth and conquer the Delta Quadrant and the most implacable foe of all: the Borg.

Unlike Dax, certain key figures in the room had clues as to what was occurring but not enough data to deduce Cell 51's plan or the Founders' intervention in it. Without evidence, they continued to be distracted by brewing crises elsewhere. Macen's Starfleet commission had been reactivated by Nechayev and he was placed in the active reserves. As such, his security clearance was restored and even elevated by one degree.

It outweighed even Vaughn's at this point and was one level below Nechayev and Forger's, equal to Johnson's own.

Ro Laren held a joint commission of Colonel in the Militia Colonial Defense Forces and Lt. Commander in Starfleet Intelligence. Both grades gave her command level clearances. Nechayev saw to it Ro's clearance was advanced two levels. She had access to all data and materials available to non-flag rank Intelligence operatives. The Vice Admiral had set the wheels in motion for Ro to return to Starfleet full time and be reinstated as a full Commander where her career trajectory was mandatorily destined to plateau. But she would receive a commodore's clearance at that point.

Ro's youthful experience in the Resistance and later experience with the Maquis made her an ideal counter-terrorism agent. Her current assignment now was to oversee the Cell 51 investigation. An investigation that was beginning to consume all of her time. But it was reuniting her with Worf and Tom Riker. She was quietly receiving reports beyond her grade or clearance from Macen.

As General Kira Nerys had suspected, Ro had filed her retirement papers, having consecutively served in the Militia and Starfleet at Kira's own insistence, since Ro was freed from Jaros II and set on the path to eventually commanding DS9 for a few months before being forced to resign from Starfleet and falling back on her reserve Militia commission as a colonel and would re-enter the reserves at the grade of general. But Nechayev herself persuaded Ro to quietly return to Starfleet and investigate Cell 51's activities as the first of many future assignments. Kira and Ro parted ways in the Militia as friends.

Colonel Anara was recalled from Serenity and assumed Ro's Special Forces role as the practical commanding officer of the Colonial Defense Forces. Neela's reinstatement as a Major in the Special Forces was a paperwork fiction. Neela was an officer without assignments though she made her headquarters aboard Serenity. Neela herself wandered far and wide for the Militia under Kira's personal authority as Chairperson of the Militia Joint Chiefs and General Staff.

Neela's mode of personal transportation remained the Ark of the Prophets. The Karemma license built troop transport that she and Anara had been personally modifying since 2373. The Ark was more akin to Harri Mudd's Freehold now than any Militia craft. Since the restoration of trade ties with Karemma, their freighters in varying size were a common sight within Federation space once again. So Neela easily slipped in and out of star systems as easily as she slipped in and out of uniform.

Kira had no illusions that Neela answered to her. Neela answered to the Prophets alone and Kira found herself admittedly jealous that they spoke to her. But a Prophet had once touched Kira so she was content to know she was a worthy vessel for her gods. With her promotion taking her from DS9 to Bajor, Kira found, despite her increased responsibilities, she was able to devote even more personal time to the Prophets and the charities in their name.

She'd pulled rank with the news services and kept her name and activities from the broadcasts and updates. Despite Odo's absence, Kira found restoration in teaching orphaned youngsters the prophecies and doctrines of the faith. The children's' parents all respecting Kira's desire for privacy. What Ro, Kira, Anara, and Neela didn't yet realize was that all of their myriad activities were about to converge.

In Raleigh, the Confederate Patriot forces had established a modernized command center using a purpose built building left behind by the original land dwelling inhabitants.

Commodore Cristan Olsson commanded the Confederate fleet. His raider patrols on the borders had detected the Romulans absence. Macen came to warn Olsson that the standard Romulan military tactic in these shock and awe exercises was to cloak and move into position around targets and wait until nerves were frayed and exhaustion dulled the senses and the minds of the Romulans' prey. Once that began to become evident, then the privateers like their formal military cousins, would decloak and strike.

So a quick and easy way to draw them out was to make Olsson's untested crews act panicky and the privateers wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity to lash out.

Their opportunistic natures demanding that they do so. Meanwhile, the Confederate fleet could have a counter response primed and ready. A response that would have to be delivered to each individual command by personal courier rather than transmitted given Townsend's increased communications traffic with Sela over the past day.

As a Confederate Council member, Townsend could demand and receive communications ciphers that the fleet was employing. So the compromised transmission bandwidths and encryptions would become the lure while Macen's team would provide new, uncracked encryption protocols, ciphers, and codes. Smith and Kerber had already done the legwork. They just needed each comm package update personally delivered.

So the raiders patrolling the borders were withdrawn. They ferried the new comm packages to the individual starships. While Captain Jaylana and the ISS Gun Moll exited the territory. The Aventine, outside of Confederate space but nearby, reported in that Orion free traders were moving towards the borders. They approached through neutral space and refused Dax's hails.

Olsson was infuriated, "How dare they violate our space!"

"How could they not?" Macen asked him, "Your capture and conquest fulfills their contracts with the Romulans. It's better to cross you than the Tal Shiar."

"The only ships I can spare are the raider force," Olsson lamented.

"Captain Noble will happily lead your force from the Eclipse and share the danger with you," Macen promised, "Meanwhile, the Solstice will join your defense of the Confederacy."

"Thank you, Captain. I know we don't have any formal contracts drawn up..." Olsson began.

But Rockford stopped him, "No thanks are needed. Let's just say it's in our personal interest to stick it to Sela."

"I'm going to recommend some personnel changes to Chris. I suppose you want to stay on the ground with your detective squad?" Macen asked her.

"Yup," Rockford grinned, "And I'll need Daggit, Burrows, Smith, Kerber, Tessa and Parva alongside Lee, Shade, and Forte."

"That'll work with my plans," Macen agreed, "Let's break it to the troops."

Rockford made her announcement first, "Raleigh will be the principle target for any ground troops in this campaign."

She listed who she'd be retaining as a specialized fighting force.

"It is logical that Hakatay and participate as well. Our skills with spacecraft are negligible at best," Sakonna added.

"How does that leave your crew?" Noble asked Macen.

"I'll be trading you S'harr for Eckles and Darcy. I'll also be taking Lacey off of your ship. Tulley can run weapons. It's what he's best at anyway. Thool and S'harr will make a good team. That still leaves you Hendryks at OPS and you will still have the CONN," Macen explained, "That reunites my old crew on a vessel they're familiar with Mudd taking OPS in T'Kir's absence."

"Gee, thanks," Mudd grumbled, "Make me the team band-aid."

"You're a natural, Harri. We couldn't do it without you," Ebert consoled her.

"I'll do it for you," Mudd agreed, "Not for him."

"Whatever works," Macen didn't feel slighted. Mudd had far more loyalty to the team and Rockford than himself. They both accepted that pertinent factoid and moved on.

Rockford had originally put Mudd on retainer through her own agencies. Mudd was still paid from those accounts. So her first loyalty was to Burrows and Ebert. Then to Rockford. Followed by the rest of the team. Macen was in a distant last place. Mudd felt Macen was always trying get her killed and resented it.

"Captain Noble, the Confederate raider force awaits your launch and orders," Olsson reminded her.

"Then it's a good thing we're meeting at the shuttleport," Noble grimaced, "C'mon gang and newbie. We have some sh*t hot flying to do."

S'harr was grinning ear to ear as she reported in with Noble's crew. Parva had predicted she'd love flying with former renegades.

"We'll collect our gear from the Solstice then set up positions around the capital," Rockford decided.

"Just be careful," Macen kissed his wife.

"You too," she instructed him, "No unusually unnecessarily risky maneuvers."

"Promises, promises," he teased. She had a right to worry. Her husband was a reckless starship commander. The reason Shannon Forger was captain of the Obsidian now and not him anymore. Much to the senior officers' relief.

Rear Admiral Amanda Forger greeted recently demoted Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev in her office within the London Starfleet Data Archive. Section 31's former headquarters on Earth and the current headquarters of both the Starfleet Special Investigations Division, and in the sub-levels, Starfleet Intelligence's 0 Section. M and her Single and Double 0 agents rarely interacted with SID personnel though the provisioning armory officer, P and his fellow gadget designer, Qute, frequently supplied specialized tech for regular SID forces.

Irregular forces, such as Macen's SID teams and crews, typically received support from the Special Projects Yards, or SPYards, near Jupiter. Another inheritance from S31 abandoned by Cell 51. The orbital track over Jupiter was between its 67 moons and opposite Jupiter Station in a Starfleet Security Zone. What had become the newest incarnation of the SPYards had been the Area 51 of modern Sol system history.

S31 patrol craft destroyed violators of the secure zone's periphery. Only lending to its intrigue to look-seers. Investigations, tainted by Section 31's influence, concluded each disappearance was due to pilot negligence, leading to space craft being sucked into the Jovian gravity well. Starfleet Security itself being excluded from their own "Security Zone". S31 had dutifully drag netted the debris from the destroyed craft into Jupiter's gravity well over the two centuries the shipyard had been present and expanding, equipping Section 31 with their unique starships.

When Section 31 was outlawed in the 2250s, the yard went "dark" and became a security black site. Officially it was shut down and dismantled. In reality, it never stopped producing starships or expanding into its present frameworks.

"Alynna, how can I help you today?" Forger asked after Lt. Commander Ambril Delori buzzed Nechayev in. Ambril was one of the few Bajorans left in Starfleet. Until tensions died down further, Bajoran officers and enlisted had flocked out of the service following the divisive and unjustified war. Bajorans had fled the Federation following their release from detention or internment camps. Bajorans in Starfleet had been removed from duty and locked away like convicted criminals for the simple crime of being born Bajoran.

Ambril and officers like Captain Cera Neva were more forgiving then most. Even assimilated Bajorans like Tal Celes had fled to Bajor and her colonies. She'd relocated to Prophet's Landing to work in Operations setting up Bajor's third Militia constructed starbase. The G-class starbase was built along classic Starfleet lines from the mid-23rd Century with blueprints and plans obtained from the Iotians and assisted by their Starfleet's Corps of Engineers like the K-Class Waypoint station in the Gamma Quadrant and the J-class starbase named Free Haven Port for the colony it shared a solar system with.

The Colonial Defense Forces defended and manned all of the stations including recruiting to supply personnel to the future station at Prophet's Landing. Celes had been made a sergeant owing to her seven-year stint aboard the USS Voyager as she made her way across the Delta Quadrant. She'd happily left Starfleet behind but the Militia was offering her a signing bonus and a berth aboard the station when it was completed. No more starships for Celes. She'd only serve aboard stations and on the ground itself, whatever the planet. It was part of her enlistment clause.

The Militia fleet had doubled in size over the last several weeks that it took the Solstice to make it to the Confederate Patriot Zone. It had been a six-week voyage skirting around the Klingon Empire, Gorn Hegemony, Thallonian Empire, Metron Confederacy and staying to Federation borders. To venture deep within the Beta Quadrant from deep within the Alpha Quadrant.

Barrinor's native Brsknir system possessed two habitable worlds. The temperate third planet itself and the glaciated fifth planet of Odin. Which was only three neutral sectors away from the Bajor Sector itself, the Kalendra Sector not to be confused with the Federation's Kalandra Sector, and the Impune Sector lay between the Brsknir Sector and Bajor. Though with careful navigation, one could travel directly through to the Kalendra sector through a sliver of a common border where all three sectors met. The Orion Syndicate ran a "safe house" world in that precise solar system that the three sectors met.

The Brsknir system itself was closed to military traffic and no criminals were stupid enough to operate there. Between Serenity Station being located there, Barrinor's neutrality was nearly universally guaranteed through binding treaties everyone, including the Tholians, Breen, and Romulans were afraid to break. To do so was to court the wrath of the known civilized galaxy. Even the lauded Federation couldn't deploy a single Starfleet vessel into the system without express permission from Barrinor's banking cartels.

The Syndicate safe world was a retirement center for loyal non-Orion gangsters and lifelong and loyal henchmen. The Syndicate took care of its own. Just as it had its own internal code of justice based on loyalty. Treir had proven herself a resurgent star now that she'd been forced off of Serenity and given up her Quark's franchise. She led the Syndicate effort to enter Confederate space. Her meeting with Noble's raider force would be telling.

"Amanda, is this room secure?" Nechayev asked.

"It's swept every hour by the internal security net and at least every four hours by trusted officers on a varying schedule," Forger reminded her, "The last physical sweep was two and half hours ago."

"It'll have to do," Nechayev sighed.

"Alynna? What is it? What's gone wrong?" Forger inquired.

"As you know, JAG assigned me legal defense counsel to appeal my recent demotion. On technical merit alone, Admiral T'Lara is willing to reverse Fleet Commander Clancy's unilateral decision and call a Board of Inquiry," Nechayev explained.

"That would be a good thing," Forger noted.

"No, it wouldn't," Nechayev stressed, "Commodore Oh finally did some digging into the SID latinum reserve accounts and discovered the black budget. She learned you've been subsidizing Outbound Ventures patrols of former Protectorate and colonial planets...in direct violation of Starfleet policy. Clancy offered me a plea deal for authorizing your efforts. I accept my demotion and she doesn't prosecute you."

"Let her prosecute," Forger snorted, "I'd be happy to address historical facts and trends for defending allies and our own damn colonies."

"Precedent was last set by the Demilitarized Zone treaty. We even ceded those worlds outright to the Cardassians as a goodwill gesture during Reconstruction," Nechayev reminded her, "And no one since the Breen had successfully attacked Sector 001 since the Dominion war ended. Mars was accomplished from the inside. Oh has reason to suspect the synthetics were corrupted by a force inside of the Federation. Cell 51 is the leading candidate right now," Nechayev told her protΓ©gΓ©, "But no one, not even the Borg, successfully destroyed a Federation world before the firebombing of Mars' atmosphere. It's still burning out there."

"So we trade lives for peace again?" Forger was resolute in her opposition.

"You've spent too much time with Macen and Ro Laren," Nechayev warned her, "I have Ro running point on investigating Cell 51. I even managed to fast track her way back to Commander. She'll never rise above that rank again but with it comes a commodore's security clearance. So she'll know what the bulk of Starfleet Command knows."

"But you're willing to give up," Forger realized.

"The truth will not set either of us free. All it'll do is force Clancy into a corner where she specifically orders you to cease and desist all aid projects," Nechayev told her, "Right now you're operating in a gray area where Oh and Clancy can prove what you're doing expressly violating orders but they're willing to let it go indefinitely."

"To prove Clancy can act unilaterally to mete out punishment without a Board of Inquiry recommending a court martial and the facts regarding guilt or innocence being determined through due process," Forger surmised.

"Essentially," Nechayev told her, "I already withdrew my case."

"That's bullsh*t!" Forger snapped at her superior officer and friend of many years.

"It's not done. If Clancy makes a case against you, I resume my case against her and cite her persecution of the SID Director as direct evidence that the Starfleet Fleet Admiral has gone power mad," Nechayev shrugged, "I turned down the fourth pip promotion for years before finally accepting it. I'm still Director of Intelligence and Clancy is still blithely unaware of the 0 Sections. I can brief Secretary for Starfleet Akifa Chol at my discretion but I don't trust her rise to power through the Sok administration. President Kilbrek knows and I and M report directly to him regarding the 0s' activities. I have 0212 and Doctor Bashir working closely with Ro as well 0086."

"James Smart is teamed with Ro Laren?" Forger chortled, "This'll be one for the redacted history books."

"Sarina Douglas had just received her Starfleet commission when I recruited her for Starfleet Intelligence and the Single 0 Section before I packed her off as Deep Space Nine's staff intelligence officer when Ro was forced out of Starfleet...again," Nechayev told her, "But Bashir and Ro successfully served together for two years before she assumed command of the station. Vaughn is there, of course, but I have him steering Lavelle."

Commander Sam Lavelle was the man ultimately duped into starting the war with Cardassia and Bajor. Lavelle saw his tenure at DS9 as a penal assignment rather than a reward. Clancy had personally undermined Admiral Pulaski and Starfleet Medical to get Lavelle reinstated to his command after his wartime breakdown. Bashir had designated him unfit to command and Vaughn took over and nullified Starfleet's refusal to return administrative control of the station back to the Bajoran Militia. Kira herself resumed personal command and directed the war effort from the station with Vaughn and the Starfleet senior staffers backing her.

"So we're screwed," Forger grumbled.

"Clancy tried to throw in Prentiss and Senecka's investigation as well but they've already submitted their evidentiary discovery reports and T'Lara informed Clancy to accept representation. She's gone outside of Starfleet for a lawyer. The same one representing Solarian Security Solutions CEO in the Federation Security probe."

"I guess they'll be sharing more than a bed," Forger couldn't resist a nasty smile.

"If they can ever locate him. His wife has just been appointed head of Internal Affairs by order of Admiral T'Lara, overturning Clancy's selection of an insider. So Clancy is facing several avenues of comeuppance. If a Board of Inquiry is called, which is likely, there'll be pressure for her to stand down as Starfleet Commander at least through the duration of the inquiry and any potential court martial that comes out of it," Nechayev told Forger, "Her career will only survive a complete acquittal on all potential charges."

"Then why do I feel like there's a Catch 22 coming?" Forger wondered.

"Because we're all feeling it," Nechayev admitted.

"Tell Markos to loosen up," Noble instructed Hendryks, "We don't want to get bunched up."

"The Orion Q-ships are matching our movements," Tulley told Noble.

"Noble to Thool, you have it locked down there?" she asked the Bolian engineer.

"I don't know how they teach engineering on Catia but S'harr has increased our warp core performance by thirty percent," Thool's disembodied voice back, obviously awestruck.

"She is one of Parva's chiefs for a reason," Noble chuckled, "Take notes. You could learn a few valuable lessons."

"What happened to the Indomitable was not my fault," Thool protested.

"Just keep telling yourself that. Out," Noble zinged him again.

"We're being hailed," Hendryks told her, "The Orion commander would like to speak with her opposite number."

"Her?" Noble asked, "She's not even hiding behind a male dupe?"

"Neither did Gomer. Remember how that turned out," Tulley remarked.

"God bless the Iotians. They still believe in firing squads," Noble wore a wicked smile, "Put her on my screen."

A familiar face formed up and Noble couldn't help but blurt her name, "Treir?"

"Surprised, Captain Noble? They must be desperate for warm bodies to drag you out from Serenity," Treir verbally lashed out.

"I'll give you five hundred thousand kilometers to halt and break off before we engage you as soon as you cross the border," Noble advised the Orion.

"So generous. But this isn't Federation space anymore and you aren't Starfleet. Hell, you're not even Maquis anymore. You're just a merc with a mouth," Treir dug in.

"Goading me won't change the fact we're going weapons hot now. Bye," Noble terminated the signal, "Signal everyone to energize weapons systems."

"Music to my ears," Tulley grinned.

"Tell the other ships to attack the dorsal and ventral planes. They don't want be caught by a Q-ship's broadsides," Noble instructed, "And they're poised for crossfires."

The Maquis veterans knew from experience that an armed freighter was generally most heavily armed on its port and starboard sides. Exceptions were Mudd's Freehold and Neela's Ark of the Prophets. But they were adapted from military scouts and transports.

"Tell everyone to engage," Noble ordered, "They crossed the border."

Several raiders hadn't listened to Noble's instructions and the heavy weapons broadsides the freighters yielded destroyed them. The others, compliant with the instructions, dealt heavy blows against the Syndicate ships. But unlike the Eclipse, they were unmodified or modernized scouts and couriers adapted for warfare and incompletely so. The Maquis had frequently sacrificed defensive shielding for increased firepower. The Peregrine-class couriers had been the easiest to adapt since the vessels were also used as fighter craft by Starfleet. But the Ma'jel- and Ju'day-class scouts were inefficiently modified for attack and not defense.

