To boldly go where no man has gone before . . .

Despite centuries of Starfleet exploration, despite contact with galactic empires such as those of the Klingons, the Romulans and the Cardassians, the universe is still largely a vast, unknown territory to the denizens of the United Federation of Planets.

Among these unexplored parts of space are the Delta quadrant, a place too distant for even the most fervent explorers to aspire to reach, and most of the Gamma quadrant, which has only been within reach for three short years.

But it is not only distances that hamper exploration. Though some civilisations might yearn to be accepted into the interstellar community, others are quite happy to stay in what community they have of themselves.

Such a civilisation is the Colvarin Alliance.

Travel from Earth to the Cardassian border, and follow this invisible line for some lightyears beyond the Bajoran system. Then turn away from Cardassia, and after passing through the Sylis Empire, you will have found where the Colvarin systems lie, and where they plan to stay.

Because although the multi-species nature of the Colvarin Alliance is the same as that of the Federation, the Alliance has always politely halted the repeated Federation attemps to open political and commercial relations.

Some in the Federation admire this strong attitude towards isolation, but they despair the notion that only a disaster of the first order could force the Colvarin Alliance to allow contact with the Federation.

The time for disasters is at hand . . .

Stardate 48914.7.
-/\-

Welting II,
the Colvarin Alliance.
-/\-

Gales, a man with a bloodline so complicated that it was impossible to tell what species he was from-except that they were all humanoid-had been working at the replicator plant just outside the city every weekday for the past sixteen years. He had never missed a day that wasn't an official holiday or vacation.

He might not have felt too good this morning, and he had noticed strange pale spots appearing on his skin, but surely he wouldn't let something like this make him break his routine, so he went to work as usual.

Though the aches that seemed to cramp each and every of his muscles at some point increased rather than diminished, Gales saw no reason to worry. It was probably just the diversity of his genes acting up. He'd had that before. Too many ancestors that had needed medical assistance to procreate. When the spells of dizziness started, Gales did start to worry. Perhaps he ought to let his doctor take a look at him after all. He'd make an appointment as soon as his lunch-break started. Unfortunately, that lunch-break would never come. Roughly forty minutes before it should have begun, Gales suddenly collapsed at his station.

-/\-

When the ambulance carrying Gales flew into the hospital's hangar, it was only one of many. When two nurses glided Gales out on a hover-stretcher, doctor Yvir Mellinad bent over Gales. "Symptoms?" he questioned the nurses, lifting one of Gales' eyelids.

"The same, according to witnesses," one of the men answered. "The whole bunch of them." Dr Mellinad shone a light into Gales' eye and nodded, as well to what he saw as to what the nurse said.

"Take him to hall two, with the others." He stopped walking, allowing the two men and the stretcher to move away from him. "And have his blood and brainpattern tested!" Dr Mellinad yelled after them, and muttered under his breath: "Let's hope that this one turns something up." Then the doctor went back into the frantic business of the hangar.

For twenty-seven years Yvir Mellinad had worked here at this same hospital, climbing up to become the highest level of medical authority in the entire Fariss province, and he'd thought he'd seen it all. Cases of virtually every known disease not exterminated by science had passed through his hospital. But this was no known disease, and neither was it a `case'. It was a full-scale epidemic, a plague. People dropped down unconscious everywhere, and the symptoms were always the same: a slight fever, then muscle aches, and sometimes spasms, and ultimately spells of dizziness followed by sudden unconsciousness. Some of the infected people in the hospital had already regained consciousness, but it was through no effort of Dr Mellinad's, and it didn't take the doctor's experienced eye to see that those patients were still far from healthy: the white spots remained, more appeared, and most were too weak to stand on their legs.

Finally Dr Mellinad spotted who he had been looking for and grabbed Ilonich's arm. The doctor turned to Mellinad, and before he could ask anything, the senior doctor spoke. "Ilonich, I want you to contact the planetary goverment and have them declare a State of Emergency. Convince them to quarantine the province, no, the entire planet."

Dr Ilonich looked sceptical. "Don't you think that that's a bit of an over-reaction, Yvir?" he said. "I mean, there's obviously an infective disease at work, but we don't know the first thing about it yet."

"That's precisely the point!" Mellinad yelled irritably. "We've had over a hundred cases of this disease in little over an hour! Our ambulances are making multiple stops per flight to keep up with the demands! All our people are working on this, and still we don't have clue as to what this disease is, where it came from, how it is transmitted, let alone have a cure! Now go and get that quarantine in place! Go! GO!" Knowing better than to try to refute Dr Mellinad's arguments any longer, Ilinoch ran off to do what he was told.

Looking around to see where he was needed, Yvir Mellinad saw an unconscious Cardassian being glided out of a newly arrived ambulance, and hurried towards her. Idly, he wondered why it was so hot in the hangar. He wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his coat, and was surprised not to find any sweat.

-/\-
Colvos Central system,

the Colvarin Alliance.
-/\-

Lightyears away, at one of the smaller spaceports on Colvos II, the seat of the Colvarin goverment, Elarin Fert was extremely glad to feel the soil of his native world beneath his feet again. He never could stand spaceflights, but this latest one, from Welting II, was worse by far than any before it. Of course, that's what he said after every spaceflight, but this time it was true, Elarin was sure of it. He'd truly felt ill, this time, and though his seat on the transport had been very spacious, and even luxurious, his legs' muscles had started to cramp, and the rest of his body soon followed.

Overcome by a sudden spell of dizziness, Elarin had to lean on the fence to keep from falling. "Sir?" a stewardess asked from behind him. "Are you all right?"

"I will be," Elarin replied reassuringly, rubbing a strange pale spot on his right arm. "Just give me a second." Yes, he thought. No doubt about it. He was definitively going to take that transfer his superior had offered him and get a nice and safe desk job.

-/\-
Starfleet Command,

San Francisco, Earth.
-/\-

The automatic doors swished open after he had correctly identified himself, and the dark-haired man in a red with black Starfleet uniform entered the dusky room. Three rank-pips in a small rectangle showed on his collar.

"I'm sorry I am late, gentlemen, ladies. I had a small emergency to tend to," admiral Cochrane said. He looked around the room, taking in the rectangular table and the various admirals and ambassadors sitting around it, all with their heads turned to him. The windows were all darkened-a security measure that was completely unnecessary in this age of one-sided reflective plexiglass. Apparently someone felt that all those present needed to be impressed by the importancy of this matter by displaying overt secrecy. It smelled like admiral Paris' work. Though he wouldn't have admitted it, the relatively young admiral was impressed, and if he'd thought it through, he would have realized that Paris had arranged this especially for him. But he didn't. He was indeed young for an admiral, and had not been playing the game for long. "Please continue, admiral Nechayev," Cochrane spoke to the woman standing at the head of the table as he sat down. "I read the report on my way here."

Admiral Nechayev nodded, and all attention returned to her. The blonde woman gestured at the starchart on the screen behind her and resumed talking. "We all know the cultural potential continuous relations with another multi-species federation the Colvarin Alliance offers," she said, "and its strategical position, being situated so near to the edge of Cardassian space. With the outbreak of this plague, the Federation has finally received an opening to gain access to the Alliance. Apparently the Colvarin know that our medical sciences are more advanced than their own, and they have requested our assistance in fighting the plague. What we need to decide is whether-" The admiral stopped when admiral Cochrane cleared his throat. "Yes, admiral?" she asked.

"With all due respect, admiral," Cochrane said, "but I believe I know what you were going to say, and frankly, I think our first concern should be the protection of our own citizens. Exactly how infective is this so-called plague? What are the risks to our own populace?"

"The plague," Farrel Kol, the Trill ambassador, and also the room's medical expert, said, "which by the way the Colvarin have named the White Fever, because of the white spots colouring the victim's skin and the fever appearing in its first stages, has infected seven worlds in four different star systems in the past three weeks. This suggests the White Fever is a highly aggressive disease, but since we know nothing of its incubation period, we can't be sure of anything."

"But with the high level of isolation the Colvarin Alliance has always maintained," admiral Bollick, sitting on Kol's left, interjected, "the possibilities of an infection of our people is virtually non-existent. I can give you the statistics, admiral Cochrane, but I think you will come to the same conclusions as I have." Nechayev looked at Cochrane, and he inclined his head, acknowledging the defeat of his argument.

"Well then," admiral Nechayev continued, "as I was saying: what we need to decide is whether Starfleet can afford to become involved in this affair, when at the same time we are faced with fresh hostility from the side of the Klingons. Reports from Deep Space Nine in the Bajoran sector make it very clear that the invasion of Cardassia and the ensuing battle at that same station may very well be just the beginning. For now, the Klingons have ceased actively seeking out battles, but I am convinced that Starfleet cannot be allowed to let its attention slacken."

"The Colvarin are not asking for an invading force, admiral Nechayev," admiral Paris objected. The man, whose hair had long since turned grey, was sitting near Nechayev at the head of the table. It was he who had arranged this meeting, and it was fairly obvious that the admiral wanted a Starfleet presence in the Alliance. He always had. Paris was a very influential man, even among his fellow admirals, and Cochrane already knew that he would get his way, even if the other admirals believed that nothing was decided yet. Admiral Cochrane would have loved to cross his rival for power, and perhaps he would have been able to had he arrived earlier, but now it was too late. "They have merely requested medical assistance in a time of dire need."

"True," admiral Nechayev admitted.

"I suggest that we send five or six Medical starships to Alliance space," Paris continued. "They can evaluate the situation and search for a cure."

"Our fleet of Medical starships is hardly as extensive as that of other starships, admiral Paris," admiral Cochrane responded, intent on at least limiting the succes of his adversary's intentions, "and with a possible war hanging over our heads, I think that everyone would like it as close at hand as possible. I recommend we send two starships at the very most."

"All right, then," Paris said, "two it is." Cochrane blinked at his rival's fast concession. Apparently Paris had planned for this to happen. Paris took out a datapadd. "I suggest the U.S.S. Socrates and the U.S.S. Aesculapius," the admiral said.

"Those two vessels do carry some of our experts on infective diseases," Kol agreed, nodding his head.

Admiral Nechayev's brow furrowed while she searched her memory. "That would be captains Alleron and Norrin." She looked at Paris. "I agree with the Socrates," she said, "but with the way Norrin of the Aesculapius let's his Chief Medical officer T'Lera order him around, I don't think he is suited for this mission. Outside the Federation, we should only trust Command officers with command."

"I would agree completely," admiral Paris said smoothly. "Fortunately, the Aesculapius is long overdue for a transfer of most senior officers." He looked around the table, and saw that each admiral and ambassador had agreed to his suggestions, though admiral Cochrane did not look happy that he had. "I already have someone to replace captain Norrin in mind."

-/\-
Ferrum IV,

Cardassian space.
-/\-

"You dirty little thief!" The Cardassian shopkeeper rea ched over the counter of his booth furiously, nearly knoc king the ramshackle thing over. But it was no use. The slight figure dressed in rags that moments before had grabbed half an armful of the shopkeeper's fruit danced backward, easily staying out his reach, before turning and running off into the street.

The market had, as always, attracted a large crowd, and within moments the thief vanished from the shopkeeper's sight. "Not this time, brat," the Cardassian muttered. "You just stole your last menkas." Taking a large stick he always had at hand for this kind of situations, the man rushed around his counter. "Girlon! Decjin!" he called over his shoulder. "Get out here! We've got a little bitch to catch!" Without waiting for his assistants, the shopkeeper took off. The girl had a start on him, but he was a tall and muscular man, and even here in a Cardassian outpost people stepped aside when the shopkeeper came running down a street, especially now he was wielding a club.

So it wasn't long before the girl heard the heavy footsteps of her pursuer closing in behind her. She was skilled at dodging around and in between people, but the shopkeeper was yelling obscenities and threats at her at the top of his voice, so the Cardassians out on the street were warned of her coming long before she arrived. Every good Cardassian citizen loved seeing a good wallopping given to a thief, and the girl had to dodge more than just moving around impartial obstacles. The fact that she hadn't eaten in two full days wasn't helping either, and all too soon the thief's breathing grew ragged.

When she finally made it out of the busy market, both the shopkeeper himself and Girlon and Decjin were close on her heels and she had already lost over a third of her loot. Fortunately, the thief was young and had a good condition, so with a wide open road in front of her, she slowly started to gain distance on her pursuers again. "I'll get you, you shrivelling strumpet!" the shopkeeper shouted. A small smile appeared on the girl's face. The way it was looking now, the shopkeeper was wrong, and she would live for another day. With her free hand, she rearranged the rag she wore on her head to protect her from the sun. Cardassia Prime was a hotter world than most, and here, too, the Cardassians had chosen a world much like their own to settle.

Then the young thief suddenly skidded to a halt. Only about a dozen meters ahead of her, a patrol appeared out of a sidestreet, and it was obviously alarmed by the shopkeeper's shouts. One of the soldiers pointed at the girl, and they started towards her. She knew that if the soldiers caught her, she would never return to the streets alive. Seconds before her pursuers caught up with her, the thief sprinted into an alley on the opposite side of the street the soldiers were coming from. Decjin tripped over his feet when he tried to turn to catch the girl before she got away and fell to the ground, but he was back on his feet in no time, and joined the growing crowd of running people again.

When you lived on the streets, you learned to know them like no one else, and the girl knew exactly where to go. Quickly, she led her pursuers through a maze of small streets, to a dead-end alley, which, at its far end, served as a dump for garbage. With the ease of long practice, the thief ran to the top of the heap, and grabbed the edge of the rooftop with her free arm. By now, the shopkeeper and Girlon were standing at the foot of the heap, and the patrol was entering the alley. The girl kicked over the top of the heap of garbage, swung her leg over the edge of the roof, and hoisted herself onto it. The shopkeeper's shouting was lashing through the air like thunderstrikes, refusing to acknowledge his now obvious defeat.

But the girl didn't slow down yet. Instead, she kept on running, ignoring her own heavy panting. Only when she'd let herself drop down into another alley several blocks away did she stop to rest and to eat. The young thief removed the rag from her face and started to gorge on the fruit she had stolen. Without the rag covering it, her face showed the features of a girl grown up long before her time. In truth, the girl did not only wear that tatter of cloth for protection from the sun, but also to hide what would make her even more wanted in a Cardassian outpost; now, the ridges on the bridge of her nose were exposed, which betrayed her Bajoran heritage.

-/\- -/\- -/\- -/\- -/\-

-/\-

Star Trek:

Aesculapius' Staff

-/\-

Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and all related characters, situations and other items are owned by Paramount/Viacom © 1999

Star Trek: Aesculapius Staff, and all in it that is none of the above, is created by Niels van Eekelen

-/\- -/\- -/\- -/\- -/\-

Screenplay by Niels van Eekelen

-/\- -/\-

ENTRANCE, Part I

Stardate 49018.6.

The Ferrum system,
approaching the fourth planet.
-/\-

When the shuttlecraft dropped out of Warp, Ferrum IV was just within sight for the naked eye, but the starship that was in its orbit was still indistinguishable. The Medical starship U.S.S. Aesculapius, that captain Blevins was going to command. The captain got out of the co-pilot's chair and walked into the passenger compartment without saying a word, leaving the shuttle's pilot and his two fellow senior officers behind. He leaned forward over a computer terminal, leaning one hand on the console, and called up an image of the Aesculapius from the shuttlecraft's sensors.

Captain Ethan Blevins was a Human of average height with dark brown hair. He ploughed through it with his right hand and sighed as the image appeared on-screen. Medical starships were kind of a joke among Starfleet captains, always being referred to as the most hideous assignment possible. Blevins didn't know one way or another of what captaining a Medical starship was like, but he was fairly certain that he had been given this assignment as a punishment.

Ethan had only attained captaincy a little over a year ago. It was unusual for a commanding officer to be transferred so shortly after his promotion. Being a brand new captain, Blevins had been placed under the direct supervision of admiral Paris for the first six months of his command. Even before this, the captain had known that his and the admiral's opinions considering command lay miles apart: admiral Paris believed in strict discipline, whereas captain Blevins preferred loyalty through companionship. And added to that was the fact that Blevins believed that important decisions ought to be made where the action was, whilst Paris at Starfleet Command was a total control-freak. The two had argued nearly constantly during those six months, and though the admiral-fortunately-had been unable to find any real reasons to get Blevins demoted, it was just too great a coincidence that it had been admiral Paris' autograph beneath the transfer orders.

"You're looking awfully grumpy, Ethan," a female voice spoke from behind the captain. He tore his eyes from the viewscreen and turned around. Lost in thought as he'd been, Blevins hadn't heard Cmdr Tesoras and Lt Kubert enter the compartment.

