USS Oregon: Finding a Ring

Chapter 1:

“Admiral, there is a Captain Joshua Jackson here for you,” the receptionist keyed off her comm unit. “He’ll be with you in a minute, sir.”

“The name is Josh,” Captain Jackson glared a little at the Tamarian receptionist and sat down.

Three minutes later, the receptionist motioned to Jackson, saying, “The admiral will see you now.”

“Welcome to Starbase 123 Captain Jackson,” Admiral Timothy Richards greeted the much younger man.

“Thanks,” Josh nodded, appraising his counterpart for a moment. His gray hair indicated the man’s advancing age. His face was worn and creased with wrinkles, telling less of his age and more of his years of toil and stress defending the Federation. Even still, his back was ramrod straight.

“Thanks ‘sir’,” Richards corrected.

“Excuse me?” Josh looked quizzical for a moment.

“The appropriate response is ‘thanks, sir’,” Richards repeated.

“I wouldn’t count on that happening,” Josh smirked. “Not my style.”

“It is mine,” the admiral gestured to his collar. “So I suggest you get used to it.”

“We’ll see,” Josh subtly challenged. “I was told that you wanted to see me.”

“It is customary for a subordinate officer to check in with his commanding officer upon arriving at a new post,” Richards explained dryly, “especially when he’s nearly a day late.”

“So that’s what this is about,” Josh’s face lit up. “I believe I sent you a report explaining our situation to you six hours ago.”

“You did,” the admiral admitted, “after you had already taken off like some cowboy to deal with these smugglers. You should have informed me immediately and then waited for orders.”

“Seriously?” Josh raised an eyebrow. “This was a time sensitive situation. Had we not acted, we would’ve had a smuggling ring supplying vital equipment to the Romulans, who will invade us within a year, and a hunch something was amiss based on circumstantial evidence. I did what I needed to do.”

“What about Ambassador A’ral’s circumstances?” Richards demanded. “You’re orders, I believe, were to conduct the ambassador here with ‘all possible expediency.’”

“They were,” Josh conceded. “But the ambassador consented to our detour, as pointed out in my report. Besides, only twelve hours were lost.”

“What if the dispute the ambassador needed to resolve was on the brink of civil war? What if you needed to get medical supplies to a planet suffering from Rigillian Fever?” Richards fired off.

“But I wasn’t,” Josh calmly countered.

“The point is—”

“The point is,” Josh cut off the astonished admiral, “that I was confronted with a decision to make: chase after a group of traitors or get the ambassador here on time. Based on the situation, more was to be gained from pursuing the smugglers than getting that A’ral here, so I went after them. That is my job.”

For a moment, the two men locked eyes. Richards’ fiery brown eyes finally caved under Josh’s icy blue eyes.

“I don’t like you captain,” Richards finally spoke breaking the silence. “You’re smart, ruthless, and have little respect for command. You’re a maverick with no regard for protocol in command of an awesome weapon. That makes you a threat to the Federation.”

“You don’t have to like me,” Josh coldly pointed out. “But we will have to work together.”

“Can we?” Richards wondered aloud. “Can I work with someone I can’t trust to follow orders?”

“You can work with someone you can trust to always do what he believes is right,” Josh summed up. “That person is me and my crew.”

“Starfleet tells me that I have no choice in the matter,” Tim sighed.

“Do you have orders for me?” Josh asked after a minute’s silence.

“As a matter of fact I do,” Richards nodded. “Since you reported the smugglers, the intelligence people here tell me that those smugglers are part of a much larger smuggling ring. Your job is to hunt them down and break them apart.”

“Just me?” Josh wondered aloud. “Anyone going to help?”

“I don’t have any ships to spare,” Richards shrugged.

“Come on,” Josh growled, “they call this the Isolated Region for a reason. There are a dozen of the mostly unexplored sectors in the entire Federation. There are literally a million places that they could be hiding. A needle in a haystack would be easier. Surely you have a ship or two to spare.”

“They don’t give me much to work with out here in the boondocks,” Richards retorted.

“So you’ll give me nothing?” Josh cocked an eyebrow.

“I keep hearing about how you’re such a genius,” Richards challenged, “time for you to prove it.”

“I suppose I’d best get right to it,” Josh stood up to leave.

“I haven’t dismissed you yet,” the admiral held Josh up.

“Is there something more then?” Josh asked.

“Well, no—,”

“Then I have work to do,” Josh turned on his heel and walked out, leaving a highly irritated admiral in his wake.

“So how are we going to find these bastards?” Saehir queried as he strode by.

“Were you listening in on my conversation with the admiral?” Josh wheeled about to face her.

“Of course,” she replied. “Wouldn’t you?”

“Privacy is something that means absolutely nothing to you, does it?” Josh raised an eyebrow.

“Not really a big Romulan value,” Saehir shrugged. “Knowing what is going, on the other hand, is a core Romulan value. So how are we going to find them?”

“Don’t you have somewhere to be? Like enjoying a little R and R?” Josh glared at his short officer as he started to make his way into the corridor. “I’m guessing we’re not going to get a chance for any for quite some time.”

“You haven’t a clue, do you?” she smirked.

“Not a foggiest,” Josh kept walking.

“Shall I call a staff meeting then?” she trotted after him.

“Immediately,” Josh curtly replied.

***********

“You’ve got to be joking,” Jon snorted after Josh outlined the parameters of the mission.

“Wish I was,” Josh sighed, “but here it is.”

“And it’s just us?” Ras queried. “No help?”

“No help,” Saehir confirmed. “What? I heard the meeting.”

“So the question is how to find them,” Josh slumped into his chair. “And, despite my reputation as a genius, I’m fresh out of ideas on how to scour 14 mostly uncharted sectors for a smuggling ring that I’m certain does not want to be found. Ideas people?”

An awkward silence reigned over the conference room.

“How about we join them?” Jon suggested catching Josh’s eye.

“What do you mean by that?” Ras asked.

“He means implanting a spy,” Saehir clarified.

“A spy?” Rio.

“Kind of what Terrik did with me,” Saehir analogized.

“My basic thinking is that they have to recruit people to their operation,” Jon explained. “We have one of our crew get ‘recruited’ into their operation. He or she could then feed us information on where they are getting supplied from, their shipping routes, and give us an idea on how big their operation is.”

“And ideally lead us to the head of this operation,” Josh added.

“Ideally,” Jon agreed.

“Of course this would take a lot of time,” Josh noted. “That’s a lot of information to be gathered.”

“Versus searching sector by sector?” Saehir pointed out.

“Point taken,” Josh admitted. “Who we going to send?”

Again, an awkward silence reigned over the conference room. Saehir felt her stomach tighten, sure she was going to be chosen, again. Her last spy job hadn’t exactly gone well.

To her surprise, Ras spoke up. “I’ll go,” he said.

“You?” Jon cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I’m the logical choice,” he shrugged. “I’m just out of the Academy, so I’m a relative nobody. I have a record of not getting along well with authority, I’m Andorian, plus I’m a damned good pilot. Me ditching Starfleet makes sense and I’m exactly the kind of person these smuggler/fringe types want.”

“Alrighty then,” Josh nodded. “Ras, you’re our way in. Of course, we have to find their recruiting office.”

“I doubt they have a local branch office on the station,” Saehir sardonically noted.

“Pessimism not helping,” Rio retorted. “Besides, they actually might. Starbases are major centers of trade and get a lot of traffic. Plus, recruiting here would be right under Starfleet’s nose.”

“Hiding in plain sight,” Josh concurred. “At this point, it’s irrelevant. We have to find out where they could be picking up new employees and explore those options.”

“I might be able to help with that, captain,” Ax volunteered from his chair. “As you most of you know, my homeworld is at the edge of the Isolated Region. A lot of my people work as hired muscle for the fringe element out here. I have some contacts that might be able to sniff around and find out where these smugglers are coming from or where they might stop off.”

“Okay then,” Josh wrapped up. “Saehir I want you to help Ax track down the Anslem. Ras and Rio, prepare an exit strategy for Ras so that his defection is believable. Hop to it people.”

“What about you two?” Saehir wondered.

“Feel like a game?” Josh asked his brother.

“Sounds good,” Jon agreed. “Well, don’t just stand there. Get to work.”

“RHIP,” Ras snorted.

“Huh?” Saehir cocked an eyebrow.

“Rank Has Its Privileges,” Ras explained as he exited the conference room.

*************

“Sure he can handle this?” Jon stroked a fadeaway over Josh.

“As well as any of us,” Josh grabbed the ball and trotted to the top of the key. “Better in fact. We’re too well known. Ax is too necessary. Rio’s too OCD. And can you imagine Kirsten as a spy on the fringe?”

“What about Saehir?” Jon bit on Josh’s cross-over. A moment later, Josh slammed it home.

“Too traumatized,” Josh explained. “You know what she went through on the T’rel.”

“Gives her experience,” Jon pointed out, checking the ball. “She knows how to handle herself on her own. Her Romulan suspicion gives her an edge too; I get the sense that Ras is far too cavalier to be trusted with this. He’s young and naïve.”

“Young yes; naïve no,” Josh corrected. “What do you know about Ras?”

“Not a whole lot,” Jon admitted as he tried to fake-out Josh. “I know he grew up on Andoria, but not much about his family.”

“He doesn’t have any,” Josh swiped the ball away and returned it to the top of the key. “He’s an orphan who had to grow up on Andoria. Earth was hard enough, but can you imagine trying to grow up alone on Andoria?”

“True point,” Jon slide in front of his brother, “I hear a lot of organized crime still runs through there.”

“It does,” Josh confirmed, having to settle for a long two that rattled off the rim. “In fact, Ras was working as a pickpocket for a local syndicate, which was part of the Orion Syndicate when he was arrested.”

“What happened?” Jon pulled a quick spin that gave him an open lane to the hoop.

“As first officer, you should really read the crews files,” Josh chided after Jon threw down a rim-rattling dunk. “He got put into the Imperial Guard School. It gave him something resembling a family. From there, he joined Starfleet and is now here. The point is that he’s not Mark; he knows the world he’ll be entering and know how to move through it.”

“Just hope he doesn’t like it too much,” Jon muttered.

“I doubt he will,” Josh chuckled as he buried a step-back three.

“I still think that Saehir would make a better choice,” Jon grabbed the ball.

“And I am not going to put her in that position,” Josh adamantly put his foot down.

“But she’s been there before,” Jon countered. “She’ll know what to do.”

“Putting her in the position again would be really bad for her psychologically,” Josh returned. “She’s been left out to dry before; she shouldn’t have to go through that again.”

“Are you protecting her?” a sly smile began to form at the corners of Jon’s face. “Since when does the great Joshua Jackson put people’s personal feelings and well-being over the mission? Could it be that he actually cares for this woman?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Josh snapped. “On the contrary, I detest her. But throwing her out as a spy again would be psychologically too much for her. She’d freeze up and either get herself killed or disappear entirely. In any event, because of how traumatic her previous tenure as a spy was, she wouldn’t be very effective.”

“I suppose you have a point,” Jon spun around for a fadeaway jumper. “I believe that’s game.”

“Rematch?” Josh offered.

“No,” Jon shook his head. “I got to get ready for date night. Taking Kirsten to meadows of Antarus VI for a romantic picnic.”

“Go have fun,” Josh grabbed a towel and smiled at his brother.

“I intend to,” Jon smiled slyly. “You know, you really need to get a girlfriend.”

“Yeah, no,” Josh shook his head. “I’ve got a life to live, a Federation to protect.”

“We can survive without you,” Jon reminded.

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Josh snorted.

Jon threw a towel at him.

*************

Chapter 2

“Remember, Mex’atlic is Fringe,” Ax reminded Saehir as they entered a bar in Atari on Tessen III. “He’s a bit jumpy when people in uniform are concerned. I think he’s got two outstanding warrants from two separate worlds, so go easy with him.”

“I’ll try, though ‘easy’ has never been my style,” Saehir sighed.

The Royadainian was easy to spot. He was a head and shoulders above the other patrons, in addition to being the only lizard in the room. Making their way through the crowded and smoky room, Ax and Saehir sat down on either side of “Mex.”

“Hey Mex, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Ax spoke, alerting the slightly inebriated Royadainian to their presence.

“AX!” the large lizard boomed, embracing his friend. “It has been a long time. Say, how about buying a fellow a drink for old time’s sake?”

“Sounds good,” Ax motioned to the barkeeper, a Lurian, for another round.

“So tell me, what are you doing here?” Mex queried.

“We were told that you had information regarding the Anslem,” Saehir cut in, making Mex aware of her presence.

“Who is your lovely companion?” Mex thoroughly looked Saehir up and down. “With women like this, I might be persuaded to join Starfleet.”

“This is Lieutenant Saehir Aelhih, our chief tactical officer on the Oregon,” Ax introduced them. “And Saehir, this is Mex’atlic, a friend of mine from long ago.”

