Planet Fall
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

Summary: A new enemy appears from the ashes of the destroyed Romulan Empire, determined to carve themselves a piece of territory in the Frontier, with only the USS Maverick standing in the way.

Author's Note: Adelaide Sheridan is my homage to the great Majel Barrett because in my world, Lwaxana Troi is awesome.

Eighth story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows Pon Farr.


Prologue: Rest and Recreation

Captain's Log Stardate 12.339.21

The Maverick is presently on course for Deep Space 5 for refit and maintenance after spending two months participating in the disaster relief operations in Romulan space, following the onslaught of the Hobus supernova. During the ship's time in DS5's space dock, we will be conducting crew transfers, replenishing supplies and onboarding new equipment, before we return to the Frontier to resume our primary mission.

As we will be docked at DS5 for a week, I am accepting Counsellor Josiah Sanchez's recommendation to grant shore leave to any member of the crew who wishes to make use of the time for some much-needed rest and recreation. The mission of the last two months has been both mentally and physically exhausting, with many crewmen beginning to show the strain of what they have witnessed in the aftermath of the disaster. According to Josiah, the current stress levels have resulted in an increased use of antidepressants, rising instances of sleeplessness and frequent bursts of short tempers.

While my senior officers might claim I am always short-tempered, the truth is I share their sentiments.

Even though Federation relations with the Romulans have never been warm, one cannot feel anything but horror at the sight of the destruction in what was formerly Romulan territory. With the casualty rate numbering in the billions, the scale of the disaster is staggering. The shockwave caused by the Hobus supernova, exacerbated by ancient Iconian technology has resulted in the near total destruction of the Romulan Empire. The obliteration of Romulus and most of its habited planets have left the territory completely uninhabitable with vast debris fields occupying the space where planets used to be.

One needed no further proof than the fact that the Romulans asked for Federation help inside their territory to realise the full scope of the catastrophe. In the past, Romulan arrogance would have made such a request unthinkable and yet they pleaded for help to salvage what was left of their fragmenting society. It is painful to watch a once proud people broken so completely when in the past, the Romulans were the pinnacle of military superiority.

Now, only the outermost bases along the Romulan Neutral Zone have survived the disaster, becoming refugee centres for what remains of the Romulan people. At this time, an emergency meeting has been scheduled between the Federation, the Klingons and the remains of the Romulan senate at Khitomer to determine what happens next. The destruction of the Romulan Empire has resulted in a significant shift in the Alpha Quadrant and it's anyone's guess where we go from here.

******

"Well, you have a choice gentlemen," Hannibal Julius drawled languidly in his eastern accent as he faced the three men, while astride his horse, a gloriously sleek white Arabian stallion. The thoroughbred, wholly impatient at having to stand in place, stamped its hooves against the hard packed dirt of the New Mexico landscape, as its master continued his parlance with the Man in Black.

"What choice is that?" Chris Larabee asked, equally relaxed despite the tense situation he found himself in. Sitting astride his own black gelding, he stared back at Julius in challenge. Next, to him, Buck Wilmington glowered at Julius, seething with resentment at the man's past deeds, his fingers resting lightly on the butt of his Remington Single Action. On Chris' left, Ezra Standish, dressed in his familiar burgundy coat and embroidered waistcoat, was content to let his leader do the talking for the moment.

Julius, who was accompanied by an entourage of four men, showed no signs of intimidation despite Chris' hard glare and Buck's readiness to draw as the two groups faced each other across the narrow space between their horses. They were presently in an overgrown field, surrounded by waist high stalks of golden grass, with nothing but gnarled trees and a lone water tower in the distance to bear witness to their meeting. Above them, the afternoon sun blazed with unforgiving heat as buzzards and other carrion eaters circled the air, anticipating the feeding to come once the shooting started.

Chris studied Julius carefully, having sized up the man long before this day thanks to their rather complicated history. An aristocratic sort of European stock, Julius appeared foppish in his fancy clothes and top hat, even though the mind behind the tinted sunglasses was nothing so benign. It was easy to underestimate him when he looked so out of place in the rough and tumble landscape of the Territory, except there was madness behind his dark eyes.

In contrast, the men who rode with him were nowhere as refined. They all bore the look of hired guns one might have rounded up from some hole in the wall enclave like Purgatorio. Unlike Julius who didn't seem all that formidable, the men at his side gave Chris more cause for concern than their employer.

"Return my shipment of nitro to me or your lady loves will pay the price for your defiance. I'm sure by now, you know we've managed to procure them from that charming little town of you men defend like flu-ridden bloodhounds."

Chris didn't react to the insult although he noted Buck's fingers had slid over the grip of the Remington, ready to draw.

"No deal," Chris shook his head as if the threat meant nothing. "We know what you're planning to do with that nitro and it ain't going to happen. We'll find the girls ourselves. We don't need you for that."

As he said those words, Chris could see the ripple of tension and aggression moving through Julius men as they also made subtle shifts in their body language, signalling their readiness to fight.

Julius didn't seem fazed by Chris' response, throwing a sidelong glance at his men to stand down for the moment because the Man in Black didn't know what he did, and Julius was happy to educate him.

"This is a big country Lieutenant," Julius sneered using the word �Lieutenant', aware Chris Larabee didn't much care for it. Instead, he reached into his grey waistcoat and produced a gold pocket watch he flipped open with dramatic flair before responding, "And frankly the ladies do not have that much time. In fact, I wager if you don't find them in two hours, you won't be finding them at all."

"What does that mean?" Buck demanded, not liking the sound of that at all. Buck was never tolerant of any threats made to the female of the species.

"It means that it would be a shame for the lovely Mrs Travis, Doctor Styles and Miss Pemberton to come to a bad end. Give us the nitro in two hours or I guarantee you, when you find them, you'll need a shovel to pick up the pieces."

"Well that ain't going to happen," Buck returned. "You best tell us where they are right now and we won't put a bullet in your head."

Once again, Julius shot his men a warning not to react at Buck's provocation. Turning to Chris, he repeated himself. "I had hoped we could be reasonable about this. Ezra," Julius regarded the gambler for the first time, "talk to your friends."

Ezra, astride his own horse Chaucer, snorted derisively. "My associates do not respond well to blackmail and I caution you making further threats to our respective paramours, such actions will only result in you being delivered a slow, painful death as opposed to an efficiently swift one."

"Oh Ezra," Julius shook his head in disappointment, "you had a chance to join me. I could have given you the world or rather placed you at my right hand when I ruled it."

Ezra who was very well aware of what joining Julius would mean, beyond the shift in his allegiances, cleared his throat and replied promptly. "I'm afraid my tastes don't go that way Julius but I am flattered."

"Your loss," Julius shrugged and then added wickedly. "Or it will be in two hours. It's a pity Ms Pemberton will not be around to satiate that particular taste."

"Okay, I've had enough of this." Chris said finally, brushing the rim of his black hat as if adjusting its position on his head.

BANG!

The gunshot cracked through the air like a clap of thunder and the man next to Julius was thrown out of his saddle, as the horses started to panic. As he crushed the tall stalks upon landing, a bloom of red began to spread across his chest. The expanding stain of crimson soiled the shirt he was wearing.

As Julius' men went for their guns, Chris, Buck and Ezra already poised to draw, went for theirs as another distant crack was heard. This time, the man on the side of Julius' ride caught the bullet and like the first, was thrown out of his saddle from the force of it. He landed on his back, splayed across the ground with blood spilling out of the newly formed bullet hole in his forehead.

From his vantage point at the water tower, Vin Tanner prepared his next shot and this time, it was Hannibal Julius who sat in his crosshairs. The tracker had taken up position before this meeting, waiting for the signal to act.

"So, this is how it's going to be," Chris said, taking the opportunity to renegotiate with a new set of demands. "You're going to tell us where the girls are, or Vin back there is going to cover your men with your brains..."

******

"Who kills a person like this?" Alexandra Tanner, formerly Styles complained as she squinted to keep the bright glare of the noonday sun out of her eyes. Overhead, the cloudless sky allowed simulated desert conditions to blaze like a furnace with heat prickling the skin on her cheek, creating beads of sweat under her hair. Thanks to the authenticity of the program, the air was dry and dusty, making this whole experience all the more insufferable.

"Well for obvious reasons they can't make our impending deaths too quick," Mary Travis, who was lying next to Alex, pointed this out as if it were the most reasonable explanation in the world.

"It has to be an unnecessarily long and complicated method to allow the men to get here and rescue us."

"Exactly," Julia Pemberton chimed in from the other side of Mary. "Remember that time, we were tied to a conveyor belt that was a mile long, rushing to meet our ends at the huge buzz saw?"

"That's right," Mary recalled that particular chapter of the program, "the one where Guy Royal kidnapped us both. Rain joined us for that one."

Alex rolled her eyes. "Buzzsaw?"

"It's what they used to cut wood," Julia explained helpfully.

"I could get us out of here in two minutes," Alex grumbled, shifting position slightly because a particularly jagged piece of rock was digging into her shoulder.

"That's not in the spirit of the game," Julia pointed out, smirking inwardly as she wondered how much longer it would take before the Science Officer of the Maverick finally lost her patience with this scenario and extricate herself from their current predicament.

"Don't I know it?" Alex sighed, having adjusted her position just enough to be spared further irritation.

At present, all three women were lying together side by side across a stretch of railway track, somewhere in the New Mexico desert, bound by their wrists and ankles to the metal rails with thick, hessian ropes. Surrounding them on either side was nothing but the vast emptiness of the American west. It was a harsh, rocky terrain with sparse vegetation, mountains in the distance with the occasional critter, being either a scorpion, snake or lizard scampering by them at regular intervals.

To maintain the authenticity of the program, they were dressed in costumes of the period which was rather insufferable in the heat and even more uncomfortable in their present circumstances. As always, Mary managed to look amazing, with her white gold hair swept up in a neat bun and floral print dress with the heart shaped neckline while Julia's more extravagant affair of deep blue satin offered striking contrasts to her creamy skin and copper coloured hair. Alex, who played the town doctor, had opted for simpler fare, wearing a long dark skirt, a white shirt with a dark red waist coat.

"How did Vin convince you to join us in this program anyway?" Mary asked, aware from previous experience Alex did not much care for Buck's favourite holodeck program. The first time Alex had participated in the program, she had complained so much it was decided it was probably best that she declined further invitations.

"I'm obligated to be here by marriage," Alex muttered.

Mary laughed at that, unsurprised by Alex's admission. After two months of marriage, Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles were still very much newlyweds. When they weren't on duty or socialising with the senior staff, they were usually locked away in their quarters, lost in each other, exploring the new aspect of their relationship, finally given expression because of Vin's premature Pon Farr. Still, Mary observed, their marriage had gone a long way to healing some of the traumas both Alex and Vin had suffered in their pasts and they seemed much happier for it. "Oh really," Julia said with a smirk, lifting her head just high enough to look past Alex to meet Mary's gaze with a decided wicked gleam in her eyes. "Do tell how he managed to convince you?"

Alex who was perfectly aware of what Julia was alluding to said with a satisfied smirk, "let's just say there's a lot to be said about Vulcan stamina."

All three women burst out laughing and did not stop for a good minute.

"Oh, my," Mary said with a sigh once they'd caught their breaths. "I'd forgotten about that."

Mary, who had been married to a Vulcan, recalled exactly what Alex was talking about. During her marriage to Syan, the limitations of Vulcan society had never been a problem when it came to their marriage bed. For a race seemingly aloof and rigid, intimacy for Vulcans did not just involve the pleasure of the flesh, it included a mental component that intensified the bond between mates and created a vital emotional link during the process. When Syan had died, she'd lost that connection and it was only until after meeting Chris Larabee, it had been re-established, albeit with less intensity because he was human.

"So, does that mean you'll be joining us on these escapades from now on?" Julia asked grinning.

"It depends," Alex lifted her head so she could meet Mary and Julia's eyes.

"On what?" Mary asked.

"How often he gets up on his elbows to ask." Alex winked prompting another burst of giggles from Mary and Julia that went on for another full minute.

They were still laughing when suddenly, Alex felt something against her spine that silenced her quickly. Her brow knitted in concentration and she glanced over at Mary and Julia to see if they had noticed the same thing.

"Hey, do you feel that?"

Mary and Julia felt equally quiet, concentrating. Above head, the carrion eaters continued to circle them, cawing periodically in annoyance that they weren't dead yet. It didn't take either woman long to discover what Alex had brought to their attention. So far, the vibration was low but they could feel it travelling through the gravel they were lying against, slipping through their skin before settling into their bones. Meanwhile, Alex noticed the fine dust covering the smooth metal rail of the tracks, shifting.

It required no feat of genius for the trio to realise what was happening when the soundless vibration intensified into an insistent buzzing that caused the gravel in the rock ballasts to shake and shudder across the ground. As the vibration travelled up the lengths of steel track, the sound of massive pistons chugging away in staccato rhythm soon travelled down the narrow pass, a prelude to the iron beast closing in on them.

"Oh no," Julia groaned as she heard in the background, the screeching wail of a train whistle.

******

"Captain, I think we may be a little more behind schedule than we originally anticipated in our rescue of the ladies," Ezra hollered at Chris as the four riders on horseback galloped towards the pass where Julia and the other ladies were playing damsels in distress.

"You think?" Chris grumbled, strongly suspecting that if he didn't get there in time to save Mary from being crushed by a train, the Protocol Officer might take some offense at that.

After all, she was good enough to humour him by participating in the Magnificent Seven Program, playing the plucky, newspaper editor who was the primary love interest for the Man in Black. As it stood, there was little for females to do in the program, other than playing romantic interests or pawns to use against the seven and while Mary and Julia had been good sports about participating, Christ only knew what miracle Vin had managed to perform to get Alex to join them this time around.

"I wouldn't worry Chris," Vin drawled, as they approach the mouth of the canyon in which the girls were trapped. "I mean if we're late, the girls will just get themselves out of trouble. I can't see Alex waiting around for a rescue if there's a train bearing down on them."

Only Vin knew how he'd convinced Alex to join them on this occasion and while the method of his argument brought a smile to his face, he also knew Alex would play the scenario to a point. She considered the program sexist and wouldn't stand on ceremony by waiting for rescue when a holographic train was about to crush her.

"Actually," Buck Wilmington declared, wearing a grin on his face at the little bit of alteration he'd done to the program. "I locked out the girls' authorisation from the program"

"WHAT?" Captain, Officer of the Con and the Security Chief exploded in unison.

"It was a joke!" Buck explained as he saw the three men staring at him in something akin to horror. "I mean how often do we get Alex in here? You know the minute she gets antsy waiting for us to show up, she's just going to get herself out of trouble. Where's the fun in that? I mean Mary and Julia will wait for us to show up but Alex won't. I figured, this way, she'd have to sit still and wait for us to show up and rescue them."

"Captain!" Vin said to Chris as the canyon walls surrounded them and the sound of a locomotive started to echo through the passage. "Permission to shoot the First Officer!"

Chris shot Buck a dark look and replied, "go ahead."

Chapter One: Lady Macbeth

Two hours later . . .

Deep Space Five lay before them in resplendent beauty. Its superstructure resembled a hexagonal prism, with a central hub that was a bejewelled orb of myriad lights against its pigeon blue hull plating. Playing the part of the court to the hub were five docking ports, each surrounded by its own entourage of ships including smaller Starfleet vessels, private carriers and of course, commercial freighters running cargo across the sector. They hailed from all corners of the Alpha Quadrant, Vulcan, Pakled, Nybrite and even Andorian.

Chris took note of the two Starfleet vessels spread across the spread of docking ports. In comparison to the Maverick, the Archer class Obama was a smaller ship but definitely possessed more manoeuvrability while the intrepid class, was a wolverine, small, quick, and bearing sharp teeth. He made a mental note to check in with the two ships and their captains to thank them for maintaining the vigil on the Frontier while the Maverick had been seconded to Romulus these past two months.

"Captain, we're being hailed by Captain Krista of DS5," Comms officer, Ensign JD Dunne announced from his station at the head of the bridge.

"On screen," Chris answered automatically before he glanced at the empty seat beside him where Mary should have been and tossed Buck a scowl in accusation. In turn, Buck Wilmington groaned inwardly, suspecting he was going to be in Chris's doghouse for some time for what took place in the holodeck.

"Chris," Captain Krista smiled across the viewer. Her blue Illidarian skin appeared almost translucent as she stared at him through eyes reflecting like diamonds with a thousand facets. "It's good to see you and the Maverick back this way again. We've missed having our big junkyard dog on patrol."

Chris laughed at the description, forgetting, for now, Buck's trespasses. "Good to see you too Captain. Are we still on for dinner tonight?"

Since the Maverick's assignment to the Frontier, it had become something of a tradition for the Captain and First Officer of the Maverick to share a meal with the master of DS5, to catch up on news and rumours floating about the sector. On the most recent occasions, they were joined by the Protocol Officer who had developed a close friendship with Captain Krista.

"Of course," Krista said smoothly and raised a brow, "At 1900 hours as usual. I will expect you and Commander Wilmington. Will Lt Travis be joining us?"

"I'm not sure," Chris replied, still bristling with annoyance the stunt Buck had pulled on the three senior female officers on the Maverick. "Thanks to Buck, I'm not her favourite person right now." The bridge crew's familiarity with their counterparts on DS5 had made banter like this old hat and it served to connect the two crews together, to be able to laugh at the absurd.

"It was a joke!" Buck hissed in exasperation.

"Yeah," Vin grumbled from his seat at the Con. "We're all laughing."

"Wanna trade?" Chris gave Krista a wicked smirk.

Krista laughed, "No thanks. You can keep him."

"I was afraid of that," Chris returned. "How've things been out this way since we've been gone?"

Although the Saratoga and the Obama had taken up duties of patrolling the Frontier during their departure, the smaller Intrepid class ships were nowhere as intimidating as a galaxy class starship with cloak capability, designed for the specific purpose of fighting the Borg. The Maverick's formidable reputation was also cemented by the actions of her Captain, particularly in the last days of the Dominion War when it took on and prevailed against ten enemy ships on its own.

"It's been relatively quiet," Krista answered. "Honestly, I still think everyone is reeling from what's happened at Romulus. I saw the Starfleet communique. Is it as bad as what's been reported?"

The light atmosphere of a few moments ago vanished, to be replaced by the heavy pall of reality. While Chris could not see the faces of Vin Tanner and JD Dunne, he did exchange glances with Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington who shared his haunted expression. Thinking about the vast debris field where planets should have been, the wreckage of civilisation dispersed throughout the area had made his stomach hollow.

"It's worse."

Krista shook her head. "The Romulans have always been guilty of something but I can't imagine the destruction of their entire homeworld as a justified means of punishment."

For a few seconds, nothing was said as the bridge held a silent memorial for their respected enemy before Krista spoke up again. "Actually Chris, I was asking after Mary because something's come up."

"Oh?" Chris asked, wondering what it could be and trying to determine if he ought to intervene at all or wait until the two women faced each other. "She's off duty at the moment but I can get her up here if you like."

Actually, he missed her presence on the bridge next to him but he wasn't about to voice it to anyone. Chris had become so used to seeing Mary occupying the protocol officer's seat next to him, it felt odd when she was not there. Since the day he took his command chair, it felt only right to have Buck at his right hand and Mary on his left. When even one of them was gone, it felt almost incomplete. No doubt, Mary would have a counter to this argument but hey, Chris was only human.

Krista who was aware of the romantic relationship taking place between the Captain and the Protocol Officer of the Maverick shook her head in response. "Well I leave it up to you how you want to handle it but it appears she has a visitor at the station who hasn't made any formal application to come on board the Maverick."

"Ezra," Chris tossed his Security Chief a look. "You know anything about this?"

"Not at all Captain," Ezra Standish replied, perplexed. It was his duty to vet any visitor coming on board the Maverick, largely because he assumed everyone was guilty of something and it was his job to decide if their guilt translated into a threat to the ship. "Lt. Travis has made no application to my department for any visitors to come on board."

"Apparently, the visit is a surprise," Krista quickly added to allay any concerns as she felt this lack of request was an oversight made by civilians who had no idea how Starfleet worked. "While I hate to be the one to ruin the excitement, we both know the procedure for visitors."

"Absolutely," Chris agreed with her. "Thanks, Krista, we can take it from here. Who is the visitor anyway?"

"It's Adelaide Travis. I believe she's Mary's mother."

******

This is war you know," Alex declared to Mary when they had met up on their way to the bridge to begin their shifts. In the background, the turbo lift punctuated its journey in dull, rhythmic hums.

"Remember," Mary cautioned. "He is the First Officer."

Alex's eyes narrowed. "And I have a Class 1 - Advanced Programmer Rating. I will think of something to make him pay."

"Just no loss of life or limb please," Mary laughed, fully supporting Alex's dastardly machinations otherwise. She knew Julia Pemberton, presently in Engineering had entertained ideas of dropping Buck into the warp core.

"I have one particular limb in mind," Alex smirked, "but I'm afraid the rest of the women on the Maverick would riot."

It had taken nothing less than an alien possession of her body for Alex to have sex with Buck Wilmington. She wondered what the rest of womankind's excuse was.

Mary laughed. "Actually I'm more annoyed they didn't rescue us in time. If I am to play the damsel in distress, I would at least expect my prince to be on time."

"I'm not mad at Vin," Alex admitted, "because he would have been expecting me to break out of there long before any train arrived. Just because he's convinced me to participate in the program, he knows I'm doing it under protest..."

"Or under him."

Both Alex and Mary burst out laughing as the doors to the turbo lift slid open.

"You ladies seemed to be in a better mood," Ezra remarked when they both stepped onto the bridge. "Pray tell, what is the joke?"

"Oh, nothing worth discussing," Mary exchanged a knowing look with Alex, fairly convinced the Science Officer would not wish her new husband embarrassed by discussing their sex life so publicly.

"Mary," Chris was glad she was in a better mood than after they had exited the program. In fact, he was glad to see her smiling again, to say nothing of her glorious golden hair worn loose after its confinement in the severe bun for her holodeck persona. "Feeling better?"

"Yes," Mary said moving gracefully into her seat next to him, giving him a look of warmth to imply he was not in trouble. "There's nothing that cannot be cured with a hot shower and some quiet meditation."

Buck Wilmington on the other hand...

"Buck." The greeting was offered in a tone slightly above freezing.

"Aw come on," Buck declared, unable to bear it anymore. "It was a joke!"

"Commander," Alex said from her science station. "Sleep with one eye open."

Vin glanced over his shoulder and saw Alex winking at him, a small intimate gesture to let him know she wasn't mad at him. Of course, she would make him pay for convincing her to put up with the stupid program in the first place but she could let him in on that later.

"How was I supposed to know we were going to be late getting to you?" Buck continued to argue his case. "We were supposed to be there long before the train arrives."

"Uh Commander Wilmington," Ezra spoke up, not impressed with Buck bringing up that part of the incident since the ladies had forgotten it was their tardiness that resulted in their unfortunate experience. "I do not think we need to dwell on every minutia of the situation."

"Yeah," Chris growled, "let's discontinue that line of reasoning, shall we?"

Buck catching Chris' meaning fell silent immediately and tried a different tact. "I mean it wasn't that bad?"

"Wasn't that bad?" Alex declared. "THE TRAIN RAN OVER US!"

While the holographic locomotive had not crushed them into ten thousand small pieces, they were forced to lie there as the train passed over them, covering them in smoke and dust while being pelted by fragments of stone ballast running down the length of the rail. By the time the train had chugged away, all three of them were covered head to toe in the stuff, not to mention dealing with a pulse rate that would have made them the envy of any cheetah at full sprint.

"But you're still here...." Buck grinned at them.

"Stop talking Buck," Chris replied, unable to sit by and watch his old friend continue to dig himself a deeper hole. "Just stop talking."

"Fine," Buck conceded defeat and decided he had better sleep armed for the next week.

"Mary," Chris said on a more serious note. "We were just notified by Captain Krista, you have a guest waiting to come on board the Maverick to see you."

"A guest?" Mary frowned, hoping it was not one of Syan's relatives. They already disapproved of her taking Billy off Vulcan and into the belly of a starship. "I wasn't expecting anyone."

"I am afraid I must be the one to ruin the surprise," Ezra spoke up, sparing his captain the task. "Your guest did not follow procedure so I am unable to maintain the secrecy for your benefit."

"That's fine," Mary puzzled, expecting no less from Ezra under such circumstances. "Who is it?"

Chris flashed Ezra a look of thanks before taking over. "It's your mother."

"WHAT?"

Everyone jumped at her outburst as Chris saw the expression of dismay on her face, almost akin to panic. Mary's mind was presently being flooded with memories of the nameless terror about to rip through her comfortable, ordered existence like a disruptor blast.

"What is it?" Chris reached for her arm, genuinely alarmed by the colour draining out of her face.

"Mary, calm down," Alex spoke up, fully aware of why Mary was panicking. "It may not be that bad."

Vin met his wife's gaze, burning with curiosity at what Alex obviously knew but the rest of the bridge did not. The Science Officer could only shrug, having no desire to break Mary's trust by revealing too much. In the last year they had served together, Mary and Alex had become close friends and confidantes, allowing their friendship to achieve enough familiarity for her to understand why such new struck cold fear in Mary's heart.

"Are you kidding me?"

Mary's outburst stunned Chris and the rest of the bridge who was used to seeing her as the personification of elegance and grace. If there was one person Chris could rely upon to keep a cool head when everything was going to pieces, it was Mary. Seeing her like this was like discovering a new facet of her he had never known before and he wondered what other secrets she kept beneath her blue-grey eyes.

Although truth be told, now that he considered it, Mary rarely spoke about her own family. While their relationship was semi-intimate for more than a year, Chris had to admit, Mary never spoke about the family she left on Earth when she married Syan. Even in discussions about family, Mary often deferred to her dead husband's relatives as opposed to her own flesh and blood. Chris had not wanted to pry but after seeing this reaction, rebuked himself for not trying to learn more before now.

"Aren't you looking forward to seeing your ma, Mary?" JD Dunne risked asking because his mother had died shortly before he graduated Starfleet Academy and he still missed her presence in his life. Even now, with this extended family on the Maverick, the hole she left in his heart was sizeable.

"No," Mary shook her head dazed. "I'm really not."

Ezra who was starting to get an inkling of the problem, having been raised by Maude Standish, spoke up helpfully. "Mary, may I venture a guess your maternal situation bears some resemblance to mine?"

Maude's flamboyance was hard enough to take when he went to visit the woman on Risa with Julia, Ezra could not imagine anything more terrifying than having Maude have free run of the ship, mingling with his security team, his comrades and worst yet, his captain.

Mary was considering whether or not informing Ezra her mother was wanted for crimes across the quadrant to be a breach in protocol, when she realised Adelaide would still manage to find her way to the ship, no matter what Mary did do prevent it.

"My mother's professional name is Adelaide Sheridan," Mary finally volunteered, the words escaping her like the pounding of nails into a coffin.

"THE Adelaide Sheridan?" Ezra's eyes widened. "The stage actress? The celebrated actress who performed Lady Macbeth and was one of the few actors allowed to perform in the Klingon Empire? Who is in demand for command performances across the Alpha Quadrant a once played Masha in Chekov's Three Sisters for the Tholians?"

"Don't tell me you're a fan?" Mary was aghast at the thought, suddenly developing a preview of what this visit was going to be like.

"Not at all," Ezra straightened up, feigning indifference too late because Buck, JD and Vin were grinning at him in obvious disbelief at his statement.

While Chris knew of the woman's celebrity, it did not explain Mary's extreme reaction to her mother coming on board. So Mary had a famous mother, what was the big deal?

"Mary, it's just a five-day visit," Chris assured her. "It can't be that bad?"

Mary gave him a look that said otherwise before volunteering, "my mother can be overwhelming."

Chris had the sneaking suspicion if they were alone, Mary might explode into a full-blown tirade that would make her one-word description seem infinitesimal. "How overwhelming?"

"Oh, I think I have an idea," Ezra's temporary bout of star-struck diminishing in light of Mary's use of that word. How many times had he used it himself? If Mary's mother was Adelaide Sheridan who was a galactically famous celebrity, lauded in almost every corner of the Alpha Quadrant then the word overwhelming might be stratospherically inadequate.

"Look, it will be fine," Chris assured her. "I'll be around if you need me."

"Uh Mary," Alex cleared her throat. "Have you told your mother about...." she shifted her gaze at the Captain.

Chris bristled, wondering if they had suddenly forgotten he was the Captain. However, now that Alex mentioned it, Chris turned to Mary, waiting for an answer.

"No," Mary replied, giving him a look of apology. "I wanted to spare you."

"Spare me?" He stared at her feeling somewhat underestimated. "Mary I'm a starship captain, I've dealt with Cardassian Guls, cosmic entities, alien queens, I think I can handle one stage actress."

Mary snorted, "And you'd still be in trouble."

Chapter Two: Physician Heal Thyself

Physician heal thyself.

Counsellor Josiah Sanchez sat in his office, trying to dispel the tangle of knots his stomach had become in the last hour. Through the window of his office, he gained a panoramic view of Deep Space Five as the Maverick approached the space station for its scheduled maintenance check. Normally, he would pause and enjoy the ship's leisurely approach to DS5. The sight of ships already docked at the numerous ports, small shuttles, runabouts and the maintenance crews in their EV suits conducting external hull repairs, whizzing about like fireflies were breathtaking.

For something held suspended in the vacuum of space where no life should exist, the space station was teeming with it and Josiah relished taking it all in. Just like he enjoyed every minute of his assignment on the Maverick, more than he ever imagined he would. When Chris Larabee had convinced him to come on board the Maverick as Ship's counsellor, a part of Josiah knew he was indulging in the youthful fantasies of space travel he'd been forced to abandon when he became a husband and a father.

Not that Josiah regretted the sacrifice in the slightest. His life with Ayla and two daughters had been perfect and if not for his wife's passing, Josiah would never have left Earth. Yet Ayla did pass and with Mara and Safia all grown up, he spent the year after her death going through the motions, mourning the sunset years they would not see out together. It would have probably continued that way if not for the Battle of Sector 001. The massive casualty lists following the Borg's invasion of Earth had him pulled off his research and administrative role to take on more hands-on duties for the crisis.

It placed Josiah in the position to offer counsel to a newly promoted captain who'd been badly injured after standing by Jean Luc Picard and helped turn the tide of the battle in favour of Earth.

Although he loved both his daughters, Josiah could not deny he'd always wanted a son even though fate had decided otherwise. Yet when he met Chris Larabee, he was drawn to the younger man and his tales of adventures, his love of exploration and the stars, amidst a tremendous personal tragedy. If anything, Chris' situation touched a chord with Josiah and their relationship soon evolved beyond a counsellor-patient dynamic to become a real friendship. In a way Josiah did not expect, Chris satisfied his unfulfilled need for a son just as surely as he filled the void left behind by Chris' deceased father.

When Chris invited him to join the Maverick as it's counsellor, the idea seemed insane. He was hardly a young man and hadn't logged any star time in twenty years and yet, he could not ignore how compelling the possibilities were. To start a new chapter of his life by doing something for himself he never had a chance to explore because of circumstances. When Josiah asked himself what Ayla would say if he were to ask his counsel, he knew exactly what her advice would be.

Grab on Josiah. Grab on and ride the wind.

And he had. Despite the perils that accompanied life on a starship on the edge of Federation space, he was proud of the work he did here. From helping Chris come into his captaincy, to being adviser to Mary Travis who literally had to rediscover her humanity after being a Vulcan wife for so many years, he helped them through the transition and was inordinately pleased by the tentative attraction that was now a fully formed relationship.

Speaking of relationships, nothing made him prouder to stand in as the father of the bride at the recent wedding of Alexandra Styles and Vin Tanner. It was the culmination of what had been a difficult healing process for Alex who'd been a victim of horrific rape and torture during her incarceration at the hands of the Cardassians prior to the war with the Dominion. Alex had come on board the Maverick wounded and broken and yet somehow, she'd managed to develop a deep connection to the displaced Vulcan Vin Tanner.

Vin, a Vulcan orphan found by human parents before their unfortunate crash landing on an uninhabited planet, had been raised without any of the mental or social disciplines of his people. Added to the fact, he spent five years alone on a rustic planet after his human parents had died, left him socially stunted, unable to fit in anywhere. Somehow, he and Alex had found each other and Josiah was glad in some small part, he'd help them realise their life together.

The truth was, the bridge crew of the USS Maverick weren't just his comrades, they were his friends. After facing omnipotent beings, fighting off Jem'Hadar raiding parties and body jumping alien entities, he'd become a part of a whole he hadn't felt since Ayla died.

Until he received the communication this morning from his daughter Mara, accusing him of ignoring his family.

Josiah and Ayla had spoilt Mara, he knew that. She was their first child and like all new parents. indulged the girl more than they should have. While she wasn't a tantrum-throwing spitfire, she did tend to be somewhat self-absorbed. When he announced his decision to sign on board the Maverick, it was Mara who had the most difficulty with it and although she eventually capitulated to his decision, Josiah suspected she'd only done so because she expected him to come to his senses eventually.

Which of course he hadn't.

Listening to her message for the dozenth time, Josiah knew she wasn't playing fair but she did bring up a rather important point and for the first time in a year, he had to consider whether he was really done with his familial responsibilities. The idea of leaving the Maverick felt unimaginable but after listening to Mara's message, he realised he had no choice but to consider it.

Because he was going to be a grandfather.

******

It was a sad thing for Nathan Jackson to admit that despite being the Chief Medical Officer of the Maverick, recognised authority on Borg nanotechnology, author of countless medical papers, he was being defeated by a question whose answer he was certain he already knew. Sitting alone at a table in Four Corners, he scrolled through her personnel file, reading information he already knew because they'd talked about it over numerous dinners, holodeck outings and one rather unfortunate attempt at camping.

Note to self, 24th-century women whatever their background or species, do not like being in any situation where there was a possibility of bugs in sleeping bags.

Truth be told until he met her, there had been way too much time spent eating lonely meals in his Sick Bay or laboratory, where personal interaction was mostly limited to his patients, and socialising never seemed quite important as getting his work done. All that had changed when she walked into his office complaining about a neural attack they would eventually discover to be an alien invasion of the Maverick. Within the first five minutes of seeing her wild, wild hair, Nathan knew his very ordered existence was just shot to hell.

The first time she'd taken him into her bed, he, a goddamn medical doctor had been a nervous wreck while she, a Trill who'd lived a dozen lives had ignored all his inhibitions and made the night amazing. Nathan spent the next week with a smile on his face Buck Wilmington had labelled �the getting lucky smile' that almost induced Nathan to infect the man with a case of Klingon herpes, out of sheer annoyance.

Much of his current soul-searching had to do with their recent mission to Romulus. Being a doctor, he was one of a dozen medical teams sifting through the wreckage, treating survivors. The scale of death was unlike anything he'd ever seen and he'd been there at Wolf 359 and the Battle of Sector 001. During those conflicts, the casualties were mostly Starfleet personnel, who went into the fire knowing what to expect. Death was a possibility when one embarked on a career in Starfleet because, despite all their technology, space was dangerous. It was a reality they all faced.

At Romulus, almost all the casualties were civilians. People who had no idea the end was coming, aware only when it was upon them, there was nowhere to run for the scant minutes they had to prepare. They died in their beds, on their way to work, in their offices, with their children and loved ones, or alone. The survivors, what little of them were left, looked like wraiths. As if someone had taken a blade to them and scooped out everything inside.

Nathan remembered burying her face in her arms, after treating a woman who'd lost her entire family because she chose to travel to work on the outer colonies, unaware her husband and five children would die a fiery death. She'd held him in her arms, whispering soft things as he unleashed all the sorrow hidden behind hours of medical detachment.

At that moment, Nathan Jackson realised he didn't just like the girl, he loved her.

So now here he was, trying to decide if six months was too short a time to propose to a woman when he'd barely had a relationship that got past the gate before this. He wanted to talk to Josiah about it but when he'd gone to see the Counsellor, the man seemed somewhat distracted and the other person to best talk to about women, Buck Wilmington, was an idiot.

"You know Senor, looking at your girlfriend's personnel file while sitting alone is never a good sign."

When Inez Recillos, the sultry bartender of Four Corners, the ship's favourite watering hole sighted the doctor at a table by himself, it sparked her interest. At this time of day, Four Corners was mostly empty with most of the off-duty crew too busy to frequent the place when they were making shore leave plans as the Maverick approached DS5.

Nathan immediately put down the data pad at the realisation he'd been doing just that as he wrestled with his decision. "Sorry, I just have some serious thinking to do."

"Anything I can help with?" Inez asked. With Four Corners relatively empty, she could take the time to talk. Inez liked the quiet, reserved doctor who always had a sympathetic ear for everyone and right now, looked like he could use the same for himself.

"I'm not sure," he eyed her hesitantly. Inez had lost her fianc� Raphael Castille, the Captain of the Venture when his ship had been destroyed at the Battle of Cardassia Prime, in the last days of the Dominion War. It had taken her months to come to terms with her grief and Nathan wasn't certain if it was wise bringing up what was on his mind.

"Come on Senor," she sat down. "Let me try."

Against his better judgement, Nathan gave in. "I'm thinking of proposing to Rain."

Inez broke out into a wide smile, "Nathan that's wonderful!" She leaned over and hugged him.

"So you don't think it's too soon?" He asked, encouraged by her response. "I'm sitting here, trying to figure out if I'm rushing things. I mean things have been going great between us so far but after the last two months, I figured out that I can't do without her."

"If you know that in your heart," Inez squeezed his arm, "then it's not too soon."

There was no doubt in her mind after seeing Nathan and Rain together, that the duo was very much in love with each other. Rain's charming and snappy personality was the perfect complement to Nathan's somewhat shy, reserved manner. Like every scientist before him, Nathan tended to become lost in his work, sacrificing a social life that didn't extend beyond his interaction with the command staff.

The entry of Rain into his world had changed all that, with the doctor making a belated debut into the social fabric of the Maverick.

"Thank you," Nathan replied, grateful for the advice. While he wasn't exactly a novice at relationships but this one was the first to last beyond a few dates. Then again, everything about Rain had made what came before pale in comparison. this was the first one of substance in his life. "I guess my mind was made up but I needed to know I wasn't being crazy or impulsive."

"Sometimes being crazy and impulsive is not such a bad thing," Inez said with a bittersweet smile. She and Raphael had been engaged for years even though they loved each other from childhood. It felt as if they had been waiting their whole lives to be man and wife only to have that dream cruelly snatched away within hair's breadth of achieving it.

"Sometimes, you can lose your chance by waiting too long."

Nathan's eyes softened. "I guess you can. You okay?" The healer in him immediately kicked in seeing the gleam of sorrow in her eyes.

"I am," Inez shook off the moment. She still felt pain but it was nowhere as acute as it had been. In the first few months, it had nearly crippled her but eventually, the pain bled away from excruciating, to tolerable and was now settled on ache. She supposed eventually, it would diminish into distant. "I still have my moments, I won't lie but I am better."

"I'm glad," he leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for the talk Inez, I needed it."

"Always a pleasure, Senor." Inez beamed as Nathan stood up from the table, a lot clearer about his decision than he was a short time ago.

Now he just had to figure out how to propose...

******

She was a patriot.

From the ashes of what once was the Romulan Empire, this one truth had become her calling. In its last days, she was considered an outcast, someone hunted because she dared to show the will they no longer had. Her loyalty to the Empire had no boundaries. The Empire she knew was one forged of blood and strength, sharpened over two thousand years of struggle. The last of her family line, all those that came before her sacrificed their blood on the altar of Romulan greatness. It was a legacy she was willing to carry on with pride although, from the onset, she was blessed with tools they did not have or if they did, did not exploit to their fullest potential.

Like Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships, Lorral was similarly blessed. As was the practice in Romulan culture, her father Larian, a Romulan commander had taken a captured female Starfleet Officer for his wife. Allowed to live just long enough to produce a child, she was killed shortly after Lorral's birth and Larian did not feel it necessary for his new daughter to ever learn her name. As a result of her mixed heritage, Lorral was an exotic looking child with deep green eyes and captivating features.

Her father, who believed one should use all tools at one's disposal to service ambition, had taught Lorral to use her beauty to its full advantage. Desire could be a powerful weapon. Men would kill each other for it, surrender good sense to satiate it and worst yet, be weakened because of it. He, who would die at the Battle of the Omarian Nebula, taught his daughter how to use her beauty as the opening act in any game of chess. Beauty, however, could only open doors.

It was intelligence that kept them open.

Her father, a devoted member of the Tal Shiar, the notorious Romulan covert agency, had raised her to think in the way of the order. She had no childhood to speak of, just a life of training to use her mind and to that effect, the genetics from her human mother had been a great boon. Whomever that nameless woman had been, she was a science officer and she passed onto Lorral a brilliant, deductive mind with a flair for the biological sciences. Excelling in biochemistry, bioengineering and advanced xenobiology, her scientific mind propelled her to become one of the Tal Shiar's most effective operatives.

None of which would have been possible without her being stunningly ruthless.

She employed this trait in a manner that gave even the most militaristic of Romulan commanders pause. Unafraid to be cruel in its application, Lorral knew weakness should not simply be exploited, it should be pulverised into submission, until all that was left was dust or quivering flesh, begging for death. As a scientist, she'd gotten results because there were no boundaries she dared not violate, no lengths she would not go to in order to achieve empirical data. Without the limitations of empathy, morality and compassion, she produced results and usually quickly.

Ironically, it was her role as a scientist that saved her life when the Tal Shiar, along with the Cardassian Obsidian Order, launched an attack on what they believed to be the homeworld of the Founders, the rulers of the Dominion. In what had to be the worst defeat of the Dominion War, the entire fleet was wiped out, leaving the Tal Shiar in fragments and Lorral with the thirst to destroy the Dominion because among the dead was Larian.

Of course, by then, the Empire was weak, creating alliances with the soft bellied Federation and the barely civilized Klingons. In their fear of the Dominion, they sacrificed Romulan dignity and in a cascading display of poor judgement, brought them to the place where the Hobus supernova destroyed Romulus and effectively destroyed the Empire.

