liberation.gif (2958 bytes)

d. William Roberts

based on material by Nomad
poem, "Warriors," by Bev Hoover

2276

-1-

His prison cell was no more than a deep pit dug into the dry, layered, crumbling clay beneath the baked soil. The iron grate that covered the top threw a grid-work shadow halfway down the side of the pit.

How long have I been here now? he wondered as he lay at the bottom, watching a small beetle-like insect scrabble across the hard-packed dirt floor toward him. He waited until it got close, then crushed it under his hand. Without thinking, he picked up the broken carapace and shoved it into his mouth and began chewing. Food was food; you didn't question the source or type in this place.

Admiral Khalian's prison world lacked indigenous life forms. The beetle, a species that craved dying or dead flesh, had been brought from Kazh to clean up the bodies of those who died. They rarely went hungry, since none sent here as prisoners survived long.

How many days have I survived this? he asked himself, looking at the wall with the set of lines he'd carved into it to mark the passage of days. There were thirty or so marks, but he'd finally stopped keeping track. It seemed like it had been forever, the days all melting together in his mind. What is the Earther term for a place like this? A place of eternal torment, filled with burning and suffering? He translated the Earther word Hell into its Klingon counterpart--Kragyr--named after the fabled lair of the demon lord Fek'lhr, guardian of Gre'thor, the place where those who were less than what Kahless had proscribed as being true Klingon went after they die.

He looked at the grate's shadow and noted that it had moved down the wall. Not long till mid-day, when Kragyr's sun lights the bottom of this hole. He looked at the pile of bones--the remains of the pit's last resident--then toward the small, hand-dug cubbyhole where he'd found them. Didn't help that one at all, he thought, noting that already the temperature was rising. When the shadow reached the bottom, Kragyr's blue-white sun would transform the cell into a furnace. For an hour, even breathing would be difficult, only barely letting up a little after its light left the pit, and not fully dissipating until long after midnight.

The eye sockets of the skull sitting on top of the bones stared at him, the timeless smile mocking his presence. The temperature rose perceptively as the grate's shadow got closer to the bottom. His nearly depleted horde of water, gotten from the last rain storm over a week ago, was stored in his boot. He was beginning to hallucinate. The laughing face of his accuser, Khalian, overlaid itself on the bony relief of the skull. Pulling out the blood-stained jumper of his mate, Mara, he remembered the scene where his tormentor had originally tried and sentenced him to this inferno.

Kang shook his head slowly as he watched Korak's reaction to his words. "You are indeed a fool, Commander. Worse, you are a dangerous fool. If you are given half a chance, you will destroy the Empire." He glared at the Kh'myr. "You are relieved of battlecruiser command, effective immediately."

"I don't think so!" a voice thundered from the rear of Kang's small, tidy office even before Korak could voice a protest.

The startled Kh'myr commander whirled around, his dark face breaking into a huge, savage grin.

"Hail, Khalian!" he shouted, raising a fist in salute.

Kang exploded from his lounger, his face clouded with fury. "How dare you come in here unannounced and countermand my orders! Get out of here at once, or I'll--"

"Or you'll what?" Admiral Khalian strode menacingly toward the desk, his muscular, monolithic bulk in full battle armor dwarfing even the formidable Kang. Both of his huge hands shot out suddenly and disarmed Kang, relieving him of his disruptor pistol and his combat dagger. The giant Kh'myr tossed the weapons to Korak.

"Your orders no longer carry any weight with High Command, traitor," Khalian spat. "Your adjutant, Kitan, was apprehended for failing to show proper courtesy to his Kh'myr betters. I thought it might be interesting to put him under the mindsifter to see if you might have some secrets or information that would be of use to me. Before he died, he revealed the existence of a very interesting document you keep in your office safe."

Kang paled as Khalian moved to the wall behind his desk and tore down the perspex star map of the Klingon Empire, revealing the recessed wall safe. The Kh'myr glanced speculatively at Kang.

"I'll never give you the combination!" Kang grated.

Khalian chuckled contemptuously. "I don't need it," he hissed. He gripped the handle and yanked savagely, tearing the heavy, reinforced, dura-steel door off its hinges with a screech of tortured metal. The Kh'myr tossed it aside, then reached into the safe to pull out a plastex document tube. He unrolled the paper inside and read it quickly.

"Well, well, well!" Khalian exclaimed, shaking his great knobbed skull from side to side. "What have we here? This document is an agreement between the Klingon Empire and the Federation planet Serenidad. It would seem that Serenidad has renounced all ties with the Federation and wants to be a Klingon protectorate. It is signed by the Princess Teresa herself. Why have you kept this information secret, traitor?"

"Serenidad!" Korak exclaimed, his eyes widening. "That planet's dilithium stores are immeasurably vast! And he was sitting on this?!"

"It seems so, Commander," Khalian rumbled. He turned his attention to Kang again. "I have asked you a question, Kang. Why?"

"I have nothing to say to you," Kang muttered sullenly.

"I'm not surprised." Khalian clapped his gauntleted hands together, and two Kh'myr security guards appeared in the doorway, their disruptor carbines at the ready. "Admiral Kang is under arrest for treason. I have arranged for him to be incarcerated in the deepest, filthiest hole at the Kragyr penal colony." He turned to Kang. "Feel fortunate, Kang. You'll be permitted to live. At least you fared better than your little be'SIj of a mate."

Kang's head snapped up in alarm. "What have you done to Mara?!!"

Khalian's face twisted into an evil leer. "I had her sent to the Kh'alu'don death camp. She was executed at midday--beheaded."

Kang's face went white. "You lie!" he whispered, his voice a dry, tremulous croak.

"Indeed?" Khalian snapped his fingers. A guard left the office and returned within seconds carrying a torn, ragged, woman's tabard. Kang recognized the tunic immediately. It was the one Mara had been wearing this morning when he had left their habitat. The collar, shoulders and front of the garment were soaked with blood.

With an incoherent, despairing cry, Kang leaped at Khalian, but the big Kh'myr caught him in mid-air and slammed him brutally to the floor. Kang tried groggily to rise. He was too slow to avoid Khalian's savage kick, which took him on the tip of his chin and snapped his head back, while at the same time propelling him across the room. Kang hit the wall, crumpling it inward, then slid to the floor, collapsing like a rag doll.

That was the last coherent thing he remembered until finding himself in this hellhole. He put the remains of Mara's tunic to his face, smelled the blood and silently raged.

When he opened his eyes again, he thought he could see flesh regrowing on the bleached bone of the skull. With rapt fascination, he watched the transformation. It turned into an Earther face, one he thought he remembered. Squinting, he tried to clear up what he was seeing. Kirk? he thought. "James T. Kirk?" he finally croaked from dried, swollen lips. "You son of a targ bitch, so they got you too? At least I won't die before you."

"You got any water, Kang?" Kirk's head said.

"Yes, Kirk," Kang answered though amazed that someone in this condition could talk at all, "but you're not going to get any."

"In the cave, I'll bet," Kirk said, the head turning to look at the cubbyhole.

Kang scrabbled to a sitting position, the exertion causing him to sweat profusely. He looked inside his small cave and saw the set of boots they'd let him keep. Kragyr was a true desert planet, the only rain coming once a week in cloud bursts so intense that for a few minutes those in the pits felt they would drown. But the storm would be as short as it was intense and the nearly scalding water quickly absorbed into the ground. He'd learned to collect the rain in his boots if he wanted extra water, since what beamed in with his food wasn't enough to keep a beetle alive, let alone a full-grown Klingon.

"In the boots?" Kirk smiled, his head sliding through the sand, moving toward the make-shift water container.

"No!" Kang roared, leaping across to the cave. "That is mine." Grabbing up the boot in his hands, he held it close to his chest.

Kirk's head began laughing.

Kang roared back, then drank all that remained. There was only just a dribble anyway. Tipping the boot up to show Kirk's head that it was empty, the Klingon yelled, "You'll not get a drop of it, Kirk!"

"You'll soon join me, Kang," Kirk's head said, then began laughing again, the flesh slowly disappeared from the skull, as the laughing faded away into the background.

Kang blinked his eyes, realization of what had just happened reaching his thirst-craved mind. The grate's shadow was nearing the bottom of the pit. He could still hear the laughing. Shaking his head to clear it of the hallucination, he began to panic when it persisted. Then there was the scream of a female, and he realized the laughing was not really a part of the apparition.

The guards are here, he decided, and not far from my pit. Avoiding the beam of intense light that almost reached to the floor, he stood, listening adamantly. That must mean there's a storm coming, he reasoned. Those two don't ever venture out here during mid-day otherwise. The distant sound of thunder verified his deduction.

"tera'ngan be'SIj, give me the one thing you're good for." The guard laughed.

Kang recognized the voice of Kragyr's commander, Lieutenant N'rak. He knew Sergeant Taarist would be with him; the two were inseparable when it came to this kind of debauchery. He heard the creak of leather and the light clank of metal as one of the two undid the buckles of his battle armor. He knew, without actually seeing, what was about to happen. The fate of the Earther female was of no concern to Kang, but he knew that once they were through with her they would come over to taunt him. He had a plan already in place for that happenstance.

Looking up at the grate, he had to squint, Kragyr's sun was almost overhead. Just barely breaking the ragged edge of the western edge of the hole was the anvil-shaped top of the approaching storm cloud, and he heard a second rumble of thunder.

I'll have to hurry. Kang put his fingertips into the first of a series of holes he'd cut in the pit's side so long ago. The Earther won't distract them for long, and they won't stick around once the storm finally arrives. The hand hole crumbled under his weight, and, for a moment, he thought what he had in mind would fail before he could execute it. Slowly, careful not to disturb the hardened clay, he ascended toward the top of the hole. As he did, he listened to the two individuals as they continued their treatment of the Earther prisoner, so he'd know when to expect their leering faces over his pit.

"joHwI', where will you put your mighty choQ'etlh? Her be'SIj is nothing but a bloody pulp!"

The prisoner groaned, just barely conscious of what was happening above her.

"You were too rough in your attentions, Taarist. Now you've ruined the only thing she was good for," N'rak mockingly chided his second in command.

"jIQoS, joHwI', but I was just too much for her."

Both laughed.

"You give yourself too much credit, Taarist," N'rak responded a moment later, his voice filled with derision.

"No brag, joHwI'. Simply a fact."

Kang heard the clump of clothing hitting the ground.

"Now what do I do with this?" N'rak said a moment later.

"There is her mouth, joHwI'."

"She bit you, didn't she?" N'rak mentioned. "I would hate for her to use her teeth on this. You know what my mate would do to me then."

"Yes, joHwI', I do." Taarist made a wet, squishing sound.

Kang was now halfway up the wall, carefully reaching for the next hand hold. He was only cursorily listening, but he assumed Taarist was making a sweeping gesture across his throat.

"But I will take care of that." This time there was the sound of a fist hitting soft flesh and bone.

The prisoner screamed out in pain.

"See, joHwI'? No teeth."

"You're so thoughtful, Sergeant." Both Klingons laughed heartily.

The Earther female screamed again weakly. Kang, one hand-hold closer to the top, could only guess that Taarist had transferred control of the Earther's head to his commander.

"That's right, be'SIj. Open wide."

There was a muffled, choking sound. Then a grunting, accompanied by Taarist's chuckle.

"That looks like fun, joHwI'. I'm next."

Kang finally reached the last hand hold. With a desperate grab, he caught hold of the grating near the edge. Sweating profusely, he hoped he could hang on long enough to get a chance to execute his plan. The grate was very hot on his fingers, causing him to start slipping. Are you an Earther female, Kang? He clenched his teeth in the effort it took to hang on.

He now could see out onto the dusty plain. The sky above the ragged mountain peaks on the horizon was pitch black, the storm only a few minutes away. Not far away he could see N'rak and Taarist. N'rak was bare from the waist down, his pants piled up around his ankles, his face aimed at the sky, his eyes closed and his face contorted in pleasure. Taarist was hungrily looking on. The victim's eyes were wide open in terror, but N'rak had her by the hair, holding her in place. Her own blood covered every square inch of her naked body.

The beetles will eat well tonight, thought Kang.

With a final grunt and a mighty thrust, N'rak finished. There was an audible and unmistakable crack that came from the victim's neck, and her feeble sobbing ended.

"Hu'tegh, joHwI'! You have broken her neck!" Taarist roared.

N'rak withdrew. "Amazing, aren't I?" He let her body flop to the ground.

Taarist pouted a little. "Now there's nothing left for me."

"You can still have her."

"Oh, no, joHwI'. I'm not that desperate."

Both laughed.

Re-securing his belt around his waist, N'rak motioned toward the open pit with his head. "Dispose of the body there."

"Yes, joHwI'." Taarist grabbed the body by the hair and drug it to the edge of the nearby pit. With only a minimum of effort, the large Kh'myr warrior threw it in, then closed the grate. "Beetle food."

The ambient light, so brilliant a moment earlier, began to dim as the first edges of the storm cloud passed before the sun.

N'rak looked up. "Come on, Taarist. There's another little piece of entertainment left before we beam back to headquarters."

"Kang?" Taarist queried.

"Good guess."

They began walking toward where Kang hung on, watching. He brought his foot up, his toe finding the last hand hold. He knew it wouldn't give him much purchase, but it would take some stress from his weakening hand. I have to hold on, he chided himself. There will only be the one chance.

The two Kh'myr walked right up to the edge of the cell, so secure in their situation that they didn't note the presence of the fingers near the edge.

"Well, Admiral Kang." There was intense contempt in the way N'rak spoke. He finally looked down.

Kang made his move, pushing with his toe into the hand hold. He felt the clay give away, but not before he managed to propel himself forward. Reaching out with his right hand, he caught Taarist's right ankle before the grate stopped his forward momentum. Letting all his weight drop, he pulled the sergeant from his feet and dragged him against the grate.

Taarist roared in surprise. "taHqeq, joHwI'! The targ has me!"

Kang climbed the leg and grabbed hold of Taarist's equipment belt, reaching for the disruptor he knew should be there. Instead, he found Taarist's may'taj--battle dagger. What rotten luck, Kang cursed to himself as he withdrew the razor sharp blade and put it between his teeth. Taarist was left-handed, an oddity among Klingons. Knowing that N'rak was even now recovering from the suddenness of the event, Kang reached upward trying to get at the weapon.

"No, you don't, Kang," Taarist yelled, pulling the weapon free himself and began trying to aim it at Kang.

"Don't shoot him, you fool!" N'rak ordered, "Lord Khalian will skin us both alive if Kang dies any way other than slowly."

Kang had Taarist's leg all the way in now and tried to grab the hand with the weapon.

N'rak quickly walked out onto the grate and took the disruptor from Taarist.

"Help me, joHwI'!" Taarist roared.

"ghuy'cha', Taarist," N'rak chuckled. "You got yourself into this. Let's see who's really stronger: Kang or you."

Kang knew he'd failed. Without the disruptor, he had no way of forcing his way out of the pit, but that didn't mean Taarist would get away entirely. He released his hold on Taarist's leg with his right hand and took the dagger from his mouth, preparing to strike.

Taarist growled and planted his hands against the grate, preparing to pull himself away and let Kang drop to the floor. If he breaks his legs in the fall, it will cause his death to be all the more painful, meeting Lord Khalian's orders, he thought as he clenched his teeth for the effort.

There was a flash of lightening, and a second later, the air shook with thunder.

Kang struck.

Taarist saw the flash of the blade and felt its bite. Screaming in pain, he knew he'd lost his leg below the knee.

Kang watched with satisfaction as Taarist's lower leg fell to the floor of the pit. He prepared to strike again, his knowledge of the weaknesses in Taarist's armor telling him where.

"joHwI'! joHwI'!" Taarist reached frantically toward N'rak. "He cut off my leg! Give me my disruptor!"

"No, Taarist. If you are too weak to get away, then you deserve what Kang is going to do to you," N'rak answered, smiling wickedly. "Come now, Taarist. Are you not Kh'myr? Or did your mother mate with a Segh vav?"

The muscles in Taarist's arms knotted in effort as he tried again to extricate himself. "You son of a ..." A flash of the blade caught his eye, and he screamed.

Kang saw the blade slice through the leather of Taarist's pants and cut into the flesh of the Kh'myr's groin. A second slice changed Taarist from loQ' to be'. The sergeant's life blood sluiced out in a steady flow, covering Kang from head to toe. He drank of it, its energy strengthening him.

Taarist was going into shock; his eyes were white all-round. Frantically, he began to try to pull himself from the iron grip of the demon in the pit.

N'rak began laughing out loud. "Sergeant, he will have your heart next, and you know we are not to give him that much food. Lord Khalian's orders."

Taarist reached plaintively again toward his commander. "joHwI'!"

Kang struck again, driving the blade just below Taarist's armor, pulling downward until the blade came to rest against the Kh'myr's pubic bone. He pulled himself up on it and felt it cut through with a click. Grabbing hold of the equipment belt again, he watched the sergeant's bowels fall out and hang down into the pit.

Kang knew he had finished Taarist. The sergeant had collapsed against the grate, his chest armor the only thing keeping him from being pulled entirely through the bars. He knew he'd only get one more cut in, then he'd have to face a rough landing.

The first of the rain began to fall. It fell hot onto Kang's face, scalding the skin, then onto the hand still clutching the belt, mixing with the blood and causing him to lose his grip.

Kang drove the blade into the hip joint, cutting the leg completely from the body. His hand slipped from the belt, and he began to fall. Reaching frantically for anything to gain purchase on, he grabbed a handful of the intestine hanging nearby. As it tethered out from inside the sergeant, it slowed Kang's fall. The landing was still rough, driving the wind from his lungs. Blood mixed with hot rain fell onto his face as he struggled to get his wind. He heard N'rak's laugh and saw the remains of the sergeant dragged from the grate, the length of gut pulled up as well. Then he heard the lieutenant's voice.

"Very good, Kang," N'rak said with honest admiration. "It is very enlightening to see that the Segh vav can muster up a Kh'myr's level of courage and viciousness now and again."

Kang got his wind back as N'rak laughed again. There was the sound of a disruptor firing and Taarist's groans stopped short.

Lightning and thunder flashed and boomed right on top of each other. The water was a torrent now. Crawling painfully toward the small cave, still unsure about whether he'd broken anything yet, he grabbed his boots and placed them in position to collect the fall of hot rain water.

N'rak walked out onto the grate, fearless now that Kang was back at the bottom. Taking careful aim with his disruptor, he fired.

Kang saw the stream of disruptor energy hit something nearby and then saw the dagger glow and change instantly into a gaseous form. Silently cursing himself for not securing it better, Kang sat back against the now slimy wall of the pit. "Me next, N'rak!"

"No, Kang. That is prohibited, per Lord Khalian's orders." N'rak yelled above the roar of the storm. "I should burn the parts of poor Taarist you've got down there as well, but I think you deserve a small reward for your courage. But remember this when your next ration delivery does not arrive as scheduled."

Cursing his bad luck, Kang looked down, the rain's temperature causing the skin on his face to sting. He heard the rattle of N'rak's equipment belt. He looked back to see what was happening. N'rak began to urinate into his cell. His aim was good and much of it went into the boots.

"You filthy mantril!" Kang roared up at the shadow that was only clearly visible when the lightening flashed.

"Thank you, Kang." N'rak roared back, then trussed himself back into his leather pants. Pulling out his transmitter, the lieutenant contacted his headquarters. Kang couldn't hear what he said, but a moment later, N'rak disappeared into a column of sparkling red transporter energies.

Looking around, he shakily got to his feet. Thank Kahless I didn't break my legs, he observed to himself. He thought to dump the boots out, but then he noted that the rain was already beginning to slow. The sky above the grate was getting bright. There would not be enough further rain to refill them so he kept what was there, putting from his mind the mixed contents.

He collected up Taarist's left leg, both parts, leaving the sergeant's manhood for the beetles, keeping them busy while he devoured the rest. Later, he would have to fight them for what he couldn't eat right away. There was a small amount of disgust niggling at his mind at the concept of cannibalism, but he quickly shoved it aside. Meat is meat, he thought as he stripped the remnants of the sergeant's leather pants away. It will keep me alive until Kor can find and liberate me from this hell.

*****

"Entering the asteroid belt," reported the first mate of the light cargo vessel, Oshota.

"Any sign of him?" asked the only other person on the small ship.

"Not on these sensors, but they're only just a little better than standard navigational."

"With the money we're making from these deals, we'll be able to fix that pretty soon, won't we, Mike?"

"I should hope so. We're taking a big chance with our present security," the one called Mike answered. "And don't use my real name. You almost slipped the last time we met this rascal, Corrid."

"Ah, what's to worry about, Mike?" the one called Corrid Fikes responded, staring at the viewscreen as he made a few small course adjustments to avoid a large, iron-nickel asteroid in their way. "Who's looking for small potatoes like us?"

Mike took his gaze from the same viewscreen just long enough to study Corrid's face to see if his partner was serious in his flippancy. He saw no worries on the Centaurian's deeply tanned face, which only served to deepen his worries all the more about this business. "Just about anybody whose anybody in Starfleet Security, Corrid," he said returning his attention to his navigation board.

Mike Collins was a nondescript Human with hair and eyes of almost the same brown color. He and his family had moved out to the Federation colony on Psi Scorpii VIII when it had first opened ten years earlier with the idea that he could escape the pressures of modern society. Life on a colony was no better, if not more stressful, and Mike Collins had found it harder and harder to provide for his growing family.

He had some talent as an astronavigator, a skill learned during a time when he'd thought about signing up for Starfleet. That organization's very competitive entrance exam had ended any of his aspirations toward such a career choice. Though his skills were less than expert, they had been enough to attract the attention of Corrid Fikes, his business partner, and presently the master of the Oshota.

Collins continued, "Topaline is very rare, and absolutely necessary for the life support systems of starships and starbases. Because of this, it is one of the most heavily regulated substances in the Federation."

"Don't I know it!" responded Fikes. "That's why it's so valuable." He rubbed his hands together, a smile lighting up his face.

Corrid Fikes was almost pure Centaurian, sporting all the characteristics of that particular off-shoot of the Human race--the brown, almost black eyes and the natural ability to pilot a starship. He had no family. The reason, as he told Collins often enough, was that he didn't want anything to keep him from escaping if things got tight.

"Precisely why we should be more careful. After all the shipments we've made, we really don't know who this Illyeekeek is."

"He's Yridian. You know how they are--rabid free traders, interested only in the bottom line. I've done lots of business with Illyeekeek. He's always been square with me and always resulting in a tidy profit for both of us. And you know what? We've never come close to being caught. Never." Fikes' hands were flying through the air, saying as much as his mouth.

"At least not yet," responded Collins. "Who does he sell the topaline to? And are they friendly to the Federation?"

"So many questions, Mike." Fikes' face lost its humor. He made a new set of course changes to avoid another large asteroid, then turned toward his nervous partner. "One thing you've got to get used to in this business: You can't ask too many questions or be too curious. Last, but not least, you can't have a conscience. You don't need one when you're rich." Fikes studied Collins' face for a moment. He doesn't have what it takes to be a good smuggler or black marketeer, he concluded to himself. He's going to try and bail out on me soon, and then I'll have to liquidate him. But until then, I'll get as much use out of him as I can.

"I don't like him, Corrid. He reminds me too much of the rats we keep finding down in the hold," Collins concluded.

Fikes chuckled and nodded his head slightly before responding. "You know something, my friend? You're right."

The comm station beeped, signaling a hail.

"Speak of the devil." Fikes brought the Oshota onto its final approach heading as she cleared a cloud of stony debris, the crescent of a large asteroid becoming visible dead ahead. In a standard orbit above its surface was the familiar shape of the Yridian's ship. "Open the hailing frequency."

Collins couldn't say why, but every time he saw the trader's ship, it reminded him of something Klingon. It looked nothing like that empire's warships, but something about its basic triangular lines said "Klingon." As usual, he assuaged the worry with the thought, He probably bought it from them. As a free trader, Illyeekeek probably has contacts across all interstellar borders. Still, being within weapons range of the trader's ship made Collins nervous, despite all of Fikes' assurances.

The slightly snouted face, with its gray, elephant-like folds of skin that formed a line down to just above a mouth with protruding, chisel-like front teeth, came onto the viewscreen. He began speaking, and the Oshota's translating device took over. "Welcome, Free Traders. I glad to be able to do business with you."

"And with you, Free Trading Brother," Fikes responded.

"Do you have it?"

"As requested. And you the payment?"

"As set in our communication."

"We'll meet in the specified location for the transfer."

"As agreed. Illyeekeek out." The Yridian's face faded from the screen.

Fikes turned to smile at Collins. "See? Easy as pie, but much more lucrative."

Collins tried to put aside his worries and see only the gold-plated latinum at the end of the transaction rainbow, but he couldn't. He had an overwhelming premonition that they would get caught. "So you say, Corrid, so you say." Collins noted the Oshota's position on his navigation board, "Ready for orbital insertion?"

Fikes punched in the appropriate commands to the ship's main computer. "Ready."

"Execute."

The Oshota entered orbit around the large asteroid. The Yridian ship was now out of sight on the far side.

Fikes stood up and stretched. "Ah, now for the easy part of the trip."

"Transferring power to the transporters," Collins reported after flipping the necessary switches.

"When this is done, we'll have to see about upgrading this ship so the transporters are functional all the time." Fikes snapped his fingers as he walked toward the back of the bridge where the two circular transporter pads had begun to glow. "Better yet, we should consider getting a new ship. Yeah, a new ship, maybe with a cloaking device. What do you think, Mike?"

"One thing at a time, Corrid," Mike answered glumly. He grabbed an outdated laser pistol from the rack to the right of the transporters. "You want one?"

"Nah. I trust Illyeekeek." Fikes shrugged as he said this. "Besides I have you, and I can't carry all that latinum if I've got a weapon in my hand, now can I? Is the cargo ready on the cargo bay's transporter pad?"

Collins nodded his head as he took his place on the other pad. "As usual, Corrid, ready for our subspace signal to begin its transport sequence." He returned to the subject of whether they should trust the Yridian after all. "You know, you shouldn't trust that guy. He's only in it for himself. He could care less what happens to us in the long run."

"Can you honestly say we're any different than him?" Fikes became serious; the conversation was beginning to irritate him.

"Yes. I'm in this to support my family. I'm not sure of Illyeekeek's motives."

"That's easy, Mike. He's in this for the profit margin, pure and simple. Energize."

The computer registered Corrid Fikes' command, and two beams of sparkling energy formed around the two men, transmuting them into energy, ready for transport to the set of coordinates Collins had preset.

Almost simultaneous with their disappearance from the Oshota, the two began to coalesce inside a small room deep within the rocky mantle of the asteroid. Its furnishings were simple--a table big enough to hold articles of trade, and two chairs, each facing the other on opposite sides.

The transport cycle completed, and the two Humans stood alone in the room.

"We beat him in," Fikes said as he walked toward his side of the table, pulled the chair out from underneath with a scraping sound, then took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and began dusting off the seat before sitting.

"Yeah, that's unusual," Collins responded, looking nervously around, rechecking the charge on his laser.

They heard the sound of the Yridian's transporter a split second before the beam arrived. It had the high frequency scream both Humans recognized as being of Klingon construct, as well as the blood-red hue. This served only to accentuate Collins' suspicions, as he raised his laser to aim it at the incoming individual.

Illyeekeek arrived, his head turning slowly to look the other two occupants of the room. His whiteless brown eyes centered on Collins' weapon, and he began to speak very slowly, his words in standard, but heavily accented. "Why weapon, Free Traders?"

Fikes sat up in his chair, motioning for the Yridian to sit as well. "Don't mind him; he's really very harmless." Then, in order to get the trade moving, he turned to glare at Collins, his voice sounding very agitated. "Put that thing away." He remembered not to use any names.

Collins complied, but only after returning the glare.

"Good." Fikes returned his attention to Illyeekeek. "Are we ready?"

"Yes." The Yridian moved slowly toward his side of the table. He hobbled with a pronounced limp, his breathing very airy through the small nasal openings beneath a roll of skin.

"I see merchandise?" the Yridian croaked, the inflection of his voice identifying his words as a question, and not a statement.

Fikes pulled out his communicator and opened a channel to the waiting ship's computer. "Transport cargo."

In response, the room filled with the sound of a Federation transport beam, and three barrel-shaped objects, each a meter tall, appeared.

"There is product, Illyeekeek. I see payment?" Fikes mimicked the syntax and accent of the Yridian.

Illyeekeek stood up, and hobbled over to the closest barrel. Breaking the seal, he looked in to see the grey powder. Using a clear vial, he reached in and took out a sample. From another pocket within the robe he produced a tricorder, flipped a button to open the sample analyzer's compartment door, he placed the vial inside. A moment later, a set of readings came onto the analyzer's viewscreen.

The Yridian's face broke into what his race called a smile. "Good quality. I send."

He put away the analyzer and pulled out a communicator. Speaking quickly in the Yridian language, his command ordered the transporter on his ship to beam down a small pseudo-wood chest. "Payment, as agreed," Illyeekeek pointed at the chest with a long, clawed finger.

Fikes picked nervously at the lock, unable to open it. "Key, my Free Trader friend?"

Illyeekeek clucked impatiently. "Forgot. I locked." He fished around in a pocket, finally finding the key. "Thieves, you know." He tossed the key onto the table, and it slid toward Fikes.

"Thanks, Free Trader." Fikes caught the key as it fell off his end of the table. Placing the magnetic square against the lock's face, he heard the mechanism click inside. He opened the chest and looked inside. There, in a nice, neat pile were the twenty bars of gold-plated latinum agreed upon. He picked up the chest and showed its contents to Collins. "See, you can trust Free Trader Illyeekeek."

"That right, Huu-man," the Yridian emphasized the 'U' sound in the name. "You trust Illyeekeek."

"I do," Fikes responded, closing the chest and tucking it under his left arm. "I apologize for my friend's attitude."

"We all careful be, yes," Illyeekeek replied, a chortling sound following the words, his body shaking visibly. "He quiet." Illyeekeek nodded at Collins.

"Not a man of many words," responded Fikes. "Until next time?" He stepped around the table and offered his hand.

Illyeekeek hesitated to grasp the proffered hand, but, after a second, reached out tentatively with his own paw-like hand. "Yesss, Free Trader Fikes, next time." He bowed slightly, his head and neck just barely moving, then took hold of the Human's hand.

The strength of Illyeekeek's hand surprised Fikes, not to mention the way his hand felt tiny in the other's grasp though his eyes told him the Yridian's appendage was no bigger than his own. Movement about the Yridian caused Fikes to look back at Illyeekeek's face, and, for a moment, he thought he saw a wavering, a distortion, but it passed, and he withdrew his hand. Nerves, he thought as he turned around to leave. He noted a perplexed look on Collins's face. He saw it, too, he deduced, but decided not to say anything until they were back on board the Oshota.

At Collins's side now, he turned to face the Yridian. With the chest of latinum still under one arm, he pulled out a communicator and contacted the ship's computer. "Energize."

The two Humans disappeared into a drum-shaped enclosure of sparkling blue energy and were transported back to their ship.

Illyeekeek stood his place until the shimmering energies dissipated. Then, with a movement that belied his size and age, covering the distance in two steps, he approached the storage containers of topaline. Putting his hand on top of the nearest container, he began to laugh, but instead of the chittering laugh of a Yridian, it was a full basso sound.

A series of beeps sounded, growing more insistent as Illyeekeek continued to laugh. Air shimmered around him, but he ignored it as he reached into his robes and pulled out a communicator. The beeping became more strident, and the distortion deepened, completely blurring the Yridian's shape. He began to speak into the subspace transceiver, but now the voice held no trace of Yridian twittering. Now it was a full guttural bass. "jolyIchu'."

The beeping turned into a full electronic scream, but Illyeekeek ignored it as he began to laugh again. The distortion intensified. As the red energies of a Klingon transporter surrounded him and the cargo, the scream went off, and the Yridian's shape disappeared. In his place within the transporter beam was an individual who stood just over two meters in height, dressed in full Klingon battle armor. Illyeekeek was now Durit, of the house of Durit, a Kh'myr warrior in the height of his glory.

The transporter's carrier signal drowned out his laugh, and soon the room, located deep within the asteroid, was empty.

The warning klaxon of his ship's main computer filled his ears as his form fully solidified. "What the...?"

With the long stride of his stature, he left the transporter stage, headed for the bridge of his ship. The air-tight doors opened in front of him with a heavy metallic clang, and he stalked into the center of the room, standing next to the command chair. But he didn't bother sitting. "Computer!"

The ship's main computer responded in deep male voice. "Computer enabled."

"Reason for alarm?" Is Fikes stupid enough to attack me in an attempt to get both the cargo and the payment? he asked himself as he waited for the computer's response. If so, then he'll be in for a big surprise, he thought, absentmindedly patting the back of the command chair. The Yovtarg is an even match for one of the fleet's K't'inga or D-7 cruisers and will chew his small cargo ship up in less time than it would take for me to give the order.

"Sensors have picked up a group of patrol ships nearby," the computer reported.

"Identity?"

"Caldonian."

"Confidence of match?"

"Ninety-nine percent. Configuration is that of a Caldonian security patrol sloop."

Durit pictured the vessel being described. "Put one on the screen."

"Targets are presently located behind asteroids nearby, but the record of the one detected a moment ago as it approached is available."

"Proceed." Durit was more curious than worried. The Caldonians were strictly neutral, dealing with Klingon, Romulan and Federation equally. Normally they let all other species alone, choosing to pursue their own private scientific investigations. So why was one of their security patrols watching this place, at this time? Unless... An explanation began to form in his thoughts.

The computer put the picture of the ship in question on the screen. He was puzzled when all he could see were two crater-covered, irregularly shaped asteroids. He was about to question the computer concerning this when he saw the bow of a ship poke out from behind the left rock. "toH!" he exclaimed, watching more closely. The ship in question had tried to use a line of asteroids to stay out of sight while at the same time getting closer. Durit could only see a small part of the ship at a time as it passed behind the second asteroid. "Computer. Extrapolate that ship's full form from visual and sensor records."

The computer projected a full picture of the ship onto the screen.

"taHqeq!" he exclaimed. "That's Caldonian, all right. Where's that one right now?"

The viewscreen panned further along the path the visual record had shown the sloop taking.

"That's too close," Durit hissed as he punched in the course his ship would use after leaving the meeting place's orbit. "So'wI'chu'." The lights on the bridge went from the normal dim white variety to a dull red. Not that one sloop worries me, he thought as he chuckled. My ship has enough fire power to turn it into nothing but a cloud of constituent atoms, but... His thoughts paused as he began maneuvering his ship out of orbit ...there's no reason for me to lead them to my base.

"Computer. Execute escape program."

"Program enabled," the computer responded.

"Sensor sweep of area surrounding the colonists' ship."

"Active sensors will give away our position," the computer warned.

"Do it..." Durit began to say, then changed his mind. "Visual search only."

"Visual search," the computer said. "Multiple contacts found behind the Oshota."

"Display."

There was another Caldonian sloop moving through the asteroid field, being very careful not to expose itself for too long to the colonists' ship. As he watched, the computer showed that there were numerous ships behind the Oshota.

"How many?" he asked the computer.

"Nine ships behind the Oshota and one now investigating where we activated the cloak."

"baQa'!" he exclaimed. "That's the end of that source of topaline!" He shouted at the screen. He was more than a little upset over losing such a profitable source of the rare material.

"Yovtarg is now clear of the asteroid field," the computer reported.

"Continue evasion program. Factor one graf speed," Durit responded. No use giving them too large an ion trail to follow.

The thought of turning around and destroying the entire police force coursed temptingly through his intellect. "Computer, plot best attack course to take out Caldonian force."

There was only a short pause before the computer's gruff male voice responded. "Course on viewscreen."

That would do it, he thought, a smile building across his face at the prospect of a battle. He was just about to order the computer to take it, when another thought came to him, smashing through the adrenaline induced thoughts. These ships are acting under the orders of Caldonia Central. I would have to destroy the entire planet to wipe clean the information of what "Illyeekeek" has been doing here. He shook his head, his smile fading. "Return to forward angle to screen."

"Status of attack assignment?"

"Not today."

I have many other sources of topaline for my Romulan friends, his thoughts concluded. More than enough to make me the richest Klingon in the Empire. A chuckle escaped from his throat at this thought. And with riches I can purchase power, and eventually..."

A laugh began to build in his throat, one that he wanted to release, but first, "Computer. Status of the search for us?"

"They have discontinued their search. That ship has joined the others."

"Good," Durit yelled at the screen, "Good. Continue at this speed until we're out of sensor range, then, disengage the cloaking device and proceed to the rendezvous point with the Romulans, then back to my palace, on my planet, jImIplaH,* with my harem.

(*Klingonese: "I'm Going to Be Rich"--a class M planet in the Klingon Star Empire, registered to the House of Durit)

"Speed?" the computer queried.

"Normal cruising speed. No need to get there before the Romulans."

"Course plotted and locked."

"Engage." Durit began to laugh, deep and long as he let himself sink back against the durasteel back of his ship's command chair.

-2-

Starfleet Sector One General Hospital stood as a gleaming tower of care and healing one block away from Starfleet Headquarters, in the new downtown area of San Francisco. Orderlies and physicians bustled through its hallways bringing the light of modern medicine to those in need.

Though, in general, the weather could be controlled, the residence of San Francisco wanted an occasional fog, and the controllers had obliged them this morning. Thick, heavy fog sat on the city, only her tallest towers breaking through the top. Though it was cold and damp outside, there was one place within the hospital where the temperature was about to approach that near the surface of the yellow dwarf star which held Earth in its bondage.

"I think the Giants are going to go all the way this year, Leonard," quipped Doctor Raul Sanchez, a senior Starfleet physician who'd served during aboard the Enterprise during its first five year mission.

"Hah, hombre. They haven't had any kind of schedule, playing against the Tokyo Stars and the London Kings, but you wait. In two weeks, they'll play the Braves in Atlanta. That meat-grinder defense will eat them for lunch. And Sally Drysdale is going for her fourth Cy Young this year. She'll be serving up some chin music," Doctor Leonard McCoy countered, allowing his hands and arms to be bathed a full second longer under the sterilite beams.

Sanchez always made it a point of discovering the mood of whomever he was working with at the time. With most of the other senior staff, this was only a sociable trait, but with the infamous Doctor McCoy and his explosive temper, it was a survival trait that had served him well in the past. If you wanted to test the weather of McCoy's temperament, talk sports. Today, there was a storm on the horizon.

"I don't know, señor. The Giants are pretty good. And Sally might find herself losing out to Ito Noguchi," Sanchez continued.

McCoy finished his scrub and stood ready to enter the surgery, but his blue eyes sparkled with the prospect of a good, intense discussion about one of the few subjects, other than medicine, he held an interest in. "Y'all just wait and see," he said, allowing his southern drawl to surface. "The South ain't dead yet, and Johnny's marchin' home."

"Ay carumba." Sanchez chuckled, following McCoy through the swinging doors and entering the surgery. "It'll be a good game."

Doctor McCoy stopped for a moment, noting who his assigned assistant was, groaning just under his breath. It wasn't the Andorian nurse who bothered him. He recognized Shrell from earlier operations and respected her efficiency. It was the Human, Theodore Parker, the medical technician who would hand him the tools of his trade, who bothered him. He'd had problems with that one before, and, if he'd had a choice, wouldn't have put him on this team.

The doctor walked up to the patient. Maybe it'll be different this time, McCoy thought, dismissing his irritation grudgingly. Maybe he's learned from his past mistakes. Shrugging, he forced his mind to the problem at hand. It isn't often I get a call to use the experience I gained on the Enterprise, he thought as he inspected his patient. Earth is such a sterile, safe, environment, but now and then...

His random thoughts stopped as he found the injury caused by the crash of the shuttlecraft the patient had been riding. A quick glance at the patient's vital signs told him he was indeed ready for the operation. "We'll have to palaver more about that subject once we're through here, okay, hombre?"

"Si, señor gringo," Sanchez responded as he took his place on the other side of the table.

McCoy's attention went to the med tech who stood at the head of the table. "Is the patient prepped and ready?"

"Yes, Doctor," answered Parker, whose two meter height caused him to loom over most he worked with.

I hope everything really is, thought Sanchez, because there'll be hell to pay if something out of the ordinary happens here.

"Okay, let's get started, shall we?" McCoy said, all business now. The first thing to do is to expose the site of the actual injury, he thought before putting out his hand. "Scalpel."

Parker nervously found the requested instrument and placed it into the waiting hand.

McCoy felt the scalpel hit his fingers instead of his palm, and he had to make an effort to get it firmly into his hand. "We're not going to have a repeat of the other day, are we, Parker?" McCoy let the perpetual anger he was feeling these days edge into his voice.

"N-n-no, Doctor. I'm sorry, sir." The technician bowed slightly trying to make amends.

"Good."

Parker looked quickly to Sanchez for support and found it in the Latino's brown eyes.

"We'll make the incision right about..." McCoy flipped on the power switch to the laser scalpel and nothing happened. His growl was loud and noticeable this time; his anger built and exploded almost instantaneously. Slamming the obviously uncharged laser scalpel back onto the tray, he charged ahead. "Damn it, Parker! I'm fed up with your incompetence! Get the hell out of my surgery ward! Now!"

Parker paled to a hue closely resembling the unconscious patient that lay beneath the surgical shell, but he made no move to leave.

McCoy brushed past Nurse Shrell and glared at Teddy Parker eye-to-eye, a remarkable feat considering the technician was taller than him. "I said," he let the heat of his intense anger boil up into a soft, but dangerous tone, "get out."

Parker glanced quickly at Sanchez and saw the other doctor nod for him to leave, then found McCoy's angry, bright blue eyes. "Yes, Doctor." He spun on his heal and quickly exited.

McCoy pivoted and took his place beside the patient again. "Nurse Shrell, get me the laser scalpel from Surgery Five."

As the Andorian nurse silently retrieved the discarded scalpel and followed in the wake of the technician, McCoy continued. "And write that bastard up. I don't want him on my team again, you hear?"

"Yesss, Doctor," the nurse said as she left.

"Lighten up, Len," Doctor Sanchez murmured sotto voce. "Shrell doesn't control the duty roster, and besides, it might not have been Teddy's fault. Those charge units are old. Sometimes they don't hold a charge..."

"I don't need any lectures from you!" McCoy interrupted with a baleful glare. "I was practicing medicine before you were a gleam in your daddy's eye."

Sanchez nodded solemnly. "So you have. That's why I put up with your gringo, dixie bullshit, but not everyone has my tolerance for it."

McCoy met the younger physician's gaze, relaxing just slightly as blue eyes locked with sable. Despite the verbal sparring, there was something calm and accepting in Raul Sanchez's expression, something that reminded him of...

"Doctor McCoy, report to the Hospital Administrator, stat," came a voice over the ward's loudspeaker.

"God damn it! When it rains, it pours!" McCoy snapped, in a rage again, his previous thoughts gone. "She knows better than to call me out of surgery! I'm a doctor, not a..." His muttering trailed off as Sanchez raised an eyebrow, reminding him again of the good friend he'd lost touch with in the last few months. "Go ahead, hombre. Finish this one for me."

Sanchez chuckled, not sure what he'd done to put the fire out. "Sure, gringo. Give my regards to the boss." He watched McCoy head for the automatic doors and saw Nurse Shrell come in as the chief of surgery left.

"I'll tell her where she can shove her damn..."

The pneumatic swish of the surgery's twin doors drowned out the last of the doctor's retort, and Raul Sanchez shook his head, returning his attention to the patient.

"Get Parker back in here, Nurse Shrell," Sanchez said as he began his work.

"Yes, Doctor."

*****

Leonard McCoy was not a terribly happy man these days. Working in Starfleet's Sector General One Hospital was, for lack of better words, boring as hell. The one day he'd found his skills as a surgeon needed, the administrator called him away. "Bitch," he grumbled as he entered the elevator. "Administrator's office," he snapped, immediately surprised by the venom in his voice. When did I become so vicious? he thought.

The car shot up sixteen levels quickly, and then the doors parted. For a moment, McCoy stood and stared down the long hallway, his thoughts churning. Probably when I accepted this posh assignment. I thought an assignment to Earth would allow me to finally get to know my daughter and her family, the heat of his thoughts rose with this, but that husband of hers dragged her off planet just as I got here, and now all I've got is this. He grumbled, "This shitty job."

McCoy stormed out of the lift and down the hall, ignoring the panoramic view of the bay that the hallway's window-filled expanse afforded. In no time flat, he was in the administrator's outer office, facing her receptionist.

"Ah, yes. Doctor McCoy. Go right in. She's waiting for you," the receptionist said, just barely looking up from the monitor that held the report she was completing.

The solution to his present problem had just appeared in his thoughts, the rightness of which already was serving to cool his temper. What had Spock said to Kirk about this sort of thing...His thoughts trailed, his voice completing the thought. "First and best destiny?"

"What was that, Doctor?" the receptionist asked.

"Nothing. Just thinking out loud," McCoy's smile was weak, and he shrugged. "Thanks." He walked through the open door with Doctor Susan Blair's name on a plaque positioned at eye level.

"Leonard, so nice to see you. How have you been?" Doctor Blair greeted him pleasantly. She was his contemporary in age and surgical experience, having earned her position as administrator with over thirty years' experience as a surgeon aboard several destroyers, highlighted by a six-year stint aboard the Lexington. She was an excellent surgeon and a top notch administrator, with a keenly sharp mind and a natural diplomatic streak.

Leonard McCoy couldn't argue her qualifications, nor did he begrudge her the position, but he felt her promotion had caused a tragic waste of a perfectly good surgeon. "I'm all right," McCoy growled, his anger rekindling as he remembered what was waiting for him back in surgery. He plopped himself into a chair before her desk. "I have three shuttle crash victims backed up in triage. Could you dispense with the crap and get to the point? I have work to do."

Blair could not have missed the sarcastic innuendo in McCoy's voice, but she chose to ignore it. "I'm sure Doctor Sanchez has matters well in hand," she dismissed his argument succinctly. Her voice remained even and polite with just a hint of firmness in it, discouraging any further snipes from McCoy. "As you know, I've been thinking about retirement lately. Frank and I want to relocate to a backwater planet, hang up our shingles and live out our lives in the simplicity of colonial life."

Oh, God, he thought as his mind made a quick, intuitive deduction. She's gonna offer me her job.

She had paused to stand and walk to the front of her desk. As she leaned against it, she continued, "That will leave this position vacant, Leonard, and they'll be needing a qualified doctor with administrative experience to serve as the new director."

Here it comes, he grimaced internally. And this after I thought I had my mind made up.

She dropped her bombshell on him. "I do not intend to recommend you for that job."

"Well, don't look at me. I'm not interested. I don't consider sitting in an ivory tower..." He paused, waving one hand toward the bay below. "...practicing medicine." His brow furled as he realized what she'd actually said. "Wait a second. What did you say?"

"I said, I don't intend to recommend you for that job," she answered with uncharacteristic impatience. "I just don't think you're the right man. Hell, I don't even think you're the right man for the surgical ward, but when the Surgeon General gets my resignation, I'll just bet he's going to appoint you to take my place."

She was right of course. He could feel the walls closing in on him as he dropped back into the chair. "Damned nonsense," he said under his breath. "Phil just can't be thinkin' straight these days if he thinks he can nail Leonard McCoy to a desk."

Blair leaned back onto her feet and crossed her arms. "Doctor Boyce insists that you're..."

That was all it took. "Look, Philip Boyce may be Surgeon General, but he doesn't order Leonard McCoy around!"

Blair looked amused as she walked back around to stand behind her desk. "I'm afraid as your superior officer, the admiral..."

"Screw the admiral!" McCoy roared as he regained his feet.

Blair's mouth dropped open at the blatant disrespect for a senior officer, but she never got the chance to react.

McCoy's intellect was working hard on a solution to this problem. Then he remembered something he saw in the latest Starfleet personnel bulletin. "Is the Reliant still in need of a chief medical officer?"

"Uh, well, the last I heard, yes, but..."

"But nothing. I'm getting out of this system in a hell of a hurry. Where's she at?"

"Who?"

"The Reliant, damn it!"

"Leonard, you can't just report to the Reliant! You have to be assigned there. Which, by the way, requires the approval of the Surgeon General. We both know where he wants you."

She's been behind that desk too long if she believes there's only one way to process out of a chicken-shit outfit like this, he thought shaking his head, the course he was laying for his career becoming clear in his head. "Admiral Boyce can be bypassed, and I intend to do that right now. You better find a replacement for me. I won't be back," he warned as he turned toward the door.

Blair's eyes widened with the disbelief she felt at what McCoy was about to do. "You're going to Nogura?" she harrumphed as she sat in the plush chair. "The commanding admiral would never..."

"I'll put my next two paychecks on it, Susan," McCoy said as a smile began to cross his face. "But I know that's one bet you won't take, because you know me better than that. Mark my words: find a replacement...now...because you're not going to see me around here any more."

As he exited her office, McCoy heard her say, "He's right; I can't afford two of his paychecks," before the doors to her office closed. He crossed the reception area to the lift doors and they opened to accept him, a car waiting. "Transporter Station," he announced, and the doors shut.

The car began its rapid descent to the basement level. He felt better than he had for months--since taking this job, in fact. It was like the sun peaking through after a really dark storm; everything looked so much brighter now.

The lift stopped, and the door opened. Across the hall was the familiar crescent pattern of circles on the floor that was the transporter station. The familiar fear of being disassembled and changed into energy entered his mind, but the intensity of his thoughts kept it from bothering him.

"Destination, Doctor?" the young ensign called out from behind the mechanism's control station.

"Starfleet Headquarters. Now!"

"Emergency, Doctor?"

"If there isn't one now, there soon will be, believe me," McCoy explained with all seriousness.

"Okay, Doctor," the ensign responded as he punched in the coordinates. "Standby."

Damn it, Jim. Why'd you chose now to get assigned to that mess involving the Nelson? You picked a hell of a time to be halfway to the Orion Barrier, McCoy thought as he waited.

"Energizing."

And the room dissolved in a wall of sparkling energy.

*****

"I just got a call from Phil Boyce, Leonard," Nogura commented as McCoy entered his office. "I don't have to tell you how upset he is with you."

I guess Susan must have called him right after I left her office, McCoy thought as he prepared himself for a fight with Starfleet's most senior officer. I still don't understand women. She said herself I wasn't the one she'd pick to become the senior administrator, so why did she warn Boyce? "I'm just trying to head off a big mistake on his part, sir."

"And that is?"

"Tying me to a desk."

A small smile appeared on Nogura's normally inscrutable face. "I see."

"You know me. I'm just an old-fashioned family physician, the one that makes house calls on families, is known by two and three generations, having delivered half of them himself. I could never retire the horse and buggy." McCoy hoped his argument was good, because it was all he had.

"What about your career?"

"In Starfleet?"

"Yes. As your superior officer, it is my responsibility to insure that you have every opportunity to rise through the ranks, to gain the experience needed to get your next promotion. You know, I can see you as a future Surgeon General."

McCoy snorted at the thought. "It'll be a cold day in hell, 'Chiro. And you know it"

"You say that now..."

"And I'll continue to say it until I die."

Nogura shook his head as he sat back in the chair. "Okay, Leonard. You have my attention. What is it you want?"

"Assignment to the Reliant, sir."

"Hah!" Nogura exploded. "They're headed out on a Romulan Neutral Zone patrol in the Triangle. Not a mission for the faint of heart."

"Not one of my traits," McCoy responded.

"That is true," Nogura admitted. "And if I refuse your request?"

"Then I'll resign and go back to the private practice I was yanked out of before that V'ger thing. It was profitable enough."

He was working practically for charity while translating the Fabrini medical journals, remembered the commanding admiral as he tested the waters with his next comment. "I don't see you doing that."

"Just watch."

He would, too, concluded Nogura, and I'll be out the best prospect for a future Surgeon General I've seen in years. That is, if he survives that long. Nogura shook his head at the thought. "Can't have that, now can we, Leonard?"

"I thought you'd see it my way."

"I think those were my words when you returned to Starfleet for the V'ger mission."

"You have a good memory, 'Chiro."

"Remember that, Leonard McCoy, because one day I'm going to come looking for a favor, and you owe me a big one now."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Without breaking eye contact with McCoy, Nogura spoke aloud, "Computer."

"Working," the female voice of the computer said.

"Open a comlink to the Starfleet Personnel Officer."

A moment later an electronic beep announced the completed connection.

"Personnel, sir. Commander Po, speaking."

"Cut orders transferring Doctor Leonard McCoy, presently assigned to Starfleet General One Hospital, to the U.S.S. Reliant, Commander."

"Aye, sir," replied the officer on the other side of the connection. "Effective date?"

"Immediately."

"Thanks, 'Chiro," McCoy said as he relaxed.

Nogura became all business. "Don't thank me, Leonard. I don't think you know what you're getting yourself into, but if you want to voluntarily put your head into a meat grinder, then be my guest. Just don't try to hold me responsible for you coming up one foot shorter at the top afterward... Or six feet under."

"All the same, thanks."

"You're welcome. Now get out of my office. Can't you see I've got really important things to do?"

"Hah."

*****

"McCoy, eh?" asked Clark Terrell, present captain of the Federation frigate Reliant.

"Yes, Kyptin," responded Lieutenant Commander Pavel Chekov, the Reliant's second in command. "I've served vwith him for some time now. He's a good man."

Terrell leaned back in the center seat. The orders for his new chief medical officer were only a few hours old, cut just in time for their scheduled departure time. That in itself was not odd, but the signature on the orders! Heihachiro Nogura himself? Impressive, thought Terrell.

The addition of Leonard McCoy to the ship's crew was an unexpected, but welcome, event. Ships the size of Reliant rarely drew such a senior and heavily experienced medical officer. Usually they got someone just out of Starfleet's medical school, still wet behind the ears, and green around the gills.

"We've just received our departure orders, sir," Lieutenant Commander Kyle, the communications officer, interrupted from his station.

"It's about time, eh, Chekov?"

"Yes, sir."

Terrell heard the turbolift doors open, but it was a common event on the bridge, and he paid it no never mind. "How long's the wait?" he directed toward Kyle.

"Our departure slot for leaving the system is in thirty minutes."

"Wow," Terrell exclaimed sitting up in the command chair, then turned to Chekov. "That doesn't give McCoy much time to get here."

"Already moved in and ready to hang up my shingle, Captain Terrell," replied a voice from behind him.

Terrell saw the smile on Chekov's face and the direction in which he was looking. Turning the chair around, he found the good doctor standing on the other side of the railing that surrounded the central command well. "Well, so you are," his eyebrows shot up. "How do you like Sickbay?"

"Small, inefficient, and over-engineered," McCoy responded, no emotion showing on his face at all.

"Meaning?"

An alarm went off at the comm station. Kyle cut it off quickly.

McCoy ignored the slight commotion. "Situation normal, as I expected it would be," the doctor answered.

"Good. I'd like to take this time to welcome..."

"Sir, Starfleet just received a distress call from the colony on Psi Scorpii Eight," Kyle reported. "They are under attack by unknown forces."

"That's just outside the Triangle and within our next patrol zone isn't it, Exec?"

"Aye, sir," replied Chekov.

Standing at his usual perch at the rear of the bridge, McCoy wasn't bothered by being ignored by those busy doing their jobs.

"Starfleet just informed us that they're ordering the Molock and the Shaitan to meet us at Psi Scorpii Eight," Kyle added a moment later. "We're to depart immediately, and have been moved to the front of the queue." The British comm officer winked a greeting at McCoy.

"It sounds like more than a border skirmish, Kyptin," Chekov made a quick analysis.

Terrell nodded his head as he punched the button on his command chair to activate the ship's log. "Ship's log, Stardate 7631.4. We are ordered to the Psi Scorpii Eight colony right out of refit. They report that they are under attack by a force of ships, registry unknown. The destroyers Molock and Shaitan are already en route. All conjecture will have to wait until we've arrived. The Psi Scorpii system is close to both Romulan and Klingon Star Empires, as well as the Triangle, the area of space where the Romulan Neutral Zone and the Klingon Treaty Zone meet, creating an area rife with piracy and chaos. Captain Terrell, commanding the U.S.S. Reliant, out."

Terrell paused for only a moment, then began issuing the orders that would take the Reliant out of Spacedock. "Helm, take us out; thrusters only until we clear the structure, then full impulse. Navigator, plot and set a course for Psi Scorpii Eight. Communications, acknowledge our orders and request a full intelligence dossier on the Psi Scorpii system."

The bridge came alive, executing the orders.

The Reliant slowly edged forward out of the structure that a moment earlier had appeared like a large spider on the starship's back. As soon as the warp nacelles, mounted on stanchions below the saucer-shaped hull, cleared the last of its spindly arms, the Reliant turned toward the standard jump point located near the orbit of Saturn. All starships leaving Sol's family of planets on anything less than war emergency went there before accelerating to warp speeds. With her impulse engine exhaust coming to a brilliant orange, she sped off toward deep space.

"Plot calculated and locked in, ready to be activated at the jump point, sir," the navigator reported a moment later.

"Warp Six at the jump point, Mister Walking Bear," Terrell added.

"Warp Six, aye, sir," the Comanche helmsman replied after entering the speed into the computer.

"Estimated time of arrival jump point?" Terrell asked.

"Fifty minutes, full impulse," the Edoan navigator responded.

Terrell nodded and turned his seat so he could look at Chekov. "Are the engines ready for warp speed?"

"Aye, Kyptin," Chekov answered. "The modifications during the refit were not too extensive. Chief Engineer Sonn informed me that no shakedown would be necessary."

"Right," Terrell responded with just a hint of sarcasm edging his voice. "Just the same, maybe you'd better be down in engineering to hold things together, just in case our lieutenant is in error."

"Aye, sir," Chekov answered, glancing quickly at McCoy with an I knew that look.

Terrell saw the glance and turned his attention to McCoy as well. He waited until Chekov had disappeared behind the doors of the turbolift before saying anything. "So, Doctor McCoy?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Late of the U.S.S. Enterprise."

"No, Sector One General Hospital." McCoy glanced around the bridge, noting the familiar faces from the Enterprise: the communications officer Kyle had been the transporter chief; the helm officer was Lieutenant Dawson Walking Bear; and the navigator was none other than Lieutenant Arex. "Of course, I spent a total of eight years aboard the Enterprise before that."

"Ah, yes. That's right." Terrell's eyes lidded as he nodded, pursing his lips. "You come well recommended."

"I've seen my share of service."

"And then some," Terrell smiled.

McCoy had seen that kind of smile before now. It usually meant that the owner knew more than he was letting on and that he was reserving judgment. It was a common treatment of him since he'd been on Serenidad during the Klingon invasion and takeover of that planet.

"Well, if one likes it quiet, one doesn't join Starfleet," McCoy answered. He decided to stand with his hands locked in the small of his back, and his fingers fidgeted a little, a slight indication of the nervousness he was beginning to feel around Terrell.

"Nor do they allow themselves to be assigned to Starfleet's Sector One General," Terrell responded, quietly, with little emotion shading his voice.

"Not my first choice," McCoy replied. "I just go where they tell me."

"Good answer, Doctor." Terrell's smile was genuine this time.

I guess I passed his first exam, thought McCoy before continuing. "Thank you, sir, but I didn't know this was a test." Got to keep him on his toes, McCoy's thoughts continued as he made his first impression of Captain Terrell. Let him know the bridge is not the place to continue this interview. He gave the Reliant's captain his most charming smile.

Terrell cleared his throat. "It isn't. Just passing the time until warp. You understand."

More than you think, Captain. You might soon be trusting the well-being of each member of your command to the talents of my profession, and you want to be damn sure the man behind those hands is still competent, McCoy thought before answering. "I understand, sir."

Terrell turned to stare at the engineer station for a moment. Lieutenant Arex reported crossing the Mars orbit.

"Then, welcome aboard," Terrell stood and offered his hand.

McCoy stepped down into the command well and took the offered hand. "Glad to be aboard, Captain."

"I like my ship's surgeon to be as close an advisor as my exec. Is there any special nick-name you prefer?"

McCoy recalled the name Kirk had hung on him so many years earlier, one that he had not minded one bit. "My friends call me, Bones." He met and held the gaze of Terrell's dark brown eyes with his steel blue.

'"Bones' it is." Terrell shook the hand of his new surgeon.

McCoy felt the firmness of the grasp, another indication of the character of the man behind it. "Thank you, sir. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've a sickbay to report to. First warp flight after refit is always a bit dicey."

"That it is, Doctor. Again, welcome aboard." Terrell returned to his command chair, ending the conversation by turning back to look at the viewscreen, just in time to see a large asteroid flash by on the starboard side.

Remembering where the ship was heading and, slipping into his best pessimistic mode, his smile slipped into a bit of a frown as he entered the waiting turbolift. Answering the 'lift's query he gave it his destination: "Sickbay." Then as the doors shut, he muttered, "Hell of a time to sign aboard this ship."

-3-

Spreading out across the plain of K'tin'yotlh, at the foot of the Kurnach mountain range, The First City--the largest city on Q'onoS and the location of the empire's throne--sweltered happily under the attention of the twin orange orbs that heated this world and supported the planet's dominant life form--the Klingons. Only a few months earlier, the world had been known as Kazh, as it had been called for millennia. With the rise of the Kh'myr race of Klingon, the standard dialect had changed to pIqaD and so changed the name of an entire world.

The First City had many fortresses whose turreted spires reached for the hazy, smoke-filled heavens, boasting the most in the entire Klingon Empire. The largest of these occupied the center of the city and was the home of the emperor and his staff. Surrounding this mighty edifice was a circle of other citadels whose owners constantly aspired to--as demonstrated by the size of the structures and the continued construction--change this fact.

In one such fortress, the one closest to the emperor's in size, Admiral Khalian paced the confines of his inner sanctum furiously, roaring abuse at the walls. "Why in Gre'thor do I surround myself with fools? What was Korak thinking? He had Serenidad in his grip, and let it get away. He died too easily. A pity that the Earther commander allowed him to take his own life. I would have had him in searing agony for weeks before allowing his spirit to depart into the next world!"

The computer on his desk beeped with an incoming message, but Khalian was too involved in his diatribe to notice, mumbling, growling and roaring his frustration. "Now my whole career...no, my life rests in the unique ability of my adjutant to erase any evidence of my involvement in this thing. If Kudan Kuras gets even the slightest inkling of my involvement, he'll have my head. What those Segh vav weaklings on the council wouldn't do to see that. And what would happen to the Kh'myr if I, the most powerful of my race, fell? Would my race begin the long fall to extinction under the cleansing ray of the racial hatred of the Segh vav?"

The computer beeped again.

"No!" Khalian roared to the ceiling. "This shall not be! By the blood of Kahless the Unforgettable..." He drew his battle dagger and drew its razor sharp blade across the palm of his left hand, opening a deep cut, blood spilling out to drip onto the floor. "No, by my blood, I swear an oath: I will not fail, and the Klingon species will be cleansed of the weakling Segh vav once and for all."

The computer beeped again, and Khalian finally heard it. Ignoring the pain of the fresh cut on his hand, he enabled the computer station. It was his adjutant, Commander Kirst. "Well?"

"It is done, joHwI'."

"All evidence gone?"

"You are cleared, joHwI'."

"That is not what I asked, Kirst." Khalian glowered at the screen. "If you wish to continue in this plane of existence, answer my question: Is the evidence gone?"

"Yes, Admiral. It is gone." Kirst appeared calm and untroubled by the open threat.

For the first time this day, Khalian smiled. "Good. Who?"

"General Koord, joHwI'."

"Very good." Khalian glanced at the chronometer in the right corner of the computer screen, noting the time. "And just in time I might add. The emperor has ordered me to attend the next meeting of the council, which begins in one rep."

"Qapla', joHwI'," the Kh'myr warrior responded.

"And you with me, eh, Kirst?" Khalian sneered at the other.

"I only serve, joHwI'."

"Remember that, Kirst."

Khalian watched the image of his adjutant fade from the screen and knew that Kirst would depose him in a second if the opportunity arose. After all, he was a Klingon, more importantly, a Kh'myr Klingon, almost as powerful and as clever as himself. Khalian never let his guard down concerning this member of his command. Tapping in a few commands on the computer, he insured that there was a safeguard in place in case Kirst was convinced, or forced, to reveal all he knew.

"Yes, joHwI'." The Klingon on the screen saluted, and the connection ended.

Then, he contacted his chief of security. "Assemble my body guard outside my office."

Inserting a memory chip into the computer, Khalian downloaded the information that would damn Koord as the culprit behind the embarrassing debacle on Serenidad. He knew that Kudan Kuras would at least remove the aging Segh vav general from the council--maybe even have him executed--leaving a vacancy. If he played his cards right, he could insure a Kh'myr was placed into that opening, advancing his race's ambitions. This prospect brought a smile to his face. "I love executions."

*****

"He thinks himself very clever," Valkris reported.

"Humph!" Admiral Kusan snorted in derision. "He is reckless. His political moves have as much finesse as his followers have loyalty." Kusan shook his great knobbed head as he read his master spy's report. "Was it hard to get this information?"

"Hardly, joHwI'. An apprentice of my order could have done it." Valkris sneered. "His people are more than willing to spill their guts concerning his affairs. It makes me wonder about the honor of being Kh'myr."

Kusan stared hard at her, and she dropped her smile. "We, you and I, are of the same race. You would do well to remember that, Valkris." He wagged a finger at her. "Khalian is rash and forgets his place. He believes his size and strength is all he needs to gain him what he strives for. He forgets that even the most fearsome targ can be brought down with a single disruptor shot, his size and ferocity not withstanding."

"Yes." Valkris became contrite.

"We will have to cover for him," Kusan continued, "so that he doesn't disgrace the Kh'myr with his clumsy maneuvers."

"Yes."

Changing the subject, Kusan looked out the window, feigning interest in something down below. "So, the emperor will appoint a new member to his council today."

"I hear congratulations are in order, joHwI'."

"Too bad about old Khurl, eh?"

"His death came unexpectedly," Valkris stated, dead-pan.

"Hmm," Kusan said, a slight smile curled up his lips.

"Your appointment to the council, joHwI', will be a good way to end a glorious career."

Kusan shook his head. "I'm not that old. A Segh vav has grown only one knot on his forehead by my age."

"So?" Valkris left the question unasked. "With Koord disgraced, who do you suppose Kudan Kuras will appoint to his place?"

"Probably a Segh vav admiral from the forces loyal to him," Kusan responded. "I doubt that his bigoted mind will allow more than one Kh'myr on his council at a time."

"One never knows," Valkris said, hiding the spark of knowledge from her face.

Kusan neither missed her comment, or its only slightly hidden meaning. "What have you heard?" he snapped.

"Nothing more, joHwI', but someone of my training never limits themselves to just one trail. We try to see all the possibilities."

She's hiding something, Kusan decided, but I trust her loyalty enough to know that if she thought it would harm me, she would let me know. He smiled at where this thought led. As long as I continue to pay her price...

*****

The cavernous central keep of the imperial fortress echoed loudly with the roars and challenges of the councilors. On a raised dais that extended from the wall opposite the large, swinging doors, rested the throne where generations of emperors had ruled the Klingons; Kudan Kuras being the latest.

And perhaps, the last. He was aging and lacked heirs. His Segh vav forehead had gnarled itself so many times now that he was almost indistinguishable from the Kh'myr race of Klingons.

"Isn't there any other way, voqjup--my trusted friend? Must I put one of their kind on my council?" Kuras almost pouted, despite his great age. "I've already replaced the Segh vav ship commanders with Kh'myr; I've posted Kh'myr in half the admiralty; I've even issued the change in our language, so that even Kazh is now called Qo'noS in that insipid pIqaD dialect of theirs!"

"Yes, sire. We've discussed this already. Your concessions have been the only thing that have prevented a civil war. The Kh'myr are a powerful influence in the empire. It is due to their bravery that the empire has reached its present size, larger than it has ever been in the recorded past."

"That is true," Kuras growled, the fire of pride burning bright in his eyes for a moment, then he closed them, his countenance changing with a thought. "But they are too quick to turn their predatory ways onto their fellow Klingons. Look what they've done to the Kh'yrlov. I think Mara, Kang's mate, is the only Klingon with blonde hair left in the Empire after the Kh'myr baited them into starting that race war."

"Agreed, sire," Gorkon answered, nodding his head. "After that war, the Kh'myr lost the inhibitions toward attacking fellow Klingons, hating and mistrusting all others. As you know, sire, the Kh'fjin have all but disappeared as well."

The mention of the Kh'fjin brought Admiral Koloth's face to the Kuras' mind, especially the pale, almost white color of his skin, the identifying feature of that race. "Now that you mention it, voqjup, the Kh'fjin have become scarce. When did this all occur?"

"Over the last few years, sire. The Kh'myr at first tried to lure the Kh'fjin into the same open war that destroyed the Kh'yrlov, but when the Kh'fjin didn't take up the bait, the Kh'myr began slowly, but surely, smoking them out of the woodwork. I dare say, that except for Koloth, the rest have secluded themselves in deep hiding. I've received word that many have taken refuge in the Halee system. Now the Kh'myr are turning their bigoted attentions to the Kh'teb."

"The Kh'teb are the most numerous of the Segh vav," Kuras said, emotion beginning to edge into his voice, color rising into his olive-tinted skin. "I am Kh'teb! Do they think they can take me from the throne, me, a direct descendant of Kahless himself?" There was a growl to Kuras' voice, his temper rising.

"As was my mother, sire."

"By Kahless, I will not let this happen. I was going to appoint one of them to the council today, but not now. Why did you talk me into it in the first place?"

Gorkon bowed slightly before his emperor's building wrath, not at all surprised by his liege's unique way of changing directions on any subject in the middle of the strongest current, without thinking through all the consequences. He would tactfully get him back on course. "Sire, it is imperative that we placate them in this way. They are more powerful than you might think. If we do not do this of our own volition, they will force it on us, with some one of their choice."

"By my father, I will destroy them, declare them outlaw, hunted by every other Klingon in the empire!" Kuras began to pace, striking the palm of his hand with his closed fist.

"And they will destroy you, sire."

"What?!"

"As I said, they would unite their forces, leaving us ill-prepared to fight them. This would be just the excuse they need to finally declare open war against all the Segh vav, eliminating the parent race from existence."

