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Tazla Star checked over her phaser rile one more time, making sure it was set on heavy stun, and then allowed her gaze to survey the rest of her five-man boarding team.

It was perhaps a little smaller than she was entirely comfortable with mostly due to Nora’s recently adopted post-war strategy. Since the security chief had successfully lobbied the captain to replace their large marines contingent with less than a dozen Special Mission operatives, away mission tactics had accordingly shifted away from heavily-armed fire teams to highly specialized individual operatives.

Nora had likened this strategy to using a scalpel rather than a hammer to achieve the same objectives. Although Star was not sure if their late marine commander Caesar Wasco would have approved of such terminology.

There was, however, little doubt in her mind that this new strategy had been enormously successful ever since the Niners had joined Eagle as an additional security and combat resource and looking over the three unconventional operators in their anything but standard issue combat fatigues and highly modified weapons and gear, Tazla felt somewhat reassured.

“We’re less than two minutes from reaching the other Eagle,” Captain Owens explained via an open comm. channel from the bridge. “Captain Donners is more than happy for us to take the lead on this.”

“Considering their testy relationship, that’s probably a good thing,” said Tazla.

“Agreed.”

“Has the situation changed in any way?”

“No. Eagle is still chasing the vessel we assume belongs to this universe’s Tazla Star deeper into the star system. It has taken heavy damage from an attack and it is not likely to offer much further resistance.”

“And I assume we’re not getting involved?”

“We are already involved one way or another. But as far as my counterpart’s agenda is involved, that is not within the scope of our mission here. It might sound callous but we can’t afford to get dragged into their conflict.”

“Understood. Find DeMara and get the hell out.”

“That’s the idea. But prepare for a hot insertion. We’ll be dropping out of warp within transporter range of the other Eagle, force them to lower their shields, and beam your team directly onto the bridge. We can’t tell with a high degree of certainty where they are keeping Dee, but the bridge is a good place to start. If necessary, you should be able to secure the ship long enough to locate and extract her.”

Tazla finished with her phaser rifle, allowing it to cycle up to its highest setting briefly, the rising hum and gentle vibrations confirming that the weapon was fully operational. “We’re ready as soon as you give the signal.”

Owens hesitated for a moment. “Watch you back over there. Don’t take any risks you don’t have to. I want DeMara back but I am not willing to exchange her life for anyone’s on the boarding team.”

Tazla couldn’t hide a little smirk crossing her features, one that Owens obviously couldn’t see. ‘Bring’em back and don’t suffer any casualties while you do it’, was always a good plan to start with. Reality usually found a way to mess with good plans. “Solid copy, sir.”

Tazla considered her team next. The tall, bald-headed, and red-bearded Sensy was her point man, and he had brought the Boslic woman Violet and the short Tellarite Charm along for the ride. Nora’s capable deputy Lieutenant José Carlos rounded out the team. She signaled for them to take position on the transporter platform as she took the most central pad.

Owens had kept the line to the bridge open so that they could hear how things were developing.

Everything was mostly routine for the next minute or so until Ensign Srena announced that they were dropping out of warp.

“This could get rocky,” said Tazla to her team and took a knee on the platform to steady herself, the rest of the boarding party quickly following suit.

Things progressed very quickly after that. Uncharacteristically for Starfleet’s standard rules of engagements, Eagle came out of warp firing, clearly unleashing meticulously planned phaser fire at her twin starship, targeting areas that would be most effective to disable her shields around the bridge. Since both ships were almost identical in design, it had not been difficult for Leva to locate their most vulnerable spots.

The other ship did return fire but judging by the rather light shudders reverberating across the deck underneath her, Tazla guessed that most of their response was rather lackluster or poorly executed. Perhaps their weapons’ energy had been spent from their assault on her counterpart’s vessel.

Just a few seconds after Eagle’s heavy barrage had commenced, Leva announced that they had achieved their objective.

“Transporter room, you are a go. Good luck.”

She gave Chief Chow behind the console the sign which he acknowledged with a sharp nod before he engaged his controls.

The world around her faded out briefly as she lost molecular cohesion but thankfully not nearly long enough to make her consider all the things that could go terribly wrong when boarding what was essentially a hostile vessel, by beaming directly onto their main bridge in the middle of combat.

As had been the plan--conceived by Sensy--screening grenades had materialized just a second or so before they did. They had instantly released a thick grayish smoke, designed to not only severely reduce visibility for the enemy but also impair their balance and hand-eye coordination thanks to its mild cordrazine content.

The away team had already been inoculated against this effect and Tazla was able to see the bridge and the crew in almost perfect detail while wearing special ocular lenses in her eyes--a handy little tool she had become familiar with in her line of work as a clandestine intelligence operative.