Ryalla Gellis Tesoras, of Andorian descent, had been Blevins' XO for as long as he'd been captain, and before that they had served together, he as first officer, and she as Chief Security officer. Now, her blue face was smiling amusedly at her friend's dark humour. One of the antennae above her forehead twitched.

Melanie Kubert was standing a little behind the commander, as usual keeping her expression neutral until she was sure whether she should laugh. How long had it been now, since captain Blevins had promoted her and made her a member of his senior staff? It must have been about five weeks. Seemed much longer. Despite the young Operations officer's lack of self-confidence, she was one of the best officers in her department that Blevins had ever worked with. When he had received his orders to transfer from the Ceasar to the Aesculapius, he had asked her to come with him immediately, even before he'd asked the same of Cmdr Tesoras. Not that Ethan had had any doubt that she would come.

Captain Blevins looked at his first officer. Shoving his useless dark thoughts away, he smiled for a moment, then said deadpan: "And why shouldn't I, Ryalla? You're still here, aren't you?" The Andorian gave an example of her infamously loud laughter, and continued doing so for her captain's benefit. Blevins winced and looked down at Melanie's face. "Do you regret coming with me yet, lieutenant?" he asked.

Kubert, now smiling as well, replied: "Not for a moment, Sir." She was far too proud of being asked.

Captain Blevins was about to say something else, but right at that moment, his commbadge chirped. Quickly he gestured for Tesoras to hush, so he could hear what was being said, and she did. "Captain," came the voice from the communicator, "we're about to start docking procedures on the Aesculapius."

"We're on our way, ensign," Blevins answered, and led his two officers back to the cockpit, where they sat down in their chairs. The shuttle was just flying around the Aesculapius to approach her from the right direction to land in her Shuttle Bay, and, of course, to let her captain get a good look at her. Like all Medical starships, the Aesculapius was a relatively small ship, with only eight decks. Otherwise, she was of a fairly standard design, with a saucer section in front of two Warp nacelles. An exception to this was the part connecting the saucer to the nacelles, it was much wider than that on most starships, including the Ceasar, stretching to directly beneath both nacelles, a width of almost two thirds of the saucer section. When the shuttlecraft flew over the saucer, captain Blevins had to smile: beneath the vessel's official designation-`U.S.S. AESCULAPIUS NCC 97413'-was written `"TO BOLDLY CURE WHAT NO DOCTOR HAS CURED BEFORE"'.

Lt Kubert was interested in what she could learn from the ship's exterior as well, but she was distracted by the planet the Aesculapius was circling. "I still don't understand how it is that we're meeting the ship in orbit of a Cardassian planet," she said, shaking her head slowly. Melanie didn't have any real bad feelings towards Cardassians, despite what she witnessed in the last Cardassian War as a child, but she knew as well as anyone that Cardassia and the Federation did not get along very well.

"Cardassia is weak right now," Cmdr Tesoras explained bluntly, only glancing at Kubert before turning back to look at the starship. "The fall of the military goverment took care of that. And now that the Cardassians have lost a lot of colonies and ships to the Klingons, they can really use allies. The Federation already showed our new positive attitude towards Cardassia when we granted asylum to the members of their civilian goverment, so I guess that when Cardassian spies learned of our mission, their authorities offered us to make use of their facilities at this outpost-which is the perfect jumping point to leave for the Colvarin Alliance-to gloat with their goodwill." Captain Blevins silently nodded his agreement.

While Ryalla was busy explaining, the ensign piloting the shuttlecraft steered them in between the two nacelles, and headed for the open doors of the Shuttle Bay. The landing was smooth, and even before they landed Blevins could see his crew gathered to meet their new captain and first officer.

Before stepping out of the shuttle, captain Blevins paused to smooth his uniform. Fortunately those dreadful dress uniforms weren't required for the introduction of a new captain. Ethan realized that he was actually a bit nervous, and he had to take a deep breath before going out into the Shuttle Bay.

"Captain on Deck!" shouted a tall, dark blond man of about thirty years of age. The entire crew snapped to attention. Well, or the entire part of the crew that was present, at least. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, captain Blevins noted that this could not be all of the crew. It struck him that there were very few blue uniforms, though the Medical staff was, of course, extensive. Maybe what he had heard of his Chief Medical officer T'Lera's independency was true after all.

"As you were," the captain said, and his crew relaxed a little. Beyond a short line of what Blevins supposed were the senior officers, a small stage had been erected, and the captain walked to it, shaking hands as he passed the line.

The man who had shouted, in a black-and-yellow uniform, was undoubtedly his Chief of Security, Lt Cmdr Steve Sandersen. "Commander," the captain greeted, with a nod of his head.

"Captain Blevins," Sandersen returned the greeting.

Beside him, a young Human woman was standing, the only one in the line wearing a uniform with a blue top. Since she wasn't Vulcan, she must have been the Head nurse. "Ms Layton."

Next were the ships two counselors, a Bolian called Llop, and a Human called Kirby. "Very good to meet you, captain Blevins," the Bolian said, "I've been looking forward to it." Blevins moved to the last officer standing in the line, and heard Tesoras and Kubert greeting the others behind him.

He exchanged greetings with his new Despan Chief engineer. Lt Besan Wymak was of a disturbing height, and captain Blevins had to crane his neck to look him in the eyes. Considering this and the Despan purely white skin, one would expect to find a character from an old horror story, but instead the lieutenant looked more like a friendly clown. His dark green hair helped forming that image, too. "I take it Lt Avarin hasn't arrived yet?" the captain asked, noting the absence of the Chief pilot. He saw Wymak frown in confusion, and hastily explained. "I mean Lt Avarin Mresi. Bajorans put their family names first."

"Ah, I see, Sir," the engineer said. "No, she has not arrived yet. She is due to sometime later today."

Captain Blevins nodded. "What about the Medical staff? They're here already, aren't they?" Seeing the broad smile on Wymak's face falter for the first time-he'd even kept on smiling while frowning, and that without looking ridiculous-the captain relieved him from answering by holding up a hand. "Never mind," he said, "I'll go ask Dr T'Lera myself later." Then he turned to the stage.

"Good luck, captain," the lieutenant said to his back. That did nothing to reassure Blevins.

On the stage, Ethan looked out over his crew for a moment and told himself that they were probably more nervous than he was. Then he started his carefully prepared speech. He had tried not to make it too boring, but it was a speech, and there was only so much that the captain could do with the things that needed saying. Still, he didn't think he'd done too bad, because after he finished a few minutes later, he received an applause which he believed was a little more than just polite clapping.

When the captain exchanged places with Cmdr Tesoras, he caught a glance of the glint in Ryalla's eyes, and he dreaded what was to come. Tesoras was as bad at public appearances-official ones, anyway-as she was good at directing battles. Extended formalities always got on her nerves. Unfortunately, it was too late to stop her from holding a speech now.

"I'm Cmdr Ryalla Gellis Tesoras," she spoke. "I'm going to be your first officer. I want to make a good first impression, so I'm not going to hold a speech. Just come to whatever public drinking area you people have on this ship when your shifts are over, and we can drink a few glasses of ale together."

"It's called the `Tavern'!" shouted someone in the audience.

"What deck is it on?" Tesoras asked calmly.

"Deck Three!" came the reply.

"Thank you. See you there." She stepped off the stage, and got a standing ovation.

Blevins looked at his XO, who came walking to him, with a pained expression on his face. "Did you really have to do that?" he asked. He looked into Ryalla's eyes. "Yes," he answered himself, "you had to do that." Blevins sighed ruefully, but then he smiled. "What am I going to do with you, Ryalla?" he wondered.

"Order me around, no doubt," Tesoras countered immediately. They chuckled. In the back of his head, the captain realized that this was creating more goodwill among the front ranks of his crew, who could see it, than any speech could have. He nodded to Cmdr Sandersen, who then stepped onto the stage.

"You're all dismissed," he said. "return to your duty stations." Blevins, standing side by side with Ryalla, watched as the crowd began flowing out through the doors. He wondered if he would feel as close to them as he did to the crew of the Ceasar. The captain had left his previous assignment behind, as befitted a good Starfleet officer, but he simply didn't know any of these people yet.

After the bulk of the crowd had gone, including most of the senior officers, Sandersen came to his two commanding officers. Lt Kubert had left a while ago, with nurse Layton and counsellor Llop. "Would you like your tour of the ship now, Sirs?" the Security Chief inquired.

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Tesoras answered. Blevins just nodded.

Then the captain noticed the wondering expression on Sandersen's face. "Is something the matter, commander?" he asked.

"No, Sir," was Sandersen's reply. He was silent for a moment, then he continued. "Well, I was just wondering, captain-if I may speak freely-to see you and the commander joking in front of the crew. Not that I object, mind you, but it's just uncommon among captains."

Blevins smiled at him. "I try not to be too strict with discipline, but I suppose the specialty of the occasion has left Cmdr Tesoras and me a little extra giddy."

"Speak for yourself," Tesoras snorted.

-/\-
The U.S.S. Aesculapius,

Deck Three
-/\-

Mresi followed the ensign from Security through the corridors with an unpleasant sense of anticipation. She had presented herself to a captain before, but the second and third times didn't seem to get any better. In the five years that Avarin Mresi had served in Starfleet, she had always attemped to stay out of sight of her commanding officers. She simply liked it better when she didn't attract too much attention. Now, with her new assignment as Chief pilot on the senior staff, Mresi could forget about that.

Mentally Avarin checked if she was looking properly not to attract any special notice from captain Blevins. Her long, black hair was tied together in a ponytail, so it wouldn't fall in front of her face. She wasn't wearing her Bajoran earring-you should never do that, until you were absolutely certain of your captain's opinion about things like that. Now, maybe she could simply slip in quietly. After all, there was quite a mass migration of officers going on on the Aesculapius.

". . . And that only leaves Sickbay, captain." a voice came from around the next corner. Mresi swallowed once and followed the ensign. When she turned the corner, she was walking towards the back of a dark-haired man in a Command uniform, who must have been the captain. He turned around when his two companions, an Andorian woman and a Human man in a black-and-yellow uniform-Cmdr Tesoras and Cmdr Sandersen, if she was not mistaken-looked at Avarin.

Captain Blevins looked at the dark face with the ridged nose approaching him with a bit of surprise. When she stopped in front of him, he said: "You must be Lt Avarin." At her affirmative, he extended his hand, and she shook it. "Captain Ethan Blevins. I'm sorry, lieutenant, if I'd known you were due to arrive already, I'd have met you in the Shuttle Bay."

A bit embarrassed by the captain's apology, Mresi responded: "That's all right, Sir. My transport was ahead of schedule."

"Well, that's a first," the silver-haired woman said as she extended her hand. "Cmdr Ryalla Tesoras." Her antennae twitched. The lieutenant had served with Andorians before, but to her Bajoran mind, the antennae extending from above their foreheads remained very strange.

"Lt Cmdr Sandersen," the second man said, and she shook his hand as well.

"Lieutenant," the captain spoke, and Avarin hastily turned back to him, "we were about to go meet the Medical staff in Sickbay. Perhaps you'd care to join us?"

"Of course, captain," Mresi replied. Actually, she'd rather have left the captain's presense again now, but she didn't want to be impolite, and she had to report to Sickbay for a routine check-up soon anyway. After dismissing the Security ensign, the four went to a nearby turbolift.

"Deck Four," captain Blevins said. After a moment, he turned to Lt Avarin. "Lieutenant," he said, "the senior staff has been invited to have lunch tomorrow with the Cardassian governor here, a Gul Seloc. I want you to know that it's completely voluntarily. Only a few of us are going. Considering your background, I'd understand if you rather stay on the Aesculapius."

"I'll come, captain," the helmsman said bluntly. Avarin didn't care for being reminded of her being Bajoran in that way. Captain Blevins was a bit baffled at the vehemence of her answer, but didn't mention it, as the turbolift doors slid open and they entered Sickbay.

Mresi was glad about that. `Not attracting any special notice' had just gone down the drain, it seemed.

She walked to an empty biobed where a doctor and a nurse were standing talking to each other, and said that she had to report to Sickbay for the regular medical check-up after a transfer. The doctor, a Vulcan male named Talek offered to do it at once. There was no logic in stalling. So Lt Avarin lay down on the biobed and prepared to suffer through the tests. From where she was lying, she could just see and hear captain Blevins and Cmdrs Tesoras and Sandersen meet the OIC of Sickbay.

"Captain Blevins, I presume," the Vulcan woman said in a cold voice. "Welcome on board of the Aesculapius. I'm sure you will fit right in." She didn't stop working with her test tubes, and when she moved her raven black hair, which was tied in an elaborate braid, swished to and fro on her back.

The captain did not seem to take her apparent lack of attention very well, or perhaps it was what she said. "Actually, Dr T'Lera," captain Blevins replied, "as I'm sure you are very much aware, I was ordered not to fit in too well. Instead, I am expected to make some changes in the way this vessel is commanded." This was all new to Avarin, who had never occupied a position among the upper layer of Starfleet, the senior officers, before, and had never heard the stories about Dr T'Lera.

T'Lera turned around brusquely at the words of the captain, and even from where Avarin was lying she could see the fire in her eyes, which would have been strong emotion in any other species. "Am I mistaken, captain, that the purpose of this mission, as it is with practically every mission this ship is assigned to, to save as many lives as possible?" she asked.

"It is," captain Blevins answered, slightly confused.

"Well then," Dr T'Lera continued, "on board of the Aesculapius, we have developed a routine designed to do this as efficient as possible. I suggest, for the good of this mission, that you do not disturb it." Then she turned back to her test tubes and took them to a separate laboratory, walking with her back very straight.

"She's not usually this bad, captain," Cmdr Sandersen excused her, "she just has a lot to adjust to now that you have come to take back the authority captain Norrin used to let her have." Captain Blevins nodded slowly, and Sandersen left as well.

"Tell me, Ryalla," Blevins started.

"Yes?"

"I told you that that the Aesculapius was a Medical starship did not necessarily mean that this would be a bad assignment, didn't I?"

Patting her commanding officer's shoulder, Tesoras said: "Aye, Sir. You did."

-/\-
ExCardassia City,
Ferrum IV
-/\-

The streets were dirty. Cardassian technology and architecture had never given anyone the smooth and clean feeling the Federation's did, and that had never showed any better than it did here in ExCardassia City. Before the Cardassians came to the Ferrum system, its fourth planet had been completely uninhabited, except for plants and bugs, so every piece of so-called civilisation had had to be imported.

The many curves that were characteristic of Cardassian buildings were covered with a thick blanket of the yellow dust that seemed omnipresent on the hellish world. Even the outer walls and windows of Gul Seloc's palace, on a hill high above the city, had not escaped this fate. The inside of the palace, however, was a different matter altogether. Melanie had never had much experience with the kind of luxury the Gul's housing offered-and she didn't care the slightest-but even she could see how its price must have reached stellar heights.

Now that the party from the Aesculapius was walking through the neighbourhoods where the taxpayers lived, Melanie Kubert could imagine where the latinum to purchase it had come from. She wiped some sweat from her forehead, and not for the first time, because like a true Cardassian world, Ferrum IV was as hot as hell. Much of it was the dust, Melanie supposed-of the look of poverty, not the heat. For a person who had lived in the hygiene of starships her whole life, superfluous dirt would always bring a lack of technology, and thus poverty, to mind. But still, the populace of ExCardassia City was obviously not nearly as rich as its governor.

Melanie looked to the woman walking beside her. Lt Avarin was scowling, and kept her gaze focused on the dust that wafted up at the footsteps of the two officers walking in front of them. She felt for Avarin. Gul Seloc had made no effort to hide that his hospitality had merely been provided because of a direct command by the new Cardassian civilian goverment, and that he personally wasn't inclined to share his precious resources with `weaker races', such as Humans and Bajorans. Lt Avarin had gotten the worst of Seloc's heavy sarcasm and plain insults. The Gul had been assigned to Bajor once, when it had been occupied by the Cardassians, and he had made his contempt for the natives of that world very clear.

Avarin had managed to stick to the politeness of Starfleet etiquette, but the treatment she'd received had obviously hurt her, and an unexpected stubborn streak had made her refuse to fade in the background of the attention, like captain Blevins and Cmdr Tesoras had tried to let her. Melanie felt that Avarin would deny it, but coming with the others to the Gul's palace had been a test for herself. It wasn't like she was ashamed of her Bajoran heritage, but there was something wrong, and Melanie wished she could help this woman who she hoped was becoming her friend.

"I don't know about you," Tesoras broke the silence, "but that pig was lucky I didn't bring a phaser."

Captain Blevins sighed. "Ryalla-"

"I mean it, Ethan," the commander continued. "We may have had to be nice and pleasant to that Gul, but I'm not going to lie about what really happened back there. If that idiot Seloc had had enough of a brain to remember more insults, he would have flung them at us."

