The Romulans had apparently brought their own rations aboard as they made no use of the ship's dining facilities. The sole exception had been making his way through the menu of Vulcan dishes the ship's replicators offered at each meal break. After the soldier upstairs made his selection Sevrin was, for the first time in his Star Fleet career, pleased to see a bowl of kahveeah come out of the galley. Shipboard replicators were notorious amongst Vulcan servicemen for their truly terrible attempts to generate Vulcan seaweed dishes from synthetic proteins. But in this case, the heavily over-seasoned stew was ideal to mask the generous dose of tranquilizers Sevrin mixed into the dish before sending it upstairs on the conveyor.
          Sevrin waited a full 10 minutes before cautiously making his way up the spiral staircase to the deck above. Entering the mess hall, he was relieved to find the Romulan soldier deeply unconscious, his head resting in a pool of sour-smelling gravy. Sevrin laid him out on the deck, quickly cleaned up the mess and consulted the internal sensor data on his PADD. There was no sign that anyone was heading towards the mess hall, nor was there any reason to think they would. Sevrin wagered that wandering off from the main group by himself had probably been against procedure, and not something the man would have spoken about with others. Just to be on the safe side, he dragged the Romulan down to the galley on Deck 5 where there was less chance of detection.
          Once in the galley, Sevrin stripped the Romulan of his sidearm and tools, and began donning his uniform. His victim was a little taller than himself, making the fit loose but passable. Looking up the insignia with his PADD, Sevrin identified him as an ante-centurion, the Romulan equivalent of an ensign. He had been hoping for a higher-ranking officer, someone more likely to have details about the enemy mission and capabilities. But something was always better than nothing, so after a few moments of mental preparation, he melded minds with his captive.
          Sevrin held the contact for less than a minute before his mind rejected the unwelcome intimacy. His ESPer rating was fair, but he was not a trained psionicist. Lacking the training and discipline of a true psi master, it took him some time to isolate any useful information from the tides of raw emotion that had surged across the centurion's consciousness. His prisoner was a damage control specialist who had served on the King Eagle that had dealt Mallory her fatal blow. He had been a member of the prize team and then transferred to the command of another officer for a classified mission. The Romulans were apparently doing an excellent job of operational security, because the young ante-centurion knew absolutely nothing of the specifics of their mission. Nor did he know anything about his new commanding officer, except that he was afraid of him; a fact which Sevrin found interesting but not particularly useful at the moment.
          Sevrin's mind was also awash with a plethora of useless and unwanted details of the man's life: his friends aboard his former ship, his family back home, his hopes for promotion. All of which only made what Sevrin had to do next that much more difficult. He knew that his lack of skill in filtering what had been shared between them worked both ways, and the centurion would discover equally strong memories from Sevrin's mind when he awoke. With the odds heavily stacked against him as it was, Sevrin needed to keep the enemy unaware of him as long as possible, and he had no time or facility to risk maintaining a prisoner.
          Sevrin took out the spray hypo and, burying the lingering tendrils of the Romulan's memories in the deepest corner of his mind, emptied the entire vial of tranquilizers into his jugular vein. He was surprised how little reaction there was: just a soft sigh of exhaled breath as the centurion's life left his body. After double-checking that he was indeed dead, Sevrin dragged the body to a freezer in the corner of the galley and stuffed him into it. An airlock would have been better but Sevrin judged it too risky to drag a corpse halfway across the ship. The temperature and thickness of the door would make the body almost impossible to find without a full physical search and Sevrin reasoned he would already have completed his mission or been killed by the time that happened.

USS Mallory
Romulan Border 6 August 2573; Eagle +4 Days

          Artex was impressed at the size of the frigate's computer core. Even with more laboratory and scientific facilities to support than an Imperial ship would have, he was surprised how much tonnage Mallory's architects had allocated to the main computer. Walking by aisle after aisle of duotronic components he wondered how much tactical advantage, if any, the Earthers gained from all this processing power.
          There was a lot of background noise from the racks, enough that his arrival went unnoticed by the room's other occupants. Tev was running an elaborate program across three of the overhead screens. Jones had crawled waist-deep into one of the access panels under the main terminal and was working at something that involved a lot of sparks and swearing. Julian watched them work for a few minutes, then cleared his throat loudly.
          "Tribune Artex reporting as ordered," he said dryly.
          Both officers shot to their feet, Jones cracking her head on the console on the way up. Artex waved them at ease in mid salute. "I would hear your report now."
          "Yes, Sir," Tev said. "As you ordered, I have reviewed the attempts made so far in gaining full access to the main computer. At my direction, we have made over a dozen additional attempts, using multiple vectors of attack. All have resulted in failure even though they should have worked."
