Federation Starbase 23 - Jaeih's Stories

Aehallh 02: New Worlds, New Adventures

By Jaeih t`Radaik









Introduction


The basis for the story was combining two ideas I had. One was a battle between a Klingon D6 and a Federation destroyer using the Star Fleet Battles/Starfleet Command gaming system, the other was a colony development project along the lines of those implemented in the 'Star Trek: New Worlds' PC game. I had originally decided to have my first idea as part of the Federation-Klingon war of 2267, but changed my mind.

This is my second story, and my first full-length one. It was quite ambitious (I think) in its scope, telling a story from three different viewpoints, but I think I did it quite well. I did, however, stop after Chapter Seven, and the last three chapters were added on a good six months after the fact. I felt that they weren't quite up to the standard of the original installments, but we'll see what I can do with them in this version.






Chapter One


Federation Base Time: 1453 hours, 28th July 2267
Stardate: 2773.1
Location: Federation Starbase 23, Docking Bay Five.

Captain Mark Daniels of the Federation destroyer Jugurtha examined the supply docket his yeoman had handed him. The final batch of supplies had been loaded onto his ship, on time and with no damage.

Or so the report says, anyway, he thought acidly. It wouldn't be the first time the harried and overworked dock crews had literally scraped in under their deadline. He'd had to have his shuttle crew repaint that four-metre gash on the lower surface of the saucer once they had reached their patrol station.

I'll take a travel pod and go over the bay doors myself before we leave, he decided.

But inept cargo crews weren't Yeoman Shandar's fault, and indeed the report might even be accurate. Daniels signed off on the electronic clipboard and handed it and the light-pen back to his Andorian aide.

"Thank you Shandar, that will be all."

"Yesss, Sssir," Shandar replied before heading to the turbolift. Daniels smothered an inappropriate grin, looking at the yeoman's retreating back. All this time working with Andorians and their sibilant hiss while speaking Federation Basic still made him want to smile.

Maybe that's why I requested an Andorian aide. Even bad news is tolerable when the messenger is welcome.

Daniels broke off his line of thought and looked up as a young lieutenant approached him. "Captain, you asked me to remind you of your 1500 meeting with Commodore Sanek."

"Ah yes, thank you Mr. Brown." So much for that little inspection. You're so caught up in ships' business, you forgot that the ship needs somewhere to go to carry her business out, he mentally chided himself.

He caught the glance Andrew gave him. "Yes, very well Lieutenant. You have the conn while I am off finding out what we've got to do next. Oh, and detail someone to take a travel pod or workbee and give the cargobay doors and surrounding areas a once over."

"Aye, Sir. Making sure they left no dents this time, Captain?" Andrew asked.

"That is the idea, Mr. Brown. Carry on." Mark watched, amused, as his second officer eagerly slipped into the command chair after he had vacated it, and started issuing orders. Shaking his head, he walked to the turbolift, grasped the handle and asked for Transporter Room One.



Federation Base Time: 1500 hours
Location: Federation Starbase 23, C.O.'s Office.

"Do come in, Captain Daniels, and please take a seat," instructed Commodore Sanek.

Daniels did so and regarded the tall Vulcan flag officer with his bright blue eyes. He knew from previous encounters that he need say nothing until the commodore had finished his briefing.

Sanek did not disappoint him. "Captain Daniels, a directive came in from the Colonial Operations division of Starfleet two standard hours after you had docked. It has the official backing of Starfleet Command and all the proper authorisations are given and in order."

Daniels nodded politely. He knew that Sanek would get to the meat of this directive eventually. Since his base was the command centre for Romulan border operations, he often had to deal with incredulously over-emotional captains asking, "Are you sure this is for real?" ever since the Romulans had breached their 100-year isolation last December. This being the case, Sanek had amended his briefing technique in this way so as to stifle such comments.

At least you know exactly where your orders are coming from, Daniels thought sardonically, so you know whom to curse when things go wrong! He relaxed slightly into the chair as Sanek continued his briefing.

"As you are no doubt aware, the recent reappearance of the Romulans has lead to a panic in this sector. Vast areas of space half-heartedly claimed by the Federation for many decades have become strategically vital and thus highly desirable. Starfleet Command wants to expand our defensive military capability in these areas, but we need to establish supply bases, increase planetary and system defences and build self-contained mining operations in suitable systems. The past year has been spent re-examining old scoutship and probe mission data for areas of interest, and in securing funding for these operations.

"The now seemingly-inevitable war with the Klingons has concentrated starship deployment on the Klingon border regions, and as a result this sector is bereft of heavy units. Those that remain are assigned to the defence of star systems, bases and shipping lanes, the latter taking up most of the science vessels and other Class Two spacecraft in this area. As a result, I am assigning you to this mission."

Mark leaned forwards and perked up slightly, now that his actual mission details were about to be announced. The Vulcan's level and rather monotonous voice had made his interest wane during the background information. Certainly it was dry stuff, but now he knew exactly why he was going out there. He suppressed another smile, and focused his attention on the commodore's next words.

"Your mission is to investigate the planets deemed suitable by Colonial Operations for the establishment of mining colonies. They are already assembling the resources needed to immediately settle on five planets, as this is the minimum number of target systems expected to correlate with the old data. Should your scans prove otherwise, said resources can always be used elsewhere.

"You are free to chose a search pattern that best utilises your time and supplies, but you must perform highly-detailed topological and in-depth mineralogical scans of every planet in each system, including the gas giants. Even if your data is not what Colonial Operations now wish for, it will be useful for scientific study.

"As for your rules of engagement, they are Standard Orders. No not fire unless fired upon. The specifics of your mission—proposed timetable, systems to chart, ROE and supplemental stellar data—are in your orders as detailed in this electronic clipboard."

Sanek handed the destroyer captain a standard-issue clipboard over his desk, to which Mark gave a quick look.



Classified—Command-level Officers' Eyes Only.
Stardate 2772.5.
To: Cpt. Mark F. Daniels, C.O. Saladin-class destroyer
USS Jugurtha NCC-527.
From: Cdre. Sanek, C.O. Onias Sector Command Base, Starbase 23.

As of this stardate, you are ordered to proceed at standard cruise speed to…



Captain Daniels read over his orders and found them to be exactly what the commodore had briefed him to expect. With the inclusion of the latest intel Starfleet had of Romulan and Klingon ship movements, as well as his nearest reinforcements and rescue ships if things took a turn for the worse, it was admirably complete. But what else did one expect from a Vulcan?

Sanek asked, "Do you have any questions, Captain?"

"No sir, the clipboard contains everything I can think of at the moment," he replied.

The Vulcan nodded at him, then stood. Mark stood also, the briefing over.

"Very well then. As your re-supply is complete, you are cleared to leave the dock at 1600 hours." A thought suddenly struck the commodore. "You have synchronised with starbase time, haven't you, Captain?"

Mark noted the slight inflection Sanek had used, and had to grin. "Yes sir, we have. I will round up the rest of my crew and we will be ready to leave on time."

"Excellent. You are dismissed, Captain."

"Aye, Commodore."



As he walked down the corridor to the main turbolift bank, Daniels took out his communicator and flipped it open. "Starbase Communications, this is Captain Daniels. Put me through to the Jugurtha please."

"One moment please, Captain," came the reply. He listened as the tell-tale hiss of a subspace carrier-wave opened, and his second officer spoke.

"Brown here, Captain. What can I do for you?"

"Round up the rest of the crew, Lieutenant. We get out of here at 1600 sharp."

"Aye, Sir. Most are back on board already, but we still have one or two stragglers."

Hearing the smile in the lieutenant's voice, Mark groaned. "Don't tell me. Chief Talbain and his merry men?"

"The very same. But don't worry sir, they are not guests of Starbase Security this time. He is just picking up some last minute… um, supplies?" Andrew offered.

Daniels let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. Bailing Transporter Chief Abukar Talbain was becoming a shore-leave tradition, but fortunately absent this time. They must not have been docked for long enough…

"Supplies, huh? Ok, but make sure it isn't 'liberated' all at once. We don't want to float the ship now, do we?"



Over on the Jugurtha, Andrew stared, puzzled, at the comm. station's speaker. He exchanged a quizzical glance with the communications officer, Lt. JG Nigel Green. He just shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the speaker unit.

"Never mind, Lieutenant. I'll explain that one later." The smile in their captain's voice was unmistakable. "Alert the transporter room I'll be beaming over shortly, and tell our ChEng to start his engines. It would be nice to have our warp drive online before we are due to leave."

"Aye Captain. We'll be ready to leave in 35 minutes."

"Ten minutes to spare, huh? Good enough. Be right there. Out."

Nigel looked back at Andrew. "He just loves throwing those obscure phrases at us, doesn't he?"



Federation Base Time: 1600 hours
Location: Federation Starbase 23, Docking Bay Five.

"Thrusters to station-keeping."

"Thrusters to station-keeping, aye, Captain."

"Detach spacedock support pylons and umbilical power conduits."

"Detaching starbase support systems, aye Sir."

"Thruster control, push us away from the docking ring and align us with the port-side departure gate."

"Disengage from docking ring and align for port-side departure, aye-aye."

The usual leaving-spacedock chatter went back and forth between the bridge crew until Lieutenant Commander Wrok`Nar reported, "We have cleared all moorings, Captain."

Daniels acknowledged his Deltan first officer and ordered, "Helm, thrusters ahead full until we clear spacedock doors and local traffic, then half impulse to warp jump-off."

At the helm station, Lieutenant Urrih Maknal set his board accordingly.

"Lieutenant McCafferty, plot a course at warp six from the warp jump-off point to the Tyndall system."

The petite navigation officer got busy with her controls for a couple of minutes, then announced, "Course plotted and transferred to Helm, Captain. ETA at the Tyndall system from warp egress point is five-point-one standard days."

"Two minutes to spacedock doors, Captain," Urrih reported. "After that, five minutes to warp egress point."

"Good, good," Daniels replied. He had Nigel open a channel to the engine room. "ChEng, I'll be needing warp speed in about seven minutes."

"Warp speed available at your order, Captain," came the growled reply—which turned annoyed with, "as it has been for the past 15 standard minutes!"

Almost en masse, the bridge crew exchanged a smirk as the Tellarite's booming voice growled at their captain.

"Thank you, Mr. Gruur," the captain replied with exaggerated patience, which made the command staff grin even more.

Science Officer M`Krray glared around the bridge, trying to determine if they were laughing at her. The Caitian female had no understanding of the Terran sense of humour.

Either that, the rest of the bridge crew had each thought at one point or another, or she has no sense of humour…

The crew stayed occupied with the complicated task of piloting the starship out of the busy space-ways without anyone hitting them or vice-versa. Various systems checks and warp speed readiness reports were passed back and forth between the bridge crew and their departments throughout the destroyer, until everything was in order.

"We have reached the warp egress point, Captain," Lieutenant Maknal finally reported.

"Warp Factor Six please, Urrih."

"Aye Sir. Going into warp… now."





Chapter Two


Federation Base Time: 1613 hours, 4th August 2267
Klingon Homeworld Date: Tenth Day of Koch'Mar 1642 IR
Location: Klingon/Federation/Rihannsu border.

"Captain, incoming transmission from Starbase Ten! Coded for your eyes only," Communications Officer Aertak reported.

"Transfer to the terminal in my quarters. Commander, you have the conn. Alert me if anything shows up on scanners."

"Yes, Captain," First Officer Marketh vestai-Rustazh replied.

Captain Meltakh sutai-Gralthan of the Imperial Klingon Vessel Malicious strode quickly to the turbolift and voiced his destination. Barely 30 seconds later he was in his electronically shielded quarters, ordering his terminal on and accessing his personal command ciphers. It quickly decoded the encryption protecting the message from his command base and he leaned forward, eager for new information.

His immediate superior, Admiral Kian zantai-Khemarag, greeted Meltakh in his usual way before getting down to business.

"Captain, I have a new mission for you," he said in a condescending voice.

Meltakh fought to keep his face expressionless, and mostly succeeded. This targ would delight in seeing me dead, he silently raged, but I am too useful a commander to send to my death raiding heavily-escorted convoys alone. What has he in store for me this time?

Battling down his anger, he replied, "Would you like to share that mission's details with me, Admiral?"

Kian smiled his victory over the insufferable cruiser captain before starting his briefing. "Long range sensors caught this image of a ship in the Grn'cha system. It was at extreme range, even for the border outpost involved. The image is ambiguous at best, but we are sure it is a Fed ship and I want you to investigate what it is doing there."

The image in question came up on Meltakh's screen. Even with maximum magnification and the best computer enhancement their technology could provide, all that could be seen was the main surface of a white saucer. It appeared the saucer angled slightly down, hiding what was behind, and so no engines or other hullform could be seen, The image was so weak that even had any nacelles been in plain view, they would not have shown on the picture.

Even so, Meltakh felt his liver jump with excitement. A real engagement! he thought gleefully. A proper mission against a Fed warship, instead of these khest'n spy missions and the very rare convoy raid Command allows us. He transferred the image to a separate file and screen, and Kian's face reappeared on his main viewer. Not a satisfactory trade, he mused, but I want to gauge his reactions to my words.

"Admiral, do you have any more data on what type of ship it is, or even the ID of the ship itself?"

"According to our latest intelligence, there are no scheduled Fed ship movements in that area so it is probably a ship pulled in from another duty or sector. This being the case, we only have the image itself to go on. It could be a heavy cruiser with its secondary hull hidden behind the disk, but our analysts agree that it is more likely to be a destroyer."

Meltakh allowed the points of his teeth to show now, in the Klingon version of a smile. Not only a battle, but a prize! We can send what crew survive back to the klin zha pens on Homeworld! Still, he did not allow his thoughts of glory to cloud his mind. Why would Kian give me this mission? He knows what this could mean for me if I succeed. What if it is a cruiser? Maybe that is what he is hoping, and that I will be blown to dust by the Feds… He interrupted his musings to ask more, but the admiral spoke again.

"Meltakh, I advise caution! You should shadow this ship to determine its' nature and mission before deciding on action. Remember, your mission is to find out what the Fed is doing there over anything else. It is of no use to us if you blow it to dust without that data."

The sutai-Gralthan couldn't believe his ears. The grudge they shared was like many others—just a minor feud between Houses. Nothing of such ground-shaking consequence as a Blood Oath, but important enough to divide two Houses for a number of years. But he is safeguarding me! WHY? His mind whirled with the possibilities. House Khemarag is wealthy and powerful… but I have heard whispers from my brother that it is loosing influence in the Council… whereas our star is rising. Could he wish an alliance? Is this a friendship offering? It would indeed benefit House Graltham to ally with House Khemarag, and if Kian was willing to put aside his House's affront against us… Once I return, I shall seek out my father and speak privately with him on this. But for now…

Returning his attention to the admiral, Meltakh said "Your advice is… well received, sir." He paused, long enough to see Kian relax slightly, before continuing. "I will have my navigator plot a course to Imperial Outpost Seven for re-supply. We can be there—"

Admiral Khemarag interrupted him, saying "Captain, you cannot spare the time. This Fed seems to have been flitting around the systems in that area for many days now, and we have no idea of when he started or when he will finish. You have to leave and intercept him now. We are aware of your supply status from your last after-action report, and you are more than adequately stocked for this mission."

"Sir, we are down to a standard load of spares and that far into Fed space—"

"Captain, there is no time! You will comply with your orders! Set course for the Grn'cha system at maximum speed and do not deviate for other targets! Scan for the Feds' ion trail on arrival and follow it to the next system or until you find him. Shadow him and learn what he is up to, without detection if possible. You are authorised to open communication if you deem it necessary, and you are also authorised to attack if you think he poses a threat to the Empire's security."

Kian smiled as he delivered that last line, showing the points of his teeth. Meltakh got that message loud and clear. The Empire was engaged in a massive military build-up, and war could be declared—or not, he thought with another smile—and an attack ordered at any moment, given the right provocation.

The admiral saw his underlying message had been received and finished his communication with, "Success to you, Captain!"

"Success!" Meltakh growled back, then the screen darkened.

Meltakh had seen that the admiral seemed forthright, and the reasons given were good ones… but to go into Fed space with the parts bank so low didn't sit well with him. It might still be a ploy to get him killed…

"Khest it! Blind and double blind! I'll end up thinking like a Rom if this goes on," he snarled to the empty room. Hitting the intercom, he barked orders at Commander Marketh.

"Marketh! Set course for Grn'cha system, maximum warp! Battle alert on arrival!"

"Yes, Captain," the first officer replied, noting his superior's unsettled disposition.

"If you encounter any ships, ignore them! I will be in the training area. Out." He got up and headed to the gym.


*****

On the bridge of the Malicious, Marketh looked inquiringly at Aertak, who nodded to indicate the comm. link had been cut. He turned back to the navigator.

"Lieutenant Kev, plot course as ordered. The Grn'cha system at warp seven-point-eight."

"Yes, sir." Kev worked his board for a few seconds before reporting, "Course laid in and transferred to Helm, sir."

"Helm, action," the Commander ordered.

"Affirm. Acting." Lieutenant Aernath set his controls and announced, "Warp engines engaged, sir. Destination in five-point-six hours."

"Very good." Marketh responded.





Chapter Three


Federation Base Time: 1406 hours, 3rd August 2267
Rihannsu Homeworld Date: Second Day of Sextuple 1732 AS
Location: Rihannsu/Federation border.

On the Rihannsu Imperial Starship Aehallh, things were finally performing as they should. The seven-month refitting (rebuilding is a more accurate word, the Commander thought) of a 100-year-old sublight Warbird to a trans-light-speed, deep-space heavy cruiser had been completed just under a month ago and now the shakedown cruise was a success. Everyone was much relieved, not least the aforementioned commander. Just a few more days of trials and testing, with some simulated battle drills thrown in for good measure, and we will be ready for active service once more, she promised herself. They were actually ready now, but she liked to be sure.

On the bridge of the newly christened 'War Eagle', Senior Centurion Giellun tr`Khnialmnae's attention perked up as his console started flashing and beeping softly. His fingers moved swiftly and assuredly over the communications board as the transmission came in, which he dutifully acknowledged and decoded the message header data. After he had done so and discovered the type of message and whom it was from and for, he turned to address his commander.

"Riov, a Priority One message from Starbase Six has arrived for you," he announced.

Commander Rhioa t`Khellian swivelled her command chair round to face her comm. officer, taking in the new, more spacious design and layout of the bridge. "Indeed," she said. Rhioa knew that it wasn't classified or tr`Khnialmnae would have told her as much, so she asked, "What does it say, Giellun?"

"Madam, Seidhu Nniol tr`Khaell orders you to immediately set course for Grand Fleet Outpost 37 where you will be briefed on a new mission."

"Thank you." Turning back to face her helm and navigation officers, Rhioa ordered, "Arrain tr`Laheiin, plot a course for Outpost 37 and transfer to my console. Calculate arrival time at full warp."

"Ie, Riov," came the response. Navigator Arhm'n tr`Laheiin worked his board for a time, then updated his commander. "Madam, course plotted and transferred to your screen for approval. Arrival at full warp in three-point-four hours."

Rhioa turned to Geillun again and said, "Link me up to Engineering, please."

The communications officer nodded and pressed a couple of relays, then listened for a few seconds. "Channel open and routed to your chair, Riov. Master of Engineering tr`Keirianh on line."

Nodding her thanks at tr`Khnialmnae, Rhioa spoke into her chair's comm./speaker unit. "Engineer, how will the new Klingon systems hold up under full load?"

"They may be Klingon systems Madam, but they were retrofitted by Rihannsu craftspeople."

Rhioa had to smile at that. Ameh was always one to give credit where it was due.

Her Engineering Master continued. "The new systems are now completely integrated into existing space-frame and programming. They all test out as fully operational with all functions available though standard computer interface at their respective bridge consoles. Transporters at the Enforcement station, phase disruptors at Weapons, and warp engine status and tractor beam controls at Engineering, although Helm can also engage warp drive. But, even if things do not go well with the warp drive I doubt we will be around for long to lament the fact, Riov."

Rhioa sighed theatrically. "My thanks for your excellent work, Engineer. If in the next few minutes we both arrive in the same afterlife, things will not go well for you," she said with a smile in her voice. "I am just glad that the damned-to-Fire transporter is finally working properly. How you managed to squeeze it and all its systems into that food storage room is beyond me, Ameh."

"Is that the sound of a Riov appreciating her Engineer? Finally glad that our Great Leader didn't second me to her new ship as well, Riov?" Ameh's tone made Rhioa want to smile and slap him both at the same time, but his next words made her laugh out loud. "You may have to send Gwuii down here to scrape me off the deck…"

The image of their straight, very correct, and diminutive new senior medical officer trying to pick the hulking form of Ameh up off the deck of the engine room was indeed a funny one, and the old crew smiled at their own mental pictures of the scene. Rhioa noticed that the new crew just stared straight ahead, looked around nervously or glared angrily at the more relaxed bridge crew instead of joining in.

Ever since her old commander had "stolen"—as Rhioa jokingly liked to put it—several of the Aehallh's key staff for her new ship, Rhioa had preferred to keep a close eye on her new people—just to make sure. She wanted to be able to trust her new crew as Jaeih had trusted her and the others before. T`Radaik had entrusted Rhioa and those remaining with her to teach the new crew about mnhei'sahe and what it meant to be a creature of honour, and to hold that honour in the face of trying times instead of just discarding it for expediency's sake. Rhioa's new crew had only just transferred aboard for the start of this shakedown cruise, and so she hadn't had time to even think about setting examples—except through her daily dealings with them—being up to her ears in engineering reports on the new systems. She would have to make a start on that, and soon.

T`Radaik had only taken those she needed to 'secure' her new ship for the "mnhei'sahe conquest"—Jaeih's own attempt to show the younger generations the traditions of old. So she wouldn't die suddenly, Jaeih had transferred Aehallh's senior medical officer. For Command backup, Aehallh's senior helm officer promoted to Jaeih's first officer. To back up her wishes with force if necessary she had taken her Master of Enforcement. And finally, her weapons/navigation officer so that the ship would survive its first battle. The ship itself was still undergoing the conversion from D6- to KR-class. It was about half done now, and would be the first one completed. Jaeih had named her Kestrel and from the many updates she had sent Rhioa she was eager to let her new bird fly, but was also concerned with "converting" her new crew, as she called it. Jaeih felt that the last 16 years on the Aehallh had spoiled her. Rhioa had no such concerns for her old commander, though. Jaeih had a… a quality about her that just made people want to respect her. From that respect came trust. Her exploit of facing the three Klingon drone cruisers alone still won her the respect of many, even though she had never bettered it. By keeping her nose clean and her ship in one piece—and with minimal crew losses—her reputation had grown. Rhioa herself thought that Jaeih was blessed by her Element—that of Air. Whenever she was fired upon, she managed to be 'elsewhere'. When you shoot at Air, you hit nothing, Rhioa thought wonderingly. If only I could share that trait with her.

Coming back to the here and now Rhioa said, "Excellent. Let us be off then, and find out what the Seidhu wants us for."

Looking over her new navigator's course she saw that it was exactly as she would have plotted it herself. "Transfer course as plotted to Helm. Arrain t`Sedhri, execute course at full warp."

"Ie, Rekkhai," Emni t`Sedhri acknowledged. "Warp engines engaged… Warp one… Warp two… Warp three…" The warp factors were counted up until, "Warp seven-point-zero-two-four, maximum warp speed."

Rhioa looked around at the bridge crew and noticed that the young nervous ones had actually held their breath as the cruiser reached her maximum velocity. She suppressed a smile, not wanting to mock or alienate them, then spoke down the still-open link to Engineering.

"Ameh, it would appear that we are still here."

"Ie, Lhhei. The warp field is stable and holding well with no unusual stresses. The last set of adjustments appear to have worked—and held. Power consumption is within predicted curves, with no spikes. All systems are still drawing power and fully operational, no loss in efficiency. The Elements themselves must be smiling upon us, yes?" Ameh replied with a grin—and that annoying tone—clearly present in his voice.

I'll "Yes, Madam" him! Rhioa thought, wincing slightly. His tone is threatening to become insufferably smug, and it has been getting worse over the past few weeks. He presumes too much on our history. I'd better talk to him in our quarters tonight. Familiarity is a good thing and I welcome it, but if it erodes the command structure too much it will have to stop. I do not want these youngsters thinking they can have my command because my grip on the crew is too weak. I'd better remind him of his place…

"Erei`Riov tr`Keirianh, if you cannot perform your duties without the clowning routine, maybe you should have gone with Riov t`Radaik. I hope I am understood?"

The sudden silence from the open comm. link seemed to blanket the bridge.

Although brief, it lasted a painful eternity for Rhioa—who felt eyes from all directions even though everyone faced away from her. When Ameh finally spoke again—a bare five seconds later by the ship's chronometer, she noted—the engineer's voice was devoid of any warmth.

"It is understood perfectly, Riov t`Khellian. That will not be necessary, I assure you. Engineering out." The comm. channel clicked softly shut.

Damn, Damn, DAMN!! Rhioa raged silently. I just cannot handle people as well as Jaeih does. I used almost the exact same words she once used to tell Lyie off, but Ameh is taking it far harder than she did. I cannot seem to strike the balance between over-friendly and overbearing. And I cannot leave the bridge now or they will all think I'm running to apologise to him! Forgive me this, my love, but an explanation must wait…

The Aehallh streaked homeward in silence.



Time: 1734 hours
Location: Grand Fleet Outpost 37, Rihannsu/Federation border region.

Exactly three-point-four hours from engaging the warp drive, t`Khellian's War Eagle dropped back to sublight speed within hailing distance of Outpost 37. It had been an incredibly long three-point-four hours for Rhioa.

"Enarrain, hail the base commander and request an update on our mission orders, " she instructed.

"Ie, Lhhei." Geillun kept busy with his station and carried on a quiet conversation with the base's comm. centre while Rhioa issued orders that secured her ship from warp speed and followed the correct traffic laws—making sure the base defences didn't get twitchy and use the War Eagle for target practice.

"Lhhei," he spoke up again, "khre`Riov tr`Illheiriae informs me that Seidhu tr`Khaell has not yet arrived to brief us. He is expected within 30 minutes, and you will be informed of his wish to see you."

"Thank you, Enarrain. Since we apparently have some time, I will use it to freshen up. Alert me immediately should the Seidhu arrive before I return." Rhioa turned back to address the bridge crew at large. "With Outpost Control in authority here, senior staff should use the time likewise, should your presence be required at this briefing. Get your reliefs up here and snap to it."

"Ie, Rekkhai," her command staff replied as one. Rhioa retreated into the sanctuary of the turbolift, but waited for the doors to slide shut before leaning back against the cold metal.


*****

Thirty minutes later Rhioa and her first officer, subCommander Vaebn tr`Akelidhad, were in Briefing Room Four on the outpost along with Rhioa's old Swarm leader Nniol tr`Khaell, now an admiral commanding a full-sized starbase.

Rhioa only had time to take a quick scrub in the 'fresher and don a new uniform before being paged by Geillun, so she still had to speak with Ameh. Leaving it so long worried her, but she had no choice in the matter. It meant that when she finally did talk to him it would be that much harder to straighten out.