Kuras' face flushed deep purple under his dark skin as he wrestled with the inevitability of his situation.

"At least," Gorkon continued, "in this way, we appoint the least severe of their commanders to the council. Admiral Kusan is a moderate."

"Though I suspect him in the death of Admiral Khurl?"

"It was an honorable...retirement. Khurl was nearly sixty years old," Gorkon shrugged. "Of course, there is always Khalian."

The color returned to Kuras' face. "He is of the Kalut cell group, isn't he?" Kuras remembered the intelligence report he'd read some time ago concerning the most intense individuals within the Kh'myr race. If any Klingon could be said to be a berserker, it was all of those born from that particular crèche.

"And among the most dangerous of them," Gorkon added.

"But predictable."

"What about the Serenidad debacle, my emperor?"

"His involvement has never been proven, voqjup," Kuras said, slitting his eyes

"He hides his tracks well, sire, but his responsibility is certain."

Kuras nodded his head. "So my sources have said as well, but there is no proof that would stand the light of a full inquisition."

"That is true, sire," Gorkon responded, bowing slightly.

"He is careless. His slip-shod work will eventually be his downfall."

Gorkon responded by shaking his head slightly, choosing to remain silent, though the information he had on Khalian's latest escapades flashed through his intellect.

"Ah, well, voqjup, the meeting of the councilors waits, and, by the sound of it, they are wearing hard on each other's nerves," Kusan observed. "You will take your usual place?"

"As you wish, sire."

"Good." Kuras' mouth set in a line as he nodded his head. "Observe and be ready with your valued opinion."

The emperor's voqjup bowed slightly. "Yes, my lord. I serve."

"And very well, I will add, Gorkon."

"Thank you, Kudan."

The two left the ante-chamber through a well-used hallway, but only Kudan Kuras came out onto the throne's dais, Gorkon secreting himself away into his usual observation station, without even the trace of movement of the heavy tapestry to the left of the door.

Kudan Kuras stood silent on the dais, the group below too involved to note his presence. While he waited, he found and identified each of his councilors.

Kor, the mighty Kh'teb admiral whose exploits on the borders were epic. He had only one shadow on his record. He'd failed in his mission to secure Organia for the empire. Kuras himself had forgiven him his failure upon consideration of the Organians' power.

Koloth, a Kh'fjin admiral with a large and loyal following in the Klingon fleet. Kuras remembered the trick the infamous Earther, James T. Kirk, had played on Koloth once a long time ago and chuckled inwardly when he remembered what it had taken to finally clear the hated tribbles from Koloth's battlecruiser.

Kumara, the youngest Segh vav admiral on the council, his dark, olive skin identifying him as Kh'teb. Kumara's fame came from his exploits as a warrior assigned to other Klingon borders and during his time spent as an exchange student on Earth had become an acquaintance if not friend of James T. Kirk.

Then there was the oldest of his councilors, the great many knots convoluting his forehead demonstrating how long he'd survived. General Koord had once been the most powerful man in the Empire, the ranks of military following him easily securing his position on the council, but of late his forces had shrunk, his influence in the empire ebbing. Kuras knew from the intelligence reports of his secret police that he was the next target for the Kh'myr.

Kuras noted the continuing absence of Admiral Kang, outside himself, the most powerful Kh'teb in the empire. This was the third meeting of the council that Kang had missed. Kuras frowned at this thought. He would ask Admiral Kusan, the Kh'myr they would shortly install to the council of the admiral's whereabouts.

But for now... Raising the scepter of his office--the fang of a dragon that legends said Kahless himself had killed--he drove its gold-plated tip hard against the durasteel floor of the dais. The resounding "boom" of its impact, amplified by the dais' architecture, filled the vaulted room with its sound, silencing the councilors as they took their places before the throne.

"We serve, Kudan Kuras," they chorused as one.

"I lead," he returned, then continued. "First in order. The replacement of Councilor Khurl." He knew Admiral Kusan was waiting just outside the huge double doors of the throne room. "Guard, admit Admiral Kusan."

The room filled with the grumbling of the councilors in the room, the loudest of which was, "He's a damned Kh'myr."

Kuras silenced the muttering with a glare and watched the doors swing open.

Kusan marched in, his knobbed head held high, his steps sure and steady. Walking right up to the first step of the dais, he executed a precise Klingon salute, snapping his blade weapon--the only weapon allowed into the chamber--out, bringing his heals together. "Admiral Kusan, reporting as ordered, sire."

"Admiral Kusan, I have noted your service and loyalty to the Klingon empire and to me, and it shall be rewarded."

"I am but a Klingon, sire, doing his duty."

"Nevertheless, you are worthy of the promotion. From this day forward and until your death, you are duly recognized as a member of the Klingon High Council, taking the late Khurl's place in securing my control of the empire."

"I am honored, sire."

"As you should be, Lord Kusan. Take your place with the other councilors."

"Yes, sire." Kusan moved, but instead of moving toward the end of the line of Segh vav leaders, he began a new line on the other side of the room's center.

Kudan Kuras had suspected this would happen. The emperor had suspected that as a Kh'myr, Kusan would not be comfortable standing with his Segh vav contemporaries, but he felt he had to ask for an official explanation. "Why do you separate yourself from the rest?"

"Because I am different from them, sire, and wish not to be included in their ranks."

"But we are all Klingons in this room."

"Yes, sire."

"I am Segh vav as well. Does this mean you object to my presence?" Kuras felt his emotions suddenly well up in him.

"No sire. You are emperor, lord of us all, but I do object to the presence of the rest."

Kuras' anger kindled inside him, but he maintained control of it. "You will leave those opinions outside this room, Kusan. In here, we are all Klingons and are concerned only with the good of the Empire."

"Understood, sire." He remained rooted to the spot he'd selected.

He is as brave and controlled as voqjup said he would be, thought Kuras. "We will discuss this later, Lord Kusan, but, for now, it is settled." The emperor turned his focus to the entire group. "The first order of business concerns a rumor I've heard concerning a system named by the Earthers..." He paused to take a long breath. "...Serenidad."

Kor stepped forward, volunteering what he knew. "Three attempts, including an invasion, by Kh'myr leadership to 'persuade' the people of Serenidad to accept a protectorate from us have failed miserably due to Kh'myr ineptitude and the incompetence of their leadership."

"Do you know whose hand was behind these attempts?"

"I only have suspicions, sire," Kor replied.

"And whom do you suspect, Kor?"

"The one who commands the Kh'myr, sire. Admiral Khalian."

"What proof do you have, Lord Kor?" Kusan jumped to Khalian's defense from his place on the other side of the room.

"I have none, but who else could be so stupid as to allow a world to slip through his hands so often?"

"Proof, Kor. Present your proof," Kusan continued, determined to cover for his fellow Kh'myr.

"Enough!" Kuras ordered, and the two obeyed. "I have heard the same rumors and have ordered Admiral Khalian here today." The emperor paused to bring his focus on the guard. "Let Admiral Khalian enter."

The huge double doors opened slowly, silently, the smoothness of their movement belying their weight. Admiral Khalian could be heard arguing loudly with the guard in the hall.

"I am Admiral Khalian, and I will not surrender my weapon!"

The guard answered, threat oozing from his voice. "No weapon other than your taj--your dagger--may be brought into the throne room."

Kudan Kuras quickly stepped down from the dais and crossed the room. The councilors fell in step behind him.

"I'll give you my weapon, you filthy targ, the business..."

"Hold, Khalian!" Kudan Kuras roared as he entered the hallway.

Khalian hadn't even cleared the weapon of its holster. "Sire." He obviously hadn't been aware of the huge doors opening, or the arrival of the august body. For a moment, there was a strident temptation to pull it out and destroy the whole lot of them, but reason took over, and he resisted the enticement, instead pulling the disruptor and handing it butt first to the guard.

"You know my rules regarding weaponry in the Great Hall, Lord Khalian," Kuras muttered, loudly enough to be heard.

"No, sire, I did not," he lied. "This is my first time visiting the throne room." Hopefully, not my last, he thought as he waited the emperor's pleasure...or displeasure.

Kuras made a slight movement with his hands, and the guard placed the weapon on a shelf built into the wall nearby. It disappeared as a powerful disruptor beam snapped on for just a second. Kuras turned around, walked through the body of councilors, and back to the throne dais.

Once there, he turned and waited, while the councilors resumed their places. Kusan was still on the far right, by himself.

Khalian stood in the center, between the two factions, easy and confident of his position.

"What do you know of Serenidad, Admiral Khalian?" Kudan Kuras asked, coming straight to the point.

"That it is rich in dilithium and has an unaligned government. Under the terms of the Organian Treaty, if we can convince them to ally themselves with us, we will be free to benefit from its wealth." Khalian stopped, seducing the emperor to ask for the rest.

"And, Khalian?" Kuras took the bait.

"Well, sire, the clumsy attempts of inept commanders has badly embarrassed the Empire in their attempts to bring it into the fold of your empire." Khalian maintained his eye contact with the empire's ruler.

What will be your ploy, Khalian? Kuras asked himself, feeling there was a lie coming. "I have heard that these commanders did so under your orders, Khalian. Is that true?" Might as well get this out into the open right away, Kuras thought after asking.

Khalian feigned surprise and half slid his taj's blade from its sheath. "Who says so, sire?"

"I have my sources."

"Obviously someone who seeks my downfall. I have many political enemies within the empire, sire."

"That much is certain, Khalian," Kuras continued, barely holding in the laughter that welled up inside him as he watched the Kh'myr's brazen performance.

Knowing you were guilty until you could prove yourself innocent in the Klingon system of justice, Khalian forged forward. "I have proof of my innocence."

Kuras became very serious suddenly. If Khalian could show proof of someone else's involvement, well maybe this Kh'myr wasn't quite the rogue his sources had painted him as.

"I had assumed this might be the reason for my invitation to your majesty's throne room, so I had the proof put together on a memory chip, sire." Khalian fished the chip from a hidden pocket within the familial sash that he wore as part of his uniform. The grumbling of the Segh vav councilors gratified him. As he held out the chip, he stole a quick glance at Kusan, the only other Kh'myr in the room, and saw only a hint of a question on that inscrutable face.

Having thought he knew where this was going to go, Kuras now felt awash in the turmoil of conflicting thoughts. For a moment, he thought to adjourn the council so that he could review the evidence in private with Gorkon, but then changed his mind, knowing this would be a gross breach in the Klingon system of justice. Once you made an accusation, it had to be followed up quickly and openly and with the evidence that would conclude the proceedings, or all charges would be dropped forever. Besides, he was curious to see the evidence. "Thank you, Admiral."

"I only seek to serve you, my Lord Emperor." Khalian filled his voice with contrite tones.

Kuras handed the chip to a throne room aide without leaving his position in the center of the dais. A moment later, a viewscreen mounted on the wall nearby came to life, filling with white video noise. Then it cleared and a picture, obviously taken through the lenses of a security video sensor, came onto it. Centered in it was Admiral Kang, seated at his desk.

"Hold," commanded Kuras, and the recording stopped with Kang still seated at his desk. "When was this holo-record made, Khalian?"

"I believe three months ago," Khalian answered with the truth this time.

"The court hasn't seen Admiral Kang in as many months." Kuras had wanted to ask Kusan the next question, but now it appeared Khalian might know as well. "We have ordered his recall several times, and he has ignored us," the emperor said in his most official court voice. "Do you know where he is?"

Again, Khalian felt he could tell the truth. "Yes, sire. If you will give me a few minutes' indulgence, you will have all your questions answered."

"Let the recording proceed," Kuras ordered.

The holo-record began again to play.

There was the sound of the door's chime indicating someone wishing to see Kang.

"Come." Kang answered without looking up.

Kang's adjutant came in with a document tube in his hand. "Here's the document, admiral."

"Thank you," Kang responded, taking the tube and opening one end. Pulling the document out, he rolled it out and read it to himself, then a smile appeared on his face. "Do you know what this is?" He projected his question to the adjutant.

"Yes, lord."

"With this treaty, signed by the princess herself, we now hold protectorate rights over Serenidad and all her dilithium."

"Won't this please the emperor?"

"Yes, it would...if he knew of it," Kang said as he rolled the document back up and slipped it back into the tube.

"What are you saying, Lord Kang?"

On the throne room floor, standing with the emperor's councilors, and watching the doctored recording himself for the first time, Khalian could only congratulate himself for having such a clever adjutant who could produce such convincing evidence. He could see where the holo-record was going. His only surprise now would be how it would implicate Koord as well.

Kang answered as the recording proceeded. "With the riches of this world at my disposal, I can be emperor."

"Hold!" Kuras roared, and the holo-record stopped playing. "This is very hard to believe, Admiral Khalian. Kang has always been a loyal follower."

Khalian bowed ever so slightly, his gaze not leaving the face of the emperor. "So I thought as well. When I received this recording, I was as surprised as you, sire, but not half as surprised as when I saw what comes next."

"There is more?"

"Oh, yes, sire." Khalian gestured toward the screen.

"Proceed," Kuras ordered, and the holo-record continued.

"Thank you, Adjutant Kitan. You are dismissed."

The officer left Kang's office. Kang took the tube and approached a chart of the empire on the wall nearby. Behind it was a safe, which Kang opened, then placed the tube in it and closed the door. "My ticket to the throne," he said in a whisper.

Returning to his desk, he tapped a code into the computer, then waited. The wait was short, and the connection made. Another face, familiar to the court, appeared. It was General Koord. None could mistake the gnarled forehead of the oldest member of the council. "What is it, Kang?"

"I have the document."

"Hold," Kuras hissed, turning his attention on Koord.

General Koord was turning a brilliant purple with his rage. "This is preposterous, sire. The recording is a forgery. Neither I nor Kang would ever conceive a plot to overthrow you."

"Computer," Kuras said to the air around him.

"Enabled," came the computer's gruff voice.

"Verify validity of holo-record chip," Kuras commanded.

"Working," there was a pause, then, "checked and verified. Ninety-nine percent chance of complete accuracy."

Kuras turned and glared at Khalian, then spoke to the computer. "What does the other one percent represent?"

The computer answered. "There is a slight indication that there has been some erasure on the holo-record chip."

"Enough to indicate a forgery?"

"Unable to determine Inconclusive evidence."

Khalian began to breathe again. My adjutant did his job well. I must reward him later, he thought. "Shall we finish viewing the recording, sire?"

Kuras' mind seethed with rage at the betrayal. To think that two of his closest advisors were traitors, and, on top of that, they were Segh vav...it was enraging him. "Yes," he hissed. "Finish the recording."

"But, sire--" Koord tried to interrupt.

"Be silent, General."

General Koord obeyed, but the anger inside him was as obvious as the anger in Kuras'.

"Computer. Continue with the holo-record." Kuras ordered, and the drama on the screen continued to play through.

"Will it be enough for you to complete your plans, Kang?" Koord asked.

"That and more, believe me, Koord. The riches of Serenidad are beyond our wildest expectations. With it, I can build a fleet large enough to overthrow the weakling Kuras and take the throne for myself."

"You won't forget all the assistance I have given you will you?" Koord could be heard to say.

"Of course not, my old friend. the interference you have run has been most helpful in keeping the emperor's attention--as well as the other members of the council as well I might add--on Kh'myr activities, giving me the chance to get everything in place," Kang responded, then smiled.

"Good, good," Koord answered, then, "Success, Emperor." Koord saluted, then the screen on the communications device went blank.

"Success indeed, you old targ," Kang said, "and once I'm on the throne, I'll dispose of you as well." Kang chuckled evilly.

The holo-record ended, and the screen filled with snow.

This overjoyed Khalian. What a great little addition that ending had. Not only did my adjutant implicate Kang and Koord as traitors, but he also drove a wedge of distrust between the Kh'teb, Khalian thought. "What are your orders, sire?" He exaggerated his bow.

Kudan Kuras' anger was brilliant white in its heat, totally disregarding the small voice of reason that recommended calm. Though he knew he should consult with Gorkon first, he tossed that thought aside as he made the first of his commands. "I want Admiral Kang arrested and thrown into the deepest hole."

"But, sire," argued Kor from the gathered Segh vav councilors, "on the word of one holo-record?"

"Be silent, less I suspect you as well." Kuras glowered at them, completely ignoring the faint, but clear sound of Gorkon trying to get his attention from his hidden observation point. A small voice inside him whispered, Slow down; you don't really think Kang and the rest of the Segh vav are traitors. But his anger out-shouted them in its quest for vindication.

"As for you, General Koord," Kuras signaled to the captain of the guards to come forward. "I don't know what your full part in this is, but that you are involved is obvious. Until I can get a full disclosure, your membership on the council is rescinded. Furthermore, you will be remanded to Nimbus Three to serve as governor there until further notice. If I get even the slightest rumor of further problems out of you, I will have you executed immediately." Koord tried to speak, but Kuras cut him off with a slashing movement of his hand. "Get him out of here."

By sheer weight of numbers, the guards quickly overwhelmed Koord and took him, kicking and roaring, from the room.

"Now to find the real villain here," Kuras paused thinking. "I will give Kang's seat on the council to the person who finds and arrests him."

Even better than I had imagined! Khalian thought, his soul filling with the joy created by this little piece of serendipity. He cleared his throat loud enough to get the emperor's attention. "As it happens, sire, I have already accomplished this."

Multiple hisses came from the three remaining Segh vav councilors.

This shocked Kuras. It went a long way toward quenching the fire within his breast. How could Khalian have known I would react the way I did? Unfortunately, he had made a pronouncement, and by so doing, had already signed the death warrant of Kang. To back down now would be a great sign of weakness on his part, leaving him lawfully open to attack from whichever of the councilors had enough strength to overwhelm him. He knew there weren't many here who could mount a force large enough to do this, but it would plunge the empire into a crippling civil war. "Go on, Khalian."

The Kh'myr admiral dug out the holo-record chip with the arrest of Kang on it and gave it to the emperor.

Kuras accepted the first holo-record from the hand of the aide, putting it away safely into his pocket for later storage. Though he was still very angry, he knew it would be important as evidence against Khalian if these charges did eventually prove to be false. Handing the new chip to the waiting junior officer, he gave his order, "Begin!"

The scene was again from Kang's office.

Seated behind his desk, Kang had a Kh'myr commander sitting in a chair on the other side of the desk. It was obviously not a social call.

"For the last time, Commander Korak, you are to confine your forays to this side of the Klingon-Federation border for now. Starfleet has stepped up patrols on their side of the boundary near your patrol sector thanks to your recent raids."

Commander Korak's smile dripped contempt as he leaned back in his recliner. "It is more than luck, Admiral. I leave nothing to chance. In the service of our wise emperor, I have totally obliterated three major Federation outposts, weakening their strength in that sector. Always, I have completely jammed their communications before they could report and left no survivors. I have punched a hole in their defense perimeter big enough to send our entire battle fleet through. We could destroy the Federation utterly if you and the other weak fools at High Command would give us free rein and serve our Empire."

"So you and your allies can strengthen that weak fool who pretends to be an emperor!" Kang snarled. The Kh'teb admiral shook his head slowly. "You are indeed a fool, Commander Korak. Worse, you are a dangerous fool, giving more glory and honor to a fool like Kuras. Given half a chance, your plan will strengthen him to the point I dare not challenge him." He glared at the Kh'myr. "You are relieved of battlecruiser command, effective immediately."

"I don't think so!" a voice thundered from the rear of Kang's small, tidy office even before Korak could voice a protest.

The startled Kh'myr commander whirled around, his dark face breaking into a huge, savage grin. "Hail, Khalian!" he shouted, raising a fist in salute.

"Hail the Empire and its wise emperor!" Khalian answered.

Kang exploded from his lounger, his face clouded with fury. "How dare you come in here unannounced and countermand my orders! Get out of here at once, or I'll--"

"Or you'll what?" Admiral Khalian strode menacingly toward the desk, his muscular, monolithic bulk in full battle armor dwarfing even the formidable Kang. Both of his huge hands shot out suddenly and disarmed Kang, relieving him of his disruptor pistol and his combat dagger. The giant Kh'myr tossed the weapons to Korak.

"Your orders no longer carry any weight with High Command, traitor," Khalian spat. "We apprehended your adjutant, Kitan, for conspiring to start a race riot between the honorable Kh'myr and your treacherous sub-race, the Kh'teb. I thought it would be useful to put him under the mindsifter to see if to what extent you were involved. Before he died, he revealed the existence of a very interesting document you keep in your office safe."

Kang paled as Khalian moved to the wall behind his desk and tore down the perspex star map of the Klingon Empire, revealing the recessed wall safe. The Kh'myr glanced speculatively at Kang.

"I'll never give you the combination!" Kang grated.

Khalian chuckled contemptuously. "I don't need it," he hissed. He gripped the handle and yanked savagely, tearing the heavy, reinforced, durasteel door off its hinges with a screech of tortured metal. The Kh'myr tossed it aside, then reached into the safe to pull out a plaster document tube. He unrolled the paper inside and read it quickly.

"Well, well, well!" Khalian exclaimed, shaking his great knobbed skull from side to side. "What have we here? This document is an agreement between the Klingon Empire and the Federation planet Serenidad. It seems that Serenidad's monarch has renounced all ties with the Federation and demands to be a Klingon protectorate. The Princess Teresa willingly signed it herself. Why have you kept this important information secret, you traitor?"

"Serenidad!" Korak exclaimed, his eyes widening. "That planet's dilithium stores are immeasurably vast! This information should have been sent to our wise emperor the moment it was received! And he was sitting on this?!"

"It seems so, Commander," Khalian rumbled. He turned his attention to Kang again. "I have asked you a question, Kang. Why?"

Kang muttered sullenly, "One day, I will kill that impotent fool Kudan Kuras with my bare hands, but I have nothing to say to you."

"I'm not surprised by your treachery. My sources have long since indicated that you have been secretly fomenting hatred between the Kh'myr and the Segh vav." Khalian clapped his gauntleted hands together, and two Kh'myr security guards appeared in the doorway, their disruptor carbines at the ready. "Admiral Kang is under arrest for treason. I have arranged for him to be incarcerated in the deepest, filthiest hole at the Kragyr penal colony." He turned to Kang. "Feel fortunate, Kang. I will permit you to live. At least you fared better than that little be'SIj of a mate."

Kang's head snapped up in alarm. "What have you done to Mara?!!"

Khalian's face twisted into an evil leer. "I had her sent to the Kh'alu'don death camp for her complicity in your treachery. I believe she was executed at midday--beheaded to be precise."

Kang's face went white. "You lie!" he whispered, his voice a dry, tremulous croak.

"Indeed?" Khalian snapped his fingers. A guard left the office and returned within seconds carrying a torn, ragged, woman's tabard. Kang recognized the tunic immediately. The collar, shoulders and front of the garment were soaked with blood.

With an incoherent, despairing cry, Kang leaped at Khalian, but the big Kh'myr caught him in mid-air and slammed him brutally to the floor. Kang tried groggily to rise. He was too slow to avoid Khalian's savage kick, which took him on the tip of his chin and snapped his head back, while at the same time propelling him across the room. Kang hit the wall, crumpling it inward, then slid to the floor, collapsing like a rag doll.

He did not get up again, but muttered, "One day the empire will be mine..."

"Take him away," Khalian growled. "Put him on the next prison ship to the Kragyr colony, and put the tunic in his cell to remind him of his equally treacherous wife."

The two guards unceremoniously dragged Kang from the room by his heels, trailing a ribbon of blood from the unconscious admiral's split chin behind them.

Commander Korak set Kang's weapon down on the desk. "Khalian. Mara--did you really..."

The Kh'myr admiral sneered. "Korak, my friend, you're a fool indeed if you think I'd let a sweet, little prize like her slip through my fingers! I made her a proposition. If she would agree to be my ship's whore, I would spare Kang's life."

Korak snorted. "You drive a hard bargain, Admiral! Did Mara actually believe you would keep you promise?"

"She had little choice, wouldn't you say?"

The recording ended.

"Now we know where Kang and Mara have been these past months," Kudan Kuras commented. Then he turned his attention on Khalian. "Why didn't you report this before now?"

"I am sorry, sire," Khalian pretended to be contrite, "but I did not think the incarceration of a traitor and his wife was important enough to report to you. If I was wrong, I apologize." He hated even admitting this, but there was too much to gain not to pretend to abase himself.

"Admiral Khalian, you have done me a great favor in breaking up this traitorous plot. Step forward." Kuras descended the steps slowly, subconsciously knowing this was probably a mistake, but a promise is a promise, especially when made by the emperor.

Khalian stepped forward, prepared to receive his reward, still somewhat shocked by the turn of events.

"Admiral Khalian, I promote you to the High Council of the Klingon Empire." Kuras drew his taj and held it out.

Khalian took the knife's blade in his hand and felt its razor sharp edge bite into his flesh. "I accept the position and responsibility and will serve to the best of my ability, sire."

"Serve loyally." Kuras withdrew the blade from Khalian's hand slowly, the Kh'myr admiral's blood now flowing freely. Then turned his back on Khalian, stepping back up the stairs to the top of the dais. During the entire time, his flesh crawled in the area between his shoulder blades as he waited to feel the bite of Khalian's knife. The conscious part of his thoughts dismissed the feeling, but he couldn't completely put aside the thought that someday Khalian would be his downfall.

Turning, he faced the room full of councilors. "Is there anything else to be discussed at this time?"

Khalian had joined Kusan on the opposite side of the room as the three remaining Segh vav councilors.

The room remained silent, surprising Kudan. He had expected more resistance. "Then I dismiss you." As he turned, heading for his ante-chamber, he knew Gorkon would already be in there waiting to take him to task for what had just happened. But what had happened had happened, and there were not many ways of retracting them now.

Just before entering the side room, he glanced back into the room. The two new Kh'myr councilors were already departing, roaring together in their victory. The Segh vav on the other hand hadn't left their position in front of the dais. I wonder what they're planning now? he thought. I hope it's not more treachery; I'm running out of councilors of my race.

He entered the ante-chamber, and he'd been right; Gorkon was indeed waiting. He didn't look happy.

*****

Khalian separated from Kusan as soon as they left the palace. He bared his teeth in a viscous smile. My luck has finally turned, his thoughts were racing. After last year's debacles left me in shame, I'm now a member of the emperor's council. Who could have predicted this turn of events?

He quickly reviewed the turn of events, and his smile became more vicious. When he came to the part where he'd handed the holo-record chip of Kang's arrest to the emperor, his spirits soared. I must have the power to discern the future, he thought, to have known to bring that with me. Then he remembered something, and it stopped him in his tracks--Mara, Kang's mate.

Qel--Battle Surgeon--Kronn had reported that she'd died after he'd finished with her that fateful night. His loins stirred slightly at the memory, but ceased at the next thought. I have not seen Kronn since then. Now where did that Segh vav healer disappear to, and what is he up to now?

He began walking again and soon arrived at his citadel's entrance. I'll have to begin a search for him, he concluded as he returned the salute of the guards. For some reason, his disappearance bothers me. Putting that at the top of his list of things to do, he leapt up the stairs that headed for the floor where his adjutant waited.

-4-

"Come, Lady Mara. It's time to wake up!" Kronn said as he lifted the limp form of Lord Kang's wife from the healing tube onto the med-table. He noted right away how much weight she'd lost during her three month internment. With tender, loving care, he put her body down onto the examination table. In any language--Human: Battle Surgeon; Segh vav: Nada; pIqaD: Qel--he was one thing above all others: a doctor.

Quickly, with a practiced eye, he checked every inch of her, inspecting his work. The wounds given her by Khalian had healed without scarring. When he'd seen her in Khalian's quarters, her blood had soaked through every square inch of her clothes; her jaw and nose had been smashed, disfiguring her face; during her recovery, nearly every inch of her skin had shown bruising, and the part of her that made her female had been so badly torn and mangled.... Kronn shuddered at the thought of what Khalian had done to her.

Extensive surgery and nearly three months in the healing tube had fixed that. There was no swelling left, no scarring, not even on her face, where he'd had to do major reconstruction surgery. It was on her face that his gaze lingered. Such beauty, and how jealous he was of Kang to have won her love. More so was her rarity. The long, straight blonde hair that framed the face identified her as a member of the Kh'yrlov sub-race, for all intents and purposes, a race exterminated by the Kh'myr.

Pulling out a linen sheet from shelves under the table, he let it unfold and tucked one end under the end of the table's thin mattress. As he pulled it over her, he let his gaze wander over her feminine physique, for a moment allowing the male in him to enjoy it. How could Khalian think to hurt you? he wondered admiringly. He shook his head and finished pulling the sheet over her.

"Computer, stimulate her cerebral cortex," he instructed, beginning the procedure to bring her back to consciousness.

"Rate?" the computer's male voice asked.

"Two percent every ten minutes," he instructed, knowing that at this rate it would be nearly two hours before she'd regain consciousness. "After all you have been through, I do not need to add neural shock to the list."

Leaving her to the ministrations of the computer, he went back to the bridge of his ship. It was only a ketch-class vessel, sporting a single graf drive unit and three rooms inside--the bridge, his quarters, and the med lab/examination room. It wasn't much, but it did the job. As a nada, his kind was rare amongst the Klingons and held precious by them. He used the ship to make his rounds, much of which passed through the colonies of the Empire, spending most of his time with those on worlds whose technology was greatly below that of the central worlds.

"Computer, status of course?"

The computer's voice answered, "No variance; still on course for Boreth."

"Good. Arrival time?"

"Two hours and fifteen minutes at present speed."

"I will wait until I am closer to contact them, then keep it short," he discussed his plan with himself again.

He'd maintained communications silence since leaving Khalian's ship with Mara's broken body, knowing that the use of the ship's communication equipment would tell any who intercepted it where his location was. He knew that Khalian would be looking for him by now and what would happen to him if the Kh'myr admiral found him...and more importantly, what would happen if the admiral found Mara still alive after he, Nada Kronn, had certified her as dead. The Kh'myr were a ruthless race and only just barely followed the restrictions of civilization. He wasn't sure his status as a healer would stop Khalian from shoving him out the nearest air lock.

But Kronn wasn't Kh'myr; he was Kh'teb, the same race as Kang, and had been Mara's family's physician long before the Kh'myr rise to power. He had witnessed Mara's birth and had refused to let Khalian's ministrations kill her. That was why he had headed for Boreth. The planet was where a small grouping of Klingon intellects of all races had settled, choosing to study and worship the ways of Kahless, the founder of the Klingon way of life. They had built a monastery there and spent long hours studying his philosophies, as written by those who served him those centuries long past.

Though life on Boreth was spartan at best, Kronn knew the acolytes would not harm the Lady Mara and would keep her safe. He also knew the temple to be a safe haven. Even the Kh'myr did not want to chance the wrath of Kahless' spirit.

After he left her there, he would erase all reference to her on his ship's records and get back on his normal rounds of scheduled stops at the peripheral colonies. Then it wouldn't matter if Khalian found him. Staring out at the stars, he watched the trails they burned in the ebony background as his ship's graf drive powered the ship past them. He passed the time lost in his thoughts, wondering where the Klingon species would find itself centuries from now.

After what seemed only moments later, a low moan broke Kronn's thoughts. A quick check of the ship's chronometer told him how much time had passed. Lady Mara is waking up, he thought as he stood and stretched the cramps from his back, then headed back into the medical bay.

Her eyes fluttered open just as he arrived. At first there was no recognition nor any realization of what had happened to her. She cannot focus her eyes yet, he guessed, a normal reaction to such a long time in a healing room. He quietly took up a position next to her. "Good morning, Lady Mara."

"I feel so weak. What is wrong with me? Who are you?" Mara croaked, her vocal chords unused to their job.

She remembers her name; a good sign that she is not suffering from amnesia, he thought as he moved up beside her recovery table. "I am Nada Kronn. Do you remember me? Your family's physician?"

"Oh, Kronn...yes. I remember...you," she mumbled almost incoherently as her eyes scrunched shut and her mouth became a straight line.

He wasn't sure if he should come out with everything, at least not just yet. Let her mind recover more from the stasis. "You've been very ill and in a healing tube for quite some time."

Her hand moved, then her arm lifted slowly, faltering. She groaned with the effort. "So weak." Finally, she managed to get her hand to her chin. "Some pain, stiffness here."

"Yes, you will feel some discomfort and in many places." Kronn answered only what he felt she needed to know. He knew that in a moment, as her nervous system finally came back to normal, her memories would come flooding back and would threaten to send her into shock. He prepared himself for that possibility.

"What was wrong with me? Where is Lord Kang?" she continued to query, her movements becoming more coordinated.

"He is not here, my lady. Your memories should be coming back shortly, and they will explain everything." Kronn faltered in telling her what he knew she would momentarily remember without his help.

"What?"

"Take your time, my lady. You've been in a healing tube for three months. It will all come to you momentarily." He was already empathizing with her, knowing the pain would come, wishing he could spare her from it. Then Kronn heard a growl that formed around her on the table. She's remembering, he concluded.

The growl became more audible, and her face contorted into a wicked smile as she bared her teeth. She roared her rage, her arms immediately wrapping themselves around her chest as she moaned with pain.

"My lady, please! There was much damage." Kronn touched her shoulder supportively. Her eyes opened, and her gaze found him. Its intensity was so malevolent, he felt he could feel the hate for all things male in it, and wished for a moment he wasn't of that sex.

"Khalian!" she roared the name, only just wincing at the pain it caused her. "That Kh'myr mantril!" She explored all the rest of the remembered injury sites. Her explorations stopped at her femininity, the memories most painful around that area. Then her eyes got very wide.

Kronn knew from the moment he'd finished his repairs what her reaction to them would be. "There was much damage, my lady."

"But this, Nada? You had to do this?!"

"My lady, I..." He couldn't find an appropriate explanation, unable to ascertain what a female would feel upon discovering what he'd had to do.

"Kang will be..." There was another growl filling the air around her.

"I know, my lady. He will not be happy, but he will find you alive." Kronn's head began bobbing as he wrung his skilled, healing hands, trying to look as contrite as he could.

Mara's fierce gaze found him.

He felt his spirit melt, his stature shrink.

"You, son of a targ, you've made me a virgin."

He was quaking so much, he missed the ending of her comment. "I am sorry, my lady, but..."

Then she began to laugh.

Kronn was beside himself with confusion and wondered if maybe she was only just now slipping into neural shock. "My lady, you must calm yourself."

"I am sorry, Kronn, but I just thought what my mate, Lord Kang, will think when he finds out I'm a virgin again." She began to laugh again.

Kronn joined her in her merriment, amazed at her abilities to mend, psychically as well as physically. How I envy you, Lord Kang.

*****

"Kragyr?!"

"Yes, Lady Mara, that's where Khalian sent him."

"How long have I been in the healing tube?"

"Three months."

Mara was sitting at Kronn's work station, staring into a dark computer monitor, her thoughts becoming morbid. "Not many survive three days in that hole, let along three months. Khalian may as well have signed my lord's death sentence."

"I believe, my lady, that was precisely what Admiral Khalian had in mind."

"Does the emperor know?"

"Does it matter, my lady? The emperor, after all, is Klingon. We live while we are strong, and die, when we weaken, most often at the hands of someone we thought loyal. The emperor believes this philosophy. Kang's absence will only serve to allow someone strong to be appointed to the council."

"Khalian might get picked," Mara speculated.

"It did not surprise me, my lady," Kronn felt Mara was ready to hear the news he'd gleaned from the command frequencies only just a little while before deciding to revive her.

Her face clouded with anger. "You mean it has already happened?!"

"Yes, my lady, only days ago. In reward for arresting your lord after he was accused of some sort of treason. They did not say what the charge had been, and I could not ask."

"He is not a traitor, Kronn. Khalian must have manufactured the charges and created evidence to support them."

"Agreed." The physician nodded his head. "But you must show proof of this or the first time Kang appears in the throne room, he will be summarily executed. That is, if he is still alive." Kronn knew the reputation of the prison colony. Then he became very serious as he continued, "There is one thing you must remember, my lady."

Mara was staring off into the distance, thinking about how to procure the needed evidence.

"My lady?"

She barely heard him. "Ah, yes?"

"You must resign yourself to Kang being dead by now."

"Why? He is strong. If anyone can survive, he will."

"But, Kragyr, my lady! You've heard all the rumors. Believe me, they fade by comparison with reality. I know. I have been there. I have seen the conditions. Kang cannot have survived this long. You must live out your life in hiding."

Mara grimaced, baring her teeth. "I will not live out my life skulking around in burrows. I am Klingon."

Kronn bathed luxuriously in her aggression as he waited for her to quiet. "Yes, my lady, but you will need a place to make your plans for revenge. Someplace where they won't suspect, or search."

Mara read his facial features and knew he had that place in mind. "And where, dear nada, is that?"

"My ship is presently in orbit around Boreth."

"I have heard of it. Many below use severe fasting, fire-watching, and self-inflicted pain to coerce Kahless' spirit back to this plane of existence to retake his rightful place as the leader of the Klingon Empire."

"Yes, my lady. That is their cause, and they do search diligently for the answers to what is a true Klingon." Kronn reached out and took one of Mara's hands in his, catching and holding her gaze with his. "They do not believe the Kh'myr are on that path and will not cooperate with them."

"You say I can trust them?"

"As much as you can trust any Klingon."

"If my mate is considered a traitor, will they not turn me over to the emperor?"

"There are many Maras in the empire."

"But only one who is Kh'yrlov."

"I have many friends here, my lady. Trust me, and trust them. Most there will not even notice your presence. They search for the truth of Kahless and nothing else."

"I will be careful."

"As you should be."

"What will you do once you leave me here?" Mara changed the subject.

"Continue my rounds, my lady," Kronn answered.

"Will not Khalian be looking for you?"

"Maybe. My departure from his ship was sudden, and I have been out of touch during your time in the healing tube. I will know as soon as I show up at my next stop."

"You will need to delete all record of me in your logs and computers."

"My lady, please, do not insult me. You see the knots of wisdom on my brow? That doesn't mean I'm Kh'myr; I'm an old and wise Kh'teb."

She blushed with the embarrassment she felt, having unintentionally, in her concern for her rescuer, insulted him. "My apologies, nada, but they will be looking for you, and these Klingons will stop at nothing to get what they want, including the mindsifter."

Kronn laughed, then pulled back the shoulder length, oily, black hair that hung over his left ear. Behind it was a short, metallic stub, indicating something was surgically embedded there.

Mara recognized the identifying plate of the confidentiality device. Most healers and their staff had them installed to maintain the secrets kept between healer and client. At the first hint of a mind-scanning device, it would detonate, killing the individual instantly, destroying any information he might have.

"Let them try."

Mara softened her expression as she let the realization of the risks Nada Kronn had taken for her sink home. "I, my family and Kang's family, owe you a deep debt, Kronn. You have but to ask..." She let her eyes and her expression say the rest.

He stood, ending the conversation. "Let us get you to safety."

*****

Half an hour later, he was back on board his ship, already regretting not asking her for the one thing he had wanted. Punching the coordinates to his next stop into the ship's navigation program, he cursed himself for his timidity.

"Course accepted and computed."

Kronn hesitated. I could go back down and get her, he thought. No, I will wait. After all, what if Kang is not dead? He would kill me, overlooking my healer status. His thoughts continued as he locked the course into the guidance program. She is safe here, and once I know for sure Kang is dead, then I will return and court her.

With the decision finally settled in his head, Kronn put the final touches into the computer. "Engage course, exit orbit, sixth level sub-graf."

"Sub-graf sixth level," the computer repeated.

The ketch Kohl left orbit quickly and, an hour later, reached the Oort cloud of the Boreth system. Dodging through the chunks of galactic debris, it was shortly through and clear to accelerate.

"Sixth factor graf speed," Kronn ordered.

The ketch distorted as it accelerated, then passed light speed and disappeared with a flash of silent, subspace energies.

-5-

"You look in the peak of strength, Khalian," Admiral Kusan said as the other Kh'myr councilor approached from the back of the throne room.

"Yes, yes, thank you," Khalian responded absent-mindedly.

"What is bothering you?" Kusan said, noting Khalian's distracted look.

"What bothers me is what should bother all Klingons."

"And that is?"

"The quest for more power," Khalian growled as he glared at Kusan.

"How much more power do you need?" Kusan returned.

"How much power is there?"

Kusan thought about this a moment, wondering if Khalian could indeed be already looking to take the next, albeit very dangerous, step. "I suppose you could find yourself in the emperor's family."

Khalian's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He brought up his right hand, waggling his index finger at the admiral, about to say something else when he saw Kudan Kuras walk out onto the dais. "Later, Kusan."

I wonder what that means, thought Kusan as he turned to face the dais.

*****

My spies tell me that Kor and Koloth are up to something, thought Kudan Kuras as he waited for the throne room to quiet. They report extensive activity around the heavy freighter Admiral Kor liberated from the Orion last year.

"Who is that, brother?"

Kuras' ears heard the words his sister was whispering to him from his left, but his brain did not, it being too wrapped up in other thoughts.

voqjup says this activity started right after Khalian announced his incarceration of Admiral Kang. Of course, that was after he'd tactfully let me know what he thought of making Khalian a councilor. Kuras' mouth turned down at the memory of that conversation. What is done, is done, he said to himself. voqjup and I have come to the same conclusion regarding this activity. He let his gaze find the two new Kh'myr councilors on the other side of the aisle. And if we have figured it out, then they must have as well. A sharp poke in his ribs abruptly interrupted his thought train. "What is it, sister?" he responded sharply upon identifying the culprit.

"Who is that?" she responded, brazenly pointing at a dark, young lieutenant standing at the back of the room with the rest of Admiral Kusan's aides.

Kuras didn't recognize him. "I don't know, Marschut. I've never seen his ugly Kh'myr face in my throne room before." He looked at her and saw a familiar fire burning within her dark eyes. It set off a racial trigger within him. "You can't be serious. A Kh'myr?"

"Kh'myr, Kh'teb. There's no difference where it counts." Her eyes unfocused for a moment, she licked her lips, then continued. "Well, some difference."

"Phah!" Kuras responded, his male psyche offended by her reference. He started to say something about it not being the size that counted, but he found she had already turned to the Lady Kali standing at her other side. She was pointing out the same individual to her. Just as long as she doesn't give me a half-breed for a relative. Kahless would send me to the torments of Gre'thor if his line was diluted with a Kh'myr's engineered gene structure.

*****

"Tell me, Kusan," Khalian sidled up to his fellow Kh'myr councilor, talking low, his face away from the dais.

"If I can, Khalian."

"I know everyone in the fleet and most of the underlings that hold offices in the dark recesses of the palace, but..." His voice slid off to nothing.

Kusan looked hard at Khalian's face. What is this? he thought. Khalian at a loss for words?"Come on, Khalian, what is it?"

"You know how I hate to admit to a weakness."

"Kahless, yes."

"What?!"

"toH, Khalian. Don't take offense. You are who you are, and that's what makes you such a powerful ally."

Khalian knew he was being humored and decided he liked the feeling. "I don't know the members of the royal family."

I really can't say I know them all either, but, Kusan thought. "I've spent some time in the First City..."

Khalian interrupted him. "I've noticed."

Kusan didn't know how to take this. Indignant rage sprang up in response. He kept it reigned in concerning this powerful Kh'myr. "Is there someone you need identifying?"

"Yes." Khalian turned his back on the dais before continuing. "Who is the female standing next to Kuras?"

"You mean the one talking to Kor's mate?"

"The one."

Kusan noted a small degree of color edge into Khalian's face. Why would a female cause Khalian to react this way? he asked himself. "That is the High Lady Marschut, sister to Kudan Kuras."

"Ah!" Khalian's eyes lidded for a moment and a small smile formed on his mouth. "What would it mean to an individual to mate with one such as her?"

The scoundrel. One week in the emperor's court and already he's conspiring to improve his position. I knew he was ambitious, but I'm afraid this might prove to be his undoing, he thought before answering the question with a question. "Physically, or politically?"

Khalian threw his head back a little and let loose a knowing laugh. "I am not an adolescent, Kusan. I've had my share of matings and have no doubt that I'd enjoy a pairing with that one. What of the other side? The political side?"

"I imagine it would go a long way toward furthering the career of the warrior that could establish a mating with Marschut, but..." Kusan saw Khalian's attention was elsewhere, though his eyes still stared at him. He began to laugh. Which did exactly what he had intended for it to do, returning Khalian's attention from his groin and back to him. "As I was going to say, she has no interest for an old targ such as yourself."

"And why not!" Khalian exploded. "And watch who you are calling old."

Kusan saw how this immediately perturbed his colleague. Careful Kusan, don't challenge his masculinity. "It is not that the thought of your attentions would not set any female on fire, Khalian, but that one's tastes run a bit younger."

"What?" Khalian blustered. "Then she's never been courted by a master of the arts of mating."

Kusan tried hard to hide the smile that forced itself onto his face. "toH." He quickly hid the smile with his gauntleted hand. "Yes." Slapping Khalian on the shoulder, Kusan decided to stop trying to counsel his fellow Kh'myr onto a more profitable line of conduct. "Good luck, veStargh,* and my condolences to all your conquests."

*VeStargh--literally, "War Targ"--akin to the Terran "Dog of War" or even "Wolf"

Khalian's face instantly clouded. "Now what do you mean by that, Kusan?"

Kahless, what a temper! Kusan thought, stepping back. "Nothing more than wishing you the best in all your court endeavors."

Khalian nodded, bowing his head in thought as he turned around to face the dais.

What is he planning? Kusan thought. I hope it's reasonable. Looking up at Marschut, Kusan followed the hungry gaze she was giving someone behind him. Looking in the same direction, he found the focus of her attentions. Well, he thought, her attentions are for Lieutenant Worf, the newest member of my personal staff. His mind already began clicking on how he could take advantage of that. In his thoughts, he only just barely registered Khalian's call on a communicator.

The boom of the Imperial scepter on the dais grabbed all their attention as it echoed through the upper reaches of the great throne room. Kusan took his place nearest the aisle, on what was now the Kh'myr side of the room, with Khalian taking his place on his left.

*****

The sound of the scepter's first strike, brought the court to silence for her brother but did nothing to break Marschut's visual attention on the young Kh'myr she'd spotted. Her heart quickened as she let her thoughts drift to what she'd do with that young warrior. The second strike of the scepter broke the spell, if only for a moment, as it caused the targeted warrior to move out of her sight. I'll have him, she promised herself as she attended to what Kuras was saying.

"This meeting of councilors has begun," Kuras announced.

"We serve," the room echoed.

"First item for discussion," Kuras opened. "This latest incident between the Federation and the Orions."

"The Federation destroyer Nelson destroyed an Orion passenger liner that had crossed into Federation territory," Admiral Kumara offered up from his position on the Segh vav side of the room.

"Put the incident on the viewscreen," Kuras ordered.

The screen came to life with the record, and Worf changed his position to get a better look. Marschut immediately found him again, and all interest in the incident disappeared. She moved closer to Kali and whispered into her ear. "Are you really interested in this?"

Kali's eyes reflected the sight of a Federation destroyer firing on an Orion passenger liner. "It is interesting," she responded, only making eye contact with Marschut long enough to say this, then a flash on the screen regained her attention.

"Not to me." Marschut pouted, then she looked back out toward the back of the room and rediscovered Worf. "Come on, Kali."

"But, my lady, the Federation destroyer--" Kali protested.

"They destroyed the Orion. Didn't you hear Kumara?" Marschut took hold of the sleeve of Kali's tunic. "Now come with me."

"Yes, my lady," Kali responded, following Marschut's departing back, but not letting her gaze wander from the screen. She stopped when the Orion passenger liner changed into an expanding ball of gas and debris. Her hand clenched into a tight fist as if she were stabbing a helpless enemy, her Klingon blood surged at the sight of such a glorious victory, even if it was the Federation which had gained it.

"See, I told you," Marschut was back at her side, pulling her toward an open door. "Follow."

"Yes, my lady." Kali barely kept her emotions from flooding into her response.

The viewscreen went dark. Kali heard Kudan Kuras response. "That commander must be a Klingon! Glorious. Glorious."

The room erupted with the growls and roars of the councilors.

Marschut led Kali into the ante-chamber, but Kor's mate could still hear the throne room's discussion.

"And the Federation will waste his talent," Kuras continued, "punishing him."

Kali heard the room erupt in raucous laughter before the door shut, cutting off the tumult.

"Let the males beat their chests over another warrior's exploits. We have better things to do, don't we, Kali?" Marschut led the way to the door on the other side of the chamber.

"As you wish, my lady." Kali felt the surge of emotion created by the visual record ebb, and attended to Marschut's doings. The emperor's sister was speaking to a guard.

"I want you to deliver a message for me," Marschut said to him.

"I serve," the guard responded.

"Yes." She let her gaze wander over his physique. "So you have."

Kali knew Marschut's sexual appetite was virtually unlimited, and the guard before them had been but one of her many conquests.

"Do you know the newest lieutenant in Admiral Kusan's entourage?"

"The dark one?"

"Yes."

"My lady, are you sure you want someone with so little experience?" The guard leaned toward Marschut, his own interests plain to see in his eyes.

"You were once so inexperienced." She impaled him with a glare.

The guard nodded understandingly. "His name is Worf, my lady."

"So I've been told."

"And what do you wish me to tell him?" He was all business now.

"Tell him to report to my quarters." Marschut turned away and began walking down the hallway. "Come, Kali."

Kali saw the guard give his compatriot on the other side of the door a knowing look, then he left his post to deliver the message. Marschut was already well down the hallway. Kali trotted to catch up to Marschut, whose suite of rooms were not that far away.

*****

The door chimed.

"That must be him, my lady. Shall I return to the throne room?"

"No, wait for me in the next room," Marschut responded, quickly pulling a sheer shift over her head. There wasn't much to it and it revealed much more than it covered, designed not to survive encounters such as this.

"Success, my lady," Kali struck her breast in a salute.

Marschut growled in response, walked over to the door and stood square in front of it. A quick glance showed her that Kali had already departed. "Open," she commanded, placing as much emotion as she could into that one word.

The young officer she'd seen in the back of the throne room was standing at attention in the hallway. "My lady wished to see me?"

He hasn't sensed it yet, she thought, though she did note his reaction to seeing her as she was. Good, he's getting the idea now. "Come in, Lieutenant Worf."

The moment he entered the room, the scent took over. Produced by her estrus glands, extracted and concentrated, her pheromones overwhelmed the young Kh'myr quickly and totally.

*****

Kali heard the heat-filled roar of the Kh'myr warrior and the resulting squeal of pleasure of Marschut. She tried not to think about what was happening, but her longing for Kor became almost unbearable. He's in for a pleasant surprise tonight when we get back to our fortress, she thought as she squirmed. There will be some roaring there tonight as well. A fierce smile spread across her face.

There was a great thumping and bumping going on in Marschut's bed chamber, but Kali only thought Marschut was getting exactly what she'd asked for and her own fantasies took on a whole new light.

The sound of a crash broke the fantasy. This is getting out of hand, she decided as she left the room and entered the hallway to the bed chamber. She could see the door to the hallway hanging from its hinges, ruined. She heard Marschut scream and a male's roar. There was the slapping/thudding sound of a fist hitting flesh, and Worf sailed backwards into Kali's view. The wall next to the door stopped his brief flight. A nasty set of deep, ragged slashes marking his cheek was already pouring out blood, and his neck and head canted at an unnatural angle. He sank to the floor with a moan, then onto his face.

"Animals!" screamed Marschut.

"She mates with every warrior in the castle, and she calls us animals," came a menacing voice Kali didn't recognize.

Kali heard the metallic scrape of a blade being released from its sheath. "I'll take your maleness and shove it down your slit throat," the tone of Marschut's voice said she meant business, and Kali knew the emperor's sister was more than capable of carrying out her threat. She pulled out her own blade and prepared to join the fight.

"Be careful, bu'; she may sting you," Kali heard a second voice say and three different voices chuckled.

There are four of them at least, she thought, her intention of charging in and joining the fight waning. If I die, then who will summon help? she thought as she backed up a bit. Worf? No, without an eye witness, the emperor will believe he was involved and have him executed, despite his protests. No, I must live to alert the guards.

"Get her," the bu' said, and Kali heard the clatter of the armor as the rest of the warriors followed his orders.

Marschut screamed with rage. Kali heard the distinctive sound of a knife cutting leather and a yelp of pain. "I'll do the same to anyone else who touches me," Marschut yelled.

There was the clattering sound of warriors trying to get to a better vantage point. Then a rush--Marschut's yells--more auditory evidence of woundings.

"Come on, you bunch of dirty targs, come get me." Marschut challenged them.

"What's the matter? You going to let a female get the better of you?" the bu' roared.

"But joHwI', our orders forbid us to harm her in any way, and she has a weapon," a voice responded, followed by the grunts of the others.

"Who's your master, you mantril? Who is it who employs such worthless trash and orders them to interrupt the emperor's sister in her play?"

"That'll be enough of that, be'SIj." Kali heard the bu' say. A disruptor fired, and she heard the thud of a body hitting the floor.

"Get her, and let's get out of here," the bu' ordered.

Kali saw a warrior enter the other end of the hallway. He was Kh'myr, but outside of that, unrecognizable. His armor and uniform were lacking any recognizable emblem that would identify his unit. She slowly backed up to a point where she could watch without silhouetting herself. I need to alert someone, she thought as she turned to run.

"bu'! There's another!" he yelled as he crashed after her.

She tried to make it to the door, but the warrior pulled out his dagger, clicked open the bleeder blades, and drove it into her side. A moment later, laughing, he rejoined his colleagues in carrying an unconscious Marschut from the citadel.

*****

Pain filled her awakening dreams like the demons of Gre'thor itself. There was the cloying taste of blood in her mouth, but this was only a minor annoyance when compared to the pain she felt in her side and chest.

Where am I? she asked herself, her memories a blank. She reached up with her hand and pressed it against her side. She felt a warm liquid and then the slit from where it was coming. Her breath came in sharply, then she remembered.

"They've kidnapped the emperor's sister." She tried to sit up. The pain was both immediate and intense as she felt a glut of blood pile out onto her chest. She opened her eyes and looked at her wound, seeing how severe it was. "Kahless, how did I survive that?"

"Because I wished it."

She turned her head and saw a ghostly figure in full armor standing nearby. She instantly recognized him. "Kahless. You've come to take me to Kh'eloz--the afterlife."

"No. I am leaving you here to relay a message to my people."

Pain lanced through her from her wounds. She raised her chest, closed her eyes and screamed as loud as her wounds would let her. For a moment, she thought she would pass out, but in a moment it subsided. She was able to look around again, half expecting to find herself in the warrior's paradise. Instead, she found the ghostly warrior on one knee, with his spectral hand over her wound.

"The pain cleanses you and prepares you for the mission on which you are about to embark."

She felt warmth spread from his hand and realized she wouldn't die. "I serve, Great Lord Kahless."

"I know." He smiled and began talking.

*****

Kali found herself waking up again. Had it all been a dream? Rolling over, the intense pain returned, and she groaned. But now she had the strength to overcome the pain and get unsteadily to her feet. "I have to tell Kudan Kuras what has happened."

She stumbled to the bed chamber and found Worf, still laying on the floor where he had collapsed. His dark skin was ashen. Knowing her own total collapse was imminent, she didn't stop to find out whether he was dead, too intent upon getting to the throne room,.

It seemed to take forever to reach her goal. To her shock-ridden perception, the hall seemed to stretch on forever, forbidding her to get any closer. Finally, she turned the corner and ran right into one of the guards.

"Nuq?!" he roared as she fell into him. "What?"

"They've kidnapped Marschut. I must report this to Kudan Kuras."

"What is this?" he asked, taking in her condition with a quick glance, then looking over toward his partner. With a nod of his head, he indicated that the other should check out her story, then bending down, he slipped one muscular arm behind her knees and the other behind her shoulders, lifting Kali into his arms.

"I must speak with the emperor!" she whispered.

"And you shall."

*****

"Then it is settled. We will protest the destruction of the Orion ship by the Federation," Kuras announced to the council.

He heard the door to the ante-chamber open and saw every eye look that way. Admiral Kor immediately roared and leapt toward the dais.

"What?" Kuras looked to what everyone else was looking at and saw a guard with the blood-covered Kali in his arms.

Kor took hold of her hand. "Who did this to you, my wife?"

She didn't acknowledge Kor's presence, repeating her request. "I must talk to the emperor." Her voice was only a whisper, but it seemed like a shout in the supernatural silence of the great hall.

Kudan Kuras stood before her. "What has happened, Kali?"

"They took her."

"Who?"

"Marschut."

"My sister?!"

"Yes, my emperor."

"Who?!"

"Kh'myr warriors. I don't know who..." She passed out.

Kor took her from the guard and went to the center of the dais, glaring at the two Kh'myr councilors. "When I find out which one of you is responsible for this, not even the underside of a slimy rock a thousand kellicam under a sea will protect you from me!" He stalked from the dais.

Kuras took his place, also glaring at Kusan and Khalian.

Khalian's hand went to his dagger. "He cannot threaten me like that," he retorted. "He has no proof that I was involved."

"My sister," Kuras hissed menacingly. "My sister!"

Khalian didn't flinch under the withering glare of the emperor. "You have no proof, sire."

"MY SISTER! MY SISTER!" Kuras roared, lifting his gaze to the ceiling. "By Kahless, I will have the head of the one who is responsible!" He yanked free his dagger with his right hand and laid its razor edge against the palm of his left. With a quick pull he opened a deep slash. "By my blood, I swear, I will not rest until those responsible are dead!" He lifted his bleeding hand above his head. "By Kahless, I swear!" he roared again.

Kusan took hold of Khalian's arm and pulled him toward the back of the room and the mighty doors that were opening and disgorging a troop of Segh vav guards.

At first, Khalian resisted, tempted by his anger to mount the stage and cut Kudan Kuras' throat. How could he know? he thought, angry that the emperor seemed to already know. Then he looked at Kusan.

"Did you do this?"

"No!" Khalian lied. "Why should I?"

"What was it you said as we entered the throne room?"

Khalian began a hot retort, then remembered what he'd said and that he'd indeed tipped his hand. He stopped short, realizing he needed to make some sort of explanation. "But a thought; nothing more, my friend."

Kusan's eyebrows came down, forming one line above his angry eyes. "I hope so," he finally said and released Khalian's arm, "for the sake of all Kh'myr."

They were out into the hallway before Khalian said anything else. "And what do you think those weakling Segh vav can do to us?"

"I will have all their heads on a spear!" They both heard Kuras' voice echo out of the throne room.

"Do not think our position is anything but tenuous as yet, Khalian," Kusan announced.

"But--"

"But, nothing! We are strong, yes, but our position is not total," Kusan continued. "We can take on one of the councilors, but not the emperor himself. He has but to invoke his blood line and even many of the Kh'myr will join him...including myself!"

Khalian glared at his fellow Kh'myr leader. "So I see."

Kusan glared long and hard at the brown eyes of Khalian and saw the lie there. "I see as well, Khalian."

"You see what?"

"You are on your own, Khalian. I want nothing to do with you."

Khalian grabbed Kusan roughly with a strong hand. Putting his face right up to Kusan's, he began to talk in a voice so low only Kusan would hear it. "Do not get in my way, Kusan. I would kill you as fast as a Segh vav." Releasing his fellow Kh'myr, he turned and stalked down the hall.

Kusan glared at the retreating back of Khalian, his thoughts in turmoil. Khalian wasn't out of sight yet when Kusan finally recovered from the threat. Pulling out his communicator, he opened a secure channel back to his headquarters.

"nuqneH?" came the challenge from the other end. "What do you want?"

"Get me Valkris," he said in a very quiet voice.

"I serve," the person on the other end answered, cutting the connection.

"And I will kill you, Khalian," Kusan finally uttered, beginning to walk down the same hall, "for all of ours sakes."

-6-

The two K't'inga battlecruisers--mainstay of the Klingon fleet for many years--appeared from nowhere, their cloaking devices fully hiding their ambush until it was too late for Kronn to evade. The plasma torpedo tubes in the nose of their round primary hull's glowing brilliant red with menace, as did the disruptor batteries located on the wings of the secondary hull.

"This is Commander Khurl of the Imperial battlecruiser Seng of Lord Khalian's first battle group." Khurl paused to let that sink in before continuing. "You will surrender and allow us to board your ship."

"Lord Khalian?" Kronn responded.

"Are you deaf as well as inferior, you Segh vav dolt?" Khurl sneered. "Do you surrender?"

"Not until I can confirm your identity."

"Then we will destroy you," Khurl threatened.

"You would break the Klingon nada tradition-as well as Imperial law-by killing a healer?"

"I am Kh'myr, and not one bit superstitious. I will do whatever it takes to accomplish my mission."

Kronn frantically began to input evasion commands into his navigation computer, but he needed time, and it didn't look like this Khurl was a patient Klingon. "And what is your mission, Commander?"

"To find and apprehend you," Khurl responded. "You have one tup to comply before I open fire."

"But then you won't have accomplished your mission." Kronn tried to use logic to confuse the commander, while at the same time frantically putting the finishing touches into the computer.

Khurl laughed and turned to face someone just outside of the range of the video pickup. "Do you hear this? A Qel deigns to instruct me on tactics!" His facial features changed from amusement to dead seriousness as he faced back toward the screen. "You will surrender or die, Healer!"

He means it, Kronn thought as he punched the last course change into the computer. "Ready to comply, Khurl. Right...now." He punched the enable button on the console in front of him and the evasive program took over. His ketch disappeared behind its cloaking device, then pivoted down and to the right, accelerating straight to full graf speed, cutting off his subspace transmitter at the same time.

Kronn watched Khurl's reaction to his sudden maneuver on his viewscreen, his subspace radio's receive channel still active. He would need any and all information on how this commander would react if he were going to make good his escape.

"He has a cloak in that thing!" Khurl yelled.

Kronn heard a muffled response he couldn't understand.

"Find him!" Khurl yelled, then looked right at the video pickup and roared. "It won't be that easy, Qel. When I catch up to you, I will prolong your death personally." He cut the transmission.

Kronn reached up and touched the lump under the skin behind his ear. The anti-interrogation device would detonate at the first use of a mindsifter. Of course, he could detonate it himself at the first indication of capture. All he had to do to commit suicide was to manipulate it just so...he went over the procedure in his mind...to start the countdown. He might not be brave enough to be a warrior, but he knew he could do that.

A bolt of green energy flashed across his bow, the disruptor beam's central charge missing his ship, but its side splash savagely shaking the ketch.

A lucky guess? wondered Kronn. "Rear video pick-ups," he calmly requested. He checked the status of his cloak and saw that it was working as designed. He can't actually see me, he thought, his confidence waning as a second bolt crashed by on the other side.

The sensor report came up on his central viewscreen. The two K't'inga's were zig-zagging along his trail, randomly firing their weapons. He saw two more bursts of energy pass by far beneath him. Let's see just how much of this is luck, his thoughts were racing as he input an adjustment to his course.

The ketch jinked onto a variable of the same basic course he wanted. "Let us see what that does."

For a moment, the disruptor shots all passed to the right of his vessel, getting further away with every second. "Lucky..." He hissed as he began to relax. The first K't'inga reached the point where he'd changed his course, changing as well as once again the disruptor bursts began to flash by.

He can't see me, Kronn decided, but he can follow my trail. My engines must be leaking something this older version cloak can't hide. That means that eventually...

The computer interrupted his thoughts. "Two incoming torpedoes," the computer's male voice announced.

Well! Kronn thought. "Will they hit us?"

"Not directly," the computer answered.

"How close will they pass?"

"One kellicam."

Kronn knew the specifications of all the Klingon weaponry. The weapons might not be able to see his ship well enough for the proximity fuse to activate, but they could be command detonated and even at ten kellicam the resulting shock wave might damage his small, ambulance vessel. He punched in a new course and enabled it.

The ketch pivoted onto a new heading.

Five seconds later, Kronn saw twin flashes erupt along his old course. "That would have gotten me," he deduced. He smiled. This was all too easy. Then common sense reminded him that the only thing he'd done was to dodge a mindless weapon. As he watched, the K't'ingas reached the location of his course change and changed course as well. They are still on my trail. Sooner or later, they're going to get lucky. My shields would buckle at even a glancing blow from their disruptors, let alone a near miss from a torpedo. I have to find a way to shake their pursuit.

Then he had an idea. "Computer."

"Enabled."

"Check our trail. What form of radiation or exhaust are we leaking?"

"Scanning. The cloaking device is functioning according to its design. There is trace ionization being left behind."

"And Khurl is able to track it."

"The K't'inga science sensor platform is capable of such sensitivity," the computer responded.

"Just my luck," Kronn replied.

"But not the targeting sensors," the computer added.

"That explains why I am not a ball of expanding gases and component parts yet," Kronn said to himself.

"Unable to respond to that statement."

"Disregard."

There was an audible click in response. Four flashes of disruptor energy passed him on all sides, one coming close enough to shake his vessel.

Kronn sat back in his command chair and thought for a moment. What can I do to obscure that trail?

Again, the computer interrupted his thoughts. "Sensors have picked up two more torpedoes."

What I would not give for just one battery of disruptors on this ship, Kronn thought wistfully. I will have to outsmart these Kh'myr ruffians. Then something on the forward pickup caught his attention, and he smiled. "Something a lowly 'Segh vav' like me shouldn't be able to do on even the bleakest day," he said out loud. With renewed energy, he punched in a new course and enabled it.

The ketch turned toward a glowing mass of gas and dust, the remains of an ancient nova.

All I have to do is fly through that, maneuver close to the neutron body in the center, using its gravity well as a sling shot to accelerate well passed the limits of my ship's engines. Not only will I be able to speed away, but the nebula will serve to hide my trail.

"Warning."

"What?!"

"Unsafe levels of toxic radiation detected in the clouds of the nebula. There is only one course that will do as you've requested without exposing you to a deadly dose."

"And that is?"

The central viewscreen changed to that of a computer generated navigation chart. A red, parabolic line showed the recommended course. An especially close shot from the pursuing K't'ingas rocked the ketch, reminding Kronn he didn't have much time to think.

Do I have a choice? he thought, making up his mind. "Enable!"

*****

"Weapons are fully recharged, Commander, the Seng's weapons officer reported.

"Fire," Khurl ordered.

The lights dimmed as a new set of disruptor pulses flashed forward, reaching for their target coordinates.

"Another course change, Commander," the sensor officer reported.

"QI'yaH! Why did you wait until we fired to tell me that?" Khurl responded, his glare enough to peel the paint off a battlecruiser's hull.

The sensor officer ignored the glare, choosing to continue. "His new course is on-screen."

"Toward the nebula?"

"Yes, Commander."

"But what does he think...." Khurl began twisting the end of his long mustache, a nervous quirk the entire bridge crew noted. "toH!" Khurl said a moment later, his eyes widening and a smile broadening with his excitement. "He knows he can't outrun us, and that we can follow his outdated cloak, so he tries to hide his trail, getting a boost at the same time.

"But the good healer underestimates our abilities to figure this out, and, my knowledge of this area of space." Khurl paused to think only a moment. "Communications, get me the commander of the 'etlh." Turning toward his tactical officer, he gave his orders. "Change our course to stay on his tail. Continue to fire."

"I have the commander of the 'etlh, joHwI'."

"Put him on the screen."

"nuqneH, Khurl?" the 'etlh's commander demanded.

"Listen closely..."

*****

"Factor five. Factor five point three. Factor five point six," the computer ticked off.

Kronn faced the viewscreen and his face glowed with the swirling colors of the nebula's gases. "Where is the Seng?" he asked the computer after another moment.

"Indeterminate. Nebula radiation is producing a scrambling affect."

Isn't that wonderful? thought Kronn. "I can't see them, and they can't see me."

"Affirmative," answered the computer.

I should shut down and enter an orbit here and later sneak out on an entirely different course, he thought, nodding his head with the correctness of the idea. "Request course correction necessary to enter orbit around the neutron star," he asked the computer.

"One-one-two-five point eight-eight."

His instincts affirmed that this was the best thing to do. "Change..."

"Warning," the computer interrupted him.

"What is it?"

"Internal sensors have registered low levels of toxic radiation."

"Is it getting through the shields?"

"Affirmative."

Kronn knew his biology could absorb some amounts of this radiation without too much affect, but larger doses could quickly prove fatal. This scrubbed his plans to stay within the nebula. But what if one of those battlecruisers is on the other side waiting? he thought. "Forward sensors?"

"Indeterminate. Speed now factor seven. Factor seven point three."

Kronn listened to the computer tick off the increasing speeds, trying to think.

The swirling nebula clouds thinned on the viewscreen, and the ketch broke into the nebula's central region, where the neutron star was located. He couldn't actually see it because it wasn't emanating any visible light, but he could see what it did to the nebula. Its rapid spin and strong gravity above and below its axis was like an invisible spoon, stirring it up and charging it with the excess energies produced by the strong gravity well.

"Closest point of perihelion reached; present speed graf factor nine," the computer reported.

Kronn's small ship creaked and groaned under the stress.

"The ship is passing through the nebula's equatorial region."

A super bright light hit the ketch, and it bucked as if a weapon had hit its shields.

"Computer, identify?"

"A flaw in the neutron star's gravity and surface is allowing a stream of raw radiation to escape along the equatorial region."

"Period?"

"Two seconds."

"How long until we leave the equatorial region?"

"Six seconds at the ship's present speed."

Three more hits, Kronn deduced. "Effect on shields?"

"Down to sixty-three percent."

The light hit the ketch again.

"Shields are down to thirty-five percent."

"There is nothing I can do but..."

And again.

"Shields are down to fifteen percent. The cloak is off-line."

I hope Khurl is as dumb as the Kh'teb like to describe the Kh'myr, he thought as he waited for that final hit before they were out of the beam's angular range. Because I'm going to come out of here with nearly collapsed shields and plainly visible.

The ketch was hit again.

"Shields are down to five percent. Collapse is imminent. The cloak is still off line."

"Position within the region?"

"Leaving the nebula's equatorial region. Speed, graf factor eight point nine five."

"How long to recharge shields?"

"Sixty minutes."

"How long before we can cloak again?"

"Sixty-two minutes."

"And how long till we're clear of the nebula?"

"Fifty-nine minutes at our present rate of speed."

I cannot avoid leaving the nebula, but I don't have to do so on a course a Klingon boy still in training could predict, he thought. "Adjust course five degrees to the right at a downward angle of twenty degrees."

