Ella
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

Summary:

When Ezra Standish discovers a vital clue in his search for truth in the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee, he and Buck Wilmington embark on a secret investigation that leads them to an outcome with grave implications not only for Chris Larabee but for the entire Alpha Quadrant...

Eleventh story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows Fountain.


Prologue:

The Girl in the Tea House

CHINATOWN, SAN FRANCISCO SEVENTEEN YEARS EARLIER...

Chris loved Yum Cha.

Growing up with a father who barely remembered what cooking was and knew only how to program the things with traditional Irish fare, Chris Larabee had little opportunity to sample authentic Earth cuisine.

With food synthesizers capable of producing any kind of meal you want; the local foods of planet Earth had taken a back seat to the alien restaurants setting up shop. On Saturday nights, he'd take his bike to the eatery run by an Andorian named Frazz who swore like a miner and cooked like a galaxy class gourmet chef. The guy's redbat pies were to die for. If you were feeling especially adventurous, you'd try Tellerite food (but that usually meant you needed antacid after), and for something subtle, according to his new roommate Buck Wilmington, Betazoid was great for first dates.

When Chris arrived at Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, Buck had talked him into asking out a girl named Ling because he was spending too much time with the books. Just to shut the guy up, Chris agreed and allowed Ling to pick the restaurant for their dinner date. She introduced Chris to the concept of Yum Cha.

At first, he was dubious since the word Yum Cha meant ‘drinking tea' and no matter how hot she was, (and she was really, really hot), he wasn't shelling out a whole bunch of credits to drink tea. He was raised on a college campus and took his dinner (and his credits) pretty seriously. Fortunately, Ling who was of Cantonese extraction assured him he'd be well sated once they got to the place.

Since she was hot (really, really hot), Chris gave her the benefit of the doubt.

The meal was nothing like what he expected. The restaurant, called the Lotus Blossom Tea House, was packed to the hilt with what appeared to be every Asian in San Francisco. He appeared to be the only Caucasian in the place. There was no sedate, polite, dinner conversation but rousing, enthusiastic chatter which he immediately liked. Chopsticks clacked and plates clattered. The meal of dinner wasn't just a meal to be eaten, but a social event where the business of the day was splayed out across the white tablecloth like the meals being served.

And that was the other thing – there were no menus.

Trolleys laden with exotic foods were wheeled around the restaurant, like a moving buffet where you took what you wanted and waved away what you didn't. That, however, was rare with waitresses who brought more and more interesting dishes. Small portions were placed in front of him, but they were numerous, and they never seemed to stop coming. He loved the food and moreover, he loved the atmosphere, it was alive and so very human. When Chris left, he felt as if he had a 12-course meal and was more enamored by the food than he was with the girl.

After a couple of dates and Ling started seeing some guy from the JAG office, Chris continued to come to the Tea House, sometimes with other girls and sometimes on his own. He tried to talk Buck into it once but when the native Texan had asked ‘Is there steak? Chris suspected he might be dealing with a lost cause. So, he'd come here every month or so, becoming adept enough to pick up some Cantonese (at least when it came to ordering), so he was able to converse with the owners of the place, a nice couple who went by the name of Vanita and Elden Wong.

Now he was here, sitting at a table, sipping Bo Lei (tea) after snacking on an assortment of dumplings and rice noodle rolls when he glanced through the glass window and glimpsed at something that made him forget food completely.

With dark brown hair flowing down her back, she was wearing a white dress that flowed around her ankles and clung to her shoulders with thin straps. The sun was bouncing off her flawless peaches and cream complexion. She didn't walk so much as seem to glide along the sidewalk. Her dark eyes were sweeping across the storefronts and the buildings like it were the most wondrous thing she'd ever seen and the delight on her face speared his heart with the arrow of her glorious smile.

He was out of the restaurant before she moved past the window, paying hastily because losing sight of her was more than he could stand. Chris supposed if there was some consolation to be had by the fact he was floored by a woman, it was Buck wasn't here. His roommate would undoubtedly try to play wingman, which would get either one or both of them slapped and force Chris to kill him later.

The girl was peering through the window of a Chinese funeral home, not a morbid thing if you understood how the Chinese sent their dead into the afterlife. It wasn't unlike the Egyptians and involved burning paper effigies of things the departed might want to wait for them in the afterlife. When Chris told Buck about it, Buck had instructed effigies of Orion slave girls to be burnt at his funeral. Chris didn't think he was kidding.

"You know, I've seen effigies of star cruisers and golden statues made in there," Chris leaned against the glass next to the girl, trying to come off sounding very learned and worldly instead of some cadet who was completely smitten.

The girl turned to him and smiled. Chris could have melted on the spot right there. Yeah, he was bagged, tagged and ready for delivery anywhere she wanted.

"Really?" She asked with an accent he could tell immediately wasn't native to Earth. There was a slight twinge of Aldarian phonetics in her speech that made her sound incredibly exotic, at least to him anyway. "I've met people with Chinese backgrounds before, but this is the first time I've ever encountered this." Her eyes raked over him slowly, the corner of her lips tugging upwards in a slight smile.

Even her teeth were perfect, Chris sighed inwardly.

"Well I'm from Massachusetts and it was a first for me too when I came here," Chris explained, breaking into a smile of his own, trying to remember what Buck said about being charming. Christ, he must have it bad for her if he was resorting to employing Buck's dating tips. "It's an old tradition apparently, not practiced as much now as it was back in the day…whenever that was."

"I see," she nodded, her eyes meeting him with more than passing interest.

Chris was ready to cry victory but held back premature celebrations of triumph. You just didn't get cocky with this girl. In a sudden burst of premonition, Chris knew no matter what, she was always going to have the upper hand with him. "So, you're from Aldaria Colony?"

Her eyes lit up and Chris felt an inward sigh of longing escape him. Just perfect.

"Yes," she beamed. "How did you know?"

"The accent," he replied. "I got a good ear for these things." Not to mention he had grown up in a university which meant he was exposed to every race and species for most of his youth.

"Very good," she said impressed. "I am from Aldaria colony; I'm going to college at Stanford University."

"Really? What are you studying?" Chris asked, finding that unusual. Most people opted for the Academy even if they didn't plan on pursuing a career at Starfleet. The Academy was the most diverse and well-funded institution on the planet. While there were universities around and Stanford, from what Chris knew, was one of the older and better ones, it was still a little bit of a surprise to meet someone who went there.

"Education," she answered promptly. "And you're in Starfleet Academy."

"Uniform give me away?" He joked, glancing down at the Academy grey he was wearing.

"That and you have that charming and dangerously confident look about you," she pointed out.

"Is that bad?" Chris returned, wondering what it was about him that made people think that. Buck said it was the eyes. Chris hoped this wasn't going to put her off. He really liked her.

"Not at all," she shook her head, her brown hair shimmering against her shoulders as her swan-like neck moved. "You're the first Academy cadet that's tried to pick me up."

"What…?" Chris looked at her, trying to feign innocence. "I wouldn't do that, I just thought you were interested in Chinese culture." He almost groaned inwardly at how lame that sounded. Maybe he did need Buck to play wingman after all.

"Oh, it's all right," she laughed. "I don't mind."

"You don't?" Chris raised a brow, once again thinking he was right about never being able to fool her.

"Not at all," she smiled at him with a look he couldn't quite read. Thanks to being in Buck Wilmington's company, Chris was starting to learn the range of female reactions, from starry-eyed romantic to the pissed off ‘you slept with my best friend' outrage, however, the way she was looking at him now? Chris had no idea.

"I'm a pacifist," she replied. "I don't believe in what Starfleet does or represents but I don't hold that against you, just as long as you know that if you pick me up, I'm only interested in dating. I just don't see a future for us beyond that."

Considering he saw forever in her eyes, Chris was somewhat disappointed, but he was also an optimist, so he'd take what he could get. Besides a girl like this? You didn't let go for anything. He was convinced if he tried hard enough, he might move her on the subject.

"I can do a fling," Chris smiled, not about to cry defeat. "But how do you know I'm that interested?"

"Of course, you are," she moved away from the glass. "You stopped eating your dinner just to come out and talk to me." She had seen him in the restaurant earlier and thought he was handsome, though the uniform made her disregard the attraction and continue her explorations of Chinatown.

"I did not…" Chris lied. "Well, I could just go back and finish."

"You could," she nodded before stepping off the sidewalk. "Or we could finish dinner together." She winked and made her way towards the entrance of the Lotus Blossom Tea House. "Coming Admiral?"

Chris was grinning. She was amazing.

"Admiral?" he had to ask following her across the road, offering her his arm which she took. Very cool, he thought.

"Isn't that what all you Starfleet cadets dream of becoming? Admirals?"

"Too cushy," Chris laughed, supposing that for some it wasn't an unfair assumption. However, all he had ever wanted to be was the captain of his own ship. "I prefer Captain."

"Okay, Captain it is," she amended. "Captain what?"

"Captain Chris Larabee," Chris replied, playing her game. "And you?"

"Sarah," she answered as they crossed the street. "Sarah Conley."

Chapter One:

Shore Leave

"First Officer's Log - Stardate 2378.104.

The Maverick is presently undergoing refit at Spacedock following our recall to Sector 001 seven days ago when a transwarp aperture was detected one light year from Earth. Apertures of this type have only one known origin and are usually the prelude to the arrival of a Borg ship. Along with the Maverick, thirty starships including the Sovereign-class Enterprise and the Defiant-class Defiant was summoned to Earth by Starfleet Command to deal with the terrifying possibility of yet another Borg attack.

Fortunately, the battle we feared never eventuated. By their nature, transwarp apertures are the exit points of transwarp conduits employed by the Collective to cover the great distances between quadrants in short periods of time. This one was formed when the USS Voyager, lost in the Delta Quadrant for seven years, was able to gain access to a Borg Transwarp Hub to return home. Voyager emerged from the aperture shortly after obliterating the hub located in the Delta Quadrant. We have yet to determine what effect this might have on the Collective's ability to reach Earth, but it will certainly make their incursions to Sector 001 a good deal more complicated.

Of course, the threat is by no means over. Even without the Hub, the Borg still have access to transwarp technology which means they can still reach us in the Alpha Quadrant, just not as quickly as before and if they do so, it will almost certainly be from the direction of the Frontier. In any case, the battle we believed we were going to fight has instead become a celebration of Voyager's return home.

Both the Captain and I are especially pleased with Voyager's return to the Alpha Quadrant since we are both personally acquainted with Captain Janeway from our time as cadets at Starfleet Academy. As an instructor, Kathy was always available to help younger cadets navigate Academy life, and it is no surprise to either of us to know how well she was able to hold her crew together during those seven years lost in the wilderness.

Following the festivities, however, it appears Voyager has returned home with significant technological advances specifically designed for dealing with Borg attacks and as a result, those improvements are being adapted for all current starships in service. Since the Maverick is the first line of defense against any future Borg incursions, we have been ordered to spacedock to adapt these new technologies to our systems. As a result, the Captain has authorized shore leave for all personnel while we are undergoing the modifications.

I have chosen to remain on board the Maverick to allow the Captain some time off the ship. The Captain has been somewhat distracted of late and although he has not revealed the cause to me, I believe the time away the ship will do him some good. He will be accompanying Adam Larabee to Starfleet Academy to take a tour of the facility since Adam intends to attend the Academy in the following year. "

********

Rain plastered his blond hair to his face, but Chris Larabee didn't care, nor did he feel the moisture against his skin. Even though the weather was controlled by the Earth's climate control systems, Chris had paid little attention to the warning of impending rain when he made this pilgrimage against his better judgement.

He knew he shouldn't be here. In fact, for five years he made certain to not ever be on Earth at this time, but circumstances ensured he did not have a choice in the matter. The possibility of the Borg in the vicinity of Sector 001 demanded nothing less than the presence of the Maverick but he had every intention of leaving as soon as the danger was over. However, as it turned out, what was meant to be another Borg attack became a celebration of Voyager's return home.

Once again, Chris would have opted out of the festivities, but Kathryn Janeway was a friend. During his and Buck's sophomore year at the Academy, Kathy had been an instructor and thanks to her, she had helped them pass some of the more painful science courses for that semester. Since then, they had always kept in touch and shared a drink whenever time permitted. Hell, she'd been at his wedding. How could he not remain behind and see how she was doing? Especially after what the woman and her crew had been through in the Delta Quadrant.

Nevertheless, Chris had intended leaving Earth orbit as soon as he paid his respects to Kathy and head back to the frontier at Warp nine, but that had denied him too.

Thanks to Voyager's time in the Delta Quadrant dealing with the Borg, she had returned with formidable technology that would aid in their defenses against the Collective and with the Maverick being on the front line of that fight, she was the first ship to be given the modifications. Chris had every intention of remaining on board his ship and overseeing the improvements with Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton when Adam had thrown another curveball in his direction by asking him for a tour of Starfleet Academy.

At this point, Chris was convinced the universe was conspiring against him.

If he needed any further proof of this, the instant Adam arrived at the Academy and discovered the number of female cadets per capita exceeded anything close to the numbers on the Maverick, the teenager had promptly ditched him for the first redhead he saw. Once again, Chris had to question if the universe was having a great deal of amusement at his expense since it was becoming painfully clear he was raising a younger version of Buck Wilmington.

While common sense would have had him transport back to the Maverick while Adam exhausted the full vent of his teenage hormones on the hapless females of the Academy, he found himself here, almost against his will, at the one place in the universe he had no wish to be.

The Lotus Blossom Tea House was still there, surrounded by the colorful architecture of San Francisco's Chinatown district. It looked exactly as it had the day he had been dining there and happened to look across the street at the very place he was standing right now. On this spot, Chris had sighted his future and lost his heart completely.

Even though he had learned to let her go these past two years, there was a secret part of him that dared not admit his love for Mary would never burn as hot or as brightly as it had for Sarah. Sarah had taken his heart from the minute he laid eyes on her and every day he got to spend with her after that first date at the tea house was a blessing. When she died, she took the light with her, a light that only now since Mary entered his life, had been rekindled but nowhere as intensely.

The teahouse had not changed and even from across the street, he could see through the wide picture window, Vanita and Elden holding court with a full house of hungry diners. Once again, he watched the carts being pushed between the tables, with waiters and waitresses pausing to dole out small portions of food from the moving banquet. He used to love the cuisine but lost all taste for it after Sarah was gone. Considering how many meals they shared here and how they tried to get back to the teahouse for their anniversaries, it simply hurt too much without her.

Wiping his eyes, he knew not all the moisture on his face was rain and at that moment, more than any other point in his life, the ache for her nearly broke him in half.

"You'll catch a cold if you keep standing out here like this."

With utter astonishment, Chris turned his head sideways and saw Josiah Sanchez standing beside him, holding an umbrella over his head to shield him from being further soaked by the rain.

"Josiah," Chris stared at him in shock, "what are you doing here?"

Josiah did not look at him, his gaze fixed on the teahouse, surrounded by the colorful atmosphere of Chinatown which could not be dampened even by inclement weather. "I thought you could use some company. You've been a little on edge these last few days."

Chris cursed inwardly, thinking he had hidden his distraction well and then supposing those who knew him would probably have seen through his facade easily enough. Damn, Chris thought, wishing he hadn't landed himself the best Counsellor in Starfleet.

"It's nothing," Chris said stiffly, trying not to feel annoyed at Josiah for intruding because this was a wholly private matter. This place was his and Sarah's, he wanted no one else to share in it.

"Fair enough," Josiah nodded in understanding, perfectly aware how far to push when Chris Larabee was concerned. Instead, he kept his focus on the teahouse, watching the activity through the large window. "Seems pretty lively. They serve good food there?"

"Best Yum Cha in the quadrant," Chris said almost quietly. He kept his gaze averted, denying Josiah the chance to look into his eyes and see the vulnerability he was exposed by being here.

"Looks it," the Counsellor commented before moving his gaze away from the restaurant to examine the eclectic skyline of Chinatown, with its mish-mash of modern architecture and old pagoda-roofed traditions. "You know I've never been to Chinatown."

Now that did make Chris look at him. "You're kidding. You were stationed in San Francisco for almost thirty years and you've never been here?" The idea of anyone being able to avoid Chinatown, one of the city's most important landmarks, not to mention its most colorful places, was beyond Chris's ability to comprehend.

"Nope," Josiah shook his head, not at all repentant by this revelation. "Ayla never liked Asian food. Just didn't agree with her Betazoid constitution so we never came here. It's very colorful. though" He remarked staring at the rows of shops, selling everything from medicines to exotic spices and traditional silk clothing.

"Yeah," Chris replied. "Right over there," he pointed to what was some kind of bookstore, "there used to be a funeral home, with these interesting effigies you're supposed to take into the afterlife and further along from that, a traditional Asian bakery. Sarah and I used to..."

Chris fell silent and glared at Josiah through narrowed eyes. "That was sneaky."

"I was married to a Betazoid telepath," Josiah shrugged. "If I didn't learn to be sneaky, I would have been in trouble a lot."

"I miss her Josiah," Chris admitted quietly, now that Josiah had tricked him into mentioning Sarah. "Even after all this time, even with Mary in my life, I still miss her. I miss not waking up next to her, not hearing her hum those old songs she liked or tease me about becoming an Admiral someday. I can make peace with her being gone, I can almost stand not knowing who might have taken her away from me, but I can't let go of her completely. This time of the year, no matter where I am in space, I always find myself on this corner, where I saw her for the first time."

Josiah understood all too well Chris's pain. He too had lost a wife. Three years ago, Ayla had been taken from him after almost thirty years of marriage and it was Chris Larabee who saved him from becoming lost in his grief. At least he had the benefit of closure with Ayla, for they knew their time together was ending. Chris was afforded no such kindness. He lost Sarah in the worst way possible, through an act of murder and with her, their son as well. Ayla had left him with daughters to comfort him, but Chris was forced to go on alone.

"Well then," Josiah said. "Perhaps we should go get a drink."

"A drink?" Chris stared at him. "That's your solution?"

"Is there anything I could say that would make you feel better?" The counsellor challenged.

Chris had to say no.

"Then a drink it is," Josiah declared before adding, "Chris this wasn't about counselling you. It was about letting you know you didn't have to go through this day alone. So, if we have to do it getting so drunk we can't stand up, I'm game."

"You're a hell of an analyst," Chris managed a smile, grateful Josiah had come and goaded him enough to expunge some of the pain inside him. The loss of Sarah still felt heavier today but now that he had it, the company was appreciated.

"I am," Josiah smiled. "And don't you ever forget it."

********

Ezra Standish hadn't been to Mars in years.

In fact, he wouldn't be going there at all if it were not for the fact, he needed something to occupy his time while Julia Pemberton was on board the Maverick, supervising the refit the ship was presently undergoing at Spacedock. Under normal circumstances, Ezra would have insisted on being present during any improvements made to the ship's defensive capabilities, however, the modifications being conducted were so extensive, there was little for him to do until engineering aspects of the refit were completed.

Aside from an invitation to stay at the Pemberton Home made by Julia's parents, Ezra had no other plans and he did not feel it appropriate to take up the offer when she needed to remain on the ship. Not that he did not find Julia's parents perfectly charming. Julia's father, Donald Pemberton, was the latest in the long line of Cape Cod shipwrights and it seemed Julia was the first one in her family to work on a ship that was in space.

Donald made his living fashioning vintage boats and having seen the Spirit yacht the man built to take them sailing off the Cape, Ezra had to admit to being impressed by his skill. With two other siblings, Julia being the youngest, her brother Anson who worked with their father and sister Jennifer, Julia's mother Eleanor had opted to remain at home to raise her family. After growing up with Maude, Ezra had not believed there were still women who chose to live this way and seemed perfectly content by it.

In any case, the lady welcomed him into her home, admitting quietly out of Julia's hearing of course, they were glad their little Julie had finally met someone she liked. Furthermore, as anxious as Julia had been about Ezra meeting her father, Donald was actually a rather colorful sea dog who enjoyed good liquor and a card game. This had somewhat astonished Julia who like all daughters, placed her father on something of a pedestal but adjusted quickly if it meant Ezra and Donald would get along, which they did.

Seeing Julia with her family, gave Ezra some insight into why the love of his life was the way she was. She had grown up with supportive parents with old world sensibilities, who still went to church and had Sunday dinners together but were by no means constrained by the past. They enjoyed their traditions but were open to the ideas of the present and Ezra had to admit, he was a little taken by all of them, especially when they gave him an open invitation to come and go as he pleased while the Maverick was on Earth.

Nevertheless, he left Julia to her devices and chose instead to take the opportunity to devote himself to the riddle he neglected lately, even though he promised Chris Larabee to do the opposite some months ago. With everything that had taken place since the destruction of the Hobus Star, the Maverick's crash landing on Loren III, their journey to an alternate universe and their recent trauma on Hadir, the investigation into the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee had been forgotten much to his chagrin.

Fortunately, the presence of Adam from the alternate universe had kept the Captain preoccupied and if he noticed the lack of progress in the investigation on Ezra's part, he did not make any mention of it. Still, Ezra did not feel any better about letting the matter fall to the wayside, especially since he knew how important it was to the Captain to uncover the truth. Ezra wanted to solve this mystery, not because Chris Larabee was his Captain but also because he was a friend. Like Chris, Ezra did not believe Q's revelation had meant to be an unkindness and if such was the case, then a murderer was somewhat out there, having eluded justice for five years.

That did not sit at all well with Ezra Standish.

Still, uncovering the truth was not easy once he scrutinized the reports and data pad regarding the accident. After searching through every iota of information on the subject, Ezra had found nothing to disprove the theory that the destruction of the shuttle Magellan, flying over the skies above Syria Planum at the time, had been due to anything but an accident. Yet Ezra had a nose for trouble like no man alive and despite the evidence of cold hard data proving otherwise, Ezra knew in his gut something was wrong.

He could feel it.

Unfortunately, the limitations of viewing data through a digital medium meant he wasn't really seeing the true scene of the crime, merely reading second-hand reports describing the accident, which would not do to the methodical investigator. Ezra prided himself in being able to see through lies, in being able to look past the surface. The trouble with reports and specs was the lack of texture, beyond the cold hard facts. There was something to be found in all these numbers and specifications, he could feel it, but the medium of its delivery kept Ezra from seeing it.

A murder was a wholly emotional affair and viewing it through the eyes of technology meant the important clues could be missed.

It was why he had transported from the Maverick to the main promenade in the Central Hub of the Utopia Planitia Shipyards in orbit around Mars. The facility was where most Starfleet vessels were constructed and one of the largest in the quadrant, manned by almost ten thousand staff on a permanent basis. Here, ships were not merely built from the ground up so to speak but designed by the best engineers in the Federation.

As the shimmer of the transporter beam diminished, Ezra saw a sea of blue uniforms scurrying about the place like ants, while large picture windows revealed the latticework of docking stations occupied by ships in partial stages of construction. Swarming around them were smaller ships occupied by construction crews and workmen in enviro-suits. It was hard not to be a little taken by the grandeur of the work being carried out.

"So why am I here again?" Alexandra Styles asked.

When Ezra had contacted her earlier this morning while she and Vin had been at their Texas ranch, Alex had been rather surprised that his reasons had to do with the investigation into Sarah and Adam Larabee's death. Since he assumed the responsibility of solving this puzzle for the Captain, Ezra had been rather closed mouth regarding its progress and Alex understood his reasoning had to do with not wanting to give the Captain any false hopes until he had definitive answers for the man.

After all, no one wanted a repeat of Chris's behavior at Fury 361.

Surprise or not, the request for her assistance was one she was willing to grant without question. Aside from being her husband's best friend, Alex would walk through fire for Chris Larabee. The man had earned her fierce loyalty by his unwavering support ever since she arrived on the Maverick, carryings scars and traumas that would have given a lesser commander pause. Chris had fought for her and broken through her rage at the moment of her darkest despair, reminding her there were things worth living for. If not for him, she would never have dared to build a life with Vin.

Thus, there was nothing she would not do to help him find the same peace.

"Well," Ezra turning to her. "I require the expertise of an engineer and since Julia and the rest of our engineering staff are engaged in the refit of the Maverick, I thought you might be of assistance helping me examine the wreckage of the Magellan."

That made sense. As a science officer, she had an advanced understanding of engineering principles. While it was nowhere in the caliber of Julia Pemberton, it was still formidable enough to be of assistance if Ezra needed the help. However, hearing the mention of the Magellan did surprise her somewhat. Anyone who ever took even a cursory look at the Captain's personnel file knew the name of the shuttlecraft that was destroyed in the accident involving his family. When Ezra had asked for her help, she hadn't been sure what it was he needed of her, but she certainly hadn't expected this.

"It's here?" She asked, supposing it made sense that the wreckage would be stored here since it was the largest Starfleet facility on Mars.

"Yes," Ezra nodded as they crossed the busy promenade with its row of businesses catering to the personnel on board, the wide observation windows and the steady flow of people moving across the deck. "All of it was transported here after the investigation was concluded."

"What do you think you'll find?" Alex asked, knowing Ezra would not have made the journey here or enlisted her help for that matter without good reason.

"To be honest my dear Alexandra," Ezra remarked as they approached the nearest turbo lift. "I am uncertain of what we are looking for. I only know I have gone as far as I can, viewing reports. The crime scene no longer exists so I cannot view that, and, in this case, it would be a patch of red sand on Mars that has long been covered by the winds by now. I need to peruse the evidence myself and I believe a second set of eyes may help me if I miss anything. Next, to myself, you are the only one on the Maverick, with a similar degree of methodology."

Alex raised a brow. "You mean the only one paranoid enough?" She asked, perfectly aware of what he was alluding to behind those erudite words.

"I prefer methodical." Ezra flashed a dimpled grin at her.

Alex rolled her eyes. "All right Ezra. For the Captain, I'm at your disposal."

********

You know, we could have gone to dinner someplace nice for a change," Buck Wilmington commented as he sat at the small dining table inside the quarters of Inez Recillos. "Just because the Captain left the ship in my hands, doesn't mean I can't take a night off to go grab some dinner on Earth. We could go to the Champs-Elysées or even talk a stroll through the French Quarter in New Orleans."

Since most of the senior staff had left the Maverick to enjoy some well-deserved shore leave, leaving Buck in charge of the Maverick, he had been enjoying dinner with Inez almost every night. Even though their relationship was still platonic, Buck had to admit he enjoyed breaking bread with her at the end of a long day, sharing the meals she replicated while they engaged in conversations that felt intimate without it being sexual at all.

Inez looked over her shoulder from where she was standing in front of the replicator, crooking a perfectly sculpted eyebrow at him. "I am wise to your ways Commander Wilmington, I have no intention of going to your usual hunting grounds to be swept away by your repertoire of cheap moves." She declared with a playful smirk.

Buck was not at all offended, not when she was saying those words while wearing a figure-hugging dress with a neckline low enough to be slightly scandalous. They had been edging towards something more than just intimate conversation for some time now and the fact that she was flirting with him told Buck that given enough time, she might actually trust him enough with her heart as well as her body. Considering his feelings for her, Buck was willing to be patient.

Inez was starting to see him as someone she could care about, something he knew was not easy to do after losing her longtime fiancé Raphael Castille of the Venture. Even though they had only been sharing dinner, he knew it wouldn't be long before these occasions turned into an actual date.

"All right, I just didn't want you to go to any trouble," Buck said watching her come back to the table, carrying a bottle of wine.

"I am hardly in the kitchen Buck," she flashed him a little smile, touched by his consideration. "Besides, all you First Officers are the same, you never want to leave the ship when you have the center seat."

Buck couldn't lie, he didn't. While his ambitions to become a captain of a ship himself was nowhere as determined since assuming the role of Chris's First Officer, he did like being in charge when the opportunity arose. Besides, he had been so happy to get Chris off the ship for a few days, he was willing to forego shore leave on Earth and staying on board had allowed him to share these dinners with Inez.

Reaching the table, Inez filled the glass in front of him with wine and did the same for her own before sitting down. "You think going to Earth will make him feel better?"

"Only if Adam can keep him distracted long enough," Buck sighed. "This time of the year is always hard for him. He doesn't think I know why and I'm not about to approach it with him, but it's not something he can talk to Mary about either."

Inez understood, guessing why. "Because it involves Sarah?"

There was only one subject the Captain would not discuss with his oldest friend and First Officer and that was his wife and son. Inez recalled how Chris had been after learning their deaths might not have been accidental. For two months, Chris Larabee was obsessed, neglecting not only the ship but the people in his life, pushing his relationship with Mary Travis almost to the brink of disaster. In the end, it was only the events on Fury 361 that brought him back to his senses. No one wanted to see a repeat of that.

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "It's pretty close to the day he met her. I don't know the date exactly but it's around this time of year. I only met her a few days after their first meeting, so I know this much."

"I understand," Inez said with a sigh, empathizing with the Captain on this point at least. Even though she was starting to move past it, she still felt the sting of Raphael's death. "I haven't wanted to go home to Val Verde either."

Buck felt silent, reluctant to say anything because of the man he could never hope to replace in her heart. Instead, Buck allowed her the time to reflect and waited patiently until she was ready to see him again. Such moments lasted briefly, and Buck had to admit the time taken for her to overcome them was becoming shorter and shorter these days.

"But," she blinked and looked up at him, flashing him that dazzling smile capable of nailing him between the eyes. "I am glad for this." She reached across the table and squeezed his hand. "I've really enjoyed these dinners."

"Me too," Buck smiled, pleased to see he was all that was reflected in her eyes. "I'd still like to take you someplace nice before we leave Earth that is."

"Tell you what," she leaned forward, "when we go on a real date, I'll take you."

The suggestive gleam in her eyes made Buck wonder if she was talking about a date and decided whatever she meant, he was really going to be looking forward to it.

Chapter Two:

The Magellan

It always astonished Ezra Standish how an experience could differ so dramatically from medium to medium. Considering himself to be a man with an active imagination, always able to see clarity in muddled data, finding shape in the formless, and patterns when others saw discord, Ezra believed he possessed the imagination to visualize any scene described to him. This was a necessary aspect of the job since as an investigator, he was often called onto a scene after the fact and was required to extrapolate the incident from second-hand accounts and expired data.

Thus, he could admit to being utterly unprepared when he saw the Magellan for himself.

For the first time, Ezra could well understand why Chris Larabee had spiraled into the depths of despair, how he could have become so gripped with the need for an answer after Q's revelation, he almost jeopardized his command. How would Chris have reacted seeing this for the first time, with the smell of singed metal and the whiff of noxious plasma residue still clinging to the wreckage? How would it be seeing this damage, knowing every fragment and scrap of twisted metal, was a badge of doom for the occupants within.

How did it feel to know, when the craft cracked apart like an egg, your wife and child were inside being incinerated alive?

Until Ezra stood in front of the wreckage of the Magellan, it had been an academic exercise for him, a riddle to be solved because for an investigator, emotion could not enter the equation. To be effective, he had to be mercurial and so he approached the study of Chris's investigation with an impartial eye, hoping to see something in the evidence unblemished by personal trauma. Yet now, he could well understand why the Captain had almost driven himself insane trying to seek out the truth. What else could the man do to live with such utter destruction?

"My God," Alex whispered as she stood next to him inside the storage bay, inside one of the many salvage berths located at the Utopia Planitia shipyards, floating above Mars.

The shuttle just hadn't exploded, it appeared as if every piece had been torn to shreds. The fuselage was broken up so completely, it looked as if someone had taken to it with a plasma cutter. Even though quite a bit of the wreckage was recovered over the plains of Syria Planum, none of the pieces was larger than a coffee can. Spread out across the floor over a dark roll of protective sheeting, it was hard to imagine this collection of scrap metal was once a shuttlecraft ferrying people.

On a datapad, it was easy to miss the scale in relation to the size of the debris but seeing it with his own eyes as Chris must have seen it in the aftermath of the crash, made him appreciate the reason for the Captain's anguish. He could well understand why Chris was so ready to believe foul play. Ezra had been to crash sites before and this level of fragmentation on a ship was extreme. No accident Ezra ever investigated, could explain this kind of destruction.

"Indeed." Ezra agreed. "The blast was extremely thorough."

"I suppose it could be attributed to the Magellan being an older shuttle. It might not possess the structural tolerance of newer models," Alex mused, trying to account for what she was seeing and finding the explanation, unsatisfactory even as she said it. During her time at DS9, at the height of the hostilities between the Dominion and the Federation, she had seen the wreckage of ships after engagements between Starfleet and the Jem'Hadar and it did not produce damage like this.

"According to the investigators of the accident," Ezra said still studying the pieces strewn in front of them. "The plasma seals in the main engines failed, causing the magnetic containment field to lower and expose the anti-matter in the warp core." He paused a moment and took a deep breath. "What made me ignore the notion of this being an accident, Q's revelation notwithstanding, was the fact I have been able to count the number of times plasma seals have failed to such a catastrophic degree. In most cases, there was always a human agent involved"

"But they found nothing here," Alex countered, playing devil's advocate because this was usually how she and Ezra unraveled a problem before presenting it to either Buck or the Captain. On the Maverick, they often found themselves on the same side of an argument, largely because neither was willing to take anything at face value. While they often relied on instincts to guide them, it was in their DNA to required evidence of proof. "According to the report, it was most likely a defective power chip that caused the failure. It is rare but known to take place on these older type shuttles."

"There is also the matter of the unknown energy spike beforehand," he added. "Nothing in the engineering logs or the shuttle's diagnostics before launch can account for that. Prior to this, I was willing to believe it had nothing to do with the crash, but now..."

"You think it caused the plasma seals to breach," Alex concluded and decided she too, disliked that unanswered question. Furthermore, by the way, Ezra's eyes were fixed on the remains of the Magellan, he was seeing something she couldn't. Ezra was one of the best investigators she knew and if he had latched on to an idea, she would remain silent while he mulled it around in his mind to give it shape.

"I think," Ezra let out a sigh, "it is not a coincidence that the ship was pulverized so completely, any investigation into the cause would be at best speculation. Perhaps it is my suspicious nature, but I cannot believe this was not by design. The shuttle did not simply explode, it was obliterated and through the one system on board where no warning was possible."

It was hard to argue with him when it was put so starkly and considering what was before them, even harder to deny.

"All right," she met his eyes, approaching this methodically. "We've both seen wreckage from an anti-matter breach before this so we can both agree this is beyond the norm. Assuming the destruction was intentional, some catalyst had to be involved to make the blast so intensified."

"Agreed," Ezra nodded. "I would imagine something untraceable or some type of material that would not appear under scans, at least unless the instrumentation knew what it was seeking out."

"Tricobalt based?" She suggested.

"No," he discounted quickly, aware of such material was used on a smaller scale from the usual photon torpedo. "The size alone would require a detonator, and as dubious I am about civilian security, I do not believe they would miss the presence of such a device. Perhaps Gronerium?"

"Gronerium Compound 3983?" Alex mused, considering. "It does have a fast ignition rate, but I can't imagine how you would introduce it to the plasma mix without setting off ten kinds of warnings before the breach. Whatever did this, it went by completely unnoticed."

"True," Ezra frowned, conceding the point. "What about Saurium-K?"

"No," Alex shook her head, showing him why she was the Maverick's science officer and the best person after Julia to enlist in this investigation. "It reacts badly with plasma. Yes, it will cause an explosion, but it would also leave a lot of trace amounts. The investigation team would have found that even on a routine scan. You need something that would decay rapidly, leaving little or no particulate residue, even on the microscopic level unless..."

Ezra saw her lapsing into silence which usually meant an idea was forming in her mind. After more than a year working with the woman, the Security Chief knew when the Science Officer was on the cusp of making an important discovery. He still recalled how she had been the first to realize a Dominion fleet was tracking the Maverick under a cloak, raising the alarm that allowed Chris Larabee to save all their lives. Just as he was unaware, she thought him the best Security Chief in the fleet, Ezra thought Alex was the best Science Officer there was.

When she looked up at him again, her eyes were dark with purpose and he knew she had found an answer.

"Bilitrium."

Ezra's eyes widened at the word and suddenly, his own thoughts were free-falling in a cascade of ideas, with pieces pulling together into a hypothesis that fitted so perfectly, he wondered how he could not have seen it himself. "It would not need to be mixed into anything," he said nodding in understanding. "It would just need to be onboard, concealed."

"Exactly," she declared. "Bilitrium has the same chemical signature as diamond, so if you were smart, you could make it look like an ornament or hell, even a piece of jewelry. It wouldn't come up as anything dangerous unless someone scans for it specifically."

"All our culprit would have to do then is to leave it on board and simply wait," Ezra continued his own deductions. "It would not react until the plasma seals were breached and the anti-matter was exposed. When the reaction interacted with the bilitrium, the explosive yield of the blast would have quadrupled, causing this level of destruction." He indicated the debris on the ground.

"It's why the Bajorans used it so extensively during the Cardassian Occupation," Alex declared, remembering her discussions with Deep Space Nine's security personnel, many of whom were former Resistance fighters. "It was a very effective terrorist weapon, virtually undetectable unless you knew what you were looking for."

"The plan thus required getting the bilitrium on board, in whatever form it was shaped into and then replacing a power circuit on the Magellan with a defective component," Ezra stated. "Then all they had to do was sit back, wait for the plasma seal to fail and produce a warp core breach. The resulting explosion would have completely obliterated everything."

"Leaving nothing behind to raise suspicion." Alex finished off. As she spoke, she was unhooking the tricorder off the belt at her hip, heading towards the nearest piece of wreckage to conduct a scan.

Seeing what she intended, Ezra spoke up. "See if you can scan for crystalline residue. Our bomber might be far more intelligent than we have given him credit for. If he or she timed the explosion to take place above the plains of Syria Planum, an area of Mars where mineral deposits are in abundance, the residue may be mistaken as the variety found in that location."

"So even if it was detected, it wouldn't seem out of the ordinary."

Alex had to admit, whoever was responsible for the destruction of the Magellan had considered every possibility, she was rather impressed. Lapsing into silence again as she circled the debris collection with her tricorder, Alex wanted more than just one sample to confirm the hypothesis she and Ezra had just postulated. It was the first real evidence they had, the death of Sarah and Adam Larabee was no accident.

A soft chirp from the tricorder tore Ezra from his ruminations and he looked up to see Alex raising her own eyes from the tricorder display. Once again, she wore that same dark expression.

"Do not leave me in suspense," he said neutrally. "What did you find?"

"It's covered in bilitrum based crystalline residue Ezra," she said quietly. "Q was right. It wasn't an accident. They were murdered."

********

It was about time.

He had been waiting for almost six months for something to happen and was starting to fear he might have to wait for another half year before he could leave this ugly scab of a world behind and return home. Unfortunately, his devotion to her meant he would not abandon his post, maintaining the charade necessary for his surveillance to continue, waiting for the inevitable arrival of Chris Larabee to Utopia Planitia. It seemed inevitable after the man began investigating the accident that saw his wife and child killed after the shuttle Magellan crashed on Syria Planum.

For two months, the Captain of the Maverick had devoted considerable time talking to all parties who might have been involved in the investigation related to the shuttle crash. It was puzzling why the man had suddenly taken an interest, five years after the event. By all accounts, once the grieving husband and father had finished his mourning, he moved on with his life. Rather successfully it appeared too. Furthermore, in the scheme of things, had he cared, it would not have mattered. Five years ago, Chris Larabee was just the First Officer of the Rutherford, another cog in the machinery of Starfleet.

Now it was different with Larabee's fortunes changing considerably. He was no longer a junior officer but a captain, with all the privileges and authority that came with the rank. Worse yet, he had evolved from the shattered family man to a formidable commander, who was being celebrated as a ruthless tactician on par with Kirk. The man had sent the creators of the Borg running from Federation space, held fast against a Dominion attack fleet and more recently, destroyed four renegade Romulan warbirds in a single battle. A man like this had the potential to cause serious problems. Thus, he had been sent here to wait for the day Chris Larabee would arrive on Utopia Planitia in search of answers.

Except he hadn't.

Just as suddenly as the investigation resumed six months earlier, it stopped just as abruptly.

For reasons he did not understand the Captain of the Maverick ended any further inquiries into the crash, even appearing to have abandoned it. While that should have been cause for relief, the suddenness of it left him feeling uneasy. While he pondered why this was so, he was forced to wait here, languishing in limbo, uncertain of what to do next. His instructions were clear, he was to wait until the man's search inevitably brought him to Mars to see for himself as it was the want of all humans to do when desperation was reached, to clutch at any straws, no matter how unlikely, in the hope of finding out the truth.

He had almost abandoned hope Larabee would arrive until today.

When he learned a request had been made to examine the wreckage of the Magellan, he was convinced his exile to Mars was over. Larabee had finally come. Yet when he observed the room where the debris was kept, having ensured the appropriate surveillances were put in place prior to the visit, it was not the Captain of the Maverick.

In fact, he recognized neither of the two people who entered the salvage bay, not until he conducted a little investigation of his own and discovered both were officers of the Maverick. The Science Officer and the Chief of Security to be exact. Why had Larabee sent them in his stead? Surely the investigation of a dead wife and child warranted his personal attention? In the end, it mattered little why they had been sent in his place, his job was still the same; observe and act if necessary.

By the time they left the room, he knew his assignment on this world had ended. Listening to them with some measure of alarm, it was clear why Larabee had sent them. Together, they had formulated a theory which was so strikingly close to the truth, it required immediate action before they could return their findings to their captain. If Larabee learned what they had just discovered, there would be no stopping the man's insistence of finding the culprit and even if the trail was five years cold, there was every chance he might be led back to her.

That was not acceptable at all.

********

Leaving the storage bay, neither of them spoke for a few minutes. The magnitude what they had just discovered, left them both silent and introspective. For five years Chris Larabee had lived with the anguish of losing his wife and child, wounds that had just started to heal, thanks to the arrival of Mary Travis when Q's appearance ripped them open with the finesse of a band-aid being torn from the flesh. In the two months that followed, Chris had pushed the boundaries of obsession to the point he was in danger of losing his command. Ezra, in particular, had felt the price of that obsession most acutely when he had lost an entire team of security officers down on Fury 361.

The names of Sue Collins, Ty Atwater, Michelle Angel and James Christie were still fresh in his mind.

If there was one consolation to be had in their deaths, it had shocked Chris Larabee out of his obsession and after that, he even allowed Ezra to take charge of the investigation that led them here to the shipyards. How was he going to react, learning what they had just discovered? There was no denying the Captain was in a good place now. His relationship with Mary Travis was thriving and the arrival of a teenage Adam Larabee from the alternate universe had given him some semblance of the family he lost.

How could they up end all that with what they knew?

"Ezra," Alex asked as they crossed the walkway above the promenade, towards the turbo lift taking them back to the security station. "Do we tell the Captain?"

"No," Ezra said quickly, knowing it was almost certainly going to receive protest from her, before adding, "not yet. Right now, all we have was an idea of how it was done. We do not know why. I believe we need to conduct further examination to determine how the bilitrium was smuggled onto the Magellan. This was a plan conducted with extreme intelligence Alexandra, if we tell the Captain, he will be equally extreme in his reactions. We both know that."

Alex let out a sigh. "I do."

It left her in something of a conundrum because while she might have been comfortable keeping it from the Captain for his own good, keeping it from Vin was another thing entirely. It wasn't just because he was her husband and they shared almost everything but due to their mating bond, he could sense when she was feeling conflicted.

"Ezra, I may have to tell Vin what we've learned," Alex confessed. "He'll know I'm lying to him if he asks how things went today. He knew I was coming here with you."

Ezra nodded in understanding, having no desire to cause friction between the newlywed couple. "I believe Mr Tanner is able to keep a confidence. You may tell him if you wish."

"Thanks, Ezra," Alex said with a smile of gratitude. In truth, she didn't need his permission and technically she outranked him but Alex respected Ezra as a friend and comrade, not to mention she saw this as his investigation, and she was merely helping. "So, what's next?"

"I want to view the security logs from the time the Magellan was last in the air. Whoever did this had to install the defective power circuit while the craft was docked and that meant anyone could have gotten to it in that time. I will be focusing on the period between its launches. The investigation team were primarily interested in the period immediately before takeoff, I believe, we need to go back to the instant Sarah and Adam were assigned to travel on the shuttle."

"I still don't understand why," Alex shook her head. "The Captain was a first officer when the Magellan crashed. What possible reason could anyone have to hurt him like that? And worse yet, they didn't come at him directly, they came at him through his family."

"That is a question, I am certain the Captain will ask when I give him the name of the perpetrator," Ezra stated firmly.

If he had been anyone else, he might have missed the sound he knew without doubt to be the discharge of a weapon. Ezra turned his head just in time to see the phaser blast that came at his direction. That split second of awareness kept him from being hit squarely in the chest, instead of just his shoulder. The force of it threw him backwards, pain flaring across his shoulder in white-hot agony.

"EZRA!" Alex shouted as she saw him go down. He landed heavily on his side, the gold of his uniform charred black, at the shoulder, his face a rictus of pain. Alex's first reaction was to go to him before she remembered that there was a shooter in play and neither of them was armed. There was simply no reason to be when they were visiting a Starfleet facility, where they would be surrounded by Starfleet personnel. Only security officers carried weapons with them in this place.

"Alexandra," Ezra managed to grunt, trying to ignore the burning pain searing through his body. "Get down."

His warning prompted Alex to spin around, her eyes scanning the direction from which the shot had originated. It took her but a second to see a man dressed in what appeared to be a Starfleet uniform, taking aim with a phaser and firing again. This time, the shot was coming for her. She stumbled backwards, trying to find cover when the blast struck her side. The last thing Alex knew just as she tumbled over the edge of the walkway, was the shimmer of the blue pond on the promenade rushing towards her.

Chapter Three:

Loss

This was not how Buck Wilmington anticipated his evening with Inez Recillos to end.

True, he could confess to harboring a minuscule hope the lady might be open to being wined and dined into his bet, but honestly, he just hoped to get through dinner without being thrown out of her quarters for saying something crass. They had made it all through dinner recognizing they were on the cusp of something special happening between them, when he was interrupted by the bridge, informing them of a priority communication from Captain James Litefoot, the commander of the Utopia Planitia shipyards.

Less than fifteen minutes after that conversation, Buck was in full uniform, headed towards SickBay, having issued numerous orders he hoped was carried out by the time he arrived at his destination. Entering the ship's extensive infirmary as soon as the doors slid open, the first thing Buck saw upon his arrival was Ezra Standish stretched across one of the examination tables, under the ministrations of the Assistant Medical Officer, Doctor Zheng Li Pong. Beside him, Julia Pemberton was also in attendance, looking on with concerned as Li Pong attempted to patch the charred mess that was Ezra's shoulder.

Nathan's absence was ominous.

When Litefoot gave him the details of what transpired at the station and the condition of two of his officers, Buck had insisted they be transported immediately to the Maverick, aware Chris would have made that same demand if he were present. Both he and Chris knew while he was within reach, Nathan Jackson would insist on treating both officers, not because they were comrades, but because they were his friends and he would trust no one else with their care. Truth be told, neither did Buck.

Though he hated to do it, Buck had also been forced to put in a call to Chris, aware the Captain would want to be notified immediately of the situation. Unfortunately, Chris was incommunicado, and Buck suspected the Captain and Josiah were probably face down drunk somewhere if the First Officer was at all right about how Josiah intended to ‘counsel' Chris today. In any case, the bridge would continue the attempts to contact the Captain until they reached him.