Also, this mission was apparently top secret and so important that a starbase commander had to leave his post unnoticed, and brief only her and her second-in-command personally in a secure room rather than trust subspace frequencies. She could not even tell Ameh why she had to push the engines to their limits almost immediately after having them attached…

Returning her attention to Nniol, she could see that he looked exactly as he had the last time she had seen him, nine years ago. The life of a flag officer obviously agreed with him, as he looked fit, healthy, and relaxed in general. Although, after pleasantries had been exchanged he tensed up again, signalling to anyone who knew him—like Rhioa—that what he had to say really was vital.

The briefing started when Nniol brought up a star chart on the conference table's viewscreen. It showed an area of space on the Federation border, but also fairly close to Klingon space. He came straight to the point.

"Riov, erei`Riov, what you now see is the Illiamnae system. It is mineral rich and lies outside the Neutral Zone in as yet unclaimed space. We have had our eye on this system for some time and had planned on moving on it next year by normal means. But with the loss of our previous flagship to the Federation, a change in policy was mandated and thus our alliance with the Klingons. The refitting of our fleet to warp power, as the Klin call it, proceeds at good pace and—perhaps surprisingly—on schedule. As a result, our plans in this area were put back. However, two things have happened to change this."

The rotating 3D image of the unfamiliar star system, which had zoomed in on the various planets within, was replaced by several different images of what was unmistakably a Federation destroyer-class starship.

"Outer Monitor Station 20 detected this ship first of all in the Eialouram system two days ago, after which it was also picked up by Monitors 19 and 18 as it entered the Ortisanae system yesterday. Our analysts have determined from this vessel's flight plan and behaviour within these systems that it is not performing a standard patrol of the area, or even hunting for hostile vessels and installations. It is, rather, acting in a way that suggests it is running intensive scans of every stellar object within each system's cometary boundary; planets, moons, asteroids—even the stars themselves. We have therefore come to the conclusion that it is scanning these systems as a precursor to full-scale colonial exploitation.

"Now, this would not be a problem normally. We would just wait until they had left and move in first before they could bring in their mining and engineering teams. Indeed, as we already have geological data on the surrounding systems from the last war through these regions, we were content to do just that—wait. It is, after all, what we do best."

Nniol gave a slight smile as he said that. The smile vanished as if it had never been at his next words.

"Until Monitor Station 20 picked this up."

This time, the screen showed what looked like a live data link from a monitor station. The brutal, almost ugly form of a standard Klingon battlecruiser was slowly wheeling around the screen, in the immediate vicinity of the outermost gas giant of the system. The computer was amplifying the ambient starlight and glare from the gas giant to provide a highly detailed image of the Klingon ship. The overlaid text data identified it as a D6-class battlecruiser.

Nniol continued, "This is a data tape from Monitor 20, scanning the Eialouram system. Time index is as of four hours ago. I had my analysts on Starbase Six and those in the monitor stations observe it's behaviour in real-time, and it is their unanimous opinion that the Klingon is trying to pick up the Starfleet ship's impulse trail out of the system. The Klingon ship left after two hours in the direction of Ortisanae, seemingly confirming that analysis."

Tr`Khaell looked back up, locking eyes with Rhioa. He stated bluntly, "If the Klingons and Feds meet, there will be a battle. Whatever the outcome, Starfleet will flood the area with whatever resources they have at hand, fearing a Klingon incursion from an unexpected direction. And we will lose a rich source of mineral wealth—not to mention a foothold in unaligned space that the Federation now looks to claim—from the stupidity of the Klingons!"

Rhioa kept her stare cool, but was inwardly amazed at how upset her old Swarm leader was by this. It might have been one of his own pet projects being threatened, or it could just be as he said—the Klingons. Nniol had lost too many good ships, commanders and crews to the Klingons before the Alliance was formalised, and it tended to sour his thoughts on anything Klin. She watched as he cooled down again, and went on with the briefing.

"Your mission is to form up with Freight Eagle ChH-2437 and the Eagle of Long Eyes, and…"

He was about to continue, but noting their confused looks at his last words, tr`Khael explained.

"She is the first of a new class of ship. The warbird Nei'rrh was heavily damaged, its plasma launcher all but carved out of it by the Gorn. So, as well as converting it to warp power we are installing a dedicated and very powerful sensor suite. These sensors are very energy hungry, so the plasma launcher hasn't been reinstalled. We are hoping that these ships will prove very useful. Long Eyes' refit has also just been completed, but her warp engines are fully operational. I've had an engineering crew on it non-stop for the last two days to have her ready in time, and both support ships have been fitted with the cloaking device to allow you to slip past the Starfleet detection systems.

"But enough of this, it is all beside the point. Riov t`Khellian, you will take command of these two Eagles and set up a mining colony on Illiamnae IV. The Scout Eagle's dedicated sensors and data processing capabilities will scan the planet—more accurately than a warbird ever could—for its precise mineralogical layout so you can determine the best place to start mining operations, and the Freight Eagle will carry all the necessary equipment to build this colony. All three ships will double-bunk to carry the colonists and engineering teams. I do not want to send any more ships straight away as should the Feds detect or encounter you, they will think that we invade them. The current situation must be maintained, as we cannot war with the Federation with half our fleet in dry-dock and the other half on their way there or just coming out.

"You are to keep this a local incident. I can send you backup ships, but they will be stuck there when their Stutter-Drive collapses and I prefer not to do that. I will not risk any more of our recently converted ships either. You must complete this task without causing a war with anyone!" Tr`Khaell stressed this point most urgently, but also undermined that message with his next words, seemingly unaware of the contradiction it posed.

"Avoid the Starfleet ship if you can, but if the Klingon does find the Fed and tries to kill it, you must intervene. I do not want this mission to fail from Fed intervention!"

"Rekkhai," Vaebn interrupted, "surely you do not mean for us to go in and destroy a vessel of an allied power? As it hunts a warship of our mutual enemy?"

The starbase commander's glare grew angrier and focused on Rhioa's First. The man visibly wilted under the strength of that glare, but to his credit, Nniol saw this and reigned in his temper.

"Erei`Riov, your pardon," he said. "Mnhei'sahe frowns upon browbeating as a means of acquiring approval. Your question is a fair one, however unwelcome it might be to me."

Vaebn relaxed slightly and nodded, his honour and 'face' intact. He said nothing further however, waiting on an answer to his question now that it had been acknowledged.

Rhioa had decided to remain neutral throughout this, but suddenly changed her mind to capitalise on a good way of finding a rapport of sorts with her new second-in-command.

"Seidhu, my first officer makes a good point. I… understand… your feelings on this, but we cannot do such a thing. Even if there was one witness to survive—of either side—the repercussions would be staggering."

Nniol looked in surprise at his subordinate, again with the beginnings of anger at her apparent siding against him. But then he took on a thoughtful look, and stared into space for a moment before speaking.

"Riov t`Khellian, I grant you 'unusual breadth of discretion' for the duration of this mission. You are hereby authorised to use any means you see fit to promote the successful completion of your goals, which are: To avoid war with the Federation and Klingon Empire. To bring into full operation a defensible mining colony. To safeguard the lives under your command."

He looked at Vaebn. "As for your question, erei`Riov, the answer is yes. This mission is that important to the Rihannsu Star Empire. Illiamnae is the richest system in all the border areas easily accessible to us. Too far in and we can be easily cut off, but once established there we can sweep up all the other systems closer in plus have a supply bridge to proceed further out, if that decision is made."

Vaebn looked troubled, but said no more. I can see the sense of what he is saying, but to attack an unsuspecting ally—no matter how poor an ally they are—is beneath us! Areinnye take it that this is exactly what the Klin would do to us in their place, we are Rihannsu! We are better than that! I must persuade t`Khellian of this once away from this man.

Nniol looked penetratingly at Rhioa. "Riov, for sponsoring your promotion to replace her as commander of the Aehallh, Jaeih t`Radaik gave you a recommendation so glowing she must have wrote it in antimatter. She has high confidence in your command abilities, and I value her judgement. Do not let either of us down."

Rhioa stared back at the admiral, half in anger, half in shock. Giving her 'unusual breath of discretion' meant that he would back her up if she succeeded, but could also let her hang if she didn't—or even if she succeeded in a way he didn't like. This was indeed a truth blade—three sides, all of which could cut deeply. However, hearing of what her old commander had said of her filled her with warmth for the older woman, and she was determined not to let Jaeih down.

"I hear and obey. How long until my squadron is ready to leave, Seidhu?"

"Your ships will be fully stocked with spares and supplies, and the taking on of the engineers and colonists will begin immediately. The other ships will be here within ten minutes, so if you have any damage or cause for concern, let me know from your ship and I shall see to it immediately. You leave in one hour. Dismissed."

"Ie, Rekkhai."





Chapter Four


Captain's Personal Log, Stardate 2812.5. We are approaching the third system out of ten in our stellar survey mission and already the crew is getting bored. Well, with the exception of the Science Department that is. They are only too delighted, as most of the time it is we who have things to do and they who are left out. The survey itself proceeds according to timetable and our finds to date have already made the mission worthwhile, from Colonial Operations' point of view. And admittedly, from mine as well. It has been a pleasant change from hunting down pirates and performing contraband scans of passenger liners and cargo freighters. It is at times like these that I remember why I joined Starfleet in the first place. Searching out new worlds, exploring untouched planets… although, it would be nice to find some new civilisations—or even some old, dead ones—but I am feeling confident that being involved in this mission will eventually perk the crew back up. They are so used to being overworked that they do not recognise a vacation when they see it.



Federation Base Time: 1224 hours, 4th August 2267
Stardate: 2812.58
Location: Galactic South edge of L-647 star system.

"Captain, we have arrived at the edge of system L-647. The closest planet is L-647-V," Lt. McCafferty reported.

"Okay then, thank you Karen." Mark looked over at the Deltan. "Commander, you have the conn. This is our third system in four days so we should know the drill by now. Alert me if anything happens, but I'm going for my lunch. Log me off the bridge please, Nigel."

"Yes, Captain," came the replies from his first and communications officers.

Commander Wrok`Nar took the centre seat as his captain stepped into the turbolift, and issued the same orders that been issued the last couple of times they had dropped from warp speed.

"All sensors begin recording. Standard long-range sweep, Lieutenant M`Krray. Let us see if this system has what it is supposed to have in it."

The science officer merely nodded and bent to her task. She looked up after a minute and gave her initial report.

"Commander, no other vessels or unnatural objects detected within the stellar boundary or to maximum sensor range. Preliminary scan shows this system is has a Type-K1V main sequence orange star with six planets.

"L-647-I is a B-Class geo-morteus inner planet, sun-baked and with little to offer. There is an asteroid belt between the first and second planets, and L-647-II is an F-Class geo-metallic planet, very rich in heavy metals. L-647-III is an O-Class pelagic planet, M-class but the surface is 98.3% water. L-647-IV is a G-Class geo-crystalline planet, very rich in light crystals. L-647-V is an H-Class desert planet, rich in heavy crystals, and L-647-VI is a J-Class outer gas giant.

"System is as expected, sir."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Wrok`Nar looked over to the communications officer and said, "Mr. Green, send a report to Starbase 23 including all data we just collected on the system and current ships' status and location."

"Aye sir," Nigel responded.

Looking at the science station readout, Wrok`Nar saw that the planets in this system were well around in their respective orbits. Planet -V was the closest, then -II and -IV on this side of the star, with -I, -VI, and -III on the other side. He made his decision and gave his orders.

"It seems planet -III is the most likely site for a population settlement, and all the others are excellent mining colony prospects so we shall work our way to -III from across the system. Lt. McCafferty, plot us an orbital approach for planet -V that gives us maximum continuous scanning for a close in narrow-band sensor sweep, multiple orbits. M`Krray, set scanners to normal range and initiate planetary scanning protocols upon our arrival."

"Yes, sir," the Caitian returned.

"Orange-peel orbit, aye sir," the young navigator replied, using the name Lt. Maknal had come up for the now familiar polar orbital approach.

Karen looked over at him and gave a small smile. Although what little humour there originally was in the joke had long since worn thin, she was showing her appreciation at his trying to keep their spirits up. The first star system had held 14 planets and three asteroid belts and had taken them seemingly forever to complete the cataloguing routine—almost 23 hours! The second had been a binary star system with three planets and had been a very tricky one to navigate around. The immense tedium of the first combined with the nerve-racking volatility and tension of the second had eroded everyone's morale, it seemed.

"Sir, we will arrive at L-647-V in 23 standard minutes under full impulse," Lt. Maknal reported.

"Very well then, Lieutenant. Implement course, full sublight."



Time: 1230 hours
Location: Galactic North edge of L-647 star system.

As his ship dropped to sublight speed on the cometary boundary of the system, Captain Meltakh growled, "Status!"

"Captain, we have entered the Thok'cha system on the opposite side from the enemy destroyer as ordered," his scanner officer replied. "They have not detected us and are already moving into the system under impulse power. Their course takes them to the closest planet on their side, the fifth out from the star. Current distance to target, four-point-five thousand million kellicams."

"Very good," Meltakh returned. Speaking to Marketh, he said, "Pushing our engines seems to have worked, Commander. Emergency speed for as long as we could hold it then dropping to flank speed ate up the distance between us, even though the Fed was many hours ahead."

"Yes, Captain," Marketh replied. "The Fed seems to have maintained a steady warp six—their standard cruise speed—all the way, as we expected. We were able to catch him half-an-hour before he entered the system."

Looking at the long-range tactical display, Captain Meltakh ordered the Helmsman, "Stay in the shadow of the closest planet to us, Thok'cha-VI."

"Yes, Captain," Lt. Aernath acknowledged.

Meltakh continued, "We will follow the admiral's… advice… and remain on the edge of our sensor range to find out what they do in this system."

He turned to the scanner officer. "Lt. Cdr. Kalitta, begin recording the Fed's activities. Alert Helm and myself immediately should the Fed make any unexpected move toward us. We are to remain out of his sensor range, while keeping him in ours."

Meltakh lowered his heavy brows and glowered at each of the bridge crew as he spoke his next words.

"If they detect us we will have to move in and confront them. But I want to do that at a time and place of my choosing, and I promise a session on the agoniser for anyone who fails me in this! Understood?"

The crew echoed back, "Understood, Captain!"

"Commander Marketh, you have the conn. Wield it wisely," the captain admonished, before heading to the turbolift.

"Yes, Captain."



Time: 1230 hours
Location: C.O.'s stateroom, RIS Aehallh.

Sitting at her work desk, alone in her quarters, Rhioa t`Khellian once again reviewed the data that Nniol had supplied on the system her little fleet was approaching. She had the whole accursed file almost memorised by now, but her current situation was not conducive to the sleep she had left the bridge to find, four hours ago. After tossing and turning for close on two hours, she had given up sleep as a lost cause and decided to go over the data one more time.

One more time, hmmm? That makes it, what… the fourth session now? Rhioa gave herself a wry grin. But if she wasn't sleeping it really was the best use of her time. Streaking through space that the Federation no doubt claimed as their own—a claim the Rihannsu chose to ignore—left her very tense and unable to sleep, but giving her very little to do otherwise but wait. She had already dealt with Ameh.

On remembering the conversation, her face coloured faintly. 'Conversation' was the most complimentary word she could come up with for what occurred. 'Growling match' was more appropriate. Neither of them were screamers—quite the opposite. The angrier they got the quieter they became—fortunately for their standing with the crew. Respect and obedience could not be maintained when the whole crew snickered at you behind your back. No one ever heard them fight, but the results were a little harder to conceal.

However, thick-headed Ameh had got the message, and peace reigned once more. He was a bit slow in the interpersonal department—Ameh was most comfortable with the machines he tended than the people he served with. But once Rhioa had finally managed to explain that their personal relationship could not be allowed to spill over into their superior-subordinate one, Ameh had cooled off and acquiesced to the sense of the situation.

All in all, a total waste of nervous energy, and all of it because she was still trying to find her command style. Rhioa already held the respect of the crew and friendship of most of the officers, but she was now 'The Commander' and no longer just one of the senior officers. Certain protocols of rank had to be observed so that the chain of command—and that hard-won respect—were maintained. She was finding it difficult to keep a distance from her former peers and the situation with Ameh yesterday morning was just one of the symptoms of this particularly thorny problem. Well, it has only been a month, she observed pragmatically. Maybe I just need a little more time.

Coming back to the present, she was brought down further still by her current situation. Her ships were uncloaked for maximum warp speed, leaving them open to detection and thus giving the source of her unease. But there was nothing out here to hide from—barring a chance encounter—and since they had eluded detection by cloaking just outside the Federation sensor net's maximum range they needed all the speed they could get.

Rhioa returned her attention to the screen before her. The geological data was over 100 years old, but in cosmic terms that was less than the blink of an eye and it should be reliable. The file showed a recent scan of the system, matching with what had been recorded before. A single main sequence star, one small and four large solid planets and a single gas giant, with an asteroid ring thrown in for good measure. The whole system was extremely mineral rich and Rhioa was surprised that none had claimed it thus far. The recent scans with subspace technology had revealed that no one visited the system, so far out from the Federation Core Worlds. Its distance must have worked against it, as even Starfleet patrols had been few and far between—until now.

They must have thought their borders secure with the sensor nets around us, she mused. Alidar tr`Rial's vessel showed them otherwise, but they have been slow to respond. That will not last much longer, and soon this area of space will become as fortified as the Neutral Zone itself. That is why we do what we do. We MUST expand if we are to compete with the Klingons alone, and with the Federation added to the equation, our expansion becomes a matter of maintaining our continued survival as a free race, instead of a subject one.

Shaking off such morbid thoughts, she looked down as the intercom beeped softly. Flicking the switch, she asked, "Ie?"

The voice of her communications officer filtered through the grill. "Riov, a classified message packet has arrived for you from Outer Monitor Station 18, coded for your eyes only."

"I see. Transfer it down here, Giellun."

"Ie, Rekkhai," came his response. "Transfer complete. Bridge out."

Rhioa activated her command-level decryption codes and waited as the incoming transmission was authenticated and unscrambled. The face of an old man appeared on her desk screen.

"Ah, Riov t`Khellian. I am glad I managed to catch you. I am erei`Riov tr`Kahnedri, commander of Outer Monitor Station 18. Seidhu tr`Khaell authorised my contact because I have a tactical update for you. My sensor outpost has detected the Federation ship entering the Illiamnae system."

Rhioa appraised the man on the screen before her. She had a feeling that he had been on that outpost for a long time. To be so advanced in years but remain equivalent in rank to her first officer meant that he had earned the wrath—or merely disapproval—of someone higher up, quite some time ago. It was also entirely likely that he had been stationed there some time back and simply forgotten until recently. She felt a vague sense of pity for him, but tried not to let it colour her judgement. Tr`Kahnedri seemed courteous enough and looked as if infused with a sudden Fire now that his backwater outpost has returned to the limelight. He also looked determined not to be forgotten again. She cut short her musings to make her reply.

"Indeed. My thanks for your information, it will serve us well when we get to the system ourselves."

The older officer smiled, and Rhioa decided to help him a little herself. "erei`Riov, for how much longer can you continue to update us before the Federation ship detects the strength of your transmissions? It would be useful to have an as up-to-the-minute report as possible going in."

"Riov, we can broadcast to you until you are within zero-point-two light-years of the system's edge."

Not even looking at his subordinates the man had no difficulty in answering this purely technical question, despite it being outside the field of his original position. All that free time on the outpost must have driven him to learn everything he could about the machines and systems he watched over, Rhioa mused, before the lack of something to do could drive him insane. From the distance he stated, the Scout Eagle could detect the edge of the system. They could proceed without cloak until actually reaching their destination, shortening their overall transit time. This was a cause for good cheer, as the sooner they got to the system the less time the Klingons had to cause trouble.

"Tr`Kahnedri, that is very welcome news. A positional report of all objects within the system just before we arrive there will be most beneficial. I will be sure to include in my report the assistance you have given us," Rhioa said warmly. "But in the interests of security, I would ask that you only send further transmissions if something new develops."

The old outpost commander lifted his head proudly at her words, and gave her a bow of a length that she felt far outweighed her minuscule contribution.

He said simply, "Riov t`Khellian, you do me a great honour. I thank you."

Another of the Old Guard, shunted off to one side out of expediencies' sake to be replaced by a hot-blooded young snake who's goals line up with those of the corrupt leadership! Rhioa thought, suddenly furious. Is this to be the fate of all those who hold mnhei'sahe and the Old Ways over the expediency and bloodlust of the younger generations? she raged silently, forgetting for the moment that she was of the younger generation herself.

Controlling her anger lest it be misinterpreted, she replied, "It is you who honour me, tr`Kahnedri. Do not take our success as a certain thing, however. I have still to survive this mission."

"I understand, Rekkhai. I will end this now, as we have already talked for too long. Mnhei'sahe to you. Monitor Station 18, out."

Alone in her cabin, Rhioa stared at the now blank screen and echoed, "Mnhei'sahe to you, Friend."



Time: 1326 hours
Location: Orbit of L-647-V.

"Commander, all scans completed and logged for later analysis. We are ready to leave orbit, sir."

The first officer straightened in his chair. "Thank you, Lt. M`Krray. Mr. McCafferty, plot a course around the system's periphery to intersect with the orbit of L-647-II and transfer to Helm. Mr. Maknal, implement course at full sublight."

"Course plotted and laid in, sir," Karen replied, thinking, as it has been for the last 30 minutes! She was getting really bored with all this 'puttering about', as she had started to think of it.

Urrih Maknal looked over the course his partner had given him. It was exactly the same one she had calculated and shown him shortly after they had started orbiting L-647-V. As he punched the commands in on his board, he grinned at her accuracy. She had even got the co-ordinates they would leave from dead on the mark, and this from half an hour—and several complete orbits—before they were due to leave. Karen certainly has a knack for this, he thought, and not for the first time. She should be on a galactic survey cruiser, exploring the new frontiers where this kind of skill is needed—and rewarded!—not floating around aimlessly on border patrols.

Hitting the final toggle, he announced, "Full sublight aye. ETA to second planet, fifteen minutes. Now leaving orbit, Commander."

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant."



Time: 1330 hours
Location: Galactic North edge of L-647 star system.

The intercom grated out some noise to attract his attention. "Captain, Bridge." Meltakh ended his workout routine and walked over to the comm. panel on the wall, mopping his face.

Hitting the 'open channel' tab, he announced, "Bridge, Captain."

"Captain," came the voice of his first officer, "the Federation ship has left the orbit of the fifth planet. Its course takes it across the system to the second planet, and it will arrive there in roughly ten minutes."

"Understood," he replied. "My orders stand: Keep the planet between him and us and move the equivalent distance out of the system. If he moves behind the second planet, engage warp drive in a parabolic course from our position, heading out-system then curving back in to the planet with the best view of his activities—from a safe distance."

"Yes, Captain."

"Has Science come up with an explanation for what he is doing yet?"

"They are working on that now with the data just gathered, Captain. With the expected results from the second planet, Lt. Cdr. Kalitta is sure she will have an accurate answer for you."

"Very well. Keep me informed. Captain, out."



Time: 1410 hours
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Riov, another transmission from Monitor 18."

Finally managing to catch a full hour's sleep, Rhioa was scrubbed and in a clean uniform, feeling refreshed and alert. She instructed, "Put it up on main viewer this time, Geillun."

"Ie, Rekkhai," he answered. "On screen now."

Rhioa addressed the officer on the screen. "Greetings again, erei`Riov. Time for our final update, I presume?"

"Greetings to you, Riov, and yes, you have the right of it. Our latest scan shows the Federation ship still in orbit around Illiamnae-II, and still performing that non-standard orbit." Tr`Kahnedri consulted with one of his two junior officers that made up the three-person outpost staff before speaking again. "Still no sign of the Klingon ship though, which I find puzzling. Even at the cruising speed of a D6, he should have been here by now. His absence is suspicious, Riov, so be wary when entering the system."

"Thank you, tr`Kahnsedri. Your warning is well taken."

Turning to Senior Centurion tr`Khnialmnae she said, "Hail the other vessels and tell them to cloak as we do, in five seconds."

"Ie, Lhhei."

To the junior officer at the bridge Engineering station, she commanded, "Engage cloak on my mark… Mark!"

Pulling relays and pressing switches to transfer power to the cloaking device, Engineer Second tr`Heimnalae watched the status readings on his board change.

"Cloaking device engaged and functioning normally, Lhhei."

At the helm, Centurion t`Sedhri watched as the other two Rihannsu vessels disappeared from all but one of his sensor readings.

"Rekkhai, both support vessels are cloaked, I have no readings on them except the Fleet Command link." This link allowed cloaked ships to operate in fleet manoeuvres without running into one another, 'in the dark', so to speak.

"Excellent." Addressing the outpost commander again, she asked, "Did you hear?"

Tr`Kahnsedri nodded approvingly, then said, "The exact system layout and the position of the Federation ship within it have been uploaded to your vessels. I bid you fair day and good hunting! Monitor 18, out."



Time: 1415 hours
Location: Bridge of the RIS Eagle of Long Eyes.

"Rekkhai, Illiamnae system now entering sensor range," the Long Eyes' helm officer reported.

"Good." Senior Centurion Olnae tr`Maelitra turned to his comm. officer and instructed, "erei`Arrain, prepare a data packet to send to the Aehallh. You will co-ordinate with the scanner officer and include all relevant science and tactical data once the entire system is within sensor range."

"Ie, Rekkhai," he responded.

Turning back to Scanner Officer t`Llerah, Olnae was about to speak again when she called out, "Rekkhai, Federation ship detected. Correlates with positional data transmitted by Monitor Station 18."

Tr`Maelitra got up and walked over to the bridge's small science station. "Show me," he commanded.

Turning back to the console to hide a scowl, she pointed at a display. "Right here, Rekkhai."

Watching the display as it revealed more of the system and the position of the enemy warship, Olnae took note of the insolent emphasis she had used on that last word. He knew that the crew hated him, but he didn't care. In their last battle, the Gorn had killed about one third of the crew—including their former commander and some of their senior officers. But such was the urgency of this new mission—and thus the speed of the refit—that a new commander hadn't been assigned. Nor had his field-commission to subCommander been approved, which would have secured him as commander of the ship. This did not anger him as much now, as the conversion the warbird had undergone had neutered the once-formidable ship. He had already applied for a transfer to another vessel.

A supposed Rihannsu warship with no plasma weapons? Such a thing has not happened since plasma was developed, over 50 years ago! I will not command—or even serve!—on such a feeble vessel. he raged silently. But now we get 'support' ships. Warships with no direct combat ability, ships that can be easily destroyed without a proper fight. Troop transport ships and scout ships. Bah!

Shaking off such unproductive thoughts, the former Master of Enforcement returned his attention to the display just in time to hear the useless object of a scanner officer gasp in surprise.

All Naethra's thoughts about 'disposing' of the jumped-up, self-important legionnaire that now occupied the commander's chair disappeared as she reported, "Enarrain, the Klingon ship is in the system also!"

"WHAT? How is that possible, Arrain? Monitor 18 showed no such thing on its scanners!" Quickly working the board to send the data to the communications station—and ignoring the scanner officer completely while doing so—Olnae then pivoted to the comm. officer and commanded, "Send that data packet now!"

