Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Beginning's End"

Image by Euderion. Text by me.
_____

Stardate 53954.4


Natale already missed being on her honeymoon. She and Brian had managed to schedule off two weeks together, she and Brian had elected to spend those fourteen days on Bajor. They’d rented a villa on the beach in Rahtel Province, where they had stood in the sand each evening and watched the sun go down over the water, before spending so long in bed making love that by the time they fell asleep, it was on the rise again.

For a Human, her new husband had incredible stamina…not to mention 20 years of pent-up sexual frustration to burn off.

But alas, duty called. Brian had stayed with her on the station their last night together, but had departed with the Triumph nearly an hour ago. It had been almost depressing to wake and find him already gone, so quickly had she grown comfortable sharing her bed. During their honeymoon, she had found she rather liked waking up in the morning to see his face, either still soundly asleep or already watching her, nothing but love for her in his eyes.

Natale smiled as she exited her quarters and headed for a turbolift to begin her first shift back at work. She felt peaceful, and knew she owed it to the time away from the station. Brian had kept her so distracted with food and sex and other activities that she’d had little time to think of anything besides him and their baby. They’d gone swimming in the sea, for walks along the beach, visited a farmer’s market, read books, ate mountains of incredible food, watched vids, made love… It had been marvelous to just be two people in love.

During the time away, Natale had also made a point of paying a visit to Admiral Tattok, who had been seeking his own peace on Bajor at a monastery. The hours she had spent with the Roylan while Brian went fishing with Callum—she’d never learned to care for the “sport”—had been enlightening as well as entertaining. They spoke openly to each other about their recent traumas, finding inner peace and mental balance, and their hopes for the future. He was mildly disappointed to have missed the wedding but was grateful she had thought to visit him. He took delight in hearing that Brian called his son, Weynik—who had been at the wedding—“Wee Man”, and she in turn had been humored by a recital of the dozens of nicknames he’d been labeled with throughout his life that referred to his diminutive stature.

Grafydd’s booming voice calling out “Captain on deck!” as the lift came to a stop made Natale flinch, but she also smiled, remembering the last time he had shouted at her: At the wedding, when Captain Regan had pronounced her and Brian husband and wife and they had shared their first married kiss, the Terellian had clapped his four hands together loudly and yelled “It’s about damn time!”

“Good morning to you too, Commander,” she greeted him.

Kelley nodded and smiled a greeting, as did a number of the other staff. Kirek tried vainly to stifle a yawn as Natale stepped down to the pool table. “Go home and get some sleep, Kirek,” she told the Cardassian, whom she knew had been scheduled for the night shift. “You look like you haven’t had any for days.”

He glanced at her with his usual disdainful expression, though due to their improved relationship, she was able to note the barest hint of amusement in his eyes. “Normally I would reply to such a remark with one of my naturally scathing comments, Captain, but circumstances force me to agree with you instead. The truth is, I have not had much sleep the past few days.”

“Is everything all right? Did anything happen while I was gone that I should be concerned about?”

Kirek blinked. “It is a…personal matter.”

And that was all she was going to get out of him. Natale was thankful that he had been making an effort to get along with her, due in no small part, she was sure, to the influence of his daughter. Karejah was one of the most delightful young women she had ever met, and had been one of the catalysts for getting the two sides to work together in harmony. She somehow seemed to get along with everybody without even trying.

But Cardassians were notoriously private people, and it was telling of the improvement in their relationship that Kirek had even revealed that what troubled him was personal. Beyond that, Natale knew, he would not share details.

“Have you finished your shift report?” she asked.

He frowned slightly. “Of course,” he said as he reached for a PADD sitting on the pool table.

Natale took it from him. “We can skip the oral presentation today. Seriously, go on home and try to get some sleep. You’re no good to anyone if you’re exhausted.”

“You’ll get no argument from me. Good day, Captain.”

She watched him for a moment as he headed for the lift, then took a seat on the stool she usually occupied and thumbed on the PADD to read his shift report.

“That’s new—Kirek not arguing?” said Kelley softly.

“Come now, Mr. Kelley,” Natale admonished, listening to the turbolift as it began its descent. “You and I both know that Dal Kirek and I have made a conscious effort to put aside our differences for the sake of running a smooth operation here. And really, he did look tired.”

Scratching his chin, Grafydd said, “I have to admit to some curiosity. What kind of personal business could possibly keep him awake? Far as I know, Karejah’s not dating anybody.”

Kelley snorted. “We’d have likely had an assault report if she’d met anyone.”

“Gentlemen,” Natale spoke up. “As curious as we may be, let’s not gossip like school children—sets a bad example for the junior staff. Kirek’s personal business is his own.”

Before either the defensive coordinator or engineer could respond, Felicity Bowman spoke up from the Operations console. “Pardon the interruption, Captain, but we are receiving a transmission from the Triumph. Captain Wallace is requesting to speak with you—shall I transfer the signal to your office terminal?”

Natale shook her head. “I doubt it’s anything very personal. “Put it onscreen here, Ensign.”

Bowman nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

A moment later, the large, ovoid viewscreen flickered on. The Orion could not help the wide smile that lifted her lips when her husband’s face appeared. “What can we do for you, Captain?” she asked.

Brian grinned. “’Tis more about what I can do for you,” he said. “You asked me to remind you about taking your nausea suppressant.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You could have just left me a message.”

“Aye, but where would be the fun in that? This way I get to embarrass you and see your beautiful face at the same time. How are you feeling today? I’m sorry I couldn’t be there where you got up.”

Perhaps she should have taken this call in her office, Natale thought, but then rationalized that it wasn’t as if the staff didn’t know they were married. Of course, she hadn’t made it public that she was pregnant, but knew that was bound to get out sooner or later. The fact that she’d been to Medbay more than once in the last couple of months had probably already fed the station’s rumor mill. Dr. Garcia had eventually prescribed a nausea suppressant that she could order from the replicator in her quarters or her office.

She had a notorious habit of forgetting to take prescribed medication, so she had indeed asked Brian to remind her, knowing he would get up and leave before she did. He could have just left a note, she thought.

“I’m actually feeling pretty good this morning. No nausea so far,” she said then.

“Have you eaten breakfast? And I mean actual food, not just a glass of tea,” Brian pressed.

Oh, he knew her so well. Too well, Natale mused sourly, though she suppressed a smile. “Not yet. But I will, I promise you—and I will take the shot. Would be pointless to eat just to turn around and cast it out again.”

Brian nodded. “Indeed it would. Kelley, Grafydd, see to it that your captain eats something, would you? I’m sure you’re well aware by now how she forgets, and you both know she’s got to take care of herself.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Kelley, followed by Grafydd’s “Don’t you worry, Brian. She’ll eat if I have to order it from the replicator myself.”

“Hey! I’ll have you know that ‘she’ can hear you talking about her,” said Natale. The three men laughed, and over at Ops, Bowman bit her lip to try and hold back a chuckle. Traitor, she thought, though she was hard-pressed not to smile herself.

One of his crew stepped into view and handed Brian a PADD. He nodded his thanks, glanced at it, then sighed and looked back toward the viewscreen. “Well, duty calls. There’s a civilian transport requesting an escort, so we’re going off to handle that. I’ll call you later if I can.”

Natale allowed her smile to break through. “If I don’t call you first. Tha gaol agam ort.”

Brian grinned. “Your Gaelic is getting better. Tha gaol agam ort cuideachd. Triumph out.”

When the screen went blank, she tried not to feel the loss. It was silly, as they’d had numerous conversations over a comm channel before and she’d never felt quite like she did in that moment. Of course, she’d never allowed her true feelings for Brian to surface before. This being open with her love for him was going to take some getting used to.

“May I ask what you said to each other?” Ensign Bowman asked. “I’m surprised the universal translator didn’t pick it up.”

Natale smiled at her. “We said ‘I love you’, Ensign. And I suspect that the rarity of Scots Gaelic being spoken is why it didn’t register. Captain Wallace has been teaching me his native language—or trying to. I’m not very good at it yet.”

“Might I make another personal query, Captain?” asked the younger woman.

Curious, Natale replied, “Sure.”

“You don’t have to answer, of course, but I’ve been wondering… It is traditional among Humans for a lady to take her husband’s name when they marry, though it is certainly not required,” Bowman began. “I was wondering about Orion marriage traditions, and whether you were following yours or his in that regard. And if you followed the Human tradition and took his name, do we call you Captain Wallace as well?”

Natale drew a breath and let it out slowly. She’d had no interest in an Orion wedding, and would see to it that her children eschewed the practice as well. “Well, our wedding ceremony was more Human than anything else, and I was very happy to take my husband’s name. Legally I am Synnove Wallace now, but in the interest of differentiating between the two of us, as we are both well known about the station and in the 11th, professionally I will still be using my maiden name.”

Bowman nodded. “I can see how that will be less confusing.”

The girl turned back to her console then, thankfully not enquiring further about Orion marriage practices. Natale looked to Kelley and Grafydd and said, “I’m going to head into my office to read the night shift report—and yes, I will eat.”

“And take your medicine,” said Grafydd.

“Yes, that too,” she grumbled as she slid off her stool with Kirek’s report in her hand. She’d just started toward her office when she heard her name being called in a stranger’s voice.

“Captain Natale?”

She turned around. A tall, well-built male in a Federation uniform, his shirt Starfleet gold, was stepping off the turbolift. As he drew closer, she noted three solid gold rank pins on his collar.

“What can I do for you, Commander…?”

He smiled, and took note of the black of his eyes. Betazoid? she wondered.

“Commander Trevor Whitehorse,” he replied. “Admiral Tattok sent me.”

Kelley stepped toward the man, and if she were not mistaken, purposely in front of her as though to shield her from him. “Really? It’s funny you should say that, Commander, when Admiral Tattok has not been on active duty for months. He’s not in a position to be giving anyone orders while he’s on leave.”

“Indeed not, Mr. Kelley, but he can ask for favors,” Whitehorse replied. “He can consult with his captains to see that a matter over which he is concerned is handled.”

He looked over Kelley’s shoulder at Natale. “Captain Wallace recommended me, and Admiral Tattok saw to it that my orders were issued. Might we go into your office, Captain?”

Natale studied him, wondered if he really knew Brian, and made a mental note to put in a call to the Triumph at the first opportunity—whatever this was about, neither Brian nor Tattok had spoken to her about it. They might have only been married for two weeks, but her husband had known her for twenty years, and he knew how much she hated surprises. She would wonder when the Scot could have possibly consulted with the Roylan admiral on anything had they not seen him on Bajor just a few days ago.

“Stand down, Mr. Kelley. I’ll handle this,” she said slowly.

“As you wish, Captain,” said Kelley, who stood aside so Whitehorse could pass.

Natale turned and headed up the steps to her office, moving quickly to stand behind the desk. She laid down Kirek’s report and crossed her arms as she waited for Whitehorse to step inside and the doors to close behind him.

“Is he single?”

She blinked, stunned and confused by the question. “I beg your pardon?”

Whitehorse looked over his shoulder; she could see through the window that both Grafydd and Kelley were watching them. Neither of her officers looked pleased.

When her visitor looked back, he said, “Kelley. Is he single?”

Natale almost laughed at the absurdity of the question, given the odd circumstances which had brought this man to her station. “I don’t believe that’s any of your business, Mr. Whitehorse. Why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”

“Very well,” he said with a sigh, then straightened his shoulders. “I am here, Captain, because I have a very particular skill set.”

“If you can read minds, why would you ask me if my defense officer is single?” she asked, testing him.

“The eyes always give my people away,” said Whitehorse with a grin. “Yes, I’m Betazoid, and I can read minds, but Starfleet has regulations about the intrusive use of psionic abilities. They’re only to be used in the course of performing our duties.”

“And what exactly are your duties, Commander?” she asked, thinking that Whitehorse was a very odd name for a Betazoid. For that matter, so was Trevor.

“Not odd when you consider that this particular Betazoid was named after my father’s best friend, who happened to be Human, and that after the untimely death of both parents, I was raised by said friend along with my sister. The original Trevor Whitehorse and his wife adopted us two years after taking us in.

“As for my duties, the skill set I mentioned includes being highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat. I’m here to protect you.”

Natale scoffed. “Protect me? From what?”

“Zaddo Natale.”

She froze. And remembered having confessed her fears to Tattok when she’d visited him at the monastery. He’d taken Brian aside when he came to pick her up for a private conversation. When she’d asked her husband about it, he’d said that the admiral had just asked for some recommendations about his staff.

It had not occurred to her at the time to think of herself as a part of the admiral’s staff.

Slowly, attempting to appear at ease though she was unsettled—and annoyed as hell—Natale uncrossed her arms and sat in her chair. Whitehorse followed suit and lowered himself into one of the visitor’s seats.

“You’re telling me,” she began, “that my husband and my commanding officer have hired me a bodyguard?”

“That is correct, Captain.”

“How do you even know Brian? You said he recommended you.”

“My fireteam was assigned to the Triumph after the First Battle of Chin’toka. He had just been made her captain.”

“Fireteam is a Marine term. If you’re a jarhead, why are you wearing Starfleet gold and rank insignia?”

“They thought it would look less conspicuous,” Whitehorse replied with a shrug.

“And probably hoped I wouldn’t ask too many questions. Hmph. Brian ought to know me better than that.”

Natale sat back and studied him. His hair was close-cropped, he had a strong, square jaw… and he was certainly built like a brawler. Maybe that was why Brian had recommended him.

“And your assignment, it’s been cleared with both Starfleet and Marine Command? ‘Cause frankly I don’t see how,” she said. “How does an admiral on medical leave have the power to pluck one man out of thousands to serve as personal security to a captain of little significance?”

“Well, I would assume that Command on both sides have approved, or I’d likely not be here,” said Whitehorse. “I imagine that a person of his standing in the service has a number of strings he can pull even if he is on leave—and you, Captain, are hardly of little significance.”

“Right. As if Starfleet is really that concerned about one captain among many, Commander. There’s got to be—”

Her commbadge chirped, cutting her off. “Ops to Captain Natale.”

“Go ahead, Miss Bowman.”

Priority transmission from Starfleet Command for you, ma’am. Admiral Dodge says he must speak with you at once.”

The head of Starfleet Operations wanted to talk to her “at once”, just moments after she met the bodyguard she didn’t ask for. Coincidence? Maybe, but unlikely.

“Put it through to my desk terminal, Ensign. Natale out.” She looked across the desk at Whitehorse. “You can go, Mr. Whitehorse. I won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, so I suggest you spend your time wisely. Consider looking up Starfleet terminology if you want to pretend you’re one of us.”

Whitehorse grinned as he stood. “I think I’ll try finding out myself whether Kelley’s single. He’s got a protective streak I like.”

“Don’t bother. If I have anything to say about it, you won’t be here long enough for him to shoot you down.”

Whitehorse sobered. “Captain, if I may speak frankly, don’t be too hasty to have me sent away. It’s my understanding that some threats were made against you. I’m here to make sure no one tries to carry them out.”

With that he departed, and while what she really wanted to do was get Brian on the horn and go off about his arranging protection without consulting her, she couldn’t because she had an admiral waiting.

Drawing a deep breath, she keyed on her computer. Moments later the Federation symbol blinked off and the aging face of Admiral Harrison Dodge appeared.

“My apologies for the delay, Admiral,” she greeted him. “What can I do for you?”

