"Centurion Doe will not be joining us," Artex said abruptly, "I have ordered him to remain in the other briefing room to meet with Commander Tarus afterwards for further remediation. The situation with the police captain is worsening. He is becoming increasingly suspicious and Doe¹s Œimprovisations¹ are not helping matters in the least."
         Tarus took this all in calmly. "There have been instances between our crews where we have apparently made minor errors in protocol," Tarus said. "I had hoped our willingness to meet with the police captain on his home turf would be reassuring."
         "I thought so, too," Artex said, "but if anything, it seemed to make him edgier. He keeps suggesting cooperative efforts that strike me as excuses to get more of his men aboard Mallory to snoop around. I ordered ŒCaptain¹ Doe to gently deflect these requests. When the police captain became more insistent, Doe told him it was a security precaution because we have reason to suspect that there is a Romulan saboteur aboard!"
         "He¹s not wrong," Lal offered, earning her an angry glare from Artex.
         "That is a course of action that Doe and I discussed," Tarus admitted. "But I warned him not to go there unless he had no other option and not to do it without clearing it with you first, which I take it he did not."
         "He most certainly did not. The idea that a story like that would somehow reduce the Earthers¹ suspicions is insane."
         "I disagree, but it¹s a moot point now," Tarus said. "I will deal with him after we are done here and I assure you I will not go lightly on him; he has to learn to operate within the boundaries we set for him. In the meantime, how bad is the damage?"
        "They¹re increasingly uncomfortable with our arrangement," Artex said. "I don¹t think they suspect anything close to the truth of what has happened, but I think they are beginning to question Doe¹s legitimacy in command."
         "The idea that a captured ship has penetrated this far into Federation space is probably not the first or last thing that will cross their minds," Lal said. "Part of me is surprised we¹ve made it as far as we have."
         "True," Tarus said, "but there are other scenarios that might occur to them which could be equally dangerous to us, such as mutiny or desertion." Artex and Lal both looked surprised by this. "Don¹t look so shocked, no empire has a monopoly on mutineers and cowards. Granted, it¹s not common in any fleet, but I¹m sure it¹s happened in theirs."
         "I can¹t think of anything else within our means to prove our legitimacy," Artex said.
         "Nor can I," Tarus said. "So let¹s try distraction instead. Our Federation friends were very eager to have us around when they thought that a War Eagle was going to decloak in front of them at any minute and blow them out of the sky. Let¹s turn up the heat a little and keep them worried about external threats. I recommend we use one of the drop buoys to signal Loyal Spirit¹s squadron and have them take a run at us."
         Artex frowned at that suggestion. The destroyer squadron led by Loyal Spirit was listed as one of their nominal assets in the mission briefing. The squadron had orders to operate a relatively short distance behind them under cloak, the idea being that they could be called in to assist if all else failed and Mallory had to shoot her way out of a tight spot. "Thus far I have not been impressed by the cooperation we have received from the Navy on this operation," Artex said. "What makes you think they will respond in a timely manner, or that they will behave as we wish them to and not do something stupid that makes matters worse?"
         "Because the squadron commander is from my House," Tarus said. "A real Œup and comer¹ too. Rest assured that she is much more politically reliable than others we have dealt with."
         Artex sat back in his seat with arms crossed, glaring at the SSA man. "This secret operation is even more important to House Pentalion than I thought, isn¹t it? Why? What will a victory here buy you ‹ a chance to take senate seats away from alliances led by the other houses?"
         "This mission is important to House Pentalion because it is important to the Empire," Tarus shot back. "That alone should suffice. But since you ask: yes, we believe a victory here and in several other ongoing operations will give us enough clout to displace some deeply entrenched incompetents from senate seats as well as important naval positions. That too is good for the Empire."
         "That remains to be seen," Artex said, "but it is not my concern. You¹re positive that they will respond and will perform as we request?"
         Tarus nodded confidently.
         "Very well. I¹ll have Tev prepare one of the buoys for a silent drop. We¹ll need to provide them explicit instructions as to how we want this to go."
         They worked on the details of a tactical plan for the better part of the next hour, until Artex was satisfied they had covered every variable they could. Tarus and his aide left to go deal with Doe; Artex sent the orders to Tev and headed back to the control room with Lal. They had barely made it out of the room before Tev signaled Artex, reporting that there was a problem with the buoy and requesting his presence on Deck 7.
         "Our new tech specialist has an issue with communicators," Artex said to Lal. "Come with me, let¹s see how his hunt for real saboteurs is going."