The Syndicate exploited that disadvantage and half the raiders were destroyed within minutes. But the bulk of the surviving Q-ships were turning back as well, fraught with heavy damage. Then, a Danube-class runabout launched from the belly of a freighter adapted as a carrier vessel. The Peregrine-classes attempted to engage but they were too heavily damaged to keep up and the runabout inflicted even greater harm, destroying one courier in the wake of its passing.

"They've gone to Warp 5," Tulley growled.

"Where the hell did they get a runabout like that?" Hendryks had to wonder.

"Same place Macen did. You'll observe they used Romulan disruptors rather than phasers," Noble had noted.

"You think that's Treir?" Tulley asked.

"I know that's Treir. But we have mop up to do here to make certain these bastards never come back by being too dead to do so," Noble was feeling vicious today. The raider force happily complied with her kill order.

"You're truly abandoning your own people...again?" the Cardassian Union's ambassador to the Federation, Elim Garak, was astounded.

"They want to be independent, let them," Councilor Frex barked.

The vote was tied between those accepting the secession and those refusing to break the Federation again after what happened with the Bajoran Republic. Eight votes hadn't been cast either way yet. The same eight moderates that had decided the fates of Kilbrek, Bajor, and Cardassia. They were being far more circ*mspect this time.

Joining with Frex were Mrrez, Therin, Yia, Carrotmonger, Andie Grant, Keirona, and Verbrog. A cadre of special interest chief of staffers were pushing hard for acceptance.

Garak was joined by the Fabrini ambassador, Audria, and the Thallonian ambassador, Kitrenda, in pressing the case to defend the Confederates. Many feared a war with the Romulans would break out if Starfleet actively engaged privateer forces. Others worried access to the Artifact would be cut and the availability of advanced Borg technology made exclusively Romulan.

But if the deal fell through, they lost Hugh as the Reclamation Program Director. Hugh was there for the drones. The Romulans were there to reap technological advantages over their perceived and real enemies. Sela's Tal Shiar agents had unearthed that Reman separatists had stolen trilithium and destroyed the Hobus star rather than live another day under the Romulan heel. An unvoiced hope amongst Romulans was that the Artifact could provide a means to counter a trilithium weapon. Surely the Borg has assimilated the means to restart fusion reactions in stars?

"We can't repeat the DMZ disaster," Grant argued.

"I concur though it could yield another war we're not prepared for," Yia spoke.

"There be dragons ahead," Keirona warned.

"Leave them I say!" Frex yapped.

"I have to agree with Frex," Mrrez decided.

"As do I," Verbrog unhappily conceded, "The chances of war or just too great and costly at this point."

"They wanted out. This is the price they pay," Therin flicked his tongue.

"They were sold into slavery by the President you appointed," Grant grated, "A slavery you won't buy them back from."

"We can hardly afford to now that we've paid off the Bajorans and Cardassians, now can we?" Therin hissed.

"We simply need to increase mining production in the Ekos system," Yia pointed, "The latinum reserves there have gone untapped since the destruction of the primary star."

"We simply supersede the old requirement that the Ekosians and Zeons get a majority cut of any proceeds. We renegotiate a smaller percentage. Grand Nagus Rom is willing to arbitrate," Grant argued, "We secured the system nearly a century ago and have housed their people since Harriman led the evacuation effort. They've managed to adapt to our societies as efficiently as the El-Aurians and others before them."

"So we rob one people to pay another?" Verbrog sniffed through his methane atmospheric helmet.

"Yes," Carrotmonger was unusually resolute, "The Ekosians and Zeon agreements expired well into this century and we've simply neglected harvesting the latinum. The Orions bought the Confederates from local parties that bought them from Ardra. They in turn sold them to the Romulans. If we can't buy the space we can at least redeem the settlers."

"Creating another DMZ," Frex growled.

Mrrez's ears flattened and she bared her fangs, "That is unacceptable."

"But Carrotmonger places the vote one in favor as a tiebreaker with the Federation Speaker for the Council or President intervening," Grant gloated.

"My empire will respect your choice," Kitrenda informed them.

"As will my people now that we are settling our long promised world and looking to the Federation as a partner," Audria admitted.

"And my government will finally begin to respect the Federation as competent rulers," Garak voiced Rekena Garan's official position as the elected Castellan of the Cardassian Union's Detepa Council.

"You've made foolish choices," Martina Dobek, one of the chiefs of staff warned them, "You've committed us on a path to war."

"The deaths will be on you, Councilor Carrotmonger," the Iridian named Galena Sindic advised him.

"Let's go inform our Councilors," Ogilvaria snorted. The staffers filed out.

"Now you discover your spine?" Frex yipped as he followed the staffers out.

"Sometimes I don't understand you, rodent," Therin admitted as he too exited.

"At least you made up your own mind this time," Mrrez conceded as she made to leave.

"The Romulans don't want a war," Verbrog stopped before departing, "They would have used military regulars rather than irregulars if they truly felt combative."

"Then why vote against the measure?" Grant asked.

"Because we can't afford the blackmail," Verbrog counseled the newest Councilor from Luna, "Protect the system but do so outright. To pay the Romulans now is to pay them forever."

With that he too departed.

"I suggest we write that up as an amendment to our vote," Keirona dropped the mysticism act in private.

"So nice to finally meet the real you, my dear," Garak gave her his most sincere smile.

"I'm not the only actor in the room, Ambassador," Keirona told him, "My people became aware of the Cardassian Union's offer of assistance to the Confederate forces. The former Maquis elements within their Council shut the proposal down but accepted Bajoran aid instead. The Bajoran Colonial Forces have quietly slipped past Deep Space Four and Five to circumnavigate the Romulan Star Empire and advance on the Zone from the Romulans' projected rear."

"It seems I misjudged you, Councilor...and the Hynerian people," Garak admitted.

"This changes everything," Kitrenda realized, "Si Cwan was ready to make an aid package available. But we can alter the bargain to be a rebuilding package once the Romulans are repulsed."

"If they're repulsed," Yia reminded them of the gravity of the situation, "Starfleet only has three starships in range to respond to an immediate threat. The Intrepid is already inside the conflict zone. The Aventine, Sentinel, and the Fearless are outside Confederate borders."

"I'm afraid that assessment is outdated," Garak beamed at knowing a secret withheld even from the Federation Council.

Commodore Cristan Olsson, the Confederate Fleet Operations Commander was joined by Commander Katharina Steiner, the Commodore's Chief of Staff, Chief of Operations Francisca Guimeraes, and Fleet Coordinator Juliana Sequeira and their various staffers in the room that had been repurposed as a Strategic Operations Center.

Steiner, who were her bleached blonde hair long and braided, kept Olsson apprised of every salient update.

Guimeraes and Sequeira were both of Brazilian descent and for obscure reasons both wore their long hair dyed green. All were ex-Starfleet Command enlisted staffers.

Just as Olsson himself had exited Starfleet as a junior officer after the Dominion War took its toll ten years ago. But he was ready to fight anew for his chosen home.

"We're reading energy distortions throughout the Carolinius system," Guimeraes warned him.

"Just as Captain Macen warned us," Olsson remarked ruefully. He'd initially objected to parking all twenty-six starships in the star system. Now he was satisfied that his relenting had paid off.

"We have forty-eight Romulan warships decloaking," Sequeira announced.

"Tell the Blonde Squad to raise shields and go weapons hot," Olsson instructed, "Tell them to target as opportunity presents itself."

"They acknowledge," Guimeraes reported.

"We're being hailed via carrier signal," Steiner told him, "Our people are being instructed to forward it to Command."

"Let's see what they have to say," Olsson nodded to the Communications Officer.

Rejak appeared on a secondary viewer before Olsson, "Whom am I addressing?"

"Commodore Cristan Olsson, Fleet Commander."

"Tell me Commodore; you could aspire to any rank you so chose yet you limited yourself to 'Commodore'. Why?" Rejak was honestly intrigued.

"The title doesn't matter as long as job gets done," Olsson replied, "And you are?"

"Your counterpart. I am Fleet Commander Rejak. I command this Guild. I'm offering this one chance at surrender. Surely you see you are outnumbered nearly two to one?" he told Olsson.

"I faced Jem'Hadar beside Romulan Warbirds. I think I'll take my chances against your outdated 'guild'," Olsson retorted.

"Your so-called starships are the technological back step equal to our own," Rejak was irked, "Spare your crews. It would be an honorable surrender."

"I don't surrender until I can no longer fight," Olsson signed off, "Inform the Blonde Squad to open fire."

"And we're in it now," Guimeraes remarked.

"Deathblow directly ahead," Lacey had learned of Macen's rivalry with Tekana during the returning crew's briefing, "Two Birds of Vengeance converging on us."

"Target everyone," Macen ordered, "Tracy, take us one hundred fifty meters off their ventral bow, full impulse. Chris get ready to drop shields on her mark. Raise them when we've passed by and use the aft torpedo launcher for full effect."

"We'll just miss skimming their shields that way," Lacey said appreciatively, "And may draw fire upon the Deathblow."

"That's my plan," Macen smirked.

"Punching it," Ebert went full impulse and down bubble.

"Shields down," Lacey announced, "Birds of Vengeance taking the bait."

"We're clear!" Ebert yelled with excitement.

"Shields raised and torpedoes away," Lacey calmly announced.

Mudd was sweating, "This is the type of shuk you idiots were pulling in the Maquis?"

"You ain't seen nuthin' yet, Harri," Ebert was already bringing the Solstice around for a real pass. Multiple detonations washed over the Bird of Prey's shields.

"Those losers loosed plasma torpedoes on their own sister ship," Lacey chuckled, "I've targeted them with the starboard phaser bank and am opening fire."

"Still focused on the Deathblow?" Macen asked.

"She's the larger threat and the wounded prey," Lacey wore a nasty grin, "I haven't forgotten my stuff, Captain."

"Never doubted you, Chris," Macen confided, "Just seeing where you were focused."

Macen had never once considered who Lacey would be now if she hadn't properly adjusted her gender dysphoria. It never occurred to him to consider her a genetic male.

"Torpedoes away. Both phaser banks locked on target. They're attempting to roll away and present their ventral plane. The shields are stronger there still."

"Compensating," Ebert announced and the Solstice matched the Deathblow's roll.

"The Birds of Vengeance are spreading apart to try and create a crossfire," Mudd advised Macen and the others.

"Stay close to the Deathblow. I want any misses striking them," Macen ordered.

"Sticking to, aye," Ebert enthused. Mudd was so happy now that she'd been flitting across free space during the Maquis rebellion and the subsequent Dominion War. She'd been too young to enlist, not that she would've anyway, but Ebert had fought the Jem'Hadar as a teen and now Mudd knew how. By being balls to the wall crazy.

"Commander! The enemy is possessed by demons," Centurion D'Nece warned Tekana.

"Belay that talk!" Tekana raged, "They're a starship. Not a fighter craft."

"Tell them that," D'Nece primly advised.

"And tell those idiots with us to hold their fire. They're doing the enemy's work for him," Tekana seethed.

Commander Danaris' D7 delivered Commander Arlinea, Centurion Garrik and their ground forces to Carolinius II's surface. The Strategic Operations Center was bouncing signals off relays across Raleigh but Danaris had narrowed the prospects down to thirty square blocks and beamed Arlinea and Garrik's force in the midst of them.

What they didn't know was that the former Sergeant Annika Ryst and Master Sergeant Rab Daggit of the Angosian Augmented Forces were leading the resistance effort.

Rockford had held a subordinate rank to Daggit in the Tarsis War. Infiltrators were specialized hunter-killers that operated independently from the regular and Augmented Forces deep within enemy lines devoid of support or backup. Rockford's merged psyche had all of Ryst's memories with the added experiences of all the other psyches Ryst had developed for specific missions as well Rockford's own experiences.

Never returning to Angosia, Ryst had avoided the ten-year prison confinement Daggit and the others had endured in the lunar max. Building dual empires as the "human" private investigator, Celeste Rockford, and the elite Angosian mercenary, Annika Ryst, they'd learned tactics and strategy in ways that had never presented themselves during the war that defined them both.

Rockford was the single personality to survive but she carried the collective memories and experiences. As well as the nightmares that came with them. Rockford had essentially inherited three dozen cases of PTSD when the psyches merged into her consciousness. Something the Rockford persona didn't have. She'd worked some messy cases but nothing as horrific as combat and assassinations.

Daggit had also led a platoon of commandos under Ro and Macen's command during the Dominion War. He'd split the platoon up between their two ships. Starfleet Lieutenant Daggit commanded one half while Command Master Chief Varglas took the reins on the other half aboard the Odyssey. It was aboard the Asimov that he'd been sexually active with Elfi Hendryks. He sometimes found that awkward but Parva didn't.

And Parva was here on the ground with him not Hendryks.

Sakonna and Hakatay worked together as spotters for Rockford. Lee and Shade provided interior security at the Operations Center. Forte and Kerber spotted for Smith and provided security for her exposed position atop a building with a clear vantage point to the center's primary entrance. The secondary entrances had all been barricaded with derelict ground and air vehicles. Forcing the Romulans to either take the time to cut through the secondaries or advance on the primary. Which was turning into a kill box.

Rockford, Tessa, Burrows, Daggit and Parva were on the move as Sakonna and Hakatay tracked the Romulan column as they advanced through the city unopposed. Arlinea didn't like it and the hackles on Garrik's neck were rising.

"It's too easy, Commander," he advised her.

Garrik was a veteran of the Dominion War and a hundred campaigns since then within the Beta Quadrant free of the accursed Neutral, now Border, Zone. Arlinea only had fifty troopers to take the command center and hold the Commodore and his staff hostage until they could negotiate a meeting with the Confederate Patriot Council and kill them all. The then-leaderless Confederacy would have no choice but to surrender after its starships were all crippled or destroyed.

But her troops were being placed in a box and she knew it, "Dispatch patrols. I want our flanks secured."

Garrik sent out six man squads. Squads that quickly fell silent.

"Commander, we need to reinforce the flanks and send a mere third against those doors," Garrik suggested.

Arlinea knew to trust his instincts, "Do it."

Now explosion ripped the sky open.

"Hold!" Arlinea ordered, "Let us see what comes next."

A mile away, perched atop a tower, Smith sighted in Arlinea. Then she shifted to her right and braced Garrik's head in the target receptacle. She took a breath and held it before slowing exhaling. When her lungs were empty she held her breath again to steady her body and fired. As she took her next anticipated breath she watched as the particle beam sliced Garrik's head open.

"Cover!" Arlinea predictably ordered. Smith tracked Arlinea's movements. The Commander hesitated as her force met resistance entering the surrounding buildings.

Smith repeated the steps and fired again. The back of Arlinea's head burned away. Smith was aware of Forte gagging as she watched the two kills through macrobinoculars.

Rockford had chosen Forte to be the spotter for two distinct reasons. To offer the nearly five hundred year-old teenager relative safety and a harsh lesson in life. Smith had been born and bred to someday rule over Stratos, the ruling city of Ardana IV. Instead she ran to the surface and joined a Troglyte resistance group beside Kerber. She'd killed her first Ardanan with a rifle like this one at Forte's biological age. Then had come explosives and knives.

Kerber and Smith were experts with every manner of weapon that they'd ever had access to. As a Troglyte, Kerber had the greater fascination with edged weapons and had mastered Klingon types after fleeing certain death on Ardana IV. Smith had resisted the move but had dutifully helped forge their new identities as "Angelique Kerber" and "Bailey Smith" of Earth rather than remain the Ardanan fugitives, Anara and Maarta.

Macen had found them when every bounty-killer in known space had failed to. That impressed them enough to listen to his proposition. Employment and protection in exchange for utilizing their unique computer skills for his purposes. He proposed changing the Federation and its allies for the better. But it would be a generational shift and Kerber and Smith were needed to pass down knowledge and credos that survived from El-Auria. Techniques and arcana that had fought the Q Continuum to a standstill, including the rites to summon a Q for a parlay as part of the peace treaty.

Macen and Guinan knew the Q most familiar to the Federation had taken an out sized interest in Jean-Luc Picard and humanity in general. Q rarely did things randomly.

though this renegade seemed to. In contrivance with the peace treaty and the Q Continuum's own codes of conduct. So much so they'd stripped him of his powers as a Q and made him a simple human. But an act of self sacrifice made the Continuum reverse their decision and reinstate him.

But unbeknownst to Q, the process was irreversible. They'd restored his powers for a time but like Quinn, Q would eventually die. A new generation of Q would carry on, including Q's own son. The elder generation would willingly begin to fade. But Q had no choice. Death was his final destination and even a Q didn't know what lay beyond if anything. Q2 was chosen to remain the longest and guide the younger Q into their destiny.

Amanda Rogers would lead them. Having been raised a human; Amanda understood the importance of restraint as a Q as well as the responsibility to guide lesser races to their fulfillment of their own collective futures. Q2 and Amanda instilled the terms of the El-Aurian peace treaty into the young Q despite the waning population of actual El-Aurians after the Borg assimilated most of them.

The scattered remnants could never reproduce effectively enough to save the species.

Simply put, the viable gene pool wasn't wide enough. But rather than accept racial oblivion. Macen had chosen to pass down what he knew as a Seeker of Truth, a group of philosopher-warriors that had secured the peace terms with the Q. Those terms needed to be abided to by both sides. But nothing in the treaty said El-Aurians alone could represent the Seekers. So Macen had chosen Kerber and Smith to be acolytes.

Rockford was learning as well as Tessa. So far Macen had hadn't come in close proximity to a potential male adept with the temperament and vision to take on the responsibility. Ebert was his next logical choice. But he was still concerned about her emotional scars from her past. The scarring itself wasn't an issue. All of his students and himself were traumatized. But they were survivors. Ebert still denied she'd ever been a victim to survive from. Until she could face her gang rape and murders of her family honestly, she would remain outside the circle.

Rockford had Burrows and Tessa with her while Daggit and Parva were positioned to assist Sakonna and Hakatay. Three children of Dorvan V survivors were chosen to defend the Council. Dani Moonbow, Sussa Many Hearts, and Shakora were all highly trained guerrilla fighters.

They were as adept with any weapons at hand as Kerber and Smith. Moonbow wore a full ceremonial headdress as she stood vigilantly, protecting the elders inside. The Confederacy was her tribe and she'd defend the chieftains with her life. Many Hearts felt the same way. She'd come from the same ancestors as Raining Waters and had been a child when the Cardassians came to clear their planet of settlers.

She and her parents escaped before the Cardassians tested out their biogenic weapon. But they'd miscalculated and the viral agent turned on the Cardassian settlers put their in the Native Americans' place. So Dorvan V ended up a dead world since every living creature on it died within months of the weapon's deployment.

Shakora came from Inkhut's people group. Before being selected as a guardian, she'd been a priestess of the old Mayan gods. No one actually believed in the gods anymore but the priesthoods were an ancestral gift and priests and priestesses were guides for modern spirit quests, preparing those that undertook them for what would come next.

Raining Waters and Inkhut were the only chiefs to make it off of Dorvan V alive. Their time with the Maquis was spent preparing their people to be warriors. Even the children. Especially the children.

They would be the next step in preserving nearly extinguished cultures. Many fell away from the old ways. But the three Guardians were devout. Their devotion carried them to this day and they would not fail.