“Long ago indeed,” Mex nodded. “We started our careers together on the pirate ship Iridan’s Pride, before this one sold out and joined Starfleet.”

“And stay on that bucket of bolts?” Ax shot back. “No thanks. How long did the Pride survive without me to hold it together?”

“Six months,” laughed Mex. “You were the best damn engineer I’ve ever seen.”

“Listen, we’re on time-budget here,” Saehir cut in to the reminiscing. “Do you have any info on the Anslem or not?”

“Direct and to the point,” Mex was amused. “I always like that about the Vulcans.”

Ax dropped his gaze and prepared for the lecture Mex was sure to receive.

“Romulan, moron,” Saehir snarled, “I’m not an emotionless, stuck-up, prick. Just because I don’t have the ridges doesn’t make me a Vulcan, jackass,” she lectured. “Even an uneducated pirate like yourself should know that much. Now tell us about the Anslem.”

“My apologies,” Mex raised his hands. “May I ask what a Romulan is doing in Starfleet?”

“No you may not,” Saehir began to move her hand to her phaser. “One more thing about Romulans: we aren’t as patient as Vulcans. The Anslem?”

“Okay, okay,” Mex told Ax. “She’s a firecracker.”

“Mex, you said you had info about the Anslem,” Ax more calmly told his friend. “Do you or not?”

“The Anslem? Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” Mex finally caved to their badgering. “It’s a freelance freighter, or at least it was. They came through here about six weeks ago. I even set them up with some of my security people.”

“You mean thugs,” Saehir acerbically corrected.

“Do you want info or not?” Mex demanded. “Now where was I? Oh yes, they hired a security squad to help with their shipment. Haven’t heard from them in over a week. It’s like they dropped off the face of the galaxy.”

“What were they shipping?” Saehir queried.

“Dunno,” Mex shrugged. “All I know is that it was super-secret, whatever it was. They paid top latinum for my best team and they made sure that my guys knew not to snoop around their cargo hold.”

“Was it something illegal?” Saehir continued to press.

“Hey, I told you, I don’t know what it was,” Mex threw up his hands defensively.

“Oh please, you’re telling me you didn’t have one of your guys sneak a peek?” Saehir had a hard time believing his sincerity.

“I gave them my word,” the Royadainain’s scales briefly flashed black. “I always keep my word.”

“Do you think that what they were carrying might have been illegal?” Ax asked gently, trying to soothe things over.

“Perhaps, yeah,” Mex admitted. “They were smugglers, alright. I knew they were smugglers and I still contracted with them, so arrest me.”

“We don’t care about you,” Saehir snorted. “You said they were freelance until recently. What changed?”

“Not sure,” Mex shrugged. “About eight months ago, one of the Anslem crewers sat next to me whining about how someone big was moving in on their turf. A week later, he lamented that they had been bought out.”

“Who bought them out?” Saehir wanted to know.

“Not sure,” Mex shrugged again. “Someone called the Twin Goddesses. It seems like everyone’s working for them now. They’re the biggest smuggling operation in the Isolated Region. Never met them myself. Don’t want to either. From what I’ve seen, they’re a nasty bunch.”

“How so?” Ax cocked his head.

“They offered the Shanty a job and they refused,” Mex lowered his voice to whisper, “The Goddesses’ blew the freighter all the way to hell. No one has said ‘no’ since.”

“How might one find them?” Saehir asked.

“Why would you want to know that?” Mex regarded the Starfleet officers curiously. “That is dangerous information.”

“We’ll take our chances,” Saehir locked her green eyes on Mex’s.

“You don’t,” Mex laughed harshly. “They find you. And you don’t try to find them.”

“Why not?” Ax queried.

“You’re not the first Starfleet officers coming around here looking for the Twin Goddesses,” Mex informed them. “The admiral in charge at Starbase 117 had some issues with smugglers coming through his jurisdiction and sent a couple security officers to investigate.”

“What happened to them?” Ax had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he already knew the answer.

“They were shot by one of the Goddesses’ men right there,” Mex gestured to the door through which they had entered. “Vaporized.”

“If we can’t find them, can you at least tell us where we can find one of their ships?” Saehir sighed. This was not looking good.

“Sure, yeah,” Mex looked slyly at them. “What’s in it for me?”

“You’ve already confessed to working with known smugglers,” Saehir pointed out. “We can conveniently forget that.”

“You think that’s enough for me to sell out the biggest smuggling operation in the Region? You surely jest,” Mex sneered.

“You have an arrest warrant on Amargosa,” Ax reminded his friend. “Consider that gone.”

“The other one and you have a deal,” Mex counter-offered.

“You know that Starfleet has no authority over Royadain,” Ax shook his head. “This is the best offer we can give.”

“I suppose I’ll take it then,” Mex sighed. “Okay, the Redmond, an Antares-class freighter, while stop by Sarona VIII in a week for a couple of days to rest and refuel.”

“Anything else?” Ax had to make sure.

“That’s all I know, I swear,” Mex innocently raised his hands.

“It doesn’t matter; that’s plenty,” Saehir shrugged. “Let’s go.”

“Amargosa?” Mex reminded.

“It never happened,” Ax assured as he and Saehir headed to the door.

“Wait,” Mex called to them as they reached the door. He was pointing a disruptor pistol at them.

“Mex, what are you doing?” Ax asked his friend.

“I’m sorry my friend,” Mex looked genuinely upset. “But I can’t afford to lose my contract with the Goddesses.”

“So you do know them,” Saehir snarled.

“No, I’ve never met them,” Mex defended himself. “They’ve contacted me through an agent of theirs. They’ve hired me to provide security for their shipments. It’s the kind of contract that I can retire on; maybe even buy my way back to Royadain.”

“It was you that killed the Starfleet officers,” Saehir put together.

“Yeah, that was me,” Mex admitted. “They pay me very well for security.”

“You don’t want to do this,” Ax pleaded. “I know you; you’re not a killer.”

“You knew me,” Mex corrected. “Now please step away from the door; we don’t want to make a mess. I’m sorry, my friend.”

“Me too,” Ax sighed and stepped aside. Mex raised his disruptor and Ax closed his eyes. A moment later, he heard the familiar psow of an energy weapon firing.

It took the big Royadainian a few seconds to realize that he was still there. Opening his eyes, he saw a smoldering burn mark where Mex had been standing and the rest of the patrons staring wide-eyed at them. Looking to his left, he saw Saehir with her phaser trained at the spot where Mex had been standing and a murderous glint in her eyes.

Holstering her phaser, Saehir turned to leave. “Get over it, pussy,” she snapped at Ax who was staring slack-jawed at her.

***********

“Ah, Josh, it’s been awhile,” Admiral Ad’rashi Andax, an Andorian, greeted Captain Jackson over the comm. “How may I be of service to you?”

“A few weeks ago, you set up an investigation looking into a smuggling ring near your base, correct?” Josh queried.

“Sort of,” the blue man nodded. “Though to be fair, I wouldn’t call it a smuggling ‘ring’ per se. I was just having some trouble with an influx of contraband slipping through customs; nothing major. I sent a couple of my security officers to investigate, but I haven’t heard from them in a couple of months.”

“You won’t,” Josh informed. “They’re dead.”

“How do you know?”

“My chief tactical officer shot the man who killed them,” Josh coldly answered.

“Good,” the Andorian snorted. “Those were good men. Are you sure they were killed?”

“According to my officer, several witnesses testified to the event,” Josh told the admiral.

“Where was it?”

“Tessen III,” Josh provided, “at a local bar called the Plasma Wave. Apparently they were shot in back, in plain sight of everyone.”

“You’re joking,” Andax snapped. “They wouldn’t dare.”

“These ones did,” Josh sighed. “This ring is much bigger than you supposed.”

“I guess, if they can kill Starfleet officers in front of a crowd and get away with it,” Andax agreed.

“Nearly killed mine too, before Saehir shot the man responsible,” Josh explained.

“Saehir? That’s the Romulan, right?” Andax queried.

“Yeah, that’s the Romulan,” Josh rubbed the bridge of his nose. Did everyone know about her? he wondered. “Your officers were investigating a smuggling ring that was going around your station, right?”

“Yeah, the Twin Goddesses I believe is what their syndicate is called,” Andax informed.

“Your men find anything else out before they were killed?” Josh asked. “It seems this ring is a bit more significant than you thought.”

“Oh?” Andax raised a white eyebrow. “How do you mean?”

“A week ago, we busted one of their ships smuggling tetryon compositors to the Romulans,” Josh filled in.

“Romulans?” the Andorian’s was astonished. “What’s a tetryon compositor?”

“It’s a key component of their cloaking device, at least according to Saehir,” Josh answered. “There’s a whole bunch of technobabble that I only half understand. If you want more info, ask Ax. Saehir knows what it is, but is just as lost as to how it works as I am.”

“I see,” Andax nodded.

“Information admiral, if you don’t mind?” Josh requested again. Andax knew him well enough that when Josh started using formal titles, he was either annoyed by someone or trying to annoy someone. Andax gathered from his tone that it was the former.

“Right,” Andax agreed. “Well, to be honest, it wasn’t much. We thought it was just a local smuggling ring around this sector. A couple of small freighters would come through here every three weeks like clockwork with the same cargo; Tarellian Wine I think. These two seemed to be part of a convoy. Anyway, soon enough, I had a couple of birds-of-prey banging down my door, demanding to know why the Federation was supplying weapons to rebels on Valt.”

“Let me guess,” Josh surmised. “Those freighters were supplying Federation weapons to the rebels.”

“Yeah,” Andax nodded. “First, I had to convince the Klingons we weren’t giving weapons to anyone. They weren’t easy to convince, as they were legitimate Federation military-grade phaser rifles, but we have enough of a track record that they believed me. Anyway, it was a few days later that we discovered their little secret by happy accident. Some of the officers on my station were caught with Romulan Ale. When they were pressed to know where they got it, they revealed the two freighters. So when investigated it and found the phaser rifles. Needless to say the Klingons were pleased.”

“What made you investigate?” Josh pressed.

“We had the crews in a holding cell waiting for trial,” Andax told him. “We woke up the next day, and they were all dead. Someone had managed to bypass security and sucked all the air out of their cells. It wasn’t pretty.”

“I can imagine,” Josh wrinkled his forehead. “That’s what tipped you off that this bigger than a couple of smugglers teaming up?”

“Yeah,” Andax confirmed. “We were already trying to figure out where they were getting their phasers from as it was. This sudden execution made us step up our efforts, but little came of it. We found out their name and that they were a crime syndicate that was setting up in the Isolated Region. What we found out was that they smuggled weapons, worked in ‘enforcement’, and probably moved slaves too, but that’s all. After my officers disappeared, we basically dropped the investigation. We don’t know how big they are or where they’re based.”

“I guess it’s up to us then,” Josh sighed. This was essentially useless.

“Josh, one last thing,” Andax said. “Tell that Romulan of yours thank you for me.”

“Will do,” Josh promised. “By the way, what happened to that Romulan Ale?”

“Oh, it found a good home,” the admiral smiled slyly.

***************

“You sure this is going to work?” Rio scowled at Ras as they worked over his plan.

“No, but you’re not coming up with better ideas,” Ras countered.

“I’m not good at this stuff,” she groused. “Now if you need something scanned and analyzed…”

“We know where to connect me with one of the Goddesses freighters,” Ras ignored her comment. “That’s not a problem. The problem is making my defection look legit.”

“I know, I know,” the Bajoran rolled her eyes. “That’s where I come in. I’m getting those forged records uploaded into the main Starfleet database. You’re going to look like one of the most despicable ensigns ever.”

“Well I am rather rascally, aren’t I?” he flashed her a scoundrel’s grin.

“Wipe that smirk off your face,” Rio scolded. “This is serious. If they don’t bite, you could be killed.”

“I know,” the Andorian’s face tightened. “But if I wanted to stay safe, I wouldn’t have joined Starfleet.”

“But this is ridiculous!” Rio protested. “It seems like every time I turn around, one of you is being sent off on a suicide mission!”

“You know, it’s not very encouraging to be told that my mission is suicidal,” Ras deadpanned.

“First Josh takes Mark off into Romulan space and Mark dies,” she went on, ignoring Ras comment, “and now he sends you off to meet these ‘Twin Goddesses.’ It seems like every mission we get gets one of us killed.”

“HEY!” Ras snapped at her. “I’m not dead yet.”

“Ensign,” Rio warned, gesturing to the pips on her collar.

“I don’t give a damn about your rank,” Ras yelled at her. “You don’t think I don’t know the risks? You don’t think what happened to Mark hasn’t been playing through my head? I grew up working for a branch of the Orion Syndicate. I know what these people do to traitors. I don’t need you reminding me constantly about how I’ll be fried, chopped up, and decompressed. What I do need is you helping me form a plan that keeps that from happening.”

