The White
by Scribe

Main Characters: Chris, Vin, Ezra, Mary Travis, OFCs

WARNING: Contains references to rape.

Summary:

The possibility of Ketracel White in the Frontier places the Maverick on a collision course with the Dominion and a Jem Hadar fleet while Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner try to prevent Alex from abandoning her duty to Starfleet, when she faces the Cardassian Gul responsible for her imprisonment.

Third story in the Star Trek: Maverick series Follows The Illusion of Self.


Nightmares

When Alexandra Styles dreamed, it was always the same.

It replayed itself in her mind like a never-ending carousel, singing its familiar song with a perfect melody, reminding her with each note, the tortured clarity of the incident which burnt away everything she was in a six-month ordeal of pain and humiliation. Though she expunged the memory of what had happened to her from her conscious mind, burying it all in an abyss deep inside her, she knew it was not truly gone. The stink of it had seeped into her bones and left its mark upon her despite her best efforts to forget. She knew it changed her from what she was, into someone stronger, but the part destroyed forever, was deeply missed, even though she would admit it to nobody.

Six months of hell had pursued her for the past three years. It shared her bed, her thoughts and her soul like an unwanted lover. It's refusal to leave infuriated her and Alex knew much of it was her own fault. Pride prevented her from seeking help or telling anyone what had happened. For she knew if she did, the wall behind which she kept it all safely hidden would shatter and God help her then when that deluge of hurt was allowed to overwhelm her.

When she had grown up without a mother and her father played diplomat on Qo'noS, Alex found herself in the company of the Klingon housekeeper who embraced her like a daughter and taught her, being a woman was no excuse to be weak

Kellein as she was called, and she wore it with great pride for it was the name of Kahless's bride, taught Alex a woman could have a warrior's spirit too. Even after her father left Qo'noS and she grew to womanhood, Alex would find herself returning to the hearth of Kellein when she needed strength. After escaping that Cardassian hell, it was to Kellein she had run to. Unable to face her father because the shame was too much and too fresh, she fled to the arms of her Klingon mother, who dried her tears and told her the best revenge upon those who hurt her was to survive.

Alex managed that and more but sometimes, she just wished she could sleep without dreaming.

Alex woke up screaming.

For an instant after awakening so abruptly from her less than peaceful slumber, she had no idea where she was. Gripped by the intense need to hide, she scrambled out of bed, not completely awake, moving with amazing stealth to the darkest corner of the room. Once there, she pressed her back against the wall and hid in its shadows, hugging her knees against her chest, praying the sounds she heard were not their footsteps coming for her.

Not again! Please God, not again!

The play was one that repeated itself on several occasions since her arrival on the Maverick as its second officer. For several seconds she remained where she was, trembling in absolute terror until reason and recognition bled into her mind and she realized she was not inside the cell of a Cardassian prison, but rather in her quarters on board the Maverick. Alex would blink furiously, tears running down her cheeks, intermingling with the cold sweat plastering her underclothes to her limbs and see the walls disappear for more familiar surroundings. Slowly, the little bits and pieces reminding her this was her place, would reappear to offer her comfort she was safe.

Alex did what she always did whenever she woke up like this and that was to weep. She would cry loud ragged sobs of anger and frustration at her mind's refusal to let her forget until finally, there were no more tears left to shed. Exhaling loudly after purging herself of the pain, she would remind herself tears were futile. The violence was done. Only the memory remained, burned into her mind and branded unto her soul. There was no forgetting, just acceptance. Hardening her heart, she would dry her tears and send the horror back into the black pit inside herself, that only seemed to escape when her mind was in slumber.

Alex was done sleeping for the night. The clock on her night table told her it was still night, as far as it could be measured on a starship where there was no sunrise or sunset. Needing to get out of her room for a while, Alex washed her face and freshened up as best she could before slipping into a comfortable dark body suit. She needed to sleep despite her bad dreams. Alex had an early shift on the bridge the next morning and she was going to be in no condition for it unless she overcame her problem.

There was no one about when she emerged into the quiet corridor outside her quarters nor did she expect anyone to be. Most of the crew were in bed since the Maverick operated on a 24-hour cycle in order to keep the crew's Circadian rhythm in check. As far as the ship's chronometer was concerned, it was night time. Heading towards Sick Bay, she hoped Nathan was not on duty tonight because she did not relish the idea of explaining to him why she needed dream suppressants again. She knew he was itching to get her into seeing Josiah and Alex thought he had about as much chance of that as convincing her to take up belly dancing.

Making her way to Sick Bay, she ran through all the things she had planned the next day and realised the party was tomorrow night. In the interest of morale, Inez the bartender at Four Corners had convinced the Captain to allow her to throw a party at one of the holodecks, worst yet a costumed party. Of course, Inez made her case all the more attractive when she came up with the inspired choice of making the theme for the celebration a western one, perfectly aware Chris Larabee's favourite holodeck program was that ridiculous western tale about seven gunmen. If it were not for the fact Vin had asked her to go as his date, Alex would have been perfectly content to curl up in bed with a good book. Unfortunately, for reasons she did not wish to explore too deeply, she was incapable of refusing the Vulcan anything.

No matter, she'd make him pay for the indignity by completely kicking his butt in the holodeck.

Arriving at Sickbay, Alex swore under her breath when she saw Nathan in attendance and wondered if the man ever slept. Why was it always him on duty when she came in at these hours? Before the thought even left her mind, Alex knew the answer. It was because she was in here a lot and eventually those periods coincided with his turn to be on night duty. Nathan was at his desk when she walked in and Alex prayed she would not get too much flack about needing something to sleep again.

"Hello, Nathan." She greeted as she broke the silence of the room with her voice.

"Hello Alex," Nathan returned her greeting as he emerged from behind his desk where he had been catching up on the medical profiles he had been accumulating for the crew this past week. The solitude and the quiet at this time of night allowed him to concentrate as there were seldom visits to the Sick Bay at such a late hour by the crew, with one notable exception.

He could tell by her cautious steps into the room, Alex was not happy to see him here tonight. Nathan supposed he could hardly blame her for her paranoia, aware of she was mindful of his reaction about her return, considering this was not the first time he had seen her come into Sick Bay at this hour of the night. The physician knew what she wanted of course and while he did not wish to pry into the private lives of any crewmen, particularly the third in command of the ship, his concern was starting to breach the boundaries of friendly concern into a professional consideration.

"Can�t sleep?" He asked automatically, sparing her the difficulty of asking.

She swallowed thickly and nodded. "Sleeping is not the problem. It�s the dreams."

Nathan who was aware of her medical history knew enough to know she had very good reasons for troubling dreams and did not probe too deeply into the cause. "It�s the brain's way of dealing with things you keep buried for too long."

"Things in my head are buried just fine," Alex replied, knowing Nathan wanted to help but it was an old argument and its power to sway her was waning each time it was brought up. "Can I please have the dream suppressants?" She was trying not to be rude but really needed to be out of here because any unwanted advice would only make her bark at him. Nathan was one of the kindest men she knew and as a physician, he had no peer. Unfortunately, his dedication to his patients made him somewhat insistent with his advice and if there was one thing Alex could not tolerate, was people meddling into her private affairs. No matter how well-intentioned.

Nathan frowned, knowing when his interest was not wanted and perfectly aware Alex was not one to ask for personal advice and would not take kindly if he attempted to give but he could not allow the situation to continue the way it was. Dream suppressants were meant to be taken on occasion, not three or four times a weeks which was how often he saw Alex since she had come on board the Maverick. While the drug itself was not addictive, prolonged use of any chemical would have long-term effects on the body.

However, Nathan was not so much concerned about the physical effects of her dependence on dream suppressants to get a good night's sleep but rather her mental condition. The doctor in him reacted strongly to a person in pain and he could tell that she suffered greatly but refused to allow anyone to help her. The Captain was happy to let things stand to be just as aware as Nathan regarding what Cardassians did to their prisoners, to have some idea of what she must have endured as their captive. However, it was obvious her subconscious mind was playing havoc with her by her repeated nocturnal visits to Sick Bay.

"Look you're gonna tell me its none of my business," he started to say, deciding to hell with it. He was a doctor and when he saw a patient in obvious pain, he was going to speak his mind, whether or not his aid was wanted. "But you need to talk to someone about this. I can't keep giving you dream suppressants."

Alex knew this ultimatum had been coming for some time now but she wasn't angry, not when the advice was given with such a sincere desire to help. Instead, a faint smile stole across her face and she did something that was most unusual for her. She reached for his cheek and said with a smile. "You're a wonderful doctor, you know."

"I'm still not changing my mind," Nathan replied after a moment, feeling a little surprised by the gesture. "You need help Alex. You need to talk to someone about this. Even if it's just to get it out there, instead of hiding it deep so you can forget about it. I'm not a Counselor but even I know the dreams are just the mind's way of saying it needs to talk, that not all things can remain buried forever."

He left her to ruminate on that for a moment as he went to find the pills she would need to sleep without being plagued by nightmares. After a moment he found them and faced her again. Alex had not moved from where he left her and appeared deep in thought until he returned to her. He wondered if she was really considering his words and hoped he might have breached the stubbornness determined to see her endure her demons alone.

"Here." He handed her the small canister of pills. "You know the drill. Take one a night. I've given you a week's worth and that's all. After that, we're going to discuss this on a more formal level."

Alex took a deep breath and nodded in understanding. Deep inside her, she knew he was right. This could not continue. The dreams had followed her for the past three years and showed no signs of abating if anything they seemed to grow worse with the passage of time. Yet despite the fear plaguing her nights, Alex refused to concede defeat.

"I'm not ready." She whispered hoarsely and Nathan could see that admission had been extracted from her almost involuntarily. "I don't know if I'll ever be ready."

"You'll never know until you try." He persisted, feeling as if he made some headway.

"Then I guess I may never know." She said quickly and walked out of the room before anything else could be said on the subject.

Nathan let out a sigh and reminded himself it was time he had a talk with Josiah.

Chris Larabee could smell trouble. When he read the latest communication from Starfleet Command, earmarked for Captain's eyes only, he knew his nose was still as accurate as ever, even through the vacuum of space. After he read the contents of the Priority One message and absorbed the ramifications of its content, he considered them deeply in the confines of his Ready Room. As of yet, he was unprepared at the moment to bring those issues to the attention of the rest of his crew, save perhaps his first officer.

It was easy to forget that whilst they were stationed here on the edge of Federation space and days away from the nearest starbase, the Alpha Quadrant was presently engaged in a battle for its survival. The enemy had the power to topple not just the Federation but also the Klingon and Romulan Empires as well. There were times when Chris wanted so much to be apart of the conflict, he could almost taste it. Just hearing about the losses being sustained and the friends dying with each battle, made him feel somewhat guilty he was safely stationed here so far from the fighting. Of course, he knew he was being foolish. Their presence at the Frontier played an important role in the war effort. The last thing the Federation needed while they battled foes from the Gamma Quadrant was to be caught unawares when the Borg decided to come calling.

Faced with the Collective, the Dominion seemed rather tame.

However, there was still plenty to fear from the Dominion. Only a fool would consider them any less dangerous than the Borg. The Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant had emerged with the discovery of a wormhole in Bajoran space. For centuries, what the Bajorans had considered the Celestial Temple of Prophets, the basis of all their spiritual beliefs, was, in fact, the first stable wormhole in the Alpha Quadrant. It made the journey to the distant Gamma Quadrant, a matter of minutes, instead of eighty years. At the time, Starfleet had established a Federation presence in a former Cardassian space station left behind when during the occupation of Bajor.

From Deep Space Nine, the Federation began exploring the Gamma Quadrant with no idea there were dangers on the other side of the wormhole that should have made them exercise caution. The Dominion, whose masters were shapeshifters capable of infiltrating the new territories easily, launched the Alpha Quadrant into the largest military engagement of its history. Even with the combined strength of the Federation, the Klingon and Romulan Empires, the Dominion held fast and firm.

They were aided by the Cardassians and the Breen, not to mention their formidable warrior caste called the Jem Haddar, soldiers bred for war and whose thirst for it was enhanced by a narcotic known as Ketracel White. Without Ketracel White, the Jem Haddar would die and as of yet, the ingredient required to synthesize the White in the Alpha Quadrant were almost nonexistent. It was the greatest advantage the Allied forces had over the enemy, since the collapse of the wormhole leading back to the Gamma Quadrant, prevented them from replenishing their supplies.

The document Chris just received from Starfleet Command could change all that. The frontier the Maverick now patrolled was the furthest point from where the war was raging. However, if what he was reading was accurate, it was very possible a Dominion invasion fleet was on its way.

Chris had sent for Buck earlier, uncertain of whether or not he should bring this information to the rest of the ship just yet. His orders required him to return to Deep Space Five immediately to deal with the delicate situation he and his ship would soon be embroiled in. With the war effort raging as it had been, with loses on both sides considerably, Chris knew he was on his own. How he handled the crisis brewing would mean the difference between the survival of the Alpha Quadrant and everything they knew.

Buck Wilmington entered his captain's inner sanctum and knew immediately something was up. Chris's expression did not change as his first officer walked in and Buck had known him long enough to understand that something ominous was on the horizon. Chris glanced his way and gestured with a slight nod for Buck to sit down, while still staring at the datapad in his hand. The captain was eased into his chair, ruminating quietly on thoughts Buck was not privy to but could feel most potently with the intensity in his darkening eyes.

"Chris?" Buck asked gingerly as he eased himself into the chair across the captain's desk, knowing if he were going to get really bad news, he would rather be comfortable hearing it.

"I just got a Priority One communication from Starfleet Command," Chris announced, aware this would not be of any surprise to Buck since he was on the bridge with Chris when JD had first made them aware of the incoming transmission. It had sparked everyone's interest because it was for the Captain's eyes only and though protocol kept Buck from asking until Chris chose at his discretion to reveal the truth, he knew that eventually, the captain would bring him into his confidence.

"Bad?" Buck asked, wanting to know sooner rather than later.

"Yeah." Chris nodded slowly. "A Cardassian defector claims that the Dominion believes that there is a planet out there that produces tri-nucleic fungus."

"Jesus Christ," Buck exclaimed, just as aware as Chris of what the implications of this could mean. "Where?"

"That part they aren't sure of." Chris retorted tossing the datapad on his desk, annoyed that they did not have the most vital part of the puzzle. "The defector claims that it is out here and that the Dominion may be intending an invasion of this area to take the planet and control of the tri-nucleic fungus."

"The White is the one thing that's holding them back," Buck declared. "If they get an unlimited supply of tri-nucleic fungus to make it..."

"You don't have to tell me," Chris said with a deep breath. "If they get a supply, they can grow as many Jem Haddar troops as they need and overwhelm the Alpha Quadrant by sheer numbers. We're barely holding our own as it is. A boost like this could finish us. We won't have to worry about the Borg."

"Aw hell," Buck swore under his breath and could appreciate why Chris was so worried. "So what are our orders?"

"Starfleet wants us at Deep Space 5 immediately." He replied pushing the data pad at Buck and offering a slight nod of consent that the first officer could examine the orders for himself if he liked. "We are to pick up this Cardassian and find the planet before the Jem Haddar. Once we find it, we are to secure it until more ships arrive to take our place. They'll set up a planetary defence shield and keep starships on permanent guard duty around the system."

"That still won't stop the Dominion from coming." Buck pointed out.

"Well, Starfleet is hoping the offensive that Captain Sisko of DS9 is planning will keep them busy for a while. With the Romulans on board and the Tholians offering military support, we might be able to push them back towards Cardassian space. The plan is to force them back into Cardassian territory and keep them pinned there until they surrender. With the wormhole closed, they're not getting reinforcements any time soon."

"That's going to be messy," Buck replied, just as aware of the dangers as Chris. "They could stay in Cardassian space and burrow in, we could be facing a war that last years."

"We're already facing that," Chris pointed out. "This will just confine it to one place. They've taken Betazed already and they're going to be going after Vulcan soon, Sisko wants a line drawn."

"So now we're defending this part of space from the Dominion as well as the Borg?" The first officer let out a heavy sigh of worry. "Damn Chris," he gave his old friend a look. "How did it ever get this bad?"

"I don't know," Chris shrugged. "But I want to keep this under our hats for today. Let the crew enjoy the party tonight and tomorrow, we'll hold a general staff meeting and tell them."

"It might be an idea to encourage as many civilians as we can to disembark at Deep Space Five," Buck suggested. "If we run into a Jem Haddar fleet, it might end up saving some lives."

"I agree," Chris nodded, involuntarily thinking about Mary and Billy, even though he knew there was no way he would be able to get the protocol officer to leave the ship. However, he intended to his level best to persuade her otherwise nonetheless.

"So any word on this Cardassian?" Buck asked.

"Yeah," Chris replied and Buck noticed the frown on Chris's face deepening. "He's supposed to be a former Gul or something. He was one of those who didn't hold with the idea of Cardassia joining the war on the Dominion's side and apparently got shuffled to some dead-end job. He got wind of this through some papers that crossed his desk accidentally and that's how he found out about this planet."

"Cardassian huh?" Buck understood Chris's frown now. "Great."

Chris could not disagree with Buck on that less than optimistic view of their coming visitor.

The Cardassians as a race were a slippery bunch who tended to be disliked by most of the other major races that came across them. During the Border Wars with the Federation, the Cardassians had ignored all the rules of engagement and attacked civilian targets, killing whole families without impunity. The Klingons considered them to be without honour and the Romulans found their methods to be somewhat sloppy in comparison to their own ruthless efficiency. Chris had no particular dislike for the race but found it extremely uncomfortable he had to rely on the word of a supposed defector to keep his ship safe.

When it came to the Maverick, everyone was suspect.

"Well, I better assign Alex somewhere else for a few days," Buck remarked offhandedly.

"She's a professional," Chris said firmly, confident that despite her previous experience with Cardassians, Alex would comport herself properly. "Antimatter wouldn't explode if Alex decided that was how it was going to be. She'll have no trouble putting up with one paper shuffler."

"You think so?" The first officer's doubt was clear. "We're talking about a paper shuffler who used to be a Cardassian Gul."

"I'll talk to her." Chris offered, certain it was not a necessary precaution. Alexandra Styles was one of the finest officers he had ever served with and though she was somewhat infuriating at times, she was completely capable of handling herself in all situations, Chris had no doubt this would be no different.

"No," Buck spoke up, knowing how tactful Chris could be about such things and decided he better do it himself if he wanted this done right. "I'll do it. I already piss her off."

"Oh, you do love the tough ones." Chris taunted with a little bit of the devil and then added a little something more, just to infuriate Buck. "So how're things with Inez? Get anywhere with her yet?"

"With all due respect captain," Buck said with as much dignity as he could muster.

"Yeah Buck?" the Captain grinned wickedly.

"Go sit on a torpedo."

Dances

What was it about Vin Tanner that could reduce her to this?

Alex looked in the mirror and frowned, not liking one bit the reflection staring back at her. How on Earth did women of the period go around dressed like this? Alex had been wearing the gown fashioned specifically for the women of the late1800's for little more than twenty minutes and could not imagine wearing a costume like this all the time. Despite the sweeping skirt that flounced each time she moved, the outfit was extremely restrictive. It clung too tightly around the bodice emphasizing her figure more than she would like and what it did for her bust line was another thing entirely. Alex looked down and saw her cleavage was being extremely prolific and felt very uncomfortable going out like this.

According to the records, the women of the time wore their hair up and so a quick trip to the ship's salon, (amazingly enough Galaxy-class starships had one), had seen her dark hair piled on top of her head with loose strands resting gently over her exposed neck. Alex supposed she looked as if she would fit in with the theme of the party in the royal blue dress and prayed nothing would happen during the celebration to require her on the bridge in this costume. Adding the finishing touches to her look, she dabbed a bit of that expensive perfume she picked up during their last visit to a starbase when she heard someone at her door.

The chime rang softly as usual and Alex swore under her breath when she turned away from the mirror and almost tripped on the long skirt, forgetting for a second what she was wearing and had made a mental note to remember how to walk in this thing. Reaching the door, she knew who was behind it and note as always, he was terribly punctual. Even though humans raised Vin, there were some things about him that were inherently Vulcan. He kept time better than no man she knew.

The doors slid open and his eyes widened when he caught sight of her.

For a minute, Vin Tanner said nothing and simply stared because he had never seen Alex so....he struggled for the right word, so female. Of course, he knew she was a woman but until this moment, he never realized how much. Everything about her was different and the exposure of her neck normally concealed behind the high collars of Starfleet issue uniforms tantalized his eyes as he followed its length down to the full breasts, partly revealed within the tight dress she was wearing. He was almost fascinated enough to reach down and touched them if he did not know for certain she would knock his teeth out of his head.

Alex noticed his reaction - it was rather difficult not to - and rolled her eyes. "And today you are a man." She said sarcastically before smacking him on the side of his arm. "Hey, my face is up here?"

Vin looked up and blushed involuntarily. "I'm sorry." He stuttered. "I've just never seen you look so much like a girl."

Alex gave him a look and shook her head. "Please stop it, I can't take much more of this smooth flattery."

Vin cleared his throat and could not help himself from continuing to stare at her, even though he tried to do it more discreetly this time. "You look nice." He managed to say as she stepped out of her quarters and they made their way to the holodeck, where the party was taking place.

"Thank you," she smiled warmly as that was a more preferable response than his initial reaction. For his part, Vin looked very much like the part he was meant to play as one of the seven gunmen in Buck's Magnificent Seven holodeck program. Dressed in a buckskin jacket that utterly suited him, he seemed comfortable because he was able to hide in it. Despite herself, she thought he looked ruggedly handsome and then let out a sigh because despite his fascination with her form earlier, he was hardly in the position to do anything about it. In truth, knowing Vin was a sexually immature Vulcan was very liberating because she did not have to worry about his constantly trying to hit on her like Buck Wilmington.

They were friends and it was just the way Alex liked it.

The party was in full swing by the time the Captain arrived.

As Captain, he always seemed to capture everyone's attention when he walked into a room but today it was different because he played the part of the imposing Man in Black. Chris was pleased to see the crew was enjoying themselves as he moved deeper into the holodeck recreation of the tavern Inez selected to hold the celebration. There was a four-piece band playing in one corner of the room, filling the air with its quaint but top tapping rhythm that actually inspired some people to try their hand or feet at the dances fashionable for the time.

"Hey that looks fun." Mary remarked as she breezed into the room at his arm. Fortunately, this no longer raised eye brows as it once had among the crew, as they were accustomed to the way things stood between the captain and the protocol officer. He could not blame them for looking though. Mary was wearing a simple lavender colored dress with her long hair worn around her shoulders, styled only by an ornate pearl hair clip that held some locks in place and by Chris's reckoning, she had never looked lovelier. If she really had existed back in the Old West, Chris had no doubt he would be fighting gun battles with would be suitors for her hand all the time.

Fortunately, in the present, he could just have them transferred or ejected out the nearest torpedo bay, whatever was most convenient.

Mary was staring in the direction of Julia and Ezra who were dancing and even though the pace of the song was fast, the duo were moving together slowly, gazing into each other's eyes with obvious affection. Between his cynical and sardonic manner, and her bright and optimistic attitude to everything, they were an interesting couple. They spent most of their time together bickering but everyone on the ship knew their relationship burned fiercer than the warp core.

"You would put me through that?" Chris looked at her with a smile.

"If I can get into this outfit for you," Mary glanced down at her dress that though appeared to be very becoming, was rather cumbersome. "I think you can indulge me in a dance."

"I thought Vulcan wives were supposed to be compliant and obedient." He remarked with a brow raised and a hint of mischief.

"Well, I've been slumming lately."

"Okay," he conceded defeat. "One dance. Just let me talk to Buck first." Chris replied glancing in the direction of the bar where the first officer of the Maverick was continuing his quest for the Holy Grail called Inez.

Mary understood the look in his eye enough to know that whatever he intended discussing with Buck was not related to the party but rather ship's business. "Sure," she offered him one of those killer smiles with the power to melt his heart in one flash of radiance. "I have to go see William's school teacher anyway. I think I saw her when we were coming in."

"The new one?" Chris asked.

"Yes," Mary nodded as she began to pull away from him. "Audrey."

"I'll be at the bar," he called out to her and strode towards the counter in a matter of seconds, greeting other crew men on the way and took special note of where JD and Casey were. The ensign was at a table in a forgotten corner of the room with his yeoman, mooning over each other the way young couples their age tended to do. Chris suddenly felt a protective surge of paternal concern making him want to go over there and remind JD, unless he did not want to spend the next year cleaning the EPS conduits in the Waste Recycling system of the ship, he had better treat Casey right.

"Come on Inez," Buck was pleading as Chris arrived at the bar. "Just have one date with me."

"Buck," Inez frowned, deciding she would just have to come out and say this since she could think of no other way to put the first officer of the Maverick straight about her feelings regarding dating him in any shape of form. "I am in a relationship already."

Buck's expression was nothing less than crestfallen and Chris was shocked to realize the visage on his old friend's face was not one customary to being rejected but rather that of genuine disappointment. With a sudden start, Chris realised there was more to his affection for Inez Recillos than his usual attitude of bedding everything that moved. Buck really liked this woman.

"Is he on the ship?" Buck asked, trying to sound as if he did not just have his heart ripped out of his chest.

"No," Inez shook her head. "He's the Captain of the Venture."

Both men blinked. "You mean Raphael Castillo?"

"You know him?" Inez looked at them both with surprise.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "I know him. We were at the Academy together." He could not imagine what a small world it was even if there were so much space outside this ship. "He's a good man."

The Venture was an Intrepid class starship made solely for the purpose for combat duty. She was a highly maneuverable craft with quantum torpedo ports and had spent the duration of Dominion War on the front lines of the battle. If Inez was engaged in a relationship with Captain Castile, Chris could very well understand why Castillo would rather she be stationed on a ship like the Maverick, far removed from the battle and the danger he must be facing on a daily basis on the Dominion front lines.

"Well it�s a long distance relationship," Buck declared with a grin, never one to give up no matter how untenable the situation might appear at first glance. "It can't last."

Inez met Chris's gaze and rolled her eyes in resignation. "What can I get you Captain?" She asked instead, deciding she would just ignore this conversation or else her head would start to hurt and as the bartender of the evening for this little soiree, that simply would not do.

"Whiskey, neat." Chris replied with a smile, offering her the silent agreement she was probably right about terminating the conversation with Buck, although Chris had every intention of finding out just how deep his oldest friend's about the woman went once they were alone.

"Be careful there Captain," Buck warned as he took a sip of what he was drinking. "Miss Inez is not serving synthehol but the genuine product."

"Even better," Chris grinned, not having much liking for synthehol produced whiskey. It just did not have the same edge to it.

As Inez went to fill his order, Chris sidled up next to Buck and took the stool next to his first officer before they got down to discussing a subject that was not entirely related to the social event taking place around them. "I just got word back from Starfleet Command," Chris lowered his voice and Buck instinctively closer to hear what he was saying. "Apparently, a Romulan war bird was captured by the Dominion a month ago. The crew was taken off the ship alive and have since been returned on the basis of a prisoner exchange but the war bird is still in Dominion hands."

"What does that mean?" Buck asked nervously, even though he had a very good idea what the Dominion might want with a war bird.

"It means they might have taken it apart to discover how to build a cloak around their ships. If that's the case and in the time frame we're talking about, we could have a handful of cloaked ships leading the invasion of the system that may have the White ingredient."

Both men stopped talking as Inez returned and the bar tender looked at them long enough to know whatever was being discussed did not require her presence. She withdrew quickly, allowing them to resume their conversation.

"Hell Chris," Buck whispered. "They could sneak a fleet through Federation space without anyone being the wiser."

"I know," Chris nodded ruefully. "That's why I'm allowing this little get together," he swept his gaze over the faces in the room enjoying themselves, laughing and dancing, with no idea of what was coming at them at warp speed with the arrival of the new day. "Let them have some fun because tomorrow, we go on full tactical alert."

"Good idea." Buck agreed with the Captain's reasoning and agreed the crew should have one evening to blow off some steam because being at full tactical alert tended to run people ragged, even the civilians on board. He had a feeling that everyone was going to feel the pressure of a Dominion presence once the news got out about the White. Deciding that a change of subject might be in order since captain and first officer needed some down time as well before they faced the challenges of the next few days, Buck looked around and saw Mary talking to the new school teacher, Audrey King.

"Mary looks great." Buck commented and immediately saw a surge of affection in Chris's gaze when the captain glimpsed her way. No one was happier than Buck at the budding romance that was forming between the Captain and the protocol officer. Although the relationship saw them closer than friends, Buck was certain it had not progressed beyond the mutual affection they had for each other. Buck did not voice it but Mary Travis was a great deal like Sarah, Chris's deceased wife. Sarah had been strong willed and unafraid to stand up to Chris and Buck had a feeling it was this Chris was so drawn to upon first meeting Mary, following his initial attraction to how stunning she looked.

"Yeah," Chris said with a smile and then saw Buck keeping his eyes on the lady in question much longer than he liked. "Hey, look somewhere else."

"Oh, what do you take me for?" Buck glared at him with a wounded expression. "I am just as familiar as the term 'no fly zone' as you."

"Its not like that," Chris bristled, hating it implied he had some claim on Mary even though he knew deep down that it was more than a little true. Half the reason why they came to events like this together and why Chris allowed it was mostly because he did not want anyone else paying attention to Mary if they knew the Captain was interested.

"I'm sure it isn't." Buck answered with a perfectly straight face.

Chris cast his most scathing glare at Buck and became even more chagrined when it had absolutely no effect on the first officer. Buck instead, burst into this inane grin that used to annoy the hell out of Chris when they were cadets at the Academy and had not changed one wit throughout the years of their friendship. "Where's Vin?" Chris asked in an effort to change the subject before he was forced to wipe that smirk off Buck's face. "He is coming right?"

Chris knew how reclusive Vin could be and even though he had developed a deep friendship with all the members of the senior staff, large crowds tended to keep him in the shadows. While Vin might enjoy the Magnificent Seven program like the rest of them, Chris feared the large numbers present in the holodeck for such a wholly social occasion might drive the helmsman to ground. Chris just hoped Vin understood if he did not show himself this evening, his Captain might just be determined enough to drag him here by his pointed Vulcan ears.

"He's probably picking Alex up." Buck remarked, his attention scanning the room for potential candidates with whom he could share his evening, since it did not appear as if he would be charming Inez any time soon.

"Picking her up?" Chris raised a brow at his first officer. "As in a date?"

"I don't think a date as such," Buck quickly clarified his words for Chris. "You know Vin. He wouldn't have any idea what date is let alone go on one. He's still a kid by Vulcan standards which is probably the reason why he gets on well with Alex. She knows he's too young to hit on her."

"Not exactly," Chris pointed out. "We're not sure how old he is. By human standards, he's a little older than Alex and we're not entirely sure how he is by Vulcan standards, except that he's younger than most. It's his manner that makes us think he's a kid."

"You're probably right," Buck shrugged. "Pity though, that's a fine woman going to waste."

"I'd give it up if I were you." The captain said with a smile. "You have a better chance turning lead into gold with your bare hands than you do with Alex."

What Chris did not want to admit was that he liked seeing Alex and Vin together. They were both so wounded in their own way and yet together, they offered each other something neither had been able to find elsewhere. Even if the relationship was not sexual, Chris had enough feeling for his best friend to know Vin cared a great deal for Alex, he just did not know how to express it in a physical way yet.

As that thought crossed his mind however, he saw Vin and Alex making an entry and those who noticed them, in particular, Alex, had reason to pause. In their uniforms, it was so easy for the women of the Maverick to go about unnoticed but as he had realised when he first saw Mary tonight, it was more than a pleasant surprise when they caught the opposite sex's attention. In his mind, Mary was still the most beautiful woman here but Alex did make a breath or two catch, by the look of every man in the place. Chris did not doubt that there were more than a few dying to be in Vin's place, the moment the third officer walked into the holo-deck at the helmsman's arm.

"Like I said," Buck said with a sigh as he stared at Alex with longing. "A waste of a fine woman."

Chris shook his head slowly and decided that Buck was never going to change. "You're a lost cause." Chris retorted and decided to go find Mary. After all, he did owe her that dance.

"My goodness," Ezra Standish exclaimed as he and Julia stepped off the little space of floor sequestered for those who wished to dance, approaching Vin and Alex who were heading towards the bar. "Is that our third officer in that charming little frock?"

"Don't make me hurt you." Alex warned, feeling uncomfortable enough as it is when she caught sight of some of the stares she was getting from the men in the room.

"You look sensational," Julia commended and nudge Ezra in the ribs to shut up, knowing this was a big step for Alex who normally gave such events a wide berth. "That dress is really something."

"I look sensational?" Alex scoffed when she regarded the velvet red dress Julia was wearing, accentuating every tight curve in her petite body and seemed to stand out against her red hair. "You look pretty amazing yourself."

"Yes," Ezra had to agree as he gave Julia an appreciative look. "There are no words to describe the completeness of your astounding beauty." The security chief was wearing the garb of a proper southern gentlemen, from the burgundy colored coat to the vest and crisp white shirt. He looked exactly like a gambler might appear in the Old West. Ezra took her hand and began to smother soft kisses on her wrist. "I am quite beside myself." He teased as Julia rubbed her brow, shaking her head.

"Want to trade?" Julia asked Alex with a playful smile.

"Nice try," Alex grinned, flashing a smile at Vin. "I'm afraid you're stuck with him."

"I take umbrage at that remark," Ezra replied with mock hurt. "Now I am forced to imbibe in order to salve my wounded ego. Mr. Tanner, would you care to join me?"

"Would a drink shut you up?" Vin asked with as much humor in his voice as was being bandied about the group at the moment.

"You can only hope." Ezra grinned before turning to the two ladies and finding out what they wanted to drink. In a few seconds, he and Vin were heading towards the bar, leaving Alex and Julia to their own devices.

Once they were far enough away, Ezra turned to Vin. "Mr. Tanner, you are the envy of every man in this place."

Vin looked at the man blankly, unable to fathom why that might be. "You're kidding me right? Why?" He was genuinely perplexed.

Ezra stared at Vin for a moment, wondering if the Vulcan was joking with him and then realizing that he was not and of course, why would he have the slightest concept what Ezra was talking about? His relationship with Alexandra Styles was purely platonic. He did not know there were officers who whispered behind her back and called her the Ice Queen. Although, now that Ezra thought about it, if Vin did know, he was most likely to rip the person's head off.

"I apologise Vin," Ezra replied quickly. "I assumed you see her the way most men on the Maverick see her."

Vin looked over his shoulder at Alex and wondered what Ezra meant. He saw her as his friend, the one person who had the unerring ability to make him feel good about himself, who made no judgments, who liked being with him, who touched him on occasion and did not react as if she were making contact with a freak. He knew more than any person on the ship, save for Chris Larabee, Vin did not want to lose her. When she was with him, he felt warm inside and felt a security he had not known since those sun filled days with his foster parents envelope him like a warm blanket.

However, Ezra's statement also reminded him about how other humans might view Alex, particularly human males. He knew enough about them to know they probably did not see Alex the way he did and their reaction might be closer to his own behavior a short time ago, when he first saw her in that dress. Something tugged inside him, surfaced out of nowhere before meeting the glass wall of Vulcan physiology, allowing him to feel nothing else. It angered him a little.

"I'm not stupid Ezra," he found himself saying. "I know she's pretty."

Vin's description brought a smile to Ezra's face. "I know you are not Vin. I simply meant you are a fortunate she has chosen you to base her affections. There is not a man on this ship who would not want to be in your place at this moment."

"I like looking at her too." Vin confessed. "Only she's not like me. I'm not ready for a lot of things," Vin continued to speak and Ezra nodded just enough to know what he meant by that. "But she must be because of her age and sometimes it frightens me she won't care about me any more when she finds someone who is ready to be what she needs."

"I would not worry yourself about that," Ezra spoke softly. If even half of what he knew about Cardassian interrogation techniques were true in regards to how they dealt with female prisoners, he was not surprised Alex was drawn to Vin as she was. He was probably the one male on the ship who could give her the friendship she desired without expecting more than what she was capable of giving in return. "I do not think it is a need Alexandra requires from you to fill, I think she merely enjoys your company as do the rest of us." Ezra patted Vin gently on the back.

"Thanks, Ezra," Vin smiled, feeling a little better because he had noticed the looks Alex commanded when she walked into the room with him and worried she might be offended if he did not view her with the same desire. He cared for her, was fascinated by everything she was and knew if she were not in his life, he would not be able to stand the loss, but he did not desire her the way men were meant to desire women.

"Vin," Ezra took the opportunity to bring up another subject that had been bothering him the most of today on the bridge, following the Captain's priority one transmission from Starfleet. "Have you noticed anything odd in the behavior of the Captain and Commander Wilmington?

Vin fell silent for a moment and considered the question. He had to admit, he did notice something strange following the Captain's emergence from the Ready Room following the receipt of that transmission this morning. He could sense Chris Larabee almost as well as he could sense Alex. Mary said it was due to the emotional bond he shared with the both which allowed him to have some insight into their feelings. Fortunately, thanks to the protocol officer's lessons, he could only sense their emotions and not direct thought.

"A little." Vin admitted. "Chris seems a lot more tense. Buck too."

"That is the same conclusion I reached." Ezra let out a sigh. "I make it a habit to know what the other man is thinking during my dabblings in games of chance and I am usually able to sense whether or not there is a make or break atmosphere in the competition. Thus it is most disturbing for me to say that I note the same kind of pressure on the Captain and first officer as those instances."

"You think something is up?" Vin asked, sounding nothing like the unsure young man of a few minutes and very much like the Starfleet lieutenant he was, not to mention the Officer of the Con.

"Let us say I have a bad feeling about this." Ezra replied and knew he was seldom wrong about such things. Sometimes, he really hated being reminded his mother was right, that he did indeed have a God given talent to spot such things.

Maude right. Now Ezra knew he really was in trouble.

Worse Things than Death

The atmosphere in the Conference Room the morning after the party was decidedly different from what it had been during the gathering on the holodeck. Although most of them had seen Nathan about getting something for their aching heads, thanks to the unpleasant side effect of imbibing real alcohol as opposed to synthehol, the mood was tense because the Captain appeared that way. Chris sat at the head of the long table, allowing his gaze to move across the men and women he considered more than just subordinates but close personal friends. Even though it had been little under three months since they began serving together, Chris could not deny how quickly it took for this group of separates to become a team. A word he seldom used when describing their group dynamic, surfaced in his mind as he regarded them from this vantage point, was family.

When everyone was finally settled in and staring his way, Chris cleared his throat and exchanged a brief glimpse with Buck before he assumed the persona of Captain once more and began revealing to his crew, what he learned yesterday during his transmission from Starfleet Command. No doubt, some were curious and others like Vin and Ezra were looking at him as if they were perfectly aware he was far more tense than usual and had an idea the news was not good.

Well in this instance, their instincts were correct.

"As some of you know, I received a Priority One transmission from Starfleet Command yesterday for Captain's eyes only."

A few glances were exchanged at that revelation, mostly between Josiah, Mary, and Nathan who were not required to be on the bridge all the time and would not have been present at the time. The others were not surprised and waited for him to continue.

"The transmission informed me the Maverick was to set course for Deep Space Five," Chris revealed.

This too, was of no surprise to those before him because the Captain did request a course change yesterday but it seemed rather routine since they had been out in the frontier for almost a month and a half. There was a need to replenish supplies, provide some crew shore leave, facilitate the usual transfers and departures that took place at a major intersection such as Deep Space Five. However, hearing the Captain had another reason for bringing them to the station made everyone share in Ezra and Vin's insight, something was big was on the horizon, something ominous.

