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“We’re now approaching the outer border of Krellon space,” said DeMara Deen from her station at operations before turning around and glancing at Michael in the captain’s chair as well as Tazla Star by his side.

“Alright, we better do this by the book,” he said and considered his first officer. “Remind us again of the protocol for crossing the border.”

She brought up the requested details on her computer console. “According to what we’ve been told by Starfleet Command, we are required to drop out of warp immediately before reaching the outer boundary and continue to proceed at impulse while sending a general hail requesting permission to enter Krellonian space. We should then be intercepted by a border patrol vessel which may decide to board and inspect us before allowing us to proceed further. Under no circumstance are we to proceed into the inner boundary until we have been given permission by a designated border patrol agent.”

“And that’s after we’ve been formally invited,” said Leva from the tactical station behind the two command officers. “They make it easier to enter Romulan territory.”

Michael was fully aware that Leva spoke from experience since the half-Romulan had in fact been invited to visit the Romulan homeworld during the Dominion War.

“That tells us how much Krellonians like visitors,” said Deen and then quickly shot a contrite look to her right and towards the helmsman. “No offense, Lif.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “None taken. And you’re right, they don’t. One of the countless reasons I don’t live there anymore.”

“Let’s not give them any reason to keep us out,” said Michael. “Drop us out of warp and continue on impulse for the time being. Also, keep an eye on that inner boundary and make sure we keep well clear of it for now.”

“Dropping out of warp,” said Culsten and not a moment later the viewscreen provided ample evidence that they were no longer traveling at faster than light speeds.

“Mister Leva,” said Michael, turning to his tactical officer next. “Send a general greeting and request for permission to proceed into Krellon space on a wide-beam subspace channel.”

“Broadcasting now.”

“We are crossing the outer boundary to Krellon space,” said Deen.

For a moment nobody on the bridge spoke almost as if everyone was holding their collective breaths, waiting for something to happen that would make it inevitably clear that they had now passed into another sovereign territory. It wasn't all that surprising, however, when that signal never came, after all, in outer space, territorial boundaries could not be enforced in the same manner as physical borders on a planet, the ever-shifting nature of space-time itself making it a near impossible prospect.

“So far, so good,” said Star. “Lif, what can we expect from the border patrol?”

“ConsideringEagle’ssize we’ve probably been on their long-range sensors for a while now. I would expect to see one or two ships on an intercept course long before we reach the inner boundary. If they follow standard procedure, they’ll want to board us and ask a few questions. The whole thing shouldn’t last more than ten minutes but it does tend to be a rather tense affair.”

“Let’s receive any guests in the observation room and I suggest we serve some food and drinks as well. Let’s try to make this as comfortable for them as we can,” said Michael, looking at Star.

She nodded quickly and stood. “I’ll arrange it now.”

“Sir, I have one ship on long-range sensors approaching us at high warp,” said Leva. “Belay that, it’s two ships … no,” he stopped himself and looked up at the captain who regarded him with a curious look. “Make that eight frigates. They’ll be intercepting us in about twenty minutes. And we are being advised to hold our present position.”

Michael didn’t manage to hide his surprise. “Looks like they’re really rolling out the welcome committee for us.”

Star smirked. “I better make sure there are enough refreshments set up,” she said and headed out to make the arrangements.

“Lif,” said Michael. “Bring us to a full stop.”

“Full stop, aye, sir.”

“And would you mind joining us in the observation lounge?”

“Yes, sir,” he said after a brief delay. Michael hardly missed the little sigh he had tried to suppress unsuccessfully.

* * *

It didn’t take long for Eagleto be entirely surrounded by the eight, much smaller border patrol vessels and Michael carefully studied the ships he could make out through the large windows of the observation lounge, holding position just a few hundred meters astern.

He was once again reminded how rarely Krellonians traveled outside their territory by the almost entirely alien design of the ships, one he had never come across before. He also couldn't deny that they possessed a somewhat interesting aesthetic appearance thanks to their gleaming, chrome-like hulls, their pronounced v-shape, and their wing-like nacelles, making them appear, at least to him, more like pieces of moving art, rather than a militaristic starship design.

He glanced over to Lif Culsten who stood nearby but the younger man was avoiding making direct eye contact or showing any interest in the ships outside for that matter. In fact, he seemed entirely lost in his own thoughts.

The doors to the room opened before Michael could address his helmsman’s lack of focus.