"Ie, Rekkhai!" Hurriedly working his own board, Lai tr`Aannreith almost shouted back, "Packet sent!"



Time: 1418 hours
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Lhhei, initial system scan report from the Long Eyes. Transferring to Science," Geillun announced.

"Very good," Rhioa acknowledged. She got up and walked to the science station, saying "Enarrain t`Ehhelih, let me see where we are going."

"Ie, Lhhei," Eviess replied while bringing the data up on one of her screens. The position of the Federation ship was highlighted, but immediately visible was the superimposed text data surrounding the position of another ship.

"So… we have an unwanted guest," Rhioa mused. "How did he escape Monitor 18's notice?"

"Lhhei, I have been going over the outpost's scan data and have noticed that while all the natural objects within the system are detected, the signal strength at the farthest edge is very weak." T`Ehhelih regarded her commander. "With this new data I have come to the conclusion that while sensor radiation can reach that far, it is too weak to return a signal from any object as small as a ship. Thus the planet was detected but the ship wasn't. Plus, the Klingon seems to be hiding behind this planet anyway."

"Very well then. Pass this information to the other ships and record it for Monitor 18's analysis later." Looking over at the tactical display Rhioa could see that her little fleet was approaching the system boundary.

"Geillun, order the other two ships to drop out of warp at the system boundary, and to hold position there under cloak. We shall proceed alone into the system under cloak and assess the situation. Accept no argument to the contrary from them, Enarrain. My decision is final." She raised her right eyebrow at him.

Smiling back at her, Geillun nodded and set about his task.

"Arrain t`Sedhri, drop out of warp at the system boundary also. We shall proceed into the system under impulse power."

"Ie, Rekkhai."

"From Monitor 18's updates, we can see that the Starfleet ship is proceeding across the system. Illiamnae-IV would appear to be his next stop if he follows this plan, so we shall head in that direction also."

Looking over to her navigator, Rhioa ordered, "Arrain tr`Laheiin, plot a course from our arrival point at the system's edge to the fourth planet."

"Ie, Lhhei."

Just under a minute later, the Rihannsu task force dropped from warp. The Aehallh proceeded into the system—alone.



Time: 1424 hours
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"Captain, welcome back to the bridge. It would appear your timing is good." Commander Marketh spoke quietly, but his words easily carried across the bridge. "The Fed ship has just left orbit of the second planet and is cutting across the system towards the fourth planet."

Marketh stood up as his captain approached and moved to one side of the command throne. Meltakh made himself comfortable before resting his chin on his upraised fist. Glowering at the main viewer, he asked, "So, have we found out yet what the Fed is doing here?"

"Sir!" The science/scanner officer, Lieutenant Commander Kalitta, spoke up. "It is the opinion of the science technicians that the enemy ship is performing complete mapping and resource scans of every body within the system. You can see from the orbital map that Starfleeter is performing an orbit that allows every square cam* of the planet's surface to be covered with a comfortable overlap, and that the passive sensors show extremely focused, tight-beam scanning protocols being used."

"Commander Kalitta, could that not also be seen as a very detailed search pattern?" Marketh's low voice interrupted. "That, instead of examining rocks, the Fed is actually looking under those rocks for something that might be of value—to us?" he asked pointedly.

"Yes, Commander," Kalitta responded slowly, her amber eyes flashing at the first officer. "But as I was about to explain, the Federation ship has been observed to be maintaining this orbital scan pattern on every stellar object in at least three systems now. What could they want that could be hidden in either the heart of a star, the crust of a planet, or the frozen atmosphere of a gas giant?"

Marketh made to answer, but a shake of his captain's head stayed him. The first officer subsided and allowed Kalitta to continue.

"As I was saying, it is because of the past recorded actions of this ship being consistent with its current activities that the science department has formed this opinion. Furthermore, this kind of surveying mission is usually the direct precursor to establishing mining colonies and population settlements. As we have seen elsewhere, the Feds are very good at it. We've been running projections, and from arriving in this system they could have a fully operational mining colony in as little as three days. A population centre would take considerably longer due to the larger number of people to transport and maintain. This ratio increases—"

"Enough!" Meltakh growled. Khest'n science officers! They'd talk all day if you let them, he grumbled to himself. Noting Kalitta's angry glare, the captain relented somewhat. There were few things worse than having a woman after your blood—for the wrong reasons, he smirked to himself.

"That will do, Kalitta. We can discuss," he sneered, "the Fed's exact timetable after we yank their orders from their own bridge computers."

Heads turned at this, and he grinned nastily. "Yes, my crew, we are going to capture this puny Fed warship and tow its shattered carcass back to Starbase Ten!"

The bridge crew shook their fists in the air and roared their approval of the captain's plan.

"The crew seem pleased with your plan, Captain." Marketh spoke quietly again, a counterpoint to all the noise.

"As they should," Meltakh replied. "The Fed ship is no match for us and we will gain much glory with the capture. Much as I hate to admit it, Kian's… ah, Admiral Kian's advice has proven worthwhile." The captain allowed himself a smile. "With all this g'dayt lurking around, we have learned our enemy's habits. We can now time a surprise attack that best suits our purposes."

Speaking up again, Meltakh ordered, "Navigator, plot a course that takes us to a point on the edge of this system from where we can move straight into the shadow of the fourth planet, on the opposite side from the Fed." He leaned back into his command throne, before speaking again. "I then want you to plot a course that takes us directly to the orbit of that fourth planet, and calculate arrival times at low warp speeds."

There was a shocked silence on the bridge, and Meltakh grinned as he saw almost all the bridge crew restrain themselves from turning to face him. One was not fast enough, and his captain pounced on him.

"You have an objection, Ensign?" Meltakh said in a dangerously cordial manner.

"Sir!" Ensign Kalour started violently, wound up like an ancient clock spring. "I, ah… have nothin—"

"SPEAK!" Meltakh commanded.

"C-Captain!" Kalour stuttered. "Use of the warp drive within a system is very dangerous! The gravitational interactions could cause an imbalance in the engines, creating a wormhole and—"

Meltakh interrupted him again. "ENSIGN! Relax yourself before you suffer a stroke."

Laughing outright as their captain 'played' with the new crewmember might have earned them unwanted trouble, but Kalour could clearly see the smirks on the faces of his crewmates. It did little to improve the young bridge officer's temperament, but he bore it all and waited on his captain's next words.

Meltakh had watched the young Klingon/Human fusion as he endured the slurs and bigotry of the Imperial Klingons he served under. Being an Imperial himself, Meltakh did his best to encourage Klingon fusions to excel rather than berate them. They may look different but they are still part Klingon. And if we always put them down they will eventually hate us, and rebel or defect. We have enemies enough for now, the captain thought. Soon these fusions will be a thing of the past and we will no longer have to worry about them either way.

Aloud, he said, "Ensign, your scores in training earned you the gunner's position on a battlecruiser instead of the escorts or frigates most others start off in. It is the reason I have you here, and I do not like to be disappointed. Understood?"

"Understood, Captain," Kalour replied while looking back at his captain uncertainly. He did not know what to think. First the captain had singled him out belittled him in front of the bridge crew, most of whom were Imperials. But then he almost complimented me, the confused ensign thought. Is he testing me, my responses, my loyalty? Or is he merely setting me up for an even bigger fall later on? He didn't know the answers to his questions.

"Resume your station, Ensign Kalour," Commander Marketh ordered.

"Yes, sir."

"Captain, initial course to system's edge plotted," Lt. Kev reported. "At full impulse we will be there in 20 minutes.

"Very good. Aernath, execute course."

"Yes, Captain."

Kev updated his captain. "Sir, warp burst course plotted. Distance from system edge to planetary orbit of Thok'cha-IV is four thousand million kellicams. Calculated arrival times are: seven-point-four hours at warp one; forty-four-point-four-four minutes at warp two; eleven-point-four minutes at warp three; four-point-three-six minutes at warp four; two-point-zero-eight minutes at warp five. Faster than warp five and we risk overshooting or planetary collision."

"Option five then, Lieutenant. On arrival at system edge, execute course at warp five," Meltakh ordered. "Communications, ready a data transmission to Starbase Ten that includes our location, all our findings and my current plan, uploading to your console now. Send it when ready while still in the shadow of Thok'cha-VI."

"Yes, Captain."



Time: 1435 hours
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Now entering orbit around Illiamnae-IV, Riov," tr`Sedhri reported. "We are the first to arrive. The Federation ship is expected in ten minutes and the Long Eyes reports that the Klingon is still moving out-system, although he is not yet on our sensors. Illiamnae-VI is still blocking our scans of him."

"Thank you, Arhm'n." Turning to her first officer, she said, "This Klingon is acting in a most unusual fashion, Vaebn."

"Indeed, Riov. He was apparently just content to sit and watch the Federation ship as it flew about the system and now seems to be heading out, possibly to a warp egress point beyond the system's gravity well."

Vaebn looked unconvinced of his last statement, but he was fervently hoping that it was true. If the Klingon was to leave, there would be no moral dilemma for him to wrestle with. I still wish I could have convinced t`Khellian not to attack the Klingon, he thought miserably. There is much dishonour to be had here, but she seems unaware of it—or rather, unwilling to acknowledge it. All I could get was her promise not to fight if it can be at all avoided, within the latitude of her orders. But she will still do it if forced to.

Rhioa caught the troubled look in her second-in-command's eyes, and knew what he was thinking. She hated to burst his bubble, but said it anyway. "It is unlikely that the Klingon will just leave. If this is the case, why doesn't he just head straight out the system instead of cutting across it? No, I think he has other plans."

Turning to her scanner officer, Rhioa asked, "Eviess, why hasn't the Starfleet ship detected the Klingon? Their sensors are rumoured to be longer ranged than the Klingon ones—and ours."

Senior Centurion Eviess t`Ehhelih adopted a certain pose and Rhioa knew she had put her foot in it. She is making ready to lecture us again! Rhioa thought with a mental smile. Eviess did not disappoint her.

"Riov, the Klingon vessel has been orbiting Illiamnae-VI right on the edge of the planetary limb with regards to the position of the Federation ship. It is basically using the planet to hide behind, and the reason they have not been detected is that the Federation ship has its sensors set for close-range planetary scans, with long-range sweeps being performed every 30 seconds. According to the Long Eyes' sensor records, the Klingon seems to have timed this as it is always behind the planet's limb during the scan. They are merely altering their orbital height to slow down and rescan the destroyer for 20 seconds out of the 30 before accelerating back into the planet's shadow for the other ten seconds." Eviess finished with, "Very clever on the Klingon commander's part and requiring constant orbital corrections, but not overly taxing, I think."

"Thank you, Ms. t`Ehhelih," Rhioa acknowledged with a slight smile.

"Always a pleasure, Lhhei," she replied with a short bow and smile of her own.

"So, now that we know the Klingon has taken great pains to conceal his presence, and it seems unlikely—although still possible—that he is leaving, what does all this tell us?" Rhioa posed the question to the bridge at large.

Centurion tr`Laheiin spoke up. "That the Klingon is preparing a surprise attack on the Starfleet ship?"

"I would agree with that," Rhioa said, noticing that the rest of the bridge crew was nodding also.

Vaebn put in, "It will take the Klingons some time to approach the Federation ship undetected, weaving in and out of the planets' shadows. Or, in the worst case, the Klingon warps around the system's edge and intercepts the destroyer under impulse from the most direct route. Either way, we could use that time to bring our other ships in and begin planning our mining operations."

Rhioa considered that, but finally said, "No. We will see how the current situation plays itself out before risking our other ships and their colonist passengers.

"So, while the Klingons play hide and seek with the Federation, we shall stay silent and await the outcome. When the Federation ship achieves orbit, follow it at a range of 50,000km on a higher orbital track. We do not want to get accidentally run over now, do we?"



Time: 1444 hours
Location: Bridge of IKV Malicious.

"Captain, warp burst successful! We are in orbit around Thok'cha-IV at 5,000 kellicams' distance." Aernath ran some calculations on his board. "Estimate six minutes until the Federation ship approaches us."

"Crew to Battle Stations. Action!" the captain ordered.

"Acting!" came the responses.

"Weapons, ready drones, charge all phasers and disruptors at standard loads. Have the shuttlebay prepare a scatter pack shuttle. When we get tactical data on the Fed, target his phaser banks and warp engine."

"Yes, Captain," Ensign Kalour replied.

"Helm, I want us at full orbital speed for when the Fed appears over the horizon."

"Aye, Captain."



Time: 1444 hours
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Riov!!"

T`Khellian turned around in alarm at the urgent shout from her scanner officer. "What is it, Eviess?"

"The Klingon ship has just warped straight into orbit!" T`Ehhelih was working her controls furiously, and she halted when the desired result was achieved.

Rhioa stared at the main viewer, now showing a picture of the Klingon battlecruiser in orbit around the same planet as they were. She turned back to the auxiliary screen above the science station and observed the Federation destroyer as it began its orbital approach.

A thousand curses upon your head, Klingon! she mentally screamed before ordering, "BATTLESTATIONS!!"



Time: 1445 hours
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

"Charting orbit achieved, Captain. Estimating 50 minutes to complete mapping and resource cataloguing."

Mark looked down from the viewscreen and acknowledged his helm officer. "Very good, Mr. Maknal."

He got up and walked over to the science station and spoke with the three junior science officers that had accompanied him to the bridge 15 minutes ago. They had been the lucky ones who were selected to log some time on the bridge instrumentation under the tutelage of the chief science officer, a big boost to their careers in the sciences. Most of the time all they ever did was observe and record from the laboratories, or perform analyses on the data that someone else had gathered. Daniels was pleased to be able to give his science teams this opportunity, as destroyers were not usually good career options for them. He then spoke to the Caitian woman.

"Lt. M`Krray, you are free to begin. Scanners and helm are at your disposal, again," Mark smiled as he said it.

"Thank you, Captain," she replied, before returning her attention to her subordinates. "All scanners on, data recorders are active and orbital insertion as desired is achieved. Now Ensign, what is the proper procedure for the scanning of…"

Still smiling, Mark returned his attention to the auxiliary monitors over the science console, trying to interpret them all correctly by dredging up memories of his old science lectures.



Time: 1450 hours
Location: Bridge of IKV Malicious.

The enemy destroyer appeared on the main viewscreen, orbiting in the opposite direction to the D6. Looking at the tactical display on his chair console, Meltakh watched as it cleared the limb of the planet and remaining atmosphere between them. He grinned as he bellowed his command:

"FIRE!!!"





Chapter Five


Federation Base Time: 1450 hours, 4th August 2267
Stardate: 2813.09
Location: In orbit of planet L-647-III.

The Jugurtha rocked suddenly and the deck pitched up as the Klingon's weapons impacted on the bare hull.

On the bridge, Captain Daniels looked back at the main viewscreen and gasped in shock. He shook it off and immediately yelled, "SHIELDS UP! RED ALERT! Arm all phaser banks and all photon torpedoes—standard yield! Any surplus energy to reinforce forward shield! Communications, hail the Klingons and tell them we are on a peaceful survey mission and demand an explanation for this attack!"

The bridge crew exploded into action, furiously working their boards to bring the destroyer to battle-readiness in the fastest possible time.

Nigel shouted over to Daniels, "Sir! No response from the Klingon!"

Damnit! Daniels thought angrily. Clamping down hard on the panic and fear rising in his chest, he calmly ordered, "Damage report!"

Wrok`Nar had been listening to the various sections reporting in, plus looking at the ship's status board. He replied, "Captain, minor structural damage to the warp nacelle—no loss of power—but phaser port three has been destroyed!"

"Repair teams to phaser port three! Security detachments to guard the bridge and photon banks!" Mark instructed. He looked back up at the viewscreen, watching the Klingon battlecruiser close in preceded by two missiles. "Power up the defensive tractor beams."

"Aye sir!" The young junior lieutenant at the bridge Engineering station reduced the phaser charging rate another two points to enable the tractor beams to draw power.

"Ensign Hirayama, break out the bridge weaponry and issue everybody here with a phaser."

The junior science officer nodded his assent and went around opening a panel in everyone's bridge station and handing them a Type II phaser pistol. They were too busy doing the work required of them to spare the time, and Hiroshi was just on the bridge to train with M`Krray for the planetary survey they had been performing.

"Lieutenant Green, give me all-call."

After switching a few relays, Nigel replied, "You're on, Captain."

"Attention, this is the Captain speaking. A Klingon warship has made a surprise attack on us. They are not answering our hails even though we have declared peaceful intent. We must be prepared to fight until we can escape and warn Starfleet. All personnel are to be issued with a phaser pistol sidearm, and report to battle-stations. Be prepared to repel boarders at any moment." Mark paused, then added, "Good luck to you, and may our Gods protect us all. Captain out."

He nodded to Nigel to cut the comm. link.

"Tactical data, Lt. M`Krray," the captain instructed.

"Sir, the Klingon ship is a standard D6-class battlecruiser, range 150,000km bearing 000 mark 330 on a reverse orbital course to us. It opened fire at 210,000km and closes at 2,500km/s on impulse power. We are still moving towards it at 500km/s. It will have weapons charged just before it passes under us, one minute ten seconds before our torpedoes are ready to fire. I have slaved the main viewer to the sensors and it will follow the Klingon ship's movements."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. Mr. Maknal, alter course to bearing 330 mark 320. I want two shield fronts ready to spread this load on. It will also give us some distance from the planet as well as protecting our warp nacelle."

"Yes, Captain," Maknal responded. As the destroyer turned and dipped down, he called out, "Sir, the Klingon ship is altering course to bear down on our forward shield and pass under us!"

"Captain, I am reading heavy forward shield reinforcement, level six ECM and overload-level disruptor power on the D6!" M`Krray reported in alarm.

"Very well. Erratic maneuvers, Mr. Maknal. Get ready everyone, here he comes. Brace yourselves!"

With no torpedoes ready to fire yet and only half the phasers charged, all they could do was try to ride out the second round, too.

They watched as the Klingon ship rolled onto its 'back', unmasking its forward phasers as it dived beneath them.

At 15,000km, the destroyer's starboard phaser bank fired, swatting the first two drones. Another two appeared to take their place, one of which was destroyed by a forward phaser. A defensive tractor beam snagged the other as phaser power was now depleted.

At 11,000km the D6 fired, his overloaded disruptors and forward phasers smashing into the forward shield, tearing it down and causing heavy damage to the lower saucer section as the cruiser slid under and behind the Federation starship.

After the deck had stopped pitching, Captain Daniels assessed his bridge. He was relieved to see that it was undamaged and all his crew still alive and getting back to their feet. Thank God for small mercies, he thought, but this is only the beginning! He then looked at the screen as the Klingon ship rolled again and pulled up to unmask his aft phasers. The ship jolted as the aft shield collapsed under the sequential fire and the last phaser reached in through the down shield to score the destroyer's hull.

Getting back to his own chair, Mark ordered, "Give me a damage report and a weapons readiness update!"

"Aye sir!" Lieutenant Green replied, listening to the section reports flooding in. "Sir, the forward and aft shields are completely down. Phaser ports five and six, and photon tube B have been destroyed. Photon tube A has been damaged but is still functional. Phaser port three is still being repaired and we have lost an impulse reactor from that last shot. We have hull breaches on decks eight and nine but automatic force-fields have been activated. Crew is evacuating damaged sections, but Sickbay reports casualties!"

At the weapons/navigation console, Karen McCafferty reported "Sir, photons half charged, phasers recharging at half energy drain." With three of their phasers ports destroyed, there was no need to burden the engines further.

"Commander," Mark addressed his first officer, "Concentrate damage control and repairs on the weapons, but if we start taking serious damage to power sources have them fixed first!"

"Aye, Captain."

Suddenly, the unfired phaser port two lashed out and destroyed the last Klingon drone, the screech making Karen jump. The capacitor must have built enough of a charge to allow the automatic point defence to work, the weapons officer thought.

Daniels immediately ordered, "Karen, increase power three-fold to photon C. Overload it! Urrih, break orbit and head for the other side of the planet, one third impulse. We need to clear the dead zone so we can call for help and let Starfleet Command know what's going on here."

"Aye-aye, Sir," the helmsman replied determinedly, pouring on the power.

"Aye sir," Karen said in a subdued tone. By putting all this power into the photons and speed, phasers would not charge and they couldn't power the defensive tractors. She didn't like his orders, but they couldn't even retreat into warp speed. The Klingon was blocking their escape route back towards Federation space, and would probably chase them to Starbase 23, chewing at their rear shield all the way there. Better to make a stand here she thought, as she coordinated with Gordon Thompson at the Engineering station to put the captain's wishes into action.

Tense seconds passed as the crew waited for weapons to complete charging, before Urrih Maknal called out, "Captain! He's coming around again!"

"Helm, come round starboard to 030 mark 320 and present an operational shield to him! Karen, how long until we're loaded?"

"Twenty seconds, Captain!"

Damn, damn, DAMN! That means only ten seconds until he fires! he thought angrily, before ordering, "Urrrih, try and get some more distance between us and him!"

"Sir! I am trying, but we cannot charge and run!" the helmsman replied desperately. "He's gaining at two-thirds impulse."

There wasn't really any point in this. Daniels was way overmatched and he knew it, but he had to try and survive—at least long enough to warn Command. But it seemed that his luck had run out. The bloody Klingon ship wasn't even damaged! Hell, they hadn't even fired a shot at it yet! Mark watched the screen as the D6 swung round and lined up an attack run from behind.

"Brace yourselves!!" Mark yelled, but nothing happened for nearly ten more seconds…

The Klingons held their fire until they reached 11,000km distance, just out of range of feedback damage. They targeted the destroyer's warp nacelle with their disruptors and the saucer with their phasers.

Mark watched in horrified silence as sickening green and blue fire lashed down at his ship.



Time: 1453
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"FIRE!!" Captain Meltakh roared.

"Aye, Captain!" came the eager response from Ensign Kalour as he mashed the firing controls.

The whole bridge watched and roared in delight as the disruptor bolts snapped the Fed ship's warp nacelle clean in two, and the phasers caused a huge explosion on the top surface of the saucer section. The twin explosions imparted a vicious wobble and forced the destroyer straight 'down' in space as atmosphere, bodies, and engine plasma streamed out of her. The destroyer's impulse engines flared and died, and she began a slow tumble on all three axes.

With the bridge crew roaring "Qa'pla! Kai Kassai the sutai-Graltham!" in his ears and the Fed ship literally in pieces before him, it was hard not to feel utterly victorious. But Meltakh hadn't gained an early cruiser command by being complacent.

"Success, my brothers!" he responded heartily, but went on to say, "Attend your stations. Humans can be very devious and I am not going to be the one they trick!"

"Yes, Captain," came the eager responses once again.

"Helm, take us over the top of them, curving round to protect our weaker rear shield. Tractor them to halt their motion, then circle round to port on the far side of the Fed and come back to the edge of transporter range, but facing them so our main batteries can fire. Weapons, aft phasers are to target any remaining weapons ports and disable them as we pass. Now, action."

"Affirm. Acting," was the helm officer's answer.

The big cruiser swept in over the starboard side of the destroyer, and his ship's tractor beam reached out and brought the enemy vessel to an abrupt halt before releasing her once more. Meltakh could see thrusters firing to try and stabilise the ship before it passed behind them and the tactical display was put on main screen again.



Time: 1454 hours
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

Daniels pulled himself off the deck once again, his head bleeding profusely from the cut above his right eye. He broke out a medikit to deal with it.

"What the HELL was that!?!" he demanded, looking around at the smashed bridge and several unmoving crewmembers.

"Captain," Lt. Thompson called out almost hysterically, "the warp nacelle has been blown off!!!"

"WHAT???" Seeing how distraught the young engineer was, Mark stowed his own growing fury and went up to him and grabbed his shoulders.

"Lieutenant, calm down. I need to know exactly what has happened if we are going to survive this," he said.

Gordon looked at him, and managed to collect himself somewhat. Mark dropped his arms as Gordon looked at the board again and reported, "A-aye, sir. The, ah, the warp nacelle seems to have been severed, at least, that's what the board says, sir."

Mark looked at the master display board and had to agree with him. Warp capacity was gone, although the reactor must still have been there as it was still generating power.

"Okay son, settle down and remember your training. You'll be fine."

"Yes sir," Gordon replied gratefully.

The ship rocked and more bridge consoles sparked as the Klingon's aft phasers struck again, but as everyone had been expecting it this time, no one lost their balance.

Seeing the blank tactical display and no external readings, Mark assumed that the sensors had been damaged. He fixed on one of the junior science officers again and ordered, "Ensign Hirayama, grab a tricorder and go out to the access way around the bridge. Open the shuttered portholes and see if you can keep track of the Klingon and what he's up to. You should be able to lock onto the power output from his warp engines since we're clear of atmosphere, but hook into the ship's power grid to boost the tricorder's range first. Keep giving us updates."

"Yes, Captain."

Walking back down to the command deck, Mark asked, "Commander, what is our overall status?"

The tall Deltan turned around and approached his captain. He reported in a quiet voice. "Sir, port and starboard phaser banks are dead. That last strike just killed our forward phaser bank also. Warp power is down to 20%, impulse power is at 75%. Our sensors have been destroyed, but we still have scanners and active fire control. The last explosion was the torpedo in photon tube A detonating. It had just finished arming and the destruction of the port-side phasers made it blow. The torpedo bay is filled with radiation and emergency force-fields have failed. The phaser explosion has opened most of decks four, five and six to vacuum in that area of the saucer and again, force-fields failed. Internal sensors show—"

Wrok`Nar's voice broke. Mark looked in serious concern at his first officer, dreading the Deltan's next words.

"Sir, internal sensors show that we have 65 living crew left on board. Including us here on the bridge."

Mark was glad he was holding onto something. His head swam and the bridge seemed to rotate around him before he managed to regain his equilibrium.

Sixty-five crew! Out of two hundred sentients? What have I done? What have I done?

His voice hammered inside his head repeating it over and over until he couldn't help it. The words just came out against his wishes…

"THOSE MURDERING KLINGON ANIMALS!!!" he screamed.

Captain Mark Fredrick Daniels of what was left of the Federation destroyer Jugurtha swung round and stared at the smashed viewscreen, oblivious to the stares he was getting from the surviving bridge crew.

"Captain," Hiroshi Hirayama's voice called out timidly from the access way, "The Klingon ship is still heading out, but starting to circle round again. The tricorder has him at 40,000km and increasing, bearing 317 mark 005, moving left-to-right."

Digging his fingers into the back of his padded command chair, Mark's voice was tight as he replied, "Thank you, Ensign. Karen, what about those torpedoes?"

Nervously, Lt. McCafferty replied. "Sir, the torpedoes are armed and being held with what power we have left. Shall I dump them so we can use the power for shields?"

"NO!" Daniels yelled. He looked around wildly, suddenly conscious of the looks he was still getting.

Damnit, get a hold of yourself, man! If you go on like this they'll start to crack up as well. You have to GET A GRIP! he raged at himself.

So he did.

He leaned over his command chair and gripped the padded back, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. Think! Be rational and show them that they can still rely on you! They need a Captain, not a deranged madman. He held that position for all of ten seconds, before straightening up.