So now she was left to pick up the pieces and pick them up she would. The new Romulan Empire would continue, she would see to that. Already, she had a sizeable force of believers behind her, willing to follow her into the depths of space. She had no use for the weaklings who were bowing to the Federation for help.

Her new Empire awaited to be claimed, she only need to take the Frontier to do it.

Chapter Three: Marigold

Chris Larabee knew he shouldn't be amused but he couldn't help himself.

While he should have been showing the usual signs of anxiousness meeting the mother of his significant (okay not in any formal, declared, sexually intimate or ring-exchanging sense) other, Chris couldn't help but view Mary's reaction to Adelaide Sheridan's impending visit with anything but amusement. Despite Mary's rapid descent into near panic, Chris viewed her journey with fascination, having thought he had been acquainted with every aspect of the woman's personality since her arrival on board the Maverick.

When Mary first arrived on board the ship to assume the role of Protocol Officer, Chris was confronted with a glacial, Vulcan widow who was clearly uncomfortable with serving on a ship full of humans, despite being one herself. Prior to this, Mary's service in Starfleet was with the Diplomatic Corps on Vulcan, until the lack of officers following the high casualties in Wolf 359 and the Battle of Sector 001, pressed her into starship duty.

After years of expunging her human side, Chris could not imagine the difficult transition it had been to suddenly return to the fold, after years of living as a Vulcan wife. Worse yet, this emergence from her self-imposed exile was a result of losing her husband Syan in the same battle that gained Chris his captaincy six months earlier. As someone who'd lost his wife and son, Chris knew how painful it could be to pick up the pieces of one's life after such a loss.

Of course, his empathy for her situation was also complicated by the fact that he had fallen head over heels in love with her on first sight. Chris still remembered with fondness, how his jaw had literally dropped the first time he saw her in his Ready Room, wearing that glorious cascade of golden hair. Fortunately, his affection for her was not one-sided when Mary was affected by him enough to find him through a psychic link, during their confrontation with the C'Kaia.

During the incident where Chris and Mary were transported off the bridge of the Maverick by the C'Kaia, they were forced to rely on each other to escape and in doing so strengthened their growing attraction into something more. Beneath the aloof exterior of the Vulcan widow, Chris discovered Mary was a warm and captivating creature who was determined and resourceful. Together, they managed to escape the C'Kaia and return to the ship, proving how good they were together, not just personally but professionally too.

In the wake of that first adventure, neither could deny their mutual attraction although Chris understood, it was still too soon for Mary to pursue a relationship after her husband's passing. Understanding the difficulties overcoming the loss of a spouse, Chris had been happy to give Mary all the time she needed to properly mourn Syan before embarking on any new relationship. Ultimately, it proved to be a good decision because of the gradual development of their relationship over time eventually culminated into a deep abiding love, which was unspoken but felt by anyone who saw them together.

Nevertheless, despite being recognised as a couple, Chris did everything to ensure their working relationship remain professional with ground rules established early on to avoid conflict. While they sometimes had differences of opinion, none of it ever intruded on their personal relationship which was what made it work so well. Chris liked to think her affection for him also drew out the humanity she was forced to suppress to fit into Vulcan society.

The woman who emerged over the course of the last year was nothing like the buttoned-down Vulcan wife he'd first met in his Ready Room. In some sense, Chris could not imagine anything worse than repressing the intelligence, spirited woman he'd fallen in love with. While she kept her emotions tightly reined, the warmth she exuded was undeniable.

Carrying herself with an air of elegance and grace, Mary was extremely approachable to the rest of the crew, establishing friendships with Alexandra Styles and Julia Pemberton, as well as working closely with Josiah Sanchez as the liaison to the civilian crew of the Maverick. Very often, Mary was the voice of the families on board, sharing their concerns of raising children on board one of Starfleet's most powerful warships.

Indeed, as the Maverick's Protocol Officer, diplomacy and tact were part of her DNA.

Chris admired the emotional fortitude enabling her to sit across from a rapist Cardassian Gul and still be able to treat him like royalty. During the occasions when they were forced to play mediator between warring factions hell-bent on killing each other, Mary was often the voice of calm keeping both sides talking. Exerting diplomacy and tact, Chris admired Mary's ability to keep both sides talking when he was ready to eject them into space from sheer exasperation.

Patience and discipline were words he considered synonymous with Mary and yet all traces of the elegant, collected woman he had come to know and love, was absent when he joined her in Transporter Room 2.

Once Ezra completed all the procedural requirements for Adelaide Sheridan's visit to the Maverick, the lady was ready to board the Maverick, a mere three hours after the ship had docked with DS5. As usual, when the Maverick put into any starbase, the transporter rooms became a hive of activity with the arrival and departure of the crew taking shore leave, welcoming guests and personnel transfers. Fortunately, Chris could exercise Captain's prerogative to get Mary's mother on board, despite the lateness of her request.

He wasn't entirely sure he was doing Mary a favour.

Whatever poise and grace he'd been accustomed to the last twelve months were gone as Mary stood in the transporter room, appearing nervous as hell. Billy was absent, having transported to the Lysian homeworld around which DS5 orbited, with the rest of his class for an excursion. The boy had been looking forward to the outing at one of the planet's more spectacular animal reserves for weeks and Mary didn't have the heart to keep him behind because of Adelaide's unexpected visit.

"You okay?" Chris asked Mary, exchanging a look with Transporter Chief Rain Nal who was wearing a �what the hell' expression on her face, as she stared at the Captain regarding the Protocol Officer's uncharacteristic behaviour.

"I'm fine!" She declared and then realised, she had almost shouted. Groaning inwardly, Mary took a deep breath, brushed an errant strand of hair out of her hair, smoothed her skirt, turned a critical eye over him to make sure he looked...captainy, before speaking in a more measured tone. "I'm fine, she just makes me a little nervous."

"No kidding," Rain blurted out.

Chris shot the Transporter Chief a patented Larabee glare, although he shared the young Trill's sentiments. "Hey, I'll run interference for you," he offered, taking her hand. "It won't be that bad."

Mary snorted. "She'll eat you alive."

"What the hell did this woman do to you?" He could help but ask.

Mary let out a breath. "She didn't do anything! She's just one of those larger than life people who have opinions on everything...and I mean EVERYTHING, doesn't believe in convention, has no boundaries with personal space. At my sixteenth birthday, all I wanted was a nice tasteful little party with my friends...she rented Palace Versailles!"

"You're kidding." Chris' eyes widened.

"No!" Mary declared. "When I was 17, I mentioned, just mentioned in passing that I liked this pianist from one of the symphonies we were watching... SHE CALLED HIM and paid for him to take me out to dinner!"

Chris bit the inside of his cheek, suspecting if he laughed, he would be killed outright.

A soft trill from the Transporter console made Rain look up, her face showing her attempt to stifle her own laughter at Mary's humiliating narration of events. "Captain," she cleared her throat. "DS5 has just signalled its readiness to transport Ms Sheridan aboard."

"Oh God," Mary groaned.

"Mary, if you want I can lose the transporter signal. Perhaps send it to the other side of Lysia?" Rain asked, only half-joking. Like the Captain, she was bothered by Mary's disintegration, despite the humour of the situation, and Rain had done far worse in her time then to send a transporter signal off the reservation to help a friend. Indeed, the act that got her noticed by the Captain for this position on the Maverick, involved transporting an instructor into the mess hall at Starfleet Academy, through all its security protocols, in the nude.

"That will not be necessary Lieutenant, Chris frowned at Rain, very familiar with the Trill's sense of humour since she had started seeing Nathan Jackson. "Procee..."

"Wait! I'm thinking about it," Mary cut him off, appearing as if she were giving serious thought to the idea.

Chris rolled his eyes and repeated. "PROCEED."

******

Chris wasn't sure what he was expecting.

Thanks to Mary's dread at the inevitable arrival of Adelaide Sheridan on the Maverick, Chris expected to see a woman who was a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and just a hint of Klingon targ to make things interesting. Instead, when the low hum of the transporter ceased and the golden shimmer of the beam dissipated, what he found was a woman in her sixties, with aristocratic features and familiar blue grey eyes.

Unlike her daughter, Adelaide Sheridan wore her hair in a stylish short cut, with a sweeping fringe parted on the right. Her hair was almost snow white but Chris could imagine there was a time when it was the same colour as Mary's since he spied a few errant strands of white gold remaining. She stood about the same height as Mary and had the same shapely figure despite her vintage. Chris wasn't certain what features Mary had inherited from her father but it was clear she was her mother's daughter in terms of looks.

However, the similarities ended there.

Where Mary was always a picture of grace and elegance, Adelaide Sheridan's fashion sense was the complete opposite, being flamboyant and colourful. She wore an elaborate looking turquoise gown with enough frills to be daring instead of garish, while adorned with jewellery that would have made a Ferengi (or Ezra Standish) salivate. Yet instead of looking vulgar, the woman appeared very much like the grand dame of the theatre she was reputed to be.

Every part of her dress seemed to emphasize a personality used to being the centre of attention. Furthermore, on a starship where the opposite sex tended to disappear behind their Starfleet uniforms, Adelaide Sheridan relished every bit of her femininity and was sure to turn the head of every man on board, no matter what their age.

"MARIGOLD!" The woman exclaimed loudly, arms outstretched the minute she was able to step out the transporter pad. "Let me look at you!"

Chris winced when he felt Mary's hand clench around his in reaction before she groaned. Throwing a sidelong glance at Mary, Chris saw her shoulders slump while her lovely features twisted into a grimace of exasperation.

"Mother, for the love of God please! Don't call me that!"

Mary released his hand and went to greet her mother who was stepping of the transporter pad.

Chris and Rain exchanged looks that said simultaneously without a word needing to be spoken. Marigold?

Having poured over Mary's personnel file when she first came on board the Maverick, Chris was certain the name Marigold was mention nowhere in the records. While he knew Travis was the name of Adelaide Sheridan's first husband, Mary's father, the Protocol Officer's first name was listed as Mary in every bit of identification there was about the woman. Of course, if Mary had been named Marigold, he could very well understand why she opted to change it.

"It's your name Darling!" Adelaide showed no sign of repentance as mother and daughter embraced. Turning to Chris and Rain, she continued speaking, despite having not been introduced. "When she was born, she had the most stunning head of gold hair you'd ever seen, colour like a field of marigolds. Everyone said so, which was just as well because she did come out a little chubbier than normal so the hair was a good distraction."

"Mother!" Mary's jaw dropped open, her face turning red with embarrassment.

Woah, Chris thought to himself and realised Mary wasn't exaggerating. He couldn't guess whether Adelaide Sheridan was intentionally embarrassing her daughter or was she completely oblivious to the bits of self-esteem she was chipping off Mary with each word she spoke. Nevertheless, determined to come to the rescue of the woman he loved, Chris cleared his throat and stepped forward to introduce himself.

"Ms Sheridan, welcome aboard the Maverick. I'm Captain Chris Larabee."

Adelaide seemed to take real notice of him for the first time and as Mary tried to compose herself over the woman's shoulder, Chris noted familiar blue grey eyes studying him with deep scrutiny. He had no doubt he was being sized up by the woman's high-powered gaze. He wondered if Mary had told Adelaide he and Mary shared a personal relationship even though his instincts said no. Of course, if she had seen Mary's hand in his earlier, she might have guessed.

"Captain Larabee, what a pleasure to meet you," she offered her his hand and he took it politely in greeting. Glancing over her shoulder, Adelaide winked at her daughter and smirked, "Marigold, you do have a type."

"Mother!" Mary exclaimed aghast wondering if matricide was really such a bad thing.

Chris looked at Mary. "Type?"

"Uniforms," Adelaide said helpfully. "Marigold always loved men in uniforms."

Behind him, Chris swore he heard Rain snigger.

Chris shot the Transporter Chief a dark look and introduced the woman with a low growl. "This is Transporter Chief Rain."

Rain was watching the proceedings with a bemused smirk, which told Chris immediately this entire exchange was going to be related to the senior staff in excruciating detail by day's end. "She'll be transporting your things to the guest quarters we have prepared for you."

"Oh really?" Adelaide turned to Rain and replied. "Do be careful with the trunk."

"Trunk?" Mary gawked at her mother. "How long do you plan on staying?"

"Until we've caught up completely darling," Adelaide rolled her eyes. "I have spent barely a week with you in the last five years. We've lots to catch up on." She gave Chris the once over and turned back to Mary. "And I want to meet my grandson William."

At the mention of the six year old boy, Adelaide looked around the transporter pad and noted the absence of Billy Travis. "Where is William?"

"Well he had an excursion and your visit was unexpected," Mary replied. "I didn't want to disappoint him by not letting him go."

"I am shunted aside for a school excursion?" Adelaide exclaimed aghast, her expression full of exaggerated hurt. "I am wounded."

"Not yet," Mary muttered through gritted teeth.

"Okay!" Chris spoke up, watching Mary inching closer to critical mass. "Ms Sheridan, why don't I show you to your quarters so you can get settled in..."

Suddenly, the door to the transporter room opened and stepping through it was Ezra Standish. The Chief Security Officer, maintaining a perfect poker face that Chris for one second didn't believe, pretended to be surprised by the presence of Adelaide, whom he'd obviously come down to meet. Chris hadn't forgotten how Ezra had taken the news that Mary's mother was the great star of the stage. The man had been positively gushing when he recited Adelaide's achievements to the rest of the command staff.

"Oh Captain, I did not mean to intrude," he said apologetically, eyes fixed on the woman, trying to hide the stardust in his eyes. "Commander Wilmington sent me down here to inform you, a Priority one message has come from Starfleet Command. You're needed on the bridge immediately."

"Really?" Chris stared at him. "Something wrong with our com badges, Ezra?" Chris gave the man a look, telling Ezra he was not fooling anyone. Furthermore, if Buck had actually sent Ezra down here to deliver a Priority One message instead of alerting him immediately to it by comms, Chris was not going to be impressed. Suffice to say, he was going to be having a conversation with both his First Officer and his Chief of Security when time permitted.

"Well I was off duty," Ezra feigned ignorance, "and Commander Wilmington believed with a visitor of such prestige, I should deliver the news personally and offer our sincerest apologies for taking you away to the bridge." He shot Chris his smuggest smile.

Chris bristled inwardly, giving Ezra a look that indicated this discussion was by no means over before remembering Mary's mother. "Ms Sheridan, I'd like you to meet our Chief Security Officer, Ezra Standish. You have him to thank for expediting the paperwork that permitted your visit."

"How resourceful," Adelaide smiled brightly at the Southerner. "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers." She winked at Ezra.

Ezra's poker face crumbled at the mention of that famous line from one of his favourite plays. "I saw your performance as Blanche Dubois when I was a cadet ...."

"Yeah," Chris rolled his eyes. "You're not a fan."

Leaving Ezra to his fawning, he met Mary's gaze briefly, explaining the necessity of him to deal with this immediately, a thing she understood completely because professionalism in her work was the one thing in her life over which she had total control. As a Protocol Officer, she knew perfectly well the importance of a Priority One message. Giving him a subtle nod, she turned back to her mother, while Chris drifted to the far end of the room and tapped on his combadge.

"Captain to the Bridge."

"Chris, I was just about to call you. We just received an incoming message, it's in pretty bad shape and Alex thinks it might have been hit with some kind of energy microburst at the time of transmission to shred it in subspace."

"It's not a Priority One message?" He shot Ezra a death glare at the overstatement. The Chief of Security was still too embroiled in his conversation with Mary's mother to notice the Captain's displeasure.

"No!" Buck's voice revealed his puzzlement. "You know I'd call you right away if that were the ..." Chris heard him pause a moment as if Buck was thinking about why he might have thought that. It took the First Officer only a second to guess. "Is Ezra down there? I mentioned the transmission could be anything, a Priority One signal for all we know and like a jack rabbit, he took off, saying it was his end of shift or something."

Technically, Ezra hadn't lied, but being the consummate gambler that he was, the man did know how to bluff. It was what made him the best Chief of Security (in Chris' opinion) in the fleet, although there were times when the captain did want to shove him out of the airlock.

"He's down here," Chris remarked with a sigh, realising now this was what his crew had to put up with when Jean Luc Picard came on board the Maverick. The Captain of Enterprise E was a personal hero and the first time Chris had met him, he'd tripped over himself like a tongue-tied teenager. "Anyway, I'm on my way."

"Acknowledged. See you soon."

******

With the existence of a Priority One message from Starfleet, Chris was forced to abandon Mary to ministrations of Adelaide Sheridan in order to get to the bridge. Fortunately, Ezra's attempt to meet the woman meant Chris could assign him the duty of playing escort, as well as run interference for Mary while she was forced to deal with her mother without his support. As always, Mary took his need to depart with her usual understanding, even if her nerves were somewhat frayed by this point.

The dividing line between their regard for each other and their duty as Starfleet Officers was one neither of them could cross for the sake of their relationship on the Maverick. In order for him to function as Captain, Chris knew Mary understood he couldn't shirk his duties, even if he wanted to protect her from her mother's behaviour. Besides, Chris had the sneaking suspicion, Adelaide liked an audience and his presence was only providing the woman more opportunities to embarrass her daughter.

Leaving Ezra with Adelaide for the moment, Chris headed out of the Transporter Room, making eye contact with Mary long enough for her to join him in the hallway outside. Fortunately, the way Ezra was gushing over Adelaide's performance as Blanche Dubois and Maggie the Cat and the lady soaking his adulation, neither noticed Mary's departure.

"I'm sorry," Chris quickly said, needing to get going., "I've got to go..."

"It's alright," Mary let out an exasperated sigh, kissing him lightly on the lips since the corridor outside Transporter Room 2 was empty. While the entire ship knew what they meant to each other, both Chris and Mary tried to maintain a professional demeanour towards each other outside social events. "Thank you for being there. I'll be fine. I've dealt with her all my life, I can stand it for a few more days. If not, you can visit me in Federation prison after I've committed matricide."

"I'll break you out," Chris grinned although he had to ask. "Marigold?"

Mary groaned, knowing the question was inevitable. "If you love me, we will never speak of it again."

Chris knew when a strategic withdrawal was necessary as she glared at the door to Transporter Room 2 with such a menacing gleam a Klingon would have been sent running in terror. Grinning, he kissed her back while the hallway was still devoid of bodies and the overt display of affection would remain between just the two of them.

"I'll table it for now," he replied before heading towards the nearest turbo lift. "I'll see you soon."

Chapter Four: The Columbus

"What do we have?" Chris asked, stepping out of the turbo lift a few minutes later.

Upon sighting Chris, Buck rose to his feet immediately, vacating the command chair to take his customary position in the First Officer's seat at the Captain's right hand. Meanwhile, instead of occupying her usual place at the Science Station, Alex was standing hunched over JD's shoulder at navigation, no doubt assisting the ensign decrypt the content of the mystery message just received. Vin, whose shift ended the same time as Ezra's, had opted to remain on the bridge, no doubt in anticipation of trouble and also because he was interested in what the message might say.

Had Ezra been not so starstruck by the presence of Adelaide Sheridan, the Chief of Security might have done the same thing. Then again, despite his earlier chagrin at the gambler, Chris had to admit it took something extraordinary to penetrate the man's cynicism and affect him so profoundly. The only time Ezra had ever been so similarly taken was when a certain titian-haired beauty had come on board the Maverick. Julia Pemberton had destroyed Ezra's consummate poker face with a flick of her copper coloured haired.

As he headed towards his command chair, Chris wondered how Julia Pemberton was going to take Ezra's adulation of Adelaide Sheridan.

"We're still trying to clean it up," Buck answered Chris' question as the Captain took up his seat. Instinctively, he turned to Alex and JD, to give them a prompt on their progress. "How's it going?"

While JD's concentration was singularly focussed on the console in front of him, his fingers flying over the screen in a flurry of movement, Alex straightened up to answer the question. Normally, the younger man was capable of deconstructing most signals with ease but the expression on his face implied this particular signal might be more of a challenge than normal. That he required the assistance of the Science Officer in this instance, spoke to the complexity of restoring the original signal after its assault in subspace.

"It's definitely a Federation frequency," Alex told Chris, "but it been hit by a feedback pulse, send in the opposite direction of the initial subspace stream. Probably someone trying to scatter its content failing to affect a jamming signal. It's a good attempt at trying to disrupt a subspace signal but not enough to destroy it. Nevertheless, the polarisation has caused enough interference to corrupt the original data stream."

"Lot of effort to make sure we stay in the dark," Vin remarked staring at Chris.

As always, Vin's thoughts mirrored Chris' own and he glanced at Buck. "Buck, get Ezra up here. This sounds to me like a situation."

"He's going to be heartbroken," Buck suppressed a smirk, knowing what it had to be a pretty special lady to drag the Chief of Security off the bridge when there was a puzzle to be solved. "He was all fired up to meet Ms Sheridan."

"No kidding," Chris shook his head. "I was hoping he could run interference for Mary with her mother."

"That bad?" Vin asked, suddenly grateful Alex's mother had passed and the closest he'd come to facing the dreaded mother in law situation was his meeting with Kellien, the Klingon woman who'd helped raise Alex. Following their engagement with the Jem'Hadar and the business with Gul Lemar, Kellien had come on board at Josiah Sanchez's behest to see Alex. Vin supposed being told by a Klingon, he had a spine was as much as a compliment as he could expect from the strong woman.

"And then some," Chris shook his head, still feeling guilty about leaving Mary to face her mother alone but while this did not have the urgency of a Priority One mission, the idea that a Federation ship being in trouble did not sit well with Chris. "Any idea where it came from?"

"With the corruption to the data stream, it's difficult to say," Alex answered for JD. "At this point, the only thing we do know is that it's coming from the same region of space as Colony 9."

"Colony 9?" Chris exclaimed with some surprise.

Colony 9 had been destroyed during the Maverick's engagement with the C'Kaia, a race of insects whose xenophobia and thirst for domination had resulted in the creation of the Borg. Initially intended to be a warrior race to conduct their conquest for them in much the same way the Founders utilised the Jem'Hadar, the C'Kaia had been outsmarted by their own creations. By introducing a telepathic female to mimic their own hive mind, they inadvertently created the Borg Queen who would go on to create the Collective.

When learning of the Federation's success at repelling two subsequent Borg invasions, the C'Kaia had sought to learn all they could about how this was done. Before eventually realising it was Jean Luc Picard's experiences with the Borg that gave them an edge, the C'Kaia had callously murdered the inhabitants of at least three different colonies, including Colony 9. Colony 9 had been an agricultural outpost and the assault of a molecular destabilising weapon on the settlement had ended any future notions of colonising the planet.

"Yeah, that's what we figured," Buck shared Chris' puzzlement. "There isn't anything out there anymore."

"Could be surveyors," Vin suggested. "Checking up on whether the Berthold radiation has dissipated."

"I can check on that Captain." Alex offered.

"Do it," Chris nodded, sending Alex striding back to the science station.

"Any chance it could be the C'Kaia?" Buck asked. With the exception of the Borg, there was no one else that far out who could be a threat to anyone.

"Would they risk coming back here after last time? "After the threat, you made to out them to the Borg?" Vin asked, not at all liking the idea of that particular enemy making a return.

During their encounter with the C'Kaia, they almost lost Chris and Mary for good. Furthermore, considering the threat the Captain used to ensure the C'Kaia never set foot in Federation space again, Vin did not at all like the possibility of his best friend falling into their hands again. Vin still remembered the hatred the C'Kaia had directed at Chris personally for that slight.

"Unlikely," Alex replied before Chris could. After saving Vin's life during the Pon Farr and their subsequent mating, the permanent meld between them allowed Alex to sense Vin's concern for Chris. And as she had done since their first meeting, moved quickly to allay his fears. "Their jamming systems was very effective; no message would have made it out at all."

Vin gave Alex a grateful smile, aware of what she was doing and once again, felt the surge of secret delight at the knowledge she was now his wife and mate. The last two months since their marriage had been nothing short of bliss. All the hopes and dreams Vin harboured for Alex, since that first moment when she'd nursed his wounded ego in Four Corners, had been realised.

"What she said," Chris answered, sharing Alex's belief. "Furthermore, the C'Kaia know what is at stake if they're caught in Federation space again, they wouldn't waste time jamming the signal, they would have just destroyed the ship."

"Agreed," Buck nodded. "If a galaxy class starship couldn't hold them back, I don't like the chances of a civilian ship surviving the meeting long enough to send a message."

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "I think I've identified the ship the signal may have come from. Vin's right, the Spacing Guild has logged a flight plan for a survey ship, the Columbus, travelling in that sector. She's an Aurora class vessel scheduled to make a routine inspection of the Kurlan System to see if the adverse effects of the C'Kaia attack on Colony 9 have dispersed."

"Crew complement?"

"Fifteen," Alex replied, studying the data on her console screen. "They're mostly planetary engineers, geologists and radiation specialists."

"Civilians," Buck frowned. "Chris, should we suspend shore leave for now?"

If they were required to mount a rescue mission, they would need a full crew, especially when the nature of the threat was so undefined. As it stood, since docking at DS5, a handful of crew members had already transported off ship to enjoy their furlough

Chris frowned, disliking the idea of suspending shore leave after what the crew had endured in Romulan space for the last two months. Until Adelaide Sheridan had thrown a monkey wrench in the works with her arrival, even Chris had been looking forward to spending some time with Mary and Billy down on Lysia. Sweeping his gaze across the bridge, he knew his senior staff needed the break too. After all the devastation they'd witnessed, the scale of suffering and casualties, his crew were owed their due in rest. Unfortunately, the realities of life in Starfleet meant the preservation of life came above all else.

"Stand by for now until we hear the message," he said with a sigh, having no other choice if the message unfolded as he expected it too.

The low hiss of the turbo lift opened and Ezra Standish emerged, looking all business and concerned at the worst case scenario he hoped hadn't eventuated when he'd left the bridge to go on his �errand'.

"Glad you could join us Chief," Chris gave Ezra a look. "I trust you squared Ms Sheridan away?"

A slow rumble of amusement rippled through the bridge as Chris smirked at Ezra who was maintaining a poker face, not about to show anyone his embarrassment at his fannish behaviour towards Adelaide Sheridan.

"I left Ms Sheridan and Lt. Travis to their own devices yes," Ezra spoke with great dignity, perfectly aware he would eventually be recalled to the bridge once the nature of the message had been unravelled. He had seen nothing wrong indulging his curiosity regarding the great lady when nothing could be done on the bridge until the message was transcribed. Besides, he was off duty.

"I believe Lt. Travis said something about showing Ms Adelaide the airlock when I was departing."

"Ouch," Buck winced and ratcheted Chris' guilt another notch.

"Ezra, it looks like we've got a civilian transport surveying Colony 9 in trouble," Buck explained. "Someone has gone through a lot of trouble trying to make sure they didn't get a message to us."

"Someone?" Ezra raised a brow. He knew of nothing in the vicinity of the Kurlan system where Colony 9 was located. The only threat that could possibly emerge from that quadrant of space was the Borg although the Collective wouldn't waste time masking signals. Same with the C'Kaia whom the Captain had parlayed an uneasy understanding with a year ago. They were too powerful to bother with butchering subspace when it was more effective to simply destroy the craft.

"It could be smugglers or pirates," Ezra offered to retreat to his security station. "The remote location would prove an attractive locale to those conducting illegal activities, even if it is a considerable distance from the core systems. Orions, in particular, have been known to establish their bases in the wilderness to remain hidden from the various stellar authorities."

"I don't know whether I want to build a base that's the favourite trajectory of a Borg armada," Buck countered.

"Captain, the message is ready," JD announced, capturing the undivided attention of everyone on the bridge with that one statement. "There was a lot of fragmentation because of the feedback pulse so we've only got audio but it's the best I can do Sir." He frowned unhappily.

"I'm sure you did your best JD," Buck assured him, aware JD's prolonged silence since Chris arrived on the bridge had to do with the ensign's singular focus on giving his captain an answer.

"Go ahead."

The message greeted them with a loud burst of static, followed by a male voice speaking through the hiss of interference. "This... John Black...Columbus... we... attack...Sector 351... we can't see them!" The interference seemed to subside for a few seconds and they were able to hear John Black's word a little more clearly, though it was a foregone conclusion to everyone on the bridge, it was a distress signal the Maverick would not be able to reach on time.

"We're going to try and stay ahead of them but they're not even trying to hail us. They came out of nowhere! We can't see them... we don't know who they are. If anyone can hear this message, please help us. There's fifteen of us on board, we don't even have weapons..."

The sentence was lost in what sounded like another burst of static but Chris recognised it for what it was.

"Was that a phaser blast?" Vin asked.

"No," Ezra said immediately, "the pitch is altogether too high. If I were to venture a guess, I would say it was a disruptor but I would not gamble on it."

"That's all there is," JD said when silence followed John Black's last words. The fade of the disruptor blast echoed through the bridge with a sense of finality for the state of the Columbus' crew.

"Damn," Buck hissed. "Do you think...." he looked at Chris unable to finish his grim thought. "I'm going to operate on the assumption they're still alive," Chris stated firmly, not wanting to entertain any other possibility until he knew for certain hope was lost. "All non-essential personnel still on DS5 can remain there until we get back. Everybody else, I'm afraid shore leave is cancelled until we've recovered the Columbus."

"Didn't have anywhere special to go anyway," Vin replied, glad the Maverick would be going to answer the distress call of the Columbus even if the likelihood of reaching the ship in time to save those on board seemed remote. They were almost a day away from Sector 351, even if Vin got Chris' authorisation to bring the ship to Warp 9.9. The finality of a possible disruptor blast heavily implied there would be nothing to find when they reached the coordinates of the transmission.

"Captain," Ezra said with a disappointed sigh. "As much as I loathed to make this recommendation, we should not be taking any guests with us into a possible combat situation."

Despite the fact he was utterly thrilled by the fact that Adelaide Sheridan was presently on board the Maverick, as Chief of Security, he would be remiss in his duty if he didn't voice that particular concern. Even though he'd already arranged to give Mary some easement by offering to take the lady for a tour around the ship (with Julia of course), Ezra knew allowing visitors like her to remain on board was unwise.

"It's safer Chris," Buck voiced his support for the recommendation. They had no idea what they would be flying into and the fact they could not identify the origins of what sounded like a disruptor blast, gave him cause for concern. It could well be a rogue Romulan or Klingon element. An unusual happenstance considering how far away from either of those territories they were. However, it could not be ruled out until they reached the Kurlan system.

"Do it," Chris said in complete agreement with Buck on this. Of course, saving Mary from her mother had nothing to do with it at all.

******

"Well, this is completely unacceptable!"

Adelaide Sheridan fumed within the confines of the guest quarters prepared for her during her visit to Maverick. Of course, that stay had now been cut short by the announcement the ship was going to leave the orbit of DS5 within the hour to mount a rescue mission on the edge of Federation space.

With the possibility of a hostile enemy waiting for them, Mary understood Chris' reasoning for sending the Maverick's guests off the ship. As it stood, she was grateful Chris' order included non-essential personnel such as Audrey King, one of the Maverick's school teachers. It meant Billy could remain on DS5 with the rest of his class who were present at the animal sanctuary on Lysia under Audrey's charge. As always, Captain Krista would ensure the civilians remaining behind would be well cared for until the Maverick's return.

"Mother, its standard procedure," Mary explained, trying not to get exasperated. Her earlier anxieties had levelled off somewhat, thanks to Ezra Standish's presence in the Transporter Room. By the time, they reached the guests quarters where Adelaide was to stay, Mary had managed her reaction to her mother's presence in her life again and reclaim some measure of poise and composure. "We are about to enter a hostile situation and it's just not a good idea to put civilians at risk. It will be only for a few days. You can spend some quality time with your grandson."

Mary reached for her mother's hand, squeezing it gently to convince her this was for her best.

"Marigold!" Adelaide burst out with similar frustration. "I can't simply go to him and introduce myself as his grandmother! He has no idea who I am."

Mary knew she was right about Adelaide's introduction to Billy but the truth was, Mary was determined the woman leave the ship without further complaint. Knowing how intractable Adelaide could be from her youth if her mother was outraged enough, she'd marched right up to the Captain and demand the right to remain on board.

"You should be there with us," Adelaide challenged.

"I can't," Mary balked at the suggestion of leaving the Maverick when Chris and her friends were heading into danger. Still, even as the thought crossed her mind, Mary knew it was more than that. Her feelings for Chris Larabee made it impossible for her to leave the ship when he was facing danger. While Mary was well aware Chris would not object to her leaving the ship under such circumstances, Mary would not entertain it. "I am part of the Bridge crew, I need to be there."

Adelaide's eyes narrowed at the determination in her daughter's face as she said those words. "That's not why you're staying."

Mary bristled, hating the fact her mother could see through her. Whatever happened to the glacial Vulcan mask she'd adopted throughout the years of marriage to Syan, whenever Adelaide was in her presence? Almost quietly, Mary spoke in a tone she seldom used with her mother so Adelaide would understand why Mary considered it impossible to do as she asked.

"I have to, it's my duty."

"I see," Adelaide replied, guessing the reason even if she didn't believe her Marigold's explanation. She crossed the carpeted floor of the room to lower herself into the sofa facing the window providing them with a stunning view of the stars beyond. "Alright Marigold," she eyed her daughter with resignation. "I'll wait for you at DS5."

Mary let out a sigh of relief, She went to Adelaide, lowering herself on her knees and, placing her head against her mother's lap in that familiar way she had done as a child, whenever she wanted Adelaide to understand how deeply she felt about a thing. "I can't leave him, mother. I won't."

That at least, Adelaide understood. Stroking her daughter's golden hair, Adelaide understood, at last, the nature of Mary's relationship with Chris Larabee.

"No, I suppose you can't."

Chapter Five: Maternal Situation

"Captain's Log Stardate 12.339.22 - The Maverick is two hours away from arriving at the Kurlan system, the source of the Columbus' distress signal. So far long range scanners have shown no sign of any activity in the area, and no further messages have transmitted. At this point, we are approaching the situation with extreme caution although I am not prepared to give up hope that we may yet recover survivors from the Columbus. While I find it unlikely the Borg or C'Kaia might be responsible for the attack, I have notified Starfleet Command of the possibility.

In the meantime, I have learned that Adelaide Sheridan did not disembark the Maverick at DS5 as anticipated and somehow managed to stay on board the ship. I will be discussing the matter further with Ms Sheridan as soon as possible."

******

How the hell did she manage to stay on board Ezra?" Chris demanded within the confines of his Ready Room, where presently Mary, Buck and Ezra were facing the Captain, like a group of children who had been sent to the principal's office, after being caught stealing the school's hover car and taking it for a spin to Chicago.

Not that such a thing actually happened and if accused Chris Larabee would plead the fifth.

"Chris, this is my fault," Mary spoke up before Buck and Ezra could, "I should have escorted her to the transporter room and made sure she was sent to DS5 myself."

When Mary left Adelaide outside Transporter Room 2, she had done so with assurances from the woman they would see each other again when the Maverick returned from its rescue mission. She should have known Adelaide wouldn't be appeased so easily, that somehow, in some fashion, her mother would get her way no matter what the consequences to those around her.

"So she didn't let on she was planning on staying?" Buck asked, fuming because this was a serious breach of security. Buck knew the only reason it had happened was that Ms Sheridan had used Mary's relationship with Chris to bamboozle the poor ensign in Transporter Room 1 into believing she was staying on board with the Captain's endorsement.

"Of course not!" Mary declared exasperated. "Do I look like I want to enter a hostile situation with my mother on board? Trust me, I want her off the ship more than all of you combined. Unless of course, you have some way to launch her at the enemy because not even the Borg would stand a chance against her."

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Chris fought the urge to smirk at that remark. Instead, he rubbed the bridge of his nose and regarded his Security Chief. "Ezra?"

"Apparently," Ezra cleared his throat and winced as he made his unbelievable report, "Ms Sheridan told Ensign Yanek that you were surprising Lt. Travis by allowing her mother to remain onboard and you'd be personally grateful to her if she confirmed the transport to DS5 as further proof of her departure in case Lt Travis made inquiries."

Ezra had listened to the story with a mixture of horror and sympathy, horror at the complete failure to follow half a dozen of his security measures, not to mention standard protocols and sympathy because Adelaide Sheridan was a celebrated actress capable of being utterly convincing. While the entire ship knew about Mary and Chris' relationship, only an ensign as green as Yanek would be unaware Chris would never circumvent protocol in such a fashion or use his authority for personal reasons.

Chris smouldered behind his desk as he listened to Ezra's report.

"Really?" His voice dripped with barely concealed outrage.

Perfectly aware Chris was a few notches away from going nuclear, Buck stepped into his role as First Officer to diffuse the captain by handling the situation. He was pretty sure Starfleet Command was not going to appreciate learning a celebrated thespian had been locked in the brig indefinitely. "Ezra, I take it you've notified Rain about giving Ensign Yanek some instruction on how things operate on the Maverick."

"Oh I have no doubt that some form of instruction will be involved," Ezra answered, recalling just how furious Rain had been, learning that one of her own had made such a foolish assumption. Ezra had seriously considered assigning the ensign a security detail until Rain calmed down because all of the Trill's previous host memories were screaming blue murder. "Chief Rain will be taking personal charge of the Ensign."

Mary felt terrible for poor Ensign Yanek who had been used as a pawn in Adelaide Sheridan's schemes and was going to bear the brunt of it from just about everybody. She made a mental note to see Rain and convince the Transporter Chief to take it easy on the young ensign. She was just no match for Mary's mother. Grace Yanek had arrived on the Maverick, barely a month ago and was just finding her feet, let alone having the expertise to sidestep a skilful operator like her mother.

"Captain, I'm happy if you choose to put her on a shuttle with rations and send her back to DS5," Mary suggested.

"It's tempting," Chris growled, properly incensed by how Ms Sheridan had taken advantage of one of his younger crewmen. "Unfortunately, it's a done deed. Ezra, provide her with an escort to ensure she doesn't have access to unrestricted sections of the ship and impress upon Ms Sheridan that stowing away on board a Federation starship is a violation of more than just Starfleet regulations."

"Rest assured Captain, it will be done." Ezra frowned. While he might have been star struck by the lady's presence, any flouting of his security measures was something he took personally and like Mary, Ezra was not impressed at how she'd contrived to remain on board at the expense of Ensign Yanek.

"Alright dismissed." Chris eased back into his chair, unable to believe this was the situation he was dealing with two hours before they arrived at a potentially hostile situation.

While Buck and Ezra promptly left the Captain's Ready Room, Mary lingered behind wanting to have a private word with Chris and apologise again for being born Adelaide Sheridan's child. Feeling supremely stupid for believing her mother might understand her decision to remain on board the Maverick and simply go quietly into the night, was too much to ask for.

"I'm sorry Chris," she fell heavily into the chair in front of his desk. "I should have guessed she'd pull a stunt like this."

"Hey, it's not your fault," Chris got up from his chair and rounded the desk so he could reach her. Lifting her chin so she'd look at him, he wanted her to know he didn't blame her. After what he had seen of the woman thus far, it was clear, Adelaide did whatever she pleased with no thought to those around her. "I didn't take your word for it when you said she was a handful."

Mary managed a half smile, grateful for his understanding but not feeling any better about it. "She's been like this all my life you know? My father seemed to know how to keep her reined but after he passed, she turned into...well you saw."

Chris did not comment and simply chose to nod, letting Mary speak.

"First chance I got, I enrolled in Starfleet Academy, although she wanted me to go to Juilliard."

"Juilliard?" Chris raised a brow. As the son of a Harvard Professor, he knew of the school. "Really? What for?"

"It doesn't matter," Mary shrugged, not wanting it out there that one of her hidden talents was an exceptional singing voice she never put much worth into. If Stellar Cartography ever found out, she'd end up getting roped into their Drama Club. "I've tried to stay away as much as possible and marrying a Vulcan didn't help either."

"She disapproved of Syan?" Chris raised a brow at that. Mary's husband was a respected Vulcan officer who had died in the line of duty, defending Earth. Furthermore, a Vulcan who fell in love with a human female, Vin notwithstanding, was unusual. Mary must have really affected the man for him to marry outside his species. Not that Chris could blame Syan of course. The Captain of the Maverick had been similarly lost when he first met Mary Travis.

"She thought I was marrying him to get back at her. She couldn't believe I'd voluntary live among them and adopt their disciplines for a man." Mary sighed, remembering the heated arguments and Adelaide's utter disbelief when Mary had made the announcement so many years ago. For months after her engagement, mother and daughter were estranged with Adelaide absent from her wedding at Vulcan. Mary had felt both miserable and grateful, unable to imagine how Adelaide would have fit into the rigid Vulcan ceremony. Only after Billy was born did they manage to reconnect at all.

Chris took her hand and raised it to his lips, "Mary, everything will be okay. Don't let her get to you. As annoying as this situation is with her remaining on board, it's not the end of the world. Sure, I'm mad by how she manipulated Ensign Yanek, especially when the ship might be entering a critical situation but she's just like every other civilian who has chosen to remain aboard. We'll handle it."

"Oh Chris," Mary rose to her feet and caressed his jaw, before leaning in for a kiss. "Thank you so much for understanding."

Chris smiled at her, glad to see she was feeling a little better. "Although I do reserve the right to launch her at the enemy if we end up needing a secret weapon."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Mary deadpanned.

******

"I must admit," Ezra Standish remarked after returning to his station in tactical after their meeting with the captain, "after Lt Travis' troubles with her mother, I am more appreciative of my own."

Maude could be downright mortifying, especially when she took it upon herself to reveal embarrassing stories about his childhood but at least she had the good sense not to interfere with his ship and crew mates. In fact, the last time they were on Risa, Ezra and Julia had spent quite a pleasant few days with the woman at her new establishment.

"Really?" Alex stared at him from her station. "From all accounts, Julia says your mom's great. I mean I'd heard horror stories about Adelaide Sheridan from Mary, but I thought it might have been an exaggeration."

Now that the others knew about Mary's mother, Alex was a bit more comfortable speaking about the woman without betraying confidences.

"Well that's family isn't it?" Buck shrugged. "You can pick your friends but family you get stuck with." The First Officer was still in a state of disbelief at the stunt Adelaide Sheridan had pulled to stay on board the Maverick. "Even my mother, who was a saint, could make me a little crazy."

