DREADNOUGHT: A Star Trek, Deep Space Nine novel in which the DS9 crew deals with the arrival of the richest human in the galaxy and battles a rogue attack fleet.

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STAR TREK - DEEP SPACE NINE

by Wayne Schmidt

latest version, 30 Sept, 2001

69,000 words

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

This book was written for not-for sale, not-for-profit, purposes, and as such, does not intend to infringe on any legally-held rights, including, but not limited to, those held by Criterion Press, Viacom, Paramount, or the estate of Gene Roddenberry.

This is an updated version of the story published by Criterion Press under the title Dreadnaught. It has benefited from an additional beta-reading by Una McCormick and two rewrites. I hope you enjoy it.

 

The events in this novel take place during the fifth season, after "Children of Time," but before "Blaze of Glory."

 

 

DREADNOUGHT

 

 

Chapter 1

OUT OF THE DARK

 

"We surrender! I repeat! To attacking force, we-"

A booted foot kicked open the communication shack's door. Dar Abell spun away from his microphone as the sheet-metal door slammed into the wall. Settlement leader Jal Paturin stepped halfway into the shack and braced himself against the door's grimy frame. Through the gap between Jal's gaunt form and the edge of the door, the radioman watched as rapid-fire detonations sent fiery gouts of prime farmland high into the night sky.

"That's a waste of time," Jal yelled. "They're not interested in surrender, just killing. Send out a general mayday to anyone who can hear us and-" An explosion blew rocks and smoke through the doorway, knocking him against the far wall. Rubble clattered off his back as he staggered to his feet. "-and put it on automatic repeat. Once that's done, get to the caves."

"What about the livestock?"

"Dead. Most of them. A ship blasted the corral with a thermal disrupter on low power." He forced a dry swallow. "That was ten minutes ago and some of the animals are still alive."

Dar punched an auto-repeating program into his console. "Who's doing this to us?"

Jal shook his head. "Can't tell. Their first salvo took out our sensors." A near miss shook the building. Gritty dust showered down out of the building's rough-hewn rafters and onto his coarse brown hair. "They blasted their way down out of the night without warning and-"

A man with the side of his face charred from disrupter fire staggered to the door. He made it halfway across the threshold, then slipped and crashed to the floor. Jal dove to his side. "Blate! What is it?"

The man's eyelids fluttered. "The school...."

"What about it?"

Jal shook him as the man’s eyes began to glaze. They cleared, then closed tight against the memory. "They hit it with the same thing they used on the livestock. The children were outside, running for the caves. I...." Blate's chest collapsed. Jal's hand tightened on the dead man's shoulder.

"The program's set," Dar said.

Jal's reddened eyes glared out of dark sockets. "Forget it. No one could arrive in time to help. Tell our people to grab their weapons and head for the woods. When these monsters land we'll take out as many as we can before they finish us off." Jal pulled a phaser from a holster clipped to his belt and stumbled out the door.

Dar grimaced as more concussions shot splinters of pain through his eardrums. Outside, anguished cries filled the air between explosions.

He quickly relayed Jal's message over the public address system as the detonations grew louder. Dar stood to leave, wavered, then stabbed a finger into a large red pad and yelled into the microphone. "Mayday! Mayday! To any ship in the sector, this is Belug Four." A blast shook the building. The radioman choked on dust. "Our settlement's under attack. We need immediate assistance!"

Another explosion ripped the door off its frame. Dar fell to the floor clutching the microphone in both hands and screamed into it over the shriek of an incoming missile. "Please! This is Bel-"

 

 

 

Chapter 2

ARRIVAL

 

Captain Benjamin Sisko's voice thundered over wailing alarms as he dove down the short flight of steps leading to Ops. "Turn that noise down!" The screaming sirens cut to a rumble. "Is it the Jem'Hadar?"

"Unknown, sir," Lieutenant Terl answered. "All we have so far is a massive subspace disturbance near the station. It triggered the auto-defense program."

Subtle shocks echoed along deck plates as rapid-fire torpedo turrets slammed into firing positions.

Terl studied his console’s readouts. "It's a ship, sir. Twenty thousand meters off main docking pylon three. Just coming out of warp."

Sisko’s brow furrowed. "That far away it shouldn't have tripped the alarms. What is it?"

"Unknown. The mass sensor’s out of calibration. The reading doesn't make sense."

"One of Chief O'Brien's systems out of cal? I doubt it." Sisko leaned forward; his strong, brown fingers gripped the railing around Ops. "Put the ship on the main viewer, magnification one hundred. Let's see what we've got."

The stars filling the forward viewscreen faded into a solid, slate-gray wall. The men traded questioning looks. "Back it up," Sisko ordered.

"Magnification seventy-five."

The screen shimmered. A hint of curvature bowed the wall towards them. Terl tapped the control a third time. "Magnification fifty." A second shimmer tightened the curvature and brought a cylindrical termination to the wall near the screen's lower-right corner.

"Again," Sisko said.

Terl reduced the magnification to twenty-five. The reduction finally produced the pulling-away effect they'd been expecting as the image shrank in size.  Tendons in Sisko's jaw drew taut. Even at this low magnification the ship stretched from one side of the screen to the other.

"What is it, Lieutenant?"

Terl shook his head. "Sorry, Captain. The calibration's also off on the magnification control. No ship could be that large. Scanning registry database." His fingers danced over the control panel. He paused while the computer completed its search. A light blinked red, bringing his head up sharply. "Origin unknown."

Muscles tensed under Sisko's uniform. "Yellow alert."

"The Defiant is already running parallel to her. Wait! It's broadcasting a civilian Federation identification code...and hailing us."

"Put it on."

"This is Wilson McDermot, captain of the Federation ship Aeneid, requesting permission to speak to Captain Benjamin Sisko."

The rock-hard muscles stretching Sisko's uniform relaxed. "It's okay, Lieutenant. I know who it is. Make the connection." He rounded the end of the railing and gave his uniform a quick jerk downward. "This is Captain Sisko. Welcome to Deep Space Nine, Mister McDermot."

A forty-year-old face split by an impish grin replaced the ship's image. The man's green eyes sparkled under a confusion of fiery orange hair that challenged the screen's color-simulation program. Technical panels behind McDermot's head identified his location as the Aeneid's control room. "Captain Sisko! Thank you. Thank you. Most kind. Request permission to park near your station for a couple of weeks while I refit my ship."

"Permission granted, and let me say it's a pleasure to have you here. I've heard many stories-"

McDermot’s bushy red eyebrows shot up. "Oh, so you've heard about some of my little projects. I'm flattered. This," he stretched his arms wide, "is my latest. You'll have to come over for a tour."

"I'd enjoy that, Mister McDermot. Your ship is unusual, to say the least."

McDermot's eyes swept the Aeneid's control room. "Yes, she is. And Captain," he fixed Sisko with a stare, "you haven't seen anything yet." He rocked back with a beguiling smile. "Come over, anytime."

"I'll let you know when. Sisko out." The screen faded to the normal sprinkling of stars. Sisko turned back to Terl. "Let’s run a check on the sensors." He watched the tall lanky lieutenant's hands blur over the science station's controls. His hands used to move that fast, twenty years ago. Terl reminded Sisko of himself early in his own career: eager, confident and a little brash. Since his son, Jake, had decided against a career in Starfleet, he often thought of Terl as- No point in that.

A panel flashed green, signaling the end of the diagnostic. Terl ran his fingers through his blonde hair. "Everything checks out. I can’t explain it. "

"I’ll have O’Brien take a look when he gets here." Sisko started to turn toward his office.

"Sir? Who's Wilson McDermot?"

"Wilson McDermot is-"

The thud of the turbolift locking into place cut him off.

"-the richest entity in three quadrants," an unfamiliar feminine voice finished for him.

The men twisted around to face the new arrival. A short, plump senior lieutenant with shoulder-length brown hair marched off the turbolift and snapped to exaggerated attention. "Lieutenant Samantha Skarn reporting for duty, sir."

"Samantha!" Sisko cried. "What on Earth-"

Skarn beamed a smile at him. "Shouldn't that be what on Bajor?" She reached over the railing and pumped Sisko's hand. "I'm in a holding pattern for an assignment on the Potemkin. Dad sent me out here to work until they're ready for me."  She handed him a PADD. "Here are my orders."

He took the PADD. "How is the Admiral?" The turbolift dropped away with a hydraulic sigh.

 "Enjoying his assignment at the Academy, and getting fat thanks to you."

Sisko's eyebrows arched. "Me?"

"You were the one who introduced him to your father's restaurant. Dad's become a weekend regular there."

Sisko noticed Terl's eyes shifting back and forth between them. "Lieutenant, this is Admiral Skarn's daughter and a very old friend." He scanned the PADD. "It looks like she'll be here several weeks. She's a science officer."

Terl nodded at her. "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."

She leaned over the railing toward him. "Why, thank you. Care to show me around the station?"

Sisko dropped a hand on her shoulder and pushed her back. "Easy, Lieutenant. Terl's already spoken for."

Skarn faked a pout. "Pity."

Terl swallowed. "Uh...we were talking about Wilson McDermot."

Sisko glanced over at him. "Like the lady said, he's the richest man in the galaxy."

"And," Chief O'Brien added as he and Odo stepped off the newly-returned lift, "the most eccentric."

"Shiftiest would be more accurate," Odo said. "What brought his name up?"

"He's here," Sisko said. "Just arrived, commanding a monster of a ship named the Aeneid." The turbolift dropped away again.

"Chief," Terl said. "Both the mass sensor and magnification controls are out of calibration. Look at these readings."

"Two of my systems off cal? Not likely." O'Brien strode over to his station and ran a quick test sequence. "Both calibrations read well within tolerances."

Sisko raised an brow at Terl. "What did I tell you?"

O'Brien narrowed his eyes at Sisko, then turned to Terl. "Show me what you've got."

"This, sir. Display two-baker." O'Brien studied his panel, frowned, then bent closer and scratched behind an ear. "And this," Terl said, centering Aeneid's image on the screen.

O’Brien gave McDermot’s ship a jaundiced look. "Granted, it's not the most attractive ship I've ever seen, kind of a long tin can, but so what?"

"The range is twenty thousand meters, sir. We're at twenty-five magnification."

"Twenty thou...that would make the ship over a thousand meters long. Ridiculous." O'Brien began a slow sequence of gentle taps on his panel. He shook his head. "Everything checks out. McDermot's ship really is that-"

"-Big." Sisko said stepping toward the door to his wardroom. "Shall we adjourn to the conference room? It's past time for the staff meeting and as much fun as it is to speculate about Mister McDermot's vessel, we still have a station to run."

The turbolift returned again, disgorging a third load of passengers. Major Kira Nerys marched off first, her short auburn hair bouncing with the energy of her stride. Cadet Nog followed with his back rigidly straight. His hard, black Ferengi eyes shifted left and right, seeing who on the command staff had beaten him to Ops. A massive shadow engulfed him. Everyone edged sideways as Lieutenant Commander Worf plowed past Nog toward the conference room. Doctor Julian Bashir left the turbolift last, seemingly dragged toward the conference room in the Klingon's wake.

Worf nodded a curt salute to Sisko as he stormed past him and into the conference room. Sisko, the only other man on Deep Space Nine tall enough to stand eye-to-eye with the Klingon, returned the gesture. As Kira and Odo stepped by, they appeared to go out of their way to avoid looking at each other. Sisko’s eyes tightened on the pair. What's wrong with them?

Skarn waited at the railing. Sisko nodded at her to join the meeting. "I’m assigning you to work with me, Lieutenant, so you better sit in on this."

She inclined her head toward the main screen as she passed him. "Looks like the morning's off to an interesting start."

"If you think that's interesting, wait for the staff meeting." His expression darkened. "I only wish my news was as positive as McDermot's arrival." 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

SISKO BREAKS THE RULES

 

Four command staff officers, Lieutenant Skarn, and Nog sat around the wardroom’s conference table. Doctor Bashir stood by his chair detailing the previous week's activities in the infirmary. Captain Sisko listened with his back to the table.

Bashir studied the mahogany gleam off Sisko's head a moment before finishing his report. "In conclusion, I'm happy to state that everything is at, or above, Starfleet standards in the Infirmary."

"Uh-huh," Sisko murmured as he toyed with his baseball.

Bashir glanced around the table. Skarn threw Kira a questioning look; Kira shrugged back at her. Worf, Nog, and Odo sat impassive. O'Brien grinned and nodded encouragement. A smile tickled the corners of the doctor's mouth. "Of course, yesterday's power failure did blow out half of the primary bioscanner's circuitry."

"Hmm." Sisko’s eyes stayed focused on the ball in his hands.

Everyone smiled except Worf. Bashir's grin broadened. "The only other minor item was this morning's arrival of five hundred Balduk warriors who've claimed half of the habitat ring as their permanent residence."

Sisko nodded.

Stifled laughter reached an explosive level. Even Odo put a hand to his mouth. "The upshot of this is that the carnage resulting from unavoidable battles between the warriors and civilian personnel requires the medical staff to be tripled-"

"You can't have any more people," Sisko's rumbling voice cut the doctor off. Bashir melted into his chair. Sisko swung around, carefully placing the baseball on the table. "Very amusing, Doctor, and justified. I apologize for my inattentiveness. As important as your briefing is I'm afraid something more critical has me preoccupied."

He examined each suddenly serious face, stopping at Skarn's. "Although you're a newcomer here, Lieutenant, I'm confident I can count on your discretion regarding what I'm about to say."  He gathered himself. "I've made a decision that may not sit well with some of you. We're going to break some Starfleet rules."

A chill passed through the officers.

Sisko turned to his right. "Mister Worf, what is your assessment of the station's ability to survive a full-out attack?"

Worf flashed a brooding look in O'Brien's direction. "That would depend on-"

"The bottom line, Commander," Sisko said.

Worf straightened and stared directly at O'Brien. "Nonexistent, sir."

O'Brien jumped to his feet. "Now just one minute. I'll have you know-"

"Calm down, Chief." Sisko said. "He didn't mean it personally."

O’Brien threw himself back into his chair. "I take anything said against this station as personal, particularly criticisms about our defensive capabilities after all the overtime they took to install. The multiple-pump phaser arrays alone would do credit to a Galaxy-class warship. When teamed with the heavy photon cannons-"

Worf cut him off. "Impressive...but impotent."

"Impotent!"

"Give him a chance, Worf." Sisko ordered.

"You've done an outstanding job with Deep Space Nine's defense system," Worf said. "Any more firepower and the recoil would tear the station apart. But for all this firepower it is still a fixed emplacement and therefore doomed in the face of a mobile attack."

"My assessment exactly," Sisko said before O'Brien could object. "How would you correct this situation?"

"The only defense against one mobile force is another mobile force."

"There's the Defiant."

"As Defiant's captain I'm proud to say she is the most powerful ship in the sector."

Sisko raised his eyebrows. "But?"

Worf ground his irregular teeth. "She is only one ship. Even the greatest battle craft can be overcome if it doesn't have the support of back-up ships."

"The solution?"

A glint came into Worf’s eyes. "A fleet. One of our own."

"I agree. Why don't we have one?"

Impatience deepened Worf’s voice. "Because Starfleet is commanded by bureaucrats instead of-"

Sisko raised a calming hand. "Gently, Mister Worf. Remember, they're paying the bills." He frowned. "But you may be right. I've petitioned them three times for a defense fleet."  The officers traded glances around the table. "I didn't mention this before because I knew nothing would come of it. In their eyes, we’re too remote to justify the investment in manpower and materiel. I have to go through Admiral Jorgenson and he refuses to consider it."

"Do we really need a fleet in residence?" Odo asked. "Starfleet sent one to rescue us before."

Sisko turned to him. "Yes, and we were lucky there was enough of the station left to be worth rescuing by the time they got here." He snapped around to face Worf. "What's the fastest Starfleet can get a rescue fleet here?"

"Without advance warning...five days."

"And how long would it take the Jem'Hadar to launch an attack?"

Worf worked his jaw. "Because of our proximity to the wormhole, five minutes."

Sisko's stare raked the officers. "There you have it. We need a fleet and Starfleet won't supply one. I've decided our only option is-"

"Build your own?" Kira broke in. "That’s impossible. I can’t imagine how many regulations you’d be breaking."

Worf's eyes blazed over a hungry smile. "Seventeen." His chair creaked as he rotated his muscular bulk toward Sisko. "How do you intend to do it?"

"I'm not," Sisko said. "All of you are." Everyone stiffened. "Each of you knows someone who owes you a favor and has access to the resources we need. I'm asking you to call in those debts. Get your contacts to contribute to our defense, preferably by donating ships."

Odo laced his long fingers together and settled them on his lap. "Captain, isn't this a bit aggressive? Everything's been quiet for months."

Sisko turned worried eyes on his security chief. "That's a lie Starfleet's promulgated." The wardroom became quiet enough for Sisko to hear Terl tapping control pads out in Ops. "In the last three months the Jem'Hadar have sent eight sorties into Federation space. Two resulted in weapons fire."

"How serious?" Worf asked.

"The cruiser Agamemnon was all but destroyed, fifteen dead, seventy-four injured. Worse still was the attack on Belug Four last night. Admiral Jorgenson called this morning with the news. The entire settlement's gone. Wiped out. The Jem'Hadar struck without warning. After blasting the settlement from the air they landed and used handguns to kill every man, woman, and child. Jorgenson said they murdered three hundred civilians."

Around the table, expressions clouded with images of the attack; Worf's burned with an angry fire. "When do we retaliate?"

"We don't," Sisko said. "Under the articles of the latest treaty Belug Four is...was, outside Federation space. The settlers stayed there despite Starfleet's warnings."

"But to ignore such an attack-" Kira began.

"-Was considered prudent by Starfleet Command," Sisko finished for her.

"Prudent," O'Brien snorted.

"Yes, Chief. Prudent. Starfleet's nervous about doing anything in this sector that might incite the Dominion into escalating hostilities. Besides, there's the Cardassian connection."

Heads turned toward Major Kira at the mention of the race that had enslaved her people for decades. "What about the Cardassians?" she asked, her voice deadly quiet.

"Half of the fleet that demolished Belug Four was Cardassian, which gives Starfleet added reason for caution."

"It is the Founders we should attack," Worf said. "They bred the Jem'Hadar to be their warriors. Kill the head and the body will die." Everyone, Kira included, avoided looking at Odo.

"Tactically correct," Sisko agreed. "But considering Starfleet is hard-pressed to defend its territory on this side of the wormhole, it would be impractical to launch an attack into the Gamma Quadrant."

Bashir gave Sisko a questioning look. "Why has Starfleet kept the attacks secret?"

"I asked and was told to keep quiet and follow orders," Sisko said. "My guess is they're afraid of panic. Which reminds me, this information is restricted. I'd better not catch any rumors about the Belug incident until Starfleet releases an official statement. You're being briefed in violation of Jorgenson's gag order because you have the right to know in the face of what I'm asking you to do."

"But, Captain," Bashir said. "Withholding information like that is censorship. I can't believe Starfleet-"

"Believe it." Sisko said. "It's not pretty but that's the way it is. I confess I'm beginning to have reservations about some Starfleet policies...or at least the policies of one of its principal officers."

"You mean Admiral Jorgenson?" Odo asked.

"Exactly." Sisko straightened in his chair. "Something's made the Dominion put the Jem'Hadar on the move and sooner or later they'll head for this station. When that happens I want to be ready. Besides," Sisko spread his hands, "the Dominion isn't the only threat we have to deal with out here. Having our own fleet will give us the flexible response required to address whatever comes our way."

Major Kira leaned her forearms on the table. "Bajor won't help. Placing ships under your command would be too much of a commitment to the Federation, even if the fleet's not the Federation's idea. But..." The metal adornments of her clan earring jangled softly as she looked up sharply. "There may be some useful resources left over from the resistance. I'm thinking more along the lines of people and weapons than a ship."

"I understand the political situation on Bajor, Major. Anything you can turn up will be appreciated."

"Captain?" Skarn said. "On my way here I read up on the local history and current political situation. Bajor may not be willing to help but that doesn't eliminate the outer worlds. The ruling council on Bajor Eight appreciated your foiling the Duras sisters’ attempt to involve their planet in the Klingon civil war." Worf shifted in his seat. "Batur Lux was involved in that incident. He's advanced from the capital's mayor to colony president and I'm sure his hatred of the Cardassians will motivate him to help. I could approach him about the fleet on your behalf, if Major Kira doesn't object to an outsider-"

Kira smiled. "Not at all."

"Good," Sisko said to Skarn. "Follow up on that. Anyone else?" His eyebrows raised expectantly.

"During the civil war," Worf said. "I had the honor to serve on the Hegh'Ta as tactical officer. Captain Mor Pak commands her now. He may be interested in joining us."

"Why would a Klingon want to come to the aid of a Federation outpost?" O'Brien asked.

Worf shook his head. "He wouldn't. But things are too quiet in the Klingon Empire for many of our warriors. They hunger for combat and the smell of warm blood."

"Would the Empire permit him to join us?" Sisko asked.

"A Klingon goes where he wishes."

"Understood," Sisko said. "Contact him." Worf nodded once. Sisko turned back to his staff. "Worf’s offer reminds me, General Martok said we can count on the Rotaron, his personal bird-of-prey." Sisko looked expectantly around the table.

O'Brien stared thoughtfully at the ceiling and smiled. "All my contacts are in Starfleet. I don't think I could convince any of them to mutiny against the Federation. Of course, I did get to know Captain Picard fairly well when I was on the Enterprise. I suppose I could give him a call..."

Sisko smiled. "That's all right, Chief. I'm certain Captain Picard would appreciate the offer, but he's a busy man. Let's not put anything more on his plate."

O’Brien grinned. "I'm sure you're right, sir."

"Besides," Sisko added. "I have some projects for you that'll keep you too busy for anything else."

O’Brien’s grin vanished. "Oh. Thank you, sir."

"My pleasure. Doctor? I need you to double our inventory of medical equipment and supplies."

"Yes, sir," Bashir agreed. "That shouldn't be too difficult."

"I'm glad to hear it because I also want you to initiate a station-wide medical-training program. In the event of an attack, all personnel should be able to assist in casualty recovery. Try to get our civilian population involved as well."

"But, Captain. You're talking about four hundred people."

"Which is why it's fortunate the medical-supply job won't take much of your time." Sisko turned away before the doctor could protest. "For my part I'll be contacting someone who may have a line on a ship. If so, one of you will be tasked to check it out. That's all for now, people. Thank you for your support." Sisko stood in dismissal. "Two closing items: Dax is taking leave on the Trill homeworld. She's scheduled to return in two weeks. Also, Cadet Nog has been temporarily assigned to the station for a dose of field experience. As part of his training I've invited him to attend our staff meetings. You'll notice he's wearing the pips of a new senior cadet. You're all invited to Quark's at nineteen hundred hours to acknowledge his promotion. Dismissed."

Everyone shook hands with Nog who stood with his chest expanded so far the seams of his uniform threatened to burst. He nodded and grinned as the flow carried him towards the door.

"Kira?" Sisko called her back from the crowd squeezing through the exit. "How's your new lieutenant?"

"D'Taing? Like all Vulcans she's outstanding, but...." Kira set her jaw. "She's more aggressive. Most Vulcans plan their lives out according to the dictates of logic and plod their way through it. D'Taing is as logic-dominated as any Vulcan but she seems in an uncharacteristic hurry, almost impatient. She acts as if she wants to break out of the traditional Vulcan role."

"Is that a problem?"

She smiled and shook her head. "Not for me. She out-works any two of my staff. I just have this feeling she has a surprise up her sleeve. Why do you ask?"

"I need an escort for a VIP coming in tomorrow. Can D'Taing handle it?"

"Easily. Who's it for?"

"Admiral Phillipa Louvois, Starfleet's new Judge Advocate General. During his call this morning Jorgenson told me when she'd be arriving and ordered us to roll out the red carpet."

"What does she want on Deep Space Nine?"

He shrugged. "Who knows? The official word is she's on vacation so maybe all she wants is to relax and smell the ginger-ferns in Keiko's green house. Personally, I doubt that's the real reason she'd come all the way out here. Have D'Taing put her in the executive suite furthest from my office and run her through the usual tour."

"Right. Anything else?"

Doubt clouded Sisko’s features. "Tell me the fleet isn't a big mistake."

Her lips tightened. "It's what we need, but nothing that big can be kept quiet for long. When Jorgenson finds out he'll bring the hammer down on you."

He shrugged. "I know. There's just no other way to protect the station and Bajor."

"The price could be high."

"The consequences of not doing it could be higher."

She raised her chin. "You know the staff's one hundred percent behind you."

"I just hope I don't take them down with me if this goes wrong."

Kira smiled. "It won't, sir. You won't let it."

She turned away but Sisko called her back. "It seemed you and Odo avoided each other before the meeting. Something wrong?"

Her back went stiff. "With all due respect, sir. That's personal."

Her reaction caught him off balance. "Of course. I was just worried-"

Major Kira spun on her heel and marched off to rejoin the staff that had managed to move itself the rest of the way into Ops. Sisko watched her go, his expression dark. He tried to push his concerns about her and Odo and the fleet to the back of his mind. "Chief?" he called out over the sounds of people congratulating Nog.

O'Brien pulled away from the group and stepped back into the room. "Yes, sir?"

"Take a seat." O'Brien puffed out a deep breath as he dropped into a chair. "Why the sigh, Chief?"

"Well, I thought I came out of the meeting a little too unscathed."

Sisko sat down facing him. "Prepare to get scathed. I'm not confident about how successful the others will be at getting us any combat-ready ships."

O'Brien nodded. "It's a tall order."

"That's why I need you to convert three of our runabouts into warships."

O’Brien jerked up straight. "Warships! That's-"

"-Impossible. Yes, I know. But several times in the past you've made the mistake of doing just that so I'm counting on you to do it again."

"They're only designed for a crew of two."

"Make maximum use of auto-targeting and firing systems."

"They're limited to warp-"

"Upgrade the warp nacelles and power systems."

"Firepower-"

Sisko's voice sharpened with impatience. "Double up on the phaser arrays and mount as many photon torpedoes as you can on outriggers."

"But how..."

Sisko leaned close, his voice deep. "I don't really care, Chief. Just find a way."

O'Brien leaned back. "Yes, sir. Anything else?"

The hint of a smile crept back into Sisko's expression. "Funny you should ask that."

O'Brien sighed again. "Let me have it."

"Delegate the shuttle work to your staff after you work out the design. Once that's underway, I want you to make a new weapon for us."

O'Brien leaned forward. "A new phaser array for docking pylon three? The one that's there now-"

"No, Chief. I mean a new weapon...as in 'never been done before.' Something with enough firepower to set the Dominion back on its heels...hard."

O'Brien's forehead creased. "Surely a Federation lab or the Daystrom Institute would be better equipped for that sort of task."

"You're right, but I need something now. Every time I contact them they tell me it'll be five years and to go through Starfleet. You're all I've got."

"Thanks a heap."

Sisko inclined his head toward O’Brien. "You're welcome."

"You realize I'm not a weapons engineer."

Sisko leaned back, tenting his fingers in front of him. "Chief, I've never known an engineer who didn't have an idea for at least one new type of weapon. Are you telling me you're any different?"

"Oh, no. I admit I've toyed with a couple of designs over the years."

"Good. Toy with them some more...on overtime if necessary. I'll expect something sooner rather than later."

"Yes, sir. I'll see what I can come up with."

They both stood.

"And, Chief. Keep this last project just between the two of us. The fewer people who know about it, the smaller the risk that our enemies will find out."

O’Brien raised an eyebrow. "Or our friends in Starfleet?"

"Precisely."

O'Brien nodded and left, turning sideways to get through the door as Odo entered.

"Yes, Constable," Sisko said. "Something I can do for you?"

"I just wanted you to know I'll be keeping a tight surveillance on Quark while Mister McDermot's gracing us with his presence."

"Quark? Why?"

"Let's just say I feel uneasy about Quark in the proximity of that much wealth."

"Point taken."

"How about you, Captain. What's on your schedule?"

Sisko nodded toward the wardroom's portal. The preposterous bulk of the Aeneid had just lumbered into view. "As it happens I have an invitation from the richest man in the galaxy to look inside the biggest tin can in Federation space. While the rest of you are hard at work I'm going to relax and enjoy his hospitality." His expression grew thoughtful as the Aeneid's forward maneuvering thrusters fired bright red and brought it to a stop. "I wonder why he came to such a remote site for a refit?"

 

 

 

Chapter 4

Aeneid

 

Sisko smiled as Wilson McDermot strained to force his effervescent grin into a frown. It wasn't working. "Biggest tin can in the sector?" McDermot cried. "Captain, I'm insulted. The Aeneid's the biggest tin can in three quadrants!"

"I'm glad you weren't offended. Some captains-"

McDermot gave up on the mock frown. "Not a bit of it, Captain. Tin can is an accurate description...for now. In four weeks you'll have a completely different opinion of her. I promise. Come, let me give you the fifty-credit tour."

Sisko laughed along with McDermot. The richest man in the universe had more imp in him than businessman. Sisko eyes tightened in closer examination of his host. Or so he appears.

McDermot was short and full around the waist, but there had been muscle behind his handshake and work-hardened calluses covered his palm.

Sisko followed his host around the command center's perimeter, listening to his explanations of each control panel's purpose. McDermot’s voice carried the relaxed ease of someone comfortable with the technical complexities of a starship. Sisko soon realized that, except for Aeneid's preposterous size, the ship was like any freighter. He sniffed the air. It carried the tang of old metal. He paused by a large panel set into the wall. "Is this the control for the structural integrity field?"

"That's correct."

Sisko bent at the waist to read the power rating. "Fifty megawatts? Why so strong?"

"See for yourself, Captain," McDermot said with a flourish toward the rear of the cabin. His voice dropped low. "Look and marvel." He led the way to a portal on the back bulkhead. Sisko guessed it linked to a sensor pickup on the rear of the ship. "Watch," McDermot said as he touched a control pad near the portal's frame. A floor-to-ceiling section of bulkhead hissed to the left. Gray eternity filled the void beyond the opening.

"Lights off?" Sisko asked.

"No, Captain. All the floods are on."

Sisko braced a hand against the portal’s sill and bent closer. "It looks like...nothing."

McDermot leaned close, his voice lowered to a whisper. "Look deeper. Further."

 Sisko pushed forward until the tip of his nose tingled from the force field across the opening. In the center of the view he saw a small disk drawn in a darker shade of gray on the next bulkhead. "A hatch?"

"You're off by almost a mile. That's a clue, Captain." A secret smile spread across McDermot's lips.

"Off by a mile," Sisko mused, trying to assign a sense of distance to the archaic term. His eyes widened as realization struck home. The circle wasn't a hatch in the next bulkhead, but the two-hundred-meter diameter end of the ship, one thousand meters away. The entire bulk of the Aeneid was a vast open cavern. He instinctively stepped back.

McDermot laughed. "It affects everyone like that, Captain. Makes you feel like your toes are hanging over the edge of a cliff. That's why she needs such a strong structural integrity field, with no cross-bracing it's the only thing that holds her together."

Sisko forced himself to step forward. His gaze traced around the edge of the portal trying, and failing, to take in the Aeneid's immensity. "What kind of ship is this?"

"What was it would be a more accurate. I gave my agents a general description of the type of craft I needed. They scoured known space for six months before they found her."

McDermot ran his right hand lovingly down the bulkhead before turning away and pointing at a pair of blue command chairs. "Please, have a seat."

Sisko dropped into one. "I have been on every class of ship in Starfleet's inventory yet I've never seen anything like this."

"Mandor coffee." McDermot said to a replicator. "Captain?"

"Tarkalean tea, please. Thank you. I bet you could fit an entire D-class Enterprise inside this vessel."

"Possibly, Captain," McDermot said while the out-of-date replicator clinked and clunked, struggling to produce their order. "But just barely. The Aeneid's more than long enough but we might have to bend the warp nacelles in a bit to get it to fit width-wise."

Sisko shook his head.

McDermot handed him the tea. "She was originally intended to be an intergalactic zoo. The Arbazons built her seventy years ago. Regrettably, while they're undeniably the greatest shipwrights in the galaxy, they have terrible business sense. The venture folded within a year. After that the Ferengi tried using it to smuggle bladder-palms to the Dopterians."

Sisko looked thoughtful. "That should have paid well. Everyone knows the Dopterians love those plants. Heaven knows why. They look like glop-on-a-stick painted bilious green."

"Glop-on-a-stick?"

"Jumja sticks. They're a Bajoran sweet sold on the promenade. Imagine a caramel apple without the apple."

McDermot stroked his chin. "Sounds interesting. I'll have to look into marketing them." He shifted his eyes left and right in mock suspicion. "What most people don't know is that the dried petals of the palm's flowers can be ground into a powerful psychotropic drug. It's perfectly legal on the Dopterian's home world-"

Sisko nodded. "-But illegal in Federation territory."

"Exactly. The Ferengi got picked up attempting a shortcut through Starfleet-controlled space. The bladder-palms were destroyed and the ship confiscated." McDermot swiveled around to peer into the great openness of the Aeneid's interior. "She languished in Starfleet's impound yard for more than sixty years. No one could figure out what to do with her."

"Then you came along."

He smiled. "Got her for the price of scrap metal."

"And now?"

McDermot crossed his arms. "Captain, do you have any idea how many rich people there are in the known galaxy?"

Sisko shrugged. "Millions?"

"You're low a hundred-fold. What people in the Federation’s cashless system don't realize is that interstellar commerce is incredibly lucrative. There are so many species with things they want to buy and sell that anyone with a spaceship can make a mint."

Sisko raised an eyebrow. "If he knows what to buy and where to sell it."

McDermot smiled and made a little bow with his head. "I admit I've been lucky."

"I doubt it was luck."

"Thank you." McDermot bounced to his feet. "I'm going to refit the Aeneid into the greatest luxury passenger liner ever seen. Each of a series of bulkheads installed down the length of the ship will be configured into a single enormous suite, outfitted with gardens, ponds, fountains, statuary and living quarters more palatial than a royal estate on Risa. The Aeneid will redefine the ultimate in elegant space travel."

"And the richest of the rich will want to fly on her."

McDermot's smile went sly. "Actually, their applications will be turned down."

Sisko pulled back in surprise. "What?"

"It's a question of marketing strategy. The richest people will pay a lot but the not-quite-as-rich will pay more."

"I don't understand."

"Truly rich people don't have to prove anything. But, those stuck in wealth's second tier will pay enormous sums to have people think they belong at the top. Buying passage on the Aeneid will give the impression they've made it, if people richer than they have been turned down."

"So refusing to book some of the richest people will increase demand and therefore the price you can charge."

He jabbed a finger in Sisko's direction. "Exactly."

Sisko frowned. "Bit of a con, isn't it?"

McDermot shook his head. "Not at all. The passengers will get exactly what they paid for, the most opulent transportation possible. Only those foolish enough to believe that class can be bought will think they're getting anything more." McDermot spread his hands. "And who's to say they won't. A businessman could book passage to impress someone, who in turn puts him on to a good thing. That makes good financial sense." He gazed up at the ceiling. "You know, I may apply for passage myself. I wonder if I'd accept myself as suitable?"

Sisko smiled ruefully. "It sounds so mercenary."

McDermot thrust his arms out wide and grinned. "It's business. Of course it's mercenary."

"You talk like a Ferengi."

"As a matter of fact, I own quite a bit of real estate on Ferenginar. Nice people. We think alike. I plan on spending quite a bit of time there in the near future."

Sisko looked over his shoulder toward the Aeneid's interior. "Why come all the way out to a frontier station like Deep Space Nine?"

McDermot shrugged. "You're far enough removed from the Federation's mainstream so the work can be done without notoriety. That way when I announce the Aeneid's existence it'll seem like she appeared out of nowhere. It introduces a sense of the exotic and mystery. I may even encourage a rumor that she's an ancient relic of a lost race to enhance the effect. What do you think?"

"With you pitching the line I'm sure it'll work. However, even with all that salesmanship do you really think you can charge enough to make a profit?"

"No."

Sisko's brow furrowed. "No? That doesn't sound like good business sense."

"What would I use the profit for?"

"To invest and make more profit, I suppose."

"Now who's sounding mercenary?" He regarded Sisko with exaggerated studiousness. "Are you sure you're not part Ferengi?"

"Hardly."

McDermot chuckled. "To answer your question, I make profit to spend on projects I enjoy. The Aeneid's one of them. Straining to force a profit out of it would ruin the fun."

"So this project's like the Rigel Two moon you terraformed."

McDermot nodded. "Exactly. Now that was fun."

"Some fun. How much did that cost?"

"Let's see...." He scratched the red curls at the side of his head. "In the local medium of exchange, about three hundred million plates of gold-pressed latinum."

"Plates?"

"One hundred bars to the plate."

Sisko felt his jaw drop. "God."

McDermot's face brightened with a sly smile. "Couldn't have afforded it."

Sisko chuckled and shook his head. "So the Aeneid's really one of your smaller projects."

"Well...not quite. There are a few details that drive the price up to a respectable level." Sisko smiled expectantly. Instead of explaining McDermot stood and walked to the control room's exit. Sisko sensed the tour was over. At the hatch he drank the last of his drink before handing McDermot the cup. "Excellent tea. Thank you Mister Mc-"

"Please. Call me Will."

"Thanks for the tea, Will. And the tour."

"My pleasure." McDermot quickly keyed the door open.

Sisko’s eyes tightened. Was he pushing? He turned toward his shuttle, paused, then spun about. "Wait a minute. You said you'd only be here a few weeks."

"That's right." McDermot's hand rested on the door's closure switch.

"How are you going to refit a ship this size inside a month? Even the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars would need a year."

"Replibots, a new type of construction robot with built-in replicators. Each is equivalent to a fifty-man work crew. I have over a thousand already at work. Once the supplies start arriving you'll be amazed how fast things develop. Thanks for the visit, Captain, but I have to beg off now. There's a lot to do." Without breaking his smile, McDermot closed the switch.

The hatch slid shut an inch from Sisko's face.

Sisko studied the closed door a moment, then about-faced and walked to his shuttle. He cut free from the side of the monster ship, but instead of heading directly back to the station, programmed the maneuvering thrusters to skim alongside the Aeneid's surface. The curvature was so slight it felt like he was flying next to a flat gray wall.

A two-meter-diameter glittering sphere flashed by the view screen. It stopped, backed up, and scanned the shuttle before racing off. Sisko tilted back in his chair and stared after the rapidly shrinking sphere, wondering if he’d just seen a replibot.

The Aeneid's expanse stretched on toward the distant stars. Sisko saw nothing else of interest so he reprogrammed the shuttle's controls to take him back to the station. Increasing distance slowly let the shuttle's rear viewer frame all of the Aeneid's bulk. Sisko studied the great ship and pondered the way McDermot had rushed him off. A glint of light caught his eye as an unmarked transport ship pulled up to a docking position near the Aeneid's stern. Sisko pursed his lips. What's McDermot up to?

 

 

 

Chapter 5

OUTSIDE QUARK'S

 

"I don't like it," Odo grumbled to himself.

"You don't like what?" a feminine voice asked from behind him.

The security chief stiffened as he turned around. "Hello, Nerys. I thought I recognized your footsteps."

She smiled down at her feet. "I didn't know my tread was so heavy."

Odo stretched his smooth face into a thin-lipped smile. "Not in the least. It's just that some sounds...." The smile wavered. "I mean...."

She took a step toward the changeling. "You were going to tell me what you weren't happy about."

Odo felt the familiar tightening in his middle that always accompanied being close to Kira. After their disagreement last week, he no longer felt he could act on those feelings. He took a hasty step back and lifted a hand in the direction he'd been looking.

She craned her neck toward the object of his scrutiny. Quark's bar came into view. The dabo wheel's faint clacking wafted across the promenade in a vain attempt to entice players out of the early-afternoon crowd. "What's Quark done this time?"

"Nothing...yet. He's been the perfect little Ferengi -- watering down drinks, cheating customers on change, the usual."

"So, why the surveillance?"

"He has a special visitor today."

She leaned out further and spotted a head of brilliant orange hair. "Is that really Wilson McDermot?"

Odo's expression soured. "You make him sound like a holostar."

"In a way, he is. It's not every day you get to see the richest man in the galaxy."

"His shoes need polish."

"You have good eyesight. Or have you been morphing into a Baneriam hawk again?"

Odo worked his mouth into a broad smile. He'd been practicing and was proud of its realism. "As a matter of fact, I did. Yesterday, for fun, but not today. I spotted the dirt on his shoes as he passed by earlier. I also noticed his pants are stained."

Exasperation crept into her eyes. "Give the man a break, Odo. He's hard at work trying to refit his ship. You have to admit that's better than the typical image of the idle rich."

"I don't know many rich people but I believe few are lazy. As a species they're the busiest people around, and the sneakiest."

"Where'd you get that idea?"

"From Wilson McDermot, for one." Odo crossed thin arms over his narrow chest. "Do you want to know something curious about your precious Mister McDermot?" She leaned closer. Odo felt himself pulled toward her in spite of his conviction. He uncrossed his arms. "The truth is I can't tell you anything about him and that's what is interesting. There isn't a byte of information about him in any database I could get into, and I can access quite a few."

"What do you mean? He's in the news almost every month."

"No, he's not." Odo held up a hand as she opened her mouth. "Oh, there are plenty of stories about what he does but almost nothing about the man: who he is or what motivates him."

"Why does that worry you?"

Odo nodded at Quark's. "Because he's the richest man in the quadrant and he's talking to the biggest thief in space."

Her smile went crooked. "Good point. So you haven't found out anything about McDermot, the inner man."

"Not exactly." Odo looked down into her face. He couldn't help letting his expression soften. So close. Nerys. He forced himself to turn back towards the bar. "I'm good at reading between the lines, Major," he said with strained formality. "By examining what he's done and how he did it, I got a few clues to McDermot's inner workings."

"And?"

"Besides being a natural-born business genius, McDermot also has considerable skills in both science and engineering. He made his first fortune when he was only a teenager by figuring out how to build self-replicating nano-robots that attach themselves to teeth. They continuously clean and repair any dental structure they contact."

"He did that? I love them. You have to have lived on a planet with dentists to appreciate what it was like before dental nanites became available."

"I'm sure five million dentists in Federation space didn't appreciate it. They lost their jobs. That suggests the capability for ruthlessness, when the situation calls for it."

"You forget, for every dentist who may have lost a job, thousands of people were saved from the discomfort." She crossed her arms. "I think you're being paranoid."

Odo harumphed. "Most policemen are. It goes with the job."

A muted crash came from the direction of Quark's. Kira turned to look and saw a waitress scrambling to pick up pieces of something off the floor. The waitress dropped them onto an empty serving tray and began dabbing at the floor with a towel. "Has he been connected with anything illegal?" she asked.

"Nothing definite. There were rumors about questionable salvage operations outside of Federation space but nothing was substantiated. The most interesting tidbit was one of his few failures. A recent one."

"What was it?"

"He tried marketing prune juice on the Klingon home world."

Kira’s eyes popped wide open. "What? Prune juice? To Klingons? I'm not surprised it failed."

He leaned his head to the side. "Why are you shocked, Major? We both know a Klingon who loves it."

"Worf. Right. But as far as I've heard he's the only Klingon who-"

Odo nodded. "Exactly. In all known space there's only one Klingon who drinks prune juice and McDermot found out about it. That suggests an intelligence-gathering capability beyond anything I've ever known."

"That's hardly enough to hang the man."

"No. But some day McDermot will go too far. When that day comes a lot of people will be surprised at the skeletons that come marching out of his closet."

She grinned. "It'll be an interesting parade."

"It's not a laughing matter. To me it looks like McDermot's consumed by a passion for grand projects, each bigger than the last. I think he's addicted to accomplishment, as if it gives his life purpose."

"Is that so bad?"

Odo expression turned serious. "When it takes the place of more fundamental things like a wife and family, yes."

Her eyes cut sharply up to his, then looked back toward Quark's. "You're awfully quick to judge a man you've never met. Maybe he's just what he appears to be, a hard-working, hard-playing man who's earned the right to get some fun out of life."

"I'd be willing to accept that if-"

"First call for Bajor shuttle twenty-one," a loudspeaker announced.

"That's my flight," she said.

"The captain's project?"

"Right."

His hand reached out on its own accord and gently touched her arm. "Good luck."

She pulled away. "I'm sorry, Odo. What I said last week... I haven't changed my mind." She headed for her gate.