"Once there we will be receiving a guest, a Cardassian defector," Chris remarked and immediately glanced at Alex.

Alex flinched but made no reaction. As a Starfleet officer, there was never going to be any avoiding a Cardassian. Although relations between the Federation and Cardassia had not been warm even before the Dominion's arrival into the Alpha Quadrant, an uneasy tolerance existed between the two which allowed her to encounter the race since her escape from that prison. Maintaining a mask of cool indifference at the Captain's news, Alex wanted her comrades to know she was fine. It was no secret to anyone who wanted to pull her service record, she had been incarcerated in a Cardassian prison. While she was not happy about that knowledge being a matter of public record, it only stated she was a prisoner and nothing else.

The details of her private hell were still hers and hers alone.

It was mostly concern she saw in their eyes, in particular from Vin who worried about how she would take being near a Cardassian. He need not have worried and she intended to show them all she was not going to be reduced to hysterics at the first sign of the race who spawned the men who had....held her captive.

"No doubt someone who probably did not agree with the present Cardassian-Dominion alliance," she said coolly, giving them all clear indication she was completely at ease with this news.

A silent sigh of relief followed at that response and Chris nodded slightly, not simply in agreement with her statement but also in approval of how she was conducting herself following that bit of information regarding the mission. Secure in the belief she was more than capable of handling herself around a Cardassian, Chris continued.

"At this time, we have no details on his identity yet, since Starfleet is considering this highly sensitive information. However, the defector who is placed at Command Headquarters on Cardassia Prime, claims approximately three days ago, he received a communication claiming a planet in this sector of space having tri-nucleic fungus."

The reaction around the room was almost instantaneous.

"Good Lord." Ezra let out a gasp. "Are we absolutely certain on this?"

"We're certain of nothing." Buck volunteered. "All we know for sure is the Dominion believes it."

"So they're coming," Vin stated guessing this was the danger all this discussion was leading to. His exclamation made everyone fall silent as they looked at Chris for confirmation.

As much as Chris would like to deny it, he could not. Vin was dead right. "Yes, they're coming and at this time we have no ETA on that, except the Maverick is going to have to find this planet first because the Dominion only know its out here, not where."

"Captain," Alex let out a worried sigh. "There's a lot of space out there to search. Does this Cardassian know where in this area, this planet or system might be?"

"Not really," Chris answered honestly and saw Alex stiffening because that meant she would have to start searching through every system they've charted in the last three months to discover what they were looking for.

"If they don't know where this planet is," Mary spoke up. "Isn't it rather risky for them to launch a strike?" She was just as aware of the current situation between the Dominion and the Alpha Quadrant. "This is some distance from the Bajoran wormhole, not to mention Cardassian space."

Chris nodded slowly. "A month ago, the Romulan warbird Tasmeen engaged two Jem Haddar and Cardassian warships. The Jem Haddar smuggled a shapeshifter on board the warbird during the battle when the shields were down. When it looked like the enemy was going to win, the shapeshifter killed the Romulan commander before he could set off the auto-destruct."

"They've got their hands on a Warbird!" Julia cried out aghast, realizing the situation had just gone from bad to worse.

"Apparently so." Chris met the Engineer's gaze. "Starfleet believes they're already attempting to outfit their ships with a cloak."

"Terrific," Vin exclaimed. "So not only are they coming after us, we may not see them until its too late and under a cloak, they'll be able to search the sector without us being any wiser."

"That's right." Chris nodded, unable to deny Vin's grim forecast of things. "Suffice to say, we have a situation on our hands."

"I don't understand," Josiah spoke up for the first time. "What is this fungus?"

As a psychiatrist, Josiah could be forgiven for not knowing what they were talking about. He had been listening to the discussions, understanding the danger but not understanding why.

"Tri-nucleic fungus is the primary ingredient of the narcotic drug Ketracel White," Nathan explained for the Counselor's benefit. "The Jem Haddar are genetically engineered warriors created by the Founders, the shapeshifters who are in charge of the Dominion. Since the Founders needed to control them, they were created with a natural addiction to the substance. Without it, they will go into withdrawal but not without trying to kill anyone around them first. In other words, they are not too discriminating on who they slaughter."

"Photon torpedoes," Alex spoke up suddenly. "That's how we see them."

"What?" Chris looked at her sharply. "What did you say?"

"A high yield photon torpedo at Level 6 detonation."

"But at Level 6..." Ezra started to say when Vin interrupted.

"The Enterprise and the Romulan blockade during the Duras War?" Vin looked at the science officer for confirmation.

"Yes," Alex nodded at the helmsman with a smile. "If they're adapting Romulan cloaking technology for their ships, then they must have the same weaknesses."

"I remember this," Chris realized what she was talking about now. "The Enterprise discovered the influence of Romulan agents in the Klingon Civil War. As you know the Klingons consider Romulans blood enemies and when they discovered one faction had Romulan allies, that more or less ended the civil war and established the current government on Qo'nos. If I remember correctly, Picard instigated a blockade at the Neutral Zone to ensure no shipment of armaments were being delivered to the Duras by Romulans."

"That's right," Julia added, now that she remembered the circumstances. "One of the ships in the blockade released a high yield photon torpedo at Level 6."

"But Level 6 won't even penetrate a warbird's shields." JD protested.

"No," Ezra agreed. "But the purpose is not to penetrate the shields, merely to create enough of a power surge to affect it in other ways, for example overloading the cloak so substantially they will become visible."

"Well," Chris said with a smile, always feeling a great deal of pride whenever he saw his officers brainstorming like this. They were at their best when things were at their worst and moment like this allowed them to shine like nothing else. "Julia, I want you to start modifying our torpedoes for high yield detonation at Level 6. If need be, I want to cover as wide an area as possible when we deploy them. We don't know how many ships the Jem Haddar will be sending after us so I don't want to be flying blind."

"I'll get started on them immediately." The Chief Engineer nodded.

Ever since he had received this information, Chris had been working hard trying to decide how his ship would face this threat and upon doing so had come up with a preliminary set of instructions for everyone to get started.

"Mary," he turned to the protocol officer with no hint in his voice she meant more to him personally. "I want you to start pouring over the books on protocol. If we find this place first, we're going to have to negotiate some kind of treaty. If this planet is pre-warp, we're going to have to find some way to work around the Prime Directive."

"The Prime Directive cannot be worked around Chris," Mary said automatically.

"Then you're going to have to be doubly creative because I can guarantee you, it's not going to stop the Dominion from invading them and for all our sakes, we need to get to the planet first."

Mary let out a sigh, troubled by just how complicated this was going to get. "I'll do what I can." She answered after a moment and meant it because she was not going to let policy decide all their futures if she could not figure some way to bend the rules without breaking it.

"Nathan," Chris turned around. "If we go into battle with the Jem Haddar, I want random blood tests carried out after the engagement, especially if our shields go down for any reason."

"Is that really necessary?" Nathan asked even though he knew that it probably was if Chris wanted it so.

"Yes, it is," Chris met all their gazes. "We're not letting a shapeshifter loose on the Maverick because if the time comes and we find ourselves in the same situation as the Captain of the Tasmeem, nobody is taking my ship as a trophy." He said with a deadly edge to his voice.

"Alex, stellar cartography is one of the departments that report to you," Chris turned to the science officer. "We need to find this planet before the Jem Haddar and Cardassians do."

"Well we've charted a bit of new territory since the beginning of our mission here," Alex said neutrally. "We'll start going through our data with a fine tooth comb and see if we can't track down a planet or a spacial body exhibiting surface scans consistent with the conditions suitable for tri-nucleic fungus. We have no idea how reliable the defector's information is so I would rather not confine our search to just a planet. I realize it takes more time but our success rate will be higher with those parameters."

"Agreed," Buck nodded. "We have no idea how the defector has come by his information, so we can't assume too much. Information has a tendency to change with the telling.",

"Okay," the Captain agreed with that assessment from both senior officers. "Get started right away Alex."

"Aye Sir," she answered as Chris turned his attention to Josiah, prepared to bring up a very unpleasant subject but nonetheless one that had to be addressed in light of the threat and the odds they were facing.

"Josiah," the Captain raised his eyes to meet that of the Counselor's, " I want you to talk to every crewman on board with family beginning today. Discuss with them the possibility of disembarking for a time while we are at Deep Space 5. Chances are we'll be going to battle against an overwhelming enemy. We have reinforcements poised to join us but they're some time away. Until those starships get here, we are all that stands between the Dominion getting themselves a new supply of White."

"I would concur with the Captain on this Counselor," Ezra added his voice to support Chris on this decision. As security chief, he was going to have enough difficulty defending the ship against a fleet of Jem Haddar and Cardassian warships without worrying about the civilians on board. If that burden could be eased in any way, Ezra was all for it. "If it comes to a fight, I would rather the children be elsewhere. We have no idea what the Dominion policy towards civilians captured as prisoners of war will be and I would rather we not find out."

The instant she heard Ezra declare the difficulty in defending the Maverick against a fleet of Jem Haddar and Cardassian warships, Alex froze. Until now, the discussion had centered around the White, the warbird and the cloak, she had not considered the ramifications of what would happen if the Maverick was taken.

Once that seed was planted, she could think of nothing else.

Almost against her will, she spoke and her voice escaped her in a monotone. It felt as if something had seized control of her body because she could not think for the sheer horror of it.

"Its most likely the Dominion will not trouble themselves with the care of prisoners of war and will turn anyone captured over to the Cardassians. They have the facilities to detain prisoners, the Jem Haddar don't."

She didn't want to talk about this. She didn't even want to approach the subject at all, but capture by the Cardassians was now a possibility and the stark terror of that was more than she could bear. Inwardly, that terrified voice that only screamed at night, was making itself heard most prolifically.

Not again. Not ever. She'd die first.

But the others had to know what they risked. She couldn't keep something like this to herself and then have the same thing happen to Mary, Julia or even Casey because they weren't warned. They had to know what she did. They had to know what the Cardassians would do if they were captured alive. So she was going to have to speak. She was going to have to tell them.

The minute Vin heard her voice, he turned sharply to her because even through his shields, he could feel the fear radiating off her. Once he described Alex's thoughts to Mary as steam rising. Right now, he was seeing an inferno. The others couldn't see it, but then again why would they? She kept everything so well hidden, it was impossible to see the wounds she carried. They didn't care for her as he did, they weren't fascinated by everything she was, or take delight whenever she shared anything with him. She didn't mean everything to them as she did to him and it was why he knew she was breaking apart in front of them.

"Cardassians do not adhere to the Khitomer Accord in relation to the treatment of prisoners of war. If they have civilians in their custody, they will treat them in the same manner as Starfleet officers." Alex swallowed and quickly hid her hands under the table so no one would see how badly they were starting to shake.

It was an action Vin didn't miss and realized then she was about to expose the terrible, dark secret he once sensed when he melded with her. Reaching discreetly under the table, he entwined his fingers in hers, wanting Alex to know, whatever it was she was trying to say, she wasn't doing it alone. Alex met his gaze and felt a wave of emotion at his support before composing herself so she could continue.

"The Cardassians employ different techniques when interrogating female prisoners of war. They hold no distinction between civilians or Starfleet officers, or the age of the captive. The purpose of this is not merely for information extraction but to demoralize the enemy."

Alex's courage started to give out. She couldn't do it! She couldn't tell them! Yet even as these frightened warnings wailed frantically in her mind to be heeded, Alex knew she had no choice. She had to tell the truth, no matter how offensive it was to her, no matter how much the exposure terrified her. They simply had to know what was at risk.

"They have, "her voice faltered and she had to catch her breath.

"Alex it's alright," Vin said immediately, deciding enough was enough. "You don't have to..."

"Rape camps." The word escaped her like a strained gasp. "Cardassians have rape camps for female prisoners of war."

The room went deadly silent and no one could say a word.

"There are precedents," she continued, looking at no one as she spoke. "During the Slavic War of Earth in the 20th century, the country called Yugoslavia was broken up into several ethnic groups. The Serbian faction had a policy of breeding out the enemy and so when women were captured, they were held in such places and repeatedly assaulted until they fell pregnant or killed themselves, whichever came first."

"Jesus Christ." Buck Wilmington whispered in a hoarse exclamation.

Chris felt his jaw tighten and realized this was what Alex was never able to tell anyone until now. It was always assumed she was tortured like all the other Starfleet officers who had fallen into the custody of the Cardassians. They spoke of atrocities but they had all been men and the women seldom spoke at all. Until now, Chris never knew why. As he heard her speak and saw the dark wells of her eyes unable to see anything else in the face of that tremendous revelation, he realized there was only one thing more terrifying than revealing what happened to her, and that was letting it happen again.

And being just as powerless to stop it.

Chris had read Alex's psych reports and knew about the nightmares, about her near catatonic state when she was recovered in a Cardassian escape pod by a Pakled freighter. There was other information sealed away from him by Alex herself, information guarded by the Privacy Act since it contained nothing relevant to her service as an officer. He looked silently at Josiah and saw the normally serene features of the Counselor become hard like duranium. Chris knew the look very well and though it was rare, it was nonetheless unmistakable. Josiah was barely able to conceal his outrage.

On Mary, he saw her eyes glistening with sympathy and shock. It was rare she was so shaken. Life on Vulcan allowed her to be controlled with her emotions but the expression on her face was a thousand kinds of astonishment mixed with disgust and stomach-turning horror. Her hand was partially covering her mouth and he offered her a silent reassurance he would die first before allowing such a fate to befall her.

Nathan was staring at Alex as if some great mystery had been solved and with the satisfaction of his questions was an expression of sympathy for the science officer. Chris was aware Alex had been using quite a number of dream suppressants and Nathan had recommended counseling. Chris ignored the request because he knew Alex would never agree to it and he was of the belief a person had a right to deal with their demons on their own. Lord knows a Counselor would have done him little good after he lost Adam and Sarah.

Buck could not say anything but the fists clenched on the table told Chris plenty. Ezra kept looking at Julia and for once that poker face was nowhere to be seen as his worry for Julia became apparent for all to see. JD was merely shocked, unable to believe any civilized race could conduct themselves so appallingly. Julia was just as shaken as Mary but she was trying hard to control her fear.

And there was Vin.

The Vulcan said nothing and would not because his thoughts were private, but only Chris could tell at the moment, how much that unflappable expression was truly hiding. Chris noticed Vin's hand intertwined with Alex's under the table and knew this was as much as he would express in this room and was glad for it. There were some things too unspeakable and this was one. Alex was looking at the table in front of her, unable to face anyone and Chris felt a wealth of admiration for her, knowing she had brought this forward because they simply needed to know, despite her personal anguish.

"I trust you will make our position clear to the civilians, Josiah." Chris finally broke the silence.

"You can count on it." Josiah nodded.

To the others, Chris had only one thing to say. "We'll blow the ship first before we allow anyone to be taken."

Because for the first time, Chris had just discovered there were things far worse than death.

And this was it.

Broken Seal

Alex was the first one out of the Briefing Room when the meeting was over. She had to get out of the room because suddenly, she felt its wall closing in on her and she could not breathe. She wished she could be in the fresh open air to catch her breath but since they were presently traveling through the stars, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that the vacuum of space would not provide what she needed. She became aware of footsteps following her and did not have to look behind her to know it was Vin. No doubt, he was filled with questions and while she appreciated his support during the briefing, she had no intention of talking about her ordeal any further.

Speaking about it was bad enough. It was the first time in almost three years she was able to refer to the subject with another human being, let alone a room full of people. If truth was known, she cared for the crew of the Maverick more than any other she ever served with. Each of them in their own way meant too much to Alex for her to allow them to continue with the ignorance death was the worst that could happen to them when they faced the Dominion and by extension their Alpha Quadrant allies, the Cardassians.

As soon as the meeting was over, she practically ran out of the room, not wishing to have any more reason to discuss what was the most horrific experience of her life. She had spoken about it enough for today. All she wanted now waste disappear into her quarters and sit in the dark for a few hours, so she could finally stop this heart inside her chest from pounding with its rhythm of panic. Of course while the others were smart enough to allow Alex her privacy, Vin Tanner was a completely different matter.

She knew he wanted to help and a small part of her wanted to let him. However to be of any comfort to her, Vin would have to know the truth in all its entirety and that was something Alex could not bring herself to tell anyone, especially him. The very idea of Vin knowing what happened in that Cardassian prison was so horrifying, she almost doubled over and retched from the shame of it. There was only one other time she was so unbelievably frightened of the truth reaching another's ears, was when her father had come to see her in the hospital. Staying away from him since that day was the only way Alex could think of to not tell him the truth.

"Alex! Wait up." Vin's drawl sliced through her frantic thoughts.

"Leave me alone Vin." She warned as she continued up the corridor in long forceful strides, meaning it when she asked him to leave her alone. She did not want to hear comforting words saying it will be all right, that time would heal all wounds. It had been three years and she still found herself hiding under her bed when the nightmares became so bad, she could not distinguish between reality and the past haunting her at every waking moment.

"Alex," he grabbed her arm in an effort to stop her from running. She never had to run from him, ever. He once felt the anguish inside her soul and had not understood what could be the reason for such deep abiding pain. Even though the meld was unintentional, Vin did not regret their mental joining. Even though her soul was filled with pain, it was still her soul and it warmed him inside just being able to touch it with his own. "You're all twisted inside, you need to talk about it."

"No!" She pulled her arm away and whirled around, glaring at him with a look in her eyes that bordered on manic. "You listen to me. I do not have to talk about anything! Do you understand? Nothing! You cannot have even the slightest concept of what it was like. They took everything inside of me that was good and pure and covered it with their filth. I will not relive that nightmare by talking to you, to a Counselor or anyone else!"

Vin did not know what to do. It was clear she did not want his help but he felt torn between his feelings for her and her right to privacy. "You don't have to talk about it." He stammered in response, not as sure about this as he was a moment ago when he had decided to come after her. The rest of the bridge crew had the sense to give the science officer a wide berth. In truth, they were just as shaken to hear what fate might befall the female members of the crew if they were unable to stop the Jem Haddar or worse yet fall captive to them during the conflict. "I just thought..."

"I know what you thought," she cut him off savagely, seeing the sympathy in his eyes and hating him so much for it. He knew! Without her even saying it, no matter how vague she had been, Alex realised with despair that he knew! It made her angry and tears threatened to escape her eyes when she turned that rage outward and vented it to salvage her dignity. "I said what I had to in there because the others have to know but I'll tell you right now, if we find ourselves in the same situation, if I for one minute think the Cardassians are going to take me alive, I will kill myself first you hear me? I will never go through that again. I would rather die first." With that, she turned on her heels and continued walking.

This time, Vin had the sense to let her go.

The officer of the con found himself seated in the observation deck a short time later, nursing a hot cup of chocolate and staring out at the stars, hoping perhaps the sight of all that beauty might give him some answers. Why would she not want his help? They could always talk about everything. When he first came aboard the Maverick and was terrified about being on a ship with almost a thousand people, it was Alex who helped him to overcome his natural shyness. She did so being his friend first and then evolving the warmth she projected into his life as more than just that.

Her service record was available on the ship's records and Vin investigated enough of her background, without being invasive, to know Alex had suffered some terrible ordeal at the hands of the Cardassians, but until the Briefing Room, he never imagined just how horrible it could be. He supposed it was an alien thought to him, forcing a woman just to feel some physical pleasure. As a Vulcan whose sexuality had yet to emerge, he never experienced naked lust to be able to understand how it could steal the sense from any being so radically, they could not tell what was right or wrong.

Yet the Cardassians had done it to Alex. They had forced her and destroyed the person she was by their touch.

With a hint of guilt, Vin could not deny he often entertained the same thoughts. He often wanted to touch her but not if she did not wish it of course. He closed his eyes and imagined what it would be like to be able to touch her, to feel the luster of her smooth skin under his hands, to feel her soft breath close to his ear. When she kissed him during that incident with Charlotte, he was unable to see why human males found the act so arousing but he remembered how Alex smelled. The lingering perfume of her skin followed him around all day, like an invisible companion sitting on his shoulder. Her lips were soft and delicate, reminding him of the petals of a flower. He wanted to run his fingertips over them, to feel the silky texture and bask in everything that was she.

When she had been yelling at him, he was at a loss to explain why the emotions he sensed from her seemed to burn hotter at the notion of his awareness of her situation. Why did she take it so personally, he knew? Vin had thought it would be easier, at least then she would not have to bear the horror of telling him when he already understood. But it had not happened that way; she wasn't comforted at him bridging the gulf of her despair if anything it made her angrier. Vin was at a loss to understand it.

"You okay?" Buck Wilmington's question announced the first officer's presence.

"I'm fine." Vin looked up at the taller man who approached him casually and took the seat across him a moment later. Vin felt a pang of disappointment when he remembered that was where Alex usually sat when they were up here.

"You look it," Buck responded with total disbelief in his voice and just as much of the emotion in his face. "Someone reported hearing Alex screaming her head off a while ago on Deck 4 and as near as I can figure it, the only person brave enough, not to mention stupid enough, to not leave her alone after what we heard during the briefing, would be you."

Vin stiffened in annoyance at Buck's accurate depiction of events especially when the man was right and decided he might as well forego the bother of denying any of it. "She told me to butt out in no uncertain terms." The younger man sighed.

"Well, I'm not surprised," Buck said gently, seeing no need to bait Vin anymore when he was genuinely hurting inside. "You grab a tiger by the tail, you are going to get bit."

"I don't understand," he looked at the older man, hoping the first officer might have an answer. "I don't care what happened to her with the Cardassians. I just wanted her to know I want to help her."

"Vin," Buck let out a sigh. "On this ship, there is no one that Alex cares about more than you. You're the one person she lets in as far as anyone can get in. She cares about the ship and about the rest of us, but it's you whose got the keys to her heart, we all know it. Just like we know Chris sees Mary as more than just a protocol officer. It's a special thing to have in your hands. A man waits a lifetime for a woman like this to come along. One who just looks at you and couldn't care less who you have been or even what you are, just that to her you'll always be special."

Vin considered Buck's words and knew he was right. Alex did make him feel that way all the time. From the moment he came aboard the Maverick, she made those first few days tolerable when all he wanted to do was hide from everyone. Alex convinced him being who he was shouldn't matter to no one but himself and to hell with those who had an opinion on something that was none of their business anyway.

"Then why won't she talk to me?" Vin demanded, frustration showing clearly in his face as he tried to understand. "If she cares so much about me, why won't she let me help her?"

It was so easy to forget even though he was a thirty-year-old man, Vin was really much younger. The differences between Vulcan and human physiology saw to that. His contact with women was limited because of his early days trapped on that forgotten planet with only the people who adopted him as their own, for company. He spent the better part of his life robbed of the experiences that should have made him capable of dealing with humans and now more than ever, it showed.

"Someday, Vin, there will come a time between you two when you aren't just friends anymore," Buck said gingerly, not wishing to be too blunt but Vin had to know what Alex was probably thinking in order to keep the Vulcan from doing something that really hurt their relationship by his misplaced desire to help. "When I said you get the key to a woman's heart and she looks at you thinking that there ain't nothing you could do to make her think badly about you, it goes the other way. There are assholes out there who can't help wondering if a woman did not somehow deserve what happened to her and I think Alex is afraid you might think that way if she talked to you about it."

"That's ridiculous," Vin said immediately. "I could never think that. As it is, I feel like going out and kicking the crap out of the next Cardassian I see."

"In that case, you will not be on the bridge when our 'guest' arrives," Buck said with a little smile.

"You know what I mean." Vin frowned.

"I do," Buck responded with a gesture of apology. "Can't say I blame you. When I heard what she told us, I was just as mad as hell."

In fact, what Buck did not mention but was almost damned sure of, without having to hear the other say it, the other men in the room were similarly infuriated. No who ever loved a woman could listen to that report without feeling some measure of outrage. True, they were all soldiers in the strictest sense of the word, once you got past the uniform and the shiny hardware around which they were surrounded and as soldiers, each of them knew there were rules to warfare. The Klingons followed it, the Romulans followed it, hell even the Gorn followed it but the Cardassians had proven from the moment they annexed the spiritual world of Bajor, they cared little for the conventions of other civilizations and allowed barbarism to rule the day.

As brutal as the Klingons were, they respected the enemy as warriors in the field and while the Romulans would extract information in whatever form necessary, should one fall into their hands, there were certain lines they did not cross because they were a graceful and elegant race in all things. After what he heard today, Buck doubted he would ever view the Cardassians in quite the same way again.

"So what do I do?"

"Nothing." The older man said calmly. "Don't do anything. There are some things a person has to accept and this is one of them. Alex is the only one who can decide how this is gonna go and though I know its tough for you to swallow, that's how it's got to be."

Vin's frown deepened across his face, mostly because he knew the first officer was right. He could not force Alex into accepting his support and if she did not want his help then as her friend, he was going to have to respect her wishes. However even as he thought that, Vin knew that something was coming over the horizon they could not see.

And whatever it was, Vin was sure Alex was going to be right in the middle of it.

When Josiah Sanchez asked to see Chris inside the captain's ready room, he had a feeling an ominous premonition as to what would be the nature of the meeting. Despite the fact Josiah had valid reasons for making the request Chris was sure he was certain to make, the captain could see himself being unable to grant it when it was finally made. Although it was standard practice for the Counselors to have their way in such matters since by this day and age, starship captains recognized the value of a healthy mind as well as body, Chris knew he had the power to deny the request if he so wished. No doubt, Josiah would be unimpressed with his choice but Chris made up his mind the second he had been told by Casey Josiah needed to see him.

Chris sat behind his desk and waited for the inevitable chime to be heard at his door while nursing a hot cup of coffee in his hand. He spent the last few hours in this room, staring at the stars outside the window, absorbing the beauty outside as no doubt many of his crew often did whenever they were in conflict about things. The vastness of space and its remarkable ability to make one feel like a small atom in the web of life tended to put every day concerns into perspective. After so many hours alone in this room trying to find such enlightenment, Chris had come away with no answers and more doubts as to the decision he would soon be making, against all advice to the contrary.

Sooner than he would have liked, he heard Josiah at the door and let out a deep sigh before beckoning the man to enter his private sanctum. At any other time, Chris would have welcomed Josiah's presence as a break from the tedium of reports and other snippets of starship business that tended to fill the mind with trivialities. The Counselor would enter the room, often brandishing a bottle of something that was definitely not synthehol and they would drink just enough to let the tension seep out of his bones. Chris never told Josiah how much those moments meant to him. Sometimes, it was like getting back that dithering old man with all his leather books Chris loved so much as a child. Josiah's demeanor was so much like his father, it was uncanny.

Josiah entered the room and this time he carried no bottle, which did not bode well for the rest of the meeting.

"What can I do for you Josiah?" Chris asked as he eased further into the chair, nodding slightly at the seat in front of his desk with an invitation to sit.

"I think you know." Josiah remarked and planted himself in the chair, not looking forward to this any more than Chris.

"Alexandra Styles?" Chris ventured a guess.

"Alex Styles." Josiah nodded in the affirmative. "I want her taken off active duty."

Josiah did not like doing this but after what he heard in the briefing room, he took the last few hours to make a quick investigation and what he learnt was enough to make him ask for this meeting. He knew Chris would not like it. Judging by the look in the captain's eyes, Josiah was not even sure Chris understood why he was asking but if the captain only knew what Josiah had learnt during these last hours of research, there would be no doubt in his mind why this was important.

"Why?" Chris asked simply, unsurprised by the demand and wanted to hear Josiah's reasoning to take a fine officer from her job when it was likely the only thing holding her together. As someone who had been torn a part inside out once upon a time, Chris knew the job had the power to heal the way nothing else could.

"You heard her." Josiah looked at him with shock, unable to imagine how Chris could even ask. "When that Cardassian comes aboard, it will be exposing antimatter. I rather she not be put through that kind of trauma and I would also request she begin counseling immediately."

"She says she can handle it." Chris met his gaze. "I think she can."

"Chris," Josiah tried to remain calm, knowing Chris cared just as much for the officers under his command, as Josiah did about those who needed his help. "I know you want to give her the benefit of the doubt and it is admirable but I'm asking you, take her off active duty at least until this Cardassian is gone and this mission is over."

Chris braced himself and then answered. "No."

"May I ask why?" Josiah asked, trying to remain calm.

"She has given me no reason to suspend her from duty," Chris stated firmly before adding, "for that matter," the captain narrowed his eyes and turned a high powered stared at Josiah. "Neither have you."

Josiah stiffened in his chair and returned Chris's gaze with just as much intensity. "Chris, I am asking you to suspend her from duty. I am asking you because it is my professional judgment it unwise for her to be anywhere near this Cardassian when he comes onboard."

"Josiah, what is the problem?" Chris demanded, allowing his temper to get the better of him a little. "She said she's fine with it. Isn't it more therapeutic we give her the benefit of the doubt, instead of punishing her for being traumatized years ago, just because we're having a guest on board?"

"It's not a punishment!" Josiah returned just as sharply because he knew something Chris did not.

"That's not how she'll see it!" Chris declared emphatically. "There are times when I look into that woman's face and know exactly how she feels. I know the hurt and the pain that wants to tear you apart inside if you allow it the power to do so. The one thing that kept me from breaking into a thousand pieces after Buck convinced me that life wasn't over when Sarah and Adam died, was the job. The job kept me alive. I won't take that away from Alex."

Josiah understood what Chris was trying to say, he really did and while he admired his captain for his sympathy and moreover, his empathy towards Alexandra Styles, Josiah also knew that in this instance Chris was wrong. Absolutely wrong.

"Chris," Josiah decided he was going to have no choice but to say it. "Do you know how many female officers were Cardassians prisoners of war, since the Border Wars?"

"No," Chris frowned, wondering if Josiah would now try to sway him by bombarding him with figures. "I don't."

"Fifty six." Josiah replied automatically. "Do you know how many of them are still alive?"

Chris looked up, suddenly having a very bad feeling about this.

Josiah did not bother to let him venture a guess. "Including Alex, thirteen."

"Thirteen?" Chris's eyes widened. "Out of fifty three?"

"Out of fifty three."

"What happened to them?" The captain asked, his voice dropping an octave lower than usual.

"In almost all cases, suicide. Starfleet has a file buried someplace no one will look because to do so would bring into question the sensibility of allowing female officers to command starships or to be placed in situations where they may fall prey to the enemy. It would put back the status of women in combat almost four hundred years. Starfleet is aware of the problem but they can't do anything about it without raising politically imprudent questions. I contacted Starfleet Medical and using my authority, I broke the seal on her records."

"You had no right to do that." Chris said sharply. "She has a right to her privacy."

"She was eight weeks pregnant when they took her off that Pakled freighter."

"Christ." Chris let out a soft groan of horror, feeling that news shudder through his body until it centered on his stomach and churned thickly with disgust.

"Not surprisingly, a therapeutic termination was carried out. According to the records, she was too catatonic to object. Genetic material recovered indicated the father was Cardassian."

Chris's jaw tightened. "Those bastards."

"The medical officer who examined her when they brought her in reported an extended period of abuse. There were indications of rape throughout the entire time she was held captive." Josiah paused a moment, composing himself as his own emotions started to overcome him. "Almost as recent as a week before the Pakleds found her floating in that escape pod. There were all kinds of internal damage both vaginal and rectal, broken bones, internal bleeding, cracked ribs. Apparently, Cardassians had a very good time at the expense of our science officer."

"How can anyone find something like that pleasurable." Chris found his voice but when it escaped him, it was hoarse with horror.

"Well they do it a lot," Josiah replied, unable to imagine it himself. "Almost all female officers who fall into Cardassian hands are found with the same injuries and deep trauma. Some recover but the damage is burned into them and its even worse when the woman is career. The Cardassians apparently get off on breaking high ranking officers. Most never come out of the catatonia and usually suicide early on after rescue. Others try to go back to their lives, struggle to forget but can't face facing duty in the front lines again and opt for safe planet side postings."

"But Alex..."

"Alex is your exception." The counselor stated. "She asked for the posting to the Maverick. Counselors who attempted to treat her back then says it has something to do with her Klingon upbringing. You know how they can be, even their women."

Chris had to agree with Josiah there. Klingons accepted suffering and adversity as a challenge to be faced as warriors, no matter how demeaning the situation. There was glory to be had as long as one faced the trial as a true warrior of the field. Chris knew Alex was practically raised Klingon when her father was attached to the Federation Embassy on Qo'noS for most of her childhood. If Alex lived her life according to that simple philosophy, Chris could understand why she was here on the frontier, where anything could happen.

In understanding, he also knew something else. "I won't relieve her of duty." He stated after a long pause, much to Josiah's obvious astonishment.

"After what I just told you, why?" Josiah demanded almost angry but telling himself repeatedly Chris did not make such decisions lightly.

"You said it yourself," Chris replied, sincerely believing he was right. "Alex is the exception. She is out here because she would rather face the fear then let it take her. I admire that and I believe it is what has kept her alive and in the trenches. We start protecting her now and we harm her because we will never allow her to believe she can be safe again on her own."

"That's taking a hell of a gamble," Josiah countered, seeing the merit in Chris's words but not at all liking the cost if the captain was wrong. "And it's one I will not support. I am placing an official request to have her relieved off duty on the grounds of mental incapacity." He made that statement and rose to his feet.

Chris stood up to meet the challenge head on. "And I am officially denying it. She's stays on duty until she gives me a reason to say otherwise."

Josiah let out a heavy sigh, unable to believe it had come to this but it had and now the die was cast.

"For your sake as well as hers, I hope you are right Chris, because if you are wrong, we'll lose her like we lost the others."

The Guilty

Despite Josiah's premonition nothing good would come of Alex remaining on duty, the next two days seemed to pass relatively without incident. The Maverick continued its journey to Deep Space Five to take on their Cardassian guest and while the tension levels were up, as one must expect it to do on a starship during a time of crisis, it was not so overt to give particular concern. Across the Maverick, all departments undertook preparations in readiness for the possibility of a battle with the Jem Haddar. Engineering crews were working double shifts, reinforcing systems, running diagnostics, boosting shield and phaser strength while rationing energy use on board.

In the meantime, Ezra was running his security teams through combat simulations with Jem Haddar troops on the holodeck. He spent much of the next two days dividing his time between security and engineering, working with his team but also lending assistance to Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton as they worked steadily to strengthen the ship's defenses. Josiah, on the other hand, presented Chris with a list of civilians who would be disembarking at Deep Space Five and Chris was gratified to see many of these would be spouses with young families. Still, some opted to remain, declaring they knew the risks when they first agreed to settle on a starship. Chris had to admire their courage but had the faint suspicion they really had no idea what they faced if captured.

Mary, on the other hand, was reading up as much as she could on Cardassian culture, storing her personal feelings aside following what they learned about Alex's time with them and comporting herself as a protocol officer should. Since much of the intelligence they needed to halt the Dominion advance into this sector of space would originate from the defector, they would have to give their guest every respect and Mary told herself this meant keeping the man as far away from Alex as possible. Of course, there would be situations where they would cross each other's path, that was unavoidable, but Mary wanted to spare Alex the resurgence of any unpleasant memories by bringing her face to face with a man from the race who had brought her such pain.

Even though Chris appreciated Mary was protocol officer and had to remain by the side of the Cardassian for most of his time here, he could not deny he was bothered by how closely she would have to work with the man. Particularly after knowing what he now did about how Cardassians dealt with female prisoners of war. Aware he was going to pay for it later, Chris slipped a quiet word in Ezra's ear to never have a security detail far from Mary at any point when she was alone with the former Gul.

Alex spent most of the journey in astrometics where she and the rest of the stellar cartography team worked diligently sifting through the data accumulated during the time they had been out on the frontier, charting new territories. Somewhere amongst all those gigaquads of information was a planet that was capable of supporting tri-nucleic fungi. For the sake of the Alpha Quadrant, the Maverick had to find it before the Dominion. The science officer stayed off the bridge during this investigation and Chris saw no reason to request her presence because what she was doing in astrometics was important work. He also understood the difficulty she had facing the fellow members of the senior staff following the revelation of her ordeal.

During their time on the holodeck together, Chris noticed Vin seemed to be preoccupied and it did not take a feat of genius to know what concerned the Vulcan so much. On a starship, there were very few secrets. From the entire ship knowing Friday night was Ezra's poker night in his quarters to the fact Casey could play the violin and even to the point where the best linguine to be had anywhere in the sector saw its origins in Nathan Jackson's capable hands. Just like the entire ship knew Mary Travis was the captain's girlfriend and the fact the science officer and the officer of the con were in a platonic relationship Ezra was betting money would change, the minute Vin hit sexual maturity.

Chris could understand why the Vulcan might be in a state of flux. It was no easy thing to stand by and watch the woman you cared about so deeply, endure her private equivalent of hell with no idea how to help her through it. If it were Mary, Chris knew it would be no different for him. Nevertheless, Vin never allowed it to interfere with his work and strangely enough, the Vulcan did not bring it up with him in conversation. Chris guessed because of their close friendship, Vin did not want Chris to be burdened with more than he already had as a Captain. Besides, Chris had very little he could say to offer Vin any help out of his dilemma, other than what the young man was doing already, which was to let Alex dictate when she would need his aid.

"We're coming into range of Deep Space Five." JD Dunne announced as the viewer screen displayed the image of the space station in the approaching space before them.

Chris looked up and took note the station seemed in better condition than it did the last time they came this way. Over the last few months, Captain Krista had been intensifying efforts to repair all the structural damage been caused during the Borg invasion when the Collective had come this way. As they slowly approached the station, it appeared that Krista's efforts had been well worth the time spent for the station looked very impressive indeed. It was a far cry from the dilapidated station they visited during their maiden voyage to the frontier, inundated with Lysian refugees.

The devastation wrought by the Borg's invasion of Lysia was still apparent on the planet's surface. However, the traffic presently surrounding the station indicated restoration efforts were well underway. Chris could see smaller vessels crisscrossing through the space around the Federation outpost, some approaching the docking rings to began embarkation while others were making their departure for parts unknown or were a part of the relief effort on Lysia.

"Captain Krista must have been putting in rotating shifts to get this kind of results," Chris commented, impressed.

"If I am to understand it, Captain," Ezra Standish declared from his corner of the bridge. "The entire station has been refitted with new fortifications. I believe she has now the defensive capability similar to the refit undergone by Deep Space Nine in preparation of the Dominion War."

"Makes sense," Vin commented from the helm. "They're out here in the thick of things as much as we are and they got more people to worry about. A moving target has a chance of escape at least, a space station does not."

"Agreed." The security man replied. "I have been told the outer hull has been replaced with duranium plating making it virtually impossible for a breach and nearly all the upper pylons have been installed with torpedo launchers. The station is meant to be carrying an arsenal of almost 5000 photon torpedoes and an impressive cache of the quantum variety as well. In other words, should the Jem Haddar come this way, they are likely to be in for an interesting reception."

"How the hell do you have that kind of information Ezra?" Chris turned around and stared at his security chief with a hint of admiration and annoyance. "The specifications on the refit of Deep Space Five is classified information. Only starships captain with command level clearance are meant to have that kind of access."

"It is amazing what can be ascertained when one holds four of a kind when playing with the engineer of the Lexington, who incidentally is a rather verbal young man who let it slip most unintentionally about the materials he was bringing to the station. I simply made of it what I could." Ezra volunteered innocently and then offered his trademark dimpled smirk, which indicated clearly he repented nothing.

Chris shook his head in resignation. "Consider yourself a security breach commander and hail the station."

