Note: FINALLY posted!
In case it is not clear, the events of this chapter take place within a 5-month period (except for the one paragraph that explains what happened "four years ago," you know).

Chapter 4: Pursuit (Part Two)

For three months, Steve and Staci continued seeing each other, though it became clear that if he had ever been truly attracted to her, he really had no interest anymore. They met once a week for a lunch "date," and only ever talked about work. There were no more flowers, no more effort, and no more pursuit. He knew it had been a mistake to bring her into his conflict with Olivia, to use her just to spite her. Only out of some sense of obligation, some desire not to hurt him, did Staci continue to hold on to the strings of what was left of their romance. Steve, on the other hand, clung to the hurt and betrayal and tried unsucessfully to create from it something like love.

The rest of the medical staff saw what was going on between Steve, Staci, and Olivia, and chose to keep their distance. Olivia chose to ignore all of them, pretending she wasn't hurt, pouring herself into her work until it was all she was. She worked extra hours, and ran surgical simulations in the holodeck when she was avoiding Steve in Sickbay. She had found an outlet in her interest in T'Lea, so she allowed it to consume her thoughts. Day in and day out, she obsessed over the procedure, perfecting it, reviewing it, researching and testing even less conventional alternatives, logging hours upon hours of surgical simulations. And when she slept, she dreamed of of surgery and not of a painful past.

Four years earlier, a young Andorian investigative jourmalist had stumbled upon some disturbing facts, facts implying corruption in the upper levels of Starfleet, things accessible to the public but not under public scrutiny. He spent time researching, gathering more information, before he felt he had a workable theory. His conclusion: that Section 31 was now held control of Starfleet Command, and therefore, of everything done by Starfleet. When he finally brought forth his evidence to the public, some were interested, but too many dismissed it as paranoid, citing the simple fact that he was Andorian as enough evidence to that point. For almost three years, the man continued to have a neglected presence in the media, his ideas listened to by some but ultimately dismissed by many.

Suddenly, near the end of the most recent Terran calendar year, he publicly announced his resignation from the news agency that employed him. Some suspected they had pressured the resignation, others wondered if he'd had some sort of mental breakdown and holed up on some barren asteroid. A few even said he had been kidnapped and was sitting in some prison somewhere. But within a few weeks, all conversation about him died down as he was relegated to the back corners of the public mind.

Over the next few months after arriving back home on Vulcan, T'Lea and Kareb recieved and ignored multiple subspace messages originating from the Taurus. At first, they hoped for some news about their daughter, three years ago sucked into some strange rift which transported her and her ship to an alternate universe. But Andersen and his crew hadn't been able to keep contact with her, and in fact had been assigned to other missions over time.

They determined that every single message, save three, originated from the science officer, all encrypted with diplomatic codes. Since their face-to-face encounter the last time they were aboard the Taurus, it had become clear he had nothing important to say.

Thelis, the Captain, and Olivia continued to work together to crack through the codes Solkan used, without much success. They first discovered the new recipient, someone unknown on Vulcan, the multiple messages with no reply. Eventually, their work paid off, and they were able to determine the intended recipient, still if not the contents.

Still, it stumped them why Solkan should have such interest in T'Lea and Kareb, that he should attempt to contact them so often. He had been their missing daughter's bethrothed mate, but hadn't made any previous attempts to contact them regarding her. And in every other case, he only used the encryption codes when he had something to hide. Thelis, working on that assumption, tried to find a connection between his contact with Hanson and when he contacted T'Lea and Kareb, but there was no appreciable pattern. Olivia then contacted them herself three times, telling herself it had nothing to do with the surgery, but was only to "apologize" for Solkan's relentlessness.

As for the rest of the Federation, there were some outlying planets, part of a near-rebellious coalition of developing member worlds, that were under attack from a relatively powerful group of pirates in the sector. Instead of seeking assistance from Starfleet, the planets sought assistance from a quasi-military group long descended from the Maquis, the organization formed over 50 years ago near the time of the Dominion War. The group was in Starfleet's good graces, so Starfleet allowed them to defend the worlds which were not in their good graces.

