Weaker
by Scribe

Main Characters: Seven, OFCs

WARNING: Contains sexual situations.

Summary:

A chance encounter with an ancient artifact unleashes a race of alien entities aboard the ship, forcing Chris Larabee and the men of the Maverick to fight enemies wearing the faces of their women...

Fourth story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows The White.


Prologue:

Vacation

CAPTAIN'S LOG STARDATE: 2375.0925

The Dominion War is over.

Less than a week ago, the Founders signed the declaration of surrender on Cardassia Prime after fighting the largest military battle the Alpha Quadrant has ever seen. The allied forces of the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire converged upon Cardassian space and fought their way back to Cardassia Prime to engage the forces of the Dominion, consisting of the Jem'hadar, the Breen and the Cardassians. The Cardassians who were more slaves to the Dominion than they were allies, chose that moment to throw off the shackles of their oppressors and joined the fight on the side of the Alpha Quadrant. They paid a heavy price for their show of defection because out of sheer spite, the Founders ordered the orbital bombardment of Cardassia Prime.

Three thousand years of civilization and achievement was reduced to rubble in less than an hour.

The Alliance arrived on Cardassia Prime as the victors of the war but there was nothing to celebrate. Cardassia Prime has been bombed back to the Stone Age. The Alliance fleet has lost a third of its ships and the casualty list was high. Good ships were lost and good people along with them. To my deep regret, my personal friend Captain Raphael Castille of the Venture was also lost at the battle of Cardassia with all hands. Personal regrets have been dispatched to his family and to his fianc�e, Inez Recillos who is still on board the Maverick at this time, although understandably she has spent most of that time in her quarters, in mourning.

The Maverick came out of the battle well enough. We suffered minor damage, which was all but rectified at Deep Space Nine. There were casualties but fortunately, no fatal ones. We remained on DS9 for a few days following the surrender as Lieutenant Travis was recruited to aid the diplomatic core in the construction of the new treaty between the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant. Most of the crew has requested shore leave and under Counselor Sanchez's recommendation, not to mention his endorsement, I have decided that a little detour to Pacifica might not be such a bad idea before we return to the Frontier.

Captains orders until then? Rest and relaxation.

******

"I don't know Alex," Mary Travis said dubiously as both women waited for the turbo lift to deliver them to the bridge of the Maverick. "I mean what about Billy? I wouldn't feel right about leaving him."

Mary had more or less given up calling her son William because everyone on board, including William, preferred Billy.

"Oh God not this again," Alex groaned, wondering why they were having this conversation yet again.

It seemed ever since she suggested it, they had been discussing their trip to the Tethys Tourist Resort on Pacifica continuously. Although Mary agreed to go, she had been teetering backwards and forward from her decision as she wrestled for her desire to get some well-needed rest and her responsibilities to Billy.

"Didn't you tell me that Audrey King is organizing a field trip to the Oceanic Reserve for his entire class?" Alex looked at her critically. "He'll be up to his ears in pink nosed leviathans and all kinds of marine life with kids his own age. Don't you want him to make more friends? Well I can tell you boys his age don't tend to appreciate their mothers hanging around when they're trying to do that. It's a sure way to get beaten up."

Mary's jaw dropped open in horror. "It is not! My son would never get into a fight!"

"Is this the same child who tried to rewire the replicator to produce nothing but Rigellian triple fudge sundaes? The same child who caused that same replicator to malfunction creating a continuous flow of green goop into your quarters until the Chief Engineer had to shut it off manually?" Alex looked at Mary smugly.

"Don't remind me," Mary shook her head in embarrassment. "Julia had to take the panel off while it was still oozing all that stuff and let me tell you, she's got a temper on her when she's properly upset."

"Being covered in green goop will do that to you."

"Okay," Mary let out a sigh of defeat. "You're right, he'll be fine."

"Good," Alex replied with a smile, aware she would have to tackle this issue again at least a dozen times more before they actually reached the resort. "Besides," she continued speaking as the doors to the turbo lift slid open and they stepped out. "Think of it, room service for five whole days. Half naked men bringing you drinks with those little umbrellas in it, massages, moonlight swims..."

"Not to mention the midnight activities," Ezra Standish remarked playfully as he came up alongside them and with a grin of pure mischief.

"We're going there to relax." Alex bristled, even though it was not entirely a lie.

"Sure you are." Buck Wilmington said with a completely straight face as he looked over his shoulder at them and then flashed a more knowing grin at Chris Larabee who sniggered in complete awareness of his meaning.

The entire senior staff was at present on the bridge as the Maverick closed the distance between itself and the pleasure world of Pacifica. The idea of rest and recreation had put everyone in a playful mood, quite understandably considering the trials they faced recently. The view screen before them revealed the stars ahead and the ship was cruising towards its destination at a comfortable speed of Warp 7. At the rate they were traveling, they would arrive at Pacific in little more than a day. Although it was possible to get there faster, Chris saw no reason to push the ship to its limits. Besides, there were some who wished time to make their vacation arrangements, as well other details needing to be worked out, like crew rotations for one.

Even the atmosphere on the bridge seemed similarly relaxed as evidenced by the banter and the subject of conversation currently being bandied about. Tethys Resort like many others in Pacifica was being visited by almost everyone requesting shore leave. As almost 80 percent of Pacifica was covered with water, virtually every piece of land on the surface of the planet was employed in the business of tourism. The main body of Pacifica's inhabitants lived beneath the surface in large underwater domes called Pavilions. Next to Risa, Pacifica was the Federation's most popular holiday venue.

"Mr Wilmington," Mary gave him a look as she and Alex split up. The science officer took her usual post while Mary returned to her seat next to the command chair at Chris's side. "Unlike your last trip to Risa, we are going to the Tethys Resort for a vacation, not a seven-day orgy."

"Hey," Buck shrugged with no sign of repentance, having come away from that particular holiday very rested. "An orgy is an overstatement." He looked at Mary oozing pure innocence.

"Not according to the number of women who communicated with the ship to say goodbye when we went to get you." JD quipped from his place at navigation control.

"Shouldn't you be making sure we don't crash into a star or something?" Buck sniped, giving the young man a glare of annoyance. However, JD appeared equally unrepentant and responded with an even more infuriating grin.

"Face it Buck," Chris Larabee who occupied the centre seat responded. "Your exploits are known far and wide throughout the ship."

"And across bathroom walls in a dozen star systems," Alex smirked.

"What can I say, it's my animal magnetism." He grinned devilishly and exacted a groan from the women present and ripples of laughter from the men. "Women can't resist me."

The women in the room rolled their eyes in collective sarcasm before Alex found herself saying. "And that ranks up there with the mystery of Atlantis and riddle of the Sphinx."

Buck, however, was not about to be put down so easily and added cockily. "Don't worry, one day it will come to you girls too."

"Unless you want to be cleaning EPS conduits for the rest of your term as my first officer, you better pray not." Chris drawled, giving Buck a look bordering on mischief and menace that Buck had to think about for a second as he tried to guess whether or not Chris was joking.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence." Mary gave Chris a look of mock hurt. "Do you not think I'll be able to resist Mr Wilmington's considerable charms?"

"Well�" Chris started to stammer.

"Come on Mary," Vin Tanner interjected, wishing to save his Captain. "It's not that hard to resist Buck, all you need is a good flea collar."

"Hey!" Buck exclaimed.

"Nice save Mr Tanner," Mary returned her gaze to Chris, indicating he was nowhere out of trouble yet and they would discuss this later.

"So where are you and Julia going to Ezra?" JD inquired, deciding it was necessary to move to a less volatile subject.

"Oh, there's a nice romantic little inlet on the far side of the planet. Remote, luxurious and definitely made for two individuals who want to bask in each other's company." Ezra said with a grin, believing this time he had picked the perfect getaway for himself and the lovely Miss Pemberton.

"That's not all." Buck sniggered under his breath.

Ezra glared at him. "Unlike you Commander, the sole purpose in my life is not to bed Julia. Engineering took the brunt of the damage during our engagement in the last battle of the war and I believe she needs a perfectly restful place to recuperate."

"I'm sure," Buck said with a wicked gleam and then rose from his chair. "Well since our able science officer is here, if you don't mind I'll make myself scarce."

"Please," Ezra remarked and shook his head in a mixture of resignation and amusement when Buck took himself off the bridge.

Mary was still staring after him like an unruly child making his escape before turning back to the conversation at hand.

"I think it's a nice idea," Mary commented. "I know she's looking forward to it."

In truth, Julia had been speaking of nothing else since they discovered Pacifica was their intended destination for some well-needed shore leave. Ezra was correct in his claim that Engineering staff had been pushed to their limits during the last few weeks, what with holding the ship together during the battle and putting everything together after it had ended.

"What about you Captain?" JD asked, always burning with curiosity over what was happening on the ship.

"We're going white water rafting on the Trident River," Vin answered automatically.

"I can never appreciate how you two willingly indulge any recreational time you have to such pursuits." Ezra frowned in disapproval, even more so than usual.

The Trident River had its origins from the only mountain on the planet, where three powerful rivers converging into one and the result was a river that was one of the fiercest and most challenging venues for the activity of white water rafting. The force of the trio of waterways draining into one created currents known to tear boats to kindling if one was inexperienced at the sport. Ezra felt the Captain's safety was one of his principal responsibilities, whether on the ship or off it and unlike a holodeck program, there were no safety protocols in real life. Anything that went wrong could have uncomfortably permanent ramifications. Ezra had recognized the glimmer of anticipation in his Captain's eyes the moment Vin had suggested the idea and guessed that any objections he made was going to be duly noted, tabled and then rejected.

"Ezra," Chris wished he did not have to go through this every time he left the ship and went on vacation. He never had to worry about such things when he was the first officer. Why was it such a big deal because he was now Captain? "We will have our com badges on us at all times."

"I still have reservations on how effective they will be if any misfortune should occur." Ezra persisted.

"Well you can always come with us," Vin grinned at him mischievously. "You know, keep an eye on Chris yourself."

Ezra merely looked at the officer of the conn and replied simply. "Have a good trip."

******

She should have gone home.

If she had been smart, she would have.

However, when the time had come to make that decision, Inez Recillos found that she could not. The pain inside her was still too raw and she did not want to face her family's condolences because all that would do was make her remember him. She was barely holding herself together, trapped inside this darkened room where she did not want to hear of or speak to anyone. How could she be expected to cope if she went home? They had grown up in the town of Val Verde together, every road, every building and tree in the place held some significance in her memories of him and going back there would force her to remember every torturous fragment of her world that was Raphael Castille.

There was this ache inside her breast so sharp she could not breathe at times. It was to be expected, Josiah said when he came to visit her a day or more ago, she could not remember for sure because Inez seemed to have lost any sense of time. In space, it was enough to do when there was no sun to mark the passage of the days. Outside the window of her quarters, there were only stars that seemed to pass by as the ship continued on its journey, speeding past with complete indifference to her pain.

She always knew it could happen. She heard about the women who suffered the loss. As a bartender, she heard all the stories from men and women alike who lost loved ones in Starfleet. She thought if it came to it, Inez Recillos was capable of handling the possibility of losing Raphael in the line of duty. What she thought and what was was, were two completely different realities. It was unlike any pain she ever experienced in her entire life and it sapped away her strength and her will to live, like a hole in her soul letting what she was, escape into oblivion.

During the first few days, it was Mary who was her most constant supporter, having lost her husband in the same manner during the last battle with the Borg over Earth. Inez drew comfort from the widow but eventually not even Mary's words of understanding could penetrate her grief and she withdrew, appreciating that Inez needed solitude to deal with her sorrow. Inez did not know whether time would be enough. Although friends dropped into see her, she could not seem to get her mind wrapped around their presence and their attempts to help had little or no effect.

She emerged from her quarters long enough to be present at the memorial held for the Venture and all its crew. It was one of many such events that filled the calendar at DS9 following the battle at Cardassia. Inez endured the ceremony in a stupor, barely aware of anything as her friends converged upon her, offering support even though she was too wracked with guilt to be aware of very much. A part of Inez could not associate the cold surface of the torpedo tube he had been encased in for his burial as Raphael, not when it was little more than two weeks ago they made love inside this room when he came to see her.

All the plans they had made for after the war, how she was going to finally come on board the Venture. She understood his reasons for not wanting her on the front lines. In truth as risky a mission as it was to stand in the frontier between the alpha and delta quadrants, it could not possibly be as dangerous as one that the Venture had undertaken in maintaining the front lines of a war zone. Raphael knew dying was a possibility. Too many starships were destroyed during the war and it was a fate he would not allow her to risk and so he asked her to take something out of the way.

Inez obeyed because she loved him, never really believing he would die. Apart of her still refused to believe it and another part who knew better was twisting up inside with despair.

She was sitting in her quarters since then, doing nothing, moving through the set of rooms like a wraith, wallowing in sorrow, with no wish to do anything else when she heard the gentle trill of someone at her door. Inez groaned inwardly, having no wish for company and yet not possessing the lack of regard to ignore her caller. Dragging herself out of the bed she had been trying to hide in for as long as possible, Inez padded to the door, grabbing her silk robe at the same time and pulling it over herself.

Inez resolved to herself to get rid of whoever was at the door as quickly as possible, for she had no need for visitors or well-meaning friends at this time. She did not wish to be rude or hurt anyone's feelings for simply trying to help but she had little tolerance for intrusion either. However, upon opening the door, Inez found herself faced with the one person she least expected to see throughout all this.

"Buck?" Inez exclaimed with genuine surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Hi Inez," he said with a sympathetic smile. "I came to see how you were doing."

Inez was still too astonished by his presence to do anything more than invite him in.

Her relationship with the first officer of the Maverick was strange to say the least. She knew he was interested in her romantically but then that was not saying much because there was not a single woman on board the Maverick who had not at one time or another, been paid attention by Buck Wilmington. What made him different from most philanderers she supposed was the fact he never considered his dalliances with the opposite sex as something to be discarded when his interest waned. They always parted as friends and almost all the women whom she spoke to, talked about the relationship with affection. Which confused her immensely about why he would be so determine to add her to his collection. While he had a shocking attitude to his relations with women, he was also surprisingly sensitive and genuinely cared about how they felt and was always careful not to hurt them. If she had not known this for a fact, Inez would have looked upon his presence here as being in the absolute worst taste.

"How have you been Inez?" Buck asked as the doors slid close behind him and he let his gaze sweep across the room. If it was not for the air recyclers, he was certain the room would smell stale. Looking at the uneaten food on the pile of plates on the side of her bed and the fact, almost everything else remained untouched except for that part of the room, Buck had a very good idea just how she was doing.

"My fianc� just died, how do you I think I feel?" She snapped and immediately regretted her words.

"I'm sorry," he apologized wishing he had put his question forward better. Of course, she was not going to be feeling well. "I didn't mean�"

"No, it's alright." She remarked, feeling more guilt than he did. "I'm not doing too great as you can see."

He could see but he refused to pass judgment. He had no idea how she felt but his experience with Chris years before helped him understand the grieving process to some extent, enough to know it was the people close by that made the difference. "You're entitled."

"Thanks." She smiled faintly at him, pleased he was not unloading on her with advice and platitudes. "To tell you the truth I'm not really in the mood for company."

"I know," he answered making no move to enter the room any deeper than where he was. In truth, Buck was here more for his own sake than anyone else's. He was going crazy not knowing how she was faring and needed to see for himself she was alright. Of course, this was not far removed from what he had expected to see. She was naturally going to be shattered following Raphael's death. He saw how they had been when the Captain of the Venture had come aboard to know she had loved him deeply and perhaps always would. "I'm not going to stay long. I just wanted to see if you were alright and if you needed anything."

"Always the first officer huh?" She teased a little.

"Something like that." He remarked not meeting her gaze and averted his eyes so she could not tell what was truly running through his heart. At this point, it would not be well received.

"Thank you." She said quietly. "I'll be okay in time," Inez confessed and surprised herself when she believed it to be the truth.

"If you need anything�.." he started to say, letting his emotions escape a little more than it should have. "I'll even listen."

Inez was touched by the sentiment even though she was unsure what motivated it. Before this point, she had been less than subtle in her belief about his conduct with so many women. There was no reason for Buck to bestow kindness upon her and yet she sensed it was not some tasteless effort to impress her.

Whatever else it might be was something she was not equipped to deal with right now, no matter how much the idea surprised her.

******

"Audrey!" Josiah Sanchez said with an exclamation of pleasant surprise upon seeing the suite of rooms he used as his office in the capacity as ship's counselor. While the Counselor was accustomed to Lilith King dropping in at random intervals to see him, it was the first time he had ever seen her mother in these offices. Not that he did not mind seeing Audrey of course. Since meeting the lady in the thick of the recent Dominion attack on this ship, Josiah had occasion to run into her during their day to day existence on board the Maverick. "What a nice surprise. What can I do for you?"

Audrey seemed nervous and on a woman of her vintage, it seemed particularly endearing. Of course, Audrey may have been in her early forties but she still looked every much the beauty with her dark auburn hair and inquiring blue eyes that seemed to reach into the soul and grab you by the throat if you were not careful. Josiah was rather stunned by his description and had not realized he thought so much of her before this point. Feeling somewhat unsettled by that thought, Josiah shook the notion out of his head and decided to focus his mind on why she was here.

"You know that I am organizing a field trip to Pacifica for my class," Audrey said trying hard to force the words out and wondering why she ought to be so nervous about such a simple task.

"Yes," Josiah nodded. "Lilith mentioned something about it. I think it's a wonderful idea."

"Thank you," she smiled nervously and Josiah found himself admiring the way it seemed to light up her face made him revisit same discourse impressing itself upon him earlier. "The problem is we've seemed to hit a little bit of a snag. Lieutenant Holden was going to assist me in chaperoning the children and it appears she's come down with a case of the Kaltorian flu and needs to be quarantined for the duration. I've tried the other teachers but they've organized outings of their own for their classes and I really did not want to disappoint the children. They had their heart set on going."

Josiah could attest to that. Lilith who was almost always accompanied by Billy Travis these days had talked about nothing else and would be terribly disappointed if the trip were cancelled. "That's unfortunate, I know she was really looking forward to it."

Audrey cleared her throat and then got to the point of her visit to his office. "I was hoping perhaps you would consent to come in Lieutenant Holden's place."

"Me?" He exclaimed.

"Yes," Audrey replied. "You're wonderful with children and Lilith said you have been to Pacifica before."

"Yes," Josiah nodded, his mind whirling at the idea. In truth, he had no plans for the furlough and vacation was not something he had really given much thought to since Ayla's passing. This was mostly due to the fact, time spent doing nothing would usually cause him to start thinking about his wife and by extension, remind him how much he missed her. "I used to vacation there with my wife and our children when they were young enough to appreciate it."

"I'm sorry," Audrey looked dismayed at being the reason for dredging up that pain. "I understand if you don't want to do it. I just thought�.."

"No, it's alright." Josiah moved quickly to allay any fear she might have at causing him discomfort. It had been a year since his wife had departed from this life and he could not avoid the places where they had been forever. After all, did he not tell his patients who suffered the same loss, when it was time to move on? This time the advice was for a patient closer to home. Physician, heal thyself.

"I'll be happy to do it," Josiah announced taking a deep breath and deciding to let nothing hold him back.

"Really," she beamed radiantly at his acceptance. "The children will be so pleased. I know Lilith will be."

Somehow Josiah had a hard time trying to distinguish whether or not she was not a little happy herself that he was joining her and did not have time to ponder the issue before she had left his office again. However, when she had gone, Josiah was suddenly struck with the idea he was going to one of the most romantic places in the quadrant with a woman who unsettled him.

Physician, heal thyself suddenly meant very little.

Chapter One:

Artifact

The object floated in space.

The vacuum of deep space kept it perfectly preserved for the eternity it wandered through the void. A shape of geometric lines, fashioned out of a crystalline substance whose sculptors had long since passed the veil, it remained hurtling through the black with no destination to reach and no end in sight. It joined the throng of so many others like it, travelling the space between the stars in its nomadic existence, all the while waiting for its time. Sometimes the end would come abruptly when it became caught in the gravitational field belonging to a planet or a star and remembered as nothing more than a shooting star in the night sky before it was burned up forever.

Over the centuries, ships had passed by it, some paused long enough to look before continuing on again but none had decided to salvage it from the wilderness. It had seen all kinds travel by, some in ignorance and others in just plain indifference. It watched them come and go, all the while waiting, hoping and in some instances, praying for salvation. Time lengthened, stretched and finally disappeared into the distance, leaving behind despair and more waiting. Hope dwindled like patience even though the need was just as strong, just as fierce as the day it began its imprisonment. Those who desired immortality had no idea how long it could be when one was sentenced to wandering aimlessly through nothingness for all time.

Then one day, a ship appeared and instead of veering away like others before it had done time and time again, this one slowed and closed in on it.

******

"What is it?" Chris Larabee asked from the bridge of the Maverick.

The object was beautiful, whatever it was. On the viewer before him, it hurtled in silent grace through the void, almost invisible because it had been drifting between stars and there was no illumination to allow anyone to see it, let alone admire its inherent beauty. Illumination was hardly a problem when several million tones of starship closed in on it. A thousand points of light from the numerous windows, portals, observation decks and other plexiglass view stations on board bounced off the smooth, crystal surface. It hit the object like the light of sunrise, gradual but nonetheless breathtaking when silhouettes came into feature and facets of its crystal surface reflected it back at them. For an instant, it looked like the brightest star in the sky.

"Unknown," Alex shook her head in response, her eyes being the only one the bridge, not focused on the scene beyond the port bow of the Maverick. Across the bridge, activity had slowed to a crawl with only Alex working quickly to produce answers as to what it was they were all gaping at with such awe. For the present, however, it still eluded her. "It could be a probe." She ventured a guess but the doubt in her voice was clear.

"I don't think so," Vin shook his head, his cobalt coloured eyes fixed on the view screen, admiring the glimmer of light that illuminated off the surface of the thing each time it moved across the nose of the ship. He only needed to nudge the controls gently to keep the object at its constant position on the nose of the ship, using the ship's thruster control to maintain that slow speed. "Its drifting and I don't see anything that could be propulsion systems."

"Vin's right." Chris tended to agree with the helmsman statement and knew in seconds, Alex would come up with a better description. With a little smile, he knew his science officer hated puzzles and one she could not solve would occupy her time like her very own demon until she cracked the mystery surrounding it. In that way, she was like every other science officer he ever met and more to the heart of an explorer than anyone else on the ship.

"Still it's out here and it's not natural, is it?" He mused once more and also looked over his shoulder at his science officer for confirmation on that fact. The wonder of space made it difficult to make any statement even one for such a simple question difficult to ascertain without scans, examination and theory. Too many times had they come across objects, life forms, the spacial phenomenons that by all rights should not exist, either in nature or man-made but the fact was, they were there and the rules usually got thrown out the window at that point.

"Without more specific scans, to say otherwise, I'd say that thing is a construct of some kind." Alex was glad to be able to give the captain something more than a muted response telling them nothing and felt relieved that she had been put forward a question she could answer. Sometimes, people tended to confuse the science officer as being the fountain of all information regarding everything. Science officers were only as good as the data they were allowed to work with and the current situation did not give her little more than a meager portion. "The cut of the object is too precise to be a natural formation and judging by the measurements which are identical in some sections, I would say that it was cut to size, probably out of a single block of crystal."

"Amazing," Mary commended, her blue-grey eyes sparkling with curiosity. The object was a tribute to craftsmanship and appeared like something that ought to be enjoyed by thousands, not left to languish in the frozen gaps of stellar space.

"It's so beautiful." She could not help but remark and though they were not as open with their opinions as she was, no one on the bridge could refute that statement. Mary's experience with space exploration was limited. While the others had prepared for life out in space and some spent most of their career in it, Mary had spent hers in conference rooms, debating with diplomats and exploring new cultures as far as their traditions went, not the space around their worlds. Being protocol officer for the Maverick placed her at the heart of Starfleet's charter, to seek out and explore new life and was far away from what she had been accustomed to as one could possibly get. However, the advantage to being in this new environment was the fact she was allowed to view every discovery with the fresh eyes of a child in a new playground.

The Maverick had been traveling to Pacifica as intended when sensors detected the object they were not viewing with such interest. At first, they thought it was merely a piece of space debris but Alex being the thorough officer that she was had discovered there was more to the spacial flotsam then first glance might indicate. Although there was never any danger of a collision since proximity alerts would have screamed warning as soon as the object became dangerous, the nature of it demanded they assess if there was any danger to other passing ships. It was never wise to assume every vessel flying through the immediate vicinity was of the technological sophistication of a galaxy class starship. What may be a slight threat to them could kill someone else. Either way, Chris was not about to risk it.

"Could it be a weapon?" Ezra Standish asked, not at all taken by the beauty of the object as the rest of his crew and more capable of viewing it with an objective eye. Their reaction to the thing was half the reason for his concern and he wondered whether or not the object was sculpted in such a way to engender the response he was seeing in his comrades right now. Ezra could think of nothing more disarming than masking something lethal around a veneer of something so captivating, to draw in potential victims before attacking with ruthless efficiency when it was all said and done. The term flypaper seemed to apply in this instance.

"I don't think so," Alex glanced at Ezra and saw he was deadly serious about the question. In all honesty, she could not blame him for he was after all, the security officer. "It appears to be a solid block of crystal. There is nothing inside it at all to make it anything, let alone a weapon." Still, as her eyes studied the readings on her console, she wished she could be entirely certain about that. "Unless they're using a kind of technology that is so far unknown to anything in the Alpha Quadrant."

"That is what I feared." Ezra let out a deep sigh, not at all willing to shake the belief there was something amiss at the spectacle of debris they were so fascinated with.

"Actually," she said after a moment of studying the things. "If I didn't know better, I would say that it's some kind of storage crystal, not unlike the ones used by the Cardassians."

"Cardassian security crystals are 30 centimetres long," Vin exclaimed. "That thing is almost 10 meters long and four across."

"Yeah but I think she's right," JD agreed, having come to the same conclusion. Although it was obvious there were no signs of life on the object when the object had first come into their sights, Alex had instructed JD to conduct a frequency sweep. Being a crystal, Alex suspected it was extremely sensitive to any kind of atmospheric changes even in an airless environment as this and might be capable of producing sound. "It's giving off some kind of resonate harmonic frequency the closer we get to it, like some kind of beacon."

"So what's it doing out here?" Chris asked out loud, not really expecting an answer. "As far as I know there is not space-faring race in the immediate vicinity. It could have come from Pacifica but I know for a fact their technology could not produce something like this."

"Captain," Alex said suddenly, the tone of her voice changing enough that Chris swivelled around in his chair to face her. She wore an expression on her face that could have been disbelief but mostly awe and that was an emotion Alex rarely displayed.

"What is it?" He demanded, wanting to know what she had discovered as her eyes darted from the screen to the console, her hands flying across the panel as she tried to reconfirm what she found.

After a moment, however, Alex had no choice but to live with the idea that what was before her was real. "According to my scans, that thing is almost half a million years old."

A low whistle escaped someone behind them. Chris thought it might be JD.

"My God!" Mary exclaimed, not so restrained with her own astonishment. "How long do you think it's been out here?"

"It's impossible to say without more detailed analysis," the science officer answered, still somewhat stunned by her discovery over the age of the thing. She raised her eyes to it as if a visual study would give her the answers that scans would not. "I need to be able to examine it with more specialized equipment that this."

"You want to bring it on board?" Ezra looked at her, not at all liking the idea of bringing the thing onto the Maverick, not when they did not have the slightest idea of what it was. The way it had captured the attention of everyone who saw it made Ezra very nervous and this had all the earmarks of a very bad idea. "Captain, that is unwise. As far as we know, that appears to be quite benign but we know very little about it, what its purpose was intended to be. With all due respect to Commander Styles, everything we know about it is speculation, not hard data. For all we know, it could still be a weapon left here for any unsuspecting person to find."

"Captain," Alex sighed, understanding Ezra's objections but disagreeing with him on the most basic level. "That is a significant piece of construction floating out there in space. It's never been encountered before by any Federation ship before now. We cannot just keep going and ignore it simply because we have no idea what it is. Granted, Ezra is right, we cannot determine the exact purpose of that object but I believe it some kind of data storage device. The entire history of a civilization could be contained inside that crystal, perhaps stored because they wanted someone to know who they were. It seems terribly short-sighted of us if we just ignored it and let their voices go unheard."

"Okay, okay," Chris conceded defeat and because he was a little moved by her impassioned plea. Sometimes Alex could be a hard-nosed, pain in the butt but she was a good officer and a true explorer, a trait Chris had to confess he shared with her. In all honesty, he did believe the object had been left behind by someone who wanted to be heard and he wanted to know what it was as much as she did. "You convinced me, commander. Transporter..."

"Captain....." Ezra interrupted quickly before he could carry out that order, still having a multitude of reservations over this course of action.

"Ezra, it's coming on board," Chris said firmly before adding in a more conciliatory note. "However, you will take full measures to see to it ,the possibility of any danger to the ship is negated by putting that thing through its paces, Level 5 force field, the works. I want it cleared technologically, microscopically and any other way a talented security officer like yours can throw at it. Until we assess there is no possible danger to the ship, no one gets near it. Is that understood?" Chris looked over his shoulder far enough to meet Alex's gaze to show her he was absolutely resolute on this particular point.

Alex nodded and exchanged a glance with Ezra, indicating she understood his authority in this matter and would adhere to whatever he decided to be the best way to proceed. Although she was a scientist by nature, she was also a Starfleet officer and the welfare of her crew came first.

"Transporter room," Chris spoke out loud.

"Transporter Chief Rain here Sir."

"There is an object on our port bow, science station is sending coordinates right now," Chris asked, confident Alex was already moving to fulfil that order. "I want you to lock and transport to Cargo Bay 1. I want it placed in Level 5 containment."

"Aye Sir," the unseen voice of the Trill lieutenant responded.

All eyes turned to the screen as they watched the construct in the view screen, still tumbling through space with no particular agenda in mind, looking not unlike a Catherine wheel when the light bounced off its flawless surface against the jet coloured sky behind it. As the transporter beam locked on to it, the object's spectrum of colour changed altogether as a shimmer of gold encompassed it in all totality before it vanished off the screen altogether.

A moment later, Transporter Chief Rain's voice sang through the bridge in all its melodic tones. Those who were accustomed to her voice found it strangely reassuring for some unknown reason. "The object has been beamed directly to Cargo Bay 1 Captain, under Level 5 containment."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Chris smiled and then swivelled around in his chair to face Alex and Ezra again.

"She's all yours."

******

Ever since coming on board the Maverick, Josiah found that the one person he could truly call a professional colleague, as well as a peer of equal, was Nathan Jackson. It was not easy to get to know the doctor even though outwardly, he was a friendly sort. However, Nathan's personality, the one he hid away behind the stock standard facade of the Chief Medical Engineer was not so easy to discern. He was a man of surprising sensitivity, who would have been a more than able Counselor if it was not for the fact healing was what he was born to do.

And he truly was born to it.

Josiah had watched him mend bones, cure ailments and regard patients with such care, it was almost a pleasure to see. Children coming in with scraped knees and teary eyes usually left with smiles that had little to do with Nathan's treatment of their wounds but rather how he had made them feel about the whole thing. Josiah's friendship with Nathan had been slow to form. Their offices were down the corridor for one another so it was inevitable they would see each other a great deal. Although they were senior staff, they were not required on the bridge. Thus, whenever the situation got tense, both men usually rode out the storm, when there were no casualties of course, sharing a bottle of Romulan ale which apparently Nathan had a taste for and Josiah had contacts to acquire since Romulan ale was contraband.

It was only after Josiah got to know Nathan very well did he understand why the man took his patients and his ability to heal so seriously. Until the age of seventeen, his only family had been his sister Rebecca. Growing up on one of the outer colony worlds where medical treatment was scarce, Rebecca was struck by Andalusian Fever, an ailment whose symptoms were so slight they could be easily mistaken for the common flu. The doctor on the colony dismissed it as such and despite Nathan's protests to the contrary it was something worse because he knew his sister, treatment for the deadly disease was not forthcoming. The pathology of Andalusian flu may have had slight symptoms but when it flared, its effects were nothing less than devastating. Within a day, nearly all her body functions had shut down and in a little more time than that, she was gone.

It was a loss Josiah suspected Nathan never recovered and it showed in his attitude to his patients. He never dismissed anyone out of hand and what made him truly an exceptional healer was his ability to diagnose with incredible accuracy. It was difficult to say at what point Josiah and Nathan had become friends but their friendship soon reached a point where Josiah found there were times when he needed counsel himself and Nathan had the same sensitive approach to his problem the doctor had for his patients.

"So let me get this straight," Nathan said to Josiah inside the confines of the doctor's private office in sickbay. "She asked you to join her on this field trip."

"Yeah," Josiah nodded. "I said yes but I don't think I'm ready."

"To go on a field trip?" Nathan looked at him over the cup of ale in his hand of which he was about to take a sip.

Josiah who was sitting across his desk, nursing his own glass gave the doctor a look. "No, for a relationship."

"Woah," Nathan said putting down the glass and staring at the Counselor. "When did we go from a field trip to a relationship?"

"Well, I'm sure that's where it's going," Josiah said somewhat annoyed Nathan could not see anything so obvious. "I mean out of the people on the ship, she came to see me? Obviously, she wants me."

Nathan chose not to make too much comment about that and rubbed the bridge of his nose as had to consider his reply. "Obviously. What about you? Do you like Audrey?"

Josiah hesitated now, uncertain about his answer. "She's a nice woman. Reminds me a lot of...." he paused a moment as it became a little difficult to continue. He thought he had become used to Ayla being gone, that missing her was only natural. They had spent so many years together, it was natural her being gone was going to be with him for a long time but until Audrey came into his life, Josiah had never been as uncomfortable about her as he did now.

"Of your wife?" Nathan ventured a guess.

"A little." Josiah had to confess. "But it's not just that she's like Ayla but there's something about her personally. I could care about her."

"Josiah," Nathan took a deep breath, knowing what exactly the problem was. "Its okay for you to go on with your life. I know you loved Ayla very much but ask yourself would she want you to carry on alone?"

"Of course not," Josiah said automatically even though he and Ayla had never even discussed the possibility, mostly because they could never imagine their lives without one another. Perhaps that had been too much of an assumption he could not overcome now.

"You don't have to feel guilty about liking this woman Josiah," Nathan responded and wondered what it must be like to love someone nearly twenty-five years and then suddenly have her disappear. What kind of void did that leave behind? Nathan had relationships in his past but good relationships were hard to maintain when one was a doctor as dedicated as he. At what point did caring for one's patients take a backseat to a more personal love? Nathan always found he had difficulty making that choice which was why he was still alone.

"I know," Josiah agreed, having come to the same conclusion although it was nice to hear someone else tell him. "I guess I've been so happy on this ship the last few months I started to forget how much I missed Ayla and all this just brought it back."

"Josiah," Nathan took a moment to consider what was the best thing to say to the man. "If you had a patient, someone who lost his wife a year ago and is now starting to feel as if he might be ready to care about someone else again, whom perhaps felt a little trepidation of taking such a step, what would you say to him?"

Josiah swallowed and let a wan smile curled the edge of his lips. "Probably that it is natural to feel this way. To take it one day at a time and see how he feels about it and not assume too much and just play it out, keeping in mind that life goes on and sometimes the past needs to take a backseat to the future."

"Well, there you go," Nathan grinned. "Good advice coming from the best Counselor I know."

"Sneaky but helpful," Josiah let out a slight laugh when suddenly, their conversation was interrupted by a message across the com system.

"Doctor Jackson please report to Cargo Bay 1 with full medical decontamination equipment."

"Looks like you're on," Josiah replied as Nathan sighed and put down his glass. Technically, he was off duty but Nathan like most CMO's tended to live inside their offices.

"The life of a star." The doctor laughed as he stood up from his seat and started to walk towards the door.

"Hey Nathan," Josiah called out before the man could reach the door.

"Yeah?" He paused and met the Counselor's gaze.

"Thanks," Josiah said with heartfelt sincerity.

"Any time brother." Nathan grinned and kept going.

******

Ezra was determined the object be put through its paces as the captain ordered and so it was a good few hours before he felt it was safe to deactivate the Level 5-containment field surrounding it since its arrival on board the Maverick. Ezra knew he was being overly cautious but while the unknown might sometimes translate into wonderful marvels awaiting discovery, to the Chief Security Officer it meant they were stumbling onto something potentially dangerous. As much as he would like to be fascinated by this crystal sculpture, he could not do so and expect his objectivity to it to remain. The lives of one thousand people counted on his neutrality to it and so he was not about to fail them.