The first thing she noticed was the similarities between this bridge and the one she spent most of her time on. Its shape and design were nearly identical and besides a slightly darker color scheme, the only noteworthy difference she could spot was that this bridge featured only a single chair in the command area and that the two forward-facing wing consoles were missing like on the older bridge designs for this class of vessel.

She didn’t have a great deal of time to consider the physical differences, since the shooting started almost as soon as she felt the solid deck under her feet.

There were at least eight crewmembers on the bridge, five of whom appeared to be heavily armed, clad in body armor which was uncommon in her Starfleet except during special operations.

Everyone on the bridge not having been inoculated and wearing the special lenses had clearly been affected by the screening grenade but that hadn’t stopped half of them to open fire almost blindly, creating a dangerous close-quarter battlefield.

Tazla managed to squeeze off just one shot with her rifle, not even sure if she had connected with anyone before she dove for cover behind the tactical console.

“We’ve got five heavies,” she heard Sensy’s voice through her subdermal communicator. “Those are our priority tangos. Everyone else is secondary.”

Clearly, the ocular lenses the SMTs used were an upgrade to what she had known in her days since just moments after Sensy had made the announcement, the outlines of all five targets appeared in her vision clear as day, even though the solid cover she had sought out. She was starting to get an idea why these guys were so good at what they did. At least part of it had to do with their toys.

Equipped with the knowledge of the exact location of each of her opponents, she rolled out from behind the tactical station, aiming squarely at the nearest trooper, she came up firing.

“Three has limited effect, recommend immediate switch to setting four,” said Violet through comms even while Tazla watched as her target stumbled backward as his body armor absorbed her well-placed blast and then quickly retaliated by firing into her general direction.

Tazla had time to utter a Trill curse before she jumped for the side alcove for cover following her unsuccessful strike. She knew she had to think fast. Evade the incoming fire and at the same time consider a response to the SMT request. Since she was the ranking officer, it was her call to make. She didn’t like the choice--phaser setting four was potentially lethal--but she also understood that there was little time for compromise and her enemies were definitely not holding back. “All hands, go to four,” she said even before she had fully managed to press herself against the bulkhead to avoid the incoming fire.

“Acknowledged,” Sensy responded instantly.

Even behind her cover, she could see the three Niners operating like a well-oiled machine, standing pretty much shoulder to shoulder, they swept their rifles across the bridge to blast their enemies faster than they could take aim.

Tazla could see that even on the higher setting, some didn’t go down immediately and needed at least two blasts before they were neutralized.

She spotted a young officer--not wearing body armor and therefore not marked as a priority target--having picked up a weapon a trooper had dropped and trying to take down Violet from behind.

She leaned out from her cover and aimed low, trying to limit the damage, striking the officer in her leg and causing her to collapse to the floor.

Not a second later Violet whirled around and, instead of blasting her, flipped her rile around stock-first, and smacked the woman against the head, knocking her out cold instantly. The Niner gave Tazla a very brief appreciative nod before she twisted her weapon back again and finished off another armored opponent.

Even before the young officer had gone down, Tazla had spotted, out of the corner of her eye, that Carlos had run into trouble.

The security officer had frozen less than a second when he had come face-to-face with a man who shared his exact same facial features. In fact, it appeared it had startled both men. However, the other Carlos recovered a fraction of a second quicker and threw himself at his alternate version before he could fire.

Tazla swept her rifle in his direction but her blast was also a tick too late, striking an empty bulkhead rather than the target she had aimed for.

The two men struggled briefly on the floor before one of them found a discarded weapon and aimed it at the other as they got back on their feet.

Tazla would later berate herself for her own split-second hesitation as she couldn’t immediately tell which Carlos was hers.

In the end, however, her delay was not critical, since another person had emerged from the slowly settling fog on the bridge. She had not been picked up by her ocular lenses.

Deen yanked Carlos around by his shoulder, forcing him to face her. The security officer hesitated just long enough to allow her to deliver a vicious blow to his solar plexus that caused him to double over in pain before she uncorked a powerful right hook to his face, sending him sprawling to deck where he remained.

Clearly groggy and dazed, he tried to pull himself back up on his elbows but his doppelganger had already located his sidearm and stunned the other Carlos with a quick blast to his chest and rendering him unconscious.

“Clear.”

Tazla took a few steps closer to the deputy security chief to make sure the right man was still standing before she glanced over to Sensy who had given the signal.

The smoke had now almost entirely evaporated, revealing a bridge littered with bodies, damaged computer consoles, and pockmarked bulkheads. Charm and Violet were in the process of securing three crewmembers who had surrendered after considering their odds against the boarding team.

“That was one hell of a punch,” Carlos said with obvious admiration. “And to think we came here to rescue you.”