         "Sir, I know you don¹t want to hear this, but if Tev has important information, we should probably ask Commander Tarus to come along."
         "Correct on both counts," Artex grumbled, and signaled Tarus on his communicator to meet them below.
         They got as far as Deck 5 before they were interrupted again, this time by Li in the control room with a hail from the police ship¹s executive officer. Artex sighed. "Doe promised the police captain that his executive officer and I would work together to schedule cooperative security improvements. I don¹t have time for this." Accepting the hail, Artex told the policeman that Captain          Doe had changed his mind and wanted to attend to the matter personally. While he was working out the details for another meeting, he waved over a damage control technician who had just walked around the corner.
        "Centurion, take this to Mister Doe in Briefing Room Two," Artex ordered, hurriedly entering notes into his hand computer.          "Instruct him to meet with the Beckett¹s executive officer and to present the agenda I¹ve sketched out here. He is not to schedule any joint operations until after our diversion and he is to stick to this plan without any further improvisations. And tell him that if he offers them any more gods-damned ice cream I am going to vaporize him!"
         Artex thrust the tablet at the technician, who looked at him with a puzzled expression. Realizing that he was still speaking in Federation Standard, Artex took a deep breath and repeated himself in Rihannsu. The centurion gave a clumsy salute and headed back the way he came.
         Artex shook his head as he watched him go. "Bad enough that we are undermanned, but these are the sorriest excuses for soldiers I have ever seen."
         Tarus was already waiting in the corridor outside the stairwell on Deck 7 and led them to the ladder that went down to the equipment bay below deck. Tev was in the bay, inspecting one of the consoles.
         "Your tech specialist has something to show you," Tarus said. "Under the circumstances I think he was wise not to discuss it over the air."
         "Is there a problem with the buoy?" Artex asked.
         "In a matter of speaking. The buoy is missing," Tarus said.
         "What do you mean it¹s missing? Tev, has there been a malfunction?"
         "No, Sir," Tev called up from below. "I believe it was manually launched by whoever has been working against us. I think they were trying to warn the Earthers about us."
         Artex tensed. "Did they get a message back to the Federation?"
         "No, I don¹t think so," Tev said, climbing back out of the bay. "The buoy was manually launched, but fortunately whoever did it didn¹t anticipate that we had changed the codes. Whatever message they sent can only be read by the Romulan Empire."
         Tarus made his choking laugh. "Humorously enough, this means the message may well be on its way back to us if it gets relayed to Loyal Spirit before the diversion operation."
         "There is nothing the slightest bit humorous about this," Artex said angrily. "This could have blown the whole mission, not to mention getting us killed the instant we entered firing range of that battle station. Tev, I told you to keep a closer eye on that damned human engineer!"
         "And I have done so, Sir," Tev replied. "I will tell you with complete confidence that it wasn¹t her. Nor do I believe it was any of the other captured engineers. None of the Earthers have been permitted below Deck 5. This is someone else¹s doing."
         "This is a much more serious problem than we thought," Artex said. "Increase the guard on the forward half of Deck 5. I don¹t want anyone getting at the last buoy."
         "At once, Sir," Lal said, getting out her communicator.
         "That vulnerability will correct itself once we use the last buoy to contact Loyal Spirit," Tarus said. "Meanwhile, we need to find whoever is responsible for this."
         "There are three possibilities. Artex said. "First, that one of our prisoners has figured out a way to get down here undetected. Mister Tev thinks this is unlikely, but he will investigate further, just to be sure." Tev nodded assent. "Second, that an enemy agent has infiltrated our ranks. Sub-Commander Tarus: I intend no offence, but the highly unusual nature of your team does lend itself to suspicion."
         "None is taken," Tarus said calmly, "I would feel the same way in your shoes, but I assure you my people have been subjected to intense scrutiny prior to their induction. Their loyalty is beyond doubt."
      "Very well," Artex said. "Needless to say I feel the same way about my team, but there are the Navy soldiers to consider. Centurion Lal, you will investigate this as thoroughly as possible with our current resources. We should have one of the SSA team working this angle too. Mister Li perhaps?"
"He would be a good choice," Tarus confirmed. "And I will detach my aide to assist as well."
    "Very well. That leaves the third possibility: that there is another party at large on this ship. An escapee or one of the original crew or an operative from one of the Federation ships who has gotten aboard somehow. I think this is the most likely possibility. Tev, is there any way to access the ship¹s internal sensors and tell who is moving around in here?"
        "No, Sir," Tev said. "We are still completely locked out of the main computer system."