Julia's engineering team went over it micron by micron and confirmed what Alex guessed when they first viewed it from the bridge of the Maverick, it was a solid block of crystal. The properties of the crystal seemed to indicate it was some type of storage device although what it could contain was beyond their understanding since it had no mechanism to allow such a thing to be. It was like a huge shard of crystal floating in space, shaped like a thin wedge apart of a larger object. Under the gleam of the cargo bay lights, the object lost much of its spectacular radiance but was nonetheless an oddity worthy of much interest.

After Julia completed her work, Nathan conducted the same strenuous examination, ensuring no space borne microbes penetrated the screening process of the transporter system to endanger the ship. His inspection of the object was just as laborious and he remarked that aside from it being nothing more than a solid block of crystal, the patterns of its molecular formation resembled those found in Ferengi thought makers, devices with the ability to supplant brainwaves with others. While that gave Ezra some cause for concern, Nathan had assured him if this device was meant to be for the purpose of data storage, it would make complete sense.

"So can I get a crack at it now?" Alex asked hours later. By now, the only ones left in the room with the strange construct were herself and the chief security officer.

"I suppose." Ezra frowned. "I still believe this is a bad idea."

"Of course you do," Alex deadpanned, as she walked towards the object lying on its side in the middle of the cargo bay. "You're the chief security officer, you have to be a pessimist."

"My dear lady," Ezra retorted, deciding he had done all that he could and it was time to leave Alex to her new toy. "I am not a pessimist. I am merely being careful and saving those of you who are in the pursuit of scientific discovery from yourselves, as you require me to do on some occasion."

"And we all admire the way you handle the responsibility." She threw him a playful wink as she reached the object and started programming the tricorder in her hands.

"I think I shall leave you two alone." Ezra sighed and noticed the remark had not even raised the slightest bit of ire from her as her only response was a slight wave of her hands telling him to go while she continued her work. Without further comment, the security chief left the room.

Alex let out a sigh when he was gone and hoped Julia would soon put the man out of his misery by consummating their relationship. The lack of sex was obviously driving Ezra up the wall and back since the man had been particularly testy lately. Fortunately for Ezra, Julia had told her and Mary such was the plan when he whisked her away for this romantic vacation on Pacifica. What Alex did not mention at the time, was she was certain that was what Ezra had in mind too.

She put down her tricorder after she had programmed it and cast another meaningful gaze at the object before her, admiring the flawless finish of its polished surface. Instinctively, Alex placed her palm flat against the top of the crystal, feeling its cool bleed into her skin. When it had been brought on board, the object would have been freezing to touch because of the 250-� C temperatures of vacuumed space. The heat from the atmosphere inside the ship had gone a long way to warming it up but not fast enough because crystal was not the best conductor of such things.

Alex was suddenly about to remove her palm when suddenly, she felt the jolt of something not unlike electricity making contact with her skin. The overload to her senses was so powerful it blinded all thought from her mind before she was enveloped in cool, comforting darkness.

Chapter Two: The Many

When Mary Travis was summoned unexpectedly to Cargo Bay 1 at the request of Alexandra Styles, she confessed to finding the whole thing a little odd. After all, she was a protocol officer whose expertise lay in linguistics, xeno-anthropology, not to mention a healthy knowledge in Federation, Klingon, and Romulan constitutional law. What contribution she could make to the study of the alien artifact the Maverick had sighted floating in space would be minimal but she had to admit that her curiosity was more than a little piqued by the possibility. Besides, she could not lie she would not mind a look at the object beyond the view she had garnered through the view screen earlier.

Mary could not deny despite all the dangers she faced during her time on the Maverick, there was something inherently fulfilling about the exploration of uncharted space. They had encountered more alien species last month with the Maverick initiating first contact protocols to a small dozen, then Mary would ever have come across after a year at the Vulcan Embassy where she had been posted. With the Borg attacks and the recent Dominion War, Starfleet had been struggling to find experienced officers and she could now understand the reasoning that saw her posted here. An officer of her experience could not be left to languish on a diplomatic posting when a starship was in need.

Despite her initial apprehension at accepting the post, Mary knew she could not imagine being anywhere else now. She knew much of this had to do with Chris and with their relationship slowly inching towards apogee, she had also come to understand he was going to be a permanent fixture in her life. Chris was already taking the void in her son's life at the death of her husband Syan and even Mary had started calling her child Billy instead of William. Syan's family would never approve of course and Mary had this terrible premonition that one day, she was going to be faced with a situation where she would have to fight for Billy's right to grow up, as he wanted.

Mary continued her ruminations inside the turbo lift that was taking her to the cargo hold decks when it came to a comfortable stop on the engineering deck. As the doors slid open, Julia Pemberton stepped inside.

"Hi Mary," Julia greeted as the doors closed behind her. "Computer, Cargo Bay 1."

Mary stared at her. "You too?"

"You're headed there as well?" Julia reacted with a hint of surprise.

"Yes," Mary nodded, "Alex asked me to meet her down there. I assume it has something to do with that crystal artifact they beamed on board earlier today."

"I heard we picked something up," Julia remarked. "Do we have any idea what it is?"

"Not really," the protocol officer answered with a shrug of her shoulders. "Alex claimed before we brought it on board it was almost half a million years old. It is beautiful though," she said with a hint of awe still left over from when they had seen it on the view screen in all its resplendent beauty.

"So why does she need us?" The engineer's brows knotted with confusion. "Lieutenant Potter is the archaeological expert on board."

"Who knows?" Mary responded. "Maybe it has nothing to do with the object at all. Perhaps she wanted to see us for something else. She and I are going to the Tethys Resort when we get to Pacifica but that still would not answer why she would ask for you too."

"Maybe she needs a neutral opinion on how to expend your time while you engage in your debauch down there." Julia teased.

"Very funny," Mary gave her a look. "I'll have you know that there will be no debauchery going on. I am there for the rest."

"Uh huh," the petite redhead responded with a look of pure skepticism.

"I would not cast stones from my glass house," Mary replied with a glimmer of mischief in her eyes as she regarded Julia in the narrow confines of the lift. "I mean you and Ezra in an isolated resort away from the world and the ship. I seriously doubt you two would need any more than one room."

Julia blushed involuntarily and gave herself away completely. "Okay," she threw her hands up in a gesture of defeat. "I admit it, sex is on the agenda."

"Thank God," Mary let out a sigh of relief. "I think the man is about to snap."

"Well, I wanted to take it slow!" Julia said exasperatedly. "He means a lot to me and I just don't want to go rushing into things. I mean Ezra is complex."

Mary gave her a sidelong glance. "That's one way to put it."

"You know what I mean." Julia found nothing amusing about the situation.

"I know what you mean but you've been together for months now. I think it's obvious how he feels about you. He can't help it if he just so happens to be the most cynical human being to ever emerge from the primordial soup."

"I know," Julia sighed. "But a man who wears a poker face like his is hard to read and I didn't want to get hurt."

"Unfortunately," Mary sighed, offering the younger woman the benefits of her experience. "That's the risk you take with relationships. There is no way to play it safe, believe me, I know."

Julia glanced at Mary and nodded in understanding. For a few seconds, a deep silence lapsed over the conversation until the turbo lift doors slid open and they emerged into the corridor where the cargo hold was situated.

"Maybe Alex cracked the thing open and found the body of a 20th-century movie star, alive and well but completely brain dead and starving for female company." Julia joked in an attempt to move away from the serious subject they had touched upon earlier.

"You know," Mary looked at Julia with a wry smile. "I always had a thing for Michael Biehn myself�."

******

She could sense the coming of the two.

She felt their life force, resonating down the hallway upon approach and was able to assess whether or not they were suitable to complete the triumvirate she would need to unseal the others. After so long, drifting in the nightmarish void of space, unable to do anything but watch helplessly as they were trapped in their prison, powerless to awake from the horror they had been forced to endure, she was eager to begin. Every second of their long imprisonment was burned into their memory and held in abhorrence. She would never go back to it again and she would free the others so that they may know what it was to breathe air through lungs once more, to feel the blood pumping through their hearts and souls and feel the passion of life surging through flesh and blood bodies. When she first claimed this vassal as her own, her mind had swum with the sensations of touch, of sight and sound. After almost half a million years of existing as nothing but energy trapped in a crystal coffin, the feelings were as close to ecstasy as one could imagine. She had to share it with the others.

She would share it with the others.

The doors to the cargo hold bay slid open and the two remaining for there to be three, entered the room. They saw the vassal and found nothing amiss as they advanced deeper into the room, making comments as to the beauty of the object that she could see as nothing but the coffin for innocents who had been buried alive. They called it beautiful. She would have snorted in derision if it did not mean shedding the facade she had to maintain until the joining was complete.

"So what's up?" Julia asked as she approached Alex who was standing next to the artifact. As Julia approached it, she had to admit that Mary's description of it being beautiful did not do it justice. The engineering taken to shape this block of crystal did not exist even in this time and Julia wondered what race inspired its creation. She was almost eager to take an engineering tricorder to it herself and make a study of the artifact. She could understand why Alex had insisted this be brought on board since it did certainly appear to be an astonishing find.

"I needed you both to see something," Alex said stiffly.

"It's even more beautiful up close," Mary exclaimed, already crossing the space between herself and the artifact. "It's amazing it's remained intact as it has."

"Space is a big place," Julia remarked joining her advance. "It's not like it could not drift indefinitely. There are probably objects like this scattered throughout the quadrant, waiting for someone to pick them up as we did for this one."

"Yes," Alex said giving them an enigmatic smile. "It was fortunate."

"So what is it?" Julia questioned again.

"There is something I require your opinion on," Alex placed her hand on the smooth surface of the artifact, her palm resting flat against it. "I believe it is warm."

"Warm?" Julia looked at her incredulously as she regarded the artifact with astonishment. "How can it have a temperature? It's been out in a vacuum?"

"I do not know," the science officer replied. "It just does."

"And why am I here?" Mary inquired, starting to wonder if there was not something odd about Alex's behavior. The science officer could be detached at times. That was the nature of her personality that it had taken her crewmates time to accustom themselves to. It was an effort that was well worth the trouble for beneath her somewhat mercurial and dry nature was a woman who was softer in the center than she would have most believe.

"I thought you might like to see it close up," Alex replied. "Touch it," she urged keeping her hand against the crystal surface. "You'll see why."

Mary and Julia exchanged a curious glance and decided there had to be something extraordinary for Alex to make such an effort for them to experience it. Usually, whenever the science officer stumbled onto such oddities, she would not tolerate the interference of anyone in her investigation and was absolutely relentless in protecting what she called the scientific integrity of the study.

"This had better be good," Julia said with mock annoyance and put her hand against the artifact at the same time that Mary did.

The effect was almost instantaneous with tendrils of energy surging from the crystal, enveloping all three in brilliant white globes. It did not effect Alex as much as it did Mary and Julia who jerked in uncontrollable spasms as their bodies were bombarded with alien power. Alex seemed more prepared for it since she had already undergone the process and she watched dispassionately as her friends endured the same trial. The dance of light and body took place for only a moment and the glow that briefly turned the artifact into a brilliant spectrum of color soon darkened, its energies now sapped out of the many facets in its crystalline form.

Mary and Julia tumbled to the ground soundlessly, boneless as they impacted on the cold floor of the deck. As Alex stood and continued to watch, she felt no fear about their well being. The process was no good if the vassals required to carry the Many, were to die. There was so much to do and the patience which borne the Many through the years in space, had dwindled to almost nothingness. For the first time in too long, they lived and breathed again. The chance for the accomplishment of what was left undone was too good to waste and they wanted to move quickly before the ones like those who had done this to them became aware of their presence and tried to interfere.

Mary stirred first; groaning in pain as her body became accustomed to itself after what had transpired. She pushed herself onto her hands and knees and then stretched languidly, like a cat curled into a ball of sleep for hours. Groans of aches quickly dissipating soon evaporated into the laughter of delight.

"Lords," Mary laughed out loud in a voice very much like the vassal's but full of playful mischief. " It has been too long!"

"We have been trapped in this prison," Alex glared viciously at the crystal artifact with obvious hatred. "For almost half a million years!"

"Half a million!" The exultation of being alive drained from Mary's face. "I thought it might have been long but not for that long�."

"We must return home immediately," Alex declared firmly.

"Yes," Julia, who was the last to recover, spoke in a low voice, colder and far harsher than that of the owner of this vassal. "We must go home and find out what it is those animals that did this to us have done to the homeworld if there is one even left for us to return to."

"We have no other choice but to try," Mary responded, agreeing completely with that statement. "We have nowhere else to go."

"We have more immediate problems to deal with," Alex replied, staring at both of them. "We must free the others. This knowledge of my vassal indicates there are more than enough on board this ship to play host to the others."

"This ship is governed by the hated ones." Mary declared, her eyes narrowing into slits as if the words were so distasteful and the hatred she felt for them was something tangible they could see and touch as opposed to just a feeling inside her breast. "They will not take us home."

"The combined knowledge of the vassals we now inhabit and the ones that we will soon take will not make that a problem," Julia said coldly.

"We must keep them occupied," Mary added her voice to the discussion.

"With the hated ones, the usual way will suffice." The entity residing inside the Chief Engineer responded with clear derision in her voice. The seemingly eternity of time had robbed her of whatever compassion that might have existed once. Years of praying and futility had driven everything that cared and felt into the oblivion of vengeance. It was that way for many of them and until they saw the familiar skies of home, there would be nothing that could assuage the terrible rage at the injustice done to them.

"The knowledge of my vessel tells me much about these species," Julia continued to speak. "They are no different from the ones we knew from our time. They claim benevolence, these Federations, but their kind always dominates, always seeks to remain above those like us. They will underestimate us in the beginning but by the time their complacency is shed, it will be too late. We will have this ship."

******

They left the cargo bay hold at the same time, fanning out to different parts of the ship, like soldiers extending the battle lines as they moved off the cargo hold deck and entered the general population of the Maverick's complement. Once the triumvirate had been completed and the essence of self-had been sucked dry from its crystal confinement, the accumulation of new vassals would be nowhere as spectacular as it had been when the three were taken. From this point on, it would require nothing more than a touch and the vassal would be filled with the souls of the many.

Julia made her appearance in Engineering and acquired everyone there that was useful for the purpose. Upon passing the Many to them, they were able to do the same as they expanded the scope of conquest beyond the walls of Maverick's heart and spread out even further like cancer in its most virulent phase of devouring. The hated ones suspected nothing and went about their business as always, so confident nothing was going on, unaware the seeds for their surrender was being laid as they continued down the corridors of the ship, thinking those in the submission would always remain that way.

Mary Travis went to visit her son at school and in the process made everyone there, vassals for the Many. The Many did not wish to inhabit children but there were many of the kind that was acceptable to them and so their numbers grew yet again. A pat on the back, a brush of fingertips against the skin, its passage through the ranks of the crew went completely unnoticed and there would be other forms of attack as well, not just the possession of bodies. The enemy was hated but he was not stupid and the oldest of the arts had to be employed most fully in order to give the conqueror the advantage. The Many were not prepared to take any chances and as they continued their silent revolution, gave no indication of their existence.

Alexandra Styles did not go to the bridge, for at the moment the cause was still too vulnerable for her to attempt infiltrating that vital system of the ship. The battle there would be fought soon enough; instead, she traveled through the ranks of the science department, acquiring new soldiers to the cause from the selection to be had in astrophysics, stellar cartography, and astrometrics. By the time she had set her sights for Four Corners, almost half the ship had fallen to the invasion without anyone being the least bit aware of it.

It was time to put their plan into motion for there was nothing on board that could stop them now.

******

There was something very strange going on.

Upon concluding her duty shift, Transporter Chief Rain had decided upon a very definitive course of action. She would go to her quarters and soak in her bath and should anyone choose to interfere with that plan, which she had decided most strongly was a good plan, she would simply have to beam them onto the bridge nude when they were not looking. She was not joking. She had done it before. Anyone who heard the threat and wanted to verify the truth only needed to read her service record to know she had done it to an instructor at the Academy who would never sleep easily again. Rain suspected she gained the posting to the Maverick, despite the official reprimand in her service record, because Captain Larabee believed anyone capable of beaming someone out of their bed and planting them in the middle of the Academy mess hall, could most likely beam his crew anywhere and back again.

Whatever the reason, Rain did not care and she cared nothing about the blight on her service record either. There was something about being a Trill that was intensely liberating. Perhaps it was the fact that having a symbiote inside her body which allowed her to remember the past lives of everyone who played host to it, always gave her a bright perspective on things. Not even death frightened her really because when she passed on, what she was would remain alive in the symbiote, alive in someone else and to whom she could transpose all her eccentricities. The other advantage of having the memories of all those people and their life experiences was being able to call on those images to shape her present life.

At the moment, the Trill named Rain was finding that experience did not quite cover this. She was not telepathic and other then the memories of those before her, Rain had nothing extraordinary to recommend herself, however, she could sense that something was wrong. People walked past her, looking no different than they did everyday and yet, there was something about them that was not right. She could not place what it is but it was there, lying in wait like the stink of dank water at the bottom of an old well.

She saw friends and colleagues walking past her in the corridors, as she made her way to the saucer section of the starship where the living quarters were situated, and that bath she was willing to go to any lengths to enjoy. They looked at her but did not see her. If anything, they seemed somewhat glazed and detached. The look was worn whether or not they were Starfleet officers,  maintenance staff and civilians family members of officers and crew. Rain wondered if it was just her as she approached the turbo lift that would take her to her quarters. Having so many experiences to draw upon could sometimes be confusing and mixed signals from too many voices was not uncommon.

However, Rain's gut instinct told her this was not so.

She tried not to ignore her gut instincts because it was the one thing in her mind that was truly unique to she who was. Rain, not the symbiote or the lives it had shared, but herself. She relied upon it like the Captain relied upon his ship and when it said something bad was going down, Rain believed wholeheartedly.

"Rain." A voice said behind her as the doors to the turbo lift slid open and Rain found herself jumping a little, startled easily because of the chill that ran down her spine from her observations and this creeping sensation of something sinister  a foot.

"Commander Styles," Rain turned to Alexandra Styles and was glad to see the science officer. "I'm glad to see you." She let out a sigh of relief. Alex Styles was the most formidable intellect on the ship as far as Rain was concerned.

Well, the Captain and Commander Wilmington didn't really count. They were men.

"Something wrong?" Alex asked somewhat icily and Rain decided the Commander must not be having a good day. Considering that she herself was having an odd one, she supposed they could almost have something in common but chose not to mention that.

"Do you notice people behaving strangely?" Rain asked looking at some of the faces passing them by in the corridor.

"No," Alex shook her head, her expression looking stonier than ever. "Perhaps it is just you." With that, Alex placed her hand on Rain's shoulder just as the door to the turbo lift opened.

Rain felt the contact of skin and then felt something pass through the fabric of her clothes to strike at her with the sharpness of an icicle being driven straight into her mind. The young woman staggered forward, unaware Alex did not follow her into the turbo lift and watched dispassionately as the doors closed behind her. The agony was so intense Rain could feel the others who shared her thoughts scream with the same excruciating pain and she fell to her knees, clutching her head and trying not to scream.

The tendrils of fire resonated through her mind, like someone had struck a tuning fork inside her head and the effects of it was vibrating itself into exhaustion. She did not know how long she remained on the floor of the turbo lift, gasping out in pain, trying not to let those strained groans become shrieks, until the torture finally dissipated to tolerable levels. When she finally felt it ease and then recede all together, Rain was still breathing hard unable to understand what had just happened to her.

"Oh girl," Rain swallowed as she struggled to her feet. "I think it's about time you made a trip to see a doctor."

Chapter Three:

Mysteries

A starship was a place of mysteries.

The most obvious mystery being the space whose exploration it played such a vital part of. However, there were little enigmas and conundrums that lurked in every corridor, which whispered in the narrow conduits that ran behind the walls. For instance, why was it Jeffrey's tube 3 always took a little longer to get its occupants where they were going than all the other turbo lift tubes? Or why the EPS relay on Deck 13 resonated with a low hum that sounded very much like a Klingon folk song. And of course, the possibility two people who had served on a starship together for months had until one defining moment in time never laid eyes upon each other.

This was such a moment for Nathan Jackson.

He had heard about Transporter Chief Rain in discussion, had seen her files, had even assigned junior staff members to run physicals on her from time to time, but the opportunity to actually meet her face to face had not eventuated. This was hardly unusual of course, in a ship full of people and his being the Chief Medical Officer, who aside from ensuring everyone's health on the Maverick was perfect, was also required to be the leading authority in researching the Borg assimilation process to find a medical cure. This did not leave much time for socializing and other than a few holodeck visits with the senior staff and the dinner he shared at the Captain's table on a weekly basis, Nathan was more or less buried in his work.

He knew there was no reason to push himself so hard but that was the nature of him. Shattering the Borg ability to immediately assimilate life forms was the best protection they had against the Collective if only the Herculean task of deciphering how it was done and devising a preventative measure could be achieved. Nathan knew how many lives could be saved by the discovery and thus it was excellent motivation as well as justification to push himself so hard. However, he came to realize that he was spending entirely too much time on his own when he saw the Transporter Chief, whose full name was Rain Nal, Nal being the appellation of the symbiote inside her, enter his SickBay.

"So what can I do for you?" He asked politely, trying not to notice the amazing length of the hair that fell around her shoulders. She did not wear it up and Nathan could not deny he thought it would have been a crime against men everywhere if she did. He reminded himself he was a doctor and he should not be thinking like this when it was a necessity he remained professional.

"I am not entirely sure Doctor Jackson," she remarked as she walked to the examination table he was guiding her to. Like Nathan, this was the first time Rain had seen the doctor since every time he was required to make the journey off the ship, it was always someone else at the transporter controls. She was mildly surprised by how young he looked and found herself thinking he had nice eyes, capable of making everyone who looked into them, compelled to trust him. "I was on my way to my quarters and I had this attack. A sharp stabbing pain in my head. I've never felt anything like it before."

A frown of concern crossed her lovely features and Nathan found himself involuntarily thinking it had no business being there. "Well let's take a look shall we?" He said showing none of the personal interest he was feeling the moment he put his hand on the medical tricorder and began his work. He took his patients' health too seriously to be anything but single-minded when working.

There was an awkward pause for a few seconds as he made his examination of her and Rain found herself observing him and realised he was rather self-conscious about her scrutiny. His colouring made it difficult to see his embarrassment but Rain had enough experience to sense it and could not deny she found it rather endearing. Suddenly, she had a picture of him confined in a laboratory most of the time, working in solitude and she decided it was a state of affairs that would not at all do.

"Do I make you nervous, doctor?" She asked suddenly.

"Why do you ask that?" Nathan responded coolly, quite amazed by his ability to not come unglued by the question because he was very nervous around her, very nervous indeed.

"I just get that impression." She looked at him with a playful smile.

"I don't get out much," he admitted. "Not used to being sociable."

"I think you're a pretty multi-faceted guy," Rain gave him a wink. "You'll handle it."

Nathan burst into a grin and Rain decided she liked his smile just as much as the rest of him and chose to give him a moment's peace as he continued his scans. He was utterly confident when inside this room, of this she had no doubt but could be a little on the shy side once he was forced to venture out of its protection. For Chief Medical Officer, he was young and Rain was certain it was because he was very good at what he did. In any case, she made a personal note to see Nathan Jackson again and this time it would not be a professional visit either.

"So?" She looked at him when he had stepped away and was staring at the tricorder in interest. "Am I okay?" She waited for him to answer, not liking the pause stretching into more than a few seconds as he deliberated the readings he was seeing on the small device.

"It looks like you've had some kind of neural surge," Nathan replied, not understanding how such a thing was possible but then with so many different alien physiologies in existence, it was not entirely impossible either.

"How is that possible?" She exclaimed with genuine shock.

"I don't know." Nathan shook his head clearly disturbed himself. "I may have to consult my medical database and see if this is perhaps a condition is specific to your Trill physiology

"I can tell you it's not." Rain started most firmly. "Misa Nal, three hosts back was a doctor and she doesn't feel it. Besides, when it happened. We all felt it. Not just me but the other past hosts and it was sudden. I was just talking to Commander Styles and it just hit me out of nowhere."

"Commander Styles was with you at the time?" Nathan asked automatically although his mind was more focused on the cause for the attack she suffered.

"Yes, she was." Rain recalled the incident and upon examining the encounter, wondered if there was not something a little odd about the entire situation. "It was funny," she mused, recounting to the doctor what happened as she played it over in her mind. "We were talking and I mentioned I thought people were behaving a little strangely."

"Behaving strangely?" Nathan looked at her sharply. He had been working in his lab for most of today and other than a visit from Josiah, he had not really been outside or met anyone else other than his own staff to be aware of abnormalities in the crew's behaviour.

"The women mostly." Rain continued to explain, still unsure if what she had seen was not her perceptions clouded by a bad day instead of something genuine. "It was like�" She hesitated, unable to explain a feeling even one as strong as this. "They were there but not there."

"Well," Nathan did not wish to say this to her but he believed in being honest with his patients. "You did suffer something of an episode. Perhaps your view of things was only the initial symptom of the more physical attack."

"You mean I was thinking that way because what's wrong with me was preparing to manifest itself in that hell I went through in the turbo lift?" She looked at him; not so fragile that such a thing would offend her. The doctor that existed inside her was not about to discount the possibility even if Rain had trouble believing it was all to do with her, although it was the second time today she was told her suspicions were in her head.

"What do you think?"

"I think that despite the fact my gut instincts tell me that something is odd is going on around here," Rain said with a visible huff. "I have to at least consider the possibility what you say might be the case."

"Good," Nathan offered her a smile. "Now that aside," he replied. "I would like to conduct some deeper scans and see if we can work out what happened to you in the turbo lift."

Still, despite her outward agreement the episode in the lift might be due to some problem she was suffering personally, the gnawing feeling that more was at work still lingered in the back of her mind. How was it she collapsed inside the lift without Commander Styles lifting a finger to help her? She and Alex were almost friends even though as the third-ranking officer, there was much that kept their worlds apart, but not so much Alex would just leave her there.

"Only on one condition," Rain replied, not about to admit she was entirely wrong about her assertions just yet. "When we're done, you come out of here with me and take a look for yourself."

"I thought you said you were open to the possibility." He regarded her with a little smile, admitting secretly he thought she had too much spirit to let it go so easily.

"I am," she stated with a hint of defiance in her voice as she spoke. "Just as long as you are open to the possibility people are acting strangely."

"Okay," he nodded, conceding that much if it meant she would allow him to run his tests because he did want to know if there was something seriously wrong with her. Neural surges of the type she experienced were not common and if allowed to continue without treatment, damaging over long periods of time. "You got a deal."

"And perhaps if after all that investigation, we decide we might stop at Four Corners for some dinner, it might even be more worth the effort." She flashed him a radiant smile. One he could not resist.

"You always this forward?" He looked at her.

"You always this shy?" Rain returned just as quickly.

"Touch�." He cried defeat and decided even if there was nothing going on beyond the walls of his sickbay, he would not mind having dinner with her.

******

"We have a problem." Alexandra Styles or the entity possessing her body announced upon entering the inner sanctum of Julia Pemberton's workroom in the Engineering deck. The room was small and contained a workbench and an engineering terminal, which gave the master of the deck full access to all systems on the ship. Julia could be found in the confines of this small space whenever she was not out of the main floor of the Engineering Deck, supervising things and whenever she needed a little bit of peace and quiet.

When Alex arrived, Julia and Mary were already waiting for her. It was late in the day and all three women had skillfully navigated the Maverick, avoiding all the command officers other than themselves, as they converged to decide upon their next course of action. By her reckoning the dispersal of all the Many through the chosen of the Maverick was complete and all their number seemed to have found new hosts and were awaiting their instructions. The new inductees were ingrained in every part of the ship now, lying in wait for the moment when it was time to move against the hated ones.

Once the door closed behind Alex, sealing them inside the room and away from the listening ears of those who might pose some threat to their plans to the Maverick, could the conversation resume after Alex's startling announcement. She joined her sisters in the centre of the room as they stood before each other, like the triumvirate they were who had set into motion the instrument for their revenge. Like of stones circling a place of counsel in times past, they stood facing each other like soldiers taking instructions for the battle ahead.

The analogy was not all that preposterous.

"What sort of problem?" The Julia entity returned sharply. Her emerald coloured eyes narrowed in calculation and suspicion. Among their number, it was she who was guardian and protector, the one who saw suspicion everywhere and kept them one step ahead of the enemy. She was the Thinker.

"I attempted to pass one of the many to the chosen and the transference was halted. I had not encountered this before. We are able to pass the many to numerous species, far more different than the one with whom I attempt to bond with one us. It is unprecedented." Alex answered immediately, aware that the Julia entity would tolerate no delay in the expectation of an explanation. Despite herself, she felt some concern about the incident. Information was what she craved. It was the reason she had selected the host she had. In the past she had always gone first, to seek out information and gather intelligence in order to determine whether or not it was safe for other. Half a million years after the fact and it was still the same. She did not like that she had no answers, even for something unprecedented.

"It is." Julia agreed. "Explain why this might be so."

Once again, she did not expect to be kept waiting.

The Gatherer considered the information stored in the memory of the host mind and searched for an answer. "I am uncertain of why this might be so but the species of the subject was Trill. As a race, they are something of a curiosity. There are divided into two distinct branches, host and symbiote. The symbiote, which is a larval life form, lives within the host. Their physiology is composed almost entirely of neural matter and this allows them to imprint upon themselves, the memory of all hosts previous inhabited. Therefore while the host might die, the essence of what they are remains alive in the symbiote, which is apparently very long lived. Perhaps the rejection was caused because of the numerous personalities already inhabiting the subject." Alex concluded. "In any case, we should take steps to neutralize her. She may notice what is happening to the others of her kind and may bring undue attention to us before we are ready for it"

The Julia entity nodded slowly in agreement with her recommendation. "We must attend to this matter before all else. However, we can delegate that task to our sisters on the ship."

"Yes," The Mary entity, the Infiltrator of the group declared. It was always her task to keep watch upon the enemy, to learn its ways and exploit. In truth, the choice of host for her was also equally suitable since the host mind had much knowledge on the customs and traditions of the races they were now forced to walk amongst.

"We are the three senior-most female officers on board this vessel and we have not reported to our superiors in some time. You," Mary glanced at Alex. "Are meant to be studying our prison. The Captain will expect a report of some kind from you and no doubt they will be wondering where we are. At some point, we must face them."

"She is correct." Julia agreed begrudgingly, deciding the time had come to deal with that particular situation. It had been avoided long enough and the time was fast approaching when such evasion would no longer be possible. "We must make things ready for the trip home and we need to do it sooner rather than later so we must take appropriate measures to deal with the command staff of this vessel. From the memories I hold, I am in a perfect position to deal with the one who maintains security. He has feelings towards the host." She said the word 'feelings' as if it left a bitter taste in her mouth. After so many years of confinement, belief in such emotions existing between two such different creatures was not something she could readily accept.

"I had forgotten what it was like to have such emotions," the Alex entity mused in something akin to regret and similar dislike. She could feel the warmth the host felt for one of the hated and though she understood what it was like, she could not condone it. It was a folly that had destroyed too many of them. It was a fate she would spare the mind sharing this body with her.

"Do not dwell on them too much." Julia hissed. "It's what the enemy uses to make you bleed inside. It held us in chains for too long and allowed them to imprison us for an eon."

"I know," Alex said brushing away the conflict inside her because there was no time for such reflection when there was so much to be done. "My vassal has her closest links to the Officer of the Con, unfortunately, the usual methods will not apply with him." She stated firmly, shrugging the thoughts that had been in her mind a short time ago.

"Why is that?" The Infiltrator inquired with curiosity.

"It appears he is of a species that matures differently from the others on board. They are called Vulcan and they are long-lived as well but not to the same extent as the Trill. He is as measured by the inhabitants of his world, in the pre-adolescent stage of development. Although he has deep feelings for this host, we will not be able to distract him using the usual methods of coercion. He does not have the sexual maturity to understand it and our attempt to use it will only provoke his suspicion." The entity using Alexandra Styles intellect responded, proving it was quite capable of using all that knowledge against the Maverick as she was now displaying most spectacularly. "However," she turned to Mary. "I think it should be you that approaches him."

"Why me?" Mary countered. "I believed my relationship with the Captain would make me more useful in that regard. He has deep feelings for my host, that makes him extremely susceptible to manipulation."

"That may be so but you are required for the Vulcan." Alex returned promptly. "Your vassal possesses minor psi-ability, barely passable by any standards but enough to affect him if necessary. He has very limited understanding of his own psi ability even though by nature the species tend to be highly telepathic. Your vassal has been teaching him how to build shields but even that is rudimentary. You should be able to interfere with him very easily."

"And that will leave you free to deal with the First Officer." Julia nodded in understanding of Alex's reasoning.

"He desires the vassal I inhabit," Alex responded with more than obvious dislike on her face at the possibility of having to indulge the hated one with her favours. "In fact, judging by the vassal's memories of him, he would desire any woman he lays his eyes upon which will make it exceedingly easy to neutralize him. Once we have the bridge crew, we should be able to take control of the ship easily."

"What about the Captain?" Mary asked again. "He has authorization codes to lock us out of the ship. If we do not deal with him first, this situation may escalate."

"Do not trouble yourself," Julia said with a little smile. "The Captain is being dealt with."

Chapter Four:

Ardour

Chris Larabee hated paperwork.

He hated it with a passion. The only drawback to being the Captain of a starship was the fact the bureaucracy and paperwork that came with the job seemed to expand exponentially. He remembered the carefree days when a report of duty was all the paperwork he was required to do because his responsibility ended the moment he submitted it to his immediate superior. Now he was at the top of the food chain so to speak, there was no one to whom he could do the same since he was about as superior as one could get on a starship. Worse than that, he did not just have to write the things himself, he also had to make sense out of the reports, subreports, addendums, memorandums submitted by all department heads in order to create an analysis from all of the above to make his log entries.

Personally, he would rather be facing the Borg.

Although the paper was technically digital data on a console screen, it did not make the tedium any less and he wondered where Casey was since it was her job to keep him from going insane while doing this. He knew he was overreacting a little because his paperwork was only this prolific because of their involvement in the recent Dominion battle and the influx of shore leave requests now they were approaching Pacifica. Deciding this was a task that could only be accomplished with coffee and lots of it, Chris went to the replicator in his Ready Room and programmed himself a cup of hot Jamaican blend. With a little smile, he gave Casey silent note of thanks for programming it in for him as well as the presence of several of his favourite foods stored in the replicator memory banks amongst the stock standard fare of the replicator menu.

For a Yeoman and a girl of her age, she was extremely capable even though there were times when she showed her youth. Casey was not content with living the hard military life of a career Starfleet officer but she still wanted to be apart of the exploration of space. She had been somewhat reflective of late, no doubt because of the Maverick's recent stopover in Deep Space Nine. Casey had returned to Bajor for the first time since she was an infant. Although she made no mention of her feelings upon her return to the ship, Chris was certain the trip had affected her on some level emotionally. After all, this was the home she and her parents fled during the occupation and while they had not survived the trip, the Starfleet Captain who rescued her on the other hand, had adopted her. The Captain who was then known as Annette Wells but was now more familiar to most as Admiral Nettie Wells.

Chris returned to his desk once he had the steaming cup of aromatic coffee in his hand and nestled into his chair once again, resolved to put a sizeable dent in the workload facing him in the form of data pads, with its columns upon columns of statistical information. He was just to reach for the first pad when he heard the gentle trill of someone at his door.

"Come in," Chris grumbled with a frown, wishing that if he was set to do a job he loathed, the least fate could do was let him get on with it uninterrupted.

The door slid open and Casey walked into the room. Inwardly, Chris let out a sigh of relief knowing she could probably sort through this mess in a hot second and he was not above admitting he needed help.

"Just in time," he said with a rare smile. "I could use your help working through this."

"No problem captain," she smiled and Chris noticed instead of wearing her hair up like she often did, the long sheeny brown hair was hanging loosely over her shoulders. She came along side of his desk and looked over his shoulder as he went shuffling through the pile of data pads in front of him, trying to decide where they could start first.

"I've got all these forms to fill and a dozen reports to get together."

"Don't worry Captain," Casey leaned over his shoulder until he could feel her breath in his ear, soft and uncertain, everything a young woman was. "We'll get through it."