"Aye Sir," Ezra nodded.

"Now the fun begins." Buck mused softly. "Mary is on standby to transport to the station," the first officer dutifully informed the captain. "She'll be escorting our guest back to the Maverick and helping him get settled in."

Chris knew he did not have to worry about the welfare of the protocol officer especially when she would be surrounded by dozens of Starfleet personnel on the station, to say nothing of the security people assigned to her the moment she returned to the ship. He did not know why he was being paranoid because this Cardassian could not possibly be held accountable for the crimes of others, but he could not help it. The thought of what had happened to Alex, happening to his Mary was so odious, it made him sick to his stomach just thinking about it.

"Where's Alex?" He asked automatically.

"She's still in astrometics," Vin answered before Buck could. "I think she's still trying to find this planet. Said she'll be there for most of the day."

In truth, they all knew she was probably trying to stay out of sight and limit her interaction with the Cardassian as much as she could. Chris was glad. After his discussion with Josiah and their adversarial positions regarding Alex's continued presence on the bridge and on duty, he did not want to be proven wrong. At the very least, Josiah would never let him forget it and at the very worst, Alex might end up killing herself like all those other poor women had chosen to do. Glancing at Vin, Chris knew he would never forgive himself if he allowed that to happen.

And he had enough deaths on his conscience to last a lifetime.

"Make sure she stays there," Chris said firmly. "I don't want any incidents."

"I'll see to it," Vin spoke up. "Hell, I could use another butt kicking in the holodeck anyway."

A small titter of laughter rippled through the room and it was mostly because the tension at the moment was such, something needed to break it even for a moment. "You know it's saying something that you who are a Vulcan four times stronger than any human, can get periodically kicked from here to kingdom come by a woman is beyond disbelief. Not that I'm sexist or nothing."

Vin looked over his shoulder and remarked with a little smile. "Well maybe cause you ain't the only one who knows a little something about women."

Mary Travis had not gained many opportunities to visit Deep Space Five the last time they were in the vicinity and now, it looks like things were not going to shape up any better to allow her the opportunity this time around either. Not that she minded. Space stations seemed somewhat immortal no matter how much adversity it might face in the way of threats, be there invasion fleets or random spacial phenomena. Chances were, she would have a chance to visit again once this present crisis was over. Did she think the Maverick was going to survive its encounter with the Jem Haddar?

Absolutely.

If anyone could pull such a hat trick like that, Mary knew with confidence it was Chris Larabee. It was a belief not simply engendered by the fact she cared for the man but more from the feeling there was something very special about the Maverick and its crew. Mary could not explain the confidence she felt when being with one or more of them, but there was some mysticism in being apart of the fellowship of the seven. It was illogical she told herself, remnants of a past existence, still surfacing on occasion. It may be illogical but it was the truth.

Mary continued down the corridor leading to the defector's suite as directed by the ensign on hand to greet her when she had stepped off the transporter pad. The Maverick's docking with Deep Space Five would be brief. They were remaining long enough for civilians to be transported to the station and for them to take on their new passenger. Mary herself had opted to keep William with her despite Chris's advice to the contrary. Although she did not want to endanger her son, she could not bring herself to leave him on the station with strangers either. Not that Chris had not tried to talk her into accepting the leave he offered so she could be with her son.

While Mary appreciated the gesture, she was not about to hide from the risks expected of every person in Starfleet, even those with children. She reached the end of the corridor, passing by a few other inhabitants of this section of the habitat ring and saw the door in question. Taking a deep breath, she continued forward, reminding herself what she heard in the briefing room should make no difference to her. Diplomacy was the requirement of the day and it was what she was best at.

Mary paused at the door and pressed the button announcing her arrival to the occupant of the room. She waited a moment, remembering this man was an ally and the survival of the Federation hinged on what he would be able to tell them about the eminent Jem Haddar invasion of the Frontier. The door slid open and Mary soon found herself faced to face with a tall imposing Cardassian who regarded her with a mixture of expectation and mild curiosity.

He was like all Cardassians, harsh looking, mostly because that was how the human mind interpreted the bony protrusions of their face. However, he was handsome to a certain extent and wore the garb of Cardassian Gul, the equivalent of a starship captain. The markings on his uniform indicated he was a Gul of the Ninth Order, second in importance, next to the Obsidian Order, the dreaded secret police that ruled supreme on Cardassia Prime and was responsible for all its espionage dealings with the rest of the galaxy.

"I am Lieutenant Mary Travis, Protocol Officer to the USS Maverick," Mary introduced herself. "I am here to provide you with an escort to the ship."

"Where is the Captain?" He asked abruptly, full of the arrogance of someone unaccustomed to being around those of unequal standing.

"As per Starfleet orders," Mary responded, trying not to become offended by his rudeness. "We have been told to make your embarkation onto the Maverick as low profile as possible. We would not want to draw attention to you by having a Starship Captain arriving at your door."

"How do I know that you are not a Dominion spy?" The man said pointedly.

"Likewise." Mary retorted, with a single brow raised.

The Cardassian gave her a look and then broke into a smile. "Touch�' Lieutenant. We shall proceed."

He retreated into his room and picked up a single bag resting on the chair. "These quarters are rather Spartan." He commented, casting a distasteful look over the small room that had been his home since his arrival on the station. "Of course I am spoiled by the luxurious standards of Cardassians station. I believe you have had a chance to sample such offerings by your acquisition of Terak Nor."

Mary did not react. "You mean Deep Space Nine." She pointed; getting a little of her own back because she knew the Cardassians hated Terak Nor to be referred to as such. Especially when they were reminded of how the Bajora had forced the Cardassians off their home world and caused them to relinquish that piece of hardware in order to establish a Federation presence there.

He glanced over her shoulder and replied just a smoothly, impressed by her ability to hold her own. "Yes. I assume a galaxy class starship will be able to provide better lodgings?"

"I have prepared our VIP suite for your use and programmed your replicators to provide you with Cardassian cuisine," Mary said sweetly.

"How enterprising of you." He commented. "Are you similarly talented in fulfilling any other needs I might have?" He asked taking a step closer towards her until she could feel his breath on her skin and Mary was forced to look up to meet his gaze.

She took a step back and remarked coolly, unaffected by his attempt at charm or intimidation. "Shall we proceed?"

Suddenly she had this idea whether or not the Jem Haddar attacked, this was going to be one long mission.

After allowing Alex to beat him again, at least that's what he told himself, Vin and the science officer made their way to Four Corners to get something to drink. They spent the last two hours on the holodeck combating simulated opponents while they attempted to take some ancient Klingon temple on Borath. It was basically a combat program allowing Alex the opportunity to vent much of the anger presently churning inside her, thanks to the unceremonious confrontation with her past. The combat program was one of few they shared together. Occasionally, she would accompany him horse riding though she did not know how to do it herself, and would often spend the time nestled behind him on the saddle with her arms around him.

Vin enjoyed that a great deal because he got to keep her scent on him for the rest of the day. At the moment, however, she did not appear to be suffering any of the emotional turmoil that caused their quarrel two days before and the status quo between them was back to normal. Although she had not guessed he had an ulterior motive for spending holodeck time with her today, Vin knew she genuinely enjoyed spending the time with him and was glad her outburst had not permanently injured their relationship.

Four Corners was not busy at this time of the day and they were able to find a table right next to the Plexiglas, which gave them a panoramic view of the Lysian home world and all the ships were traveling back and forth from the station.

"I think after Boreth, we might go horse riding again," Alex suggested as she stirred the cup of hot chocolate before her.

"Okay," Vin said neutrally, hiding how pleased he was at the prospect of being close to her. What he did not know was it pleased Alex too. "Where to this time?" They usually rode through trails that took them to places with beautiful landscapes almost as breathtaking as what was lying in wait outside.

"I don't know. Do have a program of your ranch?" She asked after a moment of consideration.

"Yeah," Vin nodded, somewhat surprised because she had never asked about the ranch in Texas left to him by his adopted parents. During the period after his return to Earth and prior to his enrollment at Starfleet Academy, Vin spent some time there, mostly wishing his parents were alive to share the experience with him. Even though he had not regretted leaving the place behind, he did miss its wide-open spaces when he left for the Academy. "I can show you the trail I used to ride every day."

"Sounds good." Alex smiled, genuinely wanting to see it and being with Vin when she did.

Alex was in the process of taking a sip of her hot chocolate, her gaze on the space outside the glass when Vin noticed the doors to the bar opening at the far end of the room. He would not have paid attention to the new arrivals if not for the fact one of them was Mary Travis and the other was the Cardassian defector aiding them in their present situation. The Vulcan winced inwardly, not wishing Alex to face this particular hurdle so soon but with events making that impossible now, the best he could do was be there for her while she endured it.

"Alex, the Cardassian just walked in," Vin announced softly as he watched Mary show the Cardassian to the bar and introduced him to Inez.

Alex paused in mid-sip and lowered her cup just enough to take a deep breath. Ever since the Captain briefed them on the present crisis, Alex knew this was a situation she would have to face and promised herself to be a complete professional about this. She would not embarrass her Captain when he placed so much faith in her abilities and on her word she would behave.

"I'm fine." She assured him and turned her head towards to Mary and the Gul.

For an instant, as her eyes took in the sight of him, there was no reaction. Vin thought she was completely in control until he saw her hand shaking violently and the hot chocolate, still burning hot, shuddering out of its porcelain edge without Alex noticing the heat burning into her skin. Her jaw was tightening just like the grip around the cup until finally, the pressure caused it to shatter with a loud crack as fluid emptied onto the smooth surface of the table.

"Alex, what is it?" Vin demanded before the worst possible reason for her strong reaction to the man suddenly reared its ugly, unimaginable head. No one had seen this coming, or even that the possibility might exist. They were so worried she would take her rage out an innocent, it never once occurred to them she might be venting her rage on the guilty.

God, he hoped he was wrong. He really hoped he was wrong!

She left the table and strode towards the Cardassian, seeing nothing but him. Everything around her was dispersing matter converging into a singularity of utter annihilation. Only he remained behind in her shrinking universe. Alex could not breathe. He heart was pounding so loudly in her chest she could not even begin to let her mind process the reality of his being here, in front her after all these years. Before this, he'd only existed in the nightmares that woke her up screaming up every night. Closing in on him, the wall behind which she hid the horror of what he had done to her, shattered, flooding her with the details of her ordeal.

Being unable to breathe. Forced on her hands and knees, brutalized one by one on his orders. All his men taking turns at her, passing her around like she was an endless bottle with which they could satiate their thirst. Hearing the screams and knowing with despair they were hers. Tasting vomit after she retched the contents of her stomach until she was spitting acid. Left with nothing else in the aftermath except the terrible shame and humiliation. She remembered the revulsion of their stink and the clammy stickiness of their semen on her skin. Praying, always praying they would let her die every time they came to take her again and again. Begging them to stop, only they never did because the whimpers only made them want to do it more, even though they knew her mind was half gone.

She didn't care if she died today. She didn't care if the rest of her life ended at this moment. Death was a release because hell was a place she had already seen and he who presided over her misery was right here.

"Lemar!"

He turned sharply to her and for a moment, he did not speak. Alex was not surprised. He probably would not remember her. After all, she was just another prisoner, another victim. Why the hell would he keep her in his mind? She did not wait for the answer because no sooner than he cast his gaze upon her, Alex launched herself at him. Her weight slammed them both into the bar almost toppling the Cardassian over. He did not quite manage to fall over it because Alex's hands were on his throat keeping him in reach. Her fists went flying before he was even aware of the attack, striking him in the face repeatedly.

"Alex!" Mary grabbed her arm trying to stop her from beating the man senseless when the science officer shook off the attempt and jabbed an elbow into Mary's face, sending the protocol officer sprawling. Mary tumbled into Vin, blood gushing from a broken nose as pandemonium broke out in the bar.

"Are you alright?" Vin asked hastily as he set Mary down and glanced frantically at Alex who was pummeling Lemar with frenzied rage behind every blow.

"I'm fine!" Stop her!" Mary shouted wiping the blood from her nose. Already fissures of broken skin began appearing on the Gul's face and the advantage Alex acquired with the surprise of her attack robbed him of the ability to recover enough to fight back.

Vin slid his arms around Alex's waist and physically tore her from the Cardassian. She reacted instinctively, preparing to fend him off as she had Mary when Vin grabbed her arm and held it there as Alex continued to struggle.

"Alex stop it!" Vin shouted trying to make her see reason. No sooner than Alex had been safely extricated from Lemar, Mary hurried to the Cardassian who was bleeding quite profusely.

"Nathan, I need someone down in Four Corners immediately!" Mary declared, tapping her com badge. Around them, everyone was staring at the incident in shock, not knowing what to think. Mary could see the doors of the bar opening with Ezra and a team of security officers making their entrance after surveying the scene and discovering what was wrong.

"Let me go! You don't understand! You don't know who he is!" She fought Vin with every ounce strength in her body even though she knew she had no chance of breaking free once he had her. He was four times stronger and had more than enough strength to tear her away from her victim and keep her restrained indefinitely. "Let me go!"

"Alex, enough," Vin said firmly, feeling his heart aching at having to do this but she had to stop.

"No!" She stared at him wide-eyed and breathing hard. "You don't know who he is! You don't know what he did!" She looked at Vin, tears running down her cheeks as the horror of it swelled up from the bottom of some dark place within and swallowed her whole. "You can't possibly know!"

"I know Alex," he said gently and pulled her to him as she started to break down and sob. Alex resisted for only a moment before she succumbed to his arms and buried herself in the crook of his shoulder, weeping openly, and not caring who saw.

Stroking her hair, he whispered in her ear. "I know."

Making a Choice

If there was one thing Chris Larabee hated, it was being wrong.

He hated it because being wrong meant he was fallible and not as in control of his life as he wished to be. A starship captain could not afford to be wrong. Too many lives depended on his ability to have all the answers despite the situation. The nature of things required him to always have alternatives, to foresee every possibility, no matter how remote, and devise a solution to counter it, should it suddenly rear its ugly head to threaten any of them. When he received the call from Ezra Standish informing him of what took place within Four Corners, he knew he had failed in that responsibility.

As Chris made his way to Alexandra Styles's quarters where he ordered her confined for the duration, with guards posted at her door to ensure she remained there, he still didn't know whether or not he had been wrong in keeping her on duty. Of course, his guilt could be easily absolved by arguing no one could have possibly foreseen this set of circumstances coming to bear. Unfortunately, as he turned down the corridor and saw the two men playing sentry outside of Alex's quarters, he realized absolution would do him little good.

What he needed now was an answer, which he did not have.

A part of him could hear Josiah now, telling him he precipitated this situation by keeping Alex on active duty but Chris still failed to see what good it would have done taking her work away from her. No one could have possibly imagined Gul Lemar was once a warder of a Cardassian Gulag, where the rape camps they had spoken of with such disgust, was under his authority to maintain. Unfortunately, because the Gul took a very hands-on approach to his work, Chris was now faced with a crisis he could not possibly imagine. The more he closed the gap between his inevitable meeting with Alex, he found himself forced to make a choice between his duty to the Federation and upholding the honor of a friend who suffered more than she ought, by any standards.

He had a feeling he was going to feel bad no matter which way this went.

Upon reaching the doors, the two security men taking up flank immediately snapped to attention and greeted the master of the vessel. Chris paused long enough to offer them a nod of acknowledgment before activating the panel announcing his presence. He waited for a moment to be invited in but no answer was forthcoming.

Glancing at Lieutenant Katovit, Chris found himself asking. "I'm hoping she's in there." He responded, unashamed of using just enough stern authority in his voice to indicate if she had gotten past them, there would be hell to pay.

"She is, Sir." Katovit nodded. "She's probably worn herself out." The lieutenant said uncomfortably, feeling awkward about having to reveal that snippet of information, but it was necessary.

"Worn herself out?" Chris was almost afraid to ask.

"There was a lot of noise a while ago." The security officer responded, not needing to elaborate further because the captain would be able to see evidence of it when he walked into the room.

Chris took a deep breath and decided this was never meant to be easy, before activating the door panel, entering even if Alex did not want company. Unfortunately, her actions in Four Corners had taken that choice out of her hands and she was getting a visitor. The doors zipped open and Chris stepped inside, feeling like a man about to take the walk to the gallows.

When he stepped inside the room, what he saw astonished him.

It appeared as if a tornado had run through the room, anything breakable, was and everything else, upended. The room that was normally Spartan in its appearance now looked like the aftermath of a war zone. His shock was apparent as he stared at the upturned furniture, the smashed breakables on the carpeted floor, a creating a pattern where shattered ceramic spread out upon impact. He trod carefully, unavoidably stepping on some broken fragments of glass as he advanced into the room.

The lights were low, giving just enough illumination for him to see the destruction but little else. Shadows loomed and he could not see Alex, even though he could hear a soft, scraping sound resembling metal against metal. Despite himself, he felt a little hint of fear, not for himself but for the state of mind capable of lashing out with such violence. For the first time, Chris wondered if Josiah had been right, that keeping her on duty had pushed her over the edge into an abyss without return, an abyss he could have avoided if he just listened to the Counselor.

"Increase radiance of illumination by 25 percent," Chris ordered and the ever obedient and vigilant ship's computer immediately responded by flooding the room with light that filled out of the corners of the darkened space, in a matter of seconds.

Chris found himself a few feet from Alex.

She was sitting at the base of the opposite wall, still clad in her uniform except she had discarded the blazer and turtleneck, having opted to wear only her grey t-shirt on her upper torso. Alex was seated cross-legged as she ran a sharpening stone against the blade of what appeared to be the ceremonial dagger carried by every Klingon who called himself a warrior. It took no feat of genius to guess why she was doing this now. Her eyes were still puffy and red from the tears Mary had reported she wept when Vin had finally torn her away from the Cardassian, but everything about her was as hard as the sharpening stone in her hands.

"Alex," Chris spoke first, wondering whether or not she was even aware he was present. She had not given him any indication to prove otherwise.

She did not answer and continued to sharpen the blade even faster.

"I thought you had to be a warrior to have one of those," Chris remarked, deciding to take a different tact.

"You do," Alex said coldly. "It was given to me by an old friend. It was returned to her with honor when her husband died in battle. She gave it to me because she had no children of her own. It was a compliment."

It was actually, Chris thought to himself. An extremely good one. Such weapons were considered heirlooms and those passed on by one who had gone to Sto-Vo-Kor were especially prized. Whomever this old friend was to Alex, there was a great deal of affection behind the presentation of such a valuable gift.

"I think its sharp enough," Chris added, feeling his unease grow with each stroke of her blade against that stone.

"It's never going to be sharp enough."

"Alex, think about this." He spoke, trying to make her see reason, not to mention make some kind of argument against using that knife she was readying for a purpose obvious to all. "You can't just kill him."

Her eyes raised to his. The look in them was menacing and he knew he had better be ready for an attack because her body was poised to strike. Suddenly, he had the strangest feeling killing herself was never on the agenda and Josiah had been wrong assuming such. Chris was happy to say he always thought Alex too strong to take that route but now as he saw the maniacal rage in her eyes, he realized she was strong enough to take another path, equally damning.

"Watch me." She said simply.

"I won't let you kill him," Chris said just as simply. "I won't let you throw away your freedom, your career and everyone who cares about you because of revenge. Nothing is worth that."

"HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?" She screamed at him suddenly, her voice so sharp she almost made him jump as she rose to her feet, holding the blade as if she were more than ready to start carving something up, starting with him.

Chris felt silent and rebuked himself for that choice of words. "I meant...."

"I know what you meant!" She barked. "I know exactly what you meant so I can tell you exactly what I mean and we will understand each other." She began to pace, every muscle in her body tense as she glared at him.

"I am going to kill him. I am going to kill him slowly and enjoy every fucking minute of it. If that means I get locked up in a Federation prison for the rest of my natural life, at least I'll finally get some sleep! I won't have to wake up screaming every night because of the dreams that bastard put in my head!"

Chris could not blame her for wanting revenge as fiercely as she did. No human being could endure what she had and not. He was not so hypocritical as to make the mistake of saying he knew how she felt. He did not and Chris had the feeling he would never be able to. However, Chris was not about to let her go either. Perhaps he did not know about hate but he knew enough about experiencing agony almost as overwhelming as the physical trauma she had endured as a Cardassian prisoner.

"I won't let you do it, Alex." Chris stared at her firmly, not as a captain or a Starfleet officer but as her friend. "You mean too much to all of us for me to let you do that."

"It's not your choice."

"It is if I throw you in the brig until he leaves," Chris replied coolly. "I am willing to do that Commander, don't ever make the mistake of thinking my affections for you will keep me from doing my job. As disgusting as it may be for me to tolerate that son of a bitch in my Sick Bay, getting treated by my Chief Medical Officer after what he did to you, I have to swallow it. I have to because that man is all that stands between us and the Dominion taking the Alpha Quadrant. When I faced with the slavery of billions, you have to understand I can make that choice."

Alex had stopped pacing and she stared at him for a long while, aware what he said to her did not come from the man who was her captain but as one who had given her every consideration since she came on board the Maverick.

"Do you have any idea what it was like?" She asked after a moment.

"No," Chris shook his head. "I can't even stomach it, let alone try to imagine it."

"The day after you get there after they strip you down and leave you naked, they put this device on your chest," she said lowering the knife and softening a little as her mind went somewhere she had not gone in three years. "Its small and it's surgically implanted right over your heart. It has more than enough charge to kill you and it's controlled by remote. When you don't play their game, they turn it on and it sends a power surge straight to your heart that stops it skipping a beat or two. It doesn't hurt then but it makes you pay attention."

Chris let her speak, having the impression she told no one this before and would not likely to after this, so he listened carefully because he cared and because she needed him to.

"The more you misbehave, the more they use it until you feel like your heart's going to burst in your chest. They use it very frequently that first week, just to condition you to become used to the thing, used to obeying their rules. The rape begins the second week. Three times a day, every day." There were no tears in her eyes and yet Chris could sense the anguish. Inwardly, he wished she would weep because seeing that pain was much worse than hearing her tears.

"Sometimes, three of them, sometimes four. Sometimes he would give the order, other times he would do it himself. He liked to see me scream in pain and that's what it was for me for six months. Pain, three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was always tied up, with my hands behind my back and around the ankles so I couldn't fight. He'd have one of his men keep an eye on the remote for the charging device, so if I struggled too hard or fought too much, he'd be able to pull me in line. That is when using me as a punching bag wasn't good enough. Do you know what its like to smell his stink on you after he'd taken everything that mattered and knows it was going to start all over again the next day until you died or he killed you?"

"God," he whispered.

"There is no God," Alex said ruefully. "I actually prayed to God to stop it, to make it end. I begged and I whimpered for God to help me but he never did." She paused a moment and regained her composure, nearly breaking down at certain junctures of her tale but managing to keep control somehow. "I knew I was pregnant the moment it started becoming harder to keep my strength up. The whole aim of that place was to demoralize the enemy by striking at their women, so I was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing they had won, they had planted their seed." Her lips curled in open hatred as she made that admission.

"I made a decision Captain," she let out a deep breath. "I could either die in that place or I could leave. In the end, the choice became that easy."

"How did you do it?" Chris asked, wondering how she managed it when that insidious device was attached to her heart, keeping her submissive for so long.

"Can't you guess?" She met his gaze.

It dawned upon him what she was trying to say and realized this more than anything was the part she could not speak out loud. It was too horrifying to think any being could be pushed so far as to use that to their advantage.

"You started pretending to like it."

"Yes," Alex nodded. "That animal was arrogant enough to think what he did to me was actually pleasurable, he believed me when I pretended to enjoy it. Each time, I did for him what none of the others would do. It made me sick to my stomach but it allowed him to take that fucking thing off me. The minute I was free, I headed to the station's engineering deck and built myself a beautifully simple but ultimately lethal surprise that lowered the containment field around their antimatter core. Then I got in an escape pod and saw the fireworks from space. I assumed he died there but I'm guessing the reason why he was stripped of his command and recalled to Cardassia Prime as a paper shuffler has got a lot to do with that."

When she stopped speaking, silence ensued and for a long while neither of them spoke. The quiet lingered in the room, with only their breathing offering any discernible signs of life or reaction. Chris watched her as she was lost in that far away place, trying to imagine what it was to have endured what she had and could understand why she chose to tell him and not Vin. He could handle such horror, Vin would not. There was too much passion inside of Vin for Alex to hear it as she was telling Chris now. The Vulcan would react in the extreme and probably kill Lemar himself. Alex would not ruin Vin with the knowledge of what happened to her.

"I still can't let you kill him, Alex," Chris repeated himself softly.

Alex had dropped to her haunches again and looked at the blade in her hand before dropping it on the floor, making a soft thud as it landed. "I know." She dropped her gaze and let out a deep breath as she admitted it.

"We have a problem." The captain decided to be honest with her since she had offered him the same courtesy. "We need him, Alex, as unfair and outrageous as that might seem to you right now, we need him to help us find this planet with what he knows. If the Dominion wins this war, it means the Cardassians win too and what happened to you, will happen to every woman a Cardassian occupying force takes a liking to, you know that."

"I won't let that happen," she responded softly, hating that fact more than any other, even more than her revenge, that someone else, someone like Mary or Julia or god forbid, someone like Casey might have to endure the hell she had been through. In the face of that, her revenge felt like ash in her mouth.

"The thing is," Chris looked at her, waiting for her reaction when he made his next confession. "I need you too."

Alex raised her eyes with gentle surprise.

"You're the best damn science officer I have ever served with Commander Styles," Chris declared sincerely. "You work so much on instinct I am absolutely sure you are almost as vital to our chances of finding this planet as that animal we got down in Sick Bay. What you did in Four Corners is a justifiable offense, I'll put my command up against anyone who says otherwise. I'll resign my commission first before I let them remove you from your post but I have to have your guarantee that we do things my way."

"Your way?" Alex asked, giving credence to his words only because of his earnest statement.

"My way is that we ride this out. You do not lay one finger on him or go anywhere near him. If we survive this mission, I will have him in the brig so fast his head will spin." Chris assured her and meant it completely. "I'm guessing he's counted on no one knowing what he did when he came over to the other side. We'll make nice with him because we are allies but the moment the mission is over, I will arrest him on the charge of war crimes. He won't have any choice but to submit because going to a Federation prison is a lot more merciful than what will happen to him if he returns to the Dominion after his bridges are so well and truly burnt."

"Jail?" Alex stared at him. "You want to lock him up?"

"Yes," Chris said firmly. "That's as good as its going to get Alex. Now I know that does not seem fair to you under any circumstances and I'm not going to even begin to guess what is a suitable punishment for a man like this but I don't care about him, I care about you. You get to walk out of this with your life and your career intact. You escaped that prison because you made a choice to survive. Now you're going to have to make the same choice to live. "

"He deserves to die!" She hissed angrily but her rage was more at herself. He was right, she had a lot to live for. There were friends now, some measure of peace in their company that had been lost for so long. After three years wandering through the wreckage of her life, some semblance of the person she had been was making a comeback and Alex did not want to lose that, no matter how angry she was, no matter how terrible the memories. More than anything, she wanted this to be over, so she could move on and sleep without waking up screaming, without recoiling from every man who smiled her way and wanted to touch her.

Like Vin.

She cared about him, suspected he was the threshold of something truly wonderful if only she dared to feel enough to let him in. He wanted to so badly, she could sense it. Alex was not blind to how he felt about her but as adamant as she was about how she felt for Vin Tanner, she knew there was a part of her, terrified of bringing down those walls and letting him warm the cold embers of her tortured soul.

"I am not arguing with you there but that's the deal." Chris returned, sensing she was very near to agreement and drawing upon all the power he had inside to say the words to force her to see reason. "I don't want you to throw your life away because of this bastard. He's already killed the person you were before you wound up in his prison. I am not letting him kill the person you are too."

Alex closed her eyes and wrestled with her conflicting emotions. She knew what she wanted. She wanted to take her dagger and sink it in Lemar's loins as far as she could bury it and watch him bleed to death in a visceral expression of agony but Chris was right, it was not going to happen, even if Ezra's security was lapse enough to permit it. However, the captain was right about something else too. Three years ago, she had decided to survive and the consequences of that decision allowed her to escape and regain some sense of self almost totally destroyed inside that prison. Now she had to make another choice, just as equally important. She had to decide to live.

She couldn't do that until she let her go of her hate and accepted justice as it stood. She had to if not she would always be trapped in the dark, afraid to dream.

"Alright," she answered reluctantly, feeling as if the words had to be torn from her lips before she could believe she was saying it. "We'll do it your way."

"Good," Chris replied, letting out a sigh of relief. There was a moment there when he was not sure if she would accept his terms. He was grateful she had because he had no wish to pass judgment on her if she carried out her threat and killed Lemar. "Now, I'm giving you a day off duty for you to sort yourself out." Instinctively, he glanced at the demolished room. "I suggest you stay out of his way and even if you still have the urge to kill him, Ezra has a security detail posted to him, to make sure neither of you gets within ten feet of each other."

"I can work from astrometics," Alex said softly, unable to meet his gaze. "I'll stay out of his way and you keep him out of mine. I'm doing this for you Captain and for me as well, but I'm fighting a lot of instincts to do it. I wouldn't tempt fate by putting him in my sights."

Chris approached her for the first time and placed his hand on her face, raising her chin so she would look at him. "This is for the best Alex,' Chris responded. "I know it's hard for you to appreciate that but trust, this way is better for you."

Alex nodded and found herself saying. "I hope you're right Captain, I really do."

And to her surprise, Alex realized she really meant it.

Understandings

"How is he?" Chris whispered in Mary's ear as he came up alongside her where she was keeping watch on the Gul receiving treatment at the skilled hands of Nathan Jackson, following the treatment of her own injuries.

"He's better," Mary replied, meeting his gaze. "He was pretty badly beaten but there were no critical injuries, although you wouldn't know it from the way he's been complaining." She gave the Gul a look of pure contempt before turning back to Chris again. "How's Alex?" She asked with concern. Despite the injury Alex inflicted upon her, Mary was not mad. Considering what Vin revealed to her about what set Alex off, she could appreciate why the science officer reacted as she had.

"Reasonable," Chris answered. "I manage to convince her there were other avenues besides tearing him a new one."

Mary found a little smile crossing her face at the choice of his words and gave him a look of deep affection, far more than two officers serving together might display but the lovers they would someday be. "Unfortunately, I don't think he is going to be that reasonable." She sighed facing the Gul once again. "Ever since Nathan put him back together enough to talk, he's been screaming bloody murder for Alex's hide. I don't know if we can pacify him as easily as we have Alex."

"We'll manage," Chris replied with a hard edge to his voice that told Mary a great deal. He was tolerating this man on this ship by the barest fraction of patience and if Gul Lemar knew what was good for him, he would carry out the mission and put this incident behind him, because Chris Larabee was not a man to be made an enemy out of.

"You okay?" He asked with a hint of tenderness, touching her chin as he examined her soft skin for any signs of injury after running into Alex.

"I'm fine." Mary reached for his hand and laced her fingers between his long enough for him to know she was grateful he had asked. "It was just a scratch."

Chris nodded with a relieved expression on his face before he took a deep breath and stepped forward, allowing Mary to fall into stride with him as they advanced upon Nathan and Lemar. Mary slipped flawlessly into the persona of Lieutenant Travis, Protocol Officer and prepared to make the opening introductions to continue the rest of the dialogue between Captain and Gul.

Nathan was standing by the treatment bed, running a dermal regenerator over the skin of Gul Lemar, miraculously mending broken skin with the aide of 24th-century medical technology. While all of the Cardassian's injuries had yet to be repaired, for the most part, the former Gul appeared healthier than when he was first carried into Sickbay. The man was lying prone on the bed, apparent in his dislike about being in the care of the human before him and judging by the thinly veiled scowl on his face, Chris could tell Nathan was nearing the end of his patience.

"He should be around in no time," Nathan announced, preempting the captain's question with a more detailed report than what he had probably received from Mary. "A couple of broken ribs which have been taken care of, some extensive facial injuries I've been able to eradicate with the dermal regenerator. I don't recommend he run a marathon but he's well enough to leave Sick Bay."

What Nathan did not add but seemed rather obvious was his unspoken desire to say 'good riddance' by those who knew him enough to read his expression. Chris wondered if his annoyance was due to the Gul's arrogance and ambivalence towards the physician or because Nathan learned about why the man had been attacked and was loathed to treat such a monster. If that were the case, Chris could appreciate Nathan's feelings because he was no happier about having the man on his ship either. As it is, he was fighting the instinct to throw the man in the brig for what he had done to Alex for the next millennia and was most chagrined circumstances required him to treat the man like a guest instead of the filth he was.

"Gul Lemar," Mary said politely, "this is Captain Chris Larabee."

"It is about time you made an appearance," the Gul promptly sat up in the bed, giving Chris a once over, clearly indicating he was not impressed with what he saw. "Considering how warm a reception I received at the hands of your crew, I would have thought it was your first priority to come here and explain yourself."

Both Nathan and Mary immediately looked at Chris, wondering what kind of reaction that response would garner from the Captain. However, the Captain did not make any vitriolic remark. Instead, his eyes narrowed with a completely unreadable expression on his face neither Nathan nor Mary could read before he deigned to answer.

"Gul Lemar, circumstances have forced me to accept we need you for the mission ahead. I accept that and while you on board the Maverick, nothing of the like which happened in Four Corners will take place again. Those two men," Chris glanced at the entrance to Sick Bay where two security officers were waiting, "will ensure no harm comes to you, while you are on my ship. You have my word on it."

"Your word?" The Gul said derisively. "And what of the lunatic who almost killed me? Are you going to throw her into the brig or not?"

"I have spoken to Commander Styles," Chris answered with what he considered to be an amazing amount of restraint. Inwardly, he braced himself to hear much protest when he revealed his solution to the Gul in regards to how he resolved the situation with Alexandra Styles. However, in all truth, Chris did not care and he meant what he said when he promised Alex he would put his command on the line for her. "She assures me no further incident will take place. I have confined her to duty in astrometics and have ordered her to give you a wide berth."

Judging from the glowering darkness that fell across the man's face, Chris and the others in the room immediately guessed Chris's actions was not at all satisfactory. "You consider that an adequate punishment?" The man exclaimed in outrage. "She could have killed me with her assault and you return her to duty as if nothing had happened?"

"She gave me her word she would not harm you." Chris's jaw clenched and he reminded himself spacing a man was illegal. He kept this indifferent mask in place. "That's good enough for me."

"Well, that is not good enough for me!" Lemar shouted. "I want her thrown in the brig for the duration of my stay on this ship. I make this request most strongly!"

Uh Oh, Mary thought to herself as she saw that glimmer in Chris's eyes that meant something had just snapped.

The Captain stared at the Gul and said very calmly. "Doctor, Lieutenant, I should like a moment with Gul Lemar if you please. Take the security men with you."

No one was about to question the Captain when he used that tone of voice and very soon, everyone was vacating the room, leaving Chris alone with the Gul. The Cardassian's expression was one of smug satisfaction when he saw the others leaving, assuming in his arrogance the reason for Chris's dismissal had to do with his saving face in front of his crew as he made a submissive gesture towards Lemar.

When the others had gone, Chris finally faced front again and said rather coolly. "Now let's get one thing straight, Gul Lemar of the Ninth Order. You are on my ship and on my ship, I say what goes. If I choose to ignore this matter then that is how it's going to be. Don't give me an excuse to make a ship-wide statement about the real reason Commander Styles attacked you and then rescind my security protection when the hordes of outraged Starfleet officers come hunting for you, and trust me, rape tends to do that to people."

Lemar's face turned a shade paler Chris noticed, as he was clearly unprepared for Chris making a threat of that nature. However, he was not a man about to allow another the upper hand, especially another who was not of Cardassian extraction as he was. "You do not scare me, Captain," Lemar said after he composed himself enough to respond. "We both know at this moment, I am in a position to demand quite a bit since I hold considerably important information regarding the mission. I am certain Starfleet will induce you to give me whatever I demand. If I require your protocol officer served to me on a platter for my evening's pleasure, you will have no choice but to comply if you wish my cooperation."

Chris grabbed him by the throat and shoved him against the treatment bed before the Gul could even think to attack. Glaring at him with calculating eyes, Chris kept his grip firm as his fingers tightened around the man's neck despite Lemar's best efforts to pry his digits loose.

"Don't overestimate your importance to the mission," Chris said with perfect calm that belied his present actions. "A planet with tri-nucleic fungus tends to stick out and we know this area of space pretty well, while you have only guesses as to where it might be. As for my protocol officer, if you so much as look at her cross-eyed, I will break every bone in your body. Do we understand each other Gul Lemar?"

"Perfectly," the man scowled, unable to do much else in the face of such a threat.

The Captain released him and stepped away from Lemar who sat up, rubbing his throat in discomfort, giving Chris a hate-filled glare as he withdrew. Chris had no doubt in his mind that Lemar wanted to kill him, would have done so if not for the circumstances they presently found themselves in. However, there was something deeper at work here, something that alerted Chris's instincts to trouble even though he could not imagine in what shape that peril might appear. Lemar's eyes were not just filled with anger and restraint but also calculation, making the Captain somewhat anxious even though he did not know why.

"When you are ready to leave," Chris turned away and started towards the door of sickbay, wishing this creature out of his sight for the moment. "I'll have Lieutenant Travis show you to your quarters and for your safety, I've assigned two security men who will accompany you everywhere. You have free run of my ship Gul but I expect you will feel safer if my men kept an eye on you."

Lemar swallowed hard, obviously disliking the fact this inferior had put him very properly in his place. However, he had one card left to play and he was going to do so with relish. Before Chris could get out of earshot, Lemar suddenly spoke.

"She was very enjoyable you know," Lemar spoke up with a cruel sneer. "Of all my charges at that rape camp as you called it, Styles was my special project. I enjoyed taking her repeatedly. There is nothing more satisfying than allowing yourself the pleasure of thrusting into hot, tight flesh, especially when it's begging you to stop. It only made the thrill all the more worthwhile."

Chris paused for a second and knew Lemar was saying this just to get some measure of revenge upon him for their earlier confrontation. Forcing the emotions of outrage away as he listened to this sick bastard describe in such vivid detail, the pleasure he wrought from Alex at the expense of her sanity and her self-respect, he knew he was not to about to be baited. Ignoring the words, Chris continued his journey out of the room, reminding himself when this was all over, he would derive similar pleasure when he threw the son of a bitch into the brig and left him to rot.

There was only one place Vin Tanner wanted to go after his shift had ended and that was to see Alex. He spent what was possibly the longest tour of duty on the bridge, thinking of nothing else but how the woman he cared for so deeply was faring. The ship was buzzing with rumors about Alex's outburst and while only the senior command crew knew the truth, Vin was sure not even they had any real understanding of what Alex endured. While he himself had no idea about the specifics, there was not a shred of doubt in his mind Alex was brutally assaulted during her stay in that Cardassian prison. He only needed to hear her speak about the camps to know she was telling her tale from personal experience.

Chris was absent from the bridge most of the time Vin had been at the Con, probably because the Captain was forced to deal with the fallout of what had happened. Buck seemed to shift uncomfortably in the command chair as if he was just as anxious as Vin to know what was happening. As the first officer, Buck worked most closely with Alex and though he constantly complained she had not succumbed to his charms, everyone on the bridge knew Buck enjoyed his friendship with Alex, specifically because it was not sexual. On occasion, Buck would come up to Vin and ask in a low voice if Alex was all right when Vin had left the science officers in her quarters.