Back in control, he again turned on Karen. "Okay, here's the situation. He obviously means to board and capture us. This means he has to make himself vulnerable to us. He has to lower a shield facing us. We have two torps—one overloaded—waiting for just that opportunity. But this Klingon is smart. He will try to limit that exposure as much as he can. So, we have to make these torps count. How can we do the maximum damage?"

Karen looked back, immensely reassured at her captain's words. Judging by the reactions of the rest of the bridge crew, they felt the same way. Okay girl, now it is your turn to think. How can we kill a Klingon battlecruiser with two torpedoes?

"Sir, the Klingon is coming back!" Hirayama yelled. "Range is 70,000km and closing slowly! Bearing 249 mark 354!"

Karen mused, "The Klingon hasn't fired his other two aft phasers, so the power leak and radiation zone in the torpedo bay must be hiding our torpedoes from his sensors, Captain."

"In that case, he might detect them as he gets closer. Damn!" Daniels prayed that the radiation would keep interfering with the enemy's sensors.

"Captain," Lt. Maknal spoke up, "how about hitting his warp nacelles? Would that blow him up?"

"No, it will just cripple him, hobbling his power and top speed," was the first officer's reply. "He would still be able to blow us apart."

"Antimatter storage bottles? That would kill him for sure," Karen volunteered.

"Yes! That's it! Anyone know exactly where they are located on a D6?" Daniels asked. "I know they are on the underside of the main hull, but we'll only get the one shot and we need to be sure."

All he got back were uncertain looks.

"I am sorry, Captain, I do not know. We would have to do a deep scan of the ship to find that out, now," the science officer stated.

"Damn." Daniels felt hope begin to slide away. "Besides, I think he'll be too clever for that. Klingon ships are designed for minimum target profile anyway and he won't show us his belly." Screwing his confidence back up, the captain urged, "Come on people! We need to do this now! Any second and we will be boarded."

M`Krray said, "The weapons? If we destroy his disruptors will it make him explode?"

Mark replied, "No, same as before. We cannot just have one hit. We need to hit something that will cause secondary explosions like when he detonated our torpedo, except better."

"What about his shuttles? If we destroy their warp engines, will it spread?" Nigel suggested.

"Drones!!!" Karen suddenly yelled, making Maknal jump. "Captain, destroy his drone launchers! They—"

Wrok`Nar interrupted, saying, "No, Lieutenant. They are self-contained and secured, even the Type-A racks the Klingons use."

"No Sir!" Karen's face was flushed with excitement. "The Klingons don't use Type-A racks, they use Type-F!!"

Daniels said, "Go on, Lieutenant!"

Karen explained quickly. "Sir, Type-Fs are functionally identical to Type-As, but the current Klingon ships weren't originally designed with them. They are an auxiliary weapon, and they have been retrofitted on. The Type-F is also known as a 'jump rack' and it was invented by the Klingons to add drones onto ships that didn't have them. The drone racks seen in the Klingon E4, F5, D6 and D7 classes are actually Type-F racks that fire out of the hanger bay, taking up shuttle spaces!"

Karen's eyes were alight with hope as she continued. "Starfleet Intelligence has determined that if enough damage is done to the shuttlebay, the drones should explode in a chain reaction!"

"Good God!" Mark exclaimed. "Are you sure, Karen?"

"Yes sir. I am the weapons officer, after all," she replied with a slight smile.

"That's good enough for me. This is it, people! Our best chance to come out of this intact. Okay, snap to it."

"But Captain, we have no sensors! We can lock onto him, but we cannot direct our weapons!" Nigel objected.

"We will just have to bore-sight them then. As long as we have lock on, they will fire. But we have to fire right down the centerline, so the ship has to be turned."

Daniels looked at the chronometer. It seemed like ages since starting this conversation, but only a couple of minutes had passed since the last attack!

"Lieutenant M`Krray! You have the honour of directing our torpedoes. Hurry! Ensign Hirayama is already there, get him to help."

Daniels handed her a electronic clipboard. "You must line up the crosshairs on this part of the Klingon ship, from whatever angle you can. Feed the data through to Mr. Maknal's console so he can give us a high-energy turn that snaps us right to it."

"Yes, Captain," she answered before heading off.

"Urrih, Karen, don't wait for my order. As soon as we are boarded, HET and fire. We will not get a second chance at this."

"I understand, sir. But what about ECM? At this range, it is likely that both will miss with even level one ECM from the D6. Sitting still it can have level six!"

"I know this. But since we are firing bore-sighted and not with computer control, the torpedoes are unguided. They will fire along the centerline of the ship, and as long as we have pointed the ship in exactly the right direction they will hit." Mark smiled. "Trust me."

Karen looked up at her commanding officer. "Aye, sir." She smiled back.

"Sir, the Klingon is approaching transporter range, coming in on his port side at a shield overlap," M`Krray reported from behind the wall.

"Damn, we will have to smash through his impulse cooling vanes to get to the shuttlebay," Mark stated grimly, looking round at everyone else as Maknal worked his board. The helmsman was checking the status of the batteries and allocating what warp power was left to his maneuver. Daniels switched on the all-call.

"Everyone, arm yourselves. Prepare to repel boarders. Set phasers to kill/disrupt. We have a plan with a good chance of success, but we must give Lieutenants McCafferty and Maknal the time they need to act—even at the cost of our own lives. As I said before, may our Gods protect us all. Out," he finished, switching the all-call off.

"Science team, I want you in the toilet," he ordered. Even in the dire situation, that still brought smiles from his Human crew. "When the Klingons attack, it will be to capture the bridge and security sections of the ship. The control spaces. We will have to deal with at least two enemy Marine parties, so everyone take cover."

Maknal reported, "Sir, the batteries are fully charged with reserve warp power, and the torpedoes are ready to fire."

"Very good. Use any spare power to reinforce the number one shield. Engineers," he addressed Thompson and Chief Petty Officer Teresa Price, the petite Environmental Systems technician. "You disable the turbolift access to the bridge, then wait in the turbolift car. Wrok`Nar and Nigel, you hide behind the exit to the access way. The rest of us will take whatever cover we can find in the command deck. That way we have a three-way crossfire, with us on the deck firing out. Teams of two, each take a sector and stick to it so three of us don't aim at the same Klingon. And set your phasers to kill/disrupt. We no longer have the personnel to guard any Klingons we stun, and quite frankly, I'm in no mood to take prisoners anyway," he finished with a snarl.

There were nods of approval from several of the crew, but others looked troubled by that. They held their silence though. Everyone assumed their positions, and waited.

They did not have to wait long.





Chapter Six


Federation Base Time: 1454 hours, 4th August 2267
Stardate: 2813.1
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"Well done, Gunner Kalour!" Meltakh praised, looking at the tactical readout on the Fed destroyer.

Kalour grinned savagely in reply, shaking his raised fist.

"Marketh, give me a status readout!"

"Sir, we are 20,000 kellicams out, heading away from the Fed at two-thirds' impulse. All weapons have recycled and are ready to fire again at your order." Looking at the tactical readout himself, Marketh continued.

"The Fed ship has lost all phaser capability, although they are still trying to repair their port phaser bank. Warp power is down to 20%, but they have no warp speed without the rear half of their engine. Their photon deck is awash with heavy radiation, but at least one bank was destroyed. Sensors are reading massive interference in that area due to the radiation. Captain, one of their antimatter torpedoes must have detonated in its tube, taking everything out with it. Our young marksman is to be commended on that shot."

Kalour held his head up proudly. He felt that his promotion was signed and sealed with that comment, since praise from both captain and first officer was so seldom come by. He now knew that the captain had been testing him with his earlier words, and that he had passed that test. Kalour was beginning to relish the prospect of serving aboard the Malicious

The first officer went on with his report. "The resulting explosion ripped their hull open and their structural integrity is down to 23%. In total, they have suffered almost 70% crew losses."

Marketh looked at his captain. "They are ripe for conquest, sir. Although I suggest keeping our marines away from the torpedo bay until we can erect force-fields around it."

"A good suggestion, Commander." As he said this, the captain looked closely at his first officer. Marketh seemed troubled, although the rest of the bridge crew didn't see this. Meltakh himself just barely noticed and was very puzzled by the almost… lacklustre report he had been given.

He beckoned Marketh over and spoke to him in a low voice, unheard by the rest of the bridge crew. "Commander, you do not seem to share in our victory. Why?"

Marketh had been having trouble meeting his captain's eyes during the battle, but with that comment he stared right into them. Being confronted with what was troubling him always had that reaction on him, as if being called on it gave him the backbone to speak up against the actions of his superiors.

"Captain, where is the honour in this battle?" he asked forcefully, his words all the stronger for their quiet delivery. "Where is the honour in sneaking up upon a defenceless and unsuspecting foe, giving him no chance to make a fair fight of it? More glory could be had from challenging—and beating—him openly!"

Meltakh's eyes narrowed dangerously and he glared at his long-time ally. "Commander, because of our history together I will allow you that one act of insolence."

Marketh started to alter his stance to a more offensive one, the fury evident in his eyes—but Meltakh went no further, merely continuing, "Even more, I shall actually explain so that you may mend your sense of 'honour'."

That made the second-in-command blink—as Meltakh knew it would. He briefly reflected just how well they knew each other, having managed to serve together for ten years. He watched as Marketh settled down to a posture of alert defence—no longer threatening, but able to move quickly should the need arise.

The captain addressed his old friend. "Marketh, our orders were not to just kill or capture this Fed ship quickly, before it could call for help. I was specifically told this by the admiral himself. We are to find out what the Fed is doing here—and in whatever other systems it has visited recently. Now, we have gathered enough information to guess what he is doing here, and project that guess into the other systems. We could still follow him to any other systems he might visit, and spent yet more countless hours of tedium manoeuvring about out of his sensor range. But what if the Fed has already done what he came here to do? What if he is now only covering his tracks by performing pointless scans of old systems? Or what if he has yet to do this, and is laying a cover for his actual mission purpose?"

Meltakh reached out and grabbed his friend's shoulder and gave it a shake. "Marketh, think about it. This is a matter of efficiency only; accomplishing our task as swiftly as possible while preserving the condition of my ship and crew. This way we have a chance not only to capture an enemy warship and remove it from the coming war between us and the Feds, but to take his actual mission orders from his own computer banks! We gain the time we could have lost from following it about endless dull systems, we gain the prestige of new klin zha fodder and we gain the ship itself!"

Releasing his grip, the captain waved at the main viewer. "Now, were it just a straight battle of two armed opponents I would delight in testing my skills with him before smashing him up, but we have specific orders this time."

Marketh looked back at him with comprehension in his eyes. He successfully hid his actual thoughts. I understand your reasoning, old friend, but it is still dishonourable no matter what reasons you give. Regretfully, I cannot think of a more efficient way of doing this, as you say. So be it.

What he said was, "I see now, sir. Forgive my…" He paused as he searched for an appropriate word. "Hesitation," he finally said, grinning once more.

"Of course." Meltakh dismissed the topic from his mind by returning to the task at hand. "You said the Fed was ready for conquest, so let us plan that conquest. Briefing for marine commanders right now in the war room."

Letting his comm. officer summon the marine commander and his squad leaders, Meltakh addressed Lt. Aernath.

"Helm, swing us around and approach well aft on his port side, slowly and with caution. Hold distance at maximum transporter range, 25,000 kellicams."

"Yes, Captain."



Time: 1454 hours.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Riov, I think we have a problem here."

"Thank you, erei`Riov. I had managed to assume that for myself."

The commander and first officer were conferring in low voices, both looking at the tactical display and the comparative ship schematics of both combatants that were displayed at the science station. When the Klingon had warped into orbit—that thought still sent shivers down her spine—she had ordered a sensor decoy and marine assault shuttle prepared, and the plasma torpedo armed at standard yield. Rhioa had wanted to quickly capture any ship she chose, plus have a defense against Klingon drones should the need arise. She had also been holding out hope that the Federation ship would be able to break orbit and escape into warp speed, taking the Klingon with them. But now direct combat with the Klingon looked inevitable. The last pass had crippled the Starfleet ship and there was no way it could get out now. It would not survive being either destroyed or captured as the Klingons saw fit—unless they intervened as ordered.

Maybe not even then, Rhioa thought glumly.

Turning to face her second-in-command, she spoke in a low voice. "I am sorry, Vaebn, but our orders stand. We must intervene to protect the Federation ship."

"I understand, Lhhei. I just wish there were some other way. Shall I give the order?"

Rhioa shook her head. "This is an ugly thing we do, but we have little choice. I shall command this." Turning to face the main viewer, she raised her voice and ordered, "Helm, Maraud Position. Target the Klingon ship."

Heads all over the bridge turned in shock at this.

"Attend your stations, and obey my commands." The tone of voice that usually accompanied those words was noticeably absent. Instead of a harsh, threatening bark, Rhioa had all but whispered them. She continued, "There is much loss of mnhei`sahe for the Empire to be had from this, but we are under orders and compelled to obey."

"Ie, Rekkhai!" came the suddenly anxious voices.

"Roll the ship so that our phasers come to bear. Hold distance from the rear of the Klingon ship at 11,000km." Just out of feedback damage range. It would not do to get blown up in the process of disgracing ourselves…



Time: 1456 hours.
Location: War room, IKV Malicious.

Security Commander Koltah and his nine squad-leaders stood up as the Captain entered.

"At ease," he commanded. They sat down and the briefing began.

"Commander Koltah, Lieutenants, your mission is to capture the bridge intact," Meltakh stated. "It has been left alone by the weapons crews on my direct orders, to ensure the survival of the senior Fed officers and the primary computer systems on their ship. Now, the bridge is only big enough to transport two boarding parties directly onto it. Normally, this would be enough but there seems to be more crew than usual on the bridge. We read ten life forms, all of which will probably be armed and expecting you. So, I have decided to attack the bridge all out, and leave the conquest of the rest of the ship to the second wave. The other three squads will be transported to Deck Two, directly below the bridge. You will use the stairwell and their lift system to reinforce the bridge squads and capture it in one go. You are to capture the Fed bridge crew so we can interrogate them. You may indulge your blood thirst, but only to wound or maim. Any deaths are unacceptable. Understood?"

Koltah spoke up. "It is understood, Sir. But it will cause several unnecessary deaths to my marines if we beam directly to the bridge. This is acceptable?" he asked in a low tone.

"Koltah, your loyalty to your men does you proud. But do not defy me. I require the bridge and its occupants intact. Understood?" Meltakh growled.

"Understood, Captain."

The slightly insolent tone of his security officer annoyed Meltakh, but he chose to let it pass—for the moment. There was always time to 'train' him later… Instead, he replied, "Very good. The second wave will attack the security section. Sensor scans show that is where the biggest surviving group is massing. You can take the rest of the ship any way you wish, as long as the bridge—and command crew—remains substantially undamaged. Assume a standard attack formation on the transporter pads and make ready with full armour and weapons load out, you will be beaming into battle. Qa'pla!"

"Qa'pla!" came the deafening response.

"To the transporter rooms. Go!"



Time: 1458 hours.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

Vaebn looked at the tactical display. They were finally in position, inverted above the weak aft shield of the D6 so that their phasers could defend them from drones. He looked at the schematic of the Federation ship, noting the blazing danger symbols surrounding its torpedo bay.

There cannot be any living beings in the whole area, he thought grimly. If they weren't sucked into space they will have been fried by that radiation. While I agree that our enemies should perish, I would not wish that kind of death on anyone.

He looked back at the ships' status display. All that remained to do was decloak and fire…



Time: 1458 hours.
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"Fed destroyer is sitting still, sir," Commander Marketh reported. "They had more trouble holding attitude, but finally corrected it. We are holding at 25,000 kellicams. Marines report ready to go, Captain."

"Very good. Bring shield three to face the Fed. Reinforce shields two and three and set level six ECM."

"Yes, Captain."

"Gunner Kalour, weapons-free on all energy weapons to bring down their facing shield. Weapons-hold on the drones, and try not to damage the ship any further. We want the g'daya thing intact, after all. Action."

"Affirm. Acting," the young ensign responded, beginning a sequential heavy disruptor barrage that demolished the enemy's shield.

Nodding to the lieutenant at the security station, Meltakh ordered, "Lower number three shield, energise transporters, and turn the ship ten degrees starboard. Action."

Lieutenant Kreth lowered the shield and started to reply as the marines beamed over to begin their conquest, but was cut off by a sudden yell from the science officer:

"Keep that shield up!!"

Momentarily shocked into silence, the bridge crew froze at the sound of an order from a junior officer countermanding their captain.

"EMERGENCY 180 HET!! TURN THE SHIP!! TURN IT NOW!!!" Meltakh immediately roared, seeing that the shield had already been dropped, all the while knowing the shield wouldn't come back up in time and neither would the ship turn fast enough to escape the sick feeling of dread that turned his liver.



Time: 1500 hours.
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

"Here they come, Lieutenants! Do it!"

Urrih Maknal firmly pushed the activation button for the emergency turn to begin, then waited agonising seconds for the energy to build up while Klingon marines silently flickered into existence all around him. The Klingons had just finished materialising when the whine peaked, and the turn began. It flung the unprepared marines to the deck but the Starfleet crew clung to whatever bracing they could find in their ambush positions until it ceased.

Lieutenant Karen McCafferty, weapons officer of the once proud Federation destroyer Jugurtha, smashed her hand down on the torpedo release so hard it hurt, then dived below her console as a huge Imperial race Klingon marine hauled himself to his feet in front of her.

"Torpedoes away, Captain!" she yelled, earning her a disruptor blast in her direction that mangled the front of her console. We don't even know if they hit or not, never mind if the plan actually worked, she thought grimly. We could be fighting a loosing battle here, even if we win this round.

"Well done, Lieutenant!" Mark yelled back nonetheless, as he vaporised a Klingon with more ornate rank badges on his uniform. Not knowing what the badges meant, he hoped fervently that it was a squad leader.

He looked on as his crossfire ambush worked splendidly, despite the HET spoiling the initial attack. The twelve Klingons—having beamed onto the circular upper deck walkway—were caught in a lethal fan of energy and despite being fully armoured, four of them were vaporised almost immediately by concentrated phaser-fire.

Having so many of their number killed right in front of them by a cowardly attack from behind cover erased all thoughts of 'capture' from the Klingons' suddenly enraged minds. Some tried to make it down the the enemy officers on the command deck, which prompted a few better protected Starfleeters to expose themselves in order to get clearer shots.

Mark had to choke back a scream of rage as his first officer fell forwards into the bridge, headless. He traced the disruptor beam back to its source and took aim, only to watch his target disappear as Chief Price took him out from behind the turbolift doors.

Daniels had planned well, but hadn't expected the entire marine assault force to come directly to the bridge. He could hear them on the deck below, blasting at the turbolift and stairwell doors with their disruptors.

If that lot get in here before we kill this lot, there'll be hell to pay! he thought grimly as he fired at—and missed!—another ranking Klingon. Bridge circuitry sparked and panels exploded from energy beams that missed their targets. The access way door panelling looked as if it was melting…

Daniels cursed aloud as one of the three junior science officers on the bridge—it looked like Ensign Dimitri Honuscula from Geology—took a disruptor beam through his chest and dropped to the deck, dead. Mercifully, he was the final casualty for this round as Nigel disintegrated the last enemy marine.

Mark yelled out "Clear!" closely followed by Karen and Maknal. Thompson and Price cautiously peered out of the lift alcove, Price putting her hand over her mouth and Thompson uttering a hoarse, choked off cry as they both stared, horrified, at the bodies and blood of their fellow officers.

Karen was so glad to have survived after being in the middle of it all that she let out a cut-off shriek when she saw them, completely unprepared for the carnage that met her eyes after the antiseptic disintegration levelled at her enemies.

Daniels looked around, assessing the damage. Out of the fourteen people on the bridge at the start of all this, he was down to eight survivors, two of which were badly wounded by glancing disruptor hits. He wanted to erase the Klingon filth from his ship entirely and take back deck two, but didn't have manpower for an attack from two directions to ensure success.

First things first, however. "Karen, give me a status report please," he asked quietly. He had asked her to try and keep her from dwelling on the gruesome deaths they had just witnessed. "Everyone else, clear this mess up as quickly as you can and resume your ambush positions. We will likely be receiving more 'guests'."

At first, Karen didn't respond. But then she shook herself out of it and replied shakily, "A-aye aye, sir."

The rest of the bridge crew did likewise.

"Captain, the port phaser bank has been repaired and will be charged in 20 seconds. The impulse reactor has also been repaired. Warp power is now at 27% and both the forward and aft shields are back up at minimum levels, shield five is still down. Photon tube C is charging an overload torpedo—one minute twenty seconds to complete—but there isn't enough warp power to charge tube D even with a standard torpedo. Internal sensors now read only 60 living crew. We must have lost some of the wounded, sir. Repairs are no longer continuing." She looked up, her training in full command—but Mark could see signs of unravelling nerves and emotions. He knew how she felt.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." He put a comforting hand on her shoulder, then addressed the helm officer.

"Lieutenant M`Krray, what's happening with the Klingon ship?" Daniels called out next. "Did we get him?"

The Caitian returned from the access-way. "Sir, our torpedoes definitely hit the Klingon through his down shield and started a chain reaction as we'd hoped, but he didn't explode. The tricorder records show he performed an emergency turn of his own right afterwards and that his shields are still up, but he's motionless and his warp engines are offline. We think he suffered a breakdown."

Damnit all to Hell! We got the result we wanted, and it still isn't enough! What do we have to do to get rid of this murderer? Daniels raged silently. We have destroy him while we can and get out of here.

The orders came thick and fast from the captain. "Mr. Thompson, reinforce forward shield, minimal power, and divert all other power to the torpedo bay. Karen, continue charging that overload in tube C, start charging a normal torp in tube D and the repaired phaser. Mr. Maknal, find the Klingon and head right at him at maximum sustainable impulse speed—but start slowly."

Daniels knew that they had minimal impulse capability, but with the pounding the ship had taken even turns under impulse could snap something else off. "Don't wait for my order, just let me know as soon as you do it. Coordinate with M`Krray to try and approach one of his weaker aft shields."

"Aye, Captain," the acknowledgements echoed back.

"Now we have to find out why we aren't being repaired any more." Walking over to the comm. station—Nigel was helping to treat the injured—he open a channel to the Engineering section.

"Bridge to Engineering." Nothing. "Is anyone down there?" he tried again. Getting no reply, he hailed the Security section. "Security, this is the bridge. Is there anyone there?"

"Captain? This is Lieutenant Brown."

"Andrew! Thank God you are still alive!" Mark exclaimed. "But where is Masterson? We need help here."

"Security Commander Masterson is dead, sir, and I am the senior officer of the survivors down here. We have 41 combat-capable crew and thirteen unmoveable wounded here on Deck Seven. Sickbay next door has been mostly destroyed, and… and most of the Medical staff went with it. We cannot do anything for our wounded, Captain, except feed them drugs to ease their pain. I… I'm sorry, Captain."

"Andrew, it isn't your fault. You know that… and you've done your best, you always do," Mark consoled his second officer. He wished he could say more, but he had priorities. Mark continued, "Send some people to Engineering as we need to continue repairs. Get them to start with the sensors. We also need reinforcements up here. We've repulsed a boarding attempt, killing twelve of them, but there are still about twenty on the deck below trying to get up here and we are down to six able-bodied crew."

Suddenly, they all had to brace themselves as another salvo from the Klingon ship hit them, this time on a fresh shield. Fortunately, it held—just.

They've recovered already? Daniels despaired. We blew our only chance to finish this. We're not getting out of here.

Lieutenant Brown didn't respond to either the disruptors or the captain's last words. He just said, "I'll… be right up with what is left of Security… Take about ten minutes with the turbolifts down… Brown out."

Daniels was further disheartened by the defeated tone of his second officer, and his gratitude that the young man had survived was washed away by the knowledge that none of them would be surviving for much longer now.

Suddenly, Ensign Hirayama and Lieutenant M`Krray rushed out of the access way.

"Sir! Sir! The Klingon ship just blew up!" Hiroshi yelled excitedly.



Time: 1500 hours.
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

Meltakh's order to HET had barely cleared his lips when two glowing red balls spat out of the crippled Federation destroyer. The Klingon bridge crew forgot their own stations and watched the main viewer track them in, for all of a second before they hit. For a moment it seemed as if they would miss, as they started edging to the right side of the screen. But all it meant was that they hit further aft than the main sensor array.

The concussion was horrific, and seemed to stretch on far longer than the original hit. Such was the force of it that the cruiser began to swing round that bit faster as a result, and in all three axes at once. Over the deafening noise of the explosions, decompression and the roar of the bridge crew as they tried to hold on to their stations, Meltakh stared at the ship status board as he himself hung on to the command throne with all his strength.

After what seemed like an eternity, the ship finally stopped shaking but it was obvious something was very wrong. Artificial gravity was out, and warning lights glowed evilly at him from almost every system in the main hull.

"STATUS REPORT!!" he roared over the bedlam of the bridge crew. They all shut up instantly, and Commander Marketh pulled himself down and collected the various section reports. He 'swam' over to Meltakh and spoke quietly to him.

"Captain, the boom systems are undamaged apart from several hull breaches in officers' quarters, and we still have full life support here. Warp drive is fully functional and we have almost full warp power." Marketh paused before going on. That was the good news, but there was a lot more news—of the bad variety.

Meltakh could see the fear in his first officer's eyes, but he knew himself that it was no-one's fault—bar his own. Giving Marketh permission to talk openly he said, "Speak."

"Yes, Captain," the commander sighed. "The main hull has been gutted. The torpedoes appear to have been overloads targeted at our shuttlebay. The first one hit low, destroying our starboard aft phaser batteries and impacting on the impulse cooling vanes on the side of the hanger bay. The second torpedo smashed through the destroyed impulse vanes and penetrated the shuttlebay. We have visual logs saved to the main computer showing it actually impacting on one of the shuttles. It seems the massive explosion in the shuttlebay triggered a chain reaction through our drone stocks. The jump rack went up in the initial explosion and the rest of the warheads exploded in sympathetic detonation. It is only because we had so little of our total drone stocks aboard that we are still here at all, Captain. Had we been fully stocked we would have been destroyed by the chain reaction."

Khest it! Meltakh raged. The designers have solved this problem already in the new command battlecruiser, but as they are still building that class we are not scheduled to get the refit for four more years!!! We will not get it at all now. When we get home the warp engines and boom will be taken off and added to a new main hull, and I will be lucky to captain the freighter that transports what is left of MY ship to the disassembly yards!!!

"Fear me not, Marketh. I know this is not your doing, but my own. Give me a total damage readout, and clear sensor readings of the khest'n Fed!!"

"Aye, sir." Marketh came back several seconds later and reported:

"Sir, we have lost everything in the main hull. The impulse deck and shuttlebay have been completely destroyed. All power systems, weapons, transporters and control spaces are gone. We have 75% disruptor and 43% phaser capability, and 90% warp power, but no sublight capability. Crew casualties are on the order of 30%."

Summing it all up Meltakh said, "So we can still fight and return home, but even another destroyer showing up will kill us?"

"Yes, sir," his first officer replied.

"We shall destroy this Fed wreck and return home then. Our sensors show that it managed to send a distress call when our jamming dropped so we cannot take the time to tow it home. Reinforcements could show at any moment and we are in no condition to fight another battle. Begin repairs on the impulse engines. They have top priority."