Denied its purpose, Odo's arm fell away. He turned away, back towards the bar. He wished that he'd asked her to dinner when she got back but he hadn't, fearing she would turn him down.

"Odo?"

He looked around. She'd stopped ten feet away. "Yes, Nerys?"

"Are you okay with Worf's recommendation to attack the Founders? They're your own people."

"Not any more. You are my people now." His eyes widened. "I mean Bajorans, er, Humans. That is-"

A whisper of a smile touched her lips. "It's okay, Odo. I know what you mean. I was just concerned."

"It didn't bother me, but thanks for asking."

Her smile warmed a little. "I'm sorry I pulled away just now."

"I understand, Nerys." He took a step towards her. "Perhaps when you get back-"

"Last call for Bajoran shuttle twenty-one. All passengers report immediately to Docking Bay Number Six."

"Sorry, Odo," she called over her shoulder. "Have to run. She disappeared through the exit before he could finish.

Odo mimicked a human sigh. His race didn't breathe so it was only a gesture, but one that somehow gave solace. He'd been doing it a lot the last week. He sighed again and turned back to Quark's.

The men were talking. Odo looked left and right. No one could see. He aimed his head directly at Quark and McDermot. His right ear stretched outward, transforming into a funnel. The high-pitched clinks of glass against glass and the low rumble of voices swelled. He could pick up the mumble of Quark and McDermot's voices but background noise from the bar drowned out any details.

McDermot handed something to Quark. Odo returned his ear to its normal shape and concentrated on his eyes. The pupils contracted to pinpoints as the irises darkened from brown to black; the men seemed to rush toward him. Quark's head ballooned, making Odo chuckle. The Ferengi's broad lumpy forehead reminded him of an abused anvil.

He lowered his gaze. The object in Quark's hand was a personal access display device. Quark pressed the read control. Odo watched the Ferengi's feral eyes follow the scrolling text. The Ferengi’s finger stayed on the advance button. Odo knew Quark was a quick study but even he couldn't read solid text that fast. It had to be a list.

Odo turned away, his eyes distant. He'd figured out McDermot had ordered enormous quantities of supplies before he'd arrived because they had started arriving within hours of his appearance, then why did he need Quark?

He looked back and went rigid. Quark was on his feet steadying himself with one hand on the back of a chair while clutching the PADD like it had gotten too heavy to hold, as if it had turned to lead...or latinum. Sudden perspiration dripped off the Ferengi's forehead. His thin body shook.

Quark dropped the PADD on the table and started shaking his head. McDermot calmly reached into a satchel resting on the floor and pulled out a golden slab. He placed it on the table. Then placed a second on top of it, a third, and finally a fourth. Quark froze. Odo watched a drop of saliva form at the corner of the Ferengi's thin mouth and wished he hadn't enhanced his eyesight.

Quark lovingly placed a hand on the plates.

McDermot held out his right hand and Quark shook it without taking his eyes off the stack. McDermot clapped his hands together as he stood, slapped Quark on the shoulder, picked up his satchel, and strolled out of the bar wearing his signature smile. The Constable watched until the man turned out of sight. He noticed the satchel hung heavily from McDermot's arm and wondered how much wealth it still contained.

Loud, angry voices from the front of the bar drew Odo's attention. A crowd had jammed the exit in a rush to get out. Inside, Quark was madly waving his hands overhead to hurry them on. Odo frowned. Closing the bar so early would lose Quark all the getting-off-from-work trade, the most profitable time. Quark slammed the doors so fast they hit the fish-faced Morn in the back, then returned to the table he'd shared with McDermot and transferred the metallic plates to the end of the bar next to the pay-for-use communicators. Odo watched him sit with his left hand on top of the plates, McDermot's PADD in front of him, and his right hand on a communicator link, the one with a scrambler.

Like Quark, Odo knew that office calls could be traced. Calls from the public communicator couldn't, or at least the caller could more easily deny making them. Odo doubted the Ferengi would take such precautions to order extra towels for McDermot's guests on the Aeneid.

 He observed the Ferengi another half-hour before giving up. Quark dialed number after number, spoke a few words each time, then dialed again. After each call he'd tap the scroll key on the PADD. Odo pursed his lips. "If Quark's placing orders, he's doing it too fast to be bargaining. Strange."

Before leaving Odo focused on the plates. He picked up printing along the edge of one of them.

Fed.Std.Plt:Lat.-100pt.

Gold-pressed latinum plate: One hundred points pure, the best. Each plate was valued at one hundred bars. Odo doubted Quark had ever seen latinum plates before. There lay four of them, more wealth than Quark had earned in all the years he'd managed the bar. The moment Odo asked himself what the Ferengi would be willing to do for that much money, the answer came to him.

Anything.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

QUARK STRIKES A DEAL

 

Quark had begun the morning of McDermot's visit like any other. He arrived early to recount the previous day's profit, inspected the premises, inventoried supplies, and finally settled down to read a few pages of The Ferengi Guide to Acquisition.

"Studying, brother?" a breathy voice asked.

Quark heaved an impatient sigh without lifting his eyes from the gold-bound text. "You know I always start the day like this and don't appreciate interruptions. You're late, Rom."

"Uh...how would you know? You didn't even look at your watch."

"You're always late. The replicator's not right. Fix it."

Rom's thin lips formed a petulant frown. "You shouldn't order me around like I still work here. I'm a Starfleet employee now." His frown turned into a tooth-filled grin as he pointed to a silver pip on his collar. "Engineering technician, grade three!" He held his head proudly, but a weak chin spoiled the effect.

"So, you finally got that promotion. Good for you. Now fix the replicator."

"But-"

Quark snapped the book closed. "But nothing. You may work for Starfleet but my station fees pay your salary. As far as I can tell, the only thing that's changed is that you've added a middleman between us. That's bad business."

Rom squinted in thought. "Rule of Acquisition one hundred and seventy-six: Cut out the middleman whenever possible."

"Wrong. It's one hundred and sixty-seven. You always reverse the last two numbers on that one." Rom's shoulders sagged as he headed for the replicator. Quark went back to studying the book. Rom's heel-taps clacking on the floor brought Quark's eyes back up. "Wait a moment."

His brother jerked to a halt, his eyes cast down. "What?"

Quark walked toward him. "I don't know. There's something different.&ldots;" He tapped a corner of the book to his lips. His eyes suddenly widened. "You're taller!" His gaze raked down Rom and locked on his shoes. "You put lifts on your shoes."

"Uh...yup."

"Why?"

Rom grinned proudly. "Leeta and I are getting married." His expression sobered. "A man wants his wife to look up to him. I thought if I was taller-"

Quark shook his head. "She'd love you more. That's stupid, typical for you."

Rom's shoulders hung a moment, then he straightened in defiance. "You're always putting me down. If you're so smart, why is it stupid?"

"Two reasons. First, Leeta's Bajoran. That makes her eight centimeters taller than you even with the lifts; she won't notice a centimeter difference."

"Two centimeters."

 Big deal. Second, although I'll never understand why, she loves you because you are who you are. Making changes moves you away from the man she wants, not closer."

"Oh."

"Rom? The replicator?"

"Uh... right." Rom opened the unit's programming panel and began stabbing at the circuitry with a pencil-thin isolinear probe. Small sparks shot out, flashing yellow light onto his mousy face. Quark checked his watch and returned to his book.

"Brother?"

"What now?"

"I never thought of you as a religious person."

Quark leveled a sarcastic smile at his brother. "Congratulations. You finally got something right."

"Yet you start each day studying the Rules of Acquisition."

"I don't worship the Rules. I study them because they offer practical advice for making profit. That’s something anyone with lobes as small as yours should appreciate. Aren't you done yet?"

Rom stood up. "All finished."

"So soon? You must have forgotten something. What was wrong?"

"Nothing. The system's working fine and all the repli-files are just like you programmed them, with a ten percent watering-down factor for the drinks."

Quark stabbed a finger at him. "That's the problem. I want it increased to eleven percent."

Rom scratched an ear. "Uh...won't the customers notice?"

"Never happen. I'm increasing the watering-down ratio so gradually they'll adapt to the change without knowing it. Inside a year I'll be serving colored water and charging for Andorian wine."

Rom shrugged and turned back to the panel. The replicator bleeped an acknowledgment of the programming change. "Eleven percent like you asked. That all?"

"For now," Quark said without looking up.

"Here." Rom shoved a PADD under his nose.

Quark stared at it cross-eyed. "What's this?"

"My work order. You need to sign it."

He scribbled his initials with a stylus. "Things were simpler when you worked here."

Rom stuffed the PADD into his tool bag. "Right. All you had to do was yell at me. I like this better. Bye." He smiled and looked expectantly at his brother. Quark turned away.  Rom's shoulders sagged as he headed toward the exit.

Quark's voice stopped him. "Rom?"

"Yes?"

"Why don't you and Leeta come in tonight for dinner? On me."

Rom’s eyes grew round. "Really?"

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't mean it."

A glee-filled smile broke across Rom’s face. "Gee. Thanks." He bounced out of the bar.

"Good," Quark said, returning to his book. "I needed someone to test that new order of syntho-meat."

 

 

By three o'clock, twenty customers were idling away in the bar. Quark watched his employees’ hands to make sure they didn't pocket any of his profit. The clientele accepted the new watered-down percentage with only two complaints. Quark smiled at his nine-tenths of a percent profit increase but wondered if there was a way to avoid paying for the water. He was examining this problem when the most significant event in his life occurred: Wilson McDermot walked into the bar. All Hew-mons looked alike to Quark but he'd recognize Wilson McDermot anywhere. The Ferengi Trade News had plastered his image on its covers for a record five successive issues ten years earlier when he’d bested Grand Negus Zek in a business deal. McDermot's monograph defining the optimum war-to-peace ratio for Rule of Acquisition seventy-six: 'Every once and a while, declare peace,' was a bestseller on Ferenginar for three months. The Ferengi revered McDermot as one of their own.

Quark grinned and wiped suddenly sweaty palms against his pants. He ran forward.  "Rule of Acquisition one hundred and seven," he whispered to himself. "Never appear too eager."

He slowed his mad rush to a stroll while continuing to whisper guidance to himself. "Rule thirty-three: It never hurts to suck up to the boss."

A huge grin stretched across his face. "Rule forty-eight: The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife." His smile faded until only the tips of his irregular teeth showed.

McDermot stood just inside the double doors. Although Quark knew him from photographs, McDermot looked disappointingly like most Hew-mons, except for the orange hair. Quark felt his steps quicken in spite of the one hundred and seventh rule. "Mister McDermot. It's an honor to have you visit my bar and let me just say-"

McDermot thrust out his hand. "You must be Quark."

Quark shook the offered hand, surprised as thick calluses pressed deep into his palm.  He wondered if any of McDermot's business acumen would wear off on him. He hoped the calluses didn't. "Yes," he said, surprised McDermot had heard of him. "You've heard of me?"

"Heard of you! You're half the reason I’ve come all the way to Deep Space Nine. Is there a table we can talk at? I have a proposition I'd like to put to you."

Quark's heart began to pound. "Yes, of course. My office is this way."

"A public table, if you don't mind."

McDermot picked a table next to the bar's front window. As he sat, he dropped the leather satchel he carried in his left hand. It landed with a thud that rattled glasses behind the bar. Quark wondered what it held.

McDermot leaned toward him and whispered. "Never do in private what you can do in public. Peripheral noise helps block recording devices."

Quark pulled a second chair around and joined the human. The crash of shattering glass made him wince and he glared in the direction of the sound. A waitress stood petrified with the remains of three drinks at her feet. "That's coming out of your salary," he said. "The glasses and the drinks. Now clean that mess up."

She hurriedly began picking up pieces of broken glass and dabbing at the spilled liquid with a towel. He turned his attention back to McDermot. "You were saying something about a proposition?"

"You've heard about my project?"

"The Aeneid?"

"Right. I need a few odds and ends." He handed him a PADD. "Here's a list."

Quark took the PADD in trembling fingers. He touched the scroll control. A list of sundries began crawling up the screen.

 

100 antigrav beds with silk linen
600 conventional beds and bedding

 

"I know someone who can get a great price on Dopterian bedding," Quark said without looking up.

 

2000 sets of towels
100 suites of class AAA furnishings
600 rooms of servant-class furniture
8 galaxy-class warp drives
Equipment for 100 kitchens

 

"My cousin Dort supplies kitchens to the Alcorians. I think he...eight Galaxy-class warp drives!"

McDermot's face remained placid. "A problem?"

"Well...yes. I mean-"

"Too much for you?" McDermot leaned forward as if to leave.

Quark waved him back down. "No. No. No. Don't go. It's just that it caught me off guard. Warp systems that big will be a little expensive... and may take some time to get."

"You have three days."

"Impossible!"

"I'll pay one million bars of latinum for each one."

"You'll have them in two," Quark said quickly.

"They need to be balanced for parallel use."

The Ferengi smiled weakly. "Of course, how else?"

McDermot nodded at the PADD. "Read on."

More items scrolled past Quark's widening eyes. His lips moved silently.

 

200 tons of soil
800 grow lights
60 tons assorted sculpture
100 acres landscaping plants
16 class-6 tractor beam generators

 

His gaze darted up toward McDermot then back down to the screen.

 

1 Ferengi high-speed shuttle
3000 tons ablative armor
24 giga-joule deflector screens
32 one-hundred-terawatt class structural integrity field generators

 

Quark dropped the PADD on the table and shook his head. "It's too much. I can't do it." His arms flew out. "The Grand Negus himself couldn't put this deal together." He stared as McDermot bent over, pulled a slab of bright metal from his satchel, and dropped in on the table. The plate landed with a deep thunk that Quark instantly recognized as the sound only gold-pressed latinum makes. McDermot placed a second slab on top of the first. Then a third. And a fourth. Quark reverently stroked the cool, smooth surface of the top slab. A huskiness crept into his voice. "Latinum plates. Four of them. I've only seen them once, during a tour of the capital repository on Ferenginar."

McDermot nodded. "Federation certified. Think of it as earnest money. Proof that you can count on receiving your full commission." As Quark's eyes started to glaze, McDermot leaned close. "Snap out of it. There's profit to be earned."

Quark's vision cleared. He stared into the human's eyes. "You said 'commission.'"

"The usual two percent."

The Ferengi shook his head. "Four."

"Consider the size of the order, Quark. Two is more than generous for something this big and, of course, I'll authorize the accepted graft rate of five percent."

"Secondary graft earnings at one percent."

McDermot flipped a hand negligently. "Done."

"I accept." They shook hands.

"Three days, Quark. If you pull this off I'll have a second list for you. Not as long, but more profitable." McDermot stood up. "I'd appreciate it if you could avoid letting anyone know about this."

"You mean Odo."

"In any business deal, discretion is a virtue," McDermot recited.

Quark snapped his fingers. "Rule of Acquisition...." His voice faltered. "Rule?"

"Two hundred and eighty-six."

Quark's brow wrinkled. "But, there are only two hundred and eighty-five."

McDermot smiled. "For the moment. The Ferengi Board of Acquisition is reviewing my petition to have this one added." Quark's mouth dropped. McDermot held up a finger. "Oh, yes, I'll need your recommendation for a technician who can keep his mouth closed."

"I know just the person."

"Finder's fee?"

"One hundred bars."

McDermot shook his head. "Fifty."

Quark crossed his arms. "Seventy-five."

McDermot nodded once. "Done. Who is it?"

"My brother, Rom."

"Excellent. I trust Ferengis. They stay bought. Have him report to the Aeneid as soon as possible." McDermot clapped his hands together. "It always feels good to close a big deal." He slapped Quark on the shoulder and bustled away.

Quark heard the leather handle of the satchel creak with the strain of carrying what must be more latinum and shook his head. "What a Hew-mon. He should have been born a Ferengi." Quark looked at the latinum, his watch, and up at the crowd milling around the bar. Sudden determination sparked in his dark eyes. He jumped to his feet and started waving his arms overhead. "The bar is closed! Everyone leave! Now!"

The waitresses froze in shock. Leeta spoke up from behind her dabo table. "But it's only four o'clock. We'll miss the busiest part of the day."

"I don't care. Everyone has to go. You too. All of you get out. Right now! I have work to do."

"What about cleaning up?"

He herded them toward the door with outstretched arms. "Forget it."

She gave him a sideways glance. "And our wages?"

Quark balked in mid-stride, then said, "Keep them. Anything. Just leave."

They dashed for the exit before he could change his mind. The last customer was Morn, lumbering along as fast as his short legs could carry him. Quark slammed the doors shut so fast they hit him in the back with a leathery slap.

Quark about-faced and rubbed his hands together. "Now for some real profit."

He stepped towards his office and stopped. Private lines could be traced, or worse, tapped. He went for the public scramble-phone, slowing just enough to pick up the latinum plates. Once settled at the bar, he pulled a small red book from a hidden pocket in his vest and began leafing through it. "Let's see, I'll do the biggest item first: eight Galaxy-class warp systems. I wonder if my cousin Barbo is out of prison yet?" Quark activated the comm line and began sending maximum-priority messages out into space.

 

 

 

Chapter 7

LAST OF THE SHAKAAR

 

Kira felt Odo's thoughts follow her into the shuttle. His iron will wouldn't permit him to watch her departure, but she knew he'd think about her, worry about her.

She thought back to their argument about his meeting her family. They knew she cared for him, but knowing that and meeting him face-to-face was another matter. Odo had spent years working for the Cardassians during the Occupation. For most Bajorans that had branded him as a collaborator. Kira was certain her family would reject Odo and then she'd have to choose between him and them.

There were so few of her family left that this was one decision she couldn't face, not while she was uncertain about her own feelings toward him. When he’d argued that they had to face it some day, she had turned her back and walked out on him. He was right and she knew it, which only made the situation worse. She sighed and looked out her window.

Docking harnesses released the shuttle with a jolt. Kira felt small pressures push her into the soft cushions of her flight chair as the shuttle pulled away from Deep Space Nine. The inertial dampers could have absorbed all sense of motion, but most shuttle pilots set them to let a small fraction of the acceleration leak through. It gave passengers the sensation that they were moving.

The blue marble that was Bajor began its slow growth into the planet Kira should have called home but couldn't, not any more. She'd seen too many people die there during the Occupation, and had killed almost as many. As beautiful as Bajor was it couldn't blot those images from her nightmares.

Deep Space Nine was her home now. After five years on the station the claustrophobic closeness of its walls felt normal, comforting. On Bajor, on the ground, she felt exposed. Kira turned away from the window.

 

 

The inertial dampers let a carefully measured fraction of the pummeling turbulence of the shuttle's entry into Bajor's atmosphere creep into the cabin. Passengers swapped strained smiles as the shuttle's movements gently bounced them in their seats. Five minutes later the craft nestled itself into a landing cradle at the Tahna Los Memorial Spaceport.

 

 

"Need a hand, ma'am?" a male voice asked.

Kira looked from the young flight attendant to the baggage piled at her feet. She grabbed a satchel by its strap and hefted it to a shoulder. A jerk from her left hand sent a tightly packed duffel sailing up onto the opposite side. She bent easily at the knees and taking a flight case in her right hand, stood up.

Kira stepped close to the boy. "Do I look like I need help?" He scrambled out of the way as she headed toward the air taxi parking zone. Ma'am! He called me ma'am!

She threw herself into the bright purple cabin of a waiting taxi. "Galo Sector, Dakhur, settlement seventeen."

The middle-aged driver shifted in his seat to glare at her. "That's country."

"So?"

He shrugged. "It'll be extra."

"You worry about the flying, I'll worry about the bill."

He studied her face a moment. His expression abruptly softened and he nodded respectfully. "Whatever you say, ma'am."

Her eyes narrowed as she studied her image in the passenger mirror. She didn't notice anything different. What's going on down here?

"Ma'am? Do you-"

"And cut the ma'am stuff. If you need a label, try Major, or don't you recognize the uniform?"

"Oh, yes, ma'a- Major."

The cab tore out of the port and headed north toward what remained of her family's home, on her home world, where she didn't feel at home. They joined the flow of traffic streaming out of the city. The purple of their cab mingled with the purple of other cabs, blue boxes of airbuses, and a multicolored blur of private vehicles. The city slipped away below them.

A lacework of gracefully curving roads broke the city into irregular blocks filled with white buildings. Dots of emerald green marked the location of each block's park. Kira squinted at several of the parks but gave up trying to spot the little sanctuaries hidden somewhere within each one. Bajorans enjoyed combining their noon meal with prayers in these sanctuaries. Constant attachment to their religion had sustained her people throughout the Occupation. She warmed with the memory of hours spent in her family's private sanctuary. Her smile faded. Kira's faith hadn't been the only thing to give her the strength to fight the Cardassians. There had also been hatred.

Offices and apartments gave way to individual houses. She watched the lots around the homes expand into farms as the taxi made its way further into the countryside. Traffic thinned to a trickle. Forests began to crowd the farms.

The kilometer-wide band of tem trees that marked the boundary of the Kira family's home settlement flashed beneath her. The cab nosed down toward a cluster of white-roofed houses surrounded by cultivated fields on three sides and a forest on the fourth.

"That's it," she said. The roof with six red circles."

"Six? That's the most-"

"Just land."

The cab arrowed down and landed in front of the house. Before she finished getting out, the driver bolted from his seat and grabbed her luggage. He carried it gingerly to the porch. "No thanks, Major," he said as she held out the fare.

"What? Why?"

"I've never made a delivery to a house with six memorials. Your family's paid enough."

Kira thrust the money into his hands. "That was a long time ago. It's all over now and best forgotten."

"Whatever you say, Major." He stepped wide around her and returned to his cab.

She looked down and scuffed her right shoe against the porch's planking. Dry splinters rubbed free. She squinted at the sides of the house. Even under the protection of the porch's roof she could see thin cracks like spider webs spreading across the white plaster. Out in the open, leaves clogged wider fissures.

The first provisional council after the occupation had upheld her family's claim to the Dakhur settlement since it had belonged to them before the Cardassians. It was theirs again but the years had taken a toll, and there weren't many of her family left to keep up repairs. One less with her living on the station.

Kira rapped on the front door. Her hand paused as she tried to understand why she felt she had to knock to enter her own house.

Jonan opened the door. "Welcome home, Nerys."

She reached up and hugged her cousin, careful not to put pressure on his left leg. The old wound had never healed properly.

"Eriss here?" she asked.

His drawn face looked down at her. "She's in the kitchen cooking the katterpod beans."

"Mom's stew?"

A dim smile failed to reach his brooding eyes. "Your favorite."

Kira broke into her first smile since leaving the station. Jonan’s brightened slightly. He led the way into the house. "You sure you wouldn't rather go lie down in your room for a while?" he asked. "It's a long trip and-"

The muscles in the back of her neck clenched. "Why? Do I look tired?"

"No. I only thought-"

She gave him a shove. "Just keep walking."

He shrugged. "Whatever you say."

They walked through the forgotten-yet-familiar passage toward the center of the building. All Bajoran farmhouses have central kitchens to allow the heat and aromas of cooking to permeate the living areas. Her parents used to live in the wing to the right of the kitchen. The younger family members crowded themselves into rooms along the entry hall and in the left-hand wing. The fourth wing, on the far side of the kitchen, held the family room and utility closets.

Kira's shoulders hung. There aren’t enough of us left to crowd each other anymore.

They stepped into the kitchen, where Jonan's young wife stirred a huge black pot threatening to boil over. Moist, meaty aromas enfolded Kira as she entered the room. "Always cook your katterpods slow," Kira called out to the girl.

Eriss dropped the wooden spoon and ran to embrace her. "Nerys! It's so good to have you back home."

She returned the hug with equal enthusiasm. "It's good to be back...to see you. But what's this?" Kira placed her hand on a slight bulge in the girl's stomach.

Eriss’ face glowed. "A new Kira!"

"A what?" Kira threw an accusing look at her cousin. "Oh, Jonan. You should have told me."

"Eriss wanted to surprise you. We were going to invite you for the blessing next week but after you called to say you were coming, she talked me into waiting." He slid a hand around his wife's waist. The smile crept up into his eyes, a little.

"Blessings to you," Kira intoned. "To all three of you."

"Thanks," Eriss said.

"But," Kira said, looking past her. "Baby or no baby, if someone doesn't stir those pods the stew's going to burn."

"Oh, my!" Eriss said and broke away from Jonan's embrace. She grabbed up the wooden spoon and stirred madly, beating the bubbling froth down before it could boil over. "The whole family's coming to dinner, " Eriss said. "Everyone wants to see you."

Kira pulled a chair around and sat. "Everyone?"

Jonan’s voice soured. "Everyone who's left."

Kira's lips tightened. "The war's over, Jonan. Put it behind you. Speaking of which, when are you going to remove the memorials from the roof? We've mourned long enough."

His eyes turned cold. "How long is that, Nerys? How long for Mom and Dad and everyone else who died? Do you remember my little sister Kisa?"

"Of course I do-"

"Do you remember what those damn Cardassians did to her? Did you see it?"

She took a deep breath. "No. I was away when it happened. You know that. I wish-"

He trembled. "You wish what? That you'd been here? So do I. I wish you and all your Shakaar friends had been here. Maybe they could have done something to save her, or at least broken me loose from where they'd tied me and forced me to watch."

He shook from the tension in his knotted muscles. Eriss came over and laid a calming hand on his shoulder. "We need more wood, Jonan. Go bring some in. Okay?" He shifted his gaze to her, nodded, and shuffled toward the door. Eriss returned to the stew.

"How often does he get like that?" Kira asked.

"Not as much as before. He spent a month in Vedek Darr's monastery last spring. It helped a lot."

"It's been ten years. Why isn't time healing him?"

Eriss looked thoughtfully at the door Jonan had exited. "Guilt, I think."

"Guilt? He was tied up when Kisa was-" Kira shook off the memory. "He couldn't have done anything to save her."

"The memory sets him off. He feels guilty about the way the Prophets treated him, letting the Cardassians force him to work the farm to support them while you got free to fight in the resistance."

"It wasn't his fault."

"He knows that. It's just that knowing it doesn't help." A bell over the oven tinged. "That's the bread for the stew. This pot has me trapped, could you...?"

"Sure." Kira walked over and bent to open the heavy oven door. Heat rolled out over her face and shoulders. Using a towel, she pulled out a baking sheet crowded with golden-brown domes from the oven. The steamy sweetness of the bread's aroma took her back to a time before the Occupation, when her mother had made the same meal for the family. She smiled, then sighed. That was a lifetime ago. She cut the bottoms off the hemispheres of bread then used her fingers to scoop out the insides to form bowls for the stew. "Eriss?"

"Yes?"

"I'm almost done here. Do you need help with the greens?"

The young girl shook her head. "Did them ahead. Just have to drop them in boiling water for a few minutes."

"I'll set the table."

Eriss turned down the flame under the kettle. "I'll get it. You go to your room and rest. You've had a long day."

Kira slapped the counter with her hand. "Long day! What is this? Everyone at the spaceport called me ma'am like I'm some old woman and now here you are rushing me off for a nap. What's going on?"

Surprise flashed in the girl’s face. "You haven't noticed? It's your sixth node. We've all been expecting it."

"What are you talking about?" Kira's eyes widened with sudden insight. "My sixth...excuse me." She ran to her room.

 

 

Kira stood with her back against the closed door. The mirror over her dresser was angled so she couldn't see her reflection. She stared at its frame. Go on. Face it.

She marched to the mirror and leaned close. Her gaze worked its way up to the characteristic folds of skin between her eyebrows that marked her species. All Bajoran women were born with four folds or nodes covering the bridge of their noses. At puberty they got their fifth. A sixth appeared as they entered the middle period of their lives. It marked them as fully mature women and deserving the respect due an honored adult.

She counted her nodes. One, two – she’d always thought that one was a little off center -- three, four, five... six.

She stared into her eyes. They glared back, round with realization. Mature Bajoran women were expected to be married, to have had children, and to have started adding to the prestige of the family's name in the community. She could claim none of those accomplishments. She'd lost more than her youth to the Occupation, more than her innocence. Kira Nerys had missed her life.

Footsteps outside sounded on the porch. Knockings and door-slammings announced the arrival of the rest of the family. Kira moved to dry her tears. There weren't any. The Cardassians had burned them out of her. She mocked the new node with a brittle laugh. "What's an extra fold of skin after all I've been through?" Squaring her shoulders, she turned and marched out to face what remained of her family.

 

 

The chill of the cave's walls bit through Kira's uniform. It had always been cold back when it sheltered the Shakaar resistance group from the Cardassians. They hadn't minded. Better to feel the cold of the cave than the heat of a Cardassian disrupter. She rubbed her hands on her arms to pump warmth into them and wished she were back at last night's dinner.

Everyone who'd survived the Occupation had come. They ate enormous quantities of katterpod stew, gave Eriss their blessings, and congratulated Kira on her new level of adulthood. That had grated at first, but being the center of so much attention eventually won her over. Her smile tightened. Still... six nodes.

Kira's foot caught on something soft. The flashlight strapped to her wrist illuminated the corner of an old mattress. She swung her arm back and forth so the yellow beam cut left and right through the dank air. Empty cans of tammer root ale lay on both sides of the mattress. The center for Shakaar operations had been reduced to a loving-spot for teenagers. Kira sighed and wandered deeper into the cave.

Other than a few rusted ration cans, the cave gave no indication of ever being the home for fifty Shakaar warriors. Fifty. Now she wasn’t sure if there half a dozen left.

The Cardassians had killed most of the Shakaar. Many of the rest had succumbed to old age or illness once peace came to Bajor. Kira had been the youngest by a decade when she entered the group at twelve. She had adored all those handsome young men with their phaser rifles. They'd fallen like grain before a combine. Only the older men, the cautious ones, lasted very long...and not many of them.

She smiled at the memory of Har'at Tan. He had been a young cook when the Cardassians conquered Bajor and in spite of the Occupation he'd refused to leave his restaurant. He studied their foods and cooked for them because all he'd ever wanted to do was be a chef. Everyone thought Tan was a coward, or worse, a collaborator. One day two Cardassians attacked him in his kitchen. He rolled himself into a ball and let them kick him almost senseless. Then one of the Cardassians made the mistake of throwing one of Tan's prized fry pans across the kitchen. Tan had jumped up and slashed the Cardassian's throat with a serrated bread knife before the pan quit rattling on the floor. The other Cardassian lost a hand to a four-pound cleaver before howling his way out of the kitchen. Tan left to cook for the resistance taking all his beloved tools with him, including the bread knife and cleaver. "No sense discarding good blades just because of a little Cardassian blood," he used to say.

Kira spotted a charred spot on the roof of a small alcove, smoke-marks from one of Tan's cook fires, and shook her head at the memory of old Tan. The odd thing was that Tan really had been a coward. He’d never dodged a raiding party but he always crawled the closest to the ground and found the best places to hide. Most important of all, he knew how to steal up on an enemy without making a sound. She had learned a lot about the value of discretion in battle from Tan, enough to save her life a dozen times.

"Never could make a decent stew over those open fires," an ancient voice croaked at her from behind.

Kira whirled around, dropping low from battle-honed instinct. "Tan!"

An old bent man stood in front of her, clicking his tongue. "Is that what I taught you? To let yourself get surprised?" He pointed a gnarled finger at her waist. "And what's this? No weapon? Little girl, you disappoint me."

Kira straightened up as he lowered himself slowly onto a boulder. "Tan. I can't believe-"

"That I'm still alive?" He chuckled. "I get that a lot. It's like I always said: eat good cooking, keep your head low, and you'll last a long time."

She sat at his feet. "It's good to see you, like old times."

"No, it's not. The old times were terrible. The wounded, the death, nothing but dried herbs." He shook his head gravely. "Today's much better."

"Yes, of course. I only meant-"

His smile warmed her heart. "I know, Nerys. It's good to see you too."

She wrapped her arms around her knees and leaned closer to him. "What are you doing here?"

He nodded over his shoulder toward the cave's opening. "Bought some land near by. I can see the cave from there. Saw you go in and wondered what you were up to." He bent closer. "What are you up to?"

"Trying to get back in the mood."

"Eh?"

"I wanted to get the feel of the resistance again." She scanned the silent walls. "It didn't work. It's like we fought for nothing."

He jabbed his finger in the air. "Ah, but it wasn't, because you and I are here instead of two old Cardassians."

Kira searched his eyes. They still glistened with intelligence. "I need to contact everyone who's still alive from the Shakaar.

"Well, if it's members of the Shakaar you want, then you're almost done. There's Minu Dicton, Chak Lars, and myself. We share a house. They do a little farming and I do the cooking." His face brightened. "How can three old men help you?"

"Where is the rest of the group?"

Tan's face fell. "Other than Shakaar himself, there are no others."

"Only three?"

"That's all. And we're older than the Prophets."

Worry clouded her face. "I was hoping for more. The Emissary needs their help."

Tan rocked back. "The Emissary, eh? This sounds like something for the ruling council. Shouldn't you be talking to Shakaar, now that he’s president?"

She shrugged, "I contacted him before leaving the station and emphasized that Deep Space Nine is all that stands between Bajor and the Cardassians, Klingons, Jem'Hadar, everything. The Federation refuses to give the Emissary the fleet he needs to protect the planet so he's putting his career on the line to build one of his own. Shakaar wanted to help but the ruling factions are deadlocked as to how close they want to align Bajor with the Federation. Pledging ships to anything that looks like it’s under Federation control would be too hard for Shakaar to push through, even if it is for Bajor’s safety."

"You called Shakaar? I should have thought you would have gone and seen him in person."

She wrung her hands. "It would have been awkward. We used to be close but things have changed."

Tan’s face became grave. "You mean Odo."

Kira looked up, startled. "How did you know about that?"

"Rumors, girl. Nothing travels faster. It’s true, then?"

"Odo and I are friends. We’re still trying to work out how close." Her shoulders hung.

"It won’t be easy for you, considering what some Bajorans think of him." Tan gave her a wry smile. "Well, no matter what becomes of you and Odo, it won’t mean the end of the world. Come, let me cook you something. It'll cheer us both up."

Tan laboriously pushed himself off the boulder with hands scarred by burns from a thousand stoves. Yet, when he shook away her helping hand, she felt hard muscle through his sleeve.

He led the way back to the cave's entrance, his gait loosening as the exercise warmed his joints. By the time they reached a one-story house nestled in a copse of tendron trees, she had to stretch to keep up.

The house was an X-shaped structure. Bedrooms extended out from three of the central kitchen's walls, while a bathroom and entry hall filled the fourth leg. The kitchen was twice the size of the other rooms. She walked around the central cooking island. Her eyes swam at the diversity of glittering cooking paraphernalia crowding the room. "Tan, how could you afford this?"

He plopped himself onto a stool and beamed. "The expense? Reparations from the government, mainly. I also had a good-sized nest egg stashed away before the Occupation. In case you never noticed, Bajorans love to eat and I'm a pretty fair chef, if I say so myself. Even managed to make some money off of the Cardassians before I left to join the Resistance. Dicton and Lars kicked in quite a bit too. It added up to enough to pay for the land, the house, and all this equipment. I get to play in the kitchen and they get to eat like kings. It's a good deal all the way around. We even have a little left over for hobbies and such."

Kira smiled as she came around the island to sit by him. "Hobbies? I thought cooking was your all-consuming passion."

He looked away. "Well...of course. Yes. Cooking is my life."

He slid off the stool to straighten a skillet hanging on the wall. He kept his back to her. "I, ah, also do a little work in the garden."

"Gardening? You always hated getting your hands dirty."

He moved sideways to rearrange two potholders lying near one of the kitchen's three sinks. "One changes as one gets older."

"Tan, what are you being so sly about?"

The front door slammed. Shuffling footsteps in the entry hall announced the arrival of two men. They stormed into the kitchen. "Tan! We did it! The port power cell's-"

"Dicton! Look who's come back," Tan said quickly, cutting off the taller of the newcomers. "Kira Nerys! Remember Nerys?"

Minu Dicton jarred to a halt. Chak Lars, close on his heels, plowed into the much taller man. After a moment of shuffling around in a confusion of flailing arms, they gaped at her.

Tan herded them toward two stools by the kitchen island. "That's right. It's Nerys. Major Kira now. Surprised to see her, aren't you? I was. How 'bout some tea. No -- let's have spring wine all around." Tan prattled on as he busied himself at a cupboard.

Kira's eyebrows raised as she turned to the newcomers. "So, Dicton, Lars. What have you boys been up to? Gardening?"

The men looked at each other blankly, then at Tan as he served the drinks. He bobbed his head vigorously. "That's right. Gardening. Can't get enough of it, can you, guys?"

Dicton brushed dusty fingers through bristly gray hair. "Right. Gardening. We were out in the field planting-" Kira caught Lars' quick shuffle in his seat.

Dicton noticed it too. "Ah...I mean preparing the field for planting." He paused. No one moved so he rushed on. "Takes a lot of work. Some years we spend so much time preparing the field we don't have time to plant a crop." Lars and Tan turned their faces away. Dicton twitched his eyes back and forth at them, desperate for support.

Kira rolled her glass between her hands, pretending to savor the wine's sweet aroma. "So, you were preparing the field."

"Right," Dicton said. "For planting."

"With a power cell."

"Yes. I mean, no. Of course not." Tan picked up his drink and walked over to the counter furthest from Dicton, who plunged ahead. "The, ah...power cell was on, ah, the tractor. That's it. The tractor." The man smiled at his victory.

Kira nodded. "Tractor."

"Uh-huh."

"With a power cell."

"Right." His smile threatened to split his head in two.

She skewered him with a hard stare. "On its port side? Since when did farm implements earn nautical status?" Dicton's smile crashed. Lars walked away to occupy the spot second furthest from trapped man. Kira eyed all three of them. "Come on. What are you boys up to?"

Dicton opened his mouth but Tan cut in before he could do any more damage. "Nerys, we're old men who like to play at mysteries." He spread his hands wide. "After all, how dangerous could the three of us be?"

They beamed toothy grins at her like demented elves.

Kira gave them a sideways glance. "I still want to know-"

"What's for dinner?" Tan finished for her. "Char meat with tendron leaves. Twenty-five latinum slips a serving in the city. You'll get it for a smile...and setting the table. You two dirt-grubbers, go clean up. You've half an hour."

 

 

Kira wiped the last of the dinner dishes dry and placed them in the cupboard. Dicton and Lars had retreated to the safety of rocking chairs on the porch. Tan let the wash water gurgle out of the sink and heaved himself onto a stool. She hung the damp towel on a stove handle and joined him. Tan regarded her. "About your Captain Sisko, do you think he can be trusted? A personal attack fleet's a lot of power. He might be tempted-"

She shook her head with conviction. "Never. He's the Emissary and Bajor's his adopted home. He would die protecting it. But he needs help."

"How about the Kai? She has enormous influence."

"Kai Winn?" Nerys tasted bile. "That scheming, murdering-"

He nodded. "You're right. We're lucky to have her."

"What!"

"Nerys, who would you have wanted as Kai? Vedek Bareil?"

She stuck out her chin. "He was a true believer in the Prophets. An honest man. He-"

Tan shook his head. "Wouldn't have lasted ten minutes."

"How can you say that?"

Tan's eyes softened. "Because it's true. We're in dangerous times, Nerys, more dangerous than the Occupation. Then everything was black-and-white. We knew who the enemy was and what he wanted."

"To strip-mine Bajor and kill all of us in the process."

"Exactly. Now our enemies change their identities and motives every day. They offer us salvations for today’s problems that sometime in the future may cost us as dearly as the Cardassians. Vedek Bareil was a gentle man. A good man. And the worst man possible for the job. Kai Winn was just what we needed. She's as devious as the worst of our new enemies and in her own way she's done as much to protect Bajor as your Captain Sisko."  A satiric smile played across his lips. "I think we should send her on a tour of the quadrant. Once the galaxy gets a better idea of what she's capable of, the terror of attracting her attention would protect Bajor for a millennium."

Kira smiled. "You may have a point."

His face darkened. "Still, I'm surprised the Council of Ministers didn't side with the Emissary. It would give them a way to influence him since he'd be dependent on their good will."

"Yes, but it would commit them to the Federation. For now I think they prefer to straddle fences; it provides more freedom of options."

"But that doesn't help our Captain Sisko."

"Our? I thought he was my Captain."

Tan hopped off the stool. "As to that... Boys!" he yelled out the door. "It's time we tell Nerys the truth about our little hobby."

 

 

A cool breeze driven up the valley by the last rays of the setting sun ruffled Kira's hair. She had little time to notice. Melon-sized dirt clods covering the field adjacent to Tan's cottage made footing treacherous.

Lars led the way. Fifty feet into the field he stooped to study the ground. Kira noticed that no previous footprints ventured beyond this point. "This is the spot," he said. Tan threw a shovel at her. "Dig."

"Dig what?" she asked.

"Down."

The three men knelt in what she considered very unchivalrous attitudes while she did the heavy work. She jabbed the shovel's blade into the soil. It cut down a dozen centimeters and jammed against something hard. She jerked the shovel's blade out of the dirt. Great. A rock.

Kira sidestepped a foot and tried again. Another rock. She took two steps back. Same results. The men were almost strangling on their laughter.

She threw the shovel at Tan's feet. "All right then, let's see you do better."

He tossed the shovel to Lars. "Show her how it's done, shorty."

Lars walked over to Kira's first position. He slipped the blade in at low angle and slid it over the underlying rock until it caught on a projection. His hand dug around in the dirt near the shovel's point. "Ah," he exclaimed, and tugged on something. Kira heard a metallic click. He leaned down on the shovel's handle to pry the blade upward.

"Not that way!" Dicton cried. Too late.  A metal square hinged up, spilling dirt into a dark opening. Dicton moaned.

Lars lay flat and reached in with his left arm. Nerys heard a second click, sharper this time. Red lights came on, sending a dim glow up into the growing darkness. She shuffled forward to peer into the hole. More dirt fell through the opening.

Dicton groaned. "You know who'll have to sweep that up."

Kira's eyes adjusted to the dim light. A vertical ladder descended into a room filled with glowing control panels. She raised her head and stared at Tan. His face shone redly from the light welling up out of the opening. A broad grin spread across his features. "What do you think, Nerys? Will your captain will be interested in our little hobby?"

 

 

 

Chapter 8

BAJOR VIII

 

"You want what?" President Batur yelled.

Samantha Skarn held up both hands in a placating gesture. "Sir, I know a spacecraft is a lot to ask-"

Bajor VIII's leader crossed his arms over his barrel chest. "Oh, so you think you understand what you're asking. Follow me and I'll give you some perspective on what your request means on a colonial world."

Skarn chased after Batur Lux as he stormed out of the small presidential office and up a flight of stairs to a rooftop-landing pad. On the roof, Bajor VIII's frigid wind whipped Batur's shoulder-length brown hair around his hard, flat face. She shivered and dashed for the waiting car.

The vehicle was a three-year-old black commuter air-coupe. On Bajor it would have looked at home in an average family's garage. Here, it ranked as the President's limousine. "Spaceport," Batur barked at the chauffeur.

The car flashed off the roof of the small presidential headquarters. Samantha looked out at the grounds enclosing Bajor VIII's government buildings. Tree limbs long overdue pruning drooped low over patchy brown grass.

Batur caught her stare. "Not very impressive, is it, Lieutenant?"

"No, I was just-"

"It's okay. We've had to get used to the scruffy look." He gazed out over his capital. "When your total population is only two hundred thousand you learn to accept hard priorities. Mowing a lawn doesn't rate very high."

"Two hundred thousand? I thought Bajor Eight had three times that many."

Batur ground his teeth. "It did when the Cardassians were here. They established the colonies to mine the planet and its moons. When we kicked them out most of the workers returned home to Bajor. Can't say as I blame them but it's made it difficult for those who stayed." He nodded at the cold expanse flashing by below them. "Take a good look, Lieutenant. And this is the equator in the middle of summer. Would you want to live here?"

"Why did you choose to remain?"

He scanned the horizon as if he were looking at someone who was both his best friend and worst enemy. "Bajor Eight may be slow hell but it's still home to many of us. I tried to leave. Three times. Always came back."

The car dipped sharply toward a long expanse of worn concrete.  The President's lips twisted in a sneer. "Our spaceport. The clump of buildings on the right is Ops. Its entire staff consists of three technicians on rotating shifts." He nodded toward three wedge-shaped objects on the far side of the buildings. "That's our vast armada of warships, one of which you want to take away."