Of course, Buck still missed the woman who bore him dearly, even though she'd been dead for many years now. Tessa Wilmington had been a hostess in a bar at Mars Station, when she fell into the family way, thanks to a dalliance with a young engineer who worked at the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards.

On her own, since she was sixteen, the idea of having a child was one she embraced wholeheartedly even though the father of her baby made it a point to disappear as quickly as possible. Fortunately, Tessa hadn't cared enough about him to be disappointed by his absence. Her love was destined for her child and Buck grew up loved not just by her, but by the ladies of the Red Planet Saloon, who treated him like he was their own.

Before she died of Polycythaemia when he was twenty-two, Tessa had made sure he had the best of everything, including an education good enough to meet the academic requirement for entry into Starfleet Academy. Thanks to her and those wonderful women who taught him everything he knew about the gender and gave him such a great appreciation of them, Buck had only fond memories of his childhood.

"I don't remember my mother," Alex remarked, from her science station. "She died when I was two. She was a dancer."

"A dancer?" Ezra looked at Alex in interest. Ezra was aware that Alex's father, William Styles, was a Federation diplomat but knew very little about her mother. Of course, as Chief of Security, he could have delved deeper into Alex's personnel file but knew Alex was fiercely guarded about her privacy. Besides, as someone who possessed the same programming skills as he, Ezra knew she would not take kindly to the intrusion and had no desire to find his shower preferences set for scalding if she ever found out.

"Yes, Indian classical dance," she replied. Her own memories of her mother were vague but what she remembered about Yasmine was her expressive hands. Her father had shown her recorded footage of her mother's performances and it always struck Alex how closely they resembled each other. From their physical build to the long dark hair and brown eyes. "My parents met when she was performing at some diplomatic event when he was just an attach�."

"My mother was a xenobiologist," Vin volunteered from the Con, joining in the conversation about mothers inspired by Mary's harrowing experience with Adelaide. "At the Academy of Science. She and my dad were doing research work in the Rim. She didn't believe in data pads, always carried a library of leather-bound books wherever she went."

A sad smile crossed Vin's face when he recalled the scent of her leather books, stored in their marooned ship and then later transported back to the ranch he'd inherited from his parents in Texas after he'd been rescued. Even though he was barely civilised when he was found by the rescue party nearly five years after her death, Vin had refused to leave that distant world unless those books came with him.

"What about you, Mr Dunne? Any recollections about your maternal experience worth mentioning since we seem to be sharing?" Ezra asked, turning to the youngest member of the bridge crew, who had yet to speak.

JD wasn't listening.

Ever since he returned to duty two hours ago, he'd been monitoring all frequencies for any further communications from the Columbus. While none of the senior officers had said it, JD knew they weren't expecting to find the survey ship in one piece, not after the ominous message he'd decrypted prior to leaving DS5. The captain was still operating under the assumption of finding survivors but JD had served with Chris Larabee long enough to know the man wasn't optimistic about their chances.

On the other hand, JD refused to give up hope. He knew it had to do with his feelings about his own mother, Olivia Dunne, who died at the Battle of Sector 001 when the Borg attacked Earth. Every ship in the sector had been rallied by Admiral Hayes to defend the Earth, including his mother's ship, the USS Ticonderoga. In the battle that would make Commander Chris Larabee a starship captain and turn Lt Mary Travis into a widow, JD had become an orphan when his mother's ship like so many others, was destroyed.

"JD?" Buck sat up straighter when the young man didn't respond. "What's up?"

Immediately, the conversation went quiet and the rest of the senior officers were paying attention to the young ensign who appeared engrossed in what he was doing, hunched over his navigation and communication console.

"It isn't anything," JD explained, his expression showing his puzzlement. "I've been monitoring all frequencies to see if there's any further communication from the Columbus, just in case they may have tried to send another message after the one we received. I mean I know they were under attack but who knows..."

"Good thinking," Buck nodded in approval, aware the possibility of them being too late to save the Columbus weighed heavily on the boy. JD was still too new to have developed the hard calluses the rest of them had over their feelings. Besides, Buck never saw anything wrong with being thorough. However, there was something on JD's face that implied something else was going on. "But?"

"But I've detected an echo."

"An echo?" Alex spoke out first, exchanging a look with Ezra.

"Elaborate." Buck prompted.

JD flinched, feeling uncomfortable that all eyes were now on him. Suddenly, the mention of an echo had placed all the senior officers in a state of alert. Buck's happy go lucky manner had evaporated into the efficient First Officer, poised to alert the captain depending on what he said next.

"It feels like a subspace echo, except this one, is being generated in a sequence of four at 0.2-second intervals. It seems to be following us, even while we're in warp..."

Buck's eyes widened in realisation and tapped his comm badge immediately. "Captain to the Bridge! Ezra put us on yellow alert! Alex...!"

"I'm scanning for EM spikes and quantum fractures!" She said quickly, her hands flying over the console of her science station, her expression urgent. When JD had first mentioned an echo, both she and Ezra had caught on quickly at what might have caused it but JD's revelation of the frequency of the signal confirmed their suspicions.

In the meantime, Ezra was already bringing their deflector shields to full power in readiness for a combat situation. The yellow alert signal began flashing on every unmanned console across the Maverick, alerting the crew and its civilian population that the situation had become urgent prematurely.

"What?" JD stared at Vin, trying to understand why his report of the echo was causing so excitement. "What is it?"

"Because," Vin explained as the doors to the captain's Ready Room slid open. Chris emerged and immediately moved briskly across the floor with Mary trailing a step or two behind him "The only time subspace echoes come in pulses like you've mentioned is if they're caused by a subspace variation. There's only one thing that causes a subspace variation like that." Vin said grimly, hoping they were wrong because if JD was right about a sequence of four, that number had ominous implications for the Maverick and its crew.

"What have we got?" Chris demanded, lowering himself into his command chair.

"Alex?" Buck glanced at her, wanting her to confirm or dismiss their cause for concern.

Unfortunately, Alex could do no such thing as she met Chris' gaze stonily. "There's subspace variances in four different points surrounding us. I'm detecting energy fluctuations, quantum level fractures and EM spikes. We're not alone out here and there are..."

"Four of them." Chris finished before she could finish the sentence. "Ezra shields up."

"Aye Captain," Ezra replied promptly, initiating the shields which in turn resulted in klaxons screaming throughout the ship, telling anyone who didn't already know from the yellow alert, it was time to find a comfortable place to wait out the next few minutes because the ship was entering a potentially hostile situation.

"Four of what?" Mary had to ask, uncertain how the mention of a subspace variance could cause so much discord.

Buck activated the viewer, providing the bridge with a panoramic view of their journey through warp. Stars rushed by the Maverick's bow, disappearing into the corners of the screen like streaking comets. Even after a year on the Maverick, Mary still found the sight breathtaking. Yet the beauty of it was lost to the bridge officers present because they were all wearing expressions of concern she did not understand.

"Rear view," Chris ignored her question and spoke to Buck.

While the view in front of the Maverick was beautiful, what shimmered into view behind the craft was another matter entirely.

Appearing behind them, one after the other, were four Romulan warbirds.

Chapter Six: Lorral

"D'Deridex Class," Chris heard Ezra announce to no one in particular.

For a few seconds, no one spoke in light of what they were seeing as the four warbirds decloaked off their port and starboard bow. Radiating their distinct emerald glow, the D'Deridex class warbirds had been developed by Romulan shipbuilders for the specific intention of taking on galaxy class starships and nearly matched them in size and armament. Utilising a forced quantum singularity as its main power source, each battleship was near twice the length of the Maverick and with disruptors capable of inflicting heavy damage.

The last time the Maverick had faced a Romulan ship, it was the Tasmeen, and that had been a raptor class ship, half the size of a warbird. A Founder had transported on board, most likely during the narrow margin of time between the ship raising its shields and lowering its cloak and hijacked the craft. Once in Dominion hands, the Tasmeen had been the lead ship in an armada sent into the Frontier to take the Maverick, in order to gain access to its valuable computer core. Chris doubted the gambit he used to destroy the Tasmeen in that incident was going to work more than once in this encounter. If at all.

"What the hell are they doing here?" Buck demanded as he saw the warbirds spreading across the rear of the Maverick, maintaining their position even at high warp.

Buck's question was a valid one. Much of the Romulan fleet had been decimated during the Hobus supernova. What ships were left, were presently engaged in relief operations, ferrying survivors to the starbases along the Neutral Zone, now transformed into refugee centres for their displaced people. The lack of ships had prompted the Romulan government to apply to the Federation for help, which was why the Maverick had spent two months in Romulan space. Buck could not imagine the situation had improved enough for what was left of the Romulan government to spare four ships, let alone send them into Federation space without notifying Starfleet.

"Whatever it is, I guarantee we are not going to like it," Ezra remarked. "I am going to venture a guess they are responsible for the attack on the Columbus."

"Why?" Mary demanded, "For what possible reason? Surely the Romulan government knows they're in no position to get into a fight with the Federation, not in the state they're currently in."

After the destruction of Romulus and the subsequent application for Federation aid by the remnants of the Romulan Empire, the cold war between the two governments was no more. Even so, the Frontier was clearly recognised as Federation space and these ships had no business being here. Furthermore, it appeared the ships had been expecting their arrival, having followed them under cloak and brazenly maintaining that pursuit, even now when they were discovered.

It was now evident the disruptor they'd heard in the doomed message from the Columbus originated from these ships. Further to that, if they were responsible for the attack on a ship in Federation space, there were only two possibilities. The Romulan government was more desperate than they ever believed or this was a rogue element, in which case, the Maverick was in a lot of trouble.

"Whatever it is, it can't be good," Buck growled. "Captain, they're probably jamming us but we should try and get a message through to Starfleet."

"Do it," Chris agreed.

"JD, try and get it out on subspace and if you can't, use a tachyon pulse like we did when we were fighting the Dominion."

JD nodded, recalling their perilous state during that incident when they were surrounded by ten ships with no way to signal Starfleet for help. They may well be in the same situation since the presence of four warbirds was comparable to that previous predicament. The young ensign immediately focused on sending a message via tachyon pulse whether or not they were being jammed.

"Alex, take over the sensor array," Buck ordered. Alex would be more use there than at the science station since they were entering a combat situation.

"Aye Sir," she nodded, accustomed to performing the function when Ezra was busy with tactical. The Security Chief was going to have his hands full once the deadly quartet of ships made their move. Even though the warbirds had yet to state their intention, there was no doubt in anyone's mind, the Maverick was about to enter a fight for its life.

In the meantime, Chris was taking note of how the warbirds were spreading across space around the Maverick now that they were decloaked. Each ship was positioning itself strategically like chess pieces while maintaining their pursuit in warp. Vin was keeping a suitable gap between the phalanx of battlecruisers but Chris had no doubt when it came time to attack, the ships would attempt to trap the Maverick in a kill zone.

"Vin," Chris said quietly.

"I see it, Chris," the Officer of the Con answered automatically, once again exhibiting that uncanny ability to sense what the captain was thinking without needing to hear Chris say it.

"You know what to do."

"Compensating," Vin drawled, wearing his customary unflappable expression even as his fingers moved furiously over the helm controls. While Vin was keeping enough of a gap between the Maverick and the four ships, he was resisting the urge to widen the distance until it was necessary. When the time came, the burst of acceleration might be the only advantage the Maverick had against the odds. "I'm laying in a course to the Vikaris Quasar if we have to make a run for it."

It wasn't a case of it but rather when Chris was certain but did not voice it just yet. Even though the warbirds were maintaining their distance, Chris knew this was a temporary state of affairs.

"What are they waiting for?" Mary asked. This was only the second time she'd been engaged in combat like this and she did not possess the jaded composure of the other bridge officers.

"They have a card to play," Ezra found himself saying. "I suspect they require something of us and will not attack until they are certain whether we will surrender it. For the moment, their shields are raised but they have yet to power weapons."

"It's one thing to take out a survey ship Mary," Chris explained. "Taking out a starship, especially the Maverick is going to bring down hellfire and brimstone. Whoever they are, they may want to avoid that unless absolutely necessary."

"Chris, if we're in for a fight..." Buck hated to be pessimistic about their chances but four warbirds were nothing to take lightly.

"We'll use the cloak if we have to," Chris said firmly, surprising just about everyone on the bridge.

While the Maverick possessed the ability to cloak, they had never used it, not even when they were fighting the Dominion strike force almost a year ago. However, the Maverick was outgunned and everyone on the bridge knew it. This time, they didn't have shield codes to disable the Cardassians and it had taken a Hail Mary pass on Chris' part to take out one warbird, let alone four.

"Chris," Mary, ever the Protocol Officer was the first to speak. "We can't. Our agreement with the Romulans..."

"We don't have a choice," Chris cut her off, not meeting her eyes as he spoke. "There's four of them and one of us, if they catch us in a kill zone, we're done. As it is, we're not going to get out of this without heavy damage. We need every advantage we can get."

Mary frowned but understood the situation. "Of course."

"Under the circumstances, I believe we are justified in utilizing the cloak since they have clearly violated our space by sending four warships into Federation territory," Ezra added, supporting the Captain's position wholeheartedly.

When the soft beeping sound cut through their conversation across the bridge, emanating from JD's communication and navigation station, Chris was almost expecting it

"Captain, they're hailing us."

"Here we go," Chris replied, getting to his feet as he prepared to face the enemy on the view screen. Wearing an expression of cool deliberation, appearing not at all concerned by the numbers against them, Chris nodded at JD. "Let's hear it."

When the viewer shifted from the view of the four warbirds, Chris was faced with the image of a woman seated in the command chair of the enemy ship's bridge.

Despite the circumstances, Chris could not help but notice she was one of the most stunning women he had ever laid eyes on. While Mary was still the most compelling woman he had ever seen, the woman staring at him through the view screen was utterly breathtaking. Even Buck who was sitting next to him gaped in appreciation at the sight of her. Unlike most Romulans, she did not wear her hair in the short, functional bangs favoured by both men and women of her race. Instead, she wore it long over her shoulders. With her upswept eyebrows, near-angelic features and sparkling indigo eyes, this was a face that could have launched a thousand ships.

Although she held a position of obvious command, she was not wearing the blocky, angular clothes of a Romulan military uniform. Instead, she wore figure-hugging pants, a dark form-fitting jacket and high collared shirt. Strapped to her hip was the holster for a disruptor. If anything, she looked more like a pirate than she did the commander of a Romulan warbird.

"Lorral!" Ezra exclaimed, his recognition of the woman shaking his normally unreadable poker face.

Chris shot his Security Chief a look. "From Riga 3?"

The mention of Riga 3 caused a ripple effect for just about everyone on the bridge as no one held fond memories of the place. The Maverick had been sent into Romulan space in a joint operation between Starfleet and the Empire, to determine the presence of illegal genetic testing being carried out by a rogue Romulan element. Whilst there, they'd discovered a facility commanded by Sub-Commander Lorral of the Tal Shiar who was conducting horrific experiments on captured Jem'Hadar subjects.

The mission, which had been undertaken by Ezra Standish, Alexandra Styles, and her ex-fianc� Dylan Pierce, was nearly derailed by Vin Tanner who was suffering the worst stages of Pon Farr at the time. It also resulted in the death of Pierce, the rescue of a lone Jem'Hadar survivor and the escape of Lorral, whom they believed had taken refuge with the Breen. It appeared her ambitions far exceeded anything they had imagined.

Lorral's brow arched at the revelation of her identity. Chris could see her eyes narrow in calculation and dislike at being unmasked so prematurely. However, the anger lasted only a second before the facade of cool indifference returned to her features.

"You seem to have the advantage, of me Captain Larabee," Lorral said coolly, her eyes clearly searching the bridge and settling on Ezra, trying to determine if she knew him. "I do not recall having met you."

Chris shot Ezra another look, telling him to remain silent before he faced front again and addressed the woman directly.

"We're not here to play catch up," Chris said quickly, not liking the hatred he'd seen briefly surfacing in her eyes for the Security Chief. He knew the look well enough to know he didn't want her forming any kind of grudge that would lead her to target Ezra later on. Besides, at the time Ezra had been surgically modified to resemble a Romulan so there was no reason she would recognise him. "What are you doing in our space?"

"It's hardly your space," she pointed out. "This is the Frontier and you're here, mining the region to create seed worlds for your Federation. Until that happens, it still open territory."

"Not according to the Treaty of Algeron," Mary said promptly, well aware of what borders had been mapped in regard to what was Federation territory and what was Romulan space. While the area might be largely uncharted, it was still very much designated Federation territory.

"We do not recognise that treaty," Lorral snorted, "nor do we recognise your authority in this area. In any case, we are not aligned with the Empire."

"Then who are you aligned with?" Chris demanded his fears that this was a rogue group confirmed. It made sense of course. In the chaos following the destruction of Romulus, it was only natural an opportunist might seek to take advantage of the situation by convincing the survivors, it was best to leave a crumbling society behind to begin anew.

"No one," Lorral declared. "We are the Vriha."

Mary shot a look over her shoulder at Alex, an action that did not escape Chris.

Since her marriage to Vin Tanner, Alex had made it a point to study what she could about Vulcan culture with Mary's help. After what had almost happened to Vin during Pon Farr and knowing how adverse her husband was to exploring his Vulcan roots, Alex had been conducting research on his behalf in case a similar situation arose in the future.

Since Vin lacked nearly all the disciplines modern Vulcans were taught from infancy, Alex had focussed her attention in learning how pre-Surak Vulcans manage their emotions. It gave her a thorough understanding of their history and some expertise regarding the split that led to the formation of the Romulan Empire.

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "Vriha t'Rehu was the name of an ancient Romulan ruler, who called herself the Ruling Queen. She led the Vulcans-in-Exile before they became the Romulan Empire we know today."

"The Romulan Empire is gone," Lorral snapped. "It was diminished the minute it chose to ally itself with the Federation against the Dominion."

Chris absorbed what Alex said and gestured the Science Officer to hold off any comments for now. He'd get her report about it later after they'd extricated themselves from this situation. If they lived long enough that is.

"That may be, but you are still in violation of our space. Return to Romulan territory immediately or face the consequences." Chris stated, showing no signs of being intimidated despite the formidable number of ships surrounding the Maverick. Besides, she knew as well as he did, he was making an empty threat. Right now, he was only interested in keeping her talking and making her believe he was willing to negotiate a way out of this situation. It was the time he and his crew needed to get out of here.

"I think you are mistaken about your situation Captain," Lorral stared at him coldly. "We outgun you four to one and we are more than prepared to blow your ship out of the sky. We have business in this part of space we are not prepared to unveil at this time, so we cannot have you go running back to your Federation to tell tales. At this moment, you have one chance and one chance only to save your crew."

"And that is?"

Without even hearing it, Chris knew it was an offer he was not going to accept.

"You surrender your ship and I will personally guarantee it that you and your crew are unharmed while you remain our guests."

From the tactical station, Chris heard Ezra snorting in disbelief. Chris couldn't blame the Security Chief for his scepticism. It was Ezra who entered the facility where Lorral conducted her experimentation on the Jem'Hadar prisoners and his reports described in vivid detail, the tableau of horror he'd seen there. The woman was a monster and there was no way in hell Chris would subject any of his crew to her callous ministrations.

Chris showed no reaction to her offer and merely responded calmly, "I will need time to consider it."

"You have sixty seconds before we open fire," Lorral said mercilessly. She knew Larabee by reputation and while he might appear to be considering her offer, it was more likely the man was planning something. She was not foolish enough to give him the time to enact any escape attempt.

"Understood. Standby for our response in one minute."

No sooner than the viewer had been deactivated, Chris turned sharply to Ezra. "Activate the cloak! Vin get us out of here at maximum acceleration!"

Without skipping a beat, Vin immediately kicked the Maverick into high warp, sending the ship lurching forward violently as it pulled away from the four warbirds like a streaking comet. While the Romulans ship had formidable armaments, the nature of its quantum singularity drive made reaching maximum acceleration less efficient than that of Galaxy-class starships.

Speed and their cloak was the only advantage the Maverick had at this time and Chris was wasting neither.

"On screen!"

The viewer showed the four warbirds growing smaller in the rear but this was a situation Chris knew would not last for long. Even now, he could see the flare of their engines as Lorral ordered them to give chase.

"Cloak activated!" Ezra declared, as his fingers flew over the tactical console. As the ship disappeared from Romulan sensors, the Maverick was still vulnerable. The use of the cloak meant they could not raise shields and were vulnerable to disruptor fire and Romulan torpedoes.

"Engineering come in!" Chris tapped his com badge.

"Engineering standing by Captain, what do you need?" The voice of Julia Pemberton was heard of the coms. Julia had been monitoring the situation from the Engineering deck as soon as the yellow alert had been sounded and was poised to act on whatever the Captain demanded.

"I want all power diverted to the propulsion systems," Chris ordered. "I want you to give Vin every gigajoule of power you can squeeze out of the main drive to maintain maximum warp at all costs. Warbirds can't accelerate beyond Warp 9.6 so we've got to do better until we can get away!"

"I'll give him everything I can!" Julia replied but her words were cut off by Ezra's exclamation.

"They're firing!" Ezra warned, expecting they would once the Maverick began its flight. Although the warbirds couldn't see the Maverick under cloak, there were more than enough ships in pursuit to fire an enormous amount of firepower in their direction to get lucky with a stray shot.

"Evasive pattern delta!" Chris barked at Vin. "Get us to the Vikaris quasar!"

Meanwhile, Buck was communicating with the rest of the ship. "All hands! Battle stations!"

Chapter Seven: Chase

CONDITION RED! CONDITION RED!

The warning flashed across every console panel across the Maverick when the first barrage of disruptor fire struck the ship.

Hallways, corridors and common areas were bathed with the red glow of warning. With yellow alert sending all non-essential personnel scurrying to their quarters and traffic throughout the ship restricted to those who had somewhere to be, the shift to red alert changed the expectation of attack to an inevitability. Those who weren't actively engaged in the defence of the ship, including the families of the crew, secured themselves at locations in their quarters free from falling objects and away from windows. Inez Recillos had taken refuge inside her closet, confident it was the safest place to until the barrage was over.

In engineering, Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu was mobilising damage crews, sending them across the ship to assess, report and repair affected systems, leaving the Chief Engineer free to maintain the warp core while the Captain demanded the impossible. The initial volley of disruptor fire had struck the secondary hull and only emergency force fields had prevented explosive decompression, giving occupants in those affected decks enough time to evacuate. It was not wise to remain because any loss of power would mean being blown out into a vacuum.

Meanwhile, in Sick Bay, Josiah Sanchez had joined Nathan Jackson, lending his assistance to deal with the casualties that would inevitably come. While it had been quite some time since Josiah had been called on to use his skills as a healer of flesh, a recent first aid refresher meant he could be of some value to the doctor. For his part, Nathan was bracing himself for casualties because the Maverick was undertaking this fight without the benefit of its deflector shields due to the cloak, and that meant when the ship took a hit, it would be hard.

******

The bridge was bathed in a deep reddish glow as the klaxons screaming urgency now switched to the shrill cry of panic. While the damage had been confined to the secondary hull, the energy spike from Romulan disruptors caused all consoles on the bridge to blink momentarily, with one or two panels sparking in displeasure at the overload of assaulting power. Every officer on the bridge, sitting or standing, struggled to remain in their positions, as the ship shuddered around them, taking the worst of the bombardment without the shields to protect them.

Chris clenched Mary's arm when he saw she was nearly thrown out of her seat, while Buck managed to remain in his by clutching the information station next to the first officer's chair. Behind them, Ezra and Alex were clutching the edges of tactical and security stations steadfastly, while JD was unseated from the navigation station while Vin remained in place by sheer determination, bracing his feet against the floor beneath Conn. With the survival of the Maverick depending on maintaining their lead against the Romulan ships. It was utterly imperative Vin was not distracted in any way.

"Damage report!"

Without shields, Buck was expecting significant damage to the Maverick after that barrage and his fears were confirmed when reports flooded the display of his information station.

"We've got heavy damage to the secondary hull and our navigational array is inoperative," he reported, meeting Chris' gaze before barking out orders. "Damage control teams, report to Decks 12, 5 and 9!"

"Did they get a fix on us?" Chris demanded, watching two of the warbirds in pursuit directly behind them while the other two ships were fanning out further, firing blindly into space, trying to detect signs of impact.

"I do not believe so," Ezra answered studying the attack pattern on the tactical console. "They are laying down a full spread with as wide a dispersal range as possible." As he said those words, the Maverick shook violently again. While it had not taken a hit, they were feeling the blasts without the protection of their shields. "I believe they are on a blast fishing expedition."

"Well they can't see us, so they're putting out as much fire power out there to see what they can hit." Chris said understanding the tactic. "At least they haven't decided to hit with photon torpedoes yet. Distance to enemy warbirds."

"1000 kilometres," Alex answered automatically, "but they're pouring all power into propulsions. They're trying to close the distance."

"How long until we reach the Vikaris Quasar?" Chris asked. The quasar, with its high intensity energy fields, was capable of disrupting sensors. If the Maverick could reach it, the ship could take refuge in its gravimetric currents to avoid detection and wait for Starfleet to send reinforcements. While Chris hated hiding from anyone, he was realistic enough to know one galaxy class ship was incapable of facing off four D'Deridex class warbirds.

When they'd fought the Dominion, Chris had the advantage of the enemy needing the ship in one piece. As long as the Dominion needed the Maverick's computer core, they could not destroy the ship. No such restraint held back Lorral, who obviously needed secrecy to establish her foothold in the Frontier. The only course she had, save of capturing the Maverick was destroying her outright and Chris suspected, she had no particular preference on which.

"At current speed, three hours," JD replied, having climbed back into his seat and was facing the navigation station once more.

"They're going to be dogging us every step of the way," Buck grumbled.

"It won't matter if we get to the quasar," Chris replied as another burst of disruptor fire caused the Maverick to shake again. This one was nowhere as close as the last blast. "We just got to stay ahead of them. Vin maintain maximum warp."

"Aye Captain," Vin replied automatically, his cobalt coloured eyes fixed on his console as his fingers flew over the controls, to increase the Maverick's speed to maintain their lead. Mindful of the damage the ship was suffering each time a disruptor blast detonated too close to them, Vin tried to manoeuvre the ship around the deadly discharge.

"I'd love to shove a photon torpedo down their throats," Buck said, studying the effect of the last discharge on the Maverick and was grateful there was no significant damage. Engineering had the repair crews working hard to keep the Maverick together before they can make their escape.

"Too close," Chris said promptly before Ezra could and knew Buck's statement was rhetorical. Besides, Buck knew as well as Chris did, the instant they fired a torpedo, they'd be giving away their position to the Romulans and at this range, risk crippling themselves without the shields. At the moment, the Maverick's only advantage was the cloak and the distance they could gain on the Romulan ships. Warbirds couldn't exceed a speed of Warp 9.6 but if they diverted all power to propulsions as Chris had ordered Julia to do, the Maverick could reach 9.9.

"I can't understand what she's doing," Mary shook her head. "How can Lorral simply believe she can just establish a foothold in our space and get away with it."

"She's probably gambling on how much effort we're spend on removing her, if she entrenches herself deeply enough. With four warbirds, with a crew complement of 700 people and let's assume she's exceeded capacity of those ships, we could be looking at a total of about 4000 people establishing a new settlement. The way Romulus is right now, starting fresh just beyond the Kurlan system, could be..."

Chris didn't get a chance to finish the sentence before he was confronted with the unbelievable sound of panic in Ezra Standish's voice.

No matter what the situation, Ezra always managed to maintain a facade of calm, whether it was announcing ten ships about to capture them or a Borg level threat about to obliterate them. That damnable poker face was something Chris had come to rely on because the Security Chief's confidence in the situation meant they were doing okay, even if things seemed immediately dire.

"Captain they're firing torpedoes at full spread!"

"Evasive manoeuvres Vin, right now!" Chris fairly shouted because at this range, being struck by a photon torpedo without shields would obliterate them.

"Hell yeah!" Vin declared, switching to evasive pattern beta, where the ship lurched violently as it banked hard, avoiding one of the torpedoes before angling sharply downward to avoid the other. However, instead of hurtling forward, searching for a new target, the torpedoes suddenly detonated in space. In fact, all the torpedoes in the spread followed suit, exploding like tiny novas across the dark canvas.

"What the hell?" Vin exclaimed, puzzled.

"Oh no!" Alex exclaimed from her station, her face turning ashen. "Captain, they are high yield torpedoes set at Level 6!"

"Level 6?" Buck exclaimed. "That won't even penetrate..."

"Oh shit!" Chris swore, the realisation dawned on him as he met Alex's eyes and he reached the conclusion she had. "They're not meant to hit us! They're meant to destabilise the cloak!"

No sooner than he had said those words, the resulting wave of energy from the exploding torpedoes rushed towards them. He knew the tactic as well and recalled attempting to employ the same strategy when they were faced with trying to detect a cloaked Dominion fleet.

"Vin! Get us out of range!" Chris ordered but knew it was a futile effort.

"Already on it!" Vin shouted and took the Maverick past Warp 9.8 to escape the expanding energy field of emerald approaching them quickly. As the ship lurched forward, the hum of the engines intensified, until it felt as if the Maverick's heart was pounding loudly in their ears. Despite Vin's swift reflexes, there was no way the Maverick could outrun the deadly wave and its effect on the ship was immediate.

No sooner than the wave reached the hull of the Maverick, the null space where the starship had remained concealed began to cackle with spidery webs of energy. The saucer section appeared first, appearing through space like a leviathan emerging from the depths of a dark ocean. The instant the Maverick appeared in normal space, the four Romulan warbirds altered their trajectory, changing course to intercept.

On the Maverick itself, the extreme danger of becoming visible was coupled with the equally debilitating power surges. The energy wave from the photon torpedo barrage overloaded systems all across the ship. Unwanted energy surged through the wiring, bio-neural fibres and isolinear circuitry, causing ship wide overloads through conduits and relays. Across the Maverick, the massive surge culminated in violent discharges at consoles and terminals throughout the ship, with severity enough to cause fires, prompting emergency containment force fields fell into place.

On the bridge, the navigation station gave JD just enough warning with its flickering screen and its burst of static energy for the young ensign to move a second before it exploded. The console shattered sending a deadly spray of glass into the air. JD raised his arms to shield his face from being cut to ribbons as he fell off his chair. However, the energy spike lashed at him, making JD curl up into a ball as the pain wracked his body.

At the Conn, Vin flinched, wanting to help him but unable to do so because now that they were visible, it was doubly important for him to be focussed on maintaining the Maverick's narrow lead against their enemies. As it was, there were cuts on his cheek where stray shards from JD's exploding console had bit into his skin. HIs uniform had shielded him from the worst of it, but he could still feel fragments biting into his arm and side. Vin ignored the stinging pain or the urge to look over his shoulder to see if Alex was alright.

If he wanted to save her life, he had to keep the Maverick ahead of the Romulans.

"JD!" Buck jumped out of his seat and saw the young man lying across the floor, glass covering his uniform, twitching from the energy spike he'd been unable to escape. Upon reaching him, Buck's stomach clenched, seeing the sections of his uniform burnt, exposing the charred flesh of his shoulder and ribs. JD was trying to control the pain through gritted teeth even though he looked like he was ready to gag.

"Bridge to Sick Bay," Buck tapped his com badge. "We need someone up here now! JD's been hurt!"

"I'll come up there myself!" Nathan replied promptly. "Can't spare anyone else at the moment, we've got casualty reports across the ship. Mostly second-degree and third-degree burns!"

"Hurry!" Buck growled, trying to ignore the scent of burnt flesh he knew was JD's.

"Buck," Mary hurried to the First Officer, "I can stay with him. You're needed."

Buck was torn between wanting to stay at the young man's side and doing his duty but in the end, his responsibility was more to just this ensign who meant so much to him. He had a ship full of people who were relying on him and a Captain who needed to be free of operational matters, to get them out of their current predicament.

"Thanks, Mary," Buck offered her a look of gratitude before getting to his feet and returning to his seat so he could look at how much damage had been caused by the power surge.

As expected, the disruption of the cloak brought the Romulans warbirds back into attack formation. Chris watched as the four ships appear on the view screen, determined to close the distance. Lorral was a lot smarter than he gave her credit for. While she was a member of the Tal Shiar, an agency primarily responsible for espionage, it appeared the woman was also a formidable battlefield commander.

He wouldn't underestimate her again. The loss of one advantage was more than they could afford to

"Ezra status!" Chris demanded.

"As anticipated, our esteemed opponents were successful in their deployment of the high yield photon torpedo barrage at Level 6, our cloak is down."

"Engineering, what are chances of re-establishing the cloak?" Chris demanded.

"None Captain," Julia replied with a frown and even though Ezra couldn't see her face, he could imagine the anger on her lovely features at having to make such a bitter admission. "The relays are burnt out. It will take at least three hours to replace them and we'd have to take the deflectors offline. As it is, we're lucky we didn't sustain any damage there. We could have lost our shields."

"Acknowledged," Chris considered what was to be done next. The Romulans were still lagging but that didn't mean the warbirds couldn't make them pay for every inch of space they covered between their present location and the Vikaris Quasar. "Julia, I want you to reinforce our shields by powering off all non-essential systems."

Without skipping a beat, he turned to Buck. "Get everyone to congregate at common areas, Four Corners, holodecks, observation decks, cargo hold bays, whatever you can think off. We may need to tap into life support power and we can't do that if we have one thousand people scattered across the ship."

"Gotcha," Buck nodded and began issuing the orders from his station to the rest of the ship to that effect. He hoped Josiah was on hand to calm everybody down because this action was going to frighten a lot of people. For once Buck was grateful Chris had ordered non-essential personnel to remain on DS5.

"Engineering, whatever happens, we need our shields at full strength and be able to maintain Warp 9.9 at the same time. Because if they can't slow us down, they're going to take us apart piece by piece before we get to wherever we're going."

Julia's protest was almost reflex. Captain, we can't maintain power to the shields and sustain Warp 9.9 at the same time, we'll risk destabilising the warp core. As it is, we're picking up the pieces from that last torpedo blast!"

"Lieutenant," Chris spoke with a hard edge to his voice that made everyone on the bridge flinch upon hearing it. "If we don't keep ahead of those warbirds, we'll never get to the Vikaris Quasar!"

There was a slight pause before Julia replied in a sober tone. "Understood Captain."

"Captain, they're powering up weapons again!" Ezra announced.

"Raise shields!" Chris ordered. They were outgunned in every way but he was damned if they were taking his ship or his crew.

Ezra almost let out a sigh of satisfaction at being able to activate the shields. While he understood the need for the cloak to acquire their narrow lead on the enemy ships, the idea of facing four warbirds without their shields went against the grain. If even one of those ships had scored a direct hit upon them while they were cloaked, they could have been destroyed.

"Shields up!" He announced just as the Maverick shuddered again. This time, the Romulans were no longer firing blindly, they knew exactly where their quarry was and their aim was deadly accurate. Across the Maverick, the ship's klaxons whined in protest as it shook off the enemy fire.

"Shields are holding!" Alex declared next to Ezra, working in tandem with the Security Chief because he would be busy at the firing station. Despite their perseverance however, she knew once those ships converged and began a united assault, the Maverick was not going to be able to maintain its shield strength.

"Fire all phasers!" Chris ordered, now that everyone had taken off their gloves.

"With pleasure Captain!" Ezra returned, his fingers moving faster across the console than his ability to shuffle a deck of cards. A continuous beam of amber energy surged out of the Maverick's phaser banks, impacting against the Romulans ships, creating a brief mirage in space as the deadly energy bounced off their deflectors. Around them, the Maverick's engines continued to hum louder, as if reaching crescendo the faster they travelled.

"Two of the warbirds are breaking off," Alex announced, as her eyes tracked the warbirds on her console.

Chris could see for himself on the view screen. Half their number was continuing a direct pursuit but the other half was splitting up, attempting to flank the galaxy class starship in an effort to slow it down. With the cloak disabled, the Romulans were not wasting time, lashing out with disruptor blasts, trying to disable the ship before it got far enough ahead to launch photon torpedoes.

"They're trying to cut us off." Buck guessed accurately.

"They're trying to trap us in a kill zone," Chris declared. "Vin, evasive action!"

Vin didn't reply but there was no need to. Chris could see him performing the manoeuvre. As the Maverick banked hard, not even anti-grav stabilisers could compensate and everyone found themselves stumbling as the ship tilted to an almost 90-degree turn to get past the two ships and continue its juggernaut pace towards the Vikaris Quasar.

The Maverick was still ahead of the enemy ships but not far enough to fire photon torpedoes. At this range, they'd only cripple themselves in the resulting blast, shields or not.

"Captain..." Ezra suddenly exclaimed, his expression dark with horror before the gambler's inscrutable facade fell over his face again. "It appears one of the warbirds are firing photon torpedoes!"

Chapter Eight: Breach

"Captain..." Ezra suddenly exclaimed, his expression dark with horror before the gambler's inscrutable facade fell over his face again. "It appears one of the warbirds are firing photon torpedoes!"

"Evasive action Vin!" Chris nearly shouted. "Ezra, countermeasures now!"

"Deploying phaser countermeasures!" The Security Chief declared, fingers working furiously over the console as he directed the phasers to target the torpedoes, in the hopes of scrambling their targeting systems. Ezra didn't voice how difficult this was going to be over such a short distance from the Maverick. Normally, countermeasures like this would be employed when the torpedo was fired from suitable distance between two ships, not at this close range where the firing ship could cripple themselves in the process.

Then again, Ezra had remembered what he'd seen in Riga 3, the horrific menagerie of cadavers left behind after Lorral had conducted her experiments. The woman was homicidally ruthless. Sacrificing one ship to get the Maverick was definitely something she was more than capable of.

"Captain," Alex spoke up. "The other three ships are withdrawing to minimum safe distance."

"No surprise," Chris remarked, remaining calm even though the tension on the bridge was so thick, it could be cut through with a knife. "They're going to close in after she cripples us."

Chris watched through the view screen as Ezra's countermeasures streaked across space towards the trio of greenish orbs, hurtling across the dark canvas towards the Maverick, growing larger as they closed the gap. Two of the torpedoes flashed as the phaser struck them in mid-flight, flaring brightly against the screen, overloading their eyes with white-hot brilliance they could see if not feel. The third, however, disappeared out of view.

Vin made a valiant effort to evade the third torpedo but he was only able to do so partially, even though he was zigzagging through the expanse of space, banking hard and sending the great ship into a barrel roll, more appropriate for shuttles and runabouts. While he remained perfectly still at the Conn, bracing himself against the consoles, everyone else staggered and tried to maintain their footing. Around them, the Maverick shuddered and groaned at the manoeuvre, protesting the aerial artistry performed at high warp.

It was a prelude to the chaos that came when the torpedo hit.

Everything that was not bolted down, went flying. Chris saw Mary covering JD, already injured to keep him still against the ground, instead of rolling across the floor. He himself clung to the armrest of his command chair, somehow remaining on his feet, while Buck dropped onto one knee and groaned in pain. Alex and Ezra braced themselves against the security and tactical station. The jolt that shook the ship violently was almost deafening once the impact passed through the outer hull into the Maverick.

"Damage report!"

Buck made it to his console and reviewed the reports flooding into his screen like blinking emergency lights. "We've sustained damage to the secondary hull, with breaches on Decks 5, 9 and 12!"

"Captain, our shield strength is down to 60 per cent," Ezra reported grimly but had no more time to gain a response when his eyes widened. "They're firing again!"

"Engineering, we need more power to the shield..." Chris started to demand when the Maverick shook again, this time more violently. Lights across the bridge flickered on and off for a brief second, indicating possible damage to main power. Chris's stomach hollowed at the possibility of what that could mean as he spied consoles illuminating once more after briefly turning dark. It was not lost upon him that only half of them came back to life.

Almost on cue, Ezra's voice cut through his thoughts. "Shields down to 30 per cent!"

"Return fire, full spread!" Chris barked, wanting badly to give the order to lob a few photon torpedoes at the enemy but with shield strength down and their proximity to the Romulans well beyond safety limits, he knew doing so would subject the Maverick to greater harm. A surge of anger filled him at the battering his ship was taking and knew increased hull breaches were imminent.

"Engineering," he repeated himself, "We need more power to the shields!"

There was no answer and Chris exchanged a glance with Buck and Ezra, knowing the reason for the silence could only mean Julia Pemberton was attempting to deal with the chaos that had to be taking place in Engineering. Considering the barrage, the Maverick was being subjected to and the number of reports flooding the First Officer's console, engineering had their hands full.

"Enemy ship is damaged," Alex announced, her expression grim despite that snippet of positive news. "Our phasers combined with the proximity of their photon torpedo detonation has caused damage to their forward shields and their primary hull."

Good, Chris thought snidely, before responding. "Lay continuous fire Ezra, all phasers. Target their deflectors. If we can damage their shields, that might make them rethink firing torpedoes at us."

"Delighted to oblige Captain," Ezra answered and did just that, laying down another barrage of phaser fire and hoping it was enough.

Multiple phaser banks spewed a powerful beam of amber energy, crossing the seemingly narrow distance between the two ships to penetrate the unseen shields of the Romulan ship. Energy crackled across the impressive warbird a little closer to the hull then simply dispersed harmlessly into space. Similar alerts of warning were screaming throughout the former imperial warbird.

Chris studied the lead ship on the viewscreen, offering him a panoramic view of the enemy strike. The warbird was bearing the brunt of their assault while the second warbird held back just far enough to remain out of their targeting range. The third and fourth warbirds were continuing to flank them at a distance. While the duo still lagged, they were content to let the lead ship chip away at the Maverick's dwindling advantage.

Why not? He thought bitterly. At this point, all they had to do was sacrifice one warbird to significantly damage the Maverick enough to slow it down.

"Vin whatever you do, keep us ahead of them," Chris said quietly, standing next to the helmsman. If they slowed down long enough to allow the flanking warbirds to catch up, the Maverick would never survive the united assault.

"I'll get it done Chris," Vin answered calmly and Chris wondered how the man could look so unflappable when the shit was literally hitting the fan around them.

