Tuesday, July 28, 2020

"The Gathering of Glory"

By Kahless of Vulcan
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Note: This story is a combination of two written by a good friend, whom I knew as Kahless of Vulcan, under the titles “Hunting Grounds” and “Among Friends”.
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Deep Space Nine


Kell Tymir stopped and looked out of the first viewport she could find, an old habit of hers on boarding a new ship or station. The black tranquility of space was calm and serene, and always served to steady Kell’s nerves. After a moment, that dark serenity was interrupted by the unmistakable vortex of the Bajoran wormhole, a majestic display still far beyond current scientific understanding. Kell was lost for a moment in the beauty of the Bajoran enigma, until the wormhole collapsed and space returned to normal.

“Well, you certainly have more pips than you used to,” a voice said at her side. Kell turned to face the source and smiled broadly at her old friend.

“So do you, Lieutenant Commander Carson!” she said happily, cheerfully accepting the hug he offered.

“Well, you’re still one ahead of me, Kell.” Ethan acknowledged. “So what brings you to Deep Space Nine?”

“Just a quick stopover before the Wolfsong picks me up. I had some family matters to take care of back on Trill.”

“And you just can’t wait to get back to work, right?”

“You could say that, yes. And you? I didn’t realize the Tenacity was docked.”

“She isn’t. At least, not anymore. I’ve been temporarily reassigned.”

“I see.” Judging by the fact that Ethan didn’t elaborate, his reassignment was probably classified. “How temporary?” she asked, hoping he could at least tell her that much.

“I’m not sure, really. It should only be about two weeks, but you know how these things are…”

“No, I probably don’t,” she admitted. “I hope you’re at least here long enough for us to catch up.”

“Of course.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the viewport, gazing into the open blackness for a moment, as if he were waiting for something. A more serious expression flickered over his normally cheerful face for just a second, but then he looked back at her and he was once again the old Carson she knew. “Do you have dinner plans?”

“I do now,” she said, imitating his pose against the opposite side of the viewport. “What’s that Ferengi’s name again?” She couldn’t recall his name at the moment, but she remembered the food served at his establishment – real, not replicated, and delicious. All for the right price, of course.

“Quark.” Ethan supplied. “I would love to have dinner with you, Kell. I have to meet someone in the next few minutes, though.”

“I see.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Can I meet you at Quark’s in about…” He checked the chronometer on his wrist “…an hour?”

“That would be wonderful, Ethan.” Kell hugged him again and kissed his cheek. “If you’ll excuse me, though, I need to unpack a few things.”

“Of course.” Ethan nodded and Kell reluctantly walked away. “Don’t be late!” he said over his shoulder.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” She replied. This day just keeps getting better, she thought to herself. Ethan always made good company.


****

Once Kell was out of earshot, Ethan heard the unmistakable accent of the man he’d been ordered to meet.

“What is it about you that beautiful, high ranking women seem to like so much, Ethan?” Dr. Julian Bashir asked.

Turning to face his contact, Ethan shrugged. “It’s a curse, really.”

Julian’s smile grew wider. “Oh, I very much doubt that.”

“If you say so, Julian. It’s good to see you again.”

“And you, Ethan.” Julian nodded. They hadn’t been on many missions together, but the missions they were on had been intense, to say the least. It’s impossible to go through things like that without becoming close to the people around you, and Ethan still thought of Julian as a close friend.

“Well, shall we?” Ethan asked. They had much to discuss, from what Ethan had been told, and there was no time to waste, especially considering his dinner date with Kell.

****

An hour later, Kell sat and patiently waited for Ethan to arrive. True to form, his timing was impeccable.

“Hi, Kell.” Ethan smiled and sat down across from her. He was still in uniform, which made her feel slightly awkward for wearing civvies, but she had to admit the look suited him.

“Hello, Ethan. How are you? I never asked.”

“Didn’t you? I’m fine. No complaints at the moment.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“And you?”

She smiled. “I’m happy — specially with you here.”

“Thanks, Kell.”

Kell’s reply was cut off by another voice. “Well, well, what do we have here?” A colorfully-attired Ferengi asked, clapping a hand to Ethan’s shoulder.

“Quark!” Ethan said warmly. “It’s good to see you.”

“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine,” Quark said with exaggerated mirth. “And who is your lovely friend?” he asked, looking at Kell but speaking to Ethan.

“I’m Kell Tymir. An old friend,” she replied.

“Ah. It’s wonderful to meet you — any friend of Carson’s is a friend of mine.” Quark bowed slightly. It seemed that he was forcibly exuding as much charm as he could muster.

“So what do you want, Quark?” Ethan asked, cutting through the Ferengi’s flattery.

“What do I want?” Quark asked. “All I want is to know what you think you’re doing with such a lovely lady at this awful table!” Ethan started to answer, but Quark cut him off. “Don’t be foolish, Carson. Come with me.” The Ferengi gestured towards the large spiral staircase behind them and began walking. Ethan rolled his eyes and stood up, nodding to Kell that it was alright to follow Quark.

Quark led them up the stairs and into a lushly adorned private dining room, complete with a beautiful stone table, three luxurious couches, and a chandelier.

“Quark, what are you trying to pull?” Ethan questioned, but Quark ignored him.

Turning to Kell, the Ferengi said, “I reserve this room for my more…loyal, appreciative clientele. And Commander Carson is always a pleasure to do business with. Please, take a seat.”

Kell obeyed, as did Ethan, though he sat reluctantly and stared at Quark with an amused smirk that said I know what you’re up to. Their host looked back and forth at the two of them for a moment.

“Now, what would you like me to do for you?” Quark asked. “I’m sure you’re starving. I have several specials on tonight…”

“I’ll have the usual, Quark.” Ethan interrupted.

“Of course. And you, madame?”

“I…I don’t know.” Kell said. “What do you have?”

“I know.” Ethan said. He gestured for Quark to come closer, and then whispered something in his ear. “I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“Love what?” Kell asked.

“If we told you, it would spoil the surprise,” Quark said cryptically, and left the room.

“What did you order?” Kell asked Ethan.

“It’s a surprise.”

“Well…this place is…nice.”

Ethan laughed. “Quark wants something.”

“Of course he does.” Kell agreed. “Still, I will enjoy his hospitality.”

“Oh, certainly. He tries this every time, the flattery and special treatment and discounts…”

“Discounts?” Kell asked incredulously. “Ferengi discounts?”

“Like I said, he wants something. But he’s not going to get it. At least, not by putting me in a comfortable room with dozens of surveillance devices.”

“We’re bugged?”

“Of course. Quark’s probably hoping I’ll say something confidential to you that he can use in some crooked business deal he’s concocting.”

“Or maybe he put you in this nice room with me so we wouldn’t see that crooked business deal,” Kell suggested.

“It’s possible.” Ethan’s smile changed to one of genuine happiness, not the forced smirk it had been earlier. “Anyways, it doesn’t matter. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

****


U.S.S. Wolfsong


T’Nel awoke suddenly, in a strange bed and an unfamiliar room. She took but a moment to reorient herself and come to her full senses, and sat up in bed. Arranging herself in her preferred pose for meditation, she took in her surroundings. The temporary quarters she and her husband had been assigned were drab, but livable. They weren’t large, but they were not cramped either. It would take some adjustment to her sleeping patterns, but she felt confident that they would ‘settle in’, as he put it, quite soon.

Through their bond, T’Nel felt her husband slowly awaken and looked down at him just as his eyelids fluttered open.

“Are you alright?” he asked softly, without moving, merely looking at her soulfully with his dark eyes.

“Yes, t’hy’la. I am merely finished resting.”

Her ashayam t’hy’la smiled, that distinctively human expression he used when he did not believe a word she was saying. He sat up beside her and gently kissed her cheek before adopting a pose similar to hers. Humans were incapable of true Vulcan meditation, but he often sat with her and took part in the human equivalent. He acted as a pleasant influence through their bond, calming and balancing her passion and logic with an open mind and contentment.

“We do not have the time for a full meditation session, husband,” she reminded him. “We must meet Captain Shivan in less than two hours.”

“I know.” His eyes were closed, but mentally his attention was fully upon her. She no longer needed to speak for him to hear her.

You still feel conflicted, his voice said within her mind.

As do you, T’Nel responded honestly, hoping he would not press the issue. She needed all the composure she had if their missions were to be successful.

I freely admit that, love.

One of the advantages of being human.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

Not at all, love. Your humanity has never been a problem.

If you say so.

I do. Now please be silent, I must meditate.

Of course. He withdrew from the bond, though not completely. He removed himself just enough that he wouldn’t intrude or distract her, but still the warmth of his katra remained wrapped around hers. Before she went any deeper into restructuring her mind for the tasks ahead, she opened her eyes and looked into his once more. Her husband was tired, not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well. He needed rest, and she told him so.

“I’m fine, T’Nel,” he argued, and she was reminded of the smile he gave her just a few minutes prior. She allowed the slightest hint of a smile to touch the corners of her mouth, and politely disagreed.


****

Deep Space Nine


Ethan had always liked Kell, and the two of them had a very enjoyable evening, which was something he would have hated to spoil. But he needed to tell her something, something she wouldn’t understand.

“Kell, there’s something I need to tell you.” He said as they approached her quarters. He had offered to walk her home, not only a gesture of affection the way she had likely interpreted it.

“Yes?” She looked at him expectantly, and he saw a glimmer of hurt in her eyes, though he wasn’t sure why.

“It’s…it’s about the Wolfsong. I’m sorry to get business-like on you suddenly, but it really can’t wait.”

“Alright.” She nodded. “Tell me quickly, then. Get it over with.” She smiled, and the hurt was gone from her gaze.

“The Wolfsong has picked up two special mission advisors on its way to get you.”

“I know, I’ve been briefed on the situation. They’re former Starfleet. Why?”

“Really? Then you know who it is?” he said, somewhat incredulous.

“No, strangely enough the briefing didn’t include names or pictures or anything like that.”

“Well, I do know who it is. And I have to warn you…”

“Ethan, stop,” Kell interrupted. She stepped a little closer to him, and now her expression was businesslike. “You may be involved in some classified operations, but if I’m not privy to that information yet than you shouldn’t be either. Unless you were specifically ordered to tell me, as your superior officer I have to warn you against it.”

“Kell, I’m not saying this as an officer.”

“As an officer, you don’t have the right to discuss this, do you?”

“No, Kell. I don’t.” He admitted after a moment of gazing into her eyes.

“Then maybe you should let me handle it myself?”

“You’re right, Kell. I should, according to all the rules and regulations in the book. But as your friend… I feel I owe it to you.”

“Believe me, Ethan, I know how it feels when protocol gets in the way of friendship.”

“I… alright, Kell. If you want to keep it that way, I understand.” Ethan said, a little more coldly than he’d meant to.

“Ethan, please don’t be offended…”

“I’m not, Kell. Don’t worry about me.” He stepped forward and kissed her cheek, then turned to walk away. She caught his arm and pulled him back towards her.

“Ethan, please. I don’t want our evening to end on an unhappy note.”

“Neither do I, Kell.” He nodded and let her hug him. “Just remember something, alright?” She stepped back from the embrace.

“Yes?”

“People aren’t always what you think they are at first.”

“What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He shrugged and tried to smile. “Have a good night, Kell.” She smiled back and nodded, and he did his best to ignore the fresh hurt he saw in her eyes. She turned and walked to her quarters alone, and he felt the beginnings of a tear in the corner of his eye as he watched her go. Great job, Ethan. Now she thinks you’re incompetent and insensitive, he thought angrily.

Ethan shook his head and passed a hand through his hair. It was for the best, really. He’d need a clear head for his assignment, and ‘Seeing Spots’, as Julian put it, could be a dangerous, although pleasant, distraction. So he watched the friend he just might have loved walk away, like he’d watched so many others, and stood alone in the dark corridor, unable to say or do anything to stop her.

****

Kell slept fitfully, unable to relax. Ethan’s behavior had confused her, and his cold reaction had hurt more than she wanted to admit. She understood how he felt, but wished he hadn’t taken it so personally.

What bothered Kell the most was that he had felt the need to warn her, and she hadn’t let him. Granted, she felt justified at the time and still did if she took the time to think about it, but it didn’t feel right. She knew that anything Ethan felt she needed to be warned or protected from had to be serious. Kell sincerely hoped that she hadn’t hurt him as badly as it seemed.

Hours of tossing and turning later, Kell finally began to relax, though Ethan’s cryptic reminder echoed through her mind.“People aren’t always what you think they are at first.” He had been so serious when he said it, so concerned that she understood. She didn’t, not knowing if he was speaking of himself, or the special mission advisor, or someone else entirely. She decided she couldn’t waste time and energy thinking about it, and let her thoughts wander elsewhere. Her last thoughts as she drifted off to sleep were about hugging Ethan and how happy he’d seemed to see her.

*****

U.S.S. Wolfsong


A crescent-shaped blade sliced through the air towards Shivan’s face. Waiting for the right moment, he deftly spun and raised his arm, smiling at the satisfying screech of steel striking steel as he expertly blocked the bat’leth. His opponent swung again, and only a well-timed duck kept Shivan’s antennae attached. He let the downward motion continue and somersaulted away from the Klingon, nimbly leaping to his feet once he had gotten some distance.

“One never wins a battle by retreating,” Kathor taunted, playfully swinging his bat’leth around as if it were a toy.

“I would never retreat from you, my friend.” Shivan smiled and moved closer as the two began to circle one another warily. “But I’d hate to lose an antenna again. That would be twice this month.”

Kathor laughed but stayed alert. “I can empathize. But do you plan to stare me into submission, Captain?”

“If that is necessary.” Shivan stopped and looked Kathor straight in the eye. “But I don’t think it will be.” Shivan tensed and prepared to launch himself at the Klingon once more, this time with renewed savagery. He never had the chance, however, as the communication system interrupted the sparring match.

Locksley to Captain Shivan.”

Shivan sighed and rolled his eyes. “Go ahead, Ensign.” Shivan relaxed and held his arms at his sides. Kathor remained battle ready.

You wanted to be notified when Commander Tymir transported aboard, sir,” the Ops Controller continued.

“Yes, thank you, Ensign. Is that all?” Shivan lifted his blades again and smiled wickedly at Kathor.

Actually, our Mission Advisors have asked to speak with you as soon as possible, sir,” Locksley said hesitantly, doubtless knowing what Shivan was doing and not wishing to incur his Captain’s wrath by interrupting.

“I understand, Locksley. Tell them I will be in the briefing room in thirty minutes.” Tymir could wait, but for the Advisors to insist on expediency meant something serious had to be addressed. Shivan lowered his blades once more and bowed towards Kathor. “Forgive me this dishonor, Kathor.”

“It is no matter, Captain.” Kathor replied, shaking his head. “I would be dishonorable to hold such things against you.”

“Thank you, friend. We will finish this another time.”

“Indeed.” Kathor held his blade at his side and bowed towards his Captain. “By no means let me slow you down, sir.”

“Very well. Computer, discontinue program.” Shivan replied. The dark cave was replaced with gridlines and the exit appeared to his right. Shivan exited with no further ado and moved quickly towards his quarters.


****

“Hey, beautiful.” Kell heard Zuna’s silky voice and turned to greet her newfound friend.

“Hello, Zuna. It’s good to see you.” Tymirreplied, offering the woman a friendly hug which Zuna accepted exuberantly, squeezing just a little too hard.

“It’s good to see you too. So how did everything go with your brother’s surgery?” Zuna asked.

