Captain's log, stardate 49042.4.

It has been nearly a week now since our last communication with the U.S.S. Socrates, and I am starting to get worried. When they didn't answer our subspace message four days ago, we assumed that the Socrates simply had trouble with their communication systems, but if so, they should have had them fixed a long time ago. I have ordered Lt Kubert to find an alternate way to contact the Socrates, and she is working on it now.

Meanwhile, my Medical staff is working hard to save as many people on the Colvarin world of Milania from the White Fever as possible. As mysteriously and fast as the deadly plague struck, it appears that the medicine Dr T'Lera and her people developed is working. The death toll of the populace of Milania has been dropping steadily, and I estimate that by tomorrow evening, local time, we will be ready to move on to the next infected world.

Unfortunately, this cure cannot be replicated, and the aedonic synthesizer-don't ask me what it is, except that it's a device necessary to create the medicine-is a machine unknown to the Colvarin people, so they are entirely dependant on us. When we finally manage to contact captain Alleron of the Socrates, I am going to suggest asking Starfleet Command for more assistance, but given its reluctance to send ships to the Alliance at all, I doubt it will be given.

End log.

Milania,
the Lynceus system, the Colvarin Alliance.
-/\-

Captain Ethan Blevins walked out of the hospital, and was nearly overwhelmed by the bright sunlight. Squinting his eyes, he walked out onto the lawn. He had to say that he enjoyed the light. Ship lighting, or even the Holodeck, was nothing like the warmth of a real sun shining down on your face. "Ethan, boy," he told himself softly. "Mental note: take some shore leave when this mission's over." Maybe he could visit home. He hadn't been to the New France colony in years.

"Captain Blevins!" a voice called him back to the present, and Ethan sighed. It was Head nurse Cassandra Layton, who came rushing out of the hospital behind him. He stopped to wait. When Layton caught up with him, she was slightly out of breath. "I'm glad I found you, captain," she said, huffing and puffing. "Some new patients came in from the countryside, Sir. They're in pretty bad shape."

"You need my authorisation to beam them up to the Aesculapius?" Ethan guessed.

Ms Layton nodded. "Yes, Sir."

"Do it, nurse." Layton thanked him, and was just about to leave again, when Ethan asked her a question. "Did Dr T'Lera send you to get my permission?" The Head nurse's silence was all the response he needed. "I didn't think so," he concluded. "Dismissed." Ever since he had assumed command of the Medical starship, T'Lera had tried to pretend that he didn't exist.

Trying to think of something else, Ethan looked around to see if he could spot Ryalla. His first officer and he were supposed to meet here in the garden. He found her sitting in the shade of a large, oak-like tree. Naturally, Rag was at her side. Ryalla waved at him, and he waved back. Walking over, Ethan smiled. The Bajoran girl had hardly moved from the commander's side for a minute since she had won her trust. Ethan didn't know how long Rag had been in the Cardassian outpost they had rescued her from, but she had had no allies or friends there, and it was good to see her bond to someone. Didn't know how long she had been on Ferrum IV? Hell, he still hardly knew the first thing about her. He wondered how old she was.

"Rag, how old are you?" Ethan asked after greeting the two.

"Why?" Rag wanted to know, suspicious as always.

"I was just wondering," Ethan explained.

"I'm seventeen."

He took a good look at her. "You look younger," he said. Rag's expression told the captain that she didn't appreciate being scrutinized like this, so he quickly changed the subject. "Commander, has there been any news from the Socrates yet?"

The Andorian woman shook her head. "Nothing. Lt Kubert is still setting up a link to sent a subspace message through a few links in separate star systems, but I have to agree with you, captain. I'm starting to worry as well." A frustated look passed over her face. "But I don't have a clue about what could possibly have happened to the damned ship!"

Ethan shrugged. "Neither do I, so I simply hope for the best," he said. "Are you ready to beam back up to the Aesculapius, Ryalla? I'm afraid we still have to finish our shifts."

"You're the boss, Ethe," Ryalla told him. "You don't have to do anything." One look from Ethan convinced her otherwise. "All right, all right," she sighed, "I'll come with you." She turned to the quiet Rag. "Are you coming, too?"

Rag shook her head. "I'll stay here," she said.

"Fine by me," Ryalla replied, a little surprised. She tapped her commbadge. "Tesoras to the Aesculapius. Transporter Room, bring me and the captain up."

"Aye, Sir," came the disembodied response.

"Bye, Rag," she greeted quickly. "Energize." While the brightly colored transporter beam took hold of them, Ethan said goodbye as well.

-/\-

Rag watched the two people in uniform disappear, and then slipped deeper into the shadow of the tree, out of sight. The world they were on appeared to be quite friendly, nothing at all like Ferrum IV, but she thought she knew better than to let her guard down.

She wished she could have gone with Ryalla, but knew from experience that when the woman was working on the Bridge of the starship, she wasn't welcome. Despite-or more likely because of-the luxury available on the ship, she was never really comfortable there. It was the people, too. Rag didn't have anything against crowds, but the Starfleet crew was so . . . so organized. She didn't fit in at all.

No, Rag preferred the boisterousness of a large city, where people could move around in crowds and still be alone. A city like this one. Wherever four point seven million people lived in one place, there was no doubt at all in her mind that there were back alleys as well. That was where Rag belonged, and she set out to find them.

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

Cmdr Sandersen took the report from ensign Derrick. "Thank you, ensign," he said. He sighed, leaning back in the captain's chair. That would teach him to get behind on his reports. As Chief of Security, Steve had assigned himself planet-duty yesterday and the day before-there was a small detachment from the Ace overseeing security matters where the ship's Medical staff were working their magic.

It had been nice to change his routine for a few days, but it did mean that he still had to read all Security reports from those days, which he had been doing for the past two hours. Plus, now that captain Blevins and Cmdr Tesoras had left him in command of the Bridge, Sandersen also had to read the general reports as they came in.

Ensign Derrick, a friend of his on duty at the Ops station, must have noticed him shifting in his chair, because he spoke up. "The captain and Cmdr Tesoras have just transported up, commander," he told Steve. "I'm sure they'll be here any minute."

Steve looked at him. The Operations station was situated on the wall to his left, halfway between the Bridge's two levels. "Thank you for the warning, Mr Derrick," he said.

Looking at the Ops station, Steve was reminded of the new senior officer who now often occupied Derrick's place. The pretty lieutenant had been on his mind a lot, lately.

"Commander," another voice interrupted his pleasant train of thought. It was ensign LarasS, at Tactical/Security. "I'm getting some strange readings from eight hundred clicks dead ahead of us. I can't identify them . . . There is one five kilometers left of it, too, and more are forming!"

Sandersen frowned. "Can you to tell me anything, Mr Derrick?" he asked.

"I don't know what they are either, Sir," he replied.

"Danger?"

"Not a clue, Sir. Well, nothing obvious, at least."

He leaned forward in the center chair. "Put the anomalies on-screen." Instantly, the image of Milania on the viewscreen changed into a starfield. Only a narrow edge of the planet's atmosphere was visible now, at the bottom of the screen. Small parts of the starfield were shifting, almost as if the lights were reflected on flowing water. "Magnify," Sandersen ordered.

"They are coming closer, commander," Derrick told him, "so they will magnify themselves, in effect."

"All right," Sandersen agreed. "Helm, stand by to move out of the way if need be. Anything either of you can tell me about those phenomena yet?"

"Well, there appear to be almost two dozen, and . . ." Ensign LarasS' eyes widened as her voice faltered. Cmdr Sandersen turned back to the viewscreen. The shifting stars were fading, and where they had been, ships appeared. Cloaking devices, Sandersen realized. The anomalous readings had been cloaked vessels. As far as he could determine, the alien ships were divided in two general classes. One was large, and rectangularly shaped-though its smooth hull was nothing at all like the dreaded Borg cubes-and by its bulky design, Sandersen judged that it was a transport ship, though for what, he had no idea. The other class, which included roughly three quarters of the fleet, were completely different. They were tiny, rounded craft, much smaller than the Aesculapius even, which was very small by Starfleet standards.

"Wat krijgen we-" he cursed in his native language. "Hail them! This is still a quarantine area-" While he was shouting orders, the turbolift doors slid open, and his two superior officers strode onto the Bridge. Taking note of the situation, they stayed in the back for a moment and observed.

"We are being hailed, Sir," ensign Derrick interrupted, not really certain who he was addressing now that the captain was back on the Bridge. "Audio only."

"Let's hear it," the captain ordered.

Derrick opened a frequency, and the voice delivering the message took them all by surprise. It was . . . creepy, somehow. It gave Sandersen goosebumps. "Unidentified vessel," it spoke, "you are now trespassing in Sylison space. 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." On the viewscreen, almost forgotten by this cryptic message, a bright dot of light sprang forward from the lead alien ship. Only Cmdr Tesoras, who had been battle-ready from the moment she saw unidentified craft on the viewscreen, recognized it in time.

"Shields!" she yelled.

Her response was not in time, however, to prevent the first photon torpedo from detonating at its intended target.

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

-/\-

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 II

Kissaal City,
Milania.
-/\-

A squadron of soldiers materialized in the middle of the street in a transporter beam coloured a sickening blue‑green. The street had already been cleared of civilians by other squadrons. Part of the city's people had been able to flee in time, and others were afraid to come out of their houses now, against the orders of the invading forces. Some, mostly those who had tried to protect their possessions and their freedom, had been shot and still lay in the street.

The invading forces themselves were strange creatures. To the eyes of one unfamiliar with the species, they all seemed to look alike. Each of them was about two meters tall, but slender, not muscular. Instead of with hair, their heads were covered with colorfull scales. Their purple uniforms were covered with black bars of some undeterminable material. It looked like armour, but didn't cover enough of their bodies to be of use as such.

An officer quickly sent the new arrivals off on their assignments, and the soldiers set off. They armed their evil‑looking fusion rifles and began searching the streets for any pockets of resistance.

Only when the last of them had vanished from sight did Rag crawl out of the heap of junk she had hid in at the first sign of the transporter beam. Carefully, she looked up and down the street, but she didn't see anyone. Shaking some remaining trash off her clothes, Rag ran across the street, into a dark alley. She was still wearing mostly her old clothes, despite that they were nearly falling apart from wear and Ryalla's insistence that the replicators could easily make her new ones. She had had them washed, though. By the smell of them now, after her hiding place, it had been a futile gesture.

Everything had all happened so quickly. One moment, Rag had been exploring back alleys, automatically searching for escape routes and hiding places, though she knew she wouldn't need them. She had even been enjoying herself. The next moment, she had needed the escape routes and hiding places. Without warning, squadrons of the alien soldiers had started to appear in the larger streets. They had immediately started to harrass the people of the city, forcing them together, sometimes locking them in buildings or harming them. Rag had already witnessed one firefight between local law enforcers and the invaders. The Milanians had been wiped out.

Rag was uncomfortably reminded of a Cardassian charge on a Bajoran village. She had tried the commbadge she had been given, hoping that she could be beamed out to a safe distance from this war, but to no avail. Why she had received no reply to her calls, the girl didn't know. By her nature, she was inclined to suspect the worst.

At the end of the alley, Rag stopped. She had to cross another larger street here on her way to the hospital, and a larger street meant a larger risk of running into a patrol. Rag had decided to return to the hospital because as far as she knew, there were still a lot of the Federation people there, and they might have a way off of this damn planet. When she didn't see anyone Rag scurried across the open space, reaching the other side barely in time to dive into an alcove when another alien patrol came running down the street. Rag cursed silently. None of the soldiers seemed to have noticed her, but they ran down the same turn she had intended to go into. She could still try it, of course, but she would rather not risk it and make a detour. It was a good thing that she had been mapping the city in her mind before the invasion began, or she wouldn't even have gotten this far.

A while later, Rag discovered that not the entire city had been subdued as fast and easily as the neighbourhood she had been in at first. For several blocks, she ran along with a panicking crowd, until it passed the alley she needed. Before Rag reached the other end, she heard weapons fire, and the crowd came running back in the opposite direction, panicking even harder. Rag tried not to pay any attention to the fleeing people. This wasn't her war, she told herself, and getting involved would only increase the chance she got herself killed. She was almost at the hospital now, and this was not the time to start taking unnecessary risks.

Two blocks from the hospital, she stopped dead in her tracks. Careful not to make a sound that could possibly be heard over the noise of the fusion rifles, Rag retreated to behind the last corner. After her heart slowed a bit, Rag checked what she had seen. Unfortunately, it was still there. At the end of the street, an impromptu barricade had been erected, and soldiers of the alien invaders were swarming in front of it. A steady barrage of blasts was being fired at the hospital, and regularly, shots were returned. Even in the heat of battle, the creatures still moved with a kind of liquid grace that didn't seem to fit with their use of violence.

Rag circled the hospital, and she saw her fears confirmed: the hospital was under siege, and it was surrounded all the way around. Because of the broad lawn around the hospital, the attackers couldn't storm the building, or the defenders would cut them down, but that also meant that Rag couldn't get inside, either. At least, not if she took the direct approach.