Chris shook the thought out of his head, knowing he was mistaken by her tone of voice. What it sounded like could not possibly be and told himself not to start fabricating excuses in order to avoid getting this work done. Shaking the memory of that pleasant sensation against his skin out of his head, he turned back to the pads once again.

"Okay, first up we have at least a dozen requests for personnel from stellar cartography, Sick Bay and Engineering. I have the replacements in mind but I need help filling out these forms or they're never going to get here."

"Captain," Casey put her hand on his as he was about to pick up a data pad, her soft palm enclosing his. "Let's forget about this today."

"Excuse me?" Chris managed to respond while turning to look at her in nothing less than astonishment.

"Captain I can't help it." She said breathlessly, dropping into his lap. Her arms encircled his neck and Chris did nothing to stop it because his mind was still stupefied from shock at what was happening to him at this moment. "I want you."

That did it. Like a splash of cold water against his face, Chris stood up abruptly almost toppling her off him and took a good long step backwards when he was on his feet. "Yeoman," Chris stuttered in something that could have been language or gibberish, he was not quite sure. "I think we need to talk."

"We don't need to talk Chris," she breathed and closed the space between them once more, wrapping her arms around his neck and crushing his lips against hers in a kiss of passion. For a moment Chris was so stunned she had actually crossed that line between them, that she had dared to breach a thousand protocols not to mention the fact he was old enough to be her father,  he could do nothing but stand there dumbfounded. However, as her tongue demanded entrance into his mouth, Chris senses returned to him and he grabbed her arms from around his neck and pulled Casey away from him.

"Yeoman," he said in his most authoritative voice so she would be reminded of the fact he was her commanding officer. Chris still had trouble believing what just had happened. How had he been so dense he had not even the slightest clue Casey was harboring such heated passions about him? It was incomprehensible how this could be when she was supposedly in a relationship with JD Dunne. Oh Jesus! JD! Chris groaned inwardly. What would the kid say to all this if he found out! This was getting worse by the minute.

"I am very flattered by your affections but this is not the way I expect you to behave. I am your commanding officer�." He tried to assert himself, searching for the voice normally reserved for the Jem'hadar and Cardassian Guls who had a penchant for commanding rape camps.

"Don't you think I'm pretty Chris?" She asked, her voice girlish as her lips curled into a seductive pout. Her eyes looking at him with that youthful innocence, while biting her lip in the most erotic way she could possibly manage that had the effect of making Chris actually considering taking her as she wanted to be taken until one word stopped him dead in his tracks.

Mary.

What are you thinking? He blinked and asked himself in exasperation, cursing at his body's lustful reflexes, which had nothing to do with the turmoil taking place inside his head. He was not going to take advantage of a child and she was a child still. He cared about Mary a great deal and though Casey was young and unsure of herself and coming onto him so strongly, it was near impossible to resist, Chris was not about to allow her or himself, for that matter, to make a terrible mistake.

"Casey," Chris placed his hands on her shoulders and made her look at him. "I think you are very pretty and if you were ten years older, I wouldn't be able to say no to you as I am doing now. You need someone your own age, someone who can share the years with you, not watch you experience it from the sidelines."

"I love you, Chris." She gushed breathlessly, obviously having heard nothing he said in the last few minutes and moved towards him again.

Chris rolled his eyes in exasperation, wondering if slamming his head on a brick wall would engender more reaction since this was doing squat. "You don't love me, Casey!"

"I do Chris!" She came towards him and Chris found himself doing a quick step in order to keep out of her reach. He had not thought he was that agile.

"Will you stop saying that!" He growled before his back slammed into a wall. The obstruction gave her all the time she needed to close the distance between them again and press her body against his. Giving him no time to protest, Casey slid her arms quickly around his neck once again and craned her neck to match his height to kiss him, now that he was resisting so forcefully.

"Casey!" Chris pushed her away as she tried to kiss him.

Suddenly, the door slid open and Ezra Standish entered the room before stopping short in mid-stride at the sight of his Captain with his back against the wall and his Yeoman attempting to do what Ezra was certain was not in the Yeoman's job description. As always, the security chief managed to wear the perfect poker face even though he saw relief drained into Chris's eyes at his appearance. Casey, who seemed more amused than any thing as she pulled away, gave Chris a coquettish look.

"Am I interrupting something?" Ezra asked with absolute indifference in his voice.

"NO!" Chris barked, wondering if things could get any worse and then it occurred to him it could have been Mary who walked in and started becoming very religious as he thanked God and any other deity who might be listening. "Yeoman," he turned a sharp eye on Casey, hoping Ezra's presence would cool her ardour for the moment. "You are dismissed."

Casey delivered upon him a truly devious look before she responded. "I'll see you later Chris."

Casey sauntered out of the room, oblivious to the awkwardness of the moment. She left her captain with an expression on his face that clearly bespoke a desire for the floor to open up and swallow him whole, while Ezra hid behind his neutral facade as always, betraying nothing of the urge to break down and start laughing like a loon.

When the doors slid close, Chris finally willed himself to move before he dropped into his chair heavily, breathing a sigh of relief. "Commander, there are no words to describe how grateful I am to you at this moment."

"Captain," Ezra said with a perfectly straight face. "There are no words to describe this moment."

Chris glared at him with one of those patented Larabee's stares but after what Ezra had just witnessed, its power to incinerate him on the spot was not quite up to scratch today. "I have no idea what just happened." He replied with bewilderment on his face.

"Well if I may be permitted to comment�." Ezra spoke up before Chris gave him a ferocious glare and this time, it penetrated enough for Ezra to discontinue his intention to finish that remark.

"The girl just about attacked me!" Chris declared. "I haven't felt that fearful for my life since I was captured by the C'kaia!"

"I was under the impression Miss Wells was quite smitten with our Mr Dunne," Ezra responded seriously this time. Amusement aside, the Captain had a rather explosive situation on his hands and this could be a serious problem if left to escalate any further than it already had.

"So was I but then she starts sticking her tongue down my throat and telling me she loves me!" Chris exclaimed with confusion as well as something Ezra never thought he would ever see in his Captain who had once bluffed a Romulan war bird into being blown to smithereens.

Panic.

"Well young ladies at her age are flighty," Ezra volunteered, genuinely trying to help before the absurdity of the situation got the better of him and no amount of restraint could keep it in check. "Perhaps it was your good looks and masculine charm." The security chief's amusement with the whole situation began to crumble and he could not hold the mask of indifference any longer. A snort and a snigger escape him as he fought to keep his lips from expressing a smile and the loud guffaws that were sure to follow.

"OUT!" Chris roared.

"I apologize, Captain," Ezra began to laugh. "I am certain that being the resourceful commander you are, you will extricate yourself from this situation without loss of limb or," he added with a devious snort. "Virtue."

"GET OUT AND STAY OUT!" Chris growled, smouldering as Ezra walked out of the room with that damnable smirk on his face.

******

"Do you see it?" Rain asked as they sat inside the dimly illuminated confines of Four Corners. The lighting was purposely set low in order to afford its patrons a panoramic view beyond the plexiglass windows of the establishment. Four Corners was usually busy at this time of the day but even Nathan had to confess to being somewhat surprised by the larger than normal volume of people inside the place. As he and Rain shared a table, trying to enjoy a meal together, he started to see what she found so difficult to dismiss when he noticed the behavior of the women in the room with them.

Every darkened corner of the place seemed filled with couples who were, well a little more than amorous. Females were lavishing all kinds of tender care on the males in their company, regardless of species. Nathan spied kisses being traded, earlobes being nibbled and men who were completely enthralled by the lady in their presence who was adorning them with sensual delights that almost bordered on scandalous. Yet despite all the affection being bandied about and Nathan could not deny he was starting to feel a little cheated being the odd man out, he noticed that there was something very mechanical about the entire situation.

"It's hard to miss." He remarked, his eyes sweeping across the room once again before he turned to her once more. "It's not Valentine's Day is it?" He joked and saw the stern expression on her face before deciding it was probably not the best time for humour.

"I knew that there was something wrong but it was not this bad before." Rain explained, now that he was a little more open to believing that something was afoot and not some side effect of the mental attack she had suffered earlier.

"Exactly what was it like before?" He asked firmly not as her dinner date but as the Chief Medical Officer. The doctor in him had all but eradicated the shy, somewhat reserved man he had been a short time ago.

Rain considered the question and knew  to her it had been little more than a feeling really, but if she had to put a definitive answer forward, she had to say those around her looked somewhat disconnected. "I can't really explain it," she spoke after a moment. "But it felt like the women were there but not quite there. I guess if I have to be specific, I would say they looked very detached, almost indifferent to everything going on around them. I mean I see Alex Styles walk into the room and I can tell when she has had a bad day. Julia Pemberton always wears a smile, even a little one. You can feel it when she's happy. Mary is harder to read but she always looks cool but you can see things dancing in her eyes which tells you exactly what sort of mood she's in. I'm looking at people and I can't tell what's going on with them. There's nothing in their eyes that tells me what's going on inside them and I know it's not me. I've always been able to do it. It comes with being Trill, living so many lives and observing behavior, it becomes second nature to you."

Nathan nodded in understanding not about to discount the opinions of someone who had the knowledge of dozen life times inside her head. However, he did know what she was talking about to a slight degree. One could sense the mood of people one associated with on a daily basis and on a starship where the thousand people on board had only each as company for periods that extended as much as months at a time, it was even more intense.

"Okay," Nathan nodded contemplatively, trying to decide what was the best course of action to get a definitive answer. "Let's just say you're right and something strange is going on. Why wouldn't it affect you?"

"I don't know, but it seems to be only the women."

"For the moment," Nathan retorted. "It might simply be that it takes longer to affect them although whatever it is, does not look dangerous." He could not help saying that with a little smile but Rain did not find the remark all that amusing. Nathan faced her to see the darkened expression on her face before gulping visibly. "Sorry."

"I don't like it" She answered, her eyes studying the actions of women trying to distract the men with sexual camouflage and had this feeling pressing up against her spine that something else was on the horizon. "The number of female officers on board the Maverick is about 350 compared to some five hundred men, not including the civilians. If something is affecting them then you count on the Maverick's manpower being halved. If we're under attack, we're going to notice those absences."

Suddenly Nathan understood the enormity of what she was suggesting. If this was an illness or an attack of some form, then she was right. The Maverick would be seriously undermanned and with 350 officers who played a vital part of the ship's operation out of commission, it would be difficult to maintain shipboard functions at all. It was time to do something.

"Alright," Nathan stood up and looked at her. "You finished?" He gestured to the meal in front of her.

In truth, Rain was not that hungry and she had been picking on the contents of the dish for most of the evening anyway. Besides, she did not want to leave him mostly because there was this fear inside of her if she were alone, whatever happened to the women on board the Maverick would also happen to her. "I'm done." She lifted herself off her chair and looked at him. "What do you have in mind?"

Nathan, who had the same idea in mind about Rain being alone, quickly responded. "I want you to come with me." He replied. "We're going to Sick Bay and I'm going to get someone from in here to undergo a physical. If there is something wrong with everyone else on this ship, I want to know what it is."

Rain was not about to argue with him, especially when Nathan was starting to believe this was more than just a figment of her suspicious mind. Judging by the cautious look in his eyes, it appeared she succeeded in convincing him something was wrong and his instincts as a senior officer of the Maverick had taken hold of him. They left Four Corners as the debauchery-taking place in the room climbed steadily towards apogee. Couples were becoming more involved with each other and while the men were not affected as the female members of the crew, they could not help respond to the stimulus offered by the opposite sex.

Nathan and Rain stepped out into the corridor, noticing things were no different in the hallways either. Female crewmembers were affecting their male counterparts with seductive smiles and touches. It would have been almost funny if Nathan did not know this was forced and the women were most likely unaware of what they were doing, while the men had no knowledge they were being manipulated.

"This is starting to get scary." Rain remarked as they moved through the corridor, suddenly very self-conscious she and Nathan were the only ones not affected. A shudder of concern ran through her at the thought of what the others would do if they suddenly noticed this little detail As it was, the women's eyes strayed from the men they were attempting to seduce, each time Nathan and Rain passed by.

Nathan tended to agree and suddenly the idea this was an affliction became more and more distant. This was too rapid and coordinated to be a disease and no viral agent he knew of had communicability so specific to include every species but one gender only. Tapping his combadge, he spoke out loud. "Doctor to the bridge."

There was no response.

Nathan swore under his breath and repeated to himself. "Doctor to the bridge, come in."

"Let me try," Rain said apprehensively and repeated the same action on her com badge. "Lieutenant Nal to Bridge, please respond."

Once again, the same silence greeted her.. "Lieutenant Nal to the bridge. Please come in."

"They can't hear you." A voice declared behind them causing both Rain and Nathan to swing around.

Inez stood before them. Next to Inez was Lieutenant Charlotte Richmond and some other officers they had seen around the ship but did not know by name. Without even one of them making a threatening move, Nathan and Rain knew they were both in a lot of trouble. Nathan took Rain's hand in his as a signal for her to be ready. She did not have to hear the words to know that his signal would be to run.

"You girls don't look well," Nathan remarked first, hoping the conversation would distract them as he tensed and prepared to move. "How about one of you joining me in Sick Bay?" He asked slowly, sounding very much like the doctor trying to coax a difficult patient into cooperating.

"We are fine Doctor," Inez answered with a little smile. "However, you and your companion." Inez turned her attention to Rain with narrowed eyes. "Seem unwell. Perhaps we may assist you?"

"Oh no," Nathan shook his head with a self-deprecating smile. "I have staff that will handle this quite well."

"I think we would like to try," Charlotte added her voice and Nathan saw her hands clenching into fists. It was not a solitary reaction on her part. He saw the same action repeated by the others as well and knew that he and Rain were out of time.

"RUN!" He ordered and bolted, dragging Rain along as the group rumbled into motion, falling into pursuit as they tore down the corridor at top speed. Someone leapt out at them when the duo came to a junction and Rain was forced to shove the woman aside hard, causing her to fall backwards while Nathan braced himself to repeat the same maneuver on anyone in front of them. He slammed into a crewman and threw her into the wall, sparing enough time to see Inez and the others gaining on himself and Rain, their eyes cold with rage. Nathan did not doubt both of them were in mortal danger.

"Nathan!" Rain shouted as they neared the end of the corridor where the turbo lift waiting was the only way she could see to escaping this insane mob of friends who would tear them to pieces.

Accelerating at fast they could gain a few more seconds of space in order to reach the turbo lift, Rain and Nathan were panting by the time they got to the control panel that activated the doors. He slammed his palm against it and the door slid open soundlessly. Thankfully, the turbo lift was empty as they tumbled into its confines. Rain stumbled to the floor as Nathan immediately activated the voice command.

"Computer, bridge!"

The doors closed as the mob were less than a foot away from them and Rain let out a sigh of relief as those indignant and enraged faces disappeared when the turbo lift started on its way. She could hear their fists pounding against steel further down the tube as the lift spirited them away from that particular deck. For a minute, neither spoke as they regarded what had just happened.

"I think we are in a lot of trouble." Rain announced in what was the understatement of the year.

Nathan looked at her. "I think you're right."

******

Where are they?" The Thinker who inhabited Julia Pemberton's body asked when she was told the two hostiles the Many had attempted to apprehend had escaped.

"They're making their way to the bridge." Inez's voice spoke quietly through Julia's com badge as the Chief Engineer listened within the confines of her work room.

"I'll handle it," Julia said firmly. "Continue as planned."

There was no further comment needed because Julia knew her orders would be carried out without question. Instead, she had to deal with the problem at hand. Ever since the Alex entity told her about the possibility of danger in the shape of the Transporter Chief, the woman had been watched by the Many. Unfortunately, it now appeared she had involved the Chief Medical Officer as well and thus more extreme measures needed to be taken. Julia had already taken the liberty of disrupting the signal from both their com badges to keep them from contacting the bridge.

"Chano," Julia spoke to her second in command as she stepped out into the main deck of Engineering. "Turbo lift 3 on Deck 34 is showing a systems malfunction. Shut it down."

Chano who was at his station immediately move to comply when he noticed something that made him object. "Lieutenant. It reads as being occupied."

"It's unoccupied," Julia responded coolly. "Security is going mad trying to figure out if there is some kind of intruder alert so shut it down until we can assign someone to take a look at it."

Sensors were prone to give off false readings in event of a systems failure so her explanation was plausible and Chano was not about to question the Chief Engineer of the Maverick.

"Okay," he nodded. "I'm shutting it down. It won't be going anywhere for awhile."

"Good," Julia answered. "That will do very nicely for now."

Chapter Five:

Pon Farr

When Mary Travis turned up at Vin Tanner's quarters, the helmsman had to admit he was not surprised even though he did wonder why she was here. Mary had been a frequent visitor to his private sanctum ever since she began tutoring him on mastering Vulcan mental disciplines. Although she was not as telepathically inclined as he and if truth be known, he was nowhere as good as he ought to have been, it was still Mary who managed to make the most of his potential as far as could be attained without years of training. Most Vulcans began this kind of training almost out of diapers and at his age, the best he could hope for was some rudimentary understanding of mind melds and the ability to keep his consciousness from invading others. This suited Vin just fine because the Vulcan way was not his way and as Alex often told him, there was something liberating about not being expected to be anything particular because one was so different.

Nevertheless, there were still some things about being Vulcan Vin simply could not do without knowing, especially when one came equipped with more telepathic ability than he liked. Mary had been pivotal in the questions he had needed answering from time to time and it was rather comforting to know if he had any quandaries of being what he was, he had her to turn to for assistance. Having been married to a Vulcan, Mary had an insight into the culture he was unofficially exiled from and since most Vulcans found him to be something of an aberration anyway, she was also his only source of information.

"Mary, what can I do for you?" Vin, who had just stepped out of the shower, asked when he found her standing at the door. The helmsman had fortunately slipped on a bathrobe and could confess to uttering a number of expletives when he was forced to emerge prematurely from his shower. Despite the fact most of the Maverick's crew preferred to use the sonic showers, Vin felt there was nothing more refreshing than the old-fashioned method of soap and water. Towelling the wet strands of dark hair still plastered to his face as he invited her in politely, Mary said nothing as she made her entrance into his quarters.

She waited until the doors had slid to a close behind her before she chose to answer. "I just thought I'd drop in and see how you were doing." She said with an enigmatic smile.

Wrinkling his brow in confusion on why she would find that inquiry necessary when it was only a number of hours ago they had last seen each other on the bridge, he supposed women's reasoning was hard to understand. Until coming on board the Maverick, Vin had not known all that many and thus chalked up his confusion to lack of experience.

"I'm fine. Thanks anyway." He remarked a little bewildered as she sauntered deeper into the room before taking a seat on the sofa that was half covered with his clothes.

A typical bachelor, Vin immediately made a beeline for the chair and removed the garments hastily, rolling them up into an untidy heap in his arms before tossing them away somewhere unseen, hoping she did not think him too much of a slob. Mary seemed bemused by his efforts and patted the space next to her in a gesture for him to sit. Something about her manner made him wary but he nevertheless complied, not having the understanding to appreciate the minefield he was walking into with that one obligatory gesture.

"Mary," Vin asked again, suddenly feeling a little anxious about the glimmer in her eyes and feeling something akin to alarm even though he could not understand what it was that concerned him so much. Something about her felt different. He wished he could explain it but his ignorance allowed him no further understanding than that. "What's on your mind?"

Vin wished she would just tell him and put an end to his speculation. He had just put in a rather lengthy stretch on the bridge and the truth was he was looking forward to having some dinner with Alex. Despite the fact he liked Mary well enough and always had time for the lady, since she had so often returned the favour when he needed her help, Vin still could not shake the feeling he ought to be worried.

"You're a handsome man Vin," she said silkily. Her hand moving to his brow where she flicked an errant strand of wet hair from his eyes. "I wonder if you know how much."

Oh hell.

This was the first thought that came into Vin's mind upon hearing that statement. He started to move away abruptly when he felt her other hand on his thigh, her fingertips brushing lightly against the skin. It was meant to be seductive and for a human male it would have been extremely arousing but for Vin, it was rather ticklish. However, the physical sensation he felt was nothing in comparison to the blind panic he felt at recognizing the intimate overtures being made to him by the protocol officer, not just the protocol officer but the love of his best friend. He gulped visibly when another sobering thought entered his mind.

He was messing with the Captain's girlfriend.

"Mary, this isn't right." Vin stuttered and started making a fresh attempt to pull away when Mary placed her hand on his cheek.

"Of course it is," she whispered. "You know deep inside I am the only one who can show you the delights you long to feel." She drew closer until he could feel her breath on his skin and it prickled his skin and caused a tingle to ripple through his spine. He could not say whether or not it was pleasant, it was equal parts that and blind terror.

"Nobody can show me any delights," he stammered once more but Mary maintained her grip on him as Vin felt her fingers pressing against his cheekbone and temple. He was thinking fast and furiously on how to extricate himself from this situation without offending her and at the same time, not to have the practice of keelhauling revived should his Captain find out what was transpiring at this moment between Vin and the woman he obviously loved. "I'm not old enough."

"Silly boy," she offered him a smile and a look that made him feel like a dumb, ignorant child. "You may not be able to partake the carnal pleasures of the flesh endemic to humans but for Vulcan's sensation does not end with touch. It transcends the physical and seduces the mind. You think Vulcans know each other's pleasure simply by exploring the flesh? There is a more sensuous experience to be had Vin, you have just never met another Vulcan to experience it."

It was too late that he realized what she was doing when he felt the warmth pulse flooding his body. For an instant, he felt disorientated by the link that was being established and focus came when he discovered, he was not alone in more ways than mere physical presence. Vin felt his head swim as the meld took hold. She was barely able to rate as a telepath but Mary knew how to push into his mind. Mary knew how to use the raw power of his abilities in order to extend her own as she began a warm deluge of images inside his head. Pictures flashed in his mind like a kaleidoscope. At first, they appeared in his mind so rapidly he had no time to register them. However, the images became incidental when the substance of them entered his mind.

Pleasure.

Beautiful, seductive sensation seared into his mind the likes of which he had never known. Vin stopped resisting immediately as he felt himself drift through Mary's thoughts about her heated couplings with her husband Syan. How she had done this, he had no idea but he could see Syan making love to Mary, not only could he see it but he could also feel it. Whispery touches against the skin, lips tasting, tongues duelling in heat. He felt hands running through his hair and was unaware he was leaning back against the sofa as she started to ravage his mouth, oblivious to what was real and what was false. He wanted to fight her but it was impossible. Vin had ached to know what this was, every time he looked at Alex, he wanted to know what it was to have her touch him, to really touch him as she would touch a lover.

Headlong he felt into the ecstasy of what it felt like to be coupled with another body, to feel the incredible pressure of beatific sensation making him throb so hard, he groaned out loud. He was conscious of legs straddling him, of hands running over his face and bare chest when it splayed open his robe. He knew his mouth was being plundered but none of it had as much effect as the mental stimulus that was slowly overwhelming him. He had no idea his hands had snaked up her back, that his fingers were running through her golden hair, relishing the feel of every strand in his fingertips.

"Mary." Vin groaned once again. "How?" He managed to ask as she desisted a moment to not overload his mind.

"Does it matter Vin?" She responded before covering his lips again and used the memories she held captive as easily as she held Mary Travis herself, to bombard the inexperienced Vulcan again.

Pon Farr.

The word screamed louder than most in Mary's thoughts. The Infiltrator who held control over her mind immediately latched on to the memory, forcing it to the surface until there was nothing left of the seductive sensations she was imprinting directly into Vin's mind. Although he was not mature enough to enjoy what she was doing physically, mentally he was fully developed and completely open to the onslaught she was delivering upon him with brutal intensity. He was gasping beneath her; unable to cope with anything she was forcing him to endure simply because he had never even imagined it let alone had any idea how to fight it.

Pon Farr.

Raw. Fire. Heat. Power. It flowed in through him like molten lava. It made his heart pound in his chest and the blood boils in his veins. His brain began to cook and suddenly, this was no longer pleasurable and the pain slammed into him like a thousand knives digging into his flesh. Vin's eyes opened wide and he shoved Mary off him, unaware he had swatted her away like a fly.  He stood up abruptly and felt the air escape his lungs. His thoughts shredded inside his head and all he could feel was this blinding rage as well as this overpowering need he could not control. He wanted�he needed�.

Vin looked at Mary barely registering her and seeing only Alex.

The Mary entity realized he had been pushed too far. His mind was not ready for the most turbulent chemical change of his species' biology and the meld had forced it to surface far earlier than its time. Assessing the knowledge inside her host's mind, she realized he was going into shock unless the link was broken but not before he vented the full desire for flesh that Pon Farr was meant to engender. His mind had to be rendered unconscious. Instinctively, she grabbed the first thing she saw in this case, a rather heavy bookend and slammed it against the back of his skull. She ensured she applied enough force to incapacitate him, not kill him, which the object was heavy enough to do. Vin dropped to his hands and knees,  hitting the floor without uttering a cry of pain when Mary brought it down on him.

Her determination to save his life was purely self-serving. Had he been allowed to lapse into neural shock, there was the possibility he might die and the ship sensors would undoubtedly detect the termination of one life reading which would be relayed to the bridge. At this time, it did not serve the needs of the Many. Until they finally decided to take the nerve centre of the Maverick, nothing could alert the Captain to their presence. He and the first officer had the power to shut down the ship with a word and halt their journey home in its tracks. The Many had waited too long to allow that to happen.

She stood over the unconscious Vulcan dispassionately, dropping to her knees in order to see if he was still alive. The pulse she felt confirmed it soon enough. No doubt he would wake in a few hours sporting an intense headache but then that was a few hours away and by that point in time, the Many would already have seized control of the ship so it mattered little what stories he had to tell regarding this incident. Smoothing her dress and fixing her hair back into place, Mary Travis stepped over Vin and made her way to the door. She only hoped the others were moving against their assignments with as much success as she had neutralized her target.

******

Buck Wilmington was starting to get exasperated. He had been on the bridge for some hours now, unable to contact the Captain who always seemed to be unavailable whenever the first officer made some attempt to contact him. Chris disappeared some hours ago and seemed to be hiding out in the holodeck with specific instructions no one was to bother him. When Buck tried to make some sense as to the reason for such an extreme order, the response he got in return convinced him to let the matter rest until Chris was ready to talk about it whenever that might be. Despite Chris's odd behaviour, things seemed to be running smoothly. Engineering had reported a malfunction in one of the transporter tubes and was presently taking steps to repair it, necessitating it being taken off line for the duration. However, other than that minor hiccup, the Maverick was running business as usual.

The bridge was actually rather quiet. Ezra ended his duty shift a few hours ago, not long after Chris had decided that it was time for him to get some time in the holodeck. Vin had been relieved of the con and was no doubt getting some slack time in his quarters. Alex had not been seen or heard from since she began her study of the alien artifact although this in itself was not unusual. The science officer was known to disappear into such mental sabbaticals when a particularly difficult problem pitted itself against her formidable acumen. Buck had no doubt she would turn up after learning everything one could possibly ascertain about the artifact with an equally lengthy report. With the exception of himself , JD was the only other member of the senior staff on the bridge.

"So how long until we get to Pacifica?"

"She's nine hours away Buck." JD responded with a sigh.

Buck could tell that the young man was bored and itching for something to happen. Unfortunately, it did not look like much in the way of excitement would be coming at them when their course heading was taking them to a pleasure palace. It appeared the only excitement they were going to be enjoying this trip was the recovery of the artifact they had found earlier today and somehow Buck did not believe JD would be terribly enthused by that. However, Buck supposed no ensign could truly be satisfied with anything that did not echo trumpets of glory and mystery. All young ensigns had their time to learn patience. Buck had endured his, just as Chris had and even Ezra. Now it was JD's time.

"Get used to it junior." Buck said with a hint of affection, remembering how young JD was despite his ability to handle himself. "The problem with the exploration of space is a lot of time there's nothing but just plain old space in between the big discoveries."

JD frowned and nodded begrudgingly. "I guess so." The younger man accepted he had to pay his dues and found himself glad that they would soon be at Pacifica where he could feel sunshine on his skin and fresh air in his lungs that was not recycled or ventilated but just the pure natural product.

Suddenly the turbo lift doors slid open and deposited Alexandra Styles onto the bridge. The science officer scanned the bridge, no doubt wondering where everybody had gone while clutching a data pad in her hand. When she realized it was only Buck in the room, she made her way down to the floor of the command chair and addressed him.

"Commander, I've finished my analysis of the artifact."

"Oh good," Buck said with relief. At last, something to break the tedium. This day was getting to be too much of a crawl for his liking and though he hated to show it to the other members of the bridge crew, he was getting bored out of his mind too. "I'm all ears Commander, lay it on me."

"Actually," she met his gaze with an expression in her eyes he could not quite read. "I think I should do this in private."

Buck tensed. Such a request was not made lightly and usually indicated trouble. Instinctively, he began to feel guilty asking for excitement when it usually turned out to be a gift not worth the trouble it caused. "Something wrong?"

"No, not at all." She said pleasantly. "However, I would like to see you alone."

His brow furrowed in confusion as he tried to make sense of her request and decided this was no nonsense Alex, who did not know what trivial meant even if it came and bit her on the butt. She did not waste people's time with incidentals and if she requested of him an audience in private, then she usually had a very good reason for doing so.

"Alright," he nodded and glanced at JD who appeared to be burning with curiosity to know what it was Alex had found and looked somewhat disappointed when Buck had conceded to her request to make her report in private. "Let's take it to the Captain's ready room, I'm sure he won't mind." Buck rose to his feet and gestured Alex to the Captain's inner sanctum.

Alex nodded and strode across the floor with Buck following close behind as they disappeared into the confines of the Captain's ready room in order to have their little talk. Buck was somewhat curious himself as to the reason for her enigmatic request and then told himself to give up trying to figure out Alex because that was one woman he would never understand. The only one who was at all equipped to unravel that particular riddle was Vin Tanner.

"Okay Alex," Buck said once the door had slid close behind them giving the two most senior officers of the Maverick after the Captain himself, the privacy that they required. "What's going on?"

What was going on was beyond Buck's ability to comprehend when Alex turned around, closed the distance between them in two short steps before grabbing hold of his collar and pulling her to him just in time to catch his mouth with her own. As he felt her tongue slid past his teeth, exploring his mouth as she guided him to the nearby wall, Buck felt his breath literally stolen away by the power of those incredible lips devouring him with unbridled passion.

"Alex!" Buck recovered his senses enough to push her away so that he could regain his senses and ask someone if hell had indeed frozen over by the fact that she was here now, doing what she was. This was Alex whom he considered one of his best friends, whom since the day she arrived on the Maverick had revealed to him that while she valued his friendship, it was clear she thought him to be a womanizing pig. "What's gotten into you?"

"Nothing yet," she said with a husky voice. "Give it another five minutes and who knows?" The suggestive gleam in her brown eyes left no doubt as to what she was intending to happen between the two of them.

"Weren't you the one who said this morning that.." He stammered, still too commingled with astonishment to offer any other comment then that muted response.

"I know what I said." Alex responded kissing his neck lightly as she pinned him up against the wall, her body pressing against him as her hand molded to his rapidly hardening member.

"Oh God," He groaned slightly when she found it and started stroking him gently through the fabric. What she was doing with her hand was magical and his cry of pleasure only forced her mouth against his again as she plundered his lips with even greater intensity. "Alex, stop. This isn't right." He moaned as was fast reaching a point where he would no longer be able to pull back until he had taken her. "Vin is my friend."

She stopped and met his gaze. "Vin can't give me what I need." Her eyes burned with hunger and there was something about her manner that was animalistic, menacing, inherently dangerous and so goddamn sexy, she was damn near capable of shattering his resolve with just the promise of what he saw there. "I need you Buck." She whispered in his ear. "I need you to ride me so hard, I'll never remember what happened to me with those Cardassians. Show me how love is made properly Buck. Touch me the way you've always wanted to touch me and I'll make you scream with pleasure by the time we're done."

And he felt the beginnings of ecstasy being delivered to him by way of those heavenly lips, one errant thought flashed through his mind when he felt himself plunged headlong into exquisite sensation.

What the hell was he going to tell JD what the report was about?

******

"Any luck?" Nathan asked Rain after she  pried open the panel of the turbo lift they were presently trapped within. It had been almost two hours now since they were  locked inside the lift following their short-lived attempt to escape from Four Corners where Inez and a mob had tried to capture them. Unfortunately, their flight seemed to have ended inside these narrow confines of what was meant to be their escape route and despite numerous efforts by both of them to contact someone who could help, it seemed that they were well and truly caught in a trap of their own making.

"No," Rain slammed the panel shut with a huff, clearly disappointed by her lack of success. Their com badges did not work and by the looks of it, someone had completely disengaged the turbo lift from the rest of the ship. There was not even enough power for the lights and both of them were sitting on the floor of the lift, bathed in the reddish glow of emergency lighting. "We've been taken offline."

"They have engineering."

"They?" Rain looked at him.

"Whoever it is that has taken over the ship." He answered, having spent considerable time trying to unravel the mystery of what was going on while Rain had been trying to reactivate the lift. As a scientist, his creed was logical deduction and as he replayed the events in his mind, trying to discern just when the trouble had started, he found it all seemed to coincide with the arrival of the artifact. Everything seemed to coincide with that one event. Suddenly, something else made sense to Nathan to and the flash of insight coming to him at that instant explained everything else as well.

"You're a Trill." He stared at Rain.

"I'm glad to see those years at doctor school didn't go to waste." She grumbled and not really listening because she was searching their prison to find an alternate way of escaping if they could not rely upon someone to come to help them.

"Thanks," Nathan deadpanned and continued. "Let's assume that it's not a virus or some strange disease and something has taken over the ship. An alien entity perhaps."

"Not perhaps, most likely. Where did it come from?" She asked, since they were playing twenty questions.

"The artifact that we beamed on board earlier today." Nathan replied automatically. "It was some kind of storage device, we worked out that much before we got it on board."

"Okay," she nodded, becoming more and more interested in what he was saying. "What it would have stored?"

"Not what," Nathan replied. "Who."

Rain turned sharply to him. "You mean you think something was alive in the artifact and it's taken over the crew?"

"Not alive as in having a body," he quickly responded, not wanting to mislead her. "Alive as in consciousness. If a symbiote can store the personality of every host its lived in why can't the same be done in a different manner? Whatever that artifact is, we know that it was for storing something. What if by bringing it in contact with flesh and blood life, we gave it access to use our bodies?"

"But why just women?" Rain demanded because what he was saying did sound plausible to a certain extent. "And why not me?"

"Because you are not alone in your mind." He explained and it was this point that allowed him to deduce the rest. "You are several personalities in one mind. An invading entity may not have been able to defeat all the minds you carry inside you. That's why you heard all the host voices scream, that's why when Alex....." his voice drifted off as things became clearer. "Alex would have been the carrier. She was assigned to examine that thing. Chances are she would have been the first to make contact with it."

"When she touched me, she was trying to pass it, whatever it is, on!" Rain exclaimed, understanding now what happened. "That's why she did not follow me in when I collapsed in the lift!"

"That's right," Nathan nodded. "That's why they're after us now because they knew it did not work with you when they tried to infect you."

"Oh damn Nathan," she swallowed truly appreciating the magnitude of the crisis the Maverick was facing. "We have to get out of here. We have to warn the bridge."

"Well, I am open to suggestions." He frowned gesturing to their surroundings. "This isn't exactly my field of expertise. I'm a doctor, not Harry Houdini."

"I have an idea," she confessed after a brief pause. She had not wished to take this course and hoped to use it as a last resort but clarification by Nathan regarding their situation told Rain this was the only way out and they would have to take it. "How good a climber are you?"

"I can do trees." Nathan answered automatically as he saw her gaze shifting to the service hatch on the ceiling of the turbo lift.

"We're going to have to climb up the Jeffrey's tube and several decks to get to the bridge." She said with a sigh. "Can you manage?"

"Rain," he said putting his hands on her waist and lifting her up towards the hatch. "We don't have a choice. I'll manage."

Chapter Six: Passion

When Ezra Standish returned to his quarters at the end of his duty shift, he had no great expectations for the evening. He knew Julia would not be freed from duty in Engineering for several hours yet, and she was probably busy ensuring everything was in perfect working order before she left with him for a week on Pacifica. As Ezra prepared for a quiet evening inside his quarters with only a copy of his favourite book, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for company, Ezra could not deny how much he would enjoy their sabbatical away from the ship.