          "And this is why you have summoned me here?" Artex said testily. "To report your failure in person? If you wanted to throw yourself on your sword, Centurion Jones could have acted as your witness without taking up more of my time."
          "Sir, it is important that you understand why these attempts are not working," Jones said. "We're not saying these attacks should have worked as an excuse but a statement of fact. They failed because the defenses were altered continuously to adapt to the strategies we were using. These changes were more specific and more thorough than any automated program could possibly manage. In other words, we believe we face a live opponent who is actively working against our efforts."
          "If true, that would be a very serious problem, but I don't see how this is the only or even the most likely conclusion. Adaptive security programs are nothing new. Maybe our enemy has simply come up with a very good one. They certainly don't lack for resources," Artex said, gesturing towards the array of hardware behind him.
          "True," Jones said, "but even a revolution in artificial intelligence would not explain the adaptability and initiative we have seen in this case."
          "There is one more thing," Tev said. "When our last attack failed, I tried a different approach. I located their physical backup media and loaded it onto a portable computer offline from the main system. I encountered none of the problems we have seen here. I was able to extract the primary password keychains and run an encryption cracker against them. The entire process took less than three hours."
          Jones looked like she'd just swallowed a sour pickle. Apparently Tev had not seen fit to let her know he was taking an end run around her work. "Now we're getting somewhere," Artex said, his opinion of his new teammate going up a notch. "Centurion Jones, that makes your problem moot. With the master passwords there is no longer a need for brute force attacks."
          "So I believed as well," Tev said, before Jones had a chance to regain her bearings. "But they don't work. All of the administrative passwords have been changed since the last backup, which was only an hour before the battle. Nobody, not even the most paranoid security officer, would design a system that could change its own root passcodes automatically. How would you ever get back in? It might be reasonable for the system to have an automatic self-destruct, as a last resort, but password shifts only make sense if there is someone out there to use them. Jones is right; someone is working against us."
Artex frowned. "Who is it you think opposes you?"
          "There are only a few possibilities," Tev said. "Most of those who would have the knowledge and the access to be this effective were killed in the fighting. My guess would be the current engineering chief or one of her direct subordinates."
          "On this point we disagree," Jones spoke up. "My team interrogated the human prisoners before clearing them to work and we have been monitoring them closely since. They believe they are headed for a prison camp and that cooperation will improve their chances of survival. There have been no signs of counter-work or sabotage."
          "I'm not completely sold on this idea," Artex said. "I still think it's probably a trick, but I can't afford to ignore the possibility. I'm convinced that there is no profit in wasting any more time on this effort; all of the critical systems are on manual override anyway. You will both cease work on the main computer. Centurion Jones, you will report back to Commander Tarus. Tell him I want you and any other techs that can be spared to do a risk assessment on our ability to manage the ship without complete control of the main computer. Identify any additional systems that are not currently under manual control that should be. Also, explore any possible threats we have not accounted for. Centurion Tev, get down to engineering and assist in the supervision of the humans. Watch them like a hawk. If you see signs that their chief or any of the other Earthers are up to something, throw them in the brig and contact me at once."
          Tev raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Such actions warrant death."
          "Of course they do, but we have barely enough bodies to run this ship as it is. You are not to execute anyone without my direct order. Besides, if someone has been changing passwords, that means they should know what the current passwords are. I'm sure our friends from Intelligence have some very effective means of extracting this information. Am I right, Centurion Jones?"
          "They will wish for death," she said with a cold smile.
          Nothing like the possibility of a prisoner to torture to keep a special forces team's morale up, Artex thought. "Get to work. If Tev is right, our opponent shouldn't be too hard to find."

Deck 7, USS Mallory
Romulan Border 5 August 2573; Eagle +3 Days

          Sevrin climbed down the small access ladder to the equipment bay nestled under Deck 7. Too small to warrant classification as a deck, the bay existed primarily to allow maintenance access to the primary sensor array and the tractor beam mount. A handful of other secondary systems were tucked away there as well, including one of the ship's log buoys. Sevrin paused to catch his breath at the bottom of the ladder, a wave of vertigo reminding him that he was not a well man. But he was also not about to be stopped this close to his objective.
          Making his way to the manual controls for the buoy, he connected his PADD and began downloading data. It took about 10 minutes to download the log files he had recovered from the main computer, along with his internal sensor analyses and any other assorted observations he thought would be useful to Star Fleet Command. While the data was being transferred he made his best effort to disconnect the security alert that would normally be generated. There was no way the enemy could remotely stop him from dropping the buoy, but it would be nice to have a few minutes to clear the area before a squad of Romulan soldiers arrived to kill him.