“What I’ve got to say might seem sudden, Captain Natale, but in truth it is not,” said Dodge. “With Admiral Tattok presently on medical leave, it has been made my duty to inform you that the Federation and Detapa councils have been so impressed with the progress you’ve made at Sanctuary that we’re pulling you out early.”

Stunned could not even begin to describe what that last statement made her feel. “Pull us out? Admiral, it was my understanding that Starfleet would be here for a couple of years, at least.”

“We thought you would have to be, but apparently the Cardassians are eager to take over the running of their station, and are confident they can do so with little to no assistance from us. Now, it won’t be a complete withdrawal—it’s been recognized that apparently some of our people understand the technology on the station better than the Cardassians understand it themselves. They want to keep some of the engineers and computer techs on for another six months or so to help their people become better acquainted with how it operates.”

That much, she knew, was true. Grafydd had made a number of comments over the last ten months to the effect.

“And what about the rest of us? The senior staff?” she asked.

“We’re going to be making use of your talents, Captain,” Dodge replied. “Even throughout the war we were growing—our second Unity-class starbase is about to go operational, and with your team’s experience, we want you to run it. With a few exceptions, your entire command team will have exactly the same jobs as they do now, only it will be a Starfleet installation and not a Cardassian one.”

Natale took a moment to consider that. Might not be so bad, she thought.

“All right,” she said. “I’m surprised, to be sure, but I know the nature of this business. Where is this new starbase, sir?”

“Starbase Echo is at the edge of the Regulus system, about three light-years from the border of Federation space and the Borderland. Its operation is to be a joint venture, like Sanctuary, but between Starfleet and the Border Patrol.”

She almost did not hear the entirety of his speech; Natale had felt her blood run cold at the mention of the base’s location. She couldn’t go there. Regulus was virtually on her father’s doorstep—the Borderland was his domain. If he didn’t already know that she had chosen to ignore his warning and gotten married, it would not be long after her stepping foot on the station that he found out.

How could she get out of this assignment? Was it even possible? Had Tattok found out somehow, before her visit, and that’s why he had thought to get her a bodyguard when she told him about her father?

“Captain Natale! Are you listening to me?”

The Orion blinked. “Forgive me, Admiral Dodge,” she managed. “It’s just… This is all so sudden. I’m still trying to take it in, sir. You said much of Sanctuary’s Starfleet staff would be reassigned to this new starbase. What about the 11th Fleet, sir?”

“I think I know why you ask—I have heard that you and Captain Wallace married recently.”

Natale nodded. “Yes, sir. On the first.”

“Well, I do hate to break it to you, but there may be a period of separation. The fate of the 11th Fleet is rather up in the air, at the moment. Its formation was hurried and only done for the purpose of our presence in Cardassian territory,” Dodge told her.

“Will there no longer be a presence in this area, sir?”

“That’s another issue still being debated by the councils—it has been agreed that a continued presence may be beneficial, but whether to maintain an entire fleet there is the matter still being considered. It is entirely possible that the 11th will be disbanded and the ships reassigned to their previous fleets.

“Listen, Captain, I do see how this might seem very sudden to you, but it has been in the works for some time. Our running that station was never going to be long-term like it is for DS9, and the Detapa Council feels that it is time the Cardassians begin to stand on their own again—frankly I’m in full agreement. Now, I will be forwarding all the information you’ll need to begin familiarizing yourself and your team with Starbase Echo, including station schematics and the crew manifest as we have it so far. Some key positions still need to be filled, and Personnel is working on that as we speak.”

Dodge paused and drew a breath. “You have only two weeks to prepare your team for departure, which is set for the first of the year. That may not sound like much, but you’ll have plenty of time in transit to ensure familiarity with the station and crew—our estimate is eight to ten weeks to get there, with two weeks’ time to finish up final preparations for the grand opening.  It’s going to be your responsibility to prepare a statement for the Federation civilians who have opened up businesses on Sanctuary, informing them that if they remain, they will be subject to Cardassian law, same as if they were visiting one of their worlds.”

Natale collected herself enough to manage, “But they will still be granted a Federation legal representative if requested, should the need for one arise?”

The admiral nodded. “Of course, Captain. I have been assured by my own superiors that nothing much will change except who is actually in charge. It is your job to prepare everyone. Now, all the information you need regarding Starbase Echo should be in your databanks by now. Dodge out.”

Almost before she could blink the elder Human was gone from her screen, to be replaced by the Federation symbol. Natale sat frozen, barely breathing. She wanted to scream. Wished she had protested the assignment, for what good it might have done her. Did no one at Starfleet Command realize the danger they were putting her in? Did they really not care? It certainly wasn’t as if Command didn’t know who her father was—his criminal activities had almost prevented her from getting into Starfleet, as though she were guilty of them herself simply because she was Zaddo Natale’s daughter.

Her veins flooded with a heavy dose of adrenaline, jacking up her heart rate. Making her jumpy. She was also beginning to feel annoyed again, even angry, for surely Tattok and Brian had known about this, hence the arrangement of a bodyguard. But why didn’t they tell her about it? Did they think her so fragile?

Was she proving them correct simply by being afraid?

Slapping her commbadge, Natale said, “Natale to Bowman. Get me the Triumph, and tell Captain Wallace I require a private conversation.”

Right away, Captain.”

Waiting even a few minutes proved difficult, and she was on the verge of jumping up to pace when Bowman notified her that she had Brian on the line. He wore an expression of concern when his face appeared on her computer screen.

“Synnove, what’s wrong? Is it the wee one? Are you ill?”

“Did he tell you?” she asked. “Is that why I now have a bodyguard I never asked for or consented to or was even consulted about?”

Brian sighed. “So Whitehorse has shown up, has he? I was wondering when he would get there, though I didn’t expect him for a few more days.”

“Answer the question, Brian. Did Tattok tell you about Starbase Echo? Is that why the Marine is here pretending to be a Starfleet officer?”

“Starbase Echo?” her husband repeated. “I know nothing about any starbase with that designation. What’s happened?”

Natale frowned. “So either he didn’t tell you, or he didn’t know either. And Starfleet’s either frakking clueless or they just don’t give a damn. I’ll talk to you later Brian.”

Without giving him a chance to respond, the Orion cut the comm signal. Now she did get up, paced behind her desk for a moment, and then turned and hurried out of her office. She needed to get out of here, to think.

Maybe to find someone who could help her get a damn handle on this all but immobilizing fear.

***

Brian Wallace cursed in Gaelic and pounded his fist on his desk when the link was abruptly cut. Something had gotten his new wife riled up, and in a bad way. Starbase Echo? What was that all about, anyway?

With quick taps of his fingers, Wallace connected with the Federation database in order to find out, and when he did he cursed again. Only one thing would make her react like she had, and that was if Starfleet had decided to reassign her there, closer to her father than she had been in twenty years. No wonder Synnove was so upset, he mused, wishing like hell he could have been at the station and nearby when she found out.

The door chime rang then, and his annoyance flared. Now was not the time, but damn it, he did have a ship to run. “Come in,” he barked.

Aielle Tam stepped through the door, and he knew instantly by the subtle way her expression shifted that she was reading his emotions. Of course, the Betazoid could hardly help it—the empathy wasn’t something she could just turn off when she wanted. And in his current mood, he was likely projecting anyway.

“What happened?” his first officer asked without preamble.

Wallace loosed an aggravated sigh. “I’m not one hundred percent certain, but from what little my wife said to me, she’s been reassigned.”

Tam frowned. “Reassigned? I thought Starfleet was projecting two or three years on Sanctuary?”

“So did I—so did we all, I imagine,” he replied. “Of course, it’s not the reassignment that bothers her, it’s where it looks they’re sending her. She’ll be on the doorstep of the bloody Borderland.”

He knew she would need no other explanation, as Tam was aware of who Synnove’s father was and where he operated. She dropped into one of the visitor chairs. “Damn, no wonder she’s upset. And with the baby coming…”

The last remark surprised him—very few people knew they were expecting a child. “How did you know?”

Tam smiled. “Captain, you’ve been doing a lot of projecting the last month or so—heightened levels of joy cause psi-nulls to do that sort of thing all the time. Though you’ve been curtailing your happiness as best you can, I’m sure, so the crew doesn’t ask too many questions, it’s been fairly obvious to me. You know I can’t always help picking a thing or two up when a person dwells consistently on one subject.”

She tilted her head and studied him. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

Wallace snorted. “You are too perceptive, Commander. Synnove is also a wee bit upset over the fact that Admiral Tattok and I arranged for a bodyguard.”

“Though I don’t know her well, I’m sure it’s more likely that she’s upset because you didn’t discuss it with her first.”

He shook his head, chuckling as he did so. “Again, you are very perceptive. When we were on Bajor, my wife and the admiral apparently had a heart to heart. She told him about her father, his threats against both of us. When I went to pick her up, he asked for a private word, and without dissembling suggested we arrange for protection for her. He asked if I might know anyone I could trust with the lives of my wife and child. Tattok claimed that even though he was on leave, he had enough markers he could call in to make sure whoever it was got the assignment. I immediately thought of Trevor Whitehorse.”

Surprise registered in her features again. “Lt. Col. Whitehorse? To be honest, Captain, I thought you couldn’t stand him.”

“He was rather arrogant, even for a Marine,” Wallace conceded. “But he’s also very dangerous in a way that I like. I don’t recall if you ever actually saw him in combat while his team was with us, Aielle, but I did—and on more than one occasion. Perhaps being Betazoid gave him an edge, being able to read his opponent’s mind and know what’s coming at him, but in any case, what I saw was enough to leave an indelible impression. I know for certain that he is capable of defending Synnove. I don’t have to like the bugger to trust him to do his job.”

Tam sighed. “Well, the fact that you even recommended him to guard Captain Natale, whom I know is more important to you than anyone else in your life, says you believe he will. I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t place that kind of trust in just anybody.”

“Aye. Whitehorse is something of a self-centered git, but he’s a Marine. And probably a decent man underneath all that arrogant bluster, I suppose. He can use his Betazoid gifts to pick up on any threats before even Synnove is aware of them, and if there should be a fight, the attacker will be dealt with swiftly. He’ll do his duty.”

And if he fails, Wallace added silently, I’ll kill the bastard.

***

A picture simply didn’t do a person justice.

That was the first thought that had entered Trevor Whitehorse’s mind as he took in the officers standing at the operations table—one officer in particular. He’d allowed himself a moment to appreciate such a fine specimen, thanking the deities (and Brian Wallace) for the opportunity to see him in person, before getting down to business and introducing himself.

He was not entirely surprised that Jordan Kelley had taken a defensive stance before his captain—the Terellian beside him had also made sure he was noticed by huffing and crossing all four of his arms as he stared him down. That Synnove Natale Wallace was able to garner such respect spoke well of her character and capabilities as a leader. The two men’s protective posturing spoke well of their characters also—which put another plus in Kelley’s favor.

There would be time to question the Human, Whitehorse knew, but he had not expected it to come as soon as it did. He’d not been in long in Natale’s office, explaining the reason for his presence—though he’d not expected her to pick up that he was a Marine in disguise—before she threw him out to answer the transmission from Admiral Dodge. The Betazoid suspected she would be placing a sharply worded comm call to her husband when she was finished with the bureaucrat. Would serve Wallace right if she chewed him out, he mused, since it was clear she had not been informed be was coming.

The door to the captain’s office had barely closed behind him before Kelley appeared in front of him. “Walk with me,” he demanded, and turned away without giving him a chance to respond. Very well, he thought as he followed him the short distance to the transporter alcove. Whitehorse availed himself of the opportunity to check out Kelley’s backside, and he smiled lightly in appreciation of the broad shoulders and narrow hips.

When they were on the transporter pad, Sanctuary’s defensive coordinator whirled on him. “Just who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded in a harsh whisper. “I searched for you in the Starfleet database. There is no Trevor Whitehorse listed.”

Stop looking at his lips, Jordan. You’re supposed to be pissed off at this guy, not checking him out!

It was all Whitehorse could do not to smile hugely at the thought he had just heard. Though there would be a few minor hurdles to jump over, it was enough to let him know that this assignment might not be so bad after all.

“That’s because I’m not actually in Starfleet, Commander,” he replied. “I’m a lieutenant colonel with the Federation Marine Corps. I’m wearing Fleet gold and insignia as part of my assignment so that I don’t stand out quite as much.”

“And what assignment is that, hmm? What does it have to do with my captain?”

“Your desire to protect her is admirable, Jordan—may I call you Jordan?”

Kelley snorted. “No.”

Though I like the way you say my name… Dude, stop! He’s an interloper, and possibly fucking Betazoid with those black eyes—even if the name is Human—so get a grip on yourself just in case he can read your mind. Sheesh, you’ve barely gotten over hating yourself for screwing things up with Rogan.

Whitehorse let his grin slip, and Kelley frowned. “Look, Commander,” he began, “I could tell you that my mission is classified—but it’s really not, and soon enough it will be obvious anyway. I’ve been assigned as Captain Natale’s personal security.”

Kelley’s frown deepened. “Admiral Tattok got a Marine to be her bodyguard? What for?”

He asked the question even though he already knew the answer, trying to pretend as though he didn’t—Kelley knew who Zaddo Natale was, at least by reputation. Both men were distracted when they faintly heard the captain’s voice instruct Ensign Bowman to get a hold of the Triumph—and make sure its captain knew she wanted to have a private word.

Oh boy. Wallace is in trouble now, Kelley thought.

“I’ll bet he’s in trouble,” Whitehorse murmured distractedly.

He looked to Kelley to find him scowling. “I’m not reading your mind,” he lied. “It’s an easy guess—obviously I know the Triumph’s captain, or he couldn’t possibly have recommended me for this job. I also know that he’s the type of over-protective alpha male who’s foolish enough to not consult his female when he makes decisions concerning her welfare.”

Kelley’s expression relaxed fractionally. He braced his hands on his hips as he looked toward the office, then back at him as though still trying to figure out what to say next. Before Whitehorse could pre-empt him or Kelley could come up with anything, Natale suddenly burst out of her office and headed for the lift across Ops.

Whitehorse ran down the steps and cut around the pool table as quickly as he could in order to catch up; as it was he had to duck his head as he jumped down into the already descending lift.

“That was stupid,” Natale snapped. “You could have killed yourself.”

“But I didn’t,” he quipped in return. “And I wouldn’t have had to jump onto the lift if you’d given me any kind of notice you were leaving Ops.”

Natale huffed. “I didn’t know I would be until a moment ago.”

“So where are we going?”

“I’m just going for a walk. I need to burn off some energy.”

Whitehorse did a surface scan of her thoughts. Natale was pissed, and she was scared, and she was nervous. He picked up something about a starbase and the Borderland and how she’d been had. How “he” (Tattok or Wallace, he guessed) must have known and that was why she now had a bodyguard she hadn’t been consulted about.

“What happened, Captain?” he ventured softly.

“I found out why you’re here—why you’re really here,” she said. “Apparently only Admiral Tattok and my husband, heavy-handed though their tactics are, truly grasp the stupidity of posting me any place near the fucking Borderland.”

Whitehorse frowned. “Wait, you’re being transferred? I thought Starfleet would be on this station for a couple of years?”

