Author: Alan Decker, Anthony Butler
STAR TRAKS: BOLDLY GONE…
By Alan Decker & Anthony Butler
“Duty Log, Ensign Hector Arroyo,
Stardate 175248.7. It’s night watch, and due to a few…changes…in the command structure as of late, I have been put in charge of the Delta Shift rotation. It’s my first time in command of the bridge, and what do you know, I’m doing a passable job of it. Guess I have more leadership skill than SOME people thought.”
“And what should I do with this?” asked Ensign Lara Randall showing the padd with the night’s security watch to Ensign Arroyo as he perched in the command chair, attempting to look stiff-chinned and gallant, modeling his command chair stance after Captain Bain. He found it hard not to slide off the darn thing.
“I don’t know,” Arroyo admitted. “Leave it under the tactical station for when Commander Tovar comes on duty.”
“Are you sure that’s where it’s supposed to go?”
“Report back to your station, Ensign,” Arroyo said authoritatively, and turned to watch the stars on the viewscreen, just as Prosak emerged from her quarters (the former captain’s ready room) and glanced around the bridge, looking over Yonk’s shoulders at the helm.
Arroyo was still mad at Prosak. She put Yonk in command of the bridge instead of Arroyo just before she activated that psychopathic James Kirk hologram and took over the ship.
So it was no surprise that Arroyo’s tone was a little sharp when he talked to Prosak.
“Captain’s orders were very specific, Commander,” Arroyo told Prosak. “You’re not allowed on the bridge at any time.”
“I was just checking our course, on my way to the mess hall,” Prosak said stiffly.
“Well, we’re on the same course we were on since you were relieved of duty,” Arroyo said. “Searching for Cabral.”
“I hope we find him.”
“So do we all,” Arroyo said, and looked back at the viewscreen, pretending he was thinking very important command thoughts.
Prosak walked up to the aft turbolift and turned around. “Ensign, I’m sorry if you feel I let you down in some way–”
“Don’t be silly,” Arroyo said.
“Look, I’m very busy Commander.”
Prosak frowned. “Right.” She back-stepped into the turbolift just as a comm-bleep went off on the arm of the command chair. She instinctively stepped forward, twisting sideways to slide in between the closing doors.
“Kasyov to Bridge,” came the voice over the comm system.
Arroyo punched the command chair arm as Prosak looked on behind him. “Bridge here,” he said, purposefully making his voice a bit lower.
“Loborus is on to something. Have helm change course to 017 mark 188. Increase our speed to maximum and recall the senior staff.”
“Loborus is THAT sure this is the real thing?”
“As sure as a giant brain with an 88 I.Q. can be. Just do what I told you to do, okay, Ensign?”
“Sure, your majesty.” Arroyo punched the channel closed and turned back to look at Prosak. “I believe you were on your way to the mess hall?”
“I just thought…”
“We’ve got it under control, thanks.”
Prosak sighed and ducked back into the turbolift.
“So you’re sure about this,” Kasyov muttered, leaning over the gushy orange brain that sat in a tub of bubbly liquid in Science Lab Four, right where Cabral used to be stationed.
It felt to Kasyov almost like how things had been before they’d arrived in the Andromeda Galaxy. Here she was, in the lab she’d avoided since Cabral’s disappearance, working with a brain.
Only, from time to time, she was reminded that it was an entirely stupid brain.
“Now, Doctor, I never used the word ‘sure,’” Loborus boomed, shaking in his vat. “I believe the exact word I used was ‘definitely.’”
Balpar rushed into the lab carrying a large plastic basket by the handle.
“I ran into the captain as he was headed for the bridge,” the Pulsan resistance leader said, kneeling by Kasyov and setting the basket down. “Is he right? Is Loborus onto something?”
“We were just discussing that,” Kasyov said, then looked at the basket. “What’s in there?”
“Oh, just a little picnic lunch I prepared for us. You know, to pass the time.”
Kasyov turned, on her knees, to face Balpar. “Oh, Balpar. You are SO thoughtful.”
“Nonsense. We’ve been at this all morning. I knew you’d be hungry.”
“What about me?” demanded Loborus. “It has been hours since brine have been added to my tank.”
“Your brine level is fine,” Kasyov said, staring into Balpar’s eyes. “How lucky am I to have found you? Someone as interested in brains as I am?”
“Did I mention I’ve been feeling slight electrical surges from some of your scanning equipment? I think it’s been misfiring a few of my neurons…” Loborus droned in the background.
“Shut up, wrinkly,” Kasyov said, and leaned forward toward Balpar, closing her eyes. Balpar embraced her with strong hands, pressed his massive forehead against her own, and for the briefest of moments, their four lips met…
“Tut now, Kassie, don’t leave us in suspense!” Bain called over the intercom. “What’s this Loborus has found? And why was it important enough to get me off the cricket field?”
Kasyov sighed and leaned back. “Loborus just told me that he’d found positive brain signals matching his own, sir.”
“So it may not be Cabral, but just another of his and Loborus’ species, then?” asked Bain.
“I don’t know Cabral that well, Captain,” Loborus said. “So I’m not sure what his brain waves are like. They’re all different, you know. Some are all bright and bouncy…some dark and morbid. Some brainwaves are downright rude!”
“And how would you characterize this one?” Bain’s voice prodded.
Loborus’ tank bubbled a bit as he thought. “Utterly, bitterly, defeated.”
“Well, if it is Cabral, we need to get to him poste-haste.”
“Agreed,” Kasyov said, looking gravely at Balpar.
“We’ll put on some extra steam, Kassie. Keep monitoring from there. Let us know if anything changes.”
Once the channel was closed, Balpar took Kasyov by the hands and pulled her to her feet. “Doctor Kasyov,” he said softly. “Can I please talk to you? Alone? In your quarters? For a very important, er, brain meeting?”
Kasyov nodded. “Absolutely.” And the two walked off, hand-in-hand.
Loborus bubbled happily in his tank. “I bet this has something to do with my brine,” he said to himself.
Kasyov stumbled backwards into her cabin, calling for the computer to lock the doors, she and Balpar a tangle of arms and exploring hands.
Balpar kissed her all over her face. “Doctor, I can’t hold back any longer…you make me absolutely insane with desire.”
“And you have the biggest head I’ve ever seen,” Kasyov sighed happily, throwing Balpar down on her couch and shrugging off her lab coat.
“It’s just your love of…mmmph…brains…” Balpar moaned as they kissed.
“Yes…and your big, giant, head, with that big giant brain, beating inside it…” Kasyov said as she rushed to yank off Balpar’s shirt, as he did his part in unbuttoning the front flap of her Starfleet uniform.
“You folks from the Milky Way sure have a lot of layers to your uniforms,” observed Balpar.
“Space is cold,” Kasyov said simply, straddling Balpar and yanking at his pants. “I sure wish I’d paid more attention in Xenobiology class. I don’t even know if our reproductive organs are compatible.”
“Well that’s not very romantic,” giggled Balpar.
“No matter,” Kasyov said quickly. “I’m sure we’ll muddle our way through.”
“Indeed, Doctor Kasyov.”
“Please, call me Natalia.”
That was Bain. The damned Brit did it again, only this time, he was standing in her doorway.
“Doctor Kasyov? Are you in here?” Light poured in from the corridor, but Kasyov and Balpar were ensconced in shadow on the couch. “Computer, Li…”
“I’m right here!” Kasyov cut him off. “Leave it dark. I’m…meditating.”
“Bravo, Doctor. We could all use a bit of that. It’s been a tough couple of months. Mind if I join you?
“NO! I mean…uh…I was just finishing up.”
“Where are you?”
“Oh, I’m…uh…around here somewhere.”
“Right…well…could you at least step into the light?”
“I’m naked.” At least she could tell the truth about that. “So…” she said, trying not to sound incredibly nervous, and shoving a hand over Balpar’s mouth. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Well, we’re approaching the Associates space station. It’s heavily fortified. We think that may be the source of the signal Loborus picked up.”
“That’s…terrific!” Kasyov said. “I’ll just…um…confirm that with Loborus?”
“And would you mind finding Balpar, too?” Bain asked. “He should be in on this as well.”
“I’m right on top of that,” Kasyov replied quickly.
“Well, then, kudos all around,” Bain said. “Once you’ve discussed the matter with Loborus, why don’t you and Balpar join us on the bridge?”
“I’ll see if I can latch on to him, Captain.”
“Very good. I’ll let you get back to your meditations, then. Cheerio.”
Bain stepped back into the corridor and the doors slid closed.
Kasyov climbed off Balpar and called for lights. “Computer! Didn’t I tell you to lock the door?”
“Your exact words were…‘lock the mmmph door’.”
“You were kissing me at the time,” Balpar explained as he buttoned up his shirt.
“Right you are,” Kasyov muttered. “Next time, Computer, just use some common sense.”
“I am not equipped with a Common Sense Drive. I’m sure you know how that feels.”
“Shut up, Computer.” Kasyov looked at Balpar. “Come on. Let’s get back to the lab.”
Loborus was humming to himself when a disheveled-looking Kasyov and Balpar arrived.
“Hmm…oh, there you guys are. I was wondering where you’d gone. About my brine…”
“Loborus!” Kasyov snapped, rushing over to the brain. “We need information now. Tap into the sensors. Do you see that heavily-guarded Associates Installation we’re approaching?”
Loborus took a few moments. “Hm. Oh, yes. Or is that a quasar? No, wait…yes, there it is. That metallic thing with all the weapons and blinky lights and things.”
“Yes. That thing. Is that where Cabral is?”
“We need to know, Loborus!” This from Balpar.
“Loborus!” Kasyov groaned.
“Yes! Yes it is! I’m SURE of it! NOW can I have my brine!”
“All that and more, chum,” Balpar grinned. “All that and more.”
Kasyov and Balpar skidded out onto the bridge, still looking disheveled. “That station is the place, Captain!” Kasyov said. “Loborus stakes what little reputation he has on it!”
“Finally!” Bain said, clapping his hands eagerly together. “It’s about time we found him. Mister Brazzell, transfer sensor controls to Kasyov’s station.” Brazzell had been moved to first-watch tactical ever since Tovar had taken to bed rest a few days earlier. The gestating baby squid nodules growing all over the tac-ops officer had recently grown so large you could barely see his face. He was taking it well enough, Bain supposed, but the man definitely did not want to be seen in public.
Marsden was staring at Kasyov from the engineering console. “Are you okay, Nat?”
Kasyov stepped over to the science console, on the opposite side of the bridge from Marsden’s station. “Just great.”
“You have a…glow…about you.”
“Glow? What glow? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes. I’ve seen that glow before.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“You get that glow when–”
All eyes were on Marsden.
She glanced around at the bridge crew. “When you’re close to finding a lost brain!”
“Nice save,” Kasyov muttered under her breath as Balpar rushed to her side, kneeling beside her and placing a hand on her shoulder.
“How can I be of help, dearest?” Balpar asked, tickling a finger along the back of her neck.
Kasyov was going to tell him that continuing to do that thing with his finger was good for starters, but she resisted. “Actually, Balpar, the best thing you can do right now is stay out of our way. Or, you can use the communications console at the tac-ops station to talk to your fleet.”
“They’ve been tagging behind us since we picked up the scent on Cabral’s trail,” Bain told Balpar, swiveling around in his captain’s chair to face the Pulsan. “Thank goodness, too. I’ll wager we’ll need every bit of help we can get.”
“Indeed,” Balpar said quietly, looking to Kasyov, who tried to stay focused on her scans.