Rio took a step back, her mouth open. “I’m, I’m sorry Ras,” she stammered an apology. “It’s hard for me to see my friends go off on these dangerous missions. I guess I didn’t think of how it’d make you feel.”

“Obviously,” Ras snarled quietly. “Now can we get back to work?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Rio nodded as they turned their attention back to trying to figure out their problem.

“Look, Ras,” she put her hand on his shoulder, “everything will be fine.”

With a slight glare, he looked at her and commented, “I’m not the one who needs convincing.”

After another hour of silent wrestling, Ras finally stood up. “This is it,” he half sighed, half snarled.

“What is?” Rio looked up.

“Our original plan,” he responded. “Look, we’ve been at this for three days and haven’t come up with anything better. Another hour isn’t going to bring a revelation. We are running out of time. This is the best we’ve got.”

“Josh or Jon probably have better ideas,” Rio noted sourly.

“Probably, but they won’t share them with us,” Ras sighed. “Come on, let’s got tell the captain our proposal.”

“Right behind you,” Rio grimaced as she headed for the door.

************

“Where the hell is Ras?” Saehir snapped impatiently from her station at tactical.

“Oh he’s probably running late, again,” Jon groaned. “Fourth time this week.”

It was a lie; Ras had been his barely punctual self all week. The bridge officers all knew that, but the rouse was maintained for the sake of the non-bridge personnel milling about at the various stations.

After waiting another ten minutes, Jon asked the computer to locate his wayward helm officer. After all, the Delta shift officer was tired and wanted to go home.

“Ensign Shras th’Zarath is on Deck 8, Beta section,” the computer responded cheerily.

“What in blazes is he doing there?” Jon grumbled, know exactly what Ras was doing, namely his job. “Bridge to Ensign Shras th’Zarath,” he tapped his combadge. “Ensign, what are you doing?”

No response.

“Ensign, please respond,” Jon’s voice was taking on a deadly evenness that the crew had come to fear from both brothers.

Again, no reply.

“Strange,” he muttered. “Rio, is there anything wrong with our comm system?”

“Scanning,” she replied. “No sir, comm system is functioning normally. He should be able to hear you.”

“Commander Jackson to Ensign Shras th’Zarath,” Jon repeated icily. “I know you can hear me Ras. So what the hell are you doing?”

“I can’t take Starfleet anymore,” an exasperated voice finally responded. “I’m do with you all.” There was a thump and then a crunch as Ras’ heel struck the combadge dead.

“Saehir,” Jon sighed.

“Already on it,” the Romulan held up her hand. “I have a security team on its way. Should we bring Josh in?”

“Probably,” Jon gritted his teeth, “though he’s not going to like it.”

“Lieutenant Aelhih to Captain Jackson,” Saehir tapped her own combadge, grinning wickedly, “there’s a situation that needs your attention.”

“What, now?” a voice grumbled back.

“Yes, now,” Saehir affirmed.

“Give me a moment,” Josh replied before emerging from his ready room. “What’s going on? I was reading a very good book.”

“Ras is refusing to report for duty,” Jon filled in. “And he babbled on about not being able to stand Starfleet anymore.”

“What the hell?” Josh grumped. “Captain Jackson to—”

“Forget it Josh,” Saehir interrupted. “He smashed his combadge.”

“Of course he did,” Josh rolled his eyes. “I knew teaching him that trick was a bad idea. Where is he now?”

“Deck 8,” Rio replied, “Beta section.”

“Dammit,” Josh snarled under his breath. “Security?”

“A deck away,” Saehir responded.

“They’ll never make it,” he growled.

“Where’s he going?” Rio yelped.

“Where do you think?” Josh snapped back.

“Main shuttlebay,” Saehir slapped her forehead.

“Must I do everything for you?” he groused. “Bridge to main shuttlebay, intruder—”

“Captain, weapons fire right outside main shuttlebay,” Rio squeaked out.

“Raise shields,” Josh ordered.

“We can’t,” Saehir countered. “Shuttlebay has decompressed and we can’t raise shields until the shuttle has cleared.”

“Dammit and we have only one of those,” Josh gritted his teeth. “Power weapons then.”

“Aye,” Saehir poured power into the phasers.

“We’re not going to shoot at him, are we?” Rio’s eyes went wide.

“If we have to,” Josh responded. “Oh don’t worry; Saehir can disable the shuttle, can’t you?”

“You dare doubt me?” the Romulan smirked back. “Shuttle’s cleared, locking on phasers.”

“Hail him first,” Josh decided, forgoing the temptation to blast him to smithereens. Besides, they needed to really sell this.

“Not responding,” the astonished and exhausted helm officer informed Josh.

“Very well, open a channel,” Josh took his chair. “Ras, what the hell do you think you’re doing? If you wanted out of Starfleet, you could have just resigned. Why take my only shuttle?”

“Sorry, Captain, but I just can’t take the discipline anymore,” Ras’ appeared on the viewscreen.

“On my ship?” Josh raised his eyebrows.

“Four years of Academy rigidness, even your relaxed standards are still too much,” he shook his head, blue antennae wiggling. “Show up at exactly this hour, fill out this report, you can do this, and can’t do that. Plus, my skills are rusting on that behemoth. I just can’t take it anymore.”

“Come back to the ship Ras,” Josh requested. “Let’s talk this out; maybe a transfer. I’d hate to blow you to pieces.”

“Sorry captain, but you’ll have to hit me first,” Ras smirked. “If you can.” The channel went dead.

“Alright Saehir, disable the shuttle,” Josh sighed. “Try not to blow him to pieces. But if you do…”

“I won’t either,” Saehir’s face tightened.

The shuttle was making a beeline towards the nearest warp vector, with the Oregon hot on her tail. Saehir narrowed her eyes as she focused in on the shuttle. Locking on the shuttle’s warp nacelles, she fired a dual spread from top and bottom phaser arrays. But Ras was too quick. Anticipating that move, he juked left, sending the beams streaking harmlessly into space.

“It seems you missed,” Josh noted dryly.

“Damn him,” she snarled.

She fired a second burst, but again Ras eluded her. At least, mostly eluded her. Saehir did manage to graze the top left corner of the shuttle, rattling the Andorian a little, but he kept doggedly pressing on. Just as Saehir lined up her kill shot, he leapt into warp, sending the bright orange beam harmlessly lighting up space.

“He’s gone,” Rio said, a touch of sadness in her voice.

“Track him,” Josh snapped.

“Sorry sir,” Rio shook her head. “He masked his vector too well.”

“Of course he did,” Josh put his head in his hands and muttered quietly under his breath.

“Godspeed Ras.”

*************

Chapter 3

“Hey stranger,” an older human male sidled up to the sorry looking Andorian sitting at the bar on Sarona VIII. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”

“You probably haven’t,” the obviously inebriated man replied. “This is my first time here.”

“Where ya from stranger?” the man asked.

“The USS Oregon, NCC-80121,” he replied.

“Starfleet, eh?” his unasked for companion.

Was Starfleet,” the Andorian corrected.

“Oh, what happened?” the human queried.

“It’s nothing you’d want to hear about,” the antennae twitched slightly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” the man cocked his head. “I’m always up for a story. I’ll buy you a drink and you can tell me all about it. Bartender?” he motioned for the man at the bar to refill their drinks.

“If you insist,” the Andorian shrugged. “I was Ensign Shras th’Zarath, chief helmsman of the Oregon.”

“Ah, a pilot,” the man nodded.

“A pilot is an understatement,” Ras snorted in reply. “I graduated Starfleet Academy as the top pilot. Do you know what that means?”

“It means you’re good?” Ras’s companion guessed.

“More than good,” Ras looked incredulous. “It means I’m the best. I should be on a squadron of star fighters at a Starbase or on a carrier. But no, I’m assigned to be the helmsman of a starship. Me, one of the best pilots in the galaxy driving a goddamn bus.”

“And you were getting bored?” his new friend suggested.

“Bored is also an understatement,” Ras growled. “It was insulting and grating. I put in requests for transfer into Starfleet’s fighter division, but they were denied each time. The same damn excuse: I was too young; too inexperienced; there were other more experienced pilots that were ahead of me for the fighter division. That’s bullshit. I could fly circles around those bastards.”

“So you quit? Just like that?” his friend raised his eyebrows.

“Not quite,” Ras chuckled softly. “The burn marks on the shuttle I stole tell me that they weren’t quite ready to let go.”

You stole a Starfleet shuttle?” the man was stunned. “What kind of ship is the Oregon?”

Prometheus-class,” Ras answered with a slight twinkle in his eye.

“You stole a shuttle from a Prometheus-class starship and then outmaneuvered that same ship?” the man couldn’t believe his ears.

“I told you I’m good,” Ras smirked.

“Good doesn’t begin to describe it,” the man shook his head. “So what now for ya?”

“I’m not sure,” Ras chuckled slightly. “To be honest, I hadn’t really thought past getting out of Starfleet.”

“Well that’s good,” the man said. “Because, as it happens, my ship needs a good pilot. Now it may not be as fancy as flying a Starfleet fighter, but it’ll provide more excitement than flying one of those hulking starships.”

“I’m listening,” the Andorian, cocked his head. “What’s the name of the ship?”

“The Redmond,” the man supplied, much to Ras’s delight. “It’s an Antares-class freighter, nothing too special, but we could sure use a good pilot.”

“Oh?” Ras cocked a white eyebrow.

“Yeah, well, we tend to get ourselves in sticky situations, if you know what I mean,” the man scratched the back of his head. “Our last pilot, well he didn’t exactly, well, he cut things a little too close.”

“I see,” Ras knew exactly what the man was talking about. “And you’re the captain?”

“Me? No, no,” the man shook his head with a subtle laugh. “I’m just the engineer. Sam Jansen, by the way. If you want, I can talk to the captain for you. You know, put in a good word.”

“Most certainly,” Ras enthusiastically nodded.

“Now, I can’t promise anything. You’ll have to check out first,” the man cautioned, “but I think your just who we need.”

“Would a slightly used Starfleet shuttle sweeten the deal?” Ras offered.

“It just might,” Sam smiled. “It just might.”

************

“What do you want, captain?” Admiral Tim Richards’ annoyed face appeared on Josh’s display. “I’m rather busy right now.”

“Since there is so much to do in the Isolated region,” Josh sarcastically noted. “So much traffic and then there are those borders that need watching.”

“Are you finished captain?” Richards glared.

“For the moment,” Josh replied. “I need a new shuttle.”

“What’s wrong with the one you’ve got?” Richards’ eyes narrowed.

“It’s, well, been stolen,” Josh winced.

“Stolen?” Richards asked. “Tell me captain, how does a Starfleet shuttle get stolen out of one of the most secure starships in the fleet?”

“It’s a rather complicated issue,” Josh hadn’t thought how hard this would be to explain. “It seems that my helmsman had a nervous breakdown of sorts and stole the shuttle and deserted.”

“And you just let this happen?” Richards demanded.

“Well no,” Josh answered. “We took a couple of shots at him. We missed.”

“You missed?” Richards was dubious. “From what I’ve heard, you never miss.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Josh allowed. “And neither Jon or myself were running tactical.”

“Even still, how does the most advanced targeting system in the quadrant miss?” Josh could see the veins on the admiral’s neck begin to expand.

“He’s a very good pilot,” Josh shrugged, ignoring Richards’ growing rage. “Anyway, he took off with the shuttle and so I need a new one.”

“Build one,” Richards icily shot back.

“This is a warship with limited space and resources,” Josh pointed out. “There’s a reason we only have one shuttle; this isn’t exactly a Starbase.”

“Alright, fine,” Richards gave in. “I’ll have one for you in less than a week. What of your officer?”

“I suppose someone needs to go after him,” Josh suggested.

“Of course,” Richards snarled. “Desertion and theft of Starfleet property, of course someone has to go after him.”

“Which is why I thought you ought to know,” Josh told his superior.

“Captain, you’re a nightmare,” Richards rubbed his temples. “While you are on a crucial mission trying to bust up a group of smugglers smuggling key components in the cloaking device to the Romulans, your lack of discipline leads to one of your senior officers to steal a shuttle and desert! I can’t spare you because your mission is too important and the reason I have you working alone is because I can’t spare anyone else despite how important your mission is. So all I can do is send out a message to the local law enforcement officers and hope for the best.”

“When you do, please have them bring him directly to me,” Josh requested.

“Why would I ever do that?” Richards growled. “You’re the idiot who let him get away in the first place.”

“I think it would be valuable if I dealt with him,” Josh answered.

“How would questioning a deserter be valuable to you?” Richards wondered.

“Let’s just say it could be key,” Josh continued to dance around.

“Key? How? Oh,” the light bulb finally went on.

“Exactly, admiral,” Josh inclined his head.

