The Front Lines
by Scribe

Main Characters: All Seven and OFCs

Type of story (Gen, Xover)

Universe (Star Trek)

Summary:

Join the USS Maverick, the newest galaxy class starship to be assigned to stand guard at the border between the Federation and the distant Delta Quadrant. Its mission is to act as sentry post for any future Borg invasions after the events in Star Trek: First Contact. When the Maverick is called on to investigate the silence from its outer colonies, Chris Larabee discovers an ancient enemy whose links to the Borg are closer than anyone can imagine.

Author's Note: While many elements of this series sees its origins in Nancy's great story One Day in Sector Seven , I have tried to make this as fully realised as any series, including the addition of OFCs into the story. While I love the boys, it did not sit with me that the entire command structure would be male, hence the reason for the female officers.

This story is set post Star Trek: First Contact, pre Deep Space Nine finale.

First story in the Star Trek: Maverick series.


Prologue:
Judgement Call

Earth - Six months earlier....

Being in command was about taking the responsibility of making a 'judgement call'.

As a Starfleet officer, the reality of it held more substance than the uniform, the stars or even the ship to which one belonged. The Judgement Call was that moment every cadet, dreaming his wildest during one of those boring astrophysics classes, prayed for. When the cadet wears his officer's pips for the first time, the excitement of that moment dies a little because it is tempered by fear.

The Judgement Call decides whether one lived or died, held ground to fight or simply slink away in defeat. It was the gauge by which the mettle of every Starfleet officer was tested. Those who could make the Call could aspire to the ranks of the Federation elite, becoming legends like Archer, Garth, Pike, and Kirk. Those who could not, became foot soldiers to be forgotten by history.

For Commander Christopher Larabee, First Officer of the USS Rutherford, the Call was now.

* * * * * * *

"This is Captain Picard of the Enterprise! I am taking command of the fleet. Target all your weapons on these following coordinates! Fire at my command."

Chris stood there, looking at the view screen in silent contemplation. Around him, the bridge was a smouldering wreck. Only half the consoles and stations were actually still in operation, while live wires and conduits hung loosely from shattered panelling and twisted bulkheads. The bridge was bathed in a reddish glow, with klaxons screaming out the inevitable death knell of the ship.

Captain Savil was dead. He, Chris Larabee, was in command. He was in command of a Nebula class starship about to die fighting the Borg over the planet Earth. The admiral of the fleet, from which whom Picard had suddenly seized control, was also gone. All avenues of escape had been sealed. The Call had him surrounded. He took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his brow, ignored the bleeding he could feel under his uniform and took a final look at the faces around him. Some were rookies, cadets fresh out of the Academy while others were seasoned, logging in hundreds of hours of star time. Yet now they all wore the same expression, the same expectation.

Picard had no right to take command of the Fleet. The Admiral had deemed him an unnecessary liability. Chris did not believe that estimation was fair. Any man who could retain his sanity after the nightmare of assimilation should not be disregarded so easily, but following Picard's command was a violation of orders. Chris took a split second to decide and the thoughts that ran through his mind were many. A thousand lines of Starfleet regulations flashed in front of his eyes. Words like 'insubordination' and 'court-martial' flashed through his mind.

But this was Captain Jean Luc Picard.

The man responsible for the Picard Maneuver. The Starfleet Captain who had engineered a truce with the warlike Gorn. The man who commanded the first attacks against the Ferengi and prevented a Romulan invasion of Vulcan. Picard's achievements spoke not of delusions of grandeur but an almost iron will to survive all odds with the greatest dignity and that made Chris Larabee's decision all the harder.

"Lieutenant Tanner." He turned to the junior navigator and helmsman that had been forced to take tactical when the officer-in-charge of the post had died minutes ago. "Signal the Enterprise we will comply." Tanner had only been transferred to the Rutherford in the last two weeks and he was almost fresh out of a frontier posting that saw very little action. Chris could hardly imagine what was going through his mind at the moment, but the young man was holding together exceedingly well.

"Commander, that's a violation of Starfleet orders! Captain Picard does not have authorization to take command of the fleet!" This came from Lieutenant Commander Watts. Watts was his science officer and a very proper Englishman who lived by the book with visible gaps in his knowledge as to the spirit behind its high-minded ideals.

Judgement Call, Chris. Now's the time.

Chris turned to Watts and said simply, "Lieutenant Commander Watts, you will fire on the coordinates designated by Captain Picard. Consider that an order."

Watts wanted to argue but the look on the faces of not just his commander, but of the others on the bridge, changed his mind. He nodded mutely and went to the station formerly occupied by the now deceased Security Officer. He stared at the erratically flickering console before meeting Chris's gaze again. "Sir, these coordinates are not even for any major system on the cube!"

Chris glared at the man with a look of ice. Command officers needed to project a united front. This time more than any other, Chris wanted that kind of strength to boost morale among his junior officers. Watts's ignorance of this principle angered him intensely, however, now was not the time to address the man's conduct. The Rutherford was lost. Everyone on the bridge knew it. A determined lieutenant who was holding things together with her spit to ensure that the Rutherford went down with honor was manning the Engineering deck. Before she was done, Chris Larabee was going to give the Rutherford her day.

"Fire at Picard's command," Chris said again.

"Yes Sir," Watts replied, visibly contemptuous of the decision and his being forced to aid in what he deemed to be a violation of orders.

Chris watched the cube flinging tendrils of unrestrained power at the starships around it. The behemoth showed no signs of relenting and the dark space above the Earth was littered with the debris of Starfleet's finest. To those thousands who lay dead in the vacuum, resistance was indeed futile.

Picard's signal came through the speakers and Chris responded in kind. "Fire all weapons!"

The Rutherford gave it her all. Power spewed out from damaged phaser banks and photon torpedo tubes. The combined power of the remaining fleet came forth like a brilliant cascade. The cube twisted slightly under the strain and for a moment, it seemed that Picard's gamble was indeed a fool's errand and they were all going to see the Earth destroyed.

Suddenly, the Borg ship began buckling under a series of explosions across its hull. Bulkheads exploded outward, debris flying in all directions. In a split second, it was completely enveloped by a large cloud of detonation. The shock wave expanded like a ring forming around a new star. As he watched as it cascaded towards ship and Chris knew instantly that in its present condition, there was no way that the Rutherford was going to survive the impact.

He touched the communication device on his chest and almost shouted, "All hands abandon ship! Repeat, all hands proceed to emergency life pods immediately!"

He said the words just as the shock wave hit. Chris and everyone else on the bridge went flying at the impact. Everything that was not bolted down became airborne. Glass, debris and bodies moved like a cascade of their own as the shock wave swept the Rutherford away. Klaxons that were screaming before had terminated abruptly and that silence was even more frightening.

He felt pain grip his ribs as he landed. As his weight came down, he felt the world go black as the floor came up and swallowed him whole...

* * * * * * *

He woke up a week later in a hospital at Starfleet Medical on Earth.

Commander Chris Larabee woke up to find himself about to receive the Federation Citation of Honor for his bravery under fire. Captain Picard's strategy had destroyed the Borg and saved the Earth. Those who had followed his banner of violation were apparently the saviors of the home world, and like all heroes, were given ceremonious congratulations. He learned that half of his crew survived the battle with the Borg and most of those had reached the life pods when he gave the order to abandon ship.

The young lieutenant whose name he learned was Julia Pemberton, the one who held the engineering deck together, had transported out before the shock wave tore the underside of the ship apart. Chris mourned all the lost lives from his bed. Despite the agony of their deaths, he took some small comfort in the fact that when the time came; he had managed to act accordingly.

He had made the Call and they promoted him for it.

At the age of thirty-eight, Chris Larabee was going to be a starship Captain.

Chapter One
Balances

Captain Chris Larabee paced the floor of Admiral Wellington's office, trying to calm himself down before he met the man in a few moments. He ran his fingers through his dark gold hair and wondered if the heat was due to his mood or the temperature outside. Wellington's secretary seemed to view his ability to curb his temper with skepticism as she glanced up occasionally from her desk to check on his progress. Chris paced the carpeted floor for the hundredth time before concluding that he was going to be exhausted long before he wore out the carpet. As an act of defiance, he chose to sit down again.

Outside the huge picture window of the annex preceding the Admiral's inner sanctum, his intense blue eyes could see the Golden Gate Bridge under the powerful rays of the noon day sky. It was a typical Californian day in San Francisco this afternoon and he wished he were out in it, instead of preparing a confrontation with the man who had given him his new command. However, Chris was stubborn in his belief that a Captain should have the right to select his own officers, not have them chosen for him.

A protocol officer! Why did he need a protocol officer?

He had nothing against the importance of the role. Not at all. However, Chris felt that it should be his choice whether he needed one and not have some stranger forced on him. Truth be known, he could probably use one considering that much of the Maverick's mission would involve first contact situations, but that still did not give them license to usurp what should have been the fundamental right of any Captain. If truth be known, he had no candidate in mind for the position, but Chris wanted the freedom to make the search himself.

"The Admiral will see you now." Wellington's secretary finally responded.

Reasonably calmer, Chris rose to his feet and walked towards the doorway leading to Admiral Richard Wellington. Wellington was one of Starfleet's more seasoned and decorated officers. During his years on the Excelsior and later the Hannibal, Wellington had proven himself against the Romulans and the Cardassians. As an administrator of what was now called the Frontier territories to for Starfleet High Command, he was known for making unusual choices in fleet appointments. Wellington did not just assign captains for his starships, he also hand-picked crews with certain allowances to captain's choice.

Admiral Wellington was seated behind a polished oak desk of almost ancient design. These day, Starfleet decor was mostly slanted towards modern ergonomically designed furnishings and Chris had to admire the craftsmanship of the desk. He was a man in his sixties, well preserved with a rakish bearing for his age. His dark hair was slowly turning grey and his grey eyes appeared as sharp as always. Wellington looked up at Chris from behind his steel rimmed glasses over a pile of data pads. Immediately, Chris regretted not contacting the Admiral by com screen instead of interrupting him in person.

"What can I do for you, Captain Larabee?" the man asked coolly. He sat back in his chair and eyed Chris's entry into his office.

"I wish to speak to you about the crew assignments," Chris said nervously. He still had trouble adjusting to the fact that he was now a Captain of a starship instead of just another senior officer. Especially when he was addressing an Admiral.

"What about the crew assignments?" Wellington inquired, his grey eyes narrowing. "We have tried to place all your requests."

"It's the position of the protocol officer," Chris said deciding to plunge in and just say what was on his mind. "I thought it was my choice whether or not I needed one."

"Under normal circumstances, yes," Wellington nodded before adding. "However, you are one of the youngest captains in the fleet and that does change things slightly."

Chris bristled at the mention of his age; a fact not lost on Wellington. "Sir, I thought after promoting me to captain, my age would not be a deciding factor in such matters."

Wellington liked Chris Larabee. He was determined, stubborn and he knew how to leap beyond what was required and take a risk when it was warranted. The Borg attack had proved that much. Many other officers in the same position had faltered when Picard took the initiative. Officers, who could put aside the risk to themselves for the sake of all, should not be wasted. The Admiral knew a potential candidate for the elite when he saw it, but Chris had a long way to go before he reached those ranks yet.

"Your ability is not in question, Captain," Wellington responded with a touch of ice to emphasize that this discussion was at his good graces only. By right, he could simply make it an order and Chris would have to suffer it whether he liked it or not. "However, you tend to be reckless and headstrong."

"But a Protocol Officer?" Chris exclaimed. "I don't even know what he does."

"She does," Wellington pointed out.

"Whatever," Chris replied. He had not read that far down the file before he had come marching up to Wellington's office. Suddenly, he found himself in partial agreement with the Admiral's assessment of his rash nature.

"Yes." Wellington nodded. "Lieutenant Mary Travis is highly recommended. She is personally responsible for negotiating several prisoner releases with the Dominion, has spent time on the border and in more recent years has been the Starfleet liaison with the Vulcan Embassy. You're lucky to get her."

"Sir," Chris took a deep breath,"I have no problems with the position of protocol officer, I just question our compatibility in working together."

"I do not," the Admiral said shortly. "If I'm not mistaken Jean Luc Picard has had the aid of a protocol officer on his bridge and the Enterprise has gone down in history."

"With all due respect," Chris retaliated. "I am not Picard and Lieutenant Travis is not a Betazoid empath."

"But the balance works just the same," Wellington declared. "Picard took the advice of Counsellor Troi since her role was more or less the same as the protocol officer without question. Are you telling me that you deserve better than Jean Luc Picard?"

Chris opened his mouth to speak but somehow thought better of it. He suddenly had the insight that whatever he said would not change Wellington's mind. "Of course not, Sir."

"Good." Wellington rose to his feet. For a man in his sixties, he matched Chris's height of six foot one and was able to meet the younger man's gaze directly. "Lieutenant Mary Travis will report to you on the Maverick as ordered at 1400 hours tomorrow."

Chris nodded in response, knowing how to take a hit when it was unavoidable. He did not know why Wellington was so determined that he take on Lieutenant Mary Travis, but he assumed there was a good reason for it. In any case, it was out of his hands now. Chris was starting to believe it always had been.

"Yes Sir." He said finally.

"Dismissed." Wellington remarked putting the final nail into the discussion

Chris turned around to leave when suddenly Wellington spoke. "Captain, a starship needs balances, with Lieutenant Travis as your protocol officer, the Maverick will have some."

Suddenly, Chris felt somewhat disarmed from his previous anger. "You really think that I need a protocol officer?"

He was suddenly interested in Wellington's reasons for making this decision. Chris was still resentful that he had not been allowed to make the choice himself, but he was not so arrogant as to ignore the assessment of someone who had more experience and years under his belt.

"Yes, I do." Wellington decided to give him a straight answer if that would make the assignment easier to accept. "You're a good officer, Chris, but you need tempering. You need a protocol officer who can give you alternatives you've never considered. The choice of selecting your own first officer is a Captain's right, I won't presume to take that from you. Wilmington has an excellent service record but he's a lot like you. He shoots from the hip. So, if you want Wilmington, you're going to have to take Travis."

Chris let out a sigh, knowing that despite his reservations, Wellington's words had affected him. He was a first-time starship Captain and all the lives under his command were his responsibility. "Thank you for your candor Sir," Chris replied and then added. "And your patience. I hope you are right."

"Trust an old man on this one." Wellington grinned. He knew Chris's change of heart was not because the order was irrefutable but because he had seen the sense in Wellington's arguments. A man who could admit he was wrong was rare and Chris was living up to his every expectation.

"I will Sir." Chris answered. " I don't know how this will work with Lieutenant Travis, but I assure you, I will do my best to work with her and take her ideas into consideration."

"That's all that I ask." The Admiral replied sitting down again.

With that Chris Larabee left the officer hoping that the Admiral was as sure about this as he seemed because Chris himself was nowhere near that confident.

Wellington watched him go and let out a sigh before pressing the com unit on his desk. "Judy, what time does Lieutenant Travis wish to see me?"

* * * * * * *

Outside the huge picture window of the annex preceding the Admiral's inner sanctum, Lieutenant Mary Travis could see the Golden Gate Bridge under the powerful rays of the afternoon sky. The heat was nothing like that of Vulcan, of course, but then this was Earth and there should be no reason for her to expect it to be like Vulcan. There was nothing on Earth that even remotely resembled Vulcan and Mary made a mental note to go home during her next shore leave.

As a career Starfleet officer, she was not prone to questioning orders. Mary lived under the simple philosophy that as a subordinate in Starfleet's hierarchy, it did not do to question the logic of those in a higher command. What they decided was policy. What she preferred was irrelevant. It did not affect her functioning as an officer if she was required to serve with a human Captain. Except that in the cold face of that logic, Mary had found herself thinking that she might be somewhat out of place on a ship full of humans, after spending so many years on Vulcan, living as one and learning to think in the same way.

To anyone else in the room, Lieutenant Mary Travis was a human woman in her early thirties with a rather glacial expression most times that looked very out of place on the cool beauty of her features. The most noticeable thing about Mary was her gold hair, worn loose around her shoulders which had been of much consternation to the Vulcans who believed hair ought to be worn in tight bangs. Fortunately, too much of Mary's human origins remained for her to cut her tresses and though her husband would never publicly admit it, he had loved her wearing that cascade of gold freely over her shoulders.

Although she had vast experience in diplomacy and negotiation, not to mention an intimate understanding of Starfleet regulations and Federation directives, she had not been a protocol officer and that added to her apprehension. What made it worse, beyond her own fears, was the record of the commander she would be serving. Not only was he human but he was as far from a Vulcan as she could possibly imagine. Mary did not want to be placed in a position where what she was used to would only cause friction with her Captain.

"The Admiral will see you now." Wellington's secretary broke through the train of her thoughts.

Mary rose to her feet and replied politely. "Thank you."

The woman made no reaction to that although there was something in her eyes that begged question. However, no hint as to what that might have been appeared forthcoming, so Mary saw no reason to linger. She entered the room and saw Admiral Wellington seated behind his desk waiting for her. Mary had never met the man before although she studied all available data on him prior to this meeting. The Admiral had his own ideas on crew selection, Mary had deduced, although his choices could be rather unorthodox at times.

Like now.

"You wished to see me Lieutenant Travis?" Wellington did not rise from his seat nor did Mary expect him to.

"Yes Sir, I wish to request a transfer from the Maverick."

Wellington showed an almost Vulcan mask of reaction to the request. Mary had expected an emotional outburst of some kind from the man. Humans could be so unpredictable when it came to such matters. Mary preferred the symmetry of Vulcan behavior to the disarray of human emotion.

"May I have a reason?" Wellington inquired with similar calm.

"I do not believe I would make a good protocol officer for Captain Larabee." The golden hair beauty answered truthfully.

"I see." Wellington nodded. He had half expected this when he was told she wished to see him. "Are you not breaching the chain of command by coming to me with this?"

Mary shifted uncomfortably in her stance but made no admission of guilt even though she felt rivers of it coursing through her and reminded herself to stick to the speech she had prepared. "According to the data regarding my transfer to the Maverick, it appears that my position was not requested by Captain Larabee but by you. Therefore, it was my opinion that you were the one most appropriate to approach regarding a transfer."

"Is there any reason why you feel you cannot work with Chris Larabee?" the Admiral inquired.

"I feel nothing of the kind. I do believe, however, that he would not be receptive to the position of a protocol officer on his bridge. All my presence would accomplish, would be to create an atmosphere of conflict that will be non-beneficial to the crew."

Wellington nodded and took this all in. "Do you have problems working with humans?"

"I do not have any such problems." Mary responded automatically slightly incensed that he would even suggest such a thing. Could he not see that she was making the most sensible choice for everyone concerned? "It's just that I've read his record and he's..." Mary started to say before she stopped herself.

"You may speak your mind." Wellington prompted.

Mary let out a sigh trying to think of the best way to put this. "He's a bit of cowboy."

"I see." Wellington's expression suddenly became very hard. "Lieutenant, I understand that you've spend a lot of time with Vulcans, being stationed on the homeworld, not to mention your late husband was also Vulcan. However, Starfleet is about embracing all races and cultures, including your own. I appreciate the dilemma you face but there is no professional reason why you should not take your place on the Maverick."

Despite her reluctance to admit it, the Admiral had a very good point. In fact, that was the point that should override all other considerations. There was no reason why she couldn't take his placement as Protocol Officer of the ship and she was a Starfleet officer. Starfleet did not have to justify the reasoning behind its personnel assignments, least of all to an officer who reasons for asking were personal.

"Request for transfer denied." Wellington said flatly, meeting her gaze directly. "You will report to the Maverick as expected at 1400 hours tomorrow. Dismissed."

"Yes Sir." She said softly.

"And Lieutenant Travis," Wellington added as she was about to leave. "Despite what you think about Captain Larabee, he may surprise you."

Mary did not answer.

When she had gone, Wellington turned to the com unit on his desk again. "Judy, do we have anyone else from the Maverick with a problem?"

* * * * * * *

Actually, he did not have a problem.

The problem lay with his two daughters. They just did not see the sense in having a man his age get on a starship and going to the Frontier. It was not right for someone with his standing in the community to embark on some damn fool idealistic adventure. Perhaps they were right. Maybe a man his age had no business traipsing across the galaxy on a starship but the one counsel he valued the most would say otherwise. He could hear Alya's thoughts in his head as clearly as she often sent them to him in the manner of her people, the Betazoids. Being human, now that she was gone, it felt terribly empty inside his head without her comforting voice there to reassure him whenever he was nervous of anything.

Grab on Josiah. Grab on and ride the wind.

Of course, he would never hear her voice again or hear her thoughts in his mind. It had been almost a year since she had passed away now. Until recently, he spent each of those days since her death mourning the life they had shared together for almost twenty years. They had joined the Starfleet's Medical Corps together and the promise of a future together kept him bound to Earth, instead of travelling the stars. When their first child, Mara, had been born, Josiah forgot his longing for adventure and embarked on a new journey with his new family.

For years, he had forgotten those boyish dreams of moving through the stars, voyaging to places unknown on a starship. He had Alya and their life together was fulfilling in ways he never dreamed an earthbound existence could be. When she died of Xenex Syndrome, Josiah moved through the days as a man lost. He buried himself in his work at Starfleet Medical, produced several papers on various research subjects, attended more symposiums and gave more lectures than he cared to admit. All to avoid coming home to a life of which she was no longer a part.

It was after the Borg attack when the casualties were brought in, that Josiah had his first taste of pure psychiatry in a long time. At Starfleet Medical, he had been nestled with so much research and administrative duties he no longer had patients. However, the Borg attack had mobilized every psychiatrist in Starfleet's ranks to lend a hand. Josiah had been responsible for counselling the survivors of the Rutherford, the man who was also its first officer.

Chris Larabee had been no stranger to loss. He accepted the death of his crew stoically because he was used to it. His wife and son had been killed in a freak shuttle accident when they had been travelling to Earth from the Research Station at Syria Planum. Josiah could sense that despite his outwardly dispassionate manner to the tragedy, there was a part of Chris that was raw and still wounded from that loss. The psyche reports on Commander Larabee seemed to indicate he had yet to cope with the secret pain still buried deep inside him.

For almost a week, Chris Larabee lay in critical condition after suffering massive head injuries. There was a moment when Josiah did not think he would make it. However, the man possessed a will to live that Josiah was certain contributed to his recovery. Chris confessed he did not like psychiatrists, a fact Josiah could tell by his initial hostility. Eventually, their relationship had been forged because Chris became his friend.

Being married to a Betazoid had allowed Josiah an edge most Counsellors could use well. He found his empathy to their feelings made him a better analyst and his patients trusted his judgement in all things because they believed he genuinely cared. In Chris's case, it was listening to him speak of the places he had been and the things that he had seen on a starship that made Josiah determined to see him have those experiences again. After a few weeks, Josiah made a confession to the young first officer that he would have liked to have a career in space, had circumstances been different.

When Chris found out that he was the Captain of the Maverick, he was still at Starfleet Medical. Josiah was the first person he told about his new posting and after congratulations were made and the shock had worn away, Chris made a most unexpected request of him.

"Come with me."

Josiah had merely stared at him in astonishment. "You can't be serious!" However, being a married to a former telepath eradicated the doubt of Chris's intent. Josiah sensed that he was genuine in his offer.

"You said it yourself, Josiah," Chris declared. "You've been running yourself ragged trying to find something to do with yourself. Why not take a chance on this? You've always wanted to go to space."

"Yes but..." Josiah stammered, trying to think of reasons why he could not go. "I have not logged a year of star time in God only knows how long!"

"So? I want the best Counsellor in the fleet not a space ranger. As a psychiatrist, you've got the best bedside manner I've ever seen, and I ought to know -- I hate you people. Your qualifications are impeccable, and I don't even have to mention your credentials for research. I could not get a better Ship's Counsellor if I tried!"

Despite all his reservations, Josiah felt himself being convinced but there was still some resistance to the idea. The thought of leaving everything he had known for the past twenty years to embark on something completely unknown, frightened him to no end and yet it was also tantalizing. "I don't know." Josiah managed to say even though the gleam of desire to accept Chris's offer was being weighed down by a lifetime of responsibility to everyone but himself.

Chris paused a moment before saying softly. "What would Alya tell you to do if she were here?"

"If Alya was here, this would not be a consideration." Josiah retorted and then felt ashamed for saying it. Chris said nothing, but the doctor could tell he had been hurt by the remark. Still Chris was correct. Even if Alya were no longer in his life, Josiah could always count on her wisdom to help him make difficult decisions.

Grab on Josiah. Grab on and ride the wind.

Thus, Doctor Josiah Sanchez accepted a field commission on board the USS Maverick as its Ship's Counsellor. When he told his children of his intention to leave Earth, they had thought he had finally gone senile because of grief. He understood their reservations and knew their fears well. They had just lost their mother and were afraid of losing their father to space. If they had been children, he could appreciate their fear for him, but they were adults. They had lives on of their own and he had to make one for himself now that Alya was gone.

Although they were still ambivalent about the decision he made, eventually they were unable to deny the first semblance of happiness their father had felt since the loss of their mother. The advantage of being married to a Betazoid and having offspring with telepathic ability, Josiah decided, was nothing could be hidden from them. With such complications removed, Josiah was able to convince his children this was right for him.

So now he was here, standing in the house he had shared with Alya for almost twenty years. He had discharged the housekeeper who had gone into the employ of Mara, his oldest daughter and her family early this morning. The furniture was sealed to prevent deterioration with all the family heirlooms and valuables were placed in storage. Josiah stared at the lone duffel bag at his feet and wondered how it was possible for him to cram thirty years into such a small space.

He looked at the polished wooden walls and the Betazoid carvings his wife loved to collect hanging on them. Josiah ran his fingers along the sofa and winced because it felt odd with the plastiseal over the fabric. He and Alya had picked the lounge suit together in New Orleans, almost ten years ago. The loss of her threatened to overwhelm him at that moment, more than the emptiness of the house ever could. He swallowed hard; controlling the emotions struggling to surface. In reaction, Josiah picked up his bag and stepped outside.

The sun was warm on his face and he looked up at the star he had called home for three decades. The sky was a brilliant blue and he tried to see through the veneer of sunshine covering the planet Earth to what lay beyond. He could not see the Maverick, but he knew it was there. Taking a deep breath, he decided to stop wasting time.

Touching the new combadge on his chest, he spoke out tentatively uncertain whether the device was working or not. "Hello, this is Counsellor Sanchez. I'm ready to come up now."

The voice on the other end was a cheerful female who was somewhat amused by the manner of his request. "Certainly Counsellor, hold position and we'll beam you on board immediately."

"Thank you," he replied.

As the glow of golden specks danced around his eyes, preparing to carry him away from all that he knew, Josiah Sanchez cast a final glimpse at the place that had been his home for so long and said a final farewell.

Goodbye Alya.

Chapter Two:
Arrivals

"Mother, we have stopped moving," the boy said softly.

Mary opened her eyes and looked at her son. It took a second to react to his words because she was distracted by the absence of the familiar hum of the shuttles' engines and by the stationary stars outside her window. In the distance, she could see the glimmer of lights emanating from the starbase from which they had departed only a short time ago. The star Sol was peeking over the curve of the planet Earth illuminating the enormous structure in the distance. Glancing at the gold pendant watch given to her by her late husband, Mary saw that it was drawing close to the time when she was expected to report to the Maverick.

Despite herself, she felt a hint of apprehension at why they had come to a stop. With all the reservations she already had about this assignment, she did not wish to be late for her first day as Protocol Officer to the USS Maverick. As it was, she was certain that Captain Larabee would be as ambivalent to her presence as she was to being posted to a starship, still wishing that they had left her alone on Vulcan. Unfortunately, with the recent Borg attack decimating the ranks of good officers, Starfleet had to pool its resources to fill positions on board starships.

"I'll see what is causing the delay." She replied coolly, rising to her feet. "William, you will remain here." Mary instructed. Half Vulcan or not, boys at William's age were intensely curious about everything that moved, and she did not want him to be wandering about if there was something malfunctioning on the ship.

"Yes mother." He said obediently and returned his attention to the learning pad on his lap. These days, she noticed he no longer argued with her the way he used to when his father had been alive. Despite her attempts not to show her sorrow to her son, she felt a sliver of grief appear in her heart. Allowing it no more than a second's existence, she crushed the emotion from her heart and continued walking towards the shuttle cockpit. William had always questioned everything because that is how his father had raised him to be. Syan believed a mind was wasted if it did not strive to expand the boundaries of its knowledge. Unfortunately, such belief when raising a child could be a double-edged sword. It gave William the idea that it was necessary to question and investigate everything.

Not anymore.

Since his father was killed in the Borg attack, as many Starfleet officers had been during that battle, William retreated into a world of books and studies. By Vulcan standards, he was still a child since he had not reached the age where he was required to undertake Surak's disciplines. As much as Mary wanted to indulge his human side before the Vulcan took too much control, William seemed isolated and marked with a profound sadness. He had been close to his father and was still too young to manage his grief with Vulcan stoicism.

Not that age allowed her to cope any better.

Mary reached the cockpit and found a fresh-faced ensign studying his controls with growing frustration. At her arrival, he quickly rose to his feet and stammered an uncoordinated response. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant Travis. We seem to be having some sort of problem with the propulsion system. I can contact the Maverick, and have you beamed aboard if you like."

"That will be fine." Mary nodded.

"What is going on?" The other passenger of the shuttle demanded as she made her way up the aisle.

Mary and the ensign looked over her shoulder and saw a petite, titian haired beauty advancing towards them with an expression of determination on her face. The pips on her uniform indicated she was a lieutenant, possibly an engineer. She met Mary's gaze and offered a warm smile having come to the conclusion it was very likely that she and Mary would soon to be shipmates.

"Hi, I'm Lieutenant Pemberton." She announced herself cheerfully to both Mary and the ensign.

"Lieutenant Travis," Mary returned her smile as the confident young woman who immediately stepped into the cockpit without being asked. "Engineer?" She ventured a guess.

"Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton at your service." She said proudly with a little salute that made Mary warm immediately to her. "What's the problem Ensign?" Julia glanced at the anxious pilot who could not make the ship go and felt very intimidated by the present of the Chief Engineer in the face of his blunder.

"He says that there is something wrong with the propulsion," Mary answered for him.

"Okay," Julia nodded, itching to get in there and see what it was this ensign had done to what would soon be one of her shuttles. By the looks of him, he had trouble distinguishing what was an EPS conduit and what was a plasma manifold. The Maverick was due to launch in less than 24 hours and Julia was impatient to get on board the vessel before that happened. She would have been here sooner, but she had spent the last six months on DS3 and had not managed to get back sooner. Aside from a million things that needed doing before launch, she was impatient to get to her first command without wasting time on this rookie kid who looked like he had no idea what he was doing. "Let me get in there and take a look."

"Yes Sir." The ensign nodded and stepped aside and allowed her to slide into the pilot seat.

She studied the readings on the controls and quickly found the problem. Obviously, this ensign required a refresher course in shuttle mechanics or at least a good kick in the rear. However, Julia decided that it was not her place to make either recommendation. She had her own schedule to keep and it was more expedient if she just fixed the problem, so they could get going instead of complaining about it. "The warp core energy readings are fluctuating,"  she declared after a moment of quick examination of all the sensor readings. "This is indicative of an imbalance with the output ratio of the field coils. I can fix it from here."

"Lucky you were on board Lieutenant," the ensign remarked with a sigh of relief. "I think I need a refresher in shuttle mechanics." He mirrored Julia's thoughts with astounding clarity.

Mary watched Julia Pemberton with mild fascination as her fingers flew over the pads of the cockpit controls, utterly consistent with one who was confident of her abilities and had no room for doubt on that perception. Mary did not know Julia, but she could tell immediately that the woman knew her job and she knew it exceedingly well. Allowing her gaze to shift away from the Chief Engineer, Mary found herself peering out the window of the cockpit, at the ship that lay just beyond the hull of this small craft.

Against the canvas of brilliant stars, Mary could see the faint silhouette of the Maverick in the not too far distance. Although she had been in Starfleet for many years, most of her assignments had been earthbound and she had not seen many ships in her time, certainly not a heavy battle cruiser that was a galaxy class starship. The Maverick was very impressive, having the formidable lines of a warship and yet the sleek beauty of an explorer class vessel at the same time.

Mary swallowed hard, trying not to let the sight of the ship intimidate her. The lack of experience on board a starship, not to mention she was probably going to have to deal with a hostile captain, did not make her feel better. If she was to maintain any professional balance with the Captain, she would have get herself under control. Mary's thought shifted back to the present from her reminiscing when a loud hum broke the silence of the moment. The control panels leapt to life underneath Julia's deft fingers settling into the familiar drone of normal engine function.

Julia rose to her feet and regarded the ensign. "Put in a repair order when you get onboard the Maverick," she ordered. "I have a feeling this is going to be a recurring problem. I think the field coils may need replacing."

"Yes Sir." He nodded as she slipped past him. "I'll do that for sure."

"How do you know it is a recurring problem?" Mary asked as the two women returned to their seats.

"Oh, I can tell." Julia shrugged. "The hum was not right."

"You can tell by the hum?" Mary stared at her, suitably impressed.

"Yeah," Julia nodded like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Harmonics are everything. You can detect phase shifts, energy fluctuations and even radiation flux. Someone told me once that a good starship engineer knows every sound his or her ship makes. I do." She smiled.

"Considering this is my first tour of duty on a starship, I am pleased to hear that."

"So, what do you do?" Julia inquired since the statuesque blond was not wearing a uniform but instead a form fitting dress that accentuated her curves and made Julia feel rather drab in her own uniform.

"I'm the new Protocol Officer," Mary said nervously.

"Diplomatic core." Julia nodded in understanding. "I didn't think that was a standard crew assignment."

"Apparently Admiral Wellington felt the Captain would require one. I am not so certain." She sighed.

"Oh, the Captain's not so bad," Julia replied, able to see that the woman was quite nervous about her role on the Maverick even though she seemed outwardly collected. Julia could tell that she was trying hard to maintain her professional calm and felt enough sympathy to try and ease some of her fears.

"You've served with Captain Larabee before?" Mary inquired unable to hide her curiosity over what her new commanding officer was like. Official records reduced information to the bare facts and while useful, Mary found that it rarely contained half of what was really needed.

"Yes, I was with him on the Rutherford," she said quietly and forced the images of that last terrible battle from her mind that often surfaced whenever the Rutherford was mentioned. "I think he asked for me for this assignment."

"What is he like?" The new protocol officer asked when they came to a pause near her seat. William was still engrossed in the contents of his data pad now the shuttle resumed its advance towards the Maverick.

"Well on the Rutherford, he was first officer and probably more approachable than he'll be on the Maverick now that he is in command. He always got the job done and gave the impression no matter how bad things got, he always had a handle on it. Great sense of humor and not always by the book. Of course, he changed after his wife and son died."

"That would change anyone," Mary remarked, aware about that much of his history. "In fact, I can appreciate that myself,"  she said enigmatically and returned to her seat before Julia could investigate that remark further.

* * * * * * *

He was one of the first command officers to board the USS Maverick.

As Security Chief, he had felt it a necessary to greet everyone stepping off the transporter pad. Ordinarily, this task would be undertaken by Transporter Chief Rain Nall, but Lieutenant Commander Ezra Standish preferred a face to face meeting with those he would be working with, rather than basing his judgement on what was available in their official records. As student of human behavior, he found it an effective method of getting to know the people he would be serving with in the future and detecting those he knew would give him trouble later.

Of course, as Security Chiefs went, Ezra was hardly conventional himself. Captain Larabee had worked with him before and tolerated his penchant for running gambling and betting pools even though it was strictly against regulations. However, Ezra ran honest games and his extracurricular activities was a shot in the arm for crew morale, now more than ever considering where their mission was taking them. On the other hand, a man so accustomed to running games and under the table activities was more adept than anyone else in ferreting them out himself.

Since he was keeping a vigil on everyone who came on board the ship, Ezra had a chance to meet all the command officers. The Captain had been one of the first to arrive which was not surprising since this was his first command. Chris and Ezra had served together years ago, and Ezra had a chance to tender his personal thanks to the man for recommending him for this assignment. Even though the risk factor was high, there was no doubt that the position could make a career if Ezra was so inclined to think about his future in those terms.

The First Officer, Commander Buck Wilmington was a stark contrast to the Captain. While Chris Larabee was somber and calculated in every facet of his personality, Buck Wilmington was happy go lucky, casual and generally amusing to say the least. As a First Officer to Captain Larabee, Ezra found the match to be damn near perfect because while crew members might feel anxious about approaching Chris who could be as intimidating as all hell when he felt the need, Buck was the exact opposite. Ezra who rarely warmed to people upon first meeting could safely say he liked the man immediately. Of course, the fact he eyed every woman in the place on their way to the bridge like they were part of an open buffet, did not bode well for the virtue of the Maverick's female crew.

Counsellor Sanchez was another kettle of fish as well, approachable but not as enthusiastic as their first officer. The man seemed perfectly suited as a Counsellor, possessing this inner calm that was probably very soothing for those who came to him for aid. It did surprise Ezra however, that for a man who was Starfleet Medical for almost thirty years, he had come aboard with the manner of a first-year cadet. He gawked in wonder with his dark eyes and asked questions about everything. Ezra answered his questions patiently, reminding himself of how excited he was the first time he had come aboard a starship.

As he waited in the transporter room for the last of the bridge officers, Lieutenant Commander Alexandra Styles the Science Officer, Ezra wondered what she was like. Her records indicated she had spent most of her time on Deep Space Nine and had been captured during one of the many battles between the Federation and Cardassian-Dominion Alliance. Lieutenant Commander Styles had spent six months in a Cardassian prison and knowing what Cardassians did to their prisoners, Ezra was somewhat surprised to learn that after her convalescence, Styles had enlisted in Starfleet courses for enhanced tactical and combat training, hardly the vocation of someone in the sciences. He supposed he could not blame her for wanting to defend herself with lethal prowess considering she would have spent every day of her incarceration with the Cardassians under torture.

"Lieutenant Commander Alex Styles to USS Maverick, I am ready to transport." Ezra heard a voice emanating from the transporter panel before him.

"Standby," Ezra said automatically and activated the transporter controls to bring their new science officer on board.

The transporter pad flickered before her in a shimmering curtain of gold speckles that eventually settled to form the shape of an exceedingly beautiful woman. Tall and lithe, she moved off the transporter pad with the grace of a cat and while her muscles looked worked to perfection, there could be no doubt she was anything but female. She wore her jet colored hair loose and the luster of it seemed to accentuate her exotic features indicating a background of mixed human parentage. With her golden skin and brown eyes, Ezra could almost guarantee that almost every man on the ship would be lusting after her as soon as she came into their sight.

Himself included.

"Welcome on-board Commander." Ezra walked forward and introduced himself.

She regarded him with eyes that seemed so much older than they really were, and Ezra found himself wonderings what horrors she had seen in her life time and considering her history, gathered that it was probably better than he did not know or ask for that matter.

"Thank you," she answered softly. Her eyes darted around the transporter pad in quick study of everything.

"I'm Security Chief Ezra Standish." He extended his hand which she took just to be polite if her body language was anything to judge.

"Please to meet you Chief,"  she replied, sizing him up quickly and uncertain whether or not she trusted him yet. Ezra could tell immediately that she did not trust anyone readily.

"Relax Commander," Ezra replied with a smile. "I do not bite."

"That's good to know." She looked at him with a raised brow and brushed past him. "Unfortunately, I do."

With that she walked out of the transporter room, not waiting for him. Ezra stared after her for a moment and then broke into a grin and followed her.

* * * * * * *

Buck Wilmington looked up at from his pad at his friend and Captain who was pacing the floor of his ready room like a man about to face a firing squad. Although they had known each other for years, had shipped out of the Academy at the same time and were probably as close as two men could get despite being separated by time and space, it was the first time Buck had ever served with Chris as first officer. When Chris had asked for him as first officer, Buck had understood why immediately. Chris was not a good people person and Buck was unashamed to admit, he was. Chris tended to be aloof and somewhat glacial and his choice of First Officer was based upon balancing his imposing manner with his crew. Personality aside, they worked well together because Buck was unafraid of telling Chris exactly what he thought, almost to the point of insubordination.

After Sarah and Adam Larabee had passed on, Buck Wilmington had been the only person who had kept Chris from slipping into a dark abyss of despair from which he would have never emerged. Buck had refused to give up on his old friend and even though their friendship had suffered because he had been forced to keep Chris's head above water, it had been worth the result. Buck had regretted nothing because he had understood when he began that sometimes, to save a friendship one had to be willing to sacrifice it.

"Chris," Buck looked up from his data pad containing all the information about crew evaluations. "Relax, you're wearing a hole in the carpet."

"The protocol officer just came on board," Chris responded automatically. "I'll let her settle in and then I'll get her in here. I don't need to see her immediately."

Buck tried to suppress a smile but did not quite manage it. "Captain's prerogative of course. Although I might point out that she's just a protocol officer, not a three headed Denebian slime devil."

Chris stopped pacing and gave Buck a look. "We haven't seen her yet."

Buck rolled his eyes and shook his head in resignation, deciding that he was not going to pull Chris out of his hostile opinion if his captain did not wish to be extracted. "Just try to keep an open mind when you do meet her and watch your temper. You know how charming you can be around the ladies."

"Very funny," Chris growled.

"This Tanner kid has got an interesting history," Buck commented as he studied the data on Lieutenant Vin Tanner, their helmsman and navigation officer. "He that good?"

"He was the only one who kept his head on the bridge of the Rutherford when everything went to hell. He's Vulcan but raised by human parents," Chris replied, grateful for the chance to talk about someone else other than their protocol officer. "You've read the profile, he's Vulcan physiologically but has none of the baggage they do. He tends to shy away from people so if you don't mind, aside from keeping an eye on our new Ensign, keep an eye on Vin as well."

"You really like this kid." Buck looked at Chris in interest and knew that it was not often he took an interest like this.

"Well, he's had a rough time," Chris answered truthfully. "He just looks like he's struggling to fit in and being neither Vulcan or human makes that hard."

"I hear you," Buck nodded in understanding and made a note to have a talk with the Lieutenant when he had the chance.

"Who else has arrived?" Chris asked knowing that it was just another attempt to pass the time before Lieutenant Travis arrived.

Fortunately, Buck knew it too. "I've been told that Counsellor Sanchez is here. Standish has been exemplary getting everyone settled in."

"He just wants to know who's who," Chris said with a faint smile as he stopped pacing and went to his desk. "Incidentally," Chris paused and met Buck's gaze. "If he asks you for a game of poker, be afraid, be very afraid."

"Chris," Buck replied rather offended by the warning when he considered himself quite the card player. "I don't get beaten in cards, or in love." His exec grinned.

Chris rolled his eyes and returned with a skeptical drawl. "Right, just keep your eye on your credits and your latinum in either case."

"I don't have any latinum."

"That's right," Chris said sweetly with an innocent expression on his face. "And if you get into a game with Security Chief Standish you never will either."

Buck said nothing, and Chris knew the moment he had a chance, Buck was going to seek out Ezra Standish to find out if Chris's warning was at all justified. The captain sighed, deciding that Buck was only going to learn the hard way. "By the way," he suddenly remembered. "How's Josiah doing?"

"I haven't seen him yet." The exec was making it a point to say hello to all the senior level officers before the launch to introduce and familiarize himself with the people he would be working with during the voyage. He had to confess the Counsellor was a few rungs down his list now, but Chris's inquiry made him re-evaluate that decision "Do you want me to?" Buck was aware Chris was concerned about how the Counsellor was fitting in because the man had not logged any space time in years.

Chris pursed his lips as he considered the idea. "Do that but don't make it sound like you're checking up on him. He lost his wife a year ago and it's been difficult for him coming to terms that he has to go on without her."

For a minute neither man spoke, and Buck suddenly understood why Chris had been so determined to get Josiah Sanchez as his ship's counsellor. As someone who lost his wife and son and never recovered the loss, not really in Buck's opinion, Chris's empathy for Josiah's loss was also a part of his own self-healing. Chris of all people could empathize with Counsellor Sanchez's grief over the loss of his wife.

"Sure Chris," Buck nodded before getting to his feet. There was much to do before launch tomorrow and he had covered everything he had to with the Captain for the moment.

"Hey Chris," Buck paused in his advance to the door and glanced over his shoulder at his old friend.

"What?" Chris asked, not really paying attention to his first officer since he was busy pouring over Lieutenant Travis profile on his data pad.

"It's good working with you again." The tall man smiled. "I missed you."

Chris raised his eyes to his old friend and eased back into his chair with a slight nod. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

* * * * * * *

Lieutenant Vin Tanner had been watching her for some time now.

He looked at her strawberry colored hair and liked how it shimmered under the lighting of the ship's mess hall, the social center of the Maverick. She sat at the bar, talking to someone from engineering, radiating a smile that just reached into his chest and made his stomach flutter each time she presented it. Vin swallowed, telling himself that if he felt like this, he ought to be doing something about it, not sitting around like some terrified school boy, envisioning in his head for the hundredth time how he should approach her. He was no kid but a man and she was a woman. It could not possibly be that difficult to strike up a conversation.

Of course, he said that but in truth the reality was far more different that his optimistic view of things. It was hard for him. It always had been. Being full Vulcan but having none of the disciplines or the upbringing necessary to be Vulcan because of his human foster parents, Vin found himself on the outside of Vulcan culture. Always staring in, he knew being a part of it was something he would never achieve. He could accept that if being human was any easier. It was not. He remained poised on the periphery of both and yet was part of neither.

You can do this, he told himself. All he had to do was stand up and go say hello.

Standing up from the far end of the counter, he walked towards her, drawn by the sound of her laughter which reminded of a bright summer's day like he used to know on the world where he and his foster parents had been marooned for 12 years. He never felt like this before and told himself that someone so pretty could not be like all the others.

Vin approached Lieutenant Charlotte Richmond, who had her back turned to him when he greeted her with a restrained hello.

She swiveled around on her chair to face him, her eyes moving up and down with approval before she replied. "Hello yourself."

"I thought I would introduce myself," he said trying to remember how it was done from his observation of other human males. He hoped he did not mess it up. He really did like her. "My name is Lieutenant Tanner, Vin Tanner."

Her eyes widened and laughed. "Tanner? You're the Elf! The Vulcan elf!" The manner in which she made the statement indicated it was not a term of endearment but rather of derision.

Anything further Vin was going to say was immediately forgotten because he turned around and started walking away, her tittering laughter still ringing in his ears, with her companion joining in for good measure. Vin's cheeks burned with embarrassment, but it was nothing in comparison to the hurt he felt because once again, he was given a stark reminder of just how things were for him.

He started walking towards the door, wanting to hide away when suddenly he heard a voice call out to him through the darkness, at the corner of the bar. He paused and looked up, spotting the shadowy figure as she emerged from her own hiding place. For a minute, he just stared at her because he thought he had all the bases covered when it came to fading into the background. She had taken a seat near the door normally reserved for couples interested in privacy while still enjoying the setting of the premises, watching everyone silently, including him. He gathered she had bore witness to his humiliation at the hands of Lieutenant Richmond.

"She's not worth it," Alex Styles remarked as she sat forward enough in her seat so he could see her. Although taking part in someone's love life was not something she cared or bothered to indulge, Alex had seen Vin Tanner working up the nerve to approach Charlotte Richmond. A part of her was so touched by the effort in his face she actually hoped it would work out for him. Unfortunately, it had not and for the first time in a long time, she felt a wave of sympathy when she saw the hurt in his eyes after the woman's rejection.

"It's not her," Vin managed to say once he got over his surprise at her appearance. He observed her for a moment and realised she was very beautiful, a different kind of beautiful from Charlotte but nevertheless stunning. Of course, it was not easy to tell in the dim lighting but while he may not have had much experience with women, Vin knew that much at least. "It's me."

"That's a load of nonsense." She said bluntly. "There's no excuse for being stupid and cruel and that's what she is. Don't think any less of yourself because she's confused being mean with being witty. Look, speaking as a woman, we're not all like that and you'll find someone one day who can get past the Vulcan and see what's inside you. Don't waste your time trying to be something else, it's just not worth it."

"Thank you." He answered, genuinely surprised that such an awful experience could be followed by such a pleasant one.

"You're welcome." She smiled and returned to the shadows, indicating as far as she was concerned, she had said her peace.

Vin wanted to talk some more but had the impression she liked being left alone because he'd be in the exact same place if he wanted to hide too.

Chapter Three:
Launch

Captain Chris Larabee of the USS Maverick.

Even when it was said out loud, it felt odd. It would take more time hearing himself called Captain Larabee before he finally became accustomed to being addressed as such. As he walked through the corridors of his galaxy class starship, it felt surreal having the crew look up at him and nodding their salutations in tones of awed respect. It was not too long ago when he was one of them, having a Captain of his own to look up to. He was uncertain whether this change was for the better or the worse. Although there was a lot to be said about being in command of one's own ship. A day after his arrival on board the Maverick, Chris was slightly more at ease with his new command.

Although he had yet to have a private audience with Lieutenant Travis, who appeared in no hurry to meet him either, Chris knew eventually he would have to face his new Protocol officer. As it was, it could be construed as exceptionally bad manners that he had not met her already and welcomed her on board. Chris was begrudgingly forced to admit he had to make reparations and soon, before she started thinking the worst as well. Instead of thinking about how much of burden she was going to be upon his command style, Chris tried to put himself in her shoes, imagining what it must be like to lose a husband and then transported away the home they had shared with their son, to a starship. Then to face a Captain, whose preconceived notions of what a Protocol Officer meant to his command were so severe that he could not even welcome her to his ship.

Thus almost a day after her arrival, Chris finally summoned Lieutenant Travis to his Ready Room. Having perused her service record in greater depth instead of merely being up in arms as he had been when he walked into Wellington's office, Chris learnt she lost her husband in the same battle that he lost the Rutherford. Her husband's ship had been destroyed, leaving her a widow with a young son to raise on her own. She had family on Earth but had been mostly on her own on Vulcan, raising her son in accordance with the traditions of her husband's people.

Guiltily, Chris realised it could not be easy for her to be plucked from all that and dropped into a starship command with a captain who was being rather petulant towards her position. With this in mind, he told himself he could afford to show her some compassion and give her the benefit of the doubt. Thus, when the door to his Ready Room buzzed to signal the arrival of Lieutenant Travis, Chris was certain he was prepared for her.

Until she walked in the room.

Chris found himself staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. The picture in her file did not do her any justice and all he could see as she entered the room, was her golden hair draped over her shoulders and the form fitting dress hugging every perfect inch of her luminescent skin. For a minute, he felt like a teenager when she cast those incredibly blue grey eyes upon him.

"Captain." She smiled.

Her smile. Don't even get him started on that.

"Lieutenant Travis." He said clearing his throat, trying to use his best Captain's voice and prayed she did not notice that he had been staring at her. "I'm pleased to meet you." He extended his hand.

"As I Captain." She replied, taking it a little gingerly at first. Vulcans were not used to touching and she had forgotten that humans expressed much by sensation. Ever since she had left Vulcan, she had been forced to rekindle old habits long dormant since she first married Syan. She could not equate herself with the eager young woman, who had first entered Vulcan culture and knew by comparison, the person she was now, was a stranger she did not recognise at times. While she admired Vulcan culture, Mary was starting to realise she lost much of herself because of it.

Chris noticed none of these ruminations running through her head since he was trying hard to remember he had to work with this woman. Nothing good would come of it if he kept thinking of Lieutenant Travis as something more. Of course, he would hardly be human if he did not, because even as he gestured for her to sit down while he retreated behind his desk to begin their brief meeting, he could not get enough of looking at that lovely face. No doubt, it was that which must have captured her husband's heart. Chris found something very satisfying in knowing not even Vulcan logic was immune to those eyes.

"Lieutenant," Chris started to say as he noticed her very glacial expression staring at him and mused secretly at how much fun it would be to apply some heat, before scolding himself for the thought and reminding himself to get back to the subject at hand. "I'd like to apologise for not having you in here sooner. I've had some personal issues to deal with regarding your role here and I behaved inappropriately. I am sorry."

She admired his honesty because not many would have made that confession. There was no reason for him to do so, after all he was the Captain and she was a lieutenant. Despite herself, Mary warmed a little towards him and could not deny he was extremely attractive with his dark gold hair and intensely coloured eyes that seemed to pierce the skin. It had sent a shudder through her she could not explain when she had first walked in and he had cast those incredible eyes upon her. She had thought Vulcans were unreadable but when Captain Larabee looked at her in those first few seconds, his were the most enigmatic eyes she had ever seen. A part of her, one that she was not ready to acknowledge, found herself curious enough to unravel their mystery.

"I did not take any offence Captain," she replied and decided that since they were being honest, perhaps it was time for her to make the same gesture. "I myself had some reservations about taking this position. I still don't know whether I can be an effective protocol officer to you."

That's good to know," Chris admitted feeling glad that he was not the only one with reservations but having seen her, Chris knew one thing; he wanted her to remain on his ship. "Lieutenant, I won't say it's going to be easy being my protocol officer but we're going into uncharted territory out there, and while I may question the need, I won't question the effectiveness of your work. Chances are we will need strict guidelines on first contact procedures and you're apparently an anthropological expert as well. We'll need that where we're going. However," he hated adding this part but he was not going to trap her here if she did not wish it, simply because he wanted nothing better than to run his hands through her glorious golden hair. "If you think the posting is unworkable, I will approve a transfer if you wish it."

Mary was genuinely touched by the gesture because she knew he had not offered it because he wanted her off the ship. Being in the diplomatic corps had taught her how to spot a liar from a light year away and she could tell he was making it out of real concern for her well being. If anything confirmed this might work out, it was Captain Larabee giving her that chance.

"The posting is not unworkable," she looked up after a few seconds of reflection. "I believe I can manage but I thank you for your consideration."

Her voice was melodic, he thought to himself and smiled faintly. "Well save your thanks until you've been on the bridge with me, I've been told I can be a rather infuriating SOB." Chris joked when she realised she was not laughing. He had attempted to sound clever but when she raised her brow in question, he wished he had not said it.

"Honestly Captain," she replied with a perfectly straight face. "Infuriating SOB's is all they grow on Vulcan."

He smiled at her and when he did, it reached into Mary and started her heart fluttering with excitement for she knew it was a real smile that he seldom gave to anyone else. Mary felt her cheeks suddenly burn with heat for the first time in so long and she was rather surprised because her reaction to him had not been so strong even when she had first met her husband Syan.

"I'll take your word for it." He grinned, watching her closely and noting that she was infinitely more approachable then when she had first walked into the room. He was glad they were able to get past their earlier differences. "Any questions?"

"I have," she nodded. "I have been attached with the Vulcan embassy for some time and although I am technically a Starfleet officer, I have become accustomed to being attired in civilian clothing." Her eyes shifted to her apparel. "I would prefer to remain that way but I would understand if you need me to a wear a uniform."

And get her out of those dresses? Not a chance in hell.

"No," Chris said with perfect innocence. "I have no problem with that. Whatever is comfortable for you." He had no wish to see her out of her figure hugging clothes and secretly called himself a sexist pig for it.

"Thank you Captain." Mary responded pleased that she could remain in her usual clothes. Other than pips for rank, she had not worn a Starfleet uniform in years and her position as protocol officer did not place her in the command structure for it to be a necessity.

"How are you settling in?" Chris asked on a more personal note. This meeting was not simply to iron out their initial reservations about working with each other but also for him to gauge how she was handling her new post. Most of her Starfleet career had seen her attached to Vulcan with off world travel when it was needed. This was her first assignment, not only as a protocol officer, but also with a permanent posting to a starship.

She understood immediately to what he was referring to, of course. "I am fine. Syan is gone and my life has changed, I have to get used to that. I have responsibilities to my son that keep me from becoming preoccupied with his being gone. This place is certainly different from Vulcan but I will become accustomed to it."

Chris, who knew all about changing ones life after the death of a wife and child, felt a certain amount of empathy with the sadness he saw in her eyes as she thought about her husband. Suddenly, helping her to cope, just like helping Josiah to move on, was having some effect on the grief he had yet to deal with over Sarah and Adam.

"Mary," he said gently. "I am your Captain and I understand there are professional boundaries separating us but feel free to come to me or Counsellor Sanchez in light of any difficulties. I know that being on Vulcan and adopting many of their customs has probably made you feel the same about not discussing personal troubles but you don't have to do it alone. If there is anyway I can help, I would be glad to."

"Thank you Sir." Mary answered trying to remain unaffected by the gesture. "Your offer is appreciated."

Chris nodded and was about to dismiss her when suddenly, he heard her speak. "Captain."

"Yes Lieutenant?"

Chris saw hesitation on her face and wondered what was on her mind that made it difficult for her to voice it.

"In light of your offer, I do have a request of you. You are under no obligation to grant it since it is a personal matter. I normally would not ask this of anyone but when it comes to my son, I'm not always as sensible as I liked to be."

"Ask away." He was intrigued.

"Since my husband passed on, my son William has not been himself. He is not at the age where emotional disciplines have been mastered and he has a right to grieve for his father, but he has not done so and is rather withdrawn." Mary paused and tried to keep the emotion from her voice as she continued. "I am his mother and I know he requires understanding of his feelings but he won't talk to me."

There was a helplessness in her voice that made him want to take her in his arms because he sensed she did not ask for help very often, and found it was exceedingly difficult to turn to another on the question of her son.

"How can I help?" Chris asked gently.

"He has confessed an interest in seeing the bridge. I am aware it is not standard procedure to allow a child access but I wondered if you would allow him a short visit. It appears to be the only thing to which he has shown any interest in since coming on board, or since his father died, for that matter."

"I don't see any reason why a short tour cannot be arranged. See Commander Wilmington about it and he will make the appropriate arrangements."

"Thank you Sir." Mary said gratefully.