Skarn squinted past the rapidly growing buildings. All she saw were two planetary shuttles and a ship slightly smaller than a runabout. "Where are the rest of the ships?"

"That's it, Lieutenant. Our entire fleet." The car glided to a stop in front of the spacecraft. The President got out and braced his bulk against a howling wind. "You're lucky," he shouted. "All three are here. Usually-"

A high-pitched siren cut him off. Two men in arctic clothing burst from the building closest to the ships and jumped into the nearest shuttle. Ten seconds later it tore off toward the south.

His gaze followed the rapidly shrinking craft. "Must be heading for Dealus colony. They mine three of the metals needed to manufacture the duranium alloy Starfleet uses. They're our top money makers these days."

Skarn wrapped her arms tightly around herself. "Why is the shuttle going there in such a hurry?"

President Batur turned on her. "Because in addition to being military craft, these ships also support the planetary police, emergency response agency, and serve as long-range ambulances." His face lost all expression as he turned south again. The shuttle had already disappeared. "I hope it wasn't another cave-in. Last month's killed thirteen people."

Skarn fought to control her shaking as the cold ate into her limbs. Batur turned back to say something, but stopped when he saw her shivering. His expression softened. "You're freezing out here. Let's get inside." He led her through the same door the men had exited. Skarn's muscles relaxed gratefully as the building's warm air flowed over her.

"Here." He tossed her one of half a dozen heavily furred parkas hanging by the door. "They keep extras around in case someone gets caught by a cold snap."

"Thanks." She draped the coat over her shoulders and looked around the room. It was empty except for three tattered chairs along the far wall.

"This is one of three reception rooms for incoming flights," Batur said. "The port used to be a twenty-four-hour-a-day mad house." He took a few steps across the floor. His footfalls echoed off bare walls. "Now it's deserted like everything else."

"Surely there's still some shipping that goes on."

"Our total output is too low for a centralized system to be effective, so each of the six colonies ship directly from their own facilities. Put your jacket on. Let me give you a tour of the fleet." They walked outside to the remaining two ships.

Batur stopped beside the closest craft. "This shuttle's the same as the one that just left: E class, impulse only, no warp capability. She's twenty-three years old and has no weapons system. Her exhaust nozzles need reboring, the deflector coils are shot, and she leaks air in space. We only use her for planetary work. The one that flew south isn't much better." They walked to the larger craft.

His expression soured. "This is the pride of our force. It's a Cardassian A-class shuttle. A good craft for its period." He placed his hand on the pitted surface of the ship's nose. "The only problem is, that period was half-a-century ago. Now she needs a complete overhaul. On a good day she'll make warp two-point-three. On a bad day she can't lift herself off the deck." He leaned against the ship. "You know something, Lieutenant? It's ironic you came here to ask me for a ship because I was about to request that Deep Space Nine loan us one."

Skarn returned his hard stare with as much openness as she could. "Captain Sisko has no idea things are so bad here. If he had one to spare-"

Batur looked away. "I've heard that song from Bajor often enough to recognize how it starts. Save your breath."

She turned around slowly, taking in the two craft, the silent buildings, and the barren openness of the field. It stretched two kilometers left and right. A quarter kilometer away, on the opposite side of the tarmac, she spotted several irregular piles of debris. "Mister President, what are those?"

"Eh?" He squinted in the direction of her stare. "That? I'm not sure...no, wait. That's the bone yard." She blinked at him. "Bone yard," he repeated. "Junk yard. That's where we dump all the ships that can't be repaired."

She stared across the field at the abandoned wrecks. "Mind if I take a look?"

Batur laughed. "Help yourself. If you find anything you can use, it's yours. But," he stepped close. "Take a flamer. You'll need it for the rats."

"Thanks for the warning. Could you take me back to the capital? I'll need the equipment in my shuttle."

The President's eyes widened. "Lieutenant Skarn, I was kidding. There's nothing there. Nothing! Some of those wrecks have been collecting dust for a quarter century. Our technicians don't even search there for spare parts any more."

"So I won't disturb anyone if I set up camp next to the dump."

Batur held out his arms wide a moment, then let them drop to his sides. "If that's what you want, be my guest."

"Thank, you. I'll do that."

The President stomped off toward his car. Skarn smiled to herself. With a scrap yard of forgotten ships for raw material and a little imagination, she was certain she could come up with something for the fleet.

 

 

Skarn flew low over the bone yard. The gutted hulks of a hundred ships littered the kilometer-square area in the random pattern typical for dump-and-forget sites like this. Each wreck looked like an elongated mound of rubble with sides that sloped gradually to the ground. A maze of vague trails wound among the lost ships. She landed on the side farthest from the landing field where the wrecks looked the least disturbed. If there was anything of value, it would be there.

She donned a thernal suit, dialed the heating control halfway to maximum and stuck a foot out of the shuttle's hatch. She stopped in mid-step, pulled her leg back, and sat down at a control panel. She activated the lifeform sensor. Countless tiny green points of light flashed onto the gray screen above the panel. A wry smile touched her lips. "He wasn't kidding about the rats." She tapped the actuator to an ultrasonic repeller and the green dots began a radial migration away from the shuttle's position. She nodded and left the shuttle.

Bajor VIII's chill wind nipped her nose but the heaters kept the rest of her comfortable. She strode into the graveyard of ships.

Large and small, military and civilian, discarded wrecks of every shape and size spread out in front of her. Dead leaves crunched underfoot as she wandered along the paths between the derelicts, studying each broken ship. She paused by a stack of elliptical cylinders. In spite of the debris blown up against their sides she could still make out the white surfaces of early-model Starfleet escape pods. She wondered how so many could have ended up on here.

She peered inside the thick portal of one of them. Empty.  She touched the pod's cold, hard surface; a nervous shiver ran up her arm.

Skarn stared at the pod a moment before moving on. To the right of the path, the low wide shell of an Aldorian freighter crouched in a nest of brown leaves, its neutronium hull defying everything the galaxy could throw at it except obsolescence. A neat row of three Bajoran shuttles hid in its shadow. A quick check confirmed her suspicions; they'd been gutted of all salvageable equipment.

On her left a Thorian transport huddled close to a tiny runabout. Straight ahead the looming hulk of a D'Kora class Ferengi Marauder lorded over the immediate area. The marauder had taken a phaser blast dead center. Skarn ducked through the gaping wound. The command and control section was a shambles and the crew's quarters were a cavern of charred metal. Only the engineering section remained undamaged. Ferengi technology didn't easily adapt itself to Bajoran systems so little on the ship had been cannibalized. She brushed old dust off her hands and returned to the yard.

 

An hour later she gave up. The only thing that had evoked a reaction were the escape pods. She returned to the shuttle, brewed strong Tarkalian tea, poured it into her Academy mug, and relaxed. She sipped the spicy liquid slowly, careful to hold the mug in her left hand so the sharp chip out of the far side wouldn't cut her lip.

She stared at the chipped edge and smiled. During her first year at the Academy, Upperclassman Philip Jerral had tricked her into doing an astrometrics assignment for him. When he came to her room to gloat, she welcomed him by hurling the mug at his head. She'd missed, hence the chip.

Her smile faded. Jerral died a year later during a firefight with the Cardassians; his escape pod had failed. She felt a shiver crawl up her back this time.

Skarn leaned back and closed her eyes. One by one she called up the faces of everyone she'd known who had needed an escape pod. As their faces took form she imagined each of them inside one of the pods lying in the dump.

Nothing.

She snapped her chair forward in frustration. A queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach told her she was on the verge of discovering something useful, if she could just make the connection.

Skarn took a warming swig of her tea, dialed up the thermal suit again and headed back to the dump.

 

The pods lay as dead and crippled as before. She silently pleaded with the pile to give up their hidden message. They answered with silence.

Skarn tore dead brackle-weeds away from their perimeter. A broken-off section of rusty plasma conduit helped sweep away the leaves trapped against the pods. The gritty rust ground through the suit's gloves and into the palms of her hands. She threw the conduit aside and stood back to study the pods. "Earlier models than I thought. They're larger now, roomier. These are hardly bigger than-"

Realization struck like a thunderbolt. "-photon torpedoes!" Skarn spun on her heel. Directly ahead, the bulk of the Ferengi ship crouched like a bloated gnome. She raced to it. Inside, she found what she'd hoped for, storage tubes for photon torpedoes. They were empty, but it was the tubes themselves she wanted. There were a lot of them. A grim smile turned the corners of her mouth up.  She'd need all she could get.

Skarn ran outside to examine the warp nacelles. They showed surface scorching but had been far enough away from the killing blast to escape damage.

She darted back to the Aldorian freighter, scurried through it, jumped outside for another look at the escape pods and the Marauder. All the pieces were there. She headed back to her ship, eyes wide with excitement.

Inside the shuttle she programmed the replicator for dinner and settled down to a night of brainstorming. The fingers of her right hand clicked off ideas as a ship started to take shape in her imagination. "I'll use the Aldorian freighter for structure, the D'Kora's warp nacelles for drive, and the torpedo storage tubes for weapons. I'll tap Deep Space Nine's arsenal for the torpedoes. Now all I need is power, a control system, and some sensors."

The replicator dinged. She collected her meal and ate absentmindedly. From time to time she waved her fork in the air as an answer to some problem came to her. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place with the last bite of dessert.

She blinked at the empty bowl in her hand, wondering what she'd just eaten. She shrugged and tossed the dishes at the recycler. Swiveling her chair around to the communications controls, she opened a line to the station. "It may not be much of a ship to look at," she whispered to herself. "But it'll be one hell of a weapons system."

Lieutenant Terl's face appeared on the screen. She gave him a victorious smile. "I need to speak to Chief O'Brien first and then the captain. What sort of mood is Sisko in?"

Terl glanced over his shoulder toward the captain's office. "I'd say good. Why? You going to ruin it?"

"Well...maybe bruise it a little."

"Thanks a lot. Here's the chief."

 

 

Sisko's voice dropped half an octave. Skarn knew him well enough from their youth to know it meant he had serious doubts about her proposal. "I don't know, Sam."

"I talked it over with O'Brien," she pushed. "He thinks it can be done."

"How are you going to hold everything together? This has to be a ship that can take a beating and still carry on a fight."

"That's why I choose the freighter. Aldorians don't trust deflector shields so they always line the outsides of their ships with neutronium. It must be a quarter-centimeter thick. That'll take care of anything the Jem'Hadar can throw at it. There's plenty of duranium here I can use to buttress up the internal components. O'Brien says he has an extra structural integrity field generator that'll tie everything together like it was made in a Starfleet shipyard."

"Power?"

She took a deep breath. "That's the tricky part."

"I suppose what you've already told me isn't." He leaned backward. "Let me have it."

"O'Brien has-"

"Let me guess...a spare warp core?"

"Not quite. But he does have an intermix chamber that's the right size. It should integrate with what's left of the Aldorian system."

"Where does he get all this stuff?"

She grinned. "O'Brien's a pack rat, like all engineers. We shared a shift two days ago and I bullied him into admitting he's spent the last three years ordering everything he could think of from Starfleet. It's stored in a dozen unused suites in the habitat ring."

"Really. I must have him brief me on this."

"Don't, Ben. Bucking the system is half the fun. If he knows you're wise it'll ruin it for him."

"Ben?" Sisko straightened himself. "Isn't that a little informal under the circumstances?"

"Don't go military on me, Benjamin. We spent too many days playing together as kids for that, at least when we're talking privately."

"Playing? Your father hired me to baby-sit you."

She looked away toward nowhere in particular. "That's a matter of one's point of view. Anyway," she said, looking back at the screen. "You were only eight years older-"

"Nine."

"And jealous because I always beat you at Jarom-darts."

"You cheated."

Skarn shrugged. "A girl does what she must to compete with you over-muscled types." Her face went serious. "About my idea. Will you back it?"

"I'm thinking about it. There's one thing you can't escape. You're only one person and can't do all the work yourself. It would take too long."

"Not as long as you might think. The pieces of the puzzle are large but few in number. It's just a matter of moving them into place. I'll use maglevs for the light stuff. The Marauder's warp nacelles can be moved with the shuttle's tractor beam. But you're right: Help would save a lot of time. That's why I called."

"You want some technicians." Sisko leaned back. "I knew there was something you'd need." He rocked in his chair, then snapped forward. "Okay. I'll send over four techs and a second shuttle. I still don't think it'll work but I'm dying to see what your monstrosity looks like."

"Thanks. See you by next week's staff meeting."

"So soon?"

She smiled at him. "Never underestimate the determination of a senior lieutenant."

"I never have." She watched him reach out to cut the connection. "Until now."

Skarn opened her mouth but the comm link went dead before she could answer. Determination burned in her eyes. "Benjamin Sisko, I'll make you eat those words."

 

 

 

Chapter 9

WARRIOR'S PROMISE

 

Worf instinctively scanned the Defiant's interior for enemies. Satisfied, he settled himself in front of the communications console. He shifted his hard bulk but couldn't get comfortable; the chair was too soft, Human soft.

He stabbed a pad with a scarred finger. The ship's subspace transmitter reached into the emptiness of space, sought its target and locked on. The Klingon Empire's trefoil emblem flashed into view briefly before transforming itself into the control room of a Klingon Bird-of-Prey. The ship's captain glared out of the screen, his leather armor creaking as he leaned forward to see who had called.

Worf studied the hard face. Two unfamiliar scars cut across the Klingon's forehead. The wounds were superficial and old. Worf nodded to himself. Good.

"Kaa!" the snaggle-toothed Klingon yelled. "Worf, it's good to see you."

"Kaa, Mor Pak. How is the Hegh'Ta?"

He leaned back casually. "Well enough. The ship took a beating during the civil war but a month in the Qo'noS shipyards-"

"And your crew?"

Mor Pak laced rope-like fingers over his stomach. "You’re always so businesslike, Worf. You never take time for a friendly word to a fellow warrior. Sometimes I think you're part Vulcan."

Worf straightened in his chair. "This is an official call. We have serious matters to discuss."

"Too serious for you to ask an old battlemate if he's been in any good fights recently, or how his family's doing, or about old wounds?" The Klingon spread his hands. "Even a lowly Ferengi would take time to observe these simple courtesies."

Worf grumbled. "Of course." His jaw worked in thought, then his gaze locked on Mor Pak's face. "Have you had-"

"Any good fights lately? I'm sorry to say, no."

Worf's lips thinned to a straight line. "My condolences. " The jaw worked again. "How is your-"

"Family doing?" Mor Pak nodded. "Fine. Nice of you to ask."

Worf's balled right fist shook with the urge to smash the panel. His eyes narrowed. He stabbed a deadly glare at the Klingon and let his frown warm two degrees toward a smile. "Tell me, how is the wound I gave you during our last sparing match? Did it heal well?"

Mor Pak's brows knitted together. "Wound? What...oh! You must mean the scratch."

"Scratch!" Worf half-rose. "I almost broke my d'k tahg's point off in your arm."

"That's the one." Mor Pak flexed his left arm. "I'd forgotten about it."

Worf's nostrils flared. "Perhaps another bout would improve your memory."

"Thank you, but no." Mor Pak leered at him. "You'd want to use Bat'leths and yours is probably dull."

Muscles bunched under Worf's suit.

Mor Pak studied the fingernails of his right hand. "And tarnished, I imagine, probably from lack of use."

Worf sprang up, towering like a granite headstone ready to topple and crush the Klingon. "Enough! I issue the challenge...Qab jlH na-"

"Wait!" Mor Pak extended both palms toward Worf. "I was joking. I take it back...and," he scowled, "apologize."

Worf saw sincerity in the Mor Pak's expression and bit off the end of the challenge. "Accepted," he grumbled.

"You really need to work on your sense of humor, old friend."

Worf's jaw muscles flexed. "That is what everyone tells me."

"You should listen to them. How are your friends, O'Brien and your captain?"

"They are well."

Mor Pak blinked and waited.

Worf stared back.

Mor Pak heaved a deep sigh. "You're hopeless, Worf. But you're a good fighter and a loyal friend. What did you want to talk about?"

Worf forced himself into a more casual posture. "How are things in the Empire?"

The Klingon threw his hands up. "Now you want to make small talk."

"I'm serious, Mor Pak."

"What else? You want to know how things are?" He leaned so far forward it seemed his scarred face would push through into the Defiant's cabin. "I'll tell you. It's peaceful." His mouth twisted as if he'd eaten something foul.

"I am sorry to hear that."

"You're sorry." Mor Pak struck his chest. "I'm the one who's sorry. No conflicts. No enemies. My crew grows impatient. Without battle there's no chance for bravery, glory, or promotions. They tire of songs about other warrior's deeds."

"How would you like the opportunity to change that?"

A hungry glint sparkled in Mor Pak’s eyes. "What have you got?"

"Captain Sisko is assembling a fleet to defend Bajor. I invite you to join it."

The Klingon licked his lips. "Who else is in the fleet? Bajorans? Ferengi? Will there be any other Klingon ships? How many vessels is the Federation providing?"

Worf searched his friend’s eyes. "The fleet will be independent from Starfleet."

  Mor Pak's gaze turned cunning. "Interesting. How many ships does your captain have so far?"

"There is the Defiant and General Martok's ship."

Por Pak nodded. "The Rotaron. A good vessel."

"And yours would make three."

"Three?"

"Yes. Our plan is-"

"Only three ships! And we'd have to stand against the Jem'Hadar, the Cardassians and any other enemy who happens by?"

"We hope to pick up a few smaller ships from other sources."

Mor Pak pulled a dagger from his belt and tapped the flat of the blade against his temple. The blade sang clear and high. His eyes gazed upwards. "Three ships and a handful of patched-together secondaries against the entire Jem'Hadar armada."

Worf leaned closer to the screen. "We swore to let each other know of any chance at glory. That is what I offer you."

"It's hopeless."

 "It is a great opportunity for a glorious song about our deaths."

"It's likely to be a short song."

Worf’s voice rose to a proud bellow. "Long or short, it will be sung throughout the Empire." 

"It would be nice to sing it at least once ourselves before we die."

Worf shrugged. "You can't have everything."

Mor Pak slapped an armrest with his empty hand. "A joke! Maybe there's hope for you yet."

Worf’s dark brows drew together. "Joke?"

Mor Pak laughed. "Forget it." He snapped out of his slouch. With a flash of silver he drove the knife two centimeters into the plasteel arm of his chair. "I'll be there in two days."

 "Good. Qapla!"

"Qapla!"

Worf reached out to break the connection.

"By the way, Worf."

"Yes?"

Mor Pak massaged his left forearm. "You'll be glad to know that scratch you gave me does itch from time to time."

"Thank you. It is good that I have given you something to remember me by."

"If you think that, then you'll want to grant me the opportunity to return the favor."

Worf grinned wolfishly. "No. Your knife is probably dull from lack of use. It would make a sloppy wound." He cut the connection before Mor Pak's curse reached the pick up.

 

 

 

Chapter 10

RECOLLECTIONS

 

Captain Sisko activated his private subspace transmitter. He stared at the snowy screen a moment then punched the off pad. The display winked out. He stood and walked stiffly around his desk, looked out his portal at Aeneid's looming hulk, and turned away without the smile it usually evoked. He glanced at the transmitter. Looked away.

The autographed baseball on his desk found its way into his right hand. He threw it into his left hard enough to redden his palm, but didn't notice the sting. His gaze strayed back to the transmitter, moved away, was pulled back. This is ridiculous. He forced himself back into the chair, straightened his back, and keyed the transmitter back to life.

  The transmitter's screen fuzzed, then resolved into the head and shoulders of a gray-haired man in civilian garb. "This is the civilian transport Ocurra, how may we-" The man broke into a smile. "Oh, Captain Sisko. It’s good to hear from you. Want to talk to Captain Yates?"

"Hello, Franks. Yes. If she's free."

"No problem. She's down in engineering helping Pelor balance the plasma feeds."

"If she's busy...."

"Not a chance. Her standing orders are to put your calls through no matter what. Besides," the man leaned toward the screen, "she couldn't find a replacement injector at our last stop and is having the devil's own time getting the flows in sync. You'll be doing us all a favor if you can talk her into a better mood."

"I'll do my best."

"Thanks. I'm putting you through now."

The screen blanked, then lit up with an image of the small freighter's engineering room. No one was in sight but Sisko could hear the muffled rumbling of distant voices. "Captain Yates?" No one answered. "Kassidy? It's Benjamin," he yelled.

The rumbling stopped. Without warning, Kassidy's dusky features swept into view. Sisko's heart jumped. Not even the smudge of purple vacuum sealant on her chin could detract from the Egyptian elegance of her features. He wished he was there to-

"Benjamin! God, it's good to see you."

Her smile almost blinded him. "I...how are you? You look tired."

She shrugged. "We've been fighting a feed imbalance for three hours. It's cut our speed to warp two-point-seven."

"You're working them while underway?"

"Relax, Ben. The variance is within tolerances."

"Still...."

Impatience flashed across her face. "Still nothing. I run a commercial freight service. If the merchandise doesn't get delivered on schedule the penalties can wipe out our profits."

"It's just that I worry-"

Her smile returned. "I know, and I appreciate it. Really."

He nodded. "When do you make port?"

"At this rate three days. Two if we can get the feeds balanced."

"Then?" he asked hopefully.

"A side-trip to Andor to pick up a shipment of wine for Quark. With any luck I should be asking for docking clearance at Deep Space Nine in ten days."

"I'll look forward to it." He rubbed his palms together and looked away.

"What is it, Ben?"

"I need to ask you something."

Kassidy's expression turned playful. "Is it the kind of question a girl should worry about?"

"It's about the Maquis."

Her humor fled. "Oh."

"Look, I don't want to start our fight again."

"What fight? You think the Federation was justified in sacrificing colonists on twenty planets to buy peace from the Cardassians. I think the Maquis were justified in fighting the Cardassians when they came to obliterate those colonies. It's a simple case of differing opinions."

"If only you hadn't-"

"Don't, Ben. I suggled supplies to the Maquis because I believed the Federation was wrong to turn its back on them."

Sisko's hands balled into fists. "The Federation has to consider everyone's interests. Sometimes individuals have to pay a high price for the safety of others."

"That sounds good until you witness the consequences. Half my shipments were supply runs to the colonists after the Federation sacrificed them to the Cardassians. I saw things-"

"That's the second time you've used the word sacrificed. Isn't it a little strong for the circumstances?"

The color drained from her lips. "Not strong enough, if you ask me. Do you know how many colonists the Federation bargained away in the Cardassian treaty."

"Not exactly."

"Try two million. Guess how many are left from those settlements? Settlements the Federation originally encouraged them to start. Less than ten thousand. Cardassians murdered half of them outright and picked off the rest as sport. The Federation imprisoned the few that the Cardassians didn't kill and I ended up spending six months in a detention facility because I helped the Maquis...and I'd do it again if I had to."

A tolerant tone edged into Sisko’s voice. "I know it's hard to accept the big picture-"

Anger flashed in her eyes. "Oh, I see the big picture all right. I wonder if you do."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"That the Federation's shifted its priorities from representing its citizens to preserving its own existence. The decision-makers sacrifice colonies or wage war not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's expedient."

"I can't believe that."

"You mean you won't. You studied the first Klingon-Federation conflict in the Academy, right?"

"Of course."

"How many colonists were on Vestas IV?"

"Three hundred."

"And when the Klingons attacked the Federation launched a counter-assault that started the Klingon war. Back then the Federation went to whatever lengths needed to defend the rights of even the smallest colony. Now it offers up millions to avoid a fight. And you tell me nothing's changed."

He pulled away from the screen. "The circumstances were different."

She leaned back. "They always are. Ben, you keep refusing to accept what's in front of your eyes. Answer me this. If the Federation was willing to give up twenty colonies and two million of its citizens, how long would it hesitate to turn its back on Deep Space Nine like it's doing with Belug Four?"

"Belug...how'd you find out about that?"

"The Cardassians and Jem'Hadar can't wipe out two thousand colonists without word of it spreading."

"Two thousand? I thought it was only a few hundred."

"Only a few hundred!" She shook her head. "You've really bought the party line, haven't you?"

"No, of course not. It was an unfortunate choice of words. I'm sorry. It's just that the number surprised me. Admiral Jorgenson told me the massacre wasn't-"

"Massacre?" She raised both eyebrows. "Isn't that word a little strong?"

He pursed his lips. "Perhaps not. In any event, Starfleet will never relinquish Deep Space Nine."

"Don't be so sure. To you it's home, but to the Federation your station's just another piece of hardware. The colonists lost their homes. You could just as easily lose yours."

Sisko shifted uneasily in his chair. Kassidy's arguments were too much in line with Starfleet's refusal to provide the station with its own defense fleet to be ignored. "Like I said, I didn't call to renew an old argument."

"So, what did you call for?"

"Remember Nog?"

"Of course. How's he doing at the Academy?"

Sisko smiled, relieved to change the subject. "Good. He’s here on temporary duty. I want to send him out on a mission and think a shipwreck survey would be ideal. You're more familiar with ship activity in the area frequented by the Maquis than anyone I know. There should be a lot of wrecks there, so I thought you'd be able to recommend something interesting."

Her forehead wrinkled. "Surely Starfleet records-"

He shook his head. "Nothing like what I want."

"Something interesting?"

He nodded. "Right."

"Salvageable?"

A note of unease crept into his voice. "What would I do with a ship?"

Her eyes narrowed at his expression. "For one thing, what about your idea for a fleet?"

He stiffened. "Where'd you get the idea I planned to build a fleet?"

"You've complained to me often enough about Starfleet's refusal to give you one that I assumed you'd do something about it eventually." Her look turned concerned. "Are you?"

He tried to sound nonchalant. "Jorgenson's ordered me to drop it."

"Will you obey him?"

He fought to keep a sneer out of his expression. "You know my opinion of the man. What do you think?"

"Ben, why are you being so cagey? Afraid someone's listening in?" Sisko raised an eyebrow. She frowned. "I see."

"So. Can you suggest anything?"

"There's a Dopterian freighter," she began slowly, "that crashed on Pantar Two's smaller moon."

"That's inside Cardassian space."

She shrugged. "In the gray zone. It's too far away for either the Cardassians or Starfleet to worry about. And you did say this was just a survey mission."

"Actually, I was hoping for something a little more exciting for Nog -- like a crashed warship." Sisko raised his brows expectantly.

She shook her head. "No, Benjamin. Nog will find the freighter interesting enough, if he does a good job. The Cardassians attacked the freighter after it had dropped its official cargo so the holds will be empty. But the ship itself is in fair condition and has an unusual configuration -- just what you're looking for. The crash was soft enough for the crew to survive. The Cardassians picked them up and examined the ship but they couldn't find anything."

"If you really think-"

"I do." She bent forward, closer to him. "Benjamin?"

"Yes?" He felt her pull, drawing him toward the screen.

Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Be careful."

He imagined he could feel her warm breath on his cheek. "As careful as my conscience allows." She bit the corner of her lower lip. Sisko smiled. He used to remind her not to do it because it made her look too cute to be a ship's captain. As if she'd read his mind, she hurriedly released the lip. "Thanks for the information. I'll call Nog and give him his assignment."

"Good."

"Ten days?"

"Maybe sooner."

Sisko smiled warmly. "Sooner would be nice."

She rubbed the back of her hand over her chin, smearing the smudge of sealant across her cheek. "I'll see what I can do. Good-bye."

"Bye. And, Kassidy?"

"Yes?"

"You’d better take a look in a mirror. You got a little too close to one of the plasma conduits."

"What!" She looked at the purple streak on the back of her hand. "Oh, no! Ben, you should have told me. Wait until I get-"

Sisko laughed and broke the connection.

  

 

 

Chapter 11

THE FERENGI MANEUVER

 

"Enter," Sisko ordered.

The office door whooshed aside. Centered precisely in the opening, Nog stood at sharp attention, his shoulders quivering with the effort of straining his meter-and-a-half height to its maximum. A frown darkened the young man's features. "Cadet Nog reporting as ordered, sir."

"Take a seat and relax."

"Yes, sir." Nog marched to a chair in front of Sisko's desk and sat with his back as stiff as a duranium girder, hands aligned flat on his thighs, his chin high.

"I said relax." Nog's shoulders eased down a fraction of a millimeter. The frown remained. Sisko suppressed a smile. Nerves from being alone with his commander, probably. He activated a PADD and began scrolling through its contents. "Do you know what I'm reading, Cadet?"

"My performance record, sir?"

Sisko nodded. "You've done outstanding work over the last year." He touched a finger to an entry in the file. "Professor Nart entered a personal endorsement. My compliments. That's better than I ever got out of the old buzzard. How is he?"

"The old buzzard is-" Nog flushed. "That is to say, sir, Professor Nart is in good health. He sends his regards."

"Return them for me when you get back." Sisko looked closer. "He's entered a rather cryptic comment about an amazing improvement in your standing in the required ethics courses. Care to elaborate?"

Nog swallowed. "Well, sir. I was having a lot of trouble with essays on honor until I got the idea of answering all of the questions as a Ferengi. Then I went back crossed out the word 'profit' whenever it appeared and replaced it with 'honor'." Nog chanced a thin smile. Sisko obliged him with a nod and Nog returned to a seated attention. "It seemed to do the trick, sir. I moved from last to third in my class."

Sisko swiveled around to hide his smile. As he did, the office's portal came into view and beyond it the Aeneid. McDermot’s replibots had repainted it a metallic silver that gleamed in the warm yellow light of Bajor's sun.

Nog stretched to look past him. "Quite a ship, sir."

Sisko turned back. "If you can believe Mister McDermot, the greatest in the galaxy."

The young Ferengi's voice quivered. "I heard you met him, talked to him, face to face."

"That impresses you?"

"Wilson McDermot's a legend on Ferenginar. No easy achievement considering he's only a Hew...uh."

Sisko smiled. "I'm well aware of what Ferengis think about human business abilities."

"I meant no disrespect, sir."

"I didn't take any." Sisko dropped the PADD. "But, I didn't summon you here to... " Nog had begun to shake so violently Sisko wondered how he managed to stay in his chair. "What is it, Nog?"

"If it's all the same to you, sir, I'd rather get it over with now."

"What are you talking about?"

"My record, sir. You read it so you have to know. I just want you to realize it was an instinctive reaction. Under pressure we all revert to our cultural heritage and...uh...oh, what's the use." Nog's shoulders fell.

"Cadet, I have no idea what you are talking about. As for your record I've only had time to scan the first half. However, it would seem there's something interesting further on, so...." Sisko picked up the log.

Nog started to rise. Sisko waved him down without taking his eyes off the PADD. Nog surrendered himself to the chair. "It'll be at the very end, sir. In red."

Sisko's eyes jerked up. "Red? That's reserved for court-martial offenses. Then this isn't a minor problem?"

"Well-"

"Wait. Here it is." Sisko held the log in both hands and studied the bold-faced, scarlet lettering. His eyes widened. "You did what?"

"Like I said, it was a knee-jerk reaction and it would have worked if the computer simulation had been designed for my...er, solution."

Sisko read the file out loud.  "As part of a program to identify command-potential personnel at the earliest possible date, the Academy Command Staff directed that all senior cadets be tested in the Kobayashi Maru scenario. As the simulation was designed to do, all the cadets’ solutions resulted in destruction of their ship, loss of the Kobayashi Maru freighter, or armed conflict at some level with the attacking Romulans, except for Cadet Nog. When confronted with the impossible problem of simultaneously rescuing the freighter, saving his ship, and avoiding armed conflict, he presented a solution so bizarre that the simulation threw itself into an endless diagnostic loop, locked up the Academy's mainframe computer and burned out half of the safety override circuits."

Sisko's voice rose until it echoed through the office. Nog melted deeper into his chair. "The entire testing program had to be terminated because the Academy’s technicians are uncertain as to how long it will take to repair the damage. Command Staff is reviewing the incident to determine if Cadet Nog will be commended for proposing a unique solution or court-martialed for destruction of Starfleet equipment. Incident Point of Contact, Vice Admiral Skarn."

 The log clattered to Sisko's desk. "Cadet. What did you do?"

"Well, sir...." Nog whimpered.

"Stand and report!"

Nog snapped up. "Sir!"

"I repeat: how did you beat the scenario?"

"Sir, I offered each Romulan captain ten million bars of gold-pressed latinum to release the freighter!"

Sisko's mouth fell open. "You tried bribing a Romulan attack fleet?"

Nog spread his hands. "It was a perfectly logical idea considering nothing else had worked."

"But, Nog." Sisko pleaded. "The Kobayashi Maru scenario is designed as a test of character, not something to buy your way out of." Nog suddenly stopped shaking and his lips squeezed into a hard thin line. Sisko felt his skin prickle as tension charged the room. "What is it, Nog?"

The Ferengi lowered angry eyes on his commander. "Permission to speak frankly, sir?"

Sisko tented his fingers. "Go ahead."

 "With all due respect, sir, I've had it with every Starfleet officer, cadet and civilian looking down their noses at Ferengi ethics. What I did was perfectly acceptable within my culture's moral code." Nog stepped forward and leaned over Sisko's desk, looking as if he'd grown ten centimeters. "Ferengis don't do things the same way as Hew-mons, Klingons, or any other species. That doesn't make us wrong. Starfleet recruits representatives from all species to have access to as many problem-solving points of view as possible. Yet every time I offer a solution based on the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition it's criticized as being mercenary and I get patronized like some sort of second-class citizen. It's hypocritical. I've put up with it long enough. If they can't respect my point of view that's Starfleet's problem, not mine."

Sisko looked down to where Nog's waist leaned against the edge of his desk. Nog followed his commander's stare and jerked backward. Sisko's voice came out as a rumbling whisper. "Regardless of the conviction of your beliefs, I strongly recommend you avoid addressing any future commander as you just did me, on or off the record."

Perspiration glittered on the Ferengi's lumpy brow. "Yes, sir."

"As for Starfleet's hypocrisy, the fact that they are reviewing your solution is proof they aren't so deeply locked into one particular philosophic dogma that their eyes are closed to new ideas. If you were suggesting they harbor certain prejudices against the way Ferengis think...." Sisko turned away. "You may be right."

"Sir?" Nog's mouth gaped.

Sisko heaved a resigned sigh. "Starfleet's made up of normal people. They're the best we can recruit but like people everywhere they carry preconceived notions about what's right and wrong. Older prejudices against color and physiology took centuries to overcome. Philosophical tolerance has turned out to be a tougher problem. We thought we were making progress when you Ferengis showed up." Sisko turned back toward him. "You have to understand that humans and all the cultures we'd encountered before the Ferengi look down on people who'll do anything for money."

"Profit."

"Excuse me?"

"Uh... you said money, sir. Ferengis don't do anything for money. They do it for profit."

Sisko cleared his throat. "My point is that Ferengi ethics represent one of the hardest cultural hurdles the Federation has had to leap. Compared to you, adapting to the emotionless Vulcan culture was a snap. As far as your being tired of it, remember that Starfleet's been putting up with you just as long. Since Starfleet's a lot bigger it has more emotional inertia. I'm afraid you're just going to have to take it, if you want to be a Starfleet officer. Do you understand what I'm saying, Cadet?" Nog's breathing had evened out and some of the red flush had left his face. He nodded. "Good. Now sit down. I appreciate how important it is to blow off some steam from time to time, but a little restraint will help if you're interested in promotions. As I started to say, I didn't ask you in to discuss your status at the Academy. I have a field assignment for you."

Nog collapsed into his chair. "Field assignment, sir?"

"A ship. You're getting your first command." A crooked-toothed grin spread across Nog's face. Sisko smiled and handed him a PADD. "Here are your orders. I took the liberty of selecting a crew for you. I hope that is all right." Sisko raised an eyebrow.

Nog held the PADD in both hands, eyes glued to the readout. "Thank you, sir. I'm sure they'll be fine."

"You can read the details later. The gist of it is that you are to proceed in the runabout Rio Grande to Pantar Two and locate a crashed Dopterian freighter. You are not authorized to salvage the ship. Just conduct a survey and return. A reliable source told me that this ship's configuration is unique. I'm hoping that means you'll find something useful for the fleet."

Nog looked up. "A unique Dopterian freighter?"

"Is there a problem with that?"

"Only that it's impossible. The Dopterians are first cousins to the Ferengi, so we know them pretty well. They're the most consistent race in the galaxy. All their cargo ships are identical and haven't changed in fifty years."

"Then it looks like you have a mystery to solve."

Nog returned his attention to the PADD. "The Pantar system is on the Cardassian border."

"I suggest you keep your eyes open."

"Right. I mean yes, sir."

"Everyone on your crew is a fully commissioned Starfleet officer. None the less, you will be in charge. Ask for their recommendations, respect their opinions, but follow the course you think best. They've all gone through similar Cadet Command Assignments and will give you their total support."  Sisko drew himself up. "I'd be remiss as a commander if I didn't offer some advice. The best I can give is that a good officer is audacious but not reckless. Any questions about the assignment?"

Nog shook his head. "No, sir."

Sisko gave him a nod. "Very good. Dismissed." Nog stood but didn't move to leave. "Something else, Cadet?"

"Well, sir...yes. With all respect-"

"Not that again. Just spit it out."

"It's this fleet plan of yours, sir. How can you consider it when you know it violates your oath to obey Starfleet regulations?"

Sisko massaged his temples. "You've just asked the hardest question every officer must deal with -- how to accomplish a mission when regulations prohibit success." Sisko gazed deep into Nog’s eyes. "The answer is that every officer has a moral imperative to obey the ideals of his conscience; this imperative supersedes any oath to a fixed set of rules. My highest duty is to protect life, my second highest is to follow Starfleet regulations. From time to time the second has to yield to the first. It's called reinterpreting one's orders. This isn't a perfect situation, but it's one every officer must be prepared to face, or he'd better not put on the uniform." He rocked forward. "If I blindly follow regulations the Bajoran system will remain helpless against outside attack. The way things are now, someone could blast their way through Deep Space Nine and destroy half the planet. I could argue that Starfleet orders meant it wasn't my fault, but the Bajorans who died wouldn't be able to hear me. I couldn't live with that. I can live with Starfleet's censure."

"It seems-"

"Hard? Unfair?" Sisko’s stare burned into Nog. "It is. Every time you cross the line, uncertainty haunts you."

"But, you always seem so confident."

"That's part of the job."

"How do you know when it's all right to break-" Sisko shook his head. Nog backpedaled. "Reinterpret regulations?"

"When you get away with it." Nog opened his mouth. "Dismissed, Cadet." Nog's mouth snapped shut. He nodded, about-faced, and left.

Sisko got up and paced five minutes before settling back in his chair. He keyed the code for Starfleet Academy. After fighting through three layers of subordinates he finally succeeded in getting Vice Admiral David Skarn's silver-haired image on the viewer.

"Benjamin! Haven't seen you since you introduced me to your father's restaurant three years ago. Best gumbo I ever tasted. How is he?"

"From what Sam's been telling me you should be able to say better than I."

Skarn patted his stomach. "She told on me, eh?" Sisko nodded. Skarn heaved an exaggerated sigh. "Looks like I'll have to come clean. It's true. I catch a shuttle for his place almost every Friday. Your dad feeds me and we trade stories of you."  His expression sobered. "He's proud to death about you."

"I know."

"He also wishes you'd call more often. Told me to tell you as much since you seem to ignore his complaints."

Sisko held up his hands. "I'll call tonight. I promise."

"You’d better. He's threatened to stop serving me if you don't. How's your son?"

"Jake's well. Bull-headed as ever. Can't imagine where he gets it from."

"I can."

The men exchanged broad grins. "Admiral, I'm calling because-"

"Cadet Nog?"

"How'd you guess?"

"I'm the Incident Point-of-Contact Officer and you recommended him for the Academy. What else could it be?"

"How bad is it?"

Skarn smiled ruefully. "A shambles, Ben. A complete shambles. The programmers are going crazy trying to come up with new algorithms to deal with his strategy. That would be bad enough by itself, but he's started a revolution within the Academy."

Sisko half-smiled. "Nog? A revolution?"

"Our strategic programming is founded primarily on human values. He circumvented it by basing his response on his race's unique cultural background. Now all of the other students are examining their own species-specific ethical systems for similarly unique solutions. There have been more new challenges to the Kobayashi problem in the last week than in the last two years. We can't keep up."

"The system's operational? His record indicated it was going to be down for quite a while."

"I just put that in to throw a scare into him. We don't want this going to his head."

"You're talking like he solved it. The record only states the computers locked up because they couldn't accept his solution."

Skarn nodded. "They did. Well, sort of. There's an overseer program that monitors the computer's responses before they're released to the simulation. If a solution is achieved the overseer shunts it to a buffer memory and fakes a shutdown. The overseer program was initiated before we knew - assumed - the scenario was unsolvable."

Sisko's eyes grew wide. "Then Nog really did it. That makes him only the second person to beat the scenario."

Skarn shook his head. "The first. Kirk's solution doesn't count. He cheated by reprogramming the computers." Skarn gazed up at the ceiling. "We still haven't figured out how he got by the security interlocks." The Admiral looked down, a twinkle in his eyes. "No. Nog's the first person to honestly solve the problem."

"How'd he do it?"

Skarn spread his hands. "They took the money."

"Who took the money?"

"The Romulans."

"There were no Romulans!"

"The computer didn't know that. Faced with a unique solution, it evaluated the current state of affairs in the Romulan Empire and had its simulations act accordingly. Things must be pretty tight for them right now."

"In other words-"

"They took the money and ran!" Sisko shook his head. Skarn chuckled. "There's more. Starfleet strategists are now considering the efficacy of incorporating Nog's solution into general policy. Compared to the cost of an intergalactic war, buying off an enemy with a few million credits is a bargain."

"And Nog?"

"He'll get the commendation, of course. No doubt about it. I'm also recommending he be transferred from engineering to the command track."

"You think he's up to it?"

"Since you're the officer who endorsed him, that's something I should be asking you. He had a little trouble in the beginning, but they all do. In the last year he's been outstanding. This incident just proves he has what it takes and I have no doubts about his potential."  Skarn looked questioningly at Sisko. "Do you?"

Sisko blanked his memories of Nog as a youth, playing children's games with Jake on the Promenade. For the first time he thought of Nog strictly in terms of his performance since entering the Academy. His gaze didn't waiver. "None whatsoever, sir."

"Good. Anything else?"

"Yes. Different subject. I wondered if you could explain the Federation's motivations for relinquishing the twenty colonies to the Cardassians."

All Admiral Skarn did was shift his weight, yet Sisko felt a wall rise up between them. 

"Drop it, Ben."

"But-"

Skarn rapped his knuckles on his desk, hard. "But nothing. Drop it. Now. Admiral Jorg-" His expression froze. Skarn cleared his throat and went on. "There is a force at work within Starfleet trying to change the way things are run. Many of us don't like the direction these changes are headed. Unfortunately, neither you nor I carry the weight to do anything about it."

"It almost sounds like the Federation's beginning to put its own existence ahead of that of its people." Skarn sat immobile. "With your permission I have to go now, Admiral. Thank you for your time."

Skarn stared for a moment before some of the warmth returned to his smile. "Anytime, Ben. Keep an eye on Cadet Nog."

"I'll do that. Sisko out." As the screen blanked, he nodded to himself. "It looks like you may be right, Kassidy. How am I going to deal with this?"

As he whispered the last word, a shock tore through the station, knocking Sisko out of his chair. Red lights and sceaming sirens erupted around him. He struggled to his feet and hurled himself through the door to Ops amid the groaning of over-stressed metal.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

Aeneid

 

"Speak to me, people!" Sisko yelled.

"Hull breach, sir," Terl answered. "Outer docking ring, section seventeen."

"Collision?"

"No, sir. Internal explosion. It's-" The red lights stopped flashing; sirens cut out.

O'Brien's voice erupted from a loudspeaker. "I've disabled the alarms. Everything's under control."

"Chief? What's going on?" Sisko demanded.

"Nothing, sir. The breach was minimal and there were autosealers in place in case this happened."

"What do you mean, 'in case this happened?' In case what happened?"

"The project you wanted me to work on, sir. There's been a little setback. I was trying-"

"Never mind, Chief. Carry on. But carefully!"

"Uh...yes, sir. As carefully as I can."

Sisko answered Terl's quizzical smile with a noncommittal shrug. "Engineers, what can you do with them?" He returned to his office and had just settled in his chair when the door chimed. He keyed it open.

Odo strode through, frustration evident on his features. "We're being overrun. Fifteen freighters have arrived in the two days McDermot's been here. That's ten times our normal traffic and the rate's increasing by the hour." The Constable stood and paced Sisko's office with his best simulation of an angry human's stride.

