2365


Somewhere in the Romulan Neutral Zone


Like a neglected pet, the nameless planetoid orbited its star only out of the obligation of gravitational necessity. Its thin, barely-breathable atmosphere was choked with dust; its oceans had long since evaporated, its tectonic activity long since quieted, and the untold eons of natural erosion had turned its entire surface into sweeping plains of dust.

Akiko Kato, despite the thick insulation suit that kept the planets constant, invasive cold at bay, shivered. Orbital scans had revealed tens of thousands of kilometres of subsurface tunnels, stretching deep into the planet's long-quiet crust, and as she looked out across the dead, barren surface that stretched away from her, she couldn't help but shake the creeping sensation that she was walking across someone's grave.

"Stop it," she chided herself.

She was a medical doctor, a scientist, and a Starfleet officer, and she had long considered herself to be free of that kind of superstition. Still, she was thankful that her name had been added to the roll at a Shinto shrine outside Yokohama soon after her birth. She felt like she could use whatever help the kami might want to provide.

The last six months had been, in so many ways, the most uniquely stressful time of her life. Six months of grabbing brief naps whenever she could get a few spare minutes, six months spent hiding, running, fighting when necessary.

"This isn't what I had in mind when I signed up," she said to herself, under her breath.

"It never is, doctor," a sibilant, cloying whisper responded.

Kato nearly jumped out of her skin. "God damn it, Zurak!" she exclaimed. "You can't sneak up on me like that."

"Apologies, lieutenant," the Cardassian said, stepping out of the shadows behind her. Akiko had been standing outside the only extant structure on the planet's surface, keeping what she'd felt had been an unnecessary guard; it wasn't as though there was anybody, save her and her team, within a couple of parsecs. No one alive, at any rate.

He was shorter and slimmer than most Cardassians, the bony ridges on his neck and face somewhat diminished. Only the spoon-like formation on his forehead stood out prominently from his ash-grey, smooth skin. He wore what he obviously thought was a disarming smile, but Akiko found it intensely disconcerting.

Akiko had never been comfortable in the presence of Cardassians, a racial prejudice she wasn't proud of, but one she felt at least partially justified in having. She'd seen some dreadful things during the Cardassian border conflicts, and the casual cruelty Zukal had displayed throughout their mission had chilled her. She remembered how he'd snapped a Nausicaan's neck, simply to keep the hulking man quiet while she and another member of their team, the Andorian mercenary Thirith ch'Sharnam, could sneak inside a medical research facility.

"Since this mission started, I've noticed you growing significantly more…" the Cardassian trailed off, evidently searching for the right word, "jumpy, I believe you humans say."

"Yeah, well," Akiko said, ignoring the subtle barb, "I'm a physician first, Mr. Zukal."

"Spy second," Zukal said, with a thin smile.

"I'm not a spy," Akiko answered, though she knew that that wasn't true. The simple fact was that she'd spent the last six months behind the Romulan Neutral Zone, black ops agent for one of the Federation's most secretive bodies, the Bureau of Special Operations.

Zukal watched her for a few seconds.

"Fine," she admitted, "I am a spy."

It wasn't a title she was ashamed of, not by a long shot; she knew that what she was doing was for the good of the United Federation of Planets, for the good of the entire galaxy, even if Starfleet would disavow any knowledge of her or her mission should she be captured. Indeed, of the six people on this mission, she was only one of two Starfleet officers. Zukal was a black ops agent for the Cardassian Union's military intelligence wing, the Obsidian Order, and the others were mercenaries and floating operatives, handpicked by the same man that had chosen her.

He was Starfleet, too, currently deep in the catacombs guarded by the sole surviving structure on the planet's surface. Six months of espionage, of infiltration, or bribery, blackmail and, on one horrific occasion, murder, had brough them all here, to this planet deep in the Romulan Neutral Zone, in abrogation of treaty.

The small communicator she wore, pinned to the jacket of her thermal suit, buzzed. She pressed it once with her gloved hand.

"Go ahead," she said.

"Sentinel, we're on our way up," came the familiar voice of the mission's commander.

"Understand, Caver," she answered, using the agreed-upon condenames for their expedition down to the planet's surface. "Did you retrieve the package?"

"That's an affirmative, Sentinel," he said, and she could hear the glee in his voice. Six months of covert operations had brought them to this place, this dead world, and they'd finally found what they'd been searching for.