Inside the chambers, Buckyanko and Arkhura set up a defensive position. Englund, Raining Waters, and Inkhut prepared to make their last stand. Doctor Barnes was less sanguine and had been allowed by Ar'kana to explore the caverns hiding the deep recesses of water that Ar'kana's people had adapted to. Barnes was prepared to give her life to seal the caverns to keep the Romulans from ever discovering the extant natives still dwelling within them.

But now the Romulan ground troops were scattering as Smith selectively picked off those that rose to leadership. The squads scattered down side streets.

"Keep watch," Kerber told Forte, "Our role as Overwatch hasn't concluded yet."

Forte had managed to keep her last meal down so far. The Ardanans had a standing bet on whether or not she could go through the entire encounter without doing so.

Tessa and Burrows met the Romulans seeking to regroup on the side street up close and personal. Burrows had his katana drawn and was engaging Romulans in a melee. Tessa fought them hand to hand as they discovered she was hologram and therefore immune to disruptor fire. Rockford held an elevated position and was using her Bajoran made assault rifle to pick off fleeing Romulans.

A small band managed to evade her fire long enough to climb to her position. Rockford laid down the rifle and fought them with a combat knife. It had been a long time since she'd fought a foe this closely and with five on one odds, they actually stood a chance since she was rusty.

But she finished the last one off with a reverse hold stab into the neck. She was covered with sprayed copper based green blood. Retrieving her rifle discovered Burrows and Tessa had finished off the others. Tessa's foes were broken but would live. Rockford herself had programmed Tessa with every known hand to hand combat style. Burrows' survivors were looking for missing limbs amongst the piles of them. They too were covered in blood. Though Tessa cheated and became incorporeal for a second to slough off the blood. Rockford wondered how Daggit's team was faring.

Sakonna and Hakatay proved to be good ambush setters. They had an unerring instinct of how to guide Romulan foot patrols into lethal attacks. Daggit utilized his trusty photon grenade launcher to devastating effect as Sakonna and Hakatay crowded the Romulans into a single cluster. Parva blocked their retreat with a rapid repeating phaser rifle she'd designed for such tasks. It was modified from a weapon she'd initially designed for Radil Jenrya when she was on the team.

Rockford signaled for the parties to converge on the main entrance. Once there, they manned the barricades and with Smith's long range support finished off Arlinea's troops.

"I could use a stiff drink right now," Burrows confessed while Rockford commed instructions to the sniper party to stay put for now.

"I concur," Sakonna said primly. Everyone stared at her.

"It is only logical," she concluded.

"I'll take your word for it," Burrows allowed.

"Reports are coming in from the Confederate fleet," Mudd announced, "They're taking a pounding but replying in kind."

"Status Deathblow?" Macen asked.

"Going down," Lacey chuckled, "She's even returned fire at one of the Birds of Vengeance that's a tad trigger happy."

"Target them now," Macen ordered, "Let's get them really riled up."

"We have incoming!" Mudd shouted.

A small squadron of Birds of Prey and some D7s were retreating to near Carolinius II orbit.

"Finish the Vengeances off," Macen instructed.

"The Deathblow already has," Lacey was surprised, "They crippled both craft."

"Then disable their remaining weapons and engines," Macen told her.

"Lining up the shots," Ebert warned Lacey. The strafing run left the Bird of Prey on batteries only. Tekana and D'Nece took the survivors to the surface to assist Arlinea and Garrik. What they found was a massacre.

Tekana quickly sent her people looking for shelter to hole up in. Kerber had detected the transport signal but they didn't have line of sight so she called it in.

Rockford was less than happy to receive the news, "Let them probe the entrances. They'll eventually make their way to us."

"Copy that," Kerber ended the connection.

Rejak's D7 was one of the Romulan ships still in the fight. So were Aelynn, Solara, D'nea, Talena P'ris, and Danaris. Solara had a Bird of Prey as did P'ris. Aelynn had the last Bird of Vengeance in the fight. Rejak, Danaris, and D'nea commanded the Klingon built cruisers. The Confederates had proven more resilient than previously imagined but not one Confederate starship was lost in action. Most were crippled beyond field repair.

But the Constitution-class CSS Atlanta, CSS Baltic, CSS Columbia, CSS Mississippi, CSS Missouri, and CSS Mobile were still fighting. The Asia-class CSS Charleston and CSS Scorpion were also still in the battle. The Mercury-class CSS Neuse and CSS Eastport were still fighting it out.

The Eastport was pursuing Aelynn's Bird of Vengeance as she converged with the remainder of the Guild. A lone Detroit-class remained in fighting trim as well, the CSS Chicona. Given the Iotian built starships' relative damage compared to the lightly damaged Guild, Rejak felt confident he could disable or destroy the remainder. The Solstice would prove to be a greater challenge.

Centurion Vilana delivered the fatal news, "Commander, the USS Intrepid has raised shields and launched two fighter squadrons."

P'ris commed Rejak as well, "The USS Aventine, theUSS Hood, the USS Merrimack, the USS Monitor, and the USS Freedom have just dropped out of warp in the system. They are accompanied by the Iotian starshipISS Gun Moll."

"The Monitor and Merrimack are opening fire and disabling the Guild ships," Commander Jillanic reported to Sela. Jillanic was ordered to decloak her Warbird over the planet. Senator Eldanak and Ambassador Aurelian signaled the Confederate Council to press charges against the Guild and establish formal diplomatic ties with the Confederacy of Planets. As they had with Townsend's colony of New Georgia. Aurelian and Eldanak promised formal recognition of individual colonies and the Confederacy as a governing coalition of independent worlds.

Sela herself promised that the Guild ships and crews would be boarded and taken as prizes by the Warbird, the commanding officers to stand trial back on Caligula.

Quietly, Rejak signaled Sela as to the Monitor's presence when the Bajoran manned Defiant-class vessel was officially a rogue vessel under command of a mutinous crew.

Yet the presence of its former fellow Starfleet Intelligence troubleshooters, the Hood and Merrimack, indicated that it had been a ruse all along.

Sela opted to pass that information along to Treir, who'd landed on Carolinius II to make her own side deal with the Confederate Council. Treir's squad of bodyguards was entirely female and the all carried seemingly primitive projectile weapons. Yet each was an electromagnetic rail gun capable of penetrating most walls with their armor piercing ammunition.

Treir found her egress blocked by Moonbow, Many Hearts, and Shakora. "Stand aside, I have business inside."

Treir sounded as imperious as she felt, "I come to release your worlds from the contracts signed by the disgraced President Ardra. The Syndicate managed to negotiate your liberty from the Romulan Star Empire. I come to deliver the deeds sold to us for your planets. Making them legally liberated in Orion eyes."

"One moment," Moonbow signaled Buckyanko inside and apprised him.

"You alone can enter. Your assassins stay out here with us," she announced.

"Good enough," Treir smiled victoriously.

Johnson was allowed to sit in at the negotiating table after receiving updates from Starfleet giving him the Federation Council's new position of the Confederate worlds.

"Like the Star Empire, the Federation recognizes your independence. But we ask for you to consider applying for Federation membership and a mutual defense pact with the Federation while your applications are processed."

"New Georgia has already signed such accords with the Star Empire," Townsend, in his full naked glory, sat in with the Council once again, "I urge everyone to consider your constituencies and vote to do the same."

His erection, come upon him once seated next to Treir, was on full display. Ambassador Aurelian and Senator Eldanak ignored the display.

"We offer similar terms and arrangements. The Imperial Fleet will secure your borders while you repair your ships. Afterwards, regular patrols will be extended from the Rekena Sector to guarantee your safety," Ambassador Aurelian offered.

"This offer is made with the full might of the Senate behind it," Eldanak promised them.

"Let us stop you there," Inkhut spoke gravely, "You took the remaining privateer vessels back to the Rekena Sector under 'prize crews' yet no offers of recompense have been made to offset the costs we've incurred repairing our starships under both Starfleet and Iotian Starfleet supervision and with their assistance. One can hardly believe that these elements went rogue after weeks spent on our common border with the Rekena Sector under your direct supervision and the supervision of your fleet elements in that sector."

"What we're proposing is a Neutral Zone between the Confederate Zone and the Rekena Sector. Chancellor Martok has pledged to defend our border with the Klingon Empire. The Federation has ordered Starfleet to supplement our own patrols and assist our probes into nearby neutral space to secure trade relations and alliances while simultaneously recognizing our independence," Gerald Englund told them, "We didn't fight to become part of your empire, beholden to you. We'll remain detached from the Star Empire."

"But perhaps we could still negotiate a mutual non-aggression pact?" Empress Taralin spoke out of turn.

"Of course, that is also an option," Aurelian said distastefully.

"Then that is the direction we shall go," Raining Waters declared.

"Of course," Eldanak shot Taralin a look promising reprisals in private.

"The Orion Syndicate merely wishes to open an embassy on each of your worlds," Treir told them, "Of course, they would have full diplomatic immunity and could conduct local trade in order to become self sufficient. In exchange, the Syndicate could arrange for introductions to nearby potential trading partners."

"That would be...acceptable," Arkhura had reluctantly persuaded the Council to go this way.

"Since each of your member worlds are primarily independent and only loosely bound by the coalition of the Confederacy of Worlds, the Federation would also like to open embassies on each member world, should they choose to allow it," Johnson added.

"All of the words except for New Georgia have voted to allow this. The Star Empire's requests have been denied except by New Georgia. Trust takes time to build after incidents such as this and in the Rekena Sector," Buckyanko announced.

"The Queen Matriarch of Rekena III made her own valid choice," Aurelian pointed out.

"Which you quickly invalidated by making Rekena III a vassal state and putting Romulan troops on Rekena III and IV," Englund replied, "And you've begun trade restrictions forcing the worlds in that sector to only purchase and export Romulan produced products."

"Patriotic fervor. Little else," Aurelian sought to smooth things over.

"The citizens of every member world have voted to accept the Federation's terms of meeting as equal partners and applying for Federation membership," Raining Waters cut down to it, "The Orions may open their embassies. In addition, trade will resume between the Iotian Federation and Confederate worlds as well receiving military and trade assistance offers from the Iotian Federation and the Bajoran Republic."

Colonel Anara and her task force had swept in behind Starfleet, making Eldanak's option to pull regular military forces out of Rekena obsolete. The Federation's acceptance of the Confederacy's terms and vice versa had stymied Imperial plans for the region. But they still maintained their hold on New Georgia. Giving the Star Empire a proxy vote on the Confederate Patriot Council.

Rejak was the public face of the failure yet Sela would shelter him from official recrimination. The Iotians had simply trained the Blonde Squad far too well in their brief sessions together. Each captain and crew receiving medals of valor. Monuments were being erected to honor those lost in battle.

Noble had led the surviving raiders back to Carolinius II. Only five ships out of three dozen survived the encounter with the Syndicate. Treir seemed unaffected by the news that every Syndicate ship had been lost in battle. The surviving Peregrine-, Ma'jel-, and single Ju'day-class raiders were assigned as New Georgia's portion of the Confederate fleet.

The remaining twenty-six starships answered to Commodore Olsson and Fleet Command based in Raleigh and answerable to the Confederate Patriot Council and the limited federal bureaucracy. In fact, mutual defense was primarily the only federal responsibility other than diplomatic relations regarding to defense. New Georgia had opted to pull support from the fleet so they were given the scraps. But the crews all universally came from other Confederate worlds that they returned to be retrained for starship duty if they remained in fleet service.

Captain Alendreja Perez of the CSS Atlanta, Captain Anadia Dhanial of the CSS Baltic, Captain Reheebah Abassi of the CSS Columbia, Captain Clara Chavez of the CSS Mississippi, Captain Elena Chapo of the CSS Missouri, Captain Elisa Gomez of the CSS Mobile, Captain Aom Chaiya of the CSS Scorpion, Captain Amara Daeng of the CSS Alabama, Captain Banyen Anant of the CSS Arkansas, Captain Chariya Arombee of the CSS Charleston, Captain Chaom Choi Apinya of the CSS Chicora, Captain Fah Boon-Ahm of the CSS Eastport, Captain Hathai Chaldee of the CSS Fredericksburg, Captain Irishi Choi Charsen of the CSS Huntsville, Captain Kanda Mesboon of the CSS Muscagee, Captain Wu Zu Chi of the CSS Nashville, Captain Kristine dela Cruz of the CSS Neuse, Captain Althea Mendoza of the CSS North Carolina, Captain Alalina Sanskar of the CSS Palmeto State, Captain Ah-Pai Intar of the CSS Richmond, Captain Aelisya Tam of the CSS Savannah, Captain Chi-Tze Joyo of the CSS Tennessee, Captain Eika Wati of the CSS Texas, Captain Robin Gyvers of the CSS Tuscaloosa, Captain Marla Stewart of the CSS Virginia, and Captain Jakeema Washington, CO of the CSS Wilmington known to every Confederate citizen now. Legions of fans bleached their hair blonde in emulation of the now infamous "Blonde Squad".

Patriot Command Staff also became hailed across the worlds. Commodore Cristan Olsson had to adjust to the new recognition he received as Confederate Fleet Commander. Commander Katharina Steiner also received accolades as his Chief of Staff. Chief of Operations Francisca Guimeraes and Fleet Coordinator Juliana Sequeira inspired many other women and men to dye their hair green if they didn't go blonde. Such was the price of fame for defending their home worlds. Few Confederate citizens were native born to their colonies and those that were still too young to have taken up its defense. But every man, woman, and child regardless of race heralded these officers as those that saved them from Romulan oppression.

New Georgia enjoyed every freedom it seemed except immigration. People could come in but none could leave. Tal Shiar agents were assigned as "protectors" to trade envoys and security officers aboard trader vessels flagged to the world. Even the raider forces were jointly flown by Romulan agents beside New Georgian officers.

"It's good to see you again, Colonel. How's life directing the Colonial Forces?" Macen asked at an official function occurring on Raleigh to host all of the diplomatic parties and conflict heroes.

"Trouble. I get to do what I want how I want to but once in a while the General officially in command makes some idiotic demand that I have to placate him with for thirty minutes before he drifts off to sleep again. I think he's literally lost his mind. First Minister Astris won't remove him but a Co-Chair has been assigned to the Joint Chiefs since he can't be bothered with staying awake through the meetings. But the defanged sabercat still attends every meeting just to nap through them," Anara said sourly, "And General Dav Wallis makes me attend these stupid functions."

"You did fly all the way out here," Macen grinned at the litany. Anara was replacing Ro in more ways than one, it seemed.

"Only to get here when everything was mopped up," Anara grumbled over her drink. It turned out she liked bourbon, neat.

"Any word from Neela lately?" Macen asked.

"She was moved into the inactive reserves so she could travel more freely," Anara was still unhappy, "Kira is personally running Neela's mission for Bajor."

"We both know that's hardly true," Macen kept grinning.

Anara lightened up, "Neela never did listen to anyone but the Prophets. Even when she thought Winn Adami was their voice."

"For a while it seemed Winn had a charmed existence. No one knew how unhappy she was as Kai. To betray the Prophets and her faith for the Pah-wraiths, that displays a deep discontent," Macen assessed Winn.

"She was ambitious and a murderer from the beginning. And she used my friend to try and kill her way into being kai," Anara said angrily, "Neela still won't admit that yet. But I have hopes."

"She has her reasons for sparing Bajor that further embarrassment and shock," Macen shared, "As you said, Neela only listens to the Prophets."

"Maybe she should stop," Anara sounded bitter.

"Neela has always lived by faith. Don't take that away from her," Macen counseled her, "You may love her like a worrisome older sister would but this is her path. The path the Prophets laid out for her. Just as you walk the path they have for you as revealed to Kira through Neela."

"She ditched me. She comes back from the frinxing dead and she ditches me," Anara finally got down to it, "All those years of guilt for surviving explosive decompression only to get her back just to lose her again?"

"Anara, you haven't lost Neela and you know it," Macen said soothingly, "She simply has a new path to walk. This Neela found herself ten years in the future with no idea of what created it. Imagine the disappointments she's endured in learning the how and seeing what happened because of it."

"Like you and the others," Anara realized.

"We came from a pretty turbulent universe too," Macen reminded her. He'd compiled testimonies from everyone the Prophets brought over from different universes through the Nexus to compare the histories. The bulk of the transplants came from a far more violent environment. Here, they replaced people that had been presumed dead in various accidents and incidents. The exception being the Intrepid's senior staff.

The Prophets simply exchanged the officers overnight as a temporal wake washed over the ship during a mission. Thomas Riker, Lisea Danan, Nechayev, Forger, Ro, and Vaughn were thought lost in shuttle accidents. Ro and Vaughn would be picked up by surveyors on Bajor VIII. The admirals were recovered in the wreckage outside the Starfleet installation on Delta Vega as predator species converged on the shuttle. Only Neela had been brought forward from the closing days after the Dominion War to the months following the Mars Massacre.

Ten years that differed drastically from everyone else's. Ten years in which both Captain Riker's had made legends and both settled down. Will and Deanna for their son, Thad, and their daughter, Kestra. Tom and Lees because they'd lost a ship due to catastrophic circ*mstances and Riker didn't want Danan to serve aboard a starship with him anymore. So he'd been given command of Serenity Station when it went operational.

That history was the closest to what everyone else was familiar with. But Macen's interviews proved out that the various people weren't taken from just two alternate universes but a dozen. Macen logged everything under the same seal that the Seeker truths were locked away with. His apprentices and Guinan being the only ones that could access them.

Rockford had been more accepting of Outbound Ventures semi-criminalized activities in this history than Macen had. But he rolled with it. But seeing old friends barely recognize him or not know him at all hurt deep down. Such as recently running into a living Hal Dracas and Kiv Reever on Earth. Dracas never having gone to 492 IV and Joachim Dracas having never been cloned.

When Nechayev, Forger, and Johnson pushed through the creation of the SID to replace Section 31, an accountable replacement, their insistence on retaining Outbound Ventures had taken going over Kirsten Clancy's head to the President and the Secretary for Starfleet and a closed doors session with the appropriate Federation Council Oversight Committee. The SID was created on Presidential authority and Outbound Ventures hired as a portion of the irregular forces at Forger's command. The trade off was every "agent" had to be vetted by Starfleet Security.

Vice Admiral Edward Noyce had signed off on Macen and the Obsidian crew as well as Riker and Danan on Johnson's word before retiring. Everyone else had to pass Oh's scrutiny or already possessed a sufficient security clearance. But out of the forty-eight operational starships in the Outbound Ventures growing corporate fleet, over twelve had been properly vetted and cleared by Commodore Oh's investigators.

The most difficult concession to get from Clancy was retaining the corporation's independence and ability to take on non-Starfleet clients. The same held true for the sister company, the Rockford Detective Agencies. Which is how Tyrol had accepted private retainers from the Cardassian Information Bureau and the Bajoran Militia. The CIB hadn't requested that Outbound Ventures assist the Cardassian Guard in the war against the Federation but the Militia had eagerly accepted the help while Macen and Rockford's team tracked down the root cause behind the administration change overs and the sudden hostility the Federation and Starfleet displayed.

Mars had changed the Federation. The Dominion War had been an attack from without.

With known enemies and visible threat. The synthetics had just gone rogue and no one knew why. But the death toll was over two million colonists and nearly ten thousand Starfleet engineers and civilian contractors at the Utopia Planetia Yards. But it could have just as easily been any planet in the Federation.