"Aye, Captain," Marketh replied.

Meltakh raised his voice to address the helm and gunnery officers. "Use thrusters to stabilise the ship, then turn to face the Fed. Move no closer, just pound it to scrap from here with all remaining weapons. If any of our marines yet survive, locate and beam them home."

"Yes, Captain."

"Lieutenant Aernath, plot a course for Starbase Ten. Align us towards homespace with thrusters once the Fed is destroyed, and engage at warp five," Captain Meltakh ordered.

"Aye, sir."



Time: 1503 hours.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"By the Elements!"

Rhioa had been about to give the order to attack when her helm officer cried out. "Report!" she demanded.

"Riov, the Federation ship fired on the Klingon!" Emni replied.

"WHAT??"

Excitedly, the helm officer recounted what had happened for the few seconds her commander had been occupied. "Rekkhai, the Klingon ship lowered a shield to begin capturing the Starfleet ship. Almost as soon as the shield was lowered, the destroyer snapped round and fired two photon torpedoes—probably overloads—right into the Klingon's hull, at the shuttlebay. Then the D6 performed a 180 degree emergency turn and suffered a ship-wide systems breakdown."

"Eviess, confirm this."

Science Officer t`Ehhelih continued the story from there, having paid attention when it was happening. "Confirmed, Lhhei. There were lots of secondary explosions, and we are reading virtually no active power feeds within the Klingon's main hull. They still have their warp engines supplying power, and I am reading disruptors and phasers powering up again. Although—"

She broke off to examine her screens more closely, then continued rather urgently. "Rekkhai, they seem to be overloading their disruptors and it is causing power fluctuations in the warp drive. I'm getting warp plasma feedback!! The damaged conduits cannot take the strain of the overloads and they will breach shortly, destroying the ship! We must clear the area or risk heavy damage!"

Rhioa was exultant. They would destroy themselves and save her the trouble!

But a second thought occurred to her, hard on the heels of the first. It was very risky, but the possible rewards made it more than worthwhile.

"Decloak! All ahead, full impulse! Lock phasers on these coordinates and power up the tractor beam!"



Time: 1503 hours.
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"Captain, the enemy ship is once again under our guns. Bearing 039 mark 004, distance 25,000 kellicams," Lieutenant Aernath reported.

Science Officer Kalitta added, "He is trying to circle around behind us using low impulse power. I am reading minimal shield reinforcement and detecting signs of heavy weapons charging, but they have turned an undamaged shield to face us."

"Captain, phasers charged and disruptors overloaded. Ready to fire at your command," the gunnery officer reported.

"Very well. Reinforce facing shield. All weapons, FIRE!!"

Kalour pressed the firing toggles, and reported, "Direct hits, Captain. Enemy shield reduced 95%."

"Recharge overloads and fire again!" Meltakh commanded.

The ensign at the bridge Engineering station suddenly barked, "Captain, reading power fluctuations in the warp nacelles!"

Commander Marketh strode over to him and instructed, "Show me! What is causing th—"

Lieutenant Commander Kalitta suddenly interrupted. "Captain! Ship decloaking, range 5,317 kellicams, bearing 207 mark 080!"

"Identify!" came Meltakh's response.

"Captain, it is a Romulan War— They are firing! AT US!!!" she shouted in outrage.

"WHAT??" was all Meltakh got out, while his mind screamed BETRAYAL!!!

For the second time in five minutes, there was quite literally nothing Meltakh could do.



Time: 1506 hours.
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

Daniels turned to face M`Krray, his face expectant. "M`Krray, can you confirm this?"

For the first time any of them could remember, Lt. M`Krray actually smiled. "Captain, I am very pleased to be able to confirm this!" she replied with relish. "Ensign Hirayama and I saw the Klingon power up his warp drive once again—probably recovering from their breakdown—and we locked the tricorder onto its power signature. It must have rotated in place—the bearing to the reactor barely shifted—and fired at us, and the timing was right for him to have recharged again, but several seconds later his warp reactors exploded. The tricorder readings confirm this, Sir. He definitely blew up. Our plan worked sir, all of it! The damage must have been too much for it and when they tried to renew their attack, their ship exploded. It was glorious, Captain! May I offer my congratulations?"

Daniels just stared at his science officer throughout her narrative, at first disbelieving, then not daring to believe. But now he whooped like a small kid after a home run, and the bridge broke out into celebrations and mutual back-slapping, to chants of "We're going to live!"

Their celebrations were cut short when an explosion rocked the bridge and another fire-fight erupted a deck below them.

Daniels ordered, "Quickly, to the stairwell. Lets finish this!" They all grabbed the remaining phasers and a couple of disruptor pistols before trouping to the deck below. One line from Starfleet Regulations kept repeating in Mark's head as he raced for Deck Two: …no uncoded messages on an unsecured channel…

The lower stairwell door had almost been burned through, and they just blasted it open with massed phaser fire. Then they were charging through it, diving and ducking and rolling away from the bottleneck of the doorway, firing their phasers at the remaining Klingon marines.

Through the massed beam-firing, Mark could see Lieutenant Brown firing again and again from the cover of the turbolift door, missing a lot but managing to nail two Klingons. From the mess of the corridor, he could guess that a Security officer had thrown in a sonic grenade or two through the stairwell door from the lower deck. The remains of at least three Klingons were smeared over the walls, with two more lying unmoving but with large pools of pinkish blood around them.

The fire-fight was short and bloody, but favoured the Starfleeters again by having the Klingons in another crossfire. At the end of it all, there were 18 dead Klingons and no live ones.

But of the twelve security guards Andrew had brought, two looked like they had been halved by those damned bat'leth blades, and another four were lying in slowly enlarging pools of red and blue. Of the seven survivors, three were wounded, all seriously. The second officer himself seemed to be missing his left arm and was in deep shock.

Daniels just stared at the carnage as he knelt over his lieutenant's inert body, applying a sedative and painkiller with a hypospray.

What was all this FOR!?! Why do they so revel in this kind of slaughter? His tired musings got no further before the intercom crackled to life.

"Attention all hands, attention all hands," came the voice of Lieutenant McCafferty. "We have repulsed the Klingon marine attack, and the enemy ship has been destroyed. Captain Daniels is organising care for the wounded, and a distress call has been sent to Starbase 23. Stabilise your own wounded, and keep up hope. Bridge out."

Bless you, Karen. I should have thought to do that… Mark said to himself, his mind dulled with all the pain and suffering he had just witnessed. He tried to make Andrew more comfortable but he knew in his heart that unless someone showed up within an hour, he would die.

From the stairwell to the bridge, Chief Price called out, "Captain, Lieutenant McCafferty needs to see you on the bridge, immediately."

Oh, what now? Daniels wondered, feeling incredibly tired. He handed over care of his second officer to the petite engineer and made his way back to the bridge to face a very worried looking weapons officer.

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

Karen looked at her CO, noting how worn out he looked. She hated to add to his burden, but he had to be told.

"Captain, we are being hailed… by Romulans."





Chapter Seven


Federation Base Time: 1513 hours, 4th August 2267
Stardate: 2813.158
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

"Romulans!?!" Daniels echoed. "Oh that's just great. That's bloody brilliant."

Lieutenant McCafferty watched as her captain lost his tired look and became suddenly furious again. She didn't like the change, it reminded her too much of when he lost it earlier on the bridge.

"Why the interest in this system all of a sudden? Why did they have to wait for us to get here? Couldn't they have come tomorrow? Next week? NEXT YEAR?" Mark ranted.

Listening to the captain yelling at no one in particular, Karen was beginning to seriously think that the battle had mentally unbalanced him. The grief and guilt he must feel after loosing so many of his crew at once—and for a reason he would never know with the death of the Klingons.

Karen herself was barely holding on to her own training—it was all that was keeping her going right now. There was just something about the suddenness of it all that was thoroughly demoralising. What was it she had just been thinking, not even an hour ago?

"This is so boring."

Well, it had stopped being boring all right, but she would have preferred feeling anything to feeling like… like this.

All of a sudden, Mark stopped as if only just hearing what she had actually said.

"Lieutenant, did you just say the Romulans were hailing us?" he asked.

"Yes, Captain. Audio only, and they're requesting audio/visual communications. I haven't answered yet," she replied, her tone carefully neutral as she looked straight back at him.

"Don't look at me like that, Karen. I'm okay now. I just needed to… release some steam." Looking around at the still empty bridge, he ordered, "Okay, get everyone back in here. If Security and Medical are gone, so is the Auxiliary Bridge. Get anyone who knows the basics to man the stations, and I'd better acknowledge the Romulans before they decide to stop talking and start shooting."

"Aye sir." McCafferty went over to the turbolift and reactivated it by overriding the engineer's lockouts. She took it down to the next deck and started giving orders. Despite her captain's words, she was entirely unconvinced. A commanding officer who kept losing his temper in that way was a severe liability in unexpected circumstances—and even more so in battle. But she had served with him for years and been through several battles with him. Why was he cracking up only now?

Back on the bridge Daniels walked to the communications board, battling down his rage. He knew what his navigator was thinking, and couldn't help but agree. He'd never have thought himself capable of going over the edge like this, but it was readily apparent in the way she had looked at him. She was loosing confidence in him as a commander. And if she was, then so were any others who had witnessed his 'lapses'.

Mark sat down at the communications console and listened as the Universal Translator made sense of the message they had received.

"This is the Romulan Imperial Starship Nightmare to the Federation destroyer Jugurtha. Respond, please."

Nightmare. How appropriate, Daniels thought. It was apparently on repeat—but no, wait. He could detect a rising amount of irritation in the voice sending it.

He must be getting sick of saying that over and over again, Mark thought with a certain amount of glee. He quickly suppressed that, and the anger that followed it demanding, What right does he have to be annoyed?

Yet another thought occurred. This Romulan is acting very atypically. Hailing us instead of just destroying us, especially when we are in this condition—and saying 'please' while they do it?

Daniels quickly returned the hail—audio only—before the irritated Romulan decided to board him or blow him out of space for not responding.

"This is the Jugurtha. What do you want?" he replied, then winced slightly. He hadn't meant to sound that blunt, but it was too late now.



Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

Communications Officer tr`Khnialmnae turned to face his commander, his strong features grimacing in distaste. "Riov, they have finally responded to our hails. But they were… discourteous."

Commander t`Khellian raised an eyebrow and answered, "Indeed. Courtesy costs nothing, as we all know. Yet I shall let this pass. They have just been through a rather nasty ordeal, after all. Put them through."

"Ie, Rekkhai. Channel open, audio only."



Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

"This is Commander t`Khellian of the cruiser Nightmare. I would like to see who I am speaking to. Will you accept a two-way visual channel?"

Mark noted the different voice and the ring of authority to it. Looking around, he saw that the temporary bridge crew had arrived at their stations. Nigel had also returned, so Mark gave up his station and returned to the command chair, ordering the dark-haired Scot to agree to her request.

Nigel flipped the proper switches. The image of a Romulan woman sitting in a central chair appeared on the comm. station's main screen. This Romulan's bridge was different from the one recorded by the Enterprise almost a year ago. It looked more like his own, instead of people standing around a central workstation. Focusing his attention on the commander herself, Daniels supposed that another Romulan might find her beautiful, but to him her features were sharp enough to split kindling.

"Ah, that is better. Now, to whom am I speaking?" she asked in a strong voice.

Determined not to let the Federation side down, he decided he wouldn't let this Romulan 'out-polite' him.

"This is Captain Mark F. Daniels commanding the Federation Starship Jugurtha," he responded. "Commander, you are a long way from home. Can you explain your presence in Federation space?" There, go on the offensive immediately. That ought to give her something to chew on, he thought.

"Captain Daniels, I find it somewhat amusing that you claim this space as your own, despite the fact that there are no Federation outposts or settlements within two light years, and yours is the first Federation vessel to visit this entire area in many months. We prefer to think of it as… unaligned space."

The Romulan Commander smiled slightly at her last remark, but Mark's face hardened. He forced the anger out of his voice before he spoke. "Commander, just because we don't live here it does not mean that this isn't our territory. Your government and mine negotiated boundaries that both had agreed not to cross—until last year. Should the Federation now assume that the treaty is no longer honoured?"

"My dear Captain Daniels, I know not of such weighty matters. They are for—as you so rightly put it—our respective governments to deal with." She paused—and again gave that slight smile that was beginning to infuriate Daniels—before delivering her knockout line. "And is this any way to speak to those who have answered your distress call and come to your aid?"

It didn't faze Daniels in the slightest—he had almost been expecting her to say something like that. He gave great relish to the words of his reply: "Commander t`Khellian, if you expect me to believe that then you must think me just off the last ore shuttle."

He saw that she had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed, but it gave him heart to get that much out of her. He was about to press his advantage when she spoke again.

"Nevertheless, it is true. We may not have been able to intervene during the battle itself, but honour/loyalty/love/luck allows for nothing less than respect for you as a worthy adversary. Destroying a Klingon battlecruiser with half a salvo is indeed as impressive as it is unlikely."

Hearing praise from the alien commander set Mark off balance. Even more so with his impression that she actually meant what she said. He was also annoyed about the hash the UT made of one Romulan word, but now wasn't the time to ask about it. All other considerations forgotten for the moment, he pounced on the hope she had given him.

"Commander, if you offer of help is genuine then I officially ask on behalf of the Federation and my crew that you send over medical teams. My crew is in bad shape and we need any and all help you can give."

"Very well, Captain. Lower your shields and prepare to be boarded."

Mark's head snapped back round at that. He glared at the Romulan as he said, "Commander, we have already fought off one invasion and will do so again if forced. The Klingons failed and it will also cost you heavily—"

The Romulan interrupted him, breaking in with, "Captain, your pardon. A 'slip of the tongue', as you humans say." She shrugged slightly. "It is just what I usually command. I shall re-phrase it as 'prepare to receive aid'. And have no fear about the Klingons. They are no longer an issue."

Mark looked at her, all his suspicions revived. "How do I know that you will not do just that: board and capture us while we expect aid?"

"Captain, you have my word as a Romulan Officer." She ignored the look of incredulity he gave her, and continued. "You will just have to trust me. In any case, we know that although we received your distress call, no one else did. You are on the wrong side of the planet and the signal did not get through to your comrades. So, unless you want your injured crew to die, you must accept our assistance. I could force you, but I will not. You have my word on that, also. The choice is yours. Hail me when you decide. I have things to do that need attending. Nightmare out."

The screen went dark, and Mark cursed quietly to himself. He was hoping the Romulan hadn't noticed that their distress call was a bluff for the benefit of the Klingons. Even now they were still turning on impulse power, heading to the unmasked side of the planet, but the Romulan could stop them quite easily. And even so, with his nearest reinforcement two days away at last report, still more of his crew would die in the meantime. That the Romulan had all but promised not to attack was incredible in itself, but for them to offer help was unthinkable.

In the end, he had no choice. He would accept their help and hope he could trust the Romulan not to tow him back to their home space. He couldn't even wait until he'd sent his signal to Starfleet, as his crew needed that medical aid now.

Daniels hailed the Romulan.



Time: 1515 hours.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Geillun, let me know the instant he calls back—if he calls back, that is. I get the feeling he'll want to call home first, to test our reaction. Also, hail the Long Eyes and the Freight Eagle and order them to proceed into the system and rendezvous with us in orbit around Illiamnae-IV. Once the Long Eyes has scanned the planet, order them to take up a position one million kilometres above the star's pole so that we get maximum warning of any approaching vessels from all sides. "

"Ie, Lhhei," her communications officer responded.

Addressing her helm officer, Rhioa continued. "If the Starfleeter does attempt to get into the clear, move to block him. If he persists, tractor him. I do not want Federation reinforcements appearing before I am ready for them."

"Ie, Rekkhai," he answered.

"Now, onto more unpleasant matters…" Rhioa's aristocratic features screwed up in distaste. "Hail the Klingons again, please."



Time: 1503 hours—12 minutes earlier.
Location: Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

Lieutenant Commander Kalitta suddenly interrupted. "Captain! Ship decloaking, range 5,317 kellicams bearing 207 mark 080!"

"Identify!" came Meltakh's response.

"Captain, it is a Romulan War— They are firing! AT US!!!" she shouted in outrage.

"WHAT??" was all Meltakh got out, while his mind screamed BETRAYAL!!!


*****

A massive blow shook the ship and then grabbed it in a giant fist, propelling it forwards. Meltakh and the entire bridge crew were first hurled out of their seats and sent upwards to hover helplessly, and then the rear bridge bulkhead came rushing up to meet them.

With the inertial dampers and artificial gravity offline, they were powerless to prevent it and had to endure massive g-forces trying to squash them flat. It held this way for a few minutes until another giant fist smashed into them from behind, making the whole ship buck like a wounded targ, then started to slowly ease off. It was just as well. The famed Klingon brakul could withstand much, but not a man's own body weight multiplied ten times over for any extended period. When the g-forces had allowed it, the Klingons picked themselves up from the new 'down'—the aft bridge bulkhead. They sorted themselves out and prepared for when it would cease.

The ship slowed and finally halted. Meltakh was sufficiently amazed to still be alive that he just stood there assessing the smashed bridge, and the body of one of his officers. It seemed a panel had come loose during the acceleration and smashed into his torso at ten gravities. The navigator's chest had been not so much crushed as flattened to paste.

Collecting himself, he shouted, "Stations!"

"Affirm!" came the responses as everyone 'swam' back to their posts.

"I want full ship's status and position relative to any objects within scanner range. Marketh, get me a damage report!"

"Yes Captain."

Suddenly, Aertak called out, "Sir, we are being hailed by the Romulans!"

Meltakh's glare switched to his communications officer and he growled, "Put them on main screen."

The haughty visage of a female Romulan met his eyes. She opened her mouth to speak but he beat her to it.

"Treacherous Romulan Ha'DIBah! You attack my ship and call to gloat over—"

"SILENCE!!" the Romulan roared. Meltakh was so surprised to hear such a powerful voice come from such a small female that he was rendered momentarily silent.

It was all the opening Rhioa needed, and she took full advantage of it.

"Captain," she all but spat, "I would choose my words more carefully when speaking to the person responsible for saving your worthless lives!"

Seeing him about to speak again, his brows lowered in fury, she shouted, "YOU WILL STAY SILENT!! I hold the power of life or death over you, and from your opening words I am now undecided as to which I choose! You will say nothing until I have explained to you what has happened, and if you dare to cut me off I will use ships' phasers to knock on what is left of your hull until you do listen!"

Breathing deeply in intense anger and from all the shouting, the Romulan waited until she regained her breath—and for the him to acquiesce. Meltakh decided he would not allow her the privilege.

"I'm not begging for our lives, if that's what you want! I'll see you in the Underworld first!" he shouted back. "Do what you want, but I'm not listening to your gloating prattle. Screen off!"

Aertak killed the transmission and the main screen switched back to a view of space.

Before anyone could comment on his being silenced by a Rom, the captain yelled at Marketh, "Where's that status report!"

Marketh kept his thoughts to himself and approached his captain, pushing off from the wall at the comm. station. Expertly snagging the command throne and slowing to a stop in a standing position beside his captain, Marketh handed him a electronic clipboard. He was dreading saying this…

"Sir, we have apparently lost our warp engines, as now everything in the secondary hull shows as destroyed. We still have our boom impulse engine, fortunately, or we would shortly be breathing vacuum—or garbage. External cameras are down, but will be repaired shortly. Everything forward of the boom impulse engine is also functional, and artificial gravity will come online within the next few minutes. However, with only enough power for life support, we have no shields or active fire control even though the boom phasers are undamaged."

As he said those last words Lieutenant Commander Kalitta reported, "Captain, external cameras online!"

"Show me the main hull!" Meltalkh barked.

"On main screen now Captain," she acknowledged.

The picture came up on screen, and the bridge crew stopped working and stared at it.

They were staring at an empty screen, but there was no mistaking that it was the right view. The camera was the one mounted on top of the bridge dome, and it showed the boom extending aft as it should—until a great slice of immolated metal and sparking power conduits right behind where the impulse engine was.

"Kalitta, zoom in on the far end of the boom," Meltakh ordered in a normal voice. Not replying, she merely did as commanded.

They could now see the phaser-straight cut across the width of the hull. Neat as you like, Marketh thought idly. He now knew what must have happened, and was actually relishing the coming confrontation between his captain and the Romulan commander. Looking again now that the picture came from the camera on the bottom if the boom's pod, he could only admire the precision of the cut.

Right through all the decks, from top to bottom. The force of the phasers must have been what lifted us out of our seats, then the sudden acceleration was the Romulans grabbing us in a tractor beam and moving off from the main hull. The disruptors must have been too much for the damaged conduits and they blew up. If not for the Roms' timely appearance we would all be dead now.

Marketh looked back at his captain and could see that the same thoughts had occurred to him. The look on his face was thunderous. He would have to thank the Romulan for saving them, and apologise for not even giving them a chance to explain that they had just saved the Klingon officers. Otherwise, the Rom might just decide to blow them out of space and claim that they hadn't arrived in time to save them. But he didn't want to say anything as—friendship or not—Meltakh might just kill him on the spot.

The captain finally growled, "Why didn't the ship's status board show there was no secondary hull? It still shows it as being there but everything in it wiped out."

Kalitta spoke up, having been checking out that very thing. "Captain, because the Roms severed the boom instead of us separating it, the shock apparently caused all damage indicators to freeze on last reported status. At that moment the warp engine plasma conduits were rupturing and the boom impulse engine was slightly damaged by the phaser-fire. All emergency bulkheads are down and secured so we are not loosing atmosphere, and life support is fully functional with artificial gravity almost restored. But internal sensors show we have only 132 crew left, sir. Most in the command pod, but about 40 scattered through the length of the boom."

"Very well. Start damage control procedures and try to hail Starbase Ten, or the nearest ship or outpost. If we cannot get through, we will have to make peace with this Rom."

The look on Meltalk's face indicated just how eager he was to do that. The bridge crew focused on their tasks with their backs to him, not wanting to be caught snickering at their captain.


*****

Several minutes later Aertak finally sat back in frustration, having been unsuccessful in his attempts to raise any Klingon contacts. He turned to face his captain and reported, "Sir, no-one responds. I don't think the signal even reaches the edges of the system."

Curse it all to Durgath's Lair! Meltakh swore to himself. He ordered Aertak to hail the Romulan ship.

"Channel open, Captain."

"This is Commander t`Khellian of the RIS Nightmare."

"Commander, I am Captain Meltakh of the IKV Malicious. We are ready to listen to what you have to say."



Time: 1515 hours.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

After getting over the surprise of the Klingon hailing him just as he was going to hail them, Geillun put his commander through and listened to her lilting, almost musical speech contrasting with the gruff voice of the Klingon captain.

"We have already surmised that you did not attack us. Our ships' status board was itself damaged and gave us faulty information. We have now learned the truth and honour demands that I… thank… you for rescuing my officers."

Rhioa noted the pause and almost strangled emphasis put on the word that came through the translator as 'thank'. She gained some measure of satisfaction at how much saying those words must have galled the Klingon captain and waited for more, expecting an apology of sorts from that same code of 'honour' he claimed to follow. When nothing else came she realised that the 'faulty status board' excuse was all she would get by way of a proper apology, and finally replied.

"Captain, while many would have blown you to the Stars you prostrate yourselves before for that discourtesy—alliance or no—I have not and shall not. Your deaths would not have bothered me at all, but we are allies and allies help one another. It was within my capabilities to save you, so I did. Mnhei'sahe demands nothing less." And I am indeed grateful to the Elements and Powers for providing me with a way in which to keep my own intact, Rhioa added silently.

"In keeping with the spirit of this alliance, I offer you medical aid. Do you require assistance?"

"No. We will tend our own wounded." Rhioa waited expectantly, but although the channel was still open the Klingon said nothing more. She was about to ask him something, but her communications officer was signalling her. Telling him to mute their audio to the Klingon, she asked, "What is it, Geillun?"

"Riov, the Federation Captain is hailing us again," he reported.

"Put him on, and tell me if the Klingon starts talking again."

"Riov t`Khellian, I accept your offer of aid. I am lowering my shields, and trust you to keep your word."

"Excellent, Captain. Expect my medical staff in a few minutes. I am busy with another matter right now, but I will talk to you again soon. In person. T`Khellian, out."

Addressing the Klingon once more, Rhioa ordered voice to be restored and decided to force the issue.

"Well then, Captain. If that is all, our conversation is concluded. Once we have attended to our business in this system, we shall make arrangements to tow you to the nearest Klingon base. Good day to you. Enarrain, end transmission."

"Wait! There is another thing. How long do you intend to stay here?" Meltakh finally asked.

"Oh, we will not be leaving for many days." Rhioa grinned at the Klingon's obvious discomfort. There were advantages to audio-only communications…

"That is unacceptable to us. I… formally request of my ally that you allow me to send a message to the nearest Klingon base using your communications equipment. We… no longer have the power to do so ourselves."

Hearing the Klingon captain who had so vilely insulted her not fifteen minutes ago admit to all his weaknesses and debase himself in front of her was hugely entertaining for Rhioa. In his position, she would have admitted nothing, ignored everything but a direct offer of help from an alien and set course for home regardless of how long it took her to get there. She suppressed her laughter and ordered Geillun to reopen the link.

"Captain, I would be delighted to offer you the use of advanced and powerful communications equipment, but we are also blocked from a subspace channel to Klingon space by the current orbit of several planets. I cannot leave due to my orders, but I can relay your message to another ship with a clear 'line-of-sight'."

She could almost taste the Klingon's rage at her words, but he could do nothing about it. This was a heady feeling, being in complete control over ships of foreign powers. It was far better than merely destroying them because they were completely at the mercy of her whims—and they all knew it. Since this situation was unlikely to ever happen again, Rhioa was making the most of it, especially with the overblown Klingons. Most of them treated all Rihannsu as no better than slaves—a view reinforced by her Empire being forced into a client state position being sold outdated equipment at extortionate prices. Oh yes, Rhioa was certainly enjoying 'helping' the Klingons.

"Very well. I will prepare a data packet for you to send. Out."

The channel went dead. The bridge crew joined in with their commander's laughter.

Emni tr`Sehdri at the helm interrupted, reporting, "Riov, the Federation destroyer has completed his turn and is starting to move out of the planet's shadow under low impulse power."

"Put his ship on the main screen. Move to block as I instructed. If he keeps at it or tries to get around us, put a tractor beam on him but stay out of his weapons arcs. Remember, he still has weapons so level six ECM and reinforce facing shields, just in case. We do not want to suffer the same fate as the Klingons."

"Ie, Rekkhai."



Time: 1518 hours.
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

As good as her word, no armed boarding parties beamed to his bridge and the comm. system remained clear of disruptor bolts and the sound of battle. Mark had ordered it permanently open so he could be instantly alerted in case of treachery.

Daniels breathed a sigh of relief and ordered his ship to move out of the planet's shadow. His crew might be getting aid, but he wasn't getting any closer to home—or to warning Starfleet.

Lieutenant Maknal slowly increased impulse speed over several minutes until they were moving at one-fifth impulse. All of a sudden, the ship jolted slightly and their speed dropped dramatically.