"So?"

"Deep Space Nine's not designed to handle that level of traffic."

"I don't see your problem, Constable. McDermot's supply ships aren't using our loading facilities. They drop their cargo directly into Aeneid."

"True, but as soon as they unload they head straight here. They're stacked two deep and demanding docking facilities. They want to use our recreation facilities, refurbish their ships and arrange for additional shipments. Petty crime's up twenty percent. I hate to imagine what things are going to be like in a week."

Sisko rose to look out his office's oval window. In the half-hour since he'd last looked, the replibots had added a golden sunburst to the behemoth's forward fuselage. Glittering prominences stretched halfway down its silvery length. Aeneid shimmered like crystalline fire.

"Captain?"

He pulled himself away from the sight. "Sorry. You were saying?"

"The station's taken just about all it can handle in transients. The ships unload at the Aeneid then their crews come here to spend the exorbitant wages McDermot's paying them."

"I bet that's making Quark happy."

"It would, if he were open."

Surprise flashed across Sisko's face. "Quark's closed his bar? He must be losing hundreds in profit."

Odo crossed his arms. "Yes. And we both know the only time he does that is when he's making more money doing something else. McDermot's hired him as his local procurer. I saw the deal being struck but couldn't get any details."

Sisko cocked an eyebrow. "Spying on law-abiding citizens? Isn't that going a bit too far?"

"When Quark and money are involved?" Odo shook his head. "Not far enough, if you ask me."

Sisko dropped into his chair. "What makes you so suspicious? McDermot's certainly not hiding anything." He extended an arm toward the window. "His ship's in plain sight. If he were up to something he wouldn't park right in front of a Starfleet installation."

"Let's just say I'd just feel a lot better if I knew what all these freighters were unloading."

"They're not going through Customs?"

Odo shook his head. "They don't have to. We're outside Bajor's trade boundaries and he's not docked with us. He could be packing that thing full of contraband and we'd never know it."

"Like what, for instance? Don't tell me you haven't tried to find out what McDermot's ordered."

"Yes. Well...although the freighter crews are unusually tight-lipped about their cargoes I have picked up the odd word here and there."

"And?"

Odo looked away. "Furniture, bedding, household fixtures, that sort of thing."

Sisko's voice deepened in mock concern. "Ominous."

Odo looked back at him. "And three times the duranium necessary for any passenger ship."

"I've been inside that thing. Don't underestimate what it's going to take to rebuild her."

"I never underestimate anything, Captain, especially when it involves Wilson McDermot." Odo leveled his putty-smooth face at Sisko. "There's something going on. I can feel it."

Sisko walked back to the window. "I'll give you this much, Constable. It's unusual to use duranium in civilian vessels."

"Here's something else to consider. I've been studying McDermot's previous projects. They've followed a pattern of continually escalating size." Odo nodded at the Aeneid. "As big as that thing looks it's still smaller than his last half dozen projects. If you ask me, we're only seeing what he wants us to see."

Sisko glanced sideways at Odo then back out at the glimmering ship.

"You may have a point, Constable. But, even if you're wrong, I'd still like to see what's going on inside Aeneid."

 

+++

 

Rom's fingernails clicked loudly as he tapped programming commands into his console. He brought a fist down on a large pad and a pencil-thin isolinear rod popped out of a hole to the right. He plucked the rod and without looking held it over his shoulder. With a metal-on-glass click, three robotic fingers closed around the rod and pulled it from his hand. "Integration protocol for warp nacelles," Rom said over his shoulder.

"Acknowledged," the queen replibot responded and silently floated out of Aeneid's command center.

Rom grabbed a blank isolinear rod from a rapidly emptying box and stuffed it into the hole. His fingers began another complex dance on the panel. His eyes twitched towards the man to his right who was also busy pounding out programs. "Uh...Mister McDermot?"

"Call me Will," McDermot said, flashing a mischievous smile at the Ferengi. He tossed a rod into the air. A waiting replibot caught the thin shaft as it topped its trajectory. "Deflector to power-system connection procedure." The replibot drifted out of the cabin. The next in a line of four replibots floated forward into position between the two men.

A proud smile lit Rom’s face. "Yes... Will." He glanced down at his rapidly emptying box of isolinear rods. "Uh... I'm getting low."

"Here." McDermot tossed him a book-shaped red box. "There's another hundred. That should last a while."

The rods clattered like glass sticks as Rom caught the box with both hands. He placed it on the floor and resumed his tapping. "Ah... Mist-" McDermot smiled sideways at Rom. "Sorry... Will, how do you think Starfleet's going to react when they discover what you're really doing?"

"Let me worry about Starfleet." McDermot handed the next replibot a rod. "Cross-nacelle power transfer instruction."

Rom's fingers beat a frantic rhythm on his console. "I'm not sure we'll be done in time."

"If your brother continues filling orders as fast as he has so far we will."

"But there's so much to do."

"Quit fretting." McDermot stood and turned around to hand another queen her instructions. "Tractor beam placements." He turned to Rom. "I just wish the final duranium shipment would get here. We're running short."

"Quark’s bought out the sector. He's having to ship it in from halfway across the quadrant." Rom handed a rod to the next replibot. "Impulse engine exhaust cloaking program."

McDermot stretched, then walked to the window looking into the cavern of his ship. Replibots, reduced to specks by distance, speed back and forth pushing engine modules, reactors, and a hundred other shapes toward a growing mass in the center of the ship's vast emptiness. To his lower right, fifty drones used pale blue tractor beams to coax a thirty-meter diameter cylinder almost as long as the Aeneid toward the ship's middle. It drifted diagonally upward and nudged into place next to an identical cylinder. McDermot looked at his watch and nodded. "The second warp nacelle-power module just linked up with the first, five hours ahead of schedule."

"Command module construction details," Rom said to the last queen and slipped the isolinear rod into her claw. She left them alone. Rom joined McDermot at the window.  "That's another six-queen detail programmed... Will."

McDermot nodded his satisfaction. "The work's going fast. Think of it. Those replibots give us more manpower than the entire Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards."

"Yes." Rom's head bobbed in approval. "And you don't have to worry about them going on strike."

"Or demanding raktajino breaks."

The two businessmen exchanged smiles rich with appreciation of profit. They turned back toward the activity. A third cylinder joined the first two. Together, the three formed the beginning of a circular bundle of gigantic rods.

Rom shook his head. "It's so big."

"Wait until you see her expanded to flight configuration."  From the center of the ship's interior, a short parade of six specks formed up and headed toward the men.  "Here comes the next queen detail."

"How could you afford so many replibots? No one else has a single one, yet you've got a thousand."

"They're a new product from one of my manufacturing labs. Starfleet ordered them. I'm, well...borrowing them as sort of a field test. Starfleet likes things thoroughly checked out so I thought this would make them happy." McDermot beamed a playful smile at Rom. "And out of the kindness of my heart I'm not even charging them for it."

"Uh... I doubt Starfleet will appreciate the gesture. Not considering what you're doing."

McDermot threw his hands up in a helpless gesture. "That's bureaucrats for you, no matter how hard you try to do a good job, they'll always find some little thing to complain about." The entry hatch clanged open. Six queens drifted in. "Our mistresses demand attention, Rom."

The men returned to their programming stations. "What will you do if Captain Sisko wants another tour?" Rom asked without looking up from his work.

"Invite him over, of course. It would hardly do to deny him."

Rom's eyes widened under his thick Ferengi brow. "But what about-" he inclined his head toward the Aeneid's interior. "It's too big to hide."

McDermot tapped his right foot against a module below the central control panel. "This will take care of that."

Rom squinted at the unit. "You think that will hide it?"

"If it doesn't, I'm sure Captain Sisko will let us know."

"It better work," Rom said. "I've been in Odo's detention cells. They're not very comfortable."

 

 

 

Chapter 13

ODO'S WARNING

 

Captain Sisko rotated his shoulders, trying to work out a strain in his neck. It didn't help. The turbolift jarred to a halt at Ops and Sisko eased himself out. "Report."

Terl answered without turning. "Everything's quiet except for the usual activity around the Aeneid, sir."

"Let me see it." Sisko gingerly stepped into the wide, sunken area that defined the heart of Deep Space Nine's existence.

"Are you all right, sir?"

Sisko turned his whole body to face Terl rather than attempt twisting his neck. "No, I'm not. Mister Worf has no respect for rank where combat training is concerned."

Terl smiled. "I've heard that about him."

Sisko worked his way around the weapons console to stand directly in front of the main viewer. Black space sprinkled with stars dissolved to gray, then reappeared with McDermot's ship centered on the screen. Burnished orange-yellow from the light of Bajor's sun, the Aeneid filled Sisko's entire field of view. "Beautiful, isn't she, Lieutenant?"

Terl glanced up. "Yes, sir."

"Where are the cargo ships?"

"They always line up near the stern."

Terl tapped the magnification pad. Aeneid's image seemed to rush toward them as it expanded. Sisko could now make out three ships dwarfed by the great ship's stern. "The second freighter looks familiar." Sisko said.

"That's the Mandarken out of Xantor Five. She's been making the monthly supply run to Bajor for the last year."

"But, that's a ten thousand tonner."

"Looks like a pencil next to an oak, doesn't she, sir."

Sisko eyed Terl. "Eloquence so early in the morning, Lieutenant? Bucking for promotion?"

Terl kept his eyes on the console. "No, sir." He chanced a slim smile. "Unless you're one short for a quota, in which case I'd be happy to volunteer."

Sisko returned the smile. "All in good time, Lieutenant."

The turbolift dropped away and quickly returned. Odo marched out. "Captain. I need a word with you-" He caught sight of the Aeneid's bulk on the screen. "Oh, I see you're already monitoring the situation."

Sisko glanced at Terl, shrugged his shoulders, winced, and turned stiffly back to Odo. "I wasn't aware there was a situation to monitor."

Odo's eyes widened and flicked from Sisko, to the screen, and back. "But you've got the Aeneid under surveillance."

"Not surveillance, Constable. Just taking a look."

Odo crossed his arms. "Then I think it's time we started one."

"You've got something definite this time?"

"I do."

"We'll be in my office, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir."

Sisko led the way. He'd just entrusted his aches to a chair when Odo dropped a PADD in front of him. "It's all there."

Sisko picked up the PADD without keying it. "Give me an overview."

"Ablative armor. Enough to cover the station. Why would a civilian transport need something like that?"

"Protection from space debris, pirates, who knows. Is that all you have?"

"Hardly. How about tripled multiphasic shields?"

A shiver ran up Sisko's neck. "What?"

"And more duranium, and eight Galaxy-class warp nacelles, and-"

"Wait a minute. How many nacelles?"

Odo gave him a satisfied smile. "You heard correctly. Eight."

Sisko activated the PADD. "That's impossible. Even the proposed Universe-class starship only has four."

Odo leaned over the desk to follow Sisko's progress through the list. "As you'll see the engines aren't the only peculiarity in the Aeneid's manifest."

Sisko read out loud. "Multi-terawatt structural integrity field generators, class-six tractor arrays-" he looked up. "This is insane. I can't imagine a ship that could use all this equipment."

"Certainly none any of us could imagine. As for McDermot...."

"Where'd you get this information?"

"Captain Baratus."

"Of the Mandarken?"

Odo nodded. "I noticed he'd made three recent shipments to the Aeneid so last night I cornered him on the Promenade."

"I thought there was a conspiracy of silence going on among the supply crews."

Odo shrugged. "There is, but I convinced him that if he didn't tell me what I wanted to know, I'd inform Bajor about some questionable rate charges he'd filed last year."

Sisko raised an eyebrow. "Blackmail, Constable?"

Odo's expression went blank. "Of course. I find it very effective at loosening stubborn tongues."

Sisko suppressed a smile. "Go on."

"He told me about the warp nacelles. With that data as a lever, I pried the rest of the information out of the other captains."

Sisko stared at the PADD. "Well, I'll admit it's all very strange but as far as I know Mister McDermot still hasn't broken any laws."

"But-"

"Has he, Constable?"

Odo humphed. "I suppose not. But if you ask me, I'd say it won't be long before he does."

"Until that time we'll have to respect his privacy." Odo turned away. Sisko looked out at the Aeneid. "Still, I would like to see where he's put the nacelles. They're certainly not in sight and if he was storing them inside they'd get in the way of the interior work." He turned back to Odo. "I wonder if we could arrange a second tour?"

Odo shook his head. "I doubt it. McDermot wants to keep whatever he's doing a secret."

"Think so? Let's find out." Sisko leaned over to press the intercom control. "Terl?"

"Lieutenant Terl left to report for duty on the Rio Grande, sir," a feminine voice answered. "This is Lieutenant Raug."

"Please connect me with the Aeneid."

"Yes, sir."

"Pipe it in here.

Odo straightened in his chair. "McDermot will say he's too busy and postpone the tour indefinitely."

"Think so? I'll bet you-"

Raug's voice cut in. "Mister McDermot's on-line, sir."

Sisko spoke into the air. "Mister McDermot...Will. I just called to ask how things are going."

"Captain Sisko! Glad you did. Things are flying over here. I was hoping you'd be able to break away for a tour sometime today. It'll give me the chance to show off."

Sisko raised an eyebrow at Odo, who looked away. "I'd like that. Mind if I bring my security chief along?"

"Would that be Mister Odo? The changeling?"

"Yes."

"Delighted. I've never met one before."

Sisko smiled at Odo. "You can talk to him now if you'd like. He's right next to me."

"Oh. Uh... sorry, Mister Odo. I-"

Odo cut him off. "That's all right. I'm used to it."

"I'd be honored to have you over, of course."

"Thank you. And by the way, it's just Odo, not Mister Odo."

"I'll remember. When can I expect you?"

Sisko opened his mouth to answer but stopped as Odo's hand shot up and he leaned closer to the pickup. "It's hard to say. Later today sometime. I hope it's all right if we pop in whenever our schedules permit?"

"Certainly. The welcome mat's always out."

Sisko took over. "Thank you. We'll see you later. Sisko out."

Odo jumped up. "Come on."

Sisko rushed after him. "Where? What's going on?"

"To the Aeneid. I want to catch him before he can hide anything."

"But you just said we were busy."

"I'll say a meeting got canceled."

The men burst out into Ops and made for the turbolift. "Lieutenant Raug," Sisko yelled. "Schedule me an appointment with Odo for five minutes from now and after you do that...cancel it." The turbolift dropped away on her confused expression.

Odo rippled his forehead. "Captain?"

Sisko shrugged. "I don't want to have to lie about our sudden schedule change."

 

 

Aeneid's inner hatch slid open. Sisko's brow furrowed as he caught the same old-metal odor he'd noticed on his first visit. Why hasn't McDermot had the ship cleaned?

McDermot stepped forward and pumped Sisko's hand. "Captain! What a surprise. You're earlier than I expected."

Sisko eyed Odo. "A meeting canceled. We hope it's not inconvenient."

"Not at all. Not at all." McDermot turned towards Odo and extended his hand.

After a moment's hesitation, Odo returned the handshake. "I've looked forward to meeting you, Mister McDermot."

"The feeling's mutual, Mister... sorry. Odo. But, come. Let me show you how things are getting on." Walking buoyantly, he led the way to the interior window.

Sisko followed. Odo strolled around, casually inspecting the control room. McDermot thrust his hands toward the interior vista of his ship, apparently unconcerned about Odo's scrutiny. "Fantastic, isn't it?"

Sisko looked into what a few days before had been an empty cavern. Now replibots swarmed everywhere, pushing equipment into place, welding girders, and laying deck plates. Thirty meters inside the original hull, they'd constructed most of a second hull that arced three-quarters the way around Aeneid, and down its entire length. A herd of replibots busied themselves wrestling two warp nacelles through the still-open section of the inner hull. Every twenty meters down the ship's length, replibots pushed duranium girders toward the locations of future decks.

"Impressive," Sisko acknowledged.

McDermot grinned. "Thank you."

Odo's voice came from the left. "I understood that the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards were to be the first to get autonomous construction units?"

"They are. I'm borrowing them for this project. As soon as they're done here they'll be shipped to Mars."

Odo's soft footfalls paced his questions. "It was nice of the company that built them to loan them to you." This time his voice came from directly behind them.

"Nice had nothing to do with it. I own the company. One of my minor organizations."

"How do they work?" Sisko asked. "Does each one need to be programmed?"

"Oh my, no. That would be too slow. Two percent of the replibots are what we call queens. They receive programming on specific jobs and transfer it to teams of drones. Look!" McDermot pointed to the second warp nacelle being coaxed through the inner hull's opening. "That's the last one. Another day's work and our entire warp system will be operational."

"Why so many warp nacelles?" Odo's voice came from the right side of the cabin.

"Speed is one of my big selling points," McDermot explained. "The rich like their leisure fast and I aim to give it to them. Those engines will drive her at warp nine-point-nine-eight."

"No one will be able to catch you," Odo said from their left. "That could be convenient."

Sisko feigned absorption in the work but his every sense was tuned to the men's conversation. Apparently unconcerned, McDermot hadn't turned away from the window to face Odo's quiet inquisition. The changling moved left for another look at the pilot's console, his hands clasped behind his back. "With so much speed I wonder that you'd need multiphasic shields."

"My patrons want to feel safe so it's my job to provide that safety."

Odo stopped to look at McDermot's back. "Shields and ablative armor? That's a lot of safety."

"There's going to be a lot of-" McDermot spun around but retained his smile. "Say! That's supposed to be a secret. How'd-"

"There's not much that gets by Odo," Sisko said quickly. "I'm interested in why you embedded the warp drives between two hulls."

McDermot turned back. "Cosmetics. I want a ship that looks different than anything anyone's seen before. Every ship in the galaxy carries its warp nacelles on pylons. The Aeneid's going to be different." He shrugged. "The slight reduction in efficiency is worth it to make her look like she moves through space by magic. After all, it's not like she's a warship, is it?"

Sisko smiled at Odo. "Of course not. It's obvious you're very busy so we'll thank you for the tour and be on our way."

Odo cleared his throat. "Just one last question, Captain? If Mister McDermot doesn't mind?"

McDermot’s smile stretched wider. "Fire away."

"You do all the programming for the queen replibots?"

"That's right."

Odo stepped to the right, unblocking their view of one of a pair of programming stations. "Then why two programming consoles?"

Sisko caught the barest flicker in McDermot's smile. "Oh, that." McDermot threw a hand up as if Odo’s question meant nothing. "Just a spare. Can't have one break in the middle of a job. It could bog things down for days."

"Then why do they both have partially filled boxes of isolinear rods next to both of them?"

"Yes, well... I switch back and forth. It depends on which one I'm closest to when the queens come in for the next set of programs."

"But-" Odo started.

As if on cue, the hatch opened and six replibots floated in. "Speaking of programming, as you can see I need to get back to work."

"Of course," Sisko agreed. "Thank you for taking the time to see us."

"My pleasure, Captain. Come again. Both of you."

"Thank you," Odo said before Sisko could reply. "I intend to."

McDermot answered with a crooked smile. "I had a feeling you would, Constable."

 

 

Sisko got their shuttle underway. "I've seen you more tactful than that."

"McDermot's up to something, Captain, and he knows I suspect him. He acts like it's all a game."

"Maybe it is, to him."

"He lied about the second programming panel."

Sisko frowned. "Yes. Yet I sensed he didn't like doing it. I think that in spite of everything McDermot's basically an honest man."

Odo smirked. "An honest man who lies."

"Don't we all from time to time? That doesn't make him a criminal."

"It's a start."

"You're too cynical."

"It's part of my job."

Sisko turned toward Odo. "Tell me, other than the extra programming panel, what else bothered you?"

"Just that. Why?"

"Because what caught my attention wasn't what I saw but what I didn't see, a crew. If I didn't know better I'd swear McDermot flew the Aeneid here single-handed."

"A ship that size? Impossible."

"I'd agree with you, if we were talking about anyone besides Wilson McDermot."

 

+++

 

"You can come out now," McDermot shouted.

A small hatch to one side of the pilot’s console squeaked open. "They're gone?" Rom whispered breathlessly as he peeked out from the small storage locker.

"For the time being. I'm glad you had a portable comm link with you to call in a queen detail. Odo's questions were beginning to close in on me."

Rom scuttled out on his hands and knees. "That was close."

"Very. Odo moved faster than I expected."

"Almost too fast."

"Fortunately, almost wasn't good enough." McDermot walked over to the main control panel and used a toe to tap the deactivation plate on the module near the floor. A green light on its face winked out. He made his way around the hovering replibots to the interior window. There was no sign of the second hull or deck girders Sisko had studied so intently five minutes earlier. Instead, eight massive warp nacelles formed a tight bundle that ran down the center of the Aeneid's interior.

"Uh...it looks like your trick worked," Rom said.

"Yes." McDermot stood so close the shield's surface charge crackled from his breath. "Hopefully we won't need to use it again. I don't enjoy lying to people, even when it's for the good of the Federation. I especially don't like deceiving your Captain Sisko. Men of his caliber deserve better."

Rom stared wide-eyed at the growing object. "I never would have believed it. As big as the Aeneid is, we’re running out of room. What will you call it?"

  McDermot's voice grew husky. "Dreadnought."

 

 

 

Chapter 14

O'BRIEN STRIKES AGAIN

 

Sisko spoke into the shuttle's short-range transmitter. "Antares to inner docking ring bay three; we're in position for retrieval."

"We have you on visual, sir. Please adjust your lateral position five meters to port."

He jockeyed the small craft into place. "Better?"

"Yes, sir. I'm opening the bay door now."

Sisko turned to Odo. "I had Nog in my office yesterday. You won't believe-"

Odo jumped up, eyes wide and staring over Sisko's shoulder. Sisko whirled around.

Two bays to the right, a shaft of blue brilliance tore through the upper surface of the docking ring. It burned for three seconds then disappeared. A fountain of glittering ice crystals condensing out of escaping air gave proof of a hull breech.

Sisko hammered a pad with his fist. "Ops! What's happening?"

"Lieutenant Raug here, sir. Minor puncture in the inner docking ring, bay five. Already sealed. Minimal damage."

Before she'd ended her report Sisko could see that the spout of gas had stopped. "Cause?"

"Unknown, sir. That bay's been unused for months. It should be deserted."

"I see. Dispatch a clean-up crew immediately and-"

O'Brien's voice cut in. "Captain Sisko?"

"Yes, Chief. What is it? Are you already looking into this?"

"Well... sort of, sir."

Sisko drew a hand down over his face. "It was you again, wasn't it?"

He imagined he could see O’Brien’s shrug. "I'm afraid so, sir. You see, I thought I could-"

"Not on an open line, Chief."

"Right. Sorry."

"Ops?" Sisko said. "Everything's under control." He whispered to Odo, "At least I hope it is." Sisko raised his voice again. "Chief O'Brien will clean up the mess. Cancel the work detail."

"Aye, sir. Raug out."

"Chief?"

"We're on a secure line now."

"Well?"

"I thought I could boost the power of a disrupter by concentrating its discharge in a phased resonant cavity."

Sisko nodded. "Like the old laser weapons."

"Exactly. It worked but didn't generate enough power to be interesting so I tried introducing a metastable plasma into the chamber."

"That helped?"

"Too well. The discharge burned through the containment reflectors."

Sisko's voice dropped an octave. "That's when it ripped through the bulkhead?"

"Two bulkheads, actually. Both ends of the cavity failed so the discharge expanded in opposite directions. You can't see the second breach because it's on the other side of the docking ring."

Sisko massaged tense muscles in the back of his neck. "Chief, I'm starting to have second thoughts about this project."

O’Brien’s voice rose an octave. "You can't stop me now. I'm just getting started."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Sisko said. "The station can't take much more."

"I'll be more careful from now on."

"You said that before."

"And I kept my promise."

A puzzled look came into Sisko's eyes. "How do you figure?"

"The holes are smaller this time."

Sisko took three slow breaths. "Okay, Chief. At least you didn't hit any ships."

"Uh...."

Sisko closed his eyes. "Let me have it."

"The lower discharge did sort of... nick Defiant’s port nacelle. No real damage. Just a little cosmetic scorching."

A smile flashed across Sisko’s lips. "Really. I'll be interested to hear how minor Worf thinks it is."

A touch of panic crept into O’Brien’s voice. "But, sir. Everyone knows how much Worf loves that ship. I really don't think there's any reason to bother him about it."

Sisko leaned close to the pickup and whispered, low. "I do."

"Yes, sir."

Sisko straightened and let formality harden his words. "You will personally, face to face, inform Worf about the damage to his ship. Do I make myself clear?"

O’Brien’s voice sagged with defeat. "Aye, sir."

"And, Chief? Good luck."

"Thank you. I'm going to need it. O'Brien out."

Odo stared at Sisko. "This project you have O'Brien working on, anything I should know about?"

Sisko frowned. "Probably, but for the present I'd like to play it close to my vest."

"That's not going to be easy if things like this continue to happen."

Sisko shook his head. "Tell me about it."

Odo squinted at the bay. "Still, O'Brien was right. The damage was minor. The breach is too small to see."

"It's not the size of the holes that has me worried."

"What, then?"

"First it was the outer docking ring, now it's the inner one."

Odo's eyes grew wide. "Oh."

"That's right." Sisko cast a concerned look at his station. "O'Brien's working his way toward Ops."

 

 

 

  Chapter 15

FIRST COMMAND

 

Nog rummaged through his room for items he'd need for the mission. His mission. He looked down at his hands; they shook. He clenched them into fists; the fists shook. He scanned his quarters for a talisman to calm his nerves and spotted the golden sheen of the small latinum fob Rom had gaven him years ago for his first job. He picked it up in trembling fingers; it had been the first profit he'd earned. The metal felt heavy and warm. Nog ran his fingertips over edges worn smooth by years of handling. It was a miniature bar of gold-pressed latinum. He should have cashed it in long ago but it had been his first profit and represented the promise of profits to come.

Nog's hands stopped shaking. He slipped the fob into the pocket specially tailored for it in his gray Starfleet uniform and completed his packing. Ten minutes later, Nog marched out of his room for the Rio Grande.

He keyed a computer port in the hallway. "Computer," he said, concentrating on keeping his voice deep. "Location of the USS Rio Grande?"

"Rio Grande is currently at the outer docking ring," it answered in a feminine voice. "Section nine, bay twenty-one."

Nog turned to walk away, stopped, and pivoted back. "Who is listed as the commanding officer?"

"Please specify name of ship."

"Oh, yes. Sorry. Ah..." he looked right and left to see if anyone had heard him apologizing to a computer. "The ship is the Rio Grande."

"The USS Rio Grande, registry NCC-72452, is currently assigned to Deep Space Nine under the command of Captain Benjamin Sisko." Nog's shoulders sagged. "Current assignment designates Cadet Nog as acting Captain."

His smile lit the corridor. "Thank you," he shouted, and didn't care who heard him.

He turned left in passageway beta that led inward to the station's hub. Fifteen meters ahead, Chief O'Brien walked towards him, carrying a bipolar torch and several sheets of toranium. He kept shrugging his shoulders, trying to get a comfortable grip on the load.

"Good afternoon, Chief. What's up?"

O'Brien blinked a quick smile at Nog. "Just a little repair work in one of the docking bays."

Nog's lumpy brow wrinkled. "Isn't that something one of your technicians could do?"

The toranium sheets clattered as O'Brien let everything tumble to the floor. "They could." He gasped for breath. "But Captain Sisko ordered...that is, it's just a small job. I like to keep my hand in on these things. You know."

Nog nodded warily. "Sure. Whatever you say, Chief." O'Brien hefted his burden back up and hunkered off down the passage. "Good luck, Chief," Nog called after him.

O'Brien jarred to a stop as if someone had fired a phaser at him. He spun to face Nog. "What do you mean, 'Good luck?' How did you know I have to tell Worf about the accident?" He took a step forward. "Who've you been talking to?"

Nog hastily backed up, confusion spreading across his face. O’Brien took another step toward him. "What are they saying about me?"

Nog reeled around and fled down the passage. "Sorry, Chief," he yelled over his shoulder. "I'm late, can't talk now." He skidded to the left when the passage opened onto the Promenade and risked a peek back down the passage. O'Brien wasn't in sight. "I wonder what that was all about?" Nog whispered breathlessly.

"Problem, Nog?" Odo asked as he stepped out from behind a pillar.

Nog snapped around. "Oh, Constable, it's you. What are you doing here?"

The changeling nodded at Quark's. "Surveillance. You were going to tell me why you were running."

He shrugged. "I don't know. I just wished Chief O'Brien 'good luck' and he started carrying on about Worf and wanting to know who's been spreading rumors. Do you know what's going on?"

Odo worked his smooth face into a smile. "It's a private joke between the Chief and Captain Sisko."

"Oh." Nog squinted in the direction of the bar. People milled around its entrance, tapped on the door and walked away gesturing angrily. "My uncle's bar is closed?"

"Yes. Odd, isn't it."

Nog checked the time and blanched. "I have to go. I've got my first mission as a commanding officer." He pumped his chest out.

"Really. Congratulations." A mischievous twist came to Odo's smile. "Good luck."

Nog's eyes twitched toward the passage in which he'd just said the same thing to O'Brien. He gave Odo a questioning glance and left, quickly.

 

 

Rio Grande's hatch disappeared sideways into its hull and Nog stepped on to the textured deckplates of his first command.

Entryways on Danube-class runabouts led directly through the right side of the forward cabin. Nog looked left and saw the bulkhead separating the ship's small living quarters from the main cabin, behind the living quarters was Engineering. The forward cabin opened to his right and contained four chairs. The one facing the far wall was Tactical; to the right of that two chairs faced forward, the captain's chair on the left, the pilot's on the right, the science officer's chair faced the wall he’d just stepped through.

He'd been on the Rio Grande before but it seemed different now, bigger, more alive. The quiet hum of a ship at rest worked its way through the soles of his shoes and up to his heart. This was his ship.

Three Starfleet lieutenants occupied the Tactical, Pilot, and Science positions. The captain's chair was empty.

At the sound of the hatch opening, Lieutenant Terl turned around in the pilot's seat. He sprang to attention. "Captain on the bridge!"

The other two lieutenants shot to their feet.

Nog took a hasty step to the left of the hatch and snapped to attention.

No one came through the door after him.

Terl held his attention for ten seconds, then broke to extend a hand to Nog. "Welcome to the Rio Grande, sir."

Nog shifted his eyes right; no one else had come on board. He wanted to find a hole to crawl in. As acting captain he was the captain regardless of his actual rank. He couldn't see anyplace to hide, so he smiled and stepped forward to shake Terl's hand. "Thank you, Lieutenant. I have to confess your announcement surprised me."

Terl's expression held no contempt. "We've all been there." He nodded toward another human at the tactical station. "Lieutenant Chase almost fainted when he stepped on to his first command."

Nog looked to his right at the young Vulcan female standing by the science console. "I bet you didn't flinch."

"No," she said with precisely clipped eloquence. "But then, I had prepared myself beforehand for the possibility that I might be announced as the captain."

"This is Lieutenant Jar D'Taing," Terl said. "She's fresh from the Academy."

Nog smiled up at the slender, dark-haired Vulcan who towered over him. "Pleasure to meet you."

She granted him an almost imperceptible nod. "It will be an honor to serve with you, sir."

Nog felt himself drawn into the depths of her steel-gray eyes. I wonder what she thinks of Ferengis? He willed his thoughts back into focus. "I'll work hard to be worthy of that opinion, Lieutenant." Her right eyebrow lifted a half-centimeter.

Nog hasty turned back toward Terl. "I'd like to stow my gear and get underway as soon as possible."

"Of course, sir. The ship's almost ready to go."

Nog nodded his appreciation before ducking through the hatch to the living area.

The runabout's quarters consisted of four cubicles, two on either side of the passageway leading to Engineering. Nog opened the first door on the right. The small room held a bed, a locker and a minimum of bathroom fixtures. Nog threw himself onto the bed, cradled his head in his interlaced fingers and grinned upward at the ceiling. It felt like a palace to him.

Terl's voice blared from an overhead speaker. "Captain, the ship is ready for departure. What are your orders?"

Nog sat up on the edge of the bed. "I'm coming forward. Please establish contact with Ops." Nog walked to his room's full-length mirror and gave his uniform a tug. "Well, Cadet, time to show them what this Ferengi's made of." He walked out to his first command.

 

 

Lieutenant Marchal stared out of the runabout's viewscreen as Nog entered the forward cabin and eased into the Captain's chair. "This is Cadet Nog commanding the runabout Rio Grande. Request permission to depart. Authorization code one-five-zulu-three."

"You are cleared for departure, Rio Grande. Come home safely."

"Acknowledged. Rio Grande out." Marchal's face dissolved to the forward view from the runabout’s bow. The silver-gray bulk of the inner docking ring curved out of sight to the right. On the left, the outer docking ring stretched forward and more slowly curved to the right, blocking their forward view of space. Above and below the outer ring, a thousand stars gleamed in the velvet black.

Nog's hands reached for the controls, stopped, then regretfully pulled back to settle in his lap. He was the captain, not the pilot. "Take her out, Lieutenant."

Terl's hands slapped the controls with experienced efficiency. A dull clang reverberated through the ship as the docking port broke its connection. Side thrusters pushed them away from the docking bay then vertical thrusters took them up and out of the plane of Deep Space Nine's concentric rings. Terl applied one-quarter impulse power and the Rio Grande came to life. In a smooth arc to the left, it swung around docking pylon two and left the station behind.

Nog swiveled to face his crew. "We've been assigned to investigate the crash site of a Dopterian freighter on one of Pantar Two’s moons. Since this is nominally located within Cardassian space it will be necessary for us accomplish our task as quickly as possible to avoid detection. Are there any questions?"

"What do we do if we're confronted by the Cardassians?" Terl asked.

"Run. But I doubt that will be necessary. Starfleet Intelligence indicates minimal activity in that sector."

Chase leaned forward. "Will we make any attempts to salvage the ship?"

"Captain Sisko has ordered us not to attempt such a salvage." D'Taing's eyebrow lifted a second time. Nog turned to her. "You have a question, Lieutenant?"

"No, Captain. I was just interested in how you phrased your answer."

Nog’s gaze held steady. "Are you asking me to clarify my orders?"

D’Taing regarded him. "No, sir."

"Good." Nog swiveled back to face forward. "Lieutenant Terl, lay in a course for Pantar Two, warp factor three."

Terl's hands flew over his panel. "Laid in, sir."

"Execute."

With a solid whack, Terl brought his palm down on a pad. Stars shimmered as Rio Grande tore into the void at four hundred times the speed of light.

"All stations, report," Nog ordered.

"Flight Officer, course engaged. All systems operating at optimum levels."

"Science Officer, all sensors functional. No anomalies to report."

"Tactical, weapon systems check out. No ships within sensor range."

"Excellent." Nog leaned forward to squint at the tactical display in front of him. "Lieutenant Chase, I have a correction to your report." Chase knitted his brow at Terl, who shrugged back. Nog ignored the by-play. "I read two Cardassian Galor-class warships closing from behind. Go to Red Alert!"

Terl turned toward Nog. "By your leave, sir-"

"Yes, Lieutenant?" Nog faced Terl with tight-lipped determination. "Do you have a question?"

He studied the Ferengi's face. "No, sir," he said loudly. His right fist smashed down on the largest pad at his station. Instantly, the normal white illumination winked out. Blood-red lighting flooded the room. "Battle stations!" Terl cried. "Energize shields and charge weapons."

Chase's hands flashed over his controls. "Shields at one hundred percent, forward and aft phasers charged, photon torpedoes armed."

Nog spun toward D'Taing. "Sensor report."

"The Cardassian ships do not register on sensors."

"That's not good enough. Increase the range."

"I could try-"

"I don't need to know how, just do it." Nog jerked his attention back to Terl. "What's our maximum warp?"

"Five-point-three."

"I understood the runabouts were being upgraded."

"Yes, sir. But that's for emergencies and-"

"We're about to be fired upon by a superior force -- in my book that qualifies as an emergency. I need maximum speed if I'm going to save this ship and I need it now."

"Understood, sir. The new modifications give us a warp eight-point-three capability...for a short period of time."

"Do it." Rio Grande surged forward.

"Tactical." Nog called out. "Aft phasers, fire!" The ship bucked as the rear weapons bank loosed hellish energies into space. "Got one. Good shooting, Mister Chase." Nog examined his tactical panel. "We've taken a hit from a photon torpedo. Our shields are down to thirty percent. What are you going to do to fix it?"

"I could reroute some of the life support power into them."

"Good, and boost the structural integrity field. I don't want us blowing apart if a phaser blast burns through our shields. Science Officer, sensor status?"

"I've doubled sensor range. No sign of the remaining ship."

Nog bent closer to his panel. "We've just sustained two more hits. Shields are gone. Weapons are off line. Lieutenant Terl, manually override safety interlock s-fourteen. Give me all the speed she can take."

Terl shot a worried look at Nog before complying. "Override in place. Warp increasing. Eight-point-seven... eight-point-nine... nine-point-zero." Vibrations shook Rio Grande. Terl's left hand hovered over the cut-off pad. "Sir?"

"Not yet."

D'Taing's icy voice cut through the strained roar of the ship's engines. "I am reading a zero-point-two intermix overload. The warp-core will go unstable in fifteen seconds."

Nog held up a restraining hand. "Not yet."

Terl's voice grew taut. "Warp nine-point-three."

Stars shot by in brilliant streams of multicolored radiance.

"Not yet!"

"Nine-point-four!"

"Now!" Nog yelled. Terl's hand dropped like a stone on the cut-off pad. The Rio Grande sighed out of warp and fell to a sublight crawl. Nog took several deep breaths before pivoting to face the crew. "Comments?"

"A most effective drill, Captain," D'Taing said.

Nog inclined his head at her. "Thank you."

"Sir?" Chase said with a raspy voice. "Did you have to-"

"Yes, Lieutenant. I did. I needed to find out what this ship and its crew can do. Now I know it's quite a lot. I appreciate your willingness to go along with the simulation."

Terl ran shaking fingers through his perspiration-soaked hair. "Nine-point-four. In a runabout no less. That must be some kind of record."

"No," D'Taing said. "That record belongs to Captain Jeremiah Philip who achieved warp nine-point-five."

"True," Nog said. "But he burned out half his warp coils doing it."

"Fifty-two percent, to be precise," D'Taing added.

Nog cast his gaze upward. "Fifty-two-point-six...to be even more precise." D'Taing's eyes widened, then she nodded an acknowledgment at Nog. "In any event," he said, "this exercise also reduced our transit time by..." He looked at Terl.

"Almost five days. Our estimated ETA is eighteen hours."

"Good. You and Chase get some sleep. I'll wake you in nine hours to relieve Lieutenant D'Taing and myself. Dismissed."

Terl and Chase went into the living area. The hatch hissed closed behind them. Silence filled the forward cabin. Nog twitched a nervous smile in D'Taing's direction, then spun forward and rubbed his hands together. "Let's get to work. I'd like a level-one diagnostic on the entire ship. We need to know if pushing her that hard compromised any systems."

"A logical course of action."

"And the electroplasma power system needs a visual inspection. The strain may have blistered some of the insulation."

"That is a lot of work for nine hours, sir."

"I propose we divide and conquer. You take the diagnostic. I'll do the visual." He looked over his shoulder toward the science station. Lieutenant D'Taing was staring at him. "Something wrong, Lieutenant?"

"Permission to speak freely, sir."

Nog smiled. "Last time I did that I almost got demoted."

"Sir?"

"Nothing. Permission granted."

"You're not what I expected."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Is that good or bad?"

D'Taing tilted her saturnine head to one side. "Neither of those subjective terms is relevant."

Nog sighed. "Start over. What did you expect?"

She straightened her head. "I've studied Starfleet's profile of the Ferengi. Their two predominant characteristics are a preoccupation with profit and a prejudice against females. Yet you've deported yourself in an exemplary manner without reference to profit or any hint of a patronizing attitude toward me."

"Ah...well, you see I've been around Hew-mons so long I've taken on many of their attitudes. Most Ferengis would say I've been contaminated. As far as profit is concerned, I can sometimes go half an hour without thinking about it." He tested her with a smile but got no reaction. "That was a joke, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir. I recognized the comic structure of the statement. About your attitude toward me, a female?"

"Commander Higgens showed me the fallacy of thinking that women are inherently inferior."

"Commander Higgens?"

"A professor at the Academy."

"Philosophy, psychology, ethics?"

"Physical education. She was my instructor in hand-to-hand combat." Nog massaged his side. "I got more than an attitude adjusted in her class."

"I understand."

Nog stood up. "Good. Now, if you'll start the diagnostic I'll begin the EPS inspection."

D'Taing turned back to her science center and began tapping control pads. Nog watched her long, graceful fingers work the console. "Something you wanted to ask me, Captain?" she asked without turning.

Nog shook himself. "No. Nothing. I... uh... was just going."

He dashed for Engineering so quickly the sliding door scraped the tip of his nose.

Once out of the forward cabin, he took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled slowly. This is going to be a long cruise.

Nog looked down at the EPS tap off the matter/antimatter reaction chamber. With a grunt he dropped to his knees and began tracing power conduits.

 

 

"Lieutenants Terl and Chase reporting for duty."

Nog wearily pivoted his chair to face the newcomers. "Lieutenant Terl, you have the conn. We just completed a shipwide diagnostic and inspection. Everything checks out."

"Your orders?" Terl asked.

"Get us to Pantar Two in one piece. I'm going to get some sleep." Nog willed his back straight as he walked to his quarters. The Academy had taught him that Danube-class runabouts contained two hundred and thirty-six meters of EPS lines. He'd just learned that knowing that fact and physically tracing the path of each line were two very different things. He collapsed face down on his bed.

A firm metered knock interrupted his suffering. "Yes?" he groaned.

"It is Lieutenant D'Taing. Permission to enter?"

"Uh...just a minute." Nog struggled off the bed, hastily straightened it, then pulled at his uniform to stretch out the worst of the wrinkles. "Come in."

The door slid open. Jar D'Taing stood in a stiff, at-ease position. "I was wondering why you took the harder job of tracing the EPS system, sir? As acting captain I would have expected you to relegate such tasks to your subordinates."

Nog spread his hands and looked down at his feet. "My size suggested I was the best choice for the job. Many of the EPS conduits are tucked away in small locations."

"Logical."

"Coming from a Vulcan I'll take that as a compliment."

"I was only acknowledging-"

Nog held up a hand. "Don't ruin it, Lieutenant." D'Taing opened her mouth, hesitated, then closed it. "Anything else?" Nog asked.

She studied him as if she were inspecting an alien lifeform demonstrating unexpected qualities. "No, sir," she said and left.

Nog watched the door a minute before falling backward onto his bed. He was asleep before it stopped rocking.

 

 

 

Rio Grande circled the smaller of Pantar's II moons in a low orbit. Nog shook his head. "No wonder the Cardassians aren't interested in this system. The planet itself is smaller than any of Bajor's moons and the rock the freighter crashed on is little more than an asteroid. There's not much opportunity for profit here."

He felt D'Taing's eyes on him.  "That was for your benefit, Lieutenant. Even a Ferengi corrupted by Hew-mons is still a Ferengi." Nog straightened in his command seat. "Lieutenant Chase, what's our tactical situation?"

"All systems on line and no ships in the area."

"Lieutenant D'Taing," Nog said. "What do your sensors tell you?"

"The planetoid shows a typical composition of silicates and metal oxides."

Nog squinted at the crashed Dopterian ship. "And the freighter?"

"No life signs, no internal atmosphere, low-level energy signatures consistent with the residue of plasma decay."

"A dead ship. Good. Lieutenant Terl, take us down."

Rio Grande dropped out of orbit. It hovered above the crashed freighter for a detailed aerial examination. Satisfied that everything was as it appeared, Nog ordered a landing next to the downed ship. "Terl and Chase, you're the away team. Examine the ship for salvageable equipment."

"Aye, sir," they said in unison and left to don environmental suits.

 

 

Terl stretched up to place a gloved hand near a scorched area low on the freighter's midsection. "Phaser burns, class-four by the depth of the blistering. Not enough to take her out."

"No," Nog agreed. "But her reaction tubes were completely blown off. My guess would be she took a photon torpedo aft."

"That's what we figured. This was probably a warning shot."

"Okay. Continue your investigation inside."

