Friday, May 16, 2014

"Pride and Prejudice"

By Christina Moore
_____


U.S.S. Columbia
August 1, 2376


When the turbolift doors opened, Lindze Regan saw not the bridge of her ship, but a corridor somewhere below it—and Lt. j.g. Ahjar Steb. The tall, gangly Selkie smiled a toothy grin.

“Good morning, Captain.”

Captain Regan returned his smile, though hers was a little more subdued. It had taken four months, but her eldest daughter Brooke and her son-in-law Liam had been convinced to make the move from New Middle Earth to Sanctuary, where Brooke would work as one of the chefs at Nigella’s and Liam would be headmaster of the station’s school. Once the couple and their two children had arrived, Lindze had arranged for her three youngest children—14-year-old Shannon, 9-year-old Jack, and 5-year-old Brandon—to be quartered on the station under Brooke’s care. She missed them terribly and knew that it was asking an awful lot of Brooke and Liam, but after everything her ship, the U.S.S. Columbia, had been through in the last several months, she believed they would be safer on the station with their sister until such time as their father could move to the station and take over their upbringing.

That is, if he could ever convince Starfleet Command that he could perform his job as Deputy Director of Starfleet Intelligence from Cardassian space.

“Good morning, Lieutenant,” she replied to the greeting. Stepping aside to make room for the junior officer, she asked him as he entered the lift, “Ready for another fine day?”

Steb chuckled. “I am always ready, ma’am,” he told her as the door closed and the lift resumed its course.

“Yes, you certainly are,” Regan commented. “Always neat and tidy—which I still can’t quite wrap my head around given that you sleep underwater.”

Lt. Steb was a Selkie, one of a number of amphibious humanoids who had become Federation members in the last hundred years. The captain didn’t know a great deal about the communications officer’s people other than that they came from a world that was covered in marshes, swamps, and more than anything else, water. Every day they had to spend time submerged because once they reached a certain age, the lung that allowed them to breathe air atrophied and became virtually useless. Serving on a starship had presented a unique challenge for her ship’s engineers, in that they had to build a tank big enough for Steb to lay down in under the water’s surface, and that could maintain a constant temperature. The lieutenant, she’d been told, did what most Selkies who lived off-world did and spent his tank-time sleeping.

The scientist in her would have loved to study his people in-depth, and she made a mental note to sit down with him when they both had some free time so that she could ask him some questions. He was relatively new to her crew, had been on board since the end of February, but they’d been so busy on this mission that they’d had very little downtime.

Steb shrugged. “It’s not really difficult to switch back and forth between the water and dry land, unless I’m not prepared for it,” he said as the lift stopped again, this time on the bridge.

“Captain on the bridge,” announced Silmar, Columbia’s first officer.

Although the protocol announcing the commanding officer’s presence required every officer to stand at attention—protocol being something Silmar (like most Vulcans) followed to the letter—when he’d begun the practice of making the announcement, Regan had quickly made sure it was understood by her crew that they did not have to stand at attention every time. Her exec had questioned her about that—privately, of course—and she’d explained that while she would not ask him to forego making the announcement if he so desired, she would also not force the crew to stand up for her arrival like she was some pompous dignitary. After that conversation, Silmar had taken to announcing her presence only at the start of shift. The crew would turn their heads and nod, or smile politely. Some offered words of greeting.

“Good morning, everyone,” the captain said as she preceded Steb out of the lift. The two walked toward the front of the bridge, Regan going down the portside ramp, and Steb stepping onto the raised platform along the wall, where the communications stations were located.

Stepping up to Silmar, Regan nodded to him. “Good morning, Commander,” she said. “Here before me, as usual.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You are not tardy, Captain. Our shift is not due to begin for another five minutes, twenty-seven seconds.”

She grinned lightly as she looked around the bridge as the shift change continued around her, Gamma Shift crew leaving as their Alpha Shift replacements came to the bridge. Her roaming eyes came to a stop at the helm, where she noticed the night shift pilot glancing none too subtly over his shoulder toward the turbolift. When he found her gaze on him the petty officer blushed and turned resolutely forward.

Captain Regan raised a curious eyebrow. “Anyone know where Mr. Faris is this morning?” she queried to the staff in general.

Chariza Guinan chuckled as she was settling into her seat at Ops. “He’s probably got ‘imself a bit of a hangover, Captain. Last night he convinced Maiandra he could handle the real deal, even though Jacen’s never been adept at holding his liquor.” She turned in her seat to look at her CO. “I tried to talk him out of it, ma’am, I swear.”

Rokha Tyrel laughed heartily from the tactical station, and so Regan turned to the hulking green Orion and said, “Since you seem so concerned for Lt. Faris, Commander, why don’t you go and make sure he isn’t ill.”

Her order proved unnecessary, as at that moment the Trill appeared. Regan could tell even from the center of the bridge that his eyes were still bloodshot, and it looked like he hadn’t slept well. He cast a sidelong glance at Tyrel as he descended the ramp to the lower level, mumbling, “If that woman wasn’t his sister…”

“Morning, Jacen!” the tactical officer called loudly as Faris was taking his seat at the helm.

Regan noticed his wince, and with another look at her tactical officer, she shook her head, letting him know that he’d had his fun and it was time to get to work.

“Captain Regan,” Steb said from Communications.

The captain turned. “Yes, Lieutenant?” she queried.

Steb lifted his gaze from his board. “We’ve received a transmission from Sanctuary, ma’am. Admiral Tattok will be making an announcement to the fleet at nineteen hundred hours.”

Regan raised both eyebrows. “A fleet-wide announcement, hmm? Does the message give any indication of the content of the admiral’s address?

The Selkie shook his head. “No, ma’am. Just that we should be ready.”

Regan glanced at Silmar, whose expression remained impassive save for a slightly lifted eyebrow. “Very well, then, we’ll be ready. Alert Sanctuary that we’ve received their heads-up, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

As she was turning to take her seat, Silmar asked her, “Shall I inform the senior staff to report to the briefing room at nineteen hundred, Captain?”

Regan nodded, then turned and lowered herself into the command chair. Silmar took his seat to her right. “You read my mind, Commander. Make it so.”

*****

1857 Hours

Captain Regan looked up from the PADD in her hand as the briefing room doors opened, admitting the last of the senior staff to arrive. Ryan Bennington quickly claimed the empty chair next to Guinan, leaning over to whisper something in the dark-skinned El-Aurian’s ear that made her smile. Lindze tamped down on her own responsive smile, thinking that they weren’t as subtle as they thought.

A few minutes later, the large presentation screen at one end of the briefing room blinked on, the display showing the symbol of the United Federation of Planets next to the green, yellow, and red manta ray that represented Cardassia. Everyone quieted and she set her PADD down as the symbols disappeared and Admiral Tattok came on screen, a lovely, distinguished-looking Cardassian female by his side.

“Officers and crew of the Eleventh Fleet,” Tattok began, “we have an important announcement to make. Our mission in Cardassian space is vital. We will face danger here, but face it we must. We must show the Cardassian people our willingness to help, regardless of the risks. But we cannot do it alone. We must have support from all levels of Cardassia. To that end, the Detapa Council has made a proposal that will help us in our mission.” He turned and looked at the woman beside him. “Natima Lang, Prime Councilor of the Detapa Council, will explain.”

“Firstly, words cannot express the appreciation I have for Starfleet and the Federation, for giving us all the aid and assistance it has already done these past few months. But much more will be needed for Cardassia to get back onto its feet. To this end, the mission of the Eleventh Fleet will be a long and difficult one.

“Our peoples have never been friendly towards one another, and until a few short months ago we were battling each other to the death,” she continued. “Both sides must begin to understand one another and work together to avoid another conflict that neither side can afford. We have already agreed to a joint partnership on Sanctuary, and while we have high hopes for this venture, we understand that more must be done. To this end, the Detapa Council proposed that every ship operating in Cardassian space be assigned a liaison to help bridge the gap between the Federation and the Union—to work with each starship in building solid relations with the many planets and outposts that are in desperate need of help and support. Vice Admiral Tattok agreed that this project was of the utmost importance to the mission we all want to see succeed here.” Lang looked back at Tattok.

“Two days ago,” the admiral picked up again, “the liaisons were transported to Sanctuary. Each ship has been assigned one.” He paused and let the news sink in. “I believe this project to be important. It is vital to our relations with the Cardassian people. We must support it. In our mission, failure is not an option.

“You are ordered to Sanctuary at your earliest convenience,” he added after another brief pause. “Take on your designated liaison. We must continue with our work. There are many counting on us. Vice Admiral Tattok out.”

The briefing room on Columbia was silent for all of ten seconds after the screen shut off again. Then Rokha Tyrel exploded, saying, “Is he out of his frakking mind?!”

“Mr. Tyrel, you are speaking of a ranking member of Starfleet Command,” Silmar reminded the Orion sternly.

“That ranking member of Starfleet Command wants us to let one of those slis’jakas roam freely on our ship!”

Regan leaned forward in her seat. “Commander Tyrel,” she began, the firm tone in her voice forcing his gaze and that of every officer in the room her way. “Your personal feelings regarding Cardassians has long been duly noted. And while you are entitled to those opinions, I’d prefer not to have to ask you again to refrain from expressing them publicly.”

“But Captain—”

“Regardless of how you or any of the rest of us feel, Commander, we have a job to do,” Regan continued, speaking over whatever protest he had been about to make. “We’ll not be able to report to Sanctuary to retrieve our liaison for another three days, as the supplies we’re carrying to Kelrabi are expected and in desperate need there, and then it’ll be another week to make the trip. That gives us all ten days to prepare ourselves for seeing him or her on a regular basis. Dismissed.”

Tyrel fumed as he and the other senior officers rose from the table and began to depart. The Orion caught Jacen Faris’ sleeve as the pilot moved to pass him. “Hey Jacen, what did my sister give you last night? I think I want to wake up tomorrow with a hangover,” he said, studiously avoiding Regan’s gaze as the two men walked past her.

She noted that Silmar had remained in his seat. Suppressing a sigh, she turned her regard his way. “Have you something to add, Commander?”

“Approaching the situation logically, Captain, the addition of a liaison to each ship in the fleet is a wise course of action,” the Vulcan said slowly.

She nodded. “I see the point of it myself,” Regan replied. “Knowing that there are Cardassians working with Starfleet on Sanctuary is one thing, but the people don’t see it. Away teams reporting to the surface of a planet with a Cardassian among them will show the public that we are willing to work with them, and vice versa.”

Allowing herself to sigh then, she glanced at the seat Tyrel had occupied. “However, I daresay Rokha’s reaction is not the only one of its kind. There was probably one or more like it on every ship in the Eleventh.”

“Indeed,” Silmar agreed. “Commander Tyrel’s attitude toward the Cardassians may pose a problem when the liaison comes aboard.”

“I must hope that professionalism will win over prejudice,” the captain said. “I’d really hate to have to request a new tactical officer.”


*****

Sanctuary
August 10, 2376
1837 hours


“Sylari, it’s so good to see you again so soon!” Regan said with a smile when she saw the younger woman waiting with Captain Synnove Natale, Sanctuary’s commanding officer. “How’s married life?”

The ensign nodded. “It is going well. Thank you for your query, Captain.”

“Greetings, my daughter,” Silmar said to the ensign. “May I ask where your bondmate is at this time?”

Natale answered for the younger woman. “I have Mr. Alok escorting your liaison officer to the meeting room. He will meet us there.”

“Alok and I have discussed the possibility of your joining us for our evening meal, Father,” Sylari said. “If it is amenable to you, you are welcome to visit our quarters after your meeting has ended.”

“I would welcome the opportunity to get to know him better.”

“Very well, Father. I shall see you later this evening. Captains.”

With a polite nod toward her commanding officer and Captain Regan, Sylari departed. The three watched her go, and then Regan turned to Natale. “How is she adjusting to her new duties?”

Natale indicated they should walk with her and stepped away from the airlock. Regan fall into step beside her with Silmar just behind them as the Orion said, “I think it’s going very well. She doesn’t seem fazed in the least that the scope of her job has changed so drastically, though I must say I honestly thought there’d be some difficulty.”

“May I ask why you would make such an assumption, Captain?” Silmar queried.

She glanced over her shoulder at him briefly. “Well, just weeks ago she was the pilot of one of Starfleet’s most sophisticated starships, and now she flies runabouts around the Union and Bajoran space. I thought perhaps she would have some trouble adjusting to the difference.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Regan noticed her first officer raising a quizzical eyebrow. “Unless I am mistaken, Captain Natale, I do not believe that either duty is of any greater importance than the other. Sylari understood the choice she was making when she bonded with Alok.”

“And Vulcans, Synnove, are probably the best when it comes to just going with the flow,” added Regan as the three came to a turbolift.

Natale grinned and nodded her head as they entered the lift, and she ordered it up to the conference level.

“Captain, may I ask you something?” Regan said after a moment of silence.

Natale looked at her. “Of course. What can I do for you?”

With a glance back at Silmar, she looked back at the dark orange-skinned captain and said, “What has it been like? Working with the Cardassians, I mean. Until Admiral Tattok made his announcement, I honestly hadn’t realized that you work more closely with them than any of the ships in the fleet.”

Natale drew a breath. “I won’t lie to you—it’s been very difficult. Obviously there is a lot of tension from both sides. Issues of resentment, anger, and mistrust. A lot of my people are having trouble getting over the fact that less than a year ago, they were trying to conquer us and now here we are holding our hands out, helping to dig them out of the rut they’re stuck in when we should be concentrating on rebuilding the Federation.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t help that one of them was a saboteur. Doesn’t help that the Klingons and Romulans are occupying the outer colonies against the terms of the agreement the Federation Council reached with their government. It doesn’t help that in their eyes, Starfleet and the Federation are sitting on their collective asses because we don’t want to get into a fight with our allies over the Cardassians we’re so determined to help.”

“I regret to say,” Silmar put in as the lift stopped and they stepped off of it, “that as colored by emotion as those opinions are, there is some logic to their thinking.”

Regan nodded grimly. “If anything, you’d think that after that incident with the alternate Gibraltar back in April, Chancellor Martok would have thought to be more subtle. He did say that those men were acting against orders.”

“Indeed, but clearly they’ve not only lied to us, they’re stepping up their efforts,” Natale added. “It’s amazing, really, that they’ve yet to come to blows with the Romulans over which planets they’re going to subjugate.”

“This is not good news,” Regan said. “Working with the Cardassians when so many of us are still smarting after the war… that’s difficult enough. Our inaction in regard to the annexing when we said we were here to help them can only serve to make them resent us more. And what in the world happened to the Cardassians’ military? Where are their starships and soldiers? If anything you’d think they would have responded to the occupations long before now—it’s been going on for months.”

Natale glanced at them as she stopped outside the door to a conference room. Glancing for a moment at Silmar, she said, “That’s something else Alok is working on. Based on what his contacts have told him thus far, most of the Cardassian fleet is amassing somewhere in secret, waiting for the chance to not only return to power, but to kick us out of the Union. We also believe that they’re responsible, at least in part, for some of the piracy going on.”

“So it isn’t just the True Way, the Maquis, or the Tzenkethi?” the older captain asked, recalling the intelligence reports that had found their way across her desk almost daily.

The Orion shook her head. “We’ve no proof, but it’s a very strong suspicion,” she said, and then turned and triggered the door to open. As the three of them entered the conference room, the two men inside it stood. One was Alok, the Human-Romulan clone who had been assigned to Sanctuary as their intelligence officer. The other was Joret Dal, the Cardassian who had been assigned to Columbia as their liaison.

Alok nodded at Silmar as three of them approached the table. “It is good to see you, sir,” he said politely. “Did Sylari have a chance to deliver our invitation to dine with us?”

The Vulcan nodded. “She did, my son. It will be pleasing to spend the time with both of you.”

Alok nodded again and turned to Natale. “Unless you require anything else, Captain, I should be going. I have many more reports to sort through.”

Natale shook her head. “Don’t let me keep you, Alok.”

As soon as the intelligence officer had left, the four remaining took their seats, and Natale introduced them formally.

“Thank you, Captain Natale, but I daresay Captain Regan and Commander Silmar already know who I am,” Joret Dal said lightly.

“We received your dossier, that is correct,” Silmar said with a nod. “What is public information, that is.”

Dal chuckled mirthlessly. “No need to be subtle, Commander. I’m quite aware that the Bureau of Information cleaned up the files of every person assigned to act as liaison to the Eleventh Fleet. I’m fairly certain they did so with the files of the men and women assigned to this station as well. And I admit that much of my service record is classified—however, if you ask me a direct question, I will answer it honestly.”

“We’ll keep that in mind, Dal…Dal,” Regan said, earning another chuckle from the Cardassian.

“That is something that even I find difficult to reconcile, Captain—my surname being the same as my rank, since the old ranking system was reinstituted after the war. If it will make things easier for you and your crew, you are welcome to address me as Commander Dal, however redundant that may sound.”

Regan nodded, relaxing a bit. He didn’t seem a bad sort, this man. She couldn’t help but wonder what it was he’d done wrong to be given what she knew the Cardassians were calling a “failed experiment waiting to happen.”

“Commander,” she began, “have you had a chance to study the starship schematic and crew manifest we sent?”

Dal nodded. “I have, and I thank you for allowing me time to prepare myself. It cannot have been as easy on your end, knowing so little about me.”

“To say the least,” she replied. “There is also the matter of…I’m not quite certain how to say this delicately…”

“Hatred?” Dal supplied. “Captain Regan, I have no illusions as to the feelings of your crew. I know that some, if not all, will resent my very presence, let alone being forced to work with me every day. I’ve no doubt some of them will not make things easy for me, and I am prepared for that.”

Regan exchanged a glance with Silmar, Tyrel’s outburst flashing across her consciousness. “I’m glad you understand the circumstances under which we’ll be operating,” she said. “I know it may be asking a lot, but if you could refrain from reacting to any comments or actions made against you, I would appreciate it. Just report it.”

Dal nodded. “Understood, Captain. I don’t want to make things any more difficult than they already are.”

He looked between the three Starfleet officers then, his eyes falling on Regan last. “Captain, may I make a personal query?”

Raising an eyebrow in curiosity, she nodded. “What is your question?”

“What are your feelings regarding my assignment to your ship?” Dal asked her.

Slowly, Lindze Regan drew a breath. In truth, she’d fully expected him to ask at some point, and so she’d thought about it over the rest of their trip to Kelrabi and then here to Sanctuary.

“Commander, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not very happy about it,” she said. “Lest you misunderstand me, though, it has nothing to do with you being Cardassian. I may not like what your people did to mine during the war—I may even hate it—but I am not the kind of person to judge one man based on the actions of other men. I do not judge a whole species based on the actions of a few of its members. Some Cardassians may be ambitious to the point of blind arrogance, but that doesn’t mean you all are, and I’ve seen enough in the months my ship has been a part of this fleet to know that even amongst your people, there are innocents who don’t deserved to be hated and reviled, their suffering ignored.”

Dal regarded her for a moment. “If I may say so, Captain,” he began slowly, “that was a very…political answer. Very diplomatic.”

Regan scoffed. “Political or not, Commander, it was an honest answer,” she said. “However, if it’s brutal honesty you want, I’ll be more than happy to give you that as well.”

“Lindze,” spoke up Silmar, using her given name as he did so rarely.

She glanced at him only briefly before returning her gaze back to Dal. “Silmar, the man asked me a question. If he wants the hard truth over politeness, then that is what he shall receive.”

Leaning forward, she placed her hands together on the table. “I do hate, Commander. I hate that the arrogance and greed that your people are so bloody well known for plunged nearly half the known galaxy into a war that lasted for two years. I hate that men and women—children, some of them—that I worked with died defending the free peoples of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants from that greed. I hate that men and women and children not even a part of the military died for it. I hate that millions are dead, thousands of starships and starbases are lost, that the economy of the Federation has entered a recession, Starfleet is understaffed, and I hate that your presence is going to disrupt the otherwise clockwork function of my crew. And I hate being angry about the fact that I am out here helping out the citizens of the people who tried to destroy my very way of living, when there are several times more Federation worlds I could be helping recover.”

Regan stopped to gather her thoughts and calm the ire that had suddenly flared. “That’s what I really hate, Commander Dal,” she said, her voice soft as she used time-honored Vulcan mental techniques to settle her emotions. “I hate that I am angry, because I am not an angry person. If my foremother could see me now, she’d deny I had any Vulcan blood.”

Suddenly, she surprised the members of her audience by laughing. Sitting back in her chair, she added, “You know, I should really thank you for that.”

Dal raised a scale-lined eyebrow. “Thank me for what, precisely?”

She offered him a small smile. “For giving me an excuse to vent. As captain, it’s a part of my job description that I have to keep my cool under all circumstances. I’ll admit that it isn’t always easy—not so much because I’m angry, but seeing members of my crew suffering is like watching one of my own children suffer. Except with the crew, I have to maintain a modicum of professional distance, and there are times when it’s extremely difficult. I may have needed it, but I shouldn’t have leased myself on you, so I apologize for that.”

The Cardassian nodded. “I’ve no one to blame but myself, as I did ask the question. Thus I made myself a convenient target. Your ‘brutal honesty’ was refreshing, so please do not dwell on what is past. Not all of us are so fortunate as to possess Vulcan genetics, allowing us to tie our emotions away where they never reach the surface. No insult intended, Commander.”

Silmar raised an eyebrow. “No insult was inferred.”

Dal inclined his head again, then he sighed. “As you have been so blunt with me, I feel I can do no less, though I must request that what I am about to reveal to you be kept between us.”

Regan looked at him squarely. “You have my word.”

When Silmar and Natale had also nodded their agreement, the armored soldier sat up straighter in his chair. “I am not unfamiliar with working with the Federation, Captain. For several years before the war, I relayed information on Cardassian fleet and troop movements to your intelligence office.”

“Might I ask why?” Silmar asked him.

Dal turned to him. “For my people, Commander. Cardassia has been falling slowly into ruin for decades, the citizenry pressed under boot as all the power was usurped by the Central Command, which itself was full of self-aggrandizing egotists who sought only to take more and more and give nothing back. My people deserve better than that. I’ve known for many years that Cardassia needed and deserved a government that is truly invested in their best interests, not making themselves look good. I risked my life trading information in an effort to make life easier for my fellow Cardassians, and I am only sorry that it was not enough to prevent war.

“You see, Captain Regan, I too am angry. I too lost friends, lost brothers in arms, during the war. There was a brief period where I even lost my own freedom. A soldier’s job is to serve and protect the state, and one is hardly performing that sacred duty when one is fighting for his life in the midst of insanity. War does many ugly things, even to good people.”

Lindze Regan regarded Joret Dal for a long, silent moment. In his eyes she could see the truth of his words, could see that he fought his own demons. Well, as she’d just demonstrated, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have any herself. So who was she to cast stones at a man who was simply doing his best to put his life back together when the future they were trying so desperately to save was so terribly uncertain?

She offered him a nod. “It seems at least you and I understand one another, Commander. Our being on peaceful terms should hopefully help us establish a smooth working relationship between you and the rest of the crew. Or at least, smoother than if you and I despised one another.”

Dal chuckled. “Give it time, Captain. I may give you cause to hate me yet.”


*****

“I miss you, Mommy.”

Lindze Regan was sitting in Nigella’s with her two sons, having dinner with them before she shipped out again. Looking down at her youngest son, she smiled. “I know you do, baby, and I miss you too,” she said softly to 5-year-old Brandon. “But you understand why I asked Brooke to come here and take care of you, right?”

“’Cause your job is really dangerous,” the little boy replied, pronouncing the last word very carefully before he once again stuck his fork in his food.

His mother nodded. “I know I brought you onto the ship to be together, but I’m afraid that was a mistake on my part. I’m sorry. Right now, where I’m working, it just isn’t very safe to have children on starships—but believe me, sweetie, I really wish you could be there with me.”

“Why can’t we go live with Dad?” asked 9-year-old-Jackson, whom they all called Jack. “We were doing just fine with him on Earth before you dragged us back on the ship, only to dump us off on this ugly old space station where there’s nothing to do.”