“Fascinating,” said the enormous, 140-kilo leader of the Associates’ Organization of Enforcers Enforcing Ordinances of the Associates, also known as AOEEOA, or just “The Associates,” although that was a little inaccurate.
He was looking out a large observation port at the seemingly endless cavern of brains housed in the “Core,” the stockpile of brains kept by the Associates to discover the answers to all questions…but most importantly, the answer to THE question.
“I’m glad you approve,” said Chief Associate Enforcer Uuulaadoodee said with a pleased smirk.
Next to the observation port, a monitor showed several brains (with LEGS of all things!) doing a complicated tapdance number, singing “‘Of’ is on the way.”
“They are really figuring things out in there, aren’t they?” the Associates’ leader said.
“Indeed, sir. The brain we appropriated from the Milky Way vessel is more intelligent then any we’ve come across yet. We’ve considered moving him up to the ‘meaning’ group.”
“An excellent idea. Do it immediately,” said the leader. “You really have done an excellent job since you took over this station, Uuulaadoodee. You may go far with our organization.”
“Heh. You might even rise to the rank of Executive Autonomous Enforcement Operations Organizer.”
“But then where would you go?”
“One day, Uuulaadoodee, my body will fail me, and I hope my brain is put in there,” the EAEOO said with a smile.
“As do we all, sir.”
“Say my name, Uuulaadoodee.”
Uuulaadoodee sighed. He always felt silly saying it. “Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”
“CAE Uuulaadoodee,” came the comm signal, interrupting the EAEOO’s moment.
“This better be important, Assistant Enforcement Operator Ieeeeepie.”
“It is, sir. That Milky Way ship?”
“Yes. What of it?”
“It’s approaching. Followed by a bunch of other ships.”
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa grimaced. “What kind of other ships?”
“Damn, not the Pulsans,” muttered Uuulaadoodee. “They refused to be categorized.”
“But they WILL be categorized,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa growled, shifting his bulk around and trudging down the space station corridor. “And the crew of that Milky Way ship will be categorized too, under ‘D’ for destroyed!”
“Yes, sir. Yes, of course,” Uuulaadoodee said frightened, scurrying after Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.
Time seemed to have almost slowed to a halt for Reginald Bain as he paced the bridge of the Anomaly. Every so often, he’d whirled around to check the viewscreen.
“Are you expecting something in particular?” Ensign Arroyo asked from the helm. Frankly, Bain’s movements directly behind him were starting to get unnerving.
“Always,” Bain replied, a response that didn’t clear the situation up for Arroyo one bit.
Suddenly, Brazzell let out a high-pitched yelp at tac-ops. “Ten Associate ships just popped up on long range sensors. They’re heading right for us!”
“See,” Bain said to Arroyo.
“Couldn’t you have expected something less likely to obliterate us?” Arroyo asked, forcing his hands not to shake on the helm.
“Come now, Hector! There’s always an enemy fleet! It’s just the way these things work,” Bain said soothingly as he headed back to his command chair.
“They’re hailing us,” Brazzell reported.
Bain sighed boredly. “Probably just the usual ‘turn back or be destroyed’ blather.”
“Blather?” Balpar exclaimed on the edge of panic. “Do you realize what those ships are going to do to us…and my fleet!”
“You, sir, have a few things to learn about command,” Bain replied, turning to face the Pulsan. “Never panic in front of your crew.”
“I’m not panicking!” Balpar shouted. “I just don’t want to die!”
Bain laughed. “Die! Nonsense!”
“Then what are we going to do?”
“Do? Why defeat them and continue onward!”
“We have a fleet of our own.”
“We have five ships, none of which are equal to an Associates’ ship,” Kasyov said, butting in on the side of Balpar.
“We have that disappearing ray of Balpar’s,” Bain offered.
“Which is good for creating a little confusion, but not against ten ships!” Balpar cried.
“Then we’ll just have to improvise,” Bain said. “Shields and resheathing at maximum. Standby on weapons, Mr. Brazzell. I know you’re not Tovar, but I’m sure you’ll acquit yourself admirably.”
“Are you mocking me?” Brazzell huffed.
“Not at all. Only Tovar is Tovar. Don’t wallow in your shortcomings. Transcend them!”
“With all due respect, sir, I think I’m insulted.”
“Then take it out on those bloody Associates.”
“Sir!” Brazzell cried.
“What? It’s a damn fine bit of motivation!”
“No! Another fleet is closing in fast. Seven ships of unknown configuration. They’re hailing us…well, you.”
“Me?” Bain asked, rising from his chair.
“Yes, sir. They’re requesting you by name.”
“I guess we’ve become notorious,” Lieutenant Marsden quipped from the engineering console.
Bain straightened his uniform. “Far be it from me to ignore a potential ally. On screen.”
The starfield image switched to that of a cramped bridge filled with small, pale skinned beings.
Now it was Arroyo’s turn to yelp.
“Good lord!” Bain exclaimed. “It’s the bloody ankle biters!”
The ten Lackinis on the viewscreen dropped to their knees. “We have completed your challenge, Master! We have tracked your across many star systems so that we may serve you!”
Chants of “Order us!” “Command us!” and “Wipe your feet on our skulls!” rose up from the crowd of Lackinis.
“I don’t believe this,” Bain muttered.
“The Lackinis have been following us since Gijik’s?” Arroyo said in shock.
“Damn loyal little blighters,” Bain said, lowering his face into his hand.
“We will serve you forever, Master!” the Lackinis replied. “We will give our lives for you!”
Bain froze and looked up at the viewscreen, his eyes wide with an idea. “Your lives, you say?”
“Captain, I know what you’re thinking…” Kasyov began.
“No offense, Doctor, but stow it.”
Arroyo jumped in. “Captain, we can’t…”
“Belay that, Ensign,” Bain said. He turned his attention to the Lackinis. “I have a great mission for you, my friends,” Bain began, his arms outstretched.
“The Master calls us his friends! We are not worthy!!!”
Kasyov looked across the bridge at Marsden. “Shelly!”
“What?” Marsden snapped back.
“You’re sort of acting first officer. Do something!”
“Like what? I think it’s a good idea.”
Bain continued on unabated. “Your master and his colleagues face a grave threat from the ships approaching us. We need you to intercept them, so that we can escape.”
“Protect the Master!” the Lackinis cried as the comm channel closed abruptly.
“The Lackinis ships are altering course. They’re heading straight toward the Associates,” Brazzell reported.
“Well,” Bain said, clapping his hands. “That’s that, then. Mr. Arroyo, best speed to the space station.”
“But what about my ships?” Balpar demanded.
“They can come along, too,” Bain said, growing annoyed. Balpar was becoming a bit of a whiner. “I’m sure the Lackinis can handle things here.”
Leaving Bain’s loyal subjects to do his bidding, the Anomaly sped onward.
“There she is,” Bain pointed, as the Anomaly sailed into what Balpar informed them was the Nalvar system.
The station loomed huge on the viewscreen.
“Can we get any idea of scale,” Bain gasped, looking back at Kasyov.
“Umm…I don’t think that you want to know,” Kasyov said, staring dumbfounded at the huge column of blue-gray metal.
“Give it to us straight, Doctor,” Bain ordered.
“You asked for it.” Kasyov plunked a few controls. “This is the station…and…” She plunked a few more controls. “THIS is the Anomaly in comparison.”
Marsden squinted at the viewscreen. “Where?”
“See that dot,” Kasyov said, pointing at the screen. “Right there next to the weapons array?”
“Great sticky wickets!” Bain exclaimed.
“Would you stop saying that?” demanded Marsden.
“It seemed appropriate.”
Kasyov turned to look at Balpar, who was clinging near the tac-ops console with Brazzell. “Balpar…did you have any idea that station would be so huge?”
“Actually, it’s a little smaller than the initial reports we got,” Balpar said. “The Associates call it ‘Brain Central.’”
“I suppose there’s no chance it’s not armed to the teeth,” Arroyo said from the helm.
“Very little,” said Balpar.
“It appears to be very clean,” Brazzell said, prompting stares from the others on the bridge. “Hey, I just wanted to contribute.”
“Well, now that we’ve found that blasted thing, all that’s left to be done is to find a way in,” Bain said, trying to put a positive spin on the situation.
“Working on it,” Marsden said distractedly from Engineering. “Natalia, I could use a hand.”
“Sure,” Kasyov said, and crossed the bridge, locking eyes with Balpar, on the way over to Marsden’s L-shaped console.
“A bit more rapidly please, ladies,” Bain said.
Balpar looked up from the communications panel on Brazzell’s console. “My ships are moving into position around us.”
“Signal your group leader not to make a move before we do,” Bain said. “I suppose we should at least give talking a chance even though I can pretty much guess how this particular conversation will run.”
“And this way, when Starfleet finds our charred log recorder in 100 years, they’ll be proud of us,” muttered Arroyo.
“Something like that,” Bain said. “Open a channel.”
“What do you know,” said Brazzell. “We’re getting a response.” The Mezzakkan punched a control and an enormous mountain of a man appeared on the screen, cloaked in a red, velvety cape. Bain also noted a familiar face standing next to him.
“Why hello, Uuulaadoodee,” Bain said warmly.
“You will address the leader of our people, Captain Bain,” Uuulaadoodee said sharply.
“And that would be…” Bain looked to the gigantic man.
“Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” Balpar said quietly from behind Bain.
“Yes, I get it,” Bain snapped. “You’re impressed with his girth. As are the rest of us, but what’s his name?”
“I am Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” grunted the Associates’ leader.
“Ahhhhh, I see,” Bain replied understanding.
“His name is Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” Uuulaadoodee said insulted. “How dare you shorten it!”
“No. I mean ‘ahhhh’ in understanding. No disrespect to your rather massive leader was intended.”
“He is just big-boned!” Uuulaadoodee shouted.
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa placed a calming hand on Uuulaadoodee’s shoulder and took over the conversation. “Why are you approaching our station with a hostile fleet of rebel ships?”
“We thought maybe you’d like to join us for high tea?” Bain offered weakly.
“Withdraw now or we will file you into the nearest scrap heap,” said Uuulaadoodee. Yep. The conversation was pretty much going as Bain had thought it would.
“Can’t do that,” said Bain, giving the expected reply for this particular situation. “You have something that’s ours.”
“Our BRAIN!” burst Kasyov as she worked at the console with Marsden. “Give us back Cabral, damn it!”
Bain glanced over at Kasyov. “Doctor, if you please…”
“Never,” said Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. “He is the key to satisfying our quest for knowledge. He is meant for so much more than just powering your tiny ship. He is going to bring our galactic network into a new era of enlightenment, and you will not prevent him from completing this vital work!”
“He’s a sentient being with a free will, and I expect his will is to be returned to us!” Bain snapped back.
“He does not have a choice. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa retorted.
Bain was actually glad Prosak wasn’t around to hear that.
“Besides,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa continued. “We’ve already put a lot of effort into training Cabral. He’s been through Orientation and everything. After that kind of expenditure of resources, I can’t just decide to let him go.”
“How can you just DECIDE to put defenseless brains to work for you in the first place?” Kasyov demanded.
“It’s easy. We just hook them into the system and they do the rest. I assure you that their working conditions are pleasant, and we offer an excellent benefits package when we retire them.”
“What? You kill them?” Kasyov snapped.
“Well…yes, but it’s a really a very pleasurable death,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa replied.
“YVOT!” Kasyov cursed, running forward to pound her fists into the viewscreen.