"Captain Daniels, the Romulan has tractored us!" he reported.

I knew it! I knew I was a fool to trust a Romulan! Daniels thought in a rage. Controlling it, he again ordered Nigel to hail the Romulan ship.

"Channel open, Captain," he confirmed.

"Commander, what is the meaning of this? Why have you tractored my ship when I pose no threat to you?" Daniels demanded. The reply he got chilled him.

"But you do pose a threat to me, Captain Daniels."

Daniels mentally prepared himself to do battle yet again, but then the alien commander continued and his chill receded.

"Oh, not directly. But if your reinforcements get here too soon, I might fail in my mission. Fear not Captain. I have given you my word, and my medical teams. You will get to 'call home', but slightly later than you would prefer."

Mark had nothing to say to that, and so merely watched as t`Khellian looked over at her science officer and issued a command, then conferred silently on his screen. The Romulan's next words surprised him again. He did not like how she managed to do that so often.

"Captain, I have a little free time before my next duty requires my attention. May we meet in person and coordinate my medical teams?"

In a low voice so that the Romulans wouldn't overhear her, Lieutenant M`Krray reported, "Captain, short-range sensors are now repaired and are currently running a diagnostic test cycle. Fully operational in twenty seconds. Long range sensors will take much longer."

Acknowledging her with a nod, Mark returned his attention to the Romulan.

"Okay then Commander. Come on over and we can have a cosy chat. Just… do not expect a warm welcome from my crew. We have been through a lot at the hands of one enemy, and being at the mercy of another straight on the heels of it does not sit well with us."

"Your warning is… appreciated, Captain. I will beam over with my honour guard to your deck two. Prepare to receive us."

"Fine. I will meet you—"

"Captain!" M`Krray suddenly interrupted. "Klingon ship bearing 196 mark 280, range 64,000 km!"

Daniels turned to face the Romulan with a look of disgust and betrayal, and yelled, "Shields up!"





Chapter Eight


Federation Base Time: 1518 hours, 4th August 2267
Stardate: 2813.188
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

Captain Mark Daniels stood on the bridge of his wrecked ship, glaring at the image of the Romulan woman on the screen of his communications console. Keeping the comm. link to her ship open, he ordered Nigel, "Close all intra-ship communications, and have Security detain the Romulan boarding party and confine them in the brig!"

Mark finally had the satisfaction of getting a genuine emotion out of her as he watched outrage spread across the Romulan's face.

"Captain," she began in a very menacing, very quiet voice, "I have shown you nothing but courtesy and spoken only the truth to you, and yet I have been met with hostility, suspicion and accusations at every turn. I offer you aid and sent my best medical team to help tend your wounded, and this is how you repay my kindness? Are all Earthers so untrustworthy, deceitful, and treacherous?"

Mark stared at her, agape. "You accuse me of treachery? You dare? From a race that started a war against us with a sneak attack? You—"

Rhioa broke in, not caring to listen to ancient Federation propaganda. Not even acknowledging that he had spoken, she continued in the same tone of voice. "At the beginning, I showed you far more tolerance than you would usually have received from a Romulan because you had just been though a harsh battle. No more! I have had enough of this. If you wish war, you shall have it! My vessel is still armed for war, Captain. You will release my team or you will join them in dying for the Empire! You have ten seconds."

Mark's mind was awhirl yet again. The Romulan seemed genuinely outraged at his treatment of her, and at the fact he didn't trust her. But there was another Klingon ship out there and the Romulan had kept its presence a secret.

She must be up to something! his suspicious mind screamed at him. But he was reacting on instinct and training alone to protect his ship, and had not the luxury of time to think things through.

The situation he faced was totally unexpected, bizarre and unprecedented. Training provided options to use, but instinct was working against him here with regards to the Romulans. This one was acting like… well, like he would in their place. That also made him suspect a trap.

Damn it all to HELL!!! he raged.

All this went through his mind in a few seconds, then he noticed M`Krray trying to get his attention. He spun and barked, "WHAT?"

M`Krray took his anger in her stride and quickly spoke. "Sir, the Klingon ship we detected is the remains of the D6 that attacked us. I am only detecting the boom!"

Daniels digested this and quickly turned back to Nigel at the comms. console. "Lieutenant, order Security to release the Romulans, and have them brought up to the bridge under armed guard."

Turning to address the Romulan, Mark stated flatly, "My science officer informs me that the Klingon ship is actually the remains of the D6 we just took out. I am therefore releasing your med team."

The Romulan woman nodded, but her eyes still blazed at him and her whole body radiated anger over the screen. "I shall stay your execution for the moment, Captain. But be warned, do not cross me again or you will not live to regret it!"

Daniels glared back at her, feeling impotent. Being ordered around on his own bridge by a hostile alien! His thoughts of vengeance were interrupted by the appearance of a Security squad arriving on the bridge via the turbolift, their phasers drawn and aimed at the bound and unarmed Romulans. Before t`Khellian could see them he ordered the link muted and the captives' hands released, lest that inflame their commander's ire. Beckoning them forward but telling the Security ensign to hold his squad in place, he addressed the group.

"Who is senior amongst you?"

A tall, slender man with hate etched into his face and venom in his eyes stepped forward and spoke. The translator rendered his words as, "I am Centurion tr`Nalyit. I demand you return us to our ship, Earther! Your treachery to my Commander sickens me, and I wish to cleanse myself of your foul stench."

"Brave talk for a man in enemy territory, Centurion. I'd watch my mouth," Daniels snapped back.

Tr`Nalyit sneered. "It is my honour to die for my Empire! Watching your face as death approaches just sweetens the time left to me in this life!"

Daniels wanted to lash out, to wipe that arrogant sneer of his smug face, but managed to hold back the urge. Gesturing to Nigel, he ordered the link restored. "Your people are here, Commander."

"I wish to speak with them. Let me see them all."

Ordering a wide screen transmission, Daniels could only stand there and watch as they conversed. It was as if the damned Romulans actually had captured his ship.

The Centurion spoke to his CO. "Madam, we are here and all accounted for."

"Ah, Centurion. You are all unharmed?"

"Yes, Madam. The Earthers would not dare touch us."

Daniels watched as a flicker of emotion passed over the Commander's features. Finally figuring out what it was, he was amazed to discover it was distaste! Now why would she find it distasteful to talk to one of her 'best' people? Daniels wondered. Especially as it seems this tr`Nalyit is going out of his way to appear respectful.

"Very well, Centurion. Prepare to be transported back to the Nightmare. Whether you stay or not depends on Captain Daniels now."

Addressing him, Rhioa asked, "What of it, Captain? Can I trust you to keep your word and leave my team alone? I am sure you still have wounded that need treatment and I gave you my word that I would supply medical aid. So far, your trust in me has been somewhat lacking. If you cannot absolutely guarantee my team's safety I will bring them home now."

Mark looked around at his makeshift bridge crew, catching Lieutenant McCafferty's eye. She nodded once, briefly, and then he turned his attention to the sneering Romulan centurion. Despite his anger, he had to admit that this Romulan commander had kept her word. Even though she had just threatened to destroy him, she had done so in reaction to his seizing her crew. Finally, despite numerous opportunities, she had still not attempted a capture. Okay, I'm ready to begin trusting her word, Daniels thought, but one last check…

"Lieutenant M`Krray, perform a sensor sweep, as long a range as we can manage. Check for any other ships."

"Aye Captain." A few moments later she reported, "Scanning to one-half light-year. No other vessels detected, Captain. Just the Romulan Bird of Prey, the debris field from the D6 main hull, and the Klingon ship's boom, none of which has changed position relative to us."

"Thank you, Lieutenant." Turning back to face the Romulan, Mark took a deep breath and said, "Okay, Commander. I will keep you to your word and trust you not to attempt a capture, and I will give you my word as a Starfleet Officer that none of your crew will come to any harm while aboard my ship."

Implicit in that statement was Daniels wish for more than just one medical team, and Rhioa picked up on it. "I accept your word, Captain, and hold you to it likewise. I will transport more medical teams over and I will come across myself to speak with you in person—"

Mark broke in. "Commander, I would like to meet with you but I also want to see the Klingon captain, if he still lives."

"He lives, Captain Daniels, but I would prefer you did not meet. In fact, I strongly advise against it."

"I don't CARE what you would prefer!" Mark almost shouted. Calming himself, he continued. "Commander, I will meet with both of you or not at all."

Mark endured the long, hard stare the Commander gave him with rigid defiance, until she finally responded.

"Very well, Captain. Since my ship is rather small, and both yours and the Klingons' ships are barely habitable, we shall meet on the planet below us. You can bring your senior staff if you wish, but no more than six people, yourself included. And absolutely no weapons of any kind! I will not have a small war on my hands, understood?"

"Clearly, Commander. I assume the Klingons will be informed likewise?" Mark grated out.

"Indeed. I will meet with them first to ensure this, then signal you to beam down." Once again addressing tr`Nalyit, Rhioa ordered, "Centurion, resume your duties and tend to the Federation wounded. Coordinate with the teams I will be sending over."

"I hear and obey, Commander," was the Centurion's reply. He immediately headed for the turbolift and led his team back below decks without another word.

"Until we meet, Captain. Nightmare out." Rhioa nodded at him on screen before the channel was closed.

Mark turned to his crew after switching on the all-call. "This is the Captain. Romulan medical teams will be beaming aboard to tend our wounded. You are to cooperate with them, but only in regards to helping our wounded. No discussion of classified data or access to restricted areas. We have not surrendered, the Romulans have offered us 'aid'. That is all. Captain out."

Switching off the all-call, Mark told his bridge crew, "I will be beaming down with three Security people, and Lieutenants Maknal and M`Krray. Karen, you will remain on board as senior officer. Clear?"

"Aye sir," they replied—although Karen looked troubled.

As well she might, Daniels mused, as he turned over dark thoughts about the Klingon captain in his mind.



Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

As the Federation ship was performing it's long range sweep, Geillun muted the channel to them and informed his commander, "Lhhei, the other two Eagles have acknowledged your orders and have entered the system under cloak."

"Inform their commanders that I am busy right now, but that the Long Eyes is ordered to commence the scan of Illiamnae-IV upon their arrival, and the Freight Eagle is to form up with us in orbit."

"Ie, Lhhei."

Once the conversation had been concluded with the Federation captain, Rhioa had Geillun hail the Klingons.



Bridge, boom section of the IKV Malicious.

Lieutenant Aertak vestai-Mirtaj turned to face his captain, dreading his next words. The g'daya Roms wanted to talk again. He got to be the lucky one to convey this information to a captain who was looking towards being relieved of what was left of his command when said Romulans put him back in contact with his home base.

I'll be lucky if Meltakh doesn't shoot me on the spot, Aertak thought morosely. Being the messenger-boy for unwelcome news was a sure-fire way to end one's career—or life. It was well known throughout the Fleet that Captain Krenn went through comm. officers at an astonishing rate, and Aertak didn't want to be the first notch on his CO's pistol. But unfortunately he had to speak up.

"Captain, the Rom Commander wants to speak with you again." He tried not to cringe when Meltakh's head snapped round to glare at him.

Captain sutai-Graltham glared at his communications officer for long seconds before growling, "I'll take it in my quarters, Lieutenant. Patch it through to my secure terminal." Turning to Marketh he said, "Commander, you have the conn… such as it is."

Grimacing, he made his way to the turbolift and headed for his quarters, murderous thoughts abound in his mind.

If this Romulan slug wants me to debase myself further, I would do so without the bridge crew observing it! he thought disgustedly as he entered his rooms. Settling into his desk chair, he ordered Aertak to put the Romulan on.

"Captain Meltakh," the Romulan woman greeted him.

"Commander t`Khellian, what is it this time?" the big Klingon demanded.

"Captain, you must be very busy so I will come straight to the point," Rhioa said, appearing not in the least put out by the Klingon's gruffness. "The Captain of the Federation ship wants to meet with you."

"What?" Meltakh exclaimed with open surprise. "I don't give a targ's eyeball what that spineless Denebian slime devil wants! You can tell him to go and manually load one of his own antimatter torpedoes!"

Meltakh watched as the Commander's expressionless face split into a wide grin at his words. He also noticed that it was a genuine smile of amusement and thought, By the Stars! A Rom with a sense on humour. Next thing, she'll be inviting me over for drinks! Meltakh found himself strangely hoping she would, for the Romulan woman was attractive—in a kuve-like manner—and after drinks he would welcome the opportunity to vent some of his frustration on her in bed…

T`Khellian spoke again, wrenching his thoughts back to more immediate concerns. "Yes, I rather thought as much—as did the Federation captain. I got the distinct impression that he thinks you would be too craven to face him, and 'be called to account for your cowardly attack on his unsuspecting ship'."

Rhioa spoke the last sentence as if directly quoting the Starfleeter, even though he had said no such thing. But, having been there for the whole battle Rhioa could easily see how the Feds would view it. The effect of her words was instantly displayed.

Meltakh roared in rage and slammed both his large hands down onto his desk as he rattled off a rather impressive string of curses and epithets in both Klingonaase and the Orion Trader's Tongue. Rhioa watched all this with an inner smirk as she thought, These imbeciles are ridiculously easy to manipulate!

But Meltakh was not to be so easily conned. "That sounds like just the kind of thing he'd say to make me come to him! That tree-slug won't have the satisfaction of thinking his ploy worked! I have nothing to say to him. He was lucky and I was careless. Otherwise he would be in my agony booth begging me to let him spill all his secrets!"

Rhioa listened with no small amount of annoyance. That'll teach me to be smug, she thought sourly. How do I get him there now? Groping around for anything else to say, Rhioa temporised. "Ah-hmmm, yes. Be that as it may, how goes your repairs?"

Meltakh growled back, "My repairs are underway, not that it is any of your business, Commander. I have already told you I have no need of your assistance!"

Rhioa bit back an angry retort, but was struck by sudden inspiration. She considered it and did realise that what she was about to do was nearly dishonourable—and quite frankly, childish—but she did want to meet this Fed.

"Very well, Captain! But while we are on the subject of assistance, is the data packet you want transmitted ready yet?"

"One moment," Meltakh said, and muted the channel. Opening a 'com line to the bridge, he asked, "Lieutenant Aertak, is the data packet completed yet?"

"Yes Captain. It details our current situation and includes everything our scanners recorded as well as all your previous conversations with the Romulans, their offers of help and your request for a tug."

"Encrypt it using the most complex algorithms we have, then encrypt that by a different method and transmit it to the Romulans. I will hold you personally responsible if the Roms learn of our intentions here, Aertak," the captain threatened. He watched as the young Fusion nodded confidently, but could see the nervousness in his eyes. A healthy mix, if in the right proportions, Meltakh thought.

Closing the 'com and restoring the audio to the Romulans, Meltakh stated, "My comm. officer will be transmitting it to you shortly. Well, if that is all you wanted, I will return to—"

"Not quite, Captain," she broke in.

"By all the Stars, woman, what else do you want? You are as bad as the Feds for wanting to prattle on uselessly!" Meltakh exclaimed in frustration.

Rhioa watched this display with a small measure of surprise. For any Klingon, much less a Navy Captain, to show weakness—and to an adversary at that—they must be truly incensed. She put aside her distaste for what she was about to do and said, "Captain, we have received your packet. However, I must insist you meet with the Starfleeters and myself on the planet below." Rhioa watched as storm-clouds of rage gathered in the Klingon's eyes.

"You are blackmailing me, Romulan," Meltakh said with icy calm. His tone spoke volumes about what he thought of blackmailers, and in her heart Rhioa had to agree. But she pushed it aside and put forward a face that proclaimed it bothered her not at all.

"Blackmail is such an ugly word, Captain," she commented stonily. "I am just trying to persuade you. And you will be persuaded."

"You treacherous, dishonourable p'takh!" Meltakh roared. He almost told her to go space herself and that he'd just head on home on impulse power, no matter how long it took. But he needed to let High Command know of the Romulan interest in this system immediately, so they could determine a response. At once he felt very glad he had not taken this communication on the bridge, for he knew what he had to do and witnesses—such as the bridge crew—would have necessitated some rather unfortunate consequences for him…

Spitting out every word as if they were poisonous berries, Meltakh said the words that disgusted him so mightily: "Very well! If this ridiculous meeting is what it will cost, then so be it! But be warned: If I ever come across you again, it will not go well for you! Understand?"



Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

Rhioa remained expressionless throughout and merely nodded at his threats. She said, "I will signal you again with the time and coordinates for this meeting. You may bring no more than six people and absolutely no weapons, ceremonial or otherwise. You will be scanned to ensure your compliance, as will the Federation people. Am I understood?"

The big Klingon nodded once, sharply, before cutting the channel. He was visibly shaking with rage.

Rhioa turned away from the main screen and towards her first officer. "Vaebn, let me know the moment the Long Eyes finishes her scan. I will be in my quarters. You have the conn."

"Ie, Rekkhai."

She got up and headed for her private rooms, feeling the need to wash.



Time: 1855 hours—3.5 hours later.
Location: Rihannsu base on Illiamnae-IV.

Mark Daniels lead the hand-picked landing party across the thermoconcrete apron of the rapidly-growing Romulan ground base. The beam-down point was apparently some distance away from the temporary barracks, so that Mark had to put up with an unending series of questions from this annoying Romulan woman. However, he had to act friendly and make nice with her, or he'd never get into the same room as the Klingon animal who dared to call himself a ship's captain.

Mark was inwardly fuming that the Type-I hand phaser he had concealed on Mr. Gruur as part of his 'medical treatment' had been found and taken away. It was the sole reason he had brought the injured chief engineer along. Mark had him replace Urrih Maknal on the landing party detail, thinking he still needed his science officer's feline speed and ferocity. Daniels remembered the sturdy Tellarite limping his way onto deck two, having come to only half an hour ago from a bad concussion. Part of the engineering bulkhead structure had collapsed, burying him under rubble and unnoticed until he regained consciousness. It had afforded him an opportunity, and if all had went well he would have had his revenge on the Klingons.

But now he had to fall back on his original plan and he was one man down. The only good point was that he was still getting to 'meet' the Klingons at all. He had talked fast and managed to convince the Romulans that it was a medical device, even going so far as to pantomime its supposed use. The Romulan commander had still confiscated it—albeit apologetically—stating that she wasn't taking any chances.

It finally got through to Daniels that that this Romulan was trying hard to find a rapport of sorts with him. She was friendly, responsive and even smiled at a joke he forced out. Mark was at a loss for a reason, but dismissed it anyway. It was distracting him from his plan and they were almost there…


*****

Rhioa once again gently fingered the so-called 'medical device' she had in her pocket. Her Enforcement centurion's tricorder hadn't been able to determine a function and it looked too small to be a weapon. Her small hand could almost enclose it completely, and it wasn't remotely pistol-like. Daniels' explanation of its features had seemed sincere, but she had a vague sense of something not quite right. She didn't want to leave it behind in case the wounded Tellarite had a seizure and this really was a medical device. The Fed's demise would spoil the whole effect of her current strategy, so she kept it close to hand but safely out of immediate use.

Then there was the Starfleeters themselves. Daniel's attitude was confident but he seemed very brittle, like a sword forged at too high a temperature. Looks strong enough but all it takes is one hard blow… Rhioa thought. However, she was willing to mark that up to the consequences the battle had dealt him.

Also, the feline woman and the pig-like man. Even though Rhioa told herself that she believed Jaeih's policy of accepting all life-forms as worthy of respect, it was hard when confronted by such… non-Vulcanoids. Decades of government indoctrination were coming back to haunt her, and if it affected her this way then the Klingons would automatically see the non-human Starfleeters as kuve. Which brought her to the wounded Tellarite. Not just kuve, but weak kuve at that.

Why bring an invalid? Okay, so he was the chief engineer of the destroyer and she had said to bring his senior staff… but shouldn't one command officer stay on board? The Klingons would have no respect at all for Daniels with such a squad.

Rhioa's thoughts were all in disarray. Trying as she was to talk to the Federation captain before the coming confrontation, she also worried about the base's construction schedule and possible enemy reinforcements—which didn't exclude the Klingons. Last and by no means least, Rhioa was concerned about what might result from this. If she couldn't control the proceedings, she might never get the chance to gain insight into the Federation way of doing things.

We will get through this ordeal with the Klingons and then I can sit this man down for a real talk, she thought hopefully.



Time: 1910 hours
Location: Bridge of the USS Jugurtha.

The entire bridge crew knew something had gone wrong when the Romulan commander and not their own captain signalled them from the planet's surface.

"Attention, Federation destroyer, this is Commander t`Khellian. Respond please."

Ordering Nigel at communications to put the Romulan through, Karen walked over to the comm. station. "This is Lieutenant McCafferty, Acting CO. What is it, Commander? Where is Captain Daniels?"

"Lieutenant, I regret to inform you that Captain Daniels is dead. Prepare to transport his body and the rest of your landing party back to your ship."





Chapter Nine


Time: 1910 hours.
Location: Rihannsu compound on Illiamnae-IV

Rhioa listened for a reply from this Lieutenant McCafferty, and after a few seconds got one.

"The Captain is dead? What…How the hell…"

The Starfleet woman apparently broke off to collect herself, as when she spoke again her voice was much firmer and had a commanding tone to it. Rhioa also heard the tell-tale whine of a Federation transporter, and turned to watch as the unconscious Starfleet party was spirited away.

"Okay, Commander. I demand an explanation and I want it NOW! Who killed the captain and why is the rest of the landing party out cold?"

Rhioa was about to ask what 'out cold' meant, but decided against it. It probably meant 'unconscious', taking into account the status of the landing party.

"Lieutenant, I have a visual record of what happened and would like to meet with you to expl--"

"Not a chance, Commander! You tell me here and now, or you come up here alone and explain to me. No other way is acceptable."

Rhioa thought about reminding the young-sounding lieutenant that she, her entire ship, and her crew were at the mercy of Rhioa's every whim, but again decided against it.

"Very well, Lieutenant. I will so inform my ship. But be warned: any harm comes to me and your life—all your lives—are forfeit."

T`Khellian thought that the Terran would come back with some kind of useless, empty bluster or threats but was surprised when no such thing was forthcoming.

"You will not be harmed, Commander. I want an explanation and dead people tell no tales. Also, I have not forgotten that you have saved a number of this crew with your Medical teams. You will be treated with the respect due to you."

"Acknowledged, Lieutenant. I trust you will meet me as I transport up?"

"Yes," came the short reply.

"Very well. Stand by." Lifting her own communicator, Rhioa told Vaebn of her intentions, and took his objections in her stride before gaining his reluctant acceptance. "I am ready to transport aboard, Lieutenant." She spoke into the Starfleet communicator she had taken off Daniels, and thought back a few hours as she waited for the transporter chime.


*****

Thirty minutes after leaving the bridge, having gained the unwilling cooperation of the Klingons, Rhioa returned feeling clean and refreshed but no happier. Vaebn had called her to the bridge as the Scout Eagle had completed its mapping scan and the data was being shared with the Aehallh. All the construction engineers and exo-geologists were on the Long Eyes so that they could look over the data first-hand and request re-scans, enhancements and such like. Rhioa had herself beamed over so she could take part and occupy her mind. Even though she wasn't strictly needed, as Mission Commander she would have to know and give her approval of the final plan. With her present and involved, it merely speeded up the process and saved having a briefing later on.

A full planetary exploitation schedule and colony layout was drawn up and approved within an hour of the scan being completed.

At the end of the planning session, Rhioa ordered the Freight Eagle to land near the spot chosen for the initial colony site. The laying of the foundations began immediately, and all the engineers were sent down in shuttles as well as by transporter. Speed was of the essence, as Rhioa did not know the destroyer's reporting schedule and another ship could be sent to investigate the its silence at any time. Withholding the Starfleet ship's distress call bought her some time, but Rhioa couldn't count on being left alone for long enough.

By 1800 hours—Fed time—the colony foundations and permacrete surfacing needed for all the colony buildings had been laid, and temporary accommodations had been set up. Work was still continuing at a fever-pace, but Rhioa had thought things progressing well enough to allow her to have her meeting with the Federation captain—and unfortunately, the Klingon one too.

She had signalled both alien ships that the meeting time would be 1900 hours, but that the Klingons were to arrive at 1845 and the Feds ten minutes later, to allow time for Enforcement to scan both parties.


*****

Rhioa materialised in the Jugurtha's only functional transporter room, the other one having been negated when Medical was destroyed. There were only two other people in the room, one being a very dark-skinned human male standing behind the transporter console. Rhioa immediately dismissed him from consideration, as the other person was a pale-skinned human female in a lieutenant's uniform. This woman saluted Rhioa in the Terran style once Rhioa had completely finished shimmering in.

Commander t`Khellian returned the salute, Rihannsu style, and asked in flawless Federation Standard, "Lieutenant McCafferty?"

Karen nodded and gestured for the enemy commander to follow her. "Please come with me, Commander. We are going to a briefing room where we can talk undisturbed."

"Lead on, Lieutenant."

Karen paused on leaving the room and addressed the transporter operator. "Chief Talbain, you may return to your repair detail."

Giving the Romulan woman a measuring stare, Talbain merely answered "Yes, Ma'am," before setting about securing the console as the two women left the room.


*****

Now seated in Briefing Room One Karen said, "Commander, this meeting is being recorded. For this record, I would like to convey my thanks to you for the medical staff provided despite numerous provocations that could have led you to withhold them. Several lives were saved."

Karen paused there for a second, and Rhioa could see that her words were sincere. "Lieutenant, your thanks and sincerity are most appreciated. I could help you and I did. My personal code of honour would allow for nothing less."

Karen nodded in acknowledgement, then her eyes went hard with determination. "That said, I now demand an explanation of the events that lead to the death of my commanding officer on the surface of planet L-647-IV."

So that is what they call it. Rhioa thought irrelevantly. I think our name is far prettier. "Lieutenant, the chip record I have here shows the events from when the Starfleet officers lead by your Captain Daniels enters the building where the Klingons were waiting. Thus I will have to tell you of what went before for the full story to—"

Karen broke in, saying. "Commander, show me the recording now. I do not wish to sit through an interminable monologue before seeing what happened to the captain. Please," she added as an afterthought. "I have already been to see the landing party and our few remaining medical staff tell me I have five unconscious phaser-stunned crew and one dead but brutally beaten captain, so I want to know NOW!"

Karen slammed her fist down on the conference table for emphasis. Rhioa's eyes widened fractionally, then she mentally shrugged and handed the chip to Karen. I start to see why our people usually take the high ground. I constantly make allowances for their grief and anger, and constantly get demands, accusations and orders. I would much prefer to have things switched back, but I must hold my tongue, at least until I can determine if I can talk to this woman now that Daniels is dead.

Karen took the chip and broke out a tricorder to analyse it before blindly putting it into the main computer system. The lieutenant used a universal reader interface to access the data on the chip and had the tricorder scan it for harmful programming, viruses, hidden Trojan programs and tracers. When the tricorder couldn't find any, Karen had the tricorder transfer the Romulan chip's contents to a Federation wafer chip, which was then inserted into the slot in the conference room computer terminal.

Rhioa watched this belaboured process approvingly. Any Rihanha would have gone much further and with far more specialised equipment, but the fact that the Starfleeter had taken such precautions at all was surprising, considering all Rihannsu thought humans were trusting fools.