Tazla Star stepped in first, quickly followed by six tall Krellonians. Like with Culsten, their most distinctive physical feature which distinguished them from most other humanoids Michael had come across was the fact that they lacked any kind of auricles attached to their skulls and instead, where most other races had their primary auditory organs, there was nothing more than perfectly smooth skin. All six had uniformly narrow strips of silver hair running from their foreheads, all the way to the base of their necks. He guessed that the dark markings, possibly tattoos, on the side of their otherwise bald heads indicated some sort of rank. They wore heavy chrome-like combat armor and all six of them carried assault rifles. There were three men and two women on their team, even though Michael had to admit it wasn't easy to guess their genders due to their bulky uniforms, similar builds, and identical hairstyles.

A quick glance towards Star and her slightly exasperated expression let him know that she had unsuccessfully attempted to get them to leave their weapons behind.

Nora Laas and two armed security officers had followed the Krellonian delegation into the room.

From a diplomatic standpoint, Michael would have preferred to do this without an armed escort but considering that they had clearly insisted on bringing their own guns, he appreciated Star’s decision to include Nora and the security team.

He offered a traditional Krellonian greeting gesture he had been shown by Culsten, palms pressed together, thumbs crossed and clenched fingers pointing at their guests, and took a step forward. “Welcome aboard Eagle. I am Captain Michael Owens and on behalf of the United Federation of Planets, we are honored to be allowed to enter Krellonian space,” he said with his best and most disarming smile before pointing at the table where a selection of refreshments and finger foods which were common within the Federation had been set up. “Perhaps you would like to sit down and sample some of what the Federation has to offer.”

The officer standing at the front of the group, Michael guessed he was the leader since his skull marking were more intricate than those of the others, looked over the table very briefly and then, entirely disinterested with what he had seen, glanced back towards him. “You are the commanding officer of this vessel?”

He nodded. “That is correct. Captain Michael Owens. I don’t believe I got your name?”

The man reached for a padd he had strapped to his belt and began to enter commands. "State your full name, race, and rank?"

Michael shot Star a quick look but she just shrugged, not entirely sure what the purpose of the question was either. “Michael Timothy Owens. Human. Captain with Starfleet.”

He continued to make notes without looking up. “State your place of birth?”

“The planet Earth in the Sol System.”

“I need you to be more specific.”

“A place called Waukesha on the North American continent,” he said, beginning to feel slightly exasperated. “Perhaps we could discuss arrangements for traveling to the Piqus system. I understand we have been urgently requested by your government to render aid to its population.”

“This vessel, Eagle, you called it?”

He nodded. “That is correct.”

“What is the exact number of its crew and passengers?”

He had to think about that for a brief moment. Eagle’sordinary complement was seven hundred and eighty, made up of officers, enlisted crewmen, and civilians. But it had been a long time since his ship had been home to that many people. The figure had changed most drastically during the war when all the civilians had disembarked and they had been replaced with a military contingent made out of combat-trained Marines. The crew had been decimated over the war years due to casualties and reassignments alike to such a degree that the total complement had often varied from one week to the next. Following the war, reassignments had continued in order to replenish other ships and bases which had been harder hit by the war than Eagle. Then, just a few weeks ago, following a little bit of soul-searching, Michael had decided to allow civilians to once again return to the ship by parting ways with Marines who had been onboard for nearly two years.

"Currently, I believe its six hundred forty-nine souls," he said after a moment and sought confirmation from his first officer who quickly nodded in the affirmative. "I hope you don't need me to go through all their names. Otherwise, we'll be here a while," he added with a smile.

The border security officer clearly had no sense of humor about this at all, nor did his colleagues, who all remained entirely stone-faced.

Star’s look seemed to say it all: Tough crowd.

“We will require a breakdown of your crew by race and rank and place of origin. You will also provide a full manifest of all and any cargo your vessel is currently transporting.”

“I believe that can be arranged,” said Star.

Michael nodded. “We’re more than happy to fully cooperate with all your requirements,” he said. “However, we would appreciate if we could expedite this process slightly in order to address the medical emergency on Piqus VII as soon as possible.”

But once again the officer seemed entirely apathetic to the reason Eaglehad come into Krellonian space. “How many habitable decks does this vessel comprise of?”

Eaglehas thirty decks within the saucer and engineering hulls and another six in the pod,” he said.

“We will commence a deck to deck inspection of your vessel. Your crew is instructed to cease all activity during the search, disarm themselves were necessary and submit themselves to a security scan. Any interference with the inspection will not be tolerated.”

Michael frowned, not liking the sound of this at all. Putting aside that he had not been advised to expect such a thorough inspection of his ship and crew, the intrusiveness of what the officer had suggested went far beyond what he would have allowed from an ally, not to mention a people he knew basically nothing about. “How long do you expect this to take?”