Reaching Vin Tanner became almost as problematic. At present, the officer of the conn was at his Texas ranch where he was playing host to Mary Travis and her young son Billy, while Chris and Adam were at Starfleet Academy. Knowing Mary had no wished to keep Billy cooped up on the Maverick, Vin and Alex had invited Mary to stay, with Vin taking the boy fishing and camping in Chris's stead. Which was exactly where Vin was when Buck contacted the ranch and found himself facing Mary instead of the Vulcan. Nevertheless, Mary assured Buck she would find them both immediately and get Vin to the Maverick as soon as possible.

"Commander," Ezra said with a hiss, reacting to whatever it was Li Pong was doing to his flesh with the dermal regenerator, upon seeing Buck's entry into the room. Despite the painkillers the woman had administered, he could still feel the searing pain penetrating through the haze of drugs swimming through his veins. Of course, had she had her way, he would be completely sedated, which Ezra would not allow her to do until he spoke to the First Officer.

"Ezra, you okay?" Buck asked, even though judging by the wound the doctor was treating, Ezra had to be in considerable pain. He wondered why Ezra wasn't knocked out until he remembered this was Ezra. The man's devotion to duty was almost as strong as his ability to find a game no matter what port they landed in.

"He's fine," Julia answered before Ezra could. "Fine and stubborn. He shouldn't be conscious, but he won't let Li Pong do her job properly," she threw him an accusing glare that was blunted by her obvious concern for him.

"Julia," Ezra said grimacing again, trying not to let his impatience get the better of him, even if he did understand her concerns. "I promise I will allow Doctor Zheng to sedate me with her concoctions when the time comes."

"I do not give you concoctions Chief," Li Pong raised her head long enough to comment. "I am a doctor, not some shaman giving you potions of newt eyes and spider's tongues," she said sourly. "Stubborn gaijin."

"My apologies," Ezra said quickly, ignoring the doctor's poking and prodding of his wounded flesh because showing her his discomfort would only prompt the woman and Julia to insist, he be given something stronger for the pain. Ezra had no intention of entering any black sleep until he gave the First Officer of the Maverick his report. Squeezing Julia's hand to reassure her he would surrender himself fully to the ministrations of Doctor Zheng once this business was over, he added in a gentler tone. "I promise."

"You better," Julia let out a sigh, knowing it was a losing battle to argue with him. Besides, he was Chief of Security, he could be no other way.

Buck allowed the couple a moment before he was forced to interrupt because he needed to know what had happened. While Captain Litefoot had managed to tell him something of what transpired at the shipyards, Buck wanted to hear the details from Ezra himself, who would offer a much better account than anyone else. "What happened Ezra?"

Ezra took in a deep breath, his jaw ticking, no longer in pain but genuine anger at what had happened. His sea green eyes turned a shade darker, something that usually happened when the Chief was on the hunt or about to take someone for every cent, they had at the gaming tables. Either way, it was a clear indication of Ezra's state of mind.

"As you know, I was on Mars for a personal matter," he met Buck's gaze knowingly, needing to give the First Officer no further explanation than that.

Even Julia understood the intent of that statement and avoided asking questions herself, especially when Ezra would not be able to answer her.

"I do," Buck said simply. He was perfectly aware of what Ezra and Alex were doing at Utopia Planitia, having been the one to make the request for access to the Magellan on their behalf. "Keep going."

Ezra nodded and resumed his tale. "Commander Styles and I had concluded our business and were on our way back to the transporter when an unknown assailant opened fire on us, just as we were making our way through one of the walkways overlooking the promenade. "I was barely able to avoid being struck by phaser fire, but as you can see," he glanced at his shoulder, "my attempt was not entirely successful."

"He is very fortunate Commander," Li Pong added looking up from her treatment. "The phaser was set to kill. As it is, this narrow escape still managed to cause significant injuries." She gestured to the wound she was treating as proof of her statement.

"Oh God," Julia cringed, still unnerved by how close she had come to losing him today.

Having no wish to be interrupted in his narrative, Ezra ignored her outburst for now. "Commander Styles was nowhere that lucky. She tried to help me when the brigand discharged his phaser again. While she was just as adept as I was at avoiding a direct shot, she unfortunately, stumbled over the walkway."

"Jesus," Buck swore under his breath and instinctively glanced at the double doors leading to the surgery station of SickBay where at this moment, Nathan was working on Alex.

"She landed in a fountain on the promenade which is probably why she is still with us. However, the pool was not deep enough to prevent serious injury." Not for the first time that day, Ezra's jaw tightened in anger when he recalled how Alex looked when they pulled her out of the water. A part of him was cursing at involving her in this whole affair at all, that if he had just gone to see the Magellan himself, she would be at the ranch with Vin, not fighting for her life in SickBay.

"Who was the shooter?" Buck demanded, seeing Ezra's guilt and hoped the bridge managed to get a hold of Chris so they could get Josiah back up here. He had a feeling Ezra would need the man's counsel before the end of the day. "And how the hell did he get his hands on a phaser on a Starfleet base without anyone knowing about it?

"I have no idea," Ezra replied, "but I am more than familiar with the different types of phasers in existence and that one did not sound like Starfleet issue. If that is the case, then it is highly likely it was smuggled aboard through some nefarious means. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to see him before he began using us for target practice and in the confusion following Commander Styles's injury, I am afraid he made good his escape."

"I don't understand," Julia said puzzled unable to comprehend how this could have happened. "Why would a stranger just come out of nowhere and open fire on both of you? Were they after you specifically?"

"I believe so," Ezra answered Julia's question. "From what little they were able to tell me before we were transported back to the Maverick, our assailant vanished immediately after the attack, with security unable to find him or the weapon. So yes, I believe we were the targets."

"But why?" Julia asked again.

Ezra fell silent then and Buck realized, he had his suspicions as to the cause but would not voice it in present company, which gave the First Officer a terrible premonition of just how serious the situation was. However, he had no chance to ponder this because the doors to SickBay opened and striding in, with worry etched across his face, was Vin Tanner who was still attired in his civilian clothing of jeans and a checkered shirt.

The Officer of the Conn immediately fixed his cobalt colored eyes on Buck and the others before heading towards them, anxiety in every step he took. "Where's Alex?" He demanded, forgetting that just about everyone in the room outranked him.

"She's still in surgery," Buck said quickly, meeting Vin halfway across the room, placing a reassuring hand on the Vulcan's shoulder even if he could offer nothing of the kind. The First Officer could see Vin's emotions were about to spill over and knowing how volatile the younger man could be when those passions were inflamed, Buck wanted to calm him down before he reached that point. Not that Buck could blame him of course. If it was his wife, his own temper would be in no better state.

Vin shifted his gaze towards the door leading there before returning his attention to Buck and the others, registering the condition Ezra was in, which served to calm him down somewhat. As it was, he was furious at himself for not bringing his communicator with him when he had gone fishing with Billy, necessitating Mary to ride out and find them both, so she could tell him what happened to Alex.

"Are you going to be okay Ezra?" Vin asked, realizing he had just barged in here, not even asking after the Security Chief who looked pretty hurt himself. He was mortified by his insensitivity.

"I will be fine Mr Tanner," Ezra assured him, casting a dark look at Li Pong when something else she did with the regenerator made him wince. "I have suffered worse."

"Good to hear," Vin said taking consolation in that much at least, before facing Buck. "What happened? I thought you and Alex were conducting some research on Utopia Planitia." He was still trying to come to grips with how she could be hurt so seriously when it was only this morning, they were talking about taking a trip to San Francisco to meet up with Chris.

"They were just attacked by someone with a phaser," Buck explained, wanting to spare Ezra the effort of explaining again. As it was, he was two seconds away from ordering Li Pong to put the man under so she could treat him properly, now that he updated Buck on the events at the shipyards. "We don't know why, and the son of a bitch got away."

"Someone took a shot at them with a phaser?" Vin gave Ezra a quick glance in incredulity. Like the rest of the Starfleet officers in the room, Vin knew just how difficult it was to slip a weapon through Starfleet security, especially a phaser. In a starbase, particularly one like Utopia Planitia, which was responsible for the construction of starships, the security would be particularly tight.

Buck was about to respond when the doors to the surgery slipped open and Buck saw Nathan Jackson appearing through the door. When the healer's eyes glimpsed them, Buck saw his expression darken and felt his gut tighten in horror that Nathan's diagnosis for Alex was not good. It was a look Vin caught too because the Vulcan's face turned ashen with fear. In fact, so terrified was Vin of what Nathan was going to tell him, he had gone silent, waiting for the worst to descend on him instead of rushing out to meet it.

"Nathan, how is Alex?" Buck asked because, at this moment, Vin couldn't.

"She's out of surgery and she'll recover from this," Nathan said quickly, seeing the fear in Vin's eyes and wishing to allay their anxiety on that point before he moved on to the news he knew was going to be taken with some devastation.

Vin almost doubled over in relief when he heard Nathan say those words because, for a second, he almost believed Alex was dead since he couldn't sense her thoughts. Ever since he was told about her injury, he had tried to reach out and get some sense of her, but there was nothing, but darkness and it filled him with such fear, it was almost hard to breathe from the sheer terror of it.

However good the news Nathan had just delivered might be, something else was preying on the healer's mind. Buck could see it in the man's eyes. "What's her condition, Nathan?"

"The phaser caused damage to her spleen, which I was able to fix," Nathan explain, delivering the news like he would do in a report since the question was asked by the First Officer of the ship. "The injuries from the fall, however, were more serious. She suffered fractures to her skull, hip and three ribs."

"Oh my God," Julia gasped, her hand flying to her mouth.

Next to her, Ezra swore under his breath while Buck said nothing because when he was the commander of the Maverick in Chris's place, he had to be the one keeping his head. Vin's distress was plain, but he was managing to keep it under control but once again, Buck sensed Nathan was holding something back because he could feel a dozen kinds of alarm bells were going off in his head.

"Nathan, is that it?" Buck prompted.

Nathan took a deep breath and looked at Vin somberly. "Vin, we need to talk in private."

Whatever it was, Vin knew he didn't want to wait to hear it. "To hell with that Nathan," Vin said abruptly, not caring if Buck and the others heard. They were his friends, no, not his friends his family and Li Pong was a doctor who was professionally bound to keep confidences. "What is it?"

Nathan let out a heavy sigh, realizing there was no delaying this. "Vin, Alex was pregnant."

Oh, Jesus, Buck thought silently as he watched Vin stare at Nathan in nothing less than stupefied shock. Behind him, an audible gasp escaped Julia and from Ezra, there was nothing, which was telling.

"No," Vin shook his head when he could finally speak. "She ain't. She would have told me."

"Vin, she was just over four weeks into term," Nathan explained quietly. "I don't think she knew. At this point, there would be barely any symptoms for her to even suspect it."

Vin blinked slowly, trying to process the news but one thing did penetrate through his shock. "You said was..."

"I'm sorry Vin," Nathan finally revealed what had been so difficult to say. "She's lost it. The trauma from the fall was too much."

Vin turned away, unable to look at anyone at that moment or want anyone to see him. The emotions running through him were a tidal wave ready to swallow him whole. Of course, he and Alex had discussed children, but it was something they both agreed neither were ready for at this point. They were married for less than a year and it was too soon for a baby. As it was, they hadn't been certain whether it was possible to get pregnant without help, because they were of two different species. Yet hearing this news, that there was a baby, even for a brief period filled him with a profound sense of loss.

"I'm so sorry Vin," Buck said after a moment, not knowing what any of them could say under such circumstances.

Vin didn't react to the platitude offered and faced his friends again. While his composure remained intact, his blue eyes revealed the depth of his sorrow but that was all Vin was willing to reveal at this point.

"Can I see her?" He asked quietly, the emotion in his voice almost choking the word in his throat.

"Of course," Nathan nodded. "She's still under from the surgery and because of the fracture to her skull, it's going to take a while before she regains consciousness. You can sit with her for a while if you like."

"Thank you," Vin said gratefully, and Nathan gestured him to follow, giving the others in a room a parting glance as he escorted the helmsman into the recovery room where his wife was presently the sole occupant.

No one spoke until he was gone.

"Poor Alex," Julia shook her head, uncertain how Alex felt about children but knew if it was her, the news would be devastating.

Ezra thought about how much healing it had taken for Alexandra Styles to reach this point in her life, after her ordeal with the Cardassians, how she and Vin Tanner had found each other, finding love through the mutual understanding of each other's pain. To know that this had been taken from them, before either even had a chance to consider what might be, infuriated Ezra right down to his core. As Chief of Security, he should have been able to prevent this and his failure to do so had cost the life of a child that would now never be born.

"Commander," Ezra spoke up, his expression one of stone. "I need to speak to you," he glanced at Julia and Li Pong. "Alone."

********

Despite the protest from Dr Zheng that she had not concluded her treatment of Ezra's shoulder, Buck was forced to insist, recognizing in Ezra's tone that what the Security Chief had to impart warranted the urgency. Julia was more understanding, her concern for Ezra giving way to her conditioning as a member of the senior staff that what needed discussing must be important for them to need the room. Besides, she knew her lover well enough to know, he would not ask her to leave unless it was for a very good reason.

Once they were gone, Ezra drew in his breath, as if he needed it to reinforce the mask of calm, he wore over his face for the benefit of everyone. Those who knew him well could see through it but on this occasion, it was taking a great deal of effort to maintain his composure. Buck didn't blame him one bit. Hearing what Alex and Vin had lost because of this attack, filled him with similar outrage and yet he had a feeling, what Ezra was about to impart to him might make him reevaluate just how angry he could get by this whole situation.

"Tell me," Buck prompted Ezra. "What actually happened?"

"It is as I told you, Commander," Ezra said stiffly.

"Ezra, talk to me," Buck met his eyes, conveying to him he wasn't just a junior officer giving him a report. They were friends who had secrets to share.

Ezra's shoulders slumped and he winced at the action because Li Pong had not been allowed to finish her treatment. He was more than grateful now for the painkillers she administered because he remembered what the wound had felt like fresh and would be in no condition to tell Buck anything without them.

"It happened as I told you, Buck," Ezra spoke again. "However, we had just left the storage bay where the Magellan was kept and I find it too coincidental within minutes of leaving that location, we were attacked, particularly in light of what we discovered."

Buck's eyes widened because now, this wasn't just about Vin losing a child, this had about the one Chris Larabee had lost too. "How?"

"Alex and I discovered the Magellan was indeed sabotaged. The perpetrators, whoever they are, used a bilitrium catalyst to obliterate any signs of tampering when they initiated the warp core breach. I believe a defective power circuit was indeed placed in the Magellan, so when the anti-matter was exposed, the damage would be so severe, it would be impossible to determine the cause."

"But you found something..." Buck pointed out.

"Only because Alex and I saw the wreckage for ourselves. Seeing it on data pads, without the scale of the destruction, kept us from seeing how thoroughly destroyed the Magellan was. It was Alex who suggested bilitrium and upon reflection, I realized then how it was done. When we scanned the pieces, we found bilitrium residue which could easily be mistaken for normal crystalline particulates."

"Son of a bitch," Buck exclaimed, leaning back against the empty examination bed next to the one Ezra was occupying. "We got proof."

"No," Ezra corrected him. "We have residue and more questions. Buck, I do not think we ought to tell the Captain until we know more. I would prefer we do not tip our hand any further than it has already. We were attacked within minutes of leaving the storage bay, which indicates..."

He didn't have to finish the sentence because Buck already caught on. "Someone is watching."

Chapter Four:

Footage

"Where are they?"

Chris Larabee asked Buck Wilmington the instant after materializing on the transporter pad of the Maverick. He and Josiah had spent a few hours out of communication, drinking at a bar he and Buck used to frequent at Fisherman's Wharf when they were both cadets, admiring the view of San Francisco Bay while he slowly purged his grief with shots of whiskey. When Josiah had decided to leave, Chris finally turned on his communicator and realized while he had been developing a pleasant buzz, a storm was brewing on his ship.

"Sick Bay," Buck answered automatically, having gone to Transporter Room 1 to greet the Captain the instant he was notified Chris had checked in and was about to beam on board. "Alex hasn't woken up yet so Vin's sitting with her. Once Ezra's shoulder was fixed up, Doctor Zheng let him go back to his quarters to rest. I guess she figured it was easier than keeping him in SickBay, listening to him bitch about not being able to work."

"Well I don't want him working either," Chris said firmly, as both men headed through the doors into the somewhat deserted corridor. While at Space Dock, the ship needed only a skeleton crew to run and most of its personnel and civilian population had taken the opportunity for shore leave off the Maverick.

"I told him to rest but you know Ezra," Buck shrugged, although, in this instance, the First Officer knew perfectly well why Ezra wanted to be in his quarters. After their discussion about the Magellan, Ezra had work to do that did not involve ship's business and it was a task he preferred doing in private.

"Yeah," Chris nodded in understanding, grateful they were going to Sick Bay because that buzz from the whiskey was slowly evolving into to a headache. "Does Josiah know?"

"We told him shortly after he came on board," Buck explained. "I want him to go see Ezra. He's not showing it, but I can tell he feels bad about what happened."

"Why?" Chris stared pointedly at Buck as they reached the turbo lift. "He couldn't help what happened?"

"Yeah but he feels bad because he asked for Alex's help in the first place. I'm pretty sure he's got it into his head if he hadn't called her, she might not have gotten hurt." Buck sighed, perfectly aware his attempt to Ezra's guilt had done absolutely no good at all.

"So, they have any idea who this son of a bitch was?" Chris asked as he stepped through the doors once the turbolift opened for them.

"No," Buck shook his head frowning. "It's the damnedest thing, Chris. Not only did he get a weapon on board the station, there's no trace of him. It's like he just vanished into thin air. They locked down the place almost immediately after the shooting but there's no sign of him."

"What were Ezra and Alex doing there in the first place?" Chris asked because the bridge had been unable to give him that information when he checked in.

Buck drew in his breath, steadying himself inwardly because after what he and Ezra discussed, he needed to tread carefully. If Chris for one instant saw through him, the consequences would be dire. However, Buck took Ezra's advice on what to say and decided, sometimes the best lies were the ones shrouded in a truth.

"Chris, Ezra wanted to take a look at the Magellan."

Chris paused in mid-step and stared sharply at Buck. "Why?"

"He was thinking while he had the time, he wanted to look at the Magellan, said something about having a better perspective if he saw the wreckage himself. He brought Alex with him because he figured she might see something in the debris that might not stick out in a datapad."

It took Chris a few seconds to formulate a response, aware that Ezra had been working off-duty on the investigation of his family's accident. While his need to satisfy that mystery had been a little less intense of late due to Adam's arrival into his life, knowing what took place this morning was related to it, made Chris stiffen inside.

"Did they find anything?"

"No," Buck said neutrally, deciding he had to sound absolutely convincing because if he faltered in this to any degree, Chris would know. If there was one thing Chris Larabee could do better than any man alive, save Ezra Standish that is, it was spotting a lie. "They were heading back to the ship when this guy came out of nowhere and attacked."

"Could it be related?" Chris asked, hating himself for wishing there could be a connection.

"We won't know until we get our hands on him," Buck replied. "But it's a dumb move if it is. I mean wouldn't that send alarm bells everywhere, to attack two Starfleet officers' seconds after they looked at the Magellan? If Q is right and someone was responsible for the accident, he or she been plenty smart to get away with it for as long as he or she has. Doing this, just because Ezra was having a look at the wreckage, is tipping their hand when they don't need to. If anything, it will raise suspicion instead of putting an end to it."

"True," Chris was forced to concede the point when the doors slid open and they stepped onto the SickBay deck. "I didn't even realize Vin and Alex were thinking about children." He said suddenly.

He and Vin had never discussed the subject even though he shared a close friendship with the Officer of the Conn and considered the Vulcan his best friend. Theirs was a relationship that seldom needed words because Vin seemed to always know what he was thinking or needing when they were in each other's orbit. It was a strange connection they shared but one Chris knew he would travel to the ends of the universe to maintain. He tried to imagine what Vin was feeling right now and the only emotion that would surface was anger at needing to avenge his friend for the wrong done to him.

"I don't think they were thinking about it either Chris," Buck replied, recalling Vin's shock at learning the news. "I think it just happened."

"And now it's gone," Chris said softly.

He remembered that terrible meeting with Alex, shortly after she learned Gul Lemar, the man responsible for her rape had come on board and damn near killed him with her fists. How Alex had revealed the full story of her horrific capture and the pregnancy that finally prompted her escape. When she was rescued, she lapsed into a catatonic state and for the sake of her sanity, a therapeutic abortion had been performed.

How was she going to feel waking up to find out, that yet again another child had been taken from her, this time one she might actually want to have kept?

"Yeah," Buck nodded grimly, wanting to find out the son of a bitch who had taken this away from Vin and Alex, just like they had taken away Sarah and Adam from Chris. Without knowing it, the enemy had earned Buck Wilmington's utmost hatred.

They entered Sick Bay and found Nathan at his desk. The Chief Medical Officer rose to his feet and came to meet the Captain and the First Officer, his expression just as grim. As the one who had to treat Alex and tell Vin the tragic news, Nathan appeared just as emotionally spent as Chris and Buck were feeling right now.

"Chris," Nathan greeted, his use of Chris's name instead of title, revealed the healer's weary state of mind.

"Hi Nathan," Chris gave him a nod. "Is Vin still here?"

"Yeah," Nathan glanced at the twin doors that led to the other sections of SickBay. "He's with Alex in recovery. He hasn't left her side."

"How is he?" Buck asked, having not seen Vin since the helmsman was told the news.

"As well as can be expected," Nathan sighed. "I mean obviously they weren't trying to get pregnant, but it's a different thing knowing there was a baby for a minute and then there wasn't."

Chris nodded in understanding. "What about Alex?"

"As I told Vin," Nathan replied, "she'll be fine. There's no reason why they can't try again and considering they managed it this time without help, is a good sign. The emotional trauma, well that's out of my department, I'm leaving Josiah to deal with that one when she wakes up."

"I'm going to see him if that's all right?" Chris said taking a step towards the door.

"Go ahead, I think he could use the company."

********

Vin Tanner had no idea how to feel.

The last six months since his marriage to Alex, life had been as perfect as he had ever imagined it could be. He was the Officer of the Conn serving on a starship with more friends than he ever dreamed of having. He served the best Captain in the fleet, who was also his best friend, on an assignment that took them to the farthest reaches of space, on adventures that defied description at times.

And best of all, he was no longer alone in his heart.

The woman lying on the bed, oblivious to what had been taken from her, had come into his life when he was at his most vulnerable and loved him despite all his insecurities. During the Pon Farr, she had been ready to die for him and when she accepted his hand in marriage, Vin didn't think it was possible to be so happy. Every day since then, had been everything he hoped in the secret dreams he told no one. Their lives had felt complete and happy, with no reason to think anything was missing.

Until today.

Now all he could think about was this emptiness that wasn't there yesterday.

When they spoke of children, it was in the abstract, something to be considered a few years later. As a Vulcan, he was too young for children anyway and Alex was still coming to grips with being a wife after years of isolation, let alone being a mother. He had no idea how she would take knowing that one moment, they could have been three instead of two. He thought of the child lost and wondered what it would have been. A boy or a girl? Would it have Vulcan ears and Alex's skin or Alex's ears and his skin? He never gave it much thought but now he could think of nothing else.

"Vin?" Chris Larabee's voice interrupted his thoughts, making the Vulcan look over his shoulder to see the Captain stepping gingerly into the room.

"Hey Chris," Vin got to his feet and followed Chris out into the hallway, leaving Alex to her drug-induced sleep.

"Vin, I am so sorry," Chris said once they were alone. Even though she was asleep, it didn't feel right carrying on a conversation while Alex was lying unconscious in front of them.

Vin's shoulders sagged a little and he dropped his gaze to the floor as if meeting the Captain's eyes would provide too much insight into his emotions at present. "I suppose it don't make much sense, being upset about something we weren't even thinking about. We talked about having kids, but that was something far away, not anything we were ready for right now."

"You have every right to be angry Vin," Chris said kindly. "It doesn't matter that you were expecting it or not, it's what it could have been that hurts so much."

Even though he was inordinately grateful the universe had seen fit to give him back Adam in the form of a teenager from an alternate universe, Chris could not deny the anguish he felt at knowing the child he held in his hands the first day of its life, would never know what it was like to learn to shave, read great books or kiss a girl. Sometimes knowing all that was almost unbearable.

"I don't know how to tell her," Vin swallowed glancing at the room.

"You don't have to do that. If I know Nathan, he'll probably want to do it himself," Chris stated firmly, aware the healer would probably think it a dereliction of his duty to leave Vin with that burden. "You just got to be there for her when he does. "

"Thanks, Chris," Vin finally met his eyes and it filled Chris with equal parts sorrow as well as fury to see the pain in the Vulcan's eyes.

"I swear to you, we will find out who did this Vin," Chris promised and yet even as Vin nodded in acknowledgement of his words, Chris knew the damage was done. Justice might be served but the wounds inflicted might not ever heal.

********

Unaware the promise made by the Captain of the Maverick was similar to the one he made himself to Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles, the Chief of Security was presently seated at his desk in his quarters, focusing his considerable skills to the question of who had done this to them. Even though he knew he should be resting in bed, it still stabbed at Ezra what enlisting Alex's aid had cost the lady and he was determined to find who was responsible for this attack, enough to ignore doctor's orders.

After what happened to them at Utopia Planitia, the shipyard's Chief of Security, a rather accommodating man named Gerard Whitman, had been good enough to provide Ezra with access to all information regarding the incident. Unfortunately, this amounted to very little since their assailant appeared to have made good his escape. It seemed after attacking them, he managed to disappear so completely, there was no sign of him or the phaser he used to inflict their wounds, anywhere. The impossibility of this seemed more incredulous considering the starbase was locked down within minutes of the attack and their assailant was capable of eluding every security device on the station.

Convinced the attack was connected to what they learned about the Magellan, Ezra returned his attention to the murder of Sarah and Adam Larabee. Once again, Whitman feeling guilty after Ezra revealed to him the extent of Alexandra Styles's injuries, had given him access to whatever information he required regarding the crash since the security data at Syria Planum station, came under Whitman's purview.

Prior to their untimely end, Sarah had Adam had been living at Syria Planum colony where Sarah had been teaching. Due to the Rutherford having no accommodation for families, Chris was unable to bring them on board the ship during his tenure as its First Officer. As a result, Sarah had taken up a teaching position on Mars and the family would try to see each other when shore leaves permitted. At the time of their deaths, they had been on route to Earth to meet Chris when disaster struck with the Magellan's crash.

In light of what he and Alex had learned regarding the sabotage of the Magellan, Ezra focused his attention on the four days the ship had been at Syria Planum prior to its departure. Reviewing the material provided by Whitman and Chris's collection of datapads, Ezra found the investigation team had thoroughly reviewed the security footage of the bay where the Magellan was kept and saw no signs of tampering.

Yet Ezra knew there had to be. What happened today was proof of it.

Sitting at his desk, nursing a hot mug of Pekoe tea, the kind with a hint of peach Maude raised him on, Ezra spent the next hour studying the footage himself. The images of people moving through the berth over the course of the next few days included technicians conducting maintenance work, the flight crew conducting pre-launch diagnostics and finally passengers readying for the journey ahead.

The last of the footage revealed the arrival of Sarah and Adam Larabee and seeing the lady in the flesh so to speak, he had to admire what a beautiful woman Sarah had been, with her graceful elegance and delicate features. When she smiled, it really did tug at the heart. It would have killed him to lose that smile.

For a few minutes, Ezra watched Sarah moving across the berth, holding Adam's hand in hers as the boy showed his delight at taking a trip off world. The little boy pointed excitedly at the Magellan, awed by the shuttle as they approached it and Ezra felt a pang of sadness for the Captain, aware of the horror about to follow. How had it been for Chris to watch this, seeing his family one last time, knowing less than fifteen minutes after this captured moment of time, they would be caught in an explosion so violent what was left of them wasn't even enough to bury?

Ezra found he could no more look at it than the Captain and skipped past the recording.

He scanned through the files on the datapad, seeing nothing that jumped out until he came across what appeared to be the directory containing images discarded for whatever reason, usually because of recording glitches and data corruption. While he was certain it contained nothing of importance, Ezra thought he'd look anyway.

As expected, the files were mostly snippets of corrupted recordings that were discarded as soon as the security system compensated for whatever error caused the glitch in the first place. Most of them were poor quality images caused by interference from some instrument or technology, requiring sensor recalibration before the recording could resume. There was nothing of interest until Ezra saw footage of someone walking past the Magellan three hours before the flight.

Although no more than thirty seconds long, the image was clear and crisp, with no traces of data corruption to warrant its erasure. It showed an image of a technician leaving the bay where the Magellan was kept. He was carrying a toolbox, wearing a crew technicians' uniform. He looked fairly ordinary, with thinning blond hair and features that would not let him stand out in any crowd. The toolbox was covered in decals to personalize it. They seemed to be of various marine crafts from earlier centuries. Julia had done something similar to her toolkit, except hers had daisies (her favorite flower) on them. Still, the quality of the picture did make him wonder why it had been discarded.

"Computer," Ezra spoke up. "Why was this image erased from the main security logs?"

"The image was discarded due to a malfunction in the recording process that created an exact duplicate of the same time-stamped footage"

"A duplicate?" Ezra raised a brow. That was a first. "You mean this footage was repeated twice in the official security logs?"

"That is correct."

He had never heard of a glitch like that before, even though he could not say for certain that its existence was a virtual impossibility, or it was the result of something nefarious. However, Ezra worked on instinct and something about this was tugging at him, the way it did when Ezra was playing poker with an opponent who did have the cards to challenge him, beyond the facade of their bluff. Relying on the intuition that had given him the reputation as one of the best card players in the fleet, Ezra decided to probe further.

"Computer, display both this footage and the one in the official logs, I wish to see them side by side."

"Complying," the computer said dutifully.

Ezra watched as both images appeared on his screen and began playing in tandem. They revealed the same man walking out of the hangar bay where the Magellan was kept. It did not take Ezra long to see the computer was correct, the scene had obviously been repeated and the erroneously recorded copy was relegated into the discards folder. Ezra continued to watch as the man moved to the edge of the screen, about to pass out of view of the recording lens, disappointment that his intuition was wrong.

Then he saw it.

Ezra said up bolt straight in his chair. "COMPUTER! Freeze both images now!"

The two images stopped abruptly, leaving the man frozen in place as Ezra's keen eyes stared at the screen, not daring to believe he might be looking at the face of the person who sabotaged the Magellan. The security personnel who viewed this bit of recording and decided it was a replicated copy could have been forgiven for missing the vital clue Ezra just spotted. If Ezra wasn't the investigator he was, he could have missed it himself. It was minor but absolutely damning.

On the discarded image, a decal on the toolbox was missing.

Ezra eased back into his chair and whispered to himself, "this is no duplicate recording. Someone else was there."

Chapter Five:

Revelations

FIFTEEN YEARS EARLIER

The sex was incredible.

Not acrobatic or shamefully kinky but it was exciting just the same. They spent most weekends after meeting at the tea house for the first time, locked in cheap lodgings not far from the place, exploring every inch of skin between them, seldom coming up for air except for food and even then, their meals were taken at the place they met. As soon as classes were done for the week, Chris would find himself rushing off the Academy campus, so he could meet Sarah at the tea house to spend the weekend together.

Two months after their first meeting, they decided to rent a room not far from Chinatown so they could meet there instead. Even Buck Wilmington, who was opposed to any kind of commitment where the opposite sex was concerned, had ceased the ribbing he gave Chris when he saw them together. It was obvious to Buck, Chris had fallen very hard for Sarah. While he couldn't imagine settling down with just one girl, when there was a lifetime of women to sample, Buck, recognized he was witnessing something very special between the two and was all for the relationship.

Six months after meeting Sarah, Chris knew he had found the girl he was going to spend the rest of his life with. Even though she claimed to be a pacifist who didn't hold with Starfleet and she would never marry a Starfleet officer, Chris knew she was rewriting her worldview for him, even though it remained unspoken. When they were together, it seemed all their differences melted away and somehow, they managed to bridge the gap between their beliefs to occupy a place where such concerns were merely annoyances to quickly overcome.

Of course, she teased him mercilessly, nonetheless, often stating imperiously, she would never waste her time with a Captain who would probably lead battles against the Romulans or single-handedly defeat all the Federation's enemies. In truth, they both knew it was an empty threat. Sarah had already started investigating the possibility of teaching on a starship, a sign she was ready to spend her life with him. Chris was glad for it because he had no idea how he would cope if he had to leave her for good.

All his life, working to be a starship captain was all he ever wanted. Until he met Sarah, Chris had never imagined wishing for anything else. The fear he would have to choose was palpable but once again Sarah surprised him because she loved him enough to never force that choice on him. Becoming a starship captain without Sarah at his side would just feel wrong. As the days towards graduation approached, Chris knew if he was given a commission on a ship, he was going to propose.

Fortunately, he did not need to take the step because his first posting was to the starbase at Utopia Planitia, which happily coincided with Sarah taking a teaching position at the colony of Syria Planum. They set up house together and for more than a year, lived in a small apartment, overlooking the reddish Martian landscape, terraformed decades before to sustain human occupation. On weekends, they'd explore the colony, take skimmer rides to the Deimos Hot Springs for picnics and indulged in the simple joy of being together. In the years to come, Chris would look back on those days, where they were young and just starting out as one of the best times in his life.

When Chris received his first commission on a starship, he knew it was time to propose. As the junior helm officer of the USS Indiana, Chris was relieved to learn she was an exploratory ship and was large enough to accommodate families, which meant Sarah could come with him. Wanting the proposal to be special, they took a trip to Earth, checking into lodgings overlooking the Swiss Alps, with its majestic, alpine beauty providing a panoramic view for the special occasion that it was.

With the crisp white mountains staring at them through the window, they spent the first two days in a marathon bout of lovemaking. In a sweaty tangle of limbs following yet another spectacular climax for both, Chris had rolled onto his back, hair mussed up, lips wet with her taste and simply stated, "let's get married."

Sarah craned her neck and tilted her head, staring at him through a tangle of dark hair. Although her eyes danced with delight, the old taunt surfaced, and she found herself saying. "I thought Admirals didn't have time for marriage."

"Told you a thousand times. Admirals don't get to have any fun and what can I say you won me over with your terrific blow jobs." He winked at her.

"Chris!" Her jaw dropped in mock outrage before she swatted him with a pillow.

"Okay, okay," he laughed, grabbing it and tossing the thing off the side of the bed before rolling on top of her, relishing the scent of sex still on her skin. "So how about it? "

"What?" She feigned ignorance.

"Getting married," he repeated, still smiling.

"You sure you want to marry a peace-loving pacifist like me who thinks Starfleet is filled with a bunch of warmongering pirates?"

Chris lowered his mouth to her lips and kissed her, "Absolutely. Come on, say yes. I'll build a white picket fence around our quarters and eventually run the ship, while you can be at home knitting things."

"Knitting things?" She burst out laughing. "Okay, if I'm knitting things, how many kids are we going to have?"

"I don't know," he replied, pretending to think on the question, his expression turning serious. "How about nine? I always wanted my own baseball team. Larabee's Lasers." He grinned.

"Nine!" She exclaimed, laughing at the silliness of him, nine. Only a man could come up with a number like that. But it was a nice thought, though, the two of them raising a family together.

"Too much?" He smiled.

"A tad." She nodded, wrinkling her freckled nose while making the traditional ‘tiny bit' gesture with her finger and thumb.

"Okay, you decide," Chris retorted, planting soft kisses along her collarbone. "I don't care, I just want to be with you."

"I want to be with you too," Sarah replied, running her fingers along his spine. "But I'm going to have to insist upon something." Her expression grew sober.

Chris looked up at her puzzled.

"You keep Buck from sleeping with all the bridesmaids. I want to be able to stay friends with some of them after the wedding."

Chris snorted. "Good luck with that."

********

She listened to Nathan say the words and thought for a moment, she was having a bad dream.

Vin was next to her, holding her hand, trying to will his strength into her and yet, she felt numb. Worse than numb. She felt dead. Like the child that might have been. Oh, she was a scientist, and she knew all the arguments about when life and self-awareness began. When she had woken up at Starfleet Medical after escaping the hell of that Cardassian prison and knew the baby inside her was gone, she had felt nothing but relief. Had she woken up to the knowledge the seed that bastard Lemar planted in her still lived, Alex knew she would have killed herself.

But this was different.

When Alex learned for a brief second of time, something she and Vin created together had existed in this world, only to lose it, it felt as if the air had been driven from her lungs and a black abyss had opened beneath her feet. Since her marriage, she knew children were a possibility and her discussions with Vin had allowed them to reach the mutual decision it was too soon for either of them to take the step. In fact, before meeting Vin, Alex would have never considered it. Children brought up memories of the pregnancy resulting from her captivity and she wanted no part of it.

Yet hearing there was a baby, one she and Vin created together, being lost before she even had the chance to think about it, surfaced those old feelings buried deep in the darkness, like black sludge choking her.

"Go away." She said quietly, pulling her hand back from Vin, even as Nathan stood by the bed, telling her as gently as he could, she had lost a child. Rolling onto her side facing away from both, she didn't want to hear any more.

"Alex..." Vin started to say, sensing the rising well of anguish inside of her through their touch.

"I SAID GET OUT THE BOTH OF YOU!"

She didn't look at Vin because she didn't want to see the hurt in his eyes, though the connection between them meant she could feel his dismay. Curling up into a ball, she didn't wish for them to see her pain, didn't want to expose the anguish breaking her in half. She had never been able to cope with pain with an audience and this occasion was no exception. Right now, the presence of either man was too much. She needed to be alone, to process what was taken from her and decide whether she had deserved any of this.

"Come on Vin," Nathan tugged Vin by the arm, even though the Vulcan was still staring at his wife in clear distress.

Vin was torn between wanting to help her and remembering what she had been like when they first met where she was closed off and unable to stand anyone seeing her suffering. It had taken time for him to break through that wall between them, and knowing it might have been erected again, filled him with dismay. From here, her sorrow was like a scream, tearing through his consciousness in waves of agony he couldn't begin to fathom. At the core of it was something he couldn't get at, something she didn't want to share with him, and he could not imagine what that might be.

When she first agreed to marry him, there were places in her mind she insisted he did not go, that were too ugly for her to bear him knowing or seeing for that matter. Unfortunately, Svinak's invasion of her mind some months ago had forced him to enter that guarded place and what he saw there still made his blood boil. As terrible as it was for him to witness the brutality of what she endured, Vin had no doubt the reality of it was far worse. After seeing the rapes, he could not imagine what she could be hiding from him that could be worse.

"Alex..." he started to say, unable to bring himself to leave her when she was in this condition. Why couldn't he stay and help her? He could sense the stark terror in her mind and was frankly bewildered. They had always been able to talk about everything. What was it she didn't wish him to know?

"JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!" She wailed and the anguish in her voice made Vin recoil.

"Vin leave her be," Nathan urged, pulling him through the doors even if he shared Vin's confusion.

Not knowing what else to do, Vin left the room and flinched when he heard her wracking sobs through the door once they both left.

Nathan didn't speak until they stepped away from SickBay's recovery ward and entered his office again. Vin appeared shell-shocked and Nathan couldn't blame him. Alex's extreme reaction had left the healer similarly stunned and wished he knew what to say to the younger man. However, he suspected the person who could probably get through to Alex Styles wasn't present now.

"I don't understand," he stared at Nathan in confusion as the healer poured him a drink from the bottle of whisky Nathan hid away in his desk drawer for occasions like this. "I want to help her through this. I know losing a baby isn't something a man can ever really understand but..."

"Vin," Nathan handed him the glass before retreating to his desk. "Women react to this kind of news in a lot of different ways. There's a lot of hurt, anger and guilt to go around. You know your wife better than I do, you know she's always been private. She just might need a bit of time to process what's happened. I wouldn't take it too personally that she was a little distraught. Once she calms down, she's going to need you. In the meantime, however, maybe Alex could talk to Josiah. She has been seeing him, right?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "After Lemar came on board, she started talking to him. It helped."

"Then maybe what she needs is to talk to someone who isn't hurting as much as she is." The healer suggested, catching Vin's eye.

Yet even as Vin agreed, he knew Alex was clinging to something she was determined he not know and for the life of him, he couldn't imagine what that might be.

********

"You sure about this?" Buck asked as he sat in Ezra's quarters after he'd come off his shift.

With Chris was back on board the Maverick, Buck could devote himself to helping Ezra unravel the mystery around the Magellan, now they had conclusive proof the shuttle had indeed been sabotaged and not destroyed by a freak accident. That the price of this revelation was Vin and Alex's unborn child, made both men doubly determined to find the guilty party, not just for the sake of the couple but their Captain who suffered too much already.

"Commander," Ezra gave Buck a withering look for casting aspersions on his conclusions from the armchair he was presently resting on, with a datapad in his lap as he explained his findings to Buck. "I would not waste your time otherwise. Once I determined this second recording was not a copy, but genuine footage relegated to the discards directory in error, I was able to find and contact the crewman in question, a man named James Blackfox."

"Okay, okay," Buck threw his hands up in mea culpa, as Huxley, Ezra's cat sauntered by his feet and promptly launching herself off the floor to join him on the sofa. "So, what did Blackfox say?"

"He was rather irate he was being questioned about this again," Ezra frowned and thought to himself, whether Blackfox would like it very much if it was Chris Larabee conducting the interrogation. Considering the Captain's reasons for the inquiry, Blackfox would have found himself waterboarded if Chris didn't get his answers fast enough. "However, he was able to tell me he conducted a routine diagnostic of the Magellan at the time indicated in the official logs. He completed it, where he found nothing out of the ordinary before moving on the next task on his work schedule. This has been verified by eyewitness accounts and by the computer log ins made by Blackfox."

"You're saying someone came in after him, without being seen and left, recreating his departure so perfectly, the security officer reviewing the tapes thought it was a glitch?"

"Precisely." Ezra nodded. "The tapes would have been reviewed after the Magellan's crash to eliminate the possibility of tampering. My feeling is, the security officer would have seen this footage and believed a glitch had created a loop of the same timestamp."

Buck could appreciate how this could have happened. Having reviewed the same recording Ezra had when he first arrived at the Chief's quarters, he too had not seen the missing decal on the toolbox until Ezra pointed it out to him. Then again, Ezra's powers of observation were formidable, and it didn't surprise Buck he would have seen it immediately.

"Okay, so we know how they left. Do we know how they got in?"

"That, Commander Wilmington is the question," Ezra frowned unhappily. It was obvious that the Chief had reached an impasse, a state of affairs Buck knew from experience shook his normally impenetrable poker face like the walls of Jericho. "I have scoured the logs and security footage and I can find no evidence of how someone managed to reach the Magellan in its bay without being seen. Yet we have proof someone was there because we saw them leave."

As Huxley settled next to him, Buck ran a palm over the Persian's delicate fur. "All right, let's approach this from a different angle."

As First Officer, he was more than accustomed to nudging the senior staff away from obstacles to find different solutions to any prickly problem. This occasion was no different. When Ezra had a mystery to solve, he was like a dog with a bone and being a systematic sort, he would employ methodology to the subject, which did not always work when faced with a situation like this.

"I am all ears," Ezra replied, grateful for the input as well as having a partner in crime, so to speak, upon which he could bounce off ideas. "What are you thinking?"

"I am thinking we know someone left the bay. There's no doubt of that. What did they do after they left? The Magellan wasn't due to leave for another three hours. Now, if you were responsible for sabotaging a shuttle that hasn't blown up yet. Would you stick around?"

"I certainly would not," Ezra nodded, understanding where Buck was going with this train of thought and took up the narrative himself. "If I were confident what I set in motion would occur, I would see no reason to remain at the starbase any longer than necessary. In fact, I would take advantage of the calm and make good my escape. If I know Starfleet security protocols, I would be aware the first action Security would take after such an accident would be to lock down the station. Leaving prior to the crash would give me a significant head start."

"There you go," Buck grinned, always impressed by how Ezra could take a tiny piece of fact and build a highly plausible theory around it. "Who left the station at that time?"

"Chief Whitman was kind enough to provide me with that data, including embarkation and disembarkation logs, as well as the manifests of all ships leaving the station," Ezra said examining the datapad in front of him once again. As his fingers tapped the screen with the same light touch, he used to deal a deck of cards, the contact prompted a series of soft chirps and beeps as he scoured through the information, his face illuminated from the glow of the display. "

"How are you doing anyway?" Buck asked, changing tracks for a moment and taking Ezra completely by surprise. Even though Ezra was still convalescing from his wounds, Buck knew he was suffering from more than just an injured shoulder.

The question was unexpected, but he supposed that was Buck's way, always playing the ladies' man, prankster and sounding board when needed. With a sigh, Ezra replied softly, "I am angry buck. I am furious I could not stop this from happening to Alex and even more so because this brigand already has the blood of two people on his hands and would have added another two quite easily. I am angry at this person who murders so indiscriminately."

"Ezra it isn't your fault," Buck said with a sigh. "Whoever is doing this is someone smart, who didn't like the idea you might be smarter than him. They attacked you because you figured them out. An overt action like this smells of desperation."

"That remains to be seen." Ezra shrugged unable to accept Buck's stellar recommendation of his abilities and was grateful when the datapad concluded its search and produced its results for him to focus on. Returning his eyes to the screen, he studied the name. According to this, only three passengers left the station at the time. One is a Katarin who scheduled his intent to depart four weeks ahead earlier. His destination was Andoria, in time for their Winter Festival."

"Well that can't be him then," Buck declared, eliminating the man from the list of possibilities on that fact alone. "Chris got his shore leave only a week earlier. Sarah had only a few days' notice to book their passage to Earth to meet him there."

"Agreed," Ezra nodded, finding no flaw in Buck's deduction and would have reached that conclusion himself. "The second person was Admiral Prentiss, who was travelling to Starfleet command for a monthly operations meeting. Unless he is partaking in some interesting extracurricular activities, I would discharge him as a suspect too."

"Yeah I can't see an admiral being responsible for sabotaging a shuttle for no good reason," Buck nodded in agreement. "What about the last?"

A trader," Ezra replied. "His name is Fowler, Cletus Fowler."

Chapter Six:

Theta Cygni

Chris Larabee knew he was being played. He just didn't know why.

Studying the two men across his desk in the Captain's Ready Room, Chris could see something behind their eyes, something they were keeping from him, despite their best efforts to hide it. What they needed was not unreasonable, not in the slightest. Technically, the senior staff were on shore leave, so there was no need for them to make a formal request of him. Until the refit was completed, the Maverick would still be tethered to space dock and the skeleton crew presently on board were more than capable of handling things in the absence of the senior staff.

Furthermore, Chris's own taste for shore leave had soured in light of what had happened with Vin and Alex. With the Vulcan still reeling from the science officer's reaction to her miscarriage, Chris preferred to remain on board to be a supportive shoulder for his best friend during this time of crisis. So, when Buck asked for this meeting, Chris assumed it was to tell him Buck intended on vanishing for a few days for his usual debauch.

Except Ezra had come to the meeting too.