"But he said nothing that could have resulted in an interplanetary incident, as you were about to twice," Blevins said. He half turned to the two lieutenants walking behind him. "Still, I want to commend you on the way you all held on to your tempers. God only knows Seloc's reasons for trying to provoke us, but I don't think we gave him anything to write home about. Personally, I think the Cardassian food was worse than the company." Tesoras chuckled. "Now," the captain continued, "I suggested taking a walk through the city before beaming back to the ship to cool off, not to get all excited, all right?"

Three voices echoed back "Yes, Sir!"

Melanie could tell from experience that the captain was still upset about the way Seloc had treated them, but he smiled broadly anyway, and said: "Ah, I love being captain." Meanwhile, the group had walked into a more busily used street. There were a few shops, spread from one end of the street to another, and several dozen Cardassian civilians were passing this way or that. On a far corner, Melanie even saw a patrol of the military, who were staring into the crowd defiantly. Melanie noticed that no one met their eyes.

The four Starfleet officers just wanted to get into the stream of people and follow it in the direction of the town's center when they were nearly ran underfoot by a small figure that came storming out of an alley. Avarin managed to jump aside barely in time to avoid a collision. It was a boy-no, when Melanie got a better look she thought she saw it was a girl-dressed in what could only be described as filthy rags. The girl, it seemed, had swathed some threadbare pieces of cloth around herself to serve as clothing. The rags also served as footwear. Though Melanie and the others had passed through some pretty poor neighbourhoods, they hadn't seen any real vagrants yet on the planet.

As the girl raced across the street, some five boys, who weren't looking much better than their prey, came storming out of the came alley, hot on her heals. One of the boys-or rather, young men-crashed into Cmdr Tesoras. In a reflexive gesture the commander fended off the boy and stayed on her feet, while he fell down to the ground. Without so much as sparing Cmdr Tesoras a second glance, the boy rolled back onto his feet and followed the others.

The girl had by now reached the other side of the street, and instead of disappearing into another alley, she jumped onto an antigrav sled, and from there immediately leaped on to grab the edge of the roof. The sled began swaying dangerously when the girl pushed off of it, and the two Cardassians who'd been moving it cursed her loudly while they tried to save their cargo from falling into the dirty street.

Just when the antigrav had regained a semblance of stability, the street urchin running in the lead jumped up after the girl, and the sled's cargo nearly fell again. This time, the two men decided wisely to get their sled safely out of the way before stabilizing it again, and ran away, pushing it. The other boys, however, weren't interested in the sled, but moved around it to the foot of the wall.

Above them, the girl had swung her leg over the edge of the roof and was trying to pull herself up. Then the boy that had jumped after her caught up with her and grabbed her around her waist with both arms. He pushed himself off from the building, and together the two fell down.

The fall wasn't to high, but high enough to be painful. The urchin probably counted on his tough Cardassian physiology to keep him from being injured, and he no doubt had experience with rough games. Unfortunately for him, the girl twisted during their fall and manouvered so that she'd land with her elbow in the boys face.

When they hit the ground, the boy cried in pain and stayed on the ground, cradling his face in his hands, whereas the girl struggled back to her feet at once, dazed as she was. Melanie heard Cmdr Tesoras grunt softly in admiration of the move. The commander could never help but approve of good fighting. The short, simple sound turned out to be enough to shake the small group from the stunned immobility they had all been in in the few short moments in which this all had taken place.

Meanwhile, a crowd of passers-by had stopped to watch the incident, while a few others of the Cardassian natives preferred to get some distance between them and the fight, just in case the military authorities decided to break it up.

The four boys who were still on their feet nearly jumped onto the girl, and began molesting her. The girl attempted to resist, but she was still dazed from the fall and, quite simply, outnumbered. She didn't stand a chance. The bystanders, as true Cardassians, were thoroughly enjoying the show, but even they made sure they kept their distance, so the officers from the Aesculapius had a horribly clear view.

Melanie Kubert barely had the chance to see the red and the black of Command uniforms move before captain Blevins suddenly spokely loudly. "No!" he said simply, in his command voice that brooked no argument. Cmdr Tesoras stopped her advance on the fight immediately, though she was obviously none too happy about it. Lt Avarin, who had never heard the captain in that particular tone of voice before, didn't show any intention of stopping, and Melanie grabbed her arm to make her.

All three turned to their captain, Tesoras displeased, and Avarin outright angry. Blevins continued coldly. "You are not to interfere. I needn't remind you that Starfleet has no authority whatsoever on this planet."

"But, Sir-" Avarin started to object.

"Look there," the captain ordered. Trained at Starfleet Academy to respond to orders without stopping to think, they all turned and looked where he was pointing. At the edge of the watching crowd, the Cardassian patrol was standing, merrily laughing with each other, calling encouragements to the boys.

"The local athorities are well aware of the situation and chose to do nothing," the captain spoke from behind Kubert, Tesoras and Kubert. "Remember the Prime Directive." He sighed. "Everybody hates the Prime Directive, but it does exist, and we would probably be worse off without it."

"Tell that to that-" Avarin objected, and was once more interrupted when one of the street urchins screamed all of a sudden. The eyes of the officers flew back to the fight, just in time to see the boy that had screamed stumble a few steps backward, and then fall over. He was clutching his right shoulder, which was bleeding profusely. Melanie saw a glint of hope appear in Avarin's eyes, and then she sighted the knife the girl was holding and realized that Avarin was hoping that the girl whose fate they had wanted to decide wouldn't even need them.

The hope was only granted a short life, as the remaining boys - now only three - quickly disarmed the girl and finished the beating they were giving her. Then, at an unspoken signal, they suddenly broke off their assault, hoisted their fallen friends to their feet, and together disappeared down the nearest alley. Immediately the bystanders began to leave, and among the first to do so was the patrol of the military. The girl did not move.

Melanie lay a hand on Avarin's arm, a gentle reminder for her to stay where she was. The Bajoran woman looked like she was about to explode from powerlessness. Melanie wondered what made her so desperate to help this girl.

When the patrol vanished around a corner and the crowd had all but dissipated, Tesoras, who had been strangely quiet ever since captain Blevins had pointed out the patrol, looked a question at Blevins. He nodded, and the commander ran over to the motionless form lying on the other side of the street. Both Kubert and Avarin stared at him in surprise. Captain Blevins didn't take his eyes off the-hopefully-unconscious girl as he started towards her and the two lieutenants followed him.

"Then again," he said, "sometimes the PD is just a pain in the ass, and it can't hurt to look, especially if no one else is looking." Melanie understood that he was saying that they had had to wait until the patrol couldn't see them anymore before they could do anything. The captain turned to them and winked. "I won't tell anyone if you won't," he finished.

"Captain!" Cmdr Tesoras called from the body, and Blevins quickened his pace. "She's alive, but she's not Cardassian," she said. The captain gave her an incomprehending look, but Lt Avarin nodded vigorously. Tesoras took a look at Avarin, and then said: "She's Bajoran." The captain looked stunned, and Melanie was, too. Stil, it did explain a few things. If Avarin had recognized the girl as a fellow Bajoran when they had nearly crashed into each other, that would be the reason for her uncharacteristic vehemence in wanting to help her. But the Cardassians were supposed to have returned all Bajorans held on their worlds over three years ago!

Then Tesoras spoke up. "Multiple stab wounds and broken bones. Ethan, I doubt if she will survive." Again she looked a question at the captain, and again he nodded. The commander took her commbadge from her uniform and activated it. "Tesoras to Transporter Room Two," she said. "One to beam directly to Sickbay. Lock on to my commbadge and energize." She laid the commbadge on the girl and stepped back.

A second later the four officers watched as the motionless form dematerialized off the street.

"I don't suppose I get to question Seloc about this?" Tesoras asked her captain.

"I doubt if he knows anything about the poor thing," Blevins answered. "There are nearly 400,000 people living in this city alone, and besides"-he looked at Lt Avarin-"with the way he thinks about Bajorans, I think he would have had her killed long before now if he knew she was roaming his streets. But the answer to your question is no, even if Seloc does know, you are not going to ask." Tesoras sighed resignedly. "Now," the captain asked, "I don't think that any of you cares for staying here any longer?" All shook their heads. Captain Blevins tapped his commbadge. "Blevins to Aesculapius. Four to beam up." When the dirty street vanished in a shower of light, Melanie felt no regret for leaving it behind.

-/\-
The Tavern,
the U.S.S. Aesculapius, Deck Three.
-/\-

"And this Colvarin Alliance? What do you think? Still off the record, of course," crewman Bestaar asked.

Steve Sandersen took a long swallow from his synthale before answering. He was sitting in the Tavern with a small group of the old Ace' crewmembers who had survived the recent mass transfers-the `Ace'' was a common nickname for the long-named Aesculapius. Lt Wymak from Engineering, who had joined them only a few short months ago, was the only exception. "The Colvarin asked us to come themselves, and they know that we might be able to find a cure for the plague that's decimating their population, which they haven't, so I really don't expect them to cause us any trouble."

"All right then," Bestaar said. "The Cardassians?"

Sandersen shrugged. "With the Cardassians, few things would surprise me, but I think that if they were planning something, they would do it while the captain is down on the planet, and he was just beamed back up." At the surprised look from Wymak, he added: "I had the Transporter Room call me when he did, just in case he didn't."

The commander grinned back at the ever-present smile the Chief engineer was wearing. Sandersen believed that it was impossible not to like Wymak. Literally. Aside from the more visible attributes his Despan heritage gave the lieutenant-like his webbed, four-fingered hands and his white-as-a-sheet skin colour-he also possessed a passive talent for telepathy. This talent, which worked on most humanoid species, enhanced any positive emotions one felt towards him. Fortunately, it was only the slightest enhancement, so there was no question of mind-control or anything. Only other psi-active species had to worry about stronger reactions, and with Vulcans, the sole other race of telepaths present on the Ace', emotions were hardly a problem.

Cmdr Sandersen didn't like the idea of being influenced like that very much, but he didn't allow that to stop him from socializing with Wymak. After all, the engineer couldn't help that he was doing it, and he really wasn't a bad fellow. Wymak could be damn a fool at times, but you could always be assured that he had the best intentions. Sandersen had considered that that thought had been influenced by Wymak's telepathy too, but he'd dismissed the idea almost immediately.

"Speaking about captains, what do you think about our new one?" The new voice was from T'Daran Lobdell, the Tavern's proud bartender, who came to bring the group a fresh tray of drinks. T'Daran was a half Human, half Vulcan, who had chosen to follow the Human path, much to the disapproval of the Aesculapius' Vulcan matriarch, Dr T'Lera.

"I honestly wouldn't know." Sandersen replied. "I only met the man yesterday, remember? He seems like a good enough man. Cares for his crew, but according to his record doesn't let anything interfere with his professional decisions that he shouldn't. But you know that I don't like to judge by first looks, or records. I'll let you know what I find when I've had my second and third looks." With the arrival of the new captain, the people that were gathered here at the bar with Cmdr Sandersen were in for some pretty drastic changes. Steve had never approved of how captain Norrin had always neatly done exactly what Dr T'Lera told him to, but he did appreciate the stability. If their luck was bad, captain Blevins and Dr T'Lera would be sparring for the true power on the Ace' for months to come. Their first encounter in Sickbay wasn't very promising.

"And does the same go for the first officer?"

"Sodeju!" Sandersen called in mock anger. "Why do I always have to make all the observations? Are you all blind or something? T'Daran, you ought to know more about her than I do; you housed her welcome party last night!" The others just smiled. They'd had this conversation before. "And what are you staring at?" the commander demanded from someone at random.

"Me?" counsellor Kirby replied. "Well, I was just wondering why the universal translator never works when you curse in Dutch."

"The computer is much too polite to translate such rude comments," T'Daran said while she gathered the empty glasses and put them back in the replicator for recycling. Then the doors to the Tavern opened, and Sandersen's Security training, combined with his sharp hearing, caused him to look who was entering. He recognized her immediately. It had been less than a day since he first saw her face, but already he didn't think he could ever forget it if he tried. "Hey, LC! Aesculapius to LC Sandersen, come in please!"

Steve finally responded to the use of his nickname, an abbreviation for his rank: Lieutenant Commander. "Did you say something, T'Daran?" he said, turning back to the bar.

"I only quoted about half the teachings of Surak before you responded," she joked. An annoying grin was covering Lobdell's face from ear to ear. She might have been a half-Vulcan, but anyone's emotions were like an open book to her. "Something on your mind?" she asked sweetly. Sandersen took a quick glance around, but fortunately the others didn't seem to be catching on as quickly as T'Daran was.

"I was thinking that we could ask our new Chief Ops officer who walked in a moment ago to join us. I think she's served with captain Blevins for years." Without waiting for a reply, he stood and waved the lieutenant to come over. "Lt Kubert," he spoke, "would you care to join us?"

With the smallest of shy smiles the young woman changed course to approach the party at the bar. "I'd love to," she replied. Lt Wymak quickly offered her a chair, before Sandersen could do the same, and the bartender asked if she could interest her in a drink. Kubert leaned tiredly on the bar and sighed. "I could use a big synthale. Andorian, please."

"Coming up," T'Daran told her.

Sandersen thought he could guess what had tired the pretty lieutenant so. "Was the Gul very bad?" he asked.

"Worse," Kubert replied. "And then we found this Bajoran girl in the city . . ." She shook her head, and then had to wipe her long red curls from her face before taking the sythale from T'Daran. "Thank you. Anyway, this wasn't one of my better days."

Instinctively Cmdr Sandersen felt that Melanie Kubert would prefer to let the events of the afternoon rest for a while, so he changed the subject. "We were wondering if you could tell us something about captain Blevins, with you having served under him before and all."

"Of course," Kubert answered, eager to be helpful. "What did you want to know?"

Cmdr Sandersen hadn't thought this far ahead yet. "Uh . . ." he said. "Well, just how he is, in general." Kubert had plenty to tell them about that.

-/\-
Sickbay,
Deck Four.
-/\-

The corridors on this ship were different from those on the Ceasar, captain Blevins thought. He knew that the idea was ludicrous: all corridors in Starfleet starships were manufactured in facturies, with the same specifications. But they felt different.

The captain was strolling to Sickbay from the Transporter Room at a leisurely pace. He wanted to know how the girl they had saved planetside was doing, but he wasn't particularly eager to hear what Dr T'Lera would have to say about the little rescue operation. Ultimately, Blevins had decided to give T'Lera a chance to help the girl before he interrupted. Even with having only met the Vulcan woman once, and shortly at that, he was fairly certain that she would not leave this job to anyone on her staff. When the captain neared the doors to the main section of Sickbay, he could hear voices.

"Doctor, I‑‑" a female voice sounded, which Blevins connected with Lt Avarin, after having to think for a moment.

"Lieutenant, you will keep your distance until I am finished with the patient, or I will have you removed from Sickbay." That voice, dripping with authority, was unmistakably Dr T'Lera's.

Captain Blevins stepped into the room with his brow furrowing. Avarin here? She would have had to have come directly from the Transporter Room. And now that he thought about it, the captain remembered that the usually rather shy Bajoran had been very determined to aid the girl on the planet, as well. He would have to ask her about that. Then again, the girl was native to the same world as she was, after all. Dr T'lera was standing at a biobed with someone lying on it in the center of the room. A nurse was standing a few feet away.

Lt Avarin was standing over the bed as well. To be honest, Blevins could see why the doctor was threatening to send her away; with the way she was hanging over the girl, T'Lera could hardly do her job. Still, the captain did not want trouble between his senior officers this soon in the mission, so he stepped forward to intervene. He hoped T'Lera would at least be a little reasonable. "How is our patient, doctor?" he asked.

T'Lera turned to him abruptly with a look of cold disapproval that one could only find on Vulcans. "If you can restrain your officer, captain, I will be with you in a moment. Right now I have a patient to take care of." Before Blevins could respond, she had turned her back on him again.

He smirked at her reaction, but did what she said anyway. The captain stepped forward and laid a hand on Avarin's shoulder. "Come on, lieutenant," he said softly, "let's let the doctor do her job, shall we?" She let him lead her back a ways reluctantly. There was a frown on her dark face, like she was trying to solve some puzzle she did not like at all. Captain Blevins followed her gaze to the face of the unconscious girl. He could sympathize with Avarin. The mystery of how a person of your race came to live on a planet of your worst enemies-even if Bajor and Cardassia were officially at peace now-was not a nice one to consider. "I still can hardly believe it either," he said.

"Sir?" Avarin asked confusedly, finally taking her eyes off the girl.

"That she's Bajoran, and here."

His Chief pilot no nodded in agreement. "She looks so young and hurt like this," she said softly, almost lost in thought again. "Sir," she quickly added. But protocol wasn't foremost on Blevins' mind.