Regan blinked, stung by his words. She supposed it had been too much to hope for that none of her children would be upset by the abrupt changes in residence. The only one who seemed unfazed was Shannon, because as long as she was with Andreya—who was actually her niece and older by five days, but was more like a sister than Andie’s mother, who really was Shannon’s sister—Shannon didn’t care where she lived. She’d been moody along with Jack during the short few months they’d spent on Columbia because it had forced a separation of the girls, but now that Brooke, Liam, Andreya and Emmett were on Sanctuary, Shannon was right as rain.

In fact, the reason Lindze’s youngest daughter wasn’t eating dinner with them was because she and Andie had booked an hour in one of the holosuites, and were off having whatever adventures that teenage girls had these days.

Taking a breath, she turned to Jack and said, “The station is still getting on its feet, Jack. Give it time—pretty soon there will be lots more people here, and kids too, I bet.”

“Okay, fine,” the older of her sons said with a pout, pushing his own dinner around his plate with his fork. “But you’re not here and dad’s not here. And Brooke ain’t our mom—she shouldn’t be raising us along with her own kids.”

This startled the captain, as she’d never heard Jack talk like that before. She began to have a sneaking suspicion that the words were not precisely his own, but rather than address that now, she said to him, “You’re right, she’s not. Brooke is your sister, not your mother. And I am very sorry to have asked it of her, but right now I simply cannot take you back to Earth to be with your dad.”

“Can Daddy come here?” Brandon asked, before stuffing another ravioli into his mouth.

“We’re trying to work that out, actually,” Regan said. “Daddy’s job is very important, too, and he can’t just move wherever he wants to go. But we have talked about it and he is trying to talk to his bosses about coming out here to work, so at least one of us can be with you all the time. “

“And you’ll come see us whenever you can, right?”

“Absolutely, Brandon,” she said with a grin.

“Excuse me, Captain.”

Regan turned and looked over her shoulder. Just behind her stood Columbia’s liaison officer, his hands clasped behind his back as he waited politely for her to speak.

“Commander Dal,” she said slowly. “What can I do for you?”

“I beg your pardon of the interruption, but I thought perhaps I would report aboard the ship now to get settled into my quarters there, and I thought it unwise to do so without an escort.”

She nodded. “That’s probably for the best,” she told him, then looked back at her boys. Jack was still sulking, having dropped even lower into his seat, while Brandon was staring up at Dal with wide eyes.

“Commander Silmar, as I understand, is dining with family, though I see that you are as well,” the Cardassian went on. “I am truly sorry to have disturbed you.”

“Thank you, Commander, but it’s quite alright. These are my sons, Jackson and Brandon. Boys, this is Commander Joret Dal. He’ll be working with me for a while.”

“A pleasure to meet you both,” Dal said with a nod.

She looked back at the children as Jack mumbled a greeting and Brandon continued to stare, his eyes wide with shock. Regan realized then that it was likely that, despite having been living on the station for about three weeks now, he had never been this close to a Cardassian before. No doubt Brooke and Liam were making the children keep their distance. A wise precaution, all things considered.

Glancing back up at the visitor, she said, “If you can give me another fifteen minutes, I’d appreciate it. I think we’re almost done here, and I’d like to see the boys back to their rooms.”

“Of course, Captain,” Dal said. “I will meet you at Lower Pylon Three.”

He inclined his head to her once more, and then in the direction of the children, before turning around and making his exit.

“Whoa!” Brandon exclaimed, drawing her attention. “Now you get to work with Cardashians too?”

“It’s Cardassians, Bran,” Jack corrected his brother.

“Thank you, Jack. And yes, Brandon, I do,” Regan replied. “Not as many as are on the station—Commander Dal is the only one who will be on Columbia.”

“They’re big,” the younger boy observed. “And scary.”

“Oh, please,” Jack scoffed. “They lost the war. How scary could they have been if we beat them?”

“Alright, Jackson. That’s enough.” Taking a breath, she regarded him carefully. “I really hope that you are being respectful to the Cardassians who live here on the station. I won’t have you disrespecting your elders, no matter what species they are.”

Jack stared at her for a moment, appearing to debate the merits of talking back. Wisely, however, he erred on the side of caution, and Regan watched him sigh. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.

“Thank you. Now are you finished? You haven’t eaten much.”

“I ate my whole plate!” Brandon declared proudly. “They make good food here—it’s not replicated or anything.”

Regan looked at her son, so seemingly unaffected by anything harsh or cruel. Oh, what it would be like to be so innocent, she mused. Looking at both her boys, her heart squeezed a bit, for she missed them so much. She wished she could have kept them with her, but the truth was, it was just too dangerous to have children on a starship in Cardassian space, and she’d heard talk that a movement to ban all civilians from starships was in the works in the Federation Council, due to the number of civilian losses during the Dominion War. On the one hand, she could honestly see the point in it, but on the other hand…

…living planetside hadn’t exactly been safe during the war, either.

Establishing quarters on Sanctuary, although also in Cardassian space, was preferable to having her children on the ship, where they were at greater risk of getting killed. And she certainly could return them to Jack, her husband, back on Earth, but damn it, she’d missed so much of the last two years. Brandon had been only three when the war started, and she’d missed both his fourth and fifth birthdays—had missed the last two birthdays of all four of her children. His sixth birthday was two months away, and with the war over and him on Sanctuary she had a much greater chance of actually being able to celebrate it with him.

She was determined not to miss another birthday.

Offering a smile, she reached over and ruffled hair the same color brown his father’s had been in his youth. “I know, which means you need to be good for Brooke so maybe she’ll bring you here more often. Now, if you’re finished, I should get you guys back to your quarters. I’ll try to come see you before I leave in the morning.”

One of the servers—Raya, she thought the Andorian’s name was—was just passing the table then, and with a smile at the boys, she asked if they’d enjoyed their dinner, to which Brandon replied with an enthusiastic “Yes, ma’am!” Jack, still in his sulky mood, didn’t say anything.

Brandon grabbed his mother’s hand as they made to leave, and Regan beamed a smile down at the little boy. She walked with them through the Promenade, honestly happy to see more life here, even if most of them were Cardassian. In fact, the more she looked, the more she realized that a lot of these people were refugees. That couldn’t be easy for the station’s 300-person staff, being outnumbered at least two to one, if not more so. Seeing all these people here, some of whom had set up shops in the empty booths along the shopping center, she really hoped that Starfleet or the New Cardassian Guard were able to send Natale and her crew some help soon.

At last they reached a lift, which they rode to the habitat ring and down to the level of Brooke and Liam’s apartment. When they arrived the boys went straight to the room they shared with their nephew (who was older than Jack by two years), and when she was alone with her son-in-law, the captain turned to him, saying, “Liam, I’d like to have a word, if I may.”

Liam looked up from the work he’d been doing on the computer. “Sure, Lindze. What can I do for you?”

Regan placed her hands together behind her back as she regarded him. “Jack said something at dinner that rather disturbed me,” she began. “And I’m fairly certain the words were not his own, however unhappy he might be right now. Have you and Brooke argued recently?”

His expression fell and she knew she’d hit the mark. “Lindze, I’m sorry. Brooke and I did have an argument the other day, and I bet whatever Jack said he probably overheard me say. I was angry and frustrated, and I wasn’t very complimentary.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Something along the lines of ‘You’re not their mother, and you shouldn’t be raising them along with your own kids,’ I believe you must have said, given Jackson’s words.”

Liam shook his head disgustedly as he pushed to his feet. “That about sums it up,” he admitted as he came around the desk. “Look, Lindze—you know I love Brooke’s younger sister and brothers. It’s kinda like having nieces and nephews, what with the age differences and all. And I swear to you that I do not mind in the least that they’re here.”

“But?” she prompted. Surely there was a “but” coming.

Her son-in-law raked a hand through his curly black hair. “But I am having some difficulties transitioning from living on New Middle Earth to here,” he said. “I agreed to be headmaster of a school that doesn’t even exist yet—my only students are my kids, your kids, and a few kids belonging to the other Starfleet officers on staff. None of the Cardassian staff, if they even have kids, are signing their children up for the school. The refugees I would be happy to help out, but they’re ‘just passing through,’ or some such nonsense.”

Heaving a sigh, he sat again, this time dropping heavily onto the couch. So as not to appear like she was treating him as one of her crew, Regan sat in the chair adjacent and waited patiently for him to continue.

“Brooke, on the other hand, is having time of her life,” Liam went on. “You know as well as I that she’s been a huge fan of Nadia’s for years, and the concept of organic cooking, and has always wondered what it would be like to work for her. Now she is, and she’s loving it.”

“Are you jealous of Brooke’s happiness?” Regan asked, just barely keeping the incredulity out of her voice.

He shook his head. “Not precisely jealous, but certainly envious. Even if you hadn’t asked her to come here to take care of the kids for you, she’d have come anyway just for the chance to work with Nadia. And because she’s truly enjoying herself, the transition has gone much smoother for her. The other night I was feeling like shit and letting my frustration get to me, so when she came home all peppy and smiling, I just lost it.”

For the briefest of instants, she wondered if their argument had turned physical, but she just as quickly dismissed the notion. She knew Liam Jacobsen was not that kind of man, and so she was able to remain calm as she asked, “And in the course of your acting like an ass, you brought up the fact that at the moment, Brooke is, for all intents and purposes, raising her sister and brothers when she shouldn’t have to?”

His face flushing, clearly embarrassed, Liam nodded. “Lindze, I am so sorry. You know I love those kids,” he repeated. “And I sure as hell don’t begrudge my wife her happiness, because she deserves everything she’s worked for, including this job. But you’re right—I was being an ass, not only by throwing that in her face, but by taking my frustration out on Brooke in the first place. You know I never meant for your kids to hear those words.”

Regan chuckled mirthlessly. “Son, one thing you’ll learn as a parent, which I’m surprised you haven’t learned already, is that children have many untold ways of hearing that which they are not meant to hear.” She sighed. “I am sorry things have been so difficult for you, Liam. I’ll admit that I’m kind of envious of Brooke being so happy myself—there’s just not enough of that going around these days. I’m sorry you’re miserable, and I’m sorry Jack is so miserable, but right now, I’m afraid I can’t do anything to help either one of you.”

Sighing again, she stood. “You know that Big Jack is trying to get Starfleet Command to let him come out here to work. Certainly they could use a greater Intelligence presence in this area of space. If he comes out here, the burden of my children will be taken off of yours and Brooke’s hands. But there’s a chance it’s not going to happen, and if it doesn’t, I give you my word I will arrange to take them to their father at the earliest opportunity.”

Okay, now was a good time to leave. Despite her intention not to get upset with Liam, Regan realized she had, and she didn’t want an argument between them to affect her daughter’s marriage. Besides, Liam had apologized—more than once, in fact—and she knew by the crestfallen look on his face now that he felt guilty and knew she was upset with him. She turned away and walked over to the door, turning to face him once more as it opened for her.

“I’m asking a lot of you and Brooke, Liam. I know that. I’m sorry to add to your troubles, but right now it just can’t be helped. Because I am asking so much of you, I certainly have no place to tell you or Brooke how to behave in front of your own children. But I would very much appreciate you thinking before you speak in anger while mine are in your home.”

With that, she turned again and left.

*****

Her conversation with Liam meant that it took Regan longer than fifteen minutes to get down to Columbia’s dock to meet Dal. She found the Cardassian there, waiting patiently with a large duffel bag at his feet.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Commander,” she said as she approached.

Dal inclined his head. “No apologies necessary, Captain. I understand the demands of family.”

A very brief, almost haunted look crossed through his eyes, but Regan made no mention of it, deciding it was none of her business. She turned to the keypad next to the airlock door and keyed in the security code that would let them through, saying, “You’ll have security codes issued to you as soon as you are officially added to the crew roster. To do that, you’ll have to check in with my Chief of Security. We have your picture for our facial recognition software, received along with your service record, but Mr. Bennington will take retina, voiceprint, and fingerprint scans for our records.”

She stopped as the airlock closed behind them, turning to face the hulking Cardassian. “I do hope that won’t be a problem for you.”

Dal, who had slung his bag over one shoulder, hefted the duffel as he shook his head. “Not at all. I am serving on your ship, I will abide by your rules—as would be expected were our positions reversed.”

“Of course,” she replied with a nod. “This way, Commander.”

As they fell into step and started down the corridor, silence fell between them for a moment, before Dal said, “I should probably tell you that I was already somewhat familiar with the Nebula-class when you transmitted the schematic to me, Captain. I’ve actually been aboard a Galaxy-class, the basic components of which are used in manufacturing the Nebula—at least the ‘saucer section,’ as you call it.”

Regan inclined her head. “That’s correct, the saucers are nearly the same, save for one deck. May I ask when you happened to be aboard a Galaxy?”

“It was five years ago.”

She glanced up at him, but Dal did not seem inclined to elaborate further. Instead, he continued with, “I recall you mentioning that you had children, but I did not imagine they were so young.”

Regan chuckled. “It would surprise you, then, to learn I have two grandchildren older than they are.”

Her companion looked down at her with widened eyes. “Impossible. You are far too young to be grandmother.”

She laughed fully as they came to a stop at a turbolift and she pressed the call button. “Commander, I’m a quarter Vulcan, which in itself explains why I look younger than my age. As to being a grandmother, I gave birth to my oldest daughter at the tender age of sixteen. She’s now thirty-one. She made me a grandmother for the first time when she was seventeen, five days before I gave birth to my second child. Andreya, my granddaughter, and Shannon, my second daughter, are more like sisters than niece and aunt. My grandson Emmett came two years later, Jackson two years after that, and Brandon will be six in two months.”

Dal smiled as the lift arrived and the door opened for them. “That is quite a full family you have, Captain. I know it is difficult to be away from children when they are young.”

After ordering the lift up one level to deck nine, Regan looked up at him. “Do you…have a family, Commander?”

His expression changed, becoming not hard, not even angry. It was almost unreadable, his eyes going distant for a moment before they refocused on her face. “My wife is dead. My son and daughter are unaccounted for since the war’s end.”

Regan frowned. “You don’t know where your children are? That must be hard on you.”

The commander expressed a non-committal sound from his throat. “The Bureau of Information is…reluctant to either offer more information or pursue knowledge of their whereabouts. Should they even still be alive.”

“Have you considered looking for them yourself?”

The lift stopped then, and Dal turned to her. “I spent seven months looking for my children, Captain. Every time I believed myself closer to finding them, the trail suddenly turned cold. Then the Detapa Council called me to do my duty to the state, promising to continue the search in my absence.”

He stepped out of the lift then, moving aside so that she could join him. Regan looked up again, secretly wishing he wasn’t so tall. “I get the feeling you haven’t much faith in that promise.”

“I don’t,” he said bluntly. “I’ve asked a few associates who are loyal to me to continue searching for them, as I do not believe the Council considers two children much of a priority, given that the number of those still listed as missing is in the tens of millions.”

Regan regarded him for a moment. “So you resent being sent here without knowing where your children are—no, don’t try to deny it, I know exactly how you feel. Or at least, I know I would feel the same way. That being said, Commander, I need to know that I can count on you to do your job.”

Dal’s chuckle was without humor. “Captain Regan, I do not even know precisely what my ‘job’ is as yet, except to placate the Cardassian civilians who resent receiving the charity of the Federation. No, do not deny that—any which way you look at it, it is charity.”

He sighed then, continuing before she had chance to formulate a response. “Do not misunderstand me, Captain—I still very much believe in the work I was doing before the war broke out. I still very much believe that Cardassians can do better, can be better. I cannot picture my people ever being invited to join your benevolent Federation as there is far too much bad blood between us, and we may never be truly allies because you’ll never be able to trust us, nor we you. But I do believe there can be peace. I long for that peace as much as I imagine you do. Do I wish I knew where my children were? Of course I do. Do I wish that I was still personally searching for them? You’re damn right. But if my being taken away from that search even in some small way makes Cardassia better for the day that they return to me, then I must, however reluctantly, cede the search and lay my hope for their safe return in the hands of others.”

Regan looked at him for a moment, then said solemnly, “You must be a stronger man than I could be in your situation, Commander. If a member of my family was missing, I think I’d go stark raving mad.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Who says I haven’t?”

*****

Captain Regan escorted him to his quarters on deck nine, and after pointing out the commbadge on the desk and informing him that he was welcome to visit the lounge (“Club Ten” she had called it), the gymnasium, or the holodecks if they were free, bid him goodnight and left. Dal stared for a moment at the small piece of hardware on the desk, tracing the lines of the delta atop the quadrangle with his eyes, and found himself inexplicably offended. What’s next, a uniform? his dark side sneered, before he quelled that voice and locked it away. It would not do to let the demons inside out.

Dal sighed and picked up the badge. He understood why Regan wished him to wear it—every member of the crew, officer and enlisted alike—wore one as a means of easy communication and location. It was too bad he couldn’t get one that looked like the symbol of Cardassia, which he knew Starfleet had dubbed a “manta ray” (having seen a picture of the Earth ocean-dweller once, he understood why). He might be willing to work with the Federation to promote peace, but he certainly had no desire to divulge himself of every piece of his identity that made him Cardassian. While he recognized that wearing the Starfleet commbadge was but a small concession, the caged demons inside fought against even that.

His eyes rose and came to rest on the replicator. He remembered the device from that brief stay on the Enterprise-D, and knew that they were capable of producing items other than food, such as clothing. Some were even capable of producing weapons, though he had the feeling this one (and probably every other on board) was programmed to deny him that—not that it mattered, as he had carried his disruptor and a pair of wickedly sharp combat knives onto the ship in his bag. Prudence required he inform the captain, lest he be discovered with them unawares and cause a stir. He’d do that tomorrow.

As it was, he found himself walking over to the dark replicator and switching it on. Taking a moment to recall how to address the unit (Federation technology relied far too much on automation and voice commands, however convenient such might be considered), he asked, “Computer, do you have on file the sigil that represents the Cardassian Union?”

Affirmative, the matronly female voice of the computer replied. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly, as he recalled that very same voice from five years ago.

He laid the commbadge on the materializer pad of the replicator. “Computer, would it be possible to produce a communications badge in the form of that symbol, using the badge issued to Joret Dal, which is now on the replicator pad?”

The computer chirped, then replied again, Affirmative. This actually surprised Dal, but rather than dwell on that he continued. “Then by all means, do so.”

The little replicator alcove began to hum and glow, and the commbadge disappeared in what looked like a golden shower of transporter energy. The light faded, and then after about ten seconds had passed, it hummed and glowed again, the gold-colored sparkles swirling and fading, for all to go dim again, leaving behind a small piece of shiny metal shaped like the sigil of his people. The main body was the same shade of off-white silicon as the Starfleet delta, and the “wings” were made of the same gold as the Starfleet badge’s quadrangle.

Dal smiled as he picked it up and felt its weight in his hand. Perhaps creating it was a silly thing to do, as there was no real harm in wearing the Starfleet commbadge—it was a small concession to make. Captain Regan had not asked him to wear a uniform, and something told him she would not do so. Still, he had liked the idea of having his commbadge truly be his own, and this small gesture of protest would satisfy the anger he kept under a tight leash, keeping it at bay for another day.

Affixing the commbadge to his breastplate, he then set about unpacking his duffel, setting the weapons in the drawer of the small nightstand by his bed and the clothes in the closet. He put the holocubes of his family on the desk—he had rescued only two from his ruined home in Lakarian City—and then stopped in his tracks. He was, for all intents and purposes, now “settled in.” There was nothing left to unpack as he had nothing else left, period. Most of his material possessions (not that he’d had many, as soldiers weren’t collectors) had been destroyed along with his home during the bombardment of Lakarian City. The only thing he owned besides his armor, a few changes of civilian clothes, his weapons and the two holocubes was a necklace his wife had favored. Sarka had worn it every day since he gave it to her, and had been wearing it the day of the attack—the day she had died. He’d found her with the favored gift around her neck in the rubble of their home, and had nearly buried her with it on a few days later. But the look of joy she had favored him with when he’d given her the necklace had flashed across his memory, the image searing itself on his retinas, and so he had unfastened it, gripping it tightly in his hand as he placed one last kiss on her cold lips, before the casket was closed and she was lowered into the ground.

He wore that necklace now under his armor, having vowed never to remove it until he could place it around their daughter’s neck.

Feeling suddenly restless but not quite certain what to do with himself in these unfamiliar quarters, Dal turned for the door and walked out. Getting a drink sounded really good right about now.

*****

Dal noted with some surprise as he strolled to the turbolift the absence of personnel milling about, but reasoned that it was getting late in the evening and the majority of the ship’s crew were most likely either on the station socializing or they were settling in for the night. Federation starships had one thing in common with the vessels of the Guard in that they operated with minimal staffing during nighttime hours or when docked at a starbase.

When he exited onto deck ten, he did see two or three uniformed officers as he made his way to the lounge. Each of them eyed him warily, but surprisingly said nothing to him as he passed. He presumed then that they had all been made aware of his impending presence among them—or that they were waiting until he was out of earshot to call Security. The last thought made him smile.

Upon entering the lounge Captain Regan said the hostess had dubbed “Club Ten”… he could see why: it actually looked—and sounded—like a nightclub. There was loud music playing and lights flashing and swirling, and there were a few couples (some mixed, some not) on a platform that he surmised served as a dance floor. The dancing area was situated in front of the center set of windows. He had only heard the music faintly as he approached the doors, whereas when they had opened to admit him it was as if the volume of noise in the room had suddenly been jacked up about thirty decibels. This spoke well of whatever soundproofing technology was being used to keep the music from disturbing passersby or crewmen working late on this deck. He winced at the cacophony of noise as he turned for the bar, where a most lovely sight awaited him.

Behind the bar, serving drinks and chatting with customers, was a fairly tall, raven-haired and green-skinned Orion female. Her hair hung loose and fell in long, glossy waves to her mid-back, and her eyes glittered a bright green just a shade or two darker than her jade-colored skin.

Rather stunned that he even had the capacity to appreciate another woman’s beauty so soon after the death of his wife, Dal shook himself mentally and strode purposefully toward the bar. As had happened with the few officers he’d encountered in the hall, those inside the lounge looked at him warily for a moment, then turned back to their drinks or conversations—which no doubt were now about him. Dal dismissed his concerns as soon as they entered his mind; they could whisper like children as much as they liked, because he really didn’t care what they thought. He was here to have a drink or two, same as they were—nothing more and nothing less.

Seating himself on a stool near the entrance, he waited for the Orion to come to him. Surprisingly, she smiled as she approached. “You must be Joret Dal,” she said without preamble.

He raised a scaled eyebrow. “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage, my dear,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the music. “You know my name but I do not yet know yours.”

She grinned, a mischievous twinkle in her eye—or was it one of the pulsing lights? “My name’s Maiandra. I’m the hostess and manager here.”

“And what a lovely establishment you operate,” Dal said drily.

Maiandra laughed. “It’s only like this on the weekends. Well, Friday and Saturday night, that is. Every other night of the week it’s a quiet place. Open at eleven a.m. for lunch and close at three a.m.”

“So whose idea was it to turn this place into a club on the weekends?” he asked.

“Mine,” she replied. “When I was first hired to run the lounge, I proposed club nights on weekends to give the crew something to look forward to. To make this a place they could have some real fun in between layovers.”

“And a lovely idea it was. So tell me, Maiandra, how did you know my name?”

She grinned again. “Everybody got the memo, even the civvie lounge hostess and her staff.”

Dal scoffed. “Naturally,” he said. “Had to warn everyone what the interloper looked like, yes?”

Maiandra placed her hands on her hips, a scowl suddenly marring her exquisite features. “That was rude,” she said sternly, surprising him again. “Captain Regan is not that kind of person. We were all sent a copy of your picture along with your name so that we’d become familiar with who you are before you came onboard and wouldn’t be surprised when we saw you. That’s it. Don’t you go playing the hate card here, I won’t have it in my bar.”

Dal raised both hands, as her voice was loud enough to draw attention, even over the thumping music. “My sincerest apologies, I meant no offense,” he told her. “But you must understand that I am perfectly well aware that not everyone will be as tolerant of my presence as your captain has thus far been.”