"Warning!" the computer chimed.

"What is wrong?"

"Changing from the pre-planned course will take the ship through regions heavy in toxic radiation. With shields at present strengths, deadly levels will flood the ship."

Kronn threw himself into the back of his chair. My course is charted and locked in. Now it is in fate's hands.

Fifty minutes passed without notice as Kronn let the nebula's intense colors hypnotize him. It was the computer's voice that woke him from the trance.

"Nearing the outer edge of the nebula," the computer reported. "Radiation levels within the ship falling."

I will need to detoxify as soon as I am clear of this, Kronn thought, knowing that though he hadn't received an immediately deadly dose, he had absorbed enough to exhibit standard radiation sickness in a few weeks. That is, if the Kh'myr do not kill me first.

"Leaving the nebula," the computer reported.

The multi-color clouds of dust and gas thinned and then disappeared, leaving the forward view clear of everything but stars. More importantly, there was no sign of a battlecruiser.

"They are as dumb as reported!" Kronn said to himself, letting a smile cross his face. Tension emptied from him like water down an opened drain.

*****

"The Qel's ketch just came out of the nebula, joHwI'," reported the 'etlh's sensor officer.

"Target engines," her commander ordered.

The 'etlh came out from behind an eddy in the nebula's cloud, right behind the fleeing ketch.

"His shields are only at half strength, joHwI'. Whatever knocked out his cloak must have attacked his shields as well."

"Logical, since both are created through the same projector."

"The disruptors have a lock. Recommend half-strength."

"With his shields at their present depleted level, a full power hit would destroy the whole ship. Lord Khalian wants him alive." The commander nodded his head in agreement. "Do it."

"Disruptors ready."

"baH!--Fire!"

Erupting from the disruptor cannons, located on the forward tip of each S-2 graf unit of the K't'inga battlecruiser, the balls of green, plasma energy streaked toward their target. The range was short, and, a moment later, the bolts hit dead center on the rear shields of the ketch. The shielding buckled instantly with a bright flash, the destructive energies of the weapon continuing to destroy the ketch's graf drive, flipping the small ship end over end, dropping it instantly out of the sub-space envelope those engines provided.

"Its shields are down," reported the sensor officer. "Its graf drive is destroyed."

"Life signs?"

"One found. Male, Segh vav Klingon. No damage to life support systems detected."

The commander turned to his engineering officer. "Get a tractor beam onto him and prepare to beam the good Qel aboard."

"Yes, lord."

The ketch disappeared.

"What?!"

"He has cloaked, joHwI'," the sensor officer reported.

"I thought you said his shields were down." Unveiled menace filled the commander's voice.

"They are, joHwI', I do not understand this at all."

"Fire disruptors along the last course."

Coruscating bursts of energy flashed from all the battlecruisers forward batteries, but finding nothing in their path.

"Where is he?"

"Unknown, joHwI'. Sensors are unable to penetrate his cloak."

"Search for the same neutrino signature we followed before."

"Searching," the sensor officer reported as he stared intently at his readouts. "Nothing, lord. He's on impulse power, and the cloak is masking all evidence of its use."

"The Seng just exited the nebula, joHwI'."

baQa'! the commander thought. He will want to know where the ketch is.

"Commander Khurl is hailing us, joHwI'."

"Put him on the screen."

The screen filled with the face of the group's commander. "Well?"

"Nothing, joHwI'. Nothing came from the nebula."

The bridge crew looked at each other. Their commander had lied to his fellow commander. A few smiled and winked. After all, this hadn't been the first time.

"taHqeq!" Khurl roared. "Where did he go?" But he didn't really expect an answer. "Begin a search pattern around the nebula's boundary. Kronn must have come out someplace else."

"Yes, joHwI'."

The screen returned to the stellar background of before.

"First officer."

The 'etlh's second in command came forward from his station in the rear of the bridge. The commander signaled with his hand for him to come closer, then talked to him in a very low voice. "Edit the ship's records regarding this."

"Already begun, joHwI'."

"You are a good first officer," the commander said, dismissing him, but not trusting him. I will have the second officer follow up on this and detect how many copies were made before he erased the official record, he decided as he faced the screen again. "Begin the search pattern."

*****

Kronn's eyes smarted from the smoke in the air, the emergency lights making the bridge dusky. "Computer. What is the ship's status?"

"Graf..." There was a burst of static from the speaker, some clicking then the computer's voice returned, conspicuous holes filling its report. "...non-operational. Impulse function...powering cloak...trical at fifty...support is down to...struct...hull integrity is...comp...grity...thirty percent."

The computer went silent. Kronn knew it was only because it had finished its report and not that the obvious damage to its circuits had shut it down. "I guess they're not as dumb as I thought," Kronn said as he tried to get his ship back under control. Dabbing with one hand at a cut he'd gotten on his forehead when he'd been slammed into the control console, his other hand flew across the thruster controls trying to stabilize his poor craft. He felt them fire. One look at the viewscreen, and the star paths streaming across them, confirmed that the mad, end over end tumble continued.

"Computer. Assist me in stabilizing the ship."

"Attem...gram now."

"Damn, the computer's incomplete reports are frustrating."

He was about to once again attempt a manual fix when the thruster panel lit up under the computer's control. A complex series of thruster patterns nearly stopped its gyration.

"Good. Show me the other ships."

The screen shimmered and the backsides of two K't'inga battlecruisers formed. By the way the angle was changing he realized his ship was drifting in an upward angle from their course. The important aspect of all this was that he was also drifting away from them.

The two warships changed course, coming about. For a moment Kronn thought maybe they'd detected him. He had no idea how long the cloak would last under these conditions. It wasn't until the K't'ingas passed him, split up, each taking a course back toward the nebula, that Kronn finally breathed easier.

"Computer, report on our heading and all possible destinations."

The speaker clicked, followed by a long, uncomfortable pause. Then, "...omulan terri..."

He'd heard enough to now know he was heading for Romulan space. That's not altogether a bad thing, he thought, then aloud, "As long as life support is maintained, and the ship does not break up." There was one other critical item on the ship he needed if he were to continue owning his freedom.

"Computer, what is the status of the cloak?"

"...oak functioning at one hundred percent."

The computer sounded better, probably doing a lot of internal rerouting.

"Can I use the impulse drive?"

"...pulse is damaged. Power generation...oaking device. Ten...cent avail...momentum, but will use up...serves in three..."

In other words, he deduced, I can move away faster, but in full view, or, I can continue to drift and remain unseen. He made his decision. "Continue present heading and status."

The computer clicked a couple times. "...imminent in eight..."

"Computer, repeat."

"Damage to...pulse...fail...in...eig...hours."

"Just my luck," Kronn said to the air around him, extrapolating what he couldn't hear. "The impulse will fail in eight hours, and then I will drift, visible to any who want to find me, helpless to even the lowliest pirate." I would consider it an amazing piece of fortune if a pirate found me, at least then my death would be quick. His free hand wandered back to the lump just behind his ear.

"Many things can happen in eight hours," Kronn said as he stood up and walked back toward the doorway to his clinic, "and bleeding to death should not be one of them."

Entering his clinic, he pulled out the tissue stabilizer/cauterizer and began working on the gash. "Who knows," he said to himself as he worked, "maybe I will be picked up by a merchantman. They are always looking for healers," he said to himself, knowing his duty to the Imperial Fleet was at an end now. But he felt no remorse for what he'd done. On the contrary, he felt a deep sense of honor. The scar he'd get from the injury would be his medal of honor.

-7-

Brown and cold, its fusion reaction miserly in its consumption of fuel, the brown dwarf slowly made its way along the path that circled the bright galactic center, its location at the very edge of the Romulan Star Empire. She had only one rocky child--a planetoid, stunted and loosely held together-- moving in an orbit through a zone of dust and debris.

It was here that the merchantman, wejyapHuch--literally, "Insufficient Funds"--came out of the subspace arena of faster-than-light travel, into regular space. It appeared typical for a civilian cargo hauler--blocky and ungainly to the eye, appearing to be only a series of warehouse super-sized connexes connected together with great duranium straps. Powering its systems and pushing it through the vacuum of space was the single glowing eye of a standard appearing impulse. On either side, half hidden by strategically located hull plates were twin graf drive nacelles, the real legs of the ship. It was not as it appeared; false panels and pseudo bulkheads hid many secrets.

Durit, the wejyapHuch's lord and master, guided her down a twisting and turning channel through the debris to the orbital path of the single planetoid. He'd cleared the trail himself years earlier, knowing that once completed, it would allow him to enter a place invisible to all but the most powerful sensors.

"Conduct a sensor scan of the rendezvous point," Durit ordered.

The computer's voice responded, "Sensors enabled." A moment later: "No ships within sensor range."

"Good," he commented to himself. "I like getting here first, and watching the romuluSngan petaQ's attempts to get in here unseen." A chuckle followed close on the heels of the comment.

"The ordered orbit has been established," the computer reported.

I only wish I could cloak now, he thought, but my cloak has problems with the micro-debris that saturates this orbit. "Begin silent running program," he ordered instead.

"Silent running enabled," the computer announced. Active systems throughout the ship began to shut down, including a few on the bridge, leaving only the low hisses of the passive sensors and the light sighs of life support.

"Now I wait," he said to himself, checking the chronograph. "The romuluSngan is usually precisely fifteen minutes ahead of the agreed upon arrival time," he commented, "that's why I am expecting him even earlier this time."

He hadn't waited long before the computer bleeped a warning.

"Where?"

"Narrow beam transmission from sensor satellite three: movement detected."

Durit recalled the coordinates of that satellite and laughed. "They came in on the far side of the system. It's just like those back-shooting Romulans to come in from the rear. Orient the visual pick up on where they'll first become visible."

"Enabled."

The viewscreen's surface seemed to waver, and the image on it changed. Centered on it was the planetoid, close to being eclipsed by the brown dwarf. There was an ellipse of sparkling energy moving through the outer zone of heavy debris.

"qoHpu'. Do they really think their cloak is hiding them?"

"Insufficient data..."

"Disregard."

The Romulan warbird entered the planetoid's path, but the ellipse still gave them away. A wavering along its surface precluded the Romulan dropping his cloak, exposing the warbird's true, green- tinged form. Durit recognized its design as a modified Klingon D-7 battlecruiser, probably one of the ones his Empire traded them in return for the secret of the cloaking device.

"Computer."

"Enabled."

"Energize weapons, but do not open portal covers."

"Warning. Weapon energy can be picked up by sensors," the computer announced.

"Only if their sensors are looking right at us to see it. Enable."

"Weapon systems energizing."

Under the neutronium hull plates, high power disruptors came alive. The twin plasma-torpedo launchers in the bow and the single one in the stern began to glow a dull red with readiness.

"Weapon systems energized," the computer reported.

"Just in case," Durit hissed under his breath, rubbing his hands together. "My brother Duran may trust these vulcanoid throwbacks, but I don't. Computer, enable visual targeting."

"Warning. Energy usage will be picked up by sensors."

"A negligible risk. Enable."

"Enabled."

A set of cross-hairs appeared in the corner of the viewscreen. Durit moved them until they were on the back of the D-7's wing shaped secondary hull, dead center on its engineering section. "Lock and track."

"Tracking."

Sitting back in his seat, he watched the cross-hairs follow the Romulan, content in the knowledge that every weapon on board the wejyapHuch was ready to disable the other starship. With a big smile, he relaxed and watched the other follow the orbital corridor toward him.

"Warning. Scanning radiation detected."

"What are the chances of detection?"

"One hundred percent. Their weapon systems just went on standby."

"End silent running."

The systems that had been dead a moment earlier came alive, and the merchantman became illuminated within her running lights.

"Full power to the weapons. Drop portal covers. Engage mini-cloaks, but maintain visual targeting lock."

Though neutronium plates moved into hidden bays, the weapons remained hidden behind miniature cloaking devices similar to the one he had used to disguise himself as Illyeekeek.

The Romulan warbird changed its course slightly, now on a precise heading for the wejyapHuch.

An alarm went off, and the computer announced, "Subspace hail detected."

"Enable firing button on the command chair, then open the channel."

A button under the index finger of his right hand lit up, and the viewscreen wavered, forming into the visage of the warbird's commander. He was shorter than the security guard behind him and only half the mass.

"Hail, Commander Nanclus of the Imperial Romulan Empire, commander of the mighty warbird Haakona."

"Hail to you, Durit."

Durit noted Nanclus' failure to use a honorific. The Romulan knew Durit was a wealthy Kh'myr from a powerful house by his own right, with many possessions, not the least of which was the deed to the planet he used as a base of operations. It irritated him to think that after everything he provided to this Romulan, he couldn't acknowledge the fact. I ought to blow him into the next dimension, but his payment would go with him. Holding his Klingon temper in check, he smiled. "You are early, my friend."

"Not as early as you, I see," Nanclus responded, irritation detectable in his voice.

"I found it pays to be one step ahead. Do you have the requested payment?"

"And you the merchandise?"

"Of course. Of finest quality, the best I have ever seen, and well worth the price you are paying," Durit commented smugly. He is not going to try and talk me down this time. Maybe it is time I raised the price, now that I have lost one of my key sources. Durit's smile became larger.

"Simultaneous transport?"

"As usual."

Durit pressed a button on the left arm of his command chair, keeping his right hand on the firing button. On a small viewscreen monitoring the transporter, he saw the barrels of topaline disappear, and, in their place, a large wooden chest appear. "Computer, scan chest."

"Scanning. The chest contains one hundred bars of gold-plated latinum."

Nanclus commented first. "Our scan of the shipment is complete. As usual, the quality is first rate. The transaction is complete."

"Yes," Durit said, not bothering to comment on the payment. "I serve."

"Can you get more?"

"For the right price," Durit responded. Might as well prepare him for a higher price while I am here,he thought before continuing. "I will contact you."

"I will be waiting for your message." Nanclus was smiling now.

"Until then." Durit cut the channel, and the viewscreen returned to the view of the Haakona. "I still do not understand what my brother sees in you," he said to himself. "I can smell your vile, bigoted odor even here. If it was not for the fact that you pay well for my merchandise, I would just as soon scatter your molecules throughout this system as have anything else to do with you."

Temptation to push the button under his right index finger once again plagued him. He was already rich. With the loss of the Psi Scorpii topaline connection and its high quality ore, it would be hard to fill the Romulan order. More so, since the Caldonians seemed to be onto what was going on. It would only be a matter of time before every Starfleet patrol in the quadrant would be looking for Illyeekeek and the wejyapHuch.

I should bring this matter to an end. The pressure of his finger on the button increased. And once the Haakona leaves this system, I will never get another chance like this to silence him forever. The warbird's maneuvering thrusters fired, and she turned in preparation for departure. He knew he could destroy the warbird with a single burst. All he had to do was push the button.

Then the viewscreen displaying the chest of latinum caught his gaze, and he pulled his hand away from the firing button. "Computer, power down weapons and store them away."

"Powering down."

"I am rich, but I can always use more...just in case." He gave the retreating stern of the Haakona precise Klingon salute. "Maybe next time, romuluSngan Ha'DIbaH."

He waited a full hour after the Haakona warped out of the system, the sensor satellites outside the debris' radiation scattering affect reporting that it had indeed left the area before piloting the wejyapHuch down the trail. No use giving them its location, he thought as he piloted his ship along the corridor. Let them continue having to make their own path.

"Computer. Compute and lock course for jImIplaH. Graf factor four."

"Computed and locked."

"Enable."

Neutronium plates pulled back, revealing the true nature of the wejyapHuch's main drive. Instead of the standard civilian graf units used by Klingon merchantmen throughout the Empire, capable only of a slow, factor two crawl, these were state-of-the-art military graf drives, attaining factor eight easily. The dull red glow of reserve/standby changed to a bright scarlet, and the wejyapHuch accelerated toward factor one, her lines beginning to smear.

"Warning. Sensor contact," the computer barked.

"All stop," Durit ordered. "Cloak."

The whine of the engines fell away, and the bridge's white lights changed to red.

toH, Nanclus has decided to end our commerce. Durit's anger kindled and he grinned. "Now I will have to destroy him." Addressing the computer, he continued, "Locate sensor contact."

"Located. Coordinates on the screen."

A map of the region appeared on the screen. Most obvious was the wejyapHuch's marker. Coming in from the direction of the Klingon frontier was the contact. It was on a course that just barely cut through the furthest extent of the merchantman's sensors, on a heading for the Romulan frontier.

That cannot be Nanclus, he deduced.

It disappeared.

"Computer. Reacquire sensor contact."

"Unable to comply. It has cloaked."

Then it appeared again, further along its straight course.

Could it be a derelict? Durit wondered. "Computer, any report of missing ships in this area?"

"None reported."

It disappeared for a moment, then reappeared.

Yet, this has all the earmarks of a derelict, he thought. Most likely it is only the shell of something someone has already gutted in salvage. He tried to decide whether to approach it. Then why did they not take the cloak? The last thought made up his mind for him. "Compute the intercept course. Lock and enable."

"Computed and enabled."

The wejyapHuch changed her course and was quickly over taking the sensor contact.

"Visual contact," the computer reported.

"Show me."

A small ship of Klingon design appeared as the screen stabilized at its new magnification setting. It was slowly rotating diagonally through its horizontal axis.

"That's a medical ketch," Durit said, making an identification.

An arc of energy spread across the area just outside of the damaged ship's hull, and it disappeared. Another burst of energy preceded its re-visualization.

"Make a sensor scan for life signs."

"Enabled. There is one," the computer reported. "Life signs indicate sleep."

"Good. He hasn't seen me," Durit decided. "Open hatch to the large storage bay and power up the tractor beam."

"Enabled. Tractor beam has a lock."

"Activate, then do an identity search of its registration."

The ketch jumped as the powerful graviton beam stopped its rotation. The cloak tried to activate once, but was unable to cut through the tractor beam and flashed off with a visual pop.

"Registration of the ketch is to Qel Kronn."

"I know that name. Search all recent subspace radio intercepts."

"Search complete. Lord Khalian of the Klingon High Council wants the healer named Kronn for questioning concerning the disappearance of Lady Mara, Lord Kang's mate."

Durit remembered seeing Mara once before. She was one of the Kh'yrlov race-blonde-haired with olive skin. He'd been instantly smitten with lust for her uniqueness, especially since the demise of most of her race at the hands of the Kh'myr. If this one knows where she is, I might be able to earn some extra income by turning him over to Khalian, he thought, then a new idea made itself known. By Kahless, I will keep her for myself. I do not have any blondes in my harem at this time. "Kahless, what a find!

"We are being hailed," the computer reported.

Kronn's smudged and blood-crusted face appeared. "Identify yourself."

"You are in no position to give orders, Qel."

Kronn's face showed the surprise he must be feeling. "I am a healer. Klingon law requires you to give me aid."

"Quite right. Exactly what I am doing."

"Identify yourself."

Durit thought about this a moment, wondering at the wisdom of telling the healer who he was. Obviously he does not know who I am, or my reputation. Besides the only thing I want from him is his ship and the knowledge he has in his head. After that, the vacuum can have him. "My name is Durit, son of Durin. Prepare to be boarded."

"What are your inten-"

Durit cut of the communication. "You will find out soon enough, Healer. Computer, stow the captured ship and reestablish atmosphere in the bay. Magnetically seal the craft until I am there to take custody of her owner."

"Magnetic field established."

Durit stood up and stretched. "Finally, I will get to use my new toy for something other than pleasure."

Moving toward the back of the bridge, he walked through the open hatch and down a long hallway, his steps echoing loudly. It wasn't long before he stopped before a doorway. A green light next to it told him that it was fully pressurized. Walking toward it activated its opening mechanism, and it slid to the side with a loud metallic clank.

There before him was the ketch. The hull, charred and melted in many places, showed quite a bit of damage. He ran his hand down its side, his expert mind estimating what it would cost him in repairs, and how much he could get for it on the common market here in the Triangle. He came to the stern of the vessel and stopped. "Will you look at what they did to the engines?" He didn't know who had done it, nor did he care. "That will be the most expensive part of the repairs."

He finished his tour of the outside and stood looking at the access hatch. "Computer, disengage the magnetic seal."

"Disengaged."

The door immediately opened, but there was no one on the other side.

"Come, come, Healer. You have nowhere to hide."

There was no answer.

What a fool, Durit thought as he realized Kronn wasn't coming out on his own volition. "Computer, scan and locate this ship's life form and transport him to the coordinates right in front of me."

"Enabled. Scanning. Located. Transporting."

The transporter beam's carrier wave formed a red cylinder in front of Durit, then rebuilt the healer.

"How dare you!" spat Kronn, his voice full of rage and indignation. "I am a nada."

"So you are." Without telegraphing his intent, Durit punched the doctor dead in the center of his gnarled forehead, and dropped him to the floor. "Let us see if you can heal that."

Picking up the unconscious body of the healer and throwing him over one shoulder, Durit left the bay and turned back toward the bridge. Entering a doorway located two doors down from the bridge, he took the healer to a durasteel examination table and laid him none too carefully on it with a thump.

"Let us see," he mused. "Every healer I have ever known has some sort of anti-sifting device near the brain stem." He picked up the healer's head by his hair and felt around at the point where the skull and spinal column came together. "toH," he said as he found the tell-tale lump.

Flipping the healer over onto his stomach, Durit pulled his dagger free from its sheath. Taking care not to cut any of the major arteries nearby, he cut the device free and put it in a pocket. Blood began to ooze out, but stopped when Durit pulled out a laser cauterization unit and sealed the wound. Then, flipping him back over, he strapped him down. The next step would have to wait until the healer regained consciousness. Which, by the way he was breathing, Durit could tell was going to be soon.

"Now, Qel. Wake up."

"What?" Kronn said, still in a stupor.

"Wake up!" Durit slapped him sharply across the cheek, hard enough to snap his head to one side, but not enough to permanently injure him.

The healer's eyes suddenly opened. After a momentary bout of struggling against the restraining straps, he settled down to glare at Durit.

"Where is the Lady Mara?"

"I do not know what you are talking about."

"A poor lie, Healer. You are Qel Kronn, late of the Lord Khalian's staff. You are reputed to have been the last to see the Lady Mara, and the good lord admiral wants to speak with you about her. Now, where is she?"

"Dead."

"Indeed. Then you will not mind if I use this little toy to verify that." Durit stepped back, a sweep of his arm serving to indicate a machine rolled up against the bulkhead.

"A mindsifter!" Kronn hissed, then glared at Durit. "It will do you no good. My knowledge is protected."

"By this?" Durit pulled out the small explosive device he'd removed from Kronn's head. "I don't think so."

Kronn's mouth dropped open, but then he recovered, the bright fire of anger in his gaze intensifying. "I will tell you nothing."

"Such contempt in the face of the inevitable," Durit said in response to the Qel's bravado. "I commend you, Segh vav garbage.You almost remind me of how a Kh'myr would face his end."

Durit wheeled the mindsifter over and positioned its sensor head over Kronn's head. The healer squirmed in an attempt to break from his constraints, but his efforts soon exhausted him, and he settled down to face his fate, glaring at Durit.

"That's better, Healer." He turned on the machine, setting it for a low-level scan. He heard the healer groan and turned to see him staring straight ahead, not seeing anything. A scene appeared on the sifter's small screen-a K't'inga battle cruiser of the Klingon fleet firing on him. "So that was how your ship was damaged."

He turned it off and came over to look at Kronn. His eyes were still open, but now they focused on him, and there was fear in them. "I see this is your first experience with the sifter. There is much pain associated with the forceful withdrawal of memories, at least so they tell me. Is that so?"

"No more," Kronn whispered.

"Of course." Durit smiled sympathetically. "Tell me where Mara is."

"She is dead."

"So you are sticking to that story."

"It is true."

"Then where is the body?"

"I set it adrift on my way to my first stop in the frontier."

Durit looked deeply into the healer's eyes. At first he saw only anger and defiance, but as he continued to stare, that changed to fear and worry. Sweat beaded up on the healer's forehead. "Why do I not believe you, Kronn?"

"I am telling you the truth, you Kh'myr animal."

"We shall see." Durit turned on the sifter again and began a thorough scan. It took an hour, and Kronn quickly passed into unconsciousness from the intense pain of the forceful violation. When it was over, the only memory left in the healer's head was of pain.

Taking the record chip from its slot in the machine, Durit slipped it into the same pocket as the sift-protector. Rolling the sifter back to its place against the wall, he then unstrapped the healer and lifted him from the table. The eyes were blank and unseeing. The body was still alive, but the brain was empty and useless, all synapses burned out.

With Kronn's shell over his shoulder, he walked back to the cargo bay where the healer's ketch was sitting, passing it on his way to the forcefield sealed opening to the vacuum of interstellar space outside the ship. Taking hold of Kronn's shell by its clothes, he easily tossed it through the blue-tinged field where it was immediately swept away like any other unwanted trash.

"Boreth. She is on Boreth with those pious but worthless monks of Kahless the Dead." He turned to walk past the ketch. "I shall add her to my collection of treasures back on jImIplaH. as the last of her kind." He smiled, his mind wandering through a fantasy. "How wonderful it will be to make her totally mine."

-8-

"The Psi Scorpii colony is a class M planet, first discovered some twenty years ago by a Starfleet survey vessel. The Federation opened it for colonization a year later. Mountainous terrain and thick forests cover its surface, complete with a flourishing population of fur-bearing animals. The first colonists were survivalists--mountain men, as they like to call themselves--unhappy with the quality of life provided by technology in the Federation." Commander Beach rattled off the background data on Psi Scorpii VIII from memory, his eyes never leaving the face of the person he was briefing. "The colonists were actively trapping the animals for their furs and selling them in the black markets within the nearby Triangle."

McCoy remembered the furor those court cases had created. Because of its close proximity to the Triangle--a region of space where the neutral zones of the Romulan and Klingon Empires met the Federation's borders; a region not controlled by any government, rife with pirate enclaves and illegal markets--Psi Scorpii had been a wild place to live. He respected the pioneer spirit of those that had chosen to live there, despite their Terran-centered viewpoints. He listened with interest as the Reliant's science officer continued to brief Captain Terrell.

"The Federation Council tried for years in court battle after court battle to stop the practice, but they were all unsuccessful due to Psi Scorpii's independent status." Beach paused and the picture on the screen changed from the gray-brown and white orb to one of a modern mine entrance, with a small neat village in the background. "It was the discovery of large deposits of high-grade topaline eight years ago that attracted others to the colony. When the new brand of colonist came, the trapping ended. It wasn't until three years ago that they sued for a protectorate status with the Federation."

"Are there still a lot of these survivalists in the general population?" Terrell asked.

"A few, but most moved on. Many are now on the third planet of the Nimbus system, well within the Triangle."

"Thank you, Mister Beach," Terrell tacitly suggested he could return to his seat. The next officer to report stood up and approached the end of the table. "Mister Kyle, any updates on the situation?"

McCoy sat up in his seat, his attention perked. He'd always enjoyed Kyle's proper British accent.

"The Caldonians broke off as soon as the destroyers Moloch and Shaitan arrived. As it turned out, it was more of a blockade than an attack, but it scared the colonists pretty badly."

"Any idea as to where the Caldonians went?"

"Yes, sir. While the Shaitan maintained a guard orbit around the planet proper, the Moloch began patrolling the edge of the system. They found the Caldonians in a position just outside the system's Oort cloud."

"Any communications with them?"

"None that I could pick up, sir. As you know, the Caldonians are a very closed-mouth, strictly neutral race. Normally, they have very little to do with any civilization outside their own, considering them all to be inferior."

"Yes, I know. That's why I'm just a bit surprised by all this. The colony's been there for some time, and they've ignored it, until now that is."

"Yes, sir."

"Thank you, Mister Kyle." Terrell waited until his communications officer sat before he began drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. "This doesn't make sense. Mister Walking Bear, how long till we reach Psi Scorpii?"

"Two more hours at our present speed, sir."

"Could you put a chart of that region of space on this screen, please?"

"Aye, sir."

Walking Bear accessed the miniature console built into the table's surface in front of him. A chart appeared on the screen. "I've included the regions surrounding Psi Scorpii, sir."

"Thank you, Mister Walking Bear." Terrell studied the chart, drumming his fingers as he did. "They are pretty close to the fire."

"Close enough to toast marshmallows," McCoy commented, needing to say something to feel like he was part of the briefing.

Terrell's gaze coldly met his for a moment. He snorted lightly and began drumming his fingers again.

I wonder if he knows how tell-tale that nervous quirk is, thought McCoy, deciding he'd keep his comments to himself until he go to know the captain better.

"If the Caldonians are strictly neutral politically, what is their trade position?" Terrell asked those in the room.

"They trade vwith whomever has vwhat they vwant," Chekov offered.

Terrell's fingers stopped drumming, and he stared at the chart for a moment before continuing. "Politically and commercially, they may be neutral, but their homeworld is uncomfortably close to the Romulan frontier."

"That is true, sir," Chekov returned, "but it is a relatively quiet frontier. The Romulans have only the odd patrol in that region...at least as far as Starfleet Intelligence knows."

"But that's in the opposite direction from Psi Scorpii." Terrell yanked them all back onto the subject. "It's important that we know the Caldonian motivation here. Why would a strictly neutral society all of a sudden attack a Federation colony?"

An idea flashed through McCoy's thoughts. It was so simple, actually too simple, but experience had taught him that many times these were the most accurate solutions. He raised his hand, feeling like he was back in grade school again. "Ah, sir?"

Terrell chuckled when he looked at the doctor. "Yes, Doctor?"

"This may be way over-simplified, and I must admit that looking at the chart, way in left field, but...." He paused, unsure of his ground.

"Doctor McCoy." Terrell sounded a bit impatient. "I shouldn't have to remind you that that's what are all about--brain storming. What have you got?"

"The Caldonians feel threatened by the colonists of Psi Scorpii?"

Terrell's eyebrows scrunched together, giving him a cross look. "How? They're nearly a full day from the colony at our best warp."

"I don't know, sir." McCoy felt he needed to back-pedal. "It was a bad idea...." He stopped when Terrell cut him off with a swipe of his hand.

"Nonsense, Doctor. It's as good an idea as any of the others." The captain turned his attention back to Commander Beach. "Does Psi Scorpii have any kind of defense force that could be used as raiders?"

"Not that Starfleet knows, sir," Beach answered. "They have a few ships capable of limited warp speeds, but they're ore freighters; not likely candidates for conversion to warships of any kind."

"Let's try another source of information before leaving this train of thought," Terrell said as he let his gaze turn to the room's ceiling. "Computer."

The Reliant's main computer responded in the female voice common to all Starfleet ships. "Working."

"Search all intelligence messages for any indication of weapon sales to the Psi Scorpii colony."

"Additional criteria needed. Category of weapon--strategic, tactical, or individual?"

"Tactical. I doubt they can afford any strategic weapons, and I'm not interested in their hunting weapons."

"Working." The computer paused only for a moment, then began speaking again. "No intelligence reports meet those search criteria."

"So much for that," Terrell commented.

"Is there anything else about Psi Scorpii that would threaten the Caldonians?" the doctor continued, feeling this was the right tact to be taking without knowing any reason why.

Beach offered an answer. "Other than being rich in topaline, the colony has very little else to offer outworld markets now that they're under Federation control."

"Not that the product of blood sports would pose a threat anyway," the captain commented. "Topaline is a necessary element for our life support systems, isn't it, Chekov?"

"Aye, sir. Where water is a universal solvent, it is a universal scrubbing agent," Chekov answered. "Nothing else has ever been found that can clean the air of the impurities created by the mixed populations of species found on Starfleet ships."

"Which means the colony is rich?" Terrell posed the question.

McCoy had the answer for this. "Actually, no, sir. Ever since the devastating dilithium embargo created by the Orions some years back, and the way that the Barrier Alliance controls the pricing of that necessary element, the Federation brings all new elements discovered to be so important quickly under their control. Topaline, being what it is to starships and starbases, has a heavy price control on it."

"That so, Doctor?"

"Yes, sir. It's a sore spot with all the topaline suppliers. They can see the riches reaped by the Barrier Alliance dilithium operators, and know they'll never see it themselves. Maybe the colonists got themselves a new buyer...."

Terrell shook his head. "That's interesting, Doctor, but I don't think that's the reason the Caldonians attacked them." He looked around the room. "Any other thoughts?"

There were no more comments.

"Keep the problem in mind as we approach the colony, because unless the Caldonians have suddenly embraced expansionist policies, there's got to be a logical explanation for the attack." The captain stood, as did everyone else in the room. "Dismissed."

They all started to leave, headed for their prospective stations. Captain Terrell stopped McCoy at the door. "A moment, Doctor."

"Aye, sir."

Chekov was standing nearby.

"I hope you didn't believe I blew off your suggestion, Doctor," Terrell offered.

"No, sir. I admit it's a bit far-fetched," McCoy answered.

"Nonsense. The more I think about it, it's actually the most plausible explanation, but there's nothing in the way of evidence to support your conjecture. May I ask how you know so much about topaline?"

"I have a...god-child...on Capella Four."

"Hmmm, I see," Terrell said, nodding his head. "Thank you; you're dismissed, Doctor."

McCoy walked out into the corridor, but could still hear the captain talking to his executive officer. "Pavel, have Kelowitz dig deeper into the topaline thing."

The image of Steven Kelowitz, the Reliant's chief of security, came onto McCoy's mental viewscreen. He remembered him from the Enterprise. He'd noted this earlier, but Kelowitz's name was yet another reminder that many of the Reliant's officers had served on Kirk's Enterprise. Probably the doing of Chekov as the executive officer, McCoy thought.

"I'll have them check anything in the intelligence work-ups for this quadrant," Chekov answered.

Before he got completely out of range of his hearing, the doctor caught Terrell's next response. "Who knows? Maybe only the ships are Caldonian..."

Everything else was lost. Who else could it be? thought McCoy as he entered a turbolift. Klingons? "Sickbay," he ordered the lift's computer.

*****

"I'm going to tell you the same thing I told those destroyer captains," Prollet Mod told Terrell. The colony's chief administrator was a heavy-set Catullan who obviously enjoyed the benefits of his position.

Behind him, and conspicuously quiet, was a middle-aged woman, also Catullan, this being their only likeness. Where he was portly, she was painfully thin. Where he displayed his emotion to its fullest, she remained constant--quiet and reserved.

Yet, for some reason, McCoy felt she was a permanent part of Prollet. Though he'd just met them, he felt that his was always the case as he heard Terrell answer Prollet's question.

"I've read the transcripts of that meeting, Chief Administrator, but since the full investigation of this incident is my job, I wanted to talk to as many of you, face-to-face, as possible. Written records can be so barren of emotion and context."

Prollet sighed, resigning himself to the fact that this newest arrival from Starfleet wasn't going to go away soon. He shuffled over to stand in front of the plush, swivel-based chair behind the desk, and sat heavily onto its comfort, sighing.

The woman maintained her position, behind him and off to one side, as precisely as a starship navigator would maintain an orbit around a planet. She sat down quietly and carefully into a hard, straight-backed chair, her hands folded tightly in her lap, her face showing absolutely no emotion, her gaze steadfastly held to the floor.

McCoy was more interested in her than Prollet Mod. She was the mystery in the room, her feelings cloaked as well as any Romulan warbird. But she was not the one the captain was interested in right now, and the doctor's attention changed when the chief administrator began to talk.

"All right, where do you want to start?"

"At the beginning, of course," Terrell responded.

McCoy saw Kelowitz activate his tricorder, and he took his cue to do likewise. He remembered what Terrell had said when he'd ordered him onto the landing party:

"Kelowitz will be making an official transcript of the meeting, but I want you to be monitoring their physical reactions to the questions."

"You mean you want me to act as a lie detector?" McCoy responded.

"In a manner of speaking, yes," Terrell answered.

McCoy's attention returned to the present as Prollet Mod began to rattle down the events of the attack. "We had just started the first shift at the mines when they--"

"The Caldonians?" Terrell interrupted. He wanted the record to be accurate.

"Yes, yes, the Caldonians. Who else?"

McCoy's tricorder registered the rise in Prollet's vital signs, but it was only agitation the heavy man was feeling. He unobtrusively let the tricorder scan the woman as well. There was nothing there but standard readings for a Catullan female.

"I'm sorry, Mister Prollet, but I want to make certain the record is precise."

"Yes, yes, of course. I'm sorry, Captain." Prollet wiped his forehead with a cloth then continued, "As I was saying, the Caldonians arrived in the system at the start of the first shift. We--"

"And who are 'we'?"

Prollet sighed heavily. "We. We." He gestured widely with his right hand and arm. "The colony, everyone."

"Okay, I'm just...."

"I know, I know," Prollet interrupted. "Insuring accuracy. They ignored all our attempts to contact them, choosing instead, to spread out in equidistant orbits around the planet. They boarded the mining conglomerates transfer station, shutting it down."

"The Caldonians never explained any of this?" Terrell probed.

"Until that point," Prollet answered, "not one peep. I told this to the destroyer's captain as well. Can't you just read his report?"

Terrell looked at McCoy.

"Outside of his agitation, no change."

"That's right!" Prollet exclaimed. "I have no reason to lie."

Terrell returned his attention to the administrator, smiling. "I know, but we have to start somewhere. Then what happened?"

"They put everyone on the station into one room, under guard."

"And?"

"And?" Prollet's face turned even redder. "And they came down here and blew the topaline processing plant to rubble. That's what they did."

"Was anyone hurt?" Terrell asked, maintaining his calm in the face of the emotional storm that was forming around Prollet.

"No, thank the gods, but some could have been, considering the damage." Prollet was beginning to calm down a bit.

"They didn't ask any questions? Give any statements?"

"Nope."

"Then what did they do?"

"Only one other thing, though it's nowhere near as bad as what they did down here."

"And that was?"

"They downloaded the computer records. First at the station, then down here as well, using the station's command override."

"Hmmm." Terrell began drumming his fingers on the table top.

Prollet looked at McCoy, his face registering a question. The doctor shrugged and smiled, trying to relieve some of the tension.

"Then what?" Terrell finally asked.

"Then, nothing," Prollet answered, his voice filled with more than a little agitation. "They held the station until the destroyers showed up on the long range sensors, then left. We monitored their departure with our sensors, but lost them soon after they left the system."

"And you can think of no reason why the Caldonians would do any of this?"

"None," Prollet answered, shrugging at the same time. "You know how the Caldonians are: strict neutralists. They think themselves too superior to be bothered with non-Caldonians."

McCoy noted the bigotry in Prollet's voice and recognized it for what it was. Will sentient beings ever get rid of those emotions? he thought.

"Precisely, sir. That's why we're so interested in this," Terrell responded, nodding his head. His mouth was pulled down in a deep frown. "Okay, Mister Prollet, that's all. You may leave."

"That's it?" Prollet stood up, his face red with anger and agitation. "Just a bunch of questions? When are you Starfleet guys going to get out there and run those bastards down?"

Terrell's gaze found the administrator's and held it. "One thing at a time, sir. One thing at a time. We will get this side of the conflict's story first, then theirs."

"But they're getting away!"

"No one was hurt. The Caldonians only damaged equipment." The captain began to drum his fingers again. "That will be all, Mister Prollet."

Prollet Mod huffed and began to leave. The woman, already on her feet and in a position three paces behind Prollet, was prepared to leave as well.

McCoy tapped the captain's shoulder to get his attention.

Captain Terrell tilted his head toward his chief medical officer, eyebrows raising. "Yes, Doctor?"

"What about her?" McCoy asked, nodding his head, but refraining from actually pointing with his finger.

"Right, Doctor," Terrell said as his attention returned. "Ahem, ma'am?"

Prollet Mod answered instead. "You said I could leave. Now what, Captain?"

"Your assistant?" Terrell indicated he was talking about the woman who was trying her best to become part of the wall behind her.

The chief administrator knew right away to whom Terrell was referring. "Her? My assistant?" He guffawed once. "You must be out of your mind if you think I'd let my spouse have any say in my business." He turned and pulled her roughly in front of him. "Look at her! Do you think this--" He shook her slightly at the end of his reach. "--could do anything that would serve to rile the Caldonians?"

"I would just like a word with her for a moment," Terrell insisted.

Her head turned slightly as she silently implored her husband to intervene, her while form seeming to wilt.

"I refuse your request." The administrator pulled his wife back and shoved her behind him. "Catullan custom allows me that."

"I'm aware of the customs of your race," the Reliant's captain responded. "But I also know that if she wishes, she can override it."

Prollet turned and confront his wife. "Surrit, do you wish to talk to this...this ship captain?"

She glanced at Terrell for a brief moment, then looked back to her husband, her gaze dropping to the floor. She shook her head and murmured something in her native language. Even though her words were softly spoken, the universal translators performed. "No, Mod."

Prollet turned back to face Terrell squarely, effectively hiding his wife behind him. "You heard her. Do you want anything else of me?" The administrator's entire body language spoke of a challenge.

"At the moment, no," Terrell responded, then looked at McCoy.

The doctor shrugged.

"Send in your assistant," the captain continued, still staring at McCoy.

"She is my assistant."

"But you said--"

"It doesn't matter what I said," the administrator answered, his hands clenched at his side. The skin on his face changed color quickly from pasty blue to a dark indigo.

For a moment, McCoy thought there was going to be a physical altercation between the two.

"All right then." Terrell sighed, backing down. "Send in the next person in your colony's hierarchy."

"Hmph!" Prollet exploded. "Damned stuffed uniforms. Don't give a damn about what happens to working stiffs like us!" The door opened allowing him and his wife out, then closed, cutting off any further expletives.

Terrell looked to McCoy. "Well?"

"I must remind you my equipment is not specifically designed," McCoy began to explain, amazed at how much like Spock he was sounding, "to be a lie detector. If you'd like, I could get a psych tricorder and do a regressive memory scan...." He saw Terrell's look of impatience and forged forward before the captain could vent it. "But everything I got from my 'corder looked like he at least felt that he was telling the truth."

"And the woman?"

"For a moment there, all her readings jumped."

"You mean she might know something? Did she become scared when she thought she might have to talk to me?"

"No, sir. Her readings show fear all the time, but for that moment, when he asked her if she wanted to talk to you--"

"She got even more scared?" Terrell interrupted. "Lord, I hope I didn't cause any permanent injury!"

"No, Captain," the doctor answered, ignoring the asinine remark. "All signs of her fear vanished."

"What?"

McCoy looked at the reading he'd gotten on her again. It definitely looks like she calmed down,he decided, making a few adjustments on the sensitive medical tricorder, but then again I haven't had much contact with any Catullans lately. I might be misreading this. "Can I get back to you on this after I've reviewed my references on Catullan physiology, sir?"

"Hmm, I guess so, Doctor, but make it quick," the captain responded, turning his attention to Kelowitz. "What do you think, Steven?"

The security officer pursed his lips, then answered. "Though showing some specism bigotry and agitation, he didn't act like someone hiding a big secret."

"Hmm," Terrell repeated, his fingers returning to the drumming pattern before he continued. "He did say one thing I agreed with."

"And that is, Captain?" McCoy perked up.

"It's so unlike the Caldonians to do something so outright in its interference. Normally they treat all outworlders with total disdain."

McCoy nodded his agreement. "It is odd that after years of ignoring us in this region that they would choose now to react to our presence."

The door chime sounded, indicating to them that there was someone on the other side waiting to come in.

"Well, let's get on with these questions. Then we can see if we can find and talk with the Caldonian force responsible."

"The Moloch's report says they took up a position just outside the Oort cloud," Kelowitz volunteered.

"That was when they arrived earlier today," Terrell responded. "I'd be surprised if they're still there." The captain saw the incredulity on the young officer's face. "I'll bet they've packed up and gone by now. Go ahead, have sensors check it out though."

Kelowitz went off into the background and made the call.

*****

The next three hours went by fast as they questioned the rest of the colonists that may have had anything to do with the incident, one by one.

Terrell stretched and yawned as the last one departed. "That was an uninteresting way to spend an entire afternoon." His gaze found Kelowitz, remembering his last request to the chief security officer. "What did you find out about the Caldonians?"

"You were right, sir. They're off long-range sensors now. "

"Any idea on their heading?"

"None that long-range sensors could discern. They simply withdrew from the sector."

"I don't think they'll be hard to find in the long run," Terrell commented, turning to gaze at McCoy. "They didn't act like someone who thought they were committing any kind of wrong-doing." He paused only a moment. "Doctor, did you find anything during the questioning?"

McCoy cleared his throat before speaking, then tapped his tricorder as he reported. "Everyone but one came through with flying colors, sir."

"One didn't?" Terrell sat up. "Which one?"

"The Human named Mike Collins."

"The computer operator from central control? Why didn't you tell me something about that when it happened?"

"The ambiguity in his readings wasn't really strong, and he doesn't seem to be someone who would have anything to do with this."

"You let me be the judge of that, Doctor." Agitation tinged Terrell's voice. "We'll have to get him back in here, and--" The communicator's beep interrupted the captain's commands. He pulled it out and flipped it open, answering the call. "Yes."

"Kyptin Terrell?"

"Yes, Commander Chekov, what is it?"

"One of the Caldonian ships must have had some kind of engine trouble. She was leaking baryons and left a trail a blind Cossack could follow on a crippled mule."

McCoy chuckled at the description, noting Terrell's smile.

"Okay, Mister Chekov. We've got a loose end here to tie up before we can follow that lead."

"I don't know, sir. The trail is fading fast."

"Damn," Terrell said under his breath, letting a glare go McCoy's way, then adding under his breath, "I guess he's not going anywhere."

"Vwhat vwas that, Kyptin?" Chekov said.

"Nothing, Exec. Just one of those little things. Prepare the ship for departure. We'll be up in a minute."

"Aye, Kyptin. Reliant out."

"Get Prollet back, Commander Kelowitz," the captain instructed.

"Aye, sir." Kelowitz left.

Terrell turned to McCoy. "If you'd said something when you first noticed his lie, we could have rooted it out then. But now, if he is involved somehow, he's going to have a lot of time to hide his tracks."

"Now wait just a minute, sir," McCoy found his voice, his emotions sparked. "I didn't say he lied. I said there were ambiguities in one of his responses. I'm a doctor, not a detective."

"You will keep your voice down, Doctor, and keep the insub--"

Kelowitz's return with the colony's administrator interrupted any further response by the captain.

"So," Prollet opened the conversation, "did you find anything new?" His challenge was open and outright.

"Not really, but then, I didn't expect to. I just needed--"

"--to get the record accurate," Prollet finished the sentence for Terrell. "I know; you said that earlier."

"And I meant it," Terrell continued. "We've found evidence we can follow to the Caldonian force responsible and are going to do just that. With any luck, they won't have gone far, and we can find out why they did this."

"I'm more interested in them paying for what they did, not why."

"All the same, we'll be back." He indicated for McCoy and Kelowitz to join him in the standard transport pattern, then opened a channel to the ship. "Three to beam up."

"Aye, sir. Sequence beginning," came a disembodied voice on the other end.

"Until then, Administrator," Terrell said as a column of sparkling energy formed around him.

"Useless stuffed shirts," Prollet responded, and began to say something else, but the room was empty.

*****

Chekov was standing next to the transporter's control console, waiting.

"Are we ready to depart, Exec?" Terrell inquired as he stepped down from the transport pad.

"Aye, Kyptin, vwe are. The trail is already almost gone."

Terrell walked up to a nearby ship's intercom and opened a channel. "Bridge, this is Terrell."

"Bridge, aye."

"Set a course to follow the Caldonian trail."

"Speed, sir?"

"Best speed, but not so fast that we lose the trail."

"Aye, sir."

"I'll be there in a moment," He punched the kill button, then turned to Chekov, ignoring the doctor. "Come on, Exec. We have work to do."

Chekov noted the snub, looked to the doctor, then back to the captain. "Aye, sir."

"Get me a copy of this Collins' interview, Doctor," Terrell said as he walked through the door. "I wish to review it."

"Yes, of course, Captain," McCoy answered, then found himself alone with the transporter chief.

He saw that the chief didn't seem to have noticed the slight friction and was already busy shutting down the transporter. Shrugging, he walked into the busy corridor himself. He didn't get far when he heard the Reliant's engines come to life and knew they were on the Caldonian's trail.

-9-

"Will she survive, Nada K'cir?" Kor growled as the healer came out of the bedroom.

"I don't know why. The wound should have killed her, but I think if she makes it through the night, she will survive," the doctor announced.

Kor grabbed the physician, his mighty hands on either shoulder and stared him intensely in the eyes. "I am in your debt, Healer."

"You are not the only one this day, Lord Kor," the healer responded.

"Yes, nada. What of the other, that young Kh'myr they found near death in the room?"

"He owes his life to these." The physician held up his hands. "And to the strength of your mate. If she had passed out before explaining how he'd had nothing to do with the abduction, his head would already be on a spear, decorating the throne room. As it was, I knitted the crushed vertebrae of his neck back together again, and he should be his old nasty Kh'myr self in a matter of days, with only a slightly stiff neck as a reminder."

"Good," Kor said, relaxing as he let K'cir go.

"Yes, it is extraordinary," the physician continued. "They both should have died."

"What's that you say?" the admiral growled.

"Both received mortal wounds, yet both survived."

"A credit to your skills, Healer." He grinned, slapping the doctor hard on the side of the shoulder.

Nada K'cir shook his head. "No. As much as I want to take the credit, I cannot. Their wounds should have been instantly fatal. Someone-or something-intervened."

Kor's hackles rose with the supernatural suggestion. He was a pure and simple warrior, with no understanding of unseen things. "What is it you are trying to say?"

"Nothing, I guess. Only Kahless himself could explain this I guess."

K'cir's invocation of the Klingon patriarch caused a chill to run up Kor's spine. It was every warrior's belief that Kahless had gone to Kh'eloz to prepare places for every Klingon who died being a good Klingon. But like all other beliefs of this sort, he had a hard time believing them to be true. It was things like this that served to remind him of the possibilities. He nodded, letting his gaze drop to the floor. "Kahless," he whispered, then returned his attention to the healer. "Can I see her?"

"Yes. But," added the healer, explaining, "if she is asleep, don't wake her. She needs the rest."

"I shall not, nada." The admiral walked toward the half-opened door and entered the darkness within.

The room's lights were dimmed, but he could see his mate laying on the bed, a very large bandage covering the trunk of her body, a small dark stain showing the location of the wound. A moan followed each ragged breath.

Rage filled him, though he kept it sealed within. His hands closed into fists at his side, and a low menacing growl emanated from his throat. "Kali, my wife. I will make those responsible for this pay. I will draw out their pain and deaths for an eternity."

She opened her eyes and found him. "Kahless?" she whispered.

"No, my wife. It is only me."

"Oh, Kahless, I serve."

He knew she wasn't really seeing him, her mind lost in the pain of her injuries, but the reference to Kahless struck fear in his warrior heart. Am I going to lose her? his thoughts screamed as he ran to the side of her bed. "No, my beloved mate, do not depart from this world."

"I serve, my lord," she whispered over and over again.

Deep emotions filled his heart as he stood there, looking down at her. She was the only one to invoke such emotions in him, and they devoured him there. "Kahless, save her. She has earned a stay." Dropping to one knee, he gently took her hand, turning it so the underside of her wrist faced him and placed his cheek against it, drawing in her scent. "Kahless, save her."

Time passed without notice until he felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder. In time, there was a voice as well.

"We must talk, Kor."

He recognized the voice of an old comrade-in-arms. "About what, Koloth?"

"The rescue of Kang."

"I don't care."

"We must act now."

"I must stay with Kali."

"Kor, the opportunity will slip away if we don't act now." Koloth let his voice rise.

The Kh'fjin councilor's voice sounded like thunder in the room, and Kor thought it would wake Kali. He jumped to his feet, murder in his eyes. "You disturb her, and I will...."

"You will what, Kor?" Koloth set the hook.

"I will kill you. Right where you stand," he hissed, emphasizing each word.

"Now that's the Kor I recognize. The one who will stop at nothing to avenge his wife, to rescue his friends, and to serve the emperor all at the same time."

Anger seethed through Kor, anger that wanted release. For a split second, he thought to lash out at the figure in front of him. And then, out of friendship, he put the anger on a back burner. "What do you want, Koloth?"

"Come with me, and I will tell you."

Kor turned his head and stared at Kali. Some time during his vigil, her breathing had become more regular, less tortured. Her face was calm, no longer showing any pain. "She sleeps."

"Come. She would want this."

Kor picked up Kali's hand once more, kissing it lightly. Putting it down, he turned and left the room with Koloth right behind him. "To the galley, my friend. My rage needs food and drink."

"Not too much drink, Kor. I need your head clear," Koloth commented as he followed.

Kor turned on Koloth once they got in the hall, a strange light in his eyes. Koloth saw the berserker insanity that hid deep in Kor's eyes which needed only a spark of provocation to explode to the surface. He'd seen it there many times before when his friend was in a tight spot. He bowed his head slightly.

Kor slapped him hard on the back. "Oh, come now, Koloth. Stop being so serious. We've action on the horizon." He walked down the hallway.

Koloth followed him, shaking his head, surprised at how mercurial Kor's emotions could be. He personally felt he needed to think through everything, find its source, work out the problem. He knew Kor's philosophy: If you don't understand it, destroy it. If you can't change it, ignore it or work with it.

They entered the galley, and Kor walked right up to a shelf with row upon row of brightly colored bottles on it. "Hmmm," he hummed.

Koloth went to another location, preferring a snack to some brand of intoxicant. After a short search, motion caught his eye. "Gagh. Fresh gagh," he hissed with pleasure.

"Yes. Caught fresh daily. Get a bowl full, and bring me some as well," Kor commented, finally making his choice of beverage. "Ah, Gellian vitz. I'd forgotten I had this vintage."

Turning, he noticed Koloth with one bowl of squirming gagh in one hand and dipping out a second bowl with the other. Grabbing two glasses, he sat at the table in the center of the room. Koloth joined him, placing both bowls on the table's smooth surface.

Kor poured out one glass of the hot pink beverage and slid it in front of Koloth, then poured one for himself. Raising the glass, he held it out toward Koloth. "Victory!"

Koloth picked up his glass, sniffed at it, recognizing what it was instantly. I must keep him from drinking too much of this, or he'll be out for days, he thought while offering Kor his cup in return salute. "But you don't know what I propose."

"Does it matter?"

"Not really." Koloth clinked his glass against Kor's. "Victory!" He took a very small sip of his drink.

Kor downed the entire glass and was already refilling it.

"Slow down, Kor."

"You're worse than an Earther, Koloth. Worrying all the time."

"And you're a stinking targ, charging in without thinking first."

Kor beamed. "What a team we make! Now, down that, and let's get started!"

Koloth succumbed to the other's ferocity, throwing the drink into his mouth and swallowing it. The liquid burned fiercely all the way down his throat and momentarily sat like a lit coal in his stomach before disseminating into his blood stream like phaser fire. "Ahh," he breathed, "a good year."

"Nothing but the best."

They both laughed.

"Now, what about this plan to free Kang...." Kor refilled Koloth's glass.

"He's a prisoner on one of the prison worlds--Kragyr."

Kor took a mighty draught of his drink. "This I already know."

"Its defense's are massive: a large garrison of Kh'myr warriors, high-power disruptor batteries, and a defensive shield comparable to what defends Kazh itself."

"Again, common knowledge. So how are we going to smash it? Some secret weapon from some here-to-fore unknown civilization?" Kor bobbed his head flippantly.

Koloth sipped his drink. "Something older, and much more reliable."

The statement caught Kor in mid-drink. He paused. "And that is?"

Koloth pointed at his head. "Intelligence and natural wiles."

"Phah!" Kor exploded. "The weapons of Earthers and weaklings."

"Granted, but remember what Kahless said."

Kor's gaze was blank.

"'If you cannot strike at your enemy from over his shield, strike from beneath.'"

"Ahh." Kor raised his finger. "There is more than one way to gut a targ."

"Exactly." Koloth took another sip, beginning to feel the effects of the intoxicant.

Kor stared at him for a moment, waiting. When nothing seemed to be forthcoming... "Well?"

"Ah, yes. My adjutant found out who the commander of the Kragyr colony is."

"That's not so difficult. His name is N'rak."

"Correct, but he's not important. It's his second-in-command that's the key."

Again Kor's gaze went blank for a moment. "And he is?"

"Sergeant Taarist."

"Wasn't he killed by a prisoner?" Kor offered, then smiled. "My spies say Kang was the one who finished him." Then his smile faded as he tried to tie this to where Koloth seemed to be going. "What good is a rotten corpse?"

"None. But he has a brother--Sergeant Taaren of the battlecruiser Eglon."

"That's a ship of Khalian's force. So?"

"Are you drunk? He'll be expected to swear an Oath of Blood over Taarist's death."

Kor began stroking one end of his mustache with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. "Hmm, true enough, but what of it?"

"If we can get close enough to the Eglon to grab him--"

"The Orion freighter we're converting?"

"Exactly." Koloth could see the gears churning within Kor. Give him enough time and drink, Koloth thought amusedly, and The War-Targ will figure it out.

"We kidnap Taaren, 'convince' him to join us, use him to get Kragyr to drop their shields, and we're in." Kor began to laugh, finished his drink, laughed some more, and refilled his glass.

"Simple, eh?"

"Quite," agreed Kor.

"Then what?" A weak voice from the kitchen's doorway startled them.

Kor turned and saw Kali leaning against the door's edge. "What are you doing out of bed?" He was on his feet and at her side before he finished the question.

"I woke up and heard your discussion. Koloth has a good plan, but then what? There is much to do, and I cannot afford to be in bed."

"But your wounds...."

She stood up straight, ignoring the pain. "They are nothing!" She walked over to the table, sitting in a third chair. "Again I ask, what do we do after we've rescued Kang?"

"Do you think this wise?" Koloth asked calmly.

"Come, Kali. Back to your bed."

"Stop treating me like a Terran female, Kor! I am Klingon!" she snapped, her glare stopping any further attempts by him to get her up.

Kor looked at Koloth. "Quite right." He walked over and got a third glass, and another bottle of the vitz. Filling the glass, he put it down in front of Kali."

"What is this for?" she asked.

"If you're going to get involved with this, you might as well be in the same frame of mind. Besides, it will help with the pain."

"There is no--"

"Do not lie to me, my wife. Now, what are your concerns?"

"What will happen after we rescue Kang?"

"We bring him back here. What else?" Kor answered with a shrug.

"To be beheaded by the emperor?"

"N-no," Kor stammered. "But...what..." He looked to Koloth for help.

"That is a problem I haven't solved yet, Kali," Koloth shrugged. "I like to take on each problem one at a time. Do you have an answer?"

"Yes." She grimaced as a spasm of pain caught her off-guard.

Kor nudged her glass toward her. She took a long drink, her face twisted with the pain. "You shouldn't be out here, Kali." He got up, ready to pick her up from her chair. "Let me carry you back to bed."

She raised her hand. "Hear me out, husband."

Kor sat down, giving Koloth a worried look as he did.

"The problem, as I see it, is not getting Kang off Kragyr. That will be simple." Kali paused to take a sip of her drink.

"Easy for her to say," Kor scoffed.

Koloth disdained from following his example, seeing Kali's reaction. Kor saw her fingers clenching a stiletto and cut his laughter in mid-chuckle.

"As I was saying," she growled, "the hard part will be getting him back into the emperor's good graces and reinstated on the council."

Kor thought for a moment. "Obviously," he hissed, resigning the fact.

"Do you have a solution or not?" Koloth demanded after a moment of uncomfortable silence.

"Yes."

The two males sat up, more than just a little interested.

"Find and return Marschut."

Kor whistled.

"When she said it wouldn't be easy, she was right," Koloth responded.

"Leave it to my mate to come up with something difficult," Kor added.

"Someone has to keep you males working along the right lines," Kali quipped.

Kor downed his drink; Koloth followed hard on his example. Kor began to refill their glasses, but the bottle was empty. He had the second bottle open in short order.

Once everyone's glass was full, Kor posed the next query. "Now the question is: Where is Marschut?"

"In order to answer that, we need to know who is responsible for the abduction," Koloth stated matter-of-factly.

"Is there any doubt?" Kali countered. "Those were Kh'myr warriors."

"They did follow that young aide of Kusan's into Marschut's room," Kor added. "Do you suppose he is the one behind her kidnapping?"

Koloth's eyes became slits as he pondered this. A moment later, he let the others in on his thoughts. "This kidnapping is not Kusan's style."

"Are you saying the Kh'myr have a style other than being crude and ruthless?" Kor interjected.

"You know Kusan better than I, Koloth. Do you think he is capable of this?" asked Kali.

"Capable?" Koloth answered. "Yes. Do I think he would?" He paused, looking at his glass, then at Kali. "No."

"Why?" Kor jumped in. "He's been on the council the longest, and his men would know the palace the best."

"Yes, but despite popular opinion among the Kh'tebs and Kh'fjin, some of the Kh'myr do have style, and this isn't his. He's much more subtle. Now, if she'd been drugged with an aphrodisiac, falling head-over-heels in love with Kusan, that would be within Kusan's style. But to just go in and take her?" Koloth shook his head slowly from side to side.

"Khalian?" Kali proposed.

"Now that is his style," Kor grunted.

"But he's only recently been installed as a councilor," Koloth argued.

"Do you think he would already be plotting an overthrow?" Kali questioned.

"Oh, yes, my mate. I've had my share of run-ins with that one. He is not one to waste time once he forms an idea."

"Before we settle on that, let's first look at the possibility of it being Kumara or Koord," Kali interposed.

"Kumara?" Kor and Koloth said at the same time.

Kali rejected that. "Nonsense. It's not his style. That Earther sense of humor of his..."

"Besides, he doesn't have any Kh'myr on his staff," Koloth argued. "And your uncle, Koord, is too much of a drunkard to be a part of this. Besides, he's got too many other problems right now trying to clear his name to be tempting fate with the abduction of Marschut."

"Then, assuming Khalian is involved," Kali continued, "where would he keep her?"

The room became silent again, all three occupants working their drinks at graf speed.

Finally, Koloth broke the silence. "I guess we should start by having our agents begin looking right here on Kazh, watching Khalian's staff's comings and goings. I doubt they'll find anything. He's ruthless, sometimes careless, but not stupid, and as we saw, good at covering his tracks. If he is indeed involved, he'll already have Marschut somewhere far from here and in a place that can't be readily tied to him."

"Then the plan to get our intelligence networks working on getting information?" Kor asked.

"I'll take care of that part of the operation," Kali volunteered. "Intelligence was my specialty in the fleet before I met Kor."

"And it can be readily done from your bed," Kor added, "while Koloth and I continue preparations for the rescue." He ignored Kali's glare.

"Then it's decided," Koloth concluded as the door chimed, interrupting any further discussion.

"Now who can that be?" Kor got up, heading for the hallway and the front entrance of his quarters.

Koloth was hard on his heels.

With a punch of a button on a panel next to the door, a small viewscreen came to life. On it was the scene outside the door. A pair of Kh'myr warriors stood, supporting the weight of a third, on the threshold.

"Now what do those Kh'myr want at this hour?" Kor roared, pulling his blade from its scabbard.

"Isn't that Lieutenant Worf they're holding up between them?" Koloth demanded.

"I don't care who it is. They're Kh'myr," Kor snarled, preparing himself for combat. "Open!" he roared at the door.

The door opened, and Kor charged out, ready for a fight. "What do you want, Kh'myr?"

"My brother wishes to join you," the larger Kh'myr that was supporting Worf said.

"And you are?"

"I am Murd, and this Togh, younger brothers of Worf, son of Multogh," the warrior responded. "I've tried to talk some sense into my brother, but his wound has made him insane; he has ordered me to bring him here."

Kor remembered the description the nada had given him concerning Worf's wounds--a broken neck. Looking closely at the brace that immobilized the warrior's neck, he added, "How do you know we're going to do anything? And if we are, of what help can he be in his condition?"

"Phah!" Murd snapped. "He is Kh'myr; he will heal quickly."

Worf straightened but wobbled in place, obviously under the influence of a powerful analgesic. "What you are up to is common knowledge. As a member of Kusan's staff, I can be of some assistance."

"You Denebian slime devil!" bellowed Kor.

"Accept his assistance, Kor," Koloth whispered into Kor's ear.

Kor blustered, trying to find a reason to disregard Koloth.

A second voice--Kali's--whispered in his other ear. "Let him help, my lord."

Kor growled, "Bring him in and put him in the first room on the right."

It wasn't until after Worf was placed on the bed shelf in the guest room and his brothers had left that Kor approached Koloth and Kali. "What good is having a Kh'myr with us? He's probably a spy for Kusan."

"Yes, but we can use him, while at the same time limiting his access to any information Kusan might want." Koloth smiled. "Besides, did you take a close look at him? He will make a powerful ally in a fight."

Kali walked into the galley with them, ignoring the drinks, and activated a viewscreen. "Computer, put up a chart of Kragyr."

Moments later, she was staring at the requested chart. The two males stood behind her, looking on.

"Now, where do you suppose they would keep him?" Kali wondered aloud after a long moment of silence.

-10-

On a mountain top, deep inside the Migh mountains, on the far side of the Klingon homeworld from the First City, sat an ancient fortress, literally carved from the granite it sat atop. Far from the nearest population center and only approachable by a narrow trail or from the air, it guaranteed seclusion to any who occupied it. Inside the dungeon, a light burned late into the hazy Klingon night.

"Those are the last of her memories, joHwI'," the tuQDoq--mindsifter-- technician reported, handing Khalian a memory chip.

Khalian accepted the chip and slid it into an inner pocket of his robes. Turning, he looked at the individual from which the mindsifter had taken the data. The emperor's sister, Marschut, was still just as his warriors had taken her, nothing hiding her natural beauty. Only Kahless himself knows how much I want her, he thought, his loins stirring as he caressed her physical gifts. Almost as a side thought, and without letting his gaze leave her, he questioned the technician, "Is her head empty?"

"No, joHwI'. I did as you ordered. Complete interrogation, but copies of the memories only, no wipe. Her memories are still all there, but I have placed a barrier-trigger so that until you invoke it, she will remember only what we want her to remember."

"Did she feel much pain?" Khalian asked, for some odd reason, hoping that she truly did not suffer.

"No, joHwI'. We heavily sedated her before entering. There should have been no perceived pain."

"But there may have been some pain?" Khalian didn't understand his reaction, but for some reason, he didn't want this female to be in pain.

"There is always pain when the tuQDoq enters a mind. It's the method of extraction that dictates how much. We were slow and careful, so as not to hurt her...at least, not too much."

Khalian's gaze returned to Marschut as he walked to the head of the table. Her eyes were open, but unblinking, empty. He reached out with a finger and traced the beginnings of the ridges on her forehead. Kahless, she's beautiful. I could accept bondage to one such as her, he confided to no one but himself, allowing himself to taste a fantasy.

The technician chuckled.

Khalian heard the inflection of the technician's reaction to his attention and turned quickly on him. "Ha'DIbaH, keep your mind out of the sewer. She is a direct descendant of Kahless himself. Unless you want to spend eternity in torment under his powerful attention in Gre'thor, you will clean up your act."

The technician's lurid smile disappeared, and his gaze dropped to the floor. "qatoy', joHwI'."

He knows too much, Khalian frowned, contemplating killing the technician right there, feeling that he somehow been insulted. "Remember that."

"Yes, joHwI'," the technician said contritely. "What memories do you want her to retain?"

"Hmm." Khalian pondered a moment.

"May I make a suggestion, joHwI'?" the technician cautiously offered.

"You may."

"Do you remember that Orion slave girl we sifted a few weeks ago?"

"The one who entertained every warrior on my flagship?"

"The same."

Khalian remembered some of those lurid scenes with fondness. "Oh, yes. I most definitely do remember."

"Wouldn't it be nice if--when--you finally can have her, she would respond like that?"

"Yesss," Khalian hissed--his loins on fire and standing at attention--at that thought. Then, he remembered her station, and it doused his emotional fire with a bucket of reality's cold water.

"Should I input those memories, joHwI'?"

"Not all. Just enough to make her compliant. After all, I don't want her becoming as wanton as the Orion. If too many see her, it won't be long before word gets back to the emperor of her whereabouts."

"Understood, joHwI'." The technician approached the mindsifter and placed a memory chip into the appropriate slot.

"Make certain her real memories remain intact, overlaid by those of the Orion. She must still be Klingon, you targ."

"Of course, joHwI'."

Khalian's personal communicator buzzed. He pulled it from its holder on his equipment belt and opened the channel. A beep sounded, signifying a scrambling device in use. "nuqneH!"

"The search intensifies, joHwI'," a voice, distorted by the security scrambling, reported.

Khalian recognized the voice of his adjutant despite the effects of the scrambler. "How much time do we have, Kirst?"

"By the end of the day, the search will have reached your position."

"Qu'valth! They're making better time than I thought they would," Khalian snorted.

"Kudan Kuras has invoked Dunwam--The Great Hunt. The entire population of Qo'noS is responding."

"I understand," Khalian answered. "Don't worry, Kirst. We're almost finished here."

The technician cleared his throat with a rumble. It had the desired effect, gaining Khalian's attention.

"Just a moment, Kirst." He turned his attention his attention to the technician after muting the communicator. "What is it?"

"I need a word or phrase to trigger her real memories, joHwI'."

Khalian held up his index finger in front of the technician's face, then made a cutting motion across his throat. The technician, getting the message, returned to his station at the mindsifter.

"Where are you sending her? For safe-keeping, I mean, joHwI'?" Kirst asked.

"The less you know, the better off you'll be, Kirst. Must I remind you of how we got to Kang?"

"jIyaj, joHwI',"

"I hope so, Kirst." Khalian cut the communication and put the transceiver away. Now for the trigger words, he mused. "Hmmm." He returned to the table where Marschut lay. It must be appropriate for the situation.

"I've established the acceptance of male authority that is in all Orion females, but with an Earther female's aversion to being bedded. I need the trigger to release her real memories."

"I know, I know!" Khalian was becoming flustered by the challenge. It couldn't be too obvious, he realized, or someone might inadvertently blurt it out and release Marschut from her internal prison cell, ruining everything "Ah, I've got it!"

"And it is?" the technician asked, handing a small com-mic for him to use to input the words

In a voice thick with amorous emotion, trying to sound as un-Klingon as possible, Khalian whispered the trigger into the microphone, "jIH bang SoH."