Kell had taken a temporary leave of absence to be with her family while Nodan had his symbiont pouch removed, a risky procedure undertaken only as a last resort after serious injury or illness. In Nodan’s case, shrapnel from an industrial accident had pierced the pouch’s outer and inner walls, which caused massive internal bleeding and a danger of infection. Nodan would never hold a symbiont now, but other than that he was in good health.

“It went very well, thank you. He’s doing quite well.” Kell and Zuna started walking again, Kell being on her way to her quarters and a sonic shower.

“I’m glad to hear it. So, how was everything else?” Zuna enquired, though by ‘everything else’ she meant one thing in particular.

“Uneventful, for the most part.” Kell said and laughed. Zuna was predictable, at least.

“So you didn’t meet anyone tall, dark, and handsome?”

“Actually I did, but I’ve known him for years and he’s just a friend, if that…” Her voice trailed off as she remembered her last strained conversation with Ethan.

“Uh-oh,” Zuna said concernedly, switching from her gossipy mode to her caring, healing, physician mode. “What happened?”

“Nothing, really,” Kell said, again realizing that she really didn’t know what had happened. “I think he just has difficulty keeping the lines clear between friendship and Starfleet duties.”

“I know what you mean. I’m sorry, Kell.” Zuna commiserated, and Kell knew she would say no more. That was one of the things she liked so much about Zuna – the Orion could be annoying, but she knew when to shut up.

Locksley to Tymir.” Another new friend’s voice said through her com-badge.

“Hello, Alexander,” Kell said, happy to hear from the young man. “It’s good to hear your voice.”

Thank you, Commander. Yours too.” The Ops Controller said with laughter in his voice.

“What can I do for you?” Kell asked, hoping it wouldn’t interfere with her shower.

Captain Shivan wanted me to tell you he’s meeting with our Mission Advisors in thirty minutes, and he says you should be there. Sorry to rush you, Kell,” Locksley apologized. He always seemed to be concerned that nobody shoot the messenger.

“That’s alright, Alex. I will be there.”

All right. I will see you later. Locksley out.”

Noting the look on Zuna’s face, Kell raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“What?” Zuna said.

“Enjoying the sound of Ensign Locksley’s voice, were you?” Kell teased.

“Yes, weren’t you?” Zuna said, unfazed. “It’s a very gentle, calming voice, don’t you think?”

“I suppose. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve never thought about him that way.”

“You don’t think he’s attractive?” Zuna asked incredulously, her voice approaching anger.

“Oh, he’s not bad. I just think he’s more like a brother.” Kell said. She did like Alexander, but just as a friend.

“I see,” Zuna responded, placated for the moment.

“Besides, if I was interested in him, you’d kill me.”

“No, I’m a doctor. I’d let you live.”

“Barely.” Kell retorted. They were outside her quarters now, and she turned to bid Zuna farewell. “I will see you later, Doctor Saranna.”

“Of course, Commander Spots.”

“Shut up, Zuna.” Kell laughed and keyed the door. Zuna’s pet names were always funny. Zuna bid her farewell and hugged her once more before leaving. Kell sat on her couch and relaxed for just a moment as the doors swished closed.

****


-Alexander, can you hear me?-

The words appeared in Alex’s mind without warning or preamble — not telepathic communication, but a technological substitute. The words had no feeling or voice to them, more like a text-only message than anything.

-Yes, Alok. Everything alright?- Alex replied, hoping his ‘brother’ was alright. Alex had developed a strange amount of protectiveness for his clone in the past few years, partly out of guilt for what he had unwittingly done to Alok.

-Yes. Good news in fact.-

-You finally asked Captain Natale out?-

-No, why would I do that?-

-I don’t know, I was just teasing.- Alok had no intention whatsoever towards the Orion captain, which was exactly why Alexander liked teasing him so much about it.

-Well, no. But Andon Vehl caught the saboteur. I was able to assist him.-

-Good for you. Am I allowed to know who it was?- Alex had a hard time understanding his current level of security clearance at times. When he was working freelance, he knew everything about every part of every mission he and Alok were on, but now it was hard to tell what he was privy to as a mere ensign.

-I don’t know why you wouldn’t be. It’s common knowledge on the station. I would tell you even if you weren’t, though. Dalin Skrail Pavet was responsible for most of the sabotage.-

-I see. What do you mean ‘most of the sabotage?’-

-You’re not allowed to know that part.-

-Alright. Thank you for the update, I’ll tell Captain Shivan.-

-Good. Be safe hunting down Hirogen, brother.-

-I will.-

-Good. I will see you when you return to Sanctuary. I must go now.-

-Why, do you have a date?-

-Yes.-

-Really? With the Captain?-

-No. Shut up, Alex. Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have a date.-

-What do you mean, ridiculous? A good looking guy like me? I mean, you?-

-Goodbye, Alex.- It was a good thing one couldn’t shout over their system, or Alex was sure his sensitive ears would be ringing. Alok terminated the connection, obviously not wanting to discuss whatever plans he did have for the evening.

****

“Hello, Commander.” Shivan said cheerfully as Kell entered the bridge. The Captain was standing beside Locksley at Ops; obviously they had been discussing something. Turning back to Locksley for a moment, Shivan continued. “Thank you for the update, Ensign.”

“Yes, sir.” Locksley nodded and looked at Kell. “Good to see you, Commander.”

“You too, Ensign, Captain.” Kell smiled at the younger man, who returned it with a friendly one of his own. He really is like a brother, she thought. Just like Nodan.

“Welcome back, Kell.” Shivan said, stepping towards her. Motioning towards the Briefing Room, he asked, “Shall we? I’ll introduce you.”

“Of course, Captain.” Kell nodded and followed him. When they entered the briefing room, its two inhabitants were standing in front of the window, their backs to Kell and Shivan. One was male, probably human, and the other was a tall female with pointed ears, though Kell couldn’t at first tell if she was Vulcan or Romulan. The female turned, revealing a calm, serene face and a smooth Vulcan forehead.

“Commander Tymir, this is former Captain T’Nel.” Shivan said politely. “And her husband…” Shivan continued, but Kell was no longer listening, as the attractive human had already turned around. Kell felt as if the universe had been turned upside down. It couldn’t be. And yet it was.

Kell’s jaw dropped and she searched for the proper words. For there in front of her, wearing a Starfleet Mission Advisor uniform, married to a Vulcan, and in bad need of a shave, stood her old friend Ethan Carson.

“I believe you already know my husband, Commander.” T’Nel said, looking between Carson and Perim. Shivan looked at his First Officer, expecting to see happy recognition. Instead he saw pain and anger, and found himself wondering what Carson had done to her.

“We’ve met.” Kell said coldly enough to form icicles on the back of an Andorian’s neck. Curiously, Carson seemed not to notice her attitude, or perhaps he didn’t care. He smiled at Kell like he was seeing an old friend.

“It’s been a while, Kell.” Carson said, seeming to be genuinely friendly, if a little standoffish.

“Not that long.” Kell said pointedly. Noting the look on Carson’s face, Shivan decided to step in before the situation got ugly.

“I assume there is an update on the Hirogen situation?” He asked, addressing Carson so as to take his attention away from Tymir.

“Yes, Captain.” Carson said, looking away from Kell and back to his wife. “T’Nel and I have been examining the readings from the sensor buoy monitoring the lead Hirogen vessel, and we think we know what they’re up to.”

“I hope it’s good news.” Shivan said, taking a seat. Kell did the same, but did her best not to look at Carson.

“Partly.” T’Nel replied. “During my time in command of the Vendetta, Ethan and I were captured by Hirogen and were able to observe a certain ritual of theirs called The Gathering of Glory.”

“And you escaped?” Kell asked incredulously.

“Well, the Hirogen aren’t as unbeatable as they think they are.” Carson replied.

“Arrogance is their largest flaw.” T’Nel agreed. “We escaped, but we witnessed enough to understand the ritual.”

“Basically they capture alive some of their most worthy prey, both animals and sentients, and the males put on a sort of gladiator contest for the females.” Carson explained.

“And the females then choose mates for themselves.” T’Nel finished.

“So what makes this good news?” Tymir asked. “They’re still terrorizing the system by killing everything they want to, aren’t they?”


Carson nodded and thoughtfully stroked his beard. “You’re right,” he agreed. “It doesn’t make the situation any more pleasant, but it may give us an opportunity to save some lives and maybe send the Hirogen away for good. You see, they won’t kill any of the prey they’ve captured until the ritual starts.”

Shivan smiled at the scornful way Carson said ‘prey.’ The Hirogen considered themselves master of all life, but nothing gave them the right to kill sentient beings for pleasure.

”I see,” Kell said, nodding. “You’re suggesting we wait until they have all their ‘prey’ in one spot and then sabotage the ritual?”

“Perhaps.” T’Nel responded. “However, interfering with the ritual may only serve to anger them, and sensor reports indicate their vessel is much more powerful than the Wolfsong,” she said in typical Vulcan fashion and Shivan struggled to control the anger he felt at such a heartless viewpoint.

“Are you suggesting,” he asked calmly, “that we let them carry out this senseless slaughter? And then what? Politely ask them to leave?”

“Not at all, Captain.” T’Nel replied, an unexpected edge in her voice. “I am merely stating that prudence is important and that further planning is needed.”

“The Hirogen tend to operate with brute force and intimidation,” Carson interjected. “And we may not be able to beat them at that game.”

Shivan smiled broadly. He was starting to like this human, and an idea was starting to form in his mind. “Then we will not play their game, will we Commander?”

For a moment, Kell seemed to forget her disgust at Carson, and smiled back at her Captain. “No, sir. If they’re playing poker, we have to play chess.”

“An apt metaphor, Commander,” T’Nel said warmly – well, as warmly as a Vulcan ever said anything.

“I think it is time we brief the rest of the crew.” Shivan announced. “Don’t you agree, Commander?”

Kell nodded. “I do, sir. We can start the briefing in the next few minutes.”

“Actually, Captain…” T’Nel began. “There is something my husband and I must attend to before we start the briefing. With your approval, we would appreciate delaying the briefing for at least one hour.”

Shivan didn’t know what they needed to ‘attend to’, but time wasn’t really an issue. “That will be fine.” He stood as Kell did the same. “In fact, if you need more time, let me know.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Carson said appreciatively without taking his eyes off of his wife.

Shivan wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard Kell cover a derisive snort before she turned and left the room. Suddenly feeling as if he were intruding, Shivan followed suit and bade Carson and T’Nel farewell.


****

“That went surprisingly well,” Ethan said quietly once they were alone. T’Nel stepped closer to him and he put his arm around her shoulders.

“I thought so.” She agreed, putting her arms around his waist and laying her head on his chest, right on his heart.

”I’m not sure what Commander Tymir’s problem is, though,” Ethan mused. “We used to be quite good friends.”

“I thought her reaction was understandable, given the circumstances of your last meeting,” T’Nel replied. “Of course, it no longer matters at this point.”

”I suppose not.” Ethan agreed. “Well, how’s your headache?” he asked after a moment of peaceful silence.

“Painful.” She replied. “And yours?”

“It hurts, but I’ll live.”

“We need to mind-meld, Ethan.” T’Nel reminded him, releasing her embrace and stepping away. Even the small distance she put between them caused him pain, and Ethan regretted putting off the meld for so long.

“I know, t’hy’la.”

*****

According to the rules, one was supposed to pay attention during a staff briefing. Zuna was paying attention – only not to the actual briefing. She paid far more attention to the people around her than what they were blathering on about.


At the moment, T’Kor was explaining how the Hirogen, a mainly Delta Quadrant race, had arrived in the system they were currently terrorizing.

“The Hirogen activate their end of this gateway by bombarding it with verteron radiation to keep the aperture relatively stable,” T’Kor explained. The Vulcan could be quite charismatic, and though Zuna had little to no interest in the subject matter, he was easy to listen too.

“But aren’t artificial verterons very difficult to control?” Alex pondered aloud. “And they decay rapidly, if I recall correctly.” Alex was also easy to listen too, and even easier to look at. Zuna was glad he spoke up. Otherwise she wouldn’t have had a chance to stare at him.

“You do recall correctly, Ensign,” Commander Vasik answered for T’Kor. “But T’Kor did say relatively stable. I assume it’s not a perfect system.” The Romulan, on the other hand, could make anything boring. It didn’t help that he was intolerably arrogant.

“No, it isn’t.” T’Kor readily agreed. “But the Hirogen vessel is quite sturdy, and they probably don’t mind the rough ride.”

“It’s all in the name of a good hunt,” Captain Shivan muttered. His opinion on the Hirogen was quite clear, though he was always careful not to be prejudiced.

“That may actually work to our advantage,” Ethan Carson interjected. Zuna found the human quite fascinating, and he was rather attractive although he could have used a shave. His wife was an atypical Vulcan, not quite friendly but certainly less aloof than most Vulcans. The circumstances of Carson’s telepathic bond with T’Nel were quite interesting from a medical and psychological standpoint as well.

“I agree,” T’Kor replied. “Because the aperture is so unstable, we may be able to collapse it or even destroy the device on one end and strand the Hirogen on the other side, which by my calculations should be in the Delta Quadrant.”

“It won’t be easy to convince them to leave, though,” Kell pointed out. “And waiting until they’re finished killing everything in sight isn’t an option.”

Kell’s behavior had been strange during the briefing. She hadn’t seemed to be paying much attention, but she obviously knew what was going on. When she wasn’t glaring daggers at Ethan Carson, she was looking thoughtfully at Alexander. Kell had denied being attracted to Alex, but it was possible. Zuna hoped not. She liked Kell, but not as much as she liked Alex.

“That’s where the ceremony comes in,” Shivan noted. “I assume the ship will stay in one spot for the ritual?”

“Most likely,” T’Nel answered. “The prey will probably be kept in a menagerie on a nearby planet and taken up to the ship at the last moment.”

“So we’ll need to get on board before that happens.” Shivan said.

“Get on board?” Vasik echoed incredulously. “What for?”

“Well, we can’t take the main vessel in a fight.” Kell replied. “So we need to play a different game.”

“What game?” Vasik asked scornfully.

“Sabotage,” Zuna answered. Now she was interested — this plan was wonderful.

“Exactly,” Kell agreed.

Shivan continued. “We will get Mr. Locksley aboard, he will infect their system with nanoprobes, and then we will give the Hirogen the hunt they so desire. We’ll need every ounce of your considerable skills, Ensign Mayborn.”

“M-me, sir?” the petite human ensign asked nervously. “What for?”

“They’ll be chasing us through the aperture, Ensign,” Kell answered. “Are you up for the challenge?”

The young woman took a moment to think and nodded firmly. “Yes, sir. I’ll get us through.” She always seemed nervous, but Clarissa always came through where it mattered. Zuna quite liked the small human.

“The plan,” Shivan said, “is we have them chase us through, double back on them and come back to our end, and then shut down their gateway. However, we may not have time to destroy the gateway on this end before they come back through. Which is why I need you to call in a favor, Carson.”

“What do you mean?” The Special Mission Advisor asked, raising an eyebrow in a gesture that seemed more Vulcan than human. Obviously his wife had an influence on him.

“Two things, Carson.” Shivan answered. “One, we need to observe and gather intelligence on the Hirogen menagerie. Two, we need someone to be ready to destroy or cripple the gateway the moment we get back safely.”

“I understand that, but what does that have to do with me specifically?”

“We won’t be the only ship in the system. The Imperial Romulan Warbird Vreenak is nearby.”

Carson’s face was priceless — embarrassment, trepidation, surprise, and fear all rolled into one.