Her ire seemingly deflated, Maiandra dropped her hands and held them in front of her, looking down at them. “I know,” she said. After taking a breath, she lifted her eyes to his again. “I’m sorry too. I just get defensive when it comes to Lindze Regan. She’s been real good to me.”

He inclined his head toward her. “Captain Regan does seem a very sensible woman,” he said carefully. “At risk of offending again, I believe that is due in no small part to her being part Vulcan.”

Maiandra nodded. “That and the fact that she’s got one as her first officer—Vulcans, as I have observed, do tend to have a rather stabilizing effect on the emotions of the people around them.”

Dal chuckled. “Indeed,” he replied.

Smiling again, this time in what seemed an apologetic manner, Maiandra said, “I’m forgetting my duties as bartender—what can I get for you?”

“I’ll have a glass of kanar, if your replicator is programmed for it—although I’d prefer the real thing.”

Maiandra chuckled. “I have some real stuff here, but no kanar. I’ll see about getting some from Nadia tomorrow, I know she keeps it on hand for the Cardassians on the station. Tonight replicated will have to do.”

“Very well then,” he conceded with a nod.

“Do you have a flavor preference?” she asked, telling him that she certainly knew her drinks if she knew that kanar came in a variety of flavors.

He shook his head. “Surprise me,” he told her.

As Maiandra turned and walked away, Dal glanced around casually. Though most of the club’s patrons appeared to be minding their own, he saw more than one person glance at him and then quickly look away, speaking in hushed tones to their companions. Those that stared openly he met with a level gaze and gave them a nod, then moved on. Maiandra brought his drink to him after just a minute.

“Here you go,” she said, setting a tall glass of thick, black liquid in front of him, smiling, and then turning away to attend to another customer.

Dal picked up the glass and took a swallow. Although replicated beverages were supposed to taste like the real thing, he could tell that what he was drinking wasn’t real kanar. It looked and smelled like it, was even semi-viscous as kanar was supposed to be, but the texture was just…wrong. Or maybe it was a psychological thing, because he already knew it wasn’t real. Whichever, he told himself to relax and enjoy it.

He was taking a second swallow when a shadow fell over him. Dal looked up into the eyes of a tall fellow who appeared Human, but that he suspected was not—he was far above the Human average in height. A Capellan, perhaps?

“You should leave, Cardassian,” the man said sneeringly as he laid a large hand on the bar. “This place is for the crew of this ship, not for spoonheads like you.”

By the way he swayed ever so slightly and slurred his speech, Dal suspected that the man was drunk. Synthehol, he knew, was designed to have the same taste and smell as real alcohol but without the effect of intoxication or hangovers, though when consumed in large quantities, he was aware that it could create the early stages of inebriation. Either that or he was drinking the real thing tonight.

Calmly and carefully, he set his glass down on the bar, his eyes focused on his hands. “Perhaps you have forgotten, friend, about the memo,” he said slowly, keeping his voice casual. “My name is Joret Dal, and I am a member of this crew, as of today.”

A large hand reached in front of him and swept his drink to the floor behind the bar, where the glass shattered. “I am not your friend, spoonhead! And there is no frakking way that you are going to be a member of this crew—ever!

The hand that had deprived him of his kanar now latched onto his wrist, and Captain Regan’s request from earlier in the day flashed across his mind. “I know it may be asking a lot, but if you could refrain from reacting to any comments or actions made against you, I would appreciate it. Just report it.” While he was more than willing to comply with that request, Dal had no intention of simply sitting idly and allowing this drunken brute to lay hands on him. Deliberately, he reached over with his free hand and clamped it on the aggressor’s wrist, forcefully removing it from his own.

“Maiandra, my dear, would you be so kind as to fetch me another glass of kanar?” he called out to the hostess.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me, asshole!” the drunken man screamed at him as he grabbed the shoulders of his armor. Hardly a second afterward, Dal noticed two things: One, that the other patrons at the bar were quickly scurrying away from it. Two, there was the unmistakable cock of a weapon, followed by the telltale whine of a carbine charging.

“Let him go, Loorn,” he heard Maiandra say harshly, pronouncing the man’s name in two syllables, adding weight to Dal’s suspicion that he was Capellan.

“Mai, this filth doesn’t belong here! Not in our club and not on our ship!” Loorn shouted without looking at her.

Dal glanced sideways toward the bar to glimpse Maiandra walking toward them, holding a rifle so large she shouldn’t have the strength to wield it, as thin as she was. But judging by the way she did so, and the expression on her face, he had no doubts about her ability to use it.

“Only my friends call me Mai, Master Chief,” she said, deliberately enunciating the man’s rank. “Right now you’re not one of them. Let Joret go—now. Or are you seriously going to make me use this?”

“You’ll hit both of is if you do,” Loorn sneered angrily.

Maiandra scoffed as she stepped closer. “I think you and I both know I won’t,” she said. “Especially at this range.”

“Is there a problem here?”

Dal turned his eyes to the left now, to find three men and a young woman bearing phasers standing just inside the door. Two of the men and the woman were wearing the mustard yellow that Starfleet’s security, operations, and engineering divisions wore. The one in front was wearing Marine green. Dal recognized him from the crew roster as Captain Ryan Bennington, Columbia’s Chief of Security.

He reached up and lifted Loorn’s hands from his armor, the other man no longer resisting as his eyes bore into the new arrivals. “No problem at all, Captain,” Dal said. “The good Master Chief was just welcoming me aboard.”

Bennington, he saw out of the corner of his eye, quirked an eyebrow. “Really? It’s good to know that you’re all getting along so well, but do me a favor, will you? Let’s keep the aggressive celebrations to a minimum. I don’t want to have to put anyone on report.”

The last he emphasized, directing his gaze at Loorn. The taller man bore his own gaze into the security officer’s a moment longer, before he turned his attention to Dal again. There was hatred in his eyes as he looked at him, then turned and stalked away.

After a moment, Bennington dismissed the three security officers. Holstering his own weapon (a pistol of some kind, one Dal didn’t recognize), he stepped forward as Maiandra was lowering her own weapon. “Yeah, you can put Boomer away now, Mai,” he said, then looked at Dal. “Captain Ryan Bennington, Commander.”

Dal nodded, noting that Captain Regan had made her officers aware that he was to be addressed as Commander. “I know who you are. I believe the appropriate response to your timely arrival is to say ‘thank you.’ So please, allow me to do so. I’d have disliked having to test Ms. Maiandra’s claim to accuracy with that weapon of hers.”

Bennington lifted one corner of his mouth. “You needn’t have worried. Her brother is the ship’s tactical officer. He’s taught her to be accurate with every weapon with which she is acquainted, including the ARC.”

He glanced in Maiandra’s direction. She was stowing “Boomer” under the bar, then she reached for a sweeper and a pan, ostensibly to clean up the mess from his broken glass. He looked back at the security chief. “Hopefully I’ll only ever have to take your word on that.”

“Do I really want to know what happened here?” the Marine asked him.

Dal stifled a sigh. “Captain, I’m fairly certain you already know.”

Bennington glanced over to where Loorn now sat nursing his drink and glaring at both of them. “I probably do, though hopefully my people won’t have to respond to too many more of these…welcomes.”

“Mr. Loorn was the aggressor, if that’s what you’re asking, Captain.”

The blond-haired man looked back at him. “I’ve no doubt he was. You’ve my appreciation for not allowing the situation to escalate.”

With a deprecating smile, Dal said, “I am only following the captain’s orders.”

*****

When the turbolift door opened to admit him, Dal nodded politely at the occupant. Commander Silmar returned his nod with one of his own as he turned to face the front and the door closed.

“Are you going to the bridge?”

“I am, yes,” Dal replied to the query. “Captain Regan has requested to speak with me before the staff meeting.”

Silmar nodded again and ordered the lift to resume. “I see you changed your commbadge,” he said as the car began to ascend.

Dal glanced only briefly at the badge before looking aside at the Vulcan. “Is that a problem, Commander?” he asked.

“No. It was expected.”

“Expected? Do I even want to hear your explanation for that?” Dal asked, doing his best to keep the irritation from his voice.

Silmar looked at him. “In my career I have had numerous encounters with Cardassians, Commander. I have not met one yet who was not immeasurably proud to be Cardassian.”

“Nor I,” Dal countered. “But that does not explain why you expected me to change the badge.”

“The pride of which I spoke,” his companion said, as if that would explain everything. “Though you have by your own confession worked with the Federation before and have thus far given no indication you have any objection to doing so again, I suspected that would be the extent of your tolerance. So I set the replicator in your quarters to allow you to change the badge in case you attempted to do so.”

Dal scowled. “Wonderful. You think Cardassians are predictable,” he said, unable this time to keep the irritation he was feeling from his tone.

Silmar looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “On the contrary, Commander, for even Cardassians have the capacity to surprise me. However, I did make a logical supposition based on a previously established pattern of behavior, based on decades of observation and interaction with your species. I could have been wrong, and you might have worn your badge as it was originally designed.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I should have.”

Silmar turned to face him fully. “I have offended you. I apologize.”

Dal sighed as the lift stopped and the door opened. He glanced toward the bridge beyond, then back at Silmar. “Commander,” he said, indicating that he should precede him out the door.

Silmar turned and stepped out of the lift. Dal followed, and Silmar led him down the portside ramp toward the captain’s office. There the first officer pressed the door chime, and a moment later they heard Captain Regan bid them enter.

Lindze Regan looked up as the door closed behind them. “Ah, Silmar, I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “I’ve just finished reading a disturbing report regarding an incident in the club last night.”

Dal stifled a groan, for he knew what was coming. Pre-empting any response Silmar might make, he said, “Nothing happened, Captain. It was a … misunderstanding.”

“Really?” she said, sitting back in her chair. “I gathered something quite different from the witness statements and Mr. Bennington’s incident report.” She gestured toward the monitor on her desk. “According to what I’ve just read, had Maiandra not pressed the security call button and threatened to shoot Chief Loorn with her ARC, blows might have been exchanged between the two of you. He also, as I read it, insulted you by using a racial slur—twice.”

Dal grimaced. “I wish Mr. Bennington had not filed that report,” he said. “I didn’t even lodge a formal complaint.”

Silmar glanced sideways at him. “It is standard procedure to file an incident report, Commander, even if no complaint is made.”

“I’m aware of that!” he snapped, then took a breath and released it slowly. “My apologies, Commander. I just do not want to make an already volatile situation worse by, as Humans are wont to say, making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“Commendable of you, Mr. Dal, to attempt to keep the peace by not filing a complaint against Loorn,” Regan said. “And I thank you for respecting my request from our meeting yesterday. But as Commander Silmar has said, an IR is standard procedure.”

Silmar glanced at Dal briefly and then looked forward again as he placed his hands together behind his back. “Captain, Mr. Loorn’s outbursts are increasing in frequency. I’m afraid I must recommend putting him on report and ordering mandatory anger management counseling.”

Regan nodded. “I wish we didn’t have to, but I agree with you. See to it, Commander.”

Silmar inclined his head and turned to leave. Dal stopped him as he was about to walk out the door.

“Commander Silmar,” he said, and the Vulcan turned. “As much as it pains me to admit this, you’re right—Cardassians are predictable. That’s a major part of the problem, you see, because we’ve become too predictable. It’s why change is so damn important—and necessary—if we are to survive.”

At that, Silmar only nodded and then he left. Dal turned back to Regan. “Was last night’s incident why you wished to see me, Captain?”

“Actually, no, though I am glad to have had a moment to address it with you,” she replied, sitting forward and picking up a PADD from her desk, which she held out to him. “Last night you said something about not knowing what your job was. I didn’t say anything about it then because I was, admittedly, distracted by a family matter, so for that you have my apologies.”

Dal looked up from eyeing the device in his hand. “There is no need for an apology, Captain. After all, I am also much distracted by a family matter.”

Regan offered a small nod. “On that PADD is a plan of sorts for what your specific duties will be, a plan Silmar and I put together over the ten days it took us to get to Sanctuary after the announcement was made.”

Dal looked down again and skimmed the first paragraph. “’Cardassian Operations Coordinator’? Whatever does that mean?”

“It means, Commander, that you’re not only going to placate the civilians who resent receiving the charity of the Federation, as you so aptly put it, you’re going to be reviewing the communications we receive requesting aid and determining which planets and colonies are most in need. You’ll determine precisely what their needs are and compile a list for me to transmit to our field office on Cardassia, who will then do what they do to get us the supplies requested. And anytime there are Cardassian guests on board—we’ve transported refugees before and will be doing so again—you’ll be in charge of them.”

She paused then, regarding him for a moment before apparently coming to some conclusion or other, and said, “I’d also like you to work with Commander Silmar in reviewing Intelligence reports regarding pirate activity and the movements of the Klingons and Romulans. Help us figure out which planets might be a target so we can attempt to get them some more security. Believe it or not, I don’t like the annexations anymore than you do, because they’re on the verge of breaking the alliance completely by going against the terms of the armistice. None of us can afford another damn war, and I fear that’s what we’re going to get if we can’t put a stop to it.”

*****

Regan and Dal walked into the conference room together, and immediately all heads of those present turned to look up at the new arrivals. Most of the senior officers had not met the Cardassian as yet—she, Silmar, and Bennington were the only ones who had. The table had seating for 12; it was, in fact, longer than the original which seated only 10. Normally, Dr. Jiraz only attended staff meetings if there was a serious medical issue to report on, the marine company commander only attended if the Marines were set to deploy, and Senior Chief Lexis Serri, Columbia’s COB, almost never attended unless her presence was specifically requested, as it had been for this meeting. This meant that there were 13 persons due to be present, and someone was going to have to stand.

Regan noticed that, although not everyone had arrived as yet, Dal took it upon himself to be that person. She took her seat at the head of the table, with Silmar to her immediate right. Dr. Jiraz had taken the seat to her left. To Silmar’s right sat Chariza Guinan and Ryan Bennington, the latter nodding in Dal’s direction when he saw him, and to Jiraz’ left sat Darien and Lexis Serri. Next to her sat Jacen Faris. Rokha Tyrel sat at the opposite end of the table from his captain. Major Nir’ahn entered moments after Regan had taken her seat and she took the last chair on the doctor’s side of the table. She was followed seconds later by the entrance of the last two officers to arrive, Counselor Anjali and Ensign Toroh.

Every eye on the room glanced at Dal, who stood silently to the right and slightly behind Regan. Though most of the officers wore expressions of curiosity, the captain noticed that Tyrel’s was one of undisguised loathing. She sent a pointed stare his way, and when he caught her eye, he grimaced and relaxed his features, though his eyes still bespoke of his mistrust of the man behind her.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll make this brief, since we’re due to depart for Cardassia within the hour. Our mission is to transport two hundred refugees to Leytra Colony—the Detapa Council has apparently decided to evacuate Lakarian City of all civilians until it can be cleared of damage and proper reconstruction can begin.”

“They should have done that months ago,” Dal said from behind her.

She glanced up at him. “Indeed, Commander,” she said, then turned back to those around the table.

“Forgive me, Captain,” spoke up Counselor Anjali, “but surely Lakarian City has more than two hundred surviving civilians? We have a two thousand-person evacuation capacity—”

“What are you saying, Anjali?” Tyrel interrupted her with a measured tone. “You think we should take on ten times the number they’ve assigned us?”

The counselor turned to him with a steely gaze. “As a matter of fact, yes. Given the reports of the deplorable conditions for civilians within Lakarian City, spending four days on this ship would be a luxury. I think they deserve a few days of comfort for all they’ve suffered.”

Regan wished at that moment that she could see Dal’s face as Anjali stood up to the Orion in defense of his people, but she daren’t look over her shoulder. Tyrel’s jade green skin was darkening to emerald as he stared at the counselor.

“Comfort?” he said through clenched teeth. “You want us to comfort them?”

“Commander Tyrel,” Regan said then, not wishing to endure another of her tactical officer’s bigotry-filled rants. She made a mental note to order him into counseling as well, because it was high time his issues were dealt with. “Even on Cardassia Prime, the civilians have had an increasingly difficult time finding suitable shelters and food, and given that Lakarian was hit the hardest… Well, let’s just say that Commander Dal is right. This is a move the Detapa Council should have made months ago.

“Counselor, I believe that the Veritas, the Challenger, and the Virginia Apgar are also going to be transporting some evacuees to various other locations, but given that I agree with utilizing the evacuation capacity of this ship, I’ll speak to Admiral Tattok’s office about taking on more.”

Regan paused and took a breath. “Now, the reason I requested each of you to be here for this meeting was to introduce you formally to our Liaison Officer, Commander Joret Dal. He will be in charge of all of our operations involving the transport of persons or supplies for the duration of his assignment to Columbia.”

After that, despite knowing Dal had reviewed the crew roster, she asked each of the senior officers to introduce themselves to the Cardassian. Everyone but Tyrel spoke in a light, even friendly manner. Though Regan was not so naïve as to think that they were all going to be friends with the guy, she was pleased that they were at least being professional and keeping their opinions as to his presence to themselves. Bennington, whom she knew had personally killed more than a dozen Cardassians during the war, had even said in his notes at the end of the incident report that while he was no more fond of the Cardassians than the next guy, Dal had seemed personable enough even after Loorn had assaulted him. He was reserving judgment until he knew him better.

Dr. Jiraz made a point of asking Dal to come down to Sickbay for a physical, since he had no previous medical records on him, though he also intended to request a transcript of his medical history from the Central Command. Ryan Bennington reminded him that in order to receive his security codes, he needed to visit the security office to get his scans taken. Dal acknowledged that as well, and after all the introductions had been made, Regan dismissed everyone. Glancing at the antique watch she wore, she noted that she still had time to get back to the station and spend a few minutes with her children before they departed.

*****

When she arrived at her daughter’s quarters ten minutes later, Regan found herself hesitating as she raised her hand to press the chime. She had no doubt that Liam had told Brooke about their conversation last night, and she couldn’t help the small worry that her daughter would be angry about it. Not for the first time, she shook her head at the strange family dynamic she had—still raising children while her oldest daughter was raising children of her own, children that were within days or a few years of her younger siblings.

Taking a breath, she reached forward and pressed the chime. Brooke’s voice called out “Come in!” and then the door opened.

“Hi Mom!” 31-year-old Brooke said brightly as she was clearing dishes from the dining table. It looked to Regan like everyone had just finished breakfast.

Liam nodded politely as he came out of the bathroom then, but he avoided making eye contact with her. She felt bad about that, but she certainly wasn’t about to apologize for making a reasonable request when it came to the care of her children.

Brandon came barreling over as soon as he saw her. Regan lifted the boy up and gave him a tight hug before setting him back down again. “I thought you might not come see us,” he said.

“I have a lot to do, I’m afraid, and I can’t stay but a few minutes,” Regan told her son. “But I told you I’d come see you before I left, and I meant it.”

“Heya, Mom,” said 14-year-old Shannon at the same time Andie said, “Hey Gram.”. “Sorry about dinner last night,” her daughter added.

“It’s okay, I know how hard it is to book time in a holodeck,” she replied with a smile, even though she really would have liked to have had dinner with her. “Hopefully next time Columbia docks we can catch a meal together.”

“Any idea when that will be?” Brooke asked.

Regan tried not to grimace as she told her, “Unfortunately no. Our next job is transporting some evacuees from Lakarian City on Cardassia to a refugee colony on Leytra. The Detapa Council has decided to evacuate the city of civilians until engineering crews can clean it up and rebuild. It’s just too dangerous for people to live there right now. And chances are we may be making these runs for the next couple of weeks.”

“Hey, Jack! Emmett! Come back out here a minute, will you?” Brooke called to her younger brother and her son.

A moment later, the two boys emerged from their bedroom. “Hey, Gram,” Emmett greeted her. She walked over to him and gave him a quick hug, then turned to Jack and did the same. Her son sighed heavily before wrapping his arms around her waist.

“I miss you, Mom,” he mumbled.

Regan fought tears as she kissed his cheek, for he was already close to five feet tall and he was only nine. “I miss you too, honey,” she said, then hugged him a little tighter and whispered in his ear, “I’m sorry you’re unhappy. I’m gonna fix this as soon as I can.”

She then released Jack and walked over to Shannon, placing a kiss atop her head, and one on Andreya’s as well, who was sitting next to her aunt on the couch, where the two girls were studying a large PADD together. Regan then sighed as she surveyed her family, saying, “I really hate to cut this short, but I have to go. I’ll see you all as soon as I can, and of course you know you can send me a message anytime.”

There was a chorus of goodbyes from the children and Liam, who was sitting at the desk, where he glanced up briefly and offered a weak smile. Regan returned the smile and turned for the door, where Brooke followed her out into the corridor.

“Hey, Mom, before you go,” her daughter said, and Regan turned around.

“What is it, sweetie?”

Brooke cleared her throat, her manner suggesting she was nervous. “I know that you and Liam had a talk last night,” she began.

“I wasn’t purposely keeping that from you, Brooke, I just don’t have much time before we leave,” she replied.

“I know,” Brooke said. “I just wanted to offer you my apologies, too. You were right, we shouldn’t have argued where the kids could hear. Liam feels terrible about what he said.”

Regan sighed. “Brooke, as upset as I was last night, it’s okay. Really,” she said, putting a comforting hand on her daughter’s arm. “I understand that the additional burden of three kids that aren’t yours is adding stress neither you nor Liam need. I’m going to be talking to Jack again today, when I have a moment. Something tells me Starfleet’s not going to let him come out here no matter how useful he would be, so it looks like I’m going to have to beg for some time to take your brothers and sister back to Earth.”

“No, Mom, you don’t have to do that,” Brooke replied. “I know how hard it’s been on you not having Shannon, Jack and Bran with you, and I know how much it means to you to know that they’re at least somewhat close by. When Liam told me what happened between you two, I told him that while I’m sorry things have been difficult for him, I’m not going to throw my brothers and sister out. It wouldn’t be good for them, or you.”

Feeling her emotions starting to swell again, Regan leaned forward and embraced her daughter tightly. “Oh, whatever did I do to deserve such a wonderful daughter?”

Brooke laughed and hugged her back. “When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

Stepping back, Regan sighed again. “I have to go. Remember how much I love you, all of you, and remind the kids of that every day. And give Liam a kiss for me.  Tell him I’m not upset anymore.”

“Got it, Mom. See you next time you’re in the neighborhood.”

*****

U.S.S. Columbia
En route to Cardassia Prime


Following his physical and his visit to the security office, Dal was called to another meeting with Captain Regan and Commander Silmar. Their willingness to take on more passengers than they’d been assigned had been looked on favorably by both the Detapa Council and Admiral Tattok, and so they’d been assigned an additional three hundred persons. The first two hundred were going to the Leytra colony, and the additional three hundred were being transported to Amleth; both colonies would also be getting some additional food and medical supplies. Dal was to familiarize himself with the passengers’ cabin assignments and make sure they understood which areas were off limits.

He was also to go over the entire passenger manifest and do at least a cursory search on the names listed, in order to find out if any of the people they would be carrying had any ties to the True Way. While it set his teeth on edge to have to do the background checks (he disliked having to be suspicious of civilians), he understood Captain Regan’s caution—after all, just about two weeks ago, the Trident had unknowingly transported a suicide bomber on board, a man who had killed two people, injured a third, and nearly destroyed the ship.

After spending a few hours at the computer terminal on the desk in his quarters, Dal’s grumbling stomach made it clear that it was time to take a break. He stood and stretched after shutting his monitor off, rolling his neck to one side and then the other, then started toward the replicator. He stopped after a few steps, a stray thought passing into his mind. At first he dismissed the idea, but despite that dismissal, he still found himself turning around and walking out the door, headed for the turbolift.

Almost as if his feet were moving him of their own accord, he soon found himself down on Deck 10 and headed toward Club Ten, where he was certain he would find Maiandra. Dal was not so foolish as to think himself smitten with the Orion—far from it. While he had recognized that she was exceptionally beautiful, he knew that beauty was a common trait for Orion women. He’d never seen or heard of one who was considered plain or ugly. And even while acknowledging her attractiveness, he just wasn’t of a mind to go looking for female companionship, be it casual or long-term, for his beloved Sarka still held a firm, iron grip on his heart, even in death. Not only had he been a widower just eight months, he had his children to think of. The desperate need to find them, to know they were safe, consumed nearly every free moment of thought he had, and even were he interested in seeking the comfort of a woman in his bed, Dal knew there was simply no way he could entertain the notion until he knew with absolute certainty that his son and daughter were alive and well. He would always think of them before he thought of himself.