"The Cardassians were supposed to have returned all Bajoran prisoners they took during the occupation of your planet three years ago." He studied the unconscious girl's face intently. A few small scars marred her cheek, but aside from that, she looked very young.

Avarin nodded again, vigorously. "Captain, we have to tell Starfleet about this. That Gul has to be punished for‑‑"

Unfortunately, captain Blevins had been doing some thinking on the subject, and he held up a hand to stem the sudden flow of words from the lieutenant. "He would deny knowing anything about the girl, and quite frankly, he could be speaking the truth. It appears she lives on the streets, or in an empty cellar at the best, and I'm afraid that the fact that Gul Seloc was stationed on Bajor is hardly enough evidence to accuse him of anything" Blevins could see the disappointment flowing onto Avarin's face, and he felt it with her. He had his own suspicions as well, but there simply was no way of verifying them. "There is one bright point, however," he told her. "I thought that I would have to return the girl to the planet before we leave, but since she's not a citizen of Cardassia, but one of an ally of the Federation, I can arrange for her to be brought home." If she wanted to go to Bajor, the captain thought. They had not exactly had the chance to talk to the girl. Who knew? She might be happy on Ferrum IV. Blevins doubted it, but it was possible.

Finally, Dr T'Lera gave some last instructions to the nurse, a tall, black‑haired man, and came to the two impatient watchers. "The patient will be all right with rest," she said. Then she asked: "Is something the matter, captain?"

"Well," captain Blevins replied, "to be honest, I thought that you would start your report with a lecture on beaming unknown persons to Sickbay."

T'Lera looked at him like he was about half a foot tall. "If you believe, captain, that only certified Federation citizens deserve the medical attention of this Sickbay, then you are grossly mistaken." That wasn't even near to what Blevins had said, but he let it go. This meant that T'Lera wasn't the stiff‑backed Vulcan the captain had thought she was from their previous encounter. Perhaps Cmdr Sandersen was right, and the Chief Medical officer had been worse than usual then.

Before an uncomfortable silence could ensue, Blevins spoke again. "What is the patient's condition, doctor?"

"As I said, she will regain her health. She received a variety of bruises and cuts, which I understand you witnessed. Also, two bones in her left hand and one of her ribs were broken. The rib punctured her right lung, but there was no permanent damage done. I have healed all this, and though the patient will likely feel sore for several days, her injuries should not seriously hamper her."

"Good," captain Blevins said with a nod. "Can you wake her?"

"That would negatively influence her healing process, so I will not," Dr T'Lera said bluntly. "And, besides, I have more work to do on the girl."

"Oh? I thought you had healed her injuries already?" Blevins asked.

"Her recent injuries." T'Lera said it like she had to explain that seven minus four equalled three. At the captain's still incomprehending look, she continued. "The patient also has plenty of evidence on her body of older injuries, which has apparently accumulated over a period of several years. For instance, her right shinbone was broken about three months ago. It has healed relatively cleanly, but that is nothing next to what modern medicine can do for her. I will‑‑"

"No," captain Blevins said, with as much finality in his voice as he could muster. For a moment both Dr T'Lera and Lt Avarin stared at him in surprise. When T'Lera wanted to start speaking again, Blevins stopped her. "Doctor, if the girl wants further help, we'll give it. But first I want to hear from her that she wants it. She isn't able to do that right now. Who knows? If she has scars, some of them might have some kind of special meaning for her."

"That seems logical," T'Lera grudgingly admitted. Avarin nodded as well.

"Good," the captain said. "Now, I'll make arrangements for a safe place for her to stay until she can be taken to Bajor or wherever she wants to go. I-"

"That idea lacks all logic," the doctor interrupted in a cold voice. "It would be better by far for her to remain in Sickbay for the duration of her recovery."

"Are you suggesting, doctor," Blevins spat at her, "that we take this girl into a sector of space where every other planet is infected with a deadly plague?" The two were really getting on each others nerves. Blevins took a quick glance at the quiet Avarin, searching for support, but she only seemed to be wishing that she was somewhere else entirely.

"Are you suggesting, captain," T'Lera said, "that we deliver this girl back into the hands of the people who brought her here?"

"We do not know if that is true."

"We do not know if it is not. And unless you happen to know a Federation base in these parts-which there isn't, or we wouldn't even be here-that is what you are suggesting. Can we take that risk?"

Blevins was silent for a moment. He realized now that the Vulcan woman was right. There was no way for him to ensure the girl's safety if he left her behind. The hard part was admitting it to the doctor. "All right then," he said, "she stays. But the necessary precautions will be taken." He nodded to the Security officer who just came walking in. It was a short man with grey hair who had lost a foot in an accident years ago, and now always slightly dragged with his prosthetic.

He stood to attention in front of the captain. "Lt Pinewood reporting as ordered, Sir," he said. Blevins nodded at the man.

"Lieutenant," he said, "you will keep an eye on our guest here. I don't expect trouble, but I just want to make sure that she doesn't do anything unexpected when she wakes up in an unknown environment."

Pinewood confirmed his orders with a short nod, and Blevins turned back to Dr T'Lera and Lt Avarin. With Vulcans being emotionless, he knew it was impossible, but the captain could swear that T'Lera was fuming. "Captain!" she spoke. "I will not tolerate this. This is a Sickbay, not the Brig!"

Just at the right moment, captain Blevins' commbadge chirped. "Bridge to Blevins," Ryalla's voice sounded.

"I'm here, commander," Blevins said.

"The Socrates has just come out of Warp. I thought you would want to speak with captain Alleron yourself."

"I do and I'm on my way. Thanks." Then he spoke to the doctor again. "Security matters are not your concern, Dr T'Lera," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm expected on the Bridge. Keep me posted."

"I certainly will," T'Lera said in a voice that implicated not nearly as much helpfulness as her words. Thanking god, Ryalla and captain Alleron equally, Blevins quickly left Sickbay.

-/\-
The U.S.S. Aesculapius,
the Bridge.
-/\-

The viewscreen showed a mirror image of the Bridge. The starship Socrates was a Corona‑class starship, just like the Aesculapius. It had the same eight decks, the same extensive Sickbay‑‑it was more like a complete hospital. Everything on the ship on the other side of the commline was as it was on the one on this side. Except for her crew. To Cmdr Tesoras' regret.

Ryalla knew that her irritation wasn't really captain Alleron's fault. No, she'd sooner blame herself. The Andorian would have liked to think that she simply didn't like the red‑haired man, but if she was honest about it, she would have to admit that she just did not respond well to authority. That wasn't exactly a well‑appreciated character trait in Starfleet, and how she had made it this far without any real conflicts was anyone's guess. But, through some uncommonly big stroke of luck, she had ended up in a position where she usually only had to defer to one person, and that person was her best friend, who knew how to handle her.

"Yes, captain," she said, unable to hide her irritability completely, "as soon as you've transferred the rest of our crew, we'll be ready to head out." Captain Alleron appeared to be very eager to start curing people from the plague.

"Very good," he commented with a nod of the head. "The sooner we can leave, the less people will die." Alleron was still trying to be nice and polite, but it was obvious in his voice that he had noticed Ryalla's attitude. She shifted uncomfortably in the big captain's chair. Ryalla knew that she wasn't showing her best side right now. What was keeping Ethan? Behind her on her right, the Andorian woman knew that Lt Cmdr Sandersen was frowning at her disapprovingly. Fortunately, both the Helm and Medical liaison stations‑‑the only stations within her line of sight‑‑were empty because the Ace' was simply in orbit of a planet.

Ryalla wanted to say something more, but she had the sneaky suspicion that, with the dark mood she was in, she would only make things worse.

When she heard the turbolift doors at the back of the Bridge open, Ryalla's eyes flew in their direction, and when she saw the captain stroll out, she hurriedly vacated his chair. Captain Blevins knew the commander very well, and he winced at the signs of yet another failed attempt at diplomacy by his first officer.

As Ryalla stood by, her friend smoothly took over the conversation. "Good day, captain Alleron," he said while he walked to his chair and sat down, "it's good to finally meet you."

"I agree," Alleron replied. "Starfleet kept us apart until much too far into the mission."

"I take it that Cmdr Tesoras has filled you in on our status, captain?" Ethan asked.

"For the most part. Have all your senior officers arrived yet?"

"Yes, yesterday. I was one of the last myself," the captain replied. It seemed to Ryalla that Alleron was relaxing again now that he was talking with Ethan, so she stopped worrying. "I understood from the message you sent me that you were eager to leave for the Alliance, so I hurried the Aesculapius' preparations a bit. We will be ready to go to Warp just a few hours after my crew is complete."

"Excellent!" captain Alleron said. "I'll have the transporting started immediately. Can you give me a time-estimate?"

"Say . . . twenty hours?"

"Agreed." Alleron grimaced slightly. "To be honest," he added, "I'll be glad to leave Cardassian space behind."

Ethan Blevins face became grim. "I can sympathize," he said in a cold tone. "I'm none too happy with them at the moment, either." Ryalla half-raised an eyebrow in surprise. It probably had something to do with the girl from the planet, but Ethan had seemed more composed earlier. She'd have to ask.

-/\-
A turbolift,
en route to the Bridge.
-/\-

There was only the the slightest sensation of movement when the turbolift launched itself through the ship at high speed. Mresi knew that the others, Lts Kubert and Sandersen probably didn't even notice it. She shifted a bit awkwardly on her feet. They would be leaving soon, now. Apparently Melanie noticed her doing it, because she said:

"Don't tell me you're nervous." Mresi looked sheepishly. "For your first time flying as a senior officer?" She nodded. Mresi genuinely liked Melanie, but she was a somewhat private person, and the way that Melanie guessed what she was thinking about not quite forty-eight hours after they had met unnerved her. "Don't worry," the Ops lieutenant spoke soothingly. "I was nervous as hell when I was promoted myself, too, but all the equipment still worked exactly the same way." She grinned at Mresi, and the Bajoran had too grin back.

"The only thing that could make anything go wrong," the thusfar quiet Lt Sandersen said from behind the two women, "is your nervousness itself." They turned to him. "According to your file, you haven't made any real mistakes so far, so I wouldn't worry about it if I were you."

"You read her file?" Melanie asked, sounding a bit incredulously. The corners of her mouth were raised in an amused smile.

Sandersen shrugged uncomfortably. "I am supposed to," he said, "as Chief of Security. I have to officially make sure that all officers can be trusted. It's a bit superfluous, considering that everybody on the Ace' was taken on by Starfleet, but it's a rule."

"Did you read my file as well?" Kubert questioned him.

"Certainly . . . I mean, I read the files of everybody on the senior staff, and others," he added. "That includes yours, of course."

"And?" Melanie asked, with an even more amused smile on her face.

Mresi hid her own smile behind a hand. Sandersen had seemed to her to be a man who would stay composed even when he was just having fun, but now Melanie had him looking totally confused by just asking one simple question. He looked silly. Sandersen silently mouthed the word "And?" Then he blinked and seemed to get back in control of himself. "Well," he said, "you want to hear your biography? Your parents were Starfleet; you grew up on starships; one of which saw some action while you were on it during the Border Wars with Cardassia; at age eighteen you went to the Academy in San Francisco; and after you graduated you served on the Ceasar under our new captain." It was interesting to hear some more about her new friend, but at the same time, Mresi wished that she hadn't heard it. Though she was Bajoran, Mresi had never really suffered under the Cardassian occupation of her planet-or at least, her parents had taken her away from their home-planet when she was too young to remember much now-but the horrors the Cardassians wreaked wherever they went seemed to follow her.

Melanie sighed a very fake sigh. "I meant, Steve, how did you like it?"

Mresi could have sworn that she saw the Chief of Security's cheeks redden a little, but apparently he was better prepared this time. "I'm not supposed to like those files in any way, Lt Kubert," he said. "I am supposed to be coldly professional and determine in what matters you can't be trusted."

Melanie grimaced disappointedly at him, but dropped the subject. Mresi wondered if she too had noticed how neatly the lieutenant commander had avoided answering the actual question.

"This all reminds me," Melanie said, looking back at the dark-skinned Bajoran, "Mresi, I've been meaning to ask you; you used to work on the Socrates, didn't you?"

"Yes," she replied, "I did."

"Then how come you got here before your ship did?"

"Oh, that," Mresi said, sounding a bit annoyed even to herself. "I was on leave for the past two weeks. Doctor's orders. Dr Waid said told me-and I quote-that he 'wouldn't give me the chance to get overworked for at least the first few weeks after my transfer.' He said that that would give his colleagues a bad impression of him." Her tone made it very clear what she thought about that. Sandersen chuckled.

Melanie, however, gave Mresi a sympathizing look. "Not the vacation type, huh?" she asked.

"No," the pilot said curtly. "But I don't get overworked either." Sandersen chuckled again.

"Well, anyway, I suppose that explains it," Melanie said. "Did you get a chance to visit your friends on the Socrates today?" Mresi nodded.

Then the turbolift slowed and stopped. When the 'lift's doors opened, its occupants stepped onto the Bridge. Sandersen, whose console was directly next to the turbolift, relieved his replacement officer immediately, and Kubert walked to the other side, to the Ops station, but Mresi paused for a moment to watch the stars on the viewscreen. In part, that was why she had become a pilot; she loved to watch the stars.

Below, on the other side of the railing, captain Blevins turned in his chair. "Welcome to the Bridge, people. You're only just in time. At the request of the Socrates, we're leaving twenty minutes ahead of schedule, which is . . . right about now."

"The Socrates is breaking orbit," the Andorian first officer said from beside the captain. Quickly Mresi went to her station in the front of the Bridge. The replacement officer stepped aside and she sat down, receiving only a very short report, since the Aesculapius hadn't moved since coming into orbit days ago.

Still, the other pilot barely had time to finish what she had to say before Cmdr Tesoras spoke to Mresi. "Lt Avarin," she said, "didn't you pre-plot our course to the rendezvous point this morning?"

"Yes, ma'am," she replied. She was just calling it back up on her console screen from the computer's memory.

The commander grinned at captain Blevins mischievously. "Wanna beat them to Warp, captain?" she said, her voice filled with almost childlike glee.

Captain Blevins shook his head in amused despair, but he said: "All right, all right, do it," anyway.

Cmdr Tesoras got to her feet and stood in what was obviously a command stance. "Helm!" she ordered. "Take us out of orbit and prepare to go to Warp. Set course for the Colvarin Alliance, Warp 6. Ops!" she continued. "Send that message with our gratitude etcetera etcetera to the governor's office." Tesoras took a few steps forward. "Helm, are we ready yet?" She was watching the Socrates on the viewscreen intently, probably trying to keep the ship from going to Warp first with her eyes.

"A few more seconds, commander," Avarin answered. ". . . We're ready."

With a satisfied smile, Tesoras ordered: "Engage."

The ship shot off with the incredible speed of Warp. If anyone on the planet Ferrum IV was watching, the Starfleet vessel would have disappeared from sight in less than a second. Within moments of its departure, the other bright white vessel disappeared too, in the same direction, at the same incredible speed.

-/\-
Sickbay,
the Aesculapius.
-/\-

"Oooh." The Bajoran girl on the sole occupied biobed in the room moaned softly, and blinked a few times before opening her eyes. It seemed to her that she had produced the moan more out of a reflex than out of necessity, because she wasn't feeling nearly as badly as she should have. Vaguely, she remembered the street gang had left her for dead, and if the wounds she had received had become infected, there was a pretty good chance they'd have been right. But Rag-as she was called-did not feel those wounds anymore. She lifted her left arm and wiggled her fingers. Rag was positively sure something had broken in there when one of the creeps had stamped down on the hand.

Someone must have healed her. But who? And for that matter, why? She was sure that it was no one that she knew.

For the first time, Rag looked around to check out the room she was lying in. The lights were dimmed, but it was still light enough for her to see. The first thing she noticed was that the walls' straight lines and bright colours were definitely not Cardassian architecture. She didn't think she had ever seen this type of building before. The second thing she noticed was how clean everything was: the floor, the very air seemed to breathe of hygiene. Not at all like what she had gotten used to in the streets.

Rag froze when her eyes went beyond the darkened section of the large room. There, in the much brighter light, she could see a man, leaning against the wall. He was standing with his back to her, and she didn't recognize the black-and-yellow uniform he was wearing, but she'd recognize a weapon anywhere. The man was wearing what Rag guessed was some kind of disruptor on his hip.

As quietly as she could manage, Rag got off the bed. She felt a little weak and stiff, but all of her injuries were really gone. When her stomach grumbled, Rag winced. It seemed like a miracle that the guard, or whatever he was, hadn't heard it. The sound did make Rag wonder how long she'd been out. However, wondering wouldn't get her anywhere, so she gave the room a quick survey.