"That's fantastic, Caver," she said, and grinned at Zukal despite herself.

He watched her impassively.

"I'll make sure Spacer is ready to retrieve us by the time you get back to the surface, Caver," Akiko said.

"Understood. Caver out."

As the comm. line went dead, Akiko immediately contacted the runabout waiting for them in orbit. Only the mission's pilot, the Andorian ch'Sharnam, was still aboard the small, unnamed craft, their home for the last six months, keeping the stealthy, cramp vessel hidden from whatever long-range scanners might be probing the Neutral Zone.

"Sentinel to Spacer," she said.

"Spacer here," responded ch'Sharnam. "If we're going to leave, we'll need to do so within the next half hour. There's a Romulan starship patrolling their side of the border, and it'll be in scanner range in thirty-seven minutes."

"Understood, Spacer," Akiko answered. "Caver is on his way back up. They've retrieved the package, we should be ready to depart in a few minutes."

Ch'Sharnam sounded relieved when he replied. "That's good to hear, Sentinel."

Akiko was about to sign out, when ch'Sharnam made a shocked noise.

"Damn it!" the Andorian cried.

"What's wrong?" Akiko asked, her heart suddenly pounding.

"Massive spatial distortions, almost directly above your present location," he reported. "A starship's decloaking! It's a Romulan warbird!"

Akiko and Zukal shared shocked expressions, and looked up into the starfield that stretched above them; sure enough, a tiny green figure, roughly the size of Akiko's hand from this distance, shimmered into existence amongst the stars.

She recognised it, even from this distance, as a D'deridex-class warbird, the enormous workhorse of the Romulan fleet. As large as a Galaxy-class starship, the warbird was the universal sign of Romulan military might, and their tiny runabout would be no match against it.

"Beam us up now, Spacer!" Akiko ordered.

"I can't!" ch'Sharnam barked. "They've set up a transporter dispersal field around your location. They're beaming down soldiers. You need to get out of there."

"How large is the dispersal field?" Akiko asked.

"Less than a kilometre," ch'Sharnam answered. "Those Romulan biosignatures are getting closer to your location."

Zukal nudged Akiko, and pointed into the distance. Sure enough, she saw helmeted figures dashing towards them, disruptors held high. Zukal pulled his own phaser from his holster. "We need to go."

"What about the rest of the team?" Akiko asked.

"If we don't leave now, we won't reach the edge of the field," Zukal said.

"You need to go," ch'Sharnam chimed in. "I'll be ready to beam you up the second you're clear of the field."

"Understood," Akiko said. "Sentinel out."

She reached for her own phaser, and a hyphen of green disruptor energy flew overhead. The Romulans were only a few hundred metres away now; there were twenty or thirty of them.

"How did they find us?" she asked Zukal.

"It doesn't matter," the Cardassian growled. "They're here! Now come on!"

She thought of the rest of the team, still trapped in the catacombs beneath the small building behind them. She opened a channel to Caver. "We need you up here now."

"We're about thirty seconds away," Caver answered. "What's wrong?"

"We've got Romulans."

Caver responded with a few choice cursewords.

"We must leave!" Zukal insisted.

"Negative," Kato responded. "We're not leaving them."

"We don't have a choice!" Zukal pressed.

"Caver, hurry up," she barked into her communicator, and shut down the channel. She knelt, and lifted her phaser. Aiming down the barrel of the small weapon, she began to fire in the direction of the advancing Romulans. "Help me hold them off!"

Zukal growled, but nevertheless did as she'd told him. She revised her estimation of him upwards.

The yellow beam of his Cardassian-built phaser joined the orange of her Starfleet standard issue weapon, and the squadron of Romulan soldiers was driven to take cover in the dust.

"Come on!" Akiko roared as she continued firing, praying that the rest of the team was only seconds away.

Sure enough, two men in dark thermal coveralls like her dashed from the entrance of the structure, phasers in hand. They were firing in rapid bursts, towards the Romulans.

A willow-framed woman slipped out after them, cradling something wrapped in dark fabric. She was the team's Tiburonian scientist, Lehansa. She was carrying, Akiko realised, the apotheosis of their mission. The object they'd spent so long searching for.

"Good to see you, Caver," Akiko said, shooting a grin at the mission's leader.

A tall, broad-shouldered Australian man, Caver, actually Lieutenant Commander Reilly Carroll of Starfleet, returned her grin. "Keeping things quiet, Sentinel?"