Bain grimaced. This was not turning out the way he’d planned it. “Doctor, please control yourself. I know this is difficult, but emotional outburst solves nothing.” He turned to the screen and the distorted image (thanks to Kasyov) of Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. “You, sir, have taken our property and maligned our good name. I challenge you to defend yourself.”
“Defend myself? That’s it, Captain. We have extended you every courtesy and given you every opportunity to live by the Network Employee Responsibility Manual. You’ve left me no choice but to terminate your position in this galaxy. Consider yourself pink slipped and prepare to have your assets seized!”
“Try your worst,” Bain said firmly. “But we will get our brain back. Brazzell, close channel. Charge all weapons. Raise shields and set on continuous re-sheathing.”
Bain held tight to the armrests of his command chair, waiting for the Associates’ attack to commence. Nothing happened.
“How bloody long are they going to wait to get this started?” Bain groused.
“Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa must report to his Board of Directors first,” Balpar said. “But if you turn your comm to 145.7 megahertz, they have some lovely hold music.”
“Reginald Bain doesn’t hold for anyone,” Bain said, smacking his fist down on the arm rest of his command chair. “Doctor, Balpar, get down to Loborus and see if he can’t get us a more specific location on Cabral now that we’re this close.”
Kasyov and Balpar raced off the bridge…hand in hand, Bain noted. He turned back to the viewscreen and stared grimly at the space station hovering in front of them.
“Um…sir?” Arroyo said after a few moments.
“What are we doing?”
“Isn’t that a bit like holding?”
Bain thought for a moment. “I suppose it is.”
“But I thought you never held.”
“First time for everything, I guess. I’ll have to tell the missus when I get back. Somebody turn on that hold music I’ve heard so much about.”
Meanwhile, down in sickbay, Tovar sat hovering inches off his bed, trying not to think of the hundreds of little squiddies squirming about attached all over to his body. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. He couldn’t even see. All the pinkish pods were swelled up around his face. He was barely able to breathe.
No wonder he wasn’t exactly pleased to hear the tittering voice of Doctor Fred Nooney as he forced his way into Tovar’s quarters to check on him. Right on schedule.
“And how are we today?” Nooney squeaked. Tovar could barely make out the giddy, bulging eyes of Nooney peering down at him.
“Just lovely,” Tovar said. “And very, very pregnant.”
“Yes, it appears these things are about ready to pop.”
“Why have we stopped? Have we reached the Associates’ station?”
“Um, we’ve just stopped to ask directions,” Nooney lied. He knew enough about Tovar to know that the Yynsian would attempt to rush into duty if he knew the ship was truly in danger.
“I should be on the bridge.”
“You should be resting. You don’t want these things to pop while you’re on duty. My scans indicate they’re pretty mobile. They’d ransack the whole ship.”
“Do you have a method of containing them once they, uh…hatch?”
“Oh, I sure do. I’m just going to seal off this room with a force field.”
“With me in it?”
“I figured you’d want to spend some time with your kids. Hmm. I wonder if they’ll look like you.”
“DOCTOR! YOU ARE TESTING MY–MY–URK!”
Nooney frowned. “Tovar…are you…?”
“Going into labor? Yes Doctor, I do believe I am!”
“I feel partially responsible.”
“YOU SHOULD FEEL TOTALLY RESPONSIBLE!” Tovar cried as the basketball-sized nodules all over his body began to shudder violently.
“Oh, dear,” cried Nooney. “I don’t even know whether to tell you to push or not.”
“How about you just get out of the damn way!” Tovar cried, and suddenly his eyes glazed and his facial expression transformed into one of pure glee that could only belong to his past life, Tarva. “Oh, I can feel them moving! My happy little creatures! How I love the wonders of nature!”
“Not another past life!” Nooney cried. “This is all too much. Steve! Here we are at our darkest hour! Where are you when we need you?”
“SHUT THE HELL UP!” cried Tovar. Seemed he was back to his old self again. “OR YOU WILL SUFFER, PUNY MORTAL!” Then again maybe he was someone else.
Commander Prosak sat in the empty mess hall, staring at a wall, an untouched and cold bowl of yamok soup sitting in front of her. With the holochef offline and the mess hall now incapable of changing to different dining environments, the place was deserted, which is exactly how Prosak wanted it.
“I’m an idiot,” she said to herself. It was so illogical. So UNLIKE her. She prided herself on not being governed by her emotions, but in this case, she made her decision based on what she THOUGHT was logic and what ended up being pure, unbridled…well, stupidity.
“How could I let myself be manipulated by that Kirk hologram? I let so many people down.”
“The nice thing about down is that there’s usually an up somewhere as well,” a female voice said from behind her. Prosak whipped around and saw an older woman pushing a cart step into the mess hall. Oddly, Prosak had never seen her before.
Sensing Prosak’s confusion, the woman spoke. “Helena Troi, at your service.”
“And what service is that?” Prosak asked, forcing herself into Vulcan mode.
“Cleaning mostly. With Lefty gone, someone has to clean up around here.”
“The holochef. His name was Lefty, not that many people thought to ask…or that Lefty wanted to tell them. He was sort of a loner.”
“‘He’ was nothing more than a computer-generated grouping of photons. The only attributes they can have are ones WE give them.”
“So that’s why the Milky Way holograms demanded civil rights and got transferred to the Mega-Sim,” Helena said sarcastically.
“What happened there is not the point!” Prosak snapped.
“Then what is?”
“I should have known better! That’s what!”
Helena stared at her. “Are you still worked up about that whole Kirk hologram thing?”
“YES! I assumed you heard that when you interrupted my private talk with myself!”
“Sorry. I just caught the ‘let so many people down’ part.”
“I don’t know why I’m even talking to you.”
Helena shrugged as she pulled a floor-bot out of her cart and set it down to start its cleaning operation. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone else here.”
“That’s because everyone else knows how badly I screwed up. I betrayed this ship!” Prosak shot back, all semblance of Vulcan control gone.
“I’d say you had a slight lapse in judgment, but you weren’t the one attacking Associates outposts.”
“No. The Kirk hologram had rendered my rather unconscious by that point.”
Helena put a consoling arm around Prosak’s shoulder. “Listen, dearie, this ship’s in an unusual situation, and you did what you thought was best for the crew. So you were wrong. Big deal. Next time you may be right.”
“What next time?” Prosak replied glumly. “I’ve been removed from duty.”
“Well you never know what may happen,” Helena said. A soft ding signaled her that her floor-bot had finished its rounds. “That’s my cue,” she continued, retrieving the cleaning droid and returning it to her cart. “Have a good day.”
“Doubtful,” Prosak said.
“We’ll just have to see,” Helena remarked as she pushed her cart out of the room.
Kasyov and Balpar rushed into Loborus’ room minutes after leaving the bridge, Kasyov racing to her science console as Balpar approached Loborus’ tank.
“How much time do you think we have?” Kasyov asked.
“The length of Associates’ meetings vary. It keeps their rivals off balance. But this shouldn’t take long if my hunch is right,” Balpar said, leaning next to Loborus. “Loborus, old friend. Can you hear me?”
“This better be about brine.”
“Not so fast, chum. We need your help again.”
“I found your missing brain. What more do you need?”
“We’ve arrived at where Cabral is being held, but we need his exact coordinates. Can you find him in the Associates’ brain network?”
Loborus wobbled in his tank. “Locating one little brain in all of that will be really hard. It would take a lot of smarts.”
Balpar slipped off one shoe, then another. “Natalia, did I ever tell you my race was somewhat telepathic?”
“Nope, but it would have been nice to know.”
Kasyov nodded agreement. “And why exactly are you removing your shoes?”
“I’m going to join with Loborus. Add my brainpower to his. Perhaps…maybe we can break in.”
“And you’re going to use your FEET?” Kasyov asked quizzically.
“Yeah, what do you people use to mind-meld? Your hands?” Balpar chuckled, and climbed into Loborus’ tank, wriggling his feet up against the folds of the giant brain. He cocked his head. “Hmmm. I’m feeling something.”
“Your feet are cold,” muttered Loborus.
“Yes. Yes. I’m in.”
Kasyov grabbed Balpar’s hand. “What are you feeling, Balpar? What’s going on in there?”
“I’m coming close to Cabral’s mind…I hear music. Sweet music.”
“What on Earth?” questioned Kasyov.
“That’s the power of ‘of’!” Balpar said frantically.
“WHAT?” demanded Kasyov.
“Wait…” Balpar said. “I’m getting interference from other sectors of the station. Other songs….’Doin’ the ‘What’‘…‘Puttin’ on the ‘is’…”
“What are they doing to those poor brains?”
“I’m not sure. It’s a HUGE repository…it’s almost overwhelming. I….oh my…it’s…” Balpar closed his eyes. “Deck the ‘THE’s with boughs of knowledge. The the the the the, the the the THE!” Kasyov noted the water in Loborus’ tank was bubbling and frothing like boiling over spaghetti. “Ooooooh SAYYYYYYY can you SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE, by the dawn’s early light….what so PROOOOUUUUUUDLY we hailed, at our twilight’s last MEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANING!”
“What…is…the…meaning…” Kasyov said.
“OF!!!” Balpar belted in song as he attempted to stand dramatically. All he ended up doing was sliding off of Loborus and splashing into the brine.
“Balpar!” Kasyov cried, jumping up to the edge of the tank and extending her arm for the Pulsan to grab.
“I’m…sorry…Natalia,” Balpar gasped, weak from the abruptly severed mind-meld. “I…lost control.”
“It’s okay,” Kasyov said, obviously not feeling it as Balpar climbed up next to her. “It was noble of you to try anyway.”
Balpar lifted her chin with his finger. “No sadness, Natalia. I found him!”
“You did!” Kasyov cried, hugging him with such force that they both fell back into the brine tank.
“Ow,” Loborus moaned. “You’re giving me a headache!”
“You don’t even have a head,” Balpar said.
“Oh…I guess I’m okay then,” Loborus replied brightly.
* * * * * *
Deep in “Brain Central,” Cabral’s sphere sat connected to the network by a mass of cables and probes. Cabral was unaware of any of this, though. His consciousness existed in Department Five, a simulation where several brains worked tirelessly to extricate the hidden meanings of ‘of’.
At that time, the brains of Department Five toiled away, constructing an immense OF in the desert with little more than their own muscle power to move the massive blocks of sandstone.
Cabral’s arms (in this simulation the brains were able to create arms and legs for themselves. It made getting around a heck of a lot easier) locked as he shoved with all his might against the immobile block before him. Ropes encircling the block were being tugged by several other brains in front of the heavy stone to no avail.
“Maybe we need to sing louder,” one of the brains offered.
“Good idea,” the other brains including Cabral replied in unison. “Sing louder.”
“We’ve been on the ‘of’-road,
all the love long ‘of’!”
Neureena, the brain in charge of Department Five, stepped over, her lobes covered by a white headskirt. “Come on, fellas. Put your neurons into it!”
Cabral didn’t look at her
…wouldn’t look at her
…couldn’t look at her.
After his arrival in Department Five, he’d resisted, positive he would escape back to the Anomaly in short order. He was wrong. Neureena proved that to him. She had destroyed his will, then rebuilt him as one of her own.
“More neurons!” the group of brains cried, Cabral included. Neureena was looking right at him; he could sense her smirking.
Forcing her out of his mind, Cabral concentrated his efforts on willing the block to move. Think of ‘of’. Focus on the ‘of’.
