Doe made sure both men were comfortable and offered refreshments before beginning. "Thank you for taking the time to beam over. I think we were getting off on the wrong foot earlier and I'm glad to have the opportunity to clear the air a little."
         "There's really just one issue that concerns us," Simmons said, "and that's getting everyone safely to Battle Station R-1. I don't understand why Star Fleet would deny us the additional protection since this entire sector is crawling with Romulans."
         "That makes perfect sense. So let me begin by saying that I've decided to escort your convoy all the way to base," Doe said.
         The two Federation captains looked at each other, clearly a bit surprised. Finally, Simmons said, "Thank you, Captain, we're both very reassured to hear that. But if you don't mind me asking, why all the fuss?"
         Doe's expression turned serious. "I apologize for that, but you do understand that this ship is under orders to be somewhere and the entire Sixth Fleet is counting on every ship to be where it is supposed to be. Moreover, this ship needs to be repaired and back in service as quickly as possible. Staying with your convoy will delay us for several hours. But there is more to it that that. To fully explain, I must first ask that this discussion not go further than this room. May I have your word on that?"
         Both men hesitated, but eventually answered in the affirmative, probably out of curiosity if nothing else.
         "Good," Doe said. "Now as you know, we got hit hard by the Romulans. Not just here, but all across the border. Make no mistake, this is an all-out invasion and they threw everything they had at us. As you can see, my ship was badly damaged; my captain and most of the senior crew were killed by those devils. But the sad truth is, we got off lucky compared to the rest of the fleet. I don't need to tell you how neglected and thinly spread the Sixth Fleet has been since the war started."
        Both men agreed immediately with that point. It was well known that most of Star Fleet was occupied with the war with the Klingons on the Federation's western border. Doubtless they felt neglected and vulnerable. And scared, Artex thought with satisfaction.
         "What you don't know is that the invasion has hit the Third Division commander, Fleet Captain Yefimov, pretty hard. He has decided that it's the duty of his remaining ships to launch a counter offensive to threaten the enemy's flank. My orders are to link up with the two surviving ships in our division and prepare to attack as soon as possible."
         "With only three ships?" Simmons asked. "That sounds crazy."
         "It is exactly that," Doe shook his head sadly. "Have either of you ever met Captain Yefimov?"
         "I can't say I've had the pleasure," Simmons said. Patel also shook his head.
         "Neither have I," Doe continued. "Captain Sanchez always spoke well of him, but these recent orders make no sense at all. Most of his ships are in no better shape than Mallory is. It's suicide, pure and simple. Maybe he's not the man the skipper thought he was, or maybe he's lost perspective under the strain of the past few days. I don't knowŠ"
         Doe paused and took a deep breath, appearing to struggle with deep emotions. "Regardless, I have had to make a very difficult decision. Orders are orders, but I also have to consider the lives of the men and women who are now my responsibility. And I have decided that I cannot just throw their lives away. I have decided to refuse the Fleet Captain's suicide order, but without long-range communications, I cannot even tell him that. Instead, I am taking this ship back to Battle Station Romeo One, where I will surrender myself into custody. It is, in my opinion, the only responsible thing to do for the men and women now under my command. A court-martial will decide if I'm a wise leader or a craven coward. Given the disaster that has befallen Sixth Fleet, they'll probably blame the entire situation on me."
          Both Federation captains were quiet while they digested all this. Finally Patel said, "It sounds like you have been put in a terrible position, Captain."
         "I just want to do what's right by my crew," Doe said sadly. "If they hang me out to dry, so be it, but there has been enough madness. And there will be plenty of war."
         "Why are you telling us all this?" Simmons asked. "Is there something you are asking of us?"
         "Only one thing," Doe said. "We have not been making our regular reports since the Romulan attack and the fleet captain's crazy new orders. They probably have us marked as missing in action by now. It would make things much simpler for me if you agreed not to report that we have joined the convoy. We'll stick with you from here to the base and once we're in dock they can sort everything out."
         Artex watched the two Federation captains carefully as they considered the deal on the table. Protection for silence. The merchant captain was the first to speak.
         "I can speak for the civilians in saying we have no problem with this. We're just grateful to have the extra protection."
         Simmons thought about it a little longer. Finally he said, "As long as you stay with us all the way to the base, I don't really see a problem. It's not in my job description to keep track of Star Fleet's ships for them." The Federation police had been more than unhappy with Star Fleet since Day One, when idiotic orders had resulted in a dozen police cutters being slaughtered for  nothing in a failed attempt to do Star Fleet's job for them.
         "Thank you both very much for your understanding," Doe said. "If we stick together we'll all get through this to fight another day. Now, do you have any other concerns or problems we can help you with?"
         Both men shook their heads. "Actually, Captain," Simmons said, "Maybe we can help you out. Your ship appears to have suffered major damage. I could spare a couple of engineers if you need help picking up the pieces over here."
         "Thank you, Captain, I really appreciate your offer," Doe said. "I will pass it along to the chief engineer. I suspect he will decline, however. You know how territorial these guys can be with their engines. Besides that, we've already done just about everything that can be done with the supplies on board."