While she still tried to maintain her composure, Chris swore he saw her eyes light up in pleasure. Once again, he had to remind himself she was his protocol officer and he was her Captain. How could a man from a race so mercurial manage to snare the heart of such a beautiful female? Chris brushed away the thoughts he was entertaining about Mary Travis and managed an obligatory response.

"My pleasure." He said before ending their conversation on the appropriate note. "By the way, welcome aboard Lieutenant."

Following his interview with Lieutenant Travis, which went exceedingly well he thought and left a smile on Chris's face for the rest of the morning, he decided he might take a walk of his ship. Chris wanted to drop in informally on some of the other members of his senior staff who would no doubt be running on empty preparing for the launch later today. He already said hello to Julia Pemberton whom he had not seen since the Rutherford. Considering how she had managed herself during the battle with the Borg, Chris had wanted no one else for Chief Engineer and seeing how well she had things running down in Engineering, Chris realised he made the correct choice when he picked her for the job.

* * * * * * *

For now, Chris wanted to drop in on Josiah and see how he was doing. Admiral Wellington had been nothing short of astonished when Chris informed him that Josiah Sanchez wished to be transferred from Starfleet Medical to the USS Maverick. He may have been a novice in space travel but elsewhere in the Federation, Josiah Sanchez was a name well known. He was one of the medical professions brightest from the onset of his career.

However, prestige aside, Chris had wanted Josiah to come with him and leave his grieving on Earth. Chris had some idea what it must be like to lose a wife and understood Josiah's wounds needed to heal. His existence on Earth had dwindled to a point where he was merely going through the motions with no real passion in any of his actions. Chris cared too much about the older man to let him waste away with his grief. Josiah needed to live and Chris was convinced he could do that on board the Maverick.

The Counsellors Office was not far from Sick Bay and as he rounded the corner of the corridor and entered Deck 2, he passed by the doors to Sick Bay that were zipping open and close at random intervals, either letting people in or out of the room. Since he was in the neighbourhood, Chris thought he might as well pay a call on his Chief Medical Officer whom he had yet to meet.

Although he had poured through stacks of candidates for the position, Nathan Jackson's name jumped out of the pile mostly because the man's field of research seemed to be the Borg assimilation process. Considering that the Maverick was now headed towards the frontier that rested between the Delta quadrant and Federation space, it seemed like a prudent idea to have a physician well versed in Borg research. Nathan had also spent a lot of time travelling from world to world, his internship had allowed him to dabble in various fields with a speciality in Vulcan physiology. The man also had some interesting ideas on protocol.

He entered Sick Bay and saw a chaotic assembly of doctors and nurses, scurrying about getting the large medical centre ready for a prolonged space voyage. Supplies were being inventoried, instruments catalogued and equipment was being calibrated by busy technicians. In the midst of all this activity was Lieutenant Commander Nathan Jackson, shouting out orders to his staff who were determined to pay attention even though everyone seemed to have their hands full.

Upon his entrance, Nathan stopped what he was doing and declared with a truly happy expression. "Captain, I hope this isn't an inspection."

Chris grinned despite himself because the man's jubilant mood was infectious. "Relax everyone," he told the medical crew. "It's like this everywhere. I'm just here to say hello to Doctor Jackson."

There was a visible sigh of relief as everyone returned to their duties and Chris weaved in and out of the bodies before him to reach Nathan. Even from a distance, he could tell that the doctor was enjoying himself.

"It's good to meet you Captain," Nathan answered as he continued to put his office into order. "I'm sorry I haven't reported to you."

"No it's alright," the captain glanced outside at the officers scurrying about trying to get Sick Bay to a less chaotic state. "I take it you're trying to install all the additional equipment for Borg research?"

"That's right," Nathan nodded as he paused a moment in his work to talk to the Captain. "I've brought all the files that exist on anything to do with the Borg especially their assimilation process. I have also downloaded into the main computer, the data of an experimental procedure that I've been working on with nanites, began by Doctor Crusher of the Enterprise which I think if we can crack it, might be the key to defeating them."

"Really?" Chris said genuinely intrigued. "I'd be interested in hearing about that research Doctor."

"Call me Nathan," he answered. "I'm more doctor than Starfleet."

Chris decided he liked his chief medical officer. "Okay, Nathan. You can call me Chris."

"Only in close quarters," Nathan returned automatically. "You're the Captain, you're always Starfleet."

"Well that's not fair." Chris looked at him with a slight frown.

"I don't make the rules," the doctor grinned. "Now Sir, with all due respect. We're pretty busy in here so if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to work and you're holding things up."

Chris stared at him. "Are you dismissing, Commander?"

"No, I'm asking you to go away so I can get some work done."

"Well, okay." Chris answered. "That's better."

* * * * * * *

When Chris finally found Josiah inside his office, he appeared happier then when Chris had seen him at Starfleet Medical. Josiah's office was almost in as much discourse as the Sick Bay and Chris wondered if there was some inherent trait possessed only by those in the medical sciences to function in this way. Still despite his consultation room being in disarray, with his old style paper books covering the floor while Josiah attempted to make sense of them, seeing him like this reaffirmed Chris's sentiments he was right to make Josiah the Maverick's Counsellor.

"This way Chris." Josiah replied when had moved through the mountainous pile of leather bound books to reach him. The man led Chris to his office at the other end of the consultation room. In contrast to the room where he would be seeing most of his patient's, Josiah's private office was completely organised. As Chris entered his office, he noted that the doctor had already added his personal touch to the furniture, with some of his books already stacked neatly into shelves. Pictures of his family covered the edge of the desk modestly while Josiah's small liquor collection sat in the corner of the room.

"You've made yourself at home." Chris commented as he took a seat on the consultation chair that had to be moved to the front room..

"Yes I have," Josiah said taking the liberty of pouring them a small drink. "I had some trouble sleeping last night, so I thought I'd come in here and get organised."

"Good." The Captain said with a smile. "I'm glad you're settling in."

Josiah met his gaze. "I know you've come here to check up on me."

"Are you sure you're not Betazoid?" Chris frowned.

"Sorry just plain old human," Josiah served him a glass of clear liquid. "However, I appreciate the sentiment. I know you are somewhat worried about me."

"Well," Chris shrugged. "I can't have my shrink feeling out of place, can I?"

Josiah took a sip of his drink. "I guess not and I also appreciate you having Commander Wilmington to come see me."

Chris had not wished for Josiah to know that Buck had come at his request. Sometimes, it was damn troublesome Josiah having a vocation that allowed him to decipher people's motives, no matter how innocent the might be or how much Chris might loathe it. "I just didn't want to hover. I know it was a difficult decision to leave Earth."

"Chris," Josiah said quickly wanting to reassure the man he was not offended. "I understand your motivations and I am not angry. Buck's quite the character isn't he?"

"Just keep your daughters locked up." Chris joked, although after serving with the man, the Captain was fairly sure that there would be no one on the ship who would not know how voracious Buck's appetite for the ladies could be.

"I noticed that." Josiah chuckled. "But he's a good first officer for you. I take he's an old friend?"

Chris nodded quietly. "If it wasn't for Buck, I wouldn't be here today. When Sarah and Adam died, I was a total mess. I was ready to walk away from everything and then some. Buck kept on my back and refused to let me give up on myself."

"Yes," Josiah nodded in understanding. "He gives me the impression of being someone who could go where angels fear to thread. A man who runs completely on emotions and has a strong sense of friendship for those he cares about. You're fortunate to have him and he provides a good balance to the command structure."

"Why thank you," Chris answered in complete agreement, not at all like the assessment Wellington had made that Buck was too much like him. Buck was like him in the sense that Buck had to get to the heart of a problem but his first officer was more mindful of people than he was. However, Chris was glad to hear Josiah's endorsement he was not the only one who thought Buck would make him a fine first officer. "So have you met the rest of the crew?"

"Yes, I met the Protocol Officer this morning." Josiah answered. "Lovely woman. Apparently, she had read some of my research papers and declared I had a most logical approach to cultural interpretation."

Chris looked up above the edge of his glass and managed to ask after a momentary pause. "What are your impressions of Lieutenant Travis?"

"She's extremely capable." Josiah retorted simply and then realised that Chris's interest was more than just professional. "She's also very attractive."

Chris could not deny that but he was not letting Josiah in on his feelings regarding Mary Travis. "I hadn't noticed."

The look Josiah gave Chris spoke volumes.

"I'm sure you haven't." Josiah said with a perfectly straight face.

* * * * * * *

It would not be long now.

The last hour seem to crawl past as the ship drew closer to leaving star base for the first time. The feeling of being on a ship during her maiden voyage was indescribable. Chris had been on board the Merrimac during her initial voyage as a lieutenant and even though he was a junior officer, the feeling was still the same. Now on board the Maverick, Chris looked around him and saw that the ritual was important to all of them, not just him. His crew was assembled around him and waiting with similar expectation on their eyes. All except Lieutenant Commander Styles, their new science officer. She was sedate as ever, more concerned with customising her station to her own specifications and pretty much telling everyone she did not dabble in idle conversation.

After what she had been through with the Cardassians, she could be allowed her eccentricities.

He let his gaze sweep across the bridge and saw Josiah leaning over the station of their new navigation officer, Ensign JD Dunne engaged in conversation. It still struck him how young JD was. Wellington had questioned his choice in appointing the young man to a command position on the bridge when JD had more or less arrived fresh from the Academy and was green as they came. However, the boy had graduated with impressive grades and under Buck's tutelage, Chris was certain his potential would be given its full opportunity to flower.

Security Chief Ezra Standish was concentrating his attention on the security station to the far right of the bridge. He did not look up from the console pad and Chris had a feeling he was running last minute diagnostics on all security stations before their departure from Earth Starbase. Despite Ezra's less than Starfleet ethics in his after hour's activities, the man was extremely good at what he did. A mind accustomed to running scams and reading faces over a game of cards could spot a con and a liar a mile away. Ezra was good at what he did during and after his off duty hours because he was a fastidious and meticulous operator in all things. As a security officer, there was none better.

As a businessman, he made the Ferengi cry.

"Captain." This came from Ezra whose cool, steady voice belied the excitement he had to be feeling at the message he was delivering. "We have just been given clearance from Earth Starbase. We are to proceed to Launch Door 3."

Chris rose to his feet and met Ezra's gaze with a slight nod. "Convey our acknowledgement to Earth Starbase." Chris said in response before tapping his combadge lightly. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering here." The voice of Julia Pemberton echoed through the speakers in crisp tones.

"We have clearance for departure." Chris declared. "Are all systems go?"

There was a slight pause and Chris guessed that she was making sure before answering. "All ship systems are functioning as required by usual operating standards but on a personal note, let's kick this pig, Sir."

"Good enough." He retorted trying to repress a smile. A small ripple of amusement throughout the bridge with Buck chuckling softly at her choice of words. JD burst into a wide grin, while Josiah raised a brow and smiled. Ezra seemed properly intrigued by the voice and most likely had not met their chief engineer. Even Alex Styles had managed a smile while their helmsman looked merely confused. This was hardly a surprise. Even though Vin Tanner had a good sense of humour, he did not quite get all the intricacies of the Terran variety.

Chris rose to his feet and walked to the helm station. He looked down at Vin and saw the Officer of the Conn's fingers were poised in readiness for his orders. He looked up at Chris and for a moment a look of similar wonder was exchanged between the two men. Vulcan or not, Vin felt the same excitement that he did. On the Rutherford, they had developed something of a rapport that Chris sometimes wondered whether or not that it wasn't caused by a Vulcan telepathy. Vin always had a sense of what he was thinking and Chris found that unlike the imperceptible masks worn by the rest of his race, he could read Vin just as easily. An instinct almost as powerful as the one that had propelled him to join Captain Picard's attack over Earth told Chris that Vin would be at his side for life, like Buck. He could not explain it but he did not doubt it for one minute.

"Lieutenant Tanner," Chris finally spoke. "Take us out of space dock at one quarter impulse."

"Aye Sir." The young man nodded with a broad grin. He did not smile often but when he did it came straight from the heart.

"Attention all hands," Chris replied. "We are preparing to leave Starbase One. Stand by for yellow alert."

Yellow alert required everyone to be at their posts. Normally, this kind of alert would be sounded when the ship was going into a tense situation. However, while this instance was nothing of the kind, it was always wise to be prepared during a maiden voyage. After all, the Maverick was new. She had never been out of space dock before and Chris wanted no one taken by surprise if she chose to falter.

No one on the bridge seemed to notice the black light blinking from its panel in the wall because their attention was focussed on the view screen before them. It felt as if everyone was holding their breath in anticipation as the ship prepared to move forward. Suddenly, the low whine beneath the deck smoothed out into a soft hum and the ship started moving. There was a collective sigh of relief as the Maverick sailed forward. Silently, the ship made its way through the small pocket of space trapped inside the enormous confines of Starbase One, more affectionately known as Earth Starbase.

The ship glided ahead smoothly under Vin's expert control before reaching the gradually opening doors of Launch Door 3. As it slowly slid apart, and allowed its newest child to leave its bosom for the first time, Starbase One suddenly seemed claustrophobic. Beyond the great doors was a canvas of dark velvet, speckled with a myriad of lights.

As the Maverick passed through the doors, space waited them.

Space was frontier of stars, planets and more wonder than most creatures could imagine in a lifetime of dreaming. He stared at it for a brief moment wondering what lay beyond the expanse of familiar stars. All his life, he had dreamed of this moment. He had dreamed of the day he would be sitting in on the bridge of a starship as its Captain.

Now as he was sitting here on his command chair, with that dream becoming a reality, Chris's chest swelled with a mixture of pride and happiness. He thought of all the struggles, the hard work and the sacrifices that lay between him and this ship, and savoured the taste of crossing that gulf with sweet victory.

"Heading Captain?" This came from Ensign Dunne who was trying very hard to remain composed even though the excitement was threatening to spill over his attempts.

"The front lines Mr Dunne," Chris said with a smile. "The front lines."

Chapter Four:
Captain's Table

After its initial departure from Earth Starbase, the Maverick's trip out of the Terran star system was uneventful. The ship stood down from yellow alert and life returned to normal on board the vessel. There was a routine to be followed on any starship and the Maverick was no different. Engineering crews went back to their evaluation of engine performance in this maiden voyage, while other department heads went through the motions of administering staff into shift rotations, allocating resources and conducting debriefings with junior officers.

On the bridge, a similar ritual was taking place. An hour after their departure from Earth, Captain Chris Larabee found himself facing his senior staff inside the debriefing room. As he sat at the head of the smooth, polished table, he felt a knot rising in his stomach. All the briefings he had ever attended in the past had seen him turn to a Captain for direction. It was quite a sobering thing to remember he was now the Captain and it was his lead everyone would follow.

At his right was Buck Wilmington who looked at him, with an expression of encouragement telling Chris he had nothing to worry about. Chris wished Buck would let him in on the secret making him believe such a thing when the Captain himself was full of doubts. However, Buck's confidence was not unique as Josiah offered him the same look indicating he would do fine and Chris told himself not to argue in the face of such overwhelming belief.

Get on with it, his inner voice rebuked sharply with less finesse than either of those two officers could manage. This is your show now and you have wasted enough time being afraid. You never did before this point, did you?

Taking a deep breath, he began. "Well I am assuming all of you are acquainted with each other, but for those of you who have not had an opportunity to get to know your fellow senior staff members, I will make some quick introductions." He turned to Buck.

"This is Commander Buck Wilmington our first officer as most of you already know, Those of you who are departmental heads will report to him. We have a chain of command people, Commander Wilmington has my complete confidence in handling all ship board operations." Chris gave Buck a sidelong glance at the big man who smiled faintly in his direction.

Buck regarded the faces around him and offered them a gentle nod of acknowledgement following the captain's words. Even though his record had him placed as a hot headed passionate man committed to impulse rather than rationale, Buck knew that it was his emotional side that was of greatest value to Chris Larabee. Chris's command style was cold and deliberate, equal parts force as it was calculated.

It was no secret among the crew the Captain and their first officer had a long history together and the deep friendship between them was obvious to anyone who was observant enough to notice it. They seemed an odd combination, both having personalities so different that the only comparison that seemed to fit the description of their friendship was fire and ice. Yet it was a friendship that had lasted from the Academy to finally serving together in the capacity they now did on board the Maverick.

When the captain concluded his introductions, Chris began the opening statements regarding their mission. "Most of you should already have some idea of the nature of our mission to the frontier. If not, I will clarify the situation for you."

All eyes were on him. He did not doubt that there was any one present that did not know why the Maverick was bound for deep space. His senior staff was too good to be so remiss in their knowledge.

"In the last six years, we have been attacked by the Borg twice. First at Wolf 359 and then more recently at Earth, six months ago. We all know that the reason we won in both encounters was through sheer luck. In both attacks, the Borg sent only one cube and it took every ship we had just to stop it. I think it's safe to say that we would have our asses handed to us if they chose to launch an armada against us. As we speak, Starfleet is concentrating on building a fleet of ships specifically intended to counter a Borg attack. These ships will be faster, more manoeuvrable, their phaser banks will be on a rotating modulation of several hundred frequencies to penetrate Borg shields and will also possess a cloaking device."

"A cloak?" Mary spoke up. "It was my understanding that under the Treaty of Algeron, the Federation agreed with the Romulans request to suspend research into cloaking technology."

"And you are correct." Chris explained. "However, the Romulans have allowed us to develop cloaking devices for our ships under specific circumstances. Initially, only the Defiant of DS9 was permitted with the technology as long as it was utilised in the Gamma Quadrant. However, in light of the war with the Dominion and our recent troubles with the Borg, the Romulans have decided our survival is their survival. We will be allowed to use a cloak only if we confront the Borg. All other use of it will be restricted."

"So does this ship have a cloak?" Josiah inquired.

"Yes it does." Chris answered automatically and turned to Julia. "Lieutenant Pemberton. If you please."

Julia took a deep breath, feeling a little nervous because this was the first time she was addressing the others as Chief Engineer. "The Maverick was designed with cloaking technology in mind. As Security Chief Standish will inform you, the phaser banks on this ship have been fitted with the prototype rotating modulation frequency program, as are all our small arms. Normally, rotating modulations would be achieved manually but for us, technology has taken over. It will adapt our weapons to counter Borg shields much faster and for a more prolonged period in the instance of close quarters combat. We have boosted phaser banks and several of our decks have been converted to carry more than the regular yield of quantum torpedoes. Our propulsions systems, shields and life support capability have been maximised by incorporating biogenic properties to our main frame. In other words, with the exception of the Sovereign class Enterprise, we are the most advanced galaxy class starship in Starfleet."

"And," Chris added once she had concluded that report. "For those of you who are a little rusty on your small arms skills, I'd suggest getting accommodated with the weapons." He turned to Buck at that point. "Buck, I would like you to see to it that all crew members are subjected to a few hours of small arms training to familiarise themselves with the new frequencies. You will coordinate with Ezra."

"Yes Sir." Buck nodded glancing instinctively at the security chief, who regarded the order with the same understanding of its importance.

"Doctor," Chris met Nathan gaze and remembered their relationship here at this moment should be formal and not as easy going as it had been in Sick Bay during their first meeting. "You are one of the leading authorities in the Borg assimilation process. When Admiral Wellington learned I was getting you as my Chief Medical Officer, he suggested that I might put you to work on a medical defence against the Borg assimilation process."

"I understand." Nathan retorted. He had read Dr Beverley Crusher's papers on the cybernetic devices implanted in assimilated victims and spent much of his time expanding on the work she had spearheaded, to prevent the assimilation process by creating a defence from the molecular level.

"In the initial contact with victims," Nathan explained for the benefit of those who were unfamiliar with what the Captain was referring to. "The Borg infuses microscopic probes that enter a victim and start assimilating their cells. The process is almost instantaneous. The victim loses all coherence in a matter of minutes and then becomes docile to the later surgical implantation. There is a highly classified body of research being conducted at Starfleet Medical for a way to create an antibody to fight these probes once they enter the system."

"A kind of vaccine." Josiah declared understanding what Chris and Nathan was getting at.

"Precisely." Chris continued. "All research information regarding this project has been downloaded into the medical database in order for Doctor Jackson to continue his research. Since we are going to be on the front lines, we thought it might be best if the work was conducted on board this vessel."

"I don't know much about medical studies," JD Dunne spoke up. "However, at the Academy I spent a lot of time working with nanotechnology. If you could use the help Doctor, I'd be happy to add whatever technical input I can." He tried not to be nervous about making the offer but Nathan was more than receptive to it.

"That would be good." Nathan replied in answer. He was after all a doctor, not an engineer and the only reason he was forced to deal with technology was because of the Borg. If he could have the intelligence of someone who had the time with a background on the subject, he was certain he would be able to find a solution to the assimilation process much faster. Nathan was not above accepting assistance when it meant saving lives, even from this youth.

JD swallowed hard, not believing that his suggestion would be accepted so readily and felt a little tremor of anxiety at what he had started.

"Don't worry young man," Josiah smiled reassuringly, "I'm sure you'll do fine."

JD did not seem that confident but said nothing in response. Chris decided it was best to move on now this subject had been discussed in length. As for JD discomfiture, he had no doubts that Nathan would prove not to be the monster JD feared. Besides, there was still more work to be done.

"Although it seems the Borg is our prime directive in this assignment, we have also been instructed to open up relations with any civilisations in this part of space. Lieutenant," Chris glanced at Mary and let her take the lead.

Mary nodded at his prompt and began addressing her fellow officers. "This part of space has been left uncharted in recent years due to the fear of encountering the Borg and because of our recent troubles with the Dominion, and prior to that with the Cardassians. While those threats still exist, Starfleet Command feels that the Borg is the greater danger. With the wormhole now secured, Starfleet forces do not have to deal with Dominion reinforcements coming from the Gamma Quadrant."

"The threat still exists." Alex Styles said quietly.

"That is true." Ezra spoke up. "However, we are on a equal technological footing with the Dominion and the Jem Haddar. We do not have that advantage with the Borg."

"Agreed." Mary continued. "When it comes to the Borg, they take priority. There are many uncharted non-aligned worlds on the Frontier and our secondary mission will be to establish friendly relations with as many of them as possible."

"To what end?" Vin managed to ask. Even though he had the experience, in some ways he was almost as unsure of himself as JD. However, since this was an open table discussion, Vin had been working up the nerve to make himself heard and Chris was pleased his apprehension was starting to wane a bit. It just required a little time before the young man started feeling a little more at ease with the officers he was serving with.

"To the end of establishing Federation treaties with them. We need to build starbases out here. This ship is only the beginning in the creation of a defence perimeter around Federation space. For the want of a better term, a buffer zone if you will. Each time the Borg has attacked the Federation, they did so by penetrating our defences all the way to Sector 001. This cannot be allowed to happen again. The directive is to stop them in the Frontier before they can reach Earth."

"That is logical." Ezra remarked. "The Borg do not see any reason to alter their invasion plan. It is to our advantage they allow arrogance in their superiority over us to dictate their actions. While they are formidable, their weakness lies in the predictability of their actions."

"Which would be further impaired now that the Borg Queen is gone." Chris added. "The Collective will be functioning without her guidance now."

"Starfleet seems to agree." Mary concluded her segment of the debriefing. "Captain." She glanced at him indicating that she was done.

"One final thing," Chris allowed his gaze to sweep across the room. "In the interest of morale, I would like the senior staff to share one evening meal every week. I realise it is an old practice but one of my former Captains believed it was a good way to get to know one another and also discuss ideas in a more casual environment."

The reaction was mixed. Josiah did not seem to mind because there was very little basis for comparison in his previous experiences in starship protocol. Ezra voiced his approval being the social animal that he was and Buck would have supported any decision that improved morale. Mary found it odd but like Josiah believed it to be one of those things that she had to adapt to with life on a starship. Julia shrugged, having heard stranger requests in her time and did not seem to mind this one which rather pleasant in comparison. JD seemed nervous by the idea but once again remained silent. His science officer seemed troubled but revealed nothing. Vin was uncomfortable but Chris attributed this to the Vulcan's difficulty dealing with large groups of people. Vin spent most of his time hiding and a dinner with the rest of his fellow officers required him to be out in the open more than he would like to be.

While he hoped the request had gathered a more enthusiastic response, Chris decided to take the lack of objection as a good sign. However, in truth it was more likely that none of his senior staff wanted to offend him by declining the invitation. He was realistic in understanding that this had to do with the fact that most of them barely knew each other at the moment.

"Since there are no objections, I will expect you at the Captain's table 1800 hours. Dismissed."

* * * * * * *

When he first came up with it, Chris had thought dinner with the senior staff on a weekly basis was a good idea. However, as the hour drew closer to 1800 hours, he wondered if forcing this on them was wise. At least he made the request on a voluntary basis, so no one would feel obligated to come. Chris was a new Captain and he remembered the hard, strict regimen that Savil followed in his relations with his senior officers. While his crew respected Captain Savil, Chris was hard pressed to find anyone who actually liked the man. He did not want that with his own staff officers. The Captains he had remembered most fondly were the men who offered their junior officers not only understanding and respect but friendship and camaraderie. They promoted the notion that a crew suffered together and succeeded together. He wanted the same of the Maverick.

Chris entered the spacious mess hall at the forward part of the ship. Like all galaxy class starships, the positioning of the mess hall was uniform. While crew dined or sat down for a quiet drink during their off duty hours, they were treated to a panoramic view of space as the ship travelled forward. When the vessel went to warp, the sight was breathtaking.

It was a good ten minutes before the crew assembled for dinner so Chris strolled to the bar instead of going directly to the Captain's table. He had yet to make an inspection of the mess hall and decided that perhaps someone should come up with a name for the place. Most galaxy class starships had designated their mess halls with more personal names to make it feel more comfortable. Chris made a note to bring up the subject at dinner.

"Captain Larabee." A smooth Latin voice sauntered up to him no sooner than he rested his arm on the counter. "I am honoured to finally make your acquaintance."

Chris looked up to see the definitive Latin siren with dusky skin, full lips and sultry features approaching him. She wore a bodysuit that revealed every perfect curve in her full figure and groaned inwardly because once Buck got a look at her, Chris would never see his first officer again. Buck had real taste for Latin women and would probably be spending most of his time following her around trying to score. She wore an enchanting smile on her face and Chris wondered why she was not in uniform. It took him a moment for him to remember that this was Inez Recillos, the bartender and keeper of the mess hall. She was one of Wellington's appointments but Chris knew something of the woman. She had spent most of her brief service in Starfleet as a food replicator programmer and establishments likes this, offered civilians a chance to see the stars by signing on to take charge of its operation.

"I take it you are Miss Inez." Chris smiled, extending his hand towards her.

"You are correct and may I bid you a welcome to the mess." She smiled taking up the handshake.

"Thank you very much." Chris answered looking around the place. The mess was quite full at this time of the night with crew members either stopping by to have dinner or simply having themselves some refreshment at the bar. The atmosphere was relaxed with people talking amongst themselves while others took in the view outside the plexiglass windows. "This is my first time on these galaxy class ships. We never had a mess like this on the Rutherford."

"Well until the Sovereign class ships were turned out, the galaxy class was the best in the fleet. Now, what can I get you Captain?"

"Whiskey, straight up." Chris smiled enjoying the relaxed mood of the place. The mess felt like one of the recreational lounges on a starbase, with comfortable seating and ambient lighting. "I've instituted a new tradition where my senior officers and I are to dine together once a week."

As Inez was replicating his order, the woman looked over her shoulder at him with mild surprise. "That's an old practice. They've been doing that since the old navy days on Earth."

"I know. One of the Captains I served with used to implement the rule. I always liked it." He picked up the drink served to him and took a sip. "Now, if you would be so kind as to direct me to the Captain's table, I would appreciate it Miss Inez."

"Inez will do." She said graciously and emerged from behind the counter after giving instructions to a junior to tend bar. "This way Captain."

The Captain's table was the largest in the room. It was rectangular and made to seat a little over a dozen people. It faced the plexiglass window at the bow of the ship. Vin was already there. The young man was twiddling his fingers nervously when Chris came to the table. He looked up at Chris like an animal caught in a transport's lights and stammered a quick greeting as he stood up awkwardly.

"Good evening captain." He managed to say.

"Hello Vin." Chris greeted. "How are you doing?"

His eyes widened at the personal inquiry. "Fine." He said with that unflappable expression even though Chris knew he was nervous.

"Sit down." Chris replied taking a seat before turning to Inez. Thank you Inez."

At that, she withdrew and left Chris and Vin alone. Chris saw Vin shifting uncomfortably in his seat. He could almost guess the young man was trying to think up conversation to share with his Captain. Even though they had gone through hell together on the Rutherford, Vin had definite problems with social skills. He found it difficult to talk to people he did not know well, mostly because his mixed heritage made it so difficult to know what he ought to say. While he had the intellectual capacity of Vulcans, he lacked the capability to make use of it and being so different kept him an outcast most of his life, which meant he did not know how to relate to either humans or Vulcans.

"It does get easier you know." Chris said suddenly.

Vin who was making close study of his fork looked up and met the Captain's gaze. "I know." He said quietly in that unassuming way that no one else other than Chris could read.

"I know it's hard being on the senior staff but you've got people around you who are willing to help if you just ask them."

Like Charlotte Richmond? Vin thought bitterly but did not voice that because Chris was genuinely trying to help. He liked the Captain because the man spoke like he understood all the fears and insecurities that existed inside Vin. Sometimes, he only had to look at Captain Larabee to tell the man knew exactly what was going on in his head. There were no need for words.

"Really?" He managed to ask.

"Yes," Chris nodded. "During my first year as the Officer of the Conn on the Gorbachev, I almost crashed the ship taking it out of space dock. I thought I was going to get booted down to Maintenance, but my Captain was a good person and she understood that accidents happen because of inexperience and she gave me a few pointers."

"And it helped." Vin said as a matter of factly.

"No." The captain grinned. "The very next time I took the ship out of space dock, I nearly did it again but this time, I limited the damage to just one deck." Chris laughed and was pleased to see Vin joining in on the moment. "But she understood and so did the others on the bridge and they helped me through it. You don't have to feel so alone Vin, I'll help and Buck will help. You just need to trust us."

"Sure Chris." Vin nodded, aware the Captain did not mind Vin calling him by name when they were talking like this. And he was right, help did come from the most surprising places. Alex Styles for instance, who had said the only words that could have salved his wounded ego after the humiliating experience with Lieutenant Richmond.

"Feel better?" Chris asked, breaking him out of his thoughts regarding the science officer.

"A little." Vin replied somewhat embarrassed that his discomfort was so obvious.

"Are we interrupting?" A new voice spoke, it belonged to Julia.

"Certainly not." Chris retorted and rose to his feet. "Ladies." He gestured for them to sit.

Julia and Mary took their seats promptly and from the corner of his eye, he could see Josiah, Nathan and Ezra making their entrance into the mess hall. The appearance of all the senior officers had captured the attention of the crew who wondering what this meeting was about. When Buck finally arrived, JD was at his side. It did not take long before Buck spotted Inez. It was obvious Alex was not coming and Chris noticed Vin was somewhat disappointed, much to his surprise. However, he had made this voluntary and could understand if Alex did not wish to be present. She was a private person and after what she had been through, she had a right to be.

"Captain." Josiah greeted upon arrival.

"Josiah, Buck." The Captain responded as everyone made themselves comfortable. Buck took up flank on his left while Mary sat on Chris's right. The conversation was polite until Inez had withdrawn to fulfil their dining requests, giving Buck a dark look on her way back to the counter because he had done nothing but smile at her with a damnably suggestive grin..

"So Counsellor," Chris looked at Josiah. "How are you finding life on a starship?"

"A great deal more confined than Starfleet command." Josiah answered. "I never realised that I was so accustomed to having room."

"You get used to it Doctor," Ezra interjected. "After awhile, you think of the space outside the ship as all the room you need. It makes you feel somewhat grateful when you have walls around you when one realises how small one is in comparison to the universe."

"That's for sure." Chris agreed. "And how are you finding things Lieutenant?" He directed his question at Mary. The woman had been listening to the light banter with fascination, Chris could tell.

"Fascinating." She answered with typical understatement. "It is different to Vulcan but I find the challenges offered in this post to be quite gratifying. I will be curious to see how the Maverick performs under pressure."

"I think she'll do well." Julia replied. "I've got a feeling this ship won't let us down when we need it."

No one could find the words to disagree with her.

Chapter Five:
Unique

The next week went forward without incident, giving the crew adequate time to become accustomed to their new ship. The Maverick moved quickly out of the core systems and began to make a speedy exit out of Federation space. They made one stop on the way at Colony 6 in the Korell system to pick up additional personnel and deliver some supplies to the small mining community before continuing out to deep space.

The ship was performing flawlessly and Chris was pleased with the results after the Maverick completed its full shakedown. He was starting to get a deep connection with the ship even though his tenure as master of this vessel was only weeks old. Someone once told him that one's first love was always the hardest to forget. Chris decided that adage applied to a Captain's first ship as well.

Life on the ship was also progressing at a comfortable pace. Josiah informed him early that morning Ezra was teaching self defence classes while Commander Oxley of Astrophysics had organised the creation of a classical music society. Members across the ship had apparently turned up for the initial meeting with everything from a saxophone to one dubious report about a kettledrum. Not to be outdone, Stellar Cartography promptly gathered the first meeting of its drama club. Apparently, the Mikado was slatted for its initial performance in six weeks. The mess hall had acquired itself a name courtesy of none other than JD. The young Ensign had pointed out that everyone seemed to converge upon the place from the four corners of the ship. Inez apparently liked the idea and thus the mess hall was soon being referred to as Four Corners.

Chris found his expectation of being Captain scarcely resembled the reality of it. He never quite appreciated what it was like when he had been a first officer. He never gave it a second thought about what a tremendous job it was to be appraised of every aspect of the ship's functioning. As first officer, his duty was to see to it that the Captain's orders were carried out and that in his absence, the first officer could maintain the smooth running of the ship. He was the gulf between the Captain and the department heads. Now, upon crossing that gulf, Chris found himself bogged down with more paperwork than he could stand. There were reports needing his attention from every department of the ship, crew evaluations, medical factors, crew morale, supply considerations, appointments with his department heads, political directives from Starfleet command and God knows what else. There were mornings where he was ready to stay in bed and leave it all to his very efficient first officer who made it look so easy, it was disgusting.

However, there were other moments that were not as hectic. There were evenings where he would finally get his paperwork up to date when all the crew evaluations and log entries were done. Chris could replicate himself a hot cup of Jamaican blend coffee and stare out of his ready room window at the stars passing him by. Those quiet moments made up for all the annoying trivialities of his job and reminded him he had much to look forward to. He was a week into his captaincy and Chris realised that he had barely touched the surface of what lay ahead.

His workload dwindled significantly after he appointed himself a yeoman. Yeoman Casey Wells was from Bajor. Having escaped from Bajor during the occupation, the young woman had been a baby when she had been adopted by a Starfleet admiral who brought her back to Earth. Even though she had since spent some time on Bajor, Casey preferred life in space and had signed on as crew. However, while it was her first tour on board a starship, Chris had to admit the young woman had impressed him with her ability to bring order to his paperwork and arrange his schedule so that he was able to get time to indulge himself on personal projects.

Today was no exception and Chris was having a leisurely morning going over some reports with a hot cup of coffee when he heard someone at the door of his ready room.

"Come in." He replied and set his cup down on his desk.

The door slid open and Lieutenant Travis entered with a rather sombre looking Vulcan child at her side. Chris guessed he was no more than six years old and realised at once that this was her son. The child's looks were mostly his father's, however when he saw the boy staring at him, Chris recognised his eyes were all Mary's. The were the same blue grey eyes that almost seemed aquamarine at one time and sapphire at others. It was unusual colour for Vulcans as Vin had once told him because the helmsman's own eyes were brilliant blue as opposed to indigo as was common to the rest of his race.

"Captain," Mary glanced at the boy with a warm smile. "This is my son William." She introduced. "William, this is Captain Larabee."

Chris rose to his feet and went towards them. The boy eyed him cautiously. Vulcan or not, he was like any other six year old in a new place, a little apprehensive and very shy. Chris, remembering what concerns Mary had raised during their conversation, decided to take a casual approach with the young boy. "Hello William." Chris greeted, making no move to touch him anyway. Vulcan's found that sort of thing very inappropriate.

The boy said nothing and continued staring.

"He's a little shy." Mary explained quietly. "You did say 1000 hours?"

"Of course," the captain smiled at the boy. He had informed Casey specifically to make time in his schedule so that he could conduct the tour himself. Chris had made the promise to Mary and did not feel it right if he were to pass the fulfilling of her request to one of his subordinates. In any case, he genuinely wanted to get to know the boy. He knew loss intimately and while age had prepared him a little better, Chris understood what effect it could have upon on a child. "What kind of Captain would I be if I forgot an appointment with one of my crew? You run along Lieutenant, William and I will be fine."

"Thank you Captain." She offered him a grateful smile, not wanting to hover because she wanted William to feel as if he could speak to the Captain freely.

For a few seconds after her departure, man and child regarded each other carefully. He was definitely his mother's child, Chris thought. Despite his pointed ears and sombre expression, he had some of her features even if he looked like an elven child from a fairy tale. His height did not quite reach Chris's waist although his size was no indication of his intelligence. However, it was disconcerting to see such a sombre expression on a child so young.

"I am not apart of your crew." The boy pointed out meekly.

"That's not entirely true." Chris answered, dropping to his knees so William did not have to look up at him. "Everyone on board the Maverick is my crew, not just the Starfleet personnel. We are all in this together out here in deep space and so we are all the Maverick's crew. Do you understand?"

Although William was trying to mimic Vulcan calm, it was clearly obvious that he was a little apprehensive about being so close to the captain. Chris had to admit that his effort to hide his fear was admirable. At his question, William responded with one of his own. "Can I see how the view screen functions?"

Chris suppressed a grin. Not even shyness could dampen any young boy's natural enthusiasm. "I don't see why not. We're travelling at warp right now, so you should get quite an eyeful."

"I have two eyes." William pointed out.

"I stand corrected." The captain chuckled and rose to his feet. "Shall we get started?"

At that, he started towards the door and noticed after a moment that William was following him closely. The boy was trying to kerb his excitement at being on the bridge because he was in the company of the captain. Chris started to wonder if he was really so intimidating to the children on board the Maverick. It made him decide that for the rest of the voyage, he was going to make himself a little less imposing to the younger members of his crew. Perhaps Josiah would know how to go about doing that. He wanted to be seen as the kind of captain that would be approachable to everyone, not just those on board wearing a uniform.

A large part of the Maverick's complement were not Starfleet. They were the husbands, wives, sons and daughters of the crew. In a mission like this, where they would be spending much time on the rim of Federation space, Starfleet preferred the simplicity of having family aboard to lessen the impact of such an extended period away from the core systems. While the danger to their well being was always present in his mind, Chris approved the practice. Once Starfleet officers were condemned to retirement in loneliness after a lifetime of service in deep space. Now there was a chance to build a family and making accommodation for them in a career officer's life.

Chris was somewhat disappointed that Mary had opted to allow him to conduct her son through the tour alone. Despite all advice to the contrary, Chris could not deny that he was attracted to the protocol officer. In the last week, he had found it surprisingly easy to become accustomed to seeing her seated next to him on the bridge with the rest of the crew. His first officer was naturally quick to point out his ease with Mary until Chris told him to shut up or he would resume the practise of keelhauling with Buck being the first and only candidate.

As they stepped onto the bridge, Chris remembered that Buck was not present. The First Officer was in a meeting with Ezra at the moment. He vaguely remembered Buck saying something about going over the crew evaluations regarding the results of the training seminars he had ordered them to conduct regarding the new rotating modulation phasers. It was just as well, Chris did not want to explain why he was breaking his own standing rules about allowing children on the bridge. Chris forced away any guilt he had in his realisation that this was mostly motivated by personal reasons. His growing attraction to Mary was something he was going to have to deal with soon.

He led William to navigation where JD was currently sitting. The ensign gave the young boy a wink to which William reacted to by retreating behind Chris. Chris wondered if all Vulcan children were so shy or was the boy simply withdrawn after the death of his father. Mary had remarked he was usually a lively child but Chris found that hard to believe. Although lively by Vulcan standards was hard to define.

"Say hello to William, JD." Chris said to the navigator. "This is Lieutenant Travis's son."

"Hey there William." JD greeted. His wide smile was a contrast to Chris's serious manner. "Do you want to see what I do?" He gestured the boy to come forward.

Slowly, William stepped forward and JD allowed is fingers to move over the navigation pad with expert movements. "This is where we tell the ship to take us where we want to go."

"This is the navigation station." William replied without a hint of sarcasm.

"That's a better way to put it." JD remarked trying not to seem embarrassed at being caught out for his condescension. The navigator decided then and there, the child was smarter than he looked and JD ought to treat him that way.

"I'd say so." Chris said with a straight face even though he wanted to laugh his head off. "We plot our course and heading from this point." He replied after taking a moment to reset his composure.

"And that is the helm?" William looked up at Chris, after struggling with the last word. Obviously, William had read up on all the bridge stations prior to this tour. Chris was impressed with his diligence. He could understand why Mary wanted to nurture any excitement the boy had about this. It was a way to let him make the transition to life without his father a great deal easier.

"That's right." The Captain answered, leading him to Vin.

"Hello William." Vin greeted before the Captain had a chance to make introductions. While Vin might have trouble dealing with the adult variety, he often found the simplicity of children far more honest and direct and was able to get along with them better.

"Could you activate the view screen, Vin?" Chris asked Vin, giving the helmsman a quick smile of appreciation. For the moment, Vin was a stark contrast from what he normally was. Where he was shy and nervous about everything, Vin did not seem to let his insecurities bother him when talking to William. Chris had a premonition that his ease had to with the fact that the child would be less likely to care he was not a proper Vulcan or a proper human for that matter.

"Aye Sir." Vin drawled in his usual laconic manner.

The view screen flickered to life a second later and revealed a breathtaking view of the space outside their ship. At present, the Maverick was travelling at Warp 2 but the stars were still rushing past the ships in brilliant streaks of white light. Chris saw William stare at the screen for a few minutes, mesmerised with the beauty there. It saddened Chris to think in a few years, Vulcan discipline would force him to deny the emotive experience of such grandeur and this visage would be reduced to nothing more than factual information.

"Its beautiful isn't it?" Chris remarked softly, allowing the scene to take his as well.

William did not answer but took Chris's hand in his and kept it there for the rest of the tour.

* * * * * * *

In the meantime, Buck and Ezra found themselves a quiet table at Four Corners. Buck had to admit he liked the security officer's choice for a venue for their meeting regarding the proficiency test ordered by Chris for all crewmembers. Ezra had convinced him that Four Corners was practically deserted at this time of the day. In this assessment, he was not wrong and they found themselves at the captain's table going over the results of the training seminars they had held for all departments.

Although he had spoken to Ezra prior to this meeting, they had little chance to work together closely before this. So far, Buck found his work as security chief to be beyond reproach. Unlike most officers who specialised in Security, Ezra was known to be cool under fire. He was able to take charge of a situation and was highly methodical in his approach to his field of expertise, which did not always mean security. In the last week Buck had played poker with the man enough times to know that Chris was right, he would never ever have gold pressed latinum if he kept playing cards with Ezra.

Still Buck liked the Southerner's company. While his cynicism might indicate otherwise, Buck sensed a soft centre at the core of the man that was every bit the gentleman, of course Buck had about as much chance of getting Ezra to admit that as he had getting the man to give up gambling.

"We are almost half done in this tedious chore." Ezra sighed putting down the pad and reaching for his cup of coffee. " I believe we have astrophysics next."

"I'm not satisfied with these results from Stellar Cartography. Fifty per cent of staff have below average or average phaser proficiency." Buck frowned studying the data pad.

"I know." Ezra agreed. "Part of the reason is their lack of use with phasers under normal circumstances. Science staff rarely get assigned to away missions and when they do, it, is not usually into combat situations. They are trained to use the weapons but most of them have yet to undergo any practical experience."

"I hear you." Buck replied sipping his own beverage. "Unfortunately, lack of use won't be an adequate excuse for Chris or the Borg if we run into them."

"I suggest then that we extend these training sessions over the period of the next few weeks. We need to drill those who did not score well. Make certain they spent at least an hour of target practice a day so that they become accustomed to a phaser."

"Good idea." Buck nodded in response. "I'll okay it with the captain and we can get started tomorrow."

"I could use a respite this evening," Ezra eased back into his chair after putting down the data pad. Ezra could feel the weariness in his eyes after staring at is tiny screen. It was almost dinner, he realised upon noticing the sudden influx of crew members arriving in the mess. "I had no idea this was going to become so involved."

"Science types rarely got the patience to deal with weapons systems." His eyes still fixed on the data pad before him. "Maybe it's a good thing that we found this out now before actually we faced a hostile force." Without realising it, Buck started massaging the bridge of his nose and then came to the conclusion a moment later he was getting too tired for this. It was time to call it a day.

Buck saw one of the staff of Four Corners passing their table and ordered himself a synthehol, deciding something a little stronger than coffee was required. Ezra opted to join him in indulging in a little libation and ordered the same, both men having come to the conclusion that it was time to set aside queen and country for the evening. Having discarded the rank of first officer, temporarily, Buck's eyes scoured the place, in search of one particular face.

"I believe she left some time ago." Ezra remarked, perfectly aware what his commanding officer was trying to find, or rather whom.

"Who?" Buck pretended to be indifferent.

"The lovely Miss Recillos." Ezra said with a knowing smile. "She left the bar some time ago. However if I know the lady's habits, she will be returning soon enough."

"I was not looking for Inez." Buck gave Ezra a look.

"Of course not." The gamblers mask held firm even though his eyes were full of amusement.

Buck stiffened; not liking anyone to believe he would be losing sleep over the new bartender, even though despite a week of persistent invitations, the woman had turned down every one made to her. Buck was accustomed to refusal but when he looked into Inez's eyes, he saw something more than just the contempt she said she had for him because of his lady-killer reputation. He knew women and this one was not as immovable on the subject as she appeared to be. Buck was certain if he could get past her animosity for him, they could really have a good time together.

"There are plenty of women out there." Buck said haughtily. "I can live without Miss Inez. For instance, that one."

He gestured to Alexandra Styles who just walked into Four Corners. As always, she got a drink at the bar and found some lonely corner along the counter to drink it. In the last week, the bridge crew had learnt one thing about their science officer. She did not like company.

"While I appreciate your taste," Ezra answered glancing at Alex. "I would have to say you have even less chance with her then you do with Miss Recillos. Everything about that woman says 'go away'."

"Oh I'd think she'd warm up if you knew which buttons to push." Buck said confidently, not liking to admit defeat. Besides, Alex was an extremely attractive woman, it would be an utter waste to sit by and allow her to wither because of past traumas. On a more professional note however, even the captain noticed how much time she spent alone and brought it up with him. She was about two steps away from Chris ordering her to see Josiah and somehow Buck knew she would not appreciate that at all.

"Do tell." Ezra folded his arms and dared him to prove it. "I wager you twenty credits you will burn up like an exploding sun."

Now that really inspired the commander's determination and Buck rose to his feet, giving Ezra a look of confidence before he walked towards the bar and Alex. Ezra watched on fascinated and was more certain about getting his twenty credits than any other bet he had ever placed in his whole chequered life. Still, the lack of surprise in the outcome was not going to eliminate his amusement as he saw his commanding officer preparing to make an ass of himself.

* * * * * * *

Hell.

That was what Lieutenant Commander Styles thought when she saw Commander Wilmington on approach. Judging by the relaxed and confident expression on his face, Alex knew this was not about ship's business. She supposed she should have expected this since the man had cut a swathe through the female population of the Maverick since coming on board. It was only a matter of time before he got to her. Not to mention, Inez was not present so Buck had no partner with whom he could perform his usual mating dance this evening.

Alex stirred the froth into her hot chocolate, watching the marshmallow melt into pink goo so that she would avoid making eye contact, hoping it would be enough to deter him. It was not that she was unfriendly and in a mildly interesting big, dumb dog way, he was attractive but Buck was not her type. Alex was not so sure what her type was these days but she knew the first officer was not it.

"Hello Lieutenant." Buck said with his most charming voice upon reaching her. Without being asked, he took the stool next to her. "You know it isn't exactly healthy to be alone the way you are."

"Good evening Commander." She said trying to be polite for as long as she was able.

"Now I know you've had things rough," he said still oozing that syrupy voice that was definitely for scoring, much to her disgust. "But you can't let it eat you up inside. You've got to get out there and start living again, get some people into your life."

Whether or not Buck could tell, Alex was taking great exception to this conversation in particular, his comments about her personal life. Commanding officer or not, she would broke that from no one, especially when her work was up to scratch. "Commander," Alex cleared her throat and reminded herself of his rank.

"Call me Buck." He grinned.

"Commander," Alex repeated firmly. "I am alone because I wish to be. I will deal with my situation in my own way."

"Wait a minute Alex....." Buck started to stammer, realising he had taken a wrong step.

"Commander," she rose to her feet. "Unless I am not performing my duties adequately, my private life is my business." She said with cold ice in her tone. "Now if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you take your forward pass and throw it somewhere else. I am not interested."

With that, she took her hot chocolate and made a quick departure out of the room.

* * * * * * *

"I believe you owe me twenty credits, Commander." Ezra smiled as Buck returned to the table, frowning deeply at his lack of success in acquiring Alex Styles's company for the evening. He had watched the commander's progress or absence of it with the science officer and was more or less expecting the response Buck received.

"That woman has issues." Buck grumbled as he sat down at the table again.

"I could have told you that before you went after her, Commander." Ezra replied, showing a little sympathy for Buck in his failure. If he was not a student of character, he might have been interested in Alex Styles himself, but his observations had told him from the onset that there were scars on her soul that would require more healing than either he or Buck was capable. Ezra wondered if there was anyone who could assuage the pain of what she had been through.

"It's all in the trying." Buck said with a slight smile, showing that he was capable of bouncing back from rejection with as much good humour as he regarded everything else. "Well at least, I'm out there trying. You're just sitting here, waiting for staff meetings so you can catch a glimpse of red hair."

Ezra turned sharply to the commander and retorted firmly. "I am not the least bit interested in Lieutenant Pemberton."

"I didn't say Lieutenant Pemberton's name." Buck looked at him with a triumphant smirk.

"Well who else has red hair and is present during staff meetings?" He returned automatically but did not seem very convincing because he always did have a thing for red hair and Lieutenant Pemberton's with its copper coloured strands that seemed to shimmer under the lights of the captain's ready room...

What were they talking about again?

"I am not interested in Julia." Ezra stated firmly just for the record.

With the same expression on his face Ezra had used when he had made the same claim about caring whether or not Inez was in the room, Buck replied with a smile. "Of course not."

* * * * * * *

Alex did not want to go back to her quarters and so she found herself heading towards the Observation Deck. While not in as optimum a position as Four Corners, it had the advantage of being empty most of the time since crew members preferred the bar to get their view of space, and there were no visitors on board at present to take in its vista. Alex had not wished to be so hard on Commander Wilmington but his words had stabbed at the part of her that knew she was being a hermit. While he attempted to be helpful, aside from scoring a date with her, his words only made her defensive and she reacted purely out of offence when she should have shrugged it off for what it was, just harmless advice.

There was no sitting room in the observation deck, just a deep ledge where the plexiglass screen met space. She walked into the room, expecting to be alone when she noticed a familiar face already occupying the ledge she was going to place herself. Vin Tanner was sitting cross legged staring into the stars as they streaked past, since the ship was moving at Warp 8. The observation deck was dimly lit and the stars outside produced an iridescent glow that cast a sapphire haze over him, as he was lost in the view beyond. If it had been anyone else, Alex would have left but Vin was the one person on the ship that did not seem to want to intrude upon her boundaries, mostly because he had so many of his own.

"Hi." She said quietly as she approached him, still carrying her hot chocolate.

"Hello." He looked up, having noticed her come in but was uncertain whether or not he should say anything lest she went away again. For the last week, he had been trying to speak to her, to thank her for what she said to him after his meeting with Charlotte Richmond. Even though they worked closely together on the bridge, their conversations were professional and he had a feeling she wanted to be left alone so he did not seek her out during their off duty hours.

"I thought I was the only one who came here." She answered closing the distance between them. When she reached the windowsill upon which he was perched, she noticed there was enough space for her to climb on as well.

"I like it here." Vin responded as he watched her nestling comfortably sitting cross legged from him, as they both stared at the stars beyond the glass. "Its quiet."

"I do to." Alex replied, leaning back against the vertical length of the windowsill. "I don't like crowds much."

"Would you like me to leave?" He asked, trying to be polite.

Alex tilted her head slightly towards him and noted that he had very nice eyes. "No, its okay. I think the deck is big enough for the both of us."

Vin smiled faintly and Alex thought that looked very attractive on him, especially because he was a Vulcan. "I am correct in assuming you are a full Vulcan, aren't I?" Alex asked.

"Yes, I am a full Vulcan." He said stiffly.

"You don't have to talk about it." Alex responded, seeing he was a little uncomfortable about the subject. She liked Vin Tanner, she did not know why. Perhaps, it was seeing someone just as closed off as she that made her understand him a little better.

"It is alright," he answered, grateful that she made the offer. "My parents died when I was five and I was adopted by human parents. When we were coming back to Earth, our ship crashed on a planet outside Federation space. We were stranded there for a long time."

"So you were raised entirely by humans." She could have learnt this information at any time if she had chosen to be so invasive as to pull up his personal records. However, Alex knew she would have been annoyed if someone had done that to her just to find out more about her past instead of simply asking.

"Until I came to the Academy." Vin said shortly, not liking to talk about that vaunted institution very much. His time there had not been pleasant because it was his initiation into learning that he was not like everyone else. His mother had died when he was young and by the time the rescuers had come,, he had spent a good five years alone. His social skills had been next to non-existent and his fellow cadets had taken every opportunity to make him feel like the outsider.

Alex could tell the Academy was a sore point and he did not like to speak of it. She could understand that too. "So you're not quite Vulcan and not quite human." She said, showing no sympathy because he would not like it.

"Something like that." He drawled, watching her gaze shift to the stars once more. Alex would always meet his eyes when they were talking but when there were periods of silence, she would gaze out into the stars, like him.

"You're unique." She stated with a little smile.

"Unique?" He stared at her, uncertain whether or not it was an insult or a compliment. It was so difficult to tell with humans.

"Neither one or the other." She explained aware he was confused by the comment. "You're just you."

"I guess." He agreeing that was a good a description as any.

"I think it's nice," her voice was almost like a wisp of wind. "Being able to be just who you are and not what's expected of you because you're from one culture or another. Not many people have that kind of freedom."

Vin had never heard it put quite that way. She was right of course, he was a Vulcan but he could not possibly imagine living the way they did, without love or passion in their lives. Sometimes he wanted to be very much apart of his people and other times, he could not understand how anyone would voluntarily let themselves live the way the Vulcans did, feeling nothing or not even acknowledging they could experience emotion. "Aren't you who you are?"

Alex swallowed and looked away. "No," she shook her head slowly. "Not for a very long time."

The pain that surfaced in her eyes was beyond description and Vin yearned to understand what it was that haunted her so. He wanted to probe further but somehow felt that she would not take the intrusion lightly because she was not at a place where she could talk about it even though he really wanted to know.

So he said nothing and for the next hour, they merely sat there in silence, watching the stars and communicating with far more effectiveness through their gazes at how each was enjoying the company.

Chapter Six:
Aftermath

The bridge that morning was strangely quiet.

No one seemed to speak as the view screen showed the Maverick smooth approach to Deep Space Five. There were moments when not even speech was enough to adequately express a situation accurately. As Captain Chris Larabee stared at the sight of space station looming closer in the screen, he told felt strangely devoid of words.

Deep Space Five still remained where it was. A former Lysian space station that had been donated by the Lysian homeworld upon its induction into the Federation. It was a graceful station, with smooth outer plates and fluid motion that made it look like a catherine wheel trapped in space. Approaching ships were treated to a breathtaking sight as the station moved forward like an endless wheel caught in one point of space, while inside its inhabitants were unaware that it moved at all. There were other ships docked at Deep Space Five. At the moment, Chris could understand with utter certainty what every captain must have felt a their first sight of the station.

Shock.

He was prepared for the worst but not even the worst could adequately describe the true extent of the disaster that had struck not only Deep Space 5 but the Lysian home world. All that remained of the planet was a barren wasteland. The world in the distance was still visible to the naked eye. Chris remembered that it was once a place of high, majestic mountains, running across the length and breadth of its surface. They were the harshest mountain ranges in the quadrant and a popular place for would be adventurers to vacation. The mountains had birthed strong rivers that carved their flow through rock over millions of years and given birth to all of Lysia's life forms.

No more.

Now, Lysia's rich amber colour had been replaced by a lifeless black hue, indicative of worlds that had been stripped of every living thing. No one had to visit the world to know everything of value was gone. The Borg invaders of six months ago had carved their way through the heart of Federation space and this had been their first contact with Starfleet and the people it was charged to protect. He did not need Alex or Buck to run sensor sweeps over Lysia because they all knew it was gone. The Borg had stripped the world of its inhabitants and its resources after its long journey from the Delta Quadrant. They had not required the cube to be fully manned because it had always anticipated filling its ranks with the unfortunates it would encounter in space.

Most of the beings who had been taken from Lysia had died in the battle over Earth. Their bodies and minds twisted into monstrous mixtures of nanoprobes and machinery.

Deep Space 5 fared marginally better. Most of the Starfleet personnel had managed to escape with the hundreds of ships that were hastily used to evacuate Lysia when the Borg was first sighted. Only a handful of Lysian ships had reached other systems safely. Those inhabitants were all that was left of the Lysian race. Deep Space 5 had been assaulted by the Borg. Its debris forming permanent orbit around the ruined station. The outpost had remained abandoned for several months until recently, when the Federation's repair efforts had finally reached its outer colonies.