Ezra peeled off his clothes and stepped into the shower cubicle, thinking he was just tense enough to try the water showers Vin Tanner enjoyed so much. Sonic showers were more efficient than water showers but even Ezra had to admit they weren't as refreshing and he needed refreshing more than ever right now. More than any member of the senior staff, Ezra's relationship with Julia Pemberton was free of all the emotional baggage the others were presently enduring. While everyone on board knew the Captain and the Protocol Officer were involved, their passion for each other, though burning like a white-hot flame, was mostly relegated to long wistful looks, the occasional hand holding and the notes of concern they showed each other during crises.

Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles' relationship was in an even greater state of limbo. They were lovers in every sense of the word, separated by a thin sheet of glass created by Vulcan physiology. As Chief Security Officer, Ezra was aware they sometimes spent their nights together and although he loved to speculate on what took place between them, Ezra knew it was mostly because Vin loved to see Alex next to him when he woke in the morning. Just as Alex needed his comfort to sleep. Ezra himself would not mind waking up next to Julia, had their relationship progressed that far, which it did not.

A lesser man might be incensed, Julia and he had yet to consummate their relationship. Ezra only needed to look in her eyes and know it was mostly because she was afraid.  For all her self-confidence, when it came to men, she was as unsure of herself as any woman entering the most important relationship of her life. He had no doubt Julia loved him and knowing that filled him with a feeling of happiness, devoid for most of his life. However, she was hesitant when it came to approaching the most intimate expression of her feelings for him. Ezra understood this was also coupled with the fear of ruining things between them by entering into those uncharted waters prematurely. Ezra did not mind waiting, not at first, because he enjoyed being with her even without intimacy. Unfortunately, he was a man with needs and try as he might, the ability to contain them was fast slipping out of reach. He could feel them pressing against his skin, demanding release. Ezra's passion for Julia by now was almost frenzied but he forced himself to wait because he loved her too.

Ezra felt the beads of refreshing hot water running over his skin and decided Vin might have a point about bathing this way. Soaping himself up, he indulged himself under the hot spray, relishing the warm steam against his wet skin. Strange how this most primitive ritual could soothe the tension out of one's body with such ease. He was in the process of washing his face when suddenly, he heard the cubicle door slide open. Ezra almost jumped out of his skin from the shock of the intrusion when suddenly, he was greeted with an even more astonishing sight that forced him back into it again.

It was Julia.

Beautiful, naked Julia, stepping into the shower with him.

"I thought I'd join you, Commander." She whispered in his ear as she leaned forward, closing the distance between them....

******

Where in the hell was Ezra Standish when you needed him?

Chris Larabee wondered as he peered gingerly past the doors of Holodeck 1 to see if there were any signs of danger in the corridor beyond it. There were a few people going about their business. They were walking up and down the carpeted floor on their way to one part of the ship or another, oblivious to his attempts to discern where danger might come at him, should he choose to emerge from his hiding place of the last few hours. He knew that he was being ridiculous. He was a Captain of a starship for God sakes, there had to be an easier way to deal with a girl who had a crush on him!

Chris emerged into the corridor and quickly made a beeline towards the turbo lift, hoping to get there before any young women accosted him with more than his coffee and status reports. He had spent the last three hours hiding inside the holodeck, running the Old West program he liked so much where he was the Man in Black. In that holographic simulation, the only person he had to deal with was outlaws, not some young girl whose feelings he was afraid of hurting when he had to refuse her.

Chris tapped his foot anxiously waiting for the turbo lift doors to open. His mind was racing at what he was to do about this situation. Not only was he going to have to let Casey down gently, but he was also going to have to face JD and explain to the kid this was not his fault, he had done nothing to lead Casey on. Whether or not JD believed him would not matter, the young man was still going to be hurt because he was pretty hung up on the girl.

The doors slid open and Chris prepared to flee if by any chance Casey was inside it waiting for him. Fortunately, however, when the turbo lift did finally show him its contents, the only person there was Buck Wilmington.

"Hey, Chris," Buck said with a grin as Chris stepped inside the lift with him.

"Didn't I leave you in command?" Chris looked at the man, wondering what on Earth that smirk on his face was all about. "Computer, Deck 10," Chris instructed before turning back to Buck to await an answer.

"I left the con in JD's hands," Buck replied, still smiling. "It was pretty quiet up there and the kid can handle it."

Chris nodded in agreement. JD was more than capable of taking care of things in the interim and if something did come up that was beyond his scope of experience, he had sense enough to let them know about it.

"Okay," Chris said with a sigh. "I know that look. Which unfortunate ensign, lieutenant or whatever, did you score with this time?"

"Oh now Chris," Buck gave him a reproachful look but was still unable to get that smirk off his face. "A gentleman doesn't  kiss and tell."

"A gentleman doesn't," Chris agreed. "But we're talking about you. Don't make me make that an order Commander," the Captain grinned. He needed to hear something optimistic today, even if it was the tale of Buck's latest conquest.

"Alright," Buck retorted and gave his captain a look. "Let's just say Alex is starting to come out of her shell."

"You're dreaming." Chris snorted. Alex? That was about as likely as a Klingon deciding to take up ballet dancing wearing nothing but a tutu. "You would have better luck trying to keep Ezra out of a card game then you would with Alex."

"I thought so too," Buck conceded that much but he knew otherwise. "But apparently today, the lady was more accommodating."

He was not joking. Chris knew Buck well enough to know when his oldest friend was joking and the expression on the first officer's face, though smug as all hell and so he should be if he managed to hurdle that particular impossibility, was genuine. He was telling Chris the entire truth. "You slept with Alex? Commander Styles?" Chris exploded.

"Hey, I am as shocked as you are but the woman was extremely hard to ignore," Buck replied, his eyes misting over as he remembered how hard he had come into her body when he was pumping into her on the desk of the Captain's office. Perhaps he ought to leave that little bit of the story out for Chris's benefit. "She just took me. I had no choice in it."

"She took you?" Chris looked at Buck sceptically. "You're telling me Alexandra Styles just came up to you and fell into your arms, just like that?" Chris tried to wrap his mind around the idea and then found it was too impossible. While Alex and Buck were friends with the former respecting the man enough to work exceptionally well with him, Chris knew for a fact, Alex abhorred Buck's mating habits. She thought him a pig and it was a running joke how she would often voice it.

"Not into my arms," Buck said guiltily. "More like on her knees." The grin sneaked across his face as Chris's eyes widened in shock.

"Oh my God." Chris's jaw dropped open. He was not certain from envy or astonishment.

"And you and her..."

"Three times, the first on..." he paused and then responded after a moment's thought. "On the desk in my quarters and then twice on the bed. I thought I knew something about pleasing women but that girl just rode me until I thought I was going to die." He said with a wistful sigh, his body still warm with satisfaction at the memory of that passionate bout of lovemaking. "But what a way to go."

"Buck!" Chris jabbed him in the shoulder. "How could you do that to Vin?"

"Vin?" Buck looked at Chris, unable to believe Chris would think he had not considered Vin. "I told her that but she said that she could not get what she needed from Vin and it didn't mean anything. She just wanted a good time. I'm sure if Vin was up..."

Chris gave him a murderous glare. "Choose another word, Commander."

Buck realized what he had almost said and turned red with embarrassment before speaking again.

"Sorry." He said sheepishly and continued. "I'm sure if Vin was capable of giving her what she needed she would have gone to him. As it was, all she wanted was a little loving from someone who could make her feel good. What's the harm in that?"

"The harm in that Commander," Chris stared at him. "Is that Vin is not going to see it that way. He is in love with her! Hell, we all know that! Sure, he isn't mature enough to do anything about it but you can tell that just by the way he looks at her! How do you think he is going to feel knowing you gave her what he couldn't! It's bad enough the man has an inferiority complex the size of a red giant without you having to make things worse!"

And he thought he had an explosive situation with Casey and JD. This seemed to pale in comparison.

"Chris...." Buck started to say, realizing the magnitude of what Chris was trying to impart and suddenly coming up with the terrible conclusion what he shared with Alex might have far-reaching consequences.

"Don't Chris me!" The Captain snapped genuinely angry. "You're my oldest friend and I love you Buck but I am also Captain of this ship and you should have had sense enough to say no. We've got a situation on our hands and it's getting worse. I have no idea how things are going to be after this!"

"I will talk to Vin!" Buck exclaimed, grasping at straws to fix the situation even though the damage was done and quite irrevocably.

Buck did not regret what he had shared with Alex. It was incredible. She was incredible. He wondered what a passionate woman she must have been before the Cardassians had done their worst because even as he was making love to her, he sensed something was being held back as if she did not quite trust him enough. He had lavished ten kinds of pleasure on her and even though Buck heard her call his name in abandon, he sensed it was not entirely what she wanted. Buck knew whom she wanted was Vin but he was not so selfish as to mind.

For Buck, there was nothing finer than making a woman feel good, whatever the reason.

"You better," Chris said as the door slid open on his level. "Because I don't need to remind you just how pissed off a Vulcan can be."

With that Chris stepped out of the lift, leaving Buck to his thoughts.

******

Chapter Seven: Doctor's Orders

"How much farther?" Nathan Jackson asked Rain as he looked up the long tunnel of the Jeffreys tubes into which they emerged once they escaped the turbo lift. It was just a matter of time before those who had taken the ship and had trapped them there would come looking for them and if not, they could not remain languishing in its narrow confines while the Maverick was being overrun. Nathan knew chances were good the bridge had no idea what was going on yet. Judging by the effort the enemy had invested in keeping them from reaching it by deactivation of the turbo lift and disconnection of their com badges, the taking of the Maverick depended on getting around Chris Larabee.

In this anyway, Nathan could understand their trepidation. Chris did not miss anything and a full frontal assault by the enemy would only make the commander of the Maverick react with extreme prejudice and Chris Larabee acting with extreme prejudice usually meant equally extreme consequences if they failed. Besides, Chris could shut down the bridge with a word which was why the invaders had chosen a more subtle attack. It was highly likely the enemy would leave the bridge until last, thus giving Nathan and Rain some time to warn the senior staff before the move was made to take it. However, Nathan was also afraid they might have already moved against the bridge since the Captain was not in the least bit aware his female officers were not who they appeared to be.

Whatever had taken over the female officers of the ship, Nathan had yet to determine if it was indeed an alien entity or some unknown space dementia never before encountered by any Starfleet vessel, he was certain a great many women on board were affected. Unfortunately, it appeared two of these women had easy access to the bridge, where their actions might not be questioned until it was too late. Alexandra Styles was most certainly affected, Nathan decided. She was the first to encounter the artifact and it would be from her the others were taken over. Disengaging the turbo lift and leaving it where it was, without even an investigation when the computer would have indicated signs of passengers, told Nathan it took Julia Pemberton's rank and expertise as an Engineer to accomplish this.

Nathan felt beads of sweat running down his back and felt his arms strain as they continued to climb up the endless row of rungs against the side of the tube in their efforts to reach the bridge. The climb was long and arduous and worse yet, they were a long way from reaching their destination. While Nathan had no difficulty making the climb, having been an active participant of Starfleet survival training, Nathan knew that their problem was not scaling the distance required but rather being allowed. Beneath them, the turbo lift sat dormant and unmoving because of its enforce inactivity but if it were to start moving, Nathan shuddered to think where they could hide to escape its path.

"Another twelve decks." Rain replied, studying her surroundings closely. Although to Nathan one level of the Jeffreys tube looked no different than the other. It was an entirely different thing for Rain. She was technical staff whose business it was to know every nook and cranny of this ship as it was his duty to be completely well versed in all the different physiology of life forms he was required to treat.

"Rain," Nathan asked glancing anxiously down at the turbo lift. "What would happen to us if the turbo lift starts moving?"

"You mean before or after we get crushed to a pulp?" She responded to his question with one of her own, delivered with a little smile of mischief as she glanced down at him.

"Nevermind," the healer gulped visibly. "That answer just painted a picture that speaks a thousand words."

Rain knew she ought not to be teasing him because he was unaccustomed to this kind of labour not to mention forced to solve a problem that did not necessitate him being in front of a microscope for hours on end.

"Relax," she assured him mostly out of guilt. "You don't have to worry. The minute it looks like the turbo lift is going to be activated and in case there is personnel conducting maintenance, the computer lets them know."

"What if the alert protocols have been disabled?" He threw another question at her and Rain had to confess this time, it was not so easy to answer.

"Normally, emergency lights activate and they are independent of any of the usual safety protocols. They operate from a different system so they remain unaffected by tampering. Why do you ask?' She inquired as she pulled herself up another rung and felt the ache all the way down to her toes. They had climbed quite a distance and though she was healthy enough to endure it, she knew that if she survived today, tomorrow she was going to be paying for it.

"Emergency lights." Nathan mused softly and for a moment he did not speak but continued climbing.

"Yeah," Rain nodded. "There are about a dozen procedures in place for anything to function on board a starship," she explained. "If I told you how many backup relays and safety precautions I have to go through with transporting people, you'll never again worry about having your atoms scrambled. A group of Starfleet Engineers get together just to see how much abuse they can hurl at everything that gets put on a starship and then try to imagine what they can come up with that's completely beyond the scope of anything one might experience in space."

"How comforting," Nathan said dryly. "So these little lights that have just flicked alight on the topside of the turbo lift are nothing to worry about?"

Rain froze.

"Lights?" She winced inwardly.

"Yeah," Nathan nodded staring at small bulbs that had just flickered on. They did not seem to do much else except illuminate the top of the turbo lift and were not quite bright enough to create any illumination inside the tunnel that was any good to them. "About a second ago."

"Oh." She nodded and then braced herself to tell him. However, first, her eyes searched the area for where they were. Twelve decks and still nowhere close to the bridge, she decided. However, she realized with a flash of inspiration, they were just a deck away from Sick Bay. At the very least, it would be of small comfort to him when Rain told Nathan what was about to transpire.

"Uh, Nathan?" She said starting to climb faster. The nearest deck doors were only dozen or more rungs away.

"What?" There was something in her voice he did not like. Something that made him look up instantly.

"Start climbing!" She declared just as the low hum of the turbo lift below echoed after them.

"Oh hell!" Nathan exclaimed in fright and quickened his pace as he scrambled up the ladder after her. The turbo lift was still motionless but Nathan was not about to look behind him for a visual confirmation of that fact.

"Don't worry, " Rain called down as she puffed up the rungs. "It has a two-minute initialization protocol when it's forced to make a cool start!"

"Oh how nice!" Nathan growled as he hauled himself up another rung and continued keeping his eyes focused on the doors leading to the nearest deck. He did not care even if he ended up in the same place they had left as long as they escaped this dark passageway before they ended up on the side of a speeding turbo lift like an insect caught on the plexiglass shield of a speeding hover car.

"We're almost there!" She cried out as the doors that led to salvation came in sight. "We're only a few meters away."

Suddenly, the turbo lift heaved into action and began its gradual climb towards them. It covered the distance quickly even though the lone occupants inside the narrow Jefferies tube were making brisk pace themselves. Nathan had not believed he could climb so fast as he and Rain began scrambling upwards, trying to outrun the turbo lift and certain death coming towards them. Rain was not even thinking in sentences as her brain's impulses moved so quickly, her movements as she reached the emergency exit lever of the doors were almost reflex. She tore open the small compartment where the lever was hidden and pulled it down with one powerful tug. The lever snapped to the other side and a gasp of hydraulic gasses forced the doors open above her.

Rain scrambled the remaining distance just as she saw the turbo lift charging towards Nathan with barely a second to spare. With the same reflexes, she rolled onto her knees and reached down to grab Nathan by his Starfleet uniform and yanked him towards her. Nathan all but toppled over the edge between the long shaft of Jeffreys tube and the safety of the deck, just as the turbo lift displaced the air where he would have been with its slick arrival. He collapsed on top of her and for a few seconds, both could only lie there shaking, as the turbo lift came to a halt at the doors, once again returning to its benign state with an open invitation for passengers to climb on board.

"That," Nathan managed to say once his stomach had returned to the correct place in his abdomen, having been displaced to his throat for a brief second, "was too close."

"In more ways than one." Rain said impatiently, waiting for him to get off her. While this might be engaging at another time and place, at the moment, his positioning was leaving her decidedly vulnerable.

"Oh," Nathan realized where he was. Actually, he had about sixty seconds ago but after what he had been through, what with being almost mashed to death by a runaway turbo lift, he figured what the hell. "Sorry."

"I'm sure you are." Rain replied giving him a look exuding utter disbelief at the apologetic expression on his face, an expression given away by the glimmer of mischief dancing in his eyes.

Nathan rolled off her and rose to his feet, before helping her do the same. They both spent a few seconds dusting themselves off and trying to regain their equilibrium after the scare of a few minutes ago. Mostly, both were trying to decide what their next move would be.

"We're near Sick Bay," Nathan exclaimed once he realized where they were.

"I was going to save the surprise for our anniversary but gosh darn it, you got it out of me Nathan Jackson." Rain teased and he flashed her a smile deciding there and then his life had changed and she was going to be a part of it. Despite their present circumstances, it was a good feeling.

"We can go find Josiah." He said still wearing a little smile at her attempt at humour as he started striding towards the Counselor's office. "If I know that man, he'd be working hard right until we got to Pacifica."

"Unless some woman has blindsided him and he's mating like a rabbit." Rain said under her breath as she followed him.

"Hey, I don't need that picture in my head." He scolded and then realized that it was not such a remote possibility. After all, Nathan was only just this morning telling him about Audrey and their trip to Pacifica together.

It was not long before they arrived at the Counsellor's office with no one interfering with them on the way. Nathan wondered where the crew were and whether there were orgies taking place all across the ship, but knew that was impossible, mostly because the sex was only the bait. A person was wide open for subjugation when exposing themselves to that most primitive of instincts. He had no doubt many of the men on board were incapacitated and those who were not were probably lying low until they could decipher the odd behaviour of the females on board.

The doors to the Counselor's offices did not open when Rain and Nathan approached. In all the time that Nathan had served on board the Maverick, those doors had never been closed. Josiah had an open door policy towards all his patients and was willing to speak to anyone, no matter how late the hour. However, as Nathan tried repeatedly to activate the doors through the panel on the side of the wall, they did not part for either of them.

"They must have him too," Nathan grumbled with frustration.

"They're everywhere Nathan." Rain said trying to make some effort to assuage his exasperation. She knew he hated having a problem with such a simplistic solution barred by one obstacle or another. "Let's just hope he's okay."

"Nathan?" A muffled voice suddenly spoke from the other side of the door. "Is that you?"

Nathan recognized it immediately. "Josiah? It's Nathan. Let me in."

"Is that a woman with you?" Josiah's voice reeked of suspicion.

"Yeah," Nathan responded automatically. "Lieutenant Rain Nal. Josiah, I know what's happening and she's not apart of it."

"Are you sure?" Indecision fraught the question.

"Will you open the damn door before we both get carted away by whoever's got the ship!" Rain barked with impatience. Nathan rolled his eyes and gave her a look that perhaps a more diplomatic approach might have sufficed for this occasion. However, there was no need for reproach because the door soon slid open and Josiah beckoned them inside.

"Now that's a request I can believe." The Counselor remarked, peering cautiously up and down the corridor as Nathan and Rain hurried into the rooms he had been using as a sanctuary from the peculiar goings-on taking place across the Maverick. As she entered the room, Rain threw Nathan a satisfied smirk as he rolled his eyes in resignation.

As soon as they were inside the room, Josiah sealed the doors once again and let himself release a loud exhale, expunging his paranoia and expressing his relief at seeing someone who was remotely normal. "It's good to see you, brother," Josiah replied as he crossed the floor to one of the compartments behind his desk to fish out the bottle of Romulan ale he had secreted away for occasions like this.

"What the hell are you doing hiding in here?" Nathan demanded although he had a very good idea of why Josiah might wish to hide away if a group of invaders had come on board the Maverick.

"I was hiding from Audrey at first," Josiah confessed as he poured himself a glass and Nathan too. Before he could do the same for Rain, the lieutenant gestured she did not require the libation. "Then I started noticing everyone else. I thought I might contact the bridge and see if they had some idea of what was happening but communication to the bridge is down. For some reason, I can't seem to access Chris or any of the senior staff."

This was hardly a surprise to Nathan. "We're locked out too," Nathan explained. "Something has taken over all the women on board this ship. We're under attack only the bridge don't have any idea."

"What a virus or something?" Josiah looked at him with confusion.

"No I don't think its a virus," Nathan shook his head.

"It started with the artifact we beamed on board the ship." Rain added her voice to the discussion. "Nathan thinks something from it affected Alex and then Alex infected the rest of the ship."

"What about you?" The Counselor inquired, not out of suspicion but rather curiosity. "You're definitely not infected. If you were, you'd be all over Nathan."

"All in good time," Rain remarked with a smile. "But first we've  got to save the ship."

Josiah grinned and looked at Nathan. "I like her."

"She does grow on you," Nathan commented giving Rain a wry smile before getting back to the business at hand. "We haven't worked out what they are yet but I think it's communicable by touch. They tried to pass it onto Rain but she suffered some kind of neural overload. I think it has something to do with the symbiote inside her."

"Whatever it is," Josiah replied. "It's widespread but not overt, not unless you really look. People are still going about their business but you can feel something is going on. Just looking at them and you can see the change." It was Josiah's business to detect such behavioural variations in the crew, all of whom were potential patients at some point or another. As Counselor, he had the most contact with everyone board the Maverick, Starfleet and civilian. "The bridge as far as I can see would have to be isolated to a certain point."

"But the Captain would notice things," Rain remarked. "I mean that man can tell by the hum of the transporter whether or not an EPS conduit or a relay is down. I'm Transporter Chief and I still need a diagnostic tricorder to make that discovery."

"For some reason, he's been holed up in the holodeck for a couple of hours," Josiah answered. When he had been unable to reach the bridge, he had attempted contacting the other members of the bridge crew and had been able to get little more than their present location. If it were not for the fact he was trying to dodge Audrey who had become a little more fervent in her pursuit of him than he would have liked; Josiah might have tried looking for the Captain there.

"The captain is in the holodeck?" Nathan asked, unable to believe that Chris would be indulging in simulated recreation while intruders were on board. "Don't tell me he's with someone." The doctor shuddered to ask.

"No," Josiah shook his head. "He's alone but unavailable."

"It's them." Rain looked at both men. "They're finding some way to keep the bridge crew off balance. I'll bet if you tried to contact all the senior staff, you'll find that they're indisposed, one way or another."

"They might not even have the slightest clue until it's too late," Josiah exclaimed softly. He was new to intruders and space battles having spent most of his career on Earth. Now more than ever, he felt completely helpless and unaware of what to do. It was a disheartening state of affairs for a Counselor.

"We need a specimen," Nathan said taking the lead since no one else seemed to have a better course of action to follow. "We need to find out what it is exactly that has taken over the women and reverse it somehow."

"That's easier said than done." Josiah retorted. "There seem to be a lot of them under the influence."

"He's right," Rain agreed. "Remember how we ended up in the turbo lift? They were a mob."

"We need to get to Sick Bay," Nathan decided. "If they decide to come through here, you're not going to be able to stop them. Sick Bay has independent power linkage to the warp core. They can't disrupt our power or system unless they decided to shut down the main engines and they aren't likely to do that without Chris screaming bloody murder. Besides, there's a Level 10 force field in Sick Bay, not to mention phasers."

"Charming," Josiah grumbled. "I knew this morning was going to be eventful."

"Yeah," Nathan teased as they started out the door. "You get hit on by a beautiful school teacher and now you get to shoot women all in the same day."

"You're hanging around her too much." Josiah retorted.

******

The corridors to Sick Bay remained quiet and Nathan supposed this was probably due to the fact the enemy did not classify it a high priority area even though its chief physician might be something of an inconvenience. As the trio rounded the corner, they saw Lieutenant Richmond standing guard at the front of the Sick Bay entrance, obviously left there if Nathan or Rain attempted to return there.

"How are we gonna get past her?" Josiah asked.

"Is she armed?" Nathan tried to get a better look.

"I don't know," Josiah could not see without giving too much of himself away. "If she sees us, she could bring the rest of them down on us."

"Men!" Rain rolled her eyes wondering how two men so intelligent at times could be so utterly useless in a survival situation. "Just wait here." She growled and stepped out into the corridor, giving Charlotte a clear line of sight to her presence.

"Rain!" Nathan hissed but she ignored him and continued walking.

Charlotte spotted her immediately and to answer Josiah's question, reached for the phaser on her utility belt and pointed it in Rain's direction. "Don't move!" Charlotte ordered as she approached Rain, brandishing the phaser, which the Transporter Chief was no doubt set for the kill. She could not be taken over like the others so Rain doubted they would want to keep her prisoner.

"I'm not armed." Rain kept her hands where they could be seen until she was close enough to act.

Nathan watched in horror, wondering if Rain had some plan or was she genuinely in trouble. He tried to fight his feelings for her and have confidence in the woman who had so far proved herself to be quite extraordinary.

"What she doing?" Josiah asked.

Nathan could only shake his head in a muted response of bewilderment.

"You are the one." Charlotte said when Rain was close enough. "You are the one who rejects us."

"No," Rain shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. "I just share my body with enough voices as it is, without wanting to let another in. It's getting crowded in here."

Before Charlotte could respond, Rain kicked out her foot in a swift but effective high kick that landed the tip of her boot in the tender part of Charlotte's wrist. Instinctively, the lieutenant cried out in pain as the phaser in her hand went flying across the corridor, landing not far away from Nathan. Without giving Charlotte any time to react, Rain threw a road house punch, slamming her knuckles in the side of the woman's face and knocking her out cold by the time she hit the floor. As Charlotte landed with a thud, Rain let out a sigh of relief that her gambit had worked and looked over her shoulder at Josiah and Nathan who were staring at her with unmasked astonishment.

"If you want something done right, you just gotta do it yourself....." she muttered as Nathan went to pick up the phaser.

Chapter Nine:

Chess Pieces

Moments, when Ezra Standish could truly consider himself happy, were rare.

He was not someone who felt elation easily, not one of those people who became giddy with the exhilaration of some milestone crossed, some accomplishment achieved. He had realized with some sadness he was jaded, that nothing could ever really feel fresh and new. He understood it was this cynicism that made him so good at what he did but sometimes, inside himself he wished he was able to keep a little idealism tucked away amidst all that sardonic perspective.

When he had met Julia Pemberton, what struck him most about her was her unfailing ability to see a solution through any calamity. There was no such thing as impossible when she set her mind to it and the tenacity upon which she attacked whatever was thrown at her with that damnable optimism, touched something in him he had long thought forgotten. Ezra was in love with her even before that first date and though he tried not to get swept away in the thrall of what poets and artists dreamed about through the ages, the security chief had little choice in the matter.

Now she had come to him and with the most heated session of lovemaking he had ever experienced in his life still behind him, he could feel the heat they generated still sizzling off his skin. She lay in his arms, holding him, fiery red hair against his chest as he breathed her into his lungs yet again, Ezra found his head swooning with pleasure and knew he was well and truly happy. It was not the intimacy that created this euphoric feeling presently running rife through his senses but the fact he had no wish to slip away quietly, which was his usual practice after such dalliances.

No, he wanted to stay. He wanted to watch her sleep and dream her dreams. He wanted to run his fingers through her silky hair and tell her when she awoke, he loved her and had from the beginning. He wanted to spend the next hours, drowning in the sight of her while composing odes to their love in sonnets to rival the great Bard himself. He was lost and he knew it but for once in his life, he did not mind. Whatever came after this day, he knew he could face it with her.

Julia Pemberton was not asleep.

She was not even in the room. While her lover painted his beautiful thoughts in his mind, revelling in the afterglow of their passion, the entity who had taken possession of Julia's body remained still, considering the next course of their plan to take the ship. The stage was set and the players were almost all in place. She knew it was time to set things in motion and begin the juggernaut lumbering to this point. She had no feeling for the human behind her, aware he was satisfied as his kind always were and cared for little else but further sexual gratification. Strange how helpless they were to the needs of their body that their judgment became so impaired.

She watched the clock, feeling it tick inside her head as audibly as it might have in reality. It was not long now and soon the call would come. She had no wish to hurt he who had partaken of her body. It was not their intention to hurt anyone but like any soldier, she recognized that wars were seldom won without casualties. She would do what was necessary and nothing more. The objective here was to return home, to feel the sands of the homeworld beneath their feet one last time and perhaps see what it was that happened to their race after their exile. After so many years of immortality, the concept of death was not at all frightening to the Many. In fact, she considered it the prize at the end of this last quest.

After two hundred and fifty years of life trapped in a prison in space, she had lost her taste for immortality.

Right on cue, the com badge tucked amongst her discarded clothes sounded with a soft trill, giving her the excuse she needed to wake up. She heard him wince slightly; perhaps expressing some annoyance at her slumber being interrupted so abruptly. A stray thought crossed her mind then, more like puzzlement really at why he ought to care what she felt when he had what he needed from her. There was something odd about the feelings he had for the owner of this body, something could almost be described as affection. However, for the creature inside Julia's body to believe that Ezra was capable of feeling that emotion for the weaker of the gender, it would require dismantling everything she knew about his kind and she was not prepared to do that.

Hate had kept her going for so long. Hate for the evil ones who had imprisoned her and all the others. It filled the hours that crawled like the eternity they were, floating in space, flotsam drifting aimlessly through the stars. For nearly a half a million years, they had thought of nothing else but the desperate need for freedom and underlying that, the need for revenge, raw and frenzied with each second of captivity.

"Damn." Julia feigned annoyance, pretending she had been roused from a fitful slumber when all she had been doing during this heated session of intimate play was waiting for the moment when it was over and she might leave this place and him. The physical coupling had not been unpleasant. Had she indeed been the woman whose name he gasped each time he reached crescendo, it might have been mildly amusing. As it was, the physical exchange of fluids did little to move her.

"Ignore it." He said gently, littering her bare back, partially exposed by the sheets with small kisses. "You can say it was malfunctioning." He teased with a smile, shuddering with feeling when he felt his cheek against her smooth skin.

"I have an EPS conduit that really needs looking at," she remarked pulling away from him languidly, continuing the charade she was anything eager to go. "I couldn't ask anyone else to take care of it because they've been pulling double shifts as it is." Julia rolled over long enough to plant a kiss on his mouth, her hands running across his jaw the way someone who loved him might do. Being predictably male, he found little difficulty in believing she was anything but sincere.

"I know," Ezra answered, propping his head on one hand as he watched her shift through her clothes on the floor once she left the bed. Ezra found himself running a hand across the space where she had inhabited, savouring the heat of her presence there and wishing she would sleep with him every night. "But I must insist that when we go to Pacifica, we leave the accursed things behind. Knowing our captain's propensity for trouble, he would be just inconvenient enough to require my attention."

"Your wish is my command." She said with a smile, starting to dress.

"Julia," Ezra asked after a moment. Now that he was a little less inclined to be thinking with another part of his anatomy and the heat of the moment had calmed the senses a little more for him to be asking questions, as was his nature. "Why now?"

She looked at him. "I don't understand."

"Well if I may point out without being made to look as if I were looking a gift horse in the mouth and please be reminded, that is in no way any physical reflection of you, you have been somewhat reluctant to consummate our relationship. I thought you were waiting for some special moment and while I could have endured waiting for just a little longer, I was somewhat surprised by your change of heart."

Julia considered what she had to say and replied. "Don't you see, silly," she met his gaze. "I love you and we almost died in that last battle. I don't want to be like Inez and Captain Castille kept apart waiting for things to get better so they could finally start their lives. I wanted to start ours now, without there needing to be any formal understanding other than how we feel. I asked myself what were the special moments in comparison to just the moments?"

"As always you are wiser than I," Ezra agreed. A dimpled smile crossed his face. "Well, I suppose if you are to leave me, I might as well see what is happening on the bridge."

There was little or no expression on her face as she was faced with that statement but soon changed when she sauntered towards him, finally dressed and ready to leave. Placing herself on the edge of the bed, Julia replied. "Why don't I blow this little detail off on whomever I find down in Engineering and come back here in twenty minutes? That will give you just enough time to replicate something truly creative for dinner by the time I get back. Besides," she said leaning over and delivering upon him another kiss. "I'm starving and I'll need to keep my strength up for the rest of the night." A wicked gleam sparked in her emerald coloured eyes.

"When you put it that way," Ezra joined her salacious bit of planning. "How can I say no?"

******

It was said that nothing could penetrate a Level 10 force field and if it could, a force field would not save you from a creature capable of that. Fortunately, no such entity made its appearance at the moment, which was good to know because three of the four people presently confined in the device were particularly nervous of visitors entering the premises at present. When they arrived, Sick Bay was deserted which did not surprise anyone of them when they brought the unconscious Lieutenant Richmond into the medical complex.

Nathan had suspected as much, believing correctly no one was concerned with their health when the ship was being invaded by creatures that were using female bodies to manipulate their male counterparts. No doubt, every male on the ship was presently experiencing one heated encounter or being dispatched effectively if they failed to be swayed by such a simple form of coercion. However, while Sick Bay seemed safe enough, Nathan had this ominous feeling time was catching up to them and the chess pieces that had been slowly shifting into place all day across the ship would soon be in a position to issue a checkmate.

Thus the first thing he had done upon entering his bastion on board the Maverick was to see to it that both Rain and Josiah were armed. Sick Bay had a small supply of small weapons, kept there in case of attack since it would be the most vulnerable place in the unlikely event that the vessel was boarded. He was the only person with the authority to remove the weapons for their locker and was glad to see that much of his access to the ship remained. Handing them out, he felt odd handling such weapons but knew it was a necessary evil at this time. While Rain was comfortable with the weapon, Josiah was not. Nathan suspected that at best, Josiah had Class 5 weapons training, which was rather average. However, a Counselor was seldom required to have such skills and Josiah could be forgiven for his lack of it.

Once they were armed, he erected the force field and ensured he and those with him were safely protected in case the aliens decided to subdue the threat the three of them now posed. For the moment, however, he took advantage of the quiet with the presence of the specimen Rain had acquired for him when she had gone hand to hand with Lieutenant Richmond. Charlotte Richmond lay unconscious on the table as Nathan began running his neurological tests, hoping they would somehow reveal what strange power had infected all the females on the ship.

Nathan knew for certain it was no virus at work here. It was something with intentions far more insidious, not to mention cunning, than the normal replicative cravings of a microorganism. Besides he knew of no virus whose pathology was so non-specific as to make the jump from species to species and then chose to attack only one gender. No, whatever this malaise was running loose across his ship, Nathan knew only one thing for certain; this invasion was only possible by a higher functioning organism.

While Nathan continued his examinations on the unconscious lieutenant from stellar cartography, he noticed both Rain and Josiah seemed anxious. The bridge was completely locked out now and Nathan wondered how this was possible. He was unaware at this moment, Julia Pemberton had scheduled one of the female members of her engineering crew to run a diagnostic on the internal communication systems of the Maverick, a procedure that could only be undertaken when the entire array was taken offline. With the rest of the ship capable of reaching the bridge with their com badges, Nathan, Rain and Josiah found that they were still being prevented from alerting the Captain of what was transpiring on board his ship.

"Find anything out yet?" Rain asked for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last half an hour.

Nathan gave her a look and continued working, poised over his medical scanner, trying to make sense of readings that meant little to anyone else in the room. He could not blame her for her anxiety, not when he was experiencing some of it himself. Their inability to contact the ship and the fact no one on the bridge had the slightest idea of trouble brewing, was pressing against their spines like a blade about to penetrate the skin. It was impossible not to be affected by the urgency of their situation.

"They will come after us you know," Rain pointed out. "Sooner or later."

"I don't think so," Josiah remarked after a moment. "I think they have us exactly where they want us."

Both Nathan and Rain looked up at the same time in question. "What do you mean?" It was Rain who spoke first because Nathan was still somewhat focused on the idea of finding an answer to all this.

"We're running scared, we're locked in one place, we can't contact the bridge to do anyone any good. I think that as far as they are concerned; the situation is more or less contained. Don't you?"

Rain frowned because he was right. They had been in here for a good twenty minutes now and no one had come charging in attempting to breach the walls of the force field surrounding them. In fact, there was not the slightest hint that anyone was even aware they were down here of for that matter cared. She seriously doubted there was any immediate danger because the entities currently rife across the Maverick were most likely concentrating their efforts on securing the bridge with Josiah, Nathan and Rain were more or less forgotten until that important matter was handled first. Even if they did find out what had taken possession of the female crew members, did it mean a solution would be found as well? Not likely, Rain thought realistically.

"I hate to say it but I think he's right." Rain glanced at Nathan. "They might have already taken the bridge."