“Oh, no,” Carson muttered.

“The Vreenak is under the command of…” Shivan started.

“Commander Miralin,” Carson finished. “I know, I get it.”

“And her mnhei’sae for you hasn’t run out, has it?” Shivan asked. “According to Mr. Locksley’s sources, she owes you a favor.”

“You don’t understand, Captain,” Carson said, shaking his head. “If I get her help, then I’ll owe her a favor. And the favors she asks for…” Carson let his voice trail off before Zuna found out if her favors were difficult, dangerous, or just plain irritating. She was Romulan, though, so chances were they’d be all three. Judging by Vasik’s irreverent smirk, he knew just what kind of favors Miralin would ask for.

“Do you have another idea?” Oddly enough, this question came, not from Shivan or Kell, but from T’Nel.

“No…” Carson admitted, sighing heavily. “I will speak to Miralin, Captain. What do we want from her?”

“I will discuss the specifics with her.” Shivan replied. “I just need you to guarantee she’ll agree. I will be requesting help investigating the menagerie and help destroying the gateway.”

“I understand,” Carson said, now sounding determined.

“Thank you.” Shivan said. “Commander Kathor?”

“Yes, Captain?” The hitherto silent Klingon replied, his deep gravelly voice reverberating across the room.

“I want you and Locksley to meet with Lieutenant Gray and apprise him of the situation. He and Locksley will be the ones boarding the vessel.”

“Understood, sir.” Kathor said affirmatively. He was a man of few words, but what Kathor did say was always clear.

The briefing ended with Shivan’s plan clearly in everyone’s mind. Kathor and Locksley stayed behind to further discuss the details, Captain Shivan spoke to Carson about contacting his Romulan friend, and Kell stormed out as quickly as possible. Zuna followed her angry friend, hoping to offer some comfort.

“Are you alright, Kell?” Zuna asked when she caught up to the Trill.

”I’m fine, Zuna. But thank you.” Kell was hurt and angry, but she was trying to forget about it, to bury it within herself. Zuna knew that wasn’t wise.

“Are you sure?” She asked tenderly.

“Yes.”

“Alright then. So, what do you think of Ethan Carson? Attractive, no?”

“I hate him,” Kell said bluntly.

“Why?” Zuna asked. “I don’t see any reason to.”

“He’s a lying, manipulative, adulterous, backstabbing chameleon.” Kell said.

“That was almost poetic!” Zuna laughed. “Well, I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover. So disappointing, it’s such a good-looking cover.”

“It certainly is…” Kell mused. “Oh well. He’s not worth the trouble.”

“I suppose not.” Zuna agreed. “Locksley, though…”

“Yeah, Alex is a good guy.” Kell nodded. “He reminds me of Nodan.”

“So is that why you were staring at him?” Zuna asked impulsively.

“You, Zuna, were staring.” Kell said definitively. “I was looking.”

“So, are you hungry?” Zuna decided to switch topics.

“Starving. But I’d rather not go to the mess.”

“Well, I’m sure we can find a replicator somewhere.” Zuna said generously.

“Sounds good.”

Together, they headed off towards whoever’s quarters were closer. They didn’t see Ethan Carson come around the corner with T’Nel and watch them walk away.


****

Several minutes after the briefing, Ethan stood in his temporary quarters and waited for the last person he wanted to speak with to respond. His relationship with Miralin, if one could even call it a relationship, had ended on a less than pleasant note, though it hadn’t been his fault. Granted, it hadn’t been her fault, either, but they had learned they weren’t for one another. All in all, he was grateful for that now that he had T’Nel, but speaking to Mir would be difficult after so long.

“She won’t hurt you, ashayam.” T’Nel said, trying to be helpful. “I’ll protect you,” she teased mercilessly.

“I know.” Ethan said just as Miralin’s face appeared onscreen, as beautiful as ever.

“Hello, Ethan.” Miralin said cordially. She seemed genuinely happy to see him, which was a good start. “What can I do for you, dear friend?”

“It’s good to see you, Miralin.” Ethan replied. “I need a favor.”

“So you aren’t running back into my arms, abandoning Starfleet forever?”

“No.” T’Nel answered for Ethan, stepping into view.

“Oh…” Miralin said, surprised. “I didn’t realize…” She looked between Ethan and Miralin and slowly shook her head. “My mistake, Ethan. I sincerely apologize.”

“It’s alright.” Ethan replied. It’s not her fault, love, he spoke to T’Nel through their bond, placating the irrational jealousy he felt her struggling against.

“So, now that I understand the situation…” Miralin continued. “What can I do for you, Ethan? I assume it has to do with this troublesome hunting expedition?”

“That’s right. Captain Shivan would like to request your assistance.”

“Then why aren’t I speaking with Captain Shivan?” she asked pointedly.

“Because he understands honor, Miralin. He recognizes that you owe him nothing. But to be fair, it is his mission. He’s in charge.”

Miralin nodded and smiled. “I see. I must meet this Captain of yours, he seems quite reasonable.”

“He is.” Ethan agreed. “He will be making the actual requests. I ask that you give him what he asks for. Treat him the same way you’d treat me, please.”

Miralin laughed. “Are you sure? I don’t want to embarrass the Captain.” In spite of everything, she was flirting. Ethan did his best to ignore that, but it wasn’t easy. Naturally, T’Nel found it hilarious.

“You know what I mean, Miralin.”

“Of course, Ethan.” She said warmly. “I will speak to him. I promise our mnhei’sae will be satisfied.”

“Thank you, dear friend.”

****

After consulting the chronometer on her console, Clarissa Mayborn happily noted two things: One, the Wolfsong would reach the Q-P-4 system in less than half an hour, and two, her shift would be over a few minutes after that.

Clarissa leaned back against her chair and stretched as well as she could without raising her arms. Her chair had seemed more uncomfortable than usual today, and she needed rest if she was going to perform well tomorrow. The Hirogen’s relatively primitive transwarp conduit would be chaotic, unpredictable, and exciting. She was simultaneously dreading and eagerly awaiting the chance to navigate in such an unconventional environment.

“Is everything alright, Ensign?” Captain Shivan asked, noticing Clarissa shifting uncomfortably.

“Everything’s fine, sir,” she replied, swiveling in her chair to face him. “We’re right on schedule.”

“What’s our ETA?” Commander Tymir asked.

“Just under thirty minutes, sir.”

“Excellent,” The captain mused, smiling.

”Indeed,” Commander Kathor rumbled from Tactical. Clarissa had always enjoyed the sound of the massive Klingon’s voice. Anything he said came across as crucially important and was impossible to ignore.

“Looking forward to teaching the Hirogen a lesson, Kathor?” Tymir teased.

“Very much so, Commander,” Kathor replied. “I find their reputed bloodlust disturbing, although that reputation may be somewhat embellished.”

“I’m sure some of them are honorable,” Tymir replied.

“Well, these ones have slaughtered many beings in their short time here,” Captain Shivan interjected. “Honorable or not, this wholesale killing cannot continue.”

“I couldn’t agree more, sir,” Tymir acknowledged.

“We are being hailed, Captain,” Kathor said a moment later. “By the Romulan Warbird Vreenak.”

“Right on time, Commander,” Shivan replied, standing to face the viewer. “Onscreen.”

*****

Vasik had never been a sentimental man, but occasionally even the most stoic and emotionless man caught a glimpse of such beauty that they couldn’t help but stare slack-jawed while their heart flitted about like a Terran butterfly. Vasik experienced this in no small measure as Selana entered the room, grace and beauty in abundance with strength and ferocity simmering just under the surface. For the briefest of moments, Vasik missed Romulus. Alas, the spell was broken and reality returned as the shuttle landed and Commander Kathor’s gruff voice interrupted Vasik’s reverie.

“I still don’t like this idea,” the Klingon whined, airing his complaint for the eighth time since hearing of the idea. Vasik rolled his eyes and scoffed.

“It’s only a shuttle, Kathor. It’s not like we’re giving them one of ours,” Vasik replied, though it hurt to refer to the Selana as ‘only a shuttle.’ She was far more than that, a symphony of elegance and performance crafted with such poise that even at rest she seemed ready to leap into action like the raptor she was.

Kathor didn’t seem as impressed. “If we were, I could keep track of it. But who knows what kind of tricks that thing has up its sleeve.”


“That thing, Kathor, is a marvel of engineering and you should feel honored to be in her presence,” Vasik retorted. Kathor held in any reply he could have formed as the Selana’s pilot – lucky v’ruul that he was — exited the shuttle followed by someone who was nearly as beautiful as the shuttle itself. Nearly.

“Greetings, my friends,” Commander Miralin said. Behind her, a third individual stepped out of the shuttle. A large, brooding individual, he was likely her bodyguard or security officer.

“Commander,” Kathor’s greeting was simple, and accompanied by a slight bow. Vasik’s greeting was more familiar.

“Hello, Miralin,” Not quite a friend, but by no means an enemy, Commander Miralin was just close enough an acquaintance to merit a first-name basis.

“It is agreeable to see you again, Vasik.” The left corner of her mouth twitched upwards in a small smile as she arched an elegant eyebrow over those ever-smiling dark eyes, and Vasik felt compelled to reanalyze his earlier assessment as to whether the Selana was more beautiful than its occupant.

“You as well, Commander.” Fighting against his irrational infatuation, Vasik sought refuge in formality. “I assume that is the Selana?”

It was the pilot who answered, a brash young sub-lieutenant Vasik immediately disliked. “Definitely. Beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Magnificent,” Vasik agreed just as Captain Shivan entered the shuttlebay.

“I apologize for my lateness, Commander,” the captain said, bowing his head in a manner similar to Kathor’s.

“That’s hardly necessary, Captain,” Miralin gave the captain a more complete smile than she’d given Vasik, but he knew it was only in the name of diplomacy. From what he could tell, Commander Miralin despised Shivan. In all probability, her generosity only served to create a debt, as she may not have liked Shivan but knew he could be a valuable ally.

“I’m afraid time is a concern, Commander,” Shivan politely disagreed. “If you wouldn’t mind, there are a few last details I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Certainly, Captain,” Miralin nodded and turned to her men. To the bodyguard, she said, “You’re with me, Narak.” The huge soldier nodded silently and Miralin turned to the pilot. “Sumal, I want you to stay with the Selana. Perhaps give Commander Vasik a brief tour of her systems.”

“Yes, Commander,” Sumal said excitedly. Though he didn’t particularly like the young man, Vasik understood how ecstatic he was over the shuttle.

Kathor moved away with the Captain and the Romulans, but not before turning to Vasik and saying, “I admit the shuttle has a certain… predatory look to her, Commander. Enjoy yourself.” It was typically Klingon to only admire the ‘warrior’ aspect of such a beautiful machine, but it was a step in the right direction.

“Oh, I certainly will,” Vasik replied. Alas, all he could do was look at the Selana as the agreement forbade taking detailed scans — Romulans weren’t that generous. He could see her, but he’d never be able to have her. He wouldn’t even be using her systems, as Sumal would likely be the pilot. Ensign Locksley and Lieutenant Gray would at least be traveling with her. Naturally, Vasik was intensely jealous.

****

“I still don’t like this, Alex,” Zuna said concernedly as Alex placed the small gray cylinder on the table in front of him.

“Which part of it bothers you, Doctor?” Jason Gray asked. “The part where we board the Hirogen ship or the part where he assimilates that thing?”

“It’s not assimilation, Jason,” Zuna said harshly. Alex rolled his eyes. “It’s a lifeless block of metal.”

“And in a moment…” Jason continued.

“In a moment I’ll use some of my nanoprobes to create more out of the raw materials,” Alex interrupted. The constant arguing between Zuna and Jason was really starting to get on his nerves. “It might as well be assimilation, Zuna.”

“I don’t like that word,” she replied. “And I really don’t like that you’re going to make more of those little monsters inside you.”

“There just machines, Zuna,” Alex said, trying to sound consoling. He stretched out his hand and slowly extended assimilation tubules from the back of his hand, piercing the cylinder precisely, almost cautiously. Tiny machines flowed through the tubes into the metal and began consuming it. Once enough had been created, they began to flow back into his hand and he felt strange liquid warmth he could never quite get used to enter his arm. In just a few moments, the cylinder had been used up and he now had thousands more nanoprobes within his system. He closed his eyes and felt the microscopic machines reorganize within his body.

“Are you alright, Alex?” Zuna asked with a gentle hand on his arm. He opened his eyes and avoided her gaze. One of the first places the nanoprobes colonized were in his eyes, and they could look frightening for a while. Zuna didn’t let him look away, though, taking his face in her hands and turning it towards her. “Are you alright, Alex?” She asked again.

“Yes, Zuna. Everything is normal.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” she replied and opened her tricorder to scan him. After a moment, she nodded and smiled. “All systems go.”

“Good,” Jason said.

“I’m ready, Lieutenant,” Alex informed his friend and superior. “I’ll be fine, Zuna.”

“You better be.”

“You have an interesting bedside manner, dear Doctor,” Jason quipped.

“Shut up and get out of my hair,” Zuna retorted and turned her back on them. Jason laughed.

“Let’s go, Alex.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex nodded and stepped towards the exit. Just as they reached it, Zuna called after them.

“I expect both of you to be back here in one piece, boys,” She admonished them. “Because if either of you lets the other one get hurt, I will hurt you twice as badly.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jason and Alex said in unison and left Sickbay.

“I thought doctors took an oath to do no harm?” Jason said a few steps out of the door.

“Yes, but I think Zuna’s oath only applied to permanent harm,” Alex explained. “Although I agree she could be less…” He searched for the word but couldn’t find it.

“Venomous?” Jason suggested.

“That works.”

“No, you wouldn’t love her as much if she was nice,” Jason said.

“Neither would you.”

“Oh, of course not. I’d rather argue with her than date any other girl.”

“Seriously?”

“Well, maybe not any girl. But a lot of them.”

“If you say so.”

“Don’t worry, Alex. She’s yours.”

“Yes, she is.”

Jason laughed as the turbolift doors parted and they entered. After a moment, he asked, “So, what do you think about Commander Tymir?”

“Out of your league.”

“That’s what I thought,” Jason sighed. “I guess there’s nobody on the ship for me.”

”Ensign Mayborn likes you.”

“How do you know?”

“She told me.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really,” Alex replied. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Of course not. Now, we should go over the plan one more time.”

“Right. We fly the cloaked Romulan shuttle to the Hirogen menagerie base, we gather all the information we can and then get captured,” The lift doors opened again and they walked the remaining distance to the shuttlebay.

“Or stow away. It all depends on the timing of their check-in.”

“And you’re sure they won’t kill us right away if they do capture us?”

“Not at all, but Carson is.”

“Oh, that makes me feel so much better,” Alex complained sarcastically. “Remind me why we trust this guy?”

“Because we were ordered to. He may not be Starfleet anymore, but it’s not because he’s careless.”

“How do you know?”

“The same way you do.”

“What?”

“Come on, Alex, I’m smarter than I look. I know you read his file, just like I did.”

“I was curious as to what it could offer from an intelligence standpoint. I am the Intelligence Liaison.”

“You’re supposed to at least run it by your superiors when you step outside your security clearance.”

“It won’t happen again,” Alex said.

“Good. Let’s go.” His lecture was over, as was his time to joke and make small talk. Jason Gray was all business now. He wouldn’t be as much fun for the rest of the mission, but Alex knew he’d have his back. Jason was too afraid of Zuna to do otherwise.