The station no longer spun. It stayed in space before them motionless. Pylons were missing and some sections of its docking rings were charred and still bore the signs of attack. The damage was bad but not as terrible as the number of casualties forced to remain behind when there were no more ships left. They were now all Borg. They too had died in the skies above Earth.

"Deep Space 5 is hailing us." Ezra announced, shattering the silence of the moment. "Captain Krista on stand by."

"On screen." Chris said softly.

The view screen flickered momentarily before the face of Captain Krista appeared on the screen. Krista was an Illidarian with luminescent blue skin and eyes that seemed like diamonds with a thousand facets. She had no hair to speak of but bore ornate swirls of colour on her scalp which were indicative of caste in Illidaria. He recognised Krisa's markings as being of the Alkaris caste, one of the higher ranks on the planet.

"Greetings Captain Larabee." Krista smiled.

"Likewise Captain Krista."

"How fares the Maverick on her maiden voyage?"

"So far so good." Chris remarked casting a brief glance over the bridge at his crew. "We've encountered no surprises yet. We have a great deal of equipment for you from Earth. I see by the looks of things you really need it."

At that, her expression soured into a slight grimace. "As you can see, there are many things Deep Space 5 is severely in need of. The situation on Lysia is quite grim. We have been scouring the planet for some weeks now. We've found survivors. I would appreciate it if you could loan us the assistance of your medical staff for the duration of your stay."

"Of course." He replied automatically. "I was under the impression that the Borg had not left any survivors."

"So were we." Krista answered. "Shortly after we returned to DS5, our scanners detected faint life readings underneath the surface of the planet. It appeared that some of the population had gone to ground and hidden in the mining tunnels below the surface. As near as I can tell, the Borg moved on after their initial attack. Obviously they had bigger fish to fry and didn't wish to waste their resources on a few hundred Lysians. Our sick bay is stretched to the limit and we've got a medical ship on route here but until then..."

"Say no more." Chris remarked with a wave of his hand. "I'll inform my chief medical officer to get a team ready to beam to the station within the hour."

"Thank you Captain Larabee." Krista offered him a grateful nod of acknowledgement. "In the meantime, please accept the station's hospitality. I admit not all our facilities are up and running yet but it would make an interesting change of scenery for your crew. Not to mention I would be a poor host if I did not offer dinner to the newest Captain on the fleet. If you and your first officer would join me, I would be honoured."

Chris hid the fact he hated being reminded he was the newest Captain in Starfleet but he was going to just have to get use to it when he was among his peers. "Thank you Captain," he answered graciously. "Commander Wilmington and I would be delighted."

"Excellent." Krista smiled. "I will turn you over to my operations staff and get the docking procedure under way."

At that, the transmission was cut and a new face appeared. While Buck liaised with DS5 operations officers, Chris slid into deep thought. Perhaps it was the way Captain Krista had spoken but Chris suddenly became filled with the notion that DS5's captain had more on her mind than she was indicating. While an invitation to dinner was hardly indicative of anything covert, Chris had noticed the shade of her skin deepening when she made the invitation.

"Buck," Chris called out to his first officer minutes later.

"Yeah Chris." Buck met his gaze after going through the formalities of the docking procedure. Vin and JD were capable of taking care of things from here now that protocol had been established and instructions were given. The ship was sailing forward at a snail's pace as it made its final approach to one of DS5's docking rings.

"Did you get the impression that Captain Krista had more on her mind than just dinner?"

"I didn't notice but then Illidarian women aren't my speciality." He said with a grin of mischief.

Those who were close enough to hear, being JD and Ezra let out a slight snigger of laughter which Chris joined in long enough to give his old friend a look. "I hear neither are science officers."

He could not help adding since Alex was not present to take offence. Fortunately, the bridge did not require its full complement while docking procedures were being initiated.

Buck stiffened in annoyance and glanced at Ezra in accusation. "You got a big mouth Commander."

Ezra hid his smirk behind a look of innocence. "I refuse to comment on the grounds it could incriminate me." Ezra said exchanging another satisfied smirk with JD who tried to control his amusement because Buck was his superior office after all.

"I suppose everyone on this ship knows that I bombed out with Lieutenant Commander Styles."

"I think there is an ensign in Stellar Cartography who has not heard about it." Vin Tanner could not resist joining in the amusement taken at the first officer's expense. If there was one thing they had learnt since embarking on this voyage, it was that their first officer did not mind joking with his junior officers, even if he was on the receiving end of the joke. Besides for some reason, Vin did not think it was appropriate that Buck attempted to involve Alex in one of his romantic encounters. Even if Vin had no feelings on the matter, so he told himself, he just knew it was not right.

They were getting off the point even if Chris did enjoy the detour. In his opinion, Buck had over extended himself when he had attempted to date Alex Styles. "Back to Captain Krista, I meant did you think that the Captain appeared a little insistent regarding her dinner invitation?"

"I'm not sure Chris," Buck answered honestly. "I mean she looked a little tense but then with what her station has been through, it might be understandable."

"Fair enough." Chris decided. "I guess we'll just have to wait until this evening."

Out here, in the fallout of the Borg attack and in the face of so much destruction, Chris could swear whatever it was, Krista's reasons for inviting them to dinner did not bode well for the Maverick.

* * * * * * *

Once the captain had taken care of the formalities of docking at DS5, Chris had withdrawn to the ready room and left Buck in charge of the bridge during his absence. The mood on the bridge was sedate and decidedly lacking in the enthusiasm normally associated with the coming shore leave. Buck could understand the damp sentiments of his fellow crew mates. The tragedy of Deep Space 5 and Lysia was hard to ignore even if the danger had passed. It was difficult to forget that this place was the scene of great destruction less than six months ago.

Buck's ship was on the other side of Federation space when the Borg arrived. The Nimitz was a nebula class starship but had nonetheless made a valiant effort to reach the fighting to lend support. Unfortunately, the Nimitz returned to Earth only to find the debris from dozens of destroyed starships. The victory over the Borg was hardly sweet when one was forced to remember how many had died in the battle.

He could well understand the reasoning behind Starfleet's decision that defence perimeters had to be erected to fend off future Borg attacks. Realistically, no defence against such a ruthless adversary would ever be enough but logically, it was imperative to maintain a vigil at all times. Starfleet and the Federation were not about to tolerate the genocide of another sentient world.

Not after Lysia.

"Commander Wilmington," he heard a voice address him. Alex Styles, who had returned to the bridge, was eyeing him coolly as she waited for a response.

"Yes Alex?" Buck answered with a sigh, unable to ignore the cool in her voice even though she was putting on a brave attempt to keep her emotions in check. It might have succeeded had he not been aware of what transpired between them.

"I have conducted the routine sensor sweep of the sector. At the moment, other than a Bolian ship on the outer perimeter and a Paxon trading vessel on route to the station, there does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Both had appropriate clearances for travel in this area."

In light of Chris' concern that Krista might be summoning them to dinner to discuss something of importance, the captain had ordered a sensor sweep of the entire region to ensure there was nothing out of the ordinary that might be reason for concern. With Ezra absent from the bridge since he was needed to help DS5's security personnel with new enhancements to their shields, Buck had asked Alex to conduct the routine sweep.

"Very good Commander." He replied casually, not meeting her gaze.

With that, she turned on her heels and returned to her station, saying nothing further.

Vin tried not to pay attention to the mild tension between Buck and Alex, knowing Alex had not been offended by Buck's attempt to make a pass at her. Although she had not discussed the subject with him during their interlude in the observation deck, Vin was starting to get enough sense of the woman to know her personal troubles were what really bothered her. Not the failed attempt by their first officer to entice her into a romantic situation. Of course, he could be wrong. Vin had very little experience with women and by Vulcan standards he was sexually immature. By human standards he was twenty eight but exact figures were not available because his Vulcan parents were never identified and no birth records existed to make confirmation.

At the Academy, he kept mostly to himself and the few women he did approach had been somewhat uncertain of what he was to return their affections. He had not even been with a woman yet, but had to admit he was grateful of that fact since he was immune to the urges endured by human males. Still, he could not deny he liked looking at Alexandra Styles, If it was not completely inappropriate to do so, he would probably spend his time on the bridge gawking at her if allowed the chance instead of keeping his eyes on his console and not crashing the ship into a star.

In the meantime, Buck decided that he needed to clear the air between himself and Commander Styles, even though she seemed indifferent to what had taken place and made no gesture or remark that might indicate she held any lasting hostility to him. Still, Buck was uncomfortable with the way things stood, especially since half the ship was now aware of it. Her station was at the far end of the bridge for which he was secretly grateful for. He did not wish their conversation to be privy to everyone's hearing.

"Commander, may I speak to you?"

She looked over her shoulder and let out a soft sigh before turning to face him. Alex could see furtive glances from the rest of the bridge crew even though Vin was the only one she paid enough attention to notice. She hoped the commander was not going to make another embarrassing repeat of his performance at Four Corners again. Alex really did not have the energy for it nor did she believe it was wise because her subsequent refusal would be extremely detrimental to their working relationship.

"Yes Sir?" She asked indifferently, trying to show his words to her the other night had not bothered her in the hopes that it might make him less uncomfortable about it.

"Commander Styles," Buck began clearing his throat, hating to make apologies but aware he had to in this instance because he had been a little out of line. "I'm sorry about the other night." He said genuinely regretting the whole incident, not only because of the embarrassment to him personally but because he read up on her personal and medical history following her capture by Cardassian forces. Until that point, he had only evaluated her service record which listed that she had been captured and held prisoner by the Cardassians, nothing more.

Alex met his gaze in surprise, expecting a discussion on her refusal and decided that she preferred this outcome infinitely more. He was not a man accustomed to saying sorry and as first officer, he was not obliged to do so either. That he made the effort impressed Alex and she found that she did not have it in her to hold a grudge over something so trivial. Even though she voiced none of it, Buck Wilmington was very likeable and she did find him amusing as well as possessing a healthy respect of him and the job he did, even though she did not find him attractive personally..

"Apology accepted Sir." She met his gaze and decided that she had not behaved properly herself and should not rebuke him his behaviour when she was partially responsible for what happened. "I apologise for my outburst at Four Corners. It was not my intention to embarrass you in any way. I am sorry if I have placed you in an awkward situation."

Buck was pleased that she was making it so easy for him and had to admit he had not expected this much compassion from her. He was certain that she would make him squirm but then decided she was just like any other woman in this respect. They always left you wondering what the hell happened after it was all said and done.

"I've been in worse. I once had to put my pants on in a dark room when the husband of the lady I was with, decided to come home unexpectedly with loose Andorian change in my pockets."

Alex let out a short laugh and Buck decided she did not do it nearly enough because she was utterly radiant when she smiled. However, Buck had well and truly overcome his desire to indulge in any off duty activity with the lady unless she so expressed it and Buck did not think she would. Besides, judging by the way Vin was trying not to look in this direction, the first officer had the strangest suspicion the Vulcan might have already staked a claim on their science officer, whether or not she knew it.

"That's sounds like an interesting story." She said trying to suppress another smile as she composed herself. Watching the tension dissipate was a welcome weight off her shoulders. However, as much as Alex hated to admit it, not everything he had said was entirely untrue or undeserved. "I guess maybe you hit a little close to home and I reacted badly. I'm not ready to become sociable just yet."

"I understand," Buck replied glad to see she had not taken permanent offence at his advice and was actually giving his words some thought. It bode well for their long term working relationship as well as the possibility of a friendship she was capable of being flexible, despite her scarred emotional state. "You should try and get out a bit. I don't presume to tell you how you ought to spend off duty hours but sometimes it might help just to talk about it."

"I'm not ready to talk to a Counsellor." She said trying not to sound defensive.

"I'm not talking about a Counsellor," Buck reiterated. "I mean to a friend. You need to talk about it sometime because things like this have a way of leaving its mark on you, especially when you think you can handle it alone."

In this instance at least, Buck knew precisely what he was talking about. He endured the same process with Chris when his old friend had lost his wife and son. Chris had come so close to the edge, even now Buck was not entirely certain he had come all the way back. Even though Chris decided to go on, Buck knew Chris had far from dealt with the grief of losing them. Something inside Chris Larabee could not let that go and it had changed him. Buck would hate to see that happen to Alexandra Styles as well.

"I'll think on it." Alex replied, thinking she would honestly give the matter some thought. "Thank you Sir."

However as Buck watched her turn back to her console he did not think she would and thus he returned to the command chair with a sigh, knowing things would unfold as they pleased in good time. The same would happen for Lieutenant Commander Styles.

The bridge was empty with most of the crew lending their assistance to DS9 with their current problems with refugees. The USS Livingstone was due to arrive soon and would provide much needed aid to the strained resources of the space station. Suddenly, the turbo lift doors slid open and Buck looked over to see the pretty young girl that was the Captain's yeoman peer through the doors as if stepping on the bridge would have incinerated her on the spot. Buck could not help smiling to himself as he saw her gaze sweeping across the bridge.

Casey Wells was even greener than JD if such a thing was possible. She did not have the benefit of an Academy education but was a Bajoran national who had been adopted by Admiral Wells when the lady had captained a ship during the Border Wars. Although she had taken on the admiral's name, Casey was very much Bajoran with the usual ridge nose that seemed to enhance her appearance more than diminish it.

"You gonna just stand there Yeoman?"

"I'm sorry Sir," she stammered as she came forward.

If Buck had not seen for himself how adept she was in handling her duties as the Captain's yeoman, he would have questioned what on Earth Chris was thinking when he allowed this child to take that position. She was a sweet enough kid but rather uncertain about herself. As she stepped forward, Buck noticed JD happening to glance over his shoulder at the young woman and upon doing so was unable to move his eyes away from her. Buck watched in growing amusement as JD became transfixed by the slender form of Casey Wells moving across the bridge towards the Captain's chair.

"JD," Buck said with a perfectly straight face. "The navigation console is in front of you."

JD's face flushed red with embarrassment and he quickly turned away but not before the young woman met his gaze and delivered to him a heart stopping smile. Buck had to bite down to contain his need to make a glib remark and wondered if anyone else was thinking the same thing he was.

Hell, you could hear the violins.

"Do something for you yeoman?" Buck inquired once she had pulled her eyes away from JD who had returned his attention to the navigation console once again.

"I just brought the Captain's weekly reports for him." She said shyly.

"He's in his ready room. I don't think he would mind if you brought it to him, Yeoman." Buck glanced towards the direction of the Captain's inner sanctum.

"Thank you Sir," Casey answered gratefully and cast another glance in JD's direction before going on her way. She disappeared into the Captain's ready room a minute later and Buck looked over his shoulder long enough to catch Alex's amused expression.

"Kids," he snorted.

Chapter Seven:
Lysia

Nathan Jackson simply stared.

After spending the last few years in Starfleet Medical immersed in pure research, the physician had little experience with performing his skills in a combat situation. The closest he had come to such a thing was immediately after the Borg attack when he and every doctor was recruited to tend the wounded after the battle. He had seen broken bodies then in more volume than he could possibly imagine. He remembered the hollowness in his stomach as he realised every bed was filled to capacity and the nurses were run off their feet trying to bring comfort to so many. For days, there had been 18 hour shifts for all of them. He had gone through that period bleary eyed with the sounds of the injured and the dying echoing in his ears and hearing their pain in his mind.

None of that seemed to compare with what he was faced with now.

The medical centre of Deep Space Five was filled to capacity. Temporary beds were set up in the station's habitat ring to cope with the influx of refugees returning home after their hasty departure. Many had spent months on other stations and it was a sobering thing for Nathan Jackson to know that the remnants of the Lysian world were crammed inside these walls. Nathan and his medical team arrived on the station only to be engulfed in a sea of desolate faces whose injuries were deeper than just flesh.

As he moved through them, he could see the terrible aftermath left in the wake of the cybernetic army that wrought this destruction. Nathan hardened himself to thoughts of a thousand beams of thin crimson light stabbing at him like knives. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for the Lysians, to see the ground ripped away from beneath their feet, watching friends and loved ones sapped of will and strength which was nowhere as haunting as the three words that were now etched forever in memory. Words spoken devoid of emotion, yet told anyone who heard it that it was a death knell marking the end of their civilization. All their history, their achievements, the songs of poets and the heart of a world was compressed into that one moment when they heard the invader speak.

Resistance is futile.

Nathan had no doubt that there was likely to be more of the race scattered across the galaxy but the Lysians had always preferred to remain close to home. They clung to the station because it was all they had left. It was all that remained of their world. He knew from what Chris had told him prior to his arrival here there was nothing left on the surface of the planet.

Everything of value had been taken. The cities of Lysia were gone. Where they had once stood, were great canyons were rips in the earth where the ground had been torn away. Lysia was a technologically adept world before the catastrophe. The Borg had flung them back into the Stone Age. It would take years for the rebuilding to be complete. As Nathan saw the tragic faces of young and old, he wondered if they could wait that long.

"Doctor Jackson?" He heard a female voice, full of stern authority and impatience beckoning him through the despairing faces around him. Her voice was almost drowned out by the sounds of the people going about their business around them.

He was grateful for the woman's voice for it helped him to refocus his mind and gain better control of his own emotions in the face of all the sorrow around. Nathan was a doctor long enough to be accustomed to all kinds of suffering but even he could not remain indefinitely detached when the scale was destruction of this magnitude. These people were all that was left of the Lysians; it was impossible not to become affected by the atrocity of genocide when faced with it like he was now. "Yes?"

"Are you all right?" She asked.

To his embarrassment, he realised he was not the first one to react like this.

She was older than him and appeared to be this impatient looking woman with the dark gold hair and green eyes that studied him closely. Her lined face confessed much tenderness despite the tone of her voice and Nathan gathered instantly this was a woman who felt things deeply.

"I'm fine. I was on Earth when the Borg attack and this is nothing like that. I thought I'd just about reached the limits about what could turn my stomach but..."

"I understand." She replied, not requiring him to continue. "I am Doctor Pulaski. Please call me Catherine." She replied extending a hand forward.

"Please to meet you Catherine." Nathan replied warmly and took the hand in turn. "I am Doctor Nathan Jackson from the USS Maverick reporting for duty." He glanced over his shoulder at the medical crew behind him and then added. "We are at your disposal."

"That's good to know." She declared as she started towards the sick bay. "As you can see, we need all the help we can get. A medical ship is on the way but that's a few days off. For the past weeks, its just been us."

"I sympathise." Nathan said honestly. "So you are still finding survivors?"

"Here and there." Catherine answered. "Its still a mess down there. The Borg really did a number on them. I've never seen such callous disregard for life."

"The rules of engagement rarely apply to species like the Borg. I take it the more serious injuries have been taken care of?"

"Yes," she replied as they entered the sick bay. Unlike his own ordered sick bay on the Maverick where everything was dust free and ordered, this place was chaotic. Everyone looked exhausted and weary. He knew most of the personnel on Deep Space 5 had not been here long. There had been so much damage done in the wake of the Borg attack in the core worlds that resources and ships had been stretched to the limit.

Most of Starfleet's finest had been sent to the Neutral Zone to ensure the Cardassians and the Dominion did not attempt to attack in this vulnerable state. Although the Klingon Empire had taken up the slack left by the destruction of half the fleet, it was still not enough. The Borg left a trail of destruction throughout Federation space and each world demanded attention. Unfortunately, it meant allocation of adequate supplies and personnel moved at a snail's pace.

Starfleet had assumed all was lost on Deep Space 5. Its last transmission to Earth certainly indicated there were no survivors left on Lysia or the station. All that had been done was carried out prior to the attack. It was one of those prolific examples of bureaucracy that had allowing allowed such time to lapse before help was rendered to the world.

Nathan glanced over his shoulder and saw that his medical team was just as affected by what was taking place around them. They were eager to plunge into this carnage and offer aid to the people around them. Nathan never felt prouder.

"I've been told by the Captain that we have some supplies being transported to the cargo hold as we speak. I oversaw the requisition order myself. You should have enough supplies to last you until the Livingstone arrives."

"You could not have timed it better." Catherine responded as she motioned one of her staff to her. A weary, young Rimorian came to her. Even though his features were undistinguishable through the thick black fur on his feline face, there was enough sluggishness in his manner to indicate exhaustion. "Tasskin, this is Doctor Jackson."

The Rimorian looked up and smiled. It was hard to tell with a Rimorian but a slight bearing of his long fangs was an indication of a greeting. Nathan wondered what kind of bedside manner a Rimorian had because they were known for their aggression and cool deliberation.

"I am please to make your acquaintance Sir." His voice was nothing more than a loud hiss. Although they could speak well enough, the Rimorian larynx was not made to imitate human speech. Thank God for a universal translator, Nathan thought.

"My staff is at your disposal Mr Tasskin, Put them to work and take some time for yourself. Rimorians are not indestructible."

"Good luck." Catherine muttered.

"I can keep pace with any human." Tasskin insisted abruptly. "I need no special favours."

"Are all your people so stubborn?" Nathan asked, knowing an abrasive manner was natural to Rimorians. They gauged their peers by the ability to launch a formidable attack, be it all out physical combat or lively verbal jousting.

"I am no exception."

"In that case, do as you will." The chief medical officer said graciously before adding with a slight smirk on his face. "If you collapse, I have some experience in treating Rimorians."

The feline thought this to be quite humorous and uttered a short laugh. It sounded more like the Rimorian was going to cough up a fur ball to Nathan, however, he did not voice that observation. "You have much rashas, Doctor Jackson. I will do as you ask."

At that, Tasskin left him and Catherine to talk while he went to allocate the Maverick medical team to where they would be needed most. Nathan watched the Rimorian leave unable to suppress a smile of bemusement.

"What did he mean by rashas?" Nathan asked her when they were alone, as much as anyone could be alone in this crowded place. The word sounded like a snarl and Nathan had some trouble getting his tongue around it.

"He means you have spirit."

"Coming from a Rimorian, I'll take that as a compliment."

"You should." Catherine smiled. "Now lets get to work."

Considering what they were faced with around them, Nathan could not disagree. They would need more than rashas to put these people back together again. If such a thing was even possible.

* * * * * * *

"We should have been here sooner." Chris stated after he and Buck transported to the station later that evening. As they emerged from the transporter room into the main section of the station, it was easy to see why so many supply ships were on the way to Deep Space Five at this time. It appeared that the only thing that was still relatively in one piece was the station itself.

Everything else had been stripped by the Borg, including people.

Buck said nothing as his eyes scanned past the blast marks on the walls, no doubt a grim reminder of the hopeless battle fought here. Although the debris had been removed, the sign of violence was clear. Gaping holes remained in the walls and floors. Some blown apart while others were cut through with Borg instruments. The Borg wasted no time when they came across an obstacle. The rips in plate steel and dented hatches were stark testaments to that fact. Live conduits and wires hung randomly above their heads. Some protruded from walls, ripped away from the devices the Borg had found interesting enough to take. Shop fronts were boarded up and the restaurant area seemed more prolific by the refugees that had taken to sleep on its floor for the lack of space.

Chris felt trapped inside the station as hundreds of bodies moved past him. He knew clearly that some of these unfortunates carried their meager belongings on their back. Most had the look of destitution that went beyond home and loved ones. He wished there was more that could be done for them.

"It will take years for Lysia to be capable of supporting this population on its own."

"If that." Buck said grimly as they moved towards the station's Operations Centre. "After what the Borg did to the surface, they're going to need Federation aid for the next two years just to reclaim the soil let alone growing enough to feed themselves."

The ground had been so traumatized by Borg weapons and its tractor beams that the soil was near infertile at this moment. Whatever vegetation that remained was dying if not already done. Starfleet experts were going to have to conduct planetary soil rejuvenation procedures if Lysia was ever going to be healed enough to start large scale agriculture again.

"The damn Borg." Buck cursed with uncharacteristic venom. "There are rules in war, rules that defines a species even in the worst circumstances. Every civilized species we have encountered over the past two hundred years have some code of honor on the battlefield. What the hell makes the Borg so different?"

"Machine logic." Chris said simply. "Our rules don't mean anything to them because compassion is meaningless to a computer. It exists like a virus exists, with no knowledge as to the cells it is destroying beyond the expansion of its own. They're efficient if nothing else."

"Sorry Chris, I didn't mean to get on a soapbox." Buck exhaled loudly, unable to deny he was affected by what he was seeing around him. "It pisses me off to see civilians like this. I know there really should not be any difference but hell in Starfleet, we expect the danger, we know the risks. These people, they just want to live."

As he saw a child clinging close to its mother as they moved past him, Chris could not deny that he did not share Buck's sensibilities. "It makes you feel better, I feel the same way. When we were fighting them over Earth, they didn't care about the wounded or the fact that some ships couldn't even fight anymore. They just destroyed everything because it was there and they could. There was no reason for it, there doesn't need to be for them."

"That's what scares me most." Buck replied.

They entered the Operations Centre of the station and directed to Captain Krista's quarters. The habitat section was on the other side of the station but fortunately Chris and Buck did not have to go through the crowd to reach it. From Operations, a friendly ensign led the two officers through the service corridors to the Captain's quarters. While the main centres of the station had nearly been wall to wall with people, the service corridors were restricted to non-Starfleet personnel so they were able to make time rapidly.

Captain Krista was already waiting when they arrived. Her quarters were the largest in the station. Through the newly repaired window of the main lounge area, they were treated to a spectacular view of Lysia and the docking ring. From the position of the dining table, they were capable of seeing not only the Maverick but also several other ships berthed at the station.

Although Krista's quarters were large, Chris noticed that most of her belongings still remained in their packing boxes. With a note of bemusement, he remembered that his quarters on the Maverick did not look much different. Even though he had been on the Maverick for several days now, he had barely had time to get settled in, with all the things that required doing on a ship during her maiden voyage. Compared to what he had seen since arriving on DS5, he was surprised Krista had any time to sleep let alone unpack.

She had changed from her Starfleet uniform into a loose Illidarian caftan that shimmered as she moved. It made her looked like gossamer when it rested against her vibrant blue skin. The dinner table was already set and judging from the dishes served, it was all vegetarian fare. However, upon sitting down to dine, Chris noticed that the taste was varied and it was difficult to imagine that some of it was not meat.

Dinner conversation had been light, confined mostly to what Chris called 'shop talk'. Krista told them about the current Lysian situation and how the restoration of a working Lysian government and rescue efforts were going. Chris had the impression that she did not wish to mar the meal with what was really on her mind which went further along to confirm his suspicions the subject was not going to be palatable.

"I commend your ability to program a replicator." Chris complimented after they finished the meal and was enjoying a glass of Illidarian wine.

"Thank you." She answered graciously. "Let's just say it was several days of effort that served tonight's cuisine."

"Time well spent Captain." Buck commended as well. "I've had Illidarian food before but the taste is a little different, I'd say almost peppery. Is that why the flavor is so unusual?"

"Yes I must confess, I did program a little white pepper. Unfortunately, despite our flare for vegetarian food, Illidarian cuisine can be somewhat lacking in seasoning. Therefore, I've experimented with different spices. I must admit it enhances the taste somewhat."

"You'll get no argument from me." Chris answered. "Now," he sat up brushing all pleasantries aside and moving to the matter at hand. "I get the impression you've got something on your mind."

Krista lowered her glass and met his gaze. "You are very perceptive Chris. You are correct of course. I thought cushioning what I had to discuss with you might make the evening pass smoother."

"There was no need," he replied and then quickly added, "but then a fine meal is always welcomed."

Deciding that there was no reason to delay any longer, the Captain of DS5 began speaking. "A month ago, we had an interesting breach of station security."

Chris looked up sharply from his plate while Buck was quick to respond. "How so?" The first officer asked before Chris had a chance to. Chris wondered at her use of the word 'interesting'.

"Well, there was no ship anywhere in this sector." Krista continued. "And for once there were no ships currently docked at the station. It was a quiet as it gets around here. Our security team ran its usual sensor sweeps of the area and found nothing unusual. However, my chief engineer discovered that our main computer core had registered a complete download. Forty billion gigaquads of information was ripped from our computer memory without our knowledge or without any traces of how it could be done."

"My God." Chris retorted astonished. "There were absolutely no signs of any ships?"

"Whatever completed the download penetrated our shields without us knowing it. It was as if it came straight through us and took the data."

"Could it be a computer malfunction?" Buck asked. "Perhaps an error in the system registering a download. It would account for why there was no security alert."

"Our engineer has gone through the system twice already. It is certainly not a glitch." Krista replied firmly. Obviously, she had already considered the possibility and exploited it. "The data was downloaded but what we have yet to discover is how and why."

"Even the Sovereign class ships aren't capable of storing forty billion gigaquads of data." Chris pointed out. "I have no idea what kind of ship would possess that much computer memory to be able to store all that information."

"I thought the same thing." Krista agreed. "However, it had to be a ship."

"I agree." Buck nodded at the Captain. "If the system is registering a download, then it had to have gone somewhere. Its gotta be a ship."

"True." Chris could not disagree with that statement. "We know for a fact it could not have been a Federation ship. As of now, the Sovereign class Enterprise had the largest computer core for data storage in the fleet. We don't know much about Romulan designs but we know their warbirds don't match our galaxy class ships and lets face it, the Klingons barely allow walking room in their bird of preys, let alone a computer core of that size. The Cardassians and Jem Haddar have never been spotted this far from the wormhole and I've seen their ships. They prefer smaller, maneuverable craft. They're not big on data storage."

"There are no ships we are aware of that could possibly store all that information." Buck stated.

"Or for that matter, pierced through Starfleet shields and computer safeguards without so much as a whisper." Chris added.

"You see my problem." Krista said finally. "I've reported this to Starfleet command but since no harm was done, they do not consider it top priority. I almost believe they think that my engineering team has made a mistake about the download. I have not been able to get any action from them."

Chris could see where she was going with this. "You think this is someone new. Someone we haven't encountered before."

"We always thought we were prepared for what lay beyond." She gestured to the expanse of the stars beyond her window. "The Borg taught us otherwise and it is a big galaxy out there."

To that Chris could hardly disagree. Until Jean-Luc Picard's fateful meeting with the Borg, Starfleet had lived with the belief it was capable of dealing with anything that came their way. The Borg had shocked them out of their complacency and reminded them quite bluntly the galaxy was indeed a big place but it was not for the weak. Later upon encountering the Dominion, that notion was reinforced again to a lesser degree. The Borg had taught them to be on guard. Now, the prospect of a new, more powerful enemy was daunting. However, it was a possibility they could not afford to ignore.

The Delta Quadrant lay beyond them uncharted. If the USS Voyager ever made it home, they would have a wealth of information about that area of the galaxy. Until then, they would be forced to stumble about blindly, hoping they could cope with whatever emerged from it, as they had with the Borg.

"You're going out there, Chris." Krista continued as if she could read his thoughts at that exact moment. "Downloading our computer core from right under our noses is quite a feat in itself. We don't know why the information was needed but someone is curious about us. Keep an eye out for them."

Chris exchanged glances with Buck and knew his first officer had come to the same conclusion as Captain Krista and himself.

Something was out there in the frontier and it was watching them.

Chapter Eight:
Colony 1

Beyond Deep Space Five was uncharted space.

There were some faint traces of human life growing beyond the hub of that sector but these were far and few. This far out from the core worlds, one need not concern themselves over Romulan aggression, Dominion intrigue or Cardassian posturing. All these were on the other side of the quadrant and far removed from the minds of the captain and his crew. Following their departure from Deep Space Five, the Maverick left behind the last vestiges of the Federation and Starfleet as it travelled into deep space. After the station, there would be a few scattered colonies here and there but nothing large enough to be considered more than a way station.

It was quite disconcerting to leave DS5 far behind them. Perhaps it was because everything ahead was an unknown that left everyone tense. In some ways, this quadrant had been left neglected for some time. Although there was no any reason to avoid the establishment of a formidable Federation presence here, this area remained largely unexplored. Starfleet had been too busy dealing with threats close to home lately to squander the manpower or resources on such a distant place. A hundred years ago, it was different. Starfleet was accustomed to sending out ships into the great unexplored galaxy. Then it was only Klingons and the occasional Romulan foe that one had to worry about. Nowadays, their enemies counted from the Ferengi to the Dominion. The list sometimes felt endless.

"Captain's Log, Stardate 2399.1, we have left Deep Space Five and continued our journey towards the Frontier. As of yet, we have encountered nothing of the presence that breached DS5's shields. However, I believe any force capable of accomplishing that from such a distance would most likely be adept at hiding themselves from us. Nevertheless I have given the science department orders to conduct multiphasic scans of the entire area to detect anything anomalous."

Chris lowered his pad and allowed his gaze to move over the bridge. Day to day operations had fallen into a set routine as the ship and its crew was moulded into a functioning unit. Alexandra Styles was still reserved but was still managing quite well as Chief Science Officer. According to Buck's report, the first officer's observations regarding her performance showed promise. In time, she would be able to come out of the seclusion she had locked herself in.

Despite her personal problems, she allowed none of her difficulties to interfere with her role as the head of the science department. Hers was an odd sort of leadership. Quiet and understated, she produced results that earned her the respect of those she worked with and by extension, acceptance of her eccentricities. Buck had also informed him Alex and Vin Tanner were becoming friends and somehow that did not surprise Chris in the least. Their friendship made sense as far as he was concerned because the two of them were outcasts, one by birth and the other by choice. He wondered where friendship ended and something intimate began but Buck seemed to think that their relationship was platonic.

It was just as well because he was certain Vin was not old enough for that kind of relationship and Chris was not looking forward to that day because there were no Vulcans to help him through such a turbulent time.

His partnership with Buck seemed to be a pairing that had Chris wishing that Wellington were here to see how well they worked together. If he had any reservations about making Buck his first officer when Chris had first thought of it, it was mostly due to fears about whether their friendship could survive the line that existed between a Captain and his Exec. However, even he had not envisioned how easy it would be to have Buck at his side because of that familiarity.

Buck never openly contradicted him about anything but did often voice alternatives when in private. When there was no opportunity to take such discretion, Buck was always tactful and tried hard (Chris could tell) to not sound like a pain in the ass, but rather as someone who was there to point out alternatives. Chris had a feeling that Buck had heard down the grapevine Wellington had not approved his appointment and was trying his level best to prove that he could be an able first officer to Chris Larabee for reasons more than just friendship.

"Captain," Chris heard Ezra speak in the background. "We are receiving an automated signal from Colony 1."

"Automated?" Chris swung in his chair and looked up at his Security Officer.

Judging from the way his fingers were moving across the panel before him, Chris decided it was an unnecessary request. It was no wonder the man was so good at the card table, his fingers moved like they belonged to a twelve fingered Corsovian. Ezra was already placing the signal under deep investigation. His well-chiselled features deepened into a frown when the console flashed the answers he had put to it. "It is a remote satellite distress signal."

"Could it be from the Borg attack?" JD asked out loud. In this part of space, there was no other threat it could be.

"No." Chris shook his head and met Buck's gaze "Not the Borg."

"There are nine colonies in this area, JD." Buck explained not only for their navigator's benefit but also for all the bridge officers present. "Colony 1 is the closest to Federation space. During the attack, the Borg chose to attack worlds on a linear course to Sector 001. Deep Space Five and Lysia were in a direct trajectory to Earth. They probably felt they could afford the time to assimilate the planet and the station because it would not take them off course. However, these colonies are scattered over a wider trajectory and contain a minimal population. It's hardly worth the time and trouble for the Borg to make a detour like that when they had larger targets in mind. Besides, I don't think the Borg would choose to launch another invasion of the Alpha quadrant by attacking a small colony."

"How long will it take us to get there?" Chris asked, pointing his question at JD.

JD made some speedy calculations from his station before responding. "5.6 hours at Warp 5."

"If anything has happened to the colony, an automated distress signal may be all that's left because there is no one alive to send a manual signal. This may be a planetary catastrophe or an epidemic. Let's not jump the gun assuming that this was a Borg attack." Buck pointed out.

"Good thinking." Chris nodded. "I don't think we ought to jump to conclusions until we have more information. However, an automated distress signal does elevate the urgency of the situation. I would prefer to work on the assumption that there are colonists to find when we arrive to investigate. Vin, take us to maximum warp."

"Aye Sir." Vin entered the command into his com panel and looked up a second later to see the stars on the view screen suddenly surge towards them at lightning speed. They moved past the ship like streaks of light as the ship moved into maximum acceleration. The low hum of the engines had risen in pitch and a powerful drone began to reverberate throughout the structure.

"Ezra, how long until we are in sensor range?" Buck asked.

"Approximately one hour. Advise that we go to black alert." The security officer replied facing Chris, following his response.

"Do it." Chris nodded. "Alex, as unlikely as the possibility might be, it would be a good idea to adjust your sensor sweep of the area to detect any recent transwarp signatures."

That statement brought a hasty silence to the bridge. For a moment, it seemed everyone froze at the notion of Borg involvement. As unlikely as he believed it might be, Chris could not afford to discount that possibility. This part of the Alpha Quadrant was in the line of sight from the Delta Quadrant and the Borg had proved before that this was their most direct route to Earth.

The pause lasted for a second and then everything was set in motion again except with a heightened state of urgency attached to everyone's actions. No one however, could deny the vein of tension running through the bridge the minute the warning lights for black alert began flashing throughout the ship.

* * * * * * *

Within fifteen minutes of detecting the distress signal, Colony 1 was finally within sensor range. The results of Alex's sensor sweep had caused Chris to immediately convene a meeting of the senior staff and the Maverick remained on yellow alert. As he entered the debriefing room, his staff was already present. There was tension in the room. He did not need Josiah's counselling skills to know that. He could see it in all their faces even from Mary who was normally detached and Ezra, who seldom let anything get past his gambler's facade.

"You all know the situation," Chris declared sat down, choosing to get down to business immediately. "Colony 1 has been destroyed."

There was no response for a few seconds. The evidence of the sensor sweep was undeniable. There was no doubt about it.

"Alex, your analysis please." He gestured to the science officer.

The weight of the situation had done remarkable things to the quiet woman. Like most exceptional officers who excelled when forced to work under pressure, Alex was no different. Obviously, she was more confident at her ability in her work then she was with her contemporaries. "We have detected transwarp signatures in the area of Colony 1. However, unless the Borg have altered their warp engine configuration, it is my opinion and that of Chief Engineer Pemberton this is not a Borg ship."

"Not a Borg ship?" Ezra exclaimed. "If the Borg did not destroy Colony 1, then who did?"

"We don't know." Alex continued. "We know the signature is transwarp but as our warp signatures can be identified to the ship, this one does not match the transwarp signature of a Borg vessel. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the only discrepancy." She looked at Buck and hoped the engineer would continue. After all, it was her theory to begin with.

Julia Pemberton took up the trail of Alex's explanation. "We have found the characteristics of this signature is more advanced and more refined than normal Borg signatures. It comes from a ship that might be ten generations beyond Borg technology. At this time, Federation scientists have only begun theoretical simulations of a transwarp field bearing this level of refinement."

"Someone more powerful than the Borg?" Josiah remarked. "That is a terrifying thought."

"To say the least." Nathan agreed. "Are we absolutely certain that this isn't the Borg? Even the Borg are capable of upgrading."

"Yes they are," Chris agreed. "However, this would then mean the Borg has encountered a race that is far more advanced than they are and have managed to assimilate them. I find that hard to believe. The Borg is technologically superior and that is probably the biggest advantage they have over us. Through our own experience, we know they find it difficult to react to new situations. They win through sheer force of numbers and by assimilation. When they cannot do that, they obliterate through technological superiority. A foe that is equally matched can beat them or at least hold their own well enough."

"So then we have a new problem." Ezra retorted.

"It appears so." Chris answered. "Alex, please continue with your report."

She nodded and began speaking again. "Although we will have more information when we reach Colony 1, the initial scan shows no structural remains of the settlement. Our sensors have only been capable of detecting a radioactive field in the place of the colony. The radioactive field consists of berthol rays. Even if the colonists were not killed in the initial attack, they would have died from radiation sickness. As most of us know, berthol rays cannot be produced artificially but we have no reason to believe this is caused by a natural disaster. The only conclusion that makes sense is that is a weapon. If there is any consolation to be had, it is the fact that this is not Borg."

"Wonderful." Ezra muttered under his breath.

"Are there any survivors of Colony 1?" Nathan asked, since no one had yet to address that possibility.

"There might be." Alex answered with a weary sigh. "If they managed to get to the other side of the planet or put enough distance between themselves and the colony, there could be survivors. The weapon appears to have been concentrated only on the colony so only that area is contaminated. While we have confirmed life readings on Kalendra 2, she is an M-Class planet with indigenous life. At this stage, our sensor readings are unable to distinguish the life signs. We will have more information as we close the distance to the colony."

"What about the distress signal?" Mary inquired. She had remained silent until now but she was still too new at this to give up hope that there could be survivors.

Chris understood her sentiments and on behalf of the senior staff, wished that he could offer her better odds but he was a Starfleet Captain and he had seen colonies destroyed before. He was an ensign during the Border Wars with Cardassia and he had seen more than enough death to make him cynical. Mary's tenure with the Diplomatic Corps had shielded her to much, while Chris had seen more than a lifetime's worth already. "The distress signal was automated Mary. It is not usually located at the colony itself. It's a small satellite in orbit around the planet and can be activated by remote. It was most likely activated during the initial attack."

"I'll have a medical team ready for transport as soon as we are in orbit." Nathan remarked. He did not care if the possibility of survivors was remote. He hated to give up on anyone until he personally saw all their bodies.

"Good thinking." Chris replied and turned to Buck. "In the meantime, I'd like you, Alex, Julia and Ezra to transport to the colony in full radiation gear and begin a full investigation of the colony remains. I want every piece of information there is to find regarding this new intruder."

"Aye Sir." Buck answered. "I recommend that we make contact with the other colonies in this sector. With many of our colonies scattered over this general area, an enemy might chose to attack the outermost ones first. Deep Space 5 has had little contact with the other colonies over the past few weeks and no reason to assume that anything is wrong."

The thought was chilling but Chris could not deny the validity of the statement. "Do it."

If the same enemy had attacked the other colonies as it had Colony 1 then there was little hope they could fare any better than the inhabitants of Kalendra 2. The only question that was in Chris's mind was whether or not the intruder was the Borg. The Borg was constantly assimilating worlds and may have acquired a new weapon capable of producing artificial berthol rays.

Despite all their theories, there was no real way to discount the possibility the destruction of Colony 1 was not by the hand of the Collective.

* * * * * * *

Chris let out a held breath.

The ground where the inhabitants of Kalendra 2 had set down the foundations of Colony 1 was charred black like a terrible scar against the face of the planet. Kalendra 2 was an orb of greenish gold and seemed like an opal in the canvas of space. Chris looked at the view screen and felt a slight shudder run through the length of the bridge. He shared the sentiments of his crew. Even from space, the devastation on the surface stood out in sharp contrast to the rest of the world. The area, once home to the colony, was distinguished by the black mark against the surface of the planet. The radiation levels emanating from the site of the catastrophe were phenomenal.

He stared at the screen and immediately knew this was not Borg. Not under any circumstances.

He knew that one of the bridge officers was scanning for life signs but could surmise by what was before him it was a wasted effort. Even if they had escaped the settlement, the colonists were doomed anyway. The extent of the blast stood out like a black spot on the surface and was hundreds of miles across. He hoped the end was swift for them because their bid for survival was hopeless. Chris knew there was always a chance that someone could have escaped in a shuttle, or made it to the other side of the planet where it was safe. Yet he knew it was a futile hope. Colonies relied on Starfleet for their travel needs and the terrestrial based hover cars they did possess was not capable of outrunning the weapon that had brought the end so quickly.

The scan of the colony site was no less encouraging and did little to discount his belief there were any survivors left to find. Of the colony itself, nothing larger than a small rock had survived the devastating fury of the weapon unleashed upon them. He saw nothing but irradiated soil across the horizon of the landscape. The destruction was so complete that there had not been any rubble or bodies remaining in the wake of the initial blast. Everything that had been Colony 1 was utterly pulverised and then fused to the dark soil like the forgotten cinders of an empty fireplace.

"Buck, is your team ready?" Chris spoke into his communicator.

"Yeah Chris. We're standing by for transport to the planet's surface."

"Good luck Commander." Chris said finally and hoped luck was enough to find someone alive down there.

* * * * * * *

Although the environmental suit protecting them from the elements was meant to have its own oxygen filtration unit in built, Alex swore she could smell the charred remains beyond her visor. She knew it was impossible of course. This supposed stench in her nostrils was more a psychological response to the visual information she was receiving than anything real.

Still it was difficult to remain unaffected by what she had seen.

Nothing larger than a rock the size of her fist had managed to survive the attack on Colony 1. Where they should have been standing in the middle of the town square, there was nothing but scorched dark earth. The radiation levels were so high at the moment, they were allowed only an hour on the surface of the planet before they were in danger of contamination. Not one building had been left standing. The ground looked as if it had been flattened and everything that stood above it had been smashed into submission. It was as if the Prophets had wiped the colony of the face of Kalendra 2. Her stomach hollowed as she saw uneven ground covered with thick, dark soil. Prior to leaving the ship, she had studied the record tapes on Colony 1. This was a world ripe for agricultural farming. She remembered images of loamy soil and fresh, green vegetation.

None of that was evident now. Only the baked earth of a land recovering from a terrible calamity.

"Alex." She heard Buck speak and looked up abruptly.

Alex met her commander's eyes and saw the first officer's brow was furrowed and his expression was nothing less than stone behind his visor. Despite his attempt to hide it, Alex was certain this scene was also affecting Buck. "You and Julia head northward. Ezra and I will go south. We will rendezvous at this location in exactly thirty minutes."

"Yes Sir." She nodded and looked to the chief engineer.

"Alex," Buck added. "Keep an open channel at all times."

Alex nodded knowing that was no idle precaution. Whoever did this to Colony 1 was indeed a formidable threat and just because it appeared they were no longer here, was no reason to become complacent.

As she was the superior officer, Julia allowed Alex to take the lead since she was the science officer and this required more of her expertise than an engineer. Julia understood why the Captain had sent her on this Away mission. He wanted to know the nature of the weapon that had done this and if possible devise a suitable defence for the ship. In truth, Julia was somewhat concerned at the level of destruction caused by this weapon. Not only did it utterly vaporise its target but left harmful berthol rays in its wake that made the area uninhabitable.

Julia continued walking northwards, allowing her tricorder to scan the path as they moved forward. Alex took similar action, although she aimed her device at a different angle so they could cover a wider area.

"These readings are frightening." Alex remarked.

"I agree." Julia said. "It appears that all matter is still in a state of subatomic flux."

"Everything around here is barely managing to hold its form." Alex continued. "It seems to be struggling to maintain cohesion. It was as if the atomic bonds holding matter together had been weakened somehow."

"I do not recommend we remain for any longer than necessary." Julia remarked.

"I agree." Alex replied. "The radiation levels are still increasing. At the moment, we have no more than an hour to get off this area before it starts to affect us as well. Buck, do you read me?"

"Yeah I hear you and I concur with your findings. Continue the sensor sweep and proceed as ordered."

"Yes Sir." Alex nodded, meeting her companions gaze. They continued walking up a slight hill and Alex tried not to remember that it had once been the main thoroughfare in the settlement. The ground ahead of them showed no signs of colonisation. The earth was bare and exposed. Slight wisps of smoke and vapour rose from the ground from the heat of the blast. Alex remembered seeing the images of the aftermath of an atomic explosion in one of Earth's historical tapes. Colony 1 did not look that dissimilar.

The data tapes she had studied regarding the settlement itself had provided some stunning visual images of Colony 1 and Kalendra 2. She saw a fledging society establishing its roots. Although still rustic in comparison to that of more established Federation colonies, Colony 1 reminded her of one of the rural provinces on Bajor. A part of her was reluctant to superimpose this scene over that image of Colony 1 in better times.

"The contamination extends over seven hundred square kilometres." Julia declared, looking up from her tricorder and letting her gaze sweep across the horizon. It was mid afternoon on Kalendra 2 but from inside their suits it felt much later. With all temperature perfectly controlled by machinery within the suit, there was little opportunity to feel the breeze blowing across the scarred terrain. Not that they wanted to anyway. The breeze now carried berthol radiation to the rest of the planet. When they returned to the Maverick, she was going to recommend a containment procedure to lessen the damage as much as possible. The rest of the planet could still support life if measures were taken now. "This weapon is extremely thorough."

Alex looked up. "That's one way of putting it. I've never seen anything like this. Its almost like an old style hydrogen bomb except that this is about a million times worse."

"An interesting comparison, but not inaccurate. The characteristic is similar but the device is certainly not. We are dealing with a highly advanced species. Even Federation scientists have not developed a method of successfully affecting matter on a subatomic level. The existence of subatomic particles is merely theoretical at this point."

"Hey I'm the science officer." Alex remarked with a slight smile. "You're making me feel very inadequate."

Julia looked at her with a grin. "I'm a show off."

In the past few weeks of having served with her, Alex enjoye Julia's sense of humour. The woman had a tendency to enjoy the absurd

"Right." Alex nodded. "I forgot."

* * * * * * *

Elsewhere, Buck and Ezra walked through the terrain without speaking. Words defied description of what they were seeing around them. As security chief, he had seen humanoid ugliness in every shape and form. No matter how much civilisation a species boasted to having, there was always some facet of its psychology that would allow atrocities to be committed if the cause were just. He looked around the place and saw a land so ravaged that the dark cinders on the ground were not simply the ashes of the colony structure but also of the colonist themselves. Ezra wondered what cause had justified this.

"We are not detecting any life signs, Chris." Buck remarked as if it were no surprise to anyone. In truth, it was not. "It appears our surface scans were correct. We've identified 267 individual DNA remains. They match conclusively with the DNA records of all the colonists. None of them survived the attack."

There was a slight pause as the Captain took in this information before he responded. After a moment of deliberation, Chris's voice responded promptly. "That concurs with the scans we've made over the planet. We have detected no signs of life other than yours. Canvass the area as planned and then return to the ship."

"Understood." Buck nodded. "Wilmington out."

The first officer turned to Ezra and caught the expression on his face despite the protection of his visor. "We'll continue scanning until we reach minimum safe levels."

"Yes Sir." He replied. "I am not detecting any signs of any conventional weapon in our science." Ezra shifted his gaze to his tricorder. "Whatever this is, I have never seen the like of it before."

"It is safe to assume that everything about this is beyond us." Buck remarked, allowing his gaze to move across the horizon. The scope of the destruction could never be fully appreciated, he decided, until one was standing in the heart of it. The charred landscape ran as far as the eye could see. It was illogical to waste life on such a scale. If the colony was the intended target, there was no reason to obliterate everything else around it.

"Overkill is what I call it." Ezra replied. "There was no need for this. The colonists could hardly be such a threat to justify this kind of a response."

"Hard to make that assumption when we don't what the perceived threat is. In any case, we best continue our scans until we reach minimum safety tolerance. We may be able to stop this from happening again if we can find some useful information."

Somehow, Ezra was not that optimistic. Whatever or whomever had done this had proved one thing other their obvious disregard for life.

They were more than a match for the Maverick or Starfleet.

Chapter Nine:
Ploomeek Soup

There was no reason to return to Kalendra 2 once the Away Team had concluded its investigations. The Maverick continued scans for a full day even though the evidence collected from the surface had revealed their worst fears. There were no survivors of Colony 1 left to find on the planet. All that remained of the 297 people who had called Kalendra 2 their home, were the grains of DNA particles that now mingled with the charred earth. The only life forms to survive the holocaust were the original inhabitants of the world who were fortunate enough to be in another hemisphere during the attack.

Chris instructed Buck and Alex to conduct a decontamination sweep of the irradiated site in an attempt to dissipate the harmful berthol rays. It took several hours to complete the procedure that required nothing less than a baryon sweep of the entire area. The whole process took its toll on the crew and Chris could understand why. There was a feeling of frustration and anger at arriving too late as if their presence here might have given the intruders pause before causing the deaths of so many innocent lives. Everything they were doing now felt like the empty gestures of futility.

"The sweep appears to be dissolving the berthol ray concentration." Buck informed Chris in the privacy of his ready room. Chris had confined himself to the place during the last few hours, tossing and turning the events in his head, hoping to reach some understanding but finding little success.

"How long until the area is clean?" He inquired, taking a sip of strong black coffee that was now cold.

"In about 43 days, the terrain should be able to support life again." Buck answered, unable to ignore his Captain seemed unusually sedate.

"I've sent a message to Deep Space 5 informing them of what has happened here. I've been told that Colony 4 and Colony 9 have not sent in their monthly status reports. Both are now days overdue."

Buck understood the implications as well as Chris, even if he was not so quick to jump to conclusions. "You think its going to be that bad?"

"Don't you?" Chris met his gaze sharply. "Those colonies are further out than this. Colony 9 is on the outermost rim of Federation territory. It sits on the border of uncharted space. We don't know what is beyond Colony 9 because we've never been out that far. I sometimes question whether it is wise to leave defenceless civilians on planets so far away from adequate protection."

"Colonists are a very determined bunch Chris," Buck answered. "It is hard to break that pioneering spirit. I would think that they might have found away to survive."

The door of the Captain's Ready room beeped and Chris motioned whomever it was to enter. Alex Styles stepped into the room with a data pad in her hand and paused long enough to know that he and Buck were having a private discussion.

"I didn't mean to interrupt." She said apologetically.

Chris smiled faintly. "That's okay, sit down Commander." He asked politely. She was after all the third highest ranking officer on the Maverick and since this was an impromptu discussion on what they were facing, Chris saw no reason why she should not be involved.

The woman raised a brow and sat down after a moment's deliberation. It was not often they talked and during the opportunities when the moment presented itself Alex always found the conversations to be interesting. To Alex, the captain appeared to be a paradox in extremes. There were moments when Chris Larabee could be hot headed and impossibly rash. Other times, he was so cool and calculating in his manner, he could give the Vulcans a run for their money. In any case, she was starting to believe that this was a man worthy of her loyalty and it took some doing for Alex to feel that way about anyone.

"Buck and I were talking about the pioneering spirit of colonists." Chris continued once she had sat down. "Colony 1 was an agricultural settlement if I remember correctly. They were farmers by nature. Colony 4 is a lithium cracking mine. I'm hoping we have better luck with survivors there."

"DS5 has lost contact with the rest of the outer colonies," Buck explained. "We're thinking that Colony 1 was the last place they hit."

"There could be survivors," Alex was not so quick to discount the possibility of survivors. If Colony 4 is a lithium cracking mine, there is a chance. The miners could be scattered over a large area of the planet's surface. Some may even be protected by the underground caves, if enough warning was given before the event."

"I'm hoping that our guests don't compensate for that." Chris said grimly. "At this moment, it doesn't look like there is much beyond their capability."

Alex could not argue with that. It was always assumed that beings of greater intelligence and scientific advancement would reason logically as most sentients do. However, time and time again, it appeared scientific intelligence had little to do with enlightenment or morality. The history of the galaxy was filled with two many species who found little difficulty justifying murder if they were motivated enough about the cause.

"True." Buck sighed. "But there's something odd about all this. I mean if they're so damn powerful, why obliterate a colony like this? They could have taken the place without harming a single life form."

"What they did is overkill." Chris agreed, understanding what Buck was trying to say.

"Yeah." Buck confessed sombrely. "Chris, I'm thinking this is more than just the destruction of a colony. This was a message to us."

Chris nodded because that was where his own conclusions about the entire situation at Colony 1 left him. It knotted his insides knowing those colonist consisting of men, women and children were used merely as some sick message by a hostile force to announce its presence to Starfleet and the Federation. However, there was something about that hypothesis that did not feel right even though his previous conclusion was only a natural progression.

"Maybe." He replied after a moment. "I don't think this is about frightening us."

"If that were the case, they would leave survivors so the fear can be translated." Alex added her voice to the discussion. "Every trace of Kalendra 2 was obliterated. The area was radiated to avoid further habitation. Whatever the purpose of this attack was, it was not for conquest. If I were to make a guess Captain, based on what evidence we do have, I'd say that this is an attempt at concealment."

Now that did make sense. Chris thought. "You're suggesting they came to Kalendra 2 for some hidden purpose and maybe they found it and maybe they didn't. Whatever the reason, it was necessary for them to cover their tracks after they were done. Complete and utter obliteration of this colony would get out attention but we would know nothing more than we do now."

Alex lapsed into a moment of silence and both Chris and Buck had learnt enough about her to know that she had fallen into a train of thought that might produce an answer. The science officer did not speak for a second but when she looked up, her expression indicated a purposeful response.

"A scientific study." She said almost in a whisper.

Chris looked at her sharply. "Explain."

"If I were a scientist and I wanted to conduct an experiment in secret, I would find a remote place to do my research." Alex started thinking, her mind working in tandem with her speech. "Once I had gathered my data, I would then erase any evidence of that experiment. Since I don't want someone else to learn about my findings by leaving specimens behind."

The thought was appalling but it seemed to fit with what they already knew of the intruder. He was more than certain that whoever had downloaded the contents of DS5's main computer was also responsible for the carnage on Kalendra 2.

"So they're studying us." Chris concluded without a hint of doubt in his voice. There was still much they had to learn about their mysterious new foe, but he was convinced Alex's hypothesis was correct.

"I think she's right." Buck said after a moment, giving Alex a nod of admiration. "It makes sense Chris. They didn't attack DS5, they just pierced through the shields and got their entire database."

"Yeah." Chris replied in agreement because his gut instinct told him Alex was right.

"So I think we can all safely say that this is not the Borg." Chris pointed that out as well so the notion could be finally done away.

"I'm not prepared to discount the Borg as of yet Captain," Alex advised. "There are elements to this situation that have Borg characteristics. We know very little of the Collective other than our confrontations with them. For most part, our knowledge regarding their culture if it could be called that, is still very limited. This could be a pattern of behaviour we just haven't seen before."

"True." Chris could not deny this. "Although my gut tells me that this is definitely not Borg because the Borg are highly logical and everything done on Kalendra 2 is far from logical."

