PG-13

SUMMARY: A sequel to the events of "Pledge". After completing an uneventful mission in the neutral zone, the Voyager receives two visitors: An unexpected guest in Capt. Picard, who brings news from Starfleet Command. Have his worst fears come to fruition? And an unwanted pest in Q, who cares little for the petty intrigues of the Admiralty. Or does he?

[500 km from the Neutral Zone between Federation and Romulan sectors]

The Romulan officer smiled apologetically on the viewscreen. "We meant no harm, I assure you, Capt. Janeway. We were merely surveying the nebula clouds. Our sensors indicated that we were still in the Romulan sector."

Ensign Kim looked at Cmdr. Tuvok and rolled his eyes. The same old song-and- dance routine, they thought.

"We would be happy to escort you out of Federation space," Janeway suggested. "We wouldn't want your scout ship to get lost again."

"Scout ship?" the officer feigned surprise, "We are on a scientific mission."

"Then in the interests of science," Janeway added, "I'd recommend that you analyze your 'studies' of the nebula cloud on your side of the neutral zone. It will give you the opportunity to upload your data. Unless - you would like to share your discoveries?"

"That'll be the day," Lt. Paris grumbled under his breath.

"Our findings would be of little interest to you," the Romulan smiled, "but we graciously accept your offer of an escort."

"Happy researching," Janeway offered, as the communications were cut.

Cmdr. Chakotay nodded approvingly. "That was handled rather nicely, Captain. We kept the peace - while letting them know that they can't pull the wool over our eyes."

Tuvok watched the sensors carefully. There was only the single scout ship. He sighed in relief as the vessel crossed into the Romulan sector of the neutral zone.

"Lt. Paris, set a course for Federation space," Janeway ordered. "Warp Three. I don't want to stay here a moment longer than necessary."

"Aye, captain," Paris tapped his console and Voyager zoomed away from the neutral zone. He was also relieved to be back in Federation space. The Voyager was designed to be the corvette of the fleet. An excellent pursuit vessel.

But it was definitely not a Galaxy-class starship, and certainly no match for a fully-armed Romulan warbird that just might be lurking under cloak.

Tuvok paused for a moment. "It does seem odd that Starfleet Command would send Voyager to settle a minor border dispute at the neutral zone."

"There are those in the Admiralty who still believe that, if you haven't served in the Neutral Zone," Chakotay added, "you haven't done anything of note for Starfleet."

"Still," Tuvok continued, "Starfleet does have a sector fleet in this part of the galaxy. Though Voyager has been back for a few weeks, there are faster and better-armed vessels for this sort of work."

Kim grinned. "I think Starfleet wants to remind the celebrated crew of the Voyager that we're just one ship on their galactic chessboard."

"Some honest grunt work to keep us from getting soft," Chakotay observed. "After the Kazon, Hirogen and the Borg, I think we should be glad they're letting us ease into our duties."

Tuvok tapped his console again. Something blipped on his monitor. "Captain, there's a ship on an intercept course. Closing fast."

"The Romulans?" Janeway feared. Had they been led into a trap?

Tuvok tapped another control. "No, captain, it's a Starfleet signature. The Enterprise. They're hailing us."

Janeway and Chakotay seemed alarmed. "On screen," Janeway stated.

The face of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard appeared on their viewscreen. "Capt. Janeway, it's good to see you again."

"Likewise, Capt. Picard," Janeway smiled, "though it's only been a few days. It'll be several days before we reach the nearest starbase. Why don't I invite you and your senior staff for dinner aboard the Voyager? I'll have Neelix prepare one of his Talaxian delicacies."

"I thank you for your invitation," Picard replied indifferently, "but I'm afraid we'll have to dispense with the pleasantries for the moment. If you could beam aboard the Enterprise, I have some important matters to discuss with you. Cmdr. Riker will meet you in the transporter room."

"Absolutely, captain," Janeway replied "Chakotay, you have the bridge." as she headed towards the turbolift." Before she left, she exchanged an incredulous look with Chakotay and Tuvok. Whenever Jean-Luc Picard referred to 'important matters', it usually wasn't good news.

When Janeway materialized aboard the Enterprise, Riker was there waiting for her.

"I wish we could meet under better circumstances," Riker grimaced, as they left the transporter room. "Capt. Picard felt that it would be best if he told you directly."

"Directly about what?" Janeway wondered.

"The Cavalry Faction is gaining the upper hand in the Admiralty," Riker revealed, "They won a vote two days ago to double the size of the fleet in five years."

Janeway stopped abruptly. "But I was led to believe that the Diplomat Faction had moved swiftly to stamp out the conspirators."

Riker sighed. "They did manage a few high-level arrests, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The faction has cells in every sector fleet, deep space station and Federation embassy throughout the Alpha Quadrant."

"And?" Janeway prompted.

"That's the jist of what I know so far," Riker replied.

As they exited the turbolift and stepped onto the bridge, Ensign Lara Maxwell stood up - rail straight.

"Captain on the bridge!" she blurted. Riker chuckled to himself. He knew that the ensign had served aboard the Enterprise for six months. The countless protocols of Starfleet Academy were still seared into her memory. He couldn't quite remember if you only had to stand at attention for admirals on the bridge.

"At ease, Ensign," Janeway smiled. "I'm just paying a courtesy call to your captain."

Maxwell slowly took her seat at Ops. The senior bridge staff had convinced her that nothing was wrong. There was no conspiracy afoot, they had claimed. The Cardassians didn't break the armistice.

The appearance of Capt. Janeway only fueled her theories. The Voyager's executive officer was Chakotay, a former Maquis partisan.

She nodded to herself. The Cardassians. They must be involved!

When Janeway entered the ready room, Picard was already standing.

"Please, have a seat, Capt. Janeway," he gestured towards a chair. He walked towards the replicator. "Computer, one coffee. Colombian blend."

A tray appeared with a pot of steaming coffee, a bowl of cream and cubes of sugar.

"Thank you," Janeway smiled as she savoured the aroma of the hot drink.

"How was your mission?" Picard asked.

"Uneventful," Janeway replied, "A Romulan scout ship claimed that it was merely surveying a nebula cloud. 500 km into Federation space!"

Picard smiled. "And I'm sure Starfleet told you that preserving the peace was of utmost importance."

"Of course," Janeway laughed. "We suggested that we escort them back into the neutral zone, so they won't get lost again."

"The Romulans seem to be getting lost in the neutral zone far more frequently than any of us would like," Picard mused. "But I digress."

The mood changed immediately. Janeway had sensed it. Picard didn't travel all the way to the edge of the neutral zone to exchange diplomatic tips.

"Cmdr. Riker apprised you of the situation," Picard stated.

"He did," Janeway clutched her comforting cup of coffee. "But I thought Admiral Ravvik was facing a court-martial. Starfleet Intelligence was weeding out the bad apples throughout the quadrant."

Picard leaned towards her, as if he was confiding a secret. "The climate in the Admiralty changes almost daily. When the Vulcans inquired why one of their own was under arrest, it sent a chill throughout Starfleet Command. Ravvik's court-martial is suspended for the moment. The Vulcan leadership has summoned him to explain his actions. Unfortunately, he's left loyalists behind to keep the faith, so to speak."