“Well, I’ll look into it,” Richards had finally relaxed. “You know Josh, we are quite busy here; it could be sometime before I’m able to get a warrant out on him.”

“Thank you,” Josh smiled slightly. “I’ll be by in a week to pick up my shuttle.”

“Don’t lose this one captain,” Richards rolled his eyes. “Richards out.”

*************

“So you are the Starfleet pilot that Sam’s been telling me about,” an Acamarian woman greeted Ras. “I’m Captain Timbal of the Redmond.”

“Yes ma’am,” Ras returned the greeting. “Shras th’Zarath of Andor.”

“Already ditching the Starfleet titles, nice,” she smirked slightly. “But you will need to loosen up the formality. My ship’s run pretty loose. Call me Timbal or captain. Sir and ma’am is too formal.”

“Alright, Timbal,” Ras tried out.

“Now Sam has told you a little of what we do,” Timbal crossed her arms. “We are your typical freighter that transports some occasionally less than legal goods to some less than savory characters.”

“Smugglers, in other words,” Ras clarified.

“We like to think of ourselves as opportunity investors,” Timbal corrected. “Of course, before joining our organization—”

“Hold on,” Ras held up his hand. “Organization?”

“Oh, didn’t Sam tell you?” Timbal asked. “We’re not independent smugglers. We’re part of the largest syndicate in the region: the Twin Goddesses. Anyway, as I was saying, before joining up with us, you’ll have to be vetted first.”

“How’d I do?” Ras queried. “I’m assuming since it’s been over a day, you’ve already checked up on me.”

“We have,” Timbal admitted. “You are a real piece of work: you received citations for disorderly conduct and insubordination five times at the Academy, including being on probation your senior year. Since joining the Oregon, you’ve been late, uninspired, insubordinate, and one of hell of a pilot. In other words, you’re just the man we want. Of course, the shuttle helps too. Speaking of which, can we see it?”

“Sure, right this way,” Ras lead Timbal and Sam, who was in tow, to a landing pad where the pristine Starfleet shuttle was sitting.

“I thought you said you got shot at,” Timbal questioned.

“I did,” Ras confirmed. “Having nothing to do for the last day or so, I polished her up.”

“Uh-huh,” the Acamarian was slightly dubious. “Sam.”

The engineer took out a tricorder and scanned the vessel.

“It’s true Tim,” the human nodded. “You can’t see it, but there are signs of phaser burns. Type XII if I’m not mistaken.”

“Good read,” Ras was impressed.

“So if you want in,” Timbal looked at the young Andorian, “take us up to our ship and show us what you’ve got.”

“Lady and gentlemen,” Ras dropped the back hatch, “if you’ll step right this way.”

*************

“Hey, what you up to?” Sam’s voice caused Ras to jump, slamming his head into a nearby console. “Sorry,” the human apologized.

“No worries,” Ras crawled out from underneath the console he was working under. “What can I do for you?”

“We’re headed to Valt,” Sam informed, “and we’d thought we’d use the shuttle to store some of the less than legal merchandise.”

“Go for it,” Ras nodded. “I’m just realigning the plasma inductors to see if I can get a little more juice out of this baby.”

“Could you give us a hand?” Sam asked.

“Sure, no problem,” the Andorian shrugged and hopped out of the shuttle.

What was outside where four crates, two filled with advanced phaser rifles and the other two with plasma grenades; Starfleet issue. Picking up a rifle, he whistled sharply.

“Wow,” he felt the weapon in his hand. “This is some serious firepower. Twenty different settings; could vaporized one of the nacelles on the shuttle. Pulse and beam mode; sniper scope attachable.”

“How’d you know that?” Sam looked surprised.

“I went to the Academy,” Ras reminded as he continued to admire the weapon. He’d fired dozens of them, though never in an actual battle, and there was something seductive about holding them. “And served for six months under the two best tacticians in the fleet.”

“I’d guess you’d pick something up then,” Sam nodded. “If you’re done fondling it, I’d like to get them on board.”

“Right, of course,” Ras replaced the gun back in its crate.

“I thought I might have to bring you up on harassment charges,” the human joked as the two of them carried the boxes in to the cargo hold of the shuttle.

“Very funny,” Ras grunted as he set the crate down. “You know, those aren’t civilian weapons.”

“Well, they aren’t going to be used for hunting,” Sam shrugged.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Ras shook his head. “You only see a phaser rifle like that on a Starfleet combat vessel or on a marine. Not even escort vessels carry that kind of weaponry.”

“Point?” Sam asked.

“I’m just curious where we got them,” Ras shrugged. “Certainly not from any legal merchant.”

“I don’t know,” Sam blandly replied. “We’re not paid to care about what we’re delivering, just so that it gets there.”

“You’ve got to have some clue,” Ras pressed.

“Why do you care?” Sam snapped, looking a little worried.

“It’s the Starfleet in me,” Ras sighed. “Can’t help but be curious.”

“Curiosity is a dangerous thing around here,” Sam cautioned. “But if you must know, I’m guessing they came from a Ferengi working in these parts. At least, we rendezvoused with him in the Z’Tarnis Nebula two days ago without the crates and then we have them.”

“Wonder where he got them from?” Ras mused out loud.

“Don’t know and don’t want to know,” Sam edgily cut in.

“Sorry,” Ras apologized. “It’s just a mystery and I find that intriguing. They couldn’t have been replicated; only one Starfleet base has the replication codes for these puppies. I’ll bet they were stolen.”

“All the more reason for us not now,” Sam was beginning to panic. “Your curiosity is going to get us both killed.”

“Again, my apologies,” Ras realized that he’d pressed his luck far enough. Sam didn’t know much else and he was risking raising suspicion. “While you’re here, could you help me realign these plasma injectors?”

“Certainly,” the engineer relaxed, relieved to have a problem that wouldn’t get him killed.

“How do you like the Redmond so far?” Sam asked Ras as he looked under the console.

“It’s different from the Oregon, that’s for sure,” Ras commented as he traced the fiber optic cables.

“How so?” his companion queried.

“The Oregon’s so, so Starfleet,” Ras tried to find the right words. “Everything is bright and shiny and clean.”

“Meaning we’re not?” Sam joked.

“Sort of,” Ras admitted. “It’s just that everything on the Oregon seemed so sterile; almost like it wasn’t real. And everyone is on their toes. There are all kinds of rules and regulations and protocols. Everyone is hyper-conscious of this and paranoid about stepping out of line. That kind of life gets exhausting.”

“Sounds like it,” Sam affirmed. “At least here, you can let your hair down.”

“Let my hair down?” Ras crinkled his blue forehead.

“Old earth expression,” Sam waved off. “It means relax.”

“That I can do,” the Andorian chuckled in return. “You know the best part of being here?”

“Probably not,” Sam retorted.

“I can actually stretch my wings,” Ras leaned back against the shuttle wall. “Instead of flying that bus, I can actually do some real flying here.”

“Even though you’re flying a freighter in a straight line?”

“I’m not though,” Ras smiled. “The nebula was the best test of my abilities since the Academy final exam. Plus I can take the shuttle around for a spin just about anytime we stop.”

“I can see how that’d be refreshing,” the engineer smiled. “Hey, could you hand me that hypospanner?”

************

“Ras, you feel like taking the shipment down in your shuttle?” Timbal asked her newest recruit.

“Sure,” Ras replied with his usual cocky smile. “Worried your freighter can’t handle some Klingons?”

“A little,” the captain shot back a wry smile. “The phasers and grenades are in your shuttle.”

“I’ll be back in a bit,” Ras trotted off to his shuttle.

They were at Valt, delivering the promised supply of Starfleet-grade weapons to the rebels there. Ras had already alerted Josh to what they were doing and he had in turn promised to alert the Klingons. Hopefully Josh would wait until after Ras and company had made their delivery. He needed to find out where the weapons were coming from first. That, and he had no illusions as to what the Klingons would do to him if they caught him.

Slipping into the pilot’s seat, he powered up the tiny vessel and eased it out of the cargo-converted-to-shuttle bay in the black of space. Below him, the lush planet of Valt hovered, waiting for him to deliver freedom. There were half a dozen birds-of-prey lurking around the planet, doubtlessly monitoring the progress below. All he had to do was slip past them.

Remarkably enough, he did. The Klingons either didn’t see him or ignored him as insignificant. So he landed quietly outside a rebel base, who were only too happy to pay him the latinum for the weapons and take them. Privately, Ras wondered what would become of them, but brushed it off as none of his concern and began his trek back to the Redmond.

This is when things got interesting. Just as he began to break orbit, he sensors went off, warning him that two birds-of-prey were now in pursuit.

“I guess they were just waiting to see where I’d go and what I’d do,” he theorized and began to gently increase speed. Not so much as to alarm them, but enough to begin to distance himself from the warships. Moments later, another bird-of-prey decloaked directly in front of him, causing his heart to leap into his throat.

“I hate those things,” he hissed, referring to the cloaking devices. “Computer, raise shields.”

“Acknowledged,” the woman’s voice replied.

Already the ship had weapons locked on him, so there was no use pretending anymore. Punching it, he angled upward and shooting himself over the approaching vessel. Behind him, the two pursing Klingon ships had to swerve hard to avoid a collision.

His momentary victory was short-lived. The computer once again warned him that the Klingons had opened fire. Tracking the green disruptor bolts, Ras corkscrewed down and to his left, narrowly dodging the flaming balls of energy.

This wasn’t like the Oregon shooting at him. Saehir was supposed to miss. These guys weren’t. Quickly Ras ran through his options: he could return to the Redmond, make a run for it, go out fighting, or surrender to the Klingons. Choices three and four were essentially the same thing. He couldn’t go back to the Redmond as that would tip off the Klingons to the smugglers. So he decided to make a break for it.

“Computer,” he called out as he had to dodge another volley of Klingon weapons, “display warp vector to Moselina system.” An image popped onto the screen. “Good, computer lock phasers along that trajectory and prepare to fire on my command,” he ordered.

He had to warn the Redmond without implicating them. So he remembered a trick Josh had used during the Dominion War to signal another ship without them expecting it.

“Target locked,” the computer reported.

“Excellent,” Ras smiled despite the situation. “Fire.”

Outside, a pair of bright orange beams split space, firing at seemingly nothing.

“Again,” Ras repeated his command. Again, the same volley of phaser fire shooting at nothing.

“One last time,” Ras requested as he did a flip to dodge a Klingon torpedo. Once more, the shuttles phasers fired at nothing.

“Okay computer, plot a roundabout course to Moselina,” Ras requested as he dove hard underneath one of the warships.

“Course plotted,” the computer cheerfully reported.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Ras snarled as they Klingons finally managed to score a couple of disruptor bolts, cutting the shields in half. “Engage at maximum warp!”

Just as it seemed like the Klingons would finish Ensign Shras th’Zarath’s career, his world reverted to starlines and he leapt into warp. With a deep sigh, Ras leaned back into his chair and breathed. He’d make it once again.

************

Chapter 4

“Any news from the Klingons?” Josh asked coming onto the bridge the following day.

“Yeah,” Jon answered, surrendering the center chair. “It seems that they had an exciting day in the Valt system. They chased off a Federation shuttle that ran like a bat out of hell and then suddenly received an anonymous tip about the location of the rebel base. So they rained down hell on it and now they have one less rebellion to worry about. They also say thank you, by the way.”

“As they should,” Josh grumbled, sitting down. “They give us anything on the smugglers?”

“Not really,” Jon shrugged. “Does this make any sense to you?” He handed Josh a PADD detailing the “battle” with the Federation shuttle.

“You seriously don’t recognize this?” Josh mocked his brother.

“Should I?”

“Veloz IV?” Josh reminded.

“Oh right,” Jon recalled the battle. “Man it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that.”

“No kidding,” Josh chuckled. “Good to know he was listening.”

“So Moselina then?” asked Jon.

“So it would seem,” Josh nodded.

“You two mind filling the rest of us in?” Saehir demanded.

“Not really,” Josh smirked. “Later,” he cut off her protest.

“Helm, set a course for the Tessen system, warp 6,” Jon ordered.

“Aye, course set,” the helmsman acknowledged.

“Engage,” Josh commanded

Instantly the black sky was streaked with starlines.

*************

“Glad to see you’re still alive,” Captain Timbal congratulated Ras when they reunited a day later. “That was some fancy flying. You’ve definitely earned your share. Too bad about the guns though.”

“What happened?” Ras feigned ignorance.

“Oh someone tipped the Klingons off and they destroyed the rebels,” Timbal explained with a touch of sadness in her voice. “Not that I give a damn about their little cause, but they were good customers.”

“Bummer about that,” Ras commented dryly.

“It happens,” Timbal shrugged. “It was bound to happen sooner or later anyway. I was actually surprised we lasted as long as we did.”