Considering Ezra had been in a relationship with Julia Pemberton almost from the moment he stepped on board the Maverick, Chris couldn't imagine he was accompanying Buck on his latest orgy. No, Ezra Standish was an unlikely travelling companion for Buck on such an escapade. Coming on the heels of the attack at Utopia Planitia, Chris suspected the reason for this sudden journey found its source there. A reason they didn't see fit to tell him which rankled Chris to no end.

"Why?"

Buck exchanged a glance with Ezra as they both stood in front of the desk, aware that trying to get one past their captain was always going to be problematic. Chris was one of the most intuitive people he knew and could spot a lie a mile away. If they were going to get past the Captain, they needed to give him something or else Chris Larabee would wear them down until the truth came out. Ezra nodded imperceptibly and Buck faced front, exhaling loudly in a gesture of submission.

"We think we might have a lead on the guy who was responsible for the attack at Utopia."

Chris stiffened and sat up straighter in his chair, his scrutiny becoming razor sharp. "Why haven't you turned this over to Utopia Planitia Security?"

Of all people, Ezra would know just how annoyed Chief Whitman would be if someone interfered or worse yet, left him out of the loop in his own investigation. Chris was convinced security chiefs, at least good ones, were grown in a lab somewhere, the unholy hybrid of bloodhound and human who took great exception to their calling being interfered with in any way by interlopers. If Ezra had information regarding the attack on Utopia, he was professionally bound to tell Whitman.

Ezra could see all this in Chris's eyes and before Buck could attempt to make some woefully inadequate explanation, spoke up using his best poker face. "Because Captain, the lead is in the colony at Theta Cygni, which is outside Federation jurisdiction. If we gave it to Chief Whitman, he would have to rely on local law enforcement, if it even exists there, to pursue. I feel it would serve better if we went there in an unofficial capacity and made some discreet inquiries."

Until the 22nd century, Theta Cygni had been a world occupied by a highly advanced civilization. An invasion by the flying parasites called blastoneurons had devastated the entire planet, leaving it an empty wasteland. Since the demise of its indigenous population, it had been looted and stripped of everything of value since Theta Cygni sat in unclaimed space between four major territories, Cardassian, Ferengi, Tzenkethi and the Federation. In recent years, it had been used by the Orion Syndicate as a haven for all manner of illegal activities which certainly indicated a lack of law and order.

Ezra was right, Chris admitted begrudgingly, if there was an investigation to be conducted, they would have to do it themselves. "Okay," he said satisfied by the answer. "What's the lead?"

"Well before I respond, may I caveat it with the acceptance that this is merely a hunch at this point," Ezra exchanged a quick glance with Buck.

"Accepted," Chris nodded. "Go ahead."

"No more than ten minutes after the incident, before Security could lock down the entire station, a man named Jack Averal transported off the station to a commercial ship. While he was on board, he was questioned and allowed to continue on his way because he had an alibi, however, since arriving at his destination at Theta Cygni, there has been no sign of him. Upon arriving at the colony, he simply vanished. I believe Jack Averal was an alias he used before he assumed another identity and left Theta Cygni."

"Ezra, that's thin," Chris stared at the Security Officer. "Considering his destination, he could be involved with illegal acts that may have nothing to do with the attack on you and Alex."

Chris had no doubt on Theta Cygni, people used aliases at a drop of a hat. Furthermore, now that Chris thought more about the idea, he didn't know if he wanted two of his best officers travelling so far away from the safety of the Maverick, on such a flimsy possibility. Then again, Ezra Standish's hunches seldom came to nothing. The man had a nose for trouble like no man alive. It was the reason Chris had insisted on making Ezra his Chief of Security. If Ezra considered Jack Averal a viable lead, then Chris would not dismiss it out of hand.

"It is Chris," Buck agreed but also wanted to show his solidarity with Ezra's deduction. "But it's the best lead we have so far."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up and then paused a moment to gather his thoughts. "Chris, I need to do something. In light of Alexandra's injuries...," Ezra couldn't even say pregnancy anymore, because it wasn't even that now. "I feel the need to do something."

Even though he was wearing the face of the consummate gambler, revealing nothing, Chris could see through the mask at the guilt in the man's sea green eyes. "Ezra that was not your fault. No one blames you for that, certainly not Vin. Whoever attacked you and Alex is the one who is responsible for what happened, not you."

"That's right Ezra," Buck reinforced that statement even though he knew it would do little good. Ezra's guilt was obvious even through his well-practiced facade of indifference. It had been ever since Nathan was forced to reveal the miscarriage to all of them in Sick Bay. Since then, Ezra's guilt had forced him to do nothing but sift through datapads and log entries in a relentless pursuit for answers. "This isn't your fault."

"So, everyone tells me," Ezra shrugged, not meeting their eyes because he couldn't believe it or would be unable to accept it until he got to the bottom of this mystery. "Captain, I believe this is an avenue worth pursuing. If I am wrong, at least it will serve to eliminate Mr Averal as a suspect."

On Fury 361, Chris had run up against the wall of Ezra's stubbornness and did not relish waging that battle again. Sighing in defeat because he knew nothing, he said was going to change Ezra's mind, Chris tried a different tact instead. "Ezra, I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to take off. You're still recovering...."

"That's why I'm going with him," Buck stated before Ezra could respond. "Look, Chris, if this guy has anything to do with what happened to Alex, I want to shake it out of him too. We owe it to both Vin and Alex to do that. Now you're staying on the ship means I don't have to be here; Ezra and I can take a run down to Theta Cygni and see if there's anything to this Jack Avery fella. If he's wrong, we'll bring back a T-shirt and be no worse for it. It will take a few days at best. What could it hurt?"

Chris supposed none and after hearing from Nathan how Alex had taken the news of her miscarriage, he wanted some justice for both her and Vin. Buck was right, they had nothing to lose and if he wasn't needed here to help Vin, he would most likely go himself. The Vulcan had been willing to cross a dimension to help him retrieve Adam, Chris could certainly sacrifice a runabout and two of his officers for a few days if it meant getting the bastards who caused such harm to Alex.

"All right," Chris nodded. "Consider yourselves on leave from now on. Grab yourself a runabout and go find out if this Averal has anything to do with the attack. But you two will check in with me every twelve hours, I mean it. Theta Cygni isn't the best place for two Starfleet officers to be roaming about without reinforcements."

"Captain, we will take every precaution," Ezra assured him.

"See that you do," Chris said firmly, leaning across his desk to give them both a look that lacked the warmth of their long-standing friendship and possessed all the authority of their Captain. Despite their words, Chris's gut was still telling him they were holding out on him. "If you are late for any reason checking in, be prepared to find me and the Maverick coming to collect you. Is that clear?"

Staring at Chris's icy colored gaze, Buck had no doubt of it. "Crystal."

********

"You realize," Buck said after they left the bridge and headed towards Four Corners for some food and a drink after the meeting with the Captain. "If he finds out we're holding out on him, he'll resurrect the practice of keelhauling or launch us into the nearest star, whichever is most painful"

Ezra stiffened not at the thought of the terrible, terrible death Chris Larabee could inflict upon them, but the idea of lying to the Captain at all. As much as he might like to indulge in certain illegal and colorful ventures, such as running games and bets, he was a creature of duty at the core of him and lying to his captain went against the grain, whether or not he wanted to admit it.

However, being faced with the man's excesses during the Fury 361 mission when his obsession had led him to some rather questionable decisions, Ezra had no wish to see a repeat of that behavior by revealing what they had learned about the murder of Sarah and Adam. Not to mention Chris would pursue the matter with a cudgel when what was needed was a surgical approach. Whoever was responsible had been able to hide their tracks for almost five years and Ezra was not about to let them slip away because of impatience.

"If Lady Luck is on our side, by the time we are required to reveal the truth, it will not be an issue."

"You really think this is our smoking gun?" Buck asked as they reached the turbo lift and the doors slid open to give them entry.

Ezra's jaw stiffened because every fiber of his being believed it was.

"Four Corners," Ezra announced to the computer as the doors sealed them in. "I do not believe in coincidences Commander. Security allowed Jack Averal to leave because he had an alibi at the time of the shooting, however, if we have learned nothing about the footage from five years ago, is that our assailant has the ability to impersonate people with iron-clad alibis to avoid discovery. At this point, our assailant is only aware we have determined how the Magellan was destroyed. They do not know we are aware they are capable of impersonating someone to do it."

"And no reason to believe we have any idea about Cletus Fowler."

"Exactly," Ezra nodded. "If that is the case, we may reach Mr Fowler before he goes to ground. If he is capable of altering his appearance, any premature action on our part could jeopardize any chance of finding him."

Buck could not disagree with that. When Fowler's name first emerged in Ezra's investigation, he had been a possible suspect because they believed the Magellan's saboteur left Syria Planum before the shuttle exploded. It was only after Ezra discovered Fowler's first port of call after leaving Mars, did he become more than just a possible suspect, but the one Ezra was now convinced committed the murder because Fowler had gone straight to Theta Cygni too.

Of course, they could not tell the Captain of that connection, not without Chris reacting in the extreme which was what they did not need right now. To get their hands-on Fowler, they had to move carefully and Chris's fury at the possibility this man might have murdered his family would have him reacting like a blunt instrument.

As the turbo lift hissed around them, Buck found himself voicing the one aspect of this whole situation neither had yet to address. "I'm telling you, Ezra, I'm glad we might be in sight of putting the pieces together but the biggest one is the one I understand least of all."

Ezra knew exactly what he meant. "The motive? Yes, I share your dilemma."

"Yeah, that's the part that makes the least sense to me. Why? Why Sarah and Adam? She was a school teacher for Christ sake, why would anyone want to hurt her."

"Well, we always assumed the Captain was their true target, using them to hurt him."

"But he was the First Officer of the Rutherford at the time," Buck declared. "You've been through his service record like I have. There's no enemies list to warrant someone coming after him like this."

"The reason may not be about him personally but something he might have an indirect connection to. Was there anything taking place at the time, anything that would not make it into the official record?" After all, if anyone might know, it was Buck.

"No," Buck insisted but then something triggered in his memory, and he quickly recanted. "Well yes, but that can't be it."

"What?" Ezra stared at him as his statement coincided with the doors to Four Corners sliding open.

At this time of the day, the establishment was somewhat busy. While many of the crew were technically on shore leave, others chose to remain on board simply to relax or were returning to the Maverick after spending the day on Earth or wherever in the system they were visiting. Many of the crew were out of uniform and the atmosphere was lively and cheerful, with people catching up with each other in the leisurely setting.

Buck's gaze immediately went to the bar where Inez was presently holding court. As they approached, the lovely bartender gave him a radiant smile of greeting, immediately jump-starting the heart in his chest, telling Buck, he was irrevocably hers, signed, sealed and delivered. Ezra noticed the reaction and rolled his eyes before rebuking his cynicism. After all, if he could find love with a titian-haired beauty who loved show tunes and decorated her engineering toolbox with flowers, Buck could do the same with the sultry Latin beauty.

"Hello Buck, hello Ezra," Inez greeted when the two officers reached the bar. "Ezra, how are you feeling? Julia said you were supposed to be recovering."

"I am fine Miss Recillos," Ezra reassured her with a smile. "I am still a little sore, but I do not intend to engage in any vicarious activities. I simply needed some time out of my quarters."

"And I'm making sure he doesn't overdo the excitement," Buck winked at her, drawing a laugh from the woman.

"Your usual then?" She asked both men brightly.

"Please," Ezra answered quickly, wanting to return to the conversation they were having before they stepped out of the lift. Once Inez received an affirmative from Buck, she headed off to fill their orders, leaving them to do just that. "Now, you were saying Commander?"

Buck watched her go, always enjoying the view when she left before returning to the subject at hand. "Oh yeah sorry," he apologized and faced Ezra again. "As I said, the only thing happening at the time was the fact Chris was up for his first command on the USS Reliant. Naturally, after what happened with Sarah and Adam, he voluntarily dropped out of the running."

"Understandable," Ezra nodded, recalling the captain mentioning this during his discussions. "Who did become Captain in his stead?"

"Oh Ella Gaines," Buck replied without hesitation. "Nice enough woman. She and Chris dated once or twice at the Academy, but they never really hit it off. This was way before Sarah of course, not long after he got to the Academy. Never saw a man so sure he was going to be captain or determined to make it happen. I swear if I didn't bug him to start dating, he would have blown a gasket with all that study. Anyway, after the accident, he wasn't in any condition to take command of anything."

Buck fell silent for a moment, remembering those dark days when he was worried Chris was going to kill himself from the sheer agony of his grief. Forcing Chris to remember he couldn't honor Sarah or Adam by allowing himself to deconstruct had fractured their friendship for good. Oh, they were still friends, but it was never the way it was back in the days when they were both cadets coming up the ranks. However, the place they were at with each other now, told Buck the sacrifice had been worth it.

"Anyway," he shook the sad memories out of his head. "Ella got command of the Reliant and that was that. Pity too, it was a hell of an assignment."

"What was the assignment?"

"The Reliant was one of the first few ships to be assigned to the Gamma Quadrant. The wormhole had just been discovered and at the time, we didn't know about the Dominion yet, or more importantly, they didn't know about us. You remember what it was like, everyone wanted to go explore the new territory for all sorts of reason, trade, scientific study, you name it. The Reliant was meant to maintain a presence in the Gamma Quadrant, to keep an eye on all the traffic entering from our side."

"And after the accident, the captaincy went to Captain Gaines."

"That's right. Chris was their first choice," Buck said until he caught the gleam in Ezra's eyes and realized what path the man was heading down. "That's insane Ezra."

"I said nothing," Ezra looked at Buck with perfect innocence, but inside the wheels were turning in his mind as he considered the idea. More than considered it actually.

"You didn't have to," Buck called him out immediately. "I know Ella, Ezra. True, the woman was ambitious but hell when you're a first officer, you have to be. When you're that close to the captaincy, you can get a little single-minded."

"You seem to escape that curse."

"Don't bet on it," Buck retorted but even as the words escaped his lips, he knew there was some truth to Ezra's belief. He wasn't in a rush to leave the Maverick. He was serving with the best captain in the fleet and the friends he made on board this ship was the closest he ever had. Sure, it would be nice to have his own command one day, but Buck was happy where he was.

Of course, there were others who weren't satisfied with anything less than taking center seat and felt staying in place for too long was to grow stagnant. Buck had never been one of those. However, now Ezra had planted the seed, was Ella Gaines that determined? He didn't think so. The woman they knew at the Academy was strong-willed for certain, but she was also friendly and often showed remarkable integrity.

What Ezra was suspecting her of was impossible.

"Look it can't be Ella," Buck insisted "I mean for her to pull this off, would mean every psych test Starfleet has to measure its captain's mental capacities are wrong, that they let someone with homicidal tendencies through the screening. I mean this isn't like in the days of Garth of Izar, where a captain could go insane without anyone noticing."

"This sounds serious," Inez frowned as she returned to them, carrying their drinks in her hand.

"Not at all," Ezra said not offended by Buck's vehement refusal to believe that Ella Gaines could be at the bottom of all this. In truth, he had focused on it because at the moment, there were no other suspects and he was speculating. Still, even as he told himself that, the idea clung to him, like a splinter in the mind. "Just having a healthy debate about the trip we are taking."

"Trip? Where are you going?" Her eyes met Buck's.

"We're taking a trip to the colony on Theta Cygni," Buck answered. "Ezra's got an idea about the men who attack him and Alex."

"You mean the Soko." She stated.

Both men stared at her in surprise. "You know it?" Buck asked.

"Of course," Inez replied. "I wasn't always a bartender you know. I did some travelling when I was younger. When Raphael was at the Academy, my friend Lydia and I went space hopping. We spent almost a year in Soko, you know soaking up the atmosphere, meeting all these different alien races and learning about the local cuisine. Lydia met a Denobulan there and married him. He died a few years ago and left her the restaurant they ran together. She still lives there."

"Really?" Ezra stared at her for a moment, struck with inspiration. "Miss Recillos, how would you like to catch up with your old friend?"

"What?" Buck stared at Ezra. "Ezra no, this could be dangerous!"

"Commander Wilmington," Ezra stared at Buck in annoyance at the protest. "If Miss Recillos has a contact at the ‘Soko' is it? Wouldn't it be better we exploit that connection? Especially since what we need to do there has to take place covertly?"

"Buck," Inez gave him a look of annoyance, understanding his objection had come from a place of concern but not about to be coddled either. After a year and a half on the same ship with Ezra Standish and Alex Styles, she considered both of them her friends. If she was able to contribute anything to help find out who tried to harm them, she was willing to try.

"Buck, the Soko is a mish-mash of communities from all over the quadrant, with not much love for the Federation. The two of you just can't go in there asking questions, you need a local to get your answers. Let me help. I know people there, not just Lydia."

Buck did not like this, not one damn bit but she was right and he knew it.

Of course, the idea of her coming with them was something he liked to entertain if he were wearing any other hat than the First Officers. The person who attacked Ezra and Alex had been brazen enough to do it in a heavily-armed Starfleet space station. On Soko, there would no such protection, and they would all be exceedingly vulnerable. However, he also knew that this was the first real clue to finding out the truth about the Magellan in five years. He owed it to Chris to do everything possible to get those answers, no matter what his personal feelings were on the matter.

"All right," he sighed, taking comfort in the pleasure of her company, even if the circumstances were not ideal. "You can come."

"Buck please," Inez rolled her eyes giving Ezra a knowing look. "I wasn't asking your permission."

"Nice," Buck glared at Ezra. "Anything goes wrong, I blame you."

Not as much as I'll blame myself, Ezra thought silently.

Chapter Seven:

Healing

Vin was seated alone in Four Corners, staring into the expanse of stars outside the window, trying to draw wisdom from them as his ancestors must have done when his race and the world was young.

It had been a long time since he felt as uncertain as he did right now. Being in the same place emotionally as when he first came on board the Maverick, left him frustrated and bewildered. Internally, he was warring with himself. He knew he had the power to find out what Alex was hiding from him, but he could not do so because of his promise to her. Their mating bond allowed him to ride any physical contact into her mind, so he could get at the truth she was hiding from him, but to do so would be to violate the trust between them and that was something Vin would not do.

After agreeing to marry him and understanding what the bonding meld entailed, she asked only one thing of him, to stay out of the place she kept the memories of her imprisonment by the Cardassians. For the most part, he remained true to that promise but after her reaction at SickBay a day ago, Vin felt his resolve crumbling. She was holding something back, something important and with Alex, Vin learned long ago, it was usually something she thought he could not handle.

Alex was so determined he not discover her secret, she had refused to return to their quarters, wishing instead, to remain in Sick Bay for her convalescence. Vin would have been deeply hurt if it was not for their marriage bond allowing him to feel her utter despair at present. The anguish inside her, blunted his hurt emotions but left him at a loss with what to do. In the end, Vin had gone to Josiah, who was already planning on seeing Alex and hoped the Counsellor could do something to help her.

"How are you doing Vin?" Vin heard Chris Larabee's voice next to him.

Vin saw the Captain standing by his table, his expression one of sympathy and felt a sudden wave of gratitude at knowing he was there. Aside from Alex, his friendship with Chris Larabee was the best thing to come from his posting to the Maverick. On the Rutherford, they had just started to get to know each other when the ship was destroyed during the Battle of Sector 001, but since serving on this ship together, they had escaped the chains of rank to become best friends.

"I'm all right Chris," Vin sighed and gestured for the man to sit, in case the Captain thought he was intruding. "Just trying to figure things out."

"I know," Chris nodded taking the seat next to him, holding a glass of whisky corresponding with the one Vin was presently drinking on the table. "Nathan told me Alex didn't take the news too well."

"No," Vin shook his head, still flinching at how she had shouted them both out of the room. "It's more than just losing the..." Vin had to pause because it was hard to say, even now, "the baby." For a few seconds that pain surfaced again, deep and cutting. Images of what that child might have been, stabbed at his heart and he was forced to rein it in, less he felt the urge to smash something from the fury of its loss. "Sorry."

"Don't apologize," Chris said quietly. "I know what it's like to lose a child, Vin. I understand."

"Thanks, Pard," Vin met his eyes after a moment, composing himself. "As I was saying, there's something more than just losing this baby that's got her so messed up. I can feel her hiding it from me like she's ashamed or something. "

Chris drew in his breath, debating whether or not to say what was on his mind even though he knew this was a wholly private matter between Vin and Alex. Yet, he could not bear to see his friend this way and a Captain wasn't a psychiatrist, so he wasn't bound by the same rules. The welfare of his crew was his first priority and Vin's mental state right now concerned him. Besides, Vin wasn't just a member of his crew, he was his best friend.

"Vin," Chris sucked in his breath. "I'm going to tell you something that I probably shouldn't, but you're my friend and I can't stand to see you like this, not when I can help."

Vin's gaze turned sharply to him from his study of the stars outside. "What do you mean?"

Chris met his eyes with similar intensity. "It means I am going to tell you something that can't leave this table, well not the parts of it that don't directly affect you that is."

Vin sat up straighter, understanding what lines Chris was crossing for the sake of their friendship by that statement alone. "Chris, I don't want you getting into trouble for me..."

It was true. Vin didn't want Chris risking censure, no matter how much he needed the truth. Their friendship meant too much to him to risk that. Yet even as he looked into Chris's eyes, he knew his best friend would not be convinced otherwise, if he had already made up his mind to help Vin.

"It's okay I won't," Chris assured him, grateful for the consideration but knew for both Vin and Alex's sake he needed to make this revelation. "But I think you need to hear this so you can understand why Alex is behaving the way she is. Maybe if you know, you can help her through it."

Vin nodded, grateful for this man who was his captain and his friend. "Thank you, Chris," he said before falling silent and let the Captain say his peace.

Chris took a deep breath and dived in, whatever the consequences. Both Vin and Alex were his friends and no secret was worth watching them twist in pain when he had the means to help them. Besides, he had really gone too far to pull back now. "Vin, you know when Alex escaped that Cardassian prison, she was found by a Pakled freighter in an escape pod."

"Yeah," Vin nodded. That much about her return from Cardassian space was in her service record. Alex had been found outside of Cardassian territory, floating in an escape pod, before being returned to Federation space. She was the only survivor of the destroyed facility, at least that's what they believed until Gul Lemar arrived on the Maverick three years later.

"What you didn't know, was when they took her off that escape pod," Chris paused, severing the last chains keeping the secret inside him untold, "she was two months pregnant."

Vin simply stared for a second as the full implications of that statement settled over him. Finally, he understood why she reacted so violently to the news and why she made him promise to stay out of her mind. It wasn't the rapes she didn't want him to see, it was this.

"Jesus," he whispered and felt his gut clench in anger. Now more than ever, he wished he was able to rip Lemar apart when the man was on board. It wasn't enough the son of a bitch had brutalized her, he had to plant his seed inside her and leave Alex to deal with the horror of it.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, sharing all the fury sentiments he could see on Vin's face. He had felt it himself when Josiah told him about the pregnancy after the psychiatrist had taken the extraordinary step of breaking the seal on her records to learn the truth. "A therapeutic termination was recommended by the doctors who treated her. She was in no shape to protest. They thought if she was forced to carry it, she'd end up suiciding like some of the others."

"Others?" Vin's eyes widened. Of course, there would be others. Alex had called them rape camps so there had to be other victims as well.

"The women who came out of the camps were in bad shape," Chris explained. "Some were catatonic and never came out of it, others who recovered left Starfleet for good and those who couldn't cope, ended up killing themselves. Starfleet counsellors were afraid if Alex was forced to have it, she would most likely have killed herself first."

"Christ," he whispered, trying to imagine how she must have felt and suddenly he gained a whole new level of understanding about Alex's pain learning upon about the miscarriage.

"I don't know why Alex is reacting the way she is right now," Chris said honestly, "but I thought you ought to know. It might give you an idea on how to help her."

Vin nodded and stood up slowly, understanding at last what was required of him. He drained his glass and turned to Chris, with gratitude in his eyes.

"Thanks pard," he said with a sad smile, "it does."

********

The first time she came to see him, no one was more surprised than Josiah Sanchez.

Of all the crew on board the Maverick, it was Alexandra Styles Josiah most wanted to see, because of everyone on board, she needed his help the most. Yet she was also the one who was most determined to stay away from him at all cost. Josiah supposed he could have forced her to see him, but his instincts as a counsellor told him, it would not yield the results he wanted and so he held back, even though everything about her screamed pain.

As a healer of the mind, it was difficult for Josiah to stand by and do nothing when she was clearly suffering from an untreated case of PTSD and the only reason she was still wearing the uniform was she had managed to keep it from affecting her work. Furthermore, the counsellors who did manage to treat her in a limited fashion believed removing her from duty might do more harm than good. Nevertheless, Josiah kept a watchful eye from afar and saw progress in her growing friendship with Vin Tanner.

There was a kind of symmetry about their relationship, Josiah thought. Both were outcast by choice and circumstance. Touched by Vin's difficulty in social situations, Alex had come out of her shell long enough to encourage the Vulcan to reach out to people and as a result, began her own healing. That is until Gul Lemar, the man responsible for her horrific treatment during her time as a Cardassian prisoner came on board.

The walls she built around herself collapsed in a violent explosion of fury, which Josiah understood once he discovered the full scope of her trauma. In truth, he suspected rape well before this, but the systematic abuses perpetrated by the Cardassians in their rape camps left even him aghast. When he realized the fate of other victims of the camp, the Counsellor had reacted strongly, demanding her removal from duty. The Captain refused.

It was the first time they disagreed on anything.

In the end, however, allowing her to remain on duty had saved Alex's sanity and realizing she needed reinforcement of a different kind, Josiah arranged for Alex's adopted mother, Kellien to come on board the Maverick. When the formidable Klingon matron left the ship, Alex had come to see him for the first time. Of course, she claimed it was to thank him, but then she started talking and after that, she would come to see him informally, for an hour or so, where she would reveal some of the fears plaguing her still, even if she felt she was on the road to recovery.

It was why he believed he was the only one who could help her now.

"How are you?"

She was lying on her bed, staring out the window of her room in Recovery, watching the traffic of ships swarming around spacedock and the Earth below. When he spoke, she turned her head to him and her eyes revealed her profound sorrow, which was something he was unaccustomed to seeing. Normally Alex kept her emotions guarded, but today they were naked like a raw nerve and there even appeared to be relief at seeing it was him standing there, and not Vin. Her shame was oozing from every pore of her and Josiah had a feeling he understood why.

"I think I'm being punished," Alex said, not realizing she had wanted to talk to someone about this that wasn't Vin until the words left her mouth. She had never spoken to anyone about this subject, even when she revealed the truth to the Captain.

Josiah took a chair next to her bed. "You're not Alex," he said kindly. "What happened to you was unfair, but you did not deserve any of it."

Alex looked away. "It feels like punishment."

"For what?" He asked, even though he knew, it was important she say it.

"Because I didn't feel this bad the first time I was pregnant and it went away..." Alex couldn't even bring herself to say the word ‘termination', even though both of them knew it was what she meant. "I didn't give it any thought other than relief. I couldn't bear having it. The idea of carrying anything that animal left inside me, made me want to die but this time, knowing I had something inside me Vin and I made together, I feel like it was taken away because I wanted it."

"Alex," Josiah reached for her hand. "What happened to you was tragic but that's all it is, tragic. It's not punishment. Considering the circumstances of your last pregnancy, no one could have expected you to behave any differently. You need to forgive yourself for what happened."

"I can't Josiah," Alex whispered. "I'm guilty of so many sins, not just being glad to get rid of what Lemar left inside me, but because of what..." she paused before admitting. "What I did to him."

Josiah stared at her. "What you did to him?"

As far as Josiah knew, Lemar had been blamed by the Dominion for their failure to take the Maverick and executed. Alex had nothing to do with his death.

"I sent a message to him, just before he and the Dominion were chased away when we got reinforcements. It was heavily decrypted to make the Dominion think that I was trying to get it past them under the radar. "

"What did it say?"

Alex swallowed, she had told no one this, not even Vin. "That he shouldn't mourn for me, even if he provided us with the shield modulation frequency for the five Cardy ships they had coming after us."

Josiah managed not to smile even though she was confessing to an act of murder. Lemar had come on board the Maverick, tricked everyone into believing he was an ally when in fact he intended to deliver the ship and its crew to the Dominion. Josiah hadn't been present on the bridge at the time, but according to JD Dunne, Lemar demanded Alex and Mary be handed over for his sadistic brand of captivity, as part of the terms of surrender. If Alex had given him his comeuppance, for that sin and the depravity he showed to so many other women, Josiah had no cause to think ill of her for it. He knew for a fact Chris had wanted to launch the man out of an airlock and what Vin would have done would have been infinitely worse.

"I see," Josiah said neutrally and squeezed the hand he was holding. "Alex, I'm not going to absolve you of anything, but this child was lost because of someone's malicious act, not because of karmic retribution. I don't believe the universe is that badly designed. I do want you to remember, you are not alone in any of this. You have people around you who will help you and will be there for you. You also have Vin."

"How can I tell him any of this?" Alex stared at him. "He's had to put up with so much already, I can't ask him to accept this too."

"You don't have to," Josiah met her gaze. "He loves you Alex. We've seen it since the day he laid eyes on you, I think he can handle this a lot better than you think. Thanks to you, you've helped to make him strong, you should take advantage of that strength."

Alex blinked and nodded, knowing he was right. Vin was stronger, far stronger than she ever thought that wounded young man she met that first day in Four Corners could ever be. They had weathered so many storms together and what they had was special, even she recognized it in her bruised state. They had healed each other and now, now she would have to surrender the part of her pain to him as an offering to show him her trust.

"Thank you, Josiah," Alex said softly. "You're a hell of an analyst you know?"

Josiah brushed her cheek gently and smiled. "So, everyone keeps telling me."

********

Vin went to visit Alex only after Josiah had gone. He knew the Counsellor had intended to see Alex and wanted to give the man the time to talk to his wife without crowding in on her. After what Chris told him, Vin wanted to rush to her side and tell her that it didn't matter, he didn't blame her for anything or think that she was sullied in some way because of it, as Buck once told him she might think herself to be. In fact, the more he thought about it, Vin realized all that was in the past and if Alex wished it left there to spare herself the pain of memory, he could respect it.

When he arrived at Sick Bay, Nathan had gone for the day. It was evening on board the Maverick, now that the ship's chronometers were aligned with local Earth time since they were in orbit around the planet. Li Pong was on duty and she waved him in, aware that in this particular case, visiting hours did not apply. Vin thanked her silently and stepped into the room Alex was occupying. She was lying on her side, her back facing the door. Even though he couldn't see her face, Vin knew she was staring at the stars.

One of their favorite things to do was to sit across each other at the Observation Deck and admire the stars rushing past the Maverick. In the early days, they could just sit across each other that way without exchanging a word, enjoying each other by presence alone. He'd loved her from the first day she sat across him and told him, he should to never be ashamed of who he was because he was neither Vulcan or human, he was unique and because unique, he was free.

No one had ever said that to him before and when Vin thought about it later, he realized she was right. His destiny was his to write, it didn't matter he had no connection to Vulcan, or he would never be human. As long as he was happy, that was the only idea he ought to aspire to.

Slipping into the bed next to her, he saw her glance over her shoulder at him before she faced the window again, saying nothing. She had not told him to leave, which was an improvement after their last encounter. Instead, when he nestled himself against her back and slipped an arm around her waist to spoon, Vin was encouraged when he felt her shift slightly in the bed, so she was pressing closer to him. Resting his cheek against her hair, he simply held her, not needing to speak because this action between them was all he needed to know everything was right between them again.

"I'm so sorry Vin," she spoke softly, feeling his heat radiate across her back, marveling at its power to soothe and make her feel safe when the world became too much for her to cope with. While the meld gave them a deeper connection to each other, it could never match the intimacy of this simple bit of contact when they could feel each other's hearts beating against one another. "I didn't mean to shut you out."

"It's okay darlin'," He whispered, luxuriating in the silken strands of her dark hair against his cheek. He never tired of the scent, even in this cold antiseptic environment. "I know you're hurting."

Alex blinked, feeling guilty once again at how she chased him out earlier, and hating herself for forgetting he was equally hurt too by what happened. Not facing him, Alex took his hand in hers, admiring the wedding band on his finger that said to all he was hers. Placing his palm against her chest, Ale wanted him to feel the heart that so utterly belonged to him.

"You're hurting too. It wasn't just mine, it was yours too." Her voice breaking a little as she uttered those words.

"Someday Alex," he held her tighter, willing his love into her body. "It will be ours again. It just wasn't meant to be this time."

This time. Yes, there would be children in their future. It was a distant thing before, something that would happen eventually as time unfolded. Now, she saw it as something real, as a promise they could look forward to.

"I'd like that," she admitted. "I want us to have a family."

"Me too," Vin smiled, pleased to hear that, but seeing no reason to discuss the subject now. Like all things at this moment, it could wait. He felt her chest tighten as if she was bracing herself and knew she was about to tell him what she had been so afraid to before. At that moment, Vin realized, it was unimportant.

"Vin, I need to tell..."

"Alex," he stopped her before she could finish. "It doesn't matter. I love you and whatever it is, it can wait until you're ready to tell me, if you ever are at all. Tell you the truth, it ain't important whatever it is. All that matter is I love you."

Once again, Alex blinked and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks, a few droplets touched his skin. She lifted his fingers to her lips and planted a soft kiss against them. "Thank you, Vin," she whispered, grateful he was sparing her this for now. "I love you too."

With that, she let herself become lost in his arms as they both watched the space outside the window and healed each other in the starlight.

Chapter Eight:

The Soko

Theta Cygni III was a dead world.

Orbiting a binary star system, this had been a thriving society almost a century ago, home to an advanced spacefaring people who built great cities, conducted trade with its neighbors and was known throughout the sector for its musicians. The Zenei, as they had been known in those days, produced artists who created some of the greatest symphonies in the Alpha Quadrant. At the height of the civilization, they were in the process of obtaining Federation membership when a transport from Levinus V brought with it a neural parasite which succeeded in destroying the entire race.

In a brutally short time, the parasites Federation scientists had since called Blastoneurons, had succeeded in turning the entire population against each other in murderous violence, through mass hysteria. Ten thousand years of civilization left behind nothing but a planetary graveyard and for decades after, the world was considered cursed by the races in the immediate area. Eventually, looters moved in and following the looters, opportunists like the Orion Syndicate who settled one of its deserted cities to use as its base of operations. The Ferengi, always attracted to opportunity, whatever the source, took an interest in the colony and within a decade of that, Theta Cygni III became synonymous with lawlessness and ruthless capitalism.

No one even remembered the Zenei anymore.

For Ezra Standish, his arrival at the Soko was like stepping back through time. As soon as they descended into the colony spaceport, Ezra was transported back to his youth, reminded of the days when he and Maude were constantly jumping transports from one dingy backwater to another, usually on the heels of a big game or laying low while the heat from her latest con died down. It was in places like the Soko, Ezra learned his craft, not the one Maude would have him take up, but the one that made him such an astute investigator.

Before their arrival, they had taken a detour to Deep Space Nine which was the closest Federation base to the Theta Cygni system. To maintain their anonymity when they arrived at the Soko, they had to abandon the runabout for another ship. The runabout would immediately identify them as Starfleet officers, which would not only be dangerous but prevent them from tracking down the whereabouts of Jack Averal or Cletus Fowler.

Thanks to their time docked at the former Cardassian station during the last days of the Dominion War, the Maverick had formed a relationship with the command staff of DS9. Buck, in particular, had forged a friendship with Colonel Kira Nerys who was now commander of the station and upon learning their purpose at the Soko, was happy to lend them the use of a Bajoran lightship, a modern version of the Bajoran lightships of old that used solar sails to travel the space ways.

It was also a chance to pick up JD Dunne who was visiting Bajor with Casey Wells. The young woman had wanted to attend the Peldor Festival or Gratitude Festival as it was known to outsiders, with her guardian Admiral Nettie Wells. While JD enjoyed the trip, for the most part, being in the company of the Admiral was a little intimidating and he was glad to take a break in the trip by joining Buck, Ezra and Inez to Theta Cygni.

With Buck at helm and JD taking the co-piloting duties, Ezra stared through the cockpit window as their ship, the Holana, descended into the spaceport facilities of the Soko. While the complex seemed quite modern, no doubt to furnish the dense traffic of vehicles moving through the skies, the settlement itself was an eclectic mishmash of different cultures, overlaying the original Zenei settlement. Ships from every corner of the Alpha Quadrant could be seen in the air, Tellerite cruisers, Ferengi cargo runners, even a Xindi super shuttle. Ezra had no doubt when they landed in the Soko itself, the population would be similarly diverse.

It was the perfect place for Cletus Fowler and Jack Averal to become lost and vanish for good, especially if what he suspected about both men were true. During the journey to the Soko, Ezra had spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the ability of these two men to vanish so completely, no one could find them and the conclusion he reached seemed far-fetched at first, until he considered it deeper and realized it was the only answer there could have been.

However, to prove it, he would have to set a trap.

********

"I have to say," Buck complimented as he brought the Holana down into the landing bay allocated to them once they cleared Soko spaceport authorities, "this is a nice little ship. Not as fancy as our runabout, but not bad at all."

While not as roomy as the Carrizo, their runabout, the Holana's cockpit was large enough for four, with a station to man the weapons and an empty seat for a passenger. While it lacked transporter capability, it did have a replicator, facilities and a double bunk bed for its passengers. While it was called a lightship, it was really the Bajoran version of a runabout and had been in great demand by Resistance fighters during the Occupation. By Ezra's reckoning, it was the perfect craft for a covert arrival in Theta Cygni.

With expertise he did not normally get to exercise, Buck sat at helm and directed the Holana to the docking bay assigned to them by the spaceport authorities. The sky vanished above them as the ship was soon surrounded by walls and large duranium doors slid to a close with a loud, dull thud. Mastering the unfamiliar console easily, by the time they reached Theta Cygni, Buck was more than comfortable landing the ship smoothly. Meanwhile, JD took up the co-pilot's seat, communicating with spaceport officials in a similar capacity to his duties on the Maverick, regarding disembarkation procedures for their arrival in Soko.

"You should see the traditional lightships Buck," JD commented as he transmitted the Holana's crew manifest and flight logs to the authorities as requested. "Casey and I saw it at the Bajoran Archaeological Institute, they're really quite pretty. The Bajorans used real wood to build some of them. They look more like pieces of sculpture rather than a ship."

"I don't know if I wish to be in a spaceship made of wood," Inez who was watching their descent through the window, turned to him from her seat, her face wrinkling with obvious skepticism. "With all the spacial weirdness we seem to run into, I would think wood would burn quite easily."

"Spacial weirdness?" Buck couldn't help chuckle at her description of the phenomena they occasionally encountered. He supposed from the perspective of a civilian, it wasn't an unfair statement.

"Hey, I'm just a bartender," she said with a wink.

"I am with Miss Recillos on this point, I find the whole concept of a solar sail rather disconcerting," Ezra spoke up wondering why people felt the need to romanticized ancient technology that was abandoned for good reason due to progress. While a ship with solar sails was a fascinating idea, relying on such an unpredictable method of propulsion was asking for trouble when one was surrounded by the dangers of space. "What if one were to be swept out of range of a star capable of generating the solar winds necessary to power the sail? Or for that matter, if the sail itself were damaged? How much power could those ancient batteries store if such a calamity were to take place? It would certainly not be enough to reach another star system."

Buck, JD and Inez were staring at him.

"What?" Ezra asked bewildered by the expressions on their faces.

"You're scaring the womenfolk," Buck remarked and received a sharp jolt to the back of his seat, courtesy of Inez's boot.

"Pig," she snorted.

"You know you love me for it," he grinned at Inez.

"Ha!" She laughed and turned to Ezra. "That's what I like about you Ezra, you're such an optimist."

"If you are alluding to my desire to remain on the side of caution," Ezra sniffed in mock hurt. "I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

"Well I won't argue with you there," Buck conceded the point because the number of times the man had gotten the Maverick and its crew out of trouble with his ‘ounce of prevention' was too numerous to name and Buck had no desire to question his methods now. Besides, it was Ezra's ability to see all the angles that brought them to Theta Cygni. "So, JD, are we cleared to disembark?"

"Yep," JD who had been busily conversing with local authorities, looked up from his console. "They just wanted the usual information, passenger lists, crew manifest, our flight logs and purpose of travel. I did like you said Ezra," the newly minted lieutenant glanced at the Security Chief. "I used those aliases we decided on and said we were here to visit an old friend, Lydia Boyer."

"Where did you get these names anyway?" Buck asked JD who had come up with the names after Ezra made the suggestion it was probably not wise, they used their real identities when entering the Soko. No doubt the Syndicate had people on their payroll who monitored visitors to the settlement and three Starfleet officers were going to raise all kinds of red flags.

Still, he didn't know whether he looked like a Darien Lambert.

"Oh, from some of those 21st-century entertainment programs Nathan likes to watch," JD said proudly. While Nathan had put him through a whole season of Vampire Diaries which JD thought ought to be used as some form of torture, once he investigated the library of broadcasts, there were some shows that were quite good. He especially liked all the baseball games he was able to watch, especially the Red Sox ones. "I mean I thought I did pretty good. Most of the names are so obscure, there's no way anyone out here will recognize them."

"Certainly Paul Stenbeck," Ezra smiled, still quite proud of the boy's choice of source material. "Although I do think Gilbert McCauley seems a little ostentatious for me?"

"No more than Elena De Nola," Inez smiled, thinking the name sounded rather glamorous. Although she was technically not a member of Starfleet, anyone checking up on her would learn immediately she served on the Maverick, and Ezra didn't want to take the risk of anyone making that connection. It was a few degrees of separation before one reached Chris Larabee and for what they needed to here, the Captain could not be connected to them in any way.

Not if they wanted to find Cletus Fowler before he vanished like Jack Averal.

********

Leaving the space to enter the city, the legacy of the planet's original occupants was very much present as they entered the Soko proper. The Zenei city was designed with an architectural aesthetic relying heavily on ancient Middle Eastern styles. The wide streets, the large squares and courtyards, not to mention the short stubby buildings no more than three floors high, were constructed of terracotta brick and adorned with colorful mosaic tiles of cerulean. The contrast of ochre and blue provided a visual feast that was rather breathtaking. It appeared the doomed Zenei were not just great musicians but also skilled artisans, making Ezra feel a pang of sadness for their unfortunate demise.

It did not take them long, however, to see why the Soko had earned its name. In Swahili, Soko meant marketplace and the settlement built on the remains of the deserted Zenei city, certainly lived up to its title. Like the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the Agora of Venice and the Mercantile Courts of Risa, the Soko was home to a dizzying variety of merchants and entrepreneurs, ready to display their wares in every corner of the city. It was no wonder to Ezra, why the Ferengi had made themselves known to the rest of the Alpha Quadrant in this area first.

It was a buyer's paradise.

With the bright glare of the twin suns overhead, visitors, locals and merchant were out in force. The air was thick with a mix of fragrant spices, livestock, machine grease and perfume, creating an intoxicating scent any arachnologist would find it a challenge to identify. The sheer variety of merchandise being sold was almost overwhelming. Everything from fine silks, to jewelry, foodstuff, livestock and ship parts were being on display for eager bargain hunters.

The visitors to the Soko was as varied as the ships Ezra spied during their descent into the spaceport. As a group of humans, they were lost amongst the bodies that were moving through the streets, enjoying the sights and sounds, pausing at the variety of stalls framing the streets, or arguing with peddlers over whatever transaction was being carried. Supporting the influx of visitors were hotels, taverns and other entertainment venues, such as pleasure palaces and to Ezra's utmost interest, gambling dens.

"This place is huge," JD commented as they followed Inez who navigated the maze of streets as if she had never left, towards the hotel owned by her old friend Lydia. As he made that remark, he saw an Andorian walking past, leading on a leash what appeared to be a rainbow-colored goat whose fur rippled with different colors each time it flexed its muscles. JD knew if Casey was here and got a look at it, and it would end up going home with them. "I should have brought Casey with us. She would love all this."

"A teenage girl surround by this much shopping?" Buck stared at him with a little smile, wondering if JD knew what level of hell, he was courting by such a suggestion. "You'd never see her again."

"Charming Buck," Inez tossed him a glare over her shoulder and then had to admit he wasn't entirely wrong either. Considering how she and Lydia spent their days in the Soko, it was downright accurate. "But he's not wrong. Lydia and I used to spend hours just browsing through the stalls, watching the street entertainers and trying all the different foods. There was always something new every day, even livestock. I almost bought a tribble from here until Lydia told me it was almost impossible to tell if they were neutered or not."

Considering what Julia was like around small, furry animals, Ezra swore silently he was never letting her anywhere near this place.

"Let's not forget we are here on business," Ezra reminded them good naturedly. As interesting as this place might seem, the security chief in him could not forget this city was almost entirely controlled by the Orion Syndicate and under no circumstances did he want any of them to come under their notice. If the trap he intended on setting for Mr Fowler was going to work, they could not afford to take a step wrong.

"Yeah right," Buck agreed, remembering what that business was and immediately thought about what Alex and Vin were going through at this moment, not to mention what Chris had been living with for five years. If Fowler had anything to do with the Magellan's crash, then Buck wanted to get his hands on the son of a bitch just as badly.

Scanning the crowds crammed into the street with them, he marveled at how many different races and species there were. He could barely name half of them and almost wished Mary Travis was here. Their Protocol Officer would be able to identify each one with ease. Ironic, how an enclave of the Orion Syndicate could be such a wonderful representation of IDIC, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, one of the Federation's most revered ideologies.

Of course, he abandoned the thought of Mary being involved as soon as it entered his head. This mission was off the books and her relationship with Chris might hit a little close to home. "I had no idea it was this busy though. When you said settlement, I thought it was a little cow town. Not this. This is almost a fully-fledged city."

"It has definitely grown since I was last here," Inez admitted, looking around her and seeing the urban sprawl had spread out much more than she remembered. "When Lydia and I first came here, there was nowhere this many people but even then, there were so many different races."

"What made you come all this way Inez?" JD asked. While he was young enough to remember thinking about taking a year off to go travelling after he graduated from the Academy, his first choice of a destination wouldn't be this remote place.

"Well, I wanted to see a little bit of the galaxy you know," Inez shrugged. "Raphael was going to be busy at the Academy, so I didn't want to intrude on his time. Besides, I wanted to be a master chef, so a place like this was perfect. Different races, different types of cuisine."

"You wanted to be a master chef?" JD asked with surprise, not knowing that about Inez. Then again, bartenders were supposed to be the friendly ear for everyone on the ship, he supposed, no one ever returned the favor and felt quite embarrassed he was guilty of this himself.

"Yes, I did," Inez answered turning up a side street that took them away from the main flow of foot traffic. The frontages flanking the tree-lined streets appeared more formal and business-like. "We can take a short-cut this way," she explained. "This is where most of the permits and business licenses are issued. It's the municipal district I suppose."

Ezra was grateful for this because the only people frequenting this part of the settlement appeared to be locals who had specific businesses in the area.

"Does Ms. Boyer know we are coming?" Ezra asked as they walked along the sidewalk. Other than their friendship and Inez's belief Miss Boyer could be trusted, Inez had told him little else about the lady. Of course, Ezra being Ezra made sure he investigated her background thoroughly before making this trip.