Picard tapped a console and swiveled the monitor towards Janeway.

She studied the screen. A brown-haired human male, roughly mid-thirties, with a scar below his left eye. "Captain Donaldson. He was recently promoted to command of a sector fleet near Bajor."

"He is Ravvik's protégé," Picard revealed, "He graduated in the top 2% of his class. He quickly rose through the ranks and established quite a reputation as a skilled commander in the Dominion War. His specialty is counter-intelligence. It was Donaldson who undermined the Maquis movement."

"And what about Admiral Jellico?" Janeway inquired. "Is he --?"

"He survived their plotting," Picard replied, anticipating her fears. "Donaldson's loyalists in Starfleet Command were engineering dereliction of duty charges against Jellico. Thankfully, the Diplomat Faction got wind of the scheme and appointed him in charge of the deep space fleet in the Aquarius sector. It will be far harder to move against an admiral with a dozen starships at his disposal! Unofficially, Admiral Paris is the point- man for the Diplomat Faction. Donaldson hasn't figured out his allegiances - yet."

Picard stopped. Janeway and the Voyager crew endured seven years against unknown foes and dangers. Their homecoming was anything but orderly. He heard all the snide remarks of jealous captains in the Officers' Club, as they mocked Janeway's meteoric rise. Has she ever faced Klingons in battle, they would sneer. Or skirmished with a dozen Romulan warbirds?

He ignored those petty fools. If Janeway was being considered for promotion to the Admiralty, she had earned it.

Right now, she was the only captain in Starfleet he could trust.

"Don't return to San Francisco," Picard warned. "I fear for your safety."

"The Admiralty insisted that I return as soon as my mission was over," Janeway stated.

"-where, after much ceremony, you would been promoted to the Admiralty, and well-deserved, I might add," Picard explained. "But those who would have promoted you are no longer in control. Cmdr. Data intercepted communications between Donaldson and Ravvik. They plan to arrest you, disperse your crew and impound your vessel indefinitely. You hold much influence with the Federation Council. They fear what you could accomplish as an admiral."

Janeway shrugged helplessly. "Then what am I supposed to do, Captain? Roam aimlessly throughout the galaxy and wait for Starfleet to get its act together? I've been roaming blindly through the Delta Quadrant for seven years, with little help from Starfleet. I am not about to condemn my crew to a life in exile! This Cavalry Faction must be stopped."

"We must re-start Project: Undertow," Picard concluded. "The Admiralty is caught in a state of paralysis, with each faction jockeying for position. This cannot continue unchecked. The future of the Federation hangs in the balance. If we can't rely on Starfleet to safeguard the Federation's ideals, we leave ourselves vulnerable to external forces."

Project: Undertow was their scheme to launch an insurrection against the militants of Starfleet Command. The risk of failure was still great, but the risk of not acting was far worse.

"Are you asking me to join a conspiracy against the Cavalry Faction?" Janeway asked, carefully weighing her situation.

"You're the only Starfleet captain I trust at this point," Picard replied. "Your crew is already familiar with the project. They are well-trained and tested after seven years without a single resource from the Federation."

"Then you shall have my support," Janeway agreed. "Let's meet this crisis head-on."

Janeway and Picard began to head towards the ready-room door, but a flash of light appeared.

Q appeared, in his familiar Starfleet captain's uniform. "Capt. Picard, you stubborn worry-wart. Always launching a crusade against the injustices of the galaxy. Or is it just your way of dealing with an inferiority complex?"

Before Picard could reply, Q turned to Janeway. "Capt. Kathryn Janeway, as I live and breathe! We last met in the Delta Quadrant, was it? Is Jean-Luc trying to prod you into some messianic quest again?"

"We don't have time for your foolishness, Q!" Picard barked in frustration. "We have important work to do, and not much time!"

"Oh, come now, Picard," Q pleaded, as he settled into Picard's chair. "Don't you want to end this crisis in the Admiralty once and for all."

Janeway was about to speak, but Picard pulled her away. "No! We're not going to strike a Faustian bargain with him. The stakes are much too high!"

"This is going nowhere," Q whined, then snapped his fingers. Janeway disappeared in a flash of light.

When Janeway re-appeared, she found herself sitting on the floor of Data's room. With Spot the Cat in her lap.

"Q!" she exclaimed. "Stop playing games."

When the quarters' doors opened, Laforge was talking to his best friend.

"Data, Capt. Picard must have a really good reason to bring the Enterprise here," Laforge said. They spotted Janeway sitting on the floor. Spot leaped towards her owner.

"Uhh, Capt. Janeway?" Laforge wondered. "We weren't expecting you. At least not here."

"Believe me, I wasn't expecting myself here either," Janeway added, as Laforge helped her up. "To the bridge. We have a problem. It's Q."

In the ready room, Picard glared at the omnipotent being. "Where's Capt. Janeway?"

"Tucked away in Data's quarters," Q replied. "I can't hold a conversation with two people at once, now can I?"

"Why are you here?" Picard demanded, as he tried in vain to tap his communicator. Nothing worked.

"The first intelligent thing you've said so far," Q grinned. "I am here to help you understand what you're about to do. You're traveling a dangerous path, Picard. You're at the proverbial fork in the road. What you do over the next 24 hours will affect the course of history in this quadrant for the next 100 years."

Picard regained his composure. "How? How are we going to affect this quadrant? If you know something that can avert this crisis, please tell me. Too many lives are at stake."

"You coward," Q sneered. "Don't hide behind your smug Federation ideals. This Project: Undertow is riddled with pitfalls. And it will cost you the lives of your crew. And your friends."

Picard seemed baffled by Q's nihilistic predictions.

"Oh, you want proof, do you?" Q snickered. "Not willing to take a leap of faith, eh?"

Q snapped his fingers again. In a flash of light, Picard found himself aboard the bridge of the Enterprise.

But it was not an Enterprise he knew.

"Number One, report," Picard ordered. Riker ignored him.

"He can't see us, Picard," Q laughed, "None of them can."

An ensign seemed to walk right through Picard.

"We're three years in the future," Q explained. "and the quadrant is still feeling the ripple effects of Project: Undertow."

Perhaps Q had created an illusion, but Picard had to assume this was indeed three years later.

This Enterprise was on red alert, Picard noticed. Apparently, Riker would become captain in this timeline. On the viewscreen, a pitched naval battle created a vibrant fireworks display.

A display of carnage and death. The burning hulks of several Starfleet vessels drifted across the galactic battlefield. A Klingon bird of prey fired a shot across the Enterprise's starboard side.

"What's going on here?" Picard asked.

"Project: Undertow was a success," Q continued. "You purged all the members of the Cavalry Faction from the admiralty. The faction sought refuge in distance starbases. They convinced the Klingon High Council that the Federation was rudderless and paralyzed with indecision. They pulled out of the Federation six months later. A Klingon raid on a Vulcan outpost inevitably brought your precious Federation into the conflict. As you can see, it's going badly for Starfleet. The Cardassians are at this moment preparing to tear up their own treaty and declare war on the Federation. Bajor will fall within the month."