The men worked their way through an open hatch into the ship. The side entrance extended inward ten meters to a central corridor. Terl turned right toward the front cabin. Chase went left to the cargo and engineering areas. Wide cones of light from the men's head-mounted lights wobbled as each step caused the beams to bounce up and down. Every time the cones dipped they showed the detritus of a lost battle scattered across the deck. Upward motions illuminated smoke-stained ceilings. D'Taing reconfigured Rio Grande's viewer to split-screen mode so they could follow the progress of both men.

The right screen showed that Terl had reached the control room. He touched several activation pads but the ship remained silent. "She's dead and cold, just like the sensors indicated. Even the backup computer system's down. But maybe...." He pressed a large pad. Dim amber light filled the cabin. "The emergency lights still work."

"At least that's something. How about the memory banks?" Nog asked.

The view spun madly as Terl bent sideways to get a close look at a low panel. "Fused. We'll never get anything out of them."

"Very well. Join Chase in the cargo section."

Nog's and D'Taing's gazes shifted to Lieutenant Chase's side of the screen. A thirty-meter long room with a high arched ceiling stretched away from him. Man-sized drums filled the hold.

"Anything?" Nog asked.

Chase raised a tricorder and scanned the room. "Some textiles, foodstuffs, building materials. Nothing useful, I'm afraid."

"How about Engineering?"

"A complete disaster. You were right. It was a photon torpedo that did her in. Engineering's melted to slag." Chase's camera zoomed around to reveal Terl coming down the hallway. The newcomer lifted his arms sideways then let them fall futilely to his sides. "It's a bust, sir. There's nothing here."

"Very good, gentlemen. Return to the ship." They nodded and turned to make their way out of the derelict. Nog leaned back with his fingers laced over his stomach, his crooked teeth showing through a broad smile.

D'Taing studied him. "Your expression is not consistent with the information from the freighter."

Nog turned towards her. "What do you infer from that?"

"That you did not want to find anything."

"Not true."

"Or that you know something of which the rest of us are ignorant."

"Precisely." Nog raised a finger. "The Cardassians examined the ship and found nothing."

"Correct."

He lifted a second finger. "Now the Federation has searched it with the same results."

"Yes."

"Implying?"

"There is nothing to be found."

"Incorrect."

She cocked her head to one side. "Then what?"

He raised a third finger. "It's time to let a Ferengi take a look." Nog jumped to his feet. "You're with me, Lieutenant. Grab a pressure suit and a tricorder."

 

 

Two spacesuited figures, one tall, one short, stood in the freighter's central corridor. "What does your tricorder say, Lieutenant?"

"Exactly the same as the ship's sensors. We are in an abandoned ship showing residual energy signatures."

"Locate the source of those signatures."

"There are three sources: Engineering, the Command Center, and the area where we now stand." She looked around, examining the ship's structure. "There must be a ruptured plasma conduit close by."

Nog shook his head. "There isn't."

"How-"

"-do I know? I'm a Ferengi and understand smuggling. This ship's captain was attempting a dangerous mission in Cardassian space. He wouldn't do it for anything except enough profit to offset the risk. Since there's little profit in smuggling textiles I knew there had to be something else."

"That sounds logical but since there is nothing here we must assume the Cardassians took it with them."

"No, they didn't."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because the third plasma signature you found isn't residue from a burst conduit. It's an artificial field generated to mask a secret cargo hold. If they'd found it, the generator wouldn't still be operating."

"Where is the secret hold?"

Nog slapped a gloved hand against the hallway's wall. "Right here." She keyed her tricorder. "That won't show anything. Dopterians use a lot of toranium in their ships. It blocks most sensors. Combine that with a weak interference field and you could hide anything."

"Except from a Ferengi?"

"Right. I knew the captain wouldn't be here without a good reason. When the sensors failed to pick up anything my intuition made me look elsewhere."

"Where?"

"The ship's length. This is a Za'torn-class freighter. The design's remained unchanged for half a century. It's eighty-seven meters long. Use your tricorder to add the lengths of the engineering, cargo, quarters, and command center."

D'Taing ran a quick scan. "Those compartments total sixty-eight meters; nineteen meters are missing." She snapped the tricorder closed. "You were correct."

"There'll be two compartments, one on either side of the corridor."

"How do we get into them?"

Nog keyed his suit's communicator. "Rio Grande? Initiate a point-to-point transport from our current position to three meters portward."

"Programmed. On your command."

"Now," Nog ordered. Electric tinglings crawled over his skin, then everything went dark. "Lieutenant D'Taing?"

A cone of light flashed on next to him. It swung in his direction. "Here, sir. The emergency lighting must not extend into this part of the ship."

Nog reached up to click on his helmet light. Its beam caught D'Taing full in the face. Her helmet had disturbed the precision with which she normally arranged her shoulder-length black hair; a few strands draped over one eye. Nog smiled at her ineffectual attempts to blow it out of the way in a very un-Vulcan gesture. She gave up after three tries.

Nog turned around. He stood so close to a large object that he couldn't make out what it was. He looked to the right. Ten meters away, the object's top surface sloped down to meet the upward sweep of its base, forming a sharp wedge. Excitement quivered in his stomach. He looked down. The object rested on two long tubes. A smile spread across his face. Nog craned his neck to read the symbols he knew would be stenciled high up on object's side.

D'Taing's dispassionate voice came to him. "It is a-"

"It sure is." The hunger in Nog’s voice was a sharp contrast to her calm tones.

She turned to him. "What are you going to do?"

"Reinterpret my orders."

"Sir?"

"Forget it. Just wish me luck. I'm going to need a lot of it when Captain Sisko sees what I'm bringing back."

 

 

 

Chapter 16

QUARK TAKES A CHANCE

 

Quark's vision kept shifting in and out of focus as he stared at his desk. It was piled high with golden bars. Overhead lights glinted off the lustrous metal containers; each filled with a minute quantity of priceless liquid latinum. He lovingly stroked the bars. Profit. Enough for me to retire, or buy a freighter, or... or... His vision blurred again.

A gentle knock on the bar's front door brought him back to reality. Instinctively, he reached out to protect the wealth on the desk. "Who is it?"

"It's me, Quark," a distant voice said. "McDermot."

Quark grinned as he ran to the bar's entrance. He keyed the new combination he'd entered after the latinum arrived and swung the doors wide. "I'll always have time for you." Quark waved the man towards his office with an eager flourish. McDermot fell into a deeply padded chair. The satchel he carried landed on the floor with a light thump. "Tired?" Quark asked.

"Exhausted." McDermot nodded at the mountain of gold bars. "I'm glad to see your commission's arrived. Did it tally okay?"

Quark patted the bars. "To the slip."

"Excellent. You earned it. Everything arrived on time or ahead of schedule. Because of your efforts Dread... I mean the Aeneid, will be completed earlier than I could have hoped." McDermot ruffled his orange hair then let his hand drag over his face, massaging his eyes on the way down. "Lord, building a spaceship is dry work." One eye popped open. "You wouldn't happen to have a wee something to drink, would you?"

Quark jumped up. "For you? Anything. On the house, of course." He scuttled backwards until he ran into the cabinet where he kept his private stock. "Andorian ale? Klingon bloodwine? Romulan-"

"Your generosity wouldn't extend to some Scotch whiskey, would it?"

"Let me see." Quark knelt and unlocked the cabinet. Old bottles clinked musically as he bumped his way through dozens of exotic liquors. The music stopped. Quark's weasel-like face twisted over his right shoulder. "I'm afraid not." He held up a dusty longneck. "How about a root beer? Most Hew-mons love the stuff."

McDermot grimaced. "Thanks, no. It's not quite the same thing. A little of that Bajoran ale would be nice, though."

Quark switched bottles and poured a generous glass of cream-colored liquid for McDermot.

"Thanks."

"The pleasure's mine." Quark placed the bottle within his guest's reach.

McDermot took a sip and smacked his lips. "First rate, this." He placed the glass on the edge of the desk and nodded at Quark. "Yes, sir. You did a great job." Quark's smile grew to heroic proportions. "In fact, you did so well I'm giving you a second chance to impress me." The Ferengi's thin eyebrows rose halfway up his forehead. McDermot pulled a PADD out of a pocket. "During our first meeting I said there might be a follow-up order for you, but I'm afraid you may not like some of the things on it." He handed the PADD over. "My informants tell me you've handled these kinds of items before so I'm confident you'll be able to get them for me. There's considerable risk associated with most of the them so I'm willing to double your commission."

"Double?" Quark's fingers trembled as he took the PADD. "I’ll be delighted to-"

"You better look at the list before you say anything."

Quark keyed the scroll button. The first item made his eyes bulge. The second stopped his breathing. The third numbed his hand so much the PADD fell to the floor with a metallic clatter. "They're-" Quark whispered.

"Yes?" McDermot raised an eyebrow. "Is that a problem?"

The Ferengi spread his hands. "Well...normally, no. But what you want-"

"Is a lot. Yes. I realize that, but I need them and you're the best man for the job. Can you do it?"

Quark picked up the PADD and scanned the rest of the list. With each additional item, his head shook more violently. He reluctantly handed the PADD back to his guest. "Even you couldn't have enough money for what's on that list. The smuggling bribes alone would equal the annual productivity of half a dozen star systems I could name. Fill the Aeneid with latinum and give me a year and I might be able to do something. As it stands-"

"I need everything within a week."

Quark threw his hands up. "I'm sorry, but this is one time you can't have what you want." McDermot studied him a moment, then bent to unbuckle the satchel. Quark shrugged apologetically. "And I'm afraid that latinum plates won't help." A forearm covered with curly red hair disappeared into the satchel. "So you're wasting your time." Quark strained upward, trying to spy what McDermot rummaged for in the bottom of the bag. The arm stopped and started a slow withdraw. "No matter how much-"

McDermot's arm flashed up. With a snap of his wrist he flung a small, stiff card at Quark. It struck the Ferengi square in his green waistcoat and Quark grabbed for it as it bounced off. McDermot leaned back, eyes twinkling.

Quark glanced at the card, looked up to toss it back, and froze. His eyes slowly returned to what he held in his hands.  It was plain gray plastic with the isolinear coding strip common to all fund-transfer cards. The only oddity was the strip’s double width. Quark turned it over. A bold-faced black capital L adorned the front. Quark's mouth began working, but no sound came out.

"Quark," McDermot said. "You're not breathing."

"Ugh...."

"I see you've heard of them."

"It's... ah...."

McDermot snatched the card form the Ferengi's paralyzed fingers. "A what?" McDermot's smile grew.

Quark snapped out of his shock. "That's a latinum-class debit card." His eyes expanded in new appreciation of the man who idly toyed with the card. "There are only, what? Two in all known space?"

"Three. The Federation has one and Starfleet the second. This," McDermot tossed it back to Quark, "is the third."

The Ferengi caught it in trembling hands. "I've heard Grand Negus Zek talk about these as if they were a legend. They have virtually unlimited purchasing power."

McDermot leaned close. "Not virtual, Quark. Actual. With that card I've purchased entire solar systems, stopped wars, and bought fleets of ships. With it, you can fill that order."

Wonder and hope softened Quark’s voice to a whisper. "It just might be possible."

"It is. You've got the contacts. That card gives you the power. Do it, Quark. Take any commission you want; just get me what I need."

"It would be the deal of a lifetime."

McDermot stood up. "The greatest deal any Ferengi ever made. The notoriety alone will be worth your weight in latinum."

"One week?" Quark struggled with himself. "Can it be done?"

"If you get going now, this second."

Quark mumbled to himself; his trembling fingers clutched the small card made slippery by his perspiration. "Customs will be difficult, and getting carriers willing to ship these items&ldots;."

"You're holding the solution to all those problems in your hands."

Suddenly sober, Quark nailed McDermot with a stare. "It could cost you more than you've imagined. Half of what you want is illegal for private citizens to own. The other half is illegal for anyone, even the Federation, to have. We're talking violation of Federation laws, Starfleet codes, dozens of intersystem trade agreements and more treaties than I can count. This will be the biggest illegal procurement and smuggling operation in history."

"You'll do it?"

"You bet I'll do it."

 

Chapter 17

ROM PANICS

 

The first thing Wilson McDermot saw as he stepped through the Aeneid's hatch was Rom pacing the control room and wringing his bony fingers.

Rom pounced on him. "We're not going to make it! There's not enough time to program all the procedures the replibots need to meet your deadline." His rat-like face pinched itself into a lumpy knot. "I'm going to lose my profit," he whined.

McDermot steered him to a chair. "Take it easy. We're half a day ahead of schedule and the second order's just gone out. We'll make it."

"The second order," Rom whispered, glancing side to side. "I'm not sure I like that part of the project."

"You know I can't accomplish what's needed without them. It's not like I'm going to become a pirate. They're just one of the tools needed to make Dreadnought a reality."

"Dreadnought." Rom's eyes took on a hunted look. "I don't care for the name either. When Starfleet finds out-"

McDermot patted the shaking Ferengi on the shoulder. "It's too late to back out now. Quark's already working the order. We can expect the easier items to start arriving tomorrow."

"Do you think my brother can get everything?"

"I gave him the card and an unlimited commission."

"He'll get it."

"I'm sure he will. Still, if Quark were as good a businessman as he seems I'd expect him to have done better for himself than just running a bar."

Rom's chair squeaked as he jerked out of his slouch. "My brother's one of the best businessmen in the quadrant."

McDermot's red eyebrows went up. "Oh?"

The Ferengi's shoulders sagged. "It's just that he's had a run of bad luck the last few years."

"I hope it doesn't carry over into our little project."

"Me too," Rom said weakly.

McDermot studied the lobed top of the Ferengi's head. "What about you? Why aren't you out making your own profit?"

He shrugged. "I work for Starfleet."

"That's an odd way for a Ferengi to acquire profit, working for an organization that doesn't use money."

"They take care of me."

"It's not the same as latinum in the hand."

"No, it isn't." Rom looked away. "The fact is, I don't have the lobes for business."

"Nonsense. The emergency clause you had me add to your contract was brilliant. Quark didn't think of it and I have a feeling he's going to regret it. Besides, that old tale linking someone's business ability to the size of their earlobes is ridiculous. Look at mine." Rom glanced at McDermot's small, pink, Hew-mon ears. "They're smaller than any Ferengi's yet I've done pretty good. The fact is, it's not the size of the lobes that counts -- it's what's between them that matters." McDermot swept a hand toward Aeneid’s interior. "Look at what you've accomplished in one week. Once word of this gets out you'll be able to name your price in any shipyard in space."

Rom's eyes started to glimmer, then dimmed. "More likely I'll end up in prison."

"I doubt it'll come to that." McDermot took a seat next to him. "Now, tell me why you think we're going to run out of time."

Rom sighed. "I ran a forecast of our ability to program the queens with the requirements for integrating the new systems Quark's getting us. The replibots can get the work done in time once they have their instructions, but we can't program isolinear rods fast enough to make your deadline. We need at least two more programmers."

McDermot shook his head. "Can't do it. Bringing anyone else in at this stage increases the risk of early exposure. Odo's breathing down our necks as it is."

"I know Odo. He won't give up."

McDermot nodded. "Exactly. Once the new shipments start arriving it'll only be a matter of time before someone on the delivery crews spills the beans and-"

"What beans?"

"Old Earth expression. Means the same as letting the cat out of the bag."

"What's a cat and why put it in a bag?"

"Forget it. Let's just say I need to be gone before Odo finds out what we're doing." McDermot rocked in his chair. "How about converting to voice interfacing?"

"Uh...no good. Wouldn't save enough time."

"Can we-"

Rom jumped up. "The queens!" His eyes focused on something far outside the room.

"What about them?"

"Why couldn't we program one of them to do the programming for the other queens?"

McDermot snapped his fingers. "It might work. Give her the overall plan and the required schedule and have her replicate the isolinear rods preprogrammed."

"She'd not only do the programming but run an optimization analysis that would coordinate the work more efficiently than we've been doing."

Rom dove into the chair in front of his programming console, jammed an isolinear rod into its hole, and began pounding function pads.

McDermot swiveled around to face the other console. "I'll call in unit four hundred and sixteen. She has the best computer."

"She'll need it."

"This is going to work. I can feel it."

Rom's voice shook with desperation. "It better. It's our only hope."

 

 

Chapter 18

STATUS MEETING

 

The lift fell away as soon as Samantha Skarn stepped off into Ops.

"Welcome home," Terl said from the science station.

"Thanks. I understand from the dock master that you just got back yourself."

Terl smiled. "Nog's first command."

She leaned a hip against his console. "How was it?"

He retreated a centimeter away from her. "Interesting, and profitable."

She gave him a quizzical look. "Profitable? That sounds like a Ferengi's influence. What was the mission?"

"Crash site survey."

"Bring back anything useful?"

He nodded. "Very. But I'll let Nog tell it. He's earned the right to blow his own horn."

"How was he at command?"

"Better than I was."

Skarn smiled hard enough for her cheeks to dimple. "That's not saying much. If the rumors I've heard are true, you placed three sectors on alert after mistaking a Federation research vessel for a Romulan warship."

Terl confined his eyes to the sensor panel. "An honest mistake."

Skarn laughed. "I bet that's not what the Altair's captain thought when he found himself staring into the charged phaser banks of three Galaxy-class starships."

Terl flushed. "No. His language was... colorful."

Skarn shrugged. "We all make mistakes. So you think Nog has potential?"

Terl leveled serious eyes on her. "We talked it over after the mission-"

"We?"

"The crew. Chase, D'Taing and myself. I don't think you've met the others." Skarn shook her head. "We all agreed Nog showed more ability than any other cadet we've worked with."

Skarn raised an eyebrow. "Lieutenant D'Taing went along with that? I'm surprised. Two of the technicians that came to Bajor Eight to help me said she was a real stickler."

Terl grinned. "Still is. I'm glad she wasn't on my first-command crew."

"And Nog's professionalism impressed her?"

"Extremely." Terl’s smile turned sly. "Perhaps even personally."

Skarn leered brightly. "Sounds juicy. Come on. Give. What happened?"

"D'Taing found Nog...interesting. Not at all what she expected."

"Coming from a Vulcan that's a lot. What's Nog think of her?"

Terl chuckled. "He has trouble breathing whenever she's in sight. What is it about Ferengi men that they have a thing for women who are taller than them?"

Skarn straightened as tall as her short frame allowed. "Couldn't say."

He leaned closer to her. "Okay. Then explain this-"

Metal screamed against metal as the turbolift's brakes struggled to stop an emergency-speed lift. Its gate slammed open and Miles O'Brien hurtled out, vaulted over the railing to the weapons station, and pounded a fist on the phaser activation pad. "Computer! Emergency voice protocol, authorization O'Brien, delta-beta-zulu. Initiate auto tracking and firing of all forward turrets. Execute!"

Six blinding shafts knifed into space and collided with invisible targets that exploded in showers of incandescent sparks. O'Brien heaved a deep sigh.

"Chief?" Skarn said.

O’Brien shuffled backward toward the lift, his left hand pointing toward Sisko's office while his right made shushing motions. He clamored into the turbolift and dropped out of sight.

Terl and Skarn exchanged blank looks. She shrugged. "I guess it's something we're better off not knowing."

 

+++

 

"Yes, sir. I agree. A real tragedy," Captain Sisko acknowledged into his communicator. "What's Starfleet going to do about it?"

"Nothing, Sisko," Jorgenson said. "And that goes for you too."

"Admiral, we have to do something. First it was the Agamemnon, then Belug Four, now-"

"You have your orders, Sisko. Just sit tight."

"But, sir-"

"But nothing. And don't think you can use this incident as justification for that attack fleet you keep pestering me about. I've killed that idea three times already and I'll do it again."

Sisko drew himself up. "It would be helpful if I understood why-"

"You don't need to do anything except follow my orders. Jorgenson out."

Sisko glared at the communicator. Pompous bureaucrat. He checked how much time he had until the staff meeting, then walked over to the window. The Aeneid glimmered in the blackness. Something flashed off to his right. A moment later, a jolt characteristic of a phaser volley shook the station. Sisko sprinted through the door to Ops. Skarn and Terl busied themselves at the computer and science consoles as if nothing had happened. The sound of the turbolift cycling down drew his attention. Sisko thought he caught sight of a head of buff-colored curls just dropping out of sight. He turned back to the lieutenants. "Skarn?"

She looked at him with exaggerated innocence. "Yes, Captain? Something I can do for you?"

His gaze swept Ops. "Did anything out of the ordinary just happen?"

"Out of the ordinary? Like something I've never seen before?"

He nodded suspiciously at her. "Yes. Something odd?"

"No, sir. I can honestly say I haven't seen anything in the last few minutes that I haven't seen before."

He looked around again. "I was sure I felt a phaser recoil a moment ago."

"Oh, that." Skarn stepped over to the weapons console, scanning it quickly for familiarization. "It was me. I, uh... just ran a quick test of the firing system." Her fingers haltingly punched commands into the console. A lone phaser beam lanced into space. She looked up with a sweet smile. "See? Everything checks out."

 Sisko’s eyes narrowed. "I guess that was it." The turbolift returned with the command staff.

"Staff meeting, sir," Skarn said quickly. "Time for your staff meeting."

He looked sideways at her. "I heard you the first time, Lieutenant. I'm not sure-"

"Excuse me, sir," Worf said. "If you don't mind, you are blocking the door."

Sisko stepped aside. "My apologies, Mister Worf. By all means, let's get started." He shot a glance in Skarn's direction. "I have a feeling I'm not going to get any straight answers out here." He followed Worf into the wardroom. The rest trailed after them with Skarn bringing up the rear. She threw Terl a wink before going in.

 

Once everyone had settled around the conference table, Sisko opened the meeting. "I'm glad to have everyone back safe and sound. You'll notice Chief O'Brien's absent. He's working a project for me that hasn't been going too well."

Kira looked at him with a straight face. "Would that be the station's new auto-destruct system?" Subdued laughter rippled around the table.

"I'm beginning to wonder," Sisko said, shaking his head. His smile faded. "I regret to say I have to open this meeting with some bad news. Someone attacked the Dornat settlement last night. Preliminary reports are sketchy but it appears to be a repeat of the Belug Four massacre. Starfleet's assuming it's the same fleet. This second attack gives a hint at the direction in which the attackers are heading... straight at us."

He looked down at his open, empty hands. "Starfleet's not going to retaliate. The Strategic Planning Directorate believes this is some sort of ploy to provoke us into sending a retaliatory force into the Gamma Quadrant."

"Why would the Dominion want us to invade their space?" Doctor Bashir asked. "It doesn't make sense."

"I agree, but for now there's nothing we can do about it. By the way, Jorgenson remains dead-set against providing us with a fleet. Since the Dominion attacks are moving in this direction, building our own is more critical than ever." He looked up with a forced smile. "Doctor? Why don't you start the briefing. I hope your Balduk warriors haven't caused any more problems." Nervous laughter struggled in the gloom of Sisko's news.

Bashir stood up. "So little you'd hardly notice they're aboard."

"Glad to hear it. Continue."

"The additional medical supplies have arrived. Instead of storing all of them in sickbay I dispersed them into four unused docking bays. Each bay has been set up as an emergency hospital in case the primary medical facility is destroyed."

"Excellent. How's the training program going?"

Bashir shook his head. "Not good. I only managed to get one hundred people to enroll. The simple fact is, most residents don't have the time or inclination for the program."

Sisko gave his ear a thoughtful tug. "Mister Worf. What do you think about initiating a series of station-wide practice alerts?"

The Klingon nodded. "Drills are always valuable in preparing for battle."

"Good. Do it. Maybe if we get them to think things aren't as safe as they appear, they'll warm up to the Doctor's training program. Is that all, Doctor?"

"Well, there was something else, but it can wait." Bashir sat down.

"Next?"

Kira took the floor. "I contacted the Bajoran government. As expected, they declined to support the fleet. My only option was to meet with the remaining members of my resistance group in the hopes they might at least be able to supply some manpower." She grinned. "To say I got the surprise of my life would be an understatement. The three remaining men from the group managed to get their hands on a Cardassian interceptor during the last days of the occupation. Believe it or not, they hid it by burying it in case the Cardassians returned. When it was certain we'd won the war, they kept it as a hobby, keeping it operational and upgrading its systems."

Sisko’s jaw gaped. "You're kidding."

"I wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't sat in the pilot's seat. It's a Jag-class interceptor, capable of warp eight-point-four and as deadly as a razor-tusked larl."

"Major, that's-"

Kira stopped him with the palm of her hand. "Not as good as it sounds. There's a catch. They're only willing to donate the ship if they get to be the crew. If they don't go, the ship doesn't go."

He pursed his lips. "These men. What are they like?"

"Experienced. Hard. But old."

"Too old?"

She shook her head. "In my opinion, no."

"Then we'll take them."

"But, Captain-"

"Major, when I started this enterprise I knew I was going to have to take whatever I could get. If accepting the services of combat-trained civilians is the worst compromise I have to make I'll count myself lucky. When do they arrive?"

"They're here. Docking bay twelve. They flew me back last night." She gave him a crooked smile. "You should have seen Bajor's orbital defense system trying to turn itself inside out to face a Cardassian attack ship coming up from the surface instead down from space."

"Set up a meeting for me with them."

"I can have them in your office-"

"No. I'll go to them. It's the least I can do considering what they're offering. Anything else?"

"No, sir."

He studied her face. "Major? You look different. Your hair?"

Her hand shot up as if to touch her forehead, but stopped short. "It's nothing. I'm just a little tired."

"Sorry to hear it." Sisko nodded an acknowledgement. "Good work, Major."

"Thank you, sir."  She glanced briefly in Odo's direction then looked away before resuming her seat. Odo kept his eyes trained on her, but all he got for his trouble was a look at her profile.

Sisko watched the interplay, then turned his attention to Skarn. "Last time we talked you bet you could turn an Aldorian freighter into a usable weapon system. Your smile tells me you succeeded."

Skarn marched to a wall display and tapped it to life. The squat neutronium hull of the Aldorian freighter appeared, looking like a squashed, reamed-out cylinder open at both ends.  "Except for its hull, the ship, originally called the Cragg, was a write-off. Engines, deflectors, and controls were completely burned out by what seems to have been a multiple photon torpedo attack. The neutronium hull didn't get a scratch but the torpedoes burned their way through the forward shields. I'm glad I wasn't inside when it happened."

"How thick is the neutronium?" Worf asked.

"A quarter centimeter, thick enough to stand up to anything. Since everything but the hull was worthless we used the shuttle's phasers to scour the inside clean. The ship was built with both ends open so everything blew out the far end. We cannibalized two warp nacelles from the Ferengi marauder for propulsion."

Sisko recalled McDermot's positioning the Aeneid's nacelles inside its hull. "Carrying the nacelles inside will reduce their efficiency."

Skarn shrugged. "True, but mounting them outside would be a waste of the protection the hull offers." She depressed a key and two warp nacelles took shape inside the oval hull. "After they were mounted, we secured one of the shuttles inside and packed as many photon torpedo tubes around it as we could." The boxy shape of a shuttlecraft centered itself inside the neutronium hull. Clusters of meter-wide tubes filled the void between the shuttle and the old freighter's hull.

"Shuttle?"

"It provides command, control, power, and impulse thrust."

"I understood you planned integrating the old system with a new intermix chamber for power?"

Skarn shook her head. "It sounded good but the systems were incompatible. Instead we rigged the extra chamber into the shuttle to power the external systems. We managed to fit twenty torpedo tubes between the shuttle and the outer hull, set to fire simultaneously. We squeezed in enough torpedoes for three salvos."

Sisko gave her a crooked smile. "Twenty photon torpedoes in one throw...that'll be quite a Sunday punch. What are you calling her?"

"Skarn's Vengeance." Bashir grinned. Her look pierced him. "Comments, Doctor?"

His smile faded. "Oh, no. I was... ah... thinking of something else."

"I bet you were."

"It is an interesting ship," Worf intervened. "I look forward to seeing it in combat."

"I hope it never comes to that," Sisko said. "Since you have the floor why don't you tell us how things went with the Klingons."

Worf set his jaw. "I was successful. Captain Mor Pak arrives in the Hegh'Ta today. He swears allegiance to our cause." Worf settled back, trying to make himself comfortable in the human-sized chair. The rest of the staff exchanged blank stares.

"That's all?" Sisko asked him.

"Details are irrelevant in the face of results."

Sisko cleared his throat. "Yes, of course. Please extend our appreciation to Captain Mor Pak." Sisko raised his voice. "I believe the best tactical configuration for small fleets such as ours is to deploy ships in squadrons of three. Defiant will be our flagship under Lieutenant Commander Worf. I'll ride in her as Fleet Tactical Commander. Hegh'Ta, General Martok's Rotaron and Defiant give us three battle-ready ships that will form the fleet's core squadron. O'Brien's reported that all modifications to the runabouts are complete. They'll form the second squadron. Skarn's Vengeance," he said with a nod in Samantha's direction, "and the Shakaar's interceptor-"

"She's called the Last Cry," Kira said.

"Thank you. They are the beginnings of the third squadron. It's regrettable that we don't have a third ship to fill it out."

"Sir?" Doctor Bashir said. "I may be able to help."

"Doctor? I don't really see how-"

"I planned to wait until after the meeting to tell you but now seems more appropriate. Since everyone else got to enjoy breaking Starfleet regulations I didn't see why I couldn't join the fun. I requisitioned a five-bed ambulance ship directly through the Medical Corps. Starfleet Tactical never saw the request so it went through without a hitch. She arrived this morning." Bashir smiled mischievously. "However, I regret that due to an error in the flight plan I submitted, the ship passed through the Denorios Belt, resulting in all her medical logos being scoured off. As such it's no longer necessary to list it as a medical ship as per intergalactic combat accords. She's fast and equipped with more shielding than the Defiant. I figure Chief O'Brien's team can mount phaser arrays on her in less than a day. She was christened Mississippi. You have your third ship." Bashir beamed.

Sisko ran a hand backward over the top of his head. "You never fail to amaze me, Doctor. Thank you. I'll put O'Brien on it immediately. A faint drumming made him scan the table. Nog shook from the nervous bouncing of his feet. Sisko smiled as he remembered the first staff meeting in which he'd been able to contribute something significant. "It might seem that this meeting is over, but I'm happy to acknowledge we have one more report to hear. Nog, you're on."

He snapped to attention so fast his legs struck the lip of his chair, sending it skittering across the floor. He glanced around at the noise, smiled weakly, and turned back to face the staff. "Captain Sisko ordered me to survey a crashed freighter. Sensor and visual inspections indicated it held nothing of value. However, I was unsatisfied with those results and conducted my own investigation."

The young Ferengi combed his audience with the most dramatic look he could muster. "I discovered two secret cargo holds in the ship. One contained a Gung-class Cardassian runabout. These craft are designed for a five-man crew but the Maquis had heavily modified this one. Crew accommodations and life support systems were reduced to accommodate two people. This allowed significant weapon, shield, and engine upgrades. It is my belief that the ship was used for smuggling high-value items. I decided it was too important to leave behind so Lieutenant D'Taing and I flew it back to Deep Space Nine."

Skarn's eyebrow shot up.

"You mentioned two secret holds," Sisko said.

"The second held the equipment the runabout was intended to deliver." Nog's smile overcame his military rigidness. "We found fifteen power packs with energy densities greater than those in the Defiant, four class-six phaser arrays, twelve photon torpedoes, and two multipassenger escape pods. All of it Federation-made. It is my recommendation that this equipment be used to upgrade Profit's-"

"Profit?" Sisko asked.

"As the discovering officer I assumed the right to name her." Beads of perspiration popped out on the Ferengi's forehead. "That is, unless you would prefer-"

Sisko nodded. "Profit it is, Cadet. Continue."

"Thank you, sir. Uh...."

Sisko gave him an encouraging smile. "You were making a recommendation."

"Oh, yes. I suggest we use the salvaged equipment to further upgrade the runabout. This will make her a valuable addition to the fleet."

Worf thrust forward. "How will you overcome the problem of integrating Federation equipment with a Cardassian ship?"

"Well, sir. I suppose it will take some time but-"

"Who's going to make the modifications?" Kira demanded. "O'Brien's people are already overloaded."

Nog's head jerked from Worf to the Major. "As to that-"

Skarn jumped it. "What about a crew? How are you going to man the ship?"

Nog’s head whipped around.

Sisko intervened before the young Ferengi dislocated his neck. "Easy people. It's a little unfair for half a dozen senior officers to gang up on a lone cadet." Sisko nodded for Nog to take his seat. He collapsed into it. "I talked it over with O'Brien last night and he thinks one person could accomplish the conversion in three weeks. Since this is the length of time remaining in Nog's tour, I'm assigning him the task of making the modifications. It'll be good engineering experience. As soon as he finishes Profit, I want it integrated into the fleet. In the meantime, Commander Worf will begin tactical exercises with the existing units. I want this fleet working as a team as soon as possible. Does anyone have anything to add before we break up?"

"Me, sir," Nog said.

Sisko's eyebrows arched. "Going to give this group another shot at you? Go ahead, it's your neck."

Nog stood and pulled his uniform smooth. "I just wanted to acknowledge my crew. Lieutenant Terl, Chase and especially D'Taing supported me in every possible way. Without them I wouldn't have been able to salvage the runabout." Nog fell back into his chair as quickly as the station's artificial gravity allowed.

"I'll let them know you said so." Sisko rose and clapped his hands together. "Thank you everyone. It's been a good meeting. Dismissed."

As they shuffled through the door, Sisko noticed Skarn bump Nog. "Especially Lieutenant D'Taing?" Skarn asked. "What did she do to deserve the extra acknowledgment?" Nog blanched, then turned the bright yellow of a Ferengi blush. Sisko aimed a questioning look at her. She smiled back innocently before exiting.

"Cadet?" Sisko called. "A moment?"

"Yes, sir," Nog retreated back into the relative safety of the conference room. He bent at the waist to take a seat.

"Not so fast." Nog froze. "Your orders were to survey the crash site and return. I specifically ordered you not to conduct salvage operations. Yet here you show up with a complete ship and several tons of weaponry." Sisko's voice fell to a growl. "Explain yourself."

Nog didn't flinch. "Sir, I faithfully followed both your orders."

"How do you figure?"

"You said I wasn't to attempt salvage operations on the freighter. I didn't. The runabout and weapons were merely equipment I found on board. If I had found an operational memory core, you would have expected me to bring it back for intelligence purposes. As I see it, the runabout was the same thing. The difference between the two cases is only one of magnitude, sir."

Sisko chewed on this. "Technically you have a point but you're treading dangerously close to the line. In the future I strongly suggest you interpret your commander's orders more literally. You said you followed both my orders. What's the second one you were referring to?"

"Sir. That a good officer is audacious without being reckless."

Sisko regarded him carefully. "I'm beginning to understand Admiral Skarn's comments about you."

Nog gulped. "Admiral Skarn? You talked to him? Did he say anything about...you know?"

"He said many interesting things about you, Cadet. I'm going to enjoy seeing how many of them turn out to be true."

"About the Kobayashi Maru test. Is there any word?"

"Nothing I can comment on, but don't worry. I have it on high authority that your situation is getting all the attention it deserves." Perspiration broke out on Nog's forehead. "That's all, Cadet. Dismissed."

Nog about-faced towards the door. Halfway there he paused and looked back. "My mission, sir. Did I do it?"

"Do what?"

"Get away with it?"

Sisko studied him. "Yes, you did." The young Ferengi grinned. Sisko's expression remained firm. "Barely." Nog's smile evaporated and he fled the office.

 

 

 

Chapter 19

ONE STRAW SHORT

 

Sisko strolled the length of the conference table, pushing chairs back into place. Their feet scraped noisily in the empty silence of the wardroom. At the far end of the table, the wall display still held the image of Skarn's Vengeance. Sisko smiled and shook his head before clearing the screen.

He walked up the other side of the table straightening chairs as he went. He glanced out the room's port. In defiance of the weightlessness of space, the Aeneid seemed to wallow heavily in the dark. A long line of freighters near her stern drew his eye. He counted seven: one from the Federation, three Ferengi, one Klingon, and two...he squinted at the last ships. Could they be...?

Sisko marched out of the conference room. Ops looked as it had before the meeting with Lieutenant Terl manning the sensor station and Skarn at the computer console. The Aeneid and freighters were visible on the main screen.

"Lieutenant Terl," he said. "I have a suspicion about the last two freighters by the Aeneid. What are their registries?"

Terl called up the most recent approach records. His eyes went round. "Romulan, sir."

"Romulan freighters? In Federation space?"

Terl doubled-checked the logs. Then shook his head. "They had valid permits, although I can't imagine how they got them."

Sisko smiled in the Aeneid's direction. "I can." He strolled over to the edge of the computer console where Skarn was working hard at being inconspicuous. "Lieutenant?"

She gave him another innocent smile. "Captain. It's nice to see you again so soon. How-"

"Never mind all that. I'd like to know what was behind that little scene between you and Nog after the meeting."

"What scene?"

"When you needled him about Lieutenant D'Taing?"

Skarn’s face brightened with mock affront. "Why I never needle-"

"Yes you do, him and every other male officer in sight. Now, tell me what's going on."

"Well," she leaned in. "It seems Nog has his eye on your young Vulcan lieutenant."

His eyebrows shot up. "D’Taing?" He shook his head. "Well, I wish him luck."

"He may not need it. Rumor has it she finds Nog interesting." Skarn cocked her mouth wryly to one side. "I wonder what their children will look like?"

"Oh, come now. I hardly think it'll go that far."

"I figure they'll be going together in public within a month."

"Impossible."

"Want to bet?"

Confidence widened his smile. "Name it."

"My best bottle of Anterean brandy, the twenty-two forty-three, against a five-day trip to Risa."

"Done." They shook hands.

She keyed the console off. "I guess I better get packing."

Sisko frowned. "Packing?"

"For my trip."

"Isn't that a little premature?"

"Not from what I've heard." She strutted away, whistling Risa's planetary anthem.

Sisko walked to his office with the sinking feeling he'd just been had. With a thoughtful look clouding his eyes, he settled in his chair and keyed his communicator.

D'Taing's image materialized. "Captain Sisko, how may I be of service?"

"It's a matter of some delicacy, Lieutenant. It concerns reports that have come to my attention about a possible relationship between you and Cadet Nog."

Her face remained impassive. "To the best of my knowledge there is no such relationship...yet."

"Yet?"

"Sir?"

"You said 'yet.' Does that imply the possibility that a relationship might develop?"

"All events have a calculable probability of occurrence."

"Would you say the probability of this occurrence is high, or low?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "High or low in relation to what, sir?"

Sisko sighed. "Let's not fence, Lieutenant. You know what I'm getting at."

"Yes, sir."

"Well?"

"In my presence Lieutenant Nog’s respiration rate increases seventy-three percent, his skin color shifts three shades toward primary yellow and his pulse increases from the Ferengi normal of forty-eight beats per minute to eighty-six. These, and an increased incidence of stammering, indicate he has developed a fixation on me. It is difficult to determine if this fixation is physical, emotional, or both."

Sisko cleared his throat. "He's got a crush on you."

"Your terminology is colloquial but yes, I believe that is the situation."

"And may I ask about your feelings for him?"

The young officer drew herself up. "Sir. I am a Vulcan. I do not have feelings."

"Yes, of course. I apologize. What I meant-"

"-was whether I will encourage Cadet Nog to act on his emotions."

"Well...yes."

"I am still evaluating the advantages of such a liaison."

Sisko's felt his lower jaw drop. He snapped it shut with as much dignity as possible. "You can't be serious. The age difference-"

"Is not a factor. Except in cases of wide divergence, age has little influence on the logical appropriateness of a match."

"What about philosophy? As a Vulcan you represent the most logical, unemotional species in the galaxy. He's a Ferengi, a species famous, I might even say infamous, for greed and passion. That hardly sounds like a logical pairing."

"The Ferengi and Vulcans have much in common. Primarily, that both species have chosen to subjugate themselves to a strict code of behavior. For Vulcans this code is based on the six primary rules of logic and their fifty-three corollaries. For the Ferengi, it is the two hundred and eighty-five Rules of Acquisition. While the outward behaviors of our species are markedly different, there is significance in the fact that the actions of individuals in both societies are determined by a fixed system of rules...unlike Humans, who change the rules to accommodate emotional whims." Sisko's lips pressed to a line. "Sir, I meant no disrespect toward your species."

He forced his eyes to meet her honest stare. "Of course not. My concern over this issue is that Starfleet frowns on relationships between officers of unequal rank."

"I assumed that was the motivation for this call, hence my willingness to answer questions which I hardly need to point out are none of your business, sir. Unless you have a personal agenda..."

Sisko shifted uneasily. "Of course not."

"Then any relationship between Cadet Nog and myself should not concern you. As soon as his promotion is approved-"

He sat bolt upright. "Promotion? What promotion?"

"To lieutenant. It is logical that such a promotion will occur much earlier in his career than normal because of his solution to the Kobayashi Maru problem."

Sisko leaned close. "How did you know about that?"

"My specialty is computer systems. After graduating, I was assigned to duty at the Academy's computer center until my appointment to Deep Space Nine. It was my job to track down parity failures in the Kobayashi test. One error led me into the caretaker program and a subsequent understanding of its function. Later, when I heard Lieutenant Nog's solution had locked up the Academy's computer, I knew it meant he had solved this purportedly unsolvable problem. I have not mentioned it to anyone because it was obvious Starfleet needs time to decide that the only logical course of action is to acknowledge his achievement. Nog will be promoted and because it is likely he will also be transferred to the command pipeline, he will make rank faster than my position in the science career field allows. It will not be long before we will be the same grade."

"What makes you sure he'll make promotion so fast?"

"I served under him during his first-command mission. I have no doubts as to his abilities."

Sisko rubbed a hand over his head.

"Headache, sir?"

"One's starting, Lieutenant." He dropped the hand. "Thank you for your candor. I'm sorry to have intruded on your private life...wait! Suppose you decide that Nog would make a good...."

"Partner?"

"Thank you. Yes. What makes you sure he'll be interested?"

D'Taing looked straight at Sisko. "It would be illogical, and unprofitable, for him to do otherwise."

"Of course." He hastily broke the connection.

A queasy feeling of having lost an expensive bet churned his stomach. Sisko heaved himself out of the chair and wandered to the observation port to let the sight of the Aeneid distract him from figuring out how he was going to pay for Skarn's vacation. A movement caught his eye.

Off to the left, a shuttle drifted upward in a gentle spiral. Sisko bent at the waist trying to make out the ship's identification number. The shuttle's slow twist had turned the side with its designation out of sight. He straightened and continued tracking its path.

The little craft's slow roll brought the port side into view, a warp nacelle, then its landing skids, and a two-meter charred hole in the middle of its belly. Sisko slammed a fist against the bulkhead. The shuttle continued drifting upward, trailing a now-visible stream of faint red sparks.

He whirled to his communicator. "Ops! There's a shuttlecraft-"

"We're already tracking it. No one's on board. I can't imagine-"

"I can," he thundered. "Get me Chief-" His voice dropped to a deadly rumble. "No. I have a better idea. Connect me with Odo." Sisko felt blood pounding in his temples.

"Odo here."

"Constable," Sisko said through clenched teeth. "Bring me the head of Miles O'Brien."

"Yes, sir. Roasted or boiled?"

"Raw. I'll cook it myself. Sisko out." His fist hammered the communicator to silence. He paced the office, hands working. A tone announced people at his door. "Enter."

The door opened showing Miles O'Brien at rigid attention flanked by two security guards. All color had drained from his face. The guards were having a hard time maintaining serious expressions. The group marched one step into the office.

"Sir," one guard said. "You ordered Chief O'Brien arrested and brought to you. Constable Odo wants to know if you have any additional need for our services."

Sisko stepped so close to O'Brien that their noses almost touched. "Yes," he whispered. "Wait outside. I'll need you later to remove the body."

"Aye-aye sir," they shouted in unison and back-stepped out of the office. The door sliced shut.

"Mister O'Brien," Sisko growled. "How good of you to pay me this visit."

O'Brien relaxed and spread his hands. "I can explain about the shuttle. What happened was-"

"Did I say you could talk?" Sisko roared. O'Brien snapped back to attention. "That's better." He backed away and studied O'Brien like a spider examining a fly. "Chief. Do you realize that in the last two weeks you've heaped more damage on this station than the Dominion has in the last year?"

O’Brien tried making himself small. "Well...."

Sisko began a slow pace around the office. "When I asked you to develop a new weapon it wasn't my intention for you to destroy the station in the process." He whirled toward O'Brien. "Or is that your plan? To wreck Deep Space Nine so completely no one would want it?"