"Yes, she does," Inez nodded, remembering how thrilled Lydia had been when Inez revealed her intent to visit when they communicated over subspace. "We can stay with her. She bought the hotel next to her restaurant a few years ago. She said she'll prepare a suite for our use."

"Well we can compensate her for that," Buck offered, not wanting to take advantage of the lady's hospitality.

"Oh, Lydia would consider that an insult," Inez waved the notion aside dismissively, knowing Lydia well enough to guess how she would react to that offer. "Do not worry about it. I think she's just happy we can catch up."

"Well you can do that while we figure this thing out with Fowler and Averal," Buck said, able to see by the way Inez was talking, Lydia wasn't the only one who was going to be happy for the reunion. He suspected Inez would be similarly elated.

"You got any idea where we're going to start Ezra?" JD inquired.

"I do," Ezra said pausing a moment to scan the immediate area to ensure they weren't overheard. "Mr Averal has not been seen since he stepped off the transport bringing him to Theta Cygni. Port authorities and the Culpepper, the ship he arrived on, records his departure into the Soko but nothing since. From what I understand, he owns a clothing business with premises and a staff. They have not seen him since his return and subsequent investigation of his home indicates he never arrived there either. "

"You think after the shooting, he changed his identity and jumped on another ship?" JD speculated.

"That is one possibility," Ezra said with a thoughtful expression. "I am considering a number of others but before I can do that, I need to speak to his staff and get a sense of the man."

Buck could tell by Ezra's expression he might have more than an idea of what was going on but was holding his cards close to his chest for the time being. After playing poker with the man for more than a year now, Buck suspected Ezra had a theory but was holding back until he could prove it. After working with a Science Officer who was similarly guarded about presenting a hypothesis before she had all the data, Buck knew when to pull back.

Snapping out of his reverie, Ezra regarded Buck again. "While Mr Dunne and I are undertaking this bit of business, Buck I require you and Miss Recillos to embark on another course."

"You want us to go after Fowler?" Buck asked with some surprise, not expecting Ezra to be so overt about the man who apparently had little difficulty vanishing into thin air.

"Not directly," Ezra replied regarding them both. "I believe with the assistance of Miss Recillos's friend Ms. Boyer, you may be able to make some discreet inquiries after our elusive Mr Fowler. I am certain he is still here in the Soko, possibly keeping an ear to the ground for anyone who inquires after him."

"So, you want me and Inez to kick over anthills to draw him out."

"Exactly," Ezra nodded. "I believe he is a man who values his anonymity a great deal and if his name is bandied about enough times, he will appear."

"Or he may disappear," Inez pointed out.

"He may," Ezra had to admit to the possibility. "But anyone who pays so close attention to the Magellan five years after the crash, is someone who likes to keep abreast of things. Curiosity as to how we ascertained his identity will draw him out. I'm sure of it."

Chapter Nine:

The Guild

The hotel was called the Holiday Inn.

Lydia Boyer had wanted to name it something unmistakably human and selected the name of the famous chain of hotels that was an oasis to travelers throughout the 20th and 21st century. The historical records revealed its reputation as one of the most lavish hotel chains of its time, providing its guests with luxury accommodation such as rooms boasting gold fixtures, expensive furnishings and room service that rivalled the fine dining found in restaurants.

While the Soko version of the hotel could not match such opulence, Lydia did make every effort to provide her guests with an equally pleasing environment. The lobby was bathed with copper lighting to enhance the accented furniture of russet, giving the place a look of warm welcome. Similar aesthetics were applied to the rooms and reminded Ezra a little of the western motif Maude used for her own premises, the One-Eyed Jack on Risa.

Inez, under instructions from Lydia, had led them to the hotel first, where they were able to check into the suite provided for them, to freshen up and unpack. Once settled, the group headed to the lady's restaurant located next to the hotel. The restaurant, named simply Lydia's, was an eatery as well as a bar, with the floor appropriately separated by a partition wall to allow diners and drinkers to enjoy themselves without intruding on each other.

Upon entering the establishment and shown to the lady's office by the helpful concierge running the floor, the reunion between the old friends was exactly what Ezra would have expected of two women who had been girls when they first met. The three Starfleet officers waited patiently while watching with some amusement, a spirited greeting that included the prerequisite amount of squealing and warm embraces before either could get in a word edgewise.

"It's nice to meet all of you," Lydia, a fetching beauty with strawberry gold hair, blue eyes and earthy features, smiled warmly at them after the excitement of seeing Inez had given way to introductions. "It's not often we get you Starfleet types in the Soko."

They were all seated on the plush, leather lounges away from the lady's desk, no doubt for the purposes of entertaining business associates, nursing exotic drinks while discussing the purpose of their visit to the Soko. While Inez knew their reason for journeying here was to find Cletus Fowler, Ezra had given her no further details and yet the time for disclosure was now if they were going to get Lydia's help to find the man. Ezra was convinced he was in Theta Cygni, if not in the Soko itself, somewhere close by.

"As you know, this isn't a social call Ms. Boyer," Buck explained, seeing no reason to lie to the woman who was gracious with her hospitality, but omitting a few important details. "We're just here to check out a few things discreetly, preferably under the notice of the Orion Syndicate."

JD shifted slightly in his seat at the mention of the Orions, having no wish to be around the Syndicate, especially after his last encounter with them. Considering he foiled their plans for Hadir by driving off their warship, JD had no doubt any meeting he had with the Syndicate would end rather badly for him.

"Good idea," the woman said lifting her glass of bourbon and toasting the comment. "I rather they not know you're here either. I've managed to conduct my business without getting in bed with them, so to speak, and I really don't want to get on their bad side. No matter how civilized things might appear out there, make no mistake, the Syndicate runs this town. You just can't see it's seedy underbelly behind all the tourists."

While having no experience with the Syndicate, their reputation was infamous, and Inez worried about involving Lydia in their affairs if it meant putting her old friend in their crosshairs. "We don't wish to make trouble for you Lee. We can find out what we need to know without your involvement."

"Don't worry," Lydia leaned forward in her chair to squeeze Inez's arm in gratitude for the consideration. "I've figured out how to stay off their radar for this long, I'm sure I can manage it this time as well. So," she said running her gaze over her new acquaintances, "what are you after? Inez said you were looking for someone." straighter in

Buck glanced at Ezra, an indication for him to make his case after all this was his investigation. The Security Chief nodded and sat up straighter in his seat. "We are seeking a man called Cletus Fowler. He claims to be a merchant operating out of this locality. Unfortunately, that is the extent of the information we have about him. We came here, hoping we may learn more if we were actually in the vicinity."

"Good idea," Lydia nodded in agreement with that plan. "Things run a little differently here than in Federation space, especially when it comes to business. If your man's a merchant and he's operating here, he can't do it without the permission of the Guild."

"I surmised as much. I take it there is some membership fee involved?" Ezra ventured a guess, familiar with such arrangements enforced by the local criminal element in a dozen planets across the quadrant, particularly in non-Federation worlds. Most of them were little more than protection rackets where the business in question had little choice but to submit or suffer the consequences. He supposed he should not be surprised the Soko was also subject to the practice, especially when the Syndicate was in charge of things.

"There is," Lydia said giving the security chief a little nod of resignation, admiring his ability to grasp how things worked in the Soko. "It's not that bad. We have to pay a yearly fee and I can live with fifteen per cent of my income."

"Fifteen per cent," JD exclaimed aghast at the figure. "Isn't there anything you can do about it?"

Unlike his older companions, he was too new to the ways of the galaxy to find such things palatable. Buck, Inez and Ezra, knew that outside Federation authority, those subjected to this kind of intimidation had to find their own peace with the situation. As they much as they hated the idea of Lydia being subjected to extortion, her lack of acrimony told them she had accepted this state of affairs and since it was beyond their power to help her, offered no further comment.

"It is the way it is JD," Buck said gently and then made a move to change the subject, to propel them past the moment. Starfleet had no jurisdiction here and combatting the situation would only bring Lydia trouble. None of them had any wish to bring the lady misfortune with their misplaced attempts to help. "Is there any way we can get the Guild to give up their membership?"

"I doubt it," Lydia shook her head, certain of this fact. "The Guild is really an arm of the Syndicate and you know how they are about their privacy. Just asking the question alone is enough to get you noticed and I rather not do that if I can avoid it."

"Nor would we be willing to place you in that situation," Inez said firmly, giving all three men a look telling them they had better find another way because endangering Lydia and her livelihood was not an option.

"We will find the information another way," Ezra assured the lady, sharing Inez's sentiments regarding Lydia's standing with the Syndicate. Leaning back into his seat, he considered alternative options before facing Lydia again. "Madam, are you personally acquainted with anyone in the Guild who has access to this information?"

"I know a few," Lydia said staring at him seriously. "Why?"

"What do you have in mind Ezra?" Buck asked, seeing the contemplative look coming over the security chief's face and realized those sea-green eyes was hatching up a plan.

"What is usually on my mind of course," Ezra smiled with mischief. "A little sleight of hand."

********

Leaving Buck and Inez with Lydia to carry out his instructions to acquire the information about Fowler from the Guild, Ezra turned his attention to the question of Jack Averal, recently returned from Utopia Planitia and now suddenly vanished.

Navigating the streets of the Soko, once they left the surroundings of the Holiday Inn, Ezra had to admit to feeling a little nostalgic as he and JD took to the sidewalk to continue his investigation. Growing up, places like this had been his playground, whether it was New Orleans, Las Vegas, New Sydney, Risa, or even Pacifica. They were communities existing far away from the polish of Federation authority, with its seedy underbelly where law and order wasn't a given but were always visual feasts of sight and colors. As they travelled along the tree-lined avenues, across the terracotta courtyards and cobblestone pathways, becoming lost in the throng of bodies, Ezra felt like a little boy once again, with Maude clutching his small hand tightly in hers, determined he did not get lost.

On this occasion, the cornucopia of smells and sounds reminded him of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and he made a mental note to suggest that city as the venue for his next vacation with Julia. Although the holodeck could provide them with a simulation of the event, Ezra thought the sterility of programming could never capture the flavor of the real thing.

Averal's business was located in a mall, one of many in the city and as he and JD approached its frontage, he could tell by the size of the premises, it was doing quite well. A flashing neon sign hung above the doorway at a slight angle, with the words ‘All Alien' featured prominently. Through the display windows, it seemed the store catered to every persuasion and species imaginable. Mannequins with Andorian, Klingon and Bolian characteristics stood behind the glass, modelling stylish clothes of good quality, Ezra noted.

Upon entering, they were assaulted by contrasting fragrances from the perfumery in the corner of the floor. The establishment was quite busy, with both male and female customers scattered along the aisles, waiting impatiently outside dressing room doors and haggling with shop clerks.

"Can I help you?"

Approaching them with the stealth attributed to her species, they were greeted by an elegant Caitian female, complete with vibrant green eyes, golden pelt and mane that was swept into a stylish coiffure above her head. Behind her, her tail swished around languidly, and she looked a picture of tawny grace.

"Are you gentlemen seeking anything specific?" Her voice, like her movements, was smooth and silky.

JD who had never seen a Caitian before could not help but stare a little, although the expression on his face was clearly one of awe and fascination. Fortunately, the lady didn't seem to mind and gave Ezra the impression she was accustomed to such reactions, particularly from young males. Ezra shot JD a look that bordered on an order to contain himself.

It was not becoming of an officer to stare like a star-struck teenager.

"I am here representing Guild Security," Ezra spoke, his tone low enough to feign discretion. He and JD had already discussed this scenario prior to their arrival here so JD was able to maintain his poker face, such as it was, to keep from giving themselves away. "I wonder if you might have time to answer some questions for me."

At the mention of Guild Security, her tail stopped its languid swaying and increased its pace as her ears perked up in interest. Her feline irises narrowed in suspicion as she studied them both before demanding in an equally low voice. "What do you want? We're all paid up."

"Rest assured," Ezra said quickly. "I am not here for that purpose." Glancing across the floor of the store, it was filled with enough customers for all three of them to know this was not a conversation to be had in public. "Do you think we may speak privately."

The Caitian paused a moment, taking his question into consideration, her feline gaze studying the shop and its customers, before her ears flattened again, indicating she had reached a decision. "This way,." she gestured them to follow as she started walking, leading them to the rear of the store, away from any prying eyes.

Even though the windowless room was small, with only two hardbacked chairs for visitors facing a workstation, it was functional enough for Ezra to see this was Averal's private bastion. While she gestured for both of them to take seats, it did not appear if the Caitian was comfortable in taking her employer's seat.

"What is this about?" She asked, facing them as she leaned against the desk. "Jack made sure we were square with the Guild until next year."

"We're not here about your dues ma'am," JD spoke quickly, trying to calm her down, once again hating the fact they could do nothing to help these people escape the extortion by the Guild. "We're here about Mr Averal."

Her golden pelt shimmered as her muscles stiffened in reaction and her ears flattened against her head. While her features did not lend well to being read easily, her eyes became rounder and softened with emotion as she stared at them.

"What about Jack? Do you know where he is?" Her voice became soft and hopeful, telling Ezra how much affection she had for the missing man.

"Miss...?" Ezra asked for her name.

"F'Ness."

"F'Ness?" Ezra managed a smile. It seemed appropriate to her elegance. "Miss F'Ness, we're here on behalf of the Guild but it does our reputation no good if one of our clients suddenly goes missing without our knowledge. We would like to know where he is. He was embroiled in a Federation matter at Utopia Planitia and we wish to know the nature of his involvement."

"Oh," her ears flinched in disappointment. "I thought you might have found him."

Like Ezra, JD saw F'Ness affection for Jack Averal was as more than just her employer and immediately felt sorry for the woman. He glanced at Ezra, hoping the Security Chief had some idea about Mr Averal's fate since it was clear she was worried about him.

"Maybe with your help, we can find out what happened to him," JD said kindly.

She nodded slightly and asked quietly. "What do you need?"

"Can you tell me why he chose to travel to Utopia?" Ezra asked, giving JD a look of appreciation at his empathy towards the woman.

She let out a low growl of frustration and met Ezra's gaze with clear bewilderment. "I don't know why he went there at all! Jack never travels unless he has too and certainly not all the way to Sol. Most of our suppliers are in this quadrant. He does a lot of business with the Ferengi and the Cardies. Since the end of the Dominion War, Cardy fabrics are really cheap. There was no reason for him to go all the way to Sol."

"Maybe he has family there?" JD suggested, aware people just didn't travel for business. Averal was human. He could have been going home to visit family.

"No," she shook her head almost immediately, dispelling the notion. "Jack's people are from New Sydney. He doesn't know anyone from Sol."

This much Ezra had already known but he allowed JD to ask the question nonetheless because the more F'Ness spoke, the more he got a sense of the woman. From what he could tell, her fears for Averal were real. "Did you notice anything odd about his behavior before he left?"

"Odd?" She stared at him a moment before her eyes narrowed in concentration as she considered the question. "He did seem a little distracted and he wouldn't tell me why he was going to Utopia. He didn't come out and tell me to mind my own business or anything, but he did seem a little distant. He promised he would tell me what it was all about when he got back."

"And did he?"

"No," she shook her head sadly. Her ears flattening again, crestfallen by the memory. "He just told me he was going home and that was the last time I saw him."

"And there was nothing odd about his behavior then?" Ezra asked.

She opened her mouth to speak, revealing sharp canine teeth before her mouth closed again as if thinking better of it. "Nothing."

"Please," the security chief urged, having done this long enough to know it was by the small details that the greatest revelations were often made. "What is it?"

"It wasn't anything he said," F'Ness explained after a moment, uncertain if what she was about to say made any sense. "When he first told me, he was going to Sol, I noticed it, but I didn't pay it any attention. My people have a strong sense of smell and humans exude scents we can identify. Strong emotions in particular. Fear, anger, happiness, even attraction. There is always something."

"But in this instance?" Ezra prompted, having some idea about her answer but he needed to hear her say it.

"Nothing," she raised her eyes to him. "I sensed nothing at all."

********

After finishing their interview with F'Ness who was good enough to provide them with access and directions to Jack Averal's home in the Xanthi district at the edge of the city, Ezra and JD rented a transport and headed directly there. Once she was convinced, they were genuinely interested in trying to find Jack, she was more forthcoming with her information.

Ezra had questioned her about Averal's movements prior to his departure from the Soko and learned the night before Jack's shock announcement he was going to Sol, she had accompanied him to the Planet Gold, a local gambling den run by a slippery Katarian named Quellor. Jack had done well at the tables and came away from the evening a few hundred duckets richer, including possession of an antique Iconian statue used as a stake. They'd left the place in high spirits with no mention of any trip to Sol.

"What do you think you're going to find Ezra?" JD asked as they entered the hallway, once Ezra had entered the security code on the front door allowing them entry into the home.

When Averal was away, it was F'Ness who maintained his home, ensuring the man's plants were watered and such. Since his disappearance, she'd adopted them and taken them home, intending to keep them alive until Jack reappeared. Ezra had no heart to tell her the Antarian Moon Blossom and Klingon Devil's Ivy was going to be hers permanently.

In truth, he had more or less known what they would find when they completed their investigation of Averal's home, but like all good detectives, Ezra wanted proof to shore up his hunch.

"The truth," Ezra remarked, walking around the house, scanning everything. The large windows making up most of the walls allowed plenty of light to bounce off the white paint. Beyond the glass and the balcony, was a picturesque view of a lush green valley, and the mountain ranges in the distance. The decor was simple and tasteful, revealing the personality of someone who had money but chose not to spend it extravagantly.

"Nice place," JD commented looking around, trying to detect Ezra was seeing. Since coming on board the Maverick, the youngest member of the senior staff had learned when it came to ferreting out inconsistencies, there was no one better than the Chief of Security. Perhaps it was the reason why he was such an excellent poker player, he could see beyond the surface, recognizing patterns where none existed.

Right now, JD's sixth sense was telling him, Ezra's intuition had led him somewhere no one else had thought to go.

Ezra stopped in the middle of the living room, surrounded by a plush creme sofa and two comfortable armchairs, scanning the shelves and side tables. His sea-green eyes did a 360-degree survey of the room before he rested his eyes on the navigator.

"What is it, Ezra?" JD asked and his voice was almost hushed.

"Do you see an Iconian sculpture anywhere?"

At the question, JD quickly looked around, but even as he did, he knew the answer was no. Iconian sculptures were quite standout, resembling upright pieces of driftwood carved with the blackwood native to the planet before it experienced its extinction level event. He would have noticed a piece like that immediately and now Ezra mentioned it, JD could see no sign of the prize, F'Ness claimed Jack won and brought home with him the night before his departure from Theta Cygni.

"No, I didn't," he answered Ezra. "F'Ness said he brought it home with him."

"She did," Ezra confirmed and headed out to the balcony. Stepping outside, the breeze ran its windy fingers through his hair as Ezra surveyed the landscape before him. The house sat facing a cliff and beneath the balcony was a drop of almost a hundred feet into a dense covering of woodland. When JD joined him on the balcony, the security chief spoke again.

"Mr Dunne, would you be so kind as to run a tricorder scan for blood."

JD's eyes widened at the request but obeyed immediately. Of course, Averal being dead was always a possibility, but JD expected those who had investigated his disappearance after the business on Utopia Planitia would have conducted a such a scan. Then again, the local scanners did not have the sophistication of Starfleet Security tricorders. If there was something to be found here, JD was confident their tricorder would detect it.

While JD began to scan the house, Ezra stared into the mountains beyond the railing. The security chief had almost a complete picture of what happened now, not just to Jack Averal but the sequence of events leading to the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee. The idea was far-fetched and there were still some pieces missing but for the most part, he knew the how.

He just didn't know the why.

He was beginning to suspect, the motive for this might even be beyond Cletus Fowler's knowledge. However, to prove that he had to find the man first.

He heard the beeping of the tricorder as JD joined him on the balcony. The young lieutenant had scanned the rest of the house and had left the balcony for last. It seemed JD should have started here first. Turning to him, Ezra saw him look up from the display of the tricorder.

"What have you found?"

"Blood," JD said glancing at a space a little further along the balcony from where Ezra was standing. "Over there, there's a lot of it."

"As I suspected," Ezra said wearily. "Mr Averal is dead. He was killed on this balcony."

"Ezra this doesn't make sense," JD quickly countered because he had another reason for looking as disturbed as he did by the readings he was seeing on the tricorder. "The bio-degradation signature of these blood cells are weeks old. This blood was spilled long before he got back to the Soko from Utopia Planitia."

"That's correct Mr Dunne," Ezra nodded. "Because Jack Averal never went to Utopia. That journey was made by whoever killed him. I suspect if we conduct a search of the ravine below us," he gestured to the drop beneath the balcony, "we'll find his body."

"How can that be?" JD asked. "F'Ness saw him the next day. He was still alive when he boarded the ship the following day. How could she not know it wasn't him?"

"We will find the answer to that question Mr Dunne," Ezra said calmly, "when we find that missing statue."

Chapter Ten:

Games of Chance

If not for the mission, this would have been a damn fine evening.

The club was called Star's End and it was the biggest gambling den in the whole of the Soko. Crammed wall to wall with every game of chance known to the Alpha Quadrant, the races presently occupying the felt-covered tables, cheering the spin of the Dabo wheel or the roll of the ball across a dom-jot table., were just as eclectic. Orion slave girls clung to the shoulders of men clad in very little, their curvaceous bodies offering plenty of distraction to the men in the room, while Bolians argued with dealers when the cards had not gone their way. He saw an El-Aurien in the corner, listening with weary patience to someone at the bar, who was obviously lamenting a bad day at work. Elsewhere, a group of Tellerites were chattering excitedly after a win.

Ezra Standish ought to be here, Buck Wilmington thought as he sat at the poker table, dressed in his best clothes with Inez. The Maverick's bartender was wearing a stunning red dress that kept everyone at the table glancing up periodically from their cards to afford her a moment of admiration. Buck couldn't blame them, he felt pretty proud to have her at his arm, playing the part of arm candy for the evening.

Pitted against him at the table were a Cardassian female and a tall Nausicaan who cast a shadow over all their cards, while two seats away, the Gorn stared at him suspiciously and Buck had a feeling if either side won the pot, there would be a fight. The Acamarian with the grooves across his forehead, who sat between them provided a buffer and the presence of both volatile races on either side distracting him from his cards. The final person at the table was a Lurian who bore a striking resemblance to Morn, the staple at Quark's bar in DS9.

His name was Rivon and he worked for the Guild.

His game was poker. Unfortunately, according to Lydia, the number of times he was forced to settle his debts by granting favors through his job, indicated he was not very good at it. This occasion was not proving to be the exception. Sweat appeared across his potato-shaped head, winding its way through the few stray strands of coarse grey hair, to disappear into the fold of his skin. His hand was poor and he knew it, but like everyone addicted to the game in the worst way possible, he could not fold. Buck had once heard Ezra claim the litmus test for any gambler to know whether or not they had the game or the game had them, was how easy it was to walk away.

A good gambler knew when to leave the table when the odds were against him. Rivon was not a good gambler.

Buck, who was a good player himself, had managed to get this far on just observing the behavior of his opponents, something he hated to admit, Ezra had helped him improve on as well. During their weekly poker games where Ezra conducted master classes in the art, he took note of the gambler's actions, especially when the numbers of players dwindled to just two. The only one on board the Maverick who might have a shot of beating Ezra was Alex and that was largely due to her guarded nature. It was difficult to penetrate the walls of Alex's demeanor if she had no wish to surrender it.

Nevertheless, with Ezra busy tracking down Jack Averal with JD, it was up to him and Inez to get what they needed from this Lurian about to lose his shirt. The latest hand had definitely put him in the red and he was betting with what he didn't have. The others had protested, thinking he ought to leave the table, but the monkey on Rivon's back would allow him to do no such thing.

"I'm out," the Cardassian female sighed, tossing her cards on the table, leaving them faced down. Buck didn't need to see what she was holding to know he could win.

"It was a pleasure, Miss..."

"Nyall," she replied with a smile and eased back into her chair. Her eyes glittered in invitation and Buck swore he felt Inez leaning closer into his shoulder as if she were marking her territory. If he did not know it would earn him a fist to the jaw if he voiced it, Buck would have said it was rather flattering.

"Darien Lambert," he volunteered in turn, using JD's made up aliases.

"Enough talk!" The Nausicaan snapped.

"Are you so eager to lose?" the Gorn sniped in turn, his voice little more than a hiss. Once again, the Acamarian sitting between the two of them twitched and Buck had to wonder just how long the open hostility these two were displaying would spill over. He knew the Gorn had taken particular exception to the Nausicaans who were well-known pirates that had conducted raids on Gorn territory. Both races were volatile and violent, not a good combination when there was competition involved.

"I will make you eat those words!" The Nausicaan pulled out a cruel looking blade.

Before he could act, however, the Achamarian's nerve finally snapped, unable to bear the pressure any longer.

"I fold!" The Achamarian exclaimed. He slapped his cards against the felt and scurried away from the table, wishing to be away from the crossfire when hostilities between the two finally broke out.

It was only after he left the table did the two combatants look at each other and burst out laughing.

"It works every time," the Nausicaan grinned at the rest of the players.

"Some humanoids scare so easily," the Gorn sniggered. "If he could be frightened by that, this is not the game for him."

"After all their clan wars, you would think Achamarians have more fortitude," Nyall remarked, shaking her head in disbelief at the man who had wisely headed off towards the Dabo tables which probably suited him better.

"That was evil," Inez pointed out to both men, but she was laughing as she said it.

"But fun," Buck winked at her, thrilled inwardly she was here to share this with him. She was draped over his shoulder and the sensation of her warmth reminded him once again why they could be so good together.

Turning to the two faux enemies, Buck raised his glass to them. "Alright gentlemen, shall we play?"

The game continued for another good hour or so when finally, the Gorn, Nausicaan and the Cardassian were played out, leaving only Buck to face off with Rivon who had stayed in the game by betting everything but his shirt. Buck played it cool, being as accommodating as possible while at the same time offering the man caution, that he might be getting in over his head. Around their table a small crowd had begun to form, watching the Lurian and the human face off.

While he did not have Ezra's expertise, Buck could read his opponent and knew he did not have the hand to win but offered the Lurian no more advice to fold. At this point in the game, it was too late for that anyway. All eyes were fixed on them as the last leg of the final hand was reached with a healthy collection of duckets in the middle of the felt. The Lurian had gotten this far on a number of IOUs which Buck was fairly convinced he could not afford to give.

"I will see your cards now," Rivon demanded, his big round eyes staring Buck down nervously. He was trying to project a brave front, aware of the untenable situation he would find himself if he did not win back his money. The man had laid down his cards to reveal a full house of queens and deuces.

"Anything you say," Buck replied, revealing nothing even though his quick glance at Inez showed his blue eyes were dancing. A hiss of surprise rippled through the crowd when Buck laid down his cards and presented four aces.

As the crowd broke out in mild surprise and congratulations were offered, to say nothing of the kiss Inez planted on Buck's cheek at his victory, in stark contrast to the jubilant mood was the Lurian's shoulder slumping forward in disappointment.

"Congratulations," the man said in a voice so full of defeat, it was actually painful to hear, Buck thought. "That was well played."

"He's very good," Inez remarked and on impulse, turned Buck's cheek to her and planted a kiss against his lips. She had intended the gesture to be for show, but when their lips touched, the electricity generated made her breath catch and suddenly her head swam as Buck kissed her back with equal intensity, until all the noise in the room was driven away and there was only them in the eye of the storm.

But it could not last.

They were here a reason and as much as Buck couldn't deny she had just knocked his socks off with that kiss, their little play with the Lurian was not done yet. Pulling away from her reluctantly, Buck gave Inez a silent promise they would finish this later as he turned back to Rivon.

By now, the crowd had dissipated leaving them alone at the table. The duckets still remained in the middle of the felt with Rivon staring at the pot with longing, still unable to overcome the disappointment of defeat. Buck almost felt sorry for him but knew he had the means to help Rivon out of his predicament if the man was amenable to some negotiation.

"I guess this is where we start tallying up what is owed Mr Rivon," Buck spoke once they were alone.

"Yes," the man nodded heavily, wondering how he had found himself in this situation yet again. "I'm afraid it does."

Reaching for the small credit pad, indicating the IOUs the man had taken out to stay in the game, Buck studied the display. "You owe the pot 2000 duckets Mr Rivon. Are you going to be able to settle up?"

"Are we going to be done soon?" Inez pouted, playing the part of arm candy bored by all this talk. She ran a palm over Buck's bicep in suggestion, provoking Buck's baser instincts with a desperate need to be alone with her.

"Almost honey," he gave her a little wink and faced Rivon again. "As you can see, the little lady's eager for us to get a move on so if we could settle up quickly, it will be appreciated."

The folds around Rivon's throat quivered nervously. "Well, you see..."

"You can't pay?" Buck accused, his voice a low hiss. "You know in these parts, they're liable to take you out somewhere and shoot you. I hear the Orions don't much like cheaters at the card table. Honor among thieves and all."

"I can pay!" Rivon declared hotly, looking around Star's End to see if anyone heard the human's preposterous claim. "It's just going to take me a little time..."

I'll bet, Buck thought.

"I don't plan on staying here long," Buck offered. "So, I want my money, tonight." He stressed the word just to drive the knife in a little deeper.

"But I can't...!" Rivon exclaimed, starting to blubber when suddenly inspiration struck, or rather the path Buck had been leading him down, finally presented itself to the man as an avenue of escape. "Wait. I work for the Guild, I can get you anything you want! Permits for businesses, zoning restrictions lifted, you name it. I can help you."

Buck and Inez exchanged knowing looks before the First Officer leaned forward and said coolly. "Tell you what, you can keep the pot if you can get me some information."

The Lurian's eyes widened at the possibility of him taking home all these duckets, so much so that he was oblivious to the way he had been played. Instead, he admired the gleam of the ducket once more before shifting his gaze back to Buck.

"Information? Yes, by all means? I can do that! What do you need to know?"

"I'm trying to trace an old associate of mine," Buck explained. "We've been trying to find him the last few days without much luck. I know he's in the Guild and if you can give me any information about where he might be at, you can take the pot and I'll cancel the IOUs."

The offer was too good to resist even if in retrospect the Lurian might consider that something suspicious had taken taking place. At the moment, he risked being thrown out of every big game in town if it was known he had been unable to meet his debts. Reaching for what appeared to be a data pad on his belt, Rivon looked up at Buck and Inez.

"Who is this associate. If he is with the Guild, I can find him."

"His name is Cletus Fowler," Buck revealed watching to see any reaction from Rivon. There was none. To him, Cletus Fowler was just another name on a list, which was just as well. If Rivon knew the importance of discovering Fowler's whereabouts, he might start making demands of his own and Buck had no patience for that. "He settled here five years ago, and I wanted to look him up."

"Oh well that's easy enough to find out," Rivon smiled, his grin almost splitting his face as he began tapping on the screen. Buck showed no sign of reaction to the fact they were within hair's breadth of Mr Fowler, while Inez noticed Ezra and JD entering the doors of the establishment, their eyes searching the sea of bodies for her and Buck. Her attention returned to the Lurian when the man made an almost ebullient exclamation of success. "Here it is!"

"You found him," Buck said with a smile. "Got a picture of him? Cletus Fowler is a popular name on Earth, want to make sure we got the right person."

"Of course," Rivon nodded in understanding, too elated by the fact not only his debt was about to be erased but he was going to get a stipend to pocket as well. "Here you are."

"Thank you," Buck said graciously and took the pad from the man to be presented with a profile picture of Cletus Fowler. He was a thin-faced man with hawkish eyes. Buck had no doubt he used those eyes to intimidate with surprising effectiveness. The information below the picture was not terribly detailed but there was enough to provide Buck with a clear idea of how to find the man. Before handing back the pad, Buck committed to memory every iota of information that would be valuable to them, not that there was very much, to begin with.

"Is that him?" Inez asked innocently when she could bare Buck's silence no more.

"Yeah that's Cletus alright," Buck said with a smile as he handed the pad back to Rivon. "Seems Cletus has a ship, the Mistress of Malarkey, docked at the Soko spaceport right now. With any luck, we'll catch him since he's in town. Thank you for that Mr Rivon," Buck said to the Lurian with a smile. "I guess the pots all yours."

"My pleasure," the man grinned and reached for his money as Buck caught sight of Ezra and JD on approach.

"Come on darlin'," Buck said offering Inez his hand. "We've got the whole night ahead of us." His smile promised nothing but sin, but his eyes told Inez otherwise. Whatever Buck intended on doing tonight, it had everything to do with the elusive Mr Fowler.

********

Leaving the Star's End, the four Maverick crewmen headed directly for the spaceport where the Mistress of Malarkey was presently docked if Rivon's information was accurate, which Buck believed it was. The Lurian was so eager to claim the pot, he had tapped directly into the Guild mainframe to acquire the information Buck needed. In any case, it took one quick call to the spaceport to learn a Pakled cargo craft named the Mistress of Malarkey was presently occupying one of its bays.

Knowing how elusive Mr Fowler could be, they set out immediately, walking through the rapidly emptying streets of the Soko, now the sun had gone down. Leaving the entertainment strip where the Stars End had been, they took the route out of the city and found at this time of night, it was quite deserted except for the looming presence of street lamps at appropriate interludes to light their way.

During the journey, the group briefed each other on the progress of their investigations during the day. Somehow, Ezra's revelation Jack Averal was most likely dead did not surprise Buck the least bit. This entire affair was becoming a maze where solving one riddle only seem to lead to more of them. Once again, he was grateful he heeded Ezra's advice to keep Chris out of the loop for now. His old friend would have lost his mind with frustration by this point.

"So, you believe this Fowler, killed Jack Averal and pretended to be him on Utopia Planitia, so he could attack anyone investigating the Magellan's wreck?" Inez asked, trying to wrap her head around the Machiavellian complexity of this plan.

"I cannot say for certain," Ezra replied, not about to stake his life on speculation especially when there were still a few missing pieces to this puzzle. "The timing is what eludes me. We know for a fact Jack Averal never left the Soko alive. Whoever it was who impersonated him on Utopia, may well be Cletus Fowler, but our decision to visit the Magellan took place after Averal's imposter was already on the station."

"So how could they know you'd be there ahead of time?" Inez nodded understanding his dilemma when put so plainly.

"Well that's obvious," JD who had been listening quietly, spoke up. The idea was so apparent, he was surprised neither Buck nor Ezra had gotten there already. "Someone was on the station keeping watch."

"For five years?" She blurted out, unable to imagine what could be so important to keep a vigil for that long.

"No," Buck shook his head, picking at the thread JD had just presented to unravel more of the mystery. "They would have started keeping watch only in the last six months. Since Fury 361."

"Exactly," Ezra nodded. "The Captain began investigating the death of his wife and child after our encounter with Q. Prior to that, he believed their deaths to be the result of an accident. Six months ago, all that changed. He began sifting through the evidence once more, paying attention to details he had previously dismissed because the nature of the crash had already been decided upon. This time, he was viewing it through the lens of foul play."

"Chris was knocking on doors everywhere," Buck explained to Inez. "He was talking to everyone, trying to find some evidence of an accident. That would have created noise to alert someone like Fowler who was paying attention."

"So, Fowler then goes to Utopia Planitia and waits?" She looked to them, finding that hard to believe.

"I'm not sure," Ezra took up the narrative. "If there was any new investigation taking place, Fowler must have known at some point, the Captain would eventually make his way to Utopia to see the Magellan for himself. He was lying in wait, poised to attack in the remote possibility the Captain found evidence to back up his claim of tampering. Except it was Alexandra and I who appeared and discovered the truth."

"So, the instant he knew the Maverick was back in Sol," JD theorized, "he kills Averal, assumes his identity and goes to Utopia to attack you and Alex, before heading back out again."

"Close. I was already on Utopia, my employer dealt with Averal."

The man standing in front of them was dressed like one of the characters from the Magnificent Seven holo-program, complete with western bow tie and hat. Buck wondered if the costume was meant to mock but supposed out here, no one would notice the difference and he wore the dark suit well. It made him look all the more intimidating, with his steel grey eyes and hollowed features. He stared at them with amusement almost.

"Mr Fowler, I presume," Ezra spoke up first, not at all surprised by the man's attire. If what he suspected about Fowler was true, he was very good at dressing for the part.

"You son of a bitch," Buck hissed, feeling a surge of outrage at what this man had done to his old friend. "You murdered an innocent woman and child! Why?"

"I would do anything for the cause," Fowler made no attempt to lie. His confidence in that revelation told Ezra immediately there was cause for alarm. Fowler had no intention of allowing them to leave this street alive. "Their deaths were regrettable, as all deaths sacrificed for the greater good, but it was necessary."

"Necessary?" Inez exclaimed aghast. "There is no cause that justifies murdering a child and its mother! You didn't just kill them, you hurt the Captain!"

"Your Captain's grief was collateral damage," Fowler shrugged. "Now I hope I've satisfied your curiosity in the last minute of your lives, but this investigation has gone as far as it's going to go."

"Hey, we outnumber you four to one," JD snorted, "I wouldn't be so cocky."

Still smiling, Cletus Fowler's face began to change. As his features melted before their astonished eyes, revealing the truth Ezra had suspected since this morning, Fowler's form became something a great deal deadlier than the human standing before them.

"Jesus Christ," Buck exclaimed staring at him. "He's a goddamn changeling! "

Chapter Eleven:

Changeling

In retrospect, it made perfect sense.

As Buck watched Cletus Fowler melt into molten amber, discarding his human shape, the First Officer of the Maverick finally understood how Fowler planted the deadly bilitrium device on board the Magellan. All this time, they were chasing their tails searching for a person when it was most likely, Fowler smuggled himself on board disguised as luggage or some equally innocent looking inanimate object, without anyone being the wiser.

All he had to do was conceal the bilitrium device within his morphogenic matrix and it would be undetectable to scans unless anyone was scanning specifically for a Changeling. Once alone, he could leave the device wherever he liked and simply walk off the Magellan. Wearing the features of John Blackfox, it was an easy matter to dupe a rookie security officer into believing his presence was the result of a computer glitch in the security footage.

It was damn near perfect in its execution.

Thanks to Ezra's eternal vigilance and some might say, paranoia, with the exception of Inez, the party from the Maverick was armed. It was sheer madness not to be in the Soko. Despite its carnival-like atmosphere, the underbelly of the place was nothing more than a den of villainy occupied by the cut-throat criminals who ruled the Orion Syndicate. Instead of carrying Starfleet issue weapons that would be immediately noticed, they were carrying Romulan disruptors easily acquired on the black market. It was less suspicious than carrying phasers considering how ferociously the Federation guarded their technology.

Not that it helped them much when Fowler attacked.

As he melted into his changeling form, Fowler's arms lashed out, stretching across the distance between Buck and Ezra, like spears being thrown at twin opponents. The two Starfleet officers had just enough time to jump out of the way, avoiding being impaled through the body by a fraction of a second. Inez uttered a terrified cry of fright, prompting JD into action. The new lieutenant reacted swiftly, grabbing her by the arm and steering her towards the first safe place he could find, in this case, the deep doorway along the row of buildings flanking them on either side.

As both men hit the street, it was Ezra, with his tactical training who was upright first. Knowing just how dangerous a changeling could be, even though all three of them were armed, Ezra did not bother with warning shots. He doubted a single shot would do much damage anyway, changelings were extremely hardy, and Ezra wanted to avoid killing the being if he could. They still needed answers.

Shooting to disable at the very least, the bolt of green energy that streaked towards Fowler never reached the changeling. It impacted on the lamp post behind the Founder who avoided it by transforming into an owl and sailing out of reach as the street light was cut in half. With a loud creak, the entire fixture toppled over and crashed against one of the buildings flanking the street, creating a spray of sparks as it landed.

Fowler sailed through the air towards them before changing shape as it passed over Buck Wilmington. This time, the elegant grace of the barn owl was discarded and what dropped in mid-air right above the first officer was no bird of prey, but the large, burly body of a creature that more than matched Buck for height and size. It happened so quickly Ezra barely had time to utter a warning as the thing descended.

"Buck!" Ezra heard Inez cry out from her hiding place, at seeing Buck taken down hard by the creature Fowler had transformed into. The force of its weight, against the first officer, was strong enough to flatten Buck to the ground, forcing the disruptor from his hand. With horror, Ezra saw Buck's weapon clattering against the paved street.

Buck did not notice the loss of his disruptor, he was too busy trying to keep the Mugato Fowler had transformed into, from tearing out his throat. The Mugato, a native of the planet Neural with its snow-white pelt and rhino-like horn protruding from its skull was a formidable beast, even without its bulk. He supposed he ought to be grateful Fowler only took on the size and shape of the creature, not its deadlier traits like as the venom contained in its fangs. Nevertheless, he still had no intention of allowing the mouthful of formidable teeth to break any part of his skin.

Mustering up every bit of strength he had, Buck twisted his body hard, while struggling to stay out of reach of its mouth. It was enough to dislodge the creature forcefully, sending it tumbling across the street like a rolling dervish. As it rolled away, the Mugato form was once again discarded into the more familiar shape of a changeling. The burst of disruptor fire from Ezra's weapon next to Fowler gave the changeling pause, allowing Buck the precious few seconds he needed to retrieve his disruptor.

However, neither of them counted on how fast Fowler could react to such an attack. Buck had no sooner grasped the weapon in his hand before the changeling retaliated. Once again, it lashed out with appendages that coiled around his foot like a tentacle before yanking him back hard. As Buck was lifted off the ground, he cursed when the disruptor fell from his hand again, before Fowler flung him towards the glass window of a shop front.

Ezra grimaced with alarm when he saw Buck being thrown through the window of the shop, not to mention the equally loud crash that followed when he landed inside of it. When Buck had been wrestling with the Fowler/Mugato creature, he was unable to fire for fear of striking the first officer. Unlike the changeling, a blast from a Romulan disruptor would kill a human instantly and Ezra could not take the risk with Buck's life.

Now that Fowler was on his own, Ezra didn't think twice.

Pulling the trigger on the disruptor, he sent another streak of energy towards the changeling whose rippling form indicated he was about to change shape again. Ezra had hoped the shot would strike him before that metamorphosis could take place. Once again revealing its ability to elude weapon's fire, the changeling melted once more, its body spreading out as it dropped to the ground, pancaking itself against the paving. The stray bolt of energy struck the curb, creating sparks upon impact.

"Mr Dunne!" Ezra called out, realizing he wasn't going to be able to defeat this being on his own. He was readying to shoot again but suspected Fowler was more than capable of fending him off. The changeling turned into a large metal ball that rolled towards him like he was the last pin in one of those ancient bowling alleys. As it rumbled towards him, Ezra's attempts to shoot it failed as it weaved quickly past the shots fissuring the pavers on the street and turning them black with heat.

********

JD, who had been itching to help his older comrades, remained where he was with Inez because she was his first priority. As a Starfleet officer, he had to protect the civilian in their group. Unlike himself, Buck and Ezra, Inez wasn't Starfleet trained and while JD had never faced a changeling opponent, he did know how to protect himself, something he wasn't certain Inez could do if he left her to her own devices.

Besides, he just knew if anything were to happen to Inez, Buck would be devastated.

However, Ezra needed help and as much as JD loathed it, he had to leave her alone and hope for the best. As it was, the urge to run into the shop and see if Buck was alright was great, but they had to eliminate the threat of Fowler first before he could do that.

"Inez, you stay here," he gave her a quick glance as he prepared to step out of the doorway. "Just keep your head down. If anything happens to us, you start running and don't stop until you get to Lydia's okay?"

"Okay JD," Inez nodded, trying to hide how frightened she was because she had no wish to be a hindrance to them during a fight. She already felt useless enough having to cower here while her three companions were fighting for their lives. "Go! I'll be fine."

JD gave her a nod of acknowledgement before he stepped out into the street, leaving her behind.

No sooner than he had gone, Inez's eyes darted to the shop front Buck had been thrown through, conscious of the fact he had not made a reappearance yet. She had gasped in horror when she saw him thrown and was burning to see if he was alright. As JD closed in on Ezra and the changeling, Inez sucked in her breath and stepped gingerly out of the doorway. With as much stealth as she could manage, she skirted along the row of shops to approach the one Buck had gone through.

********

Meanwhile, Ezra was continuing to fire at the rolling form of Fowler, trying to get a shot at the changeling who was obviously accustomed to combat by how formidably it was using its shapeshifting abilities to fight. As the metal ball he was, reached Ezra, the security chief made another attempt to hit the target when Fowler launched himself into the air again. The orb-like form was soon shifted in midair, this time spreading out like a death shroud about to descend on Ezra.

However, before it could envelop Ezra completely, JD entered the fray firing. His shot came at the changeling from the side, taking the enemy by surprise. The beam of energy hit the broadside of the flattened shape Fowler had become. Even though changelings were capable of withstanding the disruptor fire, the reaction was nevertheless immediate. Fowler's body shifted just enough for Ezra and JD to see a face appear, one that shrieked in pain after being struck.

The blast was enough to drop Fowler to the ground just shy of Ezra. As he landed, his partially shifting body returned to its more humanoid configuration and when he raised his head to glare menacingly at Ezra, he was Fowler again. While the blast had hurt him, it was clear, he was nowhere close to being subdued. The glare he sent in Ezra's direction was murderous and the security chief had no doubt if hate was a thing that had form and teeth, Ezra would have been torn apart already.

Not about to be converged upon by two Starfleet officers, Fowler's arms flew forward again like whips and swept both men off their feet before they had a chance to react. Both Ezra and JD hit the ground hard, just as tips of Fowler's appendages changed shape again, this time becoming sharp blades that gleamed under the harsh light of the remaining street lamps. The blades came down hard like free-floating guillotines, ready to chop them to pieces if they did not get clear.

********

Oblivious to their difficulties, Inez climbed through the broken window of the dress store Buck had been sent through a short time earlier. Lifting her skirt gingerly so the fabric did not snag as she passed over it, she was careful to avoid the jagged fragments of glass still attached to the window frame. The interior of the store was dark but the light from the street outside provided enough illumination for her to seek out the Maverick's First Officer.

As it was, Inez was trying to overcome the heart-pounding fear she felt the instant she saw him flung through that window, praying he was not hurt badly or worse. After Raphael, she did not think she could stand it if she lost someone else she had taken to her heart. Not for the first time since realizing her feelings for Buck, she wondered if she should risk her affections on another Starfleet officer, especially when he could die just as easily as Raphael had done.

When she heard his groan from across the room, the relief that flooded her soul at knowing he was safe answered the question most decisively. It was too late. She was all in, whether or not she wanted to admit it.

"Buck?" She called out urgently, trying to ignore the sound of disruptor fire behind her as she closed in on the source of that groan.

Crushing glass beneath her sandals as she ventured deeper into the premises, she moved past the upended mannequins and the spray of glass across the carpeted floor. The groan was soon followed by the sound of movement as she heard broken pieces of furniture and glass, tinkling against each other in the darkness, as well as a shape moving among the debris. Hastening her pace, she reached him just in time to see Buck sitting up from beneath the display cabinet he had landed on. The impact had destroyed the thing completely and as he looked up at her, Inez saw the dark smear of blood across his forehead.

"Inez?" He stared at her with surprise, wondering why she was here instead of taking cover somewhere since the battle was nowhere done if the bursts of disruptor fire he could hear were any indication.