****

As quickly as she entered his life, the beautiful, mysterious stranger was leaving. Vasik sighed as Lieutenant Gray and Ensign Locksley entered the Selana, smiled forlornly as the hatch closed behind them, and glared as the lovely vessel departed the Wolfsong. He knew she’d be back — as long as Locksley didn’t crash it before the end of the mission.

“Farewell, sweet and lovely danger,” Vasik muttered, quoting an old Klingon epic he’d heard Kathor recite once. Normally he preferred Romulan or even Terran literature, but that Klingon poem seemed quite applicable at the moment.

“For with you gone my heart beats hard for your return,” hehind Vasik, Commander Miralin recited the next line of the poem.

Turning to face her, Vasik smiled. “I wasn’t aware that you favored Klingon poetry, Commander.”

“Only when translated, of course,” she replied. “The original language is too…guttural for my liking.”

“And mine as well,” Vasik agreed. “She really is a lovely vessel, Commander.”

“Indeed,” She said, nodding her assent. “I’m quite proud of her.”

“The design is yours?” Vasik asked.

“I had a hand in it, yes. Not entirely my creation, but I believe I left my handprint.”

“I suppose you did. Beautiful, dangerous, not to be underestimated…I think it fits you quite well.” To a human or other species, it would have been flirting. It could have been flirting for a Romulan as well, but Vasik had no romantic interest in the Commander, as beautiful as she was. In the context of their conversation and professional relationship, it was a simple compliment. She understood that, another reason it felt refreshing to speak to another Romulan. His Starfleet crew wasn’t entirely intolerable, but they definitely were not Romulans.

“Thank you, Vasik. And please, you may use my proper name.”

“As you say, Miralin.”

“I would speak to you, Vasik. If you have the time.”

“Certainly. What can I do for you?”

“I’d prefer to speak in private, if that’s alright. It is a political matter, and a familial one.”

“I understand,” Vasik said. Something must have happened that had shifted their mnhei’sahe, for a political matter between them to be familial as well. “Would my personal quarters be suitable?”

“I believe so. May I meet you there in thirty minutes?”

“Definitely,” Vasik nodded. “I will be there.”

“Thank you, Vasik. I will see you shortly.” She walked away, as quickly and gracefully as the ship she had designed, and he pondered what could possibly have happened. From a political standpoint, having his mnhei’sahe closer to hers could mean risk, but it wouldn’t be without rewards. For the third time today, Vasik missed Romulus and missed his family. His wife and daughter were living on Earth, but it had been a long time since he’d seen them face to face. He had at one time dreamed of leaving Starfleet and traveling back home, but he didn’t wish to make himself an enemy of either the Federation or the Empire. Instead, he let the status quo remain the same and waited for a true peace to come about.

****

Jason watched as Sub-lieutenant Sumal efficiently and wordlessly operated the Romulan shuttlecraft, not bothering to ask what he was doing as he wasn’t technically allowed to know how to use this shuttle’s systems. At the moment, they had been granted temporary leeway, but the ‘fine print’ of the agreement had very clear they weren’t allowed to use that knowledge in the future.

“You look bored,” Alex observed about ten minutes into their flight.

“A little, but at least bored means we’re safe. I doubt it will be as boring once we reach the planet.”

“Probably not,” Alex replied, smiling.

A moment later, Sumal finally spoke. “We’ve reached the edge of the Hirogen’s sensor range. Permission to engage cloak?”

“Granted,” Jason responded, with a nod. “What’s our ETA?”

“Seventeen minutes at our current speed.”

“Thank you,” Jason said. “Are we clear on the plan?”

“I drop you off and wait for confirmation that you’ve left the planet before following the Hirogen scout back to the main vessel. Once you’ve deactivated their shields, I transport you aboard and take you back to the Wolfsong.”

“Exactly,” Alex agreed.

“I am curious as to how you will execute your part of the plan, however.” Sumal said with a typical quirk of his Romulan eyebrow. “How exactly do you plan to sabotage their shields?”

Jason briefly considered telling the Romulan that it was classified, but decided against it. Alex’s condition was no secret, and it was prudent for each member of the team to completely understand the mission. He said nothing and let Alex explain.

“I’ll infest their computer systems with microscopic robots and take control,” Alex said smoothly, choosing not to mention the Borg at all. “It will be as simple as sending them a command and the Hirogen will be sitting ducks.”

“What is a duck?” Sumal asked. Jason laughed. A very technical explanation of the matter at hand had just been given, and all Sumal took away from it was ducks.

“It’s a type of bird from Earth,” Jason explained. “Much easier to hunt when they’re calm and still than once they take off.”

“I see. An apt metaphor. I imagine it would infuriate the Hirogen to know that they were being hunted.”

“I certainly hope it does.” Jason replied.

****

The moment he entered the Mess, Ethan knew she hadn’t listened. At the far end of the room, T’Nel stood next to Captain Shivan, and though he couldn’t hear what they were saying, his bond with T’Nel told him everything he needed to know.

Irritation manifested through the bond with a level of intensity that could quickly become painful, so Ethan pushed it away and focused on the fact that she was trying to help him. He had wanted to solve things with Kell by himself, but T’Nel had preempted him. As he drew nearer, he heard the end of her sentence.

“…it would be prudent to ascertain the nature and cause of her resentment, so that it does not interfere with the success of any missions we undertake.”

“I see,” Captain Shivan replied as his antenna shifted away from T’Nel and towards Ethan as he stepped up beside his wife. Addressing Ethan, he continued, “Your wife was just telling me of your altercation with Commander Tymir.”

“I see that,” Ethan said as civilly as he could. “It really wasn’t a major problem, Captain. All the Commander has been is a little short tempered.”

“I appreciate your civility,” Shivan replied. “Nevertheless, I will speak to her.”

“Thank you, Captain,” T’Nel said when Ethan didn’t.

“If it’s something I’ve said or done, please give her my apologies,” Ethan said.

“Certainly,” Shivan said. “If you’ll excuse me…”

“Of course, Captain,” Ethan replied. The Andorian smiled and turned away as Ethan turned to T’Nel. “I asked you not to do that,” he said, trying very hard not to be angry but failing.

“You said you would prefer if I didn’t. You did not specifically ask me not to, Ethan.”

“T’Nel…” Not knowing what to say and not wanting to cause a scene, Ethan sighed and let his voice trail off. It wasn’t worth pursuing right now.

“I apologize if I’ve offended you,” T’Nel said quietly. He could tell she hadn’t meant to hurt him, and from her point of view – his too, if he thought about it – it was the logical thing to do.

“It’s alright,” he said gently, turning to face her again. Her lovely dark eyes would have betrayed nothing to anyone else, but he saw confusion and pity within them, as well as sorrow. Now feeling guilty for overreacting, he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “It really is, don’t worry about it,” He brushed a stray lock of hair back behind her ear and let two fingers remain on her cheek just long enough for her to recognize it as a separate gesture. T’Nel smiled, at least internally, and Ethan found himself again marveling at the fact that even having a telepathic bond with someone didn’t mean you always understood what they wanted or needed.

****

Outwardly, the Hirogen menagerie was a nondescript gray building, roughly cylindrical in shape. Internally, it was divided into two main rooms. The smaller control room, currently occupied by Alex and Jason, had a large window overlooking the larger holding room. The holding room was huge, with at least twenty cells of varying sizes. Some cells had windows, others didn’t.

“No guards?” Jason said incredulously.

“I guess they didn’t count on my superb lock-picking skills,” Alex said flippantly.

“You mean your nanoprobes’ lock-picking skills.”

“Same thing,” Alex said as he approached the room’s main computer and regarded it thoughtfully. Then he shrugged and extended his assimilation tubules, causing Jason to wonder for the thousandth time just how he knew what part of the computer in question to stab.

“What are you doing?” Jason said when Alex didn’t move or speak for an uncomfortable long time. Alex said nothing for another inscrutable moment, then removed his tubules and turned to Jason. His eyes were flooded with silver, giving him an appearance that would be horrifying if Jason wasn’t used to it.

“I was…briefing myself on the operating system. Now I should be able to operate it normally.”

“Sounds good. What’s the status of the holding room?”

“Every cell is secure,” Alex replied. “Shall we take a look?”

“Good idea,” Jason agreed.

“What do you think they have in there?” Alex wondered aloud as they approached the door.

“Kittens and butterflies,” Jason retorted.

“Oh, I hope they have unicorns too,” Alex replied while pressing buttons on the door’s activation panel. The door slid open a moment later and they entered the menagerie. Jason picked up his tricorder and flipped it open. He detected nearly twenty lifesigns, animals of varying size.

“Well, no unicorns so far,” Jason said, and began listing the results of his scan. “Let’s see… Phobonychus lupocephalusThanatorex megadon…”

“Death-king large tooth?” Alex asked. “Sounds scary.”

“Like a shark with legs,” Jason noted. “Native to the Nesikaru homeworld.”

“And what was that other one you said?” Alex asked. “Fear-claw…something.”

“It’s a Nausicaan scentbeast,” Jason explained. “Fearsome clawed wolf skull.”

“I see. Strange that we still use Latin for scientific names.”

“Well, it’s a sufficiently dead language. Ancient Vulcan is used too.”

“I see.”

Jason noticed something strange and unnerving on his tricorder, but by the time he realized its significance, it was too late. A swift, furry blur leapt out of the shadows and threw itself on Alex, forcing the young man to the ground with ferocious speed. Jason moved to help his friend, but a massive arm wrapped around his torso and squeezed his chest so hard he couldn’t breathe.

****

Shivan stood outside Commander Perim’s quarters and hesitated. He had noticed Kell’s disdain for Carson, but he hadn’t thought it would be such a problem, assuming it was some kind of past romantic issue. Kell was reasonable enough to let bygones be bygones… or so he thought. Reluctantly, he pushed the button and was invited in.

Doctor Sarrana was already in Kell’s quarters, and it pained Shivan to interrupt their happy conversation. “Doctor,” he said, nodding in greeting. “Commander.”

“What can I do for you, Captain?” Kell asked. There was a smile on her face and not a hint of the earlier altercation.

“I need to speak to you about Mr. Carson,” Shivan said bluntly.

“I see.” The smile fell from her face and she assumed a businesslike air.

“I don’t particularly want to know the details, but I do need to know if your history will interfere with this or any other mission.”

“It won’t, sir. I’ll be more civil in the future.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Shivan said, satisfied that she would.

“What’s your problem with him anyways?” Dr. Saranna blurted.

“The details aren’t necessarily important,” Shivan replied.

“No, it’s alright, sir,” Kell said. “It’s just that when I saw him on Deep Space Nine, he presented himself as…well, a different person.”

What Kell said didn’t make sense, and Shivan shared a confused glance with Sarrana.

“What are you talking about?” the Orion asked.

“When did you see him?” Shivan asked for clarification.

“I had dinner with him on Deep Space Nine before the Wolfsong arrived.”

“What? That’s impossible,” Sarrana argued.

“I was there, Zuna,” Kell replied.

Slowly and quietly, Shivan said, “Commander, Carson and T’Nel were on the Wolfsong for seven days before we arrived at Deep Space Nine.

*****

Jason couldn’t help feeling that he had failed. His friend had gotten hurt because Jason had been distracted with the animals within their cages, too busy to notice what was already out of the cages. He tried to struggle, but it was useless against such a strong opponent. In human terms, Jason wasn’t small, but compared to the Gorn who held him in a crushing embrace, he was puny.

Alex put up an excellent fight, but in the end his opponent was stronger and Alex was pinned, his attacker’s claws and fangs poised menacingly above his throat.

It was then that Jason realized they were still alive. If the Gorn had wanted to, it could have snapped Jason like a twig, and the Caitian could have killed Alex just as quickly.

“Hi,” Alex said flippantly, not struggling in any way. “Come here often?” Jason would have laughed, if he had been able to breathe.

“Starfleet,” the Caitian observed, turning to look at the Gorn. She relaxed her hold on Alex and stood up. The Gorn’s grip stayed as tight as ever. Alex made no move to stand. “Release him,” She looked Jason in the eye for a moment, and then looked past him to her accomplice, who relented after a moment and dropped Jason.

“Thank you,” Alex said while Jason gasped for air. He started to sit up and accepted the Caitian’s offered hand. “You alright, Jason?”

“Fine,” Jason muttered, forcing himself to his feet and turning to glare at the Gorn.

“We couldn’t be sure that you weren’t Hirogen,” the Caitian female explained. “I am sorry. Will you be alright?”

“Yes, I think so,” Jason replied. “I thought the Hirogen might be hunting sentients. But couldn’t you smell us?”

“Yes, but it could have been a trap.”

“How’d you get out?” Alex asked.

“Sssmassh,” the Gorn hissed, obviously not using a translator.

“Exactly,” the Caitian agreed with a predatory smile. “Ssarrak is even stronger than he looks.”

“But each cell has an alarm system,” Alex interjected. “The Hirogen probably already know.”

“I don’t believe so,” she replied.

“Ssmart caat,” the Gorn said, nodding.

“I was able to fool the system into thinking we are still in our cell,” The ‘smart cat’ explained. “It was actually quite simple.”

“So it wasn’t just smash-and-go,” Alex replied. “That’s smart of you. I’m Alex, by the way. He’s Jason.”

“I am Arisu,” the Caitian replied, offering Alex her hand.

“Esscape now?” the Gorn asked.

“We were trying not to attract attention,” Jason said. “We have a plan to get rid of the Hirogen once and for all, but we didn’t know there were sentients in the menagerie.”

”I guess we’ll have to change that plan a little,” Alex said.

“Not necessarily,” Jason responded, shaking his head. “If we all allow ourselves to be captured and taken to the ship, it’ll be easier for four of us to escape than just two.”

“Forgive me, but how do you plan to escape from the Hirogen?” Arisu asked. “No offense, but humans are average in strength.”

“Most are, yes,” Jason agreed. “But my friend has been augmented with Borg technology. Our plan involves sabotaging the main Hirogen vessel with his nanoprobes.” Behind Jason, the Gorn hissed menacingly.

“Borrgg…” Ssarrak stepped towards Alex menacingly.

“I’m harmless, trust me,” Alex said, raising his arms above his head. “I am completely separate from the collective,” he assured the Gorn. Unbelievably, Alex stepped towards Ssarrak.

“Alex…” Jason cautioned.

“It’s alright, Jason. I just want him to trust me.”

“Be polite, Ssarrak,” Arisu said diplomatically.

“I watchhh…” Ssarrak stared intently at Alex.

“Good,” Alex smiled. “Watch and see. I’m not really Borg.”

“You don’t look Borg,” Arisu agreed. “We may not have much time. We – at least, I – would be glad to help you get rid of the scaly butchers. No offense, Ssarrak.”

“I hellp Aaarrisssu.”

“Good,” Arisu smiled once again and Jason realized that she was very beautiful. “Now, tell us more of your plan. How can you be sure that you will be taken to the ship instead of locked up here?”

“The ‘scaly butchers’ are having a ritual on that ship. Eventually they plan to bring every animal and sentient to the ship and kill them. However, they will do it in stages. So when they come back and find that you’ve escaped and we helped you, they will probably decide that we are worthy of being killed first.” Jason said.

“You’re assuming they’ll take the four of us to the ship to watch more closely before they kill us. What if they just kill us here?”

“The ritual forbids it,” Alex replied. “They have to take us to the ship and let their Alpha examine us. So we take out the guards and escape before he gets to us, I sabotage the ship and drop its shields and our friend picks us up.”

