His companion, however, was something else entirely. His compact, well-muscled frame sat completely at ease; callused hands folded over an unopened briefing packet. Julian could see an energetic intelligence behind the close-set eyes, which cast a predatory appearance. This was an Operations man, probably senior level, and his presence made Artex even more apprehensive than he had been going in.
        "This is your assignment," Othus continued, indicating the small Federation ship on the main display. "The Earther frigate USS Mallory was seized in battle approximately 14 hours ago by four ships from the 8th Star Legion."
        Like many Romulans, the term "Earther" was a frequent replacement for "Federation" in everyday speech. While all knew the correct term, decades of Federation-Romulan conflicts had left most Romulans believing that the Earth dominated the multi-species Federation's policies and actions toward the Empire. The substitution was not so much an error as a mark of contempt. No Romulan would have thought of it as such, but the wording was the same as most Americans during the Cold War referring to the Soviets as "Russians" despite Russia being only a fraction of the USSR. Everybody knew the Russians ran the Soviet Union. 
        Artex skimmed the details of the battle in his briefing packet. "Four ships led by a King Eagle is a lot of firepower just to kill a frigate," he said. "What's so special about this ship?"
        "Nothing, really," Othus replied. "The two command cruisers in this area of operations were each assigned a Federation cruiser to destroy. This cohort was expecting to find the light cruiser Kashmir, but the Federation apparently changed their deployment just before the attack."
        "It's a shame to have so much wasted firepower because of bad intelligence," Artex said, glancing over towards the two SSA men, who ignored him.
        "As it happens, the cohort was able to use its superior numbers to good advantage and captured the Mallory relatively intact. Beyond the usual benefits associated with capturing an enemy ship, this has created an invaluable opportunity to accelerate the progress of the invasion," Othus said. "Imperial Command has decided to employ the captured ship in an attack on a high payoff target in Federation space."
        Othus adjusted the display to show a slice of Federation space well east of the Tholian border, with overlaid graphics marking the invasion corridor. He highlighted an objective considerably deeper than the current line of advance. "This is the location of the enemy's forward repair depot for this sector. As you know, the admiralty's strategy in the first wave of the invasion is to bypass fixed defenses under cloak and focus on the destruction of the enemy's mobile platforms. We already outnumber the enemy by a significant margin. With the destruction of the ships on the border and the tremendous strain of the ongoing war with the Klingons, the Federation Star Fleet will not have the resources for any meaningful counter-offensive, allowing us time to consolidate and gain a quick victory over our ancient foe.
         "Success hinges upon a quick, decisive defeat of the enemy fleet. This is where you come in. Should any enemy ships in this sector survive the first wave of attacks, they will likely fall back to this depot for repairs and resupply, believing it to be too deep in their interior to be a target so soon in the invasion. Your team will assume command of the captured enemy frigate and proceed to the repair depot as a friendly vessel in obvious need of repairs. With the element of surprise you will be in a position to attack not only the depot itself but, more importantly, the warships under repair. With any luck, you should be able to destroy or cripple the installation and any damaged ships present."
        "With any luck" Julian said, still wrapping his mind around the ambitiousness of the proposed plan. "This plan strikes me as based on some very thin assumptions. For a start: how can we be so sure of the location of the enemy repair depot and its defenses? No offense to our comrades in Intelligence, but this seems like quite an accomplishment considering that we are having difficulty differentiating frigates from light cruisers. Furthermore, even if the location is correct, how can we be so sure the enemy will be conveniently waiting for us there? Or that my team, even in a captured ship, will be able to penetrate that far into enemy space without detection? I'm sure even the Federation will notice when one of its ships stops calling in with the proper codes on a regular basis."
        "The data on the repair depot was purchased at great expense via the Orion syndicate, and our intelligence analysts consider it to be accurate. However, you are quite right about the risks involved with so many variables. This mission requires expertise beyond even the autonomy and improvisation your team is famous for. Which is why an Intelligence Operations team led by Sub-Commander Tarus has also been assigned to this mission," Othus said, indicating the older SSA man. "He has let us say special assets' at his command which will greatly improve your odds of success."
        It was common practice to assign two teams to Praetorian operations, with one team acting as a backup in case the primary element failed. It was unorthodox for the backup team to be Intelligence instead of Praetorian, but it made little difference to Julian. "I'm sure the commander's team is first rate," he said, smiling politely at Tarus, "But your assets' are probably best applied elsewhere. My team has not called for backup once in the past three years. Furthermore, I hardly see how it would be possible."