  "In that case we¹ll form hunting parties and search the ship manually."
"If there is no hope of accessing the ship¹s internal sensors we should destroy them," Tarus said.
      "I consider that a last resort," Artex said. "They could still be a great asset if Tev or Jones has a breakthrough with the computer. They should get back to work on that."
    "A weapon carried but not mastered is a gift to one¹s enemy," Tarus quoted. "For all we know they are being used against us as we speak."
       Artex scowled, sick of having officers¹ manuals quoted back at him by the odious SSA man. But he did have a point. "Fine. Tev, get teams moving to physically disable the scanners deck by deck. And while they¹re at it, have them deploy any portable scanners we have onboard at key intersections. Let¹s see if we can catch ourselves a rat."
      "Tribune Artex, this is auxiliary control," came a call on the intercom.
        "What is it?" Artex asked.
      "The police ship says it has interepted a transmission in a Romulan code from somewhere close behind us. He cannot get an accurate range without triangulation, but has sent a request to stations in the area for their bearing to the source."
        "This is bad," Artex said to the others. "Either Loyal Spirit sent us a message our damaged systems could not hear, or there is a spy on board and that is his transmission from the missing log buoy."
"Certainly the latter," Sub-Commander Tarus said. "Loyal Spirit is aware that we have no functional long-range communications, as we have never broadcast a signal to so inform them. That means it could only be the missing log buoy."
        "We could ask the police captain for a copy of the message," Lal suggested. "Surely, the computers of a frigate would have a better chance of breaking the code that police computers. Then we¹d know what the spy had tried to tell his master. We might gain clues to his identity or his plans."
     "Too risky," Artex said. "The police captain would start to wonder if we were trying to break the code or could already read it. We might be able to read it because Star Fleet isn¹t telling the police everything, which is probable, or he might even suspect that we were Romulans, not Earthers."
         "It doesn¹t matter," Tarus said. "We can consider it confirmed we have a saboteur loose on board, and search for him all the more diligently. The transmission will also play into our hands when Loyal Spirit makes its attack."
         "Good point," Artex said. "We¹ll proceed on that basis."

Deck 5, USS Mallory
Romulan Border 7 August 2573; Eagle +5 Days

         "And tell him that if he offers them any more gods-damned ice cream I am going to vaporize him!"
        The Romulan in the Star Fleet uniform thrust the tablet at Sevrin. Sevrin¹s mind raced, but he had no idea what the appropriate response should be. He stood there frozen by the shock of stumbling upon the enemy in a corridor that had looked clear on the internal sensors just a moment earlier. The Romulan¹s expression changed to one of exasperation, not unlike the look that Mister Pell used to get, and he began speaking in Rihannsu. Sevrin¹s grasp of the language was imperfect, but he gathered that he was repeating the same strange orders he had just given in Federation Standard. Not trusting himself to reply convincingly, Sevrin gave his best effort at the Romulan salute he had seen on the trivideos and headed back the way he had come, forcing himself to walk purposefully.
         Once he was out of sight, Sevrin ducked into the nearby shaft, went quickly back to the familiarity of the medical supply closet, and sat down to calm himself. Logic might dictate his choices in life, but it did not completely insulate the primitive parts of his brain from basic mammalian instincts. It took several minutes of mental discipline to calm the racing heartbeat his encounter had left him with. Sitting alone in the dark, a virtual prisoner on his own ship, Sevrin reconsidered the nonchalance he had shown towards the Praetorians in his earlier conversation here with Doctor Cipes. Even in a non-combat situation there had been something frightening about them, a quiet lethality lurking behind their eyes that made Sevrin realize that their notoriety was completely earned. He was going to have to be much more careful if he wanted to stay alive long enough to warn Star Fleet what they were up to.
         This line of thought brought him back to the unexpected boon sitting in his lap. This seemed as good a place as any to hole up and examine its contents; he was due to check in with Doctor Cipes in an hour for more meds. Powering up the hand computer the Romulan had given him, Sevrin started combing through its contents, looking for insights as to what the enemy was up to.
         Forty-five minutes later, Cipes came in and gave him another once-over with his medical scanner. He looked like he was going to give Sevrin another lecture about the gravity of his injuries, until he got a close look at the computer Sevrin was working on.
         "Sir, that language...," Cipes said, staring at the tablet, "is that Romulan?"
         "Rihannsu," Sevrin corrected absently, still paging through data.
         "Okay, Rihannsu," Cipes said, still staring. "Where is that from?"
