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Stardate 55733.7
Cardassian Battle Cruiser Pract
VIP Quarters

Gul Nekrit studied her hands. Her fingers lifted into elegant arcs as she observed the fine grey patterns of her skin. Her hands were soft, delicate…new.

She looked to her face in the mirror on her vanity. Her dark grey eyes held the slightest blue tint that matched the skin of the tear drop scale of her forehead. She gently touched her cheeks and analyzed each supple curve as they lead to the prominent ridges of her brows then down into her chin and finally to the broader ridges that graced her long and sinuous neck. Her dark brown hair was pulled back loosely and held at the base of her head with a clasp so she could proudly show off her radiant skin. This most recent molt was especially gratifying. She felt years younger.

Satisfied with her appearance, she moved away from the vanity in the spacious quarters on the enormous ship and sat once more at a work station. She was not surprised when the bell to the quarters chirped. “Enter,” she said, her voice was soft and sullen.

The door opened and her host entered the room. “Gul Nekrit. You wanted to see me?”

She looked upon the commander and was taken by his dark, brooding eyes. His jet black hair was swept back in the traditional Cardassian military style, a style she appreciated. “Yes Minet. Thank you for coming so quickly. Please, have a seat.” She directed him to a chair across from her.

He moved swiftly and it made her smile gently. She knew very well that most jumped to please her. She carried a reputation; a reputation that she enjoyed carrying. Please me and life remains easy, don’t please me and life can become very difficult indeed. It was a reputation that her mentor enjoyed as well. Gul Madred’s name was still feared.

Minet had been briefed on the mission by Gul Cacet when he boarded. To say the least, he was shocked to find out that one human man could cause so much trouble. He was prepared to assist his superiors in any way to assure that the military would maintain its grip on future rule of his home-world, but starting a war with the Federation would not be an option. They didn’t hold control over enough of the fleet.

It was simple mission. Riker could not be allowed to testify. If he did, Nekrit and four other controlling members of the Central Command would be implicated in the Hutet incident. Since so many Cardassian rebellion members had been obliterated in the effort, Central Command would lose any credibility it had left with the public and the civilian rebellion would surely assume outright power. Cardassians did not readily approve of massacres, especially with so many of their own kind. It was…distasteful.

Secretly, Minet was furious Riker was ever allowed to be sold to Tholia. He thought Nekrit had been foolhardy to even let him live, but he knew that the reward had been great and allowed for their current control over the majority of the battle cruisers. A little buy-off can go a long way with battle cruiser commanders. Although he had never wavered in his own loyalty to the remnants of Central Command, he had reaped a share of the financial reward Riker’s sale had brought. Now he was just disappointed that there was a mess to clean up.

Nekrit looked to him straight in the eyes. “Tell me, what news is there?”

Minet was prepared. “The Enterprise is proceeding on the same course towards the Argolis Cluster. She remains escorted by two of the new Federation cats as they call them. New battle ships that are quite formidable.”

Nekrit pursed her lips and flicked her hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. I know of them and I’m not worried about them.”

Minet knew better than to question her. “They are not proceeding with any haste. They are definitely not in any rush to return.” he cleared his throat. “As you likely already know, we intercepted their departure transmissions from Federation Starbase 214 and we’ve been monitoring their inter-vessel transmissions constantly ever since. They have been useless. Typical navigational discussions only. Something normally heard when three ships travel in close proximity.”

Nekrit sneered. “Then it will surprise you to learn that the cargo is still alive?”

Minet tired to hide his astonishment. “It wouldn’t necessarily surprise me at all. You have an ear that I do not.”

Nekrit smiled with the commander’s obvious deference. “Yes. I suppose I do.” She leaned back confidently in her chair, “Our sources have verified that Riker is not only alive, but that he has been moved off of the Enterprise.” She smiled happily and grinned outright when Minet’s face finally did reflect deep surprise. “That’s correct. He’s been moved to one of those battle ships as a way to avoid us.”

Her voice was light and casual, as if she hadn’t a care in the universe. Minet took comfort in it and he dared not ask her how she came by the information. He had seen her turn on lesser commanders before and obedience was rewarded, questions were punished. He grinned. “That will hopefully make our jobs a little easier.”

“Especially when the ships split up at the Argolis Cluster.”

Minet finally smiled. “Much, much easier.”

USS Panther
En Route – Sector 001
Personal Quarters: Captain – Steele, Antoinette …


She was bound.

Her large and masculine hands were held aloft by cold, metal clamps above her head and she felt that her feet were barely able to touch the floor – her toes bearing the full weight of her body in order to relieve the pull on her hands and shoulders.

Four bright lights blazed upon her face, blinding her. She could feel the heat emanating from them.

She was tired.

She was sore.

She was nude.