Instead, Rag followed one of the larger streets back in the direction she had come from. A few minutes later, she reached a public transporter station. The station had a dozen transporter padds gathered together, all for the transportation of people, and one computer core. A plume of smoke from the core gave evidence of the simple but effective ways the invaders used to prevent any attempts at resistance the Milanian natives might put up. But Rag wasn't interested in the transporters. She wouldn't have known how to program them to deliver her at precise coordinates inside the hospital anyway. No, Rag was here for a small building she had noticed near the tranporter station, with the Colvarin sign for medical painted on the walls. If she was wrong about its purpose, Rag could get into a lot of trouble.

Using all the stealth she had learned in the Bajoran Resistance since she was ten years old, Rag sneaked across the square, on the side opposite of the building's entrance, where she knew, from her first run through the city, that two soldiers were standing guard. Rag climbed the wall of the small building, still not making a sound.

"All seems clear, don't you think?" a faint voice spoke, and Rag froze.

"Has been for over an hour, in case you haven't noticed," another voice replied sarcastically. Both voices spoke in some creepy kind of accent Rag didn't know, but she realized it must be the two soldiers talking. Quickly, she got onto the roof and crawled to the fore edge of the building.

"Don't tell me you're still sulking," the first voice continued.

Rag heard a sigh. "We could be out there, Wor-Kur, smelling the Outworlders' fear! Instead, we're here, guarding a square from civilians who wouldn't dare coming outside if it was raining tar'valzses."

Daring to take only a moment before pulling back her head, Rag looked over the edge. She saw two bald heads, their scales quite colourless in the shadows, without any light to reflect on them. One of them was shaking from chuckling.

"I admit the smell of fear is tempting, private, but if I can choose between that and relaxing here . . ." He left it hanging. Safely behind the roof's edge, Rag closed her eyes for a second and thought of the worst curse she knew. The two soldiers were lounging against the wall, in the shadow of the building. And completely blocking the entrance.

There was only one thing left that she could do, Rag realized. She checked if nothing had changed by a second quick look over the edge. One of the soldiers was just taking a step forward-that was too good an opportunity to pass up. In one movement, she drew her spare knife-the twin of the one Cap Blevins had confiscated-and jumped off the building. Rag didn't know the anatomy of the aliens, but there were some points on bodies which always seemed to work.

One of her feet landed hard on the head of the moving alien. The other one's eyes widened, and he was fast to raise his rifle, but he still didn't get it up high enough before he had a blade sticking out of his eye.

The first one was slower, possibly due to the blow to his head, and Rag sliced open his throat before his finger reached the trigger.

The entire action hadn't taken longer than a single heartbeat, and Rag wasn't even breathing hard. She looked around the square checking if no one had seen her, but the square was as deserted as it had ever been. Then the girl dragged the two corpses inside and hid them as well as was possible. She winced at the touch of them. They were cold as if they had been dead for hours.

Having finished her cover-up, Rag actived the lift that covered most of the building's interior. It looked like she had guessed correctly. Rag had thought that the building would give access to a tunnel leading to the hospital. It was a sensible precaution to have a direct connection with the public transporters in case the hospital's own transporters went off-line.

En route to the Bridge,
the U.S.S. Aesculapius.
-/\-

The red alert horns were still ringing, and Melanie braced herself in the corner of the turbolift. She spread her feet wide on the floor, held her hands against the walls and pressed the rest of her body into the corner. When the ship shook from yet another impact, it was only barely enough to keep her on her feet.

"Computer!" she called. "How long before we reach the Bridge?" Unfortunately, she had been adjusting their communication systems on Deck Eight when all senior officers were called to the Bridge, and the turbolift had been slow to respond. When Melanie had questioned the computer about it, its dispassionate voice had told her that a turbolift shaft was blocked between Decks Five and Six. Melanie dreaded to think what that could mean, and the computer had been unable to give her any more information on the subject.

"Forty-six seconds," the computer's female voice answered her question. Melanie hung on for dear life, and counted down the seconds. Just before the turbolift arrived, another blow rocked the Aesculapius, and Melanie was thrown forward. She caught herself on the doors, but they opened that same instant, as if on cue, and Melanie fell forward onto the Bridge. Quickly, she got to her feet, her cheeks bright red from embarrassment, but the Bridge was far to busy a place right then for anyone to notice her clumsy entrance.

"Port shields are down to 34 percent!" Cmdr Sandersen was standing at the Tactical station, directly to the right of the turbolift. "Damage and casualties on Decks Two and Three."

Cmdr Tesoras was standing next to her chair, one arm hooked securely through the fence separating the Bridge's two levels to keep her on her feet. She was shouting orders. "Helm, prepare to bank hard to port! Tactical, I want a full spread of photons to cover our ass!"

"Ready, Sir," Lt Avarin called from the Conn.

"Now!" Melanie was barely in time to grab the Ops console before Mresi threw the starship into a roll the inertial damperers had a hard time compensating for. Ensign Derrick was hanging over the console limply. Hurriedly she checked his pulse and laid him down on the ground. Thank god he was alive.

"Wymak!" the captain called from his chair. "Give me the damage report, now!"

"Evasive pattern delta seven," Cmdr Tesoras ordered.

"That first torpedo before our shields came up took out our Warp engines," Wymak reported. "Estimate half an hour for repairs. The hull breach on Deck Five has been sealed. Minor damage to about everything we've got, and two sections of Sickbay are down. All secundary systems standing by to take over if necessary." In short, the Bridge was in chaos, but it was a well-coordinated chaos.

At the Bridge Medical station, across the Bridge from Melanie, nurse D'Vail was giving a Security ensign first aid. It looked as if part of her console had blown. Just like Melanie's had, she found, and she had to reroute the data flow before she could be of any use.

Finally, Melanie got the exterior sensor data to her console, right on time to see two of eight small craft that were firing on the Ace disappear behind a cloak.

"Shields down to 19 percent!" Sandersen called. "Shield energy flow systems are damaged," he discovered then. "I can boost them, captain, if we reroute power through the Shuttle Bay, but it'll cause some overloads."

"Keep that an option, commander," captain Blevins ordered. "Right now, we are weak. Commander, make sure the enemy knows it."

Tesoras grinned. "Right," she said. "Avarin, take us into a shaky looping. Wymak, starboard thrusters are damaged: they aren't gonna hold, so have emergency repair crews standing by." Everybody hung on tight to their consoles as the ship suddenly rose into a sharp climb. It shook Melanie from her daze. When she had seen the ships firing, she . . . She shook her head. This was no time to get flashbacks.

Halfway up the looping, the propulsion on starboard suddenly stopped, and the Aesculapius turned sharply to her right, propelled by the thrusters on the other side. The ruse was succesfull, and four of the alien battleships hung back for a moment, and then flew away, to join another group of ships at the edge of Milania's atmosphere, where a Colvarin cruiser was attempting to get away. The Aesculapius now appeared to be easy pickings for the two remaining fighters. Two . . . or perhaps more, Melanie remembered. "Ships de-cloaking dead ahead!" she screamed, as the two ships she had seen disappear earlier re-appeared on her sensors.

"Sandersen, give me those extra shields!" captain Blevins called. The shield strength rose to 42 percent a fraction of a second before the weaponsfire from the two ships hit the shields. "Helm, improvise evasive. Try to get us in a higher orbit, around the moon's altitude."

Sweat was dripping down Melanie's face by the bucket. It was hard to keep seeing the difference between the actual threats and the Cardassian ships that kept appearing in her mind's eye. The ship shook slightly from a disruptor blast.

Then a small explosion threw Lt Avarin several feet from the Helm. The Bajoran got up almost immediately, ignoring a bleeding cut on her forehead, but it was too much for Melanie. She was no longer on the Aesculapius, no longer a lieutenant, not in her mind. She was a child again, many years ago on the U.S.S. Australia. A child, who had been in bed late one evening when she was woken by the noise of red alert, and the impact of photon torpedoes on the ship's shields. A child who, though she had been told to stay in bed while her parents were called to their battle stations, sneaked out to her mother's computer terminal and was too afraid to turn away from the terrible images of warships, disruptor blasts and explosions after she had activated it.

Governor hospital,
Kissaal City.
-/\-

For a moment, the disruptor fire pounding on the hospital's walls and through its broken windows dimished, and then stopped. "Hold your fire!" Lt Caltoor yelled, to be heard over the noisy firing of Colvarin phasers. When her order was obeyed, the Security lieutenant leaned against the window frame, and carefully looked out.

Lt Caltoor, a middle‑aged Atanan, was currently in charge of the Starfleet Security detachment in the Milanian capital. Supposedly the five officers strong team was planetside to assist the Colvarin authorities in ascertaining that the work at the hospital proceeded in an orderly fashion, but the situation had changed almost beyond recognition when the invasion had started. The Colvarin officers lacked any and all combat‑experience, and quite some of them hadn't even been decently trained for it, so their commander hadn't hesitated in relinquishing his command to Caltoor. "I'm getting too old for this," she muttered darkly as she moved her head a little further out in front of the window, past a shard off glass still in place.

"Lt Caltoor, what is it that has precipitated this sudden cease‑fire?" Caltoor looked over her shoulder and saw that it was Dr Talek who had asked the question. The Vulcan sat crouched on the floor, still holding a medical tricorder and a dermal regenerator in his hands, though the officer he had treated for a disruptor burn to the shoulder‑‑a Giffung, the species that was probably most prevalent throughout the Colvarin Alliance‑‑was already getting back to his feet.

Caltoor frowned. "Perhaps they want to negotiate," she guessed. Quietly she added: "Though that's probably too much to ask." In her glance outside, she had seen a new part of barricade being hovered to the front line. Whoever they were, the people outside weren't planning on giving up, that much was certain.

In seeming contradiction to Caltoor's words, a mechanically enhanced voice started speaking across the battlezone. "By order of the imperial command, this planet has been annexed by the Sylis Empire." Caltoor frowned again at the mention of the name. If she remembered correctly, the Sylis Empire spanned the systems separating the Colvarin Alliance and Cardassia. She didn't understand how these Sylisons could be here-even if they wanted to invade, Milania seemed too deep into Colvarin territory to make an attractive target. "The Sylison Armed Forces," the voice continued, "have no wish to harm their own empire's sub-citizens. Surrender immediately without any further resistance and hand over the spies from the Federation, and you will not be harmed. You have thirty minutes to decide."

Worried, Caltoor frowned again. Federation spies? And though the Security officer believed that the Milanians were mostly good people, she couldn't be sure they wouldn't turn down a chance to end this without any further bloodshed. She wasn't even sure if she could ask it of them.

"Don't worry, lieutenant Caltoor," someone said from a little further inside the room. It was Dr Tevonnod, the CMO of the hospital. Except that that was called differently in the Colvarin Alliance, of course. He had apparently read Caltoor's mind and was shaking his head. "After all that your people have done for us, we will not betray you like this. I won't allow it."

"I'd agree with you, doctor," she said, "but in that case we had better think of one heck of a plan in the next half an hour, because I can't see us winning in a prolonged battle." For the hundredth time in the past few hours, she tried hailing the Aesculapius, but her commbadge remained dead. Some Colvarin expert who had happened to be in the Governor hospital for treatment was fairly certain that the Sylisons had set up a dampening field to disrupt communications and transporter beams, but Lt Caltoor doubted if an invading force would leave a starship in orbit unimpaired.

"Interesting," Dr Talek commented. "Why would these Sylisons be so eager to capture our Starfleet officers? If they let us leave unharmed, Starfleet Command wouldn't even consider chosing a side in this war. In fact, if they had not opened fire upon us before we could negotiate, we would not even be battling them, by order of the Prime Directive."

Caltoor nodded. "It is strange, Sir, But perhaps it would be best to refrain from studying the Sylisons' motives until a later date."

"That is logical," Talek admitted. "Knowing their motives would provide us with an advantage over our enemies, but we do not have time for an extensive analysis."

-/\-

A lot of good our time to plan did us, Caltoor thought. Of the thirty minutes, there were less than ten left, and the officers weren't a single step closer to having an escape plan with any chance of succes. The same open space around the hospital that was all that had allowed the defenders to keep the Sylisons at a distance allowed the Sylisons to keep anyone from leaving. They could always surrender, and-despite Dr Tevonnod's objections-probably would. The patients in the hospital were already suffering under these circumstances, Dr Talek had pointed out. If only they could find and deactivate the dampening field somehow . . .

"Lt Caltoor?" The Atanan started. Dr Talek had been called away to a medical emergency a few minutes before, and Tevonnod had gone to check on something as well, so she had been left to ponder their situation on her own. Caltoor looked up and saw the Bolian counsellor Llop approaching.

"What is it, Mr Llop?" she asked. He did not look like he had good news.

"I'm very sorry, lieutenant, but I just came from Dr Talek in the surgery department, and . . ." Lt Caltoor's eyes widened. This couldn't be what she suspected! ". . . I'm afraid crewman Liefeld didn't make it."

She felt the message's impact like a disruptor blast. She closed her eyes and put a hand to the wall to steady herself. Crewman Liefeld had been caught in the shrapnell of an exploding window early on in the battle, and had been in surgery ever since. It was an advantage of this battle that there were extensive medical facilities so near at hand. An advantage! It hadn't helped Jim Liefeld. She was in command here. Liefeld had been her responsibility. In all her years with Starfleet, Caltoor had never yet had to deal with the death of a subordinate. Much less that of a subordinate who was a friend-not a close friend, but a friend nevertheless.