The computer cued up the video stream and the scenes that Karen had been fearing since Mark had lost it on the bridge unfolded before her.

Karen watched as the screen showed the Klingon contingent standing up on hearing the approach of others. There were three Romulan Legionnaires in the room with their holstered disruptor pistols clearly visible, and their stance and positions making it hard for them to be rushed. Karen remembered all too clearly that Klingon disruptors had no stun setting and if used resulted in a dead body—or at least a mutilated live one. She had no reason to suspect the Romulan ones were any different.

So what happened that no-one is dead or missing body parts? These are Romulans, for Gods' sake!

On screen, the room's only door slid open and her captain and crewmates walked in, accompanied by the Romulan commander and three more Legionnaires—all with disruptors. Daniels halted and stared at the Klingons, picking out their captain seemingly by his body language. All the Klingons gave off waves of hostility, her own people showing defensiveness and the Romulans betraying nothing. Daniels radiated hatred for all to see and Karen suddenly just knew what was coming.

"…no…"

Rhioa heard the word escape from the human's lips and puzzled at it, before realising that it was almost a plea and that McCafferty seemed to know ahead of time what was going to happen. The video feed continued and Rhioa watched herself make wary introductions as the Klingons slowly came round the table, led by Meltakh.

Karen watched as the Romulan commander invited them all to sit, but her eyes were locked on Mark. She could see him starting to tremble and the fury build in his face. He then just launched himself at the Klingon captain—who was nearly a foot taller than him. Karen knew exactly what had gone through Mark's mind. The closed doors briefing session for his revised landing party had obviously been to plan an attack. He had picked the most physically capable Security people he had left and had meant to go into battle from the start.

But on seeing the hated enemy right there, standing not five feet away, Mark had just snapped. Finally, irrevocably—and fatally. All thought of a plan, an organised attack, had gone out the airlock and he just wanted to feel the Klingon's neck being crushed between his own two hands.

He hadn't stood a chance.

The Klingon had anticipated it, expected it. Hell, he probably read it right off Mark's face, Karen thought in silent agony.

Mark's outstretched hands were batted aside and Meltakh lifted him up in a body-crushing bear hug. Karen was sure she heard ribs snapping. Mark rammed his head forwards but only succeeded in cutting his forehead open on Meltakh's skull knots. Mark kicked out at the big Klingon's knees, forcing Meltakh to grunt and drop him. Mark wobbled a bit before pressing home his attack, seeking to ram his shoulders into the Klingon's gut. But Meltakh had only dropped him to prepare a strike of his own. The Klingon captain wound up an uppercut that caught the onrushing Daniels square on the chin.

The sound of more bone giving way, and Mark's head snapped back.

Way back.

It was clear to all that he had just had his neck broken. The now lifeless body of her captain sailed back and crashed into the nearest wall, to collapse unmoving.

During the whole ten seconds of this fight, Karen noted the movements of others in the room. The Starfleet party, caught off guard by the sudden abandonment of the plan, stood frozen for a couple of seconds then made a rush for the Klingon captain. The Klingon party, however, was already moving at them, seeing that their captain was easily handling Daniels. The Romulan guards all made to draw their weapons but were restrained by a sudden shout from Rhioa. Karen watched on, horror-stricken. She just could not accept it, even though she had almost been expecting it.



Rhioa remembered that moment all too clearly. It had happened a bare span of minutes ago, and she had already viewed this recording.

As soon as Daniels had made his move, Rhioa had instantly known that the 'medical device' was a weapon. She had yanked it out of her pocket and desperately tried to decipher it. Out of the corner of her eyes she had seen everyone else explode into action. She had barked an order to her men to hold in place as she finally figured out the controls.

Seeing that the weapon was set to kill, another few precious seconds were lost changing it to the famed Federation 'stun' setting. Finding it at last, she had swept the beam over everyone in her way. The Klingon and Federation contingents had just started coming to blows and they all went down, 'out cold', as she blasted every last one of them.

They were all finally out of the way, but they had effectively blocked the view of the captains' battle and when Rhioa could finally sight in on Meltakh, it was already too late. Daniels was dead. Rhioa had almost stunned Meltakh too but stayed herself. She hadn't known how long the phaser stun effect lasted and she needed the Klingon captain to control matters.

The screen now showed her pointing the phaser at Meltakh, but she lowered it a second later. The Klingon captain had by then spun to face her, ready to fight and once more, Rhioa found herself caught up in her memories of the event.


*****

On seeing her lower the Federation weapon, Meltakh all but spat out, "So, did you get what you sought, Romulan? I did not see this particular ending, but knew that something similar was likely."

The Romulan commander said nothing to him, but ordered her guards to separate the unconscious parties.

When no reply was forthcoming, Meltakh continued. "Is this why you blackmailed me into meeting with this weakling human? So you could kill our senior staff with a Federation weapon and blame it all on others yet again? Puppet masters, pulling everybody's strings from behind the curtains—"

"SHUT UP, YOU FOOL!" the Romulan yelled. She had obviously had enough of the Klingon's accusations. "I need tell you nothing!"

Meltakh started to move towards her, but she raised the phaser again. He stopped, glowering at her while she spoke again.

"This deranged human would not meet with me without meeting with you also! I wanted to talk with him, learn about his people and their attitudes towards us, plant misinformation, and maybe even gain valuable intelligence data. But I didn't realise he would go mad—"

"You didn't realise…?" Meltakh looked on in astonishment. "And you presume to call me a fool. Little Romulan, I saw this coming through the heart of a star. You wanted to talk. To understand.

"WHAT IS THERE TO UNDERSTAND, FOOL?!?!" he roared. "They are our enemies! They interfere with our races, they hinder the growth of both our Empires! The only thing I need to 'understand' is their weaknesses, and those I know. They are soft. They fight well when pressed to it, but they try to avoid it at all costs. Allow them a way out and they take it—"

Meltakh stopped suddenly and looked around at his staff. "But enough of this babble. I am returning to my ship. I have given in to your blackmail, now you will make good on your pledge." So saying, he pulled out his communicator and had himself and his unconscious crew beamed up.


*****

Karen watched the Romulan just stand there for a few moments longer, before walking over to a terminal and apparently switching off the recording as the screen went blank. The angle had been from a corner of the room against the ceiling, so that there would be a clear view of whatever happened in the whole area. From the candid words of the participants, it was clear none of them knew they had been recorded.

She turned to the Commander, who said, "It was then that I moved over to your captain, retrieved his communications device and signalled you." Rhioa didn't see the need to tell her host that she had also played back the recording.

Karen just nodded, not trusting her voice just yet, so Rhioa explained the events from the beam-down of the captain until they walked into that room.

"I am sorry this happened, Lieutenant. I truly wanted to speak to your captain, but he would not allow it—"

"Yes, I heard how you wanted to speak to him, Commander!" Karen broke in angrily. "You wanted to pick his brain and spread lies! That Klingon animal was right in that area—you Roms think you are the puppet masters, pulling everyone's strings and getting them to dance to your tune!"

"Lieutenant, I said those things so as not to appear weak in front of the Klingons. They respect strength most of all and Captain Meltakh is an intelligent man. He could see what I said I was trying to achieve made sense, even though it was not to his preferred methods," Rhioa explained patiently, not responding to the taunts. "I will not give you any misinformation—or any information—but I do want to know why you think the way you do. I want to understand why you hate us so much."

Karen looked at the alien woman—who looked so very human but clearly was not—with a mixture of disbelief and rage. "You want to know why we hate you? Are you seriously trying to tell me you cannot figure it out?"

Rhioa returned, "I can figure out a great many things, Lieutenant. What I am seeking is confirmation."

Karen looked hard into the eyes of her 'guest', but could see no trace of deception. Although that could just mean she would be hell to play at poker, she thought acidly.

"Very well, Commander. I will give you this truth. My truth. Not all of us in the Federation hate our enemies or Romulans in particular. But we humans have distinct memories handed down from our families of Romulan attacks—unprovoked, vicious, brutal attacks—that started from the very moment we came into contact with your misbegotten race. We came in peace and you met us in war—with no provocation!"

Karen was breathing heavily and her outrage was clearly visible as she dredged up the ancient history of her home planet. "Wherever you attacked, it was without warning and left no survivors. It did not matter what the target was, military, civilian, prepared or not! Tell me, Commander, how would you personally feel if a Federation battlefleet suddenly appeared over an agricultural planet—where your entire family has spent their lives living there—and reduced it to ashes and asteroids? People who were no threat, and no military value except to provide food to their kin?"

Not giving the alien commander a chance to answer, Karen pushed on, ramming her point home. "Because our entire history with your race has been built on conflict and silence, is it any wonder the Federation—and Humans in particular—find hard to believe a word out of a Romulan's mouth? The sincerity of a Romulan's actions? Earth's first attempt at contact with your people was met with total silence. Their second attempt more than a year later was met with hot lasers. From that point on, every other contact until Earth forces finally beat you back to your homeworlds was a battle—or a slaughter! Constant messages beamed to Romulan ships, space, planets, and you never once answered to say why the war was even taking place! The assumption of the time was we'd invaded your space and you didn't want us there. Fine. We left you alone. You then came looking for us! No matter the target, be it an unarmed colony planet or a military outpost, if it was Human, it was to be destroyed. And we never knew why!

"Even when the war ended, your leaders signed the cease-fire over audio-only radio! How can we trust a race that will not show their faces to us, will not even speak to us in person? You could have reappeared at any point and we wouldn't have known it was our old enemy resurfacing. It tainted Federation first contacts for decades afterwards!"

Rhioa's face was darkening with every passing word, but as this was the information she thought she wanted, she was managing to hold her tongue—barely. Her mind was screaming defiance at the human's words, to the tune of, LIES!! Falsehoods and truth-twisting! People have lost their tongues for less, Earther!

Karen finished up her short 'history lesson/diatribe'. "So, what happens after a century of silence, and tense waiting? Another Romulan ship appears in our space. What are her first actions? To hail the Federation in friendship? To warn us away for another hundred years—which the Federation would have been only too happy to honour?"

"No, that would have been the reasonable way to do things. The civilised way for interstellar neighbours to conduct their affairs. This first Romulan visitor in over a century launches another sneak attack! Destroys five Federation outposts before we can yet again put the mad dog down."

"And you sit there, in all apparent 'innocence', and have the unmitigated gall to blithely ask why us 'Earthers' hate you? Mistrust you?" Karen sat back and shook her head in appalled wonder, her rage mostly spent, and locked eyes with her 'guest'. "Was that the confirmation you were seeking, Commander?"

Rhioa just sat there feeling more than a little angry herself. The events this Lieutenant McCafferty was relating with such outraged vehemence were just solid strategy. Why bypass a planet with your enemy on it? Even if that has no military bases, it is still a supply depot and staging point for enemy ships. Deep strikes only work if you have the ships for it, and the Romulans didn't have them. So, a methodical campaign of eliminating any enemy presence must be used, lest you suddenly find your own supply lines or forward forces under threat from a squadron of enemy ships able to repair at such an 'ignored' planet.

War is war after all, for the purpose of the destruction or subjugation of your enemy. It was only common sense, for Elements' Sake! Rhioa's training and culture insisted. Surprise attacks are bad? Why throw away your greatest military advantage? Where's the harm in denying your enemy the information she needs to defeat you?

It also seemed that Humans—and by extension the Federation, because it was run by the Humans—were basing their reactions to her people on a distorted view of the Nature of Things. The Klingons also had a very apt phrase for it: Nal komerex, khesterex—or, loosely translated, 'the structure that doesn't grow, dies'.

Can this be true? Can I believe what she is telling me? Rhioa asked herself in amazement. How can an empire as large and powerful as the Federation not operate on this principle? More to the point, how can they not understand that this is the way the universe works? If you do not grow, you die. To grow, you must conquer. To do otherwise weakens you. How can you defend yourselves if you do not have a strong leadership able to take immediate, decisive action?

T`Khellian had come here expecting to find the answers to at least some of her questions. But instead of receiving enlightenment she had ended up with only confusion and far more questions than she had arrived with. With some justification, she felt betrayed. Arriving here seeking knowledge, she had been given answers that made absolutely no sense to her.

That she had just been given the right questions to ask did not occur to her.

Instead, angry at having wasted her time, having allowed the Federation people to walk all over her, having to deal with the Klingons, and having her whole race maligned by a power that didn't even recognise the truth of the Nature of Things, she replied, "Pah. Federation propaganda, the very same your captain tried to lay on me. Are you honestly expecting to believe that you humans base your entire dealings with the Romulan people on this flawed view of the universe you hold?"

Karen was almost on her feet, shouting, "Now just wait one Goddamn minute—!"

Rhioa raised her voice and overrode the human. "We are a warrior race. We fight to expand. We conquer. We will keep expanding to maintain our security as masters of our own destiny. We will not live under the rule of another so if you—or anyone—gets in our way, we will fight you until we win or until we die. It is that simple."

Rhioa watched Karen's eyes go wide at this, and cursed herself for a fool. So much for giving no information, idiot, Rhioa groaned mentally.

For her part, Karen felt shocked to her bones, angry, frustrated, horrified and weary beyond belief. All she wanted was to be back in a secure location and able to sleep soundly again. Hopefully Chief Engineer Gruur would be up again soon to take command so that she could get some rest. Karen watched as Rhioa's face closed up and she knew she would be getting no more out of her, and decided that this little get-together was over.

Baldly ignoring the confrontational aspect of their recent conversation, Karen said formally, "Commander, I think it is time to take a break. I accept your version of events on the planet below us as a truthful account, and thank you for your honesty."

Also choosing to ignore her own lapses, Rhioa nodded and said, "I hope to talk with you further on the other matter, but we have both been through much today. I wish to return to my ship."

Karen did not move, however. Almost plaintively, she asked, "Now will you release my ship from your tractor beam and let us send our distress call?"

"Lieutenant, I told your captain that I would allow you to send your call once I was ready. If my mission proceeds according to schedule you will be free to contact your base in approximately, ah, 26 of your hours." As she saw Karen about to interrupt, Rhioa kept speaking. "I have not come this far to fail in my mission by allowing additional enemy forces to arrive too soon. I have made sure your wounded are tended to, and your ship made safe for your continued existence. You will just have to be patient."

"Commander, in case you had forgotten this system is still in Federation territory. You will not be permitted to stay, regardless of how long you delay our distress call."

"Be that as it may, Lieutenant, I have my orders."

Karen acknowledged defeat gracefully, knowing she was in no position to force the issue. "But what of the Klingons? If they—"

"Do not worry about them. I am holding back their distress call also. If more of them arrive, they may try to finish what the Malicious started, and I do not want that either."

"Okay then." Standing up, Karen said "I will escort you back to the transporter room, Commander."

"My thanks, Lieutenant."


*****

In the transporter room, Rhioa offered a parting thought.

"Lieutenant, you have handled yourself well this day, and it will not be forgotten. I wish you well for your future, and hope that you do not 'get in my way'."

Karen watched the alien commander give a wry smile and salute in the Romulan style. She returned the salute, though not the smile, and worked the transporter controls herself to send her guest home.





Chapter Ten


Federation Base Time: 2030 hours, 7th August 2267
Rihannsu Homeworld Time: 1141 hours, Sixth Day of Sextuple 1732 AS
Location: C.O.'s stateroom, RIS Aehallh.

Commander Rhioa t`Khellian sat back in her chair and rubbed her eyes tiredly. It had been another long day and she had just finished going over the reports from her little fleet and the mining colony below.

Has it really only been three days since that battle took place? Rhioa wondered to herself. Admittedly I don't know how long the days are on the planet below, but it seems like weeks…

Letting out a small sigh, she appended the colony progress report to the file containing all the others and gave the whole file a quick scan to give her the proper perspective on the passing of time. Muttering to herself, she read aloud:

"Third Day of Sextuple
1141: Planetary scanning completed.
1212: Colony planning phase completed.
1283: Colony foundations and power conduits/building utilities laid.
1354: Permacrete surfacing completed for entire base area.
1497: Basic colony hub completed, including temporary dorms for engineering staff and colonists.
1604: Basic construction yard completed.
1783: Processed ores storage silo completed.
1925: Basic mineral processing plant completed.

"Fourth Day of Sextuple
0321: Basic vehicle construction yard completed.
0504: Basic utility hospital completed.
0963: Basic science lab completed.
1034: Two basic stand-alone power generators completed.
1283: Basic mineral extraction station completed.
1854: Mining operations commenced.

"Fifth Day of Sextuple
0428: First refined ores stockpiled.
0570: Sufficient depth for individual ore veins achieved. Extraction rates increased 15%."

Thus read the highlights of the mining colony's progress so far. With the completion of the actual mining station, Rhioa could now truthfully claim to have a fully functional first-stage mining colony in operation. Her main mission objective had been completed successfully and she had sent a message packet stating as much to Seidhu tr`Khaell on Starbase Six. The message had also requested the dispatch of a Swarm for system defence duties and—having been granted—six Warbirds would now be permanently stationed in the Illiamnae system to prevent others from taking it. The Warbirds were due in a couple of weeks. The long wait was because of the time needed to assemble six newly refitted Warbirds at Grand Fleet Outpost 37, and that the Warbirds' Stutter-Drive was only capable of 20c—about Warp 2.47—resulting in a ten-day flight from the outpost. Rhioa's own little fleet would be on guard duty until then.

Also, since the colony was operational, she had finally sent the distress call to the Klingon base and allowed the Federation ship to move to the other side of the planet and call for help. Apparently, the Klingons would come to collect their own a full day before the nearest Starfleet ship could arrive, which suited Rhioa fine. She could deal with them separately without the two newcomers causing another battle of their own, providing the Klingons left quickly.

Rhioa could only hope.

Getting back to the colony reports, Rhioa re-read the production statistics. Mining was still proceeding slowly, as the colony was only at a first-stage level. Eventually it would be upgraded to a third-stage, but that was for the future. As it was, the first raw ores were processed and stored in the silo a whole eight hours after mining began. This was because Rhioa had acknowledged and praised the supreme efforts of the construction engineers working around the clock for almost two days solid. She had rewarded them by allowing both the engineers and colonists a full six hours of sleep before mining operations were to begin. Everyone had gratefully fallen into spacious and comfortable beds on-planet. No one wanted to return to double bunking on the cramped Rihannsu warships.

Mineral refining rates would become more rapid with upgrades and the construction of additional mining stations and processing facilities, and other colony sites were planned for all over the planet. Within a year, the whole system would have mining colonies operational on all of the planets that could support them. Again, that was all for the future.

However, since then all the colony reports had been production figures, extraction, and refining rates. Rhioa could mercifully give them only a cursory glance before passing them on to be transmitted home. Now that everything seemed to be running smoothly, Rhioa could just let them do so. She still had to make sure the colony was productive, but as long as there was minerals to mine such things did not worry her. What did worry her was system defence. Making sure that neither the Klingons nor the Federation would throw them out on their ear after all their work so far. The Federation had yet to arrive, but with the Klingons gone she had one less worry.

When the Klingons arrived around midday yesterday, Rhioa had been expecting an unpleasant ordeal. She was not disappointed.



Federation Base Time: 1200 hours, 6th August 2267
Rihannsu Homeworld Time: 0856 hours, Sixth Day of Sextuple 1732.
Location: Bridge of the RIS Aehallh.

"Riov, I am receiving a hail from the Long Eyes. Erei`Riov tr`Maelitra reports a Klingon D6-class heavy cruiser approaching the system's edge at sublight speed."

"Thank you, Geillun. Hail the Long Eyes and get tr`Maelitra onscreen, please," Rhioa ordered.

"Ie, Rekkhai," her aristocratic comm. officer responded. A few moments later the commander of the Scout Eagle appeared on the main viewer.

"Ah, erei`Riov. Can you tell me any more about our visitor?" Rhioa inquired.

"Rekkhai, our instruments are reading high frequency sensor output from the Klingon ship. Our database shows this to be either the drone bombardment or exploration variant of the basic D6 hull. So far, his flight profile indicates that he is aware of us, but he is still searching for our location. It could be that—"

Rhioa watched as the subCommander broke off and conferred with his sensor operator, then returned his attention to her.

"Lhhei, we are arranging a data link-up so that you can read our feed directly. Your sensor officer should be receiving it shortly. Any additional information will be automatically relayed to you, and we will include our analyses of such as soon as we confirm them."

"Very good, erei`Riov, my thanks on your foresight. Aehallh out."

The other commander nodded then blinked off screen as Geillun closed the channel. Rhioa got up and walked to the science station to watch the feed from the Scout Eagle. The blip on the readout was slowly circling the system, his nose swinging around to try and detect the Long Eyes. This was not unusual, as the rumour was that Klingon sensors were not 'up to scratch', as the Terrans used to say. If the D6 did indeed have scout sensors they should pick up the uncloaked Eagle sitting above the pole of the system's star at any minute.

Rhioa was uncomfortable with that little caveat, that her scout had to remain uncloaked to use her dedicated sensor suite. Maybe our scientists could work their way around that operational hazard with the next improvement to the cloaking device, Rhioa thought optimistically.

"There he goes." The comment from Eviess brought t`Khellian's attention back to the screen. "He's finally detected the Long Eyes and he's headed right at…"

The science officer's voice died away as the Klingon ship, which had been heading directly for the scout, suddenly broke off and changed to a course that curved around the outer edge of the system.

"What's he doing?" Rhioa asked in a curious tone. "I'd have thought he'd go straight for the scout and determine our location from there."

"I agree, Riov," Eviess said in a puzzled voice. "These readings also show that he has stopped sweeping the system with his scout sensors and resorted to normal ones."

Rhioa wondered at the Klingon ship's odd behaviour. It could mean either limitations on the Klingon sensors, interference from the star itself, that this wasn't the rescue ship they were expecting, or craftiness on the Klingon's part.

She liked the last option least of all, as it could mean trouble was brewing. Crafty Klingons were few and far between in her experience, but those she had encountered left her with a healthy respect for such individuals. Indeed, Meltakh was one of these. Hiding behind a planet then warping in-system while in the enemy's sensor shadow was truly inspired—and still frightening, especially to one who'd lost Swarm-mates down wormholes.

The situation became more tense when the Klingon showed up on their own scanners. Minutes later, he finally detected them and altered course, beginning a long curve in towards their position, still skirting the rim of the system. He distinctly did not head directly for them.

Rhioa's frown was so great that she almost looked like a Debrune Rihannsu instead of the Pureblood that she was. "This puzzles me a great deal. If he is on a rescue mission—and as the first Klingon ship to appear, exactly in the window were expecting him, we'd be forgiven for thinking so—why does he not come right at us? If he is not the rescue ship, it would make more sense. He looks like he's scanning as much of the system as he can—but if that is so, why not use his scout sensors?"

Eviess almost shrugged. "Rekkhai, I will have him watched most carefully and have our analysts determine the reasons for his behaviour."

Rhioa acknowledged this, saying, "Of course." Eviess was obviously annoyed with herself for being unable to come up with a decent hypothesis for the Klingon's actions beyond guesses and suppositions. Rhioa was willing to let her science officer's own sense of tidiness—a desire to wrap up any and all loose ends—ride her more effectively than any goad or reprimand from her CO would.

Turning again to face her, Rhioa asked, "If he is the rescue ship, what do you think he will do?"

Eviess eagerly replied to something she was sure of. "It depends on whether he is a drone ship or an exploratory cruiser. The D6E has reduced combat power so I doubt the Klingons would send one of those into a system with known enemies but unknown numbers within. I think he is a droner, and he might just launch a few salvoes at the Fed—he knows we can cloak. He looses his lock and wastes his drones if he fires at us. He may do it anyway, to force us to cloak and ensure that we will not interfere.

"However, we are allies, correct? Why would we interfere?"

This last was delivered with a grin, and Rhioa had to smile in return. "Indeed."

"Of course, they may just hail you to taunt and annoy you in some way or another before picking up their comrade and leaving. I would say that option is more likely, Lhhei."

"I hope you are correct, Eviess. I really do not want to have a fight with our erstwhile 'allies'. Time will tell."



Federation Base Time: 1246 hours, 6th August 2267
Klingon Homeworld Date: Thirteenth Day of Koch'Mar 1642 IR
Location: Bridge of the IKV Hailstorm.

"My Lord, we have found them!"

Captain Morloch sutai-Kharnash swivelled his command throne to face his science officer. "Report," he ordered.

"They are in orbit around the fourth planet as our data stated. Sensor sweeps of the rest of the system reveal no unaccounted objects, save the Romulan scout ship over the star."

Morloch frowned. That there was a Rom presence in this system at all was unexpected, but to encounter a new class of scout serving as a tripwire had aroused all of the Klingon captain's suspicions.

"Scans reveal another Romulan Eagle-class ship, a Federation destroyer-class ship, and the boom of a D6-class ship in orbit around the fourth planet. The Fleet ID signal identifies it as the Malicious, sir."

"So, everything appears as it should according to Captain Meltakh—except the Romulan scout. Are we close enough to read their status?" Morloch asked.

"Not yet, My Lord."

"Helm, calculate an orbital insertion course for the fourth planet and take us in, full impulse."

"Aye, sir." A pause. "Course plotted and laid in, Captain. ETA is twelve minutes."

"Very good." Morloch stroked his neatly trimmed goatee, and turned to his comm. officer. "Lieutenant Krill, raise the cruiser's boom section. I would speak with Captain Meltakh—but do not identify us."

As Krill bent to his task, an inappropriate grin kept trying to tug the corners of Morloch's mouth upwards.



Bridge of the IKV Malicious.

"Captain, we are being hailed by a Klingon ship. Their captain wishes to speak with our captain, and asks for you by name."

A muted cheer ran through the bridge at this news, their first contact with another Klingon since this debacle occurred. Meltakh let them do so as morale was an issue, but he was puzzled that the newcomers had not identified themselves.

"Put him on the main screen, Aertak. Take as much power as you can from the engine to make sure we can hold the channel open. Although, with the data we gave them, they should know not to expect an answer unless they are within the system."

A brooding presence filled the viewscreen, curiously shadowed so that the face of their rescuer couldn't be seen. Meltakh almost squinted, but refrained.

"I am Captain Meltakh. To whom do I speak?" he demanded in a strong voice. The reply he got surprised him into a momentary flash of anger.

"I am Morloch. Morloch of the Hailstorm. And your ship is my prize," the deep voice announced to a surprised bridge crew.

Then the other captain leaned forwards into the light, and his handsome features were revealed at last. He sported a short, neatly-tied queue flowing from his warrior's crown, a finely-trimmed beard, and his bronzed face wore a huge toothy grin.

"Morloch! You targ-lover, Command sent your scut-infested hide to bring us home? Didn't they have any real ships in the area?" Meltakh roared, his humour restored by the appearance of his old squadron leader.

"Hold your tongue, cur, or I will have you beamed aboard so that I may personally dice you to feed to my targ!" the senior captain bellowed in mock anger.

Meltakh grinned, feeling better for the first time in nearly two days. "It is good to see you, old friend."

"And you, Meltakh. I would have preferred better circumstances…"

His humour blunted slightly, Meltakh agreed. "'My ship is your prize', eh? I'd normally take payment for that remark in your blood, but indeed, that's about all he's good for, now."