"Buck! Are you alright?" She demanded, closing the distance between them. She saw him getting to his feet and noted he was not as steady as he should have been. He seemed to be favoring his left side and the grimace on his face as he moved away from the debris of the destroyed cabinet, revealed he was hurt a lot more than was obvious to her.

"I'm okay Inez," Buck assured her, ignoring the rubbery feeling in his legs or the brightly colored canaries currently circling his head at the moment. There was no time for him to suffer his wounds, not when he could hear the fight taking place beyond the walls of the store and hear the fear in her voice. "Just a little bruised."

Dusting himself off, even though he knew he had broken some ribs and there were more than a few cuts across his skin, Buck downplayed his injury for her benefit because he could see her anxiety and knew exactly what was running through her mind. Unfortunately, he had no time to reassure her about any of it right now. They were still in trouble.

"I'm fine darlin'," He said hastily as he moved past her, his eyes fixed on the window and what was taking place outside. Pausing for a moment, he placed his hand on her cheek and met her frightened eyes. "Inez, I need you to keep out of sight. I've gotta go help Ezra and JD. It's going to take all three of us to take down this son of a bitch."

"But..." she started to protest, wanting to stop him but the words died in her throat. She couldn't. He was Starfleet, as Raphael had been Starfleet. Asking him not to do his duty was tantamount to asking him to stop breathing. It was in his DNA and she would not care for him if he were any other way. "Okay," she nodded quietly.

"Darlin', I'll be okay," he said gently, seeing the gamut of emotions running through her face at that moment and feeling delighted knowing it was all for him. However, as much as it pleased him, it also worried him equally. "Inez, I want you to listen to me carefully. If things go wrong and we can't stop him. I want you to get the hell out of here, do you understand? Get to Lydia's and contact Major Kira on DS9. Tell her we're dealing with a Founder and then sit tight. She'll send someone to get you."

What he was telling her was a worst-case scenario but as First Officer of the Maverick, he could do nothing else. She understood this and supposed, preparing to be Raphael's wife for so many years, made her better able to cope, even when she was terrified out of her mind for him. Without giving him any warning, she grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled it towards her, so he was forced to lean forward. Before he could say anything else, she pressed her lips to his in a quick but tender kiss.

"Be careful," she said when she parted from him.

Buck's eyes widened in surprise by the show of affection. Considering the number of women, he had been with over the years, this quick kiss should have little power over him and yet it did. It was the universe. When she pulled back from him, he was grinning.

"I knew you'd come around." He winked, before leaving her to go help the others.

********

Ezra rolled over as the blade slammed against the stone paving next to him. The force of it created sparks upon impact. Still clutching his disruptor, Ezra marveled at the speed of the changeling and wondered why on Earth the Founders needed the Jem'Hadar to do their dirty work when they were so effective in combat. Throughout the duration of the Dominion War, engagement with the changelings had been rare and never was Ezra more grateful of this fact than right now. If they decided to do the fighting themselves, Ezra wondered if Starfleet would have fared just as well.

Another shriek snapped Ezra out of his ruminations, giving him the breathing room needed for him to get to his feet when JD managed to squeeze off another shot at Fowler once more. The changeling was registering the pain, but it was not enough to stop him from continuing to fight. Furious, Fowler's limbs now resembling tentacles, complete with grotesque sucker pads and slimy skin, lashed out at JD for the assault, snagging him by the ankle, just as Ezra flipped upright.

Ezra heard JD's indignant cry of anger as the tentacle around his ankle lifted him off the ground. Dangling JD about like a meat on a hook, he swung the helpless lieutenant about, preventing Ezra from getting a clear shot as JD flailed about like a rag doll under the merciless care of an angry child. JD was struggling to fire, but he was being shaken so violently Ezra knew he was going to end up breaking bones soon.

"Mr Dunne, hold on!" Ezra shouted at him and then swore because he just reminded Fowler he was here too and waiting to be dealt with.

The changeling reacted swiftly, flinging JD at Ezra as if he was trying to shake loose some bit of offending slime from his fingertips. The lieutenant slammed into Ezra hard and they both went down in a tangle of limbs against the ground Ezra was sure had gotten harder for this particular moment. A burst of white-hot agony tore through him as he landed on his side and the pop, he heard was his shoulder slipping out of place, making him utter an uncharacteristic cry of pain. Nevertheless, despite the agony of the collision, with his good hand, Ezra maintained a death grip on his disruptor, knowing if he let it go, Fowler was going to kill them both.

JD rolled off Ezra at the older man's cry but had no chance to examine Ezra because the roar of something very big and angry was barreling towards them. Not since his first Away mission dealing with the crew of the Leonov, did JD feel such terror at the sight of the cave bear thundering towards them with its jaw wide, revealing teeth capable of crushing bone with little or no effort.

"LIEUTENANT! SNAP OUT OF IT!"

The voice that boomed in his ear was one he could not disobey and shaking off the temporary fugue, JD saw his weapon a few feet from him and made a dash for it. Ignoring the fact, the thing would reach him before he could get to his disruptor, the creature's advance was suddenly halted by another blast of disruptor fire. Rearing onto its hind legs in pain, it uttered a roar that JD could feel in his bones. Despite this, the changeling was still managing to maintain his shape.

"JD! Help me!" Buck Wilmington commanded, once again reminding JD that when Buck wasn't being his friend and mentor, he was his commanding officer. To conditioned to disobey that voice, JD snatched up his disruptor and turned it on the changeling, firing at its current incarnation, dead center.

This time the second shot delivered so closely on the heels of the first, forced Fowler out of his cave bear configuration back to his humanoid shape. There was no doubt he was hurt but he was not ready to concede defeat. As his morphogenic form solidified into the shape of the human once more, Buck saw the calculation in the man's hawk like eyes and knew he was about to attack again.

"Don't do it, Fowler," Buck warned. "We don't want to kill you. All we want is answers."

Both Buck and JD had their disruptors aimed at the changeling, poised to fire. Behind JD, Ezra announced himself with a groan of pain as he got to his feet, still clutching his weapon. Despite the security chief's left shoulder appearing somewhat tilted, with his arm hanging uselessly at his side, Ezra moved into position, trapping Fowler in a kill zone. No matter how much punishment a changeling could take, it could not withstand a triangulated assault at the same time.

"It seems you have me at a disadvantage," Fowler spoke at last, his voice calm and deliberate despite his situation.

"You said Sarah and Adam's death was for a greater good," Buck reminded. "What possible good could that be?"

Fowler's lips pulled across his face into a sneer. "The future."

"The future?" Ezra stared at him mystified. "You speak in riddles, Sir. I thought our business with your kind was concluded with the end of the war."

The smile that crossed Fowler's face made Ezra's blood run cold. "Was it?"

Before Ezra could ask another question, Fowler attacked, his body turning into some kind of tentacled monstrosity that attempted to take all three of them down at once. This time, the Starfleet trio was ready for the assault and pulled the triggers on their disruptors almost simultaneously. Fowler was struck on all sides by the deadly energy, his features melting to his natural state for a second before he exploded violently in all directions. The morphogenic material held its amber consistency where it landed all but briefly before turning black.

As Ezra saw the remains of Cletus Fowler turning into ash wherever they landed, he was suddenly struck with the realization whatever they imagined the reason for Sarah and Adam's death to be, the truth might actually be worse.

Chapter Twelve:

Jerrado

Having no desire to fall under the scrutiny of the Soko authorities, Buck and Ezra reached the unanimous decision to leave the area in the wake of their battle with Cletus Fowler.

Since the authorities were most likely the agents of the Orion Syndicate, it was prudent not to be noticed, especially since each one of them had entered the Soko using a false identity. Buck was especially mindful of JD who had humiliated one of its commanders during their recent mission to Hadir. The first officer had no doubt the Syndicate would love to get their hands on the young lieutenant for some payback.

Returning directly to the Holana, their Bajoran runabout came equipped with a functional medical station where they could treat their wounds and pursue the only remaining lead left to them now Cletus Fowler was dead. Despite the necessity of their extreme actions against the changeling, Ezra wished they had not been forced to kill Fowler. His cryptic words disturbed the security chief because the implications went beyond just the deaths of Sarah and Adam. Something else was happening here, something it was becoming increasingly urgent they uncover.

"Did you know Ezra?" Buck asked as he was seated on the pilot seat in the cockpit while Inez stood over him, running a dermal regenerator over the cut on his forehead. "Did you know he was a changeling?"

Ezra who was seated at the tactical station, still feeling the stiffness in his shoulder after his dislocated joint was popped back in by JD with the sufficient painkillers given to make the sharp pain a little less acute, let out a sigh and nodded. "I did suspect a shapeshifter of some sort was involved but not a changeling, not until after we went to Jack Averal's home and realized he was dead."

"Why?" Inez asked puzzled, wondering how Ezra could have made the connection. After all, there were many different species of shapeshifters in the Alpha Quadrant, not just changelings. There were chameloids and allasmorphs, who could also change shape, though not to the sophistication of the Founders.

"Because of the missing statue," JD stated, realizing now, why Ezra had been so interested in the ornament Jack Averal had brought home the night before his estimated death. "You think it was a changeling."

"I do," Ezra nodded. "Mr Averal had won an Iconian statue the night before he left for Sol. I believe this was the changeling Fowler claimed to be his employer. Once in Averal's house, the changeling killed him and used his identity to board a transport, the Tascosa, to Sol. Whether or not it actually made the journey is unclear to me. In any case, it matters little. It was enough he was recorded as boarding the craft. After the attempt on our lives by Fowler who was in Utopia Planitia, lying in wait, he would have simply assumed Averal's identity and boarded the Tascosa for his return trip home."

"So, there's two of them?" JD frowned. "I don't like the sound of that at all."

"You and me both," Buck agreed. "We haven't heard a peep out of the Founders since the end of the Dominion War. Killing Sarah and Adam, that took place well before we even knew there were Founders, to begin with. Remember what Fowler said, killing them was regrettable, like who they were didn't matter at all."

It still rankled Buck how dismissive Fowler had been about their deaths. He hadn't seen Chris Larabee nearly destroy himself because of his family's loss, hadn't been there to pick up the pieces and he certainly wasn't there when Chris learned his family's death was murder, not an accident.

No, to Fowler, Sarah and Adam, even Chris, were merely casualties of an unknown cause.

"Buck," Ezra said to the First officer, understanding the man's outrage but they had a bigger problem on their hands because he suspected they had underestimated the scope of the crime. "If Chris's grief, his wife and child's death were all collateral damage, then this was never about the Captain at all. There is something else at work here."

"I know," Buck nodded grimly. "The way Fowler was talking about the future and a cause, not to mention two of them working together? That's a conspiracy. Founders don't act independently of the Great Link, at least from what I know of them."

"Agreed," Ezra answered, similarly unsettled by their encounter by this thought. "We have pieces but not the complete picture. My hunch tells me, time is against us."

"But we signed a peace treaty with them," JD exclaimed, thinking about that final battle over Cardassia Prime where so many died. He remembered seeing the ships destroyed, starships, warbirds and cruisers alike. Some of his friends served on the ships lost, friends who graduated the Academy only a year before like he did. Never had JD been so grateful he served on Chris Larabee's ship until that moment, because the Captain had gotten them out alive.

The young lieutenant avoided looking at Inez as he made that statement because the battle of Cardassia Prime had also seen the destruction of the Venture, captained by Inez's fiancé, Raphael Castille.

Neither Buck nor Ezra spoke to the fragility of treaties, how easily they were broken throughout the history of civilization, whatever the planet or alliance. What was signed today, might not be worth the paper it was written on tomorrow and if the Founders were moving pieces into position once again, how many steps were they away from checkmate? Especially after lulling the Alpha Quadrant into a false sense of security they were no longer a threat?

Suddenly Fowler's ominous words about the future haunted Buck more than he cared to admit. "Ezra, I've got a really bad feeling about this. I think we need to get on board Fowler's ship while we still can."

Ezra was not about to argue that point either. "I concur."

********

The Mistress of Malarkey was a Pakled freighter that had seen better days.

The wedge-shaped ship, with the hooked beak where the cockpit was situated, was exactly in the bay Rivon had indicated it would be in the Soko spaceport. With a jaundiced yellow hull and amber stripes running along its port and starboard side, it was hardly impressive but then again, Ezra supposed it was probably how Fowler wanted it. This was a craft that would slip by unnoticed, would never be considered threatening and ideal if one's purpose was infiltration, which would almost certainly be what a changeling would wish.

Waiting until the small hours of the night, when there would be little traffic in the area, Buck and Ezra slipped into the bay where the Mistress was docked. Thanks to Ezra's superior programming skills, he was able to hack the security cameras in the bay and disable them for a period of fifteen minutes. Long enough for the two officers to sneak on board the Mistress, without raising any alarms. Once again, Ezra was able to disarm the locks on the Mistress's main hatch to slip on board.

"Guess this is a changeling's ship," Buck commented as the hatched sealed them inside the craft. The ship was functional, with almost no personalization through it. There was nothing to imply that it belonged to someone who called it their home, no personal tokens or adornments. Just a cold sterility to it that Buck did not like at all.

"I suppose," Ezra shrugged, surveying the interior of the craft for anything of interest. While there appeared to be a food replicator built into the machinery, the dust collected on it told Ezra it was never used, which also made sense. Changelings did not eat. Nor did they sleep. They simply regenerated at sixteen-hour intervals before they were ready to resume their normal activities, whatever that might be.

"Let's not stay here any longer than we have to," Buck stated, having no desire to be discovered by the authorities for this bit of trespassing, or even worse run into the changeling Fowler was working with. After what they went through earlier, Buck preferred a better venue for another confrontation. Producing the tricorder, he had hidden under his jacket, Buck gestured to the rear of the craft. "I'll check out the rest of the ship, you tap into the main computer. See if there's any information we can use."

"You read my mind Commander," Ezra replied, already making his way to the cockpit.

"Yeah, yeah," Buck grumbled. "Wish I could do it when we're playing poker."

"One can always live in hope," Ezra grinned and continued down the walkway before he reached the cockpit.

Unlike the Holana, this craft was not built with comfort in mind. The cockpit was cramped with only room for a pilot and a co-pilot to occupy the space. Studying the cockpit controls, he saw the co-pilot was also responsible for manning the ship's weapons, while helm and navigation seemed to be the responsibility of the pilot. It appeared the co-pilot's station provided the access to the main computer, prompting Ezra to slide into the rather uncomfortable seat that only a changeling with shapeshifting abilities could tolerate for any length of time.

Once again, it did not take him long to access the data on the ship's mainframe. Ezra had made it a hobby breaking into classified material for most of his career. On board the Maverick, the only other person with as much skill was their science officer. As his fingers moved deftly against the console, breaking through encryption and firewalls, he wondered how Alex was doing and realized with a sudden start, it was Fowler who was responsible for her lost child. Suddenly, Ezra wished they'd prolonged the bastard's death a little more.

Ezra had been the first one Alex had met on board the Maverick and he recalled that withdrawn, broken woman who stepped off the transporter pad wearing her wounds like tritanium amour. She and Vin had come so far since then, both of them had healed each other and built a life together. It infuriated Ezra to no end he failed to protect the life the couple had created. As security chief, Ezra felt everyone on board the Maverick was his responsibility to protect, even the unborn. He took the responsibility as seriously as Chris Larabee.

Of course, thinking of Alex and Vin as a married couple inevitably made him consider his own situation with Julia. Without a doubt, the titian-haired beauty who put up with his foibles, his tendency to keep things too close to the chest, not to mention his penchants for games of chance and other extra-curricular activities, was the love of his life. He knew that from the moment he saw her. Perhaps it was time he solidified their relationship with some sort of formal agreement. After all, she had met Maude and not gone running for the Delta Quadrant, to say nothing of the fact her family welcomed him with open arms and he even had a begrudging affection for the feline she made him buy.

It had been almost a month since Ezra considered flushing Huxley out of an airlock.

"Find anything?" Buck Wilmington's voice interrupted his thoughts just as he hurdled the last firewall in the computer. Streams of data rolled down the screen like the cascade of a rushing waterfall.

"I have just penetrated the barricades within the system," Ezra said dutifully. "How did you fare?"

"I didn't find anything," Buck sighed, lowering himself into the pilot's seat. Fortunately, the blast shield was lowered over the window so no one could see there were intruders inside the Mistress's cockpit. "Just a lot of dust. Other than using the ship for transport, I doubt he ever lived in it."

"Changelings require very little," Ezra remarked as the light from the green displayed illuminated the dim cockpit. "They do not eat, sleep or require the maintenance of organic life forms. I am hardly surprised by the condition of this craft."

"I suppose," Buck shrugged. "Can you pull up the navigation charts? I want to know where this ship's been?"

After a few seconds, the information appeared before him and Ezra scanned it quickly, condensing what he saw into a quick report for his commanding officer. "It appears the last time the ship left the Soko, it travelled to the Bajoran system. Prior to that, Fowler made several journeys to Breen space and through the wormhole."

"Make sense, he's a changeling, he would have to return to the Great Link every so often." Buck was unsurprised by that information although he wondered how Fowler managed to reach the wormhole without anyone paying attention. Since the end of the Dominion War, travel to the Gamma Quadrant was discouraged. While the treaty ensured neither side sent military ships into each other's territory, the status of commercial traffic was still unclear. Trade continued in a limited fashion but for the most part, both sides gave each other a wide berth.

"I am more interested in what he was doing in Bajor," Ezra remarked, his brow furrowing just enough for Buck to realize the security chief had spotted something that bothered him.

"What is it?" Buck sat up straighter in his seat.

"I am puzzled by his destination in the Bajoran system," Ezra answered after a moment. "He has made several visits to Jerrado, the fifth moon orbiting Bajor."

"Jerrado, Jerrado," Buck mused, something tickling the back of his mind at the mention of that name. "Why do I know it?"

"It is Bajor's primary energy production center," Ezra explained, "as well as being the only uninhabited moon in orbit around the planet. When the moon was colonized for the purpose, the core had to be tapped and as a result, the sulphur and carbon compounds released into the atmosphere made it incapable of sustaining life. The energy plant on the moon is fully automated and Jerrado itself has no population."

"Then what the hell was Fowler doing there?" Buck asked, wondering what other riddles this affair was going to produce.

"I do not know," Ezra shook his head. "But the exact coordinates of where he went on Jerrado, is recorded in the navigation logs."

"Is it now?" Buck met Ezra's eyes as they both shared the same thought. "Commander Standish, I think it's time we took our leave of Theta Cygni."

"Commander," Ezra grinned. "You continue to read my mind."

********

They left the Soko within the hour, with Inez making her apologies to Lydia because the business at hand demanded their immediate departure and after the encounter with Fowler, it was the wisest course of action. While the Syndicate had not taken notice of the altercation in the middle of the street, the damage done was sure to raise the interest of the authorities and Buck wanted to be well away from the Soko when that happened. Furthermore, the first officer had no desire to endanger Lydia's livelihood by putting her in the Syndicate's crosshairs because of her association with them.

The journey to Bajor took less than a day, with Buck contacting Colonel Kira Nerys whom he had developed a rapport with during the Maverick's time at DS9 during the last days of the Dominion War. As two first officers, they had worked well together with Buck respecting the hell out of the lady who reminded him a great deal of Chris Larabee and was pleased to see her given command of the station after Ben Sisko's mysterious disappearance.

Kira, whose personal connection to the Founders was deeper than most, believed the Founders were still healing from the virus that infected the Great Link and was rather astonished to learn that changelings were involved in the conspiracy revolving Sara and Adam Larabee's death. There had been no hostilities between the Alpha Quadrant and the Dominion since their retreat through the wormhole and the possibility of a new threat understandably alarmed the woman, considering the implications for Bajor.

With the urgency of the situation in mind, Kira provided them with the authorization they needed to land on Jerrado, once they'd returned to DS9 and retrieved their runabout, which was equipped with the necessary equipment to traverse the inhospitable terrain. With Inez remaining behind on the station, the Corrizo journeyed to the fifth moon of Bajor, using the coordinates they'd lifted from Fowler's ship, the Mistress of Malarkey.

Crossing over the green-hued fog of sulphur and carbon that now covered the planet, the runabout Corrizo under Buck's control, followed the route taken by Fowler the last time he was on the moon. The scant vegetation that had been on Jerrado prior to the establishment of the energy center was no more and when they flew over the surface, the Maverick's crew saw a barren wasteland of craggy hills and dirt plains. The once breathable air was now toxic and Buck had to wonder what provision was made for the indigenous life before the stroke of a pen decided their fates.

Probably none, he thought grimly since ninety years of Cardassian rule had more or less crippled Bajor's infrastructure and they were still trying to rebuild their society to a semblance of its former self.

"What is that?" Buck asked peering through the window at the structure in front of them. It was little more than a hastily erected emergency shelter one might use in the wake of a natural disaster while waiting for relief to arrive.

"Most likely a remnant of the dwellings left behind when this moon was briefly inhabited," Ezra remarked after the Corrizo had set down at the coordinates Fowler had made his pilgrimages to. "I believe during the Occupation, a few of the Bajorans chose this world as a refuge from Cardassian rule."

"This is where Fowler came?" Buck asked, still skeptical that this ramshackle shelter was the reason for the changeling's repeated visits to Jerrado.

"That's where the coordinates led us, Buck," JD replied, trying to keep the hint of annoyance out of his voice at having his navigational skills questioned. "I checked it twice."

"Can we scan what's inside it?" The First Officer asked, ignoring the slight to the kid's pride. Right now, they were not friends but commanding officer and subordinate.

"Unfortunately, no," Ezra frowned. "There is too much interference from the mining operations being undertaken at the core. It is obscuring our attempts to scan."

"Naturally," Buck sighed, realizing there was only one course of action in the light of this. "Looks like we're doing this the old-fashioned way. "Let's break out the enviro-suits and go take a look. JD, you stay here and mind the store. I don't expect trouble, but nothing about this situation is what it appears to be, so I'd rather not take any chances."

JD was disappointed but understood the prudence in having at least one of them remain behind. If anything did go wrong and the two senior offices got into any difficulty, it would be up to him to get them out of it.

********

The land surrounding the shelter revealed a previous attempt to farm it since Buck and Ezra saw the remains of a ruined crop, long since withered, covered with dust and dirt as they approached. Farming implements lay scattered about haphazardly and the furrows for seed were mostly covered up, leaving only slight grooves in the dirt as evidence of anyone's attempt to tame the land. The shack itself had been reinforced with any material that might serve to offer additional protection against the elements. Clearly, whoever occupied this place previously had attempted to turn the shelter into a home.

"Commander, I appear to be detecting an energy signature coming from this structure," Ezra announced as the security chief stepped into the small dwelling, his tricorder leading the way. While the scanners on board the runabout had been unable to help them earlier, the tricorder's sensitivity and range, was another matter entirely, allowing Ezra to detect a faint energy reading.

"Could it be some leftover appliance, still running on batteries?" Buck asked, not about to assume it was something important when it could be as simple as someone leaving the proverbial iron on.

"Unknown," Ezra answered from behind his visor as he stepped deeper into the place. The shelter was just one room and as the security chief adjusted the illumination of his torch on the helmet of his suit, revealed a rather spartan existence for its occupant. There was a bed, a table and chair, a small area for cooking and...

"Is that a stasis tube?" Buck exclaimed in shock, closing the distance to the dark, coffin-like cylinder sitting against the far wall of the dwelling.

"Yes," Ezra nodded, as equally mystified as Buck as he scanned the tube. "It's fully operational."

"Is there someone inside that thing?" Buck asked as Ezra kneeled over the instrument panel at the side of the tube to study its readings.

"If there is, they are not alive," Ezra explained, examining the display. "According to the data, this is a stasis tube only, not a cryogenic pod. I believe its purpose is for preservation only. Whatever is inside was placed there five years ago."

Five years ago. That number made Buck's spine stiffen. The pieces Ezra had spoken about in the Soko was suddenly converging to form an unimaginable picture, one that seemed almost incredible, yet Buck knew with every fiber of his being was true. Ever since the Founders had appeared, Buck had been hurtling towards this conclusion and now he was on the cusp of discovering the truth of it all. "Ezra, open it up. I need to see who is there right now."

Ezra gave him a look of concern, realizing Buck had a theory neither of them was going to like and immediately lowered the external shield surrounding the tube. The dark tint vanished from the smooth surface, revealing clear plexiglass beneath. The capsule's interior lights flooded the room and revealed the form of a woman lying prone against the cushioned interior.

"Oh my God," Ezra exclaimed in shock, finally understanding what Buck suspected.

"Is she alive?" Buck asked, his worst fears realized.

"No," Ezra shook his head. "I detect no life signs at all. As I stated earlier, this is a stasis tube, meant only for preservation. She has been dead for at least five years."

Five years, she had been dead for five years. As the enormity of what they had discovered settled over them, Buck could do nothing but stare into the perfectly preserved face of Ella Gaines.

Chapter Thirteen:

Confessions

Twenty-four hours after their discovery on Jerrado, Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish found themselves facing Chris Larabee in his Ready Room on board the Maverick.

The Captain said nothing at first, his icy colored eyes staring at them so hard across the table that even Ezra who could maintain a poker face like no man alive, started to feel the pressure. Buck who could read his oldest friend's moods, found himself tugging at his collar nervously, flinching under that merciless gaze. It took no clairvoyance for Buck to know beneath Chris's impenetrable facade, volcanic fury was being held back by the flimsiest of restraints.

When Chris finally spoke, he did so uttering only one word giving them both barrels of the infamous Larabee glare.

"Explain."

Both officers exchanged quick glances, with Buck swallowing visibly while Ezra's composure remained more in place than ever, as they quickly decided which of them should speak. Beyond the glass window flanking them, the panoramic vista of Deep Space Nine hung above the orb of Bajor, was a stark contrast to the near strangulating atmosphere inside the Captain's Ready Room. Buck supposed this reaction from Chris was always inevitable. When he contacted Chris on the Maverick after discovering Ella Gaines's body, he had provided his captain with scant details, knowing only the news of Sarah and Adam would be enough to bring the man here.

True enough, within a day of that communication, Chris arrived at Deep Space Nine with the Maverick and the demand both he and Ezra report to the Ready Room immediately to provide an explanation for the summons.

"Chris," Buck started to say when he caught the sharp glint in the man's eyes that killed any sense of familiarity between and reminded Buck, that friendship aside, Chris was his commanding officer and right now, that relationship was all that was keeping him and Ezra from being brigged. "Captain, we discovered something on Jerrado..."

Chris cut him off before he could finish, his voice brittle the glass. "From...the...start."

Ezra who could see Buck starting to fold under the pressure and had more experience with intimidating opponents decided he better take the lead on this. The Captain was angry, but Ezra had expected him to be the instant he made the decision to hold back on revealing his discoveries regarding the Magellan. Sparing Buck the difficulty of trying to explain, it was the Security Chief who began addressing the Captain's question.

"Captain, the secrecy regarding this matter was my doing," Ezra gave Buck a quick glance, conveying silently the leave to speak, which Buck granted with an imperceptible nod. Facing forward again, Ezra met Chris's piercing gaze and resumed speaking. "When Alexandra and I left the bay where the Magellan was kept, we knew exactly how the ship was sabotaged.

Chris's jaw tightened. He said nothing still but stiffened in his chair and seemed to sit up straighter. "Go on."

"I must admit, until I saw the damage for myself, I still harbored some doubt as to whether or not Q was telling the truth. Once I saw it and Alexandra concurred with me, we knew it could be nothing else. The level of damage was far too extreme for what is considered normal, even for an anti-matter explosion. On this basis, we considered what might cause such damage and concluded the culprit was a bilitrium-based device."

It took but a millisecond for Chris to process the information but when he did, Ezra saw his belief. The Captain would be just as aware of the effect of bilitrium on an anti-matter discharge.

"It would just leave a carbon residue," Chris spoke in almost a whisper.

"Exactly," Ezra replied. "Unless the investigative team knew what to look for, there was no reason to assume it was any different to the rest of the carbon scoring on the wreckage. "There wouldn't even be a need for a device, just the substance smuggled on board to act as a catalyst when the Magellan's plasma seal failed prompting the warp core breach."

Chris sat back in his chair and blinked slowly. At last, he knew.

After five years, he had an answer and though it didn't lessen the anguish or the loss, at least Chris could put to rest the doubt that dogged him since their deaths. He wanted to be furious at Ezra for keeping this from him, for not telling him in the first place but this was not the time, the security chief's report was not yet concluded.

"Continue."

Ezra nodded and resumed speaking, going into detail about how his investigations of the security footage from both Syria Planum and Utopia Planitia had led him to Fowler and then Jack Averal. How five years ago, Cletus Fowler had departed Mars a short time before the Magellan was destroyed, bound for Theta Cygni and how Jack Averal was headed for the same destination, shortly after the attack on Alex and himself at Utopia Planitia. The coincidence was too much for Ezra who was certain now, Fowler had been keeping watch on the Magellan ever since Chris resumed his investigations into the ship's destruction, following Q's explosive revelation the cause was foul play not accidental.

"Considering the long game Fowler was willing to play, we decided to proceed carefully. At this time, I believed he was a shapeshifter of some kind. It was the only explanation as to how he could sneak a bilitrium device on board the Magellan and how effectively he was able to vanish once he arrived on Theta Cygni. I suspected he might have killed Averal and taken his place before arriving at the Soko but I needed further proof to be certain. At Averal's home, we found evidence of blood spilled much earlier than his appearance at Jupiter station. I requested Commander Wilmington to begin making inquiries after Mr Fowler, hoping to draw him out."

"It did," Buck confirmed. "He was going to kill all four of us in the Soko, but we managed to take him down, but not before he told us, killing Sarah and Adam was just collateral damage for a cause, one we pretty sure had nothing to do with you."

"A cause?" Chris blurted. "He killed my wife and son for a goddamn cause? What fucking cause?" The fury that had been restrained was now bursting at its seams.

"We are uncertain Captain," Ezra took up the narration once again. "But we discovered Fowler was not simply a shapeshifter. He was a changeling."

"A changeling?" Chris's eyes widened in shock as he stared at Ezra. "As in a Founder?

"Yeah," Buck answered before the security chief could do so. "Fowler was a goddamn Founder and he said he was working for someone else, someone we're pretty sure is a Founder too because Averal was killed while Fowler was still at Utopia Planitia. It was someone who managed to convince port authorities at Theta Cygni, he was Averal when he boarded the ship to Sol."

Chris's mind was reeling. The revelation of a Founder being involved was shocking in itself, but it did not take him long to see the ramifications of it. Suddenly, Sarah and Adam's death had become more than just an act of murder but something with greater consequences for more than just himself. Possibly the entire Alpha Quadrant. Was this why Q had given him no details when the entity made its revelation? Because if the Founders were involved, the Federation was going to need more than just the word of a cosmic entity with a tendency for pranks, to believe it if they were going to challenge a sitting treaty with the Dominion Empire?

They needed proof.

"How did you end up here?" Chris asked, regaining his composure enough to ask. His anger at the duo was waning considerably in the light of this. Slowly, he was shifting his mindset of grieving and vengeful husband, back to that of a starship captain.

"We check the nav computers on Fowler's ship after we finished up with him," Buck was glad to see Chris's anger blunted somewhat in light of a Founder's involvement in all this. Like Chris, Buck was of the mind they had bigger problems to worry about, now that they knew the truth. "He'd made several trips to Jerrado, which made no sense since the moon's uninhabited."

"It's atmosphere became toxic after they introduced the energy production center," Chris replied automatically.

"Which is why it captured my attention," Ezra spoke up again. "I found it odd he should be travelling to such an uninhabited planet and decided it was necessary to see what it was Fowler was visiting on Jerrado. The coordinates in his nav computer ultimately led us to a shelter where we discovered the body of Captain Ella Gaines."

Just when Chris thought he could not be any more stunned by what Ezra and Buck had to tell him, the mention of Ella Gaines proved otherwise, and more or less dismissed any remaining anger at the duo for their secrecy for now.

"Ella Gaines?"

Chris knew Ella. They had been cadets at the Academy. Hell, he'd dated her once or twice, before Sarah that is, and while they never hit it off, he liked her well enough. She was single-minded, ambitious and they both liked old books. When she became Captain of the Reliant, Chris had been pleased to hear it, even though it had come to Ella in the aftermath of his own tragic loss.

"That's impossible, she's been the Captain of the Reliant..."

"It's her Chris," Buck said quickly, "we found her body in a stasis tube. She's been dead for five years."

"Jesus Christ," Chris looked at them, shaken to the core by that news. "There's no question of it?"

"None," Ezra replied. "As soon as we discovered the body, we notified Colonel Kira. An autopsy carried out by Doctor Bashir confirms it. The body we found, is indeed Ella Gaines. It appeared she was murdered five years ago. The cause of death was strangulation, with enough forensic residue to imply morphogenic properties, consistent with a changeling kill. Her body was preserved in a stasis tube for purposes I cannot fathom, perhaps to avoid detection and maintained the secret."

No, that wasn't it, Chris thought immediately. If Ella had been dead for five years than the imposter on board the Reliant was a changeling. The magnitude of the deception was staggering. Five years ago, the existence of the Founders was still unknown. While they knew of Odo, it had yet to impact on them DS9's security chief was from a race of shapeshifters. After their meetings with the Dominion, Chris knew the Founders had been in the Alpha Quadrant a good deal earlier, studying and infiltrating them in readiness for the eventual hostilities.

"DNA," Chris stated, his voice hoarse as he stood up from his chair and went to the window, staring into the void outside as thoughts crowded in on his mind like a storm of moths. "They needed her DNA to pass identity checks. A changeling can look like Ella, but DNA is something they can't replicate. They would need fresh samples from her time to time, to fool the sensors and physicals. Keeping her preserved gave them access to it."

"God," Buck exclaimed, appalled. "It's why they needed to kill Sarah and Adam," Chris continued to speak, his voice was a monotone that sounded exhausted and defeated all at once. "They needed a changeling on board the Reliant. I was up for the second seat. It was a good posting, not just because Captain Yokohama was retiring in a year, but because whoever took the job would replace him as Captain. The Reliant was going to be the first ship through the wormhole but I wanted it because the ship had room for families, I could..." he paused as his words faltered for a moment and he struggled to compose himself. "I could bring Sarah and Adam on board."

"They must have manufactured the accident on the Magellan so you would be forced to step away," Ezra added, unravelling the tragedy that plagued Chris Larabee's life for the last five years. "I take it Captain Gaines was their second choice?"

"Yeah," Buck answered for Chris who had his back facing them, sparing him the pain of admitting it. "She was."

"Then they most likely killed her before or shortly after the Magellan's accident. It allowed a changeling to assume command of the Reliant as Captain and provide the Founders with complete access to all of Starfleet's data regarding the Gamma Quadrant as it was being gathered, perhaps even being in the position to manipulate how some of it was reported to Starfleet Command."

"But why kill Sarah and Adam for that?" Buck demanded, reeling at the callousness of the decision, just so Chris wouldn't accept a promotion. "They could have easily killed you and taken your place."

"No," Chris shook his head. "No changeling would be able to fool Sarah. Adam might have been young enough for it to get past him but not her." He blinked thinking about the girl he met at the Teahouse, all the memories they shared together, the secret jokes and intimate moments, all were diamonds in the sun, priceless and utterly irreplaceable. "Sarah would have known it wasn't me in a second. Impersonating Ella makes sense. She had no family and she wasn't married. No one would have known her on the Reliant to notice any difference in her behavior. It's the smarter play."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up, aware even though they couldn't see his face, Chris was trying to overcome the emotions that came with having, at last, the answers he sought and being faced with the reality that it was nothing like what he imagined it to be. "I apologize for not telling you everything. I advised Commander Wilmington that we ought to keep our findings secret until we had further information. At the time, I was concerned that Fowler was several steps ahead of us and I had no wish to compromise our investigation."

"Chris," Buck said unwilling to let Ezra fall on his sword. "The truth is, we didn't want to tell you until we had something concrete. The last thing we wanted to do is give you more questions you couldn't answer."

Chris understood all too well. Both men had ringside seats to his deconstruction when he first learned Sarah and Adam had been murdered. His behavior following the discovery had put his command at risk and cost people their lives. The guilt of that still weighed on him, enough for him to understand why neither Buck nor Ezra wished him to descend into that obsession again.

"It's alright," Chris turned around and faced them. "I understand, I do."

There was a well of rage inside of him waiting to erupt but it would be at the proper time, directed at the Founder responsible for his family's death, not the two men who gave him the truth after all these years. Taking a deep breath, Chris shoved it deep inside of him, choosing instead to focus on the subject at hand. Returning to his seat, he took on the persona of Captain Larabee once more.

"Alright," Chris said to both men. "Buck, I want a senior staff meeting in fifteen minutes. I'm going to contact Starfleet Command and find out where the Reliant is at this moment. Ezra, please invite Colonel Kira on board the Maverick. I've got a feeling this is about to get very messy."

"If I may say so Captain," Ezra shrugged. "I believe that might be the understatement of the century."

********

Discovery had always been inevitable.

When one was a changeling, one could be no other way. Most often it was usually carelessness that allowed a changeling to reveal themselves to the solids. Fueled by foolish notions of being accepted or achieving a sense of belonging, too many of their number had been killed because they were foolish enough to think solid could accept them. Solids accepted the face they could see and when they learned that face was mutable, acceptance changed quickly into suspicion and even more rapidly into hatred.

For the two hundred years she had been roaming the Alpha Quadrant trying to understand her place in it, she had yet to find any solid capable of accepting a changeling on its own terms. Their recreation was always the same. If they did not fear her, they wanted to kill her and the very worst of them wanted to enslave her. She remembered being cornered and terrified, always on the run, always afraid because the solids had labelled her everything from demon to monster. It was beyond understanding she had feelings, let alone sentience.

When she discovered the existence of the Founders, for the first time she knew she was not alone and was more than happy to return to the Great Link, convinced all the agonies suffered over two centuries would, at last, be vindicated. The Founders intended to bring order into a chaotic universe, by controlling the solids so they would never be a threat again. She was more than willing to pledge herself to this cause. When she was asked to infiltrate Starfleet ranks, she had done so without question.

For the last five years, she had worn the face of the solid she murdered.

It had been easy enough to do. For weeks, she observed her target, studying everything she knew about Ella Gaines, while elsewhere, her counterpart was dealing with Ella's eventual ascendance to the captaincy of the Reliant. She watched the solid female, discovered Ella's ambition, her desire above all else to be a captain someday. The changeling felt no shame in usurping that dream and after the deed was done, thought no more about the woman she murdered. The only time she expended any effort in that regard was when it was time to mine the woman's flesh for the tiresome physicals she was forced to undergo when the cold war between the Alpha Quadrant and the Dominion became a shooting one.

With a starship at her command, the changeling had been a loyal spy for the Dominion, feeding information to the Founders, driving the Alpha Quadrant to the brink of surrender. As the Jem'Hadar fleet poured through the wormhole, conquering Betazed and on the verge of occupying Vulcan, cultivating alliances with the Cardassians and the Breen, the captain of the Reliant was confident the war would soon end. All those solids who had caused her pain through intimidation and persecution for centuries of existence would finally gain their comeuppance.

Until Section 31 using the traitor Odo, infected the Great Link with disease.

She had been fortunate enough to escape the malaise because being the Captain of the Reliant made it difficult for her to answer the call to return home through the wormhole, but its effect on the others was significant. As the illness spread and the tide of war turned against them, she watched in growing alarm at the possibility the Alpha Quadrant might win. Against all odds, the solids managed to forge alliances with each other to stand against the Dominion. The Klingon, Federation and Romulans working together were a significant force to be reckoned with. But still, she had faith in her people to prevail.

At the battle of Cardassia Prime, she had been ready to obliterate the ship herself when suddenly the unimaginable happened. The Dominion surrendered. In exchange for a cure to the illness spread by the humans, the Founders were not only willing to cease all hostilities against the Alpha Quadrant, but they had also welcomed back the traitor to the fold. He was their great savior who would teach the Founders how to co-exist with the solids.

She felt betrayed.

After everything she and others like her had suffered, the idea that the Founders would simply capitulate was beyond imagination. What need was there to keep one's word to the same people who were willing to commit genocide to win? She could not believe the weakness in the Great Link to accept such terms of surrender. She refused to. Thus, she concluded if the Great Link and the Founders were incapable of doing what needed to be done, she would do it.

There was still an armada of Jem'Hadar ships on the other side of the wormhole, ready and willing to fight to the death if the Founders had the will to direct them. The Breen who had expected to be conquerors of the Alpha Quadrant had no choice but to accept surrender if the Dominion would not fight. If hostilities were to resume, she had no doubt they would take up arms against their Alpha Quadrant neighbors again. Furthermore, this time, the triad of Alpha Quadrant powers was missing its Romulan complement. Thanks to the destruction of Romulus by the Hobus star, the alliance would be significantly weakened. Taking the Alpha Quadrant was not only possible now but extremely likely.

All it would take was someone brave enough to commit the one act of murder to make it happen, and she certainly was.

Chapter Fourteen:

The Reliant

Seated at the head of the table within the Conference Room of the Maverick, the senior staff and their guest Colonel Kira Nerys of Deep Space Nine were assembled and waiting for him to speak. Yet it was the absences that struck Chris Larabee the most as he began the briefing regarding the Reliant and the changeling who now commanded her.

The seat customarily occupied by Mary Travis was empty. At his request, Mary had remained on Earth to keep an eye on Adam during his Visitation Weekend to Starfleet Academy. It was a coward's play and he knew it. If he were honest with himself, he simply did not want her here. At this moment, all he could see was Sarah and Adam, and as much as he loved Mary, he did not want her to see the man he would become in pursuit of justice, or rather vengeance. Chris no longer knew which was which. He just knew he wasn't about to hurt her like he did at Fury 361.

Also absent at the conference table and bothering Vin Tanner just as much, was Alexandra Styles. Chris was accustomed to seeing the abrasive science officer next to Vin, while she, Buck and Ezra argued strategy. The meeting now felt incomplete without her. Vin's eyes touched his across the heavy glass desk and Chris knew he felt the same way. At present, Alex was recovering from injuries both physical and mental, although truth be told, Chris knew if the Maverick entered combat, nothing would keep her away from her post.

"Alright," he addressed his senior staff, once the introductions were made around the table. "As some of you might be aware, Commander Wilmington, Commander Standish and Lieutenant Dunne have been leading an investigation off the ship, in pursuit of my family's killer. Commander," he gestured at Buck to take over, having no desire to repeat what was related to him a short time ago. He still had trouble processing it without wanting to burst into a fit of rage.

"Thank you, Captain," Buck nodded at Chris, understanding what was required of him and glad to spare the Captain this particular anguish. Turning to the others around the table, he gave them a full accounting of his and Ezra's activities in Theta Cygni, ending with the revelation that Ella Gaines was dead, and a changeling had taken her place.

"My God," Nathan exclaimed. "You mean all this time, the Captain of the Reliant has been a changeling?"

"We believe so," Chris nodded. "Doctor Bashir confirmed it himself," he glanced at Colonel Kira for her affirmation of this fact.

"Julian..." she started to say and then paused to correct herself, "I mean Doctor Bashir detected morphogenic residue on her skin during the autopsy. She was killed by a changeling."

The shock in the others was obvious. They were no doubt sifting through their memories, trying to remember if they had met the woman in the last five years and if so, how could they have been fooled? Chris was having similar thoughts himself and wondered how he could not have seen through the facade to know the Founders had stolen Ella's life. "Where is the Reliant now?" Josiah inquired, watching Chris closely. In fact, the healer was keeping a close eye on both the Captain and the Officer of the Conn. The two men already had a strong connection to each other but now that bond was further strengthened by their mutual loss. Chris had lost his son to the manipulations of this changeling five years ago and Vin had suffered the same with the most recent attack on Alex and Ezra.

Chris took note of Josiah's scrutiny and suspected the counsellor would be paying him a visit after this meeting. Under any circumstances, Chris would have been grateful for the consideration, but right now, he needed his hate to drive him. This changeling had proved its Machiavellian adeptness at deception, Chris would need to match its guile to get his justice, not just for Sarah and Adam, but for Vin's unborn child too.

"According to Starfleet Command, the Reliant's last known coordinates was along the borders of Alpha Onios, near Starbase 157. She has been assigned to safeguard the outer colonies along the former Romulan neutral zone."

Since the destruction of the Romulan home world, Starfleet had been bolstering the Romulans' line of defense along the former Neutral Zone to protect its vulnerable outer colonies. Once fiercely protected by the formidable Romulan Armada, the colonies had fallen prey to raiders, mostly from the Orion Syndicate, who were plundering the already depleted resources of the struggling communities.

"How did they take the news about Captain Gaines?" Buck inquired, unable to imagine Starfleet reacting with anything less than horror at learning one of their starship captains was, in fact, a changeling imposter who had been amongst them for the duration of the Dominion War.

"Not at all pleased," Chris replied. "A priority signal has been dispatched across emergency channels notifying all starships and starbases, the Reliant is to be detained on sight. At this time, she is on silent running."

"What I don't understand is why?" Nathan asked from his seat. "The war's over, it's been over for almost two years. What does this changeling hope to gain by maintaining the lie?"

"Colonel," Ezra turned to the Bajoran commander of Deep Space Nine. "The last report I read on Constable Odo, indicated he rejoined the Great Link of the Founders to help them co-exist with us, I assume he is still with them?"

"That is correct," Kira Nerys nodded showing no sign to those present her relationship with Odo was anything but professional, even though Buck and Ezra were aware of it from their previous visits to Deep Space Nine during the war. "The terms of surrender required Odo to return to the Great Link so he could pass on Doctor Bashir's cure to the disease created by Section 31."

"Not our finest hour," Nathan frowned, having been appalled when he heard the organization's solution to ending the war. He was glad Julian was able to find a cure for the malaise. No matter the justification, the healer in him could not abide the use of biological warfare under any circumstances. It disgusted him any doctor would help Section 31 develop such a weapon, to begin with. It flew in the face of their oath to do no harm.

"Colonel," Josiah who had been asked to join this meeting since he often provided behavioral insights that could be most useful when dealing with an unknown element. "Is it possible he didn't convince them?"

Kira's shoulder sagged a little at the possibility because she had been pondering the question ever since she learned changelings were involved in this conspiracy regarding the deaths of Captain Larabee's wife and child. "It is possible," she could not reject the suggestion outright, "but in the event of such a thing happening, Odo would find some way to make contact and let us know. Whatever he might have become because of the link, Odo cared about everyone on DS9. I can't believe he wouldn't have warned us."

"Maybe it ain't got nothing to do with the Great Link," Vin spoke up for the first time.

Until now, Vin had been satisfied to listen to what was being said. As it was, he was furious to learn the same person who killed his unborn child was also responsible for Chris's too. However, with everyone so focused on the idea the Founders might be behind everything, they'd ignored the obvious.

"What do you mean?" Chris asked the Vulcan.

"Well, we just ran into a bunch of Romulans who decided to go at it on their own," Vin replied, reminding everyone at the table about the Vrihan, the rogue Romulan group led by Sub-Commander Lorral. With her warbirds, she had come damn close to destroying the Maverick. "Why are we thinking changelings won't do the same thing?"