“So what’s next for us?” queried Ras stretching out the kinks in his limbs. He’d spent entirely too long in the cramped confines of the shuttle.

“Well The Goddesses have rewarded us with a new contract,” Timbal bore a wicked smile.

“Oh?” Ras cocked his head. “Can you go into the details?”

“All I can tell you right now is that it is HUGE,” Timbal smirked.

“How huge?” Ras regarded her curiously.

“We’re dealing with one of the Big Three,” Timbal supplied.

That was all Ras needed to know. They were getting in with the Romulans. He knew that Josh and the Oregon were nearby, probably in the Tessen system, keeping an eye on them. The Oregon’s super-sensors had plenty of range to watch the Redmond from far enough away to be unnoticed. Now all he had to do was get them the intelligence.

“Can you at least tell me where we’re going next?” Ras solicited.

“Same place as always,” Timbal provided.

“Meeting the Ferengis in Z’Tarnis Nebula?” Ras checked.

“Yep. Boring business stuff I know,” Timbal sighed. “These Goddesses are a paranoid bunch. But given what they deal in, I guess it makes sense. Hey, we’re throwing a party in your honor for surviving in the mess hall.”

“I’ll be along in a bit,” Ras held up. “I think I’m going to take a sonic shower and lay down a bit. It’s been two very long days.”

“I understand,” Timbal sympathized. “Get some rest, but I expect you to show up. It would quite awkward if we had a party for you and you didn’t show up.”

“Will do, ma’am,” Ras drew himself to attention and saluted, getting a laugh from Timbal.

“See ya in a bit,” she chuckled as she sashayed down the corridor and out of sight.

Ras retreated to his room. He wasn’t lying when he said that he was tired. Shuttles were not designed for long trips, especially the kind that Ras went on. But there was work that needed to be done first.

Sitting down at his console, he worked on composing a report for the Oregon. There was a lot of detail to go through and he knew that Josh would want as much detail as possible. The captain was pretty relaxed as senior officers went, but when it came to intelligence reports, he demanded thoroughness. One of his maxims was that spies win more battles than generals. Another was that knowledge is the ultimate weapon.

So Ras made sure to include everything he could. Missions they’d been on, crew profiles, and especially everything that had been mentioned about the Twin Goddesses, which wasn’t much. They were like the Q: an entity that was always there, but you never saw and were always afraid of.

“What are you doing?” a voice cut into his meditation.

Ras froze. Slowly he turned in his chair to see Sam standing there, a glass of synthale in one hand and some impararay on a plate in the other.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Ras asked back, desperately trying to cover up the screen.

“Timbal sent me to check up on you,” Sam replied. “I thought you were going to take a shower.”

“Yeah, I was,” Ras said as he blindly downloaded what he had onto a PADD. “But then I got distracted looking over the sensor data from my little skirmish against the Klingons. You know, to make sure I remember everything I did so I can do it again. I guess I just lost track of time.”

“I get it,” Sam took a bit out of the impararay. “But hey, you’re missing your party, so if you could join us, that’d make Timbal quite happy.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Ras stood up, slipping the PADD containing his report behind his back. “Just let me take a quick shower. Five minutes, I promise.”

“Sure,” Sam shrugged and sat down on Ras’s cot. Inwardly the pilot groaned; clearly the engineer was determined to get him to the part and thus was content to wait for Ras to finish his shower.

Ras stepped into his bathroom and went to the head. This was the genius communication plan that he and Rio had spent days coming up with. Attaching a homing beacon to the PADD, he dropped into the bowl and depressed the “flush” button, which beamed the waste out into space. That accomplished, Ras stepped into the shower and hoped that his incomplete report was enough for Josh and company.

“Ready?” he asked Sam, emerging a couple minutes later.

“Yep,” Sam hopped to his feet. “You’re going to love this impararay.”

“I hope so,” Ras smiled tiredly as they exited his quarters. “It’s my favorite.”

************

“Find it yet?” Josh asked after they had been searching the area for a couple of hours.

“Not quite yet,” Rio was scanning her display panel. “We designed the signal to be weak so that only our sensor would pick it up. But that means that we have to be pretty close to it.”

“And space is known for being oh so cozy,” Jon grunted sarcastically.

“It’s not that bad,” Rio retorted indignantly. “I’m tracing what’s left of their engine exhaust, so we’ve really narrowed down our search area.”

“Still, could you figure out a way to find this thing while we’re still young,” Saehir grumbled from tactical. “I’d like to get married and have kids someday.”

“I’m doing the best I can,” Rio whined. “This is a spy mission so I had to make it hard to find.”

“Next time don’t do so good a job,” Jon told her. “This is taking—”

“AH-HA!” Rio triumphantly exclaimed. “Commander Ax, could you lock onto these exact coordinates and beam the PADD to, uh…”

“My ready room,” Josh supplied.

“Right,” Rio nodded to the engineer, who was making a rare bridge appearance.

“Aye,” the Royadainian nodded and punched a couple of buttons. “Energizing. Alright Josh it should be there.”

The captain went to his ready room and reemerged a few seconds later bearing the PADD.

“Seems in good condition, considering that it’s been floating in space for the last several hours,” he assessed.

“Captain, if I may?” Rio held out an expectant had. Josh surrendered the item to her and she took a couple of minutes to carefully examine it. She pressed a couple of buttons, scanned the contents, and handed it back to Josh.

“Looks good to me,” she informed.

“Senior staff, head to the conference room,” Josh ordered. “Captain Jackson to Lieutenant Anderson,” he tapped his combadge.

“Anderson here,” a male’s voice answered.

“Get the Beta crew up to the bridge,” Josh ordered. “And take command of the bridge. The senior staff will be in the conference room. Unless we come under attack, do not disturb us.”

“Yes sir,” Anderson acknowledged. “Anderson out.”

A moment later, Josh joined the rest of his staff in the conference room.

“So let’s see what this says,” he commented, loading the PADD onto the screen.

For the next several minutes, they all scanned the text, absorbing Ras’s detailed report. Finally as Saehir, who was still getting used to Federation’s language, finished, they all sat back and absorbed it.

“Maybe I’m mistaken, but it seems incomplete,” she noted.

“It is,” Josh confirmed. “Curious.”

“That could mean Ras is in trouble,” Rio suggested, worry evident in her voice.

“Or it could mean that he was just being lazy,” Saehir sardonically commented.

“Ras is not—” Rio rose to her absent friend’s defense.

“Settle down commander,” Josh cut her off, shutting down another fight between the two before it could start. “The rest of Ras’s report is far too detailed for him just to be messing around. Besides, he knows how important detail is. But Rio,” he held up his hand, preventing her from either panicking or gloating, “there are a million reasons why Ras might’ve rushed the last part of this report. Let’s not assume the worst until we have concrete reason to do so. It doesn’t matter anyway: he’s headed the same place we are.”

“Z’Tarnis Nebula,” Rio moaned.

“Problem, Rio?” Jon cocked his head.

“That nebula is notorious for screwing with sensors,” Rio explained. “I’m not sure if even our sensors be of much use there.”

“I could work on boosting them,” Ax offered. “I’m not sure if it will help much though.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jon shook his head. “If we boost power to the sensors to cut through the interference, then they’ll be able to see us as well as we can see them. The last thing we need is to spook ‘em.”

“True,” Josh nodded. “What about hanging around the outside of the nebula and catch them going into the nebula?”

“It’s a nebula,” Saehir sniped. “It’s a little big for one ship to cover. It’d take at least—”

“Three ships to cover it?” Josh raised an eyebrow. “Funny you should mention that.”

“Shut up,” Saehir groused, scandalizing Rio.

“So we split the ship up,” Josh summed up. “I’ll stay in command of the Alpha section, Jon you’ll take command of the Beta section of course, and Rio, take command of the Gamma section.”

“Excuse me sir, uh captain,” Rio cut in. “But this is a survey and monitoring scenario which is under my purview, it would be best if I coordinated the search from the Alpha section.”

“Good point,” Josh conceded and looked at Ax, who shook his head.

“It’ll take all my attention coordinating the engineering staffs across all three sections,” the lizard shook his head. “I’ll be on the bridge with you.”

“Alrighty then,” Josh sighed. “Saehir, the Gamma section’s yours.”

“ARE YOU SERIOUS CAPTAIN?” exclaimed Rio.

“For once I agree with her,” the Romulan’s eyebrows leveled out in shock. “You want me to take command?”

“It’s like we have much of a choice,” Josh shrugged his shoulders. “I’m running out of officers. Ras isn’t here. Jon and I already have a section to command. Rio and Ax are needed on the bridge with me. Unless you’re suggesting that I put the good doctor in command, then Saehir’s it.”

“But she’s a Romulan!” Rio protested.

“Thanks for the reminder,” Saehir snapped.

“We’re all aware of Saehir’s background,” Josh curtly cut off Rio’s objections. “What you are apparently not aware of is that Saehir is my chief tactical officer and a member of our senior staff. Therefore she is fully qualified to take command of the Gamma section. And something else you should keep in mind, commander. I am the captain of this ship, which means I decide who gets to command what. If I decide that my dog is going to take command of the Gamma section, then my dog commands the Gamma section.”

“You don’t have a dog,” Saehir pointed out, drawing a withering glare from Josh.

“The point is,” Josh continued, “if I say that Saehir is in command of the Gamma section, she is in command of the Gamma section: end of discussion.”

“Uh Josh?” Saehir started to ask.

“End. Of. Discussion,” Josh repeated slowly. “Am I understood?”

A round of “yes sirs” and “aye captains” resounded around the table.

“Good,” Josh nodded. “Here’s the plan: we’ll place ourselves equidistance from each other around the nebula and then orbit the nebula along the same trajectory, keeping up continuous scans.”

“We could be spotted pretty easily,” Ax pointed out.

“We could be doing scans of the nebula itself,” Jon suggested. “And we won’t look like ourselves, we’ll probably just look like a routine science survey.”

“If they don’t buy it?” Saehir cocked a slanted eyebrow.

“Then they don’t buy,” Josh shrugged. “There’s not much we can do. All we’re looking for is a Ferengi vessel and an Antares­ freighter. We can run down any of those in a chase, so it’s not that big of a deal. All we have to do is spot them.”

“What about evidence?” Rio queried. “I’m we can’t just arrest them without probable cause.”

“Who said anything about arresting anyone?” Josh countered. “I’m looking for information, not arrests. We’ll just catch and release.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s against Starfleet protocol,” Rio pointed out.

“Do I look like I care?” Josh snapped. “These are traitors and they are going down. I don’t care how I do it.”

“But—”

“No buts,” Josh cut off harshly. “We’re taking them down and that’s final. These Ferengi are just a stepping stone. I’m after the big fish. What’s our ETA to Z’Tarnis at maximum warp?”

“Three hours,” Ax replied.

“Rio, select Ops officers for the Beta and Gamma sections and develop a scanning strategy and work on coordinating. Ax, get your engineering teams assembled. You have your orders people, get moving,” Josh dismissed.

“Josh, can I get a second?” Saehir grabbed him as the officers filed out.

“If you must,” Josh let out a groan. “My office,” he directed.

“What is it?” he sighed, sitting behind his desk.

“Are you really sure it’s a good idea to put me in command?” she asked.

“You’re by far the most qualified,” shrugged Josh. “Given your Romulan service record, you ought to be third in command behind Jon and myself; you have far and away the most command experience. Now Starfleet won’t let me put you as second officer because you’re new to Starfleet. You’re an excellent tactician who can get herself and her crew out of just about any bind. So yeah, I think you’re perfect for the job. I would have put you in command over Rio, but I don’t need the hassle of her ego and Starfleet’s rules coming down on my head.”

Saehir stared at him for a second. She had no idea that Josh thought so highly of her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, truly,” she acknowledged. “But I’m not so sure the crew shares your sentiment.”

“Oh?” Josh raised an eyebrow.

“Did you not hear Rio’s objections?” Saehir reminded. “I’ll hazard a guess that she’s not the only one that shares that prejudice. You and I both know that for anyone to lead effectively, they have to have the loyalty of the crew. I’m not sure I have that.”

“Rio’s Rio,” Josh brushed off. “She’s a bit high strung and still holds a bit of grudge for what happened to Mark.”

“That wasn’t my fault!” Saehir protested.

“You know that, I know that, and so does the rest of the crew,” Josh snarled, hating to revisit this topic once again. “Deep down, so does Rio. It’s just that Mark’s death hit her really hard and she’s looking for someone to blame.”

“And she picked me,” Saehir sighed.

“You were easy,” Josh shrugged. “You’re a Romulan and it was because of you that Mark did the single most idiotic thing I’ve seen in eight years of service.”

“I didn’t ask—,” Saehir started before realizing that Josh was simply explaining rather than defending Rio. “So she and Mark were really close?”