“So did I!” Natale exclaimed. “That’s what I was led to believe when I first got this assignment, but oh no! Apparently we’ve been doing such a bang-up job getting the place up and running that most of the Starfleet staff is being pulled to run a new Federation starbase about to go operational. Which I wouldn’t sodding mind in the least if it was anywhere other than three bloody lightyears from the Borderland!”

“Which is where your father does his business,” Whitehorse finished for her.

“Well, the place from which he commands his criminal empire, yeah,” she muttered as the lift came to a stop. “His minions conduct his business everywhere.”

Whitehorse noted that they were on the Promenade level. Natale swayed as she took a step off the lift. He took her by the elbow. “Captain, you all right?”

She shrugged him off. “I’m fine.”

The Orion took two steps before her knees suddenly buckled. Whitehorse was beside her in an instant to keep her from falling, and noted that she had gone limp. A quick scan of her mind revealed she was unconscious. “Fine,” he muttered. “Right.”

Supporting Natale with one hand, he tapped her commbadge with the other, then bent to lift her into his arms as he said, “Whitehorse to Kelley.”

What is it?” came the terse response.

So polite, he mused. “I need a site-to-site transport to Sickbay. Captain Natale has fainted, and I want your doctor to take a look at her and make sure she’s all right. I suspect she would not appreciate being carried through the Promenade where a few hundred people could see.”

Probably not,” the other man conceded. “All right, give me a minute to set it up. I’ll meet you down there.”

“Hardly necessary for you to come down, but I doubt I can stop you,” Whitehorse quipped.

You can’t. Kelley out.”

A moment later, the Betazoid felt the tingle of the transporter breaking him down—always a funny, kind of ticklish sensation, at least to him. Almost before his mind registered the resultant lack of consciousness, he was rematerializing and feeling the familiar buzz of molecular reassembly.

“Oh my God, what happened?!” cried a black-skinned woman who rushed toward him with an expression of deep concern.

“She passed out,” Whitehorse explained. “I thought it best to bring her here, and asked Ops to transport us to save the captain the embarrassment of being carried through the Promenade.”

The woman flashed a quick grin. “The captain will appreciate that, I’m sure. Bring her in here,” she said, turning and walking quickly over to a door that she opened by pressing a series of numbers on the keypad beside it.

Whitehorse noticed that it was a private exam room and considered that the captain would probably appreciate the privacy as well. As he laid Natale on the bed, the black woman was switching on the sensors, and a moment later a young Cardassian woman stepped inside the room.

“Do you need any help, Dr. Garcia?” the girl asked.

“Thank you, Karejah, I could use a little assistance.” Dr. Garcia then looked up. “I’ll need you to step outside.”

“Very well, Doctor,” said Whitehorse, reaching out with his mind to scan the human’s even as he was turning away from her; he could feel she was very concerned and he wanted to know why, as a simple fainting spell to him was not much cause for alarm. He almost stopped in his tracks when he heard her hope that there was nothing wrong with the captain’s baby.

Admiral Tattok hadn’t said anything about Captain Natale being pregnant.

Kelley stepped into the waiting area a minute or so after he had taken a seat. Whitehorse stood immediately, wondering if he had transported himself as well.

“Where is she?” he demanded.

Interesting—Kelley was worried about her too. But then, as protective of Natale as he had been earlier, his concern was of little surprise. The woman was his friend.

He pointed to the private exam room. “Dr. Garcia and a nurse are with her in there.”

Man, I hope the baby’s okay. She and Wallace would be devastated to lose it… I hope she just fainted because she hasn’t eaten or something simple like that, Kelley thought.

“If Captain Natale is with child, why wouldn’t she be eating?” Whitehorse asked. He held up a hand as Kelley drew in a breath to protest his mind being read. “Save the righteous indignation, Commander. Like it or not, my job is to see to the captain’s safety and well-being. If that means I have to surface scan every person who comes within ten feet of her, so be it. Now answer the question.”

Kelley scowled, then sighed and said, “It’s not that she does it deliberately. Captain Natale is just one of those people who gets so caught up in her work that she sometimes forgets to eat. Being pregnant has yet to break her of the habit. Grafydd and I were to make sure she ate, but we never got the chance—first you showed up, and then she got the transmission from Command.”

“It’s more likely the message from Starfleet that threw her off than my sudden appearance,” Whitehorse told him. “She said something about a transfer before she passed out.”

The man beside him frowned. “A transfer? Who, her? To where?”

At that moment, Kelley’s commbadge chirped. “Bowman to Kelley.”

“Go ahead, Ensign.”

Sir, we’re receiving a transmission from the Triumph. Captain Wallace wants to speak with Captain Natale. What should I tell him?

“Tell him she’s in a meeting right now, Ensign, and will get back to him as soon as she can,” Whitehorse spoke up.

Kelley scowled again, to which he replied, “You have a better idea? Wanna be the one to tell Brian Wallace over an open comm channel that his wife fainted, probably because she was foolish enough not to eat breakfast?”

Commander?” prompted Bowman.

“Do as he says, Ensign,” Kelley conceded. “I’ll be sure to inform the captain.”

Aye, sir. Bowman out.

Dr. Garcia stepped out of the exam room then and came over to them. “Commanders,” she greeted them with a nod.

“How’s the captain doing, Maggie?” asked Kelley.

“She’ll be fine. Dizziness and/or fainting spells are not uncommon for a woman in her condition, but it’s still a good thing she was brought in,” the doctor said. “I did note some mild dehydration and elevated levels of adrenaline and oxytocin, and also blood pressure and heart rate. Do either of you know if something has upset her?”

Kelley looked to Whitehorse, who sighed as he crossed his arms. “Whatever transpired during that conversation with Starfleet Command definitely agitated her,” he said. “She didn’t get into too many specifics, but did mention something about being transferred to a starbase about to go operational.”

The doctor and tactical officer shared a look. “Okay, that’s surprising, but why would she get upset about that?” Garcia asked.

“Because it’s three lightyears from the Borderland.”

“Son of a…”

Kelley cut himself off and began cursing under his breath. Whitehorse read his thoughts, and fought a smile at the colorful sting of epithets the other man was thinking.

“I don’t understand—why would the location of this new starbase be a problem?” Garcia asked.

“Because the Borderland is where Zaddo Natale operates, Doctor,” Kelley answered.

Garcia blinked in apparent confusion. “Zaddo Natale? Who’s that? Is he some relation of the captain’s she’s not fond of?”

Whitehorse shared a look with Kelley, who seemed as surprised as he to have met someone who had not heard of the crime lord.

“You could say that, Doctor,” said Kelley. “Zaddo Natale is—”

The door to the exam room opened at that moment, and Synnove Natale emerged, thankfully looking less pale than Whitehorse had seen her only ten minutes earlier.

“Zaddo Natale is a sadistic, psychopathic, murderous son of a bitch who heads one of the most ruthless organized crime rings in the entire Orion Syndicate,” she finished for Kelley. “He also happens to be my father.”

Garcia shook her head. “No. No, that’s not possible,” she protested. “You’re too good a person to have come from someone like that.”

Natale scoffed. “If only it weren’t true, Doctor. Unfortunately he is my father, and my relationship to a known crime lord nearly barred me from getting into Starfleet. The fact that he has only tried to have me kidnapped once in twenty years has apparently led Starfleet Command to believe that the threat of harm to my person no longer exists. How wrong they are. He never forgives and he never forgets—he just bides his time.”

“Hey, how are you feeling, Captain?” Kelley asked then.

The Orion grinned sheepishly. “Better…and foolish. I should have had something to eat before reporting for my shift.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you want another lecture on why you need to be eating properly, including healthy snacks between meals,” prodded Garcia.

Natale held up her hand. “I know, I know. Long-time habits are just so damned hard to break. However, if it will make you feel better, my first priority after leaving here is to go and get some food—and yes, I have taken my nausea suppressant. Karejah just gave it to me.”

“I’ll make sure she eats, Doctor,” said Whitehorse then.

Garcia smiled. “Thank you, Commander…?”

“Trevor Whitehorse,” he replied with a grin of his own.

The doctor turned to the captain. “You’re free to go, but please work on eating regularly. Set the computer to remind you if you have to. Your health isn’t the only thing at risk anymore.”

Whitehorse felt alarm shoot through the captain, who lowered a hand over her still-flat abdomen. “I know, Maggie. This little fainting spell has been a bit of a wake-up call—I think I’ll be setting up reminders on the computer, like you said.”

Dr. Garcia nodded. “All right then, off you go.”

Captain Natale headed for the main doors; Whitehorse followed close behind with Kelley at his side. They were about twenty feet from the infirmary entrance when the Human asked, “Are you really being transferred, Captain?”

Natale glanced sidelong at Whitehorse on her right, then looked at Kelley on her left. “We all are, Jordan.”

Whitehorse felt his shock, saw it in his eyes. “Are you frakking kidding me?” Kelley returned.

“’Fraid not, Commander,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Admiral Dodge told me about half an hour or so ago. Set up a meeting with the senior staff in two hours—it will give me time to eat and go over the information he sent. And keep this to yourself until then, because it’s my responsibility to prepare a brief for the rest of the Starfleet crew and the civilians.”

“What about Kirek?”

“I’ll speak to him later myself. Let him sleep,” she said.

Kelley nodded, then blew out a breath. “And they’re really sending you to some base three lightyears from the Borderland? Are they insane? Do they really not care?”

“I’m not going if I can help it,” Natale said. “I don’t care if Command does recognize the danger and just doesn’t give a shit, or if their naïveté blinds them to it. The fact remains that my being so close to Zaddo is not a good idea.”

She stopped at the entrance to Nigella’s and turned to him. “Do me a favor, if you will. Get me a list of every admiral that outranks Dodge. If I can find a sympathetic ear with more clout than his, maybe I can get out of it.”

Kelley nodded. “Will do, Captain,” he said, and then with a hooded glance at Whitehorse, turned smartly about and walked away.

Natale sighed. “Come on, bodyguard. We’ve got some talking to do while I eat.”

Whitehorse grinned and followed her into the restaurant. “Aye, Captain.”

***

She waited as long as she dared before heading to the ward room for the scheduled staff meeting. Natale had chosen to plead her case with Admiral Haywood of Special Projects, for surely he’d had a hand in declaring Starbase Echo a joint operation with the Border Patrol. He outranked Dodge by more than a decade—and prior to his taking over at Special Projects, he’d been the deputy director of Starfleet Intelligence. He was sure to be aware of who her father was, if not the danger he posed.

Unfortunately he had been in a meeting when her comm signal was transferred to his office, so she’d had to put in a request for him to return her call as soon as he was available. Two hours later he still hadn’t, and it was her fear that she’d be in the middle of telling her senior officers they had to pack up their belongings when he did finally get back to her.

When Natale stepped through the ward room door with minutes to spare, she was not altogether surprised to see Kirek sitting in his usual spot at the table. He either hadn’t managed to get to sleep, or had gotten a call similar to hers from his own government—or both. It occurred to her then that he was the most likely candidate to replace her as commanding officer, which would also likely be accompanied with a promotion to gul.

That should certainly make him happy, she thought as she took her chair at the head of the table. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to get right down to business… The Detapa Council is so very pleased with how quickly we’ve gotten the station up and running that they’ve decided to kick us out early.”

Those not already aware of the upcoming shake-up made various noises of surprise. “But… I thought the projection was two or three years?” said Grafydd.

Natale nodded her head. “So did I, Commander. But we’ve come a great deal farther than they expected us to, it would seem.”

“My government feels that since the station is operational and has proven capable of attracting business to this area, it is time we took control of it,” Kirek put in, confirming Natale’s suspicion that he had already been informed.

Zram snorted derisively. “Figures. Call us in to clean up your mess, and then when we do—and make something of a place you all abandoned—you all of a sudden want to take over. After Starfleet’s done all the work to get this place up and running—”

“Master Chief,” Natale said, interrupting the Bolian’s rant. “I will remind you as I was reminded that our presence here was never meant to be long-term. And while we have put in a great deal of work to get Sanctuary up and running, we did not do it alone. The Cardassians have done their share.”

“If the Cardassians are to truly recover from the devastation of the war and keep their sovereignty intact, it is vital that as a people they prove they can stand on their own,” said Roijiana. “Asking for help is one thing—becoming dependent on others is another matter entirely.”

“On that matter, if no other, Counselor, you and I agree,” conceded Kirek. “We can, and we will, be as self-sustaining as we were before. Taking operational control of this station is but one step towards that goal, among many.”

“Are we all to be reassigned back onto starships, then?” asked Ensign Bowman.

Natale looked to her. “As a matter of fact, no. First, we’re not all pulling out at once—although the rest of the staff will be reassigned within the next two weeks, at the request of Prime Councilor Lang, most of the Starfleet engineers and operations staff will be remaining for the next three to six months, in order to help their Cardassian counterparts become more familiar with the station’s technology.”

“Unfortunately,” broke in Kirek, “the station is old. The computer and power systems outdated. Most Cardassian engineers these days are only proficient with technology created within the last decade.”

“Indeed, as foolish as that is,” added Dr. Rejal. “For whatever reason, Starfleet technicians seem to have a better grasp of our older technology than we do. It makes sense that the government would want to take advantage of that, and keep those crewmen here a while longer to help our own become as familiar with the station’s systems as they are, as new personnel are brought in to replace those of you that are leaving.”

“Why not just update the station’s tech so we can all go at once?” asked Zram.

“Simply put, Master Chief, they can’t afford to,” said Natale. “The information packet I received this morning made reference to what monetary funds they have being directed toward rebuilding homes and the economy. Updating the technology in their starships and space stations is just going to have to wait until business picks up and the people have homes and food.”

She picked up the PADD she had carried in with her. “Now, all non-commissioned technicians are remaining behind under orders, but officers are being asked to volunteer. If none do within 48 hours of receiving word of our eminent withdrawal, Starfleet Command will make the decision as to who stays and who goes.

“As for those of us here in this room, we are not being transferred to starship billets. Command has stated their desire for us to work our magic again on a new Federation starbase that’s about three months from going full operational. Most of us will be in the same position at Starbase Echo as we are here.”

“Most of us, Captain?” asked Roijiana.

Natale drew a breath—now was not the time and place for the conversation she needed to have with her. She would not do the Boslic the indignity of informing her she was all but being demoted in front of the entire senior staff.

“There are a few exceptions,” she said. “Specific job titles may change. A number of key positions have been left open, as Echo is apparently going to be another joint operation, this time between Starfleet and the Border Patrol. Two squadrons—one from each branch—will be calling Echo their home base. It is my understanding that both Commands want the staff to be comprised of Starfleet and Border Patrol officers, so the open positions will likely be filled by Patrol. I’ll get with each of you individually to discuss your respective positions.”

“You get any info about the station itself?” asked Kelley, speaking up for the first time.

The Orion nodded, and after keying a few commands into her PADD, she switched on the holographic display at the center of the table; one of the few newer pieces of technology the station had, it had been an invaluable tool in relaying information during staff meetings. The emitter now projected a pale gray structure that seemed an amalgamation of Federation and Cardassian design.

“Whoa, is that a Unity-class station?” asked Grafydd with a small measure of awe in his tone.