The technician sputtered, holding in a laugh while he closed the channel to the comlink and then sent the phrase through the sifter. "I love you..." he repeated, chuckling.

"What are you laughing at, you rotten, measly piece of dead gagh?" Khalian wasn't sure how to take the technician's reaction.

"I'm sorry, Lord Khalian, but you sounded just like a pathetic, lovesick Earther."

Khalian let his anger flare for a brief moment, then exploded in laughter himself. "You're right. I did, didn't I? Well, that ought to keep her memories safe while she remains in the empire."

"At least as long as she remains in Klingon hands, joHwI'." The technician punched one final button on the sifter, sending Marschut into a near-comatose sleep.

"Is she ready to be placed into her transport?"

"Yes, joHwI'," the technician responded as he undid the restraints on her ankles and wrists. "It's a good thing she's unconscious."

"Why's that?" Khalian growled.

"That individual transport tube is normally used to transport prisoners and is none too comfortable."

"It can't be helped. There's no other way I could get her off the planet, now that the emperor has invoked the Dunwam."

"I suppose not, joHwI', but she will still need medical attention once she arrives at...." The technician became contrite. "What destination, Lord Khalian?"

Rage boiled up in Khalian--possessive rage that normally surrounds the hoarding of treasure and power--and enveloped his whole being. He struck the technician with a savage right cross, knocking him across the room to land on his back, nearly unconscious. "That is none of your business. Remember that if you try to find where I've sent her once I've left, it will spell your doom."

Khalian went back to the sifter's table and gathered Marschut's limp form in his strong arms and carried her out of the lab.

After the mighty Kh'myr lord had departed, the technician sat back up, rubbing his chin and the back of his neck at the same time. "I should be glad he didn't break my neck," he mumbled to himself, then smiled. "My benefactor will pay more for what I can tell him now. If I can find out the exact destination of the transport tube, I'll be set for life." He smiled as he got to his feet.

*****

Khalian stormed down the empty corridor. First, he stopped at the door of the room where a harem could be kept. None of his females were present, but many of their clothes were. It took longer than he wanted to find a shift that would fit Marschut. She was larger than the majority of females that normally occupied the suite of bed-chambers. Soon he had her dressed, and he was once again on his way to his final destination--the fortress' defense battery.

The stand-by weapons crew were on duty and looking into the modified photon tube. With the emperor's sister flung over his shoulder, Khalian exploded into the room. They came to attention, chorusing "qatoy'," and saluting.

Which one is a spy for one of the other lords, or even the emperor? wondered Khalian, suddenly obsessed with the treasure laying limp over his shoulder. "All of you! Out!" he roared.

The bu' in charge of this watch took over. "You heard the Lord Khalian, you slimy mantrils. Get out!"

The group left, winking, nodding and jibbing at each other at what was going to happen in their battery. In minutes, only the bu' was left. "I serve, joHwI'."

"You, too, sergeant. Get out. What is going to happen here, only I need to know about."

"Understood, joHwI'." The sergeant bowed slightly and left through the same door as his men.

"Secure and lock the door," Khalian said to the room's computer pick-up.

"Clearance," the computer responded.

"yISoQmoH," Khalian clipped off. "Close."

The door shut with a loud, metallic clang. A second clank, and it was secured.

"Shut down all security surveillance devices this room."

"All surveillance devices disabled."

I wonder if that is indeed all? Khalian thought. Or, did Kirst have enough time to place an independent system. Then his thoughts turned to the modified torpedo. "Computer, scan tube for covert homing devices."

"Scanning." Then, "One device found."

That damned Kirst, thought Khalian as he laid Marschut into the padded compartment of the tube. "Location of device."

"Navigation computer."

Khalian lifted the access plate and found the tube's navigation packet, then found a small electronic device there, no bigger than a button on his robe. "toH," he whispered.

His communicator beeped, interrupting him as he opened the channel. "nuqneH!"

"Lord Khalian, a Dunwam search team has just beamed into the fortress' great hall. They want to search the grounds. Should I allow them, joHwI'?"

"Do they know I'm here?"

"I don't think they care, joHwI', but, no, joHwI', I don't think so," the disembodied voice of the fortress' commander responded.

"Allow the search, but stall them from coming to the defense battery until last."

"Yes, joHwI'."

The channel was closed from the other end, and Khalian went back to work. That means they are watching the fortress, Khalian thought, from both the ground and orbit. How am I going to get her out unseen? Where am I going to send her? It's now obvious that all my estates are going to be under the emperor's intense scrutiny.

Again, his communicator beeped. He opened the channel, tension filling him as the time he had remaining to dispose of the emperor's sister shortened with every tick of his chronometer. "What is it now, ra'wI'--Commander?"

"An off-planet message from someone called Durit."

Khalian instantly recognized the name. Durit had been but one of the bridge crew of his first battlecruiser command. He'd busted him from the service then because he'd shown more loyalty to making money than to him as the commander. "Tell him I'm busy," Khalian said as he began to close the channel.

"But, joHwI', it's about Qel Kronn."

"Patch it through to me here."

"Yes, joHwI'."

In the moment it took, Khalian's gaze caught sight of a target drone sitting in its cradle at the far side of the battery area. An idea on how to get Marschut out unseen began to grow in his thoughts.

"Lord Khalian? This is Durit. I must speak with you about a matter of grave importance. Do you have mISmoHwI'--scrambler--capability?"

Khalian could hear the sincerity in the smuggler's voice. "Standby, Durit, while I activate the device."

"Standing by."

A flip of the switch did the trick. "nuqneH, Durit?" Khalian ran over to the drone and activated the antigrav lifts under it.

"You are interested in the whereabouts of Qel Kronn?"

The admiral lifted the drone from its storage rack and walked it to a launcher. "I might be."

"I have his ketch in my cargo hold," Durit reported.

Khalian set the drone's controls and activated them even as he was talking to Durit. "And the good healer?"

"Nowhere to be seen, Admiral, but there was extensive damage to his ship."

That's not what those two battlecruiser commanders reported, thought Khalian, digesting the new information. I will have two more candidates for my tuQDoq soon. "Too bad." Khalian finished setting the drone and was returning to the probe with Marschut in it. "I would have paid well for his return to me," the admiral added as he placed a life support mask onto Marschut's face, and then closed the probe's access hatch, sealing it.

"I do have the contents of his ship's log," Durit continued.

Khalian activated the probe's antigrav units and began walking it to a launcher next to where the target-drone now sat. "Of what value is that?" Khalian walked to the control console of the defense battery and started it, the electronics of the room began to hum with excitement.

"It seems the good healer made a stop at Boreth."

One by one the battery's weapon systems came on-line, green lights on the console proving their readiness. "What of it? Kronn always was a religious fool."

"Maybe, Admiral Khalian, but he left more than a donation to their coffers on this trip."

Everything was ready. The only thing left for Khalian was to figure out what safe place to send his special package to. "And that was?"

"Something I think you will find very valuable, joHwI'."

Khalian paused, still trying to decide where to send Marschut. He sighed, "toH, Durit, what was it?"

"Not what, joHwI'. Who."

Khalian was becoming very angry with this bartering game; it was so dishonorable--so Earther-like--and he found it giving him a bad taste in his mouth. "Durit, I will pay whatever you want, but only if your information is indeed valuable."

"Mara, Kang's mate."

Khalian's thoughts shifted for a moment to that fateful night when he'd had Kang arrested and sent to Kragyr, and the ecstasy of what he'd done to Mara later. "You called to report a corpse's location to me, Durit? Of what value is that?"

"None, if she were indeed a corpse."

That got Khalian's attention and got it well. He stood behind the weapons console, every ounce of his being focusing on the communicator in his hand. "What?"

"A package, very much alive and well, was left in the hands of the capable monks of Boreth for safe-keeping."

"And you're sure it was Mara?"

"He said so himself..." Durit paused a moment. "...in his log, that is."

Khalian decided his battlecruiser commanders would be let off a little easier. Apparently they successfully killed Kronn in their attempt to capture the healer. He was about to respond when his communicator beeped again, signaling a call for him on the other channel. "You're right, Durit; that is valuable information to me. I have another call to answer. Think about how much you want while I have you on standby." He changed channels. "nuqneH?!"

"The search team will reach your location momentarily, joHwI'."

Khalian could hear apprehension in the other's voice and could feel the same feeling creeping into his own psyche. A brief glimpse of his severed head gracing one of the ceremonial spears in the throne room came onto his mind's viewscreen. With the macabre scene came a solution. "Let them come, ra'wI, I am almost finished here."

"HISIaH, joHwI'."

Khalian closed one channel and switched back to the other. "Durit?"

"Yes, Khalian?"

The admiral noted Durit's disrespectful tone, but chose to ignore it...at least for the time being. "I need a favor from you."

"I serve, Lord Khalian."

"You can name your price, and I will pay it."

"Be assured, I will."

Khalian could already see his coffers emptying, but it would be worth it if his plan worked. "I want you to go to Boreth and take Mara into custody."

"Consider it done, Admiral."

Khalian realized that had probably been Durit's intention all along, and that Khalian's offer provided a way to make a profit at the same time. "Do you know the Hurgh nebula?"

"Yes, Khalian. It's not far from Boreth."

" You will proceed there and wait for a package I'm sending you."

"A package?"

"A modified probe. The item in it is a million times more valuable to me than Mara. If you can safe keep it for me until I can pick it up, you can have Mara as well as whatever price you ask."

There was a long pause in the conversation. Khalian thought he could hear the footsteps of the search team echoing down the corridor outside the battery, then realized it was only his heart. Come on, Durit. Make your decision.

"Agreed, Khalian."

The admiral punched the nebula's coordinates into the probe's navigational computer. "The package will arrive in twelve hours. Can you be there, waiting?"

"I believe so, Admiral."

"It is imperative you be there when it arrives. The contents have...a short shelf life."

"Understood. I will be there."

"Good." Khalian closed the channel and put the finishing touches to what he was about to do.

There was a knock on the door, followed closely by a command. "Open this door in the name of the emperor!"

Just in time, thought Khalian. With a jab of his finger, the target-drone launched with a roar.

A heavy banging began on the door. "Open this door!"

Khalian saw the target drone enter the cross hairs of every weapon's targeting computer. He purposely left the lock off as he began firing the heavy disruptors at it. Another punch on a button fired every plasma torpedo available and, with them, the probe containing Marschut.

The display of destructive energy lit the sky around the fortress. He heard cursing on the other side of the door and knew in a moment it would be blown. He set the computer to launch another volley, then left by way of a corridor leading to the next battery. He knew the probe's departure would be hidden from both visual and non-visual sensors by the detonation of so many high energy weapons. Behind him, he heard the second volley fired, then a massive explosion as the door was blown.

Just in time, Khalian congratulated himself, but the first doubts entered his plan. What will Durit do when he realizes who it is he has? Khalian had no doubts that Durit would recognize Marschut and what she represented. Then he realized he had no idea where Durit would take her. This problem bothered him all the way to the great hall.

"What is the meaning of all this?" he said with all the mock outrage he could dredge up.

Khalian's sudden appearance in the great hall took the commander of the Dunwam team completely by surprise. They didn't know whether to salute or attack. Instead, being the good Klingon warriors they were, they came to attention and saluted.

*****

"In three weeks, Khalian has torn asunder every gain I have made in three years concerning the emperor and the council," mumbled Admiral Kusan.

He stared mesmerized by the flames that leapt from a large fire in the center of the cubicle. He had shed his armor for the simple sack clothing of those who wished to call upon Kahless the Unforgettable. Unlike the monks here on Boreth, he didn't altogether believe that if one was penitent enough while withstanding the deprivation of food and water and the unbearable heat of the nearly totally sealed room, Kahless would appear and give the individual guidance. He did find the experience physically and psychologically cleansing, allowing him to work through what he felt was an unsolvable problem. He'd been here often in his career climb to the council, but never for a problem as disturbing as what bothered him now.

"He stumbles onto the council by allowing his personal biases to control him and then he proceeds to tear down every piece of confidence I've managed to build within the mind of Kudan Kuras concerning the Kh'myr race. "baQa'," he swore as he threw another log on the fire. He needed more heat.

Kusan had originally come here to work on the problem posed by Khalian's rash actions and how to solve it without destroying everything he'd done in establishing the Kh'myr race as a respectable element of the Klingon Empire's hierarchy. Now, with the receipt of a communiqué from his agents back on Qo'noS containing a transcript of a subspace conversation between Khalian and a worthless, money grubbing embarrassment to the Klingon species called Durit, the problems he had to consider here had doubled.

Durit was naive to think no one could defeat the scrambler. Khalian should have known better, and Kusan couldn't figure out why the newest member of the council had spoken so forthrightly. But he had, and now Kusan had another problem to work through. Though Khalian had never come right out and mentioned Marschut's name in the communication, it hadn't been hard to deduce that the Lady Marschut had been within the probe that Khalian had sent to Durit for safe-keeping. He cursed himself for not having figured it out soon enough to have stopped what Khalian had done, but he hadn't and now the probe was well on its way to Durit.

The only consolation he could find in the final portion of the message was that Durit might be heading for Boreth to collect up someone or something else--that part of the communication has remained scrambled--Khalian found valuable. Kusan felt he could intercept Durit here and claim this person as well as the Lady Marschut.

"baQa'!" he roared as he realized that although this would solve the immediate problem--regaining Kudan Kuras' confidence in him personally--it would still damn the Kh'myr sub-race in the eyes of the emperor. Kuras might even feel justified invoking a race war against the Kh'myr. Kusan threw yet another log onto the fire, stoking up its radiated heat and feeling the sweat begin to freely flow under the simple robe.

Then there was the activity of the Segh vav sector of the council. It didn't take a military genius to figure out what Kor and Koloth were up to with that Orion freighter, though he doubted Khalian had worked it out yet. Despite the wretched conditions, Kang still survived on Kragyr. Soon he would be free, and his vengeance would be severe. There was no way to stop his species from plunging into a race war that was sure to destroy everything the Klingons had built, and the Empire could well disappear as a viable power in the galaxy.

The temperature of the room was now higher than any he'd ever produced before, and sweat was liberally flowing down his face, but it could not compare to the fire that burned within his mind as the flames were reflected from his eyes. Yet, he threw another log into the flames and began chanting an ancient war song written by Kahless himself. He began to suffer from the heat and to believe there to be no solution to what was happening. Maybe these monks were right after all. At least he hoped so, because only Kahless would have the power to draw his people back together as one empire.

Gaining his feet, he began to dance around the fire, the volume with which he sang the ancient march, growing. The heat robbed him of his reason; he no longer knew where he'd seen the dance's pattern before, nor did he care. It felt good just to release it from his soul, to let it burn away the worries and aggravation he was feeling. His pace quickened, and his voice roared louder. All the religious dogma he'd learned as a child from his warrior father, which he'd discarded as an adult, returned. He now called on Kahless for help, truly believing that it would really happen.

With a final leap that landed him on the edge of the fire, he stared into the flames whose flickering tops were now level with his eyes. He roared the final phrases of the march and raised his fists and eyes to the room's stony ceiling. To his surprise, the flames instantly turned from orange, to green, throwing the room into an eerie light. A column of smoke began forming on the opposite side of the small room, but the vapor had no connection with the fire. It seemed to have a life of its own as tendrils formed and began twisting together much like the vines that covered the walls outside, but in a much more animated fashion. A voice, though faint and airy, began to emanate from the column of smoke, beginning again the march he had just finished.

Suddenly, his vision blurred...

"Kahless," Kusan hissed as his vision cleared, and he watched the form take shape with fascination.

Now that it was happening, he feared what he'd done, but couldn't help himself when he joined the voice that was gaining volume even as the form gained solidity. Again the march rose in volume and as the two of them reached its tumultuous ending, Kusan found himself staring into the eyes of the Klingon patriarch.

Kahless roared and with a sweep of his hand, the fire went out, yet the room remained fully illuminated. Kusan saw what Kahless held in his right hand and quaked--the first batlh'etlh, the sword of honor--that which Kahless was reputed to have created by taking his own broken shield from an ancient battle and dipping it into the molten lava of a volcano.

Kusan backed away from the apparition, fears gripping his soul. "How?" he murmured.

Laughing maniacally, Kahless leapt, bringing the meter long, bat-wing shaped weapon, with its four long, razor-sharp points, around in a wide arcing swing that whistled through the air with its speed.

Kusan yelled and ducked, hearing the blade pass only centimeters above his head. He looked for his own weapons and found them with his armor in the far corner of the room. He thought to dive for them, then realized who it was that he fought. He is Kahless the Unforgettable, he quaked internally, a spirit. How can I kill that which is already dead?

With another deafening roar, Kahless stepped closer, swinging his blade in a diagonal swipe aimed at gutting his opponent.

Kusan stepped backward, his flesh just barely out of reach of the weapon's last point, but felt it cut through the robe. Suddenly, the room was freezing, the heat of only a moment earlier completely gone.

Kusan just barely dodged two more great swings, colliding hard with the wall. He tried to dodge right only to see the blade thrust at him hit the wall, raising blue-white sparks. He tried to dodge left with the same results. Kahless came at him with the uppermost point poised in readiness in a great upper cut. Kusan closed his eyes, waiting to feel the bite of the weapon in his throat.

When it didn't happen, he opened his eyes, hoping it had all been a delusion caused by the heat. Instead, he was looking right into the rage-filled eyes of Kahless, the father of all that Klingons hold dear.

"Why do you work to split my people?" Kahless roared the question.

At first, Kusan was too fearful to answer.

"Why do you work to split my people?" the apparition repeated, this time easing the point to touch the soft flesh behind Kusan's chin. "Answer me now...or die."

"I...I..." Kusan stammered. "...don't."

"Of course you do. You are born with the ridges of wisdom, but show none of it. Why do you fight your fellow Klingon?"

Kusan searched his mind for the answer that would save his soul from the torment Kahless obviously had planned after he killed him here on this plane of existence. A sharp prick of the soft skin of his neck by the batlh'etlh destroyed any concentration he had on the answer.

Kahless roared in frustration and impatience, then yelled, "Your ridges are nothing but show, you son of a targ. Answer me this. What am I?"

"You...you...you..."

"Spit it out, weakling!"

"You are Kahless."

"Not who, what? What? WHAT?!!!"

Kusan felt the business end of the sword prick his throat again and obeyed. "You are a Segh vav."

Kahless shifted the point of the sword and laid open a small cut on the side of Kusan's neck, then returned it to the front of the Kh'myr admiral's throat. "Wrong! What am I?"

Kusan's mouth dropped open, the sweat running down his neck stung the wound on the side of his neck. His mind might think this an apparition of Kahless, but his weapon certainly was real enough. He had no doubts that it would end his life right here and now if he didn't get the answer right, and that quickly. "You are a spirit."

Another cut, this time on the other side of the neck. "Wrong again, impudent whelp! I ask you once more and if you don't get it right this time, I will kill you and go to someone with more intelligence than a rodent. What am I?"

What is the answer? the question screamed through his intellect, What is the answer? Kahless was not reputed to be a trickster, asking stupid riddles. He was but a simple...

"You are Klingon!" Kusan blurted it out, then cringed, waiting to feel the final cut that would open the great artery in his neck.

Instead, he heard the clink of metal on stone. Opening his eyes, he saw Kahless standing there, batlh'etlh resting on the stone floor, the Klingon's gauntleted arm leaning on it.

"You are not as stupid as I thought," Kahless began. "And what are you?"

"I am Kh'myr."

The weapon came back to the ready, accompanied by a threatening growl from Kahless. "Maybe I was wrong."

"Very well! I am Klingon!" Kusan changed his answer.

Kahless relaxed and laughed. "Correct. Now, what are we?" he said, suggesting them both.

"We are Klingons!" Kusan responded, feeling an odd sense of pride swell up in him at the answer.

"Not parent race or Kh'myr?"

"Well, yes..." He wasn't able to finish that thought before the point of the sword was again at his throat. "No. We are Klingons," he amended his tack.

"Correct," Kahless returned. "Whether we are born with the ridges of wisdom, or develop them later as we gain knowledge and experience, we are still Klingons." The apparition turned to face the fire's flame, now rekindled, holding his hands to them like some warrior returning from patrol on a hostile front. "We are one people and as such, unstoppable."

"But we are so different," Kusan ventured to say after a moment.

Kahless sat. "Ah, a fire. It feels so good after a long patrol." He turned to gesture to Kusan. "Come, sit next to me. I have much to discuss with you."

Kusan obeyed. "I serve, great lord."

"Now you serve," Kusan chuckled, "when all your life you have worked at cross purposes to what I spent a life time starting?"

The fire felt good physically, as well as psychologically. Kusan mimicked Kahless' example of rubbing his hands in its radiated heat. "I have survived, great lord. Nothing else."

"Not so." Kahless reached out with a gauntleted hand and saw Kusan flinch away. "Be calm, my servant. I will not harm thee."

Kusan felt the hand touch his arm and the warmth of well-being spread from the contact. "How may I serve you, lord?" Kusan asked in Holqempa', the ancient Klingon formal language, stumbling through its intricate sounds.

"Ahh, the language of my time is music to these old ears. The language now spreading through my people is so different: short, guttural...." Kahless seemed to unfocus a moment, then returned. "But it is of no importance. What difference is the language as long as all in the galaxy speak it, eh?"

"True, great lord. How may I serve you?"

"You must begin the healing process that will once again unite my people."

"But the Segh vav hate us."

"And you them. I have observed that the pattern is insidious and destructive. I am working on this as well. I have made contact with members of their race as well. Keep your eyes open for them. They will radiate the light of my wisdom."

"Yes, lord," Kusan bowed his head.

"Honor is the key, Lord Kusan. It is the power that will guide our race through this troubled time." Kahless again reached out and touched Kusan. "My people have forgotten honor, preferring self servitude and treachery."

"But you taught us to always seek upward, to eliminate weakness wherever we find it, using any means, including treachery."

"Yes, and you should continue this quest to eliminate weakness, but do so with honor, not treachery. To vanquish an equal in combat is honorable, but to squash a rodent simply because you are larger and can, is not. Do you understand?"

Kusan's eyebrows scrunched together and there was confusion in his eyes. "No, sire. I do not. If it is weaker, does it not make sense that I should kill it?"

"Not if it would matter not to you if it remained alive. What is a mouse to one as great as you? It is dishonorable to kill it simply because you can."

A spark of knowledge lit inside Kusan. "So, if there is a world, or a people, that is weaker than us, and it poses no threat, we should not destroy them?"

"Not simply because you can. It is not honorable," Kahless answered. "You are perceiving my wisdom now."

Kusan nodded his head, understanding beginning to spread through his intellect. It was so simple, this concept of honor, and yet, so powerful.

"I serve, joHwI'."

"Good." Kahless stood, beginning to hum an ancient Klingon battle song. "Come, join me in a song, and we will seal our compact with blood."

Kusan joined his basso voice with the baritone of the Klingon patriarch. They sang loud, and he felt his soul's release in its beat. It ended with a trill, during which Kahless spun the batlh'etlh over his head. Then, as the song ended, he held its point out to Kusan.

"Take hold and swear you will mend my people's wound."

"By my blood, I swear!"

Kahless withdrew the blade quickly, neatly opening the skin of Kusan's hand, blood smearing down the length of the point and spilling to the floor.

"Ah, it is good to be Klingon, Kusan. Join me in another chorus of that song."

Kusan raised his voice in close harmony with Kahless' lead. As the song ended once again in the trill, he saw Kahless' form melt and transform back into a cloud of smoke and energy, finally disappearing completely.

In Kahless' place, stood a Kh'yrlov female in a monk's habit, holding a tray with a bowl of fresh-baked bread and a pitcher of water. Her face was titled downward; her eyes focused on the floor in front of her. He instantly fell in love with her differences--the blonde hair, the fair skin. Before today I would have killed this female, finding it my duty to the Kh'myr race, but now I glory in her. "Hail, Klingon."

The female's face looked up, and her green eyes spoke of her confusion.

Kusan recognized her. "Mara?"

It was as if she'd awakened from a deep sleep, and fear spread across her face as she dropped the tray with a clatter. "What? she stammered as she spun around looking for escape. "How?"

"Kahless, be praised," Kusan held out his arms to embrace her. "Mara, Lord Kang's mate, it is you." He walked toward her.

She backed up, hissing, her hands held defensively in front of her, with teeth and nails ready to rend.

Let it start here, Kusan thought as he slowed his approach. "I will not hurt thee, Mara."

"But you are Kh'myr," Mara spat, hatred flashing in her body's silent communication.

"No, Mara. I am Klingon." He reached out and touched her hand tenderly, and a spark crossed the gap. "As are you."

She visibly relaxed and allowed him to take her hand. "But...."

"We are Klingon," Kusan said softly at first, then repeated it over and over, louder and louder. "We are Klingon." Then, he released her and turned to the fire. Kneeling, he picked up the spilled tray and collected the bread then sat. "Come, sit next to me."

She complied more quickly this time, sitting in the fire's warmth.

He broke a piece of bread and handed it to her.

She accepted it.

He took a bite and chewed.

She did likewise.

"We have much to talk about," Kusan said after swallowing the bread. "Much to do."

She joined him.

-11-

"Course and heading is constant now, Captain," Arex's soprano voice reported.

"Odd that the Caldonians would allow a ship with a leak of this sort out of their space docks," Beach remarked from the science station.

Terrell sat in his command chair, his right hand drumming a rhythm on the arm. "It is unlike them, that's true, but then again so is hostility, such as a surprise raid on a Federation colony."

"True, sir," the science officer responded, continuing the small talk as they waited to see where the trail would take them. A new anomaly appeared on his forward long range sensors, capturing his attention.

"Now if this was a Romulan force..." Terrell paused, a thought making itself known in his psyche. "What is our position compared with the Romulan Neutral Zone, Mister Arex?"

"Our course is taking us closer to it, but in an oblique way."

Terrell punched the intercom button on his chair. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering," came the response a moment later.

"Get me the exec."

"Standby, sir."

Terrell drummed his fingers as he waited, his gaze never leaving the viewscreen.

"Vwhat's up, Kyptin?" came Chekov's voice a moment later.

"Can you see where we're headed, Exec?"

"Aye, sir."

"Any recent reports from Starfleet Intelligence referencing this region?"

"None that I can put my finger on at the moment, sir, but let me do a little research on it from auxiliary control, and I'll get back to you."

"Thanks, Exec. Bridge out."

"The trail seems to have gained a target system, sir," Beach reported, still staring into his sensor hood.

"And that is?"

"Small white dwarf," he began his report. "UFC registration 267774. No survey available, but sensors are picking up a band of class D bodies in a wide band, two AUs from the star."

"Any sign of the Caldonians?"

"Not...." Beach paused, returning to his sensors, then started again. "Yes, I'm picking them up now." A silent alarm went off at his station, and he turned it off. "They scanned us, sir, and know we're coming." He went back to what he was originally reporting. "They seem to be concentrating around one especially large class D body within the asteroid ring."

"What the hell?" the captain murmured.

The intercom at his chair came to life. "Bridge, this is Auxiliary Control."

Terrell answered from his chair, recognizing the voice. "What did you find, Exec?"

"No security reports, queries, nor anything else on this sector, Kyptin."

"Hmm." Terrell tapped his fingers on the arms of the command chair. "Thanks, Exec. Bridge out." Turning toward the communications station, he announced his decision. "Since they already know we're coming, let's get this ball rolling, folks. Mister Kyle, hail the Caldonian force."

"Aye, sir." Kyle opened a channel via subspace. A moment later, "they're answering our hail, sir."

"Put them on the screen."

The head and shoulders of a being came into view on the screen. The blue and white mottled skin and the larger than Human brain-pan were easily recognizable as a Caldonian. "This is Senior Enforcer Fulastoven. Identify yourself, Federation starship, and state your intentions."

Terrell didn't let the emotions that sprang into being in his thoughts at the other's arrogance tinge his response. "I am Captain Terrell of the U.S.S. Reliant. I'm investigating your...recent visit to the Federation colony on Psi Scorpii Eight."

The senior enforcer chuckled, obviously amused by what Terrell had said. "We did not 'visit' the colony, Captain. We simply raided it to insure that they would no longer be able to produce topaline. I assure you that our intentions are quite honorable in this matter, and I point out that had we so chosen, there wouldn't have been anything left on the colony for the Federation to use to learn who had raided it."

"I suppose that could be true, Fulastoven, but you did damage much of their equipment and disrupted their activities."

"Can we discuss this in a more comfortable location?" Fulastoven responded.

"One moment, Enforcer," Terrell answered. Turning to Kyle, he made a slight cupping signal over his ear, his established signal for him to mute the audio pick up, then turned to Beach. "Any indications that they're not exactly what they appear to be?"

Beach reported without taking his face from the sensor hood. "None, sir. No power transfer to weapons...no defense shields. There is some activity on the asteroid's surface, and..." He paused, focusing the sensor beam. "...in a chamber four kilometers beneath the asteroid's surface."

"Can you tell what they're doing?"

"Not at this range, sir."

"Is there any reason I shouldn't accept the senior enforcer's invitation?"

"None that I can discern, but I advise you take two security guards with you, sir."

"A wise recommendation," Terrell responded, then signaled to Kyle to reopen the audio channel. "I accept your invitation, Senior Enforcer Fulastoven. Where would you like to meet?"

"I noted your sensor's attention on the chamber below the asteroid's surface," Fulastoven answered.

"Yes, we found it."

"It contains an atmosphere and design compatible to both our species. Would that be acceptable, Captain?"

A quick check of his bridge officers showed Terrell that they could produce no reasons to turn the offer down. "Yes, that would be acceptable, Senior Enforcer. Shall we say, five minutes after we establish an orbit?"

"That is acceptable, Captain Terrell. I think you will be interested in what I am about to show you."

"We'll see. Reliant out."

The enforcer's face wavered and dissolved on the viewscreen, replaced by the bright white orb that was the star they were approaching and the now very visible ring of asteroids that circled it. Dead ahead, and obviously their destination, was an especially large asteroid, its surface covered with craters of all sizes.

"Walking Bear, Beach and..." Terrell punched up the ship's intercom. "Bridge to Sickbay."

"Sickbay, Captain."

Terrell recognized Doctor McCoy's southern accent. "I will need you to accompany me on a landing party."

"What's the occasion, Captain?"

"The Caldonians wish to explain their actions," Terrell answered.

"And you wish me to insure they're not lying?"

"That's the gist of it, Doctor."

"I'm not as up on Caldonian readings as I am on Humans, sir."

"I know you'll do your best, McCoy."

"Aye, Captain," the doctor said, sighing at the same time.

Terrell knew there would most likely be a formal complaint coming from his chief medical officer, and he didn't care. He needed someone who could discern whether an individual was telling the truth or not. Someday they'd manage to enlist the help of empathic beings into Starfleet to do this, a people more sensitive to these kind of feelings than the Vulcans, and then he wouldn't need to use his medical officer in these matters. Until then he would have to continue in the practice. "Be in Transporter Room One in ten minutes."

"Aye, sir, Sickbay out."

Hitting the intercom button again, he reopened the channel. "Commander Chekov to the bridge."

It wasn't but a moment before his exec responded. "On my way, sir."

Chekov arrived, accompanied by the relief of the other two officers of the landing party. Terrell turned the bridge over to him with instructions. "I'm not expecting any trouble from the Caldonians, but just in case, bring the ship to yellow alert and raise the shields as soon as we're away."

"Aye, Kyptin," Chekov responded as he sat in the command chair.

"Walking Bear, Beach, you're with me," Terrell said as he entered the lift.

They turned their stations over to their reliefs and joined the captain.

*****

The chamber under the asteroid's surface shimmered into view as they materialized. Terrell noticed right away that it was a simple affair; two rooms, one with the machinery necessary to provide life support and the other containing a table and two chairs--one to each side of the table.

The Caldonian senior enforcer was waiting for Terrell, seated on the far side of the table. Caldonian enforcers were busy in both rooms, placing small boxes everywhere.

Beach had his tricorder busy right away. He leaned over to talk to the captain as soon as he got his first reading. "Those are the same charges they used to destroy the mining equipment on Psi Scorpii Eight."

"I'm sure this is all part and parcel with the entire operation," Terrell whispered in response.

The senior enforcer stood up and motioned with his hands for the captain to take a seat. "Shall we start, Captain Terrell?"

"Beach, find out the extent of their preparations. Walking Bear, McCoy, with me," Terrell ordered, then walked toward the seat.

The two commanders sat and faced each other. Fulastoven was typical of the Caldonians-- inscrutable and unemotional--waiting for Terrell to open the conversation.

Terrell broke the silence. "Well?" he asked, not knowing where else to start. "You offered to explain, Senior Enforcer?"

"The Caldonian government finds interference in the affairs of inferior species such as those of the Federation completely undesirable," Fulastoven responded.

"So we've observed in the past, Senior Enforcer."

"But we will intervene if it is the only way."

"Is that what you call the attack on Psi Scorpii? An intervention?"

"We did not attack Psi Scorpii," Fulastoven replied, his voice full of indignation. "We but did Starfleet's job in enforcing the law."

"What law?"

"The selling of topaline on the black market."

Terrell's eyebrows scrunched together. His gaze turned to McCoy. "Did we get any indication from the colonists that they might be doing something illegal?"

"None that I could discern, sir," McCoy answered. "But if the Senior Enforcer is right, then I don't think we even started to ask the right questions."

Terrell's face relaxed and he nodded his head. "True, true." He returned his attention to the Caldonian senior enforcer. "Do you have any proof of your allegations?"

Fulastoven put on his most patient look. "Of course." He pulled out a data chip and put it in the center of the table. "As you know, we have dealings with all governments in our neutral status."

"Yes."

"But whenever one or the other begins to build offensive capabilities too close to our territory, we take note."

"Of course."

"The Romulans have begun an aggressive starbase building program right on our borders."

Terrell turned to Walking Bear. "Confirmation?"

"Starfleet Intelligence bulletins haven't had anything concerning this in them, Captain," Walking Bear answered.

"Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure, Captain, but I'll check anyway."

"Are you trying to say you have no idea this is going on, Captain?" Fulastoven became irritated.

"Why shouldn't it be a surprise?" Terrell responded, returning his attention to the Caldonian.

"Because we sent a complete report to Starfleet many of your months ago, providing all the facts necessary to prove the claim."

Terrell again turned to Walking Bear. "Are you sure we've not heard about any of this?"

Walking Bear broke away from reading something on his tricorder, "Positive, sir. I've just rechecked the subjects of all Starfleet Intelligence bulletins for the past six months. There's nothing there about a Romulan build-up in the Caldonian sector."

"We sent it to Admiral Yves-Gervais himself," Fulastoven continued.

"Make a note of this, Mister Walking Bear. We'll make our own report."

"Aye, sir."

Terrell returned his full attention to Fulastoven. "But what has this to do with the colony or this asteroid?"

"That information is all on that chip, but I'll review the most important part of it with you now."

"Thank you."

"Of all the materials needed to build starbases and ships, only one is rare enough to control the rate of construction. Psi Scorpii has it."

"Topaline?"

"Exactly, Captain Terrell."

"The Romulans have their own sources of that material. How can you be sure it's coming from Psi Scorpii?"

"Each source of the ore has its own unique amounts of inert elements, the amount and type are much like your fingerprint, identifying it. The topaline the Romulans are receiving to put in these new bases is Psi Scorpii topaline."

"How do you know this?"

"As I said, we have contacts with all governments. We noted the growth and the evidently close source of topaline. It was easy enough for one of our investigator ships to get a sensor analysis."

"Hmmm," Terrell's fingers beat incessantly on the table top. "So why are you setting explosives here?" Terrell pointed at the floor of the room.

"Because this is where the transactions occur between the colony's ship and the Yridian trader that sells the topaline to the Romulans. Again this is all on that data chip."

Terrell ignored the other's change in emotion. "Have you identified the parties?"

"Yes, it's on...."

Terrell interrupted the enforcer. "I know, but I'd like to know now."

"The Yridian's name is Illyeekeek."

Walking Bear offered an explanation before Terrell could turn to ask. "That name has occurred on more than one bulletin, as well as a hologram of him. He's suspected of all sorts of contraband operations, including weapons and technology, but never anything about buying and selling topaline."

"Well, now we have a new item to add to the report, don't we, Mister Walking Bear?" Terrell responded.

"Yes, sir." Walking Bear began whispering notes into the tricorder for future reference.

"We almost caught both parties," Fulastoven started, then stopped, his face mirroring the fact that he was at a loss for words. "How do you Earthers say it? Red-handed? In the act? Two days ago. Illyeekeek managed to evade capture. He has some very advanced cloaking technologies on his ship. So we tracked the other ship to Psi Scorpii. We eliminated their mining and refining capabilities. Now we'll destroy their meeting place as well."

"But wouldn't this be the best place to catch the Yridian?"

"He certainly detected us here, and he doesn't have a reputation for returning once this has happened. He is a most elusive target."

"So it would seem."

A beep from the Caldonian's equipment belt interrupted the conversation. He took a report, then closed the channel. "I trust the Federation can take over this investigation?"

"You can count on it," Terrell answered, also getting to his feet.

The look on the Caldonian's face suggested grave doubt. "Thank you, Captain. Now, I suggest you get at least two hundred thousand of your kilometers from here. Our explosives are set, and ready to be detonated."

"Thank you, Senior Enforcer Fulastoven. We'll be in touch."

"Don't bother." Fulastoven reopened the channel to his ship and gave a command.

Moments later, Terrell and his landing party were the only ones left on the asteroid.

"I guess we should follow suit, gentlemen," Terrell ordered, pulling out his own communicator. "Standard transporter formation."

The landing party fell in behind Terrell as he contacted the Reliant.

Chekov answered, "Ready, Kyptin?"

"Yes, Exec. Four to beam up. Lock in a course back to the colony and get us under way as soon as we're back."

"Aye, Kyptin. Reliant, out."

A column of blue sparkling energy surrounded each member of the landing party as they were transported back to their ship.

*****

The Reliant left its position, on a course back to Psi Scorpii. They had no sooner crossed the two hundred thousand kilometer mark when there was an immense explosion that changed the iron/nickel asteroid into dust and meteors.

The door to the bridge opened, and Terrell marched in.

"What was their explanation, Kyptin?" Chekov asked as he relinquished command.

Terrell tossed the data chip to him. "Evaluate that for authenticity, Exec, and be ready to report by the time we return to the colony."

Chekov nodded and headed for the science officer's console to begin his task.

Staring at the viewscreen, Terrell made a comment. "Those colonists have some very tough questions to answer."

Already viewing the chip, Chekov whistled in response, then cursed in Russian.

-12-

What has come over Lord Kusan? Valkris asked herself as the engine flare of the probe she was following in her small scout hypnotized her. He knew well enough its heading to tell me where to meet it, and then he orders me....Her thoughts went back to that conversation.

"No, Valkris, don't pick it off. It isn't some sort of secret weapon, sent off to destroy something. It's much more valuable than that," Kusan said.

"Then I should collect it up and bring it back to you?" she asked, confused.

"No. All I want you to do is follow it and report to me where and who meets it. Is that understood?"

"I serve, joHwI'," Valkris responded.

"Yes, you do and quite well. Then, once it's picked up, tell me where they take it."

"Understood, joHwI'."

"Thank you, Valkris."

The communication with her employer had terminated, leaving her more confused then ever. Thank you, she heard him say again in her head as she continued to stare at the probe's flare. Thank you? An Earther term? Since when does Kusan use Earther terms, especially ones as soft as that?

"Approaching the Hurgh nebula," the computer's voice announced.

This was where Kusan said the probe would be met, she said to herself. As if on cue, its engines shut down, leaving it to coast.

I wonder if he knows who's in the probe? I scanned it the moment I got onto its tail and have some ideas myself. What other Segh vav female would be traveling so secretively?

That brought her logically to the most confusing conclusion she had ever come to in her entire career as a q'laI assassin. Why did he order me to only observe and not pick her up for him to return to the emperor? Such an action would gain Kusan an immeasurable position of power. The emperor would be forever in his debt. This argument had twice threatened to force her to violate his orders and intercept the probe. Unless the person responsible for the probe was another Kh'myr?

Her thoughts were in a turmoil. No! I won't, she finally decided. I will obey my orders. Kusan is a genius in these things. Why else would I work for him? Am I not the most powerful q'laI in the empire and the most expensive?

"There is an object directly in the probe's path," the computer reported.

"What?" Completely involved in her problem solving, Valkris had almost missed the announcement. "Computer, repeat report."

"There is an object directly in the probe's path," the computer repeated.

"Nature of object?" she asked, not believing it to be natural. The odds against that were too astronomical.

"Unknown without use of active sensors."

And possible detection if it is a ship, as I suspect, she thought.

"Sensor scan detected," the computer reported.

That proves it. "Slow with the probe; engage the cloak." No use being seen at this juncture.

The lights on the small ship's bridge dimmed to red, and the ship disappeared.

Now to see who this is. Flipping a record crystal into a console on her left, she activated all the ships' data collection devices.

The probe's course remained straight.

"Full magnification on forward viewscreen, center on the ship in the probe's path," Valkris ordered the computer.

The screen shimmered and shifted, and when it finally settled, showed her what appeared at first to be a Yridian heavy freighter. At least that's what its captain wants it to appear as. Her expert eye picked up the differences, piquing her interest. Further study betrayed its Klingon lines.

A tractor beam snapped on and locked to the probe, slowing its velocity.

"Adjust ship's speed to full stop," Valkris ordered the computer.

"Full stop," it returned.

With a flurry of her maneuvering thrusters, easily masked by the cloaking device, the small ship came to a stop.

"Computer, ship identification?"

The image of the freighter froze in place, it was spun around as the computer searched for the identifying aspects of its design. Once done with this it started the search of its data banks for a match. "Possible match found," the computer reported a moment later.

"What ship is it?"

"The wejyapHuch, a freighter of Yridian registration, reported to be owned and operated by a being calling itself Illyeekeek."

"Source of information?" Odd that a Yridian ship should have a Klingon name, a pIqaD one at that.

"Federation registration files."

"Nothing on the Klingon, or Romulan databases?"

"There are older records of a ship closely resembling this one, but this match was made from a recent intercept of a Starfleet security report generated by the starship Reliant, one day ago."

Now what interest does Starfleet have in a Yridian? She shook her head at this thought. There is no such thing as a trustworthy Yridian. They would sell their grandsire if the price was right. "toH, what is this one up to?"

The freighter gently pulled the probe to it, eventually pulling it through the open hatch of what she assumed was a small cargo hold. Thrusters fired, and the wejyapHuch turned onto a new heading. False panels moved to reveal its true engine configuration. The graf drives fired, and the freighter moved quickly away from the rendezvous point.

Why doesn't that surprise me? Valkris prepared her ship for faster-than-light travel. "Computer, list possible destinations along the new course on viewscreen."

The list was short, the last entry a set of coordinates where it crossed the Klingon/Romulan border. One location in the list caught her attention. Boreth? There is only the monastery of Kahless there. Why would a Yridian want or need there?

It really didn't matter when she remembered where Kusan had been when he'd sent his instructions to her. "That's where Kusan is, or at least was." She chuckled knowingly. "That wise old targ. No wonder I love working for him."

The freighter broke into warp space with a crash, followed at a discreet distance by a small cloaked ship.

As soon as they were well on their way, Valkris opened the narrow, side band subspace channel she and Kusan used, heavily scrambling it, just in case. Her employer answered quickly after the first hail.

"nuqneH, Valkris?"

"A heavily modified Yridian freighter has picked up the probe."

"A Yridian was it?"

"It appeared so, though it bears a Klingon name. There was also the feel of Klingon technology about it. I am following it as you ordered."

"Possible destination?"

When she'd opened the channel, she'd expected to see the virgin granite walls of the monastery behind Kusan, instead she saw that he was once again in his office, on the home-world. If he's not on Boreth to pick up the contents of the probe, then what's this all about? Shadows of doubt began nagging her normally sharp mind. "Boreth, joHwI'. Isn't that where you were when you assigned me this mission?"

A shadow crossed Kusan's face as he heard her question, then he relaxed and an easy smile formed. "You are my best operative, Valkris," he responded quietly, "probably the best in the Empire."

Valkris understood he wasn't going to answer her question. "Do you doubt my qualifications, joHwI'?"

"Not in the least. Keep me posted as to the freighter's final destination."

"Yes, joHwI'."

"Thank you, Valkris." He closed the channel.

He said it again! her thoughts screamed. Thank you? I wonder if he's contracted mISrop* now that he's getting older. The freighter was making a straight heading for Boreth now. As she settled back to watch, her thoughts raced through all the possibilities of Kusan's actions. She shuddered at the thought of dying of old age and contracting the diseases that plagued those that somehow were unlucky enough to survive. Kahless, help me to die valiantly in battle.

*Klingon "confusion disease"--similar to the Terran Alzheimer's Disease or the Vulcan Bendii Syndrome.

*****

The hairs on the back of his neck and along the bony ridges of his spine were still standing on edge as he sat watching the stars streak by on his viewscreen. "Computer, scan back along our trail."

"Scanning." The feeling he had that someone watched him would not go away. "No contacts."

The computer might say that, but I don't believe it, Durit thought, growling under his breath. He'd felt uneasy from the moment he had accepted Khalian's job, but that had been nothing to the trepidation he felt now. There was someone, or something, on his trail. "Computer, scan for evidence of a cloaking device."

"Restriction," the computer warned. "Short range sensors only."

"Enable," Durit's command was short and curt, his temper flaring.

"Scanning."

There is something out there! his thoughts screamed.

"No evidence of a cloaked vessel."

"taHqeq!" he cursed. "How much time till we enter the Boreth system?"

"One hour."

I'll shake that shadow after I've made my pick-up, he decided. The opportunity on Boreth is too tenuous, and I can't waste any time evading now. Afterward, is another story.

He sat and simmered for a moment, the sense of being followed continuing to prick at his consciousness. Then, when he could stand it no more, he jumped to his feet, roaring. "I must do something to take my mind off this." He paced the bridge. It wasn't until after he'd circuited the bridge ten times that he remembered what it was that he'd picked up back at the rendezvous point. "I guess Lord Khalian can't fault me for inspecting the treasure at this point. Not that he has anything to say about it."

Striding off, he left the bridge on a straight course for the cargo bay and the probe interred within. Turning toward the door, its locking mechanism sensed his approach and opened the door. He entered and immediately spotted the probe. It was in the middle of the floor, right where the tractor beam had deposited it.

Rubbing his hands together, he walked up to the side where the keyboard for the locking mechanism was. "Ah, Khalian, what treasure have you sent me for safekeeping, and how much am I going to charge you for doing so?"

Tapping out a coded sequence on the small security panel located toward the nose of the probe, he heard it beep twice as it accepted it. With the hiss of equalizing pressures, the probe opened. Slowly, the hatch lifted, revealing its contents to Durit's gaze.

His breath caught in his throat as he realized that Khalian hadn't sent him anything inanimate, but an individual. The life support mechanism obscured the figure. As he removed the tubes and wires, he soon realized that this was a female. Removing the face mask allowed him to further identify her as being a Segh vav Klingon, her skin and hair coloration indicating one of the Kh'teb race.

With the last of the support mechanism removed, he stepped back, admiring what he saw. Even from this angle, he could tell she was taller than any other Kh'teb he'd seen before. He took time to admire her figure through the unflattering robe she was wearing and immediately fell deep in lust. His gaze came to her face and his heat diminished, the leer of a moment earlier fading. She looks familiar, but I don't know where I've seen her before. He cocked his head slightly to the left, thinking hard but failing to make any identification. I'll give Khalian credit for one thing: she's definitely a treasure.

Reaching into the probe, he gently lifted her into his arms and left the cargo bay. Turning left, he headed back toward the bridge and the crew's quarters. They were empty, as usual, since he didn't trust anyone else to be onboard during business. He eventually entered the small stateroom right next to his personal quarters and placed the female on the sleeping bench. She moaned as he did this, and he stepped back to watch her wake from whatever sleep Khalian had put her in before sending her on this journey.

He was still watching her attempts to wake up when the computer's voice came over the ship's intercom. "Nearing the Boreth system; commander to the bridge. Nearing the Boreth system; commander to the bridge."

Durit knew the message would continue to repeat until he went back to the bridge, or they passed the target system, but he couldn't stop watching the female. The computer made two more warning statements before he could finally drag himself away. Later, my beauty, later, once I've picked up yet another treasure. Then I will discover who you are and why Khalian holds you so tight.

Turning, he exited the stateroom and secured the door, just in case she awakened while he was away. The computer was just about to make another announcement when he arrived at the bridge. "Computer, report."

"Five minutes from arrival at outer regions of Boreth system."

"Prepare to drop from warp. Full impulse to destination."

"Instructions received."

The stars slowly stopped streaking by and became pin-points of light. Dead ahead, one star was especially bright.

"Entering Boreth system," the computer barked.

A cometary body came into view and passed by on the right side as Durit's ship passed through the system's Oort cloud. Smaller, bright points of light--like dilithium crystals on an Elasian noble-woman's necklace--strung out from the star. Durit accessed the viewscreen control program and a set of cross hairs appeared. Centering them onto the fourth bright spot, Durit adjusted the screen magnification. A brown and green orb wavered into view.

An alarm went off. "Boreth space control is hailing us," the computer announced.

"Answer hail," Durit responded.

A young Klingon acolyte whose smooth forehead and dark, olive-colored skin identified him as a Segh vav of the Kh'teb race came onto the screen. In Holqempa', the ancient Klingon dialect, he challenged Durit. "Incoming ship, we have you on our screens. Provide identity and purpose."

Durit had trouble at first with the ancient dialect, but could understand enough to get the gist of the request. Carefully translating his pIqaD into the high language of the monastery, he answered. "I am Durit, son of Durin, commander of the heavy freighter wejyapHuch. I request permission to enter a geostationary orbit above the monastery of Kahless."

"State reason."

Durit saw the disgust this Segh vav youth felt toward him and his Kh'myr ancestry, and chose to ignore it. "To pay tribute to Kahless the Unforgettable and to make a small contribution."

"Stand by, wejyapHuch." A graphic displaying the crest of the monastery replaced the face of the acolyte on Durit's viewscreen.

"Dirty Segh vav whelp," Durit whispered, just barely keeping the anger he was feeling under control.

The acolyte reappeared. "An orbital slot for your ship is available. We are sending the coordinates for the Worship Hall to your computer. Acknowledge."

A green light began flashing on the transporter control console to his right. "Acknowledged, Boreth. wejyapHuch, out."

*****

The red haze of transporter energies faded from before his gaze and he found himself in deep dusk. His eyes, still accustomed to the bright lights of his ship's transporter station, could discern very little of his new environment. "baQa'," he hissed under his breath. Regularly spaced torches lit the great hall. He could hear the deep, rhythmic chanting of a group of acolytes wafting in from some unknown place.

From his position, he could see the entire length of the large room. It wasn't full, but there were worshipers kneeling at various locations on the bare rock floor. At the far end was a three-step dais with a bank of torches on either side illuminating a two-story tall tapestry with Kahless stitched into it.

"You are Durit, son of Durin?" a whispered voice said.

A touch on his elbow accompanied the voice. Durit almost instinctively lashed out at the shadowy form, but held his defensive reaction in check. "Yes," he answered. His eyes were finally adjusting to the low light levels, and he could see the robed and hooded person who stood next him. Most like he'd been there the whole time.

"We were told you were coming. I am here to serve you," a voice that came from the darkness within the hood said.

They sent a female? Durit recognized her gender from the sound of her voice. I might just decide to convert, depending on how well you treat me. He grunted once in his humor. But first....

"Would you prefer a private prayer room, or would you rather plead your case with the rest?" she ended with a flourish. The robe-covered arm had no hand protruding from the end.

His eyes had now fully accustomed themselves to the gloom, and he searched the large room for the one person he was here to collect. There were no Klingons there with the blonde hair of the Kh'yrlov. "Private prayer room," Durit requested in a low voice. Then wanting to see as much of the place as possible and wanting to get as far from the watching eyes he felt from every dark recess, he added, "A room far from the noise of this place. I find I can concentrate better in silence."

"I serve." The acolyte turned. Her walk was silent and slow, making her appear to glide over the floor, the hem of her robe swishing against the stone floor.

Durit felt himself intrigued by this female. Whether he wanted to or not, he found himself trying to find some way to penetrate the darkness under the robe's hood. Following closely behind the robed figure, he tried to discover as much about her as he could by watching her walk in front of him, but the robe defeated all of his efforts, effectively masking everything about her.

She led him out of the great hall and down a series of long, arching walkways. It was darker here than in the hall, with torches few and far between and only at the entrances of what Durit assumed were private prayer rooms. He could hear murmuring and roaring behind them. Finally, they arrived at a doorway with its metal banded wood door sitting open into its small interior.

"I hope you will find this acceptable, warrior," the acolyte guide said. "There is wood for the fire if you need more heat; well-sharpened blades if you should wish to make any oaths; the room is, for the most part, sound-proof, in case you should lose yourself in your worship."

Finding Mara was the last thing on his mind at that moment. Durit had to know more about this one in the robe. As the guide started to leave, he spoke. "One moment."

"I serve."

"How did you get to this place?"

"By starship, like the rest. Boreth has no indigenous life forms of its own."

"Yes, yes, of course, but how does one who sounds so young decide to spend the rest of her life with the old warriors that usually occupy this place?"

"I was near death and found by a kindly Qel. He healed me, and since I had no home, brought me here. The followers of Kahless accepted me willingly into their ranks."

And I think I know why, Durit's thoughts rang out, the fire of his curiosity flaring brighter. The lust he'd felt for the female on his ship had not had much chance to dissipate yet and this one had his attention. He reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder, letting it slide slowly down her arm. Through the robe's material, he felt her shoulder and estimated she had a moderate size frame. She tensed at his touch, and he felt good muscle tone respond. She stepped back.

"Warrior Durit, I have brought you to your prayer room. Now I must go."

"But you said you would serve."

"Yes, warrior, I serve, but..."

"Well then, serve me."

"But don't you wish to talk to Kahless alone?"

"My thoughts now are for the living, not the dead. Come with me." He let his voice's volume rise with the frustration he was feeling. "And serve."

He reached out quickly catching her by the upper arm and pulled her to him. There was only light resistance. Now that he was closer, he could see some of her facial features under the hood and was not disappointed, though she was obviously not Kh'myr.

*****

Mara played the part as best she could. This Kh'myr targ had arrived exactly when and as Lord Kusan had said he would. She didn't understand everything the Kh'myr leader had said to her not more than a day ago, nor why he hadn't taken care of it himself. Now he had returned to Qo'noS, leaving her to...What had he said? she thought as she felt herself being pulled toward Durit. Serve Kahless and prevent a civil war within the Klingon Empire? She remembered his intensity, as if he'd talked to Kahless himself, and now she believed him. It still amazed her how easy it had been to decide to follow the Kh'myr lord, especially after what they had done to her people.

"Now, what treasure hides under this hood?" Durit whispered.

Mara let her gaze fall to the center of his massive chest, hoping this would hide her face from him.

"No, no, no, my treasure, no more hiding." His hand reached under her chin and lifted. She closed her eyes as she felt him angling her face up toward his, feeling the hood fall free. "ghuy'cha'!" he hissed.

Instead of feeling his mouth on hers, she felt him push her to the end of his arm's length. She opened her eyes and looked at him. What she saw was more fearful than feeling his kiss. He was smiling wickedly.

Now I'm in for it, she thought, fearing the worst. The Kh'myr had, as a race, sworn to end the existence of all Kh'rylov. When he released one hand, maintaining a tight hold on her shoulder with the other and reached for his equipment belt, she knew her end was near. I'm coming, Kang, to meet you at Kahless' side. She prayed as she waited to feel the bite of a taj.

"jol yIchu'!"

She knew she'd been wrong the moment she felt the disorienting affects of a transport beam. He'd pulled a communicator from his belt instead of a razor sharp blade. The dark, stony prayer room began to fade into a bright, crimson mist. As it disappeared, she thought she saw a familiar face smiling at her from the wall itself, then the bright lights of a ship's transporter station began to build around her. She stood still, waiting for his next move.

"Mara," she heard him say as the transporter completed its cycle and released them.

She made her voice become halting and nervous. "What did you call me, my lord?"

"Mara. Your name is Mara."

"I have no memory of being called that, my lord." She forced her eyes to look at the floor. "The Qel who found me gave me the name of Torost when he found I had no memories."

"Qel Kronn was too clever for his own good." Durit hooked his thumbs into his belt.

She feigned surprise as she let her gaze meet his. "How did you know his name?"

"We met not long ago, and he told me of you."

The tone of his voice and his body language told her that the healer was dead. How much more does he know about me? She was not convinced that he knew enough to see through her faked amnesia. "Was he a friend of yours?" She took a hesitant step toward him, putting all the hope she could muster onto her face.

"I don't think you could call us the best of friends, but we knew each other for a short period of time."

She stopped and let her gaze fall to the floor, the dutiful servant. "I serve."

Durit wasn't sure what to think of the female he had standing in front of him. This was Mara, Lord Kang's mate, thought by Lord Khalian to have been dead, but resurrected by the dead Qel. How lucky he had been to have had the one person he'd been searching for be the one to escort him into the far reaches of the Boreth monastery where it would be easy to abduct her unseen.

Too easy. His naturally suspicious nature questioned his good fortune. Can she really be suffering from the memory loss she claims to be suffering? His smile changed to something much more serious. I'll have to keep a close eye on her to see, he decided after only a moment.

"Torost?" He watched her reaction to the name Kronn had supposedly given her.

"Yes, my lord."

Her reaction was immediate, as if that had been her name all along, he thought. Maybe she doesn't remember being Mara. A much more pleasant thought followed closely on that one. If she doesn't remember being Kang's mate, maybe another warrior can win her affection?

"Your name is not Torost."

"It isn't, my lord?"

"No. It is Mara."

"Mara?" she repeated.

"Yes, and I am Durit, son of Durin," he continued, deciding on another test. If she were truly faking her memory loss, then what he was about to tell her would certainly register throughout her body language, "I am your espoused mate." He regarded her closely.

Mara inwardly laughed as she continued to play the scared and confused female. This is going to be dangerous. Lord Kusan said that my Lord Kang was still alive but unless I could pull this off, wouldn't stay that way long. With that thought at the top of her mind, she began playing the part expected of her.

Slowly, she approached Durit, every part of her playing the submissive female. When she'd gotten very close, she tentatively reached down and took his hand in hers and pulled it to her face. Bringing the part of his wrist where a ring of glands produced his personal scent to her nose, she growled, "My lord..."

"I have found you at last."

"How can I serve you?"

"I have another treasure, a female, like yourself. I want you to watch over her."

"What is her name, lord?"

"You won't believe this, Mara, but she suffers from amnesia, just as yourself. I took her from a lifeboat with a failing life support. One more second, and carbon dioxide poisoning would have taken her. Now she remembers nothing of her past life."

"Then, we are sisters by circumstance."

"Yesss," he hissed, pulling her wrist to his nose, where he took in a long draft of her scent. "Sisters. I will bring you to her, and you will take care of her for me."

"I serve, my lord."

He gazed long into her eyes before continuing. "Come."

Mara followed. He's taking me to Marschut, just as Lord Kusan said he would. Her low evaluation of Kh'myr in general rose a bit as she realized how much the council member knew and had planned for. Her thoughts ended as he turned and walked through a door that had just opened. As she walked into the room, she saw him looking at a figure laying on the bed shelf.

"I have named her Koolas, though she doesn't know it yet. Your first task, when she wakes up, is to tell her this and find out as much about her as possible."

"She has the fine features of a Kh'teb from the one of the higher Houses, lord."

"Mmmm." Durit's hand stroked his chin. "Quite right, Mara." He took her in his arms. "I am reminded why I decided to take you as my mate. Find out who she is, Mara. Who knows? Perhaps the family has a substantial reward for her return. Just think of what we could do with that!"

"Yes, my lord," she responded with all the eagerness she felt a newly espoused female should feel for her mate, pretending this was Kang in front of her. Now began, what she felt in her heart and mind, the biggest, and most dangerous, adventure of her life.

-13-

"Have they seen us yet, Kor?" Koloth asked from his station on the converted freighter's bridge.

"I don't think so," Kor responded, rechecking the sensor record, "though I would think they should have."

"If it had been a ship under my command, we would already be returning fire," Koloth scoffed.

"And missing every shot, I wager," Worf retaliated. "In order to dodge a Segh vav ship, all one has to do is sit still, because to dodge might put you accidentally into the trajectory of a badly aimed torpedo."

Kor's face reddened. "Why you insolent pup, I'll--"

Worf got to his feet, growling, ready to fight.

"Kor! Worf! Not now!" Kali stepped between them. "We are allies."

"We don't need such allies," Kor responded. "We can do this without his help."

"But it would be very expensive, Kor," Koloth entered the conversation.

"More so than that last purchase we made?" Kor grumbled.

"The Izarian Dream Water was absolutely necessary for our plan."

Worf's slight already forgotten, Kor turned to face Koloth. "If you hadn't been in such a hurry, we could have talked that Orion thief down several thousand klingots."

"And we'd still be there." Koloth dismissed the complaint with a cut of his hand. "No, Kor, it was better this way."

"I should have just cut the rogue's throat as soon as he made delivery and gotten our money back," Kor mumbled under his breath. "After all, he is criminal."

Koloth snorted in derision. "And we'd still be fighting to get clear of that place."

Kor's frame straightened and he seemed to grow two inches. "Ah, yes, but it would have been glorious." A smile spread under the long hairs of his mustache.

Kali stepped up to him, taking his hands in hers. "The Orions are not the ones we want to fight. Every minute, hour, or day we delay is one more that Kang must endure in Kragyr."

"You are right, Kali." Kor found her gaze and held it. "If anyone can survive, it will be Lord Kang. He is mightier than a Capellan Power Cat."

An alarm went off at Koloth's station, ending any more posturing. He silenced it before finding out what had caused it. "The Eglon just scanned us."

"It's about time." Kor strode toward his station.

"Your warriors do know what to do?" Worf adjusted the weapon system's lock.

"Don't you worry, you Kh'myr bastard. My warriors were doing this before your crêche-mother cut you from the umbilical cord."

Worf growled, and his body language indicated he wanted to do more in response to this latest attack on his self-esteem, but he remained at his station.

Another alarm went off. "They have challenged us," Koloth reported.

Kor stood up and centered himself before the screen. He had one last question. "What will they see once your contraption changes my appearance?"

"An Orion trader."

Kor's face wrinkled up in disgust. "Why must it be an Orion?"

"Because we didn't have time to alter your ship to look like something else, and there is no way of disguising its lines now."

"I'm sure the Romulans are working on something to alter that situation," Kor grumbled under his breath. "Very well, respond to their challenge."

The commander of the Eglon appeared on the screen. "This is the Imperial Battlecruiser Eglon patrolling this sector of the Klingon frontier. You are crossing into Klingon space. You will come to a stop and prepare for inspection."

"He is changing course and speed to intercept us," Worf reported. "His weapons have a lock and are coming to full charge."

Kor didn't appear to notice the report. "I am Starcex Bren, commander of this worthless freighter. Our cargo is not worth inspecting, oh great Klingon commander of the mighty Eglon."

The individual on the screen smiled in response to the groveling. "Orion cargo is always worth an inspection."

"But, great one, I must protest; we have nothing such as you would want. Look at the condition of my ship. Does it look like something someone would transport valuables within? Nay, lord, you need not come over."

"What is your cargo, worthless Orion?"

Koloth peered back at Kor, wondering how his explosive compatriot was taking the insults. One look told him Kor was seething inside, wanting to respond in ways other than he was. "Cloth and beads for the Gellians. Nothing but pretty-colored cloth and beads."

"He is within disruptor range and slowing," Worf reported in a low whisper.

"I don't believe you," the Eglon's commander retorted. "Prepare for my boarding party...or for your ship's destruction."

"Oh, mighty Klingon commander, is there anything I can do to dissuade you from coming over here?"

"Hmmm." The Kh'myr commander let himself relax into the back of the command seat. "Now what could a trader, as poor as you say you are, possibly offer me in return for not inspecting his worthless cargo?"

"I...I...I don't know, mighty one," Kor responded, trying to sound fearful.

"Where was your last stop?"

"Izar Two, lord."

The commander responded exactly as expected. "Ahem. You say you have nothing of value to trade to me? You lying scum; I'll bet you that if I inspected your hold now, I'd find at least one keg of 'ISar'ngan naj bIQ--Izarian Dream Water--there."

Kor allowed himself to look surprised and anxious before answering. "Ah, as a matter of fact, lord, yes. But it is for the civilian markets of the Orioni Homeworlds. To sell or trade it in the Klingon Empire is expressly forbidden by the emperor's law. The sentence is death by slow torture."

"Are you, an Orion, assuming to explain Klingon law to me, a Kh'myr?" The commander sat straight up in his chair. "I ought to destroy you and your ship right now." He made a signal to someone off-screen.

"No, lord, no! Please don't fire, I beg you! It's yours, all of it. I just thought to save your crew from the terrible consequences of the addiction naj bIQ causes in Klingons." Kor was doing his utmost to sound contrite and subordinate, though he knew there was nothing the K't'inga could do to his freighter in reality.

"A Segh vav law for weakling Segh vav warriors," the commander snorted as he relaxed again into the back of his chair. "Prepare to transport it to me, and then you can leave."

Kor bowed deeply, then attempted to look scared. "But, lord, I cannot use the transporter. Something about the transmutation process destroys the natural element most important to its value."

The commander sat silently for a moment, then made up his mind. "Can you send me a sample?"

"But, lord, didn't you just hear...?"

"I heard you, but I must know if what you have is genuine. I'll know that once I've tasted it."

Kor pretended to signal to someone off-screen, then returned his attention to the Eglon's commander. "I need the coordinates."

The commander signaled to someone, and a set of numbers appeared on Kor's console. He transferred it to the transporter control and the sample, all they had, to the commander. It appeared on the screen, forming, as planned, right in front of the commander. He picked it up and sampled it, his eyes growing wide as the chemicals, not destroyed by the transporter, that were still quite potent to the Klingon palate, hit home.

"Ah!" the Eglon's commander said after he'd regained control of his throat. "A good vintage."

"It should be," Kor whispered to Koloth. "We paid enough for what he just swilled down."

"Are your docking locks compatible with mine?"

"My ship can dock with any, lord."

"Fine. Be quick about it. My transmission ends here." He disappeared from the screen.

"Yes, lord. I will attach to you. You worthless piece of Kh'myr trash." Kor looked right at Worf. "I guess he hasn't heard that Izarian Dream Water is even more intensely addictive to the Kh'myr."

Worf only shook his head, choosing not to comment.

Koloth locked out his panel and headed for the hatch. "I'll get our little surprise ready. If my intelligence is correct, Taaren, Taarist's brother, is the cargo-master of the Eglon. Once he learns what it is they're receiving, he'll want to handle the transfer personally.

"I'll join you as soon as we've made the docking connection," Kor replied, maneuvering the ship next to the battlecruiser.

The freighter coasted along side the sleek Imperial Klingon K't'inga battlecruiser, matching up to the indicated docking position. She appeared to be an old ship, this dilapidated cargo-carrier, but Kor had found out differently when he'd had to take her into battle. Since then, he'd made further modifications to her talents. She creaked and groaned in protest until the thunderous 'clang' of mated docking ports reverberated throughout her ancient hull.

Kor motioned for Kali. "Take over here. I'll signal you when we've cleared their cargo bay." then he turned to Worf. "Lock all weapons on his engineering section. We need to be ready to respond the moment we're done. Once that fool finds out what we've done, we're most likely going to need to defend ourselves, and I don't want any delays in this area. Do you understand, Kh'myr?"

"jIyajchu'--I understand."

"I'm still watching you, Worf. All I need is the smallest reason, and I'll throw you out the nearest airlock."

"jIyajchu', Admiral Kor."

"Make sure you do." Kor left.

Worf felt properly intimidated by Kor's threat and looked at Kali. She was smiling at him, but he didn't fool himself into thinking it meant anything but malice for him.

*****

bu' Taaren waited impatiently by the Eglon's cargo airlock. The young Kh'myr warrior shook his spiny head in disgust at the delay. Izarian naj bIQ, that's something you don't see often. I've heard of the ecstasy it provides--and the warnings--but I want to make sure I get some. No use the commander, or his staff, getting it all.

Taaren inhaled deeply with excitement, his system telling him he needed more oxygen. Now this was more like it. The patrol up until this point had been painful in its dullness.

The airlock cycled open, and Taaren suddenly had more excitement than he bargained for. The cargo bay was swarming with Segh vav warriors, disruptors drawn and ready.

Taaren recognized their leader--Sa' Kor the veStarg. Cursing, he clawed for his own pistol, but Kor dropped him with a quick stun blast. There was a brief scuffle as the warriors dropped the rest of the cargo loading party.

"Is that Taaren?" Kor demanded, looking at Koloth.

Koloth brought out a tricorder and pulled up a picture on its small viewing screen. Lowering the tricorder so that it was next to Taaren's head, he compared the two pictures. "Yes, that's him."

Kor signaled a nearby warrior. "Bring the knot-head along." He sneered. "We have use for this one. Dispose of the rest."

As the largest of Kor's Kh'teb crew hoisted Taaren onto his shoulder and walked back into the freighter, Kor watched the rest of his warriors disintegrate the remainder of the loading party with their disruptors. Walking over to the doorway into the accessing corridor, he shut it and melted the joint so that it wouldn't open again.

Backing away, he motioned for the rest to depart while he covered the rear. Once he was back on board the converted freighter, he contacted his bridge. "Kali, take us out," he barked into his communicator. "Maximum graf speed. Worf, prepare to defend. It won't take them long to discover what we've done."

Laying on the deck was Taaren, the whole purpose of the encounter with a fellow Klingon warship. "If you only knew how much you cost us, sergeant." Signaling to the leader of his raiding party to come here, he gave him his instructions. "Take him to the infirmary and secure him to the mindsifter."

"Yes, Admiral Kor."

"I'll be on the bridge," Kor said as the Kh'teb warrior signaled for his companions to help him lift Taaren. He noted that Koloth had already departed for the bridge.