The Synthetics Ban removed all positronic androids from service and outlawed sentient holograms. The Doctor and Vic Fontaine had been given warning and fled. The Doctor headed for the Delta Quadrant. Vic arrived at Serenity to play at the local Quark's holosuites. With the Bajoran Republic no longer under the Synthetics Ban, Vic returned home to Deep Space Nine where Quark reinstalled him in his old dedicated holosuite.

Lavelle went ballistic when he learned but the station was under Bajoran law now and primarily staffed by Militia officers and Bajoran civilians. They outnumbered Starfleet three to one.

Lavelle, Vaughn, Bashir, Douglas, Lt. Commander Jefferson Blackmer, Lt. Commander Nog, and Command Master Chief Miles O'Brien were allowed to stay on under Colonel Cenn Deska's watchful eye as liaison officer. Lavelle's complaints to Starfleet fell on deaf ears. If the Bajorans wanted to host a potentially dangerous holographic life form in a Ferengi run bar, the consequences would fall on them and heaven help the Militia if a Starfleet officer or Federation civilian were harmed in any way.

Kira wouldn't entertain ejecting Vic's program from the Sector. So Lavelle was stymied by both command chains. Another resentment he would harbor. Lavelle was quietly working with Commodore Oh to dispatch Special Operations Command troops to Bajor to eliminate the Joint Chiefs and take the First Couple hostage and reorder the nature of Starfleet's relationship with the Militia. The Bajorans would be restored to their rightful place as the junior partner in the association.

Right now, Starfleet was dependent on Bajor's, and especially the Militia's, goodwill to operate throughout the sector and in the Gamma Quadrant. The Bajorans having built Waypoint station for colonial support and exploration efforts while Starfleet sat by and became increasingly reliant on the station. Commodore Saavik, the exploration effort's flag officer, refused to entertain any efforts to undermine Waypoint or the Bajoran colonies. And while the Federation had met friendlies, Bajor had made an ally out of the Sinherans who called themselves the Ascendant. They shared a common faith in the Prophets and even had a Cardassian named Iliana Ghemor as their Emissary.

Benjamin Sisko had retired and settled on Bajor. So the Emissary walked amongst the Bajorans. Neela had been labeled the Hand of the Prophets by vedeks and prylars that discovered her alive at a remote monastery, having appeared overnight from nowhere.

Neela spoke of being in the Celestial Temple and receiving word from the Prophets that she was to act as their agent in Bajoran affairs. Kai Tila Trus dubbed Neela the Hand and gave her blessing after Sisko affirmed Neela's role in the Prophets' plans. What they didn't share was that the Prophets had brought many agents into play.

Neela and Sisko learned that their shared universe was one of four Prime Universes had diverged from a single second after the birth of the galaxy. All alternates spun out from them. Two were especially intertwined with this reality. The would-be called Kelvinverse and the Terran Universe. The other Primes could only reached through the efforts of beings such as the Prophets, the Q, or the Organians and possibly the Metrons.

But a shearing effect had devastated the multiverse and only the strongest alternates, closest in connection to the Primes, remained intact.

Not even the Prophets knew what had caused this effect but they took steps to bolster this Prime and inject their favorite actors no longer present in this Prime Universe. Sisko had been shown Bajor's past, present, and future while he dwelt with the Prophets.

He returned to avert a great crisis threatening the edges of the Federation from the Gamma Quadrant. The Dominion set their border and would only allow limited commerce through the Karemma through it. The Federation and Bajor were free to explore and colonize world deeper into the Gamma Quadrant, Alpha Quadrant bound.

Captain Saavik had always been the senior officer in the efforts. Her promotion just made her the official ranking officer and the Vesta-class USS Endeavor-A replaced her sole previous command, the original Ambassador-class Endeavor. Saavik had been her only commander from commissioning to decommissioning. She had similar hopes for her new command. With Vice Admiral Janeway otherwise occupied looking for what happened to the USS Protostar and its captain, her former XO, Chakotay, Janeway's hopes for Seven of Nine seemed dashed by Seven's refusal to accept Starfleet protocols regarding abandoning patrols of the Protectorate worlds and outer colonies. She'd joined the Fenris Rangers, a paramilitary organization that arose to fill in the law enforcement gaps along several contested borders. Including the Romulan Border Zone.

But Sisko and Neela knew that Seven's role would change history and she would begin a new grand destiny in Starfleet in the 25th Century. By then, Worf and Tuvok would be captains and LaForge would make commodore. Each fulfilling their assigned roles at the best of their ability.

"You two are awfully antisocial," Rockford chided them as she joined their party of two, "Only Bailey and Angelique look as uncomfortable."

"Chris Noble shipped out this morning," they'd stayed in the Confederacy for a week as negotiations between all parties drug on, "S'harr is having the time of her life upgrading every system aboard the Eclipse."

"The woman needs to return to her husband and take a break," Rockford reminded him.

"Parva so told her," Macen confirmed it, "Meanwhile she and Treir are exchanging death flares across the room."

"Understandable," Anara said, "Treir did sell her into bondage."

"Jim McKinley and Jennifer Marie Massoli are having a time of it," Rockford chuckled, "They've challenged Ian Delaney and Hannah Grace to a dance off."

The music suddenly took a vibrant turn and Rockford grinned, "And I'd say it's just begun."

"Rab got Parva on the floor as well," Macen noted, "And Harri dragged Tony out there."

"Tracy is having too much fun plotting our return to Serenity in the Solstice now that Eckles, Darcy, and Lacey are joining us as well," Rockford informed him.

"Liz Liefers and Robert Caplan just joined the competition," Macen told her, "And Emily Johnson is prowling around Jonathan Striker."

"I didn't see that coming," Rockford confessed as she witnessed young Johnson get the Intrepid's bespectacled XO out on the floor.

"Whose judging this free for all?" Macen asked.

"Bob, you, and I," Rockford grinned even wider, "So pay attention and don't play favorites."

Macen snuggled Rockford in his arms as he stood behind her, "Now I have a great view."

"Flatterer," she laughed, "But it scores you points. Earn enough of them and you might get lucky on our long, boring voyage home."

"Excuse me," Anara saw her XO, Captain Wyn Meru, frantically waving her over.

Johnson tapped his chirping comm badge. McKinley stopped and did the same, leading Massoli off of the dance floor. The Intrepid crew, except for Johnson, were all off duty and in civilian clothes. But even the provocatively dressed Massoli showed that she had her comm badge discreetly hidden on her person as she too was paged. Delaney and Striker were next. The Intrepid's transporters snatched away the crew, leaving Johnson behind. Dax and her XO, Sam Bowers, were Starfleet's official representatives. They too were called away. That left Divine as Johnson's ride home.

Captains Merry Limerick, Alec Prine and Hev Callas of the Hood, Merrimack, and Monitor had already been called away to other urgent and clandestine assignments.

Nechayev's "private fleet" didn't report their movements to Starfleet Command so where they'd headed out to was anyone's guess. Sela seemed inordinately happy. That didn't bode well. Eldanak and Aurelian forced Taralin to say her goodbyes and then Sela transported with them back to Jillanic's Warbird.

Macen's comm badge went off. Rockford eavesdropped as Lieutenant Christine Pike, Starfleet's official liaison officer with Outbound Ventures began speaking, "...and Admiral Forger demands you return double time. She'll pay for the new warp core that you'll burn out getting back here in record time."

"What's the word?" Macen asked.

"A civilian spotted a starship phasing through a Klingon Bird of Prey in the Taurus Reach. It destroyed the ship. Commander Ro feels this is a Cell 51 ship based on your assessments during the build up in the Confederacy," Pike reported.

"Commander Ro?" Macen was stunned, "When did Laren rejoin Starfleet?"

"She was officially reinstated as a lt. commander two weeks ago and was promoted as of today. She's Starfleet Intelligence and in charge of the Cell 51 hunt. She wants you and the Obsidian on the case," Pike informed them.

"Tell Ro I'm not recalling the crew. She gets us in the Solstice or not at all," Macen countered, "Which means a slower transit but I've got Parva expert backup with this vessel class. We'll still make it back in under two weeks."

"I guess she doesn't have a choice," Pike grumbled.

"It's that or find a new crew," Macen confirmed it.

"She'll cope. Out,"Pike signed off.

Johnson approached, "The Klingons?"

"Ro Laren. Commander Ro Laren of Starfleet Intelligence," Macen was still amazed.

Ro had seemed content in the Militia. But leading a division of Starfleet on the manhunt for one of their most elusive foes was a challenge Ro couldn't resist. She was willing to take the demotions in order to join and lead the hunt for Cell 51. How Nechayev had gotten it past Starfleet Command was anyone's guess, since Ro had helped lead Bajor's resistance against Starfleet. But Ro was Starfleet once again. Nechayev had far reaching plans for Ro. She always had despite not defending her during the "Quark Affair".

But Nechayev had been behind Ro's original rehabilitation in Starfleet's eyes after her imprisonment following the Dominion War. Even getting Ro reinstated as a full lieutenant. But the politics of Starfleet Command demanded that Ro suffer for withholding information that would've imprisoned Quark. All of the SID team members, permanent and temporary, eyes were on Macen. He whirled his finger in the air and commed the onboard computer to begin automated beam outs.

"This had damn well better be worth it!" Parva loudly declared as she went to change clothes. After everyone was in working garb, they set course for the old Vanguard site.

The civilian's sighting of the Klingons destruction was pushed forward. They watched it on the main viewer in the bridge with the Engineering and other crew crowding around.

"Damn. We could use the Obsidian," Lee complained.

"Damn straight," Shade grumbled.

"Well, that's not an option," Macen said coldly, "I promised every SID team four weeks off. We're the exception. Not them."

"The crews of the non-SID cleared ships are being rotated through a month's leave as well," Rockford reminded her team.

"But the actual crew hasn't been rotated. They're all new hands," Parva reminded everyone, especially Macen, "They're just performing routine maintenance."

"We could run the ship," Ebert promised.

"It beats this bucket," Mudd agreed.

"It is a sounder option," Rockford conceded.

"Parva, Tom, Heidi, prepare to run the warp core at one hundred and twenty percent. I want us to Serenity in a week," Macen ordered.

"That'll burn out the core and the nacelles," Eckles warned him.

"Forger said she'd pay for the replacements and any upgrades you choose to make," Macen fudged the mental numbers and exact terms.

"Let's do this!" Darcy enthused. It would get her back to Serenity in time for her wife's furlough from the cruise line she worked for.

"I just hope Shannon is forgiving for me stealing the boat," Macen muttered.

"She won't have a choice, will she?" Rockford laughed, "Just promise her you won't scratch the paint."

"Never happening," Macen knew better than to promise that.

One week later.

In the end, the Charleston-class Indomitable had to deploy to tractor tow the Solstice back to port. Macen assumed command of the Obsidian once again. Since none of the crew had served under him when he was ship's CO, they merely shrugged and prepared to get underway.

The Obsidian went to full power as Parva brought the warp core up from standby. The impulse engine fusion reactors also went to full power. The fusion batteries were double checked and confirmed to be fully charged. Ebert released the docking clamps and used thrusters to push away from Upper Pylon 3, the ship's permanently assigned Serenity docking berth. She then cut in the impulse engines and maneuvered clear of the station.

Inside Station Ops, Lacey reported the move to Captain Riker.

"They're in for a helluva ride," Riker predicted.

"Brin has calmed down. Really," Danan looked to Lacey for support.

Lacey shook her head "no" with a grin.

"I hope Tessa will be happy to freely move around without relying on her mobile emitter," Danan sighed.

"What's their mission again?" Riker hadn't had time to debrief the returning team.

Sveta Korepanova, the station's Strategic Operations Officer explained, "It's ostensibly a hunting mission. A civilian reported seeing a transphasic starship destroy a Klingon scout. Commander Ro requested Macen's team's support."

"Commander Ro?" Riker stumbled over that, "She rejoined Starfleet?"

"Apparently," Korepanova shrugged, "At least according to Chris Pike."

"You really should check your mail once in a while," Danan elbowed him.

"I don't understand the universe anymore," Riker admitted, "How the hell did Ro get back into Starfleet? And why?"

"According to Pike, Ro is Starfleet Intelligence, the Counter Terrorism Unit," Danan shared.

"You knew?" Riker accused.

"Laren sent a message updating us. Like I said before: try checking our mail once in a while," Danan reiterated.

"I leave that to you," Riker confessed, "I assumed you told me the good stuff."

Danan snorted, "Hardly."

"So I'm learning," Riker was bemused.

"The mail hadn't caught up with Brin and Celeste before Chris broke news to them as well. Celeste sent a message saying Ro's news arrived six hours after they already knew it. Guess who personally recruited Ro back into the fold," Danan told him.

"No!" Riker refused to believe it.

"Yup. Nechayev herself," Danan confirmed his suspicions.

"But why?" Riker asked.

"Go back to your office and watch the bloody message," Danan planted her fists akimbo and huffed.

"I'll do just that," he said defiantly.

After he disappeared, Danan laughed, "He is sooo easy to manipulate."

"Just dare him and he does," Korepanova said knowingly.

"So you and Edwin came home early," Danan probed.

"Idiot," Korepanova snorted, "He'll be apologizing for a year."

"Do tell," Kristiana Liu broke her long silence from Ops Logistics. So Korepanova did.

Zimbalist made the mistake of showing up at Ops to surprise Korepanova and received a universally cold reception.

"I see you told them," he noted.

"You deserve no less," Korepanova told him.

"Okay, I'll accept that," Zimbalist conceded.

"Like you have a choice," Korepanova snorted again.

"I can be abused anywhere. I'll call on you later," Zimbalist decided.

"I'll be busy tonight," Korepanova warned him.

"We have plans," Liu helpfully interjected.

"All of us. Not you," Lacey threw in. Zimbalist looked like a whipped puppy when he left.

"I'll tell Tom to check on him later while we're out," Danan offered.

"Okay then. What should we do, ladies?" Korepanova enthused.

Mudd informed Macen the Eclipse had reached Serenity two days into their journey across the Alpha Quadrant to reach the Taurus Reach.

"That'll release Chris Lacey from having to cover Chris Noble's Gamma Watch," Macen sounded relieved for his former weapons officer.

"Lacey doesn't mind being in command," Ebert glanced over her shoulder.

"That's the brave face she puts on. She hates being in command," Macen chuckled.

"I could get used to this," Mudd swiveled around her chair at OPS. Daggit manned Tactical. With Ebert at CONN, that left Sciences and Environmental unmanned. Galen 3 wouldn't report to the bridge until they arrived. Until then he manned Astrometrics when he wasn't hanging out with Tessa.

Burrows covered the Gamma Watch at Tactical. It was a shortened watch since the Alpha Watch officers manned their stations for eighteen hours a day right now. Kerber and Smith emerged from their Data Womb to man OPS and CONN. It had turned out Smith was a rated pilot back on Ardana IV in her former life. An emergency would have Ebert and Mudd scrambling to get back to the bridge.

The new 2nd Officer, one Aeryn Black, had hired one with Forger with one demand: she be allowed to wear her leather flight jacket over her uniform. Forger happily agreed.

Jaycee Miller was standing down as 2nd to focus on staying Chief Tactical Officer and her newfound romance with Abby Collins. Another surprising new addition had been Celine Jones, Engineer's Mate. Rated fourth in Engineering, she nicely filled in for Gilan and S'harr's empty shoes.

Her idiosyncrasy was a pink baseball cap she demanded to wear while on and off duty.

Apparently she'd been a Minor League player in the Colonial Baseball League.

Most of Burrows days were spent covering Jelena Kovic and Abby Collins' roles as the Chief and Deputy Chief of Security before switching off to man Tactical. Sito Jaxa had come along as Deputy Chief after getting Radil Jenrya and Kort to watch out over Nick Lucarno and their children.

Lucarno was a devoted dad but worked best when he could still perform his duties as Serenity's Flight Operations Officer and could squeeze time to ferry clients back and forth in a runabout besides just scheduling them. Radil understood. Kort was a better parent than she was. For a Klingon he was very patient and understanding. He was studying Klingon meditation and the ways of peace through inner strength. Radil just enjoyed busting crooks and their heads on Serenity. But the Bajoran didn't miss going out with the SID team anymore now that their child had been born and she was pregnant with another due in two more months' time. Bajoran pregnancies being approximately five months long.

Sito was happy to be back aboard a starship just as a change of pace. Gerrit Gren had recalled her from the Eclipse mission moments before its departure for the Confederate Zone. A group of Orion free traders had boarded the station to tend to banking business on Barrinor and though they slept aboard their starships, they rabble roused during the day as a response to Treir's expulsion from the station.

The hireling spent their days and nights in the holding cells after their initial arrival.

Riker deciding to hold them without trial in exchange for their departures as soon the captains left with their ships. It had been an exhausting week as each cell had two beds, three cells altogether and six aliens per cell. Gerrit, Sito, and Jenrya, Station Security's officer corps, were all Bajoran and rather no-nonsense about said security.

Serenity crew, like the Outbound Ventures crews excepting SID teams, wore corporate uniforms. A play off of the United Earth Starfleet uniform with different Division colors. They'd tried to go with a variant of the Class-B jumpsuits Starfleet favored between 2369-2373 but Starfleet balked since there were too close in appearance to the new uniforms Clancy had been pushing through. They still used the breast pocket pips and chevrons for rank but green piping was for Command officers and purple for Engineering and OPS. Black was reserved for Security. Medical retained the Sciences Blue.

That satisfied Starfleet as they licensed out the uniform designs and replicator patterns. Outbound Ventures also got the use of every circa era uniform: desert, arctic, caps, and field jackets. SID teams were immune to corporate uniform codes because they were frequently undercover and Macen's team typically had no shipboard duties other than Tessa and Parva who just made a federal case out wearing standardized uniforms.

Parva and Tessa each had their own versions of uniforms they were day in and out.

Tessa's was essentially an oversized tee-shirt dress and Parva wore an engineer's vest from 2283-2340 in Starfleet with utility pants and boots with a wide belt to ferry the tool her vest couldn't hold.

The team, except for Tessa and Parva, were also always armed with a Bajoran Militia-issue phaser pistol and a holster belt fitted with pouches for a dozen spare power cells.

Macen and Rockford wore their comm badges there. The badges served as communicators and symbols of authority. SID contractors were issued silver versions of Federation Security's gold comm badges. This gave them arrest powers, universal jurisdiction within the Federation, and immunity from weapons bans.

Each phaser was equipped with an authorization chip that permitted their transit through Federation and Starfleet transporters and security checkpoints. Standard Militia phasers had to be cleared individually at Starfleet outposts now.

Galen 3 arrived at the Science station when the Obsidian was on approach to the location of the destroyed Vanguard starbase. A small squadron of Klingon ships were present as well. Two types of Klingon Birds of Prey were represented. Three of the smaller B'rel-class and two of the larger K'Vort-class. One Vor'cha-class was undoubtedly the squadron commander's personal ship. Two K'tinga-class cruisers also outfitted the mobile task force. The Obsidian was immediately hailed. The Klingon commander, General Hohk, hailed the starship as soon as it dropped out of warp.

"What business do you have here, Starfleet?" Hohk demanded to know.

"We're contractors Chancellor Martok requested join in your investigation," Macen easily replied. Hohk turned aside to receive word from his executive officer confirming Martok's authorization for the Obsidian to join in the hunt for those responsible for the destruction of one of the squadron's B'rel-class scouts.

"Very well, you've been confirmed. Tell me, why would Martok ask for you?" Hohk asked.