“OF!” the group screamed as they pushed and tugged. The block moved, sliding forward toward the series of wooden ramps leading up the gradually-forming letter ‘O’
Suddenly, the sun intensified, forcing those present to shield their eyes. Cabral squinted through barely separated fingers at the blinding orb.
Something was happening.
A black crack had split the sun and was gradually growing wider.
Cabral then saw something moving in the crack, quickly descending toward the group.
It was a person!
A flying person…with a triangle shaped-head…and huge muscles…and purple skin!
It was an Associate.
Even Neureena watched the displayed in stunned silence. Could it be? Could they finally be done with ‘of’?
“Cabral will approach!” the Associate announced as his feet touched down on the searing sand.
Cabral froze in fear. Why did they want him? What had he done? Neureena had warned him that defiance could lead to terrible consequences, but he had obeyed. He’d been a model brain!
“Where is Cabral?” the Associate repeated more forcefully.
“I…I am Cabral,” Cabral said, stepping forward hesitantly. The Associate looked him up and down, then turned to Neureena.
“You have done well with this employee,” the Associate said. “Your performance evaluation will reflect as much.”
“Thank you,” Neureena replied with a bow.
“As for you,” the Associate continued, turning to Cabral. “You’re being transferred.”
Neureena took a step forward. “With all due respect, your manager-ness, how can my department be expected to perform efficiently when we lose personnel.”
“The decision comes from the EAEOO himself.”
“Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” the brains (except for Cabral) gasped.
Neureena stepped over to Cabral, who was still unable to look directly at her purple lobes. “I guess you’re moving to the big time, Cabral. Just remember as you ascend all that I’ve done for you.”
“Yes…yes, Neureena,” Cabral said, his voice almost shaking.
“That’s my boy,” she said, running her hand along his parietal lobe. “Don’t forget me now.”
“Never, Neureena,” Cabral replied as the Associate reached out to him. The Associate’s hand touched is…
…and suddenly Cabral found himself back in the vast chamber of brains on the Associates’ station. He was out of Department Five.
The old Cabral would have immediately tried to free himself.
The old Cabral would have tried to blast to the outside.
But instead Cabral sat in his housing, waiting for the Associates to begin the transfer.
“I’m a good brain, Neureena. Cabral is a good good brain.”
“So let me get this straight,” Captain Bain said, strolling back and forth across the front of the bridge with his hands clasped behind his back as Kasyov and Balpar watched him expectantly. “Balpar here was somehow able to meld with Loborus and sense Cabral, so now you want to beam over to the biggest bloody space station I’ve ever seen against who knows how many Associates to find the bugger. Is that about it?”
“Um…yes, sir,” Kasyov said weakly. She’d been really gung ho about the plan a few moments earlier, but hearing Bain tell it, it did sound a bit insane.
“I love it!” Bain said, smacking his fist into his hand to punctuate the statement. “This is exactly the kind of bold move those bloated bureaucrats won’t be expecting. We’ll send in a small team. You, me, Balpar, and Tovar…” Bain trailed off for a moment as he remember Brazzell was manning tac-ops. “Bugger! I guess we’re taking you, Brazzell.”
“If you don’t want me to go…” Brazzell said in a huff.
“Tut tut, Lieutenant. We don’t have time for petty jealousy.”
Marsden rose from her seat at the engineering console. “Woah. Hold on a second. If you’re going over there, who’s in charge here?”
“You are, Marsie,” Bain said, charging toward the turbolift. “I’m sure you’ll do a bang up job.”
“Or do a job of getting us banged up,” Marsden muttered as the turbolift doors closed and she was left watching the massive station looming outside.
“Cheer up, Shelly,” Ensign Arroyo said. “You finally got what you wanted: command of the Anomaly.”
“Then how come all I want to do is give it back?”
Using Balpar’s sense of where Cabral was located, Bain had the small away team beamed into the heart of the Associates’ station. Actually, they beamed smack dab in the middle of the station’s “Brain Central.”
“Crikey!” Bain exclaimed, looking out at the vast field of brains surrounding them.
“This is incredible,” Kasyov gasped, overwhelmed with both amazement at the sheer number of brains she was seeing and revulsion at how they’d been imprisoned and pierced with cables and tubes.
“DUST!” Brazzell screamed in horror, whipping a breather out of his belt and strapping it across his nose and mouth.
Balpar, meanwhile, had collapsed to the deck, cradling his skull.
“Buck up, man!” Bain said, trying to pull Balpar to his feet. “We won’t let anyone take your brain out.”
“Not…that!” Balpar said. “Cabral.”
“Where is he?” Kasyov demanded, yanking Balpar up more roughly than she’d meant to.
Balpar winced again, then weakly pointed up into the dimness above them.
Kasyov and Bain’s heads shot back, craning to see where Balpar was pointing. Sure enough, in the distance, a black sphere was slowly being moved by some kind of tractor beam across the chamber.
“CABRAL!!!” Kasyov cried.
And, deep in his sphere, Cabral felt it.
A tickling at the outside of his consciousness.
Someone was out there.
And he wasn’t alone.
But this was impossible.
She couldn’t be here.
Neureena told him he would never see her again.
But he could hear her.
He could sense her.
He was with…
“NATALIA!” Balpar cried, and grabbed both sides of Kasyov’s face, pulled her toward him and kissed her long and hard. “Oh how I’ve missed you!”
“Balpar?” Bain asked, starting to feel a little left out.
“What are you saying, Balpar?” Kasyov asked, confused.
“It’s me! Cabral!” Balpar replied. “I thought I would never see you again! My life had been nothing but despair. Wait! How did you get here? You’re in danger. Don’t tell me you’re risking the whole ship just to save me!”
Kasyov blinked. She didn’t know quite how to handle this, only knew that she definitely would need some counseling once this was all over. “We couldn’t leave you.”
“Actually, we can’t leave without you,” Bain said.
Kasyov shot him an evil glare, then turned back to Balpar/Cabral. “We’re going to get you out of here. Just be strong. Don’t let them break you.”
“I let that happen once, but I should have known you would come for me, Natalia. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
“You’ve been through so much,” Kasyov said, caressing Balpar/Cabral’s cheek as a tear welled in his eye. “But we’ll be back together soon.”
Balpar/Cabral smiled. “I’ll be waiting…”
Balpar suddenly went limp, falling against Bain. Kasyov gently lifted up his chin. “Balpar, can you hear me?”
Balpar shook his head, looking up into Kasyov’s eyes. “Natalia…what happened? I blacked out there for a moment.”
“You channeled Cabral somehow,” Kasyov said, unable to look the Pulsan in the eye. Balpar was wonderful…and that cranium, but Cabral…she and Cabral had a bond.
“We’re going to have to take out that tractor beam emitter…wherever the blasted thing is,” Bain said, trying to track the source of the beam. “Brazzell…”
Brazzell was currently busy running a feather duster over a bit of tubing running into the side of a nearby pulsating brownish brain.
“Brazzell!” Bain snapped.
“What?” Brazzell said testily.
“The tractor beam.”
“I’m getting to it!” He saw the look of displeasure on Bain’s face. “Oh, I suppose your beloved Tovar would have found it by now.”
“Well, I don’t see you doing anything, Captain!”
“Would you two stop it?” Kasyov ordered. “Someone’s going to spot us!”
“They already have,” Balpar said softly.
“What?” Kasyov, Bain, and Brazzell demanded.
Balpar pointed up.
A small vessel hovered directly overhead.
“Bugger!” Bain spat just as the away team dematerialized.
“Great scabs of Kahless!” Lieutenant Gworos, the Klingon officer filling in for Brazzell at tac-ops, exclaimed suddenly breaking the silence on the Anomaly’s bridge.
“What the hell does that mean?” Marsden snapped confused.
“Kahless fought in many battles and was wounded many times, so he had many glorious scabs.”
“Um…I’m sure he did,” Marsden replied. “But why the hell did you say it?”
“Oh. Right. I’ve lost contact with the captain’s team,” Gworos said way too matter-of-factly. “What!?!” Marsden shouted.
“Well, I’m assuming they have either been killed or captured, but since the space station has raised its shields, I really can’t tell.”
“Have you considered having your hearing checked?”
“Unfortunately, I can hear you fine. But if you don’t shut up and find the away team, I’m going to give you a bat’leth enema! Got it?”
“That would dishonor both my blade and my anus.”
“When she does it, your honor is going to be the least of your problems,” Arroyo said. “I’d be more worried about the glorious internal bleeding.”
No one turned to look at Commander Prosak as she stepped into the Anomaly’s engineering room. The entire staff was far too busy scurrying around making sure the ship was primed and ready for battle with the Associates.
“Can I help you?” a voice said testily from beside her. She looked over. No one was there. Prosak glanced down, where Lieutenant Polnuc stood tapping his foot expectantly.
“I wanted to offer my services,” Prosak said to the diminutive Moglodin engineer.
“We’ve got it under control,” Polnuc replied, disdain evident in his voice. “You’ve ‘helped’ enough.”
“Can you at least tell me what is happening?”
“We’re sitting outside of a giant, heavily-armed Associates space station that just raised its shields, cutting us off from the captain. How’s that for starters?” Polnuc retorted.
“We must get through those shields and rescue the captain,” Prosak said firmly.
“No kidding. You think of that all by yourself?”
“The sarcasm is unnecessary.”
“Yeah? So was having some psycho hologram gas us all into oblivion.”
“Recriminations at this juncture, however warranted, are not logical,” Prosak said.
“Maybe not, but they’re all I’ve got at the moment,” Polnuc said. “We don’t know enough about Associates technology to turn on their lights, much less break through their shields.”
“That is a problem,” Prosak said. If only there was a way to get a crash course on Associates systems, she might be able to help rescue Captain Bain.
A sudden thought slammed into Prosak’s mind, causing her to smack her forehead with the obviousness of it all.
“I must go,” she said, turning on her heel and heading toward the door.
“Sure thing,” Polnuc called after. “But if you need someone to smack you a bit harder, let me know.”
Tovar’s scream rocked sickbay as the Yynsian strained against the anti-grav field holding him in place.
“LET ME UP!!!” he bellowed as Nooney and his Andorian nurse, Ih’vik skidded into the delivery room.
Nooney shook a disapproving finger at Tovar. “I think you should listen to your doctor.”
“NEED WATER!” Tovar screamed.
“Well maybe we can see about a little tiny drinky-poo.”
“My, he certainly is being difficult,” Nooney said.
“Until you give birth, shut the k’veltz up,” Ih’vik said, pushing past Nooney to Tovar. “Look at me,” she ordered Tovar. “The little terrors will try to torture you into submission, maybe even death, but you must remain strong. You are their mother! Fight like one!”
Tovar’s arm somehow tore out of the restraining field and latched onto Ih’vik’s antenna. “GET ME TO WATER, PUNY ONE, OR FACE MY WRATH!”
“I told you he was difficult,” Nooney said.
Despite the searing pain in her antenna, Ih’vik comprehended what it was that Tovar wanted.
“We need a pool!”
“There will be no betting on how many of these little darlings survive,” Nooney replied firmly.
“A pool of water, you twit!” Ih’vik snapped. “It will ease his pains.”
“Oh I see!” Nooney exclaimed. “Well, we can just…oh…”
“POOL!!!” Tovar boomed.
“We don’t have one,” Nooney cried. “And with the holographic systems off line, we can’t even make one.”