The neo-Maquis' actions in the area led to a subtle shift in the balance of trade, leading to Ferengi merchants going head-to-head with their Tellarite competitors in a sector where the Tellarites previously had the biggest operation. These Tellarite - and Ferengi - merchants began to view Starfleet as weak and even incompetent and found themselves agreeing more and more with the ideology of the outlying worlds and their militant leader.

Cirtri's rival governments, however, never showed any official action, too afraid of open war on their planet. But behind the scenes, each side had formed alliances, the political atmosphere of their planet echoing the Federation as a whole. Not a member planet itself, Cirtri had become a place where disagreements could be hashed out and where both sides oddly felt safe.

Solkan visited Dr. T'Kara's office several times in those few months, seeking mental training from her, a more powerful telepath, to bolster his own below-average telepathic abilities. She turned him away every time, making it clear that she was not qualified and was not interested in doing such a thing. He began to visit her quarters when they were both off duty, but never got to stay any longer than 60 seconds.

Undeterred by his failure, he began meeting Ensign Newlin in Engineering at the end of her shifts, walking with her to the recreation lounge where she sat with him, looking absolutely terrified to be there. They sat in the far corner, away from others who might eavesdrop. To her relief, she always returned to her quarters alone. When questioned later by Thelis about these encounters, she said they were simply discussing work, allocation of ship's resources to the transporters, and a possible path towards promotion for her.

Near the end of the year, Solkan began repeatedly contacting a young female Vulcan officer aboard the USS Antares, where he had been stationed before coming aboard Taurus. The Captain, Thelis, and Olivia soon found this ship to be heavily controlled by Section 31. However, he chose not to hide his activity, as he was asking her to become his mate.

The Antares officer initially refused, and Solkan, now in the throes of pon farr, assaulted Dr. T'Kara the same day, causing enough injury that she spent the evening in Sickbay. TheAntares officer finally accepted, though now that the communications were being encrypted, it may have only been because of threat of force.

Reluctantly, the Captain allowed Solkan to travel via shuttlecraft to the Antares, from which he returned much calmer but with new encryption codes.

Back on duty, Solkan began to exercise his freedom as Operations Manager to leave his station on the bridge and visit Chief Engineer Calais down in Engineering. Though a Changeling, she had always been far too timid to do any covert work for Section 31, but Solkan always pushed her in that direction. The Captain, Thelis, and Olivia assumed that was the nature of his visits, until an anonymous report came to Thelis from someone who had witnessed Solkan pulling Cal off into an empty side room near Main Engineering, with his arm around her waist. The source said she looked reluctant to go and seemed to pull away from his touch. When questioned, however, Calais claimed no recollection of any such event and rejected the implication that Solkan would act with such impropriety.

Then, late one night, the brig commander, an Allasomorph named Lassasia, showed up in Dr. T'Kara's office, asking vague questions about Vulcans and forced mind-melds. Sensing her unshielded fear, T'Kara brought her across the hall to Sickbay, where Steve was on duty. Though the night, the two doctors observed and comforted her. Once Steve had researched her physiology, he determined there was no physical harm done. T'Kara then left Sickbay, passing a PADD with her office hours to Lassassia on the way out. In the morning, Olivia arrived for her shift and asked Steve if they had questioned the girl or alerted security. Offended that she would think them so incompetent as to forget something that critical, Steve called T'Kara back to Sickbay, pulled Olivia into his office and angrily explained all that had happened that night. Olivia remained oblivious to the reason for his anger. T'Kara entered, interrupting their argument, and showed the final incident report, which only said she had been assaulted by an "unknown Vulcan male." She again left Steve and Olivia to work together to wrap things up with Security and discharge Lassassia, who had made her decision not to pursue further investigation to identify the "unknown" man.

And finally, after nearly five months of avoiding each other, Steve and Olivia finally worked up the courage to tolerate each other's presence while on duty in Sickbay, ignoring the awkwardness between them rather than ignoring each other.