“Indeed, Commander. And apparently only the second one to complete construction,” Natale replied. “Eleven thousand, five hundred meters in height; overall diameter is twelve thousand, four hundred sixty-two meters. Eight docking masts, eight docking ports, sixteen runabout pads, and eight interior docking bays—four of them, in the outer docking ring, are large enough to fit a Sovereign-class starship. My guess is at least one of the internal bays will be dedicated to the compliment of starfighters due to be assigned to the station.”

“What’s the capacity for a station that size?” asked Bowman.

“A total of nine thousand crew—though we’re likely to have only half to three-quarter that number to start with—and up to twenty-six thousand civilians.”

“That is incredibly impressive,” murmured Kirek. “Ambitious for the Federation to undertake such a venture, when your resources are so limited. That starbase is easily ten times the height of a Nor-class and about eight times as wide.” He chuckled. “You will certainly have your hands full, Captain.”

“Agreed, as not only the station will be under the CO’s control but also twelve drydocks,” said Natale. “Yardmaster is one of the open positions.”

She switched off the display. “Full specs for Starbase Echo will be sent to your personal terminals for you to go over at your leisure. I suggest you all familiarize yourself with the base as much as you can while you’re packing over the next two weeks. I’ll let you know when I do when the vacant staff positions are filled.”

“One other thing,” piped up Kelley again. “Keep this to yourselves until the captain has had time to prepare a statement for the rest of the crew.”

Natale looked to him and gave a nod. “Thank you, Commander, for that reminder,” she said, turning her gaze to encompass everyone around the table. “Two weeks’ prep to leave is not a lot of time, but we can do it. I just don’t want the news to start some kind of panic about where everyone’s going. It’s my understanding, from the brief that Admiral Dodge sent me, that everyone working here on Sanctuary will be transferred to Echo unless a different assignment is requested—and as I’m sure you all know, even then getting a different assignment is not very likely. They’re already going to be pulling hundreds off of already-undermanned starships to fill out the roster, and we may even have civilian crew onboard just to get the minimum numbers required.”

“What will happen to the Federation civilians here on Sanctuary?” asked Roijiana then. “Those that own businesses?”

“I have to prepare a statement for them as well, but their remaining here is as voluntary as their coming here in the first place,” Natale replied. “It was made clear from the beginning that this is a Cardassian-owned station and that eventually it would be returned to Cardassian control. That’s just happening a lot sooner than anyone expected.”

After answering a few more minor questions, the captain dismissed her people back to their work. She spoke to Kirek a few moments about what he had learned directly from his superiors, and had all her suspicions confirmed. He was being promoted, and as soon as the Starfleet contingent were gone, command of the station would be his.

“Are they changing the name?” she asked.

“No,” he replied. “Apparently, Prime Councilor Lang has grown rather fond of the name Sanctuary. Personally I don’t think it very Cardassian, but what would I know? I’m but a lowly soldier.”

“I’m sorry to have stuck your Cardassian station with such an un-Cardassian name, Gul Kirek.”

He actually smiled at that. “Ah, it is about damn time I made gul, though unfortunately my promotion won’t be official until the station is fully ours.”

Natale frowned. “You have to wait two weeks? Why’d they bother telling you about it now if they were just going to make you wait?”

“The command-level officers have always liked to make the lower ranks squirm, no matter who was in charge of the government,” Kirek replied sourly. He then yawned hugely, at which she tried vainly not to laugh, and said, “I think, finally, I may just be tired enough to sleep. Don’t count on seeing me until late this evening, if you venture out while waiting for Captain Wallace to return.”

She had been prepared to offer a few words about hoping he worked out whatever had been keeping him awake at night, but the mention of her husband instantly soured her mood. Natale merely nodded, at which Kirek then wordlessly departed. She was still annoyed with Brian for not discussing the possibility of getting her a bodyguard; a check of the Triumph’s current mission parameters had showed he wouldn’t be back until very late, so unless she changed her mind about her willingness to listen to him try to excuse his actions, he could wait until then. No doubt she’d have multiple messages waiting on her at the end of the day, but it would serve him right to stew for a bit, even if it was more than a little petty of her.

Trevor Whitehorse dutifully walked beside her back to Ops, where he then declared he would occupy himself with reading up on Starbase Echo, in case she was unable to get out of the assignment. It was a good idea, Natale was forced to admit, as her pleas were likely to fall on deaf ears.

She had just ordered herself a hot spearmint tea when her office door chime rang. Looking over, she saw both Grafydd and Roijiana waiting on the other side.

“Come in,” she called out as she headed back for her desk. “What can I do for you guys?”

Grafydd cleared his throat and moved his lower arms behind his back, at the same time crossing the upper pair. “Figured I would save some trouble for you and Command—you’re gonna have to find yourself another engineer. Much as I would love to get my four hands on that Unity-class base’s power systems, I’m officially volunteering to stay.”

Natale was not altogether surprised by the announcement. Grafydd liked old technology—he collected antique pieces of equipment wherever he could, such as PADDs, tricorders, and even phasers. He liked to take them apart and put them back together again, and had a knack for getting them to work even if had been decades since the last use. The Terellian was one of the few who had not protested his assignment to Cardassian space, and with his staying behind, they were more likely to get other volunteers from the engineering staff. His people were loyal to him.

Still, she felt compelled to reply with, “You’re staying here? Mind if I ask why you want to?”

He shrugged. “Eh, this old wagon wheel’s grown on me. That, and Kirek actually asked.”

Now that did come as a surprise. “Seriously?” she said as she lowered herself into her chair. “He actually asked you to stay?”

Both right hands swung out, palm up. “Engineer’s honor, Captain. I was all set to go with you, but I figured if he could be man enough to admit he needed me, I could be decent enough to hang on another three to six months.”

Here it was Roijiana who expressed surprise. “He actually said he needs you? Doesn’t sound like him.”

“Indeed, Counselor,” agreed Natale, then she sighed before looking back to her long-time friend. “I’m certainly going to miss having you around, Graf, but I’ll admit that I feel a lot better about leaving a bunch of non-coms behind with a senior officer in charge of them.”

Grafydd chuckled. “Maybe it will be the start of an officer exchange program, where only engineers get sent here because we understand their old tech better than they do. In any case, I thought I should let you know right away. I’ll have a word with my people see if I can’t get a handful of junior officers to stick around with me—once you’ve prepared your statement, of course.”

“Thanks for that, though I’m still not entirely sure what to say. I do want to get something ready by the end of the day, though.”

“I’ll be ready, as always,” said the engineer, before he gave a jaunty salute and turned around to leave.

Once he had gone, Roijiana captured Natale’s attention with the straightforward question, “I’ve been demoted again, haven’t I?”

The captain grimaced. “Have a seat, Counselor.”

When the Boslic had done as directed, she said, “In rank, no—you’re still a full lieutenant, which you will have to be for another four years as per the terms of your reinstatement agreement. But in position, yes. You are essentially being bumped down to assistant station counselor—the next in line—because Starfleet wants someone with greater rank and authority in charge on a station with so many personnel. I’m sorry, Roijiana.”

Roijiana huffed as she sat back in her chair. “I had a feeling that was the case when you said ‘most’ of us would have the same job as here. Can’t say as I’m surprised, though. I suppose it does make sense to have a higher ranking officer in charge of the department on a station of that size, especially if the crew ever gets to full capacity.”

“I’m sure you could apply for a starship billet if you want to remain a senior officer,” Natale said then. “A person in your situation is more likely to have such a request approved, as not all starships had counselors on staff before the war. Or perhaps a smaller starbase.”

The counselor nodded. “Thank you, Captain. I will keep that in mind. Truth be told, I was surprised to get a senior position when I won my case, even if it ended up being the last place I’d have wanted to be. Though having been a senior officer all this time, it seems hardly fair to take it away from me after all the work I have done here.”

“I agree—after all, you’ve paid your debt, in more ways than one. You accepted the restrictions they put on you. To punish you further by means of positional demotion just because they can seems rather petty.”

Roijiana smiled. “Thank you for that, Captain. I do appreciate the support.”

She rose then and turned to go. “Counselor, wait,” Natale called out.

When she turned back around, the Orion cleared her throat. “I would like your professional opinion on something… something rather personal.”

Roijiana took her seat again. “How can I help?” she asked.

After drawing a deep breath, Natale laid it all out for her. How she had grown up a pampered princess, with a daddy that took care of her and loved her and gave her anything she wanted. How the other children in the house were made to take whatever punishments she had earned for bad behavior because she was his “special one”.

“I had no idea they were my siblings until I was about ten, if you can believe it,” she mused. “It took me a while to understand why the other kids resented me so much. I’d been led to believe that they were servants, until one of my sisters threw a fit at being punished in my stead for sneaking treats from the pantry. I’d admitted it was my idea, but Father said Savene either should have stopped me or been better at covering up our crime. That’s when she screamed that she hated having a sister who never got punished for being bad.

“I was shocked. I asked my mother about it when she ushered me out of the room, and that’s when she explained, in as delicate a way as she could to a ten-year-old, that my father had indeed sired children by other women, but they were inferior to me because they were only reds, and I was both red and green.”

Natale went on to describe how she had managed to improve her relationship with two or three of her six siblings as she got older, much to her relief and joy, even though it was likely their affections had been purchased with the gifts she gave them. She told the counselor how her naïveté had been shattered the day she had overheard her father offering her up as part of a trade agreement, leading her to run away—with, surprisingly, the help of her only older brother. Savaj, possibly the only sibling to show her any genuine affection, had snuck her aboard a cargo freighter bound for Earth.

She talked about paying for her passage by cleaning up after meals and washing dishes—something she’d had to be taught, as she’d never had to do either before—and how her first sight of Earth from orbit had been breathtaking. Natale spoke of meeting the ageless groundskeeper Boothby and how he had helped her get in contact with the right people so that she could request asylum. How he had again helped her by putting her in contact with a Starfleet captain whom he believed would offer her a letter of recommendation so that she could take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam.

“Someone higher up had obviously heard of my father, because it got back to me that they were concerned about admitting a student with familial ties to a known criminal,” said Natale as she stood and began to pace. “But Captain Hasini—and Boothby—argued that as I had been granted asylum, and passed the entrance exam, there was no legal reason for them to deny me the chance to prove that I was nothing like him.”

Roijiana quirked a brow. “Hasini… That name sounds familiar.”

“It’s entirely possible you’ve either heard of or met her, if you’ve ever been to Deep Space Five,” said Natale. “She made vice admiral about six years ago, I believe—DS5 is under her command.”

Natale drew another breath and continued, finishing up the story of her life by speaking of her early days in the academy, the kidnapping attempt that resulted in her meeting Brian, and the message from her father that followed—the one that led to her wasting twenty years of her life on fear and loneliness and had nearly cost her the love and devotion of the best man she’d ever known.

Roijiana sat back in her chair. “I have to say it strikes me as very odd that your father only ever tried once to re-acquire you in twenty years. If you were so valuable to him, why not try again?”

Natale looked to her. “I used to wonder that as well,” she said as she took her chair again. “Then it occurred to me that even though I was free to live my life, he still had me—that in issuing that threat, forbidding me to let myself love or be loved, knowing it would frighten me into obedience…he still had all the control he wanted. By scaring me into foregoing a loving relationship with a man, there was no way he could be replaced.”

“What is so special about you, anyway?” the Boslic asked then. “Why treat you as a princess and his other children as no better than slaves?”

“Because I am both red and green,” she replied. “As you are probably aware, there are two ethnic groups on my home planet, distinguished by the color of their skin: green Orions and red Orions. The greens have always been the majority—only about one-third of the population is red—and the greens have never failed to lord it over the reds. Reds are considered second-class citizens, hardly ranking above slaves. In fact, many are taken as slaves just to prove to them which class of Orions are the superior.”

“But isn’t your father a red?”

Natale nodded. “He is. He’s also the only red Orion to ever lead a major gang within the Syndicate—he earned that distinction by being so ruthless and brutal that even the green lords developed a healthy fear of crossing him. All the other reds in the organization are small-time crooks or they serve one of the gang leaders.

“As for what makes me special… Something else I’m sure you’re aware of is that green females produce exceptionally strong pheromones. They’re so potent that males of most species are unable to resist them, with prolonged exposure making them susceptible to an almost hypnotic suggestion. A green female, if she were with a susceptible male long enough, could get him to do pretty much anything she wanted. The opposite is true of reds—on that side of the spectrum, it’s the males who produce the potent pheromones.”

“And they affect females, as the green women affect males?”

“Precisely. Vulcans of either gender are immune, as is anyone psionically bonded to a Vulcan. Same for any person psionically bonded to another, really, but such a connection is hardly common, thus men are prone to being led and women to becoming uber-bitches.”

Roijiana nodded, then said, “I’m still not understanding why your parental combination is so significant.”

“Because for some reason, the blood of pheromone-producing males and females is virtually incompatible,” Natale replied. “They can conceive together, but almost never carry to term—the condition is akin to Rh-factor compatibility in Humans. Our geneticists believe the female’s immune system attacks the fetus as a foreign object. Most pregnancies between red males and green females end before the third month, but more often it’s before the female even knows she’s conceived. Even medical intervention isn’t a guarantee.

“The truth is, I should not exist. But I do. And due to the genetic manipulation required to keep me alive before I was even born, it was believed that I would not likely be able to produce the pheromones at all.”

“But you do.”

The captain nodded. “I do. I was given…lessons, they were called…in using them when I entered puberty and it was clear I produced them. I was tested on the male staff, on my brothers—even on my father a time or two. My being a female, that wasn’t entirely unexpected. But when I found out—much to everyone’s surprise—that I could influence females as well? Oh, that really piqued my father’s interest. I’m quite possibly the only living Orion capable of doing that.”

The counselor’s expression indicated the beginning of understanding. “I get it now. You’re a valuable commodity to your father because your birth was so very rare, and because your pheromones can be used to manipulate both men and women. But if even medicine doesn’t always help, how were you even born?”

Natale shrugged. “Luck of the draw, I guess. My mother was one of six concubines—she confessed this to me when she had to explain about my brothers and sisters. It’s also when she told me about the genetics issue, because I’d long wondered why my skin was orange when everyone else was either green or red. Hell, I’d never even seen any other skin color—that wasn’t on a screen or a hologram—until I stowed away on that freighter, because I was never allowed to leave the house. Allegedly it was for my own safety.”

The last she said with a derisive snort, as she now knew it was a lie. “Anyway, Mother explained that my father had sought the very best geneticist to help her keep me when it was discovered she was pregnant. Whatever that doctor did was obviously successful.”

Silence fell between the two women for a moment, before Roijiana drew a breath and said, “Captain, I think I understand why you told me all of this. You want to know why your father continues to have such power over you, is that correct?”

“Yes! That’s it exactly—why, after all this time of being virtually ignored, of being left to my own devices and not having laid eyes on the man, does that threat still hold sway?” Natale replied, anxiety that had built up once again making her agitated.

“To put it simply, I think it is because he is your father,” the counselor said simply. “You told me yourself that when you were living in his home, he loved you. Cared for you. Doted on you and adored you—‘pampered princess’ was how you described it.”

“All a complete sham, the bastard,” Natale muttered.

“Perhaps not. It’s entirely possible that he did love you—he could love you still. But whether his actions toward you then were real or a façade, you believed it. You returned his love with all your being. For seventeen years, you believed you were Daddy’s favorite, until he irrevocably shattered that belief by offering you as part of a trade.”