Both Alex and Buck looked at Chris in question, wanting to know what had led him to that statement.

"The Borg do not waste." The captain said simply. "The Borg have never wasted. Kalendra 2 may be insignificant to us but if the Borg attacked it, there would be no reason to destroy the technology or murder the people when it all could be assimilated. They have no reason to cover their tracks completely when they know they outmatch us. Even with our lucky shots at them. There is no need for them to disguise themselves or eliminate 297 people when it is just as effective to assimilate them in order to neutralise them. Whoever did this was not the Borg."

The certainty in which he made this statement persuaded both officers not to argue with Chris. Also, after taking into consideration the factors Chris had brought up, they realised nothing he said was untrue.

"I am impressed Chris." Buck grinned. "I hadn't even thought about that."

Chris smiled despite himself. "Why thank you Commander," he responded graciously.

Alex however did not seem very happy. "So what we do have instead of the Borg, is a race that thinks we are their lab rats and who possibly have the technological superiority of the Borg who don't mind sacrificing any number of lives to conduct their study. Is that about right?"

"Yeah," Buck frowned, deciding that when she put it that way, the situation seemed to go from bad to worse. "That's about the size of it."

"Swell." Alex sighed. "I think I'd rather have the Borg."

In that context, Chris found that he agreed with her.

* * * * * * *

After racking his mind over the possibilities, preparing every department for a possible encounter with a hostile, Chris gave the order for the Maverick to leave Kalendra 2. There was no reason to remain and every reason to reach the other colonies as soon as possible. If the intruder was this far into Federation space then he was certain they would have reached the outer colonies already. The Maverick left the orbit at Kalendra and made its way to Colony 4 at maximum speed with an estimated arrival time of 14 hours.

Just enough for him to take a walk, get a cup of coffee and have at least a few hours down time before they arrived at their destination.

He did not feel like dinner at Four Corners because his mind was still filled with bits of data regarding berthol rays and transwarp signatures. At the moment, he had little patience for crowds and knew he would not get the solitude he desired in the mess hall. Chris needed to let his mind rest or else he would be little good to anyone. A captain had to be alert at all times and if Josiah were present, he was sure the Counsellor would reiterate his advice about the captain being sensible enough to know when he needed rest.

Sometimes, having a Counsellor as a good friend could be damned annoying.

Chris found himself walking through the ship which in itself could take a good hour if he was not particular about where he was going. The Maverick was at least 40 decks and almost a kilometre across. For once, he decided to take the full tour because he needed the diversion. Chris walked down the tidy corridors, saluting officers, greeting the civilians who were also apart of his responsibility. He had to admit, he liked seeing children running up and down the corridors. It gave the ship a life of its own and a deeper sense of community.

He did not know how he ended up in Engineering but a few random twists and turns and he was walking through the deck before he knew it. It was late evening according to the Maverick's internal clock and he was surprised to see Mary at an engineering console when he arrived. She looked up from her the screen as an ensign greeted him on sight. As always, she seemed perfectly composed even though he knew she had put in a full day studying the documentation on all cultures in the area. Chris wondered what she was doing here in Engineering.

"Captain?" She stared at him and responded promptly. "I didn't expect to see you here."

It was more of an accusation than a question. Obviously, she did not like surprises, Chris decided.

"I'm just wool gathering" Chris replied casually. "And taking a walk. What about you? Last time I look I was sure you were a protocol officer."

She chuckled slightly and responded. "I'm brushing up on some of my engineering knowledge. I use to have a minor interest in it and since I'm going to be on a starship permanently, I thought I'd brush up. After all, it would be good to know the difference between a power relay and an EPS conduit."

"True." He agreed, not denying that was a good idea. He decided to keep going, not wanting to intrude on her endeavours especially when she was concentrating so avidly on fitting in with life on the Maverick. However, Chris paused when he noticed Mary eyeing him with deep scrutiny.

Mary did stare at the Captain for a moment, mainly because she was more aware of his physical state that he was. Her head tilted slightly as her blue grey eyes moved over his face and looked deep into his red rimmed eyes. Not only could she tell he was preoccupied but he was well near exhausted. "Captain, would it be rude if I asked when was the last time you slept?"

Suddenly, he felt a like a child caught doing something he was not. Reluctantly, he found himself answering her. "15 hours ago."

Her disapproval was obvious by stiffening of her posture and the sudden rise of her chin. Although her face expression was neutral, her eyes said it all. "That is too long Captain. May I also ask when was the last time you ate?"

Chris shrugged and found himself answering even though he did not wish to. "Ten hours ago."

"I see." Her brow raised slightly unsurprised he was a workaholic, most captains tended to be that way even at the risk to their health. "I'm about to call it a night and I haven't had a chance to thank you for allowing my son on the bridge against standing ship's orders. I've been told I'm quite good at programming a food replicator. If you like, I wouldn't mind the company."

"Are you asking me out to dinner, Lieutenant?" He asked with a slight glimmer of suggestion in his eyes as he regarded her.

Mary rolled her eyes and gave him a look. "I want you to join me for a meal as a gesture of thanks to the consideration you showed my son." She paused and moment and then added. "It is also one way to make sure that you eat. Isn't Yeoman Wells supposed to make sure of these things?"

"Technically," he said guiltily. "But I don't need a nursemaid." He declared somewhat slighted by the notion that Casey had to run after him like he was a kid. "I can eat when I have to."

"I was not worried about you." She said haughtily. "I was concerned for the ship. Last thing we need is for the Captain to be thinking about doughnuts before we go into a combat situation"

"Well," he narrowed his eyes and gave her a look of sarcasm. "When you put it that way, how can I refuse?"

* * * * * * *

So far, all his instincts concerning Mary Travis had said the same thing; stay away.

Chris knew he was attracted to her. There was really no way to deny it. She was, in his opinion, the loveliest female he had ever seen if not a little glacial. However, he understood it had to do with her Vulcan background. There were aspects of her that were warm and tender. Chris had seen it. He knew she could be flexible when required and her sense of humour though subtle did actually exist. Although she was accustomed to being around Vulcans, there was something about Mary he found utterly compelling and impossible to ignore.

Whether or not it was a conscious decision or simply one of practicality, she had no difficulty coping with her gender. She was a woman and a mother. Unlike other career women in Starfleet who tried unsuccessfully to mask their femininity in order to seem professional, Chris found it ironic that a somewhat cool natured female could make her presence felt so strongly by simply being herself.

He arrived at her quarters about fifteen minutes after their meeting in Engineering to find her more than prepared for him. As he was shown in, he had expected to see William running through the room as boys were supposed to. However, the room remained silent and Chris saw no trace of the boy.

"Where is Billy?" He asked as they made their way to the dining table Mary had already set out the meal and Chris could not help taking a deep breath of the exotic aroma. Until he smelled hot ploomeek soup, he had not realised he was so hungry.

Mary looked over her shoulder and gave him a look. "Billy?"

"Sorry," Chris immediately apologised with a faint smile. "I got used to calling him that during our tour."

"Billy." She mused with a raised brow before a little smile crossed her lips. She had to admit she liked how that sounded. Billy did seem much more informal than William for a six year old boy. After a moment she responded. "William is staying with Lieutenant Kala's son, Bodhi." She replied as she returned from the replicator with the main course.

Once again, the aroma assaulted him and Chris scolded himself for not eating sooner. "They've been playmates since our arrival here. He staying at the Lieutenant's quarters tonight."

"You mean they're having a sleepover." Chris remarked sitting down.

"Something like that." She nodded remembering the term from her own childhood and was somewhat surprised that she had not thought of it herself. Perhaps she had been on Vulcan for too long.

As they sat down to the meal, Chris wondered how she fared without a husband. Did she still miss him terribly? During the first few months after Sarah and Adam had died, the absence almost killed him with loneliness. Even now, he still felt an ache inside his soul each time he walked into his quarters because a part of him expected them to be there. Mary had lived on Vulcan for most of her married life and had adopted many of their attitudes. Did she grieve the same way?

"Is it hard to be born a hybrid on Vulcan?" Chris asked once they were into the main course.

Mary did not look surprised by the question. She put her fork down and considered her answer. "No species is entirely loyal to the rules they set down for themselves. Vulcans are no different. They live up to an ideal but sometimes that ideal is too much even for them to fully accept. Vulcans believe IDIC is the cornerstone of enlightenment and logic. Without it, everyone, not just Vulcans are no better than their warlike ancestors of generations past. While they believe in it, they also believe their way of life is no easy thing for other species to understand. Non-emotion has accomplished much for them but it is an alien existence some find impossible to comprehend. So, they tend to marry within their species, not because of purity but because they understand such a life is too much to ask of anyone who was not born of Vulcan."

"People can learn," he pointed out well aware that IDIC, short for infinite diversity in infinite combination, was easier to say than live by. "You did."

"Not easily," she confessed. "Syan was not like other Vulcans and he was very patient. Generations of genetics have made Vulcans what they are. Their ancestors who gave up the warring ways decided to hone their minds for logic. It has been that way for so much time that finally it has been imprinted in an evolutionary level When one of them marries a human, they wonder if a child of that union will have the tools necessary to live up to their way of life. There are those in every society who will be more vocal about such concerns. They do not mean to be ignorant but they are incapable of understanding that nature is far from logical. They look at William strangely and while they never exactly show he is different to them, I can sense it. Syan always told me that there was no basis for that conclusion but a mother knows."

"I'm sorry," he apologised. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." He was only curious to know about Vulcan opinions about interspecies marriage because of how shy and withdrawn William seemed to be. "I have not asked you how Billy has been."

Although she did not smile, he saw her disposition brighten considerably. "He is beginning to make acquaintances on the ship. He spoke of nothing but the visit to the bridge for days and told me that he was going to become a starship Captain in the future."

"Would you mind?"

"I'm his mother, anything dangerous would concern me."

"That it is." Chris had to agree. "It's a dangerous life and it can even be lonely. You spend a lot of your time hoping that you don't screw up somehow and get people killed and hope you can rise to the occasion when necessary. It can be difficult to balance out your responsibility to yourself and your crew."

"I would like him to find his own way." Mary replied softly. "His father wanted him to be a Starfleet officer when he became a man. My in-laws believe he should be sent to study on Vulcan and to become a member of the Science Academy some day."

"What do you want?" He asked meeting her eyes.

For a moment, the question took her by surprise and the glacial expression melted. Her eyes became fluid in that moment and her face softened with emotion. "I want him with me."

The moment lasted a second and she blinked it away, somewhat embarrassed that she had made such an emotional display in front of the captain, no matter how much their relationship was moving to something that bordered on warm familiarity and possibly something deeper than that. "I'm probably being selfish." She said abruptly, her cheeks flushed red with embarrassment.

"Why?" Chris scoffed. "You're his mother? Why wouldn't you want him with you?"

"I should choose the best path for him."

"And until he's old enough to decide what he wants, you need to choose the path that is best for him as a child, not for what he is going to be in the future. He's a great kid Mary but let him be that for awhile. Let him enjoy it before he grows into what is deemed appropriate for Vulcan."

For a moment, she remained silent. While the Captain would undoubted call this one of those awkward moments, she would have strongly disagree if he voiced the opinion. Instead, her mind was whirling with possibilities. It made her wonder if he had some telepathic ability that could read her because he seemed to know what she was thinking in her innermost self.

After being bonded with a Vulcan in marriage, Mary knew Syan had helped her strengthened her own telepathic bonds enough to be able to sense people with clarity. Vulcans seldom divorced because of their matrimonial mind meld. Being so in tune with each other often made it difficult to find discord. Yet somehow, as easily as Chris Larabee could read her, Mary was finding that she had a very strong sense of him as well. Perhaps the link inside her mind was re-establishing itself because of her growing affection for this man.

As Mary met her captain's gaze, she began to see him as more than just a face attached to a Starfleet uniform. Suddenly, he had become more than that to her and Mary was unsure it was difference she would have advocated had she known its coming.

Mary did not wish to know Captain Chris Larabee as a man.

Because the man was starting to mean something to her.

Chapter Ten:
Survivors

To be honest, Chris Larabee knew what they were going to find on Colony 4 long before they arrived within the star system. When Deep Space Five had not received the colony's monthly status reports, they had informed Chris immediately. With this knowledge in mind, Chris feared the worst. Actually, he more than feared it. He knew its destruction was an inevitability. He was starting to develop a sixth sense about this incident and understood something terrible was at work in this uncharted corner of the galaxy.

Colony 4 was located on the sixth planet of the star system known as Omega Prime. Omega Prime's native star was a massive body slowly moving into the tertiary phase of its development. In a thousand years or more, it would evolve into a ferocious red giant and effectively wipe out what scant life existed in the planets of its sphere. Omega 6 was the only world inside the system whose temperatures were capable of supporting humanoid life. Its surface was a hellish place of hot, burning winds and dry desert sand. It produced very little rainfall and was only capable of sustaining a sparse population of cacti and lichens.

They picked up the remote distress signal on their journey to Colony 4 and were rewarded with static silence when they attempted to hail the settlement on approach. The tension on the ship skyrocketed with its silence and everyone began to suspect they would find the same destruction on Colony 4 as they had done on Colony 1. Chris sent a priority communication to Starfleet Command explaining the situation to date. In response, Starfleet ordered him to monitor the situation closely and be careful. Chris intended to do both. However, he had harboured a secret hope some miracle might have spared Colony 4. Unfortunately, it appeared they were going to be subjected to a repeat performance of the destruction on Kalendra 2.

The bridge was strangely quiet as they moved into the orbit of Omega 6. All senior bridge officers were present and Chris let his gaze moved across their faces and saw the concentration. Buck had informed him that Ezra had spent much of his off duty hours running Borg attack simulations for the ship. Even now, Chris could see the man's eyes fixed on the security station before him, with his usual poker face replaced by an expression of utmost concentration that was taut with tension.

JD was maintaining his calm even though Chris recognised the look of the novice under pressure. His eyes darted back and forth over his console, trying to access all the information before him. Chris knew Ezra and Julia had been running battle simulations in tandem with gauging the ship's response to such scenarios. The Chief Engineer ensured their cloaking device was operational and not untested before a real battle.

In the meantime, Nathan informed him that a medical team would be ready to transport the moment they arrived in orbit around Omega 6. Chris knew for a fact it had affected the Chief Medical Officer when there were no survivors to be found on Kalendra. Chris hoped they might have better luck. Mary was sitting on his left flank. Her shapely legs were folded while her slender fingers drummed softly against the fabric of her chair. Although she showed no outward signs of concern, her eyes were moving across the bridge with as much scrutiny as his. No doubt, she was starting to feel the same pressure as the rest of the bridge.

"Viewer on." Chris ordered once the hum of the impulse engines came to a dead stop. Although he could not see the stars outside, he knew Omega 6 lay below them.

The viewer came to life before he finished the sentence. Omega 6 appeared before him, a glowing orb of black held suspended against a vibrant canopy of stars. In the distance, the massive sun Omega Prime looked on, unconcerned. The sheer size of the amber star made it appear as if Omega 6 had an enormous moon in orbit around it. The planet itself was a golden sphere of hot, baked sand and turbulent desert storms. Even from space, Chris wondered how any creature could call it home. As it revolved slowly below them, Chris could see a familiar dark spot appearing across the face of the planet. It was the same scarring they witnessed on Kalendra 2.

No one spoke for a moment because there were no words to describe the intensity of their feelings. A fog of futility and hopelessness moved through the bridge like a wraith in the dark. Once again, they were too late. Their mysterious enemy had reached the colony first and exacted another terrible attack. Chris tried not to look disappointed because his crew needed him to keep faith for all of them but nothing could wipe the grim expression from his features in light of the discovery.

"Alex, begin scanning." He ordered softly. As unlikely as it might be, Chris refused to give up any vestiges of hope until all avenues of inquiry had been exhausted.

"Scanning Sir." Alex answered in her usual quiet voice but her tone was grim. The science officer had begun scanning the planet ever since they had dropped out of impulse speed. So far her findings had given her very little reason to be hopeful of any positive outcome. "Captain, I detect the same berthol ray emissions from the settlement site as we found on Kalendra 2. It is undoubtedly the same weapon used to destroy Colony 1"

Chris let out a held breath but he was unsurprised by the news.

"Confirmed Captain," Ezra added a second later. "I am picking up traces of transwarp signatures throughout the area. They match the signatures we found at Kalendra 2. I do not think we can doubt that these were the same intruders. Captain, they were definitely here."

"I think you're right Ezra." Chris remarked. "Continue."

The security officer nodded shortly and spoke further. "I am able to determine that the rate of signature degradation is more pronounced here then those found at Kalendra. I estimate that this took place some time ago."

Chris turned to Buck. "I guess we were right." He said grimly. "They were here first."

Buck did not answer for a few seconds. His gaze was fixed on the image in the viewer. "Then we have to proceed on the assumption that Colony 9 has also been destroyed." The first officer replied neutrally even though he felt a wave of helplessness twisting his innards with the futility of their effort. Colony 9 was even further out of reach than these unfortunate settlements. Judging from the current trajectory the invaders seemed to be travelling, it was an inevitability that Colony 9 was attacked first. "Recommend that we go to yellow alert."

"Ezra, take the ship to yellow alert." Chris ordered. Ezra nodded in response and immediately fed the appropriate instructions into his console screen. Across the Maverick, alert panels began flashing in black. Civilians were being ferried back into their quarters for the interim until it was decided they were not at risk. Other crew members across the ship were making their way to their post in order to be on standby should the ship encounter any unexpected hostiles.

"Captain, this could be the beginning an invasion." Ezra declared. "They've already attacked three of our colonies. We have to notify Starfleet Command."

"No." Chris said firmly. "This is not an invasion." The certainty of his statement froze the bridge and he knew his crew wanted elaboration on how he could make such a judgement with absolute confidence.

"If this were an invasion," Buck took the liberty of explaining. "An invasion force would find better targets than three small colonies. Despite the loss, none of these hold any strategic importance to the Federation. An enemy with enough technological superiority to have transwarp ships and a weapon capable of mutating atomic structure can find better targets in this sector."

"I've already informed Starfleet Command of the situation," Chris replied for the benefit of anyone else wondering. "However, I'm not convinced we have the facts to assume that this is an invasion. There is something else going on here."

Alex, whom none of them had been paying attention to while they making their speculations, suddenly spoke up. "Captain. I am detecting humanoid life signs on the surface of the planet."

Chris articulated his amazement first. "Where?"

"About four hundred kilometres north from the location of the settlement. I read about twenty people."

"How could they have survived?" Mary spoke up.

"They are probably miners." Chris answered quickly. "Omega 6's most famous natural resource is dilithium. If they were mining underground at the time of the attack, they may have escaped being killed along with the rest of the colony."

"But the attackers could scan for them." Ezra pointed out. "Any race advanced enough to do what was done to Kalendra 2 would not be so careless."

"Under normal circumstances yes," Alex replied suddenly understanding how this could happen. "However, dilithium has been known to interfere with certain types of scanning beams. If this was a fact previously unknown to the attackers, they may not have adjusted their beams to compensate for the disruption."

"In any case," Chris interrupted, "we can discuss this later. It looks like we've got a rescue operation on our hands people." Chris tapped his combadge. "Doctor Jackson, have you been monitoring the situation?"

"Yes Sir," Nathan's voice responded enthusiastically. "My team is on standby to transport down."

"Acknowledged." Chris replied. "Hold for further instructions." He turned to Buck. "Buck, you'll lead the Away Team with Ezra."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up. "We do not have all the facts yet. I am as happy as anyone that there are survivors on the planet but until we have a clearer understanding of the situation, I would recommend that the Away Team be accompanied by a full security team."

"He's right," Buck voiced his agreement.

"Very well." Chris nodded. "Prepare your team Ezra and proceed to Transporter 2."

* * * * * * *

When the Away Team materialised on Omega 6, they found themselves flanked on either side by a massive wall of rock that seemed endless in its ascent. The passage way in which they had transported into was no more than a few meters wide although it was hard to tell because the height of the walls allowed for any visible light.

Buck took a few moments to adjust his vision to the lack of visibility. This world reminded him of Vulcan and the brightness of its native star, Eridani. The ferocity of the Vulcan sun bore down on all the planet so it was never really dark even though it was night. Judging by the lay of the land, Buck estimated that from a high altitude, this canyon would be nothing more than an enormous slab of rock lying flat. He noticed the walls of the canyon were smooth and the ground beneath his feet was dried silt. Before Omega Prime had descended into its natural decay, this was the path of a river. However, soaring temperatures had dried up the waterway leaving nothing in its wake except for a baked river bed.

He looked up and saw the thin light of the sky shining through the cleft in the mountain. Sunlight was struggling to reach them and made it only half way. The advantage he supposed, is that they were spared the blistering heat of Omega Prime on their skin. Though cool, the temperature was tolerable.

"This way," Ezra stated after taking the proper readings from his tricorder. "I detect life signs two hundred meters ahead." His gaze moved northward, following the meandering path of the passageway through the rock.

"Very well Lieutenant. Lead the way."

"How in the Rings did they get in here?" Nathan declared as the group starting moving forward with Ezra and his security team leading the way. "You'd be lucky to get a ship down here."

"A small shuttle could do it," Buck answered. "If the pilot is skilled enough but I'm pretty sure that there is an alternate entry point into the canyon that will give access to some sort of terrestrial vehicle."

"I suppose," Nathan let out a sigh. "It would be an arduous trip that I wouldn't envy. Its no wonder that they managed to stay alive."

"They are indeed fortunate that the effects of dilithium could render sensor scans ineffective or else the intruder would have found them as easily as we have done so now." Ezra remarked.

"Yeah," Buck said feeling the heat against his skin and wondered what it must be like to be trapped in a hellish place like this with no idea whether or not help was coming. "I'll bet they're feeling real lucky."

It did not take them long to find the remnants of Colony 4. There were survivors as expected but the state of the group was appalling. With nothing more than the tools they had been working with and the meagre rations of their camp site, the miners of Colony 4 had survived for nearly 25 days. As Buck and Chris guessed, these men and women had been working in a dilithium mine some distance from here from the catastrophe took place. The mine was located almost under a kilometre of rock and this was the only thing that saved them from being killed like the rest of their friends and family.

When the Starfleet officers arrived on the scene, the medical team immediately deployed themselves like soldiers in a carefully planned campaign. The campsite was a collection of portable shelters and apparently one replicator normally used to produce mining tools. Since the disaster however, it became the main source of water. Realising that the replicator power had to sustain them indefinitely, the production of water was carefully rationed. Food came from dehydrated packs that were used sparingly. Most had given up the notion of a rescue and others were succumbing to the raving effects of exposure and malnutrition.

"What have we got Nathan?" Buck asked after allowing the medical team sufficient time to do their work. Ezra and his security team had lent a hand as nurses, aiding the medics as they evaluated the health of the survivors.

"Well," Nathan sighed after casting a gaze back at the ragged crew. "All of them are suffering from exposure and malnutrition which is to be expected of course. They survived because they were careful from the beginning. I've got three cases of mild berthol ray poisoning. Apparently, they attempted to return to the colony site to see the extent of the damage. They were wise enough to turn back before they were severely contaminated. It was a good thing that we arrived when we did Commander. They would not have survived another week like this."

"Understood. Get them ready for transport to the ship."

"Right." Nathan nodded and went off to instruct his team on just that order.

At that moment, Ezra approached him with one of the survivors, a rather exhausted looking man who in his prime could be described as burly. Now, he appeared as if his skin was the only thing that was holding his bones together. The man looked terribly emaciated as his eyes stared back at Buck through hollow sockets.

"Commander, this is Supervisor Lars Croft. Apparently, there was some odd goings on before the destruction of Colony 4."

"Odd?" He remarked. His natural curiosity wished to know what exactly the man had seen but at the moment, Lars needed medical treatment more than he required to give testimony. There would be ample time for discussion about the attack once they returned to the ship. "I know you want to tell your story Supervisor but it's not necessary for you to do that immediately. You need of medical attention and in any case, I think the Captain would like to be present when you do give us your story."

"Thank you." Lars replied heavily. "You are most kind. We had given up hope of being found. There is always a risk to build a colony so far from Federation space but until now, we never imagined...." His voice faltered then and Ezra squeezed his shoulder for support.

"Please," Ezra said gently. "We will beam up to the ship and get you some rest. You are ill."

Lars seemed grateful for the security officer's kind words. Around them, some of the medical crew already began to dematerialise in their return to the ship. As the people started to transport, the campsite that had provided the survivors, shelter for the past month seemed more derelict than ever.

"Did you manage to find anyone else?" Lars asked as they waited for transport. His eyes met Ezra's with desperate hope. Ezra did not want to tell him that he and his group were the only ones left alive until he received a reluctant nod of approval from Buck to give him his answer. Finally he made a grim nod that was enough to tell Lars the ugly truth. Buck noticed that the Ezra was trying to remain detached even though he was outraged just like the rest of them.

"I regret to tell you that we have found no one." He replied softly. "I am sorry."

Lars blinked hard and it seemed he might weep but instead he swallowed visibly. "We had hoped someone might have survived. My wife, my two sons were at Colony 4." His expression melted into a look of despair Ezra could barely tolerate. The man wanted to cry but he would not do so yet. Ezra sensed that this was a man who held a lot within but the last month had ravaged that strong will to almost nothingness. And now, he had lost the only bindings of hope maintaining that strength forever.

It was almost a relief when the Transporter Chief's voice broke the stillness of the air. "Commander, we are ready for you to transport."

"Acknowledged." Buck nodded. "Three to beam up."

Chapter Eleven
Thermopylae

Since arriving on the Maverick, Nathan Jackson had discovered the simple joy of being a doctor again by being able to mend broken bones and take care of real patients. Over the last few years, he felt himself somewhat distanced because of his research work and realised how much he missed it when it required him to spend most of his time in a laboratory. However, dealing with patients on a more personal basis had its own set of problems as well. Although the twenty people inside his Sick Bay would live after their ordeal on Omega 6, he still felt as if he should have been able to do more.

At the moment, Josiah Sanchez had his hands full trying to offer comfort and counselling to the group in the face of their overwhelming loss. As he watched the older man practise his own brand of healing, Nathan could sense the frustration coming from him even though his face showed nothing but serenity. He could understand Josiah's feelings of helplessness because he knew he felt similarly impotent as well. The wounds of their flesh could heal easily enough but the wounds of the mind were something else altogether.

"They are not holding up well." He commented once he managed to grab a quiet moment with the Counsellor. "I wish there were more we could do for them."

"There are some things beyond us." Josiah said softly. "All of them had families or friends at the colony," he continued. "They haven't even begun the mourning process yet because they have been so focussed on staying alive. The shock and disbelief I see in their faces is heart wrenching."

"I thought Counsellors are suppose to remain detached." Nathan pointed out knowing that it was anything but true of Josiah Sanchez. Nathan could see his empathy for these people despite his efforts to hide it and knew Josiah often became more involved in his patients than he would like.

"It's not a rule that I often adhere to." Josiah confessed. "I don't believe in remaining detached. You cannot offer someone insight into their mind when you can't even picture yourself in the same position." "My wife was a doctor." Josiah said with a fond smile when he remembered how Ayla used to deal with her patients and realised it was not so difficult to talk about her any more. "She thought professional distance was more for our sake than it is for the patients."

"She was a wise woman." Nathan agreed.

Suddenly, the doors to Sick Bay slid open and the Captain, Buck and Ezra entered the room. Despite the mounting urgency of this whole affair of the intruder, Chris Larabee seemed outwardly calm. Josiah knew from experience the casual smile he offered to the survivors was merely a facade. Buck stood by patiently as the captain made the rounds of the room, offering words of support to the patients and assurances that someone would be made accountable for the destruction of Colony 4.

While nothing could assuage their grief, the former colonists seemed somewhat happier at knowing there would be justice for their lost loved ones. After Chris made the rounds, he and Buck finally approached the doctor.

"How are they doing?" Chris asked and from the tone of his voice, he was not inquiring after their physical state.

"They're exhausted. Some are still traumatised but most are finally allowing themselves to grieve." Josiah spoke first. "They are angry Captain and justifiably so."

"I can understand that." Ezra replied. "If everything I loved and worked for has been obliterated the way Colonies 1 and 4 were, I know I would not be impressed." Ezra who was better than any of them at hiding his feelings felt incensed to the core at what had happened on Kalendra 2 and now on this world. As a security officer, he felt that he should have been able to do more to prevent the devastation, even though there was no way he could have done anything to stop it.

"Doctor," Buck spoke calmly, a sharp contrast to the thinly veiled annoyance in Ezra's voice. "We need to talk to Croft. He told us on the surface he had some information about what happened to them."

Nathan glanced at the man in question, who was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. The doctor could see the sorrow in the man's face and knew that there was more than just loss at work there. It was a sense of failure as well. He looked to Nathan, a man who was usually prepared for everything and this had taken him completely by surprise. There was a well of rage building inside him that was as potent as it was dangerous. If it did not find an outlet soon, Nathan dreaded to think of the consequences.

"Medically, I think he would be up to a few questions." Nathan admitted.

"And mentally?" Chris spoke for the first time. "What is his mental state at the moment, Josiah?"

"He is angry Captain, as they all are. However, in Croft it seems deeper somehow, more personal."

"He was the mining supervisor?" Chris ventured to ask.

"Yes." Josiah answered.

"How many died while they were waiting for rescue?" The Captain asked again.

"Seventeen." Ezra replied, his jaw tightening as he answered.

"It's a hard thing to lose people under your command." Chris explained. "You feel as if there is something you should have been able to do to stop it but sometimes, it's beyond your capability. Your mind knows better but it's your heart that you have to convince."

At that, he made his way to Croft's bed with Buck following closely behind.

Ezra let out a sigh, exchanging a knowing glance with both Nathan and Josiah before he too, followed them towards the recovering supervisor.

* * * * * * *

Although he was glad they found survivors on Omega 6, Chris was disappointed they had only been of aid to twenty people of out an entire colony. As he walked through Sick Bay earlier, speaking to the patients and trying to assist them in some understanding of what had taken place, his anger left a deep well of hatred in his stomach. It was a feeling that seemed to get much worse when he found himself facing Lars Croft. The sorrow in the man's face was evident just as he was marked by his guilt. In that moment, Chris understood Lars' feelings better than anyone else in the room, bar none.

"Supervisor Croft." Chris introduced himself. "Captain Chris Larabee. Welcome aboard." He was going to dispense with the pleasant inquiries about the man's health. At the moment, it seemed like a foolishly redundant question.

"Captain." The man said quietly. "I want to thank you and your crew for your kindness since our arrival. We are grateful to you for our lives."

"Don't mention it," Chris said uncomfortably. "What help we were able to give you seems too little too late with how many were lost at the colony. We should be thanking you for that one consolation."

"I guess neither of us are feeling terribly fortunate at this moment." Lars remarked easing back into his bed.

Chris took a step forward and met his gaze. "I seem to be the better of the two." There was a few seconds of silence before Chris decided to move on to the subject at hand. "Supervisor, you told Lieutenant Standish that there were some strange events occurring on Colony 4 prior to the destruction. Care to elaborate on that?"

"Yes I can." Lars nodded and straightened up. He seemed filled with purpose knowing Chris would put the information to good use. "My team and I left the colony two days before the attack but odd things were happening before that. It started a week earlier. Our computer expert Caroline O'Shea informed us someone had downloaded the entire contents of our main computer. Our computer is not very large for storage capacity but it is a Class 2 rating with security systems in place. Someone managed to swoop right in and download every terabyte of information stored."

Chris exchanged a glance with Buck but neither said nothing and allowed Lars to continue.

"We thought there might be Romulans about or something." Lars spoke again. "We even sent out a few groups to make sure there was no one around. We used our tricorders to scan for life signs. There was nothing and finally we decided perhaps it was a computer glitch. Since no real harm was done, we let it go. However, two days before my team was meant to head out to the Gorge, one of our geologists disappeared for five hours. We could not find him anywhere. We sent out search parties, ran sensor scans and tricorder readings. We actually thought he might have fallen somewhere and died."

"But he was found." Buck guessed.

"As I said, five hours later." Lars answered. "We found him wandering about two miles from the colony. Not a scratch on him but he seemed dazed at first and had no idea what happened. The man lost five hours of his memory."

"Were you able to detect evidence of a transporter beam?" Ezra inquired.

"Our equipment is not that sophisticated. We scanned the area with our sensor equipment for anything unusual but there were no signs of it. All we could do was send a message to Deep Space 5, asking for a starship to come investigate."

"Deep Space 5 never received that message." Buck promptly informed him.

"But we sent it!" The man insisted. "I am sure of it."

"The intruders may have intercepted the message." Ezra offered. "Secrecy is apparently a great consideration to them. Our investigation on Colony 1 indicates they are sophisticated enough to be able to jam a subspace signal easily."

"Colony 1?" Lars asked, his eyes widening.

Chris swore under his breath. He had not intended for Lars to learn about the destruction of Colony 1 yet or the possible fate that might have inflicted on all the colonies in this sector. Unfortunately, the damage was done. He saw Ezra winced at unwittingly exposing that bit of information. Chris merely nodded at him, indicating that no real harm had been done. Nevertheless, he did not seem happy at his faux pas but then gambling men rarely liked showing their hand prematurely.

"I am sorry to tell you Colony 1 has been destroyed in the same way as Colony 4. That is why we came here to check on you." Chris said softly.

Lars closed his eyes as if blocking out their faces would allow him to restrain his rage. "Who are these people?" He demanded angrily. "What do they want from us?"

"Please calm down," Chris asked gently. "I know this is hard but we need to know exactly what happened that day if we are to get to the bottom of this."

Although he still seemed highly agitated, Lars did manage to settle down a little and take into consideration the Captain's request. After a moment, when he was better composed, he spoke again. "We were in the Gorge when it happened. My team and I were working underground when there was a violent earth tremor. Measured at least six on the Richter. Most of us barely managed to get to the surface when the cavern came down. We lost Ryder and Palczkewski in the cave in."

He paused a moment in order to take a deep breath. Chris got the impression that his telling of the events was causing Lars to remember them with disturbing clarity. "When we surfaced, all we saw was this cloud of white smoke in the horizon. The temperature climbed up about ten degrees above normal. Rodriguez who was on the surface told us there was an explosion. We certainly felt it down below."

Once again, Lars stopped speaking and he swallowed hard before continuing after collecting himself. "We tried raising the colony but our communication channels were silent. At first, we weren't sure whether we ought to stay put in case they came after us. We hid underground for the first two days for cover until it was obvious they were not coming. We decided someone should go back to the settlement and see if anyone was left. Rodriguez, Johansson and Myers volunteered to go. I was not happy about it but we needed to know. After a lot of debating, they took the hover car and went to the colony. They got back before nightfall." His eyes drew dark and he did not need to go any further because they all shared his grief and knew what had happened next.

"They couldn't even get two hundred miles within the place." He answered. His voice was now a whisper. "The tricorder and hover car sensors went critical the minute they reached the radius of the berthol ray contamination. Even then, they came back sick with radiation poisoning. We knew then, no one had survived. If the explosion did not kill them, the radiation sickness would have."

He stopped speaking then and leaned back into his bed, with his eyes closed. Chris let his gaze move across the room and saw that both the patients and the medical crew had stopped to listen to Lars' account of things. Even Nathan who was trying to stay focussed on his other patients, seemed affected by the man's words. Chris did not even know what he could possibly say to lessen the impact of the tragedy.

"I am so sorry." Chris finally found himself saying but the words felt meaningless when spoken. "We will find out who did this, I promise you."

"Captain," Josiah finally intervened. "I think that is enough for today. Mr Croft needs his rest."

The expression in his eyes told them he would not accept any compromise on this. Nathan seemed to stand in the background, offering a show of solidarity even though he had not voiced it. Chris knew Josiah long enough to recognise that streak of steel inside the older man when a patient's mental state was at stake.

He nodded slowly. "I think we have all that we need."

It was a lie of course. They were no closer to the answer than they were after their arrival at Colony 1. However, Lars Croft and what was left of his team didn't need to know that.

* * * * * * *

The meeting of the senior staff an hour later did not lift the oppressive black cloud hanging over the ship. With the exception of JD who was needed on the bridge while they were all engaged in this discussion, every bridge officer was present. Morale was dropping sharply. Chris could sense the tension that was beginning to affect everyone. He did not have to be a Betazoid telepath to know people were starting to become afraid. Something out here was killing helpless civilians indiscriminately and with callous regard. By now, the entire ship knew the intruder's vessel was emanating transwarp signatures and naturally escalated the belief the Borg were involved.

"What have we learnt?" Chris asked opening the meeting.

"The weapon used on Colony 4 is undoubtedly the same type used on Colony 1." Alex volunteered first. She was apart of the Away Team that had transported to the destroyed settlement after survivors had been picked up. Hers was the most up to date information. "We were unable to remain on the surface for more than a few minutes otherwise the Transporter would have lost its lock on us. The whole area is in an advanced state of subatomic flux, definitely more pronounced than what we found on Colony 1, owing to the time differential."

"The same destruction?" Chris inquired.

"Absolutely." Ezra answered firmly. "The colony was utterly obliterated. Like Kalendra 2, nothing was left standing. No buildings, no machinery, not even bodies. The only reason we know there were any at all is because of the DNA residue left behind."

Chris nodded, taking it all in. "Our science officer has theorised this complete destruction is for the purpose of concealment more than it was for an attack."

"Concealment?" Josiah exclaimed. "What could be so important enough to justify such an extreme action?"

"Buck," Chris turned to his first officer. "Let them in on what Captain Krista told us."

"Sure," Buck nodded and began. "When we arrived at Deep Space 5, we were told the entire contents of the station's computer core had been downloaded. There were no ships close enough to do this when the theft took place and yet it did. The intruder penetrated all Starfleet security protocols and took the data out of the main computer without raising a single alarm. According to Supervisor Croft, the same thing was done on Colony 4 prior to the attack and we believe the same took place on Colony 1, although we'll never really know for certain. Our intruder seems to need information and a great deal of it. We're guessing what they took from Colony 1 and 4 did not meet their needs and so they moved on to Deep Space 5."

"So this is definitely not the Borg." Mary stated. "The Borg have never displayed any need to learn anything of our species. After its initial contact with Picard's Enterprise, it had all the adequate information about us. Besides, they learn by assimilation."

"Precisely." Alex took up the lead once Buck turned the proceedings. "This is someone new. We know they have sophisticated weapons at their disposal, capable of destroying large areas without impunity. Their weapons are capable of affecting matter on a subatomic level, one of which we have no defence. We know our shields will not withstand penetration by this weapon if they were capable of slipping through the shields of a starbase. Furthermore, they are either capable of matter displacement technology that far exceeds ours or they possess a cloaking system unlike anything we have ever seen. Deep Space 5 navigational logs show no ships in the sector during the download and yet we know there must have been a ship for it to have taken place."

"What Commander Styles is saying," Chris broke in at that moment. "Is that we're outgunned and underpowered to match the intruder."

"So then what?" Vin Tanner spoke up. Chris noticed the officer of the Conn was starting to become more vocal in these meetings even though it took some time for him to work up the nerve. Chris noticed Alex giving him a smile of encouragement to continue adding his voice to the discussion and was pleased, someone else other than himself, was taking a personal interest in the welfare of the young helmsman.

"We can't run," the Vulcan continued. "Doing that is just going to prove to them that we're weak and ripe for an invasion if they aren't thinking it already. We've got to show them that we got teeth, spite our weaknesses and if they try to take the Federation, they'll have to fight for every inch of space between here and Sector 001."

"I agree with Mr Tanner." Ezra spoke readily. "We must provide them with a reason to think that invading the Federation or the Alpha quadrant will be less profitable with the amount of opposition they will be facing. Unfortunately to do so we alone will have to face their ship and prevail. "

"We don't believe that an attack is what they have in mind." Buck answered. "They seem to be after something in particular."

"I agree," Chris added. "They have no reason to conceal themselves the way they do. If they are even half as formidable as we know them to be, we are no match for them. After obtaining so much Federation data, they ought to know it as well. My hunch says they want something specific and they're not going to tip their hand until they get it."

"It does not look like we are in much position to stop them." Mary remarked, having heard the opinions on the table.

Chris did not say anything for a few seconds as he deliberated on that question. "We have to find them. Since we don't know what their intentions are in regards to this accumulation of data, we can't exclude the possibility these attacks aren't a prelude to invasion. Our course is clear. We have to find the intruders and if it is not possible to negotiate some kind of peace agreement with them, we will have to use any means necessary to protect the security of the Federation."

"I can offer a solution in that regard," Julia spoke up. "Although I warn you it is extreme."

"Go ahead, lieutenant." Chris replied, deciding that they had no choice at the moment and extreme might make all the difference when they faced the intruder.

"This is an alternative that can be used as a last resort if all our other efforts to stop the intruder fail. With some minor adjustments to the magnetic containment shield, we can create a relay on the bridge to precipitate a containment breach."

"A self destruct?" Ezra exclaimed.

"A self destruct would merely destroy the ship with little damage to the surrounding area." Julia continued. "Creating a containment breach with the amount of antimatter we possess would destroy any vessel in the resulting shock wave, despite their level of technology."

"Is that really necessary?" Josiah asked. He did not like to think his first commission on board a starship would be his last.

"If all else fails," Chris answered. "It very well might be. Make your adjustments Lieutenant, create the relay. However, only me and Buck should be able to initialise it."

"Of course." Julia said promptly.

"Captain," Ezra spoke up. "Under the circumstances, I recommend that we remain on yellow alert."

"Good idea." The captain agreed. "In the meantime, I want Alex and you to find some way of protecting ourselves from this weapon of theirs. There should be a way to keep the shields from destabilising when it comes into contact. Study the data accumulated from the two sites, see what you can come up with."

"Yes Sir." Neither Alex nor Ezra seemed very optimistic.

"Nathan and Josiah, I want you to inform the civilians on board it would be wise to make preparations in case of evacuation."

"Evacuation?" Nathan eyes flew wide open.

"Doctor," Chris said patiently. "If the situation warrants it, we will separate the ship. The saucer section can return to Deep Space Five without the loss of any more lives than necessary. A minimum complement is required to operate the starboard section of the ship, so we will be able to confront the intruder."

Nathan did not need to read the Captain's mind to know that whoever remained on the starboard section would not return at all. The gesture was one of suicide but under the circumstances, if such a thing could ever be called reasonable, it was a necessary sacrifice.

Chris glanced at Mary and saw she did not at all like the idea of a suicide course and the concern he saw was not just for her son, he was certain. There was something in her eyes as she looked at him that captured his gaze long enough for Chris to realise her worry for him was not because he was her captain but something more. Unfortunately, this was hardly the time for him to explore the depth of her growing emotions for him.

"We will proceed immediately, Captain." Josiah said softly. He did not want it to end like this, not so soon after their launch from Earth Starbase. The crew barely knew each other, let alone the ship. His heart ached knowing they might not ever get the chance to learn anything at all. "What shall we tell them?"

"You inform them this is a routine precaution when entering a critical situation." Chris let his gaze move through the room and he could tell that his crew was afraid. Bridge officers did not show their apprehension easily but their grim expression told him they shared the sentiment to a small degree. "I know things don't look good for us at the moment. However, this is mostly because we know very little about the intruder. Everything unknown poses a threat so we must learn everything about them we can. Learning about our enemies will allow us to understand what motivates them. If we can discover what it is they need, we may come to a peaceful solution. However, I personally am not ready to believe this is a simple invasion. If they wanted to, the intruders have the technology to force a confrontation and win quite easily. I think all this concealment has another purpose and we need to know what that is."

"I agree," Buck lent his voice to the Captain's speech in a show of command solidarity. "Their actions show a fanatical need to remain anonymous and whatever reason may be, it could give us an edge."

"We hope." Nathan remarked.

"Hope is all that Leonidas had at Thermopylae." Chris said with a faint smile. "Yet he managed to save a great many lives even though he had a very small force."

"True," The doctor nodded. "Except that Leonidas died in the process."

Chapter Twelve:
Throwing Out the Book

"Commander Styles," Ezra said unable to suppress a yawn of weariness. "I do believe we are exhausting ourselves."

The science officer rubbed her eyes to shake the weariness out of them and decided she could not disagree with Ezra's opinion they were pushing themselves hard. They had been working at an empty station in Engineering for five hours now, and had made very little headway in fulfilling the Captain's request in finding a defence against the intruders' weapons system. A difficult task in itself when one considered that they had not the least idea of how the thing work. Well, that was not entirely true, Alex decided. She knew something of the physics that made what it did possible but not the mechanics of such a device. The truth was, all their work could just be speculation until they actually saw the weapon in use.

Alex had not planned on getting that close.

"The captain wants a workable solution soon." She replied and ran his calculations through the computer station once again.

"I know. However, we will not find one if we work ourselves into exhaustion. This is no time for anyone to be anything less than fit for duty. We are not helping anyone by pushing ourselves like this nor are we helping the ship. The Captain needs to be able to rely on us and he cannot do if we are anything less than alert."

He was right. Alex let out a visible sigh of defeat. She looked around Engineering and saw new faces had come on shift since she and Ezra started working on the problem of devising a reliable defence against the intruder. Chief Engineer Julia however, was the exception. The woman was still working on creating a relay between the antimatter containment and the bridge. She shuddered inwardly at the thought they might actually be forced to use that desperate option. However, she did note something else during the past hours of being here.

"You're right." She said turning back to Ezra. "Let's call it a day."

"Good idea. Why don't we meet back here at 0800 hours in the morning."

"I could use the sleep." Alex answered. "Maybe it will give me more ideas on how to deal with the problem."

He nodded in agreement and the his gaze shifted furtively towards entirely an different direction when he thought Alex was busy gathering her data pads and not paying attention.

"It would help if you just go ask her out." Alex smiled wryly.

Ezra looked at her and felt an involuntarily flush of red in his features. He had hoped no one had noticed him gazing in the direction of Julia Pemberton throughout the evening, least of all the Science Officer he was working with. "I have no idea what you are talking about." Ezra said neutrally, betraying nothing because he was terribly embarrassed at being discovered. He could not help it though. Each time he saw that shimmer of red hair, he was utterly lost to the sparkle of it and wanted nothing more to run his fingers through it and see if it was really hair or strands of fine copper, not to mention those incredible emerald eyes. He wanted to stare forever in those pools of colour.

"Of course not. Well it's your business." She had no intention of involving herself further in this matter and wanted nothing more than to soak in the tub for an hour before going to bed. "I'll see you tomorrow." Alex replied before making her exit.

Ezra watched her go unable to deny that she was right, he should go over there and say hello to Julia Pemberton. After all, considering what she had spent most of her labour during the last day upon, it would be prudent to seize the moment before they were forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. Clearing his throat and wondering when in the hell he ever felt this nervous, Ezra lingered a moment at the workstation, powering down the computer base in order for it to be utilised by someone else before he crossed the space between them. Ever since he had laid eyes upon her, he felt butterflies in his stomach and felt somewhat ridiculous about it. He was a grown man after all and the chief of security no less and he had never had any trouble approaching the opposite sex about anything. He had faced Ferengi traders, Romulan assassins and drunken Klingons. There was very little he had seen in his lifetime that could make him flinch, so there was no reason he should feel so anxious talking to a petite redhead.

"How is our doomsday device progressing?" Ezra asked as he came up along side of her.

"Fine." She answered still working on the device and responded without looking up. "It's about time you got up the nerve to talk to me. A girl could start to feel a little offended by how long it was taking you. I was actually starting to believe I'd have to go ask you myself and that would not do, I'm an old fashioned girl after all." She met his gaze long enough to flash him a radiant smile.

Ezra winced inwardly and felt supremely stupid.

"Was I that obvious?" He asked clearing his throat, feeling his embarrassment burn to the tips of his ears but it did not feel too terrible in light of her own revelations.

"Not at all," she replied, her fingers working deftly over the innards of the relay sitting on top of her workbench. "You wore quite the poker face but then I am told that is your expertise isn't it?"

"I have been known to indulge in games of chance." He replied casually, wondering how deeply she had made her inquiries about him and was rather annoyed that as chief security officer, someone could do so without his being any the wiser.

"I hear you are a bonafide card sharp and that if there's a game on this ship, you know about it." She continued to work, not looking at him. "You're a bundle of contradictions Mr Standish." She paused and then added. "Fortunately," she offered him a teasing wink. "I like paradoxes."

"Really?" Ezra found himself smiling, now that he had recovered from the surprise of finding out that this titian haired beauty shared possibly the same feelings for him that he had for her, if she had been determined enough to go find out all about him. "I have been told that I am something of a riddle."

"Now that's more like it Commander," she continued to tease. "I like it when you take the initiative."

"Are you always this sure about yourself Lieutenant Pemberton?" Ezra asked folding his arms and staring at her. He had thought simply staring at her was enough to send tingles through his skin. He had no idea she was this enchanting to talk to as well. Ezra thrived on challenges and a woman who could knock him off his poised feet was quite formidable indeed.

"Not always," she remarked, her eyes moving up and down his form as if she had made some secret decision about him she was not about to let him in on just yet. "Then there are times when I know without doubt that this is the best thing for me."

Ezra could actually understand that. How many pivotal moments in his life had come upon him knowing just the right thing to do? He could not even count, whether or not it was in a card game or accepting this posting under Chris Larabee's command. Ezra had known with an instinct that made him the gambler he was today, that there could be no other choice but the one he had made. His heart leapt inside his chest knowing that she had come to that same decision about him. However, he was not about to become too presumptuous by that fact because Lieutenant Pemberton herself was something of a riddle and she liked to play games.

That was fine with him, games were his speciality.

* * * * * * *

Chris stared into stars beyond the window of his Ready Room when the door chimed softly.

"Come in." He sang out after a letting out a weary sigh.

The door slid open and Josiah walked into the room, cradling a bottle of blue liquid. He knew the doctor had a collection of exotic spirits that had come on board with him from Earth. Usually, the emergence of a bottle indicated Josiah felt particularly verbal and had selected him as company. According to the chronometer on his desk, Chris saw it was approaching 1900 hours. That meant he had been sitting in this chair, staring into space for almost a good hour.

"To what do I owe this visit?" Chris asked sitting up in his chair. He could not deny that Josiah's presence was a welcome one. The Counsellor was the one person around whom he could unburden himself to completely, within reason of course.

"I thought you could use some of this." He gestured to the bottle in his hand.

"What is it?" Chris inquired, leaning forward to examine the contents closely after Josiah had put the bottle down on his desk.

"Romulan Ale."

"Ah, mother's milk." Chris grinned and rose from his chair. He went to the replicator panel and made a short request from the computer. After a brief shimmer of energy, Chris returned to the desk with two clear crystal glasses.

When Josiah had filled both receptacles, Chris took a deep sip from his glass and savoured the taste in his mouth. It was particularly pleasing the ale was authentic. Somehow, he was not looking forward to a synthehol-flavoured substitute. For a few minutes, neither man spoke but Chris was sure Josiah was reading his thoughts and his mood more clearly than spoken words could ever express.

"You think the strain is getting to me." Chris stated putting down his glass.

Josiah smiled, knowing the question was rhetorical. Not that he would have answered it anyway. He knew Chris had a great deal of difficulty articulating how he felt and such conversations needed to be proceeded with delicate caution.

"Your attitude at the briefing earlier hardly inspired confidence." Josiah answered after a while. He could not deny that Chris's words during that meeting had bothered him a great deal. "Comparing us to Leonidas of Sparta is somewhat fatalistic don't you think?"

"I was trying to be realistic." Chris responded coolly. "I don't think our chances of surviving this encounter is any secret. Even a fool would have to recognise the odds are against us."

"You don't know that." Josiah pointed out firmly. "In fact, no one does for certain. We haven't even sighted the enemy. All we have is a great deal of speculation and not a lot of practical knowledge. Your strategy should not be focused on the outcome of us not surviving the encounter. Even Starfleet's finest needs to have hope they can come out of this alive."

"I don't need to see it with my own eyes to know what happened on Colony 1 and 4 was anything but formidable. Wishful thinking is not going to change that." Chris was unable to deny he was starting to feel defensive.

"I agree with that assessment as well as you do." Josiah answered not willing to let this matter slide just yet. "The intruders, whomever they are, are capable of destroying all of us. However, we should not make it any easier for them to do it. Assuming the best than we can hope for during an encounter is to take them with us, is not the way to proceed. You did not think that way when we faced the Borg. The man I put back together in Starfleet Medical would never have sat still for that."

"What do you want from me?" Chris snapped. "I am doing the best I can! Do you think this is any easier for me? I've waited all my life for this." He looked around the room. "All my life, I've worked hard and done everything expected of me and all my life everything I want has been taken away through no fault of mine. My son and my wife just to start with. I get over that as best I can and finally get my own ship. Do you think I could have been given the chance to enjoy her, at least for a while? No, on our first mission out, I have to be saddled with this! An intruder that will most likely cut through our shields and turn us into solar dust before we even have time to respond! It's not fair!"

"Life isn't fair and you of all people, should know that by now." Josiah responded just as vehemently. It was no secret he thought of Chris Larabee as more than a friend. Chris was the son he always wanted. He loved his own children dearly but Mara and Sanda had always been so practical and level headed. They had taken after their mother and seldom needed Josiah's guidance or understood their father enough to tolerate the seed of wanderlust inside his veins. From the first moment he had met Chris Larabee, Josiah felt a kinship that was deeper than friendship. It was a bond as thick as blood because Chris understood that wild streak of madness that gripped all great pioneers over the precipice of destiny.

Chris had given him a chance to realise a dream. At a point in his life where he thought all dreams were ended. So Josiah Sanchez was not going to allow protocol or anything else to keep him from helping the brave man who had saved him from himself.

"You are the Captain of this ship." He continued hammering away. "You are the standard by which everyone on board measures himself. Yes, you are still new to them but they believe in you because you are the man who saved the Rutherford. Most of the ships destroyed by the Borg did not allow for survivors but yours did. You saved half your crew when most others were lucky to escape with a handful. Don't you think everyone on board knows that?"

Chris said nothing and his silence further infuriated the Counsellor. "How dare you think anything becomes simpler when you are a Captain. You worked all your life for this and you of all people should know the price that comes with Captain's gold, you've paid it more than any man has to pay for anything. We need you to be strong for us or no one on board this ship is going to survive the confrontation. That Captain Larabee is something I do not need to be telepathic to know."

Although the words seemed to bounce of him, Chris knew otherwise. The substance of them had penetrated right to his core and touched upon that secret part of himself he wished no one could see. Josiah was right of course. Chris almost expressed a faint smile at the realisation but managed to hold it. Counsellor Josiah Sanchez reminded him of his father so much that there were times when it was hard for him to distinguish this passionate doctor from the father who dithered about in his library of musty books. To this day, whenever he smelled stale paper, Chris remembered his father. Now, he no longer even needed that. He just had Josiah.

"You are a pain in the ass Counsellor." Chris conceded finally before taking another sip of his ale. "But what you said has been duly noted."

"Well," Josiah shrugged. "I am glad something did."

"I don't want to lose another crew Josiah," the young captain said honestly. "This is more than I expected from my first command. I wanted to get to know everyone before it came to this. I never got to know the people on the Rutherford. I was too busy being first officer and preparing myself for my first command to understand how important people are. Its important to know people while there's still time." He looked away and crushed mercilessly the private pain that made a sudden resurgence at that remark. "I wanted Buck to be my first officer because I promised myself that when I came on board, I wasn't going to let the crew simply become uniforms to me. Buck has a way of doing that."

"I can imagine," the Counsellor replied gently. "Look I don't need to tell you that things don't always turn out the way they're meant to. Starfleet made you a Captain because you've got that spark inside you than most fleet officers would sell their souls to have. Do what Chris Larabee wants to do, from the gut, no hesitation or no regrets. I have more faith in that impulse than anything in the rule book."

"Thanks," Chris chuckled softly. "But I may tear the ship apart by throwing out that book."

It felt better being able to admit to someone he was not as confident as everyone expected him to be. Once again, he thanked whatever reasoning led him to making Josiah the offer of the post of Counsellor. He had a feeling that if they were to survive the next few days, Buck and Josiah between them both were going to have to become the gyroscope that centred his emotional balance and give him a swift kick when he needed it.

"Incidentally," Josiah spoke, moving to a completely different subject altogether even though he was uncertain if this topic would be as well received as the earlier had been. If anything, it was likely to be just as provocative. "I don't mean to pry but I thought I'd mention this since I am Counsellor and I'm responsible for bringing this up no matter how awkward it may be."

"Of course not." Chris said wearily. There was little point trying to guess what Josiah was getting at. Sooner or later, the man would make his point. "Go ahead anyway."

"You have some very strong feelings about Lieutenant Travis."

Chris eyes met Josiah's sharply. That was the one thing he wanted no one on board to know. Buck had been giving him enough hell on the subject, trying to play matchmaker by goading him into spending more time with the woman. Now, he had to contend with Josiah too. Although he knew both Buck and Josiah meant well, there were some things that he considered to intimate to share with anyone and his feelings for Mary definitely fell into that category.

"That my friend is none of your business."

"Ah," Josiah said abruptly before adding. "I see."

Even though he was not smirking or smiling, or showing any outward expression on his face, Chris knew Josiah well enough to know his mind was actively analysing Chris's response. The remark was meant to bait him and to Chris's chagrin, the ploy was working quite effectively. Unable to resist, Chris found himself asking. "What do you see?"

"Nothing." The man said innocently.

"Why don't I believe you?"

Josiah hesitated as he tried to put the feelings he was sensing between the two people into words that could accurately describe the situation. After a moment of consideration, he finally responded. "It just felt like I sensed an emotional attachment between you and her." At that, he looked up quickly to see Chris's reaction.

The captain did not seem the least bit concerned. "Believe me, whatever you sense was probably not mutual."

Josiah downed the last of his drink and then rose to his feet. The captain remained seated and looked deep in thought. Despite the woman's aloof manner, Josiah had been a Counsellor long enough to know that was not the case, not in the slightest. He waited for a second before he added quietly, "I wouldn't say that."