"As always, you would be welcome to try." His grin flashed again, fangs bared. "You will all be on your way home soon. But first, we must find out why the Romulans are here. What can you tell us about this situation, Captain?" Morloch asked, letting all know that it was time to get down to business.

"You have my report. In the time since it was sent, however, there have been interesting developments. Our 'allies' have set up a ground base on the planet below us, and our—admittedly limited—sensor capacity has determined that it seems to be a mining colony."

"Indeed." A thoughtful pause. "Combined with the Federation activity here, I begin to see what probably occurred."

"Morlock, that is not all. The Romulan commander insisted on a meeting with the Federation captain."

"Really? Now why would she do that?"

"Not only that. When the Federation captain refused unless he met with me too, this Commander t`Khellian insisted I attend also. I… had no choice," Meltakh reported in a flat tone. "It is both why our distress call is two days late, and why it got sent out at all."

His fellow captain's features hardened at that. "Did she now."

"Yes. At this meeting, exactly as I had thought, the Starfleeters attacked my party. I killed the Federation captain myself, but the Rom commander stunned everyone else before blows could be struck." The Malicious' captain's face took om a heavy frown as he considered his next words.

"I am still unclear as to why she wanted to meet with the Federation captain. She told me"—Meltakh's tone indicated how much he trusted that little snippet of information—"that she wanted to understand why the Federation acts the way it does, to plant disinformation, and to gain military intelligence."

"Told you what she thought you wanted to hear, along with some Romulan double-talk, then."

"That is how I see it."

"Have you detected any other ships in the area?"

"Apart from the War Eagle in orbit with is, a second Eagle-class ship is hovering over the star. It is sending out high-frequency sensor energy and so must be a scout—you should have detected this by now, as we still can. A third Eagle-class ship is on the surface of the planet below us. It seems to be a cargo variant, and must have carried the people and matériel needed for the base they've built."

"We detected the scout—it added some time to our journey across the system as we tested it's sensors' signal strengths. Command will be very interested in our recordings of it's operating parameters. We are just now entering hi-res scanner range of the planet, and so did not know of the third Eagle." Morloch pondered further, then spoke again. "Excellent update, Meltakh. We shall now see what this Commander t`Khellian has to say for herself, after we have secured your vessel."

"We eagerly await your arrival, Hailstorm. Meltakh out."



Bridge of the IKV Hailstorm.

"Within scanning range of the Romulan ground base, My Lord."

"Begin deep scan, Science Officer. Helm, move in and secure the boom of the Malicious between our nacelles, and lock it in place with all our tractor beams. Lieutenant Krill, hail the Romulan ship. Let's pay our respects to our 'allies'. Action."

The acknowledgements echoed back as his crew got to work.

His comm. officer reported first. "Romulan Commander t`Khellian on the main screen, Captain."

Morloch focused his attention on the alien woman now dominating the viewscreen. "Greetings to our fraternal allies from the Klingon Empire," he started, managing to remove most of the sarcasm from his words.

"Thank you, Captain Morloch, and my Empire's greetings to yours." She looked as if she was going to say more, but a comment from an off-screen crewmember momentarily distracted her.

"I further offer the thanks of my Empire for your timely rescue of the officers of the Malicious," Morloch said, insinuation heavy in his tone. "If you hadn't been in exactly the right position, at exactly the right time, they all would have died."

Ignoring his tone, the Romulan commander merely replied, "You are welcome, Captain. I am fairly busy, however, and now that you have rescued your comrades I suppose you will be leaving directly?"

"In fairly short order, yes. I was just curious—"

"Yes, I had noticed," t`Khellian broke in. "What may I assist you with, Captain? Further scans of my ground base, perhaps? Or maybe I could save you the trouble and transmit the detailed plans?" the Romulan woman asked sardonically.

A number of choice phrases ran though Morloch's mind at that, but he chased them off with a mental grin. Instead, he replied in kind with a toothy smirk.

"Why Commander, that would be most kind of you. I would be delighted to accept your gracious offer." Morloch's grin widened at the look on t`Khellian's face, and he decided to tweak her ears further. "If you are shy, perhaps, of sharing such intimate details, maybe you could just let me know what you are doing in this system. Just for our records, of course. To ensure there are no misunderstandings between our governments."

Morloch took great pleasure in the oiliness of his approach, as he watched the Romulan woman all but hold her nose in distaste. It was hugely entertaining.

"As I'm sure your scanners are now showing you, this base is nothing more than a civilian mining colony. Our purpose in this system is just that: resource gathering. Now, if that's all—"

"By no means, Commander," Morloch interjected with an oily smile. "If your purpose here is purely peaceful, why do you have an advanced and powerful sensor ship watching over you? It would indicate—to a more suspicious mind—that you have something of value here you wish to protect. Something more valuable or secretive than a mere civilian outpost. Now, to your friends in the Klingon Empire, we would of course accept your word in the matter. But the Federation is not known for trusting it's rivals, and you may need our protection if they decide to take a disliking to your actions."

T`Khellian sighed melodramatically. "If your attempts at fishing for information were any more obvious, you might as well carry a sign proclaiming 'We Don't Believe You, We Know You're Up To Something' in large, brightly coloured lettering."

Morloch saw her smirk and knew that the anger he felt at her words had not been successfully concealed. You will take me seriously, Romulan, if I have to split your tin can open from wing-tip to drumstick, he vowed.

"Very well then! Let us speak plainly," the Klingon captain growled. "I find it suspicious that your ship was in exactly the right place to 'save' the Malicious. It means you observed the entire battle and took no action to help him, and indeed were poised very close to him throughout. What were your intentions, Romulan?"

T`Khellian looked as if she couldn't believe her large, pointy ears. To Morloch it seemed patently fake, but he couldn't read Roms very well, having spent most of his career on the Federation and Hydran borders. Still, he would be very skeptical of whatever came out of her mouth now.

"Let me 'get this straight'," she started. "Despite the facts that I: saved the entire boom section of one of your vessels, preserving the 'more important' crew members; offered medical and technical aid to the survivors; prevented the Federation ship from completely destroying your vessel; and even transmitted your vessel's distress call when they couldn't do so themselves, you think that I am somehow culpable for them being beaten in the first place?"

Morloch's answer was short and succinct. "Yes."

The alien woman's features distorted in anger, and Morloch felt slightly more inclined to believe her outrage as genuine. What her 'more genuine' outrage was about remained to be seen, so he let her continue.

"Setting aside the fact that they were inept enough to be beaten by a foe that should have posed no problem to a competent crew, I had decided to be in a position to support the Malicious should they need assistance. If you have a complete record of the battle, you will know that the Starfleet ship only fired that one salvo. Up until that point, Malicious didn't actually need our help."

"You're telling me what I already know, Commander," Morloch commented angrily, "and putting your own slant on it as well. You wanted me to speak plainly, I would expect the same courtesy from you."

A finely-drawn eyebrow went up at that, perhaps in surprise that a Klingon knew what courtesy was at all. A hesitation, a wavering in her eyes. Then, surprising him no end, a sigh and a nod of acknowledgement.

"Very well, Captain Morloch. Plain speaking it will be. My intentions are to claim this system for the Star Empire. Had the Federation lost a ship in this system and then found Romulans occupying it, we would have been blamed. The Federation would be far more determined to force us out in that case, and would have made holding this system far more difficult for me." The Romulan woman shrugged at her next words, but could not prevent herself from looking slightly guilty. "I did not intervene against the Starfleet ship because I had hoped it would escape and take the, Malicious with it—and our presence here would have been overlooked by the Federation for longer. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against us, and I had to step in to… save your ship."

Morloch's eyes went wide at this frank admission. His initial estimate of the Romulan woman—poor, given her predictable attempts at deceit—were being revised vastly upwards. But that thought brought back Meltakh's words, and his brows lowered again. "And what of Meltakh and the Federation captain?"

Another sigh, far more heartfelt this time. "It is as I told him. I wanted to know how the Federation regards us, and why they act towards us in the manner they do. I… had reason to believe our current information was… out of date. But on learning—by his own means—that some Klingons yet survived, the Federation captain would not meet with me without meeting with Meltakh also. I took no pleasure in it, but I wanted that information. So I… persuaded Meltakh to join us. He has undoubtedly told you the result."

Morloch weighed her words in his mind. Could he trust that what she said was the truth? She had every reason to lie and very little reason to be honest. The reasons she gave were… obvious. But her words did have the ring of truth to them, and he could forgive her wanting to know more about her enemies. Morloch trusted his instincts, and it smelt all wrong to be a set-up of any kind.

He had also heard the slight hesitation in her answer whether she wanted him to or not, and knew she was still hiding something from him. He had a damn good idea what it signified and had meant for the crew of the Malicious, and realised that they were lucky in many ways to have survived the events of that day.

She is a being of honour, the Klingon thought in surprise. No Romulan he had even heard of had that said about them. She stands her ground unashamedly, daring anyone to challenge her right to act for her Empire even though her own actions may not sit well with her. And despite what her original orders may have been, she still managed to save some Klingon lives. That is worthy of recognition.

Morloch now regarded the woman on the viewscreen with a healthy dose or respect. He would remember her name, but only time and her own actions would bear out what his instincts were telling him about her now.

"Commander." Morloch nodded genially to her, the conversation now over. "May you die well."

The last thing he saw before the viewscreen replaced her image with one of the stars was her bemused expression as she nodded goodbye.

"The Malicious is secure?" he asked of his first officer.

"Yes, My Lord."

"Our scans of this system are complete?"

"They are, sir."

"Then we shall take our warriors home. Zan Kain," he instructed, "plot a course to the system's edge at full impulse, and from there to Imperial Outpost Seven at warp five. Action."

"Affirm. Acting."

The big cruiser swung round, impulse engines glowing brighter as his nose searched for a familiar star. His charge safely nestled between his nacelles, the Hailstorm left the Romulans to their system.


*****

After that wearying but surprising téte-à-téte with the Klingons, Rhioa had to look forward to dealing with the Federation, who also could arrive at any moment. It had put her on edge from that point on, as she had to wait until 2100 hours the next day, by the Fed's peculiar time system before her ploy would bear fruit. If the Federation ship arrived too early she may have to lie and alter the facts a little—and this lie had a fair chance of being exposed as such. If that happened, it would cast a pall over everything else she had worked to achieve strategically. The constant tension of expecting the Feds at any moment coupled with her wish they not arrive until more than a day later left her feeling somewhat drained at the end of that day. She had slept like the dead that night.

However, it was now already well into evenwatch, her fruit had 'flowered' and Rhioa was just wishing the Feds would arrive to get it all over and done with.



Federation Base Time: 2310 hours, 7th August 2267
Stardate: 2829.826
Location: C.O.'s stateroom, RIS Aehallh.

Rhioa finally got her wish that day—although it was many hours later—as tr`Khnialmnae's voice came over the intercom link to her quarters.

"Lhhei, the Long Eyes reports a Federation heavy cruiser approaching the system at warp seven."

"Thank you Geillun. I am coming up to the bridge. Set up a comm. channel with the Long Eyes and have the erei`Riov stand by for me. Riov out."

Getting up, she went over her verbal gambits and hidden plans for forcing this Fed to let her keep the Illiamnae system.

On the bridge, they all waited the 20 or so minutes it took for the Federation ship to reach orbit around Illiamnae-IV. In their brief conversation Rhioa had the Scout Eagle update her on the Fed's position and approach vector, until the point when the Federation ship might be able to detect the Long Eyes. She then ordered tr`Maelitra to shut down his scout sensors, cloak his ship, and join them in orbit. They then waited another 30 minutes past the Fed ship's taking up orbit while the starship secured its wounded comrade. In that time the Scout Eagle had arrived from her position above the star's pole and the cloaked Freight Eagle had risen from the planet's surface to join them also.

Rhioa's tactical readout showed the specs of the new Starfleet ship as scanned by the Scout Eagle. Apparently it was a standard Federation heavy cruiser with a rear-phaser refit. The ship itself had been identified as the USS Vindicator NCC-1767, but they had no information on her captain or crew. This left Rhioa with just her understanding of Federation mentality to fall back on.

"Riov, they are hailing us," tr`Khnialmnae reported.

"Put them onscreen, please," she replied.

Geillun nodded, and the image of an Andorian male in a gold command uniform appeared on the main viewscreen. Wonderful, Rhioa thought sarcastically. These blue-skinned aliens are even more war-like than the Terrans. I may have to fight my way out of this one after all. Possibly the only time I wish to avoid a battle while possessing the superior force—albeit barely—and I get non-stop aggression from the Federation!

The Starfleet captain spoke, his lips moving in contrast to the words coming from the translator. "Riov t`Khellian, I will ask you now to begin preparations for removing your presence from the L-647 system, and to leave Federation space."

Rhioa rolled her eyes in the fashion she had seen humans do in situations they found trying, and made no attempt to hide her exasperation.

"Captain, I did not come all this way to legally claim this planet and system for the Empire just to, ah, 'pack up and leave' as soon as the nearest Federation representative tells me to."

"'Legally claim'?" The Andorian's eyes flashed angrily at her words. "Your laws mean little to me, Rihanha. This system is Federation territory and you will leave it—by force if necessary," he finished threateningly.

"Captain, a moment please." So saying, Rhioa turned to her comm. officer and had the channel muted. She them ordered Geillun: "Enarrain, order the Freight Eagle and Scout Eagle to take up positions behind the Federation cruiser at exactly these coordinates, respectively. They are to acknowledge on the Fleet Command link and only when in position."

"Ie, Lhhei."

"Now, reopen the audio to the Andorian." At his nod, Rhioa addressed the Starfleet captain. "Now, I did not say that it was by Rihannsu law I claimed this system. For that, all I need do is capture and hold it. I claim this system legally by Federation law."

"Oh really." The Andorian did not look the slightest bit impressed or intimidated by Rhioa's supposedly bold opening gambit.

"Yes, really," Rhioa returned levelly. "I entered an uninhabited star system and performed scans and carried out scientific tests on one of its planets. I did this to ensure its biosphere was habitable for Rihannsu life-forms, with no dangerous elements or bacteria. Once proven to my satisfaction, I transferred the colonists I carried to the planet below and allowed them to settle on it. The ground site on the planet is not a military installation and the people who now live there are civilians. Civilians who have been resident for three entire planetary rotations. Under interstellar law—as well as Rihannsu—this planet is now part of the Rihannsu Star Empire."

The Andorian had looked incredulous at her little speech but now assumed an amused expression. He stated bluntly, "You cannot be serious. Riov t`Khellian, that claim is void and you know it. What you seem to be ignoring is the unalterable truth that this is Federation territory. Not only that, but your knowledge of interstellar law is somewhat lacking, as it states a thirty-day period of residence." His voice took on a harsher note, all the more sinister for its whisper-soft delivery as he said, "You have invaded and laid claim to sovereign territory, Riov. That is an act of war. Is the Rihannsu Empire ready to go to war with the Federation?"

Rhioa tried to stop the shock she felt from reaching her face, although she felt like she had just paled by several shades. Thirty days? Her stunned mind repeated. How could I have made that mistake? Or is he just trying to confuse me? Hoping that it was just the latter Rhioa sat back and affected a serene pose, ignoring the Andorian's legal assertion lest she get side-tracked. She could always confirm the information later, and if she won this round she might get the chance to correct that massive oversight before it embarrassed her in front of her own superiors. Battling down her own sudden insecurity, she forced some bravado into her voice.

"Captain, I would not be so eager to go to war with us. We have noticed how tenuous your position is with the Klingons. A war with them is almost a certainty. Yes, I acknowledge that the Federation is strong, but is it strong enough to fight both the Klingons and us simultaneously? I think not. So do not bandy empty threats at me, Captain.

"I do not believe your Federation would go to war over an incident with another who has neither harmed nor even threatened a single Federation citizen. Am I to believe that you would launch an attack on someone who has actively saved the lives of many Federation citizens—who are also fellow members of your Starfleet—and prevented yet more deaths at the hands of the Klingons? There were many provocations that could have lead me to withhold help, and yet I held to my word.

"Yet you tell me you would still attack without such provocations?"

The Starfleet officer's face had hardened at her words. "Riov, I have spoken with the Jugurtha survivors and looked at all the scanner and transcript data. I am forced to acknowledge your actions, but I believe your motives to be something other than your so-called 'code of honour'. I believe your supposed altruism to be merely self-serving strategy, playing to the overly-sentimental humans. And as for the other matter, would you not think that being invaded is provocation enough to respond to?"

"Captain, the borders of the Star Empire were very clearly defined in the original Neutral Zone Treaty, I do admit. However, the borders of the Federation were not. In fact, your Federation did not exist until after the Neutral Zone Treaty was affirmed, and from then existed only as a 14-parsec wide sphere centred on the Sol system. Now—"

"Riov, your disjointed history lesson aside, I recognise where you intend to take this conversation," the Andorian broke in. He was going to continue but Rhioa overrode his whisper-soft voice.

"If you see that, then I congratulate you. The point I am making is that since the Federation has no affiliated members, bases or inhabited systems in this sector—and several other sectors adjacent to the Rihannsu border—it is all unaligned space, open for colonisation."

"Riov, that is not how Starfleet or the Federation views it, and as Starfleet patrols enforce the Federation's border—"

Overriding him again, Rhioa said "Starfleet will have to mend its views, Captain, as we are here to stay. Now, please leave us alone and take your wounded comrades home—some of whom are still aboard this vessel under our care."

Again, the Andorian got angry. "Do not be so foolish as to order me around in my own space, Riov. I still have my orders to remove you and any of your installations from the system. By force if you do not leave peacefully."

Rhioa kept her face expressionless, but started to feel concerned. A Federation heavy cruiser would seriously damage or destroy her, even with two other Eagles by her side.

"Captain, I do not want to fight you. I have my own orders and mission to complete. Do not force us into something we will both regret."

"Riov, you will leave or I will force you to leave. There are no other options. You have not the capabilities to stand up to me alone, and once you have been defeated you cannot prevent your ground base from being captured and removed."

Rhioa spared a glance for the Fleet Command link and felt more confident when she saw that both her other ships were in their specified positions. They were at Battlestations with shields up, phasers armed and the scout sensors were powered and ready to attempt to break the Fed's lock-ons, or at worst lend offensive EW. Rhioa's own Eagle was also at Battlestations, with shields up and phasers armed but the plasma tube powered down. She had not wanted the Fed to think she was just stalling for arming time while their discussion continued. Looking at the Tactical readout she saw that the Starfleet ship was similarly prepared: Battlestations but no heavy weapons.

Returning her attention to her opponent, Rhioa set her features into grim determination.

"I have to agree, Captain."

She saw him nod and relax slightly as he thought she was finally giving in to the sense of the situation, but her next words made him tense up again.

"But what if I am not alone?"

The Andorian captain stared hard at her for many seconds before saying "You are bluffing."

"No Captain, I am not." Turning to her comm. officer, she said clearly, "Order ships Two and Three to decloak, Enarrain."

Rhioa then watched the Federation bridge crew explode into action, and heard several off-screen voices update their C.O.

"Two Rihannsu Eagle-class ships decloaking, bearing 127 mark 355 and 233 mark 355, both at range 50,000km!"

"Captain! They are in the blind spots of our port and starboard phaser banks!"

"Sir, I am detecting no plasma launchers on either of the two new ships. Eagle at bearing 127—designate target Romeo Two—has only two main phasers and I am reading cargo capacity on board. Eagle at bearing 233—designate target Romeo Three—seems to be a War Eagle with no plasma tube. However… Captain, I am now reading high-frequency sensor output! Classify it as a fleet scout, sir."

The Federation captain stared at her resolutely, but Rhioa knew what she would be thinking in his place. Only one plasma launcher, but three ships and one is a scout. If he stays to fight and the scout breaks his sensor locks, he will be slaughtered if he cannot escape. He risks not being able to hit any of my ships because of the scout, but if he concentrates on the scout first I can keep slamming R-torps into him, plus have my other ships weaken all his shields with phaser-fire. I also hope that my insinuation of having more ships in the area worries him further.

The Federation captain was in a bad position and could be destroyed, or crippled just like the destroyer he was sent to rescue. If the destroyer had been able to detect the other Rihannsu vessels, Starfleet could have assembled a larger force to deal with them. However, they must have thought a single heavy cruiser enough to deal with a lone Eagle. T`Khellian knew what she would do. Fight to the death knowing more of her own were on their way. But the Feds were different and their priority might actually be to rescue the destroyer crew. There was also the possibility that this heavy cruiser was all they had in the area and it might be yet more hours or days before his reinforcements could arrive.

All this went through Rhioa's mind in seconds, and no doubt the nameless Andorian's mind was likewise racing. He finally spoke and Rhioa breathed a silent sigh of relief.

"Riov t`Khellian, my primary mission here is to rescue the crew of the Jugurtha. This I will now do, leaving you to your scheming and your plans. You may have won this round, Rihanha," the Andorian acknowledged harshly, his celery-green eyes smouldering with contained rage, "but it is only a reprieve. This is not over."

At that, the channel closed. Rhioa offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Elements and Powers, before ordering her other ships to cloak again. The Long Eyes was also ordered to follow the Vindicator's movements at a respectable distance until they left the system.

They then settled down to await the departure of the Vindicator. During this down-time, Rhioa composed a report of the events of the last few hours and requested reinforcements that could arrive more speedily than the Swarm. That was a big decision to make, but if they wanted to keep this system against a Federation attack, Rhioa needed more warships. She did not expect a reply within the day.


*****

T`Khellian could finally relax an hour later. The Starfleet ships had rendezvoused, final bracing and repairs were made to the destroyer, and a shuttle was sent to the Aehallh for the few remaining Federation crewmembers still under Rihannsu care. Once everything was taken care of, the Vindicator attached a tractor beam to the Jugurtha and the pair slowly, tentatively accelerated to full sublight as they headed out of the system.

When the Feds left, Rhioa had the Scout Eagle resume her early warning station over the system's sun, scanning beyond the system's edge all the way round. The Freight Eagle was ordered to land at the secondary site and the construction engineers got started on building another mining colony.

With events once again under control, and the image of the Starfleet ships flashing into warp speed fresh in her mind, Rhioa headed off to have a wash and catch a full night's sleep. She had at least two weeks before the Swarm showed up, so her Eagles were the colony's sole defence unless High Command sent temporary reinforcements.

It would be an interesting two weeks, she was sure.





Epilogue


Federation Base Time: 1200 hours, 10th August 2267
Stardate: 2842.5
Location: Briefing Room, RIS Aehallh.

Vaebn tr`Akelidhad, first officer of the Rihannsu Imperial Starship Aehallh, strode into the briefing room and sat down opposite his commander. He had just been down to the surface of Illiamnae-IV to view firsthand the progress of the mining colonies. He gave his report to his C.O., talking through various points before summing up.

"Lhhei, mining colony I4-2 is now operational."

"Excellent. It is good news all round today, erei`Riov." At her subordinate's inquisitive look she elaborated. "I have just received word that Command is giving us more ships until the Swarm arrives. We are getting two more War Eagles and two more Freight Eagles. The warships will enable us to patrol the system more effectively and the cargo ships will allow us to begin mining operations on several planets."

"That is good news indeed, Riov. However, if we wish to concentrate our defences we can just increase our mining operations on Illiamnae-IV," Vaebn commented. "With us being unsure of a Federation attack it might be wise not to spread our forces too far, too quickly."

Always the voice of caution, erei`Riov, Rhioa thought. And a good thing too.

"Yes Vaebn, I believe you're right. With multiple planets to defend we would be spread too thinly and would probably fall quite quickly to a concentrated attack. Or rather, a multi-pronged attack. Once we have set up a defensive perimeter of sensor and weapons platforms as well as having a full Swarm here, our position will be likewise more secure. Maybe it would be wise to limit our colonisation program to fully developing this one planet until that point. Then, once the system perimeter is secure, we can branch out onto other planets."

"That is what I had envisioned, Riov. The colonists and engineers below feel secure and protected because our ships are concentrated around their planet and able to offer immediate deterrence and defence for them. If we are scattered between several planets, we could be overpowered and destroyed piecemeal. On talking to them, I discovered that this is their greatest fear."

"I do not think the Federation will mount an attack, but it would be of the utmost foolishness to trust in and proceed according to that assumption. Very well Vaebn, we shall do it your way."

Vaebn nodded in agreement, and further asked, "What of the Klingons, Lhhei? If they do not attack us—which is still a possibility, although more remote after your conversation with Captain Morloch—they will surely put pressure on High Command to let them use this system as a base for staging attacks in their coming war with the Federation."

"That is a very good point, erei`Riov." T`Khellian mulled it over for a few seconds before replying. "I have no immediate answer for you, I'm afraid. I think that this matter lies within the responsibility of our esteemed diplomats. Again, I do not think that the Klingons will attack us, what with them concentrating all their forces on their Federation border. But they might still want to use this system as a staging area or at least a safe haven for damaged or retreating forces—and they might just use it without our permission. If that happens, we will have to discourage them. We will have enough trouble with the Federation as it is without the Klingons turning this sector into a war zone, too."

Vaebn looked unconvinced. "Klingons are still Klingons, Lhhei. I doubt they will be 'discouraged' until we have to actually open fire on their vessels."

Rhioa didn't like that, but nor could she disagree. Not all Klingons would be as reasonable as Morloch had been. Moving on, she asked, "Be that as it may, do you have anything else to report?"

"Ie, Rekkhai. The reason for the delay in completing the second mining colony on the far side of the planet was the extreme weather conditions, which also interrupted our communications with our people there. Fortunately, since the colony itself is self-sufficient and all but enclosed the extraction and processing rates of the ores will not be affected. With the activation of I4-2, we have effectively doubled those rates. Also, colony upgrading will begin within the next day so that the sites will be defended by manned disruptor positions."

His report over, Vaebn finished with a question. "The new ships will be bringing components for shield generators?"

Rhioa looked at the cargo manifests of the soon-to-be-arriving Freight Eagles. "Yes, they are. Knowing that hostilities were likely, High Command has included them, even without my specific request."

"That is good news in and of itself, Rekkhai. It shows whomever is receiving our reports is actually reading them and has some wits about them. That is not always the case, as some of my previous commanders have found out to their misfortune."

"Yes, indeed. But remember, one of our superiors is Seidhu tr`Khaell. He is nobody's fool. I think it almost certain the prompt reinforcements were his doing. A few words of advice, Vaebn," Rhioa said in a friendly manner. "The Seidhu is a good man who believes in the Ruling Passion as I do. He will support you as much as he is able—and as long as you do not play him false. Do you understand?"

Vaebn felt vaguely troubled by this 'friendly advice', but he could find no immediate fault with it. Accepting it at face value, Vaebn merely nodded, then added "Yes, I believe I do, Riov."

"Excellent. Then let us speak no more of it." Changing gears, Rhioa said finally, "Start drawing up patrol schedules and revised colonisation timetables with the inclusion of our new arrivals and submit them to me for approval by 2000 tonight. The approaching cargo vessels also contain all we need to assemble a manufacturing plant, and we can hopefully start producing our own sensor devices and orbital defences before the Swarm arrives."

She stopped and looked across at her first officer. "It will be a busy few weeks, erei`Riov."

Her first officer merely nodded, smiling slightly.



The End