Natale pounded her fist on the desk. “He lied to me! He betrayed my love—I meant nothing more to him than what he could get for me! I wasn’t his beloved daughter, I was a fucking piece of property!”

“And that is the root of your pain, Captain,” Roijiana told her, her tone full of sympathy. “The one man in all the universe who should have loved and protected you, put you above all other concerns, betrayed you by offering to sell you as though you were little more than chattel. His actions made you feel as though you meant nothing, that his love was all a lie. I understand the feeling. The same thing happened to me, or almost. I’ve no idea who my father is, but I know what it’s like to be treated as property because I was property once. My mother still is.”

“As is mine,” Natale said softly. “As far as I know.”

She drew a deep breath then, filling her lungs and holding it for a count of five before slowly releasing the air. “You know, you’re probably right. My daddy issues aren’t because he’s a criminal. It’s because he failed miserably as a father. He was the very first man in my life, and he betrayed me.”

“It’s no small wonder, Captain, that you found yourself capable of trusting any man at all,” Roijiana observed. “Perhaps it may even have been a part of why you kept Captain Wallace at arms’ length for as long as you did.”

Natale looked at her, smiled even though she didn’t really feel it. “You know, when you really apply yourself, Counselor, you’re very good at what you do,” she said. “I remember actually feeling that way about Brian for a while, after I first met him. I wasn’t sure I could trust him, not even as a mere friend. When I first got that message from my father, I was scared for him, yes, but also kind of pissed. How dare Zaddo assume he knew me so well? I barely allowed myself to be relaxed around Brian, was so cautious that I questioned almost every word he spoke. I wasn’t even close to wanting him, let alone loving him. That came much later.”

“And now you’ve stopped being afraid—you’ve not only learned to trust but you’ve also married Captain Wallace, and you’re to have a child with him,” Roijiana observed.

She shook her head. “I never said I wasn’t still afraid. Just that I had finally come to realize that I am not one of my father’s slaves. That I can’t keep pushing away the people I care about. My concern is not for myself, but for my husband and my child.”

“Your concern has always been for him.”

“Yes. Brian and this baby are more important to me than anything,” Natale replied. “I have to see them protected, and I just know that if I take this assignment to Starbase Echo, my father will see it as an opportunity. He’ll use me as a pawn to lure Brian into a trap, and then he will carry out his threat from twenty years ago. He’ll steal my child and sell us both to the highest bidder.”

“Captain, you seem to be forgetting that he would actually have to capture you first, and to kidnap a Starfleet officer from a Federation starbase has got to be next to impossible,” Roijiana observed. “With so many internal sensors and cameras and people, there’s simply no way it would go off unseen, and that evidence would be used to secure your release.”

“Not to mention that there’s no telling what fleet Brian will be assigned to,” Natale said. “Could make getting him next to impossible as well.”

“What do you mean? Is Starfleet disbanding the 11th Fleet?”

The captain shrugged. “I have no idea, but the way Dodge talked, it’s a possibility. And even if they don’t, who knows what fleet will be based out of Echo? The way my luck is going, it won’t be one with the Triumph in it.”

She looked across the desk and forced a smile. “Thank you, Counselor, for the talk. I know I’m not the most willing of patients.”

Roijiana returned the smile, though hers was genuine. “I’ve noticed that commanding officers tend to be the most reluctant to seek counseling,” she said. “And when they do, the crisis is more often than not a very personal one.”

“As was mine. Again, thanks. You’ve managed to help me see things a little more clearly. I still want to get out of this assignment if I can, but if I can’t, I suppose I will just have to rely on the skills of my bodyguard and the excellence of Federation technology to keep me and my baby safe,” Natale said.

Her commbadge chirped at that moment. “Ops to Natale,” said Bowman’s voice.

“Go ahead, Ensign.”

Admiral Haywood is returning your call, ma’am. He’s requested a holo conference.”

Natale looked again to Roijiana, who stood with a nod and moved toward the door. “Understood, Ensign. Tell the admiral I will be with him momentarily.”

“I am pleased you are feeling better about your situation, Captain,” said Roijiana as the double door swished open behind her. “Hopefully it will work out to your satisfaction.”

“Yes. Hopefully indeed, Counselor,” Natale replied.

A moment later the doors closed again, leaving her alone in the office. Natale tapped a few controls on her computer to engage the holographic conferencing system; the emitters had been installed in the ceiling between the door and her desk, enabling her to either remain sitting or to stand and walk around it. The program automatically engaged the privacy mode on the doors, which she liked, because these types of conversations usually required as much privacy as could be had.

When the hologram of Admiral Elliot Haywood appeared before her, he was sitting at his own desk, leaning back in his chair with his hands steepled before him. “Good afternoon, Captain Natale,” he greeted her.

She nodded. “Good afternoon, sir. Thank you for getting back to me,” she said.

“I have requested this holo conference, Captain, because I have a good idea what it is you wish to discuss and I thought it best done in person, so to speak. This is about your assignment to Starbase Echo. Am I wrong?”

Natale stood. “No, sir. If I may speak freely?”

Haywood nodded and she stepped around the desk. When she stood before it, she said bluntly, “Admiral, I can’t go to Starbase Echo. Sending me to the edge of the Borderland increases the danger to myself, my husband, and our unborn child.”

Her last words appeared to surprise him. “Admiral Dodge said you had recently married, Ms. Natale, but he did not mention a child was coming. May I offer my congratulations?”

The Orion smiled. “Thank you, Admiral. Though we certainly did not expect it to happen so soon, we are surprised and delighted.”

“Captain, I know why you are concerned about the posting—your father is known to operate his business from inside the Borderland. But it was my understanding that you’d had no contact with him in the last twenty years.”

“That would not be entirely accurate, sir. I’ve had no direct contact with him, but he has certainly made contact with me,” Natale said, then explained about the attempted kidnapping—which Starfleet was aware of—and the message that had followed. She told him about the gifts she received on or around her birthday every year.

“So you see, sir, even though I’ve not seen or spoken to him, he’s been letting me know he’s still watching. My concern is no longer for myself—if it were just me, I’d go and laugh in his face. But it’s not just me in the equation anymore, Admiral. I have to consider the safety of my husband and our son or daughter. I’d be greatly surprised, in fact, if he doesn’t already know that I’ve gotten married, let alone that a baby is coming.”

The hologram of Haywood sighed. “Captain, your concerns are duly noted. I respect that you seek to protect your loved ones from harm. In the matter of Captain Wallace, however, he is a grown man. He commands a Federation battleship, and I’m inclined to believe that he is capable of defending himself—and you.”

Natale smiled. “I don’t doubt that, sir—Brian’s been protective of me ever since I’ve known him. And I don’t doubt that he can handle himself in a fight. I just fear that his connection to me will be used against him, that he will be drawn into some sort of elaborate trap trying to rescue me even if I haven’t actually been kidnapped. Then he will be used against me to get me to do whatever my father wants. I can’t allow that, Admiral. I cannot—I will not—let that monster torture a man to death because he dared to love me. I won’t be forced to watch as the body and the spirit of the man I love are broken. It would drive me insane.”

Haywood was silent for a long moment. He then reached over and appeared to key something into his computer, before his image unexpectedly disappeared. Natale was startled, and had just raised her hand to slap her commbadge and contact Ops to get the signal back when he blinked back into her office. This time the hologram was standing, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Forgive me, Captain, I had to make sure the channel was secure before I spoke again,” said Haywood. “What I am about to reveal to you must remain between us, am I understood?”

Natale nodded. “Should I disable audio and visual sensors in my office, sir?”

Haywood smiled briefly. “That won’t be necessary—a program is piggy-backing this signal that will erase the next few minutes from the sensor logs. Now, as to the reason for the secrecy… For some time now, both Starfleet and Marine Intelligence have been working with the Federation Security Bureau to curb the reach of the Orion Syndicate in Federation space. Your father is one of the primary targets.”

Anger flared beneath her breast. “And you want to use me as bait, to lure him out of his hole? No thank you. I walked away from that man twenty years ago for a reason! You know what he’s capable of or he wouldn’t be a target for your sting operation. I will not willingly put myself and my child in danger—and if you issue a direct order I will resign my commission, effective immediately. Sir.”

Haywood raised an eyebrow. “You would refuse to help eliminate one of the most notorious gangsters known across two quadrants, Captain?”

“Something tells me that Starfleet Command was planning to send me to Starbase Echo without ever informing me of their intentions. You’re only telling me now because I’m threatening to walk and you want my full cooperation. I refuse to be a pawn, Admiral.”

“Then be the queen!” Haywood said, using another chess metaphor. “Admiral Dodge assigning you to Starbase Echo without consideration of the inherent danger, without actually requesting your participation in the sting, was underhanded—I’ll be having a word with him about that. You should be informed of our desire that your presence will be an enticement to Zaddo Natale from the start—and because I see the benefit of having you there, I am hoping you will be so willingly. I’m sure you’ve been thinking that there are numerous other candidates for the position, and there are. But frankly, none of them have your experience of running a starbase in hostile territory. Echo’s at the edge of the Regulus system, and while not technically in hostile space, as you’ve noted it’s very close.

“Help us, Captain Natale. Accept this assignment—go to Starbase Echo and laugh in your father’s face, as you said you would. If I can guarantee anything, it’s that there will be numerous safeguards in place to see to your safety and that of your child, when it comes, including additional station and personal security.”

Natale scoffed lightly. “My personal security has already been seen to by Admiral Tattok and my husband. I thought that it was connected to this assignment when I first heard of it, and especially now since you said the Marines were involved. Trevor Whitehorse came to Sanctuary in Fleet gold, but revealed he’s a lieutenant colonel in the Corps.”

Again Haywood lifted his brow. “Not to my knowledge, Captain. It would seem that our friend the Roylan has more connections than either of us know, and that he and Captain Wallace care deeply enough to hire protection in order to ease your mind. That arrangement has nothing to do with the security measures I spoke of, but it will certainly work in our favor if you should agree.”

She nodded slowly. “All right. You speak of my safety and the baby’s, but what about Brian’s?”

“There, I’m afraid, I cannot do much else but put additional personnel on his ship, perhaps also assign a security escort. As I said before, Captain Wallace commands a battleship. We must be able to send him where he is needed—even if the 11th Fleet were to remain intact and assigned to Cardassian space, that would not be a guarantee to his safety. Or yours, given he and Admiral Tattok arranged for your protection still believing you’d be there another two or three years,” Haywood told her.

Natale moved to lean back against her desk. She crossed her arms as she considered his words, then said, “You have an unfortunately good point there, Admiral. If my father can arrange to have gifts sent to me, or credits deposited into my account, then he can get to us anywhere. But being closer to him will make it a whole hell of a lot easier, sir.”

“I know,” the admiral conceded with a nod. “That is why I decided to make you aware that the Federation is actively moving against him. Knowing that there are things going on in the background should help you better prepare yourself if any move is made against you. You’ll certainly be better protected.”

“If I do this, I don’t just want to be the carrot dangling in the trap,” Natale told him. “I want to be kept informed of the progress of the operation. I want as much advance warning as can be given if I need to, say, barricade myself in my office or something.”

Haywood nodded again. “I believe that can be arranged, Captain.”

She held up a hand. “I’m not saying yes right this moment, Admiral. There’s one thing I must do before I agree.”

Natale almost laughed when his eyebrow lifted again. “Oh? And what might that be?” he asked.

“I need to discuss it with Captain Wallace.” She stood straight when the hologram showed Haywood drawing a breath to protest. “That is not negotiable for me, sir. I’ll keep the news of the joint task force from my crew, as I am sure Brian will keep it from his, but I will not willingly endanger myself and my child without my husband’s full knowledge and consent.”

Haywood’s hologram walked up to Natale, studied her…and then nodded once more. He even smiled a little. “You drive a hard bargain, Captain Natale.”

“I’ve just recognized that I’m in a strong position to negotiate, Admiral,” she retorted. “You want me on that starbase a hell of a lot more than I want to be there. In order to get what you want, you’re going to have to accept what I want.”

“And if Captain Wallace should decide he does not wish his wife to put herself in harm’s way?”

Now Natale drew a breath. “Then I will either accede to his wishes and piss off Starfleet by resigning my commission, or I will piss him off by agreeing against his wishes. Personally, I am hoping I won’t need to risk the ruination of my marriage before it is a month old.”

“I do not envy you the choice before you, Captain. I truly do not,” said Haywood. “When do you expect the Triumph to return to Sanctuary?”

“Sometime later tonight—early morning hours, I believe.”

The admiral stepped back then, drew a breath, and said, “You’re likely to have retired for the evening, so I expect I’ll not receive an answer until tomorrow. By noon, Captain, if possible—should you be choosing retirement over command of Echo, I’ll need to begin the search for a replacement.”

Natale nodded. “Understood, sir.”

A moment later, the holographic image of Admiral Haywood commanded the transmission’s end and he blinked out of existence. A sigh escaped the Orion as she turned around and once more looked out of the viewport behind her desk. She’d not missed or misunderstood his parting words, and she’d painted herself into that corner:

It was either take the job or quit—there would be no other assignment open to her.

***

Wallace walked off the turbolift and started down the corridor at a slow pace. Whether he ambulated toward the quarters he now shared with Synnove in that manner because he was tired from the overlong day or because he was seriously hoping to avoid a fight he could not honestly say. She’d been damn upset earlier and had responded to his repeated hails with a single line of text: I’ll talk to you later, Brian.

It had stung, but then maybe that was just her method of avoiding the inevitable argument as well.

An aggravated sigh escaped the Human as he rounded the corner. He then blinked in mild confusion as he noted an armed security officer standing to the side of his wife’s door.

“What’s the meaning of this, Lieutenant?” Wallace asked.

The younger man snapped to attention. “Sir! I’m standing guard by order of Captain Natale and Commander Whitehorse, sir.”

Of course. He ought to have known that Whitehorse would arrange additional security for his off-duty hours. “At ease, Lieutenant, and carry on,” he said, as he stepped over to the keypad next to the door and entered his security code.

He stepped into the darkened sitting room and made his way over to the closed bedroom door. Upon its opening, he glanced around and found himself able to see little more than edges in the starlight coming through the window over the bed; it cast a muted yellow-blue glow across the room, highlighting Synnove’s bare arm on top of the coverlet. Her head upon her pillow was in shadow, and hers was the deep, even breath of slumber.

Wallace undressed quietly before slipping into the bed as carefully as he could, hoping not to disturb his wife. After molding his body to hers he wrapped one arm around her and rested his head on the other, then sighed and closed his eyes to go to sleep himself. In the next moment his eyes snapped open, as Synnove rolled over to face him.

Mo ghaol, I’m—”

“Shh,” she responded, halting his words with a touch of her hand to his lips. It was immediately replaced by her mouth, which seemed intent on demanding, taking whatever she wanted.

Wallace was only too happy to give. The words could wait.

***

When the two of them were sated and cleaned up and settled once more in the bed, this time in each others’ arms, Wallace drew a breath.

“I’m sorry, Synnove. I should have told you that Admiral Tattok had suggested we seek protection for you,” he said slowly.

“Yes, you should have,” she replied. “I might even have accepted having a bodyguard willingly—after the usual protests, of course.”

She turned her head to look at him. “It’s your fault, you know. These crazy-ass mood swings of mine? Seems they’re an unfortunate side effect of pregnancy, so… Yeah. Totally your fault I’m a badass bitch one moment and a mewling quim the next.”