The Captain looked up at him instantly with eyes widened once the implications of that remark sank into his brain.

"What do you mean?" Chris asked, a great deal more animated than Josiah had seen him in some time. "Did she say something?" He asked unable to contained the excitement in his voice that his feelings for Mary might be reciprocated. Josiah tried not to laugh but it was difficult to control his facial expressions at that point.

"It's getting late." The man replied evasively. "You can keep the bottle of ale. I've got more down in my office." Josiah estimated he had precious few moments left before he started laughing.

"Wait a minute!" Chris declared heatedly. "You can't just leave! What did you hear from? This is not funny, Counsellor, I want to know."

"Should I pass her notes for you too?" Josiah grinned as he started for the door.

"I could make it an order you know!" Chris tried again, ignoring the remark. Although he knew he was playing into Josiah's hands, this curiosity would not be abated. "Come on Josiah, this is not funny. What does she think of me?"

"Goodnight Captain," The Counsellor grinned and made a speedy exit before his Captain started the practice of keelhauling again.

* * * * * * *

Vin Tanner was at the bar indulging in something called a Boston mud cake when he heard a voice behind him. Looking over his shoulder, it took a few seconds before he actually faced the person to recognise the voice. His memory for these things was quite good and he was usually able to identify them immediately. However as he finally faced the speaker, Vin found himself surprised by whom it was.

"Lieutenant Richmond." He said unable to hide his shock especially after how she had treated him at their first meeting.

"Hello Vin." She said with a smile.

Vin wanted to know since when were they on a first name basis. "Can I do something for you Lieutenant?" He asked cautiously, uncertain of what she wanted of him. From the corner of his eye, he saw the door to Four Corners sliding open and felt eager to end this discussion with the lieutenant when he saw Alex Styles walking into the room. Alex paused a moment and surveyed Four Corners before she caught sight of him and Charlotte. Vin panicked thinking she might leave seeing he was not alone but instead her expression changed. If he did not know better, he would say it hardened as she came towards them.

"My friends and I," Charlotte glanced at a few women seated at the table at the far corner of the room who were watching the proceedings with great amusement. "We wondered, is it true that Vulcans reach sexual maturity much later than humans?"

Vin stared at her with no idea what to say. He could understand her curiosity of course; Vulcan sexuality was one of the most closely guarded aspects of the culture. There was very little on it for the knowledge of the general public, remembering the hell he had gone trying to find something on the subject himself. However, the smirk on her face did not appear as if she were making the inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge but rather to embarrass him.

"That's true." He stammered, aware she was waiting for an answer and decided the truth was the best he could do at this moment.

"So you're not sexually mature yet." She pointed out because according to his record, he was young by Vulcan standards. "You're a virgin."

Vin turned deep red and was about to stand up and make a hasty departure when Alex reached them both. The science officer had heard the exchange and was giving the crewmen witnessing this entire event a scathing glare that sent them scurrying. Charlotte Richmond had not noticed her yet since she was too busy humiliating the Vulcan in public.

"A virgin!" Alex announced herself by exclaiming loudly. "I would hardly think so."

Charlotte turned to see the commander and visibly gulped when she realised that Vin's relationship with the third ranking officer on the Maverick was anything but professional.

Vin could share Charlotte's astonishment when he felt Alex's hand slide over his shoulders, caressing the length of his muscle. Her palm inched languidly over the curve of his biceps, pausing long enough for her to feel the taut flesh beneath his uniform. While he was uncertain of what she was doing, he could not say it did not feel unpleasant to have him touch him. So few people wanted to touch Vulcans and even fewer wanted to touch him because he was something different. However, nothing could prepare Vin for the surprise he got when she pressed her mouth against his and slipped her tongue through his teeth.

He had never been kissed this way before and knew human males found this very arousing but he found it more pleasant to have her skin against his and to be able to breathe in the scent of her hair. He liked how her palm felt against his cheek and the way her body moved closer to his and was disappointed when she pulled away. Alex gave him a little wink, which he did not understand and kept her arm where it was over his shoulder before saying sweetly. "Vin, darling. Do you think I could have a moment with the lieutenant alone?"

Why was she calling him darling and what had happened to her voice? Vin thought to himself.

"Okay." He said puzzled, picking up his plate of Boston mud and retiring to one of the free tables.

As soon as he was gone, Alex turned her eye on Charlotte who was starting to look very nervous. Alex could not blame her, she had good reason to be afraid. It was never wise to anger the third in command of a starship.

"Commander...." Charlotte started to stammer.

"Lieutenant Richmond," Alex said with pure ice in her voice "I believe you are in stellar cartography am I correct?"

"Yes Sir," Charlotte nodded, seeking moral support from her friends who had all but disappeared in the light of her troubles.

"Unless you want to be spending the next six months on monitor duty during the graveyard shift I suggest you limit your interaction with Lieutenant Tanner to a professional basis. If I find out you are harassing him again about his Vulcan heritage, I'll have you brought up on charges of xenophobia, do you understand me?"

"Yes Sir," she replied promptly and clearly shaken because xenophobia was grounds for immediate discharge form Starfleet.

Alex took a step closer to her and whispered in a softer voice. "You disobey me on this and I'll eat you alive. Do we understand each other, lieutenant?"

"Perfectly," Charlotte swallowed and started to leave when Alex spoke sharply.

"I did not say you were dismissed, Richmond."

Charlotte's face flushed red with anger but held her tongue because anything she said would immediately be construed as insubordination.

"Now you're dismissed." She remarked with a little smile of satisfaction and was pleased to see Charlotte slinking away fearfully before Alex went to find Vin.

* * * * * * *

"I'm sorry about that." Alex said sliding into the seat next to him in the booth where he was waiting for her. "She pissed me off."

"She was trying to embarrass me." Vin replied even though he was more curious as to why Alex had done what she had instead of Charlotte's cruelties. "Why did you kiss me?"

Alex cleared her throat and tried to think of an answer since there was no real reason except perhaps the fact she did not want anyone sniggering behind Vin's back. "I didn't want her to make fun of you and to put to rest any further comments she might have regarding your sexuality." She answered him truthfully. "Did you mind?"

"No," he shook his head in answer. "It's just no one has kissed me before."

"Well when you're in a position to appreciate it, I'm sure there will be a line." She smiled warmly and then stood up. "I've put in a long day so I'm going to get some rest. You take care okay?" Alex said as she left him.

Vin watched her go and decided when he was in a position to appreciate it, he would not want anyone else but her.

Chapter Thirteen:
Plans

It was time.

Josiah had been correct. It was well past the moment when Chris Larabee had to forget his insecurities as a new Captain and remember what it was that made Starfleet promote him. He had earned the right to wear Captain's gold and whatever happened from this point onward, it would happen without him doubting himself. He was taking Josiah's advice to conduct himself as he always had, from the gut, with no hesitation or regrets. The crisis ahead called for something innovative and no quarter for self-recrimination. His crew needed to know that he had some kind of plan no matter how desperate the situation became.

He sat on his bridge, allowing confidence to seep back into his bones for the first time since this whole thing had began. Chris forced his caution and fear for his crew into a place reserved for when the time was appropriate. All that could be done at Colony 4 had been accomplished. As expected, there was no other survivors left to find. All that was left of Omega 6's inhabitants were the handful of emaciated miners in SickBay.

"Ezra." Chris spoke. "I want you to send a communication to Deep Space 5, attention Captain Krista on a security frequency."

"Yes Sir." Ezra returned promptly.

Chris took a deep breath and focused on what he wished to say. "Inform DS5 we have found Colony 1 and 4 destroyed by an unknown force using a weapon that leaves severe berthol poisoning in its wake. We have reason believe Colony 9 may have similarly been destroyed and Captain Krista should make an immediate investigation of any colony in this sector that has not made its monthly status reports. Tell her, we are unable to make an investigation ourselves as we have detected a transwarp signature of an unknown origin and are pursuing to investigate."

There was a moment of silence on the bridge as the news sunk into everyone. Only Buck seemed unaffected by the Captain's decision.

"Alex," he said calmly glancing over his shoulder. "Begin a wide beam scan for transwarp signatures and relay your findings to helm control."

"Aye Sir." Alex answered coolly.

Chris could understand the apprehension on his bridge. The Dominion, the Cardassians and the Klingons were threats Starfleet could cope with. They had never been able to truly manage a Borg assault. Victory had come mostly through luck and the intimate knowledge of the Collective possessed by Jean-Luc Picard. If these intruders were at the same technological level as the Borg as Chris suspected, then everyone had good reason to be afraid.

"Are we telling Starfleet command what we're doing?" Buck inquired quietly.

"Not yet." He answered. "I'd like something more concrete than a transwarp signature to identify these intruders. We'll transmit the moment we have more information."

"It is likely they would have moved out of this sector by now." Vin remarked. "The attack here was several weeks ago. That is sufficient time to distance themselves from this area."

"I agree." Chris nodded in consideration. "However, I think they're still here. Their strategy tells me they have not found what they are looking for yet."

"I agree." Buck nodded please to hear from Vin. The young man was slowly coming out of his shell. Of course, being kissed in public by one of the most beautiful and inaccessible women on the ship could do much for a person's ego.

"They have no reason to fear us Lieutenant," Chris stated for Vin's benefit. "After what they've been able to do in our space, I think it is a foregone conclusion we are not much of a threat to them. However, they've nonetheless attacked our most remote colonies, where distress signals could take days to reach the nearest starbase or chanced upon by a passing ship. It poses the question of why would they need to take such precautions?"

"I must admit a certain amount of confusion on that point as well." Ezra confessed.

"I think Alex is correct in her theory that what happened on all the colonies is some twisted science experiment. That is why they have attacked only remote colonies, not because they're worried about us coming after them but because they want time to be able to make a comprehensive study without their potential subjects being alerted to their presence."

"Maintaining scientific purity." Alex explained. "They want to observe their specimens in their natural environment without the contamination of their presence to alter results." She paused a moment to consider the possibilities. "You think that they are still here because they have risked their experiment by downloading the contents of Deep Space Five's main computer?"

"This sector of space is their laboratory," Chris explained now that everyone was attuned to what he was thinking. "They attacked the colonies only after downloading all data in the colony computers and after a live specimen was taken for study. Unfortunately, this was not sufficient to provide the results expected so they moved on to another colony and possibly all the settlements in this area." Chris seriously hoped this was a worse case scenario. He was hoping only Colony 1, 4 and 9 were affected.

"I understand," Vin replied. "The volume of data on a colony computer can be limited with extended periods between upgrades. All information is in some way related to the science required for survival."

"Exactly," the Captain smiled once again given proof that Vin and he had some symbiotic connection that allowed the youthful Vulcan to pick up his thoughts easily. "However, colony computer information does not contain specific information. You can go to any starbase's computer and get the complete history of the Federation starting from Zefram Cochrane's launch until the minutes of the last meeting of the Federation Council. Everything we are is in a starbase computer. I think our intruder were looking for something specific and did not find it at the colonies."

"Having downloaded the entire contents of DS5, it's possible that they have their answer." Buck reminded the Captain.

"That is a possibility." Chris replied honestly. "There is a part of me that hopes they found what they needed and have returned wherever they came so that some other captain can deal with this at another time. However, my gut instincts says no." He saw that Buck was looking at him sceptically and allowed a faint smile to steal across his face. "Let's just say that I have an intuition they are still around and we need to find them before they go home. If weakness is what their experiments were meant to prove then I don't think their next encounter with us will be as controlled."

"Agreed." Even Buck had to admit that while the question of the intruder's continued presence in the sector might be in doubt, the results following their return home would not. "Vin's right, we can't show ourselves to be any weaker than we already have."

Anything Chris was going to say in response to that statement was lost when Alex broke into their conversation. "Captain, I've located a partial trail emanating from the transwarp signature around the planet."

"Good," Chris nodded. "Vin, lock onto those readings and proceed at Warp 2."

"Ezra, inform the crew, we are now preparing to leave orbit." Buck instructed the security officer. "Recommend that we go to yellow alert, Captain."

It seems as if they were forever at yellow alert lately, Chris sighed but his first officer's recommendation was a correct one. The situation certainly warranted it. "Good idea. Do it."

Buck moved out of ear shot as Chris concentrated on the viewer before him. The ship had started to veer away from Omega 6 and the parting shot of the planet saddened him to the core. All the promise of its future had ended with the black stain of charred earth against its polished yellow surface. It was an awful tombstone for the brave people who had tried unsuccessfully to tame this world so far from civilisation. As the Maverick kicked into warp, Chris made himself a silent promise that this was not going to be the beginning of things to come for the Federation.

The intruder had dropped a gauntlet in front of him. Captain Chris Larabee was going to pick it up and he was going to die before allowing it to be thrown at anyone else.

* * * * * * *

The transwarp trail was weak. They had expected that much. As the ship moved farther and farther away from Omega Prime, Chris was struck by the tale of Hansel and Gretel, forced to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to find their way home. As expected, the outermost colonies had been struck first because the trail led back to Kalendra 2. Having nothing else but that scant evidence to go on, Chris had no choice but to back track in their pursuit of the intruder.

In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait. Buck and Ezra were running the bridge crew through simulated battle drills, an action Chris fully approved. Within days of the first attempt, the crew had attained an almost perfect efficiency rating. All across the ship, each department was preparing themselves for battle. He knew from Buck's reports on crew evaluation Julia Pemberton was pushing herself and her Engineering crew to the point of revolt. Every system had to be checked and then rechecked. Her determination to ensure that Engineering be prepared, almost had a quality of human stubbornness to it.

The Counsellor informed him that the civilians on board were starting to fear the worst. While Chris could not blame them for being afraid, he did not intend to initiate a premature saucer separation before time. There was not much he could do about that problem except to project the image that they were far from being outgunned. He made special visits to the school where he answered the questions of the younger members of his crew. Their questions were the questions of children and Chris tried to be as honest as possible without being patronising or having to lie. At the Counsellor's behest, he showed everyone including the Starfleet personnel he at least, was unafraid of what lay ahead.

Unfortunately, while the problems with the crew seemed abated for the moment, Chris was faced with some very realistic conclusions regarding the enemy. If the intruders were travelling at transwarp speed, then their pursuit was going to be a slow process of never reaching enough velocity to catch up unless the intruder slowed to standard warp. The likelihood of that occurring was remote. Somehow, the Maverick had to find a way to get the intruder's attention, long enough for them to stop and look, allowing the ship to close the distance.

"I say we try something radical." Chris declared at briefing for the senior staff a few days after they took up the chase.

"Radical Sir?" Buck stared at him and immediately felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Radical and Chris Larabee were a dangerous combination.

"Yes." He nodded, letting his gaze sweep across the faces before him. Only Josiah seemed unsurprised by what he was about to say and had the good grace to keep it to himself. "At the moment we are faced with the problem of an enemy we will not be able to catch up to because they are travelling at speeds far greater than us. True, the transwarp signature will take us where the intruder has been but not to a face to face confrontation. While some might argue the sensibility of meeting them in open combat, until we see them face to face, we cannot possibly understand what we are fighting or devise a way to win. All the information we have is speculative at the moment. We do not know what their intentions are or if their technology is as formidable as it appears. Therefore, we need to slow them down."

"Considering that we do not even know where they are, is going to make it difficult." Ezra replied.

"Let's work on the assumption that they are in this sector of space still." Chris responded. "It's a place to begin. Now they've been operating under a silent running and taking great pains to hide themselves from us. What if we send out a subspace signal on all frequencies and bands that we are tracking a possible invasion force from an unknown alien species. This species possesses weapons capable of molecular destabilisation and is responsible for the destruction of all our colonies in this sector of space. We will put out a general alert rallying all Starfleet vessels in this area to rendezvous with us before we continue our pursuit. In the meantime, we will also advise all non-Starfleet ships to vacate until things are safe."

"Captain, are we really intending summon all those ships?" Mary exclaimed in surprise. Apparently, she was the only one willing to voice it at that moment.

"Of course not." He said quickly. "We will also send a coded transmission to Starfleet Command to inform them what we are planning."

"So we wait for them to come find us?" Ezra asked sceptically. "Captain, with all due respect, we have no idea if we are any match for the intruder when it arrives. Is it wise baiting them like this?"

Chris understood his concerns and knew that his question was on everyone's mind at the moment. However, he had spent a great deal of time on this plan and knew the risks involved. Most of that time had been expended on devising a scenario in which they would escape with their lives as well as defeating the intruder.

"No it is not wise," he answered truthfully. "Unfortunately, we have no choice. This is the only way we can meet them face to face. However, I am not prepared to sacrifice this ship in any kind of heroic gesture so if you give me a chance to explain, I'll tell you what we will do."

Ezra fell silent. "I apologise if I spoke out of turn Captain."

"No apology necessary," Chris said quickly. "I expect my senior staff to point out matters of concern. In this case however, I am aware of the danger."

"Then you have a plan Chris?" Buck asked, hoping to hell it was a good one or a lot of lives were going to be lost.

"We will move to these coordinates." Chris picked up his data pad and handed it to Buck.

The first officer took a moment to study the information before his right brow arched and he nodded in understanding. "An interesting choice. You want to take us to the edge of Vikaris Quasar?"

"Because the quasar has high intensity energy fields surrounding the stellar mass and should be capable of disrupting sensors to the extremes?" Vin spoke, venturing a guess at the captain's intention since he did not think Chris would knowingly play a hand where he was at a disadvantage.

"Even that of the intruder." The Captain said with a smile at Vin's acumen. "It may be enough for us to make a quick get away if necessary."

"It could work," Buck agreed. "It could be highly dangerous for them to use their weapon in this area in the event stray fire could have adverse effects on the quasar itself."

Chris had to confess he did not think of that possibility but was glad that his first officer reinforced his decision to take this course of action with that point.

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "I may have a suggestion as well."

"Any suggestions at this time are welcome." Chris replied, eager to hear what Alex had to say.

"I think I may have an answer as to why they were able to reach Deep Space Five without being detected by sensors or bypassing all security protocols. I was reading all the literature on cloaking devices and all forms of cloak affect the physical environment in some way, even if they are not immediately detected. However, there were no such effects reported with DS5."

"Yes, that's right." Chris answered wondering where this was going.

"I think I know what you're talking about, Commander." Julia suddenly declared. "You are speaking of a cloak that does not operate using physical laws we know of."

"Yes," Alex nodded, grateful, someone understood the point she was making. "A few years ago, Enterprise D reported the Romulans had been experimenting with a kind of cloak that uses phase shifts instead of standard light and energy refracting methods."

"I remember the report." Julia added her support. "Captain, every object that we know of in the universe operates on a specific atomic frequency, whether animate, inanimate, organic or inorganic. If the phase frequency of an object is altered for any reason, it is no longer in phase with the rest of the universe. Therefore it is capable of moving through an object without those of us in the normal frequency being aware of it."

"You're saying this ship could have parked itself next to the station and did whatever it wanted to before leaving again and all without any sensor registering its presence?" Chris asked.

"Absolutely," Alex said flashing Julia a wry smile. "The Enterprise almost lost two of its officers when they were out of phase like this. They were only able to get them back by flooding the local area with high intensity radiation which brought them back into phase."

"Our engines are capable of venting similar radiation into space on a rotating basis while we are awaiting for the intruder to arrive." Julia offered.

"I see what you mean." Ezra declared. "We could create a buffer zone between the intruder and the ship. The moment, they enter the zone, they will become visible to our sensors enough for a target lock."

Chris eased back into his seat feeling pleased with his staff's performance. For the first time since coming on board, he could see bonds being forged between them and camaraderie being formed. He met Josiah's gaze and although he had not much to offer during this meeting, he too was pleased at the result. "Well Captain," Josiah replied after a moment. "I think we have a plan."

"I agree." He returned her radiant smile. "Commander," he looked at Alex. "I think you should assist Julia with your plan down in engineering. We need to get this buffer zone operating as soon as possible. It may be our one chance at taking them down."

Chris hoped it would be enough.

Chapter Fourteen:
First Contact

Sitting at the Captain's table in Four Corners, Chris was given a panoramic view of the Vikaris Quasar. It hung beyond the starboard side of the ship, emblazoning the dark sky with turbulent swirls of white and amber tongues of energy, culminating in a maelstrom of cosmic proportions. From this distance, the illumination from the stellar mass lit up the room as if it was daylight. The Maverick sat beyond the event horizon of the immense gravitational pull of the dense stellar body. From this distance, the electromagnetic energy level coming from the star was almost off scale. All sensors and scanning devices on board the ship had increased gain in order to function. Chris selected the region for this reason specifically.

The Vikaris Quasar had been named after the explorer who first charted the area. Unfortunately, Vikaris also became the first known casualty of his discovery when his ship became ensnared in the powerful gravitational field of the spacial phenomenon. The quasar was so massive that it filled an area of space that could normally accommodate a thousand suns. It radiated such powerful electromagnetic fields that sensors would be completely useless to any ship trying to scan it. For all these factors, Chris had brought his ship here. The Vikaris Quasar could very well end up saving all their lives.

The captain had no illusions about the Maverick chances with the intruder. By all accounts, speculative or not, the ship capable of reducing a single colony to utter destruction was more than a match for a galaxy class starship. However, he was not about to let their murder go unpunished neither was he going to let them believe the Federation was incapable of fighting back. The battle to be waged had far deeper implications than simply destroying the enemy. This was a fight for survival for the Federation and possibly the entire Alpha Quadrant.

However, to win he had to be realistic and understand the limitations of his ship. He had brought the Maverick here because if the intruder overwhelmed them with its weapons, they could lose themselves in the area thanks to the quasar. He knew it was a risky assumption, believing that the intruder would not be capable of scanning for them with all the interference from the mass but it was all he had to go with. If they needed to recuperate after the encounter, there was no better place for it.

Chris noticed that many crewmembers had come to Four Corners to take in the view and Chris could not blame them for that. While he could not admit to sharing any of the excitement held by the crew at viewing the stellar mass, he could not deny it was indeed an awesome spacial display. Normally, he would appreciate the sight to its fullest, however, on this day, his mind and body were too focussed on the attack he knew would come.

The light atmosphere around him was a thin disguise hiding the fact the ship was poised on battle alert. Even though the numbers in the recreational lounge kept the bartenders and servers busy, none of these were civilians. Families and non-Starfleet personnel were restricted to their quarters until further notice.

After a few moments of star gazing, he returned to the data pads before him, reading Buck's up to date department status reports. So far, it appeared the Maverick was ready for whatever was coming at them. Taking another sip of his rapidly cooling black coffee, Chris was pleased to note Engineering had installed the cloaking device. Technically the use of the device was only permissible if they engaged the Borg but he fully intended to use it if it meant saving his crew from an equally formidable enemy.

Besides, who was to say the threat posed by the intruder only affected Federation space? There was no evidence to support the notion the Romulans was any safer than they were.

He reminded himself to put in a note of commendation in Alex's permanent record because her performance to date certainly earned such credit. From what he understood from Buck's report, the anti-phase buffer was already on line, thanks largely to Alex's tireless efforts and meticulous design. Even Julia had made comment of her efficiency.

"You seem much better in spirit." Inez remarked, announcing his presence.

"I am a little." Chris admitted. "We are as ready as we will ever be for the intruder. The department heads have outdone themselves in getting us to this point. I am proud of my crew."

"You have to take some credit in all that you know." The sultry woman remarked.

"I don't think so. There are good people in charge of those departments and they know their jobs. I had very little to do with their performance."

"I think you are being somewhat modest Captain. A good captain knows when to pull back and let his people prove themselves. The talk I've been hearing around the room about you has been very promising. People are starting to place a great deal of faith in you simply because of that."

Chris rolled his eyes in disbelief. "I fail to see why. We've hardly come under fire yet and I have been guilty of being so cautious lately, I can hardly see straight."

"Well no one said you were perfect," the bartender smiled warmly. "Just promising."

Chris started to laugh a little when suddenly, the lighting inside Four Corners changed to a bright crimson shade that made everyone stop what they were doing instantly and pay attention. Less than a millisecond had passed when the inevitable sound of emergency klaxons began their shrill cry across the room and throughout the ship.

The Maverick was on red alert.

Chris put down his coffee and jumped to his feet. Any memory of their previous conversation was quickly forgotten as he turned to Inez. "Get to your quarters." He ordered tautly and then hurried past the woman, joining made the exodus out of Four Corners with the rest of the crew. Within minutes, Four Corners seemed like a ghost town with half empty glasses of beverages and forgotten data pads, replacing the tumbleweeds and dust blown street devoid of life.

Chris was striding forcefully towards the nearest turbo lift when he tapped his combadge. "Larabee here, what's going on?"

"The buffer has been breached Chris." Buck's voice betrayed the tension of the moment. Chris could well understand that, who could remain calm at a time like this?

"I'll be there shortly."

* * * * * * *

The door to the turbo lift slid open just as he made his approach and he joined the other crewmen inside who were rushing to their place on the ship. Their faces showed their fear and for that Chris felt somewhat gratified. He did not like to think he was the only one who felt fear even if he was the one person on the ship who could not show it.

When he arrived on the bridge the klaxons were silent although the angry red glow of the alert still blinked on and off under their panels. As the first officer sighted him, Chris saw Buck immediately vacating the Captain's chair and taking the first officer's seat alongside it. The bridge seemed to be the epicentre of all the excitement. The tension present was as sharp as a razor's edge and everyone present seemed to be walking on it.

All senior bridge officers were present at their posts, with gazes that alternated from the view screen before them and the consoles at their individual stations. As Chris looked at the viewer, he could understand their fixation. Although the energy field projected by the ship was invisible to the naked eye, it was clear something had entered its web. Strands of energy were cackling across the space as an image of something trapped within it began fading in and out of existence. While these flashes were too rapid for him to make out exactly what they were seeing, the ship's computer was no doubt recording the event and that would be useful for analysis at a later time.

He had taken no more than a few steps onto the bridge when Buck who was eager to deliver his report on the present situation greeted Chris. "What's happening?" the captain demanded, wasting no time as he placed himself in his chair.

"The intruder penetrated the energy field approximately 67 seconds ago. Unfortunately, the method used to shift phase is extremely effective, it is still maintaining the integrity of its cloak. Our attempts to scan the vessel has been ineffective at this point. However, I don't believe they consider us a threat yet. It has not withdrawn from the buffer zone. We do detect low level energy readings consistent with sensor beams. I think they are trying to analyse how we are generating it. "

"They're holding position." Chris observed. "That's a sign of a great deal of confidence."

"Captain," Buck spoke again. "I recommend we intensify the field. It appears that we've succeeded in weakening their cloak, we should continue doing so."

Chris disagreed with that. Although the intruder was still hidden by its cloak, the Maverick sensors were capable of locking onto its position with the brief images they had since the ship was holding position. Even as Buck was speaking, he could see shades of grey flash into existence before their eyes. The ship was larger than anything he had ever seen. While much of it remained concealed, Chris could see that its size easily eclipsed that of a Borg vessel nor did it have an unimaginative cube design. The bursts of static energy became more frenzied and with each eruption, more of the alien vessel began to appear.

"I don't think so, Commander." Chris said firmly. "If their cloak is completely compromised, then their shields will go up. At this moment, we are in the best position we will ever be to neutralise them. I say we don't waste the chance." At that he turned to Ezra. "Security, get a target lock on them immediately."

Ezra nodded and let his fingers fly over the security console to comply with the order.

"Target acquired Sir." He called out after a moment.

Alex had adjusted their phasers to emit the same kind of energy that the buffer was using in order to cut through the intruder's cloak and bring the ship back to normal phase during detonation. If they had the chance to utilise either the phasers or the quantum torpedoes with this adjustment then it was possible for them to strike a serious blow to the enemy despite its cloaking system.

"Charge all weapons." Chris instructed. "We may only get one shot at this."

"Captain, recommend that we make an attempt at communication." Mary suggested. "We should at least offer a greeting or even a warning of some kind."

"I'm sorry Mary." Chris said abruptly. "Under normal circumstances, I would be the first to agree with you but we've already shown too much weakness. We have them in the open, we may never get another opportunity."

"Understood Sir." She said compliantly. Despite her abhorrence to violence, Mary could not deny the realities of this situation. The intruder was here and it was vulnerable. After the destruction of Colonies 1 and 4 and who knows how many others, first blood had already been drawn. The time for civilised behaviour had passed. In truth, the very notion of war was an atrocity in itself. Attaching a set of rules to that kind of behaviour seemed pointless. Besides, no matter how much she tried not to think about it, her son was on this ship.

"Lock on quantum torpedoes and fire at will, Ezra." Chris ordered. His eyes were firmly fixed on the image of the vessel in his view screen. The security chief was similarly focussed on the security console panel and moved swiftly complete his demand. Like Chris, he too felt the need to attack now was imperative. Ezra did not believe their advantage, if it was that at all, would last very long. However, as he studied the readings on her console he was forced to re-evaluate that estimation drastically.

"Captain!" Ezra exclaimed. "I'm reading a large energy build up. I think they're charging some sort of weapon."

Chris looked up sharply in time to catch the emergence of a silvery bolt of energy escaping from the intruder's unseen weapons array. "Evasive pattern Delta!"

Vin knew the reference and immediately, reversed thrusters at maximum warp just as the energy bolt reached them. His skills though excellent were not enough to keep them from taking the brunt of the energy blast. The Maverick was flung backwards as if a child had swatted it away like an unwanted toy. Across the saucer section of the ship, the blast triggered a series of eruptions under the duranium plate shielding of the ship. Bulkheads ruptured and emergency containment force fields fell into place.

Everything that was not bolted down on the bridge went flying in all directions. Chris had only managed to stay in his chair by holding on to its arms as tightly as possible. In the background, he could see every console on the bridge coming alive with warning lights. As the science station began to hiss with tendrils of smoke and bursts of static energy, Ezra tore Alex away from her console just as it shattered beneath her. The blast sent pieces of glass upward like the spray from a geyser. Chris did not even want to think what would have happened if she had caught the shrapnel in the face.

He saw Buck on the floor where the first officer had been thrown. A streak of blood was escaping from the cut on his right ear where he had been cut by the spray of glass. Chris himself was all right but judging from the angle of space before him, it was obvious that they were no longer moving and one of their thrusters had been damaged.

Mary was at his feet and he immediately reached for her to help her up. She appeared dazed and her hair was tousled over her face but she seemed unharmed.

"Are you alright?" He asked softly as he helped her back into her chair next to him.

"Yes," she answered, brushing her hair back, clearly afraid but trying her best to hide it. "I'm fine." She said with a smile and gave him leave to see to the rest of his crew with a look. Chris nodded in understanding and returned his attention to his ship and the rest of his crew.

"Damage report!" He demanded.

A response took a moment but eventually it came. "Science station is destroyed." Alex answered breathlessly trying to control the pain she was in. "We absorbed enough energy to short out every overload circuit on the Maverick. We are lucky that most of the bridge systems are still on line."

Chris did not think they were that fortunate. As he looked at the viewer before him, he could see the intruder's ship had disappeared once again. No doubt, this initial attack was to keep the Maverick from intensifying the energy field and rendering their cloak ineffective. However, now that their cloak was fully operational again, it meant the intruder could be anywhere.

"Engineering, damage report."

His words hung in the air and Ezra felt his chest pounding, praying Julia was all right even though he should be focussed on the rest of the ship. He could not help it, she was becoming more to him than Ezra had thought any woman could possibly be in his heart. He did not want to imagine the possibility she was hurt.

There was no answer. For a few terrible seconds, Chris wondered if anyone was still alive in engineering. He was struck with the awful thought that everyone was dead and he did not like one bit how such a possibility felt to him.

"Engineering, please respond." Chris repeated himself and raised his eyes to meet Buck. Neither man wanted to say the worst out loud but it hung in the air like a pregnant drop of water, waiting to fall.

"Lieutenant Pemberton here Sir." Her voice was heard after what seemed like an eternity.

Everyone on the bridge seemed to let out a visible sigh of relief. Although Ezra was hiding the true extent of his pleasure at hearing her voice, he was nonetheless extremely grateful she was alive and well.

"Glad you're still with us," Chris said quickly, wanting to waste no time by expressing his feelings on her state of health. "What's our status?"

"The warp engine is off line. The energy burst was meant only to disable main power so we would be forced to disengage the buffer field we were using to disrupt their cloak. We have impulse speed but our long range sensors are down and we are utilising reserves and battery power until we are able to bring the warp engines back online."

That did not sound good. "Do we at least have phaser power?"

"I can provide you with ten minutes of power to the phasers before we are forced to disengage. Extended use will endanger our energy reserves. We will be floating dead in space."

It was better than nothing and at least they would be able to get out of here alive. "Understood but we need thruster control immediately Lieutenant."

"I already have a team working on it Sir. Thrusters should be functioning in approximately two minutes.

"We may not have two minutes. We're hanging dead and easy prey. Get it done now. Larabee out."

"Ezra," Chris turned to the security chief. "Can we re-establish torpedo lock on the intruder at all?"

Ezra did not answer but it was obvious that he would try no matter how much the odds were against it.

"I will see what I can do Sir." He had been tending to the cuts and bruises on Alex and JD but hurried back to his console. Chris saw his brow furrow in frustration as he tried to make some light of the readings before him. "I am sorry Captain but the long range sensors are down. The hostile would have get pretty close before a perimeter alert is sounded. I will attempt to boost the gain to our short range scanners."

"Without the buffer field, our sensors are ineffective Captain." Alex groaned. "They're probably under cloak again."

"Which means their shields are still down." Chris retorted and thought quickly. They still the advantage of the enemy ship not being able to use its shield until its cloak was disengaged. No matter how powerful they were, the intruder would not be able to raise its shields until the cloak was fully disengaged. It was not much of an advantage but it was the only one they had.

"Captain," Vin called out. The Vulcan was fighting the urge to go to Alex but knew their survival depended upon his remaining at his post. "Thruster control just came back online."

"Ezra, how are we going on locating the intruder?" Chris asked again.

"I am still not detecting anything Captain." Ezra answered. Even with Buck at his side working to increase their signal gain on the short-range sensors, he could find nothing tangible at which they could aim.

"Vin." Chris said quickly. "Take us towards the Vikaris Quasar. Evasive pattern Beta."

"Yes Sir." The helmsman nodded and fed the order into his console. The Maverick began moving immediately at full impulse speed, zig zagging through space as it tried to avoid giving its invisible opponent a target at which to fire.

"Incoming!" Ezra suddenly shouted as he saw the high energy burst appear on the console screen before him.

The Maverick banked hard as a bolt of energy streaked past her bow so closely Chris could almost feel it graze their hind quarter. The ship lurched forward slightly but suffered no other ill effects as it continued its hasty departure towards the quasar.

"Target the phasers in the direction of that last blast and fire in a full spread!" Chris ordered again. "That ought to keep them off balance long enough for us to get to the quasar! Vin, I want to swing around the mass's circumference and skim close enough so that the electromagnetic interference obscures the intruder's sensors." The manoeuvre was tricky but Vin was without question the finest helmsman that Chris had ever seen and if anyone could get this ship to do what it needed to save all their lives, Chris was sure it would the Vulcan.

"I'm on it." Vin said confidently, none of the insecurities that dogged him present in his voice as he moved the great ship.

The Maverick made a sharp turn and started flying directly for the huge stellar mass. The sheer size of it soon eclipsed the viewer until all they could see was a radiating screen of power white light. The ship heaved as the phasers were fired.

"Give us a rear view." Chris said to no one in particular. In a moment, the image of the view screen revealed the phaser blast travelling away from the Maverick in an expanding web. As they detonated in succession, Chris saw a shimmer of energy in one particular spot. He let out a sigh of relief realising that Alex's idea to outfit the phasers and the torpedoes to penetrate the cloak had worked. The hull of the intruder's ship became visible for a moment. "Ezra, lock on quantum torpedoes to that location and fire!"

The quantum torpedoes exploded from the ship in rapid succession striking the area where that image had faded in and out of existence again.. The first and second impacted nothing but the last two reached their target and Chris saw a flare in the darkness. Immediately, the hull of the intruder's vessel became visible again. Judging from the charred marks across its surface, Chris estimated they had managed to do some damage.

"Should we fire again Sir?" Ezra asked even though the urge to park fifty torpedoes down the enemy's gullet was very tempting.

"No." Chris said after a moment. "We've got the chance to make a getaway, let's not waste it. We need to be in better shape then we are now before we force another confrontation. If they put up their shields and come after us, we're finished. Stand down for now, Lieutenant."

Ezra nodded in understanding. The Maverick was not just a Starfleet ship. She carried the families of almost everyone on board. The Captain was not willing to risk their lives when the odds were stacked against them and Ezra agreed with that assertion. "Aye Sir."

"Captain, we are entering the event horizon of the quasar," Buck announced.

"Good, I take it that sensors are now ineffective?"

"Yes Sir," the navigation officer answered. "We are operating on pre-programmed coordinates."

Prior to the engagement, JD entered the coordinates on how close they could approach the quasar to remain hidden but keep from frying themselves in the process. Since they could not rely on their sensors to guide them, Vin would have to fly the ship using the guidance of the ship's navigational computers. On the viewer, Chris could see nothing but static as the electromagnetic fields generated by the quasar rendered it effective. Neither could they tell if the intruder was in pursuit or not. Since they were still in one piece, Chris assumed that for now they were safe.

Taking a deep breath, Chris rose from his chair to assess how much damage had been done to the bridge. There was shattered glass everywhere, live wires hanging from open conduits and damaged panels. The red emergency light was flashing although no one was taking any interest in it. For a moment, he was struck by the image of the Rutherford during those last few minutes prior to her demise. Chris sincerely hoped the Maverick would not meet its fate the same way. He had barely the opportunity to get to know this ship and his people and was determined not to lose either.

Ezra was kneeling over Alex who was resting against the wall opposite her damage station. Judging from the scorched marks on the skin of her arms and the redness on her face, the woman had suffered some severe injuries. JD was nursing an awful cut on his forehead, that was kept from gushing only because he was holding the sleeve of his uniform against the wound.

Chris went to Buck and saw his old friend wipe a smear of blood from his cut ear. "That could have gone better."

"We're alive Captain," Buck answered. "And I believe we gave them something to think about as well."

"Not that we could tell." Chris sighed. "Still, we survived our first round and we have some useful data about their ship."

"Chris," Buck replied. "The odds weren't in our favour to survive the first encounter so we've done okay by any standard."

"Chris looked at Buck with a faint smile. "You're such an optimist."

Buck let out a weary sigh as if it was one of those things that he had to put up with when dealing with Chris. "I'm just calling it as I see it."

"Right," the captain smirked. "Now, go away and do your first officer stuff."

Buck rolled his eyes and went to get Alex to the SickBay, leaving Chris alone for a moment. He turned to Mary who was watching the view screen, mesmerised by the approaching quasar as Vin brought the Maverick closer to the stellar phenomenon. "You alright?" He asked tenderly.

She turned to him and nodded. "Is it always this exciting on a starship?" She asked, a hint of teasing in her voice.

"Oh yeah," he said feigning nonchalance. "This is quiet. You ought to be around when the action really heats up."

Mary chuckled slightly and replied. "Ooh I can't wait."

Chapter Fifteen:
Separation Anxiety

"I will say this for them, they are persistent!" Chris spoke over the sound of the turbulence shaking his ship.

It had been almost a day since their encounter with the intruder's vessel. During that time, the Maverick had been periodically altering its position across the event horizon of the quasar in order to avoid the concussion blasts being hurled at them. As the electromagnetic interference from the Vikaris Quasar obscured sensor capabilities of both ships, the intruder, determined not to let them escape started using a different tactic to draw them from their hiding place. Utilising concussion charges, they had been bombarding the area mercilessly for the past twenty hours. Fortunately, the sheer size of the stellar mass made it impossible for them to cause any real damage aside from the incessant noise moving through the hull of the Maverick.

"Captain," Buck said trying to sound unperturbed in the face of the constant pounding to which the ship was being subjected. "I advise we move the ship again. Judging from the internal sensors, the last detonation was 20 kilometres from our port bow."

"Carry on commander."

"Vin," Buck walked up to helm control, having decided against trying to compete with the noise to be heard. "Thrusters only, proceed 26 degrees to vector 8 for precisely ten minutes."

Although nothing could be seen on the viewer in front of him, Chris had become accustomed to his ship to know the sounds its engines made. He could feel it when the ship was moving, recognise the change of tone when she came to a standstill or when she slipped into warp. Technically, inertial dampeners were supposed to prevent him from feeling anything but Chris did not believe any amount of technology could sever the bond between a captain and his vessel. Even now, he could feel the thrusters being ignited as they slowly gilded forward.

Despite the chaos around them, the Maverick was holding up well. At the moment, members of the engineering staff were scattered across the bridge, repairing consoles and getting vital bridge systems back online. All overload circuits had to be replaced and then enhanced considerably to avoid a repeat performance should they come under similar fire again. Most of the bridge crew present were junior officers. Chris had sent most of his senior officers to get some well needed rest. However, Buck had declined the offer citing the first officer's place was on the bridge with his captain. Chris did not even try to argue with that statement since Buck would have found some way to remain on the bridge no matter what.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured during the attack. Although third degree burns could be considered severe, most of the injuries sustained were superficial, being cuts, bruises and burns. Alex was still in SickBay, being treated for her injuries. She had suffered third degree burns to her hands and Nathan did not want to release her prematurely, despite Alex's vehement insistent at returning to duty. Chris had acquiesced enough to allow her to attend the staff meeting later.

In the meantime, Josiah was hard at work, providing counselling to the families and children on board whom no doubt were having anxieties about their present situation. However, for most part, crew morale seemed better than he expected. Although they had been forced to withdraw from the engagement, they managed to do so in light of their opponents' abilities was reason enough to feel some measure of pride at their durability.

"Hold position, Vin." Buck's voice snapped him out of his thoughts. Suddenly, the reverberations rocking the ship seem to ebb away into the distance. In Chris's estimation, the respite would not be for long. After all, he had to be realistic. They had been playing this game with the enemy for some time now. It would not take long for the intruder to realise they had slipped from under the net of concussion charges again. Like before, the intruder would recalibrate its target area and the game would resume once more.

"Well." Chris let out a sigh as Buck returned to his seat next to the Captain's chair. "At least it will be quiet when the senior staff meeting begins. I wonder how long they will keep this up."

"As long as it takes to locate us." Buck returned automatically. "Chris, you realise the moment we emerge from the shadow of this quasar, they'll find us."

"I am aware of that." Chris said tautly. "Unfortunately, we don't seem to have a great deal of options. We have to face them."

"I agree," Buck nodded. "However, perhaps we should think about calling in reinforcements Chris."

Chris looked at him sharply, disliking that idea immediately.

He knew his reasons were partially selfish but he could not help it. This was his first true test as Captain of the Maverick. Although he tried not be swayed by feelings of inadequacy by asking for help so soon after his promotion, Chris could not bring himself to take that course of action yet. Aside from his own self-interests, there was also another issue to be considered. The intruder was one ship. The point of all this beyond stopping the intruder's incursions into Federation space was to provide a convincing deterrent should this be a prelude to invasion. Somehow, summoning a fleet of starships to deal with one enemy vessel was a declaration of weakness they could ill afford to make. This was a test of strength and he knew it. Chris was convinced facing them in equal numbers was the only way to ensure the future safety of the Federation.

"Not just yet." Chris answered after a few seconds' deliberations. "The time may come when I will be forced to take that course of action but for now, I rather us be the only one in the line of fire."

"Even if we are destroyed?" Buck asked again.

Chris wondered if he was being intentionally brutal or was it simply realistic. For the sake of their cohesion, he decided it was the latter. "If we are destroyed, none of this debate will matter. If invasion is their goal then our dying will prove they are more than a match for any Starfleet vessel. I prefer to give them a good fight before that happens. However, we have proved that ingenuity can hurt them. We beat the Borg by being innovative, I have to believe we can do the same here."

"We need more information on what they are." Buck mused out loud. "While all evidence seems to indicate an invasion of the Federation, there are elements that just don't fit."

"Explain." Chris asked Buck to elaborate. Although he understood those curious elements his first officer was alluding to, Chris wanted Buck's input on them. If there was one thing that Chris had learnt in the short time he had served with Buck, their differences worked and now more than ever, that method of deduction was absolutely essential.

"If this was an invasion, why such unusual targets? here are far more sensible targets for an invasion force to test themselves against then defenceless Federation colonies. Deep Space Five is less than ten lights year away. That has got to be a more reasonable target. During the Romulan incursions into our space in the last century, they tested themselves against a starbase. Even the Cardassians and the Dominion have been reluctant to engage colonies until actual declarations of war were made. While I still think that this is an elaborate experiment, I can't understand why."

"Perhaps, there is no rationale to their behaviour, Buck." Chris countered. "We assume they operate under logical codes of behaviour but their reasons my be so alien to what we know that we would never have considered it. Until we met the Borg, it was beyond our belief a civilisation could function the way they do."

"That is true but we're missing the crucial element to this situation and it is vital for our well being."

Chris did not doubt that one bit, but like Buck he was at a loss to guess what that could be. Instead, he eased back into his chair and tried to focus on something else for a change. A clear mind was as important as good health, Josiah always said. He had been thinking of nothing else but the intruder the past few days and he was sure that Buck was doing the same as well. Perhaps a change of subject might be in order.

Standing up, he walked over to the helm station to see how Vin was doing. The Vulcan appeared to be in deep thought as he maintained the ship's position next to the quasar. "How are you doing Vin?"

Vin met his gaze immediately. The question had taken the Vulcan by complete surprise and his expression showed. "I'm doing okay Chris." Vin replied, aware the Captain did not mind being called by his first name when they were speaking privately.

Chris had read Vin's personal record and knew his parents had died when he was five years old. His foster family was on their way back to the Federation when they crashed into an uncharted world and were marooned there for many years until they were eventually rescued. Vin was then transported back to Earth to the family ranch in Texas. Since it was almost impossible to identify his Vulcan parents, no attempt had been made and the boy had become something of a problem to Vulcan authorities since he was too old to adopt their disciplines or live according to their harsh way of life. If Vin had any Vulcan left within him, it was existed in only the slightest degree

"You did good Vin," Chris commended. "No one could have gotten us out there any faster."

"Thank you," the young man answered trying not to become affected by the captain's praise. "Is Alex gonna be okay?"

Vin had been at this station ever since the attack and had not much chance to see about her welfare. When he had stopped in on SickBay, Nathan explained she was still undergoing treatment.

"According to Doctor Jackson, she driving them crazy to let her out of sick bay." Chris explained. Buck had told him about the incident in Four Corners that had the ship buzzing with the rumour the Vulcan was having a relationship with Alex. Inez who witnessed the scene set people straight but it was obvious that the kiss had a profound effect on Vin.

"Good." He nodded, please to know that she was alright before he returned his gaze to the console before him.

"You're from Texas aren't you?" Chris asked.

"Yeah." Vin replied. "My parents had a horse ranch up there."

"It's a lot like Vulcan there you know." Chris revealed, aware Vin had never visited his home world. "Hot and dry. I've never been to Texas myself. I'm from Boston originally."

"Your father was an English Professor."

Obviously, he had done a little investigation on his captain as well, Chris thought with a faint smile. Well, that was fair. "Yes, I spent most of my childhood in his campus library at Harvard University. Dad believed no data pad could enhance the reading experience like traditional leather bound books."

Vin considered that point before responding. "My mother was a xenobiologist at the Academy of Science and she liked keeping her records on paper. I still have a lot of her books."

For a moment, Chris saw something akin to deep affection in the Vulcan's expression. Chris knew then without even asking that Vin and his mother had an extremely close relationship. Perhaps as close as he and his own father had been. "I would never get rid of them myself."

"You've been to Vulcan?" Vin asked.

"A long time ago," Chris replied. "I had a furlough there."

He remembered visiting the famous Vulcan landmark when he was an ensign. Seleya was majestic mountain covered in red earth that seemed to be holding the amber sky on its shoulders. Chris recalled thinking that only a planet full of logicians could produce one of the most mystical places in the galaxy. Seleya held the spirit of Vulcan history in every grain of red sand and rock in its mantle. Only Ulluru in the Australian Outback could possibly match it for sheer spiritual mystery.

"Perhaps you should go for a visit on the holodeck."

"I don't know." Vin replied.

"I tell you what, permitting we survive this week. I'll go with you." Chris offered.

"That is not necessary." Vin retorted.

"Nonsense," Chris replied deciding he was not taking no for an answer. "It will be my pleasure."

Anything else Vin might have said in protest remained unspoken at the sudden opening of the turbo lifts doors. Julia made her appearance with Nathan and Alex for their scheduled meeting.

Chris let out a sigh as he turned to Buck. "I'm afraid we'll have to continue this later Vin. Buck. It's time to rally the troops."

* * * * * * *

"All in all captain, the civilian crew members are holding up well." Josiah completed his brief summary on the emotional state of the crew. "They seem to believe if the situation was truly critical you would have separated the ship by now. As you haven't done that yet, it is proving to be a measure of your confidence we will come out of this safe."

Chris listed to Josiah's report and wondered if the Counsellor had any idea how close he had come to making the decision to separate the saucer section. If he had this day to live over again, he was uncertain whether or not he would have been kept from giving that order. While he had planned their strategy on using the quasar as their safety net should they need a place to hide, even he had to acknowledge that the Vikaris Quasar was only a temporary measure. Chris could not deny the issue of saucer separation had been in mind since escaping into the sphere of the quasar.

"Thank you Counsellor," Chris said in return. "Your efforts to bolster confidence have been exemplary." At that, he looked to Buck. "What's next?"

"Engineering." Buck answered.

"Right," he nodded and faced Julia. "What is the status of the warp engines at this point?"

"The warp engines are online, however, I require another three hours for my engineering team to complete work on reinforcing all our overload circuitry. Should we encounter the intruder again, I would like to prevent the same damage from recurring."

Chris could not disagree with that statement. "A wise precaution." He nodded. "I think we can hold position for that amount of time. However, we need to strengthen our shielding considerably. Their weapon came straight through us."

"We are attempting to divert more energy to the shields." Julia replied automatically as if she had expected that response. "However, our shields were barely capable of preventing the weapon from completely destroying us. It may be a case of our shields being unable to compete with that amount of power."

"Captain," Ezra spoke up after a moment. "Alex and I have been working on an idea after our analysis of their weapon." He glanced at the injured science officer before returning his gaze to the captain.

"I am open to suggestions."

"Despite our last encounter with the intruder," Ezra began, "we did have the opportunity to observe this weapon of theirs. As we knew beforehand, their weapon works on destabilising the atomic bonds of all forms of matter, be it energy or solid objects. That is why they were able to obliterate Colony 1 and 4 so completely and why our shields were almost powerless against it."

He was not saying anything that none of them were unaware of but Chris allowed him to continue anyway, confident this summary was only a prelude to the idea he and Alex had developed.

"Go on." He urged however, reminding Ezra subtly time did not allow for overly lengthy explanations.

Ezra was wise enough to catch the hidden meaning and came quickly to the point. "Alex and I believe that it is possible for us to develop a defence against this weapon. Since our phasers already work on a modulating frequency which adjust phaser power to penetrate Borg shielding, I do not see why we cannot adapt our shields in the same manner."

"You mean to adapt our shields to function as Borg shields?" Julia declared.

"No," Alex spoke up instead, knowing that she was better able to take up this part of the explanation than Ezra was. "I mean adapting our shield using the same principle if not the method. This weapon destabilises atomic bonds. What if we keep rotating the shield modulation continuously, so their weapon is unable to get a fix on our shield frequency long enough to affect its subatomic structure. Our shields are energy based and created on the basis of altering the phase mode of energy particles. It too has an individual frequency the intruder's weapons have to define before it can be destabilised. If our computers can keep altering the frequency at short, random intervals, we may be able to keep their weapon from damaging us as substantially as before."

"It will be a tremendous drain on our power reserves." Julia stated firmly.

"I agree," Ezra argued. "However, it's better than no defence at all. They crippled us from just one blast. Any advantage we can get is better than nothing at all. Each time they have to recalibrate their weapons to penetrate our shields, is time we have to attack or if necessary escape."

"That's a good point." Chris spoke up, impressed with the duo's work. "How soon can you get the shields adapted for this?"

Alex looked at Ezra before speaking. "With Ezra's help and an extra pair of hands from Engineering, we can get it online in five hours."

"Is that acceptable to you Lieutenant?" Chris looked at Julia. "Can you spare a member of your team?"

"No problem that." The engineer remarked neutrally.

"I do see a problem." Nathan who had been quietly listening until now spoke. He was eyeing Alex sharply. "Alex, you ought to be resting. You are still not completely recovered from your injuries."

"I feel fine." She grumbled.

"I wouldn't argue with the doctor if I were you." Chris offered Alex that sympathetic piece of advice. "Besides, I have to agree with the Doctor. Five hours of the kind of work you intend may be pushing it a little. Dermal regeneration if I am not mistaken works only if the patient is sensible enough to get some rest."

"Precisely." Nathan retorted.

"Buck," Chris turned to Buck "Is there any reason why you can't assist Ezra with this work if Alex gave you her specs?"

Buck shrugged, meeting Ezra's gaze and then Alex's. "None whatsoever Captain. I'm sure Commander Styles has done considerable research and calculations into the shield modulation and I don't see any difficult in working from her specs."

At that, Alex seemed a little happier. Chris knew that compromise would appease the doctor and his science officer. "Since we are all agreed on that, let's move on." Chris announced. "Now, we need to seriously discuss the possibility of separating the ship."

At that, the room went deadly silent. A moment ago, the talk in the room was filled with the possibility of showing the intruder that they were a force to be reckoned with. However, now it appeared the Captain was not as confident as he appeared to be at all regarding their chances. Chris noticed the sudden silence in the room and realised immediately what was going through their heads.

"Look," he said quickly. "Don't look so shocked. I'm not admitting defeat in any case however, we should be prepared if we are forced to exercise that option. Separating the ship is going to be a last resort that I am far from contemplating at the moment."

After making that announcement, he saw his staff release a sigh of relief knowing this was merely a precautionary discussion and not a fatalistic one. "Now," Chris began again once he had their undivided attention. "Ensign Dunne, I believe you have a command level training?"

JD nodded mutely. "Yes I have," he answered. Obviously, it was not a request often made of him.

"Good," he replied without missing a beat. "In the event of separation, you will join the saucer section."

He looked as if he might protest but did not when he realised the command was the correct one. If the saucer section were to separate, then they needed one of the bridge officers to take command. JD did not like having to leave but understood why the Captain was making the order. "Yes Sir."

"That goes for you too Nathan." Chris said quickly.

"You'll need a doctor." Nathan objected as Chris knew he would.

"The EMH program will do in a pinch and you're needed on the saucer section where the bulk of the crew will be." Chris replied, preparing himself to do battle with the doctor on this issue.

"Those damn things are not a real doctor! If the program is damaged in any way, you will be without medical assistance. I have plenty of junior doctors under my command who can provide medical support to the saucer section. I should remain on board."

"Captain," Buck spoke up suddenly. "He's right."

Nathan seemed genuinely surprise to receive support from such an unexpected quarter but he did not question it.

"All right, you can stay." However, nothing was changing Chris's next decision. "Josiah, you're going though."

"But...." the Counsellor started to protest.

"I'm sorry but there will be a lot of frightened people on the saucer section. You need to be there to deal with them."

The look on Chris face told Josiah that the Captain would be unmovable on this particular subject. Although Josiah did not want his first assignment on a ship to be his last, he started to realise that it was not his decision to make. These were risks Josiah was very aware of when he signed on board and that included obeying the Captain's orders no matter what their personal relationship.

"If you think its best." He nodded in agreement.

"I do.' Chris replied, glad that Josiah understood his reasoning. This exchange went unnoticed by the rest of the crew and Chris's only indication to Josiah was a slight nod of acknowledgement.

"All right," Chris said after a moment. "If that's all there is, you're all dismissed."

After all, they could not waste time preparing themselves for Round Two.

Chapter Sixteen:
Chase

Although it was good to see the stars once again, Chris knew this feeling was only temporary. The viewer displayed a dazzling array of stars was a welcome sight after being able to see nothing but the blinding white light emanating from the Vikaris Quasar. Once the repairs on the ship were finally completed and the shields were adapted to combat the intruder, Chris knew there was no more reason to delay their emergence from the shadow of the phenomenon. He knew the intruder was waiting for them because the past five hours had seen the resumption of the concussion charges. While they were never in danger of actually being hit, Chris knew the anxiety of the crew surged upon hearing the ship shudder from the force of multiple shock waves once again.

Now there was nothing beyond space but silence, and to him, that silence was almost as disconcerting as the sound of those concussion blasts. The sounds he could hear were familiar to him. The beeping of instrument panels and computer consoles that sang with each activation of its touch sensitive controls. No one seemed to be speaking because everyone was focussed on their job. Ezra Standish was at his security station. Chris noticed he seemed to be devoid of all expression when he was singularly focussed on something. Chris could see his sea coloured eyes studying the devices at his station with razor sharp precision. Alex was still recuperating in sickbay with Nathan so Buck was taking up her post at the science station. The first officer was scanning for the intruder. Chris did not even have to ask to know that.

Julia was the newest addition to the bridge crew. Normally, she would be in her domain in Engineering. However, in light of all the extra modifications the ship made to itself in order to combat the intruder, the Chief Engineer had chosen to take up the engineering station on the bridge. As her fingers glided across the lit panel, Chris could tell that she was tired. Her efforts to get the ship back to fully operating status meant she had been awake since their entry into Vikaris almost a day and half ago. He actually considered telling her to get some sleep but knew she would not take it well.

"Any signs of the intruder yet?" Chris asked, perhaps realising the silence needed to be broken for it kept the mood of the bridge grim and tense.

"Not at this time." Buck replied automatically. "However, if they've gone to cloak, it is likely we won't detect them until they penetrate the aniotic field again."