The final member of their team, a human mercenary from the non-aligned colony Europa Nova named Lucien Lombardo, joined their makeshift firing line, and as the Romulans began to regroup, Reilly shouted over the sound of their phaser fire, to Akiko and Lucien "Get out of here! Keep Lehansa covered until you reach the edge of the field!"

Akiko was momentarily torn; the truth was that Carroll was much more than a friend to her, much more than her mission commander. She swallowed, though, fighting back those emotions, and she tapped Lucien on the shoulder. Together, the two of them turned away from the firing line, and joined Lehansa in her dash away from the structure.

The Romulans were getting closer now.

Akiko and Lucien had almost caught up with Lehansa when Zukal and Carroll abandoned the firing line, and dashed towards them. Akiko guessed they were about two hundred metres away from the structure; she was thankful Carroll had insisted they all remain at the peak of physical fitness, even though she knew Lehansa was beginning to struggle.

Disruptor beams began to stab through the air at them, and struck the dust at their feet.

"Keep going!" Akiko urged, even as enough volley of disruptor fire tore towards them. She peered over her shoulder. Zukal and Carroll were close now, but the Romulans were already at the structure, and were firing at them again and again.

They got another twenty metres, before a disruptor blast struck Lucien.

He gave a cry, but Akiko forced Lehansa to keep running. The item she was carrying was the point of the entire mission; Akiko knew that her duty to see it safely returned to the Federation trumped her duty to Lucien. She was sure he was dead, anyway.

Carroll and Zukal stopped to return fire, drawing Romulan attention away from Akiko and Lehansa, but the Romulans ignored the Cardassian and the mission's leader; evidently, they'd realised that Lehansa was carrying the package.

Akiko saw that they were about halfway to the edge of the barrier, Akiko guessed, but she knew she was slowing down. A squadron of Romulans were running towards them, the rest of their compatriots at the structure laying down suppressing fire.

"Keep going!" Akiko heard Carroll shout from behind them, and she urged Lehansa forward.

A blast struck the dust just before, and Lehansa tripped; the bundle she carried went rolling from her grasp as a concentrated volley tore through the space around them. Akiko knelt, and turned about, phaser in hand; she returned fire, and she thought she saw a Romulan warrior fall.

Reilly and Zukal were rapidly catching up to them, now, but the Romulans were, too.

"Lehansa, can you get the package?" Akiko asked, keeping up her covering fire.

No response came from the small Tiburonian.

"Lehansa?" Akiko repeated, risking a glance at the scientist. She was sprawled across the dust, a smoking crater in her back. Akiko thought her stomach had been ripped from her abdomen. Lehansa was a criminal on Tiburon, wanted throughout the Federation, but she and Akiko had grown close over the last few months; she was the only member of the team, other than Reilly, that she thought of as more than a colleague, more than a compatriot.

She swore, and began to pull her way through the dust; the Romulans were still firing at her, but they were too far away to get a proper bead on her. She found the bundle of fabric, but realised that it was empty.

Akiko fought a rising panic, and looked across the dust to find the object they'd now lost so much to find. It was a small disc, the width of her hand, apparently made of stone, inlaid with runes she didn't recognise. Suspended in the centre was what looked like a dusty jewel.

As she stared at it, momentarily captivated for some reason she couldn't quite understand, it seemed to change colour, drifting from a light, almost pink red towards a greenish yellow. Within its crystalline matrix, light seemed to dance; in the permanent twilight of the planet's surface, Akiko couldn't tell where it was coming from.

Her heart seemed to beat faster, and a feeling descended upon her. The sounds of the running battle being fought by her surviving compatriots seemed to die away.

"Akiko!" she heard Reilly shout, and her eyes were torn away from the jewel, as his gloved hand looped around her arm and wrenched her to her feet. "Run!"

Akiko held the object to her chest, as she and Reilly continued to run. The Romulans were redoubling their fire, and Zukal was bravely holding them, opening fire with his phaser again and again.

They had almost reached the edge of the field, Akiko guessed, when, a few hundred metres away, turquoise transporter beams began to disrupt the dusty field. Another squadron of armed and armoured Romulan soldiers appeared in the dust, and began charging towards them.

The Romulans lifted their disruptors and began to fire, when Reilly grabbed Akiko's shoulders and threw her to the dust. The disruptor blasts missed them by centimetres, and she suddenly felt the cool embrace of a transporter beam envelop her as motes of light danced across her vision. The last thing she thought of as she dematerialised was Zukal; no doubt still trapped behind the transporter dispersal field.