When she opened her eyes again, the lieutenant noticed that Llop was studying her intently. She tried to smile reassuringly. "I'll be all right," she told him. "I only need a moment alone."

The Bolian studied her for a moment longer, and then seemed to be satisfied. He patted her shoulder and said: "There was nothing you could have done, Piis," before turning and walking away. Caltoor walked away as well. She knew she ought to save her mourning until they were safe, but she really needed a moment. After a moment of thought, the lieutenant decided to go down a flight of stairs to the level below. The stairs reminded her a bit of home. There were no stairs on the Aesculapius. Well, there were the ladders in the jefferies tubes, but they didn't count.

The lower level was crowded with patients, nurses and some doctors. No victims of the battle, thankfully, but all of the White Fever. Lieutenant Caltoor was just thinking that she might get a different perspective on the situation from a window on this floor, when she suddenly thought she recognized a familiar face in the throng.

"Rag!" she called. The small figure stopped and looked at her. She was right, it was the Bajoran girl. "Rag, I'm Lieutenant Piis Caltoor," she said after walking over. "I'm glad I found you here. I was afraid you'd been caught outside."

"How'd ye know I was even on the ground?" the girl asked suspiciously. She obviously didn't like being so suddenly spoken to by someone she didn't know.

"Cmdr Tesoras told me." To keep an eye on you and make certain you'd be all right. "She mentioned it when I was reporting shortly before the attack began," Caltoor added. Not entirely true, but it would do no good to have Tis distrust the commander again, too.

"I was outside when the fish-people beamed in," the girl admitted. She shrugged. "But I came in." She didn't seem to be the least bit disturbed by the seeming impossibility of that claim.

Lt Caltoor frowned. "How did you manage that?" It seemed impossible to her, but she didn't see any reason why the Bajoran would lie about it either.

"There're tunnels below here," Rag explained, and she nodded at the floor. "They lead to a transporter station a bit away." Caltoor was stunned. Of course there were tunnels. How could they have been so stupid?

-/\-

"I'm not sure I like this, sir," ensign Dechnik complained.

"I assure you, Ms Dechnik, the tunnels are really there." Dr Tevonnod shook his head disbelievingly. "I can't believe I forgot about them. They haven't been used or maintained since the cutbacks from the thirties, but they were very solidly built. You could just walk through them. We're very lucky the Sylisons didn't think of the tunnels, either."

"Maybe they did," Lt Caltoor wondered, "and Rag was able to slip past the guards. I didn't ask. In that case, we'll have to be careful." She looked around at the people gathered. "Besides, ensign," she added to Dechnik, "it's either this, or being captured as spies. I do not look forward to discovering what people who would fire at a hospital do to spies. Gather our people and get Rag to lead you to the tunnel entrance. I think the girl's at the window in the next room." Dechnik left, and the lieutenant turned to Dr Talek. "Sir, is there enough medicine here in the hospital in case we won't be able to return?"

The Vulcan nodded. "We completed the final transport before the dampening field came up. The local doctors are competent, and unless the Sylisons hinder the process, they should be able to administer it to all those who need it. Only the worst cases of the White Fever will still be fatal."

Caltoor nodded gravely. "Looks like we're all set to go, then.

The Bridge,
Sylison vessel Imperial Will.
-/\-

Captain Del-Ma felt completely in control of the battle. No Sylison officer had ever engaged in combat with a Federation starship before the Invasion, and even the encounter at Colvos II could hardly be called a battle. There were tales, told in the lower levels of the Imperial Palace on Sylis Prime itself, about how these Starfleet vessels had won battles throughout the quadrant in which the odds had been stacked against them. So far, Del-Ma had seen nothing to justify this fame. Even if the fame had been justified, the starship obviously stood no chance at all against eight fighters enforcing the will of the Empire Commander.

"Imperial Fist and Might-engage cloak," the Sylison captain ordered two of the Comet-class fighters under his command. "Lt Mir-Ween, report on the Colvarin forces."

His Communications officer was a young woman with purple head-scales, who had been trained at the Primary Military Academy on the homeworld. That meant that she was good, and had received the training to provide her with her own command once she had the necessary experience. With the Invasion just in its primary phase, captain Del-Ma did not believe that would take long. He treated her well, and knew that she would remember him.

"Major Tu-Kef reports minimum resistance, captain," Mir-Ween reported. "Four of the six major cities have been succesfully taken, and he does not anticipate the need for any strafing runs by your fighters. Imperial Command and her task force, however, are encountering heavier resistance in orbit. Imperial Command requests assistance as soon as you can spare it."

"Noted, lieutenant," the captain said. "Reply that we will have finished off our primary target soon."

"Aye, Sir."

Del-Ma smiled when the Federation ship pulled up sharply in a futile attempt to protect her weakening shields from the imperial armada's continuing fire. The Imperial Will's pilot didn't have to wait for the order to mimic the manouver. The Comet-class fighters were twice as manouverable as the much larger starship, and all six of them stayed close to the Federation ship. Then, at the top of the loop, the starship suddenly made a sharp turn that the Sylison fighters would have been hard-pressed to copy even if they hadn't been taken by surprise-now, they overshot their target, buying her a momentary respite-but Del-Ma's experienced eye recognized that the manouver had not been made because of the skills of any pilot: the engines on one side of the starship had given out. Capable engineers would probably be able to make emergency repairs in no time, but not before the Sylisons inflicted more serious damage.

It would have been a pleasant experience to finish the Federation spies off, captain Del-Ma thought. To be honest, he had no true idea why the Imperial command had placed such a high priority on the removal of the Federation presence from the battlefield, but Del-Ma had not become fleet commander by questioning his orders, and besides, he was happy to oblige. Nevertheless, the captain did not want to risk any unnecessary losses this early on in the Invasion, and Imperial Command's group required assistance.

"Helm, lay in a new course of 260.74 degrees," he ordered. "Communications, Imperial Strength, Focus and Glory are to follow. The rest can destroy the Federation ships at their leisure. Engineering, aft shields will be back up to ninety percent before we reach the secondary orbital battlefield. Helm, engage."

A chorus of "Yes, Sir!"s sounded across the Bridge. Imperial Will started to turn away from her crippled adversary. Captain Del-Ma called up the sensor-feed from the secondary battlefield on his personal display. A lone cruiser of Colvarin design was defending a small group of departing starcraft-they looked like they were private vessels, ranging from shuttles to a pleasure yacht. Perhaps it was the Milanian goverment fleeing? Del-Ma had orders to capture any members of the local goverments alive if possible, but their cowardly departure from the world that was their responsibility would also suffice to make the population believe it was better off under Sylison rule.

The succes of the Sylis Empire had been close to a fact before the Invasion even began, but now Del-Ma knew that his name would be written in the historical chronicles as well.

The U.S.S. Australia. The U.S.S. Aesculapius.
Then and now.
-/\-

A Cardassian ship flew by the quarters' window. Its grey-green shape more resembled some sort of creature, like a gigantic flatfish gliding through space, than it did a warship. The only thing that remained obvious no matter how you looked at it, was that it was very deadly.

Red lines of fire burned their way through the void between the Galor-class warship and the starship Australia, and Melanie saw one disruptor blast slam into the shields only twice a dozen meters away. Tears were running down the young girl's cheeks until her eyes burned as fiercely as the weapons' fire and the neck of her pyjamas was soaked, but for some reason she couldn't close her eyes and not look. Melanie was not young enough to believe it would all go away if she did.

On the computer terminal on the desk she was sitting damage reports and sensor data flashed by. Part of Melanie was aware that she wasn't supposed to be seeing this, that she shouldn't even have been able to get to the data-but her mother had forgotten to log out of the main computer. The rest of her was too terrified to think. Another Galor-class ship-then again, for all she knew it was the same one she'd just seen-fired a spread of torpedoes, and the video-feed was interrupted for a second when the torpedoes struck and the Australia shuddered. Melanie forgot to hold on to her chair and fell to the deck. Her eyes immediately flew back to the window.

-/\-

The ship shuddered like a frightened animal when the torpedoes struck. This time the shields had held, but captain Blevins didn't know how long that would last. Enough destructive force had already seeped through to do severe damage to the Ace.

"Kubert, reroute the phaserbank powerflows away from the damaged sections," he ordered. "The plasma conduits might be weakened. Wymak, get those damage control teams to Deck Five, on the double."

"Aye, Sir," Lt Wymak confirmed. Blevins turned back to his Tactical report, desperate to find a way out of the mess his ship was in. When his people had tricked the Sylisons into believing the Aesculapius was as good as defeated and four of the fighters had left, the captain had thought they would be all right. Two of the ships they could have handled. But then another two fighters had de-cloaked, and the situation had deteriorated rapidly. This was a Medical starship dammit! How was he supposed to fight a battle with it?

"Warning:" the female computer voice reported, "plasma grid 5-17 is overloading. Conduit breach imminent."

Blevins' head snapped back as he looked over his shoulder to the Operations station. "Mel," he started angrily, "I thought I told you to-" He cut off suddenly when he saw the lieutenant. She was standing very still and was staring in the direction of the main screen, but Ethan didn't think she saw it. Her breathing seemed strained.

Cursing silently, captain Blevins jumped out of his chair and climbed through the fence onto the higher level of the Bridge in the most direct and fastest way to the Ops station. He knew that this had to be some kind of reaction of Melanie's to the first time she had been in a space battle, in the Cardassian borderwars. He just didn't understand how that was possible. True, she hadn't been in a real space battle since then, but she had still made it through Starfleet Academy back on Earth, through both simulated battles as well as psychological testing.

The captain also knew that under ideal circumstances, he'd help her through this gently, but at the moment she was a serious risk to the rest of his crew. There wasn't time to help her. So Ethan simply stepped in her place at the console, shouldering the young lieutenant aside. Quickly he followed his own orders and rerouted the phaserbank powerflows. The brief physical contact appeared to have had a limited succes at bringing Kubert back to the present, but she wasn't ready to take her duties back over yet. Blevins couldn't have risked it anyway.

Abruptly the counsellor and friend in Ethan was thrown to the back of his mind, much as the captain himself was nearly thrown away from the console when a tremor, heavier than most of the previous ones, shook his ship That felt like a torpedo impact, he thought. But I don't think it only hit the shields. The only thing that kept captain Blevins on his feet was an instinctive reaction by Lt Kubert to catch him. He did not have the opportunity to even acknowledge the action, though, as a cacophony of alarms burst out from the Operations station in front of him.

"We've got damage to the antimatter containment chamber!" the captain exclaimed. "The torpedo launch tube has been superheated and bent as well. Launch a photon and we're all dead." He breathed a sigh in relief when he saw that the emergency automatic repair systems had already managed to reduce pressure in the antimatter containment chamber to tolerable levels, but he also knew that the Aesculapius was very near to the edge of what pounding she could take.

"I've got eighty percent power restored in the starboard impulse engines," Lt Avarin reported from the Conn in a remarkably calm voice.

"Get us out of the fight," Blevins ordered immediately. "We need to buy some time."

He saw Ryalla study the situation for no longer than half a second before she knew what to do. "Lieutenant, get us to the other side of the moon, and take us as close over its surface as is possible without hitting anything. Maximum impulse!"

-/\-

Melanie felt as if she had run all the way across the Tumlah desert on Vulcan, but at least, she saw, the Cardassian ships were losing ground now. Only they weren't Cardassian ships. Just like the ship she was on wasn't the Australia. Captain Blevins stepped away from the Bridge station in front of them-but Melanie knew the captain had never been involved in the Cardassian borderwars, let alone on the Galaxy-class U.S.S. Australia.

She shook her head. It didn't make sense. Nothing did. Except for the instruments on the console; Melanie found that she could read them clearly, and what she read from them wasn't good at all. She didn't think the ship would hold out much longer if the Cardassians-the Cardassians?-returned.

Hesitatingly, Melanie took a step forward and a closer look at the Operations console. There was something she was supposed to do . . . Focus, girl, she admonished herself. This fear is from the past. She only realized the truth in those words when she thought them. And yet, however much Melanie wanted to push the fear away like the half-forgotten nightmare it was, it kept nagging at her mind.

-/\-

"Their fighters are so light that their engines will have trouble compensating for the moon's gravity," Ryalla explained when captain Blevins joined her and Cmdr Sandersen at the Tactical station. "They will have to manouver very carefully, or make a wider arc around the mass. Either way, we win a few minutes."

The captain nodded. "Good thinking."

"I thought so," Ryalla replied smugly. Then her face clouded with the worry that had been hidden beneath her false good humour. "But we'll need better if we're going to get out of this one," she said. "I hope you guys have some better ideas than I do."

"I have none at all." Ethan sighed. "Commander?" he asked Cmdr Sandersen.

The bearded man shook his head. "None that gives us any chance at all at helping our people on Milania. We can still boost the shields a little bit, though. The systems responded better to my idea of rerouting power through Shuttle Bay than I thought they would."