Wallace chuckled. “I believe that you were there that night the wee one was conceived—it does take two to samba, after all.”

Synnove snorted. “I’ll concede that, though only since I must. But to be perfectly honest with you, Brian, I hate this shit. Don’t get me wrong—I already love this baby more than my own life. I can hardly wait until he or she is born and we get to know the life we’ve created. And I’m already hopeful we’ll be able to give the little one a brother or sister in a few years. But pregnancy? The state of being pregnant? I’ve only been at it six bloody weeks, and I hate it. Only six weeks, and I hardly recognize myself. I’m a fearful, whiny, weepy, emotional wreck.”

She sat up then and looked back down at him. “Six weeks, Brian, and I already can’t stand the person I’ve become. Dr. Garcia, and every other mother I know, has already warned me it’s only going to get worse.”

Wallace sat up as well and drew her to him. “Come now, don’t talk like that. It’s just hormones, is all.”

“You can say that because your hormones aren’t turning you into a shitty copy of who you really are,” she countered. “I mean, come on, Brian… When have I ever acted like this before? Even when I got that stupid message, all I really did was get angry and push you away. I never got into a blubbering mess over it.”

That she seemed genuinely bothered by her fluctuating emotional state gave Wallace some pause. He’d heard stories amongst the women in his family that pregnancy simply didn’t suit every female.

With a sigh, he gave her a gentle squeeze and said, “I’m very sorry that you are uncomfortable. Perhaps you ought talk to Garcia again and see if there’s anything she can do for you. You might also consider talking to a counselor—Roijiana or one of the others here on the station. They may be able to provide you with some ideas on controlling your emotions better.”

Synnove snorted. “Maybe I should just talk to a Vulcan,” she retorted.

He laughed. “You could do that too. Now come, let’s get back to sleep while we’ve still some time left.”

She shook her head. “Not just yet. Brian, I want to talk to you about something. I want to get it settled in my head so that when we do lay back down, I’ll actually get some rest worthy of being labeled sleep.”

Wallace nodded, and listened in silence as she went on to detail the reason Starfleet wanted her at Starbase Echo. Tactically, he was forced to admit, it made perfect sense—though privately he wondered if her fears, and Starfleet’s assumptions, were even founded. It had been 20 years, after all, since she’d run away from home. Zaddo Natale had only tried to reacquire her once in all that time.

Which begged the question of why only the one time? Perhaps it was something to look into.

In any case, if there was any danger in his wife’s being so near to her father’s base of operations, then he didn’t want her there anymore than she wanted to be there. It didn't matter to him if that danger emanated from the Borderland or was manufactured by whoever was in charge of the sting operation just to prove there was a “real” threat.

He drew a breath when he realized she had stopped speaking, and looked into her eyes, the dark brown orbs made black by the near-absence of light. “Synnove,” Wallace asked, “what do you want to do? I will support whatever decision you make.”

“You’d do that?” she asked with a frown.

“Of course I would! ‘Tis part and parcel o’ bein’ married, to support yer spouse’s decisions.”

At his grin she leaned over and kissed him, then heaved a small sigh and turned her head to look out the window. “I don’t want to put any of us in harm’s way, whether it be great or minimal,” she began. Her eyes moved back to his. “At the same time, I can see the advantages of my being there, if it will really enable Starfleet and the FSB to bring about his downfall. Then nobody would have to be afraid of him, least of all me. Our family would be safe.”

Wallace nodded. “Then we’ll do it.”

Synnove raised her eyebrows. “We? Brian, I don’t think they consider you as part of the package.”

“Then we make them consider it,” he told her. “Either Triumph is in the fleet assigned to Echo—so I can be as close to you as is relatively possible—or we both quit, how about that? I’m sure we could each get a job in the private sector.”

She laughed. “Seriously? You would be okay with commanding some rat trap of a cargo hauler? Or some rickety transport ship?”

“Why not? As long as the work is honest and the money is enough to take care of my family, doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

His wife studied his face and then kissed him again. “You are the most amazing man I have ever met, do you know that? I absolutely do not deserve you.”

“I must admit you’re right about that, but as we’re married now, looks like I’m stuck with an undeserving wench for me wife. What a miserable sod I’ll be for the rest of me life.”

Synnove smacked him playfully on the arm and at last resettled herself beneath the covers. Wallace lay down beside her, molded himself to her again, and put his arm around her. He kissed her shoulder and said softly, “We know what we’re going to do either way, and we’ll make it work. Now go back to sleep while ye can, mo ghaol. We’ve a tough day ahead, and we’ll both of us need all the energy we can get.”

He felt her nod, then heard her say, “I love you,” in a soft, sleepy voice.

“I love you too,” he replied, then sought his own rest.

***

Ops to Roijiana.”

Thinking she was still dreaming, Sanctuary’s counselor ignored the comm—she could do that when she wasn’t on duty. She rolled over in her bed and tucked a hand under her cheek with a sigh.

Ops to Roijiana. Respond please.”

The Boslic stifled a growl as she rolled back onto her back and snapped, “Roijiana here. What is it?”

Begging your pardon for bothering you so early, Counselor, but we’ve received a comm signal from the U.S.S. Messenger. Dr. Tyr’lylth is requesting to speak to you.”

That woke her up a little more. “All right, put it through,” she said as she threw the blanket to the side and made herself get out of bed. After grabbing her robe from a nearby chair, she drew it on as she walked out to the desk in her sitting room, switching on the monitor as she sat down.

The serene countenance of the elfin Amalys Tyr’lylth popped onto the screen a moment later. “This had better be good, Amalys. It’s only five-thirty.”

Amalys smiled. “I’d not wake you so early if it wasn’t,” the Müus-án replied. “How would you like to have a breakfast meeting with Captain DeLuca? Messenger will be arriving at Sanctuary in a quarter hour. I’ve spoken to the captain about your situation and my willingness to reverse our positions—”

“Wait, do you mean he’s willing to take me on?!” Roijiana exclaimed, sitting up straight then. Goodness, how could she not have considered that was why her friend was calling her so early? She’d complained to her for well over an hour on a subspace call the night before about being demoted, after which Amalys had made the simplest of suggestions: why not switch places? To the Müus-án, also a counselor, it mattered not where she was located so long as she was able to help people. She’d served onboard the Intrepid-class Messenger for nearly two years and was well known to the crew, but had immediately offered to exchange places, stating it to be the simplest of solutions.

“Change is inevitable,” she’d said the night before. “The crew will get to know you just as well as they did me. Serving in a senior position means a lot more to you than it does to me, Roijiana. Being demoted doesn’t hurt my career since I’m a civilian anyway. I’d be happy to present the idea to Captain DeLuca on your behalf.”

Roijiana had gone to bed the night before filled with hope, though she had tempered it by reminding herself that Captain DeLuca, whom she had never met, might be unwilling to have a former Maquis terrorist on his ship. After all, there were a lot of people who hadn’t wanted her on Sanctuary—though to be fair, Captain Natale hadn’t been one of those.

“He’s willing to meet with you and discuss the possibility,” Amalys amended. “But it has to be during the unloading of the medical supplies we’re bringing because he is eager to get underway again.”

Roijiana grinned. “Right—you said he was most eager to rendezvous with the Apgar to get Messenger’s new CMO.”

Amalys nodded. “Captain DeLuca owes his life to Dr. Nir’ahn, and is ecstatic that Dr. Killian is being replaced with such a gifted surgeon… though I suspect from the way he’s talked about her in the past that he also developed a crush on her. Not uncommon in such circumstances as their meeting.”

“Indeed not,” Roijiana agreed. “Well, a meeting is better than a flat ‘No’, so I’ll take it. Let me get off of here so I’ll be ready by the time you arrive. Any idea which docking port?”

“I believe we are scheduled for mid-pylon three.”

“Excellent, I will see you there.”

The ladies each said their goodbyes and Roijiana switched off the computer. She hurried then into the bathroom, where she took care of her bladder before hopping into the sonic shower. She remained under the gently pulsating sound waves for only five minutes, combing her hair all the while, and when she was done she hurried into her undergarments and uniform. Her deep purple hair she pulled up and pinned as she took a lift down and walked to the dock, arriving just as the Messenger was being guided into place by the tractor system.

Thank goodness she had a few moments to steady her breath and nerves.

It was a few minutes’ wait before the airlock door rolled aside and anyone came through. The first five were medical officers pushing anti-grav sleds laden with crates, then she saw Amalys’ tall, willowy figure in a flowing white dress. Beside her was a taller, well-built man with dark hair and eyes and a purposeful stride. They walked ahead of what looked to be another five anti-grav sleds.

When the two stepped out of the airlock, Amalys stood between them. “Roijiana, may I introduce you to Captain Dominic DeLuca. Dominic, this is my very good friend Roijiana.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, sir,” said Roijiana as she shook the hand that DeLuca held out.

“Good to meet you too,” he replied. “Do you prefer to be addressed by rank or as Counselor? Amalys here likes to use everyone’s first name, but given you’re a Starfleet officer, I figure it’s best to stick to protocol until we know each other better.”

She nodded. “Of course, Captain. I tend to prefer Counselor, but if you slip and call me Lieutenant, I’ll not complain.”

DeLuca nodded. “Why don’t we go and get that breakfast now, I’m starving! Five a.m. is too damned early to get up in the morning, but I couldn’t help myself—I’m so excited!”

Roijiana shared a grin with Amalys before turning to lead the visitors to the Promenade. “Indeed, Captain. Amalys has told me that Messenger’s new doctor saved your life during the war.”

“My life, my ability to walk, to breathe… She’s an incredible surgeon. I haven’t seen Dr. Nir’ahn in two years, and I’m stoked I’ll get to see her every day very soon!”

Oh, he was excited all right, and somehow still infatuated with this Dr. Nir’ahn despite not having seen her in two years. She might have wondered about the strength of his attachment after all this time were she not aware that Brian Wallace had kept a flame burning for Synnove Natale for two decades.

On reaching the Promenade some minutes later, Roijiana headed for the Replimat, the only eatery open that early in the morning. When each had a steaming tray of breakfast foods, they took seats at a nearby table, and after DeLuca had eaten a couple bites of his stack of pancakes and washed it down with a swig of coffee, he brought up the reason for their meeting.

“Amalys spoke to me about your situation, how you would be demoted if you moved to Starbase Echo with the rest of Sanctuary’s Starfleet staff,” he began. “She said the two of you talked about switching places.”

Roijiana nodded. “We did, sir. It was Amalys’ idea—she told me that she would be willing to trade postings with me because to her, as a civilian counselor, it really makes little difference what her actual job title is.”

“And it makes a difference to you?”

“It does.” She took a drink of her raktajino. “No doubt you’ve already availed yourself of the opportunity to review my service record, Captain DeLuca, and if you have not already I will save you the trouble: I was undercover with the Maquis in order to build a psychological profile with which Starfleet might vet sympathizers, and I ended up becoming a believer in their cause myself. I did not always agree with their methods, but I agreed with their right to defend their homes, as no one—Cardassian or Federation—had shown any real interest in the planets on which they’d settled until the borderlines were redrawn.

“After my resistance cell’s last failed mission to destroy a munitions depot, I was taken prisoner by the Cardassians, and for three months I was subjected to treatment such as should never be spoken of in polite conversation. Upon being returned to the Federation in a prisoner exchange, I was stripped of my rank and career, branded a traitor, and imprisoned again in New Zealand. When Starfleet needed help fighting dirty during the war, myself and several other freedom fighters who had been captured were recruited to do that dirty fighting, and were promised freedom in exchange for our cooperation.”

DeLuca had continued to demolish his breakfast, listening in near silence while she spoke. He gestured with his fork as he swallowed a bite and said, “As a matter of fact, I have read your service record, Counselor, including the transcript of your court martial and the fight you put up to get back in uniform. I found myself wondering why you even bothered.”

Roijiana blinked. “Because despite my faults, Captain, despite my mistakes, I was still capable of helping people. It was a job I was damn good at, a job I loved.”

“You could have pursued your profession in the private sector,” DeLuca pointed out.

She conceded the point with a nod. “I could have, but I didn’t want the private sector. I wanted Starfleet. And frankly, after what our soldiers went through during the war, Starfleet needed me. That’s not arrogance or conceit, it is a simple statement of fact. We have officers still dealing with the aftermath of the horrors they witnessed and the traumas they suffered.”

DeLuca cast a sidelong glance at Amalys, and Roijiana began to wonder if he might just be one of the officers she’d described. If he agreed to the exchange, she would certainly find out.

She took another drink of her raktajino then. “Captain, I spent three months in a Cardassian prison. That alone was punishment enough for my mistake—at least in my opinion, given what I saw and heard and experienced there. But I was further punished, perhaps rightly so, when returned to the Federation and after my court martial spent another fifteen months in New Zealand. When I was granted reinstatement, I accepted the reduction in rank, the promotion restriction, and I did so without argument because just being back again was more important. Just being able to do the work I had trained to do was more important.

“And now, after all the progress I have made here, after nearly a year as a senior officer, to be told I would not be anymore once we transfer quite frankly feels like a slap in the face. I may not have been imprisoned more than a year and a half total, but I did my time. To demote me now, just because they can, seems naught but excess in punishment for a crime I’ve already done time for.”

By this time DeLuca had finished his meal. He pushed his plate away and regarded her with a scrutinizing expression, then drew a breath and said, “I think we’ve all got skeletons in our closets, Counselor. You were a short-term terrorist, I happen to be half Klingon—but you can’t tell either just by looking at us, can you? As long as you do your job and prove your commitment to the crew and the Federation, no other mention needs to be made about your having been in prison.”

Roijiana blinked. “So… so you agree to the exchange? Sir?”

He offered her a smile and a nod. “I’ll clear it with Starfleet Command. Hope you can pack quickly, because we’ve got a tight schedule to keep—Dr. Killian’s supposed to report to her new superiors on Earth by the end of the month, and I’d like to get her there on time.”

DeLuca stood then, picking up his dishes in hand as he said, “If you take care of my crew with half as much passion as you fight for what you believe is right, then I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. You ladies enjoy the rest of your breakfast, but don’t take too long, please. We’re only scheduled to be here for two hours”

Both Roijiana and Amalys acknowledged and watched him walk away. The former looked to her friend after a moment and asked, “Is he serious?”

“About what? Taking you on or being half Klingon?” Amalys countered.

“The latter. How can Captain DeLuca possibly be half Klingon? He looks completely Human.”

Amalys smiled. “I can assure you he is. The how I’m afraid you’ll have to get from him sometime, as it’s not my place to say. When you are officially Ship’s Counselor on the Mess in the next hour or so, I suppose you could look up his counseling records, but I really think you should talk to Dominic. Or let him come to you and tell you about it in his own time.”

“You are right, as usually you are,” said Roijiana with a grin. “But do you really think he’ll be able to get Command to agree?”

“I don’t see why not. After all, what purpose would it really serve to deny the exchange?”

Roijiana sighed. “You’re right—again. Forgive me, Amalys, but with everything I’ve had to go through to get back in Starfleet, everything I’ve had to put up with since… Surely you can understand my concern.”

The Müus-án nodded. “I do. But I also believe that Captain DeLuca will be successful in his endeavor. Now let us hurry and finish our breakfast so I can help you pack.”