“I see. It won’t be easy to incapacitate the Hirogen guards,” Arisu replied. “But the plan should be sound. Ssarrak, what do you think? Are you up to breaking some Hirogen?”

“Yessss!” the massive Gorn said vehemently.

“Then we shall wait with you,” Arisu replied. “Let us find a hiding place. We don’t want the hunt to be too easy, now do we?”

****

A huge Klingon and two tall Nausicaan security officers may have seemed like overkill, but Shivan wasn’t taking any chances. Together with Commander Tymir and Dr. Sarrana, the security contingent arrived outside Ethan Carson’s temporary quarters.

“Come in,” Carson responded when Shivan rang the door chime.

”Wait here,” Shivan told Kathor and the Nausicaan twins, then nodded to Kell and opened the door.

“Hello, Captain,” Carson said amicably. Beside him, T’Nel nodded politely.

“Hello,” Shivan repled. “Dr. Sarrana, please scan them.”

“Scan us for what?” Carson asked. “What’s this about?”

“We have some doubts as to whether you are in fact Ethan Carson,” Shivan explained. “Go ahead, Doctor.”

“Doubts? Why?” Ethan said, a hint of anxiety creeping into his voice.

“Ethan, did we have dinner on Deep Space Nine?” Kell asked. Carson looked confused, glanced at T’Nel, and then glanced back at Kell.

“No,” he replied. “Why?”

“Because I had dinner with Ethan Carson the night before I was picked up by the Wolfsong. And then I learned that Ethan Carson had been on the ship for a week before I was picked up, meaning I couldn’t have.”

Inconceivably, Carson began to laugh out loud. T’Nel shook her head but also looked amused. “Oh, no,” Carson said. “What did he do?”

****

Alex crouched in the darkness beside Arisu, laughing inwardly at the image of Jason crouched similarly next to a hulking Gorn. Jason was probably bemoaning the fact that Alex once again had befriended a woman far quicker than Jason had. It wasn’t as if Alex had any romantic interest in Arisu, but Jason was probably still envious.

“What is so amusing?” Arisu asked.

Wondering how she knew he was amused, Jason said, “Oh, it’s nothing. I was just thinking about something Jason said once.”

“I see. Your friend Jason doesn’t seem to like me.”

“Really?” Alex asked incredulously. “I think he likes you quite a lot. He doesn’t always know how to show it, that’s all.”

“I suppose not. You really think he likes me?”

“Yeah. I think he’s attracted to you too.”

“Really?” Now it was her turn to be incredulous. “Humans are strange.”

“Yes, we certainly are.”

“I am — how would you say it — taken,” Arisu said a moment later.

“I thought you might be,” Alex said.

“You are skilled at reading people,” Arisu replied.

“It’s not Ssarrak, is it?” Alex asked.

Arisu laughed. “No, it certainly isn’t. My husband is at our home, and he doesn’t even know I’ve been captured. The poor man is probably terrified for me. Ssarak and I are merely colleagues. We were experimenting with warp mechanics when our vessel was damaged in this system. The Hirogen easily picked us up.”

“So you’re the daring scientist and Ssarak is your loyal assistant?” Alex questioned.

“No, actually he’s the daring scientist and I’m the loyal assistant. He’s very intelligent.”

“He seems to be,” Alex agreed. “A lot of people take a lack of endless chatter as a sign of less intelligence, but the way he speaks is actually quite interesting. Most Gorn just use a translator, but he was actually pronouncing the words.”

“You are quite intelligent yourself, Alex.”

“Thank you.”

It was silent for a few moments, but then Arisu put a hand on his arm.

“Do you hear that?” she asked.

“No…” Alex said, but a moment later his sensitive ears picked up the heavy footsteps as well. “Now I do.

“We must time this well. Ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Alex replied. “Let’s go.”

A moment later they leapt out of the shadows and ran as fast as they could. They were fast, but the Hirogen weapons were faster. Alex heard Arisu growl and fall, and a moment later a blast of energy hit him in the shoulder and his world faded to black.

****

“What do you mean, ‘what did he do?’” Kell asked.

“What did he – what did I do when we had dinner?” ‘Ethan’ clarified. “Did he offend you?”

“No, you didn’t,” Kell replied, confused as to why he kept saying ‘he’ instead of ‘I’.

“Then why were you so offended?”

“I don’t understand,” Kell said. Zuna closed her tricorder and looked at Shivan helplessly.

“Something’s odd about this, but they appear to be Ethan Carson and T’Nel, Captain,” Zuna said.

“That is because we are,” T’Nel replied.

“Then the one on Deep Space Nine was the impostor?” Zuna asked.

“There is no impostor,” Ethan said. “Let me explain, Kell.”

“I’m listening,” she said.

“I am Ethan Carson — just not the original Ethan Carson. You had dinner with the original Carson, and I’m sorry for whatever he did or said.”

“Original?” Shivan echoed. “You’re a clone?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Ethan replied. “I was created in a transporter accident six years ago.”

“That could explain these strange readings…” Zuna interjected. “But it could also be nothing. I’d need to do more in-depth scans to confirm it.”

“I’m afraid we can’t take that security risk,” Shivan said. “Until further notice, the two of you are confined to these quarters.”

“Captain, don’t you think there are more pressing matters?” Ethan asked. “Like the Hirogen? You can’t afford to confine us here. No offense.”

“None taken,” Shivan replied. “You’re right, I can’t afford to confine you here. You’re confined to the Brig.”

“Captain!” Ethan objected loudly.

“It is the logical thing to do, Ethan,” T’Nel said calmly. “We will comply, Captain, to show that we mean well. But the truth will be confirmed.”

“Indeed,” Shivan replied and called Kathor in. As Ethan and T’Nel were escorted away, Ethan looked Kell in the eye and apologized. She couldn’t hold his gaze and turned away, feeling very alone.

“If it’s the truth, we’ll find out, Kell,” Shivan said gently. “I’m sorry to do this, but you understand.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I wasn’t saying it as ‘sir’, Kell,” Shivan replied, placing a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Just as Shivan.”

“Thank you, Shivan,” Kell said, and felt herself smile. She did understand, after all.

Bridge to Captain Shivan.” A sudden voice interrupted the moment—it was Ensign Mayborn.

“Go ahead,” he said.

Our sensor buoy indicates that the smaller Hirogen vessel is heading back to the main ship. There are four extra lifesigns on board.”

“Four?” Shivan asked for clarification.

Yes, sir. It seems they captured a Gorn and a Caitian as well.”

“Or Gray and Locksley rescued them. Thank you, Ensign. I’ll be on the bridge shortly. Shivan out.”

****

As expected, Alex came to his senses before any of the others. His nanoprobes made sure of that. Alex looked around and confirmed that all four of them were chained to a wall, and he doubted that even Ssarrak was strong enough to break free. Speed and subtlety, rather than brute force, would be the key to their escape.

“I did not think you would be the first to revive, small one,” one of the two Hirogen guards said a few moments after Alex opened his eyes.

“I’m tougher than I look, v’ruul,” Alex retorted.

“I am not familiar with that insult. What does it mean?” the guard asked. Alex told him.

“How dare you!” the other guard shouted. “I will enjoy gutting your carcass, weakling.”

“If I’m a weakling, then why am I here?” Alex asked. Beside him, Jason groaned.

“That was fun…” Jason muttered.

“He thinks I’m a weakling, Jason,” Alex said. “I guess they are just scaly butchers.”

“Alex!” Jason cautioned. “Don’t antagonize them.”

“We are hunters, and you are the prey. We are driven by honor you cannot comprehend.”

“Then why are we tied up? So you can gut us like animals?” Arisu asked, evidently also awake. Ssarrak hissed in agreement.

“You will not be tied for long, pretty thing,” the first guard said with a smirk. “Your deaths will be fair and honorable.”

“I don’t believe you,” Jason said.

“I think you’re just going to kill us right here, you cowards,” Alex said. “Because it’s the only way you pathetic thugs could ever find a trophy.” He was flirting with death, and he knew it. He just hoped the others were doing their parts as well.

“Be careful, prey!” the guard growled. “Or I will make your death all the more painful.”

“Go ahead. Teach me a lesson.”

“With pleasure, human. Your cybernetic enhancements will make you excellent sport,” The guard stepped to a console and reached for its controls.

“No, Rokar!” The other guard warned. “The Alpha will not be pleased if you make this kill now.”

“I will not kill him yet, Gulat. Just break a few bones and show him my honor,” Rokar replied, and pressed the controls. Alex felt his shackles fall off and got to his feet. Jason sighed, and Arisu made a peculiar purring noise, the agreed upon signal that she was ready.

“Now, prey, step forward,” Rokar ordered. Alex obeyed.

“Now what?” Alex asked.

“Now we fight.” Rokar announced and launched himself towards Alex, swinging a massive curved knife. Alex dodged the first strike, but the second connected with his shoulder, seconds before Rokar’s fist struck him in the face. He hit the ground and tried to roll away, but Rokar picked him up and threw him against the wall. Just as he sank to the ground again, Alex heard Ssarak’s roar and looked over to see the Gorn throw himself at Gulat.

Rokar lifted Alex by the throat and held him against the wall. “I had hoped for better sport,” He rumbled. “You really are pathetic.”

“You wanted…a better fight?” Alex said between gasps for air, struggling past the Hirogen’s arm to put a hand on his shoulder.

“Yes.”

“So did I,” Alex retorted, and extended his assimilation tubules to pierce the Hirogen’s neck. The hunter gasped as tiny machines entered his body and quickly built up an incapacitating electric charge. Rokar roared and jerked away from Alex, and then his knees buckled and he fell to the ground.

Ssarak was strong, but so was Gulat. The Hirogen held the Gorn’s jaws open and seemed ready to tear them apart. Arisu lay unmoving on the ground a short distance away, and Jason was still chained to the wall. Alex took Rokar’s sidearm and fired three times.

****

“Are we in position?” Captain Shivan asked. Clarissa nodded and turned to look at him.

“Yes, sir. Awaiting your orders.”

“Good. The Romulans, Kathor?” the captain continued.

“They are awaiting our signal.”

“Excellent. We will move as soon as the scout vessel approaches the menagerie. Raise shields and go to red alert.”

“Aye, Captain,” Kathor replied.

****

Ssarak growled and kicked his unconscious foe. The four had agreed that they wouldn’t kill any Hirogen unless absolutely necessary, and for a moment Jason thought Ssarrak would break that agreement. Instead, the Gorn stepped over Gulat and knelt beside Arisu.

“Arrissu hurrrt?” Ssarak asked while Alex felt the Caitian’s pulse.

“She’s alright. Arisu, wake up.”

“What did I miss?” Arisu asked and sat up.

“Not much,” Alex said. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been told I have a thick skull,” she replied. Alex laughed and gave her a hand up.

“I thought you were going to unchain me too,” Jason said. “Any time now.”

“I’m sorry,” Arisu said. “He had noticed. I had to do something.” By that time, Alex was already using the console.

“This is good news,” Alex said. “I can infect the entire system from this junction.”

“Do it. After you release me,” Jason ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Alex replied and pierced the computer with his tubules. Jason’s shackles fell open and he stood up.

“So now all we have to do is hope no more Hirogen come find us,” Jason said. “And hold them off if they do. Luckily we have a lot of weapons.”

“Indeed,” Ssarrak rumbled. “Lockssssleeey…trust you now.” He added a moment later.

“Glad to hear it,” Alex said quietly, still pumping nanoprobes into the computer. “Shields should be down in just a few seconds.”

“This was almost too easy,” Arisu said. “I hope the rest goes smoothly.”

“Don’t speak too soon,” Jason cautioned. A second later, the room’s door opened and three more Hirogen entered the room.

“You are indeed worthy!” one Hirogen rumbled. “These guards were nothing to you! I think you will find the Alpha more of a challenge.”

“They will indeed,” a new voice replied from behind the first three and an enormous, scarred Hirogen stepped through the door. Head and shoulders above the rest, there was no way the Alpha would go down as easily as the first two had. Luckily, they didn’t have to wait to find out.

“I don’t think so, v’ruul,” Alex spat. “Selana, four to beam up!”

The Alpha drew his weapon and roared with fury as a cocoon of energy surrounded Jason and took him away.

****

“Gray and Locksley are back on board the Selana, along with the Gorn and Caitian,” Kathor informed the captain, who smiled dangerously. An alert on Kathor’s console started the next phase of the mission. “The scout vessels are approaching the planet.”

“Lay in an intercept course and engage!” Shivan said, beginning to pace like a caged animal. “It’s our turn to hunt.”

“That seems rather dark for you, Captain,” Commander Tymirreplied. “But I must say I agree.”

“We’ll give them something to think about, in any case. Kathor, hail the Selana.”

“Yes sir. Channel open.”

“Onscreen,” Shivan replied, and Lieutenant Gray’s face filled the viewscreen.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Gray said. “What can we do for you?”

“Did everything go according to plan?” Shivan asked.

“Better, sir. We’re on our way back now.”

“Was Sumal able to place the devices?”

“Yes he was.”

“Excellent. Try to stay in one piece until you get back here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Shivan out.”

****

“What is happening to my SHIP?” Zaanagar roared. “Rokar, you will DIE FOR THIS!”

“Forgive me, Alpha,” Rokar said, his head bowed in shame. He was a good hunter, but often let his anger cloud his judgement.

“I will forgive you when you prove you are still a hunter!” Zaanagar bellowed. “What did that human do?”

“I am unsure, Alpha,” the Delta, Narkoth, replied. “It is possible that he flooded the computer with his nanoprobes, but I cannot be certain.”

“Find out! Before another system fails and before the scouts return with our prey.”

“Alpha, the scout vessels report that the blueskin’s vessel is coming to intercept them.”

“Tell them to carry on ahead. We have dealt with this blueskin before, and we cannot let him feel that he can threaten us!”

“Yes, Alpha.”

*****

“Attention Hirogen vessels! This is Captain KulShivan ch’Tao-Mey of the Federation starship Wolfsong. If you do not call off this attack, you will be fired upon and I will destroy the prey you’ve collected on the planet below.”

Kell smiled at the Captain’s speech and the implementation of their plan. It had been his idea all along to threaten the ‘menagerie’ but she had suggested something a little more intricate. It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d usually consider, but he had agreed it was feasible.

“No response, Captain,” Kathor growled, sounding quite pleased with himself.

“As we suspected,” Kell replied.

“Indeed,” Shivan agreed. “Is the Vreenak prepared to fight?”

“Yes, Captain,” Kathor replied. “Awaiting your signal.”

“Then give it to them, Kathor. Lock on to the Hirogen’s weapon systems and fire! Mayborn, execute maneuver Shivan-4.”

“Aye, Captain,” both officers replied in unison.

*****

The Vreenak began firing before her cloak was fully disengaged, revealing herself to be directly in the Hirogen ship’s path. Faced with such a close head-on attack, the hunter’s ship veered away, heading straight for the still-cloaked Selana.

“Dropping cloak now,” Sumal noted. “Fire when ready,” he continued. Turning to Ensign Locksley, he nodded and the human targeted the Hirogen ship. Her weapons were relatively weak, but the Selana could at least provide a painful distraction for the Hirogen.

“Direct hit to their forward weapons array,” Lieutenant Gray noted.

“Excellent shot, Ensign,” Sumal replied. “Re-engaging cloak.”

In the rear of the vessel, Sumal could hear the Caitian passenger pacing restlessly. Beside her, the Gorn sat perfectly still but was breathing heavily, as if in the process of intense physical exertion. The Gorn was a warrior, not used to sitting still while someone else did the fighting.