The captain looked at Ryalla. "What was your not-so-good plan, Cmdr Tesoras?" he asked.

"You're not going to like it," she warned.

Ethan shrugged. "It's probably better than dying with no chance at survival."

"All rightie, then." Ryalla looked at both of the other officers. "I suggest we perform the Purcell-manouver."

"What manouver is that?" Sandersen asked, while Blevins put a hand over his eyes.

"I thought this was going to be better than dying with no chance at survival, Ryalla, not the same thing," the captain complained, for the moment ignoring his Chief of Security's question.

The Andorian held up her hands defensively. "Wait, wait, hear me out. I believe that the Ace actually has a better chance to make it out alive than most other classes of ships would have. Besides, the manouver has been performed succesfully before."

It was silent for a moment. "So what is this Purcell-manouver?" Sandersen tried again.

"You'll see," captain Blevins told him.

"Does that mean . . . ?" Ryalla asked.

"Yes," Ethan replied with a sigh. "We are going to give it a go."

Amn Plenkt Plaza,
Kissaal City.
-/\-

A patrol of about a dozen Sylison soldiers came trotting by across the square, mere meters away from the small building, and then straight across the useless transporter padds. Rag had a few tense moments, but fortunately none of them stopped, or noticed that the door had been opened ever so slightly. When the Sylisons had passed to a safe distance, the young Bajoran moved backward. She turned to where she had hidden the bodies of the two soldier who'd been standing guard when she'd come through here the first time to see if they were hidden well enough. For some reason, Rag did not want the Starfleeters to know what had happened.

It was a good thing she looked to make sure, Rag decided. The two corpses lay out of sight well enough for anyone who walked by the building and simply glanced in through an open door, but they were pretty obvious for anyone who came into the building, let alone an entire group passing through it. Rag had been too hasty when she dispatched the Sylisons. She admitted to herself that she had probably been more disgusted by the dead than she had cared to admit.

Quickly, the girl tore off an anti-dust protective sheet from a computer access panel and folded it around them as best as she could. It's a lucky thing they haven't had time to start stinking yet, she thought. Rag wasn't sure, though, if that was so because the Starfleeters might have smelled the bodies otherwise, or if it was because she couldn't have stood it.

". . . Private Wor-Kur? Where in the Empire are you?" At the muted sound of the voice, Rag froze. It was coming from outside, and the accent was unmistakably Sylison. "By the Conquerer's bones, if I find you shade-seeking in there . . . !" He left the rest of the threat unspoken.

There was an electronic buzz, and the door slid fully open. Silhouetted against the bright light of the early evening, the man who had spoken appeared. He was wearing the same military uniform most of the other soldiers wore, but the colors of his were a little brighter. Maybe he was a junior officer. He was frowning-or at least, it seemed like a frown. Those Sylisons looked weird.

Whoever he was, the Sylison found the interior of the small building dark. Cursing softly, he fumbled around for the light switch. He found it, turned on the lights and looked around the room, not really expecting to find the two soldiers here anymore.

What the officer expected much less was the small shape that flashed towards him while he was still blinking at the extra light. Before he could call for help or grab his weapon, Rag's knife slashed him open, and he never moved again. Wasting no time, Rag dragged the third body over to the others and rearranged the sheet of plastic to cover him as well. The irony of the situation suddenly occurred to her: the officer had found the two men he'd been looking for, both physically and in the next world, if there was one. Fortunately, the heap didn't seem much bigger now. Rag doubted the Starfleeters would notice anything. They'd be too busy watching out for live Sylisons. Rag finished barely in time.

"Girl! Are you up there?" another voice called. This one was vaguely familiar, though, and was coming from below instead of outside.

"I'm here," she confirmed. Rag had gone on a little ahead of the Starfleeters, who moved slowly supporting several injured comrades. She had claimed that she was going to check if everything was clear aboveground near the exit, but in truth she had mainly gone to cover up the dead Sylisons and to be away from all of them for a few minutes. The Starfleeters hadn't been happy about her leaving, but Rag had gone before they could stop her. Many of the 'Fleeters were none too happy following her, someone they barely knew. She could understand that, she supposed. "All's clear."

The turbolift was already coming up while she spoke. When it reached her level, Rag watched the small stream of Starfleeters spill out before the 'lift went back down for the rest. The Bajoran had to admit that the group, nearly thirty strong altogether, looked somewhat impressive. Even the doctors and nurses, by far the bulk of the group, moved with a military effectiveness that wouldn't have looked wrong on a cell back in the Resistance.

Rag shook her head to dispell the sudden memory. Side by side with the alien lieutenant in charge, she moved at the head of the group, into the city.

Kissaal City,
Milania.
-/\-

Dr Talek looked from side to side slowly, taking in the direct environment of the building the away team was currently taking use of as shelter carefully. As was the case with most of Kissaal City, the immediate neighbourhood of the shelter was decidedly rural, filled with broad avenues and parks. Under normal circumstances, Talek would have been approving of this attempt to comfort the slight claustrofobic element that existed in the psyche of most emotional species, which was, the doctor had observed, present on an increased level on this world, Milania.

Under these circumstances, however, in which Dr Talek and a large group of his colleagues were attempting to travel across the city unnoticed, he saw that the open nature of the city put them at a direct disadvantage.

In this particular building, because it was situated at the outer frontier of a relatively dense cluster of structures, Lt Caltoor had decided it would be wise to pause for a short period of time, and Dr Talek concurred. Due to the greater stamina Vulcans possessed over most species, he did not yet feel fatigued himself, but the doctor had seen signs of it in most of the non-Vulcan members of the party, including Lt Caltoor herself.

Deciding not to waste his greater stamina in such a dire situation, Dr Talek had assigned himself the task to survey the park that lay ahead of them, and the factory that lay beyond it, for any sign of Sylison activity. Thus far, he had found none, but he could not discount the possibility that the soldiers who had shut down the factory were still residing within. Perhaps even in ambush of the Starfleet officers.

Behind him, in the waiting room of the public building the groups was in, the doctor could overhear the discussion going on. "We must have travelled over three kilometers as the immer-bird flies," Lt Caltoor was saying. "We should easily have passed the limit of the terrain the Sylisons' dampening field is covering by now-if they set it up centering on the hospital, which makes the most sense-that's all I'm saying. But we still can't contact the Aesculapius."

"They could have moved the field once they realized we were gone from the hospital," a second person Talek identified as ensign Dechnik objected. "Or they could have set up more of them, and we know practically zip about the strength of their equipment. It could be anything."

"I think what the lieutenant was suggesting, ensign," counsellor Llop said carefully, "is that we have to accept the possibility that the Aesculapius may not be up there at all anymore. It's not something any of us like to think about, but it would be foolish to ignore the facts."

Dr Talek turned and walked over to the impromptu council. He agreed with the Bolian. "It would not be logical for the Sylison commander to leave any ship in orbit unimpeded," he commented, "especially one whose crew he has accused and apparently convicted of spying. Also, the large amounts of soldiers that we have seen in this single city seems to indicate that the Sylisons possess more than sufficient power to either destroy the Aesculapius or force it into fleeing."

Caltoor nodded at him. "The doctor could have worn Tactical-yellow, for all his insight in the situation." Dr Talek accepted the compliment with a nod of his own. "For in case that we are on our own, people," Lt Caltoor continued, "we need a contingency plan. Rather obviously, we'll need to acquire ourselves a starcraft. Problem is how and where."

"Problem is," a third Security officer, who was still holding his type 2 phaser in the air, ready to aim and fire it, "that there isn't a spaceport for miles around Kissaal City. I saw a map, and they only have atmospheric transportation in the urban territory."

"Which we can't risk using because it would be too easy for the Sylisons to intercept us," Lt Caltoor agreed. "So we're back to square one. I think we should just keep moving away from the city and hope that we will eventually be able to raise the Ace. If we can't, we can plan and come back later for a shuttle of our own." Dr Talek nodded. That seemed like the most logical course of action to him, as well. "Well, then we'll just go on as before."

"If I may, lieutenant," ensign Dechnik asked, "that brings up something else I believe we should think about. Up until now, we have mostly been going where this girl told us to."

"Dechnik," Caltoor said, "you've brought this up before."

"Yes, Sir, but at the time we didn't actually discuss the matter, because, like you said, we had no choice but to follow her."

"True," the lieutenant conceded. "Go on."

"Fact is that we know very little about the girl, except that she is Bajoran, and that from her own mouth," the woman complained. "I try to see the best in people as much as the next man, but I'm careful, too. And frankly, I don't trust the girl. For all we know, she could be telling the Sylisons our location so that they keep shifting the dampening field to cover us. Lord knows she has had plenty of opportunity, running about freely as she is. As she is right now," she pointed out.

Talek frowned. He disagreed, naturally, with the ensign's urge to condemn the Bajoran girl on basis of a feeling, but others of her arguments were solid, and the doctor-like everyone from the Aesculapius-had known the girl too briefly to have any experiences with her that could effectively counter the arguments.

"I'm not the only one to feel this way, Sir," ensign Dechnik added.

"I am aware of that," Lt Caltoor admitted. She sighed. "I guess I just don't want to believe that Rag is anything other than we believe. I'll give you a compromise: we'll be careful around her, check her reports where we can, but not so much so that she notices it. Even a little trust in her will do that girl a lot of good."

"If she is what we think she is, Sir," ensign Dechnik commented.

Caltoor fixed him with a stare. "Innocent until proven otherwise-remember that, ensign. That's an order."

Dr Talek started to wonder about the girl Rag himself, now. Where she was, that was. He estimated that it was about fifteen minutes since she had last been with the party. It certainly wasn't the first time she had left the officers' company, but perhaps for the longest period of time. Rag claimed to be looking out for Sylison patrols and had indeed once saved the party from a violent encounter, but where she was 'looking out' remained a mystery. Rag stayed out of sight of the Starfleet people, at any rate, and yet, despite all the precautions his people took to avoid notice from the Sylisons, the young Bajoran always managed to find them. What if ensign Dechnik's emotional suggestion that she might be in league with the Sylison invaders was actually true?

"Yes, Sir," the ensign replied to Lt Caltoor's command. Except for a few officers standing guard, including several Medical officers, the party was seated in the low chairs filling the large waiting room. Dechnik got up abruptly, obviously not truly satisfied with the compromise Lt Caltoor had offered her.

-/\-

Across the street, in the shadow of a building that that morning had housed the firm offering the best lawyers on the continent, perhaps of the hemispere, a small group of people quietly settled themselves. One of them was looking intently at the public building on the other side of the street, trying to confirm with his eyes what his scanning equipment had already told him. When he saw a man rise up enough to be spotted through the first floor window, he patted the uniformed shoulder one of his companions to alert him and pointed.

The second man spoke into his communicator and passed on the exact coordinates of the fugitive spies to other patrols spread across the entire neighbourhood. A humming sound reverberated through the air when the men activated their fusion rifles and took aim.

The Imperial Might,
behind Milania's moon.
-/\-

"Captain?" the sensor technician said.

"Report," captain Pir-Lo ordered curtly. The captain always made sure never to underestimate an enemy unless she had double-checked he was dead, so the damage the Federation ship, though it appeared severe, did not put her at ease yet.

"The Starfleet vessel is experiencing massive system failures, Sir. Their shields are on the verge of collapsing." He studied the readings a little further. "And it looks like they are barely able to move. We have them, Sir!"

"I'll be the judge of that, crewman," Pir-Lo told the young man firmly. Despite her chastening of the ensign, she could see on her Command console that he was probably correct. The console showed her a condensed and somewhat simplified version of the information from the Sensors station, as it did with the data from all departments. The Imperial Might's sensors had only slight difficulty reaching the Federation ship Aesculapius just behind the edge of the planet's moon, and what they scanned showed promise. For the Imperial forces, anyway. Not at all for the Starfleet people.

"Is there any chance this is nothing more than a clever deception?" captain Pir-Lo wondered thoughtfully. "Their shields were 'mysteriously' repaired before." She was not going to risk losing the Might as she had her last command, the Imperial Courage, in the Hae Estin Rebellion. It had taken her over five years to win back enough respect to receive command of the Imperial Might. Pir-Lo doubted she could do it again.

"It's impossible to rule out the possibility completely," the lieutenant at Weapons said, "but at this point, I find it highly unlikely. Unless the Federation vessel possesses some secret superweapon she hasn't used yet, the only way she might profit from playing more dead than she is, is if we leave the ship for dead and she manages to flee."

"Which they probably know we wouldn't," captain Pir-Lo supplied.

"Exactly," the lieutenant continued. "Simply too much of their damage consists on confirmed damage from our own weapons."

Pir-Lo nodded. She had thought Del-Ma a fool to withdraw half of the attack force from this vessel with largely unknown capabilities so soon, but it appeared his experience had not belied him after all. "All ships in the battleshoal are to form up on us. Helm, we're the spearhead. Take us in at three-quarters impulse."

"Aye, captain."