“As close as I’ve ever seen her with someone,” Josh replied. “She, Mark, and Ras really hit it off. Having Ras missing is setting her more on edge than general and she’s an edgy person. Rio’s more comfortable with sensors and radiation than people, so for her to make friends is a big deal.”

“Sounds familiar,” Saehir remarked with a smirk.

Josh ignored the comment. “As such, losing one of those friends was devastating to her,” he continued. “She tries to keep it underneath the surface, but it shows in other ways.”

“Like snapping at me every chance she gets,” Saehir grunted, crossing her arms.

“Like that,” Josh nodded with a hint of a smile. “You’re a rule-bending Romulan. Like I said, easy target.”

“Thanks for the pep talk,” Saehir rolled her eyes.

“The point of this is that Rio’s opinions are largely her own,” Josh told her. “The fact is most of the crew likes you: you’re funny, outgoing, and just a cool person in general. They think of you as a friendlier version of me. And after what you’ve done at Quinterex, at Starbase 12, and at Carraya, it’s safe to say you have their respect too. ”

“How do you know that?” Saehir leveled out an eyebrow. “You spend all day in your office.”

“Just because I don’t socialize doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention,” Josh cryptically responded. “I keep a finger on the crew’s pulse. And like I said, they like and respect you. You’ll be fine.”

“If you say so,” Saehir sighed.

“I do,” Josh curtly nodded. “My order stands. Now put together a bridge crew for the Gamma section. She’s all yours, sort of.”

“Right on it,” Saehir trotted out.

**************

Chapter 5

“Ship warping in!” Rio called from the Alpha’s bridge after they had been patrolling the Z’Tarnis Nebula for an hour.

“The Ferengi?” Josh asked hopefully.

“No, looks to be an Antares-class freighter,” Rio scrutinized the display for a second. “It’s the Redmond, captain.”

“Don’t react people; just act normal,” Josh ordered his crew. “Does it see us?”

“If it does, it isn’t stopping,” Rio brought up the Redmond on the viewscreen. “There it goes.” The crew watched as the freighter vanished into the swirling colors of the nebula.

“Our target’s the Ferengis,” Josh informed the crew. “But let’s keep an eye on them. Inform the other sections that the Redmond has been spotted entering the nebula.”

“Aye, captain,” Rio nodded, keying the transmission.

************

“Who was that?” Captain Timbal queried as the Redmond headed into the nebula.

“Looks like a Federation vessel,” the operations officer, Bolian named Shnell answered.

“As in Starfleet?” Timbal questioned.

“Probably,” Shnell shrugged.

“Hey Ras, what’s your read on it?” Timbal called the Andorian over.

It took every ounce of his Starfleet training and self-control not to jump. He instantly recognized the Alpha section of the Oregon, which more than a little surprised him. It seemed awfully brazen to bring his old ship here.

“It looks Starfleet,” he observed as coolly as possible. “I don’t recognize the configuration though.”

“What are they doing?” Timbal asked.

“Not sure,” Shnell shrugged. “These sensors aren’t exactly Starfleet quality. From the looks of it, I’d say they’re scanning the nebula.”

“That might explain why I don’t recognize the configuration,” Ras offered, hoping that they would ignore the Oregon. “Starfleet modifies science ships so they can be hard to identify.”

“Have they seen us?” Timbal questioned her ops officer.

“Probably,” Shnell shrugged. “If they have, they don’t care. They’re not doing anything. Should we hail them?”

“Nah,” Timbal shook her head. “Just act casual and my guess is they’ll ignore us.”

“Okeydokey,” Shnell acknowledged.

Inwardly Ras took a huge sigh of relief. So far so good.

“Ras,” Timbal called the pilot, causing him to jump a little.

“Yes sir,” he responded automatically.

“Relax,” Timbal scrunched her eyebrows together. “You seem jumpy today.”

“Sorry,” Ras apologized. “It’s just that seeing a Starfleet ship makes me a little nervous. I’m a wanted man after all. What’s up?”

“Just wanted you to get the shuttle ready,” Timbal told him. “We’ll be rendezvousing with the Ferengis shortly. Just wanted you to be ready.”

“On it,” Ras nodded and headed for his shuttle.

***************

“Anything yet?” Saehir asked her ops officer, a Vulcan ensign named T’Lania.

“Nothing yet, sir,” T’Lania flatly replied. “If I may point out sir, asking every five minutes is unlikely to change that.”

“Thank you for that insight, ensign,” Saehir gritted her teeth. She did not like Vulcans.

“You’re welcome,” T’Lania gave a curt nod to the center chair of the cramped Gamma section’s bridge.

“Sarcasm is lost on you, isn’t it?” Lieutenant (j.g.) Matt Parkinson chuckled from tactical.

“Were being insincere with your thanks?” T’Lania looked back at Saehir, who repressed a smile. She liked Parkinson.

“Let’s just say your comment sounded a little smug,” Saehir answered.

“My apologies,” T’Lania replied with a slight bow of the head. “I did not mean to sound arrogant.”

“It happens,” Saehir shrugged. “Though I think you should be punished for your insubordination,” she added with a smirk.

T’Lania blanched. “I swear I meant no offense, sir,” the ensign’s eye’s widened.

“That does not changed what you did,” Saehir lounged in her chair. “It was a cocky slight at your superior officer. Therefore, I will ask if there is anything on the scope every five minutes until something shows up.”

The bridge exploded into laughter, except for T’Lania who just looked confused. “I don’t understand,” she confessed. “How is this a punishment? Will this be on my record?”

“You really don’t have a sense of humor, do you?” Matt laughed. “She’s just messing with you.”

“Oh,” T’Lania understood. “I can see how this situation would be considered humorous.”

“So anything yet?” Saehir asked, eliciting another round of chuckles from the bridge.

“No, sir,” T’Lania sheepishly checked the scopes. “Wait, ship warping in. It’s a Ferengi Marauder.”

“Red alert,” Saehir was instantly serious. “Helm move to intercept; tactical target warp drive, and ops signal the Alpha and Gamma sections we have moved to engage the Ferengis.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for Captain Jackson?” T’Lania asked.

“No time,” Saehir shook her head. “We in weapons range yet?”

“Another thirty seconds,” Matt informed.

“Hail the marauder,” Saehir commanded, eliciting a nod from T’Lania. “Ferengi Marauder, this is the USS Oregon requesting that you power down and prepare to be boarded.”

USS Oregon, this is the Ferengi Marauder Krayton under the command of Daemon Savak. What is the reason for this intrusion into our business?” the Daemon’s clearly displeased face appeared on the screen.

“You are suspected of transporting illegal goods to smugglers in Federation space,” Saehir countered. “If you would power down and allow us to search you, we can clear this up quickly and all get back to our business.”

“What are you specifically accusing us of carrying?” the Daemon snarled.

“Tetryon compositors for the Romulans,” Saehir responded with a straight face.

“For Romulans?” the Daemon let out a grating Ferengi laugh. “We don’t deal with Romulans. We were meeting a—”

“Freighter Redmond,” Saehir waved off. “We know. You were going to go into the nebula, deliver the compositors to the waiting freighter who were going to take the compositors to the Romulans.”

“I admit nothing,” the Savak crossed his arms.

“Let us take a look and we’ll get his all cleared up,” Saehir requested again, her voice tightening.

“I refuse,” Savak snarled at her. “This is an outrage and you have delayed me from my rendezvous, which I do not appreciate. You can be sure that I will log a complaint with your superiors.”

“How much time until the others get here?” Saehir whispered to T’Lania.

“Two minutes, sir,” the Vulcan whispered back.

Two minutes to stall. “You seem to think I am asking,” Saehir crossed her arms and glared, her patience wearing thin. “I’m not; I’m ordering.”

“And if I still refuse?” Savak questioned.

“Let me put this to you another way,” Saehir growled, the troll really getting on her nerves, “either you let us board and search your ship peacefully or we’ll search your ship as we tear it apart, piece by piece. Now I’m not going to ask again: power down and allow us to board.”

“That sounds like a threat,” Savak pointed out.

“It is,” Saehir’s green eyes bored into screen. “One I’m prepared to make good on.”

“You know, you seem rather impatient for a Vulcan,” the Ferengi observed.

“That’s it,” Saehir roared at the screen. “Tactical prepare to fire. And its Romulan, you moron,” she added with a snarl at the Ferengi.

“Romulan!” the Ferengi squeaked as the transmission was cut.

“Locked on to their warp engines?” Saehir asked Matt.

“Aye sir,” Matt nodded his blond head.

“Fire full spread,” she ordered coldly.

“Firing.”

Outside the Gamma’s phasers lit up the Krayton’s shields, causing the Ferengi ship to shudder in space. Realizing their vulnerability, the Krayton turned and raced for the nebula. The Gamma let the ship slid past, hammering away with her phasers the whole time, wearing down the shields. Then she glided in behind the Krayton and let loose a full blast of torpedoes that smoked into Krayton’s engines, shattering the shields. Another bout of phaser fire knocked the warp engines out of commission. But the Krayton drove hard for the nebula. Just when it seemed like they were going to make it, the Alpha and Beta sections swooped in, cutting off the Krayton.

“Going somewhere, Daemon?” Saehir Josh’s familiar voice over the comm.

“Ah, Captain, I would like to complain that that young lieutenant attacked me without provocation,” the Daemon whined.

“Did she now?” Josh’s face appeared with a slight smirk on screen alongside the Ferengi’s.

“Yes,” Savak nodded emphatically.

“Well I’ll have to commend her for carrying out her orders to the letter,” Josh commented. “Now about your cargo Daemon…”

“I refuse to surrender my cargo to anyone but my customers,” Saehir had to admire the Ferengi’s defiance. Most would have caved by now.

“Oh I don’t care about your cargo,” Josh waved off. “I already know what it is and where it’s going. In fact, if you cooperate, I’ll even let you deliver it.”

“And if I don’t?” the Daemon.

“How did my officer put it?” Josh looked away for a moment. “Oh yes, I’ll tear your ship apart and search it piece by piece.”

“Not very Starfleet of you,” Savak noted.

“Perhaps not,” Josh answered. “But you have thirty seconds or I order all of my ships to open fire. This time we shot to kill.”

“No need to get violent,” the Ferengi hastily held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “As long as you allow me to deliver my cargo, I see no reason to be obstinate. What is it you wish to know?”

“Where did you get your compositors?” Josh asked again.

“Ah, well, that’s a touchy subject,” Savak nervously stalled. “It’s a risky thing to betray the Goddesses, you know.”

“I take it you want compensation,” Josh sighed.

“In giving you this information, there is a level of risked involved,” he pointed out.

“Very well,” Josh nodded. “How about this: you tell me what I want to know and I don’t turn you into a pile of scrap?”

“Hmm,” Savak seemed to consider that point for a moment. “You make a compelling offer. I accept.”

“And?” Josh prodded.

“And we picked up this shipment from a small factory on the third moon around Amargosa I” the Ferengi promptly supplied.

Josh allowed a small smile. “Now was that so difficult?”

“Are we free to go?” the Daemon suddenly looked very tired.

“I suppose,” Josh allowed languidly, looking more like a mob boss than a starship captain. “Oh and Daemon?”

“Yes?” Savak looked back despondently.

“I suggest you keep this little exchange of ours to yourself,” Josh flashed a menacing smile. “I’d hate to think of what the Goddesses would do to you if they found out you helped us.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, captain,” Savak gulped and cut the transmission.

*************

“What’s keeping them?” Timbal nervously tapped her foot on the bridge of the Redmond. “At this point, we’re going to have to really push it to get to the Neutral Zone on time and the Romulans don’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Timbal we got a ship coming towards us!” Shnell called out from ops. “It’s the Ferengi.”

“Finally,” Timbal groaned. “Hail them.”

“Daemon Savak of the Krayton here,” a Ferengi’s voice came scratchy over the comm. There was too much interference for video.

“What the hell took so long?” Timbal exploded, letting out all her pent up frustration.

“We had some, uh, engine trouble,” Savak carefully answered.

“Whatever,” Timbal rolled her eyes. “Do you have the shipment?”

“Yes of course,” Savak responded quickly. “Are you prepared to receive it?”

“Yeah, sending shuttle to get it right now,” she nodded. “Shnell?”

“Ras, you good to go,” the Bolian informed the Andorian. “Be careful.”

“Back in a flash,” Ras called back.

It was a ten minute round trip for Ras. The actual transfer went pretty smooth: Ras picked up the cargo and Timbal transmitted the latinum. Quick and painless.

“I’m back with the cargo,” Ras called from the shuttle bay.

“Is our business concluded?” the Ferengi asked.

“Yes,” Timbal frowned. She didn’t remember the Ferengi being so snippy before.

“Thank you and good day,” Savak cut the line.

“The Ferengi are turning about,” Shnell reported. “That was strange.”