"We have previous experience with a transphasic cloaked ship. We have a theory on how to detect a ship utilizing one and the sensor capability to do so," Macen told him, "With all due respect, Klingon targeting sensors are without equal but your scientific capabilities are limited at best."

Hohk laughed, "I like you. You speak your mind. How can we help you?"

"You can't, expect to target where we indicate," Macen told him.

"You expect the enemy to be bold enough to still be here?"Hohk inquired.

"I believe the enemy will be arrogant enough to stay in the area to target your ships as they disperse and pick them off individually. While they do so they'll signal for support vessels. I think they'll come when that happens and they'll be stealthed to fool your sensors without utilizing cloaks," Macen told him, "So let us conduct our investigation and we'll give you the enemy."

"Commander, I have something," Galen 3 already announced.

"Hold that thought, General," Macen signed off, "What do you have?"

"An electromagnetic distortion that is barely discernible from background radiation. But Tessa isolated the wavelengths and they are present in this system," Galen 3 told him.

"Put it on the tactical plot," Macen requested. The dot was nearby.

"Harri, signal Hohk and have his forces approach that position," Macen told her.

"He wants to know why," Mudd replied.

"Tell him it's to flush the targ from its den," Macen told her, "He'll understand."

"Why are the Klingons on approach?" Eris sharply asked Robert Roy.

"Status on the cloak?" he asked Wes Petrie.

"It reads all systems functional," Petrie reported after consulting with the cloak manager.

"Stand by transphasic function," Roy ordered, "The Klingons are merely beating the bushes trying to draw us out."

"They have halted," Eris observed.

"With us inside their flagship," Roy grimaced.

"We can't transphase for much longer," Petrie warned Roy, "The system is already redlining."

"Full impulse," Roy ordered, "Cut the transphasing as soon as we're clear of the Vor'cha-."

"Sir, the Obsidian has fired two torpedoes at us," the Tactical Officer reported.

"At the Klingons?" Roy wondered.

"Commander Macen is a student of James T. Kirk," Eris reminded him, "Did Kirk not flush out a cloaked Klingon vessel by modifying the targeting guidance system on a torpedo to reveal the enemy vessel."

"Dammit!" Roy lurched forward in his seat as he recalled the history lesson, "Cut impulse engines! That's a damn science ship! They're carrying all kinds of probes for analyzing gaseous anomalies. They're targeting our impulse exhaust!"

"Transphasic status?" Eris calmly asked.

"Still redlined," Petrie said in defeat.

"Decloak and raise shields," Roy ordered.

"But the Klingons will see us!" Eris protested.

"You're a clone. What do you care?" Petrie asked.

"Every Vorta strives to be the only version of themselves that the Founders require," Eris sniffed, "Why would privateers carry scientific probes?"

"Because Macen's a damn career spy," Roy snarled, "All hands, brace for impact!"

The ship shuddered and a few EPS lines overloaded.

"Sir! The Klingons are coming about!" the officer at Sciences reported.

"Torpedo! Torpedo! Torpedo!" the Weapons Officer called, "Two more from the Klingons in-bound!"

"Evasive!" Roy called to the Helm Officer, "They can already see us. So it doesn't matter. Communications, launch the distress buoy and activate the beacon. These bastards are in for a fight."

As Hohk maneuvered his squadron and the Obsidian evaded return fire from the Dibron, Cell 51 responded by deploying updated versions of their classic Section 31 Hou-li-, Ncia-, Nimrod-, and Shiva-class starships.

"Now they're in for it," Roy relished the thought.

The Cell 51 response included the sole Vengeance-class starship Cell 51 had completed.

Its primary hull slightly larger than a Galaxy-class' and its overall length slightly longer than a Sovereign-class', the Vengeance was the largest Federation built starship ever constructed.

"Holy hell!" Mudd yelped when it dropped out of warp.

"Evasive!" Macen ordered. Ebert deftly avoided the torpedo barrage unleashed by the Cell 31 task force.

"The Klingons will love this," Daggit said truthfully.

"Keep us focused on that transphasic ship," Macen instructed Ebert, "Let the Klingons have the glory. How many guidance rigged torpedoes do we still have in inventory?"

"Four," Daggit answered.

"I doubt it'll be an issue, Commander," Galen 3 told Macen, "Their cloak appears to have overloaded, "It's creating EM distortions interfering with ship's systems."

"Then we target it while she's exposed," Macen instructed Daggit.

"Good to go," Daggit locked torpedo guidance and fired off four standard photons.

"Tessa was right again, it's a modified Soyuz-class," Galen 3 said appreciatively.

"Go down to the botanical shop and buy her roses when we get back to the station," Macen suggested.

"Red ones," Mudd demanded, "She'll get it."

"I've isolated the frequency their ID transponder is on. All the Cell 51 ships are using alternative frequencies for their transponders," Mudd announced, "We're chasing the USS Dibron."

"Or what had been the Dibron," Daggit was volleying phaser fire at the ship now as well after they'd come into range.

"The big mother is the USS Vengeance. The others are the Dagger, Stiletto, Mace, and Cudgel," Mudd read off.

"All friendly names," Ebert muttered.

"The Klingons have a severe problem," Galen 3 warned everyone, "Those five ships are all armed with pulse phasers and quantum torpedoes. They also have the most advanced shielding I've ever seen."

"Confirmed," Daggit grimaced, "The Klingons are taking a pasting."

"General Hohk is signaling," Mudd shared, "He says, 'Save yourselves'. Which we aren't going to be smart and do. Are we?"

"See, Harri?" You're born for bridge duty," Macen joked.

"Bite my extremely gorgeous ass," Mudd snorted, "That's an open invitation by the way. No strings attached."

Ebert felt insulted, "How would Tony feel?"

"You mean you care now that I'm finally not chasing you?" Mudd laughed.

"Focus," Macen chided them, "Tracy, stay on the Dibron. Try to herd them towards Starbase 27,"

"Near Pacifica?" Ebert was concerned.

"Starfleet entered into an agreement to avoid the Taurus Reach except wherever and whenever how few Federation colonies were involved to allow the Klingons unrestricted access. But, Nechayev and Akaar had a response put together at Starbase 27 for Cell 51," Macen explained, "But we have to get them back inside formal Federation borders."

"It's a G-class starbase," Mudd read off her screen, "They gonna be ready for this kinda fight?"

"They won't be in it," Macen promised, "The sector's been cleared of commercial traffic. Which was all headed to Pacifica anyways."

"Kerber to Macen," came after Macen tapped his chirping comm badge, "Bailey's made a discovery. Cell 51 has isolated a subspace band we previously thought was solely a Patriarchy utilized frequency and is using it to receive directly order from Jack Fowler from a location alternatively dubbed the Redoubt and Sentinel Station."

"Can she triangulate a fix?" Macen urgently asked.

"Not with a single vector," Kerber reminded him, "And its location is beyond our sensor range."

"But we have a direction?" Macen asked.

"Deeper into the Taurus Reach," Kerber replied.

"Sonuvabitch, no wonder no one can find them," Mudd complained, "And Starfleet just signed away permission ta look here."

"Makes you wonder about Clancy," Ebert muttered.

"Best to avoid going there," Macen advised. "Prentiss and Senecka are on it. Besides the Federation Council would've been the ones to cede away exploration rights."

"And we know the Council has Cell 51 influencers," Daggit said as he continued firing phasers at the retreating Dibron. It was utilizing its aft torpedo launcher and phasers to maximum effect to keep Ebert on her toes and Daggit's targeting skills honed.

"Macen to Engineering," he'd tapped his seat's comm panel, "what's your situation?"

"Jones here, Commander. Parva is busy dealing with a series of overloads from the forward shields. Secondary emitters engaged but she'd repairing the primaries to double shield strength. She left me in charge down here."

"Prep the auxiliary deflector to emit a tachyon pulse. I want to remodulate the Dibron's shields and hit them with some unprotected shots."

"Aye, sir!" Jones' enthusiasm was infectious. Macen could imagine her squaring her every present cap to get to work.

"Give me two minutes," Jones requested.

Jones had shaved two minutes off of his estimate, "Just let us know when you're ready."

"I'm going to enjoy this," Daggit vowed.

"Give `em hell for me too," Mudd made him promise.

"Holy frinx!" Mudd then exclaimed, "The Klingons just universally kamizazied the Cell 51 ships."

"Damages?" Macen asked.

"Tachyon pulse ready!" Jones reported in.

"Thank you," Macen replied, "Rab?"

"Firing everything now," Daggit told him. The tachyons would be fired one second before the phaser emitters engaged. Ebert angled the hull so all four phaser strips could target the fleeing Dibron.

"Boo-yah!" Daggit exclaimed as explosions ripped through the Dibron's rear weapons arrays, "Let see them spit fire and vengeance now."

"Oh shuk," Mudd murmured, "Macen! That big ship came through the Klingon attack. She heavily damaged but laying in a pursuit after us."

"Dibron going to warp," Ebert announced, "Following them. They're maxing out their warp engines at Warp 7. I'm overtaking them at Warp 8."

"Their nacelles were damaged in Daggit's attack," Galen 3 told them, "They won't be able to sustain these speeds for much longer."

A nacelle ruptured.

"Or for any length of time," Galen 3 amended.

"Harri, signal Starbase 27 we've returned to Federation space and inform them of the nature of our quarry and our pursuit," Macen ordered.

"Dibron is coming about," Daggit informed everyone, "They're trying to get their remaining weapons arrays pointed at us."

"Tracy, work some magic," Macen urged.

"Track with me on this," Ebert advised Daggit. Using their forward momentum from dropping to full impulse out of warp, she cut the primary impulse engines and engaged the impulse thrusters and RCS thrusters to lift and roll the Obsidian, nose forward and aimed at the passing Dibron while Daggit fired for effect. She halted the maneuver behind the Dibron's aft quarter where she barrel rolled to situate the ship to her opponent again.

"Damn girl!" Mudd cheered, "Aglaia is gonna be workin' overtime ta top that!"

"Primary shields just came back online," Daggit stated, "That's my woman at work."

"Jones, how's the aux deflector looking?" Macen commed Engineering again.

"Scrambled, sir. I have a damage control team gutting the fused parts out and replicating replacements as we speak,"she told him with some consternation, "I wouldn't recommend doing the same to the primary."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Macen promised.

"Our torpedo magazine is getting depleted," Daggit warned, "We only had forty to begin with and I've used thirty so far."

"Tracy use the Dibron as a shield. Rab, fire torpedoes at the Vengeance while the Dibron is evading us. Otherwise, they're our shield," Macen instructed.

"Dibron has gone to max impulse. They're making a drive beneath the Vengeance," Ebert scowled behind her spectacles.

"I know why," Galen 3 adjusted the main viewer to an enhanced view of the Vengeance's under-saucer, "Those pulse phaser cannons aren't fixed. The turrets maneuver and adjust to targeting requirements."

"Rab, torpedo focus is on those cannons," Macen decided, "Use phasers to keep them pissed off."

"Shouldn't be hard with a name like Vengeance," Mudd retorted.

"Now the Dibron is trying to foul our shots," Daggit warned him as the pulse phaser fire began to herd the Obsidian behind the Dibron.

"Dammit!" Ebert swore as phaser fire grazed the shields.

"Max impulse!" Macen ordered Ebert.

"What?" she was startled.

"Not this again," Daggit groaned.

"Whatt'ya mean 'again'?" Mudd sounded scared.

"Rab, drop forward shields as we make contact with the Dibron's," Macen told him.

"Parva will hate you forever," Daggit warned him, "And so will Celeste."

"I'll deal," Macen promised.

"I'm feelin' traumatized already," Mudd told anyone that would listen.

"Are we seriously ramming them?" Ebert asked.

"We're getting inside their shields where they will then attempt to board us. Putting their people in harm's way of those pulse phasers," Macen explained, "Try avoiding scratching the paint."

"Okay, this I can do," Ebert promised.

"Oh God," Mudd said just in case anyone was listening. Foxhole faith it seemed persisted into the 24th Century.

"Attention crew, standby to repel boarders. Report to your emergency stations," Macen informed them all.

"Seriously?" Burrows commed back.

"Awl right!" he said excitedly as Macen confirmed it, "Sito and I have been drilling these people out of their minds. We'll see if anything stuck."

"Why do I sleep with him?" Mudd was aghast at his enthusiasm over the prospective fight.

"It's his abs," Daggit observed, "You can't resist hard bodies."

"Galen 3, report to Sickbay. Tessa could use your help at this point," Macen dismissed the Science Officer.

"I'm going to kill you if we survive this," Rockford commed him next.

"The usual things: promises you don't intend to keep," Macen shrugged though she couldn't see it.

"The sweet spot is between their nacelles," Daggit told Ebert, "That's where their shields are the weakest."

"Hold on to something," Ebert ramped up the impulse engines long enough to penetrate the shielding. Then she braked with thrusters to avoid getting in range of the Dibron's lower phaser emitters.

"Now, we wait for their arrival," Macen announced, "Deactivate transport inhibitors on Decks 3 through 5. Let them work for it."

Daggit responded with a nasty chuckle.

"Keep us in position. Use the tractor beam to lock us in place," Macen instructed Mudd.

"This is balls to the walls stupid," Mudd complained, "But it'll probably work."

"Round up every available agent and beam over there," Roy ordered Petrie.

Petrie gave the orders and teams began transporting to the Obsidian.

"Macen's either brilliant, suicidal, or a combination thereof," Roy observed.

"He's a solid," Eris said disdainfully, "Therefore deeply flawed."

"You're one too, y'now?" Roy wondered.

"I speak from vast experience," Eris told him.

Black led a Security team behind force field barricades as the Cell 51 agents the Arabian and the Honduran transported in with a team from the Dibron on Deck 3. Roy hadn't lowered his own shields to transfer what few agents were left aboard the Vengeance to the Dibron and transporter relay them to the Obsidian. The Vengeance was designed to be operated by a single crewman in the event of catastrophe. She'd only had a skeleton crew aboard when she deployed from Sentinel Station.

Three agents had survived the Vor'cha's destruction when she rammed into the Vengeance's shields and self-destructed. The testament to Section 31's long gestating building program was proven out through the survival of all of the Cell 51 starships.

The others had just had to make major repairs to patch catastrophic damage before warping into the system. With the damaged Stiletto, Dagger, Mace, and Cudgel now in the star system alone against the Obsidian, Cell 51 felt invincible.

Yet Roy knew better than to assume that victory was at hand. Macen had pursued the Dibron into Federation space for a reason and he'd transmitted a message to the venerable Starbase 27. So this seemingly suicidal gesture was a ploy to buy time for reinforcements. Yet the Taurus Reach rarely received patrols from Starfleet these days.

The Federation's own scant colonies receiving more assistance from Outbound Ventures than Starfleet thanks to Fleet Admiral Clancy's short sightedness following the Mars Massacre.

The predicted synthetic apocalypse hadn't descended yet and she still hadn't rescinded her limitations on patrols and mandate to protect Federation member worlds only. Thus stoking the very fears Chavy Sok had manipulated to become Federation President. Her policies had been widely embraced by the Federation's citizenry until the conscription efforts began and the Bajorans were interned in detention camps on every Federation world. The colonies had seen fit to spare their fellow Bajoran settlers the indignity.

thus proving their"disloyalty" to Sok, Federation Security, the Ministry of Propaganda, and Clancy herself. Even the recently renamed "Ministry of Information" kept the propaganda alive. It was even still under the leadership of the same three covert Cell 51 political agents.

The Arabian and the Honduran were code-names for two golden haired agents stemming from those locations on Earth. Like Petrie they were high ranking Senior Agents. But under Cell 51's recruiting drive, they'd been code-named by origin point rather than keep their actual names. The Cuban, the Puerto Rican, the German, and the Indian were also leading campaigns on Deck 4. The mysterious Agent March, one of the twelve Monthly Agents, was leading the Ugandan and the Sudanese in trying to take Engineering and Deck 5. Burrows personally led the Security team there. Finding unexpected support from Parva, Jones, and the engineering crew themselves.

Sito was on Deck 4 fighting back the invaders. Deck 5 was a vital battle while Decks 3 and 4 were merely struggles to reach the lifts and from them the bridge. Deck 3 contained Sickbay, Rockford and Macen's offices, the Situation Center, and the Data Womb. Black wondered why she'd received the fewest Security agents from Burrows.

She led a team of two, a very valiant two, but badly outnumbered by the Arabian and Honduran's force.

Then suppressive fire began firing down the opening in the force field barricades.

Rockford had a rifle and was picking off Cell 51 boarders. Lee, Shade, and Forte quickly manned the barricades armed with their customary pistols.

"Happy to see you, Detective," Black confessed as Cell 51 mounted a counter offensive.

Galen 3 appeared from Sickbay to begin triage and treating phaser burns on the fly.

"Where's Tessa?" Black asked.

"Flitting about Decks 4 and 5," Galen 3 answered, "The fighting is heavier there."

"Poor sods," Rockford chuckled.

"We have no decent cover," the Honduran complained to the Arabian across the corridor.

"How are you coming with those shield emitters?" the Arabian asked an agent ripping into the wall consoles and trying to access the barricade program.

"I can get us barricades but the system is hardwired to erect them and only release them on the captain's command or that of the Chief of Security," the stymied engineer reported.

"Then give us some cover at least," the Honduran replied.

"I'm working on...urk!" the engineer was shot.

"Whose still up?" the Arabian demanded to know after the heavy volley of phaser fire dissipated. No one but the Honduran was still conscious.

"Arabian to Dibron, emergency transport!" The Honduran had hit her comm badge.

"They've locked the ship down with transport inhibitors,"Roy grated back, "It's all one bigfrinxing trap."

The Honduran laid down arms. The Arabian followed her lead.

"We surrender!" the Arabian called out. Force fields activated, isolating the two "blondes". Then anesthezine gas pumped into the space. It was a special blend developed by Tessa that overcame the stimulants the women pumped themselves with.

But it still took much longer than the gas was designed for.

"I'd say they'll be out for ten to fifteen minute," Galen 3 predicted.

"Clear the section," Rockford directed, "Then tag them. We'll have Telrik beam them all into a cell."

"I can remotely use my command codes to activate the cell's force field once they're in," Black recalled.

"I knew there was reason why Shannon and Joelle chose you as 2nd Officer," Rockford teased.

"Hold this corridor," Rockford instructed her Detective Squad, "Chief Black and I will check on Sito."

"Security, on me," Black ordered her recovering team of two. They headed for the turbolift. When it opened and was still unoccupied, it gave them hope.

The Cell 51 crew/agents were led by the women known as the Indian, the Puerto Rican, the German, and the Cuban. The Cuban stood out because of her gravity defying hairstyle with a purple skunk stripe running through its length.

"There's only four of them," the Cuban also regretted the lack of force field barricades that the Obsidian crew employed for their own protection and firing positions. But the dozen Cell 51 agents managed to wound two of the security detail through a sheer volley of overwhelming firepower. An EMH winked into existence to assist the wounded.

The diminutive Bajoran seemed to be in overall command. She was also the most highly trained it seemed. She'd personally struck down four of the Cell 51 detail on her own behind her electrostatic pill box.

"We could risk a photon grenade," the German suggested.

"Except that we'd be caught in the blast, not them," the Indian dismissed the plan.

"I can't raise the Dibron," the Puerto Rican complained, "They've initiated a transporter and comms lockout."

"So it's a trap," the Indian scowled.

The Puerto Rican managed to hit the last remaining member of Sito's team, leaving her alone. But Sito struck down the remaining phaser gunmen. That left the four Senior Agents standing.