It felt like his shift would never end as the tension of worry ran throughout the bridge for the next several hours, considerably lengthened by Chris and Josiah's discussion a short time before Vin's duty was to end. Judging by the stern expression on the Counselor's face, Vin guessed the man was upset about Alex's behavior. As it was, the rest of the bridge was expecting Chris to make the announcement Alex would be relieved of duty and while all of them hated the idea, there could be no other alternative for the Captain. However, the announcement did not eventuate which only served to deepen their curiosity.

Josiah and Chris who had always been on good relations with each other seemed openly at odds over something and whatever it was, Vin was certain Alex was at the heart of it. The helmsman left the bridge at the end of his shift, not even bothering to return to his own quarters, making a beeline for Alex. Chris ordered security guards to keep her in her quarters after Vin had deposited her there, following her attack of Gul Lemar in Four Corners. A part of him applauded her actions towards the man.

Anyone who would treat another human with such intense degradation ought to be killed for the animal they were. Another part of him wanted to march down to Sick Bay and tear Lemar limb from limb for bringing so much pain to Alex. Lemar was the cause of all the wounds Vin sensed in Alex during their unintentional mind meld some weeks ago. There was such a black pit of hurt Vin could not even begin to fathom the violence and horror that must have created it.

When he reached her quarters, he noted the security men were gone which only added to his confusion. He was certain Chris would have kept the guard there and decided he did not care one way or another as long as Alex was all right. Reaching for the door panel, the soft chiming that followed swiftly engendered a response.

"Go away."

Vin was not about to do that.

"Alex it's me."

There was a moment of hesitation before he heard her answer again. "Come in."

Letting out a sigh of relief and having the sense to know it was an invitation, only he was privileged enough to receive, Vin did not waste any time entering through the doors as soon as they slid open to receive him. He stepped into the dimly lit room and could not hide his surprise at the destruction that similarly astonished Chris Larabee a short time ago. Vin's eyes swept over the ruined belongings and furniture in the room and to his surprise had to confess to seeing a similar scene to this when he once lost his temper and went on a rampage of equal intensity.

"Holy shit."

"I know, I know," Alex sighed and immediately drew his attention to her when he followed her voice and gazed upon her as she lay on her bed, hugging a pillow. "I lost my temper."

Vin approached the edge of the bed and looked down at her.

"No kidding." He said as he sat down on the edge surveying the destruction before him. Despite himself, Vin had to admire her ability to be extremely thorough and thought only he was capable of such chaos when his Vulcan passions got the better of him.

"You okay?" He turned his gaze away from the wreckage and looked at her.

"Yeah, I decided not to kill him." She said in a small voice and did not sound like a Starfleet officer at all but like a little girl making a rather troubling confession.

Vin nodded and responded with a smile, becoming accustomed to the idea of seeing her so vulnerable. It was usually the other way around and the nature of their relationship always had her being his moral support. "That's good to know. What changed your mind?"

"The Captain," Alex whispered softly, wiping the tears from her eyes since she had been obviously crying. "He told me I had too much to live for to sacrifice my life because of that bastard."

Wherever he was, Vin offered a silent note of thanks to the Captain, saving him the trouble of trying to use that same argument as was his intention when he had sought Alex out. Chris Larabee could be a hard-nosed son of a bitch but Vin could say with absolute confidence that as a friend capable of coming to one's aid when it was needed, there was no one who could be more reliable than the Captain of the Maverick. Vin was glad Chris was able to convince Alex to consider another path and reminded himself to thank the Captain personally.

"He's right," Vin remarked and moved further up the bed so that he could see her face to face. Alex did not seem to mind his presence as Vin nestled next to her and they lay side by side staring at each other. "You do have a lot to live for. I couldn't imagine this ship without you."

"I close my eyes and I see him sometimes," Alex blinking tears away as she explained. "I have dreams that make me so scared, I don't know what to do and I thought if I killed him, I could make it all go away."

"It doesn't," Vin shook his head slowly. "Just makes it stay with you longer except you got another set of dreams to go with the ones you already have. I don't want that for you."

Alex reached for him and let her palm caress his cheek gently. "You make things so clear for me sometimes, how do you do that?"

Vin held her hand against his skin, savoring the silkiness of her palm and thinking he was at his best when he was with her. Somehow, all the insecurities of his life seemed to fade away when he was with Alex. Before her, only Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven made him feel so apart of something special. Vin had the inkling with Alex he was forming a bond almost as deep as his camaraderie with the men he served with and called his friends. He did not know why his heart felt so alive inside his chest when he was with her, only aware it did. Each time she smiled and touched him, his soul seemed to soar as magnificently as the ship he flew through the infinity of space.

"Because you make it clear for me." He replied and saw her eyes melt with emotion.

"I won't ever let him hurt you, Alex." Vin held her hand tighter, intermingling his fingers between hers as he held her hand. "You have no reason to feel bad because of what he did. I know that doesn't take away the pain or the hell you've been through since, but it's the truth. You're the victim and you have the right to feel pain. No one said you have to be that strong and no one said you had to do it alone." He paused a moment as he summed up the courage to say the right words. "You never have to worry about being alone, darling. Ever."

Alex smiled a little. "Darling? You only call me that when we're in that silly holo-program."

"Yeah," his eyes lit up with the same amusement. "Just like you call me cowboy."

Suddenly Alex reached over and kissed him, cutting off anything else he was going to say with one sharp intake of breath. For a moment Vin had no idea what to do as he felt her lips brushing against his, her tongue gently slipping into his mouth. He had no idea what to do and could say little in protest until he felt her running her fingers through his hair as she pulled him closer. The scent of her body had changed, it felt electric somehow and seemed to fill all his senses. She became his entire world as he felt her lips exploring his mouth tentatively and felt something extremely satisfying about feeling her so close.

Then just as suddenly as it had begun, Alex pulled away and was mortified by her behavior.

"Oh God Vin I'm sorry." She gasped, unable to believe she had put him in such an awkward position, not to mention embarrassing. It was just at that moment, she needed to feel him close, needed to feel his strong arms around her and that train of thought led her to this wholly unacceptable situation. "I don't know what came over me," she rolled over, her cheeks burning with humiliation and Alex wondered if it was possible for things to get any worse.

For an instant, she allowed herself to succumb to the needs of her physical body, to the deep cravings ignored during the past three years, each time she thought of making physical contact with a man, before being revisited by memories of her ordeal. Vin was the first man who was able to make her forget enough to do something about it and yet it seemed so terribly wrong to force him into this position when he could not reciprocate. Had Lemar not taken enough from her she was so disconnected she felt almost nothing but the torture of memory, for him to rob her of any chance to make herself forget with someone else?

"I am so sorry." She started to weep and rolled away, unable to face him.

Vin felt bewildered but he was not angry. He was chagrined he could not respond in the way she needed because feeling her so close was something he always enjoyed, and Vin wanted to make her feel good. He never wanted her to turn away from him and reacted the only way he could think of to make things better. Sliding his arm around her waist, he pulled her close to him and wrapped his arms around her as they spooned comfortably against each other. It surprised him how well she molded against him and as he buried his face in her hair and whispered softly in her ear, Vin marveled at how right it all felt.

"It's okay," he said softly, amazed by his ability at knowing what to do. "I didn't mind."

It was the truth. He always liked it when she touched him and although a human male would have been reduced to gibberish by now at the attention of such a beautiful woman, Vin's inability to experience sexuality, allowed him to appreciate the intimacy of the moment beyond the physical act. It truly was a melding of souls.

"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"You didn't," he shook his head gently. "You made me feel privileged and honored you chose me."

Alex leaned into his body, enjoying how he felt against her and feeling her apprehension and embarrassment melt away with his arm draped over her waist.

"Don't you know I love you, you jerk," she said with a little smile. "I wouldn't choose anyone else." She let out a deep sigh and felt the weariness in her bones starting to catch up with her now she was in such a safe and warm place.

Vin continued to hold her in his arms, allowing her to fall asleep in his embrace. When she finally drifted into slumber, he remained at her side for most of the night, holding her and delighting in the heat of her body pressed up against his. Vin decided heaven must be a place where he could fall asleep with her scent in his lungs. He also knew he would never again know another night where he would not lie in his bed without wanting Alex lying there next to him, just as she was now.

Alex knew nothing of this except she was safe and for the first time in too long, she did not dream.

Briefing

The first briefing where Gul Lemar was required to make his appearance was one of great consternation to those who were present. Even though Chris had told Alex she was not required to be here, the Science Officer stated quite firmly there were some things she had to stomach while the Cardassian was on board and it appeared this was one of them. As she sat in her customary position at the table with both Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington flanking her almost as if they were both ready to run to her defense at a moment�s notice, she did not meet her tormentor in the eye. If anything, she looked everywhere else but at the Gul.

The mood was somber with everyone at the table aware of what the man was to Alex and could view him as nothing else, not even an ally when the imagery of rape camps and brutality was so prevalent in their thoughts. Chris recalled what Lemar said about Mary and kept the protocol officer in reach at all times. Even though logic dictated there was no possibility of the man making an attempt to harm her before an entire room full of people, the manner in which he had requested Mary be made an offering remained imprinted in Chris�s mind.

"You�re all aware of the present situation," Chris began the meeting, deciding to get down to business. Despite their personal feelings towards the Cardassian, there was still a mission ahead of them, one of great importance that could not be viewed with anything but their complete attention. "The Dominion believes there is a planet in the frontier capable of sustaining tri-nucleic fungi, the key ingredient to producing Ketracel White. Unless we find it first and protect it from the Dominion, the Founders will have an unlimited supply of White to feed their Jem Haddar warriors. This information comes to us courtesy of Gul Lemar whom I have requested be present at this meeting so we can fully assess the danger we will be facing." Chris glanced in the Cardassian�s direction and gestured for him to begin.

"Thank you, Captain Larabee," Lemar said smoothly, keeping his eyes trained on Alex most of all because he knew his presence bothered her and he enjoyed making her uncomfortable, even now. "As you know, I was stationed on Cardassia Prime following my government's alliance with the Dominion. Since I was one of the few who publicly opposed the idea of such a move on the part of Cardassia, I was given a low-level posting and was watched carefully by the Obsidian Order."

"The Obsidian Order no longer exists," Ezra Standish spoke up immediately. He did not trust this man, not simply because he found the Cardassian to be personally offensive but his manner gave the security chief reason to be concerned.

Like Section 31 of the Federation and the Tal Shiar of the Romulan Empire, the Obsidian Order was the Cardassian version of covert intelligence. Unlike Section 31 whose existence was still a rumor no one could substantiate, there was no denying the fearsome presence of the Obsidian Order during its time. Its ability to strike terror into the hearts of those who came into its sphere of influence was unparalleled, just as anyone who encountered the Order had reason to regret it if they lived long enough.

"According to my sources on DS9," Ezra continued. "The bulk of the Obsidian Order was wiped out when they joined forces with the Tal Shiar and attempted to lead an attack against the Dominion before the alliance was struck." The security chief wore a mask of iron as he made that statement, allowing no one, save perhaps those closest to him to have any idea he was doing any more than just his job.

Lemar who was not so foolish as to know he was being suspected of a good deal more than just defection, sidestepped the question easily enough. "There are still some left. Gul Dukat our illustrious leader still does not quite trust the Founders completely and the issue of my loyalty is an internal matter that has nothing to do with the Dominion alliance."

"I stand corrected," Ezra said with a little smile but knew the thought had been planted into the minds of those around the table and from now on, they would be view the man with more than just revulsion, but also caution. "Please continue."

"Thank you," Lemar gave him a look that was next to murderous. "As I was saying, I knew the Obsidian Order was watching me closely so I could not make my move. The alliance between the Cardassian people and the Dominion is not really an alliance as Dukat would have us believe. Even now as we pushed nearer to the end of the war, it appears we are their foot soldiers nothing more."

"Tell us about the documentation." Chris urged, not wishing to hear a tirade about the once glorious reign of the Cardassian Empire. Besides, he did not want this meeting to drag on longer than usual. Already, he could see Alex trying very hard not too look at the man and considering how their last meeting had gone, he had to confess she was doing a rather admirable job of holding her temper in check. Still, Chris had no intention of tempting fate. "You said you discovered documentation indicating the Dominion believes there to be tri-nucleic fungi in this sector."

"Yes," Lemar nodded. "Those documents are in the hands of your Federation where they have been authenticated already so you do not need to question their validity." He made that statement looking Ezra right in the eye. "The information supposedly came from Founder spies who claim a stray report to the space registry from one of the ships traveling in this area, scanned a planet with geological traits similar to that of one which is capable of producing tri-nucleic fungus."

"It is possible," Alex made herself heard because this was her area of expertise and while she would rather be raked over coals than to agree with this bastard, she also remembered what Chris Larabee asked of her when she was prepared to throw her entire life away. Chris had kept her from making that disastrous decision and for that alone; she would not shirk her duty.

Besides, there was another reason why she was determined to maintain her focus even if the man before her was the cause of all her nightmares. Last night she slept the most peaceful night of her life since her ordeal as a Cardassian prisoner. She had done so because Vin held her for most of it, his strong arms keeping her safe from the demons inside her mind. This morning she woke up and found him still there, looking just as contented as she must have been in her sleep, leaving Alex the stronger for it. The memory of how safe it felt within his embrace made her realize she didn't want to throw what their friendship away by killing Lemar. It would only be allowing him another way to twist her life out of shape.

"Since we've been here," Alex continued to speak, ignoring the expression of mild surprise on Lemar's face as she corroborated this part of his story. The rest of the senior staff were relieved that the man's presence was not doing Alex any further harm as the Science Officer returned to some semblance of her former self. "We've kept this part of the sector relatively safe by patrolling what was previously uncharted space. Commercial ships can now move freely through the area without having to worry about getting into trouble when a galaxy class warship is guarding the main space lanes."

"As a result," Buck chimed in. "More territories are being charted, even without the official cartography we're undertaking."

"Exactly," Alex continued her momentum building as she explained, almost to the point of forgetting for an instant who was in the room with her. "It is possible one of these ships while registering their flight plans and log entries, as it is required by the spacing guild for private and commercial star travel, might have discovered this planet the Founders are searching."

"So does this mean we're going to have to go through all these records?" Mary asked.

"Afraid so," Alex nodded. "I've got double shifts on a rotating basis, searching through the data we've accumulated since we've been out here. So far nothing yet but there's still a lot of ground to cover. It would help if we had more specific information."

"Yeah," Buck reaffirmed his support of that observation. "You got any more tricks to bring to the party, Gul Lemar?"

"I brought you what I know," he said stiffly, disliking being questioned especially by someone who was a former prisoner of his and whom by her actions had done irrevocable harm to his career in the Ninth Order. When she had first attacked him, he had not remembered who she was. Understandable of course, since his memories of her from that time, were a stark contrast to the reality of the moment, though not necessarily for the better. However, now that he knew who she was, his desire to make her pay for that trespass burned white hot. "The Dominion plans to launch a strike here, perhaps as early as in the next seven days. They intend to establish a foothold in one of the planets in the sector before beginning the search for the fungus."

"Is it true they will be coming with cloaked ships?" Julia Pemberton inquired because she was working with Ezra to formulate some kind of defensive perimeter that would alert them to the presence of such ships."

"I believe so," Lemar answered studying the redhead with interest and finding like the rest of the women at the table, she was just as pleasing. However, it was Styles he wanted and when the time came, perhaps even the Captain's woman. "There were rumors of a warbird being taken during one of the battles. The ship was intact and I believed Vorta scientists were eager to examine its cloak. Considering how fast they work, it would not be unreasonable to assume they might have installed the feature in several Jem Haddar warships for this engagement."

"Makes sense," Vin added. "If they go on silent running, they can move an entire fleet through Federation space without anyone having the least idea of them being there until they got to us."

"Yeah but we're still talking about a planet that is supposed to exist in theory." JD pointed out that fact and Chris had to admire the youth for doing so because until the location of this world was determined, their plans for defense would be disjointed.

"I seriously doubt the Dominion would launch an expedition like this, through enemy territory to chase a phantom." Ezra declared. "The Jem Haddar are formidable and they are not stupid."

"Perhaps desperate is the correct word." Josiah Sanchez remarked. The Counselor had remained silent most of this time, wishing to be present even though he could not offer much to a Council of war as this meeting was. He was here for Alex and while he disagreed with Chris' s assertions, he could not find himself to abandon a crewmember who might still need his assistance. While he chose to be a counselor to Alex Styles from a distance, he was still nonetheless watching over her welfare like a hawk. "They must be running low on their supplies of White. If they've turned to the Breen for assistance and are preparing to make a run through Federation space on the basis of a ship's log, then their strength isn't what we originally thought."

"Josiah's right," Nathan agreed. "When they first showed up, they didn't need anyone's help. When Ben Sisko caused the aliens to shut down the wormhole and they lost access to the White, suddenly they were needing allies. First, the Cardassians and then they launched a non-aggression pact with the Romulans and when that collapsed, quickly found new allies in the Breen."

"I would not underestimate the Dominion," Lemar spoke up. He apparently did not like the idea of thinking the Dominion had come to Cardassia only to use them as a substitute for the lack of white. The notion was outrageous. The Cardassian Empire was not the replacement for a drug. "Desperate or not, they have established a foothold in your territories."

"True," Chris agreed, not about to deny that but not about to allow the Cardassian to drag the Federation through the mud when his own race's record with the Dominion was no less stellar. "However, a foothold in Federation space is better than the chokehold they have around Cardassia Prime."

Lemar's eyes narrowed in barely concealed hatred and suddenly Chris saw the same thing Ezra did but with greater accuracy. Suddenly, Lemar reminded him of a cobra waiting in its basket, dancing the tune of the snake charmer when required but all the while waiting in the shadows to strike. Suddenly, Chris wondered if there was reason to worry about the danger out there when there was very good reason to fear the one within, more specifically one at the table with them.

Mary who was used to pregnant pauses when two opposing factions had come to a stone wall such as this, immediately spoke up as it was her duty to do as protocol officers. "Gentlemen, we are here for a reason and time is short," she reminded them both gently as both Chris and Lemar continued to eyeball each other.

"Right," Chris cleared his throat and continued to stare at Lemar.

The Cardassian was not about to jeopardize his standing on the ship just yet and broke contact first. "As usual Lieutenant," he smiled at her with sickly sweet charm. "You are right. We have a long way to go before we can ever be considered allies but for the moment, let us cooperate in the spirit of mutual need."

Alex noticed the way he was looking at Mary and immediately felt her skin crawl. For a moment the look of him was so familiar, Alex thought she was going to be sick. She thanked God her coloring made it difficult to see she was ashen with disgust and closed her eyes ever so slightly as she swallowed the bile crawling up her throat. How many times had he looked at her the same way before he...

She felt Vin's hand tighten over hers under the table and looked up at him.

While everyone else was watching the furious eye contact between Gul and Captain, only Vin noticed how much she was struggling to rein in her emotions. Vin was so proud of Alex, how she managed to stay centered on the mission instead of letting the trauma of Lemar's presence hurt her any more than it already had. He himself looked across the table and found it difficult to keep his own anger in check. Each time, Vin thought of this animal touching Alex, using her in the way he had, destroying everything about her that could feel with his brutality, Vin wanted to tear him apart. However, he forced himself to keep control because if Alex could, then so could he.

"Alright," Chris decided he had just about enough of this for the time being. The tension levels in the room were escalating beyond acceptable limits and he wanted Lemar to be out of his sight and that of Alex before things reached breaking point. "Let's call it a day. I want a status briefing tomorrow morning for a progress report on the state of our operational readiness to face the Dominion. Alex, Starfleet had downloaded the Gul's entire report into the main computer, so you will be able to peruse the subject."

"Thank you, Sir," Alex replied, always keeping her eyes trained on anywhere but on Lemar. Chris had the feeling she was maintaining her control because of her ability to do that. He would not make it any more difficult for her than necessary.

With that, Chris dismissed the meeting and took it as a sign of good timing because Alex was the first one to leave the room.

"You okay?" Vin asked as he caught up with her a little further down the corridor from the briefing room. Alex paused and waited for him, taking a moment to catch her breath as he approached. Her heart was pounding as if she had been running a marathon and although she still was shaken, Alex had surprised herself by her ability to remain calm. For the first time since Chris offered her his solution to the problem of Gul Lemar being on this ship, Alex felt as if she might be able to abide by it and get through this nightmare.

"Yeah," she nodded somewhat surprised by her answer. "I think I am."

"Good," Vin said with a little smile. "You know I ain't gonna be too far if you need me right?" He looked into her eyes as he made that statement. Suddenly, he thought of how she looked when she slept in his arms and knew he wanted all her nights to be like that.

"Alex, how are you holding up?" Julia Pemberton's voice broke through the tender moment and the chief engineer walked up to them, her radiant features full of concern.

"I'm okay," Alex responded and once again, was able to see what Chris was so determined she understood. She had friends who would help her through this. Even if she did not want their help, it was good to know she was not alone. "As long as he stays away from me, I won't have the urge to kill him."

"Poor Mary has to put up with that jerk," Julia muttered glancing down the corridor where Mary and Ezra were engaged in conversation with Lemar while Josiah seemed to stay close by as if he was observing Lemar like the Gul was some kind of specimen the Counselor had never seen before.

"Just make sure she's not alone with him." Alex found herself saying as she turned her gaze away from Lemar, unable to keep looking at him. The sight of him made her skin crawl and the notion Mary would have to grease the wheels of diplomacy between the Gul and the captain was one task Alex would not have wished upon anyone.

Both Julia and Vin stiffened at the suggestion because the thought never occurred to them Mary might be in danger, even though that they considered it more deeply, they realized the Captain had foreseen the possibility even if they had not. It explained why Ezra was remaining close to Mary during her dealings with Lemar and when he was not personally able to attend the situation himself, assigned security officers to take his place.

"He wouldn't dare," Vin said after a moment but he did not sound as sure as he liked.

"I need to get down to astrometics," Alex declared after a moment, deciding she needed to limit as much time as she could in Gul Lemar's presence and besides, the job at hand gave her mind something to think about, other than dismembering him limb from limb. "I have miles of data to go through to find this planet we're searching for."

"I know what you mean," Julia who was also the head of her own department could sympathize. "I've been working late shifts trying to boost power to the deflector shields, to the phasers, everything. I hope its gonna be enough."

"Won't matter much anyway," Vin remarked believing when the Jem Haddar came, it would be in numbers. Even though he did not like to consider himself a pessimist, the helmsman was realistic. When the enemy arrived, it would be in force and all the preparations they were making now would do little in defense against that threat. The only way the Maverick was going to survive an encounter with a Jem Haddar fleet was to find the planet in question and start screaming at Starfleet for all the reinforcements that could be sent after them. However, Vin did not voice that to either Julia or Alex who was more than aware of what could happen to them if they fell into enemy hands. "We're gonna find the planet before we ever run into the Dominion." He said with a smile of confidence he was unaware Alex could see straight through by now.

However, Vin need not have worried about that because soon he was confronted with a larger problem. Once the Captain and the rest of the senior staff dispersed, only Lemar, Mary, and Ezra were still in the hallway. During his conversation with Alex and Julia, the Gul had gotten it into his head to approach them. Mary was two steps behind him while Ezra held back, doing nothing which somewhat surprised the Vulcan because Ezra was just as aware of the history between Alex and Lemar as the rest of them. However, Ezra had been in quiet observation of the Gul throughout the briefing and when time permitted, Vin was going to ask him why. For the moment, however, he had bigger problems.

"Commander Styles." Lemar's sickly voice penetrated Alex's consciousness as she looked up and saw him staring inches from her. Instinct tore her in two directions, the first being the need to step away and the second to react violently to his hated face before her.

"She ain't got nothing to say to you," Vin said immediately, placing an arm on the Gul's shoulder to drag him away if the man did not take the hint to leave.

Lemar was not afraid and he was not about to let her escape the sin of casting aspersions on his story during the briefing. "Oh, I'm sure that's not true. There was a time when we were very close indeed, weren't we Alex?"

Alex felt her stomach clench in rage as she whirled around and glared at him, almost speechless with his audacity to make that statement. "If you call being close meaning you raping me while I was tied up like an animal, I suppose we were." She managed to say, her breathing harsh and strained. A red haze was descending over her senses as she saw that damn leer on his face.

"Okay we're going," Julia took her arm and started towing her away before the situation escalated any further. The engineer would have personally liked to stick the man in her warp core but at the moment, she was more concerned about Alex's state of mind. Allowing Vin to handle the Cardassian and taking note of Ezra's approach in the background, Julia forced Alex to turn away and began ushering her down the corridor hastily.

"Come now," Lemar called after her with triumph. "You weren't always tied up and towards the end, you were rather enjoying it!"

"That's it," Vin dragged him off in a different direction with the Cardassian being able to do very little to prevent his forced removal against Vulcan strength. "Mary, help Julia get Alex out of here please?" He ordered her and the blond protocol officer could only nod.

Alex's expression was ashen when Julia had forced her around and Vin could imagine the horror and humiliation she must have endured at the hands of this bastard, and the same nightmare she was going through now. Lemar's words had very little effect on Vin's opinion about Alex's incarceration because he had been in her mind once and knew nothing experienced was at all enjoyable. She was broken into a thousand pieces because of what this Cardassian had done to her and no vile words spoken by the man could ever convince Vin otherwise.

"Vin don't hurt him." Mary pleaded even though she felt the man richly deserved it. However, there were bigger issues at stake at the moment. The safety of the Federation depended on this soulless creature who had loyalties to no one except himself she was sure.

"I won't hurt him," Vin said sharply, still glaring at the Cardassian who appeared very unrepentant as the Vulcan urged Mary to go after Alex and Julia who were almost to the turbo lift. He wanted Alex away from this animal as Ezra finally reached them and grabbed the Gul's other arm and aided Vin in keeping the man restraint, at least until Alex was gone. Unfortunately, their guest was not done with his barbs yet.

"Maybe you can look me up while I'm on board Commander," he threw Vin a nasty grin as he was hauled in the other direction. "I'm sure we can get better reacquainted." He sniggered loudly as the turbo lift opened and saw Mary and Julia driving Alex into the small space. The woman was staring at him with nothing less than agony and dismay and he achieved some measure of vindication, even though it was not nearly enough as far as he was concerned. However, such tallies could be left for the moment until it was time to make the final accounting.

"I would suggest you remain silent about now Gul." Ezra retorted as Vin dragged him back to the briefing room and shoved him inside. "My friend is not as restrained as the rest of us."

In truth, despite his words of support at Vin's desire for a little privacy, Ezra was keeping a close eye on the situation. Despite the Captain's threats to him, the Gul knew he was in a position of advantage because the Federation needed him but it was apparent he was going to take great pleasure in tormenting Alex as he had once done in that hellish Cardassian prison. Ezra was duty bound to protect the man but he was also under the same obligation to Alex and truth be known, Ezra was somewhat curious as to what the helmsman had in mind.

Once they were alone in the briefing room, Vin released the Gul and Ezra took his cue to do the same. The Gul seemed unafraid, perfectly aware they would not violate Chris's order that he was not to be harmed. The smug expression on his face as he stared directly at Vin however, amused Ezra to no end because all it would serve to do was force the helmsman to become more creative in his pursuit of satisfaction while at the same time, keeping faith with the Captain's standing policy.

"When you had your fill of her," the Gul continued to say, so certain of how Starfleet officers comported themselves, he was willing to derive some sadistic pleasure in his taunts. "You will understand." He said looking Vin straight in the eye, having guessed Vin's interest was personal.

"Sorry," Vin shrugged. "I don't have the equipment for it." The Vulcan said with an expression so neutral, it almost did Ezra proud. The security officer had chosen to remain out of the way for the moment, allowing Vin to deal with the Gul in his own way. "What I do have, is none of the Vulcan restraint and all their telepathic abilities, so when I tell you that you will stay away from Alex, I mean it. You go one foot near her and I swear, you'll be regretting it until the day you die." The threat in Vin's voice was clear and one, not even the Gul could feign away as male posturing.

"You people need me, so let's not kid ourselves shall we, Lieutenant Tanner?"

Suddenly, Vin's hand was clenched under the man's cheekbones and Lemar let out a startled gasp. For a moment Ezra was not certain what was happening as Vin closed his eyes and let the man feel the invasion of his mind. Vin was not probing for deep thoughts, just causing enough unpleasantness for the Cardassian to know a telepathic link had been established. As the Gul's knees started to buckle under him, Ezra debated getting involved but held back because he knew Vin would not hurt him, at least Ezra thought he would not anyway.

"Listen to me Gul Lemar," Vin lowered his lips to the Gul's ear. "I don't have any of the disciplines other Vulcans do, so when I go roaming around your head, I don't necessarily know what I am doing, I could tear you inside out, leave you a gibbering wreck. The possibility is unlimited really of how much damage I can do to your mind so now I got your attention and you can feel me in there, you'll understand this clearly." Vin paused and glanced at Ezra long enough to give the security chief a little smile as well as assurance that while Gul Lemar would not be hurt by this experience, it would have a profound effect on how he regarded Alex for the duration of this mission.

"If you go near her, I will find you and I will go into your mind and shred every thought, every memory and everything that makes you sentient. By the time I am finished with you, what's left won't even have the motor skills to know which way is up or down, let alone be a Cardassian Gul of the Ninth Order. You made Alex beg to die because of what you did to her but I'm telling you, when I'm done with you, you won't even know what that word means."

With that, he released Lemar who dropped to the floor, gasping out loud from the words sent straight to his mind and showed him how real the intent had been to visit such a living death upon him. Vin straightened up and looked at Ezra. "You better take the Gul back to his quarters, Ez," Vin said with a cold smile. "He doesn't look too well."

Ezra stared at the Gul who was trying to pick himself up, saliva dribbling from his mouth and looking most disheveled after the bout of mental torture he just received. With a smirk that was typical Ezra Standish smugness, the security man looked at the Vulcan and said with a grin. "I am certain a Gul of the Ninth Order will recover."

"I'm sure he will." Vin agreed as he made his way towards the door. "At least until the next time."

Sweeten the Pot

There was something wrong.

Alex could not put her finger on it. Yet she could sense it as she examined the reports from the ship that found the planet upon which the Dominion was basing their entire invasion of the frontier. The facts surrounding the routine mission of the ship called the Morning Star could not be disputed. The vessel had made a trading run through a sector of space not very far from here and had conducted some preliminary scans. However, the information gathered was very nonspecific. While the characteristics of a planet capable of supporting the ecosystem for tri-nucleic fungi was possible from the information gathered by the Morning Star, there was also no conclusive evidence to justify the Dominion launching an attack of the magnitude they were planning.

For the first time since Gul Lemar had come on board the Maverick, Alex was worried about something else other than killing the Cardassian defector. This time, her suspicions were based on more than just her personal feelings. Putting down the data pads she had been examining with such deep scrutiny for most of the day, Alex eased back into her chair and glanced at the chronometer on the edge of her workbench. Following the briefing, she spent most of the day at this table inside astrometics, trying to find this elusive world Gul Lemar had sent them in search of.

In the floor of the astrometics lab, she could see other officers engaged in the same activity, studying the data they accumulated over their entire time on the Frontier, sifting through all the information to find one planet. It was almost like a needle in a haystack. How the Dominion had come to the same conclusion with such scant information was beyond Alex's comprehension. Her mind started to drift into what scientific assumptions they must have reached to make their deductions. Where did they find the time and fight a war as well? Suddenly her ruminations reached a place she had not expected it to go and her eyes widened in horror.

"Oh shit!" She jumped out of her chair and hurried down the steps from her work area to the main floor of the lab.

"Everyone!" She hollered loudly, capturing their attention as her voice sliced abruptly through their concentration and captured their attention. "Stop what you are doing immediately!"

Lieutenant Charlotte Richmond with whom Alex was never on very good terms with, even if she was one of the best officers under her command in stellar cartography, was the first to speak. "Commander, we have been working on this for hours. We're nearing an answer."

"I know," Alex said pushing her personal feelings about Charlotte aside because the woman was right to question the order. "But trust me, all of you." She let her gaze sweep across the faces of her staff to show them she was deadly serious about what she was asking. "But I have a good reason for this. No one is to continue any work on this project until after I've seen the Captain."

Charlotte seemed skeptical but nodded in response and kick-started the others into obeying. Alex gave the lieutenant a silent nod of gratitude, knowing Charlotte would have much fodder for gossip once she left the room but thankful for the cooperation at this time. She hoped she was wrong but if she was not and what she suspected was the truth, then it would have been a realization that might save them, not destroy them.

With that Alex hurried out of the lab immediately, certain much would be said after she departed but not really caring. There was only one thing on her mind as she made her way towards the turbo lift at the end of the corridor and that was getting to the bridge. Her mind was whirling with possibilities, thinking how elegantly manipulative the Founders were capable of being. She could appreciate why the Dominion was so successful in it efforts at conquest over the Alpha Quadrant.

It did not take her long after her abrupt departure from the astrometics lab, to arrive on the bridge. Chris Larabee would be at his command chair and at this time of the day, almost all the senior staff would be present. Good, she thought to herself, if what she suspected was true then having them all present when she arrived would save a great deal of time. When the doors to the turbo lift slid open, Alex quickly stepped out and saw she was right. Almost everyone was on the bridge. Instinctively, all eyes turned to her as she made her appearance, which was hardly surprising since she had been somewhat scarce since the Gul had arrived on board the Maverick.

This time, however, Alex hardly gave it a second thought as she walked towards Chris who looked at her with concern, wondering what was so important, it warranted her presence on the bridge personally. Alex was not about to leave anyone in suspense, especially if she was right. If she was right, then they were in more trouble than they could possibly imagine.

"What is it, Alex?" Buck asked first.

"We need to stop searching for this planet immediately." Alex declared and with that one statement captured the undivided attention of everyone present as all eyes turned to her.

"Why?" Mary exclaimed while Chris was more interested in hearing the science officer out because she would not make such a statement without a very good reason.

"Because there is no planet." Alex paused in front of Chris and saw the skepticism in all their eyes as she made her astonishing statement. The only ones who did not look at her as if she was insane were Chris and Vin, mostly because they knew how much in control she was in despite the Gul's presence on board, playing havoc with her insides.

"How can there be no planet?" Mary declared. "The Gul..."

"Has probably been lied to, like all of us," Alex said firmly and stared at Chris as she began to explain because he would be perceptive enough to grasp the conclusion she was attempting to bring them all to gradually. "At first, I couldn't understand how they could find a planet with the fungus when we couldn't. I mean we're out here, on the other side of the Alpha Quadrant. It seemed improbable."

"That might simply mean we weren't searching for it as hard as they were. Founder infiltrators had been found in Starfleet Headquarters, it's not unreasonable to assume they've been monitoring our log entries." Buck was always quick to present alternatives. As First Officer, he could do nothing else.

"I agree," Alex replied not about to dismiss Buck out of hand but aware that Chris was listening closely to both sides. Thus, she had to make her explanation of why Buck's suggestion could not be so that everyone would understand just how much trouble the Maverick was in at this moment. "However, we've charted literally hundreds of worlds since we've been in the frontier and not one of them showed a planet producing tri-nucleic fungus. Suddenly, on the basis of one man's word and some documents, we're expected to believe all the data we've accumulated is wrong, that we've missed something. Now we're turning over every corner of this part of space looking for what we've never previously encountered."

"I don't understand." Mary stared at her blankly. "If we're not wrong then how could this ship have found what it did?"

"I've scanned the data, the information in the Morning Star's reports are not extraordinary," Alex countered, having thought this out deeply before arriving here on the bridge to make her claim. "In fact, as a scientist, I find them rather generic. It could be a description of any planet that might match the conditions needed for tri-nucleic fungus. There is nothing to indicate the fungus can be found in great abundance. It just looks like a possibility, something to sweeten the pot."

"Sweeten the pot?" Suddenly Buck understood Alex was trying to say and he did not like one damn bit where that revelation was leading to.

Chris caught on even faster than his first officer and remained neutral even when he swore out loud."Oh hell!"

Alex's words began to have greater impact than just some phantom planet, it made their situation at this moment extremely hazardous. "Ezra put us on yellow alert now!"

The security chief groaned out loud as he too grasped Alex's conclusion. He knew something was wrong! The minute that Gul came on board and Ezra stared into the man's eyes, he knew there was something amiss with the whole situation. No sooner than the captain had issued the order, the ship was screaming with klaxons indicating the situation on the Maverick had suddenly become critical.

"Will someone tell me what's happening?" Mary demanded, not familiar enough with military tactics to see the cleverly built cage they had been tricked into entering.

"They don't need to find the planet Mary," Vin took the liberty of explaining to his sometimes teacher. "They just need to follow us until we do."

"Oh my God." The protocol officer exclaimed and stared at the officers around her and realized why they were so panicked and why there were now amber lights were flashing all over the bridge to indicate the status of yellow alert.

"You mean the Gul came here to trick us into finding a planet with the ingredients to make White for them?" JD exclaimed. The ensign was still too new to appreciate their predicament and as he made his cry of understanding, there was almost outrage in his voice.

"Why not?" Chris responded for those who still had their doubts. "We all know the Dominion is getting cornered on all sides now the Romulans are in the war with the Federation and Klingons. The Cardassians have been used as cannon fodder ever since the alliance and their strength is not what it used to be. If anything, their numbers are rapidly dwindling. The Breen are powerful but so are the Klingons and the Federation and the Founders cannot create more Jem Haddar warriors unless there is a supply of White to keep them hungry."

"It makes sense." Vin agreed immediately because Alex's deductions were tactically sound. "They can't come this far into Federation space without us knowing what they are looking for. Even with a cloaked ship, they're looking for a needle in a haystack and they can't assume that even on silent running we won't pick them on sensors."

"But what about Lemar?" Mary asked. "Is he apart of it?" The Gul seemed so sincere in his belief at what came past his desk was genuine. Even though he was an odious creature, to say the least, did his complicity extend so deep?

"I don't know," Alex shrugged. "Odds are he's not. It would be more convincing if he truly believed he was defecting to the other side with valuable information."

"All they would have to do then," Buck explained and this was the part that scared the hell out of him and made him sound the yellow alert. "Is to track him while he's on board the Maverick. If there's a planet out here with the fungus, then he'll be leading the Dominion straight to it."

"It's not that simple," Chris responded, now he knew what they were up against. "We don't have to lead them to it. We have all the available data on board the Maverick for the Dominion to find this planet if it exists themselves. Remember that no one else has charted this part of space in almost twenty years. If there is a planet out here containing the ingredient, for ketracel white, all they have to do is to get their hands on all the information we've accumulated."

"But the only way they could do that...." Buck started to say when it dawned on him. "Oh, Jesus."

"Is if they take the ship," Vin concluded and suddenly, no one on the bridge could breathe easily. For an instant, the silence was so pervading the sound of a pin dropping could have been heard if not for the screaming of the yellow alert klaxons across the ship

"We don't have days or weeks before they come after us," Chris continued to say. "Chances are, they're here already."

The small fleet of Jem Haddar ships had been following the Maverick for some days now.

They sat in the darkness of space, concealed within an illusion of refracted light and duranium fields. The cloak felt odd to them but the Jem Haddar were used to adapting quickly to new situations and this was no different than any other. As a race, they had no history. No songs that were sung. No tales were spoken around the campfires of those who came before. They only had religion and for that, they would kill and be killed because dying for their gods could not be a terrible death. The Founders were their gods, the ones who gave them life and if it required them to live as a soulless race without heart, except in the spirit of the kill, then so be it.

For the Jem Haddar had been bred to be nothing else.