Then there was the fact that Maiandra’s brother had looked at him this morning without even a token attempt at concealing his hatred. The rest of the senior staff had been openly curious, and some even wary, but only Lt. Commander Tyrel had let the truth of his feelings show. It was quite clear that were he so inclined, pursuing a relationship with Maiandra would be a very bad idea. Tyrel was going to be difficult enough to get along with as it was, that much was certain—he was not about to exacerbate the open hostility of the tactical officer by trying to date his sister.

So why was he going to see Maiandra again so soon? he asked himself as he approached the doors to the club, and the answer came to him quickly: because Maiandra Tyrel was the only person he had met thus far on this crew who had shown him any genuine kindness. Captain Regan and Commander Silmar had been friendly enough, and Regan had even displayed some sympathy toward the loss of his wife and the whereabouts of his children being unknown. But they had to be civil with him—the entire crew was required by Starfleet’s Code of Conduct to be civil. That did not mean that they would like him, and he had his doubts that he was going to be making friends with any of them. Maiandra, on the other hand, had been openly friendly in the short time he’d been in the club last night, and despite having told himself numerous times that it didn’t matter if the Starfleet personnel liked him or not, or whether or not he made friends, he had found himself clinging to that tiny bit of kindness as though he were a drowning man who had been thrown a life raft.

Though she had told him the crew lounge was only a night club on the weekends, and then only after 5 p.m., Dal braced himself for the loud, raucous music from last night as the doors opened before him. He was met with blessed quiet, the only sounds that of the staff preparing for another day of business. His roaming eyes found Maiandra behind the bar, and he walked over to take a seat on the same stool he had occupied before. The Orion smiled when she looked over from pulling bottles of what looked like kanar out of a crate.

“Good afternoon, Joret,” she said lightly. “Got you the real McCoy here—six cases, in fact.”

His eyes widened a fraction as she held up a bottle of thick blue liquid, his eyes flicking from the bottle to her face. “Thank you, though I daresay I’ll not be able to drink six cases by myself. And may I ask what it is with you and first names? You called me by name last night and we had only just met. I noticed that you addressed everyone else you spoke to by first name as well.”

Maiandra laughed as she continued to empty the crate of its contents. “Yeah, I do that to everybody,” she replied. “There’s no rank in my bar—everybody gets called by name because we’re all friends here.”

“That’s really…generous of you.”

She turned to him then, a slight frown on her features. “Of course, if you’d prefer I addressed you as Commander Dal, I’ll certainly respect that.”

Dal shook his head. “No, it’s quite alright. I’ll get enough of that from the crew,” he told her. “You’re more than welcome to call me by name—I’ve no one else to call me Joret anymore.”

A moment of silence fell, then Maiandra cleared her throat. “And before you get started on it, there’ll be no ‘Ms. Tyrels’ from you,” she said, a smile returning to her face as she pointed a finger at him. “My name’s Mai.”

He raised one of his scaled eyebrows. “If memory serves, only your friends call you Mai.”

Maiandra chuckled. “And we’re friends now, Joret—we’re all friends here in Club Ten, remember?” she countered.

Dal nodded. “I remember, but—and forgive me if I offend—shortening a name in that manner is suggestive of a particularly close relationship. You and I have not known one another a day yet. I would be more comfortable addressing you by your full name, until we are better acquainted.”

The bar’s manager sighed and nodded, conceding the point. “Very well, if that is your wish. And by the way, you might not be able to drink six cases of kanar by yourself, but chances are you won’t be drinking it alone. Captain Regan told me that we’re going to have five hundred passengers onboard for the next week, all of whom are Cardassian.”

Dal nodded. “Yes, we’re to ferry evacuees from Lakarian City to Leytra and Amleth, which will take a little more than a week if we maintain warp nine while in transit. I imagine most of the passengers will keep to their rooms until we arrive at their respective destinations, but Captain Regan has advised me that she will be opening up the recreational areas of the ship to those who wish to venture out. Therefore, yes, you’ll likely be getting an increase in business—though none of the passengers will be able to pay for anything.”

Amidst the information Regan had sent him about the ship and crew, Dal mused, was the fact that in the lounges where alcohol was served, the crew’s drinks and food were debited from their credit accounts in the same manner as they would be at a starbase or planetside bar. He’d wondered why they would bother with such facilities when one could simply order a synthaholic beverage from the replicator in their quarters, but surmised it was likely to maintain the atmosphere of the starship being a community rather than just a place of work.

“Oh, I know, and I have no problem with that,” Maiandra replied. “I’m more than happy to help out, even if it means cutting into the profits a little.”

Dal chuckled. “You are obviously not a Ferengi, my dear. I’ve no doubt one of those obnoxious little trolls would be apoplectic at the thought of cutting into their profits.”

Maiandra grinned, then said, “What can I do for you, Joret? We’re not open for another half hour, but I’ll get you a drink if that’s what you want.”

“Actually, no, that won’t be necessary,” he replied. “It’s a little too early for alcohol—I’m just after a meal. But I wasn’t keeping watch of the time, so I’ll be happy to go back to my quarters for that.”

She waved off his words as she reached into the crate again. “Nonsense, it’s only half an hour. Besides, you’d hardly be the first person I’ve served early—ouch! Damn it!”

Dal was off the stool and behind the bar before the other employees came over to see what had happened. Maiandra was holding up her right hand, the outside edge of which was now dripping blood. He looked into the crate and saw that one of the bottles of kanar had broken, probably during shipping.

“You okay, Mai?” asked a portly Bolian.

She looked at him sourly. “No, doesn’t hurt a bit, Cholo,” she said sardonically, hissing through clenched teeth as Dal took her hand in his and turned it to examine the cut.

“Do you have a first aid kit?” he asked.

“Yeah, down at the other end of the bar,” Maiandra replied.

Dal glanced up at the other employees. “Mr. Cholo, would you be so kind as to fetch it for me?” he asked.

Cholo glanced at Maiandra, who gave a slight nod, then the blue-skinned waiter moved down the bar and came behind it, retrieving a medical kit and bringing it over. Dal released Maiandra’s hand to open the kit and pull out the tricorder, which he flipped open to scan the cut on the side of her hand.

“Is that really necessary?” asked one of the female servers.

“Perhaps not, but it never hurts to be cautious,” Dal replied. “I don’t think Maiandra wants to get an infection.”

He flipped the tricorder closed again after a moment, then picked up the dermal regenerator. “No bacteria detected in the wound,” he said to Maiandra as he pressed the activation switch on the end of the device, then took her hand in his left and held it, as he used the right to wave the regenerator over the cut.

“Um, you know you guys don’t have to stand here and watch me get my hand worked on,” the Orion said to the four servers standing along the bar. Out of the corner of his eye, Dal watched them all grin sheepishly before shuffling off back to their work.

“What the hell is going on here?!”

Everyone in the lounge turned their heads at the thunderous shout. Dal saw that Lt. Commander Tyrel had entered the room, and his eyes had the same unadulterated hatred in them that he’d seen this morning. He noted the stiffening of Maiandra’s body as she drew in a breath through her nose.

“Rokha, why are you screaming?” she asked calmly.

Tyrel ignored her, storming forward as he said, “Get your frakking hands off my sister, Khardas!”

Dal ignored him and continued his ministrations, having no intention of allowing Tyrel to intimidate him. “When I am finished healing the cut she sustained from a broken bottle, I will let her go—but not until then, Lt. Commander,” he said calmly.

Tyrel had come behind the bar and was about to reach for him when Maiandra said firmly, “Rokha, nuh! Do you want a reprimand on your record for assaulting a man without cause? Joret hasn’t done anything—to me or to you—so back off!”

“Mai, I don’t like him putting his hands on you!” Tyrel said hotly.

“Oh, good grief, Rokha—it’s not as if Joret’s been pawing me behind the bar!” his sister fired back, clearly exasperated. “Not exactly something we’ll be inclined to do with an audience, thank you very much! I got a cut on my hand, and he was nice enough to help take care of it—that is all.”

He had to force himself not to smile as he listened to the exchange. Maiandra could be quite forceful, as much if not more so than her brother—of that he had no doubt. Dal reckoned she would be a sight to behold were she truly furious, and the thought of her being such a woman brought to mind bittersweet memories of Sarka when she was cross.

With a gentle swipe of his thumb, he brushed the blood away from the cut and saw that the dermal regenerator had done its work. “There now,” he said, switching it off and placing it back into the first aid kit. He looked at Maiandra and offered her a smile. “There won’t be a scar, of course, and you’re fine to wash your hands now. But be careful, if you will, when reaching into the crate again.”

After closing the kit, he turned around to find Tyrel just inches away. “If you will excuse me, Mr. Tyrel, I think it’s time I get back to work.” When the broad-shouldered Orion didn’t move, Dal suppressed a sigh and moved to step around him. As he was stepping out from behind the bar, Maiandra called out to him.

“What about your lunch?”

He turned back. “Perhaps another time, Maiandra. Thank you anyway.”

“You can eat in your quarters,” Tyrel barked at him. “You don’t need to come here again.”

“Rokha, damn it, that is enough!” Maiandra said, shouting herself this time. She fisted her hands on her hips as she stared her brother down. “Joret is a member of this crew, and even if he weren’t he would be welcome here—as the passengers we’re taking on will be for as long as they’re onboard. You don’t dictate who can and cannot come into this bar, only Captain Regan and I can do that, and you damn well know it. If you can’t leave your prejudices in your own quarters, then maybe you are the one who doesn’t need to come here again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking his side! Mai, he’s a Cardassian—”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “So?”

Sighing, Dal turned away and left, no longer caring to bear witness to their family dispute, nor subject himself to anymore of Rokha Tyrel’s hostility.

*****

En route to Leytra
August 13, 2376

It had taken them nearly two and a half days to reach Cardassia even though Captain Regan had ordered the ship to maintain warp 9 the entire trip. After spending a couple of hours in orbit transporting refugees and supplies onboard the ship, they had left for their first stop, which was Leytra.

Dal had greeted many of the refugees as they were coming off the transporter dais, giving each a PADD that directed them to their assigned guest quarters and pointed out which areas of the ship they were free to visit, as well as those they were not. And though he was not altogether surprised, not every person he met was pleased to see him—even among his own people there were those that harbored resentment of the Cardassian Guard, for they had received far better treatment than the civilian population.

And it was the civilians the Dominion had struck first when the Guard fleet had at last come to their senses and realized they were not in a partnership, but indentured servitude that amounted to little more than slavery. Because a member of the Guard had made himself their leader, because he had opened their space to the Dominion fleet, Skrain Dukat’s folly was lain as well upon the shoulders of every surviving member of the military—they were responsible for the slaughter the Dominion ships had wrought as they fled the Alpha Quadrant, and were responsible for the suffering that had followed in the aftermath.

No one on the passenger manifest had raised a red flag with Dal, not by his own memory or during his computer search. Still, he would keep an eye on as many of the five hundred passengers as he could. It was his fervent hope that anyone who disliked being at the mercy of Starfleet for transportation to their temporary homes would keep that to themselves and not cause any trouble. After all, some of them were only going to be onboard for another day, the rest for just a few more until they were dropped off on Amleth—surely they could be counted on to remain peaceful for that long.

*****

August 14, 2376


When he walked into the lobby of the counseling center, Rokha Tyrel saw Master Chief Loorn just coming out of the office of one of the junior counselors.

“What are you doing here?” he asked the Capellan, whom he had sparred with many times in the gym or on the holodeck. Tyrel would even go so far as to say they were friends.

Loorn snorted in disgust, his expression darkening. “Fucking Cardassians,” he said. “Sir. What brings you to the Shrink Shack?” he added, using the nickname many of the enlisted (and some of the officers) had given the counseling suite, which included the small lobby and four offices, three of which were shared by the ship’s six junior counselors and a larger office that the senior counselor, Anjali, had to herself.

Tyrel echoed his snort. “Fucking Cardassians,” he repeated, and the two men shared a grin.

Although they were alone, Loorn leaned closer. “If I may speak freely, sir, can you believe we actually took on more of these frakking spoonheads than they were gonna make us carry?”

Tyrel’s eyes flicked to the door to Anjali’s office as he recalled that taking on more of the refugees had been her idea. “Unfortunately, some people on this ship have bleeding hearts for the so-called ‘suffering’ of the civilian population.”

“Who the hell cares about Cardassian civilians?” Loorn asked harshly. “We’ve got ten times more civilians within the Federation who are far more deserving of our help than these fuckers.”

The Orion sighed as he looked at the other man. “I agree with you one hundred percent, Chief. Believe me, I’d rather be carting fruit trees to Betazed, or something else ridiculously mundane. Unfortunately, we are required to help these thankless bastards whether we want to or not. And by the way, though I can hardly believe I’m saying this myself, given how I feel about them, but you really might want to start keeping those feelings to yourself. Like I said, I agree with you, but it looks like opening our big mouths is what got us sent to the Shrink Shack in the first place. Gonna have to try our best to keep it cool and get the watchful eyes off our backs.”

Loorn nodded, but before he could reply, the door to Anjali’s office opened, and the counselor smiled benignly at the two of them. “I’m ready to see you now, Commander,” she said to Tyrel.

Tyrel nodded to Loorn, who quickly left. The tactical officer schooled his features to a neutral expression, then turned and headed for the counselor’s office. Inside, she smiled and politely asked if he would like something to drink. His conversation with the Master Chief had him thinking of a snarky reply, but he managed to hold his tongue. He thanked her and said no instead, as he had no intention of ever becoming comfortable in this room.

Instead of sitting behind her desk, Anjali took a seat in a wingback chair adjacent to him. “Commander, I’m sure you know why you’re here,” she began. It was accented and somewhat husky, her voice, and he usually thought of it as rather sexy.

He snorted. “Yes,” he replied simply.

“Commander, you are here because you have demonstrated on numerous occasions to have an intense dislike—some would say hatred—of the Cardassian species,” Anjali went on. “Do you want to tell me why you have a problem with Cardassians?”

“Not particularly.”

She smiled then, though the gesture was clearly not meant to be warm. “Then I’m afraid you have more than one problem on your hands, Rokha,” she told him sitting back in her chair and placing her hands together in her lap. “Because if you don’t start talking me, if you don’t allow me to help you work through at least some of your unresolved issues with them, then I am afraid you are facing a suspension—without pay.”

Tyrel frowned. “A suspension? Seriously? You’re gonna recommend suspending me just because I don’t like the Cardies?”

“On the contrary, Commander,” Anjali countered. “You would be suspended because your feelings toward the Cardassians are clearly proving to interfere with your ability to remain neutral. You are hardly the only person on this ship who does not like them, but you are, for the most part, the only person displaying open hostility. And I wouldn’t be recommending a suspension—I’d be recommending continued anger management counseling. Protocol, and our captain, would be recommending the suspension, until such time as you undergo said treatment.”

With that she stood and moved to the desk. Tyrel stayed where he was, a brooding expression crossing his face as she sat in the chair behind it. Anjali tapped a few keys on her desktop computer, then looked across the room at him.

“According to your file, you’re not old enough to have fought in the Federation-Cardassian War,” she began, nodding toward the monitor. “And although your psychological profile lists a tendency toward aggression, particularly when it comes to the well-being of your sister, you’re not believed to be a threatening individual.”

“Damn, and here I thought I was intimidating,” Tyrel said with a sneer.

Anjali chuckled. “Oh, you certainly have a ‘don’t fuck with me’ veneer painted on, Rokha, and I’m fully aware that you are dangerous when provoked.”

“Isn’t it unprofessional of you to use a curse word when speaking to a member of the crew in an official capacity?”

“I’m allowed to say whatever I think will work, in order to get people to talk,” she countered. “You’ve also never shown yourself to feel racial hatred toward any particular species, except for the Cardassians.”

“Actually, I have a major hate-on for red Orions, wouldn’t let a Romulan lick my boots, and I’m not overly fond of Klingons. But none of them are the enemy right now, and Cardassians are.”

“The Cardassians are no longer our enemies, Commander,” said Anjali.

“They will always be the enemy!” he replied forcefully. “They are lying, filthy, underhanded, good-for-nothing slis’jakas that can’t be trusted with the lives of their own mothers—that frelling bastard Dukat proved it when he sold his entire species out to the Dominion for the flimsy promise of power! I’ve seen his kind before, they’re all the same. All they care about is what they can take, and they don’t give a shit who’s under boot when they go trampling through to get it.”

The counselor tilted her head to the side as if in thought. She had received a few flashes of memory from him, but they were too short for her to make much sense of. “Where have you seen his kind before, Rokha? Have you personally known people like Legate Dukat?”

He scoffed. “What’s it matter if I have?” he asked tersely. Tyrel then stood abruptly and headed for the door. “I think I’m done talking.”

Anjali stood as the door opened. “Commander, your appointment is for an hour. It hasn’t even been one-quarter that.”

Tyrel stopped and threw her a stony glare. “Sorry, Counselor, but fifteen minutes is all the time I care to spare for this bullshit,” he told her, then turned and left.

Anjali dropped into her desk chair with a huff. Given his reputation as a hard-ass, she’d known that Tyrel would be difficult. In the three years they had served together—right from the beginning of the ship’s career in ’73—the only time she’d ever spoken to him privately in a professional capacity was for his annual psych eval, and the questions a counselor asked during those meetings were pretty general. Even with her telepathic abilities, he was a hard person to read, likely because he kept himself so closed off emotionally.

She honestly hadn’t expected the Orion to walk out of a mandatory counseling session. Procedure demanded she report this immediately to her captain, but she hesitated. Tyrel clearly had underlying issues he was refusing to address, issues that were affecting his ability to see the Cardassian species objectively. Anjali knew that every person in the Alpha Quadrant had reason to dislike or even despise the Cardassians for their involvement with the Dominion and the war that followed, but she’d honestly never met anyone who displayed such blatant hatred.

By his own words, however, and from the images her telepathy had picked up from his memories, she knew that while his hatred was probably genuine, there was something deeper feeding it. It wasn’t just the Cardassians he hated, she realized, it was an archetype—and it was, truthfully, one that the Cardassian military had for most of the last century proven all too willing to be.

If she was going to get to the bottom of his problem—which she would do with or without his cooperation—then she knew she was going to have to dig a little deeper into the enigma that was Rokha Tyrel.

*****

Club Ten was not too busy when Counselor Anjali walked in, which was likely due to the time of day; by the ship’s clock, it was still early afternoon. She looked around for Maiandra and spotted her in her usual place—behind the bar.

“You look like you’re having a rough day at the office,” Maiandra said as she slid her rear onto a stool. “Need a stiff drink or something to help you relax?”

Anjali chuckled. “I’d like one, but you know I never drink on duty,” she replied. “How about a club soda with lime and a few minutes of your time, if you’ve any to spare?”

The Orion raised an eyebrow at her and nodded. “Coming right up,” she said, and walked over to the replicator. Cholo, the Bolian server, had come behind the bar to deposit a tray, and Anjali observed Maiandra directing him to stay behind the bar. She then brought her a chilled glass with a wedge of lime hanging on the rim and two floating in the beverage, than crossed her arms and leaned against the bar.

“What can I do for you?” she asked.

“Have you, um…have you talked to your brother much lately?” Anjali queried, setting the glass down slowly.

Maiandra laughed. “So that explains the sour look on your face,” she said. “Rokha’s first session was today. How’d that go—not that I’m asking you to betray the doctor-patient privilege or anything.”

The counselor lifted her club soda and took another drink before she replied. “It didn’t, really, and that’s the problem. He walked out on me.”

Her companion groaned as she lowered her head and banged it on the surface of the bar twice. “Stupid vuut,” she muttered.

Anjali nodded; having heard the Orion word before she knew what it meant. “He is being foolish—obviously your brother’s been an officer long enough to know that refusing to complete mandatory counseling will result in disciplinary action. If he continues this pattern of behavior and continues to refuse counseling, he could actually face a court martial.”

Maiandra’s eyes widened. “Have you reported him yet?”

“No,” the counselor replied. “Which as we both know I am required to do, and could get me in hot water for not following the regs.”

“So why haven’t you?”

Anjali looked at her with a frown. “Come on now, Mai—do you really have to ask me that? I consider you a friend of mine, a true friend. And I may not be as close to Rokha as I feel I am to you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about him beyond the bounds of my profession. I want to help him before he gets a reprimand, but I can’t do that if he walks out on me again.”

Maiandra sighed. “You know as well as I do that it’s impossible to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, or doesn’t think they need it,” she began. “My brother is a perfect example of the latter. He’s hard-headed and stubborn to the core, and once his mind is set, there’s usually no moving him.”

Anjali chuckled mirthlessly. “That’ll make my job loads easier,” she muttered, then took another drink of her club soda. “Mai, please—you have to help me help him. You’re the only person I can ask without reporting him. I’d really like to avoid that for as long as possible.”

“I really don’t know what you want me to do, Anjali,” Maiandra replied with a shrug.

“Tell me about him. Something that will give me an idea where this all-consuming hatred of his comes from,” she pleaded. “We’ve known each other for three years, and I hardly know anything about him. Or you, for that matter.”

Maiandra glanced out into the bar at the few occupied tables, her eyes roaming over the officers and enlisted who were nursing drinks. Sighing again, she came around the bar and slipped onto the stool next to Anjali.

“There was a time when my brother looked up to our father,” she began slowly. “Worshipped him, even. He idolized him, wanted to be just like him. Even when he learned our father was a player in the Syndicate, he wanted to be him, because working for the Syndicate was a way of life—it was the only one he figured he was good for.

“Rokha and I never knew our mother—we were raised by an older woman who’d worked for the family for years. Father was always very lavish with his gifts and his praise when we’d done well, and was fast with a cruel word and a heavy hand when we’d failed him in some minor way. Rokha took most of his punishments even when the fault was mine, either because I was younger or because I was a girl. Who knows? But my brother has always protected me, and the truth is, I owe my life to him—literally.”

Intrigued, both by the words she heard and the memories her mind was picking up from her companion, Anjali gestured for her to continue as she was taking another drink. “What do you mean?” she prompted when Maiandra was silent.

“Rokha had no qualms about becoming a criminal—like I said, it was what he knew. He’d become a swift pickpocket and con artist at an early age, conning people out of slips of latinum or stealing it from them when they weren’t looking. But he never wanted that life for me. I never wanted it. And even though our father paid the nal’klisa to keep me from being forced to work for the Syndicate, Rokha and I learned it was not exactly out of his love for his only daughter.”

Anjali felt her throat tighten, her stomach churning as she suspected what she was about to hear next. But she remained silent, no longer prompting Maiandra to tell her traumatic tale. She didn't really have to—the images she was capturing were quite enough. Still, she made herself sit and listen to the rest.

“Our father,” she was saying, “paid the bond sum not to keep me free, but so that he could charge a higher price for me. I was, at one time, a very talented dancer, and I’ve been told I’m exceptionally beautiful, even for a woman whose gender is known for their beauty among my species. I don’t buy into any of that shit myself, but my father put a lot of stock into believing I’d fetch a large sum, especially if he could prove to the buyer that he was getting a virgin. Being the first to have an OAW is apparently worth quite a bit of latinum.”

“Oh my goodness,” Anjali said softly, her hand reaching out to touch Maiandra’s arm. “Love, I have no idea.”

Maiandra’s smile did not reach her eyes. “You’re not the only one who didn’t. It’s not exactly a family legacy one shares in polite conversation. And being the silly little girl that I was, though I knew what my father did for a living, I was completely blind to the fact that he was raising me to sell me for a whore. I thought he loved me, but I was nothing more than a commodity to him. Rokha tried to keep it from me, but the fact that one night, out of nowhere, he said that we had to leave and couldn’t tell Father where we were going, told me that something was very wrong.