She found her clothes in a closet against the wall furthest away from the light in the other section of the room, and changed. Aside from them, all she found were more of the beds and instruments, which she assumed were used for healing. The guard still hadn't noticed that she was awake. He was talking softly to someone out of Rag's sight. She couldn't make out what they were saying.

Her complete ignorance of where she was and what was going on was starting to make Rag very nervous, so she began looking for a way out of there. When she noticed the access panel on the lower half of the wall, behind her bed, she smiled. She had experience with tubes like those that were behind the panel, and knew that they would often provide a way out. Carefully, to avoid making any more noise, Rag got the panel loose. That was surprisingly easy. It was probably designed to be possible to take off for maintenance work. Rag took one more quick look at the guard to make certain that he hadn't noticed her, then crawled into the tube, and pulled the panel back on behind her.

Except for the rumpled and sweated on sheets on one of the biobeds, there was nothing to indicate that the Bajoran girl had ever been in the room in Sickbay.

-/\-
Sickbay,
approximately 90 minutes later.
-/\-

When Cassandra went into the part of Sickbay where their guest was lying, she didn't put on the lights. Judging by their medical scans the girl had been near to exhaustion when the captain found her, and she didn't want to risk waking her yet. The nurse rather pitied Woody‑‑Lt Pinewood‑‑for having to do guard‑duty. Fortunately Woody didn't mind extended peace and quiet too much.

Cassandra didn't really need more light anyway. She only needed to get the optronic resonator to treat an experimental cure for the White Fever with. Besides, she ought to know her way around the Aesculapius's Sickbay blindly by now. After all, she'd worked here ever since she graduated from the Medical Academy, from when she was just a green cadet to when she became head nurse.

Humming softly, she walked over to a cupboard and took the resonator out. Almost automatically, Cassandra checked if the instrument was still calibrated correctly. When she was satified, she turned back to the open door. Before the head nurse left, however, she decided to see if her young Bajoran patient was all right. She took a look in the direction of the girl's biobed, and nearly dropped the optronic resonator. She stopped humming: the bed was empty!

One deck below and across the ship, in the quarters of one of the Aesculapius' Medical staff, the biobed's former occupant was standing at a window. Staring out. Rag had her hands pressed against the window, and nearly her face as well. Staring at the stars.

She had been in space only once before, when Seloc had taken her from Bajor to Ferrum IV, but she couldn't recall much of that. She was certain she hadn't seen the stars back then, though. They looked different from among them than they did planetside. Beautiful.

But Rag was too practical too keep staring at them for long. She had no idea what she had gotten into now, on a spaceship manned by species she'd never even seen before. She only knew that she couldn't find a back door out of a spacecraft. She couldn't really go anywhere, and that frightened her. The Bajoran girl was much too suspicious of nature just to trust these aliens and go ask what was going on. Instead, she would keep doing what she did best: staying unnoticed.

Rag jerked away from the window when she heard the quarters' outer doors opening. She hurried around the bed in a few large leaps, back to the hole in the wall she had entered through. One glance assured her that nothing in the room suggested that she'd ever been there. Quickly, she crawled out into the jefferies tube and closed the access panel behind her.

-/\-

"I can't believe this!" the captain exclaimed irritatedly. "A girl who probably has never seen a Starfleet vessel before just disappears from under Security's nose?"

"Yes, Sir," Lt Pinewood said, looking very guilty. "I'm sorry, Sir."

Blevins waved his hand dismissively. "There's probably not much you could have done from the distance you were standing at, lieutenant." With that, he glared at Dr T'Lera. She did not look impressed. They were all gathered together in Sickbay, but had been unable to find a trace of their 'guest'. The only way the girl could have left unnoticed was through the jefferies tubes, and that meant she could be anywhere by now.

"Can't the computer simply locate her?" Cmdr Tesoras, who had only just arrived, wondered.

Captain Blevins shook his head with his eyes closed. "I authorised Wymak to run a level three diagnostic on the internal sensors and a few other systems. Seemed like a good idea to have everything in top condition before we got to Colvarin space."

Tesoras winced. "Is this going to take long?"

"About twenty‑four more hours," Blevins replied. He sighed, but than became all business again. "Cmdr Sandersen," he asked, "how bad is this?"

Scratching his blond goatee, the Chief of Security thought for a moment before replying. "Well," he finally spoke, "even if we assume the worst, that the girl is going to try to sneak into our systems or something, she can't do much damage, because all those systems are off‑line. In any case, Wymak knows better than to take any Security systems off‑line without warning me in advance." He looked at the captain and shrugged. "My guess is that the girl will turn up sooner rather than later. She is probably just scared because she doesn't know this place, and I don't think Ferrum IV inspired her to trust strangers, but it's not like she has any place to go."

Captain Blevins nodded. "Just in case, I want Security to search the ship. There must be logical places where that girl might end up. Find them! Shipwide communication is out too, so you'll have to call each department head separately to tell them to keep an eye out. Does anyone have any other ideas?" he queried. Everyone stayed quiet. "Dismissed, then."

Cmdr Sandersen started walking towards a nearby turbolift door immediately, gesturing for Pinewood to join him. "You go down to Engineering and the Shuttle Bay and warn the OIC's," the Chief of Security could be heard saying. "I'm going to Security to set up the rest."

"I know what you're thinking," the ship's first officer said to the captain.

"Oh?" Blevins replied. "And what's that, Ryalla?"

"You're thinking: 'What a way to start the mission!' But you're worrying about nothing. Remember Lyra'an VI?"

Captain Blevins looked at the commander exasperatedly. "You can't compare that to this situation, Ryalla," he said after a moment. "That was on a planet for Christ's sake, and this really is a starship."

"Of course, of course," the Andorian answered, as if what Blevins was telling her had nothing to do with anything at all. "But we did fine on Lyra'an VI, and we'll get out of this perfectly all right, too."

Ethan sighed at her completely serious face. "If you believe that," he said, "that's very good, because I'm putting you in charge of the search for now. I'm going to get some rest." With that, he turned and walked out of the room.

Suddenly smiling, Cmdr Tesoras turned to nurse Layton, who was the only one still standing with her. "You know," she said, smiling even more brightly, "I think he's actually nervous about commanding a new ship."

-/\-

It wasn't too long before Ryalla Tesoras started getting nervous as well, though. The whole working shift of Security officers kept on searching any hiding place on the ship they could think of through the entire night, but except for two access panels to the jefferies tubes that hadn't been re‑sealed properly, not a trace of the Bajoran girl was found.

In any other situation, the commander might have admired their stowaway's ability to seemingly disappear, but since she was in charge of the other side, she did not. Ryalla detested failure. At least, she couldn't stand her own failures. Instead of calling it a night and turning command over to Cmdr Bachalo from beta shift, she kept on working through the night as well. As hours went by, Ryalla mood turned decidedly sour. Unfortunately, that didn't do any good to the search.

-/\-
Engineering,
Deck Seven.
-/\-

"Wymak, how's that diagnostic coming?" The commander was not really there in Engineering, of course, but the authoritive sound of her voice coming from his commbadge was enough to make Besan halt his ascent to the higher level of Engineering. Usually he would always try to get up in one rush: he might not have been fat, exactly, but he found he was a bit heavy for hanging on those steep ladders.

Besan tapped his commbadge with a free hand and spoke. "Everything is going very well, Sir. Actually, we're a bit ahead of scedule right now. I think we'll be able to shave off nearly half an hour of my estimate."

"I sort of fell asleep," Tesoras said, sounding like she felt a little guilty, "so how much longer does that mean it is going to take?"

It was fortunate that the Andorian commander was not really in Engineering, for Besan could not stop a small smile. "About forty minutes, commander," he answered the question. Automatically, the Despan started giving Cmdr Tesoras an extensive report on the details of what his Engineering staff and most of Lt Kubert's people from Operations had been doing in the past twenty‑plus hours. Apparently quite some dust‑‑literally as well as figuratively‑‑had gathered in the sensors‑‑all before Wymak had come on board of the ship, naturally. Also, a few systems had been found that were worn‑out, which, had they not been found on time, could easily have malfunctioned.

Meanwhile, Besan resumed his climb, and when he reached the top of the ladder, on Deck Six, joined a group of his men in putting the machinery of a wall console back together. He kept on talking all the while. Somewhere Besan knew that the commander was not very interested in such a report right now, but he thought he could take Tesoras' mind of her trouble by telling him about such mundane matters.

-/\-

Ryalla sat in the Security office listening to Wymak blabbering away for all he was worth. Well, not really listening, maybe, but she was hearing him. Ryalla was scanning the reports on the search that had piled up in the last few hours since she fell asleep to catch up with her people. There were surprisingly many reports containing surprisingly little news.

Also, Ryalla was wondering whether she should be angry with Sandersen and the others who had been around the office while she had been asleep in this very chair. The Andorian wished she hadn't missed anything‑‑well, she hadn't, really, except for seemingly wasted time, but still . . .‑‑but she had to admit that she felt much better now that she had rested. Her back was a little stiff from sleeping in the chair, but that was all the more reason to get up and run around the ship searching again. Ryalla wondered that she was so on edge because of that one girl running amok in her and Ethan's ship. There was more to it than just that she had told Ethan catching her would be a piece of cake. No, something in her gut told Ryalla that it was important how she handled this situation, and all Andorians were taught to trust their warrior's instincts.

When the Despan chief Engineer stopped talking, Ryalla didn't immediately notice it. It was when she heard someone on the background of the commlink call out. What was going on now?

"Wymak? Lieutenant, what is happening?" she blurted.

When Wymak replied, he was puffing. From the background noise, Ryalla guessed that the man was rapidly climbing back down the ladder he had climbed up earlier. "She's here, Sir! Right here in Engineering!" he replied excitedly.

Ryalla immediately had a pretty good idea who the lieutenant was referring to, but she had to make certain. "Wymak, who?" she called over the commline. It seemed somehow too ridiculous to be true that the girl would suddenly turn up so shortly before the sensors would come back on‑line.

"The girl, commander," Wymak answered her. "The stowaway!"

-/\-

Cmdr Tesoras abruptly broke the commlink the moment Besan Wymak dropped to the deck on Engineering's lower level. He was out of breath already. Despan bodies simply were not made for physical endurence, but Besan supposed this was all part of the Starfleet adventure‑‑he never ceased to think of Starfleet as an adventure, even though it hardly was, with all the responsibilities. The Chief engineer spotted the girl running past startled Engineering officers not far away and pulled a short sprint in that direction.

"Stop her!" he called to his people, and he added: "But do not hurt her!" For him, and all Despans, that went without saying, but Besan was not quite certain how 'stopping' was understood by some other species, and he would rather not take any risks.

By the time the engineer caught up with the others, they had stopped. Besan looked up where they were all looking, to see why, and groaned. Their stowaway was climbing up a ladder.

Quickly, the lieutenant tried to think of a solution that would not involve more physical effort than he could take. "Ensign Derrick," he questioned the last person he had seen come down from the upper level, "are there any of us left up there?"

The young, blond man nodded. "Yes, Sir. I think Bagley, M'gro'll, Hama and Lt Yu are upstairs."

"Good," Wymak murmered to himself, and nodded back. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called upward to the four. "Get to the doors on that level and close them!" he told them. With another two minutes of work, another subsystem would have come back up and he could have just ordered the computer to do it from here, but by then the Bajoran girl would be long gone. The part of Engineering on Deck Six had only three exits, so with any luck, his officers would cover all of them before the girl could reach one. Besan was glad that all the running around and searching was almost over. It did not fit on a Starfleet vessel somehow.

Suddenly he noticed most of the Engineering crew still standing with him at the foot of the ladder and told half of them to climb up and try to trap the stowaway in a corner or something like that. One he stopped by putting a hand on her shoulder.

"Wella," he said, "you were the first to see the girl, were you not?" When she agreed, he continued. "What exactly happened? Do you have any idea what she is doing?"

Wella Arvas was a young Trill, in her humanoid body as well as in her symbiont‑‑Wella was only Arvas' second host. She had transferred aboard at Ferrum IV, fresh from the Academy on Earth.

"I have no idea what the girl's up to, Sir," she answered his last question first. "I was finishing the communication systems console and when I turned to get a hydrospanner she was suddenly standing there"‑‑she pointed to a spot halfway across the room‑‑"and before I could do anything, she was running away. That's when I called out."

Besan frowned. What could the girl have been trying to do in Engineering? Was she tired of hiding, perhaps?

While the chief Engineer was wondering about this, a small figure all of a sudden leaped from the ladder just above his head and hit the floor running. But the stowaway's luck had apparently run out, and in a few moments the engineers still on the lower level had chased her into a corner, from where even she could not get away.

Having trapped the Bajoran girl thus, none of the Engineering and Operations people had much a clue of what to do next. The first officer had been warned and would no doubt come around soon, along with a detachment from Security. The best Wymak's people could think of to do was staying where they were and keeping the ship's stowaway trapped between them. By now, every single one of them had heard the whole story: it was not like the girl was some sort of dangerous alien invader.

That was also what Besan thought when he wriggled his way through the wall of people. All he saw was a young girl, and he thought she looked quite a bit scared, too. Or maybe he did not see that as much as he felt it. Sometimes his minor telepathy told him things like that. Well, Besan reasoned, in his experience there were few situations that could not be helped by some friendly words and good intentions, so he took a step forward and put out a hand to indicate that he meant no harm.

The girl looked at him with obvious suspicion in her eyes, but at least she did not make any aggresive moves, either.

Besan licked his lips, trying to find a good point to start.

"Do not worry, dear," he said finally, in a soothing voice. "We mean you no harm. I realize we may seem a bit menacing, but everybody is just worried, with you running all about our ship and none of us knowing where you are or what you are doing for all that time." The tension in the girl's stance did not diminish‑‑she almost resembled a perlac, a cat‑like creature native to Despan, when driven into a corner‑‑but Besan was not discouraged.

"You were only brought aboard our ship because you were injured, and my captain did not think the people on that planet you were on would take very good care of you. They are a nasty people, the Cardassians." Besan emphasized everything with broad gestures, as he always did, and he failed to notice how the girl watched very carefully where he swung his hands, and if he got to close for her liking, she braced herself. For what she braced herself wasn´t clear, because she really had nowhere to go.

The chief engineer continued talking, and he finally got the feeling that he was actually getting through to the Bajoran girl when suddenly Cmdr Tesoras burst through a nearby door, followed by Cmdr Sandersen and two other Security officers. Besan gently excused himself when he heard them running in, and passed through the wall of people again.

"Commander!" he called to Tesoras.

-/\-

Ryalla entered Engineering and in one glance took in the situation. Thank the gods that they had caught the 'stowaway', as Wymak had called her. The engineers hadn't picked the best way to hold her‑‑she knew that all those people surrounding the girl would wreak havoc on her nerves, and she might have tried something desperate‑‑but at least they hadn't left the girl much room to manouver, let alone escape. Ryalla knew that she could not have expected anything better: many of these officers had come here straight from Starfleet Academy. Command sent a lot of Academy graduates to Medical vessels for their first assignment, because they were relatively low‑risk.

Lt Wymak called to her as she walked through Engineering.

"I take it you've got her closed in in that corner?" she asked him. The Despan nodded in reply. "Good," she said. "We'll take her off your hands as soon as possible, Wymak."

"Thank you, commander," the engineer started. "I was just trying to convince the poor girl that everything will be all right." He looked down into Ryalla's eyes. "Things will be al right, will they not? I mean, she has broken quite a few Starfleet rules already, but I do not really think she knows them."

Ryalla looked back at the girl surrounded by engineers. Sandersen and his men were sending part of the abundant crowd of guards back to their consoles and access panels. "Don't worry, Wymak," she said, "we're not going to sue her or anything. The girl'll be fine."‑‑as soon as she would grasp what was really going on, anyway. Ryalla realized that it would be impossible to convince the girl that what had happened had happened right here and right now. She had awakened in unfamiliar surroundings and then had been hunted through the whole ship‑‑for undoubtedly completely different reasons than she thought, but that didn't matter. Ryalla knew how she would react in a similar situation, and that wasn't a pretty picture. Her warrior's instincts were still tingling, and she had a premonition that her resolution to this situation would have a lasting effect on her, but first they would get the girl somewhere where she could calm down.

She turned away from Lt Wymak and quickly walked to Sandersen.

"Are you going to try to overpower her yourself?" he asked her softly. He didn't take his eyes of the girl, and neither did Ryalla.

"Like you're reading my mind," Ryalla confirmed. "She can't be as much an innocent little girl as she looks now," she continued, "or she wouldn't have gotten this far in the first place, but at the very least I am stronger." Ryalla was confident that she could take the Bajoran girl, she just hoped that she wouldn't have to hurt her.

The Andorian woman was glad that Sandersen had interpreted the situation the same way she had: it boded well for the time they would be serving together. With her own background in Security, she was probably going to interfere with his job more than she should, and she hoped that that wouldn't cause trouble.