“Strange indeed,” Timbal shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. We have what we came for. Let’s go. Set course for the M’Kieru system maximum warp.”

“On it,” the temporary helm officer nodded, punching them out of there.

*************

“ARE YOU INSANE?” Josh thundered at the comm unit. “He’ll be killed!”

“Careful captain,” Admiral Ricks warned from the other side. “You’re coming dangerously close to insubordination. I could have you court-marshaled and this time you won’t have Admiral Necheyev coming riding to your rescue.”

Josh took a deep breath. Losing it now would not help Ras. “Going after the factory now would put Ras at risk,” Josh stated more calmly. “Let me extract my officer first. We could catch up the Redmond in a couple of hours, get Ras and be headed for the Amargosa system.”

“No,” Ricks shook his head. “There’s too much distance to cover. If you grab Ensign th’Zarath, it’ll tip the Goddesses off that something’s amiss and they may move their operation. We’ll lose everything. With the threat of a Romulan invasion, I don’t have to tell how important it is to destroy the Goddesses. I’m sorry, we just can’t risk it.”

Josh’s jaw tightened as he listened to Admiral Ricks explain why he couldn’t go after Ras. “I understand your point, admiral,” he allowed. “But I can’t abandon my officer.”

“What is more important?” Ricks fixed a glare on Josh. “Your officer or the Federation? If we let these Goddesses keep supplying the Romulans with cloaking devices, how many more will die when they attack? I want to help Ensign th’Zarath as much as anyone, but we have a duty to protect the Federation. Th’Zarath knew that as much as anyone when he signed up for Starfleet. If you can extract him, wonderful. But it’ll have to be after the mission is over.”

The admiral was right and Josh knew it; that’s what made him so mad. This is why I don’t get close to crew members, he reminded himself before turning to the admiral. “As you command, sir.”

“Good. Then proceed at best possible speed to Amargosa,” Ricks ordered. “Rendezvous with the San Francisco and the Endor outside Amargosa in 36 hours. Against my personal misgivings, you’re in command of bringing the facility down. Ricks out.” The screen went blank as the transmission ended.

Jackson stared at the screen for a second, seething. With a roar, he ripped the device from his desk and slammed it against the far wall. Taking a moment to compose himself, he stepped back out on to the bridge.

“Helm set course for Amargosa, warp 7,” he ordered. For a moment, no one moved.

“Did I stutter?” he demanded icily.

“Warp 7, aye,” the helmsman nodded and punched in the coordinates.

“What about Ras?” Rio spoke up from ops.

“We’ll go after him once the mission is over,” Josh sat down in his chair. “Engage.”

“But if we destroy the factory, then they’ll know something went wrong,” Rio began to frantically sputter. “And then they’ll look for a spy. It’s the most logical thing, after all. And then, then they’ll think of Starfleet personnel and that’ll lead them to Ras and then…” her voice trailed off, her brown eyes wide.

Josh’s patience was already at an all-time low. Standing up, he turned and looked Rio straight in the eye, his legendary glare bearing down on her. “We will get Ras back!” Josh’s voice was tight as a violin string, belying the rage that burned underneath his calm veneer. “Jon, Saehir in my ready room. Rio, you have the bridge and don’t do anything stupid. Now carry out you goddamn orders!”

“Yes sir,” Rio squeaked, wilting under Josh’s brutal stare. Turning on his heal, he marched into his ready room with his first and tactical officers in tow.

“What happened here?” Saehir stepped over the destroyed console.

“The admiral and I had a disagreement,” Josh flatly responded. “Jon make sure an order gets put in for that to be fixed.”

“Your office, your problem,” his brother crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.

“Of course,” Josh grunted. “Now we have an attack to plan.”

“Hold on a moment,” Saehir held up. “We’re not going to extract Ras first? Rio’s right: if we attack the factory now, then Ras is going to be cut off from us. And that is not a good place to be.”

“You think I don’t know that!” Josh exploded at her. “You think that I don’t know that Ras will be anywhere in this region by the time we get done! You think I don’t know that when we reduce this factory to ashes, the first place the Goddesses are going to look is at Ras! You think I don’t know that I’ve signed his death warrant!”

Both Saehir and Jon stared at the raging captain for a minute. “So why aren’t you doing what you always do and ignore orders and go after him?” Saehir questioned.

“Because,” Josh slumped in his chair, “because in this instance the admiral is right. If we go after Ras, it’ll tip off the Goddesses that something’s wrong and they’ll move the factory. If they move that, then we’re back to square one. With Pelliad going to invade, anything we can do to curtail the cloaking advice advantage is huge. No, we need to be absolutely certain that we get this now.”

“But Ras—” Saehir started.

“This is bigger than Ras,” Josh cut off. “Our duty is to protect the Federation first. I mean we’re not just a bunch of guys gallivanting around the galaxy for the fun of it. We are here to protect the people of the Federation and that comes first. If I disobey my orders and go after him, then I am putting thousands, if not millions, at risk. The difference is that Ras knew and accepted the risks of being a Starfleet officer when he signed up; those people are looking to us, to him to protect them. I cannot sacrifice them for him.”

“That sucks,” Saehir commented after Jackson finished.

“It’s the reality of command,” Josh sighed heavily. “It’s a reality that both of you will understand someday.”

“We’ll see,” Jon grimaced.

“You will,” Josh reiterated. “You better. Now let’s get this attack over with as soon as we can. Amargosa I is a gas giant…”

*************

Chapter 6

Josh sat like a statue on the bridge of the Oregon, staring daggers at the viewscreen.

“Captain,” for the last day and a half, everyone except Jon and Saehir called Josh “captain.” His ire was still more than evident. “The Endor and San Francisco are in position.”

“Good,” Josh growled in reply. “Helm, move us in and prepare for MVAM on my command.”

“Aye, captain,” the helmsman nodded, nudging the Oregon forward at a rapidly increasing pace.

Since the disaster that led to the destruction of the Enterprise-D, the Amargosa system had been essentially ignored. The screwy gravity and excess radiation made it undesirable for traders and tourists alike. On the other hand, it was a great place for a hideout. The leftovers from the star had formed a series of four gas giants that attracted the debris from the destroyed plants as moons. With the extra radiation and weird gravity masking any normal signatures, the whole system was like a massive cloaking device. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting smugglers, the very things that made it a great hideout also made it impossible to defend. It was entirely too easy to mask one’s approach, especially if one was looking in the wrong direction, a fact that Josh was counting on.

Gracefully the Oregon glided towards the moon, shields up and weapons bristling. On cue, Josh noted a half-dozen Peregrine-class fighters (all stolen) and a pair of Shitake-class civilian frigates emanating from the moon towards them.

“In coming enemies,” Saehir informed Josh.

“Weapons?” Josh queried.

“Standard,” Saehir replied, “and they are armed.”

“Good,” Josh was in the mood to smash something. “Rio, scan the moon for the installation and defenses.”

“A moment, captain,” Rio scanned. “They have two mark-V photon torpedoes and four Romulan style disruptor arrays, D’deridex class and unknown shield configuration.”

“It’s Romulan,” Saehir piped up, studying the read-out. “Looks like they took a D’deridex shield generator and tried to stretch it out over the installation. The Endor and ‘Frisco shouldn’t have any trouble with it.”

“Thank you for expressing the obvious,” Josh growled. “Time until weapons range?”

“Fifteen seconds,” Rio responded.

“Saehir, prepare a full spread of quantum torpedoes to detonate 100 kilometers in front of the Peregrines.”

“On it, Josh,” Saehir flashed him a smile, indicating she knew exactly where he was going with this. “Preparing phasers.”

“He said torpedoes,” Rio snipped from Ops.

“I know, just a step ahead,” Saehir smirked.

“Stay sharp people. It’s about to get real exciting,” Jon admonished.

“MVAM now,” Josh ordered sharply. “Saehir fire.”

In the next three seconds, the Oregon suddenly split into three ships, causing mild panic among the gathered defenders. Simultaneously a volley of a half dozen blue orbs shot from the Oregon, erupting in a brilliant flash directly in the path of the incoming fighters.

This did cause panic. The sudden explosion of light and energy disoriented the pilots, causing them spin haphazardly out of control. That made them easy targets for Saehir. The Oregon’s powerful type-XII phasers tore through the blind fighters with easy, evaporating all of them in a matter of moments.

“Now for the frigates,” Josh leaned back a little in his chair. “Saehir, Jackson-2 on the closest frigate, if you please.”

“No problem, good sir,” Saehir nodded. The Oregon aligned into a spearhead pattern and drove hard for lead frigate. A salvo of torpedoes blew the shields to smithereens and a volley of phaser fire reduced the ship to ashes.

“And for our last contestants?” Saehir requested.

“Reverse pattern,” Josh decided. “Fire phasers; prepare rear quantum torpedoes.”

Again the Oregon’s phasers burned away at the frigates shields, draining them. Predictably the frigate reinforced their front shields by syphoning off power from others,

“Split the front two sections around the frigate on my command,” Josh directed. “Now! Alpha all stop and fire phasers.”

The Gamma and Beta sections veered off around the desperate frigate while the Alpha section parked and launched a volley of phaser fire, freezing the frigate in place.

“Saehir,” Josh called.

“Firing torpedoes,” Saehir replied.

As the Beta section swung past their opponent, it angled left and launched pair of torpedoes at the frigate’s completely unprotected rear. Before they could react, the warheads slammed home, shredding the doomed vessel.

“Well,” Josh relaxed a little, “shall we check on our friends? Hail the ‘Frisco.”

“We’re done on our end Captain Zeiss,” Josh reported to his friend and former commander. “How’s it going with you?”

“The facility is secured,” Zeiss answered. “Right now we’re just processing the personnel and setting the charges to blow it. It seems most of the workers were slaves and refugees that’ll need a home. We’re questioning them, but that could take a while.”

“What about administrators or bosses?” Josh queried.

“Nothing yet,” Eina answered. “We’ll keep you apprised. If you could stand guard, that’d be great.”

“Will do,” Josh assented. “Oregon out.”

“That was easy,” he told his crew.

***********

It took Ras all of three seconds to figure out something was wrong. Timbal was chewing out Shnell for not quite getting some sort of sensor data quite right. Ras got the impression was that it wasn’t a major issue, something that even Starfleet might not care about, but Timbal was livid.

“How could you be so stupid!” she railed at him. “All I wanted was how far away that Starfleet vessel was. Is that too much to ask, Shnell?”

“I was an hour off,” Shnell protested. “I can’t help it if these sensors aren’t the best. This isn’t a Starfleet ship, you know?”

“I want results, not excuses,” Timbal roared. “Get it right.”

“What’s going on?” Ras asked Sam.

“Timbal’s been in a bad mood all morning,” Sam answered. “I guess the factory we’ve been getting whatever it was the Romulans wanted was raided by the Federation yesterday.”

Ras’s antennae involuntarily straightened. “How bad was it?” he asked.

“A complete disaster,” Sam grimaced. “They got everything. Computer data, tracking information, operation details, ship names; everything. Thankfully only the Romulan operation was on there, or so I’m told. But still, Starfleet’s coming for us.”

“Skippy,” Ras sighed. “How’d they get to it?”

“That’s the real mystery,” Sam crossed his arms. “No one except only the highest officers of the Goddesses are supposed to know where the factory is. Not even Timbal knows. But once they found it, from what I’m told they blew through the defense like it wasn’t even there.”

“That certainly explains Timbal’s mood,” Ras noted. “Well I think I’ll steer clear of her for now. I’ll be in the shuttle bay if anyone needs me.”

“Lucky you,” Sam chuckled. “I’ll let them know.”

Ras gave a curt nod and walked quickly down the corridor towards his shuttle. He had to think fast. If they had already gone after the factory, then the clock was ticking. It would not take them too long before they put two and two together. He had to figure out an escape plan.

Originally the plan had been for him to be “arrested” along with the rest of the crew but clearly that had changed. Instead of extracting him before making their big move, Starfleet had essentially left him out to dry. Ras was going to need an explanation when he got back. If he got back.

No, Ras rebuked himself. He could not allow himself to entertain doubts. He was a Starfleet officer, trained for this kind of a thing. All he had to do was to take a deep breath and think rationally about the situation, form a sound plan, and get out.

Ras’s antennae twitched as he concentrated on the problem at hand. He figured on two days before Timbal or someone started suspecting that he had anything to do with the attack on the plant. The Ferengi would be the first suspects and they had the backbone of a jellyfish. If his guess was right, that would lead them to Josh which would in turn lead back to him. So two days. Leaning back in the pilot’s chair, Ras tried to identify his biggest problem, other than time.

The best he could figure it, if he could just get the shuttle out, he might be home free. Despite being several times the size of the shuttle, the Redmond was just about as fast as the shuttle and not much better armed. It had a lot more endurance, but this wasn’t a marathon but a sprint. Once he was out, all he had to do was make a beeline for the nearest inhabited system and surrender to the Federation or Starfleet office.