“He told me that he’d been saving to get us off the planet—that we wouldn’t have to be criminals. He’d bought passage onto a ship and it wouldn’t be pleasant, but we’d get away alright. We ended up on V’ores’katul like so many who flee the Syndicate because Rokha believed our father would not follow us there. He was wrong. Father did follow us, and when he found us they argued like I’d never seen them argue before. And that was how I found out that my father saw me as belonging to him, someone whose purpose was to do as he said and not as an individual who had a mind of her own.”

She stopped and took a shuddering breath. “There were things that were said and done that night I try very hard to forget,” Maiandra said after a long moment of silence. “I only know that I owe Rokha more than I can ever repay. Anyway, to make a long story short, my brother hates anyone who would sell someone else out. He hates anyone who desires power above all else. He hates those that walk all over the little people to make themselves more important.”

Nodding slowly, Anjali sighed. She knew well the toll keeping secrets took on a person. “Given what little he did say, I’d concluded something similar, that it’s an archetype your brother despises most—people who abuse others. Quite sadly, the Cardassians have been guilty of that for far too many years. And as much as even I dislike what’s been done these last few years, what they did to the Bajorans—to anyone they have tried to subjugate—I acknowledge that not every single Cardassian shares the philosophy of taking what you can and giving nothing back. There are people in the new government who are trying to change all that, who want to make the Cardassian people better than they were. Their prime councilor is a woman who prior to the war was hunted for being outspoken about her political beliefs, because she wasn’t afraid to say that things needed to change.”

“And good luck to her,” Maiandra said with a nod. “Hope she knows it ain’t gonna happen overnight. Just like I hope you know that you’re not going to change Rokha’s mind overnight.”

“Of course I know,” Anjali replied. “Nor would I even try to, really. I’m of the mind that a person is entitled to their opinion, and if he dislikes the Cardassians, I’m hardly one to judge. I don’t like most of them overmuch, either. But he’s letting that hatred interfere in how he lives his life, how he does his job, and that is something I have to help him change or he’s going to lose everything he’s worked so hard for.”

*****

In orbit of Leytra
August 16, 2376 – 0745 hours


Anjali was preparing to head for the staff meeting, which had been called earlier than usual that morning so that they would have plenty of time to spend preparing the first group of refugees for departure. She and her team had spent most of the last few days working with the Cardassians bound for both Leytra and Amleth, and being honest with herself, she was surprised that so many were willing to talk. Not all of them, to be sure, but there were enough to keep her and the other six counselors busy. They talked not because they wanted to, really, but because they needed to—Anjali believed they simply needed someone to vent upon, someone who wanted to listen to their complaints…even if it was a Starfleet counselor. Most of the people she had talked to—indeed, even those spoken to by her staff—ran the usual gamut of emotions, from angry to frightened to depressed and back again. They understood the necessity of leaving Lakarian City, yet had wished there’d been no need to abandon their homes.

What little was left of them.

As Captain Regan and Joret Dal had predicted, most of the five hundred refugees had kept to their rooms for the majority of their time onboard, so she’d done a lot of walking to get from one set of quarters to another. Anjali hoped that what words of comfort and assurance she had offered had helped, though she really couldn’t be sure. She hadn’t worked with Cardassians before, and they had long had a tendency toward aggression, about the only emotion the entire species was acquainted with. She also hoped they believed that she really did want to help. She understood why so many Federation citizens, and Starfleet officers especially, had little desire to help the Cardassians, and for a time she’d been one of them.

But Columbia having been a part of the 11th Fleet these last seven months had really opened her eyes. She'd seen with her own eyes the devastation even they had suffered from the war, and the memories they continued to relive had bombarded her psychic lobe with imagery she would not soon forget. And so Anjali had become something of a champion for the Cardassians, insofar as she did whatever she could to help—including personally distributing boxes of MREs despite how difficult it was at times to block out the memories of the people she met.

It was her own mission that had given her an idea on how to (hopefully) help Cmdr. Tyrel see that not all Cardassians were power-hungry fools bent on galactic domination. Some of them were just ordinary people who’d been living ordinary lives of working and raising children before the devastation caused by a war even they hadn’t wanted. She intended to subject Master Chief Loorn to the same form of “therapy”.

Anjali ran into Captain Regan outside her office, the older woman smiling pleasantly as she greeted her.

“Good  morning Counselor,” Regan said. “I’m glad I caught you before the staff meeting, as I’ve been meaning to ask you how things went with Tyrel the other day.

The counselor flashed a wry grin. She hadn’t reported Tyrel’s walking out, and she was hoping she wouldn’t have to—especially if her idea had the desired impact.

“About as well as can be expected,” she replied to Regan’s query, and the two women turned to leave the waiting area. As they walked toward a turbolift, she continued. “He was quite reluctant to talk to me, which I’m sure you expected would happen. But I believe I know what the root of his problem is, and I’ve an idea which may or may not crack that hard duranium shell of his.”

Regan lifted an eyebrow. “By all means, let’s hear it,” she said.

Anjali grinned again and described her plan for Tyrel and Loorn as they rode the lift up to the bridge. Regan listened intently, nodding her approval when the counselor had finished.

“Sound like as good a plan as any—in fact, I wish I’d thought of it myself. If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to be the one to break it to him,” the captain said as they stepped out of the lift and walked across the back end toward the briefing room. Once inside they noted that all the others had arrived already, including Joret Dal, who was actually seated at the table next to Silmar with a PADD in his hand.

Regan quickly brought the meeting to order and Dal spent several minutes going over the departure plan, which was fairly simple—they’d use the emergency transporters to move the people to the surface since they could send 22 at one time, which would reduce the amount of time they would have to wait. Cargo transporters would be used to transport the supplies that had been allotted to the colony. Relief teams, including security in the form of Marines to help stave off possible rioting (which they’d experienced before), would go down as well, in order to distribute the food and medicine.

“In all, I estimate a period of four to six hours to complete our objective, Captain,” Dal said, finishing his report.

Regan bobbed her head forward once. “That sounds good, Commander. You’ve got the Leytra refugees organized into departure groups already?”

The Cardassian nodded. “Yes, and each person has been informed as to the time of their group’s departure in order to have their belongings packed and ready—not that they have much to begin with. They have been made aware that anything left behind will likely be disposed of.”

“Then I think we should get to work,” the captain said then, and everyone began to rise from their seats. “Oh, Mr. Tyrel, could you stay a moment?” she added, seemingly as an afterthought.

Anjali tried not to smile, effortlessly putting off an air of nonchalance as she remained in her seat while the rest of the senior staff filed out. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted Tyrel standing at the end of the table with his arms crossed defensively over his broad chest, his steely green eyes on her.

As she had declared before they entered, Regan took the lead once the room was empty save for the three of them. “Commander, an odd thing was brought to my attention this morning: in all the time we’ve been assigned to this fleet, you’ve not once left the ship, except at Sanctuary.”

Casually turning her head to look at their tactical officer, Anjali noted the narrowing of his eyes, which he flicked her way before returning his attention to the captain. She felt the spike of his anger, which was not unexpected. “There has not, to my knowledge, been a situation which required the presence of a person with my particular skill set, Captain,” Tyrel said slowly.

“Perhaps not,” Regan conceded. “Our Marine platoon and Security officers have done a very fine job keeping things peaceful and quickly routing outbursts of aggressive behavior. However, your own recent…outbursts…have given me pause. I think you—and Master Chief Loorn, for that matter—could use a little dose of humility. Counselor Anjali happens to agree with me.”

Anjali watched the muscles in Tyrel’s jaw twitch as his anger increased, a sign that he was probably grinding his teeth. After taking a long breath through his nose, he replied, asking in a tight voice, “May I ask precisely what that means?”

The counselor turned to Regan as she answered, “Oh, certainly. You and the master chief are going to go down with the relief teams to help distribute food and medicine to the refugees. You need to see the real reason why we are here, Commander. Our mission in the Union is not about keeping the Cardassians in line, it’s about helping those in need—the people who were trampled on and stomped into the ground as the former regime in the Cardassian Guard did their best to puff out their collective chests and show the rest of the galaxy that they were bigger and better.”

At last, Anjali spoke, turning to Tyrel to say, “You have a very deep-seeded hatred of anyone in a position of authority who would use and abuse others to get what they want, which is more power they most likely do not need nor deserve. I believe that if you—”

“If you really think my passing out ration packs and first aid kits is going to change my mind, you must be losing yours,” Tyrel said with a sneer.

“Whether it will or not remains to be seen,” Anjali replied unfazed.

“In any case, you’re going,” added Regan, her tone brooking no argument. Tyrel sniffed as she went on, saying, “You will be polite to the people you speak to. No snide looks, no snarky comments. I’m not asking you to smile or sing a song to them, as we all know you can’t carry a tune anyway. You will perform this duty here and you will perform it again at Amleth. Your behavior at both locations will enable me to determine if further lessons are required. Am I understood, Commander?”

Tyrel only nodded stiffly. Anjali suspected he opted not to speak as his tone was likely to be anything but respectful.

“Good,” the captain said. “Dismissed.”

*****

Anjali knew that neither Tyrel nor Loorn would be pleased with their alternative therapy sessions, so she accompanied the relief teams down to Leytra’s surface in order to keep an eye on both of them. Not that she wouldn’t have gone anyway—ever since the first time she had taken part in the away teams distributing supplies, when she had seen the real cost of the war among the Cardassian people (both physically before her eyes and through their memories), she had made a point of going down every time. She made a point of offering a gentle smile and a few words of kindness, even if the majority of the Cardassians she spoke to rebuffed her generosity with hard, cold stares.

But there were those who, even if they didn’t speak, showed her with their eyes how grateful they were even if all they got was a week’s worth of ration packs. The young mothers with children to feed were especially happy just to have something to give those children to eat. Anjali had seen more than one of these women, some of them hardly more than children themselves, forego eating their own meal just to make sure each child ate their fill.

Anjali beamed down to the surface with Tyrel, two of her staff and two of the Marines who would be providing security for the distribution site. As soon as they had materialized, the green-clad soldiers stepped away from the Starfleet officers so as to appear less intimidating—which the counselor had long ago noted was hard to do when one was carrying a phaser rifle or an ARC.

As soon as all the relief teams and supplies were down, Anjali contacted the ship to let them know they could begin sending down the refugees. As that operation began, she and the teams distributing food set up their tables and readied their goods as Dr. Jiraz and the medical officers did the same several feet away. She knew that here, as he had on so many of their previous supply drop-offs, that the aging Denobulan and his team would not only be handing out first aid kits, they would also be conducting as many physicals as they possibly could in the time they had. The Virginia Apgar had been here back in April conducting physicals, but they hadn’t been able to examine everyone.

Master Chief Loorn was working with the doctor’s group handing out the medical kits, and Tyrel was working with Anjali and the counselors. She noted sullen expressions on both mens’ faces, and sidled up to Tyrel as he was unfolding a portable table. “Commander, might I remind you that the captain has ordered you to be pleasant?” she said casually in a soft voice.

“I remember what she said,” the Orion snapped lightly. “I’m also well aware that this BS exercise was your idea.”

She grinned in spite of his hostility. “Indeed it was,” she admitted. “I believe it will be good for you.”

Tyrel scoffed. “Somehow I doubt that.”

Joret Dal came down with the first group of refugees just as the villagers began heading toward the small encampment of Starfleet officers. Anjali watched him stride forward and greet the older woman in the lead with a nod of his head and a pleasant smile, and assumed that she was the one in charge. Dal gestured toward the men and women behind him and the woman turned to them with a smile of her own and her arms held out in welcome. The people behind her slowly made their way toward the Starfleet group, wary expressions on some of the faces and eager ones on others.

And so it began.

An hour had gone by before Anjali realized it, at which time Dal and the village leader made their way over to where she worked with her team. She had just finished offering some advice to a young woman who told her she wanted to help people in the same way they were, to which she had said that the best thing she could do in that regard was to do some research on which relief groups were doing the kind of social work she was interested in, then contacting them to see what she needed to do to join them. The young woman then asked if it would be possible for her to just go with them when they left, saying she didn’t want to waste time—she wanted to get to work helping her people as soon as possible.

Anjali was somewhat surprised, but pleasantly so, by the woman’s eagerness. She was aware of the stiffening of Tyrel’s posture as he stood beside her handing out boxes of ration packs and seeds for planting, but he thankfully said nothing. Offering the woman a smile, she drew her breath to speak as Dal and the older woman approached.

“Forgive the interruption, Counselor,” Dal began. “This is Elva Ganet, elder of this village. She wished to meet with you.”

The counselor smiled and nodded. “It is a pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” she replied. “I’m Counselor Anjali.”

“Yes, so the dal has told me,” Ganet said with a puzzled expression. “Forgive me, but where are you from? I do not think I’ve heard such an accent before.”

“I’m Halanan,” Anjali replied, giving her the public story she told everyone. “My accent is natural.”

Ganet still looked confused, and Anjali wondered if she had even met many non-Cardassians before. The woman shook her head lightly, then said, “I wanted to speak with you to offer my sincerest thanks for what you and Starfleet are doing. I know it cannot be easy what with the circumstances of the war and all, but so many of the small villages on the smaller worlds like this one are in such great need, any little bit of help is so very much appreciated.”

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I mean it when I say I am happy to help,” Anjali replied. “It’s something of an occupational hazard in my profession—I’m a psychologist, and we care about everyone. Or at least we’re supposed to, and I know I do. I can’t stand to see suffering of any kind.”

She turned then to the young woman she had been speaking to, whom she noted was trying not to stare at the tall, imposing figure of the armor-clad Dal. Filing that interest away for later examination, she gestured to her and said, “This is Taraji Jorah. She’s expressed a keen interest in joining the efforts to deliver relief supplies to the needy.”

Ganet smiled pleasantly at the younger woman. “I know. Young Taraji has been saying as much ever since that hospital ship was here some months ago.”

“I just want to help our people,” Taraji insisted.

“And what nobler cause could there be than to see that children are healthy and well-fed?” Dal offered, picking up one of the silver-wrapped ration packs and eying it warily. He grinned wryly as he dropped it back in the box. “Or at least as well fed as one can be when consuming dehydrated nutritional supplements…”

Anjali chuckled. “MREs make do in a pinch. I’m sure you’d be glad for them as well if it was all you had to eat, Commander,” she said. “Ms. Jorah actually just asked if she could join us as we continue our mission.”

Dal raised his eyebrows as he regarded both of them. “Is that so?”

“Taraji dear, don’t be a nuisance,” Ganet scolded the younger woman gently. “I can think of plenty of things you can do here to help out.”

“I know,” Taraji said. “And I’m sorry if this comes across as selfish, but I want to do more with my life than stay at home taking care of crops. I’m nearly thirty-three years old, widowed already, and I have no children. There’s nothing really left for me here, Elva. I can do more for our people by traveling to as many worlds as I possibly can and doing the kind of work Starfleet is doing. I can help more people that way.”

Anjali raised her eyebrows in surprise again—Taraji looked much younger than her age. She couldn’t help wondering how in the world the emotional toll of losing a husband, most likely during the war, hadn’t stressed her to the point that her looks were affected. Truthfully she was quite lovely, and if she continued taking care of herself, she would remain so for many years to come.

“Your desire to assist us is noble, and welcome,” Dal said then. “However, as I understand Starfleet protocol, we cannot simply say yes. The captain must be consulted, and it is ultimately her decision as to whether or not you may join us.”

Taraji nodded. “I understand that. But surely your captain will be happy to have another pair of hands to help distribute supplies?”

“She may, and I have little reason to suspect that she will deny your request,” Anjali told her. “However, the commander is correct. We must speak to her first. But before we do, why don’t you stay and help out a while? That way, when we do speak to her, I’ll be able to tell her how helpful you’ll be.”

The Cardassian nodded, a smile beaming from her face. “Of course.”

And so it was that in the second half of the second hour, Anjali’s group was expanded by one. Taraji turned out to be something of a chatterer. She talked to everyone, Starfleet and Marines alike. She asked them questions about themselves, about their lives, why they had chosen their particular professions—though she learned fairly quickly that attempting to engage the brooding Orion in conversation was a futile effort. During a lull in activity, while Taraji was engaged in a conversation with the Marine platoon leader, Tyrel stepped over to Anjali and said, “Figures you’d find a Cardassian who asks more questions than you do.”

Anjali shook her head, smiling as he turned away again. It was the most Tyrel had said since they had first arrived that wasn’t related to their work. Though clearly still brooding, he was, as the captain had ordered, pleasant to those he handed food to. Most of the Cardassians barely looked at him, which was understandable—he was largely built and it was obviously all muscle. Combined with a full six feet in height, and Rokha Tyrel made for a very intimidating figure.

The counselor was snapped from her contemplations when a frightened scream pierced the air. She could feel the sharp spike of someone's fear as she turned her head to see several uniform-clad bodies as well as several of the villagers running toward a young woman kneeling on the ground next to a small child. Even at this distance, she could tell the little one wasn’t breathing, and she skirted her table, sprinting to join the group surrounding them.

Surprise had only a split second to register as she noted Tyrel had picked up the boy—who could hardly be more than two years old—and had him face-down over his knee. He was popping the heel of his hand against the child’s back as she took the arm of the woman and drew her to her feet. The young woman clung to her, sobbing wordlessly as Dr. Jiraz ordered everyone to back up and give them room to work.

“What happened, love?” Anjali asked the woman in her arms.

The woman sniffled and indicated the ground, where Anjali saw a foil-wrapped ration pack partially open next to the box the woman had apparently dropped. “He—he was hungry. I—I ran out of food yesterday. We—we haven’t eaten since—since about—about this time yesterday. So I gave him the packet. I told him, ‘Not too much, we have to save some.’ He must have—he must’ve taken too big a bite. He—he started to choke. I panicked.”

“It’s alright,” Anjali said, stroking her back as she began to cry again. She looked down as Tyrel continued to work to dislodge the food stuck in the boy’s throat.

“C’mon kid,” he muttered, his strikes continuing uninterrupted. Suddenly the bite the boy had taken shot out and rolled away across the dusty ground, but the boy didn’t move.

“Why isn’t he moving? Why isn’t my baby breathing?!” cried his mother.

Dr. Jiraz knelt next to Tyrel and swiftly took the boy from him, laying him on his back on the ground. His senior medical technician was immediately by his side with a medical kit, the hypospray already in her hand. The Denobulan took it from her and pressed it to the child’s neck as Saavedra opened up the tricorder in the kit and scanned the boy, who seconds later took a breath and began to cough, his eyes popping open and immediately searching for his mother.

The young mother cried out as she dropped to her knees beside him, scooping the child up and all but crushing him to her chest as tears of joy spilled down her cheeks. Dr. Jiraz spoke softly and pleasantly to her as he asked her to let him finish his examination. The crowd began to disperse then as it was clear the child would be alright. Anjali saw that Tyrel was already walking stiffly back toward their table, and after silently directing one of the junior counselors to stay with the woman, she headed over to join him.

For a moment, Anjali said nothing. The two worked in silence as people began coming up to the table again, and they each handed out boxes of food and seeds with a “Here you go” and a smile. Well, Anjali smiled anyway. She was trying to get a read on him, but as usual his ability to keep his emotions closed off was proving a roadblock to her empathy—his feelings were tumbling around so quickly it was difficult to latch on to any one emotion. After a while, she felt she had to say something.

“You did a good thing today, Commander.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shrug. “Nothing anyone else wouldn’t have done,” he said.

“I don’t know about that. Honestly, I’m rather a bit surprised,” she replied, “given your feelings about Cardassians.”

Tyrel stiffened next to her, handed out a box of supplies to the next person in line, then said, “He was just a baby.”

Anjali nodded, and sensing that he was uncomfortable discussing the matter, she let the subject drop.

*****

En route to Amleth
August 16, 2376 – 1500 hours


Joret Dal was not altogether surprised that Captain Regan agreed to allow Taraji Jorah to accompany them, at least as far as Amleth. How well she got along with the crew and how things went at their next stop would determine whether or not she remained aboard. Taraji agreed to her terms, and didn’t even raise a single objection to the news that she would have to submit herself for security scans and a background check.

Though he disliked having to conduct these background checks on his people, hers was one he was somewhat looking forward to. He hoped whatever he found would be enlightening, as she was rather atypical for a Cardassian—chatty and social were but two of the adjectives the Starfleet and Marine officers had used to describe her. Pleasant was another, and all of them he readily agreed with. Unfortunately his search results revealed nothing of import. Taraji was from a family of modest income who had chosen to join the colony on Leytra to allegedly escape the pressure of core worlds like Cardassia. Her parents had both passed in 2372 and she had married a 2nd Glinn by the name of Vishan Jorah just months before his death in 2374.

Despite his determination to remain detached (especially in light of the “warm” reception he had received by certain of the refugees, some of whom were still on board), Dal found himself further intrigued with Taraji, perhaps due to the very lack of information he could find on her. He found no employment records or educational training beyond what Cardassians typically endured, save for six months of university-level classes in psychology and about a year’s time at a military garrison as part of the housekeeping staff. He could not help but wonder why she had not completed the university course work and earned herself a degree, for she certainly had a knack for getting people to talk.

In an instant his hand froze over the keys, a dark suspicion creeping its way into his thoughts. Perhaps the reason there was so little information on Taraji Jorah was because she—or who she worked for—didn’t want the information found. Such a background as hers, one that was almost too bland to be real, was just the sort of history the Obsidian Order gave their lower-level operatives so as not to arouse suspicion during a typical background check.

Like the one he had run on her.

Dal loosed an annoyed sigh and pushed away from his desk, standing to pace. He wondered, not for the first time and likely not for the last, as to how and why he had become so very jaded and paranoid that he suspected treachery of everyone, even those who appeared most innocent. The probability that Taraji was one of a dying breed was far less likely than the probability that she was indeed who she appeared to be. So what if she hadn’t finished her education? There were tens of millions who hadn’t. If he was that concerned with why she hadn’t finished school, there were a number of ways of finding out, the simplest of which would be to just ask her.

Which he would do as soon as he sent out inquiries to people he knew who were able to dig in places he could not from where he was.

The more in-depth scan would take some time, as it would be hours at least before he heard from even the nearest of his contacts. Dal decided now would be as good a time as any to seek Taraji out and ask her some questions, and he left his quarters after sending out coded messages to loyal friends and officers, asking them to find out all they could about her. As he was stepping into the corridor, he noted Rokha Tyrel walking down the cross-corridor to his left. Briefly wondering if he should speak to him about the incident with the boy on Leytra—he was immensely surprised that Tyrel, for all his hatred, had even reacted, let alone reached the boy before anyone else. His feet began to carry him in the direction Tyrel had gone, but Dal froze when another voice he was all too familiar with came to his ears.

“Hey Tyrel. I’ve been looking for you,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Loorn. “Been wondering how you feel about being the big hero.”

“I’m no hero, Loorn,” Tyrel replied gruffly.

“Had he died it woulda been one less ungrateful mouth to feed,” Loorn said then, and Dal had to grind his teeth so as not to give in to the anger that surged through him. He turned away to go the opposite direction, having absolutely no desire to listen to another hate-fest between those two.

“You ask me, you shoulda just let the little spooner choke,” the Capellan went on, followed by a noise that once again had Dal standing still. If he weren’t mistaken, it sounded very much like a body hitting a wall.

Quite forcefully.

Dal turned and took a few steps back the way he had come, and he heard Tyrel saying as he did so, “I don’t ever want to hear that kinda shit outta your mouth again, Master Chief. Is that understood?”

“Tyrel, what’s your damage? Did all those hours down there make your brain go soft?” Loorn asked, incredulity in his voice. “I mean, come on, man—you hate the Cardies as much as I do.”

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Tyrel told him, his tone seething. “When we’re on duty, you address me as Commander. Second, how I feel about the Cardassians is none of your business.”

How very interesting, Dal thought, and when only silence followed Tyrel’s angry words, he knew it was time he went on his way, before the two men discovered he had been listening. He quickly made his way to a nearby turbolift and ordered it to Deck 7, where the computer had told him Taraji was located.

Once inside the arboretum—he absentmindedly noted it was the first time he had seen it since coming aboard Columbia—Dal’s attention was immediately drawn by the sound of another angry voice. Recognizing this one as well, he headed in the direction it was coming from, hoping to save whomever he was screaming at from anymore of Solonius Flavan’s ranting.