He was only half way back when he felt a familiar buck in the floor. Ah, the feel of combat, a balm to my being. A mighty explosion followed hard on the heels of the bucking. He arrived at the bridge in time to witness a plasma torpedo detonate in front of the ship and feel almost at the same time the buck and explosion.

"Status?" he yelled at Koloth.

"The Eglon is in pursuit and gaining on us. All that additional plating is slowing us down."

Two disruptor bolts passed by, just barely missing.

Kor turned to Worf. "Weapon status?"

"All weapons are ready, joHwI'," Worf responded without allowing his gaze to leave the small targeting screen at his station.

"Fire on my order. Koloth, prepare to detonate the exploding bolts that hold the ship's false exterior in place."

Twin acknowledgments followed.

"Kali, show me the Eglon, and maintain visual lock on it as we maneuver."

"Yes, sir!" she responded, action adding viciousness to her voice.

He noticed it, almost wishing they were not in the heat of battle. "Fire aft torpedo." He saw Koloth reach to detonate the bolts and stopped him. "Not yet, Koloth."

The freighter's floor trembled as the torpedo launched and an orange-ed orb entered the viewscreen.

"Torpedo running true," Worf reported.

"Wait, Koloth. Wait...wait..."

Just as the weapon was about to hit the Eglon, both her disruptor batteries fired, point blank, igniting the plasma torpedo prematurely into a large, super bright fire-ball.

"Now, Koloth! Shed our disguise! Kali, change our course one hundred eighty degrees; twenty degrees down angle. Worf, engage the cloak."

There was a loud noise that seemed to come from everywhere as the exploding bolts that held the false bulkheads in place detonated, letting it slide into the freighter's wake. With every joint creaking, the freighter turned almost in upon itself and angled downward on a course below that of the oncoming battlecruiser. Then the lights on the bridge changed from white to red, and Worf's weapons console went dead.

The Eglon exited the cloud of expended energy. For a moment, she slowed, then turning onto a new course, began to search for the target her occupants could no longer see, her active sensors yelling their search along every angle.

"Continue this course until we're out of their sensor's range," Kor ordered, relaxing in the freighter's command seat.

A warrior entered the bridge, presenting himself to Kor. He raised a fist in a stiff salute. "The prisoner is prepared, my lord."

"Excellent. Come, Koloth. This ought to be entertaining."

Kor and Koloth started to follow the warrior, but Kali gripped her mate's elbow. "A moment with you, my husband."

Kor motioned Koloth on ahead, then turned to her. "Make this short, wife. What is--"

She cut him off. "It occurred to me with this battle that if we are captured alive by the Kh'myr, and I am unable to take my own life, what they will do to me." Her face became very insistent. "You will kill me, my husband. Do not let them soil my honor. Do not let them do to me what they did to Mara."

Kor regarded his lovely mate somberly. He knew how the Kh'myr treated female prisoners. If taken, Kali would be better off dead. He squeezed her shoulder. "I promise you, Kali. I will not let them take you alive."

She kissed Kor lightly on the lips. "Thank you," she whispered, then turned away as Kor hastened off to the interrogation chamber.

*****

Taaren was conscious. Stripped to the waist and shackled to the mindsifter chair, the Kh'myr sergeant had electrodes dotting his massive chest and his huge, knobbed skull. He snarled as his baleful gaze fell on Kor. "Ha'DIbaH! What do you want of me?"

"We are on a rescue mission, knot-head, and you will help us." Kor's smile was sardonic. "We are going to liberate Admiral Kang from the Kragyr penal colony."

Taaren howled with incredible laughter. "The veStargh is insane! Surely you realize I would never help you do anything...save commit suicide."

"Not willingly, no." Kor sat behind the mindsifter console and patted a small peripheral control box piggy-backed onto the main panel. "The ch'luge module, Taaren. Surely you are aware of its capabilities? After all, Kh'myr scientists did invent it in the first place."

Apprehension flickered across the Kh'myr's savage features. The ch'luge module allowed the mindsifter operator to erase and/or reprogram a victim's mind.

"In a few moments, Taaren the Kh'myr will cease to exist. He will become Taaren the Puppet, my puppet," Kor hissed. "The mindsifter will drain away your consciousness. You will become a mental vegetable, an empty, clean slate. And I will reprogram you with the ch'luge to do my bidding. Your memories and cognitive skills will remain, but your mind-source will be gone."

Taaren swallowed hard. "Kill me! I would rather die than aid the Segh vav!"

Kor answered by thrusting the mindsifter's force controls to maximum.

Taaren struggled against the leather straps as the searing pain of the mindprobe burned in his brain. The thick, corded muscles of his chest and arms bulged like sculpted bronze. Sweat glistened on his straining torso. Incredibly, he tore his right hand free. But by that time, there was no mind, no consciousness, to guide that hand. It dropped uselessly to the Kh'myr's side.

Sergeant Taaren of the Eglon was no more. He stared blankly. His mind had been emptied. His magnificently-muscled body was an undirected, useless hulk of flesh.

Koloth consulted a nearby medical scanner. "He is gone, Kor. His brain is functioning normally from a physiological standpoint, but there is no cognitive activity at all."

Kor smiled. "Excellent. We can begin reprogramming him, then." He punched a series of touch-sensors on the ch'luge's control panel, and electrical impulses began to flow along the synapses of the Kh'myr's brain. Kor's smile broadened. Somehow, there was an ironic sense of justice at work here. Taaren, he thought, we'll make a Segh vav of you yet!

The admiral bent toward the audio grid on the console. "Taaren. You are Taaren. My name is Kor...your master."

-14-

"What's the matter, my sweet?" Fikes whispered softly as he lightly caressed a bare shoulder he could feel, but not see at the present light level.

"Things you could never comprehend, lover," came a female voice.

Fikes was always uncomfortable with not being able to see who it was that occupied his bed, but these were the conditions of his employment to this female. "Oh, I don't know. I might surprise you." He heard the sheets rustle next to him and saw a deeper darkness lean towards him. He felt her hand touch his chest and her fingers rake lightly through the hair there.

"No, my love, you wouldn't. I know all your strengths," she answered, her hand slowly lowering to his stomach, her fingers caressing the wash-board pattern of muscles there, relaxing them, "and your weaknesses." She caressed his navel.

Every deep thought he'd been entertaining a moment ago, fled from his head, one thought replacing all, his male physiology responding. "Oh, sweet, you do know that well. It would be easy to forget who hired whom."

"Are you calling me a whore?" the female's voice hissed.

"No, my sweet, but you are good," he whispered, allowing himself to enjoy her attentions. Damn, but I wish I could see her. He squirmed on the sheets, feeling her hand inch lower, her mouth replacing her fingers on his navel, but that's the second weakness she knows; Centaurian vision cannot see in the lower levels of the infra-red frequency band. I hate that other restriction, or requirement of my employment. Fikes' gaze wandered toward the place he knew the infra-red projector was mounted in the ceiling's corner, knowing she could see every detail of him in contrast to his blindness.

"What are you worried about?"

"Me? Worried?" Fikes had been caught letting his attentions wander.

"I can tell, you know."

"That's not fair, my sweet. You can see my face, but I not yours. How do I know when you're not paying attention?"

"l wasn't looking at your face, love," the female whispered.

Fikes felt a light, lingering caress of his manhood. The distraction of his thoughts had caused it to wane a bit. "Ah, yes, of course." He concentrated on remedying that situation.

"That's better."

He felt her concentrate on maintaining that status and groaned. "Your employment is most satisfying, my sweet."

"To think," she responded, "that you get paid for this as well."

That brought up something he'd wanted to discuss with her earlier, but had forgotten.

"Ahhh," she moaned, "you're having another deep thought."

He felt her attentions stop, then her head and upper torso move up toward his chest. He knew this only because her felt her hair whisk up his stomach and could hear the rustle of the sheets as she moved. "I'm sorry, but yes."

"What is it?" she whispered grudgingly.

"As you know I'm grateful for the fact you were not hurt when the Caldonians interfered."

"That's nice."

"Does this mean we're out of the topaline business?"'

"Not one bit, my love. I foresaw this possibility, though I am surprised by whom. I have stock for at least three more deliveries to our good friend Illyeekeek."

"Hmmm," he responded, then groaned and she tried to side-track him with a caress high on the inner side of his thigh. "l, I, aye, aye, aye, that feels good."

"Yes, I can tell."

"Stop rubbing that in. It's not fair you can see me, but I not you."

"For my protection, love."

"l see." His mind shifted to another question he'd determined to ask her and his body reacted.

"Now what, love?"

"How do you think the Caldonians found out?"

"There you go, thinking again. That's not what I pay you to do."

"l know, I know, but...." He felt her hand move slowly up his thigh and tickle the area below his manhood. All previous thoughts stopped right there. She's right; I'm not supposed to be thinking, I'm supposed to be doing...

She hummed appreciatively at his response. "Ah, now that's much better, my love. Now your head's where I want it."

Her hand stopped its ministrations and he heard the sheets rustle. He felt her leg drag over his stomach, and her minuscule weight lowered onto his hips. And to think, his pleasured mind rambled, it used to be hard to make a living. Now all I have to be is hard.

*****

"How high in the corporation do you think the conspiracy goes, Kyptin?" The Reliant's briefing room was empty except for two people: Commander Pavel A. Chekov, sitting at his normal spot at the briefing table, and Captain Clark Terrell, who was seated opposite his executive officer.

"I don't know," Terrell sighed, "but the lab has verified which mine the sample of topaline came from that the Caldonians provided us. Just like there are chemical fingerprints that show what planet it comes from, so there are even more minute differences from mine to mine that can be detected and identified." Terrell scowled for a moment, a private thought darkening his mood. "There's so much involved here, and I'm not sure that in the end we won't find that topaline from every mine has, at one time or another, found its way into Romulan hands. That doesn't mean I suspect the mine owners exclusively. I'm willing to assume that the brains behind this is somewhere near the administrative top. How else could it be kept such a close secret for this long?"

"I suppose that is a reasonable assumption, Kyptin." Chekov shook his head, his thoughts troubled. Vwe've one hour before returning to orbit over Psi Scorpii and except for the tapes provided to us by the Caldonians demonstrating colony complicity, no other evidence to point at who, or how many. "Vwe have got to find the connection."

"That's where you come in, Exec," Terrell stated. "While I hold the leadership's attention in a meeting that will go as long as the situation needs, you and another officer..."

"Or officers, Kyptin?" Chekov inserted.

"...or officers of your choosing, will be searching for the names of the pilots of that Psi Scorpii smuggler, gathering the evidence of their complicity, and discovering who in the upper echelons is covering for them."

Chekov nodded his agreement.

"I suggest that you keep your group small. That way you won't attract too much attention. I don't want the pilots to have any opportunity to escape."

"Aye, Kyptin. I have only one person in mind to help me."

"And that is?"

"Steven Kelowitz, sir."

"Kelowitz, Exec? Are you sure you need another one of my senior officers for this?"

"Neither of us is sure just how deep this collusion goes, sir. The black market for topaline may not be as rich and glorious as that of dilithium, but this one has been eminently profitable for those involved and they're not going to be happy with me poking around in their...." Chekov paused a moment, at a loss for the best word to complete what he was saying.

"Bailiwick, Exec?" Terrell offered an appropriate description.

"Aye, sir, bailivwick," Chekov repeated, nodding his approval of the word. "Good Russian phrase. I vwant to insure my back is vwell covered vwhile I probe this nest of Cossacks."

"Okay, I approve. Take Kelowitz. I don't need to emphasize just how fast I want you to accomplish this."

"It will depend on how much security they've placed on their records, and how many false accounts I'll have to ferret out before finding what we need."

"I think I can delay the corporate heads for as long as it takes, Exec, but I don't think I need to point out to you how fast all evidence will disappear if you are discovered."

"Aye, Kyptin. I know."

There was a chime from the door.

"That will be the rest of the senior staff." Terrell identified who might be wanting access to the ship's conference room. "You have permission to miss this meeting in order to bring Mister Kelowitz up to speed on this and get the equipment you will need."

"Thanks, sir." Chekov got to his feet.

"Good luck, Exec," Terrell offered, holding his hand out.

Chekov accepted the hand, shaking it firmly. "I'll get what you're looking for, sir."

Terrell nodded, then turned to the door. "Computer, unlock."

There was an audible click, and the door opened. The rest of the ship's department heads were waiting outside, with Doctor McCoy in front. He held up an arm with a chronometer strapped around the wrist and tapped it. "Well, it's about time."

Chekov walked out of the room, right past the doctor without more than a small nod. "Doctor." The executive officer tapped the chief security officer on the shoulder and said, "Let's go."

Kelowitz nodded and followed the first officer. The rest of the senior staff filed past the Reliant's chief medical officer, who now seemed rooted to his spot, staring off at the departing back of Commanders Chekov and Kelowitz. "What the hell?" he said, just barely above a whisper.

"Doctor McCoy?" Terrell's voice came from inside the conference room.

McCoy didn't seem to hear, his gaze following the departing executive officer.

"Doctor!" The captain's voice was filled with impatience this time. "You're holding up progress."

The chief medical officer felt he was being left out of something important, and it offended him. Jim Kirk would never keep me in the dark about anything. His gaze dropped to the floor. Chalk it up to different personalities. He turned and slowly walked into the room and the door closed behind him. He ignored the fact that everyone inside was looking at him. Shaking his head as he approached his seat, he concluded, But what can I expect? I've only just joined the crew and this captain doesn't know me yet. He took his seat with a sigh. I wonder if I'll ever really find myself comfortable here.

"Gentlemen, we have a problem here," Terrell opened the meeting. "The colony of Psi Scorpii is involved in the black marketeering of topaline, and we are charged with finding out who in the colony's leadership is involved. First off, Mister Beach, are there any updates?"

"Yes, sir. Once we reported the status of the Caldonian force, the two destroyers that had been protecting the Psi Scorpii colony were withdrawn," reported the chief science officer.

"What was the colony's reaction?"

"They're upset, sir, and have registered a complaint with the Federation Council."

"As expected," Terrell replied, beginning a pattern of tapping with his fingers. "Any other communications originating from the colony?"

"Oh, yes, sir, a whole catalog," acknowledged the chief communications officer.

"Well, let's start from the beginning."

"Aye, sir." Lieutenant Commander Kyle complied, "First, there was an opening of channels back to the central worlds of the Federation."

McCoy heard what the communication officer was saying, but his mind was still locked on its struggle with his diminished position within this ship's senior staff.

"All this was standard stuff, sir. It wasn't until ten minutes after the destroyers left that anything really interesting entered the subspace frequencies."

"And that was?"

"A heavily coded message on a seldom used side-band at the lower end of our equipment's range."

"Were you able to break the code?" Terrell queried.

"Not, yet, sir. The computer's decoding program is still working on it, but that's not what's so interesting about this message."

"Explain."

"The electromagnetic signature of the radio identified it as being of Klingon origin. It was extremely selective in its focus, directional in nature and aimed at the Klingon and Romulan frontiers."

Terrell changed the direction of his questions. "The Caldonians mentioned that the individual who met the colonist was a Yridian." Terrell looked perplexed for a moment. "What was his name?"

"Something Eek-eek," McCoy offered, his face providing for what he felt of the name's owner.

"Illyeekeek, sir," Arex said, providing the contact's full name.

"That's it, Arex, Illyeekeek. Anyone else have any information on this individual?"

Beach cleared his throat as he made a gesture to indicate he did. "Yes, sir. Since Steven and Pavel have...gone fishing, I guess it's up to me. Starfleet Intelligence reports have him located in many different places. All near or within one day's travel of hot spots of black marketeering activities. He is suspected in not only this, but also of procuring all but the most classified information and selling it as well. Starfleet has an 'Intercept and Detain' on him, but he has thus far remained at large."

"Slippery fellow, it seems," McCoy added.

"Good description, Doctor." Terrell responded, then turned back to Beach. "Check the records and see if any reports have him spotted around some frontier, or border world within the Tortugan sector that also matches the direction that signal was sent."

"Aye, sir." Beach made a note on his station's status board.

Terrell stood. "Gentlemen, we are about to return to Psi Scorpii Eight. As you've heard, the destroyers have been pulled back to their patrol duties. Starfleet has dumped the investigation of this incident in our laps. Evidence supplied to us by the Caldonian senior enforcer indicates some members of this colony are heavily involved in the black marketeering of topaline." He paused a moment to let this sink in before continuing. "Black marketeering that ultimately results in a lucrative market for this Illyeekeek with the Romulans.

"Though the Caldonians have only seen the ship of those that bring the substance to the Yridian, I doubt they act alone. In order for this much of a controlled substance to get out of official channels without notice requires someone in the upper accounting echelons to be involved, possibly even a mine owner.

"That's the number one person who Starfleet wants us to apprehend, though I hope to round up everyone else involved in the actual transfer as well. We are going to beam down to the same location as before and bring everyone in for questioning. I will not leave until I smoke out all the rats in this black-market nest."

Heads nodded and "aye sir's" echoed around the table, eyes unfocusing as each began to determine what their respective departments could provide in the accomplishment of this mission.

Terrell continued. "The landing party will be the same as it was before, minus Misters Chekov and Kelowitz, whom I have assigned another mission. Mister Arex, once we've established our orbit I want you relay to the chief administrator our demand to see all those that were involved in the last session of questioning, and add to the list, all the mine owners and any who might have a financial interest in the production and sale of topaline."

"Aye, sir," Arex clicked.

"You have your assignments, gentlemen. Dismissed."

McCoy hung back as the rest hurriedly departed.

Terrell noted his presence. "Yes, Doctor?"

"The third degree, sir?"

"You don't think these people deserve it?"

"Well, I--"

"Doctor McCoy, there is a group of individuals down there making a hell of a lot of money supplying something to a foreign power that has on more than one occasion demonstrated an agenda of destroying the Federation and her allies. Don't you think this deserves the 'third degree'?"

"Yes, sir, when you put it that way. I just meant to include the thought that they may not know where the topaline ultimately ends up nor what the consequences of their actions are."

A brilliant flame kindled in Terrell's eyes as he responded to the doctor's line of concerns. "I recall a time in Earth history when something very similar happened. You'll recall the drug cartels of the late twentieth century."

"How can anyone from Earth forget?" McCoy answered, his gaze dropping to the floor. "Millions of credits made providing the drugs and even more millions spent trying to stop its illegal importation. It wasn't until the abolition of hard currency that the practice was brought under any kind of control."

"And as you see, even that hasn't totally stopped the practice. The use of precious metals as currency--used and accepted by many in the outer reaches of Federation territory and beyond--has allowed the practice to continue. Though this time we're not talking about illegal drugs. We are talking about a controlled substance. When we finally bring it to a halt here, we will have to be doubly cautious, because it will almost certainly spawn violence by those who have become accustomed to the good life the riches gave them." Terrell's gaze clouded a moment, then re-intensified. "I will not allow it to happen here."

McCoy noted the change in the normally easy-going starship commander and realized Terrell was talking from experience here. "I see, Captain. Will I be doing the same thing as the last time?"

Terrell hesitated for a moment, his face mirroring his involvement with a thought, then his gaze shifted, and he focused on the doctor. "What was that? Oh, yes, Doctor, you check them for lies." He reached out and caught hold of McCoy by the shoulder. "This time, if you spot an inconsistency-- no matter how slight--you tell me."

"Aye, sir." McCoy's stomach was churning at the level of disrespect Terrell was affording him.

*****

For a brief moment, the pitch dark room which smelled of sewer gas and dust was lit by a brilliant white/blue light. Then it faded as fast as it had appeared, the high electronic whine that had accompanied it dying off as well.

At first, there was only the sound of dripping water into some sump pump's casing. Then there was the rumpling of clothing and the click of something opening. A light appeared, illuminating a face that looked into a small screen. A wavering, high, whining sound accompanied the light.

"Transport complete, sir. We're right where we planned to be--the basement of the corporate headquarters."

A shadow nearby moved and again there was the rumpling of clothes. A quick move by the hand of the shadow was followed by a series of chirping clicks as something in its hand came alive. "Chekov to Reliant," the shadow said in a low volume voice.

"Reliant here," came a response, clear and concise.

"Transport complete," Chekov reported. "Check transponders." He rubbed his shoulder with his other hand remembering the miniature beacon McCoy had implanted there.

"Transport complete; transponders active. I have two targets," came the disembodied voice.

"Roger, Reliant. Landing party out." With a quick movement of his wrist, Chekov closed the communicator and then slid it back into its carrying case on his belt in the small of his back. "Any sign of security guards at this level, Kelowitz?"

"None, sir," Kelowitz replied in a soft voice. "No intelligent life forms until my scans reach the ground level."

"Good. Peace and quiet. Just the vway I like it." Chekov reached for something else attached to his belt and pulled it free with a click. Aiming directly in front of him, he activated it. A focused beam of white light lanced out, making a white circle on the flaking wall of the sub-basement. "Vwhich vway to the main computer's terminal communication junction box?"

The tone of Kelowitz's tricorder changed almost imperceptibly as he changed its search mode. He pivoted slightly and then tilted the tricorder up a bit. "Two floors up and one hundred meters that way," he reported, nodding in the direction toward the corner where the wall and ceiling joined on the far side of the room.

Chekov's light lanced out, searching for a doorway. He found one, but it was on the wall opposite the direction they needed to go. He made a ticking sound as he shook his head. "If it vwas an easy job, everyone could do it," he said finally. "Old family saying."

"Hmph," Kelowitz replied, not letting his gaze leave the tricorder's screen.

Chekov could see the smile on his colleagues face in the light of the miniature sensing equipment. "Vwhat? You doubt me?"

"Not me, Pavel." Kelowitz returned, visibly trying to hold back a chuckle. "I would never do that."

"Remember that," Chekov responded, also smiling. "Let's go."

"After you."

Chekov walked to the door he was spotlighting, grabbed the handle and yanked. Nothing. The door remained shut. He pushed down on the handle, and it went down forty-five degrees. He pulled again and nothing, the door remained shut. "Damn. It's locked."

"Interesting concept," Kelowitz chided.

Chekov turned around with mock vexation on his face, then stepped back. "Well, Security Chief, fix it."

"Aye, sir," Kelowitz responded, closing up the tricorder and letting it drop to the end of its cord.

Pulling out a small, circular object from a holder on his belt, he placed it directly over a circular plate above the handle on the door. Activating it, there was a whirring, high pitched sound, then five separate clicks and the scraping sound of metal on metal. Removing the device, Kelowitz put it away, then lightly took hold of the handle, rotated it and pulled.

Nothing happened.

"Vwell?" Chekov asked.

"It must be stuck. With all this moisture, it could be corroded in place." Without further adieu, he grabbed the handle with both hands and put his weight into the next pull.

The handle separated from the latching mechanism sending Kelowitz back unbalanced, his arms windmilling in an attempt to regain his balance. He disappeared into the darkness of the room, and a second later, there was a large, thudding splash.

Chekov chuckled softly as he examined the hole where the handled had been before. "Vwell done, Commander."

There was another set of splashes and some mumbled curses. Then, something, making squishing sounds as it walked came up behind Chekov. He not only heard it, but also smelled it. "Phew! I see you found the sewer."

Kelowitz grunted as he also examined the door. In the light of Chekov's spot, his uniform was now totally soaked and covered with a great many innocuous brown and green smudges.

"Phew," Chekov repeated.

"Shut up," Kelowitz responded, then a moment later adding, "sir." He pulled out his phaser and adjusted its setting. "If at first you don't succeed?" he began.

"Try, try, again," Chekov completed. "Another old Russian proverb."

"No, sir." He completed the new setting and took aim at the door's hinges. "You get a bigger hammer--old Polish proverb." He fired the weapon, full power.

*****

"Captain Terrell," Prollet Mod began, moving his great bulk up from behind his desk, "does your return mean you've run those cursed Caldonians down and brought them to justice?"

"If you mean, did we catch up with the Caldonian force responsible?" Terrell responded. "My answer is, yes." Terrell positioned himself in front of Prollet's advance and faced him. "Have I brought them here? No. Have you done as I requested?"

"Contact all the mine owners, my primary staff, and all the heads of the transportation union? Captain, are you out of your mind? That would shut down the colony's entire operation."

Terrell noticed the presence of Prollet's wife in the room, only because he searched for her. Otherwise he would never have noticed her. She was watching him closely. He smiled and nodded at her, but got no reaction. It was as if she was looking at but not seeing him at all. He shifted his attention back to her husband. "I think their mines and sections can operate without them for awhile. Have you requested their presence here?"

"Not yet." Prollet Mod was beginning to sweat. "What's this all about?"

"You'll find out at the same time as the rest. Now I suggest you get moving." Terrell indicated with a sweep of his arm the computer terminal on the chief administrator's desk.

Prollet face turned beet red. "How dare you, Captain! You're treating us as if we're the criminals, instead of the Caldonians."

"I have been assigned the mission to investigate this incident, and, by God, I mean to get to the bottom of this."

The was the most emotion McCoy had seen Terrell show since his assignment to the Reliant. In a moment, if Prollet continued to be difficult, the captain was going to have to respond to the anger he must be feeling. McCoy activated his medical tricorder and began monitoring Prollet's reactions.

"Now get onto that terminal and get those individuals in here," Terrell continued.

"Here? In my office?"

"This will do."

"There's not enough room!"

"There's plenty of room."

"But the owners will protest." Prollet's hands and arms were in a pleading position.

"Let them. If they refuse, inform them that I will not allow any more shipments of ore to leave this planet until I'm satisfied. That ought to bring them."

"That's blackmail, Captain. I've a mind to register a complaint with the Federation."

"Aye, sir, it is, and go ahead. I'm willing to respond to an official query if it'll bring those I've requested in short order. Now, move, Chief Administrator." Terrell pointed at the terminal.

Prollet turned and pointed at his wife.

McCoy was surprised. That was the most attention he'd seen the administrator show his spouse.

"You slow-witted kolisloth. Did you not hear what the captain wants?" he yelled at the woman.

"Yes, husband, I heard, but I--"

"You what?" Prollet stomped over and back-handed her across the face, sending her flying to the floor. "You what?" he repeated, now standing over her.

"l will, husband. I will," she whimpered, getting to her knees. Her hand covered the spot on her face where an angry red welt was already forming.

He started to kick her, but Terrell grabbed him and pulled him away. "Mister Prollet, I refuse to be an idle witness to this sort of behavior!"

"How dare you, Captain?!" Prollet focused his anger on the one still holding his arm. "You have no right to interfere in how I treat, or even mistreat, my own property."

"She is your wife, sir."

"And therefore my property, Captain. Are you not acquainted with Catullan law?"

Terrell glared angrily at the administrator. "Catullan laws do not apply. Federation law forbids the assault by anyone on anyone, whatever their familial status. If she chooses to level charges against you, sir, I would be obligated, no, gratified to take you into custody and transport you to the nearest Federation magistrate."

"So you think you have that authority here, Captain?"

"I don't think it. I know I do."

Prollet turned to address his wife. "Do you want to make such a charge, woman?"

"No," she whimpered, a tear flowing down her cheek.

"See?"

Terrell had heard of such devotion, but never actually witnessed it. "Don't ever do it again in my presence."

"Or what, Captain? I am the Chief Administrator on this planet. You are in my jurisdiction." Prollet met challenge with challenge.

"I'm quite capable of filing charges on her behalf, and I'm quite capable of relieving you of your duties on this Federation colony, per Starfleet Order 104, Section J, Paragraph 2B."

"You wouldn't dare," Prollet blustered.

"Try me."

The two stared at each other for a very long time. The color of Prollet's face changed to deepest red. The administrator broke eye contact first and found his wife still standing there, unmoving. He nodded, and the female walked to the communication console and began setting it up for transmission. "I intend to file a formal protest about your interference in my personal life to your superiors," he informed Terrell.

"My pleasure, sir."

*****

"I'm surprised Security hasn't responded to that explosion, Steven," Chekov offered as he aimed his hand spot down the smoke-filled hallway.

"You have to do what you have to do," Kelowitz responded. "Or did you want to stay in that room?"

"No, that was the right-sized hammer," Chekov answered. "You said this vway?"

"Yes, sir. After you." The security chief indicated, activating his tricorder and scanning ahead for any further surprises.

They climbed two sets of dimly lit, dusty stairs before coming to the right level and another closed door.

"It's on this level, sir," Kelowitz reported, letting the tricorder hang and pulling out his phaser.

"Vwait, Kelowitz," Chekov ordered, putting up his hand. "Let's try..." He grabbed the handle and twisted. It turned easily. He pulled, and it opened with a creak. "Hammer's are not always needed."

The phaser was returned to its holster, and Kelowitz followed Chekov's departing back, tricorder back up and on. Chekov stopped and looked at the door on his left. Kelowitz stopped and scanned the room. "That's it, Pavel. The computer interface room."

"No kidding, Steven." Chekov moved up to the door and wiped away the cob-webs that covered the front of it. In big bold letters could be read the words: "Computer Interface". He opened the door and entered.

The room was lit with the blinking and flashing of the massive interface modules that served to connect the entire planet's operations. "Now vwhere do you think the memory back-up is?"

Kelowitz scanned the room and headed off through the humming machinery. He wove his way through the maze turning many times to squeeze through some spaces almost closed with conduits. He ended up on the far side of the room, staring at a wall of blinking lights. Centered in the middle was a small alcove which contained an interface keyboard and a monitor. "I think that's it, sir."

"Da. Me, too," Chekov sat down at the terminal and powered it up. "Damn," he whispered a moment later.

"What, sir?"

"It wants an access code."

"Not a problem, sir." Kelowitz activated his tricorder. "These colonies can never afford state-of-the-art stuff. The tricorder should be able to find you one in a moment."

The miniature scanning device whistled for a moment, then stopped.

"Ah, here we go." Kelowitz reached over Chekov's shoulder and tapped in a series of numbers and letters and entered them. The screen went blank then filled with the main menu.

"Thanks, Kelowitz," Chekov answered, going to work.

*****

"Ladies and gentlemen!" Terrell yelled, but it was lost in the cacophony of the room full of people. What I wouldn't give for an antique firearm right now, he thought as he shook his head, still feeling some of the irritation he'd felt after his confrontation with Prollet. They always work in the holovids. "Ladies and gentlemen, please!"

All of a sudden, the room filled with a discordant electronic scream of a tricorder on overload. Everyone brought their hands to their ears, cringing. The scream stopped, but had served its purpose, the room was quiet.

"Thank you, Mister Beach. Gentlemen, if you'll find a seat, we can get started."

There was great mumbling as everyone turned to find one of the chairs that had been dragged into Prollet's office while they waited for the mine owners and staff to arrive.

Terrell leaned over to McCoy. "Is he here?"

"Who, sir?"

"Damn it, Doctor! The one that you noted the discrepancy with during our last questioning session. The Collins fellow."

McCoy glanced around the room, but didn't see him. "No, sir. I don't see him."

Terrell raised his voice so everyone in the room could hear him. "Mister Prollet, is everyone here now?"

"Owners and staff. Yes, Captain."

"I asked for the computer staff as well."

Prollet looked around the room and his gaze locked onto someone sitting near the back. "You," he pointed, "you're the staff supervisor. Are all your operators here?"

"All but one, sir."

"Who's missing?"

"Just one of the terminal operators. He went home; said something about a sick family member."

Terrell interrupted Prollet. "When?"

"Why, just before we were called in here."

"Who was he?"

"Collins, sir."

"Damn," Terrell whispered under his breath. Then louder, "I want someone to go and pick him up."

"But, Captain, surely this meeting doesn't have to hinge on just one terminal operator?" Prollet protested.

I've got to give Chekov all the time I can, so he can find the evidence in their records that will point out the perpetrators. "Yes, it does, but we can start. Be advised, Prollet: no one will leave until that man is accounted for and brought here, no matter what transpires in the meantime."

"Captain, I must protest." Prollet looked around the room in an attempt to gain tacit support from them. "Their time is valuable."

"So is the security of the Federation," Terrell responded, ready now to open the meeting.

That got everyone's attention, Terrell noted. The room was a quiet as a tomb.

"Ah, Captain." Prollet had a smile on his face, his vocal qualities patronizing. "I agree; the Caldonians caused us some setbacks here with their attack, but I fail to see how that endangers the security of the entire Federation."

"No," Terrell returned, remaining patient even though his hatred of this manipulative wretch was smoldering within his heart. "But the sale of a controlled substance--such as topaline--to the Romulans does."

The room erupted in discussion between the occupants. There were many explosions of "No!" and "Not us!" from the tumult. One of the miners angrily shouted at Prollet. "Are the captain's accusations true? Why haven't you mentioned this to us?!"

The landing party from the Reliant lined up behind Terrell and waited out the storm. He, on the other hand, did nothing to stop the random discussions from continuing, especially the veiled accusations directed at Prollet. Any time used up in this fashion gave Chekov more opportunity to discover what was needed to expose the leader of this end of the black-market connection.

Finally, Prollet managed to bring order to the room. Centered in front of the rest, he faced Terrell. "Surely, Captain, you don't hold the word of the Caldonians over ours, fellow Humans?"

Every eye in the room locked onto Terrell.

Prollet's bigotry, so outspoken and supported by those sitting behind him, disgusted Terrell, but he didn't let this emotion show on his face or be reflected in his measured response. "I will not allow your bigotry toward the species of our informants to cloud my response. It is illegal, and, more importantly, immoral." Terrell stepped up to Prollet, only centimeters separating them and locked gazes with him. "I will not let any more of your bigoted remarks into this investigation. Do you understand?" he said, his voice lowered such that no one else in the room heard him.

"You Terrans would think that way," Prollet retorted, his voice also quieted.

"And what does that mean?"

"I think you know."

Terrell shook his head and turned, returning to his position in front of his landing party. Turning he addressed the room's occupants, ignoring Prollet, who was still standing where he'd left him. "The Caldonians have presented proof that they acted only in self preservation. Because of topaline from this colony, the Romulans have begun building bases close to their borders. They can't stop the Romulans, but they can cut off their supply of this rare material." The captain addressed his landing party without letting his gaze leave the colonists. "Mister Beach, show them the Caldonian evidence."

This will give us an hour to present the evidence and probably two more in discussion before they finally push me to consider it only supporting evidence since no where in it do they identify the crew of the ship from this colony. Exec, you have three hours to find evidence from this end of the topaline connection.

*****

"Aha!" Chekov exclaimed, staring intently at the screen. "I've found you, you dirty Cossacks."

"What's that, sir?" Kelowitz asked, standing behind him. He'd been watching their back trail through the interface terminals, but Chekov's exclamation had gotten his attention.

"The crew of the freighter that meets the Yridian."

"Wow! They hid their tracks well. It's taken over an hour to find them," Kelowitz observed.

"They're tricky all right," Chekov commented absent-mindedly as he continued to input search parameters. "Their books are immaculate; everything accounted for, et cetera, et cetera, but their load manifests are where they tripped up."

"How's that?"

"Again, it's not that they were outright in their error. I searched the load manifests of every ship in their freighter fleet and again everything looked correct, but then something odd caught my attention." Chekov didn't let his conversation with Kelowitz slow down his input of commands. "Whoever in their organization is responsible for hiding the paper trail is very good vwhen it comes to paper, but he's not very experienced in stellar navigation."

Kelowitz's thoughts screamed at him. I wish he'd hurry up and tell me what he knows. Commander Spock really had an effect on him while he worked for him on the Enterprise. The urge to yawn grew in him, and he finally fell to its influence.

Chekov chuckled when he heard Kelowitz's reaction. "Okay, Commander. I'm getting to it." He pulled up the record he'd found that had clued him. "This is the log of freighter number PS-4473. I found it by entering the time our black marketeers had to have loaded up in order to meet the Yridian when they did, assuming a warp two maximum speed. You'll see it was scheduled to proceed to the Federation holding facilities in the Antares system."

Kelowitz read the log and found nothing amiss with it. "Okay. So?"

"Nothing by itself, but eight hours later, the same freighter is back, loading up again." Chekov brought up another load manifest and ship's log with the same identification number."

"So? What's wrong with...." Then Kelowitz made the connection himself. "Wait a minute, the Reliant might be able to accomplish that at maximum warp, but...."

"...this is a freighter," Chekov completed Kelowitz's observation, "whose maximum speed is warp two. Yet this one managed warp nine, if the log is to be believed."

A new form came up on the monitor. On it was the identification of the pilot team of the first PS-4473. "A ship, no matter the skill of the person doctoring the records, must present the credentials of its bridge crew in order to depart and that record cannot be altered without alarms going off all over the place, not only on this colony, but at Starfleet as well. The first ship was piloted by a man named Fikes and navigated by Collins.

"The second PS-4473 was piloted by," Chekov paused as he pulled up the file, "Kaleshuet and Foleasik."

"So which team?"

"Previous logs for PS-4473 identify the bridge team as Kaleshuet and Foleasik. So I suspect that Fikes and..."

"Collins." Came a response from behind them both. "Don't move. I have a phaser."

"Aw, shit, sir," Kelowitz whispered.

Without making any obvious movements and not letting the keyboard click, Chekov electronically bundled up the evidence and prepared it to be sent to the computers on the Reliant, adding the code word for trouble at the end.

"Back away from the terminal, gentlemen," the voice from behind them said.

Chekov saw the queue at the bottom of the screen confirm that the bundle was ready to be sent, but once he ordered it sent, there would be no disguising what it was doing. So he would have to somehow divert the other's attention. He began to stand up, but kept his finger on the "send" button. "Do I have the pleasure of Mister Fikes or Mister Collins?" he asked.

"You'll find out soon enough," the voice responded. "Back away! Now!"

Chekov pushed the button, and the screen changed. Turning around quickly, he raised his hands at the same time, yelling to get the other's attention. "Don't shoot; I'm unarmed." It worked, for a moment the eyes of the man with the weapon were on him and not the screen.

"Back away, and I won't."

Collins, Chekov made the identification, he's the computer contact. That means Fikes is still out there someplace. "Now vwhat, Mister Collins?" He noted the concern on the black marketeer's face at the mention of his name. He recovered a moment later.

"You will put your weapons on the floor and slide them to me."

Chekov complied.

"You, too." Collins' voice became agitated, and he pushed the weapon he was holding out to the end of his arm's length, taking close aim.

"Mister Kelowitz, put your weapon down," Chekov ordered.

"But, sir--"

"Now!"

"Aye, sir." Kelowitz pulled his weapon from its holder and placed it on the floor as well, then slid it toward Collins.

"That's better." Collins visibly relaxed a bit. Bending down, and without taking his attention from his prisoners, he gathered up the two hand phasers, tossing them over the top of a nearby interface module where they could be heard to hit the wall, bounce off the back of the module then clatter to the floor.

This guy's the weak link in the organization, or else he'd have killed us both already. The kyptin and I both knew there would be one. "You know, Mister Collins, you won't get away with this." Chekov made, what he felt, was the obligatory 'good guy' statement.

Collins snorted. "We'll see." He pulled out a communicator of his own and opened a channel.

*****

"A moment, gentlemen. Commander Beach, could you take over for me here while I answer this?" Terrell saw the puzzled look on Beach's face and mouthed the words "go on" as he headed for the back of the room and the doorway to the hall where he could talk to the ship in private. Halfway to his goal, the communicator chirped again. "Reliant to Captain Terrell."

As he left the room, he noted only his two security personnel standing watch at the door and felt he had enough privacy to answer the call from the ship. Pulling free his communicator from his belt, he flipped it open and opened the channel. "Terrell here."

"Sir, we just received an upload from Mister Chekov."

Terrell recognized the Edoan's accent. "What's the gist of it, Mister Arex?"

"He found the freighter responsible and who the pilots are."

"What about the higher connection?"

"No mention, but I think there was some sort of problem, sir."

"Why?"

"He sent the hazard code word at the end of the data package, then his channel was cut short."

So far, so good, thought Terrell. "Have you been scanning this building for transporter energies as I instructed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Any originating in or near the loading station in the last few moments?"

"One, sir."

"Mark and surveil receiving ship. At the same time, monitor probe channel one."

"Aye, sir."

"Terrell, out," he concluded, flipping the communicator closed at the same time. He stepped back toward Prollet's office, and the door slid open. An explosion of arguments and threats entered the hallway. He entered the room, and no one noticed, everyone concentrating on Commander James Beach, who was still attempting to bring the situation under control.

As soon as he made it the front where everyone could see him, the room began to still. Ignoring the looks of contempt he was receiving, he walked up to his embattled officer. Keeping his back to the room's other occupants, he leaned close to his science officer and whispered, "Did you get the download?"

"Yes, sir." He patted his tricorder.

"Make a copy on this," Terrell ordered, handing a data chip to him, then he turned to face the group of mine executives without waiting to see if Beach complied. "I'm sorry for the delay, but we have ascertained who the crew of the smuggler freighter is, and the name of their contact here in administration."

"Sir," Beach announced handing the data chip to Terrell.

"I have it on here. If there is a data reader in this office, we'll get this over with in a moment." He looked around the room and found the device he was looking for. At the same time, he scanned the faces of the colonists for some sign of discomfort. There were a couple, but that could be just because he was holding them here and they felt they needed to be at their places of business. "Ah, here we go."

He went straight to it, flipped in the data chip and powered it up. He was about to dive right in, when his communicator chirped and Arex's voice came over, urgency shadowing it. "Reliant to Terrell."

Right on time. The captain flipped open his communicator. "Terrell here."

"Target ship just moved out of orbit, and is moving toward the warp point of this system at full impulse."

"Beam all of us up, now," Terrell ordered. Before the transporter energies formed around him, he faced the group. "We're not done yet. When we get back, we'll end this entire affair."

A cylinder of blue energy enveloped him and every other member of the Reliant's crew in the administration building and then they were gone, leaving the occupants to stare at where they'd been.

-15-

What kind of place is this? Mara stared out the window of the room her host had assigned to her and the still-unconscious Lady Marschut.

The land outside was barren except for the occasional botanical specimen whose yellow-green coloring didn't seem too healthy. That they survived at all surprised Mara, considering that the light from the red-orange dwarf this planet orbited left it in perpetual dusk. Though they hadn't been here long, she hadn't noted the dim orb moving across the sky. That either meant the planet spun just enough on its axis that one side always faced the star, and the location of the fortress was at or near one of the poles.

Of one thing she was certain, the structure that was now Durit's fortress hadn't always been a fortress. Her searching gaze found evidence of the conversion construction. One look at the buildings outside the walls, and the tortured condition of the countryside, told her that this had once been a Klingon mining operation. That Durit owned the planet now meant only one thing--the planet had been stripped of everything valuable, its empty husk left behind, entering eternity as a planetary pauper.

Before her meeting with Admiral Kusan she wouldn't have had a second thought about this eventuality for any planet that found itself under Klingon domination--use it, suck it dry, then throw it away. Then, at the monastery of Kahless, Kusan had talked about a new belief--D'Har, the Holqempa' word for honor. What did he say? Her gaze scanned the barren horizon. There is no honor in doing, just because you can. This flew into the face of her training as a youth. Yet, there is a sense of order, of harmony about it.

She turned from the window and pondered her thoughts as she stared at Marschut's form. She was beginning to rouse, though Mara's consciousness didn't register it. Then her searching mind locked onto something new--there is honor in doing, if, and she stressed this point to herself, it is the right thing to do. Not might makes right, but might for right. This smacked of Earther philosophy, and if it had been an Earther that had suggested it to her, she would have rejected it outright. But Kusan was the one to suggest it.

Marschut rolled over in her bed and groaned. This grabbed Mara's attention from her thoughts. She walked over to the side of the bed that Marschut now faced. Mara caught herself before she called Marschut by name give away her identity to the surveillance devices Durit was sure to have in this room. She changed her approach and touched Marschut on the wrist. Marschut's eyebrows rose a fraction forecasting that the eyes would be next.

Her eyes opened, then immediately scrunched shut. "Ooooh," she groaned, her hand coming up immediately to cover her eyes.

"Are you awake, Koolas?" Mara asked, remembering what Durit had said her name was as she reached out and touched the other female's shoulder.

Koolas/Marschut flinched away from the touch and her eyes opened again, focusing on the figure standing next to her. "Klingon?" she gasped. Her attempt to talk started her coughing as she cleared her vocal chords of sleep's effluence. With scrabbling movements she tried to sit up at the same time, fear filling her eyes. "Klingon!" her voice was full of warding as she rotated her feet off the bed and attempted to stand, never turning her back on Mara.

Mara saw Koolas/Marschut collapse to the floor. She has tried to use her motor skills too soon after waking from hyper-sleep. Then another thought entered her mind as she recognized the look on Marschut's face. She is afraid of me. Why? Doesn't she recognize me as a good and long time friend? "Koolas?" she said as she stepped quickly around the bed.

"What have you done to me, Klingon?" came the hissing response from the floor.

Mara watched as Koolas/Marschut got to her knees. She noted that the emperor's sister was being more cautious this time, testing her legs' ability to hold her weight before continuing. But that wasn't what had her attention now. Her Klingonese has a strange accent. An accent I've heard someplace before, she pondered it for a moment, but not from someone of the royal house. "Koolas?"

"And why do you call me that?" Koolas/Marschut requested, finally getting wobbly to her feet. Her gaze never left Mara's face.

Suddenly, Mara recognized Marschut's strange accent. She's speaking Klingonese like an Orion would! Why, I wonder? She stopped all further attempts to aid Koolas/Marschut, choosing to observe and talk instead. "I will not harm you."

Koolas/Marschut obviously didn't believe this. As she backed her way to the wall, she regained her coordination at the same time. Once there, she began asking questions. "Where am I? What have you done to me, Klingon?" Fear and loathing filled her voice as she pronounced the last word.

"I have done nothing to you," Mara responded, "and will do nothing. If that is what you want?" This was indeed strange. Here stood the Lady Marschut, but she had no memory of that identity. Just as Kusan said she'd be. "Do you remember who you are?"

"Of course I know who I am. Orion females aren't as unintelligent as other species think."

"I don't think Orion females are unintelligent," Mara countered. "Then?" She continued repeating the question, but with body language, her eye-brows rising, the corners of her mouth dropping, the shoulders shrugging, while at the same time she brought her hands to waist level, her palms raised.

"You first."

Mara reminded herself that she was supposed to be recovering from a memory loss as well. She purposely let her face show confusion. "My name is Tor..." Another pause, then she concluded, "My name is Mara."

Koolas/Marschut smiled, but not with any friendship. "What's the matter, Klingon? Don't know your name?"

"Yes, but I am recovering from a very bad accident where I lost my memory. The healer who treated me named me Torost when I regained consciousness and so I answered to that for a time while I served the priests of Kahless in their monastery. Then Durit, the lord of this place," she indicated with her hands the fortress around them, "found me and told me my real name--Mara." She let her gaze lock with those of Koolas/Marschut. "And he has named you Koolas."

"That is not my name," Koolas/Marschut responded, shrugging at the same time.

So, the sifter's influence is not total, Mara deduced. Kusan told me of the trigger phrase, but warned that the mere speaking of it might not work since it might have to match his basso voice and the inflection he used when he said it. Maybe if I weaken the sifter's influence in other ways, then the trigger words, said in my voice, will complete the release. "Durit will be pleased that you retain your memories," Mara responded. "What is your name, so that I can tell him?"

The effects of the confusion that was coursing through her mind at this request made its way across Koolas/Marschut's face. "I...can't...seem...to remember. That's odd," Koolas/Marschut finally responded, relaxing a bit as her face scrunched up with the effort, "but I know it isn't Koolas."

"Do you object to the name Koolas until you can remember?" Mara asked.

"I suppose it's as good as anything else and better than 'you'," Koolas/Marschut responded. "Where is this place? I don't remember how I got here."

Mara was beginning to understand what Marschut's abductors had done to her, but she had one more question to ask to be sure of it. "What is the last thing you do remember?"

Koolas/Marschut's face again scrunched up as she concentrated on dredging up memories. "Pain, a lot of pain. Servicing many males who thought they needed to hurt me to get me to do this. Then the cold table--the connection of electrodes--nothing else until here."

The mindsifter, Mara identified from the last description. They used a mindsifter to steal an Orion slave's memories from her. Probably for their entertainment value. Most likely the actual slave is long dead. Marschut's abductors must have used a mindsifter on Marschut as well to erase all her memories of the abduction just in case they couldn't get her away. Then her thoughts took a leap. Or maybe to convince her to a permanent bond with the originator of this plot to gain the advantage of being tied to the royal family. All the Kh'teb councilors are mate-bonded already, and Kusan is unlikely as he was the one who contacted me on Boreth. That means that Khalian is the one behind the Lady Marschut's abduction. She hummed under her breath as she worked through her thoughts. From what I know of Khalian, he would be both stupid, and ambitious enough, to do such a radical thing. A tap on her arm brought her back from her thoughts.

"You looked lost," Koolas/Marschut commented.

"I guess I was."

The mindsifter may or may not have erased all her memories. It all depends on what Khalian's motive was for kidnapping her in the first place. If it was just for personal pleasure, then those memories will be gone forever. But, if it was for political gain, then it would be important for her actual identity to be hidden, ready for exposure at a future time and place. If I can convince the Lady Marschut that she isn't what the machine has told her she is, she might just be able to overcome its effects.

Khalian must have thought himself very clever to put the memories of an Orion slave into Marschut's head, but that's where I am going to start her on her way to recovery. Mara put her fingertips to her chin as she pondered what to say next, mindful that Durit was probably listening in from his security center. She didn't want to let on that she knew who her roommate really was. "Uh, Koolas?"

"Yes," Koolas/Marschut answered, her gaze not leaving Mara's.

"The way you reacted to me when you woke says you were afraid of me," Mara started, making sure her body language said nothing aggressive.

"Not were, Klingon. I still am."

"Why?"

"Klingons--especially the females--are extremely contemptuous of us," she responded, indicating herself with her hands.

"Us?"

"We Orions! You must be of low intelligence if you don't recognize what I am." Koolas/Marschut's voice dripped with contempt.

"Klingons don't dislike Orions. They are very helpful in bringing new technologies to us."

"Oh, right, I know you view the males as helpful when they're preying on others to your benefit, but you, as all Klingon females, fail to understand where we--Orion females, in our subservient fashion--stand within the Orion social structure. As with all Klingons, you view any custom not your own with extreme prejudice."

Whomever the Orion slave girl these memories had come from had been, she had not been the wanton idiot the females of that species pretended to be, Mara decided as she revised her method of approach to revealing Koolas/Marschut's identity. "A problem that, until just recently, I was not aware we," she indicated herself, meaning the Klingon species, "were guilty of."

"Right, Klingon."

"Bear with me on this one, Koolas," Mara replied. Looking around, she looked for and found a chair to sit on so that her demeanor would seem even less pretentious. Grabbing the chair by the back, she brought it to a position in front of her, turned it around and sat, straddling the back. "Believe me or not, but I agree, we," again she indicated herself, meaning the entire species, "are usually not very tolerant of other cultures."

"That is an extreme understatement."

"Be that as it may, I accept that you believe you are an Orion female in the presence of a Klingon warrior."

"I don't just believe it," Koolas/Marschut responded, straightening to her full height. "I know it."

"Then why is your skin not green like that of other Orions?"

At first, it seemed that this question was lost on Koolas/Marschut. Then her expression changed, as worry and uncertainty wrinkled the skin around her eyes.

"Look at your hands, Koolas. Are those the hands of an Orion female?"

For a moment, Koolas/Marschut hesitated, then she looked down, at the same time raising her hands so she could see them. "What?" she exclaimed as she saw the dark brown skin and strong hands of a Klingon warrior.

"Are those your hands?" Mara continued.

"N...n...no," she said, half sobbing, her proud stance collapsing in onto itself. "What have you Klingons done to my beautiful hands? Hands that brought more than one Orion male to his knees with pleasure!"

Not letting on she knew already, Mara lied. "I don't know. Do you remember anything before waking here?"

Koolas/Marschut's eyes glazed over as her mind turned inward. "Pain, much pain, Confusion that they would take hurtfully what I would have freely given in pleasure." Her voice trailed off as her face mirrored the confusion she was experiencing.

Mara turned around, looking for something that had to be here. A moment later she found what she was looking for--a mirror. It was an ornate thing with curling gilded wood for a frame. She removed it from the wall and brought it to where the other female was standing, still staring at her hands, mumbling incomprehensible things in the Orion language. She wasn't sure Koolas/Marschut was psychically ready for what she was about to do, but the sooner she knew she wasn't an Orion in any shape or form, the sooner she might remember her identity. Holding the mirror such that it would reflect back at her roommate, she attempted to get her attention. "Koolas?"

"My hands, what did they do to my hands?" Then her focus found her feet and lower legs. She saw that they, too, were Klingon. Her breath came in a ragged gasp before she screamed, "My legs!"

Mara waited and watched as Koolas/Marschut ran her hands down the calf of her right leg, her fingers combing through the thick, almost pelt-like, hair there. She knew Koolas/Marschut was just about ready for the full revelation.

"My hands. My legs." Then, her hands took hold of the hem of the shift she was wearing and she began to lift, her searching gaze following her legs upward, her breath coming in uneven, ragged gasps, as she found that she had the entire body of a Klingon female.

Mara watched as the other snatched the shift completely off, then turned toward her, her eyes closed tightly.

"Is there a mirror in the room?" Koolas/Marschut said, her voice strained and tight.

"I have one here," Mara said in a quiet, and she hoped, soothing enough voice to buffer the other's predictable reaction to what she was going to see.

Koolas/Marschut stood there, for what seemed an eternity, barely breathing. Her entire body tensed; her fists clenched, an angry, frustrated growl growing from her throat.

"You must look, Koolas, if you want the truth," Mara counseled.

"I don't know if I want the truth, Klingon. Not the truth that my eyes are trying to reveal to me." Then her voice changed to a pleading tone. "Please tell me this is some sort of illusion created by a Klingon machine? Please?" Her hands came out and together in a pleading gesture.

"There is no machine," Mara answered. "No illusion. You are what you see in this mirror."

The growl changed to a whine as she tried to open her eyes.

"Come now, Koolas, be brave," Mara changed her tact, trying to bolster the other's confidence so that what she was about to see wouldn't shock her. "There are worse things than being a Klingon--a glob fly, for instance."

Koolas/Marschut's expression was proof she was ignoring the conversation. Finally, the wrinkles around her eyes smoothed out, and she opened her eyes, just a crack. Then, they came open into large dishes, white showing all around her brown iris. Her breath came in with a whoosh as her face grimaced with psychological pain. Her eyes rolled up into her head, and her knees buckled.

Expecting this possibility, Mara threw the mirror to the bed and leapt forward to catch the collapsing Lady Marschut. Picking her up with a grunt, she placed her back on the sleeping shelf, covering her with a blanket. This is going to be harder than I thought, she stared at the now relaxed face of Marschut, and much more difficult than Kusan could have anticipated. I must get her to remember who she really is before I can proceed with what has to happen, especially if what we thought would happen with my lord husband Kang did transpire, and he comes here for us.

She continued to stare at Marschut for many long moments. How will Kang know that I'm still alive? How will he discover where I am? The galaxy's immensity made itself known to her right then, slumping her shoulders and causing a light whine to come from her throat.

*****

"Klingon!" Durit heard Koolas/Marschut say just before rolling off the sleeping shelf in the quarters he'd given the two new females of his fortress. He was watching them on one of the many viewscreens lining only one wall of his fortress' security center.

"Where did you find these two beauties, joHwI'?" the security technician manning the bank of switches and knobs asked.

"Hmm?" Durit responded, his mind only registering that the technician had spoken, not what he'd asked.

"Koolas?" Mara's questioning voice came from the screen.

"I thought the Kh'yrlov race were all gone. Where did you find this female?"

The question registered in Durit's mind, but his enamored emotions blocked what he was hearing and seeing on the screen to answer immediately. "Focus on the other female, the one who fell to the floor," Durit ordered.

"Yes, joHwI'," the technician responded and complied.

"What have you done to me, Klingon?" came the challenging, questioning voice.

The drama on the screen captured the technician's attention as well, but after awhile, he tried his question again, his curiosity getting the better of him. "Where did you find the Kh'yrlov?

Durit's gaze was only for the one he'd named Koolas. The one he knew to be the missing Emperor's sister Marschut. "Just a moment," he responded, raising his hand absent-mindedly in a signal to stop, while he drank in Marschut's form, listening intently to her voice and more importantly, her accent. She is not speaking high Klingon the way those in court would, Durit's thoughts said, but as an Orion would, he immediately identified.

"Koolas?" Mara's voice questioned from off-screen, then the two watchers saw her slowly enter the field of view.

"That one, joHwI', where did you find her?" the technician persisted.

"Huh?" Durit's attention, however, was on "Koolas", a new, more powerful emotion starting within him.

"The Kh'yrlov, joHwI', the blonde, where did you find that treasure?"

The question--and its implications--finally found Durit's conscious thoughts. "You would never believe it."

"Ah," the technician's voice became low, filled with lust. "Just to have her."

"Hah!" Durit exploded, turning his attention from the screen and the conversation in the room, to the technician. "You couldn't handle that one, believe me."

"I wager I could, joHwI'," the technician said, feeling confident.

Durit studied the face of the technician and saw lust painted all over it. "Do you know who she is?"

"I only know she's yours, joHwI'. Does it matter who she is?"

Durit chuckled under his breath, leaned over and whispered in the technician's ear, "Her name is Mara." He watched the technician's face closely to see if he made the connection.

At first, there was still only the lust, then that, slowly, changed to one with a tinge of fear. "A Kh'yrlov female," the fact that he was thinking worked across his face, "named Mara. Now where have I..." This pause was pregnant with realization. "Lord Kang's mate?" He turned to face Durit.

"The same," Durit answered, watching the technician's reaction closely, evaluating him so as to know how high this one's ambition flew.

The technician's face remained fearful for a moment, as if his thoughts might be broadcasting over subspace and heard by Kang. Then it relaxed into a smile. "But he's dead."

"Are you sure?"

"Reports from the homeworld said the emperor sentenced him to imprisonment on Kragyr. One can assume..."

"Never assume anything," Durit responded.

"But, joHwI', Kragyr! No one survives that..."

Durit cut him off with a swipe of his hand. "If you wish to survive to see--and know--such treasures, you must never assume." He chuckled. "The last report I heard was that Kang was still alive enough to kill one of his guards--gutted him with his own knife."

"baQa'," the technician hissed. "What a Klingon!"

"Do you still want his mate?"

"Is she like him?"

"So I've heard."

"What a challenge that would be..." His lust's fire was extinguished.

Durit chuckled under his breath. "I should think so, but if you truly want to try, I'm sure I can set it up."

"Mmm." The technician seemed more than a little uncertain. "We'll see."

Durit laughed and slapped the technician hard in the middle of the armor plating on his back, almost sending his gnarled forehead into the console in front of him. He was about to say something about the technician resembling a Regulan blood worm when a warning signal interrupted him. He turned and found the source--the subspace station on the far side of the control room. "We'll see."

He continued to chuckle all the way across the room. Before completing the circuit and opening the channel, he checked the identification of the caller. "baQa'! What is this?"

"What, joHwI'?" The technician's gaze was still locked on the two females on the viewscreen.

"It's from my Psi Scorpii topaline connection," Durit said, incredulous.

"Didn't you say the Caldonians had shut down that connection after your last meeting with them?"

"Yes, at least that's what it looked like, and what the reports I intercepted said."

The hail repeated itself, and the alarm sounded again.

Durit angrily turned off the alarm and disabled it, his mind in a turmoil.

The technician hissed softly, lustfully. The message was already forgotten.

Durit turned to see what was causing the technician's distraction. The emperor's sister was examining her own legs and moving up, lifting the hem of her skirt. The technician adjusted the focus and magnification. Durit couldn't believe his own reaction to the technician's peeping as he crossed the room in two steps, the subspace connection forgotten for the moment. "You son of a cowardly targ!"

"But, joHwI', what...why..."

Durit cocked back his fist and let loose, catching the technician square on the side of his head, at the point on the Klingon physiology that corresponded with the tip of an Earther's chin, knocking him clear of the console, unconscious before he hit the floor with a thud.

He pulled his disruptor free of its holster, his rage at the technician burning so brightly that he wanted to finish him off, leaving nothing but his atoms to float in the control room. He set the pistol at full power and took aim, but the heat of his emotion was already flagging, and he resisted pulling the trigger. What do I care if he peeps at Khalian's property? A short session of self evaluation provided the answer--Because I want her for myself. To Kahless' torments with Khalian.

A moan from the technician signaled he coming around.

Durin's thoughts turned to how he'd gotten her in the first place, How can I wrest her from Khalian's powerful grasp?

"joHwI'," the technician moaned, "what did I do?"

Durit's gaze switched to that of watching the technician rise haltingly to his elbow, rubbing the side of his head.

The technician's eyes finally focused and he saw the pistol's open maw aimed at him. Throwing up his hand in a vain attempt to protect himself from the destruction hanging on the trigger-finger of his employer, he begged, "joHwI'...no...! I meant no disrespect. I had no idea..."

The struggle for an answer to his current dilemma occupied Durit's mind so totally, that he was only just barely aware of the technician's plight. How can I get her from Khalian?

Noting Durit's inattention, the technician got to his knees and inched his way back toward his seat. When the pistol's muzzle didn't waver from its initial direction, now an empty section of the floor, he breathed a sigh of relief. Silently, he sat back into the chair and made an obvious point of becoming busy, checking monitors without allowing his eyes to stray to the one that still showed the two new females.

How can I get her from Khalian? Durit's inner voice repeated over and over.

Then the answer came to him. It would be so easy. A smiled played across his face in response. He noted that his pistol was no longer aimed at anything and wondered when the technician had moved. Shifting around, he re-aimed it at the back of the technician's head while his thoughts reviewed what had to happen first: She will have arrived at my ship as the probe had reported when my tractor beam first grabbed it. He remembered the subspace signal, which he knew would have contained telemetry telling Khalian the physical condition of the cargo. But it's well within the realm of probability for someone coming out of hypersleep to die. This unfortunate happenstance will have to have happened to her. His heartbeat quickened as he thought this. I will have done everything in the power of my limited medical facilities to stop this, but she never regained consciousness.

"HIja'...yes," he hissed in response to his thoughts.

"My lord?" The technician turned his head as he heard this, only to find the pistol again aimed at him. He turned back around and redoubled his efforts at looking busy and non-expendable, sweat breaking out on his upper lip.

This movement brought Durit's thoughts to the next problem: keeping the female Khalian had sent him. He glanced over various intercepted subspace transmissions, searching for a clue as to her identity. He scrolled to the next message, when suddenly he knew. "By Kahless' blood! Is he crazy?! baQa!" he shouted. There, on the screen was the very image of Khalian's female. The report identified her as Marschut, sister of the emperor himself. "toH! This is even better than I dreamed! What a find!"

A sudden fear washed over him. Just about everyone in his fortress had seen, or knew about, the presence of the emperor's sister here. They may not know exactly who she was, but they had seen her brought in. His fears calmed somewhat. Most of them had only seen her unconscious. These individuals could help to verify to any of Khalian's spies that Marschut had died. The real problem would be silencing the few that knew she had recovered from hypersleep. One of whom was sitting in front of him right now.

He was about to pull the trigger when another disturbing thought intruded over what he was about to do. It was hard, and expensive, to find, then train, the individuals I have here in what we do. Though this one has seen her awake and obviously very healthy, he is a well trained, and valuable member, of my operation. "Qo'...No..." He powered down the weapon and shoved it into his holster.

The technician visibly relaxed when he heard this sound, sighing with relief.

But it will be an expensive thing to silence all those who know the truth. Normally he didn't think any one female worth spending a large sum of money on, but now...I need more money. Where will I find such funds?

The subspace station alarmed sounded. "HIja'!" he roared as he covered the distance to the transceiver in two paces. "HIja'!" he repeated as his thoughts told him this was the beginning of the answer to his new financial problems. I can re-establish contact with this, my most valuable source of topaline. I'll raise the price I charge the Romulans to the limit the market will bear.

A moment of doubt stopped him from opening the frequency. This is a trap set by the Caldonians, or more probably, Starfleet. His finger hovered over the "open channel" button for what seemed an eternity. It isn't a trap if I know about it, he thought, furiously working through how he could get around all the snares that would be set about the topaline. Then his mind latched onto a possible tack, and he clenched his fist slowly in front of him as each aspect of the plan formed in his thoughts. "HIja'!"

First, he set up the transceiver to send to the first in a series of satellite relays so that the signal could only be traced to the last satellite, a location near nothing important and nowhere near his headquarters. Then tied in the mechanism that would project his Illyeekeek persona in the place of his own. With all this in place, he opened the subspace frequency and the familiar face of a thin, Catullan female came onto the screen. "Free Trader, what it I can do for you?" He adopted the peculiar and inconsistent syntax of a Yridian.

"Illyeekeek, what took you so long?"

Durit chuckled and imagined the twitter that she would hear. "I apologize, but I busy on another channel. The business gods being very kind this one."

"Good, good, Illyeekeek," she responded. "We have another load of product. Are you interested?"

"Always interested in profit," Durit answered, "as long as this one doesn't get trouble into. What good is profit from prison cell?"

The female fidgeted, glancing to the side in thought. "Ah...ah...why, Illyeekeek, did you have a close call?"

"Not me, Free Trader, but Caldonian enforcers have been very busy, no?"

"I don't know what...Oh, them." Her response was shaky. "Something about kiralosper smugglers. You know what that chemical does to a Caldonian?" The female laughed nervously. "They arrested some stupid sot who didn't hide his tracks well enough."

"Do you leave tracks, Free Trader?" Durit came straight to the point. It wouldn't do to make it too easy for this Catullan female, or for those he knew were listening in. I'll give them just a few more moments to get a lock on the first satellite then I'll put my plan into action.

"Ha, ha, ha, Illyeekeek, not this one. I'm much too careful for that," she responded. "So is it a meet?"

"Caldonians destroyed meeting place."

That visibly shook the Catullan, and it took a moment for her to recover. "Is that so?"

"Yes, Free Trader. Is so."

"Illyeekeek, I don't know what to say."

Durit smiled and let the Catullan squirm a bit before answering. "I know place."

"Yeah?"

"Place where Caldonians will never find."

"Where?"

"Know of place called Tralachon Fire Storm?"

"I don't know if it, but I think my pilots do."

Durit could tell she knew little about the area, or how dangerous that sector was. He wagered to himself the pilots would squirm when they heard of it, but then again, they seemed greedy enough to take the chance. "Meet there." Durit let Illyeekeek look in deep thought as he worked out how soon, his mind in turmoil over his need to hide away his newest, most valuable treasure. "Two days?"

"Done!"

Durit noted how quickly the female had been able to answer that. She doesn't really care about her underlings, but I'll bet Starfleet's breathing down her neck, searching for the remainder of her stock. I'll bet even more that she had to send it into space to hide it, and Starfleet's hot on its trail. It's a good thing I'm going to use every stealth technique I know to get the cargo without being detected. "This one be there," Durit said aloud.

"In two days, the Oshota will be there. Have the money ready," she said as her face disappeared from the screen.

Her tone irritated Durit and his thoughts turned to the destruction of the loose-ends named Fikes and Collins. It would be so easy to put a miniature gravitic mine inside the payment, set to go off the moment the transporter process was completed.

Then the two females on the security monitor caught his gaze and that thought faded. It will be difficult, but I can yet turn more profit from this. The targ that knows of the trap can often turn the trap against the trapper.

Flipping switches, he transmitted the code that told his Romulan customers that he was ready with another shipment and the new inflated cost. He became antsy when the Romulan answer didn't arrive right away. Maybe I asked for too much. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. He noted the technician's attention on this fact and growled a warning, his hand snapping to the butt of his pistol. The technician's head snapped back to studying the security board in front of him. The Romulan response finally came, agreeing with the price, and setting a rendezvous date and place.

Durit sent his acknowledgment and closed the channel. Walking over to stand behind the technician, whose discomfort was extremely evident, he ordered, "Close-up on Mar...er, Koolas."

"Yes, joHwI'."

The picture changed, focusing strictly on the female who was even now completing the inspection of her body. "She's a treasure worth risking all on, even all this." He swirled his arms around to suggest his fortress.

The technician shrugged, but eventually nodded his head in agreement.

He doesn't agree, Durit assessed, but he doesn't have to. He is but a technician. He slapped downward, hard on top of the technician's shoulders, and laughed. "Sometimes you have to risk everything to get the most precious treasure."

"Yes, joHwI'."

"You don't have to agree, just serve."

"Yes, joHwI'."

There was a hiss, and he saw the object of his affection begin to faint and Mara catching her.

"I will conquer the universe for that one," he roared. "Tell the spacedock to get my ship ready for immediate departure."

"I serve, joHwI'."

"Yes, of course, you do." Durit stalked away down the hall.

-16-

Honor once the battle cry,
This warrior holds that banner high.

"There it is." Kali adjusted the viewscreen's magnification.

A hiss, backed by a growl, escaped the mouth's of the males manning the bridge of the Hidden Dagger.

"Only the Kh'myr would have given such a place a second look in a planetary survey," Koloth rumbled as he read the sensor read-out on the planet, and its defenses.

"We waste nothing," Worf said under his breath from the helm, "and take nothing for granted."

"I'll grant you this, Kh'myr," respect tinted Kor's voice, "it is exquisite in its desolation, and a perfect place for a prison. I must admire the Kh'myr for seeing this."

The bridge grew silent. The faces of Koloth, and the rest of the Segh vav on the bridge, reflected the incredulity that hearing a compliment such as this from Kor produced. A wicked, prideful, tooth-filled smile slowly formed on Worf's face, the only Kh'myr present that could appreciate the compliment.

The planet showed only shades of brown, and tints of gray, tinged with the blue created by nitrogen in the atmosphere's upper regions. There were the occasional, tight spiral cloud formations of a storm, but no white showed in between them to suggest any other evidence of moisture in the planet's gaseous envelope. Truly, Kragyr was a wasteland, even when seen from millions of kellicams away. This was the prison planet where Khalian had sent Admiral Kang to end his days.

"I would rather be killed outright then sent here to rot." Kali broke the heavy silence.

"Precisely why the situation must be very heinous to send a Klingon here. It was not meant to be the place of a warrior's demise," Worf responded, "but rather a place one sends those you regard as something less than a worm."