"Mr Tanner is correct," Ezra caught on quickly. "There is no reason to assume Fowler, and let us for the sake of ease, call her Ella for the moment, are acting on the orders of the Founders or the Dominion."

"You mean a rogue element?" JD who had remained silent until this point asked. "Is that possible? I mean I thought they were all interconnected like the Borg or something."

"They are connected," Kira spoke up quickly to correct the younger man, "but they still retain their own personalities. When Odo linked with them, they could tell immediately he was different and was not ready to join them. That being said, I believe the Lieutenant makes a good point, this may not be the Founders at all. "

Kira remembered the changeling named Laas who came on board DS9, searching for Odo during the war. He had no knowledge of his identity and had no desire to join the Great Link. Laas was only interested in finding the rest of his kind sent out by the Founders as infants.

"Odo and a hundred other changelings were sent through the wormhole almost two centuries ago to learn about the Alpha Quadrant. Not all of them have been accounted for."

"Which means this changeling could be one of them," Buck replied, not liking this idea at all. "In any case, what are they up to? Obviously, the one who took over Ella's identity has gotten some kind of plan in mind. Why else would they hold on to the Reliant?"

"Whatever her situation," Ezra offered, "there is a great deal of advantage maintaining her identity as Captain Gaines. Aside from having command of one of the Federations most powerful ships, she has access to Starfleet Command and all its intelligence. This is especially useful if Fowler was true to his word about fighting for a cause."

"Unfortunately," Chris sighed. "At this moment, we have no way of tracking the Reliant until she surfaces again. If the changeling knows we're aware of the deception, she may try to make a run for the wormhole to return to Dominion space. Colonel Kira, I suggest you take your station to yellow alert and we'll remain in the area for the time being. Until we figure out what her plan is, we need to be ready for anything."

********

Rule 43: If something feels off, it usually is.

Lefler's Rules to live by.

At the moment, Commander Robin Lefler, First Officer of the USS Reliant, felt something was wrong. She wasn't certain what exactly, but she felt it. Throughout her career, ‘Lefler's Rules to Live By' had gotten her out of more sticky situations than she could count. From her very first posting as a junior officer of the USS Enterprise, all the way to her posting as the first officer of the Reliant. The Rules were the gospel according to Robin and she applied them often and made additions when needed.

Right now, Rule 43 was repeating itself in her head like a piece of music caught in a loop and its dogged refusal to stop, put her on edge, though she did not know why.

It started the minute Captain Ella Gaines made her announcement.

For the last three months, the Reliant had assigned to Alpha Onias, a system located behind what used to be the Romulan side of the Neutral zone. Since the destruction of Romulus and the decimation of the Romulan fleet, the colonies along that sector of space had been plagued by smugglers and raiders, mostly from the Orion Syndicate. It had been the Reliant's assignment to ensure the Syndicate didn't try to make life worse for the poor Rommies trying to survive in the wake of Romulus's destruction.

Aside from protecting the colonies, the Reliant was also providing medical assistance and engineering support by repairing machinery and aiding with the reestablishment of infrastructure. It was the kind of work that made one proud to wear Starfleet colors and Robin was no exception. Under Captain Gaines's direction, she was proud to oversee the relief efforts.

The announcement changed all of that.

"War games?" Lefler had asked from her seat on the bridge of the Reliant.

"That's right," Captain Gaines said unsmiling, appearing to be no happier about the situation than the rest of the senior staff. "Starfleet Command has ordered us to proceed directly to the Bajoran system. Apparently, there have been rumors Cardassian loyalists to the Founders may try to make a run for it, to reach the Dominion. Starfleet wants to run some simulated war games to see where our defenses might be vulnerable in the event the rumors are true."

"Will it be just us Captain?" Lt Jenna D'Sora, the blond female officer of the Conn, inquired.

"No," the Captain said from her command chair. "We will be supported by two other ships, although Starfleet has yet to tell us what they are. We're supposed to give the starships and Bajorans vessels in the area a good fight and expose any vulnerabilities in our defenses. Starfleet doesn't want us getting soft now that the war is over. There's still a lot of threats out there, even if Cardassia and Romulus are no longer galactic powers."

"There's still the Borg," Mendon, their Benzite science officer pointed out helpfully. "Not to mention the Vrihan of Romulus and of course there is no guarantee the Dominion will not stay on their side of the wormhole..."

"I believe we get the picture," Robin spoke up, cutting off the chatty Benzite before he went off on a tangent. Experience told her that if they didn't cut him off in a timely fashion, he could make meetings last a whole lot longer. "Has Starfleet given us any other instructions?"

"None, except that we are ordered to the Bajoran system where a task force, presumably comprised of starships and Bajoran cruisers will attempt to halt our progress through the wormhole. Our goal is to maintain a silent running throughout the exercise and if we make it through, rendezvous at the planet Empersa."

"The Founder home world?" Robin exclaimed, unable to hide her surprise at that destination. There had been little interaction between the Federation and the Dominion since the end of the war, with the general understanding that both sides would leave each other alone. While the Dominion tolerated a commercial presence in the Gamma Quadrant from the other side of the wormhole, a military one was another thing entirely. It seemed unbelievable to Robin they would let a starship anywhere near the home world of the Founders.

"That's correct," the Captain nodded. "Part of the exercise will be to see if we can reach the Founder's home world through the Jem'Hadar forces. Don't' worry, this is a joint operation with the Dominion. They don't want any insurgents reaching their gods any more than we do. This operation is to shore up the security around the Founder's home world too."

The captain's reassurance diffused the vein of tension running across the faces of her senior staff. After all, time and time again, Captain Gaines had delivered them through enough engagements to have earned their loyalty. While the orders might appear unusual, their faith in the Captain was not. Robin would brig the first person who questioned Ella Gaines in her presence.

But she still kept hearing Rule 48.

********

When the doors to the bridge slid open and Alexandra Styles stepped out of the turbo lift in full uniform, ready to take her place at the science station, Chris was not in the least bit surprised.

A sixth sense told him once the news of Ezra and Buck's findings at Theta Cygni reached her, she would be prompted to return to active duty. Chris was glad. He knew from Vin she had been wrestling with personal guilt over her miscarriage and while the Vulcan was convinced, she was overcoming her grief, Chris also knew that for people like Alex and himself, the best way to overcome tragedy was to get back to work.

Vin, like the rest of the bridge, had followed the soft hiss of hydraulic gasses when the doors slid open and straightened up in surprise when she appeared before them. In retrospect, he supposed he should have expected Alex to return to work, particularly after telling her the subject of the senior staff's meeting. Still, seeing her here was concerning

"Alex, what are you doing here?" Vin asked as he stared at her from his seat at the Conn. "You should be resting."

"I've rested enough," she said not just to Vin, but to everyone on the bridge.

Buck, bless him, wore that sympathetic look of understanding that told her without having to say a word, whatever she needed, he would back her up. JD simply looked glad she was on her feet and back with them, while Ezra wore a look of guilt that reached into her heart more than she cared to admit. Until then, she hadn't realized how much he blamed himself, but the guilt was visible even through his normally impenetrable facade. Alex made a note to talk to him later, to give him absolution for a sin he had not committed.

"I'm fine really," she assured them all, feeling a little self-conscious about the attention. Staring at Vin across the bridge, she hoped she conveyed silently what she needed him to hear.

I'm fine Cowboy, I need to be here. I need to think about something else other than the baby and I need to help take down the bitch who did this to us.

Vin let out a slight nod, understanding that much at least. After what he learned about the Captain of the Reliant and that it was her agent who came after Alex and Ezra, resulting in Alex's miscarriage, nothing could keep him away from the bridge either.

Alright, Darlin', whatever you need.

Grateful for his understanding, she fixed her gaze on the Captain. "Permission to take my post Captain?"

Chris left his command chair and made his way to her as she stood near the science station, waiting for permission to return to duty. He understood better than anyone why she needed to be here, because the need to do something, now they had an enemy to face, someone to blame for the injustices inflicted upon them would be overwhelming. In an uncharacteristic show of affection, one he didn't normally show her as her captain but rather her friend, Chris took her hands in his.

"Are you sure you're up for this Alex?" He asked kindly.

Alex nodded. "I need to be here Captain," she spoke just as quietly. "I need to do something. I'll go crazy if I sit around our quarters and keep mulling this over and over in my head. I need to be here. I promise if I can't handle it, I'll stand down myself."

"Alright, Commander," Chris said stepping back from her. "Take your station. The bridge doesn't feel right without you anyway."

"I concur," Ezra added from his station and when Alex looked at him, flashed her a little smile of greeting.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to reply never came because no sooner than she moved to her science station and Chris had returned to his command chair, the calm was broken with the low whine of alert that suddenly filled the air of the bridge and captured their undivided attention. Ezra's eyes immediately fixed on his console and Alex saw his eyes darkened as he read the data appearing on the display.

"Captain, we have a proximity alert. A ship with a Starfleet signature just dropped out of warp, approximately one thousand kilometers from the mouth of the wormhole."

"It's her," Chris stated tautly without even needing Alex to scan the ship to know it was the Reliant out there. He could feel it in his gut. "Buck, take us to yellow alert, JD, notify DS9 the Reliant may be here. Standby for confirmation."

"Aye Captain," JD answered just as Buck's voice boomed over the ship's communications system on every deck throughout the Maverick.

"All hands, yellow alert. Repeat, all hands, we are at yellow alert."

No sooner than Buck's voice had faded, the klaxons made its shrill warning throughout the Maverick as alert panels flashed yellow, sending the civilians on board hurrying to their quarters, while crew reported to their stations. By now, Alex was at her post, scanning the approaching ship and bringing the viewscreen to life so they could see the new arrival for themselves.

When the ship appeared before them, no one was surprised by what they were seeing. It was indeed the Reliant. The Nebula-class starship was flying towards the Bajoran wormhole at full impulse.

"Vin put us on an intercept course," Chris ordered from his command chair, the Larabee glare fixed intensely at the ship on screen, as if his will alone had the power to halt the Reliant in its tracks. At the moment, Chris Larabee did not look unlike an angry god about to rain down wrath on those who had earned his fury. "Ezra, the minute she's in range, lock on with a tractor beam. That bitch is going nowhere."

The tone of his voice dared anyone to disagree with him.

"With pleasure Sir," Ezra replied, giving Alex a quick glance. More than anything, he wanted to see the changeling pay for her crimes, not just against his Captain but against his friend.

Stars rushed past the viewscreen with greater speed as the Maverick accelerated to narrow the distance between itself and the Reliant. The hijacked craft made no reaction to the approaching galaxy class ship, with had more than enough armaments to halt its progress towards the wormhole. As Chris watched the Reliant draw closer and closer, something began to tickle at the back of his mind, something that told him this was too easy. Suddenly the gut instinct that saved his life and his crew more times than he could count, began tugging at him with insistence.

"Something's not right," Chris spoke as he watched the Reliant continue along its trajectory at an almost languid pace. "She has to know the minute she entered Bajoran space, she would be detected. DS9 simply wouldn't let her go through the wormhole without asking questions."

"What are you thinking Chris?" Buck asked, not liking the look on Chris's face because usually when the Captain wore this mask, something was about to hit the fan.

And he was right because no more than a second later, the space flanking the Reliant shimmered with a greenish shower of color, and when it stopped, the Reliant was no longer alone. Flanking her port and starboard bow, was two Klingon birds of prey.

Chapter Fifteen:

Holy Crusade

In the seconds following the sudden appearance of the two birds of prey into the already critical situation, everyone on the bridge seemed frozen in time as they gaped in astonishment at the unexpected turn of events. As it was, they were already reeling from the shocking revelation that the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee was connected to a Founder imposter on a ship of the line.

Despite his personal involvement in the situation, it was Chris who snapped back to action first, proving why he was the master of the Maverick.

"All hands, battle stations!"

The order prompted time to start moving again and everything that was frozen suddenly came to life with urgent animation. With klaxons whining incessantly in the background and alert panels flashing red like the blinking of blood-filled eyes, the attention of the senior staff was singularly focused on the threat posed by the three ships within hair's breadth of the wormhole.

"Shields up!" Buck's voice boomed over the sounds of klaxons, warning the entire crew of the Maverick their situation had just escalated to condition red. Even without seeing it, he could imagine the controlled chaos taking place throughout the ship as everyone on board prepared for the fight. When living on a starship, it was a scenario they had all been trained for, even the civilians.

"Maintain course Vin," Chris ordered the Officer of the Conn, trusting his first officer to issue the necessary orders to the crew for the red alert. Ahead of them, the view screen revealed the shrinking distance between the Maverick and the Reliant as both ships continued towards the wormhole. Despite the unexpected presence of the Klingon ships, the Maverick was closing in on the Reliant, not lagging behind. "Those birds of prey are just here to distract us so she can get to the wormhole."

In stark contrast to the rest of his comrades on the bridge at present, Vin Tanner carried out his duty wearing his typical expression of unflappable calm which was oddly comforting at times like this, Chris thought. Without looking up, Vin's hands moved across the controls of the Maverick like he was a pianist conducting a royal performance while answering Chris with his usual drawl. "I'm on her Captain, she's not gonna shake me off that easily."

"I never doubted you for a moment," Chris could help but smirk a little despite the situation. No matter what crazy thing he demanded of Vin Tanner, Chris Larabee had this oddest feeling, the Vulcan would always come through for him.

"Captain," Ezra spoke up from tactical, an edge to his voice indicating trouble. "The Klingon ships are charging weapons."

Well no surprise there, Chris thought. The second they decloaked, that was a foregone conclusion. Klingons were blunt instruments and when used as a distraction, very effective. However, Chris was no amateur either. He was not about to blink just because the Klingons were rattling sabers. Ignoring Ezra for the moment, Chris instead tapped the controls on his armrest. "Engineering reinforce our shields strength from auxiliary power. We're about to take a hit."

Down in engineering, Julia Pemberton who had been monitoring the situation the instant the alert sounded, was poised to act at the Captain's call. A veteran of several battles since Chris Larabee had become her commander, she was already fast at work at her station, barking orders to her engineering team to reinforce the systems most likely taxed by the battle, ensuring their shield strength was sufficiently strengthened before the inevitable assault.

"Already on it, Captain," she answered smoothly. "Although it would be nice if you could you know, move out of the way when they shoot at us."

"I'll see what I can do," Chris looked over his shoulder and shared a little smile with Ezra at the woman's usual quirk. Ezra shrugged at the verbal game the Captain usually played with the engineer during combat situations. Both men knew when it came to the Maverick, Julia was as protective of the ship as they were to its crew.

The moment didn't last long, however, because Ezra was soon making the inevitable announcement that came with any battle. "Captain, the Klingon ships are firing!"

The Maverick shuddered violently at the jolt less than a second after the words were uttered. As the ship heaved in protest at the barrage, everyone on the bridge was quickly bracing themselves against their seats and workstations to avoid losing their balance or be sent sprawling across the floor. The impact of twin disruptor blasts against the shields reverberated throughout the ship from the hull, and across the numerous decks, ensuring everyone on the Maverick felt it.

"Damage report," Buck demanded automatically, even though experience told him it would be minimal. Still, overconfidence was never wise.

"Our shields are holding," Ezra stated with relief. "We sustained no damage."

"Good," Chris declared, confident that a galaxy class starship would have little difficulty fending off two birds of prey. Besides, he was not going to be distracted by the Klingons, when it was the Reliant, they were after. "Ezra, return fire but I want us to remain on course. They're trying to provoke us into a fight but we're not taking the bait and letting the Reliant slip through. Vin, stay on her, she's not going to get through that wormhole."

"Gotcha Captain," Vin returned and true enough, even as Ezra announced the enemy was firing again, the Reliant was growing larger and larger in the Maverick's viewscreen. Vin was ensuring the Reliant did not gain one inch of space as it made its run towards the gateway towards the Gamma Quadrant.

At the same time, Ezra was dealing with the assault by the enemy ships. "Returning fire!"

The viewer shifted briefly away from the scene of the Reliant and revealed the barrage of phaser fire hurtling through space in beams of deep amber. Both enemy ships banked hard, to avoid the shots, their smaller sized making them more maneuverable than the Maverick, however, Ezra's expertise ensured at least one of the Klingon ships was struck. A section of wing was sheared off as its hull came alive in angry red colors. As sparks and pieces of hull disappeared into the vacuum of space, the wounded ship was nowhere crippled. She managed to fly, adjusting her trajectory despite her damaged condition.

Nevertheless, the barrage of phaser fire did appear to have the effect of making the Klingons rethink their strategy and suddenly they were widening the distance between themselves and the Maverick.

"Captain, they're breaking off!" Ezra exclaimed, his expression grave. Erratic behavior was something he could not abide and suspected the Klingons were about to get creative. Indeed, even as Ezra made the statement, the bridge of the Maverick could see the Klingon ships veering away from their pursuit of the galaxy class ship, realizing they were outmatched.

"Are they retreating?" JD asked, knowing Klingons would never surrender or withdraw unless they had something else up their sleeve. Especially since they did not appear to be attempting to rejoin the Reliant or raise its cloak. Instead, they altered their trajectory and headed away from the wormhole.

"Where the hell are they going?" Buck asked exasperated the delay caused by the Klingon had succeeded in preventing them from snagging the Reliant with a tractor beam.

"Oh my God," Alex exclaimed. "They're heading towards DS9!"

"They're going to attack the station," Chris guessing the enemy's intention almost immediately. "They're trying to lure us away from the Reliant. JD, notify DS9 they've got incoming. Let them know we're on standby to assist if needed."

He had no doubt Colonel Kira was already monitoring the situation from Ops and was fairly confident DS9 was more than capable of defending itself. When the threat of the Dominion was revealed, the station known as Terak Nor was refitted with formidable defences, enough to repel an attack by a Klingon fleet. Fitted with no less than five thousand photon torpedoes and a formidable weapons array, DS9 had teeth the Klingons were going to be feeling against their throat very shortly.

"Chris if we're going to take the Reliant, we need to engage our tractor beam now or never," Buck advised.

"Do it, Ezra," Chris said without hesitation. "Let's reel her in."

Before Ezra could carry out those orders, however, the science officer looked up at Chris with an expression on her face that immediately put him on guard. "Captain, I've scanned the birds of prey. There are no Klingons on board at all."

"No Klingons?" Buck exclaimed with astonishment "How can that be? Who are flying those things?"

Alex was still staring at her console as if she were running over the data, trying to determine how she could be wrong. I'm not reading any Klingons on board, in fact, I'm reading..." she paused, unable to believe what she was looking at. "Captain, they're Breen."

"The Breen?"

As Buck exclaimed his shock, Chris's mind was whirling.

The Breen had joined the Dominion War when the non-aggression pact with the Romulans and the Dominion had collapsed, with Romulus siding with the Federation and the Klingons to defend the Alpha Quadrant. Realizing their weakened position, the Dominion reached out to the Breen, who saw the opportunity to gain territory, immediately accepted the offer and remained allies until the end of the war. Since then, little had been heard from the Breen who considered the Dominion weak for withdrawing from the war. Why would they be involved now, unless...

"Jesus Christ."

It unfolded in Chris's mind like Japanese origami and the full measure of what they were facing revealed itself to him in a sudden burst of clarity. All the unanswered questions arisen since the revelation of a changeling's involvement in the deaths of Sarah and Adam were finally answered. The picture it formed rocked him to the core. Once again, he understood why Q had not simply told him the truth. No one would have believed it. This was a place he needed to reach himself.

Despite his horror at the situation, Chris had to give the changeling credit for the plan it set in motion. It was Machiavellian in its intricacy and would destroy any lasting peace in the Alpha Quadrant if they didn't put a stop to it right now.

"What is it, Chris?" Buck saw the color drain from his captain's face that was more than just Alex's startling revelation. There was fear in Chris Larabee's eyes and anything that frightened the Captain of the Maverick, was something they had all better sit up and pay attention to.

"JD, I need to speak to Colonel Kira now!"

The near panic in Chris's voice prompted Ezra into activating the tractor beam to carry out Chris's order before the Reliant made good its escape to the Gamma Quadrant and Dominion territory. "Engaging the tractor beam..."

However, no sooner than he attempted to lock on to the Reliant, Alex's voice sang out across the bridge. "Captain's she's venting plasma!"

The view screen confirmed the cloud of green plasma escaping the rear of the Reliant, heading directly towards them.

"Aw hell," Buck cursed, "Vin back us off!"

It was too late.

Even as Vin quickly halted their advance and reversed thrusters, the Reliant fired its weapons, igniting the cloud of plasma into an expanding ball of fire that soon surged towards the Maverick. The explosion was so intense and blinding, they had to shield their eyes and turn away from the viewer lest they are blinded by the powerful detonation. New warnings screamed across the ship as the energy wave did its worst.

Around them, the Maverick shook violently and this time, systems all over the ship were affected by the power surge. The lights flickered for three seconds before the bridge returned to some semblance of normalcy. Yet even as it did, Chris knew the Reliant would have made good use of the time to escape. Even as the explosion diminished and their view of space returned to the screen before them, Chris knew the Reliant had succeeded in eluding them.

The wormhole or the Celestial Temple as it was called by the Bajorans, bloomed like a flower in space. The breathtaking sight of iridescent color and light was nothing that could be appreciated right now because all Chris could think about what the Reliant's escape would mean to the Alpha Quadrant. The nebula class ship sailed towards the aperture at full impulse, taking advantage of the momentary respite it had given itself by its attack, before disappearing into the eye and vanishing.

"Goddamnit!" Chris swore as the wormhole collapsed into nothingness after the Reliant blinked out of view.

"Damage report!" Buck demanded. This time, the damage would be significant in comparison to what they sustained when the Klingon ships had attacked them earlier.

"The plasma blast has overloaded our shields and fried our sensor array," Alex explained, a frown crossing over her face as she tried to coax some information from the operational sections of the array. "Engineering is affecting repairs as we speak."

"They were trying to delay us, and it worked," Chris growled. "Julia, I need those shields up fast! We need to go after that ship right now."

"What is it, Chris?" Buck turned back to him, remembering the urgency in his Captain's voice before the enemy had blindsided them.

"Captain," JD spoke up. "Colonel Kira on the line."

Chris didn't answer Buck, instead, he waited for the commander of DS9 to appear. It would save time. A second later, the lady was staring at him through the viewer. Even as she stood with the backdrop of DS9's operation center behind her, Chris could see her crew reacting to the Klingon ships attacking the station. He had no doubt DS9 would manage to fend off the attack without sustaining any damage, however, right now, they had bigger problems.

"Captain Larabee," Kira spoke up. "If you're calling to check on our status, we're fine. Our shields are holding, and our security chief is about to deal with those Klingons."

"They're not Klingons," Chris said quickly. "They're Breen."

"Breen?" Kira's eyes widened in shock. "In Klingon ships?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "Colonel, is there any way to contact the Founder home world from here?"

Her face revealed her confusion. "Not without crossing into the wormhole."

"Damn it," Chris cursed under his breath. "Colonel, I don't think the Reliant is on its way to the Founder home world so the changeling can rejoin them. I think she's going there to destroy them."

The shock that spread across Kira Nerys's face was reflected in both the crew of the Maverick and Deep Space Nine Operations.

"What? Why?" Kira stared at him in astonishment.

"So, she can start a war," Chris declared, revealing what he had deduced the instant he learned the Klingon ships were occupied by a Breen crew. "Think of it, if she heads through the wormhole, on a Federation starship, posing as a Starfleet captain, and destroys the Founders and the Great Link. The Dominion will consider that an act of war and come after us in a holy crusade for murdering their gods."

"By the Prophets..." Kira gasped. As part of a deeply spiritual people, she was all too familiar with what acts of violence people could be driven to in the name of their religion. Furthermore, she knew how the Jem'Hadar and the Vorta felt about their Founders. To them, the Founders were nothing less than living gods. If Dominion believed the Federation responsible for the Founder's destruction, there was no telling how many would die in their bloody rampage of vengeance.

‘It's perfect," Chris continued. "By wiping out all the Founders on the home world, she and her accomplices, if she has any, will be the only changelings left standing. She'll either destroy the Reliant herself or the Jem'Hadar will do it for her after the attack on Empersa. In any case, no one will be left alive, to tell the truth. I guarantee you, she'll be off-ship before it happens and will lay claim to being the only Founder alive, putting her in charge of the entire Dominion Empire."

"And it will work," Ezra added his voice to support his Captain's theory once Chris had made that ominous deduction. "The Vorta and Jem'Hadar will believe that lie, especially when there are no longer any other Founders to refute it. It is why they chose Klingon ships as support to lend weight to the Federation's complicity. The Breen were never pleased by the Dominion's surrender but were unable to fight without the Jem'Hadar support. By doing this, they will be aiding the start of a new war, this time with the Dominion forces fully committed to a holy crusade."

"And they could win," Chris said, admitting the worst part of it. "This time, it's just us and the Klingons. The Romulans are in no condition to join us as they did before."

"But Captain," Kira spoke up. "The crew of the Reliant can't be going along with all this? They must know something is up by just what took place."

"Not necessarily," Chris replied, trying to crack that particular riddle himself. "The truth is, the support a Captain gains from his crew is quite considerable," he glanced at the faces on the bridge including the titian-haired tornado presently in engineering, trying to restore their shields and repair their sensor array. "If they feel the same kind of loyalty to her as my crew does to me, they may follow her if she provided them with a reasonable explanation for what is going on."

"For all they know, it could be war games," Buck added. "Especially with the Breen involved. It's the only thing I can think of that would make them disregard the last ten minutes."

"Colonel, I'm taking the Maverick through the wormhole after her," Chris said to Kira. "Once we're on the other side, we'll transmit to the Dominion and tell them that a rogue changeling is after their Founders."

"Captain, they may not believe you," Kira said grimly. "Changelings do not kill each other, they barely believed it when it happened once. You tell them this and they might believe you're trying to deflect blame from a rogue starship captain."

"I know," Chris nodded. "But it's the best chance we've got."

Kira felt silent for a moment, appearing to consider his words before she looked up again and replied. "As soon as we're done here, I'll take the Defiant through the wormhole and I'll send a message to Odo myself. The Dominion may have trouble believing you but Odo won't."

"Agreed," Chris answered, taking her word on that. He was aware of the relationship between the changeling Odo and Kira and made no further comment beyond that simple acknowledgement. "We'll head through the wormhole."

Kira nodded. "Good luck."

With that, the channel between the two commanders was terminated, leaving Chris with the fervent hope that luck would be enough. Because if it wasn't, there would be war.

Chapter Sixteen:

Extreme Measures

All his life, Chris Larabee had only ever wanted to be a starship captain. He never imagined he could ever want to be anything else, until the day Adam was born.

Even now, a decade after the event, Chris could remember every minute detail of the experience, right down to the beads of sweat soaking Sarah's forehead, the exhaustion in her face after the ten-hour ordeal of labor, how her screams had made him curse himself for being a man, because he was unable to bear it for her. The sting of her fingers digging into his hands. Her whimpers when her stamina threatened to give out and she wanted only for it to be over. People tended to think of childbirth as a wonderful experience after the event. They seldom wanted to speak of the pain during, other than in quaint homilies passed down to avid listeners.

Still, she had borne the pain, forced herself to continue when the exhaustion threatened to break her. Chris's outdated belief about women being the weaker sex was rewritten that day. When it came to endurance, men simply did not know what agony was. With her skin damp, her glorious brown hair hanging off her head in ropey tangles and her body a tense muscle about to snap, she brought Adam into his world and Chris never loved her more for it. When she collapsed in exhaustion after that final push, Chris remembered the absurd but terrifyingly plausible fear that ran through him that the birth had killed her.

He couldn't even begin to imagine it.

Yet when they both heard Adam's first cry, suddenly the hours of agony transformed from something to be endured into a new kind of wonderful. They had looked into each other's eyes and Chris knew exactly what she was thinking because he was thinking it too. This was what they had seen in each other when they first met on that sidewalk facing the teahouse so many years ago. This was the journey they would be taking together.

"It's a boy!"

Sarah hadn't wanted to know the sex of the baby, claiming the surprise would be worth it. She wasn't wrong. Even as he heard Doctor Gupta make the announcement, Chris knew he would have loved a girl as much as a boy, he had to confess to feeling a primitive masculine pride at knowing he was father to a son. When the doctor handed him the baby, the small, bundle of pink skin who revealed he was a Larabee by the irritation on his face, Chris knew the moisture on his own wasn't sweat but tears.

In his entire life, no achievement was as sweet as looking into his infant's son face for the first time.

Chris remembered how Sarah looked at him, her radiant smile of pleasure as she basked in his happiness, knowing she was able to give this to him. His heart almost burst from the love for her, not because she delivered his son but because for Sarah, all the agony she endured was worth it to give him this piece of immortality. When he finally handed Adam to Sarah and saw them together, Chris realized they were no longer two soulmates who found each other, with Adam they were now a family. He also knew then, though he never told her and would bitterly regret it for the rest of his life, that being Captain would never mean as much to him as being her husband and Adam's father. He simply could not imagine his world without them.

In the end, it didn't matter since the choice was taken from him anyway.

********

Passing through the wormhole, there was no sign of the Reliant. No doubt, the instant they cleared the threshold, they would have kicked into high warp. Not that it mattered, the Maverick knew exactly where the Reliant would be headed. Laying a course for intercept, it would not take them long to catch up with their hijacked sister ship. In the meantime, deciding what was to be done when they caught up to the Reliant, became the subject of the briefing that saw the senior staff assembled in the Conference Room.

Chris sat at the head of the table, staring into the stars of the clear walls, lost in thought.

Would his life had been different if he had simply chosen to remain on board the Rutherford as its first officer instead of indulging the idea of becoming the Reliant's commander? Would Sarah and Adam be still alive? His enemy was a faceless changeling to whom their lives meant nothing. It had carved out an irreplaceable part of his soul, Chris would never fully recover from, simply because it wanted to be Captain of the Reliant. If Chris had known the price, he would have given up the idea without a second thought.

He wanted vengeance so badly he could taste it, but even if he got his pound of flesh, it would heal nothing. The gaping wound inside his heart would still be there. Even though there was some measure of peace now, with both Mary's Travis, her son Billy and the teenaged version of Adam from a different universe in his life, Chris knew there would always be a part of him that wished for the family he began with Sarah. Knowing this left Chris disillusioned and defeated at the same time.

"Captain?" Buck interrupted his thoughts.

Chris snapped back to the present, blinking away his personal ruminations as quickly as the number of stars rushing past them. "Any response to our hails?"

"No," Buck shook his head, "no response from the Dominion yet. They're either ignoring us or trying to figure out if we're crazy."

"If Mary was here, she'd be reminding us we're violating their territory without explanation," he said quietly. "They'll be along soon enough with a demand to know why."

"Will they believe us?" JD inquired, wondering if the Dominion would accept their good intentions by this incursion. The war was still too fresh in everyone's minds for relations between the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant to be cordial.

"They won't take the risk," Josiah added his voice to the mix. While he had nothing to contribute to this meeting in terms of strategy and warfare, he was still capable of making astute behavioral insights. Meanwhile, the Counsellor was keeping a close eye on Chris, perfectly aware of what personal demons his captain was wrestling with at this time. "In the end, their devotion to their gods is going to win out over their skepticism."

"That still leaves us with the problem of the Reliant," Chris said after drawing in his breath and regaining his focus. "We outgun her but she's still a Nebula-class starship. If she's convinced we're the enemy, she can put up a hell of a fight and we may not have a choice in pulling our punches. I would rather a solution where we don't have to fire on one of our own. It's not the Reliant's fault, they're being manipulated. We've got to get through to them and let them know they have a changeling on board."

"We've tried hailing them," JD spoke up. "They're not answering."

"There are three possible reasons for that," Ezra answered. "One, they believe this is as Commander Wilmington theorized, war games, and are on silent running. Two, there may be another changeling on board intercepting our hails and last but not least, is that their bridge crew is compromised."

"You mean they're all changelings?" Nathan exclaimed, not liking that one damn bit. For changelings to carry out a deception on that scale, it would mean a corresponding number of dead bodies. Nathan hated to think their remains would be left out there in the wilderness, with no one ever knowing they were dead and their families, left wondering for all time.

"Yes," Chris nodded grimly. "However, let's proceed with the assumption the Reliant's crew are unaware of what's going on. I don't want to write them off unless we have to."

"So that gets us back to convincing them they've got a changeling posing as their captain," Buck commented.

"How are we going to do that?" Vin asked. "If someone threw an accusation like that about our Captain, we're gonna have a tough time believing it, especially if we've been serving together for five years. It's gonna have to be a blood test or nothing at all."

It was a valid point and everyone in the room agreed with the Vulcan's statement. If someone levelled an accusation like that at Chris Larabee, they'd call it preposterous. How could they except the Reliant's crew to simply accept the reality their Captain was a changeling for the last five years?

"Chris," Buck spoke up after a moment. "If we can penetrate their shields while we're engaging them, we might be able to beam a boarding party to the bridge."

"That's risky Buck," Chris frowned, not liking the odds of them making the attempt when so much about the changeling was still an unknown. "Like Ezra said, there could be more than one of them on the bridge."

"Right," Vin added. "Colonel Kira did say there were a hundred changelings sent through to the Alpha Quadrant at the same time as this Odo fella. If she's managed to consolidate them into a rogue group, the away team will be beaming into a trap."

"Then I suggest we transport to the Reliant with our phasers modified for a phaser sweep and scan the entire bridge. If there is a changeling on board, the sweep will expose any being with morphogenic characteristics immediately," Ezra said firmly. "I believe you are capable of making this adjustment are you not, Julia?"

"Easily," Julia said with typical confidence." Just tell me how many phasers to modify and my team and I will get on it."

"Which doesn't solve our problem of getting through their shields," JD spoke, growing more vocal in these meetings since he had been promoted. "We still got to reach them on the Reliant. We can pound them with our phasers but if we're trying not to hurt anybody, that's going to make it real hard."

JD was right, Chris thought silently. Unless they could breach the shields of the Reliant, the hope of keeping down the body count was problematic. "I don't want any lives lost if we can avoid it. This changeling is very good at what it does, its managed to maintain the illusion for five years and earn the crew's loyalty. It's not their fault they were lied to, from the very beginning. They don't deserve to die because of it."

Yet even as he said those words, that uncomfortable reality hung over them like a meteor about to fall. The changeling could not be allowed to reach the Founder's home world to carry out its plans. The destruction of the Founders would almost certainly result in all-out war between the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant, with the potential loss of lives in the billions. In the face of such a conflict, Chris was duty bound to do whatever extreme measures were necessary to keep it from happening.

Even if it meant sacrificing the crew of the Reliant.

It was at this point, Alexandra Styles chose to speak. Chris had assumed she was remaining silent until she had something to say, a trait he recognized from her first few months on board. In that, she was very much like Vin. However, when she did speak, it was usually worth the hearing.

"I say we modify one of our phaser arrays into a proton-based particle beam, with a narrow beam focus to punch a hole through the shield."

"Holy shit," Buck stared at her in shock. Proton-based weapons tended to destabilize more than just energy shields. They often caused a cascade effect in subatomic particles, leading to complete deconstruction of matter and energy on the quantum level. It was the reason such weapons when built, were used only in extreme circumstances. "You wouldn't just punch a hole through the shields, you could penetrate their hull if you're not careful."

"Penetrate the hull?" Julia sat up and added her voice to the discussion, similarly shocked by the suggestion. "You can't be serious. It wouldn't just put a hole through the hull, it would destabilize the integrity of the matter surrounding it. You could create fluxes all over the place and cause explosive decompression."

"But it will get us through," Alex said coldly and then turned to Chris. "Captain, you said you wanted a way through the shields, this is what we've got. We all know the changeling can't be allowed to succeed in its plans to destroy the Founders. Yes, there is a possibility the people in the affected sections of the ship may get hurt, but we all know the risks when we signed on. We can't take the risk of the changeling succeeding in its plan. If it succeeds in destroying the Founders, the Dominion will come after us with everything it's got. We're still rebuilding the fleet after the war, we can't stand up to them and the Breen without the Romulans on our side. If we're going to this, we may have to sacrifice the Reliant."

While the thought of such a thing left the others disturbed, Alex's expression was so mercurial even Vin who was sitting next to her, flinched at her unspoken rage. Thanks to the Cardassians, she had learned to be ruthless. Vin reached for her hand under the table, aware this was affecting her on a personal level. Maybe it had been wrong for her to return to duty so soon and the helmsman only had to look across the table at Josiah to know the Counsellor was thinking the very same thing.

"She's right," Chris said after a long moment and for that instant at least, he saw the anger behind her eyes as clear as day. Whatever her past might have been, she had wanted the child she created with Vin and the loss of it was affecting her profoundly, just as Adam's death weighed on him. In any case, she had reminded them of some home truths they could not deny. This came down to numbers. They would try to save the Reliant's crew if they could, but if it came to a choice between one starship and the fate of the entire Alpha Quadrant, Chris knew what his course would be.

"Julia, can you make the modifications to our phaser array?" Chris asked, cementing where he stood on this point.

"Yes," she nodded, not liking it but realizing they were in a corner and had little choice in the matter. "I can do it with Commander Styles's help." Julia flashed Alex a look of apology for her earlier disparagement.

"It's yours," Alex said giving Julia a little smile, grateful for the acknowledgement.

"We're going to use this weapon as a measure of last resort," Chris said firmly. "The particle beam will only be deployed after we've exhausted all other avenues of reaching the Reliant."

"Chris, I'll lead the boarding party to the Reliant," Buck volunteered. "With the Chief's permission of course."

"I think it might be beneficial if you were present Commander," Ezra replied, not at all offended by the offer. Besides, if the Reliant was going to hear from someone their Captain was a changeling it was best if it came from the First Officer of the Maverick, if not the Captain himself. "If it were possible, I would even recommend..."

"I would like to join the boarding party," Alex spoke up.

"Absolutely not," Nathan spoke before even Chris could deny the request. "You're nowhere fully recovered, and I signed off on you returning to bridge duty, not going onboard another ship."

"But..." Alex started to protest when Chris spoke.

"No Commander," he gave her a sharp look, indicating firmly they were crossing the line between friendship and duty. Right now, he was speaking to her as her captain and he expected to be obeyed. "I need you at tactical while Ezra is over there."

Alex knew better than to argue with Chris and truth be told, he was probably right, she admitted begrudgingly. Accepting the order quietly, she saw the relief in Vin's eyes and knew he was worried about her returning to duty too soon, but she couldn't sit on the sidelines. Not after what this changeling had taken from them.

Suddenly, the voice of Drew Katovit, Ezra's assistant Security Chief spoke up across the Conference Room's com system. The man had been manning the bridge while the senior staff were at the briefing. "A Jem'Hadar warship has just dropped out of warp."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Chris said tautly and then looked at his senior staff. "Here we go."

********

Emerging onto the bridge, the first thing that captured their attention was the sight of the Jem'Hadar warship surrounded by the vastness of space on the view screen. It had been almost a year and a half since they last encountered a Jem'Hadar ship, during the battle of Cardassia Prime, in the last engagement of the war, before the guns fell silent and the Founders surrendered. As everyone took their stations and Chris lowered himself into his command chair, he wondered how the Dominion was going to react to this news.

"Captain," JD spoke up in concert with the chirp from his station, "They're hailing us."

"Let's hear what they got to say," Chris replied, sitting up straight and restoring his mask of cool deliberation once more.

"Bet it won't be anything nice," Vin muttered from the Conn.

"I shall take that bet Lieutenant Tanner," Ezra spoke from tactical.

The image of the warship disappeared to reveal the bridge of the Dominion craft. The face staring back at them, made everyone except Chris do a doubletake. Whatever the surprise, Chris Larabee never showed it when facing down an enemy. Instead, he leaned back into his chair and broke into a little smile of amusement at the tricks the universe felt fit to play on them at any given moment.

"Fanaian," Chris stared down the Vorta. "How nice to see you again. How have you been keeping?"

"Captain Larabee," the Vorta bowed slightly with similar civility. "When I heard the Maverick had entered our space, I simply had to pay my respects, particularly after your rather unusual message."

The last time they had seen the Vorta, Fanaian had led a Dominion task force into the frontier with the sole intention of taking the Maverick as their prize. Only an incredible defense put up by his crew had prevented the ship from being taken with Fanaian forced to retreat to Dominion space with his tail between his legs.

"Nothing unusual about it Fanaian," Chris returned smoothly. "We have reason to believe a changeling posing as the Captain of the Reliant, has tricked the crew into embarking on a mission to destroy the Founders at Empersa. We're on our way to intercept them."

"How dare you!" Fanaian snapped in outrage while behind him his Jem'Hadar crew appeared similarly affronted. "Our gods do not murder each other!"

"Fanaian," Chris fought to keep the impatience from his face. "We don't have a lot of time. This changeling may be a rogue, from the same batch Odo came from. If so, they don't understand the Founder's rules against harming each other. Furthermore, this particular changeling and possibly others like it, have been responsible for several deaths since the treaty was signed. We need to get to the Reliant and intercept her before she reaches the Founder home world."

He omitted Sarah and Adam from the discussion because it would only lead the Vorta to believe he had a personal stake in all this. While it was true to a degree, Chris was not about to put his family's murder above his crew and the Alpha Quadrant. He'd learned that lesson the hard way once already. Furthermore, Sarah believed there was always an alternative to combat, even though she married a soldier. He would not dishonor her memory by taking the path of least resistance when there was a chance of resolving this peacefully, at least in the current situation.

"I believe," Fanaian glared at him through the viewscreen, "one of your starship captains has gone mad and is seeking to harm our gods. This story about a changeling is merely a fiction to lessen your culpability in this matter!"

"Fine," Chris said coldly, however, his hands lowered beyond Fanaian's view. "You can stay here and argue into a vacuum for all I care. We're going after the Reliant."

"Oh, rest assured Captain Larabee," the Vorta sneered. "We will deal with the Reliant ourselves. We will turn it into solar dust before it ever reaches the Founders."

Chris had been afraid of this. He hoped the Dominion might be reasonable and help them capture the Reliant with the minimum of loss of lives, but it was clear, they would simply destroy the ship, caring nothing for the innocent crew on board who had no idea how they were manipulated. While Chris knew this might be the only outcome if there was no other way to avoid a war, he refused to give up hope on the Reliant's crew. Not when there was a chance to save them.

Using hand signals off screen that only participants of the Magnificent Seven holo-program recognized, Chris made the gesture that immediately had Vin poised to act.

"In that case Fanaian," Chris said to the Vorta as the Maverick prepared to accelerate to maximum warp. "Catch us if you can."

Chapter Seventeen:

Race

Was he always going to find himself being chased by this son of a bitch?

As the Maverick found itself accelerating to Warp 9 under Vin's capable hands, Chris was struck with a sense of deja vu as he stared at the view screen in front of him and saw the Jem'Hadar battleship falling into pursuit. Almost a year and a half ago, the Maverick had been forced to flee from Fanaian and a task force of no less than ten ships determined to take his ship from him. In that instance, a heroic effort from his crew and the timely arrival of reinforcements saved the Maverick from disaster. Chris hoped this time; the situation would not be so dire.

The closer they approached Empersa, the Founder home world, the more ships would fall into pursuit. Whether or not the Dominion believed their story about a changeling taking over the Reliant, they would never allow the Founders to be endangered. Without even being present to hear it, Chris knew Fanaian was at this moment, alerting every ship in the area to the Maverick's presence and the imminent threat to the Founders. When those ships reached the Reliant, they would blow the ship out of the sky with little thought to the innocents on board.

No matter what, the Maverick had to get to the Reliant first.

"Jem'Hadar ship is in pursuit," Ezra announced from tactical, surprising no one with that statement.

"Hell, we expected that," Buck remarked.

"Ezra, you know what to do. If they're not firing at us yet, they soon will be. Fanaian knows they can't match us for speed so the only way they'll slow us down is to shoot us down or board us. We're not going through that again."

"Making the preparations now," Ezra met Chris's gaze, his hands already flying over the display of his tactical controls as he performed the action decided upon during their briefing earlier.

"Engineering," Chris tapped his combadge to open a channel to Julia Pemberton's fiefdom on the Maverick.

"Pemberton here," Julia's voice answered in its sing-song tone from engineering.

Chris often wondered how the woman could manage to sound so upbeat when all hell was breaking loose around her. "Julia, I need to pour as much power as you can give me into propulsion. Whatever happens, helm needs to maintain maximum acceleration if we're going to reach the Reliant before the Dominion."

"We can do that Captain, but that might become problematic if we get into a fight and need to raise shields," Julia declared in turn, feeling it her duty to bring up the possibility if they came under fire.

"Acknowledged," Chris nodded in understanding, aware of what she was eluding to. "That isn't going to be a problem."

"It isn't?" Julia said quizzically.

"Trust me," Chris assured her. He had a card to play and short of firing on Fanaian, which he was reluctant to do unless the enemy fired first, he was going to have to use it. Until necessary, Chris had no intention of provoking the Dominion any more than they already were.

"I'll hold you to that Captain," Julia returned and then added, "Lt. Chanu is also continuing our modifications to the phaser array. We should have the particle beam operational before we engaged the Reliant."

"Very good Lieutenant. Larabee out. "

No sooner than he was done with Julia, Chris stood up from his command chair and went to Vin's station at the helm. "Vin, you've got all the power you need to keep us at Warp 9.9. Whatever happens, we've got to stay ahead of them."

"It'll get done Captain," Vin lifted his eyes to Chris, just enough to tell his friend and his commander, it was not so much as an order obeyed as a promise given. The helmsman was perfectly aware of what it took to keep the Maverick ahead of the enemy. Since becoming the officer of the Conn, Vin had wrung every last ounce of speed from the ship's engines during their battles and knew what the Maverick could do in a tight spot.

"Thanks, Vin," Chris squeezed his shoulder in gratitude, a gesture of thanks for his friendship and loyalty.

From his own seat, Buck waited for Chris to return to the command chair, having escalated the ship's status from yellow to red, once again bathing the bridge in a reddish hue as the Maverick returned to battle stations. Josiah and Nathan had returned below decks. The Counsellor would no doubt be offering comfort to the civilians on board while Nathan would prepare for the inevitable arrival of the injured once the real battle started.

"They're going to be calling for reinforcements Chris," Buck said grimly. "You about to do what I think you're going to?" His oldest friend asked with a little smirk. During their last encounter with Fanaian, the Maverick was still bound by the treaty of Algeron with the Romulan Empire. Since its collapse, that treaty was no longer in effect, which meant the gloves had been taken off Chris's hands.

"What's our distance from Fanaian?" Chris asked.

"We're pulling ahead Captain," JD answered automatically.

"They're at maximum acceleration," Alex offered. "Those battleships have too much amour to match our speed. Our margin to stay ahead is slim but enough to avoid phaser bombardment."

"Good," Chris said wearing the expression of cool deliberation his crew had come to expect. "Ezra, drop our shields and deploy our cloak."

Ezra broke into a dimpled grin. "Captain, I thought you would never ask."

"Fanaian's going to be plenty mad," Buck gave his captain a wry smile.

"Shame to have all this fancy hardware and not use any of it," Chris said lowering himself into his command chair once again. "Vin, once the cloak is deployed, go to evasive pattern delta. The minute we vanish, they're going to unleash holy hell hoping they'll get lucky with a stray shot."

"I'll shake them off," Vin assured his Captain.