When he came upon them a moment later, Dal was rather startled to find that the very person he had come here to speak to was the unfortunate soul wilting under Solonius’ harsh words. He turned a solid stare to the other man as he asked, “Is there a problem here?”

Taraji yelped, as she hadn’t taken notice of him until he’d spoken. Solonius flashed his angry eyes his direction. “Well, if it isn’t our babysitter,” he said snidely. “Why don’t you do your job, Commander, and teach this ridiculous excuse for a female how to be a proper Cardassian woman.”

In his peripheral vision, Dal saw Taraji was shaking, her breath coming in shallow gasps. “And what, pray tell, leads you to assume she is not a proper Cardassian woman already?” he asked, attempting to draw the other man’s ire away from her.

Solonius snorted. “She talks too much, and apparently has no concept of staying out of other peoples’ business. You’re a military man—why don’t you teach her some of the discipline you and yours like to dish out when the little people misbehave? For once, you’ve actually found someone who could use a good beating to teach her her place.”

Dal felt a surge of annoyance flash through him. Solonius Flavan had made no secret of his dislike of the military, even before the war. Though he was hardly happy about the Federation’s involvement in the revitalization efforts going on throughout the Union, he seemed to think that taking a ride on a Starfleet vessel had given him leave to say whatever he pleased. In the three days he had been onboard, Solonius had taken every opportunity availed to him to spread his own brand of hate among the Cardassian refugees, claiming that the Detapa Council and the Guard were relocating them not to keep them safe but because they were attempting to consolidate what power they had left.

Frankly, his anti-military propaganda was getting on Dal’s last nerve.

“I’ll take your opinion under advisement, Solonius,” he said smoothly, the scowl he received in return telling him that the other Cardassian didn’t believe a word. “Why don’t you leave Ms. Jorah to me now?”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” Solonius snapped. “Now she can drive you crazy with all her inane questions.”

With that, he turned a spiteful glare on Taraji, then strode forcefully past Dal. When he had gone, Dal turned back to Taraji, who suddenly started gasping for breath. He moved to her side immediately. “Are you alright? Did he hurt you? I’ll be glad to humiliate that sniveling kraet-worm by having Security arrest him if he struck you,” he said as he guided her to a nearby bench.

Taraji shook her head as she fought to catch her breath.

“Do you need to go to Sickbay then? Certainly you are aware that hyperventilation is not a sign of good health.”

Despite her heaving bosom, Taraji chuckled as she shook her head again. “Mr. Flavan…didn’t hit me. He just…screamed a lot.”

Dal raised a scaled eyebrow. “That sounds like Solonius. All talk and no action,” he said with a scoff. “Are you sure you don’t want to see one of the medical staff? Forgive me, my dear, but you don’t look well.”

By this time she had begun drawing deep breaths through her nose, releasing them slowly through pursed lips. “I’m alright, sir,” she said. “I just… This might sound…rather funny, coming from me…but I hate confrontations.”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “Is that right?” he queried.

Taraji nodded. “I talk a lot, I know,” she said slowly, gaining control of herself in increments. “I’ve always been a very…curious person. I just like getting to know people. I’m a social creature…by nature. Which I know makes me probably the most…un-Cardassian Cardassian you know. I’m the most un-Cardassian Cardassian I know.”

Dal had to chuckle. “You certainly don’t seem to fit the mold of the typical Cardassian woman,” he acknowledged.

“I know. I just can’t seem to help myself,” she said. “I even started to study psychology when I was younger. Everyone said being a therapist would be the perfect career for me, since I’ve always been so good at getting people to talk to me.”

“I noticed that,” he mused, pleased that she herself had broached one of the subjects of her past he had wanted to discuss with her. “I also noted during your background check that you did not finish school.”

“And I bet you’re dying to know why?” she said with a chuckle. Taraji then took a deep, steadying breath and looked up at him. “I know that you can’t have found a whole lot on me during that background check, and having been in a relationship with a military man, I know that it must make you insanely curious. You’re probably wondering if there’s something sinister under all that nothing.”

Dal shook his head, unable to help grinning. “Given that amazingly accurate assessment, Ms. Jorah, then you certainly must understand why such an open history would make one such as myself so curious.”

Taraji nodded. “Almost everyone has some sort of past, and I have almost none,” she said. “The reason for that is that halfway through my first year of post-secondary studies, both my parents fell ill. They had no one else to take care of them—I’m an only child, probably because they had me so late in life. So I left school to look after them—as a ‘proper’ Cardassian daughter should. Caring for my mother and father was a full-time job in and of itself, so that’s why you couldn’t find any sort of history on me. I didn’t have a life outside of that.”

Dal only nodded, filing her words away for later contemplation. His contacts would certainly be able to confirm or deny the story. “Yet you managed to get married,” he observed after a moment. “If you had no life, how did you meet your husband?” He asked the question even though he knew Glinn Jorah had been stationed at the garrison where she'd worked.

“There used to be a garrison stationed about half a kilometer east of our village—the one where we met earlier today,” she said. “My parents died about a year before the war started, within hours of each other, simply unable to battle their illness any longer. I needed money to live on since Father’s pension had been used up buying medicine for him and Mother, so I got a job at the outpost doing laundry and cooking. That’s where I met Vishan. He was one of the few who didn’t seem to mind me asking a million questions.”

She smiled as she spoke of her husband, causing wistful images of his own beloved wife to float through his mind. From the expression she wore, Dal had no doubt that she had cared for Vishan Jorah a great deal.

“Of course, when the war started,” she went on, “the company at the garrison was pulled. Vishan and I had fallen in love by then, and he promised to send me messages as often as he could. But after the first month or so, the messages stopped coming, and when a year had passed and I hadn’t heard from him, I figured it was time to accept that he had moved on or forgotten the little woman waiting for him on a dusty, backwater planet.

“But then he surprised me by showing up at my door one day, swearing he still loved me and expressing his hope that I hadn’t given up on him,” Taraji said with a chuckle. “He wanted to marry me right away, because then he would be able to stay in contact. Apparently the reason I hadn’t heard from him in so long was because the Dominion claimed there had been a security breach—some intelligence had been leaked to the Federation or some such—and communication privileges had been revoked. He told me no one was allowed to contact anyone who wasn’t family.”

Dal nodded slowly, unable to respond for a moment. He knew precisely what “security breach” to which she referred—he had been the cause of it. A young man who was hardly more than a boy had died because of it. It was a time in his recent past which continued to haunt him.

She apparently took his silence as a sign to continue. “So of course I said yes. I’d been miserable without him. He was only on leave for a few days but we made the most of it, and both of us were hoping that the next time we saw one another, I’d be carrying our child.”

Taraji took a shuddering breath then, and looked away into the distant trees and shrubbery. “Unfortunately, neither of those things happened. I hadn’t conceived a child, and I never saw Vishan again. He was killed in action just a few months after we married.”

Dal studied her profile as he said, “I am truly sorry for your loss. It is a tragedy that you were widowed so soon after your marriage.”

She looked down at her hands. “Thank you,” she said. “Anyway, to make a long story short, as I’ve no doubt bored you to tears, despite my overly talkative nature I’ve never been good at handling myself during confrontations. I tend to freeze up and then suffer an anxiety attack when it’s over. That’s what you saw.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Dal mused. “Although you’re wrong about one thing.”

Taraji looked at him. “How so?”

He offered her a small smile. “I was not bored to tears.”

*****

Anger surged, cresting and then crashing like waves upon a shoreline. He liked to think himself always in control, but he could feel that control slipping. He’d allowed it to break through earlier, but now it was back on its leash, though barely.

He had to relax. He needed to maintain his temper, to keep it in check, lest he do something foolish. Or perhaps… He stopped that thought, or tried to, but it would not be contained.

Perhaps it is time to take action, he thought.

And then he smiled, a plan already beginning to form in his mind.

*****

August 17, 2376


To know the enemy, one must understand the enemy.

It was an old adage, tried and true, that he had learned many years ago. He thought it now. In fact, he had thought it several times over the course of the last day, to the point that it had become a mantra. A prayer. A reminder during those moments when he was bored to tears watching. Waiting. Wishing he could just do it already.

But to act in haste would be his downfall. If he wished his plan to succeed, he must have patience—and sadly, he mused, that had never been one of his virtues. He preferred to take care of a problem as soon as he recognized it, not sit back and watch it worsen before his very eyes. This waiting was leaving a bad taste in his mouth. He needed to act soon, before they reached Amleth.

It was a good thing the next phase of his plan would be set in motion that evening.

*****

He needed a workout—something, anything, to take his mind off of things.

Things like small children choking and smart-mouthed non-comms that just made him just want to punch something.

Rokha Tyrel brooded as he walked the corridor, heading for the holodecks. He planned to immerse himself in a program that would require all of his focus, one that would tax his mind as well as his body in the hope that he’d fall asleep tonight and not hear that awful scream echoing through his subconscious as he had the night before. Not see that tiny, lifeless body on the dry, dusty ground. Remembering the previous morning on Leytra always led to other memories, ones that were far more disturbing.

Such as Maiaindra thin and weak with hunger, a condition she would never have been in had it not been for him.

He tried to remind himself, as he did every time the guilt flooded his system, that he had done the right thing by running away with her. He’d more than likely saved her from a life of slavery by stealing her away from their childhood home so that their father couldn’t sell her virginity to the highest bidder. And it wouldn’t stop there—he knew how the Syndicate worked. Once she’d been defiled the first time, she’d have been forced to continue entertaining and pleasuring any man—or woman, for that matter—that paid the right amount of money. It had been that way ever since Orion men had finally sprouted backbones and taken control, not only of their own lives but also of their women. No longer was there a façade of being in charge—now, they most certainly were. Animal women could use their pheromones to control just about anyone, but they didn’t have to have access to them. All a man had to do was inoculate himself against the pheromones or keep the OAW regularly dosed with suppressants to keep that particular little ability in line…

That and a healthy amount of fear.

Oh yeah, he had no doubt whatsoever that his father would have found someone or something that Mai cared deeply about, and threaten to have them or it destroyed in order to keep her compliant. Either that or he’d resort to the age-old form of discipline used for centuries on countless worlds, and she’d be beaten regularly to cow her spirit.

He couldn’t let that happen. Even though he had resigned himself to a life in the Syndicate, he’d seen in his baby sister something he’d never seen in another Orion—hope for something more. Just the possibilities of a life beyond what they knew were enough to prompt him to take flight with her. She was so bright and beautiful, so intelligent and so talented, and so bloody damn cheerful, he simply could not allow the joyous light in her eyes to be extinguished by an unending, miserable life of servitude as a prostitute.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t planned far enough ahead. He’d set out with his sister, who at five was hardly more than a toddler, for a world known to his people as V’ores’katul—a place where nobody with sense would ever go willingly, unless they were running away. Even the Syndicate avoided the planet which to all Orions represented living Hell. He’d thought it the perfect place to hide, and for a time it was. But the funds he’d brought with them were meager, and much of it had gone to securing shelter. He rarely let her leave their hovel of an apartment unless he went along. Only with the money gone so soon and work—honest work—difficult to find, they’d both begun to suffer the pains of hunger.

They weren’t the only ones. So many in the ghetto neighborhood in which they lived were suffering, so what little money he made, he used to buy food which he then distributed to his sister and the other small children whose pleading eyes and gaunt bodies had broken what he’d thought was a unbreakable heart. He himself ate very little, if anything at all. And he was so exhausted from spending most of the day doing odd jobs and starving himself all the time that it was a while before he noticed that Maiandra was losing instead of gaining weight, or even maintaining what she had come with. When he confronted her about it he found out that she, too, had been sharing her food with the other kids in their neighborhood so they’d have at least some small thing to eat.

And then, contrary to his beliefs, their father had found them.

Tyrel was drawn out of his dark reverie by the sudden and unexpected sound of laughter—children’s laughter. As he approached an intersecting corridor, he noted two small Cardassian children, a boy and a girl, barreling around the corner and headed straight for him. When they noticed his tall, bulky frame they stopped up short, the girl running into the boy and causing him to stumble. An instant later, that really odd Cardassian woman—what was her name?—came jogging up behind them.

She, too, stopped in her tracks at the sight of him, a look of mild fright coming into her eyes as she reached down and placed a hand on each child’s shoulder. “My apologies, Commander, if the children got in your way. They just got away from me and I was just trying to catch them because I know they’re not supposed to be running the halls…”

Apparently realizing she was rambling, she suddenly stopped speaking. Tyrel looked at her a moment, glanced down at the silent, wide-eyed children, and then back at the chatty Cardassian they’d picked up at Leytra. “Best get them back where they belong, then,” he said mildly, then stepped around the three and kept going. Over his shoulder he heard one of the children exclaim surprise.

“Miss Jorah, what was that?” said what had to be the boy.

Who was that, Skren,” he heard the woman correct him. “His name is Lt. Commander Tyrel, and he’s an Orion…”

Her voice trailed off as he got further away. Tyrel found himself shaking his head, the corners of his lips twitching as he fought a smile. He growled to himself, feeling pissed that they’d had the ability to draw even the ghost of a smile out of him—they were Cardassians, after all. He was also pissed because he was getting pissed, and that frustrated and angered him all the more.

Damn that Anjali for forcing him to go down to Leytra. If she hadn’t, he wouldn’t be in this mess—in that place where the walls of his prejudice were slowly, painstakingly being broken down. He did not want to care about these people, not even by the tiniest fraction, and he feared he was beginning to do just that. He’d done his damnedest not to let it show, but the thin faces and bony, obviously malnourished bodies of the villagers they’d been handing out combat rations to had begun to wear on him. Not since those days on V’ores’katul had he seen so many people on the brink of starvation, and facing it in the flesh on Leytra had brought back painful memories of a time and place he’d been trying for years to forget. But they kept coming. So many pale, drawn faces with cracked lips and eyes that displayed a mix of mistrust and desperation passed before him. Tyrel, swallowing hard against the memories they invoked, had found himself wondering why these people were apparently being ignored by their own government.

He’d just started chastising himself, asking what did it matter to him if a people he hated were starving, when the young mother had screamed. His head had snapped to the side as a boy who barely looked old enough to walk tumbled from his knees to his back, seemingly in slow motion. Before he even knew what he was doing, he had vaulted the table behind which he stood and was running full tilt to the woman’s side, pushing her out of the way to pick up the tiny child, turning him across his knee to pound his heel against his back as they’d been taught to do in the academy’s First Responder medical course, one taught to all cadets in their first year.

It wasn’t until after the boy had coughed up the bite of food and Dr. Jiraz had taken over that it suddenly hit him what he was doing. He’d stood and walked forcefully back to the table, where the counselor, after a too-short moment of silence, had told him he had done a good thing. He’d brushed off her words, doing his best to reclaim the indifference which he had before that day worn with pride, as he told her it was nothing anyone else wouldn’t have done. Anjali had then admitted her surprise that he’d responded at all, citing his obvious dislike of Cardassians. He recalled the sight of that little boy not moving, the feel of him not breathing as he picked him up off the ground, and for the first time allowed himself to acknowledge how much it had disturbed him to hear his mother say they hadn’t eaten since the day before. He’d seen the same situation so many times on V’ores’katul, and it bothered him just as much now as it had then to know that little kids were going hungry.

“He was just a baby,” he’d said to Anjali, and she had responded with blissful silence, allowing him to finish the morning in peace.

Once they’d returned to the ship, Tyrel had thrown himself into work, and for a few hours he had been able to forget about it. He had distracted himself from disturbing memories and disturbing thoughts until after the end of his shift, when it was all brought rushing back by Loorn’s comments. He’d found himself inexplicably enraged by the Capellan’s snide remark about letting “the little spooner choke”, so much so that he’d thrown him against the wall and gotten in his face. He’d been sorely tempted to punch the master chief as well, but had settled for chewing him out, as he really did not need another assault charge on his record—he had enough of those already from his early days in Starfleet, before he’d learned to curb his temper…and certainly a few over the years since.

Being threatened with a dishonorable discharge had helped him learn to reign his anger in. Starfleet had become a lifeline for him, given him a purpose. It had given him a way of providing a better life for his sister and getting them the hell off of that rotten planet. Serving in Starfleet meant he could leave his demons behind.

Or so he thought.

Leytra had proven to be far too much like V’ores’katul for his liking. It was dirty, dry, and full of people desperate enough to take handouts from someone they didn’t trust for the small luxury of having food to eat. Every time he remembered those faces he felt sick to his stomach, hating both the conditions they were forced to live in and himself for the fact that he was starting to give a damn. He didn’t want to care—they were Cardassians. They were his enemy.

They’re not the enemy anymore,” Anjali’s voice said in his mind.

He snarled out loud, damning her again.

Approaching the holodecks at last, Tyrel rolled his shoulders and his neck, forcefully pushing the memories aside so as to mentally prepare himself for a strenuous (and hopefully exhausting) workout. Stopping in front of Holodeck 1, he was just reaching for the door control when they split open, revealing Columbia’s liaison officer.

Dal blinked, startled. He then drew himself up, took a breath, and nodded his head. “Commander,” he said politely, then without waiting for a response he stepped around Tyrel and walked away. The Orion watched him go, then shook his head and dismissed the entire incident. He stepped into the holodeck, ready to take on whatever beasties the computer randomly threw at him.

*****

Nighttime, he mused, would be the best time to strike. Everyone else would be asleep, and therefore he could go about his business undisturbed.

They wouldn’t even know what had hit them until it was too late.

*****

“Thanks, guys, but I’m good,” Maiandra said to the two servers who had worked with her that night. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Cholo and Sarah both nodded, and relieved of having to stay any later, both made for the club’s exit. It wasn’t quite three in the morning, but the lounge had cleared nearly half an hour ago, and she doubted anyone else would come in this close to closing time. Maiandra had seen no point in keeping the two servers when she could clean the last few tables and the bar herself. Tallying the account could wait until tomorrow, she mused as she ran the sanitizer wand over a table. She was tired, and she just wanted to get this done so she could go to bed.

She had finished the tables and was headed for bar when the portside doors swished open. Maiandra smiled at the sight of Joret Dal, though habit had her also glancing at the antique clock behind the bar. It was a quarter after three.

Well, I suppose getting him one drink while I finish cleaning won’t hurt, she thought as she approached the Cardassian.

“Club’s closed, Joret, but if you don’t mind me cleaning up while we chat, I’ll get you a glass of kanar.”

Dal cleared his throat. “That would…be fine,” he said.

Maiandra frowned. “Are you feeling alright?” she asked.

Her visitor cleared his throat again. “I am quite well, thank you. At least, there’s nothing wrong with me I’m aware of. Why do you ask?”

“You don’t sound quite like yourself.”

He stepped closer, his eyes on her face as he lifted a hand toward it, brushing a stray lock of hair away from her right eye. “Perhaps it is because I am nervous,” Dal said slowly. “You see, you are a very beautiful woman, Mai, and I find myself quite attracted to you.”

Maiandra blinked. Joret had never used her nickname before. Laughing nervously, she turned to step away. “That’s, uh, very flattering of you to say.”

Dal caught her arm as she made to pass him. “We’re alone here. Why don’t you allow me to show you just how much I want you?”

Before she could utter a word of protest, he brought his mouth down on hers painfully. Maiandra instinctively brought her hands up to push him away, but he stilled her by grabbing her upper arms, clamping his hands around her biceps in a tight, aching grip. Adrenaline shot through her at the same time as the thought that he was acting nothing like the soft-spoken, genial man she had come to know over the last few days. With her hands caught between them, she pushed harder, as well as turning her head away.

“Joret, what the hell do you think you’re doing? This isn’t like you. Let me go, you’re hurting me,” she told him.

The hands around her arms tightened and he drew her closer, crushing her against his chest as his lips and tongue trailed along her jaw. He released one of her arms to wrap his own around her, trapping her arms to her sides; with his free hand he reached up and began to paw her breast.

Alright, that was it. Maybe he was already drunk, maybe he’d finally gone crazy—after all, the man had recently lost his wife and his children were missing. But there was no way in hell she was going to stand for being manhandled this way.

“Joret, let me go—now,” she said, struggling to free herself by twisting in his arms. “Let me go and I’ll pretend this didn’t happen.”

His reply was to remove his hand from her breast to slap her. Pain radiated across her cheek, and she was so stunned that for a moment she forgot to breathe.

“You know something? You talk too much,” Dal sneered. Then he held her away from him and shocked her further by slapping her again. Hard enough to make her see stars this time.

Maiandra stumbled from the impact but managed to keep her footing. Finally free to move her hands, she lifted one to cup her stinging face, blinking as she looked up at the man before her. A dark, almost sinister look was upon his face, and she felt her own eyes widen at the lascivious expression in his. She knew with alarming clarity just what he intended to do to her.

Not in this lifetime, she told herself, anger finally overriding shock as she threw the sterilizer wand at Dal and reached down to grab a chair. Her attacker batted the sterilizer away as if it were a fly, and instead of ducking away from the chair when she swung it at him, he grabbed it, shaking it—toying with her. Maiaindra let go of the chair and turned to run.

She didn’t get far. Dal grabbed her by the hair and yanked her backward. Maiandra stumbled and tripped over the chair she’d tried to hit him with, now on its side on the floor. As she fell down, her head hit the edge of the table, hard. Pain raced across her skull once more and she felt blood trickling down her temple. Dal came down with her, grabbing her by the throat as he drew his other hand back, a solid punch landing on the same spot where he'd twice slapped her.

Her head felt like a bomb had exploded inside of it, and Maiandra cried out as her vision tunneled. No, she told herself firmly. Must not pass out! Dal tightened his grip on her throat as he used his other hand to tear at her clothing, easily ripping the thin cotton shirt she wore and exposing her brassiere—which he also quickly destroyed with barely a tug. Straddling her now, he painfully squeezed one pert, green breast while he bent his head down and bit the other.

Fear ratcheted through Maiandra, mixing with the adrenaline already flooding her system. She began struggling harder, trying to kick her legs as she beat at him with her fists. She tried to scream but could not with his hand around her throat, all but cutting off her air. The lack of oxygen had her vision flirting with darkness, and she fought to stay conscious as hard as she fought to free herself. She knew now what it meant when someone said a woman “fought like a banshee,” and that’s what she tried to become, desperate to stop the attack before he got any father. She kicked and pummeled and twisted beneath him, bucking her hips to try and unbalance him, and yet he continued to assault her, alternately squeezing, biting, and licking her exposed breasts. He seemed utterly unfazed by her attempts to throw him off.

And then suddenly he was gone. Maiandra rolled to the side, coughing with the sudden release of pressure on her windpipe, one hand clutching at the tattered remains of her shirt. She glanced up at the sounds of fighting, and had to blink at the sight before her.

There were now two Joret Dals, and they seemed very intent on killing one another.

She blinked, shaking her head lightly, thinking she must have hit her head pretty hard if she were seeing double. Nope, she thought as she looked again. Still two of them. She frowned as she struggled to her feet, to get to the bar and press the security call button as much as to get out of their way. She had the passing thought that one of the Dals seemed much taller than the other but dismissed it, stumbling toward the bar as the men crashed over a table. She slipped behind the bar and slammed her hand on the call button, then reached for her new best friend.

Pulling the ARC out from its resting place, she hefted the heavy weapon, and thumbing the setting up to five, aimed, and demonstrated why she’d named the gun Boomer.

*****

In the Security office, Lt. j.g. Kratul sat forward as the desktop computer began to beep an alarm. Keying the monitor on, he saw that it was coming from Club Ten.

“Wilssson,” he hissed as he stood, calling into the briefing room where several of the security team were working, field-stripping phaser rifles. Grabbing his hand phaser from the desk drawer, the Gorn walked out of the office and into the other room. “Garner, Timmonsss, and Bretka. We have an alarm coming from the club. Let’sss go. Rahl, you have the office.”

The non-com he had assigned to stay in the office nodded and moved past him. The other four, Ensigns Wilson, Timmons and Garner, and fellow j.g. Bretka, all laid the partially assembled rifles in their hands aside and stood, the three Humans and one Tellarite following Kratul out.