"We can't know anything for certain," Josiah added, not wishing to be so negative but he could not deny this was a possibility. "However, I don't know how much good we will be to anyone if we do get to the bridge? What if we are forced to shoot? The same people who have invaded the ship are our friends." Josiah posed that very real question because he had no will to shoot Audrey if he were faced with that horrifying situation.

"Well there are other ways of incapacitating them," Rain suggested, feeling the same distaste about shooting people she knew and worked with on a daily basis, especially when what was happening to them was through no fault of their own. "Anesthetic gas in all the decks for starters."

"That would knock out everyone," Josiah retorted. "Not just the women."

Suddenly, their conversation came to a halt when the door slid open and Vin Tanner walked into the Sick Bay, his hand holding a small towel to the back of his head. The towel was stained with green splotches Nathan could tell immediately was Vulcan blood. Vin was out of uniform, wearing sweats more appropriate for off-duty hours. He staggered into the room somewhat unsteady on his feet since he had yet to recover from the blow that had given him his injury.

"What the hell is going on in this ship? Where is everyone?" Vin demanded as he strode in and saw the faces before him. He had not taken more than a few steps into the room when he suddenly halted and realized that they were secured behind a force field. "Why are you behind a force field?" He asked, the annoyance of his injury having faded into concern as he saw them armed with phasers.

"Haven't you seen what's going on in the ship?" Rain exclaimed.

"I haven't seen anything," Vin grumbled as he came to the edge of the force field. "Mary came to my quarters and....." he paused a moment as he searched a way to describe the incident. Apart of him was still reeling from the incredible sensations she had forced upon him but another part of him was furious that she would dare intrude upon him this way. For the first time, Vin had some idea of how invasive a meld could be when one did not wish to partake in the coupling. It's no wonder Alex was so incensed when he had forced the meld between them.

"She hit me over the head. I don't know how long I've been out." He confessed reluctantly and prayed they would ask no more details about it than that.

"I think it's safe to let down the force field," Nathan glanced at the other two occupants in the sealed area, the fear of the forces present in control of the most of the ship giving way to Vin's injury. "Besides, I can always put it back up when Vin's inside with us."

"Can you please tell me what's with the force field?" The helmsman asked as he waited patiently for the energy field to disperse.

"There's something loose on the ship," Rain blurted out, seeing no reason to hide anything when Vin had not the chromosomes to be affected. "Something that came with the artifact."

Vin's eyes widened. "Does Chris know?"

"No," Josiah shook his head. "We haven't been able to contact the bridge. Whatever it is, came from the artifact  and has taken over every woman in the ship, including Alex."

"Actually," Rain added. "It would have started with Alex."

"Alex!" Vin exclaimed, feeling his chest constrict with worry when he thought about the science officer. "What about Alex?" He demanded as he heard Nathan instruct the force field in front of him to be disabled. As soon as the slight shimmer before him dissipated, an indication at the deactivation of the protection grid around the healer and his companions, Vin stepped into their sphere quickly.

"We think that whatever is happening started with the  artifact." Rain spoke. Although technically, Nathan and Josiah both outranked Vin, he was the commanding officer amongst all of them and most likely the one to give them some clear ideas of what they ought to do now. "It must have transferred something to Alex, who passed it onto the rest of the women on board. I don't know why but I wasn't affected. Nathan thinks it has to do with the symbiote inside me, being Trill and all."

That made sense to Vin but he still felt himself floundering in the dark.

"A mob of them tried to capture Nathan and me." She continued, seeing it required a little more explanation before he could believe how dire things really were. Being a senior command officer, Vin was still lost in the unreality of this, especially when he was hit with it so suddenly. "They were led by Inez and Lieutenant Richmond over there." Rain gestured to the unconscious woman on the medical examination bed.

"Has anyone tried to contact the bridge or Ezra?" Vin stammered unable to believe all this could take place on Chris Larabee's ship without the Captain having the slightest clue.

"We tried," Josiah answered somberly. "The bridge is locked out and so are all three of us. The computer is not responding to our attempts to try and contact anybody."

"That makes sense," Vin's mind was a steel trap set into motion and it was now working at full pace. "If something has taken over the women on board the ship, that would mean Julia too and she's chief engineer. She has a Class 1 rating in computer programming, she'd have no trouble locking all of you out if she thinks you might cause trouble. And so far, I haven't seen anything that might make anyone suspicious, except the fact that it's quiet."

"And every woman on the ship seems to be hornier than hell." Rain quipped.

All three men gave Rain a look and Vin did not even want to comment on that particular subject, especially after what he had been through with Mary Travis. As it was, Vin had no idea how he was ever going to look Chris in the eye again, after what he had seen in the lady's mind.

"Still," Josiah frowned shaking Rain's comment out of his head and getting back to the subject at hand, in particular why Chris had not reacted yet. "If Chris is on the bridge, how could he not know there's a communications failure?"

"It ain't that hard," Vin revealed as Nathan left Charlotte alone for a moment. The lieutenant was still unconscious, thanks to Nathan reinforcing her present state with a sedative in order to carry out his examinations. The physician gestured the Vulcan over in order to treat the wounds to the back of his neck, delivered when Mary attacked him. Vin had settled comfortably onto the examination table before he started speaking again when Nathan went to work on his injury. "We sometimes shut down internal communications for diagnostics, debugging and simple maintenance. We're not in a combat situation and our present status doesn't indicate any sign of danger. When things are quiet like this, it's not usual for engineering to take things offline to run sweeps that we normally wouldn't have time for. We have backups in place of course but if the Chief Engineer has deactivated them all, then we have to get to the bridge ourselves."

"How do we propose we do that?" Josiah inquired, feeling like a novice and wished he had more to impart upon their situation then just more questions proving his ignorance. Fortunately, none of the others was treating him that way and he was glad at least, they knew what they were doing.

"Anyway we can," Vin said grimly. "Anyway, we can."

******

Julia Pemberton and Mary Travis started towards the bridge.

Alex was there already, keeping pace with the Captain and the First Officer, making certain neither suspected what was about to happen when Julia and Mary arrived.

The helm officer was out of commission in his quarters as assured by Mary when she had joined Julia at the armoury. The Doctor and the female who was not susceptible to the Many were contained in the physician's Sick Bay as he attempted in vain hope to understand the malaise that had taken over his crewmates. The Security Chief was at his quarters, no doubt waiting for Julia's return for another session of lovemaking. By the time he had some idea of what was happening, it would be too late. The Many would be in control of the bridge. Their people had already moved into position and were waiting for the signal to fulfil their parts of the silent invasion of the Maverick. While no one had any inkling of any danger to the ship, Julia did not wish to waste any time. While the absence of danger continued to go unnoticed, some were starting to realize something was going on and it would not be too long before that concern reached the bridge.

The Leader had given her orders. It was time to move.

Chapter Nine: The Leader

Alexandra Styles kept her gaze on everyone, watching them with deep scrutiny as she waited with almost a hint of anticipation for the others to arrive. The Captain was always to be found holding court over the bridge from his command chair. Chris Larabee did not appear as focused as he normally did and seemed preyed with far away thoughts, she was certain had nothing to do with the bridge or the contents of the data pad in his hand. The Captain seemed somewhat distracted. Alex had a good idea with what, pleased that their solution to keep the Captain busy for the moment had yielded such good results.

Buck Wilmington was the second high-ranking officer on the bridge and he remained at the Captain's side just as reflective as the Captain although, in this instance, Alex felt a mild curiosity to know what was running through his mind. Her skin still tingled with their coupling earlier. Instinctively, she glanced at the Captain's ready room where the steamy encounter had taken place and while the entity herself found the entire episode pleasurable in itself, a little smile crossed her lips knowing how repulsive her host would find the entire situation. The host yearned for the Vulcan, which confused the intelligence gatherer of the group since the Vulcan was incapable of reciprocating physical affection. They were a strange race these Federations, the Gatherer thought to herself.

While she was a part of the Many, her role as Gatherer had allowed her a certain empathy with the subjects she often observed and studied. The culture of the Federations traced its evolutionary path along the same lines as her own race where the male of the species was always in dominance. The female was rarely held in much esteem, with sporadic exceptions throughout the course of history. Fortunately, such small-minded attitudes had started to wither with the advent of the 21st century and by the present day, the female of the species was every much the equal. If only it had been that way on their own world, so much blood would have been spared on both sides.

"Captain," JD Dunne spoke up, a hint of annoyance on his face as he regarded his console panel.

Alex stiffened instinctively; aware of what he was going to say even before he spoke it out loud. She thought quickly to produce some counteractive answer that would allay his fears until the arrival of the others. The youth was only a junior officer and to their folly, they had underestimated his tenacity somewhat. He did not feel comfortable with his communication station being dead to all signals except extra-ship transmissions. He was determined not to fail so that made him doubly cautious of anything going wrong with his station and often double-checked everything to ensure that it did not.

"How long is this diagnostic gonna take?" JD inquired impatiently. He did not like anything on his console in a non-functioning state. JD knew he had a tendency to be paranoid about such things but he could not help it. After all, he was the youngest member of a highly experienced team of officers who would have been the best at whatever they attempted, and all he had to credit himself was an ability to defeat a computer simulation at the Academy.

"JD," Buck glanced at him with enough firm authority to show he was now answering the younger man as his commanding officer and not as his friend. JD had been pestering them at ten-minute intervals over this particular issue and when he asked the question again, Buck had seen Chris stiffen in his seat. "It's a routine procedure we carry out when things are quiet like this. It will get done when it gets done."

"I know," JD nodded noticing the hint of tension in the commander's voice "It's just that no one has even tried to contact the bridge through com badge."

Chris regarded the young man and snapped out of his reverie long enough to consider that little bit of observation. He himself had been so preoccupied with the situation between Buck and Alex, not to mention himself and Casey that he was less aware of things on his ship than he should have been. Normally when ship-wide communication was suspended like this, there was still some kind of communication through the com badges. It was impossible that on a ship this size, with the number of personnel, civilians and departments that someone did not need something from the bridge. Ever since the communications blackout had taken place, Chris realized no one had tried to contact them for some trivialities of shipboard life and that was almost unheard of.

"Good call Ensign," Chris remarked sincerely as he tapped his com badge as he saw JD smile from the praise. "Engineering, what's going on down there?"

A few seconds passed and there was no response.

Chris tapped his combadge once more, trying to ensure everything was working adequately. There was no reason for alarm yet but Chris's suspicions had been raised. The young man pointed out an inconsistency Chris had missed during his ruminations about Alex, Buck and of course Casey. He gave himself a stern reminder keeping one's mind on the job was not only a rule that was for his crew but one that applied to him as well. The combadge made no sound upon the repeat of the attempt and Chris glanced at Buck in mild concern. "Try yours."

Buck nodded, feeling the same concern and failing to notice Alex leaving her station and coming down the sloped walk leading to the floor of the bridge. Within seconds, she was almost to their command chairs. The science officer betrayed nothing as she watched him carefully as he repeated the same procedure on his own com badge. "Engineering, this is Commander Wilmington. What is the status of the repairs to our communications array?"

Once again, there was no answer from Engineering. All that waited for them following that question was the same silence.

"Perhaps, they're just adjusting the frequency modulations on our com system." Alex offered, aware a situation was starting to form that might escalate out of control to the detriment of their carefully laid plans. She could see it in their eyes, the concern that perhaps something was amiss. That things were not as right as they seem. The insides that were not her own began to constrict with urgency at the coming calamity.

"Whatever it is," Chris said sharply, not at all satisfied with that explanation or the situation as it stood. He took pride in knowing what was taking place on his own ship and the fact that he was so preoccupied with personal matters, made him angry at himself for being less than alert to the needs of his ship. Turning to Buck, Chris decided on a more definitive course of action beyond waiting around for someone to contact them. "I want to know what the situation is. Buck, get down there."

"Sure Chris," Buck nodded automatically and rose from his chair. He was preparing to go even if the Captain had not asked. In the last few seconds, something had started to bother him and the concern over their lack of communications with the rest of the ship seemed to amplify that worry.

Alex's mind was racing furiously. If Buck was allowed to leave the bridge and get to Engineering, he might discover what the Many had been so laboriously trying to hide from himself and the Captain these past few hours. As the two ranking commanders on the ship, Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee had the power to dash all their plans if either were to discover what was transpiring beyond these walls. Both of them had the power to disable all computer functions through voice command alone but she was too outnumbered to make an attempt for either of them. Buck had started to move past her on his way towards the turbo lift. Fortunately, before he was even halfway to it, the doors slid open on their own volition.

Chris let out a sigh of relief upon seeing Julia Pemberton entering the bridge, as well as the more pleasant surprise of Mary next to her. After his encounter with Casey, seeing Mary was a tonic he needed and with Julia being here, the question of what was happening on his bridge could be answered by the Chief Engineer. However, his pleasure at seeing both women soon disintegrated when he realized that both of them were armed with phaser rifles.

"What the hell is going on?" Chris demanded and stood up from his command chair.

Mary did not even react to the sound of his voice as she and Julia advanced into the bridge, with Alex moving furtively into position herself. Even though they were armed, Chris was still not ready to believe there was any danger, his mind was still grappling with the notion that there was a reasonable explanation behind all this. He kept thinking that for the two seconds it took for Julia Pemberton to raise her weapon and fire before anyone had any time to react. Not that they could have because no one could have imagined what happened next. Chris watched in soundless horror as Julia fired. The first blast struck  JD in the chest, almost tearing him off the seat as he was thrown off his chair before crumpling to the floor.

"JD!" Buck shouted in panic and took no more than a step forward when Alex's hand lashed out and smashed into the tender part of his throat, bringing the commander to his knees immediately. Buck was groaning as he struggled for breath, nearly choking from the agony of the crippling blow. Chris rose to his feet instantly, prepared to act when suddenly he heard Mary's voice in his ear.

"Don't." The threat in her eyes was clear.

For a moment, he really did not think she would shoot him. His mind was still reeling in astonishment over what was happening. He saw JD lying on the floor, unconscious. He let out a sigh of relief realizing the boy was merely stunned, not killed. If it had been the other, his uniform would bear indications of it. Buck in the meantime was clutching his throat, having real trouble breathing as he gasped loudly. His face was crimson as he struggled for breath while Alex looked on dispassionately, turning the phaser Julia handed her on the first officer to ensure he gave her no further trouble when he finally recovered. Julia had her rifle aimed at anyone else who might give them further resistance. Chris weighed his options, realizing something was at work here that had taken over his officers and since they seemed to want the bridge for a specific reason, Chris decided he had no choice but to deny them that chance.

"Computer...."

He never managed to finish the rest of the sentence because no sooner than the words made their futile effort to leave his throat, Mary pulled the trigger without hesitation. What she knew of the man had told her he would not be subject to coercion, not without something more tangible to lose than his life. By the time he woke up, they would have that option prepared for him. However, for the moment, it was safer all around if he was incapacitated for the duration. Chris tumbled to the floor wordlessly as the effects of the phaser on stun ripped through his body with one sharp burst.

"Chris!" Buck tried to speak but his voice was weak and strained. Looking up at Alex, he noted the science officer was keeping a careful eye on him and realized in that instance, if he had attempted to follow Chris's steps to disable the main computer, he would be dealt with in precisely the same way. Alex hit him in the throat for that specific reason, to ensure he would not be able to complete the order to the computer before she and Julia were able to disable that function in the computer's programming.

"I wouldn't try to say anymore, Commander," Alex warned coldly, jamming the phaser into the side of his head. "At this range, I could fry your brains before the word escapes you. Trust me; this will go painlessly if you cooperate with us."

"Alex," Buck looked at her and then at the other, trying to understand what was going on. He implored to her if she was still somewhere behind those cold eyes. Somehow he had to reach the person whom he knew her to be, not this cold-blooded stranger. "Fight it. Whatever it is that is making you do this. Fight it. You're the strongest mind I know on this ship, fight it!"

"Everything is not all it seems Commander," his answer reached him not from Alex but from someone else behind him, following the open slide of the ready room doors. Buck strained to look and saw Casey Wells emerging from Chris's office.

The minute he saw her, he knew something was wrong. Her walk was different. He knew Casey and yet when she approached, Buck immediately realized she was not the Casey Wells he knew. The Casey Wells he knew was a somewhat shy young woman who could sometimes rise above herself with bursts of youthful abandon. Poised on the verge of womanhood, Casey struggled to be just like her more experienced comrades, not always succeeding. Buck knew her to be a young girl in love with JD so totally she knew nothing else but as she strode past the ensign, she barely gave him a glance.

"You have done well." Casey complimented the other women in the room as she sauntered forward, confidence oozing in every graceful movement forward. Everything about her told Buck this was not Casey Wells but someone using her body like a suit of clothes. It was not a young girl before him, but a woman in every sense of the word. Approaching Buck, she stared at the first officer for a long time and then responded. "Report."

"The rest of the ship has been secured," Julia informed the leader. "Our people moved into place the moment we stepped onto the bridge."

Buck's mind whirled, unable to comprehend how blind they could have been to what was happening. His mind started to open up like a house with many doors and the knowledge that filtered through his mind made things very clear. Suddenly, he understood why Alex had come to him as she had. It was not because of her needs but rather her ability to keep him off balance and distracted from noticing what was taking place on the rest of his ship. The commander cursed his own weakness and wondered how he could have allowed himself to be played so easily.

"Excellent," Casey nodded in approval and regarded Buck once again. "It appears Commander Wilmington, we have your ship."

"Who's we?" Buck muttered the raspy question. For the moment, he would suspend any effort to try and disable the computer system because it would serve no purpose for him to be rendered just as unconscious as Chris or JD. He had to know what was happening to save the Maverick from these entities who had captured the minds of his fellow officers.

"You need not concern yourself with that," Casey said moving past him to take a seat in the command chair while Chris was still lying unconscious as the foot of it. She lowered herself into it with great relish, like a conqueror, claiming to her prize. Buck almost blanched at the sight of her in Chris' chair, especially when the Captain was there at her feet like some kind of trophy. "We needed your ship and now we have her. We do not wish to harm anyone but we will take whatever measures we must return to our home world."

"If you girls wanted a lift, you might have just asked," Buck remarked, still rubbing his sore throat.

"Ask anything of a man?" She stared at him almost astonished by the very notion. "Your kind are destroyers, dominators, jailers and rapists. Understand that your kind and mine are enemies and that you should be thankful we do not choose to jettison every single one of your accursed gender into space." Casey said with such vehemence Buck wondered what on earth these entities had endured feeling such terrible hatred.

"That's mighty harsh," Buck tried to keep her talking in order to understand more. "Now explain to us what you did to our women to make them help you."

"We did nothing to them," Casey explained with a little smile. "We are merely residing here until we are home again. Trust me on this Commander; their safety depends entirely on how cooperative you are going to be."

******

Vin knew something had changed on the Maverick the moment it happened.

He could feel it in his bones, a slight shift in the overall resonance of the ship tingling along his spine like a mild shudder he could dissect in degrees from sheer repetition. He sensed it like he was able to tell from the slight breeze blowing across the green covered hills of his Texas ranch on Earth that a storm was coming. In this instance, the medium was completely different but the feeling was always the same. He looked up suddenly and noticed he was not alone in his discovery. The lieutenant named Rain was also wearing a curious expression on her face that seemed to detect the same thing that he did even though it was taking her longer to guess what the change actually was.

Nathan and Josiah were oblivious to it mostly because they weren't of the same breed that Rain and he were. For different reasons, Rain and Vin could detect the change as it occurred but the doctor and the counsellor whose expertise was grounded in something a little more biological could be forgiven for not seeing. Vin saw Rain's phaser, the barrel of which had been held in such a way, poised to fire, suddenly droop as her eyes stared around her for something she could not see but could feel with every fibre of her being.

"We've just gone to Warp 9," Vin announced for the benefit of those who did not know.

"You felt it?" Rain asked as she stared at him, her voice hushed as she put forward her question, glad she was not just imagining things. She noticed a slight shift in the low hum resonating throughout the Maverick and thought for a moment she was being foolish at thinking there was something important about a sound.

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "We've hit high warp."

"How can you tell Vin?" Josiah found himself asking. The ship felt the same to him and he could not understand how they could come to that conclusion.

"Josiah," Vin said with a little smile. "When you're used to flying this bird, you tend to get an idea of the sounds she makes when she goes from low to high gear and I'm telling you, right now she's flying through space like a bat out of hell."

"You think they've moved on the bridge?" Rain asked, dismayed they were too late.

"I can't see no reason why we would hit maximum warp without good reason," Vin replied deciding they had wasted enough time in here. It was time to get to the bridge. "Josiah give me your gun."

Josiah was more than glad to relinquish the weapon to Vin since the Officer of the Con was probably better at handling it than he ever would be anyway. "What are you going to do?"

"Well, I'm not staying here," Vin responded and glanced at Rain. "You up to taking a little walk with me Chief?"

"Lead the way, Sir." Rain replied automatically and drew a faint smile from Vin. "Where are we going?"

"To the bridge," he answered before turning his attention to Josiah. "Get the force field up when we leave," Vin instructed the Counselor since Nathan seemed particularly engrossed in what he was doing at present. "You should be pretty safe in here."

"I found something!" Nathan exclaimed, slicing through anything else Josiah might have said in deference to his orders.

"What?" Vin asked immediately, preferring to know what he was going to be facing when he and Rain reached the bridge. "What have you got?" The trio quickly converged around the doctor who was standing over a particularly complicated piece of machinery poised over Lieutenant Richmond's head through which he had made his discovery.

"It's not just a virus or an alien." Nathan looked up after a moment. "It's a biological energy pattern."

"An energy pattern?" Rain exclaimed. "I don't understand."

"Look here," Nathan pointed to the small screen of the medical scanner showing two sets of erratic lines running parallel on a dark digitized surface. "Those are brain waves patterns. One is Lieutenant Richmond's. I was able to compare them to the most recent encephalogram she took during her last physical. The other one belongs to someone else."

"How is that possible?" Josiah inquired, understanding something of what Nathan was showing them.

"I don't know but unlike Lieutenant Richmond's brain wave patterns which are generated by chemical reactions in human synapses, this other one is composed of an energy pattern I have never seen before."

"My God." Rain exclaimed. "That was what was in the artifact. Brain waves. All that storage space we thought was for information about an alien culture was not at all for that, but rather the biological neural energy pattern of a life form."

"You mean that thing has been hurtling in space for a half a million years with a life form trapped in it?" Vin tried to imagine a more horrible fate and found he could not. He wondered what it must do to anyone faced with that kind of confinement.

"More than that," Nathan added. "I don't see any evidence to prove this brainwave is part of a larger consciousness. They may be linked in some way but the readings indicate they all function independently. If they were interdependent, I would be seeing readings that match the brain wave patterns taken from Borg drones we have had the chance of examining. However, since they are independent for the most part and seemed to have taken most of the female crew members on the ship, it would be safe to assume...."

He did not have to finish that statement because Vin did it for him. "That there are hundreds of them."

Chapter Ten:

Home Truths

When Chris Larabee woke up, he prayed the strange images proceeding his unconscious state had been his mind playing tricks on him and it had been nothing more than a bizarre dream. However, when he opened his eyes and saw Alex at the helm of the Maverick, where Vin ought to have been. Casey nestled quite comfortably in his command chair and Julia manning the station where Ezra normally stood, he knew he was not dreaming. He realized the dream was more of a nightmare when he saw Mary Travis standing over him, holding the phaser rifle in her hands with a glint in her eye indicating she was not above shooting him if he gave her the slightest bit of trouble.

Chris and the rest of his bridge crew were forced against the far wall of the bridge, under Mary's watchful gaze. JD was still unconscious next to Buck whose throat showed the purplish discolouration of a severe bruise. The others members of the bridge were similarly subdued and the four women who had complete control of the bridge appeared more than adequate to the task of keeping this vital part of their ship in the hands for the time being. Buck's gaze was fixed on the viewscreen and it took a moment for Chris to realize they were travelling at high warp.

He had a feeling they were not bound for Pacifica.

"What the hell is going on?" Chris demanded with something of a growl when he finally had mind enough to speak.

Mary looked down at him indifferently and aimed her weapon in his direction to indicate that was about as much animation she liked to see him display. "He's awake." She spoke out loud but not to him. Her announcement was made to Casey.

"Are you okay Chris?" Buck asked concerned, his voice was still hoarse and the worry in his eyes was clear. His expression was grim and each breath he took was raspy. Chris suspected serious injury had been inflicted upon his breathing passage when Alex had initially attacked.

"I'm fine." Chris nodded, rubbing the back of his head to dispel the ache left in the wake of the stun blast before he glanced at JD. The young communications officer lay slumped next to Buck, oblivious to everything going on. For a moment, he looked very much like the boy he was. "How's the kid?"

"He was stunned like you were," Buck said tersely, giving Mary a dark look as he did so. Buck knew it was not Mary behind those eyes and was unashamed tp fee; hostility towards the creature that had not only harmed his young prot�g� but also taken the body of one of his friends. "But he took a pretty hard tumble when he was hit and I think he might have brained himself good. I don't see any blood but I think he's okay." However, despite Buck's attempt at reassurance, Chris could tell he was worried about the boy.

"So do we know what all this is about, other than the fact they want and have our ship?" Chris whispered softly, keeping his voice down as he tried to acquire an appraisal of the situation from his first officer.

Mary was pacing the floor but she was still keeping an eye on them. Buck waited until she was a short distance away from himself and Chris before he answered. "They haven't said much," Buck responded to his Captain's query. "But we've changed course."

That was not a surprise. Chris assumed as much when he realized the ship was in high warp. "Do we have any idea where?"

"Quiet!" Mary barked having noticed their conversation and had quickly intervened, obviously finding that action extending beyond the limits of the freedom she was willing to permit. "One more word out of either of you and I'll shoot."

Chris turned a sharp glare at her, forcing himself to remember this was not Mary but some alien creature using her before he responded. "If you wanted us dead, you would have done it already." He hissed in that menacing Larabee voice that knew no fear of anything, even when a gun was being aimed in his direction. "Let's not get hot under the collar and do something we'll both regret."

"Do not assume too much Captain," Mary returned with just as much rancour, her blue-grey eyes narrowing as their gazes locked like two combatants poised on the edge of battle. "We do not wish to spill unnecessary blood but make no mistake we will do what is necessary to reach our destination. We have no great love for your kind, it would not weigh upon our conscience to terminate your existence."

Casey, who had been attracted by the commotion, averted her gaze from the view screen and turned her eyes to them. Taking special note of Chris, Casey pushed herself out of the command chair.

"Calm yourself Narita." She turned a cold eye on Chris. "There is no need to repeat our threats. The Captain is attempting to bait you into doing something foolish." There was no need to use the appellations of the host bodies any more. Now their presence was exposed to the Captain, they could utilize their own identities instead of the ones they borrowed when they acquired the hosts for the Many.

For a moment, Chris did not speak. He was still rather taken back by the sight of Casey striding forward with the supreme confidence of someone who was in complete control of the situation. He had not realized until he rose from his black sleep it was Casey who was the guiding force behind this insurrection on his bridge. In retrospect, Chris thought it made perfect sense. After all, it had not been the others who had left him so distracted he had no idea what was going on his ship, just Casey. Casey who utilized a ploy so incredibly simplistic and ingenious in its conception he had to congratulate the mind who had conjured it if he was not so furious at himself for being taken so easily. He should have suspected Casey's sudden affections for him were false. Evidence of how she felt about him and JD Dunne was apparent since the day she arrived on board the Maverick. Chris was mortified by his arrogance in allowing his ego to do the thinking for him.

"I just want to know what you want," Chris retorted, recovering quickly now he knew with whom he was dealing. His mind focused into the singularity of regaining his ship and more importantly, the restoration of his female officers to themselves. "You've taken my ship, why?"

"You are not in a position to require answers to anything." Narita, who spoke with Mary Travis's voice answered abruptly, glaring at Chris with unmasked contempt. "We have his ship and the rest of his kind have been dealt with."

"What do you mean dealt with?" Chris asked, suddenly gripped with fear and the understanding there had to be many of them to deal with the rest of his kind, whatever his kind was. Suddenly, the scope of the Maverick's predicament began to filter into his head as he began to comprehend it was not just the female officers on his bridge but throughout his entire ship.

"Captain," She who wore Casey's face regarded him as she approached. "You did not think we would be stupid enough to move on your bridge without first ensuring the rest of your officers were similarly neutralized? Consider how it easy it was to make you run and hide like a frightened child." A little smile curled the corner of her lips as she responded. "All I had to make you believe was this child whose body I am using, had affection for you."

"What?" Buck looked at Chris in question.

"Nevermind," Chris growled, wondering if it was possible to feel any more foolish than he already did over that stupid assumption. Casey's supposed crush on him had been awkward but secretly, Chris had been flattered by the attention. Perhaps it was why he had not handled the situation decisively instead of hiding himself in the holodeck for hours while intruders had free run of his ship.

"Or the ease in which your first officer was deceived into believing Alexandra Styles would couple with him, right there in your very own Ready Room."

Chris blinked and turned to Buck who was gulping visibly.

"In my Ready Room?" Chris glared at him with a long hard stare before he realized this was not the time or the place for this conversation, although rest assured they would be having it at some point, soon. "We will talk about this later Commander."

"You kind are so easily distracted Captain," Casey continued speaking, indifferent to the shock waves caused by her last comment. "We did what we had to and now we are in control of your ship. Cooperate with us and you will come out of this with your skin. Do not and your crew will pay the penalty. I trust you want to see no one being beamed into a vacuum?"

Chris's jaw tightened with seething anger as that threat was made to him and he had made his career knowing when to blink or when the enemy was bluffing or not. As he looked into Casey's cold eyes, he knew for a fact that she was not. For the moment at least, he would have to comply with their intentions for his ship. "Don't worry,' he said in a low voice. "I won't try anything for a while."

"I expected nothing less," Casey answered with smug satisfaction.

"So what do you want with my ship?" Chris asked once more since she never did answer that question and as she was in complete control of his ship, or so she thought, Chris gambled she might be arrogant enough to answer.

He was right.

"You are hardly in a position to change things so I do not see why I cannot satisfy your curiosity in this respect."

"X'hala," Narita interjected. "Is that wise?"

"The information will hardly be of any use to him," X'hala gave Narita a sidelong glance before regarding Chris once more. "And if he tries to use it against us, we will simply kill Mr Dunne."

"Like hell, you will," Buck hissed, reacting immediately to that information as only he could when any threat was made against JD but Narita was prepared for him. Her gun rose enough to indicate any further action would be a mistake.

"Buck," Chris turned a sharp eye on his first officer. "Stand down."

He could see Buck's anger through the tight line of tension running through his jaw and the loud breathing exuding from him like the vents of a boiler room. However, he was too conditioned to obey his captain to be able to let that anger get the better of him and immediately settled down once again. He would be no good to JD if he were dead.

"I told you," Chris glared at X'hala. "I won't try anything."

"Then you shall have your answer." X'hala looked at him with a smirk reeking of triumph. "We need your ship to go home."

"Where's home?" Chris asked automatically. If they were from Andromeda or beyond the galactic rim, this was going to be one long trip.

"Precise coordinates Captain?" X'hala gave him a look of amusement. "Nice try. Let us say it's a few days away."

At least that was something, Chris thought before he spoke again. "You didn't have to take over the ship if that's all you wanted." A part of him was unable to believe the aliens had gone to all this trouble for just that simple reason. Chris had no qualms about returning displaced life forms back to their point of origin. All they needed to do was ask.

"Your kind are deceivers," X'hala answered automatically. "We are not so foolish to believe for one instant you would help us. We are aware of you and others like you. Deception is a part of your genetic material." The bitterness in her voice was not superiority or hatred, she said it like it was a statement of fact, like the world was round.

Chris looked at her with a hint of surprise as well as confusion. He still had a thousand questions running through his head. Some did not need any explanation like the strange behaviour exhibited not only by Casey earlier today but also Alex who used sex quite spectacularly to take Buck's mind off what was happening. Inwardly, he should have known it would take nothing less than an alien invasion of her body for Alex to succumb to Buck's charms. Others, like how these creatures managed to infect the female members of his crew and what they were in reality, beneath the guises of Maverick's most trusted officers, were not so easy to answer.

"The hated ones?" Chris wrinkled his brow in confusion.

"Men," Buck said dutifully.

"I see," Chris nodded trying to make sense of things and had very little patience with the whole situation. His ship had been taken mostly because of his own negligence and while he was furious at himself, there was something to all this that told Chris these creatures had a reason for detesting men so much. He guessed they must have come from the artifact, for there was no other solution as to how they had gotten loose on his ship. After a moment he looked up at the young woman who wore Casey's face but nothing like the yeoman he knew. "If we cooperate, will you guarantee the safety of my crew?"

"You will cooperate," X'hala remarked as she returned to the command chair and lowered herself in it with great relish before casting her gaze in his direction again. "You will cooperate or we will kill everyone on board before we reach our destination. Do we understand each other?"

Chris nodded grimly before answering. "Perfectly."

******

Vin and Rain did not make it far after leaving the safety of SickBay in order to access the bridge. The turbo lifts had been deactivated. Considering that there were almost 35 decks on a galaxy class starship and the bridge was presently residing on Deck 1 and the SickBay was on Deck 17, it made reaching it somewhat difficult. Although they could access it by way of the miles and miles of ducts, conduits, electrical access tunnels, Jefferies tubes and crawl spaces that ran through a ship of this size, it was still a laborious endeavour. With what Nathan had revealed in regards to the enemy's numbers, Vin and Rain knew they had to find a faster alternative for that careless expenditure of time was not acceptable with the ship in danger.

"What about the electrical access tunnel that runs straight through the bridge?" Rain suggested as they considered the options available to them as they put some distance between themselves and their last location following their unsuccessful turn at the turbo lift.

"That will take almost as long as trying to climb up the Jefferies tube and if they've got the bridge crew hostage, we need an element of surprise. They'll be able to see us coming and then they'll just have two extra hostages." Vin remarked and then met her gaze when a bout of inspiration overtook him. "What about Cargo Bay 2?" He suggested his blue eyes aflame with possibility.

"It has its own transporter pad!" She exclaimed, guessing what he intended almost immediately. "I can beam us directly to the bridge!"

"That's a plan." He grinned as they both continued down the corridor, phasers in hand. The passageways were quiet and Vin wondered where everyone was. There could not be enough aliens to subdue everyone on the ship but Vin soon came to the conclusion there was really no need. If all the females on board had been infected with this malaise and they were as well prepared as Vin believed they were from what he had seen so far, it was quite easy to keep a ship of almost a thousand people penned indefinitely. With travel between the ship restricted thanks to the turbo lifts being offline and phasers offering a compelling argument for the unarmed to stay indoors, Vin could understand why the walkways of the Maverick were so deserted.

They were rounding the corner when Vin and Rain ran into a very irate Ezra Standish.

"What on Earth is going on?" Ezra demanded upon finally seeing a face he recognized, for that matter any face.

"Where the hell have you been Ezra?" Vin returned just as vehemently. "We've got hundreds of aliens on board and they've taken the bridge!"

Ezra's face drained of colour for an instant as he absorbed that news. "How?"

"It's the artifact," Rain quickly explained, moving past the moment because the guilt seeping into the eyes of the Security Chief was more than she could stand. She could tell very quickly he was blaming himself in the wake of this news that he should have been able to prevent what had happened. Rain guessed he had probably been distracted the way Vin and the rest of the ship had been and did not make his discovery of things being askew until it was too late. "It transferred some kind of alien consciousness to the females on board."

"But you�.." Ezra started to point out.

"It's got something to do with me being Trill," Rain explained before the question had a chance to escape him. "I'm about the only woman on the Maverick who isn't affected. Everyone else is."

"No, that's impossible." Ezra shook his head refusing to believe it. "I was with Julia." He insisted, the image of their heated desires still fresh in his mind. "I would have known."

The shudder she saw in his eyes, told Rain something else as well and inwardly, she ached for him. The relationship between Ezra and Julia Pemberton was well known throughout the ship and probably like so many lovers across the vessel, he was having trouble believing he was duped. In Ezra's case, it would be a doubly bitter pill to swallow because he was the Chief of Security and any attempt to take the ship would require him being neutralized first.

"Believe it," Vin said abruptly, having no time to spare in giving Ezra a lengthy explanation. "They've taken the bridge, Ezra. We can't get in contact with Chris, Buck or JD. The turbo lifts are sealed. Communications has been completely disabled. They only way they could have managed all that is if Julia was involved. She is the only one with the knowledge and the authority to shut down all those systems."