          He set the buoy to use what power it had for a single burst transmission containing the name of the ship, the fact that it had been captured, and his own identification. Then he deleted that part as he'd be telling the Romulans who they were hunting for. He'd have to hope that Sixth Fleet believed the report. He had included the ship's location but deleted this to shorten the message; location would be easily determined by the stations receiving the message. The burst might well burn out the transmitter, but the key data would be given and the buoy might be found later and the full files recovered. In the event that the brief report did not burn out the transmitter, he told the buoy to drop to lower power and transmit the entire file over and over. He set a time delay before the probe would transmit, in order to give himself more time to leave the bay and hide somewhere else.
          A soft chime from the PADD signaled that the buoy was loaded. Sevrin held his breath and hit the launch button. The sound of the buoy's departure filled the small room as the panel lit green, indicting a successful launch. A brief surge of relief broke through his emotional barriers. Disconnecting the PADD and checking the internal sensors, he saw no indication of enemies rushing to his location either; not only had he successfully completed his most important task, but he might even survive the experience.
          Seeing no reason to loiter, he switched off his hand computer and was about to climb back up to the shuttle deck when something on the displays caught his attention. Frowning, he studied the controls more closely. At first glance all appeared well; green lights across the board. After a moment, he realized what was bothering him: the small screen showing the buoy's status showed it was transmitting in a code he was not familiar with. That made no sense. As a communications officer, he was familiar with every code, and had reprogramed this buoy with new codes only a month ago.
          Sevrin stared in disbelief. He had not thought to verify the buoy's code. It was not part of the launch procedure to do so; those codes were pre-loaded in advance. Why would a log buoy have a new code? He knew there was no way to change the code after launch. What is going on? Did the Romulans change those codes? Have I failed?
          Fortunately, the discipline of logic stepped in before despair took over. As long as he was alive and uncaptured, there was still a chance to fulfill his duty, provided that he vacated the area before the Romulans' inevitable discovery of what he had done. Gathering his strength, he climbed back up the access ladder to Deck Seven and took the nearby stairway up to Deck 6.
          There was another buoy located in the shuttle bay. Sevrin had avoided this option initially because the launch controls were in the shuttle bay control room, just aft of secondary phaser fire control. There were guards posted outside all of the phaser rooms, and the internal sensors showed quite a bit of activity in the shuttle bay itself. Taking a moment to compose himself, Sevrin stepped out of the stairwell and walked purposefully but unhurriedly towards the shuttle bay control room. Fortunately, the guard appeared completely disinterested in him and he entered the control room without incident. In retrospect, it had been a blessing that his uniform's former owner was a damage control technician; there would be legitimate reasons for a damage control tech to be just about anywhere on the ship.
          Also in his favor was the fact that the control room was currently unoccupied. Conscious of the Romulans working in the shuttle bay below him, Sevrin casually set down his stolen tool kit and laid out a couple of wrenches as if he were about to start a repair job. Heading over to the buoy launch controls, he was surprised to find that this buoy had also been launched! There was a brief moment of hope when he wondered if Pell or someone in auxiliary control had actually managed to dump the logs and launch the buoy before Mallory's capture. Unfortunately, this would not have been any help, as it would hardly have included news of Mallory's capture, current location, or intended use.
          Sevrin sat in one of the control chairs and stared at the controls in puzzlement. What now? After several minutes of frustration, Sevrin decided a new plan was in order. There was still one buoy remaining, the controls for which were in the forward section of Deck 5 with the probe launcher. If that buoy were also missing or unusable, he was either going to have to come up with some other way of contacting Star Fleet or go with the back-up plan of disabling the ship's engines. Even if he somehow pulled that off, it accomplished only half of his goal: whatever the Romulans were up to would be stopped, but the remainder of Mallory's crew would still be prisoners and more easily gathered up by advancing Romulans than retreating Star Fleet ships.
          Deciding there was nothing for it but to see what awaited him upstairs, Sevrin gathered his tools. Before leaving, he looked out the windows of the control room, curious to see what the enemy was up to in the shuttle bay below. The activity was centered around a Romulan shuttle. Strangely, a human crewmember who he didn't recognize appeared to be directing the efforts of the Romulan workers. Sevrin slipped out his PADD as casually as possible and recorded a quick passive scan of the shuttle before heading out the control room's other exit and using the vertical shaft to float up to the deck above.