"Of course not-"

"Because if it is I'm here to tell you it won't work." Sisko straightened to his full height. "Now hear this: You will personally repair each and every hull breach, scorch mark and dent you cause."

"But-"

"Do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir!"

Sisko forced calmness into his voice. "Four days ago I considered canceling the project."

"Maybe that would be for the best-"

Sisko stepped close and stuck his face into O'Brien's. "Not on your life, Mister. This station's paid too high a price to quit now. You will give me a new weapons system, without any further damage to this facility."

"I'll try-"

"You'd better. And a lot harder than you have been."

"Yes, sir."

Sisko's teeth gleamed through his smile. He rested an arm across O'Brien's shoulders and forced him around to face the door. "Well, Chief. Thank you for coming. It's always good to talk to you." He keyed the door open. "Good bye, then, and Chief? One more straw and you'll break this camel's back. If that happens it'll fall on you, hard. I'd advise you to be very careful."

 

 

 

Chapter 20

McDERMOT STALLS

 

The wardroom's door glided half way closed behind O'Brien, stopped, and reopened. Constable Odo walked in. "I just passed your chief engineer. From the look on his face I assume you got through to him."

Sisko smiled wearily. "I sincerely hope so."

"So does everyone else on the station. They don't think it can take much more."

"I'm confident everyone will be able to relax now. Chief O'Brien's going to be much more circumspect in his testing or he'll be so busy repairing the damage he won't have time to cause any more problems. What's McDermot done now?"

"How did you know-"

"Easy guess. It's become your favorite topic of conversation."

"I see. Take a look at this." Odo handed Sisko a PADD.

He put it down without reading it. "Another equipment list?"

"Yes, sir."

Sisko dropped into a chair. "Don't you think you're overworking this problem, especially since there doesn't seem to be one? McDermot's answered every question we've thrown at him and given us two tours. He's certainly not acting like a man with something to hide."

"That's what makes me so suspicious." Odo took a seat. "No one's that open with the law."

"You'd suspect your own mother." Odo cocked his head at Sisko. "Sorry," Sisko said. "I forgot you didn't have one."

Odo's forehead rippled in an imitation of a brow knitted in consternation. "To be truthful I'm not sure what I had; changeling biology isn't my strong spot." He straightened himself. "Just the same, I think you should read that list."

Sisko activated the PADD. "Sixteen class-six tractor systems, twenty-four Galaxy-class structural integrity field generators, eight... McDermot seems to have a fixation with multiples of eight."

"Eight warp nacelles too, remember?"

"Yes. Odd."

"Read on. It's the computer system I wanted you to see."

Sisko held the scroll key down. "Here it is." His eyes widened. "A Dyson three thousand?" He looked up. "That's more computing power that the mainframe at Starfleet Headquarters."

"And faster I'd wager."

"No doubt." Sisko dropped the PADD. "Why would anyone need computational power of that magnitude?"

"That's a question I'd like to ask our over-obliging visitor." Odo nodded at the PADD. "There's something else."

Sisko picked it up again and keyed it for high speed scrolling. The last item on the list was the computer.

Sisko looked up with a blank expression. "The computer's the last item."

"Exactly. There should be more. A lot more." Odo leaned toward Sisko. "He's ordered plumbing fixtures but no replicators. What are his guests going to eat? Tons of linen arrived, but no mirrors. Now that's really odd. If there's anything the wealthy like to do, it's to look at themselves. But, the strangest thing of all is that he hasn't ordered any artificial gravity units. I can't believe the richest people in the galaxy are going to enjoy floating around their cabins."

Sisko stood up. "Well, the only way we're going to find out is to ask."  They walked out into Ops. Lieutenant Terl had shifted position to the communications console. Sisko pointed at him. "Open a channel to the Aeneid."

Sisko and Odo walked to the middle of the observation deck to face the main viewer. McDermot's flame-haired image took form on the screen. "Captain. And Odo. What a pleasure. How may I help you?"

"I was wondering how things are going with your ship?" Sisko asked.

"Fantastic, Captain. Simply fantastic. We're...I'm a full day ahead of schedule."

"Glad to hear it. Any chance we could swing another tour?"

"Ah," McDermot sighed. "Unfortunately you've caught me at an awkward time. The, uh...artificial gravity units are being installed in the suites and we're having a little trouble getting the emitters balanced."

Odo and Sisko glanced at each other. "We understand," Sisko said. "Another time."

"Yes, Captain. Very soon you'll know just how special the Aeneid is." Some of the glitter went out of McDermot's eyes. "I'm sorry about the stall but that's the way it has to be."

Sisko saw honest regret in the man's eyes. "When she's all done you can show me around. I'm looking forward to it. Sisko out." McDermot's image dissolved.

"He lied," Odo said.

"And hated doing it."

"Well?"

He shrugged. "Nothing. He still hasn't broken any laws. Even if he had I'd be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I dug deeper into several of his projects. He may say he did them for his own pleasure but in each case someone benefited from his actions. That's a man who's earned an extra meter of slack."

"Still. Lying to us-"

"Isn't polite, but not illegal. McDermot wasn't under oath."

Odo crossed his arms. "So, you're going to stand back and do nothing?"

"Not quite. Lieutenant, Run a level-three scan of the Aeneid."

Terl bent over his readouts, frowned, and looked up. "I'm sorry, sir. Sensors aren't able to get any readings. I'm getting the signatures of hundreds of bipolar plasma torches. Their emissions blocked the sweep."

"Reasonable." Sisko nodded. "It is a construction site. Though, it's odd so many are on all at the same time. Anything strange about the torches?"

"Nothing that the sensors can tell me." He looked up. "But, I've worked with torches like these. You don't use them like the sensors indicate. These are on all the time. In normal use you look, weld, look again, weld again. It's an on-and-off process. The torches on the Aeneid are running steady as if someone fired them up and then walked away."

Sisko stroked the stiff bristles of his beard. "Odd." He shrugged it off. "I guess we'll just have to be patient, but I don't think we'll have long to wait. McDermot sounded like someone eager for the universe to discover what he's up to."

 

 

 

Chapter 21

HOT COCOA AND COLD TEA

 

"Hurry, Miles," Keiko called. "The show's almost on."

"Daddy! You're gonna miss Booby Bear," Molly cried.

"I'm coming. I'm coming." O'Brien rushed into the living room with his arms full of his new son.

Keiko reached up for the baby.  "Needed changing?"

"Did he ever." Keiko shuffled to the right so her husband could sit down. "Do we have to sit on the floor?" he asked.

"Yes, Daddy. That way we're closer to the screen."

He twisted his legs into a stiff-jointed version of the lotus position Keiko had assumed. "Comfortable, dear?" she asked with a smile.

"Oh sure." His left foot sprang free.

Keiko fought the urge to laugh. "It's good for you. Improves flexibility."

The foot escaped again. He sighed, thrust both legs straight forward and braced himself with his arms locked behind him. "I give up."

Concern strained Keiko's expression. "You're exhausted again. The weapons project isn't going well, is it?"

He stared wide-eyed at her. "How'd you know about that? It's supposed to be a secret."

"Really, Miles. All anyone has to do is count the holes in the station to guess what you're up to."

"Yeah. No kidding. I just wish Captain Sisko hadn't been able to count them."

"Angry?"

"You should have heard him today. I felt like a roast in a hot oven."

"Poor Miles."

"Thanks a heap."

She placed a hand on his leg. "I mean it."

He covered the hand with his. "Sorry, love. It wouldn't bother me so much if I were getting somewhere."

"None of the designs worked?"

He sighed. "No. And I'm fresh out of ideas."

"It'll come. You always think of something."

"Shhh!" their daughter said. "Here he is! Aw... it's another commercial." Molly slumped over her folded legs until her head rested on the floor.

O'Brien shook his head. "How can she do that?"

"It's called youth. Remember when we had it?"

"I never had it like that."

"Molly," Keiko said. "Commercials are what pay for the show. People who want to sell something pay the people who own the program for the right to show commercials. No commercials, no Booby Bear."

"Federation shows don't have commercials," O'Brien said.

His daughter sat up indignantly. "Federation shows are boring."

"How can you say that?" He said. "What about last week's show that explained how replicators work. Or the one where they wound the coil to a warp nacelle?"

"Oh, Daddy."

Keiko patted O'Brien's knee. "Think back. What did you watch when you were a kid?" O'Brien blinked at her. She smiled back. "Don't tell me. Science and how-to shows."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing." Keiko kissed his cheek. "It helped make the man I love."

"He's on! He's on!" Molly screamed. "Turn up the sound! Shhh!"

An overstuffed green bear with a Bajoran crest jumped out from behind a bush and waved his hands. "Hey, kids. It's your old pal-"

"Do we have to watch this stuff?" Miles whispered.

"It's not so bad," Keiko said in a low voice. "The show's sponsored by the Bajoran Vedek Assembly. There's always a positive message and Molly loves it. By the way, did her Levitate-Me-Booby come in yet?"

O’Brien shook his head. "It's back-ordered. They're all the rage on Bajor right now. We'll be lucky to get one by Christmas."

"You'll have to explain it to her if we can't get one."

"I could replicate it."

"Shish. She'll hear you. If Molly found out her Booby Bear had been replicated instead of hand-stitched we'd never hear the end of it."

"Daddy?" Molly said with her nose centimeters from the screen.

"Yes, pumpkin?"

"May I have some cocoa?"

Miles smiled. "Sure. With marshmallows?"

"Yes, please."

Keiko pushed up on his elbow as O'Brien struggled to stand. He looked down at her. "You want anything, hon?"

"Iced tea would be nice."

"Just be a minute." O’Brien headed for the replicator.

Keiko smiled at her daughter's wonder as Booby Bear befriended a lost baby antgrub. She half-heard her husband ordering the drinks. "Simultaneous replication, Tarkalean tea, iced, and cocoa, milk-based, thirty degrees, with marshmallows."

The show dragged on with Booby Bear finally managing to lead the grub back to its hive, but only after teaching it how to subtract with borrowing, multiply by tens, and appreciate the importance of respecting the Prophets. Keiko told herself she'd need to talk to Molly about the last item. She wondered where Miles had gone with the drinks. "Honey? Are you okay?" she called out.

"Hmmm?"

"Miles? What are you...." Keiko turned around. O'Brien stood in the middle of the living room, staring at the mug and glass in his hands. She cocked her head to one side. "What's the matter?"

"Huh? Oh, sorry. Here." He handed her the cocoa and Molly the tea then scrunched down into a perfect lotus position without complaint, his gaze locked on Keiko's mug.

Keiko transferred Yoshi to her left arm and took the steaming mug in her right. "Are you sure you're comfortable?"

His eyes tracked the mug as she traded it with her daughter for the iced tea. "Uh-huh." O'Brien's back curved sharply as he bent double to rest his elbow on a knee. His eyes shifted back to stare at her glass of tea. "Why?"

"Because five minutes ago you complained about stiffness and now you're twisted like a pretzel."

"Oh." His eyes hadn't moved.

Keiko slowly extended her hand with the tea. O'Brien traced its movement. She pulled it back. His gaze followed. She shook her head. "Engineers."

"What?"

"Nothing, Miles. Sorry to disturb you."

"Mmm."

Keiko turned her attention to the holoshow. A circle of mature antgrubs was dancing in joy around Booby Bear because the baby he'd helped was the princely heir to their empire. As she sipped her tea the hair on the back of her neck bristled. O’Brien's stare had trailed her glass's motion to her lips and back down. She thumped the glass down on the carpet. "That's enough."

He jerked up. "What's the matter?"

"You. If you're so interested in tea, go get some for yourself."

O'Brien looked over his shoulder toward the replicator. "Good idea," he said and nimbly jumped to his feet.

She turned to watch the end of the show. The hive crowned the baby antgrub as their king and Booby as an honorary grub. The program ended with hundreds of antgrubs swarming over the green bear tickling him into fits of high-pitched giggling. Keiko's stomach twisted at the thought of being covered with antgrubs. "Molly, time for bed."

"Can't I-"

"No. There's school tomorrow."

"I bet Booby Bear gets to stay up late." Molly pouted her way into the rear of the O'Brien's quarters.

Keiko gently laid Yoshi on the floor then picked up her daughter's mug and took it with hers into the kitchen. She tossed them at the recycler chute where they evaporated in the glittering shower of a disrupter field. She headed back into the living room. "Miles?"

He sat on the floor in front of the replicator; six pairs of mugs surrounded him. Keiko pointed at the mugs. "What are you doing?"

"Oh, that. A little experiment."

Suspicion narrowed her eyes to slits. "What do you mean by a little experiment?"

"I had this idea about a new weapons sys-"

Her eyes flared. "I knew it! No! I won't have you blowing up our apartment. Knock holes in the rest of the station if you have to but not here."

He stood to face her. "It's all right. I just wanted to try something."

She put her hands on her hips. "That's what you always say. Then the next thing I know we need new carpeting because you've built some engineering monstrosity in the middle of the living room and spread grease all over the place."

"It was just a little hydrolube."

She extended a hand toward their couch. "Miles, the spot was bigger than the sofa."

"I'll be careful this time."

"That's what you always say."

He raised his right hand as if he were taking an oath. "If I make a mess I'll clean it up. Promise."

"You say that too."

He took her in his arms. "You should have married a writer."

She relaxed and snuggled into his embrace. "Too boring. At least with an engineer in the house there's something entertaining to watch when the holoscreen's broken." Keiko pushed him back toward the replicator. "Have fun, dear. Don't be too late."

She picked up the baby and headed for their bedroom. She paused in the hallway door. "Miles?"

He was back on his knees, tapping the replicator's programming pads. "Yeah?"

"Promise me one thing."

"Anything," he said distantly.

"Try to direct the blast so it goes into the corridor instead of breaching the outer hull. You know how sudden decompressions upset my sinuses."

"Whatever you say, dear."

Keiko shook her head and went to bed.

 

 

Far-off mumbling fought its way through the darkness, got louder, pitched itself higher. Keiko saw herself sitting in a boat that began rocking harder and harder. The mumbling became familiar. The boat disappeared but the rocking continued. Someone kept jerking on a rope tied to her arm. She frowned. The voice turned into a girl's frightened cry.

"Molly!" Keiko sat up in bed. Her daughter let go of the arm she'd been tugging. "Molly, what's wrong?"

"The antgrubs, Mommy," the little girl sobbed. "They were crawling all over me."

Keiko drew the young girl into her embrace. "It was just a dream. It'll be all right."

"They bit me."

"Come on." She stood up and took her daughter by the hand. "Let's get you a drink of water. It does wonders for chasing away antgrubs." Molly dragged after her mother while rubbing a teary eye with her free hand.

Keiko got the child settled in bed then returned to her bedroom. Miles wasn't there. She blinked away the fuzziness that surrounded the bedside clock: two-thirty in the morning. She wandered into the living room where a mushroom of soft yellow light illuminated the far end of the darkened room. "Miles?"

The silhouette of a head popped up over the top of the dark mound that was the sofa. "Here, honey. Something wrong?"

"It's past two. When are you coming to bed?"

The head dropped out of sight. "Just a few minutes. I have a couple more tests to make."

"Okay," she said doubtfully. "See you soon." Keiko returned to bed.

 

 

The alarm buzzed. Keiko rolled over groggily and tapped it for a five-minute delay. After what seemed like only two seconds, it buzzed again and refused to be silenced. She sat up, rubbing sharp crusts out her eyes. Unsurprised at her husband's absence, she washed, dressed, and made the bed.

Molly's room was silent but Yoshi fretted at his covers in a light sleep. Keiko changed his diaper and he drifted back into a deeper slumber. She ran her fingers through the boy’s fine dark curls. "I wonder if your father's hair was that curly when he was your age." Keiko backed out of the room and turned toward Molly's. A bump in the living room drew her attention.

She stepped into the room and breathed a sigh of relief; it looked undamaged. She walked around the end of the sofa, examining the carpet for grease stains. A movement brought her head up and she caught sight of her husband. He knelt on the floor hunched over a jumble of wires and meters. Cups, mugs and flasks of every size littered the area around him. She circled around the mess to get a better view of what occupied his attention. Two black cables slinked out of a confusion of wires in front of him, snaked across the floor, and up to a jagged hole carved into the wall. "Miles! What are you doing?"

His head snapped around. "Oh. Hi, honey. Wait 'till you see what I've done."

She crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "I can see what you've done. When are you going to undo it?"

"Watch this." O'Brien turned to the replicator. "Water, fifty milliliters, program alpha." A half-filled beaker of water materialized. He handed it to her. "Taste it." His eyes glowed with anticipation.

Keiko took a cautious sip: room-temperature water. "So?" she asked.

"Isn't it great?"

"What? A glass of tepid water?"

He took the glass in trembling fingers and held it high like a trophy. "Don't you understand? This is hot and cold water." She blinked at him. His face fell.

Keiko guessed it meant something but for the life of her she couldn't figure out what. "I'm sorry, Miles, but I can get all the water like that I want from the kitchen faucet."

"Look," he said. "Let me explain it again. This breaker contains twenty-five milliliters of thirty-degree water and another twenty-five of ten-degree water." His eyebrows raised expectantly.

"Which means?"

"That I have fifty milliliters of twenty-degree water."

She patted him on the arm. "That's great, honey. I'm happy it worked out for you. I'll... uh... go make us some breakfast." She took a step backwards.

He reached out and pulled her back. "No. No. No. You don't understand. Look."

She watched her husband bend down to the pile of wires. He thrust a hand into the tangle and pulled out a meter. He pushed it into her hands. "Watch that." He turned to the replicator. "Run program alpha," he said to the replicator again.

A beaker of water the same size as the one he'd handed her appeared. The meter read ninety-four. She was afraid to ask of what.

"Run program beta," he ordered. This time the water in the beaker steamed and the meter jumped to 108. He looked over his shoulder at her. "Now watch this!" O'Brien faced the replicator. "Run program delta." Another beaker of water formed inside the replicator. From the amount of condensation rapidly forming on its sides, she guessed it was cold. The reading was 102. He pointed at the meter. "See. It does it every time."

"Yes, Miles." She handed the meter back. "Like I said, I'm happy for you. But, what does it mean?"

"It means the energy required to make the hot and cold water separately is greater than the energy used replicating the same amount of hot and cold water in a mixture." Excitement lit his face. "By combining opposite energy requirements I found I can reduce the power needed to replicate something. It’s as if they cancel each other out." He dropped the meter and took her hands. "It may be the key to my weapon. Something with more punch than anything in Starfleet's arsenal."

Keiko looked doubtfully at the mugs and flasks at her feet. "By replicating a mixture of hot and cold water?"

"No." He stepped closer. "By replicating a mixture of matter and antimatter."

 

 

 

Chapter 22

UNSEEN DEPARTURE

 

When McDermot was a child, his father had taken him deep into the heart of Earth’s last great redwood forest. He’d marveled at the massive trunks stretching up, ringing his view of the sky like the columns of a great cathedral. It had made him seems small and insignificant... like now.

He sat in his tiny shuttle, looking forward toward the circular bulkhead that capped the Aeneid’s stern. Around him, the eight white cylinders that comprised the bulk of Dreadnought’s massive hull crowded claustrophobically close and thrust ahead, their ends almost touching the bulkhead. McDermot leaned back in the small cabin’s only chair and tried to ignore the nervous queasiness churning in his stomach. With a determined tightening of his lips, he sat up straight, glanced over the myriad indicator lights filling the area around him with soft green light, and gave his flight suit a sharp snap down as he’d seen Sisko do. He activated his communicator. "McDermot to all ships, begin your approach. Computer, initiate a three minute countdown."

Even though he watched the numbers drain away toward zero, the ‘timing complete’ announcement the computer sounded made him jump.

Before fear could stall his resolve, McDermot reached out and stabbed a pad. Ahead, Aeneid’s bulkhead dilated open, revealing stars glittering against the black of space. He struck a second actuator. Nine hundred meters behind him, Dreadnought’s powerful impulse engines fired, casting a red glow onto the inside surface of Aeneid’s curved hull.

Dreadnought slipped silently forward into the dark.

 

+++

 

Marchal greeted Lieutenant Raug with a flourish as she stepped out of the turbolift and into Ops. "Welcome to graves, Raug."

She blocked a yawn with her hand. "Thanks. How long does it take to get used to these hours?"

He smiled. "A month or two."

"Great. I'm only scheduled for three weeks."

Marchal laughed. "Don't worry. You'll love it."

She cast a doubtful look at him.

"No, really. It's the best." Marchal ticked off the reasons with his fingers. "First, it's only seven hours instead of eight. Second, nothing ever happens. Third, and this is the best part, there's no senior staff around. The only time you see them is in the morning after they've had a good night's sleep. They're full of breakfast and sweet as kittens."

Raug suppressed a second yawn. "Yeah. Sounds wonderful. Where's my post?"

"Take communications. I handle sensors."

Raug sauntered over to her console and ran a quick diagnostic. "Checks out okay." Another yawn got the better of her.

"Try a raktajino with plenty of sugar," Marchal said. "It helps."

"I'll try anything. Cover me?"

"Sure."

"Back in a mo'."

Marchal watched Raug leave. I wonder how serious things are between her and Terl?

A green light blazed. Meter readings blurred as they raced to keep up with a sudden flux of verteron particles. "Raug!" Marchal yelled. "Get back here. On the double!"

"I'm here," she said rounding the end of the railing. "What's up?"

"Verteron burst from the wormhole. Someone's going through."

Raug glanced at the main viewer. "Nothing on visual."

"Sensors are blank as well. Except-"

"Wormhole's opening."

Marchal glanced up. A planet-wide vortex of electric-blue streamers ripped a tornado-shaped hole in space. The white brilliance of the whirlpool's eye stared out at him. He forced his attention back to the console. "Send out a broad-band call for ship identification."

"On it... no response. Could someone be coming through into our side of the galaxy?"

He shook his head. "No. Verteron flux vectors indicate a ship is going into the wormhole from this side."

She raised her hands. "Then where is it?"

"No idea. Must be cloaked."

"Klingons? Romulans?"

"Can't tell. I thought sensors picked up something-"

"Deep Space Nine," a speaker blared. "This is the Santa Fe, Earth registry, Captain Marly Short commanding. I request docking instructions."

"Sir, are you the ship that triggered the wormhole?" Raug asked.

"Negative. We're on the opposite side of the station. May I have my instructions now?"

She turned to Marchal.

"There's nothing on either side of docking port twenty-eight. Send him there. The Santa Fe's a five thousand tonner; she'll need the elbow room."

Raug got half way through relaying the information when a new voice bellowed at them.

"This is the G'Tat of the Imperial Klingon Empire. You will provide docking facilities for me and my sister ship, the Cordath, immediately."

"I'll take care of the Klingons," Marchal said. "You finish with the Santa Fe."

"I thought you said nothing happens on graves?"

"It doesn't. This is more ships than I've seen in a-"

"Deep Space Nine. This is the Santa Fe again. Where are my instructions?"

"Who's in charge over there!" The Klingon roared. "I said I wanted docking facilities immediately!"

"They're on the way, Captain," Marchal said.

Three more vessel indicator lights flashed green.

"Deep Space Nine. This is the Xathintoran, Captain Bertanilan speaking. Please provide-

Freighter Demetrius out of Mars requesting permission to dock-

This is the Orplat of the Official Ferengi Trade Mission. We need-"

Panic flashed across Raug’s face. "Marchal?"

He shrugged. "Rack 'em and stack 'em. We'll sort them out one at a time."

Two more vessel lights blazed green.

 

 

 

Chapter 23

O'BRIEN'S WEAPON

 

"What happened here last night?" Sisko demanded.

Marchal and Raug slowly turned around, revealing two pairs of bloodshot eyes. "Eleven ships happened, sir," Marchal said. "Two from Earth, one from Mars, five Ferengi and two Klingon-"

"Three Klingons," Raug corrected. She reached for the salvation of an extra-large cup of raktajino. Four empties already littered the floor at her feet.

Marchal nodded vaguely. "Right. Three Klingon ships."

Sisko shook his head. "A week's worth of ships in a seven hour shift-"

"Twenty minutes, sir," Marchal said.

"Twenty minutes. That's ridiculous."

"My thoughts exactly." Marchal ran jittery fingers through his tousled hair. "They couldn't have ganged up on us harder if they'd planned it."

The turbolift opened. Samantha Skarn stepped out and surveyed the cups on the floor, the exhausted eyes and rumpled uniforms. "Was there a war I missed?"

Sisko faced her. "Eleven ships arrived within a twenty-minute window."

Her forehead furrowed in disbelief. He turned back to the lieutenants. "Clean the place up and get me a report before you leave. "My office, Skarn. I need your science expertise."

She followed him in. "What is it?"

"I'm afraid to guess. Take a seat," Sisko said. "O'Brien's not due until eight."

"Not another hull breach?"

Sisko smiled. "Fortunately, no. He requested the meeting this time, not me."

"I hope the Chief's not bringing something to demonstrate. It's been three days since his last catastrophe. He's overdue."

"Don't say that or you'll break our run of luck. Anything to report?"

"I met Major Kira on my way in. She said Admiral Louvois finally arrived. D'Taing ran her through the VIP tour and got her bedded down without incident."

Sisko nodded, relieved. "Good. Did she drop any hints why she came here?"

Skarn shook her head. "D'Taing reported that the Admiral wasn't very talkative. She gave our lieutenant the distinct impression she wasn't happy to be here and all she wanted to do was stay in her room."

Sisko rubbed the back of his neck. "Sounds more like she's on an assignment than a vacation."

"Why would Starfleet send its highest-ranking judicial officer to someplace as remote as Deep Space Nine?"

"Why does Starfleet do anything these days?" Sisko slapped a thigh. "I tell you, I'm at a complete loss to understand what they're up to. Once I made Captain I counted on being informed about some of the motivations behind their actions but no, I'm kept as much in the dark now as ever." Sisko stretched out his left hand. "I want to be loyal to Starfleet." He extended his right. "But more and more I find they're making it impossible to fulfill my obligations to protect the station-"

"And Bajor?"

Sisko looked up. "Yes, and Bajor." He dropped his hands. "I feel like I'm straddling a picket fence."

The door chimed. "Enter," Sisko yelled.

O'Brien walked in. He looked at the expression on Sisko's face and paused. "Is this a bad time?"

"No. I was just blowing off some steam. Take a seat, Chief."

"Thank you."

"It's your meeting. What do you have?"

O'Brien glanced at Skarn then turned his attention toward Sisko. "I've come up with something that looks like the sort of thing you asked me to develop. I wanted to talk it over with you before I test it. There's some danger."

"You mean there hasn't been with your previous ideas?"

"Uh... no, sir. Not like this."

Sisko and Skarn exchanged looks. "Continue," Sisko said.

O'Brien glanced at Skarn again. "Are you sure you want me to?"

"Sorry." Sisko turned to Skarn. "Two weeks ago I asked the Chief to develop a new kind of weapons system. It was supposed to be a secret, but certain events," he looked pointedly at O'Brien who decided the ceiling required his attention, "may have tipped our hand. Better, Chief?"

O'Brien lowered his gaze. "Yes, thanks. I didn't know if she was in on it."

"She is now. What's on your mind?"

"I think I've come up with an idea for a matter-antimatter gun." Sisko and Skarn leaned forward. "I've discovered how to modify a replicator to produce a continuous stream of matter and antimatter which-"

"Just a second, Chief," Skarn said. "Replicators don't produce matter. They just convert base elements into other elements. They can convert an old teapot into a neurostimulator but they can't convert matter to antimatter."

That's right. But I'm not proposing a matter-conversion process. I plan to make the matter and antimatter directly from energy."

She shook her head. "Won't work. The energy requirements to produce even the smallest particle of matter would be greater than the station's entire output."

"Yes, but I plan to make equal quantities of matter and antimatter so-"

"It doesn't matter if it's matter or antimatter," Skarn insisted. "Either form has the same enormous energy requirement."

"Not if they're produced simultaneously. In that situation, their opposite natures add up to cancel almost all of the energy cost to make them. Three days ago I found that by replicating a mixture of hot and cold water I reduced the energy requirements from what it cost to make the same amount of hot and cold water in separate steps. I believe the same principle applies to the replication of matter and antimatter."

"You'll have to explain that one to me, Chief," Skarn said.

"Replicators work by creating a potential field representing the desired object. This field forces any matter injected into it to become the object represented by the field."

"I understand that but where are you going to get an antimatter-based replicator. You'd have to make the unit out of antimatter, contain it in a magnetic bottle so it doesn't interact with normal matter, and feed it a supply of base antimatter. As if that's not enough you then have to mix the antimatter stream with a normal matter stream without their annihilating each other before they get to the target. It's too complicated to work."

O'Brien leaned closed to her. "That's the beauty of the idea. I don't need to feed it either normal or antimatter. What most people don't realize is that in empty space, electron and positron pairs are constantly and spontaneously being produced. They immediately recombine releasing the energy they absorbed from the surrounding space to create themselves."

Skarn's eyes widened. "You're talking about zero-point energy theory."

"Exactly."

She stood up. "You plan to introduce a replication field that'll stabilize the electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, before they can recombine." O'Brien stood face to face with her. Sisko watched from the sidelines, a crease growing in the middle of his forehead. "That's right." O'Brien said. "I'll extract the particles from the replicator with a transporter, compress them, and use a second transporter to fire them at a target."

"The replication program shouldn't be too difficult to write."

"I did it this morning before the meeting."

"But the extracting transporter is going to have to be a high-definition unit."

O'Brien spread his hands. "No problem. Any lifeform-certified transporter has the resolution we need."

"If I may-" Sisko began.

"But what about the intermix formula?" Skarn asked. "How will you control the particles so the stream doesn't interact with itself and explode prematurely?"

Sisko raised his voice. "Skarn? O'Brien? If you don't mind?"

"I'm sure I can introduce a stabilization field onto the transporter's carrier wave. That'll hold things in stasis until some external object disrupts the field."

Sisko stood up.

"Like an enemy spaceship," Skarn said.

O'Brien nodded. "Right."

Sisko stepped between them, breaking their engineering feedback loop. They jumped back, surprised at his sudden appearance. "Oh, Captain," O'Brien said. "Sorry. Uh...what was your question again?"

Sisko clapped him on the shoulder. "How soon can you build it?"

O'Brien shrugged. "I've already bread-boarded a prototype together, but there's a lot of checking to do before we test it. Working by myself? Twenty-four hours, maybe less."

"Then I suggest you get going."

O'Brien bobbed his head. "I'll get right on it." He headed for the door.

"Good luck," Sisko said quietly.

O'Brien turned around, an excited smile on his face. "I don't think it'll take much luck, sir."

"That wasn't for you, Chief. It was for the station."

The door slid open and Odo burst through, almost knocking O'Brien down. "Got him!"

"Got who, Constable?" Sisko asked.

Odo threw a PADD on the desk. "McDermot."

 

 

 

Chapter 24

DISCOVERY

 

Sisko stared sourly at the PADD. "Don't tell me. Another list?"

Odo’s voice was low and level. "Weapons. More firepower than a battle squadron."

Sisko snatched up the PADD. His mouth pressed to a hard line as he scanned the inventory of armaments.

Odo turned to O'Brien and Skarn. "Romulan disrupters, Federation phaser arrays, thousands of photon torpedoes, and that's just the little I've been able to force out of the freighter crews. There's no telling how much more he's had delivered."

"How long has this been going on?" Sisko asked.

Odo lookeed back at Sisko. "As far as I've been able to piece together, McDermot divided his orders into two phases. The first consisted of mostly construction materials and items, all very legal. He waited to place this second order for weapons until he'd used up all the material from the first. He knew I had an eye on him and waited until the last possible minute before committing to an illegal appropriation. My informants indicate the first elements of this second order arrived the day before yesterday. The most recent delivery was six hours ago."

O'Brien walked over to the office's portal. "I don't think there's much of a problem." He nodded out the window. "The Aeneid's still here. Besides, if the weapons just arrived there hasn't been enough time to install them."

Sisko shook his head. "I wouldn't be too sure about that. You haven't seen McDermot's replibots in action."

Worf stepped through the open door. "What action? Is there a battle somewhere?"

"No," Sisko said. "But there may be. We just found out McDermot's armed his ship to the teeth."

"Captain," Odo said. "I think it's time we invited ourselves over for an inspection. You certainly have enough evidence for justifiable cause."

"Are you sure about that?" O'Brien asked.

"More than sure." Sisko handed O'Brien the PADD. "Read the last item."

He read where Sisko had stopped the scroll. "A Romulan cloaking system! How-"

"He's the richest man in the galaxy." Sisko said. "How do you think he did it? We're paying Mister McDermot a visit, whether he likes it or not."

O'Brien handed Odo the PADD. "Well, I for one am not surprised. If anyone had bothered to ask me I could have told you he was up to no good."

Confusion flashed in Sisko’s eyes. "Chief? I should have thought you would have been the first to stand up for a fellow countryman."

An indignant cleft formed between O'Brien's eyebrows. "Fellow countryman? What are you talking about?"

"O'Brien? McDermot? I assume they're both Irish names."

His mouth fell open. "You've got to be kidding. I'm Irish, yes, but McDermot? He's a Scot if there ever was one."

"Is there a difference?"

He fell back a step in disbelief. "All the difference in the world! The Irish are hard working, natural-born engineers. All a Scot wants to do is play golf and count his money. As if that's not enough they eat haggis and-"

"Haggis?" Skarn asked.

O'Brien wrinkled his nose. "Sheep's stomach."

"Really?" Worf said. "How is that prepared?" Four faces turned in his direction. The Klingon's jaw worked. "Sorry."

"We can talk about Irish versus Scottish virtues on the flight over," Sisko said. "Let's get going." He hurried into Ops with his staff in tow. Lieutenant Terl and Wainwright were just stepping out of the turbolift to relieve Marchal and Raug. "You two are with us," Sisko said to the newcomers. "Lieutenant Marchal, we're going to the Aeneid. Clear the way for a shuttle...no, wait. Make that the Defiant. We're leaving immediately."

"Aye, Captain."

Terl shot Raug a blink. She answered it with a wan smile before the turbolift dropped him and the rest of Sisko's team out of sight. Raug turned back to her console. "Marchal?" she said through a yawn. "I thought you told me graves was short and quiet?"

He shook his head woefully. "Did I say that? I must have been thinking about another shift."

 

 

Captain Sisko watched the Aeneid swell. "Any response to our hail?"

"No, sir," Skarn answered from the science station.

"Sensors?"

"No lifeforms, no activity. She's a dead ship."

"Contact Ops. Have them conduct a level-one personnel sweep of the station for McDermot."

Worf twisted around in the pilot's seat. "Docking in thirty seconds." The Defiant nosed into the access port. "We're in,"

Sisko faced his crew. "Terl. Stay here with Worf. Everyone else is with me." The Defiant's hatch rotated out of the way. The Aeneid's remained locked in place. "Chief. Manual override."

"Right." O'Brien kneeled to examine the hatch. "It looks like this thing's builders didn't want outsiders to walk in unexpectedly... ah, here it is." He gripped a horizontal lever on the lower edge of the hatch. He strained upward but it wouldn't budge. He tried a sideways pull and it slowly rotated outward, accompanied by the gritty sound of metal riding on dirty bearings. The hatch ground out of the way.

Sisko led the charge into the control room. Indicator lamps filled the cabin with a rainbow of dim illumination. He began examining controls. "Look at that," he heard O'Brien exclaim behind him.

"It's impossible," Skarn said. "Sensors registered no activity."

O'Brien's voice quivered with excitement. "You should see this, Captain. One hundred replibots are pushing the last of eight warp nacelles in between what appears to be a double hull."

"What?" Sisko's head snapped around. Everyone pressed in at the window to the Aeneid's interior. He shouldered his way through the crowd. "That can't be," Sisko said.

"Doesn't seem possible," O'Brien said, "but I looked up Starfleet's specs for the replibots and-"

"No, Chief. I mean that it's impossible because I saw them do that exact same job a week ago." Sisko glared through the window. Replibots welded girders into place and faced them with deck plates while others raced around pushing the same modules they'd busied themselves with during his last visit. Sisko's hands clenched tight. "The only way...." He pushed back through his people to the middle of the cabin and scanned the control panels. A small unit near the pilot's seat caught his attention. The corners of his mouth turned down as he took three quick strides and smashed the unit with the toe of his boot. Red sparks skittered across the floor. Sisko straightened stiffly and without turning around asked, "What does the inside of the Aeneid look like now?"

 Everyone gasped. "Don't tell me," Sisko said. "It's empty."

"But-" Wainwright started to say.

Sisko joined the away team at the window. "It was a holographic projection designed to fool me into witnessing the internal construction of what was supposed to be a luxury liner." He braced his hands against the bulkhead over the portal as he peered through it. The Aeneid was once again a vast, empty shell. One thousand meters away the circular end of the great ship gaped open, while far below a pile of bed frames, plumbing, and sundries littered the bottom of her hull. Two long rows of replibots hovered on either side of the mound. "God only knows what McDermot really built."

"I still don't understand, sir," Terl said. "It's completely empty. On our way over you were talking about Galaxy-class warp drives and enough weapons to arm the Ninth Fleet. Where are they?"

The opening at Aeneid's far end showed only empty space. Sisko's mouth felt dry. "I wish I knew, Lieutenant."

 

 

 

Chapter 25

QUARK TELLS ALL

 

Sisko stormed out of the turbolift. "Marchal. Did the sweep find McDermot?"

"Negative, sir."

Sisko made for his office with his crew trailing behind him. "Any ships depart last night?"

"None. Only arrivals."

"Your report?"

"In your computer."

"Good. Get some sleep. Terl and Wainwright, take over Ops." Sisko walked to his office's window. The Aeneid floated serenely in the black of space. He hammered the bulkhead with a balled fist. "Damn! I should have guessed what was going on as soon as I heard its name."

"What name?" O'Brien asked as he and the rest of the away team entered the office.

"Aeneid. It's also the title of the chronicle of the Trojan War."

O’Brien’s expression went blank.

"Not a fan of the classics, Chief?"

"Well...."

"That Aeneid records the story of how the Greeks hid soldiers inside a hollow wooden horse and tricked the Trojans into bringing it into their city. The soldiers came out at night and opened the gates for the rest of their army. Instead of a wooden horse McDermot used a giant spaceship but the principle's the same. He used the Aeneid as a blind while he built his real ship inside. The holoprojection let him hide its construction while I was over there. Now he's taken it someplace. I have a feeling we’d better find out where and why as soon as possible."

Sisko threw himself into his chair and brought Marchal's report up on display. "They recorded an opening of the wormhole but no indication of a ship's coming or going. The barrage of incoming freighters at the same time as the opening prevented them from investigating. Odo, what do you make of that?"

The security chief stepped forward. "A diversion. The incoming ships timed their arrival so Ops wouldn't be able to investigate McDermot's departure."

"Check it out. See if of those freighters off-loaded anything. I'll be surprised if they did."

"Right." Odo turned to leave.

"And get Quark in here; drag him here by his lobes if you have to. He'll know better than anyone what's going on."

Odo smiled. "It'll be a pleasure."

"O'Brien, go through Odo's lists and see if you can figure out what McDermot could've built from the equipment he received." O’Brien collected the PADD and began scrolling thorough it. "Skarn. You're next. Marchal recorded sensor readings of the wormhole's opening. Examine them for signs of a cloaked ship." She moved to a computer console built in the wall. Sisko turned to Worf. "How's the fleet shaping up?"

"Rotaron and Hegh'Ta have been reassigned to lead positions in the second and third squadrons. The runabout Orinoco and the ambulance ship now follow the Defiant."

"Why the rearrangement?"

"I wanted battle experience in each squadron."

"Good idea. Are they ready for action?"

Worf's jaw thrust to one side. "More practice would be advisable."

"But in a pinch?"

"They can do the job."

"They'd better. McDermot wouldn't order all those weapons unless he was going to use them. If that happens, we could get pulled into a fight."

Skarn turned away from the wall console. "Captain? I found traces of a tachyon signature characteristic of Romulan cloaking devices."

"Why aren't I surprised?"

"You will be. Shortly after it came on all traces of the signal disappeared."

"When the ship went through the wormhole?"

"No. It's almost like a second cloak cut in, masking the trace signals of the first."

Sisko stroked his beard. "McDermot also received a Klingon cloaking system. Run an overlap analysis."

Her fingers blurred over the console. A moment later she nodded. "You were right. The way the two cloaks are interlaced it'll be impossible for anyone to spot McDermot's ship unless they reconfigure their sensors for a harmonic created by the overlapping fields."

Sisko felt his pulse begin to pound. "Do you think this double-cloaking system could get by Jem'Hadar sensors?"

Skarn twisted around. "Why?"

"Because I have an uneasy feeling McDermot's plan has something to do with the Dominion. Why else would he go into the Gamma Quadrant?"

"I don't think the Jem'Hadar will discover him immediately, but once they suspect something they have the same capability to modify their sensors as we do." She turned back to the console. "I’ll try squeezing more information out of these readings."

Sisko nodded once.

"Sir?" O'Brien asked. "I'm afraid these lists of Odo's aren't much help. They list enough power, propulsion, and weapon systems to build a small fleet but by themselves you couldn't construct a ship out of them. The major problem is that there's not enough structural material listed to hold all the parts together."

"Odo's first list had tons of duranium. Surely-"

O’Brien shook his head. "Not even close. It would have been enough to modify the Aeneid but not a tenth what you'd need for a warship."

"Warship?"

"With all that armament what else could it be?"

Sisko massaged his temples. "I just hadn't thought of the ship in that perspective until now. It puts things in a different light."

"Captain?"

"Yes, Skarn?"

"You're not going to like this." She took a deep breath. "The wormhole is located in the Denorios plasma belt. By mapping charge profiles I confirmed that a large vessel passed through the belt on its way to the wormhole. I couldn't get a reading on the ship's length but its diameter is at least five hundred meters."

Sisko frowned. "How could McDermot pull a ship that size out of the Aeneid?" He turned to O'Brien. "What type of ship is five hundred meters in diameter?"

O'Brien shrugged. "No idea, nothing that big's ever been built. It would be over twice the width of a Galaxy-class starship."

The office door cycled open. All eyes turned as Odo marched in. Two of the station's biggest guards followed with Quark between them, gripped tightly by his upper arms. The tips of the Ferengi's toes made dull scraping sounds on the floor as the guards half-dragged, half-carried him into the room. Odo stopped in front of Sisko’s desk. "I found him in the bar stacking more bars of latinum than you'd find in Ferenginar's Main Repository."

"There," Sisko said pointing to a chair.

The guards tossed Quark into it. His feral gaze darted from one accusing face to another. "What...what is this?"

Sisko's deep voice rolled out over the cowering Ferengi. "Your doom if you don't tell me everything I want to know about Wilson McDermot."  

"Oh, that." Quark offered a fragile smile.

It wasn't returned.

Quark held his hands open in a helpless gesture. "I'd like to help, Captain, but I can't. It's a question of client-procurer confidentiality." He moved to stand up. "Now that you understand I'll be leaving." The guards dropped heavy hands onto Quark's shoulders. He collapsed back into the chair.

"Client-procurer confidentiality?" Sisko said. "Where did you get that from?"

"It's accepted practice in Ferengi space, just like the Federation has client-lawyer privileges. It means I'm not bound to comment on any business transactions between Mister McDermot and myself."

"The devil you won't," Sisko roared. Quark cringed deeper into the chair.  "First, you're not a lawyer. Second, we're not in Ferengi space so your client-procurer claim isn't worth an empty slip of latinum. And finally, trafficking in embargoed weapons is a capital crime under treaties signed by every race in the quadrant." He stood up, towering over the Ferengi. "If you don't answer my questions you’ll have ten governments fighting over who gets to prosecute you."

"Well, if you put it that way...."

"I do."

"Then, in the interest of being helpful to the Federation-"

"And crawling for leniency," Odo added.

"Uh, that too," Quark said. "I'm willing to set aside my principles this one time." He sat up straight and pulled his waistcoat down, smoothing out the wrinkles put there by Odo's guards. "What would you like to know?"

Sisko lowered himself back into his chair. "We'll start with a complete list of everything McDermot ordered through you."

"Sure. No problem. My log's back at the bar, so I'll just go get it." He tried to stand but his shoulders thudded into the guard's hands.

Odo stepped forward. "Quark's lying. He never goes anywhere without it." Odo snaked a hand inside Quark's coat and pulled out a PADD. "This should have everything we need, and by the way, you were right; none of the freighters arriving this morning unloaded anything."