Getting the shuttle out was the problem. Timbal certainly had a loose hand, but even she didn’t let Ras take the shuttle out for the fun of it. It was too precious a resource to risk. He just had to figure out a reason to take her out in the next two days.

*************

A day and a half later, Ras had gotten no closer to figuring out a way off the Redmond. At this point, the sound of his internal clock ticking was deafening. Every hello, every gesture, every look made him jump, something he was sure made him look all the more suspicious. He needed help.

Which brought him to the engine section of the ship. Ras knew that in the end Josh might court-martial him for this, but he would rather spend the rest of his days in New Zealand than whatever fate awaited him when the Goddesses figured it out. So with a deep breath, he opened the door and walked in.

“Hey Ras,” Sam looked up from some project he was working on. “You okay?”

“Sam, we need to talk,” Ras took him by the arm and led him into the corridor.

“Uh, okay,” Sam gave Ras a confused look. “What’s going on?”

“We need to leave, now,” Ras said sharply, his antennae sticking straight up.

“What are you talking about?” Sam was even more lost. “Do you need to go to sickbay?”

“No, no,” Ras tried to take a deep breath. “Sam, it’s over and we need to get out.”

“What’s over?” Sam asked. “Speak sense, man.”

“Okay,” Ras tried again. “Everything is over. The Redmond, the operation, the Goddesses, all of it. Starfleet is coming for us and they will, will, take us down. It’s just a matter of time. So we need to get out while we still can.”

“Look I’ll admit we suffered a nasty lost,” Sam attempted to calm his friend, “but I hardly think it’s over.”

“Trust me,” Ras shook his white head, “it’s over.”

“How can you be so sure?” Sam questioned.

“Because I know that man who’s leading the hunt,” Ras explained. “He has the names of all our ships and he is going to bring down the hammer like you can’t even imagine.”

“And this man is?” Sam asked.

“Captain Joshua Jackson,” Ras supplied grimly.

“Your old captain,” Sam noted.

“No,” Ras countered. “He is my captain.”

“What exactly are you saying?” Sam’s voice dropped several degrees.

“I never really joined this crew,” Ras admitted. “I was planted here as a spy to destroy this organization from the inside out. I’m the one who tipped off Starfleet to the factory. It’s because of me that they’re taking us down.”

“You sold us out!?” Sam hissed.

“No,” Ras’s eyes narrowed into a glare. “I did my duty as a Starfleet officer. Do you even realize what you’ve been doing?”

“We’ve been just running some stuff to the Romulans,” Sam shrugged. “Illegal, sure. But not that a big deal.”

If the moment hadn’t been so precarious, Ras might have laughed. “You idiot,” he rasped instead. “You’ve been essentially handing the Romulans cloaking devices. The same Romulans who are going to invade us in a year or so. Do you realize how many people you’ve killed?”

Sam stared at Ras speechless for a long moment. Admittedly his morals weren’t exactly crystalized, but he was no killer. Neither was he a traitor at heart.

“Are you sure?” he demanded.

“Deadly,” Ras crossed his arms. “What you’ve been shipping are tetryon compositors, which I’m told are an essential part of cloaking devices.”

“Yeah, they are,” Sam nodded. “No wonder we were making so much profit. But wait, how did you know about where the factory was? Not even Timbal knew that?”

“I didn’t,” Ras shrugged. “I still don’t. I tipped Josh off to the Ferengi and they took care of the rest. So are you in?”

“I don’t know,” Sam looked pensive as he considered his options.

“If you help me escape, I can guarantee you immunity,” Ras wasn’t actually sure if he could given Josh’s personal vendetta against traitors, but it was worth a shot. “But if you don’t, then you are dead. He will melt this ship into scrap.”

“If he gets a chance,” Sam grunted.

“He will,” Ras assured. “Josh never, ever loses.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Sam pointed out.

“A freighter against a Prometheus-class vessel?” Ras let out a hoarse laugh. “Not this time.”

“What’s your hurry?” Sam wanted to know first. “Why not just sit tight until they pick you up?”

“I don’t know how long that’s going to be,” Ras slumped a little. “And it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out who the snitch is. I’m a little surprised I have been thrown out an airlock already.”

“I see,” Sam pressed his fingertips together. “Do you have a plan for escape?”

“Yep,” Ras nodded. “I just need your help.”

Sam leaned against the corridor wall for a moment as he thought about what he was about to do. “Okay,” he said at long last. “I’m in.”

“Great,” Ras beamed. “Here’s what I need you to do…”

**************

Six hours later Ras sat quietly in the shuttle waiting on Sam. The plan was simple: Sam would divert so radioactive waste into the shuttle bay, forcing them to decompress the bay and opening the doors. Ras would then zip out, beam up Sam, and take off for home. Not a bad plan, Ras congratulated himself.

There was only one hiccup: Sam was taking an awful long time. Checking the chronometer, Ras realized that his friend was over thirty minutes late. What’s taking so long? He wondered. The delay was starting make him nervous. Still there was nothing for him to do but wait. It was all in Sam’s hands now.

Another half hour passed and Ras’s nerves were beginning to wear. This was getting ridiculous. He understood the whole relaxed attitude on the Redmond but surely Sam knew the gravity of this. The man needed to be prompt.

“Comfortable Ras?” a female’s voice suddenly cracked over the comm, jolting the Andorian from his thoughts.

“Timbal?” Ras answered, his antennae ramrod straight and pulling out of his skull.

“Yes Ras,” the captain’s voice sounded cold. “Or should I call you Ensign Shras th’Zarath, chief helm officer on the USS Oregon?”

Ras’s antennae were doing knots above his head. “Formerly,” the pilot retorted unconvincingly.

“Oh please spare me,” Timbal snarled back, dropping the façade. “I know that your ‘defection’ was a joke. I know that you’re still a Starfleet officer. And I know that you’ve been spying on us for your captain the whole time. So show me a little respect and drop the act.”

“As you wish,” Ras managed to keep his voice even. He was toast, he knew. “What tipped you off?”

“A myriad of things,” Timbal answered, disgust evident in her voice. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier. You were just too good to be true. An officer six months out of the Academy steals a shuttle from one of the most powerful starships in Starfleet? Please. Then you happen to be on the planet where we do most of our recruiting just as we get there? That’s too much coincidence.”

“If you pegged me for a spy from that, I am impressed with your guessing skills,” Ras commented mockingly.

“Careful Starfleet,” warned Timbal. “By the way you should know that right now we have a dozen phasers pointed you. Want to see how long it’ll take us to eat through your hull?”

“Not particularly,” Ras answered, a light flicking on in his mind. Phasers.

“Where was I?” Timbal asked. “Oh yes. Despite being too good to be true, I jumped at the chance. But then things started happening. The rebels on Valt get crushed the day after you delivered the phasers. Then the Ferengi that we had been using for months get arrested just after you showed up. And of course, within days of getting the Romulan contract, the factory that had been kept secret for over a year suddenly gets erased by a surprise Starfleet task force. But do you know what really tipped me off?”

“Somebody told you the obvious?” Ras supposed, silently cursing himself for not being better discreet as he quietly target the phasers on the bay doors. It was a risk move and he wasn’t sure that the weapons could blow a big enough hole for him to get out. At the very least though, it would kill Timbal and another dozen or so of her peons.

“No,” Timbal snapped, sounding a little defensive. “One of the survivors told me the most interesting story. Apparently the officer in charge of the attack on the factory was one Captain Joshua Jackson, the commanding officer of your old ship. Then I did some more checking and found some funny stuff. The Oregon fixed up the Anslem, just before the Romulans destroyed it. It was officers from the Oregon that vaped Mex’atlic, who had been supplying security for the Goddesses. I also found out that the Oregon’s been hunting down the Goddesses for much of the last month. Put two and two together…”

“And you get four,” Ras grumbled in reply. “Very good captain, you’ve got me. It certainly took you long enough. Too bad for you that you’re too late.” With that, Ras depressed the fire command on his console.

Nothing happened.

Ras tried again with the same result. What the hell? He silently growled, his antennae starting to flatten against the back of his head.

“Oh do you mean that you were going to blow us out into space?” mocked Timbal. “We took the liberty of removing your phasers.”

“That’s impossible,” Ras retorted. “Only Sam could have done that.”

“Of course,” Timbal replied. “He’s been quite cooperative since we found him rigging the exhaust into the shuttle bay.”

Part of Ras was furious at his friend for betraying him. Another part of him pitied the engineer. Sam was a survivor, not a Starfleet officer; Ras couldn’t expect him to be anything more than a survivor.

“Despite betraying us to the Federation,” Timbal’s voice came back over the comm, “you have been an asset to us and a good guy. So I’m going to give you the option of surrendering peacefully.”

Ras sat back in the pilot’s seat and looked around. It was really his only option. He could try to go out fighting, but with no weapons available that would accomplish nothing. There was no way to blow through the bay doors, not without destroying the shuttle and himself. Josh or Jon or even Saehir probably could have thought of something, but he wasn’t them. No, it was over.

“Very well, I surrender,” Ras resigned. “Opening the doors now. Don’t shoot.”

Ras stepped out of the shuttle on to the bay floor. Timbal stood there, a fierce grin on her face, flanked by a half dozen mercenaries all aiming phasers at Ras’s chest.

“Flattered that you would think me so dangerous,” Ras gestured at the weapons. “But I’m thinking that it’s unnecessary.”

“Can never be too sure with you Starfleet types,” Timbal answered. “You have a habit of beating the odds. Hands out.”

A moment later Ras felt the cuffs clamp down over his wrists and electrify. “Let’s go,” Timbal ordered with a shove.

As they started towards the main part of the ship, Ras noticed Sam huddled in a corner. He looked like he had been run over by the shuttle, instead of working on it. The man was covered in bruises and cuts.

“I’m so sorry Ras,” the engineer cried as they passed. “I tried to resist, but they already knew everything.”

“I know my friend,” Ras hazarded a smile. “It’s alright.”

“Enough,” Timbal jabbed the nose of her phaser into his back. “Keep going.”

“What are you going to do to him?” Ras demanded, resisting a little.

“Him?” Timbal looked over. “Oh we have something special planned for him. We won’t kill him, if that’s what you’re worried.”

“And me?” Ras was almost afraid to ask.

“You have no idea how much pleasure it would give me to kill you,” Timbal answered, frustration evident. “But it seems the bosses have something special in mind for you.”

Ras’s antennae shot straight up.

*************

“Captain, we’ve got something,” Rio called to Josh, who was taking in some bridge time. “It’s a long rang communication.”
“Source?” Josh queried.

“Near the Batares system,” Rio scrutinized her display. “Captain, its Ras’s shuttle!”

Josh jumped up and whirled around to face his ops officer. “What does it say?”

“Escape made. Shuttle damaged. Ready for pick up at these coordinates: 153.5 by 271 mark 003,” Rio read. “Captain?”

“Helm set course for those coordinates maximum warp,” he ordered sharply. The helmsman wisely obeyed.

Five hours later they arrived at the coordinates. As promised, the shuttle was floating helplessly in space.

“RAS!” Rio gasped when she saw it. “Scanning now.”

“By all means,” Josh allowed a rare smile. Ras was the one person that could make Rio act like something other than a robot.

“No engines, no weapons, no shields, no sensors, no communications, minimal life support,” Rio rattled off. “One life sign. It’s…human.”

“You mean humanoid,” Josh correct.

“No captain, human,” Rio looked up at the floating shuttle on the viewscreen. “The person on there is human, not Andorian.”

“Well whoever he is,” Jon looked over Rio’s shoulder, “he’s in real trouble. Life signs are dropping.”

“Beam him directly to sickbay,” Josh ordered heading for the turbolift. “I’ll be waiting for him there.”

“Right on it Josh,” Jon nodded and took over the bridge.

*************

Ras was jerked awake by a pair of strong hands lifting him to his feet. He had been sedated for most of his trip, something that he found amusing. Now he was bound hand and foot and being dragged into some kind of facility.

“Head up Starfleet,” a Klingon mercenary growled. “You’re here.”

Ras blinked and took stock of his surroundings. It resembled the command center of a starbase, complete with the white and gray paneling that shined. The only difference was that at the rear was a raised dais. It was before this dais that Ras was thrown.

“Well, well, this is a specimen,” an alluring female voice drew his attention up to the top of the dais.

“He is indeed,” a nearly identical voice agreed.

Ras looked up and saw two creatures standing there. They were tall, about 180 centimeters with green skin and voluptuous figures that made them stunningly, irresistibly beautiful. The Andorian was dazzled by their green eyes and shimmering dark green, nearly black, hair.

“Who are you?” he breathed.

“We,” the first began.

“Are the Goddesses,” finished the latter.

To be continued…

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