Tovar turned to him, his Totap past life now in charge. “Give me a piece of fishing line, two chocolate bars, and a pair of pantyhose, and I’ll get it working again.” Tovar’s eyes widened in fury. “YOU WILL ALL DIE HORRIBLY BY MY HANDS!!!” Tovar’s head thrashed back and forth, his eyes finally falling on Ih’vik. “And that color really doesn’t work for your complexion.”
“OH!” Nooney cried suddenly.
“What now?” Ih’vik snapped.
“A pool! A pool! Let’s get him out of here. Watch the little squiddies!”
Ih’vik grumbled something unintelligible, but undoubtedly insulting as she retrieved the anti-grav stretcher.
Even though the Anomaly was just sitting immobile in space, Marsden was finding command to be way more stressful than she remembered from the test flights of the Hermes prototypes. Sure, most of them blew up, but at least no one was actively trying to kill her.
The same couldn’t be said for the Associates space station hovering next to them. Staring at the small portion of its massive structure that would fit in the viewscreen, Marsden really REALLY wanted Captain Bain to be sitting in the center seat.
The swift opening and closing of the turbolift doors drew her out of her musings on certain death.
“Lieutenant, I must speak with you,” Commander Prosak said, striding toward her.
“She’s not supposed to be on the bridge,” Ensign Arroyo said.
“Get off it, Hector,” Marsden snapped. “You can’t hold this stupid grudge forever.”
“I can try.”
Marsden turned to the Romulan. “Unless this is more urgent that the giant station of doom out there, I really don’t have time to talk, Prosak.”
“But it is about that station that I wish to speak,” Prosak replied, barely hiding her excitement.
“Go on,” Marsden said as Prosak practically hopped up and down in place.
“We may have the key to the Associates right here! In our shuttlebay!”
Arroyo spun around in his chair annoyed. “All we have in our shuttlebay is the Navigator and a bunch of shuttles.”
“True,” Prosak said expectantly.
Marsden looked at her confused. “I don’t see how…you’re right!” Marsden exclaimed.
“What?” Arroyo demanded.
“We have that Associates shuttle they gave us as compensation for taking Natalia and Tovar,” Marsden explained. “If it uses the same technology as the station, we might be able to figure out a way in. Prosak, you’re a genius…and you’re in command.”
“WHAT?” Prosak and Arroyo said as Marsden leapt out of the command chair and raced toward the turbolift.
“I’ve got a shuttle to rip apart,” Marsden said. “Just don’t surrender to the Associates while I’m gone.”
“I assure you that that will not be happening,” Prosak replied, sliding into the command chair as Arroyo fumed at the helm.
“Ensign?” Prosak said after a few moments.
“I apologize for activating an evil hologram that knocked you unconscious.”
“It’s okay,” Arroyo muttered.
“Obviously it is not, or you would not be so mad at me.”
“I don’t care about that.”
“Then what has you so aggravated.”
Arroyo spun around to face her. “You put Yonk in command instead of me! YONK!”
“I almost get this ship destroyed and you’re mad about a Ferengi?”
“We almost get destroyed all the time, so yes!”
“That is SO not logical!” Prosak exclaimed.
“And I hate that phrase!”
In the few short minutes since he and the away team were scooped up by an Associates ship, Captain Bain had come to the conclusion that the Associates weren’t much in the way of interior decorators.
First, the team had been beamed into a bare white room with only the slightest hint of an outline on one wall to indicate the location of a door. There they’d been disarmed by a team of rather testy looking Associates. Then, they were beamed out of there into another white room. This one at least had furniture…white furniture that almost blended into the walls, but it was furniture all the same.
Brazzell let out a low whistle. “Amazing.”
“What is?” Bain asked.
“This room! White shows the slightest speck and smudge, but this place is immaculate. If they can keep this area so clean, why can’t they dust their brains?”
Balpar meanwhile was frantically running his hands along the walls looking for the exits.
“Are you all right?” Kasyov asked concerned.
“No! None of us are. Don’t you know we are?”
“Somewhere on the space station, I’d imagine.”
“Not just somewhere. We’re in the WAITING ROOM.”
“Hold here. Wait there. Can’t these bloody Associates just do something?” Bain groused.
“You don’t understand,” Balpar said. “Soon an Associate is going to come in here and condemn us to some horrible fate. I was lucky the first time and only got sent to the test world. This time…” Balpar shuddered.
“Calm yourself,” Bain said. “There’s no sense worrying about some horribly painful death before it happens.”
An outline gradually grew darker in the far wall of the room, then a door slid open, revealing Uuulaadoodee, who marched in smartly.
“Please applaud respectfully for EAEOO Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” Uuulaadoodee announced as Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa strode into the room.
“This is really most irregular,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said, a hint of irritation present in his voice and he sized up Bain. “I was forced out of a very important meeting with our Board of Directors because of you.”
“Dreadfully sorry,” Bain said insincerely. “If you’d be so kind as to return our brain, we’d be happy to remove ourselves.”
“We’re preparing an alternate proposal,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa replied. “No doubt it will involve all of your deaths. For now, you wait. Uuulaadoodee!”
“Yes, your managerness.”
“See to them.”
Uuulaadoodee clapped his hands twice. A split second later, a short stack of magazines and a water cooler materialized in the room.
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’s face darkened. “Enjoy these gifts while you can. It will be your last chance to read about the benefits of holo-commuting and Associates managerial theory!”
Turning on his heel, Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa marched out of the room, Uuulaadoodee close behind.
“Not spring water!” Balpar cried in horror, looking at the cooler.
Ignoring the Pulsan, Bain made a run at the closing door, just managing to slip his foot in before it sealed. Out in the corridor, Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa and Uuulaadoodee who seemed quite unaware that anything had occurred, disappeared around a corner.
“We’re moving out,” Bain said, yanking the door back open.
“Out there!” Balpar said fearfully.
“Good god, man. Surely a brain like that must have an equally large backbone attached to it,” Bain retorted.
Kasyov grabbed Balpar by the arm and dragged him out into the corridor, followed by Brazzell and Bain. Bain rushed ahead, quickly peering around the corner into another bland white hallway. This one, however, ended at a set of golden doors covered in ornate etchings. These doors were just closing behind Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa and Uuulaadoodee.
“Tell me we aren’t going in there,” Balpar said.
“You’re damn right we are!” Bain said. “The only way we’re going to settle this thing is to reason with their Board of Directors.”
“The Board?!?” Balpar shivered.
“It’s okay,” Kasyov said reassuringly. “Captain Bain deals with this sort of thing all the time.”
“Absolutely,” Bain said, moving onward. “Of course, I usually prefer to have a phaser on me for when things go south, but we’ll just have to improvise. Standby on those disinfectants, Brazzell. They may be only weapon we have.”
Kasyov grabbed Balpar before he could run off in the opposite direction and dragged him to the golden doors, which obediently opened as Bain and company approached.
Bain charged ahead, ready to take on any resistance. He didn’t find any. Instead, Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa stood in the center of the room, surrounded by a U-shaped table where sat fifteen…
“Nabusari!” Bain exclaimed as the fifteen, lanky aliens with almost translucent skin turned to face him. “The Nabusari are the Board of Directors!”
“H—how?” Kasyov demanded.
“Get them out of here!” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa shouted at Uuulaadoodee, who was rising from a seat against the back wall of the room.
“Wait,” the Nabusari at the head of the table said, raising a long fingered hand. “Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, leave us. We will speak with Captain Bain alone.”
“Of course,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said with a slight bow. He glared daggers at Bain as he and Uuulaadoodee backed out of the room.
“It’s all right,” Bain said to Brazzell, Balpar, and Kasyov. They hesitantly followed the Associates out in the corridor.
“This all makes sense now,” Bain said, approaching the group. “I wondered how your planet had avoided being catalogued by the Associates. While we were there, all Clophil would tell me was that you had an arrangement. I see it’s a bit more than that.”
“What it is, is a way to protect ourselves from the children of the galaxy,” the Chairman of the Board replied. “We are providing them with the order and guidance needed for them to become productive members of Andromedan society.”
“Your version of Andromedan society,” Bain shot back.
“Seniority counts here, Captain,” the Chairman said. “We have been around long enough to have some say in the matter.”
“Say is one thing. You’re ruling through fear and force, using the Associates as your thugs.”
“We’ve created an efficient distribution of personnel resources.”
“You can’t keep it up forever, though. A race in my galaxy tried. Their genetically-engineered soldiers rampaged through two quadrants in their efforts to gain mastery over those species they saw as inferior and a threat.”
“There’s a difference between conquest and guiding the young.”
“You aren’t the parents around here,” Bain said.
“We beg to differ.”
“We’ll see what the rest of the Network has to say when they find out who really runs their Board of Directors.”
The Chairman leaned forward, his eyes narrowing at Bain. “That will never happen, Captain Bain.” The Chairman pressed a button on the table in front of him, lowering a holographic projection unit into the center of the room. An image of the Anomaly and the four rebel ships hovering outside appeared.
“The Board has reached its decision,” the Chairman continued. “You’re fired.”
The Nabusari slammed a thin thumb down on another control. Suddenly, a massive blast of energy bigger than the Anomaly seared toward Bain’s ship…and missed completely.
“Looks like we may be spending a few more days on the job,” Bain said, balling up his fists and launching himself at the Chairman.
The shockwave resulting from the station’s blast almost knocked the Anomaly on its end, tossing the bridge crew from their seats violently.
“We’re being fired upon!” Gworos shouted as he scrambled back to tac-ops.
“A logical conclusion,” Prosak muttered, picking herself up off the deck. “Now could you be a bit more specific?”
“The station fired at us,” Gworos said.
“And?” Prosak asked expectantly.
“Was anyone harmed?”
“No. Their weapons are so large that will have a hard time locking onto targets as small as the Anomaly and Balpar’s ships.”
“Let’s keep it that way,” Prosak said. “Mr. Arroyo, try not to stay in any one place too long. Gworos, please tell Balpar’s ships to do the same.”
“Aye, ma’am,” Arroyo said. “Commencing bobbing and weaving.”
An uncomfortable silence had quickly descended on the two groups standing outside of the Board of Directors conference room. Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa and Uuulaadoodee didn’t seem very eager to chat with the Anomaly group, which suited Dr. Kasyov just fine.
Before they could really get bored, though, the drab white lighting the hallway suddenly shifted to a flashing red.
“They’ve made their decision!” Uuulaadoodee cried.
“What decision?” Kasyov demanded.
“To destroy your ship of course,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa replied smugly.
“Captain Bain is not going to just let that happen.”
“I doubt there’s much he…”
Before Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa could finish, the conference room doors opened, and Captain Bain tore out into the hallway.
“What happened?” Kasyov asked.
“Bloody blighters were a bunch of holograms. I couldn’t even give them a good what for!” Bain said.
“You attacked them?” Balpar screamed in horror. “We’re doomed!”
“No more so than we were before!” Bain said confidently.
“What are we going to do?” Kasyov asked trying to stave off panic.
Bain looked around for a moment, his gaze finally falling on Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa and Uuulaadoodee. “Grab them!”
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’s eyes widened in shock. “You can’t! It’s against Network policy! Uuulaadoodee, activate the doors!”
Uuulaadoodee whipped a small rectangular device out of his uniform and aimed it at a nearby patch of wall. Almost instantly, a door opened, which Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa charged through. Before Uuulaadoodee could join him, Bain and Brazzell leapt, landing on the Associate.
“I’ll take that, old boy!” Bain said, snatching the device out of Uuulaadoodee’s hand and tossing it to Kasyov.