The irritation in the officer’s face was palpable. This was not a man accustomed to being questioned. “Considering the size of your vessel and crew, we will have to prepare six additional inspection team. If your crew cooperates fully, I expect to complete the inspection within eight standard hours.”

“I appreciate that you have your regulations,” Michael said, trying to sound as diplomatic as he knew how. “But surely we can make some sort of exception in this case. After all your own government has invited us here to address an urgent medical situation. Any delays in getting to Piqus VII will likely also put more Krellonian lives at risk. Besides, I have regulations of my own, I cannot allow your teams to inspect sensitive areas of this vessel.”

The annoyed expression on the other man’s face made it clear that this was not something he was accustomed to hearing.

Star took a small step forward. “Perhaps we could reach a compromise. We are still a few hours out from the Piqus system. How about we continue to our destination, with you escorting us of course, and we will let you carry out a joint inspection of Eaglewhile we are en-route?”

Michael thought that to be sensible compromise and gave the Trill a quick nod to let her know that he fully supported this alternative and appreciated her attempt to try and move this along.

The border officer, however, was clearly not interested in finding middle ground on anything and quickly shook his head. "Not acceptable. You will follow our instructions," he said, his tone becoming a lot more agitated all of a sudden, and Michael could tell that the rest of his team was beginning to tense-up as well. It was clear that Krellonina border patrol agents were not at all used to discussing their procedures or being questioned on them. As far as they were concerned, there was only one way of doing things.

Michael turned to Culsten who had been suspiciously quiet once again, not really offering any assistance in dealing with this situation.

“Justicar,” Culsten said, apparently recognizing the man’s rank insignia. “As you can tell, I am a Krellonian. The name is Liftu-Tensu-Leetu. I can vouch for these people and the urgency of our request to be allowed swift passage to the Piqus system.”

The justicar considered his fellow Krellonian almost contemptuously. “It does not matter who or what you are,” he said. “You, your commanding officer and the rest of this crew will comply with our instructions.”

“Or what?” Star said, clearly having lost her patience with this entire affair. She continued before Michel could stop her. “We are trying to be reasonable and cooperate with your directives but may I remind you that we are here at your people’s request? Are you implying that if we don’t comply, you will not let us enter your space to help your own people?”

"I am implying nothing," the justicar growled, his irritation now having reached blatant anger. "You are already within Krellonian Star Alliance territory. By law, you are obligated to follow any instructions given to you by an official agent of the Star Alliance. You must comply or you and your vessel will be seized," he said and raised his heavy rifle, trying to point it at Star.

But Star’s reflexes were slightly faster and she grabbed the rifle by its extended barrel and before he could bring it up far enough to line up a shot. Michael could see them both exerting great effort, the justicar trying to raise his weapon while Star tried to keep him from doing it.

“Remove your hand at once. You are interfering with Star Alliance operations.”

“You’re trying to point a weapon at me.”

Things were beginning to spiral out of control. Michael realized he had to act quickly to avoid a potential shootout in the packed observation lounge. “Let’s all calm down and—“

Star countered his increased effort to raise his rifle by grabbing hold of it with her another hand.

The weapon erupted loudly with a bright flash and a bolt of crimson energy which burned a large hole into the carpeted floor.

The other five officers quickly raised their own weapons, for all appearances ready to fire.

Nora sprang to action and ripped a rifle out of one Krellonian's hand before he could point it at anybody and used the butt of the same weapon to strike him hard enough against the side of his head that he lost his balance and dropped to the floor.

Michael took a quick step towards the third man trying to get a beat on him and drove his own rifle into his midsection which caused the agent to double over in pain before he lost his grip on his weapon.

Star had let go of the rifle she had tried to keep out of her face when it had fired suddenly, most likely because of the heat generated through the barrel and now found herself at the wrong end of that exchange with the muzzle pointed right at her neck

Nora’s security guards had followed their leader’s example and the petite human Skylar McIntyre had shoved her phaser emitter right into the face of a female officer who was now pointing her rifle at the captain. T’Nerr, the orange-furred Caitian had his weapon trained on another border officer who was threatening Nora with her rifle.

Michael raised the weapon he had commandeered and pointed it at the justicar who seemed moments away from blowing off Star's head. In truth, he had no idea if he would be able to figure out how to operate the rifle, or if it had stun setting for that matter, before the justicar could pull the trigger.

“Lower your weapons,” said Michael forcefully. “It doesn’t have to end like this.”

“You provoked this confrontation,” the justicar hissed, holding firm to his weapon, the muzzle of which nearly brushing against Star’s vulnerable throat. “You will lower your weapons and surrender to our authority.”

“Look around, I don’t think you are in much of a position of authority at present,” said Nora who kept her own liberated, alien rifle as steady as a rock, inches away from one of the agent’s heads.