The Aesculapius,
behind Milania's moon.
-/\-

"Sirs?" Cmdr Sandersen spoke. Even from all the way at her position in the front of the Bridge, Mresi could hear how worried he sounded. Quickly, the Bajoran pilot wiped some blood from her forehead to prevent it from leeking into her eyes with one hand, before wiping it on her uniform sleeve and returning it to her console. A hurried once-over with D'Vail's dermal regenerator had stopped most of the bleeding from the wound on her forehead, but there was no time for any more definite treatment.

"The captain and I sorta need to concentrate, Sandersen, if you don't mind," Tesoras, who was tapping commands into the console at the captain's chair in rapid succession, told him. "This is delicate."

"You might say that, Sir," the Security Chief said. Mresi tried to concentrate on her own job-keeping the Aesculapius' course steady with the limited power flow the captain and Cmdr Tesoras had left for the engines-but she couldn't help but be alarmed by the urgency in Sandersen's voice, so she kept her ears open. Just how bad is this injury? she wondered when she again felt something liquid above her eyebrows. Should I step aside and let someone else take the Helm? But Mresi dismissed the notion almost as soon as it sprung up in her head. Nurse D'Vail, proper Vulcan as she was, would have ordered her to relinquish her station if she had thought Mresi's injury would pose a threat to the ship. And then there was her stand-in, which would have been crewman Ganarr. Mresi wasn't really certain how good a pilot the man was. She had only had such a short time to get acquainted with her staff, and she'd rather not have the surprises that were sure to come in a combat situation. Her staff. As small as it was, the idea of having one was still frightening.

"Because if I keep our shields at the modulation frequency you provided me with, commander," Sandersen was continuing, "they will burn out a few minutes after the Sylisons catch up, and they won't have to fire a shot. The modulation is also creating a power build-up in the matter/antimatter reactors."

Mresi took in a sharp breath when she heard that, and she could tell she wasn't the only one. The Bridge was awfully silent while the crew awaited captain Blevins' or Cmdr Tesoras' response.

The captain didn't even look up from what he was doing, and the commander didn't seem exactly worried either. "I know that, commander," she said simply. "You just keep doing what you're doing right now." Sitting at the front of the Bridge as she was, Mresi couldn't see Tesoras' mischievous grin at her next words. "You leave worrying about im- and explosions to me and the captain."

-/\-

The rounded shape of the Imperial Might glided through the Lynceus star system fluidly, curving around the area where the gravity of Milania's moon was strongest. Her captain would have felt pride at her own ship, had she not been preoccupied by other things. 'Other things' being the starship Aesculapius, so much less elegant in shape than the Comet-class fighter, wobbling along with only a faint imitation of the smaller craft's fluid movement because of the damage to her propulsion systems.

Something felt wrong. Captain Pir-Lo didn't know what it was, but there was something that wasn't showing on the sensors. However, that did not change her course of action. The Empire Commander would not be pleased if he learned Pir-Lo had disobeyed his direct command to remove the Federation presence from the new territory of the Sylis Empire, all because of her instincts.

"Still no change, ensign?" she asked.

"No, Sir," the young man replied. "The Starfleet vessel's systems are still deteriorating at a steady rate. Their damage control appears useless."

The captain smiled. Rather than displease the Empire Commander, she would perform above his expectations. If he wanted the Federation ships out of the way so badly, for reasons only he and his staff were aware of, how pleased would he be with a captured Federation ship? On her next mission, Pir-Lo might be commanding Del-Ma, instead of vice-versa.

"Communications, tell the Imperial Fist, Anger and Wrath to close to ten kilometers of the Federation ship. They are only to fire if the enemy's weapon systems are still on-line, and then only on those. Tell them to prepare boarding parties."

Cmdr Qep-Da, Pir-Lo's first officer, blinked while the Communications officer quickly confirmed her orders. This was a radical change of plans, which might hold some risks, but Qep-Da nodded thoughtfully, a telltale sign that he appreciated the strategical advantages. "Shall I rouse our own soldiers, captain?" he asked. He tensed immediately, trying to calculate all possible new outcomes of the situation.

Pir-Lo shook her head. "This Aesculapius is no ship of war. Three squads of Sylis' best should be more than enough to overwhelm her without much trouble. We will just watch our glory grow from here." Her personal glory, to be more precise. By ordering the boarding parties, Pir-Lo could claim the victory as one of her command, while not actually risking losses of her own crew. She smiled.

-/\-

Steve looked up from his console when he heard the captain address him. Captain Blevins, however, remained focused on the instruments in front of him. "Cmdr Sandersen, I want you to generate a flux field of gamma radiation, extending no further out from the hull than our shields. Not an inch further. A bit less doesn't matter, but not too much either."

"Aye, captain," Steve answered automatically, looking to see how he could best perform the task he had been given. Yes, it was possible. But . . . "Em, captain, that field be disrupted by the power buid-up in the generators. The resulting stress could implode the Ace faster than it would in the middle of a black hole." The danger was rather obvious, so the commander assumed that his two commanding officers had a plan to deal with it, but he daren't not give the warning.

"It's being dealt with, commander," the captain told him firmly. "You have your orders." Steve started the process to generate the field. He didn't see any other option than to trust captain Blevins. This was the role a captain was supposed to play, Steve knew. It simply was so different from the last captain the Aesculapius had served under. Captain Norrin had been weak. Even if the man had been a reasonable enough captain in his own way, he would never have plunged his ship into a dangerous plan like this. Steve didn't believe the Aesculapius would have survived the current battle situation under Norrin's command. He just hoped she would under Blevins'.

At the Ops station, standing in front of the still shocked Lt Kubert, captain Blevins waited for the flux field to form, and then when he saw the first signs of it, he hit one button that triggered an entire new chain of events in the Aesculapius' vast systems. And then he crossed his fingers.

-/\-

"Are the boarding parties prepared yet?" captain Pir-Lo asked Communications.

"Imperial Anger is just reporting a Go, Sir, and she's the last one."

"Good," Pir-Lo nodded. "Send the order to-"

"Captain! Wait!" the lieutenant at Weapons yelled all of a sudden.

Pir-Lo turned, furious for the interruption on the threshold of her victory. "This had better be good, lieutenant," she spoke threateningly.

The man gulped. It was a well-known fact aboard the Imperial Might that one had better not anger the captain. Rank-and thus status in society-in Sylison culture was a thing determined by a large part by those directly above oneself. And no lieutenant in the entire Empire wanted to go back to being an ensign. "It's the Federation ship, captain," he hastened to explain. "She's going to implode in seconds! If we send our troops to board them, they will die with the Humans!"

"The Starfleet people must intending to destroy their ship to keep her out of our hands," captain Pir-Lo concluded. "Tell me we can stop them," she ordered coldly.

"I don't think they are doing this on purpose," Qep-Da said, frowning at the sensor data. "Then they would attempt to let their ship explode, to inflict as much damage on us as possible. It seems they have a gamma radiation leak, and when the implosion occurs, we won't even feel it."

-/\-

With the firm feel of the back console against her hands and her lower back, Melanie tried her best to get a just as firm hold on the present. There are no Cardassians here. She repeated the thought like a mantra. It seemed to help a little.

She was still terrified, though. Melanie tried to put the cause of this fear aside, only to discover that she couldn't even find it. There are no Cardassians here. Fortunately, the mantra still worked. She watched what captain Blevins was doing, one more thing that she could understand, and that would help her back to reality. Only Melanie didn't understand what the captain was doing. Or rather, she understood what he was doing, but why?

Oh. Suddenly Melanie recalled something. A report someone, probably Cmdr Tesoras, had read about an innovative or suicidal manouver sometime back on the U.S.S. Ceasar, which had led to hours on end of heated discussions and even holodeck simulations for the senior staff.

She knew what captain Blevins was doing, and gave him a hand. He let her, but kept a close eye on what she was doing.

-/\-

"The boarding parties are standing by, captain," someone reported. "Imperial Fist has detected the same readings we are. They want to know if they are to withdraw."

"Tell them to hold position for now," captain Pir-Lo ordered distractedly. What in the names of the Four Great Seas was happening on that ship that had so nearly been in her grasp? In all the sensor data on the Command console, she could find not a single bit of equipment that ought to be leeking gamma radiation because of the damage she'd had inflicted on the vessel. Pir-Lo knew that her tension and worry over the bad feeling she had about this must have been making her head-scales shine like they had been polished with wax, but for this once she didn't care what her crew saw.

"Captain?" the ensign at the Sensors station said hesitantly. "The sensors are picking up something new . . . I . . ." He trailed off nervously.

"What is it?" Pir-Lo demanded. "What are they doing!"

"I don't know," he replied. Angrily, the captain pushed the Command console aside-its condensed version of the sensor readings were utterly useless now that she needed details. In three great strides she crossed the fighter's small Bridge and stepped into the Sensors ensign was smart enough to have jumped out of the way before his captain ordered him to.

At first, captain Pir-Lo understood the new sensor data no better than the junior officer had. The sedjoc particle field that was appearing seemed to be simply one more random effect of the damage the ship had sustained, but its density, growth rate-everything was to precise for it to have taken shape accidentally. And it took considerable concentration from any technician to keep sedjoc particles rotating clock-wise for this long. It just didn't make sense. The particles were useless in any situation, let alone a combat one.

Then the console automatically brought up the already existing flux field next to the diagram the captain had been studying when the first reaction took place, and it suddenly all became clear.

"By the Waters . . ." Pir-Lo breathed softly.

"Sir?" the ensign asked curiously.

Abruptly captain Pir-Lo straightened. "Beam us to the Federation ship!" she called out.

Cmdr Qep-Da frowned, confused. "Yes, Sir," he confirmed quickly. "But it will take a minute to prepare the soldiers. You didn't have them prepare for battle yet with those from the other ships."

"Not the soldiers, you desert rat!" the captain raged in a near panic. "I mean, yes the soldiers too! All of us! All of us, or we'll all die!"

Suddenly light, bright like a second sun in the Lynceus system, burst through the viewscreen. Then space exploded.

-/\-

In the vacuum of space surrounding the starship Aesculapius, the vacuum wasn't as empty as it was known to be. In the area that would have fallen within the Corona-class' ship, had those still been on-line, there were enough particles of gamma radiation to put one average in each cubic decimeter of that space, and the flux field that held them all in a firm grip pulled them to the starship at an exponential speed. When-if-they reached the vessel, the collision would result in an implosion, destroying her utterly.

However, the gamma particles were not alone in the vacuum. A stream of sedjoc particles came racing toward them. Where the two kinds of particles collided with each other, they reacted. Within nanoseconds of they first collision, the tide had turned, and the sheer destructive power that had at first been directed inward spread outward in all directions save that one it had been directed in in the beginning. One Sylison vessel was hit, and with her shields lowered to be ready to beam her squad of soldiers to the Aesculapius, it didn't stand a chance. When the Warp core gave out and breached, little was already left of the Imperial Wrath. Another ship followed. Then all four were gone.

-/\-

Ethan pried an arm under his chest and painstakingly pushed himself off the deck. He hurt from bruises in a dozen different places where he had hit something solid while the shockwave of the explosion had been throwing the ship around, but he hurried to get back to his feet anyway. We're still alive! he thought jubilantly. He could barely believe it. When the Aesculapius had almost literally turned upside down, there had been a moment or two Ethan had thought he had led everyone on board to their deaths.

The moment the turbulence began to abate, people started climbing up to their feet all around the Bridge. The captain didn't see anyone who had managed to keep standing or in their chairs. Ryalla was still holding onto the fence, but she did so now from a position down on the floor. Melanie had been lucky. She had been thrown about like everybody else, but she had managed to wedge herself in the small space between the console and the wall, so she'd remained relatively unharmed. Only a few people seemed seriously hurt, fortunately-Ethan noticed that Lt Avarin was slow in getting up and that her head injury appeared to be bleeding worse than before. But when he wanted to call for her replacement, he saw that crewman Ganarr was lying on the floor cradling a broken arm. Ethan wanted to curse, but he couldn't send both of the pilots away. Several others of the Bridge officers could have flown the ship, but none well enough to give them a chance to get back their missing crewmates on the surface.

All these observations were made in the space of a heartbeat. There was no more time. The adrenalin coursing through the captain's body seemed to make time slow, but still the blurred spots of light Ethan had spotted on various places across the Bridge were taking more solid shapes at an alarming rate.

Reaching for the nearest phaser, Ethan called out: "Bridge to all hands! Intruder alert: Sylison soldiers on board!"

Outside of Governor Hospital,
Kissaal City, Milania.
-/\-

The view wasn't all that good from the roof of the closest building Rag dared to go to, but she could still what was happening at the hospital clearly enough for her purposes.

Rag wasn't sure why she had returned here. Oh, sure, a figure as small and as accustomed to hiding as she was could slip in between Sylison patrols without much effort, but that still didn't explain why the young Bajoran girl had bothered. It was plain stupid to venture out into a warzone for no solid reason. With the Starfleeters, no matter how different they travelled than she would have, Rag would at least have had the safety of numbers. Moving around them to patrol the immediate area made sense, because the uniforms just weren't very stealthy, but this . . .

What was going to happen to the Colvarin people in the hospital was of no consequence to Rag, but nevertheless, she had come back here to find out exactly that. One might have said that she and the Starfleeters were in debt to the people at the hospital for not turning them over to the Sylisons, so that might account for her worry, but as far as the girl was concerned, she thought that because she had found the tunnel they had escaped through herself, she didn't owe anyone anything.