"Captain, I am raising the cloak."

Chris did not speak, his ice colored eyes fixed on the warship in front of him. He knew the instant they had become invisible to the Vorta. No sooner than Ezra had performed that bit of stealth, Vin was banking hard and moving the great ship into an evasive pattern that coincided with the Jem'Hadar firing all weapons. Everyone on the bridge braced themselves for the sharp maneuver, with Alex and Ezra holding onto their stations, while his fingers dug into his armrests in concert with Buck's.

Before them, space became bright with the amber glow of multiple phaser blasts as the Jem'Hadar tried desperately to force them into the open once more. Chris had no intention of staying around to deal with Fanaian or the other Jem'Hadar ships he knew would be coming. As expected, Vin's excellent piloting skills took them out of range of the enemy fire and very soon, the Jem'Hadar ship became distant on the view screen.

"The cloak is stable," Ezra announced dutifully.

"The Jem'Hadar ship is not in pursuit," Alex added.

"Don't matter anyway," Buck shrugged. "They know where we're headed. They'll most likely converge on Empersa to intercept us when we get there."

"Which is why we've got to get to the Reliant first," Chris said firmly. "This just became a race."

********

It was only after the Captain of the Reliant had left the bridge that Lieutenant Christi Henshaw approached First Officer Robin Lefler. The two women had been friends since their first assignment out of the Academy was a posting to the USS Enterprise D under the command of the legendary Jean-Luc Picard. Picard and his senior staff had always valued open communication between themselves and their junior officers and made it a teaching point for any new cadet. It was why Christi now felt comfortable about approaching Robin about what was bothering her.

"Commander, can I get a moment?" Christi asked and her question brought Robin who seemed somewhat distracted herself, back to the present.

"Sure Lieutenant," Robin said getting to her feet and moving to an unoccupied section of the bridge, guessing by Christi's expression, she wished for privacy. Once they were at the corner near an unused station, she regarded Christi again. "What's up?"

Christi swallowed thickly, finding it exceedingly uncomfortable to bring up the subject now the moment was at hand. "I know we're supposed to be on silent running," she said quietly. "But there was a lot of chatter before we got to the wormhole and a lot since we passed through it."

"What kind of chatter?" Robin had to ask.

"It was hard to say. I couldn't listen in as per captain's orders, but this level of activity happens during planetary catastrophes when distress signals are being sent across all channels. Last time I saw something like this was when we thought the Borg was turning up at Sector 001."

"And it hasn't stopped since we crossed over?" Robin asked. If there was indeed a disaster, the signals would have ceased the instant they entered the Gamma Quadrant. After all, they just crossed 70'000 light years to another section of the galaxy. Whatever disaster that affected the Alpha Quadrant should have restricted itself there.

"No," she shook her head. "Now it's different. They're definitely Dominion transmissions, I recognize the pattern from the war, but they're just as frenzied. They're overlapping and being sent at extremely short intervals. I can't understand what's going on."

Robin took a deep breath. "Captain's orders say we're at silent running, complete communication blackout but I don't think she would have factored in a disaster. I'll let her know."

"Thank you, Robin," Christi said gratefully, pleased to know she wasn't overreacting.

********

"How may I be of assistance?"

Chief Engineer Stovak stood ramrod straight at the appearance of the Captain within the confines of Engineering Room 3 overlooking the warp core. Despite appearing mercurially composed as was the way with most Vulcans, Stovak bristled inwardly at the woman's arrival, since there was much work to be done and he wished to get on with it. He had no time for the unnecessary chatter that was a product of human interactions. His logical mind chided him immediately for the thought since it was more than likely the Captain's personal appearance in Engineering meant the conversation wasn't trivial and as Captain, Ella Gaines could come down to see him personally any time she liked.

"I would like you to create a remote relay to the magnetic containment field."

Stovak stared at her, matching her expressionless facade even though he was rather stunned by the request. "May I inquire why Captain? It is a highly unusual request. For what purpose?"

Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer already. The Captain wishing direct access to the containment field around the anti-matter chamber could only be for the purpose of initiating a self-destruct.

"For the war games of course. If we can't avoid the ships converging on us, we can still win by taking them with us. As we are simulating a terrorist situation, it is highly likely the Cardassians may resort to this method if they're cornered. So, please build the relay, giving me direct control."

"You wish a simulated representation of a remote relay, am I correct?" Stovak confirmed, his Vulcan intellect accepting the explanation as plausible.

"No," the captain stated. "For the authenticity of this exercise, I wish you to build one."

"You wish me to build an actual self-destruct relay on the bridge?" Stovak stared at her, once again trying to do his best to conceal his shock at the request.

Yet even as his logical Vulcan mind moved to suppress the errant emotion, Stovak saw something flash in her eyes that drew a sharp response of discomfort. Instinct was not something a fully-matured and trained Vulcan like himself relied upon. Like all his people, he found such an emotion unreliable. Instincts could be wrong, facts were inviolate. Yet as he looked at his captain, a woman he had served with for years, there was something in her manner that made him uneasy.

"It is illogical to construct such a device simply for show," Stovak countered. "If you require how much time it would take to construct the relay, I can provide you with accurate data."

"Do I need to make this an order?" the Captain eyed him coldly.

"Of course not," he replied, once again taken back by her draconian tone. Over the last five years, she had never given him an order with so little room for discussion. While as a Vulcan, he would follow the chain of command without question, something about this felt... wrong. "I will do as you request. Shall I provide permissions for yourself and Commander Lefler?"

"I should be the only person who has access to the relay."

"Captain, that is against regulations...."

Stovak never got the chance to finish his sentence because no sooner than the words left his mouth, something impaled him through the throat with such speed, it was the shock more than the severed vocal cords and jugular that made him speechless. As pain overtook his body and warm blood spilt down his uniform, he realized it was the Captain's arm, shaped like a thick blade, protruding from his flesh.

The last thing his mind registered before the blackness overtook him, was Captain Ella Gaines's face changing into his own.

********

"Two more Jem'Hadar ships have appeared at extreme long-range Captain," Alex announced from her station.

While Chris showed no reaction to this from his command chair, Buck was a stark contrast to his Captain's glacial demeanor. The First Officer stiffened involuntarily, glancing at the captain to see if Chris would make comment. Around them, the bridge radiated with the glow of amber light, a result of the ship's yellow alert status. They had stood down from red alert upon raising the cloak, making good their escape from Fanaian for the moment, prompting the Vorta to call in reinforcements to take up the pursuit.

"Heading?" Buck asked.

"They're on route to the Founder home world," Alex answered.

"How long till we get to Empersa?" Chris directed his question at the helm.

"At current speed, we'll be there in four hours," Vin replied without turning around from his station. "We're currently at Warp 9.9."

"How many ships is that already?" Buck asked Alex because this was not the first Jem'Hadar ship they had sighted after escaping Fanaian.

"Five," Ezra said grimly. "They appear to be heavy cruisers."

"Make sense," Chris said unsurprised by the reaction. "They may not believe us when we say that it's one of theirs who is responsible but they're sure as hell going to take any threat to the Founders seriously."

"What about the Founder home world?" Vin asked. "Can't we contact them directly. Maybe talk to this Odo fella? You know him don't you Ezra?" The helmsman glanced quickly over his shoulder at the security chief.

Ezra was keeping a close eye on the Jem'Hadar ships on the same trajectory towards the Founder's home world. At present, the ships were more focused on reaching their gods, than they were finding the Maverick. Ezra strongly suspected the only one who might be determined to come after them might be Fanaian, however, if they could reach the Founders and the Reliant first, they might be able to diffuse the situation somewhat.

"I did," he answered Vin's question, lifting his eyes from the display at tactical. "I encountered him on numerous occasions when I frequented Deep Space Nine and in particular the establishment run by the Ferengi, Quark. I met him before the truth of his origins was revealed of course and found him to be quite impressive. He was able to use his shapeshifting abilities to ensure nothing too illegal ever took place on DS9."

"With Quark's reputation, he had to," Alex added, having known Odo a little during her time on the station. "That damn Ferengi had his fingers in everything but back then, DS9 was just coming off the end of the Occupation. Odo had been station security before the Cardies left and the Bajorans were somewhat undecided about him."

"Undecided?" JD looked at her puzzled. "In what way?"

Alex shrugged, recalling when she was an ensign how Odo had almost been lynched by an angry mob because he was suspected of murder. It brought to light the prejudices that the shapeshifter encountered on a daily basis. "Well, you have to remember, he was appointed by Gul Dukat during the Occupation. Even though it was on the official record law and order was carried out fairly while he oversaw station security, there were just as many Bajorans who believed he was working for Dukat to root out the Resistance."

"Constable Odo has no interest in politics," Ezra snorted, respecting the man as a colleague and an investigator. "If it were the case, he would have joined his people when the hostilities broke out, instead of remaining at the side of his friends."

"Then he's the one we've got to reach," Chris stated, adding his own voice to the conversation after listening to both Alex and Ezra. After hearing the number of ships amassing to greet the Maverick and the Reliant, ships manned by Jem'Hadar warriors and their Vorta commanders who considered the idea of a rogue changeling an affront to their gods, regaining control of the Reliant might not be enough. "We need to catch this changeling alive or they won't believe us, even if we manage to retake the Reliant."

"Then someone's going to have to go down there," Buck suggested.

"To the Great Link?" Ezra's eyes widened. If they thought the Reliant's presence around the Founder's home world was incendiary now, it was nothing in comparison to the response they would receive if they tried to contact with the Founders on the planet. "Captain, we have to be extremely careful about such an incursion."

"I know, I know," Chris nodded. "If Mary were here, she'd be the first to point out just how badly this could go wrong."

It was at this point, Chris realized why his bridge didn't feel complete. At the mention of Mary Travis, Chris stared at the empty seat she normally occupied and felt a pang of regret at her not being here. When he first asked her to stay behind on Earth with Adam, he was motivated by fear his determination to get justice for his wife and son might lead him to alienate her. Now he was realizing, always belatedly when it came to Mary, she was part of his healing and should have been here with him.

"But it's got to be done," the Captain sighed. "It may be the only way to avert a war."

Chapter Eighteen:

Detente

Whenever you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Robin Lefler sat next to Captain Gaines and stared at the image on the viewscreen, trying to decide if the doubts in her mind were the result of her own nerves or the fact what was being displayed for the entire bridge crew to see, was making her sweat bullets for good reason. While the Captain and Security Chief Reese showed no signs of anxiety, everyone else, Christi Henshaw, Jena D'Sorra and even normally unreadable Mendon, whose facial expressions were hard to discern at the best of times, appeared terrified by what he was seeing.

And there was good reason to fear.

As per the conditions of the war games as explained by the Captain, the Reliant had arrived at the Founder's home world and was presently in orbit around Empersa. On first sight, it was difficult to imagine the dull, mustard colored planet was the heart of the Dominion Empire and the home to the shapeshifting race of aliens who ruled the vast armies of Jem'Hadar troops and almost brought the Federation to its knees. However, seeing what lay in geosynchronous orbit above the planet, it was all too clear why the Founders had ruled the Dominion for almost two thousand years.

The orbital platforms standing guard above the planet looked as fearsome as the power readings emanating from their sensor scans. Each one possessed the firepower of a starbase and each one could reduce the Reliant to ash.

Robin remembered seeing similar platforms orbiting Cardassia Prime during the last battle of the war. The things were armed with at least a thousand plasma torpedoes and heavy disruptors, possessing a regenerative forcefield that was damn near unbreachable. Even though this was only a war game, staring at it even from this distance, made Robin grateful a ceasefire had been called before those formidable weapons were used against the already wounded Federation Alliance fleet.

"Captain, are we supposed to get through that?" She asked, having no wish to pit the Reliant against the platforms, even in a simulation.

"Of course not," the Captain answered as if it were obvious. "We would never penetrate those defences, but the war games aren't about that."

"I don't understand," Robin stared at her commander with whom she served these five years loyally and once again, felt the uneasiness that stemmed from a few hours ago when she brought up Christi Henshaw's concerns with the Captain. Until now, Ella Gaines had never dismissed anyone's opinions out of hand. It was one of the reasons why she commanded the loyalty she had. Yet when Robin told her about the communications traffic their operations officer detected, the Captain had almost disregarded it and when pressed, insisted it was merely part of the exercise they were engaged in. Worse yet, she insisted radio silence be maintained even after they'd received a transmission from another Starfleet vessel.

"We're playing the part of Cardassian terrorists and they would never attempt to breach these kinds of defences. After what Section 31 attempted to do to them, the Founders took steps to ensure a direct attack on the planet was impossible. These orbital platforms were put installed after the treaty was signed and are virtually invulnerable to any form of attack."

"Then how are we going to reach the Founders if we can't get through their defences?" Robin asked skeptically.

"If we can't go through them Commander," the Captain smiled enigmatically. "We'll just have to go around them."

********

"Goddamn," Buck whistled after taking in the sight of the orbitals spread across the sky above the planet, displayed so starkly on the Maverick's viewscreen thanks to their long-range sensors. Like the Reliant's bridge crew, the Maverick's senior staff was staring at the platforms in fearful awe. During the battle of Cardassia Prime, they had encountered the orbitals and everyone fighting in the Federation Alliance had breathed a sigh of relief when hostilities ceased before they had to engage those weapons.

"That's no moon, that's a space station...." JD whispered echoing the line from one of the Captain's favorite films.

"What?" Buck gave him a look.

"Nothing," JD shook off the comment and continued to stare at the things.

"We'll never get through those," Alex stated, telling them nothing they didn't already know. "If my scans are correct, those are an upgrade from what we faced over Cardassia Prime."

"I detest overachievers," Ezra frowned, his mind trying to wrap his mind around the power readings appearing on his tactical display. The last time he had seen anything this formidable was when they faced the C'Kaia. These platforms may even be capable of giving the Borg ship some stiff resistance even if that was a battle Ezra had no desire to see for himself. In either case, he knew a poor gamble when he saw one and any confrontation with the weapons array would end badly for the Maverick.

"This makes no sense Chris," Buck turned to his captain. "How the hell did this changeling expect to kill all the Founders? Just one of those things would blow the Reliant out of the sky before she could even finish charging weapons. She certainly couldn't transport down there. The other changelings would be able to stop her, and for sure they've got to have Jem'Hadar troops on the ground. After the warning we just gave the Dominion, she'd never get close."

Chris Larabee didn't speak. He was staring at the platforms, trying to understand what was going on. This changeling had been playing a long game that spanned years, surely, she could not have been so short-sighted to have missed the presence of these platforms above the planet. Why bring the Reliant here at all, when there was virtually no chance the ship would be able to fire their weapons more than once, let alone destroy the Founders on the surface?

"Captain," JD spoke up, "I'm picking up Fanaian's ship on extreme sensor range. He's with the five other Jem'Hadar ships."

Chris wasn't listening, he was still thinking hard, trying to unravel the mystery around the changeling's actions. The Reliant might be able to fire one shot before the platform obliterated her out of the sky but that was it. Crashing the ship into the surface was not an option either, she'd have to incapacitate the crew, and there was no way 400 people couldn't overcome one changeling. Besides, even if the crew were incapacitated, the weapons of the orbitals would shoot her down long before she reached the surface.

Think Larabee, think!

"Hell, what do they think they're gonna to, drop a house on the place?" Vin remarked to no one in particular.

The association was flimsy, but the path it set Chris down made the Captain sit up straight, his eyes widening with the same lightning bolt of inspiration that allowed him to guess the changeling's plan back in the Alpha Quadrant. Jesus Christ, Chris thought as the changeling's plan unfolded in his mind and the pieces of this terrible mosaic finally gave him a theory he could believe.

Jumping to his feet, Chris barked at JD. "JD, open a channel to Fanaian's ship right now!"

"What?" Buck exclaimed first, while everyone else on the bridge turned to the Captain in shock, trying to decide if the man had lost his mind, considering what that order would do to their covert approach to Empersa.

"Captain?" JD asked, wondering if he heard wrong.

"You heard me," Chris repeated sharply. "Do it."

There was no time for explanations because if he was right, then they had run out of time, especially with the Reliant hovering over the Founder's home world.

"Captain, if we contact Fanaian, they will be able to pinpoint our location," Ezra spoke up immediately, unable to believe Chris Larabee would forget that rather important point, but was compelled to give him a reminder, nevertheless.

"I know," Chris met his gaze, showing the Chief he was perfectly aware of what he was doing. "But we don't have a choice, I need to speak to him right now."

Alex exchanged a look with Ezra and though she said nothing, she was able to convey the order to stand down. Since serving with Chris Larabee, Alex had come to realize the man's ability to make brilliant deductive leaps of logic was without peer. It was part of the reason why he was such an able strategist. Since the battle with the Dominion task force, Chris had earned the reputation as a Starfleet captain with Romulan ruthlessness. If he thought contacting Fanaian was the best course of action, then Alex fully supported it.

"I have Fanaian on the line, Sir," JD announced, even though he was still wearing an expression of confusion.

"Good," Chris was aware he owed his senior staff an explanation, but all would be clear to them when he spoke to Fanaian.

When the Vorta's face appeared before him, Chris could see Fanaian was both troubled and intrigued by Chris's communication, knowing the action placed the Maverick in a vulnerable position. Even though the Maverick remained cloak, the open channel between the two ships allowed Fanaian's ship to pinpoint the starships location and no doubt Fanaian was attempting to discern what his intention was since Chris would never give up his advantage when outnumbered five to one.

"Captain Larabee," Fanaian spoke in that sickly, sweet voice that did nothing but piss off anyone with ears. "What a surprise. I did not expect to hear from you after our last exchange. Are you calling to surrender to us before we blow you out of the sky for your outlandish tales about the Founders or your violation of their sacred home?"

"No," Chris rolled his eyes. "I'm here to let you know that I figured out what this changeling has got planned and if you don't shut up and listen to me, your Founders are going to be dead in a matter of minutes."

The magnitude of the statement was reflected in Fanaian's shocked expression. Chris didn't have to look over his shoulder to know the Jem'Hadar bridge crew was similarly stunned by the claim.

"What are you talking about?" Fanaian demanded. "If this is a threat..."

"Fanaian, shut up and listen," Chris said curtly not about to waste time with the man's posturing, not with what was at stake. "Your rogue is not bringing the Reliant here to attack the Founders. She knows those weapons will obliterate the Reliant before she can even finish charging weapons."

"Let's say I believe you that it is a misguided Founder responsible for this," Fanaian said skeptically, still unable to believe one of the gods would have such malicious intent. "How then is she attempting to harm the Founders?"

"By ejecting the warp core and detonating it above the Great Link."

"Oh my God," Chris heard Alex exclaim behind him.

The Vorta's face turned white.

"You can't be sure of this..." Fanaian said aghast but even as he stuttered the words, Chris could tell the Vorta believed him.

This time, using a conciliatory tone, Chris continued. "Think about it Fanaian. The warp core is too small to be targeted by the orbitals and if it's hit, you might set off an even more incendiary blast and take half the planet's surface with you. None of your ships will get to the Reliant in time to stop her from ejecting the core and as powerful as your orbitals are, they'll still have to exhaust the Reliant's shields first. During that delay, the rogue will be able to carry out her plans. You may destroy the Reliant but not before she takes out the Founders first."

"By the Gods," the Vorta exclaimed. "Your Federation will pay for this!"

"For the last time Fanaian! We didn't do this! Do you think I'd be here if the Federation is responsible? In any case, we don't have time to argue. We have one chance to stop this, but you're going to have to trust me."

Fanaian stared at him incredulously. "You must be joking."

"Yeah, I'm joking, so I'll take my ship out of the blast zone and let the Founders burn up when the changeling goes through with her plan. If there are any Founders left after the Reliant is destroyed, I'm sure you can explain to your fellow Vorta commanders and the Jem'Hadar how you sat back and let the Federation incinerate your gods."

The words had the desired effect because Chris saw Fanaian cringing at the thought, not to mention the critical way the Jem'Hadar on the bridge of his ship was eyeing him after that statement. Realizing he had no choice, Fanaian responded in a more sedate tone.

"What do you have in mind?"

Letting out a loud exhale of relief, Chris replied quickly. "We've devised a way to penetrate the Reliant's shield so we can transport a security team on board and take control of the bridge. We can't do that if the orbital platform or your ships are targeting us. Keep your people off our backs and let us handle this."

The Vorta's indecision showed but, in the end, it was his devotion to the Founders that made him capitulate to Chris's proposal. As much as Fanaian detested to admit it, Chris Larabee had proven once before how capable he was of beating the odds and right now if it meant saving the Founders, Fanaian was willing to accept the man's help.

"Alright Captain Larabee," he agreed finally. "It appears I have no choice but to take your lead in this matter."

"Thank you," Chris said gratefully, supposing it was just as difficult for the Vorta to trust him as it was for Chris to take his word the Jem'Hadar wouldn't blow the Maverick out of the sky. However, their mutual need made for a necessary detente.

"But know this," Fanaian hissed, unable to resist a parting shot. "if this is a trick, we will reduce your ships to ash."

Unsurprised, Chris retorted in kind. "You can try."

********

The instant Fanaian's face vanished from the viewscreen, Chris turned back to his Senior Staff who had been silent throughout his discussions with the Vorta, even though he could feel their eyes burning through his back with questions of their own even if their course of action seemed evident by his exchange with Fanaian.

"Chris," Buck asked. "You really think this changeling is going to eject the Reliant's core at the Founders?"

"It's the only play that makes sense," Chris said quickly, having considered all other possibilities and knew with a gut instinct he couldn't explain, this was the right call.

"As the Captain said," Ezra chimed in, supporting Chris's position. "The orbitals would have great difficulty shooting it out of the sky once it was ejected. It would be like attempting to strike a fly with a bat."

"Exactly," Chris answered promptly. "Alex, I'm going to need you at tactical."

"Aye Captain," she answered, giving Ezra a look of acknowledgement.

"Good," Chris turned to Buck and Ezra, "You two prepare your boarding party. As soon as we penetrate the shields, transport in and put an end to this."

"Aye Captain," Buck nodded and led the way to the turbo lift with Ezra following.

Once they were gone, Chris turned to JD. "Hail the Reliant. Use the Code One channel. If that doesn't get through to them, nothing will."

********

"Captain," Christi Henshaw turned to Ella from her seat. "I'm receiving a Priority transmission through the Code One channel."

"From where?" Robin asked before the Captain could. While they had detected the presence of the five Jem'Hadar ships approaching them on extreme edge of their long-range sensors, there had been no other ship in the immediate vicinity, let alone one capable of sending a signal on a Code One channel. Only a Starfleet vessel could access the channel, used only in cases of planetary emergency. Anyone using it to communicate with them was desperately trying to get their attention.

"If I read this correctly," Mendon spoke from his station. "It is coming from directly ahead of us, within five thousand kilometers."

"Five thousand kilometers," Robin declared, scanning the view screen in front of them and seeing nothing in the darkness beyond but stars. "How can that be?"

"A cloaked ship," the Captain stated as if unsurprised by the possibility.

"Using a Code One signal?" Christi exclaimed. "But we don't have cloaked ships! I thought the Treaty of Algeron prohibits Starfleet from developing cloaking technology."

"The Romulans relaxed those restrictions during the war," Ella returned smoothly.

"Captain," Robin exchanged a glance with Christi. Across the bridge, she could see the concern on the faces of the senior staff except for Reese. Then again, he always kept counsel to himself and rarely allowed his true feelings to show. On the other hand, D'Sorra and Mendon, were open books and at present, their expressions showed their uneasiness with the situation. "If they're transmitting on Code One frequency, we should hear what they have to say."

"Negative," Ella shot her a look so sharp it almost drew blood. "According to the conditions of the war games, we are to maintain radio silence no matter what the circumstances. "

While Reese did not react, Mendon, Jena and Christi flinched visibly at the decision. Everyone on the bridge knew Code One transmissions could not be ignored under any circumstances. Despite her instincts telling her everything about this situation felt wrong, Robin's loyalty to Ella Gaines had kept her from challenging the Captain's authority throughout this entire mission. However, too many things were starting to feel wrong and Robin could no longer ignore them.

"Captain," she said quietly unable to believe she was driven to this. "I would like to see you in your Ready Room."

"For what purpose?" The Captain demanded, her eyes narrowing in calculation.

"Captain, I would like to see these orders from Starfleet."

Even as she said it, she could not believe the words were coming out of her mouth. What she was doing at the very least was insubordination, at its worst, mutiny. By her question, she was accusing the Captain of falsifying orders. However, considering where they were, poised over the Founder home world, about to be set upon by five Jem'Hadar warships, to say nothing about the orbitals standing guard over the planet, one of which had enough firepower to reduce them to solar dust, Robin had no choice.

"You are out of line Commander," Ella snapped.

"Captain you may censure me if our orders are exactly as you say, but right now, I need verification of their existence." Robin stood her ground, thinking about the four hundred lives on board the Reliant who would be lost if this situation went badly.

Time suddenly stopped or slowed to a crawl because no sooner than the words had left her lips, Reese emerged from behind his station, revealing the phaser she had no idea he was concealing within his uniform. As Robin jumped to her feet, the Security Chief was moving just as quickly away from his station. He fired the phaser and Robin could only watch as he put down, Christi, Mendon and Jena in quick succession. As they collapsed to the ground, Robin had no idea whether Reese had used the stun setting or had he fired to kill. In the end, it didn't matter, Christi was thrown from her chair, landing hard against her side, while Mendon slumped over his station unmoving. Jena had made it off her chair but managed no more than two steps before Reese dropped her.

"What are you doing?" Robin tried to move but before she could get any further, something hard was suddenly pressed against the skin of her throat. Turning slowly, her jaw dropped open in stupefied shock when she saw the Captain standing in front of her, her arm no longer an arm but a sharp pike, ready to spear Robin through the throat if she made a wrong move.

"I don't want to kill you Robin," Ella said coldly, "but I will."

"Oh my God," Robin stared at her. "You're a changeling? What have you done with Captain Gaines?"

Ella simply sighed. "She was dead long before you ever came aboard the Reliant, Robin, I've always been the Captain of this ship."

Robin's mind whirled, unable to comprehend how she could have been fooled and realized her Rules to Live By would need serious amendment after this. If she was alive to make the changes. Suddenly everything Christi brought to light made perfect sense. No wonder Starfleet channels were alive with chatter. They were probably reporting the presence of a rogue starship. Her ship.

"Reese," Ella turned to the security chief. "Target the source of that Code One transmission and fire torpedoes."

"You can't!" Robin burst out in horror. "Under cloak, her shields are down! A torpedo will destroy her."

"Yes," Ella nodded with a little smile. "It's time I sent Captain Larabee to his wife."

Chapter Nineteen:

Changelings

"Captain, the Reliant is charging weapons!"

"Son of a bitch!" Chris swore under his breath at Alex's announcement. He supposed he should have expected it. The changeling impersonating Ella Gaines had proven herself to be singularly ruthless by everything they knew about her thus far. "Shields up! Go to Red Alert! Vin, evasive maneuvers!"

Across the bridge, the remaining members of the senior staff leapt into action at orders hurled at them like artillery fire. Alex had begun raising shields in anticipation of the Captain's order, knowing as well as he did, if they were to sustain a direct hit from a torpedo without them, the Maverick would not survive the blast. However, raising their shields would mean the loss of their cloak, allowing the Reliant its first glimpse of the galaxy class starship hunting it, as well as a visible target.

"All hands," JD Dunne's voice echoed across the Maverick's communication system as per the captain's orders. "We are at Red Alert. Repeat, we are at Red Alert. All hands report to your stations, all civilians remain in your quarters. Repeat we are at Condition Red."

The new lieutenant's hands flew across his controls, activating alert systems throughout the ship. As he did so, alert panels formerly amber began flashing across the starship, informing the crew at their change of situation. Over the sound of his voice and the hum of the engines, klaxons whined in unison with his announcement, providing him with the additional persuasion needed to drive home the urgency of their current circumstances.

"She's firing!" Alex shouted excitedly.

"All hands, brace for impact! We are under fire!" JD announced to the crew before Chris could give him the order.

"Vin!" Chris called to the Officer of the Conn, even though he was certain he didn't need to tell Vin how vulnerable they were. The amount of time until the shields was fully deployed, and they were struck by the torpedoes was too narrow for comfort.

Vin did not answer and in retrospect, Chris should not have been surprised by what happened next. After eighteen months serving with Vin Tanner, Chris had decided Vin was the best helmsman in the fleet and moments like this proved it. If there was an impossible maneuver to be attempted, especially with a ship of this size, Chris could count on Vin to try it. Like now.

"Everyone, hold on!" Vin warned.

The Maverick banked hard as the volley of photon torpedoes flew towards them, every inch of their advance revealed on the view screen with Chris gripping the armrest of his command chair as they approached. He could only watch in a mixture of awe and worry as the Maverick performed a tight corkscrew maneuver that seemed to have it weaving around the trio of torpedoes instead of outrunning them.

Anything that wasn't bolted down on the bridge went flying through the air. Coffee mugs and data pads became flying projectiles as the Maverick made its 360-degree rotation. A meeting between Buck's mug and one of the displays on an empty workstation resulted in a loud crash as both shattered. Chris caught sight of JD ducking as a data pad flew over his head while Alex dove under the tactical station when one of the compartments flew open, releasing its payload of instruments in her direction

"First Officer to the Bridge!" Buck who was in Transporter Room 1 waiting for their opening to reach the Reliant, demanded through Chris's combadge over the chaos.

"We're fine Buck," Chris told him quickly. "Stay where you are. We've got it handled up here."

"Yes Captain," Buck answered, but his voice reflected his reluctance to leave while the ship was in battle.

"Our shields are up!" Alex stated with relief once she managed to get to her feet and study the readings at the tactical station once more. "That was their last free shot, Sir."

"Damn straight," Chris growled. "We're ending this now. Vin bring us about. JD, tell Buck to standby for transport."

"Aye Sir," JD replied and glanced at the viewer long enough to take note of the Maverick's change of direction, bringing it face to face with the Reliant.

"Alex, get the particle beam ready." Chris eyed the nebula class starship in front of him. It struck him at that moment, if the changeling had not murdered Sarah and Adam, this would have been his ship. The irony of the situation was not lost on him and he focused his mind on the battle once more. She was two-thirds the size of the Maverick, but she was still a formidable ship and nothing to take lightly. Chris had hoped to negotiate, to avoid firing on her but he supposed it had always been a pipe dream. This was going to end the way it had begun. With force. "Prepare to fire at my mark."

"Arming the particle beam now," she nodded, anticipating the order as soon as the shields were raised.

Chris stood up from his command chair and walked towards the helm, pausing as he stood next to the Officer of the Conn. "Vin, I need you to get the Maverick as close as you can to the Reliant. I want as to narrow a dispersal area for the beam as possible. There are still 400 innocent people who have no idea what's going on, I want to minimize the risk to them as much as possible. If we end up piercing their hull because of this, I want the loss of life to be minimal."

Of course, even one was going to be too much but being Captain meant being able to make such decisions and living with them.

"I hear ya," Vin answered in his usual stoic way, hiding his pride to serve with this man, not just because Chris Larabee was his best friend but because despite what the changeling had taken from him, Chris was not about to risk the lives of the innocents on board the Reliant on blind vengeance.

As the Maverick flew towards the Reliant with its fully deployed deflector shields, the two ships resembled warring titans in space. They were about to wage a battle where there would be no victors except the solar winds sweeping the debris away when it was all said and done. As the two ships continued their destructive course, it appeared both commanders were similarly matched because neither was flinching in this ancient test of wills.

Chris watched the Reliant loom closer and closer in his view screen and had to give the changeling credit for possessing the fortitude to hold steady in her course, giving not an inch as they headed towards each other. If neither of them blinked and a collision did take place, it would be the Reliant that took the worst of the impact.

"Just say when Chris," Vin spoke up, knowing perfectly well what Chris intended and hoping for all their sakes the Reliant's captain was nowhere as stubborn.

"You'll know it when the time comes."

"WARNING," the computer spoke up, thinking it prudent to remind its occupants at the narrowing distance between the two ships. "COLLISION IMMINENT."

"Stay on this course," Chris ordered, ignoring the computer's calls for caution.

The pigeon egg color of the Reliant's hull came into view, the registration prefix emblazoned across the saucer section sharpening enough to be read now. The Reliant released another volley of torpedoes in the hopes of chasing the Maverick out of its path, but this time the galaxy class ship was ready for the blasts. As they detonated against the shields, the Maverick shuddered but took no damage, continuing its juggernaut course towards the Reliant. When the Reliant finally relented an attempted to veer away, Vin adjusted the Maverick's trajectory accordingly to ensure they were still heading for the smaller ship head-on.

"Reliant, five thousand meters and closing..." JD advised, taking over Alex's usual role, aware her concentration would be focused on deploying the particle beam accurately now they were within reach of the other starship.

The Reliant continued to bank hard, trying to shake off the Maverick but Vin was not about to disappoint Chris and ensured they maintained their course towards each other.

"Three thousand meters!"

Suddenly, the Reliant desperate to escape, tipped forward at a sharp angle, just as the Maverick was about to reach her, attempting to pass beneath the larger ship. It was the opening Chris needed.

"That's it! FIRE!"

The bluish particle beam streaked out of the Maverick's array the instant the Reliant's hull came into range and stayed fixed in that position for the few seconds its saucer section stayed in view. The beam pierced through the Reliant's shield, destabilizing the protons on a quantum level, producing enough instability to create micro-fissures in its integrity.

"Captain it's working!" Alex announced, maintaining the same calm employed by their absent security chief. "There are micro fluctuations in the shield large enough for transport."

"Transporter Room, energize!" Chris ordered.

There was no need for Buck Wilmington to respond as the Maverick sailed over the Reliant. The two ships came within a hair's breadth of each other for less than five seconds, but Chris Larabee knew how to make those seconds count. Even as he barked the order, Rain was activating the transporter beam and sending the boarding party through the weakened shields. Both ships passed each other and continued in separate directions for a short distance before Chris was ordering Vin to come about again.

"Transporter Room! Did it work?"

"Yes Captain," Transporter Chief Rain answered promptly. "I managed to get them on board but I'm not sure where. The micro fluctuations made it difficult to pinpoint the exact location, but I got them as close to the bridge as I could."

"Good enough," Chris replied, grateful it worked without getting picky. Raising his eyes to the viewscreen, the Reliant was making its way towards the atmosphere of Empersa. Returning to his chair, he took a deep breath and stared at the ship doing its best to start a war and thought silently to himself.

Get it done Buck, get it done.

********

True to Transporter Chief Rain's word to the Captain, the boarding party from the Maverick was unable to transport directly to the bridge but it was close enough. There had been so little time to refine their transport coordinates when the two ships were passing each other, any location that didn't result in them materializing inside a bulkhead or the warp core was a plus as far as Buck Wilmington was concerned.

Instead, they appeared, all four of them, Buck, Ezra and two security officers, Lt. Gage Lawless and Ensign Jesse Bolander, on Deck 2 just beyond the doors to the turbo lift that would take them to the bridge. Their sudden appearance on the Reliant was met with the shock of the crewmen who happened to be in the corridor at the time. Understandably their presence was met with some concern as the Reliant's personnel tried to determine if they were friend or foe.

"You," Buck grabbed the nearest officer to them, a rather anxious ensign in the sciences. The young Tellerite stared at him in surprise, trying to discern how a boarding party was able to beam onto the Reliant through their shield. "I'm Commander Buck Wilmington of the USS Maverick. Your ship has been hijacked and we're presently about to be blown to hell by an armada of Dominion ships. I want you to get security to meet us on the bridge. Whose your Chief of Security?"

"Lieutenant Reese," the Tellerite stammered, trying to process the information dump he had just received. "But he's already on the bridge...with the Captain."

Buck shot Ezra a knowing look before he returned his attention to the ensign once more. "We're going to the bridge, get security to meet us up there as soon as possible. Tell them there are changelings on board."

The Tellarite's eyes widened in shock at the revelation, aware of just how much danger they were in if it were true.

"That's an order Ensign, get to it!" Buck snapped. He had no wish to be so harsh but right now he didn't have time to convince this kid and frankly if the Security Chief was on the bridge already, he might be compromised or worse yet, a changeling.

The sharpness of Buck's voice had the desired effect and the Tellerite hurried away to carry out the order just as the turbo lift Ezra summoned, arrived with its doors sliding open awaiting their entry.

"Take cover the minute the doors open," Ezra instructed his officers as they stepped inside the lift. "We may be dealing with two or more of them now."

"Well we're still in motion," Buck stated, "so while that's happening, we've got a chance to stop her from ejecting the warp core."

"It is going to be difficult," Ezra returned. "She possesses Captain's override, she could conceivably lock us out of the main computer and ship's functions if we do not reach her in time. Phaser set on maximum," he continued to issue orders to his subordinates. "A changeling can take several direct hits before succumbing. Be on your guard, their ability to shift is considerable."

However, when the doors to the bridge slid open, what they found was not the start of a firefight, but a near unmanned bridge, save for one person at an empty station. Judging by her uniform and appearance, she was not Captain Gaines. The dark-haired woman ranked commander was the only one standing. Everyone else was unconscious across the floor and lying against one workstation was Lt. Reese. The spread of black across the front of his uniform revealed the evidence of the phaser blast that killed him. He was the only one who appeared struck fatally with a phaser, the other bodies sprawled across the bridge were devoid of similar burns.

"Don't just stand there!" The commander snapped at the sight of them. "I need your help here! I'm trying to disable the Captain's override. She's locked us out!"

"Where's Captain Gaines?" Buck demanded, stepping out of the lift cautiously, even though there were no weapons aimed at their direction and the situation seemed safe.

"She's gone! She took off as soon as she detected the transporter beam penetrating the shields. I'm Commander Robin Lefler, First Officer. "

"Check the bodies," Ezra told his team as Buck approached Commander Lefler. The security chief had expected more resistance when they entered the bridge and as the situation revealed itself to be somewhat anti-climactic, Ezra's instincts were nowhere as appeased. Something didn't feel right, he thought as he went to examine his counterpart on the Reliant, the dead Lieutenant Reese.

Meanwhile, Commander Lefler was shouting at Buck. "Tell your ship to stop chasing us! "I've managed to access the shields and am powering down the engines."

Like Ezra, Buck felt uneasy about the situation but could not say why. This was too easy.

"What happened?" Buck asked, trying to hide the suspicion from his voice as he tapped his combadge and opened a channel to the Maverick.

"We've been told we were engaged in war games," she explained, her fingers moving over the console. On the screen, the stars began to slow, and Buck realized she was bringing the ship to a halt. "However, the minute we arrived at Empersa, I began to have doubts. When your ship contacted ours through a Code One channel, the Captain ignored it. That's when I insisted on seeing the orders..."

"Buck, what's your status?" Chris Larabee's voice demanded, interrupting her report.

"We've got control of the bridge and have powered down the engines. Commander Lefler, the First Officer is attempting to lower the shields."

"What about Captain Gaines? Do you have her?"

"Standby Captain, we're still trying to figure out what's going on here," Buck replied and looked up at his counterpart on the Reliant when she raised her eyes to him.

"I've lowered the shields," she announced. On the viewer, they could see the ship coming to an all stop.

"Captain, can you confirm?" Buck asked, aware Chris would have heard the woman's statement.

There was a pause before the Captain answered. "Yeah, the shields are down."

Her fingers were still moving across the glass display, her face fixed in concentration and Buck wondered what she was doing now and was about to ask the question when suddenly, the urgent voice of the ship's computer spoke shrilly over the air.

"WARNING. WARP REACTOR FAILURE IN FIVE MINUTES. REPEAT WARP CORE FAILURE. COMMENCE IMMEDIATE EVACUATION."

"What the hell?" Buck looked up in shock at the sudden announcement and closed in on Commander Lefler at her station when suddenly, she began to change shape. He could only stare as the features of Robin Lefler gave way for the familiar appearance of Captain Ella Gaines.

"Fooled you," she smiled before her arm lashed out at him and swatted him across the floor like a rag doll. The phaser flew out of his hand as Buck slammed against the nearby wall.

********

Ezra hated it when he was right.

As he saw Buck go flying across the bridge, Ezra raised his weapon to fire at Captain Gaines when Lt. Reese whom he had been examining, came abruptly back to life. The changeling pounced on him with surprising speed, tackling him to the floor in the blink of an eye. Even as he hit the deck, Ezra could feel the form of the Reliant's security officer beginning to shift, no doubt to transform into something more formidable. Not about to allow him that advantage, Ezra reacted with just as much speed.

Taking advantage of Reese's distraction in mid-transformation, Ezra put his enhanced combat training to good use and flipped the changeling over his shoulder with all the strength he could muster. Reese was thrown over his head, landing on the floor behind him as Ezra rolled onto his hands and knees. As the Reliant's security chief stood up to face him, Ezra saw the changeling was discarding its humanoid shape for its natural state.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Lawless and Ensign Boland were about to split up and assist both the senior officers respectively when suddenly, the floor they had been standing on began to change shape, toppling them both of their feet before either had a chance to determine what was happening. Rising off the deck, the amber blob that had disguised itself as a section of floor shifted into the form of a large alligator, complete with a powerful tail and snapping jaws. Before either of them could fire, it whipped its formidable body around, swiping Lawless off his feet with its tail, while its wide jaws snapped menacingly at Boland.

With the computer continuing to bellow its warning of an imminent core breach, Ezra pulled the trigger on his phaser before Reese was able to shift entirely, conscious of their dwindling time to act. His body resembled a wax figure melting under the heat and appeared rather grotesque when the phaser blast struck him dead center. Reese uttered a shriek of pain as the force of the beam sent him staggering. His cry of pain drove the alligator into a frenzy, and it whipped around towards Ezra, preparing to defend its comrade as it scrambled forward. As it came towards him, Ezra saw Boland getting to her feet and taking aim at the thing.

"Chief watch out!"

Lawless voice burst out just before he shoved Ezra out of the way and for an instant, Ezra wondered why when alligator's attention had returned to Boland assaulting it with phaser fire. Forced out of the way, he watched in horror to see Reese had recovered and lashed out, turning his limbs into spikes the way Fowler's own had done on Theta Cygni.

"GAGE!" Ezra screamed in fury as he saw Lawless take the blow meant for him. However, it was too late, and Ezra knew it.

The spike impaled the security officer through the chest and out of his back as blood spurted from the mortal wound, splattering across the floor and walls in a grisly moment of time that seemed to slow for effect. Even as Gage's cry of agony faded from his lips, Ezra knew he was gone. The younger man's head lolled back, and his body went limp as the spike receded, leaving him to crumple to the floor in a puddle of his own blood.

The changeling that was Reese wasted no time resuming his effort to kill Ezra.

His eyes narrowed with calculation as he prepared for a similar assault on the Maverick's chief of security. This time, Ezra was ready for him as the gambler retreated to the rear of the bridge, away from Boland who was too busy dealing with the alligator to help him. To her credit, she was doing well, using the gymnastic skills he had seen in her service record to keep out the creature's reach, taking shots at it where possible.

"Come on you shapeshifting son of a bitch," Ezra goaded the changeling using language that was unusually course for him but he only had to look at Gage's dead body to feel justified. "Let us see how good you really are when you are faced with an opponent of worth."

"That's not you, solid." Reese hissed, the word sounding like a slur.

"Try me," Ezra said firing at him. The changeling sidestepped the blast easily, but Ezra made no effort to move, holding position, his back against the wall.

The changeling flung the same deadly spike in his direction again, but this time before he could finish Ezra off the way he had done Gage Lawless, the security chief dropped to his haunches, allowing the appendage to fly over his head and pierced the display panel above him. Glass cracked as the changeling's appendage was driven into the power conduits concealed by it, destroying them in his attempt to impale Ezra. The ruptured conduits sent energy coursing through the morphogenic appendage in spidery webs of blue.

Ezra watched Reese convulsing in agony as several thousand volts of energy ran through him. This time when his body disintegrated, it did not turn into some half-made wax figure, it became black like ash. As the changeling burned, his shrieks filled the air and when Reese fell silent, the charred figure he became maintained its shape for only a second before crumbling completely. Ezra had little time to savor his victory because he had no intention of losing another one of his officers.

"Jesse!" He shouted. "Take my lead!"

She nodded as she rolled across the floor, leaping over the alligator's whip-like tail. Standing up on one knee, she saw Ezra firing at the creature at point blank range and did the same. Their phasers converged on the enemy forcing the changeling caught in the crossfire to cry out in pain as it was bombarded by the deadly barrage. Ezra would have liked to have offered it a chance at surrender but after what had happened to Gage, he was all out of compassion.

Unable to withstand the united assault, this changeling soon gave up its animal form and returned briefly to its amber shape before the mortal wounds it was sustaining turned its morphogenic flesh into ash. It uttered a final cry of defeat before it became frozen in place like a statue in the middle of the bridge. However, they were not done yet.

There was still one more changeling left.

And it was wearing Ella Gaines's face.

Chapter Twenty:

Reactor Breach

This bitch was pissing him off.

It wasn't the kind of language Buck Wilmington normally used when referring to a lady because as a rule, he thought all women had some redeeming qualities, even the ones who were plain outright crazy (but damn were they great in the sack), except this one, wasn't really a lady was she? Or maybe she was. It was really hard to say with changelings. They could be one or the other, depending on preferences. In the end, it didn't matter.

This one was still a bitch.

Getting to his feet after she had sent him into a wall, albeit with less drastic effect than what Ezra did with the changeling Reese, he got to his feet and rushed her, determined to wrestle the woman away from the station she was presently operating, no doubt creating more havoc across the ship. Overhead, the computer's warning about the imminent core breach grew more frantic as the countdown to critical mass continued to tick down.

Unfortunately, the changeling had ideas of her own and met Buck head on, despite being a head shorter than him in her guise as Ella Gaines. With agility that could only come from being a shapeshifter, she managed to lock her fingers around his throat, her nails becoming as hard as steel as they dug into his neck. Throwing a punch into her gut to force her to relinquish her hole on him, Ella staggered backwards, and Buck threw a forward kick into the center of her chest, sending her sprawling.

She flipped onto her hands and knees as he sought out the phaser ripped from his grip and looked up long enough to see Ezra and the security team having troubles of their own as two additional changelings made their appearance and were on the offensive. His attention returned to Ella when he heard something growling in front of him and faced front long enough to glimpse what looked like a Klingon Targ, charging at him.

Buck jumped out of the snorting beast's path like a rolling dervish before getting to his feet and hearing Ezra's furious scream. The security chief expression was one of anguish and Buck uttered a similar curse at the sight of Lt. Lawless hitting the deck, bleeding from what was almost certainly a fatal wound. As the targ passed him, it turned back into its humanoid shape again ready to attack but this time Buck was ready.

Drawing from the skills he acquired playing those damn baseball games with JD and Chris, Buck skidded to the floor as the changeling lashed out at him, this time turning her arms into whips so she could coil them around his neck. They passed over his head as he reached her and kicked out his long legs, to sweep her off her feet. The changeling taken by surprise, uttered a cry of indignation as she went down. As she tumbled to the floor, Buck made a scramble for his phaser, lost when she'd struck him earlier.

Grabbing it, he swung around to fire when he saw she was already on her feet. Eyeing him with almost triumphant glee she shouted out loud. "Computer eject the warp core, authorization Captain Gaines, Ella Caroline. Verification Chimaera!"