*****

“Captain, now may be the time to make good on your threat,” Kell said as the bridge shook with sustained weapons fire. Shivan nodded.

“I believe you are right,” he said. “Kathor, target the Hirogen menagerie and fire.”

“With pleasure, Captain!” Kathor said, uncharacteristically jubilant.

“You sound excited, Commander,” Shivan noted.

“Yes, Captain. I find it… pleasing when a plan comes together.”

“Me too,” Kell agreed.

“Detonation in four seconds, Captain,” Kathor said. “Three…two…one.”

“Did it work?” Shivan asked a moment later.

“Yes, Captain. For all intents and purposes, the Hirogen menagerie has been annihilated.”

“Open a channel to the Hirogen.”

“It is done.”

“My threat was not in vain, Hirogen,” Shivan said, trying to sound as angry as he could. “Leave this area of space now. End transmission.”

“Transmission cut, sir,” Kathor said. “The scout vessels are turning back.” The bridge shook once more, and the battle stopped.

“Damage report?” Kell asked.

“Shields down to eighty percent, minor structural damage on decks nine and ten.” Kathor responded. “No reported injuries. The smaller Hirogen vessels are not designed for a coordinated attack in this manner, but the larger vessel will be more of a threat.”

“Understood,” Shivan replied. “That’s why we won’t be fighting fairly.”

*****

“How dare they profane our rituals!” Zaanagar thundered.

“They must be destroyed,” Rokar said.

“You may now take the chance to redeem yourself, Rokar.” Zaanagar acknowledged. “Prepare to board the blueskin’s vessel! We will not be denied our hunt!”

Every hunter in the room, young and old alike, joined the Alpha in a resounding cry for vengeance, and they began to make preparation for the coming hunt.

*****

Rather than having the Selana return to the Wolfsong, Jason and Alex were transported directly to the bridge, along with Arisu and Ssarrak.

“Ensign Locksley, reporting for duty,” Alex said once he had materialized.

“Take your station, Ensign,” Commander Tymir ordered with a smile.

“With pleasure, Ma’am,” Alex acquiesced.

“Welcome aboard,” the captain greeted Arisu and Ssarrak. “I am Captain KulShivan ch’Tao-Mey.”

“I am Sssarrrak,” The Gorn replied. “Ssstudy planetsss….chasssed by Hirogen.”

“And I am Arisu, Doctor Ssarrak’s colleague,” Arisu said. “We are pleased to meet you, Captain, but I am sure we will only be in the way on your bridge.”

“Not at all,” Captain Shivan replied. “Nonetheless, for your safety, I will have Lieutenant Gray escort you to guest quarters.”

“Thankssss,” Ssarrak replied. Jason nodded to Arisu and exited the bridge.

****

T’Kor consulted his workstation and fidgeted nervously, tapping his fingers relentlessly against the side of his console and biting his lower lip. Vasik rolled his eyes and scoffed at his colleague’s anxiety.

“Do you think it’ll work?” T’Kor asked for the sixth time – Vasik had been counting.

“Yes, I think it will work, T’Kor! We’ve gone over the data twelve times.” Vasik had been counting that, too.

“If it doesn’t…”

“Then we all die horribly,” Vasik agreed. “But it will. Have some faith in us.”

“Someone has to.” K’Serryn said, never one to miss an opportunity for mockery.

“Thank you for the vote of confidence, ashayam,” T’Kor replied bitterly.

“You’re welcome, dear.,” K’Serryn teased. “So, is Vasik going to kill us?”

“Probably,” T’Kor replied. “But if he does, at least it will be quick.”

“And glorious?” K’Serryn asked, seeing things from a typically Klingon viewpoint.

Vasik laughed. “If it does not work, the resulting magnificent explosion will annihilate the Hirogen vessel and the gateways at both ends of the tunnel will be torn asunder with the fury of a thousand suns. Does that sound glorious enough for you?”

K’Serryn grinned menacingly, the smile of a true warrior, a smile that speaks more of danger than of mirth. “Vasik, if that happened, even you would make it into Sto’vo’kor.”

“Really?” T’Kor asked incredulously.

“I’m flattered, but I don’t think I’d enjoy that,” Vasik replied. “Fighting ancient enemies for all eternity, surrounded by boastful drunkards and drenched in bloodwine isn’t really my idea of a good time.”

“You’d rather sip your pathetic blue ale and engage in endless debate about nothing for eternity?” K’Serryn mocked.

“Actually, yes,” Vasik answered.

“That’s because you are boring,” K’Serryn replied.

“Be kind, K’Serryn,” T’Kor said. “You’re just giving boring people a bad name.”

“I’d rather be boring than completely insane, thank you,” Vasik retorted.

Bridge to Commander Vasik,” Captain Shivan said through the comm.

“Go ahead,” Vasik replied.

Are you prepared to enter the Hirogen transwarp conduit?” Shivan asked.

“Yes we are, Captain,” Vasik said. “Just say the word.”

*****

The nomadic hunters’ ship loomed large on the main viewer, unresponsive to all manner of hailing frequencies. Two smaller, swift-moving vessels hung like daggers beside the large ship, ready to pursue the hunt at all cost.

“Still no response, Captain,” Kathor’s deep voice told Shivan what he already knew.

“Thank you, Commander. I hadn’t expected one yet.” Glaring at the viewscreen as if the Hirogen captain could see him, Shivan slowly shook his head. If the hunters would not listen to reason, so be it.

“Well, I’m tired of being ignored,” Kell Tymir said from beside Shivan. It was only their second mission together, but already Shivan viewed his Executive Officer as an old friend. “Is it time, Captain?” she asked.

“I think so,” Shivan nodded. “Mr. Locksley?” he questioned his Operations Controller, though he was sure of the answer.

“Ready when you are, sir,” Ensign Locksley said cheerfully.

“Then let it begin,” Shivan said. “Kathor, open fire on the lead ship.”

“Yes, Captain,” the Klingon said, almost sounding gleeful. Moments later, a torpedo tore through space and exploded on the Hirogen vessel’s shields, causing minimal damage but a great deal of anger.

“We are being hailed, Captain,” Kathor said less than a minute later.

”Onscreen,” Shivan said quietly.

“You dare interrupt our rituals?” the hunter demanded bluntly. “What gives you the right to such an unprovoked attack?”

My, my. Certainly entitled, aren’t they? Shivan said to himself. Aloud, he replied, “Of course I dare interrupt. I warned you before, Delta,” Addressing the Hirogen by his relatively low rank was sure to make his blood boil. Hirogen always wanted to feel that they were in control of the situation.

“Stand aside, Narkoth!” A voice boomed offscreen. The Delta complied, and the massive, battle-scarred Alpha stepped into view. “I wish to look upon the faces of those who would stand in my way.”

“Look all you want, Zaanagar,” Shivan quipped. “Your hunt here is over.”

“The hunt is over when the beast is dead, Captain,” Zaanagar challenged. “And I have many beasts left to slay.”

“No, you don’t,” Kell said, looking at the Hirogen with a glare Shivan was sure could frighten most Nausicaans. He doubted Zaanagar was so affected, but it was an admirable effort.

Ignoring Tymir, Zaanagar continued, “I warned you once, Blueskin, that I would not rest until I had spilled the blood of every being on your pathetic vessel! My oath still stands. I suggest you flee while I am occupied, or the chase will be most unsatisfactory.”

“Kathor, arm torpedoes and fire,” Shivan ordered.

“You really think you can intimidate me, Blueskin?” Zaanagar laughed even as the torpedoes struck his shields. “Your people may have escaped from my vessel, but they will not escape my blade.”

“You know what? You’re right,” Shivan said as a smile slowly appeared on his face. “Your vessel is far more powerful than ours. Now please, give us a quick death.”

Zaanagar laughed. “Your sarcasm is delicious. Now tell me your name, your full name, that I may know who it is that I shall claim as a trophy on this day.”

”Me?” Shivan questioned. “Very well.” Most species raised their voices when they were angry, but Andorians tended to lower theirs. Incensed at Zaanagar’s continued arrogance, Shivan spoke just above a whisper. “I am Captain KulShivan ch’Tao-Mey, of the Federation starship Wolfsong — and I will not be your trophy today. Kathor, end transmission.”

Zaanagar’s face disappeared and was replaced with his ship, now arming powerful weaponry, weaponry that had destroyed many vessels but would not be destroying the Wolfsong.

“They are hailing us.”

“I don’t care,” Shivan retorted.

“They are arming weapons and preparing to fire,” Kathor cautioned.

“Now, Mr. Locksley,” Shivan ordered, taking a seat. Kell did the same. It was going to be a rough ride.

“Aye, Captain,” Locksley replied.

“Take us into position, Mayborn,” Shivan ordered. The young human ensign acknowledged his order and entered the appropriate commands.

*****

Rather than the thunderous onslaught Zaanagar had intended, a truly pathetic display of firepower left barely a dent on the blueskin’s ship. The silvery vessel raced towards the transwarp conduit and when Zaanagar gave the order to pursue, Narkoth suddenly found that his engines were inoperative. Needless to say, Zaanagar was furious.

“I told you to fix this!” The Alpha snapped. “Narkoth, you are useless!”

”It isn’t my fault that Rokar has no self control,” Narkoth said calmly. “The human used Borg technology to sabotage us, and it is very difficult to remove.”

“Fix my engines, Narkoth! Or we will all be dishonored.”

“I can attempt one more method, Alpha, but…” Narkoth trailed off as he noticed something interesting. “Nevermind, Alpha, we have control!”

“Excellent. Pursue the scent!” Zaanagar replied joyfully.”

*****

“I’ve given them their engines back, Captain,” Alex said just before the Wolfsong entered the transwarp conduit. Coordinating the nanoprobes he’d left behind over such a distance was proving to be more exhausting than he’d thought it would be.

“We are inside the corridor, Captain!” Clarissa Mayborn said enthusiastically. Alex had to smile, knowing just how excited she would be about traveling so much faster than normal.

“Please keep us in one piece, Ensign,” Captain Shivan replied.

“I will, sir,” Clarissa promised. Alex felt the ship’s speed increase, although the inertial dampers performed admirably. A quick consultation of his console showed just how fast they were going, and Alex had to suppress a childish giggle. It truly was incredible.

“The Hirogen vessel has entered the corridor,” Kathor noted a moment later. “They are closing fast.”

“Alex, are there weapons still limited?” Kell asked. Alex nodded.

“Yes, but I don’t know how long that will last. I’m having difficulty controlling the nanoprobes. The corridor is causing a lot of interference,” he explained just as the Hirogen weapons made their mark.

“That didn’t feel very limited, Locksley!” Captain Shivan complained.

“I’m sorry, sir, I’m trying,” Alex replied, concentrating with all his strength.

“Mayborn, it seems you’ll have to compensate,” Shivan said. “Keep us moving.”

“Yes, sir. Not much room in here, though.”

“How much longer?” Kell asked.

“Less than a minute, sir,” Clarissa replied as the bridge shook again.

“Direct hit to our port nacelle!” Kathor said. “Aft shields down to sixty percent.”

“We’re almost out.” Clarissa continued. “Ten seconds.”

Pain coursed through Alex’s head as he reached out for the nanoprobes he’d left behind, but finally he made a connection.

“I’m connected!” Alex said.

“We’re through,” Clarissa said at the same time.

“Take their weapons out for good, Ensign,” Shivan ordered. Alex nodded and caused the nanoprobes to initiate a power surge.

“Sensors detect a massive energy buildup in their weapons system.” Kathor noted.

“That’s me,” Alex replied.

“There’s been an explosion. Their weapons are gone, Captain,” Kathor continued.

“Good work, Locksley. Get ready to kill their engines as well. Mayborn, we need to go.”

“One tiny little problem, sir,” Clarissa replied. “They won’t move.”

“They’re blocking the exit…” Shivan mused. “How close are they?”

“There’s no way we can get by, sir,” Clarissa answered.

“I hate to bear bad news, Captain, but there are more coming,” Kathor warned. “Three ships, closing on our position fast.”

“We’ll have to destroy them,” Shivan said. “Can you drop their shields, Locksley?”

“No, sir, I can’t.”

*****

“By the stars themselves, this prey is worthy!” Zaanagar exclaimed.

“They will fall,” Rokar said defiantly. “Your brother’s ships are fast approaching.”

“I will not let him have all the glory!” Zaanagar countered. “There is but one thing we can do. Prepare yourselves!”

*****

“Why can’t you, Alex?” Kell asked, turning to look at the young man. He shrugged helplessly.

“I only left so many nanoprobes on board, and those that were in the weapons systems have been destroyed. It will take too long to move the nanoprobes from the engines. The other ships will be here by then.”

“Less than three minutes, Captain,” Kathor agreed.

“The engines…” Shivan muttered. “That’s it, Locksley! The engines. Mayborn, bring us about.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Locksley, are you in control of their warp engines?” Shivan asked. Kell felt a smile grow across her face, and noted that Alex was smiling too.

“Yes. I can send them into warp.”

“We’ll have to time it right,” Kathor said. “Or the other ships will follow us through the corridor, and we cannot take on all three of them.”

“There will only be two,” Shivan said. “Locksley, send Zaanagar’s ship directly into the approaching leader. That should slow them down long enough for us to get away.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex replied, closing his eyes. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Prepare to enter the corridor again, Mayborn,” Shivan said. “Now, Mr. Locksley.”

“Engaging the Hirogen’s warp engines now, Captain,” Alex replied.

“Take us in, Ensign,” Kell said to Mayborn, who obeyed immediately.

“Captain, there’s something…” Kathor began, his voice trailing off suddenly.

“What is it?” Shivan asked.

“Nothing, sir. They were attempting to fire an energy pulse, but it was harmless.”

“Very well.”

“We’re in, sir.”

“Then take us home.”

*****

Garazan and his brother Zaanagar had always been rivals. Both Alphas, there was fierce competition between them, but in the end their blood connection made them allies. On their own, they were mighty hunters. Together, they were unstoppable. Garazan looked forward to hunting alongside his brother, trapping the silver prey vessel and taking their fill of relics.

So Garazan was confused when Zaanagar broke formation. He was angry when the prey escaped, he was furious when Zaanagar ignored his hails, and for the few seconds that he remained alive after realizing it was too late, Garazan was terrified.

Zaanagar’s ship smashed into Garazan’s at unfathomable speed, and such great energy caused an explosion that shattered both vessels. The explosion and the fragments of the doomed ships struck the other vessels in the pack as well, dealing a great amount of damage but not destroying them completely. Those who remained alive were grateful, not to have escape with their lives, but to have been a part of hunting such a worthy adversary.

*****

“We are not being pursued, Captain,” Kathor said happily. While the battle had been glorious in its own way, he was relieved, and proud to have been part of protecting his friends.

“That is good news, Commander,” Shivan said. “Excellent work, everyone.”

“Absolutely,” Commander Tymir agreed.

“And we’re out,” Ensign Mayborn announced.

“Fire on the gateway, Kathor,” Shivan ordered. Kathor obeyed, and together with the Vreenak, destroyed the Hirogen gateway with ease.

“The gateway is gone, Captain,” Kathor informed Shivan.

“What a pity,” Ensign Mayborn said, evidently quite disappointed that she wouldn’t be flying at transwarp speeds anymore.

“Oh, there’ll be other chances, Clarissa.,” Commander Kell said cheerfully. “Now, Captain, we do have a situation to address.”

“Of course,” Shivan said, and nodded. “We must go to the brig. Kathor, you have the bridge.”