No, that wasn't it, but Rag suspected the true reason for her concern. The Sylison attack force reminded her of the Cardassian armies on the world where she had been born. For the longest time, Rag had quite succesfully tried not to think of the horrible things, the atrocities she had witnessed, in the Resistance and before that. The things that had happened to her since she had been gone from Bajor had left no worse memories, if no better either, but they had been more than enough to keep her busy. Unfortunately, the things that had happened to her were an entirely different horror than what had happened with her friends, so now she was shocked all over again.

And she would be damned if she was just going to sit back if it was happening to more people.

Fortunately, the Sylisons appeared a lot less violent with their prisoners than the Cardassians-or at least so far. Like the Fleeters and the hospital bosses had planned, the local law enforcement officers had kept on holding off the Sylisons for some time after Rag and the others had left through the tunnel, and when they had thought enough time had passed to allow them to disappear, the Milanians had surrendered. The Sylisons seemed to be holding on to their offer to treat the prisoners well if they surrendered, even now there were no Starfleet people to pay with as a price.

The Sylison commander had been pretty ticked off when he had discovered the Fleeters were gone, but to Rag's relief there was no indication that he had taken it out on the Colvarin people. Some of the prisoners were taken away, but that was to be expected, if only for no other reason than to ensure the hospital wouldn't try to break free again as soon as the Sylison army moved on. But from the lack of any commotion Rag judged that the oppressors were leaving enough people in place to provide sufficient care for the many patients that still needed to be treated for the White Fever.

Frustrated with her own feelings-she didn't need to worry about those strangers, she had plenty of trouble watching out for herself-Rag decided that there was nothing to keep her here. On the other hand, if she stayed away from the Starfleet people for too long, they might discover a way to beam out of here, and decide not to wait for one missing girl. Rag didn't really believe they would actually leave her behind, but she was not about to risk wasting her free ticket out of trouble.

Going the same way she had come, Rag hurried back to the neighbourhood where she had left the Starfleeters behind. Running alone, she was able to cover distance far and far faster than the group, who had several wounded among their number, could. It also helped that Rag had the experience of years of sneaking around to back her up, while the Fleeters were mostly Medical personnel many of which barely had any experience even in their own field of expertise.

This time when Rag got close to where she thought the group from the Aesculapius should be, she found them faster than she had previous times, almost immediately. This time, however, it wasn't because of the trail they had left. Taking advantage of a well-placed window sill, Rag had hoisted herself onto second-floor balcony to get a better view to find her travelling companions. She didn't find what she expected, but she did find something else. All too near to her own position, a group of Sylison soldiers were sneaking by-sneaking, not patrolling. These soldiers knew where they were going, and they didn't want who was there to know they were coming.

Quickly Rag abandoned her vantage point for the shadows of the ground level. She knew she would have to be fast. Simply by looking she could tell that the invading army was very well-trained, and if they managed to ambush the Starfleet people, they wouldn't leave anything but food for the vultures.

The young Bajoran sprinted across one of the city's broad avenues. There was an alley a little further on that was small and dark enough that she could look around from it without being noticed herself. Then she suddenly threw herself to the ground behind a bush. Peeking through the evergreen's needles, she watched the alley. Rag had seen someone move, she was sure of it.

As silently as she could she moved closer, but she still couldn't see who was in there, and she dared not go too close to the entrance to the alley, or she would be seen herself. Seeing no other option, Rag once again climbed the wall of a building to study the situation from above. She was starting to feel like a monkey.

Rag winced when the roof made crunching sounds beneath her feet. Like some other buildings she had seen in the city before, but had avoided, the roof of this building was covered with gravel. Even with her skills, she still made some noise.

When she saw who was down in the alley, Rag was glad that the noise was apparently not loud enough to be heard on the ground. Four Sylisons were raising their destructive-looking rifles, and aiming them carefully. Following the soldiers' line-of-sight, Rag spotted what they were aiming at. There was someone-several someones-in the building across the next street. Someones wearing Starfleet uniforms. Rag realized she was lucky she had approached the alley from the side facing the Sylisons backs, or they could have taken her out easily. A communicator beeped down on the ground.

"All units stand ready," a disembodied voice spoke.

Whatever she was going to do, it would have to be now or never, Rag knew with absolute certainty. The Fleeters didn't appear to have a clue the Sylisons were here, and were moving about freely. If there were enough of those units around, the fish-people could take out half of them before they knew what was going on, and the Starfleet people weren't equipped for another prolonged siege, either in terms of equipment or people.

The question was, what was she going to do. If she warned the Fleeters, Rag would make herself a pretty easy target, and thus likely waste a lot of effort she had put in staying in one piece. She figured she didn't owe those people anything-sure, people from the Ace had taken her from Ferrum IV and had fixed her up, but it wasn't like she had asked them to. Anyway, the people who had done that weren't even here. Helping people against Cardassia imitators was one thing, but Rag had survived too many things to get herself killed here and now. Only it wasn't that simple . . .

The people in the building across the street were probably still her only means of escape from this accursed planet-she sure as hell wasn't able to fly any craft herself-and . . . and, well, Rag didn't want to have to tell Ryalla that she'd left these people to die when she could have saved them.

Rag cursed silently, and for a moment wondered whether she hadn't been better off before people started 'helping' her. At least back then she had applied all her hard-learned rules of self-preservation. Quickly, before she would change her mind, Rag grabbed a handful of the gravel from the roof and stood up. Well aware of the fact that she had little time, she took a deep breath.

"Sylisons! Get down!" she screamed as loudly as she could, and from the corner of her eye she saw the silhoutted shapes of the Fleeters behind the windows start to move to cover rapidly. Not waiting for their response, Rag swung her arm forward and launched the stones in her right hand forward at the frontmost fish-face in the alley below her. The colorful scales on the man's head made an attractive target, and more than one stone hit him, causing him to go down, and the shot that he'd been preparing to get off to go wide of its intended target. Rag had to duck aside quickly when three disruptor beams shot past her so close that she could feel the heat and smell the air burn. I'll never manage to get to the others, she realized. That was what she got for committing a good deed. She ran, left with no other option, away from where the sounds of disruptor and phaser blasts were starting to sound.

"Up there!" a voice with the watery accent called. "After her! Whoever she is, I want her, or at least her head!"

-/\-

The moment Lt Caltoor heard the warning shout, she dove to the floor, dragging a startled nurse Layton down with her. "You heard it, people! Get down, to cover!" she ordered. The warning had come not a moment to soon, and disruptor beams shattered the windows on all sides, most of them slamming into the opposite walls or the ceiling. Still Piis Caltoor saw two of her people go down. One, with what seemed only a minor burn on his arm, the other, more grievously hurt. The Security officers among the group were already responding, taking up position next to the windows and returning fire.

The lieutenant wondered who had called out the warning. She had set guards, naturally, but none outside the building, so they couldn't be cut off from the group. It was only a minute later when she herself was shooting out of one of the windows that she realized why the voice had sounded familiar: it had been the girl Rag's. Caltoor spotted some movement, and saw a few Sylisons run off, apparently in pursuit. She guessed that they were chasing the Bajoran and wished the girl luck in getting away.

She wasn't certain that was smart, though. She was going to need all the luck in the world herself if she was to get any of her people out of this one alive.

-/\-

Assassinating unsuspecting guards lulled into a false sense of security by the lack of any serious opposition, Rag knew, was quite a bit different from fighting off armed-to-the-teeth soldiers who knew exactly what they were up against, and that with only a knife as a weapon. She knew how different it was well enough so that she didn't even try.

Running as fast as her feet could carry her, Rag nearly zigged straight into a building, but she zagged away just in time to avoid collission. The moment the building ended, Rag dove to the right again, winning a few seconds of cover in which her pursuers' disruptors were useless, until they made it around the corner themselves.

Quickly, Rag scanned the street ahead of her, looking for the next nearest turn. Since leaving the Starfleeters behind, she hadn't looked back once. Because she wasn't familiar with the terrain, she needed to constantly search for the best way to go-luckily, the Sylisons were new here as well, or she would have been caught or killed long since-and there was no need to look back to confirm that her pursuers where still on her tail. The craters that kept appearing in the ground or in the buildings wherever she went were a rather strong indication that they were.

Some of those craters came far too near to Rag for her liking.

Suddenly a disruptor bolt impacted practically at her feet, and Rag found herself flat on the ground. Immediately, she rolled on back to her feet and ran on. Stupid! she cursed herself. Thinking herself safe for the moment, the girl had sprinted on in a straight line, instead of zigzagging. Only, apparently, she had done so for too long, and had permitted one of the Sylisons to set up a good shot.

When she finally reached the next object that offered cover, Rag risked taking a look over her shoulder. All four of the Sylisons were still close on her heels. Rag had always made sure to keep her physical condition good-most of the time she had needed it to be to survive, and when her situation lay differently, she hadn't trusted it to remain that way-but it seemed the Sylisons weren't exactly couch potatoes either. While the Bajoran's heart was pounding and her breath was becoming decidedly fast and shallow, the fish-people were still graceful movement itself.

The chase went on, and Rag had to push herself harder and harder to be able to stay ahead of the Sylisons. At one point the Bajoran jumped up and rolled herself over a low hover vehicle that had apparently been forced quite roughly to land when the Sylisons had taken control of the city. The move opened Rag up for a shot for a few seconds, but it would have increased her lead on her pursuers.

Unfortunately, one of the soldiers in pursuit did indeed snap off a shot. He missed Rag, but not the vehicle. It exploded.

"Aaah!" Rag called out. The explosion threw her through the air for half a dozen feet. Rag held her arms around her head protectively and managed to avoid any real injury, despite her decidedly violent landing. She was about to get up when something sharp drove into her leg. For a moment the girl thought that she had been bitten by some kind of animal, but she knew what it must be, and she saw her suspicion confirmed when she looked. A piece of shrapnel was sticking out of Rag's leg. Cursing quietly and clenching her teeth, the girl pulled out the hot piece of metal and tossed it aside. She hissed in pain. Fortunately, the wound didn't bleed much.

Rag tried to get away while the dark clouds billowing out from the burning hovercar still gave her cover. Soon, however, it became clear that there was no way the young Bajoran could walk very fast-let alone run-on her injured leg. She couldn't stay ahead of her pursuit.

Then I can either hide or fight, she realized. Injured as she was, fighting was even less of an option than it had been before, so it wasn't much of a choice. Well, at least there is plenty to hide under, she thought, looking around at the remains of the exploded vehicle lying all around the street. After she had lain done in a corner and pulled what she could of metal plates and the like over her, she drew her knife. Rag knew very well that the odds were that she would still be found, and she intended to make certain that if she was going down, she would have someone to land on.

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

The best nurse D'Vail could do to add to the fight was to stay out of the way of disruptor blasts and she knew it. Her Vulcan strength would have have been a great advantage in the relatively cramped quarters the battle was taking place in, but it was uncertain if any other Medical personnel would be able to reach the Bridge, and if essential Bridge personnel were wounded, someone with sufficient medical knowledge had to be present to perform triage. The threat from other vessels in the immediate vicinity had been dealt with, but there were still a great number of hostile ships of war nearby. In all honesty, nurse D'Vail had wished to remove several of the Bridge crew from their stations already, but she understood the realities of the situation.

Her Vulcan mind having processed this information in seconds, D'Vail still barely managed to save herself and her emergency medkit by diving aside when what looked like a Sylison officer waved his weapon around wildly and fired on everything that moved. Before she found cover behind her console, she saw Cmdr Tesoras jump onto the woman.

Captain Blevins was at least as important to the immediate future of the ship as the Vulcan nurse was, but he couldn't afford to stay out of the battle-not in the least because two enemy soldiers had re-materialised within arms' reach of him. Taking advantage of the momentary disorientation following the transport, Ethan had managed to stun one of them, but the other had had time to recover. Ethan had lost his own weapon in the struggle to keep the Sylison from disintegrating him.

The captain grunted as the Sylison jerked on his weapon again. His back bent back over the Operations console, it was all Ethan could do to hang on. The Sylison soldier was strong, probably stronger than Ethan was himself, but fortunately the Human had a good grip on the disruptor. For a moment their eyes met over the gun, and the two opponents glared at each other, fully aware that only one of them would walk away from this. Then the struggle continued.

Lt Avarin snapped off a quick shot with her phaser, but she missed. Her head injury was bleeding worse and the Bridge seemed to be rocking about her when she jumped up. The Sylison she had fired at returned the favor. Beside her, the pilot's chair exploded suddenly when the disruptor blast hit it, and Mresi reflexively shielded her face from the flyng pieces of plastics and alloys with both arms. She stumbled, and fell to the deck face-down. In two great steps, the Sylison was standing over her, and raised his disruptor for the kill. Mresi felt her own weapon still in her hand, poking into her ribs. With a supreme effort, she twisted, rolling over and raising the phaser. Barely seeing her target, the Bajoran fired. The sound of a heavy body falling on the deck was the last thing she noticed before darkness descended on her.