        "Tribune Artex, you misunderstand," Othus interrupted. "Commander Tarus's team will be co-assigned to this mission, not a backup. Since the mission falls under the jurisdiction of the Praetorian Preditrate, you will be in overall command of the operation. However, the Intelligence personnel, particularly the special assets, will be under the direction of the sub-commander. You are expected to work together cooperatively without being distracted by inter-agency rivalries."
        Not bloody likely, Julian thought, seething inside as Othus resumed speaking. Throughout the remainder of the briefing he continued to size up the Operations man. Tarus neither sought out nor flinched from his gaze, staring back at him with the same inscrutable expression. When the briefing finally adjourned, Tarus walked around the table to Artex and formally introduced himself. Shorter than Julian had first thought, Tarus had a grip that was firm without seeming compensatory.
      "Tribune Artex, I know you are apprehensive about the arrangements for this mission," Tarus said. "I wouldn't be happy about having an unknown quantity forced upon me for a mission this complex and dangerous either. I need you to believe me when I tell you that my team has been selected for the same reason yours has: because we are very good at what we do. Also, as was said, I have resources at my disposal which will prove invaluable."
        Julian silently regarded him before speaking. Like himself, Tarus had a lot of rank to be commanding a single team. But unlike him, this man had been promoted from major-tribune to sub-commander, instead of the dead-end rank of pente-tribune. This was an officer whose career was still going somewhere. Artex wondered just how special these assets were to come with so senior an officer. "It might set my mind a bit more at ease," he finally replied, "If I knew exactly what these resources are."
        "Of course. If you will accompany me," Tarus said, walking towards the door.
        "One moment," Artex said, gesturing Ravenna over. "This is Centurion Lal, my second in command and weapons specialist. I want her to see this, too."
        Expecting resistance, Artex was surprised when Tarus simply shrugged and said "It's a small ship Tribune; she'll see it all soon enough anyway. This way please."
       Artex exchanged surprised glances with Lal before following the Intelligence man to a small office in the back of the station. Tarus saluted and gave the proper security response to the guard's challenge before leading them inside. "Tribune Artex, Centurion Lal, allow me to introduce the rest of my team," Tarus said, gesturing to the four perfectly average looking men and women seated around a table playing cards.
        Four perfectly average looking humans.
        Tarus paused for just a moment to enjoy the Praetorians' shocked expressions as his team dropped their cards and stood at attention. "This is Centurion Smith, Centurion Jones, Centurion Li, and Centurion Doe. As you were."
        "Cosmetic surgery?" Lal asked. But Artex knew before Tarus shook his head that this was not the case. He had worked with agents surgically altered to appear human before and it was never this convincing. Vulcans were one thing, but no matter how good the doctors were it was impossible to give a true Romulan the soft, pinkish coloring the Earthmen had. These four were the real thing.
       "Where do they come from?" Artex asked.
"Different places, different stories," Tarus replied. "Centurion  Li was orphaned on a Romulan world when his parents' merchant vessel crashed there. Centurion Jones is the descendant of two Federation scientists who defected after the First Federation War. Centurion Doe comes to us via the Orion syndicate. But make no mistake: DNA aside, these men and women are Romulan to the core. They were each recruited by the SSA at a young age and have been extensively trained in Federation language and customs. Each of them has had some previous field experience, but this is the first time an opportunity has arisen that warrants deploying the entire team. They have, quite literally, been training their entire lives for this mission."
        Artex let out a deep breath, and drew in another. He had just had what must be the most unique infiltration team in this corner of the galaxy placed under his command and he did not feel the slightest bit better for it.

USS Mallory
Romulan Border 4 August 2573; Eagle +2 Days

        Pain seared down his face as Sevrin struggled to consciousness. Above him, the Vulcan sun shone mercilessly upon the Shi-Kahr desert. He was 16 years old, and he was lying alone in the desert on his Kahs-wan, the test of manhood. The last thing he remembered was the fight with the desert predator, slaying the beast but losing his footing, slipping into the crevasse and falling... How long had he been here? He lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, awaiting death until the familiar form of his father appeared. "Get up, son," his father urged. "Finish what you have started." But Sevrin's muscles would not respond. A few minutes later, the scorching of his sun-burnt skin paled beside the heat of his shame as his father carried him back to their house.
        Sevrin put a hand to his face to ease the burning pain and it came away slick with green blood. Startled back to the moment, he sat up and tried to get his bearings. Moving proved to be a mistake; the world swirled around him and he doubled over vomiting. He remained there until the smell of his own blood and puke proved sufficient motivation to rise, very slowly this time, to his feet. There was a loud crashing as several broken supply crates tumbled to the deck, and Sevrin groggily realized he had been lying beneath them. That last hit had blown him back into the supply room, headfirst into a bulkhead. How long had he been unconscious?