Not wasting any more time, Ryalla stepped forward, showing her empty hands in a pretense that she wasn't up to anything. "Don't worry," she told the girl, "I'm not going to harm you." When she'd gotten close enough, Ryalla's hand shot forward to the girl's arm‑‑only to close on empty air.

While she hastily put a foot forward to not loose her balance more and fall, Ryalla thought that the stowaway must have expected Ryalla to try to grab her to have moved out of the way so fast. She also realized that she hadn't just caught air. An edge of one of the girl's sleeves was tangled between her fingers. The commander jerked on it, and felt the Bajoran girl bump into her side.

The next minute or so was confusing. Ryalla would grab for some bodypart of the girl where she knew she would get a firm grip, only to see confirmed that their stowaway was as fast as she was. After a while, she saw Cmdr Sandersen take a step forward, but one glare in his general direction was enough to put him to a halt. It was only a matter of time, and everybody present knew it.

That changed when one of the Security officers stepped from his position to say something to one of the others and a gap opened in the wall. Ryalla noticed it, but didn't worry. Even after the re‑evaluation she had had to make of the girl, she knew that she couldn't get loose long enough to reach it, not without help.

Ryalla discovered that there were more meanings to the word 'help' than the one she had thought of when she saw something flicker from the corner of her eye. She had only just enough time to realize that the had drawn a knife from somewhere in her clothes before a sharp pain shot up her right arm. Reflexively, leaped backward at the same time she felt the knife being pulled out of her again. Because of her momentum, Rylla threatened to fall over backward. When she had time to look up again, she saw the Bajoran stowaway race out into a corridor, with two Security guys on her heels.

Nearby turbolift doors opened, the Andorian noticed, and Ethan and Lt Avarin stepped out.

Resigning to the fact that she had screwed this one up, Ryalla sat down and checked her injury. It hurt, but thankfully, it didn't seem to be severe. It still bled, so she applied pressure on it with her left hand to slow that.

When Ryalla heard footsteps approaching, she got to her feet.

"Are you all right?" the captain asked worriedly.

"The wound isn't very bad," Ryalla answered. She sighed. "I'm sorry, captain, it's my fault she got away. I underestimated her."

Cmdr Sandersen disagreed. "You didn't know she has that knife. If we'd known that, we would have been extra careful and would probably have decided to stun her."

Ethan held up his hands to silence them both. "We can discuss this later. We're going to get the commander here to Sickbay first. Anyway, Security is chasing the girl as we speak, and now they will shoot her if they get the chance ." The captain grimaced at the idea, but knew that it was necessary. He took Ryalla's arm and guided her in the direction of the turbolift. Sandersen and Avarin followed. Ryalla had noticed that the lieutenant had looked decidedly unhappy when Ethan had spoken of shooting.

While they were waiting for the turbolift to arrive, captain Blevins' commbadge suddenly chirped, and one of the Security officers which had chased the stowaway spoke through it. "Dechnik to Blevins."

The captain tapped on his badge and replied. "Blevins here. Have you caught the girl?"

"Not exactly, Sir. She fled into one of the guest quarters on this deck. There's no power in this section, but all the jefferies tubes are closed off, so she has nowhere to go. Do we go in, or shall we stand guard outside until the sensors come back on-line?"

Before Ethan could say anything, someone else spoke.

"Captain, can I try to talk to her? Please?" Avarin asked.

Ryalla, Ethan and Sandersen all looked at the Bajoran pilot in surprise. She had been so quiet that they'd almost forgotten that she was there, too.

"She might trust me," the lieutenant added, almost as if apologizing. "Or a little, at least."

The captain looked in her face with a stern expression for a long second before nodding. "You have until the transporters come back on-line, in about half an hour. Good luck." The young woman's face lit up with relief. She thanked the captain, and then hurried away in the direction the girl had left earlier.

Meanwhile, the turbolift had arrived. The three remaining senior officers stepped inside, and finally things could get back to normal in Engineering.

-/\-
Guest quarters,
Deck Seven.
-/\-

At the door to the dark quarters, Mresi started having doubts. "Are you really sure that she is still in there?" With the lack of power in this section of the Ace', there were no lights on in the quarters, either. Some starlight shone in through the window, but that didn't show Mresi anything.

The Security officer nodded, and said: "There is no way out of there, aside from this door, and besides, we've seen her move a few times, though never for long."

Mresi sighed. "Then I'll go in." The two officers were still doubtful after she had explained what she was going to do, but the would follow orders. They had urged her to stay in the light the open door let in, so they had a clear sight of her and could protect her if the girl attacked her. Mresi did not think that that would happen, but she would comply.

Slowly, the Bajoran woman walked into the room. A few meters in, she stopped. She looked around into the dark, but didn't find the girl. "I know you must be scared," she started talking, as gentle as possible. "And what happened in Engineering can't have left a good expression of us, but we‑‑I‑‑really just want to help you." Mresi didn't know what to do with her arms, so she folded them over her breasts.

"Commander Tesoras tried to catch you because . . . because we weren't sure of how we could talk to you, and, well, you've been running around the ship, and nobody knew what you were doing . . . We just had to be careful. But we never intended to hurt you, you have to believe that."

Suddenly Mresi saw a flash of movement in the darkness, and instinctively, she took a step back. Startled, she looked back at the door, and felt reassured when she saw that the two Security officer were still there, watching her and the darkness around her. Mresi took a deep breath and went on.

With her right hand, she touched the ridges on the bridge of her nose. "I'm Bajoran, just like you. I swear to you by the Prophets that neither I, nor any of my crewmates, will try to hurt you. Will you please come out into the light? Just to talk?" Still there was no response from the darkness, and Mresi sighed sadly, wondering what could have been done to the poor girl to inspire her with such distrust. But the Bajorans were a stubborn people; it was written in their genetic structure. Mresi wasn't about to give up on her fellow Bajoran just yet.

-/\-
Sickbay,
Deck Four.
-/\-

". . . and cut into the muscles of your forearm to only a hairsbreadth from your artery and a tendon. If your opponent had bothered to put a little more force behind the blow, Cmdr Tesoras, I do not know if I would have been able to restore the full use of your arm. If you are going to serve as an officer on my ship, I will expect you to handle dangerous situations with more care." Dr T'Lera, captain Blevins noted, delivered quite a passionate speech on recklessness, for an allegedly emotionless Vulcan. If Ryalla hadn't been too lost in thought to notice her anyway, Ethan would have tried to shut her up. He let the mention of 'her' ship by. This wasn't the time to get into any arguments.

The doctor ran the dermal regenerator over Ryalla's blue arm one more time before declaring her healthy once again. "I hope that I will not see you here again anytime soon." Ethan smiled. The comment sounded rude, but he agreed with it. Ryalla, who had been called to attention when T'Lera sentenced her to get back to the land of the living, smiled as well.

"I'll see what I can do, doc," she said. T'Lera sniffed, while handing the equipment she had used to nurse Layton. She didn't seem to have much faith in the first officer.

Ethan watched the dark‑haired nurse put the instruments back in their proper places for a moment before speaking to Ryalla and Sandersen, who was standing next to him. "Now that you are fixed, commander, report."

Ryalla nodded. She took one moment to get the story straight in her mind, and started. "I was talking to Lt Wymak about the internal sensors and all, when the Bajoran girl suddenly turned up in Engineering. When I got there with Cmdr Sandersen and some Security, Wymak's people had cornered her. We took over, and I thought I could just walk up to her and grab the girl." She sighed. "You know the rest."

"Not precisely," Ethan disagreed. "For instance, how did she get the knife?"

"I just assumed that she had it on her when she was beamed aboard," Sandersen said.

"She did use a knife in the fight planetside," Ethan mused. "Ryalla, you didn't take that one with us to the ship, did you?"

The Andorian shook her head. "Left it on the street."

"Then perhaps she had a second." He looked around and saw that nurse Layton was still in the room, cleaning the place up. "Ms Layton?" he said. She turned to look at him. "A minute of your time, please?"

"Of course, captain," the nurse replied. She put down the sheets she'd been folding and came over to the three officers. "What can I do for you?"

"You were here when the Bajoran girl was brought aboard, weren't you?" When she nodded, the captain continued. "Did she have any things on her?"

"There was some stuff in her clothes, but it was in a kind of hidden pocket, Sir, so I didn't think I should take it out. I hope I didn't do anything wrong?" the nurse spoke.

"You acted perfectly all right, Ms Layton. And thank you for your time."

She nodded and went back to work, but Ethan noticed that now she knew what the three were talking about, Layton didn't move out of hearing range. He couldn't really blame her. It was one strange story that was unfolding here.

"Well, I guess that that's all," the captain said. "The situation turned into quite a mess, but no one did actually do anything wrong. One way or the other, we'll finally get the girl somewhere we can explain the situation when the internal sensors and the transporters come back on-line. Cmdr Tesoras, I want you to get some guest quarters ready. We've been concentrating on capturing the girl, but we have to decide on a course of action once we've done that, too."

Ryalla, still sitting on the biobed, looked at the captain. "Ethe," she said, "this is going to sound awfully deja vu-ish, but can I try to talk to the girl before we do anything as drastic as transporting?"

Ethan hadn't noticed he was pacing until he stopped dead in her tracks. He turned to look Ryalla in the eye. "Why, commander?" he asked bluntly. He wanted this affair handled peacefully as much as anyone did, but he didn't like the way half of his senior staff was feeling personally involved.

Ryalla shrugged. "To help our stowaway face this without a nervous breakdown, Sir."

"I meant: 'Why do you think you'll have the slightest bit more luck than Lt Avarin, who I personally think isn't going to made any difference, Cmdr Tesoras?'"

Obviously made uncomfortable by the question, Ryalla got to her feet and pulled her uniform staight nervously before replying.

"Instinct?"

Ethan rolled his eyes. "Instinct!" he exclaimed exasperatedly. "That's just not good enough, Ryalla. I want-need!-this situation resolved, and resolved now. That you feel like it is not a good enough reason to delay what is becoming inevitable."

"Ethan," Ryalla asked calmly, "why did you let Mresi try talking to the girl if you didn't think it will make any difference?" By the look in her eyes the captain could see that there was a point to this. Else he wouldn't have answered his friend's question.

"Because she had to do it," he said. "If I hadn't let her, she would have blamed herself for not trying hard enough. Why?"

She didn't say anything, but couldn't keep a little smugness off her face.

Then Ethan suddenly understood what she was getting at. "Ryalla," he said, "your conscience doesn't have any trouble with this kind of things."

Ryalla shrugged again, but this time, she wasn't simply dismissing the captain's words. "There's a first time for everything, I guess. Andorians just feel very strongly about their instincts."

"I know. But you're not exactly diplomatic, are you?" Ethan tried.

"Neither is she. We are both fighters. We have that much in common at least."

Finally, captain Blevins threw his hands up in the air. "Fine!" he almost yelled. "Do it! Get the job done, with or without any transporters, I don't care!"

Ryalla smiled, and ran through Sickbay to the turbolift. "I won't let you down, Ethan!" she called over her shoulder.

Fuming more than a little over how he had let himself be manipulated, the captain noticed Cmdr Sandersen, who had been silent throughout the exchange, watching him. "What are you looking at, commander?" he asked threateningly.

The Security Chief smiled. "A captain, I think," he answered, "who cares a great deal about people."

Ethan blinked in surprise, then turned on his heels and stalked towards the exit. "Is that supposed to make me feel any better?" he muttered. "God, if T'Lera saw me like this, she'd feed me a tranquillizer!"

-/\-
The Bridge,
Deck One.
-/\-

Instead of sitting in the captain's chair, as she was allowed when she had the Bridge, Melanie Kubert preferred to remain at her own station, Operations. All appeared to be going well on the last part of their journey. The Socrates was on a parallel course next to the Aesculapius, both starships eating away the distance at Warp 6.

"Lieutenant?" a voice came from the front of the Bridge.

"Yes, what is it, crewman Ganarr?" She looked up from her instruments. The young Bolian was one of the Ace's flight controllers, or simply pilots. He was one of the many crewmembers who had been assigned to the Medical starship straight out of the academy. Ganarr was a bit nervous, but Melanie didn't know if that was because of the fact that he was sitting at the Helm of a real starship instead of a simulation, or because he was a Bolian.

"We are approaching the rendez-vous point, Sir. We'll drop out of Warp in a little under ten minutes."

"Very well, crewman," Melanie replied, and she tapped her commbadge. "Bridge to captain Blevins."

"What is it, Ms Kubert?" came the reply almost immediately.

"We're nearly at our destination, Sir."

"Cmdr Sandersen and I were just on our way to the Bridge, lieutenant," the captain replied. "We'll be there in a moment."

"Sir?" Melanie asked hesitantly. "If I may ask, how is the, uh . . . the search going?"

She could have sworn she heard captain Blevins sigh at the question. "It's in the capable hands of Cmdr Tesoras. She assures me that the situation will be resolved in no time. Blevins out."

"Thank you, Sir," Melanie mumbled after the connection was broken. She had known the captain long enough to be able to tell that he was in a foul mood. Running a low-level scan of the Bridge sytems, a routine she had developed for whenever the vessel she was on entered another part of the Milky Way, Melanie saw that Ganarr hadn't started on the preparations for impulse speed yet. She smiled. His greenness was showing. Seasoned helmsmen never waited for permission for routine matters like this one anymore. "Crewman Ganarr," she ordered, "please prepare to drop out of Warp."

"Yes, Sir."

-/\-
Guest quarters 174,
Deck Seven.
-/\-

When Ryalla tried to dismiss the two Security officers watching Lt Avarin, they weren't very eager to comply. "Sir," ensign Dechnik objected, "we have explicit orders from the captain himself not to leave here without the Bajoran girl."

"Orders change," Ryalla said. "I'm changing this one." The two officers looked as if they were going to do what she told them to now, but she wanted to explain. "Look, if you are standing here with phasers on your hips, do you really think that the the girl will come out of hiding? Fat chance."

"I guess so," the ensign agreed, and nodded. "But we won't be far, in case you need us." As they walked away, Ryalla grunted an approving laugh at Dechnik's dedication to her orders.

She turned to the dark room from a warrior's point of view. The door let in only a small strip of light, surrounded by darkness. The girl could be on any side. Lt Avarin was standing on the far edge of the light, still talking. She didn't appear to have noticed Ryalla's arrival or the subsequent departure of the Security officers.

When Ryalla finally went inside, she walked straight up to Avarin and laid a hand on her shoulder. The young woman abruptly stopped talking, and turned around with a startled expression on her face.

"Easy, lieutenant," the Andorian said. "It's just me. I've come to relieve you. I'm taking over and you can go to the Bridge."

"What?" Avarin complained unhappily. "But captain Blevins said that I had until transporters came back on‑line, and . . ."

Ryalla waved a hand to silence her. "That would be in a few minutes anyway. We've entered Colvarin space, and your place is on the Bridge."

"Not more so than yours."

The commander grimaced annoyedly. "Look," she said firmly, "you tried, all right? Sometimes that's all you can do." With an arm around her shoulder, she steered Avarin to the door. After a moment the Bajoran gave in. "I promise I'll try as hard as you did," Ryalla assured her. At the door, she waited a few moments to see if Avarin would really head to the Bridge. Then she picked up the tray she had brought along with her from the floor and took it inside.

"She's a bit pushy, isn't she?" Ryalla spoke in no particular direction. "She certainly means well, but maybe she tries a little too hard. Anyway," she continued, walking up to the edge of the light, where Avarin had stood a few moments ago, "I thought that you might be hungry. I don't think you've eaten anything since you came aboard yesterday, and the gods know how long before that." She put down the tray and pulled off the cloth covering the food. The smells coming from the Andorian dish she had replicated were enough to make her mouth water, and she wasn't hungry. She inhaled the smell for a few breaths, then walked a few feet backward, in the direction of the door, and sat down.

The commander grinned suddenly. "See it as a bribe," she said, making herself comfortable on the floor. "You get to eat, and all you have to do in return is show your face."

When nothing had happened a minute later, Ryalla shrugged. "Well, don't blame me if dinner gets cold." She decided to talk a little more to make the stowaway more at ease. "By the way, my name is Ryalla, Ryalla Tesoras. I'm the first officer of this spaceboat. I don't know if you have ever seen one of my species before, but I am Andorian, from the world of Andor." Only moving her eyes, Ryalla surveyed the darkness, but didn't spot any movement yet. Patience, Ryalla, patience, she urged herself.

"Ah, if you only knew what a panic you caused on this ship," she kept on making small talk, "you'd be laughing your ass off instead of hiding in the dark." Ryalla gave a short account of the search, at times exaggerated and most of the time far more humourous than it had been when it actually happened, hoping to convince the girl of her benign intentions without forcing them upon her.