The world fell away from her as her constituent atoms were pulled apart and then stitched back together; she coalesced on the cramped transporter pad in the rear of their runabout's cockpit, next to Reilly. As the confinement beam released her, she got up at charged forward.

Ch'Sharnam was seated at the forward-most console; the dust-grey crescent of the dead world hung in the viewport before them. The Romulan warbird hung in space between the runabout and the planet, a deadly beast that had already claimed two of their number. Akiko was not willing to let it claim a third.

"We have to get Zukal!" she ordered.

"Negative!" came Reilly's voice from behind them. "Get us out of here!"

"Reilly!" Akiko demanded, turning to face him. He towered over her, at least thirty centimetres taller than she was, his eyes blazing. "We can't leave him!"

"We've got the package, Akiko," he reminded her, pointing to the object she still held. "We can't let the Romulans get their hands on it. That was the whole point of this mission."

"He's still alive down there!" Akiko protested. "We can't leave him!"

"We have to!" Reilly shouted in response.

She spun to the Andorian at the helm, and rushed forward, grabbing his shoulder. He studiously avoided her, his long fingers dancing across the control board. The planet fell away from them, and ch'Sharnam was squeezing as much out of the runabout's impulse engines as he possibly could. "Take us back!"

"The two of you got out of the dispersal field by about ten centimetres," ch'Sharnam explained. "Zukal was about thirty metres behind you, and the Romulans were closing in. There's no way he could have made it out."

Akiko checked the readouts on the science console, right next to ch'Sharnam, where Lehansa should have been sitting. She was still carrying the object she'd picked up after Lehansa had been killed, and felt a stab of horror as she remembered the Tiburonian's burnt corpse. Sure enough, she saw a lifesign read-out of the planet. Thirty-nine Romulans, and one Cardassian.

"He's still alive!" Akiko said.

"Not for much longer," ch'Sharnam said, and Akiko saw that the pair of antennae that pointed through his thick mane of flaxen hair were rigid.

"Reilly!" she called, spinning about. "You can't do this! We can't do this! We're Starfleet!"

"Not today!" he roared in response. "We haven't been Starfleet for six months now, Akiko, you know that! We got the package."

Akiko almost laughed. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. Yeah, fine, we got the package, and it cost us Lucien and Lehansa, but Zukal is still alive!"

"The warbird has seen us," ch'Sharnam interjected, and Reilly brushed Akiko aside, stepping towards their pilot.

"Can they intercept us?" Reilly asked.

"Not before I'm out of the planet's gravity well," ch'Sharnam told them. "As soon as I am…"

"Straight to the Federation," Reilly said, answering his next, unasked question. "Maximum warp."

Akiko was shaking her head. "We can't leave him, Reilly."

He turned on her. "We don't have any other option, Lieutenant. You're to drop this matter. That's an order."

Akiko blinked. "You can't be serious. You just said that, right here, right now, we're not Starfleet!"

In the moment before Reilly responded, she saw the fire in his eyes fade, just a little. He was heartbroken, she could see, by the losses their team had endured, by the abrogation of his duties as a Starfleet officer, the violation of everything he believed in as a citizen of the Federation.

"Akiko," he said, his voice and expression pained. "Please."

She sucked in a breath and nodded, once. It was enough.

She handed him the object, the small, bejewelled disc of stone, and turned away from the fore, away from ch'Sharnam and the star field that stretched out before the runabout.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, but she barely heard him.

The emotional pressures of the last six months threatened to overwhelm her, threatened to bring the walls she'd built up around her vulnerable areas come crushing down. It felt like a lifetime ago, but she and Reilly Carroll had once been in love. The pressures of this mission had brought them back together. She thought that that love was about to be rekindled.

As she headed aft, towards the sleeping cabin that she would have to herself for the first time since they'd left the Federation half a year before, she knew that, after this mission, she'd never speak to him again.

She felt the hum of the shuttle's engines change pitch as ch'Sharnam took them to warp. She thought of Lucien, Lehansa and Zukal; the crimes and violations of treaty she and her compatriots had committed in the course of their mission. She thought of that disc of stone. She thought of Earth, of home, of finally getting out of this stinking, tiny runabout.

She slumped onto the thin sleeping mat, and she began to cry.