Vin knew exactly how bad their situation was but the only way he knew how to deal with it was to focus on the job at hand. Being a Vulcan without the disciplines of Surak, he knew just how volatile his emotions could be if he allowed them to get the better of him. Surrendering to the urgency of their situation or allowing himself to think what might happen if the Maverick lost their one remaining advantage, would get them all killed.

"Engineering here!" Julia's voice finally came through the bridge. As her face appeared on the viewscreen, it was apparent that the engineering deck was suffering troubles of their own. She was struggling to be heard over the voices chattering loudly in the background. Engineering was in chaos with technicians running back and forth, trying to seal off leaks and attend to damaged systems as smoke hissed into the deck, live wires and conduits dangled from the exposed ceiling and wall panels sparking dangerously.

"Report!" Chris barked but it was a foregone conclusion from what he was seeing behind her. The Maverick was shaking hard, each blast becoming more and more violent until it felt like the ship was gripped in the midst of a lightning storm. The lead warbird was alternating between firing torpedoes and disruptors, the effect of which was tearing his ship apart.

"We've sustained damage to one of the starboard couplings and we've lost at least one containment field generator, with fluctuations to two more!"

Shit, Chris swore inwardly. If there was damage to the antimatter containment field which was vital to the functioning of the warp engines, their problems were going to be a great deal worse than the Romulan strike force. They would literally become an antimatter bomb in space.

"Julia, can we get more power to the shields?" Chris asked, even though instinct told him the woman was having trouble enough maintaining power to the warp core.

"Not without reducing phaser power and propulsion systems! Captain, I've already diverted every spare gigawatt of power I can to reinforce the shields!"

EMERGENCY. CONTAINMENT FIELD GENERATOR 2 IS OFFLINE.

Chris heard the automated warning being issued throughout engineering with Julia turning around sharply to face the warp core before looking at Chris again. She turned back to him, her eyes filled with impatience because she needed to go deal with this new crisis. Chris let her off the hook before she could speak.

"Go!"

Relief and gratitude flooded her lovely features and she nodded before hurrying away from the screen, prompting the image of Engineering to flicker off, to be replaced by the previous view of the warbirds behind them.

"If we lose antimatter containment we're screwed..." Buck met Chris's eyes and they both knew this was a fight they may not be able to survive. Nevertheless, neither man was prepared to surrender and however this ended, they were going to go down fighting. As it was, Buck was already barking orders to the damage control crews, sending them across the ship to deal with the numerous wounds the photon torpedoes were inflicting upon the Maverick.

"Captain, the second warbird is moving in!" Alex declared, her gaze meeting Chris as she delivered her grim news. "They're firing torpedoes! Full spread!"

This time, there was no avoiding them. Ezra was fast but the Maverick's phaser banks were already engaged targeting the first warbird, giving the Security Chief no time to initiate the countermeasures needed to prevent the barrage from reaching them. The shields would keep the Maverick from being obliterated but this time, they were going to feel the devastating impact of those torpedoes.

Chris watched them closing in on the viewscreen and shouted. "Vin, hard port course 1.4207!"

Vin's fingers were flying across the helm controls console even before Chris finished the sentence. The Maverick veered sharply to the left, allowing one of the three torpedoes to streak past them, continuing forward into space. The second clipped the edge of the Maverick's right warp nacelle, rupturing the hull and causing a thread of green plasma to leak into space. The main engines faltered for a second, like a runner succumbing momentarily to fatigue before regaining their breath, when someone at Engineering, most likely Julia rerouted power flow to the remaining warp coil. The disruption to the engines lasted but a second but it was enough to cost the Maverick dearly.

The third torpedo struck the stardrive section and any chance they had of reaching the Vikaris Quasar ended right there even if they were still moving at high warp.

The impact felt as if a giant hand had swatted the Maverick aside. The great ship was flung sideways at a near 90-degree angle, upending anything that wasn't bolted down throughout the ship. On the bridge, emergency klaxons screamed even more violently, muting the sound of frightened cries and pained screams of pain. Several decks were exposed to the vacuum of space as hull plating tumbled away from the ship, including the helpless personnel in those areas, unable to be saved before emergency force fields came into effect.

Everyone on the bridge went flying as the deck dipped violently beneath their feet, propelling them across the floor. The backup stations behind tactical and security exploded spectacularly, a spray of sparks erupting from the ruin consoles from live conduits and relays. Ezra and Alex were flung against the side wall before the deadly barrage of glass and energy reached them, covering the tactical and security consoles instead with flaming fragments. Ezra landed hard against Alex when they both came to a stop.

Chris saw Mary and JD, already on the floor, rolling out of control across the carpet but could offer her no help himself because he was flung against the side wall. He felt ribs crack as he landed, his head taking a fair whack against a display panel, leaving a crack across the dark glass. Dazed, he had presence of mind to seek out Mary, only to see a ceiling panel breaking free above her.

"Mary!" He shouted but the protocol officer recovered faster than he gave her credit. She dragged JD beneath the cover of his destroyed navigation station, shielding them both. The panelling struck the floor inches away from her while wires dangled precariously from the exposed duct.

"We're okay!" She called back, reassuring him.

Vin was also thrown but he was scrambling to his feet almost as soon as he was dislodged from his seat. He landed a little further along the wall from Chris, his Vulcan physiology allowing him to recover faster than the humans he was sharing the bridge with. Fighting the instinct to go to Alex, he saw her raise her head once Ezra rolled off her. She appeared disorientated but had presence of mind to seek him out. When their eyes met, Vin saw a bruise on her cheek and felt his gut clench when Alex winked and blew him a kiss, an indication he was not to worry about her so he could get back to the Conn.

Once seated at the helm controls, Vin regained control of the ship, correcting its trajectory and resuming their race to the Vikaris Quasar.

The information console next to the first officer's seat had kept Buck from being thrown against the wall like Chris and Vin, though his shoulder ached from where he'd landed on it. The station was still functional, allowing him to view the state of the ship when he finally clambered back into his chair.

"Damage report!" Chris demanded as he returned to his command chair, the view screen showing the warbirds attempting to converge on them.

"We have hull breaches in the secondary hull from decks 39 to 42! Our navigational sensor array is also gone." Buck reported.

"What about shields?" He looked at Ezra who scrambling back to the tactical station, with Alex still getting to her feet to join him.

It took but a second for Ezra to respond. "I'm afraid our shield strength has been depleted after that last assault. We have fifteen per cent shield power remaining Captain." A shrill beep emitted from his console and Chris saw him tensing. "They're firing again!"

Chris's eyes flew to the still functioning view screen and he saw the streak of disruptor fire about to reach the Maverick. "Evasive pattern sierra!"

"Already on it!" Vin declared, forcing the Maverick into a steep climb when suddenly, the ship was rocked with another violent jolt.

The torpedo, fired by the lead Romulan warbird, though crippled, penetrated the underside of the saucer section even as Vin Tanner was attempting to evade the disruptor fire. It penetrated twenty-three decks of the galaxy class starship before rupturing debris, oxygen and lives into the vacuum of space.

Even if they were prepared for it, the violence of the blast still shook all of them. Half the consoles on the bridge had gone dark in the aftermath and as Ezra scanned flickering reading at the tactical station, he raised his eyes to Chris. "Our shields have buckled Captain. I'm afraid that last torpedo..."

"Captain!" Julia's face appeared on the viewer screen in front all of them. "We have a serious problem."

******

If the situation on the bridge had been bad, then it was worse in Engineering.

From the onset of the battle, Julia had been marshalling every iota of spare power to be had on the Maverick, in accordance with the Captain's instructions and using her own initiatives, to reinforce the deflector shields while maintaining the ship's ability to reach Warp 9.9. Painfully aware their survival depended on maintaining a slim lead on the four warbirds, Julia had made a valiant effort to ensure the Maverick could fight back. However, the instant the stardrive had been breached, she was faced with an even greater problem than being destroyed by the enemy.

As it was, engineering was in total pandemonium, with overloads and system failures rife throughout the deck. There were mini eruptions, cascade failures and outright explosions flaring at frightening frequency throughout her normally orderly bastion. She had been working at her station when Chanu had pulled Julia away from it, seconds before the entire wall exploded.

Both were covered in shrapnel and debris, wearing minor cuts on their faces as the wall erupted into fire. This prompted the Maverick's internal fire suppression systems to kick into gear once the smoke was detected. Yet the flames were the least of her concerns in the aftermath of that catastrophe, it was the unsteady pulse of the warp core that had Julia getting to her feet and running towards the main reaction chamber.

The tall column of antimatter energy and its surrounding containment casing, which stood in the middle of engineering like the totem pole around which they worshipped, was pulsing erratically. She could see the patterns of energy swirling beneath the translucent casing in a manner that gave her alarm. Julia had spent hours with the warp core, she knew it as intimately as she knew the hum made by a defective manifold in the EPS conduits. Just studying it for a moment, without knowing the cause for certain, told her something was wrong.

By the time the next photon torpedo struck the ship, something wrong had degenerated into something catastrophic. Smoke was filling up the main reaction chamber due to the short circuits as the containment generator couplings began to fail. With each burnt outcoupling, another generator failed and with each failing generator, the magnetic containment field began to weaken.

"Get some stabilisers in here!" Julia ordered Chanu as she regarded the destabilising of the antimatter reaction within the casing becoming more critical by the second. "We need to reinforce the starboard interlock and reroute main power through the secondary coupling until we can stabilise the reaction!"

No sooner than she had said those words, another explosion rocked the ship and its effect on the warp core was dire. Julia was thrown against the wall, feeling her back flare in pain because the panel she landed on cracked under her weight. Pushing herself away from it, she hurried to the warp core console and studied the readings in horror. Another coupling had gone and with it the last working containment generator.

As she looked up, the seams along the column began to rupture and what poured out of it was no longer smoke it was coolant. As the highly toxic gas began to fill up the warp chamber, Julia realised there was no stopping what was going to happen next.

"EVERYBODY OUT!" She shouted, her heart sinking as she ushered her engineering team out of the area and activated the emergency containment procedures. Tapping her com badge, she didn't waste time going to a view screen.

"Captain!" Julia's face appeared on the viewer screen in front all of them. "We have a serious problem. We've lost antimatter containment. We're going to have a core breach in seven minutes."

Chapter Nine: Hat Trick

Seven minutes.

That's all they had until a core breach. Even with the continued bombardment of disruptor fire by the enemy warbirds, the entire bridge fell silent with Julia's statement. No one could speak as they reeled in shock at how their time on the Maverick could end so abruptly with that one announcement. The violent shaking and shuddering of the ship seemed distant as Chris was faced with this reality and the anguish at losing this ship and possibly this crew, tore at him.

His ice blue stare met Mary's who looked back at him in similar pain, feeling the same loss. Until this moment, he had not realised just how much the Maverick had come to mean to him. It was his first command and the crew on it had become his family.

From Buck Wilmington who saved him after Sarah and Adam had died, only to do it again after Q's enigmatic inference they'd been murdered to Vin Tanner, who stood by him, no matter how much of an ass he'd been to everyone, including Mary who loved him. Ezra Standish who even now, was trawling through reports and rumours, seeking the truth for him while Josiah listened to his frustrations, giving him back the father he'd lost so long ago. There were the others, Nathan, Casey, Alex and Julia, they weren't just people he served with, they had become his family.

If the Maverick was destroyed today, he'd not just be losing a ship, there was every chance they'd be scattered to the winds and the breaking of this fellowship was one Chris was not prepared to face, under any circumstances. But they couldn't win this one. Not if there was a warp core breach. Closing his eyes, Chris Larabee searched himself and looked at all the possibilities, ignoring the noise of Vin Tanner cursing that the main engines were losing power or Ezra's declarations that there were hull breaches. He even ignored Buck's voice asking him to give the evacuation order.

None of it penetrated because Chris Larabee was working the problem.

And just like that, it came to him. Once he banished all the distractions around him and considered the situation, weighing in all the fact, the solution presented itself. Even if it was risky and dangerous, it was a chance of survival and a slim chance was better than none at all. Like Caesar at the Rubicon, Chris was going to roll the dice.

Exhaling as if he'd just emerged from a session of meditation, Chris turned to Buck and spoke with the same laconic drawl, as when he delivered his orders on the holodeck, in the persona of the Man in Black.

"Buck, give the order to evacuate all crew to the saucer section."

The protest came immediately from Buck. "The saucer section? Chris if we have a core breach, we need to get off the ship!"

Chris shot him a patented Larabee glare, telling him in no uncertain terms to do as he was told. He understood Buck's ambivalence but Chris knew what he was doing. "We're not giving up the ship Buck," his voice was almost serene. "Carry out the order."

Buck almost opened his mouth to respond but decided against it. Suddenly, he had an idea that despite the fact the ship was shuddering violently around them, suffering new wounds with each blast of Romulan disruptors, Chris Larabee had a plan. Buck had no idea what it was, but his captain and oldest friend was wearing the look of a man who was about to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Without question, Buck tapped his com badge.

"All hands, this is Commander Wilmington, evacuate to the saucer section immediately. Repeat, all hands evacuate to the saucer section immediately." He leaned over the controls on his chair and activated the evacuation alert throughout the ship. A new whine screamed shrilly throughout the Maverick, reinforcing his order in no uncertain terms.

Mary stayed where she was. JD was in so much pain, the young man could do nothing but stay put because moving aggravated the severe burns she could see across his body. With all the damage done to the ship, it was likely Nathan was unable to reach the bridge. She wanted to ask Buck if the Jefferies tubes were still functioning but decided against it. Instead, she got to her feet and approached the compartment where she knew an emergency medkit was stored. As a protocol officer, she could do little to aid their current situation but she could make sure JD was taken care of.

Glancing as Chris, who seemed above all the chaos around him, Mary could see the familiar gleam in his eyes that told her he was about to do something insane, which she knew from experience could end up saving them all.

Whether he was aware what was on Mary's mind, Chris forged ahead with the idea forming in his head and issued his next order, delivered with the maddeningly calm of a man standing in the eye of the storm. "Alex, I need you to scan the immediate vicinity and find me an M-Class planet we can get to on impulse speed."

The order shook the remnant of her earlier fall from Alex's consciousness. She blinked it away, staring at her captain at the order for but a second before complying.

"Scanning now."

Chris Larabee had earned her undying loyalty in the past year. He'd taken on a troubled Science Officer, offering her every consideration while she struggled through the recovery of her ordeal by the Cardassians. Even when she tested those limits after Gul Lemar, her rapist turned up on board the Maverick, the Captain had still stood by her. More recently, he'd supported her solution to cure Vin's bout of Pon Farr, even though every logical instinct should have had him refuse her. If he wanted her to scan the territory all the way to Perdition's Fire as Ezra was so fond of saying, Alex would do it willingly.

In any case, the request made sense considering the news they were suffering a core breach. While she had no idea how they'd reach any M-Class planet with four warbirds in pursuit, that Chris Larabee had asked it of her was enough.

Like Buck, Ezra Standish knew his captain and Chris had the look of a man who held all the cards and was about to play a winning hand. How in God's name that could be when around them, more and more systems were sparking and overloading, the ship was being rocked by disruptor fire at shorter intervals and a core breach was imminent, was beyond Ezra. By now, even the Romulans knew the Maverick was mortally wounded as they dispensed with photon torpedo bombardment and used disruptors only.

Maintaining a grip of his tactical console as another violent jolt threatened to make him stumble, Ezra regarded the Captain. "Captain, you have the look of a man with an ace up your sleeve."

"Maybe one or two," Chris remarked. "Ezra, I want you to reconfigure our tractor beam and turn it into a repulsor. Make sure you draw power from our stardrive, not the warp core. Can you do it?"

"Easily," Ezra replied, recalling a report he read in recent years from a Lt Tasha Yar outlining a procedure to carry out the task without weeks of laying out new circuitry. "I merely need to reverse the tractor beam power lead through the force activator but why...." he was in mid-sentence before it dawned on him. "Captain..."

"...that's pretty damn vicious Chris," Vin who was still at the helm, pushing the Maverick as much as he could with the dwindling power to the propulsions systems in light of the core breach, threw his best friend a grin, guessing quickly what was in the man's mind as soon as he ordered the evacuation to the saucer section. It had taken Vin a second to work out the details of Chris' plan but then again, he always seemed to catch on quicker than most what was on the Captain's mind.

"You're damn right it is." Chris sneered with menace.

"Shall I slow down and let them catch up a bit, Pard?" Vin looked at him.

WARNING. CORE BREACH IN SIX MINUTES.

"Not yet," Chris answered ignoring the computer's warning. "We'll only have impulse and we have to get to minimum safe distance."

Mary who was kneeling next to JD with a medkit splayed open next to her was using the dermal regenerator on the injured ensign's shoulder after administering painkillers with a hypospray. "What are you planning Chris?"

"In a minute Mary," he gave her a quick glance before tapping his combadge. "Engineering come in!"

"We're a little busy down here Captain," Julia Pemberton replied, sounding a little harried as she directed Engineering's evacuation from the deck. "Trying to pack the good china and my grandma's hope chest to get to the saucer section in one piece!"

Chris tossed a glance at Ezra behind him and shared the Security Chief's dimpled grin at her response. Smirking, despite the urgency of the situation, Chris remarked. "Let Chanu handle that Lieutenant. I need you to eject the warp core on my mark."

There was silence and Chris took some satisfaction in being able to silence her usual flippancy.

"Captain, that's almost cruel." Julia returned after a moment. He couldn't see her face but Chris was certain she was smiling.

"Yeah but those sons of bitches have it coming," Chris growled with clear anger in his voice, as he felt shaken by another powerful shudder around him.

"No argument from me," she shouted as the pandemonium of evacuation continued around her. "I'll get things ready down here Captain," she assured him. "I'll be ready on your mark."

"Excellent Lieutenant," he returned, feeling a surge of fondness for the young woman, remembering a similar conversation with her when she'd stepped up to take charge of Rutherford's engineering section during the Battle of Sector 001. When all hell was breaking loose in their battle with the Borg, Julia had held the ship together, allowing Chris to help Jean-Luc Picard deal the killing blow to the Collective, thus saving the Earth. When the choice of Chief Engineer for his new command had been put to him, there was only one person he wanted. "Standby for my orders."

WARNING. WARP CORE BREACH IN FIVE MINUTES.

"Captain," Alex spoke up no sooner than he'd concluded giving his orders to Julia. "On full impulse, we can reach Loren III within the hour. She's an uninhabited M-Class planet."

Loren III. Chris knew of it. It was along the trajectory towards the Kurlan system when they were racing to rescue the Columbus. With a surge of anger, he knew it was likely, the crew of the Columbus were dead. If Lorral was prepared to destroy a Federation warship, she would have barely given a thought to killing a handful of surveyors who'd never done anything to anyone.

"Alright," Chris spoke up, addressing his bridge crew because it was time to unveil his plan, though some of them would have guessed it by now. "Julia, when Vin slows down to Warp 9.7, I want you to eject the warp core. Ezra, the minute she does it, send that thing straight at the Romulans with the repulsor and Vin, hit full impulse power. We've got to clear minimum safe distance."

"Chris, will that be enough to destroy four warships? Even with shields?" Mary asked, unfamiliar with the explosive yield of a warp core breach.

"Of a galaxy class starship?" Ezra answered for Chris. "Absolutely Lieutenant."

"Goddamn Chris," Buck shook his head, glad to see his faith in his old friend and captain was justified once again. "However, it turns out, it's a hell of a gamble."

"I do believe games of chance are our specialty," Ezra remarked. "Repulsor ready Captain."

"Okay," Chris sucked in his breath and swept his gaze across the faces of his bridge crew, taking the sight of them in and committing them to memory, leaving Mary for the last. However, this went, he regretted nothing. The last year and a half had been the best he'd known since Sarah and Adam were in his life. "Let's do this."

Chris only had to nod before Vin immediately acted, tapping the smooth, illuminated surface of the helm console. Even as the Maverick continued to be wracked by jolts from disruptor fire, the hum of the warp engines seemed to lower a pitch and Chris watched the warbirds, previously distant in the view screen, grow fractionally larger.

"NOW!"

"Ejecting warp core!" Julia's voice answered automatically.

WARNING! WARP CORE HAS BEEN EJECTED.

"Get to the saucer section Lieutenant!" Buck ordered Julia as around them, the hum of the warp engines went silent and the ship seemed to skip a heartbeat for a moment. The pause was only brief because no sooner than the Maverick had lost access to the warp core, the stardrive powering the impulse engines took up the duty of keeping the ship in flight.

"Activating repulsor beam!" Ezra announced as they watched the iridescent column hurtle towards the approaching Romulan warbirds. It wasn't so much a beam, Ezra thought as he activated the repulsor, but more of a pulse. The energy beam struck the detached warp core, causing it to pick up speed as it tumbled towards the Romulan ships, now in close proximity.

"FULL IMPULSE VIN!"

Vin didn't need to be told. The instant Ezra had made his announcement, he was already preparing to get the Maverick the hell out of the area. While impulse speed meant the nearest starbase was years away, at least it would get them to Loren III where they could wait for a rescue or figure something else out. However, all of that hinged on him getting the Maverick out of here right now.

The Maverick surged forward. In the viewscreen, they could see the Romulan ships growing distant, albeit not as quickly as it would if the ship were under warp, but enough so that a sizeable gap appeared between themselves and the discarded antimatter column As the stars rushed past them, there was a moment of absolute silence where the constant bombardment of disruptors ceased and there was only the sight of the warp core continuing to hurl towards the enemy ship, like a baton being passed.

Every corner of space behind them flared with a light so brilliant and white, it felt as if the universe was being born again. The warbirds vanished in the bright glare, forcing everyone to look away from the view screen as the bridge of the Maverick was bathed in the blinding illumination. While the vacuum of space did not allow them to hear the explosion, they certainly felt the resulting shockwave once the antimatter detonated.

"All hands brace for impact!" Chris warned as they saw the resulting shockwave emerging from the source of the blast once the initial flare had contracted. It spread outwards in an expanding ring of energy, like a great storm rushing outward in all directions. The wave of iridescent blue looked almost like an ocean swell, except this was a maelstrom of deadly radiation, dispersing antimatter particles and gravimetric forces rivalling the collapse of a neutron star. Under normal circumstances, the Maverick would have weathered the wave with only a hint of turbulence.

If they still had shields.

Chris lowered himself into his chair, gripping the hand rests and holding on for dear life, while Buck sat next to him and did the same. Alex and Ezra braced themselves against the tactical and security station while Mary helped JD beneath his navigational station, before returning to her own seat next to Chris because they both wouldn't fit. As she sat down, Chris took her hand in his and they met each other's eyes briefly, exchanging their regard for each other.

Vin had the hardest task of all because somehow, he'd have to ride the wave instead of letting it rip them apart as it might do, due to their lack of shields.

When the wave struck, the Maverick was swept upwards from the stern with the saucer section angled at a forty-five-degree slant. Within the ship, those not prepared for it were flung from one end of their present location to the other. The force of the wave crumpled the damaged right nacelle completely, disintegrating it utterly until the Maverick appeared as if it had suffered a crude amputation. Plasma, oxygen and debris vanished into the deadly cloud, as the crippled continued forward.

Across the Maverick, the ship was being shaken like a child's toy, with anything not secured, smashing against walls, turning into deadly projectiles. Nearly every glass surface, save the Plexiglas windows on the outer hull cracked and fissure, some outright shattering. Like a shaken snow globe, the chaos was total until even the emergency klaxons had fallen silent in surrender. Screams and cries of fright echoed through hallways while Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson, the two senior officers who had taken charge of the evacuation, tried to maintain calm despite the calamity around them.

On the bridge of the Maverick, Chris had let go of Mary's arm as she wrapped both limbs around the information console and kept from being thrown out of her chair. Chris was similarly clinging to his armrests while Buck braced a leg against his console to keep from tumbling out of his chair. JD was lodged even more securely under his station. The sedatives Mary had given him had made his burns easier to manage and he seemed content to remain where he was. Both Alex and Ezra were pressed hard against the tactical station, keeping them from being thrown over the console into the view screen.

Displays cracked and shattered, spraying the carpeted deck with fragments of dark glass. Panels came loose, while some stations exploded, sending sparks in all direction while conduits and wiring tumbled from exposed walls and the ceiling. A spidery fissure ran along the edge of the view screen, blue sparks spitting from the crack. The bridge was bathed in red, almost symbolic of their current situation.

Vin Tanner could feel the edge of his helm station digging into his stomach but he ignored the discomfort as he was too busy manoeuvring the Maverick into the wave, taking advantage of the tremendous velocity to give it the acceleration necessary to reach Loren, even faster than impulse speed was capable. He had to angle the ship just right or it was very possible the Maverick could break apart under the pressure. No one would survive such a disaster.

Finally, the shuddering and shaking began to ease off and the few emergency klaxons still blaring piercingly in the background fell into silence. Even though it lasted no more than a few minutes, their journey through the wave felt much longer. The view screen was still functioning and the slightly distorted image revealed nothing but empty space staring back at them indifferently.

"Everyone okay?" Chris was the first to speak, his eyes immediately shifting to Mary.

Strands of golden hair covered her face, which Mary quickly brushed aside with her fingers. "Let's not do that again."

"Hell," Buck grumbled, standing up and dusting himself off. "How about never?"

"Are you alright?" Chris asked Mary, needing to hear it from her lips. She looked shaken but none worse for wear. His fingers brushed her velvet cheek, grateful he was still alive to savour the silkiness of it against his skin.

"I'm okay," she offered him a smile. "Although I no longer feel I need to yell at my mother for staying on board."

Chris uttered a short laugh. While he saw her concern for Adelaide Sheridan, he also knew Nathan and Josiah would have ensured all civilians on board were taken care off during the battle. "I think this will be a learning experience for her."

"Lieutenant Tanner," Ezra found his voice from the tactical station. "May I say that was an impressive bit of flying. I had serious reservations whether we were going to make it through that."

"I agree," Chris added his voice to the Chief's compliment. Vin's piloting skills through all this had been nothing less than exemplary. Chris hated to imagine the outcome of their battle if the Maverick had been in the hands of a lesser pilot. "You did good Vin."

Vin looked over his shoulder at them, appearing somewhat embarrassed by the attention. It was hard to maintain an unflappable expression in the face of their gratitude. As it was, he was just satisfied, the ship had held up and was still capable of flying.

"Thanks, Chris," he gave the Captain that imperceptible nod only Chris Larabee seemed to understand. Never was their connection as important as it had been in the last hour when it became necessary for him to anticipate what Chris needed before the man could ask. Those precious few seconds had made all the difference.

Shifting his gaze to Alex, he was relieved to see she was unhurt. "You doing okay, Darlin'?"

"I'm okay Cowboy," Alex said giving him a wink, using the nicknames they'd given each other from that silly holo-program he liked so much. The quick exchange was all that was needed to reassure him she was fine because they were still on duty and nowhere out of trouble.

As much as he wished they could all take a moment, Chris knew they didn't have it to spare. Tapping his combadge, Chris was about to contact Julia when suddenly, the Maverick was rocked with another violent jolt that took them all by complete surprise.

"What the hell was that?" He demanded.

Alex quickly brushed the debris from the security console. The display was still alive and the readings made her stare at Chris grimly. "Captain, it's a warbird."

Chapter Ten: The Ruling Queen

Once again, proximity alert klaxons resumed screaming through the air, amidst the battering thunder of disruptor fire impacting against the Maverick's bruised hull. Across still functioning displays throughout the ship, red alert warnings began flashing again. On the bridge of the Maverick, Chris Larabee swore under his breath, his hope of saving his ship from the Romulan menace dashed, despite the sacrifice of his ship's warp core.

Even after succeeding in destroying three Romulan warbirds, it was still not enough. Alex's revelation drove home to all of them, they were still going to be destroyed, out here on the edge of the Frontier.

"Shit, we missed one."

As usual, the helmsman had not lost his knack for understatement as the warbird appeared on the slightly damaged view screen in front of them. Even though they had felt its presence by the barrage of disruptor fire a moment ago, seeing it for themselves drove home the reality of their situation.

Chris took some comfort in knowing the last of the four warbirds had not escaped the warp core explosion unscathed. The formidable looking ship was decidedly tarnished as its emerald-hued hull was scorched black in places, while a portion of the starboard side of its shell-like wing was missing, leaving behind a ragged edge of disintegrated metal.

"We can cry about it later." Chris snapped to attention, returning his mind to the problem at hand, not the consequences of failure. Discarding his thoughts of remaining in orbit around Loren III while they awaited rescue was wishful thinking. There was only one thing that had held any importance now - making sure his crew survive this day. God only knows how many they had lost already. There had been no time to take account of casualties but he knew there would be a bloody tally when he finally spoke to Nathan Jackson.

"Right, initiating evasive pattern delta," Vin announced, not waiting for Chris's permission. That Romulan bitch was out there and they needed to keep ahead of it to stay alive. Vin supposed if there was any bright side to this, the Maverick's lack of warp speed meant the warbird could only come at them at impulse power. At least, in that sense, they were on a level playing field.

"That's a start," Chris' replied, glad he didn't have to tell Vin who seemed to always know what he needed. Turning to Mary before his mind turned inwards to the problem and shut her out, he knew she could have stayed back on DS5 but chose to remain on board during this mission because she would not abandon him. For that alone, he'd spare her a moment of thought before he went back to being Captain of the Maverick, for however long it lasted.

For a second, his icy blue eyes softened as he offered the lovely protocol officer a look of apology for not delivering them out of this situation with the decisiveness he hoped. Without saying the words, he gave her a silent promise to reunite her with Billy, who was waiting for her on DS5. In turn, Mary reached for his hand and squeezed it tight for a moment, showing her faith in him that he would make good on that vow.

"Chris, we've got damage to our left nacelle and at hull breaches from Decks 38 to 42. Without the warp core, we don't have the power to erect emergency force fields," Buck reported, unknowingly ending the tender moment between the Captain and the Protocol Officer.

"Warbird is firing again!" Ezra's normally erudite voice declared tautly.

A fraction of a second after his exclamation, the Maverick banked sharply at Vin's hand, once again forcing them to grab hold of something before they went sprawling as the ship avoided the blast.

"Return fire! Phasers on full!" Chris growled, fingers digging into the padding of his armrest, feeling the fury bubble in him at having to endure the further violation of the Maverick.

Ezra who did not have Vin's uncanny ability to read the Captain, had been poised to receive the order from the captain and was ready and waiting. "Firing all phaser banks!"

The view screen revealed the bolts of phaser energy impacting against the enemy ship, its shield shimmering briefly as it absorbed the shot. Not to be outdone, the Romulan warbird returned fire promptly, with the Maverick performing another steep bank to avoid being hit directly. Once again, the ship groaned in protest as it was shaken apart as more and more bulkheads began to buckle. No doubt, Julia Pemberton was probably wincing at the strain she could hear in the superstructure every time the Romulan fired on them. With their stardrive section almost totally disabled without warp power, they were more or less at the mercy of one well-placed direct hit.

"Enemy ship sustained minimal damage," Ezra declared. "Her shields are still holding. She's firing again!"

"Damage report!"

"We have major damage to the secondary hull! I'm reading multiple hull breaches and we're venting oxygen! Emergency force fields are offline!" Buck answered looking up from his barely functional information console. As the display flickered, the First Officer gave it a frustrated kick as if the action would be able to steady the readings. Whether in surrender or simply luck, the image held, acquiescing to Buck's frustration. On the viewscreen, they could see the debris of hull plating tumbling away into the darkness of space.

"All hands, evacuate outer sections of the saucer section!" The first officer ordered. "Repeat, evacuate outer sections! Chris, that warbird is going to carve us up like a Sunday roast!"

Vin forced the Maverick into a barrel roll to avoid another disruptor blast, a manoeuvre a galaxy class starship was unaccustomed to performing so abruptly in such short distance. While the anti-gravs maintained gravity on board the Maverick, there was nothing to stop them from being tossed about like pebbles inside a maraca. On the bridge, everyone was clinging to every handhold and console they could reach to keep from becoming seriously injured.

Suddenly, the distinct shrill of a communication alert cut through the cacophony of voices and alert notifications in the air. Everyone on the bridge recognised it for what it was but it took Alex to say it out loud.

"Captain, the warbird is hailing us."

"Probably giving us a chance to surrender," Buck scowled, his expression dark because he was studying the casualty list on his console and the number was sitting in the teens. He had yet to voice it to Chris because the burden of it would be too much for the Captain at this time. Right now, Chris needed to focus on the crew he could save, not the ones already lost.

Mary saw Chris stiffen in distaste and knew him well enough to know he would never accept surrender under any circumstances. Neither would his crew, she thought resolutely.

"Put it through," Chris said coldly, his expression becoming one of ice as he waited to face his enemy.

No one was surprised when Lorral's face appeared on the view screen. Judging by the state of the Romulan bridge, with is shattered displays, hanging wall panels and sparking wires from exposed conduits, to say nothing of the veneer of smoke drifting through the room, the warbird had not emerged from their battle without damage. Whether it was from the Maverick's phasers or warp core explosion, Chris could not say but it gave him a measure of satisfaction to know her ship was as wounded as his.

For a moment, neither of them spoke. They merely regarded each other across the expanse of space, their confrontation made possible through the trickery of technology. Two chess players waiting for each other to make the first move.

"Captain Larabee," Lorral spoke, her lovely features barely concealed the fury she was feeling. No doubt she was smarting over the loss of three warbirds. If nothing else, her anger was equal to his satisfaction.

Staring at her, Chris wondered how many men had been captivated by her, unaware beneath the veneer of beauty existed nothing less than a monster. He read Ezra's reports of the poor Jem'Hadar soldiers trapped in her laboratory, subject to horrific experimentation. Like Josef Mengele of the 20th Century, Lorral was the modern-day equivalent of the Angel of Death and cemented Chris's determination he was never surrendering his crew to her.

"Commander Lorral," Chris replied, his expression betraying nothing, "or shall I say Ruling Queen? That's what you were aiming for, wasn't it?"

"It's where I will be," she said firmly, a smile curled the corner of her lips. "Do not ever doubt that."

"Kind of hard to rule with one ship?" Chris drawled. "Sounds like delusions of grandeur."

Clever, Mary thought silently as she sat next to Chris, realising he wasn't baiting Lorral for the sake of it but was trying to goad the woman into providing him valuable intelligence about the Vriha's numbers. After being his protocol officer for more than a year, one thing Mary had learned about Chris, despite her personal feelings for him, Ezra Standish had nothing on Chris Larabee when it came to displaying a poker face.

Her indigo eyes flashed but she maintained her mask of calm.

"Rest assured, my new empire is more than four ships. You may have depleted my fleet with your desperate attack but you have certainly not defeated it. I blame myself, of course, I was under the impression your strategy had some elegance to it. I didn't expect the panicked fright you've displayed."

Bitch, Mary thought, bristling at the insult to Chris. Her skin crawled at how a creature like Lorral could exist. How a scientist of all people, could possess such intelligence and a black void of callousness at the same time.

"And I don't get insulted by little girls trying to play war with soldiers. If my one ship can take out three of your warbirds, what do you think a fleet of starships is going to do to your little splinter group when they get here?"

A low whistle was heard from somewhere on the bridge. Chris did not move his eyes off Lorral but he guessed it might have come from Buck. Sneering when he saw her lips thin with indignant fury, Chris was certain if hatred could be projected through the view screen, he would have been incinerated in his chair by hers.

Leaning over to Alex's ear, Ezra whispered with a smug smile. "I think the lady is going to take exception to that little comment."

"No kidding," Alex kept her smirk hidden but her eyes were dancing in admiration for her captain.

As anticipated, Lorral's reaction was extreme. Behind her, Chris could see the expressions of her crew staring at her, their outrage mounting because splinter group or not, these were Romulans. They were still arrogant bastards whose pride would not allow his insult to go unpunished. If Lorral intended to rule them as she claimed, she would have to pick up the gauntlet he just threw in front of her. And she would, Chris knew it in his gut.

To prove herself, she would have to show them she could beat Starfleet at their own game.

If she were facing any other Captain, she might have had a shot but today, Lorral was shit out of luck. Not only had she violated Federation territory, but also murdered the innocents on board the Columbus, and possibly crippled the Maverick for good, she'd plain pissed him off.

And when Chris Larabee was good and mad, he usually came up with a plan.

As he just had in the last few seconds.

When he made his last remark to Lorral, he wasn't playing to any misogynistic streak. Not at all. In the words of Ezra, he was playing a long game. He knew the Maverick could not survive long enough for a rescue with this warbird around. It had to be taken out and Chris had an idea how. It was dangerous and insane as hell, but Chris was starting to get the idea those two qualities tended to work for him best when things were going to hell.

"I was going to offer you one last chance to surrender but I don't think I'm going to waste the time. Goodbye Captain Larabee. Die knowing you were the cause of your ship and your crew's disintegration!"

With that, the view screen went dead abruptly but Chris was ready for that. In fact, he expected it and quickly barked at Vin, prepared for the next onslaught of disruptor fire.

"Vin, hard forward at course 2.578335!"

Despite their almost symbiotic relationship, this time Vin had to look over his shoulder at his captain to make sure he heard right. "2.578335?"

"You heard me at full impulse." Chris's voice was calm even though what he was asking was next to goddamn insane but that's all he had right now if he was going to save them all.

"Chris...what the hell?" Buck demanded, understanding full well where that course would take them before Ezra's voice silenced the ensuing conversation.

"The Ruling Queen is firing!" Ezra declared, since it seemed as good a name as any for a Romulan warbird being commanded by a psychopathic scientist with dreams of becoming the empress of the known universe.

"Carrying out evasive manoeuvres!" Vin shouted, saving Chris the time of giving him the inevitable order.

Despite Vin's expert skills as the Officer of the Conn, every miss of disruptor fire sent shockwaves through the vacuum of space, its vibrations reverberating through the hull of the Maverick due to their lack of shields. Nevertheless, the helmsman's fingers flew over the controls at lightning speed, determine that his ship take no more fire as he flew the Maverick along the course set out by the Captain.

The view screen no longer showed the image of the Ruling Queen but instead provided their first glimpse of the planet known as Loren III. She hung in space, covered in dull, mustard coloured clouds, with patches that allowed the blue of oceans to be seen from space, waiting indifferently for their arrival.

"Chris," Buck started to speak again, returning to what he had been about to voice before Ezra interrupted, "you can't seriously be considering this. That warbird will shoot us down before we even get halfway through the atmosphere!"

"Through the atmosphere?" Mary's eyes widened. "We're taking the ship into the atmosphere?

While she may not be an engineer of Julia's calibre or even familiar with battle tactics but even Mary knew a galaxy class ship could not make a terrestrial landing. It was simply too large and lacking the support struts that some of the intrepid class ships possessed. Any landing on the surface of Loren III was going to be a hard one.

"Not all of it," Chris returned smoothly. "Commander Wilmington, I need you to prepare for emergency saucer separation."

Buck gaped at Chris and then thanked God Chris Larabee was his captain because damn if Buck just figure out what the man had in mind. "You're crazy, you know that? You're goddamn crazy!" Nevertheless, a slow grin was stealing across his face.

"We're not getting out of this playing it sane Buck," Chris gave his friend a smile. "Get to it we don't have a lot of time. That planet's getting awful close."

"Right," Buck nodded and hurried to the nearest unmanned station that was still operation and began to prepare for emergency saucer separation.

As he did so, Chris turned to Mary because he needed all hands to pull off this plan. "Mary, get on the comms, let Julia know we're preparing for saucer separation and notify the crew we will be performing an atmospheric entry. Everyone should be ready to assume crash position."

Grateful for something to do, Mary nodded in answer, hiding her fear at the urgency of the situation under the tough glacial mask, shaken temporarily during Adelaide Sheridan's visit. "Of course." She smiled at him, Buck's reaction proving her faith in him was justified as always.

With that, Chris turned his attention to Alex and Ezra, the final component in this Hail Mary pass he was about to throw to get them out of this mess with his crew and his ship intact.

"Chief Standish, Commander Styles," Chris said to Ezra and Alex, "how would you two like to blow that psychotic bitch out of the sky?"

"Captain," Ezra gave him a reproachful look. "I would never use such language to describe any lady, no matter how homicidal she might be. However, under the circumstances, what do you have in mind?"

"We still have runabouts in the shuttle bay," Chris told them both. "Ezra, you feel like flying one of them close enough to that warbird and then lower the anti-matter containment field?"

Ezra's eyes widened at the suggestion, out of disbelief and the sheer balls out audacity of the plan. While nowhere equal to the blast that had taken out three warbirds, a core breach of a runabout in close proximity to an enemy ship would be more than enough to cause considerable damage to its shields. The Romulans would never see it coming.

"Captain, that sounds utterly delightful." Ezra grinned. "I trust that Commander Styles will be piloting a second roundabout to make sure I do not leave Huxley an orphan?"

Chris hid a smirk, thinking about the hated cat Julia Pemberton made Ezra buy in an effort to begin their journey to eventual cohabitation. Even in the 24th century, Cosmo was a worse menace to man than the Borg.

"You'll be riding shotgun with me before that candle goes up," Alex assured him, more than assured him really, she made Ezra a silent promise on that. Alex was not going to look Julia in the face and tell her friend she had lost the love of Julia's life.

"Once the breach takes out the shields, you know what to do." Chris said to her.

"Aye Captain," Alex said with a gleam in her eyes she reserved only for Cardassian rapists. "I'll shove a photon torpedo down her throat."

"Lovely imagery Commander," Ezra winced in distaste, although he rather liked the idea of Lorral getting her comeuppance, especially after what he had seen in Riga 3.

"Get to it," Chris prompted, taking the security chief's place at the tactical station. "And good luck."

Chapter Eleven: Hail Mary Pass

Ezra Standish wished he had a chance to say goodbye to Julia Pemberton before he stepped on board the Danube class Runabout USS Perlman but knew ultimately it was probably best that he did not. The Maverick's security chief did not think he could cope with seeing her dismay at the dangerous mission he was undertaking or carry her worried expression into the runabout with him. Not if he intended to save her or her beloved ship.