Kali found Kor and stared at him. He must have sensed it because a moment later his head turned and his gaze locked with hers. "Remember your promise," she mouthed, not giving a sound to her comment.

He only nodded in response.

"Approaching Kragyr's Oort cloud, Kor." Koloth's sensor report broke the tense silence.

"Prepare for de-cloaking," Kor ordered, sending the bridge into a flurry of preparatory energy. He turned to the rear of the bridge and found the person he needed for the next part of their operation--Taaren.

The massive Kh'myr sergeant sat quietly in the chair he'd been placed in, his gaze vacant and staring as he waited to do what he'd been programmed to do.

He'll do as I've asked. Kor studied the vacant face. It's too bad the ch'luge re-programming takes so long to look...normal. "Are you ready, Sergeant Taaren?"

"Yes, lord," Taaren answered as he stood up.

"Then take your station and prepare to answer Kragyr's hail."

"Yes, lord," Taaren said and moved toward the communications station, replacing the Segh vav warrior that had been sitting there.

"And why are you here?" Kor asked Taaren, quizzing the Kh'myr sergeant on the proper response to the upcoming challenge from Kragyr's command center.

Taaren answered all of them according to his program.

"Good," Kor said as the Kh'myr finished. "You are ready, Sergeant."

"Thank you, lord. I exist only to serve you."

"Yes, of course," Kor smiled as he noted Koloth's attention on the preparations. "Cut power to the cloak. It's time to begin the final step in Kang's release."

*****

"Status of prison population?" Lieutenant N'rak asked those manning the central control complex of the Klingon penal colony of Kragyr as he entered the room for the first time this day.

"Two have expired. The rest are still in their cells," came the report from the out-going night shift officer-in-charge.

"Only two?"

"Yes, Commander."

"That's odd."

"Why is that, Commander?"

"We usually lose much more than that."

"Yes, sir, but the general population has shrunk considerably since our last consignment of new prisoners. Only those who strive to survive the hardest and those we keep alive, are left."

"Has it been that long?" N'rak tried to remember when the last shipment of prisoners had arrived.

"Nearly four jar, Commander."

N'rak shook his head and noted that those assigned to his shift had taken over, the off-going personnel waiting somewhat impatiently near the open doorway for him to release them. "You are relieved," he said, indicating the same with a swipe of his hand.

"We serve," they chorused, saluted, and left.

N'rak sat silently at the monitor console, watching his shift's personnel check their systems, his thoughts wandering. An assignment here was not enviable, but it was important. Only the most dangerous, treacherous enemies of the Empire were incarcerated here--Starfleet and Federation prisoners, Romulan spies, and Klingon traitors.

His mind wandered to past inmates, latching onto the females and how Taarist, his late second-in-command, and he had used them. His eyes dulled dreamily and a smile began to etch its way across his face. Those were the days, my trusty companion.

Taarist's death at the hands of Kragyr's most famous prisoner intruded harshly on those pleasant mental images, and his smile changed to a deep frown, a growl forming deep in his chest. With exaggerated movements, he leaned forward and activated a small viewscreen embedded into his console. Punching the buttons hard, as if his finger was a dagger and he was stabbing an enemy, he called up a specific visual sensor, one that he used a lot since that gory event.

The picture on the screen changed, but held only shades of gray. He was about to notify maintenance that another sensor needed replacing when the screen was lit by a flash of brilliant light. For a brief moment, the strobe served to illuminate a desert plain with dark squares laid out in an orderly pattern of rank and file.

Has it been two hogh already? he asked himself, remembering that it had been during the last storm to that part of Kragyr that Kang had done his dirty deed. I must make a point of going there as soon as the storm abates. He grew excited at what he planned. Kang has developed a way of saving the water of these storms. He pulled his disruptor from its holster, checking its charge, his thoughts continuing as he made plans for the day. I wouldn't want him to become too comfortable.

An alarm went off on the other side of the control complex. It sounded for only a moment before the technician manning the console shut it down, then proceeded to find what had set it off.

N'rak was too deep in his thoughts to notice at first.

The technician found the source and turned to report. "We have an incoming ship on sensors, Lieutenant N'rak."

The penal colony commander didn't seem to notice; his thoughts were focused inward as he stared at the storm that was building on the viewscreen in front of him.

"Sir?" the technician let the volume of his voice rise, in an attempt to get his commander's attention.

N'rak absent-mindedly caressed his pistol.

"Sir!"

N'rak snapped back to reality, bothered by being caught unfocused. "NuqneH!"

"Sensor contact. Incoming vessel."

"Identity."

"Transponder signal says it's the K'Rischte, troop transport out of Qo'noS."

N'rak stood and walked over to the sensor station, leaning over the technician. Without letting his gaze leave the screen and its data, he addressed the operations technician on the main computer's master console. "Are we scheduled for a visit today?"

"We're not, Commander."

"Raise planetary defense shields!" N'rak ordered. He couldn't imagine who might want to attack such a worthless place, but you couldn't be too careful.

"Shields powering up; sixty percent strength, seventy," the technician manning the planetary defense console reported as he watched his status board light-up. "Eighty...ninety...full power, sir."

"Good," N'rak responded. "Activate the ground-based disruptor batteries." Then as an afterthought: "Power up the plasma torpedo tubes in the satellite network as well. I don't see that transport being a threat, but you can't be too careful these days. Besides, it will give us a chance to exercise them and keep the maintenance technicians off our backs."

A moment later, the same technician reported, "All weapons are at full charge and tracking, sir."

"Good!" N'rak moved toward the communication station. "Challenge the ship," he ordered, standing where he knew the visual pick-up could see him.

*****

"Kragyr's defenses are completely active and tracking, joHwI'," Worf reported.

The expected chime from the comm console came only moments later. "Kragyr is hailing us," Kali reported. "N'rak himself."

"It's about time," snorted Kor derisively. "We've been uncloaked long enough to destroy him twice." He sent a glare in Koloth's direction. "Which would save us a lot of money."

"I didn't know you were that interested in riches, Kor." Koloth sparred with his fellow warrior.

"Grrr-uph." Kor took his place far enough away from Taaren so that the video pick-up would not see him. Yet, close enough to pass along instructions to the sergeant. "Talk to this Kh'myr animal as I instructed you."

"Yes, lord," Taaren responded.

"Answer the hail, Kali," Kor ordered.

N'rak appeared on the bridge's main viewscreen. "nuqneH, transport?"

"New prisoner consignment for the Kragyr penal colony," Taaren answered matter-of-factly.

"We were expecting no consignment."

"Because of the identity of one of those included, Lord Khalian thought it best to keep it quiet."

"Who is this special personage?"

"I cannot reveal that over a subspace channel."

N'rak thought for a moment, then his gaze focused on Taaren. "You look familiar. Do I know you?"

"I am bu' Taaren, cargo master of the Eglon, on special assignment for this consignment only."

"Taaren," N'rak repeated in a low voice, his gaze shifting downward as he thought, repeating the name, "Taaren, Taaren." His attention snapped back up to the level of the screen. "You are the brother of Taarist."

"He was my brother."

This is the critical moment, thought Kor. If N'rak challenges Taaren's right to be here, or does not perceive the reason, it dooms the expedition.

"I see you know of his death."

"I know."

"His killer is," N'rak chuckled a moment before continuing, "under Lord Khalian's protection."

Kor shook a fist in front of himself. "Yes," he hissed, far too low for the auditory pick-up. He perceives Taaren's motivation and is nibbling at the bait.

"Lord Khalian awarded me this special duty," Taaren responded.

N'rak's head tipped slightly to one side as the corners of his mouth tipped downward. "I would like to see a copy of those orders, with Lord Khalian's mark before allowing you to proceed."

"HIja', Lieutenant N'rak. Are we given clearance to enter orbit?"

N'rak motioned to someone off-screen before continuing. "Granted. Assume a standard orbit over the command complex."

A set of coordinates arrived at Kali's station. She acknowledged receipt and then nodded to Kor.

"Received. This transmission ends." Taaren remained in the seat.

Kor stalked over to stand in front of him, glowering.

Taaren let the angle of his gaze shift slowly upward toward Kor. "It is completed."

"You have done well, Taaren," Kor acknowledged.

"Thank you, lord. I serve."

"You serve well. Take your place."

Taaren stood and walked slowly to the rear of the bridge where he assumed a watch position near the access doorways.

"Take us to the assigned orbit," Kor ordered.

"Course computed and locked in," Koloth responded.

"Execute." Once done, Kor continued, "It's time for us to prepare. Koloth. Train the Hidden Dagger's weapons on the defense batteries and satellites on this side of the colony."

"I serve, my lord," Koloth responded, sarcastically.

"That's right, and don't you forget it, peasant," Kor countered, filling the bridge with his laughter. "Kali, Worf, Taaren, come with me."

The group exited the bridge, leaving Koloth to man the bridge alone.

*****

Thunder shook the air savagely, the ground reverberating sympathetically under the nearly perpendicular block of granite that reached for the sky. Nearly buried in the tumult, the massive pinnacle glowed with anticipation of the storm's electroplasmic discharges that even now flashed through and out of the pitch black tumbling of the storm cloud's body.

Kang prepared for the storm by lining up the only containers he had that would still hold water--the boots he'd worn in here. For some reason, N'rak had allowed him to keep them.

How many storms have I seen now? "I've lost count," Kang answered himself aloud, his once powerful basso voice reduced to a croak. The sound of the wind quickly drowned it out.

Must not speak aloud, he chastised himself. It allows the release of too much moisture into the air. His mind returned to the question, as he worked out the answer. They come every fourteen days on this planet. Using that, I can discern how long I've been here.

What does that matter? It is only a matter of time before your mind-source departs to Kh'eloz and the beetles can finally have your shell.

You are wrong!

Wrong am I? Look at what remains of your organic shell.

That doesn't mat--

Yes, it does, Lord Kang. There was blatant derision in the second's voice. Admiral Kang, the one-time favorite of the Emperor's court.

He looked at himself. His clothing was in tatters, revealing much of what was left beneath them. His once sculpted, strong body was now but skin and bones. Though he couldn't see it, he put his hand to his chin, then to his head and discovered that the only thing massive about him now was his beard, his long, unkempt hair and his increasingly knobby forehead.

He balled his fist and struck his chest hard with it. The pain was immediate as his own ribs complained. But it reminded him he was still alive. I am Klingon, and with the spark of life that remains within this shell, I will endure to wreak the revenge I deserve. Lifting his gaze, he focused it past the grate that sealed its top, to the roiling clouds. "I am Klingon!" he croaked, though he put everything he had behind the statement. The spark of survival, his by nature, flared into a roaring flame, throwing the second voice back in retreat.

The second voice ventured back a moment later, all apologetic. I only meant...

You meant to rob me of my strength, the first voice continued its attack. A giant drop of scalding water struck Kang's cheek so hard that he flinched. Yet he didn't seek shelter. The pain is like a blacksmith's hammer and anvil, tempering and molding my spirit into a finer weapon!

The second voice regathered its strength. Many times the blacksmith's fire takes the temper from the metal, ruining it forever.

The storm released its load and a steady attack of scalding water fell to the thirsty ground, some getting through the grates to scald Kang's upraised and unprotected face. His throat opened for the closest thing it could produce to a roar. "That will not happen! I am Kang! I am Klingon! I am not weak! Do you hear me, Kahless? I am Klingon! I am not weak!"

The rain came down heavier, steaming as it ran down the sides of the pit. For a moment more, Kang withstood its onslaught, then his emaciated frame sagged. Turning quickly, he dove for the small cave he'd managed to enlarge slightly before his strength had ebbed to its present pathetic level. He crouched all the way to the back, holding his hands over his ears to dampen the volume of the storm's now deafening thunder.

The lightning's intensity and rate rose dramatically, so much so that Kang could no longer discern when one ended and one began, its strobe effect so quick his eyes could not make out a break between the bolts. The ground quaked and groaned under the punishment, the roof of the cave dropping chunks of hardened clay, threatening to collapse. From somewhere deep within Kang, fear sparked to life and quickly filled his being.

Slowly, though the ground still shook under the storm's onslaught, Kang became aware of a new sound making itself known to his numb ears. At first, he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Laughter? he thought, finally identifying it. What is there to laugh at? At first, he thought he had completely lost his sanity and was hearing himself laugh. Taking one of his hands from his ear, he placed it on his throat, and found the sound wasn't coming from him. Then where is it coming from?

For the first time since the storm had broken onto the area, Kang noted that it was no longer as loud or as violent as it should still be.

"A Klingon are you?" a deep basso voice demanded, shaking the ground almost as savagely as the storm had only moments earlier.

What? Kang's thoughts screamed, his eyes snapping open. From his cave, he could see a pair of booted feet standing outside in the rain, mud and excrement spattering onto the leather.

"A Klingon would not be hiding from this sprinkle," the voice continued.

"Kahless! Have I gone completely insane?" Kang screamed, his tortured mind no longer able to cope.

"I am here. To answer your question, no, you are not going insane. Climb out of that hole, Kang, and face me like the true Klingon I know you will be!"

"Kah...," Kang began to spout, then began to scrabble from the back of the cave to peer out, saying nothing. His vision blurred...then...

There stood a fully armored Klingon male. His face held a wicked, full-toothed grin. More disconcertingly, he was already looking right at him, his gaze forcing him to look back. The eyes glowed fiercely red. Kang felt they could see into his very soul, and he quaked. Such a fear he'd never known before as he began to inch backward into the darkness of the small cave and what he thought was safety.

"This is nonsense!" the other roared.

There was a brilliant flash of light that forced Kang to close his eyes. He felt more clods of clay hit his head and he prepared himself to be buried alive. At least now the pain will end, he thought as he pulled himself into a tighter ball. But instead of the expected weight of dirt, he felt hot rain drops hitting the back of his neck. A furtive peek revealed that the cave was gone. What in Kh'eloz?! Kang's thoughts screamed. Then a profound silence surrounded him.

Creak, splash, squish. Creak, splash, squish. Creak, splash, squish. The sound of someone in leather walking toward him through the mud. Kang felt the line of hair that descended half-way down his back begin to rise as he sensed the other standing over him.

"Kang."

He could only whine pitifully. What no individual could have accomplished before the months of captivity, deprivation and malnutrition, had done. He was broken. He had lost his sanity.

"To your feet, Kang."

"Who...who...who?" Kang muttered, opening his eyes, but not allowing them to rise above the mud just millocams from his nose.

"I am Kahless, the Unforgettable, the father of all Klingons."

Kang noted the pride in the disclosure, but also the quiet, almost tenderness of the voice. The cave has collapsed, and I have died, and now Kahless has come to judge me, a failed Klingon. "I am not worthy," Kang muttered. "Leave me to the nether regions."

"Nonsense, Kang!" Kahless' voice regained some of its volume and savagery, commanding respect with its quality. "Get to your feet, warrior!" and with that he reached down and touched Kang on the top of his shaggy head.

There was no denying that command. Kang felt energy he hadn't felt within himself for a long time. It invigorated him and he began to rise from his tight crouch, keeping his eyes focused on his bare feet. He could still feel the rain falling and the heat of its impact, but it no longer mattered. His back straightened and his shoulder's squared. "I serve, lord."

"You have and will again. I have a mighty work for you and your followers." Kahless spoke.

Followers? Kang's mind latched onto that word, and he mulled it over. I will have followers?

"Yes, Kang, you heard me right. Your followers." Kahless began to chuckle.

"But, Lord Kahless, I am nothing, broken. I have no followers," Kang responded, his gaze still glued to his toenails.

"Look at me."

"I am not worthy, lord."

"Do you not know who I am, Kang?"

"You are Kahless, the father of all Klingons."

"As such, do I not deserve your respect?"

"Of course, lord." Kang could feel some of the emotional intensity he'd been feeling just before the storm's coming, beginning to return.

"And with that, your obedience?"

"I serve, my lord!" Kang snapped to attention, but his gaze remained fixed on the mud at his feet.

"Then face me, warrior to warrior. Look into my eyes and show me you are the Klingon I know you to be!" Kahless' voice grew louder and more intense.

Kang knew he had no choice; the quality and timbre of the voice brooked no disobedience. He closed his eyes and brought his face up to the level he felt was Kahless' face and opened his eyes.

The patriarch trapped his gaze with his own. "That's how it should always be, Klingon to Klingon, warrior to warrior. Stand tall, be strong, be proud. I am Klingon! You are Klingon! We are Klingon!" Kahless' voice took on a singing quality, pouring out what he was saying in near-march rhythm.

"You are Klingon. I am Klingon," Kang mimicked, but without as much enthusiasm.

Kahless slapped him across the face. "Wake up, Kang. You sound like an Earther female."

Anger sparked within Kang. "I am Klingon," he said with a little more energy and volume.

Kahless slapped him again. "That's better; you've reached the level of a Klingon child. Reach down deep into yourself, release the warrior in you."

Kang felt fire burning within his breast, and his hackles rose in response. "I...AM...KLINGON!"

"That's more like it." Kahless put his hands on his hips and laughed. "I almost believe it. What are you?"

"I...AM...KLINGON!"

"Again."

"I AM KLINGON!" Kang lifted his face to the rolling sky and roared. "I AM KLINGON!"

"That's better. Again."

"I AM KLINGON!" Kang roared

And Kahless joined him. At the same time, pulling from its holder on his back, his bat winged shaped batlh'etlh. "I AM KLINGON!" he roared, holding the blade high over his head.

Kang joined in, roaring this over and over again until he felt he would go hoarse, and then he roared it again.

With a flash, lightning came down from the sky and struck Kahless' upraised sword, the thunder crashing immediately, its shock wave buffeting Kang. He did not flinch. He was Klingon.

The thunder echoed off leaving only Kahless' laughter in its place as he brought down the sword and put it back into its holder.

Kang felt exhilarated. His breathing strong and rhythmic, his heart racing, heat coursing within him. "I...am...Klingon," he said once more, his voice less loud, but much more menacing as he allowed a growl to shade it.

"I believe it," Kahless responded, pausing, a smile slowly spreading. "Now."

Breathing heavily from his exertion, and unmindful of the scalding the pounding Kragyr rainstorm was giving him, Kang remembered all the religious stories told to him by his parents relating to when someone saw Kahless. His excitement turned to fear and apprehension. After so much time? He had to ask. "Is it my time?"

Kahless' face changed to a scowl as he grabbed for his sword. "After all I've just done? I would take your spirit with me? I thought you smarter than that, Kang."

"Then?" Kang was confused, his eyes focusing anywhere but on the patriarch's face. "Why?"

Kahless' face softened, and he stepped forward, putting his hand on Kang's shoulder. "I have found you worthy of my trust."

Kang felt his strength returning. He straightened under the patriarch's hand, regaining his full height. For the first time during the encounter, he let his gaze meet that of the spirit's. "I serve, lord."

"Yes, I know," Kahless answered. "I have a great work for you and your followers."

"Followers, lord? I have none. They were all killed, or at the least, disbanded," Kang sagged a little under the weight of the hand.

"Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!" Kahless laughed. "That is not of your concern, Kang. I have already started that work. Your mission will be to lead them."

Kang set his mouth, his gaze re-kindling. "I am ready to lead the Kh'teb and Kh'fjin, lord."

Kahless hand squeezed down hard on the emaciated muscles of Kang's shoulder. "All Klingons, Kang."

"No, lord. You cannot mean the Kh'myr as well. The Kh'myr destroyed my mate's people. The Kh'myr are destroying my best friend's people and are even now working to destroy the Kh'teb, your race, as well." Kang's anger was fierce within his breast as he spit out these words. "A Kh'myr put me here to die without honor. I will not accept them."

"You will."

Kang's jaw set. "I...will...not. Kill me now and condemn me to the torments, but I will not."

"They are Klingon, just like you."

"They are animals, worthy only for the edge of my blade."

"Such anger at your brother, tsk, tsk." Kahless let his arm drop and turned his back on his subject, bowing his head. "Then I have failed."

Kang felt a dark cloud drift over his excitement as the patriarch turned around. This was far worse than even the months of torture he'd just endured. What had he done? What could he do to change this? "Lord, I don't understand. Why must I accept the Kh'myr after all they've done?"

"They are Klingon, as you are Klingon. If we cannot become one people, then we will end as no people."

"But..." Kang tried to find a way around this obstacle.

Kahless bowed his head and began to hum a melody.

Kang felt he should recognize it, but he didn't know from where. He did know his heart seemed to pick up the beat and soon he was humming it with him.

Kahless turned, a smile again on his face. "Yes, Kang, sing with me. Klingons love to sing," and he started the song anew.

Kang could not remember ever hearing the song before, but he sang it as if he'd known it all his life, the beat and notes bringing a lump of emotion to his throat.

Then Kahless added words:

"A Klingon name, blood that burns,
Death for honor, spirit yearns.
Flashing eyes and slashing sword,
Gauntlet thrown as challenge roared."

Kang's eyes became wide. "I know that song," he whispered as Kahless finished the first verse.

"Hah!" Kahless roared. "No you don't. It talks of something bigger than you and your bigotry."

Kang's excitement fell with his mental confusion. He became aware of the storm again, feeling the heat of the water as it fell onto his unprotected head and shoulders. What does he mean? his thoughts screamed. He finally looked back up to find the leering face of the patriarch. "Bigotry, lord?"

"A new word for you, Kang? It means intolerance of things, or ideas, not the same as yours."

That Kang could understand, and he repeated in his mind the cultural training he'd received as a youngster, training reportedly to have come from Kahless himself. "But, lord, did you not teach us to vanquish weakness wherever we found it?"

An especially bright bolt of lightning struck the ground somewhere nearby, followed closely by the shock wave of thunder. Kahless didn't seem to notice as he threw his head back in laughter. After a moment, he stopped, his eyes filled with intensity. "It never ceases to amaze me how my words, even those spoken lightly during my carnal years, became so tied up in the Klingon culture I worked so hard to insure would survive." He laughed again, this time not so largely. "I said that to one of my generals when he asked me what to do with those within the army's ranks who were lazy, or cowardly. I never meant for it to become the Klingon's primary philosophy."

This totally bewildered Kang, threatening the basis for his entire life. For that matter, the basis for the entire Klingon philosophy--power is everything; might makes right, the survival of the strongest. It was everything that was Klingon. If that wasn't right, then what was the use of everything the Klingon's had accomplished thus far? Why, his very fight to survive in this hole became naught and his mind filled with depression. What was the use then? His face became misery as he sought out the one person who could save him from himself. "Lord? What is there then?"

Kahless stepped back up to Kang and put his hands on his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "I have just sung it. Listen closely this time," and he began the march again, this time more slowly, enunciating each word:

"A Klingon name, blood that burns,
Death for honor, spirit yearns.
Flashing eyes and slashing sword,
Gauntlet thrown as challenge roared."

Kang repeated the words to himself, his gaze leaving that of the patriarch to focus on the pit's now muddy walls, his lips forming and repeating the words. He repeated it twice and nothing clicked. What is it about that verse that is different from what we already do? he asked himself.

Kahless repeated the verse again.

Kang repeated it. Then, as if the storm's lightning had struck him, he figured it out, his beseeching mind latching onto it like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. Honor, the word filled his mind. "Honor," he repeated the word, out loud this time.

"Exactly," Kahless sang the phrase again:

"A Klingon name, blood that burns,
Death for honor, spirit yearns.
Flashing eyes and slashing sword,
Gauntlet thrown as challenge roared."

Then he added the next verse:

"Sacred words and tribal chants,
Secret family battle stance,
Victory's visions, spirit quest,
A warrior's honor to the test."

Kang mouthed the words, incorporating them into his being. "Honor, lord? Klingons are honorable."

Kahless sighed. "For the most part, we are not. At least, not right now. Klingons know how to honor power, but that's as far as it goes."

"How much farther do we need to take it?"

"Make it an integral part of yourself."

"I'm not sure I know what you mean."

"What does the word honor mean to you, Kang?"

"To show respect."

"And whom do you respect?"

"Someone stronger than myself."

"No one else?"

"You have taught us..."

Kahless cut him off with a violent swipe of his hand, accompanied by a clap of thunder. "Forget that, Kang, and remember the context of how I said that. You must embrace all parts of honor, or it will not work."

"Respect for others?"

"Yes."

"But what if the other is weaker?"

"Would you attack just because of the weakness?"

"Yes, of course."

"To what gain?"

"Because..."

"...the other is weaker," Kahless joined him in saying this. "That is not honorable. To destroy something just because of its weakness is not honorable. To control it, or if it fights your attempts to dominate, then that is honorable. But just because?" Kahless shook his shaggy head slowly from side to side. "No. Where is the honor, the glorification, in destroying something insignificant?"

"So we should only fight those of equal or greater power than ourselves?" Kang asked, now totally engrossed in the discovery process. He could sense the power in what the patriarch was saying, and like all good Klingons, was gravitating toward it.

"As a general rule, yes, but there is much more to it than that. You must dedicate yourself to learning all parts of it. For instance, it is not honorable to pick a fight with a weaker opponent, knowing you will vanquish him immediately. But, if he attacks you, then it is honorable to use everything in your power to destroy him."

"I think I understand," Kang nodded, bringing his hand to his chin in thought. Then he looked back up to Kahless.

Kahless smiled, then laughed, throwing his head back. "You have much to learn, Kang, but I see the honor in you, that is why I brought this message to you. You will lead my people out of this darkness they find themselves."

"But, lord, I am but one."

"I have already begun spreading the word to others. You will find you are not alone in searching for the true way of honor. Seek these others out. Do not be surprised where you'll find them. Even amongst the Kh'myr."

"Phah! The Kh'myr are too stupid to learn such a sophisticated idea."

Kahless' face darkened in anger. "They are Klingons, Kang."

"They are Kh'myr, lord. Animals."

"Put your bigotry aside. Embrace honor. They are Klingons!" Kahless feinted for his batlh'etlh. "I now make this new law for my people, and you will spread it."

Kang dropped his gaze to the mud at his feet. "I am not worthy, lord."

"You are not, but you have potential. Tell my people that it is not honorable for Klingon to kill Klingon."

"Yes, lord. But..." Kang paused unsure if he should ask the question that had suddenly popped into his head. "What if Klingon dishonors Klingon?"

"You are quick, Kang; that's why I selected you. Then the fight would be honorable. Eye to eye, not the cowardly way, in the back. Power for power. If your opponent faces you with a taj then you fight him with a taj, batlh'etlh to batlh'etlh. Do you understand?"

"I think so, lord."

"One more thing, Kang. To be honorable means to attain personal integrity."

"Integrity, lord?"

"To do something not because it is the law, but because it is right."

"I understand, lord," Kang lied.

"No. You don't," responded Kahless, chuckling. "But you will. In time, you will." Suddenly Kahless threw up his hands. "Enough of this; our time is short. Let us sing."

Kang understood now why the patriarch hadn't corrected him his statement about the Kh'myr. Assuming another's capabilities, or lack of same, was not only bad tactics, but dishonorable. "What shall we sing, lord?"

"The rest of the song I've just begun."

"But you have told me I don't know it."

"But you are learning quickly." Kahless reached out and touched the center of Kang's forehead.

All of a sudden, Kang's head filled with the sounds of the march and he knew the words.

"Sing with me, Kang."

"A Klingon name, blood that burns,
Death for honor, spirit yearns.
Flashing eyes and slashing sword,
Gauntlet thrown as challenge roared.

Sacred words and tribal chants,
Secret family battle stance,
Victory's visions, spirit quest,
A warrior's honor to the test.

Dancing dagger's triple blade,
A force of nature, unafraid.
Vicious fighting, blood and gore,
Survival instinct to the fore.

Fighting scream to curdle blood,
Rolling in the gritty mud,
Textbook moves do not inspire
This, the Warrior's inner fire.

Intensity beyond compare,
Boundless courage, very rare,
Skill renowned in the Empire,
Speed to which the young aspire.

Leaping with a Klingon grace,
Murderous grimace on his face,
Wholly taken by the fight,
Knowing he is in the right.

Old men watch in memory,
Scenes of battles fought they see,
Honor once the battle cry,
This warrior holds that banner high.

Energy enough to spare,
Raining blows from everywhere,
Confidence beyond his years,
As an end to battle nears.

Hand to hand and might to might,
Disrupter sting and dagger bite.
Howl of triumph, victor's song,
Enemies are proven wrong.

Resurrecting honor's creed,
Willingly to fight and bleed.
Family crest engraves the knife.
Death begins the spirit life.

Klingon strut of racial pride,
Honor to the one who died.
Battle tales for history,
Son to son, forever free.

Honor first beyond the rest,
Klingon braveheart answers,
HIS'laH!"

"That's right, Kang. Now let's do it again and this time, hear the words and let your spirit flow with the music," Kahless exhorted.

For the first time since before Khalian had entered his office, dragging him from it to this cesspool of a planet, Kang's spirit soared, and he put everything he had into singing this song his patriarch had taught him. The things around him faded, and he was not aware of the fact that the storm was beginning to abate.

Kang began marching around the bottom of the pit.

Kahless stood in the center with his hands on his hips, a giant, open mouthed grin on his face. "Sing, Kang! Cleanse your soul!" Then, as if he could hear something Kang was missing, Kahless tipped his head, his gaze, upward toward the opening of the pit. After a moment, he nodded. Without interrupting Kang, who had started yet another rendition of the song, Kahless' smile faded. "Your followers come, Kang. Learn and embrace D'Har, for it is the only hope the Klingon have." Joining Kang in the song, he slowly faded away, leaving him to continue alone.

*****

N'rak took a swig of kilvan from a wineskin hanging around his neck. Taaren said I'd be very happy with one of those he is bringing. He savored the warm feeling the liquor produced in his stomach. If that's the case, I'll put this special prisoner in the same cell complex as Kang. Maybe, I'll even turn my back and pretend not to notice what happens after I show Taaren where Kang still lives.

"Transport complete," reported the voice of the transporter technician over the intercom.

"Send them straight to the command complex for my welcoming speech."

"Yes, joHwI'."

"Did you note anything special about one of the prisoners?" he asked the disembodied voice on the speaker.

"They all look the same to me, joHwI'. Who's supposed to be in this group of animals?"

"None of your business," N'rak replied. "Send them." I wonder why the technician didn't recognize him? he asked himself as he waited. He heard the clatter and clank of the prisoners entering the hallway outside the door of the chamber. I guess I'll find out soon enough. He took another swig from the wineskin.

The noise in the hallway got louder with each moment until finally a huge Kh'myr warrior with a bu's insignia herded a bedraggled band of Segh vav captives in. Though he couldn't understand why the technician hadn't recognized the honored prisoner that followed the bu' in, N'rak did, his bushy brows rising and the mane of his neck's nape flaring with excitement.

"Bu' Taaren reporting, Commander. Prisoner transport."

"Sa' Kor!" N'rak exclaimed, ignoring Taaren. He swaggered up to the individual he'd named. "toH! The veStarg finds himself caged! What did you do, you paper-pushing rolchIS? File your reports too late?" N'rak howled with laughter, as did the other guards in the chamber.

Their merriment died abruptly when Taaren raised his disruptor carbine and began blasting away, his barrage starting with N'rak. Within seconds, every other Kh'myr in the room lay on the floor, heavily stunned. A squad of Segh vav warriors came in from behind Kor and Taaren to relieve them of their weapons. Taaren studied the main console board and punched a series of buttons.

"We've disabled all monitor and alarm networks, joHwI'," he reported in his flat monotone voice. "Admiral Kang's cell coordinates are 003.61 by 72.97."

Kor nodded as he stripped the manacles from his wrists and ankles. Finished, he raised a communicator to his lips. "This is Kor. We have a dozen new knot-head volunteers for the ch'luge module. All systems are inoperative. I have the location of Kang's cell." He repeated the grid coordinates.

"Acknowledged, my mate," Kali's voice crackled. "We are beaming down now."

"Success, Kali--be careful!"

"Understood, my lord."

Kor gestured to Taaren. The Kh'myr mechanically raised his disruptor rifle and sprayed a stream of lethal energy over every console and control panel in the complex. They melted down under its attention, leaving behind a puddle of metallic gray slag.

Kor allowed himself a mirthless grin. It would be some time before the Kragyr prison's systems would be operational again. Now if only Kali and her squad could get Kang out.... The sprawled bodies of the unconscious Kh'myr warriors disappeared in the sparkle of transport beams.

He and his troops would be next. A moment later, Kor felt the familiar tingle through his body as his molecules began to dematerialize.

*****

Kali's landing party materialized into what at first seemed like the swirling center of a wind vortex, their weapons primed and ready. The last vestige of a storm was still raging around them, stinging their faces with sand.

No one challenged them. Kali lowered her carbine, frowning. Wrong. There is something wrong. All she saw was a vast sea of rusty sand and a black, neolithic finger of jagged rock jutting up from the desert floor about three hundred meters away. Her eyes narrowed. A trick? Is it possible that Taaren has fought off the influence of the mindsifter? But...

Kragyr's sun broke free from the edge of the storm cloud, and the wind shifted. The dry, hot breeze carried the unmistakable stench of fecal waste and urine. Kali gestured to the twenty warriors who had accompanied her.

"Over there," she whispered. "In the shadows, at the base of that rock."

The squadron moved out, and as they drew closer to the monolith, the odor became overpowering. Kali's sense of foreboding grew with each step. She still could find no evidence of anything remotely resembling a cell block, or enclosure.

The wind died as the temperature rose, and she began to hear something not normal to the landscape surrounding her--a voice, singing in Klingonese. Discerning the direction it was coming from, she finally found what she was looking for.

The floor of the desert contained several dozen rows of iron grates, a pattern of oversized sewer covers. Moving quickly toward them, Kali recognized what she was seeing. Pits. The prisoners are kept in pits dug out of the soil. Sweat was already soaking her undergarments. No wonder there are no guards; even if a prisoner could somehow climb out of the hole and move aside the heavy iron grating, he would die in short order under the unforgiving sun.

She recognized the singing voice, though it was slowly fading to a croak. "Find the singer," Kali ordered her squadron. "Time is short."

She peered down into one of the earthen cells. It was about five meters deep and empty. Only an insect could escape from one of these pits. A grinning skull stared back at her from the next one; a blue-skinned Andorian male lay huddled in a fetal position in the third. Her search yielded the half-eaten naked body of a young Human female in the next hole.

"Lady Kali! Over here!" Sergeant Drunn yelled, waving at her from one row over.

Kali rushed to his side. "Is it Admiral Kang?"

Drunn nodded. "It is he, my lady, but...."

Kali gazed down into the pit. She gasped, nearly screaming. She remembered Admiral Kang as she had seen him last: a powerful, robust, handsome warlord, graceful and lithe as a Capellan powercat. The pathetic figure marching around the small circle of ground at the bottom--croaking out a song too faint to recognize--looked like a living skeleton with taut, sallow skin stretched over its bones. He was clad in a ragged garment that resembled a tattered loincloth. Gruesome scars and sores covered the frail body; the black hair and beard streaked heavily with gray, and straying wildly in all directions.

The figure at the bottom of the pit raised his eyes to the sky and managed a roar. Kali saw that the eyes were the same, as piercing and commanding as an eglon's.

They flickered with recognition as he noticed them. "Lady Kali." His voice creaked, between gasping breaths, the hinges of a rusty, unused gate. "You have found me, praise Kahless."

"Hold on, Kang!" Kali's voice quavered as she fought back her rising emotions. "We have come to take you home." She raised her communicator to her lips. "We have him."

*****

The dwarf star glowed balefully through the observation deck's single large, transparent aluminum window. The room was full of tables and chairs, but only the one centered right in front was occupied. An aurora burst into view just outside the star's corona, filled with every frequency of light imaginable. The one sitting at the table never once looked up to see it, continuing to read through the document displayed on the computer monitor on the table in front of him.

Two shadowy figures stood near the doorway at the other end of the room.

"He's changed," Kali whispered to the one standing next to her.

"How so, wife?" Kor whispered back.

"Look at him, husband." She swept her hand toward the figure. "The ordeal emaciated him, yet he hardly eats." Her hand ended its sweep with her finger pointed at the half-eaten plate of fresh gagh on the table top next to a stack of record chips, squirming to get away. "Do you ever remember Kang letting a plate of food get away like that?"

"Hmmm." Kor nodded his head. "You have made a point." He turned to face her. "I have tried to talk to him about how to get the revenge he so deserves. I expected that to get a rise out of him. Do you know how he reacted?"

Kali said nothing, her questioning look saying everything.

"He told me it wasn't important right now."

"What?!"

"He said it wasn't important. His mate slain, himself imprisoned in a place taken from Gre'thor itself, and he says revenge is not important?"

"I don't understand. Has he said what is important?"

"Not a word. But since then he has also read through the entire library's contents on Klingon ancient history, specifically, Kahless' time and his writings."

"What do you suppose has gotten into him?"

"I have no idea, wife, but whatever it is, it consumes his every waking moment."

"Can you believe what he had us do before leaving Kragyr?"

"That is the first piece of the puzzle, my lord."

"He had us transport all the prisoners from the pits to the control complex."

"I can understand the tactical advantage to that. They will complete the destruction of the colony's defense forces. But to then give them a subspace transceiver to call for transport off that hell-hole?" Kali shook her head to end that statement. "What does he care about a bunch of lowly prisoners? The majority of them were there for legitimate reasons."

"It is a mystery," Kor whispered.

Pulling chairs out from a nearby table, Kali sat. "Are you hungry, my lord husband?"

"No, Kali, but when confronted by a mystery, I like to eat. Can I get you something as well?"

"I don't know; just something to pick at while we try to figure this out."

Kor walked over to the food dispenser and put in an order. A moment later he had two heaping plates of rokeg blood pie, and two mugs of warm jurkim mead. "How's this?"

"I said, something to pick at, Kor. Not a full meal."

"I guess I'm hungrier than I thought."

"Humph. Do you know what I'll have to do to work that off? Do you want me to look like some pampered harem female?"

"I'll take you as you are. Besides, you can eat like a targ and never get plump and soft." Kor glared lustfully from under his bushy eyebrows. Ignoring the food in front of him, he grabbed her hand, bringing the underside of her wrist to his nose.

"Ahem," came a voice from behind them.

Kali's gaze slowly moved to the source, but she did not withdraw her hand from Kor's attention. She could smell his rising heat above that of the food and her body was reacting as well. With her other hand, she grabbed him by the ear and tweaked it slightly. "Kor, we have company."

"So?" he growled.

"It's Koloth."

Kor stopped in mid-lick. He growled, then let her arm go. "Your timing is impeccable, if not disturbing, Koloth."

"I can wait in the hall if you want me to," Koloth replied.

"Whatever it was that brought you down here, must be very important."

"Oh, it can wait."

Kali smiled, knowing where this was going to go already.

"For how long?" His gaze went back to Kali, the leer back.

"A few minutes will not change what I have to say."

"Why you son of a targ! I ought to..." Kor's stance became menacing, his fist balled up tightly.

"Sit, Kor, and eat," Kali interrupted her mate. "Join us, Koloth."

Kor grudgingly acceded and returned, grumbling the whole time.

"So," Kali opened the conversation.

"No pursuit from Kragyr," Koloth reported. "I have monitored many communications from there. Prisoners looking to find transportation, but there has been no official government response to the situation." He paused to take a sniff of the blood pie sitting in front of Kali. "Smells good."

"Here. Have it. I asked Kor for a snack, and he gives me a banquet." She winked.

Kor exploded with laughter, spraying them with the food he had just stuffed into his mouth. Recovering, he roared, "I'll give you more than that when I get you back to our bed."

She shoved the plate in front of Koloth. "I'll hold you to that, my lord." Her voice was low and breathy.

Kor looked over to Koloth, chuckling. "I'm in trouble now."

His mouth full now, Koloth nodded, chewed and swallowed.

"Any word on the search for Marschut?" Kali changed the subject after a long pause.

"The last communiqué I received about that subject out of Kazh was before we arrived at Kragyr. They've given up looking for her on the homeworld." Koloth used the Segh vav name for the Homeworld, refusing to utter Qo'noS, the Kh'myr name for it.

"I'll bet she's been off-planet since the day after her abduction," Kor commented between mouthfuls of blood pie.

"Has there been any word from the kidnappers?" Kali asked. "Ransom? Demands?"

"Nothing," Koloth answered.

"Then they obviously kidnapped her for another purpose," Kali continued.

"And that is?" Kor questioned.

"What else is valuable about the sister of the emperor besides her family's obvious wealth, or as an influence on her brother?" Kali answered the question with a question.

There was silence as they all pondered this aspect. They didn't see Kang get up from his studies and approach them quietly.

Finally, Kor spoke, "Well, whatever it is, the emperor would do anything for the one who brings her back."

"In one piece," Kali added.

"Of course, wife," Kor answered.

"Position," came a quiet voice from close behind them.

"What?" the three at the table chorused.

Kang repeated his statement. "Position. They kidnapped her for the position she can impart on the one who mates her."

Koloth snapped his fingers and exploded, "Of course! As long as Kudan Kuras remains without an heir, Marschut's mate would be in line to sit on the throne."

"Exactly," Kang returned.

"But who would be so bold?" Kali continued the line of questioning.

They all had the answer. Kang voiced it: "Khalian."

"Khalian," Kor growled. "That Kh'myr son of a targ. Of course, it was him." Kor growled, slamming his fist down on the table's top and rattling the dishes.

"The emperor must also suspect this," Koloth continued. "The hunt concentrated on all his estates on Kazh."

"He's not stupid enough to keep her there." Kang pulled up a seat to join them. "Nor would he have sent her to his many holdings off-world either."

"Then where?" Kali asked the obvious question.

Kang shrugged. "This I do not know. In my dealings with that Klingon..."

They all noted that Kang had called Khalian a Klingon and not Kh'myr and were mildly surprised.

"...I have noted that he has all sorts of contacts--legitimate and not. I suspect if she is found, it will be in the safekeeping of the latter."

They also noted a new kind of calmness about Kang's voice. He was showing no emotion--just a straight, no-nonsense approach.

They all sat, staring at the empty bottle of jurkim, saying nothing.

It was Kor who finally saw what he was staring at. "The bottle's empty." He grabbed it and took it to the disposal slot, then moved over to the dispenser. "Another..."

Kang interrupted him. "No, Kor. We must keep our heads clear for now."

"But I think better..."

Kang cut him off with a swift swipe of his arm. "No, Kor, you don't, and I need your cunning undulled. Drunkenness is not honorable."

There was no denying the intensity of the command Kor had just received, and he complied without further argument. There is something different about him. Kor returned to the table. I can't find resistance to his commands in me, though I would have argued, and maybe even won, before. And what is this sudden obsession with honor. He looked at Koloth and got a shrug.

"Sit," Kali smiled at him, and turned her gaze to Kang, seeing a strange intensity glowing there.

Now what's gotten into her? Kor sat.

"Koloth," Kang began.

"Yes, Lord Kang?"

Kang's new aura affects Koloth as well, Kor observed and then felt the same sense of loyalty begin to grow warmly within himself. I must discover what it is about Kang that has changed.

"Have communications monitor all messages that originate at or are addressed to Khalian's headquarters."

"Already being done, Lord Kang," Koloth answered.

"Good. Anything unusual?"

"Just standard fleet and logistics traffic."

"It's a start. In order for Khalian to pull this off, he must successfully subjugate and mate Marschut. It cannot look forced, but must appear that she does this of her own free will."

"I can't imagine Marschut succumbing that easily," Kali noted.

"They will bring many pressures to bear on her. Sooner, or later, she will give in." Kang's gaze became unfocused for a moment as he wrapped his arms around himself, looking for support. "I know." The others became uncomfortable watching Kang turn within himself, knowing Kragyr had nearly crushed this paragon of Klingon strength. Kang finally came back to himself. "When that happens, when he calls for her, we'll be ready."

They all nodded and became silent for what seemed a long time. Then Kor broke the silence. "They will guard her well."

"Maybe, then maybe not, but with that in mind, what's the status of our forces?" Kang's gaze focused on Kor.

"I have fifty, hand-picked Kh'teb warriors," Kor reported, "the best the fleet can offer. All loyal, ready to fight and die for me if I but ask."

"You also have thirty-five crack Kh'myr warriors as well," a deep voice said from the vicinity of the door.

Kang turned with a start. "Who are you?"

"My name is Worf, son of Muloch, under the command of Kusan."

A smile spreading across his face, Kang's gaze shifted to Kor. "How did he get here?"

"He was present when they took Marschut," Koloth offered an answer. "He nearly died in her defense. He seeks vengeance."

Kang walked slowly toward Worf, a light growl beginning to build in his throat.

Koloth began to get to his feet.

"Keep your seat, Koloth. This is between me and this Kh'myr cub."

There was a deadly quality to Kang's voice, and the three at the table looked nervously at each other in preparation for what was about to happen. After all, it was a Kh'myr that had imprisoned Kang and responsible for Mara's evident death. Unfortunately, Worf was the first Kh'myr faced by the newly liberated Kang.

Worf recognized the quality of Kang's approach. Though he still stood at attention, a slight shift of his feet suggested his readiness to defend himself. His gaze met and held Kang's, never faltering.

Kang stopped only cellicams from Worf. With his hand on the hilt of his knife, the growl that had begun to rattle through Kang's throat, turned into a full-throated roar. "Kh'myr!"

"I am!" Worf roared back in his own basso voice, his hand on the hilt of his own blade weapon, ready to do battle.

"What were you doing in the lady's quarters?" Kang's question was voiced in such a way to brook no deception.

"By her invitation, joHwI'," though he answered using the honorific, there was no fear in Worf's eyes.

"And you defended her against the vile scum that took her?"

"I did."

"Were they Kh'myr?"

"They were."

"And you fought them?"

"I did."

"Why?" demanded Kang.

"What?" Worf was confused.

"I asked you why."

"I don't understand, joHwI'?" For the first time in the confrontation, Worf seemed to shrink.

"It's a very simple question, Kh'myr. Why did you defend the Lady Marschut?"

"Because their attack was not...right," Worf answered.

"Why not?"

Worf's eyebrows came together, and his gaze sought out those at the table for help and found the same question in their eyes. "I...I...don't understand, joHwI'."

"What isn't there to understand? Why wasn't it right for your fellow Kh'myr to attack a Segh vav female?"

"I...I...don't know," Worf stammered. "It just wasn't."

"How did you know?"

"I felt it," Worf answered, thumping his chest. "Here."

"Even though there is no law stating that to attack one weaker is wrong?"

"There were five of them, and she was in her home. It was not...not...." Worf's face reflected the confusion of not knowing the right word.

Kang seemed to relax, and the hand that had been on the hilt of his weapon instead reached up and grabbed Worf's left shoulder. "It was not..." Kang paused, insuring he had Worf's full attention. "...honorable."

"That is right, joHwI'." A new light went on in Worf's eyes. "My father, as did his father before him, has taught those of my family the value of honor, though my brothers have forgotten much of it since his death in battle. I did not answer that right away, because the concept is foreign to most Klingons now."

"How many Klingon warriors did you say were in the holding cells?"

"Lord Kang!" Kor jumped to his feet. "They are Kh'myr! We cannot trust them to this!"

Kang turned to face his friend. "You are wrong, Kor. They are Klingons; just as you are," he said pointing at him with his finger, "as is Kali, your mate, though both of you are Kh'teb." He shifted his finger's point to Koloth. "As Koloth is, though he is Kh'fjin." Then Kang's gaze went to the floor, his face full of sadness. "As was my mate, Mara, though she was Kh'rylov." Then he faced the group at the table, as if he were facing the entire empire. "We are all Klingons."

Worf growled from behind Kang, an intense gaze focused on the back of Kang's head, one fueled by a new found loyalty.

Kang turned back to face Worf. "Will they fight for me?"

"I will," he answered. "There is honor in you."

"But will the Klingons from the cells fight with us?"

"I don't know, joHwI', but if I can get them to fight with me, will that be enough?" asked Worf.

"If you will fight with me? Then it is," Kang decided.

"Kang! No! We can't trust them. I have the ch'luge module. I can reprogram them," Kor persisted.

"And have them all be like Taaren?"

"He is obedient."

"He is but a puppet. What happens if he had to fight, and you aren't there to tell him what to do?"

Kor was unable to answer.

"That's right," Kang answered his own question. "He would fall. Where's the honor in that?"

"I...I..." now it was Kor's turn to stammer. "But he's just a Kh'myr, Kang. They are dispensable."

"Kh'myr, Kh'teb, Kh'fjin, Kh'yrlov," Kang countered. "We are all the same in the end. Look at yourself in a mirror, Kor. Each and every day, as your life continues, you begin to look more like a Kh'myr."

"But that is a sign of my wisdom." Kor traced the ridges that were becoming more pronounced on his once smooth forehead. "A sign of respect, of age. The Kh'myr, who are born with them, mock this."

"They do not mock it. It is the way they are born. They have no more control of it than you your temper, Kor." Kang chuckled. "But this common ground means that in the end we are meant to be one people, Kor." Kang walked up to his old comrade and held out his hand. "I would place a new order within the Klingon people. An order dedicated to honor. I see that light in Worf, and he is Kh'myr. I would see that light in all the Klingon people, overcoming our racial hatreds."

Koloth jumped to Kor's side. "I will follow it, Lord Kang."

Kang looked at Koloth and saw the new light in his eyes as well. "Yes, of course, the cerebral Koloth, you do see the wisdom in honor." He looked over Kor's shoulder to see Kali right behind him. He could tell she understood as well, but would not come forward until Kor did. She is indeed a loyal mate. "Kor, mighty Kor, the War-Targ, the bravest and strongest of us all. Can you be brave enough to fight the demons that are trying to destroy our empire from within? Would you fight the demons that cause us to fight each other instead of our real enemies? Will you be the cornerstone I can build on?"

"Join us, Sa' Kor," Worf said, stepping up beside Kang.

Kor's gaze jumped from Kor to Worf to Koloth.

"It's so simple, Kor," Koloth offered.

But it didn't seem simple to Kor. Klingons had always believed in the survival of the fittest. That made seeing the way so clear--bend to the stronger, destroy the weak. How much thought went into that? How would honor make that any simpler? How could it do anything but muddy the waters? "I...I...don't know, Kang. It sounds good, but...." Kor faltered, his mind a jumble of thoughts and emotions.

"Husband?" came a familiar voice.

Kor turned to see his mate standing next to him, entreaty in her eyes.

"I will follow you, Lord Kang. You know that. I, too, don't feel I completely understand this new emphasis on honor, but it seems right, here," she pointed to her head, "and more importantly," she shifted her pointing finger to her chest, "here. Can you not see the higher calling?"

Kor did not feel anything but confusion. What more can there be than to crush the weak so that the strong survive? What more can there be to that?

"Husband?" Kali whispered to him, taking his hand and putting his wrist to her cheek.

Kor's resolve began to wither. Then he returned his gaze to Kang, who stood with Koloth and Worf on either side. Though Kali's influence had begun the fall, it was the look on Kang's face that completed it. It was the same face he'd seen on his comrade-in-arms before uncounted battles. The same look he'd seen when conditions were ripe for a victory. His emotions were still in turmoil, but the part of him that knew that to follow such a leader would insure his survival, told him now to join Kang. I still don't understand what they're talking about, his thoughts churned, but I will learn. He offered his strong right hand--his weapon hand--to Kang. "I do not pretend to understand everything about this 'honor', but if it will serve the Klingon people, then I will follow it."

"Neither do I, my friend, Kor. Neither do I, but together we will discover the truth." Kang and Kor joined hand to wrist, hand to wrist, a soldier's clasp. "From this start, all Klingons become a single entity, a force no one can stand before or stop."

"Success!" the rest chorused, including Kor.

"Kor, Koloth!" Kang ordered. "Get more food. Before we talk to the crew and prisoners, we will cement our new calling and I will tell you what changed me so dramatically."

"I will get the jurkim as well," Kor offered.

"No, Kor, just water for this meal. I want our minds clear."

"But, Kang..." Kor was silenced by the look on Kang's face. "I serve, Kang."

Kang told them about what had happened in the pit. The despair he'd felt, and in the end, the visitation by Kahless.

"Kahless?" Kor questioned. "He has been dead for centuries. Are you sure it was Kahless, not just one of N'rak's underlings playing one last trick on you to drive away your sanity?"

"It was he," Kang answered.

"An intuitive hallucination, maybe?"

"No, Kor, it was he."

"But he is dead."

"Don't you remember the stories told to us by our parents when we were cubs? About how Kahless would return to lead his people?"

"Yes, Kang, but they were just that, stories."

"So I thought as well, my powerful friend," Kang said, smiling. "But there was no denying what I saw just before Kali arrived."

Kor was again uncomfortable. "Forgive me the questions, Kang. It is not that I don't believe in the cause. I only wish to understand."

"I must admit that I do not understand everything myself," Kang answered, "but together we will find the answers. What are your questions?"

"After everything you'd been through, how can you be sure this wasn't just a hallucination caused by the depravation?"

Kang smiled with understanding. "What if it was, Kor? Do you not see that without it, we," he spread his arms indicating those in the room, "no, the entire Klingon Empire, is doomed to self-destruction? We must survive as one people or die as many."

That's the first thing he's said that I can understand, Kor thought. "Together we will survive, Kang. This I swear."

"Good," Kang responded, "we are over the first hurdle. Now for the next, the Kh'myr in the holding cells."

-17-

"Get in there!" Collins ordered his two unwilling charges.

Chekov and Kelowitz, their hands and arms still held above their heads, complied and stepped through a now-open doorway into what was obviously the cargo vessel's bridge. There was someone sitting in the pilot's seat, busily laying in a course.

"It's about time, Collins."

"Ahem," Collins cleared his throat, trying to get his partner's attention.

"Just got the rendezvous coordinates from the boss," Fikes continued, ignoring Collin's attempt to interrupt. "They're farther away, and you won't believe where she's got us going. One wrong move, and we'll be toast, but we've got to get moving if we're going to get there in time to meet him." Fikes punched the final button, locking in the course, then turned around. "Is the topaline--?" He paused as he noted that Collins wasn't alone. "What the--?!"

"Found these two nosing around inside the computer records down below," Collins reported, using the barrel of his phaser as a pointer.

"And you felt you had to bring them here, huh?" Fikes responded angrily.

"They'd found the last shipment's record."

"Yeah, so?" Fikes demanded.

"And that it couldn't have gone where the records say it went."

"So what?"

"They know about us!"

"Why didn't you just kill them on the spot and be done with it?"

"They're Starfleet, Fikes."

"The uniforms give it away, Collins. Why didn't you dispose of them down below?"

"I...I..."

"You couldn't do it," Fikes answered the question for him. "When it came right down to it, you couldn't do what was necessary to cover our tracks."

"Not commit murder, Fikes. You never said we'd have to kill anybody."

"If you want to be a successful smuggler, Collins, you're going to have to get over this squeamishness." Fikes stood up from his seat and pulled a phaser from its holster. "On the other hand, I'm a good smuggler." He took aim at Kelowitz.

"No, Fikes, not while they're here." Collins jumped in front of the target.

"And why not?" Fikes exhibited more than a small amount of irritation.

"Evidence, Fikes," Collins responded. "I may not be strong enough to kill, but I am smart enough to know that when you destroy a biological form by phaser fire, it always leaves a residue. No matter how well you clean up afterwards, it can be picked up by any standard tricorder. Genetic evaluation will tell any investigator who the victim was."

Fikes let his phaser's aim drop. "Okay, Collins. I'll go along with that reasoning. What do you propose we do with them?"

Collins hesitated, obviously unsure.

"Hurry up, partner. We have to be leaving if we're going to make the rendezvous."

"Send them to Illyeekeek to dispose of. It won't matter if their residue is found in his ship. Most likely it will blend with the rest of the evidence he must have there."

Fikes thought on that a moment, then put his phaser back in its holster. "Good idea, Collins. Lock them in the hold with the cargo."

Collins visibly relaxed. "Right, Fikes." He tapped Chekov on the shoulder. "Commander? You and your friend will come with me."

"Why don't you give it up, Collins?" Chekov suggested. "It's only a matter of time before the Reliant discovers us missing and comes looking."

"Looking where, Commander?" Collins responded. "I've already cleared you of all the tracking devices you carried."

"If I found you out, so will Captain Terrell." Chekov argued, hoping for delay. "You're not going to be able to continue this tidy little business of yours any longer. Do you know what the life of a smuggler does to a family?" Chekov began to work on the weak link.

"Ah," Collins paused.

"Don't talk with him, Collins," Fikes yelled over his shoulder. "Just get them out of here and get back. I can't pilot this ship without your help."

"Okay, Fikes," Collins answered. "Get moving, Commander." He emphasized his demands with a shake of his weapon.

Since the ship was not large, the walk was short, and soon Chekov and Kelowitz found themselves alone, in a small cargo hold with a large, blue drum.

"Now what, sir?" Kelowitz asked.

"Now vwe vwait."

"For what, Pavel?"

"The Reliant."

"But how are they going to find us? Collins may not be a good smuggler, but he was very thorough in his scans. He found all the tracking devices we had on us."

"That is true, Steven. Nevertheless, Kyptin Terrell will find us. Of that, I am most confident." He tapped the barrel and winked.

"Before this Illyeekeek guy has a chance to dispose of us?"

"Vwell...I didn't say that," Chekov teased. "But don't vworry...it's not as though there's anything vwe can do about it."

Kelowitz pursed his lips. "Me? Vworried?" He mimicked Chekov's accent. "I'm not vworried, sir." Inwardly, he was damning Russian pessimism to hell. "Not one bit."

*****

"What's their heading, Mister Beach?" Terrell asked, sitting calmly in the command chair of the Reliant.

His face buried in the sensor hood, Beach responded, "One-one-three, mark four-zero-two, sir. Straight for the destination proposed on their manifest."

"Twenty or so other freighters left at the same time, Beach. Are you sure that's the right one?"

"Yes, sir. Still receiving the tracking signal, four-by-four."

"Fine." Terrell began drumming his fingers. "Keep us just close enough to track them, Mister Arex, but not within range of any sensors they might have."

"Aye, sir," came Arex's clicking response.

The turbolift door opened, and Lieutenant Commander Kyle stepped out and headed straight for his place at the comm station.

"Excellent piece of transporter work, Mister Kyle."

"Thank you, Captain, and you'll be pleased to note that our guest is not at all happy with his newest accommodations." Kyle's accent was more than its usual chipper self.

"I should say the holding cell in the brig will be a giant step down from what that one's used to."

"I should say so."

"Did you get the data chip back?"

"Yes, sir," Kyle answered as he put the receiver-earpiece into his right ear. "How did you know that was the right bait for the trap?"

"Simple bait for simple minds," Terrell responded. "It was obvious from the start that this was an amateur operation and wouldn't take anything too complex to smoke them out." Why do I think it was too easy? It seems way too obvious that the chief administrator was the controlling force behind this connection. Maybe it wasn't him, but I'll bet anything he knows who it is. "The next step is going to be much harder."

"And that is?"

"Catching the middle man."

"This Illyeekeek?"

"Yes. He has established a very extensive reputation for slipping through the fingers of authorities."

"There they go," Beach announced from his station, interrupting the conversation between Kyle and Terrell. "Course changing. New course: three three one mark zero."

"Slow us down, Mister Arex. Don't run up on them as they turn," Terrell ordered. "Plot a new course, Mister Walking Bear. Report on possible destinations."

"Slowing, sir." Arex responded, immediately.

Next to him Walking Bear was feeding the new course into the ship's astrogator, preparing the Reliant for the change, as well as preparing an answer to the captain's question. "Change heading on my mark." Walking Bear announced a moment later. "three, two, one, mark."

"Aye, aye," Arex answered.

"The only star system on this new course is four days away at the maximum speed of the freighter," Walking Bear reported after a few more minutes.

"According to the records sent to us by Chekov, they're never gone that long." Terrell was thinking out loud. "Anything at all closer suitable for a hidden rendezvous?"

"Like what, sir?"

"Dust cloud, errant asteroid belt." Terrell offered. "This Illyeekeek is like a mouse in a big house, with bolt holes everywhere."

Walking Bear accessed his computer for possible correlations. "There is the Tralachon nebula."

"What's it like?"

"Survey data is limited this close to the Triangle, but there is a neutron star located near its center. There is also a plasma fire storm that accompanies it within the fuel-rich plasma clouds, and it's listed as an extreme navigation hazard. Besides the obvious danger to ships that stray into those nucleonic reactions, it interferes badly with navigation sensors."

"In other words," Terrell made the layman's interpretation, "if you don't know your way around in there, you could get lost." The captain hit the arm of his chair once with his fist. "Sounds like the perfect little hidey hole for our mouse."

Walking Bear nodded slowly. "I agree."

"We'll see."

"But why would smugglers go straight for the meeting site?" Beach piped in from the science station.

"A good smuggler wouldn't. We could expect many course changes checking their back trail for a shadow, but these aren't professional smugglers. Hell, they didn't even scan their cargo before beaming it aboard. These guys are amateurs, and they're looking to get their money and run. I'll wager they won't even change course again."

"Granted, sir, but this middle man, Illyeekeek, is a different story. Won't he be watching his supplier's back trail?"

"Normally, I would say, yes. But in this case, if the fire storm is indeed the meeting site, then it'll scramble his sensors as well. We'll be on him before he has a chance to do anything."

"I hope so, sir."

"Me, too," Terrell returned. "If not for the mission's sake, then for Chekov's and Kelowitz's sakes."

*****

The Tralachon nebula was the child compared to the maelstrom that surrounded the nearby red super giant that was Antares. But it provided the same sort of spectacular display that was as pleasing to the eye as it was dangerous. The nebula had been given birth by a star, the only remnant of which was now a neutron star that even now consumed the gases. The fire storm that resulted released energy in the form of tongues of flame-like formations that radiated visible and invisible radiation throughout the spectrum.

A planet orbited far enough away to escape being drawn into the neutron star, but had not escaped the fires. Whether it had once had an atmosphere, or any lighter elements, no one knew, for the forge of Tralachon had burned away any atmosphere, and smelted down the body to its iron-nickel core.

Durit waited for the smugglers in the wake of this heavy metal mass, just barely protected from the seething energy of the fire storm. There was only one way in--a narrow path directly behind the planet that brooked no error. It was as entrapping as it was secure, with only one way out as well.

"Program for course and speed accepted," the wejyapHuch's navigation computer responded.

"Program title..." Durit paused to think. It had to be an easy name if, as he suspected, this was a trap. "...Haw''"

"Name for programmed evasive course accepted as Haw'."

"Good."

"Warning," the computer reported.

"What?" Durit asked.

"Program course Haw' will expose ship and crew to high levels of radiation. Cloaking device will not function under these conditions. There is a ninety-eight percent chance the shields will fail, causing severe damage to the ship. Do you still wish to save the program?"

"Warning acknowledged. Save program under specified name."

"Program accepted and saved."

"Good," Durit said to the air of the empty bridge of his modified freighter. If it comes down to having to use that program, it won't matter how dangerous it is. Durit stared at the viewscreen filled with the multicolor plasma fires. Durit found himself deep in an argument with himself.

Why are you doing this? one voice asked.

For Marschut, the other voice responded.

She is just one female. Is she worth what you risk?

A mind's eye projection of Marschut formed within Durit's consciousness. Of course, it was right after she'd discovered that her body wasn't that of an Orion by removing the shift she'd been wearing. Oh, yes, the hormone-influenced second voice answered, she's worth everything I have.

You are a fool, Durit. This is a trap and you will get caught, or killed, trying to escape and then where will you be? What will happen to Marschut then?

The second voice didn't seem phased by any of this. I will not fail. I know this is a trap, and I know the way out.

The first voice, the one of reason, responded tersely. It is risky at best. I'll tell you what will . You will be dead, and Marschut--as well as the rest of your harem--will be taken by the warriors that guard your world. You know what they'll do with them.

"Warning," the computer's voice chimed.

Durit was still staring at the viewscreen, the conflict within him raging. A vision of one of his men mounting Marschut and taking her, came unbidden to his imagination.

That will not happen. I will kill any one of them that tries, the first voice responded.

Ah, but you forget, you will be dead. Dead Klingons cannot kill.

I will not die.

Those are the thoughts of an adolescent when he thinks about his first mating. Think again about what you risk. What if this is successful after all? Have you thought about what will happen next?

The daydreaming continued, only now he was mounting Marschut. There was a quickening in his groin that made him squirm in his seat. Oh, yes, I've thought of that, the first voice answered dreamily, I've thought of that, a lot.

I know, the second voice responded, and it's very disturbing...

"Warning," the computer repeated.

...to think that a warrior of your caliber should be led to such recklessness by the thoughts of just one female.

A rich female, the first voice answered dreamily.

Have you thought that that is precisely why Khalian wants her?

The lusty scene disappeared. Khalian? That fool? He couldn't hold her fast. That's why he sent her to me.

Hah! Exactly! Do you think for a moment he will forget where he sent her? Are you so smitten that you forget how long his arm is? There is nowhere in the Empire you can hide, nor enough money to pay him off.

I will find a way.

Durit! These actions will destroy you. Wake up to what you're doing. Call this off. Get out of here while you still can.

But....

WAKE UP!

"Warning, warning, warning!" the computer screamed, upgrading its alert after no response from Durit. The lights on the bridge blinked, and a klaxon went off.

Durit shook his head, clearing his thoughts of the arguments that threatened to resume. Punching a button on his board, he silenced the alarms. "Computer, report."

"The sensors of the navigation buoy at the entrance to the enclave have picked up an incoming vessel."

"Type?"

"The sensor signature suggests a small freighter. Speed, graf factor two."

That's Fikes and my shipment of topaline. "Turn on the satellite's homing beacon for them. Tight beam, minimal transmitting power. I want no one else to accidentally receive it."

"Completed," the computer answered a moment later.

*****

"Access denied."

"What?" Chekov and Kelowitz chimed together as the computer screen of the small substation in the cargo bay went blank.

"Access denied?" Chekov posed the question.

"So much for using their subspace transmitter," Kelowitz answered.

"They're smarter than they look." Chekov scratched his head, his accent thick.

"Where do you think they are heading?"

"Unknown. Vwherever it is, I don't vwant to still be here vwithout alternatives vwhen vwe get there."

"That's for sure." Kelowitz stared at the blank screen. "Do you think the Reliant knows where we are?"

"I hope so." Chekov brought his hand to his chin as he turned to stare at the barrel of topaline behind them. "I don't relish the idea of meeting this Illyeekeek fellow."

"What do you think he'll do with us?"

"I doubt that he'll be as constrained as these two Cossacks." Chekov let loose with a string of what were obviously Russian expletives.

"What's wrong, sir?"

"Bad enough vwe're stuck in here, but to be blind as vwell."

"Shall I see if I can tie into their visual sensors?"

"Go ahead."

Kelowitz returned his attention to the computer station, and after a moment, the screen came to life. "What the hell is that?"

"A fairly accurate description, Steven," Chekov commented.

"Do you recognize it?"

"It's a nebula."

"No kidding. Any idea of which one?"

"Nyet," Chekov answered, shaking his head. "Too small for Antares...maybe Tralachon."

They both stared at the screen. The spatial object in the middle of the screen got larger and larger, eventually filling it with its tendrils of plasma fire.

"That vwould be a good place to make someone vwalk a plank," Chekov suggested.

"Dead men tell no tales," Kelowitz added a second later.

*****

"I've found Eek's homing beacon, Fikes," Collins reported. "Right on schedule."

"Bearing?"

Collins rattled it off.

"Damn, that's close."

"What?" Collins heard more than a little trepidation in his normally unshakable partner's voice.

"The signal's coming from the entrance of the cone of protection provided by the planet, smack dab in the middle of the worst of the fire storm."

"Sounds like the perfect place to find someone like Illyeekeek," Collins observed.

"Damn!" Fikes retorted.

"What?"

"There's no escape route."

"What?!" Collins repeated.

"One way in. One way out."

"Wouldn't that be the best way to detect someone tailing us?"

"Yeah, but then what do you do if your suspicions are correct?"

"Ah," Collins hissed after a moment's thought.

"The safe corridor is pretty narrow. I'll bet even our little ship could block it," Fikes indicated the Oshota with a flourish of his hand.

"What if the Reliant--?" Collins' question went unfinished.

"Exactly."

"Do you think they'll find us?"

"I think it would be extremely obtuse on our part to believe otherwise. Which leaves us..."

"Trapped." Collins completed that statement. "And the boss doesn't give a whit about that part." The pilot pondered this for a moment. "Wouldn't that trap Illyeekeek as well?"

"He's slick," Fikes commented. "In all my dealings with that one, I've never known him to put himself into a place without a back door."

An alarm at Collins' station interrupted any further conversation. He peered into the hooded monitor of the sensor console, interpreting what he was seeing without pulling his face away from the hood. "Entering system, leaving warp."

"Full impulse." Fikes punched the speed into the computer. The stars on the forward screen pinpointed.

"Homing satellite coming up."

"Full stop." Fikes' fingers flew over the console.

The Oshota glided to a stop only a thousand kilometers from the satellite whose homing signal had gone silent the moment the freighter had changed course toward it.

"Sensors have Illyeekeek's ship at the bottom of the protective cone, near the planet." Collins looked up from the sensor hood. It was then that he noted a new look on Fikes' face, one that he hadn't seen there before. "What's wrong?" Collins asked nervously.

"I don't like this," Fikes responded.

That was all Collins' nerves needed. "We don't have to do this, you know," he said after a moment of observing Fikes.

"Yes, we do, my friend."

"Why?"

"If we want to continue in this business, we have to be reliable in our deliveries."

"What good is a reputation, or for that matter, riches, if we're nothing but deconstituted molecules in orbit around some dead planet?"

"We've come too far to turn back now," Fikes responded. "Besides, what'll we tell the boss? For that matter, what'll we do with your two friends back in cargo?

Collins had forgotten about them. His mouth turned into a frown as he thought on it for a moment. Then, shaking his head, he answered, "Space 'em. Just open the cargo bay door and let the vacuum take them."

Fikes chuckled. "Congratulations, Collins. That was spoken like a true smuggler." He stared at the forward viewscreen and the navigation satellite that floated there. "It might eventually come to that, but for now they're too valuable."

"What?"

"Of course," Fikes continued. "I know Illyeekeek. I've done a lot of business with the guy. He's cautious, but this?" Fikes gestured with his right arm, indicating everything on the screen. "All of this has him worried as well. It may look like there's only one way in, or out, but if I know that dirty smuggler, there's another way out. Always is. I think I can assure you that we can follow him."