One arm clasped firmly around the Sylison officer's throat, Ryalla took the woman's disruptor from her hand. The Sylison soldiers hesitated to fire on the Andorian, seeing their captain being used as a living shield. The first one screamed when Ryalla vaporized him. The second one died in silence.

Steve Sandersen didn't have any trouble defending himself. The only Sylison that even came near him materialized with her back to the Security station. Steve wasted no time and knocked her out with his fist to her temple.

Ethan winced as his shoulder slammed painfully into the console. Slowly, he was beginning to lose his grip on the disruptor. The captain knew he had to do something quickly, but if he relinquished his hold on the weapon for even an instant, he would be dead before he could try anything. Suddenly, there was a flash of light and the Sylison crumpled to the ground. Amazed and relieved at his unexpexted rescue, Ethan looked up just in time to see Melanie Kubert sag down to a sitting position on the deck, his own lost phaser in her hand. She was looking pale, her breathing sounded harsh, and her eyes were wide. For a moment Ethan thought she was injured, but that didn't appear to be the case. The captain was glad that the girl had finally snapped out of her trauma-more so because she had saved his life-and patted her on her shoulder as he got up, too tired for the moment to voice his thanks.

Carefully, captain Blevins looked around the Bridge, but he was not attacked. As suddenly as the attack had begun, it was over. "Status report!" Ethan's voice boomed across the Bridge, which had fallen into an eery silence now that the fighting was over.

Ryalla tossed the Sylison officer aside carelessly, her neck broken, and quickly sat down in the captain's chair to check the console in the armrest while giving her opinion of the boarding party. "We tricked them Ethe; I think they found out what we were doing at the last second, and tried to beam themselves to safety-these were trained officers, but not marines or anything."

"All three Sylison ships were destroyed," Cmdr Sandersen confirmed. "None of the vessels in orbit are responding yet. There was one other boarding party, in Engineering, but weapons' fire has ceased."

Ethan tapped his commbadge as he walked to the front of the Bridge. "Engineering, Bridge. Report."

"Engineering here, Sir," Lt Wymak replied. "The situation is under control. We had a little under a dozen intruders, but they seemed less prepared than we were, and we managed to deal with them. I do have two wounded, though. Is the way to Sickbay safe? And to the brig? For the prisoners, I mean."

"The only two sites that were boarded are Main Engineering and the Bridge, and all's clear," the captain told his Chief engineer. He waited an instant while Wymak sent some of his people to help the injured to Sickbay. "How's the core, lieutenant?" Ethan asked then.

"The Warp engines are fully functional, captain," the Despan told him. "The damage from the shockwave was a little less severe than you anticipated. Repairs are already underway."

Ethan nodded. "That's what I wanted to hear. Wymak, I need the transporters on-line in fifteen, twenty minutes tops." He broke the commlink before Wymak could tell him that was impossible. The engineer would figure something out. He'd have to.

Meanwhile, Ethan had knelt down on the deck near where nurse D'Vail was treating Lt Avarin. The pilot was just coming around. "How is she doing?" he asked.

"I'm all right, captain," Avarin said, but she still sounded a bit groggy.

The captain, having dealt with injured crewmembers before, ignored her and waited for D'Vail's professional opinion.

"She will recover," the nurse said after a moment, not taking her eyes off her medical tricorder, "but it would be best if she were brought to Sickbay."

"Nurse, I need an experienced hand at the Conn for half an hour longer," Ethan said.

"I can do it, captain," Lt Avarin commented, but again neither of the others paid any attention to her.

Nurse D'Vail considered the request for a moment, then nodded. "But if anything happens to aggravate the lieutenant's injury, I want her removed from her station immediately," she demanded.

Ethan returned the nodd, raking a hand through his dark brown hair. "Agreed," he said. Nurse D'Vail left to take care of the injuries of the rest of the Bridge crew, and Ethan helped Avarin to her feet. The Bajoran seemed a little uncomfortable, and he guessed that it was that the captain was helping her up, but he knew she'd get used to it soon enough, working on the Bridge. "I'm afraid your chair's a loss, lieutenant," he commented to distract her. "I'd order Cmdr Tesoras to lie down and let you sit on her, but I'm too busy to deal with a mutiny right now." That brought a smile to her lips, as Ethan had intended it to. Nothing worked as well as humour in relieving stress.

To his relief the captain saw that Avarin's head seemed to clear quickly once the hypospray she had been injected with started to work. Ethan needed her at full strength for their pass over the planet, and he would have felt uncomfortable to let the Bajoran fly if she was really badly injured.

"We're going to graze the planet's atmosphere," he explained as the lieutenant settled in front of her console as best as she could without a chair. "We're going to have to get pretty close to our people to be able to get them out through the interference field."

"Sir?" Avarin sad worriedly. "The Corona-class was never meant for atmospheric descent. I don't know if she could take the strain."

"Don't worry, lieutenant," the captain assured her. "We won't have to go in, I think, only pass along the outer edge. She'll hold, trust me."

"Yes, Sir." Well, Ethan thought, one good thing about this battle was that it got his new crew to have trust in him in record time.

Kissaal City,
Milania.
-/\-

It must have been a grenade, Piis thought. The thought wasn't well-formulated in her head, but she knew it was the truth. The thumping sound they had heard on the floor above their position. It must have been a grenade. That was why the ceiling had so suddenly come down. Piis didn't know if the same had happened over the width of the entire hall, only that it most certainly had in the section where she had been standing.

She tried to determine how badly she was wounded, but she came no further than the fact that her head was among the injured body parts. Her thoughts were foggy, and she could slowly feel herself fall into unconsciousness.

Suddenly a streak of light pierced the darkness around Piis, bright as a phaser-blast, and she realized that her eyes were open. She squinted them half-shut.

"Lt Caltoor!" a voice called, and Piis could vaguely make out a face above her. "Can you hear me? We'll have you out of there in no time."

She tried to respond, but found that she couldn't form the words in her mouth. The lieutenant felt some heavy weights being lifted off of her, and then one face suddenly came up very close in front of her and something cold was pressed to her neck.

The moment the hypospray was emptied into her bloodstream, Lt Caltoor's head began to clear. "What . . . ?" she asked.

"Lie still, lieutenant," Dr Talek told her firmly in his emotionless voice. "You have sustained a severe concussion. Your further injuries are minor, and easily repaired. However, you will need to lie until we can acquire transport to more extensive medical facilities, or your concussion will be aggravated." While he spoke, the Vulcan ran his instruments over various parts of her body, and Lt Caltoor winced when he put slight pressure on what she assumed was a bruised rib.

Resisting the temptation to lift her head and look around, the lieutenant couldn't help but wonder if they would ever make it to a medical facility. "How . . ." she asked weakly, "how's the battle going?"

Dr Talek looked away for a moment, glancing at a Security and two Medical officers firing phasers out of a shattered window. He was no Tactical officer, but even he could see what was happening. Briefly the Vulcan considered lying-putting the patient at ease was a logical step in the treatment of any injury-but he did not think Lt Caltoor would believe him. "We are holding our position for now" he reported. "However, I do not believe we will be able to do so for much longer."

Caltoor opened her mouth to speak, but the doctor anticipated her question. "I estimate we have ten to twenty minutes before we are overrun." He paused for a moment, to let this sink in. "I regret to inform you that ensign Dechnik was fatally injured when the ceiling came down."

Piis squeezed her eyes shut and felt tears brim up behind her eyelids. This was the second officer she'd lost today. The lieutenant and the ensign had never really had a personal relationship, but they had worked together for a very long time. Caltoor wanted to find a dark corner and crawl away in it, but knew she couldn't.

Wasn't there any way out of there?

Dr Talek went on to treat other injured, and when Lt Caltoor heard someone call her name, she ignored it for a moment.

Then she recognized the voice. And the fact that it was coming from her commbadge.

Her eyes opening wide, Caltoor activated her commbadge. The room spun around her as she sat up, but she ignored it. "Aesculapius, come in," she spoke. "This is Lt Caltoor, please come in."

"This . . . ptain Blev . . . nd by for . . . transport." The words were barely audible through the interference, but the message was clear enough. Lt Caltoor smiled.

-/\-

The Sylison lieutenant watched the lights shimmer in the building across the street from him with a sick feeling in his stomach. He knew what it meant, but couldn't accept it. He could almost see his expected promotion be washed away as by a spring tide. But perhaps not all was lost yet . . .

"All teams! Charge the building!" the lieutenant ordered through his communicator. He didn't waste any time himself, but jumped up and led his men across the street. At the appearance of the shimmering light enemy fire had dropped rapidly, so he didn't worry overmuch about injury and was pleased to see that soldiers from every position followed suit.

The lieutenant entered the building through what had once been one of the larger windows. Inside he swung his fusion rifle around, ready to face whatever resistance he would encounter. There was none. The hall was empty but for the Sylison soldiers spilling in. All the effort, all those men who were injured, and he didn't even have one dead Human to show for it, let alone a live one.

"No!" he yelled. Yes, was the answer there was no one left to give.

Elsewhere in Kissaal City,
Milania.
-/\-

The Sylison soldier who had the bad fortune of lifting the right plate of synthetic-or the wrong one, depending how you looked at it-and discovering Rag's hiding place made a strange gurgling sound as the young Bajoran pulled her knife back out of her throat. What a weird colour blood they have. The thought fluttered through Rag's mind as a calmness not very suitable to the situation settled over her. She stood up and immediately dropped into a defensive crouch, favoring her injured leg.

The female soldier had had no chance to scream, but she hadn't needed to. The remaining three Sylison soldiers noticed her fall. For a moment they stood there silently, shocked by the death of their patrolmate, but only for a moment.

Rag knew that she was going to die now, but all her fear had suddenly melted away. She remembered feeling like this once before. Long years ago, back on Bajor, the girl had been chased and cornered by two Cardassian guards somewhere in the countryside of Yalto Province. Unarmed, she hadn't stood a chance against them, until suddenly, completely unexpectedly, her friends from her cell had appeared and vaporized the Cardassians. Every single one of those friends was dead now, and Rag harboured no illusions that they would save her again.

Still she would stand her ground. It was not honour that kept her from fleeing. She felt little for that kind of nonsense. No, it was simply the realisation that fleeing wouldn't help her one bit that made the girl raise her already bloodied knife again. Besides, she refused to give the fish-faces the satisfaction of seeing her fear. In many ways dying wouldn't even be such a bad thing.

Briefly Rag hoped that the soldiers would give in to their rage over the death of their comrade and attack her in hand-to-hand combat, but she didn't actually expect it. She was right. Taking a step backward rather than forward, the Sylisons aimed their disruptor weapons. At this point, it took a lot out of Rag to stand her ground. She might not want to show her fear, but that didn't mean her instincts of self-preservation were gone. Could she really face her death as stoically as she was trying to, pretending not to be afraid?

She would never know. Or at least, not for a while yet.

Suddenly, Rag's surroundings started to fade as a purplish light closed around her. She started to panic, not realizing what was happening. A now almost transparent Sylison shot a disruptor blast at her. The blast, lacking its customary, deadly brightness was the last thing the young Bajoran saw before the alley vanished completely. It passed right through her.

Only at the last moment did Rag realize that she was safe.

High above Milania,
the Lynceus system.
-/\-

Seen against the background of the green-blue sphere of the world of Milania, the Sylison invasion fleet seemed small, even insignificant. From the tiny, tear-shaped battleships to the far larger, blocky freighters-and even the newly arrived command cruiser-none of the ships were more than specks, bugs bothering a surfacing whale.

But one vessel broke loose of that swarm, distancing herself from Milania at an exponentially growing speed. After a little time some of the other ships seemed to take notice of the vessel and diverted their courses to pursue, but it was clear that the first ship already had too great a lead, and their pursuit was in vain.

Seen from closer-up, anyone could have seen why the Sylisons wanted to overcome the ship. It was not one of their own. But, saucer-section in front, two nacelles glowing behind, the Federation starship U.S.S. Aesculapius wasn't about to fall for any alien aggressor.

Assuring her safe escape, the Aesculapius jumped to Warp, her visual image elongating before shooting off in the far distance, while the ship herself had already vanished, moving faster than the light could show.

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

Ryalla alternately watched the image of the passing stars on the viewscreen and the work crews doing their jobs all over the Bridge. Ethan's captain's chair had never felt so uncomfortable.

An hour after the Aesculapius' battle and their narrow escape, the Andorian first officer was still all riled up. Though less infamous for it, Ryalla's people had as fierce a warriors' tradition as the Klingons did. It was proving decidedly difficult to finish her Bridge shift the ordinary, boring way while her blood was still boiling in her veins from the action.

The captain, knowing Ryalla as well as he did, had anticipated this before he left the Bridge. He had told her, quite bluntly, to restrain herself and show to crew a calm facade, to reassure the junior officers that everything was all right again. Just like he was supposed to do, Ryalla knew. But that didn't make sitting still any easier. Ethan had been right as well when he'd left Ryalla in charge on the Bridge. One of them had had to stay there, in case the Sylisons surprised them all and caught up with the Ace, while the other of them had had to go and debrief the away team and check on the wounded crewmembers.