Chris considered his options and then spoke out. "Helm, proceed at Warp 4 to Deep Space Five."

"Aye Sir." Vin replied in his cool laconic voice.

"Let's see what the intruder will do if they think we're heading home." Chris said to Buck.

"Is it wise forcing their hand Sir?" Ezra inquired.

"We've got to face them sometime." He answered as he rose from the captain's chair and started pacing the narrow passage between the helm and navigation station. The stars in the viewer suddenly leapt towards the bridge as the Maverick slipped effortlessly into warp. The powerful hum of the warp nacelles vibrated throughout the ship, propelling them further and further away from the quasar.

Satisfied, he returned to the Captain's chair even though he knew that they would not reach Deep Space Five as planned. The intruder was determined to catch the Maverick. Chris did not believe the situation had altered in any way during these past hours to force them into giving up their pursuit. As he nestled himself back in the seat of his command, Chris waited. A breath of anticipation was ready to escape his lungs at the earliest provocation. After a moment of staring at the quasar that was rapidly shrinking in the view screen before him, he closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to pool into a well inside his head.

It would not be long now.

Chris had developed an almost mystical sense about the intruders. He knew what was coming as surely as he imagined he heard the intruder's engines bringing them closer to the Maverick through the vacuum of space.

"Captain," Buck spoke.

Chris opened his eyes. This was it.

"Yes Commander?" He responded without looking at the first officer.

"My long range scanners pick up a high concentration of chromaton particles. It is moving at transwarp speed."

The surprise the Captain expected him to show, never came because Chris Larabee expected this. It was only been a matter of time. "How long until intercept?"

"Judging from the proximity of the transwarp signature, in precisely 2 minutes and thirty five seconds." The commander replied with no traces of apprehension in his voice. Chris admired his ability to keep so calm.

"Red alert." Chris rose to his feet. "Security, arm all phasers banks and quantum torpedoes. Prepare for the aniotic bursts."

"Aye Sir." Ezra answered just as the alert panel lights and the emergency klaxons started flashing and screaming in shades of angry red.

"Commander, it's time to see if our shield works."

In the viewer, they could see nothing of the intruder but Chris knew they were out there somewhere. The ship was no doubt fully cloaked, having repaired itself after the damage inflicted by the high intensity burst of aniotic radiation that allowed their phasers and torpedoes to penetrate its formidable cloak. It was an advantage Chris was not giving up so easily even though the surprise factor was now gone. All phasers and torpedoes were now programmed to first emit the aniotic burst to force the intruder back to normal space where they would be vulnerable to conventional weapons. At least until the intruder raised its shields. If the Maverick was going to her death, then she would do so seeing her killer.

Presently however, they could still see nothing in the view screen. Chris was nonetheless confident that the second the intruder penetrated the aniotic field generated by the ship, everyone on board would be alerted of it. Behind him, he was aware Ezra had signalled the readiness of the torpedoes and phasers. All that was now required, was him to give the command.

"Fire at will, Lieutenant."

"Aye Sir." Ezra said with such calm that for a moment Chris was not surprised he was unbeatable in poker or any other game where bluffing was required.

In the viewer, he could see the aniotic bursts of the programmed phasers and torpedoes. Flashes of energy cackled throughout the air, finding its target easily. Through the mass eruptions of aniotic energy and the following phaser blasts and torpedo detonations, Chris was able to make out the vague shape of the intruder's vessel. It was difficult to define an exact description of it. It moved across the bow of the Maverick, having slowed to warp speed in order to engage them. As it was bombarded by phaser energy and quantum torpedoes, it writhed as if a great behemoth was attacked by a swarm of insignificant flies.

"The torpedoes are working!" Ezra exclaimed as another detonation from a quantum torpedo struck the hull inciting an explosion of dramatic colour.

"Repeat spread!" Chris ordered, unwilling to give up their momentary advantage until they exploited every possible second of it.

As more and more of the ship became visible, the Maverick finally started to attain a complete if somewhat piece meal image of their attacker. The ship if it could be call that was more like a space station. It had an outer ring that appeared to control its primary propulsion and weapons systems. Within that initial ring was a solid sphere that was connected by a series of pylons and appeared to have no visible function other than one of balance. It looked like an enormous gyroscope and Chris wondered if this unusual shape controlled their method of propulsion. He could see what he thought was the front nose of the ship. That area was defined by little more than a slight protrusion on its perfect tubular outer ring. It was hard to make out the exact picture in his head. As quickly as the aniotic bursts brought them back into normal space, auxiliary systems forced the intruder back into its cloak once again to avoid providing the Maverick with a further target locks.

"Incoming!" Ezra announced as a volley of energy bolts escaped from the intruder's gunnery ports.

"Brace for impact." Chris ordered and dug his fingers into the armrest of his chair. He glanced at Mary next to him and saw her fingers clenching the armrest of her chair with the same precaution. He cursed himself for allowing her to remain on the bridge. He should have sent her to the saucer section with her son.

The first blasts rock the Maverick dangerously. Some crew members lost their grip and hit the ground while others slammed into walls and into other stations.

"Shields holding." Buck declared over the chaos.

"Main power has decreased by 15 per cent." Julia added.

"They're coming around for another pass!" Someone shouted and Chris thought it was Ezra.

"Fire quantum torpedoes!" Chris shouted deciding not to waste their phaser power. All other considerations could wait.

The second blast was just as potent as the first and Chris fell out of his chair, landing on his knee hard. Ignoring the flaring pain, he scrambled of the floor and return to his chair to see his crew doing the same. Buck was picking himself off the deck where he had fallen as well. Julia was still at her station but he could see by the positioning of her feet that she had fought hard to remain there. Ezra too, was firmly rooted to the spot. As security chief, he knew it was next to paramount he remained at his station no matter what calamity befell the ship.

Suddenly, he saw the ship bank hard to make another pass. As it did so, it appeared in normal space in all its entirety.

"Captain, we are getting full readings of the ship now. She is back in normal space." Buck retorted.

Chris's heart sank because he knew what this meant.

"She has raised shields." Buck spoke confirming Chris's worst suspicions.

What kind of shield strength do they have?"

Buck decided to spare the Captain the technological specification of his sensor readings because it would avail them nothing. "Their shield strength is quadruple to ours. It is a highly dense energy field our phasers or torpedoes will not be able to penetrate."

"Recommend we do not make the attempt." Julia interjected after studying the readings herself. "Captain, we would place phaser power in jeopardy if we attempt to penetrate it."

Chris knew when a withdrawal was necessary. The quasar was still in approach distance. It saved them once before. It would do so again. "Turn the ship around and take us back to the quasar!"

Vin did not waste any time and let his fingers fly across the Conn even before the thought had been sent to his hands. The Maverick dipped sharply to its starboard side and fired all thrusters, forcing the ship into a tight loop away from the fully visible enemy. The intruder's vessel took up the pursuit almost immediately.

"Chris, they're in pursuit." Buck answered.

"Maximum warp." Chris retorted.

The hum of the warp engines grew louder until every surface of the ship was trembling with the use of so much power. Before them, the stars were just a blur.

"The intruder is matching our speed." He responded again.

"What speed are we travelling at?" Chris asked. He knew maximum warp meant Warp 9 but if they were to escape, they had to be travelling even faster.

"Warp 9.3." Vin answered.

"Increase to Warp 9.5." He said taking a deep breath.

"Aye Sir."

"Sir, they are directing an energy beam at us!" Ezra declared.

"Brace for impact!" Chris warned again.

"Captain, the configuration of this energy beam is different." Buck spoke.

"It is not a weapon." Julia chimed in as a ball of bluish light suddenly appeared on the bridge. Everyone froze for a second as the energy beam moved across the bridge like a dancing ray of light.

"What is it?" Ezra retorted, pulling his phaser out to fire.

"Hold your fire!" Chris ordered, realising he was ready to shoot the thing. It had moved over the helm and navigation, resting momentarily on Vin, who was trying to remain calm although the concern in his face was evident even though he did not appear to be afraid yet. Chris saw the young man ignoring the beam in order to concentrate on piloting the ship as the blue beam moved across his face and then his console. After a split second, it left him and the moved to Mary where it repeated the same manoeuvre.

"Captain, I believe it's a probe." Julia announced.

Buck hurried next to her at her station and examined her readings. The energy configuration seemed right for such a function. "They're taking a closer look at us." Somehow, that bothered him greatly.

The beam was moving through the bridge, taking stock of every piece of machinery and all crewmembers.

"Can we lock them out?" Chris demanded.

"Captain, we don't even know how it is they are doing this, let alone stop it." Buck answered for the others.

"Vin, increase power to Warp 9.7. If we can't destroy it, maybe we can escape from right under it."

"Sir, that is inadvisable." Julia spoke up. "Main power is already sustaining many systems beyond safety requirements, this could cause us irreparable damage."

"I am aware of that." Chris returned, without looking at her. His attention was focussed on the beam that had now nestled itself on the main computer. "Do it, Vin."

"Captain," Ezra looked up from his security station. "It is downloading our personnel files!"

"Our personnel files?" Chris looked at Buck with genuine puzzlement. "What the hell do they want with that?"

"Perhaps a name to put with their sensor scans of us." Buck ventured a guess and appeared just as troubled as he did.

"The intruder is adjusting its speed and course to match ours." Vin declared having taken over the navigation functions, while JD was on the saucer section. "They will intercept us in approximately two minutes."

It was starting to become apparently clear they were not going to escape the intruder and Chris was forced to face the possibility he least wanted to entertain. Capture. Taking a deep breath, he considered his rapidly decreasing options. However, his attention was momentarily distracted by the sudden disappearance of the probe.

"Where did it go?"

Buck was already attempting to find out. Reports began coming in from other decks of the ship at the probe's appearance. "It is moving through the saucer section."

Meanwhile, Ezra was attempting quite hopelessly to lock out the data in the main computer from the probe who was simultaneously downloading information and conducting its investigation throughout the rest of the ship. Personnel files had been the first to be violated but soon other files were breached. He watched in rising anger as security files, engine specifications and every terabyte of information was torn from the main computer and downloaded to the enemy ship. "Captain, I cannot prevent the download. They are taking everything in the main computer."

That did it for Chris.

"All hands, prepare for emergency saucer separation. Repeat, all hands prepare for saucer separation."

"Captain, it is not advisable to separate the ship at this speed." Julia spoke up. Normally, she would not take such an adversarial position but the course of action he was attempting was dangerous beyond all calculation.

"Then you're going to like what I'm about to do even less. Helm, increase speed to Warp 9.99. Push us as far as we can go, Vin."

Vin glanced over his shoulder. "Yes Sir."

"Captain, separating the ship at that velocity...." Julia started to say.

"Is possible and has been done before." Chris declared. "Lieutenant, I want you to monitor the separation process closely. While this can be done at Warp 9.9, there can be absolutely no margin for error."

"Lieutenant, carry out the order." Buck said firmly. It was not seemingly for her to question the captain in this way at a time like this. Buck had reached the same conclusion as the Captain as to the intruder's intentions now and realised it was imperative that they act now, whatever the consequences.

However dangerous saucer separation was at this speed, allowing the bulk of the crew to remain under these circumstances was far worse.

* * * * * * *

Chris wished that the christening of the battle bridge would have come under less dire circumstances but knew such a thought was a ludicrous one any way. After all, the battle bridge would only be utilised in the event of saucer separation and this did not occur unless the situation was extreme, which it was in this case. Chris had not wish to initiate saucer separation but circumstances had deteriorated to such a state he was unwilling to risk the bulk of his crew any further. With their shields fully raised, the intruder who was having no trouble keeping up with them had not attacked with their formidable arsenal. Instead, they were keeping in close pursuit and had sent a probe to assess the inhabitants of the Maverick. Chris believed the intruder might now have a scientific interest in catching up to them.

He was not about to allow the intruder the opportunity to turn his crew into laboratory rats.

With the bridge crew having vacated the main bridge, they relocated to the untested battle bridge. The battle bridge, located in the starboard section of the Maverick, was smaller and more compact. It was not ergonomically designed like the main bridge and its appearance was similar in design to the constitution class ships of a century before. Its design had been geared for functionality as opposed to aesthetics. Chris seated himself in his command chair and decided immediately, it left a lot to be desired for comfort. After a second of trying to get himself nestled in, he gave up altogether and stood up.

"The intruder is matching our speed at 9.99." Ezra stated, forcing all of them to push aside their unfamiliarity of the new environment to address the problem at hand.

"I knew they would." Chris mumbled to himself as he strode towards Buck. "How long until saucer separation can be initiated."

"Precisely one minute and twenty seconds." Buck replied automatically.

A red light started flashing on Julia's console which captured her attention immediately. "Our primary stabiliser is starting to weaken."

"Divert whatever you need to keep it at strength." Chris ordered and hoped it was enough. Mary had insisted on staying and he was uncertain why he let her. In the event, they did encounter the life forms on that ship, her value as cultural anthropologist might be all that kept them from being killed.

"I can affect repairs from this station," Julia informed him. "Continue with the separation process."

"Captain!" Ezra called out. "They are sending another beam at us!"

"Rear view." Chris cried out.

The viewer immediately displayed the image of the intruder's vessel bearing down on the Maverick. The streak of energy emanating from the intruder was not like the previous beam that had probed the crew and downloaded their contents of their computer core. Chris did not need to look at the sensor readings to know that it was different. He had done a tenure in engineering in the past recognise the variances.

"Chris, this is a highly focused energy beam." Buck replied, looking up after a moment. "I don't think its another probe."

"Can we outrun it?" Chris asked knowing that it was a futile hope.

"We are at maximum acceleration." Julia retorted promptly and put that question to rest. "We will have structural collapse if we attempt to accelerate any further."

"Lieutenant," he looked at Ezra. "I want you to vent all plasma and fire a photon torpedo to ignite it on detonation. That might be enough to disrupt it until we can get the saucer section away."

"Aye Sir." The security chief nodded and went to fulfil that particular order.

The space between themselves and the intruder's vessel became filled with a cloud of green as plasma was ejected from all venting apparatus on the Maverick. For a moment, the intruder almost disappeared from the screen along with the beam of energy that was pursuing them with almost equal speed. Suddenly, the sparkle of a photon torpedo entered the scene and flared with a pinprick of light. As it ignited, the plasma came alive with fury of a dying star. Every corner of the bridge was filled with the powerful explosion. The ship shuddered slightly from the shock wave.

They held their breath as the screen cleared, hoping that if the intruder had survived then at least the pulse of energy chasing them would have been dispersed. However, as the residue from the plasma explosion faded away, the streak of energy was still following closely and about to reach the hull of the ship.

"Damn!" Chris swore under his breath.

"The energy beam has penetrated the outer hull." Buck declared.

The beam of energy appeared once again on the bridge. This time, its appearance did not have the nonchalance of a probe. It moved straight across the bridge in search of a goal only it was privy to.

"Sir," Julia looked up from her console. "That is definitely not a probe."

Chris was still mesmerised by the beam moving across his bridge swiftly. Everyone was backing away from it not that the beam seemed terribly interested in them. It moved forward purposefully, bypassing Vin and Mary before heading towards his command chair.

"Captain, I think it may be some form of matter transference medium." Julia replied.

"A transporter beam?" Ezra was the one who voiced it first.

At that point, events slowed to a crawl until they seemed to be moving outside time. Ezra went for his phaser in a desperate hope to destroy the beam before it reached its prey. As it passed over the command chair, it seemed to decide whom it wanted.

Chris Larabee had little chance to react as the beam enveloped him. Ezra swore loudly, unable to fire once that happened. He saw Mary reaching into the beam, in a vain attempt to pull him out of it. Buck was two steps away from both of them when suddenly, with a final flash of light, both disappeared. When glitter vanished from their eyes, all that remain in the place where Mary and Chris was the captain's combadge, lying against the carpeted floor.

The Captain and Lieutenant Travis were gone.

Chapter Seventeen:
Abduction

At first, no one knew what to do. Everyone was still trapped in their astonishment over the abduction of the Captain and Lieutenant Travis off their own bridge. When the moment had faded, the first person to recover his senses was naturally Buck Wilmington. Buck bent over and picked up the combadge on the floor.

This was the Captain's, Buck thought. Mary still had hers. Against hope, he tapped his combadge. "Lieutenant Travis, do you read? Lieutenant Travis, come in."

There was only silence.

He stared at the remaining combadge briefly, the shock in his face visible as it was on every person presently on the bridge. After a short period of reflection, he returned to his science station and placed the combadge on the panel as if they would guide his actions somehow. His movement prompted the others back to mobility and they too, remembered their situation.

"Ezra, try to scan for the Captain and the Lieutenant's life signs on board the enemy vessel." Buck ordered, breaking the silence that threatened to overwhelm them all.

The security chief nodded mutely. Ezra, equally stunned by what had taken place, was quickly moving to recovery. Years of professionalism return to him in seconds and when it did, so did the tough Starfleet persona he wore like a shield for moments such as these. He hurried back to his station and quickly keyed his instructions into the panel. After a few moments, Buck saw his face as it twist into a grimace of defeat.

"I cannot locate them." He declared through gritted teeth frustrated at being so helpless. "The intruder's shields are too powerful for us to penetrate. I cannot even trace any life signs!"

"Calm down." Buck ordered, wanting no one to come unhinged at a time like this. However, he understood the man's anxiety. Buck could confess to feeling some of it himself, although in theory he was meant to be in better control of it than anyone else. Unfortunately, it was hard to keep the persona of first officer intact when his oldest friend had been spirited away right in front of his eyes.

"Commander," Ezra spoke up. "JD is signalling from the main bridge. He is requesting the status of the saucer separation."

"Inform JD to stand by."

"Commander," Ezra's voice cut though his thoughts to add anything further. "The enemy vessel is changing course."

Buck though quickly trying to decide what to do. Sensibly, it was prudent to return to Deep Space Five and call in reinforcements. The intruder had proved twice they were more than a match for Starfleet technology. It would be logical to wait for other starships with far more experienced captains to handle this situation instead of him. He was an untried first officer who had no business taking on the intruder himself. It endangered the ship and his crew mates. However, even as Buck held that thought in his mind, another voice made itself heard, a voice that had nothing to do with probabilities of failure, the limitations of his experience and the safety of logic.

For once, Buck agreed with it.

"Vin," he said finally and made peace with himself that whatever would happen, would happen. He would deal with the consequences later. "You will change our course and follow the intruder."

Yes!

Ezra Standish exclaimed inwardly. There had been a brief instance when he almost believed Buck would order them back to Federation space, abandoning the Captain and Lieutenant Travis. Ezra was grateful he was not forced to act in event of that possibility. He knew they were incapable of doing nothing while the intruder put more distance between their two ships. Unfortunately, whatever elation he had was short-lived when he noticed the sensor readings emerging from his continuous scan of the enemy ship. The power build up was unmistakable, even through its super efficient shield. The configuration of the warp field being generated was unmistakable.

"Commander, they're going to transwarp!"

No sooner than the words had left his lips, Ezra saw the explosion of power propelling the intruder's ship into nothingness. Within the blink of an eye, there was nothing behind them but empty space. There was a slight stillness in the blanket of stars behind the Maverick, when a final flare of light signalled the intruder's escape with its transwarp speed.

For the second time in the hour, no one could say anything. Each one of them knew the reality of the situation. The chance of catching up to the intruder now was next to impossible. Even forcing the ship to follow at maximum warp would leave them days behind in a matter of hours. Buck said nothing, yet his stony features seemed affected just the same. Julia was holding her hand against her lips, covering her open mouth. Ezra could not see Vin's face but he could see the slackening in the Officer of the Conn's posture, followed by his clenched fists against the helm console Ezra could understand his frustration.

"Commander, what do we do?" He asked finally, because no one else had the heart to. "Do we maintain pursuit?"

Buck did not speak. He seemed to be concentrating hard on trying to produce an answer. When he released a loud, weary sigh, he knew he had found none. "We will drop to Warp 8 and maintain pursuit. We can still track the enemy vessel by its transwarp signature."

"Sir," Ezra spoke softly. For the moment, he almost hesitated saying what he knew was his duty to say. Unfortunately, their personal feelings did not alter the circumstances of the present situation. He and Buck were Starfleet officers and at the moment, it appeared the senior officers as well. It was his duty to speak, no matter how much he disliked bringing this point to the first officer. "We may be able to track them but we will be capable of doing little else. We have no real hope of catching them."

Buck faced him. "I do not believe in hope Commander and I am well aware that the possibility of retrieving the Captain and Lieutenant Travis is slight. However, while we are able to track them, there is still a chance that the Captain may be able to assist his own escape. I intend to give him every chance to save himself. We will maintain this course."

Even Buck had to know how impossibly illogical that sounded, Ezra thought. However, he was pleased Buck had said that. As Buck made that declaration, Ezra saw that Buck's words gave hope to the rest of the bridge crew that the situation was not as bleak as it appeared.

"Understood Sir." Ezra answered.

Having said that, Buck walked towards the command chair. He stared at it for a moment, deciding that he did not feel inclined to sit in it even if the Captain was no longer aboard. Finally, he took his place at the first officer's seat instead. Protocol or not, he was not prepared to fill that role in any capacity other than what was necessary for the moment.

"Julia," Buck responded. He did not look at her when he spoke. The engineer was acting as communications officer while JD was on the saucer section. "Please inform JD we will be aborting the saucer separation. We're also standing down from red alert. We'll remain in yellow alert for the time being"

"Aye Sir," the engineer nodded slowly and then reacted to fulfil that order.

Buck was aware of the mood on the bridge at the moment. He wished more than ever that emotional distress caused by the Captain's and Lieutenant Travis capture could be kept to a minimum. "Ezra, get Alex up here. Inform her for the moment, she is acting first officer until we retrieve the Captain."

"Yes Sir." He replied briskly.

"Inform all departments I would like a status report within the next half hour and I need a meeting of the senior staff half hour following that."

"Yes Commander." He said quietly.

"Julia," Buck continued dispensing orders. "Send a priority one transmission to Starfleet Command, attention Admiral Wellington. Inform the admiral Captain Larabee and Lieutenant Travis have been abducted by the intruder. We are currently in pursuit and will be travelling beyond communication range for the next twelve hours. Relay to the admiral that we believe the intruder capable of monitoring all our transmissions and we will attempt to communicate when we are able."

"Yes Sir." Julia replied although she seemed somewhat confused by Buck's statement. "Sir," she spoke up after a moment. "I was not aware that our transmission were being monitored."

"Transmit the message as I have requested."

Ezra left her station and approached Buck. "Commander, I do not recall our communications being monitored." He asked the question in a softer voice because Julia had brought up a very valid statement. As security officer, he had not detected any signs of monitoring and he would be the only one who would be able to make the determination if there were.

"There is always that possibility. However, if the Admiral might form the opinion that we should return to Deep Space Five immediately, then twelve hours is all we have to get the Captain back."

"I see." He said mildly surprised. "I could be wrong here but does that not interpret as a lie?"

Buck cleared his throat and looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Unfortunately yes. I will pay for it later."

Hopefully when they got the Captain back.

* * * * * * *

The mood at the senior staff meeting was grim.

When he entered the briefing room, he noticed Ezra had assembled everyone already. There was no talking or hushed voices as everyone seemed to be deep in thought. The first officer took his usual place next to the Captain's chair. Buck tried to ignore the empty space at the head of the table. The unoccupied seat belonging to the Captain was a stark reminder of their loss. Despite their attempts to carry on as usual, he noticed everyone present inevitably shifting their gaze to and from that empty seat.

"As you undoubtedly know by now, the Captain and Lieutenant Travis were transported off the bridge during the course of our encounter with the intruder." Buck announced, deciding it was best to get all questions on the table immediately.

"Are they still alive?" Nathan Jackson asked first of all. His tone indicated he wanted no attempts at sparing their feelings. What he required and what Buck believed they all did, was the unabashed truth.

"I think they are." He answered honestly.

"I don't understand," JD exclaimed. "Why would they take the Captain and Lieutenant Travis? What possible reason could there be for their abduction?"

"I don't think they wanted Mary." Ezra replied. "When the transporter beam enveloped the Captain, she instinctively reached for him and was beamed away as well. I think taking her was an accident."

"I agree with Ezra," Buck added. "I believe that the object of the abduction was the Captain only. It was chance that Mary was taken as well. It's why her combadge wasn't left behind. They probably didn't compensate for her."

"Which is not a good situation in any case." Alex added further. "If they abducted the Captain, they must have some use for him. Unfortunately, they may not have the same for Lieutenant Travis. She may be a complication they are not prepared to deal with."

"You mean they might kill her?" Julia exclaimed, fearful for the blond woman with whom she had become fast friends since arriving on the ship.

No one liked the idea very much but what Alex said made a certain amount of sense. It was a truth no one preferred to believe but they had to face it and unfortunately, Buck could not discount it. "We have to consider that possibility."

"We've got to do something." Nathan said heatedly. "We can't just let those monsters kill them! I've got a full Sick Bay of people who can attest to their barbarity!"

"Nathan, we are all worried about Captain Larabee and Lieutenant Travis." Josiah intervened before the doctor became any more upset. "The Captain would not want us to come apart at a time like this."

His words placated Doctor Jackson momentarily but not for long, Buck estimated. The doctor became very personal about those he served with.

"Doctor I assure you, everything that can be done is being done." Ezra said gently. "We are keeping track of their transwarp signature and are maintaining the pursuit."

"I realise that," Nathan retorted. "However, is it not true that if the intruder does not drop to warp speed we may never catch up with them?"

"Doctor," Buck broke in. "We're maintaining pursuit and we will continue to do so until the situation changes. We're not abandoning the Captain or Mary under any circumstances. However, you have to understand there are limitations to what we can do. The bridge crew is doing its very best to resolve this situation."

"Why do they want the Captain though?" Vin mused, focusing on an issue no one had mentioned in all their discussions.

"We know the intruders' purpose into this quadrant is scientific," Buck explained. "Their behaviour certainly indicates that they are conducting intensive studies of some sort. They kidnapped people on Colony 1 for a number of hours and raided their computer core prior to its destruction. This was repeated on Deep Space Five although no one was abducted then. Their actions demonstrates their need for information, although to what end we cannot be sure. Before the Captain was taken, the intruder changed its attack strategy."

"I noticed that." Ezra declared, remembering the sequence of events. "One minute they were firing away at us and then suddenly, they sent that probe. It was like they realised that we might be worth closer evaluation."

"Exactly," Buck answered. "Once their probe gathered its information including the personnel records of everyone on board, it withdrew. Most likely to assess the data accumulated in order to plan their next action."

"Abducting the Captain." Josiah answered.

"And Lieutenant Travis as well." Julia reminded.

"This sounds even worse," the doctor confessed staring at Buck as an edge of horror crept into his face. "If everything you say is true, what in the name of hell are they doing to Chris and Mary?"

Not even Buck was capable of giving him an answer.

Chapter Eighteen:
Interogation

"Chris wake up." He heard her voice in his ear. It might have been the first time she had spoken or perhaps the last in a series of requests. Whatever the number, Chris Larabee's mind was still too foggy to tell the difference. As lucidity crept in on him like a stranger in the night, thoughts moved through his mind with little consistency or any reasonable sense.

For an absurd moment, he delighted in the sound of her voice against his ear. Chris savoured the light wisps of her melodic voice against his skin until he was alert for all the wrong reasons. He wondered if her breath was capable of having a similar effect on the rest of him. The moment lasted briefly. Suddenly, his last memories returned to him like icy water splashing against his face. His growing awareness brought to life a swirling torrent of images that spanned hours but were compressed into mere seconds of real time.

He sat up abruptly. An action he regretted doing almost immediately. His consciousness allowed the awareness of pain to announce itself as a most filthy headache. Instinctively he reached for his brow, trying to recall a time when he suffered a similar affliction with such equal intensity. Unfortunately, this was not the morning after a particularly lively bachelor party and this time his headache was definitely not self-inflicted.

Part of its cause seemed to be the powerful beam of the strobe light he found himself staring at overhead. He could look at it for no more than a second because it was bright enough to burn out his corneas if he was not careful. Dropping his gaze to the floor, Chris attempted to filter out the stark glare from his eyes so he could see more than free floating blobs of vibrant colour. Adjusting his vision to the lighting took a few seconds but when he was capable of seeing again, Chris Larabee found Mary staring at him with concern.

"I'm fine." He responded to put her concerns to rest. "Just a little out of it."

Once he was fully in command of his eyesight, Chris observed their new surroundings. He had been lying on a flat piece of foam in the corner of a white room. Not only were the walls this colour, but also the ceiling and the floor. It reminded Chris about Alex's theory that the intruders were deranged scientists conducting experiments. This room certainly belonged in a hospital. It reeked of antiseptic or something similar and brought to mind his stay at Starfleet Medical.

There were no windows or a door for that matter. The only distinguishable feature in the room appeared to be a small diamond shaped panel on one of the walls. He wondered momentarily if the panel activated a yet unseen way out of the room. He could hear no other sound other than their breathing. There was no familiar hum of ship engines, no footsteps against the deck nor any sounds that might indicate life beyond this prison. Despite himself, Chris found this quiet more disturbing than anything else that had happened so far.

The last thing he remembered was the beam of light approaching him on the bridge of the Maverick. There was a moment of understanding, when he realised he had been its target. Following that was a disjointed memory of Mary placing her hand on his shoulder, trying to help him. He had tried to warn her but the opportunity never came and they were both whisked away. The bridge disappeared around them both. After that, nothing coherent remained of the images. He remembered fingers around his arm and a sharp stab of pain, with Mary crying something vague in his ear. Instinctively, he rolled up a sleeve. Further up his arm, there was a slight blemish on his bicep that itched when he examined it.

"What did they do to us?" He managed to ask and winced at the dryness of his throat.

Mary brushed a strand of hair from her face. Most of her hair had unravelled from its tidy coiffeur. "They injected us with some form of sedative." She was trying to maintain her calm despite the nature of their predicament.

"It leaves a lot to be desired." He grumbled, massaging his aching head. "Have you seen them?"

"Not as yet," she shook her head in response. "I was unconscious myself until ten minutes ago. I woke up to find that you were still under."

Chris nodded, absorbing the information. "We have to get out of here." He declared stating the obvious. "I don't intend either of us becoming their guinea pigs."

"Excuse me?"

"Its bad reference," Chris said rising uneasily to his feet. He felt his head swim as he stood upright and Mary immediately got to her feet to help him.

"Their sedative apparently works better on men." She remarked.

Chris gave her a look. "I'm so honoured." Nevertheless, he did not resist when she took his arm. Together, they walked forward slowly. Chris felt himself become stronger as his limbs were forced to work. He headed towards the diamond shaped panel that appeared to be the only thing of interest inside the cell.

"Do you think they are still engaging the Maverick?"

"Probably." Chris replied. Inwardly, he hoped that this was not the case. The idea of his ship going to battle without him was more than he could stand. It was bad enough being spirited off his own bridge without having to face the possibility he could be spared the destruction faced by his crew. However, he was confident that Buck would maintain the ship's course to the Vikaris quasar and save the Maverick from that fate. "If Buck has any sense, he would be making tracks back to the quasar." He answered her question, knowing her thoughts were centred on the safety of her son.

"You don't think he would try to rescue us?"

"He might." Chris never really considered the idea because Buck's first priority ought to be the ship not two lives out of more than a thousand. "Although I doubt his chances are very good. We are inaccessible to a rescue for any number of reasons. If they've kicked in transwarp, there's no chance the Maverick could keep up."

"I see." She answered softly.

Chris met her gaze and then realised that Mary did not appear to be as dispassionate as usual. Was he actually seeing some semblance of fear in her eyes? It was easy to forget that under all that Vulcan tradition, was still a human being capable of feeling a gamut of emotions. He realised that she needed to hear something positive. "It will be alright, Lieutenant." He smiled encouragingly. "Don't you trust my ingenuity to get us out of this?"

"If you're attempting to be funny, it's not working."

"See if you get a good report from me at your next evaluation." He muttered, leaning over the panel.

"Captain," she looked at him. "If it were possible for either of us were to see another evaluation, I would not be overly concerned at its content."

"Touch'." Chris replied. He did not look at her as he was more focussed on the panel on the wall. "What do you make of this?"

Mary leaned in for a closer look herself. "I don't know. I think it's an activation pad of some kind but I'm no engineer."

"This is a pretty good cell they've got us in." Chris commented, taking his attention away from the panel. "I guess they must have transported us in here, since I don't see any doors or openings we could have been brought through."

"It is a feasible way to ensure security," Mary pointed out. "As transport appears to be the only method of entry or here, they can be assured their prisoners won't be escaping."

"Unfortunately for us." Chris mumbled under his breath. He could not say he admired their captor's efficiency as she did. In fact, he wondered if she had any idea how much trouble they were in at all. Chris could not even begin to guess why the intruder had captured him. Why take him specifically? Although he had not voiced it to her, he knew Mary's presence here was a mistake. After all, the beam had been coming towards him. She had inadvertently allowed herself to be taken when she attempted to help him.

"It looks like we have no choice but to wait until they are ready to see us." She spoke, snapping him out of his thoughts.

"Somehow, that doesn't make me feel any better." Chris commented.

"I could lie but I don't think that you'd be any better off."

He wondered if she meant to be smug or was it just typical Vulcan superiority at being the more realistic of them both at their situation. In either case, he did not wish to address the point at the moment. Chris was becoming increasingly irritated at their vulnerable position nor did he like being buried in this room with no way out.

"There must be some way out of this place." He replied walking alongside the walls. "Oxygen must come in here for us to breathe."

"True." Mary answered. "However, the vent through which it is being filtered may not be of a size to help us."

"Show a little optimism will you?" Chris looked over his shoulder at her.

"I rather remain realistic."

"Whatever you say," he sighed deciding that he did not want to argue with her. She would probably win anyway.

Instead, he continued his examination of the walls. He ran his fingers against its surface and felt it was cold and smooth. There was a clinical efficiency to it all that disturbed him although he could not say why. The finish on them was flawless. Tapping against it, he decided it was made of some kind of metal but could detect no seams or rivets that might indicate how it was held together. When the wall reached his feet, it merely curved to form the floor. It almost appeared as if someone gouged the shape of this room from a solid block. If anything, that discovery added to his rising claustrophobia.

"This is a near perfect cell." Chris found himself forced to admit. "There is no way out unless you can tear your way through solid steel or whatever this construction material is."

Mary was staring at the panel and did not answer. Somehow, she knew their escape lay behind this small diamond shaped device. She knew that if she could deduce its purpose, she could give the Captain the answer he so desperately needed. As she glanced at him periodically, Mary noticed he was pacing the wall like a trapped sehlat. His growing anxiety was obvious although she had no idea what to say to him that could possibly ease his apprehension.

Not unless she understood the function of this device.

Suddenly, it came alive before her and emanated a dull white glow.

"Captain." She called out. "Come look at this."

"What is it?" Chris asked and turned towards her.

He had not taken a few steps forward when suddenly, in the centre of a room that familiar beam of blue light shimmered to life around him. Chris was barely conscious of it being around him before it disappeared taking the captain with him.

"Chris!" She cried out, unable to keep her fear from him out of voice or mind. It was however a futile gesture.

He was gone and she was alone.

* * * * * * *

In the blink of an eye, Chris Larabee was somewhere else.

He tried to move his head and found he could not. His head was being held down. Instinctively, he tried to move his hands and found they too were similarly strapped tightly. He also became aware at this point that he was naked because the binders securing his limbs were metal and as cold as the temperature in the room. He tried to ignore the cold since his bare skin was pressed hard against the metal table to which he was secured.

He tried to crane his neck sideways to get a better look of where he was, but was unable to do so as he felt something cold pressing hard against his temple. After a number of futile attempts at trying to break free, Chris rested back on the table and observed what he could of his environment. Judging from his angle of perception, he realised that the table he was strapped to was being propped at an angle.

Don't panic, Chris. He told himself. It's not as bad as it looks.

An inner voice responded almost immediately.

It sure as hell looks as bad as it seems.

Chris took a deep breath and forced away such thoughts. At the same time, he tried not to remember anything about his discussions with Buck regarding scientific experimentation and human guinea pigs. Instead he focussed his attention on something else and tried to remember if they had drugged him in order to unclothed him without resistance. Although he nearly sprained a muscle doing it, Chris craned his neck to see if there was a fresh hypo mark on his arm. Despite being unable to see his upper bicep very well from this angle, there did not appear to be one.

He remained there for some time and Chris wondered if this interlude was some kind of interrogation technique. Lesser-willed people could break under such tactics since waiting could be an effective method of torture. Therefore, instead of allowing the time to affect him, he concentrated on seeing what he could of this new place.

Above him was a powerful strobe light that beamed directly into his eyes, making it impossible to see more than a few feet beyond his position. The rest of the room was dark but he realised if he concentrated hard enough, he could hear movement. Although difficult to define at first, he was soon able to distinguish the sound of feet against the floor, hushed voices using words he could not understand in a language he did not know. He kept the panic away from his mind, telling himself it was possible because Vulcans did it all the time. Thinking about Vulcans inadvertently brought his focus to Mary. Did they have her in a room like this as well? He hoped not. Thinking of her under similar circumstances infuriated him.

His surroundings however, did seem incredibly cliqued. It was a perfectly unimaginative representation of the classic interrogation room. If he was not the victim, it could have almost been laughable. These people could take lessons from the Cardassians or the Romulans. Now they knew how to scare the hell out of you before they actually got to the interrogation. Klingons had no idea of course. Their methods of torture were so brutal that they were lucky if the victim survived much less chose to impart any useful information. The Borg did not need to torture. They just assimilated you so whatever was kept in your mind became theirs to use anyway. The same went for the Jem Haddar who did not need to interrogate because their Shapeshifter masters knew your secrets before you did.

"Captain Larabee." A voice spoke out of the darkness.

Chris tried not to show the sudden sound surprised him. The voice sounded close but he could not see anyone. "It's about time someone showed up, I was starting to feel somewhat unloved."

"Your attempts at humour will avail you nothing."

"That's not the first time I've heard that today." He remarked softly wondering if they had been listening into his conversation with Mary during their incarceration. "In that case, I'll just forgo the formalities and ask what the hell am I doing here."

"You are here to service us." It responded with an edge of ice indicating it did not approve nor like his tone of voice.

Chris blinked at those words. They sounded Borg. It was impossible. He had seen parts of their ship and nothing about this felt like a Borg situation. Was it mere coincidence? There seemed to be only one way to find out. "Are you Borg?"

"We are not the Borg Collective." The voice answered sharply. If he could have seen the speaker, Chris was sure that the person would be bristling with annoyance. Everything indicated that it disliked the reference intensely.

"You sound like them." He declared, deciding to probe deeper into that aversion. It was the only avenue of inquiry he had at the moment.

There was a slight pause. "We have brought you here for a reason Captain. You can either co-operate with us or we can take the information straight from your mind, possibly damaging you in the process. We had hoped you would be wise enough to choose the latter."

"Quid pro quo." Chris retorted. "Since you've raided my ship's computer banks, I'm sure you know what that means. Something for something. I may choose to be co-operative if you answer some questions of my own."

"You are hardly in a position to be difficult Captain."

The word made Chris angry but for the moment, he controlled it. They were correct. He was hardly in the position to make demands since they had the upper hand but the fact they needed something of him, gave Chris a bargaining point. He wished he could see them. It was difficult to maintain this position when he had no idea with whom he was dealing with. "Perhaps not but kill me and what I know dies with me and it looks to me like you've been searching for some time already."

"What do you know of our needs?" The voice snorted in obvious contempt. "You are a minor species, born the only inhabited world of a minor star system. At the moment, your only worth to us is the information you can provide. Do not assume that we need you in any way."

"And yet you went to all this trouble to acquire me." Chris said with a hint of sarcasm. "As I understand it, that's hardly an indication I am expendable."

"It is not your place to understand, merely to furnish us with what we require." The voice retorted vehemently becoming impatient with the whole process.

"Look," Chris said becoming a little annoyed himself. "I am Captain Chris Larabee of the USS Maverick, service number 378072. That is all I am required to say to you. If you wish to know anything further, I suggest you be a little more flexible instead of engaging me in this verbal joust of superiority."

"We are superior in every way." The voice returned angrily. "You are nothing to us. Just a waste of flesh in a galaxy populated by waste. You are here to service us and that is all the consideration you deserve."

He was playing a dangerous game with them and he knew it. However, he was not about to compromise in any way. This race had butchered hundreds of people and laid to waste Federation colonies without thought or reservation. He was not about to inadvertently help them unless he was given a clearer understanding of the situation. Taking a deep breath, he let out a sigh of defiance and spoke slowly. "Then we have nothing more to discuss."

He had less than a second to regret those brave words before his captors retaliated. Chris was surprised by a sharp jolt of energy that surged through his body like a nothing he had ever experienced. Its intensity was so powerful he jerked on the table like a fish gasping for its last breath on the floor of a boat somewhere. The pain alerted every nerve in every corner of his body, causing him to stiffen with excruciating pain. He tried not to cry out because his pride would not allow him to display such vulnerability before the enemy. However, his pride was soon eroded in the wake of such exquisite agony nothing could contain the pain that shredded his resolve apart.

Chris could feel his teeth digging into the skin of his lips and his fingernails tearing into the softness of his clenched palms. He could smell the burning of flesh in his nostrils and wondered how much he could endure. The violence of the charge caused him to salivate, trickles of fluid ran down his chin and then onto his chest without his even noticing it. The razor like pain stabbed him with the clarity of a thousand sharp knives. Chris was quickly pulled into a whirlpool of such agony he did not know anything beyond the white-hot pain piercing through his mind.

He didn't even notice when he started screaming.

* * * * * * *

Now Mary felt like the one who was pacing like a trapped sehlat.

She waited patiently for several hours, waiting for them to return the Captain. When he had first been taken she had almost expected them to spirit her away as well. However, after a certain amount of time passed, Mary become less certain of that expectation. Finally, she found herself folding her legs beneath and sitting down to meditate in order to calm the fears that were threatening to overwhelm her. Occasionally, she would glance at the panel wondering if she ought to tackle the task of learning what function it played. The only reason she had not done so yet was the concern that if it was a means of escape, she would have to do it without the Captain.

She could not leave without him.

He had been gone almost into his fifth hour when she suddenly heard the familiar hum of the transporter device. Once again, she realised that the panel had illuminated during the process and it confirmed her suspicion that the panel was somehow connected to their matter teleportation device. Chris appeared on the floor of the cell, stark naked. His clothes appeared shortly after. Even as she scrambled towards him, she saw the deep purple welts across his back. He was half-conscious and judging by the amount of bruising on his body, she estimated he was in considerable pain.

"Chris," she hurried towards him. "Chris, talk to me!"

He did not answer her which only served to heighten her panic even more. He was lying on his stomach, very still and for a moment Mary believed the worst. However, as she rolled him over, she noticed his chest rising and falling somewhat raggedly. At least he was still alive. There was blood running down his chin from where a lip was bitten. Her stomach hollowed at the reason for that and knew then that he had been subjected to torture. The bruises on him seemed to be the result of some type of low power energy discharge. Phasers set on low power and close range could cause similar bruising although the pain was meant to be extreme.

She took his head on her lap and for a moment, Mary was overcome with a deep sense of anger at what had been done to him. However, this was not the time for anger. He needed tenderness at this moment and she was determined to provide it. Mary let his head rest on her lap for a long while, allowing him to rest after his ordeal. There was no reason to wake him when it seemed they were not going anywhere. Any ideas she had about escape would simply have to wait until he was better.

Mary used the sleeve of her dress to clean the blood off his face, using unusual tenderness she would normally have reserved for William alone. It was not lost on her the concern she had for Chris Larabee. Despite herself, Mary could no longer deny her regard for him was more than just as her captain. She admired the way he had reached out to her son and gave the boy the guidance she was unable to provide. Most humans found Vulcan children difficult to cope with but Chris never seemed to have that trouble with William or Billy as he was more accustomed to referring to her child.

"Oh I feel terrible."

His voice snapped her out of her reverie.

She looked down and saw that he was conscious if not somewhat disorientated.

"Don't move Chris," she said gently. "You need to rest."

"No arguments from me." He whispered as he opened her eyes and looked into her face. "Now there's a sight worth waking up to."

Mary was almost tempted to smile. "Well, you are starting to feel a little better I see."

"Not much." He grumbled, trying to shift to a more comfortable position on her lap. "Apparently, my overwhelming charm was lost on them."

It never ceased to surprise them the arrogance of human males and their ability to make jokes during the most dire circumstances. Chris Larabee, as she was starting to realise, was a master at both those traits. "I can't imagine that."

He met her gaze at that remarked and smiled at her. "I see I need to work on it."

Suddenly, his hand flew to his chest and he raised his neck long enough to see that he was still naked. The realisation motivated him to move like no other.

"Chris, you should remain still..."

"Lieutenant," he said trying to maintain as much dignity as a man in the nude could possibly do. "A captain needs to maintain some degree of privacy and at the moment, I am feeling somewhat exposed."

Mary turned her back on him, respecting that need although it was somewhat redundant now and allowed him to get dressed without being observed. She did not need to look since what she had seen of him was impressive but there was no need for him to know that.

"Captain, were you able to see our captors?" She asked still keeping her eyes averted.

"No," he shook his head. "They were hidden in the darkness for most of the interrogation. They had me hooked up to a device that discharged low level energy bursts. No permanent damage I suspect, but it hurts like hell."

"What information did they want?"

"Nothing they would make specific and I must admit I was a little too cocky for my own good." He said trying to stifle a groan of a pain as he slipped his trousers on. "Okay, I'm partially decent."

She turned around and quickly remarked. "Captain, perhaps you should try being not so charming next time."

"I'll keep that in mind during the next round." He replied reaching down for his grey shirt.

"The next round?" Her brow rose immediately in concern.

"I assume that there will be one considering I gave them nothing during the first." Chris replied. What he did not add was their warning to him during his last moments of consciousness. They had made it extremely plain to him that while they had not intended to take Mary hostage, they would not hesitate to use her if it would ensure his cooperation.

Chris did not intend to allow that under any circumstances. Somehow, he was going to have to come up with a new plan.

Chapter Nineteen:
The First

She watched him sleep and knew he was not telling her everything.

In the past few hours, it seemed to her that she was learning more and more about him with each passing moment. When had the time come that he had become more than captain to her and she more to him than just his protocol officer? Mary could not tell but the barrier between them was like a veil whose substance was diminishing as gradually as the shifting of ocean tides. Perhaps it was their entrapment together that initiated this bond between them like two animals sharing the same cage.

Mary could not say for certain but even as he slept, she could feel him strongly. In all her life, she had only shared a mental link with one other person so acutely and he was now dead. Syan could always sense the feelings inside her no matter whether where he was. She remembered with a flash of intense pain the moment she knew he died. His death cry had been ripped through her mind as the Borg destroyed him and his ship. To this day, the loss of his katra was something Mary was unable to fathom. Vulcan souls were meant to be preserved, to take their place with all the others in the place of keeping, not to be discarded to the four winds like a mist. Residues of his self remained within her but the absolute loss of his living soul was almost as devastating as losing his physical being.

Her link with Chris was not like this. She was human and the mental links created in her mind because of the mind meld between herself and a full blooded Vulcan still remained. Only a strong emotional attachment could reactivate them and she could not feel Chris from a distance because he simply did not possess the telepathy to maintain such link. However, when he was near, his emotions were the proverbial open book to her. Prior to their incarceration, her link to him was vague. She sensed something in his regard for her but nothing Mary could define clearly. Now it was much stronger because his concern for her had escalated and the torture had weakened him considerably. The intensity of his emotions surprised her and she wondered what she had done to inspire such passion.

Although she could not read his mind but rather sense his emotions, Mary became certain Chris was protecting her. She sensed his duplicity earlier and knew he had held something back when they had spoken of his interrogation. The fear she sensed in him was strong but it was not fear for himself. Chris was afraid for her life and her safety. It did not require any great leaps in logic to understand why that was. Undoubtedly, their captors had threatened her life in exchange for his cooperation. She knew nothing short of death could allow him to voluntarily harm any member of his crew but in her case, Mary knew Chris's dedication to duty and his feelings for her could become conflicted.

Humans could be so illogical at times.

The Vulcan philosophy she had been forced to adopt, declared it would be sensible to allow her to die. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. However, Chris was not Vulcan, he was human and found it extremely difficult to take this course of action because their emotions interfered with the decision. Mary believed when the time came for Chris do so he would be unable to make that choice because he would be hampered by his feelings for her. Of course, he had not spoken of it. She never expected he would. However, she refused to allow him to sacrifice himself and possibly the Federation because of her. The Starfleet officer that she was did not find such an action acceptable.

Mary rose to her feet quietly and walked towards the panel. For a long moment, she merely stared at it, wondering if it was wise to proceed any further. She knew nothing about this cell and the surveillance methods employed by their captors. They could be watching her now and she did not want to provoke them into hurting the Captain any more than they had. She did not want him to pay for her misjudgement.

As it was, she was now a liability to him. Her very presence made it impossible for him to make a decision without taking her welfare into account. If she was capable of being furious at herself now, Mary would be. What had possessed her to reach for him when the transporter beam enveloped him? Mary was not accustomed to impulse and knew the motivations behind her attempt were for purely personal reasons. She had allowed her emotions to get the better of her and now he was paying for the price.

One way or another, she would find a way out of this cell.

Mary touched the panel. It did not react. For a moment, she considered how she would proceed. She had been brushing up on her engineering skills and while she would never have Julia's inborn expertise or Alex's vast scientific knowledge, she had been on Vulcan long enough to learn quickly. Being surrounded by super intelligent people made it necessary for her to refine her ability to commit a great deal of information to memory upon first reading.

She had no tools to work with and allowed her hand to begin a more physical examination of the panel now that she knew it was not meant to be accessed from inside the cell. She let her fingers slide across the slanted edges, testing the seams for weakness. After a few moments, she found a weak point and paused as she decided what to do next. Taking stock of her options for a short time, Mary reached for one of the hair clips holding her hair out of her face. It was a simple metal clip she had purchased in one of the shops in Jupiter Station. It did not look very formidable but it was definitely strong. In any case, she had little choice in the matter and had to be content with it. She dug its edge into the crack at the base of the panel so that she could pry it open. Mary forced it down gently, adding more and more pressure. It was a few seconds before her efforts displayed any progress when she saw the crack widen and become more visible. She was almost there.....

Suddenly the edge snapped.

The abrupt break propelled the jagged edge of the rest of the clip straight into her hand before she could even react to pull it away. It buried itself deep within her skin with such force and rapidity that the pain took her by surprise before she had a chance to deal it. Instinctively, she let out a soft cry of pain.

Chris sat up immediately. "Mary?"

She winced in annoyance at having woken him and nursed her bleeding hand while she examined the injury. The broken half of the clip had embedded itself in the flesh below her knuckles. She let herself dropped to the floor as she took a closer look. "I'm fine, I just hurt myself a little." She answered trying to maintain her dignity in such a ridiculous situation.

Chris was by her side in an instant. "Let me see."

"It is superficial." She declared, making it known she did not require assistance.

Chris saw a heavy rivulet of red fluid snaking down her wrist despite her best attempts to stem its flow. "It does not look superficial to me Lieutenant." He made particular emphasis on that last word to indicate his determination in this matter.

Unfortunately, she had to concede to his rank and extended her hand forward reluctantly. Chris took her hand gently and saw the metal clip still protruding from her flesh.

She did not answer because he was correct. It was not.

"It does however, look worse than it is. Take my arm with your good hand."

"Why?" She asked suspiciously.

Chris rolled his eyes. "Are you always so adversarial with your commanding officers?"

"Just you."

"You must be in pain," he smiled faintly. "You're making a joke."

Without saying anything else, he yanked the clip out of the wound before she had time to react. Her nails dug into his arm in a spasm of pain and she let out another cry which cut through him just hearing it. He dropped the broken hair clip onto the floor and wiped her blood on his sleeve. The blood flow from the wound seemed heavier now the obstruction had been removed. Quickly, he tore a small strip of material from his tunic.

"What were you doing? No let me guess, you were trying to get that panel open?"

"I refuse to comment on the grounds I will incriminate myself." She smiled wryly watching him shape the material into a makeshift bandage for her hand.

"Lieutenant, while I appreciate your diligence, perhaps waiting for me might have been a good idea."

"How so?" She looked at him. "I know I'm not an engineer but it could not hurt just to take a look."

"I agree," he nodded as he secured the material with a tight knot. "However, I would rather you not skewer yourself in the process. One of us in bad shape is enough."

"I wanted to get us out of here."

Something in the tone of her voice made him look up when she said that. Her eyes, normally devoid of emotion, seemed softer and more fluid. "You have placed yourself in enough danger because of me, Chris."

Chris liked how it sounded when she said his name, especially with a tone that indicated she felt more for him than he had previously thought. He was aware they had crossed some invisible boundary seldom defined by men and women until left long behind. At that moment, he understood that she cared and it was because he was more than just her captain. He realised her concern was far more personal and intimate. For a moment, he did not know what to say and remained silent. Her face softened and Chris saw he need not speak at all because she knew the unspoken feelings he had for her.

He reached for her and placed a gentle hand against her cheek. Mary did not move away, neither did she speak. Instead, she raised her hand and placed her palm across his. Everything that needed to be said between them was established by that simple gesture of intimacy. Almost as if they knew what was taking place, Chris saw Mary's eyes widen. He looked behind him and saw the transport beam in the middle of the room, seeking him out again. His gaze returned to her before they spirited him away again.

"I'll be alright." He said confidently and knew that most of it was for her benefit.

Mary's eyes started to well with emotion and her lips started to quiver as she saw the beam come towards him. "I'll keep trying to get us out of here."

"I know." He answered finally before the beam reached him and took him out of the room.

Once he was gone, Mary blinked, trying to come to grips with this ache in her heart and the terrible fear she felt. She sat there for a moment, trying not to worry about him and concentrate on what she had promised before he was taken from her. A short time later, she rose to her feet and faced the panel again with icy determination in her face.

"Let's do this again." She whispered once and then set to work.

* * * * * * *

He was in the same interrogation room although this time, he was fully clothed. Like before, he could not see his interrogators but he could hear them in the room, whispering amongst themselves as they decided his fate. Chris knew in no uncertain terms they would harm Mary if he was not more co-operative and decided he was going to have to approach this situation from another angle. As much as he disliked doing it, he was going to have to play ball to gain more information about them.

"Captain Larabee, we trust you are more willing to talk after our previous meeting?" The same voice boomed in his ears again.

"I don't respond well to extortion," Chris admitted. "However, it looks like I don't have much of a choice to be stubborn."

"We are glad that you understand your situation. It would be regretful if we had to resort to more extreme measures."

Chris was glad he would not find out what exactly those measures were. He was still trying to recover from the previous ones and he needed to be in somewhat decent shape to effect any kind of escape. "I don't doubt you will use those measures on my Protocol Officer if I don't obey. That is how well I understand the situation."

"She is here to service our needs Captain, not yours."

"Whatever," Chris said abruptly. "Since you have taken all this trouble to make me capitulate, you mind telling me what it is you want to know?"

There was a momentary pause before a response came. Chris strained his eyes to look into the darkness to see a face to which he could attach that voice. Unfortunately, he could see no one. He wondered what reason was there for such secrecy. It was not as if he were in any position to do them any harm if he knew what they looked like.

"As you have already guessed Captain, we were responsible for the destruction of your colonies along the border of your territorial space."

Hearing them admit it sickened him to his stomach while at the same time firing his anger. However, he restrained his feelings and continued listening quietly.

"We required information about your Federation but found the information retrieval unit on the colonies inadequate for our needs. We took live specimens and similarly found them lacking as they were unable to provide us with what we required. We made these attempts on several colonies and erased all evidence of our presence in our departure."

"Not all evidence." Chris declared.

"We are here on a mission of utmost urgency to our race and were not concerned with the welfare of an unimportant species."

Once again, Chris controlled his temper. "So you went to Deep Space Five and downloaded their computer core."

"You are correct. Fortunately, the data stored in the station's retrieval unit was far more comprehensive and did give some us valuable insight on how to proceed with the next part of our investigation."

"I don't know what use I can be to you if you've already downloaded a space station's computer core. It probably contains more information then I will ever know."

Suddenly, Chris found that despite the situation, he was extremely interested to know what it was these intruders wanted of him and the Federation.

"The computer core contains factual data which is not what we desire." The voice answered quickly. "We have come to investigate the two incidents in which your Federation has encountered the species known as the Borg Collective."

Now Chris was really surprised. "You want to know about our encounters with the Borg?" He exclaimed, unable to hide his shock. "Why?"

"As far as we know, no species of inferior technology has ever defeated the Collective and yet your Federation has done so twice."

"I wouldn't say defeated. In each encounter we suffered devastating losses." Chris had no trouble revealing this to his captors. If they had taken the contents of Deep Space Five's computer core then he was not telling them anything they did not already know.

"Yet they were nonetheless defeated." The speaker continued. "That is unprecedented and we wish to know how you accomplished this."

"Mostly luck and thanks to some innovative thinking by our starship commanders."

"Yes," the voice agreed. "In particular, the human known as Jean Luc Picard. A Federation starship Captain."

There was an ominous way about the manner in which they said Picard's name that immediately sent a cold shiver down his spine.

Suddenly it hit him.

The realisation came alive with such inspiration that Chris was struck by the force of his discovery. In an instant, he understood why the intruder had gone to the trouble of taking him alive. They had responded to the broadcast he had sent across space to lure them, not because discovery was contrary to their purposes in this quadrant. It was because he had sent the signal.

Captain Chris Larabee of the USS Maverick.

They did not want a human specimen. They wanted a starship captain, like the one responsible for the Borg destruction at Wolf 359 and then at the Battle of Sector 001. He could be wrong, it would not be the first time but Chris refused to believe he was incorrect. With instinct he relied upon more steadfastly than logic, he was certain of the truth he just uncovered but he had to put his theory to the test.