The hair on her chest stood on end with the chill of the room. She felt more than just exposed. She wanted to cover herself. Her fear began to rise and her thoughts began to fill with anticipation of the pain. She was able to grab hold of one thought and clenched onto it as she would have a life-line…

Remember your training Will…she wants to remove the pride. She wants to remove the dignity. She wants to remove the humanity. She wants me to feel like an animal. Animals cower. Animals fear. Animals have no pride. Animals have no dignity, they obey when trained. Well, she can’t train me. I have dignity and I will keep my dignity even if I hang here nude. I have nothing to be ashamed of and I won’t let her take my dignity away.

And don’t forget…there are only four lights.

The air was filled with the smells of delicious grilled meats. Her mouth salivated with the thought of tasting it. She had been given only a bit of a mold-encrusted biscuit and a sip of water earlier and the taste of it still hung in her mouth, its foul flavor reawakened by the flood of spit that now rolled in her mouth caused by the enticing aromas flooding her nose.

“Hungry human?” the soft voice seemed almost kind.

Hate filled her and she knew better than to think she would ever savor the taste of the meat that was now being served as a feast to her torturer.

She hung there as a trophy in front of her.

She opened her eyes once more in an attempt to look upon the face of her tormentor but the four bright lights blazed so intensely, all she could see was the faintest movement from across the room.

She could hear utensils on a plate; then the sounds of her chewing her assumedly delicious meal. The saliva flowed once more and it made her angrier.
Fine Nekrit. Eat all you want. Give me mold and biscuits and water. I’ll survive…but you won’t.

She heard Nekrit approach. Her heart started to pound in her chest. The pain would be coming soon. She had to prepare herself for the pain.

“Why do the human animals always make things so difficult? Well, I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. They provide me the challenge that most do not and I must admit…I love a challenge.”

She refused to speak to her.
Not even a good retort would mean anything, why give her any tool to use against me?

“Just give me the name of the site of the Maquis strong-hold human. You know they’re never going to win. There aren’t many of you left. Why continue to fight this losing battle? Your life could be so much easier. Decent food, decent clothing and a comfortable bed…”

She was so desperate for a bed. Something to sleep on. Something to curl up on and...
NO! Don’t let her do this!

“…decent activities. A life of luxury compared to this, human. But you hang here like the plucked fowl you are.” Nekrit sighed heavily. “Fine then, be stubborn if you must. But I’m much younger than you human. I will outlive you…and I wouldn’t mind making you my life-long project.”

She tried so hard to see her face but the lights continued to blind her.

“Tell me human.” her soft and sickly-sweet voice rose to her ears and her heart began to pound once more…knowing full well what question would come next, “How many lights do you see?”

She gritted her teeth, preparing for the wracking pain that would shoot through her body…and she answered. “Four.”

But the pain didn’t come…

Her heart thumped so hard in her chest, she could feel the pain control device move just under the skin in her chest. The pain wasn’t coming. She buckled herself down twice as hard.

“It’s a shame really,” the sweet voice cooed. “I really don’t like it when I have to leave my mark…especially on such a fine human specimen.” She breathed out lightly and she could hear Nekrit pick up something from the tray…

The tray…!

“…but you just don’t seem to comprehend the simplicity of the question. Well, not very many primates do. So I will teach you. There are five lights human.”

Her fury swelled and she waited for what new device this might be.

“So I will ask again. How many lights do you see human?”

“Four,” she grunted and her deep, male voice resonated through the room.

Before she could take her next breath she was overcome by a shock of pain so intense she lost control over her body, urine trickled down her leg. She buckled and hung from her hands and she yelled out uncontrollably as the device entered her upper chest near her right clavicle and removed a chunk of tissue wholly.

The intense bodily pain subsided, but the localized pain of the new wound was surprisingly hot and acidic. Whatever substance had been used would make the wound continue to fester and she knew it was never meant to heal.

“There. My mark. You are my pet now human. My pet project.”

Steele rolled from bed, nausea sweeping over her once more. She stumbled across the room to her bathroom and tried to vomit, knowing full well there was nothing left in her stomach. She lifted herself from the toilet and fell against her sink and looked to her own face in the mirror.

Her once bright green eyes were hazed, drawn and sullen. Large, dark circles had formed under her lids and her hands shook uncontrollably as she tried to wash her face, finding a little solace in its coolness. Once more she looked to her face and she knew exhaustion was seizing her. She feared going back to sleep. She feared her own bed. Her pillow provided no comfort.

“I’ll never sleep again,” she whimpered as tears fell down her cheeks. “I got them all…I got them all…” she cried, “I’ll never sleep again.”

Steele crumbled to the floor, her cries of anguish heard by no one.

She whispered to herself. “I will kill her...”

USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E
Ready Room

Picard could tell it was bad news already. Geordi LaForge’s eyes were dead give-aways. Visual implants or not, the expressive pull at their corners and furrowed skin at the insides of his eyebrows let Picard know that he was not going to enjoy what Geordi had to say. LaForge looked anxious and confused. Picard couldn’t blame him. Geordi had no idea why the Admiral was aboard. Like everyone else on the Enterprise, LaForge had not known any of the details behind their mission until he had been briefed by him just moments before. His look of shock, combined with the knowledge of the news he was about to offer, made LaForge’s skin appear to gray slightly.

Picard glanced around the room briefly. Riker sat across from him. His First Officer looked shaken. His eyes were focused on the empty settee across the room. It was Riker’s appearance that had prepared him mostly for the bad news to come. Riker already knew what LaForge was going to say…and that’s what put Picard on alert.

Admiral Renaldo Noyes sat in the chair next to Riker. The Admiral was a short man. His wiry, dark and thick hair was cut short and rested against his head in a perfect outline of his oval and olive-complexioned face. The four-pip bars of his rank shone brightly from the deep red of his gold-trimmed uniform collar that protruded from the gray of the shoulders. His long, black sleeves bore a wide band of red that matched the collar of his tunic and was held by a belt with a buckle bearing the Federation symbol. His dark brown eyes now rested squarely upon Picard’s Chief of Engineering with a serious and anticipatory stare.

Picard drew in a breath and addressed LaForge who stood before him. “Now that you know the importance of this mission Commander, why don’t you inform us of your findings?”

LaForge nodded weakly and swallowed. “As you know Captain, we detected a strange pattern differential emitted from the Panther’s deflector array and as requested, we were able to trace it again when it reappeared just a few minutes ago…there’s no doubt Captain, it’s a subspace carrier signal.”

“A message Commander?” asked Noyes whose deep and baritone voice seemed odd to come from one so short.

“Yes Admiral.” LaForge responded.

“Can you make out any of the message?”

La Forge shook his head. “No sir. When I informed Commander Riker he asked me to make every attempt to translate it, but it’s heavily encrypted. It was when I began to search for Data to assist with attempts to break the encryption that Commander Riker asked me here. Now I understand why I haven’t seen Data in a couple of days.”

Picard leaned forward over his desk. “It’s true then.” He allowed disbelief to settle in. “The only two who knew…”

“Were Malek,” Riker shook his head angrily then clenched his jaw, “…and Captain Steele.”

Noyes’ eyes began to bounce with his internal thought process. “You mean to say that Steele or Malek is sending encrypted messages? To whom?” he grunted. “The Cardassians?”

Picard’s stomach rolled. “We can’t be absolutely sure it’s either of them Admiral. It’s possible a leak occurred…” He wanted so much to believe it, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.

Riker’s look of devastation told him he felt the same way, not wanting to believe that either of them would betray the Federation in such a way. Riker cleared his throat, “We have to move forward under the assumption that the Cardassians now know of the switch…that they know Thomas is alive and is on the Jaguar.” His tortured look let Picard know that his worry rested with Troi, “They may even know of our intended ruse to split up at the cluster.” Riker rubbed his eyes hard, “The problem is…we can’t even let the Jaguar know.”

LaForge nodded in agreement, “Any transmission to the Jaguar would likely be overheard by those on the Panther sir.”

“We don’t even know who we can trust now.” Noyes agreed with anger rising in his voice. “One thing is certain Captain. We cannot now break free from the Jaguar as planned. We would leave them at the mercy of who knows how many battle cruisers may be laying in wait for us near the Argolis Cluster.”

Picard let the feeling sink in. His sadness and his feeling of being betrayed by someone he trusted within his own organization rose to the surface once more. His bitterness was hard for him to hide as he looked to his First Officer’s worried and angry face. “We have some time before we reach the departure coordinates. I want you to make every effort to break the code Mister LaForge.”

“Aye sir.”

“I also want us to be as prepared as possible to defend the Jaguar Number One.”

“Yes Captain.” It was the first time he had seen Riker refocus himself since he sat at his desk. Surely the knowledge of Troi’s presence on the potential target vessel had given him the reason to do so; but the thought of Malek or Steele breaching the confidentiality of the mission, or worse, being an actual informant sat upon him like a heavy stone.

Noyes stood from his chair in fury and concern. “We must to find a way to reach the Jaguar without the Panther knowing.” he said. “We must.”

LaForge nodded. “I will try to think of ways Admiral.”

Noyes nodded with satisfaction. “Thank you Commander.”

“Dismissed.” said Picard, and Riker and LaForge both left the office.

Picard’s eyes met the Admiral’s and they the broke eye contact sadly, both knowing that something had gone horribly wrong and now the entire mission had been compromised.

Picard let his hands glide over his smooth head once more. It will never end. Retirement. I think I really do need to retire.

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