"Thanks." Sisko took the PADD from Odo and passed it to O'Brien. "Check for any surprises then lock it up as evidence. Someone will need it at his trial."

"Trial?" Quark's voice squeaked. "Surely there's no need for that. I'm cooperating, so don't you think-"

"No. I don't. You've danced your way out of trouble a dozen times since I took over this station but this is too serious. This time you're going to pay."

"But my cooperation?"

"May buy you a little leniency, but I wouldn't count on it."

Quark scowled. "Then where's the profit in helping you?"

"Thirty years in prison is less than forty."

Quark's expression brightened. "Good point. Ask your questions."

Sisko leaned towards him. "What did McDermot build and what does he intend doing with it?"

Quark shrugged. "I have no idea."

"Quark," Sisko said through clenched teeth.

"I'm sorry," Quark pleaded. "But McDermot never told me anything except what to buy. From the equipment I assume it's some sort of warship but I've no idea what kind. All I know about the mission is that McDermot once said he thought the Federation wouldn't mind what he did because of something he planned bringing back from the Gamma Quadrant, something the Federation needed."

"That's all? If there's anything else I need to have it now. A place, name, location-"

Quark jumped up. "A name! McDermot slipped once and started to call his ship by a different name. I only caught part of it before he stopped himself."

"You mean the Aeneid?"

Quark nervously fanned the air with his hands. "No. No. It was different. One of those names that sound like war. Dreary-, Dray-, Dread-"

Sisko sat up straight. "Dreadnought?"

"That's it. At least," he shrugged, "Dread- was how it started."

"Anything else?"

He shook his head. "Now you know as much as I do."

"Good. Odo? Throw him in a cell."

"Captain Sisko!" Quark screeched.

"And keep him there until his trial convenes," Sisko said, ignoring the Ferengi's outburst. "He talks to no one except you or me." The guards began pulling Quark's limp body from the chair. Sisko held up his hand. "Wait a minute. We suspect McDermot had someone helping him. You wouldn't happen to know who that might be?"

"He did ask me if I knew someone good at engineering."

"And did you?"

"Well, uh... Rom."

O'Brien stepped forward. "Rom requested leave three weeks ago. He was overdue, so I granted it. No one's seen him since then."

"Find him." Sisko turned to Odo. "Get Quark out of here."

Odo jerked his head toward the door. The guards dragged Quark backward out of the room, his heels scrapping a second set of marks on the floor. The door slid shut and Odo turned toward Sisko. "What made you think of the name Dreadnought?"

Sisko exhaled heavily. "On Earth it's a traditional name for great warships, especially if they represent a new class of vessel."

"And you think McDermot's Dreadnought is a new class of warship?"

"O'Brien's in a better position to tell us that." Sisko swiveled to face his chief engineer. "Well?"

O’Brien scratched behind an ear. "I can't add much more. Odo did a good job ferreting out most of the equipment McDermot ordered. Some of the numbers have changed. He received twenty-four, not eight, class-six phaser arrays, double the number of photon torpedoes and sixteen high-pulse-rate launch systems, twenty-four Klingon disrupters-"

"I get the idea. Anything new to indicate what kind of vessel we're dealing with?"

"No. But there is one odd item."

"What's that?"

"Them, actually. He ordered one hundred thousand Brakonian magnetic containment bottles." Sisko's brow arched. O’Brien went on. "But it's not the number that's odd. Everything else McDermot ordered is the best you can get. Top quality all the way. Yet Brakonian bottles are the cheapest available. They're used to contain equal quantities of matter and antimatter and under normal conditions they're only stable for twenty-four hours. A gentle bump and they explode. I wouldn't want a single one close by, much less thousands."

"Thanks, Chief." Sisko leaned back and studied the ceiling. His staff shuffled around talking in low tones. He straightened and everyone turned to him.  "The facts are simple: McDermot built a warship and took it into the Gamma Quadrant, where he thinks there's something the Federation wants or needs. I believe he's gone vigilante and taken it on himself to capture whatever this thing is. Ignoring for the moment the laws he's broken, the real danger is that his actions could escalate hostilities with the Dominion."

"Maybe it doesn't concern the Dominion," Skarn said.

"Even if it doesn't, any intrusion into their space by a warship is bound to cause trouble."

"So?" O'Brien asked. "What are we going to do?"

Sisko stood up, determination darkening his expression. "Stop him. Worf. Assemble the fleet."

 

 

 

Chapter 26

 FLEET SPEED

 

"O'Brien?" Sisko asked. "Is your prototype portable?"

O'Brien surveyed the office. "Sure. You could fit a couple of them in here with room to spare."

"Good. Get it in the Defiant. We'll see how your creation works in battle."

O’Brien blanched. "Without testing? One mistake and this thing could explode with enough energy to wipe out the fleet."

"Then I strongly suggest you don't make that mistake. Kira, reconfigure the Defiant's sensors to track Dreadnought. Skarn has the procedure." He marched through the door. "All right, people. Let's do it."

 

 

Worf's voice thundered through Defiant's control room. "Lieutenant Terl, Orinoco is five meters out of position." Worf scowled at the view screen. "Better. General Martok, take your squadron to the lambda-one position. Captain Mor Pak, take lambda-two. We will go through the wormhole single file. Once in the Gamma Quadrant, the ships will reform in flight pattern delta." Worf watched the fleet jockey into position, grunted his satisfaction and turned to Sisko. "The fleet is in formation, sir."

Sisko nodded. "Take us through, Mister Worf."

In the cold blackness of space, nine small points of light peeled away from holding positions near Deep Space Nine's bulk and headed toward the wormhole's coordinates. Their thin hulls pierced ethereal fields unique in the galaxy. As they ploughed deeper into the complex structure of stresses that pulled at the fabric of space, unimaginable forces built to criticality. A flood of verterons washed over the tiny ships. Ahead, an undulating vortex opened up. In the center of its brilliant heart, a tiny black mouth threatened to swallow them.

They dove into it.

Blue and violet streamers streaked past their side portals. Far ahead, the streamers tunneled through a fold in space to the Gamma Quadrant, forty thousand light years away. They were there in a heartbeat.

The nine ships slipped from the maw of the Gamma Quadrant's end of the wormhole. As they passed beyond the borders of the subtle fields surrounding it, the rift collapsed out of sight. The ships arranged themselves into three triangles. The Defiant led one triangle with the two other wedges flying behind and on either side of it.

Sisko studied his crew for signs of stress. Kira had survived years of guerrilla warfare under the Cardassians; in spite of that hardening experience, her fingers shook. Kira's battle sense warned her this was the real thing. Worf sat rock-solid, eyes burning with anticipation of combat. Perspiration from his excitement scented the cabin with a cinnamon-like musk. The rest of the crew acted like it was a drill. Sisko wiped cold perspiration from his brow. I pray they're right.

Worf’s voice filled the cabin again. "Defiant to all ships, report," One by one the captains of Sisko's fleet reported all systems operational and secure. Worf was about to relay the fleet's status to Sisko when the comm light to the Last Cry blinked green. "Worf here, what is your situation?"

"This is Harat Tan, sir. I have a message for Major Kira." Worf nodded at her.

"Here, Tan," she said. "What do you want?"

"Jonan's on board."

Kira’s eyes grew wide. "Jonan? How? Why?"

"He needed to be in on this. I thought it might help him vent his frustration to see some action."

"But Jonan's only a farmer."

"He's been doing dry-runs with us for the last three months. It seemed to calm him. Don't worry, Nerys. I'll keep an eye on him."

Kira’s voice dropped low. "See that you do. Kira out."

Sisko regarded her. "Everything all right, Major?"

Concern haunted her eyes. "I hope so, sir. "

Worf swiveled to face Sisko. "Sir, the fleet is at your disposal."

Sisko nodded encouragement to Kira and turned back toward Worf. "Good work, Commander." Sisko stood up. "To all ships. As of now I'm assuming command of the fleet. Our mission is to arrest Wilson McDermot and return him to Federation space. You've read the reports on what little we know of the Dreadnought so you know this won't be easy, particularly since we don't know what his intentions are. For now, stay loose and keep your eyes open. Sisko out." He turned toward the science station.  "Major?"

"Nothing on sensors except a trail of slightly excited hydrogen atoms. It’s barely above background radiation levels, heading one-one-seven mark two." She faced him. "Straight for the Jem'Hadar home world. It has to be McDermot."

Sisko felt the nauseous trembling in his middle that always fortold him of a battle.

"Orders, sir?" Worf asked.

Sisko forced all traces of uncertainty from his voice. "On this bearing, Mister Worf. All ships, fleet speed ahead." He resumed his seat as the ships surged forward.

"Captain?" Kira said. "Sensors just picked up a verteron burst. Someone followed us through the wormhole."

"Identification?"

"I'm registering two ships. The closest is small and is exhibiting Cardassian engine signatures. "The second ship is much larger -- a Ferengi warship, Marauder class."

Sisko rested his chin on a fist. "A four hundred and fifty-man cruiser's a lot of firepower. This is getting more interesting by the moment. What's their course?"

"They're holding steady half-a-million kilometers behind us, on our heading."

"Let's test their intentions. Worf, take the fleet to warp eight-point-two, hold it for one minute, then drop back to our current speed." Sisko got up and paced the rear of the control room.

"Maneuver completed, sir," Worf said.

Sisko stepped close to Kira. "Major?"

"The smaller ship accelerated to eight-point-three and has not slowed. He'll intercept us in two minutes."

"Is it showing shields or weapons?" Kira shook her head.  "How about the other ship?"

"The marauder matched our speed to maintain constant distance."

"Hail it."

Kira tapped activated the communicator. "No response, sir."

Sisko’s eyes narrowed. "We'll ignore the marauder until we find out what the other vessel's up to. Worf, have beta and delta squadrons spread out and fall back. If the smaller ship's friendly its captain won't mind being flanked.

The fleet spread out forming a crescent. The tiny craft trailing them sped up, intent on falling into their trap.

"Ten thousand meters and closing." Kira's steady voice cut through the growing tension in the cabin.  "Five thousand meters."

"Sisko to all ships, shields up." Glimmering green shells flashed briefly around each ship, then faded to transparency. "Major?"

"One thousand meters. He's decelerating to match our speed. No shields yet."

"He's either friendly or a fool."

"The ship's on screen, sir," Worf announced.

Sisko turned forward. The unmistakable outlines of a large Cardassian runabout swam out of the darkness.

"Captain," Kira said, "he's positioned himself at the center of our formation and matched our speed. Shields still down."

"Hail him."

"Yes, sir... Captain? He's hailing us."

Sisko gave her a crooked smile to ease the tension. "Let's not be rude, Major. Open the channel."

The beaming face of a young Ferengi smiled at them. "Cadet Nog, commanding the Federation ship Profit, reporting for duty, sir!"

"Nog! What do you think you're doing here?"

"Following orders, sir." His smile held firm against his commander's blast.

"Orders? What orders? You turn that thing around and-"

"Begging your pardon, Captain, but you specifically said that Profit was to be integrated with the fleet as soon as I completed its modification."

Sisko took a deep breath and slowly released it. "Those modifications should have taken three weeks. How do you explain completing them two weeks and six days ahead of schedule?"

"You see, sir, with my father helping-"

"Rom? You know where he is?"

"Uh...here, sir." Rom's weak voice came from someplace off screen.

"Show yourself." Half of Rom's mousy face crept into sight. Sisko glared at him. "Center yourself, Mister."

Rom scuttled sideways into full view, but kept his eyes turned away, not willing to look his commander in the face.

Sisko stepped close to the screen. "You spent the last three weeks secretly working for McDermot?"

Rom nodded almost imperceptibly without looking up. "Yes, but-"

"You installed contraband weapons on board the Dreadnought?"

The Ferengi's eyes looked left and right, anywhere but into Sisko's stare. "I...suppose so, although-"

"You assisted McDermot in evading detection?"

His shoulders drooped. "You could interpret it that way-"

Sisko broke into a cold smile. "Well, Rom, I guess congratulations are in order."

Rom risked an upward glance. "Congratulations?"

Sisko’s smile fell away. "For violating more Starfleet regulations at one time than anyone I've known. You're under arrest. Major, drop shields long enough to beam him over here. Now."

"But-" A glittering field filled the space around Rom as the Defiant's transporter swept him from Profit's bridge. A split second later he materialized in front of Sisko's towering figure. "-I was just doing what he paid me to do." Rom's voice faltered as he realized where he was. The little Ferengi tried to pull in on himself.

Sisko took a step toward him. "No stalling, Rom. I need to know what McDermot's up to."

"I don't know," Rom said to the floor. "All he ever said was that his spies discovered something on the Jem'Hadar home world that the Federation needed. He designed Dreadnought to capture and bring it back...he hoped."

"Hoped?"

"Uh... he gave me the impression the Jem'Hadar probably wouldn't want to give it up willingly."

"So he plans to take it."

Nog shrugged. "Something like that."

"You have no idea what this thing is?"

"No. Except it's large."

"How do you know that?"

"Why else would Mister McDermot have made Dreadnought so huge?"

Sisko took a chair. "Tell me about Dreadnought. What type of ship is it?"

"Well...." Rom wrung his hands. "It's not really a ship."

Sisko leaned forward to let Rom get a close look at just how short his fuse had burned. "Explain."

"It's... ah... sort of like...." He threw his arms out. "That's the problem. Dreadnought's not like any other ship." Rom's hands patted the space in front of him as if they were trying to enclose something that couldn't be enclosed. "Imagine a Galaxy-class warp nacelle and power system built in one long cylinder. Mount more deflectors, tractor beams, phasers, and photon torpedo launchers on it than the Defiant. Then take eight units like that and tie them together in giant cylinder. What you have is-"

"How?" Sisko asked.

Rom looked up. "How what?"

"How do you tie them together? What kind of structure did McDermot use? And what about crew accommodations?"

"There isn't any."

"Isn't any what? Crew quarters or structure?"

"Both. Neither. Uh...."

"You're not making any sense." Sisko stood and stepped close to the cowering Ferengi. "And you’d better start."

"I'm trying," Rom whimpered. "There is no structure and there are no crew accommodations because there isn't a crew. Well, there's Mister McDermot so you could say there's a crew of one but-"

"Wait! Stop! What do you mean there's no structure?"

Rom nervously wriggled his fingers in the air. "McDermot developed a technique for interlacing tractor beams and structural integrity fields to create a...uh...virtual structure. That's what holds Dreadnought's components together. It's as strong as duranium girders but weighs nothing, can't be seen or affected by weapons, allows the ship to expand its diameter, and best of all," Rom's voice lowered in reverence, "it reduced construction cost by one hundred million bars of latinum."

"So you're saying Dreadnought's a five-hundred-meter-diameter cylinder made up of eight propulsion units."

"No."

"Rom!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he whimpered. "There's one more thing. McDermot's control unit. It's really just a high-speed shuttle equipped with an advanced computer system. With it, one man can control the entire ship. The virtual structure holds the shuttle in the center of the ship."

"That's all?"

Rom wheezed as if exhausted. "That's everything. I swear."

"Good. Major, lock him up."

"But I cooperated," Rom wailed.

"I'll tell the judge." Sisko looked back to the screen. "Nog? Did you hear that?"

The young Ferengi had lost his smile. "Yes, sir."

"Then you know this is serious. I'm ordering you to turn around and-" A detonation blew the Defiant violently to port, overloading the inertial dampers. Sisko grabbed for support. "Major. What hit us?"

"Unknown. Sensors indicate residue from a matter-antimatter explosion on our forward shield."

"Damage?"

  "Negative." She looked over her shoulder. "But it was lucky our shields were up. If not...."

Sisko nodded gravely. "I get the idea. No ionization trail indicating someone took a shot at us?"

"No, sir. It was more like we ran into something."

"What?"

She shook her head. "No idea."

Sisko massaged his forehead a moment. "Okay, stay on course. Worf. Everyone maintains shields." Sisko turned back to Nog. "As I was saying-"

"Skarn to Sisko!" Her voice shook. "I just took a hit like yours."

"Worf!" Sisko yelled. "Emergency full-stop procedure, now!" The ships jarred out of warp and halted, dead in space. "Sisko to all ships. Scan the location of Vengeance's collision. Adjust your sensors for magnetic signatures. "

"Terl speaking. We have a contact. I'm sending the coordinates."

"Lieutenant D'Taing reporting, sir. I have located three objects."

"General Martok, Captain. My man's found two of them."

"This is Skarn again. There's a pattern here. I fed the locations into my computer and they map onto a flat grid perpendicular to our flight path. I'm transferring the information to you."

Thousands of red dots blossomed on the viewscreen, fanning outward from their position. "Kira," Sisko said. "Apply Skarn's program to the location of the first explosion." The orientation of the glowing dots rotated so their plain could be seen from an acute angle. A second grid of dots formed up parallel to the first. He stepped closer to the screen. "A double wall. The density is so low we could have pasted through without getting hit. We must have had bad luck to strike any." A smile of understanding crossed his lips.  "Resume course and speed."

"Sir?" Kira asked. "Do you know what they are?"

Sisko smiled grimly. "One hundred thousand charged Brakonian containment bottles." He returned his attention to Nog. "I'm sorry. You're an excellent cadet but we're almost certainly heading into a fight. I need you to get back to the station as soon as possible."

"But-"

Sisko's voice grew hard. "You have your orders."

"Sir!" Kira yelled. "We have sensor contact. A ship's coming our way. Size...off scale. It has to be Dreadnought. Speed...." She ran her fingers over the console, blinked, and shook her head. "Warp nine-point-four and accelerating."

"Hail him."

"Defiant to Dreadnought. Repeat... Defiant to-"

"Captain Sisko." McDermot's image took over the forward screen. Perspiration had stained his orange curls blood red. "I can't say I'm surprised to see you but I had hoped-"

Sisko yelled at the screen. "McDermot. What do you think you're doing?"

"Running for my life and I suggest you do the same."

"More contacts, sir!" Kira shrilled.

"Contacts? What's the count?"

She silently hunched over her console.

"Major? I asked for-"

"I heard you, sir." Her voice strained at the words. "The computer's still tallying." An indicator flashed red. "There are one hundred and seventeen warships close on Dreadnought's heels. They're at warp nine-point-five on a collision course with him...and us. Engines display Jem'Hadar signatures. Their shields are up, their weapons charged."

 

 

Chapter 27

DEATH FLIGHT

 

"Worf!" Sisko yelled. "Get us out of here!"

"All units," Worf barked. "Reverse course. Override safety interlocks and make maximum speed for the wormhole."

Sisko paced the bridge, his footsteps resounding into the tense quiet. "Kira. How are we doing?"

"Warp nine-point-three, but the fleet can't hold it long."

"It doesn't have to. The wormhole's only twenty minutes away."

"I'm afraid that's not soon enough, sir," Kira said. "The Jem'Hadar will overtake us in eighteen."

"Worf, we need more speed."

"I regret to inform you, sir, that this is the best the fleet can do."

"Captain!" Kira shouted. "They've opened fire on Dreadnought."

"Show me."

Eight widely spaced massive columns forming a huge cylinder took form on the main viewer. A fine webwork of pale violet lines laced the great cylinders together. Green and violet force fields around each column quivered under a pummeling rain of countless polaron beams and photon torpedoes. Many shot between Dreadnought's multiple hulls without effect. The rest exploded with punishing violence against her spasming deflectors.

"How are his shields doing?"

"Hard to say. They appear to be double-layered. The outer ones show Federation modulation but the inner shields are unidentifiable. That assault would have vaporized the station in minutes but as far as I can tell he's only lost about fifteen percent. McDermot's not returning fire."

"Open a channel."

"McDermot's on the science station's viewer, sir. The interference is bad."

Sisko stared over her shoulder. Static from the discharges enveloping Dreadnought scratched at the audio signal. McDermot's image twisted madly. "McDermot, why aren't you defending yourself?"

Jarring impacts knocked him left and right, breaking his answer into short bursts. "I came here...to get something the Federation desperately needs. Not to kill. Weapons...are a last resort."

"Sir?" Kira interrupted. "Another fleet just joined the first. That puts the count at one one hundred and forty-six. They've opened fire as well; his shields are starting to buckle."

Disbursed energy from hundreds of polaron beams spread out to surround Dreadnought in a rippling, iridescent aurora. Photon torpedoes scintillated like white sparks along the ship's entire length.

"Shields at seventy percent," Kira said.

In the center of the ring of cylinders, force fields held two objects deep in Dreadnought's heart. The forward object was a small point of light. Behind it loomed a dark something that dwarfed everything except Dreadnought itself. "Major, get a reading on those objects."

She bent over her console. "The front object is a Ferengi escape pod, one human lifeform on board. I assume that's McDermot's command module. The other object is also a ship, but its configuration is unknown."

"McDermot? Are you still there?"

"Yes. Although to be honest... I'd prefer being anywhere... else." A nervous edge in the Scotsman's voice betrayed the humor in his smile.

Jem'Hadar ships swirled around Dreadnought like thousands of wasps attacking an elephant.

"His shields are down to sixty percent," Kira said.

Sisko acknowledge her report with a nod. "McDermot. If you're planning to use those expensive weapons Quark bought for you, I'd recommend you start now."

"I'm afraid you're right... Captain. Shield your eyes."

Sisko winced as twenty-four blindingly white beams from Dreadnought's immense phaser banks leapt side by side with the brilliant scarlet and pale blue of Klingon and Romulan disrupters. The deadly rainbow converged on a lone Jem'Hadar battle cruiser. Its shields flashed to incandescence before collapsing in a burst of green. The ship vaporized at the first touch of the deadly shafts. There was no debris. Dreadnought fired a second broadside and another ship vanished. A third, then fourth ship evaporated under the irresistible onslaught of her combined beams. Faster and faster, Dreadnought's touch thrust Jem'Hadar ships into oblivion.

Sisko turned to Kira. "Is he having any effect?"

She shook her head. "He’s destroyed thirty-nine ships but the Jem’Hadar aren’t backing off. His shields are still weakening."

"Any new ships?"

"No, but the ones remaining aren't being put off. If anything, they've doubled their efforts."

The Jem'Hadar closed to point-blank range and inundated Dreadnought with salvo after salvo of photon torpedoes. They rained down on its overloaded deflectors in waves as phased polaron energy soaked every square meter of hull.

"Shields at fifty percent. They'll overrun us in two minutes."

"Noted, Major. Worf-"

"Captain!" Kira cut in. "Twenty-five ships just broke formation to take up a position directly in front of McDermot. They've formed a solid wall he'll have to fly through. I'm reading concentrated fire directed at his shuttle."

A blue-white brilliance exploded within Dreadnought. The Defiant's viewer overloaded blanked out.

"Major!" Sisko asked. "Did his shields fail?"

"Negative. That flash was Dreadnought launching two hundred photon torpedoes in a single salvo."

The viewscreen recovered in time to show Dreadnought charging into the burned-out remains of the failed blockade. Half of the ships were rubble. The rest were lifeless, charred hulls. They struck sparks off Dreadnought's shields as it plowed through them. The scene froze for a heartbeat as the Jem'Hadar paused their attack. The moment slipped by and they dove in, suicidally intent on either Dreadnought's destruction, or their own.

"Captain Sisko, I'm falling back to buy you enough time to make it to the wormhole."

Sisko turned to Major Kira. "His shields are down to forty percent," she said.

"Sisko to McDermot. You're running out of time yourself. Let us try to beam you out."

"Too much...interference, but thanks for the offer.

"McDermot...Will. Is there anything-"

"No. Captain. I'm sorry I had to deceive-"

A Jem'Hadar battlecruiser charged one of Dreadnought's warp nacelles, emptying its entire store of torpedoes into the column just before colliding with it. Blazing plasma engulfed two hundred meters of the great cylinder. The webwork of beams that held Dreadnought together flashed blue-green from the violence of the impact. Dreadnought lashed out like a wounded beast. The phasers and disrupters stopped their focused attacks and independently flailed the attacking fleet, smothering ships with burning energy until they exploded. From within Dreadnought, a luminous shell of photon torpedoes swarmed outward to meet its attackers. Ships flared in momentary brilliance before fading to eternal darkness. Another ship followed the suicide-cruiser's example. Dreadnought convulsed in protest. Two ships joined in a mutual attack. Their impact knocked one of the nacelles forty meters out of line. Field lines, strained to red, slowly forced the cylinder back in place.

"Captain," Kira said. "McDermot's slowed to warp eight-point-five and the Jem'Hadar are staying with him. He's bought us the time we need."

"How are his shields?"

Her voice quavered. "Almost gone."

Sisko shook his head. "McDermot had to know what he was flying into. He wouldn't risk it unless he had something to fall back on." He took three carefully measured steps across the control room. Sweat dripped down his temples. Sudden insight spun him toward Worf. "When do we reach the magnetic bottles?"

"We just passed through. I instructed the ships to maneuver to miss them."

"Sir!" Kira shouted. "Multiple contacts dead ahead. I'm reading fifteen new ships moving to cut off our escape. They must have come through the wormhole after us. Contact in three minutes."

"Major," Sisko yelled. "Where's Dreadnought relative to the magnetic bottles?"

"It and the Jem'Hadar fleet will reach the half-way point between the two fields in five seconds."

"Worf! Emergency power to aft shields. Warn all ships to brace for-"

A fist slammed into the Defiant's stern. Sisko felt himself thrown into the air, then hurled into a bulkhead. Black pain engulfed him.

 

 

 

Chapter 28

BATTLE

 

Dull mumbling fought through the roar of pain. The mumbling rose in pitch, pushed the pain back, coalesced into words, questions. Kira’s voice carried to him from a great distance. "Captain Sisko! Are you all right?"  He forced eyes open that didn't want to work. A blurred bulkhead filled his field of view and struggled toward sharpness.

He levered himself up on his elbows and immediately fell back, pain searing through his left arm. He rolled over and pushed off the deck with his right hand. Yellow emergency lighting had bleached Major Kira's face to bone. He looked away. "What's our status, Major?"

"All systems operational."

He struggled to his feet with her help. "McDermot?"

"We don't know. Sensors haven't finished reconstituting from the overload."

Standard red combat lighting returned, replacing the pallid glow of the amber emergency lights.

Kira turned back to her console. "Communications are still operational. The rest of the fleet's in the same condition as Defiant -- shaken but not damaged."

He supported his shattered left arm with his right. "How long was I out?"

"Ten seconds."

"Casualties?"

"Mostly bruises, a few fractures." Her lips tightened. "One fatality."

"Who?"

"I'm sorry, Captain."

Sisko closed his eyes against the coming pain. "We don't have time for this, Major. Who was it?"

"The Orinoco's captain, sir, Lieutenant Terl."

Burning sickness rose in Sisko's throat. "How did it happen?"

"The impact threw him into a support girder. Bashir said it was instantaneous. Marchal has taken over command."

The control room pulled away from him like a drawing with exaggerated perspective. He wanted to pull away too. The burning sensation deep in his arm forced him back. "When he has the time, ask Doctor Bashir to report to the bridge."

"Sir? We all know how much Lieutenant Terl-"

"Not now, Major. I have to focus on getting the rest of my people out of this alive." He eased into the tactical station and activated a comm line.  "Sisko to all units. In case anyone hasn't figured it out yet, the shock wave that just hit us came from the detonation of one hundred thousand magnetic containment bottles, which McDermot had set as a trap in case things didn't work out... they didn't." He drew a deep breath. "McDermot triggered the field while he and the Jem'Hadar were inside. We have to go back-"

Worf swung around. "Captain?"

Impatience put a sharp edge on Sisko's voice. "What is it, Worf?"

"There's an enemy fleet approaching us on an attack vector. We can't go back."

Sisko set his jaw. "McDermot risked - maybe sacrificed - his life to stop the main Jem'Hadar fleet. We owe it to him-"

"To survive. With all respect, sir, McDermot fought his battle. Now it is time for us to fight ours."

"He could still be alive."

"If we don't engage the enemy now, they will gain the initiative."

Sisko frowned as he recalled McDermot's curly orange hair and indefatigable smile. I'm sorry, Will. He shook himself. "You're right, Mister Worf. We have our own battle to deal with. Major?" he called over his shoulder. "How long until we make contact with the ships blocking the wormhole?"

Kira pounded controls. "Sensors just came back on line. I estimate contact in one minute."

"What are we facing?"

"One Jem'Hadar battle cruiser, six Cardassian destroyers, and eight Jem'Hadar interceptors."

"Let me see those readouts." Sisko studied the sensor display. "It's them," he said huskily.

Kira glanced over at him. "Sir?"

"This fleet has the same configuration as the one that destroyed the Belug Four and Dornat colonies." Sisko turned back to address the fleet. "Some of you may have heard rumors about a fleet that's been attacking unarmed colonies. We are about to engage it. Individually they outgun us so our only hope is to combine the firepower of several ships on one target at a time. We'll focus our initial assault on the cruiser. Everyone target its central power system. After that, each squadron will split off and engage a destroyer. Concentrate on one ship at a time. No ship is to engage an enemy single-handed. Always attack in groups of three. Acknowledge."

A chorus of "Aye, sirs" echoed back at him.

"Major. Time to contact?"

"Ten seconds."

"This is it, people. Stay cool and we'll be swapping war stories in Quark's by dinnertime." Sisko gave his uniform a sharp tug. "Initiate attack pattern omega. Now!"

The fleet's wedge-shaped formation dissolved and regrouped into a huge ring facing the oncoming fleet. "Worf, What's the latest on Jem'Hadar deflector recovery times?"

"One second."

"Sisko to all ships, synchronize the firing of your photon torpedoes and phasers for simultaneous impact on the target. Skarn, hold your fire for half a second. Our first barrage may weaken their shields enough for your torpedoes to get through."

"Captain Sisko!" Kira yelled. "They're opening fire."

Brilliant shafts tore into the fleet. The Hegh'Ta and Rotaron shook from multiple hits. "Hold your fire," Sisko ordered. "We can only use this trick once so wait until we're at point-blank range." A second phaser barrage ripped into the fleet. Sisko forced calm into his voice. "Wait for it."  Enemy phasers blasted again. Defiant bucked as two beams scorched her shields. Sisko's grip on his armrest turned the knuckles of his good hand white. "We're almost there." He turned to Kira. "What's the range?"

"Twelve thousand meters."

"Give me a countdown."

"Eleven-five and closing." Phaser fire burned the shields of half the fleet.

"Eleven thousand meters." The Jem'Hadar battle cruiser loosed a salvo of photon torpedoes. Skarn's Vengeance took a direct hit but its neutronium hull sloughed it off.

"Ten-five!"

Sisko leaned forward, a hungry look burning in his eyes. "Get ready."

The enemy bore down, hurling phased polaron beams and photon torpedoes into the fleet. Defiant reverberated from multiple strikes.

"Ten thousand meters!"

Sisko leaped to his feet. "Fire!"

Sisko's fleet erupted in a ring-shaped volley of iridescent phaser beams and photon torpedoes. The ring contracted as it bore down on the battle cruiser. A split second latter, Skarn’s Vengeance bucked as it hurled a cluster of twenty glittering torpedoes after the fleeing ring.

The fiery circle shrunk to a point at the moment it collided with the cruiser. Shields, strained beyond their limits, flashed from green, to violet, then faded to transparency. For a moment Sisko saw the bare hull of the great ship, unblurred by the distortion of deflectors. A corona discharge began building as the ship struggled to reconstitute its shields. A patchy, greenish shell flicked into view as Skarn's bombardment collided with the ship.

Three outer torpedoes exploded in white brilliance on the partially regenerated shell. The rest tore into the cruiser. A heartbeat later, detonations rang throughout its hull sending geysers of fire blowing out every port. In a sudden flash of blue-white radiation, the warp core annihilated itself blowing the cruiser apart. Tumbling sections of twisted metal drifted outward, spewing frozen air that clung in snow-white crystals to charred fragments and bodies.

The enemy fleet's firing paused, then re-ignited with blinding fury. "Sisko to fleet. Break and attack!"

"Alpha squadron," Worf barked. "Hard to port. Target the destroyer on our left flank. Beta squadron, take the one on the right. Delta, take out the cruiser's wing ship. Qapla!"  The three squadrons threw themselves at the approaching ships. One small ship separated itself from the dissolving formation and flashed down toward an isolated interceptor.

"Worf to Orinoco and Mississippi, attack pattern gamma! Remember to turn sharp; we must strike before she comes about. Qapla!"

Defiant charged the destroyer. It cleared the upper hull by ten meters, then thundered for the stern, phaser blasts slamming it left and right. As the destroyer's stern flew past, Orinoco and Mississippi hurtled into sight. The three ships spun on their axes and fired while inertia continued to carry them backward. Phaser beams and photon torpedoes dove through the opening in the destroyer's shields necessary for engine exhausts and blasted the engines to ruin. Hull plates burst outward, tearing a crescent-shaped crater out of the ship's aft quarter. Torn metal flew outward, struck the still-functioning shields, and rebounded to rip holes in what remained of the ship's stern. Tertiary detonations sent gouts of smoldering debris into the cold of space.

Worf cut the cheering short. "Damage report!"

"Marchal here. A torpedo took out our port shields. Other than that we're fully operational."

"Lieutenant D'Taing reporting. Mississippi received three phaser hits. Lieutenant Qorp is dead. Our shields are down to sixty-one percent and our starboard phaser array is nonfunctional. Engines are nominal."

Worf’s eyes glowed. "Lieutenant Qorp was fortunate to die in such a great battle. His spirit will find satisfaction with Kahless in Sto-Vo-Kor."

"I hope his family shares your outlook," D'Taing said with Vulcan dryness. "What are your orders, sir?"

Worf grinned savagely. "Find another victim."

Alpha squadron winged over to the right and down. Sisko studied his tactical screen. Beta squadron had successfully engaged a second destroyer but a third had closed on the smaller ships and blasted the port warp nacelle off the Rio Grande. Rotaron and Ganges were coming about to cover the crippled runabout, but were out of position.

"Alpha squad." Sisko yelled. "Slave your computers to us. Initiate a warp-one burst for point-zero-zero-two seconds toward Rio Grande and open fire on the destroyer the moment we drop out of warp. Engage... now!"

Twisted space flashed rainbows past Defiant's ports for a heartbeat. Alpha squadron dropped back into normal space on top of the surprised destroyer and hammered its shields with a volley of torpedoes. As they tore past the Cardassian ship, it turned to target them.

Phaser beams crashed into the destroyer's rear shields. Sisko's maneuver had bought the remainder of Beta squadron enough time to close on the ship. Their blasts ripped a twenty-meter gash into the engineering decks. The ship listed to starboard.

Worf brought his squadron up and over to dive on the damaged ship. Martok led the Ganges in a screaming turn to the destroyer's underbelly and fired at the same moment Alpha squadron loosed their weapons. Caught in the jaw of their blasts, the destroyer disintegrated in a ball of incandescent plasma.

Just as Worf stood to shake a fist at his vanquished enemy, multiple phaser beams blasted Alpha and Beta squadrons. Worf staggered as the attack knocked Defiant sideways.

Five Jem'Hadar interceptors shot past the fleet and fired a second salvo before Sisko's ships could regroup. "All ships," Sisko yelled. "Scatter and reform!" The ships bolted. Four of the interceptors followed the Defiant while one came about to engage the crippled Rio Grande.

"Raug!" Sisko screamed into the transmitter. "Get out of there!"

"Can't." Raug's voice came back garbled with static. "Main power's off line. Transporter's down, engines down, shields have buckled. It'll be ten minutes before we're mobile again."

"Kira, get a lock on them."

"We're too far away."

"Worf, come about and get us there...now!"

"Our impulse engines are down to forty percent, sir. We can't get there in time."

Sisko hammered an armrest with his fist. "Sisko to the fleet! Can anyone cover Rio Grande?"

"Zeta squadron's on its way, sir."

"Zeta squadron? Who the hell... Nog! You were ordered to return to the station."

"There wasn't time." Nog's voice carried a hard note Sisko hadn't heard in the Ferengi before, the voice of a man who'd taken lives in combat. "The battle started before I could follow your order. I'm closing on the interceptor."

"Break off, Nog. Break off. He's got four times your firepower. My orders to the fleet still stand. No ship engages another singly. We attack in threes. It's our only hope."

"That's what I'm doing, sir."

Nog's tiny runabout plunged down toward the Jem'Hadar ship. The interceptor fired a murderous salvo into the helpless Rio Grande before coming about to face Nog’s attack.

"Nog," Sisko pleaded, "Break away before it's too late. A single runabout doesn't stand a chance."

"Perhaps not." Nog's cold voice raised the hairs on the back of Sisko's neck. "But the ships of Zeta squadron do."

The interceptor fired a crippling blast at the runabout. Sisko held his breath as its shields flashed green. Nog continued to bear down on the larger ship. The interceptor fired again. Nog anticipated the shot and jerked hard to port; the deadly blast barely slipped past the cadet. The ships charged each other. "Now Nog! For God's sake, before it's too late!"

Three fiery beams, one from Nog's runabout and two out of empty space one hundred meters on either side of his ship, leaped toward the interceptor and tore through the its shields, incinerating its prow. Inertia carried the dead hull out of the battle zone.

"Nog? How-"

"My father brought two replibot queens over from the Aeneid, that’s how we got the Profit battle-ready so quickly. We integrated the queens and left-over weapons into the lifepods I salvaged. I wrote their tactical programming myself. This was the fourth interceptor Zeta Squadron's taken out." Nog's voice faltered. "That's twelve Jem'Hadar dead."

Sisko didn't put Nog's image on visual. The cadet's voice carried a sadness he'd seen too often in other men's eyes the first time they had to kill. He'd also seen it in the mirror. "Good work, Cadet. Stand guard over the Rio Grande until she can get under way." Sisko turned back to the tactical screen. Four of the six destroyers had been eliminated. The remaining two covered each other so well Sisko knew his fleet wouldn't be able to break through. The remaining interceptors had adopted Sisko's attack strategy and only approached isolated ships. At the first sign of trouble, they retreated to the safety of the destroyers. "Sisko to all units, pull back to the Rio Grande. Assume defensive formation kappa."

 

 

Sisko gritted his teeth. "Thanks a lot, Doctor."

Bashir eased Sisko’s arm into a sling. "Your arm's broken. I've set it and the hypo of metropan will speed its mending. I'll repair it permanently as soon as the osteoregenerator's free from treating more serious fractures. Until then, keep it in that sling."

Sisko gave the sling a hitch. "How's the crew?"

Exhaustion drew Bashir’s face down. "Not good, too many fractures and bruises to count. Bates got a third-degree burn from a ruptured EPS conduit."

"How are the people on the rest of the ships?"

"The same." Bashir's gaze sought his. "Two more dead. How's the fleet?"

Sisko sniffed the cabin's air. The sharp odors of ozone and burned metal prickled his nostrils. "If the Defiant's any indication, not good."

"Sir," Worf said. "The fleet is in formation."

Sisko turned to him. "What's our condition?"

"All ships have sustained serious-"

"Incoming!" Major Kira yelled in a ragged voice.

The two destroyers bore down on Sisko's fleet behind a wall of photon torpedoes. The Defiant, Rotaron, and Hegh'Ta shuddered from multiple detonations. "They're concentrating on our primary ships," Worf roared above the noise of the attack.

"Sisko to all ships! Open fire on the port destroyer with everything you've got." Seven beams played ineffectually over the warship's shields. The two ships circled for another attack.

"Worf to fleet. All ships come about. Prepare for attack."

"Belay that order," Sisko yelled. "Full power to forward shields. Focus your fire on the Defiant's target."

Worf spun in his chair. "Sir?"

"We were supposed to turn to face the destroyers. Look!" A tight formation of four interceptors dove on Rotaron. Their phasers smashed into its port shields, sending it skittering starboard. As it struggled to face its attackers, a second salvo knocked it further out of line. "The lead ship, Worf. Now!"

Defiant fired its main phasers. Twin beams of devastating radiation hurtled toward the interceptor. In their wake, five additional phasers tracked to the same target. The ship exploded in a ball of fire.

The three remaining interceptors continued their attack, pounding Rotaron until its shields buckled. "Now go for the second ship," Sisko directed.

Lethal beams again leapt toward the interceptor. The ship dogged them and followed the other Jem'Hadar ships as they dived on the Rotaron. Their beams slashed into the port warp nacelle, gouts of plasma spewed into space as the attackers flashed beyond the fleet's targeting window.

"Where are they, Major?"

"They've pulled back to regroup. I think they're trying to decide how badly we're damaged. To an outsider we have ten ships to their five. They may be wary that we're laying a trap for them."

"Let's encourage that impression. Worf, order the fleet into the omega formation again. Last time they saw us like that it cost them a battle cruiser. It may give them second thoughts about attacking."

The ships limped into a circle. The two fleets hung in space, facing each other. Sisko fell into his chair. "Thank you, Mister Worf. Now...let's try it again. What's our status?"

Worf swiveled around. "Weak. Everyone has exhausted their store of photon torpedoes and there are only seven operational phasers. Shield strengths vary from fifty percent to zero."

"Which ships have no shields?"

"Skarn’s Vengeance, Rotaron and the Defiant."

"Skarn will be all right behind her neutronium hull," Sisko said, "but how well can we expect the Defiant's ablative armor to hold up?"

"We can withstand several phaser hits but a single photon torpedo will be fatal."

"What about engines? Can the fleet run for it?"

"Negative. Half of the ships have lost warp capability. All are on reduced impulse power. The Rotaron, Rio Grande, and Ganges are completely dead. We had to tractor them into place for the formation."

"And the enemy?"

"Three fully functional interceptors, one untouched destroyer, and a second destroyer with score marks near engineering. We do not know how badly it is damaged."

"Recommendations?"

Worf leaned forward, a fire burned deep behind his eyes. "Move all personnel to the most battle-capable ships, attack and die with honor."

Sisko smiled in spite of the situation. "I hoped for something with at least a chance of survival."

"There is none. Our ancestors will sing of this battle and proclaim to all that it was a good day to die."

"Good for you, perhaps, but I have appointments back on Deep Space Nine that I intend tokeep."

"Captain." Kira's strained voice said. "They're moving."

The enemy ships maneuvered themselves into a mirror formation of Sisko's fleet and began a slow drift up toward the top of Sisko's formation. "Sisko to fleet. Rotate the formation to face them."

"We cannot do that, sir," Worf said. "Not without leaving the dead ships where they are."

"Then have everyone use maneuvering thrusters to pivot on axis. That way we can at least keep our forward shields to them." Sisko heaved himself out of the chair. "Sisko to O'Brien. I think it's time to put your surprise to work. Is it ready to go?"

O’Brien’s concerned voice errupted from a speaker. "I can't be sure it'll work, sir. Every time I got all the pieces together we'd take another hit and things would get shaken apart. It's impossible to tell what'll happen when she fires. It could blow up in our faces."

"They've opened fire!" Kira shouted.

Defiant shuddered as a polaron beam ripped into its armor. The impact almost knocked Sisko off his feet. "It's now or never, Chief."

"But we've never tested this thing. I haven't even had time to hook it up to a tracking system. The weapon's mounted to a simple turret so we're on a strictly point-and-shoot basis."

"Then point and shoot."

A pummeling salvo engulfed General Martok's crippled ship.

"Worf to fleet. Divert all available power to forward shields. Target your weapons on the weakened destroyer. Fire!"

Sisko ground his teeth. "Chief, you heard Worf's order."

"But-"

"Fire the damn thing, O'Brien!"

A pencil-thin ray of faintest pink launched itself from a small turret on the Defiant's upper hull. The beam missed, passing well above the weakened destroyer. The delicate shaft tracked down slowly, touched shields, and moved diagonally down leaving a narrow charred track on the mighty ship's hull. Sisko felt his shoulders sag.

The destroyer's weapons ceased their onslaught but it continued to approach the fleet. The second destroyer turned away.

"They've broken off the attack," Kira shouted.

He spun about. "What? Why?"

She squinted at her readouts. "No idea. The remaining ship has maintained its attack vector, which doesn't make sense... its shields are down."

"Worf! Did you hear that?"

"Yes, sir! All ships... fire!"

The fleet's phasers lashed the destroyer, carving deep furrows into its hull. The great ship yawed crookedly, then split in two along the thin track left by O'Brien's weapon. "Chief!" Sisko bellowed. "You did it! Your contraption works."

"Interceptors on attack vector!" Kira yelled. Three Jem'Hadar ships screamed out of the retreating destroyer's shadow and opened fire on the Defiant's upper hull. "They're targeting O'Brien!" Kira said.