When Ryalla reached the part where Ethan got all agitated, a short laugh erupted from the darkness a little to her left. Ryalla strained herself not to jump up and look for its source. The laughter was followed by absolute silence-a clear sign that the girl was startled she had given away her position-but still . . .

"That's a good start, wouldn't you say so?" Ryalla asked self-satisfiedly.

-/\-
Quilva Asteroid Belt,
the Colvarin Alliance.
-/\-

On the viewscreen, the stars were still flashing by. There was no visible difference, of course, only that in the minds of men‑‑make that 'sentient lifeforms'‑‑but less than an hour ago, those stars had become Colvarin stars.

Captain Blevins was pulled out of his reverie when Lt Kubert reported from her Ops station. "We're within visual range of the rendez‑vous point, captain. Detecting one vessel, matching the signature of a Colvarin Cruiser."

"Put it on‑screen, Ms Kubert," Ethan ordered.

"Aye, captain." The image that replaced the starstripes on the viewscreen showed the enormous rocks that formed the Quilva Asteroid Belt. The smallest of the asteroids still being over a dozen times the size of the Aesculapius, the asteroid belt had been a satellite of a planet in a nearby system several thousand years ago. Then an unknown, but assumedly natural phenomena had caused it to break free of the planet's gravitational pull, and the moon had started to break apart shortly after. Positioned right inbetween two constellations, it was an easy‑to‑find meeting place for the Federation starships, which had only long distance scans to guide them through the Colvarin Alliance.

What the viewscreen didn't show, however, was a Colvarin Cruiser. Ethan frowned, and was worried for a moment, but Melanie had said that she had the ship on sensors. Then he spotted it, and smiled amusedly. He looked over his shoulder at the Operations station. "Do you suppose we could get a little magnification?" The Colvarin Cruiser, twice the size of a Corona‑class starship was only the size of a grain of sand on the viewscreen.

The lieutenant looked up from her console, and when she saw the image on the viewscreen, she blushed. "Sorry, Sir," Melanie apologized. Ethan waved it away, while the cruiser steadily grew on‑screen.

Finally, the Colvarin Cruiser, the Independence, if it was the vessel that was supposed to meet them, filled three quarters of the screen, and the captain studied it eagerly. The name 'Independence' was aptly chosen for the Alliance's flagship, and it was because of the Colvarin Alliance's independence that very little was known about their starships. Scans had been taken during the last diplomatic attempt to establish contact, but that was 47 years ago, and the information the Colvarin emissary sent to organize the Federation aid had told as little as possible.

The cruiser's center compartment was shaped much like an egg, or a blown up saucer section of a Starfleet ship. On top of it there was a low tower, containing the Bridge. A long tube was connected to both left and right sides of the center compartment, reminscent of Warp nacelles. Ethan whistled. If the sensor data they were getting was correct, each of the 'nacelles' was equipped with its own Warp Core, contained inside the nacelles themselves. That would severely limit the chance of a Warp Core breach destroying the entire ship, but Ethan wondered how the Colvarin performed repairs, or even simple maintenance jobs. A tactical analysis revealed impressive shields, but limited offensive capability.

Captain Blevins wasn't given much time to study the alien vessel, as the proximity alert told him that they were about to arrive.

"Helm," he said, "Take us out of Warp and come to a full stop. Ops, change the viewscreen to actual forward vision."

Both lieutenant's confirmed their orders. "Dropping out of Warp now, Sir." The starstripes re‑appeared briefly on the viewscreen, and were then replaced by a view of the Independence and the asteroid belt much similar to the previous one. The captain thought he felt a slight difference as the inertial compensators slowly shut down as the ship's momentum declined. Officially, one wasn't supposed to be able to tell the difference, but tradition held that captains had a special connection to their vessels, and that they could feel any change if they were paying attention.

"Did the Socrates drop of Warp as well?" Blevins asked.

"Yes, Sir," Cmdr Sandersen replied. "She is at a full stop nine hundred kilometers off our port bow."

"Are the Colvarin hailing us yet?"

"Yes, Sir," Lt Kubert replied, "the hail's just coming in, to both us and the Socrates."

"Put them both on-screen, Lieutenant." A vertical line split the viewscreen in two, and captain Alleron's familiar face filled the left half. Momentarily, another face appeared on the right half of the screen. Obviously, the Colvarin minister was alien. He was a member of the race of the Colvar, native to the system which seated the Colvarin government as well as lent its name to the Alliance. Most notably among his alien features was a row of tiny horns running up the bridge of his nose, which split up in three separate rows at his hairline that ran over the top of his head. Additionally, the man's nose seemed too small, from a Human point of view at least, and his chin ended in a relatively sharp point.

"Greetings on behalf of the Chamber of Ministers of the Colvarin Alliance, my friends," the minister said. "I am minister Billsincj, and I would personally like to thank you for coming to my people's aid in our darkest hour."

"Don't thank us just yet, minster," the square-faced captain of the Socrates spoke. "We have not found a cure for your plague yet."

"But I trust you will, captain Alleron." Billsinj smiled. "And no doubt you will discover soon enough that faith in the future is very important to my species." Ethan noticed how the minister had spoken first of his 'people', and then of his 'species'. He looked at both of the Starfleet captains in turn. "Captain Alleron, captain Blevins, I would like to invite the both of you to join me on the Independence for an introductory dinner. I also have detailed maps of our space to give you, and the latest information gathered on the White Fever."

"We'd be delighted, minister Billsincj" captain Blevins replied. Alleron agreed.

"Splendid!" the minister said enthusiastically. "Please feel free to bring more of your officers if you like. I have some of the finest medical minds of the Alliance with me on my ship, and I know they would love to meet your CMO's. I'm sure they feel the same."

Ethan smiled as he imagined how the Vulcan T'Lera would respond if she heard somebody suggest that she would love anything. "I'll make sure to ask my head doctor to come," he answered.

"As will I," Alleron said. "Shall we say . . . meeting aboard the Independence in thirty minutes?" Ethan and minister Billsincj both voiced their agreement. "Good. I look forward to it. Socrates out." His image disappeared from the viewscreen, and was replaced by a Federation logo.

"I'll see you in thirty minutes, then, minister," Ethan greeted.

"Until soon, captain. Independence out." The commlink was broken, and the viewscreen was once again filled by stars and asteroids.

-/\-
The Independence,
flagship of the Colvarin fleet.
-/\-

The first thing Ethan noticed when he materialized on the transporter padd on the Independence was the colors. The outside of the cruiser had been a dark green, with a hint of brown. The inside was green as well, but a much brighter green. It reminded him of grass.

Then he noticed minister standing in front of the transporter and stepped down to greet him. "It is good to meet you in the flesh, captain Blevins," the minister said as they shook hands. "Subspace discussions always seem so cold and distant to me."

"It is good to meet you as well, minister," the captain replied. He gestured at his officers, who were stepping down from the transporter padds as well. "This is my Chief of Security, Cmdr Sandersen . . ."

"Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise, Sir."

". . . and these are my Head of Sickbay and her main assistant in the study of the White Fever, Drs T'Lera and Erilak," Ethan concluded.

"Welcome aboard, doctors," Billsncj said. "Like I told your colleagues here, Dr Koffejs is looking forward to joining her efforts to find a cure for the White Fever with yours."

Ethan didn't pay attention to the Vulcans' response, but instead went to greet captain Alleron and Drs Waid and Choi, who had beamed over from the Socrates a minute before the team from the Aesculapius.

After the introductions, the Starfleet officers were led to the dinner hall. The Independence was obviously not a military vessel, and her luxury told a clear tale of the diplomatic purposes she was used for.

An hour, maybe two later, Ethan leaned back in his comfortable chair. If food always tasted this good in the Colvarin Alliance, this would be one hell of a mission. He frowned as his conscience shot a sharp pang through his mind-thousands of people were about to die, or dying already, and here he was thinking about how food would make this a good mission-but he quickly buried the thought. Starfleet captains were extensively trained not to let their often awesome responsibilities overwhelm them. Ethan had always been good at that particular lesson. So much so that he sometimes blamed himself for his lack of compassion. It was only the people closer to him he had more trouble distancing himself from.

With half an ear, he listened in on the conversation between Alleron and the minister, and with another half an ear, the captain eavesdropped on the lively conversation between the doctors. Another doctor had beamed over from the Aesculapius a little while ago with several datapadds full of information, and now the five Starfleet and three Colvarin doctors were discussing different approaches to find a working medicine. Apparently the latest information on the plague had steered investigations in an entirely new direction. Ethan had to admit that he understood very little of theoretical medicine, but it still held his interest.

Shifting in his chair, Ethan laid a hand on his stomach. He hoped that the spicy main course wouldn't get into any arguments with his digestive organs. His stomach had never been too great with alien dishes.

He was glad that he was finally relaxing. He hadn't realized it until somewhere during dessert of this very meal, but Ethan had been letting the stress of the past few weeks getting to him. First he had received his sudden and unexpected transfer orders, barely a year after gaining command of the Ceasar, several weeks ago. Then there had been the equally unexpected bureaucratic fuss that came with a new command-most of which the captain hadn't had to go through with his first command, since he had already been first officer on the Ceasar before his promotion. And now, only a few days into the mission, this teenage girl made him look like a fool. Fortunately, he had been given this chance to get it all out of his system before the actual work began.

Dr Waid's articulation with broad gestures drew the captain's attention back to the conversation at the far end of the table, to his right. Waid's professional enthusiasm appeared to be losing this point to T'Lera's logical passion. Ethan was reminded of his own latest argument with the doctor. At least he had won this time.

In the Transporter Room on the Aesculapius, while they were waiting to be beamed over, Ethan had overheard T'Lera talking about the stowaway with Dr Erilak. He had politely asked T'Lera not to mention the situation to the officers from the Socrates they would be meeting. That should have been that, but somehow they had gotten into an argument about the matter, which had resulted in T'Lera calling the captain irresponsible for refusing to share information on a risky mission. Blevins had ultimately won their fight by arguing that captain Alleron was already being competitive, his ship versus the Aesculapius, and that if he heard about this incident, it would only serve to undermine the cooperation between the two starships, which in turn could mean it would take them longer to find a cure.

"Captain Blevins?" a voice spoke from Ethan's left. He turned to see Alleron and the minister looking at him.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Minister Billsincj and I were discussing where our two starships will head now," Alleron told him.

"I see," Blevins replied. "We are splitting up, I suppose?"

Alleron nodded. "The Colvos Central system has probably been hit worst by the plague, so it seems logical that one of us'll go there. I propose I take the Socrates and join the Independence on her way home."

"Agreed," Blevins said. He thought for a moment. "Then I think it would be for the best if I take the Aesculapius to the planet where the plague first broke loose. It would help the research greatly if we could discover how the White Fever came into existance."

"We came to the same conclusion, captain Blevins," minister Billsincj agreed. "No one is certain exactly on which of our worlds the White Fever made its first appearance, but we have determined that Milania, in the Lynceus system, was one of the first. Perhaps it is the first, or perhaps you will be able to trace the Fever's tracks from there. You'll find the location of the system on the star charts we have supplied you with."

"Thank you, minister Billsincj," Blevins replied.

"Oh, no," the minister said quickly, "it is I who should be thanking you. You have come to our aid, even though my people have always refused to deal with yours."

"Well," said captain Alleron, standing up, "now that everything has been arranged, I believe we should be going. Every second we gain could mean one more life." Blevins silently groaned at his fellow captain's impatience, but got to his feet as well.

Ethan cleared his throat to get the attention of the doctors. He had to repeat the gesture before he got it. "Ladies, gentlemen," he said, "we are leaving. I'm sure you are all eager to return to your respective Sickbays." He was given a mixed response. The doctors had gotten a lot of new inspiration from each other's theories, and were eager to put their ideas to the test, but they were hesitant to break off the meeting that had caused the inspiration as well. Soon, however, T'Lera took charge, and delegated which ship would investigate in which direction.

When she was done, they returned to the Transporter Room to be transported back to their ships.

-/\-
Guest quarters 174,
the U.S.S. Aesculapius.
-/\-

Briefly, Ryalla closed her eyes. How long had she been sitting her now? An hour? No, probably longer than that. Long enough at least for the delicious smells coming from the now cold food to make her hungry again. She had talked for a while longer, and when she ran out of things to say, she had decided to simply wait.

When the Andorian re‑opened her eyes, the girl was coming out of the darkness. Ryalla blinked, wondering if she had fallen asleep and was dreaming, but she was wide awake. The girl eyed her suspiciously, and Ryalla smiled at her, and gestured at the tray. Still looking from the tray to Ryalla nervously, the young Bajoran sat down, and started eating. By the way she shoved the food into her mouth, Ryalla judged that she had been right about the girl being hungry.

"We can go get some more if you're still hungry when you're finished with that," Ryalla told her. The girl was too busy to reply. "So," Ryalla said then, "I've told you all about me, but what about you? What's your name, girl?"

Now the girl did respond. She stopped eating for a moment to stare at Ryalla intently. "Rag," she said curtly, and went on eating.

The commander grinned. "Rag. That's a nice name," she replied, "but I doubt if it's how your parents named you when you were born."

Again the girl stopped eating, but this time she didn't look up from the plate. "Tis," she said softly, "Ahgon Tis. But nobody's called me that in . . . in a long time."

Ryalla nodded understandingly. "Rag it is, then," she promised. "Will you tell me what you were doing in a Cardassian outpost, Rag? And how long you've been there?"

Again Rag seemed to hesitate before answering. "You still don't trust me, do you?" Ryalla asked. She shook her head. "That's all right," Ryalla said, and smiled at the girl, "that takes time, and we'll get to it later."

"I was taken from Bajor by the Gul," Rag admitted. The way she said it the Cardassian title seemed more like a swearword. "I was with the Resistance, and they ambushed us." She was staring past Ryalla now, but her eyes were unfocused. "They killed them all," she said softly. "I was the only one the Gul let live . . . He thought that I had nothing to do with the Resistance, that I was only there because of my father . . ." Ryalla silently cursed the Cardassians, and the Gul from Ferrum IV in particular for their cruel ways. It wasn't unlikely that Rag had been forced to watch while her father was killed.

There was no way Rag could have heard Ryalla curse, since the Andorian didn't put her thoughts into words, but, as bad luck would have it, the girl chose that moment to refocus her eyes, and she must have caught Ryalla's angry expression. "Why?" she asked suspiciously.

Ryalla wasn't really sure what to say to that. "Well, I was just curious, I suppose. I know your stay with the Gul can't have been very pleasant." She suddenly thought of something. "Hey, did you even know that Cardassia has withdrawn its forces from Bajor? Your planet is free again!"

"No," the girl said. "I didn't know that. That's good." Ryalla frowned at the lack of enthusiasm in her reply. A slightly uncomfortable silence streched out after Rag's words.

"Why were those guys in the street after you?" Ryalla asked her, to break it.

Rag hesitated before answering. "Their leader liked me," she said, "liked me a bit too much. You know. So I kicked him where it counts." Unexpectedly, she grinned. "He won't be able to walk straight for days."

Ryalla laughed out loud. "I like your style," she commented. Then her eyes fell on the empty plate and the unused knife and fork. Rag was talking to her now, and that was good, but to satisfy the captain, they would have to take another step. "Will you come with me to get something more to eat?" Ryalla asked kindly. "And we really have to have a talk with my captain. You can't stay lurking in the dark forever." Ryalla made very certain not to make it sound like an order to present herself.

"All right," Rag said. The offer of food appeared to be a good bait for young Bajoran girls formerly held captive by Cardassian Guls. Ryalla was still curious to learn how long Rag had been held captive in the outpost, and how she had escaped and how she had survived on the streets, but her curiosity would have to wait until later.

Easily, the older woman got to her feet, and stepped forward to offer Rag a hand. The younger girl looked at the blue hand for a moment, and then got up by herself. Ryalla shrugged. If she wanted to take care of herself, Ryalla would let her-until she found a way to help that Rag would allow, of course.

At the door the two of them stood blinking for a few seconds at the brighter light. Ryalla was the first to recover, and thus the first to notice the two Security officers lounging against the wall some ways down the corridor. Dechnik and her companion had been relieved by Lt Pinewood and someone else the commander didn't recognize, but it was clear why they were here. Ryalla quickly waved to them to go away, and they did. She did not want to test how Rag would respond to an armed escort, especially now that she had gained some of the little trust the girl had.

"Computer," she asked, "location of captain Blevins?"

-/\-
The Tavern,
Deck Three.
-/\-

"She looks depressed, doesn't she?" Melanie Kubert and captain Blevins were standing at the bar in the Aesculapius' most popular place to spend down‑time. It was evening in ship's time, and alpha shift had come off‑duty not long ago, so it was rather crowded in the Tavern. Starfleet uniforms were mixed with civilian clothing in a sea of people that seemed amazingly large for such a small ship.