Medical Supply Locker, USS Mallory
Romulan Border 6 August 2573; Eagle +4 Days

          Doctor Cipes entered his supply closet and found a Romulan soldier waiting for him, working on a hand computer. Recovering from his initial shock, Cipes realized it was Lieutenant Sevrin. He wasn't sure what surprised him more: that the resourceful lieutenant had somehow stolen an enemy uniform or that he hadn't collapsed from radiation sickness in the process. Cipes took out his medical scanner and started examining Sevrin. Despite his best attempt at a poker face he winced a little at the readings ‹ they were awful. "Sir, it's my responsibility as a physician to again suggest you surrender yourself for treatment. Your condition is worsening."
          "Not an option," Sevrin replied. "I have not yet completed my responsibilities. My efforts with the log buoys were not successful. One of them was missing, the second was guarded, and the third ... did not function as expected. Do what you can for now; definitive treatment will have to wait until later."
        "Yes, Sir," Cipes said, loading him up with a hypo full of anti-rads. "I had a visit from Chief Rubanza earlier today. She gave herself a nasty burn with a plasma torch just for an excuse to come in. The Romulan doctor was here, so we couldn't really talk, but she did slip me this while I was examining her." Cipes handed a data chip to Sevrin.
          Sevrin loaded the chip in his PADD and scanned its contents. "I'm afraid that plan B has also hit some snags. Chief Rubanza reports that the Romulans have started watching her very closely. They must suspect that someone has been interfering with their attempts to unlock the main computer. I should have realized the chief would be their first suspect; it's a logical conclusion." Sevrin paused and read the data Rubanza had sent more closely. "Is it possible for you to see the chief again without seeming suspicious?"
          "Yes, Sir. In fact, I ordered her to come back within six hours. I told the Romulans I needed to verify that the synth-skin was setting properly."
          "Good thinking," Sevrin said, typing orders onto the PADD. "Get her this message either verbally or by chip, whatever you think is safer. She is to lay low for now: do what the Romulans ask and don't do anything to arouse any further suspicion. I have reviewed the suggestions she has made and will attempt to conduct the modifications myself."
          "You're going to disable the ship?" Cipes asked.
          "I don't have the skills to effectively cripple the ship," Sevrin said. "And even if I did, I wouldn't be able to pull it off without access to Main Engineering. Chief Rubanza has a slightly different suggestion."
          "Plan C," Cipes said, smiling.
          "As you like. Be very careful when dealing with the Romulans. I believe they are even more dangerous than we originally suspected."
          "How do you know that, Sir?"
          Sevrin brought up a picture on his tablet and handed it to the doctor. "The Romulan shuttlecraft you see there is currently parked in our shuttle bay."
          "So what?" the Doctor asked.
          "What are they planning that would need their own shuttle?" Sevrin asked. "What can they do that would not be better done with one of ours?
          "So the Romulans used this shuttle to get on board?" Cipes asked, puzzled.
          "I am not sure, but I suspect that this shuttle arrived later," Sevrin said. "This is a brand new shuttle, with the insignia of the           Romulan special forces. I doubt it would have been on one of the older ships; they'd have had no reason to carry a special forces team. In any case, if they used a shuttle to send their people to Mallory, the naval commander would want his shuttle back before resuming his assigned war mission. Captains in combat are reluctant to give up assets for someone else's mission."
          "Special forces? Oh my God, you think there's a Praetorian team aboard!"
          "That is a logical conclusion," Sevrin said.
          "This really changes things," Cipes said, looking visibly paler.
          "No it doesn't," Sevrin said, taking his PADD back. "We're not going to Romulan space and a prison camp; we're going into Federation space on some kind of secret mission. It would be logical that their special forces would be part of that."
          "I guess you're right," Doctor Cipes said.
          "In any combat situation we assume the enemy is smart and dangerous; it would be reckless to think otherwise," Sevrin said. "This just reinforces the need for caution. Continue attending to your patients and be discreet in any dealings you have with the Romulans. I am going to lay the groundwork for Chief Rubanza's alternate plan."
          "Yes, Sir," Cipes replied, as Sevrin climbed up a stack of supply crates towards the vent on the far wall. "Sir, if you don't mind me asking: How can you just calmly go back out there knowing what you're up against? Don't Vulcans feel fear?"
          "Of course we do," Sevrin said. "We simply do not allow it to govern our choices. As for appearing calm Š it's the first thing they teach you in Command School: never let them see you sweat."
          A trace of a smile reappeared on Cipes's face. "Well you're doing a good job of it, Sir."
          Sevrin nodded and crawled out the airshaft, feeling upbeat for the first time in a while. The meds were taking the edge off the nausea and he was pleased with how he had handled the doctor, even though he had not been completely honest. Sevrin had never actually attended Command School, that was just something he'd overheard Captain Sanchez say on occasion. He promised himself that he would file the request (if he survived) as he floated down the vertical shaft towards the engineering deck.