At this point, the Maverick was not yet lost. If he and Alex could pull off this bit of aerodynamic sleight of hand for the Captain, they would keep this day from becoming the Maverick's last in space.

Sliding into the pilot's seat within the cockpit of the Perlman, Ezra didn't waste any time conducting the pre-flight sequence required prior to launch. As he deftly initiated the take-off procedures with hands that worked the controls as dexterously as he shuffled cards, he took a moment to peer through the window and survey briefly, the state of the shuttle bay.

At any given time, the Maverick had a complement of ten short-ranged shuttles and two runabouts, the Perlman and the Midkiff for long-range travel. Today, at least three of the shuttles appeared damaged, either battered from the flying debris or disruptor hits to the bay. Everything that was not bolted down inside the main shuttle bay was scattered across the deck. Tools, equipment, crates, pieces of panelling and the glass from broken displays. In one section, sparks danced across the floor from overhanging wires, exposed by broken conduits.

Ezra frowned, knowing how much Julia would hate to see the condition of her shuttle bay. The titian-haired beauty was more possessive about the Maverick than even the Captain, Ezra thought with a faint smile. Of course, he wasn't entirely thrilled either at seeing the ship in this state. The Maverick was the first ship he had served as Chief Security Officer and since assuming that role, protecting this ship and all those on it had been his responsibility. Seeing her so wounded stabbed at the heart of him and filled him with a surge of anger that would not be abated until that damn Romulan warbird was nothing, but dust carried away on the solar winds.

Controls and displays came alive around him at the same time as the healthy drone of the Perlman's engines became audible in his ears. Being inside the runabout muted the bombardment of the Ruling Queen's disruptor fire, but Ezra could see through the mouth of the open hangar bay doors, the streaks of green crisscrossing the dark sky. The view outside was one of chaos, with Vin's expert flying skills being employed to their fullest to avoid being struck. Stars spun and shifted, like wind against sand, as the remained in constant motion, zigzagging and weaving to avoid disruptors as it flew towards Loren III.

"You ready Ezra?" The Chief heard Alex's voice through the comms.

"As I ever will be, Commander," Ezra answered and tapped the controls lightly to lift off.

The Perlman's engines hummed louder in his ears at initialization, a split second before it hovered above the deck. Across the bay, he saw the twin nacelles of the USS Midkiff, the runabout being piloted by Alex, ignite with a magenta glow. The two runabouts faced each other nose to nose and through his cockpit, Ezra saw the lovely Science Officer occupying the same seat in the cockpit.

Of all the women on board the Maverick, it was Alex who shared Ezra's mindset and attitude towards the security of the ship. While he'd learned to be a cynic thanks to upbringing, it had taken her six months in Cardassian hands for them to reach the same place. When it came to the protection of the ship and the people they cared about, there were no in-betweens, it was kill or be killed.

And if their lives had to be sacrificed for that end, so be it.

Regarding each other across the narrow space between their ships, they acknowledged each other like warriors on the field, about to face an uncertain battle.

"Let's get this done," Alex said promptly, drawing a dimpled smile from Ezra, liking her no-nonsense attitude to this hazardous duty. "Captain, we're launching now."

"Good," Chris's reply from the bridge was automatic. "Buck's getting ready to perform the saucer separation."

"We're going to engage the warbird and give Buck some breathing room before we begin our attack run," Alex stated, aware the procedure was hard enough already without the added complication of avoiding disruptor fire at the same time. "Styles out."

Danube class runabouts with the capability of attaining Warp 5, possessed phaser banks and a small number of photon torpedoes. They were a flexible, mobile defence platform capable of providing support in battlefield conditions. As one of its designers had described it, runabouts were the honey badgers of the fleet. Small, thick-skinned and possessing ferocious defensive capabilities.

Both ships lifted off the main shuttle bay floor, with the Perlman leading the way. The bullet-shaped craft rose smoothly off the deck, hovering for a second before it pivoted towards the open hangar bay doors and space beyond. Gliding slowly across the deck, it closed the distance to the doors and was soon followed by the Midkiff, repeating the same smooth departure.

Both runabouts escaped the Maverick's shuttle bay just as the starship was performing another 90-degree turn to avoid another blast of disruptor fire. The great ship was still trying to navigate through enemy fire to reach Loren III. Freed from the proximity of their mothership, the runabouts flew on an intercept course towards the warbird, making no attempt to hide their presence in order to draw the enemy ship's fire.

Simultaneously raising shields as they flew on a direct intercept course to the warbird, they made the approach firing all weapons. The warbird reacted immediately to their presence, firing disruptors at the audacity of the frontal assault. The warbird hurled so many blasts at the duo, the dark sky was lit up with the greenish glow of disruptor fire.

While neither Ezra nor Alex were the pilots Vin Tanner was, both were trained in tactical piloting and met the onslaught of energy bolts, weaving through the barrage, allowing no more than a fraction of disruptor fire to impact their shields, as they forged on ahead. Ezra was the superior pilot having been at it longer than Alex and he performed a few impressive rolls and loops to avoid direct hits. He was determined to be as much a nuisance to the warbird as possible, so Buck could conduct the tricky manoeuvre of separating the saucer section of the Maverick from its stardrive section.

Once he was within two hundred metres of the enemy, Ezra targeted the forward disruptor banks, firing from all four of the Perlman's phaser arrays, at the green turret on the nose of the warbird. While the shot was absorbed by the warbirds shield, the close proximity of the blast ensured the shields were weakened. Less than a hundred feet away from the shields, Ezra veered hard before the warbird could return fire. As it banked to give pursuit, the Midkiff came in from its starboard side, conducting a strafing run across its hull, phaser blast assaulting the shields once again.

"Pile on Ezra!" Alex ordered. "Let's give these Rommie assholes something to bitch about!"

"I do like the way you think Commander," Ezra grinned from the cockpit of the Perlman, wondering how much of Alexandra Styles was left that was human after being raised mostly Klingon. Either way, when the woman went into a fight, there was little or nothing left of the Science Officer, who could be clinically effective and composed while she dissected a two-foot slug while the rest of them were gagging.

"Commander, do you by any chance remember the rolling scissor manoeuvre?" Ezra asked.

Even if he could not see her, he knew she was smiling. "I'll follow your lead Chief."

The Perlman performed a barrel roll manoeuvre that had the runabout heading back towards the warbird, while Alex continued to circle the ship in tight loops, drawing its fire while Ezra made his approach. He came in firing, once again targeting the nose of the warbird, determined to take out its disruptor banks once and for all. Once he'd passed the turret, he joined Alex and they both flew in the same pattern of tight loops around the warbird, passing each other within a dozen meters of the shield, as they continued to bombard the bigger ship with phaser fire.

As the Midkiff and the Perlman conducted its David and Goliath battle against the warbird, the glow of Loren III bathed the Maverick's pigeon blue hull with colour. While not in proximity of the exosphere yet, the planet's gravitational field was starting to tug at the great ship. Surrounded by an atmosphere of a held breath, the saucer section pulled forward slowly from its stardrive section. At a near painful crawl, docking latches unlocked with clangs muted by the airless void but was surely felt through the hull and bulkheads. Upon unlatching, the clamps receded into their housings along the hull of the stardrive section.

The curved seam where the saucer section and the stardrive met became more visible, aided by the widening gap of stars between them. The saucer section began to pull ahead, with thrusters on the underside of the ships coming alive with bluish light. The stardrive section of the ship remained in place, abandoned for now by its occupants, watching forlornly as the saucer section left it behind and headed towards Loren III.

"They're clear!" Alex declared.

To keep the saucer section from escaping, the warbird unleashed a trio of photon torpedoes, not caring whether or not the detonation so close, might damage itself. Ezra and Alex watched in horror as the high yield weapons hurtled towards the fleeing saucer section and immediately broke formation, flying at top speed to effect countermeasures before any of them could hit. Even one would obliterate the Maverick in its current condition.

Ezra fired all phaser banks and managed to knock one of the cursed projectiles off trajectory, sending it out of control towards the planet and hoped wherever it detonated, there was nothing there to suffer because of it. Alex did a little better, destroying the torpedo outright but the third in the triad continued to hurtle towards the hull of the Maverick.

"Captain! You have incoming." Ezra warned, feeling his chest tighten.

"I got it," Chris Larabee's voice was just as cool as his and Ezra remembered it was the Captain who'd taken over the tactical station in his absence. No sooner than Chris's words had reached their ears, the Maverick's phasers fired and detonated the last torpedo short of reaching the hull.

The shockwave, however, was severe and Ezra watched with jaw tensing as the energy rushed over the Maverick, causing hairline fractures across the hull, which leaked oxygen, duranium plating and to his horror, bodies into the cold vacuum of space.

"I believe I have had just about enough of that ship," Ezra spoke with ice in his voice. "I think it's time we introduce the Ruling Queen to Erebus."

Alex had only heard his tone that cold once before, a second before he put a bullet into the brain of Silas Poplar, the Pinkerton detective who murdered Julia Pemberton in that simulated reality created by the Q entity. "Alright then, begin your approach, I'll keep them busy."

The two runabouts performed a loop simultaneously with Alex taking the lead this time. Inside the Midkiff, Alex set her phaser array on continuous fire, laying down a deadly barrage of phaser fire at the Romulan warbird. Weaving from side to side as she avoided the disruptor fire attempting to shoot her down, she wished Vin was here. He was better at this than her. She shunted aside thoughts about the Vulcan. She couldn't think of Vin right now. As it was, she wished she had been able to say goodbye to him when she'd left the Maverick, even though there simply hadn't been the time.

Nevertheless, if she were destroyed right now, she'd regret nothing. The last two months with him had been bliss. Three years ago, Alex could never have imagined being a wife to anyone but after meeting Vin, everything had changed. He'd given her strength and friendship at a time when she needed it most. Vin had restored the ruined fragments of her psyche into some semblance of the person she was before her terrible ordeal in that Cardassian prison. It was why she was so willing to fight for him during the Pon Farr because she simply could not imagine her world without him.

Within twenty meters of the Romulan shields, she pulled up hard, sending the Midkiff into a steep climb as behind her, the Perlman closed in.

Whether or not the Ruling Queen noticed the second runabout, it didn't matter. Two hundred meters short of the Romulan shields, the Perlman's phaser array went silent while its engines disengaged. It was closing the distance to the warbird on forwarding inertia only, while inside the cockpit, Ezra was entering his command authorisation to lower the magnetic containment field of the runabout's antimatter core.

WARNING CORE BREACH IN TEN SECONDS

The computer's voice informed dutifully as Ezra saw the nose of the Romulan ship in front of him. Alex was continuing to bombard the ship with phaser blasts, distracting the warbird from noticing its approach. Despite the constant barrage, Lorral was relying on her shields to shake off the runabouts phaser blasts. While somewhat draining, they were causing little damage to the ship itself.

Ezra wished he could have seen her face for what came next.

"Commander, I believe I can use that lift now," Ezra spoke into his com badge.

"About time." She said with a sigh of relief.

Ezra watched as the warbird began to loom large in his cockpit window, overtaking the space around them. He watched the myriad lights across its greenish hull and the flare of energy from its forward turrets just as a gold shimmer appeared before his eyes and the familiar hum of a transporter beam filled his world.

******

From the bridge of the Maverick, Chris watched the Perlman reaching critical just shy of the warbird's shields. The explosion was a smaller version of the one that had taken its three sister ships. The burst of brilliant white light and the energy spewing forward swept towards the Ruling Queen's shields and then collapsed it. Chris almost smiled when he saw the shimmer of energy absorb the full brunt of the antimatter explosion before becoming consumed by it.

"Her shields are down!" Buck shouted from the security station Alex had occupied. "Midkiff, you have a firing solution. Fire photon torpedoes full spread!"

"Torpedoes away!" Alex shouted, and they saw the Midkiff discharging torpedoes from both its bays. No sooner than they were fired, the runabout performed a sharp roll to put some distance between the warbird and itself before detonation. By now, the saucer section had penetrated the planet's exosphere and was far enough away to avoid sustaining damage from the blast.

The first torpedo struck its hull, the second impacted against the aft section of the Ruling Queen. However, one was enough. Immediately the hull began to ignite, as catastrophic breaches began to appear across the ship, followed by explosive decompression that reached apogee in a brilliant orb of white like a mini sun reaching nova. The resulting explosion was silent in space but the energy cloud that swept outward could be felt by the runabout and the Maverick.

On the bridge, Chris and Buck held fast as the force of it threw the two senior officers hard against the tactical and security station, while once again Mary clung to the information console to keep from being thrown from her chair. Vin had the benefit of the Conn to brace himself while JD, now unconscious mercifully from the sedative Mary had administered, was oblivious to it all where she'd left him under the navigation station.

Emergency klaxons still in operation whined unhappily at the latest assault and in the view screen, Loren III grew increasingly larger.

"The warbird's gone Chris," Buck exclaimed scanning the area and seeing no trace of the ship. What there was in the air was one runabout and a whole lot of debris and residual radiation with decided Romulan characteristics. "They did it," he grinned. "They took out the last ship."

Chris was not about to celebrate, not until his crew was safe. "Midkiff! Report!"

"We are in one piece Captain," Ezra Standish replied with a burst of static. "Commander Styles is busy flying the runabout. We have conducted a sensor sweep of the area and have detected no sign of the Ruling Queen."

"Any damage?"

"Nothing we shall not recover from," Ezra explained. "Our shields suffered some loss absorbing the ferocity of that last eruption but other than that, the Midkiff is functioning fully. What are your orders Captain? Do you wish us to return to the Maverick?"

As the saucer section entered the atmosphere, a new kind of turbulence began to ripple through the ship. Instead of the hard, concussive blasts that had rocked the ship previously, the Maverick was shuddering and shaking continuously like a leaf in the wind. The galaxy class ship was never intended for travel within an atmosphere and never was that more apparent than at this moment, when Chris could see sunlight pouring through the window on the ceiling of the bridge.

"No," Chris replied. "Too risky. Rendezvous with us when we're on the ground."

"Aye Captain, safe landing."

Almost on cue, Chris heard Vin speak up. "Chris, it would be helpful if you can give me some landing coordinates."

"I'm on it," Buck replied, already scanning the surface of the planet.

Loren III was an uninhabited planet. While it had once been home to an ancient civilisation, little remained of it for Federation archaeologists to determine who they were. They had left behind a world overgrown not so different from Earth, with plenty of water and vegetation, a world that could provide the crew of the Maverick with a refuge until they were rescued.

If they could land in one piece, that is. Right now, that was problematic.

Chapter Twelve: Lower Decks

Well, this day had certainly not gone how he thought it would.

When Nathan Jackson had received the summons to the bridge, he had been faced with a deluge of casualties in his Sick Bay. While he monitored the situation on the bridge, his attention was soon focused on the results of the disruptor hits the Maverick was unable to stop. At first, they had trickled in when the Maverick still had its shields. The injuries ranged from breaks to lacerations, not high on the injury scale but enough to keep them busy. Emergency force fields had kept serious injuries from being sustained, even if he knew their situation was dire. Having survived the battle with the Dominion Taskforce last year, he knew the Maverick might be facing worst odds with four Romulan warbirds.

Once the shields were down, however, all bets were off.

With a hull breach on the saucer section, the evacuation of Engineering and then the entire stardrive section, things went completely to hell. They were flooding Sick Bay with everything from severe trauma to third-degree burns. So far, Nathan counted at least twenty-five dead, not all Starfleet officers. The vacuum of space did not distinguish between civilian and Starfleet when it came to a hull breach. It doubly infuriated Nathan to lose a civilian because as a Starfleet officer, dying was always a possibility. As beautiful and wondrous as space could be, it was a damned dangerous place that could kill you in a second. Families didn't get that choice.

With every member of the medical team treating the injured inside Sick Bay and in the corridor outside, Nathan was once again revisited by the horror of the refugee centres shortly after the Hobus supernova. There were so many wounded that even with Starfleet's help, the Romulans were overwhelmed by the sheer number of the refugees. They'd turned whole decks into triage centres and looking at the hallways outside Sick Bay during this fight for their lives, Nathan had found the similarities almost too much to bear.

In all this, he had no idea where Rain was. He suspected she was probably assisting Engineering as one of the damage crews spreading throughout the saucer section, trying to hold the Maverick together while Chris Larabee thought of a way to save their asses. He was tempted to contact her on his com badge but knew he had no medical reason to and it didn't seem right when they were in a crisis situation. She was a department head like he was and probably busy, without needing her boyfriend, (he hadn't proposed yet so he couldn't be called a fianc�), checking up on her like a panicky teenager.

When Buck's frantic demand came over the bridge that JD was hurt, Nathan thanked God that Casey was outside in the hallways, lending her assistance to the medical staff who were treating the injured there. No matter how capable she was, Casey Wells was a young girl in love and JD was her first boyfriend. If she knew he was injured, she'd be no good to anyone and right now he needed her focussed. With the rest of his well-trained medical team dealing with the injured in Sick Bay, Nathan had grabbed his medkit to head out when halted by Inez.

"I'll come with you," the sultry bartender offered.

"That's not necessary," Nathan declared, aware she'd been lending her assistance the same as Casey had been, playing nurse. "I can manage this myself."

"No offence Senor," she refused to be deterred. "At this time, I do not think any of us should be wandering about the ship alone." As she said that, the Maverick shuddered again, causing another ripple of frightened gasps and cries throughout the area, especially when medical displays and lights flickered briefly.

They both paused a moment, waiting to see if things would normalise before they resumed their debate or in her mind, their agreement.

"I'm just going to the bridge," Nathan insisted as he barked an order to Maria, his nurse before heading out the door.

Inez kept in stride with him "so we won't have far to go."

Deciding he didn't have time to argue with her, especially if the concern in Buck's voice was any indication, Nathan headed out into the corridor. He paused a second as he saw the casualties arranged haphazardly along the decks, as his medical staff worked in tandem with volunteers to treat the injuries. He could see new crewmen arriving, helping more injured people to get treatment and felt his stomach clench in anger. A few feet away, someone had pulled a blanket over the face of a young ensign, whose entire left side was burnt so badly, he couldn't even begin to imagine her agony before the end.

Ensign Yanek, he identified.

"Alright, come on!" Nathan said to Inez through gritted teeth. She'd been on board for a lousy month and was little more than a child.

Inez who followed his gaze, felt her eyes swim in emotion at the sight of that poor girl who only two hours ago was lamenting her fate because of some mistake she'd made with the Captain while nursing a Jovian Sunspot in Four Corners. Blinking slowly because it reminded her again, how dangerous this life was, she spun on her heels and followed Nathan to the nearest turbo lift.

They barely made it through the doors when the ship was pounded again, making them stumble clumsily into the turbo lift. Nathan caught her arm, keeping her from going face first into the wall as the doors closed behind them.

"Computer - bridge," Nathan said as Inez collected herself.

"Gracias," she brushed a strand of dark hair out of her ears, as the turbo lift began to move, its journey through the decks, punctuated with a steady pulse of sound. "I do not remember the ship suffering this badly the last time."

Nathan's jaw tightened before he nodded in agreement. "The last time we still hung onto our shields and we had a warp core. Plus, we had five Cardy ships to deal with whose shield modulation frequencies we had. Romulan warbirds, the D'Deridex class were designed to take out galaxy class starships. That's a tougher sell."

Inez nodded. "How badly do you think JD is hurt?"

"Bad if the sound of Buck's voice is any indication." Nathan sighed, hoping the young man was alright. He liked the kid, considered JD one of his friends and always enjoyed keeping his company. Despite his inexperience, JD was a great deal smarter than he let on and was wise enough to listen and learn from his older comrades, something youth seldom did for sheer arrogance of their immortality.

At the mention of Buck's name, he noted a slight flicker in Inez's eyes and to his surprise, Nathan realised with a flash of insight, Inez might have been so insistent on joining him not because she was eager to help but because she might actually want to see how the First Officer was faring.

"I'm sure Buck's fine too..." he started to say when another violent jolt made the turbolift shudder violently before plunging downwards. Internal lights and warnings screamed as the speed of their descent drove them to the floor. After ten harrowing seconds, when both of them entertained thoughts of a horrible death, the look of spam splattered against a wall and their entire lives passing by their eyes, the lift finally ground to a halt with the screech of metal that made them both wince. They folded to the floor like paper while seeing the lights blink once or twice before dying completely, leaving them in near darkness except for one length of emergency lighting which illuminated the space dully.

"Jesus," Nathan cursed before looking at her in concern. "Are you okay?" His healer's instinct kicked in first and foremost.

"Yes," Inez got to her feet, a little shaken but recovering quickly. As they both stood up, a loud groan filled the air and they exchanged anxious glances.

"I think we have a problem," Nathan searched the lift control display and approached it gingerly, not wanting a repeat of that sound which warned all kinds of trouble.

"The safety clamps might be damaged," she remarked, having been astute enough to study the specifications of the Maverick during the last few months following Raphael's death, just for something to do.

Nathan attempted to access the display panel, hoping he could get an answer but the screen remained dark, obstinately keeping its secrets to itself. "I think you may be right."

"We can't stay here," she looked up at the service hatch on the ceiling. "If the safety clamps are damaged, another jolt could send us plunging to our deaths."

Nathan looked over his shoulder. "Try not to be such a ray of sunshine."

"Sorry," she shrugged apologetically. "Any luck accessing the turbo lift controls?"

"No," Nathan frowned. "It's completely offline. It's possible the backup systems can't engage because we lost the warp core."

"What do we do?" Inez looked to him since he was the Starfleet officer. It chagrined her to no end to feel so helpless. True, she was an amazing food technician and she knew enough about the technology in Four Corners to not need Julia Pemberton to assign a technician to her every time she needed help. Yet, what she knew about starship operations was limited beyond the required reading for all civilians. Considering Raphael had been a starship captain no less, it was somewhat embarrassing.

Glancing at the hatch above their head, he said with a sigh, "we're climbing."

******

Five minutes later, they were climbing up the rungs along the main Jefferies tube towards the set of doors leading to the next deck. The way the ship was getting battered from disruptor fire, the turbo lift below would not be able to remain secure for long. Nathan predicted it wouldn't take much for the last of the safety clamps to become damaged and give way. Sick Bay had been located on Deck 2 but the turbo lift had taken them just beneath Deck 18. Either way, trying to climb up eighteen decks when the ship was being bombarded was dangerous and the fall, if either of them slipped, would be fatal.

"So," Nathan grunted as he climbed up the draughty tube, grateful his medkit came with a strap so he could sling it around his shoulder and leave his hands free. "Buck?"

Inez who was in mid-climb froze and looked up at the doctor. "I don't know what you mean. We're just friends."

It was true. They were friends. Of course, he had hit on her shamelessly during the first three months of their time on the Maverick. Until then, he'd assumed her refusals to date him on any level had to do with playing hard to get. In truth, she'd kept her engagement to Raphael a secret and once he'd learned of it, had kept his distance. Buck was personally acquainted with Raphael from their Academy days and had instantly relegated her into what he charmingly called �No Fly Zone' territory.

After Raphael's death, he'd called in to check on her and while she might have interpreted his initial overtures as some crass attempt to move in, his manner indicated it was anything but that. He had nursed the Captain through his grief and understood how badly things could go if it wasn't mourned properly. It was well known throughout the Maverick, Chris Larabee's presence as the captain of this ship was due to Buck Wilmington's insistence Chris remained in the world. He'd done the same for her and even though he didn't flirt with her as shamelessly anymore, Inez knew he cared.

So, it was entirely to her surprise when the ship came under fire, Inez's first thought was the philandering jackass.

"Okay," Nathan tried to hide the smile because it sure as hell didn't sound like that.

"It is!" Inez insisted hotly.

"Inez, there's nothing wrong for admitting you have feelings for the man," Nathan said gently, trying to mimic the tone so often used by Josiah to great effect. "It's been more than a year since your loss. You might just be ready to move on."

"With Buck? The man scores more than the Galactic Parrises Square League!" Inez snorted even though she knew she was being unfair. An instinct she could not deny told her she was more to Buck than just a conquest. She had known it from the beginning.

"Well you never know," Nathan remarked, the phrase �the lady doth protest too much' echoed in his head. "He could surprise you."

Another sceptical snort followed.

Nathan suppressed his smile, wondering how Buck would take it if he knew of the possibility he might be in reach of the Holy Grail that was his quest to win Inez. In any case, they arrived at the doors to Deck 18 and Nathan prayed the manual release were functioning or else, he was going to have to try and pry it open with his bare hands. Not something he was willing to do when the ship was still shaking and shuddering around them.

"Okay here goes," Nathan said and pulled down the handle with one forceful tug. The handle gave way with a loud hiss, like hydraulic gases escaping and the doors parted with a jerk, leaving a gap little over a foot wide when it stopped moving. It was a bit of a squeeze Nathan decided but they'd fit easily and be on solid ground, as much as one could be on a starship at least.

Nathan slipped through first because he was ahead of her on the ladder and helped Inez out into the empty corridor. Due to their lack of shields, the bridge had ordered civilians and non-essential crew to remain in the areas of the ship furthest away from the outer hull in case of breaches. Having lost twenty-five people that way, Nathan could understand the reasoning. Cargo bays took up the bulk of the space on Deck 18 and during battle stations, the place should have been devoid of personnel. Besides, Nathan knew to reserve power, life support had been shut off in some of these areas.

Inez had just slipped through the doors when the Maverick shook again. This time the violence of it threw them to the floor of the corridor, giving neither of them time to pad their landing. Down the length of the hallway, the normal illumination of the ship, turned deep red, with control panels along the wall shattering, ceiling panels tumbling to the floor around their ears and tangles of wiring and ruptured conduits dropped down through the openings, like vines and snakes dangling in a jungle.

For a few seconds, neither of them moved, too terrified to do so because there was an instant Nathan thought he and Inez were on a deck about to decompress. Images of being blown out into space filled his mind until the seconds ticked by and nothing of the sort happened. Nathan looked at Inez and saw that she was trembling a little. She wasn't a Starfleet Officer and had never been so close to danger until today.

"You okay Inez?"

Inez lifted her head and he saw her nod through the tangle of her thick dark hair. "Yes," she said breathlessly. "I'm fine. Just a little shaken."

"Okay," he offered her a little smile of encouragement and got to his feet, offering her his hand. "We've can get to the emergency stairwell near Cargo Bay 3. That should take us right up to the bridge."

Although seldom used, the stairwells were a safety feature built into all starships in the event of turbo lift failure.

The Maverick was continued to shake and shimmy although the intensity of the jolts felt different as if they were riding a wave of turbulence. When Inez glanced out one of the windows, she could understand why. Pouring through the plexiglass was the natural light radiating from Loren III.

"Dios m�o!" She gasped staring at the planet looming large in the window. "We're landing!"

"Yeah that's what we'll be doing," Nathan said sceptically, perfectly aware landing was probably too optimistic when one was in a Galaxy-class starship. Then again, Vin Tanner was a hell of a pilot. If anyone could bring down the saucer section without too much damage, Nathan was confident it would be Vin. In either case, he needed to get to his Sick Bay or the Bridge, whichever came first.

"Come on," he prompted her to start moving, wanting to get to someplace safer than where they were when they finally reached the planet's surface.

Inez didn't argue when Nathan broke into a jog and sped up to keep up with him, grateful she was wearing an off the shoulder long sweater and bodysuit underneath for easy movement. Struggling to stay on her feet as they ran down the corridor, they were passing Cargo Bay Three when its wide doors slid open and stepping out into the hallway were Romulans.

******

FIVE MINUTES EARLIER

When Lorral saw the Starfleet runabout flying towards her ship - not the Ruling Queen - but the Blood Wing, she guessed Larabee's plan with seconds to spare.

With the runabout travelling on forward inertia only, no longer firing its phaser array like its mate, the Romulan sub-commander realised the power readings emanating from the small craft could lead to only one conclusion. Core Breach. In the aftermath, she had to give Larabee credit, his willingness to make extreme sacrifices was almost Romulan in its ruthlessness. Lorral could well believe why Romulan High Command had deemed Chris Larabee a captain to watch, in the calibre of Picard and possibly even Kirk.

At the moment, however, there was little to be done. There was no doubt the runabout was going to destroy their shields with a core breach and even if they fired disruptors, there would be no stopping that inevitability, merely hastening the process. As it was, their shields, already half its strength and following the explosion, were completely offline. Furthermore, the force of the blast had established the quantum singularity drive powering the Blood Wing.

Little did the humans know, they wouldn't need a photon torpedo to finish off the warbird, the damage to the engine core would have the same result. Lorral was not about to abandon her dreams of a new empire even though there was little time to reach the escape pods or their transport bays. There was only one place to go really and Lorral gave the order with almost poetic relish.

She was still going to take Chris Larabee's ship, just not in the way he expected.

Chapter Thirteen: Beach Head

"RUN!"

Nathan's sharp order made as soon as it registered what they were seeing had Inez breaking into a sprint. Without needing to be told, if they did not escape immediately, the Romulans were going to kill them where they were standing.

Sure enough, no sooner than the words had left his lips, the Romulans were raising their disruptors to fire, having emerged into the hallway, expecting to encounter Starfleet personnel. Neither Nathan nor Inez could see how many of them there actually were, nor did it matter. That they were on board the Maverick was bad enough. With so many systems down across the ship and sensors either damaged or shut down to conserve what power they had due to the loss of the warp core, it was easy enough for them to transport aboard the Maverick without detection. Especially when the Maverick had no shields to prevent it.

Absurdly, Nathan thought as they ran towards the emergency stairwell, Ezra was going to be pissed.

"STOP THEM!" One of the Romulans shouted as Inez reached the doors first.

She slammed her palm against the panel along the wall amidst the low whine of a disruptor. The first discharge of the weapon sent a green bolt of energy sailing past Nathan's shoulder, impacting against the wall before hissing into the metal. The second shot was followed less than a second later, fired by a different weapon.

The time taken for the doors to open seemed interminably long and indifferent to the urgency of their situation. Inez rushed in as soon as they parted wide enough for her to slip through when she heard Nathan utter a small cry of pain. He stumbled through the doorway, clutching his side as the second shot struck the wall at the end of the corridor. While he had been merely grazed by the discharge, it was enough to sear his flesh through his uniform. Even as he entered the stairwell with her, Inez could smell the charred skin and couldn't even begin to imagine the pain he was fighting to keep moving.

The Romulans were right on their heels in pursuit, determined to end them before they could warn the bridge there were intruders on board the Maverick.

"COMPUTER, SEAL DECK 18 EMERGENCY STAIRWELL - COMMAND AUTHORISATION, LT. COMMANDER NATHAN JACKSON!" Nathan managed to shout.

This would only hinder the Romulans for a matter of minutes. From what he knew of Romulan disruptors, they had no stun setting and set high, they were capable of disintegration, which meant they could cut through the doors. Nathan had no idea how long it would take for that to happen but he knew he and Inez had to get away before that.

The doors slid closed just as the Romulans reached it, with one of the trio firing again. Inez let out a short cry as she pulled Nathan down to avoid it, the blast impacting on the space above her head against the stairwell wall. The Chief Medical Officer went down with a grunt, his face contorted with pain as the Romulans began to fire the weapons at the door. The tritanium alloy was formidable but Nathan did not want to gamble on how long they would hold before the enemy broke through.

"Madre de Dios!" Inez exclaimed as she saw his injury and knew he needed immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, they could not remain where they were and she hauled him to his feet, feeling her stomach clench when she heard him groan in pain. That he was barely coherent with third-degree burns this severe was a miracle in itself. She needed to get him somewhere safe where she could use his own medkit to treat him.

Around them, the ship was continuing to shake and shudder, making their advance up the stairs even slower than ever. They must be almost to the ground, Inez thought when she heard Chris Larabee's warning echoing through all the functioning comm systems on board the Maverick.

"ALL HANDS BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

His voice prompted her to reach for Nathan's combadge because landing on Loren III was suddenly the least of their problems.

"BRIDGE! COME IN!"

******

On the viewscreen, the bridge crew could see the stretch of beach, running for almost a hundred kilometres that would be their landing zone. With nothing but pristine white sand and flanked by vegetation typical of dry, broadleaf forests found in a tropical climate, the strip of beach would allow the Maverick to set down with minimal damage to the already wounded ship. Chris hated to think of what state it would be in after the Maverick set down, because it reminded him of the beaches he and Sarah visited during their honeymoon in the Caribbean, a lifetime ago.

Once they penetrated the odd mustard looking clouds covering Loren III, they were treated to a striking blue sky and a watery sun on a noonday stroll. The atmospheric entry had been rough, with the Maverick suffering enough turbulence for Chris to seriously consider ordering barf bags to be stored under every seat on the bridge. Despite this, Vin was proving why he was the best damn helmsman in the fleet (in Chris's opinion) by his expert piloting skills in bringing down the saucer section for its dangerous landing, using nothing but thrusters.

Vin had levelled his descent to ensure the saucer section reached the ground with minimal damage, determined they would be able to salvage the Maverick when Starfleet arrived.

Leaving Buck at the tactical station, Chris had returned to his command chair while Mary checked on JD, making sure he remained in a state of unconsciousness she was able to use a dermal regenerator on him. Emergency klaxons had fallen strangely silent as if the ship had exhausted the number of warnings it could offer to the crew with only display panels flashing red to indicate their dire circumstances.

"ALL HANDS, BRACE FOR IMPACT!" Chris issued the warning to the rest of the ship as the ground rushed up to meet the Maverick with surprising speed. If they could just get to the ground in one piece, everything might just be alright...

He should have known he was tempting fate.

"BRIDGE COME IN!" A frantic voice cried out almost immediately after he made the announcement.

For a moment, Chris had no idea who that was, although, given the current situation, it was understandable he had difficulty recognising the voice. The shaking and shuddering the Maverick was experiencing made it difficult to hear anything clearly. Even Mary shot him a puzzled look, trying to identify the unfamiliar voice when they heard Buck exclaimed astonished behind them.

"Inez! Is that you?" He demanded, needing to hear her confirm it. In the last twelve months on board the Maverick, the woman never contacted the bridge and certainly not with panic he detected in her voice. It couldn't just be because of their imminent rough landing.

"Buck!" The relief in her voice was apparent. "Buck, we've got Romulans on the ship!"

"WHAT?" Chris jumped to his feet from his chair, meeting Buck's gaze with similar astonishment. "You're shitting me! Romulans?"

Inez sounded as if she was on the move because they could hear her panting as she forced out the words. "Nathan and I are on Deck 18! We saw three of them! One of them shot Nathan!"

"Security," Buck was tapping his combadge. "Get down to Deck 18! We have an intruder alert! There are Romulans on board the ship!"

Not even bothering to ask what Inez and Nathan were doing down there, Chris cursed under his breath for not anticipating the possibility. With their shields destroyed and with very little time to reach life pods on their doomed warbird, it made sense that the Romulans would use transporters to get to the nearest place of safety. Without shields, there was nothing to stop them from invading the Maverick and Chris felt a surge of fury that he was not yet done with Lorral or her splinter group because sure as hell she would be on board.

"Computer, scan ship for Romulan life signs," Chris demanded.

"Unable to comply due to sensor malfunction below Decks 13," the computer refused politely.

"We've taken a beating Chris," Buck said scowling, "we were bound to lose some systems."

"Uh, hate it to break to you Sirs, but you need to sit your asses down right now." Vin suddenly spoke up from the Conn and Chris glanced at the viewscreen and saw they were about ten seconds from touching down. The coastal terrain had almost entirely taken up the space on the view screen and the white sands came into focus with extreme clarity.

"Shit!" Chris cursed out loud, knowing that their landing was about to supersede any action they could take to deal with the intruders on his ship. Sitting down in his command chair, Chris knew there was nothing to be done until they hit the ground. With any luck, the Romulans would be just as distracted by their landing as the rest of the Maverick for the next few minutes.

Mary remained on the floor next to JD, cradling the young man in her arms, the way she would hold Billy, bracing herself against the navigational console in anticipation of their landing. Buck was still standing, a look of conflict on his face. At that moment, Chris realised he was torn between his desire to go to the woman in Deck 18 and his duty to remain on the bridge.

"Inez, we're about to land, find yourself and Nathan someplace to hunker down until security can get to you! The Romulans are going to be tossed around like the rest of us, so finding you might not be their top priority in a matter of seconds." Buck addressed the woman finally, knowing there was nothing else he could do until they landed.

And he hated it.

******

Everything else around Vin Tanner was white noise.

Chris's fury at Romulans on board, Buck's concern for Inez, Mary is care of JD, even Alex and Ezra's absence from the bridge. They existed for him as if he were a creature living a half-life, conscious and yet unconscious of their presence. Unaware he was applying the same discipline all Vulcans used to maintain their logical existence, Vin's mind was a crucible burning away all distractions, leaving him with only one singular purpose.

Making sure his great bird landed safe.

The bond he shared with the Maverick predated his love for Alex, even his friendship with Chris. From the moment Vin became the Officer of the Conn, the Maverick had been unconditionally his. The ship gave him her trust, performed for him when Vin asked the impossible and gave him that extra bit of power when they needed it. No matter what, the Maverick had done everything he had asked of her, and now that she was broken and torn apart, he was not going to abandon her on this forgotten world on the edge of everything.

Entering the atmosphere of Loren III, Vin could feel the ship rattling around him, struggling to hold together as the planet's gravity gripped her hard, determined to plunge the Maverick to earth in a catastrophic freefall. Using all the skill at his disposal, Vin kept the bow of the ship up, determined the saucer section would glide unto the strip of white coast they had chosen for their landing site. Every groan and heave he could hear in her tritanium superstructure made him wince, just as he felt his own skin flayed with every wound against her duranium plated hull.

Fingers moving across the controls faster than any human could manage, every neuron of his formidable Vulcan brain was focused on making their descent as smooth possible. The velocity through the oxygen-rich atmosphere had superheated the hull, even as the alien sky appeared through the window overhead. For the first time in her life, the Maverick had no need of powered lights to illuminate the bridge because daylight flooded its walls.

The viewer was showing their approach to the beach but Vin's eyes were relying on instrumentation instead. Keeping his gaze fixed on their angle of descent, he eased off the thruster control as they neared the ground, hoping the friction of the sand beneath them would provide the ballast they needed to stop. The Maverick was shuddering even harder the closer they neared the beach. Gravity was overcoming their considerable velocity and dragging them to earth like a falling star.

When the Maverick fell to earth, the topmost edge of the bow dug into the beach, creating a tidal wave of sand twice the height of the saucer section. Vin gave one final burst of power to the forward thrusters to lift the nose up before the ship dug past the dunes into the bedrock which would almost certainly crumple the ship's superstructure and make recovery impossible. Behind him, he could hear the breaking of glass and knew the skylight above the tactical station had shattered. He looked over his shoulder long enough to see Buck jumping clear, while Chris who must have been thrown out of his chair on landing, scrambled towards Mary as the shower of glass came down on them.

Upon levelling out against the dunes once more, Vin took the engines offline and let the Maverick's forward momentum run its course. They had chosen this relatively flat coastline in order to avoid any collisions with topographical formations although there was little that could stand up to 4 million tonnes of starship steamrolling across it. A cloud of sand and dust formed around the ship as it continued onwards, the starboard edge of the saucer section demolishing all vegetation in its path.

The violent shudder as the Maverick tore up the beach was almost deafening, while internal wall panels, ceilings, and support beams broke free and tumbled across the bridge. Mary uttered a cry of fright, prompting Chris to throw his body over hers to shield her from flying debris. Meanwhile, Vin glimpsed new fissures forming across the view screen and knew what was coming. Before it shattered spectacularly, he dove beneath the helm station, shielding himself from the spray of deadly glass.

They lost track how long the turbulent journey took, knowing only by the time the hulk of the saucer section came to a gradual stop, it felt as if they had been shaken out of reality. The inside of the bridge, that looked pristine and so elegant little more than an hour ago, now appeared as if someone had set a phaser to overload and then sealed all the doors. There was so much damage, it would have horrified Julia Pemberton to see it. Every display, even the ones still intact was dark and inert as the Maverick came to a stop with a final heave of protest before falling silent.

For a few seconds, after they stopped moving, no one on the bridge could speak.

They were all dazed by the sudden calmness after the maelstrom they had just passed through. Sunlight was pouring in through the broken skylight window above, filtered through tufts of sparse cloud in the blue sky. A mild breeze swept into the space, carrying a hint of salt air to disarm the stench of burnt wires and smoking workstations. The ship was still creaking here and there in the aftermath, like the noises made by a house settling into place. There were other sounds too, alien when hearing it from the bridge of a starship, the sound of trees swaying and the rush of the incoming tide.

Chris lifted himself off Mary, surveying his bridge and feeling his gut knot at the damage. Wiping his chin, he winced at the cut there, the cuff of his blazer catching the smear of blood.

"Is everyone alright?" He asked, searching the wreck of his bridge for his senior officers.

"Yeah," Buck uttered a weary sigh, emerging from the vestibule leading to the Captain's Ready Room, having taken refuge there where the window above the tactical station had shattered. As he stepped out, he was limping a little. "Pissed off but fine."

Who wasn't, after seeing this? Chris thought and turned to Vin.

"Vin?" Chris searched for the Vulcan who was responsible for getting them down in one piece, somehow managing to keep the ship from breaking apart.

The crunch of debris and shifting movement beneath the Conn, saw Vin emerging into the light, wearing his trademark unflappable mask even though everything had literally fallen apart around them.

"I'm alright pard," Vin met Chris's gaze. "Sorry to have messed up your ship."

"It's okay, you can pay it off by working weekends," Chris said with a faint smile, grateful they were still alive and not in the middle of the ocean or worse. Even if they were nowhere out of the woods yet, they were in better shape than they could have been.

Mary, who had been cradled beneath him, finally shifted out of his arms, brushing a strand of golden hair out of her face. She looked rather dishevelled and the dirt against her pale, peach-like complexion felt profane. Shaking her head as if to clear it, she blinked when she took stock of the damage and her expression of dismay mirrored his own scowl at the state of his bridge.

"Oh Chris," she whispered.

"Yeah," he dismissed the sentiment for now because there was still too much to do. "Are you okay?" He had to hear it from her lips for his own peace of mind. He brushed her chin in affection.