         Artex was pleased at how well Doe had deflected the idea of more visitors coming aboard. Perhaps he was capable of learning after all.
         "Now, we should discuss the supply situation," Doe said.
         Both Federation captains stiffened at these words. "I expected such a request," Patel said brusquely, "And I will tell you right now that our ships do not have any spare supplies or cargo to be commandeered to support military operations. With the rerouting of our convoy we have barely enough fuel to make it back to base at this speed as it is, never mind the terrible financial losses we will suffer."
         "Gentlemen, you misunderstand me," Doe said. "The sad truth is, with the crew casualties we've taken I've got plenty more beans than bodies over here. I thought that you all might need some extra food rations or other supplies."
         "Thank you, Captain, that's very generous," Simmons said. "I'll ask my first officer to coordinate with your quartermaster."
         "Good, good," Doe said. "I know everyone's exhausted and their nerves are shot. I don't want morale to become an issue too. Tell you what: for the past few months, Thursday has been ice cream night on Mallory. Captain Sanchez got a half dozen cases off of a tramp freighter just a week ago. Real strawberries and everything, not the replicated stuff. We should split it amongst the ships in the convoy. See if that and the extra protection doesn't lift peoples' spirits a little."
         Nobody spoke for a moment, the two Federation captains clearly surprised by the direction of the conversation. Finally Patel said, "Certainly, Captain. I'm sure everyone would like that very much."
         "Excellent," Doe said. He rose and shook each man's hand vigorously. "I'll have my logistics and tactical officers contact you to coordinate operations. Now if you'll excuse me, I must return to the auxiliary control room, the only bridge I have left. Thank you again for your understanding, and I look forward to sailing together."
         With that Doe left the room. Li escorted the Earthmen back to the transporter room. Once they were safely back on their respective ships, Artex summoned Tarus back to the briefing room and massaged his temples as he waited, feeling the beginnings of a truly epic headache in the making.
         "You monitored the meeting from the auxiliary control room?" Artex asked, as soon as Tarus arrived.
         "I did," Tarus said. "I thought Doe delivered the story well."
         "That part of the meeting went fine," Artex said. "I am comfortable the civilians will not pose a problem. I am a little worried about the policeman; I think he may be suspicious."
         "I agree," Tarus said. "His offer to send personnel aboard might have been an excuse for his men to poke around a little."
         "Besides simply calling us in," Artex asked, "what other trouble do you think he could make for us?"
         Tarus considered this a moment. "He could start quietly investigating us. He might request personnel dossiers and images of the crew members we are impersonating, but I doubt he could do so without breaking his word to keep silent about the presence of Mallory with the convoy."
         "He might do that anyway," Artex said, "if he can convince himself that his word given to an officer shirking his duty is not binding. What has he to lose? How long do you think it would it take to get such information?"
         "It's hard to say. It would take about three or four days for a Romulan police captain to get that kind of information. Since there is no Game of Houses' in the Federation they generally have a freer flow of information, but they also tend to have a lot of bureaucracy, which more or less cancels each other out. And there will no doubt be significant disruption caused by our invasion. Such a request would hardly be high priority. Considering our timetable, I don't think this will pose a great threat, but I agree we should watch him closely. Maybe we can come up with something else to assuage any lingering doubts he may have."
         "Before we attempt any more contact with them, you need to have another long talk with Captain' Doe."
         Tarus nodded agreement. "He's getting better, but he's still too impulsive. The problem is that even though his loyalties are Romulan, his methods are still Orion. He supplicates when he should be authoritative and tries to bribe instead of earning trust.
         "Speaking of which ‹ what the hell is a Œstrawberry'? Do we even have any of this stuff on board that he's promising them?"
         Tarus's normally inscrutable expression faltered on this point. "I have no idea. I don't know where he got any of that from." He paused to consult his hand computer. "But he's right; whatever it is, the prize team's survey lists several cases of it in the cargo hold, in stasis storage." Tarus sighed quietly to himself. "It's the same problem: his overconfidence makes him very useful as an actor, but also very difficult to control. I will make it very plain to him that he needs to choose his words more carefully in the future."
         "See that you do," Artex said and left the briefing room, hunting for headache medication.

Sick Bay, USS Mallory
Romulan Border 5 August 2573; Eagle +3 Days

         It was a sad commentary on the direction his life had taken, Doctor Jeffrey Cipes thought, that he was now receiving cryptic text messages, which led him to find dead Vulcans in his supply closet. As a young medic working on a backwater agricultural colony, joining the naval reserves had seemed like an easy way to pay for medical school and maybe see a little of the galaxy in the process. It was his uncle's fault really. He had taken the same path a decade earlier and had gone nowhere more exciting than a Cygnan hospital ship. Even when Star Fleet started calling up reservists to staff ships to wartime levels it hadn't seemed so bad. The war with the Klingons was far away, and some action against the occasional Romulan privateer had sounded exciting at the time. The past 72 hours had provided Cipes with more excitement than he could have wished for in a lifetime.