Picard looked around the bridge. Riker was missing his left forearm. His uniform sleeve was hastily tied around the stump.

"An unfortunate skirmish with a Klingon patrol did that to him," Q stated. "He'll never play the trombone again."

Picard noticed that Miles O'Brien was now tactical chief on Riker's bridge. O'Brien tapped a console. "Captain, the Klingon flagship is hailing us."

"On screen," Picard replied instinctively, but there was no reaction.

Riker glared at the viewscreen and nodded to O'Brien. "On screen."

Worf appeared, dressed in the battle armour of a Klingon commander.

"Withdraw Starfleet from this sector at once!" Worf demanded. "The Klingon Empire claims this sector."

"Don't think our past friendship will convince me to accept that!" Riker declared. "When you betrayed that Federation outpost to the Klingons, you lost whatever respect I might have had for you. Tell your fleet to fall back, or I will destroy you."

Worf paused. "It does not have to come to this, sir. Withdraw now and your ships will be spared. If you continue to fight, my warriors will not relent. You will be destroyed!"

Riker motioned to cut the communications. He turned towards O'Brien.

"O'Brien, prepare to unleash a photon torpedo spread on their warp engines," Riker ordered.

Q stared at Picard. "Are you so certain that Project: Undertow will save the Federation? Your arrogance will bring Sector 001 to its knees. Within six months, the Federation will have no choice but to crawl to the Klingon High Council with its tail between its legs - and beg for an armistice."

"This is a hypothetical outcome," Picard scoffed, "Worf would never betray the Federation."

"Oh, but he has, Jean-Luc," Q replied. "Voyager was sent to arrest him. Care to know what happened? Worf and his Klingon comrades ambushed the ship and scuttled it. All hands were lost. No more Janeway. No Chakotay. No Paris or Torres. Not even that half-breed humanoid Borg. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You rolled the dice and lost. Admit it Picard. Your little insurrection will prove to be foolhardy and a failure."

"All of this won't come to pass," Picard insisted. "We can make choices to avoid this outcome."

Riker looked again at O'Brien. "Fire on their engines!"

O'Brien stopped. "Captain, I have served with Worf for over 15 years. To this day, I refuse to believe that he had anything to do with the loss of that Federation outpost. Or the destruction of the Voyager. He may be a traitor, but he's no butcher. He's giving us the option to retreat, sir! We've lost six ships already. Our shields our down 78%. Another hit and we'd be defenseless."

"Are you refusing a direct order, Chief O'Brien?" Riker snarled.

"When the order is foolish, you're darn right I'm refusing it!" O'Brien snapped. "We should withdraw now."

Riker looked towards a security officer on the bridge. "Lt. Ramirez, take Mr. O'Brien to the brig. He is relieved of duty, effective immediately."

Before O'Brien entered the turbolift, he turned towards Riker. "There was a time when I would have been honoured to serve at your side. If there was anyone who deserved to command the flagship of Starfleet, it was you. You're a different man, now. You care only about kill ratios, not the values of the Federation. There is no honour in serving with you. Capt. Picard, god rest his soul, would be rolling in his grave if he could see what you've become."

Riker cleared his throat. "Computer. Activate firing pattern Riker 21. Dispersal pattern Vertigo."

Hundreds of photon torpedoes sprayed Worf's flagship. There were a few explosions, then a grotesque purple halo. The vessel exploded into a shower of debris and sparks.

A dozen Klingon warships de-cloaked around the Enterprise. The bombardment was relentless.

"Sir, there's a hull breach on decks 28 and 29," the Ops ensign announced. "We've lost shields. Impulse power is down."

"Re-direct all available power to the photon torpedoes," Riker barked. "If the Klingons want a fight, they're gonna have one!"

"No," Picard pleaded. "Don't be a fool, Will! Retreat now. You're no match for them."

"He can't hear you, Picard," Q laughed. "The best part is just coming up."

Explosions rocked the bridge. A lieutenant at the communications station was humped over his console. A shard of debris had sliced open his neck.

As smoke and flame filled the bridge, Riker leaped towards the tactical station. He tried to fire one last volley of torpedoes.

"Photon torpedoes are offline," the computer stated.

"No," Riker gasped. The Klingon birds of prey were firing a barrage of lasers and torpedoes.

"No!"

The Enterprise, in a valiant effort to hold back the advancing Klingon fleet, exploded. All 1,200 crew members were lost. With the fleet scattered, the Klingons could advance into Sector 001 unopposed.

Q snapped his fingers and, in a flash of light, Picard found himself back in the ready room.

"The battle took place in your solar system," Q explained. "It would be known as the Battle of Neptune. The Federation will grudgingly sign a non- aggression pact with the Klingons. It will be of little use, since the Cardassians have re-armed and plan to annex half a dozen Federation sectors. Can't you see, Picard? Your plan is folly. It smacks of hubris: the type of self-righteous arrogance that motivated the ancient empires of Earth."

"We cannot simply allow Ravvik, Donaldson and their sympathizers to drag the Federation into conflicts with the Klingons, the Romulans, or the Cardassians," Picard argued. "We must act, or the Federation will surely collapse!"

"The Federation's divine right to rule, eh?" Q mocked. "Where were the Federation's grandiose values when they turned a blind eye to the Cardassian massacres of Federation settlers in the Badlands? Where was this sense of duty when they ran from the Borg - permitting the assimilation of countless species? Humans are hypocrites. Still beating one another over their heads, like your Neanderthal ancestors."

"You're passing judgment on us for decisions we've yet to make," Picard protested. "That timeline you've shown me won't happen. Riker and Worf are dedicated to the Federation."

"That may be, captain," Q added, "but if you proceed with Project: Undertow, you will set in motion events that Starfleet cannot control. Even the legendary Captain Picard will be helpless against the march of history. As a Frenchman, you should know better."

"I beg your pardon, Q!" Picard glowered.

Q looked outside the ready room window. "When Louis XIV, the greatest monarch ever to sit on the throne of France, laid waste to his European neighbours to expand his empire, some of his subordinates protested the barbarous acts committed in his name. Conscientous objectors, if you will. You're a student of history, Picard. What did the Sun King - the most powerful ruler in Europe - say to them?"

Picard slumped into a chair. "He said: 'I will answer to God for your consciences.' He was the King of France, invested with the temporal power of the state. And the spiritual blessing of God Himself. He believed he owed no explanation. He gave a command; it was to be obeyed."

"L'etat, c'est moi," Q smirked. "I am the state. Are you now casting yourself in the role of the Sun King, deciding how your subordinates will answer to their Maker for actions they commit? In your name?"

"You're wrong, Q," Picard insisted, as he stood up defiantly. "I don't presume to speak for all of Starfleet."

"Really?" Q sneered. "You were prepared to offer up Lt. Paris and dozens of your security officers as phaser fodder, while you spirited away that decrepit oligarchy you call the Admiralty. You were prepared to risk a state of civil war between rival factions, without any input from the members of the Federation?"