They reached Club Ten within minutes of the alarm, and entered to find Maiandra Tyrel bent over the bar with Boomer resting atop it. She was bleeding and bruised, her torn shirt clutched in one hand while her other rested on the trigger of her weapon, which they noticed was pointed at two prone bodies lying atop a broken table.

Bretka took one look at Maiandra and said, “Oh, shit. Tyrel’s gonna be pissed.”

“Lieutenant, ssee to Maiandra’ss injuriess,” Kratul hissed, and tapped his commbadge as he approached the still forms amidst the glass of the table they’d crashed into. “Lt. Kratul to bridge.”

Bridge here, Kratul,” said the watch officer. “Go ahead.”

Kratul paused, his reptilian eyes widening as he looked upon the men on the floor. Both of them were Cardassian—and both of them looked exactly like Commander Joret Dal.

“I need you to alert Captain Regan that we have a sssituation in the club,” he reported, slowly drawing his phaser even though the two Dals were still clearly unconscious, a result of Maiandra’s proficiency with Boomer.

Understood, Lieutenant. Bridge out.

“Lt. Kratul,” Bretka called out.

The Gorn turned, surprised to see concern in the face of his usually snarky partner. “Yesss?” he asked her.

“Mai needs a doctor,” Bretka told him, closing a tricorder she’d procured, probably from the medical kit Maiandra kept behind the bar. “She’s got a concussion, plus multiple lacerations and bruising.”

“Take her to Sssickbay,” Kratul ordered.

“No. I’m not going anywhere until I know who the hell those two slis’jakas really are.”

“Don’t be stupid, Mai,” Bretka snapped lightly.

“No,” the Orion insisted, wincing as she shook her head. “Call the doctor down here if you have to, but I’m not leaving until I know.”

Bretka looked ready to continue arguing with her, but Kratul shook his head minutely, realizing it would be pointless. Maiandra was just as stubborn as Rokha. Grumbling, the Tellarite tapped her commbadge to call for medical assistance.

He glanced down at the men at his feet. “Wilsson,” he said over his shoulder. “Return to Sssecurity and retrieve two pair of resstraintsss. I want these two contained before we transssport them to the brig.”

“Aye, sir,” the young ensign said, quickly departing.

Kratul ordered the remaining two ensigns to secure the doors to the club, before then addressing the intercom to ask an obvious question. “Computer, what iss the location of Joret Dal?”

Commander Joret Dal is in his quarters, the computer replied.

Bretka harrumphed. “The computer must be malfunctioning,” she said with a snort.

“Or he left hiss commbadge behind,” said Kratul. “If indeed one of these are him.”

The Gorn tapped his commbadge again. “Kratul to Sssecurity.”

Rahl here, sir. Go ahead.”

“Send a team to Commander Dal’s quarters. Have him escorted to the club.”

Understood, Lieutenant. Security out.”

Kratul turned to Maiandra. “We will get to the bottom of thisss, Maiandra.”

She stared back at him, bleary-eyed, saying nothing. Wilson returned with the restraints just as Captain Regan and Commander Silmar both arrived. Regan stopped short inside the door, took a look around, and headed straight for Maiandra.

“Sweetheart, are you alright?” she asked softly, her concern evident in her voice as she took off her uniform jacket and handed it to her.

Maiandra blinked as she looked at her, and it was only then that Kratul noticed she had not removed her hand from her weapon. She finally did so now as she reached for the proffered jacket and gingerly put it on, the men in the room respectfully averting their eyes as her torn clothing briefly revealed her bare chest.

“Oh my God,” the captain breathed. “Mai, talk to me, honey. Are you alright? What happened?”

Maiandra shook her head, saying nothing as she zipped the jacket and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I believe Ms. Tyrel is in shock, Captain,” Silmar observed quietly. “Should I call for her brother?”

Are you crazy?!” Maiandra suddenly exclaimed. “He’ll take one look at this fucking mess, at me, and kill all of them! He won’t care which one of them is the real Joret.”

She said those last words as a third Joret Dal was escorted into the club by four more security officers. At the same time, Ensign Saavedra arrived from Sickbay, the gray-skinned R’naari heading right for her patient.

The third Dal took in the scene before him, noting with great surprise the two men now being hauled into chairs by Kratul and Wilson, restraints clapped around their wrists. He then looked over at Maiandra, and his expression darkened.

“Now I understand why I was woken in the middle of the night and escorted here under armed guard,” the Cardassian said tightly. “Would someone care to explain just what the frak is going on?”

Regan glanced at him, a scowl on her usually soft features. “I’d like to know that myself. But the only person who knows is Mai.”

She turned away from him and addressed the nurse. “How is she, Ensign?”

Saavedra turned her silver eyes, now hooded with concern, onto her captain. “Maiandra is very unwell, ma’am. She has no internal injuries, thank the Mother, but does suffer a concussion and multiple lacerations and abrasions. I desire to take her to Sickbay that Dr. Vixak may examine her more thoroughly, but she as yet refuses.”

“Maiandra, sweetie, you need to let the doctor have a look at you,” Regan said.

The Orion ignored her, her eyes having fallen on Dal the moment he was brought inside. Her gaze remained fixed on his even as she stepped around Saavedra, Bretka, and Regan, walking out from behind the bar completely and coming to a stop in front of him. She studied his face for a long moment, then without warning reached up to his collar and grabbed what turned out to be a thin gold chain, pulling it out from under his shirt. Dal stood stock still and let her do it.

“This is the real one,” she said at last, letting the golden pendant on the chain fall to Dal’s chest. “He told me he never takes that necklace off. It belonged to his wife, and he won’t remove it until he can give it to their daughter.”

“Your confidence in his innocence is admirable, Ms. Tyrel,” Silmar said. “But we will not know for certain until he is cleared by medical examination.”

Maiandra turned to the Vulcan. “I can tell you one thing for sure. No, make that two things,” she said as she walked over to where the still unconscious combatants were slumped over in chairs. “This one,” she said, pointing at the one on the right, “didn’t attack me. He actually pulled the other one off, and they fought.”

She turned to the one on the left, and suddenly kicked his leg. “He attacked me. He tried to rape me. He put his filthy mouth and hands on me and tried to take what wasn’t his!”

With each word spoken, her voice rose in pitch and her leg lashed out to kick the man, who began to groan as if in pain. Silmar stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her, forcing her away. She struggled only a little, sagging in his arms as her ire deflated as suddenly as it had risen. Captain Regan had come around the bar by then, and she took the younger woman in her arms, cradling her as her chest heaved with a clear effort to keep from sobbing.

The captain held her that way for a long moment, Maiandra’s hands clenched tightly on her arms, then asked her softly, “What was the other thing, hon? You said here were two things you could tell us for sure.”

Maiandra took a heaving breath as she stood back, her eyes drifting once more to the man on the right. “He’s too tall to be Joret,” she said simply.

“I have made note of the commander’s height as well, Captain,” Silmar said then. “Even in his current slumped position, I can say with certainty that Ms. Tyrel is correct—the man on the right is several centimeters taller.”

“Not many that tall on this ship,” Regan agreed. “Saavedra, scan them all.”

The R’naari complied, coming out from behind the bar with her medical tricorder already in hand. She stopped first at the one Maiandra had claimed was the real Dal. “Whether he is the commander or not I cannot say at present, but he is Cardassian.”

She turned away then and walked toward the two in the chairs. She scanned the one on the left, whom Maiandra had declared her attacker. “He is Cardassian as well,” she informed them, then turned to the third man. She stepped back in shock when her tricorder trilled.

“Captain, this man is Capellan.”

Captain Regan sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of,” she said.

“But…if he’s Capellan, who is he really? And why does he look like Commander Dal?” asked Ensign Wilson.

“Let’s find out,” Regan said. “Kratul, search him. If my suspicions are correct, you should find a small metallic disk attached to his person somewhere.”

Silmar turned to her as Kratul went to work. “Captain, am I correct in assuming you believe he is wearing a holo-cloak?”

Regan nodded. “We’ve had one in the security locker for a couple of months now. If that’s who I think it is, he could easily have hacked the security code and stolen it.”

Her first officer nodded. “I do not doubt you are correct.”

“I have found the disssk, Captain,” Kratul said then.

“There’s a button on the front surface. Push it.”

Kratul complied with her order, and a moment later, they all saw the Cardassian face dissolve like a hologram on the holodeck, revealing Master Chief Loorn. The Gorn pulled the illegal device from Loorn’s belt and handed it to Regan.

The real Dal snorted derisively. “Why am I not frakking surprised?”

“What the hell was he thinking?” Ensign Timmons said, speaking up for the first time.

“Isn’t it obvious, boy?” Dal said angrily. “He came here disguised as me at a time of night when Maiandra or one of the other ladies on the lounge staff were bound to be working alone, ostensibly to implicate me in an assault against their person. Clearly he was not the only one to have that frelling idea.”

“Why are they still knocked out?” asked Saavedra.

It was Bretka who answered, and no one was remiss to the note of pride in the Tellarite’s voice as she said, “Mai had Boomer set on five.” More than one of the security officers chuckled upon hearing that.

“They will not wake up for at leassst an hour, Captain,” Kratul put in, “unlesss we wake them chemically.”

Regan looked at Silmar, the two of them appearing to share silent communication—or actually doing so, as they were both telepaths. “Saavedra, do you have any stimulants in your medical kit?”

Saavedra nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, and went to retrieve the hypospray from her kit, which lay open on the bar. Selecting one of the tubules in the kit she loaded it and returned. “Which do you desire I awaken first?” she asked.

The captain stepped closer, Silmar at her side. Kratul and Wilson had by this time both drawn their phasers. “Wake them both,” Regan ordered.

Wordlessly, Saavedra pressed the hypospray first to Loorn’s neck, and then to that of the attacker, then quickly retreated. Both men were slow to come around, blinking and shaking their heads. Loorn went to raise his hands to his bruised face and stopped, suddenly realizing that his hands were cuffed. He looked around at the gathered faces of security officers, Maiandra, Dal, and his captain.

Apparently also realizing that they could see who he was, he looked imploringly at Maiandra. “Mai, I swear, I didn’t come here to hurt you.”

“Then why did you?” Captain Regan asked.

Loorn flicked hateful eyes between the man at his side and his doppelganger across the room. “These fucking Cardassians,” he spat. “We shouldn’t be here helping them rebuild their society—let them all die for all I care. Our own people need us more, and sure as frell deserve our help more than these things.”

“That is not an answer to the captain’s question,” Silmar pointed out.

Loorn looked at Maiandra again. “Mai, I swear… all I would have done was lock you in the supply closet. I just wanted that bastard arrested and thrown off the ship—I would never have hurt you!”

“Only my friends call me Mai,” she replied coldly. “You’re no longer one of them.”

“How can you say that? I saved you from this piece of shit!” he cried, jerking his hands toward the man at his side.

“Oh, I’m grateful for that, believe me,” Maiandra replied. “But you still came here with the intention of doing me harm. You might have thought you weren’t hurting me, Loorn, but I don’t see kidnapping as harmless, and that’s what locking me in the supply closet would have amounted to.”

“Capellan idiot,” said the attacker snidely. “You’re obviously not intelligent enough to have come up with a more clever plan.”

You think what you did to me was clever you son of a bitch?!” Maiandra screamed, lunging at him. Silmar grabbed her again before she could get close enough.

The attacker laughed at her as she struggled to free herself from the Vulcan’s grip. “Come now, child. I was doing you a favor—reminding the little whore that she’s nothing more than a whore.”

At those words Maiandra broke free from Silmar, and had thrown a right hook square at the man’s jaw before she was subdued again, this time by both Silmar and Bretka.

“Mai, believe me, sister, I sympathize. He deserves that and worse,” the Tellarite said. “But we’ll never get answers out of him if you kill him.”

“Who are you?” Captain Regan demanded. “And don’t tell me you’re Joret Dal, because there are two of you in this room and I already know one of you is lying.”

The attacker ignored her, instead turning his gaze upon the man whose face he shared. “Don’t you know who I am by now?” he asked. “Or are you as pathetically dimwitted as this fellow?”

Loorn lunched out of his chair, but was thrown back into it forcefully by Kratul, who then planted a hand firmly on his shoulder. “Sssit ssstill, Loorn.”

The Capellan grumbled incoherently as the third Dal studied the attacker. “Solonius? Is that you?” he queried.

Maiandra’s attacker laughed mirthlessly. “Bravo, Commander,” he said. “I would applaud your incredible deductive skills, but I’m afraid my hands are tied.”

Dal’s expression darkened considerably. “Why, Solonius? Why pretend to be me and force yourself on this innocent girl? What purpose does it serve?”

Solonius Flavan reached up—slowly, as every phaser in the room was now trained on him—and pulled at his shirt collar. He untucked what appeared to be a flap of skin, and pulling it up, revealed that he had been wearing a mask, which after its removal he cast at Dal’s feet.

“For one, it would have been fun—I’ve never had an Orion Animal Woman before, and I’ve heard they like it rough,” he said. “For another, I had hoped that when her brute of a brother found out that you had raped her he would kill you. He, in turn, would be cast out of the service in disgrace, if he were not imprisoned for life having been charged with your murder. Getting rid of you and humiliating a Starfleet officer all at once would have been quite the personal achievement.”

He leaned forward then, and Wilson stepped closer. Flavan shook his head at the young officer, chuckling, before returning his gaze to Dal.

“But you still don’t know who I am, Commander,” he said snidely. “Study my face, closely. Take a good, long, hard look at me—does nothing at all seem familiar?”

Dal stepped even closer, studying the man who had tried to frame him for rape, his eyes trailing every boney ridge he bore. Then suddenly he drew in a sharp breath and stood straight.

“Torat Seris,” he breathed.

“Oh yes, Commander. Torat Seris—that young, impressionable boy who died in your place, screaming a confession he had no need to give.”

“Who was this Torat Seris to you, Flavan?” Captain Regan asked.

Flavan's hate-filled eyes remained fixed on Dal as he said, “Torat Seris, my dear Captain Regan, was my only son.”

All eyes turned to Joret Dal.

“Commander, what do you know about Torat Seris?” Captain Regan asked.

“Do you recall my telling you the day we met that I was briefly relieved of my freedom during the war?” he asked. Regan nodded. “In 2374, some sensitive information was leaked to the Federation. My unit was…detained…as one of us was believed to be the traitor. Each of us was tortured mercilessly by the Dominion in an effort to discover the identity of the Alliance’ betrayer, and more than one of my men died from their wounds.

“And then Gil Torat Seris confessed. He was not responsible for the crime of which we had all been accused—he just wanted the pain and suffering to end. He had been promised his life would be spared if he admitted his guilt. We all were. Sadly, he was foolish enough to believe them, and following his confession he was summarily executed,” Dal said quietly.

Flavan launched himself out of his chair, his hands extended as if to grab Dal by the throat. He was caught before he could make contact and forced back into his chair by Wilson and two other security officers. “If my son was a fool it was because he believed in you!” the prisoner raged. “It was your responsibility as his commanding officer to protect him—you should have confessed, that your men and my son might be spared.”

“I had no intention of confessing to a crime I did not commit,” Dal lied smoothly. Even now, he knew, he could not admit that he had been the so-called traitor—to do so would put him in the crosshairs of any number of assassins among his people, or simply anyone looking to make a name for themselves by taking out a highly decorated Cardassian officer.

Besides, he still didn’t consider it treason. Then, as now, he believed his actions just, and in the best interests of Cardassia.

Captain Regan and Commander Silmar glanced at one another, and then Regan looked to Kratul. “I’ve heard enough. Get them both down to the brig.”

“Yesss, Captain,” the Gorn lieutenant replied, motioning to his men. The group of nine security officers surrounded Loorn and Flavan and herded the two out of Club Ten.

Regan then turned her countenance to Dal. “I’m sure you would like me to apologize for the armed escort, Commander, but I won’t. It had to be done. We had to know for sure which one of the three of you was the real you.”

Dal’s eyes, which had been looking at Maiandra, flicked in her direction. “I understand that caution was warranted. Wouldn’t be the first time I was accused of something I didn’t do, and chances are it will not be the last. I only regret that such was even necessary.”

“Captain, now that the interrogation is over, I must insist on escorting Maiandra to Sickbay,” said Saavedra, who had remained behind with her patient.

Despite being clearly unsteady on her feet, Maiandra once again shook her head. “No,” she said. “I know that I need to see the doctor, but I can’t yet. I have to tell my brother what happened.”

“At risk of sounding indelicate, my dear, do you really think it wise to allow Lt. Commander Tyrel to observe you in your present condition?” Dal said slowly, referring to the blood and bruises that stained her face. “Given his predilection for anger where you are concerned, I daresay he will not be pleased.”

Maiandra chuckled without humor. “That’s putting it mildly. But if I wait any longer than I already have, Rokha’s reaction will be that much worse. At least here there’s already a mess to be cleaned up, and he won’t break anything that can’t be replaced.”

“Far be it for me to condone property damage, Captain, but Ms. Tyrel has a valid point,” Silmar pointed out. “He is not unlike my own son when it comes to the safety of his sister, as you well know.”

Regan flashed her first officer a knowing look. “Yes. Tahir and Rokha should become bowling partners,” she mused. With a sigh, she looked at Maiandra. “If you won’t go to Sickbay now, then go later. Please.”

Maiandra nodded. “I will, Captain. You have my word.”

Saavedra shook her head, her silver eyes reproachful as she said, “If you will not convey yourself to Sickbay immediately, then please allow me to treat your wounds. The dermal regenerator should take care of the bruising, the cut on your temple, and the bite marks…elsewhere.”

Dal scowled. “Elsewhere?” he asked. “Wait, is that why you are wearing what I suspect is Captain Regan’s uniform jacket? What did that kraet-worm do to you? I’ll see that he is drawn and quartered for this!”

“Had my brother come in instead of Loorn, I daresay he’d have already been torn apart,” Maiandra mused.

“Commander, Solonius Flavan will be prosecuted for his crime in a Federation court. There will be no drawing and quartering on this ship,” Regan said sternly.

He scoffed. “Really? If what she says is true, you may yet have to arrest Mr. Tyrel for murder. He’s like to want to kill Flavan. I want to kill him.”

“You let me worry about Tyrel, Commander.”

Dal nodded acquiescence. “Very well, then. As I am no longer a suspect, then I will happily retire back to my quarters. Though it promises to be entertaining, I’ve no real desire to watch an Orion in a rage tear this lovely establishment apart.” With that, he turned and headed for the exit.

Maiandra stepped toward him, calling out his name. “Joret, wait,” she said, and when he turned back to face her, she drew a deep breath. “You were never a suspect. Not really. Not to me. Yes, for a few moments I thought that Flavan person was you, but that was only before he forced himself on me. Once he did that, I knew it couldn’t really be you.”

He kept his expression neutral as he regarded her. “Your belief in my innocence is…much appreciated,” he said slowly. “Though now I find myself curious enough to ask what made you think so?”

Stepping closer, Maiandra offered him a weak smile. “Because you’re my friend, and I know you wouldn’t hurt me.”

For a moment, Dal could only stare in silence. Maiandra took that moment to press the commbadge on Regan’s jacket. “Maiandra to Rokha.”

Big brother here. What’s the matter, sis, you can’t sleep either?

“Something like that. Listen, I need you to come down to Club Ten. We need to talk.”

They could hear the concern in his voice as Tyrel replied, “Mai, are you alright? Was there a fight in the club? Are you hurt?

Maiandra visibly shuddered, but kept her voice even as she said, “Just come down here, okay? I’ll explain when you get here.”

I’m already on my way.”

*****

When Rokha Tyrel walked into Columbia’s lounge, a number of things happened in rapid succession:

He noted the presence of Joret Dal, which irritated him.

He noted the presence of Captain Regan and Commander Silmar, which intrigued him.

He noted the presence of Saavedra, the senior nurse, and that concerned him.

He noted the broken glass and toppled furniture, which confused and alarmed him.

And then he noticed his sister was wearing a uniform jacket, which must be the captain’s as she wasn’t wearing hers. He noticed the left side of her face was sporting a large, dark green bruise that appeared to be slowly fading and that her eye was partially swollen shut. He noticed that blood had run down the right side of her face from a wound on her temple…

…and that just pissed him off.

The five other people in the room noted that his usual jade green skin had darkened to a deep emerald, and his voice when he spoke was one of quiet, tranquil fury.

“What. The. FUCK?”

That was all he said—was all he had to say for them to know his already immeasurable rage was clearly on a tightly held leash. So it was with deliberate slowness that Maiandra slid off the barstool on which she had perched while Saavedra had treated her wounds as best she could with a basic field kit. “Rokha, try to remain calm, please.”

“Calm?!” he exclaimed, stepping toward her. “You call me down here in the middle of the frakking night and I find you bruised and bleeding and you tell me to remain calm?!” He then gestured toward the broken table. “What happened, Mai? Tell me who did this to you and I promise he won’t get an hour older.”

“Commander Tyrel, you will not retaliate for what happened here tonight,” Captain Regan said sternly.

“Oh, the hell I won’t!” he retorted. “As soon as you tell me that slis’jaka’s name I’m gonna find him and rip his fucking spine out through his throat!”

Silmar, who was already standing, took a step forward. “Mr. Tyrel, you are speaking to your commanding officer, and your tone is insubordinate. Any action you take against the individual who attacked your sister will result in charges being brought against you, and quite possibly a dishonorable discharge from Starfleet.”

“Don’t patronize me, Vulcan,” Tyrel snapped angrily. “Do you really think I’m going to give a flying frak if I get kicked out of Starfleet for killing the son of a whore who dared put his hands on my sister?”

He turned to Maiandra again. “What happened, Mai? Who did this to you?”

Maiandra shook her head. “I won’t say his name. I don’t even want to say it.”

“You know I’m going to find out anyway.”

“Rokha, I won’t have you ruining your career and destroying your conscience by committing murder,” the younger Tyrel insisted.

Her brother’s laugh was harsh. “Oh, believe me, little sister, my conscience would not be affected by snapping that bastard’s neck. Look, you either tell me yourself or I find out on my own. Either way, someone’s gonna pay for this.”

“Solonius Flavan attempted to rape your sister and frame me for the crime, thus setting you up for my murder,” Dal said flatly.

“Commander Dal!” Regan exclaimed, turning on the Cardassian with an angry expression.

“Captain, I see no point in withholding information he’s only going to discover anyway,” Dal said calmly. “Best let him rage about now and get it over with.”

“He’s one of yours, isn’t he?” Tyrel asked darkly. “And everyone wonders why I frelling hate Cardassians.”

“Now you’re just being racist,” Dal snapped. “It’s pointless to hate an entire species based on the actions of one man.”

“And what about the actions of millions, hmm?” Tyrel fired back. “Is it not okay for me to hate every single one of you for what you did during the war?”

“Not every single Cardassian took part in the war, Commander.”

Tyrel scowled darkly, ignoring the comment. “So where is he? In the brig?” he asked.

“Solonius Flavan is in the brig, yes,” Regan began, “but you are not to go down there, Commander. That is a direct order.”

The Orion looked at his sister, a pained expression ghosting across his features ever so briefly, before being once again replaced with anger. “Captain, please. Five minutes—just give me five minutes alone with him. I won’t even kill the fucker, you have my word. I’ll just make him wish he was dead.”

Regan shook her head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Rokha. Believe it or not, I understand where you’re coming from. You’re entirely justified in your outrage. If someone hurt one of my girls the way Flavan tried to hurt Mai, I’d want him dead too.”

“They why not let me—”

“Because it’s not up to me to decide his fate,” she interrupted, holding her hand up to stop his protest. “And it’s not up to you. Like it or not, we do not live in an ‘eye for an eye’ society. We’re supposed to be above such brutality, no matter how justified it may seem.”

Tyrel growled, rubbing a hand roughly over his bald skull. “Then what am I supposed to do now? All I can think about when I look at my baby sister bruised and bleeding over there because some worthless piece of shit tried to force himself on her is how much I want to kill the bastard. All I want to do is break something—preferably his frelling face.”

“If you ask me, what you should be more concerned with is taking care of your sister,” Dal remarked. “You came in here and asked what happened, who did it, but you have yet to actually ask Maiandra how she is doing. You’ve made this entire incident all about you and your desire to exact revenge, when in fact it is she who is the victim in all of this.”