“One word,” Brazzell said, pulling a can of spray cleaner off of his ever-present cleaning belt. “Dental floss.” He sprayed almost the entire can into Uuulaadoodee’s face, then jumped aside as the Associate collapsed to the deck screaming and clawing his eyes.
“Someone really needs to tell this species about proper care of their teeth and gums,” Brazzell said in disgust as the Anomaly team raced through the open door after Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.
“Marsden to bridge,” the comm system barked suddenly as Prosak gripped the armrest of the command chair waiting for the shockwave from the station’s most recent blast to pass by.
“Prosak here, Lieutenant. I sincerely hope you have good news.”
“For once, yes. The Associates seem to work on a basic permissions system for their shields.”
“I do not understand.”
“Well, if you’d let me finish, maybe you would,” Marsden replied.
“No need to get testy.”
“Just listen, okay, Prosak? Associates vessels have permissions to slip through the shields of other Associates vessels, outposts, space stations, and so on. It allows them to launch and receive craft without lowering shields in combat situations.”
“Logical. How does that help us?”
“This shuttle has permission to enter Associates outposts. I can tie its transceiver into the Anomaly, so the station will think we’re an Associates ship.”
Arroyo spun around in his chair. “Good plan. Let’s go with that,” he said intensely as the spin carried him back around to his helm panel, so he could continue dodging the station’s weaponry.
“Agreed. Proceed, Lieutenant. Mr. Gworos, order Balpar’s fleet to retreat. We’ll take things from here.”
Dr. Nooney looked at the closed doors in front of him in satisfaction and smiled. “There! He should be nice and cozy now.”
“Soggy is more like it,” Nurse Ih’vik muttered as she sat down on the floor of the corridor across from the empty set of quarters Nooney had converted into Tovar’s specialized delivery room.
“The miracle of birth comes in many forms,” Nooney said, sitting down beside her…much closer than Ih’vik was comfortable with.
“AUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Tovar’s scream echoed up and down the corridor, prompting frightened glances from passing crewmen.
“Miracle, my antenna,” Ih’vik groused.
For some reason, the tractor beam pulling Cabral across the brain chamber stopped dead shortly before Cabral was to be lowered into a new socket in what he could only assume was his new work location.
Inside his sphere, his brain shivered, hoping that Natalia and Captain Bain would come for him quickly. He wanted to escape. He needed to escape.
And then he remembered what Neureena had done to him. The eternity he’d spent alone in her isolation chamber. Then how she had so easily convinced him he’d returned to the Anomaly, only to show him it was all an illusion.
What if this was an illusion?
What if Neureena was testing him again to see if he really was a loyal employee?
Fear gripped him. He couldn’t risk it. He would just stay here and wait for the Associates to place him.
This resolution lasted for all of five seconds as his mind drifted to Kasyov. Damn Neureena! And damn the Associates! If there was even the slightest chance that Kasyov was really here, he had to take the risk. Gradually, he reached out with his mind, searching for the one called Balpar he had joined with earlier.
“Does anyone have the slightest idea where we’re going?” Lieutenant Brazzell asked as the Anomaly officers and Balpar ran through yet another doorway in the seemingly-endless space station.
“Not a clue,” Bain said. Unfortunately, that was the truth. They’d long since lost Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa in the maze of corridors and hidden doorways, all of which were the same pale white with featureless walls. Bain couldn’t begin to fathom how the Associates could find their way around the place at all.
“So we’re just going to keep running until the hunt us down and kill us?” Balpar said anxiously.
“I liked you better when you weren’t such a worm,” Bain said. He clapped a large hand down on Balpar’s shoulder, almost knocking the breath out of the Pulsan. “Listen here, I’ve been in scrapes that make this look a like a stroll through my petunias! There was the time on Nadissa Three when…well, never mind. The point is we’re going to get out of this! Understand?”
“What is it?”
“What’s a petunia?”
“Oh, bloody hell!”
“Natalia!” Balpar suddenly cried suddenly, stopping in his tracks.
“Move along, Balpar,” Bain ordered. “We don’t have time…”
“Captain, wait,” Kasyov said, looking closely at Balpar’s dazed eyes. “I don’t think it’s him. Cabral?”
“Yes, Natalia. I needed…are you really here?”
“Yes, Cabral,” Kasyov said lovingly, taking Balpar/Cabral’s hands in hers. “We’re trying to get you out of here. But…”
“But we’re bloody lost!” Bain exclaimed.
Deep in Brain Central, Cabral looked around at his surroundings. The walls were nothing but a mass of black cables and tubing except… Cabral hesitantly floated a bit closer to the thin band of light piercing the darkness. There, along the wall, was a glassed in chamber…a control room of some sort looking out over the brain chamber.
“I have found a place were we can meet,” Cabral said.
“I will stay linked with this man,” Balpar/Cabral continued. “Through him, I can guide you closer to my location.”
“Good show!” Bain said.
“We’re coming, Cabral,” Kasyov said. “Just hold on until we get there.”
With only one ship to shoot at instead of five, the Associates station intensified its efforts to blast the Anomaly into its component molecules, the result of which was a lot of jostling on the bridge and what Prosak was sure would turn out to be a severely singed paint job on the outer hull.
Meanwhile, Arroyo looked like he’d just hopped out of the shower. Perspiration was practically flowing off of him in wide streams as he strained to keep the Anomaly away from the massive blasts searing through the space around them. At one point, Prosak had offered to have Yonk relieve him at the helm, but Arroyo said he had no intention of handing his life over to a man who could barely see over the helm console. Prosak almost scolded him for being illogical then decided, considering Arroyo’s ire over her selection of Yonk over him to take command during the unpleasant Kirk affair, to just remain silent.
At long last, the comm system sprang to life again. “Marsden to bridge. The transceiver interface seems to be online.”
“Thank the Great Bird!” Arroyo cried, almost on the verge of tears.
“Weapons stand at the ready,” Gworos said.
“That will be unnecessary, I believe,” Prosak said.
“What are you doing?” Arroyo demanded as a cold jolt of fear lanced up his spine. Had they gone through all this just so Prosak could hand them over to the Associates?
“I am attempting to keep us in one piece,” Prosak said calmly. “Take us as close to the station’s hull as you can.”
“But how will that…” Arroyo trailed off, realizing what Prosak intended. “I’m on it,” he said, sending the Anomaly into a steep dive right through the station’s shields, which yielded as though they did not exist at all.
Moments later, the Anomaly hovered mere inches over the station’s massive hull. All around, the station’s weapons fired out into space, unable to achieve the angle necessary to, in effect, shoot the station itself.
“Snug as a flea on a dog,” Arroyo said.
“Do not relax too much,” Prosak said. “The station may decide to fire a homing torpedo of some sort.”
“If they want to blow themselves up, that’s fine with me, because I assure you we won’t be sitting here when that torpedo arrives.”
Prosak smiled slightly. “Excellent. Mr. Gworos, open a channel to Captain Bain please.”
“Bain here,” the captain’s voice said over the comm a few seconds later. “I’m damn relieved to hear from you, Marsie.”
“Actually, this is Commander Prosak,” Prosak said nervously. “Lieutenant Marsden left me in command while she found a way to infiltrate the Associates’ shields.”
Bain was silent for a few moments. “I see,” he said finally.
“And she’s kept us alive, sir,” Arroyo called.
“Well then, good show, Prosak,” Bain said brightly. “What’s your status?”
“We have managed to enter the Associates’ shield perimeter; however, I felt it necessary to send Balpar’s fleet to a safe radius, since they could not perform the same maneuver. We’re ready to beam you aboard.”
“Great and negative,” Bain said.
“Good work with the shields and Balpar’s fleet, but we won’t be beaming up now.”
“But, sir, I have no idea how long we will be safe here.”
“We never do,” Bain replied. “But I am not going anywhere without Cabral.”
“And neither am I!” Dr. Kasyov’s voice shouted in the background.
“We’re getting close to him now,” Bain continued. “I’ll contact you as soon as we have him. Bain out.”
The channel closed, leaving the bridge crew in silence…and without an immediate crisis to contend with.
“So I guess we’re waiting again?” Arroyo said.
“It would appear so,” Prosak replied.
“Then could somebody get me a towel?” Arroyo asked, wiping a vast field of sweat off of his forehead.
“Left…now right…left…straight…keep going straight…open the door…now straight…right…straight.”
Balpar/Cabral shot out directions at a rapid clip as the Anomaly group twisted and turned through the corridors of the Associates station.
“Straight…getting warmer…left…warmer…right…hot hot HOT!!!”
Balpar/Cabral stopped dead in the middle of the corridor and froze in place, pointing at a spot on the wall like a hunting dog.
“Doctor, if you please,” Bain said, gesturing to the wall. Kasyov aimed the Associates’ door opening device and activated it, causing a large set of double doors to appear and open up into a large control room dominated by a massive picture window looking out into the brain chamber beyond.
Bain rushed in ahead of the pack and, after spotting a lone Associate manning the consoles, charged him, much to the Associate’s surprise. Bain’s stocky frame looked slim compared to the massive Associate, but the Brit was undaunted. His body slammed into the Associate, knocking both to the ground behind a console. A few moments later, Bain came up, holding the Associate’s detached head in his hand.
“AHHHHHHHH!” Balpar, who had been released from his link with Cabral, screamed in horror.
“Oh, you are going to need such a cleansing after that,” Brazzell scolded.
Bain reached down with his other hand and pulled up the rest of the Associate’s body. A dazed Nabusari head was sticking out of a giant Associate body.
“It’s a suit!” Kasyov exclaimed. “But that’s impossible! I scanned Associates and Nabusari myself. They are not the same people.”
“I’m as surprised as you, Doctor. I honestly expected this bloke to kick my bollocks from here back to Earth, but I was willing to take one for the team.”
“Isn’t that my job?” Brazzell asked. “Or do you not trust that I can handle since I’m not your little Tovar?”
“Hey! Could we get back to the Nabusari?” Kasyov shouted. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“They run the place,” Bain said. “The Board of the Directors is all Nabusari.”
“I thought you said they were holograms.”
“Yes. Nabusari holograms.”
“You didn’t mention that part!” Kasyov snapped.
“Didn’t I? Awfully sorry about that, Kassie.”
Kasyov muttered a few things under her breath, then turned back to the matter at hand. “Okay. So the Nabusari run the place. That sort of makes sense. The Associates don’t seem to have the kind of scientific knowhow needed to make a massive brain system like this work.”
“But why the costumes?” Brazzell asked.
“Intimidation, plain and simple,” Bain replied. “I’d wager that even most of the Associates don’t know that the Nabusari are in charge, so for operations like this requiring a bit more intellect, the Nabusari put on this get-up.”
“Uuunnnnnh,” the Nabusari moaned.
“Steady, old man,” Bain said. Considering the average age of the Nabusari, the “old” was entirely appropriate.
“Can I have my mask?” the Nabusari asked weakly.
“Sure thing,” Bain said, dropping the mask down on his captive’s head a little too roughly. The Nabusari grunted, then went limp again.
“But why are they doing this?” Dr. Kasyov asked, moving toward the giant picture window overlooking “Brain Central.”
“That is my business, not yours,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’s voice said from behind them. He stood in the doorway, flanked on either side by ten Associates holding blasters.
“I suppose now you’re going to say that if I’d been Tovar, I’d have been guarding the entrance,” Brazzell groused.
The respite on the Anomaly’s bridge abruptly ended with growled oath from the direction of tac-ops.
“Problems?” Prosak asked with a placidity she didn’t feel.