Q sat in Picard's chair, crossing his feet on the desk. "You claim not to speak for Starfleet, but all of your actions indicate the contrary. You've presumed to speak not only for Starfleet, but the entire Federation. Wake up, Jean-Luc Picard! You're no different from the bloodthirsty radicals who slaughtered the noble houses of France during the revolution, or that little Corsican who lost at Waterloo. At least Admiral Ravvik knew he was a war-monger. You, sir, are a dictator in republican clothes. Benevolent, perhaps, but a despot nonetheless."

"It must be gratifying to sit there," Picard grumbled, "passing judgment on all the misguided beings you come across. We are launching Project: Undertow to protect the Federation, not dissolve it! How dare you lecture me about moral authority, when you did nothing to prevent Borg assimilations in the quadrant?

Q stared coldly at Picard. "Get off your high horse, captain. A rebellion under the guise of altruism is still a rebellion. Do what you wish - then see what chaos you'll unleash. The blood of your officers will be on your hands. Summon me when you've found a dose of humility."

With a snap and a flash of light, Picard found himself seated beside Lt. Paris, Ensign Kim and The Doctor. He was now in the mess hall of the Voyager.

"If we knew you were coming, Capt. Picard," Paris remarked, "we could have prepared dinner for you."

"Q!" Picard yelled. "Stop this foolishness at once!"

"A bad case of omnipotence anxiety, eh?" The Doctor quipped. "First Romulans, and now the Q Continuum."

"Your timing couldn't have been better, Capt. Picard," Neelix beamed, as he carried a pot towards them. "I've got a fresh batch of Talaxian chili."

Picard inspected the green-coloured chili. It smelled like battery acid, so he pushed it aside. He assessed his situation. "I'm aboard the Voyager. I need to get back to the Enterprise."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible, Captain," Kim replied. "The transporters are malfunctioning. We can't contact the Enterprise. Propulsion systems are down. Heck, we can't even use the holodeck! We had no idea how it happened - well, until you showed up."

Paris nodded towards the chili bowl. "I suggest you dig in. The replicators are down, too."

"Q," Picard groaned. He was trapped aboard the Voyager for now.



In a flash of light, Janeway found herself in the stellar cartography room of the Federation Council.

"Q, enough of this!" she demanded. "Starfleet is on the verge of a mutiny. We don't have time to entertain you!"

"My dear Kathryn," Q snickered, "I've merely bought you time to re-assess your present course of action. I don't know what dribble-drabble Picard fed you, but Project: Undertow is rife with dangers you can't even begin to anticipate."

"The danger of not acting is far greater," Janeway snapped. "If we allow the Cavalry Faction to have its way, the militants in Starfleet will ignite a shooting war with the Klingons and Romulans. They'll turn the Federation into a despotic regime. We are obliged to do everything in our power to defend the hard-won freedoms of Federation members!"

"So, you're Paul Revere, now," Q mocked, "Galloping through town, warning that the British are coming! You Yankees are so gung-ho about defending other peoples' liberties, you often neglect the violations in your own backyard. The internment of Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, the race riots in the South in the 60s, rampant consumerism throughout the 20th century. Don't get me started on O.J."

"We're not perfect," Janeway replied. "There have been many mistakes in our long history. But on the whole, we've always stood for freedom. I'm proud to be an American."

"Oh, here we go again!" Q whined. "God Bless America and all that Star- Spangled, patriotic jingoism. What's next, a Marine honour guard? I can help with that."

He snapped his fingers. Riker, Paris and Dr. Crusher found themselves in the ceremonial uniforms of the Marine Corps. Riker was carrying a fringed American flag, while Crusher and Paris stood beside him.

Riker pushed the flag away from his face. "What's going on?"

"Capt. Janeway, are you alright?" Paris wondered.

"She's fine, Tommy boy," Q remarked.

"Do you have a point to make, Q," Janeway demanded. "Because you're simply wasting our time."

"Spoil sport," Q grumbled. With a snap, the honour guard disappeared.

"You're still locked in your narrow-minded tribal loyalties," Q lectured. "You may wear a Starfleet uniform, but you still act with the fanatic zeal of your pioneer ancestors."

He dragged Janeway towards the stellar cartography map. "We're five years in the future. Project: Undertow was a disaster. Your Starfleet colleagues saw your little insurrection as treasonous, not an act of justified resistance. You, Capt. Picard and your senior officers were all arrested. The courts-martial endured for two years. Only you and Jean-Luc were found guilty. Unfortunately, the stain of the affair destroyed the careers of your shipmates, who were prepared to follow you to Hell. You set a fine example, Captain."

Janeway gasped in surprise. "Starfleet sided with the Cavalry Faction? I find that hard to believe."

"Believe it, Kathryn," Q replied. "They tapped into the Federation's growing fears about their aggressive neighbours. They saw your movement as a threat to Federation sovereignty. Oh, don't worry. All your friends are alive and well. But their careers are finished. When Ravvik finally seized control of the Admiralty, he re-started the Maquis Inquiry. Chakotay and Torres are serving life sentences at the Federation prison on Europa. Tuvok is doing low-level security for Vulcan diplomats. And don't think the Enterprise got off easy. It's now Ravvik's flagship. As Picard's Number One officer, Riker was finished in the new order. He's now captain of a miserable supply ship, ferrying rock salt to the Gamma Quadrant of Cardassia Prime."

"Excuse me?" Janeway was stunned. She studied the map. The Federation was still there. It was, to her dismay, much smaller than it was in her timeline.

"This Federation consists of a few, minor planets and systems," Q continued. "Well-defended, I might add, but nothing like it was in the good old days." He pointed at a huge expanse of space. "This area indicates the Vulcan-Romulan Region of Co-operation. The Vulcans feared the new militancy of the Federation and cut their defensive agreements with Starfleet. They chose safety with their kinsmen. They are still part of the Federation, though only in name. It is the Romulans who are the true power in that sector, not the Federation. The neutral zone still exists, but only because both sides have mined it so heavily that no ship could pass through safely."

Janeway observed an expanse of space marked in red. "Is this the Klingon Empire?"

"Technically, yes." Q replied. "The Klingons are officially neutral, having cut their ties with the Federation a year ago. Cardassia sensed an opportunity and attacked the Empire. It was a bloody affair. The Cardassians used the war to conquer Bajor and establish outposts in the Gamma Quadrant. Bajor pleaded for Federation help. Starfleet did nothing, fearing that another conflict would stretch their thinning supply lines. Recognizing Cardassia's ascending power in the sector, the Klingons struck a non-aggression pact with the Guls. There is peace there, yes, but the tensions are simmering. It could explode into war at any time. The Federation will have no choice but to fight."

Q stood back and admired the map. "A pretty little picture you've painted - you and your project revolutionaries. Almost surreal. You gave the Cavalry Faction the window of opportunity they needed to exploit the Federation's fears. By resisting, you gave Ravvik and his cohort exactly what they wanted. Look closely at this map, Janeway. This is the galaxy that you created!"