"But Fikes?" Collins' heart was doing fear's trip hammer dance step.

"Just in case," Fikes continued, "we want to insure our passengers are safe. At this point, if the Federation is really on to us, they may be as valuable as the topaline as trading material."

"Ah, yes, right. Or just as damning."

"If smuggling was easy, everyone would be doing it," Fikes retorted. "Keep your finger on that door control, just in case."

"You can count on that, my friend."

"Let's go," Fikes used maneuvering thrusters to pass the satellite. "One quarter impulse, maintain a course right down the center of the safety cone."

While the Oshota glided into the only safe place available and the brilliant, deadly plasma discharges surrounded them.

*****

"I had it for only a moment, sir," Arex's reported in his clicking accent.

"What happened?"

"It disappeared."

"Or was shut off," the captain responded. "I don't think they meant us to receive that signal anyway."

"Aye, sir."

"Mister Beach? Sensor report."

"The Oshota entered the plasma cloud and disappeared. There's no way of discovering where they've gone. Too much interference from the radiation fields."

"Can't be too many ways in or out of that mess," Terrell remarked.

"I am getting a faint echo from something massive along the same course the smugglers took," Beach reported.

"Yes?"

"Probably a planetary mass."

"Hmm." The captain began drumming his fingers. "Can our shields protect us from the plasma discharges?"

The science officer peered into the sensor hood. "Level twenty radiation-disruption patterns within the plasma. We could probably withstand one hit from it, but not complete immersion." He looked up from the sensor readings and back at the captain.

"That leaves only one course of action," Terrell concluded.

"And that is, sir?"

"High diddle diddle. Right up the middle."

There was a chuckle from the back of the bridge.

Terrell turned to look over his shoulder and found Doctor McCoy standing there, shaking his head.

"You object, Doctor?"

"It's not my place, Captain, but what you just said is a very familiar philosophy. One I've seen many times before."

"And did it work?"

"Yes, but..." McCoy trailed off.

"But?" The captain pressed his query.

"There's always a dear price to pay."

"Agreed." Terrell nodded his head toward the mainviewer. "But Chekov and Kelowitz are on that ship; and as long as there's a chance they're still alive, I will do everything and anything to get them back safely."

"Sickbay is ready, sir," the doctor responded, content to remain standing in the back of the bridge.

"Good." Terrell turned back to facing the viewscreen. "Helm, take us in. We've got a rat to catch."

*****

"One vessel entering the corridor," the wejyapHuch's computer reported.

"Come on in, my friends." Durit prepared the comm station to send the image of Illyeekeek. "Check their back trail for any sensor shadows."

"Checking," the computer responded. "None detected, but the corridor restricts sensor capabilities."

Must make this the quickest transfer to date. Durit prepared the transporters. This situation has every one of my natural warning systems chiming.

An alarm went off at the comm console. "We are being hailed," the computer reported.

"Open frequency."

Fikes' face appeared on the screen, distorted by interference from the nearby plasma. "Let's be quick, Illyeekeek. This is not a good place."

"My thoughts exactly, Free trader Fikes."

"We have a problem on this end," the pilot continued. "If you could take care of it for us? We would be very grateful."

As if this whole thing isn't a problem? Durit was suddenly concerned. "How much grateful, Free Trader?" Latinum bars brushed away all the alarms that went off in Durit's head.

"Let's say, ten percent of the sale price?"

Intriguing, thought Durit. "What is the problem?"

"We found two Starfleet officers sticking their noses into our records back on Psi Scorpii. We were forced to take them prisoner."

They want me to dispose of them, the fools. Don't want to dirty their hands with murder, Durit deduced. "So?"

"If you could take them someplace..." Fikes smiled nervously. "You know, someplace they, or their remains, would never be found?"

Durit's stomach churned through the complications this action would cause. "Twenty percent," he finally responded, his greed silencing the warning bells.

Fikes hit a button, and the audio was muted as he turned to someone off-screen. There seemed to be an argument, an argument Fikes evidently won. "Agreed. Twenty percent. They are in the same hold as the shipment."

"Prepare for transfer," Durit ordered.

"Warning! Sensor contact!" the computer screamed.

"Where?" Durit demanded, the transaction forgotten.

"Just passing the navigation satellite. Its passage has tripped the security program. Their course is identical to the safe corridor."

"Identity?"

"Starfleet vessel. Miranda class heavy frigate."

"What's going on?" Fikes was yelling.

"Someone followed you, Fikes!" Durit answered. "You've brought Starfleet to our meeting."

"What?!"

"Computer. Power up all weapons. Bring the shields to full strength."

"Defense grid powering up," the computer confirmed as its programs worked.

"What are you going to do?!" Fikes screamed, still on the screen.

Durit ignored the pilot as he pulled his escape course from the navigation computer.

"Shields are at full power," the computer reported. "False bulkheads coming down. Weapons free and clear."

"Good," Durit responded to the computer's report, then turned his gaze onto the Earther face still on his screen. "This is the last time you lead the authorities to me, Fikes."

"What?"

"You led the Caldonians to our last meeting."

Fikes' mouth dropped open in response.

"And now you've brought Starfleet." Durit turned off the device that hid his true form. Fikes' surprise was both expected and welcomed at this point. "Never again, targh tera'ngan."

"A Klingon?!...I...uh...oh shit...I...sir?"

Durit cut the transmission as he engaged his weapons systems, first on the incoming Starfleet ship. The cross-hairs of his forward plasma torpedo launchers appeared on the screen. Within moments, he had the Starfleet vessel targeted.

"Torpedo lock," the computer responded.

Returning his attention to the freighter, he locked the disruptor's targeting computer onto it. He was about to push the fire button when he remembered the important items in its cargo bay.

"Computer, scan for topaline."

"Scanning. Topaline located." A red spot appeared in the center of the freighter.

"Lock and transport."

"Shield interference," the computer responded.

So Fikes has managed to install a defensive shield on that piece of baQa' he calls a ship. He returned his gaze to the weapons console and insured the disruptors still had a lock on the freighter. A quick adjustment brought one disruptor battery on-line. "baH!" He roared to himself as he pressed the fire button.

A single blob of brilliant green disruptor energy lanced out and struck the shields of the Oshota. There was a flash, and the shields went down.

"Lock on and transport topaline," Durit ordered.

*****

"The smuggler just fired on the Oshota, sir!" Beach reported from the science station.

"He's armed?!" Captain Terrell responded in mild astonishment.

"Now why doesn't that surprise me?" McCoy muttered from his perch in the back of the bridge.

"Sensors have identified six batteries of disruptors," Beach read the reports from his hooded computer monitor. "Two forward, two amidships and two in the stern. All fully charged, three tracking the Oshota." Then the science officer yanked his face from the hood. "Sir, the smuggler has plasma torpedo tubes as well."

"How many?"

"Two--both forward, and sir..." His voice trailed away as he returned his gaze to the data

"Continue, Commander."

"Sensors report that both have a full charge and are locked onto us."

"Not the freighter?" the captain responded.

"No, sir. Us."

"Evasive maneuver, Mister Arex!" Terrell ordered.

"Evasive maneuvering is limited, sir," the Edoan helmsman responded. "The safe corridor through the plasma fire is too narrow.

"Transporter energies monitored by sensors, sir," Beach stated.

"Transporter?" Terrell leaned forward in his command chair. "What's he up to?"

"A large source of topaline just materialized on board his ship, sir."

"I see." Terrell hit the intraship communications button on the arm of his chair. "Engineering."

"Engineering, aye."

"Mister Farrell, I want to extend our shields to protect the freighter. How soon can we do that?"

There was a pause.

"The smuggler's preparing to fire on the freighter again, sir," Beach reported.

"Come on, Johnny! The exec is over there. How soon?"

The answer finally came. "Twenty seconds, sir, but..."

"But what?"

"It will be tentative, sir, and it won't stand up to much punishment."

"It'll have to do. Get it ready."

"Aye, sir."

There was a flash on the viewscreen.

"Torpedo launch detected, sir," Beach reported.

"At the freighter?"

"No, sir. Us."

"Get us out of the way, Arex!"

"There's no place to go, sir."

"Hold on to your seats, gentlemen," Terrell ordered as the red-orange orb of the torpedo energy appeared on the screen, seeming to come straight at the visual pick up.

*****

"He's attacking the Reliant, sir," Kelowitz stated, watching the viewscreen within the Oshota's cargo bay.

"Who is?" Chekov questioned.

"The smuggler."

"Vwith vwhat?"

"Plasma torpedo."

Chekov whistled in response. "He has torpedo launchers as vwell?"

"Evidently," Kelowitz answered.

There was a flash on the screen. "Direct hit, forward shields." Then a moment later: "Her shields held."

"That smuggler's packing as much punch as those of a Klingon K't'inga battlecruiser."

The deck tilted under their feet, threatening to knock them from their feet.

"Vwhat's he vwaiting for?" Chekov asked. "He already took out the shields and the topaline shipment. Vwe're sitting ducks. One shot, and he could destroy this freighter."

Kelowitz didn't answer, choosing to continue to track the Reliant. "Come on, Captain. Get in here."

The deck tilted suddenly from its last angle to one in the opposite direction, sending Chekov flying through the air, to finally end piled against the wall. Kelowitz maintained his feet only because he held onto the bottom edge of the viewscreen's control console. He heard Chekov cursing from the far side of the room just as he saw another undulating red-orange orb enter the visual field of view. "He fired on the Reliant again, sir."

Chekov picked himself up and limped back to where Kelowitz was standing. "I don't get it. Vwe're totally exposed, and he's vwasting his time on the Reliant."

"What I don't understand is why the captain hasn't fired back? If the smuggler can hit them with torpedoes, then torpedoes can hit him."

"Check the smuggler's position in relation to us from the Reliant's point of view. He's hiding behind us, isn't he?"

"Yes, and that's why he hasn't outright destroyed us yet."

"Those two up front must have already told the smuggler that vwe're on board."

"So we're safe?"

"Only for the moment," Chekov answered. "Once our usefulness as a shield ends, so vwill our existence."

"Come on, Captain," Kelowitz directed at the screen. "Take him out."

A stream of green disruptor energy erupted from the smuggler, and the deck in the cargo hold tilted violently around. The viewscreen went out, as did the lights.

*****

"A hit on the freighter's bridge, sir," Beach reported.

"Those poor sods never stood a chance," Terrell reacted.

"The wages of sin," Kyle murmured just under his breath from the comm station.

"How's the rest of the ship?"

"Still intact. That smuggler is either very lucky, or the best shot I've seen outside of Starfleet."

"I doubt there's any luck at all," Terrell observed. "He's doing this on purpose."

"Forward shields are down to thirty percent," came the report from engineering.

"How soon until we can extend them to protect the freighter?" Terrell asked.

"And do what, sir?" Lieutenant Farrell, the assistant chief engineer responded. "At their present power level, they wouldn't stop a low-grade laser beam, let alone another one of those torpedoes or disruptor bolt."

"How soon, Johnny?" Terrell ignored the complaint.

"You can do it now, sir, but..."

"Helm, flip the ship around; maintain forward speed, but present the stern. Engineer, extend rear shields to protect the freighter. Weapons Officer, lock all weapons on the smuggler and prepare to fire as soon as he bolts around us--target engineering. I want him alive."

The bridge came alive, and the Reliant responded to the commands of its master.

"Rear shields extended around the freighter," came the report from engineering a moment later.

"We're in position, sir," Arex reported. "Thrusters even now firing to bring us to full stop."

"Get ready, Mister Walking Bear," Terrell responded, not taking his gaze from the viewscreen.

Four streams of coruscating green disruptor energy erupt from the smuggler's flanks. The floor of the bridge shifted.

"Walking Bear, if you please." Terrell pointed at the smuggler on the screen.

"Yes, sir."

Both of the Reliant's phaser batteries disgorged scarlet streams of coherent destruction, aimed at the rear of his ship. They splashed against fully charged defensive shields, doing no damage.

"No effect, sir."

The smuggler's weapons fired again--four streams of disruptors and a ball of controlled plasma energy. The streams, traveling at the speed of light, struck first. The Reliant's shields held, only until the torpedo arrived. The Miranda class ship tipped savagely forward.

"Shift her ninety degrees to starboard, and extend those shields," Terrell ordered. "Continue to protect the freighter." He remained calm and calculating, not even drumming his fingers.

Walking-Bear and Arex followed their orders, and the Reliant responded, protecting her stern by presenting her left flank to the smuggler's weapons.

The smuggler's impulse engines brightened, and she moved along the Reliant's presented flank, one disruptor firing.

A shower of white sparks erupted from a shorting circuit board. A shudder passed through the supporting structures beneath their feet, but nothing else happened. The starboard shields held.

"He's withdrawing, sir," Beach reported.

"Ready the photon torpedoes and phasers, Mister Walking Bear."

The smuggler gained speed, heading down the corridor and eventual escape. Two beams of disruptor energy lanced out from her stern, striking the still weakened forward shields.

"Forward shields down to twenty percent, they won't hold up under..." came frantic Farrell's voice over the intercom.

A ball of plasma energy disconnected itself from the rear of the smuggler, heading right at the weakened forward shields.

"I'm sorry, sir," Beach reported. "I didn't see the third tube in his stern."

Ignoring Beach's apology, Terrell snapped, "Belay that report, Engineer." He shifted his attention to Walking-Bear. "Lock and fire phasers!"

Twin streams of phased energy reached out and struck the in-coming torpedo, detonating it half-way.

"Photons have a lock on the smuggler, sir," Walking Bear reported without looking away from his weapons console.

"Fire only one."

"Only one, sir?"

"You heard me. Quickly."

The floor of the bridge shuddered, and a moment later the brilliant blue tracer of the Federation's most powerful weapon was hot on the track of the escaping smuggler.

"Torpedo running hot and true," Walking Bear reported. "Impact in three, two...."

The smuggler ship disappeared from the visual monitors of the Reliant's bridge and the artificial eyes of the torpedo's guidance computer.

"...one. Impact, impact."

"He's dodged," Terrell yelled. "Detonate!"

Walking-Bear hit the appropriate switch and there was a blue-white explosion in response.

"Sensor report, Mister Beach," Terrell ordered, relaxing back into his command chair.

"Nothing, sir," Beach reported after peering into his hood a moment. "No secondaries, no debris." He turned to face the captain. "A complete miss."

"Good. Keep a watchful eye out for him," Terrell commented. "I don't think he's coming back. In fact," Terrell paused, "I'm counting on him not to, but just in case...." Without pausing, he turned to the comm station. "Any response from the freighter?"

"None, sir. I've just hailed them."

"Mister Beach, scan the freighter."

"It looks like our smuggler's made good his escape. Scanning the freighter." He reported after a minute. "Bridge area opened to the vacuum, no apparent survivors." He paused again. "Two humanoid life signs in the cargo area. Life support has failed."

Punching the intercom button on his command chair, Terrell spoke quickly. "Transporter, lock onto the two life signs in the freighter's cargo bay. Bring the exec and Mister Kelowitz on board, if you please. Doctor McCoy?" Terrell turned his chair around to find his chief medical officer. "I believe your presence is needed in the transporter room."

"I don't believe what I just witnessed," McCoy stated, his face showing the strain he was experiencing in holding in what he was feeling.

Terrell held his hand up, cutting off any further comment from the doctor. Without losing eye contact with the doctor, he addressed his bridge. "Mister Beach?"

"Aye, sir?"

"Status of the ship?"

"Shields are recharging. We experienced a minor circuit failure on the bridge, but back-up systems took over without loss of function. There have been no casualties reported amongst the crew."

"Analysis of action?"

"We were successful in locating and trapping the middle-man in the smuggling of topaline from the Psi Scorpii colony, although we were not successful in apprehending the individual involved."

"Captain..." McCoy wanted to say what was on his mind, but Terrell re-emphasized the hold gesture with his hand. "Just a minute, Doctor. Mister Walking Bear?"

"Aye, sir?"

"Analysis of smuggler's weapon?"

"The smuggler's ship, despite its appearance, had sophisticated, state-of-the-art weaponry. I saw at least four batteries of high energy disruptors put into action from the region of the bow and midship, and I am willing to assume there two more in the stern. We saw the use of three plasma torpedo tubes--two fore and one aft."

"Possible source of weaponry?"

"No doubt about it. The Klingon Empire."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, sir. Residual radiation confirms it was Klingon technology."

"Thank you, Mister Walking Bear."

"Captain..." McCoy started to talk, but stopped again by Terrell's upraised hand.

"Just one more minute, Doctor." Terrell returned to his senior officer on the bridge. "Mister Beach, have you been able to identify the possible registry of the smuggler's vessel?"

"Starfleet Intelligence has guessed from the various reports it has received that this particular smuggler was Yridian. What we just saw appeared to refute that assumption, especially in regards to that ship's weapon systems. The Yridian ships I've seen before carried defensive weapons, but nothing compared to what we just experienced."

"So your saying that this smuggler may not be what he appears to be?"

"Yes, sir. It's common knowledge that the Klingons will sell their technology to someone with enough cash, but usually they reserve the state-of-the-art stuff for their military or fellow Klingons."

"Captain?" Lieutenant Commander Kyle entered the conversation from the comm station.

"Yes, Mister Kyle?"

"The transporter room has reported they have successfully picked up Misters Chekov and Kelowitz. They report no need for the doctor."

"Good. Are they on their way up here?"

"Yes, sir."

Terrell nodded his head, then returned his attention to Commander Beach. "So what you're trying to say is that this smuggler may not be Yridian?"

"Or has very good contacts with the Klingon government."

Terrell made an intuitive leap. "A spy?"

"Now that you mention it," Beach nodded his head, "it's a very good possibility. Traditionally, intelligence gathering vessels have always worked better if they could blend with those of commerce."

"But, he's selling the topaline to the Romulans," Lieutenant Arex interposed. "At last report, the Romulans and Klingons were still not on good terms with each other."

"And at a great profit from all the reports," Terrell acknowledged Arex's comment, shaking his head. "Which doesn't support the spy allegation, unless he's playing both roles."

"Whew!" Beach reacted. "If that's true, this Yridian is walking a very fine tight-wire. Not a safe game to play. The Klingons are very particular about the activities of their operatives."

The turbolift doors opened, and Chekov and Kelowitz entered the bridge. They were evidently unwounded, though a carbon residue smudged their uniforms and faces.

Terrell nodded at his exec, losing only a beat in the brain-storming session. "You don't look any worse for wear, Exec."

"That party vwas getting too stuffy anyvway, sir, but for me there was never a doubt as to the outcome."

"Since when have you become so naive, Pavel?" McCoy jumped in, aghast at how relaxed Chekov was after having almost died. "From what I--"

"Excuse me, Doctor," Terrell cut him off. "We'll get to you in a minute."

McCoy's mouth dropped opened. He couldn't remember ever feeling so insignificant. It brought back memories of his internship at Atlanta General Hospital.

"We were just analyzing this contact, Exec, and could use your input."

"I think we have something to contribute to this discussion."

"I'll bet, Exec." Terrell returned his attention to Beach.

"Obviously, this Yridian has some powerful friends in very high places within the Klingon Empire."

"That's just it, sir," Chekov jumped right into the after action review with both feet. "The smuggler's not Yridian after all."

"What?" Terrell leaned forward in his seat, all his attention on his executive officer.

"While incarcerated in the cargo bay, I had Kelowitz use the computer station there to tap into their comm circuits. We caught the last part of the conversation between Fikes and this Yridian they called Illyeekeek."

"And?" Terrell sat back into the chair, but his face showed he was anything but relaxed.

"At first, he did appear to be just what his ship and name construed, sir, a Yridian."

"But?"

"When you arrived, and just as he attacked the Psi Scorpii freighter, his form changed on the screen." Chekov paused. "He's Klingon."

"What!?!" startled voices across the bridge gasped.

"I wish we'd had a data chip available. I could have recorded the conversation and provided a picture." Chekov shrugged.

"Hmm, that would explain the weaponry and the cloaking device." Terrell brought his hand to his chin. "And maybe suggests the possibility of espionage, but there's a missing element to this equation. If this was a typical Klingon operation, I don't think he'd have been here," the captain pointed to the nebula on the screen, "at all. We haven't been secretive enough for him to be unaware of what's been transpiring back at Psi Scorpii. He's either a very inept operative, or--"

"He's greedy," McCoy piped in.

"Who said that?" Terrell spun around, knowing that the answer had come from somewhere behind him, but unsure from whom.

"Ah," McCoy stammered, hoping the captain wouldn't want an explanation for why he'd made the guess. He didn't know himself; it was just something that had popped into his mind. "I did, Captain."

"Greed, Doctor? In a Klingon?"

"Ah, yes, sir," McCoy answered, his thoughts in a turmoil over trying to explain his comment. Why don't you just learn to keep your big mouth shut, Leonard? "If this guy was a Terran, I doubt we'd have any problem accepting that thought."

"You're absolutely right, Doctor. Thank you." Terrell smiled a moment at the doctor.

McCoy didn't know why he suddenly felt a rush of excitement over the compliment, but he let himself enjoy the luxury.

Terrell turned to Chekov. "What if what we've got here is just a Klingon, working strictly toward his own ends?"

The executive officer's gaze clouded over with thought as he mulled it over. "Yes, sir, and it would allow Starfleet to relax at the same time."

"Wouldn't it be nice if this turned out just to be a law enforcement issue?"

"Yes, sir."

"In the meantime," McCoy still feeling a bit cocky, jumped in, "he's getting away."

"Not at all, Doctor McCoy," Chekov answered, slowly facing the chief medical officer.

"I don't see us in any hurry," the doctor countered.

"Mister Kyle?" Terrell directed his attention at the comm officer.

"Yes, sir."

"Put the contents of that subspace frequency I asked you about on the bridge speakers."

"Aye, sir."

The bridge speakers came to life, at first filled with the static created by the nearby plasma fires. Kyle fine tuned the reception and the static slowly dissipated, leaving a rhythmic, high pitched beeping in its place.

McCoy smiled. "How? When?"

"Now, Doctor, do I ask you how you cure the common cold?"

"No, but it's actually very easy since my studies on Omega Four produced a wide-spectrum bactericide--"

Terrell interrupted him. "Suffice it to say, he's not getting away. But I do want to know where this vermin's base is."

McCoy nodded his head, as did Chekov. The beeping continued with a regular pattern.

*****

"Clever, tera'ngan," Valkris hissed under her breath as she set her transceiver onto the private frequency her employer used. A moment later, Kusan answered her hail.

"Ah, Valkris. What is our friend up to now?"

"I predict Starfleet will be paying him a visit soon after he returns to his base."

"What?" Kusan's countenance went from surprise to worry, then to anger. "How?"

"The fool let his greed get the better of him. He tried for one more shipment of topaline, this one from right under the nose of Starfleet. Unfortunately, this Starfleet commander knows his business and has placed a homing signal within the topaline."

Kusan shook his head. "This changes everything."

"How, joHwI'?" the q'laI assassin responded, confused.

"It just does, Valkris, that's all you need to know."

"Of course, joHwI'," she answered contritely. "What are your orders?"

"Watch the Starfleet vessel and continue to report on their progress."

"Yes, joHwI'."

The connection ended.

*****

His greed has finally brought about his end, thought Kusan as Valkris' image faded from the small screen of his personal communicator. He'd been in the middle of a meeting with his advisors when the call had come in and now he was alone in his office. As everyone who knows Durit knew it would. But there's more to this than just greed. That wouldn't explain why, after years of operating a fairly lucrative smuggling operation, he became so clumsy.

Kusan thought about this for a moment, then shook his head as a possible solution formed. Khalian sent Marschut to him, of that much I'm sure, and Mara has been successful in getting into position to protect her. Durit has fallen for Marschut and needs the funds to take her away from Khalian.

"Tsk, tsk," he said, shaking his gnarled and shaggy head. But this Starfleet commander poses a problem. He is too good. I had hoped to let Kang and his group work through the problem themselves. Now I'm going to have to get further involved so they beat Starfleet to the end of the trail.

Setting up his personal communicator so that his transmission would bounce off a complex pattern of relay satellites as an audio signal only. He recorded this message: "Kang. The one you seek can be found at..." He punched in the coordinates. "Qapla'!"

"That should do it." Kusan pushed the transmit button. He confirmed that the message had started its journey, then put the communicator back into a pocket of his cloak. "That is about all I can do without exposing my involvement and destroying my credibility with the Kh'myr. It's up to Kang now."

With that, he changed the pattern of his thoughts to that of the new sect he was creating. The teachings of Kahless had always been popular with both Segh vav and Kh'myr, but it surprised him how avidly they absorbed the idea. D'Har.

Kahless was right. They are ripe. At this rate the entire central government will embrace what I'm creating, and given time--a decade or two--the wound created by our racial violence will be healed.

"Thank you, Kahless, for your wisdom," he whispered before leaving his office to return to the meeting he'd left in limbo. He noted not a one of them had left in his absence.

"Honor, warriors, is the answer..."

-18-

"joH Kahless, nuqDaq?!--Lord Kahless, where?!" Kang roared at the vastness of stars displayed on the viewscreen. He raised his gaze to the ceiling of the Hidden Dagger's bridge and roared, closing his eyes in frustration.

Kali clung to Kor at the back of the bridge, her heart heavy with empathic emotion for her mate's comrade-in-arms. More surprising than Kang's uncontrolled release of emotion was his sudden use of pIqaD Klingon, the language of the Kh'myr. No self-respecting Kh'teb would debase themselves using such a guttural tongue.

"How long has he raged, my mate?" Kali asked from the safety of Kor's strong arms.

"When he realized how few clues there are as to where Marschut might be," Kor answered roughly.

They both realized that the bridge was suddenly silent. Looking back to where Kang had been, they found him staring at them.

Kali recognized the fire that burned in Kor's gaze. "He recovers from his captivity," she whispered, disengaging herself from Kor's embrace.

"Is that a fact?" Kor asked. "And how do you know this?"

"That look. A female knows it well. He misses Mara."

"Ah." Kor nodded his head in understanding. "And he has told us that Khalian killed her."

"And that is why he rages," Kali continued. "With loss, with confusion, with lust which kindles his mighty anger. He wants revenge. Recovering the emperor's sister would complete a small portion of that need. Not because it would guarantee his reinstallation on the council, but because she might be able to point a finger of responsibility at Khalian."

"It is unfortunate that we have so little information," Kor grumbled.

"I can well understand his frustration." Kali sighed.

The massive blast doors at the rear of bridge clanked open, and Koloth, not waiting until they were completely open, slid through, excitement filling his every movement. "Navigator, plot and lock a course to these coordinates." He rattled off a set of numbers. "Maximum graf speed. Execute!"

"What?" Kor and Kang said at the same time, both giving the navigator nods of approval.

"Come on, you son of a targ! Get us moving!" Koloth exploded.

"What are you doing, Koloth?" Kang growled.

Koloth held up his right hand, palm up in response, refusing to take his attention off the navigator. "Come on, come on, you laggard."

The navigator completed the computations, locked in the course and speed, and executed the order. The stars on the screen moved to the left, new ones replacing them. These, in turn, began to smear, as the ship entered subspace under its powerful graf drives. "Course locked and engaged," he reported as the speed indicator on his console showed they'd reached the maximum speed of the ship.

"Good, good." Koloth turned to face the other two lords.

"Only my implicit trust in you has allowed this to go so far, Koloth. What, in the name of Kahless, are you up to?" Kang growled.

"I did it. I finally did it. That last filtering system cleared it up enough to understand."

"What?" Kor and Kali echoed.

"That message we received an hour ago, the one that was clear enough to trigger a response from our communication computer, but seemed strangely garbled."

"Probably some kind of distress signal designed to catch the attention of the receiver by doing this. How important can that be?" Kor growled.

"Oh, no, my obtuse warrior." Smugly, Koloth wagged the data chip with the message on it. "It is much more important than that. He sent us the location of the Lady Marschut."

"What?!" roared Kang from the front of the bridge.

"What?!" echoed Kali and Kor.

"Why do you have to go through all these damnable theatrics?" Kor roared. "Show us!" He pointed at the comm station.

Kang joined them, roughly pushing Kor and Kali out of the way to get a direct view of the comm's monitor.

"By Kahless' beard, Koloth, what's taking you so long?" Kang yelled.

The screen filled with static, only the faintest shadow of a figure appeared within the blizzard of electronic snow.

"There is no picture, Kang. The computer suggests there never was one; an audio signal only."

A voice could be just barely heard through the blizzard of electronic snow. "Marschut can be found at..."

Koloth put the play-back on hold. "This is the most peculiar part." He let it continue for a brief moment and a set of coordinates appeared, clear as a bell. "No static in the data, but the identity of the sender remains unidentifiable."

"What's at those coordinates?" Kang growled.

"I...I...don't know, Kang. I just barely cleared up the message enough to find out what those coordinates were."

"Kali, search the navigation data banks. Find out what's there."

"Yes, joHwI'," she responded.

Kor's head turned with a snap. His wife using the pIqaD dialect? First Kang, now her...

Kali was at the nearest computer terminal in two steps. She knew not to hesitate, recognizing the inflection of Kang's voice. The ship belonged to her mate, but it was obvious to her who now commanded it.

Data began to flow almost the moment she finished entering the numbers. She read them in her mind, scanning through the dry, unimportant aspects--the star size and type, the number of planetary bodies, et cetera et cetera--then she came to the most important part.

"It is a mining colony--titanium ore, high-grade, by all reports--closed down over ten years ago."

"Closed down?" Kang asked.

"Yes, lord, mined out. The report mentions that no other useful material was found."

"I guess that would be as good a place as any to hide the emperor's sister. Is it a holding of Khalian?" Kang growled that name, contempt filling his pronunciation.

"No," Kali responded.

"No!? Then who does?"

"It is registered to a Klingon named Durit."

"An alias, perhaps?" Kang questioned.

"Not likely." Koloth stepped forward.

"And why not?" Kor turned his head just far enough around to see Koloth.

"Not his style. I've never known Khalian to hide anything about himself that holds no tactical advantage, whether it be military or civilian."

"But this?" Kang flourished his arm to suggest all that was going on.

"If you mean, the kidnapping of Lady Marschut, that is well within what Khalian is capable of, as you've said yourself." She looked at Kang. "And I agree, it is a positional move."

"I heard Kang say that in the wardroom," Kor jumped into the conversation, "but I find it hard to believe."

Kali turned to face her mate. "We all agree that Khalian is ambitious."

The three males, as well as all the other support personnel on the bridge, nodded their heads, some snickering.

"And we all agree that he had to be the one behind all this." She didn't wait to hear them, but forged on. "He is smart enough to know that by taking the emperor's sister just to influence the decisions of Kudan Kuras would be foolhardy."

"Where does that leave us?" Kor demanded.

"I repeat Lord Kang's idea. He wants to enter the royal house--to eventually become emperor himself."

The bridge went silent, everyone holding their breaths.

Kor broke the spell, exploding into raucous laughter.

"What?" Kali asked, wondering why her mate would think this so funny. Turning to Kang, she saw his knowing smile and knew she had his support. She turned back to her mate. "What?"

"That's ridiculous," Kor responded after forcefully regaining control of his merriment.

"And why is that?"

"She would have to do so of her own accord. Accepting him willingly as her mate," he answered.

"So?" Kali went on.

"He's Kh'myr, Kali," Kor responded.

Kali tipped her head, and the corners of her mouth tipped downward. "Again...So?"

"No self respecting Kh'teb female would willingly join with a Kh'myr. At least, not a female of the royal household."

"You are wrong, my mate."

The bridge went silent.

"Don't forget, I am a confident of Marschut. She often has liaisons with Kh'myr warriors."

"Phah!" Kor exploded. "I don't believe it."

"You've been a member of Kudan Kuras' court for how long, my mate, and you never observed Marschut's dealings?" Kali walked up behind Worf. "Why do you think he was in Marschut's room?"

Worf tried to shrink out from under Kali's hand. Every male eye on the bridge gazed hard at Worf; only Kali saw the jealousy in each.

Exposed, Worf rose to the occasion and glared back proudly, as if to say, That's right, I've mated with her, so there.

"Very well." Kor nodded appreciatively at Worf. "So she mated with Kh'myr. Who are we to judge the royal house's eccentricities? That doesn't mean she would join into a life-mating with a Kh'myr."

"Maybe not without some help from a common piece of technology we all know Khalian has and freely uses." Her gaze found Kor before she continued, "As do we."

"The mindsifter!" Kor responded.

"He would never dare..." Kang started to protest.

Kali interrupted Kang with a tilt of her head and a knowing look.

Kang nodded his head, taking over the conversation with Kali. "All right, we shall agree he did. Then why is she on this mining colony?" Kang brought them back to the original subject.

Kali paused, shaking her head, then turned to the computer and brought up the information on the present owner of the mined out planet. "This Durit is of the House of Durit."

"So?" Worf grunted.

"What of it?" Kang asked.

"Not a well-respected family," Koloth explained.

"Why?" Kang probed.

"Though I have had no contact with this Durit, I have with others of his family."

"And?"

"They have no scruples, none whatsoever," Koloth answered.

"Typical Kh'myr," Kor remarked.

"No, Kor; you misunderstand." Koloth continued, "When it comes to standards of the Kh'myr, this family is considered below even that."

"Which explains this." Kali pointed at the screen.

"What?" Kang returned his attention to Kali.

"The Klingon Fleet dishonorably dismissed him a few years before he found that planet."

"On what grounds?"

"Contraband and smuggling."

"More importantly," Koloth broke into the conversation, "who was the commander who discharged him?"

"Ah!" Kali hissed as she brought up that juicy piece of information. "Commander Khalian."

"Ah!" the rest of them said at hearing this.

"A connection," Koloth concluded.

"Yes, it's a connection all right. Why would Khalian send her to him, especially knowing what this male is all about? How could he trust someone so valuable to someone who might turn around and sell her to an Orion slaver if he thought he would profit from it?" Kor asked the logical next question.

They were all silent for a moment as each thought this through.

The crack of a fist striking the open palm ended all further thought on this subject. "Does it matter?" asked Kang once he was sure he had everyone's attention. "Do we agree to trust this information, even though it's from an unknown source?"

"I do," Kali said first.

"As do I," Kang added.

Kor turned to Koloth.

"I've thought so all along," the third lord answered, "that's why I ordered the course change."

"Good work, Koloth." Kang slapped the other on the shoulder. Turning to the navigator, he inquired, "How long till we reach..." He paused in thought, then turned back to Kali. "What is this planet called?"

"jImIplaH, Lord Kang."

Kang laughed. "'I'm going to be rich.' How appropriate. How soon till we arrive at this jImIplaH?"

"One hour, lord," the navigator answered.

*****

"I've lost the beacon, sir," Kyle reported.

"Are you sure?" Terrell asked.

"Yes, sir. A search of side frequencies, just in case its subspace transceiver was malfunctioning, has found nothing. It either shut down on its own, or the subject discovered its presence."

Terrell pivoted his command chair just enough to face the science station. "What was the last coordinate, Mister Beach?"

"Deep within the Triangle, sir. On the Klingon side."

"Any survey data in that region?"

"None on record, but it had to be our friend Illyeekeek's destination."

"And why is that, Mister Beach?"

"The location remained unmoving for nearly fifteen minutes before we lost contact. I think he arrived at his final destination, and then upon an inspection of his goods, found our bug."

"Makes sense," Terrell responded, pivoting his chair so that he faced the viewscreen. "Mister Arex, compute and lock course. Walking Bear, warp six."

Arex began the process and a moment later responded. "Locked, sir. Helm answering to course change. Engineering has acknowledged warp six."

Terrell could hear the engines respond as they increased the speed of the ship by three warp factors. "Estimated time of arrival, Mister Arex?"

"One hour and thirty minutes, sir."

*****

"How could I have been so stupid?" Durit roared at the ceiling of his cargo bay as he continued to grind the subspace beacon under the heal of his boot. "The youngest of cubs wouldn't have fallen for such a simple trap."

He stomped around the cargo bay, punching the barrels and bales of his cargo and roared, releasing the anger and frustration he was feeling.

Thirty minutes later, after destroying every container in the hold, he had finally released enough of his anger to be able to think straight again. Picking up the crushed remains of the beacon, he examined and identified its construction--Starfleet.

Running back to his ship's bridge, he entered it. "Computer!"

"Computer activated," a basso voice responded.

"Activate planetary defense grid."

"Defense grid activating; all weapons and satellites coming to full power."

"Scan for all in-coming vessels."

"Scanning," the computer responded. "Two contacts meeting search criteria."

"Two?!" Durit's eyes grew large at the prospect. I may have grossly underestimated Starfleet's need to catch me. "Course of approach for the contacts?"

"Closest contact is coming in on heading zero-five-three mark one-one-eight. The second is--"

"Hold!" Durit had done a quick computation and had been expecting the number to come from a different quarter. "That's coming from Klingon space." Durit hissed unbelieving. "Computer, verify heading of first contact."

"Verified," the computer responded. "Heading is confirmed--zero-five-three by one-one-eight."

"Second contact?"

"Heading one-nine-three by zero-zero-three."

That's Starfleet. "Who's this other?"

"Scanning first contact," the computer replied.

"No, wait--" But Durit knew it was too late.

"Identity of the first contact is the Hidden Dagger, an Orion freighter recently captured by Admiral Kor."

"Kor?" Why is he coming here? Durit was lost in thought for a moment. "Estimated time of arrival?"

"At its present speed, the first contact will arrive in twenty-two minutes," the computer answered.

"Time of arrival for second contact?"

"At its present speed, the second contact will arrive in forty-nine minutes."

Durit's thoughts raced through possible tactics for defending his holding against two armed vessels, for he had no doubts that Kor's ship would be no less armed than his own converted freighter. Then he struck the arm of his command chair as he gave that up and realized something new. I'll just move all my treasures to my ship and slip out of here under its cloak. Let these petaQpu' have this damned, used up cinder of a planet.

Moments later, he was running down the ship's main corridor, heading for the transporter station. Stepping up to its control console, he prepared it to beam him down. "Computer."

"Computer active."

"Cloak the ship."

The white lights changed to red, and the ship disappeared.

"Transport," he said after stepping onto the platform.

He arrived at the transporter station within his headquarters.

"Status of defense?" he asked the transporter technician standing nearby as he leapt from the platform.

"All planetary systems coming to full power, joHwI'."

Durit smiled at the "joHwI'" reference. "Good. Where's the property master?"

"At his station, joHwI'."

"Contact him and tell him to meet me in the defense center."

"Yes, joHwI'."

*****

"We were scanned, Admiral Kor," the sensor technician reported.

"Source of scan?"

"JImIplaH."

"baQa'," cursed Kang.

The use of pIqaD by Kang took everyone on the bridge, even Worf, by surprise. Not because of its profanity, but because Kang, a pure Segh vav, was using it now like he was Kh'myr as well.

"He'll be ready for us," Kang continued.

"Good. A fight," Kor responded, driving his fist into his other hand.

"Scan the planet. Let's see what's waiting for us."

"Scanning," the sensor technician responded, a moment later reporting. "Still too far away to identify specific defense systems, but there is a power build-up of both defensive and offensive systems, and an orbiting ship that disappeared just as the sensors spotted it."

"Cloaked, of course. Someone who deals with contraband would have to have one of those," Koloth observed from his corner of the bridge. "I wonder what tipped him to our approach."

"Does it matter?" Kor responded.

"Of course," Koloth replied. "We might want to insure we are the ones he's preparing to meet."

"The sensors," Kor answered.

"Maybe they were looking for something else and caught us by accident," Koloth responded, then turned to face the sensor technician. "Is there anything else coming into that system?"

The sensor technician adjusted the ship's sensors, stared intently at the returns, then reported. "There is another ship coming in from the Federation side of the triangle."

"Identity?"

"Too far away, but its subspace signature registers it as Starfleet, though size is still unknown."

"Hmm," Koloth brought his hand to his chin. "How long till they arrive?"

"Forty-five minutes, lord."

"Thirty minutes after us," Koloth calculated. "We're going to have help, whether we need it or not."

"We'll be first," Kor stated. "They can have what's left."

"Durit is mine," Kang's growling voice interjected from the other quarter of the bridge.

The bridge lights began to flash as a warning klaxon went off throughout the ship.

"What the..." Kor roared.

"Incoming plasma torpedo," the sensor technician reported.

"The cloaked ship?" Kor asked.

"No, lord. The torpedo originated in the system's Oort cloud."

"Did he really think he'd hit us at this range?" Kang questioned.

"No, Kang, he's just showing us what he can do," Koloth answered.

"Does he think we are cubs, scared off by the first rock thrown?"

"No. I think he's hoping to delay us."

"Why?"

"The cloaked freighter," Koloth deduced. "If we can see this other ship, so can Durit. If I were he--with his kind of scruples--I'd opt to run as well."

"Not if we take out the freighter," Kor interjected, looking over the shoulder of the weapons technician.

"He's cloaked," Koloth entered.

"Ah, but I doubt he'd run, leaving all his treasures behind."

Koloth started to comment, then a smile spread across his face. "Of course."

"But in the meantime," he tapped the weapons technician on the shoulder. "Fire disruptors as soon as that," he said, pointing to the incoming weapon on the console's mini-tactical screen, "comes into range. Let's let him know we're not entirely helpless."

*****

"We were just scanned, sir," Beach announced, after turning off the alarms at his station.

"He'll know how much time he has," Terrell responded. Punching the intercom button on the arm of his command chair, he opened a channel. "Engineering?"

"Engineering, aye, sir," came the response.

"Is the exec around?"

"Just a moment, sir."

"Yes, Kyptin?" Chekov answered.

"Is the ship ready for a little bit of action, Mister Chekov?" A second set of alarms from the science station interrupted Chekov. "Just a moment, Exec; we've had another alarm."

"Standing by, sir."

Terrell saw that his science officer was busy fine-tuning the ship's sensors. "What is it, Mister Beach?"

"Another in-coming ship scanned us."

"Heading and identity?"

"Coming in from Klingon space," the commander answered.

"Uh-oh." Terrell's fingers began a pattern on the arm of the chair, "It looks like he's offended someone else. Time of arrival?"

"At our present speed, he'll arrive thirty minutes ahead of us." Then: "Shit!"

"What's going on, Beach?"

"Someone fired on them."

"By what and from where?"

"Plasma torpedo--defense satellite in the Oort cloud."

"I guess that proves they're not customers." The captain sat up in his chair. "Bring us to maximum warp. Raise shields. Charge weapons," Terrell ordered, then remembered Chekov was still on stand-by in Engineering. "Well, Exec, I think we're going to need everything you can give us."

"Aye, sir. I'm monitoring what Beach is seeing. I'll see to it that you get everything you need."

"You do that, bridge out."

The engine sounds of the Reliant's warp drive rose perceptively as the Miranda class frigate came to full speed, her shields forming a light haze around her.

"New estimated time of arrival..." Arex paused a moment to finish the computation, "...twenty minutes."

Terrell did the requisite computations. "Still five minutes behind the Klingons. I hope they leave enough evidence behind for us to close this case."

-19-

If the sudden hustle and bustle in the complex's corridors hadn't clued Mara that something was amiss, the klaxon had.

"What's going on?" Koolas/Marschut wailed, holding her hands to her ears, cowering on her knees, trying to put her bed between her and the commotion in the hallway.

"This place is most likely under attack," Mara explained, kneeling next to the Klingon royal.

"By whom?" Koolas/Marschut pleaded, fear written all over her face--eyes wide and revealing white, muscles tense, lips pulled tight and bloodless, barring the teeth.

Put aside the cowering, and she would be a fearsome foe to attack, but this must end if we are to survive this. It's too bad the trigger words Kusan's operatives found out have to be in the exact tone and timbre that Khalian used when he input it in her head. "I imagine your brother, or those who are loyal to him, have found this place," Mara answered. I have nothing to lose by dropping my pretense of not knowing her true identity. If we're under attack, Durit will have his hands full, perhaps for long enough to...

"My brother?" Koolas/Marschut's face changed from fear to one of someone deep in thought, working hard at sorting through mental images. "Which one?"

"Which one, my lady?" Mara responded. "You have but one brother. He loves you the same way as," she purposely changed to pIqaD Klingonese, "jiH bang SoH."

There was an immediate response from Koolas/Marschut. "I...don't...understand." She put her hands to either side of her head as if she would hold in what would explode. "My...brothers...died when...the Klingons took our ship."

The trigger words weakened the barrier, but the inflection was wrong. Maybe another tack will break it down. She heard another troop of soldiers run down the hall and knew her time was short. She began her next attempt to break through the mindsifter's effects. Grabbing a hand mirror from the nearby vanity, she kneeled in front of the whimpering Koolas/Marschut and took her by the shoulders, giving her a short, but intense shaking. "You are not Orion."

"I am. Can't you see?"

"No. I can't." Mara reinforced her words by shoving the mirror she had in her hands in front of Koolas/Marschut. "And neither can you. You are Marschut, sister to the Emperor Kudan Kuras."

"First I'm Koolas, now I'm Marschut..." She looked into the mirror and focused on the fierce Klingon face looking back at her from the mirror. Staring at herself in its reflective surface, she probed the beginnings of the wisdom ridges on her forehead with her finger, then examined the slightly protruding, stylishly sharpened teeth. A moan escaped her throat. "My face, my beautiful face. What have you Klingons done to it?"

"Nothing, Marschut. That is the face you were born with. The face that has been the downfall of many strong Klingon males." If I can just touch the part of Marschut that gloried in the duels fought for her favor.

"Yesss," Koolas/Marschut hissed. A slight growl tinged her voice, while at the same time a beautifully wicked smile spread across her face. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it disappeared and the fearful Orion returned. "Noooo. I don't remember."

Mara had seen the brief change. For a moment Marschut was there. The barriers are beginning to break down. One look at Koolas/Marschut told her how close she was to breaking through the mindsifter's effects. The emperor's sister's face jumped from fear, to anger, to anxiety at her looks, to recognition of her situation, back to abject fear again. Mara's thoughts locked onto solving this puzzle as she watched. All that Kusan told me was that Khalian was behind this, not why. So...Her thoughts paused. Why then? What is it about Marschut? Her thoughts screamed through all the possibilities for taking the emperor's sister and altering her memories and identity. Then she hit upon it, her eyebrows coming up, accentuating her own forming wisdom ridges. Of course! He wants to mate with her and become part of the royal family. I wager no progeny of Kuras, if they were to be forthcoming after this, would survive to see the throne.

She watched Koolas/Marschut struggle with what was going on in her head, a struggle raging in her own. That would explain why her thoughts weren't wiped clean. Khalian would need her to be Marschut again at a later date. He only did this so she wouldn't draw attention to herself while he kept her under wraps, or, more importantly, wouldn't continue trying to escape.

"Marschut?" she began.

"I am not Koolas; I am not Marschut. I wish you would stop calling me these dreadful Klingon names."

Her words are Orion, but the command inflections behind them are of someone who has been in a position of authority all her life. Ignoring what Marschut was saying, she pushed her toward breaking the mental prison of the emperor's sister' identity. "Do you remember Kudan Kuras?"

"Kudan Kuras?" Changes flashed across Koolas/Marschut's face, recognition, questions. "Kudan Kuras?" she hissed. "Arghh!" she yelled, with just a hint of a true Klingon roar, as her eyes closed and her hands covered her ears. "The voices, yelling in Klingonese. Tell them to shut up!" She began a litany. "I am Orion. I am Orion."

"No, you are Marschut, daughter of Kjimeg from his concubine Murasok. You are a direct descendant of Kahless, the first emperor of the Klingon people. You are the sister to Kudan Kuras, present ruler of our people." Mara felt they were on the brink. If she could just get Marschut to acknowledge any of this, it would the hole in the mindsifter's dam that would allow the sea of her real memories to come bursting through.

"No. NO. NO, NO! I am Orion."

Mara shoved the mirror back in front of Marschut. "You are Klingon, of the royal line of Kahless, daughter of Kjimeg and sister to Kudan Kuras, the emperor of the Klingon Empire."

"No, no, no!" But these negatives were mere whispers now.

The dam is weakening. "Remember, Marschut. Are you seeing dream-like images flashing through your mind Marschut?" Must emphasize her true name at every chance!

"Yes, and they frighten me! Make them go away!"

That's the Orion again. "No, Marschut! Those are your true memories. Bring them up so you can see that this face," she emphasized the mirror by shaking it, "is in each and every one of them. Did you not fight with Kuras when you were both cubs?" She remembered hearing of the fights between the two royal youngsters and knew that bringing up those powerful, aggressive memories would serve to widen the hole.

"Yesss," Marschut hissed, the growl back, "and I used to always win. I'm stronger than Kuras you know." Marschut leered back at Mara, almost full Klingon this time.

"So I've heard," Mara tried to reinforce this emergence, "you are the pride of the females of the Empire."

"Oh, the things I'd do to him." She giggled wickedly. "Huh?" Her breath caught in her throat, and her face collapsed from fierce pride to quaking fear and admonition. "Oh, the things this Marschut did to the males while sharing a bed with them." Marschut shivered as the Orion memories came back and witnessed the other memories.

I'm almost there, the water's into the support structure, working its way out. The breach is coming. If only I can get a memory wave big enough to break through.

*****

"There's another one over there, Kang!" Kor roared, pointing at the viewscreen.

Kang, who had taken over the weapons console from the technician as soon as the full extent of what they were getting into had become well established, responded. "Locked and firing!"

A single burst of green coherent energy, originating from disruptors on the converted freighter's starboard side, annihilated the defense satellite.

"Shields are down to seventy percent, Kor," Koloth reported from the engineering station. "Isn't there any way we can spot these demons before they fire on us?"

"Unless you have done what every scientist this side of the galactic core has been attempting since the Romulans invented the device, and can see through the cloaking device," Kor responded. "We have to wait for them to fire."

"At that rate, we won't reach our objective!" Koloth returned.

"What do you take me for, Koloth? A cub with no experience?" Kor glowered Koloth's way. "If you think you can do better, why don't you try?"

"If he won't, then I most assuredly will," growled Worf from the helm. "I grow weary of being a target."

"Oh, you would, would you?" Kor stalked dangerously toward Worf. "Come on you Kh'myr trash, right here, right now!"

"Enough!" Kali roared from her station at navigation. "If you would pay closer attention to spotting these cursed satellites and less energy on challenging each other, maybe we'd fair better."

The three males continued to glare at each other. Then the floor rumbled and tilted, alarms going off at engineering, forcing Koloth to break off his end of the staring contest to shut them off.

"Plasma torpedo satellite decloaking," Kang announced, surprisingly not even tempted to join the saber rattling of the others. "Locking and firing!"

"Shields down to fifty percent," Koloth announced.

"Later, Worf. If we survive," Kor started.

"Kor!" Kali interrupted her mate, never allowing her gaze to leave the viewscreen. "Command or step down."

Kor's mouth dropped open, surprised by the audacity of his mate. Thoroughly embarrassed by her accurate accusation, Kor turned back to the viewscreen, putting his mind back into the situation. "This Durit has better equipment than most Klingon colonies."

Another satellite appeared.

"Firing," Kang announced.

The satellite never got the chance to fire its weapon as the freighter's disruptors walked in on it.

"It's a good thing they aren't shielded," Kang observed.

A crash and shudder of the bridge's floor announced the presence of yet another satellite that had gone unobserved on the port side.

"As if they weren't deadly enough as it is," Worf countered.

"This warrior knows the art of defense," Kor commented. "These satellites are everywhere and positioned with no discernible pattern."

"He was more concerned with riches when I met him," Worf commented.

"I see he's put those riches to good use here," Kor observed. "Why doesn't this Durit come out and fight us himself? He's fighting more like an Earther now."

"Did you think he'd come out and fight us face to face like a true Klingon? This petaQ is involved with the kidnapping of Marschut," Kang interjected, "and as such, judged dishonorable."

There was that term again, thought Kali. Honor. That's all Kang's talked about since we released him. "What do you mean, Kang?"

Kang turned from the weapons console to make eye contact with Kali. It was if time stood still for Kali, all the commotion, the sounds of battle dimmed to a whisper. "Remember how I said that Klingon should not kill Klingon?" Kang began.

"Yes," Kali responded.

"And Kor asked if there was ever a time when this wasn't true?"

"Yes, my lord," Kali added the honorific because the moment felt right for it.

"When a Klingon proves, through his actions, to be dishonorable, then Klingon can kill, indeed should kill Klingon."

"Instead of the weak?" Kali had made the connection. Kang's form seemed to glow with a faint haze, surprising her.

Kang's mouth set into a straight, horizontal, thin line under the long mustache, his eyes becoming cold, deadly, as he nodded his head ever so slightly. "It is our duty as members of the Klingon species."

Is that Kang's face? Or that of another, overlain on top? "I understand, my lord."

The noise of the battle slowly returned as an explosion rumbled through the freighter's frame.

"Satellite decloaking on the starboard side," Koloth reported. "Do you see it, Kang, or are you too busy making eyes at Kor's mate?"

"What?" Kor spun around.

Kali saw Kang's face remain unchanged, but the hazy overlay laughed and Kang's hands moved. Two bursts of disruptor fire destroyed the target, and Kang's gaze never left that of Kali's. The hazy figure laughed again, then faded, and Kang's head turned back to monitor the board in front of him.

What did I just see? Kali questioned herself. Was that a hallucination caused by the stress of the moment? Then a picture she'd seen in a text she'd read in her childhood popped into her head which had a strong resemblance to what she remembered of the dream warrior she'd seen after being wounded--a picture of Kahless the Unforgettable. "Kahless," she whispered just under her breath.

"What did you say, my mate?" Kor asked, having moved silently up to Kali's station when he'd noted her attentive gaze on Kang.

"Kahless!" Kali's exploded, her gaze finding the ceiling of the bridge as she let loose the female trill of war, well known to all Klingon females, created by the mother of Kahless while in the throes of giving birth to him as a child. She locked her gaze with Kor's a moment later. "Kahless is with us, my mate. We will be victorious over this dishonorable piece of trash!"

And without again looking at the screen, she put the freighter through a set of maneuvers that allowed it to dodge the shots of three more satellites.

Kang, his hands likewise moving with lightening speed and sure deftness, destroyed each without a second's hesitation.

"What is going on here?" Kor questioned.

The action continued. Helm--controlled now by Kali--and weapons--controlled by Kang--worked together as if by one mind. The freighter jinked and twisted in ways never intended for it, as the groans of its frame attested.

"What is going on here?" Kor said, more loudly this time.

"Does it matter, my friend?" a voice said just to his right.

Kor turned his head to see who had said that. Koloth was standing there now.

"Why aren't you at the sensor station?" Kor demanded.

"And do what?"

Kor looked around the bridge with awe and noted that there were only two individuals working. The rest were sitting back and watching the action on the screen. Worf, in particular, was taking special notice, his face glowing, drool flowing from a wickedly smiling mouth; a continuous growl of contentment vibrating the air around him.

"What's going on?" Kor whispered.

"I repeat," Koloth answered. "Does it matter?"

*****

"They've broken through the satellite net."

Durit couldn't believe what he'd just seen. The Klingon defense expert he'd commissioned to place that network of cloaked satellites had guaranteed those would hold out against an entire Klingon attack group. This converted Orion freighter had violated it, and alone. "Are the planetary defense batteries ready?" he asked of the same technician.

"Remaining torpedo satellites fully charged, tracking and on stand-by. Planetary disruptor batteries report ready."

"Good." Durit pulled his communicator from his belt and opened a channel. "Cargo Master?"

"Here, joHwI'," came a basso voice from the transceiver's speaker.

"How goes the transfer of materials to my ship?"

"Nearly complete, joHwI'. Transporters are working at maximum capacity."

"Let me know when you're ready to move the harem. I'll need to be involved with that personally."

"Understood, joHwI'," the cargo master reported. "Fifteen more minutes and we'll be ready."

If that ship out there shows any more of the fantastic capabilities that I just witnessed, we'll not have that much time. Durit closed the channel. Then again there's that last gift I managed to persuade the Romulans into giving me. This thought brought a smile to his face as he pictured in his mind what the expected results of using his newly acquired graviton tractor beam on the ship would be. "Prepare the Romulan device," Durit ordered the weapon technician.

"Sir, the power needed to do that could degrade our disruptor capabilities by nearly fifty percent."

"Acceptable, if it is truly capable of what those Romulan bastards said it is." He remembered the Romulan describing how this weapon focused the lines of gravity around a planet to crush ships targeted.

"If it isn't, then we'll be wide open to..." He cut his report short as he noted Durit's glare. "Diverting power now, joHwI'."

Storm clouds began to form in what had been a flawless, desert sky. Invisible, powerful hands were gathering the magnetic fields of the planet into one place.

*****

"Where is his ship?" Kor demanded.

"It must be cloaked," Koloth reported. "No sign of it on the sensors."

"How soon until they engage with the planetary defenses?"

"Three minutes," Worf responded.

"Weapons fully charged and ready," Kang reported, not waiting to be asked.

"Helm responding to course correction and ready for combat maneuvering," Kali piped in right on Kang's tail.

"Put your plan into effect, Koloth," Kor ordered. "We must insure the trap will work before building a fire in this rodent's nest."

"Scanning for transporter energies," Koloth replied, then: "There it is."

"Transfer lock to weapons," Kor responded.

"Unable to lock weapons," Kang returned. "Weapon targeting systems unable to penetrate the cloak."

"Send coordinates to weapons, Koloth. We'll fire a blanket pattern of torpedoes and disruptors."

"We'll only get one chance at this before the planetary defenses open up on us," Koloth reported.

"It will be enough," Kor countered.

"Weapons locked and ready," Kang said.

"Fire!"

The barrage began when the plasma torpedo left the forward tube, followed quickly by bursts from every disruptor battery that could bear. At its maximum recycling speed, the torpedo fired again, but not until after the disruptors had fired three more times, each time adjusting their angles just enough to insure covering every square kellicam of space described by the coordinates.

The first torpedo missed cleanly and continued along its course to finally detonate as it struck the atmosphere of the planet. The first set of disruptor bolts fared no better as they patterned the planet's surface with destruction. Then, with flashes, they began hitting something invisible. The second torpedo came in a moment later and hit the same unseen object.

"There it is," Kor roared. "Concentrate our fire on that point!"

The weapons of the converted freighter refined their aim and poured it on. It wasn't long before the smuggler ship became visible, then lost its shields, finally exploding into a massive anti-matter fire ball that momentarily rivaled the nearby star in brilliance.

*****

"The ship is gone, Durit," the sensor technician announced, all respect for his employer gone from his voice.

All my riches gone. One moment his personal wealth rivaled even those of the royal family, and the next he was no better than the poorest crewman of the oldest warship in the Klingon fleet. "They will pay!" Durit roared. "Oh, yes, they will pay. I will tear them limb from limb." He raised his hands, forming them into claws. "With my own hands, I will do this." He turned to the weapons station. "Fire all torpedoes and planetary disruptor batteries."

"Firing now," came the report.

The lights in the complex dimmed as the massive, planetary weapons batteries opened up. Orbs of energy ascended and disappeared through the building banks of angry clouds and the increasing bolts of lightening.

"How soon until the graviton tractor is ready?" Durit asked.

"It's still building to full power; thirty-three percent to go," the weapon technician reported, his gaze mesmerized by the conditions being created by the build up of gravitic energies.

"Direct hit, targeted ship. They've gone back to evasive."

"Effect of their evasive maneuvers?"

"None, joHwI'. We're putting too many weapons into space for them to evade."

The freighter fired an entire broadside at the planet, but the defense shields intercepted them well outside the limits of the atmosphere. The resulting fireworks display of expended energy served to light up the top of the clouds that had suddenly appeared in a swirling mass over the targeted complex.

"Good. Keep it up. I want nothing but atoms left of them."

"Yes, joHwI'. Firing the next volley."

Again, the sky filled with directed energy.

Then a voice, no louder than the squeak of one of the rodents that seemed to get into the complex on occasion, asked, "What about the Starfleet frigate?"

Durit's face went slowly from ecstasy to gloom, as this thought seeped into his battle fevered mind. Damn! I forgot all about them. He turned to find the source of the voice. It had been the sensor technician. "What was that?"

"The Starfleet battlecruiser has increased speed."

"Estimated time of arrival?"

"Five minutes."

If my defense net and my ship were still intact, I wouldn't worry, but now... His thoughts trailed off as his gaze locked onto the viewscreen, his only means of escape displayed on it.

"Graviton tractor fully charged and ready to crush them, joHwI'," the weapon technician announced.

"What?"

"Should I crush them, or do you want the pleasure?"

"Don't be foolish, you son of a targ. How will we escape from the Federation?"

"We'll crush them the same way we did this first ship."

"And then what?" Durit retorted.

The technician shrugged.

"We'll be stuck here. With no way to leave."

"We could always put in a call to the Romulans."

Durit thought about this for a moment. It was a viable option, but then he would greatly indebted to them since it would require them to venture nearly into Klingon space, something they didn't want to do these days. "No. I don't think so. Power down the graviton tractor to the level necessary to disable their shields and hold them just short of crushing them."

"Yes, joHwI'," the technician responded. "The tractor is ready."

"Activate!"

*****

"Unusual power surge from planet's surface, Admiral Kor," the sensor technician reported.

"How so?"

"I'm not sure. Either they've had a massive system failure and power feed-back problem, or...." he paused to read the data coming onto the screen.

"Or?" Kor prompted after the pause seemed to last too long.

"....or they have some kind of weapon powering up that causes that." He pointed at the storm system that could easily be seen forming above the planet's surface.

"It's a storm. What of it?" Kor shrugged it off in favor of monitoring the not completely successful evasive maneuver his mate was putting the freighter through.

"Planetary survey reports state that this planet is a desert. There hasn't been a storm of any kind reported here throughout its recorded history."

Kor turned on the technician, all patience gone as the bridge's structure rocked. "What do I care about a freak storm? Why don't you spend your time looking for a way to stop those batteries from firing on us so we can put a landing party down there and end this fight?"

The bridge lurched massively, throwing everyone not strapped down, against the bulkhead in the direction of the freighter's bow.

"We've been stopped dead in our tracks," Worf reported from his station. There was a nasty gash on his forehead oozing blood that had closed his right eye.

"Not even the most powerful tractor beam in this quadrant could have stopped us that fast," Kor grumbled as he separated himself from the pile of forms trying to gain their feet at the base of the wall.

"Not a standard tractor beam, Admiral," the sensor technician reported, a faint touch of I told you so in his voice.

Hearing the inflection and not appreciating it, Kor responded. "I could have told you that, you mantril. I'm not interested in what it is, just how to neutralize it."

"Shields draining," Kang reported. "Down to twenty percent." He read the data from his console. "Ten..."

The freighter jumped again as the shields collapsed, and the massive tractor beam grabbed hold of its skin.

"Are they pulling us toward the atmosphere?" Kor asked.

"No, they're...."

His ears began to plug up as the air pressure on the bridge changed.

"I know what they're doing," Kor responded as he yawned in an attempt to equalize the pressure on either side of his ear drums. "They're crushing us."

Kor rushed over to stand behind the sensor technician, reading the numbers that were climbing. "Can you fire any weapon down the beam, Kang?"

"Weapons are without power; diverted to the failed shields," Kang responded.

"Damn," Kor cursed.

"Pressure on the hull is building," Koloth reported from his station. Loud creaks and terrible groans from the very bones of the ship attested to this fact. "I don't understand this," he ventured.

"You don't understand what?" Kor responded.

"The tractor beam had the power to negate all of our forward momentum and then shut down our shields only moments later, yet it hasn't crushed us yet."

"And you complain?" Kor retorted.

"Not at all. I just wonder what it is this Durit is up to."

"He wants the ship," Kali offered.

"What was that, mate?" Kor turned to face her.

"Think about it, Kor. This Durit, though he is Klingon, thinks more along the lines of a Yridian trader--interested in riches and possessions, not a reputation."

"So he is a poor excuse for a Klingon. Tell me something new."

"He was preparing to escape when we destroyed his ship."

Kang yawned again, attesting to the continuing rise in air pressure around him. "He wants the ship."

"Exactly," Kali responded.

"Give it to him." Kang stood to leave the now useless weapons station.

"What?" roared Kor, supported by Worf.

"Give it to him," Kang repeated, turning to Koloth. "Is there any way we can break the tractor beam's hold on us?"

"None that I can think of," Koloth answered.

"Surrender?" Kor's eyes mirrored the incredulity of what he was saying.

"I didn't say that," Kang retorted. "Let him have the ship."

An evil smile spread across Kor's face. "Fight them hand-to-hand in the corridors of the ship?" He beamed with aggressive emotion. "What a glorious idea, Kang."

Kang shook his head, waving the idea off with his hands. "Of what good would that be? I submit this Durit can probably mount a boarding force so large that we will be overwhelmed in a matter of minutes."

"Then, what do you--" Kor started, but was interrupted.

Kang had moved next to Kor, right behind the sensor station. He reached over the shoulder of the technician and adjusted the focus of the sensor array. "Look. See that?"

Kor did as he was told, hissing an acknowledgment. "We can beam out now. He had to drop the planetary shields in order to use that tractor beam, leaving his ground facility open to an assault."

"I doubt he'd give us that kind of an opportunity. He is smart, even if he is not brave. I think he'll beam a security force up here the moment we vacate."

"What do you propose then?" Kor stood staring at Kang, recognizing that the other commander had a plan forming.

"Set a device that locks out the use of the engines without the proper access code and to self-destruct if tampered with."

"What good would that do? Why not just have it destroy the ship entirely? That would be much more simple."

"We need something to bargain with, and although there is no lock-out device that can't eventually be broken, it will buy us time."

Kor nodded in agreement. "And given enough time, we can find the emperor's sister and liberate her." Kor's smile returned. "That'll mean close, bloody, hand-to-hand fighting in the corridors of his ground facilities."

"Yes, I suppose it will," Kang answered.

"I like it," Kor growled back.

The pressure stepped up one more notch and no amount of yawning would help. It was becoming painful.

"Shall we evacuate our entire force before they're all unconscious?" Kang suggested, making a sweeping motion of his arm, suggesting those on the other side of the blast doors.

"Let's go," Kor answered, charging toward the doors and the escape they represented.

"I'll set up the lock-out from the engineering console, and join you in a moment." Koloth resumed his position at the console.

"Make it simple and impossible to override," Kor ordered as he delayed his departure.

"Done and done." Koloth punched in the program, set up the password, and shut the computer down.

"Let's go." Kor walked through the already closing doors.

Koloth was right behind him.

*****

"What's happening out there?" Terrell demanded as his fingers drummed a tattoo on the command chair's arm, his bottom just barely in the chair's seat.

"The planet is between us and what's going on, sir. The entire defense net just went down," Beach offered from the sensor station, "and I'm picking up a very peculiar energy signature."

"Peculiar energy, Mister Beach?"

"Yes, sir. Nothing like I've ever seen before, but it's affecting the gravitic and magnetic fields of the planet."

"Do you suppose that ship has used some kind of annihilation device on the smuggler's planetary facilities?"

"That is a possibility, sir, but there are no corresponding shock waves--not enough seismic or gravimetric reactions--just a...well..." Beach paused a moment to think. "...more like a realigning."

"Odd," Terrell responded. "Supposing this other ship managed to penetrate the conventional defense network of this system, that would mean it must be very powerful. Any identification on it yet?"

"Sensors have identified her as a modified Orion freighter," Beach added.

"An Orion? You don't suppose our smuggler has somehow offended the Orions, do you?"

"I suppose anything's possible, sir, but from what we witnessed during its penetration of the network, I'd say Orions aren't crewing her."

"Why do you say that?"

"Power utilization curves; energy signatures of weapons and drive systems." Beach took his face from the sensor hood and made eye contact with the captain. "I'd say that ship's actually Klingon."

"Klingon?! Are you sure?"

"Best guess, sir." A chime from his station got his attention, and he put his face to the sensor hood again. "Just cleared the planet." He paused, then: "My God, sir!"

"What? What's going on?"

"An unknown type of graviton beam just grabbed the converted Orion ship. Its shields are gone. I'd wager that if our smuggler friend down on the planet wanted, he could just crush that ship, except..."

"Except, Mister Beach?"

"I'm picking up scattered debris near the captured ship."

"And?"

"It looks like there had been another ship in orbit, and the Orion may have destroyed it."

"Could it have been the ship we tracked here?"

"Mass is right. Yes, sir, that's a good guess."

"Then our smuggler, having lost his own ship, may be looking to get another, knowing we're on our way." Terrell was on his feet now.

"Entering Oort cloud of system, sir," Arex reported from the navigation station.

"Bring us out of warp," Terrell ordered. "Maximum impulse."

A chorus of "Ayes" erupted on the bridge.

"Kyle, put what's happening on the screen."

The forward viewscreen of the Reliant's bridge shimmered and changed to show a large, Orion freighter caught in a glowing wedge of green energy whose apex originated from the center of a swirling cloud mass on the surface of the planet.

"Didn't you say this planet was a total desert--no water, Mister Beach?"

"Yes, sir. Sensors suggest that storm system is a response to the disruption of the gravitic and magnetic fields of the entire planet."

"It's probably a Romulan device," Terrell responded after only a moment of thought.

"Romulan, sir?" Beach questioned.

"I don't have a clue how any smuggler--no matter how great his connections-- could get his hands on something like this, unless you look at who he's been supplying topaline for."

"I didn't know they had a tractor beam that focused the magnetic fields of a planet." Beach responded a moment later with.

Terrell opened an intercom channel. "Bridge to Chekov."

"Chekov here, sir," came the response a moment later.

"Do you recall ever seeing a Romulan tractor device that used a planet's magnetic fields?"

"Aye, sir," Chekov responded. "A few years ago, back when I was still on the Enterprise, we ran into such a base. I'd heard that the Romulans gave it up. Apparently, they found that continual use of the device disrupted the planet's natural protective fields so badly that many times it would pull apart at the seams. Vwhy?"

"Because the Romulans appear to have sold one to our smuggler friend."

"We must destroy it, sir. In the hands of someone as uncaring as a smuggler would be, it could be a devastating device to shipping lanes."

"Agreed, Exec. Exactly what I had in mind. Bridge, out." Terrell turned toward the weapons console. "Walking Bear, target tractor beam projector; full spread photon torpedoes."