"AUTHORISATION CONFIRMED," the computer said in a tone Buck almost considered traitorous. "EJECTING WARP CORE!"

"DAMN IT!" Buck swore ready to incinerate her for that action alone, but the changeling was already ahead of him. She was making her way to her command chair for a purpose he knew couldn't be good. Giving her no warning, he pulled the trigger, intending to put her down once and for all but the woman changed shape again, hollowed her torso like a doughnut that would have been funny if the situation was not so urgent. She landed heavily on her command chair and tapped the controls on the armrest.

"Initiate pre-programmed transport," she said hastily as Buck aimed at her again. "Authorization Captain Gaines."

"NO!" Buck shouted in frustration, hoping to end her when he fired again but she slid out of the chair in an amber glob just as the beam of energy struck the chair, burning a hole through the upholstery. Taking on humanoid shape once she was out of its path, she stood before him as Ella Gaines, ready for the transport she initiated to spirit her away.

With a smile of triumph, she stared at Buck as the glitter of gold appeared around her and made her parting shot. "If the Jem'Hadar doesn't kill all of you first, tell Captain Larabee I'll be waiting for him on the surface."

With that, she vanished off the bridge of the Reliant, leaving Buck to clean up the mess.

********

From the bridge of the Maverick, Chris did not need to see for himself the unfolding drama on the bridge of the Reliant to know it had gone poorly. The instant the warp core made its appearance on the viewer, he knew the changeling had managed to get its way, despite all their efforts to prevent it. As it tumbled through the darkness, moving swiftly towards Empersa, bringing with it the doom of the Founders, the reactor left a luminescent trail of blue as it made its journey. For a moment, Chris thought absurdly of the marine life in the depths of the ocean, except they weren't the instrument of genocide.

There was no time to debate what was taking place on the Reliant, or how the Jem'Hadar was going to react to this because the changeling's endgame was in play and if there was any chance of averting war, he would have to act, and he would have to do it now. The closer the reactor tumbled towards Empersa, the greater the blast radius was going to be, as it was even if they manage to destroy it, its current position could do significant harm to the planet's surface, to say nothing about the Founders who lived there.

"How long till it blows?" Chris demanded, his eyes averting from the view screen to his science officer. Judging by the concentration on her face as she studied her console, he guessed she had anticipated his question well before hearing it. When her jaw dropped slightly open and her eyes widened, he knew her report would not be good.

"Ninety seconds."

Ninety seconds. It felt like a gut to the punch, but he'd taken a few of those in his time and recovered quickly. Ninety seconds was barely enough time to do anything, but Chris had worked with those odds before and knew there was a chance to avert the countdown to war that began the instant the Reliant had gone on its rogue mission.

"Alex, grab it with a tractor beam," he ordered, the tone of his voice indicating he was to be obeyed with the minimum of argument.

"Aye Captain," Alex nodded, knowing this was the only course left to them but in Buck's absence, she was compelled to speak. "Captain, I'm activating the beam but even when we snag it, I don't know if we can get it far away enough from the planet in the time we have."

Chris had expected that.

"Vin, the minute we have it, I want you to hit maximum warp. Take her to 9.9."

The order made Vin look over his shoulder, his brow arching in the way only a Vulcan's could. Like Alex, Vin would obey unconditionally but it was his duty as a Starfleet officer to speak up when his captain made a risky demand like this. "Chris, we won't be able to hold the reactor for long if we hit high warp."

"I know," Chris answered, ready for that possibility. "We won't be in warp for more than ten seconds. Ten seconds will be long enough to get us to minimum safe distance from Empersa. JD, contact the Reliant, tell Buck what we're doing."

"Yes Captain," JD answered, grateful for the opportunity to talk to the First Officer because the ejection of the warp core made him fear the worst for his mentor and what might have taken place on the bridge of the Reliant.

"Captain, tractor beam has been engaged! I've got it." Alex announced and as she did, the view screen revealed the bubble of energy surrounding the warp reactor, holding it in place like a fly in amber.

"Punch it Vin!"

Chris's order to Vin coincided with the Maverick lurching forward as the helmsman, poised for that announcement engaged the warp drive and sent the starship surging forward. The stars in the viewscreen rushed by the ship, moving so fast they stretched like filaments of light across the black canvas. The sudden acceleration made Chris stagger on his feet and it took him a second to regain his balance as the rear view afforded by the screen in front of him revealed Empersa growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

The warp reactor remained in the grip of the tractor beam although he could see its grasp begin to erode the further and further away from the planet they got. In the background, he heard JD's voice helpfully counting down how many seconds they were in warp so Vin would know when to slow down.

"Six...seven...eight..."

Empersa continued to shrink in the viewer and when the planet and the orbitals guarding it were little more than specks in the distance, Chris knew it was time to relinquish hold of their burden.

"Nine....ten!"

"Vin, take us out of warp." If the reactor was released while the Maverick was still at warp, it would be obliterated the instant it penetrated the warp field and most likely take the Maverick with it. As the stars slowed to a crawl once again, indicating their return to normal space, Chris had only to look at Alex for her to know what came next.

"Releasing the reactor now. Thirty seconds until it reaches critical!"

The bubble of energy surrounding the warp core vanished immediately following Alex's announcement. Freed of the tractor beam keeping it restrained, the reactor tumbled aimlessly through the black, now that it was no longer compelled by the gravitational field of the planet. They had towed it clear of Empersa and it is surrounding moons and the only thing threatened by it reaching critical was them.

"Vin get us out of here!" Vin barked, even though Chris was convinced Vin was doing that anyway. The helmsman always seemed to know what was in his mind and this occasion was no different because the Maverick surge forward before he even had a chance to finish his sentence. The sudden burst of acceleration made Chris stagger slightly before he returned to his command chair. As the ship continued to speed away from the reactor, its bright glow blinked out of existence for a second.

In space, there was no sound but everyone on the bridge knew when the reactor reached critical mass. The space behind them turned bright as if an infant sun had been born. Not one corner of the view screen was spared from the brilliant flare of bluish-white light until they were flinching from the glare of it.

"All hands brace for impact!" JD warned the crew as every alert sensor on the ship came alive in warning of the wave of energy about to sweep over them.

"Emergency evasive maneuvers!" Chris barked.

When the wave struck, the Maverick was hurled forward, until the deck below was tilted at a 45-degree angle. Chris gripped the armrests of his chair to avoid being thrown out of it and through the whine of klaxons and the powerful shuddering of the ship, he saw Vin and JD gripping the corners of their stations to keep from being unseated themselves. The helmsman had a harder time of it, attempting to ride the wave instead of letting the Maverick be swept away by it, which might result in damage to the ship.

For a few seconds, the Maverick shuddered violently as it was propelled forward by the force of the blast from the reactor breach. Watching through the viewer, Chris felt his teeth chatter in his head as the ship was flung through space, with Vin doing his level best to ensure the Maverick rode the currents instead of being ripped apart by them.

After what seemed like an eternity, the shuddering dissipated and the klaxons no longer screamed in outrage at the rough handling, choosing to complain in less ear-splitting whines. Chris let out a sigh of relief, seeing the wave disperse the further and further away from the blast they were. Running his gaze over his bridge, the Captain of the Maverick flashed them all a wry smile of pride.

"Damage report." He tapped his com.

"We're a little singed Captain," Julia answered from engineering amid issuing orders to her engineering crew to repair the damage relays and fried sensors resulting from the energy overload across their hull. "But we're alright. We sustained minimal damage. The shields protected us from the worst of it."

"Good," Chris nodded in approval, once again feeling pride in his ship and his crew at handling this latest crisis. "Get back to work and put my ship together."

"Your ship?" Julia's voice asked playfully before her voice sobered. "Aye Captain."

"Alright," he said facing front again once Julia returned to work. "Vin get us back to the Reliant. We've got some unfinished business with Captain Gaines."

********

Understandably the reaction from Kugat, the Rigellian Assistant Chief of Security, upon being told his Captain and Chief Reese were changelings, one of skepticism.

Not that Ezra could blame the seven-foot saurian, with his reptilian features and armored skin, for his disbelief. Ezra supposed if someone had told Drew Katovit a similar story about Chris Larabee and himself, the man would have a similar reaction. Unfortunately, the truth was all too evident in the remains of the dead changelings left behind on the bridge. At least the bridge crew of the Reliant was coming out of their unconscious state after being heavily stunned by Chief Reese.

"That is impossible," the Rigellian stuttered, his dark eyes staring at Jesse who was helping a disorientated Benzite to his feet. "I have served with both for almost three years, there's no way they could have been changelings."

"I understand your feelings Lieutenant," Ezra said with sympathy. "We were no less shocked when we uncovered the truth. The body of Captain Gaines has been recovered in the Bajoran system, it appears she has been dead for a long time."

"Great Zon," Kugat shook his head in astonishment. "We were told we were engaged in war games employing a scenario involving Cardassian terrorists who wanted revenge against the Founders for what they did on Cardassia Prime."

"A plausible explanation," Ezra replied, admitting begrudgingly the changeling falsifying the records had a believable ruse to use against her crew. "Unfortunately, ever since we learned the truth, every ship in the fleet has been hunting the Reliant. We were uncertain how many changelings were on board so I suggest you instruct your personnel to run phase scans of every deck, coupled with blood tests to ferret out any others that might be still on board."

While he doubted there were any others, Ezra wanted to make sure. After what happened to Gage, Ezra would risk no one else by taking anything for granted.

Meanwhile, Buck was wrestling with the main computer at an unoccupied station, discovering ‘the Captain' had locked out the mainframe before she had transported off the bridge. If this were the Maverick, the lack of the Captain's presence on board would allow the First Officer to gain control of the ship. Even though the Dominion had made no threatening moves towards them, especially after the Maverick spirited away the discarded warp reactor from Empersa, they were in a precarious state. The impulse engines still generated power, but without the warp drive, the Reliant was crippled. The journey to the wormhole and the Alpha Quadrant, previously taking only hours to traverse would now span weeks at sub-light speed.

"Ezra, I need your help here," Buck growled giving up in frustration. "We need to get into the main computer. She's locked us out of all systems."

Hopefully, Ezra with his Class 1- Advance programming skills might have better luck.

Ezra left Lt. Kugat to his devices and crossed the floor to join Buck, empathizing with Buck's chagrin at their present circumstances. The sight of those weapons platforms made Ezra uneasy to say nothing of the fact they were now in a ship incapable of escaping should Fanaian's Jem'Hadar battleship choose to attack. At least, the Maverick's removal of the warp reactor, preventing the destruction of the Founders, had earned them some goodwill, enough Ezra hoped to prevent any hostilities until the Maverick could tow them back to the wormhole.

"I will do what I can Commander," Ezra stated on approach. "However, even with my considerable skills, breaking through will not be easy."

"We have to try," Buck insisted. "We've got to get this ship out of here and more importantly, figure out where that bitch went."

"I thought you said she was transporting to the surface of Empersa," Ezra remarked.

"I did," Buck nodded. "But sure, as hell when Chris gets back here, he's going to want to know exactly where she went."

Suddenly the door to the Ready Room slide open and both Ezra and Buck went for their phasers at the same time. After the surprise attack by the changeling disguised as a floor no less, neither were taking any chances. The same reaction was garnered by the Reliant's own security team, as all eyes were fixed on the doors parting.

Robin Lefler stumbled out, clutching her bleeding forehead and stopping at the sight of all the weapons trained in her direction.

"What the hell?" She demanded, her dark eyes sweeping across the bridge in question at all the new faces she didn't recognize, in particular, Buck's and Ezra's. As First Officer of the Reliant, she knew everyone on board, and she knew in an instant to the two men in front of her were not of the Reliant.

"Commander Lefler I presume?" Ezra asked and glanced at the security personnel present to stand down.

"Yes," she nodded, wincing slightly at the pain radiating from the rather nasty bruise on her forehead. "Where is..." she paused, uncertain how to refer to the changeling calling itself Ella Gaines. "The Captain...changeling, whatever it is."

"She's gone," Buck said eyeing the bruise on her head swollen enough to split and bleed. "She's locked us out of the main computer just after she ejected the warp core."

"Oh my God," Robin gasped wasting no time, striding towards them. "We've lost warp?"

"Afraid so," Buck answered, stepping aside to give her access to the station. "We're from the Maverick. This here is our Chief Security Officer Ezra Standish and I'm Commander Buck Wilmington, First officer. We manage to get the warp reactor away from the planet before she could destroy the Founders."

"Thank God," Robin sighed with relief. "When your ship sent the Code One transmission, I insisted on seeing the orders for the war games she insisted we were conducting. That's when she launched torpedoes at your ship. When you deployed your particle beam and penetrated our shields, she knocked me out."

"We guessed as much," Ezra nodded. "I'm gratified she did not choose to kill you as she had been doing to most of the people she's impersonated."

"Like the real Ella Gaines," Robin said bitterly, unable to believe the friendship she shared with the woman these past five years was a lie. It was Ella who recommended her for the position of First Officer when Commander Valerian was promoted to the captaincy of the Sakharov. "Computer unlock mainframe, authorization Lefler, Robin, Commander. Verification Crusher."

The computer detecting the absence of the Captain immediately ceded to the authority of its First Officer. "Authorisation granted to Commander Lefler."

With that, the ‘Access Denied' lettering stubbornly splayed across the display vanished and the blinking cursor on the screen revealed the computer's readiness to accept new instructions.

"It's done, we're in," Robin announced to the two men.

"Good," Buck said with relief. "She performed a pre-programmed transport so she could get away. We need the coordinates of where she went."

"We're going after her?" Robin asked, more than ready to participate in that particular duty after being duped so completely.

"Not us," Buck said as he saw the Maverick sailing back into view of the monitor screen. "There's a certain Captain who's been waiting a long time to do that himself."

Sarah and Adam

"All set?"

"Yeah," Sarah smiled at him through the display of the computer in his quarters on board the Rutherford. Behind her, the setting sun of the Martian landscape could be seen through the window and Chris knew she had just gotten back from work at the local school. "I said goodbye to my class. They made me this."

She held up to the screen the drawing made for her so he could see it. Chris broke into a grin at the artwork, complete with luminescent colored crayons, glitter and bright stickers of stars sparkling across the paper. Featured prominently was a figure with dark hair, sitting on a spaceship with the word emblazoned ‘Mrs. Captain' above them. It was the kind of thing that could only be produced by a group of seven-year-olds, the age where Santa was still real, and magic ruled their imaginations.

"Mrs. Captain," Chris laughed. "I like the sound of that."

"I don't," she made a face, "I had my heart set on being Mrs. Admiral."

Being reminded of her favorite nickname for him sent a flood of affection through Chris's soul and he was reminded again of how much he missed her absence in his life. While the Rutherford had been a great assignment, the ship was not made for families and the hardest thing he had been forced to do when accepting the promotion was doing so realizing Sarah and Adam couldn't come with him. As a result, the family settled on Mars where she taught second graders with Chris taking every opportunity to get back to Earth to see them.

"Where's Adam?" Chris asked, peering over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of his son.

"Hannah's bringing him back from the park," she replied, referring to the teenage sitter who picked him up from school and took care of him before Sarah got home from work. "One of his classmates is having a birthday party there."

"How's he taking the news of the move?" Chris still felt a little guilty about displacing them from the life they had built these last two years since he was assigned to the Rutherford.

"He's just happy he's going to see his daddy again," Sarah assured him, aware he was still feeling some guilt about having to spirit them away to a new ship and ultimately, a new life.

"Me too," Chris replied unafraid to admit it. He never thought being a family man could agree with him so much and part of the reason he was able to make the tough calls was knowing he had the love and support of Sarah and Adam behind him. It was rather sobering to realize how much he missed them during the two years of their separation but soon they were going to be together again, and Chris couldn't be happier.

Basking in the sight of Sarah, Chris longed to touch her and ached at the reality there were several dozen light years between them. "Sarah, are you okay with all this? I hate to think I'm taking you away from your class, especially when you love them so much. I mean I don't have to take the promotion, I could stay on the Rutherford."

"Chris," she gave him that look that implied nothing but impatience. "You've worked all your life for this chance. You said it yourself, a year from now, you'll be Captain. It's what you've always wanted."

"That's not all I want Sarah," he met her eyes and even though they were so far apart, he knew she could read him. "It stopped being the only thing when I met you and you gave us Adam. I won't sacrifice one for the other."

Sarah placed her hand on the screen and Chris did the same, their palms meeting each other and for a second, the cold glass gave way to the illusion of flesh. "Chris Larabee, you are not sacrificing anything. I didn't put up with you for the last decade so I would stay a First Officer's wife, I want the brass ring. I want to walk around a starship and have people throw garlands at my feet for being the Captain's wife. I fully expect to have my ass kissed by all those junior officers' wives trying to score points with the Captain." She winked at him playfully.

"Oh, didn't I tell you?" Chris laughed at her sense of humor. God, he loved this woman. "They only do that when you're an Admiral."

"Well that's it then," she retreated her hand. "I'm not going. I'm leaving you to wait for an Admiral to sweep me off my feet."

"Alright, alright," he threw his hands up in surrender. "I'll take the promotion on the Reliant and conquer the Gamma Quadrant in the name of the Federation so I can become an Admiral. The things I have to do for you."

"Damn straight," she smiled at him and then replied in a gentler tone. "I love you Chris. I don't care where I am, just as long as I'm with you."

Chris felt his heart swell again; the way it had the first time he saw her at that tea house. "I love you too Sarah." Glancing at the time display at the corner of the screen, Chris sighed knowing it was time for him to go on duty. "I've got to go. I'll see you in two days on Earth."

"We'll be waiting," she smiled. "See you, Admiral."

"See you, Mrs. Admiral."

But they wouldn't be waiting because in two days, she and Adam would be dead, and part of Chris Larabee would die with them.

********

Alex should have seen this coming.

The instant the changeling's transport coordinates were relayed to the Maverick, she should have guessed how Chris Larabee was going to react. While Buck remained on the Reliant to debrief its crew on the situation with its captain, Alex had assumed the Captain would be dealing with Fanaian who was standing by with his small armada of Jem'Hadar ships. However, the instant the main computer on the Reliant was unlocked and the revelation of the changeling's destination had been made, the Captain had only one thought in his mind.

"Captain, you can't go down there on your own!" Alex declared hotly. With Buck off the ship, she was acting First Officer and when Chris Larabee voiced his intention to beam to Empersa alone, it took no clairvoyance to know why.

"This isn't a democracy Commander," he eyed her menacingly as he strode towards the turbo lift intending to leave the bridge. "I'm going."

Alex tossed a quick look at Vin whose expression revealed his concern and his readiness to speak up. Before he could, she shook her head slightly, just enough to let him know he needed to let her handle this. For the sake of his friendship with Chris Larabee and their functioning on the bridge, there were lines between the two men that could not be crossed, and this was one of them.

The Captain was a juggernaut of vengeance now, revealing a side of himself, not seen since he first learned his family was murdered, not the victims of an accident. If Buck was here, Alex would have happily allowed him to deal with the Captain, but he was not, and she was acting First Officer in his stead.

Vin wanted to protest but he knew Alex was right. He and Chris had become the friends they had because Vin knew when to pull back and to never blur the lines between friendship and duty. When Chris was like this, he was liable to use the full weight of his Captaincy to get his way and the junior officer who dared to speak up in protest would be crushed under it. As much as Vin hated it, this was Alex's battle to fight.

When the doors slid open, Alex was dogging Chris's heels and she stepped into the narrow confines with him. Chris's face showed his annoyance and Alex could not help but flinch when pinned by the infamous Larabee glare. On most occasions, she could be fearless but the Captain who had both her respect and admiration was one of the few people who could intimidate her. However, he had once saved her from despair and as much as he didn't wish to accept her help now, she was going to do her best to return the favor.

"At least let Lt. Katovit assign a security detail to you," she insisted.

"I'll be fine Commander," he said tautly, clutching the phase rifle he had liberated from the weapons locker on the bridge.

"Captain," Alex said exasperated and then sucked in her breath. "Computer halt lift."

Chris shot her a look of pure ice when the lift came to a stop, giving her clear indication his patience on her interference was just about exhausted. He was going down there to face the killer of his wife and child, nothing was going to stop him from doing that. "Commander, you are on a fast track to insubordination."

"I don't care about that," she said sharply and met his fierce glare with a look of sympathy because meeting him will for will was not going to make him see sense. "Chris, I care about you. You're not just my Captain, you're my friend. If Buck was here, I'd let him talk to you but I'm all you've got right now. You need to stop and think about this. You can't just kill her."

"Watch me," Chris hissed.

Alex blinked, thinking how reminiscent this was to a conversation they had almost a year and a half ago, when Gul Lemar had come aboard the Maverick and she was ready to kill the bastard for what he had done to her. Chris talked her off that ledge, reaching her when no one else could, not even Vin. He hadn't just saved her life that day, he'd earned her undying loyalty. This was a Captain she would serve until death, whose side she would always be on, not because he was her husband's best friend, but because he was her Captain and always would be.

"Chris, I know how you feel."

He opened his mouth to object and then thought better of it because she was right. This changeling had taken a child from her too and the memory of her pain kept him silent.

"I know you want vengeance and you have every right to it but do this the right way," she met his eyes. "You stopped me from doing something that would have ruined my life and I don't want the same thing to happen to you. You have people who care about you, who love you, who would walk through fire for you. Don't throw that way because of vengeance. It's not worth it and it will haunt you forever, even if you don't' think it matters now."

Chris blinked, wanting to say something harsh but he couldn't. No matter how enraged he was, he could not ignore the truth that pain was something she was more than familiar with and yes, he had made the same arguments to her.

"I don't feel them any more Alex," Chris looked up at her finally. "I miss her, and I miss the life we had together, but I can't feel her. When she was alive, no matter where she was, I could always feel her. She was like this angel on my shoulder, always there even when she wasn't. When I was on Earth, I went to the places we'd been because missing her was like a knife in my heart but when I got down to it, I just couldn't remember how it feels to touch her hair, to hear her laugh at me. I'm losing her Alex, I'm losing her for good. Not just her, but Adam too."

It was true, with Mary and the older Adam in his life, the memories were eroding even faster. Sarah and Adam were becoming pictures in a book he had closed in his mind, no longer looked at, because it would only lead to pain. He didn't want to lose Sarah or Adam, but the truth was, it was happening whether he liked it. Perhaps killing the changeling and letting the act of vengeance haunt him forever was the only way to keep them with him.

Alex took a step forward, slid her hand around his neck and drew him close. Chris didn't resist as he felt her forehead touch his. For a moment, neither were Starfleet officers, or friends, or even man or woman, they were just two people who knew pain, who understood the wreckage it could wreak through the heart.

"Chris, you know better than me, you'll never lose them. Everything you are, everything that makes you Chris Larabee, is because of what they left behind in your heart. I don't know what your Sarah was like but from what Buck tells me, she was amazing. Consider what she would think about all this, about what you're going to do. I can't stop you from going down to that planet, but I want you to you think about the woman you're going to avenge and decide if this is how she would want you to honor her. "

Chris pushed away from her at that moment, his eyes almost moist as he looked at Alex. "I am still going down there Alex," he said quietly, "but I'll promise I'll try to do that."

Alex nodded, deciding she had done all she could. What would happen, would simply happen and she hoped Chris Larabee could live with it after.

********

When he materialized on Empersa, Chris wasn't certain what he was expecting.

Since the day he was told by Q, Sarah and Adam had died at someone's hand, Chris had been chasing this moment. He chased it through is dreams, through his life and almost to the brink of his command. Facing the unknown enemy had driven him this last year and now that the moment was upon him, he knew one way or another, justice would be done today.

The coordinates had him appearing in a scab of rock in the middle of what appeared to be a vast ocean, except it was unlike any ocean he had ever seen. There were no tides and though he saw ripples on the surface, he knew it was not water. It resembled honey and the gold that glimmered under the reddish-hued sky made the place look unreal. Suddenly, he realized where he was. This was the Great Link. He was surrounded by Founders.

"Glorious isn't it?"

Chris spun around, raising the phaser rifle in his hands in readiness to fire. What he saw made him drop the weapon to his side instantly. Standing in front of him was Sarah.

She was wearing the same dress she wore the day they had met, the one that made him think she had stepped out of a fairy tale. Her dark hair swayed a little in the breeze and seeing her almost broke him in half. For a moment, he wanted so much for it to be her, he would have accepted the lie. What did it matter if he could touch her again or hear her laugh? But it wasn't true, and he knew it. The changeling was using it because it knew, seeing Sarah was the only thing keeping him from reducing it to ash.

"Take my wife's face off, you bitch." He almost snarled the words.

"Oh, come now Chris," the changeling gloated triumphantly, knowing exactly just how deep she was cutting him with this action. "This wasn't meant to be cruel. I thought before you died, you should get to see her again."

Chris raised the rifle; this time outrage had wiped away the pain of seeing Sarah's image being used against him.

"I SAID NOW!" He pulled the trigger and a bolt of energy impacted the rock next to her, causing it to explode spectacularly, sending broken fragments and dust in all directions.

The changeling sighed as she was dealing with an impertinent child. "Fine, if you're going to be all disagreeable about it." She shifted form again, this time becoming Captain Ella Gaines. Once she wore the mask, she had been using to deceive everyone for the last five years, she regarded Chris. "You know it was not like I intentionally set out to kill them?"

The casual way she spoke made Chris want to shoot her down dead, but Alex's words had stuck, (damn her), and he controlled his temper, which was fast reaching boiling point. "I know," he said bitterly, "collateral damage, wasn't it?"

"I'm afraid so," she said a matter-of-factly, she stood before him almost relaxed as she revealed with an almost casual air, how she had ruined his world and taken from him the love of his life. "If it wasn't for the Reliant, I would have hardly cared. When I was instructed to infiltrate the ship, I considered what would be the best way to serve and then I heard you were up for the captaincy, it was just perfect."

"Perfect?" Chris was barely able to speak from the sheer audacity of it. "You took everything that mattered to me! You could have gone on board as anyone, but you decided the best way was murdering a mother and child? And not just my family, but you almost killed one of my officers and made her lose hers!"

She looked at him completely unrepentant. "We do what we must in war Chris. You're a soldier, you understand that, don't you?"

"We're not at war," Chris hissed. "No matter how much you tried to make it happen. The Dominion lost, get over it."

"Never!" She glared at him, showing the first signs of anger. "You won because the Founders are cowards. They don't have the will to fight. I do! When I take charge, we will bring the Alpha Quadrant to their knees, like we should have done in the first place."

"You're going to do nothing," Chris raised his gun, realizing he might not kill her out of vengeance but if she made any attempt to start a war, he'd put her down for the sake of two quadrants, not just the Federation.

"How do you propose to stop me?" She challenged. "You're going to kill me?"

Chris fell silent for a moment and the answer came to him even before he realized he had reached it. "No."

Ella's gaze showed her contempt, but it was soon replaced by calculation. "You Starfleet types are so predictable, so bound by your rules of fairness and justice. Don't you know the universe doesn't work that way? Where were these high-minded sensibilities when I was alone and lost in your Alpha Quadrant? Where was your tolerance when they tried to cage us and enslave us? You couldn't even win fairly, you had to poison the Founders to force our surrender. We shapeshifters have been oppressed long enough, always being used or feared. I will change all that."

"You're changing nothing," Chris said coldly. "I'm not killing you because I can't pull the trigger. I'm not killing you because the woman whose face you're wearing hated violence and the worst thing I could do is to kill someone in her name."

"Your weakness is why I'll win."

"You've got nothing," Chris glared at her, but inwardly, he was concerned by what he saw in her eyes. There something beneath the surface, something she was hiding, despite her willingness to talk. "I may not be able to kill you, but your little plan to kill the Founders is over. The Reliant is intact, I've told the Dominion exactly what has happened. They're aware of your rogue cell and they know the Federation had nothing to do with it. The warp reactor was detonated nowhere near Empersa. You failed. Five years of playing the part of Ella, and you still managed to screw it up."

"I never fail," she sneered. "You think I didn't have a contingency plan? I always had a Plan B, Chris."

Chris did not like the sound of this. "Really, do tell."

"How about I show you?" Holding out her hand, lifting from beneath the skin to sit comfortably on her open palm was a vial and in it's a darkish substance that looked as ominous as it was no doubt deadly to someone. "This is the morphogenic virus created by Section 31, newly improved, of course, so Odo has no defense against it. All I have to do is infect the Great Link and they'll all die."

"Put it down!" Chris warned, ready to fire again. This time, he wasn't going to hesitate to make the kill shot.

Giving him a sly smile, she shifted again and just when he thought turning into Sarah was the cruelest thing she could do, she changed into a five-year-old boy with his eyes and Sarah's smile. "You won't shoot me will you Daddy?"

Chris grit his teeth, for a moment, unable to speak. Even though he had a teenage version of Adam in his life, Chris still remembered the little baby who changed his entire view of the world the first time Chris looked into his small, pink face. He blinked away the memory of Adam running into his arms whenever he walked into their quarters or watching Adam take his first steps. There were so many little gems about Adam he remembered, things he kept close to his heart, and yet it was always followed by the anguish of knowing there would be no more, not for that little boy he loved so much.

"You bitch," he whispered, watching her take Adam's tiny steps to the shore, where she intended to poison her race. Once again, he squeezed the trigger and the blast impacted impotently at the ground near her feet. "You think wearing my son's face is going to keep me from killing you? Don't you know? I'm not seeing Adam! I'm seeing the thing that killed him."

"You ought to thank me," she spoke in Adam's voice. "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be the captain you are. I made you strong Chris. You're a great Captain, possibly one of the best in the fleet, but you wouldn't have got there with your precious family holding you back. I freed you."

Chris pulled the trigger.

The beam struck the tiny figure in the chest, driving the form of Adam to his knees. The child stared at him in betrayal and Chris wanted to die right there and then before he reminded himself, he hadn't shot Adam. The phaser rifles whose power was a great deal more intense than a phaser, wounded the changeling enough for her to discard her shape and Chris was grateful for that small comfort because now she had reverted to the form of Ella Gaines.

"You're not going to kill me," she stated, beginning to realize now she might have miscalculated his response to her use of his wife and son as props in this confrontation. "I was a Starfleet Captain just like you. No matter what, you won't betray Federation ethics to murder me." She continued toward the shore.

Chris fired again.

This time the beam struck her in the torso and she doubled over, her uniform revealing the burn from the phaser. The uncertainty showed on her face but also the defiance. Just looking at her told Chris what she was going to do next. He adjusted the settings on the phase rifle accordingly and gave her his last warning. This time, he was speaking to her, not as a grieving father and husband, but as the Captain of the Maverick.

"Stand down Captain," he afforded her that much mostly because he had no idea what else to call her. "I won't tell you again."

She straightened up, staring at him defiantly, aware now she was up against the movable force of nature that was Chris Larabee's will. With a gleam in her eyes that told him in no uncertain terms what she was going to do, she lunged towards the amber sea in front of her.

The shot from the phase rifle caught her in mid torso once again, except this time he had not lied when he gave her his last warning. She uttered a shriek of agony and indignation as she and the vial she carried disintegrated in a brief glow of fiery gold, before flickering out for good. He watched what she was, dissipate into nothingness, taking with her, the last vestiges of his control.

For a few seconds, he could do nothing but stand there, staring into the Great Link but seeing only the wife and son he lost, the life he imagined with her on that sidewalk in San Francisco. He thought bringing their killer to justice would finally fill the hole inside of him, but it did not. He felt oddly empty. Amid his pain, however, he suddenly wished Mary was here.

"Are you alright?"

Chris spun around in shock, thinking he was alone and finding himself standing in front of a changeling. Unlike Ella who looked entirely human, this one was clearly not, even though he wore humanoid shape and had slicked back gold hair. His face was unformed, like a clay sculpture yet to be shaped.

"Constable Odo?" Chris managed to say once his surprise subsided.

"Yes," Odo nodded and then repeated himself. "Are you alright, Captain Larabee?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded, a little dazed, his emotions still raw and exposed. "I'm fine or rather I will be."

The Constable nodded and said nothing, waiting for the Captain of the Maverick to compose himself.

"You were watching?" Chris asked, trying not to sound angry, but he could have done without that confrontation, considering how dirty the Ella changeling had been willing to play. He was going to need a stiff drink with Josiah to purge the image of shooting Adam out of his mind.

"Yes, we were," Odo answered, guessing what was on Chris's mind. "I told the others to hold back, to see what would happen?"

"What would happen?" Chris raised his voice. "I was just forced to shoot a changeling who looked like my dead five-year-old son! The same changeling who orchestrated his and his mother's murder!" He glared at the former security chief of Deep Space Nine. It was an experience I would have preferred to live without."

"I know and I'm sorry, but it served a purpose," Odo explained kindly, understanding the man's rage. In that way, he was not unlike another Captain he had known, one who was just as passionate about family as Chris Larabee. "My people needed to see you fighting for them. I have been trying to convince them not all solids are dangerous. You were willing to take her in alive, even after what she did to your family. It was only the threat to us that forced your hand. I know it doesn't mean much to you after what just happened, but it does to us. It makes it possible for the Founders to see the solids as future friends, not cold war enemies on the other side of the wormhole."

"I believe in the peace," Chris admitted quietly, his anger fading somewhat considering that explanation. In truth, nothing was ever going to spare him from suffering some anguish. "If what you just saw helps us maintain it, then I can accept it."

"Thank you," Odo replied. "I have notified Fanaian and the rest of the Dominion ships above us, the Reliant and the Maverick are to be given safe passage through to the wormhole, with the Founders thanks."

Bet Fanaian would have loved that, Chris thought allowing himself a sliver of satisfaction.

"Thank you," Chris said graciously before another thought struck him. "There were a hundred of you sent through the wormhole two centuries ago. I think you better start taking a head count of where they all are. Ella wasn't alone, she had at least four other accomplices. There's no telling how many others are out there."

"That's true," Odo nodded and the displeasure in his voice harkened back to the security officer he had once been. "Rest assured, we'll be attending to the matter ourselves."

"Good," Chris nodded and tapped his combadge. "Until the next time Constable."

"Likewise, Captain Larabee. "

With that, Chris tapped his combadge. It was time to get the hell out of Empersa and back to his ship.

Epilogue

Closure

"Security Chief's Log - Stardate 2378.254.

Following our boarding of the Reliant to enlighten its crew at the perilous situation they were in thanks to the deception carried out by the changeling, we returned to the Maverick, leaving the ship in the capable hands of its First Officer, Commander Robin Lefler. Understandably, the crew is suffering a serious blow to morale after learning their Captain, many of whom served with the lady for years, was an imposter. Fortunately, Commander Lefler, whose indomitable spirit and refusal to allow the situation to best her, is determined to help her crewmates through this crisis.

Captain Larabee's confrontation with the imposter, resulting in the changeling's demise while attempting to assassinate the Founders, has placed us in good stead with the Dominion who are rather pleased with our efforts to save their deities. While I am still unhappy the Captain chose to transport to the surface alone, he resolved the matter with typical effectiveness, though I suspect the emotional toll has been significant. It was telling when he left the bridge to the First Officer and chose to take some time alone in his quarters. He has kept many of the detail regarding his final meeting with the imposter silent, but I have no doubt that it has played havoc with his emotions.

Fortunately, the Captain's success in thwarting an assassination attempt on the Founders has been met with considerable goodwill from the Dominion. While the Maverick was forced to tow the Reliant back to the wormhole and the Alpha Quadrant due to her lack of warp drive, the task force led by Fanaian was ordered to provide escort. Upon our emergence through the wormhole, we learned Deep Space Nine successfully fended off the attack by the two Klingon ships and the Bajoran government has issued a formal censure to the Breen for their participation in this matter. In contrast, Starfleet was most pleased with the Maverick's involvement in averting a new war with the Dominion and the Captain has decided we should spend a few days at DS9 for shore leave."

********

Ezra Standish lowered his cup of Pekoe tea and eased back into his chair, taking a sip and savouring the flavour in his mouth when the chirp at his door told him he had visitors, making him sit up straighter. It was by ship's time, in the evening and he had intended on finishing his log entry before joining Julia in her quarters for dinner.

"Come in." He called out, confident the computer would interpret that appropriately and act accordingly.

It did. The doors parted and Ezra saw Alexandra Styles stepping into the room. She was not usually a visitor to these walls and as she entered, he noted how she took in the place with her usual deep scrutiny. While being puzzled by her presence, he was not unhappy to see her. There had been little opportunity to talk since she returned to limited duty, a fact Nathan had been quick to remind her during briefings, much to the woman's chagrin.

"Alexandra," Ezra rose to his feet behind his desk, a dimpled smile cracking his face in half as he stepped out to greet her. "What a surprise. What can I do for you?"

She paused in the middle of the room, waiting to be invited to sit, noticing the feline on one of the chairs who was eyeing Alex with suspicion and giving Ezra a look, demanding to know the identity of this usurper in her kingdom.

"Hello Ezra," Alex smiled warmly. "I wanted to drop in and say hi."

As a woman who still had difficulty socializing, Ezra thought, she was not one who simply dropped in without reason. However, Ezra kept this observation to himself. "I am always pleased to see you. Do sit." He gestured to the sofa.

"Thanks," she flashed him a radiant smile, one Ezra suspected snared Vin Tanner from the very first as they both settled down to talk.

"So," he looked at her. "To what do I owe this visit?"

Alex took a deep breath and gave him a look of affection which Ezra found warming, even if it was somewhat confusing. "I wanted to tell you that I don't blame you for anything that happened on Utopia Planitia. I was talking to Buck and I noticed by the way you had trouble meeting my eyes in the briefing, you might have this misguided idea what happened to me was your fault."

As always, Ezra maintained his poker face but was willing to admit there was more than a little truth to her words. "If I had not asked for your help, you would be looking forward to a happy day in nine months."

"Ezra," she gave him a look of impatience before she reached for his hand. "Don't be a dumb ass."

"Charmingly put," he stated but squeezed her hand back.

"Ezra, I wanted to do it," Alex reiterated. "For the Captain, I would have done anything, just as you would do anything for him. We both wanted to help Chris find out the truth and we did. I don't regret that. Am I hurting because I lost...." she paused a moment, revealing she had not quite overcome the anguish of that hurt yet, even if she was learning to live with it? "Yes, I am, but not for one moment do I hold you responsible. I don't want you to think this is your fault under any circumstances. You're my friend and one of the best men I know. I could never hold you accountable for anything."

Ezra shifted his gaze away from her, touched by her speech and wishing to hide the emotion sneaking into his face despite his best efforts to hide it. He was not a man who exposed his feelings to anyone, not with the card's life had dealt him but it not mean he did not appreciate those who inspired it.

"Thank you, Alexandra," he said after a moment, "I appreciate that."

"Come on," she said getting to her feet. "Let's go get a drink at Quark's. I want you to make that Ferengi cry."

Ezra chuckled softly, confident he could manage that and then some, however, he had plans with Julia. "May I take a rain check on that for now? I have another engagement to attend."

"Sure," Alex nodded but leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You're a hell of a friend to have in one's corner Ezra, don't you ever forget it."

Ezra said nothing and remained silent even as she left.

********

As it turned out, Alex was not the only caller he had that day.

When Chris Larabee appeared at his door, Ezra was frankly rather surprised. He assumed Chris would be taking a sabbatical in his private quarters after leaving Buck the bridge for a few days, no doubt to overcome the emotional turmoil he suffered down there on Empersa, one Ezra was certain only Josiah might be privy to. Nevertheless, Ezra was glad to see the man was up and about and not in seclusion as he had been after Q dropped his bombshell on the Captain so many months ago.

"Captain, what a surprise. What can I do for you?"

"I don't want to hold you up," Chris said quietly, not intending to stay for long but in his ruminations of the last few days, there were a few things he found outstanding in this affair needing resolution. "I just thought I could have a few minutes of your time."

"Certainly," Ezra gestured to the seat.

"It's okay, it won't take that long," Chris said graciously and turned his cool gaze on his chief of security.

"I am intrigued," he admitted.

"You shouldn't be," Chris smiled faintly but there was no amusement in it, just sadness. "Ezra, I want to thank you for what you did."

"Captain...." Ezra started to say, wanting to stop him from going further, aware now of what Chris intended and he wanted to spare his captain that discomfort. The pain in the man's eyes was plain to see even if the Captain was attempting to project a glacial facade. He wondered once again, what Chris had gone through down there on the surface.

Chris was not about to be deterred. "Ezra, let me finish."

"Of course, Chris," Ezra nodded, deciding if this was what the Captain wished, he would respect it.

"I want to thank you for helping me find out the truth. You didn't just solve Sarah and Adam's murder, you averted a war. Don't sell yourself short on just how big a deal this is, not just to me personally but the Federation."

"I did my job Captain," Ezra managed to say. "As an investigator, I could do no less."

"You did more than that Ezra, you found out who killed them and gave me answers I sorely needed to move on. Thank you, Ezra, I'll never forget it."

"Has its Sir?" Ezra asked, studying him closely. "Has it really helped you move on?"

"Not quite," Chris was willing to admit. "But I'm getting there."

********

Less than a day later, Chris found himself outside one of the docking stations of Deep Space Nine waiting for Mary, Adam and Billy to arrive from Earth. After everything that had taken place on Empersa, Chris found himself missing them both badly, having come to the realization how much they filled the crater-sized void in his heart, left by Sarah and Adam. For once, he accepted Josiah's help willingly and he spent a few hours away from the bridge, talking in length to the Counsellor, purging himself of the residual feelings of anger and torment after his encounter with their killer.

After having to pull the trigger on a five-year-old Adam and verbally jousting with Sarah, Chris was uncertain how he would react to seeing Mary and the teenage boy he had accepted as his own. Despite his assurances to Josiah he was fine now, Chris still felt raw inside as he waited for them to arrive, watching the flow of people moving through the station to other destinations. He supposed he could have simply authorized their immediate transport to the Maverick, but the truth was, Chris needed a bit of time away from his ship. He needed to shake the persona of Captain Larabee for a while.

As always, it was her golden hair Chris saw through the crowd first.

Sighting Mary through the spaces between the bodies moving towards the rest of the station from the docking bays, an involuntary sigh of pleasure escaped his lips at the sight of her. She wore her golden hair loose, allowing it to flow around her shoulders like a shimmering cascade. As always, she wore one of her figure-hugging dresses that easily made her one of the most stunning women present. It dawned on him then, that he had reacted to Mary the way he reacted to seeing Sarah the first time. Something inside of him simply knew they were meant to be.

As he watched her laughing and smiling, holding Billy's hand in hers while engaged in conversation with Adam, he realized for all he had lost because of the changeling's machinations, he also gained. Yes, he lost his family, but fate had seen fit to repay him for that emptiness with a new family, he should cherish just as much. Mary, Billy and now Adam filled the void left behind by the Magellan's destruction. None of it was more evident than when they realized he was standing there, and their faces lit up at his presence.

"Chris!" Mary exclaimed, that glorious smile of hers lighting up her face as her blue-grey eyes rested on him. "What are you doing here?"

It was evident despite the surprise, she was terribly pleased to see him and once again, Chris felt ashamed for asking her to remain on Earth. Throughout all this, Mary had been completely supportive of his efforts to get justice for Sarah and Adam, even when he was pushing her away. She stood by him, tolerated his indifference and comforted him when things invariably went wrong. With Billy, she had made him a better man, perhaps even a better Captain and it was time, Chris started seeing the future with her, instead of being trapped in the past with Sarah.

"I thought I'd surprise all of you," he said with a genuine smile of pleasure as he ran his gaze over the three faces in front of him. "How was your trip?"

"It was very good," Billy beamed and turned an adoring eye at Adam. "Adam took me into town when we were at Vin's ranch and we made a lot of new friends, Arisia, Zoey, Amanda and Tolina."

Despite himself, Chris couldn't help but smile at this. Somehow, through the quirks of fate, he had been given a second chance to be a father, not just to this Adam but to Billy too, though he respected Syan of Vulcan too much to ever take that man's place in the little boy's heart. Glancing at the older of the two, he saw a smirk on Adam's face and realized it was the same one Sarah often gave him when she thought she knew better than him, which she almost always did.

This was his family now, he thought and despite the emotional rollercoaster he had been on the last few days, it was the truth. He was never alone as he thought he was.

Without saying another word, he gave Billy a hug and felt his heart leap a little when the boy's small arms wrapped around him and reciprocated.

"Are you okay now Chris?" Billy asked in a small voice.

Chris stared at him, thinking of the little Vulcan child who had come on his bridge, so terrified of him at first. He thought of how this child had applied salve to the wounds in his heart and filled the void left by his child.

"Yeah," he tried to keep the emotion out of his voice. "I think I'm going to be."

"Hey, Billy," the teen-aged version of Adam looked down at the little boy and then back at his father. "Why don't we go take a look around the place. We'll go see the wormhole."

Adam held his gaze and Chris knew the younger man was giving him a chance to catch up with Mary privately, seeing the emotional state his father was in. Adam understood there was a family his father still mourned, a mirror version of Sarah and himself, who was cruelly taken from him, just as his own mother was murdered and his father, lost before he'd was even born. Together, they had healed each other, but what Chris Larabee lacked, was closure and Adam who knew all about grief, understood how important it was to have to go on.

From the instant Chris had seen this boy, Adam had become his son, and never did he feel that connection more than right now. Leaning forward, he pulled Adam's head towards him and pressed their foreheads together.

"I love you, Adam," he said quietly. "You're my son. Don't ever think anything else."

"I know," Adam raised his eyes to the Captain of the Maverick and flashed him that smile, the same heart-stopping one that made Chris fall in love with Sarah so many years ago. The one that would still grace his life because of this boy in front of him.

"Alright,' Chris pulled back because as it was with men, it was never comfortable to linger on the emotional for too long. Ruffling Adam's hair, Chris gave him a knowing look. "Don't lose Billy chasing Dabo girls."

"What? Me?" Adam scoffed and gave Mary a look of complete innocence. "Never happen."

"See that it doesn't," Mary gave him a hard stare which indicated she would not appreciate her young son near anything unsavory.

Adam simply laughed and the two boys headed away from them, disappearing into the Promenade before Mary turned back to Chris.

"Are you alright?" She asked tenderly, her hand reaching for his cheek.

"Yeah, I am actually," Chris covered her hand with his palm and leaned forward to kiss her. As their lips touched and Chris took in the scent of her perfume in his lungs, the soft silk of her skin against his, he felt blessed that he was lucky enough to meet two extraordinary women in his life. He would love Sarah all the days of his life, but he was also damned glad Mary would share those days with him. "I'm sorry I made you stay back on Earth, you should have been here."

"I think," Mary said with understanding, "that it was best I wasn't. You needed to go through this without worrying about me Chris and I'm glad you did. I'm glad you got your answers."

"I did," Chris nodded. "But not just to Sarah and Adam's death, but the rest of my life. They're gone and I'll always love them but us," he looked at her and then glanced in the direction the two boys had gone, "you, Billy and Adam, you're my family now. I need you in my life as much as I needed to let my past go."

"We're here Chris," Mary smiled. "Always."

Nothing was forever, Sarah and Adam's death had taught Chris Larabee this much, but he was the captain of a starship, with friends who cared for him, a woman who loved him and sons who looked to him for guidance. Even if it was fleeting. It was enough.

THE END

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