"The Federation is not destined for this," Janeway tried to convince herself. "A state of perennial stalemate. This isn't peace. It's a cold war."

"Destiny, Fate," Q laughed. "There are human concepts. An irrational belief that some omnipotent puppetmaster could somehow control the unfolding of events. Oh wait! That's me! You silly, silly little girl. Even if I, or whatever god you believe in, had the ability to reverse the course of this history - what makes you think we even have the inclination to change things?"

Q imitated Picard's voice. "'We, as Starfleet officers, are duty-bound to uphold the values that the Federation holds so dear.'"

He howled at his mischief. "Really, Kathryn, I'd advise you against listening to that stubborn man. Picard is baggaged with the dated, Renaissance-era idealism of old Europe, however modern he believes himself to be. You're from the New World. Founded by hard-working, God-fearing pragmatists. Well, maybe not pragmatists. Your people bought whole- heartedly into that Manifest Destiny hogwash. That somehow, God ordained your nation to be great."

"Hindsight is always 20-20," Janeway stated. "However you interpret the history of my country, the values we stood for - liberty, freedom, democracy - still resonate throughout the galaxy. And they are values worth fighting for. Dying for, if need be."

Q stopped. He seemed to trace the frontiers of the Federation on the holographic map. "Maybe I was wrong. I thought that Picard, with all his ingrained smugness and blind idealism, was the true danger. He would condemn his shipmates, your crew - to their deaths. For an ideal."

He sighed. "I was wrong, I admit it. At least he had the sense not to try to wrap himself in the Federation flag to justify his actions. He knew the consequences."

He marched in front of Janeway. "You, however, still cling to the Academy's brainwashing. That Starfleet has the right to dictate how the future of the galaxy should unfold. Manifest Destiny. You want to call in your minutemen and stamp out Ravvik's redcoats. What's next? Call in the cavalry and stamp out the pesky Indians in the galaxy who don't subscribe to your values? Picard is a naïve dreamer. It's unfortunate, but I'd chalk it up to human weakness. If you actually believe wearing that uniform gives you the right to propagate Federation dogma throughout the galaxy, you're no mere dreamer. You're a missionary. I had hoped you were somehow different from the others. I was wrong. It's neither Ravvik's ambition, nor Picard's principled foolishness that's the threat to peace in the galaxy."

As Q climbed up the stairs to the exit, his steps echoed. Like the gavel of a judge in a courtroom. "It's you, Capt. Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager - the darling of Starfleet Command - that I condemn today. You're so wrapped up in the righteousness of your actions, you can't see beyond the horizon. The Girl Scout who would become an admiral. How pathetic. Look at your nation's history, Janeway, and tell me you're different from George Washington, who put native villages to the torch if they dared to side with the British. Or Teddy Roosevelt, who envisioned an American satellite empire from Panama to Puerto Rico. "

"I can live with the judgment of history," Janeway declared. "We're on the right side."

Q paused atop the stairs and nodded towards the map. "Victors get to write history. Enjoy your painting back there."

"Enough of this!" Janeway exclaimed. "You're right about one thing. You are a puppet master. I'm not blind. I'm aware of the pitfalls of this project. Maybe I believe too strongly in the Federation's righteousness. Fault me for that, if you wish. Ravvik's version of that righteousness would destroy those values we believe in. If it must come to war, I'm willing to take that risk."

Q clapped mockingly. "Spoken like a true, gun-slinging cowboy. You hypocrite."

"Take me back to my timeline," Janeway demanded.

"As you wish, Captain," Q replied. "What you do next, however, falls upon your conscience. Know this: If blood is to be spilled, it will be because of you."

He snapped his fingers and Janeway found herself aboard the Enterprise's battle bridge. In another flash of light, Picard appeared.

"So we find ourselves here," Picard sighed. "The battle bridge of the flagship of Starfleet." The lights were dimmed, since the bridge was not in use.

"I was on my way to the Enterprise's bridge when Q zapped me away," Janeway said, "He yanked me five years into the future!"

"He tends to do things like that," Picard grumbled. "Q brought me three years into the future. Project: Undertow was a success, according to that timeline."

Janeway shrugged. "Well, that's somewhat comforting."

Picard strolled slowly towards the tactical station. "Q told me that our actions drove Ravvik's loyalists underground and led to the Klingons' withdrawal from the Federation. And for good measure, he compared me to Napoleon, Louis XIV and the revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror."

He looked up towards the darkened ceiling. "I must admit, he made a few good points."

Janeway slumped into the captain's chair. "Well, Q gave me quite a tongue- lashing! Here I was, before the map of a future Alpha Quadrant, and he tells me that I'm to blame for forcing the Vulcans in that timeline to seek refuge with the Romulans - and allowing Cardassia to seize Bajor and make inroads in the Gamma Quadrant! All this is to pass because of Project: Undertow. He threw in a diatribe against the perils of American imperialism to underline his argument. Victors get to write the history, he said."

Picard stood in the centre of the bridge. Q provided them with much food for thought, it seemed. "Our dilemma is that we have no way of knowing how history will judge our decision. When Benedict Arnold - one of the greatest leaders of the Continental Army - cast his lot with the British, he had no way of knowing how the Revolution would end."

Janeway pondered the scenario. "Would he have taken that fateful decision to become a traitor had he known Cornwallis would lose at Yorktown?"

"There's the problem," Picard realized. "One country's traitor is another's freedom fighter. Benedict Arnold would not be so reviled had the British beaten Washington. The question is: are we the patriots defending freedom, or traitors betraying our own core values?"

Janeway buried her head in her hands. "It's not just our crews' lives we're risking. What if Q's predictions do come to pass? Are we setting the stage for the breakup of the Federation? Are we condemning Bajor to Cardassian conquest by exposing the fault lines in Starfleet Command?"

"These are questions for Starfleet historians," Picard concluded. "We have a volatile situation at the Admiralty. Q's intervention doesn't change that fact. The rise of the Cavalry Faction will plunge the quadrant into turmoil. And sooner rather than later. Something must be done now."

"Agreed," Janeway stated. She tapped her communicator. "Voyager, this is Capt. Janeway." There was no response. Picard tried to use his own communicator. Nothing.

"Q disabled all major systems on the Voyager," Picard replied. "He seems to have done the same thing to my ship. We're on the verge of a critical decision that may irrevocably affect the Alpha Quadrant - and Q won't let us act. It's almost as if --,"

"-he's giving us time to re-assess the course of action we're about to take," Janeway concluded. "The calm before the storm."

There was a flash of light. The red alert lights also began to blink rhythmically. Q appeared in the uniform of 19th century British army officer: a grey wool overcoat over a bright red jacket, white slacks and black riding boots. A large bicorne hat rested on his head.

"A red alert!" Picard exclaimed. "Q, what the hell is going on!"

"At ease, mon capitane," Q ordered. "I felt we should shed some light around here! Why must the battle bridge be so dark and gloomy? Would this not be the place where Captain Jean-Luc Picard will carve his place in Earth's history?"

"Why have you disabled both of our ships?" Janeway demanded.