"Yes. I'm alright," she tilted her head to plant her lips against his fingers returning his earlier gesture before she turned her attention to JD. The young man was still mercifully unconscious thanks to the hypospray she'd administer to help him cope with the third-degree burns along his arm and shoulder. The heat of it had burnt through his uniform and Chris felt his stomach hollow at the charred flesh he saw beneath it.

"I can use the dermal regenerator on him now the shaking has stopped," Mary said seeing Chris's concern.

"Okay," he nodded and stood up and left her to it because they were nowhere out of trouble yet. Despite the state of his ship and the fact they were still reeling from crash landing on an alien planet, they still had the matter of Romulans to deal with. "Vin, get main power back online now that we've come to a stop."

"Right," Vin nodded, already removing his blazer to use it to protect his hand as he brushed the glass fragments off the helm station and his seat.

"Inez!" Buck was trying to contact the bartender, wanting to know where she was now that they were on the ground. Her lack of answer was almost deafening.

"Midkiff! Come in!" Chris tapped his com badge. "Status."

"We've just set down 50 meters off the Maverick's starboard bow," Alex answered promptly. "Looks like you guys had a hell of a ride."

Instinctively, Vin looked up from the Conn, a little smile crossing his lips at hearing her voice.

"It's not over yet," Chris growled, not about to underestimate how quickly Lorral could mobilise her people while running loose on his ship. "Apparently the Romulans beamed over before their ship was destroyed. They're currently on Deck 18. We've sent security down there but internal sensors are malfunctioning, we can't get a fix on how many there are."

"Pray tell you are joking," Ezra's voice followed suit with horror. "Do you mean to tell me we have Romulans roaming the saucer section?"

"Yes!" Buck exclaimed, the lack of response from Inez deepening his worry. The panic in her voice before they made their crash landing was branded on his mind and he didn't want to think what might have happened to her since. "Inez and Nathan already ran into them. Alex, use the Midkiff's sensors and scan the ship for Romulan life signs!"

"Way ahead of you Commander," the Science Officer returned from the cockpit of the runabout.

"Captain, I shall use the transporter on the Midkiff to beam directly to the Maverick," Ezra declared, not wanting to be anywhere else if there were intruders on board.

"You better," Alex's replied soon after with a tone to her voice that sent a chill through Chris's spine, "because I'm reading at least twenty of them."

Chapter Fourteen: The Romulan Way

".... hunker down until security can get to you! The Romulans are going to be tossed around like the rest of us, so finding you might not be their top priority in a matter of minutes."

"That does not fill me with much confidence, Senor Wilmington," Inez grumbled under her breath after Buck Wilmington offered her that sagely bit of advice. It didn't seem terribly helpful right now as she helped Nathan up the metal staircase, leading to Deck 17.

The dimly lit stairwell was seldom used because most civilians and guests preferred to use the turbo lifts while engineering and maintenance crew preferred to use the Jefferies tubes. The switchback stairs led the way up to Deck 2 and while her first impulse was to get Nathan to his Sick Bay which was located there, she didn't think he could stand to make the trip. As it was, she could hear his painful groans with each shudder of the ship with every step they took. Worst of all, she was using every ounce of strength she possessed to keep him on his feet.

Despite Buck's claims to the contrary, Inez didn't think the Romulan would desist in their pursuit, even as the Maverick neared its landing on Loren III. Considering they beamed aboard in secret, Inez was convinced they would want to make sure she and Nathan were silenced before alerting the bridge or anyone else for that matter. She wondered if Nathan was right and whether or not they had begun attempting to cut through the tritanium door.

"Aren't you sorry you didn't stay in Sick Bay now?" He managed to say as they reached the doors to Deck 17 with Inez reaching out with one hand to activate the panel.

"You needed help," she insisted, feeling chagrined because even in their crisis situation, the excuse sounded weak.

"Oh, come on," Nathan grumbled as the door slid open and they both stumbled in. "It's not like you're the first woman to fall for Buck."

"I am not falling for Buck!" Inez snapped indignantly, even if she knew it was a little bit of a lie. Last year, he had become a good friend who helped her through her grief of losing Raphael. Of course, she would develop some affection for him but certainly not what Nathan was suggesting. "You should stop talking, save your strength."

"I'm talking to ignore the pain," Nathan replied before he repeated the order to seal the doors again. "Besides, you're not just another conquest to him..."

Naturally, before Inez could ask him what he meant, the Maverick chose that moment to finally touch down.

The impact of the landing made the previous chaos pale in comparison. It felt as if they were caught in a magnitude ten earthquakes with the entire ship heaving like it was about to tear itself apart. The powerful quake was accompanied by an equally deafening roar until all other sound drained from their ears as they were both thrown forward violently.

Inez lost her grip of Nathan as she went tumbling across the floor, her mind grasping it only when she no longer felt the contact of his skin. For a moment, the world was a whirling dervish of colour before she landed hard on her shoulder, feeling the pain flare up along her arm until it resonated in her teeth. Even then, the shuddering didn't cease, merely lessen in intensity as she lay there, dazed. Only when she glimpsed Nathan's body against the deck, did her senses return and she stumbled to her feet, the urgent memories crowding in on her.

Nathan needed help and the Romulans were still coming.

As the ship began its slide across the beach, the corridor rattled around them. Inez got to her feet and discarded the sweater she was wearing, feeling it cumbersome. She had a feeling with the exertions she was about to undertake, she would need the freedom of movement and the black bodysuit that ended with a tank top, would suffice. With that bit of liberation achieved, she went to get Nathan. He was a little behind her, lying on his back, his face a grimace of pain. It was bad enough he was wounded from a disruptor beam, he didn't need further injuries to exacerbate his condition.

"Come on Doctor," Inez bent down to help him to his feet, "we need to keep moving. We need to find somewhere to hide before the Romulans find us."

"No kidding," he grunted and tried to keep up with her.

It was a struggle to remain on her feet when the ship was continuing its jerky slide across the ground. She had no doubt that if she had regained her composure enough to move, she was certain the Romulans would be quicker to recover. Besides, if the Romulans were anything like the Vulcans in terms in physiology, they would have stamina like Vin Tanner, which meant she had better move her ass.

"I'm slowing you down," Nathan groaned as she took the arm of his uninjured side and hauled him to his feet again. "You ought to leave me and find a place to hide."

"Oh, that's going to happen," Inez snorted in sarcasm as she slid his arm around her shoulder and forced him to stand. "You're not getting out of your proposal to Rain that easily. Besides, if she finds out I left you, I'll find myself transported to the bridge, naked."

Was it less than a day ago, they were talking about that at Four Corners, Nathan thought through the red haze of pain coursing through his body with every step he took. Romulan disruptors were serious weapons, with only one purpose, to kill. While a high setting would have disintegrated him, a low setting was almost as bad, known to make organs explode beneath the skin before death. Despite the agony, he was presently enduring, Nathan knew he was lucky to be alive, even after being grazed by one of those damn things. Still, his healer's instinct overrode his own safety for hers.

"I'm not any good to you like this," he complained, trying to use the pain to give him some clarity, even though it was so overwhelming, it threatened to take over his senses completely.

"I am not letting anything happen to you," Inez said resolutely, trying to remember what was on Deck 17. None of the information panels running along the length of the walls were functioning or intact for that matter. "What's on this deck anyway?"

"Crew quarters and the arboretum," Nathan managed to say before he was struck with a bit of inspiration if she was so determined not to let him go. "Get to the Arboretum!"

They were having this conversation while the ship was still making its bumpy ride across the surface of Loren III. Inez was somehow managing to keep them moving even though the ship was literally being shaken apart around them. Displays were cracking along the walls, while panelling came loose. The corridor was becoming increasingly covered with debris with each passing second. Furthermore, it seemed main power had been disengaged because the lights had dimmed with only emergency power keeping the corridors illuminated.

The size of the arboretum meant Inez saw its entrance almost immediately. Taking Nathan's lead because he was the Starfleet officer, she helped him to its doorway while trying to maintain her footing across the moving deck beneath her. Reaching the door, she activated the panel and stepped into the wide space of the arboretum.

The arboretum shared the entire deck with crew quarters and was large enough to be the size of a small park in any city or settlement. It came complete with simulated sunlight, a sizeable pond, real life grass and enough variety of exotic flora to occupy any botanist. Cherry trees, Antarian Willow Spreads, Klingon Fire Blooms stood majestically across the garden, inviting the crew to sit beneath their leaves under better circumstances. A section of the space was also reserved for the Life Science Department, with research areas for botany, hydroponics and geology personnel.

Sadly, like the rest of the Maverick, the arboretum was not spared the damage of their landing. Benches were tipped over, there were fissures in the lawn, revealing soil and the deck beneath. The leaves of all trees seemed to be trembling in fright, appearing as if they might actually be torn out of the dirt and uprooted.

"Where are we headed?" Inez asked Nathan since this was his idea.

"There's a maintenance access at that far wall," he gestured towards the other side of the greenery where there was a three-foot-high wall of hydrangeas. "Get me there."

"What do you want to do?" Inez asked as they took the pebbled pathway through the grass, stumbling past the pond whose normally calm waters were rippling so badly, it was splashing in all directions.

"We need to get out of sight," Nathan remarked, beads of sweat forming on his skin not just because of their exertions but also because the environmental controls were offline and the place felt hot and humid from lack of temperature regulation. Right now, auxiliary power was being used sparingly with the emergency systems only interested in maintaining the bare minimum of life support.

As they crossed the space, the fixtures providing the artificial sunlight were shattering overhead, causing fragments to rain across the grass. The arboretum became bathed in near darkness and it was only Nathan's memory of the ship specs that allowed him to direct her to the hatch. After that whole business with the Accrans taking over the ship, Nathan made it a point to become a bit more familiar with the Maverick's technical aspects.

The hatch was right where he said it would be, hidden behind the Rigellian hydrangeas. Inez lowered Nathan to the floor as she went to work on getting it open. The space inside was wide enough for both of them to fit in a crouch and was a good place for them to sit out the current situation and labyrinthian enough for them to hide in it.

"Andale!" She ushered him in first once the hatch was open.

"Oh, this looks fun," Nathan winced as he was forced into the opening, having to crawl in on his own and forced to suffer his injuries most acutely as he moved awkwardly along the length of the passage. "Every time there's a crisis on this ship, I'm either crawling or climbing. This doesn't feel the same without Rain. I wish she were here."

"I wish she were here too," Inez said rolling her eyes.

No sooner than his feet had disappeared through the opening, the ship came to an abrupt halt. It happened so quickly and suddenly, Inez stumbled backwards, falling through the hedge and getting scratched and scraped in the process by branches and twigs. Landing on the lawn on the other side, it was at that moment the door to the arboretum chose to slide open to allow the entry of a Romulan legionnaire.

Each had about a second to register each other before he raised his arm to fire his disruptor and Inez scrambled to her feet and started running. Leaping across a downed bench, she headed towards the Life Sciences Department, hoping to lead him away from Nathan. The disruptor blast struck an Australian gum tree and immediately ignited its dry leaves.

As she ran for dear life, she only hoped Nathan had sense enough to hide away.

*******

To create an empire, it was not enough to simply have a vision, one needed a plan.

For Lorral, who was first of the Tal Shiar and now poised to become the Ruling Queen of the Vriha, the plan to establish a new Romulan Empire was seeded the instant the Praetor chose to ally with the Federation to fight the Dominion. While the Praetor and the Senate considered this a necessary evil, to many of those whose family line had served the Empire since its creation, whose members had died fighting the Federation and the Klingon varools, it was inconceivable.

Cultivating their growing resentment, Lorral had been given an unexpected gift in the detonation of the Hobus star and its effects upon home territory. Broken and bleeding, what remained of the Senate had appealed to the Federation, no doubt forced to swallow whatever conditions were required to gain Starfleet's assistance. For the ancient houses like her own, it was too much. When she told them of her intention to begin anew, as S'Task had left Vulcan nearly two millennia before, they were more than eager to follow her.

The loss of the four warbirds stung but it was merely a setback, nothing more. The others were coming and she was not going to let the Maverick stand in their way.

While Lorral would have preferred to arrive on board the Maverick with more of her crew than the twenty that were able to transport off the Blood Wing before that ship met its end, she was confident about their chances of taking the ship. The chess game she was playing with Chris Larabee was far from done. While the queen was on the board, there was a chance to take the game.

Lorral had survived the petty intrigues of the Romulan High Command by always planning ahead. When the facility at Riga 3 was discovered, she had not wasted time remaining behind to be the Praetor's scapegoat. Of course, he knew exactly what had transpired there, but he was answerable to the Senate and to save his own skin, he'd sacrificed her and the Tal Shiar. Before the Maverick had even left Romulan space, Lorral was already on a transport to Breen, safely out of reach of the purges that followed.

Although, she had to admit she would have like to have discovered who or what had torn apart her soldiers in the woods of Riga 3.

In any case, the instant the Maverick's shields had lowered during their battle, she'd wisely ordered her trusted lieutenant to begin a comprehensive scan of the galaxy class starship. By the time she transported to it, she had committed the ship's internal layout and schematics to memory. Since Chris Larabee had destroyed her ship, she only felt it fitting she take his.

*******

"Commander! They've restored main power." Centurion Fawlar lifted his dark eyes to her as Lorral approached him at the transporter controls in Cargo Bay 3. When transporting to the Maverick, they selected this particular cargo bay because it had a transporter pad of its own, independent from the main transport rooms throughout the rest of the ship.

"Be prepared to face resistance," she barked at the ranking legionnaire in the group presently congregated in the corridor of Deck 18. "It is safe to assume the two who have escape have notified the bridge. Their security will be coming."

Five legionnaires, armed with an assortment of disruptors and disruptor rifles, stood vigilant in the hallway, preparing themselves for the arrival of the Maverick's security team. Lorral waved the rest of them over to her and Fawlar. They entered the cargo bay similarly armed, awaiting their next orders.

"I have locked out bridge control to this transporter pad," Fawlar informed her dutifully. "They'll attempt to do the same to us, the minute we transport."

"Good," she nodded in approval, patting his arm in thanks. Fawlar had served with her father during his years in the Tal Shiar and had sworn fealty to her during their assignment on Riga 3. When she had fled that world following discovery, she'd ensured he was with her, saving him from the fate suffered by all other high-ranking soldiers involved with the project. "Let us not waste any time. I want our people on their bridge, Sick Bay, shuttle bay and in their secondary engineering deck."

"Lieutenant," she regarded the young woman standing behind Fawlar who the newest member of their triumvirate had been, since Riga. She was a true believer in the cause and had become something of a protege. Fiercely loyal, Selena's ruthlessness showed great potential. Like all Romulans, the customary dark bangs were starting to grow out now they were no longer bound by the Empire's rules. While her features were severe, she was still considered attractive with her upswept brows and indigo eyes.

"Yes Commander," Selena circled Fawlar to pause directly in front of Lorral.

"You will take Deck 2 where their Sick Bay is located. No doubt, the greatest concentration of civilians will be in this area. You must do this quickly. I believe their medical facilities usually have a power system independent of the main engines, so they may be still capable of erecting emergency force fields. You must take the deck before that happens. Our ability to bargain depends on how many hostages we have. Nothing cripples Starfleet officers faster than threats to civilians. Their sentimental sense of heroics will be their undoing."

"Send Selena's team first," Lorral ordered the Centurion as Selena was barking orders at the legionnaires who would be joining her in the mission to take Deck 2. Turning back to Fawlar, Lorral continued to issue orders. "You will take the bridge. Kill the entire command staff."

Fawlar rose a brow at that. It made sense of course. During a battle, the entire senior staff would undoubtedly be on the bridge. Removing them from the equation made the business of negotiating a far simpler exercise. However, by the same token, the Captain could be a valuable hostage as well.

"You do not wish us to take the Captain alive?"

"No," Lorral said firmly, her voice cold as the vacuum of space. "I will take no chances with Captain Larabee. He is proving far too dangerous to keep alive. If we plan to move in this sector, it is most likely Larabee we will have to deal with. I do not relish facing a man in possession of Starfleet idealism and Romulan ruthlessness when we build our new empire. Best to deal with him now before he impedes our plans any further."

Fawlar could not disagree with that. He did not think it possible for any Starfleet captain to use a warp core reactor as a weapon, nor would he believe one would risk a runabout to take down the Blood Wings shields. Such extremes made for a very dangerous opponent.

"Besides," Lorral's eyes narrowed in clear hatred, ""he needs to be held accountable for the destruction of the Talon, S'task and the Rihan. "

Fawlar's jaw tightened and his hawkish features showed his anger in a dark scowl. As her second, Fawlar had interacted with the sub-commanders of those ships more frequently than Lorral herself. He knew them personally and professionally, prior to their enlistment in their new cause. Losing all of them affected him greatly and while he was typically Romulan in his ability to set aside personal vengeance, it did not mean he was immune to it either. Lorral was correct, Larabee had to be made accountable for those deaths.

"It will be done."

Chapter Fifteen: Civilians

It was astonishing how quickly Fate could put things in perspective.

Twenty-four hours ago, Josiah Sanchez had sat in his office, contemplating the possibility of leaving the Maverick for good, because his daughter Mara had appealed for him to return home since he was going to be a grandfather. Naturally, the idea of being a grandparent thrilled him, but the last year had renewed Josiah's sense of purpose and allowed him to challenge his limitations for the first time in thirty years. It was a decision Josiah was still wrestling with when the Maverick was called away from DS5 to answer the distress signal from the survey ship, Columbus.

The mission seemed routine enough until the last hour. The ship had come under attack and it became clear, this fight would be just as bloody as the one the Maverick faced with the Dominion. Emerging from his office, he had gone to Sick Bay to lend his assistance, aware in such battles, there would soon be a deluge of casualties, and he preferred to be busy instead of twiddling his thumbs with worry for himself and his friends.

Over the past twelve months, the mental health of everyone on board had become Josiah's responsibility and try as he might, he simply wasn't capable of keeping them at arm's length. As he and Nathan had reminded each other on numerous occasions, professional detachment wasn't just to protect patients, it was to protect doctors too. But when one lived on a starship, which felt like a small community, it was impossible to maintain that distance. They weren't just facing he saw every day but people he counted as his friends.

And if his friends were hurt, he wanted to be there to help them.

It was a decision with mixed blessings when the shields were lost. With nothing to prevent disruptor bombardment from breaching the hull, the number of casualties escalated beyond all expectation. The injured were brought into Sick Bay were suffering wounds ranging from severe trauma by the violent shaking of the ship, to burns ranging from mild to severe from the overloaded systems. A particularly nasty plasma fire had erupted in the deuterium storage area on Deck 27, resulting in extreme burns for those who'd been caught in its fiery embrace.

As the battle continued, the casualties flooded into Sick Bay and suddenly Josiah was offering more than comfort, he was playing the part of the first-aid volunteer. Helping the medical team set up emergency cots within every inch of free space in Sick Bay, it soon became apparent the number of injured exceeded its capacity, and soon they were treating people in the outside hallways and along corridors. The Maverick was doing a valiant job to stay ahead of the four warbirds but Josiah learned from Nathan that warbirds were designed to do combat with galaxy class starships. One was manageable but four? They were outnumbered and outgunned.

Nevertheless, when the ship initiated saucer section separation, Josiah found himself taking the lead ensuring all crew were evacuated to the designated areas and families occupying quarters in the stardrive section were given a safe place to wait out the battle. At the same time, the children still on board were assigned guardians to keep them safe since their parents were most likely on duty during battle stations. Throughout the chaos, Josiah did his best to soothe frayed nerves in the quiet, unassuming tone that was so much of his bedside manner.

He noticed the woman in the aftermath of the saucer section separation. Once he caught sight of her, she was difficult to ignore. Dressed in showy clothes, with a head of snow white hair styled attractively, the woman may have been in her sixties but she was still stunning. She was seated on the floor, with her back against a wall next to the cot they had placed Ensign Yanek who had been administered painkillers and was awaiting medical treatment.

Josiah's stomach hollowed seeing the young woman's injuries, the burns beneath the rips in her charred uniform appeared to be the result of a plasma fire and the splatters of blood that came from a wound he could not seem to see. Ensign Yanek had been on board for less than a month and he winced noticing her long brown hair had been singed almost to her scalp on one side of her ruined face. From where he stood, he could smell the gagging scent of it.

Nevertheless, the older woman sat next to her, holding Yanek's small hand, wearing a look of profound grief and yet through her pain, she was singing.

No one you can save that can't be saved

Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time

It's easy

All you need is love, all you need is love

All you need is love, love, love is all you need

All you need is love

Josiah recognised the classic song and it was one of his favourites. She sung it in perfect pitch, revealing she was someone who knew how to use her voice. Yanek was slowly fading away and Josiah knew it wasn't the drugs taking her in the darkness, it was something deeper and more permanent.

Grace Yanek died with a sad smile and Josiah saw the woman's shoulder sag when the girl's grip of her hand loosened and fell away. The lady stood up, her hand covering her face as she stepped away from Yanek in clear anguish. Josiah felt her pain screaming for him, tugging at his healer's instincts to help.

"You look like you could use a minute to catch your breath," he said gently.

She raised her chin and Josiah saw himself staring into blue-grey eyes that seemed very familiar.

"Her mother used to sing to her," Adelaide Sheridan said unable to look at the child she had so shamelessly manipulated to stay on board the Maverick. "I used to do the same to my Marigold when she was little."

"Come on," Josiah led her away from the hall as he spotted Nathan and Inez stepping out of Sick Bay. Not wanting to be interrupted by the healer, Josiah led her farther down the hall as one of the nurses pulled a blanket over Yanek's face.

She did not argue when he led her to a relatively quiet space further along the deck. The woman was on the verge of tears and Josiah's natural empathy told him she would prefer to do it in privacy.

"I thought I knew everyone on this ship," Josiah commented gently. "Did you come on board recently?"

Adelaide did not look at him for a moment, feeling it deeply to see that child pass away from the world. Was it only a day ago, she had spoken to the girl? Adelaide had not been in a situation where someone was alive one minute and dead the other for a very long time. She composed herself with the practised perfection that came with life on the stage. Wiping away the moisture from her eyes, she faced him again.

"I did," she nodded. "I'm Adelaide Travis."

Somehow, it didn't feel right to use her professional name when she thought of her Marigold, presently on the bridge, living this life she couldn't fathom, where death surrounded her at every turn. More than anything at that moment, Adelaide wanted to feel like her mother, not the personality everyone in the world outside Starfleet celebrated.

Travis? Josiah's eyes widened and then realised why those eyes looked so familiar. How many times had Josiah sat across a table in Four Corners or at a briefing, regarding those blue grey eyes that so captured the Captain's heart?

"You're Mary's mother?"

"Yes, I am. I came on board at Deep Space 5 to see her. Do you know my Marigold?"

Josiah's brows disappeared into his hairline. "Marigold?" He almost smiled but held it. He'd have to ask Mary about that later. "Yes I know Mary," he said quickly. "She's a good friend."

"I'm glad she has them," Adelaide said with a sigh. "I was worried after she married that Vulcan, she would no longer any."

That was a strange thing to fear, Josiah thought and then supposed to a human, the Vulcans rigid way of life might make them think that way. Cold logic didn't lend itself well to cultivating friendships, although Josiah knew many Vulcans who did enjoyed relationships with other races, it was just the way they expressed those feelings that differed to most.

"Well if it helps," Josiah spoke to allay the lady's fears, sensing that this was a matter of real concern for her. "Mary is happy here. I couldn't imagine the Maverick without her or Billy. She has good friends around her, myself included, and a sense of purpose."

Josiah did not add anything about Mary's relationship with the Captain, since he was unaware if the subject had been discussed with her mother and it was not his place to make the revelation.

It was a testament to the constancy of the turbulence wracking the Maverick since its entry into the battle that Josiah had started to become accustomed to it. It didn't take long for him to receive a swift kick in his reality when the ship suddenly lurched so powerfully, Josiah was startled into remembering the ship's current situation during his efforts to counsel Adelaide Travis.

With no warning whatsoever, the deck they were standing on dipped sharply at a nearly 45 degree downward angle, sending them careening across the corridor they were standing in, towards the wall. Screams of panic and fear wailed through the air from the direction of Sick Bay as portable cots, equipment and other loose items from medical went tumbling down the new slope. Josiah covered Adelaide's body with his own, protecting her from the barrage of objects that went flying through the air.

"What's happening?" Adelaide cried out in fright, not at all accustomed to being in a situation like this. Normally, her travels across the galaxy were made on luxurious passenger cruisers, not starships that could be called onto engage in combat at any time. Not for the first time today, she began to regret her decision to remain on board and was further horrified by the possibility this kind of danger, may be a regular occurrence for Marigold and her grandson.

Josiah did not answer at once but he glanced at the window directly across from them and took stock of the situation. Aside from the crack he could see forming at the corner of the plexiglass plate, Josiah noticed they were travelling in a downward trajectory their gravity stabilisers were unable to compensate for.

Pushing off from the wall, he stumbled to the window and looked out, realising very quickly he had better not stay there if the window decided to shatter. Furthermore, if it did go while they were in space, what carnage they had seen so far in Sick Bay would pale in comparison with the explosive decompression that followed. Everyone had to get out of this hallway and fast.

The Counsellor remained long enough to see the Maverick's bow surging in a slant towards the planet that was growing larger and larger in the window. The pigeon blue hull of the ship was glowing with amber heat of the atmospheric shielding as it penetrated the planet's ozone. They were going down and they were going down fast.

Staggering back to Adelaide, he took the lady's hand firm and started pulling her up the hallway towards Sick Bay. "We've got to get to Sick Bay or out of this corridor!"

"Why what's happening?" She asked, her eyes wide with fear.

As Josiah looked over his shoulder once more to see Loren III awaiting to swallow them whole, through the window, he said grimly. "We're about to make planet fall."

******

TEN MINUTES LATER

A short time after Josiah Sanchez and Adelaide Sheridan rode the Maverick down to Loren III and were encountering problems of their own, Inez was still trying to escape the Romulan who had discovered her in the arboretum. Leaving the oasis behind her, she had taken the first set of doors into the hallway beyond, running at top speed. She knew he wouldn't be far behind her and decided her only hope was to hide. Surely if they intended to take the ship, they wouldn't waste time with her?

Even before she heard the hiss of the arboretum doors behind her, Inez was heading towards one of the crew quarters, intending to lose herself in its confines. During the battle, when the ship had lost its shields and was in danger of suffering multiple hull breaches, civilians and non-essential crew had been evacuated from the outer sections and moved to the central locations of the ship. Fortunately the crew quarters on Deck 17 were some of these and she could ensure she wouldn't be endangering anyone else by taking refuge in them.

Entering the living space of a crew member she would apologise to later for violating their privacy, assuming she survived long enough, the room she entered had come through their terrestrial landing in predictable shambles. Furniture was upended with tables, chairs and a sofa strewn about the room haphazardly while the floor was covered with belongings ranging from picture frames, knickknacks, entertainment equipment, a shattered hydrangea plant and an oboe.

Absurdly, she wondered who on board was hiding that particular talent.

However, it was the window Inez found of more interest. Hearing the footsteps running down the hallway outside, Inez wasted no time hurrying to the large window that normally protected the room from the vacuum of space. Only now, it afforded a picturesque view of the world outside. The plexiglass had not survived the hard landing and Inez felt the breeze in her hair from the wind outside. Wasting no time, she ran towards it as the door opened behind her.

She didn't need to look to know the Romulan was there when she scrambled through the window as he fired again from the open door. This time, the disruptor shot was partially successful as the bolt grazed her bare shoulder. Inez let out a scream as searing pain coursed through her consciousness. The agony of it made her stumble onto the hull, barely aware she was out in the open, with Loren III's sun blazing down on her as she gasped out loud, sucking in the ocean air.

Mi amor, get up! She imagined Raphael's strong voice in her head telling her to get to her feet. You're stronger than this Mi amor! You're not going to be killed by a Romulan today!

Inez gritted her teeth and forced herself to ignore the pain, aware she had to keep moving if she wanted to survive the next few minutes. The Romulan would no doubt be coming. Still half dazed from pain, Inez clutched her injured shoulder and realised she could actually see the bridge from where she was standing.

The saucer section of the Maverick was half-submerged into the sandy beach, flanked by forest and ocean. She had emerged almost at its edge and realised she was within sight of the bridge! Gritting her teeth, Inez started running again, grateful she spent all that time on a treadmill in the ship's gymnasium because it felt like she was climbing up a rather steep hill. Each step along the hull felt like agony and she wished she had a combadge to tell them she was coming.

Looking over her shoulder, Inez saw the Romulan sticking his head through the window, his cruel eyes searching the hull for her. It took him less than a second to spot her before he was climbing out of the window to come after her. Running harder than she had ever done before, every step Inez took made her sob with agony. She looked at the burnt flesh on her arm and knew she was barely nicked. Nathan had been hurt worse than this. However, had he managed it? Suddenly she felt a pang of fear for the healer and prayed to God he was safe.

Despite the situation, it felt surreal running over the hull like this. Normally, this was a view of the ship, one could only see while wearing an enviro suit during a walk in space. It felt very strange to see it like this and hated that the current state the Maverick was in. This ship had become her home this last year, the people in it, her friends. It felt profane to see the great lady cast down like this.

Another disruptor bolt shot past her, this one missed her leg by a fraction, and Inez could feel the heat of it against her thigh. It hit the ground in front of her, sending sparks scattering across the hull, while the salt air was tainted by the stench of superheated duranium. She didn't dare turn around but knew the next shot was not going to miss. She knew he had to land his shot before she made it over the curve of the hull or risked losing his line of sight.

"STOP!" He shouted in warning, perhaps hoping she would stop and he could dispense with the inconvenience of a chase. Inez ignored him, refusing to give up. She forced herself to run, gritting her teeth as she moved, focussed only on making it over that slope. Once she made it there, she could reach the bridge where the Captain and Buck was. Legs protesting at the exertion, fear and adrenaline drove her over the crest.

The Romulan fired and this time the bolt of energy struck her thigh. Centre, side, it didn't matter because it brought her down just the same.

Inez uttered a short cry as agony descended over her like a curtain over her mind. She was conscious of stumbling forward, her hands flailing in front of her, in a vain attempt to brace her fall. She rolled across the hull, groaning in pain, her body doubled up, her eyes clamped shut as she was wracked in waves of searing agony. Turning her head in her stupor of pain, she saw the Romulan approaching her, a satisfied look on his face as he closed in, preparing to finish her off.

"Why don't you pick on someone your own size, you Romulan ptakh?"

Inez blinked and saw Alexandra Styles stepping forward from the other side of the crest, armed with a phase rifle. That remark was all the warning the Romulan received before she pulled the trigger and a streak of amber energy struck the legionnaire dead centre. He uttered a half scream before disintegrating into nothingness.

Alex had been in the Midkiff, preparing to transport herself to the bridge, having already done the same for Ezra Standish, when she sighted Inez emerging from one of the windows on the Maverick's outer hull. Upon sighting the Romulan, she altered her transport destination to put herself as close to Inez as she could manage, to help the bartender.

"You know," Alex said to her with an unrepentant smile, "I was sure I had my rifle on stun."

Chapter Sixteen: Boarding Parties

"Here," Vin handed Chris the phase rifle after the Captain gave the order to break out the weapons following Alex's declaration the Maverick had been boarded by no less than twenty Romulans.

The weapons locker, located behind one of the wall panels on the bridge, contained a small cache of phase rifles and hand phasers for the rare occasions the bridge was under threat. Upon raiding the cache and distributing amongst the remaining bridge officers, sans Ezra who was already armed when he was transported onto the bridge from the Midkiff. Meanwhile Buck and Mary, once armed, helped JD into the Captain's Ready Room so Mary could finally administer some treatment to the young ensign's injuries. If by any chance the fighting did reach the bridge, JD would at least be beyond the line of fire.

Chris took the weapon from Vin without looking at the Vulcan, focused instead on raising Engineering. At the moment, the Maverick was blind without the internal sensors and with Romulans on board, they needed to know where the enemy was. Even with the turbo lifts offline and the only means of getting through decks, was by Jefferies tubes and emergency stairwells, there was no reason to assume the Romulans would be held back by those limitations. Especially when the ship was now on the ground and it was easy enough to get to other decks by simply walking on the outer hull.

In the background, Chris could hear Ezra barking orders to one of his security team, sensing frustration in the man's voice because he hated the idea of Romulans on the Maverick even more than Chris did. With shipboard communications still functioning sporadically, they'd been forced to use their combadges to coordinate their response to the Romulan threat, which was fraying Ezra's nerves even further.

"Yes, you heard me, Romulans! They are presently on Deck 18 but I imagine they will not remain there for long. They may not be able to leave the deck utilising turbo lifts, but they have access to the emergency stairwells and they may decide it is simply easier to emerge onto the outer hull and access the other decks in that way. I want at least one team on the outer hull immediately. The rest of you, get to Transporter Room 1, the impulse engines have been initialized so you will have power to transport. I want teams stationed at Sick Bay, at secondary engineering and the shuttle bays. They may try to reach the shuttles."

"Engineering here. Captain, it is good to hear your voice." Julia Pemberton finally responded.

Chris saw Ezra's gaze wavering from the conversation he was having with Katovit long enough to show his relief at her welfare. "Julia, what's our status?"

"Our impulse drive is fully functional," she spoke, prepared to provide the Captain with a full report. "We have partial sensors due to the physical damage of the receivers. The turbo lifts on all decks are offline and I've got Chanu working to restore ship's communications. Several EPS conduits have short circuited, a third of our power relays have burnt out and we have several breaches on the outer hull of the saucer section. I'm about to send repair crews to deal with them. The transporters are functional but I recommend we limit our use because the power drain is going to be considerable. The impulse drive is nowhere near the level of the warp core for energy output."

"Understood," Chris replied, taking in the information before responding, "Julia, standby on sending any repair crews out at present. Conduct what repairs you can from engineering. We've got an intruder alert. Twenty Romulans boarded the Maverick before their ship was destroyed."

"Oh, I hate hitchhikers," she grumbled. "Alright Captain, we'll stay inside and keep the doors locked."

"Thank you," Chris couldn't help but smile at her quirky sense of humour. Then again, hadn't she been the same during their battle with the Borg over Earth? Even though everything was falling apart around them on board the Rutherford, she had managed to maintain her sunny disposition despite the fact they were all moments away from death. Julia had assumed command over engineering even though she was a junior, holding that ship together long enough for the Rutherford to fight one last glorious battle.

"Julia, I want you to focus your repair efforts on restoring our security force fields and internal sensors. We need to see where those Romulans are and if possible keep them penned in. The last thing we need right now is to get into a firefight with those assholes in the condition we're in."

"I second that Captain," Julia agreed. "Don't worry, I'll take care of it myself."

"And make sure you're armed," Chris added. "If the Romulans are smart, they'll try and take over key areas of the ship, which means they might be headed your way. Just because they can't use the turbo lifts, doesn't mean they can't get to you. We're on the surface now, they can literally get out and knock on your window."

"Don't worry, I'll hit them with my purse," she quipped. "Engineering out."

"Chris," Vin stated once the Captain finished his conversation with Engineering. "We can get out through your Ready Room window and make it across the hull to Deck 18. If we can deal with them there, we may be able to stop them from reaching the rest of the ship."

"I concur with Lieutenant Tanner," Ezra agreed. "We do not have time to wait for Engineering to restore our security systems in that area. No doubt, the Romulans are doing the same. By now, they would either be attempting to access the other decks through the emergency stairwells or across the hull like we are intending to do. We cannot allow them to reach any of the transporters..."

Suddenly his voice trailed off as a very ugly realisation struck him.

Both Chris and Vin recognised the gleam in his eyes. "What?" Chris demanded, his grip around the phase rifle tightening.

"Oh shit!" Vin caught on before the captain could, realising what had just dawned on Ezra. "Cargo Bay 3 has its own transporter!"

Vin remembered this most clearly because during the incident with the Accrans where the alien entities had taken the bridge, he, Ezra and Rain had attempted to reach the Captain and the others held hostage, by using the transporter in Cargo Bay 3.

The same Cargo Bay 3 on Deck 18, presently occupied by Romulans.

No sooner than the possibility flashed in their minds, Ezra's tactical station emitted a loud, audible trill, full of urgency. The Security Chief's eyes shifted immediately to the display and what he saw resulted in a corresponding clench of his jaw which bode well for no one. Without speaking, because there was simply no time for it, Ezra's hands, so deft at shuffling cards, were now employed in a more urgent purpose as he tried to circumvent what he was seeing on his console with lightning fast reflexes.

"Ezra, what the hell?" Chris demanded impatiently, even though he suspected their worst fears, slow as they had been to realise it, was confirmed.

"The Romulans are accessing the transporters on Cargo Bay 3! I am attempting to lock them out." Ezra snapped hastily.

"Where are they going?" Vin asked, turning away from the Security Chief, his cobalt coloured eyes scanning the bridge in case the bastards decided to show up here.

"Sick Bay!" Ezra snapped. "Damn! They have managed to lock me out."

Chris swore and tapped his badge. "Security! This is the Captain, proceed immediately to Sick Bay. Repeat, proceed immediately to Sick Bay!" Then realising who was down there, tapped it again. "Josiah come in?"

He didn't get an answer, nor did he have time to repeat himself because no sooner than he had spoken, the low hum of a transporter beam filled the air. Chris swung around to see the silhouette of at least six figures appearing on the bridge, at the space where the viewer had stood. Even as their patterns began to form, he could see them aiming disruptors in preparation to fire. Chris had no idea whether they had been stupid enough to fire in transit to compensate for the two second delay between their pattern forming and their reanimation, but it was just the kind of ruthless behaviour he expected from the race.

"Julia! Shut down power to Transporter 3 now!" Chris ordered, putting a stop to any more transports by the Romulans. They might be able to lock Ezra out of its controls but they had no power to stop Julia from shutting down the system entirely.

"Chris!"

Chris was aware of Vin jumping to push him out of the way of a disruptor bolt. It struck the back of his command chair as both men fell behind the Conn when the Romulans materialised, having discharged their weapons in transit to emerge firing. It was an extremely dangerous stunt, as there was no telling what a disruptor bolt would do in the pattern buffer but supposed the Romulans wanted to leave nothing to chance. Behind them, the whine of a phaser was heard as Ezra fired from his station at tactical.

The Security Chief had taken refuge behind his console, providing a barrage of phaser fire to allow Chris and Vin to get clear, since they were somewhat in the open. The Conn provided little or not cover for them and Vin found himself rolling onto his belly, making sure the Captain was doing the same as he fired his own phaser, striking one of the Romulans on the leg, sweeping the man of his feet. Unlike the disruptors, Starfleet's stun setting was designed to incapacitate instead of causing injury. A single shot could subdue the enemy completely.

Recovering from Vin's tackle, Chris grabbed arm and dragged the helmsman to his feet as Ezra laid down a barrage of suppressing fire, allowing them to get out from their exposed position.

"Come on!" Chris ordered as they ran towards the vestibule leading into the Captain's Ready Room and Chris wondered fleetingly as he and Vin took refuge there, where the hell was Buck and Mary in all this.

Suddenly, one of the Romulans threw what appeared to be grenade in their direction. The object landed at the foot of the command chair and detonated, sending white sound through their ears. Chris uttered a groan of pain as his auditory senses went into overload by the frequency playing havoc with his ear drums. It felt as if someone had plunged an icicle into his brain. Dropping to his knees, he saw Vin reacting in the same way, with Ezra somehow struggling not to crumple into a heap, hanging on to the tactical console to stay upright.

Through the haze of pain, he saw the Romulans approach...

...when suddenly, the doors open behind him and Mary stepped out of his Ready Room, having heard the commotion to see the Romulans closing in on her comrades. Wasting no time, she fired the phase rifle in a continuous barrage, rather grateful for undergoing those proficiency drills Ezra Standish made all members of the Maverick undertake at quarterly intervals. Before they realised the source of the new attack, Mary had struck each of them, disintegrating them where they stood, their screams diminishing with sudden abruptness.

She stepped onto the bridge, surveying the situation and noting that the three remaining Romulans were unconscious for the time being. Wasting little time, she dropped to her knees next to the Captain, concern etched on her face at how pained and disorientated he seemed.

"Chris!" She reached for his arm, trying to help him up to a sitting position.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he grumbled, holding his head like he was reliving the hangover he'd inflicted upon himself the night of Vin's bachelor party. "Goddamn sonic grenade."

"Is that what that was?" Vin grunted next to him. "Never knew I could hate having Vulcan ears so much. The acoustics..."

Ezra was already on his feet, despite suffering the grenade as badly as they had. He walked towards the unconscious Romulans, his path to them somewhat unsteady. At the sight of the man's condition, Vin forced himself to his feet as well, deciding the Security Chief would need help while at the same time shaking his head as he tried to dispel the ringing in his ears.

"Are you alright?" Mary asked, brushing his cheek with the palm of her hand.

"I'll live," he held her hand in place before planting a soft kiss against her skin. "You gotta stop rescuing me." Chris smiled. "It's going to become habit forming."

"Then stop getting into trouble," Mary returned with an equally playful smile.

"Captain," Ezra's voice called out, interrupting the tender interlude. "One of these men is a Centurion."

A Centurion? Chris shot Ezra a look, familiar with the hierarchy of Romulan ranking structure. If he was here, then where was Lorral?

******

FIVE MINUTES EARLIER

It was less than a minute after Buck Wilmington and Mary Travis stepped into the Ready Room when Buck heard Alexandra Styles's excited voice through his combadge. The two senior officers were carrying JD into the room, intending to set him down on the sofa, so Mary could finally attend to the ensign's burns.

"Commander Wilmington, come in!" Alex's voice demanded as he and Mary sidestepped the shambles of the Captain's inner sanctum. The normal order was replaced by overturned chairs, an upended table and the carpeted floor covered with Chris' personal belongings. Buck spied data pads, a broken pot plant, the leather-bound copy of Don Quixote belonging to Chris's father lying open on its spine, a family photo and a metal flask the Captain from the Sulaco, once owned by Dwayne Hicks.