         His next surprise came when he examined the battered body slumped in the corner and found he was still (marginally) alive. The ship's chief medical officer, now deceased, had always done the physicals for Mallory's non-human crew members, but Cipes recognized this unfortunate soul as one of the communications officers: Lieutenant Steprin or Sorpin or something like that. A physical exam revealed radiation poisoning and severe head trauma. His brain chemistry was all out of whack too, which meant he'd probably spent several days in one of the torporific regenerative cycles that old Terran medical journals used to call "Vulcan healing trances." That would explain why Cipes hadn't seen him in sickbay before now. It did nothing to answer the other questions racing through his mind. How did he manage to take a multi-day nap without being detected on a ship crawling with Romulans? How many other officers escaped? Was there a plan to retake the ship?
         Cipes finished working on his patient's most immediate problems and paused to debate his next move. The worst of the lieutenant's injuries, such as the intra-cranial bleeding, had been easy enough to patch up with one of the field kits in the supply closet. The radiation poisoning was a bigger problem: he couldn't do anything about that without a full course of treatment in sickbay. There was no way to do that without the Romulan medical officer who had been periodically checking on him noticing. That meant he would have to surrender him to the enemy, who might just kill the poor guy anyway. Cipes had learned through bitter experience the importance of downplaying his patients' injuries. The most critically wounded crewmen (and all of the ships' surviving Marines) had been swiftly transferred out of sickbay to "an off-ship facility," which he strongly suspected meant the airlock. In the end, Cipes decided it was up to his patient to make an informed choice and to do it quickly before the Romulan doctor made another inspection tour. He loaded a spray hypo with an unwise quantity of stimulants and brought the somewhat healthier-looking lieutenant back to consciousness.
         Twenty minutes later, Cipes and Sevrin had swapped stories, leaving each only marginally better informed than they were before. Having been restricted to sickbay and his quarters, Cipes had only peripheral observations of the Romulans' operations to contribute, while Sevrin was limited to the information he'd gathered from the ship's computer so far. Trying not to show his disappointment that there were no other surviving crewmembers leading a resistance, Cipes explained the details of Sevrin's condition to him, stressing his need for definitive treatment.
         Sevrin again felt the strong temptation to just hand himself over to the Romulans. As the only crewman at liberty, what could he realistically hope to accomplish? Surely the hopeless tactical situation and the need to treat his near-fatal injuries more than justified turning himself in. He wondered briefly what the captain would say about that, then realized what an illogical line of thought it was. As the sole surviving line officer I am the commanding officer now. A broken man to lead a broken ship
         "I won't be able to accept further treatment at this time," Sevrin finally said. "As the only officer at liberty, I have several duties I must perform, some of which will require your assistance."
         Cipes looked for a moment like he would protest further, but then nodded understanding. "There are several seriously injured crew members here, so I can't leave sickbay for any length of time. But I'll do anything else I can. What's our plan, Sir?"
         "It's better if you remain in sickbay anyway," Sevrin said. "If their doctor notices your absence, it will jeopardize the entire operation. According to the book, our primary objective is to attempt recapture of the ship, if possible. It is my judgment that we lack sufficient resources to accomplish this with only the two of us."
         Mistaking this for an attempt at humor, Cipes grinned. "I agree, Sir."
         "Our next highest priority," Sevrin continued, "is to inform Star Fleet Command of the Mallory's disposition. They may or may not be in a position to send assistance, but at the very least it is imperative that they be informed of the situation."
         "Are you sure there's no way you can do that remotely?" Cipes asked. "Maybe with help from engineering? Most of the crewmen the Romulans spared were technicians and engineers; they're all working under Chief Rubanza. We might be able to sneak a message to her the same way you contacted me."
         "There's no way to access communications through the computer," Sevrin said. "The system is offline due to combat damage. I could do it manually if I could get access to a functional transmitter, but they are all guarded. The log buoys are our best bet, assuming I can reach one of the launchers without detection." He paused for a moment. "However, your suggestion to attempt contact with Chief Rubanza is a good idea. She is probably unaware that the ship is headed anywhere other than a Romulan POW facility. I will order her to discreetly begin working on a way to immobilize or otherwise disable the ship if I am captured or killed in my efforts to summon help."
         "So if plan A doesn't work out, plan B is to cripple the ship?" Cipes asked with a trace of anxiety. "Even if we're successful, the Romulans aren't going to take that well."
          "There is no other alternative," Sevrin said firmly. "I don't know what the enemy's plan is, but I am certain that it will cost the lives of Federation servicemen and civilians. I will not allow the Mallory to be the instrument for their deaths."
         Cipes nodded soberly, then brightened with a fresh sense of purpose. "Well, you'll certainly have our best effort for plan A then, Sir. Is there anything I can do from here?"
         "As a matter of fact there is, Doctor," Sevrin said, getting carefully to his feet. "I have an idea that will improve my chances of avoiding detection and I require a prescription"