"I don't want any unexpected interruptions," Q answered, as he fiddled with his black bicorne hat. He flapped his dull grey overcoat. "The sleeves are a bit long, but I think I cut a rather dashing figure! Don't you think so, Kathyrn?"

"What are you up to Q?" Picard snapped. "Why did you propel us into the future to show us what might come to pass? Are we making the wrong choice?"

"Tsk, tsk, Picard," Q seemed disappointed. "If I were to make it that easy, I could simply snap my fingers and plop both of you into a timeline six hours from now. Then, you could see with your eyes how right - or wrong - you are!"

"We are not the traitors," Picard replied, "It's Ravvik and his cohort who threaten to tear apart the treaties with our allies!"

Q pulled out an old spyglass and aimed it at Picard. "You still have tunnel vision, Picard. Have either of you not heard a word I said?"

"We get your point," Janeway replied, "This is not a decision to make lightly. We're considering our options carefully and -."

Q sighed in frustration. "You mean I dressed up for nothing? Must I draw a picture for you?"

"You're dressed as a 19th century British general from the Napoleonic era," Picard noted.

"Not just any general," Q continued, "but the Duke of Wellington. The renowned British commander who defeated the might of Napoleon's armies. Imagine if you will, a scorching day in June. 1815. You are near a small farm house named Hougoumont."

"Waterloo," Picard realized. Janeway yawned, apparently bored at the discussion.

"Well, excuse me Kathy, if the social sciences don't captivate you!" Q barked indignantly. "The Peninsular Wars may have been a world away in your nation's eyes, but you Americans could learn a thing or two from it. Maybe if you did, your forefathers wouldn't have picked a fight with the Canadians just as Wellington was pummeling the French into the ground. Talk about a pothole on the road to Manifest Destiny!"

"For the record, the War of 1812 was a draw," Janeway interrupted.

"Sore loser," Q quipped, as he relished his games. "Don't you see? This is your Waterloo, people! The might of Napoleon's Republican Guards are advancing. They are relentless. Once they smash into your lines, your army is through. The Austrians and Prussians will sue for peace. Are you going to seize destiny, or simply let Ravvik carve his own place in the annals of Starfleet legend? What you do here will change the course of history. That I can assure you."

Q snapped his fingers and vanished, but he left bicorne hats atop both Picard and Janeway's heads.

"The choice is simple," Q's voice declared, "fix bayonets and stand your ground. Or fall back behind the ridge and retreat. What happens next is beyond my control. And yours. In 15 minutes, I shall restore all vital systems to your vessels. If you don't know what to do by then, I suggest you choose another career path and leave the hard decisions to those who can stomach the unpalatable consequences of their actions."

When Q vanished, the captains tossed aside the hats. Janeway tried in vain to pry open the turbolift doors. It was no use. Picard tapped several keys at the communications station, but they were all jammed. Then, he tapped a key and heard a slight blip. The Starfleet logo appeared on the monitor.

"Personnel files of Starfleet officers and crew, Sector 001," the computer stated.

Janeway walked towards him. "It appears the only system we can access is the personnel records of our crewmates."

Picard tapped a key, which accessed the file of Riker, William T., Commander.

"If our project goes badly," Picard mused, "Will Riker would inherit command of the Enterprise. Again. I would not be here today had he not taken action on many occasions." He chuckled mildly. "Inherit. He doesn't need to inherit what he has earned time and again. Cmdr. Riker is ready to be a Starfleet captain. Has been for several years. I wonder sometimes whether he's harming his career by remaining aboard the Enterprise."

"He's a ranking officer aboard the flagship of the Federation," Janeway replied. "I know of many junior officers who would gladly pass up a promotion to serve even one year aboard the Enterprise. Being Jean-Luc Picard's right-hand man can't be too bad, either."

Picard looked at the photograph of a serious-looking Riker. My Number One may have different views about the exercise of leadership, he thought. He could be impulsive, but he was also responsible. He would never be reckless with the lives of his subordinates.

Riker was personally loyal to Picard and could be counted on to follow his orders. Even if those orders might plunge the entire quadrant into disaster. Riker deserved more than to die needlessly in an irresponsible adventure.

Janeway tapped another key. It seemed to be jammed, but the computer generated another personnel file: Kim, Harry, Ensign.

"Harry Kim," Janeway smiled. "Had he served in the Alpha Quadrant instead of wandering the Delta Quadrant all those years, I've no doubt in my mind that he would be a Lieutenant by now. Maybe even a Lieutenant Commander."

Voyager's senior bridge officers knew that they could always confide in one another. They could be assured that no topic discussed in closed chambers would leak out to the junior officers and crew. In practice, Harry had the responsibilities of a senior officer. Improvisation was necessary in the Delta Quadrant. He didn't need a formal Starfleet promotion to earn the respect of his crewmates.

By rank, Kim was a junior officer. On the vast compound of Starfleet Command, Janeway knew that Harry could sense that void between senior officers and the rank-and-file. He would receive salutes from the raw recruits who hadn't made commission-grade. He had to acknowledge senior officers, even though some of those officers had half of his experience.

It must seem unfair, Janeway frowned, when you know you haven't received the recognition you deserve.

"From what I've heard about Harry Kim," Picard added, "he would make an excellent candidate for a lieutenancy. The Dominion War cost many lives in Starfleet. Many vacancies remain aboard fine starships and starbases. Such is the unfortunate advantage of war."

"There are those in Starfleet who still belittle the Voyager's accomplishments," Janeway pondered, "They would stall a fine officer's career for the sake of their petty turf wars."

"Ensign Kim shouldn't have to pay for the folly of a handful of Starfleet technocrats who haven't served in a forward area for years," Picard grumbled.

Shouldn't have to pay, he repeated to himself. If we are to proceed with Project: Undertow, our comrades may have to pay with their lives.

Picard stood up and walked away from the communications station. Janeway, after a few fruitless attempts to regain control of the computer functions, soon joined the captain's side.

"Ravvik and his allies conspired to undermine the authority of the Federation Council," Picard replied, "because they grew weary of its apparent indecision and in-fighting. A select few decided - in secret - that they would protect the Federation by re-inventing it. Their actions, while undemocratic, would seem to have the same goals that we do. Are we not making the same mistakes they are: choosing a course of action without any serious input from the people whose freedoms we are defending?"

"I think we've reached an understanding," Janeway observed, "haven't we."

Picard nodded. "I, for one, am not prepared to cry havoc and condemn the Rikers and Kims of Starfleet to their deaths for an uncertain purpose. Too much is unknown. If we choose to take up arms, they deserve to have a say. They must have a say."

"In our arrogance," Janeway realized, "we were prepared to send our best and brightest to their doom, without giving them any choice. Their lives are not ours to command on a whim, however just our cause may be."

There was a flash of light. Picard found himself aboard the bridge of the Enterprise.

"What happened to you?" Riker wondered.

"A moment of truth, Number One," Picard stated. "Report, Cmdr. Data."

"All systems appear to be online again," Data noted. "Warp power, shields, sensors, communications. All functioning within normal parameters."