"Sir," the Jem Haddar warrior manning the sensor array broke the silence on board the bridge of the Romulan warbird Tasleem, addressing the Vorta commander presiding over the small invasion fleet, keeping the Maverick under surveillance for days now. "The Maverick just switched to yellow alert.

The Vorta considered the news. Starships did not go to yellow alert without very good reason. "Do they appear to be in any imminent danger?"

"No Sir," the Jem Haddar shook his head in response. "All operations were nominal until a few seconds ago. They switched to yellow alert for no discernible reason we can tell."

"It is possible they may have discovered us," the Vorta said unhappily.

"We have been careful to remain out of their extreme sensor range," the warrior countered. He did not believe it was possible they might have made some navigational error allowing the Maverick to detect the presence of the small fleet of Jem Haddar and Cardassian warships, led by a Romulan warbird. "There is no reason for them to suspect we are here."

The Vorta did not speak for a few seconds, aware of the duplicity employed by some starship captains. After almost two years of fighting the forces of the Alpha Quadrant, the Dominion had come to understand that one did not at any point, underestimate a starship captain. Such mistakes were costly. Those who wore captain's gold were a special breed and were the most formidable commanders on the field of the Dominion War. Unlike the Klingons who were brutalizers or the Romulans whose ruthlessness lacked imagination, the commander of a starship was never predictable and the intelligence regarding one Chris Larabee gave the Vorta reason to be cautious. Possessing a brilliant tactical mind, the Captain of the Maverick was not only ruthless but also imaginative and brutal if required. He was a man of great flexibility. Therefore when the expedition to take Chris Larabee's ship had been mounted; the Vorta had opted to proceed with extreme caution.

The need for the White made failure a non-issue. Unless more Jem Haddar warriors could be created, there was an astonishing possibility the Dominion might be defeated and to the Vorta, it was sacrilege. They had searched far and wide for some evidence of tri-nucleic fungus in this sector of space and so far, none had been detected. They were becoming desperate and the frontier facing the distant space of the Delta Quadrant seemed like the last hope of finding what they needed. No other ship in the Federation had the information contained in the Maverick and the only other way to acquire it would be to launch a full-scale attack on Earth, which was obviously impossible.

For the moment anyway.

In the meantime, the Maverick was the Dominion's last chance of replenishing its dwindling supplies of the White. Without it, the Jem Haddar would go insane and turn upon themselves in an expression of genocide in which there were no words to describe. Without the Jem Haddar, the Dominion had no army and there would be no war. The plan to take the Maverick was desperate but then desperation of the plan had just enough insanity in its methodology to work.

"Get me Gul Kumar is." The Vorta ordered the warrior once again.

"Yes, Sir." The Jem Haddar answered obediently even though the Vorta was a species as subservient to the Founders as they were. Where the Jem Haddar had been created to fight, the Vorta had been cloned to serve the Founders as its commanders.

After a few seconds, the harsh looking face of a Cardassian Gul appeared on the screen before the Vorta, looking impatient as all Cardassians did with any race other than their own. However, the Cardassians had learned much about humility lately and were perfect for the needs of the Dominion as foot soldiers, although they seemed to be under the misconception they were equals. Still, that particular error in judgment would be corrected at the proper time in the future, after the Dominion had taken the Alpha quadrant.

"I gather you have noticed the Maverick is now on yellow alert." The Gul said not expecting the Vorta to discuss anything else.

"Yes I have," the Vorta remarked. "What do you make of it?"

"I think we have been discovered," the Gul guessed accurately. "There is no reason for them to go to yellow alert. There are no indications of any kind of spacial phenomenon and there is no other ship in the area to provoked them into this action."

"I was afraid of that," the Vorta sighed. "Well, it matters little anyway. It is a little sooner than I expected but not completely disastrous."

"Hardly," the Gul agreed with the Vorta wholeheartedly on this point. "We outnumber them ten to one and the nearest starship is almost two days away. By the time a distress signal reaches Starfleet, we would have done what we set out to do."

"My feelings exactly," the Vorta conceded. "Drop your cloak and order your ships to intercept on my mark. We shall take the Maverick now."

"Drop the cloak?" The Cardassian said uneasily. "They'll see us."

The Vorta raised his eyes to meet the Gul's with a little smile. "So?"

Perimeter alert!" Ezra Standish exclaimed the minute the console started flashing in angry red colors. On the previously benign screen a moment ago, at least ten different energy signatures appeared out of extreme sensor range and were closing in rapidly on the Maverick. What had been a theoretical discussion only a few minutes before about the presence of the enemy lying in wait for them suddenly became a terrifying reality. It was a suspicion no one was happy to see prove right.

"How many ships?" Chris Larabee asked coolly, a stark contrast to the security chief's excited voice. In the background, Chris heard Buck ordering the ship to red alert while the rest of the senior staff immediately hurried to their stations if they were not there already.

Ezra studied the console screen before him and took a deep breath before responding. "Ten ships."

The air went silent with that statement. No one spoke for a few seconds as the announcement hung over them before it registered in its entirety. Once it was absorbed, however, the bridge of the Maverick moved into action with amazing speed as officers began preparations from every station for what was going to be coming at them.

"What are we talking about here?" Buck asked as the red alert klaxons began flashing across the bridge, signaling the Maverick's escalation in alert status. Alex hurried to her position by the science station while JD began sending out the customary distress signal to Starfleet Command. Whether or not those signals would do them any good was something they would not know until after the battle was done.

"One Romulan Warbird - Raptor class." Ezra began the inventory of ships converging upon the Maverick like carrion on a carcass.

Raptor class. Chris took it in silently. The Romulans had built those vessels to take on Galaxy-class starships. "What else?"

"Four Jem Haddar warships." Ezra continued, hiding the tension in his voice though everyone who knew him with any depth heard it. "Five Cardassian heavy battle cruisers."

"Jesus," Vin whispered under his breath.

"How long until intercept range?" Chris asked not looking at anyone. He was seated on his command chair, his palms pressed together and bouncing lightly off his lips as if he were contemplating the options before them. His crew needed to know he had them or else this was not going to be a battle but a slaughter. He did not need to look at the faces around him to know there was real fear in the air but fear in the air did not translate to blood in the water. They were not done yet, not by a long shot because one thing was for certain and on this point, Chris was absolute and intractable.

No one was taking his ship.

"Ten minutes," Ezra answered. "They will intercept us in ten minutes."

Chris tapped his com badge so he could address the entire ship with his next statement, not just the bridge officers in the room with him. He glanced at Mary and offered her a silent promise she could see in his eyes, he would not allow any harm to come to her. Mary reached for his hand on the armrest and squeezed it warmly before she took a deep breath and nodded for him to continue.

"All hands," Chris spoke up, paralyzing everyone on the ship with his voice. "Battle stations."

Terms of Surrender

Okay, he admitted it. Things were looking pretty bad.

Around him, Klaxons were screaming for a number of reasons. First and foremost because Chris had placed the ship under red alert status. This meant everyone on board the vessel, now knew there was danger. Fortunately, the nature of this mission from its onset had prepared the crew and the civilians, for what to do in the advent of such an emergency. Drills were conducted over the past few days, which saw to it that no one would be at a loss over where they should be during an attack like this. Even though Chris could not see them, he knew at this moment, Josiah and Nathan were taking care of those formalities even as they spoke.

Inside the bridge, everything was bathed in colors of red as emergency lighting dimmed for the coming battle. Whether it was an effort to conserve power or some other tactic devised by Starfleet shipbuilders, Chris could not be certain. All he could be sure of was the fact the sensors were screaming at the large body of ships on present intercept course. Long range scanners had pinpointed the ships the minute they dropped their shields and began converging upon the lone galaxy class ship. Across the bridge, the tension was so thick, it could be sliced through with a knife but no one made any comment. They were all too busy with their own jobs to worry about the enemy fleet.

Ten minutes seemed like an eternity when the Maverick was facing what was coming at them at warp speed.

"Engineering," Chris said opening a com channel to that particular deck. "Come in."

"Pemberton here Sir," Julia's voice responded and behind Chris, Ezra reacted long enough to look up before he returned his attention back to the crisis at hand.

"I want you to put all power to our shields, reinforce them if you like but I want every spare gigaquad of energy diverted. Power down unoccupied decks if you have to but get me every bit you can. We're going to have to keep our shields up at all costs. If I know the strategy, they will try to board us. We have to keep that from happening."

There was a brief pause as he waited for her to answer. "Just like the Rutherford Sir, I'll give you everything we've got."

Chris allowed himself a little smile, remembering that young lieutenant who kept his ship together long enough for him to help Picard defeat the Borg. Thanks to Julia Pemberton's ingenuity and sheer determination in Engineering, the Rutherford had fought her last battle with honor and distinction. Chris hoped it would not come to that with the Maverick.

"Understood," Chris answered. "Good luck Lieutenant."

"To all of us Sir," Julia responded automatically. "Pemberton out."

"Buck," Chris turned to his first officer who was conferring with JD at the communications station. "How are we going getting a distress signal through?"

"As anticipated," Buck looked over his shoulder long enough to respond. "They're jamming us on normal subspace. JD and I are trying to piggyback a signal on a tachyon burst. It will take a little longer to get to Starfleet but at least it will be able to get through their jamming net."

"I'll take what I can get," Chris replied and asked loudly. "How much time do we have?"

"Four minutes," Alex answered, She had taken on the duties of monitoring the sensor array since Ezra was now required at the tactical station. He was not only coordinating his security people to get the civilians to safety but also ensuring should the Jem Haddar attempt to board the Maverick, they would be ready. On top of all of this, he would soon be required to man the ship's arsenal when the attack finally came.

"Ezra," Chris swiveled around in his chair and faced the security officer. "I want a security detail to find Gul Lemar and put him in the brig. I wouldn't want him to making any separate deals when the fun starts." The Captain said with clear menace in his voice. He had no idea how far Lemar's complicity went but Chris wanted him out of the way where he could be of no further aggravation in the situation that was impending.

"Gladly," Ezra responded with a little smile, exchanging a look with Alex and feeling inwardly perhaps the day would not turn out so badly after all.

"Vin," Chris faced front again, running through all the preparations he had to make in those four minutes and knew it would never really be enough. "I want you to start plotting an escape route for us in case we have to make a run for it. We'll take on as many of them as we can but we're not coming out of this unscathed. Starfleet was recalling a few ships from the front lines to help us in case this happened but last I heard they were days away. We need to find someplace we can hide for a good amount of time if necessary."

"I'm on it," Vin stated and immediately began seeking out such enclaves of safety in the vast area of space they had charted and documented on record.

Chris took a deep breath and finally regarded the one person he had been avoiding since this situation had arisen. He wished she was not here because the chances of them surviving this were not good and considering what Alex had been through, Chris's stomach knotted with disgust at the thought of such a fate befalling Mary. Still, even though he wished her to be anywhere else but on this ship at the moment, there was also a part of him that was glad she was at his side.

If this was the end, then they would be together.

"Mary if you want to leave the bridge..." Chris started to say.

"No," she put her finger to his lips and shook her head in response. "My place is here with you."

Chris nodded and interlaced his fingers through hers for a few seconds because a few seconds was all they had really. Nothing else needed to be said and he knew it was pointless attempting to convince her otherwise. She would never listen and in truth, he really did not have the time to waste on such a futile exercise.

The bridge came alive with a new sound that was not so different from the klaxon's already wailing throughout the bridge like a banshee in the night. He did not need to be told what the sound was because it could only be one thing.

"Proximity alert," Alex spoke up and it was of surprise to nobody.

The convoy had breached what the Maverick considered minimum safe distance for an unknown ship. Normally by this time, appropriate hails and universal greetings would negate the necessity of the proximity alert. That it had sounded meant whatever purpose the new arrivals had in approaching them was almost certainly an expression of hostile intent.

"Captain!" Ezra shouted. "Someone just activated a transponder signal!"

"What?" Chris stood up and whirled around in his chair.

A transponder device was a single beam of focused energy allowing a person on a ship that was heavily shielded to be detected by another, to be capable of being transported safely through. The transponder was effective only once and since the Maverick's shields had yet to be activated because the ships approaching were beyond firing range, raising them early would be expending energy they would need later, whomever the transponder belonged to was guaranteed a sure escape off the ship.

"Lemar!" Alex swore when she saw the source of the transponder.

"Shields up!" Chris ordered but knew it was a wasted effort. Lemar was probably already off the ship before the thought had even occurred to them to put a stop to it.

"I knew that son of a bitch was playing with us!" Alex growled in anger, unable to believe she had not killed him when she had the chance.

"Get over it." Chris retorted. "He's gone and we have bigger problems than one Cardassian traitor."

Still, Chris did make a silent promise to himself that when this was all over, he and Gul Lemar were going to meet one last time. Putting the thought in a nice safe place for the moment, Chris glanced at the view screen showing the first signs of the approaching ships in the darkness of space. They were little more than specks of light at this point but he knew soon enough, they were going to be larger than life. There would be no mistaking them for anything as majestic as the stars among which they traveled.

"Alright," Chris stood up a moment later and let his eyes touch upon every person currently occupying the bridge with him, even Mary. "We're outnumbered and it's likely we're not going to have much chance to run. They'll almost certainly try to surround us so I'm giving you fair warning, prepare yourself. This is going to be bloody. Our biggest threat is the warbird. She can cloak and she has firepower equal to our own. She'll come at us head-on while the Cardassian warships will pick at us and the Jem Haddar, keep us netted."

Chris took in a deep breath as he saw the somber expressions on the faces of his subordinates and declared. "We have one advantage. They need to take the ship intact. They have to if they want what's in the main computer. That, at this point, is our biggest asset. I am going to try and use it but the fact of the matter is, in the end, to get the Maverick, they will have to collapse our shields and board us. As senior officers on this ship, we will not allow that to happen. I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve that will make that a little harder than they thought. We're not as outgunned as they think but we're still vulnerable. If they even attempt to take the bridge, we will self-destruct this ship and anyone on it before we let that happen. If you think that 1000 people are a big sacrifice then think in terms of the billions facing slavery and death if the Dominion gets its hands on a new supply of White."

The others nodded in understanding of the order he had just given them, even if he did not come out and say it. They all knew what Chris meant and they all knew that if the time came, they would be equal to the task. A thousand lives on the Maverick was a small price to pay for the security of the Alpha Quadrant and United Federation of Planets.

"Okay," Chris said as he lowered himself into his command chair and faced the view screen once more. "Hail them."

Not surprisingly, when communications between the prey and predators were finally established, it was the commander of the warbird that addressed the Captain of the Maverick. Of course, it was not a Romulan staring at Chris from the bridge of his ship through a viewer but rather a Vorta. Then again, Chris supposed than it was to be expected when one engaged a Dominion attack force. No sooner than the warbird had taken position directly at the bow of the Maverick, the Cardassians battle cruisers took up flanking positions while the Jem Haddar warships remained at a fallback position, where they would join the fray should the need arise.

"Captain Larabee," the Vorta said with typical politeness, just a hint above groveling. Apparently, that was their natural state Chris was led to believe. They were not an overtly violent or aggressive race, always feigning subservience to the Founders when in the process of committing all kinds of atrocities against other species. Chris supposed it was one way to let themselves sleep at night.

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure," Chris said coolly, no hint of fear in his face as he stared at the enemy appearing completely indifferent to the odds his ship and his crew were facing.

"I am Fanaian of the Dominion Empire." The Vorta introduced himself with a sickening smile of courtesy and reminded everyone on the bridge of a weasel. "I am here to offer you a proposal."

"A deal," the Captain remarked, not at all fooled by this thin veneer of civility on display by both parties. It was only foreplay to the battle about to be wrought. "How interesting. You often conduct proposals with a fleet covering your back?" Once again, there was no hostility in Chris's voice and the bridge crew found themselves singularly impressed by the captain's ability to bluff.

Not even Ezra was that good.

"Considering we have to make our proposal in what is clearly Federation space, it seemed a necessary precaution," Fanaian responded as if it were the most natural thing in the world to bring an attack force behind enemy lines and attack a ship full of civilians.

"Naturally," Chris said skeptically. "However, I would prefer if your Cardassian 'allies' withdrew from the immediate vicinity. Considering the current state of war between our governments, I might take their presence to be a little provocative."

"Unfortunately, that is quite impossible." The Vorta replied, aware the human was dancing around the issue just as the human was aware the Vorta had a gun aimed at him and was masking the shot with words reeking of diplomacy. "The Frontier is such an unsafe place. We would like to offer you our assistance in returning your crew to a starbase."

Chris exchanged a glance with Buck who was just as nauseated by the smarmy tone of the Vorta's voice as he was and quickly returned. "And what would be the payment for this little escort?"

The Vorta smiled like a child that had been caught out attempting to play a prank on someone who knew better. "Why nothing exorbitant. Perhaps let me say the entire contents of your computer core. The Dominion would find it very useful if we were allowed access to all your data involving stellar cartography and geological analysis of planetary bodies."

"And one other thing," a new voice entered the fray and the Vorta glanced sideways in a mixture of annoyance and surprise.

Even though they did not see the speaker, every member of the bridge recognized the voice and was frankly unsurprised by the turn of events. Gul Lemar stepped into the path of the viewer, with a satisfied smirk on his face knowing he was now in a position to demand everything denied him when he was on board the Maverick.

"You know Gul Lemar."

Chris looked at Alex for a second before he faced front again. The science officer's expression was unreadable but there was something in her eyes that surface long enough for the Captain to recognize it for what it was. Calculation. There was calculation in her eyes and considering their present situation, Chris wondered whether it was meant only for their enemy or only for Gul Lemar? At the moment, there was little time to consider the question of which because he had bigger problems to deal with.

"I should have had you spaced when you first came on board my ship."

"Alas you did not," Lemar responded, still wearing that look of supreme confidence, now he had the weight of a Dominion fleet behind him. "What the Vorta is too polite to say, Captain," Lemar's eyes narrowed. "Is that we expect your unconditional surrender or we'll take your ship from under you. The only way you can save yourselves is to download the entire contents of the Maverick main computer into our ship or we will destroy you."

"Is that all?" Chris asked coolly, looking not at all bothered by the request since Lemar was good enough to put aside the cordialities and get to the point. "I seemed to recall that you wanted something else. Care to let me in on what that might be?"

"Yes," Lemar nodded and spoke. "You will transport the charming Lieutenant Travis and Commander Styles to the Tasmeem immediately or we will blow your ship out of the sky."

"Son of a bitch!" Buck exclaimed in rage as he saw Mary turn ashen. Alex held firm because she knew her captain and even in the unlikely chance she was forced to go, she knew she would never arrive on the Tasmeem alive to suffer any repeated brutalities at Lemar's hand. When she said to Vin she would die before she went through that hell again, she meant it.

"Stand down Commander!" Chris hissed.

Buck sat down on his command chair once again, noticing the same outraged expressions on the rest of the male officers. While no one could see Vin's eyes because his back was facing all of them, Buck could imagine the fury running through the Vulcan's blood at this moment. Ezra's anger could be seen in the wavering of his calm demeanor. The contempt in his eyes was apparent and if it could be sighted through that impenetrable poker face he always seemed to wear, then it must have been quite intense indeed. JD was biting down, his jaw tensing in bitter anger.

"Fanaian," Chris turned back to the viewer once he dealt with his second in command and showed no signs of being insulted although if Lemar had been within reach, the man would have felt his displeasure most profoundly. "I'll deal with you only. I have no desire to conduct these negotiations with your underlings. I think this situation can be handled more amicably if someone who is in actual authority speaks. Our current problem is fragile enough as it is without lackeys with delusions of grandeur making unreasonable demands that will not be fulfilled. We may be able to negotiate for the information but I will not give any of my crew to that Cardassian so he can practice his rather clumsy mating techniques."

"I will see you beg!" Lemar snarled when suddenly the Vorta spoke up and silenced him immediately.

"Shut up Lemar!" Fanaian remarked with enough force in his voice to let even one as thick headed as the Gul to know the price if he did not obey.

Behind Chris, the rest of the bridge crew was smirking at the Captain's masterful handling of Lemar despite the fact they were nowhere out of trouble. Whatever negotiations Chris intended to conduct with the Vorta would be short-lived for they all knew Chris would never give up the Maverick. Lemar seemed livid as he was more or less disregarded and shunted aside once the Vorta had reason to believe Chris might cooperate and hand over the ship peacefully. Of course, they all knew what Chris was doing, he was stalling for time. At this moment, JD was decrypting top-secret codes that arrived from Starfleet at the onset of this mission and was relaying those codes to the tactical station. When the time came, only Chris's authorization would make them of any value.

"Time?" Buck hissed out of sight of the viewer.

"Thirty seconds to complete the upload," JD responded quickly.

"Ezra," Buck spoke up as Chris continued the game of thrust and parry with the Vorta. "Remember, set it up and wait for the Captain's mark."

"The Cardassians are powering their weapons," Alex informed quietly. "They're targeting us."

"No surprise there," Buck answered. "What about the Jem Haddar ships?"

"They're standing by." She replied a second later.

"They know we got to get through the Cardassian ships before they need to make a move," the first officer responded. "They'll sit back and watch until its time to engage."

"I can get us to the Vikaris Quasar," Vin announced under his breath. The bridge was a cacophony of silent whispers as a strategy was mapped out and decided while Chris continued his 'negotiation' with the Vorta on the Tasmeem.

"Its still gonna be a bitch to break free of these guys." Buck remarked, glad that they had an alternative but the truth was, escaping the fleet to reach the quasar was going to be problematic.

"Captain," the Vorta said finally. "We do not really need your permission." The man was attempting to appeal to Chris's sense of self-preservation. If he knew what it was to earn a Starfleet uniform, Chris thought silently, the Vorta would have understood what a futile gesture it was. "We can take your ship."

"And I can order her destroyed into a billion particles of dust before you ever got your hands on her," Chris answered back, completely aware things were about to get very ugly.

"You wouldn't dare," Fanaian responded, not at all liking that idea if the sour expression on his face was anything to go by. The destruction of the Maverick would mean a complete failure of their mission to the frontier and the Founders were not forgiving of such disasters.

"Before I let any of your Cardassians pets touch one woman on the Maverick, I will throw the switch and blow this ship to smithereens and there won't be a man on my crew who will lift a finger to stop me. So," Chris glared at the Vorta. "I have only one thing to say to you Fanaian."

"And what is that?"

"Catch us if you can."

Ramming Speed

Chris had come to the conclusion the playing field needed leveling.

Despite the tremendous odds before the Maverick, Chris knew he could get his ship and his crew out of danger if he had a little room to maneuver. Unfortunately, there was little chance of that with the Cardassians flanking them on all sides, preparing to close in on them with a phalanx of phaser blasts. Chris could not help thinking they would not be so bold if they did not have even more formidable allies to pull their fat out of the fire if they got in over their heads.

However, the fact still remained they did have rather powerful allies who would intervene at an instant's notice if required. For the moment, the Jem Haddar were content to take fall back position, allowing their Cardassian brethren to handle things until their intervention was necessary while the warbird prepared to square off with the lone Federation ship. Chris could handle the Romulan and he could handle the Jem Haddar but the Cardassians?

They were plain pissing him off.

"The Cardassians are firing!" Alex announced loudly a few seconds after Chris terminated their channel of communication with the Vorta and the Romulan warbird. The Cardassians had obviously decided since diplomacy was not going to work in convincing the Maverick to capitulate, they would have to attempt more persuasive means.

No sooner than those words left her lips, the entire ship felt the effect of her exclamation as the energy blast struck the hull of the Maverick. The initial blast traveled through the ship and allowed everyone to know the battle had begun. The force of it threw Buck and Mary to the floor. Chris barely managed to remain seated, digging his nails into the cushioned armrest. Others were not so lucky. Alex slammed hard against the wall while JD was nearly flung from his seat. Anything unbolted went flying and the clatter of beverage cups and other various items rained down around their ears. He covered his head with his arms, narrowly avoiding being hit by someone's mug.

Immediately, the white lighting shifted a glaring red. Emergency klaxons shrilled across the ship and the status alert indicators began flashing crimson. Buck found it difficult to get up, unable to get his footing right. The explosion disorientated all of them and very quickly he realized he was off balance because he landed on his ankle badly. Chris immediately grabbed his first officer by the arm and helped him back into his command chair. Looking at Mary who brushed loose strands of her hair out of her face, she gave him a little smile of assurance she did not need any assistance as she took her place next to him again.

The others struggled back to their seats and knew the reason the ship had taken a hit so badly because all four ships had chosen to fire at the same time in order to frighten them and impress upon the Federation starship how hopelessly outnumbered they were. Bullies, Chris snorted silently to himself, that's all the Cardassians were, bullies.

"Our shields are holding," Ezra replied as he returned to his console.

"They did that to shake us up," Chris answered smoothly. "They're trying to scare us into surrendering. They think if we can be frightened by the numbers we might save them the trouble of fighting for the ship." The Captain remained in his command chair and braced himself because from here on end, that was the last free shots the Cardassians were going to get at the expense of the Maverick. From this point on, they were going to learn the hard way, numbers or not, what it was going to cost to take on Chris Larabee's ship.

"Captain," JD said suddenly, studying the incoming signal on his console screen, "the Tasmeem is hailing us again."

"They probably think we're more ready to talk," Buck commented as he shifted in his seat, trying to take the weight off his injured foot.

"You okay?" Chris asked, noticing his attempts to become more comfortable with his injury.

"I'm okay." Buck waived away the inquiry. His foot was throbbing painfully and he could feel the swelling already but he was ignoring it because he was not leaving his captain under any circumstances.

"You'll get a chance to make it to Sick Bay, I promise," Chris said with a glint in his eye that Buck recognized as the Larabee hat trick. It could be scary as hell but well worth the effort if you knew how to ride it out. Buck felt his stomach hollow and suddenly had a premonition things were about to get very rough and not because the Dominion was out there but because Chris Larabee was about to get very crazy.

"Are we gonna talk to them?" Buck asked instead.

"We are." Chris met his gaze with a little smile. "I doubt they're going to like what I have to say though." The captain turned towards JD. "Open a channel, Ensign."

"You're going to talk to them?" Mary asked incredulously, forgetting herself for a moment because the situation was critical and she was more than a little afraid by the odds before them. She had never really been in combat like this before and she could not deny she felt a little out of her depth. She had remained because she was a bridge officer and despite Chris's feelings for her, she was not going to take advantage of his affection by being in a safer place to wait out the attack.

"It would be rude if we didn't," Chris gave her a little wink before standing up and turning his attention to Ezra. "First things first though, are we ready with our little surprise for the Cardassians?"

"Ready and waiting," Ezra answered automatically.

"They're firing again!" Alex warned and instinctively and this time everyone on the bridge braced themselves for the blast. It came no more than a second later, sending more klaxons screaming again through the bridge and lighting up more consoles. This time, however, they survived the blast with a little more balance and most managed to grab onto something to keep themselves from falling or getting thrown about the bridge like rag dolls. The ship heaved in protest and as the after effects of the blast dissipated, they knew the interval would not last indefinitely. At the very best they had less than a minute before the enemy would feel the need to encourage them to surrender once again.

"Shields are still holding." Ezra declared, his voice taut as he studied the readings. "They're playing with us, Captain."

"Oh, I knew that," Chris agreed without question. "They're trying to soften us up. Trying to make it easier for us to surrender."

Ezra almost snorted in derision at the ridiculous presumption of the enemy that led them to such a belief. Who did they think they were facing? Despite the Cardassians' show of force, the Dominion could not afford to damage the Maverick too substantially, not if they wanted to contents of the ship's computer core. For this mission in Federation space to be considered any kind of success, they would have to take the Maverick intact. While the phaser bombardment they were currently hurling at the Maverick, might serve to convince another commander surrender was permissible to save his crew, they were not dealing with another commander. They were dealing with Chris Larabee and where Chris Larabee was concerned, even Ezra was not fooling enough to bet against those odds.

Needing to take the Maverick in one piece gave Chris a lot of room to maneuver even if at the moment, that room was more figurative than literal. Ezra could guess Chris was going to use their need to keep the Maverick intact against them and in Chris Larabee's hands, that was a very powerful advantage indeed.

"Alex," Chris looked at the science officer who was keeping her eye trained on the console before her, ready to warn them at the first sign of incoming fire. "Take over from Ezra. I want you to man the decryption protocol." Without taking a breath, he turned his attention to the security chief. "Ezra as soon as we are in position, I want you to fire a full spread of quantum torpedoes at the Cardassians ships, no warning shots. I'm going to assume you that you know the best place to hit them. I want them out of commission permanently. We've got enough troubles without trying to swat the flies out of our face."

"With absolute pleasure Captain," Ezra responded, allowing himself a satisfied smirk and more than happy to comply with that order. He almost wished Lemar was here to have heard what Chris considered the five Cardassians battle cruisers in comparison to the Jem Haddar and Romulan ships.

"Vin," Chris moved away from his command chair and faced front again before striding towards the helm. He came to a stop next to Vin's place at the ship's con. "We'll only have a few seconds between the Cardassians being hit and the Jem Haddar moving in on us. I want you to break through the Cardy lines and put as much distance between us and this fleet as you can. We can't outrun them but I want a little maneuvering room."

"I'll get her through," the Vulcan drawled and looked back with an expression equal to the calm being displayed by his captain. "You can bet on it." He said with damned unflappable expression, showing the others that strange ability shared between both men that allowed them to communicate without ever needing to put into words what they intended.

Mary who was sitting near both men wondered how these men could manage to remain so composed. Inside, she felt like a thousand bundles of exposed nerve endings and yet those around her, not just Chris and Vin were holding themselves together with ease it seemed. Even JD was keeping his fear reined and Mary could not deny she wished she had that ability. She had been a diplomat for most of her career and had not been involved in enough combat situations to evolve the same ironclad disposition as those around her.

"Engineering." Chris's voice snapped her out of her reverie. "Come in Engineering." The Captain spoke out loud, waiting for a response from the mechanical heart of the Maverick.

"Pemberton here," Julia's voice responded after a few seconds. There was more than a little tension in her voice as she answered him and in the background, the low rumble of people running back and forth, working frantically within the deck could be heard throughout the bridge. Whatever damage the phaser bombardment had done to the ship, Chris was certain it was probably felt more prolifically in engineering than it was on the bridge.

"How are we doing?" Chris asked, not just for himself but also for Ezra whose rigid poker face was more damning about how he felt than any vocalization he might make in regards to the state of her present welfare.

"We're just peachy down here," Julia answered wearily. "You think we could maybe move the ship out of the way when they fire Captain? It just seems like a terrible waste of time for them if we just sort of sat there and let them blow us to pieces."

Chris felt the same wave of affection for Julia as Ezra did at that moment and both men exchanged a knowing glance before Chris continued with a little smile. "Suggestion noted Lieutenant. I'll see what I can do. In the meantime, I thought I might just warn you that in a few seconds, Vin is going to hit maximum warp to get us out of here. When that happens, I want you to divert all power to the front shields. We may have to punch our way through the Cardassian flank to get out of this net they've got us in."

"Understood Sir," Julia nodded. "When the time comes, you'll have all the power to the shields even if I have to go out there and push."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Chris smiled, not surprised the Rutherford had survived to fight her last battle against the Borg when she had Julia Pemberton in Engineering holding her together in one piece.

"The Vorta is waiting," Buck informed Chris who immediately terminated his conversation and turned back to the blank view screen.

Chris met his first officer's gaze and nodded. "Let's see him."

The viewer flicked briefly before Fanaian appeared on screen again. "Captain," he said as soon as he sighted Chris, once again that sickeningly syrupy voice contaminated Chris's bridge. "Your ship cannot take much more of our fire. Why not surrender? I give you my word of honor that no harm will befall any member of your crew."

"That's very kind of you." Chris met the man's gaze through the electronic medium before them and pretended to consider the man's words. "I give you my word of honor that when the time comes I will pledge the same courtesy to you." Without drawing a breath as the Vorta's brow wrinkled in confusion, trying to understand what those enigmatic words meant, Chris changed the tone of his voice from cordial into menacing. "Computer, transmit frequency code Trojan - authorization, Captain Larabee, Christopher - Access Code, Nimrod."

"Transmission relayed!" Alex responded as she saw the computer recognize the captain's personal access code.

"What?" The Vorta was still staring at him through the view screen, bewildered at what had just happened. "What have you done?"

The Vorta did not understand and Chris did not expect him too. Since the end of the Border Wars, the Federation had been certain its troubles with Cardassia was not over. The Federation by nature did not make war and thus the technology discovered through a century of exploration had given it advantages it did not use unless in times of great crisis. Though many would not know it, the Federation code crackers had no peer anywhere in the Alpha Quadrant and since the end of the Border wars, every Cardassian ship had cataloged and stored in Starfleet memory, including the codes for its shield modulation. With access to the shield modulation of a Cardassian ship, torpedoes could be modified to pass through Cardassian shields with no trouble at all.

"Adjustment made for shield modulation!" Ezra announced. "Firing quantum torpedoes from all bays in full spread!"

"On screen!" Chris ordered as the Cardassians ships appeared on the viewer just before the volley of torpedoes Ezra launched caught up with them. The quantum torpedoes, designed by the Federation to pierce the armor of Borg ships, impacted against the hull of the battle cruisers. The view screen glared at them with blinding white light as the detonations flared across the ships' hull. Some were completely enveloped, others had managed to hold off but most were taken completely by surprise.

"Now Vin!" Chris ordered. "Get us out of here, maximum warp!"

The helmsman was already starting to move the great ship forward but Chris's order caused him to propel the Maverick ahead at full speed. The galaxy class starship surged through the cloud of heat and exploding plasma eruptions from the disabled Cardassians ships, leaving a streak of blue and gray as it pierced through the flares of white radiating from the enemy ships as a result of their little 'surprise'. The Maverick rumbled with power as it broke through the enemy line, barely avoiding collision in its haste to leave the scene of the battle. However, under Vin's capable hands, the vessel sailed through the obstacles placed before it, navigating its troubled path with expert precision of the helm.

"The Jem Haddar are giving chase," Alex informed immediately. She could see the signs of their pursuit on the console screen before her. No sooner than they had realized the Maverick managed to slip through the Cardassian net, their thrusters had fired and they began to give chase. The Romulan ship was still holding back, no doubt allowing the Jem Haddar to do the dirty work instead. "Two Cardassians ships have been completely destroyed, the other three have sustained heavy damage. I doubt that they can even maintain life support without help."

"Two down," Chris replied, returning back to his command chair. "That still leaves eight and we are nowhere out of trouble."

"With your permission Captain," Buck glanced at Chris. "I'd like to give you a little more breathing room with Jem Haddar friends."

"By all means," Chris grinned. They were already living on borrowed time and Chris knew perfectly well Buck was capable of surprising him now and then. He hoped this was one of those times.

"Let's slow them down a bit," Buck replied, turning in his seat to the science station now he had the captain's leave to act. "Alex, vent all our waste plasma."

"Aye Sir," Alex complied immediately and let her fingers fly over her console screen. In a second, the order was fulfilled. "We have vented all plasma."

"Ezra," Buck glanced at the security officer. "If you will be so kind."

"I am never one to turn down the request of a superior...well a higher ranking officer anyway." Ezra grinned. "One torpedo at your service."

"Thank you," Buck gave the security man a look. "Fire at will."

The plasma once vented was easily ignitable and throwing a torpedo into a mix would create an explosion of monumental proportions. While the Jem Haddar shields would survive the encounter well enough, the effect upon their sensors was another thing entirely. The resulting explosion would create such a massive influx of energy the sensor array of the enemy ships would be incapable of coping with the overload. For a few seconds at least, the Jem Haddar ships would be completely blind and the Maverick would gain enough time to acquire the distance the Captain required to make his next play for their survival.

The space around the Maverick flared with white energy as the plasma ignited behind them but Vin was the only one not paying attention to the brilliant display of light and color. Everyone immediately shielded their eyes but Vin could only see the console before him as he pushed the Maverick harder and faster than it had ever traveled before. The ship was accelerating at Warp 9.98 and Vin knew he could not keep this pace up much longer without the energy requirements for such a speed draining vital systems to satisfy itself, systems such as the shields and life support.

"Captain, I'm reaching Warp 9.9!" Vin announced. Taking the Maverick to Warp 9.99 was a command decision that had to come from Chris.

"Captain, main power is starting to drain," Alex added her voice to his. "We can't sustain this speed and keep our shields at full strength."

"Where are the Jem Haddar ships?" Chris asked quickly, starting to feel the pressure a little but refusing to allow it to affect him any further than that. His crew needed his faculties intact if he was to save them. "What's their status?"

"They're still attempting to recalibrate their sensor array," Ezra responded. "They are lagging."

Only one chance now and Chris had to take it. It was dangerous and he knew it but the Maverick had no chance in hell of winning this by playing it safe. This battle was so stacked against them the only way Chris could think of surviving, to say nothing at all about winning, was to play against the house and to play it wild.

"Bring us about!" Chris ordered.

"Captain?" Vin was astonished by the order. The rest of his fellow officers shared his reaction similarly. They just spent considerable energy attempting to escape the battlefield and now the Captain was taking them back.

"You heard me!" Chris barked, "turn us around now!"

Vin need not make a second inquiry because Chris's tone of voice was enough to convince him it would not be taken well by his Captain. Praying that Chris had some secret weapon up his sleeve to allow him to disable the shields of the Jem Haddar ship as easily as they had done to the Cardassians, Vin steered the Maverick to veer back the way it came in a tight arch. The great ship executed the move flawlessly even though the energy readings in front of him told the helmsman the Maverick could not keep this up for too long. She was accelerating at top speed nursing wounds caused by enemy fire while at the same time still trying to maintain full shield strength. Something was going to give soon.

"Set course directly for the warbird," Chris ordered once again.

"For the warbird?" Buck looked at Chris, not sure what his Captain was playing at and it was his job to know.

At any other time, Chris might have agreed with Buck's conclusion but not today. "You have trouble hearing me Commander?" Chris turned on him with a sharp glare. "If the Dominion wants the Maverick so bad, they can have her. Right down their throats."

Buck wanted to respond but Chris's gaze made him think better of it and he remained silent. Alex and Ezra were smart enough to keep quiet while Mary and JD hoped their inexperience was the reason why they did not understand what Chris was attempting to do.

"Ezra arm all phaser banks," Chris spoke as the Maverick changed course and began its suicidal run at the Tasmeem. "I want you to fire all phasers, I want so much firepower in the space between us and the Jem Haddar, they'll have no choice but to get clear."

"Yes Sir," Ezra nodded mutely, able to perform that minor miracle but unaware of how they were going to survive when the Jem Haddar came at them full throttle.

"Viewer on," Chris ordered.

The view screen before them revealed a terrifying scene as they headed back the way they had come originally. The wreckage of the Cardassians ships was floating in the air, drifting through space like flotsam after the sinking of a passenger liner of old. Except here, the bodies did not disappear into the depths, they floated through the darkness, their faces a sculpture of agony, causing those who viewed the carnage to hope that they had died from something other than explosive decompression. The other three ships were floating dead in space, no doubt their crews moving frantically to repair them as they saw several billion tons of starship bearing down on them.

"Captain!" Julia Pemberton's voice reached up from Engineering and cried out to Chris. "Captain, you have to reduce speed, I can't maintain shield strength at Warp 9.9. We're taking a heavy pounding from the enemy, the shields are going to buckle."

"Sorry Lieutenant," Chris said shortly. "Can't talk right now but you will maintain shield strength."

"But..."

"Bridge out." Chris cut off the channel. In the view screen, he could see Ezra's handiwork as volley after volley of phaser blasts were hurled at the Jem Haddar ships who were weaving frantically to avoid being destroyed by the Maverick's formidable arsenal.