Sisko whirled around. "You mean his turret, don’t you? O'Brien's safe down in Engineering."

"No, sir. When he said his weapon was point-and-shoot he meant just that. He's up in the turret himself aiming the thing by hand."

Phaser blasts creased Defiant. "Chief! Evacuate the turret."

"I'd like nothing better," O'Brien yelled. "But the access door's fused tight. I'll hang on as long as I-"

The interceptors came around for another run at him. O'Brien's deadly pink ray stretched out toward them, swung wildly up, down, left and finally cut across one ship's nose. It split in two, the halves propelled apart by internal pressure. A man-shaped object blew out of the rear half, arms and legs writhing. The last two interceptors split left and right. O'Brien's beam chased after them but couldn't keep up. They circled back.

"Sisko to everyone, fire on those ships! They're after O'Brien." Phaser beams flew at the attackers but couldn't penetrate their shields. The interceptors winged over, pointed their noses at Defiant's upper hull and opened fire. The ship shuttered from the impact.

The pink ray blinked out.

"O'Brien!" Sisko yelled. "Are you there?"

Only static issued from the speaker.

"Emergency crew to the upper deck," Sisko ordered. "Get him out of there."

"They're coming back!" Kira yelled. "This is it!"

 

Chapter 29

FINAL ATTACK

 

"Sisko to fleet. Form a straight line pointed at the attacking ships to present as small a target as possible. Skarn, stack the Vengeance at the top of the pile, lock it in place, then beam over here. Nog, you have the best engines left - position yourself at the bottom and use them to keep the string pointed into the attack." The fleet dragged itself into a crooked line, the mobile ships tractoring the dead ones into place.

"General Martok, place Rotaron next under Vengeance. If your ship's damaged as seriously our sensors indicate then you won't mind using her to shield the rest of us. We'll transport your people into the best ships."

The old Klingon stared at Sisko. "Agreed, Captain... except I will not be beaming over."

"General-"

Drifts of smoke blurred Martok's image. He rocked his head to look around Rotaron's shattered control room. Sparks flashing from the broken ends of dangling cables provided sporadic illumination. "Rotaron and I have fought in too many wars to be separated now. It is better that we go down together. Besides," Martok grinned. "I think I prefer facing a phaser blast to telling my wife I'd been defeated."

Sisko studied the scarred face in front of him. "As you wish, General. Sisko out." He swiveled toward Kira. "How long do we have?"

"They're altering position in response to our new formation. Two minutes. Maybe less."

Sisko turned toward Worf. "Why does your species carry such a strong death wish."

Worf pivoted to face him. "Klingons do not wish for death; we hope for life as much as any race. But, our faith demands we die bravely in battle or we will not be admitted to Sto-Vo-Kor. A battle such as this guarantees General Martok's admission, where he will fight side-by-side with great warriors, his arms will never tire, his weapons will not grow dull, and afterwards he will celebrate with fresh bloodwine that does not cloud the mind or sour the belly."

"But the uncertainty of faith-"

Worf’s jaw set itself. "There is no uncertainty in the Klingon heart. Our acceptance of our destiny is as certain as this chair." Worf's fist crashed down on the chair's armrest, bending its support rod. "Besides," he shrugged. "Every morning carries with it another opportunity for life. Opportunities for a glorious death are rare. A warrior must make the most of them."

"Captain," Kira said. "They're closing to firing range."

"What's the fleet's position?"

"Stacked like you ordered. Martok's men have been distributed among the fleet."

"Worf. Weapons status."

"Only four phasers remain operational. One is on Nog's ship and out of position."

"Nog?" Sisko called into the transmitter. "What's the status of your queens?"

"Gone, sir. Lost during the last attack."

Sisko cupped his forehead in his good hand. "Three phasers," he muttered.

"Against a fully armed destroyer and two interceptors." Worf's lips drew back in a wolfish grin. "Impossible odds lead to great songs."

Sisko looked up. "Unfortunately, none of us may survive to write those songs."

"Here they come!" Kira yelled.

"Nog," Sisko ordered. "Link into our sensors so you know which way to turn the stack. And if this goes badly, break off and get back to Deep Space Nine any way you can."

"And miss a chance at a glorious death?" Nog's smile failed to mask his shaking.

Worf nodded. "There is a Ferengi I could like."

Sisko glared. "You’re not helping, Worf. And you have your orders, Nog. I need someone to report what happened. You're it. Sisko out." He cut the channel.

"They're powering weapons," Kira said.

"All ships, brace for impact. Initiate emergency hull breach protocols. Target phasers on the interceptors."

Kira's strident voice echoed across the control room. "They've begun the attack."

Everyone tensed as beams smashed into Vengeance's hull. It shed the volley in a rain of sparks. Grinding noises reverberated down the stack of ships as the shock crushed them together. A second volley heated the neutronium shell to a dull red. The third turned it white. Heat from the fourth soaked through to the inside, charring Skarn's shuttle.

"All weapons, target the port interceptor. Fire!" Three thin beams shot out from the stack of ships, pinning a lone interceptor at their convergence. Its shields flared, buckled, and the ship exploded.

"One down," Sisko whispered. "Two to go."

The destroyer loosed a fifth phaser salvo followed by a brace of photon torpedoes at Vengeance. The white-hot hull held, but the shuttle exploded, sending a fountain of burning debris from the ship's forward opening. The reaction blew Vengeance out of the formation. General Martok and Rotaron's unshielded hull faced the enemy's onslaught.

"Independent targeting and fire," Sisko yelled. "Now!"

The last interceptor swung wide and looped, but the beams from Sisko’s fleet locked on and held. The phasers slowly ate through shields and burned their way into the ship's engines. The intercepter blew apart.

Sisko pumped a fist. "Got him! Kira, what's the destroyer doing?"

"Recharging weapons. Martok doesn't stand a chance."

"Sisko to anyone with weapons capability. Divert all power to weapons and fire on that destroyer. Nog, tilt the stack so we have a clear shot around Rotaron." Nog's engines blazed, slowly rotating the ungainly mass of ships. "That's it," Sisko said. "All units, fire!"

Three phaser beams glanced off the destroyer's dimly excited shields.

"Cease fire." Determination hardened Sisko’s features. "I won't let it end like this. There must be-" A jolt ran through the Defiant. "Kira, what was that?"

"It's the Last Cry; she's broken away."

Sisko bellowed at the communicator. "Tan! What do you..." Sisko squinted, trying to see through heavy smoke clouding Last Cry's control room. "Wait, you're Jonan. Where's-?"

Jonan's reddened eyes stared out of a face charred black with radiation burns. "Dead. They're all dead. The last attack shattered an EPS conduit. The heat...they didn't stand a chance."

Sisko willed his voice calm. "I'm sorry, but that doesn't change anything. I need you back in formation. Turn around and-"

"I can't. I have to take that ship out."

"Alone? It's impossible."

"Nothing's impossible, if you're willing to pay the price."

Kira stood up. "Jonan, what are you doing?"

"They're Cardassians, Nerys. They have to die."

She stepped close to the screen. "Jonan, don't. Think of Eriss and the baby. They need you."

"Kisa needs me more. What they're doing to her...I have to stop them."

"Jonan!" Nerys cried. "That was years ago-" The connection broke.

"Worf," Sisko said. "Put the destroyer back on the screen."

Jonan's ship accelerated at full impulse directly at the destroyer. The Cardassian turned to face the smaller ship. Phaser beams erupted from the destroyer and tore through space toward Jonan's ship. Just before they hit, the telltale distortion of a warp field enveloped the Last Cry; the phasers blasted empty space kilometers behind her. The warp field collapsed as Jonan's ship smashed into the destroyer at the speed of light.

The tiny ship dissolved in a blinding sphere of blue-white radiance, shattering the destroyer's shields. The fiery cloud that had been the Last Cry fell upon unprotected hull plates that curled under the withering blast, then exploded outward. The glow faded, revealing a rough-edged crater smoldering a ruddy orange. The destroyer listed to port.

Silence filled the Defiant's bridge. Sisko ran his eyes over his people. "Snap out of it. Let's not waste Jonan's sacrifice. Major, how badly is that destroyer damaged?"

She forced shaky fingers to activate a sensor scan. "His shields are down eighty percent. Hull damage is extensive but not immobilizing. He's coming about."

A new light burned in Sisko's eyes. "I've got an idea how to end this. General Martok. Is your warp core still hot?"

The Klingon's leathery armor creaked as he laughed. "Hot? It's practically molten. I've thrown every available damping rod at it and it's still critical."

"Good. Pull out enough of rods to make it unstable, then beam over here."

Martok's expression darkened. "I said I was staying with my ship."

Sisko stepped close to the screen. "That wasn't a request, General. When you jointed my fleet you placed your ship, your crew, and yourself under my command. Now follow my orders...or aren't you a good enough soldier to do that?" Martok's scarred hand tightened around the handle of the dagger strapped to his waist.

Worf's voice rumbled at Sisko. "It is not wise to speak to a Klingon so."

"We don't have time for debate. I can't let him stay there; not when I'm going to pull the trigger." He turned back to the screen. "General?"

Martok glowered. "I will follow your orders, Captain. But we will speak of this later. Martok out."

"Kira. Get a lock on the General. Yank him over here as soon as Rotaron's core goes unstable. Now get me Ganges."

"Lieutenant Phillips here."

"You overheard my conversation with Martok?" Phillips nodded. "Do the same with your ship and hurry. We're short on seconds. Sisko out." He paced the deck.

"Captain? " Kira said. "The destroyer's drifting all over space, but it's managed to get vectored in our direction at one-eighth impulse. We'll be within his firing range in two minutes."

Sisko jerked his head in a curt nod. "Good. He won't be able to maneuver out of the way."

"Martok to Defiant. Ready for transport."

Sisko turned to Kira. "Got him, sir," she said. "Ganges' core also just went unstable."

"Get Mor Pak and Nog on the line." Their faces appeared on the screen. "Use your ships to nudge Rotaron and Ganges toward the destroyer. Once they're on their way, get back here."

Propelled by Mor Pak and Nog's ships, the Rotaron and Ganges drifted end-over-end toward the destroyer.

"Major?"

"Rotaron and Ganges are halfway between us and the destroyer. But those cores aren't going to last long."

"Seconds," Sisko whispered. "All we need is seconds."

"The Cardassian ship is passing between the two derelicts. It's charging weapons."

"Sisko to anyone with phasers! Fire on Rotaron and Ganges. Target their warp cores."

The Defiant's last phaser burned through space toward Rotaron at the same instant Profit blasted the Ganges. The unstable cores annihilated themselves in blinding detonations. Expanding spheres of super-heated plasma hammered the destroyer, tearing shields aside. Its hull crumpled and the dead hulk tumbled into the void.

Sisko hung his head. Sudden cheering brought it back up. Hands clapping him on the shoulders steered him to his command chair. He fell into it. "Worf?" he said over the noise.  "It would seem you were wrong. This wasn't a good day to die."

The Klingon grinned and shook his head. "It was indeed a good day to die." He nodded at the viewscreen. "It was just a better day for them."

 

 

 

Chapter 30

AFTERMATH

 

The remains of the fleet limped back toward Dreadnought's last stand against the Jem'Hadar. "Major," Sisko asked. "Picking up anything?"

"Mass sensor's pegged. There's also a lot of low-frequency interference. I'm recalibrating."

"Put it on the screen." Black space crowded with twinkling stars filled the main viewer. "Check the imaging system," Sisko said. "Those star images should be stable."

"Imaging system operating nominally." She looked up. "It's not a malfunction. They really are blinking."

Sisko leaded forward, eyes wide. "It's the remains of the Jem'Hadar ships. There's so much rubble flying around the stars are constantly being eclipsed." Sirens screamed a collision warning into the cabin. "Fleet! All stop," Sisko ordered.

"That alarm's reserved for asteroid belts," Kira said. "There wasn't one here before."

"There is now," Sisko said. "This corridor of space won't be safe to travel for years. Get me a reading on that stuff."

She studied the displays. "It ranges from pebbles to chunks as big as the Defiant, mostly high-alloy metals, some plastics&ldots;a lot of organic matter."

"Life forms?"

She shook her head grimly. "None detected."

"Initiate a search for the largest mass."

"Under way. Got it. Ahead bearing zero-zero-five mark two."

"Take us in, Mister Worf. Nice and easy." Defiant crept forward, pieces of fused metal glancing off her scarred hull plates.

"Bashir to Sisko."

"Sisko here."

"We got O'Brien."

"How is he?"

"Well done... but alive. Fortunately, he took a portable shield generator up with him. It saved his life."

Sisko exhaled a relieved sigh. "Thanks, Doctor. Give the Chief a 'well done' from me." Sisko turned to Kira. "How large is the object you found?"

"Impossible to be sure. There's so much debris flying around the sensors are having a hard time differentiating."

"What's your best estimate?"

"Big enough for its gravity to hold all these fragments in the local area. At least two hundred thousand tons."

"Dreadnought?"

She shrugged. "That would be my guess."

"If there's that much of her left then maybe... Worf, push harder. We need to get there now." The Defiant surged forward, dodging large sections of wreckage while desk-sized and smaller pieces careened off her hull.

"There she is," Kira said.

Dreadnought's remains slowly immerged from the darkness. One of her massive propulsion columns was missing and the forward half of a second had been blown away; the jagged ends of half-meter thick duranium plates gave testimony to the violence of the explosion. Two more columns had buckled amidships. Dim patches of luminous green flickered over her scarred hulls as Dreadnought's once-invincible shields spasmed fitfully. The tragic sadness every captain feels at the death of a great ship welled up within Sisko. "Mister Worf, is there a place in Sto-Vo-Kor for great ships?"

"Yes, sir. And the men who fought in them."

Sisko looked into the ship's heart. Trapped between the remaining columns, a gray sphere almost as large as Dreadnought slowly rocked in the grip of flickering tractor beams. It appeared untouched by the horrors that had raged so close about it.

Sisko's eyes grew wide with suspicion. "Magnify." The sphere appeared to rush toward him. He could now make out a massive ring encircling its perimeter. Phaser arrays covered every square meter of the belt's forward surface. Closely spaced torpedo launchers crowded the entire surface of the sphere forward of the phasers.

"What is it?" Kira asked.

"The most dangerous ship I've ever seen. Scan it."

She busied herself at the controls. "I'm picking up hundreds of weak life signs. They're Jem'Hadar. They appear to be... Captain? They're all asleep." She bent closer to the console. "Hold it. I'm picking up a human signature. Two hundred meters in front of the sphere."

"On screen." Cocked off-center by unbalanced tractor beams, McDermot's tiny command module hung awry in space. "Status?"

"Erratic power surges, minor plasma leaks, life support systems borderline, no response to our hails. I'm tapping into its on-board communications system."

An inside view of the pod's cabin came into focus on the main display. Scorch marks covered consoles and blue smoke wafted along the ceiling. Bruised and unconscious, Wilson McDermot slumped in his chair. "McDermot." Sisko called. "Will! It's Sisko."

The Scotsman's head lolled. McDermot's eyes opened and his lips automatically formed a smile. "Captain Sisko. Nice of you to drop by." He struggled upright.

"Are you all right?" Sisko asked.

McDermot gingerly flexed his arms and legs. "It seems I’m all in one piece." He eased out of the chair, staggered, caught himself, and stood straight. He looked around the cabin. "What a mess. How's the rest of the ship?"

"Worse."

"I'm surprised there's anything left." He bent over a status indicator. "Not as bad as it looks. She still has some warp capability and the tractor beams-" McDermot spun around, eyes staring. "The Jem'Hadar ship...?"

"Intact. Dreadnought shielded it from the brunt of the minefield's explosion."

McDermot almost collapsed from relief. "Thank God it's okay. That ship was the reason I built Dreadnought."

Sisko leaned forward. "What is it?"

"The new flagship for an armada they're assembling. Like Dreadnought, it's a new class of ship, destined to change the tactics of space warfare. My agents informed me about her and the Dominion's plan to use it to lead an attack against the Alpha Quadrant." McDermot fell back into his chair. "She's a planet-killer, Ben. Designed to obliterate everything on the surface without warning. I snuck in under cloak and grabbed her before the Jem'Hadar could recover. A stasis field generator put the crew asleep. The rest you know." He cocked a whimsical eyebrow at Sisko. "I think Starfleet will be happy to get my little gift. What do you say?"

"I think they'll have a lot more to say to you than just 'thank you.' I'm sorry about this, Will."

"Sorry?"

 "About what I have to do." Sisko turned around. "Major Kira. Lock on and beam him into our brig." He turned back to the screen, back stiff, voice heavy with formality. "Wilson McDermot, under the authority of Starfleet Regulation one hundred and six, Section B dealing with grave disruptions of relations between the Federation and non-aligned races, you are under arrest." McDermot's shocked expression froze as a glittering transporter field swallowed him. "Kira. Transport Rom from his cell to Dreadnought's control room."

A second later Rom materialized on Dreadnought's bridge. His mousy face pinched in on itself as he surveyed the wreckage. He winced as a dangling cable burst a shower of blue-white sparks over him. "Phew. What happened here?"

Sisko stepped close the the viewscreen. "Rom." The Ferengi's head jerked up. "Grab what's left of our fleet and set course for the wormhole. We've got to get out of here before the Jem'Hadar send more ships. "

Rom bobbed his head, settled himself in McDermot's chair, and began entering commands into a control console. Dreadnought crept forward, slowly engulfing the Defiant. Shimmering tractor beams flashed on, pulling it inside the relative safety of the ruined giant. Together, they lumbered toward the rest of the fleet.

Just outside of sensor range, the Ferengi Marauder fired its engines.

 

 

 

Chapter 31

TRIAL BY BUREAUCRACY

 

The mallet crashed down on the dark tem-wood surface of Sisko's conference table, marring the lustrous finish. Sisko sighed and looked around the crowded room. Hushed whispers and the sounds of shoes shuffling over the wardroom's floor filled the room as witnesses, Starfleet and Federation advisors, DS9's command staff and newly-arrived Admiral Jorgenson jostled for a better view of the proceedings. On the far side of the conference table, the spare form of Starfleet's top judicial officer sat stiff-backed, her gray hair pulled back in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. McDermot stood in a small clearing, facing her.

"Court is in session. Judge Advocate General Phillipa Louvois presiding." She laid the mallet on its side and raked McDermot with a dispassionate stare. "We are convened in the case of Starfleet versus Wilson Giles McDermot. Is the accused present?"

McDermot grinned and bowed low. "Here, Madam Judge."

Her cold expression deflected the charm in McDermot's smile. "Your Honor is the correct appellation and unless it's your intent to antagonize this court I suggest you wipe that smile off your face. We're here on serious - I might go so far as to say grave - business. You should conduct yourself accordingly."

His smile faded away. "Yes, Your Honor."

"Who is representing you?"

"Myself."

Her glare burned into him. "I hardly think that is advisable. Your situation is critical in the extreme."

"I prefer it this way, Your Honor."

"As you will, Mister McDermot." She picked up a PADD. "You are charged with violating Starfleet Regulation one hundred and six, Section B. This regulation makes it a crime for any civilian to initiate war-like activities with any race or species." She looked up over the top of the PADD. "As a civilian, you would normally be subject to trial under Federation rules in a civilian court. However, since many of the alleged illegal actions took place within Starfleet's jurisdiction and I happen to be the only judge within one hundred parsecs qualified to try a capital case, Starfleet is offering you the option of an immediate trial here versus a lengthy incarceration and extradition for trail on Earth. Do you wish to accept this offer?"

"Yes. Your Honor."

"It is incumbent upon me to warn you that penalties under the Starfleet judicial system are more severe than those encountered in civilian courts."

"I understand, Your Honor."

"Do you also understand that your guilt and sentence will be decided here, today, by this court before which you now stand, without recourse to a jury of your peers?"

"Yes, Your Honor."

She shook her head. "Well, Mister McDermot. You can't say I didn't warn you. And knock off the Your Honor routine every time you take a breath. It's getting on my nerves."

"Yes, uh...." McDermot spread his hands.

Her expression soured. "Forget it. Let's get this over with. Wilson Giles McDermot, you are charged with inciting the Dominion into launching a retaliatory strike against Starfleet, the United Federation of Planets, and its allies in response to your illegal appropriation of one of their military spacecraft. During the commission of this action Starfleet equipment was damaged and destroyed, personnel injured, and..." she scrolled ahead, "seven fatalities occurred. In addition, you are charged with violating Starfleet Regulation two hundred and thirty-five, which states no individual shall knowingly obtain weapons of massive retaliatory effect, specifically-" she held the scroll control down a full minute, then glanced up at McDermot, "let's just say a very long list of contraband weapons and identify it as exhibit A."

She took a deep breath. "You also violated Starfleet Regulation seventy-eight in that you constructed a spaceship with war-making capabilities. Finally, you are accused of two counts of violating Starfleet Regulation one hundred and fifteen in that you procured cloaking devices of both Romulan and Klingon manufacture. The cumulative penalty for these crimes, should you be found guilty, adds up to-" she ran a stylus down a long column of numbers. "-a sentence not less than one hundred and sixty-five years." She dropped the PADD on the table. "You've been a very busy man, Mister McDermot. How do you plead?"

McDermot opened his mouth.

"Don't answer that!" A high thin voice shouted from the rear of the room. Sisko strained to see who had spoken. He heard the shooshing sounds of someone pushing his way through the crowd. "One side, please." The voice said. "Let me through."

The crowd formed a narrow aisle leading to the conference table. Sisko's position let him see an old Ferengi, resplendent in the intricately gold-worked robes of high government office, step forward to stand at McDermot's side. "I am Vice Consul Gloth of the Ferengi Alliance." He threw a PADD towards Louvois. It slid across the table's smooth surface knocking her PADD out of the way. "As a passenger on the Marauder Clatith, I witnessed illegal actions committed by Starfleet against one of our citizens while in the Gamma Quadrant. Those documents are a formal protest against these proceedings and on behalf of that citizen. Specifically, Mister Wilson Giles McDermot."

A tremor rippled through the crowd.

Judge Louvois began reading the PADD's contents. "You will note," the Ferengi continued, "that effective four weeks ago Mister McDermot was not only granted citizenship in the Ferengi Alliance, but awarded the position of Ambassador Extraordinary in the Ferengi Trade Mission. As such he is subject to diplomatic immunity and therefore exempt from prosecution by Starfleet."

Louvois continued to read, nodding silently to herself. The crowd waited in hushed silence. She laid the PADD aside. "After careful examination of these documents I find the accused was indeed a citizen of the Ferengi Alliance and possessed immunity from arrest during the execution of all the crimes of which he is accused. This court has no recourse but to release him to Vice Consul Gloth." She hammered a second mar into Sisko's conference table. "Case dismissed. This court is adjourned."

She stuffed both PADDs into a briefcase and left before anyone could recover from their shock. McDermot and the Ferengi dignitary followed close behind her. The crowd exploded in confused muttering.

"Wait!" Sisko shouted after the judge.

A hand landed on his shoulder. He knocked it off and spun around to stare into Admiral Jorgenson's chiseled features. "Let it go, Sisko."

"But-"

"That's an order."

 

 

Only the faint scent of perspiration resulting from too many bodies in too small a space testified to the crowd that had recently vacated the conference room. A feeling as empty as the room haunted Sisko. He massaged his temples. "McDermot got away with it."

"He usually does," Jorgenson said, settling his lean form into a chair. "You don't get to be that successful without learning to cover all the bases."

"I'm glad. The deaths weren't his fault." He faced the Admiral. "Still, people died. Someone should pay."

Jorgenson eyed him carefully. "If you looked at the situation from a more detached perspective, Sisko, I think you'd see everything worked out quite equitably. Dreadnought was the costliest project he'd ever undertaken. Now Starfleet's impounded it, or at least what's left of it. Add to that the fact he lost his Federation citizenship and it comes to quite a price. As far as the Federation's concerned, the Jem'Hadar battleship he brought back is absolutely essential to our strategic planning."

"I'm glad you're so happy about how everything worked out."

"Watch the sarcasm, Sisko."

DS9's commander dropped into a chair. "This whole thing's left a sour taste in my mouth."

Jorgenson stood up. "Like I said, let it go." He walked toward the exit.

Sisko followed him. "I've started an inquiry into McDermot's recent actions. I'll let you know what turns up."

Jorgenson paused at the door; his hand rested on the frame. "Oh?"

"McDermot had first-rate intelligence about the Jem'Hadar's movements. I've put out a few tracers trying to connect with his sources in the Gamma Quadrant. They could be useful."

Jorgenson's fingers tightened on the frame. "Call it off. Now!"

"I don't understand."

Jorgenson spun around. His shoulders shook. "This is a high-level Starfleet matter, Sisko. You're not to butt in. Do I make myself understood?"

Suspicion hardened Sisko's expression. "You're beginning to."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You weren't surprised when McDermot slipped through that sham of a trial and didn't show the least bit of anger about his escaping punishment. But, as soon as I mention looking into his source of information you go ballistic."

"I'd advise you to keep a civil tongue in that mouth of yours."

Sisko stepped forward, towering over Jorgenson. "With all due respect, sir. You're scared. You're afraid I'm going to find out something that could embarrass you." Jorgenson's frown deepened. "That's it, isn't it, Admiral? You weren't surprised because you set the whole thing up from the start. McDermot wasn't on one of his joyrides. You asked him to capture the Jem'Hadar ship."

Sisko took a step back to regard him. "Let me guess what happened. Starfleet heard rumors about the new Jem'Hadar ship. A few spies on neighboring worlds and a lot of long-range probes warned you about some of its capabilities. Starfleet needed that ship but couldn't go after it directly. But, you decided to go after it to increase your influence within Starfleet. So, you turned to the one man in the universe with the resources to do your dirty work for you. That way you could turn your back on him if something went wrong. After all, you couldn't be held responsible for the actions of an individual. How am I doing, Admiral?"

Jorgenson scowled and turned away.

Sisko smiled without humor. "I'll take that to mean I'm close. McDermot's wealth and propensity for adventure made it plausible. You played on his patriotism to sucker him into your scheme. If he died in the attempt it would be no loss to you. If he succeeded, Starfleet could prosecute him to make it look good and he escapes via the Ferengi gambit. If the Dominion gets nasty, you drag McDermot back and feed him to them. By then you would have learned all you needed about their ship could return it all shined up like new."

"You're getting too smart for your own good."

Sisko crossed his arms. "What now?"

"You call off your inquiry and never mention this again. Don't even speak to me about it."

"With pleasure."

Jorgenson eyed him coldly. "I planned to wait until the paperwork cleared, but you might as well know now. I've submitted a formal reprimand to be entered into your permanent record regarding your actions. You defied my orders and assembled a fleet. While using the fleet in an unauthorized mission, seven of your people died. Those deaths are on your head and I'm going to make sure every command officer in the Admiralty knows about it so you can forget about any future promotions. Furthermore, I'm ordering you to dismantle what's left of your fleet and desist from building a new one. I'm watching every step you take, Sisko. Cross me once more and I'll have your commission for a door mat."

Sisko faced off against him. "My people died because you refused to give Deep Space Nine a properly equipped fleet. How do you expect me to protect the station and Bajor without providing the tools and authority to fulfill that responsibility?"

"Your concern, Sisko, is to follow orders. This station is just another piece of equipment to be used as I wish."

"What about the people living here?"

Jorgenson drew himself up. "Starfleet occasionally requires individuals to sacrifice themselves for its survival."

"Its?"

"Yes. Its. Starfleet. The Federation."

"Not the people in the Federation but the Federation itself?"

"I don't understand what you're talking about, Sisko."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that, Admiral. But then, someone warned me that was the way things really stood."

"Warned you about what? Who?"

"Someone who spent six months in jail trying to do something about it." Sisko moved toward the door. "One last thing, Admiral. Why the vendetta against me?"

Jorgenson's face turned red. "Why you insubordinate-"

Sisko stepped within arm's reach of the smaller man. "We're all alone here, Admiral. Just once I'd like the truth."

Jorgenson's hands clenched spastically. "Damn you. Sisko! This was supposed to be my command."

Sisko's brows arched in confusion. "You wanted Deep Space Nine? It would have been below your rank."

The admiral's eyes shone like hard black spheres. "Not for long. By playing the Bajorans off against the Cardassians I could have taken what I wanted from both of them and made this a power center to be reckoned with. By the time the wormhole turned up I would have been able to bring it under my absolute control."

"So my appointment ruined your plans for building your own empire within Starfleet."

"Exactly. I've been trying to force Starfleet into my way of thinking for years, but there are too many idealists back on Earth. I needed the room to maneuver that Deep Space Nine would have given me." He shook a fist at Sisko. "You ruined it all and for that I'm going to make you pay."

I almost feel sorry for you, Admiral."

"Save it for yourself, Sisko. You'll need it." Jorgenson marched to the door.

Sisko keyed it open.

Jorgenson stepped through and turned around, fighting to bring his voice under control. "About the fleet. You'll follow your orders?"

"To the degree my conscience permits." Jorgenson opened his mouth. "Good day, Admiral." Sisko closed the door on him.

 

 

Sisko sat behind his desk, staring out the portal at the now empty Aeneid. His door chimed. "Come in."

Major Kira stepped through and paused as she caught sight of his expression. "Are you okay, Captain?"

His lips twisted in a cynical smile. "Just dandy."

"You and the Admiral were in here a long time for two men who hate each other. What happened?"

Sisko snorted. "The usual load of lies and threats from Jorgenson. You can probably guess most of it."

She glided into a chair. "Already have. Louvois' happening to be here just when she was needed was a little too coincidental."

"You're on the right track."

"Don't let this eat into you. There's nothing you can do about it." She brightened. "Come to Nog's celebration party tonight. It'll do you good."

Sisko sighed. "I'll be there."

She started to leave but stopped by the door. "Captain, Lieutenant Terl and Lieutenant Raug were engaged. I thought I'd go and talk to her about his death-"

Sisko shook his head. "Sorry, Major. I haven't had time to post the complete casualty list so you couldn't know. Raug didn't make it either."

"Oh." She cleared her throat. "I know you thought a lot of Terl."

"His first name was Bannon."

"How are you dealing with his death?"

Sisko shook his head wearily. "Not well. I saw too much of myself in him. I'd hoped...oh, hell. What's the point." He looked into her eyes. "Terl wasn't alone. Six others died: Qorp, Raug. The crew of the Last Cry." Sisko's right hand balled into a fist. "I killed them."

"Yes, you did." Her look was hard, but not cold. "And you'll have to do it again. As long as you're in command, people under you will die."

Sisko turned away. "I talked to Qorp's parents. They damned me. Wouldn't even let me try to explain - as if I had an explanation."

"Feeling sorry for yourself?"

He stared at her. "No, just helpless to prevent the deaths of my people. Sometimes I think I'll never get over the guilt."

"You won't. It'll haunt you until the day you die."

Sisko turned away. "Thanks for the comforting words."

Kira walked around to face him. "They should be comforting because that guilt ensures you'll look at every other option before committing to battle. In the long run that'll save lives."

"Numbers again. I do my job and seven people die instead of ten. Is that sort of cold arithmetic supposed to make me feel better?"

Her lips grew tight. "It's all any commander has."

Sisko lowered his head. "It's not enough."

Kira took a step closer to him. "Sir, if there's anything-"

"See you at the party, Major." Kira nodded and left. Sisko swiveled to look out the portal at the emptiness of space.

 

 

 

Chapter 32

BUSINESS AS USUAL, ALMOST

 

Sisko eyed the gold-stitched waistcoat with critical appraisal. "It fits you well, Ambassador McDermot."

McDermot grinned expansively. "Thank you, but don't let my new rank go to your head, Captain. It's still just Will between us, especially after all we've been through."

"Let me get you something to drink." Sisko led the way to the bar. "Thanks for coming. It'll mean a lot to Nog."

"My pleasure." McDermot looked over the array of bottles.

"Looking for something special?"

"Well... yes. But never mind."

Sisko leaned over the bar toward the tender. "May I have that bottle you've been holding for me?" The man carefully handed him a smoky vessel. Sisko passed it to McDermot. "Perhaps this will be more to your liking."

"Scotch whiskey! Twelve-year blended." McDermot sniffed the cork. Sisko caught a scent of the pungent liquor as a warm smile spread over McDermot's face. "Captain, you're a man of true taste."

"Quark mentioned this was your drink. I managed to get it on an express order in time for the festivities."

McDermot’s eyes sparkled as he poured Sisko and himself each a drink of the amber liquid, then tipped his glass in Sisko's direction. "To Deep Space Nine."

"Deep Space Nine," Sisko repeated.

The men drank deeply. As Sisko lowered his glass, he caught the faint tinkle of a bell. He looked around but couldn't spot its source. He turned his attention back to McDermot. "What will you do now?"

"Move to Ferenginar, almost immediately. Ambassador or not, Starfleet’s made it clear I'm strictly persona-non-grata and the sooner I depart this sector the better." Sisko frowned. McDermot shrugged. "It's what I expected from them. Besides, Ferenginar's not such a bad place. If you recall, I told you I'd be spending a lot of time there in the future."

"Looking back I can see you gave me quite a few clues that you were up to something."

McDermot's smile faded. "I hated lying."

Sisko shrugged it off. "We're all forced into it from time to time."

"About your people - I'm very sorry."

"Don't. Their deaths were my fault, not yours."

"Still...."

"I heard about the trust funds you set up for their families."

McDermot looked away. "It doesn't bring them back."

"No. But it helps those left behind." They watched the partygoers mill around DS9's main reception hall. "It's a pity about Dreadnought," Sisko said. "She was quite a ship."

McDermot nodded wistfully. "None less could have done the job."

"Too bad there were so many Jem'Hadar ships in the area, otherwise you might have gotten out in one piece."

McDermot turned around. "You don't know? Jorgenson didn't tell you?"

Sisko knitted his brow. "Tell me what?"

"It was no accident the Jem'Hadar had two fleets in position when I made my move. Starfleet warned them."

"What!"

"They had to. That mock trial would never have satisfied the Dominion. Starfleet told them what I was going to do to defuse their retaliation. It washed Starfleet’s hands of the whole affair."

"What do you mean?"

"The rogue fleet that destroyed Belug Four was part of the trap to bait Dreadnought into Dominion space."

"Are you saying that Starfleet condoned murdering thousands people as part of a political maneuver? I know their policies have become questionable but-"

"Not their, Captain, his. One man in the right -- or as the case may be -- wrong position, can have an enormous effect on Starfleet policy and actions&ldots;if he's aggressive and ruthless." McDermot raised a red eyebrow at Sisko. "Do you know of such a man?"

Sisko tasted bile. "Jorgenson."

"Exactly. Your outmaneuvering him in this latest gambit has seriously undermined his strength."

"That was more your doing than mine."

A brief smile flashed across McDermot's face. "Even though he's lost considerable credibility within Starfleet, he's still dangerous. I'd be careful if I were you."

Sisko took a deep drink from his glass. The hard liquor burned his throat. "You knew all this and still went after the Jem'Hadar ship?"

McDermot shrugged. "Had to. We needed that ship. Besides, not even Starfleet knew Dreadnought's full capabilities. I had faith in her." McDermot stretched to peer over the throng. "Speaking of ships, I need to find Quark. Would you excuse me? "

"By all means, Will. Stop by my office before you leave."

"Of course." McDermot faded into the crowd.

Sisko heard the bell again, off to his right. He turned toward it but still couldn't spot where it came from. He wandered around the room's perimeter.

"Looking for something?" Samantha Skarn asked from behind him.

He turned around and smiled. "Nothing important. When does the golden boy arrive?"

Skarn checked the time. "Nog's due any minute." She stretched up on her toes to look out over the crowd. "Quark must be happy to cater such a large party. I imagine he's making a mint."

Quark stepped out of the crowd and shoved a tray of glasses between them. "You imagine wrong."

"You've got to be making something out of it," Skarn said lifting a glass of pale blue liqueur from the tray. "For that matter I'm surprised to see you here. With everything you earned from McDermot you should be on your way to an estate on Ferenginar."

"I was. Then Starfleet hit me with fines for trafficking in illegal weapons. They took every latinum strip's worth of profit and more to boot." He rocked his head. "I even had to sell the bar."

"Don’t tell me there’s not going to a Quark's on Deep Space Nine anymore?"

Rom's grinning head popped up behind Quark. "Oh, yes there will. I decided to keep the name."

"You decided?" Sisko asked. "You mean you bought the bar? How? Didn't Starfleet hit you with the same fines as Quark?"

"Sure did, but I put a stipulation in my contract with McDermot that my payment was over and above any fines." His smile stretched toward his lobes. "I'm loaded."

Quark groaned. "I think I'm going to be sick."

Rom patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, brother. As long as I'm around you'll always have a job." Sisko stifled a laugh.

"Thanks a lot," Quark said sourly. "I don't know which is worse, having to work for you or knowing that the Ferengi with the smallest lobes in three quadrants out-smarted me in a business deal."

"Will says it's not the size of a person's lobes that counts -- it's what's between them."

"Will?" Quark asked.

Rom's smile grew so big his eyes squeezed closed. "Mister McDermot. He lets me call him by his first name."

"Oh, please." Quark wandered off with his tray.

"So, Rom," Sisko said. "Now that you have a shuttle bay full of latinum I expect you'll be resigning from Starfleet."

"Uh...if it's all the same to you, no. I like the work." He rose up on his toes to see if Quark had moved out of hearing. "Actually, I plan to give the bar back to him."

"I'm glad to hear you say that because it'll give you time for an additional duty I have for you."

Rom's mouth hung in confusion. "Additional duty?"

"Right. Starting tomorrow you're on waste extraction cleanout detail."

Rom wrinkled his nose. "Yes, sir. How many lines do I have to clean?"

Sisko stared down at him.

Rom’s shoulders sagged. "Oh. That many."

"Right. It'll give you time to think about the importance of keeping your commander informed of all activities relevant to his command."

"Uh...yes, sir. I understand." He began looking around for a source of rescue. "I think I'll go see what's keeping Nog." He vanished into the crowd.

Sisko frowned at a wall clock. "It's getting late."

"Does Nog know?" Skarn asked.

"I briefed him earlier."

"Then he's probably waiting to make an entrance. Can't say I wouldn't do the same."

Junior officers standing by the room's double doors jerked them wide open. Overhead speakers blared with a military flourish. Partygoers drew aside from the central aisle and applauded as Nog walked down it in full dress uniform.

Sisko stepped out to meet him... and froze in his tracks. Lieutenant D'Taing, wearing a sheer white gown overlaid with opalescent sequins, stepped from the throng to complete Nog's parade at his side. Every male head in the room turned to follow her. Sisko noted that she didn't object when Nog slipped his arm around her waist. They stopped in front of him. Nog snapped to attention. "Captain," he said.

"Cadet," Sisko acknowledged, then raised his glass to the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen. I propose a toast. To Cadet Nog, for official recognition by Starfleet as being the first officer to resolve the Kobayashi Maru Scenario."

"To Cadet Nog!" the room chorused.

Sisko shook Nog's hand. "Good work, Nog. We’re all proud of you."

Nog's face glowed. "Thank you, sir. I just want to say-" Before he could finish, the crowd carried him off in a frenzy of congratulatory backslapping. Lieutenant D'Taing watched the activity in the attitude of a scientist studying the swarming habits of Gotarian slime-worms.

"Your gown compliments you, Lieutenant," Sisko said.

"Thank you, sir. I intended it to."

He stifled a cough. "I was surprised to see you accompanying Nog."

She regarded him closely. "I noticed the stricken expression on your face."

"It's just that I didn't think he'd have the courage to ask you out."

"You have made two erroneous assumptions. First, an objective review of Lieutenant Nog's performance evaluations would indicate he has sufficient courage to face any task. Second, he did not ask me, I asked him."

"You?"

"I determined it was to our mutual advantage to increase our level of familiarity. I calculated it would take him seventeen days to approach me on this subject. By initiating the action I saved valuable time."

"I see."

"I doubt that, Captain. However, that is not an issue."

"I have to warn you that conflicting assignments make long-term relationships difficult for Starfleet officers."

"That is a point I have not failed to consider. However, just as logic pointed out the merits of Nog and I pursuing a relationship, logic will also provide solutions to any obstacles we have to face. Now, if you will excuse me? It is time that I rejoin Nog."

"Yes. Of course," Sisko said. "And, Lieutenant?"

She turned back toward him.

"Good luck."

Her left eyebrow lifted, then she pivoted sharply and left. The crowd pulled back as her slender form cleaved into them.

"That was five days, Benjamin."

He turned to face Samantha Skarn again. Five days? What-"

"Our bet. Remember? Five days on Risa?" She grinned as his expression took on a pained look. "I'll be leaving tomorrow. Potemkin's ready for me so I'll be reporting to her directly from Risa. See you in a couple of years." She headed for the exit.

Sisko shrugged, then smiled and looked out over the party.

The bell sounded a third time, louder, to the left this time. He spun toward it and collided with Kira. "Sorry, Major. I didn't see you. I was looking-"

"For what?" She turned her head to follow the direction of his gaze. The bell tinkled clearly.

He looked down at her. A tiny gold bell hung from her clan earring. "That. The bell. I've never noticed it before."

She glanced away for a moment then directly into his eyes. "It's a tel-ra. It is only worn at formal occasions by Bajoran women who have reached full maturity...as signified by the appearance of their sixth node."

Sisko focused on the folds between her eyes. "I thought I noticed something different. Congratulations, Major."

"Thank you, sir."

Sisko grimaced as he shifted his drink out of the arm that had been broken.

"How is it?" she asked.

"It gives me a twinge now and then. Bashir says the pain will pass in another day. I never respond well to regenerative therapy." He sobered. "How's Eriss?"

"As well as can be expected. Once she has the baby it'll be easier."

"Jonan saved our lives."

Kira nodded. "His death has made me think hard about how important it is to make the most of the time we have with the people we love." She scanned the crowd as if looking for someone, then turned back. "Will you rebuild the fleet?"

His expression darkened. "I have to."

"In spite of the reprimand and Jorgenson's direct orders?"

"Yes."

"It could mean your commission."

"Others have already paid more. I'd be a hypocrite if I wasn't willing to trade a few pieces of metal pinned to my collar for Bajor's safety."

"Then you'll be glad to hear that the Dornat settlement’s destruction convinced the government to support your petition. They're sending three interceptors to start a new one. "

He chewed on this. "They'll want something in return."

"Undoubtedly."

Sisko thoughtfully swirled his drink. "Jorgenson's watching me too closely to do much with the fleet and I don't like being indebted to anyone. A solution to both problems just occurred to me." He smiled at her. "I'm giving the fleet to you."

"What? Me? Why?"

"It's simple. You're a Bajoran citizen. Jorgenson can't do anything about what you do. You run the fleet with me as an advisor. This way instead of our owing a return favor to the government for giving us ships, they'll owe us one for donating the remainder of the fleet to them."

Kira shook her head. "So now I'm a fleet commander."

"Don't let it go to your head. Wait until you see the paperwork. Speaking of which, I approved your leave request. Going home?"

"Yes. The family's painting a seventh memorial on the roof of our house in Jonan's honor. I want to be there."

"Please send my condolences to them."

"I'll do that."

The crowd near them parted. Odo stepped through the gap and approached with tentative steps. "I heard about Jonan," he said. "Is there anything...?" His hand came up, but stopped short of touching her arm.

Kira looked down. "No. Thank you."

"I see." Odo's hand dropped away. He stared at her a moment. "Then, if you'll pardon me...?" He turned to leave.

She looked up at his retreating back. "Odo, wait. I'm leaving tomorrow to visit my family. Would... would you come with me?"

The Constable stopped without turning around. "Yes. Thank you. I'd like that very much."

"Good. Tomorrow morning at eight, docking bay fifteen."

"I'll be there."

He'd spoken so softly Sisko could barely hear him. Kira flashed a brief smile up at Sisko, then trailed after the changeling.

Sisko took another drink. Off to his right Nog and D'Taing attracted the attentions of well-wishers. On his left Kira and Odo stood close together in an isolated alcove, talking in tones too low to hear. From somewhere behind him Sisko overheard Quark grumbling. McDermot's voice answered back. "Sure you can, Quark. We still have the Aeneid. All you have to do is order me a few things and...." Their voices trailed off into the noise of the crowd.

Sisko burst out in laughter, raised his glass in a toast to Deep Space Nine, and joined the party.

 

THE END

 

 

 
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