Deen forced a smile even though she was clearly in pain, holding the hand she had used to strike the other Carlos. “I was getting bored of playing the damsel in distress.”

Tazla walked over to Deen and spotted a noticeable bruise on her face. “Are you all right, Lieutenant?”
She was still mostly preoccupied with her hand. “Not sure, I think I may have broken something. Hurts like crazy. Remind me not to punch people in their faces.”

Although her discomfort was obvious, Tazla couldn’t help but smile at her. “I don’t know, that looked pretty effective from where I was standing. I think, perhaps, you have a future in security.”
Carlos agreed. “I’m sure Nora would love to have you.”

Deen just shook her head. “Not on your life,” she said and then quickly turned toward one of the few remaining consoles still operational. She used her good hand to enter several commands. “I’ve sealed the bridge and erected a force field around it. That should give us a few minutes of privacy.”

“Let me look at that hand of yours, warrior princess,” said Violet with a smirk as she removed a compact medkit she was wearing on her utility belt.

Deen rolled her eyes but offered the Niner her hand as she used a compact tricorder and then a small battlefield hypo to treat it.

“Reading some fractures. This will deal with the pain but you’ll need some more TLC than I can give.”

“Thanks,” she said as she began to relax from the injection she had received.

“Owens to away team. What’s your status?”

Star switched the audio channel over to the bridge speakers so that Deen--who wasn’t equipped with the subdermal--could hear as well. “We’ve secured the bridge and found Deen. As it turns out, we didn’t even have to go search for her.”

“What’s her status?”

“I’m fine, Michael. A few bruises and a fractured hand. I’ll live.”

“Fractured hand?”

Tazla smiled again. “Oh, don’t worry, sir, I’ll definitely be filling you in on that later.”

“Very well. Where’s Captain Owens?”

Deen glanced towards the viewscreen that still showed Eagle in pursuit of the smaller and plasma-venting starship as they were both approaching a crimson-colored planet. “He went after Star on her ship. He left shortly before you arrived.”

When the captain didn’t immediately respond, Tazla spoke up. “Sir, we’ve got what we came for. Let’s get out of here and head back towards the Ring at best speed. Altee already has a head start on us.”

When Owens still didn’t answer Tazla exchanged a concerned look with Deen.

“She’s right Michael, we need to get on our way.”

“I’m not comfortable with leaving my alternate like this.”

“Sir, with respect, he made his choice and it is not our place to get involved. You said so yourself,” Tazla said, perhaps a bit sharper than she had wanted to. But she was convinced that going after the man was the wrong move, especially considering the stakes, and she was concerned that her captain was letting his personal feelings cloud his judgment.

“He is not you, Michael. He made that abundantly clear to me while I was his guest here. Let him go,” said Deen.

There was another pause. “I understand that it would be the prudent course of action here but I’m just not ready to give up on him. Call it a foolish hope but it is hope nonetheless. Besides, if we can get him back, perhaps he will help us against Altee. We are already significantly outnumbered.”

Deen shook her head. “I wouldn’t count on his help.”

“I am not going to order anyone else to go after him. I’ll do it myself,” Owens said.

“Absolutely not,” Tazla nearly barked.

It garnered her a curious look from the entire away team.

“Commander,” Owens said in a warning tone, not unlike one a father would give a misbehaving child.

Tazla quickly changed tact. “Apologies, sir. But I cannot let you do that. If this is important to you, and I can see that it is, I’ll go after him and try to bring him back,” she said and made eye contact with Sensy who gave her a reaffirming nod, letting her know that he was with her. “I’ll take the Niners as backup, they have already agreed to volunteer.”

Owens uttered an audible sigh.

“Sir, please, we are losing valuable time. Let me do this.”

“Very well,” he finally said. “But you will not take any risks. I cannot lose anybody because of my desire to try and save a man who has proven to be hostile and uncooperative time and time again. I trust you to make the right call, Commander. If there is no way to bring him back, you follow Dee’s advice and you let him go.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll beam Dee and Lieutenant Carlos back and send you and the rest of the team directly onto the other vessel,” he said.

Deen just shook her head to indicate what she thought of this idea but restrained herself from voicing it out loud again.

The Niners prepared their weapons in anticipation of yet another fight.

“Ready when you are,” Tazla said.

But before she was grabbed by another transporter beam, Deen gently touched her shoulder, forcing her eyes on hers. “Watch yourself with that one. He has dedicated his entire being to a single idea to a point that it has become his sole obsession. I’m not a counselor, but I’m convinced he’s far too close to the edge to avoid going over it completely. Make sure he doesn’t take you with him.”

Her chilling warning echoed in her mind as she felt the transporter take her yet again.


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