        Fighting down the nausea, he made his way carefully back through the head. All power seemed to be out, and he had only the dim light from the emergency glow strips to go by. The door back to the bridge would not open. He pried open the manual controls, but they would not respond either. That was when he noticed the red warning glow from the atmosphere gauge next to the manual door controls. Negative pressure. Sevrin stumbled back from the door, realizing that the reason it would not open was because only hard vacuum lay on the other side.
        Suppressing an increasing sense of unease, he tried to open a channel to auxiliary control from the wall intercom, but the communications circuits appeared to be dead as well. He went back to the supply closet and after a few minutes of searching found his communicator, smashed beyond repair. Another wave of dizziness washed over him, and Sevrin decided there was nothing constructive he could accomplish here; it was time to report to sickbay. Crossing to the other end of the service corridor, he was relieved when the hatch to the descending spiral staircase opened easily. He started down the narrow staircase slowly and carefully. The hatch on the first landing was open, and he saw that Deck 2 also appeared to be deserted and without power.
        Sevrin continued down towards the main deck, but had to stop and sit after another half flight. He wanted nothing more than to sleep, but was fairly sure that would be a poor idea in his present condition. Instead, he ran through an old Vulcan mental discipline; isolating his will to survive apart from the complaints of his flesh. So focused was his concentration that he did not hear the two men coming up the stairwell until they were almost upon him. They were talking to each other, and Sevrin did not recognize them by voice. In fact, he realized, he did not recognize what language they were speaking at all. He felt a tingle of adrenaline but could not think of a practical purpose for it in his current condition. Instead, he shrank in the shadows of the dark staircase and watched as two Romulan men, one obviously a soldier and one who looked more like a technician, climbed up to the landing below him and exited the stairwell onto Deck 3. Sevrin remained as still and as silent as he could as he listened to their voices recede into the distance.
        Once he felt they were far enough away, he turned and climbed back up to Deck 1 as quickly as he dared. Searching through the ruined supply room again, he found the phaser he had originally intended to cut through the bulkhead with. The emitter on the pistol frame was shattered, but the Type-I handphaser clipped to its spine appeared to be functional. He was about to rush back downstairs when he stopped and considered his situation logically. The Romulans he had seen had been walking with their weapons holstered and in no great urgency. He could tell from the familiar sounds that Mallory was cruising steadily at warp, not engaging in combat maneuvers. His initial rush had therefore been unwise. There was no battle to join at present; his ship had already been defeated and seized by the enemy. He owed his current liberty to good fortune and he was going to have to be much more careful if he wished to retain it.
        Sevrin considered his options and decided there was still nothing to be gained by remaining up there. Abandoning any thoughts of heading to the main deck, he returned to the stairwell and descended, much more cautiously this time, back to Deck 2. Doing his best to remain concealed, he listened intently. After a moment's focus it was apparent that his earlier appraisal had been mistaken: he heard another person down the corridor towards the bow. This was logical: the ship's photon tubes were located in that direction and were probably guarded. After listening a few more minutes without hearing anyone else, he walked as quietly as he could onto the deck and headed astern. The aft section of Deck 2 contained a few small offices, whose doors were also open.
        Sevrin realized he did not have much time. The doors were probably left open so that the guard could periodically make rounds and easily inspect them. A quick sweep of the first two offices yielded nothing of value, but the desk in the third office contained exactly what he was looking for: a PADD, which looked to be in good condition. He sat beneath the desk to provide himself some degree of concealment and switched on the tablet. Although power was out on this deck, the main computer was online, and accessible via wireless link. Sevrin's next shock came when he checked the date and found that he had been unconscious for 38.2 hours. Plenty of time to secure the ship considering how badly we were outnumbered, he thought. But how much progress have they made unlocking the ship's systems?
        Accessing the main computer was not without risk: If the Romulans had complete access to the computer, he would be detected the instant he logged in, and soldiers would probably be sent to capture or kill him. But there was little to be gained by sitting in the dark awaiting discovery, so Sevrin connected and began the authentication process. The first encouraging sign was that normal, password-only access was unavailable and he was immediately challenged for biometric identification. This meant that Mallory's crew had retained control after being boarded long enough to put the computer in emergency lockout mode. Unfortunately, it also meant a retina scan and a whispered voiceprint ID that stressed his already frayed nerves. Fortunately there was still no sign of any Romulans nearby, and Sevrin was soon online. He went straight to the diagnostics and began assessing the current state of Mallory's systems, looking for information about just how bad his situation was.