"Alex where the hell are you?" Buck demanded with equal intensity when they reached the sofa. It was sitting at an angle from the wall, pushed away by their turbulent landing. Buck had expected her on the bridge shortly after Ezra beamed over to the Maverick from the Midkiff. After Mary dusted off the sofa from debris and they lowered JD onto the sofa, Buck stepped away to continue his conversation with Alex. Mary who was still holding the medkit, quickly flipped the case open to retrieve the dermal regenerator to start working on the young man.

"I'm on the hull, starboard section," Alex explained quickly. "I saw one of our people being pursued across the hull by a Romulan.

"Who?" Buck asked automatically.

Knowing how he was going to react to the news, there was a slight pause before Alex answered. Buck, its Inez."

Buck's eyes widened. "Inez!"

Since they landed on the ground, Buck had been trying to contact the bartender after her frantic call for help to the bridge. While he'd ordered Security to reach her, the reality of the situation, with their rough ride upon landing, the fact that all the turbo lifts were shut down, it was going to take time for them to reach her. Buck had hoped she'd found somewhere safe to hide during the chaos until they were able to get to her but it looked like Fate was nowhere that kind.

"Is she alright?" He was almost afraid to ask, feeling his chest tighten at the idea the sultry bartender had been forced on the run from Romulans. Inez wasn't Starfleet, she wasn't trained to deal with the ruthless aggression of a Romulan soldier or protect herself from them for that matter. For the first time, Buck appreciated why Raphael Castille had insisted she sign on with the Maverick instead with her fianc�, on the Venture.

"She took a disruptor hit to the leg and is in pain but that's not the worst of it. Nathan's trapped on Deck 17 with the Romulans. Buck, he's a senior officer, we need to get to him before they find him and use him as a hostage."

Buck glanced at Mary, when he saw the protocol officer who had been listening, stiffen in dislike. Like him, Mary had come to the same conclusion. They could not afford to allow the Romulans a hostage to hold Chris to ransom.

Mary reached into the medkit and handed him a hypo spray. "Take this. It should help with Inez's pain. You go on, I'll tell Chris what's happening."

"Thanks," Buck flashed her an appreciative look and decided the fastest way to the hull was through the elongated window situated on the outer wall of the room. The plexiglass had not survived the landing and fragments littered the floor beneath it. The wind and fresh air rushing through the room was coming through that opening.

It was wide enough for him to squeeze through but Buck was still mindful of any jagged pieces of glass that might still be attached to the frame when he stepped through.

Once outside, Buck was able to get a good view of the entire saucer section because the deck where the bridge was situated was elevated above the rest of the hull. He spotted Inez and Alex almost immediately. They were at the starboard edge of the hull. With his phaser rifle slung over his shoulder, he surveyed the area and winced at the damage they'd caused during their landing. Where the Maverick made its rough journey along the coastline, they left such deep grooves in the dunes, it penetrated the soil and bedrock.

Yet despite the damage the Maverick had wrought, beyond the ship the scenery was quite beautiful. He could see the ocean disappearing into the horizon, while beyond the trees and vegetation they had crushed, the rest of the tropical forest remain untouched, swaying with the breeze. There were worst places to wait out a rescue, he decided. At least once they got rid of the damn Romulans, that is.

Dropping to the surface of the saucer section, he jogged across the duranium hull, making his way to them quickly because the journey was mostly downhill. When he reached them, he saw Inez was sitting down, her legs stretched out, revealing the charred flesh on her thigh where the disruptor had struck her. The heat of the energy beam had cauterised the wound so there was little that could be done for it by way of first aid. Alex who was looking at Inez's shoulder, had probably reached the same conclusion.

Squeezing the hypo spray tighter, he felt a sliver of emotion at the thought of her being hurt, especially when her lovely face showed the pain she was enduring.

"Inez, Alex," he announced himself. His face breaking into a relieved grin upon seeing the sultry woman. In the last year, both Inez and Alex had become his closest friends, and the First Officer had to wonder if there was a lesson to be learnt by the fact, they had gotten that way by showing absolutely no interest in him.

Although, the smile of pleasure lighting up Inez's face at this moment, made him wonder if the situation between them had changed.

"Buck!" Inez exclaimed, clear relieve flooding into her face at the sight of him.

For a second, Buck was revisited by those instincts when he met Inez for the first time, that she was somewhat attracted to him but held back because her heart was engaged elsewhere. Buck was certain the concern she felt for him wasn't merely platonic, but deeper somehow. Of course, he couldn't be sure of anything because Inez could mess up his radar like no woman alive. Still, the idea she was warming to him felt good.

"Now what's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?" He dropped to his knees next to her, reverting to type. "I thought I told you to hunker down somewhere and keep safe, not go tangling with Romulans."

"Very funny," Inez made a face. "Can't you see I'm in enough pain?"

Buck flashed her his most charming smile before placing the hypo spray against her bare shoulder, feeling his stomach clenched in anger at seeing her lovely skin marred by burnt flesh. "Here, this should take the edge of the pain."

"Thank God," Inez held his gaze, never realising until now, how good it felt to see he was still alive. Since the Maverick had come under bombardment, Inez had become preoccupied by this man's welfare, even if every logical bone in her body told her it was a bad idea.

Buck's expression darkened as he studied the wounds on her leg. The trouble with disruptor wounds was they either cooked your organs if you scored a direct hit or it fried your muscles if the things even grazed you. Judging from Inez's injuries, she was damn lucky to be alive.

"Buck, you have to find Nathan," she declared anxiously once she remembered how she'd gotten to this point. "Nathan and I were on our way to the bridge when the turbo lifts malfunctioned. It plunged to Deck 18 before going offline completely. When we climbed out to the deck, we saw the Romulans coming from the cargo bays. He was shot when we were escaping. I left him in one of the service shafts in the arboretum but they know he's in there somewhere."

"Don't worry," he assured her, brushing his finger along her jaw in affection.

Once again, he saw her eyes flicker with emotion he hadn't seen before and felt his insides warming at the sight of it before deciding to address it later. Right now, he had a job to do. "We're not going to let them get him. You think you'll be okay here for a while?"

Inez nodded, whatever was in the hypo spray was doing its work because she felt the burning pain in her shoulder and leg, starting to ease off. "I'll be fine," she managed a smile. "Please go find him. I hated to leave him on his own but..."

"Hey, it's okay," he said gently, but when his eyes met Alex's, his expression was hard enough to punch a hole through the hull. "We're going to scrape those Rommie bastards off the Maverick once and for all."

Chapter Seventeen: Distractions

Josiah was starting to wish this day would simply end because he needed a drink.

Upon realising the Maverick was entering the atmosphere, the Counsellor grabbed Adelaide Sheridan and found the first safe place they could find to ride out the landing. After several near misses where they were almost struck by falling objects tumbling down the corridor, Josiah led the celebrated actress into one of the life pod bays and took refuge inside its confines, safe from the barrage. Absurdly, Josiah found himself thinking he was living some teenage boy's dream of being trapped in a life and death situation with a beautiful actress.

Despite this, Josiah felt he owed it to Mary to ensure her mother was safe in her absence and when the Maverick finally stopped moving, Adelaide seemed fine but understandably shaken. Emerging from their hiding place after their calamitous descent, they stepped into the sunlight pouring through the broken windows along one of the corridors, over glass, loose objects and anything that wasn't secured during the journey. Hand in hand, they returned to Sick Bay and found the area in complete disarray.

Aside from the shambles left by the tumultuous descent, the temporary first aid station created along the corridor running past sick bay showed upended cots and equipment, their occupants being helped to their feet or attended to after subject to further injury. Many suffered fresh wound, adding to their miserable situation. Josiah expected to see Nathan in all this chaos, mobilising his staff but the doctor was still absent.

Adelaide was quick to join the volunteers who were assisting the wounded while Josiah tried to raise Nathan on his combadge to no avail. The lady, put her actress persona to good use, playing not only the part of nursemaid but used her flamboyant personality to lift spirits and tell stories of her adventurous life to distract patients from their injuries. Watching her, Josiah could see the similarities between Adelaide and Mary, even if their methods were different.

He was about to call the bridge when he saw the slender figure of Lieutenant Rain Nal around the corner.

"Josiah!"

Rain appeared as if she had been put through an ordeal of her own. He was aware that during such crises, the Transporter Team usually lend their aid to Engineering, making up part of the damage crews that spread throughout the ship, attempting to heal its wounds during emergency situations. With the ship landed, he guessed she had opted to take a break and see Nathan. With the turbo lifts out and emergency stairwells connecting only some of the decks in the Maverick, it was obvious she made the journey through the Jefferies tubes.

She looked tired, covered in dirt, grime and smoke, no doubt from putting out a dozen fires across the ship in the last two hours. He didn't need counselling skills to see she was exhausted.

"I thought I was having a bad day," he greeted her with a little smile.

"Bad day?" She snorted, waving dismissively. "You should see me on laundry day, this is nothing."

Josiah smiled at her sense of humour and found she was the perfect companion to Nathan who could lose himself too much in his work, requiring someone as irrepressible as Rain to drag him out into the world.

"You look tired. Come into Sick Bay, I'm sure I can scare up some coffee." Fortunately, Sick Bay was able to draw power from its auxiliary batteries in the event of main power failure, to ensure the vital systems it supported were not disruptors. As a result, all its equipment, including the replicators were still functioning, if somewhat battered.

"Are you alright?" He asked looking her over for injury.

"Well I'm not dressed to go the ball tonight," she regarded her dishevelled state, "but I think I can manage enough energy to slip into a bikini and check out the beach later. That is if I can convince the Doc that boogie boarding is fun." Her eyes scanned the area behind him, searching for Nathan.

Josiah tried to form the mental picture of Nathan in board shorts, riding a boogie board and couldn't do so without smirking. "I'm afraid he's on call to the bridge. Can't seem to raise him though."

"Com badges are working," Rain stated, her brow knotting. "He's too attached to his combadge to not answer."

Suddenly, Rain felt the charge in the air of something she was on near intimate terms with, emanating from further down the corridor. It felt like goose bumps against her skin as she saw the familiar shimmer of gold appear, followed by the materialising silhouettes of at least six people. As far as Rain knew, they were avoiding using the transporters because the drain on main power would be considerable. With no idea how long it would take for rescue and the fact the Maverick would not be leaving this planet without help, she couldn't imagine why the Captain would authorise transporting six people to this deck when there did not appear to be any more of an emergency than there already was.

Josiah thought it might have been Chris and a security team when suddenly, the shapes began to have form.

"Are those..."

"Romulans!" Rain shouted in excitement.

"EVERYONE INTO SICK BAY NOW!" Josiah ordered.

There was hardly time as the entire area broke into pandemonium. Josiah was conscious of medical staff trying to help people into Sick Bay. He himself grabbed Adelaide by the arm where she had been standing dumbfounded, before shoving her through the Sick Bay doors. He did so being jostled by the rush of patients and staff trying to enter the space before the Romulans realised what was happening.

"SEAL IT!" Josiah ordered and saw Nathan's new Assistant CMO, Zheng Li Pong nod in understanding, even if her lovely features showed her conflict at doing so. There were still too many patients in the corridor but the Romulans had now fully rematerialized and would start taking hostages. She nodded as the doors slid close between them. Even without seeing it, Josiah knew she was enacting the security protocols that would lock out the intruders from Sick Bay.

"Josiah come on!" Rain grabbed his arm, intending to pull him away from the corridor. They needed to get to the weapons locker on this deck while they still could.

"No, you go!" He said firmly as the Romulans closed in, shouting and waving their disruptors at the remaining patients. "Someone's got to stay here and talk to them, see what they want."

"That's not you!" She declared hotly, glancing anxiously at the enemy.

"Yes, it is," Josiah said resolutely.

Realisation flooded into her eyes as one of the Romulans, a female lieutenant shot a disruptor over their heads, bringing the pandemonium to silence. Screams of fright and panic slowly descended into quiet and instead of running, Rain held firm, giving the Counsellor a little smile, showing she wasn't abandoning him. Besides, there were six of them and one of her. Well technically there was one of her as a host, and several past lives in her Trill symbiote, but who was counting?

"Well I better stay here and keep you out of trouble," Rain sighed as she saw the Romulans approaching. They could run but she suspected it was only going to end up with a lot of people getting shot. "We can make sure your superior counselling abilities and my effervescent charm, keep people safe.

"HALT!" A Romulan lieutenant shouted at the group, brandishing a disruptor at them as the rest of her entourage spread out amongst the group, with one of them going to the Sick Bay doors.

Josiah let out a deep breath and sighed, "Be my guest."

******

With Mary keeping a watchful eye and more importantly a well-aimed phased rifle at the unconscious Romulans, Chris, Vin, and Ezra emerged from the bridge using the same egress point Mary and Buck had used to reach Inez a short time earlier. Flinching when he walked through his Ready Room, at the state of the place and all his personal items scattered across the floor, Chris ignored the surge of anger that rushed through him at the continued violation of his beloved ship. Stepping through the broken window onto the hull, he was immediately bathed in welcoming sunlight and a warm breeze.

None of which he could enjoy because the presence of the unconscious Centurion had started the wheels in his mind spinning at what Lorral was playing at. She had sent her soldiers in shooting with disruptors set to kill. There had been no attempt at discussion, or negotiation. They came in weapons hot intending to kill everyone on the bridge, which meant Lorral didn't need anyone on the command staff to negotiate. It explained why she saw no reason to join the invading party.

This meant there was somewhere else she needed to be and that made Chris anxious. The woman was a chess player and she didn't make moves at random.

Ezra had gone ahead, having rallied Lieutenant Katovit and a handful of security officers to meet them with handheld tricorders so they could be guided through the maze of the ship without needing internal sensors. The four, whom Chris recognised as junior lieutenants Vince Horne and John Faraday, along with, Ensigns Mi Na Lee, and Manny Garcia had arrived on the Maverick as replacements for those lost on Fiorina 361. The four security officers, appeared no worse for wear after their tumultuous landing and if anything, seemed eager to get going.

"Report," Chris heard Ezra demanding as he and Vin closed in on them.

Ezra's trusted second in command, Lieutenant Katovit spoke up promptly. "I send Lieutenant. Robicheaux and his team to secondary engineering room as ordered. The turbo lifts are offline, so they're going to take the Jefferies tubes down there. Lieutenant Chisolm is trying to reach the shuttle bay but there's been structural damage due to the hull breach that's making it a little hard to do. They're trying to find alternate means of entry."

"Good work Drew," Chris gave the officer his approval, which made Lieutenant Katovit smile past Ezra's own dimpled appreciation of Chris' recognition of the lieutenant's excellent conduct.

Unfortunately, no one had time to savour the moment because Chris's combadge began beeping urgently. Chris exchanged a quick glance with Ezra before tapping the device.

"This is the Captain?"

"Captain, this is Doctor Zheng! We've got Romulans outside Sick Bay!"

"Shit," Vin cursed.

Chris ignored the Vulcan's ire and addressed the anxious voice speaking through the combadge, projecting calm and authority to the obviously shaken doctor. "What's your status Doctor?"

"We're presently sealed in Sick Bay with most of our injured," Li Pong explained, using the captain's calm to steady herself. "Six of them materialised in the corridor. Counsellor Sanchez ordered us into Sick Bay. We got as many as we could before the transport was complete before Counsellor Sanchez made us seal the doors. Captain, we still have injured in the corridors, at least ten of them. They're probably in the hands of the Romulans by now."

Chris's jaw ticked in anger and saw the same reaction sweeping across Vin and Ezra before continuing through the security officers present. "Is the Counsellor with you?" Chris asked even though he knew the answer before she spoke. Now he knew why Josiah wasn't answering his call earlier.

"No, he was outside when I sealed the doors! He made me do it Captain!"

Of course he would, Chris felt his chest tighten in concern for his friend and trusted confidante. The man might have been a psychiatrist unaccustomed to combat but Josiah was still one of the most courageous men he ever knew. If it meant helping a patient or someone he cared about, Josiah Sanchez would stand up to God himself,

"You did the right thing Doctor," Chris replied, trying to absolve the woman of her obvious guilt. "We're on our way with a Security team. Keep them out of Sick Bay by any means necessary. Erect emergency force fields and tell them you cannot negotiate with them if they attempt to try and coerce you into opening the doors. We'll be there soon."

"Yes Captain," Li Pong answered, she sounded a little more assured now.

"Captain, out."

"We can get to Sick Bay through the Crew Lounge observation window," Vin declared, circling the elevated deck of the bridge to drop down onto the hull near Deck 2. The Vulcan, always impatient when it came to a fight, didn't wait for them.

"They are attempting to take Sick Bay to gain bargaining chips to use against you Captain," Ezra commented, feeling personally affronted by the invasion of these Romulans on his ship, not to mention threatening the lives of everyone on board he felt his responsibility as Chief Security Officer to protect.

"Not going to happen," Chris said resolutely. "Lorral's got something planned, I'm not sure what, but she's scattering her people to sensitive areas of the ship to distract us."

Ezra couldn't fault the Captain's logic on that point. "Faraday, Garcia," Ezra regarded his team. "Find Miss Inez on the starboard bow and return her to the bridge with Lieutenant Travis. She has been injured. Once you have done that, proceed to Deck 18 and assist Commander Wilmington and Lt. Commander Styles."

"Aye Sir."

"Come on," Chris urged Ezra after he saw Vin firing point blank at the plexiglass window of the crew lounge, disintegrating it with a blast of his phase rifle, set to kill, and created the opening needed to enter Deck 2. "I want those bastards off my ship."

******

"What is that?" Buck asked kicking away the musical instrument he almost stepped on when he and Alex climbed through the same window Inez had used to escape Deck 17, when she had been pursued by her Romulan assailant.

"It's an oboe," Alex answered as she took up flanking position by the door leading out of the room. "Possibly the most insidious method of torture since the Romulan mind shifter."

Buck gave her a look as he took a moment before activating the door panel. Tapping his combadge, he allowed Alex to maintain a vigil while he attempted to raise Nathan. The healer had thus ignored their attempts at contact, but if Inez was right and he was attempting to avoid Romulans, Nathan had good reason for silent running. He tried not to entertain the idea Nathan's silence may have a more life threatening reason.

"Nathan, come in." Buck spoke quietly, hoping the doctor was able to answer this time. Seconds of silence stretched into a near minute before an answer finally came.

"Doctor Jackson reporting. Where the hell is Security?"

Well he sounded very much alive, strained, and irate, but definitely alive, Buck thought. "Nathan. Good to hear your voice Doc. Are you alright? What's your status?"

"My status is that I'm shot and I'm trying to treat myself while avoiding Romulans." Nathan grumbled.

Buck saw Alex stifling a smile, part amusement but mostly relief at the doctor's welfare, before Buck spoke to the doctor once more. "Okay, okay, just take it easy," Buck replied, appreciating the man's ire. "Security is probably having a little trouble getting to you from the upper decks but Alex and I are on Deck 17. Where are you?"

"I'm still in the access way near the service hatch in the arboretum," Nathan explained. "Been trying to fix myself up. When the Romulan went after Inez, I thought another one might have showed up but they didn't. I have my medical tricorder with me, so I was able to detect their life signs but now there's only two left in Cargo Bay 3. They somehow got access to the transporters." Nathan could imagine no other way they could simply disappear so quickly otherwise.

"We know," Buck replied, having been filled in by Chris during their journey here. "The Captain and Ezra are dealing with it. Stay put, Alex and I are on our way."

"What about Inez?" Nathan asked quickly. "Is she okay? I know she led that son of a bitch Romulan away from me."

"She's alright," Buck said with a smile, thinking about Inez and how she had looked at him when she first saw him on the hull. The look in her eyes had almost stopped his heart in his chest. "She took a hit from a disruptor but it's not serious. She got grazed. We gave her something for the pain from our medkit and left her on the hull for the moment."

"Thank God," Nathan let out an audible sigh of relief. "She's a brave lady and I think she might be getting sweet on you." Buck couldn't see the smile, but he knew Nathan had one on his face.

"Really?" Buck shared Nathan's intuition. "I had a feeling..."

"Commander," Alex interrupted, rolling her eyes in exasperation. Sometimes, she really wondered how he outranked her. "FOCUS. Romulans, remember?

"Right," Buck scowled at Alex, wishing she would just let him savour the moment. "Sit tight Nathan, we'll be with you soon."

With the knowledge the Romulans were currently in Cargo Bay 3, they were able to emerge into the corridor, secure in the knowledge they wouldn't be ambushed. Nevertheless, Buck and Alex advanced to Deck 18 with caution. Buck took the lead while Alex followed closely behind, making sure there were no surprises. It didn't take them long before they entered the arboretum.

They hurried through the ruined garden, leaping over the fallen trees and upended benches, ignoring the ruined beauty of this place for the moment even though they both lamented the destruction. The arboretum was one of the more popular recreational places on the Maverick and Buck sometimes brought Aislynn, his Selurian Minx cat, for walks across the grass. While Buck would have like to have stopped to see Nathan, he and Alex knew the priority at this moment was to reach the Romulans first.

The main corridor of Deck 17 was empty but as they reached the door leading into the stairwell, partly opened, they noticed the burns to its tritanium surface that allowed hands four times stronger than any humans, to pry them apart. No doubt a response to Nathan's security lock. They descended the staircase and emerged into Deck 18, after passing doors in similar condition.

"The minute they transported, the bridge would have known about it," Alex replied as they approached the doors to Cargo Bay 3.

There were no Romulans in the corridor, which meant they were busy up to something and Buck was convinced, it was nothing good.

"Yeah but even if Ezra managed to act in time, our safety protocols would not abort a transport once the dematerialisation process is underway. Too much risk of pattern degradation."

"Right," Alex nodded, aware of this herself now that she thought about it. "And if they have someone smart working it, like Rain for instance. They may be able to lock Ezra out."

Ezra would have loved that, Buck thought.

Once again Alex and Buck took up flanking positions on either side of the doorway before he activated the panel and the doors slid open.

No sooner than the doors had hissed apart, green bolts of disruptor fire shot through the cargo bay, forcing Alex into a crouch. A Romulan had been keeping a vigil at the door, firing at them from behind a crate of containment canisters. The other Romulan was at the transporter pad, his hands moving quickly over the transporter controls, attempting to initiate or perhaps finalise a transport sequence.

"Alex give me cover!" Buck ordered.

Alex nodded and continued firing at the Romulan, aiming at the canisters, removing the enemy's refuge, one container at a time. Realising her tactic, especially when the gaps beginning to form were too many, the Romulan ran from his position. He slid behind a large piece of farming equipment that was meant for delivery on Vorex 2, an agricultural colony in the sector, before the rescue of the Columbus had become priority.

In the meantime, Buck took advantage of the cover she provided and entered the room, keeping low as he approached the Romulan at the transporter pad. When the Romulan saw Buck, the enemy legionnaire had no choice but to stop what he was doing. He went for his disruptor even as Buck pulled the trigger on his own weapon. The beam of amber energy struck the Romulan dead centre and he disintegrated with a scream of finality.

Upon seeing the death of his comrade, the Romulan Alex had been fighting made a mad dash for the open cargo bay doors, now unsealed without the benefit of a force field. The man could jump right off the ship.

"Give it up!" Buck shouted. "Don't make us kill you!"

The Romulan didn't stop running and Buck fired, dropping the man before he even reached halfway across the deck. Like Alex, he wasn't wasting time adjusting settings from stun to kill. The twenty five dead crewmen he would have to tell Chris about and the people on the Columbus certainly had not received any mercy.

Next to the transporter controls was a portable generator, one Buck had seen used by the scientists from the Life Science department when they conducted surveys of uncharted planets. It was hooked to the transporter to provide power, no doubt after Chris had ordered Julia to cut power to keep them from making use of it.

Meanwhile Alex had gone to examine the transporter controls, to see where it was the Romulans were headed, even though both she and Buck had a good idea. No doubt, the Romulans would be attempting to reach key areas of the ship and felt somewhat confident the Captain and Ezra would be on top of that. However, the last transport destination had her brow furrowing in concern.

"Commander," she looked at Buck, with a tone in her voice that immediately made him pay attention.

"What is it?" Buck saw her grave expression.

"The last transport was for one person," she said worriedly, "To a runabout."

Chapter Eighteen: The Worthy

"What is your rank?" The Romulan lieutenant demanded as she stared down Josiah, assuming he was the highest ranking officer present, due to his age and the manner in which he seemed to be able to calm the hostages presently trapped outside Sick Bay.

"Lieutenant Commander," Josiah replied, finding it so odd to think about his rank considering he had been known throughout his Starfleet career as either Counsellor or doctor. No one ever asked his rank whenever they were in pain. They only cared that he could help them.

"Lieutenant Commander?" One slant eyebrow arched in curiosity, mostly because she assumed for his age, he would be ranked higher. "I imagined someone of your years would have achieved a higher rank."

Josiah tried not to take offence at that. He wasn't that old. Sure, he wasn't about to go boogie boarding with Nathan and Rain but he didn't think he was ready for the pasture just yet. "I am a Counsellor; a higher rank is not necessary."

She snorted in derision, telling him plainly what she thought of his expertise in her dismissal before responding. "Starfleet weakness. I suppose you will have to do."

By now, those who had not been fortunate enough to make it to Sick Bay were presently seated on the floor of the deck, outside the sealed doors of the medical facility. There were at least a dozen crew, himself and Rain included, surrounded by the four Romulan soldiers who had suddenly transported into their midst. One of them was attempting to unseal the doors, having pulled apart the activation panel, to tamper with the intricate wiring and isolinear chips. He didn't appear to be having much success.

The woman who had spoken to Josiah was clearly in charge of them.

"I will do for what?" Josiah asked, certain he wasn't going to like what they asked of him.

"You will negotiate on behalf of your ship," she stated firmly.

Josiah exchange a puzzled look with Rain before he regarded the lieutenant once more. "I'm not authorised to negotiate for the Maverick. I think you will want the Captain for that."

"The Captain is dead," she stated without hesitation, a hint of smug satisfaction on her face as she made that claim loud enough for the rest of the group to hear.

The announcement had the desired effect, sending a ripple of shock throughout the faces of those present. There were audible gasps, exclamations of grief and the gamut of emotion that surfaced when such news was delivered. Josiah saw the faces before him displaying horror and dismay, commingled with defeat. Rain's eyes showed her grief but the control of several lifetimes exerted itself and she recovered quickly.

"Nice try," Rain replied just as loudly for the benefit of the crew and herself. "If a planet full of acid spewing xenomorphs couldn't kill the Captain, you're going to have to do better than that to convince us that you Rommies took out Captain Larabee."

Selena reacted by striking her across the face. Rain's head snapped back but the defiant Trill officer merely flexed her jaw, licking the sliver of blood away from the corner of her lip before staring back at the Romulan defiantly.

"Stop!" Josiah snapped. "If you want me to negotiate for the ship, then a good start would be to not brutalise my crew."

Josiah flashed Rain a look to behave. Like her, he refused to believe Chris was dead. Since they had met two years ago, Chris Larabee had been his friend first before he'd become Josiah's captain. Like the son he never had, it was Chris who convinced him to join the Maverick, to grab onto the dreams he'd sacrificed in his youth for love and family. He would not be here today, would not have seen the wondrous things he had, if not for that stubborn son of a bitch with the heart of an explorer and the calculation of a master tactician.

No, Chris wasn't dead. He refused to believe it.

However, if Chris was still alive, then Josiah had to keep these people safe long enough for the Captain to enact some kind of plan because sure as hell, if he wasn't dead, he was thinking up away to make these Romulans pay for what they'd done to his crew and his ship.

******

The shimmer of the transporter beam filled the corridor outside the shuttle bay with its amber glow before diminishing to deposit Buck and Alex on Deck 4. As soon as they materialised, they were confronted by two bodies, strewn along the corridor. The deck which had been evacuated when the hull had been breached by a phaser blast, was mostly empty. However, once they had made planet fall, there was no reason for the crew to believe they could not move about freely.

Buck's jaw tensed as he went to examined one of the bodies and saw the dark burn across the man's chest from a direct hit from a disruptor at low power. It didn't disintegrate the man but the damage to his organs would have been substantial. His death would have been quick but still agonising.

"Its Lieutenant Karth from Life Sciences," Buck looked up at Alex, who was herself hunched over the other body and wearing a similar look of grief. Karth often sat in on Ezra's Friday night poker games and was a pretty decent player. Buck had liked him.

"I think this is Sharea," Alex stared at the beautiful woman, with her dusky skin and bald head, her eyes staring into nothingness. She didn't know the woman very well but life on a starship made the Maverick a community. Alex remembered discussing Q'onos, because Sharea had wanted to vacation there with her husband.

"Lieutenant Denal's wife?" Buck cursed. Denal like his wife Sharea, were Deltans and the marriage between in the race was not merely a mental connection but also a chemical one because of the extreme characteristics of the race's pheromones.

"Yeah," Alex nodded, her jaw tensing.

"Bastards," Buck stood up straight, deciding then and there, they were ending the Romulans who did this. He did not need to say it or hear her response to know Alex agreed with him. The set of her jaw said enough. As much as Chris and Vin had an uncanny knack of knowing what each other thought, Buck and Alex had developed the same kind of awareness as the First and Second Officer of the Maverick.

When Chris Larabee had been taken by the C'Kaia and Buck had insisted on pursuing the enemy ship even after being ordered back to Federation space, Alex had supported the decision, even though they were both in violation of orders. Since then, she was the measured counterpoint to his more emotional command style and together, they were the stable bedrock on which Chris Larabee commanded the Maverick.

"This way," Buck headed further down the corridor away from the doors leading into the shuttle bay. If they went through those doors, Buck had no doubt they would be shot down as soon as it opened. Instead, he led her to the access way at the next junction between corridors. Alex caught on without his needing to explain and cast a glance back at the dead bodies of Lt. Karth and Sharea, the sting of their deaths still on her mind.

Reaching the juncture, Buck immediately dropped down to his knees and pulled open the service hatch at the base of the wall, next to the doors. Crawling into the space, he was grateful that this was one of the Jefferies tubes that ran through the Maverick like a maze. He always found it too narrow for him to crawl through. Alex followed him in, her phase rifle slung over her back, making a dull clunk when the butt of the thing hit the roof of the passageway until she secured it properly.

"Hey Buck," she spoke when crawled through tube towards a junction where a set of rungs leading upwards, awaited them.

"Yeah?" He asked upon reaching it, before he straightened up to start climbing.

"About Inez?" She said with a little smile following him up.

Buck didn't stop climbing but did glance down at her. "What about Inez?" He asked quizzically, because she was the one to kick him in the butt earlier on about focus and surprised him by bringing up the subject.

"Don't mess it up." Alex said simply. "After Raphael, she must feel for you pretty strongly if Nathan's right so tread lightly."

Buck smiled, feeling that surge of warmth again. He knew how strongly he felt for Inez. He had since the moment he met her, not just because he had a thing for sultry, Latin beauties but because the woman was earthy, smart, feisty and in recent months, been able to read his moods as easily as he'd able to read hers when she was in the deepest depths of her despair.

"Alex honey, if I get a chance with Inez, I won't half ass it. You have my promise." He gave her a cocky wink.

Alex shook her head at his practised swagger that hid one of the biggest hearts she knew. "You better because I think you two could be kind of great together."

Buck thought so too and smiled, never realising Alex ever gave any thought to it. Then again, like Vin, she was so reserved with her opinions, it was nice to hear an observation about him that was more than their usual playful banter.

"You know," he threw her another glance, "you've mellowed since you got married. Must be all the se..."

"Finish that sentence and you'll know what a phaser up the ass feels like," Alex growled.

******

Despite Chris's desire to take the lead when they stepped unto Deck 2, Ezra would not hear of it and proceeded to quote so many lines of Starfleet Regulations, even Vin was ready to shoot him on principle. Nevertheless, Chris relented and allowed the Security Chief to enter the deck first, realising Ezra did actually have a point. It was highly likely the Romulans would be expecting an attack and it would be extremely embarrassing to everyone involved, if he were shot the minute he stuck his head through the window of the crew lounge.

Thanks to the size of the saucer section and Sick Bay's location to the crew lounge, their entry unto the deck went unnoticed although there was no way to approach the corridor where the hostages were being held, without being seen by the enemy. According to their tricorder readings, the Romulans were remaining close to their hostages, spreading out as far as the corridor junctions, to ensure they weren't surprised by anyone attempting to approach them

"Captain," Ezra spoke up as they took a moment to discuss their situation in an empty aid station to avoid being seen. "It is my suggestion that we approach them with caution. I have no doubt they will open fire if they see any of us."

"He's right there," Vin agreed with Ezra, having studying the tricorder readings. "They're spread out, and there's at least two of them with the hostages to do a lot of damage before we can take them out."

"No one else is dying," Chris stated firmly. "Ezra, I'm assuming your team's got stun grenades on them?"

"Aye Captain," Ezra started to get an inkling of what the captain was suggesting. "While I agree this might be an adequate form of approach, I am not certain the range will assist our situation. We would have to launch one of the devices after we get past their sentries in the corridors and I cannot imagine that we will accomplish it without giving ourselves away."

"We won't be using one that way," Chris shook away the comment and raised his eyes to study Ezra's group of security officers. His eyes rested on Lee, the petite young woman who could also perform a hammer fist punch that would make a Klingon's eyes water, before continuing. "Lee, you think you can drop a stun grenade over the corridor from Access hatch 23 located in the bulkhead just outside Sick Bay doors?"

Lee broke into a little smile, "I'm pretty sure I can Captain."

"Good, there's an access way in the environmental control monitoring station" Chris replied and looked up at Ezra, "once Lee is in position, we'll make our run at them."

"Agreed," Ezra nodded, able to add more now the Captain's idea was unveiled. "When Lee lobs the stun grenade at them, we should be in a position to remove the sentries. Vin, I recommend you move in as soon as the grenade is dispatched in the event any of us are not able to put down our targets. You are faster than all of us and a better marksman."

"Right," Vin nodded, not about to make any comment on that, even if it was true that he had the highest efficiency rating with a phaser or phase rifle of anyone on the Maverick. "Still would like to know why they went to all the trouble if they're not even bothering to make any demands yet."

"They probably think everyone on the bridge is dead," Chris replied automatically. "They came in disruptors firing. They weren't planning on taking prisoners when they beamed in."

"I must concur with the Captain," Ezra agreed with a frown, not liking all the inconsistencies applied to this hostage scenario the Romulans were playing out. His gut instinct told him something was wrong but he just couldn't put his finger on it. "I must confess I cannot fathom their actions."

"Well I'm sure it's going to bite us on the ass eventually but first things first, let's deal with the Romulans on this deck." Chris replied and prompted everyone to get moving. Emerging into the corridor after ensuring the way was clear, Ensign Lee darted off on her own towards the monitoring station to make her stealthy approach to Sick Bay.

*******

Buck crawled out of the Jefferies tube into the empty equipment room, overlooking the main floor of the shuttle bay silently. The space was barely ten feet wide and a rather tight squeeze but Alex managed to lower herself onto the floor from the hatch way without too much noise. Meeting her eyes, he gestured to her to follow his lead and motioned for her to activate the door panel and let him go first. He fully expected for someone be on the walkway they would be emerging into.

Alex obeyed and activated the panel as Buck got into position, ready to fire the instant he sighted the target. The door hissed open and Buck immediately saw a Romulan inside the communication station along the walkway. The Romulan's eyes widened at the sight of the first officer and went for his disruptor, but Buck pulled the trigger before his hand could touch the weapon. The amber beam of energy struck the Romulan across the chest, sending him sprawling against the railing and then over it. He landed on the floor of the shuttle bay with a loud squelch, no doubt breaking several bones in his already dead body.

The Romulan who had been watching the main doors swung around the instant his comrade had tumbled against the railing. Turning towards Buck, he prepared to shoot down the Starfleet officer on the walkway when Alex rushed out, ready to return fire. Dropping to her knees, she took aim and fired quickly, sending a bolt of energy streaking across the shuttle bay floor, mobilising the remaining two Romulans as her shot killed the man preparing to end her commanding officer's life.

Buck gave her an appreciative glance as Alex continued to shoot, providing Buck with cover fire, as the two Romulans gave themselves away, one emerging from behind a docked shuttle, while the other had been watching the other entrance into the shuttle bay. In the meantime, Buck crouched low as he darted down the hallway, avoiding a disruptor shot that had managed to slip past Alex's barrage of fire. The streak of green energy flattened against the wall above him, burning into the tritanium wall, and spreading the stench of heated metal through the air.

Not risking the journey down the ladder leading to the floor of the shuttle bay, Buck took advantage of Alex's suppressing fire and climbed over the railing, leaping towards the roof of the nearest shuttle instead. Landing with a thud, he drew the attention of the Romulan using the runabout Worthy for cover, who immediately ignored Alex and began firing at him. Flattening himself against the roof like a bug on a windshield, Buck rolled off the roof of the vehicle and landed behind it, away from the shots.

Unable to get a clear shot at him, the Romulan returned their attention to Alex who was exposed on the walkway, as she attempted to provide Buck with cover fire. The second Romulan began to direct their disruptors at her and Buck saw Alex making a mad dash for the cover of the communications station, her phase rifle clutched across her body as she leapt into the room, barely avoiding a direct hit. Not for the first time, Buck wondered why she was wasting her time as a Science Officer when she was built for combat. Choosing to help her by using the shuttles to mask his approach to the Romulan doing the same, Buck was mindful of the fact there were supposed to be five Romulans in here, even though they had only seen four. There was only one runabout left in the shuttle bay after the destruction of the Perlman and the Midkiff was presently awaiting their return outside the ship, so Buck assumed the last of the quintet was most likely waiting in there.

Just as the thought crossed his mind, Buck's eyes widened in horror as he saw the Worthy's external lights blink to life across the hull. However, while the engines had not fired to life, Buck saw the phaser banks had and were preparing to discharge. He could only guess where it was aiming.

"ALEX! GET OUT OF THERE!" He shouted, not caring if he gave himself away or not.

Alex heard Buck's almost frantic cry and lifted her head over the communications console and saw what was coming, she sprinted out of the station as the phaser blast struck the walkway. The blast shook the entire saucer section and Alex threw herself off the railing as the walkway gave way, crashing downwards sharply as heat and sparks flew across the deck. Thick smoke began to fill the shuttle bay as Alex landed on her hands and knees on the roof of the same shuttle that gave Buck his respite from a very fatal landing earlier.

Narrowly avoiding being shot by enemy fire, she scrambled off the shuttle and dropped to the floor. No sooner than she had done that, she was slammed into the side of the vehicle, the phase rifle dropping from her hands as she saw one of the Romulans closing in. Reacting instinctively, she threw a powerful sidekick that caught him in the sternum before she closed the distance and threw a roundhouse kick that connected with his jaw. Unfortunately for this Romulan, Alex had once fought an enraged Vulcan in the midst of the blood fever to know just how much force was needed to take him down for the count.

Suddenly, another Romulan stepped out from the midst of the smoke, his disruptor aimed and ready to fire, giving Alex a split second to realise what was coming and wincing in despair because she wouldn't have a chance to say goodbye to Vin.

Oh Cowboy, she thought to herself, I'm sorry.

Then like salvation, Buck appeared just as abruptly behind the Romulan, locking his arm across the man's chest before snapping his neck with the sickly sound of breaking bone. The Romulan went limp in Buck's grip, sliding to floor without another word. Alex let out an audible sigh of relief as well a look of gratitude at the first officer, because for a moment, she really thought she was going to die.

"Great timing," Alex exhaled loudly, relief flooding her eyes.

"One of my talents Commander," Buck gave her a wink, grateful he had arrived in time to save her. Buck didn't think he could look Vin in the eye, if he had to tell the Vulcan he'd let Alex die under his watch.

Choosing not to linger because there was still one Romulan left, Buck gestured Alex to follow him as they approached the Worthy which had not fired again. Its phaser banks had gone quiet but considering how abruptly the previous attack had been, he was taking no chances. Alex retrieved her phaser and they closed in on the runabout, ready to board and put an end to its hijacking.

The smoke in the shuttle bay was starting to dissipate when Buck reached the main hatch and activated it, using his command override in case, the pilot had attempted to lock them out. However, no such precaution was taken and the hatch slid open soundlessly. As it parted to allow them entry, another sound seeped through the opening they both recognised immediately.

The hum of a transporter.

"SHIT! Buck cursed as he threw caution to the wind and rushed through the hatch. He stepped inside the runabout, just in time to see Lorral staring at them through the golden shimmer of the transporter beam.

Then she was gone.

Chapter Nineteen: Sleight of Hand

As a Counsellor, Josiah Sanchez was as adept as Ezra Standish when it came to reading people. On the surface, it appeared the Security Chief only used his abilities to fleece helpless opponents in games of chance as he so liked to call it, but Josiah had seen Ezra use his skills to dissect enemies and threats to the Maverick and its crew with near surgical precision. While Josiah's own skills were equal to Ezra's, the method of dissemination he used to diagnose neuroses and mental states was slightly subtler than Ezra's laser like dissection.

Right now, Josiah's methods were telling him there was something wrong with this entire affair.

The Romulan in charge of this hostage situation outside Sick Bay was called Selena. Once she and her five companions had secured the prisoners, forcing them to remain in place outside the doors leading to the medical facility, she made no attempt to communicate their demands after stating he was the party with whom she would conduct her barter. However, despite her grandiose statement, that the Captain and the rest of the bridge crew were dead, she had done little else to further the matter. As a psychiatrist, Josiah was smart enough not to goad her, especially when an outburst from such a ruthless race, could end up with someone dying, but even he was starting to feel impatient.

"Can we get on with it?" Rain grumbled, displaying none of the patience one would expect from someone with a symbiote hundreds of years old.

Josiah couldn't decide if Rain was just plain reckless or was she attempting to hurry things along so the Romulan would get to it and start this process of negotiation. Unfortunately, her remark had done nothing but draw Selena's attention away from her comrade who was trying unsuccessfully to bypass the security locks on the access panel for the Sick Bay doors.

"You will do well to keep a civil tongue in your head or I'll slit you open and pull that worm out of you. I've never killed a Trill before but I'm willing to try for your benefit."