"Got it!" the German announced and a force field barricade formed for their defense.

"We'll see how she can take it," the Cuban said with relish.

"Wait!" the Puerto Rican advised, "Down the corridor! The turbolift is opening."

"It's not our people," the Indian quickly realized, "Gun them down before they get into position!"

Rockford laid down suppressive fire so that Black and her two person Security team got in position. Sito had memorized the names and faces of every Security officer and greeted them accordingly before informing them, "They seem to be the leaders of the boarding party."

"What's with the hair coloring and these clowns?" Black asked, "I though they wanted to avoid drawing attention."

"Hide in plain sight," Rockford picked off the Puerto Rican.

The enraged German exposed herself to hit Rockford, whose enhanced metabolism shrugged off the phaser's stun setting. Sito took her out of the equation.

"Mind telling me how you shrugged off a phaser blast?" Black inquired as Rockford rolled back behind the barricade.

"I was born Annika Ryst on Angosia IV," Rockford told her, "Through a long chain of events I became Celeste Rockford."

"Say no more," Black picked off the Indian as she tried to get a shot off. The Cuban pulled out a photon grenade anyway. Sito stunned her at long last.

"Telrik, we're tagging more bodies for Cell 2," Rockford told him. He was safely in his transporter room on Deck 2 and never faced a direct threat.

"Bring `em," Telrik jovially replied.

"Anyone up for helping secure Engineering?" Rockford wondered.

"Let me run a dermal regenerator over that burn first," Tessa insisted.

"You two, stay on this deck and make certain no gets past you," Black ordered her detail's remainder.

"They'll have focused the bulk of their people on Deck 5 to take control of the ship from Main Engineering," Sito reminded them, "It will be quite the firefight underway."

"Then let's get to it," Rockford decided as soon as Tessa cleared her.

Main Engineering was besieged. Parva's people had welded the doors shut while Burrows and his Security team were falling before Agent March, the Sudanese, and the Ugandan's superior force. Even barricades couldn't counter the raw firepower the two dozen other agents/crewmen brought to bear against Burrows and his eight person detail.

Seven out of eight of Burrows' team were down with vicious phaser burns.

"Still with me, Grev?" Burrows asked the woman next to him.

"Yessir," she wiped blood from her nose from where a teammate and thrown her into the bulkhead to avoid a phaser shot.

Eiryn Grev'sharlyn was an Aenar from Andoria. Born blind, her other senses more than compensated for her situational awareness.

"We've knocked seven out of twenty-seven of their crew out," she told Burrows, "And one fatality."

Their barricade went down.

"Damn!" Burrows pressed against the bulkhead as did Grev. She'd sensed and heard the electrostatic force field go down.

She snapped off a quick shot, "Eight stunned."

Burrows holstered his phaser and drew his sword, "Let's do this for real."

"I don't think they're inclined to give you the chance," Grev ruefully said as particle streams flew by, "They're prepping a breaching charge to access Engineering."

"They'll never live long enough," Burrows vowed.

"The turbolift just arrived," Grev warned.

Rockford proceeded out first with her rifle blazing. Black and Sito followed, hugging the bulkheads as they returned fire from Cell 51.

"Eiryn," Black grinned.

"Aeryn," Grev smiled back.

"Put away the pig sticker, Tony," Rockford told him.

Agent March, the Sudanese, and the Ugandan were the last ones standing.

"I suppose you'll take us prisoner," the Sudanese called down the corridor.

"That's the plan," Sito called back.

"That doesn't work for me," the Ugandan opened fire again.

"Why does one of them absorb light," Grev asked.

Agent March heard the question and wondered how a blind Aenar could tell his species tended to absorb ambient light. It made them largely unrecognizable to most other races.

"Kill the Aenar," he ordered.

"With pleasure," the Ugandan said. The Sudanese also redoubled her efforts...only to be stunned by Rockford. The Ugandan fell to Sito.

"You'll never take me...ugh!" Agent March went down.

"Shut the frinx up," Black had fired the shot that took him down.

Sito and Black tagged the Cell 51 agents and Telrik beamed them into Cell 3 where Black activated the force field remotely. Their weapons, like all of the Cell 51 agents', were held in the buffer. Macen ordered the transporter buffer purged. Parva told Jones to cut the doors open.

"On it!" Jones personally hopped to it.

Tessa claimed the single corpse and had Telrik beam it to the Morgue adjacent to Sickbay. She intended to autopsy the body to determine the exact cause of death.

Though the phaser mark on the Tellarite's forehead told the story. No average humanoid survived a phaser strike at close range even on the stun settings. It also avoided setting off the ship's security lock downs.

Cell 51 knew this as well as Starfleet and the former Starfleet enlisted and junior officers that made up the bulk of the Obsidian crew. Native militias from aligned and non-aligned worlds also served providing the could pass Starfleet Security's vetting process.

Nechayev tended to try to sidestep Commodore Oh and Starfleet Security when it came to clearing Admiral Forger's SID irregular forces and even her regular forces.

Oh's cult of personality within Starfleet Security could prove problematic and she could plant obstructionists within Outbound Ventures' ranks. Oh's obvious allegiance to Clancy seemed to potentially hide other motives but that was the basis for IA and JAG's inquiries. So far, Oh's career had been spotless. Spotless to the point of unbelievable. Instead Clancy felt she'd finally met the perfect officer who would serve her public and private ambitions.

Oh felt she'd met the perfect dupe to carry out the whims and will of the Tal Shiar and the even more secretive Zhat Vash. The Zhat Vash being a Cell 51 of the Tal Shiar.

They were obsessed with exterminating the raw possibility of artificial life forms.

General Oh, it seemed, advanced more quickly in the Tal Shiar than in Starfleet as was fully intended. Oh had to be "persuaded" by Vice Admiral Edward Noyce to be his chosen replacement. In order to do so, she would have to finally accept flag rank after thirty years of steadfastly refusing promotion. So Commodore Oh would play the same "modesty" game as Captain Oh had and refuse further advancement now that nearly every Starfleet secret was hers to be had and transferred to her nominal superiors.

Oh was the leader of the Zhat Vash splinter cell and had her eye on Sela's directorship.

Donatra had proven surprisingly adept at being Proconsul. Tomolak was the finest Imperial Fleet Commander the Star Empire had seen in some time. Tal'aura was an average unscrupulously power hungry Senator made Praetor. Oh would run them all from the shadows within Starfleet itself. The fact that she had the recessive touch-telepathy gene made her ideal to pass as a Vulcan. Even some of the Remen vermin had had it as well. As Shinzon's Viceroy had proven to Starfleet.

Oh was grooming a young supplicant named Narissa to eventually join her undercover in Starfleet. Narissa would be surgically altered to appear human. While her brother, Nerik, would serve the Sisterhood of the Zhat Vash as an agent provocateur. Both were training with the Tal Shiar even now. When the time was right, Oh would activate them. But Soong was still hidden and sought after. Bruce Maddox knew where Soong was located but no one knew how to motivate Maddox into betraying Soong. Everything Maddox did revolved around positronic "cells" taken from Data's neural net during routine maintenance and B4, the earliest version of the androids that would become Lore and Data. In a very real way, B4 had spawned Lore and Data.

Could twinning be the solution to Maddox and Soong's dilemma? Oh had to know so she could stamp out Soong's researches before he developed biosynthetic versions of his androids or even a golem to transfer his consciousness into. Would such machines even know they weren't organic? Oh and the Zhat Vash couldn't risk that happening.

Jones got the doors open in record time. Black commandeered crewmen from across the ship to serve as orderlies to help Tessa reawaken their wounded comrades. Security was needed for when the Cell 51 agents awoke. There was still a chance a large cadre of agents awaited arrival from either the Dibron or the Vengeance and were simply attempting to thwart the transport inhibitors. Or in Vengeance's case, wait for the Dibron to able to reactivate its transphasic cloak and get a clean shot with its pulse phaser turrets at the Obsidian.

"I've isolated some kinda doohickey at the heart of their Engineering decks. Its drawing a shukload of power while seemingly useless," Mudd through her sensor probe's readouts to the main viewer.

"Rab?" Macen queried him.

"Already targeted," Daggit told him, "But it's going cost lives and the explosions will damage our hull."

"So much for not scratching the paint," Ebert sighed.

"Fire for effect," Macen ordered.

Main Engineering was skewered by a precision phaser strike. The warp core, already cycled to its lowest level breached and took out the Engineering deck and the cloak with it.

"Engineering! What the frinx just happened?" Roy had comms open but there wasn't even static.

"We're on auxiliary power," the agent at the bridge engineering station reported, "The warp core and the cloak are...gone. Along with everyone in Engineering."

"It seems your mission has failed," Eris suicided using her implant at the base of her neck. Her memories would be burst transmitted to a cloning vat Fowler and Browder had brought back with them. Kilana would be further enraged at Macen for this unnecessary death and rebirth.

"Multiple starships dropping out of warp," Tactical warned them all.

"Identify!" Roy ordered.

Petrie relieved the wounded weapons officer, "USS Intrepid, Hood, Monitor, Merrimack, Fearless, and Sentinel. They're the same hunting party dispatched from the Confederate Zone."

"Now we know why the Sentinel held back from the action," Roy sounded defeated.

"Type-9 shuttle also dropping out of warp. It's Argus!" Petrie said the El-Aurian's name like it was a lifeline.

"Obsidian moving off," Helm reported, "Starfleet has engaged the Vengeance."

"Marcus doesn't stand a chance," Roy said bitterly, "And neither do we."

"Our people aboard the Obsidian must have failed," Petrie finally acknowledged.

"Doctor Argus is volunteering to evacuate the bridge crew," the Communications agent told Roy.

"You should go," Petrie told him.

"You are all coming with me," Roy vowed, "Signal Argus and began beam outs, least senior to most."

"You're lucky Marcus was broadcasting a general call for assistance," Argus told them when they were aboard. She began moving from the Obsidian, which had already cleared itself away from the stricken Dibron.

"They're letting us go," Roy said miserably, "Why?"

"Poor boy can't shoot me," Argus chuckled.

'But you could kill him?" Petrie asked.

"It's never come up," Argus said defensively. She reset her course and went to Warp 8

"There, that's the maximum speed the Obsidian can make. We'll know if we're being followed. Besides, I have presets to change our warp signature and the mandatory course changes to avoid leading anyone to Sentinel Station," Argus promised them.

"I wonder if it'll be enough," Roy muttered.

Ian Delaney's Security team took the Arabian, the Honduran, and their team of Cell 51 agents into custody. Lt. Commander Shwren ann'Wreri took Agent March, the Ugandan, the Sudanese, and their agents into custody on behalf of Captain Limerick and the Hood.

"Give Riker my best," Wren winked at Macen.

"He's Nalori, so be careful," Rockford advised the Andorian.

"I know his type," Wren promised.

Captain Sarah Divine left Commander Jack Reeves, her XO, in command of the Fearless while she and Lt. Jurgen Weiss, her Chief Tactical Officer, led a Security detail to transport the Cuban, the Indian, the German, the Puerto Rican, and their team back to Divine's ship.

"Always interesting with you around, Commander Macen," Divine acknowledged.

"Likewise, Captain," Macen replied before she and her prisoners transferred back to her Akira-class command.

"I wish we could continue coming with you but the Council's agreement forbids us from entering the Taurus Reach for any destination than one of our own colonies," McKinley reminded Macen.

"Don't sweat it, Jim. Telrik planted the beacon perfectly and help is on its way," Macen promised him, "We may finally see the end of Cell 51 once and for all."

"God willing," McKinley signaled his own beam out.

"Off to the rendezvous?" Rockford asked Macen.

"Yup," Macen confirmed it, "See you after Black relieves me. I'll be late because I ordered her to take extra hours of rack time."

"I'll probably be asleep when you come in," Rockford lied. They both knew she could stay awake for days.

"Uh-huh," Macen chuckled before kissing her, "Now, I have to let Taryn think she's won."

Forger reached across the military aisle to get help both the Federation Council and Klingon Empire would agree to. Although it stepped up Starfleet patrols of the Bajor Sector and its colonial holdings in the Gamma Quadrant. Commodore Saavik personally oversaw the Gamma side operations. Lavelle was happy to have the extra starships and having Vaughn take the Defiant out on patrol. It rid him of every troublesome staffer except for Douglas, O'Brien, Blackmer, and Cenn. But Zivan Slaine was finally out of his Ops Center. The Bajoran Militia might be comfortable with a Cardassian exchange officer but Lavelle still bore a grudge for losing the wars or at least for ending them at a draw.

Why Admiral Jellico called away the entire Militia Colonial Defense Force was beyond Lavelle but perhaps now was the time to take Bajor from the Bajorans. But Oh stymied his plans and had urged patience.

Lavelle was unaware that Douglas also served as Agent 0212 of the Single 0 Branch of Starfleet Intelligence. She'd easily tapped his "secure" communications with Oh and knew what he was planning even if he couldn't go through with it. With Oh under scrutiny and knowing Douglas was aboard DS9, she was very careful not to ever incriminate herself. However, Lavelle was actively discussing invading and occupying an allied power.

One that had repulsed four Starfleet invasions with some help and antiquated starships.

The Bajorans had modernized their fleet since then and Starfleet was proven to be divided over attacking Bajor. The Federation's best and brightest captains and crews came together against orders to defend Bajor and Terok Nor after the Bajorans reclaimed Deep Space Nine entirely for themselves. Ro had alerted Vaughn and Douglas to share with trusted crewmates what was really about to occur.

A great mystery had been solved when the Fesarius system had been discovered by the Federation, Tholians, and Klingons during the Vanguard mission. The First Federation had explored the region over two centuries ago when Captain Jonathan Archer launched the first Starfleet starship named Enterprise into deep space. They'd found the inhabitants so welcoming they named a vast and great starship after it.

The Fesarians warmly greeted the Obsidian, and Colonel Anara's entire Colonial Defense Force alongside an Outbound Ventures task force made up of non-SID cleared crews. They all manned post-refit Asia-, Constitution-, Miranda-, Constellation-, Excelsior-class starships. Except for Anara's flagship, the Fist of the Prophets.

It was a wholly Iotian developed modernization of the Constitution-class that brought it up to mid-24th Century standards. They dubbed it the Enterprise-class. The Bajoran Militia receiving the only export of the vessel type to date.

Though it was now being offered to Outbound Ventures as well. Kathy Tyrol had placed a twelve-vessel build contract order already. Caity Floss was already recruiting to submit finalists for command staff and crews for the future vessels. Once again, Joelle Jones had removed herself from the top of the list. Present SID candidates were being prioritized and would be transferring from their present commands to the new ships upon delivery. Most of them intended to keep their current crews intact where promotions weren't recommended.

The promoted command staffers were the likeliest sources of COs and XOs for the ships the captains and execs were departing from. New crew candidates for the vacated starships were Floss' department. As a former Starfleet Bureau of Personal officer, Floss was ideally situated to contact disaffected Starfleet officers and former enlisted and she wasn't above poaching from active duty Starfleet itself. Which there would be a thousand candidates for just a few hundred positions. But openings were also ever present on the currently active starships as well.

Only the Waylaid did their own recruiting from their home colony. Captain Wei ran a semi-autonomous crew when it came to filling positions aboard her starship. But so far no candidate had been red flagged by Starfleet. Joelle Jones had even refunded them the money they paid for the Waylaid's registration rights. She deemed them a worthy successor to her original all-female Maquis crew.

An honor the all-Asian women accepted with grace and a desire to prove Jones right. They represented Central Asia, Far Eastern Russia, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, India, and all of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. A fluke of experienced command staff candidates placed Vietnamese women in all the top slots except for the command chair, which went to a former Chinese Starfleet lt. commander.

The others had all been Starfleet junior officers while the bulk of the crew had been Starfleet enlisted crewmen and petty officers to get away from home and being traded off for business advantage and mergers finalized by arranged marriages. First and even some second born daughters were spared such indignity. But third born and beyond were chattel. It was little wonder they pooled their resources to form a security contracting company and purchased a decommissioned Asia-class starship, one of only four to go through the refit process as test beds for technologies to later go into the Constitution-, Miranda-, and Constellation-classes.

Technologies further advanced going into the Excelsior-class starships that were the most produced class of any Starfleet era. Not even the 212 vessel order for the new Inquiry-class coming out of the yards compared to the volume of Excelsior-classes built between 2285-2365. Only the Miranda-class also surpassed the numbers of the Inquiry-class orders placed.

Anara was pleased to give Macen and Rockford a brief tour of her inherited ship that she earned command of when Colonel Ro rejoined Starfleet. The other Bajoran commanders and the Outbound Ventures COs were gathering in the Fist's Briefing Theater. Built along mid-24th Century conceptualization of the Constitution-class, the Fist was even more powerful than General Kira's original Iotian designed Hand of the Prophets. It was akin to an interim Phase 2 design proposed by Starfleet during the Asia-class refits in order to save time and expense on redesigning the deflector array.

But the new Interceptor-class starship was as powerful as any Excelsior-class in Bajor's inventory. The entire System Defense Force that defended the Bajor system and nearby Prophet's Landing was comprised of Excelsiors-. It was Kira flagship though she'd prefer directing any defensive action from DS9. But Commander Lavelle's return would create administrative havoc should Kira plant her flag there. So the Hand it was.

The couple was surprised to be intercepted by Neela in a full Major in the Special Forces Engineers uniform once again. Her status as an inactive reservist enabled Kira to place her in any Militia unit at a moment's notice. Apparently Neela had felt the need to be present aboard the Fist of the Prophets as she went into potential action for the first time the second time out of the gate.

The Militia had skirted Federation space by traversing the Cardassian Union to emerge along the Andergani border and travel beyond Tholian claimed territories. Though the Tholian Assembly routinely claimed other stellar nations' border regions as their own.

But the Militia force reached Fesarius without incident or detection. The Outbound Ventures contractors routinely operated in the Taurus Reach so were ignored as the five starships, one from each represented class, made their way across Federation space. Since they were all licensed and bonded to work in the Federation, they weren't a visible threat so they passed unnoticed.

With interrogations underway at Starbase 27, it already seemed that the captured agents, particularly the Senior Agents, wouldn't reveal anything. They were confident that they would be released or otherwise liberated. The Starbase's detention facilities were overwhelmed so only the senior agents were kept there while the Freedom and Sentinel stayed on station with the sector's usual patrol vessels to house the prisoners. The Hood, the Monitor, the Merrimack, and especially the Intrepid, were called way for other urgent missions.

While Macen and Rockford were hosted by Anara and the Outbound Ventures' captains were absent, the Obsidian led a corporate effort to deploy senor probes surrounding the nearby star systems. Macen had noted Argus' arrogance in brazenly departing with Dibron bridge officers. Recovering a Vorta's corpse added alacrity to their mission. If Jack Fowler had somehow managed to survive the self destruction of his stealth ship in a probe launched into Dominion space, it was conceivable he had made an alliance with the Founders.

The Great Link had been reportedly fractured by Odo's arrival and the Dominion's conceding the war. Fissures had developed, as reported by Odo through third parties. Some Founders still found it inconceivable and unpalatable to surrender to solids.

But the Link remained whole for now. So whatever efforts that the Dominion would possibly make to break the cease fire would be a sect of the disgruntled.

But Starfleet protocols had been enacted to make Changling infiltration impossible.

It would take a game changer of enormous magnitude to thwart the screenings. Fowler's positronic mind knew of Section 31's experimentation on Changelings to make them semi-solid. The band led by the modified female that would become known as Vadic had yet to contact the Founders and make their existence and abilities known.