         "From one of the Praetorians. I think he might have been their leader. There¹s not as much information here as I was hoping, but some of it is quite useful." He looked up. "Did you know that Mallory has joined a Federation convoy?"
Cipes was still fixated on the tablet. "Sir, if you don¹t mind me asking, how did you get your hands on their leader¹s computer?"
         "He gave it to me," Sevrin said.
         "Fine, don¹t tell me," Cipes said, laughing. "But if we survive this, promise me you¹ll let me buy you a drink and get the real story out of you, Sir!"
         "That would be Š agreeable," Sevrin said, feeling lost. "Did you know about the convoy?" he asked again, trying to regain a handle on the conversation.
         "No, Sir," Cipes said, "but I haven¹t had contact with any of the Romulans except their medical tech and he¹s not chatty. None of the crew mentioned it, so I assume they don¹t know either."
         "I should have been more thorough when I was in the astronomy lab," Sevrin said, his attention returning to the tablet. "I was only interested in getting a fix on our position; it never occurred to me to search for other nearby vessels."
         "I¹m sure it¹s not the first thing anyone would have thought to check," Cipes said. "Why would they take the risk of joining a convoy in a captured ship?"
         "I don¹t know," Sevrin said. "Maybe they¹re using it as cover to penetrate deeper into Federation space. He switched to his own PADD and accessed the library computer. "The convoy described here has been making regular runs between Battle Station R-6 and the colony on Theron¹s World. Assuming the border stations have been destroyed by now, the logical thing to do would be to retreat to the interior, just as I¹m sure the surviving ships of the Sixth Fleet are doing." He thought for a moment more and put down the PADD. "I should have thought of this sooner. We¹re going to Battle Station R-1."
         "With the civilians as cover, they could get close enough to sneak aboard and capture the station!" Cipes said.
Sevrin frowned. "I don¹t think even a Praetorian team could capture an entire battle station, but I do think you¹re right about using the convoy to get close enough to somehow cripple the station. There must be a squadron of cloaked ships nearby, ready to capitalize on the special forces mission. With the Orions having seceded and the Sixth Fleet in tatters, the loss of R-1 would be devastating."
         "My God, Sir, if that happens they¹ll chase us halfway back to Earth before we can regroup. We¹ve got to stop them."
         "Agreed," Sevrin said, picking up the Romulan tablet again. "If I¹m reading this right, one of the other ships is a police vessel. If we could get a signal to them, we could sound the alarm. Do you have access to a communicator?"
         "No, Sir. The Romulans confiscated them all. They were very thorough. In fact they were as careful about accounting for all the communicators as they were with the phasers."
         "I had one where I was injured and trapped," Sevrin said. "They didn¹t track it down, but it was broken."
         "I¹m not an expert in those things," Doctor Cipes said, "but maybe they weren¹t worried about communicators that didn¹t respond as functional. That guy whose uniform you stole didn¹t have one?"
         "No. Now that I think about it, none of the regular soldiers I¹ve seen seem to have one, just the Praetorians. Everyone else seems to be using the intercom system instead. I wonder why they¹re being so restrictive?"
         "Security perhaps," Cipes said. "With Federation ships nearby, maybe they¹re worried about one of the prisoners grabbing one."
         "That¹s fine for the guards, but it seems like an unnecessary hindrance for the soldiers working in other areas of the ship." Sevrin thought a moment longer and then let the thought go; after all, security was not his specialty. "They must be worried that the convoy would hear a careless conversation in Romulan. In any case, it opens up a new option for us, a way to solve the problem.          If I can get at Mallory¹s main short-range transmitter, I should be able to hail the convoy."
         "I thought you said that communications were offline due to battle damage," Cipes said.
         "Long-range ones," Sevrin said. "Short-range still works, but I didn¹t know anyone friendly was nearby. The Romulans could be using the secondary transmitter array. The primary was damaged during the battle and is incapable of long-range communication. Since it¹s offline, they don¹t have guards assigned to it. But from what I see in the computer, the primary array could be made capable of limited short-range communications if I had access to make some hasty repairs."
         "We need a diversion," Cipes said.
         "According to these notes, the Romulans are planning some kind of diversion quite soon," Sevrin said. "If I can piece together what it is we might be able toŠ"
         Sevrin cut off as the Red Alert siren started whooping through the ship. Recovering from his surprise, he said, "Perhaps this is their planned distraction."
         "Or it could be a real attack, Sir!" Cipes said.
         "Either way, it will keep them busy for a while," Sevrin said, running towards the vent. "Get to your station, I¹m heading for the transmitter!"