Ryalla winced inwardly when she thought of the fact that they had lost two officers on this fateful, supposedly completely peaceful mission. Ensign Dechnik and crewman Liefeld. Two names which she'd never had, nor ever would have, the chance to know better than in the most casual of ways. She hated herself when an officer on her ship was lost, and she knew that Ethan, who was actually in command, felt the same if not worse. They both needed to see that the rest of the wounded would all recover, but it was Ethan's right and privilege as captain to go first.

Unable to sit still any longer, the commander jumped up and went over to the nearest station that was undergoing repairs, the Helm. "How's it going, Yu?" she asked the senior officer working on the console.

The Asian Human woman looked up at the commander. "We're nearly done with the Helm, Sir," she reported. Hama and I were just about to get a new chair, and then we are finished."

"I'm sure captain Blevins will be glad to have his chair back," Ryalla quipped, nodding at the chair ensign Crespo, the Conn officer on duty, was sitting in. Since pieces of the original Helm chair had been spread all over the Bridge following the battle, a chair had been brought out from the captain's ready room so Crespo wouldn't have to stand all through his entire shift. Hama and Yu chuckled with the commander, but poor Crespo looked a bit embarrassed.

Ryalla walked back to the captain's chair and sat down. She felt a bit better now that she had done something, even if it wasn't particularly useful. "How long until the ship is back to full capacity?" she asked, speaking to anyone who could answer.

"I think we'll have fixed everything we can out here in something less than thirty hours, commander," Lt Yu replied, halfway to the turbolift. "But you'd have to ask the Chief for the exact time."

She nodded. "This'll do fine." It sounded like the Aesculapius would be in tip-top shape again before meeting up with the Starfleet brass-or near enough to it to look good, anyway. She actually looked forward to telling about this completely unprovoked attack. But Ryalla's brow furrowed when she realized how slim the chances were that the Federation would intervene-except that they might send a small taskforce to find the Socrates, if she was still missing.

"Damn," Ryalla cursed softly. The White Fever was still running rampant in the Colvarin Alliance, and only Federation technology could provide the cure. How many innocent civilian lives would this war cost for the plague alone?

"Cmdr Tesoras?" a worried voice interrupted her unhappy train of thought.

She twisted around in her chair. "What's up, Stevensen?" she asked.

The Security commander frowned, trying to fine-tune his console's readings. "I'm picking up something on long-range sensors, Sir. It looks like ships dead ahead of us. They may very well be Sylison."

"Ops?" Ryalla asked.

"They're definitely Sylison, commander," came the reply. "I'm running a broader scan now, and I'm picking up similar readings from several different points in space. The Sylisons may be trying to prevent anyone from passing through this sector. If they were here for some other reason, they probably would have their cloaks up."

Ryalla scowled, not very pleased with this sudden turn of events. Then something occurred to her, though, and she couldn't hold back a little smile. It appeared that Starfleet wasn't leaving the Colvarin Alliance just yet after all. She would have to tell Ethan about everything that had been discovered on the Bridge.

"Crespo," she called to the Helm, "bring us to a full stop." She activated her commbadge. "Captain to the Bridge."

Sickbay,
Deck Four.
-/\-

Stepping into Sickbay, captain Blevins waved to a passing doctor. Erilak, he thought his name was, but he wasn't certain. "Doctor, what are the casualties?"

The Vulcan stopped to reply with his usual detachment. "There have been a total of two fatalities and it does not appear that there will be any more. Aside from that, there are thirty-one injured, seven of which severely." Ethan nodded, and Erilak quickly strode on.

The captain had known about the two officers who had died on the surface of Milania before he had left the Bridge, and now he was torn between mourning for them and being thankful that no one else of his crew had joined them in the next world. Then one of the ground rules he'd been taught in command class at Starfleet Academy popped up in his head: care for the living first.

Ethan knew from experience that sometimes it simply was easiest to let the rules do your thinking for you. He spotted his Chief Conn officer and went over to her. Avarin was standing next to a biobed, apparently fully healed-Ethan had sent her away from the Bridge the second the ship had made it safely to Warp. He smiled when he saw where the pilot was looking. Sitting on the next biobed was the young Bajoran girl they had rescued from Ferrum IV. I should have known, the captain thought. Well, at least Avarin was keeping a little distance this time around.

To Ethan's relief, Rag didn't seem to be seriously injured. In fact, from what he could see, nurse Layton was having quite some trouble keeping the girl seated on the bed for the remainder of her treatment.

"How is your head, lieutenant?" captain Blevins asked.

Avarin jumped at least three feet into the air when he spoke up so suddenly, Ethan noted with amusement. The Bajoran hadn't even noticed him before.

"I'm all right, Sir," Lt Avarin replied when she had recovered. "The doctor said I'll have to take twenty-four hours of rest, just to be on the safe side, but I feel perfectly healthy already."

Ethan nodded, a little distracted by the rising voices at the next biobed. "I'm sure you do, lieutenant," he replied. "Give Lt Kubert a call when you have the time. I think she was worried about you."

She smiled. "I will, Sir."

"And what about the girl? She wasn't badly injured, I hope?"

Avarin looked a little embarrassed, as if ashamed of her own strong interest in the girl. "She caught some shrapnel from an explosion in one leg, Sir," she told the captain. "Otherwise, I think she only has some scratches and bruises."

"I think we all have plenty of those, after what we've been through."

"Lt Caltoor told me Rag probably saved the entire surface team's lives," the Bajoran added, with a hint of pride in her voice.

"Is that so?" captain Blevins asked, but then he waved her off, saving the story for some other time, when Rag suddenly hopped off her biobed and ran away. She easily evaded Layton's hand when the nurse tried to grab her arm and vanished out of the room. Nurse Layton looked like she wanted to scream.

"Will she be all right now?" Ethan asked the Head nurse. "Because I can have someone bring her back to Sickbay if she needs more treatment."

The nurse sighed. "I suppose she'll be fine, Sir," she admitted grudgingly. "She just won't let me do a full scan to see if Dr Talek missed anything. Not that we would have had any previous scans on record to compare it with."

Ethan shrugged. "Well, it is her own decision, nurse, though I have to admit that I don't like this one either."

"You're right, Sir," Layton agreed. "Can I help you with anything?"

"If you can heal questions too, you can. Whatever happened to the Sylisons that we captured alive?"

"Two of them were sent on to the Brig, captain," Layton reported, "and the other six are around here somewhere, waiting for further treatment. Don't worry, Sir-they're under guard. Even Dr T'Lera hardly objected."

"'Hardly'?" Lt Avarin asked, smiling.

"Don't ask," Layton urged her.

"Thank you, nurse," Ethan continued. "Now could you direct me to Lt Caltoor? I'll need to debrief her."

Layton winced a little. "I'm afraid that's not possible, Sir," she said. "The lieutenant suffered a concussion down on Milania, and Dr T'Lera has ordered everyone to stay away and give her absolute rest."

The captain's face clouded. He knew that it was T'Lera's full right, and even duty, to give such an order if she deemed it necessary, but he suspected she had done it just to spite him. Vulcan or not, Ethan wouldn't put it past the doctor. He sighed. Well, he'd just have to talk to her and see if he could get her to give in. Then Ethan frowned, suddenly distracted.

"Did we just drop out Warp?" he wondered out loud.

"I think so, Sir," Avarin agreed. Layton only looked nonplussed and shrugged.

"Captain to the Bridge," the intercom called.

Outside the Conference Room,
Deck One.
-/\-

Melanie walked through the short corridor from the turbolift to the Conference Room with a sense of dread. Now that this war had erupted there was no doubt that the ship would return to the Federation. They had already started on their way, the unexpected stop notwithstanding.

It wasn't like Melanie wanted to hang around in a warzone. Anything but that. But she had spent enough time on Milanian soil to see the suffering of the victims of the White Fever. She still didn't want to stay, but she had to do what she could to help them.

She looked aside to the person walking next to her. Avarin Mresi didn't look very happy either, but Melanie didn't know if their reasons had anything in common. The Ops lieutenant knew that the Chief pilot was still very much nervous about senior staff meetings, so that was probably on her mind-and then there was the young Bajoran stowaway. Melanie didn't think she could have gotten that girl off Mresi's mind with a size three hyperspanner.

Ahead of the two officers, the doors slid open, and they stepped inside.

"Welcome, ladies," captain Blevins greeted them from his chair at the head of the table. "Have a seat." Melanie nodded an affirmative and looked around the table. It seemed everybody had already arrived. At captain Blevins' right hand sat Cmdr Steve Sandersen, Chief of Security. The dark blond man looked tired, and understandably so. On the captain's other side, Cmdr Ryalla Tesoras looked very much awake. The Andorian was even smiling. Melanie had had ample opportunity in the past to see Cmdr Tesoras' various smiles, and this particular one usually seemed to mean that she had gotten her way with something. Lt Besan Wymak from Engineering, sitting on her left, seemed to catch on to Tesoras' good mood, and was smiling with her. But then, it didn't take much to get the merry Despan to smile. Finally, to his left, as far away from the captain as possible, was Dr T'Lera. The Vulcan didn't show any mood at all, but Melanie noticed that she was staring at captain Blevins intently, not even looking up to greet the new arrivals.

Melanie and Mresi quickly took the two remaining seats, next to each other. Melanie took the chair directly next to Steve Sandersen, and returned his greeting smile.

"Now that we're all here," the captain started, "let's get this meeting on the road." He looked around the officers gathered. "First of all, I have some news that a lot of people on the Aesculapius will consider bad. Most of you have probably noticed or heard that we stopped a few hours ago and then changed course. We're not going home." There were startled faces and noises all around the table. Melanie's mind was racing. At first she felt a wave of panic, but then hope suddenly blossomed up when she realized that captain Blevins might have thought of the same things she had. They might be going back to help the ill.

"The truth is," Blevins continued, "that the Sylison Empire has erected a blockade. If we try to break through, our chances aren't all that wonderful, so Cmdr Tesoras and I have decided to stay in the Colvarin Alliance. It may not sound very smart, very logical, to stay in a warzone to be safer, but there is a lot of space out there, enough to get lost in, and not be found. We are not getting caught up in this war. Unfortunately, this means that all forthcoming leaves are cancelled. Subspace communications with the Federation will be restricted, because it might be traced to our location. We have sent a message describing our situation to Starfleet Command and though we haven't had a reply yet, I expect Command will agree that we have chosen the best option available."

"Though very reluctantly, if I know those rank-bars," Ryalla commented.

Melanie raised a hand. "You have a question, lieutenant?" captain Blevins asked.

"Yes, Sir," she replied. "What will we be doing while we are here in the Alliance?"

Blevins shrugged. "Starfleet will probably order us to try and find out what happened to captain Alleron and the Socrates. In the meantime, we haven't finished our old mission yet." He smiled. "I figure, since we're out here anyway, we might as well save some lives."

Melanie smiled back at him, and she wasn't the only one. The officers cheered. For some reason, Melanie then felt compelled to look across the table, to Dr T'Lera. The Head of Sickbay had raised one eyebrow to high upon her forehead, as if surprised. Now, Melanie was no expert on Vulcans, but could swear she saw approval on the stoic face. Her smiled widened. Who knew? Perhaps war would stay off of the ship.

Jefferies Tube 47
between Decks Two and Three.
-/\-

Her situation could have been a lot worse, Rag decided. The young Bajoran was lying on her back in one of the ship's many maintenance crawlspaces, enjoying the utter silence surrounding her. For most people, the tubes would have been cramped, and it would have been a strange person who chose them to relax in. But Rag wasn't all that tall, and ever since she had first woken up on the Ace, almost two weeks ago-had it really been that long already? It seemed much shorter-she had found that the crawlspaces were the best, if not the only, places to get some peace and quiet on this ship full of people who loved to stick their noses into other people's business. Rag didn't care if the people who said hello when she ran into them in the corridors meant well. They just made her uncomfortable.

So despite the fact that Cap Blevins had told her very pointedly that she shouldn't go back into the Jefferies Tubes when he'd laid out the rules for staying on the starship, and despite the fact that she had quarters of her own now-they were just too roomy, she'd never had anything like them before-she had come here to rest a bit, and to think.

Rag felt like she had entered the third stage of her life. The first had been on Bajor, and despite that the recent fighting had re-awakened many of her memories of fighting the Cardassians with the resistance, it seemed so long ago that it made Rag tired to think of it. Then there had been the time she had spent on Ferrum IV before as well as after her escape. It was that period that made thinking of the period before it so exhausting, and now that it was over, now that she was off of that rock in space, Rag refused to waste any time thinking about it.

In this third period, however, she had been welcomed warmly. Sure, Rag had heard people talk about her in ways that weren't very welcoming, but they were only few, and besides, none of them dared to do so if they weren't sure that Ryalla and the Cap were on another part of the ship. And sure, it was hard to get some decent privacy around here, but it was certainly no harder than where she had been before. Rag laughed. Absolutely not. She could keep some secrets here. She didn't doubt that she would.

No, her situation could have been a lot worse, Rag decided again. She could have been dead. She could still have been stuck on Ferrum IV. She could have been in any other place she knew.

-/\-
The end . . .


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