In the interim, Cell 51 proved a useful outlet for the sect's disgruntlement and outrage.

Something the Gray Cardinal and Lauren Ryder had come to warn Dylan Sorbo about.

Sorbo's hopes regarding Fowler's return had already greatly diminished when he arrived back in the fold with Kilana and Eris in tow along with an entire Jem'Hadar platoon and cloning cylinders for every one of them.

Sorbo held a high enough rank within Section 31 to have known about the experiments made upon captured Changelings and their eventual escape. His position had made him the Acting Agency Director in Fowler's absence. Johansson and Ryder merely confirmed Sorbo's growing suspicions. Suspicions confirmed by Argus' Listening senses. She naturally wouldn't be able to read even the real Fowler but Browder should have been an easy target for her skills. Instead he was a blank despite his affected Southern charms. He certainly wasn't human. His mannerisms and responses were too calculated to mimic Browder. There was always a split second delay as the impersonator decided how best to reply.

Argus had experience with the real Browder...intimate experience so the Changeling's act was seen just as that by her. Argus hadn't reported it to Cell 51 or Starfleet, but her temporal senses alerted her to the fact that Macen and his assorted friends weren't from this universe. This universe's Macen had turned renegade. A man Argus could deal with and cavort with from time to time after T'Kir's death.

This version of Macen was even harder but more principled. A weaponized Seeker of Truth. Argus knew Macen was the last of the Order. Her Macen had betrayed every one of the codices but she felt this new one hadn't. Of course this one had killed every member of her research team but had spared her because the codex stated no El-Aurian could harm another one. The penalty for ignoring that written law was eternal banishment. With no one to herald one through the gate that awaited every El-Aurian after death.

Yet, there was a tinge to him. As though he had harmed or killed a fellow El-Aurian. Exceptions could be made if the person asked for ritualistically assisted suicide.

Argus' impression was that he'd killed another out of mercy yet the rituals had been ignored. Which tainted him in the written codices. Making him the last Seeker yet unworthy to be so. So how was he coping with those twin realities?

No living El-Aurian would take up the Codices and he, Mazar, and she were the only known survivors of breeding age and none of them were so inclined since they couldn't save their race anyway with such a shallow gene pool. Could Macen possibly be thinking about discipling outsiders? There was nothing known that forbade such a move. Yet it had never been conceived of before. Argus doubted that he would. Little did she know or understand him.

The briefing was short and to the point. Macen and Rockford presented the Section 31 ship classes that Cell 51 had deployed, most being upgraded from their mid-23rd Century standards. The Vengeance was also presented in case there was a second one deployed. Section 31 records and the SID's practical experience showed that they'd an inventory of Defiant-, Cheyenne-, Saber-, and Pathfinder-classed starships as well. With the decommissioning of the Oberth-, Constellation-, Ambassador-, Excelsior- and Miranda-classes following the Dominion War, Starfleet was selling off their outdated vessels at a record pace to catch up to the Iotian Federation's arms sales near-monopoly, it seemed.

Solarian Security Systems and other newly formed security contractors were first in line.

Then allied planets, colonies, and former Protectorate status worlds came next. The same worlds the Iotians were courting. But Cell 51 could easily be buying the starships through contractor credentials directly or through contractors serving as a third party.

Solarian certainly needed the latinum to rebuild its own fleet of capital ships. The Board of Directors warned by Starfleet that its Letters of Marques would be pulled if they purchased from the Iotians instead of the depot yards. All of the contractors were living under a similar promise.

Except for Outbound Ventures. Their previous affiliation with the Iotians deemed necessary in the eyes of the SID and the Starfleet Intelligence as a viable way to collect intel on the Iotian Federation and its own Starfleet. They'd certainly proven themselves to go out of their way to protect their clients. For which the Bajoran Republic and Outbound Ventures were grateful for.

"Some of these ship classes are more advanced, and frankly, more powerful than your own. That's why this will be a contest of wits alone. Because you can't match their firepower or shielding. Don't be afraid to work together. It'll save time and your lives. I suggest you begin choosing teams and strategizing now," Macen concluded the briefing. The Bajorans captains paired off, leaving Anara alone. The Outbound Ventures crews also choose duos and trios to work within, leaving the Obsidian as the outlier.

"What do you say to a team up, Colonel?" Macen asked Anara.

"It seems my preference became my reality," Anara slightly smiled.

"The Prophets have spoken in cryptic terms even for them," Neela quietly shared, "This battle will not be quick or easy. Prepare yourselves for the losses we'll endure."

"Will we survive?" Anara asked.

"They haven't revealed that yet," Neela warned her friend.

"Great," Anara still struggled with her faith in the Prophets after seeing so much evil in the galaxy. Even after the Resistance, she and Neela had been covert operatives. Anara for the Militia and Neela for Kai Winn. But it seemed Neela had purposefully subverted the Kai's wishes towards her perceived enemies.

Anara had always wondered if Neela's death in space and Anara's own near fatality were the work of Winn Adami having vengeance for Neela revealing her hidden actions over the years and during the war. Neela had declared her absolute loyalty to the Prophets alone. Which left Winn in a distant last rather than even a second. Winn was not a forgiving woman and was extremely jealous and covetous of the honor and due she felt her bloody trail to becoming Kai had earned her.

Winn betrayed the Prophets she'd sworn to uphold and died as a direct result. Whereas Neela, though of a different time and space, arrived last year in a miraculous event still celebrated on Bajor. Neela was dubbed the Hand of the Prophets by the Vedek Assembly and the Synod of Prylars. It was little wonder Neela had escaped Bajor for Serenity. Despite her commission being reactivated and being placed as a reservist, Neela once again served Bajor's direst needs in the shadows. Shadows Macen and Rockford frequently walked in with her.

But there were also sensitive matters Kira wanted Neela to deal with alone. Even cooperative efforts with the Cardassian Information Bureau agent stationed on Serenity had begun between Neela and Ziva Delain. Bajor and Cardassia becoming strong allies and dependent upon one another for trade and defense. Neela's presence in a purely military operation had been a mystery until now. She was here to assist her friends, both old and new. The Prophets had brought them this far. She personally felt their journey was far from over. Yet there were other lives to be accounted for here and the Prophets had warned her of grave danger ahead.

Macen's comm badge chirped and so did Anara's they stepped aside in opposite direction to take the messages.

"Your probes have detected potential hostiles approaching at Warp 5. Their ETA is twenty minutes," Anara confirmed with Macen.

"Just enough time to get everyone back to their commands and ready," Macen agreed.

Everyone had received messages from their execs and they were transporting back to their ships directly from the theater. Their plans barely laid.

"Now we see what they've sent against us," Macen said grimly.

Black moved to the second seat so Macen could assume command. It was a ritual but a symbolic one.

"Shields up, arm weapons," Macen ordered, "Tracy, we're paired off with the Fist of the Prophets. Coordinate with Lieutenant Crispus. Rab that goes the same for you and Sergeant Bol. Colonel Anara is taking the lead on this."

Lieutenant Crispus Alva was the Fist's helmsman while Sergeant Bol Ferin was her navigator and weapons officer. Crispus controlled the phasers while Bol targeted torpedoes and operated the shields. Captain Wyn Meru was Anara's XO. She'd been a lieutenant when she was first assigned to Ro.

Ro had quickly signed off on Wyn's promotion. Wyn was the living bridge between Ro's departure and Anara's assuming command. Fortunately, Anara had pulled rank in the Gamma Quadrant versus Ascendant forces so the crew had faith in her abilities.

But Neela's presence also calmed them. If one of the Prophets' chosen were aboard, surely no harm could come to them. Or at least that was the working theory. Which was why Neela had remained silent about the Prophets' dire warning s until it was almost too late.

"I have targets dropping out of warp," Daggit announced. Like everyone else he had no doubts that these were hostile Cell 51 forces here to avenge their fellows and to draw them away from Argus' eventual destination. She was still running evasive patterns.

At this point Macen assumed she knew about the beacon planted on her stolen Starfleet shuttle and had transferred to another ship. A two-man shuttle was hardly going to sustain an entire bridge crew for any length of time.

Plus Sorbo would want to debrief whoever had commanded the Dibron. The loss of the transphasic cloak being a strategic blunder of epic proportions. Macen had studied Sorbo's Starfleet record. The man was still officially listed as an active duty captain without a specific command. But counselors had noted that after the Borg invasions and the Dominion War Sorbo had begun espousing an extremist viewpoint of peace through any and all means available, no matter the toll in lives. Perfect to be recruited into Section 31 and Jack Fowler's splinter faction, Cell 51.

Sorbo was a master of creative strategy. He never attacked from a single direction. Displayed in Cell 51's resiliency in conducting multiple forays into controlling the Federation from President Chavy Sok, the spore infestation on Cestus III, and now a military engagement utilizing starships that didn't officially exist anymore but carried Starfleet registrations. The Cell 51 task force dropped out of warp.

It was as diversified as Macen had feared and debuted six ships evolved from the Constitution-class much the way the Iotians had developed the Fist of the Prophets.

These were a modernized enhancement of the Phase II proposals. They had the old styled outer deflector array but it glowed blue like a modern deflector. The oversized warp nacelles were obviously for speed but unlike the Vengeance these were simply Constitution-class sized.

There were two Defiant-classes, one Pathfinder-class courier, three Cheyenne-class starships and one Saber-class. In addition to standardized and original Starfleet vessels, there was another Hou-li-, Ncia-, Shiva-, and Nimrod-class apiece. The updated models having proven they could evenly engage classic Klingon warship designs. These original versions weren't as inherently dangerous. Anara gave the order and the combined fleet split into smaller units. As the most advanced ships, the Fist and the Obsidian focused their efforts on the obvious dangers the Defiant-classed vessels presented.

The Cell 51 force was led from the USS Lenin, a Phase II-class starships the senior agent at overall command was a platinum haired woman from the United States of Africa code-named the Nigerian. The USS Stalin was commanded by another blond Black woman code-named the American. The USS Kim Jong-il was commanded by the similarly tinted haired Black woman code-named the Jamaican. The USS Hitler was commanded by yet another example of hair coloring and dark skin called the Barbadian. The USS Pol Pot obeyed another agent of the type code-named the Canadian. Finally, the USS Mussolini was overseen by the blonde tressed Kenyan. Every starship of the class named after a dictator in Earth's history.

It showed what Cell 51 aspired to in the name of "peace". Despite their sleek, throwback appearance, these were the most advanced ships in Cell 51's arsenal. They tore into the older Starfleet designed vessels with relish. As expected the crossfires set up by their opponents knocked out the Pathfinder-class and the elderly Section 31 designs quickly.

But that left the Bajorans and Outbound Ventures still vulnerable to modern starships.

Ebert and Crispus wove their way around pulse phaser and quantum torpedo fire. The enemy vessels' ablative armor and heavier shielding blunting their return fire. Both sides accepted heavy damages for narrow victories. Except for the Phase II ships, which were deceptively advanced and powerful. A Cell 51 answer to the rolling out Inquiry-class it seemed. The dictator christened ships cut a swath of destruction through the Militia and corporate ranks.

It took diverting fire from the Defiants- to disable the USS Stalin and Mussolini. The other ships silenced their damaged escort vessels. They were disabled but not beyond repair. The Nigerian hailed Anara and Macen.

"Captains, so good to see you," the Nigerian smiled broadly.

"It's 'Colonel', actually,"Anara said stiffly.

"Your forces are at our mercy and so are you. Yet, we'll declare a cease-fire so we can affect repairs and withdraw to our respective borders," she offered, "And Captain Macen, Doctor Argus discovered your beacon and abandoned her shuttle."

"Then why is it on approach?" Macen asked.

The Nigerian's smile broadened, "Just seeing how situationally aware you are. Argus has a proposal for you. An arrangement similar to that which you shared with James Fowler, I believe? Will you meet with her and our representative?"

"I will. Colonel Anara can attend as well, I presume?" Macen answered and asked.

"If you prefer," the enemy captain allowed.

"I do. Out," Macen terminated the connection, "Watch them and let me know if they power their weapons arrays back up. Tell Celeste to meet me in the transporter room."

"We'll have to lower shields," Black fretted.

"Which is why you're targeting that shuttle," Macen instructed before the lift opened, "Whoever is important to declare a cease-fire is important enough to not want to lose."

"Macen? The captains of those weirdo ships are all insisting on beaming over," Mudd told him.

"Have Tony and Sito join us as well. Tell them to come heavily armed and prepared for a melee," Macen entered the turbolift after it opened to reveal Rockford.

"Am I presuming?" she smirked.

"You're not," he answered.

"They are so weird," Black commented afterwards.

"You ain't seen nuthin' yet," Mudd promised.

"Energize," Macen told Telrik.

If the SID team or the ship's officer felt any misgivings about the appearances of the Nigerian, the American, the Barbadian, the Canadian, the Jamaican, and the Kenyan; they kept it to themselves. However, having Acting Agency Director Dylan Sorbo materialize beside Taryn Argus drew a reaction. Anara went for her phaser but Neela stayed her hand.

"Meditation partner?" Argus grinned seeing Burrows' drawn katana.

"Exercise buddy," Macen shrugged, "We meet again Taryn. And we meet for the first time, Captain Sorbo."

"You've been reading my Starfleet file," Sorbo's smile and manner were laconic enough.

He didn't exude menace. The field agents were simply in place to keep him safe.

"You've bonded again," Argus noted, "I think I like this one."

"I'm touched, truly," Rockford didn't give a shuk.

"I definitely like this one," Argus laughed.

"Take me to wherever we can talk privately," Sorbo requested.

"Sito, clear the Mess," Macen instructed. The Bajoran vanished.

"If you'll follow us?" Macen and Rockford took the lead.

Sorbo and Argus followed quickly behind while the field agents stayed on their principle and the Militia officers joined Burrows in rearguard.

Sito waited outside the Mess Hall, "The room is secure."

"Inform Chief Black we are secure and then join us inside," Macen told her. It was apparent Sito appreciated the trust being placed in her. Riker trusted her implicitly from their days imprisoned together by the Cardassians. That went a long way in Macen's outlook.

Macen and Ro had affected Sito's rescue alongside hundreds of Starfleet, Maquis, and Bajoran prisoners. Sito went on to work for Riker's own growing business concern at the time, following him into Outbound Ventures. Serenity's Security Chief, Gerrit Gren, had made her a Chief Deputy and Watch Officer beside Radil so that spoke volumes as well. If letting Sito in the room bolstered her self-esteem, it was well deserved. She and Burrows had their rifles ready and stood by the door to have a clear field of fire. The American, the Kenyan, and the Barbadian stood opposite them towards the serving counter. The Nigerian, the Canadian, and the Jamaican sat at an adjoining table.

Sorbo and Argus sat opposite to Macen, Rockford, Anara, and Neela.

"She's your lie detector?" Sorbo nodded Neela's way.

"You're well enough informed to draw your own conclusions," Anara replied.

"Then I'll draw this conclusion: the Colonel and the Bajoran security guard are the only natives to the quantum universe in your party," Sorbo stated, "A fact I believe Fleet Admiral Clancy and Commodore Oh would find most interesting. Considering I have to assume Admirals Nechayev, Forger, Johnson, his senior staff and your senior crew are all invaders as well as Ro Laren and Elias Vaughn."

Macen drolly looked at Argus, "Really?"

"We needed leverage to get you to listen," she shrugged, "Really listen."

"Well? You have my attention," Macen sighed.

"The Dominion has infiltrated Cell 51. I offer a drawdown of forces and operations while we deal with internal matters. In exchange you won't try to find us again," Sorbo told him, "Or I could simply have my agents here eliminate all of your vessels and speak with whomever Nechayev, Forger, and Johnson sends next while Ro twists the screws on anyone she believes can give her a lead to us."

Macen inwardly cringed. Sorbo was better informed than he had any right to be.

"If I refuse?" Macen wondered. He wouldn't but he had to ask.

"Then besides your own imminent deaths, everyone else on the list gets 'outed'," Sorbo shrugged, "And I divert resources I shouldn't have to brush fires that shouldn't be lit."

"One condition: that secret stays buried even after we're on opposing sides again," Macen instructed.

"You think we will be?" Sorbo wondered.

"You know it as well as I do," Macen told him, "I rather doubt Fowler and Browder are your only Changling infiltrators just as you do as well. Or you wouldn't be making this sacrifice instead of getting rid of us. You need us to hold the Federation's line as badly as you need to purge your own ranks."

"It seems you're well informed as well," Sorbo admitted.

"I think it was all conjecture that you just confirmed," Argus retorted.

"Either way, the deal stands," Sorbo agreed to the additional terms.

"You must be desperate," Anara realized.

"We're inevitable," Sorbo replied, "I can wait to pass the torch onto someone else. And Macen and Rockford will still be around to resist the new guard."

"So the engineered Omicron Ceti III spores?" Macen asked.

"Shelved," Sorbo was quick to agree, "I can't let them fall into Dominion hands."

"The Political Action Division?" Rockford interjected.

"Politics are politics," Sorbo shrugged, "But I won't be co-opting the system again. But if the voters choose our path, then...."

"And Clancy?" Macen asked.

"You'll never gain traction on that front. She has too many supporters within Starfleet and the Federation Council. I'd focus on the impeccable Commodore Oh instead," Sorbo said, "But I leave that to due diligence to discover why."

"Just to clarify a specific question, if Commander Ro asks for our assistance, what should I say?" Macen wanted to know.

"If Starfleet specifically assigns you into looking into matters pertaining to our organization, you can investigate but not act upon any deductions or revelations. Leave that to Starfleet," Sorbo stated, "Agent Canadian will be forwarding on a transcript of this conversation to Captain Thomas Riker."

"Just as I will Rear Admiral Forger," the Barbadian told them.

"I have Rear Admiral Johnson," the Kenyan revealed.

"I'll be contacting Commander Vaughn," the Jamaican shared.

"Leaving me with Vice Admiral Nechayev," the American boasted.

"I'll be standing by to contact Ro Laren personally," the Nigerian said with some swagger.

"She'll just tell you to go to hell," Anara predicted.

"But it'll make it official," Argus mentioned.

"What say you, truthsayer?" Sorbo asked Neela.

"He'll abide by the terms," Neela promised, "He's more afraid of what the Founders can do with Cell 51 than he is of our continued efforts."

"I just need time and room to work," Sorbo made his own promise.

"James Fowler and I reached an accord, in both universes it seems," Macen told him, "Fowler broke his word and Section 31 ended because of it. You want Cell 51 to survive? Keep yours."

"Not a difficult choice," Sorbo stated, "Now I just have to get Chancellor Martok to look the other way when the Klingons invade our home port."

"Mr. Burrows can lead you to the transporter room," Macen informed them, "Sito, a word?"

After Cell 51 filed out, Sito sat down, "This is about Captain Riker and Commander Danan, isn't it? They're both one of you."

"We're the same people, more or less," Rockford told her.

"More," Anara said.

"I've noticed the changes in you all. I thought it was the near death thing," Sito confessed, "But Tom and Lees are different too. And the Obsidian crew couldn't be different without them noticing. But you're even better friends than before. What happened to them?"

"We don't know for certain," Neela tried to explain, "The Prophets moved us here from different universes to fill necessary roles in this one. They used the Nexus Ribbon to bend space and time to bring us together in this Prime Universe."

"This is the Prime Universe?" Sito asked with some surprise.