“That won’t take long,” said Roijiana with a snort. “It’s not like I’ve accumulated a lot in the last six or seven months.”

“Perhaps not, but it will give us something to do. I’ve already done my packing.”

“Before even knowing if your captain would agree?”

Amalys smiled again, in that way she had when even those who knew her well honestly could not tell if she was being genuine or placating. “Yes, before. Because I know Dominic, and I have faith in his knowing a good officer when he sees one, as well as his ability to get something done. So do stop worrying, okay?”

After taking a deep breath, Roijiana nodded. She had known Amalys since the other woman had been an instructor at the Academy, teaching advanced psychology classes to post-grad officers working toward their Ph.D.s. She’d always had a knack for reading people, for being intuitive, and she had never steered a student—or a friend—in the wrong direction. If Amalys had enough faith in DeLuca that he would not only accept their plan but also see to it that Starfleet did as well, shouldn’t she be able to share that faith?

Physician, heal thyself.

***

When Natale exited her quarters with Brian to find Whitehorse dutifully stationed on the other side of the door, she found that he was not alone. Roijiana stood with him, along with a brunette woman whose upswept hair showed pointed ears—the smile on her face telling that in spite of that feature, she was likely not a Vulcan.

“Captain, good morning,” said Roijiana. “I do apologize for bothering you before you’ve even reported for duty, but I wanted to tell you right away what’s happened.”

Natale nodded. “Then by all means, Counselor, do tell.”

Roijiana turned to the woman beside her. “This is Dr. Amalys Tyr’lylth, former Academy instructor and personal friend. I spoke to her last night about the matter you and I discussed yesterday and she came up with a brilliant solution that will work out for both of us.”

“Did she now?” said Natale, who shared a glance with her husband before turning back to the other women. “And what was that?”

“Roijiana and I are in the same field, Captain,” spoke up Amalys. “Thus, my suggestion was that we simply exchange places in order for her to retain senior officer status. I spoke to Captain DeLuca—I’ve been serving as counselor on the U.S.S. Messenger for the past two years—and he agreed after meeting with Roijiana this morning.”

“And what about Starfleet Command?”

“Captain DeLuca assured us that he would clear the exchange with Command before the Messenger departed again at 0730, Captain,” Roijiana replied.

“I expect we shall hear back from him at any moment,” added Amalys.

Natale nodded. “Very well. Roijiana, it was a pleasure working with you these last six months or so.”

“It has been a pleasure for me as well, Captain. I think I’ve learned a lot from you,” Roijiana replied.

A smile came to Brian’s face as well as her own, and Natale felt emotion begin to swell in her chest. Damned hormones, she thought as she fought to control herself.

“I hope that is a compliment, and that you haven’t learned any of my bad habits,” she replied when she felt she could speak. “While we wait to hear from Captain DeLuca, why don’t you ladies join us in Ops? You can keep Mr. Whitehorse here entertained by attempting to psychoanalyze him while Captain Wallace and I have a conversation with Admiral Heywood.”

“Oh, I think I have this one pretty much pegged already,” said Amalys as the group started down the corridor. “Roijiana and I have only talked with him a few minutes, but I have already determined that he is arrogant, self-centered—”

“Gee, thanks,” muttered Whitehorse.

“I could have told you that, no psychoanalysis needed,” spoke up Brian.

“Actually, Captain Wallace, your own judgment of the commander is based in psychoanalytics,” said Roijiana as the group approached a turbolift. “But as Dr. Tyr’lylth was saying, Commander Whitehorse comes across as arrogant and self-centered, and I’ve detected hints of condescension in his manner, but I also believe he is dedicated, honest, trustworthy, loyal to a fault…”

“And those latter traits are a bad thing…why?” countered Whitehorse.

The five stepped onto the lift when it came; five people made it a tight fit. “They’re not. Nor is confidence, which you also possess—in abundance.”

Whitehorse laughed and Natale ordered the lift to take them to Ops. In the minutes it took for them to arrive, the Betazoid returned the favor of the two counselors and analyzed them, no doubt employing a little of his ability to read their minds in the doing. He broke off mid-sentence when the lift stopped and his gaze fell on the man standing at the pool table.

Natale, in that moment, wondered if Starbase Echo’s Ops had such a thing.

“Jordan! Good morning!” Whitehorse greeted the defense officer as he stepped first off of the lift.

Kelley did not look up from what he was studying on the table’s display as he replied, “I believe the proper address is ‘Commander’ or ‘Commander Kelley’ when addressing a superior officer, Mr. Whitehorse.”

“You wound me,” Whitehorse retorted as he walked around the table to stand directly across from the defense officer. “I thought we were becoming friends.”

Natale watched as Kelley slowly lifted his head. His expression remained deadpan as he replied, “We met barely twenty-four hours ago and spent only a shift in each other’s presence, Commander. In that time, you pissed me off, annoyed the hell out of me, and all but refused to shut up for more than two seconds together.”

“So what are you saying—you don’t like me?”

“I think that about covers it.”

Beside her, Brian snorted, and Natale looked up at her husband. His other hand covered his mouth as he fought not to burst out laughing. Truthfully, the exchange had been incredibly humorous, and she was hard-pressed not to laugh herself.

Whitehorse pulled out a stool from under the pool table and dropped onto it. “Wow. I’m hurt, Jordan. I really am. I thought you were smart enough to recognize when a guy’s trying to get your attention.”

Kelley snorted. “Oh, you got my attention all right. Unfortunately.”

The Betazoid crossed his arms, one hand raised to rub his chin as if in thought. “Hmm. Maybe I went about it the wrong way. Sometimes I come on too strong—or so I’ve been told. But what can a guy do to let another guy know he thinks he’s hot?”

Kelley’s green eyes grew wide with surprise. Natale had to bite her lip to hold in the laughter bubbling in her chest, and Brian actually turned away from the scene before them as he fought his own mirth. The two counselors exchanged amused smiles and others in Ops either smiled or laughed softly, but before either Kelley or Whitehorse could speak on the matter, Ensign Bowman cleared her throat.

“Begging your pardon, Captain, but I’m receiving a transmission from the Messenger. It’s for Counselor Roijiana.”

Natale stepped past the pool table to stand in the middle of Ops—Roijiana and Dr. Tyr’lylth stepped up on either side of her. “Put it on the viewscreen, Ensign.”

Bowman acknowledged and tapped the controls on her console; a moment later, the viewscreen showed a man with dark brown hair and eyes with four pips on his red collar. Natale now recalled she had briefly met Dominic DeLuca a time or two in the months she’d been on the station.

“Forgive the early morning call, Captain Natale,” he said, “but I wanted to speak with your counselor and mine. I see that they’re with you, so I assume you’ve been brought up to speed?”

“Yes, Captain DeLuca,” she replied. “I take it you have news for us?”

He nodded. “I do. Looks like my counselor is now yours, and yours is now mine. Starfleet Command has agreed to the exchange.”

Natale looked over at Roijiana in time to catch a fleeting expression of relief, before her features settled into her usual serene mask. “Thank you very much, Captain, for doing this. Words cannot adequately express my appreciation.”

DeLuca smiled. “No thanks necessary. Remember to be onboard in the next twenty-five minutes. Messenger out.”

When the screen blinked off, Roijiana sighed. As she was turning toward Natale, Commander Kelley came around the pool table and said, “Roijiana, you’re leaving us?”

The Boslic glanced at Natale briefly, then looked to the Human male with a nod. “I am, Commander. I do apologize to everyone for the extremely short notice, but I had to take advantage of an opportunity to remain a senior officer, as on Starbase Echo I wouldn’t be.”

Kelley’s eyes shifted. “Captain, what is she talking about?” he asked.

“Do you remember me saying in the briefing yesterday that most of us would be performing the same duties on Echo?” Natale asked. When he nodded, she said, “Unfortunately, Counselor Roijiana was not one of the ‘most’. Starfleet Command decided that they wanted someone with more rank and seniority to be senior counselor given the size of the new station’s crew complement. She was set to be reduced in position to assistant counselor.”

“But Captain, you said yourself that we’re not likely to even have a full crew for some time,” spoke up Bowman.

“I know, but I’m in no position to argue Command’s decision on the matter when I had some issues with my own transfer that needed resolved.”

She felt Kelley’s eyes on her as she spoke, and was not surprised when he asked in a low voice, “What did you decide?”

“We’ll discuss it in my office in a moment, Commander.” She turned to Roijiana. “If you’ve got any goodbyes to make, you’d better do them quick.”

“I plan to send a message to everyone I have worked on a professional level and with whom I developed a friendship,” Roijiana said, then turned her gaze to Kelley. “However, as a few of them are here now…”

She stepped up to him and said, “I think I can safely say that you and I were becoming friends, Mr. Kelley. I will miss you, and I do hope for the best for you.”

Kelley smiled and clearly surprised Roijiana when he drew her into a brief embrace. “I’ll miss you too,” he said, adding when he pulled back, “but with any luck, Messenger will be in the fleet assigned to Starbase Echo and we’ll still get to see each other.”

“I will keep my fingers crossed,” said the counselor, who then moved over to Bowman to exchange goodbyes and a hug. She spoke to another officer or two before she returned to Natale’s side and embraced her.

“Thank you for your friendship and support, Captain,” she said.

“Thank you for yours, Counselor,” Natale returned. “Though since we’re not going to be working together anymore, you’re welcome to call me Synnove.”

Roijiana smiled. “And you don’t need to preface my name with ‘Counselor’ if you don’t want to,” she said.

“Roijiana, we’d better be going,” Tyr’lylth warned softly. “We’ve still got to go by your quarters for your trunk.”

“Right, of course.” The two women walked together over to the lift, and Messenger’s new counselor waved at her former crew until she could no longer see them.

“I can’t believe Starfleet Command would do that to her,” muttered Ensign Bowman. “Hardly seems fair to demote her when she’s done everything they asked of her—even working with the same people who kept her prisoner for three months!”

“Not technically the same people, Ensign, but you’re quite right,” said Natale. She then gestured to Brian, who stood waiting where she’d left him at the end of the pool table, as well as Kelley, and led them toward her office—Kelley frowned when Whitehorse moved to follow. Kirek came up on the lift at that moment, and she called out that he had command while she was in her meeting.

Inside her office, she filled Kelley and Whitehorse in on what she and Brian had discussed after he’d returned. Her husband confirmed that he would demand his ship be in the fleet stationed at Starbase Echo, and that if the security measures they planned to request weren’t agreed to, they both planned to resign.

“You’d really go that far?” asked a stunned Kelley.

“Only if we have to, Commander,” said Natale. “And considering we’re not really asking for much, I don’t see any reason that Command should not agree.”

“I concur, Captain,” put in Whitehorse, his tone and posture all business—for the moment. “And once we’re confirmed for Starbase Echo, I’ll more thoroughly study the schematics and develop a plan of security for you and for Baby Wallace when he or she arrives.”

“I’ll work with you on that,” piped up Brian, his tone brooking no argument.

Whitehorse looked to him. “Of course, Captain. I would welcome your input—they are your family, after all.”

Natale drew a breath and blew it out. “And with that said, Mr. Kelley… Have Bowman send a comm request to Haywood’s office. May as well get this show on the road.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kelley replied with a nod, before turning smartly for the door.

When Whitehorse turned to follow, the Orion halted him in mid-stride when she called out for him to remain. After the door had closed between the two, Whitehorse turned back to her with a quizzical expression.

“Something I can do for you, Captain?”

“Yes,” Natale said as she crossed her arms over her chest. “You can pay real close attention to what I’m about to say to you.”

The Betazoid sobered and stood straighter, and the captain felt her husband stiffen beside her.

“You are a Federation Marine, Lieutenant Colonel Whitehorse,” she began. “It’s not often that a Marine gets assigned to a security detail for a Starfleet officer. As such, it is uncertain how long or brief your continued service as my guardian might be.”

Whitehorse frowned. “It was my understanding that the assignment was indefinite,” he said. “Are you not satisfied with the arrangements I have made so far? Do you desire a second guardian? I’m sure I can arrange it with Chief Zram—”

“I’m sure Chief Zram is wondering why he didn’t get the assignment himself, or why he wasn’t consulted so he could at the very least recommend someone from our security staff,” Natale replied. “However, my concern is not with your capability to perform your duties, Mr. Whitehorse. It’s with your conduct otherwise.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“You have been deliberately baiting my defense coordinator. Some might even call it flirting. I want to know what your intentions are towards Commander Kelley.”

“Synnove,” Brian began. “However much an asshole Whitehorse can be, I don’t think he’s going to just play around with Kelley like that.”

Whitehorse looked to him. “I would say thank you, Captain Wallace, but I’m not sure that was a compliment.” To Natale he said, “Captain, I wasn’t aware it was within your scope to determine who is and is not allowed to interact with the officers under your command.”

“Jordan Kelley isn’t just an officer under my command, Colonel. He’s become a friend I care a great deal about, and if you are just screwing around with him, I’d advise against it. That kind of conduct is beneath even a Marine.”

“Aren’t you being a little overprotective?”

“I haven’t even begun to be overprotective,” she snapped. “Kelley is a good, kind man who doesn’t deserve to be embarrassed in front of his crewmates or to have his feelings trifled with. Should your intentions be honorable, fine—but if I find out you are just being an asshole, you’ll regret ever accepting this assignment. ”

The Betazoid smiled, then gave a short laugh. “Your motherly instincts are already beginning to show themselves, Captain.”

Natale arched an eyebrow. “My being an expectant mother has little to do with my feelings on this matter, except perhaps to strengthen my desire to see to it my friend and colleague is protected from anybody who would do him harm.”

“Well, you can relax because I’ve no intention of doing anything of the sort,” said Whitehorse. “Kelley and I have a mutual acquaintance who has told me a lot about him. Said I should look him up if I was ever out this way—she likes to play matchmaker for me whenever she gets the chance because I’m allegedly too much of a loner. So, when I was contacted by the Corps personnel officer about this assignment—on Captain Wallace’s recommendation, I should remind you—I couldn’t help but think about the opportunity to have a little fun for however long the assignment lasted.”

“Kelley doesn’t want just ‘a little fun’, Colonel. I happen to know that he’s hoping for something serious, something deep. And if you’re not ready for that kind of relationship yourself, I suggest you back off now. If there is a possibility you won’t be here very long, leave him alone. I don’t want to see him get hurt again.”

Whitehorse raised his eyebrows, then nodded slowly. “I will take your words into consideration, Captain.”

“Consider them carefully. Dismissed.”

Once alone with Brian, Natale turned to her husband and asked, “Why did you choose him?”

Brian tipped his head to the side. “Do you really have a problem with Whitehorse? If you do, I will speak to Chief Zram about arranging your security and I will contact Tattok to have Whitehorse recalled.”

She dropped her arms and sighed. “It’s not such much that I have a problem with him,” she said slowly. “He’s just… I dunno. I can’t seem to get a read on him. He definitely seems a bit full of himself, and though he’s been perfectly serious when it comes to his duties, he tends to joke around a lot and can’t seem to leave Jordan alone.”

“Maybe he really does like him and the joking around is his way of letting his feelings be known,” Brian suggested.

“How can anyone take him seriously if he’s constantly making light of everything? How does a guy like that even make it through the Marine Academy?”

