Prologue: S.O.S.

Captain's Log: Stardate 51896.4

En route to Starbase 310 for repairs, my crew has picked up a distress beacon originating in the Kalandra sector. A subspace message identifies the vessel as a Romulan warbird under the command of Centurion Xakais. His captain and most of the crew are dead and the vessel has been severely damaged. We're not in great shape ourselves, but we have no alternative. It's time to make a good impression on our new Romulan allies.

Captain Edward Jellico had seen it all. When Cardassia began encroaching on Federation territory, he knew there was something more to them. They had many enemies: Klingon, Romulans, even latter-day nightmares like the Borg. But there was an insidiousness to the Cardassians that was unmatched.

You knew where you stood with the Romulans. They hated you. It was easy to handle so accommodating an enemy. Even given these recent overtures of peace, there was no illusion that this was anything more than an alliance of convenience. Cardassians, on the other hand, would smile to your face while the plunged a knife in your back.

He ran his fingers over the four brass pips on his collar, denoting his rank. He was picking up that habit again; letting his anxiety control him. Even the comfortable surroundings of his ready room felt alien to him now. The Excelsior-class starship had been his home for almost ten years, save a brief reassignment to the Enterprise.

The Cairo was his, though. It had his crew, ran on his schedule, and would carry his legacy. He took a deep steadying breath before cursing himself for his weakness. Self-loathing would not settle him down; he had to do this. Glancing around the room he looked for familiar things. There was a picture of his friends from the Academy sitting on the corner of his desk. Hanging above his guest couch was the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware which he had specifically requested. An old cigar box that once belonged to his father lay open beside his terminal. Some of the oakey smell managed to reach his nostrils even through the sterile purified air.

The officer's breathing settled as he inhaled the aroma which reminded him of a time long since gone. There was the innocence of youth, of course, but he had already come to terms with that loss. The sudden longing was no surprise given they were in the midst of the deadliest conflict in Federation history. In his wary deliberation, he had almost forgotten the true threat: The Dominion.

The aging captain shook his head and chose to focus on the enemy he could handle. Somehow he felt the Dominion would not be so terrifying were it not for their Cardassian hosts. They certainly would not have had a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant were it not for them.

Jellico stood up and walked over to the replicator, hands still shaking from his episode.

"Coffee. Black," he muttered.

"Please specify temperature," came the bland, robotic imitation of a woman's voice.

"Hot, damn it," Jellico cursed. "Sixty degrees Celsius."

There was high-pitched whirring from the silvery cabinet, and the matter replicator went to work. Within seconds, a suitable recreation of a plain white coffee mug sat in the middle of the cabinet. It was filled to the brim with the dark brown beverage. One sip told him it was slightly colder than he had meant to order it, but it went against his moral code to not finish something he'd started.

"Captain, it's Akindona."

Jellico's comm badge buzzed to life with the sound of his new first officer. The previous owner of that distinction had been given a field promotion and command of a brand-new Sovereign-class vessel.

"Go ahead, bridge," Jellico replied, taking another sip of his drink.

"We're within sensor range of the Romulan warbird."

Jellico nodded solemnly and set his mug down. It was easy enough to report in person when the bridge was on the other side of his door. A few strides later and he was back in the captain's chair, surrounded by the buzz of his loyal crew.

"What have we got, helm?" Jellico demanded, leaning back into his seat. The chair was in rough shape from a few near-misses and was not helping his aches any.

An ensign tapped furiously at a console directly in front of the main view-screen, feet away from Jellico's intimidating presence. The layout of every Federation vessel sought to put the captain in the middle of the action so he could effectively communicate to every section. The Cairo was no different, but it felt more cramped with the old lion looking over your shoulders.

"In a word: it's bad, sir. Their shields are gone, cloak is dead, they're leaking plasma and disruptor banks are offline," the ensign replied.

"Take us to impulse power," Jellico ordered. Then, as an afterthought, he added. "Yellow alert. Keep an eye on long-range sensors, I don't want any Cardassian ships to surprise us."

"Impulse power," the ensign confirmed dutifully.