"A Prime Universe. There's more than one, or so the Prophets have revealed," Neela shared, "They all stem from a common origin but split a second after the origin of the universe created at least four Prime Universes that we know of. And we know for certain of at least one other alternate: the Terran Universe. The Enterprise-D records indicate that there are thousands of alternates. The Enterprise crew themselves sparked the creation of at least two other alternates."

"So certain universes are more real than others?" Sito wondered.

"To the Prophets at least," Neela revealed, "The ones they're actively involved in. They were active in ours but ceased to be so. They haven't shared why."

"These type of things are why the Temporal Accords will come into be despite the Temporal Cold War," Macen explained.

"The what?" Sito was flabbergasted.

"Never mind him. It's his version of a conspiracy theory," Rockford rolled her eyes.

"It's real!" Macen was adamant, "What do you think happened to the Suliban? Why there are so few left?"

"Because they got sloppy playing with their own DNA," Rockford argued.

"They didn't have the technology for that. They were altered as part of a breach of the Accords," Macen was firm.

"He'll go on for a week if we don't shut him down," Rockford warned them.

Neela exchanged a sly glance with Macen. So now he knew she knew the truth as well. The Prophets had warned her as well. Which usually meant bad news was coming from that vector. Of course, Macen had personal experience with the Suliban and various pawns of the Temporal Accord breakers in the pivotal 22nd Century surrounding the United Earth and the Coalition of Planets.

Guinan had left Earth after one hundred and fifty years of residency on the eve of World War III. She'd returned after First Contact. It was just tragic coincidence she'd been home on El-Auria when the Borg came. Even dumber luck had put her on the Lakul with Macen. It was they that had convinced the band of refugees aboard the Robert Fox and the Lakul to put down stakes in the Federation. Ultimately putting them in the Nexus Ribbon's path. Changing the lives of all 47 souls Scotty ripped from the Nexus.

Maltus Mazar, Guinan, Macen, and Tolian Soran being the most infamous of them. The remainder were most elderly folk.

Argus had come her own way from the Beta Quadrant where another band of refugees had settled. They too were now Federation citizens since their host world had been accepted as a member after a decades' ago first encounter with the Enterprise-D.

Guinan hadn't shared with the crew that a remnant of her people resided on Angel One.

El Aurian males being highly sought as domestics despite most of their advanced ages.

But the women rapidly adapted to their new culture becoming trusted Listeners and counselors to the ruling elites. Some even becoming elites.

Angel One's matriarchy revealed the presence of the El-Aurians after they eventually applied for membership and their society's values were being considered in light of the Federation's core principles. Now, it seemed, being heavily armed was a weighing factor in the process. The Son'a having recently been fast forwarded through the membership process. Though their imperialistic tendencies were being curbed by their re-association with their parents and relatives on Ba'ku. Ba'ku's isolytic rings healing the age ravaged Son'a. Though many had died of advanced age and its complications. But their children were healing.

The sole conditions for admittance were that the Son'a cease production of ketracil white and producing and fielding isolytic weapons. But they were allowed to sell off their existing stockpiles. Their two subject races would remain enslaved. A first in Federation history. A condition that held the anyways ever-independent Klingons from membership. The anti-slavery prohibition was worked around by classifying the Subject Races as non-citizen inhabitants on their own worlds. Modeled after the Cardassian Union whom the Federation Council still proclaimed loudly were guilty of inalienable sentient rights violations.

The Detepa Council gloated over the Son'a's Federation admission as did the Thallonians for all the same reasons. Vice Admiral Bill Ross and Captain Ignatius Freeman at Starbase 375 as well as Commodore Elizabeth Shelby at Starbase Beta heard the most direct noises day in and out but Ambassadors Elim Garak and Kitrenda kept their governments' glee in the Federation Council's ears. Commander Lavelle was spared the irritation only because the Cardassian Union kept their legation on Bajor itself. Though Slaine got the occasional dig in.

Lavelle passionately hated the Cardassian Guard exchange officer but she was at the station for the Militia not Starfleet so there was nothing he could do about it other than file his daily protest with General Kira. Whom he still referred to as Commander rather than General. Her Starfleet commission still being factored in the inactive reserves and a demotion from her previous Militia rank as Colonel. Starfleet had dropped the charges of treason against "Commander Kira" when the Federation Council sued for peace with the Bajoran Republic. But Clancy quietly kept Kira's commission active to charge her again should the new alliance between Starfleet and the Militia degrade once again.

As she hoped it would.

She saw no practical use for the Andorian Imperial Guard but they maintained it anyway. The Andorians feeling that after the Bajoran debacle they were more justified than ever in maintaining a civil defense force. The Tellarites were also re-arming as were the Vulcans. Vulcan High Command was militarizing new ships coming out of the yards. Built by native yards to native specs.

Earth quietly began construction on a planetary shield while Starfleet began construction on a new Spacedock. An Earth Defense Force was still decades away from the making.

The first Romulan refugees to travel to Vulcan were also beginning to arrive. Starfleet began reinvesting in its station on Delta Vega considering the recent political moves and rearmament by Vulcan. It was also bolstering defensive sites around Andoria. As much to contain sovereign member worlds as guard them it seemed too many.

Meanwhile the border and beyond protectorate and colonial states still received little to no support. The colonies in the Taurus Reach only receiving additional patrols based out of Starbase 27 and Pacifica in light of the Klingon Empire's movements into the Reach.

Despite the alliance being recently tested, Martok was defined by his seeking the best for his empire and for maintaining the treaties with the Federation. His violent return to the Chancellorship ended all questions regarding his worthiness as a warrior. His forceful dealings with the Federation ended any and all question regarding his stature as a statesman.

Martok's only regret was that Worf had returned first to the Enterprise-E and now rose up in rank with Starfleet Security. Commander Worf was even in line to receive his fourth pip so long as he didn't receive a station or starship command but remained an Intelligence operative or Strategic Operations Officer for Starfleet Command as per Captain Benjamin Sisko's assessments and recommendations. But Martok had received permission to keep Worf on in the Klingon Empire indefinitely as Starfleet's official liaison with the Imperial Defense Force.

Ro and Worf had recently reconnected. So Worf was now assisting Ro in her research and hunt for Cell 51. Ro was also relying heavily on Captain James Swallow, Commander Martina Haggit, and the crew of the SS Official Secrets to ferret out leads from the civilian side of the populations and interstellar traders. The crew being veteran chiefs and recent Academy graduates willing to go undercover as an unarmed tramp freighter crew.

Swallow and Haggit had been doing it since 2369. Their disreputable bona fides well established by now. The boot ensigns learned that undercover work meant long and grueling hours of tramp freighter maintenance and operations with little actual action and excitement. Spiced with terror as raiders frequently boarded the unarmed freighter.

It seemed Starfleet's primary withdrawal back inside Federation borders had left the galaxy wide open for piracy once again. Only the intervention NGOs like the Fenris Rangers and corporate entities such as Outbound Ventures kept the quadrants from plunging into a deep night of panic stricken horror.

It took several days to get all of the corporate and Militia vessels underway again.

Cell 51 provided tenders for their own vessels while the Phase II-class starships guarded their own and the Obsidian and Fist of the Prophets made repairs and stood vigil over their stricken sister ships. As the days lengthened, Outbound Ventures dispatched additional assets to assist in the repair efforts. In the end, only three vessels had to be towed back to port. Every starship in the conflict, save the guardians, required yard time. But the Fist and the Obsidian would receive maintenance scheduling anyways.

The combined death toll between all parties exceeded one thousand people. Hundreds were lost to each of the participating forces. Cell 51 received the lightest share owing to their high degrees of automation. The Militia the highest casualty count due to fully staffed starships. The Outbound Ventures vessels suffered key losses owing to their running half crewed by official Starfleet ratings and recommendations. Which still didn't alleviate Macen's cold reception from officialdom when Forger and Nechayev learned of the arrangement he'd brokered.

Colonel Anara was spared any official blow back from Kira and the Joint Chiefs since she hadn't made any deals with Cell 51 but the agency's withdrawal from active operations benefited Bajor and her colonies. But Macen was warned by Riker as soon as the Obsidian docked at Serenity that Forger and Nechayev, unable to reach Macen aboard the Obsidian, had made the station commander's life a living hell.

"If we weren't in damned neutral space, they'd have been arriving and bird dogging your every move waiting to ambush you," Riker warned Macen.

"Like you're doing?" Macen asked wearily.

"Dammit, Brin! How could you cut that deal?" Riker demanded to know privately in his office in station Ops.

"You received the transcript recording we made," Macen reminded him, "Sorbo is more concerned about Dominion infiltration than he is reshaping the galaxy right now."

"'Right now' being the operative phrase," Riker grumbled.

"We were lucky to get out alive," Macen remarked, "Those 'Phase II-class' starships as we've labeled them are monsters. They easily match a Defiant-class for shields and firepower even without the pulse phasers. Sorbo's deal saved lives."

"Then why make the deal?" Riker wondered.

"To prevent a follow-up. The SID would've just poured more ships into the Taurus Reach after brokering a deal with Martok to do so. Their hidden base would've been found and the Dominion takeover would be complete. Sorbo wasn't being generous by any stretch of the word," Macen admitted.

"Damn. The Dominion. Again," Riker was aggrieved.

"Which is the other reason I cut the deal. Cell 51 will ruthlessly take this back to the Founders. If the Great Link doesn't already know about it, they soon will," Macen told Riker, "And I pity the Changelings posing as Jack Fowler and John Browder. And any others found inside Cell 51. Sorbo wants blood...goo...whatever."

"Terminology is not universal," Riker grimly chuckled.

"Meanwhile, the Infirmary and every Sickbay we have available is overwhelmed and understaffed," Macen sighed, "If it weren't for the fact Tessa doesn't require rest, we'd have lost even more people."

"You can't blame yourself for that," Riker consoled him.

"I'm not upset and I'm not blaming myself. I blame Cell 51 and their terrorist ways and I'm angry." Macen said coldly.

"I know that look," Riker wasn't certain if he should be alarmed or not.

"I personally signed off on only helping Starfleet investigate and not conducting personal operations against Cell 51," Macen reminded Riker of the exact wording of the exchange with Sorbo.

"Which frees up the rest of the SID crews," Riker immediately understood.

"Sorbo was sloppy, a fact I already alerted him to. He wasn't happy. But the bargain was already struck and the transcripts transmitted to their recipients," Macen wore a nasty grin, "Maybe he learned something about negotiating from it. Who knows or cares?"

"At least at this point," Riker was honestly mirthful now.

"Points I intend to bring up with the admirals three as well as the Obsidian crew, and the team," Macen told him, "Before I address the corporate fleet captains."

"So where is Celeste?" Riker noted Rockford's absence.

"Keeping Lees company and explaining everything I just told you to her and Shannon," Macen shrugged.

"So Jaxa knows now?" Riker asked about Sito.

"She basically already did. She just didn't know what kind of framework to put the changes in. I gave her permission to tell Nick. But not Gerrit or Radil. She's enjoying being conspiratorial," Macen told him.

"Lucarno's a good man. As you know from the Maquis," Riker approved, "He'll keep the secret."

"He's certainly tried to in the past," Macen recalled Lucarno's resignation/expulsion from Starfleet Academy and how he'd ended up with Ro's Maquis cell. He and Tom Paris shared more than just a face except Commander Paris and Commander B'Elanna Torres had retired from Starfleet.

Paris became an award winning holo novelist and Torres ran her own engineering design firm for private spacecraft and consulted with the ASDB on a regular basis. She'd been tapped to join the USS Challenger crew but chose civilian life instead. Doctor Leah Brahms still sought Torres' unconventional wisdom on a semi-regular basis when she and Captain Geordi LaForge were actually stumped.

"How are Will, Deanna, and Kestra doing?" Macen suddenly asked.

"They were pretty bleak until recently," Riker shared, "Will and Kestra seemed to have pulled out of their grief almost overnight but Deanna is still struggling."

"That's...good?" Macen wondered. It didn't sound right to him.

"Lees is concerned about Deanna of course, but Will and Kestra seem to be coping rather well these days," Riker mused.

"That's odd. It's only been a few months," Macen openly remarked.

"Will is a tough bastard. I should know. We lived the same life for a couple of decades," Riker stated.

"Still, humans don't usually cope with grief that easily," Macen commented.

"I call it a good thing," Riker stiffened.

"Maybe it is," Macen didn't want to argue the point, "Meanwhile, I have Admiralty fish to fry and briefings to prep for."

"Good luck with that," Riker snorted, "How'd Ro take the news?"

"Anara called it," Macen grinned.

"Easy call to make," Riker chuckled. At least their meeting ended a good note despite Macen's nagging concern for the other Riker family.

Despite the repair crews running roughshod over the Obsidian, Macen managed to get Kerber and Smith to facilitate his secure transmission to Starfleet's London Data Archive.

"Ready to go secure," Kerber commed him in his office.

Rear Admiral Forger's image blurred then solidified, "`Manda."

"What the hell were you thinking?" Forger immediately demanded.

So Macen walked her through the details, specifically the casualty counts and the precise terms of his arrangement with Sorbo.

"Which he's been duly informed of," Macen grinned, "He's unhappy but had to concede the point since Cell 51 had already forwarded the transcripts."

"This'll help pacify Nechayev," Forger agreed, "And keep Ro on the hunt. I wasn't certain she'd come back with her career trajectory locked in as a full commander but she seems determined enough to let it go."

"Well, immediately promoting her from lt. commander to commander helped Starfleet's case," Macen told her, "But Ro was never about ranking up. She actually protested being made captain. So it might actually come as a relief since she received the same security clearance as your average commodore."

"Which still might not be enough," Forger admitted, "Cell 51 still seems imbedded in Starfleet."

"Well, Sorbo admitted that they were still inside the Federation Council," Macen reminded her.

"But Councilors and their staff are routinely vetted," Forger protested.

"By the same Starfleet Security that Commodore Oh directs?" Macen sarcastically pointed out.

"And Federation Security," Forger feebly protested this time.

"Whose Director is confirmed by the Council," Macen readily retorted.

"Brin, we may have a looming problem," Forger counseled him.

"That's what we've been discussing," Macen stated.

"No, Secretary for Starfleet Akifa Chol has directed the Federation Council's Appropriations Committee to take a hard look at the funding routes and ledgers I've used to subsidize patrols of former protectorate and colonial systems. Even candidate worlds are expected to stand on their own under Clancy's latest policy proposals," Forger warned him.

"They do realize they're handing these worlds and colonies over to the Federation's rivals, don't they?" Macen asked.

"I'm beginning to believe that's the point," Forger replied, "Clancy is building her legacy on battling existential crises. With the furor of the Mars Massacre dying down, the wars with Bajor and Cardassia ended, she needs a new threat."

"This is Chavy Sok's political stratagem all over again," Macen complained.

"Chol was Vice President Nhlakamipho Cindi's Chief of Staff under Sok before Juliette Perez threw them under the air trams," Forger brought up, "How distant do you think she was and still is from those basic policies?"

"Sorbo gets his revenge for being outsmarted anyway," Macen grumbled.

"Ro has found evidence that Cell 51 has a teen prodigy they call the Gray Cardinal as their strategist and a political coordinator they code-named the Presider. Neither of those figures has been identified or located." Forger reported.

"Which means they could operate in plain sight," Macen caught on.

"Ro managed to locate a Cell 51 safe house in New Berlin but it was abandoned months ago," Forger told him.

"This actually makes me miss Section 31," Macen sighed.

"I wouldn't go that far," Forger snorted, "The Section 31 in this universe was twice as insidious. Look at what Fowler did to his own son and half of Daystrom Station"

"Any luck on tracking down what the 'unlisted projects' were yet?" Macen inquired.

"All we've discovered is they had to do with Changeling physiology. So our best guess is it was doomsday project should their virus fail to kill the Founders," Forger grimaced.

"The virus seemed pretty damn effective on its own," Macen scowled, "Why a contingency? Where did it go and why hasn't Cell 51 collected it to solve their infiltration problem?"

"All good questions," Forger grumbled, "I'll add them to the other thousands that we already have."

They had no way of knowing Sorbo had no idea of what the infiltrator program had been. But Jack Fowler's positronic mind would eventually lead the renegade Founders to Vadic and from there to the exiled Borg Queen after the joined Jurati excised her from the Collective.

The liquid Changelings repelled by their "solid" cousins but needing them all the same.

Enough volunteering to be transformed by Vadic to give her a small army of infiltrators to implement the Borg Queen's plans and locate Jack Crusher. Locating a yet unknown race and plunging it into a catastrophic war so Vadic's crew could assume "solid" identities and commandeer a warship. The warship's name roughly translating into the Andromeda Descendant before being changed to the Shrike by Vadic. But none of these events would bear fruition for another quarter century.

"Amanda, there are other threats facing the Federation. The Iotians are becoming a viable alternative. We barely know what's beyond the Cardassian and Breen borders and Saavik and her starships have barely charted anything in the Gamma Quadrant headed towards the Alpha Quadrant. The Protostar and Voyager are only scratching the surface of the Delta Quadrant. There are potential threats they haven't encountered yet. Clancy is only looking for powerful military allies and not seeing potential allies of real value in the arts and sciences," Macen warned, "Treir and the Orion Syndicate waltzed into the Confederacy like they were conquering heroes. Whoever has replaced Gomer isn't announcing it yet but the Syndicate is twice as brazen."

"Sela is also getting on my nerves," Forger confessed.

"So why not probe into all of them?" Macen asked.

"What?" Forger seemed startled.

"Anara is more than happy to assist Saavik," Macen told her, "Ro is on Cell 51. I have ins with the Iotians and fading ties with the Syndicate. Why not exploit them further?"

"What about the Tal Shiar?" Forger inquired.

"The Hood, Merrimack, and Monitor can deal with Romulan brush fires while Bob and the Intrepid crew smooths out potential pratfalls that Clancy's chosen captains make," Macen shrugged, "The only remaining difficulty is patrolling the abandoned worlds."

"And Vaughn?" Forger asked.

"Bajor's last line of defense," Macen told her, "From threats near and far."

"Lavelle?" Forger wondered.

"I don't think certain members of Starfleet believe they lost the war, that with enough time and ships, they could still occupy Bajor and conquer her people...for their own good, of course," Macen assessed, "And then the Bajorans would be oh, so grateful that we did so."

"God, we've become Dukat," Forger groaned.

"At least certain officers have," Macen qualified his statement, "Lavelle among them. And he has high ranking sponsors."

"How high ranking?" Forger dreaded asking.

"As high as you can rank in both Starfleet and the Federation Council," Macen said coldly.

Chavy Sok, Juliette Perez, and Nhlakamipho Cindi addressed Federation Councilors assembled at an undisclosed location.

"You have to keep on message," Sok admonished them, "Make the Federation great again! Shout it from the banisters, the rooftops, the windows, on every network and every speech in the Council chambers."

"You can't stop for a second," Cindi continued the theme, "You have to keep the pressure on, the public scared, and the threats alive."

"Only then can you make the sweeping changes the Federation unwittingly demands you make," Perez amended.

"I can you keep you in the public eye," Fiona Shaw promised, "But you have to make the most of it. Tell the people you are their retribution!"

"Then, we will remake the Federation into something that will last for a thousand years and beyond!" the Federation Councilor from Perenthi V, Auri, loudly shouted. She was the new political favorite.

Once she had power, the voting franchise would be revoked and Cell 51 would appoint Presidents and Federation Councilors from its own Political Action ranks. An eternal state of national emergency would exist to justify martial law and no more wars would be lost ever again.

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