The tactical officer’s expression grew thunderous, and he stalked toward the Cardassian with the clear intention of starting a fight. Maiandra cried out as he took a swing at Dal, which was deftly deflected by Commander Silmar. He took Tyrel’s wrist in his hands and effortlessly twisted, pivoting and forcing the younger man off balance, throwing him down across the bar with his arm pulled tightly back behind him.

“Commander, that was uncalled for,” he said calmly, holding Tyrel flat against the bar’s surface. “However tactless he may have been, Mr. Dal has said nothing that is not true. Now, I will release you, but only if I have your word you will not attempt to strike him again.”

“Fine!” he roared angrily, and the Vulcan XO slowly let him up and stepped away. As he stood straight he stared daggers at Dal, then turned on his heel and stalked over to the nearest table. As the base of the table was bolted to the floor and the glass top was fixed to the top of the base, he would not be able to simply heave it—the table that was broken had been fallen into and the glass top partially shattered, but the base itself was still standing. Tyrel picked up a chair and, swinging it in a wide arc, slammed it down on the tabletop. The glass immediately shattered, though he was already on his way over to the next table to give it the same treatment. And then the next.

And the next.

By the time he stopped, chest heaving from exertion, there were but two unbroken tables. Tyrel walked over to one of them and made to lift his makeshift sledgehammer once more, but found he could not. Heaving the chair with which he had destroyed five more of the lounge’s eight tables, he simply stood there, shaking.

“I should have been here,” he said after a long moment of silence. “This never would have happened.”

His sister stepped closer to him. “Rokha, you can’t blame yourself for not being here. This wasn’t your fault.”

“It is my job to keep you safe,” Tyrel said in return.

“But you can’t be with me every hour of every day,” Maiandra countered. “We’ve been over this I don’t know how many times since the day we ran away from home. You have your own life to live, Rokha.”

He turned to look at her then, his expression crestfallen, and in a heartbeat he was in front of her and wrapping his arms around her. “You are my life, little sister.”

She curled her arms around his waist and sighed. “I know.”

Drawing a ragged breath, Tyrel stood back and studied her face. “Much as I loath to admit it, the Cardie’s right—I haven’t asked how you are. I’m sorry. It’s just that all I could think about when I saw this,” he said, gently tracing the bruise on her left cheek, “was how much I wanted to beat the living shit out of whoever hurt you. I could only think of how much they deserved to pay for what they’d done, because nobody lays a finger on my baby sister and gets away with it.”

He examined the bruise again, then gently turned her head to the side to see where she had struck her head, which was also bruised, though the wound had been closed. The blood on her face was now dry. When he released her chin she looked back at him again, and he asked softly, “How are you doing, Mai?”

“I’m in a little pain, and Saavedra says I have a concussion,” she said. “They want me to go to Sickbay.”

“Well, why didn’t you?”

“Because I didn’t want you to hear about this from someone else—it needed to come from me.”

“Were you afraid I’d kill the messenger?” he asked.

“I knew it was a possibility,” she replied.

Tyrel shook his head and drew her to his broad chest again, looking over her head at Captain Regan. “Captain, I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “But she’s my leh’mhin. She’s the only family I’ve got.”

Regan nodded lightly. “I know, Commander,” she replied. “And like I told you, I would feel the same as you do. But what makes us better than men like Solonius Flavan is not sinking to their level. If he’d been successful in framing Commander Dal and you’d killed him, or you kill Flavan for this, then you get discharged and imprisoned for murder, and Flavan wins either way. Be stronger than he gives you credit for.”

The Orion was silent as he regarded her for several seconds, then he said, “I still want him to pay for this. And I’m not talking imprisonment in some cushy penal settlement like New Zealand—that slis’jaka doesn’t deserve to get off that easy.”

Silmar turned to their captain, saying, “There are a number of penal facilities across the Alpha and Beta Quadrants to which we could recommend Flavan be conveyed that would make the many years of his incarceration…uncomfortable.”

“Rura Penthe comes to mind,” spoke up Dal. “Far be it for me to give the Klingons any credit, but they certainly know how to create a hospitable environment for their convicted felons.”

Regan suddenly coughed, turning her head to the side as she only barely concealed a laugh. Saavedra was biting her lower lip, and Silmar regarded the Cardassian with one eyebrow raised.

Tyrel felt Maiandra smiling against his chest, and he admitted to himself that the idea of sending his sister’s would-be rapist to a hellhole like Rura Penthe was fairly amusing.

“Come on now,” he said to Maiandra. “Let’s get you to Sickbay.”

Maiandra only nodded, and kept one arm around his waist as they headed for the exit. Saavedra retrieved her medical kit from the bar and followed.

“Commander Tyrel.”

Columbia’s tactical officer grudgingly halted, and turned slowly to face their liaison officer. “What?” he snapped.

“I wanted to tell you that despite what my people’s history has shown, I would never force myself on anyone,” Dal said slowly. “Rape is a vile, despicable action, one of the worst things a man can do to a woman—second only to taking her life. I wanted to tell you that I would never hurt Maiandra by raising a hand to her.”

Tyrel scowled. “Give me one good reason why I should believe you, Cardassian.”

Dal’s gaze fell to the young woman around whose shoulders Tyrel had protectively placed his arm. When he first met Maiandra, her beauty and her spirit had reminded him of his late wife, but seeing her like this, she looked less like Sarka and so much more like Navine, his daughter.

He raised his eyes once more to look into a set of dark green orbs that continued to regard him suspiciously. “Because when I first came aboard she was kind to me, no questions asked. Your sister is the only friend I have here.”

*****

After taking Maiandra to Sickbay, where Dr. Vixak, their Bzzit Khaht assistant medical officer, treated her wounds and erased all physical evidence of Solonius Flavan’s attack, Tyrel took his sister to her quarters. There he sat with her and talked with her, keeping her awake for four hours as Vixak had told him to. They talked about every insignificant thing that came to mind except the attack, and by the time the four hours was up, Mai was more than ready to go to sleep. She had already showered and changed into clean clothes, her ruined ones tossed into the recycler, and was out like a light as soon as her head hit the pillow.

As soon as he was sure she was asleep, Tyrel leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her brow, then he rose and left. He had one place he needed to go before he could even think of going back to his own rooms.

When he walked into the Security complex some minutes later, the presence of Ryan Bennington told him that he’d missed the start of Alpha Shift. The Marine stood and blocked his path toward the holding cells.

“I can’t let you go back there, Tyrel. Captain’s orders,” he told him. “You’re not even supposed to be here.”

“I know, and as much as I’d love to cut the fucker’s still-beating heart out with a spoon, I’m not here to kill him,” Tyrel replied. “Just let me say one thing to him, and I’ll leave.”

“Look, I get it man,” Bennington said. “Mai’s not even my sister, and I wanted to beat the shit out of Flavan and Loorn as soon as Kratul told me what happened. But it’s my ass if you go back there and start something.”

Tyrel frowned. “Loorn? What the hell does he have to do with this?”

A look of Oh crap, I said too much came into Bennington’s eyes, but he drew a breath and answered, “Apparently, the soon-to-be former Master Chief broke into our security locker and stole the holo-cloak that Commander Silmar’s son left with us back in June. I’m still looking into how the hell he managed to do that. Seems he also had a frame-job in mind, though his piss-poor plan was to blame Commander Dal for locking Maiandra in Club Ten’s supply closet. According to the incident report, he swore he had no intention of hurting her, and when he saw Flavan on top of Mai, he hauled him off and the two started to rumble. They broke a table before Mai took ‘em both out with Boomer.”

Tyrel snorted. “I broke five because Captain Regan won’t let me kill the hri’gun. No doubt my pay’s gonna be docked for that.”

“Not to mention Mai will make you clean it all up—by yourself.”

The Orion flashed a brief grin, as no doubt his crewmate was right. “Benny, I don’t want to get you in trouble, but I need to see him just once. You can go with me if you want—keep your phaser trained on me the whole time if it makes you feel better. Just let me go back there and say one thing to him.”

Bennington studied his face for a long moment, sighed, and then nodded. Retrieving his phaser from the desk—he was taking Tyrel at his word—he gestured for him to follow. “You’ve got two minutes, man, and then you get the hell out. Don’t frak up my day anymore than it already has been by making me shoot you.”

Tyrel said nothing as they approached the monitoring station, where Ensign Kayleigh Archer was seated. She stood at the sight of her superiors.

“At ease, Ensign,” Bennington told her. “We won’t be but a minute.”

Tyrel looked over at the Capellan he had once called friend, his expression changing to one of disgust when he called out to him, repeating his claim that he’d had no intention of causing harm to Maiandra.

He wanted to tell Loorn to go to hell, but given that his intervention had averted a worse attack on his sister, he said, “You have my thanks for saving Mai, but that’s all you’re gonna get from me. I got nothing else to say to you.”

He then tuned out Loorn’s pleas to listen, and instead directed his focus on the Cardassian staring insolently back at him from the rear of the adjoining cell.

“Did you come to exact your vengeance on me for trying to mount your whore of a sister? That’s all her kind are good for, you know. Spreading their legs for anyone willing to pay their price,” Flavan needled him.

It took all of his self-control to contain the rage that boiled in his blood at the mere sight of the man, and Tyrel was not remiss to the fact that Bennington now stood next to him, one hand on his arm.

“Forget it, Tyrel. Don’t let the bastard bait you like this,” he said.

Tyrel said nothing for a moment even as Flavan laughed at the Marine’s words. Then he said simply, “Five minutes.”

“Five minutes for what, hmm? Is that how long I have to live now?”

“No,” Tyrel said slowly. “If I had it my way, you’d already be in pieces in the morgue. But my captain is a principled woman, for which you should be thankful.”

Flavan scoffed. “Is that so? And I suppose you are going to enlighten me as to why?”

“I asked for five minutes alone with you,” Tyrel replied. “Even promised I wouldn’t kill you if she’d just give me five minutes. But the truth is, I probably would have broken that promise in less time than that.”

“Oh, I am so frightened by the big, bad Orion that I am shaking,” the prisoner sneered.

Tyrel’s expression grew thunderous, and his voice was deadly calm as he said, “You should be scared, Flavan. Because if Captain Regan were less principled, and had given me those five minutes, I guarantee you wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds. You think about how quickly your life would have been over as you live what's left of it, and remember that you have a Starfleet officer to thank for the fact that you still draw breath.

With that, he turned and walked stiffly out of the room, before he lost control of himself and gave Bennington an excuse to shoot him.

*****

Bennington followed Tyrel out of the detention center and back into his office. He kept a wary eye on the larger man as he stopped just past the desk, his head hanging down and his hands in fists at his sides.

His whole body visibly shaking.

“Tyrel?” the security chief ventured cautiously, addressing the higher-ranking officer by name, as a friend, in the hope that it would help keep him calm.

“This is one of those few times,” the Orion began slowly, “that almost wish I hadn’t joined Starfleet. If I hadn’t been accepted into the academy, I might never have learned to control my temper. I wouldn’t have learned to live by a higher principle than kill or be killed. And that smug son of a whore would already be dead for what he did to my sister.”

Tyrel turned to face Bennington. “I could do it, you know. Kill him. And I can say to you as I look into your eyes, Benny, that I would not feel the slightest bit of guilt for it. I don’t know why he wanted to frame his fellow Cardie for what he tried to do. I don’t give a shit why. All I know is that frakking piece of scum in there tried to force himself on my sister. All I know is that he deserves to die a slow and painful death, a death I would happily deliver him to. But I can’t friggin’ do it, and he gets to sit there and laugh in my face and call my sister whore after attempting to rape her. And he’s gonna get away with it.”

Bennington shook his head. “No he’s not, Tyrel. Let the asshole laugh all he wants—we’ll see how long he keeps laughing when he gets his reptilian ass shipped off to someplace cold and miserable, where he’ll spend the next 20 years or more. Dude, we’ve got the sensor record from the club. It’s…it’s brutal, but it’s proof enough to put his ass away. You don’t have to worry about that punk piece of shit anymore. He’s gonna get what’s coming to him.”

Tyrel took several deep breaths and nodded slowly. “There’s a part of me, probably the part that’s been conditioned by all these years in Starfleet, that knows a lifetime in prison is the way to go. That it makes me more civil than him, and less of a monster. But Mai’s my baby sister. She’s all the family I got, and I will never stop feeling responsible for her or protective of her. And that part of me wants to rip that fucker’s head off for what he did.”

He stopped and blinked then, as if a thought had just occurred to him. “How the hell did he impersonate Dal anyway? They look nothing alike.”

Bennington sighed as he moved to sit behind his desk. “He wore a mask. Apparently he’s got a background in computer programming, as he said he fiddled with the holodeck controls and made it there, after which his plan was to recycle it. He didn’t want to do it with the replicator in his quarters because he didn’t want it…traced back to him…” The Marine’s voice trailed off when he saw that Tyrel had begun to shake again.

“What is it?” he asked.

“The holodeck, you say?” Tyrel queried.

Bennington nodded. “Yeah—Holodeck One, actually. Why?”

“Son of a bitch!” Tyrel boomed, pounding his fist on the desk. “I saw him! I used that same holodeck last night for a workout. Dal was coming out of it as I was going in—at least I thought it was him. I bet it was that fucker Flavan I saw last night. Damn it! If I had known I coulda stopped him from—”

“Tyrel, how could you have known, man?” Bennington countered. “Sure, Flavan’s made no secret of how much he hates the Cardassian military and Dal in particular since he came aboard, but who could have ever guessed he’d try to frame the guy for rape? Or you for murder? We all thought he was a jackass, not a psycho.”

Tyrel shook his head, still fuming as he abruptly waved goodbye and left the security office. He headed for the nearest turbolift and took it to his own deck, where in his quarters he changed into workout clothes again, thinking the physical exertion would help relieve him of the pent-up rage. But he’d go to the gym this time and not the holodecks. It’d be a long time before he could even go near the holodeck without thinking of how if he’d only known it was Flavan and not Dal, he coulda stopped the attack on his sister before it even started.

The moment he walked into the gym, the few inside took one look at him and appeared to collectively decide to give him a wide berth. They stayed out of his way and didn’t bother to talk to him, which suited Tyrel just fine. He was in no mood to be conversational. He had his sister’s attack, his desire to exact revenge on her behalf because it was his job as her brother, and his lack of sleep yet being too wired to do so all plaguing him. He was grateful that in light of what had happened, Captain Regan had relieved him from having to go down to Amleth in a few hours with the relief teams, as his patience with Cardassians had already been worn out. Keeping him away from Cardassians until he had time to cool off was simply for the best.

After spending an hour or so on the weight machines, Tyrel gave up on his workout—it wasn’t really wearing him out as he had hoped, same as the one last night hadn’t done the trick. Knowing that Bennington was right and that Maiandra would make him clean up the mess he’d made by himself, after another quick trip to his quarters for a sonic shower and a change of clothes, he headed to Club Ten to start clearing up the mess from the broken tables.

When he got there, he was startled to find new tables stacked by the bar, ready to be put in place, and Joret Dal in between a couple of the broken ones with a broom in his hand.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.

Dal continued sweeping the broken glass, and said over his shoulder, “We’ve still a few hours before we reach Amleth. I figured I would save the lounge staff the trouble and Maiandra the grief of having to clean up this mess. Although Flavan, Loorn, and yourself are the culprits, Commander, I do feel a sense of responsibility for what happened here this morning.”

Surprised to hear the words coming out of his own mouth, Tyrel asked him, “Why would you feel responsible for those morons?”

Dal stopped then and turned to him. “Flavan had a son, who was a member of my unit during the war—I was the boy’s commanding officer. He died after confessing to a crime he did not commit, and Flavan believes I should have taken the blame instead. That is why he tried to frame me. He believed that by enraging you to murder me for a crime I did not commit, it would serve as justice for his son’s death. Your friend Loorn, on the other hand, I admit was simply a misguided fool who let his prejudice blind him to the harm he could have caused your sister. He too, wanted to frame me for the crime, as he, too, wanted to get rid of me.”

The Orion crossed his arms over his chest as he regarded him. “Damn. So many people wanting you gone. Must make you feel so welcome—bet you make a lot of friends wherever you go.”

Dal chuckled mirthlessly and turned back to his task. “Hardly, Commander.”

After a moment of silence, Tyrel glanced toward the new tables waiting to be installed. “Where’d the new tables come from?”

The Cardassian glanced briefly over his shoulder. “Lt. Serri assisted me in using the industrial replicator to manufacture new tables. Once the glass is cleaned up, the bases of the old ones will need to be removed—I’m told they’ll be recycled, since we could not simply affix new tops to them.”

Silence fell between them again, and though he could have simply turned and left, Tyrel surprised himself again by heading for the supply closet to get another broom and dustpan. He brought them to the opposite end of the room from Dal and began to sweep up. The two worked without speaking to one another for several minutes, before a thought pushed through to the front of Tyrel’s consciousness, and he found himself curious enough to speak about it.

Pausing in mid-sweep, he turned to Dal and said, “You say my sister is your friend…”

“I consider her a friend, yes,” Dal replied.

“You’ve known her what, a week?”

Dal stopped sweeping and turned to him. “I do not see the relevance in how long Maiandra and I have known one another when it takes but minutes to make a friend, Commander. Not that such is evident when it comes to you and I.”

Tyrel fought back the urge to laugh at that. “I’m just wondering, Cardassian…how far does that friendship go? What would you have done had you walked in here and caught that bastard Flavan forcing himself on my sister?”

“Considering I threatened to have him drawn and quartered, I daresay I would be where he is now, having been charged with his murder,” Dal replied. “Just as I imagine you would be had you been the one to walk in.”

He looked at Tyrel for a moment, studying his face, then added, “Though something tells me you’d have made a lot more mess than this, and we’d also be in the position to have to replace the carpeting as well. I might have been inclined to break Flavan’s neck, but you’d have torn him to pieces—with your bare hands, no doubt—and spilt his blood all over the place.”

Columbia’s tactical officer snorted. “Damn right I would have.”

The subtle pneumatic hiss of the lounge doors opening, normally inaudible when the room was full, caused both men to turn their heads just then, just as Taraji Jorah was raising her hands to her lips to stifle a gasp.

“Good heavens… What happened in here?”

Tyrel scowled. “What are you doing here?”

She blinked rapidly as she raised her eyes to his face. “I…I was supposed to meet Maiandra, the manager, for an interview. Your Counselor Anjali suggested I find some purposeful employment if I wanted to stay onboard and help with the relief efforts. Something to do in between assignments. She arranged for me to have an interview to work here in the lounge, and I was supposed to meet with the manager…”

The Orion huffed. “One of her more appropriate suggestions,” he muttered, and went back to his work.

“I’m afraid that you’ll have to reschedule your interview, Ms. Jorah,” Dal said. “Unfortunately, Maiandra was attacked by that kraet-worm Solonius Flavan just after close of business this morning, and she won’t be in or a few days.”

This time the woman did gasp. “Great One be merciful,” she breathed. “I hope she’s alright. I knew Mr. Flavan was an angry fellow, but this… I do hope she’s alright.”

“Commander Tyrel here is her brother. I’m certain she is in the best of hands.”

Tyrel glanced up at Dal’s words, catching the other man’s eye as he glanced his way—and was surprised once more to see no hint of facetiousness in his eyes. Like his coming in here to clean up a mess he himself had made, like his confession that he’d have liked to kill Flavan himself for attacking Maiandra…

…he wasn’t entirely certain how he felt about that.

Taraji glanced at Tyrel then. “It’s good she has family to take care of her,” she said softly. “So many of us are left alone.”

Straightening her posture as she took a deep breath, she then strode forward and headed for the platform, stopping in front of Tyrel with her hand out. “I’ll take that broom, Commander. You should go and see to your sister.”

Tyrel felt his eyes widen. “She’s, uh, she should still be asleep,” he stuttered. “And I kinda made most of this mess, so I should probably clean it up. Mai would be pissed if I let someone else clean up after me.”

The Cardassian before him offered a small smile. “My mother used to say cleaning up is ‘woman’s work.’ How refreshing that a man admits he should clean up after himself.” She looked between the two men then, and added, “Well, if there’s nothing for me to do here, I suppose I’ll go down to the rec center and see if I can’t help with the children again—although to be honest, as much as I love children I’ve never really spent a lot of time around them and I really don’t know what to do to keep them entertained. I’m much more suited to being the caretaker of grown-ups, it’s what I‘ve done most of my life.”

She stopped speaking suddenly and blinked, then gave a nervous-sounding chuckle. “And there I go talking too much again. My apologies.”

Taraji turned to leave, and Dal stepped forward. “Actually, Ms. Jorah, we’re about finished sweeping up. If you’re still of a mind to help, perhaps you could finish while Commander Tyrel and I get started removing the bases of the old tables.”

When she turned back she was smiling, and the three of them got to work in a companionable, if awkward, silence.

*****

In orbit of Amleth
August 18, 2376


When Tyrel stopped by Maiandra’s quarters later that afternoon, he found his sister in her bathroom, putting on make-up.

“What are you doing?” he asked as he leaned against the door frame.

She looked back at him in the mirror. “I’m getting ready for work. I already missed the interview I had scheduled for today, I’m not going to miss my entire shift.”

Tyrel’s eyes widened. “Mai, you can’t be serious. After what happened—”

She dropped the eyeliner pencil in the basin and whirled on him. “Look, Rokha, after ‘what happened’, what I need is for everyone not to treat me like something happened. There’s no reason whatsoever that I can’t go in to work tonight. I’m fine.”

He frowned. “Are you sure you’re okay to work tonight? I know you hate being treated like you’re delicate, leh’mihn, but something frakked up did happen to you.”

Maiandra scowled. “As if I’m not aware of that,” she snapped, turning back to the mirror to check her appearance. A moment later, she braced her hands on the edge of the sink as she sighed, her eyes finding his in the mirror again.

“Rokha, I know what happened to me. I know what could have happened to me—there’s no way I could ever forget. No doubt Anjali will come calling soon, acting all concerned for my mental health. And I know I’m going to have to deal with it, I do, but right now what I need is normal. I need my routine and my work and I need to focus on that because if I don’t focus on what’s real and what’s normal for me, then I’ll think about what happened and I’ll remember how fucking scared I was, and I just can’t deal with that right now. Okay?”

He wanted to go to her and take her in his arms, to hold her and protect her, to shield her from what were surely nightmarish memories. His heart squeezed upon hearing his sister speak of being afraid, and once more he wished he could just kill the son of a bitch who’d done that to her.

Nodding, he said, “Alright. I might stop by for a drink later. Captain said I didn’t have to go down to Amleth, but since I’m not needed up here, I may as well go anyway and get this BS alternative therapy shit over with. If I go down today, maybe I can get away with not having to go down to anymore of these backwater planets.”

Concern flashed in his sister’s eyes, but she nodded, so he turned and left to go put on a uniform.

*****

When the transporter effect dissolved around him, Tyrel took a look around. The set-up here was pretty much the same as it had been on Leytra. Two tables had been set up from which to distribute the supplies, and the Marines and security officers were standing some distance away, doing their best to appear casual despite holding phaser rifles in their hands.

With a heavy sigh, he started toward the same side of the arrangement as he’d worked at before, fleetingly hoping that the Cardassians here were better off than they’d been at Leytra. He honestly didn’t know if he could deal with that again. He didn’t need any more sleepless nights caused by memories he’d thought long-buried.

He grabbed several boxes of MREs from the crates behind the table and wordlessly set them down next to the pile in front of Anjali. The counselor turned to him with her eyebrows raised, and though she doubtless wanted to say something to him—about why he was here when he should be up on the ship looking after Mai—she thankfully remained silent. Perhaps her telepathic abilities had told her he was not in the mood to talk, and he wasn’t. He just wanted to do this and get it done.

As before, Joret Dal—Taraji Jorah by his side this time—greeted the slowly approaching group of villagers with the group of his people who’d been displaced from their homeworld. He spoke with a man who appeared to be in charge, who welcomed the newcomers in much the same manner as the old woman on Leytra had. Slowly but surely, the villagers, their eyes wary and suspicious, headed for the Starfleet group some fifty feet away.

And so it began again.


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