The Jem Haddar ships were still firing though and every now and then their return fire manage to penetrate the wall of phaser fire Chris ordered Ezra to create. He could see Alex fighting to maintain shield integrity, sealing up the gaps Julia could no carry out in Engineering. He knew he was pushing his ships beyond safety limits but they were not going to get out of this playing it safe. If they did not reach the warbird before she cloaked, they would be in serious trouble and heaven helped them if the Jem Haddar figured that out as well.

The Maverick continued to shudder uneasily as it surged forward. The hits from the Jem Haddar ships were becoming more frequent because phaser power was dwindling and soon they would only have torpedoes to launch at the enemy. Each time the ship took a hit, it rocked precariously and Chris could feel the floor beneath him drop for a moment before attitude control was regained. Every warning system in the bridge was sounding its alert, adding its voice to the human component to desist on the course he was embarking upon.

"One Jem Haddar ship destroyed!" Alex announced.

Indeed as she said that he noticed the flare of brilliance to the edge of the view screen. "One more has fallen back with severe damage. The other two are still maintaining pursuit." As she made that last statement, the console before her suddenly exploded outwards. Alex barely managed to leap out of the way as dangerous projectiles of glass came flying at her. Having suffered the injury once before, the science officer knew how to avoid injuring herself a second time.

"You okay?" Buck asked as she picked herself up from the floor. "Chris, whatever you're going to do, do it fast."

"Romulan warbird dead ahead." Vin declared almost as if he was answering Buck's question for Chris.

Chris looked up and saw the Tasmeem preparing to face whatever the Maverick had in mind. Chris doubted even the Vorta could have foreseen what he was about to say next.

"Vin," Chris took a deep breath and hoped he was right about this. "Take her to ramming speed."

The Larabee Hat Trick

"...ramming speed."

The words hung in the air for a few seconds because no one actually believed it was said. Even Vin found his fingers frozen over the controls that would make the order a reality, wondering if he heard wrong, that his captain had not asked him to do what Vin thought he just did.

Unfortunately, it was no aberration, those words had left Chris and as he stood behind Vin waiting for the helmsman to do as he had been so instructed, Vin knew he had no choice but to obey. It was obedience wrought not out of loyalty or the dedication to duty that refused to let a Starfleet officer deny his Captain but because of the friendship and explicit trust existing between both men. That alone told Vin Chris would never consciously force his ship into a position he could not pull it out of again. Taking a deep breath and taking a leap of faith because he could do nothing else, Vin keyed in the sequence for the request into the console before and felt the ship surge forward.

Emergency klaxons sounded again. This time they signaled the ship�s acceleration into Warp 9.99 and save a great feat of technological magic they did not possess, there was no way the Maverick could cross the warp threshold and reach the speed of Warp 10 without first tearing the ship apart.

"Captain," Alex called from behind Chris as she studied the readings wrought of the klaxons and the increased burst of propulsion as the ship continued on its direct heading towards the warbird in the viewer before them. "I am reading multiple fractures in the structural integrity of the ship. Sir, we have to slow down."

In response to her question, Chris responded coolly. "Maintain speed and course Vin."

Buck could see Chris was not about to be convinced of anything and immediately tapped his com badge, acquiring shipboard communication that would reach every single person on board the Maverick. Like Vin, Buck knew Chris had a plan but whether or not the ship would survive it was another thing entirely. It was a gamble this thing he planned but at the moment, Buck understood it was the only way. Playing it safe was not going to get them out of this, but he hoped playing it wild did not let the Maverick end up the same way.

"All hands," the first officer spoke loudly. "Brace for impact."

Without even seeing what was transpiring across the ship with his own eyes, Buck could imagine it well enough. At this moment, crewmembers were placing themselves in crash position. Parents were placing their children in safe corners of the room, padding their hiding places with cushions and other soft material to lessen the force of the impact if collision was eminent. At this point, Buck was unprepared to say whether it was or not.

"Engineering," Chris spoke up and the ship�s computer immediately opened a communication to the desired deck. He was the only one who seemed to be enduring this entire situation with a modicum of reason. Buck wondered how the man managed to rise above his fear until the first officer realized himself there was no room for the Captain to feel fear, he was too busy trying to save all their lives.

"Captain," Julia�s voice answered, sounding most anxious possibly because she knew how this present course of action was taking its toll upon the ship more than anyone else on board the Maverick. "You have to slow down. I can�t maintain shield strength if you push the ship this hard with all phasers firing! As it is we�re having trouble maintaining structural integrity. The Maverick was not designed for this kind of stress!"

"Julia," Chris spoke again, sounding as if he had not heard a word she had just said. "I want you to take the phasers offline and deflect all energy to maintain this speed. I want you to power down all unoccupied areas and divert that extra energy to the front shields. The structural integrity will hold. We�re not keeping this pace for much longer. Can you do that for me, Lieutenant?"

Julia did not answer for a few seconds and those who knew the engineer with any depth understood she was acquiescing to the Captain�s request, even if she was not answering him yet.

"Alright Sir," she responded quietly. "I�ll do what I can but if the structural integrity goes, it won�t matter if we don�t have shield strength. She�ll crack apart like an egg."

"Noted," Chris answered and terminated the line.

"The warbird is hailing us," JD exclaimed, staring at Chris with the hope the attempt at communication might convince the Captain reducing speed might be prudent. "Shall I put them through Sir?"

"Negative," Chris answered abruptly, turning his attention to Ezra.

The security officer whose eyes were fixed firmly on the console before him because at this moment, he was all that was keeping the Jem Haddar ships in pursuit from bombarding the Maverick with all the power they were capable of hurling upon the lone Federation ship. Ezra had some idea of the gamble Chris was attempting and while he was one who lauded playing the odds, he was not so certain this time fortune was in their favor. Particularly after the Captain ordered the phasers taken off line.

"Ezra, I want you to keep those Jem Haddar ships off our back until we can lock onto the warbird. Use quantum torpedoes if you have to but do it. I want a clear path to the Vorta." Chris said firmly.

"Aye Captain," Ezra nodded, showing no signs the occasion was getting to him even if the urgency was pressing up against his spine like nobody�s business. There were three Jem Haddar ships closing in on the Maverick with relentless determination as they attempted to sway the great ship from continuing its course towards its Romulan counterpart.

In the viewer before him, Chris could see the Romulan ship looming larger and larger on the screen. The disabled Cardassian ships had limped away, having seen what was coming and had no wish to be on the collision end of a galaxy class starship. The blast radius resulting from such a catastrophe had the power to destroy every one of the Cardassian ships with their shields presently disabled.

"Now I�ll talk to them." Chris looked at JD.

The ensign let out a sigh of relief and immediately patched a frequency of communication between the two ships. The Vorta appeared on the screen in less than a second, decidedly less calm than he had been during their earlier conversation. Even Lemar was in the background, appearing a little nervous and Chris felt some measure of satisfaction and considering what they were putting his ship and his crew through, he could still make them sweat a little.

"Captain, what are you doing?" The Vorta demanded upon seeing the human, his response being a little closer to genuine since the fear in his eyes was apparent. He composed himself soon enough though and the smooth voice returned once again as he remembered himself. "You cannot seriously think we would be tricked into believing you would destroy yourself and your ship by this action?"

"I am never anything but serious when it comes to my ship." Chris answered calmly, his aloof and indifferent manner a stark contrast to the noticeable urgency in the Vorta�s expression. "If you had any sense, you would be a little concerned yourself."

"You would not dare risk the lives of all those on board with this pathetic attempt at a bluff!" The Cardassian bellowed behind Fanaian, who looked over his shoulder and glared at Lemar to be silent.

"And yet I�m not the one who seems to be sweating." Chris smiled, wishing he could have two minutes alone with the Cardassian inside his brig. After the part he played in this hoax, Chris would have been delighted to let Alex have her revenge upon Lemar, the way she intended when the bastard had first come on board the Maverick.

"If you intend to frighten us," the Vorta said after a moment when he had ordered one of his Jem Hadar to ensure Lemar did not intrude on his discussion with Chris, much to the delight of Alex. "I think you will find the Dominion does not scare easily."

"Romulan warbird 5000 kilometers and closing," Alex announced loud enough for the enemy to hear.

"And neither do I." Chris continued. "Either you and your Jem Haddar ships withdraw, or I�ll give you the Maverick for however long it takes for the blast to vaporize all of us. Now unless I have your surrender, I'll keep my ship on this heading."

"Surrender!" Fanaian almost blanched at the thought. "We outnumber your vessel seven to one! Do you really think this pitiful attempt will make us capitulate?"

In truth, Chris did not think he had the faintest chance of forcing them to surrender but then surrender was not what this was about. The more time Chris kept Fanaian talking, the less time the Vorta would have to consider his situation clearly until the last minute when he would be forced to use the warbird's cloak as a means of escape. The ship was beginning to shudder as the Jem Haddar continued its attack upon the Maverick with relentless determination. Chris could feel the vibrations in the hull and through the floor. On the seat beside him, Mary's fingers were dug into the arm rest of her seat, her knuckles turning white from fear. He wished he could take the time to reassure her they were not all going to die but unfortunately, at this moment he was sure of nothing himself.

The view screen before them showed the space alive with color flaring across the black canvas of stars, from the detonation of multiple quantum torpedoes to the energetic reaction of Jem Haddar shields as they attempted to absorb the formidable arsenal being flung at them. The enemy was not simply taking fire but returning it with equal intensity. Each blast impacting against the shields caused a low rumble of sound to reverberate throughout the duranium platted hull of the Maverick, until everyone could feel for themselves the eminent structural collapse Julia Pemberton warned with every strained groan of the ship.

"Romulan ship dead ahead!" Alex exclaimed as the space between the Maverick and the warbird suddenly began to evaporate.

Chris held his breath in anticipation, feeling his heart pound in his chest because this was the moment of truth. In less than ten seconds, the Maverick would either emerge victorious in this most ancient strength between two opponents or be destroyed utterly in the collision that was almost certainly going to take out any other ships in the vicinity as well. Suddenly, the image of the Romulan ship in front of them began to shimmer and Chris found his voice escaping him even before the thought had formed any cohesive shape in his mind. "Ezra, forget the Jem Haddar, fire all quantum torpedoes dead ahead! Full spread!"

"Oh good Lord, yes!" Ezra realised in the split second it took for his fingers to comply with the order, understanding completely what it was Chris had done. It was sheer brilliance and pure Chris Larabee. "Torpedoes away!"

The warbird had barely time to complete dissolve before them on the view screen when the spread of torpedoes ejected from the firing bays of the Maverick met their mark. The explosion was spectacular and traveled across the hull of the enormous ship, sending heat and exploding gasses in all directions. However, Chris did not take time to enjoy the sight because, despite its dire straits, the Maverick was still bound directly for her. It would not be long before those explosions reached apogee and Chris knew he did not want to be anywhere near the Tasmeem when she finally reached critical mass.

"Hard to port Vin!" Chris shouted. "NOW!"

Using more skill than Vin Tanner ever thought he possessed, he forced the Maverick to make that tight arch, pulling sharply away from the exploding warbird with a fraction of a second before several million tons of starship collided into the beleaguered vessel. The Maverick decelerated as she pulled away, dropping her speed from the perilous 9.99 to a more sensible velocity sure to ease their engineer's nerves.

"You crazy son of a bitch!" Buck laughed out loud, slapping Chris on the back, unable to help himself as the insanity Chris had forced upon them earlier had evolved into sheer genius.

"That was outstanding Captain!" Even JD could not keep his exuberance from showing as he stared in adoration at his hero.

Chris was not about to accept all their applause just yet. There were still three Jem Haddar ships in pursuit and they were far from what could be deemed as being anywhere safe. "Vin, get us to the Vikaris Quasar at best speed."

"What just happened?" Mary found herself asking. She knew they had scored a victory and the Romulan warbird shrinking in the view screen the more distance the Maverick put between itself and the vessel hurtling towards destruction. A few seconds later, the entire view screen came alive with the brilliant flare of that final conflagration when the Tasmeem met its fiery demise. The entire bridge came alive with cheers at its complete destruction and she could see friends cheering, lovers holding each other tightly and the universal feeling of victory permeated the bridge with the possibility they might all get out of this with their skins intact.

However, she still could not understand how that occurred. Being a novice to space battles on this scale and being on the front lines only added to her puzzlement at the expertise Chris had wielded so formidably to achieve this end. Mary had assumed that Chris's entire purpose in driving the ship towards the enemy with nothing less than ramming speed had been to unnerve the Vorta and send the warbird into retreat but obviously that was not what had taken place.

"The Captain just pulled a rabbit out of his hat, that's what!" Buck grinned.

"I don't understand," she looked at Chris, unable to be unaffected by the first officer's grin but still somewhat confused by what had transpired.

"By heading towards the war bird at ramming speed," Buck explained once he composed himself. "Chris scared Fanaian enough to make the Vorta order the Tasmeem into raising its cloak to escape and as most of us know when a Romulan ship raises its cloak...."

"It has to drop its shields." Mary exclaimed, almost feeling a wave of satisfaction when the light of understanding reached her as well and she stared at Chris with a broadening smile of admiration. "Very well done Captain."

"Thanks," Chris answered abruptly, hardly noticing the compliment. His eyes were still fixed on the view screen and the three Jem Haddar ships bearing down hard on the Maverick. "We're not out of this yet."

In achieving that little miracle, the ship had been pushed to its limit and while the Romulan ship was destroyed, the threat was no means ended. With three Jem Haddar ships pounding the Maverick relentlessly during the time he had been attempting to force the Vorta's hand, the starship's energy reserves were dwindling rapidly. They did not have much time before the shields buckled completely. All it took was another massive show of force from the Jem Haddar and they would be wide open to attack.

"Engineering," Chris called out again. "What's our status?"

This time Julia did not answer rapidly and while Ezra was paving the way behind the Maverick with a goodly amount of torpedoes to force the Jem Haddar to break off pursuit, the security man still managed to look up in concern at the continued silence.

"Lieutenant Pemberton," Chris saw the fear in his eyes and repeated himself. "Come in!"

"I'm sorry Captain!" Julia's voice was heard a moment later, followed by a loud series of coughs. There was hissing in the background and Engineering seemed in nothing less than a state of utter pandemonium. "We're losing power. The phaser bombardment from the enemy ships has weakened the magnetic containment field of the anti-matter core. I am trying to prevent a core breach. We've lost forty percent of reserve power and there are hull breaches on deck 12, 27 and 31. We've also had emergency decompression in the main shuttle bay. There are fluctuations in our shield strength, I have my people trying to reinforce it or the Jem Haddar are going to be able to transport straight through our shields."

"Noted lieutenant," Chris said quietly, expecting it to be this bad even though nothing took the place of having it told to him so starkly. "Julia, you did a good job. You held us together." He made that final offering of gratitude. Even though she was not on the bridge, the part she played was no less vital to their continued survival. If they were to be destroyed today, Chris wanted her to know that.

There was a slight pause as she considered his words and almost everyone on the bridge shared Chris's gratitude towards the young Chief Engineer who managed to hold the ship together while they had been so determined to fly her apart. "Thank you, Sir. Now I've got to get back to my ship. You've left a hell of a mess for me to clean up Captain." There was the familiar teasing in her voice as she made that last remark.

"I apologize," he grinned slightly. "Larabee out."

"Captain," Alexandra Styles spoke up the minute he had terminated the line with engineering. Something in her voice made him turn around immediately. Alex's expression when he faced her seemed disturbed and his science officer disturbed was never a good thing.

"What is it?" Chris demanded.

"One Jem Haddar ship is maintaining pursuit. In fact, its put all its power into reaching us at any cost." Alex met Chris's gaze, not comprehending and if she did, what she understood gave her a very bad feeling. It was an emotion Chris could very well understand because the thoughts were coming together in his head even as she spoke.

"Aren't they all?" Buck asked, taking note of the troubled expression on both their faces and feeling this gnawing in his gut, growing in intensity the more he saw them trying desperately to figure out what the enemy was playing at this time.

"No," Alex shook her head in answer. "The other two have fallen back to safer speeds. They are still in pursuit but they're not going at it as hard as the lead ship. It's pursuing us at Warp 9.99, diverting all power to propulsions just to reach us."

"Can we outrun it?" Mary asked nervously, hating it when Chris went quiet like this because it only seemed to indicate the worse.

"No," Alex shook her head. "That stunt with the Romulan warbird has drained all our systems to critical levels. If we try matching its speed then Julia is not going to be able to stabilize the core and we will have anti-matter containment failure and warp core breach. The Dominion won't have to finish us off, we'll go up like a Roman candle."

"Thank you for that colorful description Commander," Ezra winced as he tried to guess what stratagem the lone Jem Haddar ship was attempting to carry out. Did it not know that the minute it came within sights of the Maverick's targeting screen, he was going to blast it out of the sky? "I do not understand what this vessel is attempting to accomplish," Ezra spoke out loud, hoping his Captain might have the answer he did not. "Surely the enemy must know we will be able to obliterate it out of our sky the minute it attempts to fire upon us? One Jem Haddar ship does not have the fire power to incapacitate us."

Chris saw the Jem Haddar ship closing and watched Ezra prepare to fire when suddenly, the vessel moved into a series of neat maneuvers, skillfully avoiding the torpedoes. The phasers were off line and in order to fire again, Ezra had to recalibrate the torpedoes to make another shot. It was during this margin of time the Jem Haddar further accelerated, pouring so much speed into its acceleration, there was no way it would be able to keep it up for long and when its power reserves had exhausted itself, it would be lying dead in space.

Chris continued to stare at the ship, trying to understand what it was doing. It certainly did not have the fire power to cause significant damage to the Maverick as Ezra had said and unless the captain of the vessel was preparing to hurl itself into the galaxy class starship's path there was little it could do to halt their escape. Unless...a very ugly notion unfolded inside his mind.

"Oh shit!" Chris swore, "Vin, evasive maneuvers now! It's not going to shoot at us, its going to ram us!"

No sooner than he said it, Chris watched in horror as the Jem Haddar warship used the narrow margin of time it took Ezra to realign the targeting scanner of the torpedoes, to close the distance between the two vessels. It seemed almost biblical, like David and Goliath, Chris thought absurdly as the smaller ship sailed towards the Maverick and slammed hard into the port nacelle. The impact of the ship against the pride of the Federation fleet was nothing less than devastating. If they had thought the initial blast the Maverick had taken at the onset of the battle was bad, it was nothing compared to the suicide collision of the Jem Haddar warship into the Maverick.

Almost everyone went flying through the air as the ship surged sideways, Chris was thrown to the floor. He saw Alex hit the wall and Ezra rolling across the ground. Consoles exploded, raining glass around their ears. A length of conduit dropped down above JD and the ensign barely had time to leap out of his chair to keep from being fried by several thousand watts of power. The viewer in front of him shattered and Chris threw his body over Mary, covering her from the spray of glass raining against him like a tidal wave of sharp jagged pieces.

Vin dove beneath the helm controls and just in time to avoid from being injured severely since the con was right in the front of the bridge and he was positioned closest to the view screen. As the devastation continued, the bridge was bathed in the color of crimson as emergency lighting kicked into being. For a few seconds, all was quiet following the collision. Everyone was too afraid to move in the aftermath until a sharp shrill sound screamed loudly in their ears, cutting through their astonishment and reminding them if they thought things were bad now, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Alex staggered to her feet, wiping the blood off her cheek as she returned to her console, one of the few not destroyed following the impact with the Jem Haddar ship. She cleared the glass off the screen in order to see what was happening and then wished she hadn't.

"The two Jem Haddar ships are closing." She answered with a strained voice as she saw Chris getting to his feet and helping Mary to hers. Vin returned to his position at the con but not before he had a chance to look in her direction to ensure she survived the impact. Ezra too was on his feet and returning to his station at tactical. The side of the security chief's face was red and his cheek was swelling with discoloring from where he hit the floor.

"Damage report!" Chris demanded.

"The Jem Haddar ship hit one of our nacelles, destroying�" she examined the readings on the console before her. "Three decks. Our warp engines are off line and we are floating dead in space. By the looks of it, Engineering is attempting to reroute power so that we can have partial impulse."

"What about our shields?" Chris asked, his worst fears confirmed as he listened to the state of his ship. At this moment, he could not even bring himself to ask how many people had been on those three decks when it was obliterated.

"We have no shields." Alex looked up at him somberly. "Our shields are completely gone. The collision overloaded the shield generator and buckled it. I'm reading massive destabilization to the warp core so I'm assuming Engineering is attempting to correct that problem before attempting to deal with our shields and our lack of warp capability."

"Captain!" JD fairly shouted and brought all eyes to him. The young man was kneeling over Buck Wilmington who was lying on his back, unconscious. A piece of glass had embedded itself deep into the man's left side and his head was bleeding profusely from a gash incurred when the view screen shattered. "I think he's hurt bad!"

"Sick Bay!" Mary tapped her com badge immediately, trying to feel useful in the face of all this damage. "We need a medical crew in here right now. Commander Wilmington is injured!"

"I'm sending a team immediately!" Nathan Jackson's voice replied full of urgency. "We've got lots of hurt down here Captain!"

"He needs someone now!" Chris barked. "Get someone up here." The Captain said as he hurried to his old friend. Mary was already there, having some medical training in her past but not enough to give Buck the help he needed.

"How is he?" Chris asked.

"He's bad Chris," Mary replied. "If he doesn't get help soon�."

"What?" JD demanded. "What's going to happen?"

"Ensign," Chris spoke firmly. "Get to your station. Mary will take care of Buck. I want you to send a priority one distress call to any Federation ship in the area. We should be out of their jamming range now." The order was calculated to take JD's mind off Buck and Chris wished there was some distraction to allow him the same courtesy when suddenly, the computer's cool dulcet tones spoke up and granted him his wish.

"Intruder alert."

They were being boarded.

Intruder Alert

In Engineering, Julia Pemberton had no knowledge of the danger approaching her at warp speed, too involved with the attempt to re-initialize the declining containment field surrounding the antimatter powering the Maverick�s engines, to worry about such incidental matters. As far as she was concerned, the battle outside was the purview of the bridge and the current state of the Maverick was hers.

Anti-matter was perhaps one of the most powerful sources of energy in existence, used to power nearly all warp ships in existence by the reaction caused when it came into contact with normal matter. Initial testing with anti-matter had been a catastrophic affair with whole stations where the research was being conducted destroyed into utter finality. Eventually, the powers that be learned anti-matter energy could be harnessed safely within magnetic confinement fields. Once the genie was returned to its bottle, more reasonable scientific work progressed.

When Alexandra Styles explained the collapse of the containment field was more of a threat than the Dominion fleet outside the ship, she was not exaggerating. Should the field collapse and the anti-matter come into contact with normal matter, even an atomic particle of it, the resounding explosion would not only obliterate the Maverick and the Jem Haddar warships but quite conceivably tear a hole into subspace itself. Everyone on the engineering deck knew that and while Julia dispatched a crew to deal with the rest of the problems the Maverick was currently experiencing, it was the restructuring of the containment field that occupied most of her attention.

Julia remained poised over the controls regulating the containment field, working feverishly to key in the correct sequence as she saw the field strength on her terminal decreasing steadily. Once it dropped to below 15 percent, they would have warp core breach and with all the systems damaged at this time, there would be no way to eject the core into the vastness of space. In fact, there would be not much anyone could do but die. Julia had too much planned for her next vacation to let such an eventuality come about.

"Intensify the power output to the dilithium matrix!"

Chanu, her Assistant Chief Engineer, immediately let his fingers fly over his station as he attempted to comply with her order. Like herself, Chanu knew what was at stake if they failed in this undertaking. Across the Engineering Deck, their situation was prolific by all the repair crews working at the same pace they were, trying to manage the miracle that was expected by those on the bridge following the collision with the Jem Haddar warship. There was no mistaking the urgency of the situation. Until warp power and phaser banks were online once again, the ship was effectively crippled. At this stage, the Maverick could neither run from its attackers nor protect itself when they finally converged upon the wounded starship.

"Field strength is starting to climb." Julia declared tautly, watching the readings on the screen indicating the containment field was beginning to repair itself. Chanu's action of intensifying the power output had given her stabilization efforts the boost it needed to reconstruct the magnetic field. Julia watched the field surge upwards, moving out of the red danger zone and returning to the safer blue levels.

Glancing at the warp core, the heart of the Maverick was no longer pounding erratically and the uncertain hum had returned to a definitive rhythm indicating its well being. Julia could tell the state of her ship by the sounds it made and at the moment, she was hearing all the noises she equated to her ship becoming healthy again. Wiping the sweat and grime from her brow, her eyes scanned the length of the Engineering Deck and saw the damage caused in the aftermath of the collision with the Jem Haddar ship. Beams had fallen to the floor, terminals were flashing intermittently with malfunction, and the emergency lights of a red alert still flared and then subsided at regular intervals.

"Alright," she looked up at her engineering crew, all attempting to put out the dozen brush fires ignited following the impact. "Lieutenant Chanu and I will attempt to bring the warp engines online. Lieutenants Biehn, Sanjeet and Ensign Revellos, I want you to get started on bringing back the phasers."

"Yes ma�am," came a relieved reply from the blond engineer as she and her two comrades hurried off to undertake the order they had just been given.

"Lieutenant," someone spoke up, she did not look to see who because the whole place was filled with shadows. "We have hull breaches on three decks. The hardware between here and the EPS relay has been damaged. Emergency force fields are not coming on."

That was serious. "Okay, Siobhan and Chang. Go seal off those breaches."

With instructions given to her Engineering Team who now hurried off to complete their assigned duties, Julia turned back to the station controlling the warp engines. She knew as soon as internal communications were re-established on the ship, the Captain would be calling for that very same purpose. She knew for a fact the bridge had not experienced the brunt of the collision but like the rest of the ship, the displacement from the impact was severe. She told herself not to think about Ezra, to keep her mind focused on what needed to be done. He was the Chief of Security and if anyone on this ship knew how to take care of himself, it was Ezra. She had to believe that or else her fears for him would be her undoing and the ship needed her too much for that at the moment.

Suddenly, she heard the slight shimmer of a transporter beam coming into play and Julia instinctively turned towards it. Although the sensor array had not been damaged in the collision, no one had been paying much attention to what was taking place beyond the walls of the ship. That was the bridge crew's job, not Engineering. However, as she saw what materialized on the floor of her deck, Julia knew what was happening outside was about to make itself felt very prolifically. She had heard about them but had not been in a situation to allow for a face to face confrontation.

There was no mistaking the four figures transporting into her Engineering Deck was undoubtedly a Jem Haddar warrior.

"Chanu!" Julia turned to her deputy because he was closest to the weapons locker. "Break out the phasers!"

She had little or no time to react after that sentence before the Jem Haddar reacted. The lead warrior raised his blaster to fire and with agility she did not know she had Julia leaped behind a console just before the blast turned the place she was standing black from the shot. Landing hard onto her side, she felt the snap of bone and the petite redhead let out a sharp cry as she felt her arm break and saw the Jem Haddar advancing into Engineering.

Chanu had reached the weapons locker and pulled out a phaser rifle. He glanced in her direction as he held another in his hands and slid towards her on the floor. That was the last thing he had time to do before the Jem Haddar opened fire on him. The Cherokee Indian by birth immediately threw himself out of the way and rolled into an upright position before firing. The shot caught the enemy squarely in the chest, sending the warrior flying backward. The other Jem Haddar immediately rose their weapon to shoot the officer who had taken the lives of one of their comrades. Across the engineering deck, the other members of the engineering staff had scattered.

"Don�t shoot!" Julia shouted as she saw where their fire would hit if they pulled the trigger on their weapons.

Julia dropped the gun and stepped forward, holding her arm in pain but refusing to let it interfere with what she had to do. She would not allow them to kill Chanu. She raised her uninjured arm as best she could and glanced at him, ordering the assistant chief engineer to do the same. She took a deep breath and proceeded forward, feeling her fear escalate as she approached the three very formidable looking warriors.

The Jem Haddar was all about armor. The texture of their skin looked reptilian but they were nothing so simple. Genetically engineered for the purpose of battle and nothing else, their bodies reflected the design in every way. They were big, sturdy looking creatures, with a dense skull with a crown of bony protrusions and of course, the trademark tubes that led from their necks to the pack slung over their shoulders. The tubes fed them the White stored in the compartments against their backs.

Two sets of weapons immediately turned their barrels at her and Julia took a deep breath, holding her hands up as she attempted to convey a look of surrender. "Look, you can�t fire your weapons in here. You could hit the warp core," she glanced at the construct in the center of the deck. "It will destroy the entire ship. You too Chanu."

Chanu was reluctant to do that but saw that she had some plan in mind. He was not about to question her until he knew what exactly that was. As much as he might dislike the idea, he knew he also had to give up his weapon in order to convince the Jem Haddar they did not have to shoot to protect themselves. The gun clattered noisily on the floor and Julia offered him a silent note of thanks as she continued her approach.

The Jem Haddar was not stupid and he knew that she was not lying. The ship had sustained grievous injuries by the collision with one of their own and the Founders had decreed the Maverick be returned to Dominion space intact. Damaging the warp core would also destroy the Maverick and to the Jem Haddar, sworn servants of the Founders, this was not at all acceptable.

"You are the Chief Engineer?" One of them asked her.

"Yes," Julia replied, very conscious of those guns aimed in her direction. She would have no more firing in her Engineering deck but neither was she prepared to turn her ship over to these men. "I am Chief Engineer Julia Pemberton. Tell me what you want to do and I swear I�ll do it, just don�t hurt anybody."

Chanu stared at her, wondering what she was attempting to do because he knew her well enough to know Julia would never consciously cooperate with the enemy.

"You will disable main power." The Jem Haddar repeated.

"I can�t," she answered shakily. "Shutting down main power might disrupt the magnetic containment field. The collision with your craft has damaged the autonomic controls of the antimatter core. We had to run it off main power to prevent a core breach. If we shut down main power, it will collapse the field and we will have antimatter exposure."

"This is an attempt at deception," the Jem Haddar responded, his weapon dropping in order to make a more physical argument. "You will comply."

He slammed into the side of her head with a backhanded blow with enough force to send Julia sprawling in the direction she came. Although her cheeks flared in pain and she felt warm blood running thick rivulets down her nose while her broken arm screamed in protest, she was alert and mindful of what had to be done.

"Computer!" She shouted. "Erect Level 1 force field at Section 3, Grid 7 � Chief Engineer Pemberton - authorization code 221324!"

The eyes of the Jem Haddar warrior who had struck her widened in anger as he realized how deep the deception she played on him really went. He had little time to do anything about it before the force field dropped its shimmering veil right in front of his eyes. He raised his weapon to fire but whatever escaped from the barrel of his phaser was harmlessly absorbed by the force field surrounding himself and his party.

Julia let out a sigh of relief as she staggered to her feet, her arm was crooked oddly and her lips were slick with blood from the ooze coming from her nose. The Jem Haddar was trying desperately to escape their confinement to no avail. Chanu immediately came towards her.

"Somebody call security!" He sang up in the wake of confrontation. "Tell them we need help down here." With that Chanu turned back to Julia, "you need to get to Sickbay."

"Like hell I do," Julia snapped, wiping the blood from her nose and declaring. "I�ve got no time for Sick Bay. We need to get warp power online so we can get the hell out of here before more of their friends," she gestured at the Jem Haddar, "come looking for them."

Nathan Jackson trusted no one to make their way to the bridge other than himself. When he had heard the sound of intruder alert sounding through his ship, he knew the safest place he could be at the moment was inside the confines of his sickbay. It was not as if there were not more than enough casualties within the place to warrant his continued presence but the call from the bridge had just enough ring of desperation about it to drag the Chief Medical Officer out into the open. As he hurried down the corridor immediately following his emergence from sickbay, the evidence of chaos was prolific indeed.

While it was difficult to keep appraised of the battle raging with the Dominion ever since the Jem Haddar had engaged the Maverick, Nathan guessed they were holding their own to some extent. Those who were in Four Corners had seen the destruction of the Romulan ship and had reported that experience until the collision forced them to seek medical treatment. It did not take the doctor long to reach the turbo lifts and he knew he was fortunate indeed because the cry of the ship�s computer informing them on an intruder alert, could only mean the Jem Haddar was on board the Maverick.

Stepping into the turbo lift, he felt some measure of gratitude knowing he made it unaccosted and was none too glad to see the doors coming to a close upon entering its confines. The corridor he just left was dimly lit with emergency lighting indicating whatever damage the Maverick incurred was severe. Emergency lighting usually appeared whenever the ship had lost main power. The floor of the ship was slightly tilted which meant they had lost attitude control and were most likely floating dead in space. Nathan suddenly felt a surge of concern, not only as a physician, for those in the bridge but a more personal fear his friends might have been injured.

True, he did not spend a lot of time on the bridge but the camaraderie that formed between the senior staff of the Maverick was something he felt most profoundly. From their weekly dinners together to their Friday night card games where it would end up being a standoff between Ezra and Alex, to the time he, Chris, Vin, and Buck had gotten drunk in that strange bar on Aldebraan. A small smile crossed Nathan's lips when he recalled the farce that had been that evening. It ended up with Mary Travis having to bail them out from the local constabulary because of an insult to a tribal elder involving two dancing girls and a bowl of jelly. Even now, Nathan found himself smirking as Chris tried to explain his way out of that one to Mary.

The humming of the turbo lift snapped him out of such jovial thoughts when it began to move and even the normally soothing sound of the transport seemed strained as it struggled to reach its destination. Nathan considered himself lucky he did not have to climb up something like fifteen decks to reach the bridge, having no fondness for Jeffreys tubes. Even the illumination inside the lift was dim and Nathan guessed the ship had to conserve power in any way to still continue to function.

When the lift finally came to a stop, Nathan was shocked at the state of the bridge. He doubted anything he saw so far had shocked him as much as the sight of the central hub of the Maverick being in such a state. Not even the wounded he had seen in the sickbay had been able to take his breath away as seeing the bridge like this. Nathan could not explain why it was but he could not deny it either.

"Nathan!" JD exclaimed. "Thank God you're here!" The young man immediately hurried towards the doctor and met him no sooner than Nathan managed to step out of the doorway leading to the bridge.

Everything on the bridge remained in a state of flux with JD attempting to contact any ship in the vicinity capable of helping them out of the situation they were presently embroiled. The senior officers on the ship were attempting to gain attitude control while Alex tried desperately to bring up the shields even though the effort was proving difficult with main power still offline. Ezra was trying to raise internal communications to no avail and was relying upon his com badge to coordinate some form of defense against the intruders who were on board the Maverick.

Mary, on the other hand, kept close to Buck, trying to force her knowledge of first aid to keep him alive even though they all knew that it was next to impossible. He needed the help of a real doctor, one who could tell that his left ventricle was damaged and he was bleeding to death inside with an idea of how to stop it. Chris was seated on his command chair, attempting to raise anybody he could while Vin remained beneath the sensor grid, trying to get internal sensors to detect just how many Jem Haddar were on board the Maverick.

"Did you see any Jem Haddar?" Chris asked as Nathan made a beeline to Buck, more concerned about the first officer than offering any kind of report.

"No," Nathan answered quickly, barely registering the question as he came to a halt in front of Buck and dropped to his knees. Buck was unconscious and as Nathan examined the wound beneath the slick wet of his uniform, the healer decided it was just as well. Buck Wilmington was as close to dying as any man could be at this moment. The wound on his head was superficial but the one under his uniform was not. He deduced immediately the rough position of the wound to have done considerable damage to the big man's heart.

"I have to get him to Sick Bay," Nathan said after a moment. "I can't do anything for him here."

"We have no transporter control," Chris answered. "We'll have to carry him."

"I'll go with him Sir," JD volunteered immediately and Chris knew while Buck was in this condition, he was not going to get any sense out of the boy anyway. Besides, if the Jem Haddar were smart, they were probably making their way to the bridge as the Maverick's senior officers discussed Buck Wilmington's fate.

"Alright," Chris nodded.

"Chris," Mary stood up and came to him. "I have to go find William." She felt guilty about abandoning him but with the enemy on the ship with them, she needed to see for herself that her son was safe. Besides, she was hardly needed here.

If Chris had heard that thought, he would have certainly told Mary he needed her but he understood she had to go. If it were his child out there, Lord knows he would hardly waste time asking permission, he would already be running after Adam. She stayed with him on the bridge because she cared about him and to be there in this tense situation even though she could have gone to safety long before this. He loved her for it but he also understood that with Mary, Billy would always come first, no matter how she felt about Chris.

"Go." He said firmly as JD and Nathan started to lift Buck off the ground. Mary met his gaze for a few seconds as things passed between their eyes that were laden with emotion. She did not want to go and he could see she was torn between her feelings for him and her need to reach her son. Although there was no doubt in his mind he would be the loser if he came between her and her child, Chris also understood how much she cared for him.

"Thank you." She whispered her eyes misty as she turned away from him, unable to continue the stare because it would only make her powerless to leave. Mary was almost grateful when Ezra's voice interrupted them.

"Captain, I cannot coordinate my people from up here. I need to join my security team. I will provide an escort to Doctor Jackson in bringing the Commander to sickbay. Then I am going to mount some kind of a defense before the Jem Haddar reaches the saucer section and attempt to coerce you into handing over the ship by making hostages of the civilians."

"Alright," Chris nodded in understanding, not liking the idea of the civilians falling to that fate very much either. "I am going to stay here. The Jem Haddar knows while I still have control of the bridge, they will not take the Maverick. I can set the ship for auto destruct from here, so they will be coming."

"Captain," Ezra looked at him not at all happy at that idea. Mary turned sharply to him as well, disliking it even less. "They will kill you before they allow you to do that."

"That's right," Chris answered, "I would say that we would be a motivating factor in coming to the bridge, don't you think?"

None of the senior staff found that remark at all comforting even though they were certain of what the Captain was attempting to accomplish by such actions. The Jem Haddar knew Chris was the only obstacle left in gaining control of the Maverick and quite a formidable one at that if he could order the starship to self-destruct. He could also lock out computer control so nothing could be retrieved from its database, rendering the entire purpose of the Dominion's mission to this sector of space to find the White, a failure.

"We're staying with him." Vin declared, glancing at Alex who nodded at him with a faint smile of agreement. "No Cardy, no Jem Haddar or goddamn anything else is getting into this bridge. They got to come through me first."

Chris threw the young man a smile and knew it too, that Vin would be at his side no matter how bad things got and they were going to get very bad indeed. Until the warp engines were back online, they were at the mercy of the Jem Haddar ships and possibly the Cardassians too. "Get going Ezra," Chris ordered quietly. "The Dominion has too much leverage over us as it is. If they get to the saucer section, they'll use those people to force me to turn the ship over to them and I won't let that happen, under any circumstances."

Ezra nodded in understanding, perfectly aware of what Chris was trying to say to him. Turning over the ship to the Dominion would mean sentencing billions to die instead of the one thousand people on the Maverick. In a situation like this, it came down to simple numbers. The survival of the Federation was far more important than the lives of the Maverick's crew. If he were forced into it, he would not hesitate to make the decision required.

"Captain!" Alex called out. "I'm receiving a transmission from the Jem Haddar ship."

Everyone went quiet as they stared at the science officer. It took a minute before Chris finally spoke. "What do they want?"

Alex swallowed thickly because even though the chances of it were remote, hearing it left the taste of ash in her mouth. "Our unconditional surrender."