The Cairo slowed to a crawl, a few hundred kilometers away from a D'deridex-class Romulan warbird. The half-arch wingspan and sloping bridge section were impossible to mistake. But it had been a while since Jellico had seen one in so bad a shape.

"Hail them!" Jellico ordered.

"Trying sir," Akindona explained, brushing some of his blond hair out of his eyes as he worked at the communication center. "No response."

"Transporter chief, lock on to any life sign you can find and beam them directly to sickbay," Jellico barked into his comm badge.

The order could not have come any later. Mere seconds passed between the words escaping the Captain's lips and the Romulan warp core erupting into a fiery blaze of neon green plasma.

"Shield's up!" Jellico called, almost a second too late. The Cairo was rocked, and for a moment the faulty inertial dampers failed, causing the entire bridge crew to experience a split-second of free fall. Jellico was spared most of the impact thanks to his firm grip on his arm, but the Ensign cracked his head on the conn, and Akindona flipped over a railing onto the lower level of the bridge.

"Warp five, any heading! Get us the hell out of here!" Jellico yelled.

The ensign was non-responsive, but a nearby lieutenant took control. A sudden thrust from their engineering section sent them lurching forward, and they were once again well on the way to Starbase 310.

Jellico exhaled, knowing that the scene they had left would be a zero-gravity hellscape. One they had narrowly avoided. The thought of his ship getting destroyed simply for being a Good Samaritan was almost unbearable to him.

Gritting his teeth, he managed to call out, "Damage report."

"Shields seemed to bear most of the impact," declared Lieutenant Hateley, Jellico's science officer. She took a moment to straighten her bangs, and readjusted her glasses as she read the messages coming in from all over the ship. "Light casualty reports, mostly bumps, and bruises. Inertial dampers are completely shot and we've lost long-range sensors."

"Engineering, I want my sensors operational in one hour. Get it done," Jellico commanded. "Transporter room, did you manage to get anybody off that derelict?"

"Just one," came the voice of the chief. "Romulan female, straight to sickbay as you ordered. But she didn't look too good. Her signal was wavering when I locked onto her."

"Very well. Jellico out."

He was fuming, and his momentary calm was now utterly shot. This wasn't exactly protocol, but he needed to find out what he was dealing with. Whoever that Romulan was, they had almost taken the Cairo down with them.

"I'm gonna go have a word," Jellico said, straightening his collar. He turned to Akindona and winced a bit at the officer's slightly unkempt hair. "Get us to Starbase 310 and don't stop for anything. You have the bridge."

A turbolift ride later, Jellico was marching down the hallway on Deck 5 towards Sickbay. He passed the bright green stencil denoting the ship identification number: NCC-42136. Next to this was the newly refitted surgical ward, and it was just one more door.

His heart wasn't going to make it through the war. There was always that fear. His next panic attack could be the one. He had been sold on the benefits of a cardiac replacement for years now. But if he was going to die, he would die. Jellico refused to lose any part of who he was just for a few more years.

The door to sickbay opened, and a crack medical team was busy working in tandem to treat a somewhat pale Romulan woman. She looked as battered as her ship had been, with scars all over her face and arms.

"What's her condition?" Jellico asked, less delicately than he perhaps should have.

"Critical. She took two disruptor shots to the chest. It's a wonder she's still conscious," replied one of the doctors.

Jellico briefly lamented the fact that he'd been without a Chief Medical Officer for almost three months. His sickbay was ostensibly under the acting-command of a lieutenant commander, but he had perished in a skirmish two weeks ago. Even with his help, there was nothing they could do. Jellico knew it, and he suspected his medical team knew it. But damned if they weren't trying anyway.

"It's... okay..." came the weak voice of their patient.

"Don't speak," one of the doctors said, bracingly. "Save your strength."

The Romulan shook her head, and then directed her gaze towards Captain Jellico.

"It's... better this way... tell him... it will be... okay..."

A static whir, followed by a shrill tone. The Romulan's eyes slowly closed.

"Jolan tru Xakais," the woman sighed before her breath ceased forever.