An ugly thought surfaced in Ezra's mind as he recalled the summons to Engineering Julia received while she had been with him in his quarters and he looked at Vin, hoping he was wrong but knowing inwardly he was not. Still, Ezra had to ask. "Precisely how long ago did we lose access to all turbo lifts and communications?" He asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

"About 30 minutes." The Vulcan answered automatically, unaware at the significance of his response to Ezra. "About the same time, the ship kicked in Warp 9."

Ezra felt his stomach lurch as that number swam around his head and understood it made perfect sense after a fashion. In fact, everything taking place since she stepped into the shower cubicle suddenly made sense, giving Ezra a vision of truth nearly shattering the heart in his chest. For the most part, he hid it well from Vin, displaying the indifferent fa�ade so useful during a card game. He had asked her why she chose to take their relationship to the next level and could not believe his stupidity in accepting so readily the answer she gave him. A part of Ezra Standish could not stomach he had been deceived so easily and then realized she was the one thing that could accomplish the feat with little or no difficulty. His love for her had become his weakness.

Vin who was similarly duped by Mary and even now, felt outraged, as well as betrayal, could appreciate how hurt Ezra must be at this moment. Mary inspired such passion in him, something dangerous and powerful had almost been unleashed. Had she not acted to incapacitate him when she had, Vin was uncertain what would have happened. Inwardly, he was still angered he had been forced to share the sensation of such pleasure with his best friend's lady and not the woman who truly had his heart. However, while Vin was justified in his rage, Ezra's pain was a little more uncertain.

Ezra loved Julia. Anyone who saw them together would know that. Vin had a feeling it was not an easy thing for the Security Chief to admit to either and for a man who trained to read people and faces, Vin could not imagine the mortification he must feel at being tricked. At this moment, Vin could imagine Ezra being racked with feelings of humiliation and failure at not being able to tell the difference between the woman he loved and the creature who stole her body.

"Ez," Vin said gently, not wishing to make him feel any worse but they were too pressed for time to indulge in a lengthy debate over this matter. The time to move was now and with Ezra here, the odds of success were slightly better than they had been. "We're going to Cargo Bay 3 which is on this deck and has a transporter pad. Rain's going to attempt a site to site transport to get us onto the bridge. I think the odds would work a lot better if it were three of us than just two. As it is, it's going to be a gamble cause we have no idea how many there are and what they're capable of."

"Alex was on the bridge," Ezra mused. "If she's there, chances are Julia would be too. Possibly Mary. If I were conducting an assault on the bridge, that is the way to infiltrate it without rousing suspicion. All of them have reason to be there."

"Well you're the expert," the Vulcan said with a little smile. "Chief of Security."

Ezra would begged to differ but said nothing, since he was still shell shocked by what he had just been told but knew for the moment, his feelings could wait. When they had assumed control of the bridge and ejected the alien consciousness in possession of the Maverick's female complement, then he could allow himself to consider the ramifications of what transpired between Julia and him. A flurry of questions still remained in his mind, the first and foremost being whether or not the creatures could be expelled from Julia and whether or not she would survive the exorcism. How would she react to knowing he had made love to her, not even realizing it was not her, that he had been touched by something else, utilizing her body to cruelly distract him from his responsibilities to the ship?

Personally, Ezra did not know which was worse.

Tapping his combadge in order to reach his security team, he was greeted with silence and Ezra cast a glance at Vin. "It seems Miss Pemberton has been sufficiently thorough."

"Let's hope she's not that thorough," Vin responded, catching on to his meaning immediately.

"You think she might have disabled the transporters?" Rain gasped, realizing Julia Pemberton's efficiency as a Chief Engineer might be sound enough for such an eventuality.

"If she did not, Alex would have." Ezra commented, garnering a look from Vin. "You forget aside from being Chief Science Officer, she is also the third ranking officer with tactical training. Her IQ is higher than most of us, so yes, I would say there is a good chance she may have disabled the transporters."

"Damn." Vin swore under his breath.

"That's not a problem." Rain responded automatically.

"It is not?" Ezra and Vin looked at the woman immediately.

"I am Transporter Chief you know," she shrugged her shoulders with something of a guilty expression on her face as she spoke. "I may have inadvertently at some point, hacked into the mainframe and acquired the enable codes for our transporters."

Ezra's eyes widened and then narrowed in quick succession. "Madam, when this is all over, you and I are going to have a talk about your inadvertent ventures."

 

Chapter Eleven: Space Walk

"We have a problem."

When Julia Pemberton spoke those words, she simultaneously captured the attention of both hostage and kidnappers on the bridge of the Maverick. In his command chair, Chris saw the alien called X'hala who was presently inhabiting the body of Casey Wells swivel about to face the Chief Engineer. It was still taking some time for him to become accustomed to that hardened expression in Casey's face when Chris was so used to seeing youthful exuberance and a sweetness possessing the power to touch even his jaded interior, so ravaged by grief he would not share with anyone. It had been even more difficult for JD Dunne when the young man had awoken to find the girl he cared presiding over the bridge and issuing orders with a personality, not her own or anything closely resembling the person he knew.

"Clarify," X'hala ordered.

Julia's eyes moved over the console screen before her, the faint glow of the screen bouncing off her features as she made a further study and responded. "Someone is attempting to access the transporter pad in Cargo Bay 3."

"I thought you disabled all transporters." X'hala returned.

"I did but apparently they have the initialization codes to get the transporters back online once more," Julia replied, somewhat confused about how this was possible since she thought she had secured those sections earlier on.

"Can you lock them out again?" The impatience in X'hala's voice was growing and Chris could tell she would not take another negative answer with any tolerance.

Chris gave Buck and JD a look, silent in his speech but his gaze spoke volumes as to the identity of the interlopers who were attempting to access the bridge. His gut instinct told him it was most likely Ezra and possibly Vin. If anyone could override lockout codes it was Ezra Standish, the man was as gifted with bypassing secured programming as he was with his extracurricular gambling habits.

"I don't think so." The Julia entity lifted her eyes to meet X'hala's own before shaking her head.

"Can we identify them?" X'hala inquired sharply.

Julia returned her gaze to the computer screen once again and punched in a few more keypads to make that determination. "I am reading three life signs in Cargo Bay 3. One human, one Vulcan, and one Trill."

"It's the one we could not take." The leader frowned. "I knew we should have done away with her when we had the chance."

"Decompress the cargo bay." Alex who was at helm controls suggested, immediately bringing all conversation to a halt for a few seconds.

"You can't do that!" Chris reacted immediately, knowing what that would mean. "You'll kill them!"

"Quiet!" Narita who was standing close by growled at him, brandishing the phaser just for effect.

Alex rose from her station at the helm and more or less ignored his outburst, focusing her attention on X'hala instead when she resumed speaking. "If we initiate decompression on Cargo Bay 3, we will disable transporter functions, will we not?"

"Yes," Julia nodded somberly. "If we decompress the cargo bay, the safety protocols will interrupt any transporter routine in progress. Once full decompression takes place, the transporter pad will be functional again but we're talking about a three-second time delay where the transporters will be ineffective, codes or not."

"Long enough for them to be blown out in the space," Alex said firmly.

"Yes," Julia nodded. "Long enough for that."

"Proceed immediately," X'hala ordered before glancing at Chris in anticipation of an outburst on the behalf of the crewmen about to die.

"You said you wouldn't hurt anyone!" Chris shouted at her, feeling impotent at being unable to help Ezra, Vin, and Transporter Chief Rain. Any remaining goodwill he had for these creatures just evaporated with that threat and he vowed if those three lives were lost, he would have every one of theirs in return.

"If you cooperated. They are not cooperating." X'hala retorted coldly as Alex resumed her duties at the helm station. "Carry out the order."

"Don't!" Chris turned to Julia and tried desperately to reach her. "Julia, you're in there somewhere. You know as well as I do that biosignature is Ezra's! If you do this, you'll be killing him! You love him!"

"You waste your time Captain," X'hala's voice spoke instead of Julia's. "Julia Pemberton does not hear you. She is Salya." There was a hint of boredom in her voice as she spoke, almost as if the attempt was

Chris kept his gaze locked on Julia, refusing to give up. Somehow he had to reach her. She returned his look of worry with one that was unfathomable. While he had expected to see abject refusal, he was greeted with uncertainty. "You know that this is wrong, Julia please." He tried again, hoping to use that hesitation in her features as a way of helping his comrades.

"Carry out the order Salya!" X'hala barked fiercely, annoyed she had not done it yet for it seemed she was considering the Captain's words.

"Julia!" Chris's voice rose.

The entity inhabiting Julia Pemberton's body was hesitating and she did not know why. In the milliseconds between the Captain's desperate plea and the direct order given to her by X'hala, she had found her mind not focused on the journey home but the heated passion exchanged between herself and Ezra Standish. He was the enemy. There ought to be no question as to what she should to do and yet she felt torn between her duty and what she felt for this human. She did not want to hurt him and unlike the couplings with others of his kind before, he had been kind and tender. He had taken such effort to please her and when he said he loved Julia Pemberton, Salya believed him. They were not just words of deception, but words from the heart.

"NOW, SALYA!" X'hala shouted this time, startling her out of her thoughts. The Thinker raised her eyes to the Leader, whose own were now blazing with anger at her inability to perform what was demanded of her.

Salya saw all eyes on her, including that of the hostages and her sisters. They were all waiting in anticipation of what she would do and Salya knew she had no choice but to act. She knew the cause and she believed in it. She would do so until her dying day. Thinking quickly, she pounded against the keypad and made split-second preparations before announcing. "Proceeding with decompression."

Chris let out a breath that was almost a gasp and felt his heart constrict in his chest because he failed and because he failed, he had condemned his friends to die.

******

Rain was in the midst of bypassing the transporter lockout when she saw the warning flashing across the console pad before her. Her head snapped up immediately while her eyes darted to the main doors into the cargo bay. The flicker on the control panel on the wall next to it told her she was too late. It was already sealed. Rain faced front again and realized they had less than two minutes before the cargo bay doors opened. The job of enabling the transporter pad would take three. They were in trouble.

"They're preparing to decompress the cargo bay!" Rain declared, trying not to panic even though they had less than two minutes which was plenty of time for her to begin if the need took her.

"What?" Vin exclaimed and started towards the door.

"It's no good," she shook her head. "The doors have already been sealed."

"They must have detected your attempts to override the transporter lockout." Ezra retorted, thinking fast as he decided how they would extricate themselves from this situation in the time they had. He suspected something of the sort when they began the attempt, having nothing left inside him that could hope for success after what had happened to him today. "Will you be able to get the transporter functioning before our time dwindles away?"

Rain did not answer and in her silence did.

However, she still refused to give up on her attempt to access the transporters, hoping her fingers might deliver to the magic needed to escape despite the fact time was well and truly against her. Her digits moved with the kind of swiftness that came with being on intimate terms with the device of her vocation, after years of practice. Despite her stubborn determination not to give in, not even until the last minute, Rain was finding herself struggling in quicksand because there was a difference between hope and futility and it this case, it was that one minute.

Vin was also thinking but his thought processes were not geared towards recognizing their situation or continuing on their intended course to escape the doom of decompression, but rather how they would survive it. If the doors were sealed and they were not getting out through the transporters then there had to be another solution. Chris always said there was always an angle to play and if there wasn't one, to find it quick smart. Vin hoped the Captain was right because right now, they needed one and rather desperately. His eyes were scouring the expanse of the cargo bay when suddenly; it came to him in a flash of inspiration or desperation, however one looked at it. He preferred to think of it as the former.

"Forget the transporters!" Vin shouted to the others as he started running towards a compartment at the far corner of the cargo bay. "This way!"

"What?" Rain stammered, looking up at him as she saw where he was heading and realized what he intended.

Ezra who caught on just as quickly grabbed her by the shoulder and more or less tore her away from the transporter controls, forcing her into the run her mind was having such difficulty coping with. In a second, Rain matched him stride for stride as they saw Vin opening the compartment door. It slid open and no sooner than he disappeared inside, the Vulcan helmsman was flinging out the enviro-suits stored within its confines for maintenance purposes.

"Hurry!" Vin shouted as he began to pull off his shoes in order to slip into the suits which now appeared to be their only means of survival.

"I hate spacewalking!" Rain complained as she pulled off her jumpsuit and proceeded to climb into her own suit, modesty forgotten in the face of the danger her body face if she should be ejected into a vacuum. Being exposed in front of a Vulcan who could barely appreciate it or a human, who was trying to decide what to explain to his lover when this was all over, would be the least of her problems.

"I am certain you would dislike explosive decompression even less." Ezra retorted as he pulled the thick cumbersome clothes over his shoulders and did the same to the gauntlets and boots when he kicked the preceding pair of his feet.

"Do you think you both could shut up and just get dressed!" Vin growled. They did not have time to banter. In fact, they would very little time for anything if they were not protected by the enviro-suits by the time those cargo bay doors opened. He snapped his helmet into place and saw the others almost as ready as he was for what was coming when suddenly red warning lights around the cargo bay doors signal their intention to open. The low whine of a warning beacon filled the room and suddenly, it appeared they had even less time than they thought, in which to be ready for it when they opened.

Rain and Ezra exchanged looks for a split second before they resumed their dressing, snapping fasteners into place and securing vacuum sealed buttons to utilize the maximum protection of their new apparel. Ezra snapped his helmet into place and pulled down the visor, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on those doors. He was almost ready for it when they opened and managed to register Vin's words when they finally pulled apart.

"Use your grappling hooks!" The Vulcan reminded, aware of how rough this was going to be.

Although the air was meant to be invisible, the three occupants of Cargo Bay 3 were almost certain they could see it rushing past the doors when the starlight beyond the ship seeped into view. At first, they felt little more than a slight tug pulling at them as the air began bleeding through the narrow crack of the widening doors. However, by the time they had pulled back to be afforded a picturesque view of the Maverick traveling at warp, they were being bombarded with the force of a typhoon. Everything unbolted down went flying in all directions. Storage containers, loading crates, and tools were flying through the air like children's toys. All three were swept off their feet and through the chaos of flight, Vin's voice continued to shout instructions.

"Use your grappling hooks to stay with the ship!" Vin cried out as he narrowly missed being hit by a large container that went tumbling into space the minute it cleared the doors. "If we slip past the warp field, we'll be smashed into subatomic matter!"

If they had been traveling at normal speeds, ejection from the ship in their suits would have allowed for continued existence at least until a rescue vessel was dispatched. However, no such allowance was possible while the Maverick remained at warp. If they were to drift out of the warp field, nothing would save them from the ravages of extreme velocity. It was a situation they were all painfully aware of as they found themselves ejected outward from the cargo bay. Trying to keep their heads as much as they could, the displaced trio soon saw the doors of the cargo bay surrounding them before they were speeding away from the ship.

"Grapplers, now!" Vin shouted.

Wasting no time, three separate lifelines ejected from the utility belts contained in the gauntlets of the enviro-suits. Surging forward with the power of chemical propellants behind them, the lines were not tethered to hooks but rather magnetic fasteners attracted by the large hulk of metal that was the Maverick. It took a number of seconds before all three magnets reached the hull and Vin could confess to those being the longest seconds of his life as he waited for the tension to pull him back towards the Maverick. In the soundless vacuum, he could see space moving past him at speeds too incredible to imagine like the first humans who had looked up at the sky to admire the stars. Spacewalks like these were persona non grata according to the manual. While spacewalking had been a fact of life for travelers since the twentieth century, no commander in recent history sanctioned the practice while the ship was in warp.

While the person making the attempt might be safe within the warp sphere that allowed the starship to travel at faster than light speeds, outside the sphere, the ship was being propelled forward by a velocity capable of separating atomic bonds and death was absolute. All these thoughts bounced around Vin's head as he saw Ezra and Rain being pulled forward once the magnetic fasteners did its work and felt a flood of relief through his entire being when he felt the same force tugging him towards the Maverick.

Vin did not realize he was holding his breath until he saw the familiar duranium plate of the hull overshadow the glass of his visor and he could see nothing but the polished steel of its surface. For once he was a drowning man grateful to allow its milky blue-white exterior to swallow him whole as he drew closer and closer towards the great ship.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra's voice filled the inside of his helmet. "Are you still in one piece?"

"Pretty much." Vin finally dared to answer as he saw the hull only inches away. He was certain Ezra could hear the relief in his voice. "What about you?"

"Oh, I am certain to be seeing my dinner again when this is all over." The Security Chief offered an unusually graphic description for a man so refined.

"Uggh�" Rain groaned in disgust. "For a man who can turn a phrase when he needs to, that is something I did not need to hear." She grumbled and indicated her state of well being by that glib remark.

Vin saw Rain and Ezra already on the hull. They were evenly distanced from each other across the starboard section of the hull and when Vin finally made his landing, he and Rain would have to walk to reach Ezra who seemed to be halfway point between them. He did not mind the walk. Free floating in space might have its attractions but Vin would have like to have done it while the Maverick was not speeding through space at high warp. As the soles of his boots touched the metallic side of the ship, Vin activated his gravity boots and immediately felt the soft thud of landing. Utilizing the same principle as the magnetic fasteners, the soles of the boots were magnetically lined allowing the wearer to remain attached to the ship without any danger of being spirited away by the windless drift of cold vacuum.

"The eagle has landed," Vin remarked as he felt solid ground or in this case, duranium under his feet. He cast a brief glance into the sky above him and could not help being lost in the wonder of the moment, if only for a second. He could see the stars moving past him like streaking comets. They moved through the expanse of space like a symphony of color and even though the danger he and the rest of the Maverick were in by no means over, reveling in the beauty of what was before him was a luxury he would not deny himself.

"God, it so beautiful." He heard Rain speak softly, her voice filled with hush tones of awe.

"It is." Vin agreed out loud and wished silently to himself Alex was here to share this with him. They had often watched this from inside the confines of the observation deck and knew she would have loved to have seen this herself. Thinking about Alex gave Vin a renewed feeling of worry for the science officer, wondering what she was enduring while something alien stole away everything she was and forced her to commit acts of violence against her friends. Remembering Alex snapped Vin out of his reverie of admiration for the beauty around him because he had to help her.

"Ezra, hold position," Vin responded as he started walking across the hull. "Rain and I will meet up with you."

"Standing by, Mr. Tanner." Ezra nodded in the affirmative.

"Hey, did either of you guys notice something strange?" Rain asked as she made the journey toward them.

"You mean other than being blown out of the cargo hold, being dragged by a ship going at warp and now crawling all over this ship like a bug on a windshield?" Vin retorted. "No, not really."

He could feel her glare from wherever she was.

"Very funny," Rain muttered and then spoke again. "I mean did you notice we were given a two-minute delay between the doors sealing and the cargo doors opening?"

"Now that you mention Lieutenant, I see what you mean." Ezra nodded as he stood to wait for them to arrive. "Normally we are talking about a matter of seconds before the cargo doors opened not a full two minutes."

"That kind of a program specification can't be carried out from the cargo deck controls but rather the bridge." Rain pointed out.

"You mean you think someone gave us two minutes?" Vin exclaimed, realizing what his two companions were alluding to. "Chris?"

"I doubt it." Ezra discounted that possibility immediately. The Captain was a hostage. He would not have the time or the opportunity to access the controls require to give them that leeway although the intention of whoever had done it, seemed to be for the purpose of keeping them alive. "Whoever it was, gave us two minutes but also chose to continue with the decompression. If you could interfere with the programming that much why not disable the countdown as well?"

Vin had an answer. "Maybe one of them doesn't want us dead but can't see their way to helping us either without getting into trouble themselves."

"Precisely," Ezra nodded as he saw Vin and Rain appear over the curve of the ship from two different sections. "It might mean the alien control may not be as intractable as we believe. We may be able to reach one of them."

"Which means they might help us when we get to the bridge." Rain suggested once they were all together again, a few seconds later.

"We can only hope." Ezra smiled as he patted Vin on the back, relieved at seeing the helmsman in the flesh and returning the same warm gesture to the intriguing Lieutenant Rain. "In the meantime however, I see you are still in possession of your weapon." Ezra regarded the phase rifle slung over Vin's shoulder.

"Yes," Vin answered, patting the leather strap that kept it secure during their forced ejection from the Maverick. "What do you have in mind?" He asked though he a fair idea since he was having the same thoughts himself.

"We do what we had originally intended to when we first entered Cargo Bay 3. Except this time instead of taking the direct route, we might just take the scenic one." Ezra said with a hint of ice in his voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to the bridge."

Chapter Twelve: Undaia

Ever since he discovered what it was they were dealing with in respect to the alien influence possessing half the ship, Nathan had been trying to discern some method of removing the invasive entities from the minds of those affected. He always thought identifying a problem was the first step to solving it. However, as he stared into the face of Lieutenant Charlotte Richmond lying on top of the examination table in his SickBay, he could not even begin to imagine how he would eject the unwanted presence impressing itself upon her mind. He kept her sedated knowing she might be dangerous if conscious, hoping she did not mind being used as his guinea pig while he tried to find some way to free the other women on board.

Nathan had started in the last half hour, pacing the floor of the room. Part of the reason for this was because he could not keep his mind wholly on his work. Even though he should be focusing on the problem at hand, Nathan was more concerned about the young lady and the friends who were attempting to reach the bridge at this moment. Vin, Rain and Ezra had been gone for quite some time now and Nathan knew that if normal ship functions had yet to resume, it was because they had been unsuccessful in their attempt to penetrate the command centre of the Maverick. Their failure did not bode well for their safety and despite the fact Nathan was trying very hard not to be distracted by personal matters, he could not help worry about Rain.

He knew he cared about her. Even though they had known each other for barely a day, Nathan was perceptive enough to comprehend that much about his feelings. She was unlike any person he had ever met; symbiote notwithstanding. Completely fearless, her unique perception of things allowed her to view the world with something of a dry wit and thus see past all the reservations obscuring most people from what was truly important in life. Nathan was a workaholic like most heads of department and yet Rain was one of the few people who could penetrate the stolid boundaries of his existence and displace him long enough to enjoy life instead of working through it.

The very idea that anything should happen to her just when Nathan had stumbled upon the treasure she was, made him sick to the stomach. It was a fear Josiah, who was trained to interpret psychological response in all types of races, was able to notice quite easily. The Counselor had noticed the tendrils of anxiety creeping into the healer's manner in the last hour or so. It did not take an extreme leap of deduction to know what preyed so heavily on Nathan's mind. He had seen how Rain affected the normally reserved Chief Medical Officer and realized he was witnessing the start of something special between the two.

"I'm sure she's fine," Josiah remarked from inside the force field re-initialized after Vin and Rain stepped out of its protective confines. He had been occupying himself for the last ten minutes with watching the dancing waves of energy moving through the air before him, swirling in place to keep them from harm. There was a certain beauty in its form if one could look past the fact it was merely a force field.

"They should have been there by now," Nathan stated as he looked up from his workstation.

"Perhaps," Josiah agreed but not about to entertain notions of defeat just yet. "However, we can't assume the worst. They might have encountered an unforeseen problem. With things the way they are, that isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

Nathan was aware of that, which was part of the reason why he was so worried. "I hope it's something they can handle since we're doing very little here to help them." He rose abruptly from his seat and glared at the terminal briefly before averting his gaze to Josiah. "It's infuriating!"

"Give it time," Josiah remarked soothingly, taking his ire in good stead.

"Time is something we do not have a lot of." The healer retorted. "I know their minds are being infected with this second energy signature but I don't know how to remove it. I've run simulations using the medical database, bombarding the cerebral cortex with every form of treatment I know, to wipe out that second brain wave pattern. I've even resorted to some unorthodox methods that would get me banned from the medical community if I actually attempted it and still nothing works. However this has infused itself into their cerebrum, is beyond me."

Josiah let out a sigh. "Perhaps you're too close to the issue.  Take a moment to let your thoughts settle Nathan."

"We can't afford to do that." Nathan declared with growing frustration. "You heard Vin. We're moving at warp, which means they're going somewhere with the Maverick. We have no idea how far off course that could take us, not to mention what these aliens intend to do when they arrive."

Josiah could not deny things appeared grim at present but Nathan's pessimistic view was tempered by the fears he had for Rain's safety and was clouding his judgment. "Brother Nathan," the Counselor folded his arms and gave Nathan a serious look. "I'm going to give you a professional evaluation of your present state of mind. Care to hear it?"

Nathan straightened up and suspected he was not going to like this but could see no reason to deny Josiah the opportunity to speak. Besides, he was panicking a little and needed to snap out of it or he would be no good to anyone. An objective view of his behaviour might be what he required to snap his thoughts into focus. "Go ahead."

"I think you need to calm yourself." The Counselor said first and foremost. "You care about this woman and that's a big step for you, it's one I hope you will explore in the future but like every man and woman in the service, you know the risk is part of the job. We gamble with our lives when we come out here and if you choose to pursue a relationship with her, you have to accept you could lose her."

The healer exhaled deeply and realized Josiah was right. He suddenly wondered how Sarah Larabee must have endured her marriage to Chris. As a commanding officer, Chris was in the position of the highest risk of all the shipboard complement. Command officers went on Away missions, they stood in the line of fire when the ship went into battle and they were the face the enemy focused their rage upon. It was ironic that in the end, Chris had outlived his wife when all probabilities indicated he would have been the one to die first if tragedy should befall the family. For all the danger Chris must have faced on a regular basis, it must have been unbelievable to him for Sarah to die in a freak shuttle accident.

"You're right," Nathan met Josiah's gaze. "I've never been on the other end of a relationship like this before. It was always me that faced the risk, not the other way around."

"Turning tables is how we see someone else's perspective." He said stoically in that voice so filled with wisdom it was hard to ignore.

"I can't say that you're wrong Josiah," Nathan admitted to that much. A small smile crooked the corner of the healer's lip and he gave Josiah a warm look of thanks before turning back to his workstation.

It was time to put this aside and work on their immediate problem, Nathan decided, as he sat down at his desk once more. "Maybe I'm coming at this the wrong way." He remarked as he studied once again, the readings giving him so much consternation.

"How so?" Josiah asked, knowing when it was necessary to give someone a mental prodding when they needed it. If there was a way to find a solution to their present crisis through medical means, then Josiah was convinced there was no one else on board who could accomplish this feat other than Nathan Jackson.

"I've been treating this thing like it's a disease and that hasn't worked. I've tried every medical way of ejecting the life force from our people and its failed. If I use more extreme methods I can't guarantee I won't be harming the patient."

"But it's not a disease." Josiah pointed out. "It's a life form and if it has a purpose, it's not going to leave until it gets what it wants."

"A life form." Nathan mused for a moment and Josiah saw his eyes suddenly narrow in calculation as if he had just latched onto a spark of something vague with the potential to be more. When he raised his eyes to meet Josiah's again, the Counselor saw a serious expression on the healer's face. "You're right, we're dealing with a life form. A sentient being."

"Shall we assume that it is a life form with fully developed mental and emotional responses?" Josiah asked, seeing his suggestions were laying the groundwork to give Nathan some ideas on how to proceed.

"Yes," Nathan nodded, running over in his mind everything that had taken place in the last day. In seconds, the mosaic inside his head was forming something tangible with which he could work with. "They've immobilized the ship using subterfuge, lies and strategy. This isn't the behaviour of a life form acting on instinct, is it?"

It was a rhetorical question but Josiah answered nonetheless. "No, it isn't. They've displayed the actions of what could only be based as an intelligent, sentient life form."

"Exactly, so if we can't treat this thing like a disease, we have to start thinking about this as a life form. Thinking this thing is like a virus could very well kill the patient by our attempts to remove it that way. We have to attack this from another avenue." He stated forcefully, his voice growing in tempo the more his epiphany reached crescendo.

Josiah considered that course of action wise and started doing as Nathan instructed, thinking about this in a broader scope. "If we were talking about territory or space occupied by an invader, we would be engaging in negotiation and diplomatic channels to secure their release. Obviously, we can't do that here."

"No," the doctor shook his head and began pacing once again, only this time it was not because he was nervous about Rain but because an idea was forming inside his head that could very well end this conflict without any bloodshed. It just needed a little more collaboration between himself and Josiah to let it come to fruition. "They've been locked up for almost half a million years. Whatever they're doing now, they've been waiting a long time for the chance, not to mention ample time to plan it. I mean think about it, trapped inside that artifact, hurtling through space for thousands of years, what does that do to a normal intelligent mind?"

Josiah's eyes flared and he immediately stood up from the edge of the examination bed he had been sitting on. "That's it, Nathan!" He looked at the healer, feeling a spark of inspiration himself. " That's it!"

"What?" Nathan looked at him, uncertain of what he had said.

"Fear!" The Counselor cried out exuberantly. "What is the one thing you would be afraid of most, after being imprisoned for that long? Dying? Of course not," Josiah declared, his words moving in rapid succession now that his mind was racing with possibilities. "Death is a release, not a threat after that kind of incarceration. They've been trapped so long inside the artifact, waiting for a ship to come along and here we are. We pick it up and they're free. For the first time in so long, they're free to do more than just drift like space flotsam! You say we need to appeal to them to get them to release Mary and the others, I say we scare them into leaving."

"Scare them into leaving?" The healer exclaimed. "If they're not afraid of dying, what else is there?"

"That's easy," Josiah said with a smug smile, more than prepared for that seemingly impossible question. "Being trapped again."

"That's good," Nathan started to smile, admiring Josiah's logic but not the practical application. "But how do we managed to scare them into believing that?"

"I'm not sure," Josiah answered, his genius did not have the limits to breach that particular obstacle. His shoulders sagged with disappointment; having hoped that one idea would give way to another. Unfortunately, it appeared that he had gone as far as he could with this notion.

Nathan found himself standing over Charlotte Richmond's body and stared into the unconscious woman's face. She was somewhere inside her own mind, unable to do anything while some creature had free use of her body. Not that her body was much use to the alien in its present state while strapped to an examination table and so filled with drugs it was capable of doing nothing but lie there helplessly.

Lie there helplessly. Drift through space helplessly.

The situation was the same, only the prison had changed. Instead of being encased within the walls of a crystal artifact, the entity inside Charlotte Richmond was now finding its jail to be one of flesh and blood instead. The power produced by that piece of reasoning filled his mind with staggering potential and suddenly without even questioning the stray beads of random thought allowing this discovery, Nathan knew what they had to do.

"You're right Josiah," the healer spoke in a hushed voice, almost as if he dared not believe they had found their answer and that speaking it out loud might jinx it somehow. "They aren't afraid of dying but they are afraid of being trapped again and we're going to do that."

"We are?" Josiah asked, unable to guess what Nathan had in mind by that enigmatic look on his face. "How?"

Nathan smiled faintly. "By trapping them in the bodies they've stolen."

******

Chris Larabee felt numb.

When Julia/Salya calmly indicated the cargo hold was decompressed with all its contents now taking its place as space debris, Chris was overwhelmed with an overpowering sense of d�j� vu. He remembered when he was told about Sarah and Adam. He sat in the office of Captain Patterson, staring blankly at the man, unable to feel anything but this deep sense of loss that would soon break out of the confines of disbelief to send him spiralling into the blackest hole he had ever fallen into, in all his life. Through the abyss of darkness in the months after that tragic event, Chris remained in a constant state of detachment until Buck's stubborn refusal to let him wither away pulled him back from the path of self-destruction.

Losing people was a part of the job and while it was understandable for him to grieve the loss of a wife and child, Chris knew the death of three crewmates should not have hit him as hard as it did. How many had been lost during the last battle with the Dominion? While Chris knew exactly the number, all their deaths did not make him feel as terrible as knowing Vin, Ezra and even Transporter Chief Rain was dead. Vin and Ezra were his friends. They were apart of the Magnificent Seven who rode together in that holodeck program and the bond was more than just some simulated game but one that existed in reality.

Chris remained where he was, still, shell-shocked, swearing inwardly he would end this one way or another but end it he would because he was losing no one else to these invaders. Neither was he allowing himself to sit here on the floor of his own bridge, wondering why this was happening to him and his ship when the answers waited for the asking.

"Where are we going?" Chris rose to his feet and demanded, caring for none of the consequences.

Beside him, Buck and JD had been equally silent. They too were reeling from the fact Vin and Ezra were possibly dead. Like Chris, they consoled themselves with the idea that perhaps somehow, the trio had survived because they needed that hope to remain strong for what was required of them to resolve this crisis.

"You are not in a position to ask questions." Narita paused long enough in her vigil to snap sharply.

Chris did not back down, even though she raised her gun to fire, ignoring the fact she looked like Mary because it was not Mary standing before him, but the creature who stole her body. "Then go ahead." He hissed calling her bluff. "I know you disabled the self-destruct program so you don't have any use for me but right now I don't give a damn about any of that! Either you tell me what the hell is going on or else pull the trigger and stop wasting my time, little girl!"

Narita glanced over her shoulder at X'hala, waiting for her leader to give her permission to fire. Since the death of the three officers who attempted to beam onto the bridge, the Captain had become rather unmanageable and increasingly difficult to control. Narita preferred he be dispensed with once and for all. She waited in anticipation of the order when suddenly, X'hala pushed herself out of the command chair and stood up slowly. The creature wearing Casey Well's body like a suit of clothes closed the distance between them in seconds. Upon reaching Narita, X'hala placed her hand on the gun barrel and indicated for it to be lowered.

"We owe them nothing!" Narita hissed in protest "They would not do the same for us!"

"That is true." X'hala nodded, her voice still cold. "But we always claimed we were better than his kind so we will prove it."

She faced Chris and let out a sigh. Chris saw something in the young woman's face that could have been interpreted as resignation and perhaps even a little weariness. "You have questions Captain," she looked at him with a raised brow. "Ask them."

Chris glanced at Buck who was just as puzzled and wondered whether this sudden acquiescence was a trick. However, even if it was, there was little he could do about it and since he had forced the issue with them, he might as well give them the benefit of the doubt.

"Who are you?" He asked first.

"You know our names," X'hala answered coolly with Narita's frown, deepening with intense hatred, standing guard behind her. The woman kept her gun poised to fire and showed her distaste at the present course of events.

"What race are you?" He demanded again, realizing she was not going to make it easy for him.

"Our race was called the Accra but our kind is known as the Undaia." She responded after a second of hesitation. Behind her, Narita grimaced at the revelation.

"You mean that was what females were called in your language." Buck ventured a guess, his voice still raspy.

"No," X'hala shook her head. "That was the name we were referred to in our society. We are Undaia and those of your kind are Daia."

"I don't understand," Chris wrinkled a brow in confusion, wondering if it was just him that could not grasp the concept or she was explaining it badly. "Undaia is not the name of your gender but it is a classification given to all women?"

"X'hala, if you would allow me?" Alex rose from helm control and joined in the conversation. X'hala gave a nod of approval to continue and the Alex entity bowed her head in graciousness. With Alexandra Styles' memories and because of her position as science officer, the creature inhabiting her body was able to understand this culture much better than the others. "You call yourselves males and us females, is that correct?"

"Yes," Chris nodded, hoping she could shed some light on what X'hala had tried to say.

"In Accra, it was the same but in addition to that classification we were also Undaia." She explained.

"What does that mean?" JD asked X'hala, forgetting she was not Casey even though she was in every respect, the girl he loved.

"In our language, Undaia means weaker. We were called the Weaker." Narita snorted her voice unbidden in the bitterness she felt as she gave that translation and suddenly Chris began to suspect these aliens might have very good reason to hate anything male.

"God," Buck whispered, not about to hide the disgust at that statement. He hated the thinking that would brand one group as inferior simply because of what they were. Inwardly, the attitude of such bigotry towards the fairer sex always infuriated him. His own mother raised him alone, with little education and not in the best of circumstances but she had managed because she was strong and she loved him. Anyone who claimed a woman was weak had just never met one who was strong and did not know any better.

X'hala's brow shot upwards as Buck made that depreciating remark. She was mildly surprised by his reaction and continued speaking after a moment. "In our culture, Undaia have no rights. From the moment we were born, we were taught our place was secondary to Daia. We had no say in the politics of our government and we were not allowed to read or write nor did we have the right to refuse Daia in anything. We lived and we died without the right to choose."

"Jesus Christ," Chris whispered under his breath. "That is cruel."

"You think so?" X'hala almost laughed. "You have not begun to know the extent of what is cruel. We lived our lives as slaves to whatever man chose to claim us as his mate. Not wife as your kind know it but mate and he may choose as many as he likes and discard us if he requires us no more. Discarded wives often considered themselves fortunate if they were not ejected from the home completely for we are not allowed to work or have any vocation where support is assured. It is shame to be born Undaia and the only reason we were not eradicated completely is that we were necessary to bear new Daia."