Hostage Situation

The word hung in the air and though it had been spoken, no one could comment. All eyes were on the Captain because it was his thoughts that would make or break the situation. The enemy had called for surrender and justifiably so. The Maverick was in distress and no longer capable of fighting the battle against the enemies it had so spectacularly held off against, despite overwhelming odds. With their inability to flee thanks to the warp engines being offline and boarding parties beaming onto the Maverick, it felt like the great ship was bleeding from a thousand wounds and there was no way to staunch the flow. So Chris Larabee made a decision.

If the Maverick was going to die, then she was taking everyone with her.

"Are we capable of transmitting?" Chris asked Alex a few seconds later.

"Yes," she nodded. "Short range is still effective."

"Good," Chris nodded and allowed his gaze to sweep across the faces around him as he came to his decision on what would be his answer to the enemy. "You can tell them to kiss my ass. The only way they're taking my ship is in a very small box because that's all that will be left of her when I turn her into radioactive dust. You tell them that if they don't get clear, they can join us because that's the only way we are surrendering."

"In those words?" Alex asked with a perfectly straight face.

"In those words," Chris replied and then added with a tone of voice that was absolutely menacing and not to be argued with at any costs. "No woman on board this ship is going to a Cardassian rape camp. Not while I'm their captain, not while I'm alive. Is that understood?"

He glared at all the men on the bridge and made it certain they understood what he meant by that statement. If anything were to happen to him, Chris would expect them to take the necessary steps to ensure such a fate did not fall upon any female on the ship. After what Alex had gone through, he was fairly certain no woman would endure such hell if they could be given an alternative, even one as final as death.

A silent note of agreement rippled through the bridge with everyone present accepting what he charged them to undertake should the situation deteriorate to that conclusion. A moment was all that was needed and in all truth, all the time that they had. Chris crossed the floor of his damaged bridge, feeling a stab of blinding hatred for those who had brought his ship to this state and nestled himself in the command chair. He did not look at Mary because to look at her would only affect his judgment and at the moment, he had more than just her life to protect. He had a crew of almost a thousand people who were counting on him to save their lives and he was not done yet, not even now.

"Ezra, as soon as you get to the armory, I want weapons beamed in here. Emergency site to site transport should still be possible."

"You will have them even if I must bring them here myself." The security man said firmly and meant it. He was torn between his duty to his ship and his duty to the captain. However, Ezra knew he could rest easier with Alex and Vin's presence on the bridge with Chris. Alex, who was a specialist in combat and tactical training, was capable of holding her own against Klingons and Cardassians who did not use implantation devices. Meanwhile Vin, being a Vulcan with strength four times that of a human and more than a match for a Jem Haddar had the same self defense expertise with Alex and almost as much of an edge. Between them both, any Jem Haddar attempting to break their ranks in order to reach the Captain was going to regret it.

Mary wanted to go to Chris, to tell him that she did not want to leave but her son was out there and unlike the captain, William could not defend himself and he needed his mother. Chris was avoiding looking at her and there was enough of an emotional bond between them for Mary to understand why. She could sense the conflict within him. His fierce desire to protect her was being assaulted by his need to defend his ship, to not think about just one life but a thousand. Such decisions were the reason why most starship captains did not marry, or more specifically could not marry. She wished they had the time for her to be able to allay his guilt at allowing her to go and tell him that she understood he was what he was, and she cared too much about him to ever try and come between him and his ship.

"Get going all of you!" Chris ordered because they had to leave while they still could. No doubt, Jem Haddar boarding parties would be converging upon this location and Chris did not want them running into those approaching forces if it could be avoided. Buck needed to be in sickbay before he died here on the floor of the bridge, while Ezra needed to tend to the Jem Haddar boarding parties roaming around his ship and Mary needed to be with her son.

When Alex's message was sent through the Jem Haddar at their refusal to surrender, Chris was perfectly aware what they would do. He counted on it. If they were still of the belief they could take the ship with an armed assault, then they would be focusing their attention on reaching the bridge. As long as the Captain of the Maverick remained on the bridge, he was able to order the vessel to self-destruct and since the price for the Dominion seemed to be the Maverick, it was the one advantage Chris had in his arsenal.

"Take care," Mary said softly and Chris turned in her direction, to permit himself in that one brief instance to let her understand he did not do this lightly and he held her deeply in his soul, even if it was for the last hour of his life. They stared at each other for little more than a fleeting moment in time, where so much was conveyed about how they felt and the emotional bond between them was never stronger. However, a moment was all that they had before Mary blinked and turned away, her eyes glistening so brightly she had to get off the bridge before she started weeping.

"I will." He nodded slightly seeing in the emotion in her eyes as she turned to leave. "Go."

Chris turned away and faced front again. He did not look that way again until Nathan and JD carried Buck out of the shattered remains of his bridge and Ezra and Mary were gone.

When the alert sounded, Josiah was in the process of returning one of the children who also happened to be a patient, back to school. The young lady in question was the daughter of the new schoolteacher and was sent to see him because of her apparent difficulty in making friends. Her mother whom Josiah had never met felt that talking informally to a Counselor might aid her daughter in explaining the anxieties she had difficulty confiding to her parent. Much of the little girl�s difficulties Josiah found were no difficulties at all, but a preference to remain alone because she found no one she could really connect with.

It was not a crime to wish solitude even if it was somewhat unusual. Yet in talking at length with young Lilith King, Josiah found the child to be so reminiscent of his oldest daughter he immediately warmed to her and put down her behavior to an eccentricity of personality, not some deeply seeded psychosis. In fact, for a young girl her age, she was extremely focused on who she was and Josiah wished some of his adult patients had such certainty of self.

They were almost to the school when the ship entered red alert and protocol required him to get out of the corridors. The most logical course was to continue onwards to the school because he was certain his young charge would prefer to be with her mother at a time like this, and he had no particular preference where he sat out the current crisis. They almost made it to that location when the bombardment started followed by the shock announcement to brace for impact. Struggling to the nearest room they could find, in this case, a storage room, Josiah and young Lilith sat out the battle until the aftermath of the ship�s collision with the enemy. Both stumbled out of the storage room and hurried to the school with Lilith becoming more afraid despite her brave attempt to hide it.

When they arrived at the schoolhouse, the Jem Haddar was already there.

Josiah entered the room with Lilith and stopped short at the sight of five Jem Haddar warriors, training guns on the schoolteacher who had placed herself between their weapons and her students. He had never met Audrey King before but when he entered the room, she saw her eyes flood with relief. At first, he thought it was from the appearance of her daughter, since it could not possibly be from the notion of his coming to liberate them. The idea was preposterous since there was one of him and five of them and he was unarmed. However, he soon realised she was glad to see another adult who could help her protect the children.

"Hold!" The Jem Haddar shouted at him before he even had a chance to think of retreat, not that he would anyway.

"I�m unarmed." Josiah offered, unwilling to take any provocative action that would result in them opening fire in a room full of children. Audrey�s class was for the under tens and he could see the terror in their faces as they were fully versed in what a Jem Haddar was.

"Your rank?" The warrior demanded, taking Josiah�s formidable bulk into account despite the uniform indicating he was clearly not a command officer.

"Lieutenant Commander Josiah Sanchez, ship�s counselor." Josiah said gingerly, his grip still on Lilith who wanted to go to her mother but was not about to just yet.

"Counselor." The warrior snorted in derision. "Jem Haddar warriors do not need nursemaids on board."

The action was meant to goad him into reacting but Josiah, who had dealt with mental patients with far more hostility than this genetically engineered creation, shrugged the remark off easily. If this Jem Haddar meant to shoot him, well that was well and good but he was not going to give the man an excuse to do so.

"I am here for the children." He glanced at the young girl wishing nothing but to be at her mother�s side.

"We do not endanger our children by taking them on board warships." He said arrogantly, unimpressed that his attempt to goad Josiah into acting had failed.

"Do you also harm them?" Audrey demanded.

"If we must." The warrior spoke indicating clearly that he was in contempt of this particular group. Facing Josiah again, he waved the Counselor and his youthful companion to join the others by the barrel of his gun. "You will do well not to give us any trouble." He remarked as an additional warning.

Josiah moved briskly towards Audrey and the other children, who were huddled together in the playroom of the school facility occupied by her class. Lilith immediately ran into her mother�s arms and Josiah had the opportunity to examine Mrs. King closely as he found himself next to her. She was a little over forty he estimated, with dark auburn hair and just enough experience in her age to indicate her vintage. She was still very attractive and she gazed at Lilith with blue eyes Josiah found himself thinking looked very much like Ayla, his deceased wife.

"Is everyone alright?" Josiah asked her, the circumstances not allowing for proper introductions to be made.

"Yes," she nodded, still shaken by what was happening but managing to remain calm so as to not frighten the children in the room. "They�ve been threatening but not deliberately malicious."

"Good," Josiah said with a sigh of relief. Little was known about the Jem Haddar except that they were foot soldiers of the Dominion and were genetically engineered to be dependent on the substance Ketracel White.

"Do you know what�s happened?" Audrey asked, hoping that he might have some intelligence on what was taking place on board the Maverick at this time. "Have we been captured?"

"I don�t think so." Josiah shook his head. "I didn�t see anything like that but I do know we took a serious beating. However, I don�t think they have control of the bridge yet..."

"Silence!" The leader barked again, not wishing that subject to be clarified because the lack of knowledge was intimidation in itself.

Suddenly the fearful tension in the air between captors and captives were broken when the sound of phaser fire came alive in the outside corridor. Judging by the voices both human and Jem Haddar being traded intermittently between the shooting, Josiah estimated that the Maverick�s security officers were attempting to deal with the boarding parties scattered across the ship.

"Stay where you are!" The leader of the Jem Haddar troop ordered as he saw the humans under guard reacting to the situation outside. Once he was certain they were subdued, he turned to his companions.

"Go aside and evaluate the situation." He ordered. "See if you are needed. I will stand guard with Crix and keep an eye on our captives. We may need them for hostages."

Josiah stiffened at that suggestion and saw Audrey's eyes darkened with dismay at the thought of the Jem Haddar using any of them as bargaining tools. However, with two Jem Haddar still remaining in position, he could not make a move against them yet. Not with the children in easy range of their fire should they decide to fight back.

For the moment, Josiah would have to bide his time.

"Watch out Mary!" Ezra shouted as he retreated behind the wall.

Mary was not listening. The protocol officer was a woman possessed when she learnt that one of the boarding parties had taken possession of the schoolroom, in particular, the class where her young son was presently waiting out the current crisis. Despite Ezra's attempts to convince her to let him and his security team handle it, Mary would not be denied. She had taken a phaser for herself and insisted on accompanying them despite his efforts to persuade her otherwise. He supposed he never really had a chance of convincing her, not when it was her son in danger.

Mary pulled back; seemingly unafraid of the phaser blast impacting on the wall near her. The air was thickening with the stench of burnt metal and fibers but she could only see one thing before her and that was her son. The Jem Haddar had taken position in the corridor utilized by the Maverick's school for its younger crewmen. With the exception of the Cardassians, no other race in the Alpha Quadrant considered children as hostage material. The Romulans declared themselves more civilized then that and the Klingons felt it was just plain dishonorable. The Jem Haddar obviously threw their vote in with the Cardassian way of doing things.

There were at least a dozen Jem Haddar soldiers in the corridor and almost as much Starfleet security officers. Either side was exchanging shots and Mary could not tell through the streaks of energy whizzing from one end of the corridor to the other, who was winning. She glanced at Ezra who was dragging one of his fallen officers to safety and immediately sought to provide him with cover. Firing into the thickest concentration of Jem Haddar soldiers, she provided enough suppressing fire to allow the security chief to scramble into the corridor where one of his men had been shot but remained alive even though he was severely injured.

Behind her, Lieutenant Katovit also added his fire to her own and together they managed to create enough of an opening for Ezra to slowly pull back the injured member of his security team back to safety. The body was a dead weight and yet Ezra refused to give up and Mary had to admire the determination on the man's face as he dragged his burden out of the kill zone, and into the safety of the corner turn of the corridor.

"Is he alive?" Mary asked crawling to his side as he let the officer go and pulled back to the wall himself. For a moment Mary did not understand why he was grimacing in pain until she saw the black stain on his side.

"Ezra!" Mary exclaimed. "You're hurt!"

"It is not severe." He replied, even though the tension in his jaw said differently. "I trust you will not overreact and make some exclamation that I ought to be going to sick bay?" He gave her a look which clearly stated that she might as well save whatever she was going to say regarding his condition because it was going to be just as ignored as his advice to her about letting them retrieve Billy for her.

"No I won't," she shrugged deciding she could not force him to obey when she had refused him. "But are you sure you can manage?"

"My dear lady," Ezra replied. "I will not do anything as inconvenient as dying before those vermin are removed from the ship. Rest assured, I will manage."

Mary glanced past the corridor and saw Katovit and the rest of the security team forcing back the Jem Haddar contingent further and further up the corridor. Across the ship, it was more or less the same. Despite the fact the Jem Haddar boarding parties were beaming on board the Maverick, the crew of the starship was putting up one hell of a defense. Most of the Jem Haddar boarding effort seemed concentrated on the saucer section of the ship making separation, even if the Maverick had been capable, virtually impossible. However, since emerging from the bridge, Ezra had activated every security measure he could think of, utilizing every trick from erecting force fields to transmitting portable disruption beams to keep more Jem Haddar soldiers from beaming on board. Some of it worked and some of it did not. In any case, he was buying the Captain valuable time with each desperate effort.

Forcing back the pain he felt in his side, Ezra saw Mary tending to the injured man he just dragged out of the fight and quickly moved to reinsert himself into the battle raging in the corridor nearby. He emerged to see Katovit and the handful of security officers forcing back the Jem Haddar. Bodies littered the corridor and Ezra's stomach hollowed seeing not all of them were Jem Haddar. Some were his own people and he could tell by the way they were lying on the deck, trying to save them was a wasted effort. They were gone.

Suddenly, a voice called out amongst the shooting whose words chilled his insides the minute he understood its content. This was what he had been afraid of when he first realised there were Jem Haddar attempting to reach the school. He accompanied Mary here not simply because her son was here, there were others sons across the entire ship so he could not allow himself to act any thing but impersonally, but mostly because he knew children were very effective hostages. No sooner than the Jem Haddar�s words had echoed through the corridor, the firing ceased.

As Ezra emerged into the hallway, he noted the number of bodies on the carpeted floor and realised his team had been very successful in attempting to remove the Jem Haddar threat invading this section of the ship. He counted almost a dozen warriors on the ground and realised unfortunately, despite the grisly scene of death, their number was incomplete and the remainder of the boarding party had taken the last resort to come out of this alive, not to mention take control of the situation.

He saw a Jem Haddar warrior emerging into the hallway, unafraid of the firepower of the security forces waiting to gun him down. He did not have to fear, Ezra thought to himself as he saw the situation unfold.

"Hold your fire!" Ezra announced, although it was a redundant gesture. No one was firing. Not while the Jem Haddar was holding up young William by the neck. The child's feet was dangling off the floor and the strength of the Jem Haddar was such that he was being held suspended by his throat. William's arms were wrapped tight around the Jem Haddar's thick arm and the child was struggling not too choke.

"Mary." Ezra called out; wanting William to see his mother was here even though Ezra could not vouch for Mary's state of mind when she saw what he did.

"What is it?" Mary looked over her shoulder and felt her heart stop when she saw the expression in his eyes. Almost terrified, she forced her legs to work, to go to Ezra's call even though instinct had told her that something awful was lying in wait for her. Mary could see all that in his eyes and hoped she was strong enough to endure what was written so grimly on his features.

Mary's eyes widened when she saw her son.

"Billy!" She exclaimed, being so horrified by the sight of her son in the grip of the Jem Haddar that for a moment she forgot herself. Mary took a step forward when suddenly Ezra spoke sharply.

"Mary, stay absolutely still!"

She froze in her tracks and stared in anguish at her son, almost willing to risk trying to reach him before the Jem Haddar could shoot her but knew that it was not her life she worried about, it was her son's. The Jem Haddar could snap his neck before she even took two steps forward and so she remained where she was, shaking with fear and desperation, wanting to reach her son but frustrated because doing so could kill him.

"Drop your weapons!"

"That is not going to happen." Ezra said firmly.

"I think it is." The Jem Haddar responded confidently, tightening his grip around Billy's throat, forcing the other security officers to withdraw, lowering their weapons but not quite prepared to relinquish them just yet. The child started to choke, making raspy sounds as he struggled to breathe.

"Billy!" Mary cried out again. "Please! He's just a baby!"

"Then you should not have him on a warship." The Jem Haddar said coldly. "Battle lines are no place for children. You bring them on board a warship and you make them casualties, just as your child is now."

Ezra swore under his breath. He knew the minute he ordered his security team to drop their weapons this Jem Haddar was going to open fire on all of them. If young William did survive that, it would hardly be a blessing since his mother and the rest of them would be dead. Nevertheless, Ezra was not about to let the Jem Haddar strangle an six year old before their shocked eyes. There was not enough common sense in the universe for him to let that happen. God help him.

"We will not drop our weapons," Ezra tried one last gamble, hoping it would work even though the odds of it were slim. If this were a game of cards, he would not even bother with a stake; the odds were that slim. "We will allow you safe passage out of the immediate vicinity."

"NO!" The Jem Haddar snarled. "You will drop your weapons or I will snap this child's neck in front of his mother. That is all the negotiation that I will permit on this matter!"

Mary blinked thinking very fast what she ought to do. She knew as well as Ezra capitulating to the enemy's demands may save her son but they would be condemning everyone else here to death. She thought about what Chris would do. How he would handle the situation. Chris always said that when there was nothing left to lose, there was nothing wrong with taking a chance, no matter how insane it was. If Ezra heard the thought, Mary was certain he would agree with her.

"Ezra," she whispered softly enough for only the security chief to hear. "Fire when you get the chance."

"What?" He blinked, not believing what he had heard for a second.

"You heard me," she repeated herself. Hopefully, the Jem Haddar would mistake her lowered voice as an entreaty to Ezra to submit to his demands. "When you have the opportunity, kill this son of a bitch."

She met his gaze with a look that was pure lioness before facing the Jem Haddar and her son again. William's eyes were fixed on hers and Mary took a deep breath and spoke out loud. "Billy, don't be afraid. Mother is here, mother is gonna make sure nothing happens to you."

"Mother." The child started to weep. The sound cut through Mary's heart but she told herself to be strong.

"Billy, you must be brave. Like your father was brave. Remember how he told you the story of itcha kaiduk lachnor?"

William's eyes widened.

"Itcha kaiduk lachnor." Mary repeated herself because he was scared to do what she had just commanded. He was not old enough but not so young that he was not capable of what she was asking.

He nodded quickly as only a child could and the Jem Haddar could sense something was wrong. "Silence!" He roared at Mary, jarring her into looking at him and forcing her to curb her instructions.

Ezra's brow wrinkled in confusion because he had no idea what Mary was saying to her son but the boy stopped struggling immediately and closed his eyes. His grip on the Jem Haddar strengthened but this time there was no fear on his face, just concentration.

Mary chanted the words under her breath, certain that William was reciting them as well.

My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts.

William continued his tight grip and his face contorted into an expression of focus that soon began to have effect when the Jem Haddar warrior holding him suddenly staggered forward. His eyes clamped shut as if disorientated and William began to swing in his uncertain grasp.

"GET OUT OF MY MIND!" He screamed and dropped the child.

"Billy stay down!" Mary ordered as the child landed on all fours. She dropped to her knees as Ezra saw the opening and used it. Before she even touched the deck, the security chief had opened fire. The phaser blast impacted the Jem Haddar warrior in the chest, sending him flying backwards. Mary was on her feet and running towards her son before the enemy even hit the floor. William scrambled to his feet and immediately ran into her embrace.

"I did it!" He exclaimed with surprise as well as relief. "I did it mother!"

"Yes you did," Mary said embracing her son tightly, tears running down her cheeks as she continued to hold him.

Suddenly, the door opened and a Jem Haddar warrior came flying out of the doorway. He crashed to a stop on the opposite wall before doubling over in a heap with just as much aplomb as his dead comrade behind him. Mary grabbed William and pulled him away from the scene as Ezra and his security officers closed in, prepared to deal with whatever threat emerged from that open doorway.

Josiah emerged into the corridor into a sea of startled faces and saw them staring at him. Self consciously, the Counselor looked at them suspiciously before asking. "What?"

Last Stand

JD Dunne wondered where Casey had gotten during the battle for she was scarce ever since red alert was sounded. When he arrived at Sickbay, having accompanied Nathan Jackson to the place, helping the doctor carry their injured First Officer to receive medical treatment, he found the Captain�s Yeoman already there. At first, he thought she was injured and alarm spread through him like wildfire. However, it became very apparent while she was helping other crewmen to examination tables and by the manner she was retrieving objects and assisting the other junior doctors under Nathan�s command, her capacity in the place was not as a patient.

"Oh yeah," Nathan noticed JD�s surprise following their entrance into Sickbay. "Casey has been helping us out ever since the casualties started coming in. Seems she has some first aid training and with the number of injured people we got coming in, I had good use for her."

"I never knew." He mused as he and Nathan helped Buck to the nearest examination table. Buck�s color was pale and the bleeding that concerned Nathan so much had not stopped during their journey here. The First Officer�s breathing was shallow and JD found himself facing the unimaginable prospect of anything happening to Buck Wilmington.

Ever since he came on board, Buck had taken the frightened young ensign under his wing, mentoring him, keeping an eye on him and not to mention filling up those empty spaces JD was certain would never be filled when his mother died. Olivia Dunne passed away shortly before JD had graduated and for a boy whose entire sense of family was that strong, determined woman who raised him on her own, it felt like the universe drained of its color at her demise. Although it terrified him beyond belief to learn newly promoted Captain Chris Larabee had asked for him as a member of the bridge crew, not to mention the senior staff, Buck Wilmington was waiting for him when he arrived.

"Maria!" Nathan motioned one of his staff forward once Buck was on the examination table. "I need some help here!" Without missing a beat, he turned to JD who was still hovering. The young man was still distracted by Buck�s condition to consider anything else. Unfortunately, Nathan needed room to work if he was going to save their first officer.

Casey caught sight of JD across the room and when she made eye contact with Nathan, realized why the doctor was staring her way so intently. She left what she was doing after delegating the duty to someone else and quickly approached JD and Nathan. As the young woman hurried towards the ensign, she felt a flood of relief knowing he was all right and then saw the reason why he was so anxious, when she realized Buck Wilmington was on the table waiting for treatment.

"JD!" Casey exclaimed happily upon approach. "You�re all right!" She wrapped her arms around him in a heartfelt embrace.

"I�m fine." He said quickly returning the hug but still too wracked with worry about Buck to appreciate it properly. "Buck�s not though."

"Well come away from there," she said hastily entwining her fingers with his before towing him away from Nathan. "You�re only going to get in the way and Nathan needs to work."

"But..." He started to protest.

"Please JD," Nathan replied, glancing over his shoulder to lend weight to Casey�s statement. "I�ll let you know the minute we�re done but for right now, I need to get started and I can�t do it with you hanging about."

JD looked at Casey and saw he was outnumbered and had no choice to comply with this advice since he worried enough about Buck, to not wish to be a hindrance to the help he needed at this time.

"Thanks, Nathan," JD said withdrawing from the scene and allowing Casey to lead him away.

She took him out of the Sickbay to the quiet corridor outside so they could have a moment alone. JD seemed somewhat shell-shocked and considering what he must have seen on the bridge, Casey could not blame him. Thanks to the damage to the ship, communication was in disarray and no one really knew anything for certain except there were Jem Haddar on board the Maverick and the starship had taken heavy damage in what seemed to most like a collision.

"Is the Captain alright?" She bombarded him with questions as soon as they were alone. Such intelligence was meager at the moment and she felt inordinately concerned for the man for whom she worked so closely. "What happened? We heard the red alert and then the crash! Have we been captured or something?"

"No," JD shook his head quickly, forcing himself to concentrate on her questions instead of thinking about Buck. Suddenly, he had the idea that was what Casey was attempting to do anyway and found a surge of warmth filled his insides for her and he felt a little guilty he had not been more grateful she had come away from all the injured. "The Captain�s fine. A Jem Haddar ship rammed us. They don�t have us yet but we�re in bad shape." There was no reason to lie to her on that point, not when the lights in the corridor were flickering erratically and the ship was tilted at an odd angle, indicating the severity of the damage.

"Oh no." Casey shuddered thinking they might soon all be captives of Cardassians. Being Bajoran, Casey knew just how brutal they could be. The Cardassian annexation of Bajor was one of the greatest injustices of modern times. Like the forced occupation by the Indonesians of Timor in the late twentieth century, the Cardassians were ruthless with the civilian population and quelled the resistance to their presence with callous savagery. Her parents died smuggling her out of Bajor and if not for Admiral Wells, she would have spent her life in a refugee camp.

"Don�t worry," JD said with some measure of confidence in Chris Larabee. "The Captain won�t let that happen."

"I hope so." She sighed.

"If anyone can do it," JD reassured her, "it�s the Captain." He leaned forward to kiss her when suddenly the sound of phaser fire broke out.

"Casey get to Sick Bay!" He ordered and saw a group of Starfleet officers running towards them, one was carrying injured crewmen with severe burns from what was obviously a phaser.

"But�" Casey started to protest.

"NOW!" He barked, not wishing to repeat himself. She nodded blindly and hurried back into Sickbay, casting anxious glances over her shoulder as she did so.

JD hurried to the officers coming forward and recognized one of them as being Lieutenant Richmond of stellar cartography. The lieutenant was armed and upon seeing JD, immediately retrieved the weapon tucked in her injured companion's belt and shoved the weapon at the youth.

"What�s happening?" JD asked.

"We�ve got Jem Haddar coming right at us, that�s what!" Charlotte responded. "I need help holding them back. We can�t let them take Sickbay. We overheard them talking while we were making our way out of the boarded areas and they�re trying to take as many hostages as they can to use against the bridge."

"That makes sense," JD replied taking the weapon immediately. "The Captain threatened to blow the ship if they don�t withdraw."

Charlotte nodded wearily and wiped the sweat from her brow. "The rest of you get MacNeill to Sick Bay. Ensign, come with me." She ordered as she retreated up the corridor once again while the others proceeded forward.

JD was not about to argue. He knew she was a competent officer and had spent time on the front lines of the Dominion War to know what she was doing.

"We have to hold them off as long as we can," Charlotte responded as JD was checking the phaser she gave him. "A security team is on its way but until then, it�s just you and me."

JD did not like the sound of those odds but he supposed he could take comfort in one fact as he and Charlotte positioned themselves along the corridor and prepared to face God only knew what when it came at them.

At least he was not worrying about Buck anymore.

"How long until we have warp power?" Chris demanded from his command chair once he managed to get in contact with Engineering. Understandably, restoring warp power had proved a little difficult because of the trouble Engineering was having with the Jem Haddar warriors who attempted to gain control of the deck.

"I�m almost there!" Julia Pemberton responded sounding as if she was walking when she made that declaration. He could hear her breathing hard as she hurried across the deck, shouting orders at her personnel and also took note of the added strain he knew was not just exhaustion and urgency to complete the task at hand.

"Lieutenant," Chris found himself asking. "Are you all right?"

"Just a little-broken arm." She grunted as she continued working. "Nothing that can�t wait. We�ve restored main power and we're initializing up the shield generator. You should have shields and sensors in two minutes."

"Good," Chris commented and wondered what agony the woman must be enduring in order to complete the repairs. "Julia, you�re doing outstanding work and it is important that we get things going but take it easy. You�re more valuable to me in one piece than in several broken ones."

"Thank you, Sir." She said obviously affected by his gratitude. "But I need to keep working. We�re dead in the water unless we do."

Unfortunately, he could not disagree with her on that point and so he merely answered quietly. "Understood. Bridge out." Chris replied and turned his attention to the other two officers on deck.

Alex was working diligently under the sensor panel, trying to restore full sensors. At the moment, they had little idea what was going on in the rest of the ship, being able to communicate only through their com badges and that made it virtually impossible to gain any kind of perspective on the urgency of the situation. Vin on the other hand, was performing similar repairs on the helm and navigation stations, which bore the brunt of the damage to the bridge when the view screen had shattered. Both of them had phaser rifles close at hand in case of danger. Chris himself glanced at the phaser on his belt expecting trouble because eventually they would have company, it was just a matter of time.

From the sporadic reports they received, the Jem Haddar had been unsuccessfully trying to capture hostages in order to barter for their release with the Captain. To Chris�s utmost pride, the Maverick�s crew had put up such a show of resistance even the Klingons would be impressed. No one was allowing themselves to be taken by the enemy which meant that as the alternatives for negotiation were cut off at every juncture, the Dominion would be forced to resort to one last act to regain control of the situation.

The doors to the turbo lift had been sealed but Chris knew it was pointless nonetheless. With their shields down, the enemy could simply transport a dozen armed men onto the bridge without any difficulty. Chris was poised for that moment because he knew it was coming. Even though the Maverick�s shields would be raised in two minutes or less, Chris knew it was during this limbo period of time that an attack was coming. If the Maverick raised its shields and attained warp power once again, the battle would resume and time was not on the enemy�s side.

By now, the distress signal that JD had managed to send would have reached Deep Space Five and every starship in the sector would be aware of their troubles even if they were not in range of being of any help to the Maverick. Even if the Maverick was destroyed, Starfleet would still hunt down the convoy of ships that had dared to penetrate so deeply into Federation space. Chris was certain that the Dominion had not expected their engagement with the Maverick to have lasted as long as it had. In truth, neither had Chris. He had kept his ship alive by almost flying her apart by the seat of his pants and even he knew she was alive only on borrowed time.

"How are we doing?" Chris asked out loud.

"I�ve repaired the sensor grid," Alex declared emerging from underneath the console, dusting herself off as she stood upright. "When Engineering puts them online, we should be able to have almost complete usage."

"Hold onto that thought," Chris said with a smile, pleased some things were looking optimistic.

"That and a few others." She mused enigmatically. Now, she thought silently to herself, time to engage in some personal projects.

"What about you Vin?" Chris turned to the Officer of the Con. The Vulcan was sliding a cracked panel into place after rewiring a couple of bypass circuits to do the job of those fried when the collision had caused a spike in the power grid.

"Ditto." The Vulcan responded automatically. He slid into his chair once more and immediately started tapping the console before he was rewarded with readings that indicated the warp engines were starting to power up.

"We�ve got warp power online in four minutes." Vin looked over his shoulder with a grin. "I�m making a course heading that will put us on the fastest route to the Vikaris Quasar."

"That will do for now." Chris nodded in approval. Retreating to the Quasar would give the Maverick adequate time to lick its wounds and wait for reinforcements. The turbulence surrounding the spatial body would make them virtually undetectable to the enemy sensors. Chris did not like the idea of running from a fight but he liked losing his entire crew and his ship even less, just because he was too stubborn to make the decision to save it. Pride was one thing. Stupidity was another.

"You think Lemar and the Vorta made it off the warbird?" Vin asked.

"I would almost guarantee it," Chris replied. "Neither of them seem the kind who hold to the belief that the Captain goes down with the ship. I would say both of them beamed to the Cardassian ship before we blew the warbird to hell."

Vin glanced at Alex, wondering how she felt about her hated enemy making his escape. However, she did not make any comment. The science officer was not looking at him and barely heard the conversation. He noticed her concentration focused on the communication array, in particular the station utilized to send encrypted messages and decoding alien frequencies and wondered what she was working on there. According to the readings on his console, communications was nominal as was the sensor grid. There was no reason for her to be focusing her repair efforts on that particular system and made a mental note to ask her about it later.

A shrill sound tore through the bridge and the trio of officers looked up. Chris glanced at the controls on his command chair and saw that one of the enemy ships was making an attempt to contact them. Chris decided there was no reason why he should not hear what they had to say. Perhaps, he would even gain some time.

"This is Captain Larabee."

"This is Fanaian." The Vorta�s smooth voice responded even though his image could not be seen.

"How nice to see you�re still with us," Chris said with a hint of satisfaction.

"Your attempt at humor is ill-advised Captain," Fanaian's voice was terse. "Gul Lemar and I managed to transport off the Tasmeem before it was destroyed."

"Yeah," Chris frowned, disliking the whole act of abandoning one�s crew in that way because it reeked of cowardice. "I guess you�re not as expendable as your crew."

"The Jem Hadar know their place in the scheme of things." Fanaian snorted but feeling the heat a little since he would no doubt be surrounded with those same Jem Haddar when Chris made that declaration.

"You mean as cannon fodder," the Captain said derisively, hoping that those in question were hearing everything he said.

"You waste time by this effort," Fanaian barked impatiently. "I give you one last opportunity to surrender."

"Sorry," Chris replied without having to think twice about it. He nodded at Vin who offered the same unspoken message to Alex. All three bridge officers reached for their weapons. It was time.

"If you want this ship Fanaian, I�m afraid you�re going to have to come and get her." Chris knew the challenge he was offering was a gauntlet about to be picked up but there was no avoiding it really. The Vorta knew as well as he did the moment they went into warp, their chances of escaping would become a real possibility. The only preventative measure left to the Dominion was to end the battle by taking the bridge and kill him. Because even if they managed to fill the Maverick with hundreds of Jem Haddar warriors, Chris still had the power to deny them their prize.

No more than a second had passed following that statement when all of a sudden, the space in front of the command chair shimmered with color. In the two seconds it would take for transport to be complete, Chris jumped out of his command chair as Jem Haddar warriors were transported onto their bridge. There were three simultaneous transport sat once and Chris counted no less than nine warriors on the bridge. Thanks to the two-second delay between transport and rematerialization, Vin and Alex had moved into position and started shooting.

The number of nine soon dwindled to seven.

Chris leaped out of the way as soon as the shooting started and took the necessary precautions he could not make until this absolute moment. "Computer � initiate complete mainframe lockout, access permitted only to Chief Engineer Pemberton, to be verified by code."

The dulcet tones of the computer responded in kind. "Authorization?"

"Larabee, Captain!" Chris shouted rolling onto his knees and firing into the Jem Haddar approaching him as everything on the bridge went to hell. "Authorization code � Nimrod. Initiate lock down now!"

"Mainframe lock out initiated by Captain Christopher Larabee of the USS Maverick, verification by voice pattern recognition and authorization code. Non-restrictive access permitted to Lieutenant Julia Catherine Pemberton, Chief Engineer." The computer confirmed his order. Unless he authorized it, even if they killed him, the Dominion would not be able to access the data they launched this entire campaign to obtain.

A Jem Haddar was attempting to rush Chris when Vin intercepted the warrior in a full body slam, with every ounce of Vulcan strength behind the impact. The warrior almost sailed across the bridge and toppled into the thick of the Jem Haddar forces attempting to converge upon Alex. Chris turned just in time to see another warrior about to fire on his Vulcan helmsman, realizing perhaps no effort to subdue the Captain would succeed unless they removed the formidable Officer of the Con from the picture.

"Vin! Get down!" Chris shouted as Vin was trading blows with one of the warriors running loose on his bridge.

The Vulcan pivoted his head enough to see the danger and immediately dropped to his knees as he felt the bolt of energy scream overhead, taking the advantage of the sudden shift in position to throw a fist into the lower half of his opponent. The Jem Haddar brought up his knee and connected with Vin�s jaw, jarring him backward before advancing upon him for the kill. Knowing Chris was taking care of the Jem Haddar who had attempted to shoot him, Vin struck out his foot and slammed into the knee of the warrior on approach. His focused his kick and felt something give way under the ball of his heel before rolling aside quickly as the Jem Haddar warrior toppled over in his direction.

In the meantime, Chris had effectively dispatched the armed Jem Haddar who had almost ended Vin�s life with one shot. He saw Alex fighting two of them off and hurried across the bridge when he saw one of them lock an arm around her throat. He had not taken more than two steps when he saw her kick out, using the solid obstruction of the warrior in front of her to propel her backward, slamming herself and the assailant behind her into a console. Surprising the warrior who had her in a chokehold, Alex stabbed her elbow forcefully into his sternum and swung around to throw a left and right at the enemy�s face. The second warrior advanced upon her, preparing to grab her from behind when she lashed out in a back kick that met the soft tissue of the Jem Haddar�s gut and then whirled around just as expertly to slam her palm into the warrior�s neck.

Chris saw her initial opponent at the console screen starting to get up and closed the space between them in a matter of seconds. Kicking the Jem Haddar in the side as he prepared to launch himself at Alex, Chris felt bones shatter as the Jem Haddar turned around to face the direction of the new attacker. Despite sustaining severe injuries, the Jem Haddar were capable of maintaining combat effectiveness with almost 70 per cent of their bodies injured. Only the warriors Vin was dispatching stayed down because his Vulcan strength was enough to deliver the damage needed to penetrate their thick armored skin.

Throwing a succession of punches into the enemy�s face, Chris focused his blows to break bones, knowing this was the only way to keep them from launching another attack. He kept throwing punches, holding back nothing until the Jem Haddar remained on the floor, unmoving. Chris immediately turned to Alex and saw she had done the same. One warrior was at her feet as she jumped onto the floor of the command chair just in time to land on a Jem Haddar warrior preparing to shoot Vin.

Vin hardly noticed the danger and was in the process of flipping a Jem Haddar soldier onto his back and towards a sharp protrusion of glass left from the shattered viewer. His opponent groaned in pain, having little time to do much else as the length of glass slice through his insides like butter, cleaving his heart in two with little warning. Obviously, the Jem Haddar had only encountered Vulcans who were disciplined with the tenets of logic and had never seen one that was just plain pissed. Chris saw Alex running to Vin�s side, offering her help as she fought off the dwindling number of opponents left on the floor. She pulled the Jem Haddar who was holding the Vulcan�s arm and preventing him from finishing off the comrade with whom Vin was wrestling.

Wrenching him off Vin, Alex delivered a powerful front kick to the Jem Haddar�s ribs, snapping bones with all the force she could muster to send the broken splinters slicing through organs. Chris saw another third and final warrior recovering enough to realize there was only three of them left and his two companions were seconds away from defeat. The warrior staggered to his feet and aimed the barrel of his gun at Alex�s direction, aiming for the center of her back when Chris decided he would get there first. Shooting from the hip, the Captain did not think twice as he fired the phaser in his hands and watched the amber beam envelope Alex�s would-be executioner before he convulsed and fell to the floor in an unruly heap.

Alex paused long enough to realize what the Captain had done before she delivered another side kick to her combatant�s sternum which connected with a loud squelch as a rib cage was broken and lungs were punctured. She dropped to the floor from the force of the kick and watched as Vin brought down his elbow on the last Jem Haddar�s neck. The enemy went down quickly and did not get up again as he lay at Vin�s feet.

For a minute, no one said anything as they surveyed the grisly scene before them. This did not look like the bridge of a starship meant for exploration; it looked like a war zone. Alex was breathing hard, Vin was staring at both Chris and her, ensuring the people he cared about most in the world was safe and Chris was just damned proud of both of them. Suddenly, the moment was broken when Julia�s voice spoke up.

"Captain, the warp engines are online!"

The three officers looked at each other blankly before making a mad dash for their respective stations on the bridge. Chris slid into the command chair; Alex hurried to the station normally occupied by Ezra Standish while Vin returned to his position at the con. Breathing hard and aware their time was limited, Chris was almost panting when he spoke out.

"Computer, disengage mainframe lock out - Captain Chris Larabee, verification code Nimrod!"

"Verification code accepted," the computer responded. "Mainframe lockout disengaged."