He moved to stand in front of her, pulled her arms open so he could hold her hands. “Synnove, love, I may think Trevor Whitehorse is an arrogant little shit, and maybe his personality is rather irritating, but I can assure you that he is one of the most capable soldiers I have ever had reason to witness in combat. That’s why I recommended him when Admiral Tattok suggested we get you a bodyguard. Though I certainly hope he will never be required to prove his many qualifications, having seen what he can do for myself I am confident that should the need arise, he will defend you most admirably.”

Natale gave his hands a squeeze. “And for that I am grateful, Brian, truly. And truthfully, he doesn’t bother me all that much. I just don’t want him hurting Kelley—he’s barely gotten over messing things up with Rogan.”

Brian grinned as he pulled her body against his. “You know, as much as it pains me to admit it, Whitehorse is right about one thing: your motherly instincts are definitely coming to the fore.”

She scoffed in response. “Please. Just because I stood up for a friend of mine—”

“It is your passionate defense of said friend,” he interrupted, “that I believe has just shown me a hint of the mama bear you’ll become in defense of our daughter.”

“You haven’t even begun to see the mama bear,” she began, then narrowed her eyes as his words sank in. “Wait a minute… Did you just say daughter?”

“I-I-I meant it metaphorically,” he sputtered. “We could just as easily be having a boy.”

The guilty expression he tried vainly—and quite poorly—to remove from his face gave away his words as untrue. She pushed him away from her as she said, “Brian Alistair Wallace, you cheated! You looked at my medical record, didn’t you?!”

“No. I pestered Dr. Garcia until she told me to shut me up,” he confessed with a groan.

Disappointment flooded through her. “Damn it, Brian, we agreed to wait or to find out together if we couldn’t—now I find out you knew before me!”

“Well, technically speaking you knew you were pregnant before I did,” Brian said, then immediately winced as he realized how stupid his own words sounded.

That was unavoidable and you know it,” Natale snapped.

“I know! I’m sorry, that was a dumbass thing to say. I’m sorry—”

Ops to Natale.”

“Go ahead, Mr. Kelley,” she called out, not taking her eyes off her husband.

We’ve got Admiral Haywood for you. Set for holo conference as requested.”

“Thank you Commander. Natale out.”

She stepped away from Brian and moved around the desk; her hand hovered over the control pad there as she glanced up and said, “Real smart move, Captain, to piss me off right before a conference with the brass.”

Before he could reply, Natale pressed the controls to bring the holographic comm. signal into her office. In the seconds it took for Elliot Haywood and his desk to materialize, she had drawn a breath, squared her shoulders, and set her expression to neutral. “Good morning, Admiral,” she said when the image coalesced.

Haywood nodded. “Good morning, Captain Natale. Captain Wallace,” he said. “I must admit I didn’t expect to hear from you so early.”

“Well, I figured I might as well get the most unpleasant thing I have to do today taken care of so I could focus on what else I have to do,” she replied casually, though from the set of Brian’s shoulders, her underlying message that this was no longer the most unpleasant thing on her agenda had gotten through to him.

“Am I to understand by Captain Wallace’s presence that the two of you have come to a mutual agreement regarding your posting to Starbase Echo, Ms. Natale?” asked Haywood.

She nodded. “We have, sir. I’ll do it, but Starfleet’s going to have to concede a couple of minor caveats in order to secure my cooperation.”

The hologram’s eyebrows rose. “I was not aware this was a negotiation, Captain.”

Natale chuckled as she crossed her arms. “Now we both know that’s not true, Admiral. You said yourself that there are many other candidates capable of doing the job, and whoever planned this had to know I’d fight it, given the station’s proximity to the Borderland. I think you came prepared to negotiate today, and I did tell you when last we talked that I was are of being in a position to do so. You want me on Echo as bait, and you’ll do whatever it takes—within reason—to make sure I go there.”

Haywood seemed almost amused by the bold statement. “And if Command is not, in fact, prepared to negotiate?”

“If I’m wrong, then I’d say I’m facing either a demotion and posting to the shittiest job you can find for me—ostensibly to teach me the error of my ways—or you’re facing my immediate resignation. Neither are very pleasing prospects, but at least if I am forced to quit I can still find some happiness in my work. Being stuck in a shithole won’t make me very happy, and probably won’t make you or your friends there at Command very happy either.”

For a moment the admiral just stared back at her, and then he laughed. “Captain Natale, I think I like you. You tell me what’s really on your mind without asking to speak freely, and yet you manage to keep your tone respectful, if not every word.”

“Pardon the vulgarities, Admiral. But really, would any other words suffice?”

He smiled. “Probably not. State your terms, Captain.”

Natale lowered her arms and moved around the desk. “I want it in writing—sealed Classifed, naturally—that there will be additional security measures taken to ensure the safety of myself and my child—AV sensors and personnel. You want to draw Zaddo out, fine. But I’m not going to put myself or my baby at unnecessary risk just so the FSB can snare their target.”

Haywood nodded. “A perfectly reasonable request. He doesn’t have to actually come in contact with you, just be enticed by your nearness to crawl out from under that rock he’s been hiding under for the last forty-five years. What else?”

At the question, Brian stepped closer to her. “I want the Triumph reassigned to whatever fleet is to be based out of Starbase Echo,” he said. “I’m perfectly well aware that our missions will often have us away from the station, but at least this way I’ll be closer to my family should they need me than if I’m forced to remain here or we’re assigned to another fleet based far away. If Starfleet Command cannot agree to that, then you’ll have my resignation, effective immediately, and I’ll be there anyway.”

Again the admiral was silent, and then he inclined his head again. “Your request is also reasonable—I’ll see that it’s done. Now that we’ve settled that, I suppose it won’t hurt to tell you both that Operations and Tactical are already planning on a reorganization and redistribution of the entire fleet anyway.”

“Trying to cover the most ground, as it were, with what little we have, sir?” Natale asked.

“Precisely. There’s also talk of reactivating museum and training vessels as well as pulling more cadets, though not in precisely the same manner as before.”

“How would it be different?” Brian asked.

“We used to have a program called Accelerated Occupational Placement for third- and fourth-year cadets, Captain Wallace,” said Haywood. “Similar to the fast-grads from January, qualified students would be granted low-security positions aboard starships and starbases which would earn them credits toward their degrees. The difference between AOP and what we did earlier this year is that these crewmen were still cadets—they weren’t granted immediate officer status. In addition to their work experience hours, they were required to complete all the standard coursework relevant to their chosen disciplines. Any student that failed to adhere to shipboard behavioral standards or the academic standards of the academy would be removed and returned to the academy to complete their training.”

“Not much better than fast-graduating, if you ask me,” Natale observed, “but it’s certainly better than handing a 20-year-old kid an officer’s responsibilities when he’s got no idea what the hell he’s doing. And sadly, we still need the numbers on our ships and outposts to not do it.”

“Indeed so, Captain. Although right now it’s a matter of necessity, if the students perform well this first year, Admiral Necheyev has said she may keep the AOP program in place permanently.”

“Would certainly be an incentive for future cadets to work harder,” said Brian.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” agreed Haywood. “Now, given the amount of time it will take for the bulk of Sanctuary’s Starfleet staff to make the journey to Starbase Echo and the fact that we would like you to be there before the station is officially operational, can you be ready to make the trip by January 1st, Captain Natale?”

“Please. I could be ready by tomorrow morning,” Natale replied. “It’s not as if I’ve got a lot of property here, Admiral. And I’m fairly certain most of the Cardassians will be only too happy to see me go. Can’t say the same of the rest of the Fleet staff that are supposed to go with me—that they could be ready by tomorrow, that is.”

“Call a meeting of all the staff who are scheduled to depart in two weeks—see if they could also be ready to go sooner. Doesn’t have to be in twenty-four hours, but the truth is, the earlier you arrive at Starbase Echo, the more familiar with the station you will be by the time she’s ready to go operational. Going as scheduled will give you only two weeks to familiarize yourselves with Echo’s layout and technology as it is.”

Natale nodded. “I’ll do that, sir, and send you a message to let you know. If, by chance, everyone can be ready in a day or two, have you any idea what ship you’ll be foisting us on for the trip?”

Haywood actually grinned. “As a matter of fact, I do. Given how little time we’d already set aside for your preparation to turn the station over to Cardassian control and our desire to get you all to Echo as soon as can be done, I checked the mission schedules of every ship in the 11th Fleet that could accommodate everyone at once. The first ship available also happens to be freeable in the next couple of days, if we’re lucky. I believe you’re familiar with the Columbia.”

The Orion almost laughed. “How ironic, sir,” she managed. “And as she’s capable of maintaining warp nine, barring complications or diversions we can be there in about two months.”

“Would it be possible for Triumph to run escort duty, sir?” Brian asked then. “I understand that terms for Synnove taking this assignment have been settled, so this would be a great favor. We have only been married a fortnight, and while subspace comms can be done daily, I’d like to be able to see her in person, maybe spend a night or two together rather than being separated from her for who knows how long it will take for the fleet distribution matter to be settled.”

The admiral drew a breath. “I don’t much like the idea of pulling two ships from an already small fleet, but as it has already been decided that Triumph will have a new home base at Echo… I don’t see much point in keeping you where you are now. I hope that the fleet distribution will be decided soon, but with the way things keep piling up here, it could be a few months. Do yourselves a favor, Captains—don’t let us promote you. You think commanding a starship or starbase is tough? Trust me, you don’t want the headaches I have to deal with every single day.”

Natale couldn’t help looking to Brian with a smile. The both of them chuckled at Haywood’s words. After reassuring him again that she would be sure to get a message about the departure time of her staff, they signed off and his holographic image disappeared.

Brian took her hand in his. “Love, don’t be cross with me. Truth is, I don’t know what gender our wee one is.”

She looked to him. “Are you just saying that to try and cover your ass? Because you looked awfully guilty to me, Brian.”

He reached for her other hand. “I swear it, Synnove, I do nae know—I wouldnae do that to ye after ye promised we’d find out toget’er. It was an ill-timed attempt at humor. I had no idea Haywood would answer yer call so quickly—I usually have the damnedest time getting’ any admiral ta answer me.”

“Then why did you say you bugged Maggie to tell you if you didn’t really do it?”

“I wanted ta make ye laugh so ye’d relax. Ye’ve been wound up e’er since ye heard about this assignment ta Echo yesterday. I do nae like seein’ ye so tense, and it’s certainly nae good fer the little one fer ya ta be so out o’ sorts.”

Natale groaned. “I know, I know.” She paused and drew a deep breath, closing her eyes as she breathed him in. Releasing it slowly, she looked up at him and again could not keep a smile from her face. “It’s all your fault, you know.”

“If’n yer gonna place the blame on me ag’in, ye can jus’ keep yer beautiful mouth shut, lassie. Two ta samba, remember?”

“No, I don’t,” she replied. “And neither do you.”

Brian laughed. “All right, ye got me there. We neither of us remember the particular night our little one was made, but it still took the both of us to create her—or him.”

“You know… I get why parents find out before the kid is born,” Natale said then. “It must get tiresome saying ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’ all the time. And I know being surprised would be a fantastic way to celebrate the moment of birth, but… If we find out, we won’t be tempted to sneak behind each other’s back and risk slipping up like I thought you just did.”

“Aye, that’s a good point—not to mention it’ll make decorating the nursery so much easier when you know whether to buy pink or blue paint.”

She slapped his arm playfully as she laughed. “Are you crazy? This kid could have orange or red or even green skin! A girl would look terrible in pink, not to mention I hate that color. Blue would also clash with either of those skin colors—I can barely pull off this Starfleet red.”

“Something gender-neutral then, perhaps a pastel yellow?” Brian suggested.

She thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “That just might work.”
_____
=/\=

6 comments:

  1. Marvellous! And gripping, considering it was basically a series of announcements and negotiations, proof that you don't need space battles and sword fights to craft a page turner (or on the base of my smartphone, a scroller)
    It was fascinating to get more details about Natale's backstory, what makes her so valuable to her father (does she still produced pheromones that can affect both genders?), and what she had to do to get to where she is now.
    It was also refreshing to show that, as wonderful as motherhood is as a concept, there can be physical limitations that can make these journeys rocky for some women (her unique genetic makeup might play into that too, I guess), and that there's no sin in complaining that it can be tough going, and not all gentle, warm fuzzy glows.
    Whitehorse? I don't know if I could handle having him around, as capable and useful as I'm sure he will be in protecting Natale, he is an asshole who uses his telepathy far too freely for my liking, as vital as it might be. But I'm sure he'll grow on me.
    And now there's all change again for the cast, that's par for the course in Starfleet, but at least they'll have each other.
    Thanks again for this, Christine, it was well worth the wait!

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    1. Wow, I think this is the most you've ever said about one of my stories, lol.

      I hadn't thought about the story in that way, but I suppose you are right -- it is little more than a series of announcements and negotiations (and maybe recollections too). I've always said that my stories are more character driven than anything, and this piece is definite proof of that. I'm chuffed you consider it a page-scroller.

      Natale's backstory I've always had an idea of, that there's some sort of hold her father has over her, and the last few stories have given me an avenue to explore it. She does still produce the pheromones and due to her habit of not taking prescribed medication, likely has an implant of some kind to take care of suppressing them for her. Given how especially strong hers are, it's a very good idea to have them regulated. I've also considered that her specific genetic structure is one factor making her pregnancy especially difficult for her. Her hormones might well be so strong so early on because of the fact that the child essentially has three distinct genetic codes (I imagine that there are also some minor genetic markers that differentiate green Orions from red ones, besides the skin color).

      Pregnancy is definitely not just sweetness and glowing -- just ask the Duchess of Cambridge, who suffered severe morning sickness with all three of her pregnancies. Definitely nothing wrong with complaining about it being rough, or feeling out of sorts, just like there won't be anything wrong with Natale asking for some help dealing with the mood swings.

      Whitehorse is definitely a bit of an asshole, though it's honestly not on purpose. He's just a straightforward, in-your-face kind of guy. He kids around the way he does quite likely as a means of dealing with the stress of being a telepath (hey, not all of them can be calm and serene like Deanna Troi), not to mention the horrors he surely saw -- and was forced to commit -- during the war. What he does with his abilities is just as he said, he just reads surface thoughts. He sees it as part of the job he does and as a vital asset to his skill set. Hopefully he does grow on you and everyone else, because he is essentially a good guy. Just a hard one to like at first.

      Yep, change is on the wind. But being with at least a few familiar faces will help ease the burden for these folks. NaNo is going to be my focus for November, but if I get inspired, I'll definitely take a break to write some more for all my many Trek friends.

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    2. Yes, I'm definitely a fan of character driven stories, too, and try to focus on that over the science fiction elements, though of late I've been throwing in the action and mayhem.

      I was curious to see how you would manage the pheromone issue, as there'll be an Orion cadet onboard the Surefoot in the new year (with Hrelle forced to have to deal with a living reminder of the people who helped break him).

      And you're right about Whitehorse, I hadn't thought about his manner being a way of dealing with his telepathy. And characters shouldn't always be instantly easy to get along with, that's no fun :-)

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  2. PS - I love the look of the bookended log entries, too!

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    1. Thanks! I was initially going to have them be smaller and "interactive", where you'd have to click on them to read them, but even doing that they weren't quite big enough without also opening the pic in a separate tab and then enlarging. So I tried it with them almost full size and figured since they didn't stretch the frame I'd leave them big.

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