Chris did not know what to say because Earth culture had similar chapters of such ugliness in its history books. Until the twenty-first century, many women were still being regarded as property and were most often the victims of the wars fought during that period. Since its inception, Christianity had preached women were to be treated as second-class citizens, casting them as greater instigators of mischief than any other force in the Bible. It was not to say it was the only offender, most Arabic religions cast women in the same light, robbing them of the most basic freedom, conducting brutal punishments if they did not obey. As much as Chris was disgusted by the behaviour of the Accrans, he could not scream outrage when his own race was similarly guilty of such cruelty.

"How did you end up in space?" Chris finally asked since that was the safest question.

"Our culture was highly advanced," the Alex alien answered. "We had achieved interstellar travel not different from your warp field method of propulsion. The Daia left our world and explored space, discovering many other races and soon it came to pass outside influences were opening the eyes of the Undaia to what they always believed in their hearts to be the truth, that they were just as capable as any Daia. We began to see we were not alone and there were worlds beyond ours where things were different."

"And for that, they put you in space?" JD exclaimed; unable to believe such a short-sighted people existed. He grew up in a society of equals and could not fathom a culture with such restrictive parameters for its female members. Other than the obvious differences, JD could see no reason why a woman could not do anything as well as a man. His mother certainly proved that much anyway. It was by her he judged every woman he met and those were lofty standards indeed, high enough for JD to know a woman could do anything if she set her mind to it.

"No," X'hala shook her head and the men in the room noticed a sombre expression on their faces as if a dark secret, seldom spoken of was about to be revealed. "There came a time when something began happening to us. It mostly arrived at the onset of puberty. At first, we had no idea what it was. The authorities believed it to be a mutation of some sort and that was all the excuse they needed to start imprisoning us. They quarantined those of us displaying the symptoms and subjected us to sterilization."

"Oh my God," Buck gasped at the atrocity of it. "What exactly was this thing that happened to you?"

"We are not certain and in retrospect, it matters little." The alien inhabiting Alex sighed. "However, to satisfy your curiosity, I will try to elaborate. We were beginning to undergo a physiological change. Heightened awareness, extrasensory powers, some of us could start fires, others had power to move objects and those who were in extreme stages of the condition were able to alter their physical matter into pure energy. Those who did that often left us and went into the stars. Those of us who remained, escaped the camps.  X'hala was our Leader. Narita here was our Infiltrator. Salya was our Thinker and strategist and I was the information Gatherer. We liberated other camps, prevented as many of the forced sterilizations as we could."

"You were resistance fighters," Chris stated.

"Yes." X'hala nodded. "We were resistance fighters." She said the words with a little smile, liking how that sounded even though the events she was describing was so far into the past, it was doubtful whether or not the Accrans still existed as a race or a civilization. "The Daia believed if we were sterilized, it would contain the situation. For you see it was only the Undaia who were subject to these changes. There were no Daia who ever developed the symptoms. They were so accustomed to being stronger, the very idea that we may usurp them, that they may become Undaia themselves, was so terrifying they were willing to commit any atrocity to prevent it."

"Chris," Buck suddenly stated. "It was not a mutation but rather the next phase in their evolutionary growth. Think of it this way, the only freedom the Undaia had was their minds. They developed their minds because the Daia had restricted them from everything else. Their mental abilities escalated because they no longer needed their physical one."

"Do you mean to say what happened to us was natural?" Salya muttered with more than a hint of astonishment. "That it was part of our genetic evolution?"

"We have encountered other races with this kind of evolutionary pattern. Ours, for instance, took place in the same fashion," Chris answered, ever mindful these people killed Vin and Ezra but also reminded after what he had just heard, could understand why they were so enraged and violent. They had been subjected to cruelties beyond description and there was still a part of him that wanted to resolve this peacefully. "We descended from simian ancestors during long periods of constancy and short bursts of change, where we would evolve further. Its called punctuated gradualism."

"It doesn't matter what its called!" Narita erupted angrily; unable to believe they were discussing the past like it was the subject of a debate. Did the others remember nothing of those terrible days before their exile into a living death? "Shall I tell you what they did to us human? Shall I tell you in the hard unblemished truth?"

"Narita," X'hala barked sharply. "Be still."

"No!" Narita shouted back defiantly. "They want to know? Let us tell them." She turned back to Chris and glared at him with nothing less than hate. "After the Daia took away that which allowed us to give life to the future, they gathered together five hundred of our sisters still in the camps and told us if we did not surrender, they would be put to death. We had no choice, we had to turn ourselves in."

"I'm sorry," Chris said softly, feeling genuine empathy for these creatures and the hardship they endured but still felt anger at the death of his friends and that did not allow him to be as sympathetic as he liked.

"Your platitudes are worthless to us," Narita growled. "There are just words, no different from that used by the Daia to whom we surrendered ourselves, who killed the five hundred anyway. With us in their custody, they accelerated the mutation process, destroying our bodies by converting its matter into energy and then encasing what was left of us in that crystal tomb you brought on board. They ejected us into space like we were nothing and allowed us to drift for five hundred thousand years! Do you even have the slightest conception of what that is like? Do you!"

"Narita," X'hala spoke more firmly this time. "You have spoken enough. You will remain silent and do what is required."

Narita glared at them with smouldering eyes and then raised her gun in a position of attack, a warning to them no other allowance would be given after this. Chris had no doubt she would take great pleasure in shooting everyone on the bridge if they gave her a reason. In any case, he would not be calling her bluff any time soon. He had his answers, now it was time to consider their options at what they were going to do with this information.

After X'hala had sent Alex and Salya back to their posts, she faced Chris again. "So now you know what we are. We mean to go home Captain. If they are still there, the Daia will pay. We will take this ship and reduce their descendants to radioactive ash and then we will go home to start again."

"What about my female crew members?" Chris demanded, aware they could do nothing without the bodies they had stolen and that observation led him to a conclusion, not at all palatable or acceptable for that matter.

"We need their bodies to fight our war," X'hala stated automatically.

"You have no right to steal their lives!" JD shouted angrily infuriated by the idea X'hala was not going to relinquish Casey's body even when they arrived at their destination.

"The women of this vessel are soldiers, Captain," X'hala said as she turned away and returned to the command chair. "And in all wars, there are casualties. They will die for a just cause."

Chapter Thirteen: Homecoming

Assistant Chief Engineer Chanu was not happy but he was even more confused.

For the last few hours, he and the male complement of his engineering staff had been effectively kept hostage within the confines of the Engineering Deck by the female members of that same group. Things had been strange ever since Julia Pemberton authorized the deactivation of all internal communication on board the Maverick. While he had accepted the need for a complete diagnostic after the recent hostilities with the Dominion, he had not agreed with her decision to shut down the turbo lifts as well. His objection to that course of action had precipitated the astonishing response of having himself and every male inside the room being held hostage at gunpoint. He could not even imagine when they had the opportunity to raid the armory but had to conclude they must have since he was staring at the point of a gun by Junior Lieutenants Biehn and Moseley.

At first, he had thought this was a joke because these were people he had served with on a daily basis. On a starship, bonds formed quickly if not deep friendships. The nature of being the only creatures in a ship so far from home tended to create a sense of community among those who inhabited the Maverick. Thus, Chanu felt justified in his astonishment at the whole situation at being incapable of putting up a fight until it was too late. However, he soon discovered he was in a deadly situation when he saw the women, having taken control of Engineering, began their move towards the bridge. The throbbing hum of the warp core indicated the ship was pushing Warp 9 to reach a destination Chanu knew was not the resort world of Pacifica.

The jump to Warp 9 indicated the taking of the bridge was successful and now Chanu who had more than enough ability to stop this odd insurrection from continuing further, found himself helpless by the law of the gun, now running supreme in Engineering. Moseley, who was armed with a phaser rifle, was watching him carefully, probably aware if resistance was to come from any of the group, it would most likely be from him. Chanu still had difficulty getting used to the idea she would shoot him. Claire Moseley was a pretty thing with blond hair and delicate features. Although he kept his observations well hidden, Chanu occasionally found himself admiring her silky gold hair and the sweet smile that crossed her face at happier moments.

"Claire." He tried again to appeal to her. "What's happened to you?"

"Be quiet!" She barked. Chanu flinched at the harshness of it. Normally, Claire's voice was soft. It moved across the skin like satin and he had never heard her say a cross word to anyone, not even when she was upset. Perhaps it was because she had such a sweet temperament that made him so affronted by her behavior at present. Still, instinct told him this was not Claire, this was something occupying her body.

"Claire," Chanu tried again, not to be deterred. "I know this isn't you but you must fight this. What you are doing is wrong."

"Shoot him." Lieutenant Biehn snapped angrily.

"No," Claire Moseley turned to her normally superior officer. "We were told not to harm anyone."

"He is troublesome." Biehn pointed out.

"He is meant to be, he's the Assistant Chief Engineer." Moseley stared in his direction, issuing a silent plea for him to remain silent. He did not know if it was Claire who was so concerned for him or the thing inhabiting her body. In either case, he knew it was advice well worth taking.

Chanu exchanged a resigned look with another one of his fellow engineers and decided, for the time being, it looked like he was going to have to tolerate this incarceration. Although they were being held at bay by only Claire and Lieutenant Biehn, the phase rifles both women were armed with, made for formidable odds and without knowing whether those weapons were set for stun or kill, Chanu was not about to do anything stupid. Besides, a part of him was uncertain of what they could do even if they were to rush the duo.

Did they use excessive force and any means necessary to stop Claire and the Lieutenant? Despite their actions clearly defining themselves as enemies of a kind, Chanu did not know enough about what was happening to the two women to risk hurting them. Not until he knew more. He was not ashamed to admit that his feelings for Claire had much to do with this hesitation and was more than willing to accept the consequences of that if he was held accountable to it later on.

"It should not be not much longer," Biehn said to Claire after a few more minutes had crawled past. "We will soon be home."

"If there is anything left of home," Claire responded and Chanu saw a sadness filter into her eyes, not at all appropriate on someone with as sunny a disposition as Claire.

"Do not think that way," Biehn responded automatically. "We are finally in a position to deliver to the Daia our revenge."

"Do you honestly think they even exist any more?" Claire returned skeptically.

"They exist," Biehn looked at her sharply, hating to even consider the idea after all their suffering, there was to be no retribution. The thought of vengeance was what had allowed so many of them to survive for so long. The idea they would be robbed of it was almost unthinkable. "I see them no other way."

Claire shook her head in disapproval and turned back to her prisoners. However, Chanu was no longer paying attention to her. Instead, he was trying not to give himself away as he stared through the corner of his eye, the slim barrel of something metallic inching past the doorway. At first, Chanu was not certain what it was but made no move to call attention to it. Neither Claire nor Biehn had seen it, nor had any of his engineering staff. It was only until a good length of it was visible that Chanu recognized it for what it was.

The tranquilizer gun used by the ship's zoologist.

The weapon pivoted in the direction of Claire, still unseen and while Chanu felt inclined to warn her, he forced himself to remain silent because it was not Claire who was standing before him and his people with a gun, it was a stranger. When it discharged, the non-lethal instrument made little or no sound, the only indication it gave of its use was a slight hiss that was more or less eclipsed by the sound of the warp core throbbing rhythmically.

"Oh!" Claire reacted automatically as the tiny dart struck the base of her neck. She slapped the skin instinctively, trying to rid herself of the sliver of pain that had caught her with such surprise.

Lieutenant Biehn was a little more animated. As soon as Clare uttered the cry, she jumped to her feet, searching. She caught sight of the barrel just as it fired again, sending its tiny projectile towards her. She raised her phaser to shoot but the tiny dart struck her skin in mid-torso. She reached for it immediately, not realizing in the second it took for her to accomplish the task of removing it from her skin and tossing it away, its payload had already emptied into her body. At first, she did not know what this was meant to accomplish until she heard the clatter of something against the floor. Claire's gun slipped from her fingers and tumbled to the space near her feet.

"What is wrong?" Biehn demanded as she felt the warmth enveloping her limbs. This sensation was soon accompanied by an intense feeling of vertigo as she realized what was happening to her.

"Drugged�." Claire managed to mouth just before she dropped to her knees.

Chanu saw the opening and wasted no time. Before both women had even fallen completely unconscious, he and his fellow engineers leaped into action. They grabbed the phasers abandoned on the floor and swept them up into their own hands in fluid, graceful movements. In a matter of seconds, the former hostages were once again in control of the Engineering Deck.

"Is everyone alright?" Josiah Sanchez asked as he stepped out from behind the shadows of the corner from where he fired his darts. Thanks to the Magnificent Seven holodeck program the Captain enjoyed so much, he was able to aim at his targets with a fair amount of accuracy.

"We're fine," Chanu said with a smile. "Good shooting Counselor."

"Did it work?" Nathan Jackson stepped into the room behind the psychiatrist and saw the two women lying on the floor, which more or less answered his question. Without saying another word, he hurried to their side to make a quick examination.

"Are they going to be alright?" Chanu asked as he stood next to Nathan, concern over Claire still foremost in his mind even though a dangerous situation had been diffused.

"They're out cold," Nathan responded with approval that the sedative he selected to render the two women unconscious had worked so effectively. Their pulse was throbbing steadily beneath his fingertips as he examined their vitals and knew it would remain the same way for the next ten hours, during their unconscious state. "But they'll wake up in a few hours without any side effects. Hopefully, by then we'll get this situation under control."

With all that out of the way, Chanu took the next logical step. "Now we've got that cleared up, can you please tell me what the hell is going on?"

"What is going on is that we are under attack," Nathan said firmly, turning to the Chief Engineer. Technically, Nathan was ranked at Lieutenant Commander and thus held a position of superiority over Chanu who was merely a lieutenant. "An alien influence has taken over almost every woman on this ship. I'm assuming the order to terminate communications and disable turbo lifts and transporters came from here?"

"Yes," Chanu nodded, still reeling from the news at the scope of the problem. He hoped their situation was isolated but then supposed it was always an unrealistic expectation. "Chief Engineer Pemberton said we needed to run a diagnostic," Chanu explained. "I didn't question it until she ordered the turbo lifts and transporters shut down."

"Look, how things got shut down isn't important," Josiah spoke up, sensing the Engineer was feeling a little defensive. "We have a plan to retake the ship."

Chanu turned to Nathan in surprise, not expecting such a revelation to come from the CMO or the Counselor but was not about to argue the point. Both men were senior staff officers, which meant he was at their disposal.

Turning to Nathan, Chanu leaned forward and asked. "What do you have in mind?"

******

Vin did not know how he knew.

In space, there was no sound. No medium in which it could travel but when he felt the tingle of steel underfoot as they made their way to the bridge, he could feel its coming. It reverberated through the thick hull of the ship, found release on the floor and continued its journey, albeit briefly through his bones before dissipating entirely. Ezra and Rain did not notice it and Vin was hardly surprised by this. They were not pilots.

Vin was a born flyer. In his mind, he liked to call himself an aviator like those who use to fly airplanes at the turn of the 20th century. Of course, what he flew in comparison to those flying machines made of wood and canvas was the difference between a horse-drawn cart and the space shuttle. Still, the essence of it was the same. It was a special kind who took to the skies and felt in perfect control in such an alien environment. Since piloting his first shuttle, Vin had been on intimate terms with every ship he ever flew. Only Julia Pemberton could understand what he was talking about. He knew the sounds the Maverick made when she had a damaged relay while flying at low impulse, he knew the slight shimmy that developed in the bulkheads whenever they were flying into intense gravimetric eddies and he knew when the ship was about to drop out of warp.

"Grappling hooks now!" Vin shouted into his helmet.

His two companions were trained professionals who knew when an order was issued with this amount of vehemence, it was not to be questioned. Ezra and Rain immediately aimed their gauntlets at the hull of the ship and fired. The magnetic grappling hooks did not have a short distance to go, striking the metal in less than a second, causing a slight shudder of vibration through the floor on impact. Vin carried out the same procedure and then braced himself.

"Hold on," he instructed. "We're about to come out of warp!"

"And the fun keeps coming." Rain grumbled.

"I think I would have preferred to stay in bed today," Ezra remarked with typical sarcasm but the line of tension running through all their voices ensured they were all completely aware of the danger. If they were not properly secured when the ship dropped out of warp, they would fly off the hull at such speeds, not even an environmental suit would keep their flesh from being torn off their bones.

A minute or two passed and suddenly, the stars speeding past them during the long trek to the bridge, which they were almost on top of, suddenly came to an abrupt halt. It looked as if space suddenly contracted around them and for a brief instant, a man might be mistaken into believing he was indeed the center of the universe as those stars paused and surrounded him. The sudden stop did exactly what Vin thought it would. It threw them forward but fortunately, they traveled as far as it took for the slack to run out and then the tension snapped them back towards the hull once again.

Vin felt his stomach lunge into his stomach as he landed on the hull, using his hands to brace his landing and to keep his helmet from impacting against the metal and damaging his faceplate. He heard the other swearing as they made a similarly rough landing and could appreciate how they felt as he took a few seconds to recover after this latest, in what was becoming one roller coaster ride after another.

"Are we all in one piece?" Ezra inquired as he looked up and saw Vin and Rain starting to pick themselves off the side of the ship. He was reminded of an insect caught against the plexiglass of his hover car and shook the image out of his head because at the moment, the association was just a little too close to home.

"More or less," Vin replied as he straightened up.

"You boys always have this much fun?" Rain asked as she pushed herself upright and dusted herself off. She had no idea why she was doing this since there was no dust to speak of anyway and the reaction was mostly reflex.

"This is nothing." Vin turned to her and chuckled slightly, admitting to himself he liked the dry humor of the Transporter Chief. "You should see it when we really get into trouble."

"If you could suspend your charming repertoire," Ezra suddenly interrupted. "You might take a look at where we are."

The security chief gestured to the space before them and in the nearby distance, they were treated to the sight of a planet with one moon. It should have been a breathtaking sight with the stars in the backdrop and the luminous color of a living world radiating for all to see. What lay before them was none of these things, neither alive or beautiful. There was only one word to adequately describe it and it pained them all to say it. The state of the planetary system was not the result of natural decay of a world in the tertiary stage of its existence, but rather one caused by the sinister hand of technology.

The planet itself was dark and charred, as evidenced by the destruction temporarily illuminated by stars as it continued its revolution around the sun. The weapon capable of creating this obscene waste was unknown but it left great rips in the surface and large craters of black covering much of the planet. A ring of debris circled the world, formed artificially in the wake of what was certain to be the destruction of another spacial body.  No doubt this caused the planet to be routinely subject to asteroid bombardment.

"My God," Vin whispered. "What happened here?"

"Without sensors," Ezra shook his head in horror. "It's hard to say."

"Nothing could live there." Rain remarked.

"I think they did," Vin replied, indicating the aliens who stole the Maverick and the bodies of all the female crewmembers. "Not much of a homecoming."

"It has been five hundred thousand years," Ezra pointed out. "One must anticipate some changes."

"Some changes yes," Vin shook his head, unable to imagine what could have precipitated such complete destruction of a world. What justification had there been in this terrible sight before them?  "Not this."

"In either case, we need to get to the Captain. Our guests are not likely to be very charitable after witnessing this spectacular sight." Ezra stated seriously. His tone reminding them all, the ship was still in danger, to say nothing of the friends who awaited liberation on the bridge. "There should be a maintenance hatch on the bulkhead directly above the Captain's Ready Room. We can get in through there and continue towards the maintenance shaft 32A which will bring us into the ventilation system."

"Oh, the scenic route." Rain joked.

"It will take us into the Ready Room and not the bridge," Ezra said shortly, not in the mood for jokes. Not with the day he was having. "We will have some measure of surprise."

"Assuming no one is in the Ready Room," Vin added.

"That is what I love about you Mr Tanner," Ezra sighed. "You are always such an optimistic soul."

Unfortunately, optimistic or not, Ezra knew it was the only way they could reach the Captain. It was this way or none at all.

******

The bridge was silent.

No one was speaking because they were too focused on what was on the view screen. Men and women alike were staring at the screen; a mixture of horror, shock, and sadness unifying them for one brief moment after facing each other from diametrically opposed viewpoints. The planet and its moon lingered on the screen, a stark reminder of how much destruction,  violence and hatred was capable of producing when left to rage unchecked. As Chris saw the pained expression on the faces of the enemy, he could not help but feel some measure of pity for them at the sorrow they must be feeling at this moment.

Chris had been a lieutenant commander on the Brigadier when the Borg first ventured into the Alpha Quadrant and made its bid to take Earth. Every available ship had been sent to hold the line at Wolf 359 against one Borg cube. The Brigadier had not arrived in time to join the battle but what they found when they arrived were the remains of twenty starships, almost totally destroyed. It was the single most demoralizing defeat the Federation had suffered since its war with the Romulans two hundred years ago. Seeing all those ships, broken and ruined, floating in space in a field of debris imprinted itself on the minds of everyone who saw it and the sorrow at all those lives lost marked him forever.

Watching the faces of the aliens who had stolen the bodies of his crewmen, not to mention his ship, Chris could imagine what they were feeling was not too different from what he had experienced at Wolf 359.

"That cannot be Accra." Salya gasped softly, anguish reflected her eyes.

"It is." The Alex entity confirmed somberly. "We are home."

"They destroyed it!" Narita exclaimed. "The Daia destroyed Accra!"

"What do the scans say?" X'hala asked quietly, her voice nothing but a hoarse whisper.

Salya looked to the readings on the console before her, hoping to find some evidence of life but when she raised her eyes, Chris knew she had not. What they were seeing with their eyes was confirmed by the sensor scans. The world was as dead as it appeared.

"Some form of antimatter weapon," Salya answered clearly. "I am uncertain of what type exactly. Judging by the metallurgical scans of the debris, it was used on one of the twin moons."

"My God." Buck gasped, wondering how such foolishness could have been allowed in a place of authority to wreak this kind of destruction. "That would have caused a planetary catastrophe. Aside from the debris, the shock wave might have been enough to knock the planet a degree or two off its axis. They would have had global warming or an ice age in a second."

"Is this true?" X'hala looked to the Alex entity who was still manning the helm, for confirmation.

"Yes," the amalgamation of science officer and information gatherer nodded sadly. "That is exactly what would have happened."

"Confirmed." Salya responded from Alex's station. "The planetary axis is irregular."

X'hala shoulders slumped at the news and Chris found his voice to speak. "I'm sorry." He genuinely meant it.

"Your kind was responsible for this!" Narita swore, almost reduced to tears.

Chris ignored her and regarded X'hala. "You have come home. I am sorry it was not the homecoming you envisioned but there is no more reason for this. Let us help you. The Federation can find you a new world to colonize; your existence does not have to end. We know of many races who have attained higher levels of existence, they would welcome you. I am sure of it."

X'hala met his gaze, her uncertainty apparent by the strained look in her eyes. "Your kind are not known for your compassion."

"For the last time, we are not your kind!" Buck groaned in disbelief. "Haven't you learnt anything about us by now? We do not treat our women the way you were treated. Can't you see by how badly we want them back alive, we care about them?"

"Lies!" Narita interrupted.

"Enough!" Salya shouted and left her station to approach X'hala. "We have nowhere to go and if we steal these bodies and call our act a casualty of war, we become no better than Daia! X'hala, we are free. For the first time in half of an eon we are free, there are no more enemies to fight. The Daia have destroyed our world because of their hatred, let us not continue this folly!"

"You have been corrupted by them!" Narita crossed the space between them to make her case. "She coupled with one of them! Perhaps she has feelings for him."

Salya was about to speak when suddenly, X'hala glanced at the panel on the side of her command chair and noticed something that gave her immediate reason to halt the debate. "Stop it both of you!" She ordered them into silence. Both women went quiet as X'hala studied what was before her. "Someone is flooding all the decks with anesthesia gas!"

"What?" Salya exclaimed. "That's impossible!"

Chris and Buck were exchanging furious glances, telling each other in the split second they had to offer each other the hidden signals that formed something of a plan, the time had come for them to make a move on reclaiming the bridge. Obviously, someone had regained control of Engineering. It was the only place capable of bypassing the bridge to carry out such a subtle attack.

"The order came from Engineering!" Salya reported after a moment mirroring Chris's thoughts on the matter. "It's moving throughout the ship. All decks except Engineering are being flooded!" Her voice was rife with anxiety. "I am going to seal off the bridge."

As Chris waited for the opportunity to strike, Narita returned to her charges and glared at him. "Well Captain," she glowered with a menacing gleam in her eyes. "I suppose you will have your wish. We are going to put an end to this, just not in the way you wished."

Chapter Fourteen: Confrontation

Chris found himself staring at the barrel of a phase rifle and wondered if this nightmare would ever end. He did not mind so much dying, being Captain made it an occupational hazard but he did mind departing this mortal existence without being able to free the woman he loved from her prison of flesh and blood. That he minded a great deal, almost as much as he abhorred realizing his last memory of his life would be her eyes, indifferent and dark hastening his journey. The creature named Narita, who wore Mary's face glared at him in unmasked hatred and he supposed after the story he heard, was unsurprised she would feel nothing but hate for anything male.

The action of flooding the Maverick with anesthetic gas had produced an incendiary reaction among the aliens who still had control of the bridge and Chris was glad that at least, someone on board was actively working towards freeing the ship from hostile control. If he survived this, he would pin a medal on the instigator of this plot and even if he did not, he would be just as grateful for he expected nothing to stand in the way of liberation of his ship, not even concern for his life. He just wished Buck and JD would not perish with him as he saw Narita gaze's burn into his skin as she prepared to fire, naked in her relish of committing that one act of murder.

"You can make them discontinue this attack!" X'hala rose from his command chair and strode towards him. "We will give you access to communicate with the ship, tell those responsible to desist or we will kill all of you!"

Chris straightened up and looked at the creature wearing Casey's face. He glanced at Buck and JD briefly; conveying an expression he hoped would allow them to understand why he was about to act the way he was. Buck nodded slightly and JD swallowed as he held the Captain's eyes saying nothing but comprehending silently this siege could not be allowed to continue. There came a time when enough was enough. Chris would not allow their lives to stand in the way of safety for the entire crew of the Maverick.

And that time was here.

"Then kill us," Chris said coldly. "But I'm not doing anything to stop this."

"Let me!" Narita sneered almost pleasured by his refusal as she shoved the barrel of the rifle beneath his neck and engendered an immediate reaction from Buck and JD, who sprang to their feet about to attack when X'hala turned her weapon on them, unafraid of using it. Chris knew his old friend and the young ensign were just brave and stubborn enough to put up a fight if his life was in danger, no matter what the consequences to them personally.

"Stand down Buck," Chris ordered sharply, ignoring the cold feel of metal pressing against his skin and did not look into Narita's eyes, shifting his gaze instead as far as he could without turning his head, towards the first officer and his young prot�g�.

"But Chris..." Buck opened his mouth to protest before Chris cut him off.

"Do nothing, Commander." Chris retorted and then spoke out loud to their captors. "Do you hear me, all of you? We will do nothing! If you want us to cooperate then you will do it over our dead bodies but you will not have any more control over my ship then you already do."

"I will kill you all!" X'hala barked impotently. "I will have Narita incinerate you!"

"Then get on with it," he drawled as if the threat was inconsequential and Narita was not tightening her finger around the trigger as a warning of how close he was to dying. He kept his eyes away from the woman, not wishing the last thing he saw on this mortal plane was Mary in this state of being.

"No!" Salya suddenly shouted and withdrew from the console station normally occupied by Ezra Standish. She had been in the last few seconds watching the proceedings carefully, trying to decide what was to be done as she saw the situation escalate.

"What is wrong with you!" Narita growled in her direction, the accusation of betrayal in her eyes as she demanded the question of Salya. "Are you so heated by the sensation of physical pleasure that you have lost all sense of who you are! These are the enemy! These are the ones who imprisoned us, who took our ability to give life and destroy it! Who have given us cause for pain every day of our existence!"

"No, they're not." Salya shook her head quietly and turned her eyes to X'hala whose expression showed indecision for the first time since they were fast approaching an impasse even if they did kill the captain. "That," she glanced at the ruined world whose image was still being displayed on the view screen, "is all that is left of the enemy and of our world."

X'hala opened her mouth to deny that statement vehemently but when the time came to form the words, none would come. Mostly because Salya's claim was the truth. However, the time to understand what that meant in its reality was lost when she suddenly felt a roar filling her mind, like a thousand voices screaming inside her head all at the same time. For a moment, the disorientation was so fierce she did not know what was happening but soon enough it cleared and X'hala understood why the Many were screaming.

They were screaming because they were imprisoned.

The gas had flooded the rest of the ship and she could feel the trapped minds of all the others swirling around in the limbo of unconsciousness as the host bodies fell prey to the noxious substance. The Many were helpless now. Almost as helpless as they had been when they were trapped inside the artifact and set adrift in space. Now their imprisonment was of a different kind but the principle was still the same. X'hala could feel their terror, their desperation and horror at being returned to that terrible fate once again, not after tasting freedom for so fleeting a time.

"What have you done?" X'hala demanded, grabbing Chris by the neck and almost screaming into his ear. "I feel them frightened and trapped! How did you do this?" There were almost tears of frustration in her eyes as she shouted at him to answer.

"He did nothing," Salya spoke up quickly, feeling her heart pound as she saw the situation escalate beyond her ability to control it. Even the glacial one that possessed Alexandra Styles body was now starting to waver in her efforts to regain control of the ship and focusing more on the drama unfolding before her.

"Shut up you traitor!" Narita was debating on whether or not she ought to turn the gun at Salya's direction. For she who would turn against her own kind should deserve nothing less.

"I am no traitor," Salya sighed, looking wearier than she was about to do battle with her own. "I am one of you as I will always be but we need to decide what that is exactly."

"You speak in riddles!" Narita retorted. "Her mind is addled," she looked at X'hala. "She can no longer be trusted."

"X'hala you know me," Salya responded. "Do you remember it was you and I who first broke the chains keeping us prisoners? We began the rebellion. We convinced the others."

X'hala nodded slowly. "I remember Salya. Those were hard times but also good ones."

Chris remained silent because it looked like Salya might be able to bring about a peaceful resolution to this situation. As much as he wanted to make them pay for Vin, Ezra and Transporter Chief Rain, he had to rise beyond his need for vengeance. He had to be Captain, not friend, and though it pained him deeply to put aside his rage, he could do nothing else because he was Captain and the Maverick was his crew.

However, if a peaceful resolution to this situation was what Chris was after, the sudden and unexpected opening of his Ready Room doors ensured the time for discussion was passed. He did not know who fired first as the three officers emerged from inside his private sanctum but Chris found the barrel of the weapon pressed against his throat leave his neck abruptly as the creature in charge of Mary's body swung around to deal with this new threat.

Chris dove out of the way as she fired, as did Buck and JD. For a moment, Chris was not certain of what was happening until he saw Vin, Ezra and Rain fan out. A great feeling of relief washed over him as he saw that they were alive and well, wondering briefly how they managed to survive before deciding to hell with it, they were okay and it was time to act. Most of the phaser blasts were coming from Narita and Chris found himself in a position of decided advantage for she was shooting with her back facing him. He saw Buck and JD waiting for their opportunity to join the attack but he was closer and rolled onto his knees, preparing to lunge at her.

He never got the chance.

A foot slammed into his ribs almost flipping him over. Chris felt bones break in an instant as he landed on his back to look into the face of Casey standing over him. Obviously, she had seen him preparing to attack Narita and decided this would not at all do. The pain was almost blinding and he looked down and felt a wave of dizziness when he realized that not only was he bleeding but the blood protrusion quickly soaking his uniform was bone. A groan escape him and he saw X'hala reaching down to drag him to his feet, a phaser in her hand. He was not about to become her hostage and though it pained him greatly to do so, Chris kicked out and sent the ball of his heel into her sternum. She let out a cry of pain and went sprawling as he rolled onto his knees again and saw Buck heading crossing the space between himself and Narita when he was stopped in a full body tackle by Alex.

Both of them rolled across the floor as the bridge was a zigzag of phaser blasts, with even Salya firing at the new arrivals, not swayed enough in her attempt to stop the fighting by taking sides against her own. She took cover behind the command chair as she continued to fire accurate blasts of phaser energy, striking the armrest of the chair thanks to Ezra's near-perfect aim. It was obvious the security chief was not about to be swayed from freeing the bridge, not even when the enemy wore the face of the woman he loved. The southerner's face was a mask of stone as he continued shooting while Vin tried to get past the stray blasts of phaser energy to help Buck who was wrestling with Alex for the second time today.

Buck's throat was still aching from where she had hit him earlier so he was not about to make the mistake of letting down his guard or being deluded enough into believing she would not hurt him because she would. Holding nothing back, the first officer threw his fist into her face and sent her tumbling off him but she recovered quickly, having been accustomed to taking blows in her brutal holodeck combat programs. While still on her knees, she kicked out her foot and toppled him off his feet.

Buck dropped onto his knees and saw her spring to her feet; her agility was almost feline in its grace and power as she prepared to kick out again. He managed to prevent her boot from crushing his windpipe, certain if she connected with the tender flesh, she would undoubtedly kill him. Buck grabbed her foot and twisted it around hard, forcing her to spin in mid-air and land heavily on her chest. He scrambled forward to pin her down to the floor with his weight when her fist flew upwards just as he crossed the space above her head. The punch was strong and connected with his ribs. Buck had no doubt that if he had been a little slower; it would have cracked his sternum. Unfortunately, the respite was fleeting because the action had been to buy her time. She rolled onto her back and flipped upright.

This time she and Buck faced each other, both standing and both deciding then and there, one of them would not walk away from this. She threw her fist at him and he caught it, marvelling at her speed and wondering what on Earth Alex was doing wasting her time with a science posting when she was so effective in combat. He dodged the blow and caught her retreating arm in between his before yanking her forward, using masculine strength and skill before flipping her over.

"Alex, don't make me hurt you!" Buck pleaded as she landed hard and heard a cry of pain.

She did not answer but got to her feet again, throwing a front kick he barely avoided and had to retreat backwards in order to keep from being hit. She started throwing them in rapid succession until he was effectively backtracking in order to avoid her. Buck was fighting her off but he knew she had him on the defensive and when the glint in her eye clearly indicated she was out to kill him, it was not necessarily the best place to be. Finally, he realized; he did not have much of a choice.

"Screw this." He muttered under his breath and caught her leg once more, shoving it hard against the floor so she lost her balance. Before he could regain it, Buck swung, hard and controlled. The blow caught her in the jaw and made her stagger back. He could see her immediately recovering but he was not going to allow her the chance to do so. Without pause he swung again, slamming his fist into the side of her head and this time, her recovery was not as rapid and she shook her head, trying to clear away the disorientation. Buck punched again and once more, his knuckles connected with flesh. Blood began to run down her nose and her lip. His stomach heaved in protest because he could think of nothing more disgusting than to hit a woman especially one whom he remembered making passionate love to only a few hours ago.

But it was not Alex then and it was not Alex now.

She was reeling and blood stained the side of her face but with determination Buck was certain was Alex in some small way, she remained standing even though she could not take this beating any more. He had been holding back and she was able to draw on much of Alex's memories but not enough to keep her from being able to beat him. If Alex was the one in charge, Buck was not sure he could win. She was nearly done and she knew it but sheer stubbornness refused to let her surrender. Buck decided to take the choice out of her hands. In one final act, he pulled her to him by the shoulders and slammed his head onto hers in a head butt that more or less ended any resistance. She crumpled to the floor unconscious and Buck let out a sigh of relief because he could not have endured much more of hitting her or continuing this bloody brawl.

Ezra who had been concentrating on draining Narita of every ounce of energy in her phaser, noticed Casey Wells or the entity that had taken over her body attempting to take the Captain hostage despite his best efforts to evade her. The security chief could see the Captain was hurt as he fought off the young woman trying to hit him with a stun blast. The Captain eluded the crippling shot but he was in pain and could not last any longer. The creatures using Julia and Mary were making it impossible for him to cross the distance between himself and Chris to be of any assistance with the formidable defence they were perpetrating.

"Lieutenant Rain!" Ezra shouted at Rain who was crouched beneath the science station and only emerged when she was firing.

"I'm a little busy right now!" She returned as she squeezed off another shot at Narita who was taking cover behind the command chair and was safe from the blast when it impacted.

"I would not have guessed!" He barked and gave Vin a look as the helmsman searched for an opening so he could get through the barricade of phaser fire. He could see Vin's eyes fixed on the Captain and knew Vin was just as determined to reach Chris Larabee as he was. Vin was no fool, he guessed what Casey was attempting to do and knew if she succeeded, the bid to retake the bridge would end in failure and they would be in the same situation as they were when they first entered the room. "I have a plan!"