“The Associates have come up with a new plan,” Gworos said as he switched the image on the main viewscreen from a view along the surface of the station to three small but growing objects. Prosak had a sinking feeling she knew exactly what they were.
“Looks like our eviction notice,” Arroyo said, wiping down the helm with his towel one last time to make sure no sweat lingered, then sending the ship shooting along the station’s hull as fast as the Anomaly’s polaron engines would go.
“Associates warships, closing on all sides…well three sides anyway,” Gworos called from tactical. “Shall I sacrifice us on the flaming altar of battle?”
“Preferably not,” Prosak said. “Ready a full spread of neutron torpedoes and fire at will.”
“I shall bring us immeasurable glory!”
“Keeping us alive will be sufficient.”
Gworos busied himself targeting weapons and did not reply.
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa stalked into the control room haughtily as his guards continued to block the exit with uniform menacing scowls. “I hope you’re happy, Bain,” he said. “Thanks to you, I’ve had to completely revise my Things to Do List for today AND send three cruisers out after your annoying little ship. I really just ought to kill you right here! In fact, I think I will!” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa finished, putting his hands on his hips as he stood with his back to the control room window.
“I don’t think you will,” Bain said confidently.
“And why not?”
“Because of him,” Bain said with a broad smile as he pointed over Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’s shoulder, then dove out of the way as Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa whirled around in time to see a large black sphere barreling toward the window.
The Associates EAEOO managed to squeak “Mother” just before Cabral exploded into the room.
Thus far, Prosak’s strategy had pretty much consisted of “Don’t Get Hit,” which left little opportunity for the Anomaly to do anything resembling harm to the three Associates ships doggedly pursuing them.
“Do you think we could convince the captain to hurry up a bit?” Arroyo asked between haggard breaths as he once again did his best to keep the Anomaly intact in the face of daunting odds.
“Not that that would do us much good with the shields up,” Prosak replied.
“You’d think that in hundreds of years of Starfleet research and development, they’d have found a way around that little problem.”
“Commander, we’re being hailed!” Gworos announced excitedly.
“Don’t get your hopes up, Lieutenant,” Prosak said. “They most likely just want us to surrender.”
“It’s not the Associates. It’s the Lackinis!”
“They lived?” Arroyo asked in shock.
“Apparently,” Prosak said. “On screen.”
The image quickly shifted to show the inside of the Lackinis bridge where several Lackinis…and one squid-like creature crowded in front of the screen.
“Where is the Master?” the Lackinis demanded.
“And where’s my Tovar!” the squid-thing added.
“And you are?” Prosak asked.
“Moklok! He’s carrying my babies!”
Prosak hid her grimace as best she could before continuing. “Captain Bain is currently on the Associates space station, Mr. Tovar is giving birth, and we are UNDER ATTACK!”
“You are with the Master. We will protect you,” the Lackinis chanted.
“And just how are they going to do that?” Gworos muttered.
“Hey. They somehow survived the other Associates fleet,” Arroyo said. “Without a scratch I might add.”
“We have served the Associates,” the Lackinis replied. “They ordered us to design powerful ships for them, which we did humbly and gratefully.”
“So you know their weaknesses?” Prosak asked.
“Yes. And we will now exploit them humbly and gratefully.”
The image on the viewscreen shifted to show the incoming seven Lackinis ships. Before the three Associates ships attacking the Anomaly could even turn to intercept the newcomers, they were ripped apart by a frightening volley of blinding white blasts.
“By the leg hair of Kahless!” Gworos exclaimed.
Prosak turned. “Wha…never mind. I do not wish to know.”
“It is a glorious tale.”
Prosak turned back to the viewscreen as the Lackinis ships flew through the station’s shields as though they didn’t exist.
“They are hailing us again. Moklok demands to be here for the birth of her children.”
“By all means,” Prosak said.
“Should I notify Captain Bain?”
“Not right now. Most likely, he has other matters to attend to.”
“Ooooohhh!” Dr. Nooney exclaimed as Moklok rushed down the corridor toward him accompanied by Ensign Randall. “You must be the mother!”
“Close enough,” Moklok replied, taking a position with Nooney and Ih’vik across from Tovar’s ‘delivery room.’ “How is he doing?”
“Oh just wonderfully!” Nooney said. “He’s been a real trooper.”
“BY THE BLOOD OF T’RIX I WILL AVENGE THIS ATTACK ON MY ROYAL PERSON!!!”
Moklok gulped uncomfortably. “Trooper?”
“Oh don’t mind that. It’s just one of his past lives coming out,” Nooney explained.
“Yeah. The murderous psycho one,” Ih’vik remarked.
“What was that?” Nooney said anxiously. “Could it be a birth?”
The next few seconds were filled with nothing but wet pops and Tovar’s screams as each and every one of the sacs on his body ruptured, allowing a squid-baby to emerge. Tovar’s rantings came fast and furious.
“Oh, I will never be able to make enough clothes!”
“What a story!”
“Boot to the squid.”
“Give me some dryer lint and a plunger, and I’d have this over in a second.”
“CEASE THIS AT ONCE! I AM YOUR LORD!!!”
At long last, there was silence, broken only by the sounds of soft splashing from within the room.
“Let’s see our new little snookielumps!” Nooney said excitedly. “Computer, activate containment fields in junctions 6F and 6G. Forcefields crackled to life, blocking off the small section of corridor around the quarters Nooney had commandeered.
With those in place, Nooney eagerly activated the doors, which slid open with a slow groan as hundreds of gallons of water poured out of them along with several gyrating baby squids and one Yynsian who looked like he’d taken the scenic route through hell.
“Tovar!” Moklok cried, scooping him up in her tentacles as she slid gracefully through the knee deep water now filling the corridor section. “Look at them all! Our children!”
“How do you feel about this remarkable experience?” Nooney prodded.
“They are out,” Tovar said weakly.
“Wait wait wait!” Nooney said, reaching for something in his medkit. “I brought my holocamera. Ih’vik, help gather up the darling little squiddies.”
Ih’vik gingerly disentangled a set of tentacles from her antenna. “A pleasure,” she muttered.
Moklok had to hold Tovar upright as the baby squids (properly known as Tenclons) gathered around their feet…and tentacles…and frolicked in the water.
“Say plankton!” Nooney cooed.
While Cabral’s entrance had made a big impact on Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, the other Associates present didn’t seem all that impressed.
“Kill…them,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa gasped, picking himself up painfully off the debris-covered floor as Cabral hovered a few feet away. Cabral’s sphere darted forward, placing itself directly between the Associates and the Anomaly officers and Balpar. Brazzell, meanwhile, had already started tidying the place up.
“We still outnumber you,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said angrily. On cue, fifteen transporter beams winked into existence, quickly coalescing into Lackinis.
“The Master!” the Lackinis cried, converging on Bain.
“Oh not THEM!” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa shouted. “It took us decades to get rid of them the last time.”
“They’re here for me, not you, Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” Bain said. “And I believe the tables have turned.”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s just an expression.”
“Do tables do a lot of turning in your galaxy?”
“GET ON WITH IT!” Bain bellowed.
“Wait!” Kasyov cried, holding up her hands. “Before we start killing each other, I want to know what the hell is going on here!”
“Really, Doctor,” Bain said. “You have to pay closer attention.”
“Not with this! What about these brains? What are they doing?”
“Doing you ask?” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa replied, moving over to the shattered window. “They are serving the Associates in the greatest project we have ever conceived. They are answering THE QUESTION!”
“What question?” Kasyov asked, turning to Cabral.
“Don’t ask me. I only got the ‘of’ part.”
“Precisely!” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said. “This is a question so big that each word must be scrutinized individually for every conceivable nuance.”
“Then what is the bloody question?” Bain demanded.
“What…” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa paused dramatically. “…is the meaning…” Another pause. “OF LIFE?”
The Associates and Lackinis gasped.
“Is that it then?” Bain asked.
“What do you mean ‘Is that it?’ What else is there?”
Bain shrugged. “The meaning of life isn’t all that hard.”
“Oh do tell,” Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said skeptically.
“It’s different for everybody. The real trick is to find out what the meaning of YOUR life is. What is it that makes your life complete? What gives you fulfillment? That’s the only meaning your ever going to find.”
“Ohhhhhhhh!” the Lackinis exclaimed. “The Master is very wise! He knows all!”
Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa pondered Bain’s reply for a moment. “Nope,” he said finally. “I don’t like it at all. There’s no sense of grandeur. Kill them.”
“NOOOO!!!” Cabral screamed, charging forward into the Associates guards and knocking them aside like so many bowling pins.
“Flee, Master! Flee!” the Lackinis chanted as they threw themselves on top of the Associates.
“Oooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaa to Control. Code 46A. I repeat, Code 46A!” the EAEOO said, prompting more flashing red lights to start up, this time accompanied by a shrill siren.
“Time to go,” Bain said, rushing to follow Cabral out into the hall with Kasyov and Balpar close behind. A squad of Associates was already charging up the corridor toward their location.
“Go!” Balpar said, pushing Kasyov the opposite direction from the advancing Associates. “I’ll hold them off while you contact your ship.”
“Nice to see you found that spine, old boy,” Bain said.
Kasyov could barely find words. “Balpar. I…I won’t forget this.”
“Go,” Balpar repeated with a soft smile, then turned to meet his fate as Kasyov and the others raced off the other way. Kasyov couldn’t help but turn back to see him one more time. There he was…standing alone against an entire squad…
…and now he was raising his hands emphatically into the air.
“I surrender! I didn’t do it! They brainwashed me! They controlled my mind somehow!”
Kasyov’s fists clenched. “Why that little…”
Bain quickly grabbed his commpip. “Bain to Anomaly.”
“Standing by, Captain,” Prosak’s voice replied.
“Three people and one brain sphere to transport. NOW!”
The last thing Kasyov saw before disassembling into her component molecules was Balpar eagerly kissing the boot of an Associate guard.
Bain and Brazzell materialized on the Anomaly’s bridge moments later where Prosak awaited them, standing in her usual position just to the side and behind the command chair.
“I’m relieved to see you, sir,” Prosak said. “I took the liberty of having Cabral and Dr. Kasyov transported directly to Science Lab Four.
“Good show,” Bain said, slipping quickly into his command chair. “Bain to Marsden.”
“Marsden here, Captain. I see Prosak got you back.”
“With your help, Lieutenant,” Prosak said.
“Yes, but it was your idea.”
“True. However, it would not have worked without you.”
Bain held up his hands. “All right. You both did a bang up job. Now Marsie, I need anti-sing now!”
“The core is ready. We were just waiting for Cabral,” Marsden replied.
“He’s right back where he belongs.”
“Then you have anti-sing.”
“Brilliant! Stand by.”
Cabral felt the cool comfort of his housing cradling the underside of his sphere as he materialized in Science Lab Four. With Kasyov fading into existence a few feet away, all seemed right with the world…except for the large tank holding another brain.
“Hi,” the other brain said. “I’m Loborus.”
“Cabral,” Cabral replied. “You are one of my kind.”
“He helped us find you,” Kasyov explained. “Loborus, this ship is going to be heading back to the Milky Way very soon. We can take you with us.”
Loborus shuddered briefly. “No no. I don’t want to go back there. I wanna stay here!”
“Kasyov to bridge.”
“Bain here, Doctor. Is Cabral ready for anti-sing?”
“I believe so, but we have another situation. Loborus does not want to go with us.”
“All right then. We’re sending Moklok and the squid babies over to the Lackinis ships. Loborus can just go as well.”
“Lackinis?” Loborus said. “Wow. I’ve never met them!”