“Indeed, sir,” Kathor acknowledged.

A few minutes of silence passed, and then Ensign Locksley cursed out loud, drawing a bemused glare from Kathor. “I beg your pardon, Ensign?”

“Sorry, sir, but this could be very bad.”

“What?” Kathor asked. Locksley tapped his combadge and didn’t answer the question.

“Locksley to Shivan,” the Ops Controller said.

Go ahead, Ensign.”

“Are you with Carson yet?” Locksley asked nervously.

Yes, but he’s occupied at the moment,” Shivan said.

“Sir, I need him to look at these readings. I’m sending them to the main brig console.”

*****

“Alright, Ensign,” Shivan said. “Carson, you heard the man. Get over here.”

In his cell, Ethan Carson nodded and moved towards the exit, politely thanking the security officer who lowered the forcefield.

“What am I looking at, Locksley?” Carson asked.

You’re the expert. Are these energy reading consistent with Hirogen dampening technology?

Carson looked at the console and horror flashed across his face. “Yes, Ensign, they are. There are definitely Hirogen on the Wolfsong.”

*****

Ethan ran a panicked hand through his hair as T’Nel and Captain Shivan joined him on either side of the console.

“How many are there?” Captain Shivan asked.

“It is impossible to tell at the moment,” T’Nel answered after quickly reviewing the data.

“All we really know is that internal sensors are down on Deck 8, in Cargo Bay 2. But the distortion pattern matches Hirogen tech,” Ethan explained.

“We’ll have to seal off that deck and dispatch security teams,” Shivan replied.

“Not yet, Captain,” Ethan corrected. “Right now they’ll try to cut power and probably set up a stronger dampening field. Once that happens, energy weapons will not work in that area, and neither will tricorders.”

“So what would you have us do?” Commander Tymir asked sharply.

“Send security teams,” Ethan answered. “After you shut down their dampening field.”

“And how do we do that?” Tymir continued.

“Use your deflector dish to set up a tetryon resonance field. It’ll disable, if not destroy, their dampeners. Then, we can track them down and stop them. But going after them now is just going to get someone killed.”

“I understand,” Shivan replied. “However, we should at least confine non-essential personnel to their quarters.”

“That may not be wise, Captain,” T’Nel suggested. “You do not wish to alert the Hirogen that we are aware of their presence.”

“Of course not, but we can’t just let the crew be slaughtered,” Tymir argued. “We have to do something.”

“Go to warp,” Ethan said. “They won’t risk cutting power to the deflector system while we’re at warp, so they’ll wait until we stop and hopefully by that time your Engineers will have the deflector ready.”

“That would also negate some of the need for the element of surprise,” T’Nel mused out loud.

“Good idea, we’ll do it,” Shivan decided. “Bridge, can you still hear us?”

Loud and clear, Captain,” Ensign Locksley’s voice replied.

You are certain we should not go after the Hirogen now?” A gruff voice, that of Commander Kathor, asked.

“Positive,” Ethan answered.

“He’s the expert, Kathor,” Tymir said. “Have Mayborn take us to warp immediately.”

Understood, Commander,” Locksley responded, “But the Vreenak is hailing us.”

“We’re busy.” Shivan replied.

Understood. Bridge out,” Locksley answered.

“Commander, I will stay here, but I want you to go to the bridge for now,” Shivan told Kell, who nodded and left immediately.

*****

“The Wolfsong is not responding, Commander,” Communications Officer Telara said meekly.

“Strange…” Miralin mused, sharing a glance with Sumal. “Andorians aren’t known for being ungrateful.”

A sudden alert on his console caught Sumal’s attention and confused him all the more. He had thought the Wolfsong’s captain to be otherwise occupied, but something more was going on.

“Commander, they’re going to warp!” Sumal said incredulously.

“In a star system?” Miralin replied. “I thought their precious Federation ethics forbade that kind of action.”

“It is not standard protocol for Federation vessels,” Mekhna, the Vreenak’s Intelligence Officer, agreed.

“Something must be wrong,” Miralin continued. “Follow them, Sumal.”

“Yes, Commander,” he replied, already having input the command in expectation of her orders. While he may not have used her personal name on the bridge, as she did his, he certainly felt close enough to her to know what she was going to do before she said it.

*****

T’Kor’s amused smile had transformed into a full-on grin. “I knew it would work, Vasik,” he lied blatantly. “I never doubted you at all.”

“You thought we were all going to die!” Vasik retorted.

“It would have been glorious if we had!” K’Serryn interjected with an arm around Vasik’s shoulder, a typically Klingon, typically K’Serryn gesture that was every bit as annoying now as it had been the first time. Vasik pulled away and rolled his eyes.

“Perhaps, but we still would have been dead,” Vasik replied.

“Everyone dies eventually, ghetwI’. You should at least hope your death is exciting.”

“If you say so,” Vasik muttered, noticing suspiciously that the Wolfsong had jumped to warp.

Shivan to Engineering,” the captain’s voice interrupted just as Vasik was about to call the bridge and ask for an explanation.

“Go ahead, Captain,” Vasik answered.

We have reason to believe there are Hirogen on board. Check sensor readings on Deck 8, Cargo Bay 2.”

“Yes, sir,” Vasik complied, and sure enough, Deck 8 was experiencing something strange. “I see the distortion — what are your orders?”

Analyze the distortion and use the deflector dish to set up a tetryon resonance field. Carson and T’Nel believe that will help flush our guests into the open.”

“Understood, sir,” Vasik replied. “I’ll need T’Kor’s assistance.”

He’s all yours,” Shivan responded. “Shivan out.”

*****

Kathor to Lieutenant Gray,” a deep Klingon voice interrupted Jason’s conversation just as he and Ssarrak departed Arisu’s guest quarters.

“Go ahead, Commander.”

It seems a few Hirogen have made their way on board. Commander Vasik is attempting to shut down their energy dampeners, but in the meantime it would be prudent to prepare ourselves.”

“Agreed, sir. There are non-energy weapons in the locker on Deck 6.”

I am aware of that,” Kathor replied. “Meet me there as soon as possible.”

“Yes sir, but what about Ssarrak and Arisu? The Hirogen won’t be too happy that they got away the first time.”

A valid concern, Lieutenant. Bring them with you.”

“Understood, sir. Gray out,” With a sigh, Jason turned to Ssarrak. “That alright with you, Doctor?”

Ssarrak nodded. “Yesss.”

Jason smiled and activated the door chime. A moment later, Arisu opened the door.

“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans,” Jason said. “We have Hirogen on board and they will probably come after you and Ssarrak. I’d like you to come with me.”

“Come where, exactly?” Arisu asked as she stepped into the corridor.

“There’s a weapons locker on Deck 6. If we wait there, we’ll be ready for anything.”

“I assume you are aware that Hirogen dampening technology impedes energy weapons,” Arisu noted.

“Yes, we are,” Jason replied. “We brought along some specialty weapons just for this mission.”

“Weaponsss not necessssarry,” Ssarrak hissed darkly.

“Maybe you can take them on hand to hand, big guy, but I sure can’t,” Jason answered as they approached the turbolift. “We have to make the most of what we have.”

“Thisss human ssstrong, Arrisssu,” Sssarak said quietly to his assistant as the doors closed.

*****

“I don’t understand,” K’Serryn appealed. “How can you scan the area that you can’t scan?”

“We can’t scan that area, K’Serryn,” T’Kor answered with a useless echo.

“Then how can you analyse the distortion, T’Kor?” K’Serryn demanded.

“After a certain point, the sensors don’t work,” Vasik replied. “But before that point, they operate normally. We can analyze the termination point and find out exactly what sort of jamming frequency they’re using.”

“Ah,” K’Serryn said with a pointed glare to T’Kor. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

“No…” Vasik muttered. “But…”

“But?” K’Serryn asked.

“But it won’t work. We don’t have the time.”

“That’s not good,” T’Kor whined.

“Actually, we don’t need to do all that work,” Vasik replied, a determined look of brilliance crossing his narrow Romulan features. “We only need to start the resonance field at the lowest frequency used by any of our scanning equipment. We know a standard tricorder couldn’t penetrate that field, and we also know our most powerful internal sensors can’t do it.”

“So if we start with that and incrementally increase the frequency and intensity, we’ll knock the dampener out with brute force.”

“Exactly,” Vasik agreed, already inputting commands. “Brute force is what we need. What do you think of that solution, K’Serryn?”

“I like it, ghetwI’.” K’Serryn said approvingly.

“I’m not pretending at the moment, K’Serryn,” Vasik retorted. “T’Kor, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hirogen come looking for you and K’Serryn. Be ready to…”

“I know, Vasik, ready to tear them to pieces, I’ve got it.”

“I’m always ready to fight,” K’Serryn echoed.

“We’ve noticed,” Vasik shot back. Sarcasm and venom were sure signs the little Romulan was very determined to succeed, which usually meant trouble for whoever his adversary was. K’Serryn had hated the Engineer at first, due to his abrasiveness and arrogance, but she had eventually come to respect him and now viewed him as a close friend.

*****

“Status report, Vasik,” Shivan ordered. Now firmly focused on the task at hand, the engineer’s voice held no trace of the usual smugness.

We’re initiating the resonance field now, Captain,” Vasik replied through the coms. “We should have results in less than a minute.”

“Excellent,” Shivan said approvingly, noticing the look of relief on Carson’s face, a look that mirrored Shivan’s feelings.

I should warn you, Captain, crewmembers with sensitive hearing may experience some discomfort.” Vasik added.

“Does that include Romulans?” Shivan asked.

Yes, sir, it does…” Vasik replied. “In fact, I’m already feeling quite uncomfortable.”

So am I,” T’Kor muttered in the background.

“Contact me when it’s over,” Shivan replied. “Shivan out.”

A moment later, Shivan tapped his badge and called the bridge. “We should have sensors back up soon, Commander.”

Thank you for the good news, sir,” Kell answered.

*****

For quite some time, internal sensors had seemed to report that certain areas of the ship simply didn’t exist. The Hirogen, perfectly invisible within their sphere of distortion, had moved through the ship at will. Every passing moment, Alex grew more agitated, more fearful that someone he cared for would be hurt. He checked and re-checked his scans incessantly, until the gratifying moment when the ship’s vision returned. One moment the Hirogen were invisible, and the next moment their camouflage was broken.

“We have them!” Alex exclaimed. “Four Hirogen in total – two near Engineering, one on Deck Six, and one… oh, no, one’s headed for Sickbay!”

“Thank you, Alex,” Kell said quickly before tapping her combadge. “Bridge to Engineering, be advised there are two Hirogen headed your way.”

“Understood, Commander,” Vasik replied. “We’ll be…” Vasik’s voice cut off a second before the lights went out on the Bridge.

“What’s going on?” Kell demanded. Alex threw up his hands hopelessly.

“I don’t know, but we’ve lost power and we’ve dropped out of warp,” He replied. “While we were blind they must have sabotaged our systems somehow. Maybe the two in Engineering were doing more than sitting and waiting…either way, we’ve got to hope they get dealt with before they manage to fix their dampeners.”

“Do what you can to restore power from here,” Kell replied.

“I’ll try, but I’ve got nothing to work with, Kell,” Alex replied.

*****

In the darkness, K’Serryn couldn’t tell where he had come from, but she knew where he was now. The pathetic cowards who called themselves Hunters were about to face an unpleasant surprise.

Mustering all the rage and bravado she could, K’Serryn picked up a heavy spanner and prepared to use it. She stood up on a console as the dim emergency lighting came on and shouted at the intruder.

“How dare you hunt us like targs!” K’Serryn yelled. “You are cowards.” She jumped down towards the Hirogen and held the spanner ready. She couldn’t see his entire face, but his eyes seemed to smile as he brandished his blade and began his charge. K’Serryn braced and prepared to swing, and two glowing orange beams flew past her and slammed into the Hirogen. Though they did little damage, they distracted and slowed her attacker and gave her an opening to strike.

K’Serryn smashed the spanner into the hunter’s face with all the fury of Kahless and heard a satisfying crack as she damaged his mask. He grunted but recovered quickly, blocking her next blow with ease and disarming her. She spun as he lashed out once again with his blade and screamed with rage as it sliced her cheek open.

*****

T’Kor rolled his eyes and shared a ‘you-must-be-joking’ glance with Vasik when the Hirogen shrugged off their phaser fire. Rage boiled in his blood as the Hirogen’s next swing connected. K’Serryn spun and rolled towards the makeshift weapon that lay a short distance away. Taking advantage of her temporary distraction, the Hirogen drew his sidearm and fired at T’Kor and Vasik. They dodged, but the barrage continued as they ducked behind their console, only stopping when K’Serryn screamed and presumably threw herself at him again.

“Let’s end this,” T’Kor said decisively. Vasik nodded.

“I doubt his armor will shrug off the maximum setting,” Vasik noted as they both adjusted the weapon’s settings and stood to face the so-called hunter.

K’Serryn, as expected, was faring quite well given the circumstances. In the short time it took T’Kor and Vasik to take aim, she landed several vicious blows – but they simply weren’t enough. The Hirogen disarmed her once again and knocked her to the ground. He raised his knife to finish the job, but Vasik and T’Kor didn’t let that happen.

*****

If Kathor had ever doubted the strength and ferocity pent-up within a Gorn, what had just happened would have obliterated his doubt. As it was, he had seen what an angry Gorn could do before, but Ssarrak’s feat was no less impressive.

The Hirogen who attacked the weapons locker had known his energy dampener was broken, so he had used a sort of flash grenade to disorient his ‘prey’, but it hadn’t worked on Ssarrak. Kathor had noticed the Gorn’s scaly inner eyelid slide into place a moment before the flash went off and for the first time cursed his own Klingon eyes, rendered so useless by a simple flash of light.

Kathor’s eyes hadn’t completely adjusted until it was all over, but what he could see was glorious. Using both a heavy phase compression rifle and his own hands as clubs, Ssarrak had brutally disarmed the Hirogen and rendered him unconscious in a matter of moments.

“Not kill thisss,” Ssarrak hissed. “Ssarrak better than thisss,” Kathor nodded in agreement. While he was a warrior, he couldn’t help but feel that killing this Hirogen would have been no more honorable than what the Hirogen itself had intended. If it were his fight, things would have been different – but it wasn’t his fight. The strangely serene, almost placid Gorn had a right to choose.

*****

“Tymir said there were two Hirogen coming,” K’Serryn noted suspiciously. “Thank you, by the way.”

“You’re welcome,” Vasik and T’Kor said in unison.

“And why don’t we have power?” K’Serryn wondered.

Vasik consulted his tricorder. “There are crucial power relays in the Jefferies tubes near engineering. The other Hirogen is sitting in wait beside the most crucial relay.”

“Then let’s go get him!” K’Serryn said eagerly.

“No. I’ve got a better idea,” Vasik replied.

“What?” K’Serryn demanded, her anger beginning to overflow.

“K’Serryn, how angry does it make you when T’Kor won’t let you have a fight you think you deserve?” Vasik asked.

“Livid,” K’Serryn answered.

“And how do you think it would make the Hirogen feel if we didn’t give him a hunt and merely transported him directly to the Brig?”

A grin slowly replaced K’Serryn’s glare and she nodded with approval.

*****

Kathor to Bridge.”

“Go ahead, Kathor,” Kell replied, smiling encouragingly at Alex. Emergency power had been restored, and while sensors were still mostly down, communications were back up and running smoothly – but Zuna wasn’t answering.

We have dealt with this Hirogen. What is the status of the others?