Michael shot her a sharp look, making it clear that she wasn’t helping.

“The way I see things, this can all end peacefully if we just agree to lower our weapons and write this whole unfortunate affair off as nothing more than a cultural misunderstanding. The alternative is that whoever is left standing after we start shooting will have to start picking up body pieces off the floor and explain to our respective governments how a humanitarian mission turned into a bloodbath,” said Michael, trying to keep his eyes on everyone in the room, most of whom had either weapons pointed at them or were pointing them at somebody else. Or both.

Nobody spoke for a moment as an unsettling silence fell over the room during which Michael was sure he could hear not just his but a number of heartbeats, most of which were racing far faster than should have been normal. He was also fully cognizant that just one slipped finger could lead to a bloody massacre right here onboard his own ship.

“This isn’t over,” said the justicar. But instead of lowering his weapon, he used one of his hands to tap the back of his gun-wielding hand twice.

Michael braced himself for what that might mean.

It turned out to be some sort of retrieval signal as not a moment later the justicar and all of his people were engulfed in a bright yellowish energy beam, before they disappeared entirely.

Michael uttered a heavy breath as he lowered his weapon.

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Star.

Nora looked more contrite as she handed the alien rifle to T’Nerr. “Sorry sir, I think I may have made matters worse but it looked like people were going to start shooting.”

“You did what you had to, Laas,” he said and looked towards the ceiling. “Owens to bridge. What is the status of the Krellonian ships?”

Xylion responded promptly. “We have detected transporter activity and all vessels have powered their engines and are altering their formation as we speak.”

“Red alert, shields up,” said Michael and then swiftly turned towards the doors, Star, Culsten and Nora close behind him. It took them just a few moments to get back to the bridge one deck above.

Xylion was already freeing up the command chair as Michael and the rest emerged from the turbolift. “The Krellonian vessels have raised shields and activated their weapons.”

“Hail them,” said Michael as he headed straight for his chair.

Leva shook his head. “They are ignoring us,” he said and then looked at Nora, clearly not having missed the concerned expression on all their faces. “What happened?”

“Things didn’t go well,” she said.

“To say the least,” added Michael. “What are they doing?”

Deen took that one. “Nothing for now. They have moved to what looks like an aggressive formation. Their weapons are definitely fully powered as are their shields.”

“This is ridiculous. Just open a channel,” said Michael.

Leva confirmed. “Channel open.”

Michael tugged at his jacket. “Justicar, let’s not escalate this any further than it already has. If you start firing we will be forced to defend ourselves. This will not end well for any of us. If this is what it takes, we are willing to withdraw from your space until this—misunderstanding has been resolved.”

There was no response.

Culsten had since taken the helm again. “They are not giving us many ways to escape, we are still mostly surrounded. The most direct course out of Krellon space is blocked off.”

“They don’t want us to stay and they don’t want us to go,” mused Star. “Make up your minds.”

“We cannot afford to get into a conflict here. Our mission hasn’t even started yet,” said Michael.

Star nodded. “Agreed. But that appears to be up to our friends out there at the moment. And I think more than anything else, we may have offended their sense of pride by not following their orders without question.”

"Sir, I'm detecting a high-frequency subspace message," said Leva.

Michael turned to look at his tactical officer. “For us?”

He shook his head. “It appears to be directed at the border vessels.”

“This could be very good or very bad for us,” said Star quietly.

“I think it’s the former,” said Deen with a small smile growing on her lips. “The ships are powering down weapons and are moving away. Whatever message they just received apparently advised them to back off.”

“Agreed,” said Leva. “Receiving a message from the lead vessel now. Text only. We are instructed to proceed to the Piqus system at best speed. We are not to diverge from our course for any reason or suffer the consequence.”

Star looked at her captain. “That it? No apology? No ‘sorry about nearly decorating your ship with your brains’?”

“I believe you were right the first time, Commander. This is about pride now. Considering the alternative, I think I’ll take it. Mister Culsten, if you would kindly get us out of here and take us where we need to go. The quicker the better.”

"Laying in a course and engaging at warp eight," the Krellonian helmsman confirmed.

“I read three of the vessels following us at a distance,” said Leva.

Michael nodded in acknowledgment and then let out a breath of air he hadn't realized he had kept in. "Keep an eye on them, Commander," he said and shot an exasperated look at his first officer. "If dealing with other Krellonian officials is going to be even half as challenging as this encounter was, I believe we are going to be in one hell of a mess here."

She nodded in full agreement. “This mission hasn’t even begun yet and I’m already dreading writing up that report. That’s got to be a new record.”

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