Picard turned to Riker. "Please assemble all senior and junior officers for an important meeting. Include representatives from the technical, security, engineering, science and medical personnel. I don't expect you to fit the entire crew into Ten-Forward, but I want to assemble a representative body of the Enterprise crew."

Riker seemed stunned by the daunting task. "That will number in the hundreds, at least. And the nature of this meeting, Captain?"

Picard grinned mischievously. "We're going to let them know about Project: Undertow."

"Sir?" Riker whispered. "With all due respect, is that wise?"

"Will," Picard replied, "this is quite possibly the wisest thing we can do. You may have to convert a cargo bay into an impromptu assembly hall. You have half an hour."

Riker took in a deep breath, still bewildered by the decision. "Yes, sir."

Picard glanced at the viewscreen, where he saw that the Voyager was no longer drifting. Power seemed to be restored on the Intrepid-class ship.

Janeway had also reappeared on the Voyager.

"Captain Janeway!" Chakotay exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

"Actually, I feel great!" Janeway beamed. "Like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. Please inform all senior officers to assemble in cargo bay 4 for immediate transport to the Enterprise. Don't forget to invite representatives from the rank-and-file. That includes Neelix, The Doctor and Seven."

"Project: Undertow has begun?" Kim gasped.

"In a manner of speaking," Janeway smiled. "We've got an important meeting with the Enterprise crew, so don't be late. Let's go, people!"

Tuvok, Paris and Kim exchanged confused glances and boarded the turbolift.

Chakotay took the captain aside. "What exactly is going on, Captain? Have you made a decision on Project: Undertow?"

"Admiral Ravvik and the Cavalry Faction may relish operating in secrecy," Janeway replied, "but as far as I'm concerned, that's not how I'm going to run my ship. These cloak-and-dagger games end now."

"You're telling the crew about the project?" Chakotay wondered.

"Absolutely," Janeway stated.

In a few minutes, the bulk of the Voyager's crew appeared in the Enterprise's cargo bay 25. The crew seemed excited by the unusual behaviour of their senior officers. They mumbled rumours about broken armistices, Romulan incursions and imminent Borg invasions. Their superiors didn't deny those rumours - or deny them emphatically enough.

Neelix approached Cmdr. Riker. "Is this where we're having this meeting, Commander?"

Riker smiled. "No, this is just the largest cargo bay we could find with a transporter. We'll be starting the meeting in cargo bays 36 and 37. We've installed a projection monitor, so every seat's the best one in the house. I'm afraid we didn't have time to make popcorn."

Neelix and most of the crew herded themselves out of the cargo bay. The corridors were flooded in a sea of grey, gold, blue and scarlet uniforms.

In the sick bay, Dr. Crusher was about to leave when a hologram materialized.

"Please state the nature of the medical emergency," The Doctor announced. He recognized Crusher and grinned.

"Beverly, dear! It's good to see you again," he said, "Do you know if Project: Undertow is a go?"

"Your guess is as good as mine, Doctor," Crusher replied, as they headed for the turbolift. "I do know, however, that Project: Undertow is the focus of this meeting. They had to convert two cargo bays for this assembly. Both senior and non-commissioned officers will be there!"

At cargo bay 37, Laforge, Data and a group of engineering officers wandered into a sea of Starfleet uniforms.

Paris and Kim recognized them and waved. "So, what do you think, Commander? Does it bring back memories of the Academy commencement?"

"Tell me about it," Laforge agreed, as he scanned the endless rows of chairs and benches.

"C'mon, Cmdr. Data," Kim prodded, "do you have any idea what Picard and Janeway are gonna talk about?"

Data considered the query carefully. "I'm afraid I now know as much as you, Ensign Kim. While Project: Undertow exists in theory, we have essentially discarded our original plans in the interests of security. The Enterprise has over 1,000 personnel aboard. The risk of the project's exposure was growing daily."

Paris slapped Kim on the shoulder as they sat on a bench. "You can thank Harry over here for much of those rumours." Laforge laughed, while Kim shook his head in exasperation.

Until Ensign Lara Maxwell arrived. The blond-haired ensign had served at the Enterprise's Ops station for six months. For the past two weeks, she was also the object of Kim's distant affections.

Paris whispered something in Laforge's ear. Laforge then mumbled something to Data.

"You haven't met Ensign Maxwell?" Data asked. He grabbed Kim's arm. "That simply will not do, if our crews are going to work together on this project. Let me introduce you to her." With a determined gaze, he marched - with Kim in tow - towards Ensign Maxwell.

Kim looked to Paris for help, but his friend merely shared a laugh with Laforge.

Worf, Seven and Tuvok arrived a few minutes later. The Klingon and the Borg seemed to be involved in a discussion about advanced aikido techniques.

Tuvok observed the large body of officers in the cargo bay. "One wonders if Capt. Picard and Capt. Janeway are holding a meeting, or assembling an army."

"Thank you, Tuvok, for putting a damper on the otherwise jovial mood here," Paris quipped.

"Cmdr. Tuvok is right," Worf noted. "This is a serious matter. We may be at the brink of civil war. The question that remains is: do we have the courage to answer the warrior's call to battle?

"We'll know soon enough," Laforge nodded towards the single podium at the front of the assembly. "Capt. Picard and Capt. Janeway are here."

Picard stood a few feet away, as Janeway approached the podium. "I understand that many of you have been wondering what's been going on over the past few weeks."

The assembly exploded in a flurry of excited murmurs. A few officers blurted out questions.

"Are we at war with the Cardassians?" "Are there Borg cubes in Sector 001" "Have the Romulans invaded the Neutral Zone?" "Have the Klingons ripped up the treaty?"

Janeway tried to calm them, motioning them to sit down. "I realize there are plenty of wild rumours and half-truths. Let me say categorically -"

She pulled out a data pad and read a list.

"The Cardassians have not broken the armistice, the Romulans are safely behind their side of the Neutral Zone, the Klingons are still Federation members in good standing, and, once and for all, there is no imminent Borg invasion of Earth."

Ensign Maxwell warily raised her hand. "Yes, Ensign -" Janeway paused, as Picard mumbled something in her ear. "Ensign Maxwell, you have a question?"

She looked towards her friends, who encouraged her to continue. These were not the senior officers who would make the fateful decisions. These were the nameless junior crew members. They felt shut out from the strategies and decision-making.

"It's alright, Ensign," Kim said, "I'll back your play."

"Umm, some of the junior officers have been talking," Maxwell nervously replied, "and with a ship of this size, people hear things. Talk of a change in leadership at the Admiralty. A divided Federation Council. Our friends aboard other starships and bases tell us that captains have been arrested. Others inform us that some officers have been quietly promoted for political reasons." She paused, fearing that she had already crossed the line.

"Go on, Ensign," Janeway said.

"Well, ma'am," Maxwell continued, "when something looks like a conspiracy, and smells like a conspiracy, it probably is a conspiracy. Over half the fleet was in Sector 001 only a few days ago. You tell us now that we're not expecting an invasion of any sort. That only leaves one other possibility. Mutiny."

The assembly erupted in another round of excited whispers and gasps. Picard raised his hands to try to keep the excitement contained.