"Torpedoes, full spread, aye, sir," Running-Bear acknowledged. Changing his attention from the helm to that section of his console that controlled the weapons, he ordered the weapon of choice. It only took a minute or two for a set of red lights to change to green. "Photons loaded and have a target lock, sir."

"Fire," Terrell ordered.

A slight shudder raced through the bridge's floor and Terrell relaxed into the back of the seat as the brilliant red tracers of the weapons sped away.

*****

"Transporter energies detected, joHwI'," the sensor technician of Durit's headquarters reported.

"Where'd they go?"

"Warehouse Number Two, joHwI'."

Durit opened his security command channel. "Security, prepare a boarding party of forty warriors and beam onto the captured ship as soon as I drop the tractor beam. Also, there is a hostile party of Klingon warriors in Warehouse Two. Send a force to destroy them."

"As you command, joHwI'."

Durit closed the frequency. "Now to transfer my remaining treasure to my new ship and get out of here." He turned toward the head of his personal security force. He was just about to order him to follow him when a new thought exploded into his consciousness like a plasma torpedo. This situation is the answer to how I can keep Marschut for myself. I'll just take one of the females from my harem, one that is closest to her in mass, give her something that will identify the remains as the royal personage. Then, make it look like she died during the fight between my forces and those in Warehouse Two. He rubbed his hands together. "This is going to work out perfectly. I'm going to get my rokeg blood pie and eat it, too."

A rumbling shook the command center, and the gravitic tractor beam's control console went dead. "What the..." Durit started to ask.

The whole floor shifted, a seismic shock wave rumbled through the bedrock surrounding the command center, throwing Durit roughly to the floor. Debris and loose sections of ceiling fell; the air filled with the white hot sparks of overloading and shorted circuits, and the regular lights went out.

-20-

"Destruction of the tractor has set off a massive quake within the mantle of the planet, sir," Beach reported.

"Demonstrating why the Romulans haven't developed this style of device any further," Terrell responded.

"Aye, sir," Beach acknowledged.

The bridge tipped suddenly. A muffled explosion, and vibration through the floor accompanied the sharp change in the ship's attitude.

"What?"

"A hit by disruptor fire, sir," Walking Bear reported.

"Source."

"The freighter, sir."

"Evasive, Arex," Terrell ordered, though he saw that his navigator was already in the process of doing just that in an attempt to confound the gunners on the other ship. "Put the freighter on the screen, Kyle."

The freighter came into view just as a random pattern of disrupter shots erupted from its side.

"Hang on, folks," Terrell warned as he saw Arex react.

Most of the shots missed, while the few that got in did little to pressure the Reliant's shields toward dropping.

"Mark and target weapon capability, Walking Bear," Terrell ordered.

"Targeting, sir," Walking Bear responded.

"Select his torpedo capability first."

"Aye, sir."

"His shields are down, sir," Beach reported.

"Is this the same freighter we witnessed blasting its way into orbit?" Terrell asked.

"Evidently something has changed since they entered orbit, sir," Beach responded.

"Plasma torpedo tube powering up," Walking Bear reported.

"Phasers, full power, minimum duration. Without shields that should end the tubes functional ability." Terrell responded. A hand signal from the weapons officer was enough to show completion of the order. "Fire."

The phaser batteries on the outside corners of the transom that cut across and above the saucer-shaped hull of the Reliant, winked scarlet three times each, sending six bursts of powerful coherent energy on its way. At the same time, the frigate twisted and turned, dodging out of the path of another ragged volley of return disruptor fire.

"Sensors find only forty life forms on that freighter," Beach reported as the phaser fire hit the forward section of the freighter. He changed the focus of the ship's electronic eyes to watch the results. "Plasma torpedo tube destroyed by phaser fire, sir."

"Good," Terrell responded. "You were saying?"

"The ship has only forty crewmen, sir."

"Is that enough to man it?"

"I wouldn't think so, sir."

"Which might explain why their weapon response is so badly coordinated." Terrell thought for a moment. "Scan the planet's surface."

"Scanning."

The Reliant came out of a complex set of maneuvers swooping along the long axis of the freighter's topside. Phasers struck out again, silencing two disruptor batteries.

"Sensors are picking up disruptor energy in and around a complex of structures, sir." Beach looked up from his hood. "It appears as if there's a ground attack in process down there."

"I think I know what's going on," Terrell announced to the bridge, then opened a channel to engineering. "Chekov, get a boarding party ready. Take thirty people from security, heavily armed, and ready to take that freighter from whomever is in charge of it right now."

The executive officer's heavily accented voice responded. "Aye, Kyptin."

Terrell continued his instructions. "Set them up into three teams. I'm going to drop you and the first team onto the bridge, the second team into the cargo area, and the third in engineering."

"Wvery good, sir."

"Keep in close touch with the other teams as you move through the ship so you don't fire on each other."

"Vwill do, sir." There was a long pause. "Anything else, sir?"

"Only to be careful. Bridge out." Terrell looked grimly on as his ship dove at the freighter again, her weapons silencing another two of the freighter's disruptor batteries.

It wasn't long before Chekov reported. "Vwe're ready, sir."

"Good luck, Exec." Then to the navigator" "Put us into one of that freighter's weapons' blind zones."

"Aye, sir."

Slowing, the Reliant edged up to a spot just off the freighter's bow, her maneuvering thrusters stopping her. Three disrupter batteries fired, but their shots passed by on either side.

"Very good, Mister Arex. Mister Walking Bear be prepared to support the landing party. Transporter, execute boarding plan."

"Transport complete, sir," Beach reported a moment later.

Moments later, the freighter's disruptors stopped trying to get a bead on the frigate.

"Reading phaser and disruptor fire in the hallways leading away from the bridge, sir."

"Damn," Terrell responded, hitting the command chair's arm with his fist. "Go get 'em, Exec." Unable to wait for verbal responses, he continued, "Can you overlay the sensor reports of weapon fire onto the screen, Mister Beach?"

Beach didn't respond. Instead he adjusted the computer's interaction with the screen. A moment later, each time the sensors detected phaser fire, a blinking red dot appeared on the screen and disruptors in green. Three pockets of red dots were pushing the green dots inward toward the center of the ship. The running fight ended with an intense flurry of energy in what must have been the freighter's main corridor.

"Captain, I have the exec," Kyle reported a moment later. "Audio and visual."

"Put him on the screen."

Chekov appeared on the screen. Aside from a smudge on his cheek, he was none the worse for wear. "Freighter secured, sir."

"Casualties?"

"Minimal, sir. Two dead and four wounded. None of the Klingons manning this ship chose to surrender."

"Transport casualties to Sickbay."

"Aye, sir."

"Prepare to move the freighter out of transporter range of the planet."

"Can't at this moment, sir."

"Why?"

"As the Klingons that preceded us found out, the propulsion controls are locked out. Without the password, we can't move the ship."

"I don't think we have the time, Exec."

"I agree."

"Do you have anyone over there you can turn over control of the ship?"

"Kelowitz, sir."

"Good. Do so and return here. I need another security team for the planet's surface."

"We discovered from the computer that this ship wasn't manned by Orions when it came into the system, sir."

"As we suspected..."

"Yes, sir. It had a Klingon crew, and you won't believe who commanded it."

"Try me."

"Admiral Kor."

*****

Durit ducked back under the arch of the doorway as a third, violent aftershock rumbled through the bedrock of the planet. Another section of the ceiling came down nearby, and the groaning of the room's support structure spoke of imminent failure.

"Get back on clearing a way out of here," he ordered as soon as the worst of the aftershock passed.

Warriors appeared from everywhere and went back to work. The majority of his force down here had survived the earthquake and was now trying to clear a way to the stairway.

There was a crack of breaking support material and a shout that was cut off with the thud of a heavy object. Grunting and cursing, another moved forward to work on clearing the path. Using a long support rod, they finally moved the block of granite that had ended the life of the last lead warrior and a hole opened to a dark, open space.

They passed the word back to where Durit waited. "We're through, joHwI'."

"Good. Start working our way up to the ground level."

*****

Kang burst from cover, leaped and rolled behind the wreckage of a heavy cargo ground transport. Two disruptor shots smashed into it, blowing away parts of the cargo bed. He didn't take the time to return the fire, considering it a luxury he couldn't afford. He darted across the final open area to join Kor. Koloth and Kali were still behind the cover he'd just vacated.

"What did you think?" Kor snapped off two quick shots. "That the going would be any easier over here?"

"We've got to break through. That lock out will only keep them from escaping for a short period of time," Kang hissed as he took careful aim on the edge of a pile of rubble he knew a defender to be hiding around. He saw movement in the sights and squeezed of a shot. A scream of pain rewarded his patience.

"Oh really?" Kor retorted, firing twice more. "That earthquake didn't help matters much. We were making good headway against Durit's defense forces until it came along. It crumbled the complex, giving them all these ready-made defense works. The only way we're going to flush them into the open is to charge straight at them."

"And that's exactly what we're going to do," Kang grumbled.

"What?"

"Direct assault. I can see the main building behind them. This must be their last position."

"I like the idea," Kor grinned, "but have you figured what the cost in warriors will be?"

"Yes, but if this Durit gets away, everything will be lost."

"Agreed," Kor stated, taking a well aimed shot.

Kang's communicator beeped twice. He didn't bother opening the channel. "Come," he said to Kor as he jumped from the cover and began firing as fast as his disruptor carbine would cycle. "Death to the dishonorable!" he roared.

Kor was right behind him, as well as forty or so warriors that seemed to appear out from behind any piece of nearby cover.

A blistering barrage of disruptor fire erupted from the line of rubble to their front. Many of those in the advancing line went down. The echoing sound of a second war chant sounded from their right, and the withering defensive fire ceased. They covered the final few meters of ground in an open run, and soon they were around it and into the cleared area in front of the main building.

There were Klingon bodies everywhere behind the rubble and in a trail toward the gaping front door. Even as they came around the rubble, Kor and Kang's group had to dive for cover as a volley of directed energy erupted from every opening in the building's front.

Breathing hard, Kor flopped down next to Kang. "I'm surprised we got that far."

"I knew we'd get here this time."

"How...?" Kor saw a knot of warriors pouring fire into the building's front from a strong point in the rubble off to their right. "Who's that?"

"I sent Koloth and Kali in a flanking movement."

Kor growled dangerously. "You sent my mate to do this?"

"She volunteered."

"Isn't she a wonderful warrior?" Kor smiled fiercely as he fired into an open window.

"That she is, Lord Kor. That you..."

There was a brilliant orange flash and an explosion of building material which made them both duck.

"Any more brilliant ideas?" Kor rumbled as the concentrated fire shifted to paying attention to the rubble shield of another knot of attackers to their left.

"Not a one," Kang returned, raising just enough to pour a volley of fire through a window. The fire that had been coming from there ceased.

"Well, I have one." Kor stood and roared a challenge to the sky and charged at the door.

Kang and every one of the rest of the attackers were only a split second behind him, roaring their support.

Kor leaped through the open doorway, rolled as he landed, came back to his feet then jumped sideways toward some cover he spotted from the corner of his eye, just in time to dodge a shot. The warrior that came through the door right after him immediately disintegrated, taking the full power of the shot in the middle of his chest. Koloth joined Kor a moment later as he dove through the window nearby.

The battle for the courtyard ended and the one for the building began. If Kor and company had thought things couldn't get more intense, they were wrong, as each room they entered became a major engagement.

*****

Durit came through the open doorway at the top of the stairway and collided with a group commander, knocking him into the wall.

"Lord Durit?!" the group commander's face reflected the surprise he was feeling at finding his lord here.

"Commander, status report."

"They've entered the building in force, joHwI'."

How had they gotten this far? "Make a stand, Commander! Stop them!"

"We are trying, joHwI', but they are too many."

Durit signaled for those that were behind him on the staircase forward. "Will these be of any help?"

"Perhaps, joHwI'."

"Perhaps?!"

"Their commander is a madman."

"You've seen him? Who is he?"

"I thought at first it was Admiral Kor, then I saw somebody that looked like Admiral Koloth, but then another appeared whose presence has raised fear in our warriors, joHwI'."

"And that is?"

"Admiral Kang, joHwI'," the commander responded.

"Kang?" Durit was just as surprised as the commander. I thought Khalian had him imprisoned on Kragyr! No one escapes from Kragyr. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, joHwI'. I've seen Lord Kang before. This one who leads the assault is he."

Kor and Koloth are probably there as well. All my reports from the council chambers have them inseparable in the face of the Kh'myr push for membership in the ruling body. "How many warriors follow them?"

"Reports say there's over two hundred."

Durit gave him his most convincing look of incredulity.

"But I think the size of his force is actually more like sixty or so."

That's probably more accurate, Durit surmised, but with the leadership of those three, and the ferocity they most likely produce in their warriors, they probably seem like over two hundred. How can I stop them? "Take these and stop them any way you can!"

"I'll try, joHwI'." He motioned to the warriors behind Durit, and the group ran back toward the sound of fighting.

How do I stop Kang? Unless I can somehow break him, they will overcome what I have here. It's for sure these soldiers that work for the pay I give them aren't up to the challenge.

Then he remembered an asset that might just do the trick. A squad of men came down the hall heading for the fight. "You, Lieutenant," Durit said as they began to pass him.

"What?" the lieutenant said, then recognized the source of the call. "Yes, joHwI'?"

"You and your men come with me." He headed back the way they had just come.

"But, sir, the battle rages this way."

"I know. I have a more potent weapon this way. One that will probably stop this fight and allow us to escape." Durit continued down the hall, then turned to the left, toward his quarters.

The lieutenant nodded and signaled for his men to follow.

*****

"No. No. NO. NO!" Marschut wailed from the place against the wall that she'd dove to when the earthquake had struck.

I almost had the emperor's sister out from behind that mental barrier when the earthquake rumbled through. Now I must start all over, Mara thought furiously, as she walked purposely over to the other. She could hear the sounds of a battle that was intensifying in other regions of the building, and knew it was getting closer. She also knew that she could expect Durit to show up and collect them, unless he was dead. Either way, she had to get Marschut into her right mind, just in case the need arose for her to be a Klingon female and not a weakling Orion slave.

She squatted in front of Marschut and took her roughly by the shoulders, pulling her to her feet as she rose to hers. "Marschut, you must remember."

"I am not this Marschut you seek."

Mara slapped Marschut sharply across the cheek. "Enough of this nonsense, female! You must remember who you are!"

Marschut's head snapped around as she absorbed the hit, whimpering.

Mara saw pain and fear register on her face. She worried that the psychic wall would be too strong for her. Then she saw anger shine from those royal eyes and her confidence returned. She slapped Marschut again, this time putting all the strength she owned into it.

Marschut roared with pain, but this time her head did not snap to the side with the impact. "That hurt, Mara. Stop it!"

"No!" Mara responded, coming back across the other cheek with a savage backhand.

"Stop it!" Rage and indignity replaced the fear in Marschut's voice.

"You stop me, Lady Marschut," Mara said, drawing back and this time striking Marschut with her closed fist, driving her back to bounce off the wall.

"How dare you!" Marschut roared in a true Klingon voice, as she came back at Mara.

"Because I am a Klingon and I am tired of the charade," Mara retorted and bloodied Marschut's lip with the flat of her hand. "Remember who you are...or die!" Deadly sincerity filled her voice.

Marschut once more bounced off the wall, but this time when she came back, she assumed a defensive stance, ready to meet Mara. "That will be just about enough, Lady Mara!" Her voice dripped elements of command. Only someone used to life in the citadel of the emperor would sound like this.

Mara heard the change in the voice, but wanted to make sure the barrier was down for good. She hopped into the air and aimed a savage forward kick at the center of Marschut's chest. "We'll see!"

Marschut knocked it expertly aside, catching her attacker's heal as she did and threw her to the ground, immediately kneeling over her, ready to end the fight with a vicious punch to the throat. "What are you doing in my quarters, Lady Mara? Where is the Lady Kali?"

Mara knew Marschut had returned. "I submit to your authority, My Lady. I have no idea where Kali is at this moment. Do you know where you are, or what has happened?"

Marschut took her murderous gaze off Mara and finally looked around. "This is not my suite. Where am I? Where is Lieutenant Worf?" She released Mara as she stood up and looked around.

"Someone kidnapped and mindsifted you, then sent you here--to Durit's stronghold--for safekeeping." It was good to have the emperor's sister back within herself.

"I was mindsifted?!" Marschut responded with all the indignity and anger a member of her caste could muster at the thought of being so violated. "By whom? I'll make sure it takes weeks for him to die."

There was a commotion in the corridor outside the open doorway and a squad of warriors came through the door, weapons pulled and ready.

Marschut glared at them as they came to a halt only meters away, the intensity of her gaze and the set of her shoulders enough to stop any further forward momentum. "You disloyal, bastard males of the lowliest targ, how dare you come in here unbidden."

Mara sidled up behind the royal and to her left. Her stance promised extreme violence to any who came any closer.

"What is going on here?" a voice from the corridor roared. "Why have you stopped?"

The warriors that had just entered the room mumbled and growled their response as they parted to let the speaker through.

"Are you their commander?" Marschut demanded, making and holding eye contact.

Marschut's commanding presence affected Durit at first, but he soon recovered. "I own everything on this world," Durit responded, setting himself for action. "That includes you, Marschut."

"No one owns a member of the royal house."

"Mine is the only royal house on this planet, and all who are here, my vassals." He grinned as he stepped right up to her, his gaze never faltering from hers.

A muffled explosion sounded from somewhere within the building.

"All, you treacherous targ? Or do I hear those who are loyal to me coming to take your head?"

The straight right-hand punch that connected with Marschut's head came from nowhere and sent her to the floor. Mara was instantly all over Durit, causing him to back-peddle into his men, her nails marking his right cheek and ear with bloody furrows.

"Get her off me!" Durit ordered.

The warriors that had a moment ago been frozen by the royalty of Marschut's presence broke free from the effect and closed on Mara. Strong arms grabbed hers and stretched her out between them, their additional height lifting her off the ground.

Ignoring the wounds on his face, he stepped menacingly close to Mara as she struggled to free her arms. A savage back hand that bloodied her nose, got her attention.

"Kill me now, Durit. I will never submit to you."

"Is this how you reacted to Khalian, Lady Mara?"

"That's right," she responded, spitting blood in his face.

"No wonder he nearly killed you," he punched her hard in the gut, driving the wind from her chest. As she struggled to get her breath back, he continued, "I would do as you ask, Mara, but you're more valuable to me alive." Then to his men: "Bring them." He stalked out of the room.

The lieutenant picked up the unconscious Marschut and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, while four others dragged the kicking and screaming Mara along as well.

*****

The halls of the building suddenly became quiet. Kang took a chance and popped his head around the corner of the door way to see what had happened to the squad of defenders that had been tenaciously holding the corridor only a moment earlier. There was a lot smoke between him and the barricade they had been behind, but he could tell they had withdrawn.

"What happened?" Kali asked from just behind him.

"They're gone," Kang reported, stepping slowly out into the open, the muzzle of his weapon remaining aimed at the barricade.

Kor charged past him, roaring all the way and leapt over the obstacle, rolling and coming up on one knee, ready to continue the battle. There was no response. The hallway was empty. "Come on! We've got them on the run."

"Wait, Kor!" Kali climbed over the barricade. "This is too easy!"

"I agree, Kor," Koloth cautioned as he began to scale the barricade next to her. "They've been fighting tooth and nail, for every meter of corridor, until this moment. Now they're gone. It doesn't stand to reason."

"You've all become Earthers," Kang admonished from a position well down the corridor. "All careful and cautious. They've given us this corridor. Let's take it as far as we can."

Worf growled as he hurried past the three others still standing just beyond the barricade, checking the charge in his carbine.

"There's no reason to become insulting, Kang," Kor said as he fell in line, followed by the rest.

They hadn't gone far when they came up on a stationary Worf, who in turn was standing right behind Kang.

"What the--" Kor pushed past Worf to stand next to his friend.

They had come to a nexus in the hallway system of the building. Beside the corridor they had just exited, three others departed the open area going in the other cardinal directions. Imbedded in the wall, next to the corridor that exited the court across from them, was a viewscreen. The face of a Kh'myr warrior grinned from it.

"No further, Kang, or I kill her." Durit suggested something behind him, and the video pickup panned back.

Kor felt Kang wilt beside him as the pick-up finally focused.

"Mara?" Kang whispered. "I thought you dead. That animal Khalian said so. Mara!"

Mara was there, her toes just barely touching the ground. Held firmly there by two warriors. Marschut was likewise secured next to her.

Durit stepped into the angle of view of the camera, eclipsing the view of his prisoners. "No, Kang. She is not dead. At least, not yet. Neither is the Lady Marschut. You and your forces will withdraw, or that will change."

"It is not honorable to take hostages," Kor heard Kang whisper.

He remembered the discussions they'd had with Kang since his release; his exhortations that Klingon should not kill Klingon, but he also remembered the one instance where this was acceptable within Kang's new dogma: eliminate dishonor. He knew there would be little to stop Kang from killing this Durit now, no matter what happened to Mara, or for that matter, Marschut. This fact bothered Kor the most, since without the safe return of Marschut to her brother, there would be no pardon for Kang.

He took hold of Kang's arm and growled a message into his ear. "We must withdraw."

"Why?" Kang barked. "He is beaten."

"True enough, my friend and companion," Kor retorted. "But this place is like a crawly maze. Where would we start to search for them? What would Durit do if we tried?"

Even as they watched, the emperor's sister, who had before hung unconscious in the hands of the warriors, began to regain consciousness.

"I will not," Kang hissed in response. "This petaQ does not deserve to live another day, hour, minute, even second."

"I don't see you leaving yet, Kang," Durit announced from the viewer. "Don't you believe me?"

Kang was struggling against Kor and Kali's attempt at getting him to back up. "No! I will not withdraw!"

"Maybe you need a demonstration of just how intent I am on this?" Turning toward his two prisoners, he approached them, pulling a war dagger from its sheath on his belt. Standing next to Marschut, he brought the razor sharp blade to her face and let the flat of its blade slide slowly down her cheek, from her ear, to the point of her chin. "I will kill them both, slowly and painfully, if you do not comply."

Marschut, fully roused at this moment, glared murderously at Durit's back as he turned to fully face the holovid pickup. Gaining her feet, she regained her regality and pose.

"You would not harm either," Kang retorted. "To do so would lose you your advantage. Surrender, Durit. Return the females to us, and you will survive to stand trial in front of Kudan Kuras."

"Such a compelling offer, Kang," Durit responded. "But as an Earther might say: Why fold when I hold all the aces?" He indicated his two prisoners.

Kang shrugged off Kor and Kali's attempt to pull him back. "I will not stand for this dishonorable behavior." He marched forward.

"Hold, Kang," Durit yelled from the screen. "I see you need a demonstration." He moved from Marschut's side to Mara's.

She struggled with everything she had, nearly overcoming the two males that held her, forcing a third to join them as she roared her defiance.

The roar echoed into the corridor where Kang stood.

"Mara!"

Kor looked at Kali. "Could you tell from which direction?"

"Not clearly," she whispered, tipping her head so that her ears could pick up any more sounds that might come.

Bringing the dagger to Mara's face, Durit made a quick move that opened a six centimeter long cut.

Mara screamed insults and pulled her right hand free from the warrior that held it. Climbing on top of the shoulders of the warrior that was still trying to control her, she mauled his face with her nails, then bit his ear off. He released her and as she leapt to the ground, she relieved him of his dagger.

"That one," Kali reported, pointing down the corridor to the right.

Mara's fight was still playing out on the screen, but no one was watching anymore.

"Turn off the video!" Durit ordered as he turned to face the enraged female that was advancing on him, crouched and bent on his destruction. She had liberated a war dagger from the guard she'd attacked and dispatched him by slitting his throat.

Down the corridor, the intense sounds of close, hand-to-hand warfare began to get louder and louder as the forces of the three comrades inched its way closer and closer to their objective. Kang in the forefront, the blood of his enemies running from his armor, appeared more like a demon from Gre'thor than the mortal he really was.

Backing away from Mara, Durit kept an eye on her weapon hand as he set his own dagger, preparing to meet her attack. The sound of the conflict reached his ears. "You," he addressed the lieutenant with a nod of his head, "leave two to watch the Lady Marschut, and take the rest to the fight."

"But, lord..."

"Fool. I can handle this be'targ," he returned sharply. "Move!"

The lieutenant nodded and gathered what was left of his command and left the room, leaving two behind as ordered.

"Now, Mara, is this any way to treat someone who rescued you from that stuffy collection of decrepit warriors in that monastery on Boreth?"

Mara circled him, her deadly crouch and intense, murderous gaze saying more than anything her mouth could contrive. "You are without honor, you mantril. Kahless waits."

"be'targ, it is not I that is without honor, but Kang, your mate." He saw the reaction on her face at hearing the name of the one she thought dead. "That's right, Mara, hear him roaring down there," he nodded toward the corridor. "You will have to wait for him in Gre'thor." Durit laughed as he continued to face her as she circled him. "But don't worry; you won't have to wait long. I will take care of him after I finish you here and now." He laughed and feinted action with his knife hand.

Mara responded not with defense, but by attacking. She came straight at him, deadly in her intent of driving her short blade under his chest armor, to the soft flesh of his lower abdomen and the prolonged, pain-filled death that would cause.

He parried, meeting her thrust with his own weapon in a bone jarring clash of titanium alloyed blades.

"No pretense? No sparring?" Durit jibed. "This will be over all too quickly."

Mara said nothing, wasting no energy in useless chatter. Instead, she came at him. First from his left with the dagger in her right hand. Then, as that attack deflected off his defending blade, back-handing a slash at his leering face.

A crashing explosion in the hall told of the fight getting closer, despite the reinforcements he sent.

"Enough fun," Durit said, suddenly serious. He attacked with short strokes and vicious moves, using the advantage of his longer reach and heavier body to its full advantage.

Mara found herself forced backward, her speed and cat-like movements the only thing keeping her from being cut to ribbons. Suddenly, she found herself backed into a corner, with nowhere else to run.

"Now I have you, be'targ!" Durit growled, victory's fire in his murderous gaze. He caught and held her knife hand with his left hand, picking her bodily from the ground. With a hammer blow of his right, choosing not to use the blade, he struck her arm just above the wrist.

Mara felt the razor sharp ends of the broken bones of her lower arm break through the skin. Her knife flipped from her hand and landed on the floor at Durit's feet.

He pushed her roughly into the corner, his entire body's mass being used as a battering ram to drive the wind from her lungs. Looking her in the eye, he smiled. "Such a waste," he said as his right hand, still grasping the dagger, wandered down her body.

"Targ," She spit in the face not much more than a few centimeters away. "You have no honor."

"No, Mara, I do not. It is not profitable." He flipped the blade around to use its counterweight as a club, striking her on the side of the head.

She went limp between him and the wall. He let her body weight drag her to the floor. "I probably will regret not killing you, but with Kang knocking at my door, you might yet be valuable to me."

The sound of metal on metal yanked his attention from Mara's face. "What?" he said, turning just in time to see Marschut sweep away the second guard's defense and open him up with a horizontal slash of a ni'taj, a long dagger.

He recognized the weapon as one of two he'd gotten in trade from an Earther ship some time ago. They were elegant weapons their creators called katanas. He'd been learning their use, finding them not too different from the more traditional batlh'etlh. By the way Marschut faced him, returning to the ready position, she showed she knew how to use them as well.

"Koolas, what are you doing?" Durit questioned, challenged, backing away.

She slowly moved closer, swinging the blade through two arcs in front of her as she did. "I am not Koolas, petaQ. I am Marschut, sister to Kudan Kuras, emperor of the Klingon empire."

-21-

"The battle has moved inside a building, sir," Beach's voice came from the subspace transceiver in Terrell's hand.

The captain stood on the transporter's platform, at the forefront of a large group of security personnel. There was a similar sized second group on the Reliant's other transporter platform, Commander Chekov among them. There was a third group assembled in the corridor, waiting their turn.

"Any sign of battle in the courtyard outside the building?" Terrell asked.

"No sign of battle anywhere else on the planet, sir," Beach returned. "But there will be dead or dying all around you. Be careful, sir."

"We will, Mister Beach," Terrell answered. "Walking Bear, get your men on the platform as soon as we're gone," he addressed the commander of the third group.

"Aye, sir," Walking Bear returned.

Making eye contact with the transporter chief, Terrell nodded his head. "Energize."

The room faded. The open space in front of a ruined building replaced it. Klingon bodies were all around him. "Secure the courtyard. Form a perimeter." Terrell crouched so as to present less of a target to anyone watching.

Walking Bear and his team arrived a moment later with Doctor McCoy in the middle. They, likewise, dispersed to take stations on the edges of the clearing. All except the good doctor, who walked over to the nearest body, at the same time pulling out his medical tricorder and activating it.

Terrell ran over to him and then returned to a crouch. "Please keep down, Doctor." The captain kept searching the area around them for any threat.

"Why, Captain?" McCoy shook his head and stood. "The battle is over, here." He nodded toward the Klingon at their feet. "That one's dead--disruptor fire." He slowly walked toward the next body and scanned it.

Terrell followed him, his face reflecting the worry and chagrin he felt at the doctor's nonchalant behavior. "Will you be more careful, Doctor?"

"Why, Captain? They're all dead."

"Maybe these are, but there's no telling who might be alive in those rooms up there," Terrell nodded toward the open windows of the building.

"They don't kill doctors, Captain," McCoy offered. "Theirs or ours. They may mistreat them, but they don't kill them."

"How would they know what you are?"

"Precisely, Captain," McCoy continued as he went to the next body and began scanning it. "If I were moving around here like you. How would they know?"

A moan from a body a few meters away caught McCoy's attention and he rushed over to its source. Digging into his medikit, he pulled out a hypospray and inserted a vial of pain-killer, injecting its contents into his subject's neck. He then scanned the soldier at his feet and shook his head. "I wish I knew more about Klingon anatomy. It'll be my death one of these days." The Klingon that had groaned, became silent and stopped breathing. "Poor bastard. At least I made his last moments a little less uncomfortable."

Terrell shook his head, but McCoy had a point. If the Klingons wouldn't kill a doctor, then it was right for McCoy to be obvious about his position. "Very well, Doctor, but be very careful. It is my experience that severely wounded men rarely recognize who it is they are striking out at."

"I will, sir," McCoy answered, moving to the next body.

Walking Bear ran over to Terrell and reported. "Perimeter secured, sir."

"Prepare to enter the building."

"Aye, sir. Team already chosen and waiting."

"Good." He pulled out his communicator. "Terrell to Chekov."

"Chekov here, sir. Rear entrance to building secured. Vwe've already captured twenty Klingons trying to escape the fight inside."

"Good. Stay there. We're going in the front door. Terrell out." He put the communicator away and nodded toward the dark square that was the open front door. "After you, Mister Walking Bear."

*****

"Yes, I know who you are, my lady," Durit answered, his mind thinking furiously of what to do next, And me with only this short dagger for defense. He dropped the dagger and went for his disruptor, but only got it halfway from its holster.

Marschut stepped forward and with a simple move of the blade's tip, struck the weapon from his hand. "You would attack me with that when I give you the opportunity of defending yourself with an honorable weapon like this?" She shook the blade in her hand once.

"But my lady, I have no such weapon."

She let her gaze leave his and rest on the half empty rack on the wall where she'd found hers, nodding toward it. "Then get one."

He side-stepped over, never letting his gaze leave her. A moment later, he had the second ni'taj in his hand, its razor sharp blade free of its scabbard.

"How did I get here?" Marschut asked, her blade held horizontal to the ground, at waist level, and ready.

"A friend sent you to me," Durit answered as he circled.

"A friend of yours, dung-heap? No friend of mine would use the mindsifter on me, then send me to a place like this. No friend of mine or of the Empire. Who sent me here so I can thank him personally?" She sprang forward, attacking.

Her blade cut the air level with his neck, attempting to separate his head from his shoulders. Durit's blade intercepted it. CLANG. Recovering quickly, she followed it up with a slash to the other side. He parried it as well.

"Very good, Majesty," Durit said. "But can you keep it up?"

Durit launched his own attack, his style brutish and dependent on wearing down his opponent. Their blades crashed together over and over as he drove her toward the rear part of the room. His attacks never came close to striking Marschut, her style, practiced and efficient, never actually stopping his blows, but deflecting them to one side or the other. On his last blow, he brought his blade all the way back, planning to put all his weight and strength into it. Marschut stepped into his blow, standing right up against him and intercepted it. Stepping around behind him, she let the keen edge slice down his sword arm, cutting away all the leather armor and opening a shallow cut.

"You lack technique, Durit," Marschut taunted as she backed away, an evil smile playing across her face. "Like all males, you think your strength is all you need."

He shook the remnants of his sword arm's armor to the floor and again stood ready. "And like all females," Durit countered, "you think you can maneuver a male any way you want and get away with it."

Marschut's smile dropped to a scowl. "Who did this to me?"

"Guess, Lady Marschut," Durit answered, beginning a new attack with sweeping, two-handed swings of his sword on a level designed to gut his opponent.

At first, she attempted to just back away, but she quickly ran out of room and found herself up against the wall. She knew she didn't stand a chance in stopping the sweeps with pure strength and if she let him get too close, he would make it impossible to swing her blade at all. She stopped his blade with hers, let its energy transfer into moving her around his other side. Changing her blade from the parry position to a horizontal line perpendicular to her side, she tried to open his side as she passed him.

He put the gauntlet of his left arm between her blade and its soft target, letting its edge slide across the strips of titanium imbedded in its leather.

She found herself behind him, and for the briefest of moments, was presented with his unprotected back. Striking out with a quick cut, she targeted the back of his neck, only to find his blade already there. He had not bothered turning, perceiving she would attempt this tactic and had simply brought the blade over his head, its tip and blade paralleling his spinal column.

She backed away, and he turned to face her.

"Lady Marschut, you are a most worthy opponent," Durit offered. He reworked his strategy, noting the conspicuous silence in the corridor. The battle had ended, and he wasn't willing to assume his side had won. That meant that Kor and his friends would be here shortly. He had only one way out left to him, and that would be to use either the emperor's sister. Better yet, Mara. Kang's mate is here. I can use her to shield me. His gaze shifted from Marschut to the still unconscious form of the other female.

Marschut saw the glance and took the opportunity.

Their blades clashed together in a series of rapid fire attacks and counter-attacks that left both winded, and this time, sword-arm weary as well.

Durit now heard running footsteps in the corridor. I must end this. Smiling, he used his blade to salute the emperor's sister. "It has been fun, Majesty, but..." Knowing he had no more time, and that if he failed, he would die, either on the blade of Marschut, or worse, in the custody of Admiral Kor, he began a savage attack of powerful sweeps of his blade. Always pushing her back, he never let her recover enough to initiate a counterattack.

He pushed her around the room till she stood over Mara. Using the last of his strength, he parried her attack, by pushing her blade upward, and charged bull-like right into her. The tactic lifted her from her feet, and pinned her to the wall with his body's mass of muscle and armor, driving the wind from her lungs. Her blade dropped to the floor behind him.

Nose to nose with the emperor's sister, he sneered at her. Dropping his sword as well, since he was too close to use it now, he grasped her around the throat to hold her in place, while he pulled his dagger free. "Have you ever see a bug collection, Majesty?"

She spit in his face.

He slid the blade into her side.

She gasped with pain, but her gaze never left his, contempt even now burning from them. "Filthy, Ha'DIbaH."

"How touching." He let her slide down the wall, his blade cutting until it hit the bottom of her rib cage. "You use pIqaD Klingonese at the end, no doubt to honor me." He withdrew the knife and let her fall to the floor.

She continued down to her knees, her left hand trying to stop the bleeding of her side as she glared up at her killer, her breathing coming in painful gasps.

Durit backed up, to get room to swing his blade hand for the final cut. "Tsk, tsk," he clucked looking down at her. "Such a waste."

"Kill me, petaQ. Quickly, honorably," Marschut hissed at him, stretching out her neck to him.

"As you wish," Durit growled and brought his arm back to strike. "Give my greetings to Kahless."

He brought his arm around in a mighty slash. There was movement from his left and the upper tines of a batlh'etlh interposed themselves between the edge of his dagger and the soft flesh of her neck.

"What?!" he roared, jumping away and turning.

Kang stood there, covered in blood--his own and those he'd just vanquished--his armor in tatters, but his eyes burning with the wish to continue. Carefully, slowly, keeping his blade aimed at Durit, he interposed himself between the emperor's sister and Durit. Then he saw the form on the floor and in the time it took to blink, recognized her. "Mara?"

"Yes, Kang, it is Mara," Marschut said between gasps, "and this mantril is responsible for what you see."

Kang's gaze never left that of Durit, but the emotional fire within it intensified.

Tired by the fights he'd just finished and the day's events, Durit remained silent. Slowly, he retrieved the ni'taj from the floor and shifted it to his right hand, his battle dagger in his left. "Segh vav targ!" he spit out.

Kang swung his bat-winged shaped blade in a full arc diagonally, right to left. Then again from left to right. "I find no honor in you, Warrior."

"What profit is there in honor?" Durit returned, stepping into Kang and bringing his blade in a horizontal swipe aimed at beheading him, at the same time bringing the dagger hand back, ready to bring it up under Kang's parry.

Kang stopped the long blade's arc before it had gone an eighth of a full circle, then reversing the direction of his own blade, intercepted the dagger hand. The finely honed mid-blade cut through the leather of the gauntlet, the muscle and tendon beneath, and the bone, neatly and cleanly, leaving an empty stump behind. The hand fell to the floor, dagger still grasped in its dying fingers. He backed away and returned the batlh'etlh to its ready position.

"Argh!" Durit roared with surprise and anticipated pain, though the injury had been incurred so quickly there was none yet.

Kang stepped toward him, ready to continue.

Durit reacted by lunging forward, attempting to drive his blade through Kang's midsection.

Kang side-stepped the blade's incoming point and, with the same move he'd used to take Durit's left hand, took his right.

Durit backed away, his blood covering him and the floor around him, shock and fear shining from his eyes.

Kang slowly followed the back-pedaling antagonist. Finally, the other ran out of room, finding himself backed against the wall.

Knowing the end was near at hand, Durit dropped his arms and stepped toward Kang. "End it."

Kang did so with a mighty swipe of his blade, which separated Durit's head from his body. He watched as it fell to the floor and rolled away, the body slumping to floor at his feet.

A moan from behind him caught his attention and he spun around. Marschut was silent and unmoving, her hand still trying to staunch her bleeding side, shock from the blood loss clouding her gaze.

But it hadn't been her voice that Kang had heard. Behind her, Mara stirred and moaned again. He moved to her side. "Mara?"

Despite the grogginess of returning consciousness, Mara recognized the voice. Am I dead now as well? "Kang, my mate." She moved her right hand, to reach for him and hissed with the pain of its broken bones.

"Mara, don't move; I'm here."

"You're not dead?"

"Nor are you, my mate."

"Marschut?"

"She is here, but badly wounded."

"Forget me, my lord, save her."

"But..."

"She is more important, Kang." Mara crawled toward the Lady Marschut.

Kang put down the batlh'etlh and moved over to the other female. Easing her down onto her back, he pulled her hand free from the wound and inspected it.

"Have strength, Highness," Mara whispered into Marschut's ear. "We're going to help."

"I'm afraid that Kh'myr animal has finished me, Mara," Marschut whispered back.

Mara found Kang's gaze, pleading with her eyes. "Do something."

"Her wound is grievous, Mara. I am a warrior. I only know how to kill, not heal."

"No, Kang, you don't, but this one can," came a rough Klingon voice from the doorway.

Kang looked up and saw Kor standing in the door. "What?"

Kor reached into the hallway and caught something, pulling it into the room. It was a struggling Earther in Starfleet uniform.

"Starfleet?" Kang hissed.

"I found him following in the trail of our battle, doing what he could for the dead and dying."

"Yes, I know him," Kang nodded. "He is the healer of the U.S.S. Enterprise."

"The same," Kor returned.

"And while you two discuss my credentials, the young lady will die," McCoy retorted.

"No. She won't, Healer," Kang stood," because you will stop it, or die yourself." He grabbed hold of McCoy's shirt and shoved him at the wounded female.

McCoy didn't need his tricorder to know what needed to be done, and right away, or the woman at his feet would die. Putting his bag down, he opened it and rummaged through the contents. A moment later, he pulled out the tissue regenerator.

"First to reconnect the severed major arteries," he said to the air around him. Activating the instrument, he did just that, pulling the ends of two blood vessels and sealing them together. "I hope those were matching ends," he whispered under his breath as he found and sealed another bleeder, "because I have very little practical knowledge of Klingon anatomy."

Kang helped Mara to her feet nearby. She held her arm protectively to her chest as he caught her up a tender embrace. "I thought you dead, my mate. Khalian showed me your bloody shirt as proof."

"He thought me dead as well," Mara responded. She reveled in the protective arms of Kang, despite the blood that covered his armor.

"When you are finished," McCoy yelled from his position over the emperor's sister, as he finished closing the skin of her side. "I've finished repairing her body, but she's lost a lot of blood." Holding out his tricorder, he continued. "She is this blood type, whatever type that is, and I hope it isn't rare. Is there anyone I can get to lend her a drop, or two?"

"I volunteer," came another female voice from the door.

"Now, young lady, we'll just have to see if you match," McCoy responded.

"We match," the female retorted.

"I'll have to..." McCoy stopped when Admiral Kor stepped forward menacingly, his dagger scraping free of its scabbard.

"Doctor, if my mate says she is a match, you can be assured of that fact. Or would you like to argue with my dagger?"

The female laid a hand on Kor's arm and stopped his further approach. "He is only doing his job, Kor," she hissed. "Now go out and find his captain, so he'll know where his healer disappeared to."

Kor growled, but obeyed, reseating his dagger in its sheath as he stalked away.

Kali returned her attention to the healer. "You can test my blood to be sure of its match, but hurry, or she will die."

"I will." McCoy pulled a scanner from his bag. He ran it for only a moment, read the results on his tricorder, and nodded. "Okay, it's a match. Expose your right arm and lay down next to her, with your arm right next to hers."

She complied.

"Good, now lie still." McCoy said as he pulled a rolled up film of plastic from his bag. Unrolling it, he wrapped it around Kali's and Marschut's arms. A miniature bank of lights remained facing upward, with one small, pressure-sensitive button, under a green light. "Now this won't hurt at all, young lady."

"What of it? Am I a soft--?"

"Never mind." McCoy shook his head and smiled. "Just something us Earther healers say to help the healing process." He pushed the button and the transfuser took over.

Marschut's color began to look better right away.

"Doctor? Are you all right?"

McCoy looked up from his patient to see Captain Terrell and Chekov standing behind Kor, who was barring the door. "Yes, sir. Just peddling my wares."

"Do you know who the patient is?"

"Nope," and before Terrell could inform him, he continued, "and I don't really care as long as she continues to improve." He rummaged around in his medical kit and pulled out a hypospray. He wasn't sure which antibiotics were all right to use on the Klingon system, but his patient needed something to fight any possible infection. Choosing the most powerful, broad range type he had, he gave her an injection. I've heard someplace that Klingons aren't as much different from us as their looks imply. I hope so, or that injection might kill her.

Since she didn't go into convulsions right away, McCoy decided that it hadn't hurt her.

"You seem to have the situation well in hand, Doctor. Now if you'll excuse us, we've got a load of prisoners we've got to protect, or these guys will execute them."

"I can manage here, sir." McCoy heard some of Terrell's conversation with Chekov as they walked away.

"Did you say the computer memory was still intact?"

"Yes, sir, we should be able to correlate those records with ours and prove this Durit guy is our Yridian..." Chekov's voice became too low to understand anymore.

Marschut's eyes fluttered, and she moaned.

"Now you just lay still, young lady."

"Earther?"

"He is a nada, your majesty," Kali whispered in Klingonese. "Lay still."

"Is that animal dead?"

"Yes, Majesty. Kang finished him."

"Was it a slow death?"

"No, Majesty, it was quick."

"A pity," Marschut whispered before falling asleep.

"I don't know what you said to her," McCoy said, "but thank you for keeping her calm."

"You just insure she doesn't die, Healer," Kali hissed, her voice filled with promised violence. "You do know what happens to healers in our culture who loses a patient?"

"Ah, no, and I don't want to." McCoy responded as he returned her murderous glare. "And if you don't lay still, I'll lose the transfusion connection and we'll have to start all over."

Kali glared at him for one moment more, then let it go. "How is she?"

"That's better." McCoy scanned his patient with his tricorder. "The next few minutes are critical. The transfuser's filter seems to be taking out all the minute differences of your blood, and my repairs seemed to be holding. Though I don't know how I knew what went where."

Kali didn't understand enough Earther to follow his conversation, but it sounded positive, so she relaxed with a grunt. "Good."

-22-

"Do you think Prollet did it?" Chekov queried Captain Terrell. They were sitting in the Reliant's ready room. The rest of the staff had left and the starship's top two officers were discussing things best kept between themselves.

"Yes, I think Prollet did it," Terrell answered, "but do I think we got the right Prollet?"

Chekov chuckled as he saw his captain's head shake slowly from side to side. "My thoughts as well, sir."

"Actually, its poetic justice, Mister Chekov. The way he treated her was a crime and she just insured he was punished for it."

"Did you see the look on her face when we arrested him?"

"How could I miss it?" Terrell responded. "Like the cat that swallowed the canary is how I'd best describe it."

"She's clever a one," Chekov said. "Do you think she'll ever get caught?"

"Maybe, someday, but not today I think,'" Terrell said, looking up at Chekov. "And you know something else that's ironic?"

"No, sir."

"You remember me telling you how he tried to invoke Catullan law to keep me from interfering in his abuse of her?"

"Yes, of course. It pissed me off."

"Well, she's invoked another Catullan custom that says that if the husband is ever convicted of a felony, then she can ask for and get not only a divorce, but will be given his entire estate."

"Phew," Chekov reacted."Remind me to never date a Catullan."

"That's for sure," Terrell finished.

He picked a memory board up from the stack left behind by the rest of the staff, activated it and began reading. "I don't believe this!" Terrell threw the compuclipboard to the desk's top.

"Vwhat, sir?"

"McCoy. He wants a transfer."

Chekov's mouth dropped open for a moment as the surprise washed through him. "Do you have the request? I'd like to see vwhy."

"It's still only an informal request at this point, Exec, but he's promised the formal one soon."

"Then there's still hope he'll stay?" Chekov questioned staring at the viewscreen, but not really seeing it.

"Yes, there is."

"But he just got here!" the first officer responded, dismay clouding his face.

"I know," Terrell answered. "I thought he'd finally started to become a true part of the crew."

"My thoughts as vwell, sir." Chekov shook his head. "Do you vwant me to have a talk vwith him?"

"Would you?" Terrell asked, showing obvious relief at this suggestion. "Good chief medical officers are hard to find, and despite everything, he is one of those."

"Have you told him this, sir?"

"No, I leave that up to you, Exec."

"R.H.I.P., eh sir?"

"That's right, Pavel. Besides, as my executive officer, you act as the ship's chief of staff. As such, he's one of yours."

"I guess you're right," replied Chekov, his gaze shifting to the table's top, as his thoughts continued. And that's why Doctor McCoy wants to go. He's too used to being the captain's confidant. Not just one of the crowd of faces at staff meetings. "Does he say vwhere he vwants to go?"

"Not in this." The captain pointed at the compuclipboard. He shook his head, his fingers drumming out a quick pattern.

Chekov silently watched, unsure what to say next, but knowing he hadn't been relieved yet.

"Tsk-tsk," Terrell clucked, got to his feet, paced a couple patterns, then faced the portal that showed a view of space outside. Stars were leaving long streaks of light as the Reliant passed through sub-space at warp speed. "l just don't understand. I know we had differences of opinion, the doctor and I," he indicated what he was saying with his hands as well, "but I thought that had changed. He seemed like he'd finally begun to fit in during the mission debriefing.

"l thought the same thing, sir," Chekov responded. "l wish I knew what was going on in his head."

"You know something," the captain confided. "To tell you the truth, I don't think he knows."

"That might make it easier to talk him out of this." Chekov pointed at the memory board.

"Maybe...maybe..." Terrell's eyes unfocused for a moment as he tried to work through the problem. "l just wish I knew why."

His eyebrows rising, the first officer's head tilted slightly, the direction of his gaze moving upward and to the right. He thought he knew, but he wasn't sure the captain was ready to hear it.

Terrell noted the reaction and correctly identified what was causing it. "You know why, don't you? You worked with him on the Enterprise and know him well enough to know why."

"Sir, I don't know..."

"Nonsense. Tell me. I'm not too proud to admit that I don't know everything. What is it?"

"You treat him like the rest of the staff," Chekov said in a low voice afraid someone might overhear even though they were alone together.

"As it should be," Terrell responded. "I can't show any favoritism."

"l know, Kyptin, and it works well with this staff, mainly because they know you better, but McCoy..." Chekov paused a moment, wanting to pick his words well so as not to insult the captain, but not misrepresent the doctor either.

"Go ahead," Terrell prodded a moment later when Chekov still hadn't completed his comment.

The Russian's mouth straight-lined, and his eyebrows shot up again, wrinkling his brow. "Okay, sir, here's how it is. Doctor McCoy was Captain Kirk's closest confidant. If anyone knew Kirk's mind, it was McCoy, like they had a Vulcan mindlink sometimes."

"And I don't."

"Yes, sir."

"But that takes time..."

Chekov waved off the captain's explanation with a wave of his hands. "l don't think in this case it would matter. He wants to be back with Kirk."

Terrell nodded his head. "l see, so all we were was a means to an end."

"Aye, Kyptin. McCoy must have been in identity hell at Starfleet General, and he needed a means to escape. We were just the first transportation out-of-town."

"So do you suppose he's working on the next leg of his journey back to Kirk?"

"He's on a subspace channel as we speak, sir. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he isn't talking to Admiral Kirk right now."

Terrell nodded. "Put that way, I wouldn't doubt it either, but..." He paused. "l still wish I could hang on to him for a while longer. I've gotten the warning order on our next mission, and it's a long-term science survey mission."

"Is that right?" Chekov perked up. "Can you give me a clue? Or is it too classified?"

"For the moment, but I can say this much. We'll be working with an outstanding Federation scientist."

"And that being?"

"Doctor Carol Marcus."

"Wow," Chekov responded. "But I'm not sure Doctor McCoy will be impressed."

"Hmm," Terrell responded. "Anyway, see what you can do about talking Doctor McCoy into staying."

"I'll see what I can do," Chekov offered, standing up.

"That's all I can ask for," Terrell responded. "Dismissed."

*****

"Isn't there any place on your staff you could use me, sir?" McCoy asked the person on the viewscreen in front of him.

"I don't know, Bones," Admiral James T. Kirk responded. "As you know, I'm just an instructor at the Academy now. I don't have a need for a functional staff. Have you thought about Sector One General?"

"Done that scene already, Jim. It was a bust."

"Let me get this straight," Kirk went on. "You are presently the chief medical officer of a starship?"

"Yes, sir, the Reliant."

"And you want a transfer?"

"Yes, sir."

"You once told me that that was the only place you could be happy."

"Come on, Jim. A guy can be wrong every once in a while, can't he?"

"But the position I've got open is bridge simulation observer."

"Which is?"

"You're part of a team of senior officers that watches and evaluates cadets during simulation exercises on a bridge simulator."

"I'll take it."

"It's planet-bound, Bones."

"I said I'll take it, Jim. What do you want me to do? Beg? I'm beggin!"

"Tell me again why you want to leave. You didn't embarrass the captain on the bridge and are now calling me from the brig are you?"

"Damn it, Jim. None of that; I'm just not happy here."

"You mean you found yourself as just one of the staff there?"

"I don't think I follow..."

"Don't play games with me, Bones. You pride yourself upon knowing your people and the captain you work for. Well, so do I, and I see that I've spoiled you by letting you get as close to me as I did."

McCoy's thoughts spun around a bit as this revelation hit home. After a moment, they settled down. He's right. Nodding, his gaze found that of Kirk's. "Yep, I guess you're right, Jim."

"Admitting addiction is the first step..."

McCoy's face twisted into a scowl.

"I ought to leave you there. I can see that this might be a growing experience for you."

"Now, Admiral, let's not go to extremes. I'm only asking for a little ol' transfer."

"You know, Bones, this conversation is moot if Terrell won't let you go."

"I don't think he will want a doctor who doesn't want to be here," McCoy argued.

"True, but that fact doesn't obligate him to let you go."

There was a long, pregnant silence between them.

Kirk continued after a while. "You get Terrell's permission and send the paperwork to me, and we'll see what I can do."

"That's all I ask, sir."

"Admiral Kirk, out."

The screen changed back to standard--silver Federation seal on a blue background. McCoy continued to stare at it for a long time, deep in thought. In his hand was the memory board with the formal request he'd promised Terrell.

The door to his quarters chimed.

That will be Chekov. McCoy's fingers traced the outside of the board with the request in its computer memory. Here to talk me out of this. He's a good first officer. "Come," he said after the second chime sounded.

Chekov walked in slowly, to stand in front of McCoy, one arm stiffly behind his back, the hand out of sight. His eyes said everything. "Vwhy, Doctor?"

McCoy stood. "It's just not the same," he stated after a long, uneasy silence.

"The Reliant is no different than any other ship vwithin Starfleet. Built to the same basic design specs."

"That sounds like something a Vulcan acquaintance would say, but you and I both know it's not true. Because of the people who inhabit the corridors, every ship is different. Each ship takes on a personality of its own after awhile. A personality that changes as the crew changes."

"Agreed, Doctor, and you are becoming a valuable part of the Reliant's personality."

McCoy chuckled and looked at the floor for a moment before answering. "A somewhat dark part, I'm afraid. The ship's just not the same."

"You mean, the captain's not the same," Chekov said, observing the doctor's reaction.

McCoy's gaze came back up sharply and locked with Chekov's. He's come a long way from the wide-eyed ensign that signed aboard the Enterprise so many years ago. "No, you're right. Clark Terrell isn't Jim Kirk."

"As it should be."

"As it should be," McCoy mimicked, nodding his head. "But I feel like a square peg that some kid's trying to force through a round hole. If he's successful, I'll lose all my corners."

"And become like the rest of the crew."

"Exactly." The gaze of McCoy's steel blue eyes locked with executive officer's brown. "And I have grown used to those corners, Chekov. For the same reason the crew is the soul of a ship, those corners are mine. If I lose them, I lose that quality that makes me Leonard McCoy."

Chekov thought about that a moment as he continued to hold the doctor's gaze. After a moment, he continued. "Kirk molds those around him to fit his pattern."

"As it should be," McCoy responded.

"As it should be," Chekov mimicked.

"The mold my square peg fits is in Kirk's board." The doctor brought the memory board with the transfer paperwork within it up to chest level and held it out to Chekov. "I've thought hard about this."

Chekov took the board without giving it a glance, still watching McCoy.

"Don't you want to insure everything's in order, Pavel?"

"No. Is there anything I can say to change you mind, Leonard?"

"I doubt it," McCoy stated, shaking his head. "I've already been in touch with Admiral Kirk and he said he'll take me if Terrell will let me go. He will let me go, won't he?"

"He's left it up to me as the first officer."

"And?"

"An unhappy chief medical officer vwouldn't be healthy for this ship's soul." Chekov ditched all thoughts of bringing up their next mission. Instead, he brought the hand that had been hidden during the conversation into sight revealing that it had a bottle of clear liquid in it, and two small shot glasses. There was a label on the outside with Cyrillic writing covering its surface.

McCoy doubted the contents was water. "What about my transfer?"

"Later, later," Chekov answered. "Vwe've got plenty of time before dropping you off at a Starbase."

"And that is?"

He changed his mind again, lightning quick, hoping that he might change the doctor's mind after all. "Some project Doctor Carol Marcus is working on. But that is of no concern to you, Doctor, unless..."

"Not a chance, Pavel."

Stuffing the memory board into his belt, he set the two glasses down, opened the bottle, and filled them both. Handing one to the doctor, he then picked the other one up and held it at eye level. "To the Federation."

"The Federation," McCoy responded to the toast, and downed the glass's entire content in one toss. The vodka burned a path all the way to his stomach, causing his eyes to water.

Chekov was already filling the glasses again. A moment later he had his glass again at eye level.

It was McCoy's turn. "To Starfleet."

"To Starfleet," Chekov responded and the glasses were emptied and refilled again. "To friends and comrades," he offered.

"May the universe never become so big that we lose sight of them," McCoy added.

"May it be so," Chekov returned, and threw the shot of liquor into his mouth.

McCoy followed suit, already feeling the effects of the first shot hitting his head.

Chekov sat at the table, waving at McCoy to do the same. "Sit down, comrade," he said with a thick Russian accent.

So much for the transfer being processed today, but what the hell. He took a seat.

"Do you remember that time...?" and Chekov began to reminisce about something that had happened years earlier on the Enterprise, refilling the glasses at the same time.

McCoy accepted the refilled glass, this time only sipping the contents. "Yeah, Pavel, I remember," he said after Chekov had finished describing a rather humorous scene. "Boy, do I remember. He chose to carry that scar for the rest of his life, though I offered to remove it."

They laughed and drank some more.

*****

"My forces have begun an extensive search, Majesty," Khalian roared, posturing in front of the emperor Kudan Kuras, who was standing in the center of the dais. "I think we will find your sister, the Lady Marschut, in the next couple of days."

"I hope so, Admiral. I will not rest, nor shall my empire, as long as her whereabouts remain a mystery. Remember, Khalian, I want the people responsible for this returned here alive so that I can have the pleasure of punishing them."

"Those are the instructions I gave the crews of my ships, sire." Khalian bowed slightly at the neck, his head the only part moving.

I'll bet, Admiral Kusan thought, as he listened from where he stood on the throne room's floor. If your crews had gotten to Durit first, the result would have been the same. Durit and all evidence of your complicity, destroyed. Kusan looked past the still posturing form of Khalian and found Admiral Kumara, the only Segh vav left on the council that wasn't under sentence of death.

Kusan's mind jumped to the revelation he'd gotten on Boreth as he watched Khalian. He'd learned more since that day and because of this new knowledge, renewed his condemnation of the fellow Kh'myr. You have no honor in you, his mental voice roared, and are not worthy to survive. I foresee a big surprise for you, my Kh'myr comrade. The report he'd received from Valkris, which had served to verify what Lieutenant Worf had reported to him earlier in the day, was still fresh in his mind. This morning in fact.

His thoughts jumped as Khalian became long winded. Kahless was right. The Klingon people are hungry for this new idea--this D'Har.

The communicator on Kuras' belt chimed. The emperor pulled it free and opened a channel. A disembodied voice said something and the emperor's face clouded with anger. "What?"

The buzzing of the voice on the communicator continued.

"Escort them in," Kuras said, then slipped the communicator back into his belt. "Excuse us for interrupting, Admiral Khalian, but we have people coming in that we think you'll find very interesting."

The locks on the huge throne-room doors clanked open noisily, then the doors themselves, very quietly, hiding all evidence of their true size and weight, opened. A squad of armored Kh'myr guards marched in, the markings on their uniform indicating that they belonged to Khalian's fleet, escorted three males, also heavily armored, to the front of the room. As they approached the dais, the guards in the front ranks peeled back, exposing those within to the emperor's sight. There were three of them--two in front, with the one forming the point of a triangle, following, his head bowed, hiding his face.

"Koloth! Kor!" The emperor identified the personages of the two in front. "Why do convicts wish to see me?"

"Convicted of what, sire?" Koloth responded.

"Rank insubordination."

Admiral Kor growled in response, but Koloth continued. "Specifics of the charge, and who brought them, sire?" Koloth asked.

"Admiral Khalian suggested I recall you when the two of you disappeared. When you failed to respond, he suggested you were probably involved in the abduction of my sister and were away, insuring she remained missing. If I find out this is true, you shall call for death a hundred times before I allow it." Kuras looked over their heads and pointed at one of the guards manning his post in front of the once again closed doors. "Get our mindsifter tech--"

"Who did you say was missing, lord?" came a voice from Kuras' left.

Kuras' head snapped around, his arm still outstretched with finger pointing, his mouth still in the process of forming words. There, standing in her normal place, with Lady Kali and Lady Mara attending, was the object of his search.

"Are you trying to catch glob flies, my lord?" Marschut chuckled.

"Marschut!" Kuras stammered, his tone of voice and face betraying his surprise.

Admiral Khalian, slowly, quietly, returned to his position next to Kusan, putting the other Kh'myr admiral between himself and the emperor. Kusan glared at him for only a moment, then mouthed words, "Later. If you still live."

Khalian's gaze went to the floor.

"Where?" Kuras asked his sister.

"I was kidnapped by a squad of Kh'myr warriors and sent, by means I still don't remember, to a planet in the Neutral Zone. A Kh'myr named Durit held me there."

"Who were the Kh'myr warriors that violated your quarters? I wish their heads on a pole," Kuras said dangerously.

"So let it be done, my lord," Marschut responded with a wicked smile on her face, then clapped her hands in signal. A mixed squad of warriors--Kh'myr and Segh vav--bearing the colors of the House of Kahless, marched in, each with a pole, each with a head. Slowly, she turned and found Khalian, and the smile dropped. She growled and bared her teeth. "The mindsifter they used on me destroyed many memories of the event, but not who these were."

"They used a mindsifter on my sister?!" Indignation filled his voice. "On the royal family?! I will know who so they may feel the full weight of my wrath, by Kahless!"

"They belonged to Khalian's command."

Kudan Kuras' enraged gaze found Khalian.

Khalian noted it and began to cluster. "Highness, I dismissed them months ago when I found them gambling."

"But they were wearing your colors when I found them this morning, Khalian," Marschut hissed.

"What better way to get into the palace, my lady?" Khalian was all but on his knees.

"There will be an investigation, my sister. I promise." Kuras stepped between Marschut and Khalian, but his gaze was no less menacing. "Be prepared to open your records to review, Lord Khalian."

"As you command, sir." Khalian bowed, backing up behind Kusan.

"And what of this Durit?"

"His is the head on the last pole, sire," Marschut responded.

Kuras chuckled, then walked swiftly over to Marschut, his arms opened wide in preparation for a huge hug. "You are very thorough, my sister."

She put her hand up to stop him from completing the hug. "Not now, sire, I was grievously wounded by the mantril that held me captive during the battle that liberated me."

Kuras' mouth dropped open and worry clouded his gaze. "You were wounded?" He only then noted her hand holding her side. He reached down and put his hand there as well, feeling the bulge of the bandage. "That one," he nodded toward the head on the last pole.

She nodded.

"Why didn't you let me punish him?" he almost pouted.

"I was unconscious and near death at the time, my liege. The commander of the rescue force killed him."

Kuras' composure softened. "Who rescued you? I wish to reward them. I will make their commander a high councilor."

Marschut's free hand indicated Kali, then Mara.

"Lady Mara. I thought you dead." Kuras turned his head so he could see Khalian and glare at him. The other tried hard to stay behind Kusan. "I am glad this was not true."

"If I can continue?" Marschut pouted.

"Of course, go ahead," Kuras responded, putting his hands on her shoulders.

She nodded, then pointed toward the triangle of warriors still surrounded by the guards. "Admiral Koloth and Admiral Kor," she continued, pausing in her report.

Kuras let his arms drop and faced the group in front of the dais. "So that was where you two were. The charge of insubordination is dropped."

"And..." Marschut paused as the one behind Kor and Koloth came out from behind them and stood, raising his face. "...Admiral Kang."

"Kang!" Kuras roared. "You committed high treason against me in your dealings with Serenidad. Admiral Khalian said he had you incarcerated in a cell on Kragyr."

"And so I was, sire." Kang said, standing as tall as he could. "First, the charge that I had anything to do with Serenidad is false. That I discovered the dishonor of it is true, and that I sought to protect your majesty from being tainted by it, is also true. I only held the treaty from you to insure you were not dishonored further when you found out that it was an illegal document, attained in a dishonorable way, by those that held the ruler of the planet captive."

Again Kuras' glare found Khalian and held there as he continued. "Who was responsible, Kang?"

"It would be dishonorable for me to make an accusation before I have the evidence to prove it. Such would be in violation of D'Har."

Kusan's head snapped around to look at Kang. Did he say D'Har? Where did he hear the ancient Klingon term for honor? His head turned to the dais and found Mara looking back at him, smiling. Kang is a follower of D'Har now? He didn't say it aloud, but his gaze held the question, which Mara answered with a quick nod. A smile formed on his face as he returned his attention to the proceedings.

Kang continued, "I ask for complete pardon, sire."

"I don't know, Kang. You did hold back information from me."

Marschut leaned forward and whispered in the ruler's ear. "If it hadn't been for him, brother, I would be dead right now. Besides, you promised my rescuer a place on the council."

Kuras' nodded his head in reaction. "We are very grateful for the return of our sister. For that, you shall be rewarded." Leaving Marschut's side, he walked over to the throne and took hold of his scepter. "In gratitude for returning our sister to us safely, we hearby return everything that was taken from you, Lord Kang," he commanded. "You are once again welcome within this hall." With that he struck the floor of the dais three times with the great tooth that was his scepter, the sound of its impact echoing loudly throughout the room.

"Thank you, sire," Kang responded, bowing his head, and backing away from the dais, to return to the place where he used to stand before all this had happened.

Kor and Koloth joined him, as did Kumara.

"Now, as for your accuser...." Kuras' turned toward Admiral Khalian.

"Majesty," Kang spoke up, "it would be dishonorable to charge anyone without evidence."

Kuras glared at Khalian. "But he was the one who incarcerated you improperly. That much I can prove."

"And for that dishonor, he will be punished," Kang answered turning to glare at Khalian. "By me, and at the time of my choosing. But not now, not here in your presence. The death of such as him should not dishonor this hall."

The anger within Kuras' raged, but then he felt the hand of his sister on his arm. He looked into eyes. "What, sister?"

"Calm yourself, brother. Uncontrolled temper is not honorable."

What is all this about honor? thought Kuras. They're beginning to all sound like Gorkon. The fire of rage that burned within him faded and he smiled. "For you," he whispered, "I will." Then he turned to face the throne room, "But that does not mean I have to have his soldiers guarding me. The warriors provided by Khalian to guard this royal place are dismissed, to return to their commands." He struck the dais with the scepter to complete that command.

"May I suggest a new commander of the guard, sire?" Kang spoke up.

"Do you have someone in mind, Lord Kang?" asked Kuras.

"We were greatly assisted by Lieutenant Worf, a member of Admiral Kusan's contingent here in the palace."

Kuras' face clouded as he remembered the one named. "He is a Kh'myr, Lord Kang. I must say I've had my fill of their presence in my palace."

"Yes, sire, he is, but he is an honorable one."

A lump formed in Kusan's throat as he saw what Kang was doing. He looked at Kang, and, for a second, locked gazes with him. Yes, he thought, the light of Kahless is there. Kang is the one the patriarch told me of. His mouth drew down slightly at the corners as he nodded his head, then returned his attention to the dais.

Kuras turned to face Kusan. "Would you be willing to release Worf for this new duty?"

"As long as those forces are fully integrated, half from the Kh'myr and the other half Segh vav," Kusan suggested, "as an example of how the Klingon people should be..." Admiral Kusan paused a moment, feelings of satisfaction and completion filling him. "...then yes, sire, I will."

"So be it!" Kuras roared, and the scepter struck the dais, its boom echoing off into the nether regions of the vaulted room.


Aftermath

Chekov, Pavel A. -- remained the first officer of the Reliant until its capture and later destruction by Khan Noonien Singh. He returned to Kirk's staff, serving as Security Officer and Third Officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701 and NCC-1701-A until given command of the U.S.S. Diamondback and its accompanying task force during the Third Kelvan Invasion (ref: In Harm's Way); returned to serve aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-A from 2287 until 2293, the year it was decommissioned; a Starfleet liaison officer until 2295, when he was given command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-B following the incident with the Energy Ribbon outside the Sol system.

Gorkon (the emperor's voqjup) -- remained Kudan Kuras' personal counsel until Kudan Kuras was killed, then became the first Chancellor of the Klingon High Council (ref: In Harm's Way). Married Marschut, the sister of Kudan Kuras. Had one daughter by her before her assassination; named Azetbur, who herself succeeded Gorkon as Chancellor of the Klingon Empire

Admiral Kang -- Created the order of D'Har, becoming its first leader and master. Had a son by his mate Mara. The son was later killed by the pirate known as The Albino. He died avenging his son's death at the age of 143 Klingon years (ref: Deep Space Nine).

Admiral Koloth -- Stayed by Kang's side for the rest of his life, but also had a brief stint as an ambassador in 2287. Became a D'Har master. Died at Kang's side during the final battle with The Albino (ref: Deep Space Nine)

Admiral Kor -- Remained at Kang's side, also becoming a D'Har master. He was involved with the battle with The Albino and was severely wounded (ref: Deep Space Nine). He later wrote an ode about that battle that has become very popular in the Klingon Empire.

Kuras, Kudan -- the last emperor of the Klingon empire until the resurrection of Kahless. Remained on the throne until his death at the hands of Khalian in 2287 during the Third Kelvan Invasion (ref: In Harm's Way).

Admiral Kusan -- became the first Kh'myr D'Har master. Thwarted Khalian's bid to take the throne (ref: In Harm's Way). Remained a viable power on the council until his death at the hands of a member of Khalian's family.

Marschut -- was successfully courted and mated to her brother's voqjup, Gorkon. They had one daughter--Azetbur. Marschut was killed by an assassin suspected to have been contracted by the House of Khalian.

McCoy, Leonard H., M.D. -- transferred to Kirk's staff at the Academy and remained at his side until his retirement in 2293. Later became the Surgeon General (ref: Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Terrell, Clark -- was the last captain of the U.S.S. Reliant, NCC-1864. Committed suicide after Khan Noonien Singh implanted a parasite into his brain (ref: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

Worf -- as a colonel in the military, he served as the defense lawyer of James T. Kirk during his trial for the death of Gorkon (ref: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country); in 2293, he had one son, Mogh, who was the father of Worf (the first Klingon to serve in Starfleet) and Kern (ref: Star Trek: The Next Generation).


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