"You think because I am a starship captain, I can show you how to defeat the Borg?"

"We do not need your assistance to defeat the Soulless Ones!" The voice snapped angrily. "We are here on a scientific study to understand how such a primitive culture can fend off the might of the Borg! Our interest if merely for the purpose of study!"

Somehow that protest appeared to be just a little too vehement to be simply arbitrary, Chris decided. "I may be a member of a primitive culture but I'm no fool. If your interest was purely scientific you wouldn't have gone to the lengths you have done to accumulate your data. My officers and I deduced some time ago there was a measure of desperation to your actions."

As responding to their unseen anger at his insolence, his body spasmed with pain as he felt the energy discharge striking his body from the table beneath him. Fortunately after being tortured for hours previously, Chris had developed a small amount of endurance to it. While it hurt beyond description, he found he was able to recover faster than before. He knew his words had struck a nerve with them because they had retaliated like children throwing a temper tantrum.

"Okay, since you feel that strongly about it, we won't mention desperation." Chris managed to say after a moment. "However, I'm afraid I can't help you. Jean Luc Picard was able to defeat the Borg because they assimilated him. His crew was able to retrieve him. Fortunately, once the connection to the Collective was severed, the nanoprobes inside him were destroyed and his human cells were able to reassert themselves. The experience allowed him certain insights into the nature of the Borg, insights he was able to use to defeat them."

"You are lying." He heard the voice respond in anger. "Their consciousness is vast and insight or not, they would have been able to circumvent what little knowledge he had of them! Your understand is simplistic and in error."

"We have a saying in our culture. To know your enemy is to know how to defeat him. Jean-Luc Picard knew his enemy," he stated firmly. "He knew his enemy well enough to outwit them. If you have come looking for a super weapon, I'm afraid you are going to be disappointed. The Borg was defeated with nothing more than one man's determination and insight."

Chris waited for a response but none came. Although he had only heard one voice, he was certain that there were more individuals in the room with him. While not speaking to him, he heard them conferring amongst themselves, trying to decide whether or not they believed him. In the meantime, he took the chance to go over what he learned so far. These intruders were deathly afraid of the Borg but Chris could not understand why. Their technology proved they could be more than a match for the Borg if necessary. Even if they could not completely defeat the Collective, they had enough technology to fend off any Borg invasion.

"Picard was the human responsible for destroying the First." The voice stated after a long while.

"The First?" He asked confused.

"The First from whom the Collective originate. That who brings order from chaos."

For a moment, he could not understand to whom they were referring and then it came to him. Chris had read Jean-Luc Picard's log report of his encounter with the Borg following the failed invasion of Earth. It was an unusual story involving time travel and Zefram Cochrane. Chris had been more interested in Picard's impression of the legendary inventor to take much notice of the rest of the report. However, it did reveal the Borg had a central leader previously unknown to the Federation.

"You mean the Borg Queen." He replied.

"The First."

"You keep calling her the First." Chris asked. "Of what is she exactly the first?"

There was another pause. "She is the first Borg. The original is who began the assimilation process. It was she who injected the first microprobes into another that began the race. She who had independent will where none was meant to be."

"You know much about the Borg." He responded. "Perhaps we could share our knowledge It's obvious that they are your enemy. We can help each other. I do not know what exactly you are hoping for by interrogating me but if I knew what you were searching for I am sure we can find an answer."

"We need no assistance from the likes of you. You are not a true life form, only the C'Kaia are alive!" The voice shouted angrily but Chris suspected this response was mainly borne out of the realisation his words rang true.

"C'Kaia." Chris mused. "Is that your species?"

"The C'Kaia are the natural masters of this galaxy. It is our right to rule and purge the systems of all inferior forms of life."

Chris had heard this so many times from so many would be conquerors that it was almost corny. Did they never learn anything different to say or was there some universal manual through which they obtained their litany of tedious rhetoric?

"A difficult position to take considering the Borg are the most powerful species we have yet to encounter. I am certain that they would object to your claim. You are biological like I am biological and we all fodder for assimilation if we don't help each other."

"The Borg is an accident! Like all accidents they will be destroyed eventually."

"They are not accidents and it will take far more than arrogance to destroy them. It will take co-operation and mutual understanding." Chris stated. He knew he had to try and reach them somehow. If the C'Kaia considered the Borg enough threat, perhaps they would yield enough to acknowledge that they needed assistance, even from an inferior specimen like him.

"We require no cooperation from you or your kind." The C'Kaia said icily. "The Borg will be destroyed. Without the First, they are significantly weakened and we will make them do our bidding as they were always meant to. We will not make the same mistake twice."

"The same mistake?" Chris whispered. Suddenly, he had a very bad feeling about all this.

"Yes, you foolish human." The C'Kaia snorted with contempt. "It is we who created the First and we who found the telepath whom you know as the Borg Queen."

Chapter Twenty:
Escape

Mary lost track of time after she began work on the panel. Ironically, the only tool she possessed that could sufficiently pry open the panel was still the damaged hair clip. Mary retrieved the clip from where it had fallen and resumed her efforts to open the panel since she had little choice in the matter. Initially, she was concerned her tampering with the device would incite the wrath of their captor but as her work progressed, no such action appeared forthcoming. If anything, it confirmed that she and the captain were not being kept under close watch. Obviously, their captors did not believe they were capable of escaping from such an impregnable cell.

After a length of time coaxing the panel loose and being careful not to harm herself further, the diamond shape cover popped off with a final creak of protest. It fell on the floor and skittered across the room. For a minute, Mary remained frozen wondering if her success would bring any attention from their guards. Once again, no such action had arisen and she continued working.

The neat diamond shaped hole that was left in the wake of the panel's removal, revealed a series of alien circuits and sophisticated isolinear chips. These were probably generations ahead in design to anything Starfleet had ever envisioned. For a long while she merely stared at the mechanism, trying to ascertain if there was a common frame of reference to the layout of circuits, relays and chips. She was no engineer but she had basic engineering knowledge, a required course at the Academy, not to mention what she had been studying since coming on board the Maverick. She studied the circuits carefully, fully aware that everything depended on her being able to make the mechanism work for her.

They had to get out of here. Nothing could be done to affect their escape while they were trapped inside this tomb. A transporter mechanism must operate from this point because the panel came alive each time the Captain was taken. Mary considered the possibility that their captors must have placed safeguards to prevent tampering such as this. She did not see any such devices. However, she was starting to hypothesise that her captors might be arrogant enough to believe that their technology was far too superior to be tampered by an inferior species. Then again, they were a highly specialised race, who did not appear to keep prisoners for any length of time. In either case, there was nothing to do but try.

Once she began testing the individual components of the mechanism, time whirled by with frightening speed. Slowly, her keen intellect began grasping the concepts of the mechanism. Her eyes began seeing abstract comparisons with Federation transporters. In a rudimentary way, the process was the same. It was easy to visualise and hypothesise what each component might do. Mary found herself stymied by the problem of accessing its function as its instructions were not meant to originate from this location. However, after giving much thought to it, an idea formed in her head.

She was still wearing her combadge. It had not been removed because their captors saw no reason to do so. The combadge had only a finite range and she did not doubt the Maverick was far behind them by now. It was certainly beyond the range of the combadge to be useful as a communication device to signal for help. However, in itself it did contain various components that could be useful as an interface to the circuits and chips within the alien mechanism.

The combadge also contained a universal translator and by definition, was capable of extrapolating all types of language forms into an understandable medium. It would not take much to alter its programming to enable it communicate in a numerical form that was the most universal language of all. Once that was accomplished, the combadge could in essence, 'speak' to the alien technology and she could feed it instructions.

It took another hour of lying out circuits and attaching the tiny wires to the inside of the transporter panel before Mary could make the attempt. She had wanted to wait for the captain's return but knew logically, that was ill advised. If they were to return him to his cell, all they would need to do was activate the transporter panel and discover what she had done. The combadge hung limply out of the opening. Only its wires connected it to the circuitry inside the opening. Tapping it gently, she hoped the interface would work and that both devices could speak to each other.

"Initiate transport." She said coolly. The combadge should be translating those words into a numerical form and instructing the alien transporter to comply.

There was no response.

"Initiate transport." Mary spoke again, trying not to let her failure overwhelm her with disappointment. "Now."

As if it could understand her inflections, she snorted to herself.

Suddenly, the beam appeared in the room. As before it was difficult to see under the power of the strobe, but she saw the air before her shimmer with energy and knew that the beam was there. It approached her quickly and consumed her as readily as it had done the captain. Mary closed her eyes as she saw the world in front of her disappear...

...and reappear a second later, changing shape and form significantly.

The room was slightly larger than their cell but not much more. Its walls were a metallic grey that was much kinder to her eyes after the contrasting white walls of their cells. The illumination inside the room was dim and while she could see well enough, did not leave much for detail. Fortunately, there was no one inside with her although she assumed there had to be guards posted outside the door at the corner of the room. Mary could not imagine any race being so incompetent. It would unwise to leave the room that way and she scanned the place for an alternate exit. At the base of one wall was a small metal grate, probably a ventilation shaft. It was not the most effective means of travel but she decided it would be better than using the doors and risk being caught, if there were indeed sentries posted outside.

Before that however, she took a moment to conduct a quick reconnaissance. As of yet, neither she nor Chris had ever seen their captors and wondered if there might be some clue to their identity in their machinery. She went to the console built into one of the walls. The controls were mostly touch sensitive, requiring little dexterity and as were all shaped like the panel in the cell. There was nothing resembling dials and buttons, switches or knobs. It seemed to her that the intruders were of a species who had difficulty using controls that required sophisticated finger dexterity. Perhaps their digit control was not developed. Mary studied the panel briefly before she made her way to the vent.

Although she saw no evidence of surveillance devices in the room, that did not mean they were not present. The technology of this race was so unusual she might not know what she was looking at until it was too late. It was calculable that eventually they would discover her escape. She intended to use her time wisely until that point. Mary dared not risk being caught now she was finally free. Kneeling down, she pulled open the grate and set it aside as she examined the size of the shaft. It would be a tight fit for the captain but she would have adequate space to breathe. Either way she could not afford to be selective. Climbing inside, Mary barely managed to turn around as she replaced the grate behind her.

Not daring to hope but admitting things were better than before, Mary let out a sigh and thought to herself; so far so good.

* * * * * * *

An hour later, Mary had no idea where she was.

The inside of the ship seemed like an endless catacomb of tunnels, access ways and shafts. While she had been crawling down these passage ways, she began to notice something else of interest. Many of them were covered in thick dust that had accumulated over an unbroken period of time. It did not seem as if much maintenance was conducted. It also surprised her that no intruder alert had sounded over her escape as of yet.

Finally, she decided she had to risk emerging from her hiding place to locate the captain. If he was returned to his cell, they would learn of her escape and she disliked the consequences to him when that took place. However, finding him on this vast ship was no easy feat. She could only think of one way to find him and that method was quite distasteful. It required her to drop all mental shields completely. She had to use his mind as a beacon to locate him. She was confident the bond between them was strong enough to achieve this end. Things would be so much simpler if he were a Vulcan whose telepathic skills were more than adequate for her task. Syan had opened her mind and while she would never be strong enough to be considered even empathic, Mary knew she could find him.

She folded her legs and took a deep breath, steadying herself for what was to come. Most Vulcans abhorred opening themselves like this but Mary knew she was not Vulcan and there was no other way. As unusual as this was, it also happened to be the only possible way for her to locate the captain. She remembered the disciplines required to do this and tried to draw on the teachings of Vulcan elders to help her in her quest.

Mary took several breaths as she felt the shields in her mind slowly descend like the curtains at the end of the play. Although she could feel emotions in her head from a host of minds, they were not as plentiful as she would have imagined for a ship this size. In fact, while their combined thoughts produced loud interference, Mary knew its volume should have been larger. Just how many beings were on board this ship? Adding to the mystery was the nature of their thought patterns. They were odd if somewhat simplistic. There was a certain orderliness to it that seemed undoubtedly alien. What struck her most was the level of unity they possessed with one another. Such cohesion among individuals was unheard of without some form of telepathic ability. Whatever this species was, they were single minded in their goals and similarly dedicated.

Finally, Mary forced their emotions away and allowed herself to concentrate on finding Chris. Her mind knew how to find him because of their emotional bond to each other. Although not as powerful as a Vulcan mind meld or a pon farr bonding ritual, it would suffice for her purposes. Her consciousness stretched across the expanse of the ship. Through the sea of feelings, she could sense his, like a lost grain of sand. Minute as it was, Mary could her consciousness extending forward like a physical force and reaching for it.

My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts.

There was the chance that he would not know what was taking place. To the untrained, the comprehension of telepathy was limited. There was every possibility he might consider her voice in his mind as some product of dementia and ignore it completely. Mary did not believe that of him though. The captain had a strong mind and he knew their relationship could allow for this.

My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts

She could feel his emotions entering her mind. Although he was not quite aware of her yet, she could feel the establishment of the link between their two consciousness.

Chris, can you hear me?

Once again, only silence echoed back at her. Perhaps, he was not conscious and could not answer. Nevertheless, the link was made and she rolled onto to her hands and knees and began crawling up the shaft again. The invisible chord between them compelled her to keep moving, allowing her to navigate inside the maze of shafts to reach him quickly.

I am coming, Chris. I am coming.

* * * * * * *

This light has finally driven me crazy.

Chris blinked and hoped that would help in some way to clearing his head. For an instant, he thought he heard Mary telling him she was on her way. For the last hour, they had left him on the table while they chose their next course of action. It appeared the C'Kaia's foray into Federation space was to discover the secret weapon Jean-Luc Picard had used against the Borg. As it was, he was unable to coax more information out of them regarding the startling revelation they had made earlier.

Could it be that this species had created the Borg? Chris could not imagine for what purpose the Collective had been intended but it was obvious that if the C'Kaia were to be believed, their creation got loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. The masters were now as vulnerable as the billions they had condemned to extinction because of the Borg. There was almost something poetic about it all.

Chris, can you hear me?

Chris shook his head and knew this time that sharp voice in his mind was no illusion or a figment of his imagination. He had heard it! It was Mary. Her voice was clear as one spoken out loud. Suddenly, his mind grasped it. Vulcan mind meld? No, that was impossible. Mary was human. However, Vulcans were telepaths and their mating ritual required some form of bonding process that was known to incite latent telepathy in some humans. He knew humans who were telepathic sensitive after such unions and knew it was possible to reach another mind if they were to lower their mental shields. While he could not confess to understanding all of it, Chris did hear her voice in his head.

Chris, I am coming.

Chris was very close now. She could measure the intensity of his emotions in a short radius from her position. Suddenly, she saw a grate further up the shaft and crawled quietly towards it. She could hear voices that seemed like a series of chirps and clicks. Had she been wearing her combadge, the universal translator would have been able to make sense of this unusual language. Throughout her journey here, she had ascertained one thing; there were not many C'Kaia on board this ship which was somewhat puzzling considering its size.

She reached the edge of the grate and waited for the voices to stop. The incomprehensible sounds of their language seemed fast paced and heated and Mary sensed something of great importance was being decided. She had a sudden premonition that her escape had been discovered. Peering through the slits in the grate covering, Mary saw through the dimly lit room that two figures had stumbled out leaving one behind. She observed their movements were clumsy and awkward and their bulk was spindly. While they were definitely bipedal, there was something about their shape that required more investigation.

A question for Doctor Jackson if she ever saw him again, Mary decided.

She waited until the remaining alien exited another door in the room before she emerged from her hiding place. Without a doubt, she knew the alien had entered the room where Chris was being held. The situation was still risky but if they had learnt of her escape then her time had run out and action was needed now. Carefully, she forced the grate open and climbed out of the vent. Despite the urgency of the moment, Mary was pleased to be standing upright again. Her legs ached from its cramped confinement. For a few seconds, she allowed her mobility to re-adjust itself.

The room was no different from the one she had transported into earlier. Once again, the illumination was dim as were the nature of the controls. She looked at the door where the other two aliens had exited and saw a panel not unlike the one in their cell. This one was most likely the mechanism controlling the door. She looked around and saw an odd shape tool sitting on one of the panels for which she could only guess its function. However, it was heavy and sufficient for her purposes.

There was no way to do this with any kind of delicacy. With a controlled swing, Mary brought down the object against the panel with all the force she could muster. The cover shattered underneath the weight of the tool, sending shards in all directions harmlessly. It did make aloud crack however and Mary wondered if she had been heard. Never assuming anything, she jammed the length of the tool through the mouth of the broken opening. Letting go quickly, she saw tendrils of energy cackling across the tool from the internal mechanism. The short circuit she had been attempting to produce ejected sparks and smoke into the room. Mary hoped it would be enough to jam the door and give her enough time to retrieve the captain.

She heard the other set of doors beginning to hiss and quickly ran to one of the walls flanking it. Mary remained still as the door slid open and a figure moved past her. Instead of remaining to confront the alien, she slipped through the opening and immediately slammed her fingers on the panel to close it. The alien whirled around as the doors started moving and Mary realised she had no idea how to lock it. She was going to have to attack.

Mary dropped to the floor. She glanced over her shoulder as the doors hissed open again and saw the captain strapped to a table in the centre of the room. He seemed all right for the moment but she still had an alien to contend with before she was able to help him. The alien shuffled in awkwardly and Mary kicked out her foot, slamming into what could be its ankle, causing its legs to buckle beneath it. Once the alien was down, Mary saw the silhouette of what appeared to be its misshapen head and sent a flying kick into its face. It uttered a loud screech of pain as her foot connected before it went reeling against a wall. The alien landed hard, with a loud crunch as it hit the solid surface. Mary hoped she had not delivered a mortal blow because when the alien slumped to the floor, it did not move.

"Mary!" She heard Chris call out. "Is that you?"

Pushing all thoughts for the alien aside, she jogged towards the light.

Chris was clearly pleased to see her when she stepped underneath the glare of the powerful light above him. "I knocked out one of them."

"My heart bleeds for him." Chris retorted sarcastically. "Can you get me out of this thing?"

"Wouldn't be much of an escape if I can't Captain." She remarked as she studied the device keeping him confined. Fortunately, freeing him did not look difficult. There appeared to be only one strategically placed button on the whole machine. Mary gathered this was the unlocking mechanism. Chris had informed her before his tortures on this table took place without the aliens having to enter the circle of light. Most likely, that function of the table was controlled by remote.

"Very funny, lieutenant. I think I liked you better when you didn't have a sense of humour."

"Liar." She replied, pressing the button gingerly.

The metal binds holding his body down suddenly released with a loud, audible snap. Chris did not waste any time getting to his feet once he was free. Although his muscles were stiff from hours of immobility, Chris was determined to put some distance between himself and this room. He gave his legs a quick massage to aid with circulation before he looked at her.

"Nice work Mary." He said warmly.

She flashed him a radiant smile full of emotion and he saw the relief in her eyes at knowing he was alright.

"We have to keep moving." She responded softly. "I'm sure they have discovered my escape."

Chris agreed with that assessment but there was one thing he needed to do first. "Do you think you can find the controls for this light? I want to see what they look like." He had yet to explain to her the C'Kaia may have been the race to create the Borg Collective and if either of them escaped, the information to the Federation would be invaluable.

"I believe so." She answered. Immediately her gaze shifted up and she followed the network of conduits that ran from the actual lamp. Within seconds, she found the controls and the room flooded with light.

As Chris had suspected, the room was some sort of laboratory. There were instrument panels, console screens and a vast variety of alien devices on each wall. One wall was host to an enormous refrigerated compartment. As Chris examined it, he saw dead specimens trapped inside clear canisters stored away neatly for easy access. They came in every shape and size, from small furry mammal like creatures to races Chris could not even begin to categorise. All posed before him in a grotesque gallery of death. Chris wondered how many of these specimens had died naturally and how close had he come to becoming part of the display. As his eyes scanned the compartment, his stomach lurched as he realised the C'Kaia already had a human specimen already.

The man stared back at him with eyeless sockets. His ebony coloured skin had frozen to a pasty grey. Chris saw the Y incision in his torso and hoped the death he suffered was not as awful as it surely looked. This was probably an inhabitant from one of the destroyed colonies, Chris guessed. The callousness of the C'Kaia enraged Chris and renewed his determination to stop their murderous experimentation once and for all.

Suddenly, he heard Mary call out behind him. "Chris, I think you should have a look at this."

Chris turned around and saw Mary standing over the alien she had attacked. He had been so busy examining the rest of the room he had forgotten his original desire to see what the C'Kaia looked like.

Judging from its length, the alien on the floor was humanoid sized. However at that point, any other resemblance came to an abrupt end. Its huge compound eyes stared at them although both Chris and Mary were quite certain the alien was unconscious. It had no face to speak of or at least one where features could be held distinct from the other. Its mandibles projected from the side of its head and were lined with a set of sharp serration's that could be called teeth.

Tucked neatly between the thorax and segmented abdomen of its body were two sets of extra arms. None of these appendages had any developed fingers and had only two digits if they could be called that. Its legs were clearly made for bipedal motion although there were structural flaws that would make such movement awkward. Its skin appeared to be a kind of exo-skeleton covered in thick spiky hair. Chris could not even tell what gender this particular alien was but he could understand why they considered all other forms of humanoid life to be incapable of sentience. Chris had never seen any species closely resembling the C'Kaia and yet he knew immediately what they were.

The C'Kaia were insects.

Chapter Twenty One:
Always Ducts

Both of them were still staring at the body of the unconscious C'Kaia when they heard the distant thunder of someone beating down the doors in the next room.

"They've discovered I obstructed the main door." Mary informed him, stating the obvious.

"We better make ourselves scarce." Chris quickly surveyed the room for anything closely resembling a weapon. For once, their luck held and he sighted what looked like a plexiglass weapons locker containing rifles mounted against the far wall. Without wasting any time, Chris hurried to the case and tried opening its lid without much success. The panel beside the clear case was moulded into the shape of a C'Kaia hand ensuring no one could commandeer the weapons within unless they were of the species.

"Grab him!" Chris ordered Mary before they stepped towards the unconscious C'Kaia. Although she was supposed to maintain a Vulcan stiff upper lip, he could see her revulsion as she reached for the C'Kaia and began dragging it towards the panel. Chris quickly joined her and felt similar feelings as they hauled the C'Kaia across the floor. Chris was hoping the movement did not awake their unconscious host, assuming Mary had not done severe damage when she attacked him. However, he remembered reading, as a good Vulcan wife she was schooled in their self defence disciplines and did not doubt this C'Kaia would be out for some time.

They reached the foot of the locker and Chris hauled the alien to its feet. Propping it up against the wall, Chris reached for the C'Kaia's hand and slammed its palm against the moulded imprint on the panel. The panel came alive almost immediately on contact and after a short period of processing, Chris heard the soft click of the compartment's locking mechanism being deactivated.

Wasting no time, he let the C'Kaia drop to the floor as he reached for both weapons. He had no idea how any of it worked but decided that was a question for another time. Preferably when they were absent from here. After distributing the weapons among themselves, Chris looked to Mary because she knew the layout of this place better than he did. After all, she had managed to find him in a ship this size.

"How did you get in here?"

"I'll show you." She started towards the inner doors leading to the room from where the noise was coming from. Chris followed her without question because he was confident in her abilities. As it was, she had accomplished a minor miracle in escaping from their cell to find him. While they were far from being out of danger, at least they now had a chance of coming out of this alive.

As the doors slid open and they entered the room beyond the laboratory where he was being held, the pounding behind the door grew louder. The scent of smouldering metal had started to fill the room. He guessed immediately the C'Kaia were trying to cut through the doors as well as employing more physical methods of penetrating the room. Chris did not relish being around when that happened or the consequences to Mary if they were caught. They needed him alive but she had just proved herself to be a dangerous liability that could no longer be tolerated.

"This way." Mary declared, pointing to the open ventilation shaft.

"Get in." He ushered her through the small opening. He wondered momentarily whether he himself would be able to fit in such a narrow passageway but it hardly seemed appropriate to debate the matter at the moment.

Once she had disappeared into the darkness, Chris climbed in after her. He was careful to replace the grate behind him although it took a few seconds of manoeuvring to give his shoulders enough room to move. He did not doubt the C'Kaia would eventually guess how their prisoners had escaped the room, but the period between now and eventually could mean the difference between life and death.

"Ducts," Chris grumbled, looking at his surroundings before he was forced to move down the narrow space. "It's always ducts."

"What?" Mary looked over her shoulder in question.

"Nothing," Chris shook his head and responded with a query of his own. "Do you know where you are going?" He asked as he followed Mary down the dark passageway. The sounds from the clanging doors becoming more distant the further they kept going.

"Not really," she answered honestly. "I thought we ought to put as much distance between us and where we were."

"Good thinking, we need to find their engineering deck."

"Captain, that is going to be exceedingly difficult. I found you because of some mental ability but it's not at all strong enough to do that."

"You also said the same about getting out of our cell but you're here." Chris quipped.

"Yes but that was luck too, I'm not an engineer and you're overestimating my talents." When they came to a juncture in the shafts, she turned around to face him.

"I never underestimate your talents Mary." He said with a sly smile. "I'm looking forward to seeing all of them."

Mary rolled her eyes. "Grow up."

"Killjoy," he grumbled and then thought about what they ought to do. "We'll head towards the centre of the ship." He suggested after a second.

"You mean that sphere inside the ring?" She remembered thinking that the ship's strange construction might have something to do with its method of propulsion when they had first saw it from the bridge of the Maverick. She immediately saw where he was going with this. If they could damage it structurally, perhaps they could slow the ship down or at least take it out of transwarp.

"I can't see any reason why it wouldn't be a central location for a key system. Even if it isn't the engineering deck, it might widen our options. They're called the C'Kaia by the way, and they think Jean-Luc Picard developed some kind of cognitive sense about the Borg when he was assimilated seven years ago. Right now, they're on a heading toward Borg space in the Delta Quadrant"

Mary was confused at their motives. Chris could not blame her. At transwarp, the journey would take a little under a year. "But why take us? We're not important to them."

Chris paused before he answered. "You aren't but I am. They want a starship captain they can sacrifice to the Borg for assimilation. They want to recreate whatever happened to Picard so they can have a conduit into the Borg Collective consciousness."

Mary said nothing for a moment but the fear he saw in her eyes was apparent.

"Alright," she asked. "What do we do?"

* * * * * * *

"...the circumstances, the Maverick is ordered to return immediately to Deep Space Five."

It had come finally and this time there was nothing Buck could do about it. There were no ambiguities to play upon, no more excuses or even parlour tricks. The communication from Admiral Wellington was specific with no room for misconception. It was a final decree he had no choice but to follow. After 24 hours under silent running, the Maverick had passed clearly beyond what was Federation space in its desperate search to keep track of Captain Larabee and Mary. Although the transwarp signature gave them a trail to follow, it was obvious the intruder's superior velocity had taken them out of the Maverick's reach.

After the twenty-four hours passed, Buck had little choice but to contact Starfleet Command and give them an appraisal of their status. While waiting for their response, Buck continued the ship's course. Although he had not voiced it, their current heading was taking them directly to the Delta quadrant or would do so if they continued on course for the next eighty years.

With Wellington's words still ringing in his ears, Buck sat in the Captain's ready room trying to find options in what was a seemingly hopeless situation. The moment Admiral Wellington gave him that order, the situation was out of his hands. Obviously, the admiral did not think an untried first officer could handle a situation of this magnitude. Buck could not blame him of course, it was a reasonable assumption. Buck did not believe there was any malice was intended behind the order. He was after all new to commanding a starship and engaging an enemy like the one the Maverick had been facing required an experienced commander.

If he knew what was good for him, he would withdraw from the pursuit and return to Federation space. However, he could not. There was something inside him that would not allow him to simply give up on Chris and Lieutenant Travis. He knew if he were in the same position, Chris would move heaven and earth to get him back. He knew as well as Admiral Wellington surely did, if they were to abandon pursuit now, in likelihood they would never retrieve their lost personnel. He still believed Chris would somehow escape on their own but their survival after that depended on the Maverick being able to reach them when it happened.

Yes, he was pinning his hopes on a very slim chance and he knew it. The probabilities of such an event developing were almost non-existent. At this moment, he had no indication that either Chris or Mary were still alive or capable of making any kind of escape attempt. It was ill conceived risking so many for a futile quest. However, the part of him that did not yield to reason, whose passion and fire allowed him to make far more accurate decisions with his heart rather than his head, told him that Chris Larabee would never allow anyone to keep him caged for very long. If there was a way for him to escape, Chris would find it.

After a few minutes of preponderance on the thought, Buck reached for his combadge. "Commander Wilmington to Lieutenant Tanner."

"Yes Sir," Vin's voice returned automatically.

"Increase our speed to Warp 9 and maintain pursuit." Buck ordered and eased back into his chair, hoping to hell he knew what he was doing.

"Yes Sir," Vin responded, with a hint of pleasure in his voice at the strengthening in their efforts to find the Captain. Buck was aware Vin felt deeply for the captain and they had a personal friendship growing stronger the more time they served together.

There was no reason to let anyone else know about their orders, therefore he would limit the responsibility if it went wrong solely upon himself. As far as Buck was concerned, no one else needed to become involved in his insubordination. If there were to be any consequences from this action, Buck would suffer it alone.

Suddenly, the doors slid open and Alex walked in the room. His acting first officer had been on the bridge when JD announced the incoming signal from Starfleet Command. Alex Styles was no fool, Buck thought to himself. She would have guessed the content of the transmission even if she was not present to hear it herself. Buck knew he had.

"Can I help you Alex?" Buck asked casually.

She looked at him suspiciously as she stood before his desk. "Did Starfleet Command give us permission to maintain pursuit of the intruder?"

Buck paused, wondering how he ought to answer this question. He did not wish to lie to her because she was his first officer for the moment and undoubtedly any stain on him would not confine itself from her. However, he took a gamble on her response and decided to answer her honestly.

"No, they didn't."

For a moment, she did not speak. The was no surprise on her face even though she understood the full implications of his order to Vin and absorbed it in quiet contemplation before she finally commented a few seconds later. "They ordered us back to Federation space?"

"I am afraid so."

"I gather you are ignoring that order." His orders to Vin had made that a foregone conclusion and Alex could not say she disagreed with him.

"For the moment," Buck answered, watching her closely for her reaction.

"I see." She nodded slowly. "How long do you intend to maintain the pursuit?"

It was a fair question. She had every right to know just how long he intended to keep violating orders. "I don't know."

Alex let out a heavy sigh. "I know what it is to be left behind Buck," she said after a moment and the expression on her face became one that was impenetrable.

Buck saw the pain surfacing briefly in her eyes and wondered what the hell the Cardassians had done to her when they had her in their custody. Cardassians were known to be absolutely brutal in their torture methods and those who emerged from a Cardassian prison were usually scarred forever. While the records indicated she had been tortured, it did not say what exactly had happened to her. There were injury reports but nothing conclusive and although she seemed well enough for duty, she had no appreciation about letting anyone know the specifics of her ordeal.

"I'll support your decision in whatever you want to do," she met his gaze directly. "If you say that we maintain the pursuit, you have my full backing. I don't like leaving our people behind either."

Buck nodded slowly, grateful he had a partner in misery so to speak, in the course he had embarked upon. "Thank you Commander."

"I will get back to the bridge." She returned his warmth with a faint smile before turning to leave.

"Alex?" Buck called as she was about to leave

Alex looked over her shoulder. "Yes Sir?"

"You surprise me Alex, but it's a good surprise."

She cocked a brow and answered. "I've been doing that a lot lately."

Alex thought about Vin and the expression on the Vulcan's face when she kissed him. She had a feeling Vin thought that had been a good surprise too.

"Well," Buck grinned. "Don't stop, I like it."

* * * * * * *

"What was that sound?" Chris became aware of the faint hissing behind him.

At first Chris Larabee was uncertain of what he was hearing. However, he began to smell the faint odour of an unknown chemical in the air and knew something was happening. The small amount he had inhaled made his head swim and Chris realised the C'Kaia were trying to flush them out into the open. Obviously, their captors had guessed they were using the ship's vast ventilation system to evade capture and were taking measures to force them out of the tunnels. Chris looked over his shoulder and saw it seeping out of thin fissures in the walls. Within seconds, a cloud of smoke had formed and was coming towards them with unnerving speed.

"We have got to get out of here!" Chris shouted to Mary in front of him. "They're flooding the shafts with some kind of gas!"

Mary stopped long enough to look at him. "Coming out in the open could be equally risky." She pointed out grimly but saw the greenish vapour coming towards them and knew their choices were limited.

"I seriously doubt it's any riskier than remaining here Lieutenant!" Chris prompted her to move again.

His hands were aching from this awkward position. His knees and his palms were screaming out in protest as they were forced to move faster along the narrow passageway. As it was, his bulk was his biggest obstacle for any speedy movement. He nevertheless scampered after her, grimacing each time his head knocked against the over head ceiling and his shoulder bounced off the walls of the tight compartment. Mary was able to move with barely enough room to spare while he was forced to move keeping his limbs close to his body in order to conserve space. He was so cramped he could barely think let alone move with any kind of real coordination. The cloud was still coming at them, probably being forced up the shaft by the induction fans they encountered during their passage through these tunnels.

Suddenly, he heard Mary cry out. "Captain, I see a ventilation grate further up!" Following her exclamation, he noticed she had moved faster although how she managed to in such confinement was beyond him. The fortune of feminine bone structure, he mused as he hastened his pace to match hers.

After what seem like an eternity of this undignified mobility, Chris saw Mary finally arriving at the air vent in question. She changed position with the agility of a trained acrobat and did not wait to see if it was safe beyond it. Chris cast a glimpse back to the green mist in close pursuit and was thankful she did not stand on ceremony when she slammed her foot against it. The force of her kick snapped its clasps apart and sent the metal covering flying forward like a projectile.

She pulled herself out of the open shaft and dropped to the floor just in time to see two C'Kaia aliens emerging from the doors at one end of the corridor. Unfortunately, there was no way she could avoid being seen by them. Their reaction to sighting her was swift. They started running towards her immediately. Unlike the other C'Kaia she had seen earlier, these two were not hampered by cumbersome bipedal movements. Instead, their approach used not only their legs but also the extra limbs Chris and she had noted.

Certainly, this was a more Effective mode of travel because she was barely able to unsling her weapon and release one shot when they were almost upon her. One of the aliens was only meters away when it suddenly shot a thick glob of clear fluid from its proboscis in her direction. Mary jumped out of the way to avoid it, hearing its splatter on the floor behind her a second later. The initial blast from her weapon caught the other alien in mid thorax and brought the creature down as it prepared to pounce. The remaining alien screeched in protest over its fallen comrade and spat again. Once again, she managed to avoid being hit but her attempt to avoid it had placed her in a bad position to fire her weapon. The alien was inches from her and Mary was still fumbling with the weapon to get adequate hold to fire. Suddenly, a blast of energy streaked past her and struck the attacking alien dead centre. It collapsed on the floor. Its thick exoskeleton made a loud crunch as it impacted.

She turned and saw Chris on the floor. He had fallen out of the grate and remained where he was to take aim when he saw the alien about to attack Mary

"Are you all right?" He asked concerned as he picked himself up from the floor. They could not remain here for too long. Already, Chris could see tendrils of the gas inside the shaft starting to seep out of the grate into the corridor.

Mary nodded in response to his question, unable to deny she was a little shaken by the moment. Combat was not something Protocol Officer had to deal with, especially one who had been stationed at Vulcan for most of her career. She rose to her feet and was on her way towards him when she noticed the floor where the fluid ejected by the C'Kaia had landed.

It made her stop immediately and leaned down for a closer look. The two areas where the fluid had landed were now smouldering. It appeared the fluid was eating through the metal plates of the floor like some kind of corrosive acid.

"What is it?" Chris asked walking up beside her.

"It looks like some kind of molecular acid."

"That would be consistent with an arthopod life form. Most insects break down food products by regurgitating digestive acid. They eat the food after it has liquefied." He explained as they put some distance between themselves and the growing cloud. Fortunately, the length of this corridor was considerable and they were able to leave it far behind now they were on foot instead of their hands and knees. "I suppose a higher order of insects might decide to use that method as a form of defence."

"Gross but effective." Mary wondered what would have happened if the substance had made contact with her skin.

The corridor was almost fifty metres from one end to the other, Chris noticed as they advanced toward the opposite end. The low hum prevalent throughout most of the ship had become an actual vibration he could feel in the air. Out of curiosity, he placed his hands against the cool steel of the wall and fell his palm tingle at the microscopic shudder.

"Can you feel that?" Chris asked.

Mary had been listening to it. In fact, she had noticed it as soon as their melee with the C'Kaia had passed minutes ago. However, it was no mystery to her what it was. She recalled what the ship looked like prior to their kidnapping and believed she had a good idea where they were. "I believe we are on one of the pylons connecting the outer ring of the ship to the inner sphere."

"At least we made it this far." He sighted a door at the end of the corridor and stepped up the pace towards it. "I'm surprised we don't have the entire ship combing the halls for us."

"There does not appear many C'Kaia on board Captain," Mary informed as she fell in step with him.

"How so?"

"When I dropped my mental shields in order to find you, I was able to get a sense of the minds on board this ship. The volume of personnel does not seem consistent with a ship this size."

Somehow, that did not seem as outlandish as it sounded. Since their escape, they had made it half way across the ship without being detected. Although the C'Kaia had flooded the shafts at every point, two guards per grate seemed to be a small complement regarding the importance of their prisoners. Even now, the corridors were similarly deserted. While he knew he should not complain because this improved their chances at escape, it did make him wonder why.

"There are many questions about the C'Kaia." Chris remarked. "First of all, I believe them when they claim to have created the Borg."

"You think they're responsible for the Borg collective?" Mary asked as they closed in on the doorway.

Chris had studied classes in advance xenobiology when he was at the Academy and was surprised how much of that knowledge remained intact, even after so many years. "If the C'Kaia are the creators of the Borg, then it would explain some aspect of Borg behaviour. For instance, the hierarchical structure of the Borg. Like most insect cultures, the Queen is the leader and all others are referred to as drones. We have seen the Borg refer to themselves in the same way. Their collective consciousness may have been forced to induce the same kind of single minded unity shared by insect colonies."

"If you are creating a warrior race, it would make sense that you fashion it after yourself." She agreed as they reached the door. "Although their purposes escapes me. Obviously, the C'Kaia are advanced enough to wage wide scale warfare without creating such an aggressive warrior caste to do their bidding."

"That's true." Chris replied. "However, we don't know all that much about them. Until we do, we can only guess what their motives are."

"True." They reached the door and both Chris and Mary took a defensive position flanking it.

With their weapons drawn, Chris nodded at Mary when he activated the door panel. The door slid open. Neither of them moved for a few seconds as they waited to see if any C'Kaia would come through to investigate. After a minute or so, Chris deemed it was safe to enter the room and peered over the edge of the doorway.

"Oh my God." Chris whispered softly.

Mary saw his eyes widen in disbelief. The weapon he had been holding was primed to fire, dropped aimlessly to his side as he stepped out into the doorway and walked into the room. For a second, she could not fathom what could astonish him so completely until she herself looked inside.

They had both been wrong about the sphere being the centre of the ship's propulsion system. When Mary followed Chris's gaze, she saw a room so large that it took up the full area of the sphere as viewed from space. However, what astonished both Starfleet officers was not its size. While they had been wrong about its purpose, they were certainly not wrong about it being a key area. The room was a cargo hold and in it was the most precious cargo of any race. It filled every square inch of space inside the large area except for one small aisle that cut through the centre of it.

"Captain," she responded in a soft voice. "Are those what I think they are?"

"Yes," Chris nodded grimly. "They're eggs."

Chapter Twenty Two:
Hatchery

Eggs.

Hundreds of them. No, Chris quickly amended. Not hundreds but thousands. He knew what they were on sight. That much about his entomological studies remained intact. The rows were endless and they stretched from one end of the cargo hold to the other. All were placed in orderly rows, each with a mechanical attachment which Chris gathered controlled its environmental requirements to prevent hatching. He could not say how he knew that the technology was meant to prevent birth but it seemed to make sense somehow.

The eggs themselves, were little more than a foot high, tubular in shape and did not seem altogether different from the egg sacs he had seen of their Earthling, except these were a great deal larger. As he and Mary stepped off the platform from the main entrance and descended to the floor of the hatchery, Chris could see the vague shapes behind the translucent wall of the eggs. Infant C'Kaia moved languidly in gelatinous fluids, completely unaware of the world beyond them..

"They must be thousands of them." He heard Mary declare. She was staring at them with a mixture of horror and fascination.

Chris shook his head at her expression. Women and bugs. Five hundred years of equality and they still got the jeebies whenever they spotted something with more than four legs.

"At least," Chris responded as another thought occurred to him that had nothing to do with this aspect of feminine behaviour. Hurrying back onto the platform, Chris activated the door panel and waited for it to slide to a close before raising his weapon. Taking, a careful aim, he fired one shot into the centre of the panel. The energy blast impacted against the device, sending sparks in all directions. He stepped back to avoid being burned by the stray embers and was content to see the panel completely destroyed. Jagged rips of metal glared at him while burnt circuitry hissed and cackled through the torn fissure.

"That ought to buy us some privacy." He said returning to the aisle where Mary was currently moving her gaze over the cargo hold with an expression he knew all to well. It was evident she was gathering information about this part of the ship. Her eyes moved across the beams and the walls of the hatchery with deep concentration. He wondered what captured her attention so completely.

"There appears to be a stasis field protecting these eggs." Mary announced after a moment.

The revelation did not surprise Chris however. He had gathered as much even though he had no solid evidence to back the assumption. Following her gaze, he realised she had come to this conclusion because there was a slight shimmer of energy encasing individual egg being generated from the mechanical receptacles they were mounted on. Combined, it almost looked like a veil of stardust hung suspended over each one egg.

"I wonder how long they have been like this?" He mused.

"God knows." She replied, even though his question had been rhetorical. "I can tell you however, this does explain why there are so few C'Kaia on board."

"Does it?" Chris looked at her sceptically. "I fail to see how."

"They are obviously the guardians for these hatchlings."

"If that's true, why risk the cargo by coming into direct conflict with the Maverick?" Chris countered.

"We're not exactly a threat to them."

"I don't know about that." He disagreed. "We may not have been in the beginning. While their technology is formidable, it is not invulnerable. We've seen that we can hurt them."

"You're right." She agreed. "I can't see why they would take a ship into battle with cargo like this."

"I don't know," Chris shrugged, unable to answer that question. "However, if one of our quantum torpedoes penetrated the hull of this cargo hold, the entire hatchery would have been lost despite its shielding."

"Shielding?" She looked at him.

Chris came up alongside of her and pointed upwards. "Do you see those conduits running across the ceiling and the walls?"

Mary did see them, however, the conduits were so fine it could have been any number of things. They ran across the length of the ceiling and across the hold that remained exposed to space. Sometimes they even criss crossed over one another but were never more than 1 metre apart. Until one actually looked, it was easy to miss these conduits as they were designed to blend into the background. "I see them but couldn't that be just normal circuitry."

"I don't think so." Chris shook his head. "I thinks it is a shielding of some sort as well as an anti-transporter mechanism."

Mary was not even going to question how he came to that conclusion but was confident he was right. Starship captains seldom made such speculations unless they were absolutely certain of what they were talking about.

"That's a good thing for us." Chris said with a sigh. "At least they won't be able to beam us out of here."

"True." She remarked and continued her observations.

So many questions, Chris thought to himself. He was starting to form a vague explanation forming in his head but there was still many gaps. They continued walking through the aisle and all the while, Chris felt uneasy about being in here with all these eggs. While the C'Kaia had obviously shown themselves as ruthless aggressor, Chris did not want to be here if the adult C'Kaia found them. Whatever he thought of the C'Kaia was irrelevant, the beings inside these eggs were not responsible for the crimes of their elders. He did not want to harm any eggs in the fire fight that would ensue once the C'Kaia knew they were inside the hatchery.

"Let's get out of here," Chris suggested and hasten his steps as they made their way down the aisle. "I don't like this place."

While Mary could not share his discomfort, she did understand it and thus hurried to keep up with him. They had not taken more than a few strides when the silence of the room was suddenly shattered by the sound of someone pounding against the steel door. Both of them reacted to the noise and knew that their privacy was going to be short lived.

"Damn." He cursed under his breath. "I was hoping for a little more time before they found us."

"That was always going to be a slim hope Captain." Mary pointed out.

"I won't argue with you there."

They ran down the narrow aisle through the sea of C'Kaia eggs. When they reached the end of the aisle, the passageway banked sharply and led to a set of doors, they had not seen from the distance. It did not appear to lead out of the sphere however but seemed to be a smaller room in the hatchery.

"Through there!" He ordered Mary, deciding they had little choice to be selective at the moment.

Chris reached the door panel first and slammed his palm against the activation pad. Fortunately, these panels did not require any identification or else they would be in real trouble. The door slid open without protest and Chris entered first to ensure it was safe to do so. The measure soon proved valid as a C'Kaia leapt in front of him and spat a shot of fluid.

"Duck!" He shouted at Mary as he jumped out of the way to avoid being hit. Turning around swiftly, he delivered a flying kick in the alien's torso and then brought down the butt of his weapon against the C'Kaia's head when it doubled over.

Mary had thrown herself against the opposite wall when the alien's venom, for the want of a better word, struck the closing doors behind her. Immediately, the corrosive liquid began eating into the steel. While she did not think it was quite strong enough to eat all the way through, it certainly reaffirmed her belief at its potency if it came into contact with flesh. She saw the captain attacking the alien and raised her own weapon in reaction.

"Don't move." She warned with ice in her voice while keeping aim at the C'Kaia. Not that it was in any position to protest as the Captain's blow had left it quite dazed as it staggered against a panel for support.

"Thank you." Chris said appreciatively, as he collected himself and unslung his weapon.

Once the captain was ready to take over, Mary looked around the room. While he was attempting to question the C'Kaia with little success, Mary focused her engineering expertise to the purpose of this annexe. It was a control room of some sort. She decided immediately. There were console screens showing a wide range of environmental readings, everything from atmospheric temperature inside the hold and the integrity of the stasis field protecting the eggs. Except for the wall where the door was located, the rest of the walls were taken up machinery. There was also an image of the cargo hold on one of the consoles. It was most likely this C'Kaia that alerted the others to their presence. However, it was incidental compared to what caught her attention.

"Chris!" She said in more excitement than she meant to show once the discovery had been made. "Does this mean what I think?."

Chris hurried to her side and saw what she was looking at. "Yes it does," he said with a smile. "The sphere is capable of separating from the rest of the ship. It has independent propulsion systems and what appears to be a communication dish. I think this is the main control room for the hatchery."

"That would make sense." Mary replied. "If the ship was in trouble, they would be able to get the eggs away to safety."

For a moment, Chris felt silent as he considered the new possibilities ahead. The idea forming in his head was distasteful but unfortunately, he had little options left. Once again, he wrestled with the moral implications of what he was doing and knew that the debate was over. The moment the C'Kaia had destroyed Federation colonies, they had thrown down a gauntlet of challenge Chris Larabee was forced to take up.

"We're going to have to polarise the stasis field." Chris declared after a moment.

Mary looked up, certain she had heard incorrectly.

"I beg your pardon, I thought..."

"You heard right, we're polarising the stasis field."

"Captain, doing that might kill the life inside the eggs." Her horror showing.

"I know." He said grimly. "But we're going to do it."

Had she misjudged him? Was he really capable of doing this, even for the sake of their lives? For a moment, Mary did not know what to say and then realised he must have a reason for this request. By God, she hoped he had one. "Why?."

"Are you murderers?" The C'Kaia suddenly spoke. "Those are infants! They have not harmed you!"

With Chris's universal translator still functioning, both Mary and he were able to understand the C'Kaia and so would it, when he responded to its declaration. "You did not seem to have this crisis of conscience when you obliterated our colonies. There were children on those worlds as well or do they not count because they are not C'Kaia."

"I do not know anything of that!" The C'Kaia said evasively. "My responsibility is to the hatchlings only. I am of the Carer Caste. I have no influence with those of the High Caste."

"Well that's too bad." Chris replied and ordered sharply. "We're doing it Lieutenant." His tone clearly indicated he wanted no arguments on the matter as he gave her quick instructions on the how.

Mary knew better than to argue and she turned to the controls in order to begin. She had no more than reached the panel when she heard the C'Kaia respond with more urgency.

"You cannot do this! Stop!"

Chris raised his gaze and met the alien's compound eyes directly. "Then help us escape." His voice full of icy deliberation.

That made the C'Kaia stop in its tracks. For a moment, it did not know what to do. Chris could almost see the conflict that was raging within it. Did its responsibility to the Caste supersede its responsibility to the eggs under its charge? Chris sympathised with the decision it had to make but he had to force the C'Kaia to choose. Their lives depended on it.

In the meantime, there were immediate problems that required attention. With his eyes fixed firmly on the C'Kaia, Chris spoke to his engineer. "Mary, see if you can find the audio control to the outside corridor."

After a moment or so, he heard her answer.

"Here it is." She nodded and gingerly approached the communications panel in the complex.

As she began working on his request, Chris addressed the C'Kaia again. Time had run out for it to consider its options, a decision had to be made now.

"Carer, I need to know if you are going to help us. I do not wish to destroy the hatchery but rest assured I will if I think that is the only way to escape your ship alive." Chris paused a moment and then added. "Carer, if you help us escape, I will see to it no danger will come to the hatchery. My companion and I only wish to return home."

"You will not harm the unborn?" It asked nervously.

"I give you my word, for all it is worth to you that if you help us escape, the hatchery will remain undamaged. However, I cannot guarantee its survival if we do it alone. Our knowledge of your technology is tenuous as it is, one wrong button pushed and we may accidentally kill the entire hatchery. Do you wish to take that risk Carer?"

"Captain," Mary interrupted before the C'Kaia had a chance to answer. "I have activated the communication relay in the pylon. You may speak to them now."

"Do I have your answer?" Chris demanded, not tolerating any further hesitation. "Will you help us?"

Finally, the C'Kaia nodded slowly. "I will help you if you keep your vow that the unborn shall not be harmed."

"Good," Chris nodded. "Now, how do I get a visual of the corridor?" He asked quickly. The C'Kaia stepped forward gingerly, conscious of the weapon pointed at him as he walked towards the console. His odd shaped digits moved across the controls with surprising dexterity and within seconds, one of the inactivated screens came alive with the image Chris sought.

There were at least five C'Kaia at the door, trying to cut their way inside. Chris knew they could not be allowed to penetrate the hatchery so he had to make his move now. Taking a deep breath, he spoke.

"To the C'Kaia who are trying to penetrate the hatchery of the unborn, stop immediately!"

Chris saw them react to the sound of his voice. They stopped working on the door and searched the source of the voice. It did not take them long to realise that it had been transmitted from elsewhere.

One of them approached the image recorder mounted on the ceiling of the pylon and glared directly into it. While all the other C'Kaia Chris had seen so far were a dark, bluish colour, this C'Kaia and his companions were hued in crimson shades. If a caste system was in effect here, it was likely these were the warrior drones.

"We will do no such thing human!" The leader responded indignantly once the initial shock faded away. "You would be wise to give yourselves up immediately."

"I don't think so. Your power over us ended the moment we entered your hatchery. You cannot recapture us without endangering your own. We have seized command of your hatchery control and if you and your fellow C'Kaia do not withdraw to the outer ring immediately, I will jettison the entire contents of this sphere!"

"You would not dare such an atrocity!" The C'Kaia shouted in outrage. "We will destroy you and your entire race for such murder!"

"Then you will withdraw." Chris said coolly, unaffected by the C'Kaia's vehemence.

"Never!"

"Mary, depressurise the sphere." Chris ordered.

"You promised not to harm the unborn!"

"Your eggs are in a stasis field are they not?" He turned to the C'Kaia.

"Yes." It nodded. "They are protected inside the field."

"Then depressurising the sphere will not harm them, even if it is for a short period of time. I do not intend to carry out my threat unless provoked Carer, I am merely expressing to your comrades the threat I make is real."

That seemed to calm the C'Kaia down a bit but Chris did not intend to trust him with too much. The alien was too agitated and too unfamiliar with the situation to be reliable. As Mary activated the depressurisation process, a red warning light began flashing inside the room, indicating the commencement of the procedure. Klaxons began screaming inside the hatchery and outside it, Chris was sure. The warrior C'Kaia certainly heard the alarm for depressurisation because within seconds, he heard their leader shouting at him to stop.

"You savages!" He heard them shout and wondered if they could be any more hypocritical considering what they did to the colonies on Kalendra 2, Omega 6, and God knows how many others.

"There is still time to stop this," Chris addressed them again. "Withdraw now and we will abort the procedure."

The C'Kaia turned to the others in his group to make the decision, with the sounds of klaxons wailing the background, reminding them the consequences of the wrong choice. After a moment, the leader turned back to Chris and responded in a low growl. "We will withdraw for now."

"You made the right decision." Chris answered, not allowing it to show either in his voice or in his face how relieved he was they had not forced him to go through with his threat. "Now leave the pylon."

"What guarantee do we have that you will not harm the unborn when we have complied?"

"You don't have one." Chris said sharply. "However, you can be assured that the hatchery will remain safe for the time being. Now leave immediately or you might give me the impression you intend to go back on your word. Trust me, that would not be wise."

The threat in his voice was clear and the C'Kaia did not dare gamble with the lives of their precious cargo. At least, not until the odds were better stacked against them. Chris knew his advantage was temporary. The C'Kaia had formidable technology on their side and may be preparing to use it even as they stood here contemplating their next move. Finally, the stalemate was broken and the C'Kaia warrior contingent made a reluctant retreat.

Once they were gone, Chris turned to Mary and the C'Kaia Carer. "Alright, we don't have much time." His eyes moved to the C'Kaia. "You're going to help us separate the ship."

"That has not been done in centuries!" The C'Kaia declared. "I am not even certain if the ship is structurally capable of doing so now! You are endangering all of us by this foolhardy attempt at escape."

Chris wondered how much of its protests were genuine and how much of it was an effort to stall for time. In either case, Chris was not going to pay the C'Kaia's outburst more attention then necessary. "I am willing to take that risk," he stated firmly. "Now you will help us or I swear I will go out there and shoot every one of the unborn before your eyes if necessary!" He raised his weapon higher for effect. "Do we understand each other?"

The venom in his voice surprised Mary and she wondered how much of it was a facade for the benefit of the C'Kaia. She knew humans could be extremely violent when they wanted to be and this side of the captain unsettled her greatly.

"I understand." The C'Kaia nodded, suitably intimidated for the moment. "I will assist you as I promised. I will reiterate this ship has not separated for a great length of time and I cannot assure you it will work."

"Show my engineer what needs to be done and it will." Chris answered with a little more calm in his voice.

The C'Kaia turned to Mary and said quietly. "It will take a few minutes," he began. "The prelaunch sequence must be followed exactly. I have never done this before but I am told that there are no shortcuts to the procedure."

"I understand." Mary nodded as the C'Kaia set to work. "What time we have will have to suffice."

As Chris heard that, he sighed to himself and hoped it would be enough. They had only one shot at this and failure was not an option.

Chapter Twenty Three:
Failsafe

Vin Tanner found Alexandra Styles sitting at her favourite place inside the observation deck. He knew she liked that place better than she liked Four Corners because there were less people there. It was more than a day since the Captain was taken and the mood on the Maverick remained grim. Vin himself felt similar feelings of anger and frustration at the Captain's abduction off their bridge. The helm officer knew Ezra was particularly infuriated by that fact and the normally suave and charming security chief was wearing a black cloud since the kidnapping, cursing at their inability to stop the enemy from beaming the captain right off the bridge.

He walked into the observation deck hoping to find her here; unable to explain why seeing her was often the highlight of his day. Vin found so much pleasure in just talking to her, he was at a loss to understand why. Not to mention since she kissed him, he yearned to have her touch him again. She met his gaze as he approached her and flashed him a smile, the one she gave no one else but him. It made his heart rate increase just a little faster. Vin wondered if he was being subject to some metabolic anomaly that Vulcans seemed to acquire at the most inconvenient times. Perhaps he would ask Doctor Jackson about it when the present crisis was over.

"Hello Vin." She greeted him, holding a warm mug of hot chocolate in her hands. It had one marshmallow on top that was slowly liquefying because of the heat emanating from the beverage. "Just come off duty?"

"Yes." He nodded as he sat down before her. It was nice to know he did not have to ask her permission anymore.

"I came off an hour ago myself." Alex remarked, her gaze fixed on the stars outside even though she liked his company. "Anything interesting to report?" She was perfectly aware if there were Buck would have summoned her to the bridge by now.

"No." He shook his head somberly, reminded of the Captain then and feeling a wave of sadness at his absence. Ever since he had met Captain Larabee, Vin had got the sense the man was not just his commanding officer but also his friend. Vin did not have that many friends to afford losing them. He hated the captain being gone and even more so because they could do nothing to get him back. "There's still nothing."

Alex caught the sorrow in his eyes and felt the urge to hold him. She did not know why she felt the way she did about Vin Tanner, only recognising that she saw a soul as lost as her own, struggling to find its way back to the light or even reach it for the first time. She looked in those pools of cobalt and knew instantly what he was feeling and was starting to believe he could do the same for her too.

"Vin, we'll find him." She said trying to make him feel better because she hated seeing him sad. It reached into the dark depths of herself where Alex had not believed anything could penetrate, and reminded her most acutely she was not as emotionally detached as she thought.

"I know we will." He said with a smile and then raised his eyes to meet hers. "Can I ask you something?"

"Yes," she liked him smiling and was happy to oblige him in his questions. He was so full of them even though they were roughly the same age.

"Why are you so sad?"

The question caught her by surprise but she recovered quickly. In a quiet voice, she responded, "what makes you say I'm sad?"