"A few days ago," Janeway began, "we became aware of a political shift in the Admiralty. Admiral Ravvik had summoned over half the fleet to Earth. Militant officers known as the Cavalry Faction had moved to consolidate their control of Starfleet, as they attempted to bypass the Federation Council's objectives. When I convinced the Council to suspend the Maquis Inquiry, I believed that the loyalists of the Federation - the Diplomat Faction - had gained the upper hand. Picard informed me today that I was mistaken."

"We both were," Picard added. "When we were still in orbit around Earth, the senior officers of our ships began preparations to counter Ravvik's faction. This plan was known as Project: Undertow."

A security lieutenant stood up. "You were planning mutiny against Starfleet? Without telling us?"

Picard paused. "Yes. At the time, we believed that keeping the rank-and- file in the dark was the best way to protect you - in the event the Cavalry Faction moved against us. By keeping this project a secret, we only encouraged you to speculate and spread rumours. We created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, when we should have been earning your confidence. We were wrong to conceal the imminent dangers from you. You are Starfleet officers. You deserve more respect than we showed in recent days, and for that I am sorry."

Janeway noticed that Ensign Kim was about to say something. "Go ahead, Harry," she nodded towards her crewmate.

"Uhh, hi," Kim stammered. "I just have one question. I know all of us are wondering. Are we about to begin Project: Undertow?"

"Project: Undertow was a blueprint for a covert rebellion against Starfleet," Janeway stated. "It's purpose, though justified in our eyes, would surely tear the fleet apart with factional fighting. The risk of plunging the entire quadrant into civil war, after much consideration, is far too great."

"Project: Undertow, as it had existed only a few days ago," Picard explained, "is dead. There is no Project: Undertow now. I will instruct Cmdr. Riker and Cmdr. Chakotay to purge our databases of all files pertaining to that plan. We're wiping the slate clean right now. You are aware of the situation. We're giving you the choice that we had once denied you."

"Are you willing to risk arrest, court-martial - or even war - if we decide in the not-too-distant future to challenge the Cavalry Faction?" Janeway asked. "Think about it carefully. Admiral Ravvik has been recalled to Vulcan, but his protégé Capt. Donaldson now holds the reins in Starfleet Command. He is a decorated veteran of the Dominion War and an expert in counter-intelligence. We cannot underestimate him."

Picard stepped down from the podium and strolled down the aisle. He looked at the faces of the officers. The raw recruits, such as Ensign Maxwell, were nervous. This could be their first taste of action. And, god willing, not their last.

He also saw the battle-weary veterans. They shared similar feelings of trepidation. Nothing would be certain, if they chose to oppose the might of a corrupted Starfleet Command. Fear of the unknown united both veteran and novice.

We shall not condemn these fine officers to a dubious fate, the captain thought.

"If any of you prefer not to be involved in this project, we will not hold it against you. On the contrary, it takes courage to recognize the dangers we are about to face. Capt. Janeway and I will approve your transfers to other ships, no questions asked. We will welcome you back when this is all over. I say when, because we will resolve this crisis. This cannot continue ad infinitum. The Federation is larger than you, or me, or the conspirators of the Cavalry Faction. Its values, which we hold so dear, will live on."

Janeway and Picard glanced warily at their crews. Debates broke out among officers of every rank. Laforge leaned towards a discussion between Kim and the junior officers. A few minutes passed, then an eerie silence fell upon the assembly.

Ensign Kim stood up and turned towards the assembly.

"I may be only an ensign," he began, "but I'm pretty confident that most of us have no desire to see Starfleet torn apart over political power grabs. No one wants to resort to violence. But it's the fate of the Federation at stake. I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that, when the time came for me to put my chips on the table, I didn't back down. If you're asking us to revolt against a Starfleet poisoned by a core of militants, I say bring 'em on!"

Loud cheers erupted in the assembly, but it was far from unanimous. The younger officers seemed to be the most eager. The grizzled veterans of past Romulan and Borg conflicts only applauded politely.

A security officer from the Enterprise stood up next. He seemed to be around 45 years of age. "Capt. Picard," the officer began, "I have had the privilege of serving with you once before with the Stargazer. Many of us are prepared to follow you to Hell, if you asked us to. But what you're asking us is to rebel against Starfleet. It is not a task done lightly. I believe we should not rush blindly into this crisis, if we can still find a political solution. I'm an old warhorse. We can't risk starting something if we're ill-prepared."

The officer's comments were also applauded. Tuvok and Data seemed to be the most supportive about his arguments.

"I agree with you, Lieutenant," Picard remarked. "and we have every intention of pursuing a political solution first. The senior staff will explore possible solutions to this crisis and we will inform you how we plan to proceed."

"You are dismissed, folks," Janeway stated. She paused. "Could the senior bridge officers of the Enterprise and the Voyager meet at the Conference Room on deck 15? Give us 10 minutes."

"Aye, captain," Riker nodded, as he caught up with his Enterprise crewmates.

As the officers cleared out of the cargo bays, a lone officer remained seated in the back row. He stood up and slowly applauded the captains. The claps echoed in the empty bay.

It was Q.

"Bravo, bravo," Q mockingly hailed them. "A splendid performance. The champion of the Federation and the Delta Quadrant's warrior queen, united against a common foe. I could almost cry if your display wasn't so ridiculously patriotic!"

"Make fun of us if you like, Q," Janeway remarked. "Just don't get it the way. We have work to do."

"Oh, Kathy," Q pleaded. "I'm only here to congratulate the both of you. Lesser captains would have barged ahead, at the expense of their crewmates. So you told them everything, eh? How democratic of you."

"So we've made the right choice, then?" Picard challenged.

"Au contraire, mon capitane," Q replied. "It's not that simple. You've set the ball in motion. What follows is beyond anyone's control now. The die is cast, as they say. You are correct in believing that I have no stake in your childish feud with these so-called militants in the Admiralty. The universe will unfold as it should - whether you succeed or not."

Q vanished in a flash of light.

"For someone who professes to have no stake in our plans," Picard quipped, "Q seems quite interested in what we're doing. While he may have the luxury of breaking the time barrier as he pleases, we do not."

"We're only human," Janeway replied, "I admit, it's a risk, but somebody has to stand up for the Federation. That responsibility has fallen on our shoulders, whether we like it or not."

"Agreed," Picard stated.

As the walked towards the turbolift that would take them to the conference room, both captains remained silent.

Q, despite his usual arrogance and insults, gave them something that they had lacked for weeks.

He gave them perspective. Thinking outside of the box.

Time was not a luxury now. Captain Donaldson and his cohort were already consolidating their control of Starfleet. The secretive Project: Undertow may be dead, but its purpose remained. The defense of the Federation was paramount.

Today, a decision was made.

It was time to act.

THE END

COMING SOON:

How did Captain Donaldson bring together a disgruntled group of Starfleet officers and forge them into the so-called Cavalry Faction? What makes him a formidable foe? And why does he owe a debt of honour to Worf? From the last skirmishes of the Dominion War, to the faction's current power struggles with the Federation's loyalists, the next story will provide some context.