"Well get on with it!" She looked at him with disapproval and wondered what it was about men that made them waste so much time when it was commodity they could ill afford to waste.

"I want you to set your phaser for rapid fire with a minimal firing gap. I want a continuous volley of energy keeping them at bay!"

Rain knotted her brown in confusion. "But that will only drain my phaser!" She protested.

"That is an order Lieutenant!" Ezra barked and made no uncertain terms this was not a request.

Rain, however, did not need that much convincing. She realized something of what he had in mind and nodded. "Okay Commander," she flashed him a wry smile. "Since you asked so nicely."

"I like her." Vin grinned mischievously and conveyed his approval by winking at the feisty Transporter Chief.

Ezra rolled his eyes and prepared to do the same as he had instructed Rain. The security chief could not disagree with the Vulcan's assessment although, at this time, he had larger concerns on his mind, preferring to keep focused on the business at hand. Turning to Rain he issued one final piece of instruction.

"On my mark." He ordered and saw Rain swallow as she faced front and prepared to fire. Ezra ducked another blast before he took a deep breath and hoped this worked because he did not want to hurt either Mary or Julia however, they had to reach the Captain.

"NOW!"

A tremendous barrage of phaser fire exploded from both their weapons with such speed, the enemy was taken completely by surprise. Although they had possession of all the knowledge of the host bodies, Ezra gambled on the aliens needing to access the information first before they could use it. If it were truly Mary and Julia in control of their bodies, the two women would know instinctively what was required to counter this attack but as it stood, the aliens were momentarily forced to fall back and taking cover. Vin Tanner wasted no time and was moving immediately. Being Vulcan, he was faster and stronger than anyone by the laws of genetics but the helmsman was more at home with physical activity than any of them, thus he was swift in his advance and very soon, closing the distance between himself and Chris Larabee.

Vin Tanner ran faster than he had ever done in his life, pausing only to see the unconscious form of Alex on the floor as he weaved through the random bolts of phaser fire. Buck and JD were being held back by Casey who was keeping them pinned in almost the same manner Ezra and Rain had allowed him the gap to slip through. Vin resisted the urge to stop and see if Alex was all right because at the moment Chris was ducking another blast of energy being hurled at him. The Captain was wounded and Vin could see the effect in his inability to fight back. A chill of fear ran down his spine upon realizing the reason for Chris's pain was a jagged edge of bone protruding through his flesh. A broken rib had speared through the skin, exposed to the air under his soaked uniform.

Chris saw Vin approaching and tried to draw X'hala's fire by taking refuge behind Vin's console seat. Buck who had dealt with Alex a moment ago was now on the floor unconscious, having taken the brunt of a phaser blast meant to subdue him. JD was pulling the first officer out of the line of fire because not all the shots from the phaser rifle were set for stun. X'hala was determined to reach him and she grew more frenzied as he continued to evade her. He guessed her vehemence to regain control of the situation had much to do with the fact she could sense her people in trouble and knew the only way to deliver them from their imprisonment as she called it, was to use him as a bargaining point.

Whatever the reason, Chris didn't give a damn because he cared about his people too, not simply the men who had been imprisoned by the female comrades but also the women whose bodies had been stolen from them. Even though it was sheer agony to move and the blood gushing from the open wound was wafting its steely scent in his gut, twisting it with nausea, Chris forced himself to keep out of her reach. Fortunately, he did not have to do it long when he saw Vin making his way across the floor, taking advantage of the chaos to reach his Captain. The Captain for his part, left himself open to a few near misses, wishing X'hala's attention focused on him while Vin advanced. For a few seconds, it worked until X'hala realized he was making it too easy for her. In the last instant, she realized something was wrong and whirled around to see Vin appearing before her.

The Vulcan did not waste time mincing words or offering any warning for her to desist. No sooner than he closed the gap between himself and X'hala or by his reckoning Casey, Vin slammed his elbow square into her face and knocked her out cold. Without uttering a word or a cry of pain, the life seemed to drain out of the woman and she dropped forward, with Vin catching her before she hit the floor. Vin lowered her onto the deck gently before he turned his attention to Chris.

"It's about time you got here." Chris drawled as he himself dropped to the floor, resting with his back against the conn, contented not to move because the pain was damn near excruciating.

"We took the long way here." Vin smiled as he hurried to Chris's side to examine the injury. "Don't move."

"You can bet your ass on that," the Captain muttered, sucking in his breath to control the pain. There was a thin layer of sweat on his skin and it was obvious the nature of the injury was sending him into shock. He needed a doctor and he needed one immediately. "The ship?" He asked after a moment, composing himself.

"Nathan was going to flood the decks with anesthetic gas," Vin explained. "Whatever it is, it's only the women."

"But Rain�," Chris remarked, indicating the firefight still taking place beyond them. Vin wanted to help break the deadlock but he was reluctant to leave Chris when the Captain was in such a vulnerable state.

"Something to do with her being Trill," Vin responded and looked around for a safe place. There was not any place really on the bridge but he supposed he would have to be contented with safety in numbers. "Come on." He helped Chris to his feet and dragged the Captain towards Buck and JD. Movement for Chris was not easy but he could appreciate Vin's desire to see him away from the line of fire. Despite his effort to maintain a brave face, a traitorous grunt of pain escaped him as Vin helped to his feet.

"We have to help them." Chris groaned again, requiring every ounce of strength to focus on words instead of the pain.

"We will," Vin replied in answer, confident Ezra was more than capable of taking care of the last two remaining aliens, at least for the duration of time it took for him to ensure Chris was out of harm's way. "But let's get you seen to first."

Unfortunately, Chris was in no position to argue.

******

Ezra was not certain whose phaser drained first but in the end, it was the enemy that exhausted their reserves first and were soon facing them without armaments. The momentary advantage did not last long because of the effort in giving Vin the narrow margin he needed to reach Chris had placed Ezra and Rain in the same position as Salya and Narita, who were now more than prepared to face them in a hand to hand confrontation. As the barrage of phaser fire between both protagonists dwindled, signalling the dying embers of the battle being fought, it was Narita who made the first move towards them. There was no way she was reaching Chris or JD, not with Vin ensuring his Captain and his comrades were protected.

Realizing that X'hala and Alex were also incapable of helping her, Narita felt the frustration building inside her as she realized their grand plan of vengeance was dead and their freedom was about to be brought to a shattering halt. Whether it was desperation or some frenzied act of defiance struggling to remain alive inside her, Narita lunged forward first, deciding before they killed her, she was taking them with her, starting with the one who betrayed her own kind by rejecting the gift of the Many.

Rain saw her coming and leapt out of the way when Narita lunged for her. She rolled out of the way easily but the mindset of the one determined to kill her was frenzied and almost half-mad with berserker rage. The momentary evasion did not last long and Narita recovered Rain's attempt to evade her and recovered immediately to regain lost ground. She ploughed into the lithe young woman, topping them both to the ground and very quickly straddled Rain. The transporter chief immediately covered her face as Narita began pummeling her with blows until she was able to launch an attack of her own when she pulled up her knee and slammed into the small of Narita's back.

The alien screeched in pain as she tumbled off Rain who rolled onto her knees and braced herself high enough to throw a hard swing at her. Her knuckles caught Narita in the chin who reeled in pain for little more than a split second before she was up and fighting again. The two women traded blow for blow, and fighting in a synchronized dance of violence it was almost mesmerizing to watch but it soon became apparent it was Narita who had the ruthless savagery to win because she was willing to kill while Rain was not.

"Enough!" Vin stepped into the fray, aiming his gun at Narita whose arm was locked around Rain's bloodied nose and was glaring at him with animalistic fervour as she prepared to snap Rain's neck in her bare hands.

"You have no power over me, Vin," Narita sneered at him, her eyes narrowing with malevolence. "I showed you that already, did I not?" Her lips curled into a cruel smile. "You dare not harm me, not I who wear the body of poor little Mary, the Captain's whore!"

Vin swallowed hard, unable to look at Narita without imagining Mary Travis, his friend and teacher. The woman who helped him understand he was a product of a rich and vast intelligence, not a joke branded as an outcast. Even though his phaser was set for stun, Vin could not bring himself to shoot her even though he knew he simply had to.

"Don't make me do it." He said softly, wondering why it was so hard and realizing it had a lot to do with the pleasure she had brought him and the world she opened up for him simply because she cared enough to try. Surely there was a way to reach that woman without resorting to violence.

"You're weak, as all your kind are weak," Narita glowered triumphantly and pulled her arm tighter around Rain's throat until the Trill was choking and wheezing, her face reddening as she began to suffocate. "You can't hurt me any more than you can hurt poor Mary and if you can't," she lowered her gaze to Rain, "I will kill this abomination for your lack of understanding that Mary is gone! You will never get her back!"

Suddenly a voice spoke and it was neither Vin's nor Narita's, it was Chris.

"Lieutenant Tanner," Chris Larabee spoke with a voice of stone from where he was lying, with JD keeping guard at his side. He met Vin's gaze with an expression that hid nothing about his thoughts on the matter and whatever would happen, would happen. Chris's jaw tightened and Vin knew he was biting down to control the pain. Each word he uttered was filled with that agony.

"Shoot the bitch."

Vin was not about to argue with that statement and pulled the trigger like a reflex action. The bolt of energy struck both women and Narita crumpled lifelessly on top of Rain, inert and no longer a danger to anyone. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Chris finally succumb to the attraction of blackness when the Captain eased back into the wall he was resting against and let the darkness take him finally.

******

Ezra Standish stood before Salya and knew he did not have to fight her. When she saw him approach her while Rain and Narita were in the middle of their duel, she lowered the phase rifle. In the midst of freedom, of planning to take over the ship and their eventual revenge upon those who imprisoned the Many, Salya was given a stark reminder of what it was to enjoy simply being alive again. All those eons trapped in a hell no one could imagine or endure, they had all prayed with the singularity of hope one day they would escape to right all the wrongs done to them and yet they had forgotten the most precious right of all.

The right to live as they had always wanted.

"I will not let this continue." Ezra said staring at her eyes and wondering if the creature who inhabited Julia's body was someone he could have cared for in a different time or place. "I do not wish to harm you but if you do not surrender now, I will shoot you." He declared resolutely, his phaser focused on her.

"You have no need to do that." She replied, dropping her phaser rifle onto the floor with a soft thud. She let her gaze sweep over the bridge at the battle they lost even though Narita refused to give up but for Salya herself, ever since her encounter with Ezra Standish, she felt troubled by their actions. The men of this time and of this vessel were clearly not like the Daia of her world. When he loved her, he had done so as a man deeply in love with a woman and caring about her enough to ensure she was pleasured in the same way he was. It was beyond Salya's experience men could behave in this manner and that one act of passion allowed her to consider perhaps the high minded ideals of these Federation men were exactly what they were, ideals to aspire, not merely the illusion of compassion.

It was a sobering thought because if the Many were wrong about the Daia of this world on this one thing, could they not be wrong about all of it?

"You gave us those two minutes did you not?" Ezra asked, having guessed it when he saw her lower her weapon. "You could have had the cargo hold decompress immediately but instead you put the sequence in with a two-minute delay."

"I could not turn against my own," she spoke softly, her eyes so terribly sad Ezra felt it like a knife in his heart, not because it was Julia's image projecting such pain but the creature who resided inside her body at present. "But I could not allow you to be harmed. It was not much but I had hoped you would make use of the time productively."

"Thank you," Ezra responded, genuinely touched by her act of mercy. "I promise, we will do what we can to help you."

"No," she shook her head and came towards him. Salya raised her hand to his face and touched his cheek. There were tears in her eyes and Ezra wished he could wipe away all the hurt he knew she must have seen in her life. "It is over." She whispered as she lowered her lips to his and kissed him gently.

"I do not understand." He muttered but inside he knew what she was going to do. He guessed.

"The others may not leave willingly but I hope you will be able to convince them," Salya answered, her tears coming a little more freely down her cheeks as she stared at his pained expression when he started to see what was coming. "However I have a choice and I will not take from your Julia what was once taken from me. Becoming the enemy is something I would die to prevent and I will."

"You do not have to do this..." he started to say.

"Yes I do," she offered him a little smile. "Your Julia is a fortunate woman. I will miss you Ezra because for a short time, you reminded me what it was to live and I will always be grateful for that. Goodbye."

He wanted to call out to her, to tell to stop what it was she was doing but he could not, in part because he wanted Julia back and also because he had no idea what to call her for she had no name in his memory. All Ezra Standish could do was watch as Julia's body became enveloped in a bluish glow of light that contracted into a single orb of energy, soon rising over their heads before disappearing through the bulkhead. Ezra hurried forward as Julia slumped lifelessly to the floor, catching her as she began to fall while still watching that iridescent sparkle of light disappearing into the dark depths of space.

Did she still live or was she dead now? Ezra could not answer but wherever she was, he too, would always remember her.

Epilogue: Everywhere

Nathan was not happy about Chris Larabee wanting to be present when the aliens were finally conscious after receiving a variety of measures rendered them otherwise harmless, thus allowing for their safe removal to the brig. The doctor, who was mostly responsible for the retaking of the Maverick through his liberation of Engineering and also for the anesthetic gas pumped throughout the ship, was quick to resume his duties as chief medical officer. With the number of casualties emerging from the bridge after the fighting there was concluded, Nathan decided he would leave the alien-busting to the rest of the senior staff. Besides, it was not as if he didn't have his hands full.

Buck Wilmington was suffering severe tracheal bruising, same as Rain whom he was very relieved to know was well and even more pleased when he learned from Vin and Ezra how well she equated herself during the fight. Alexandra Styles was badly beaten up and had to be sedated when Nathan treated her injuries, only to be shuffled back to the brig when it was all said and done. The anesthetic gas allowed the male members of the crew to take back the Maverick but the danger was by no means over. The women were still under the influence of the Many and all that could be done as the situation worked towards resolution was to keep them all confined under lock and key.

Julia Pemberton seemed well as far as anyone could tell. She remained unconscious for a time after the alien left her body and tests conducted by Nathan concluded she was merely recovering from the exhaustive process of being host to an alien mind. According to Nathan, Julia could awake at any time. Although Ezra wanted to stay at her side, he was still Chief of Security and with Chris determined to face the invaders once they regained consciousness, he intended to be by his Captain's side when the interview with the aliens convened. He knew if he asked, Chris would allow him to be relieved of the duty but as much as Ezra loved Julia, he was not about to shirk his duties any more than he had since this fiasco had begun.

Chris was hardly in top form when he entered the brig. Though the marvels of modern medical science had fixed his broken bones and mended the tear in his flesh, his body still remembered the injury and he was still left tender and sore, with aches reminding him most prolifically caution was required. Chris walked into the brig, his steps still somewhat ginger with Ezra and Vin flanking him as Buck and JD were needed on the bridge to deal with what transpired during the failed invasion. The brig was armed with a full security contingent, prepared to take extreme measures to defend themselves if necessary.

They knew for a fact the aliens had to make physical contact with a body in order to possess it and somehow, the crystal kept them from escaping as Salya had demonstrated when she had so easily vacated Julia Pemberton's body. It was easy for the aliens in their non-corporeal form to escape the brig but they would be incapable of doing much else as a shapeless energy form, much less take over the ship. At the moment, Chano was trying to understand how the crystal artifact was capable of trapping their bodies in space but for the moment, the prison of flesh and blood would have to do.

"I still think this is not a good idea captain," Ezra voiced his concerns as he saw the Captain grimace when they walked towards the cells where the prisoners were kept.

"For once I gotta agree with Ezra Chris," Vin gave the security chief a look, indicating he ought to try reasoning with the Captain because he too could see just how much pain Chris was in. "You don't look like you're in any shape for this."

"Will you two relax," Chris growled, refusing to admit they were right. "You sound like a bunch of hens."

Anything either man was about to say in protest was cut short when they reached the cells where the ringleaders of the coup were being held. All three were conscious, with Narita pacing the floor like a caged animal while X'hala and the Alex entity sitting silently on separate bunk beds. Although they could have been kept apart, Chris saw no reason for that when the force field ensured they were not going to escape one way or another. The cells in Starfleet brigs were damn near impenetrable and Chris did not wish the aliens to believe they were going to be treated in the same manner as they had been by the Daia they had known in the past, simply because they were helpless.

Upon seeing him, Narita hissed at Vin. "You better pray I do not escape this place Vulcan, for I will make you pay for this!"

Vin wanted to respond but saw the look Chris gave him and restrained himself. The Captain for his part, held together perfectly as he saw the woman before him and reminded himself she was not Mary but a vengeful creature prepared to kill all of them if allowed the opportunity. "If you have done with the posturing," Chris glanced at X'hala, "I need to speak with the one of you who is in authority."

Narita glared at him hatefully and barked. "I swear to you I will kill this body first before I allow you to have your Mary back." The malevolence in her voice sent a chill through Vin and Ezra but Chris remained impassive.

"Not if I do it first," Chris answered firmly and regarded X'hala. "You will vacate these bodies immediately and return to your receptacle in the artifact or any other place you wish to go. In either case, your bout of possession is over."

"You're mad!" X'hala laughed in derision as she rose to her feet and came towards the edge of the force field so she could look at him directly. "If we do not choose to leave, you cannot make us go. These bodies are ours. Accustom yourself to that fact Captain. You will have to kill us to remove us and I don't think you have the stomach for all those murders on your conscience."

Vin stiffened, his eyes fixed on Alex and wondered if she even had any idea of what they meant to each other. The expression in her eyes said no. He did not know what Chris had in mind but he knew he wanted Alex back at any costs, no matter what his duty to Starfleet. She was worth more than any commission. He was certain Chris felt the same for Mary.

"No I don't have the stomach for that," Chris said in a perfectly neutral voice. "What I do have however, is another solution. I won't kill them but you won't get to use their bodies either. I'll stick the entire lot of you into stasis for the rest of their natural lives if I have to. You think being confined in that artifact was bad, you wait until you're trapped in a human body. I'll put you into stasis and then eject all of you into the nearest singularity I can find. You can spend God knows how long wondering if you'll ever die and never knowing until it comes for you. If you've taken their bodies and ended their lives, I swear to you what possession you have will be brief!"

"You would not dare!" X'hala exclaimed, her eyes widened with fear imagining that prison once again.

Chris leaned closer to the force field and met her eyes with a patented Larabee glare set for maximum intensity and replied in a low voice that sounded like grated glass. "Try me, lady, try me."

"He's lying!" Narita shouted, watching the horror sink into X'hala's eyes at the realization it was not a threat Chris Larabee was making to her but rather a promise of what was to come. "He does not have the stomach to hurt his precious lover! It is only a bluff."

For the first time, the entity inhabiting Alex's body chose to speak. "Shut up Narita."

Everyone including captives and captors, turned to the alien wearing Alex's face. She had remained silent through most of the discussion, observing quietly all that was occurring and trying to reach some conclusion, particularly in the light of Salya's actions.

"How dare you...?" Narita started to retaliate when the third member of the group spoke again.

"I dare very well Narita." She returned coolly. "I also meant it. Be silent and listen."

"What is the meaning of this?" X'hala demanded, not wishing to show there was dissension in the ranks.

"I am called Kalista." She introduced herself before any of the Daia present mistook her for their Alex. "X'hala," she looked to her leader. "I do not wish to speak out of turn but perhaps we should consider giving them what it is they wish."

"Have you lost your mind!" Narita exclaimed immediately. "X'hala, her brain is just as addled as Salya after her coupling with the first officer."

"Coupling with the first officer?" Vin found himself saying even though he knew nothing that transpired in the last few hours was Alex's fault. Buck, on the other hand, was something else altogether. He was about to become infuriated by the idea of Buck giving Alex what he could not when he realized the exchange he shared with the creature Narita, who was using Mary's body against her will just as surely as Kalista must have used Alex's. He had no wish to face Chris with that on his conscience and decided then and there while he might not like it, he was not about to accuse Buck Wilmington who had been a good friend of something he was not strong enough to resist either.

"This is not the time," Chris said sharply and hoped it was enough to quell Vin's outrage for the moment. Unfortunately, Chris doubted there would ever be a time when it would ever be. Vin seemed to agree and answered with a slight nod as he turned back to Kalista who was about to respond to Narita's claim about her senses.

"X'hala," Kalista ignored Narita's response and continued speaking. "We have spent the last five hundred thousand years awaiting freedom, all the while plotting our vengeance against those who did this to us. We were on the verge of evolutionary change and they hastened the process so they could imprison us indefinitely in the artifact. We spent so much time envisioning all the terrible things we were going to do to them but now we are in a position to do it, they are dead. Killed no doubt by their folly with far more effectiveness then we could ever imagine for them. Although it was not their intention, they did us a kindness."

"What?" X'hala looked at Kalista as if she were mad. "Kindness?"

"Yes," Chris found himself lending weight to Kalista's argument. "You're alive. Although your race is gone, you are all that is left of the Accran people."

"We were Undaia! We were never Accrans!" Narita exclaimed hotly.

"You were Undaia," Chris responded automatically. "Now you are stronger. You're a life form we can't possibly imagine. Don't you understand? Salya figured it out. She understood without a body you would not necessarily die. Death is something that comes to a human body, to a being trapped in a cellular existence. You're energy and energy does not die. It transcends into higher states of being."

"Don't you see," Kalista responded. "X'hala, we are free to go anywhere, to do anything we want. Why trap ourselves in these shells of flesh when we are free to roam through the universe like gods. When we were adrift, we saw the wonders of space but could only curse it

then because we could not explore it. You have led us through our imprisonment," Kalista placed her hand on X'hala's shoulder. "Lead us now through our freedom."

"What you ask..."X'hala tried to think of the words but they would not come because the idea was too incredible. "We could die."

"We could," Kalista agreed, she would not deny that. "However, all things die. It is the way the universe works but I do not think we will. I want to go X'hala. I want to see the things Salya will see before us. You once said we had to be better than Daia, that the greatest evil is to become the enemy. If we take these bodies for ourselves, if we steal from these women their futures as ours was once stolen, we will become Daia."

"I won't be called that!" Narita gasped, tears welling in her eyes because though she was afraid and angry, she did not want to be like those who did this to her. That was even too much for her. "I would rather die than become Daia!"

X'hala said nothing for a long time as she considered the words spoken to her, realizing Salya, her most trusted lieutenant, her friend for so long had abandoned them because she was sick of the killing and realized after awhile she too, was sick of it. All their lives had been a struggle, a symphony of never ending pain, lengthened by this terrible thing was done to them. Freedom was always some elusive word during their imprisonment, something on which to pin their waning hopes and now they had it, they were squandering it in some wasteful bid for vengeance, against enemies who had turned to dust long ago. There was little point in it.

Her mind reached through the expanse of the ship, communicating with the Many, revealing to them her intention and realizing with even more surprise, the Many were not averse to the idea of leaving the body and testing out the limitations of this incorporeal existence. Trapped in the artifact, they were given little chance to explore but now that the opportunity presented itself, they were rather eager for it. Sometimes, X'hala had to admit, her own people could surprise her.

"Captain," she said softly. "It is time we left."

"Where will you go?" Chris asked, unable to help feeling something for these poor creatures whose actions had foundation in their terrible suffering.

X'hala smiled as her eyes shifted upwards toward the bulkhead but really it was the stars she was indicating.

"Everywhere."

******

When they left the body it was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Suddenly, the Maverick was filled with iridescent color glowing through every corridor of the ship as the mass exodus began. Crewmen watched in silent wonder as the orbs of light moved through the vessel, seeking escape through any means necessary. For a moment, it looked like fireworks had been let loose inside the ship with the sparkle of unearthly light bathing them all as the aliens made their escape from the cumbersome surroundings of the Maverick.

Chris and the others moved to the small window in the brig after they saw the aliens leaving the bodies of the women inside the cell. As they looked into the great expanse of stars beyond the ship, they saw hundreds of sparkling blue orbs converging upon a fixed point in space. The illuminations were like a newly formed star and for a moment, their eyes were so filled with its radiance it was almost blinding.

"It is beautiful," Ezra replied softly, still remembering how Salya had looked when she left Julia's body.

"I hope they make it." Vin found himself remarking as well. After everything, he could not help but feel some measure of sorrow for what the Undaia suffered.

"I think they already have," Chris said with a little smile as the radiance from the Many's convergence sparkled in his eyes. "I think they already have."

******

"My first dinner at the Captain's table with the senior staff," Rain grinned as she entered Four Corners for dinner some days later. "I'm moving up in the world."

The atmosphere on the ship was lively, despite the journey to Pacifica having been abandoned with the ship being recalled to the Frontier immediately because of some minor crisis requiring immediate action only the Maverick could undertake because she was the closest ship in the vicinity. In truth, no one was eager to do any more vacationing after the debauchery preceding the Many's attempt to take the ship. Nathan had been hearing horror stories everywhere from men who were seduced by women who were utterly horrified by the recollection when the aliens departed their bodies. It made him glad he was in the company of the only unaffected female on the ship.

"Don't get too excited," Nathan let his gaze sweep across the faces of his friends in the room, both at their respective corners trying to deal with the embarrassment that occurred during the last few days. Nathan doubted there was a senior staff meeting where anyone could look each other in the eye. "Neither the senior staff nor the Captain is what they used to being at the moment."

"Hey," Rain shrugged as she slipped her arm through his and proceeded forward. "If you were them, bonking each other left, right and centre, you'd feel bad too."

"Bonking each other?" Nathan looked at her, shaking his head at her choice of words.

"What? You prefer doing the wild mamba, the wild thing, help me out here...." she started to rattle off a few more lurid descriptions before Nathan finally conceded defeat.

"Okay, okay," he exclaimed. "I get the hint."

"They'll be fine," Rain said confidently as she walked boldly through the patrons of the ship's bar, pausing just long enough to wave at Inez who was behind the counter, having ventured out of her quarters for the first time since her tragic loss. The bartender was not exactly as bubbly as she used to be but Inez nevertheless returned Rain's wave before getting back to her duties. "They're embarrassed and a little uncomfortable. It's up to us, with our incredible tact and charm to make them feel better."

"God help them." Nathan groaned, shaking his head.

Still, he had to admit as he followed Rain towards the Captain's table, he really liked this girl.

******

"It never happened you hear me?" Alexandra Styles declared as she sat across Buck at one of the tables, trying not to feel any worse than she already did. Why did it have to be Buck that Kalista was assigned to? Why not Vin or Chris, hell even JD? Anything was better than knowing she seduced Buck Wilmington in the Captain's ready room no less. That was most likely why he ordered a new desk from supply. God, she had not been able to step into the place without being revisited with images of their heated coupling as he did this, and then she did that, and then they were on top. Oh this was so humiliating!

"Oh come on Alex," Buck let out a groan, wondering what she found so awful about the whole situation. Hell, he enjoyed pleasuring her and felt slightly envious for what Vin would be getting with both barrels once he was old enough to appreciate it. "I know it wasn't you and I know it didn't mean anything but we can discuss the thing like adults."

"I don't want to be adult about this!" She hissed, glaring at him. "I am humiliated, embarrassed and appalled at being another notch on your rather long belt!"

"Hey," he said with a hint of offence in his voice. "I'll have you know I do not have a long belt. Actually, I have a notebook and you are going to go in there underneath the heading 'utterly spectacular"."

"Oh God," Alex groaned and thudded her head on the desk. "I think I'm going to be sick." She hid her face against the table and drew another smile from Buck who could not deny he was enjoying this somewhat.

"Alex," he reached for her shoulder and said in a completely different voice, devoid of smugness or any juvenile antics.

"What?" she grumbled, looking up at him.

"I want you to know  I realize what happened between us was not your idea but I don't hate that it happened. Touching you was wonderful, Vin's a lucky man but I don't want this to hurt our friendship and I promise you, our friendship means more to me than what we shared."

Alex met his gaze and a little smile stole across her face as she realized she had underestimated him again "Buck," she sighed. "Our friendship means the same to me as it does to you. I'll live with this even though you'll never let me forget it."

"That's true." He grinned.

Alex rolled her eyes and added, "because you're still a pig."

"That's true too," Buck agreed. "But I'm a pig that got to fourth base." He capped off that remark with a wink and a truly shit-eating grin.

Alex groaned and wished the Many had taken her with them.

******

Ezra sat across Julia and could tell she was mad at him.

How could she not be after what happened? He made love to her without even the faintest idea it was an alien who had been in possession of her body, not the woman herself. How did he explain that away? The truth was he could not and it did not aid his situation he had felt something for Salya who released Julia willingly, unlike the others who took much convincing and threats before they would vacate their hosts. There were no words to describe how muddled the situation was. It was bad enough his heart was breaking knowing the passionate love he shared with the woman he loved was not her at all but someone else entirely.

"Julia," he said after the long stretch of silence between them. She had avoided him for most of the days following the Many's departure and with their regularly scheduled Captain's dinner only a short time away, Ezra finally cornered her into seeing him so they could at least try to talk things out.

"We cannot go on like this. Please," he reached across the table and was encouraged when she did not pull her hand away when he enveloped it with hers. "Talk to me."

"Talk to you about what?" She met his gaze, pain etched in every dim fleck of her emerald coloured eyes. She was close to tears but was hiding it valiantly. "You didn't even know it wasn't me."

"How could I even guess?" He asked with a pained expression in his eyes. "You were there and you wanted me and I have wanted you ever since you entered my life. Julia, I love you," he found no fear in saying  the words so alien to him for so long. "I loved you since I first saw you and when you came to me and said you wanted me, I was so happy, I never even stopped to think."

Julia blinked and her tears rolled down her cheeks, unable to restrain her sorrow any longer. "I know that." She said after a moment. "I know it but I still can't help feeling this way. I don't know if I trust you any more Ezra. You made love to my body but you had no idea  it was not me! I wanted it to be special, to mean something and now I don't know what to think!"

She rose abruptly to her feet, unable to remain any longer without feeling her insides weeping.

"Julia!" Ezra caught her hand, trying to make her stay. "Please, do not leave it like this." He almost begged and would have done it if he thought it would have done any good but somehow he did not think it would.

"I need time Ezra," she pulled her hand away from him and Ezra knew there and then, he would not convince her, not today anyway. "I just need time. Tell the Captain I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well."

With that, Julia hurried out of Four Corners, taking the broken pieces of Ezra Standish's heart with her.

******

At the Captain's table, Vin was glad Chris had not arrived. Like the rest of his comrades who made up the senior staff, Vin had not escaped the presence of the Many on board the Maverick with his dignity intact. As much as he hated the invasion into his mind by Narita, he also found what he had seen of Mary's life, tantalizing. Over the past few days, he found himself gazing at the lovely blond, wondering how it was she could remain so composed and sedate around Chris Larabee when he saw how hot the passion inside her could burn when she felt enough to express it.

Until that exchange between them inside his quarters, Vin had no idea how much difference there could be in the simple biological functions between humans and Vulcans. When she had touched his mind and showed him the sublime ecstasy of the lovemaking she had enjoyed with her husband, Vin thought the overpowering sensations would be the end of him. Since that day, he had replayed it in his mind how it felt to be touched that way while sharing the experience in one's mind as well. He wondered how it would feel to touch Alex in that manner, to run his fingers over her skin and bask in the sensual pleasure of her body. He wanted so badly to feel it as Mary's husband had and yet he felt like he was a boat adrift in the water by a shore he could almost reach but not quite.

As Mary sat across him, he saw she could not meet his gaze even though there was no one else at the table. The others were still engaged in conversations around the room, no doubt, just as awkward as this one. He could see Alex and Buck talking and felt a pang of jealousy knowing Buck had been able to pleasure Alex in a way he could not but as angered as he felt towards the first officer, Vin knew he was not as innocent either. He still could not bring himself to tell Chris what happened between himself and Mary and the Captain was too smart not to notice neither had been able to make eye contact.

"Mary," Vin spoke up and saw her raise her eyes to his slowly as if doing so was just too hard. "Does it really feel like that?"

Mary's cheeks reddened and it took a moment for her to answer when she realized his question was not meant to embarrass her but rather one of genuine curiosity.

"Yes," she nodded. "It feels like that all the time."

"You must have loved him very much," Vin replied, remembering how hot the love had burned between herself and her husband. He had never thought normal Vulcans who subscribed to non-emotion could feel that way.

"I did." She said with a bittersweet smile, feeling some of the awkwardness drain. "I still feel him inside my head sometimes," she whispered. "I almost think he's still alive and then I remember that he's not."

"You love Chris that way?" Vin found himself asking, hoping he was not intruding by the question.

Now she did smile and it was not bittersweet but rather warm and inviting. The question in the past was hard to answer but when he asked her so pointedly, it screamed in her head with such clarity, she was surprised he did not hear it. "Yes," she nodded. "I do."

"He's a lucky man." The Vulcan remarked as he saw Chris entering Four Corners and hastily added before the Captain reached his table. "I hope someday I'm that lucky. Thank you for showing me what it could be like Mary, I know you're sorry it happened but I'm not. I have something to look forward to now."

For the first time since this all began and ended, Mary found she could look him in the eye. "It's worth waiting for Vin," she sighed and felt some of the tension evaporate, now they had some chance to speak of it. "I'll be fine Vin," she confessed after a moment. "I'm a little confused about it all but I'll be fine."

"I'm glad," Vin said, pleased they had reached something of an understanding. "However, if you don't mind, I don't think I'll be needing any lessons for awhile."

Mary gave him a look and declared. "No kidding."

******

Chris entered Four Corners about the same time as Josiah Sanchez. As he paused at the main entrance of the popular recreational facility, he allowed his gaze to sweep across the room to see if the rest of the senior staff beyond himself and Josiah were already here. He noticed JD and Casey at the far end of the room and when she saw him, Casey lowered her gaze into her drink once more. The young Bajoran was still unable to form any coherent sentence that did not have the words, 'I think I'm going to die', followed by 'you're old enough to be my father', whenever she was in his presence. Chris wondered whether he ought to take the last remark as an insult and decided he did not care as long as things were back to normal.

As normal as they could be in light of what happened. The fallout in the wake of the Many's presence on board the Maverick had left a great deal in shambles. He only had to glance at Buck and Alex who were making their way to the Captain's table upon his arrival, to be reminded of that fact. The science officer was swatting Buck across the shoulder, no doubt in response to some tasteless remark he was making about their tryst. On that thought, Chris reminded himself to have his old desk ejected into space before he could ever feel comfortable working in his Ready Room again.

Ezra Standish was alone and judging by the stonier than usual expression on his face, normally reserved only for a tense game of poker, Chris guessed he was hiding a great deal of pain under that seemingly indifferent facade and wished there was something he could do. Unfortunately, Ezra was intensely private, even more so than he and Chris suspected anything he might try to say would not be well received. The security chief seemed to notice he should get moving to the Captain's table and immediately rose to his feet in order to begin the journey there.

Casey was still taking refuge behind JD who found the whole thing rather amusing. Perhaps because JD knew Chris had too much honour to be swayed by any attempt by Casey to seduce him and also because the boy was too idealistic to know there were men who would put aside friendship and honour for the attentions of a lady. Whatever the reason, Chris was grateful JD was keeping a sense of humour about the whole situation because Casey needed to see it in the same way too. Besides, there was no way Chris was getting rid of her as his Yeoman. Her coffee was to die for.

He noticed that Rain and Nathan were the only ones who were at ease with each other and the warmth between them despite the newness of their relationship indicated Rain was here to stay. Chris was glad, Nathan needed someone in his life.

Besides, he liked her.

Also being able to make eye contact, Chris noticed, was Vin and Mary. He knew something had gone on between them and though he knew it was not a sexual act as heated as what transpired between Buck and Alex, Chris knew it had caused them similar discomfort. While it was very telling by Vin's reaction to Buck's tryst with Alex,  Chris found he was not angry or jealous. He knew his best friend loved Alexandra Styles with a passion even though it could not be expressed. There was nothing that could happen between Vin and Mary to ever challenge that. He also knew Mary would never consciously betray him and it was best that he not know what it was that happened between his best friend and the woman he loved. Chris valued the relationships he had with those involve more than his desire to know. Sometimes, it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.

"You know something, Josiah," Chris let out a sigh as they resumed walking towards his table.

Josiah was in a good mood because he had been given a temporary reprieve from the affections of Audrey King in light of what had transpired between them during the recent invasion. The lady had been so mortified by her attempt to seduce him she had cited needing some time to sort herself out, which was exactly what Josiah needed to decide how he felt about her and whether or not he was ready to date again.

"What Chris?" he asked, noticing the same amount of angst at the table they were about to join.

Chris looked at the senior staff before declaring. "Boy, do you have your work cut out for you."

THE END

Next story: The Magnificent Q

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