"Because you are." He answered honestly, the only way he knew how to respond to any question. "It's everywhere. It's in your voice, in your eyes and its even in your smile."

His ability to see through her felt oddly liberating but at the same time, she hated it because it made her unable to lie to him with any success.

Alex took a deep breath and released it. She supposed Buck Wilmington was right. She did did need to tell someone and this Vulcan was the only person on this ship, she could say she trusted with complete and utter conviction, probably because she cared about him more than any other person on the Maverick.

Slowly, she answered him and the words escaped her as if it were torn from her lips. "I was captured by the Cardassians when I was stationed on Deep Space 9."

Vin said nothing but knew enough about the Cardassians to know how they treated their prisoners. Male prisoners suffered brutally enough but even imagining what a female must have endured, suddenly made him understand a little better.

"It was very bad." He stated, not asking because it could be no other way.

Alex blinked. Bad was an understatement. How to tell him that they'd broken her into so many pieces, she was still trying to put the fragments of herself together? That she still woke up screaming at night because of what they had done.

"I was held there for six months," she forced herself to continue when suddenly, she felt his hand in hers.

Alex had not noticed how close he had been sitting before but was suddenly very aware of him in a manner that did not seem to register at first, because it had been so damn long since she felt anything remotely like it. His skin was warm against hers and Alex felt her stomach leap inside her as he gently intertwined his fingers between her own and held it there in support.

"Cardassians do not obey any of the rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. They will do anything to break you and it came to a point where I had to do anything to escape. I made a choice to survive and so I did what I had do to get out."

To this day, she couldn't even think about what that choice led her to do and swore, no one would ever find out. Especially not this Vulcan she cared so much about.

He did not understand that part of it but he could tell from her eyes that it must have been terrible indeed to cause so much pain. "I'm sorry. I should not have made you talk about it."

"No it's okay," Alex answered with a faint smile. "You know the world didn't fall apart like I thought it would, if I spoke about it. Maybe in time, I'll tell you a little more."

"I would listen."

"I know you would." Alex met his eyes and said warmly. "That's what friends do, we listen." She glanced at the stars again and added, "That's why we have to wait here for the Captain because he's your friend and we'll get him back."

"Chris is pretty resourceful." Vin commented. "I'll bet at this moment, he's showing the enemy a thing or two about Captain's ingenuity."

* * * * * * *

"Can we please get some stabiliser control so I can stop falling on my ass!" Chris grumbled as he attempted to get to his feet again. Around him, the sphere was shuddering badly as Mary and the C'Kaia wrestled with the controls as they attempted to separate the hatchery sphere from the rest of the ship. Although he was quite certain that the C'Kaia Carer was not deliberately hindering their attempts to complete the separation, it appeared the alien knew less than he was admitting. Chris was starting to believe it when the C'Kaia had stated that the sphere had not undergone separation in centuries.

Klaxons were screaming throughout the sphere and Chris ventured to guess that similar alarms were being sounded on the ring section of the C'Kaia vessel. He knew they had achieved partial separation because the sphere was now rocking dangerously as it tried to unattach all docking clamps to the rest of the ship.

"We must abort!" The Carer cried out. "One of the docking clamps is malfunctioning! We are unable to separate."

"Can it be done manually?" Chris asked as he hung onto a nearby panel for dear life.

The Carer considered this for a moment. "Yes, it can. There is a manual release on the starboard section of this craft."

"Give me a floor plan schematic!" Chris ordered.

Within seconds, one of the consoles flashed the information required. Chris studied it carefully after the Carer showed him the location of the errant docking clamp. After a moment, he turned to Mary. "Keep your weapon on him while I'm doing this."

In response, Mary stepped back from the panel leaving the C'Kaia to work alone as she raised her weapon and aimed carefully. While they had been working to release the ship, the C'Kaia had been conscious of the captain's weapon aiming at it and poised to fire. Like Chris she did not trust the alien enough to believe it would not make a bid for escape once they were alone.

"All right," Chris said contented with the situation. "I'll be back soon."

Chris hurried out of the control room and saw the small access hatch located at the turn of the corridor leading back into the hatchery. Earlier on, he and Mary had run straight past it without seeing it but now that he was looking, Chris detected it easily enough. There was a small activation pad on the base of the wall to access the hatch. Once again, it was designed for C'Kaia hands and was quite easy for a human to operate. The hatch slid open with a loud hiss of hydraulic gases and a musty smell drifted from the opening.

As he lowered himself into the passageway and started climbing downwards, he could feel dust on his palms as he gripped the wrung of a ladder. The ship was still shuddering as it tried to escape its tether and Chris had a great deal of difficulty maintaining his hold. His descent into the engineering deck of the sphere section was slow but it gave him time to observe. The illumination in this part of the ship was dim. However, he was still able to visualise the vague shapes of machinery around him and hear the low humming of the engines resonating in his ears. According to the floor plan, he knew he did not have far to go before he reached bottom.

He let go of the rung and dropped to the remaining feet to the floor. Landing on the hard metal deck with a loud clang, Chris looked around and saw the engine core directly in front of him. It did not seem much different from the warp cores of some of the older constitution class ships, but knew that the dynamic of this ship was completely different to those ancient vessels. The similarities went as far as appearance only because this was an engine capable of transwarp speed. The machinery around the transwarp core was throbbing with its own kind of life as the core required no C'Kaia or human to aid its function.

Chris made a quick investigation as he moved towards the rear of the room. According to the schematics he saw earlier, the manual release controls for the docking clamp were on this deck. It appeared the entire deck was completely automated. The access hatch that brought him here was only meant to be utilised to conduct routine maintenance on these systems. Beyond that, the sphere's engine core did not require outside assistance to function.

The manual release clamps were situated in varying points around the large engineering deck. Fortunately, Chris needed to reach only one. It was getting harder and harder to maintain his balance as the ship's shuddering seemed to have become worse. If they did not separate from the ring soon, the sphere's structural integrity could be compromised. Considering this was their only way to escape, it was a state of affairs they could not afford.

As he approached the manual release, he saw the large, metal lever jutting out from the wall. Once again, the lever was designed so that a minimum amount of force was required to activate it. However when he went to pull the lever down, it took a great deal of strength to budge it. The physical strength of the C'Kaia must have been formidable, Chris thought. Nevertheless after a determined effort to move the lever, Chris felt the manual release engage.

When it did, he felt the engines heave with a wave of power. The shuddering stop in one final surge forcing him to the floor. Even though he could not see it for himself, Chris knew the sphere had made the separation successfully. When he was upright again, he noticed the shuddering had stopped and the engines were humming with a rhythmic pulse indicating energy flow.

It took him a few minutes to return to the control room now the ship had stopped shaking and he had the freedom to hurry instead of taking carefully measured steps. When he arrived, Mary was at navigation control although her weapon was still pointed at the C'Kaia. Upon seeing him, she lowered the gun and set her full attention to what she was doing.

"I set the coordinates as you said. Unless I really botched it up, we should be returning to Federation space at transwarp speed." She said unable to hide her concern she might be wrong.

"What about the ring section of the C'Kaia ship?" Chris questioned, coming next to her. "Are they in pursuit?"

"Yes they are." The C'Kaia answered for them. "They are in pursuit." The C'Kaia indicated towards another console. Judging from the trajectory readings of the two blips on the screen, it was clear the Carer was telling the truth. Not that it mattered anyway, Chris had expected the C'Kaia to follow them.

"Thank you." Chris answered and turned back to him. "You've kept your word, Carer. I will keep mine. We will not harm the unborn. Our plans at this point are merely to return to our own space and to my ship. After that, you may return the hatchery to your sister ship"

The Carer seemed somewhat surprised by Chris's gratitude although it was difficult to tell for certain. He had very little contact with insect species of this specialised development. Generally, it was unusual for an insect species to evolve to this sophistication. The unfortunate realities of nature had always placed arthopod life forms at the bottom of the food chain, to be preyed on by almost every other classification. If they did not meet their destruction as a food source, they were usually destroyed because they were considered pestilence.

"I am only a Carer of the unborn. I do not wish to see any creature harmed but it is not my place to question those of the High Caste." It was an attempt at an explanation and Chris accepted the gesture for what it was.

"Do you have a name Carer?"

"I am simply the Carer." It answered unable to grasp the need for a name. "We do not have use for personal designation."

"Are there many carers?"

"No," it shook its head. "I am the only one. We cannot afford to hatch many of the unborn. Only a small number are allowed to maintain the ships and the hatcheries."

"Why are the hatcheries located on ships?" Chris found himself asking. If he was to resolve this situation, he needed to know as much about the C'Kaia as possible. Besides, the Carer did not seem to mind answering his questions. This was probably because its entire genetic make up was specialised to perform one task and its mind were not created for anything else. It would not be filled with suspicion or animosity unless it had directly to do with the well being of the unborn. "It is not a safe situation to place children."

"We have no choice on this matter. Our home planet went nova generations ago and were forced into these ships to safeguard what was left of our race."

"What about colonising other planets?" If there was one thing he knew about insects was their adaptability in any environment. They were one of the hardiest creatures in existence anywhere.

"We were not welcomed elsewhere and the High Caste decided that we needed to conquer the worlds that we wanted. Our numbers then were smaller than it was now. It was decided a warrior race should be created in order to colonise worlds we desired."

"The Borg."

Of course. Now it made sense. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place with that explanation. "You used a telepathic female you hoped could link the minds of the species you needed as warriors as your collective will is linked. You implanted them with cybernetic devices to maintain control but something went wrong didn't it?"

The C'Kaia nodded slowly and somewhat regretfully as well. "Somehow, she possessed independent will and all we had succeeded in doing was creating a new and deadlier life form that we had intended them to be."

"So you unleashed your Frankenstein on an unsuspecting galaxy and have been responsible for the deaths of billions."

"We tell ourselves those were not C'Kaia so it does not matter." The Carer's voice became soft. "I do not feel this way. I am responsible for the unborn and I cherish their lives enough to learn that perhaps all life means something to the race who spawns it. I would not like it if I were the only one who felt that way."

It was a hard admission to make, Chris was sure and he appreciated the Carer's honesty. "You are not. Perhaps when this is all over, you may tell the C'Kaia the Federation has many unseeded worlds for colonisation. You need not wander like this."

"You would do this for us even after what we have done to your own?" The Carer said astonished.

"Yes," Mary answered, hoping she was not being too forward in making promises of this magnitude for the Federation. However, she believed the C'Kaiahad a great deal to offer the Federation if it could be convinced that other species were not slaves for their service. "Need forces us to do things we often regret and it appears your need is great."

"I wish we could accept your kindness but I know the Higher Caste will not agree. Perhaps before the Borg female was destroyed, such an agreement may have been possible."

"I don't understand." Chris declared. "With or without the Queen, they are still dangerous."

"Unless you have a fail safe device." Mary stated. While she had been concentrating on keeping the controls directed at navigating the sphere ship back to Federation space, she had been listening to the Captain's conversation with the C'Kaia. "Something that the Borg themselves do not know but perhaps the Queen did."

"Yes." The Carer admitted. "I am uncertain of its mechanics but there was an original fail safe device that could be triggered in the event of a malfunction. However, the female somehow blocked our efforts to trigger it. The High Caste believe it still exists but we have no way to access it."

That was it. The final piece of the puzzle. The piece that completed the picture and explained everything.

"That's why you came after me." Chris stated with a note of triumph. "The C'Kaia wanted information about Picard because he was able to tap into the Borg Collective consciousness and defeat them. Now they want me assimilated so I can have the same access to the Collective and trigger the failsafe."

"An audacious plan." Mary declared.

"To say the least." Chris started to grin. For the first time since this all began, Chris Larabee had a plan and he knew what to do. "Mary," he said quickly. "We need to send a message to the Maverick."

"With a little help from the Carer here, I fail to see why we can't. Do you want to tell them where we are."

"It would do them very little good. At transwarp, we'd reach them first. No," Chris shook his head. "I have something a little different in mind."

Mary raised a brow and let him continue.

* * * * * * *

How much longer were they going to search for the Captain, JD Dunne found himself thinking, though he hated to think the Maverick would lose its commander during its maiden voyage, he was starting to believe there was little they could do to prevent it. They had been dutifully maintaining their pursuit for three days now and there was still little indication to prove Captain Larabee or Lieutenant Travis was still alive. He had spent most of his shift monitoring all subspace channels or frequencies for anything to assist in their rescue attempt. Unfortunately, his success was almost non existent.

The bridge seemed to be caught in a black mood of depression that was slowly filtering to the rest of the ship with each passing day they maintain their pursuit of the transwarp vessel. He wondered what could have possessed Starfleet Command to urge them to continue their search considering the ship was probably so far away now that catching up to it was astronomical. However, JD was not about to bring that up to the first officer.

Buck remained where he was since he had arrived at the beginning of his shift, firmly seated in the command chair. JD wondered what was going through his mind. Was he starting to see it was hopeless too? Nevertheless, his actions had bolstered much confidence among the crew. Even if his determination to rescue the captain seemed foolish, it was nice to know he had at least tried and would put the same effort into retrieving them if they too were lost as the Captain.

Lieutenant Standish however, seemed to show signs of wear. JD noticed the Security Chief was more sombre these days, no doubt because he was angry at how they captain had been taken off the bridge through all his security protocols. Perhaps, he knew what no one else wanted to admit even though the possibility loomed heavily in their mind, that it might be too late for the Captain or Lieutenant Travis.

The Maverick entered new territory now. The space they were now traversing had never been charted before and stellar cartography was making the most of this opportunity. It would have been nice if the circumstance bringing them out here was less dire. Suddenly, the sudden flashing on his communication panel interrupted his thoughts.

"Commander, I am receiving an incoming transmission." JD immediately declared.

Buck rose to his feet in the centre of the room and met his gaze directly.

"From Starfleet Command?" He asked before exchanging glances with Alex.

What was that about?

"No Sir," JD replied automatically, ignoring the odd behaviour of the two command officers. "This transmission isn't coming from Federation space."

The news rippled through the bridge like a wave and swept everyone along with it. JD listened carefully to the incoming signal whose frequency was completely alien but undoubtedly possessed a Starfleet recognition code. It did not take him long to decipher it.

"Commander," JD looked up at the first officer in astonishment. "Its Captain Larabee's identification code."

Everyone on the room shared the sigh of relief released by Buck Wilmington. However, he did not let himself enjoy the moment and returned to business immediately. "What does the transmission relay?"

JD returned his attention to the transmission being sent and quickly punched into the translation. "The transmission is travelling on a frequency I've never seen before. Its faster than normal subspace. I would say its a highly focused pulse of some sort."

"The content JD." Buck insisted. "The specifics aren't important at this time."

"Yes Sir," JD nodded. "The message relates, Captain Larabee Lieutenant Travis have escaped and are on their way to the Vikaris Quasar."

"Which means we'll run into them." Alex concluded.

"Please continue." Buck said to JD again and Alex fell silent.

"He has given us a instructions prior to intercept."

"Instructions?" Buck declared with mild surprise. "What sort of instructions?"

JD met his gaze, not understanding the nature of the request himself but relaying it nonetheless. "He wants us to turn our communications array into an interplexing beacon with a directional focus of vector 23 mark 563."

It took a moment for him to calculate the approximate location of those coordinates but when the answer appeared before his eyes, JD could hardly believe it. He looked up at Buck whose expression seemed even darker than his.

"Commander," he responded slowly, still unable to believe what the Captain had requested of them. "Those coordinates are in ..."

"I know JD." Buck cut him off before he could say it. Undoubtedly, experience had allowed him to calculate the importance of those coordinates long before he had received his answer from the terminal. "Those coordinates are in Borg space."

Chapter Twenty Four:
Bargaining Points

"Captain, the ring vessel is hailing us." Mary announced.

Chris had expected they would even if he did not voice it. "Let's hear what they have to say."

It had been several hours since they separated from the rest of the C'Kaia vessel. Although the ring section of the ship had been in close pursuit, it had not open fire on them. In taking the sphere, Chris had not only ensured a means of escape for himself and Mary, but with the hatchery on board, the C'Kaia were helpless to retrieve them. Since the sphere was heavily shielded and armoured, the C'Kaia were also unable to transport the eggs or them for that matter, and firing on the hatchery was not an option.

Temporarily, it appeared that he was holding all the cards.

"Captain Larabee, we wish to inform you that this foolishness will not be tolerated." The superior voice of the C'Kaia filled the airwaves. Even though, they had declined to provide them with a visual signal, Chris knew from the voice it was the C'Kaia who was responsible for his interrogation. "We demand the return of the Unborn immediately."

Chris rolled his eyes in resignation before responding to the C'Kaia. "The Unborn will be returned to you when my officer and I are back on our ship. In the meantime, I suggest you drop the attitude and remember the only reason we have not destroyed them is because it suits our purpose to keep them alive. Do not presume to think we will not do the same if their usefulness to us is ended. I am well aware of the limitations placed upon you since I am in possession of the hatchery. You will retreat out of our scanner range until such time as I locate my ship." He said coldly and then added for effect. "I recommend that you don't force my hand, you won't like the results."

There was a momentary pause and Chris wondered if they did not have a new trick up their sleeve or some alternative he had not anticipated. However, nothing happened and Mary made an announcement shortly after. "Well they did it. They've withdrawn out of scanner range."

"Good," Chris nodded in return. "How is our Carer?" He inquired when the tension had eased.

Until now, the Carer had been focussed with monitoring the condition of the eggs in a hatchery. Chris hoped when the time came, the Carer could escape the consequences of aiding them in their escape. While much of its co-operation was due to the genetic engineering ruthlessly compelling the Carer to place the Unborn above all other considerations, Chris knew that there was more to it. He got a sense the Carer was tired of this nomadic existence and did not appear to believe that the C'Kaia were the only true life forms in the universe. Perhaps it was due to its place in the Caste, who knew for sure?

"Carer," Chris was suddenly struck with a thought. "Are you male or female?"

The Carer looked over its shoulder, or equivalent anyway. "I am male as you are both. Why do you ask?"

Chris threw a glance at Mary who was engrossed in her study of the controls, before returning his gaze back to the Carer. "What do you mean both?"

Sensing some importance in the question, the Carer turned around to face him. "You are both males."

An understandable mistake from an alien, Chris supposed. How many humans would the Carer have encountered to know the difference? "Carer, I am male but Lieutenant Travis is female."

"A female?" The surprise showed in the sudden quiver of the Carer's short stunted wings. "The one called Mary is a female?" The Carer cocked its head to one side, examining Mary like she was some strange kind of creature.

"Yes I am," Mary joined in the conversation. "Are C'Kaia females not allowed to serve on your ships?"

"I have not seen a C'Kaia female in my lifetime. There are none among us."

"But the hatchery...." Chris started to say.

"When our world went nova, we were unable to save the Great Mother or the Newlings would replace her. The Unborn were removed before the devastation. Someday, when we conquer the universe, we will release the stasis field and the Unborn will at last join us. We calculate that a quarter of this number will be female."

That explained why the C'Kaia had created the Borg to colonise their worlds. They simply could not afford to take their ships into battle and run the risk of losing the hatcheries. If not for the Unborn in the hatcheries, the C'Kaia would have become extinct long ago. According to the Carer, the C'Kaia released the stasis field on a small number of eggs only when the need arose. This was mostly for replacement of crew who were aging or who had been killed during the course of their nomadic existence in space.

Chris was about to question the Carer more about the social structure of the C'Kaia when suddenly a sharp beeping erupted from the nearby controls. Mary turned her attention to it immediately as both Chris and the Carer joined her there. During the past few hours, Mary expertise in handling the complex controls had increased and she no longer needed the Carer's continuous assistance.

"What is it?"

"A ship is entering extreme sensor range." Mary replied automatically.

"The ring section?" He asked, wondering what the C'Kaia had up their sleeve now or were they simply attempting to test his resolve. For all their sakes, Chris hoped they did not intend to call his bluff because he could not say how far he was prepared to go to get Mary back to the ship safely. If it was just his life, things would be simple but it was not. She had a son who needed her and Chris did not intend to let the boy lose another parent.

"No," Mary answered, shaking her head. "It is coming from Federation space."

Federation space? While this part of space was largely unexplored, it was also uncharted by the majority of Alpha Quadrant ships. No formal contact had ever been made to the worlds in this sector of the quadrant but that did not mean there were not privateers out here.

"Can you get a ID lock?"

"Not at this range." She responded but her hands indicated otherwise. They were moving across the board with amazing speed.

"Your female learns quickly." The Carer remarked. "Reputedly, our females are only for breeding."

"Well maybe not all things about C'Kaia customs are bad." He threw Mary a wolfish smile.

"Captain," she looked over her shoulder and remarked with smirk. "You're a pig and I think you need to see this."

Chris was at her side and examined the readings. "That's a Federation warp signature."

What was a Federation ship doing out this far? Suddenly, with a flash of insight, he knew who was out there. When he had sent the message earlier about the interplexing beacon, he had done so on nothing more than faith that his first officer and his ship were still in existence. Most likely licking their wounds in the Vikaris Pulsar after their encounter with the C'Kaia ship. Neither could he ignore the nagging fear in the back of his mind the C'Kaia might have destroyed the ship after their abduction. Now, however, it appeared his ship was not only in one piece, but Buck had done the unexpected by coming after them instead of returning to Federation space.

"It's the Maverick." He stated firmly.

"That is your ship then?" The Carer inquired.

"We think so." Chris answered before another thought occurred to him and it was a possibility that did not bode well for his plans. "The other ship is going to be able to pick her up."

She realised where he was going with this. "You think they're in danger." It was a statement not a question.

"Yes I do." He nodded. "I want maximum acceleration right now. We have to get there first. We've got a bargaining point with the hatchery, we don't need to give the C'Kaia one as well with the Maverick."

* * * * * * *

"Buck," Ezra spoke up, his voice carrying across the bridge. "I have picked up multiple transwarp signatures at extreme sensor range."

"I need a better definition of multiple signals than that, Commander." Buck said without looking at him

"Aye Sir." Ezra replied promptly, knowing that the identification was important in light that the Captain had escaped.

Nevertheless, since hearing from the Captain, crew morale rose considerably. Buck himself had contacted Starfleet Command and offered an explanation for the Maverick delay in returning to Deep Space Five. Although, he did have to confess at being perplexed by the Captain's instructions to them.

"How is the work coming along on the construction of the interplexing beacon?" He asked Alex who was at her customary position at the science console despite her temporary promotion to acting first officer.

"Julia tells me that it is ready. Apparently, she and her crew have been working double time to get it done."

"I'll make a note to enter a commendation in the logs for their work." Buck answered calmly. "Ezra, how we doing ascertaining how many transwarp signatures are in sensor range?"

"Better than before," the security chief replied unable to hide the confusion in his voice. "I think there are two but their transwarp signatures are odd."

"How so?" Buck swivelled around in his chair to face him.

"Well, one signature fits with the previous recorded signature of the enemy vessel but there is a slight variance in the other. Two ship perhaps?" Ezra suggested.

"I don't think so." Alex replied hurrying next to his console to take a look at the readings herself. "More like a slight shift in warp field of a very narrow margin."

Buck considered that for a moment. Then it clicked into his head with an almost audible sound. His conclusion had merit given what they knew of the enemy and it now offered a possible explanation for the structure of the enemy vessel. "Alex, when we separate our ship, are our warp signatures identical?"

Her eyes flew open, understanding immediately. "They are almost identical with a slight shift in the configuration of the warp field."

"You think they've separated their ship?" Ezra looked at him.

"It might explain how the Captain and Lieutenant Travis were able to escape and transmit their message to us."

"Buck, one of the transwarp ships have accelerated considerably. They're putting considerable distance between themselves and the other ship." Ezra said suddenly.

Buck reserved his opinion on that turn of events for the present. "What is the course of the lead ship?"

"Its on an intercept course." Ezra replied. "It should reach us in 14. 9 minutes."

"Battlestations." Buck rose to his feet. "All hands to red alert."

"It could be the Captain." Alex pointed out.

"And it might not be." He said coolly. "At this point, I'm not willing to gamble until we have more information."

"Yes Sir." She nodded dutifully knowing blind faith in the Captain's abilities was not the best way to proceed. At the moment, they knew he was alive. That was enough. However, neither she nor Buck had voiced the suspicion the enemy might have extracted Captain Larabee's security code from him and was using it to draw them into a trap. While the possibility was unlikely, she was reminded of Buck's words that their lack of information was a liability.

The doors to the bridge slid open and Nathan and Josiah stepped out of the turbo lift and unto the floor. Although it was not necessary for either of them to be on the bridge at this moment, Josiah knew he could not stay away. He was slowly going mad pacing the floor of his office waiting for news of Chris now that they knew he was alive.

"Nathan," Buck looked at him. "Less I'm the one whose needing it, I don't seem to recall anyone being sick."

"Since we are going into a combat situation, it would be wise to have a doctor on the bridge." Nathan had carried his medical case with him in the instance his presence was questioned. Either way, it was a lame excuse and he knew it. The question was, did the first office know it as well?

"Commander," Josiah spoke up. "I requested the doctor's presence on the bridge. While Captain Larabee's identification code has been verified, we do not know that information was not taken from him under duress. It may be necessary for us to confirm the authenticity of the message by other means, voice pattern and DNA testing."

Buck nodded in understanding. "A wise precaution. How do you propose we do this?" He asked, even though it was actually impossible for such testing to be any value since the captain was not hear to provide the samples to make a proper identification. However, Buck could understand why they wished to be on the bridge.

"You can stay," Buck frowned turning back to the view screen. "Only because I don't have the heart to turn away two such lousy liars off the bridge."

* * * * * * *

"It is the Maverick." Chris declared as the first image of the ship appeared on one of the screens inside the control room. However, his pleasure was short-lived and he remembered the urgency of their situation. "Has the other ship picked up on them yet?"

"If their sensor range is comparable with this vessel's, then I would say that it is a strong possibility they have detected the Maverick." The Carer replied.

Damn, he wished they could get good news sometimes. "Once they reach the Maverick, they're going to use her as target practice until we give up the hatchery."

"My people would do this." The Carer offered his opinion. "We would do no less to ensure the safe return of the Unborn."

"I hope that interplexing beacon is set up or this is going to be one short homecoming. How long until we reach the Maverick?"

"At this speed, I estimate within the next ten minutes." Mary answered.

"Okay," Chris nodded and considered his options. "We should be in communication range, hail them."

A partial plan had been forming in his head ever since he learnt about the Borg and their relationship to the C'Kaia. During their journey to Federation space, Chris had a chance to iron out most of the bugs from a very risky idea. However, a gamble was all he had. There was no way the Maverick could take on the C'Kaia ship. They may be able to damage it but not without destroying itself first. Their encounters with the C'Kaia had proved their weakness so any solution to their current crisis would not be won on a show of strength. It had to be won on fear. Unfortunately, Chris had expected Buck and the Maverick to be in the vicinity of the Vikaris Quasar, instead of pursuing a transwarp signature they could never hope to catch. He had no idea why he was surprised, Buck would be determined enough to come after him.

In Buck's place, Chris knew he would.

"Contact established." Mary announced with pride because she was mastering the technical aspects of this situation quite admirably.

On one of the screens, Buck's image appeared before them. Standing alongside Buck was Josiah, whose brow was knitted in concentration.

"You finally lost your mind that you need a Counsellor on the bridge Buck?" Chris smirked at his first officer.

Buck burst into a wide grin and although the screen offered a limited view of the bridge, Chris could tell that the rest of the crew shared his relief.

"It is good to see you Chris," Buck answered. "We were starting to believe that we'd lost you for good."

They had no idea how close they had come to doing just that, Chris thought to himself but did not say it out loud. "Well you haven't got me back completely yet. We've still got a great deal of work to do before the other ship reaches us."

At that, Josiah stepped back realising that Chris needed to confer with his first officer. "Buck, why are you here? I thought you would be on your way to Federation space by now."

"You're welcome," Buck said sarcastically. "While I'm thrilled to see you, you mind telling us what's going on?"

"Lieutenant Travis and I have commandeered this vessel. It contains the hatchery for the C'Kaia young."

"The C'Kaia?"

"Yes," Chris answered. "I don't have time to explain now. Is the interplexing beacon ready?"

"Aye Sir," Buck replied. "Julia put in a supreme effort to get it done."

"Good. Now I need you to transmit the following message through the interplexing beacon."

Chris gave him the specifics of the message he had constructed over the past few hours. Upon hearing it, Buck's surprise was evident.

"This is a highly risky action," Buck commented. "Are you certain there are no other options?"

"Unfortunately no," Chris shook his head. "Make certain that it is ready to transmit immediately. For the moment, we have other problems. By now, the other C'Kaia ship knows you are here and will probably try to bargain your life for the Unborn on this ship. We can't allow them to get the upper hand. We will be in intercept range in a matter of minutes, until then hold position and go to battle stations."

"Already done." Buck said confidently.

"You're just too good Commander." Chris grinned. "I'll contact you when we reach your position."

With that, the communication channel between the two ships was terminated and Chris turned back to the Carer. The C'Kaia deserved an explanation in light of what he had witnessed between Chris and his first officer. Despite being their prisoner, the Carer had willingly helped in their escape and surrendered more information than was required of him to provide. Thanks to the Carer, they had been provided not only with valuable information about the C'Kaia but also the Borg.

"Carer, I know what you have heard may sound alarming but I assure you we will not be forced to take this action unless your people gives us no other choice."

"I understand that you are compelled to do what you must," the Carer replied. "However, if you do this, you condemn our race to death."

Chris placed a hand on the C'Kaia's shoulder. "Carer, your people are not fools. They know as well as I do what the stakes are. When my plan is brought to their attention, I am sure they will not risk the lives of the Unborn any more than you are willing to do."

The Carer however, appeared unconvinced. "The High Caste are not always reasonable. You may not have a choice but to retaliate."

Chris had considered the possibility but instinct told him that this was their only chance. With the Dominion War still raging on the other side of the galaxy and the recent Borg attack on Earth, the Federation could not afford to waste resources on fighting a new enemy. The C'Kaia had proved themselves to be a formidable threat. Even though their numbers were small, the technology gave them an advantage and it did not appear they were prepared to give any quarter for the savagery of their attack. Certainly not after destroying Federation colonies that were home to women and children with ruthless and clinical efficiency.

No matter, how many of the high minded ideals of his Federation past lingered in his mind, Chris knew that war allowed for no such considerations. They had one weapon that could silence the C'Kaia forever and end the threat to the Federation. As much as it pained him to use it, Chris knew he would do so if forced into it. Even the C'Kaia knew if his message were allowed to escape the memory banks of the interplexing beacon, it would signal the death knell to the entire C'Kaia race.

"Captain, the ring ship is increasing speed." His reverie was broken by Mary's announcement.

"I gathered they would." Chris said with a sigh. He had expected them to do so once they had the Maverick on its scopes. No doubt, they were seizing the opportunity to balance the odds in this dangerous game he was playing with them. Strangely enough, he was no longer afraid. Now that the moment was upon him, there was little time to feel fear or caution. It was reminiscent of how he felt during that moment when Captain Picard first took command of the fleet during the Borg attack and he was still the first officer of the Rutherford. He had come face to face with that singular moment in every Starfleet officer's life that defined the rest of his career. The moment of the Call. He had made the choice then and he was a starship Captain.

Now, it remained to be seen if he could pull the same hat trick twice.

Chapter Twenty Five:
The Borg

The ring section of the C'Kaia vessel increased to maximum acceleration the minute the Maverick came into its scanner range. Fortunately, Chris had expected as much from them. Within a matter of seconds, the ring was bearing down on the Maverick that was still not taking any evasive measures as per his orders. His instructions to Buck were in accordance to a plan that required maintaining the ship's position. Still, Chris did not intend to put the Maverick at any more risk than it already was.

"Mary, move us into position between the Maverick and the ring ship." Chris ordered, watching the monitor closely.

The ring was bearing down hard on the Maverick even though the galaxy class starship was making no efforts to move out of the way. Sensor readings before him indicated to Chris that Buck was taking the appropriate measures. The ships' shields were up, including the specifically modified shield that could stand up to the battering offered by the superior weaponry of the C'Kaia ship. Without even being present on his bridge, he could determine the sequence of events as they unfolded. No doubt, Buck would have placed phasers and quantum torpedoes on stand by to fire.

More than anything, Chris wanted to be there.

"The ring is increasing speed." Mary declared. "They are trying to reach her before we can put ourselves in position."

"They're not fools." Chris responded. "They know if we move to protect the Maverick, they'll be back to square one. They won't be able to fire."

"I am adjusting to speed to compensate." She answered and Chris saw the Maverick drawing closer on the monitor screen.

Realising their advantage was drawing close, the ring ship fired a series of blasts at the Maverick. Chris could sense desperation in their act. From this distance, those blasts were nothing more than a futile exercise. He could see the Maverick' shields absorbing the energy of those bolts, preventing them from harming the ship.

"How soon until we are in position?" He asked quickly.

Mary was staring at the console screen. She was very unsure with what she was doing and even though she was holding up well with his tutelage and that of the Carer's, this was not her field of expertise. .

"Lieutenant?" He repeated firmly. This was no time for doubt. He cared about her but they were still Starfleet officers. "Keep focussed."

"Yes." Mary nodded. "We are in position now."

The sphere ship glided effortlessly through space between both ships and then came to a halt. With its thrusters igniting in the darkness surrounding them, the sphere held position, completely obstructing the Maverick from the line of fire. The ring section of the C'Kaia ship slowed immediately, realising their momentary advantage was lost. The vessel made a vain attempt to swing around the sphere to regain their line of sight with the Maverick but Chris saw to it that the sphere followed suit.

They could play this game for hours. Chris realised this but this entire incident had gone far enough. He did not want to destroy the C'Kaia hatchery any more than he wanted his own ship harmed. However, that decision would depend entirely on the good senses of the C'Kaia in the ring ship. They were not a mindlessly aggressive species. Their technology was formidable because of engineering superiority and scientific knowledge. If they did not possess such a supreme attitude that they were not the only sentient life forms in the galaxy, the Federation might have been able to assist them. However, Chris did not hold out hopes for the C'Kaia to change. What was needed to end this was not compassion but another emotion entirely.

Fear.

"Signal the Maverick." Chris instructed and then turned to the Carer. "It's now or never. I hope your people care about the Unborn as much as you say."

The C'Kaia did not say anything but his stunted wings started to tremble slightly, an action he often produced when he was nervous. Chris knew the Carer was still confused at his role in this situation. His first duty was to the safety of the hatchery and everything he had done so far, even assisting them to fly this ship, was for their protection. Chris just hoped his superiors saw it that way when it came time to account for his part in this incident when it had ended.

"Buck's online." Mary informed him dutifully. She seemed more focussed now and Chris was glad. He could understand her apprehension but despite his feelings for her, he was still her Captain and there were times when he needed to pull her in line.

Buck appeared on the screen. As usual, Buck was holding a brave face for the benefit of the crew, hiding any concern despite the fact that their recent battles with the C'Kaia ship had not ended well. However, without being able to look beyond the screen to the rest of the bridge, he knew the rest of the bridge crew was not that dispassionate.

"Report." Chris ordered automatically.

"We sustain minimal damage to the ship. The shields are still holding and we have initiated the ionic dispersion field throughout the ship. As no one has been transported yet, it is logical to assume that it is working."

One of the requests Chris had made during their early transmission was for the Maverick to generate an ion dispersion field throughout all decks inside the ship. He did not want the C'Kaia taking anyone else off the Maverick to use as a bargaining chip during their discussion. The premise for his plan was fragile enough without adding the potential for hostages into the equation.

"That's nice to know." Chris replied with a faint smile. "Has the message I asked for been fed into the computer?" He inquired.

"Aye Sir." Buck nodded. "JD informs me that it is ready for transmission through the interplexing beacon."

"Good. What about my other order?"

"A Class 9 probe has been despatched to Starfleet Command. It should make contact with Deep Space Five in a matter of hours."

"All right," Chris replied, deciding there was no delaying the inevitable now. The pieces of his stratagem had been laid out and it was time for him to make his gamble. "Standby on my order to transmit the message. I am leaving this frequency open so you will be able to monitor my communications with the other ship."

"Understood."

With that, Chris turned back to Mary. "Hail the C'Kaia vessel."

* * * * * * *

The C'Kaia on board the ring ship took their time answering their hail. Chris estimated this was probably because they were still trying to decide what to do. While they did not want to take chances with the hatchery, Chris knew they could not sit still and let a non-sentient hold them to such ransom. In any case, it was time this situation was resolved conclusively. Mary continued hailing the C'Kaia until the enemy ship was forced to respond. For the second time, since they had commandeered the sphere section of the ship, the C'Kaia who interrogated him appeared on the viewing screen. Despite his predicament, the C'Kaia commander was still determined to maintain his air of superiority.

"Captain Larabee, if you do not shut down engines and prepare for reintegration of the hatchery back to our vessel, we will destroy the Maverick."

To his credit, Chris had to admit the commander was making a strong show of intimidation. However, they both knew the threat was empty.

"Is that the best you can do?" Chris said just as firmly. "I think we both know that you won't fire on the Maverick, not with the hatchery in your line of fire. Make no mistake if you make the attempt to fire from a different angle, we will compensate for the difference."

"This is merely a diversionary tactic." The C'Kaia snorted derisively. "You cannot remain in the sphere forever and the moment you remove yourself from it, we will destroy you."

Chris did not doubt the hatred in the C'Kaia's voice would drive him to do that. To him, non-C'Kaia were barely alive let alone sentient or deserving of any consideration. In separating the C'Kaia ship and stealing the hatchery, Chris had instigated the full wrath of the C'Kaia's superior ego. Nothing less than his death would satisfy that wounded pride.

"No you won't." Chris said firmly. "Because if you do, then you condemn your entire species to death. Do you want to be responsible for your own genocide?"

"You overstate your importance!" The C'Kaia declared. "Your Federation does not have the strength to confront us on any level, technologically or otherwise. We could destroy your ship now and it would not matter."

"We may not," Chris said slowly. "But I think the Borg certainly are."

The alien's wings started trembling for a split second before it steadied into a rigid pose. "What do you mean?"

"At this moment, my first officer is on standby to transmit a message through an interplexing beacon we have built on our ship. Since you seem to know all about the Borg technology, then you know an interplexing beacon is how they relay most of their communication. You will also know during our experiences with the Borg, we are aware of the frequency in which they transmit. Make any attempt at attacking my ship and I will order my first officer to transmit our message."

"What message?" The C'Kaia said haughtily although Chris could tell it was not as confident or superior as it once was.

"That the creators of the Borg still exists and are attempting to destroy them." He retorted.

For a moment, the C'Kaia did not speak. Chris could sense his fear, even if the alien's expressions were unreadable by him. However, Chris could smell his apprehension. He could feel it in his bones with an instinct as tangible as reality itself.

"They will not believe you." The C'Kaia replied with an angry hiss.

"They will believe when we inform them that you have implanted a failsafe device in their original matrix allowing you to disable them and render the entire Collective harmless."

"You are speculating!" The C'Kaia snarled with impotent fury. "You have no knowledge of the kind!"

"Humans aren't as stupid as you think, "Chris returned with similar venom. "We are capable of gathering evidence and producing a hypothesis. No one builds an army of aggressively dangerous soldiers without wishing to maintain some control. I give your species more foresight then you believe us to have, so I know you would not have unleashed the Borg without being able to render them ineffective at some point. Most likely after they had conquered all the territory you required. Unfortunately, the Borg Queen terminated your link to their minds didn't they? You seem to underestimate all creatures that are not C'Kaia. Once she terminated the link, you no longer had any control over them and that is why you are so interested in Jean-Luc Picard's assimilation. You wanted me assimilated so I could trigger the failsafe once I was inside the Collective consciousness."

"As I said," the commander of the C'Kaia ship repeated. "You are speculating."

"Perhaps I am but rest assured, that speculation is also included in our transmission to the Borg."

"We will destroy your ship before such a message is ever released to harm us. Your threats mean nothing to us."

"If myself and my ship, do not contact Starfleet Command in 24 hours to advise them otherwise, they will transmit the message."

"You are bluffing." The C'Kaia snorted. "You had no time to send a transmission."

"The transmission was sent before you attacked my ship." Chris countered. "You may be able to find the probe that is sending the message but not even with transwarp energy are you going to outrun subspace. The message will be sent to the Borg and they will come here first and we will offer them our assistance in exchange for our safety. Considering the nature of the threat you pose to them, they will undoubtedly accept. The Borg are relentless but they are not stupid. They will come after you with everything at their disposal and they will find you because we will tell them what to look for."

"You would do this!" The C'Kaia shouted. "You would offer us to the Souless Ones like a sacrificial animal? What of your Federation ethics? You forget I have accessed your computer core. We know everything about your vaunted Federation principles, you may make the threat Captain but you certainly do not have the instincts to do so callous a deed."

Very good, Chris thought to himself silently. The C'Kaia was attempting to appeal to his moral side. It only served to show how desperate they were becoming. He knew as well as Chris did that if the C'Kaia's existence were made known to the Collective, there would be nothing that could stop the Borg from finding them.

Unfortunately, in this matter, Chris had no compassionate side. The images of those destroyed colonies lingered in his mind as well as the blank hopelessness in Lars Croft's eyes because he had failed to protect the people under his command. He thought of Kalendera 2 and all those children who would never know another sunrise or grow up to have children on their own. Thinking about them hardened him and gave him the rage he needed to drive his point home.

"You forced me to cast out Federation morality when you murdered the people on our colonies. You expect compassion after what you have done? I don't give a damn what happens to the C'Kaia because the C'Kaia deserve whatever is coming to them. If you attempt to destroy my ship or ever put yourself in Federation space again, my last order before I die is to see to it that your presence is made known to the Borg." He paused a moment and took a deep breath. "Before you kill me, I will have the satisfaction of knowing all C'Kaia in the hatchery will be born Borg."

The air was still for a long while because the C'Kaia before him could think of nothing to say. Chris had used his last words carefully because he knew this was what would have the greatest impact on convincing the C'Kaia the threat was real. If the fate of the Unborn was truly what the C'Kaia cared for, then the possibility of their assimilation would be the most terrifying reminder of the Borg threat to them.

"You make a convincing argument Captain," the C'Kaia said finally. "I would not have believe such savagery from a supposedly civilised race however, you are after all inferior so one cannot expect you to abide to your own rules."

Chris knew the C'Kaia was trying to anger him with those words but he took them as barbs from a fallen enemy who was unable to strike back. "Our rules apply to those who offer us similar consideration. By your actions, you have proven that the C'Kaia cannot be trusted to do the same. We want no more to do with you or your kind. Leave Federation space and that will be an arrangement suitable for all."

The commander leaned closer to the screen and glared at Chris in the eye. "We will defeat the Borg Captain, you may rest assure of that and when we do, we will be back. I look forward to that day with great relish because you will know what it is to make an enemy of us."

An empty threat, Chris decided but nevertheless one he would keep in memory for a long time. He certainly did not intend to lose any sleep over it. "There are enemies everywhere, you are no different from any other."

At that, Chris terminated the line.

Letting out a sigh, he wished he could have been able to offer the C'Kaia some help but knew it was impossible. The higher castes that controlled the fate of the entire species were too arrogant to be reasoned with. It was sad because those like the Carer would be swept away on a wave that could only lead to extinction for their civilisation.

"Carer," he looked at the C'Kaia. "I look forward to the day when we can be friends." He said honestly. "I do not judge the C'Kaia by the actions of the high caste, only by yours."

"You have kept your word to me." The Carer answered. "I do not judge your actions by your words to my leaders."

"Thank you," Chris grinned. "You may tell your people when we are gone that we will not transmit the message while you remain outside Federation space. However, I will see to it that if we even suspect you of trespassing on our territory, we will transmit to the Borg."

The C'Kaia nodded. "I understand. You must do what you can to survive as we must."

"I am certain you will not be held accountable for what has taken place." Mary spoke up. "You may tell them that I am telepathic and was able to take much information out of your mind. We will corroborate your story."

"Thank you," the Carer answered, genuinely touched by the offer. "I wish things could be different."

"I do so as well." Mary replied. She felt a certain kinship with the Carer in his concern for the Unborn. She could share his feelings of protectiveness because she knew that she would be no different if it was William who was threatened. He had dealt with the Captain and herself with honesty and forthrightness even though he was not obliged to. Mary hoped he would be spared any blame for what has taken place.

"Carer," Chris said finally. "There is one last thing I wish you to bring to your people after we have left."

"What is it?" The C'Kaia inquired somewhat intrigued.

"If the C'Kaia ever decide the rest of the galaxy is not populated by non sentient beings, the Federation has many planets that are uninhabited. There is no reason for the C'Kaia to wander like nomads through space. We would help you to find a new home if your people are willing to accept our help."

He had to make that offer. As a starship Captain, he was compelled to extend the hand of friendship to other species, no matter how averse they were to the idea. The Federation was built on tolerance, even if it is given to one who was previously an enemy.

The Carer seemed sceptical about how such an offer would be received but he nevertheless returned a polite response. "I will see to it that your suggestion is given to them." He did not hold any hopes for his superiors to accept such an offer though.

Pity. It would have been nice to have a home.

* * * * * * *

It never felt so good to be back on a bridge of a starship then at this moment.

After setting out terms with the C'Kaia, Chris contacted the Maverick and ordered a shuttle to dock with the sphere ship. Once the shuttle Ares had docked with the C'Kaia vessel, Chris and Mary left the craft in the capable hands of the Carer. The twenty minutes it took to cross the breach between the sphere and the Maverick, under the watchful eye of the ring ship, still seething from its defeat, were unsettling ones for Chris. Everyone on board let out a sigh of relief when the Ares finally landed on the hangar floor inside the Maverick.

If it had not been inappropriate for the captain to do so, Chris would have dropped to his knees and kissed the deck under him out of sheer gratitude. As it was, he settled for wearing a wide grin on his face as he moved through his ship to the bridge. His crew were equally elated at his return and Chris spent much of his journey to the bridge responding to salutations on his well being. Mary had excused herself immediately after they had left the hangar and hurried to see her son.

When he stepped on the bridge, Josiah was the first to reach him. The doctor did not stand on ceremony and gave him a hearty slap on the back before launching in a tirade of well wishes. Chris received similar responses from his bridge crew (albeit a little more restrained) before he took his command chair. It felt good to be back on the bridge of the Maverick. He never knew how much affection he had for his ship and his crew until this moment.

"The C'Kaia ship has begun to integrate Captain." Buck informed him as he settled in.

"Let's take advantage of that." Chris declared. "Do we have full warp power?"

The question was rhetorical because the Maverick had sustained minor damage during the brief attack by the ring ship earlier.

"Julia reports all systems are functioning at peak efficiency. She has corrected any damage inflicted earlier." Buck answered dutifully, returning to his customary position next to the Captain's chair and Chris had a feeling he was pleased to be there.

"In that case, Vin, take us back to Federation space at Warp 9."

"Aye Sir," Vin glanced over his shoulder and offered him a smile. "With pleasure."

Ahead on the viewer, the image of the two sections of the C'Kaia ship suddenly disappeared from the screen as the Maverick made a 180 degree turn and started heading in the opposite direction. As the stars blurred past the ship, Chris could tell by the atmosphere on the bridge everyone was pleased to be leaving the C'Kaia behind.

"Ezra, are there any signs that the C'Kaia are in pursuit?" .

Ezra studied his scanner readings momentarily before he looked up at the Captain again. "At this time no. We are still within scanner range and I have programmed the sensors to give us a proximity alert if the C'Kaia ship comes any closer than one light year."

"Nicely done." Chris commented and faced the viewer once more. He became lost in thought for a brief while, his mind trying to grasp the future that lay ahead for the C'Kaia. It remained to be seen if the C'Kaia could honour their agreement however Chris was confident they would. The C'Kaia ego would not take defeat at the hands of a lesser species with much dignity. However, they could not risk the Borg becoming aware of their existence until the time was right for them.

For the moment, the situation was in a stalemate, although some might construe that he had won. Chris preferred to think that he and the C'Kaia had reached an uneasy compromise.

"Chris," Buck inquired. "Do you really think this is it for the C'Kaia?"

"Yes I do." Chris said firmly. "Threats aside, they are a doomed race unless they decide to settle on a planet and stop their nomadic existence."

"And if they don't?"

"If they don't, they will be wandering the spaceways forever, hoping for a way to defeat the Borg so that they can take control again."

"Hell of a life." Buck ventured to say. Chris had not much time to give him a detailed account of his time on the C'Kaia vessel and made a mental note to read the captain's report at a later time to get a full appreciation of the facts.

"Yeah." Chris agreed sadly. "They are so trapped by the singular notion they are superior to everyone else that the only way to start again is on the ashes of conquest. It sounds dramatic I know, but it is true."

"They aren't the first to believe that." Buck countered. "Maybe in time, they will learn better."

"They have spent a great deal of time wandering in the wilderness, hoping to find that elusive way to penetrate the Collective. Ultimately, they will find it but it will be their destruction. The moment the Borg are aware of them in their consciousness, they will also be aware of the failsafe. Picard's report on his assimilation by the Borg was very specific. He had no independent will and everything that he knew became theirs to use." Chris met Buck's gaze, who nodded in understanding.

"Therefore, whomever the C'Kaia uses to infiltrate the Borg will become a tool who will be able to hide nothing from the Collective. The Borg will be capable of locating the C'Kaia more effectively than any message relayed by us through an interplexing beacon." Alex who was listening in quietly offered comment.

"When that happens..." Chris tried not to think of the consequences to the C'Kaia nation because assimilation was a fate he would not wish on anyone, even an enemy. "The C'Kaia will cease to exist."

Epilogue: Captain's Log

"Captain's Log Stardate 143536.5

"It has been almost a week since our encounter with the C'Kaia and so far, the scans we have made across the sector show no further evidence of the C'Kaia ship in our space. After two days of repairs at Deep Space Five, the Maverick has resumed her mission. During our recent incursion into uncharted space, stellar cartography has listed a number of M-class worlds that may have intelligent life. Starfleet command has requested us to investigate."

Chris put down his data pad and eased back into his chair waiting patiently for Buck to arrive. There was something in Admiral Wellington's communication to him that required investigation, if only for his own curiosity. Regarding the incident with the C'Kaia, it appeared Starfleet felt he had acted accordingly. Not relishing another enemy to deal with along with its current problems with the Dominion, Starfleet was grateful at his handling of the situation and the problems he averted. They were also interested in the part of his report dealing with the origins of the Borg. Chris was sceptical at how useful such information could be, but it did answer a few questions about the Collective.

He was in mid swallow, when he heard the door to his ready room. His yeoman had programmed all his favourite beverages into the food replicator when he had been away so Chris was now enjoying a thick Jamaican blend of coffee. He gulped down the liquid and responded quickly to the beeping door.

"Come in."

The door slid open and Buck made his entry as expected. Since returning from the C'Kaia ship, Chris had noticed that the crew's confidence towards their first officer had been strengthened because of Buck's determination to rescue him. Reports from both Josiah and Nathan seemed to add weight to the notion that Buck was turning out to be a splendid choice as first officer, no matter what reservations Admiral Wellington might have had. In fact, the Admiral himself had finally agreed that the Captain's choice had been the correct one after all.

"You wanted to see me Chris?" Buck said entering the room before pausing in front of his desk.

"Yes," Chris replied taking another sip of coffee. "Sit down Commander."

Buck's brow rose at that request but reacted with no more than that. He sat down promptly wondering why Chris was using such formalities with him and wondered if he had some bad news coming to him.

"I've some interesting comments from Admiral Wellington."

"Really?" Buck answered. However, there was a slight shift in his manner Chris was perceptive enough to catch. Buck's response had been more than just a reflex action to the comment but there was also more interest in his voice than he was letting on.

"It seems that the Maverick was unaccountable for almost 24 hours after receiving Admiral Wellington's directive to return to base." Chris pointed out, careful to keep the accusation out of his voice.

"We sustained damage and I felt it necessary to hold position in order to make repairs." Buck replied with just a hint of guilt in his voice.

Chris tried to smile wondering if his first officer knew this was one of the most used excuses to account for missing time in Starfleet history. However, he did not mention it. "According to the log, the ship slipped into Warp 8 after I was taken and you maintained pursuit of the C'Kaia ship."

Buck did not speak but he repented nothing and knew Chris was enjoying seeing him squirm.

However, Chris decided to spare him the embarrassment. In truth, Chris knew exactly what had happened. He had already guessed Buck had probably disobeyed orders and maintained the pursuit. Even though his actions were a breach of orders, one that Admiral Wellington was astute enough to notice, neither the Admiral nor Chris wanted to take any action. Buck's actions were something both of them would have done themselves in the same position.

"Its okay Buck," Chris said with a faint smile. "No explanations are necessary. I have had the discrepancy stricken from the Log. Admiral Wellington seems to agree with what you did. He even seems to think you might make a good first officer after all."

"Thanks," Buck let out a sigh, glad that he was not in trouble.

"I appreciate what you did Buck," Chris said soberly. "Not many officers would have been willing to put themselves on the line like that. You've earned a new respect with the crew when you did that and I'm pretty damn grateful too, big fella"

"Hell," Buck said somewhat embarrassed. He never knew how to deal with praise, not in almost twenty years of friendship. "I figured you'd find your own way out of there." Buck added. "You usually do."

"It's nice to know that you were there anyway." Chris grinned.

"I always will be." Buck answered softly and Chris knew that was a truth far more steeped in reality than any other said so far.

* * * * * * *

He had unfinished business with one other member of the crew but the setting for its confrontation would not be the Captain's ready room. Whether it was intentional by either of them, Chris and Mary hardly saw each other following their escape from the C'Kaia ship. Other than her reports to him, they had very little reason to speak to one another. Chris was aware something had happened between them and he was not willing to let it go. However Mary seemed hesitant now. It felt as if returning to the ship had put in perspective the nature of where their relationship was going.

Chris knew he cared for her a great deal. He refused to deny that or hide from his feelings about her although he did understand her fears. She was a widow and her husband was only six months lost to her. He could understand her fear but he was not willing to let her go. Not until she gave herself a chance to explore what she expressed to him in the C'Kaia vessel. Mary had found him on that enormous ship because she had allowed herself to become emotionally connected with him. In itself, that was an act borne out of necessity yet it was a barrier that could not be forgotten now it had been crossed.

She was working in Engineering again, trying to brush up on her technical knowledge since the experience on the C'Kaia ship had taught her how necessary it was. Chris stepped on the deck to see her at a workstation. He knew from other members of the engineering staff she occasionally liked to work in the small hours of the night because there was less chance of interruption when she was doing intense study.

The hum of the warp core in front of her masked the sound of his footsteps as he approached so Mary had no idea of his presence until he spoke.

"Hello Mary."

She stopped working immediately, placed the data pad down before turning around to face him. "Captain, what can I do for you?"

Her tone seemed cold and Chris knew it was forced.

"Mary, we need to talk." Chris said gently, meeting her gaze. He saw a flicker of apprehension in her eyes, before it was crushed mercilessly under the weight of her self-discipline.

"I'm working on something." She answered softly, knowing what he intended. Mary knew that he was aware she was staying away intentionally.

"Fine," he replied, refusing to be brushed off. They were going to get this out now. "We'll do it here."

"Captain, this is inappropriate."

"Mary, I care about you," he began ignoring her attempts to silence him. "I care about you a great deal. Now we both know something happen between us on that C'Kaia ship and I'm not prepared to forget it. At the time, I didn't believe that of you either."

"It is ill advised for us to become emotionally involved." She said softly. "It would lead to errors in judgement for both of us. As captain, I would compromise your ability to make decisions."

"I know all that. Believe me, there's probably a paragraph in Starfleet Regulations about it but I also know, no one who's really cared about someone he's served with, has ever given a damn about it."

"It is too soon for me Chris," she confessed finally. It had been hard for her to make that revelation but deep inside her, beneath the anxieties she felt, this much she knew. Vulcan discipline had forced her to bury those emotions but she could not help how she felt. She could only control it. "I have lost a husband and I am not ready to explore a relationship between us. Is it enough for you to know that I care?"

Strangely enough, it was. Chris cared about her and he knew pursuing a relationship with her could be difficult but the difficulty did not make him want to give up. She was worth it and he knew when she was ready to share a relationship with him, it could be truly wonderful. When it came to Mary, he was struck with an insight about them that would not be denied. In her eyes, he saw everything he had ever wanted from a woman and knew that his life would never again be complete without her. If she needed time, he could wait.

"It is." He answered, taking her hand in his. "When you are ready, I will be here."

She did not smile but when he gazed into her eyes, Chris could see it.

* * * * * * *

"What is going on at that table?" An unknown ensign asked Inez while she was pouring the young man the Rigellian cocktail he ordered. The Bolian was looking over his shoulder at the Captain's table, where the senior staff had gathered for their weekly dinner.

Inez slipped in an olive into the blue concoction and reached for a bottle of liqueur under the counter. "It's the Captain's weekly dinner." She sang out as she searched for the bottle in question.

"What's that all about?" The ensign continued to probe. He could see Doctor Jackson, Counsellor Sanchez and the Captain laughing at a joke while Lieutenant Commander Standish and Lieutenant Pemberton were whispering quietly to themselves at the same time that Commander Wilmington, Lieutenant Tanner and Ensign Dunne were engaged in similar banter. Lieutenant Travis and Lieutenant Commander Styles were making comment on the entire proceedings.

"It's just the Captain's way of getting to know the senior staff." Inez replied as she emerged from behind the counter again.

"They never did that on the Potemkin." The ensign retorted.

"Well, Captain Larabee likes to do things differently." Inez said pouring a dab of liqueur into the cocktail. "It's his way of creating a good working environment between the senior officers."

"Is it working?" The young man asked.

Inez stopped what she was doing and glanced at the group of people at the Captain's table before responding to the ensign's question with a faint smile.

"It's getting there."

THE END

Next story: The Illusion of Self

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