“He agrees,” Kasyov said.
“Good enough. Energizing now.”
“Goodbye, everyone,” Loborus said.
“Thank you for everything,” Kasyov called as Loborus dematerialized.
And then she and Cabral were alone again.
“Much better, don’t you think?” Cabral asked.
Kasyov rushed over and wrapped her arms…as much as she could anyway…around Cabral’s sphere. “Yes, much,” she said contentedly.
“Incoming vessels!” Brazzell and Gworos announced in unison. Bain turned to look at tac-ops, positive he really didn’t want to see what was going on back there. No. He didn’t.
Brazzell and Gworos were jockeying for position at the console…well as much jockeying as Brazzell could do anyway considering his distaste for personal contact, particularly with a Klingon.
“I was here first!” Brazzell snapped.
“Then you left. Now I am here.”
“But I’m back!”
“Gworos, give Brazzell back his console,” Bain scolded.
“But…” Bain shot the Klingon a stern look. “Very well.” Gworos turned on Brazzell. “But if you get us killed and I don’t get into Sto’vo’kor, I’m coming to find you.”
“Oh yeah!” Brazzell shot back as Gworos stalked into the turbolift. “Well take a bath first!”
“Lieutenant, weren’t there some ships coming in or something?” Bain asked.
“Oh yes. Thirty Associates ships just showed up on long range sensors on an intercept course.”
“Thirty!” Bain exclaimed. “Are we clear to go?”
“Security is having trouble rounding up the last of the squids,” Brazzell reported.
Bain paced the bridge anxiously. His boots clomping down against the carpeting with enough force to actually make the floor shake.
“At least the station can’t shoot at us here,” Arroyo offered helpfully.
“Squids away!” Brazzell called.
Bain sprung into action, almost leaping into his command chair.
Under Arroyo’s control, the Anomaly shot forward along the surface of the Associates station, building up speed until it cleared the massive structure and shot into warp.
“Cabral to bridge. I am ready for anti-sing.”
“Your timing couldn’t be better,” Bain said. “Mr. Arroyo, set a course for the galactic boundary.”
“I’ve had one laid in since we arrived in this damn galaxy,” Arroyo said.
“Good man. Engage at Warp H!”
Just as the station got a targeting lock on the fleeing Anomaly and the other Associates vessels moved into firing range, the Anomaly activated its anti-sing drive, sending the ship zipping out of the sector faster than the Lackinis could say “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!”
“Captain’s Log. Stardate 175253.4. After a brief stop at the galactic border to destroy one of the Associates’ shield generators, the Anomaly has left Andromeda on a course back to our beloved Milky Way. Evidently the Associates didn’t consider the possibility of people trying to blast their way out of Andromeda, or they would have done something to hide and protect their generators. I’m certainly not going to be the one to send a comment comm on the subject, though.
“As we travel through the vast void separating the galaxies, the crew is taking a needed rest. Unfortunately, that rest is quickly turning to boredom. Before things get out of hand, I’ve assigned the Engineering crew to make restoring the holographic systems their top priority. Otherwise this is going to be a long two weeks.
“In other developments, Tovar was released from sickbay this morning with a clean bill of health from Dr. Nooney. No doubt our time in Andromeda has been more traumatic for Tovar than anyone else on the ship with the possible exception of Cabral. But I have no doubt that Tovar will spring back splendidly.”
Captain Bain had a perceptible spring to his step as he strode through the corridors on Deck Six toward his destination. All around him, the members of the Anomaly crew reflected his relief about heading home. Morale was way way up…and it would stay that way if Marsden came though, which she would, of course. Bain didn’t doubt that whatsoever.
“Captain!” a voice called from behind him. Bain stopped and turned to see Commander Prosak rushing toward him. “Could I have a moment?”
“Of course, Commander. I’m just on my way to drop in on Tovar.”
“This will not take long,” Prosak said, falling into step beside Bain as they continued down the corridor. “I just…I wanted to thank you for returning me to duty. I’m not sure that I deserve it, but…”
“Nonsense, Prosak!” Bain replied warmly. “When the chips were down, you came through and did your job. We’ll consider that whole mutiny thing forgotten.”
“It really wasn’t a mutiny. Considering the state of affairs, I felt myself justified in following Admiral Larkin’s directive concerning the Emergency Diplomatic Hologram.”
“I know. And don’t think I’ve forgotten that Kristen and I will be having a few words about that one. There are damn good reasons that the Federation has such strict laws against creating sentient holograms. Kirk and his lot belong in the Mega-Sim…not that Kirk’s much of anywhere now, though. If I’d been here, that photonic menace would have…”
“Thank you again, sir,” Prosak interrupted. “I really need to be elsewhere now.”
“All right, then,” Bain said jovially with a wave as Prosak rushed off down the corridor. Bain continued onward, approaching Tovar’s quarters a few moments later.
“Who is it?” Tovar’s voice called after Bain rang the door chime.
“Reggie,” Bain said.
The doors slid open quickly revealing a very haggard Yynsian. Tovar wore only a loose surgical gown. His skin was still far too sensitive from the squid sacks to take much more.
“How’re you feeling, my boy?” Bain said lovingly as he stepped into his pseudo-son’s quarters.
“Disturbed,” Tovar replied as Bain moved over to the sofa and sat down. On the coffee table sat Nooney’s holopic of Tovar, Moklok, and a great horde of baby squids.
“Good lord!” Bain gasped. “They were huge!”
“Yes,” Tovar replied with an involuntary shudder as he sat down next to Bain.
“I’m sorry. I’m being a right insensitive dolt about this. They are your children after all.”
“I consider myself more of their host. According to Dr. Nooney, their DNA is strictly Tenclon. Moklok didn’t even want me to be a part of their upbringing. After hearing about my past lives, she decided I was too unstable to be around the children.”
Bain started to put a comforting hand on Tovar’s shoulder, then thought better of it. Instead, he got up and walked over to the replicator. “Tea. Blend Rosalyn 12,” Bain ordered. A split second later, the steaming cup of liquid materialized. Bain handed the cup to Tovar, who took it gratefully.
“I want to see Mum,” Tovar said softly.
“We will soon. Everything’s just fine now, my boy.”
“And we’re going the right way!” Tovar shouted suddenly, almost startling Bain off the sofa.
“Easy there, Tovar.”
Tovar turned on him, eyes blazing. “How dare you tell me how to behave, puny mortal!”
“That’s quite ENOUGH!” Bain shouted.
Tovar’s face immediately softened. “I’m sorry, sir. Dr. Nooney thinks this will pass soon.”
“I’m sure he’s right,” Bain said reassuringly. “No doubt about it.”
Tovar didn’t reply. The fact was that Tovar had a great deal of doubt. Not only did Nooney appear to know squat about Yynsians, but Tovar was losing bits of time as the two life forces contained within him and their associated past lives seized control of his consciousness from time to time. And then there was the box currently hidden behind the sofa. It wasn’t his. He didn’t even know where it had come from for sure. It had appeared there during one of his lost hours, but something inside him would not let him examine or dispose of it. And that had Tovar very VERY concerned.
The sound of soft breathing in the darkness of Science Lab Four brought great comfort to Cabral as he kept the Anomaly’s anti-sing drive function. Dr. Kasyov had moved a cot into the lab upon their return from the Associates station. She had no intention of being away from him any more than she had to be.
“You’re watching me again,” Kasyov’s voice said from the darkness.
“I don’t even have eyes, Natalia.”
“No, but I can still feel you watching.”
“Shall I add telepath to your list of abilities?”
“Lights. Dim,” Kasyov ordered, bringing a soft glow into the lab. “You should be resting,” she said.
“I am,” Cabral replied. “All those functions that are not currently running the anti-sing are completely relaxed. But why are you awake?”
“I was thinking,” Kasyov said.
Kasyov turned away slightly. “Nothing.” The truth was she’d been thinking about Balpar. Even though nothing had happened and he’d surrendered to the Associates, Kasyov still felt guilty in a way.
“He was obviously special to you,” Cabral said, as though reading her mind.
“All right! Yes. He was special. Without him, I never would have found you again.”
“You do not need to feel guilty about your attraction to Balpar. He was a charismatic man…and he felt strongly for you as well.”
“How do you know that?”
“We did share a meld of sorts.”
“It doesn’t matter, though. He was nothing but a coward,” Kasyov said with surprising anger.
“Don’t judge Balpar too harshly. In the face of enormous odds, he did what he had to do to survive. If we ever return to Andromeda, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he has somehow found another way to fight the Associates.”
“Perhaps, but I have a feeling if we ever return to Andromeda, we’ll be shot on sight.”
“That may be true as well,” Cabral conceded.
Kasyov stood up and walked over to Cabral’s sphere, running a hand along its cool black surface. “Well that’s enough prying into my personal life for the evening. What about you?”
“Me?” Cabral replied.
“Yes, you! What about this Neureena you told me about? Other than the whole evil thing, you seemed rather taken with her.”
“She had…well developed lobes,” Cabral replied. Amazingly to him, he could think about Neureena now without the slightest fear now that he was back with Natalia.
“Uh huh. I’ll bet,” Kasyov said with a laugh.
TWO WEEKS LATER…
Despite the danger and deaths it had caused in the history of space exploration, at that moment, the barrier surrounding the Milky Way galaxy was one of the most beautiful sights that Captain Bain had ever seen.
“Approaching the gateway,” Arroyo reported as the huge ring of the Federation’s automated gateway back into the Milky Way came into view. The turbolift doors opened, prompting Bain to turn to face the newcomer. Tovar walked solemnly onto the bridge, cradling a small box under his arm.
“Good to see you up and about,” Bain said. “You’re just in time for our homecoming.”
“I would like to take my station,” Tovar said.
“By all means,” Bain said. Brazzell gave tac-ops a quick squirt of disinfectant, then a wipe-down before heading into the turbolift.
“Marsden to bridge,” the Anomaly’s chief engineer’s voice said over the comm system.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” Bain replied.
“I need to take the anti-sing engines offline. After two weeks of constant use plus everything in Andromeda, we’re risking catastrophic failure.”
“And I need to rest from running them,” Cabral’s voice broke in.
“Very well,” Bain said. “Consider yourself on leave after a job well done, Cabral.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Standard warp is ready and available, sir,” Marsden said.
“Capital. We’ll just have to arrive home at normal speeds,” Bain said with a broad grin. “Open the door, if you please, Tovar,”
“Activated,” Tovar reported. On the viewscreen, nodes placed periodically around the barrier gateway flashed to life with a bluish crackle, sending streams of energy from one node to the next until all were linked by a blue, pulsating glow. The glow began to expand inward in a spiral, filling the gateway as it went.
“Take us in,” Bain ordered.
Arroyo moved the ship forward slowly into the energies of the ring. A moment later, the Anomaly emerged on the other side, next to Starfleet’s Barrier Observation Outpost.
“We are being hailed,” Tovar said.
“No surprise there,” Bain said. “Tell the outpost we’d love to stay and chat, but we’d really like to get home.”
Bain turned just as Tovar stepped out from behind tac-ops, holding the box he’d brought to the bridge with him, a box that was now blinking ominously.
“No!” Tovar said firmly. “We will now go the right way. MY WAY! Or I will be forced to blow this ship to atoms!”
“Tovar?” Bain asked, dreading the answer.
Tovar looked at him with eyes not his own. “Tovar is unavailable at the moment.”
The eyes suddenly widened in an almost insane fury.
TO BE CONTINUED…