"Raise shields!" Chris ordered without waiting for the computer to finish speaking. Alex immediately let her fingers fly, complying with the order with more speed than she thought she was humanly capable of managing.

Hot on the heels of his command to raise the shields to keep any more Jem Haddar warriors from beaming onto the Maverick, Chris turned to Vin and barked an equally important order and the one that would most likely save them. "Vin get us out of here!"

"We're on our way!" Vin exclaimed and following that statement, the Maverick surged forward in a burst of power as its propulsion systems fired. Chris could feel the gentle throbbing of the warp engines as the ship streaked out of its present position. Escaping the two Jem Haddar ships that were reeling from surprise by the Maverick's sudden departure.

"Jem Haddar ships in pursuit!" Alex responded automatically, watching the screen on Ezra's console since the viewer was destroyed in the attack.

"Full speed ahead!" Chris ordered. "Get us to the Vikaris Quasar as fast as you can!"

"Captain," Alex's voice suddenly spoke and it was no longer euphoric or jubilant. The sudden change in tone made Chris swivel around in his chair and face her. The expression in her eyes was black and Chris had this sinking feeling they had escaped nothing.

"Four Jem Haddar vessels just de-cloaked and are proceeding to intercept."

"What!" Vin exclaimed.

"Reserves. "Chris groaned inwardly. "They had FUCKING reserves!"

"We can out run them." Vin declared refusing to give up hope no matter how much the odds had shifted out of balance, leaving them the loser, again.

"They're spreading out and setting up a kill zone." She paused as she collected her thoughts and continued with her report. "We're caught in the middle Captain. The Cardassian warships are also closing in. We've got nine ships converging on our position. We don't have the power to shift to maximum warp to outrun them."

Chris faced front again, not believing this. He could not believe this but he knew Alex was not exaggerating. For a moment, there was another pregnant pause as Chris tried to think of what to do. The ship was caught in amber and he knew it. In fact they all did. There were no options left. He could continue attempting to break the blockade, most likely destroying his ship in the process or he could surrender. Somehow, the second alternative was no better. There was a third option left to him and it was one he loathed to take but avenues were being cut off and they were becoming more and more trapped by the second.

Closing his eyes, he could not find the strength to respond. He would rather die than have to do this but he had no choice. He hoped Mary, wherever she was on the ship would forgive him. Chris supposed if there was some consolation in all this, she would never know what happened until it was all over.

And then nothing would matter.

"Computer." Chris let out a heavy sigh. "Initiate self-destruct."

Neither Vin nor Alex showed any surprise at his instruction. "Self-destruct initiated, command officers verification code required." The computer said tonelessly, completely indifferent to the situation.

"Captain Chris Larabee. Command authorization code - Nimrod."

"Voice pattern recognition accepted."

Chris looked at Alex who swallowed the bile of defeat away and took a deep breath before she spoke too. "Lieutenant Commander Alexandra Styles. Command authorization code - Phoenix."

"Voice pattern recognition accepted. Self-destruct initiated. 4.59 seconds......4.58 seconds......."

"I guess that's it," Chris responded easing back into his chair. Neither Alex nor Vin had ever seen Chris Larabee so defeated.

"You did everything you could, Chris," Vin responded softly, not afraid to die and taking solace in the fact he was with the two people in the universe he cared most about when it happened. It was something at least.

"You gave them one hell of a fight Captain," Alex answered, just as emotionally. Turning to Vin, she spoke in a tone complete with authority. "Lieutenant, stand at attention."

Vin grasped her meaning and immediately stood up. The Maverick was automated enough to be able to stand his absence from the controls for a few seconds. Both he and Alex stood at attention before Chris.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve with you, Sir," Alex said from her station, while Vin nodded his agreement from where he was.

Overhead the computer continued its vocal countdown. "2.27, 2.26....."

Chris swallowed hard, feeling the same heavy emotions. "Thank you." He almost whispered. "I'm sorry I couldn't do any better for you."

Vin was about to respond when suddenly, a soft beeping noise was heard from Alex's station.

"What now?" Chris grumbled. "The entire Dominion Fleet?"

"No!" Alex exclaimed, scarcely able to believe what she was seeing before her. "I am picking up two, no make that three ships on an intercept course. Captain, they're ours!"

"What?" Chris just about jumped in his chair. "Three ships," Alex continued as the readings before her became more specific. "Two are Starfleet warp signatures and the third is Klingon!"

"Klingon?" Vin exclaimed confused.

Chris was not sure of anything but he had to gamble Alex was right about what she was seeing on the sensors and this was not being an illusion perpetrated by the enemy to trick them. Whether it was or not, it would take more than the time left according to the auto-destruct sequence for them to sort it ought. They had less than a minute left before there would be nothing for those ships, if they did indeed exist, to rescue if he did not act now.

"Computer, terminate self-destruct," Chris said hastily and offered his authorization code as quickly as possible. Alex did the same thing and the final ending they envisioned only seconds ago evaporated with a short but completely indifferent response by the computer that the protocol had been disengaged.

"The Cardassians and the Dominion are breaking off!" Alex announced. "Captain, they are withdrawing."

Somehow Chris was not surprised. It was one thing to take on a heavily damaged starship but the odds were a little more even and less certain in the Dominion's favor when they had to take on an additional three ships as well. "Cowards," Chris whispered under his breath. "Do we have an identification on the three ships?" Chris inquired, wishing to know to whom he ought to be grateful for saving their lives.

"Not yet," Alex replied. "Sensors are still a little sluggish from the party we just had."

"Vin, bring the ship about and move to intercept."

"Glad to Sir," Vin looked over his shoulder long enough to flash Chris and Alex a happy smile.

"The lead ship is hailing us," Alex announced with a smile just as radiant, not just for Vin but also for her Captain, not to mention the little surprise gift she left for Lemar. Perhaps the day was not going to end on such a sour note after all.

"Put them through," Chris said coolly, never thinking he could be so relieved to have anyone pull his fat out of the fire as the Captains of those three vessels had. He made a mental note to buy whoever was at the other end of this hailing frequency a drink at Four Corners when things had settled down.

"Captain Larabee." A familiar voice responded over the com system that almost made Chris fall out of his chair. Chris recognized the voice immediately and looked up with damn near awe on his face.

"This is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise. May we be of assistance?"

Closure

With the arrival of the Enterprise, the Venture and the Klingon ship called C�boath, the battle was more or less over. The Dominion, taking the arrival of the reinforcements as a sign of things to come, chose to depart while they still could. The six Jem Haddar ships departed while the three Cardassian vessels limped along behind them, tail tucked neatly between their legs because none of them were prepared to face the Federation's flagship in battle. After the spectacular defense put up by the Maverick, the Dominion was not about to risk further humiliation by attempting to take on the legendary USS Enterprise. Especially when it was supported by the Venture captained by Raphael Castillo one of the more wolverine commanders on the current front lines, not to mention the Klingon bird of prey, upon which no comment was truly required.

For the first few hours after the arrival of the reinforcements, the communications between the captains were mostly done via hailing frequencies. The Maverick had taken heavy damage and the Enterprise offered to assist with the repairs it would require for the galaxy class starship to make it to the nearest starbase for repairs. Crew transfers from ship to ship at this point was restricted mostly to Engineering staff and medical personnel. There were many injured on board and there were still Jem Haddar prisoners remaining, having been contained by Ezra's security team and left behind by the ships when the Dominion retreated.

Still the fact the Dominion had gone did not change the situation as it stood; the Maverick was still unable to defend itself properly after the substantial beating it had taken from those ten ships. Thus the Venture and the C�boath kept a vigil over the surrounding space as the repairs were conducted. Several hours after he almost destroyed his ship instead of allowing her to fall into enemy hands, Chris Larabee found himself pacing nervously at the only undamaged transporter pad left, awaiting for his contemporaries to arrive. Despite the fact he was a starship captain and had no reason to be such, Chris was extremely nervous.

"Captain," Alex sighed and she waited with him. "Try to show a little dignity would you?"

Chris stopped pacing and gave her a dark look before noting Transporter Chief Rain was stifling a snigger. "Very funny." He glared and returned to a more casual position next to her.

He knew he was being nervous for no reason. After all, he knew Raphael from his Academy days and the Klingon commander was like any other he had come across in his time, brutally honest and coarse as the day was long with a hair-trigger temper. However, among their number was also the captain of the Enterprise. Jean Luc Picard was coming aboard his ship and Chris was not so jaded that he could not feel anxiety at that meeting. This was Picard, the first man to make contact with the Borg, who secured the treaties between the Federation and the Gorn, this man had literally saved the Federation a dozen times over and Chris could not deny he was struck with a little case of hero worship.

"Captain, " Transporter Chief Rain spoke up. The tall, exotic looking woman, who also happened to be a Trill, had a tendency to look upon her crewmates with bemusement as she was doing so to him now, announced Captain Castillo of the Venture was awaiting transport.

"Bring him aboard," Chris responded.

His order prompted the low hum of the transporter and the next thing he knew, a shimmer of color appeared on the pad long enough to coalesce into the definitive shape of a man. It took a few seconds until the form of Raphael Castillo fully materialized before them and like the frame of a picture, frozen and then set in motion, the process was soon completed and he was staring in their direction.

"Chris Larabee," Raphael broke into a wide grin. "How long has it been compadre?"

"I don't know," Chris returned his smile with a warm handshake, knowing between old friends like this, the usual aloof gestures would not be enough. "How long has it been since I had to peel you off the floor of that bar in San Francisco?"

"About as long as it took for me to talk you out of going out on the date set by Buck Wilmington. Where is that skirt chaser anyway?" Raphael looked around the room and noted that the Maverick's first officer was absent.

"He's been hurt," Chris said somberly. "When our bridge went up, he took the worst of it."

Raphael's mood shrunk into a frown. "Is he going to be alright?"

"He's going to be fine," Chris answered, having recalled the conversation with Nathan a short time ago before their arrival in this room. "Raphael, this is my Science Officer and temporary exec while Buck is recovering, Lieutenant Commander Styles."

"Please to meet you, Sir," Alex said with a smile as Raphael looked in her direction briefly and managed, in those few seconds, to convey to the science officer he had something discreet to discuss with her captain. Alex immediately excused herself and went to assist Rain.

"Chris," Raphael said quietly. "I was sorry to hear about Sarah and Adam. I was on a deep space mission when I heard the news. I wished I could have been there for you."

Chris shrugged, having dealt with that particular hurt a long time ago even though remembering always sent a shard of pain through him, no matter how hard he tried not to let it affect him. "It's okay Raphael. I wasn't really there myself, not in spirit anyway."

Both men nodded in unspoken understanding and Chris decided a change of subject is definitely in order. "I'm assuming part of this trip so far out of your way has to do with a certain lady bartender that serves on board?"

"Yeah," Raphael grinned, happy to leave the somber subject behind him as well. "If you don't mind, I'll catch up with you later. I haven't seen Inez since she signed up on the Maverick."

"You could have her posted to the Venture." Chris pointed out.

"Not a chance in hell compadre." Raphael retorted. "I don't want her on the front lines with me. I can deal with death on a daily basis but I can't do my job is I have to worry about her too."

It was a sentiment Chris understood all too well; indeed any captain would have. "I understand. We'll meet up later. Last I heard she was in Four Corners. Ship to ship communication is still down so she may not know that you're on board."

"I get to surprise her." Raphael grinned as he started towards the door. "What could be better?"

"Captain Picard standing by to transport," Alex informed him once Raphael had gone.

Chris almost jumped out of his skin, being disarmed by his reunion with Raphael long enough to remember Picard was about to come on board.

"How do I look?" Chris turned nervously to Alex as he began straightening his uniform and running his fingers through his hair. Something about being in Jean Luc Picard's presence warranted such behavior.

Alex rolled her eyes in disbelief but nonetheless found herself straightening his collar anyway before responding. "The model of a starship commander, Lieutenant?" She glanced at Rain. "Initiate transport."

"Hey, I wasn't ready!" He grumbled.

Alex wondered how Mary put up with him.

Anything she was about to say was cut short when the shimmering began on the transporter pad. The tall, slender form of Captain Jean Luc Picard materialized before him and it took a few seconds for Chris to get accustomed to seeing the man before he was able to force himself to react.

"Captain...Captain Picard." Why was he stammering? "Welcome on board the Enterprise... I mean the Maverick."

Oh real smooth Larabee, Chris thought to himself following that impeccable delivery.

Alex tried not to shake her head.

If Picard noticed his stumbling, the man certainly did not show it. Instead, the legendary commander extended his hand towards Chris in a handshake. "Thank you, Captain Larabee, it's a pleasure to be here. I admit I would have like to have seen the Maverick under better circumstances but I must commend you did admirably under the conditions."

"Thank you, Sir," Chris found himself swallowing visibly at the man. "The truth is, if you and the other ships had not arrived when you did, it could have ended very differently."

Their gazes held for a second and Picard understood completely what Chris was trying to say, not to mention he was honest enough to admit the help was needed and appreciated, a rare thing with captains. Picard had come across enough men in his time who had egos the size of Class 9 gas giants to know such modesty was rare and to be valued. "We make our careers by what we accomplish by the skin of our teeth Chris, I think you fared better than most and please call me Jean Luc."

"I wouldn't feel comfortable about that," Chris said honestly. "By all means call me Chris but to me, you're always going to the captain who always managed to beat the odds and I'm still too awed by all that to be on a first name basis."

Picard was pleasantly surprised and decided that he would like this Captain Larabee very much, enough perhaps to even call him a friend. "Actually I have been wanting to meet you and make some thanks myself Chris."

"Why?" Chris asked automatically and suddenly had an idea what JD must go through around him. He reminded himself from now on, he was going to try and show as much consideration as Picard was doing for him.

"You were one of the commanders who chose to follow me during our last battle with the Borg even though I did not have command of the fleet. You could have been severely reprimanded if the attack failed and Earth would have fallen to the Borg. It is quiet something to me you and those like you, chose to follow me into that battle on a faith alone."

Chris did not know what to say. Following Picard into that fight gained him his captaincy and yet the man was here, thanking him. It was almost too much to take and yet he knew he had to answer. "You were the Captain of the Enterprise. I couldn't expect to do anything else."

"I've been told that before." He chuckled and then let his gaze move over the transporter room before remarking. "I miss the last Enterprise you know," Picard mused. "Perhaps it takes time to get used to a sovereign class Enterprise but I always liked her better when she was a galaxy class ship. She had character."

Chris could understand all too well and he knew no matter what ships came and went in the future, he would always have a special place in his heart for the Maverick. Suddenly, he realized he was being rude and immediately introduced Alex and Rain to Picard.

"I believe you are the reason the Klingon ship is here Commander Styles," Picard said to Alex after the introduction was made.

"Me?" Alex stared at him blankly. "I don't understand."

"Captain, the C�boath has signaled its readiness to transport. Two to beam over." Rain broke in at that point.

"Go ahead," Chris ordered as he was listening to Picard explaining things to Alex and Rain immediately went about activating the transporter pad, filling the room with that familiar hum as they spoke.

"The Enterprise was already on its way to intercept the Maverick as per Starfleet's orders when we were told to rendezvous with the C�boath to pick up a passenger. When your distress signal reached us, the commander of the C�boath felt it would be a much more interesting assignment to lend assistance in a combat situation instead of just ferrying passengers from one destination to the other." Picard sighed as this was the eccentricities of Klingon behavior needing no further explanation.

"You said it had something to do with me...." Alex asked again.

"Well apparently, their passenger was coming to see you." Picard smile gesturing to the transporter pad where the commander of the Klingon ship and another more familiar figure appeared in front of them.

Alex did not speak and she vaguely heard the Klingon commander striding forward, uttering some greeting towards her before he joined Picard and Chris. In the background, she heard Commander Kavroth telling Chris how the crew of the C�boath envied the Maverick for the glorious battle that must have been fought before the arrival of reinforcements from the Federation and its allies.

Alex could only see the woman before her.

It had almost been three years since she had been on Qo'noS and seeing Kellien before her was more than enough to take Alex's breath away. She could hear Chris ushering the other captains and Rain out of the room in order to offer her some privacy but it was all a blur. Kellien stood before her, tall and matriarchal, wearing the leather coverings of a Klingon woman and looking as if she could wipe the floor with any human foolish enough to challenge her. Her long auburn hair had grayed a little but it still reminded Alex of a lion's mane as it had done when she was a child, falling a sleep in that strong woman's embrace.

"What are you doing here?"

"I received a communication from your ship's counselor saying that I was needed." Kellien stepped off the transporter pad. She stood the same height as Alex and watched her foster daughter closely.

Josiah. Alex thought to herself, only Josiah would have the audacity or for that matter, the insight to do that. A thousand emotions ran through her as she saw Kellien coming towards her. The events of the last few days came crashing down on her with the appearance of the one person who was able to instill in her the need to go on after her discharge from Starfleet Medical, in the aftermath of what happened to her. Lord only knew what Alex would have done if she had been left to her own devices. When she left the care of doctors and counselors, she was so traumatized by her experience in that Cardassian prison she could have killed herself like so many others before her. Too ashamed to go home to her father whom Alex still could not face, she instead went to the only other person who might be able to help her.

Kellien had saved her in more ways than Alex could count.

"It is good to see you," Alex whispered softly, the emotions inside her threatening to break her in half.

"How have you been?" Kellien asked, aware Alex was nearing the threshold of just how much she could take. "I worry about you."

Alex blinked, trying to stop the tears and took a step closer to the woman. "He was here, on this ship."

Kellien nodded trying to keep her stiff upper lip but starting to succumb to the moment as well. "I know."

"I wanted to kill him."

"You had every right to," Kellien answered. "But you placed the lives of those around you before the need for the vengeance. You acted honorably."

"I did not," Alex shook her head, not about to accept her praise, not after what she did before the Dominion fleet left. Her hands were bloodied even if she had not done the killing herself. "I had my vengeance. They just don't know yet."

"Then honor is doubly satisfied and I do not care about that p'takh. You are the daughter I never had, the child who so easily filled my heart from the moment you entered it. You have done nothing to be ashamed of and you have survived. I am proud of you." Kellien said softly.

Alex crossed the space between them and stood poised for a few seconds in front of Kellien before she finally placed her head on the woman's shoulder and allowed the woman to embrace her in her comforting arms. Alex had no idea what tomorrow would bring but for the moment, all she wanted to do was be held by the closest thing in the world she had to a mother.

Lemar knew something was wrong when he was summoned abruptly to the bridge of the lead Dominion ship. As it was, he had been attempting to limit his dealings with the Vorta ever since they were forced to run from the Maverick like frightened children. Who knew one galaxy class ship could have mounted such a formidable defense when fighting off an entire of phalanx of Jem Haddar warships? Of course, it probably had most to do with the fact the Dominion had seriously underestimated Captain Chris Larabee and how determined he would be to keep his ship. Lemar who had been in close proximity to the man had to give the Captain credit where it was due.

The man's ruthlessness was almost Cardassian in its nature.

Fanaian had been in a foul mood ever since they were forced to beam off the bridge of the Tasmeem prior to its destruction onto one of the nearby Cardassian ships, wounded in the battle. Later on, they transported to the Jem Haddar ships for reasons of safety once the battle was lost and retreat was in order. Lemar guessed the reason for Fanaian's mood had much to do with the fact that once they returned to Dominion territory, he would have to give his masters, the Founders, a very good reason for the failure of this mission. Lemar did not wish to be in his shoes for that particular meeting as the Founders were not known for their tolerance of mistakes, especially one on this scale.

When he arrived on the bridge, however, he noted that Fanaian had taken center seat and seemed in very good humor. This in itself was unusual considering what they had just been through but for some reason, Lemar felt a chill of something cold running down his spine upon seeing the man's mood. It was a feeling he could not quite define but it nagged at him nonetheless, remaining vaguely in the backdrop of his mind, awaiting its time.

"Lemar," Fanaian said with a smile. "I am glad you are able to join us."

"You seem in good spirits today." The Cardassian said as he paused in front of the command chair where Fanaian was seated and presenting himself like a king presiding over his court. Lemar looked around and noticed two Jem Haddar guards moving to flank the door and wondered what that was all about.

"I am, I am," Fanaian replied exuberantly. "I have been in a terrible melancholy you know." He said with an exaggerated frown of dismay. "After our defeat at the hands of the Maverick, the complete failure of our mission, who could blame me?"

"Yes," Lemar nodded, unable to swallow away the nagging feeling pressing insistently against his spine the more Fanaian continued to exude this positive outlook. "The situation was unfortunate. However, I suppose in all things one must accept the failures along with the successes."

"How true," the Vorta nodded in agreement. "However, I must confess to feeling a little trepidation in reporting to the Founders we had failed them. One does not tell a god one is not equal to the task he has set you."

Lemar had his own opinions about the deification of the Founders but chose to keep them silent. "I take it this good mood is because you have found a way out of your problem."

"How perceptive of you," Fanaian grinned wider. "I have found my solution indeed."

"Well," Lemar leaned against the command chair. "I am agog with anticipation."

Fanaian looked at Lemar slyly and then answered. "You should be. You are the instrument of my deliverance."

Lemar blinked. "Me?"

"Yes," Fanaian gushed deliberately. "It came as a complete surprise to me as well but it was like a revelation. Apparently, before the Tasmeem was destroyed an encrypted message was sent to you from the Maverick."

"From the Maverick?" Lemar exclaimed bewildered. "Why?"

"That's what we wondered," Fanaian looked around at his Jem Haddar companions who were keeping a very sharp eye on Lemar right at this moment. "However, upon decrypting it and let me tell you, whoever sent it was most determined only you should have access to it, we understood everything."

That nagging feeling was now screaming in his ear and Lemar felt the iciness expand from his spine to encompass the rest of him. "Understood what?"

"Understand how Larabee was able to disengage the shields on three Cardassian warships. It appeared you provided him with the shield frequency." Lemar said as casually as he might be reporting that the ship's systems were all nominal, not accusing Lemar of nothing less than treason.

"What!" Lemar cried out horrified, suddenly feeling the sands of his life starting to drain rapidly. "What possible reason would I have to aid the Federation?"

"To save the life of your lover of course," Fanaian answered smoothly.

This was getting more preposterous by the minute and Lemar was starting to feel his head swim with disorientation at being bombarded by so many untruths. "I do not have a lover on the Maverick!"

"Of course you do," the Vorta replied looking at him hard. "Her name is Lieutenant Commander Alexandra Styles and in what she thought was her last message to you, she told you not to mourn for her and it is not your fault that you were unable to save the Maverick. At first, I thought that this was ludicrous until I checked the records and discovered she was your prisoner once wasn't she?"

"Yes..." Lemar said meekly, understanding the trap Styles so neatly created for him.

"A prisoner who escaped just as you escaped. From a maximum security military outpost, she managed to obliterate off the face of the planetoid it was situated upon, to hide her escape and your act of treason!" Fanaian adding more and more evidence to support Alex's plan with each word he spoke.

"You cannot possibly believe any of this is true!"

"In truth," Fanaian looked at him and replied. "No, I don't actually."

"Then you believe me," Lemar asked, unable to imagine how his life now rested in this Vorta's hands and his belief in Lemar's innocence.

"Absolutely." The Vorta answered. "However, that does you little good."

Lemar stared at him.

"You see Gul Lemar," Fanaian rose to his feet. "What I believe is inconsequential. When I take this to the Founders and inform them this mission failed because I had a traitor in my ranks who sold us out in order to save the life of his lover, they will believe it. They will believe it because of your previous dealings with Commander Styles and the fact ten warships were incapable of taking one galaxy class starship without help. They will understand I failed because of these mitigating circumstances."

"You can't do this!" Lemar roared and took a step towards the deceitful Vorta. He made no more than two steps forward before he was stopped by Jem Haddar warriors who quickly removed his weapon and had him in their unwavering grip before he even knew what was happening. Fanaian returned to his chair once again and faced the struggling Cardassian.

"I will deny it!" Lemar screamed desperately. "You'll never get away with this! When I tell the Founders..."

"You will never see the Founders to make that rebuttal," Fanaian said sharply and then looked at the Jem Haddar beside Lemar. "Space him."

"NO!!!!!!!!!" Lemar shouted in his ear.

Fanaian let out a sigh as the Cardassian was dragged away screaming, before staring at the view screen before him. He could still hear Lemar's screams down the corridor and down towards the main airlock.

"Odious creature," Fanaian said with an expression of disgust to no one in particular. "The Cardassians will make anyone a Gul."

The Jem Haddar soldier at the controls of the ship said nothing in response for it was not expected, or required for that matter. He maintained his gaze on the controls and the view screen before him, wavering only when he noted the indicator on his console of someone opening an airlock.

Sleep

Captain's Logs Star date 14.25.02 - The repairs on the Maverick continue swiftly aided in part by the Engineering staff from the Enterprise led by Commander Geordie La Forge. Captain Picard has been extremely generous in crew assignments to the Maverick although I am starting to suspect that is due to the fond memories they have of Enterprise D and working on a galaxy class starship. We have also transferred all our Jem Haddar prisoners to the Enterprise as she will be heading back to the front lines where the prisoner of war exchanges can be negotiated. Intelligence reports from Cardassian Prime indicate Gul Lemar never made it home with the rest of the Dominion task force sent to take the Maverick. I can only assume he must have been blamed for their failure in this instance. In either case, I do not mourn for him and was rather surprised by how stoically the news was taken by Lieutenant Commander Styles.

She seems to be holding up well and I have to say a contributing factor to this would be the arrival of her foster mother Kellien from the C�boath. Even though the lady remained on board for only two days, her presence added greatly to the well being of our science officer. There have been no cause for concern in regards to the commander's behavior and she spent much of Kellien's visit in the lady's company along with Vin Tanner. Commander Wilmington seems to be recovering nicely and although he has been discharged from sick bay, has been placed on sick leave for the next week, but to hear him complain, one would think Nathan Jackson had drummed him out of the service altogether.

For myself, I am immensely proud of the way the Maverick handled itself during this crisis and while there are still things to settle in many quarters, I feel these are just the details left over in the wake of what has happened. Whether or not there is a planet in the Frontier that has tri nucleic fungi may now be a moot point. I have been told there is a very good reason why Captain Castillo made this special trip to the sector see his fianc�e. According to Picard, Captain Benjamin Sisko of Deep Space Nine is presently amassing the largest fleet in the history of the alpha quadrant to launch an all-out attack against the Dominion. The battle will be decisive and will end the Dominion threat once and for all. We have been ordered to return to the nearest starbase for repairs to our damaged upper pylon in order to join the battle that will take place over the skies of Cardassia Prime."

The problem with androids is the fact that they did not blink.

Humans blinked. Cardassians tended to smooth the ridges of their brow. Andorians got a nervous twitch in their antenna while Pakleds were so dumb it did not matter what gestures they did or did not produce, it was almost routine beating them. Klingons sat stoned faced, offering no expression but still very illuminating. Romulans always bluffed but androids? Androids did not blink and what was more infuriating, is that they also had the best poker faces, with the exception of Vulcans, that Ezra Standish had ever seen.

"No discards Mr. Data?" Ezra Standish asked as he stared across the felt covered table inside his quarters were he was presently playing an intense game of poker with some members of the Enterprise, including a very skilled though disgustingly modest third officer who just happened to be an android.

"No thank you, Commander Standish." Data said politely, glancing at his cards once again even though it was a redundant gesture. What he had seen of them when they were first handed to him was imprinted in his positronic brain. There was no need to keep his eye on them because there was no chance of his forgetting. Besides, he did not wish to take too much attention away from his observations of the man Commander Riker called the best damn poker player in Starfleet. "These will do."

"God," Julia Pemberton declared from Ezra's right, her arm still in a sling as she watched the stand off between human and android. She had been played out long ago but she could not help remain behind and watch the game. Although she was technically supposed to be cheering for Ezra because of their relationship, Julia could not help wonder if Mr. Data who had been assisting her in Engineering the past few days, was capable of playing Ezra. Just the possibility of their security chief being beaten by this pseudo-human was too delicious to imagine. "He's even more than polite than you are."

"Is that not the proper way to behave?" Data inquired, not wishing to offend.

"Of course it is," Nathan said fascinated by this automaton who was so much like a human despite his outer covering it was really quite uncanny. In the few days Nathan had gotten to know the android, Nathan found him to be far more human than any of the flesh and blood specimens he had met in his life time. "It's just you manage to sound sincere when you do it and not like you're about to move in for the kill."

"I take umbrage at that," Ezra said with a look of mock hurt on his face. "I always managed to sound sincere when I go in for the kill." He broke out into a dimpled smile.

"Face it, Ezra," Will Riker laughed. "These people know you too well."

"You are just annoyed Mr. Riker because I have all your money." Ezra threw him a satisfied smirk.

"Commander Standish," Data's voice suddenly interrupted the two old friends. "Are you engaging Commander Riker in such banter as a ploy to avoid laying down your cards as I have called your hand?"

A ripple of laughter rang throughout the room, not to mention whistles and hoots from the gallery.

"Ezra, I do believe he is calling you out." Nathan declared, unable to keep from laughing out loud at the whole situation and partaking of the amusement shared by everyone in the room.

"Mr. Data," Ezra looked at the android. "Is that what you were intending to do?"

"No Commander," Data said with that perfectly expressionless face, the one that did not blink. "I am merely attempting to prevent you from stalling for time. You have raised the stakes and I have met the challenge, I wish to see your cards."

"Never let it be said that I am unresponsive to polite requests," Ezra remarked as he lay his cards down on the table, near the considerable pile of chips in the middle.

"Very nice." Riker whistled seeing the four aces that stared up at everyone.

Ezra looked at Data and responded. "Mr. Data, can you rise to that challenge?"

Data nodded shortly. "I think I can." His answer stunned Ezra somewhat and made the security chief anxious as he proceeded to lay his cards downs for the others to see. Suddenly, Ezra had a bad feeling that he was going to ......wait a minute!

"That is two pair!" Ezra declared. The game had been focused on the two of them with stakes being risen to an obscene amount of credits for a lousy two pair! It was beyond Ezra's comprehension.

"Yes." Data answered with complete innocence. "Congratulations Commander Standish. That was well played."

"Well played?" Ezra balked. "You had two pair! Are you telling you were bluffing me?"

By now everyone in the room was reduced to hysterics as they saw the bewildered expression on Ezra's face. Nobody bluffed Ezra Standish. It was a cardinal rule. When that happened, expect weather forecasts to report in that hell freezing over.

"I could not beat you." Data replied with that same polite voice. "Commander Riker told me that before we began playing. However, he did mention you seemed to enjoy the game more when you were engaged in a bluff. I thought you would be pleased."

Ezra gave Riker who look who was wearing the same smirk he had given the first officer of the Enterprise a minute ago. "You have no shame, Commander Riker."

"Yeah but like you said, you have all my money."

Ezra could only glare as he heard their continued laughter.

"What does she see in him?" Buck Wilmington complained as he saw Inez and Captain Castillo sharing a romantic dinner at a table overlooking the window inside Four Corners.

"Well he's a captain," Mary remarked staring in the same direction Buck was. She and JD Dunne were attempting to keep Buck company since the first office was just miserable since being taken off active duty for his injuries. After having Buck stroll onto the bridge numerous times for no good reason, Chris ordered Mary to keep Buck distracted since the chore was already driving poor JD Dunne to distraction. Buck's need to be in the thick of things was more than a young ensign could hold back and Chris decided a more experienced hand was necessary.

"So what?" Buck shrugged. "There's nothing great about being Captain. You just get to sit in the big chair." Then he looked at Mary and snorted. "Oh look who I'm talking to about this. You're just as bad."

"Buck!" JD said mortified that he could speak to her that way, even in jest.

Mary, however, was not at all offended. In fact, she had a good return to his remark. "Well," she flashed a little smile at JD and then turned to Buck who was still staring longingly at Inez's direction and convincing everyone at the table his feeling for Inez was not as typical as he might have them believe. "It has to do with those captain's bars."

Buck turned to her. "Really?"

"Oh yes," Mary said with an exaggerated bat of her eyes and misty pout to her full lips. "Something about those extra pips on the collar just turns me on so much. Why how you can just settle for a first officer after that.? It would be like slumming." She ended that statement with a wicked gleam in her eye as JD started to laugh.

"I bet you think you're real funny." Buck gave her a look. "I thought Vulcan wives weren't supposed to have a sense of humor."

"I'm not Vulcan." Mary winked in his direction when suddenly the door slid open and an extraordinarily beautiful woman with sultry features and a magnificent mane of dark hair walked into the room. She was paused and studied the place for anyone she knew before drifting towards the bar and pulling herself a seat.

"Hold the phone!" Buck exclaimed, spotting her immediately. "If Inez wants a captain that's fine with me." Buck declared, leaving no mystery as to where he was going when he got to his feet and started walking towards her. "I just sighted land in the horizon."

"Buck," Mary spoke up as he started towards her. "You know how to really get her interested?"

"You know her?" Buck glanced at the beauty who had ordered herself some chocolate ice cream and was now consuming it. Now he knew for a fact women substituted chocolate for another other basic need, which meant he was in a great deal of luck.

"Yes I do," Mary said with a completely straight face. "Just keep thinking to yourself how you want nothing but to show her a thousand and one pleasures. I guarantee you, she'll fall into your arms."

"You're kidding me," Buck retorted with obvious disbelief.

"I'm not," she insisted. "Just keep that thought in your head right up to the second you speak to her. She'll sense it and respond. Trust me, that woman likes a man who knows what he wants."

"Alright." Buck grinned and decided it was worth a shot. Leaving their table, he started swaggering to the lady in question, oozing typical Buck Wilmington charm.

JD waited until he was gone and then asked. "Isn't that Counselor Deanna Troi of the Enterprise?"

"Yes." Mary taking a sip of her coffee while wearing a look of pure innocence on her face.

JD thought so and then had to ask further. "Isn't she telepathic?"

Mary grinned. "Yes."

"So if he thinks that.... oh!" JD stared at her and started to laugh. "Ma'am that's cruel."

Mary met his gaze and smiled. "Yes, it is."

JD turned his eyes eager to feast in the carnage that was to be Buck's introduction to Deanna Troi and muttered to himself. "Its no wonder you go for the Captain, the first officer is just no match for you."

Josiah Sanchez and Chris Larabee had been giving each other wide berths since this entire situation with Gul Lemar emerged, particularly with the conflict created thanks to their differing opinions on how Alexandra Styles should be handled. Although things turned out for the best, it was clear their friendship had reached something of a crossroads. Chris knew for them to continue serving together on board the Maverick, boundaries had to be set and lines drawn so each man understood where one's bounds began and the other ended.

Instead of waiting for Josiah to come to see him, Chris decided it was best if he made the conciliatory gesture. He knew he had hurt Josiah's feelings when he refused to take Alex off duty but he still believed as he had believed then, he had made the right decision. Keeping Alex on duty had saved their lives because she had inadvertently discovered the deception Gul Lemar had been attempting to perpetrate upon them. Had it not been for her timely alert, the Maverick would have been caught by surprise and Chris did not even want to imagine what would have happened if his ship had been taken. Not just to Alex but to all of them.

"Am I interrupting?" Chris asked politely as he peered into Josiah's office in the Counselor's suites on the same deck as the Sick Bay.

Josiah who was going over some crew fitness reports in light of their recent battle immediately looked up and found himself surprised by the Captain's sudden appearance. Then again, Chris had the ability to do that like no other man he had ever known. "Sure." He nodded and put down the datapad in his hand.

Chris walked into the room and seated himself in the chair before the Counselor's desk just as Josiah pulled himself out of it and went to the shelf where he kept his stock of Romulan Ale. Extracting the bottle and two glasses from its place there, he poured them both a drink. Neither man said anything as Josiah handed Chris a glass and returned to his seat nursing his own.

"Are we the most stubborn people in the world or is this how it usually happens between Captains and their Counselors?" He broke the silence finally.

"I like to go with the second option actually," Chris said with a smile as he heard the exhale from Josiah indicating there were no hostility remaining between them, just unresolved issues that needed discussing. "People say I'm stubborn but I refuse to believe it."

Josiah laughed softly and then responded. "Chris, I'm sorry I pushed so hard with Alex."

"Don't apologize," Chris said automatically. "I'm glad you did what you did Josiah. It shows me what an exceptional healer you are. You put her life before anything else and that is how it should be. I'm not holding it against you that you took an opposing view to mine, it just makes me glad to know if I ever was in the same place, you'll be there to help me just as resolutely as you were able to help her."

"When I read that report about all those suicides," Josiah responded softly, touched by the depth of feeling Chris had just conveyed and felt once again the warm glow of friendship and paternal affection he had for the man. "I just reacted. I thought about all those lives destroyed. All those women who took their lives for something that was not even their fault and then to see Alex, so tortured inside, I just could not stand that happening to her. I was trying to protect her, not realizing sometimes you don't protect someone by keeping them wrapped up safe, you do it by letting them face the demons and giving them the chance to fight back."

"I was where she was once Josiah," Chris confessed reluctantly. "When Sarah and Adam died, I was ready to walk off the edge of a cliff if I thought the pain would go away. It was Buck who reminded me there were things worth fighting for and though I damn near drove him to kill me himself, he stood by me and made sure I kept remembering that. He made me put all that rage and hurt into someplace where it could work for me and here I am, Captain of this ship. I had to believe I could do the same for Alex."

"Well, it worked" Josiah commented, taking another sip of his glass of ale. "She actually came to see me, you know."

Chris' eyes widened in surprise. "Will wonders never cease?"

"It was mostly to thank me forgetting Kellien here but she stayed around long enough to say a little something about how she felt and that's a hell of an improvement for someone who used to do anything to avoid talking to me."

"So how is she doing?" Chris asked, knowing Josiah would tell him as much as possible without breaking doctor-patient confidentiality.

"Better," Josiah said with a smile of pleasure at being able to report that much to his captain. "Says she had problems sleeping but not anymore."

"Not anymore?" Chris looked at him. "What does that mean?"

Josiah could only shake his head in confusion since he had no idea himself.

Vin Tanner savored the scent of her long hair in his lungs, trying to decide if the intoxicating smell was wildflower or apple. He wondered how she managed to get her hair smelling like that before deciding it was just one of those things women seemed to manage so easily while men smelled like ordinary soap. Wildflower or apple, he continued to wonder for a few more seconds as his arms lay draped over her waist while she lay asleep on his bed. After everything that happened, Alex asked if she could sleep with him for a while since she was unable to do so alone without waking up screaming.

After a while, he gave up pondering the question and chose instead to nuzzle his cheek closer against that heavenly cascade of jet black hair, spilling onto the pillow and her back. He felt a surge of pleasure feeling the silken strands against his skin and the action of taking a deep breath of her, only forced a soft sigh from Alex's lips as she snuggled closer to him. She had been asleep for some time now, not at all plagued by the nightmares that so blighted her sleep, she could only get through the night with heavy neural suppressors. Strangely enough, her slumber with him had been nothing but peaceful.

Vin wished he could see her face at this moment but decided to do that he would have to let go of her and Vin never ever wanted to let go of Alex. Vin was enjoying holding her in his arms, feeling her body spooning up against him in a gesture that was terribly intimate yet not at all sexual. Vin did not know how if this was proper or not, sharing a bed like this but he knew that while it lasted, he was going to enjoy every second of it. Perhaps one day there would be more but for the time being, this was enough. Vin would be there for Alex for as long as she needed until she felt safe enough to be without him, though he wished that day would never come, for he would always need her.

As she lay with his arms wrapped around her, Vin could only stare at the stars outside his window and hoped wherever she was, her dreams were as beautiful as this.

THE END

Next story: Weaker

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