“Vasik and T’Kor have theirs under control, but we don’t know what happened to the other. As far as we know, he’s still headed for Sickbay and Zuna’s not responding to our calls.”

Understood. Lieutenant Gray will stay and guard our prisoner. Please have Ensign Locksley meet me outside Sickbay.”

“Prisoner?” Kell echoed.

It’s a long story. Is Locksley available?

“Yes, he is,” Kell looked at Alex and nodded. He didn’t need to be told twice. That Hirogen doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into, Kell mused silently. Hell is about to rain down on him just for thinking about hurting Zuna.

*****

The Hirogen’s sabotage had been brutally efficient and yet seemingly random. The turbolifts worked, as did communications, but internal sensors and some automatic doors weren’t working. Kathor slid the edge of his blade between the two sections of door and pried them open. His Klingon determination, coupled with Locksley’s considerably enhanced strength, made short work of the sickbay doors.

Sickbay was dark and silent, the only audible sound being the faint hum of a tricorder in the far corner of the room.

“Zuna?” Locksley asked the darkness.

“I’m right here, Alex,” Doctor Sarrana’s voice answered. Confused, Kathor switched on his light and shined it towards the voice. The Orion doctor was kneeling, tricorder in hand, scanning the unmoving Hirogen at her feet. Doctor Sukhet stood beside her, arms folded and a typical Vulcan eyebrow raised in either fascination or derision… or perhaps both.

“What happened?” Locksley wondered.

“What happened?” Sarrana mimicked. “Blunt force trauma, a Vulcan neck pinch, and enough anesthetic to knock out an Algorian mammoth, that’s what happened.”

“Are you alright?” Locksley asked, stepping around to Hirogen to check on his par’Mach’kai.

“I’m better than he is,” Zuna quipped, gesturing to the fallen hunter. Abruptly, the lights came on. “That’s better!”

“Indeed,” Sukhet agreed.

“What should we do with him?” Alex asked. “Beam him to the brig? I assume he’ll live.”

“He will,” Sukhet answered, and Kathor thought he detected a trace of disappointment in the Vulcan’s voice.

“You know, from a medical standpoint, his body is quite fascinating,” Zuna mused, standing up and stepping away from Alex, stopping in front of the large monitor on the wall. “Take a look at this,” She invited. “You too, Kathor.”

Casting one more look of suspicion at the prone Hirogen, Kathor nodded and stepped past him.

“Their resilience is quite notable,” Sukhet said as medical information, all but meaningless to Kathor, appeared on the screen.

“He took massive levels of anesthezine before he went down, and he won’t be out for long,” Zuna continued. “In fact, you have to get him to the Brig before…uh-oh. Those readings are not good.”

‘Not good’ was an understatement. Evidently the Hirogen had been underestimated, and he leapt to his feet with astounding speed, agility, and ferocity. He was fast, and had they been alone, the doctors would have been in trouble – but Kathor’s blade was even faster and soon the Hirogen could hunt no more.

*****

Shivan smiled and stretched back in his chair. All in all, it had been a satisfying mission. The Hirogen had been dealt with and no casualties were reported among the crew. The most serious injury was a cut on K’Serryn’s face, and true to Klingon nature, K’Serryn was proud of it.

Shivan’s smile turned to a grin as he recalled his last conversation with Zaanagar. The Hirogen had seemed almost friendly after his defeat, as if he now truly appreciated what his ‘prey’ could do.

“You threw all you could at us, we were outgunned and outmanned, and now there are only two of you,” Shivan had said. “We’re about to drop you off on an unfriendly planet with lots of predators out of the goodness of our hearts. Does that make us worthy, Zaanagar?”

“Very,” Zaanagar acknowledged.

“You’ve got that right,” Kell had interjected.

“Just remember, Zaanagar…” Shivan continued. “A doctor beat you. Not a hunter, not a warrior, but a healer. Strength comes in many forms.”

“Your doctor is more of a hunter than you think, Captain.”

Zaanagar was right, of course. Zuna Sarrana wasn’t your typical doctor. But then again, Kell wasn’t a typical Trill, Locksley wasn’t a typical human, and Kathor wasn’t a typical Klingon. His crew was strange, out of the ordinary, motley, rag-tag, and sometimes downright juvenile. But they were his crew, and they would always be a force to be reckoned with.

Commander Miralin had been quite amused at the way the crew dealt with the Hirogen, and expressed her wishes that they work together again. Shivan agreed, and the Romulans slipped away into the shadows and snuck back to whatever secret lair they had come from. Now, at long last, Shivan was able to give his crew what they needed more than anything. A home, a respite, a place to tie their lives to and to attach them to reality – in short, they needed Sanctuary.

“Lay in a course, Ensign Mayborn,” Shivan ordered, standing and approaching the viewscreen. “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning, Clarissa. Take us home.”

 *****

 Sickbay

 

“Well…” Doctor Sarrana mused, placing her hands on her hips. The small Orion looked them up and down and shook her head with amusement. “It seems your story checks out.”

“Naturally,” T’Nel replied with an arched eyebrow. Beside her, Ethan laughed.

“I told you we had nothing to hide,” Ethan said nonchalantly. “We appreciate what you’ve done for us, Doctor.”

“You’re welcome,” Sarrana answered. “Any friend of Kel’s…”

Ethan scoffed a little at that, and shook his head slowly. “I hope so.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sarrana said bluntly. “It was just a misunderstanding. The two…no, the three of you need to talk it out.”

“It would be the wise course of action,” T’Nel acknowledged, glancing at her husband.

“I know she’ll understand,” Sarrana said. “Now go on, get out of here. I’ve got things to do.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ethan replied happily and put an arm around T’Nel’s shoulders, gently guiding her towards the door.

*****

She wasn’t sure how she ended up outside his quarters, and hesitated for just a moment before activating the chime, wondering if she should go through with it. Kell finally pressed the button and Alex Locksley cheerfully invited her in. She smiled upon hearing his voice, momentarily reassured that she had made the right choice. Kell needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen and really understand. Someone who wasn’t Zuna. Someone like Nodan…but he wasn’t here right now. Content with the friend she had, she stepped into his quarters.

“Hi, Kell,” Alex welcomed her happily. “Or is it Commander Tymir?”

“It’s Kell at the moment, Alex,” she replied, accepting his friendly embrace. “What was that for?”

“You looked like you needed it,” Alex replied. “Please, sit down. What can I do for you?”

Kell gratefully accepted his offer and sat on the couch beside him. “I just…I wondered if you…” Suddenly unsure of what to say, she looked at him plaintively and sighed.

“It’s okay,” Alex said consolingly. “Take your time, I’m not going anywhere.”

You really are like Nodan, Kel thought. Aloud, she said, “Thanks, Alex. This whole situation with Ethan is just… I don’t know what to think.”

“So you came to the one person you know who has…experience with that sort of thing?”

“Well, that and you’re a good friend, Alex,” She didn’t really need advice, per se, just someone to listen to her and assure her she was doing the right thing…or, conversely, to tell her she was being an idiot. She knew Alex would do all of those things if asked.

“I try, Kell. So what is it that’s bothering you so much?”

“I just wish he had told me!” she finally said, exasperated.

“Really?” Alex asked. “What was he supposed to say? ‘Oh, by the way, did I ever tell you about the time I was cloned?’”

Kell laughed in agreement. “I know… I guess it’s kind of an awkward subject. What bothers me even more, though, is that he tried to and I shut him down.”

“I’m sure you had a good reason for that.”

“It seemed that way at the time, yes,” Kell agreed. “I could tell it had hurt him, too. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“Then don’t feel bad,” Alex admonished. She smiled and stared out his window into the darkness of space, chewing her lower lip in contemplation. “Now what is it?” He asked gently.

“I just…uh…”

“Let me guess,” Alex said when she started stumbling. “You don’t know how you’re supposed to feel about two identical people and don’t know if you can be just friends with one and be more with the other. Am I right?”

“Wow, Alex, you are good.” Kell replied. He was absolutely right.

“Well, how do you think he feels? How do you think T’Nel feels?”

“I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess they’ve made it work somehow. I know you and Alok have.”

“Yeah…well, the situation is slightly different but the same principle applies. I think of Alok as more of a brother than anything. I guess it would be like dating a twin…sort of. Remember, Ethan and…Ethan two-point-oh aren’t exactly the same. They look the same, but they’ve had enough different experiences that they aren’t identical anymore.”

“You’re right.”

“So, you’ve pretty much got two options.”

“And what are those, Doctor Locksley?” she teased.

“Well, you can stay here and tell me about your problems (which I wouldn’t mind, by the way), or you can go and talk to T’Nel and Ethan right now, while you’re thinking about them. If you need to stay here and relax, that’s fine too.”

“You really are a good friend, Alex.”

“So are you, Kell.”

“You know, you should meet my brother some day. You’d like him.”

“Well, next time we go to Trill, you can introduce us.”

“I will, Alex. Thanks for listening.”

“Anytime, Kell. Anytime,” he said, smiling and they stood up. He reached for another hug, which she gladly accepted. She kissed him on the cheek and stepped away.

*****

The chime rang outside Ethan’s quarters a few moments after he and T’Nel had finished their daily meld.

“Come in,” Ethan said, fully expecting the person outside. Sure enough, Kell Tymir stepped inside and smiled hesitantly.

“Good evening, Commander Tymir,” T’Nel said kindly.

“How are you, Kell?” Ethan asked.

“I’m good, thank you,” Kel replied. “I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ethan laughed.

“You were acting under logical, though mistaken assumptions,” T’Nel said, not exactly gently but clear enough for a Vulcan. “It was not your fault.”

“I was still out of line.”

“I don’t really think so, Kell,” Ethan disagreed. “If you had been right about me, I would have deserved all that.”

“I suppose,” Kell answered, laughing just a little. “Still, I’m glad I was wrong. I’m glad you’re…”

“Not a… how did Doctor Sarrana put it, T’Nel? She said something quite good.”

“I believe the words she used were ‘a lying, manipulative, adulterous, backstabbing chameleon.’”

“Ah. Quite eloquent, if you ask me,” Ethan laughed. “Oh, I’m sorry, please sit down.” Remembering himself, he gestured to the couches and the three of them took a seat. “My mind was…elsewhere,” He said, trying not to sound too vague.

“It’s often difficult to focus on things in the real world after a mind-meld, especially an intense one,” T’Nel explained.

“Zuna did say you had to meld more than usual,” Kel replied. “Why is that?”

“When I was duplicated, my mind was telepathically linked with the other Ethan as a result of the accident. But the link was…unstable, and quite painful. Basically, we were two bodies, and two minds that kept thinking almost exactly the same thing. We both had the exact same memories, but it was very confusing for us.”

“It was also dangerous,” T’Nel added. “Human brains are not built for such a link with another human brain. Serious damage would have occurred without intervention.”

“And you were the intervention,” Kel guessed.

“Exactly,” T’Nel and Ethan said in unison.

“I initiated a mind-meld with him and severed the link. However, the contact was so intense that I created a permanent link with this Ethan. It would be possible to separate, but he likely wouldn’t survive the stresses involved.”

“So we stayed together. We need to meld so often because the damage done to my brain was never truly undone. I am the duplicate, so I was the one who was really in danger. My brother just needed to have me removed, but I need someone to…support me.”

“That’s…that’s actually quite a sweet story, you know,” Kell noted. “The way you saved his life, T’Nel. That’s amazing.”

“Tell me about it,” Ethan said with a smile at T’Nel. “She is amazing.” Her telepathic response was something akin to Damn straight, Dear.

“You called… Ethan your brother,” Kell said hesitantly. “So that’s how you… reconciled things?”

“How else am I supposed to think about the other me?” Ethan asked rhetorically.

“I understand,” Kell said. “Actually, Alex Locksley has a similar situation. The details are different, but he has a ‘brother’ as well.”

“That’s a fascinating coincidence. I should talk to Locksley about it.”

“I’m sure you two will get along quite well,” Kel replied. “You’re similar in other ways, too.”

“Ensign Locksley does seem quite intelligent,” T’Nel answered.

“Sometimes, anyways,” Kell joked. Ethan laughed, and through their bond T’Nel teased that he and Locksley were similar in that respect too.

“He seems like a nice guy,” Ethan replied. “So, Kel, have you had dinner yet? We’d love for you to join us.”

“That would be wonderful.”

*****

Sanctuary

Three days later


Kell approached the airlock with a mixture of sadness and hope. She was sad to see her new friends go, but hopeful that the three…no, fourof them would remain friends for a long time.

“Hey, there you are,” Ethan said warmly. “I hoped you’d make it.”

“Of course I did. I wanted to say goodbye one last time.”

“I was confident you would be here,” T’Nel replied. “We will miss you, Kel Tymir.”

“I’ll miss you too. Both of you,” Kell said. “Do I get a hug goodbye?”

“Of course!” Ethan replied, squeezing her tightly. Kell responded in kind and even hugged T’Nel. The Vulcan didn’t return the gesture, but she didn’t pull away, either.

“I hope that was alright,” Kell said in afterthought.

“Not a problem,” T’Nel responded without a trace of resentment in her voice, raising her hand in the Vulcan salute. Kel did the same thing.

“Live long and prosper,” Kell said.

“Peace and long life, Kell,” Ethan returned. “Hey, I wanted to ask you…are you sure the other me didn’t say anything he shouldn’t have? Because if he did, I promise I will beat him black and blue.”

Kell laughed out loud and hugged the man again. “No, he’s just as kind as you are.”

“I don’t know about that…” Ethan joked. “Well, I hate to say it, but we have to go. Our flight leaves soon.”

“Goodbye, Ethan. Goodbye, T’Nel,” Kell said one last time as her friends turned and departed. She smiled after them even once they were gone, feeling alone and quickly becoming miserable. Two more friends changed that, however.

“Well, it was fun while it lasted, hey Kell?” Alex said with a brotherly arm around Kell’s shoulder.

“I told you they weren’t so bad,” Zuna agreed, almost hiding her jealous glare at the placement of Alex’s arm. Kell laughed and leaned against him, twisting the knife in Zuna’s heart just a little more before fixing things with her next words.

“Let’s go, little brother,” Kell said, pulling Alex along with her as she moved away from the airlock. Zuna stepped alongside them and stole Alex’s other arm. What’s taking these two so long? Enough already! Kell thought with exasperation.

“So where shall we go?” Alex wondered aloud. “That place, what’s it called? With the amazing Romulan mollusks?”

“You mean the ones you never shut up about?” Zuna said sharply. “They weren’t that good.”

“They were so!” Alex said with mock indignation. Pulling away from his friends, he turned a circle and gestured all around. “Don’t you love this place?”

“It’s not bad,” Kell answered. “It’s the company that makes it worthwhile, though.”

“Definitely,” Alex agreed. “Well, shall we? I’m starving.”

“Me too,” Zuna admitted. Together, the friends found a place at the restaurant and absorbed the sights and sounds of their new home. Sanctuary was more than just a waypoint for the Eleventh Fleet, more than just an old Cardassian mining facility. It was the common link in a chain of countless relationships – some friendly, others less so. It was a place to call home, a place to relax.

Some other faces from the Wolfsong arrived a few minutes later. T’Kor and K’Serryn argued about the menu. Vasik couldn’t make up his mind. Clarissa Mayborn and Jason Gray took turns staring at one another. Alex and Zuna didn’t bother taking turns.

Kel looked around at her crew, her friends, her family. They were all she would ever need, and she loved every one of them. Even Vasik.

 

=/\=

 


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