Despite her bravado, the threat made Rain shudder inwardly but fear was something she had several lifetimes to get used to and she refused to give this Romulan the satisfaction of seeing it on her face. "You don't say?" Rain stared back at her. "I've never tried abseiling myself but I hear it's a lot of fun."

"Enough," Josiah silenced Rain with a look when he saw Selena bristling with annoyance, preparing to react with more violence. This was hardly the time for Rain to introduce her particular brand of humour to the Romulans. Besides, in Nathan's absence, Josiah felt it his responsibility to his friend and colleague to ensure the safety of the man's girlfriend. However, now that Rain had made something of an opening, he might as well exploit it.

"You mentioned negotiation. If it is as you say, the Captain and the bridge crew is dead and we're stranded on this world, I suppose I would be in a position to speak on the behalf of my crewmates. What are your terms? Are you after our surrender?"

Even as he thought it, he knew the Romulans asking for their surrender was ridiculous. There were more than seven hundred people on board, scattered across the saucer section and two thirds of those were Starfleet officers, to say nothing of the portion that included Ezra's security personnel. The only reason they weren't here yet was because of the current condition the Maverick found itself in and Josiah imagined it wouldn't be long before they turned up. No matter how ambitious or arrogant these Romulans might be, they couldn't possibly intend to hold the ship.

"We will talk when we are ready to!" Selena snapped, irritated at being called out. Her angry voice was a stark contrast to his calm. She made some of the hostages jump with the sharpness of her tone and Josiah wondered if she was just trying to be intimidating or if there was something else at work here.

"What are we waiting for?" Josiah pressed on, himself intrigued now by what they were after. "If you want a better time, there really isn't one. Breaking into Sick Bay is not going to change the outcome. In the end, we will still end up at the same table, talking."

"SILENCE!" Selena shouted again, whirling around from the Sick Bay doors, brandishing her weapon to make him obey.

An audible gasp of fear moved through the medical staff and injured held hostage with him and Josiah decided for their sake, he'd desist his interrogation, choosing instead to lean back into the wall. Next to him, he saw Rain shift a little closer to him before whispering in his ear.

"Is it me or does it look like their hearts aren't really in this?"

"It isn't you," Josiah agreed quietly. "If I didn't know better, I'd say they were stalling."

"Stalling? For what?" She hissed under her breath.

"I don't know," Josiah shook his head perplexed, "but I don't think we're going to like it."

******

Having split up to make a two-pronged approach to Sick Bay, while Ensign Lee used the Jefferies tubes to ensure the safety of the hostages, Ezra and Drew Katovit would make their advance using the corridor running along Sick Bay's Computer facility. According to their tricorders, a Romulan sentry had been placed there. Chris and Vin conducted the same approach using the corridor along the Surgical Suite wing of Sick Bay and as expected, saw another sentry keeping a vigil on that corridor. Unfortunately, the sentry was given an unobstructed view of its entire length, making it extremely difficult for them to approach.

"Can you take him?" Chris asked quietly as Vin tried to line up the shot from the corner behind which they were taking refuge, while still maintaining their anonymity. There was only a narrow gap in which he could see the Romulan and it was going to take a very precise shot to nail his target.

"Ain't gonna be easy," Vin frowned because even if the range of the shot was not a problem, it was lining it up would be. It wasn't something that could be done in haste and if the Romulan spotted him doing it, since he needed line of sight, they would lose their advantage.

"You know, if you learned how to do the Vulcan nerve pinch, you could just walk up to him unarmed and take him by surprise," Chris remarked, unable to resist teasing despite the urgency of the situation.

"I'm willing to practise on you, pard," Vin replied smoothly, not at all reacting to the comment as he continued to keep his aim fixed on the Romulan, waiting for the best moment to pull the trigger.

A slow vibration of his combadge made Chris retreat further down the corridor away from Vin before he tapped the device and heard Ezra's voice. The security chief was deliberately keeping his voice down to avoid being overheard but Chris understood him clearly enough.

"Captain, Lee's in position."

It was now or never....

Out of nowhere, the saucer section suddenly rocked with what felt like an explosion. Whatever it was, the roar it produced travelled through the Maverick's walls and bulkheads, causing lights to flicker on and off for a second. Immediately following this, Chris heard the distinct sound of a phaser being fired and quickly hurried back to Vin. He arrived just in time to see the Vulcan stepping out from the corner to make his shot.

While the Romulan was just as distracted as Chris had been by the sudden jolt, Vin Tanner who had just flown the Maverick through a maelstrom to land on this planet, was too unflappable to let the opportunity to go to waste. Taking advantage of the distraction, he closed the gap between the two corridors and took aim at the Romulan. By the time the enemy realised he was there and went for his disruptor, Vin had already pulled the trigger. The amber bolt of energy struck the Romulan dead centre and threw him across the corridor with such force, he was little more than mist of amber before disintegrating completely.

Chris joined Vin while trying to identify the cause of that explosion. If he didn't know better, he would have thought it was the blast from a phaser bank, except it was inside his ship. Was someone actually firing phasers banks inside his goddamn ship? Very quickly, Chris deduced such a thing could have only occurred from the shuttle bay. While shuttles did not have weapon systems, runabouts certainly did. He would have to deal with it later, right now, it had provided them with a distraction, and Chris intended to exploit it.

"Ezra, tell Lee to drop the grenade and move in now!"

"Aye Captain."

Another Romulan appeared from the other end of the corridor, firing continuously down its length, making no effort to aim, just filling up the space with so much disruptor fire, it could cut down anyone trying to make their way through it. Vin skidded to his knees to avoid being shot, allowing the blasts to pass over his head, while Chris took fired his rifle from the edge of the corridor wall. His stomach clenched seeing a bolt of disruptor energy streak past Vin's shoulder by a fraction, impacting on the wall behind him. Both Chris and Vin fired at the same time, the twin blasts from each of their phasers, disintegrated the Romulan where he stood.

"Was that a blast from a phaser bank?" Vin asked getting to his feet as Chris joined him.

"Yeah," Chris frowned before he heard his combadge thrilling.

"Captain," Buck Wilmington's voice reported.

"Buck," Chris was relieved to hear his First Officer's voice, "Where are you?"

"Me and Alex are down in the shuttle bay," Buck explained quickly. "We took out three Romulans but Lorral fired the Worthy's phasers at us. By the time we got to her on board, she'd transported out of there."

"Where did she go?" Chris demanded, not liking the idea the woman was somewhere else on his ship, doing God only knew what.

"We don't know," Buck frowned. "She made sure the logs were wiped the minute she made the transport."

Once again, the woman had planned ahead and Chris was tired of playing catch up. He had a feeling, they were nowhere near her endgame.

******

"Now Ensign!" Ezra ordered, confident Lee would carry out her duty and deliver the grenade to the remaining two Romulans, currently guarding the hostages according to his tricorder.

Taking advantage of the same distraction that allowed Vin Tanner to get his clear shot of the Romulan near the Surgical Suite of Sick Bay, Ezra and Katovit closed in on the Romulan sentry station along its Computer Room. The sentry was similarly distracted by the rumble that originated from the lower decks and shook the whole of the Maverick's saucer section.

The Security Chief continued to be chagrined by the continuous violation of the Maverick since the encounter with the four Romulan warbirds. It was bad enough they were forced to make a terrestrial landing due to the Vrihan's incursions into their space, costing innocent whose exact numbers he was not looking forward to learning. Now the Vrihan vermin had infested his ship and taken his comrades hostage as well. It was no way to treat a lady and Ezra was determined to excoriate every last one of them from the Maverick before the day was done

Upon downing the first of the sentries stationed there, the two security officers immediately took up flanking positions on each side of the corridor to wait for the second one to arrive. No sooner than they had stared at each other across the space, they heard footsteps running towards them. The lone Romulan rounded the corner and paused at the top of the corridor, sighting his dead comrade immediately. His dark eyes narrowed as he searched for the Starfleet officers responsible, his disruptor held in front of him ready to fire.

As he did so, he reached for his communicator, probably to alert his comrades of their presence, and unwisely averted his gaze because it gave Ezra the opportunity to take aim and fire. Like before, the beam of energy struck the Romulan in the chest, disintegrating him where he stood. Not wasting time with prisoners, Ezra's quality of mercy had withered with the taking of hostages. Besides, he doubted the Romulans would have afforded them the same courtesy.

"Chief," Katovit said with a grave voice that immediately made Ezra look at him.

"What is it, Lieutenant?"

"There's still two more at Sick Bay," he met Ezra's gaze with a grimace.

Ezra's jaw clenched, feeling dismay rise inside of him light fetid water, as his expression darkened as if the light had vanished from the room. The stun grenade should have been deployed by now. That it hadn't been, meant something had gone wrong and Ezra did not want to imagine what that could be.

"Ensign Lee! Come in!" Ezra demanded, running towards Sick Bay, determine to reach the young woman if she was in trouble.

She did not answer.

******

When the thunderous sound rocked the ship, it created an understandable surge of panic among the hostages held captive outside Sick Bay. Selena and the remaining legionnaire guarding the hostages exchanged suspicious glances at each other, both concluding this was some trick perpetrated by the security officers trying to rescue their crewmates. Tapping the communication device on her studded belt across her chest, Selena gripped her disruptor tight in her hand and aimed it in Josiah and Rain's direction.

"Check the corridors," she ordered the sentries in place. "This might be a Starfleet trick."

In the meantime, her dark eyes scanned the area for any signs of encroachment by Starfleet security. If it was not for her heightened sense of paranoia after that shudder through the ship, she might have missed the slight movement that appeared in the corner of her eye. Having risen through the ranks because she was a ruthlessly efficient and disciplined combat soldier, Selena was trained to notice everything. The movement of the panel across the bulkhead caught her eye almost instantly. Approaching it stealthily, her footsteps were silent as she raised her disruptor to fire, her lips thinning into an ugly scowl.

The instant the panel slid apart, revealing the faint silhouette of a body hovering over the opening, Selena fired into the centre of it.

Disruptor fire struck its target and a scream followed the body tumbling through the opening. Flesh disintegrated with such speed, Ensign Lee's body never reached the deck. She vanished in a haze of green energy, taking with her the grenade intended to incapacitate the enemy. A small smile of triumph crossed Selena's lips, at once again proving how weak Starfleet officers were.

Rain felt a surge of rage as she recognised the crewmate who had just died by this Romulan's hand. With Selena's back to her and the other Romulan out of sight, Rain's anger propelled her to her feet with lightning fast reflexes. Without thinking it through, Rain sprinted towards the woman. Selena turned around just in time to see Rain slamming hard into her body, toppling her off her feet, her disruptor flying out of her hand.

Panic erupted as the hostages watched the fight in a mixture of fright and concern, particularly when Selena's comrade returned to the scene, surveying the situation before moving quickly to act. Josiah had no doubt if he were allowed to do so, he would kill Rain and the Counsellor was not about to let that happen. Waiting for his moment, Josiah kicked out his foot when the Romulan ran past, connecting with the man's ankle, and bringing him down immediately. The legionnaire uttered a cry of pain and indignation as he landed hard on his knees, still clutching his weapon.

Oh shit, maybe you should have thought this through too. Counsellor, Josiah thought to himself when the Romulan turned sharply at him, the disruptor aimed squarely at his chest. However, before he could pull the trigger, he was struck in the back by a beam of energy. The Romulan uttered a cry of pain before he vanished into nothingness. His end resulted in a fresh chorus of fearful cries from the other hostages. Josiah followed the beam back to its source and broke into a smile at the sight of Vin Tanner lowering his phase rifle, the Captain a step behind him.

"Help Rain!" Josiah exclaimed, suddenly remembering the only other Romulan left on the deck.

Actually, Rain didn't need that much help. She was pissed. In the few seconds before that body had disintegrated, Rain recognised Ensign Lee, with whom she was quite familiar with. They shared a liking for unusual bric-a-brac and would often discuss their latest acquisitions whenever Mi Na beamed back to the Maverick from shore leave. Knowing there would be no more conversations like that, not to mention the relish this woman had taken in revealing the Captain was dead had properly provoked Rain's sense of outrage.

Not to mention, she owed Selena for that jab earlier.

Returning the favour, Rain threw a hard punch against the Romulan's jaw and was prepared to deliver a knockout blow when the Romulan twisted her hard, flipping the slender transporter chief off her body and onto the floor. Selena rolled onto her hands and knees, her dark eyes searching for her disruptor and sighting it within reach. She threw herself at it, her hand outstretched to pick up the weapon when suddenly, a shadow fell over her and forced her to look up.

"I really prefer you didn't," Chris Larabee warned, feeling very comfortable with killing her right there and then.

Selena reached for it anyway and Chris kicked her in the face, sending her reeling. She rolled across the floor dazed, coming to a stop at the base of the wall. Chris raised his eyes towards Rain and was mildly puzzled at the relief he saw flooding into her face, not at her deliverance but for something deeper. In the meantime, Vin closed in on Selena, aiming the barrel of his rifle at her to ensure she didn't make any attempts to escape. Around them, medical personnel among the hostages were getting to their feet, quickly attending to their injured once again, now the crisis was over.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Josiah tapping his combadge and getting in contact with Doctor Zheng to let her know she could unseal Sick Bay, now the Romulans were dealt with. Turning back to Rain, he offered her a hand to help her to her feet. Rain took it gratefully, brushing a strand of that wild hair out of her face. He winced seeing the discoloration of her lovely brown skin thanks to the ugly bruise at the corner of her lip, clearly delivered by a fist. For her part, Rain did not seem to notice the injury, instead her brown eyes were dancing with delight.

"It's good to see you Captain. That cow over there told us the entire bridge crew was dead."

"They tried," he answered, his jaw tightening thinking how the Romulans transported onto his bridge with every intention of murdering everyone there. "But we held our own. No one was hurt and three of them are alive and secured."

Ezra and Lieutenant Katovit finally arrived on the scene. Judging by the expression on his face, Ezra was expecting the worst when he surveyed the scene. While there was some measure of relief that the hostages were unharmed, Chris knew the line of tension running through him was for the one member of this rescue party who was unaccounted for.

"Where's Ensign Lee?" Chris asked before Ezra could.

Rain shook her head in silence, her downcast expression telling the three men what they had somewhat guessed when the grenade had not detonated. Like Ezra and his second in command, Chris felt a surge of grief at the loss of the young officer. Glaring at the Romulan female Vin was shadowing, Rain's eyes sparked with anger as she explained what had happened. "She got spotted before she could get out of the access hatch. That bitch over there disintegrated her."

"Damn," Ezra's poker face wavered just enough for the Captain to see the anguish in the man's sea green eyes. No matter how dispassionate Ezra may proclaim to be, Chris knew just how deeply he cared for everyone on his security team. Ensign Mi Na Lee was just a kid really and she had deserved better than to meet her end so unceremoniously. Inwardly, Chris knew he hadn't even began to comprehend the tally of lives lost today and it filled him with a cold rage at the Romulan bastards responsible for the hurt to his crew and his ship.

Ezra strode towards the Romulan lieutenant, brushing past Vin before his hand clamped around the woman's arm. With uncharacteristic venom, Ezra hauled the Romulan to her feet, causing her to hiss in pain as he slammed her against the wall, his phaser jamming into ribs. She bared her teeth stained with green blood.

"Permission to escort our guest to the brig?" He asked, fully intending to interrogate the woman for every iota of information in her reptilian brain before the day was over.

"Permission granted...." Chris started to say, feeling no sympathy for the woman and perfectly willing to let Ezra vent his ire on his prisoner, within reason of course, when suddenly a low whine filled the air.

It was Rain who realised what it was, first. As Transporter Chief, she would have been very remiss if she hadn't. "Captain! That's a transporter beam!"

No sooner than she had said the words, a gold mist surrounded Selena's body and Ezra immediately released his grip, lest he get taken with her. Katovit and Vin raised their weapons to fire but could not do so without putting Ezra at risk. They could only watch in impotent fury as the woman smiled at them, uttering something that became lost in the hum of the transporter beam, before she vanished completely.

Almost on cue, Chris's fury at her escape was further compounded by Mary's voice coming through his combadge. "Chris, the Romulans are being transported out of the Ready Room!"

"Son of a bitch!" Vin cursed. "Can we pinpoint where the beam is coming from?"

"Not without access to the sensors," Ezra returned with just as much frustration.

To Chris, their voices became white noise, just like their collective frustration at their enemies' escape. He did not react or answer Mary on the open channel because he was too busy pulling together the fragments of information, regarding Lorral's intrusion onto the Maverick and the subsequent actions of the Romulans with her. Lapsing into deep thought, he began to see the woman's stratagem and had to confess, it made perfect sense.

"Chris?" Josiah asked, seeing the thoughtful expression on the Captain's face.

"This was never about taking hostages," Chris said finally. "This was about getting a runabout."

"What?" Rain exclaimed somewhat incensed. "You mean trying to kill everyone on the bridge, sending security on a merry-go-round across the ship, taking us hostage down here, was just about getting a ride?"

"I hate to admit this but the Captain is correct," Ezra agreed, feeling his own outrage at not seeing the sleight of hand, Lorral had perpetrated on them. "All this was nothing more than a distraction."

"Lorral never intended to take the Maverick or bargain for hostages," Chris explained, feeling numb with fury but also exhausted after the events of the last few hours. "It's why her soldiers were so willing to kill the bridge crew because she never intended to enter any negotiations. All this was, was to keep us from realising what she was really after, a way off Loren III."

"With a runabout, she's got weapons, sensors, a transporter pad and a ship capable of reaching warp," Vin nodded in understanding, his Vulcan fury smouldering in his eyes.

"And with the transporter, she could easily retrieve her comrades using the runabout's sensors." Ezra concluded.

"I wondered why Selena was stalling," Josiah frowned, wondering whether he ought to be furious or admire the woman for her simple yet highly effective plan. "Which runabout did she take?"

"The Midkiff," Chris stated simply. "Buck and Alex had cornered her in the shuttle bay, that's why she fired the Worthy's phaser banks, to keep them busy while she transported to the Midkiff."

"Chris," Vin spoke up, hating to think the woman had gotten the better of them. "Let me and Ezra take the Worthy out, we can catch up to her."

Chris Larabee sucked in a deep breath, taking note of the empty hatchway in the bulkhead where Ensign Lee had met her end, then regarded the injured being brought to Sick Bay and considered the current state of his ship. The Maverick was bleeding from a dozen wounds, her crew was still reeling from their battle and as the Captain, their welfare came before any need to settle accounts with Sub-Commander Lorral.

"No," he said simply and swept his gaze over the faces of his crew. "We'll catch up with her eventually but not today. Today, we need to take care of our wounded. Besides," he thought about the woman and her plans to build a new Romulan Empire here in the Frontier. "I have a feeling we'll be seeing her again."

Epilogue: Castaways

"Captain's Log Stardate 14.339.21.

It has been two days since the Maverick was forced to land on Loren III. At this time, we are awaiting the arrival of the USS Saratoga and USS Obama from Deep Space 5 after contacting Starfleet Command and notifying them of our situation. Despite our terrestrial landing on the planet, Starfleet concurs with Chief Engineer Pemberton and myself the Maverick is salvageable and has authorised the delivery of a replacement warp core, to be delivered by the Obama. Our orders are to make the Maverick space worthy to reach DS5 before undergoing two months of extensive repairs.

During our battle with the Vrihan, we lost thirty crew members, including Ensign Yanek who died after sustaining grievous injuries from a plasma fire in the stardrive section. Adelaide Sheridan, Lt. Travis' mother has taken this particularly hard and wishes me to add her condolences to the Ensign's parents when I write to her parents. It is not a duty I am looking forward to. At least 45 people sustain injuries ranging from mild to serious, including CMO Doctor Nathan Jackson, Ensign JD Dunne and Food Technician Inez Recillos. All are recovering in Sick Bay although I am told, Doctor Zheng may resort to straps to ensure Dr Jackson remains in bed.

In the meantime, engineering crews have been hard at work, conducting repairs on both the saucer and stardrive sections of the ship. Despite damage to our shuttle bay, at least eight of our shuttles are still operational. Lieutenant Pemberton has been using these to transport engineering crews to the stardrive section, which is still drifting above the planet while we await the arrival of our new antimatter drive. Accompanying them, in the Worthy, is Lieutenant Commander Standish who understandably wants to remain close by in case the Vrihan choose to make a reappearance.

Regarding the Vrihan, Starfleet Command reports there are at least seven Romulan warbirds unaccounted after the destruction of the Romulan home world. It was assumed these were destroyed at the same time but considering our report, it may well be they have been commandeered by the Vrihan. As of yet, we have not received any further intelligence regarding the fate of Sub-Commander Lorral but Starfleet Intelligence will now be investigating the matter more stringently. The Romulan Senate, such as it is, have condemned the attack on the Maverick and consider the Vrihan a terrorist faction, and have given us leave to treat them as such in future.

******

While JD Dunne's injuries were not as severe as Nathan Jackson's, sustaining serious burns which modern technology was able to heal quickly enough through dermal regeneration, the accelerated process did leave the body weakened from the effort. The horrific wounds were gone from his flesh but JD could understand the need for caution because he could feel the tenderness of the regenerated skin every time he moved. Thus, while he was afforded the ability to leave his bed for short periods, he wasn't eager to do much else.

Perfectly aware the young man hated being laid up and not being able to participate in the clean-up and repair work currently undertaken by the able-bodied crew of the Maverick, Ezra Standish had left him a deck of cards during his visit, to entertain himself. To save Nathan from incurring seriously bodily harm from his own medical stuff by his attempts to leave his sick bed and assist with the casualties in Sick Bay, JD Dunne decided to alleviate his own ire at being stuck in the Main Patient Ward by entertaining the doctor.

Nathan's injuries, unlike JD's, required the doctor to remain bedridden and JD learned the adage of doctors making the worst patients was proof personified by the man's behaviour. After witnessing Nathan's constant arguments with Doctor Zheng, JD decided for Nathan's own sake, he better keep the doctor busy.

"Come on Nathan, it's your hand," JD urged, thinking he no longer felt like a junior ensign after seeing Nathan kicking up such a righteous fit of indignation, he was just one step away from tantrum.

"You're just trying to distract me," Nathan grumbled, following the ensign's prompt by picking up his cards and studying them. JD was sitting on a chair next to his bed with card game being played across the blanket on Nathan's lap.

"No," JD replied not looking up from his own cards, his expression one of complete neutrality. "I'm trying to keep Doctor Zheng from finishing what those Romulans started."

The doctor cursed under his breath before giving JD a dark look over his cards. "Very funny."

With the same poker face that would have warmed Ezra's heart, JD responded promptly. "I'm not kidding."

Nathan let out a sigh, supposing he was being a little difficult. He raised his eyes to the ward longingly, frustrated by seeing his medical staff running ragged across the Main Patient Ward, clearly exhausted from tending so many wounded and being unable to help. Still, he had to admit to being damned proud of Doctor Zheng. She had risen magnificently to the occasion and justified his decision in choosing her as his assistant CMO. In fact, he was rather proud of his entire medical staff and their performance during this crisis.

"I just hate being laid up like this," Nathan admitted with a sigh. "Everybody's working so hard, I feel guilty just lying here, being able to do nothing to help."

"Me too," JD could appreciate the sentiment. "But I'm taking your advice to make sure I heal up properly so I don't do more harm than good by pushing myself too hard, too soon."

"Sure," Nathan grumbled discarding two cards. "Throw that back in my face."

Suddenly, he noticed the doors to the ward sliding open and entering together were Rain and Casey, obviously here to see them. Both women had dropped in at varying times during the day before going on duty and their appearance now, meant they were done for the day and were able to visit. Casey was carrying what looked like a huge banana split with two spoons, aware it was JD's favourite, to lift the young man's spirits and while Rain did not come bearing gifts, just seeing her was a treat for a doctor behaving like a lion with a thorn in its paw.

"Hey JD," Casey smiled, coming over to the ensign and giving him a kiss on the cheek. "How are you doing?"

"Better now that you're here," he said pleased to see her.

"Hey Doc," Rain repeated the same affectionate gesture with Nathan. "Still driving Doctor Zheng crazy?"

"Not at all," Nathan said with perfect innocence, hoping a retributory lightning bolt didn't strike him dead for such a bald face lie. "I've been keeping JD busy, playing cards."

"Uh huh, sure you are." she looked at him sceptically, perfectly aware what a pain in the ass he was. Li Pong had called her to complain. The two women had struck up a little friendship since Rain started dating the doctor.

"We'll leave you two alone," JD said getting up gingerly, with Casey looking on with concern to see if he needed help.

"You just don't want to share that banana split," Nathan accused, nodding at the bowl Casey was carrying. "You know that's not exactly healthy food for a man in your condition."

"Yeah and neither is getting your doctor mad at you, but I don't see you avoiding that either." JD smirked, drawing giggles from Casey and Rain.

"Get out of here!" Nathan barked as JD and Casey headed off, the ensign wearing a smile showing how proud he was at himself for getting the better of the doctor.

Rain watched them retreat to JD's bed before turning to Nathan, a smile on her face. "You know, hanging out with Vin and Buck is doing that boy a world of good."

"That's not the way I'd put it," Nathan remarked before turning to Rain who began putting away the cards JD left behind. "How's your day?"

"Oh busy," Rain replied, "I'm cleaning up the mess left behind by our smooth landing from the transporter bay and I still need to write a letter to Grace's parents. I know the Captain's doing it but she talked about them so much, I feel I know them myself."

Nathan saw the sadness in her eyes, something she rarely allowed anyone to see. Grace Yanek was just a kid and she'd been taken too soon. "I'm sorry," he reached for her hand and squeezed it.

"Thank you," Rain leaned in and kissed him again, savouring his kiss because it was the tonic to take the grief she felt in her heart over the young woman, especially when Rain had been so hard on her for the whole business regarding Adelaide Sheridan. "Alia Nal, three hosts back, tells me the Creator takes the good ones early but that doesn't make me feel better."

"No, it wouldn't," he agreed, feeling similarly aggrieved when someone so young died.

"Anyway," Rain said with a loud exhale, dispelling the sadness from her mind for the moment. "It got me thinking about us."

Nathan's eyes widened. "Us?"

"Yeah, Rain nodded, "I think we ought to move in together. I mean, we've been seeing each other for months now. We spend most of our off-duty time together and we've both got nice little spots in each other's mattress in our quarters. I think we're ready. Don't you?"

Considering he had been contemplating marriage a few days ago, Nathan had to say yes. In fact, this might be a better solution than a proposal, since he was still in two minds about whether it was too soon for them to take such a step. As always, Rain had knocked him over with a feather. Much like she had done since the first time he saw her.

"I'm ready," he smiled. "As a matter of fact, I'm so ready, I think we could go move my stuff over right now."

"Nice try Doc," Rain shook her head, leaning over to kiss him. "But I'm wise to your ways."

******

Despite what they had done to the coastline upon landing, the beach beyond the hull of the Maverick remained fortunately unaffected by the damage, and it was Julia who suggested they take advantage of it. Ezra could not blame her of course, the Obama was due in twelve hours with their replacement warp core and after that, the Chief Engineer of the Maverick would barely have time to sleep, let alone steal a few hours of relaxation. As it was, the last two days had been hardest on her, as she tried to make the Maverick capable of sustaining its castaways while they awaited rescue.

"This was a great idea Julia," Mary complimented, as she sat next to Chris on a beach blanket, watching the dance of flames from the campfire, sipping wine while enjoying the breeze against her skin. She was wearing a red bikini, Chris had called �pieces of string with a glandular condition', with a beach robe over her shoulders, so he wouldn't insist on her carrying an umbrella to cover herself. Men.

"Thank you," Julia beamed, resting her head on Ezra's shoulder, the breeze making her copper coloured hair bounce against her creamy shoulders, bared thanks to the strapless swimsuit she wore, with her favourite sarong knotted at the hip. "I just needed to look at something other than hull breaches and broken displays I have to fix."

As she said that, Ezra planted a soft kiss against her hair, his agreement conveyed in that one gesture.

"Damn straight," Buck agreed as he rested against a log, his long legs stretched out across the sand, as he examined the bottle filled with a green liquor he didn't recognise. It was one of the few bottles from Josiah's collection that survived their crash landing.

"Pity the kid and the doc couldn't be here." In the end, he decided to risk it and poured himself a glass and looked across the fire at Josiah. "What is this?"

Josiah stared at the bottle and then shrugged its shoulders. "It's green."

"Well according to Doctor Zheng, disrupter hits to the body are serious, even to the slightest degree, there could be delayed effects on the organs so she wants to make sure keeping them in Sick Bay for another day," Chris explained, recalling her report when he'd inquired after his Senior Officers and had given her permission to use extreme measures to keep Nathan still.

"Oh, Nathan's going to love that," Josiah remarked with a little smile, casting his gaze over the collection of faces around him.

It was Vin who found this nice secluded spot on the beach after the helmsman had gone exploring, since this terrain was more familiar to him than anyone else. Was it only a few days ago, he considered leaving the Maverick? It seemed so distant now. If nothing else, the battle with the Vrihan and their crash landing on this world had convinced the healer, more than ever, he was needed here. Of course, he would miss playing the role of the doting grandfather but his life was now on this ship with his friends, and he was quite pleased with it.

"You know," Josiah said raising his glass of Romulan ale to his lips. "I am going to be a grandfather."

"No kidding!" Buck burst out grinning as he set down the glass of green liquor, driving it into the sand, so it would sit still while he got up and went to pat Josiah on the back. "Congratulations!"

"Congratulations!" Chris added his voice to the salutations and was soon followed by the group, with Ezra prompting a toast by raising his glass.

"Is it Mara?" Chris asked, knowing Josiah had two daughters. He knew one of them was married and living on Earth, while the other was somewhere in Sector 001.

"Yes, Mara," he nodded. "My oldest."

"Well we've got at least two months of downtime," the captain suggested. "You should take the time and go see them. The ship won't be going anywhere once we get to Deep Space Five."

"It would be nice," Josiah considered, thinking his decision might go over better with Mara if he made it in person and spent some time with her on Earth. "I should see how Thalia is doing too."

"That's the one who isn't married right?" Buck asked, finding hard to believe when the Counsellor wasn't on the Maverick, he was a father with two grown daughters.

"That's right, she's at Jupiter Station..." Josiah started to say before his eyes narrowed and he stared at Buck suspiciously, "why?"

A ripple of laughter moved across the group at Josiah's hesitation to let Buck Wilmington anywhere near his unmarried daughter, in her twenties.

"What?" Buck asked innocently. "What's so funny?"

"Commander Wilmington," Ezra said with a straight face. "I believe when one looks up the terminology �lock up your daughter', your image is figured quite prominently."

Another burst of laughter followed and Buck gave Ezra a dirty look, before he caught the slight smile on Alex's face. The Science Officer was lying against Vin on a blanket, looking spectacular, he thought in her white bikini, which was such a glorious contrast against her skin, he was rather grateful Vin could now appreciate it. Alex didn't speak but her eyes danced with the secret knowledge at the possible change in his bachelorhood.

Alex who understood privacy like no one else, had said nothing to anyone about Buck's exchange with Inez on the hull of the Maverick. She understood how fragile this thing between Buck and Inez was, without wishing the complication of it becoming public knowledge.

For his part, Buck had seen Inez in Sick Bay a day after the Vrihan had gone, when they'd finally sorted through the chaos of the battle and he had a moment to breathe.

******

Like Nathan, Inez's injuries with a disruptor had earned her a stay in Sick Bay so Doctor Zheng could keep her under observation. Even though the dermal regenerator healed skin, it was a process that required rest as the new skin settled into place. Besides, the state of her quarters was no fit place for a woman recovering a leg injury to navigate at present. The clean-up crews had yet to get to the place and it was like most other living quarters on the Maverick, a shamble.

"How you doing Inez?" Buck asked her, wishing she was in her quarters, instead of the Patient Ward where everyone could see him. Not that he had anything to hide and there were partitions separating the beds so they at least had some measure of privacy. It was just what he had to say was personal and he did not wish an audience.

Even if the lady's affections for him had changed, a thought that made him happier than he could possibly believe, Buck understood the success of Chris and Mary's relationship was due to Chris taking it slow in his approach to Mary. When she had first come on board, Mary was a new widow. In allowing Mary the sufficient time to mourn her husband, Chris had enable Mary to move on better. Buck wished to give Inez the same consideration.

"I'm going bored out of my mind," Inez complained unhappily, wishing she was in Four Corners, so she could assess the damage there and make a start to putting the place back together. Everyone was in clean-up mode and she hated being stuck in bed when there was so much work to be done. "I hate being sick or wounded in this case."

"Trust me," Buck sighed, making no move to sit down because he simply didn't have the time. As important as what he had to say to her was, as First Officer, he could not linger long. "Being able to move around isn't all it's cracked up to be. When we get to DS5, I'm gonna sleep for a month."

"You do look tired," she said concerned, her eyes drinking him in for a moment in a way Buck knew immediately was more than just friendly concern and once again, the heart in his chest beat a little faster. Christ, how was she able to do that to him? It wasn't like he was some lovestruck kid, like JD or Vin. There had been women, lots of women and yet this one, this one always had the power to make him feel like he didn't know a damn thing about them.

"I am, but that's the job." Buck shrugged, trying to hide how affected he was by what he recognised in her eyes. "I mean we got through it okay but there's still a hell of a mess to clean up."

"You should get some rest," Inez reached for his hand. "Please, for me?"

"Now how can I refuse that?" He replied taking her hand and for a moment, there was nothing but silence between them as they savoured the warmth of each other's touch, even in this simple way. Looking into her eyes, he saw the depth of her feelings even if she couldn't say them out loud. That she had reached for him, and their fingers were intertwined in a gesture of intimacy more potent than sex, was a tremendous step for her.

"Inez," he started to say and then paused because he needed to put this right. What had Alex said? Don't screw this up. "Inez, I'm going to be around. If you need me, you just gotta call. I can wait until you're ready. You're worth it."

Inez smiled, understanding what he was saying to her and appreciating the fact he was allowing her to come to him on her own terms. Squeezing his hand, Inez felt the emotion rush to her cheeks, grateful her colouring didn't show how much she was blushing. She would always love Raphael, would always miss him but today, she realised she cared for Buck Wilmington a great deal and while she wasn't ready to plunge into another relationship, she appreciated the time he was giving her.

"Thank you, Buck," she smiled and then added with a little smirk to break the tension of heavy emotions swirling around them, "I'm told I'm worth it."

Buck broke into a grin. "I can't argue with that."

******

"Hey Chris," Vin spoke up, bringing Buck's thoughts back to the campfire.

The Vulcan had sat up to get take a sip of the whiskey he was drinking, never having developed a taste for the Romulan ale Chris liked so much. Running an appreciative eye over Alex as she was wearing her barely nothing bikini, he felt a surge of desire for her he'd have to quench later until he remembered what they'd discussed about their shore leave plans.

"Alex and I were going to head back to Earth during furlough so she can see the ranch," Vin said staring at Chris across the fire. He was rather delighted that Alex had suggested going to Earth, to see the home left to him by his human parents. They'd spent so much time with the holodeck recreation of the place, Vin was looking forward to showing her the real thing, especially now that she was his wife. He still thrilled at being able to call her that. "We thought you and Mary might like to join us."

"Hey that sounds nice," Mary replied, having heard Vin talk about the ranch and seeing it in his mind during their melding sessions to strengthen Vin's mental disciplines. "I wouldn't mind." She gave Chris a look, wondering if he would be willing to tear himself away from the repairs on the Maverick for a few weeks. If left to his own devices, Mary was certain he would spend every day of the next two months at Deep Space Five driving Julia crazy while she and her engineering team were on board.

"You sure we wouldn't be intruding?" Chris liked the idea because he and Mary had never travelled anywhere, not in the year since they had met. Who knows, it might be the right time to move their semi-intimate relationship to something more solid.

"Oh please," Alex rolled her eyes, giving Vin a look, perfectly aware of what was the reason for the invitation. "He wants you there so you two can climb a damn mountain."

"Which mountain?" Ezra asked suspiciously, knowing the Captain and the helmsman's proclivities meant wherever this peak was, it was treacherous and high.

"El Capitan," Vin grinned. "We ain't tried that one yet."

"True," Chris admitted, liking the idea of climbing that particular mountain.

"Oh Lord," Ezra rolled his eyes, hating the idea of his Captain climbing up real mountains without the safety of holodeck protocols and transporter locks. "I suppose I cannot convince you to notify the Ranger Station you are making this climb so they can monitor your progress?"

Rangers Stations in national reserves on Earth, could monitor rock climbers on treacherous climbs and were able initiate transporter locks in the event of a fall. While this was a welcome safety measure for novice climbers, experts tended to regard it as taking the fun out of the experience.

"I'll think about it," Chris said lying through his teeth for Ezra's benefit even if Vin knew better.

Ezra, who could spot a con a mile away, knew when he was being mollified and made a mental note to call in some favours, to ensure the local Ranger Station kept an eye on his captain. Without the man knowing of course.

"And while they're doing that," Alex met Mary's eyes, "we can do day trips to Paris and New York for the shopping, which is almost as much fun as rock climbing."

"Well you're certainly not going to Paris without me Marigold!" Adelaide Sheridan's ebullient voice broke through the relative calm of the night. Everyone looked up to see the woman approaching their little hideaway, dressed in a colourful beach caftan, having crossed the dunes to find out where her daughter had rushed off too or rather hidden.

Mary let out a soft groan and dropped her head on Chris's shoulder as the Captain stifled a smile at the Protocol Officer's annoyance.

Truth be told, the woman had been wonderful for morale during the last two days, which somewhat blunted Chris's annoyance at how she'd conspired to stay on board. Aside from visiting the injured in Sick Bay, entertaining crew and the families on board with stories of her adventures. Even though some of them had come at the expense of Mary, Chris particularly loved the one about fifteen-year-old Marigold's first date, they had gone a long way to taking people's mind off their recent troubles.

Furthermore, even though the woman drove her daughter insane, the rest of the senior staff found Adelaide funny and colourful, with her natural effervescence very hard to dislike, much to Mary's chagrin.

"You said this was secluded," Mary accused Vin as Adelaide enter the glow of the fire and promptly made a beeline next to her daughter.

"Oh Marigold," Adelaide lowered herself next to Mary, "you really need to learn to relax. I honestly don't know how I raised such a serious child. Perhaps I should have drank a little more champagne when I was pregnant."

"Mother!" Mary started rubbing the bridge of her nose once again wondering whether matricide was really such a bad thing.

"Now Adelaide, give Mary a break." Josiah spoke up, perfectly aware what Ms Sheridan was doing. While he lauded the woman's efforts to make her daughter enjoy life a little bit more, she could overdo it a bit. In the last two days, they'd shared more a little time together and most of her fears stemmed from the belief Mary had lost herself being married to Syan.

"Only for you Josiah," Adelaide flashed him a smile, still feeling very grateful to the Counsellor who had nursed her through the trying landing on this planet.

Mary stared at Josiah with the same suspicion, the Counsellor had given Buck a short time ago. Chris caught the look and managed to stifle a laugh, choosing instead to move tactfully to another subject.

"So, what is next for you Ms Sheridan?"

"Well I do have a tour in about a month," Adelaide smiled, taking the glass of wine Mary poured her from the bottle held up by the sand. "That's just enough time for us to do some shopping in Paris, Marigold. You'll love it Alexandra, I'm on a first name basis with all the fashion houses, you'll get royal treatment."

"Oh, that sounds like fun," Julia pouted, sorry she was going to be busy with the Maverick's repair, before realising there was nowhere else she would rather be.

"It is," Mary admitted begrudgingly, remembering her youth and how it felt watching her mother command those snooty fashionistas with awe. As much as Adelaide drove her insane sometimes, the woman had made her childhood memorable. Clinging to those fond memories, she leaned over and kissed her mother on her cheek. "I'm glad you're here mother."

The show of affection took the lady by surprise and she brightened considerably. "I am too. I'm so thrilled to meet all your friends. Even your Captain, although I'd prefer if he did not crash the ship next time." Adelaide winked at Chris to show him she was only joking. She might have been a civilian but she had spoken to enough people in the last two days to know they were alive only because Chris Larabee was their captain.

"Thanks," Chris laughed, "although I wasn't driving." He smirked in Vin's direction.

"I just went where you sent me pard," Vin said smoothly, giving Chris a look. "Don't blame me if your instructions weren't that good."

"Anyway," Adelaide resumed speaking. "After Earth, I'll be heading to Bajor to do a tour of the planet. We'll be performing the Merry Widow. For an extremely spiritual people, they do not have much in the way of theatre. Oh Ezra, I have those tickets you asked for."

There was a ripple of laughter through the group, particularly from Buck, Chris and Vin, who were staring smugly at the Security Chief who was well and truly caught out over his claims he wasn't a fan.

"Tickets?" Julia asked, raising a brow. "Were we going?"

"Well," Ezra thought clearing his throat. "I thought before you became too embroiled in the refit of the Maverick, we could spend a few days on Bajor."

"Hey if you do," Alex spoke up, having spent a good deal of time on the planet when she was still stationed at Deep Space Nine. "There's a pretty nice resort in the Kendra Province and there's a lot to see, the Fire Caves, the Monasteries of the Kai and the Cliffs of Undalar."

"And Quark's Bar." Buck added with a smug smile, certain Ezra wasn't going to Bajor without visiting that particular location.

"I have no idea what you mean," Ezra looked innocently, already thinking about the Ferengi's high stakes games, according to Will Riker.

"Really?" Julia gave him a look, not believing him for one second.

Seeing how Ezra might end up with a situation, Josiah stepped into save him. "Adelaide, the Merry Widow, that's an opera, isn't it?"

"An operetta," she corrected. "It's been a while since I've had to sing and I can manage well enough but the real musical talent is with Marigold of course. She's the one who turned down the chance to go to Julliard. I still remember your Pygmalion darling. It was wonderful."

All eyes turned to Mary in shock.

"You sing?" Chris stared at Mary, a slow smile forming over his face at this latest bit of intelligence, trying to picture his Protocol Officer dressed up as an 19th century flower girl and couldn't help but snigger.

Groaning in defeat, Mary let out a sigh. "Just don't tell stellar cartography."

THE END

Next story: Mirror

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