The barkeep came walking over with the two officers' drinks, and the captain took his before answering Melanie. "Thanks, T'Daran," he said. When he and Melanie had come in, he had tried to call the half‑Vulcan by her last name, but she had quickly taught him not to. In the present, T'Daran smiled. The captain was a quick student. "I think Lt Avarin can't stop thinking about our stowaway."

"Thank you, T'Daran," Melanie said, taking her own glass.

"You're both welcome," T'Daran replied. She turned to captain Blevins. "Captain, as official center of the gossip on the Aesculapius, I have to ask: what is happening right now?"

"'Official'?" the captain asked sceptically. T'Daran shrugged, and Melanie laughed. "Anyway, I'll tell you what I've told everybody else. The situation is in the capable hands of Cmdr Tesoras." He frowned. "But I am not really sure myself what's happening right now. Melanie, has their been any news since I beamed over to Independence?" He had returned to hs own ship only shortly before shift change.

"Nothing, Sir," Melanie replied.

The captain's eyebrows raised. "No news at all?" The Ops lieutenant nodded. He smirked. "Well, she's stubborn, I'll give her that."

T'Daran leaned forward with her lowers arms lying on the bar. "Which of them would that be, captain?" she asked. "The commander or the girl?"

He smiled. "I suppose it counts for both of them. But," he changed the subject, "we were talking about Lt Avarin. Melanie, why don't you go and try to cheer her up a bit? The two of you seem to be friendly enough with each other."

"Do you really think that would be a good idea?" she asked. "I think Mresi'd rather be alone." The Bajoran woman was standing close to one of the large windows covering one whole wall of the Tavern, facing the outside. She did look lonely, surrounded as she was by the starscape.

"Come on, Melanie. People who want to be alone don't come to the most crowded part of the ship. She simply hasn't had time to make any close enough friends on the Aesculapius to talk with. Except for you."

"All right," said the young woman, "I'll go." To be honest, she looked forward to talking with Mresi, she just hadn't wanted to intrude. She pushed herself away from the bar and headed to her friend. When she got to the window, she didn't start talking immediately, but instead stood next to Mresi silently, holding her half‑full glass, looking out at the stars. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked after a while.

Mresi turn her head to look Melanie in the face. "There's nothing to talk about, is there?"

Melanie looked her in the face as well. "You're standing here, so obviously, there is. For one thing, I've been wondering, why are you taking this all so personally?"

She shifted on her feet uncomfortably. "I . . . I never really suffered under Cardassian rule myself," Mresi admitted.

Melanie raised an eyebrow. "I don't understand," she said. All of Bajor had been suppressed, hadn't it?

"Nineteen years ago," Mresi explained, "my parents fled from Bajor, to the Federation, and they took me with them. I hardly remember the Cardassians. The girl we found on the planet must have had more than her share of them. I feel that I have to help her. Maybe that is why the Prophets sent me here . . ."

Feeling a strong compassion, Melanie laid a hand on her dark‑skinned friend's shoulder. "Mresi," she said, "you're not guilty for not having suffered."

"I know, but‑‑"

Their conversation was roughly interrupted by a call from the entrance to the Tavern. "Ethe! Ethan!" Recognizing Cmdr Tesoras' voice, the two turned around to look‑‑as did a large percentage of the Tavern's population. The found the commander standing in the open doorway, and when she became the center of attention, a small figure scurried to behind the Andorian nervously. Melanie's eyes widened when she realized who it had to be. At the bar, captain Blevins quickly got up and hurried over to the door.

"Do you suppose we could . . ." Mresi began to ask. Melanie grabbed her wrist, smiling, and dragged her with her to the door. She had been working with the captain long enough to know that he wouldn't mind if the two of them listened in. Many of the Tavern's patron's were still watching as well, and a curious buzz of conversation sounded through the room.

"Do you think we could go somewhat more private, Ethan?" Cmdr Tesoras was asking when the two friends approached her and the captain.

Captain Blevins nodded. "My ready room," he said. Everyone's eyes were still on the girl, who was obviously uncomfortable under the attention.

"Sir‑‑" Melanie wanted to ask, but was cut off.

"You two can come," he told them, anticipating the question, "but wait here a moment to make certain that no one else does. I know everyone is curious, but let them keep their distance for a little while longer." Obviously, he had noticed the girl's nervousness.

Melanie and Mresi did as the captain had said. Melanie hadn't actually expected it, but they had to speak to several people who were suddenly leaving, and told them not to coincidentally run into the captain and the two women in the corridors. After a minute, they decided that they had waited for about long enough, and hurried after the others. The two of them caught up with Blevins, Tesoras and the Bajoran girl at the Turbolift. They rode it up two decks in silence, and then had to walk a short way across the Bridge. Again all eyes were on them, but here, nobody said anything.

"Have a seat," captain Blevins invited them, indicating the couch. So the couch wouldn't get too crowded, he took a chair from his desk for himself, and placed it facing the others. The commander had gone to the replicator as soon as they came in, and Blevins waited until she had sat down before speaking. Tesoras handed her a plate with the food she had replicated, and she began eating eagerly.

Melanie heard Cmdr Tesoras mumble something that sounded a lot like: 'Now you'll find out what it tastes like when it's still warm.'

"So," the captain said. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "You have finally decided to join us. What is your name, girl?"

The girl looked at Tesoras, who answered for her. "Her name is Ahgon Tis, but she says she prefers to be called 'Rag'."

Blevins nodded. "Pleased to meet you then, Rag. My name is Ethan Blevins, and I'm in charge of this ship. I'm sorry if we scared you, but you were unconscious when we brought you aboard, and our doctor didn't think we should wake you, so there wasn't any way we could explain the situation to you. I take it Ryalla informed you?"

Rag nodded. A girl of few words, Melanie thought.

Captain Blevins studied her for a moment, then continued. "Fortunately, we don't have to send you back to where we got you from. At least, I don't think you want to?"

"I don't," Rag replied. There was absolutely no doubt in her voice, and a broad smile had formed on her face at the captain's words.

He smiled back. "I can't say that I am surprised," he said. "But unfortunately, we are on an important mission, and I can't arrange immediate transportation to your home either. I assume you are eager to get back to Bajor."

"Not particularly." Mresi sat up straight on the couch out of surprise at this answer, and she wasn't the only one.

"Aren't you from Bajor then?" Tesoras asked. Rag looked at her at once. She seemed more at ease with the commander, probably because she was the first one to get through to her.

"I am," Rag answered the question. "I just don't have any reason to go back there."

"I'm sure everything will be all right, Rag," Mresi assured her. She got no response.

After a few awkward moments of silence, captain Blevins concluded the conversation. "We'll have to continue this conversation sometime soon, but there is no need to decide your future tonight." Or to reveal your past, all of the Starfleet officers in the ready room thought. "You look rather tired, Rag. I've had some quarters prepared for you, and you can go get some rest if you want."

"I'd like that," Rag replied. Now that the captain mentioned it, Melanie could see the bags under the girl's eyes.

"I'll take her there, captain," Mresi offered, eager to help.

"No offense, Lieutenant," Blevins said, "but I think Cmdr Tesoras should do that. I'm certain you understand." Reluctantly, the pilot nodded. Cmdr Tesoras strarted to get up, but the captain held up a hand to make her wait. "One other small matter," he said, and turned to Rag. "It's your weapon, Rag. It would be against regulations for even an official member of my crew to walk around carrying such a knife, so I really can't let you keep it." Rag hesitated. "You have already injured one of my crew," Blevins argued, indicating Cmdr Tesoras with his head. Rag looked a bit embarrassed. "I doubt that you want to harm anyone else, but regulations are regulations. I promise you won't need it to defend yourself on the Aesculapius." Tesoras nodded to the girl, and finally she took the familiar knife out of a pocket in her shabby clothes and put it, handle first, in Blevins' outstretched hand.

The captain, Tesoras and Rag got up, and Blevins accompanied the other two to the door. After Rag had walked out, he sniffed, and whispered to the commander: "Quarters 113. And you might want to show her the sonic shower."

Tesoras nodded in agreement. To which of the captain's words wasn't clear.

-/\-
The Bacteria Lab,
Sickbay, Deck Four.
-/\-

"Dr T'Lera?" a voice called from behind her.

"One moment, nurse Ostrander," T'Lera replied. She was standing bent forward over an nerrassic incubator, watching cure sample theta nineteen intently. The sample had looked promising in the beginning, but hadn't been able to eradicate the White Fever virus completely, and now the virus was making a quick recovery. The Vulcan doctor was busy isolating which elements of the potential cure had been succesfull, and what properties exactly it still lacked. Not bothered by the excitement or disappointment other races would have experienced at such a near miss, she noted the last of the data she had managed to collect before the sample corrupted on the voice recorder, and then straightened herself. "What is it, nurse?" she asked. Nurse Ostrander, an older Human female was waiting patiently two consoles away.

"I think you may want to take a look at sample theta twenty-eight, doctor," she said. If not for her long affiliation with Humans, she wouldn't have noticed the smile on Ostrander's face. Dr T'Lera disapproved of the show of emotion, of course, but she was curious as to its reasons, and went to the other incubator and bent down again to have a look.

What she saw was far beyond her expectations. For this stage of the testing of a possible medicine-the final one-a tissue sample of a humanoid was purposefully infected with the White Fever, all in airtight isolation, since the plague seemed to be passed on by air. Most humanoid species were vulnerable to the disease, and T'Lera was not one to take risks with people's health. In this batch particular, there was no trace left of the White Fever sample, and the Human tissue was weak, but not ill. She checked if there might have been a mistake, and the tissue sample had not been infected at all. When the scan was finished, the doctor found that there were some traces of the virus left where it had been entered into the bio-sampler, and that there were still some trace elements left in the tissue. No harmful trace elements, though. A shifting of feet reminded T'Lera of the presence behind her.

"Nurse Ostrander," she said, "go find Dr Talek and have him draw up a schedule to have the entire crew vaccinated. Remind him not to forget our young Bajoran guest, and have him start the schedule in . . ."-she calculated how long it would take her to create a vaccine from this medicine-". . . in three hours twenty minutes. Oh," she added, as an afterthought, "and notify the captain." At least the meddlesome Human couldn't complain about that, then.

At the sound of Ostrander's retreating footsteps, Dr T'Lera set to work.

To say that the Vulcan woman felt glad, or even relieved at thediscovery would have been a great misinterpretation of the facts, but nevertheless T'Lera saw the faces of the dead whose medical files she had received for study pass by in her mind, joined by several Vulcan faces who did not belong in the line, and she worked a little harder for the many faces that would not be added to the list because of her work.

When T'Lera stepped out of the Bacteria Lab into the general area of Sickbay three hours and twenty-one minutes later, the first crewmembers were just arriving. Dr Talek was arranging them in orderly rows, and nurses or doctors were standing at the end of each row. Dr T'Lera handed them all a quantity of the vaccine, put one in a hypospray and took the last row herself.

-/\-

"Are you positive that this medicine will work?" Ethan asked Dr Talek while a hypospray hissed against his neck. He wanted to be absolutely certain before he informed the Colvarin authorities.

"Dr T'Lera tells me that the chance our people will still be receptive to the disease will be reduced to less than one percent by this vaccine," Talek said, "and that there is a chance that the vaccine and medicine work for one of the species living in the Colvarin Alliance is 96.4 percent."

Ethan nodded. "That's good enough for me."

-/\-

"How are your second and third impressions coming along, Steve?" the Chief engineer wondered. Steve Sandersen shook his head in disbelief. Why did everyone always ask what he thought about people? Didn't they have eyes of their own? Sure, he was trained to be perceptive, but he didn't see himself as an oracle or anything.

"Hello, Cassandra," he greeted the nurse, and held out his arm to be vaccinated. Steve decided to humour Besan. "They're coming along just fine, Lt Wymak," he said. "Perhaps we'll even survive this captain." Besan laughed.

-/\-

Rag winced. "Is this really necessary?" she asked, not for the first time.

Ryalla sighed. "Yes it is," she said firmly. "We didn't save you from those Cardassians simply so you could die from some plague. Relax, will you? With a hypospray, you won't even feel the injection."

"It's not that. I just don't like people sticking anything in me, whatever it is for," the girl complained.

"To be honest," Ryalla said, "neither do I. If I have to take a medicine, I prefer one I can drink. At least you can mix it, then."

-/\-
The U.S.S. Socrates,
approaching Colvos Central system.
-/\-

To captain Jeras Alleron, it had become something of a contest between his ship and the Aesculapius. Who would do the best in this mission. Still, he wasn't crazy. When they'd received the message some twenty hours ago that the researchers on the Aesculapius had found what appeared to be the cure to the disease called the White Fever, captain Alleron had been relieved. He still was. The sooner a cure was discovered, the more patients the Starfleet taskforce would be able to save.

And though Alleron sometimes got the impression that the employees of Starfleet Medical didn't believe it, his prime objective was saving lives as well.

No, the captain didn't mind at all losing this inning. With the amount of expertise on board of the Aesculapius, he hadn't even really expected any other outcome. The crew of the Socrates would just have to try a little harder to win the rest of the game.

"Captain," ensign Rennor, the Socrates' pilot, spoke. Alleron looked at him. "We're approaching Central system, Sir. Entering in 30 seconds."

Captain Alleron shifted in his chair. "Prepare to drop out of Warp, Mr Rennor," he ordered. "Number One," Alleron said, turning to his XO, Lt Cmdr Fredrick Chautin, "notify Sickbay and Security department heads that we'll start beaming their personel to the worst disaster areas as soon as we're in contact with the governors' office."

"Yes, Sir," the little bald man replied. Chautin was a continuous wonder to all the male crewmembers on the Socrates. How could a man whose hair was all on the bottom of his face still grab the complete attention of the female part of the crew? And how could he just ignore that fact? The commander tapped his commbadge. "Chautin to Waid and Augustyn. Assemble away teams and have them report to Transporter Room One and Two." Why did all those women have a holo of him hidden away? He wasn't exactly tactful or anything.

"Aye, Sir!" and,

"I'm on it," came the replies over the commlink. Captain Alleron smiled. He had a good crew. Not a life down on the planets of this system would be lost that could possibly be saved.

"Drop out of Warp. Engage impulse engines," he ordered.

"Engaging." On the viewscreen, the starstripes that had been flashing by during the captain's entire shift and much longer came to an abrupt halt. Dead ahead, a blue, red and green globe appeared. It was small at first, but it grew at an expanding rate. Captain Alleron frowned and leaned forward in his chair. What were all those spots doing swirling around the planet? Colvos II, and for that matter each and every one of the four inhabited worlds in this system, was on a level one medical quarantine. That meant no ships were allowed to leave, and that no one with half a brain would come to the planets.

"Mr Graxorr, hail the planet‑‑No, make that a direct link to the governors' office." If those fools were allowing take‑offs, Alleron was going to have their heads.

"Hailing frequencies open," the furry Ops officer grunted. "But they're not responding." Curiouser and curiouser.

"Captain!" ensign Rennor called from in the front of the Bridge. Captain Alleron's head jerked toward him. He stopped it at the viewscreen. Over a dozen small spacecraft were nearing the Socrates' position at a high speed. The craft were all similar in shape. They were much smaller than captain Alleron's own starship, an looked completely different. Colored a dark purple, the craft were shaped like drops, but with two tails instead of one. As they drew closer, the captain could make out Bridge windows in the front. There did not appear to be names on the craft's exteriors.

"Cmdr Chautin, ID me those vessels," Alleron said. The Commander nodded. He was already bent over the computer console next to his chair. "Cmdr Graxorr‑‑"

"The lead ship's hailing us, captain," the Ops officer interrupted him. "Audio only."

"Let's hear it."

Graxorr punched a few buttons, and then a low voice sounded across the Bridge. Or, no, it was more than sounding. The voice seemed to bounce against everyone and everything, and it sent a shiver down captain Alleron's spine. Then it came to him: the voice sounded like it came from underwater. "Unidentified vessel," it spoke, "you are now trespassing in Sylison space."

"Captain," the first officer whispered, "those vessels are Sylison Comet‑class battleships. They should not be here."

The voice continued. "Under the Proclamation of Laws, you are partaking in an officially assumed hostile act. Steps will be taken to eliminate any threat Sylis decides you pose." For one moment, time on the Bridge of the Socrates seemed to slow as everyone froze.

On the viewscreen, a dot of bright light broke loose from the lead Sylison vessel and moved away from it at a speed that would take it to the Socrates in bare moments‑‑a photon torpedo. As soon as it was well away from the battleship, a series of similar dots of light appeared from each of the other vessels.

-/\-
To be continued . . .


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