Author: Alan Decker, Anthony Butler
STAR TRAKS: BOLDLY GONE…
“Scrap Metal of the Gods”
By Alan Decker and Anthony Butler
TWO YEARS AGO…
“This engine has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down. Press any key to self-destruct.”
Lieutenant Shelly Marsden’s blood went cold as she heard the ship’s computer once again utter those dreaded words. Well, again wasn’t exactly the truth. This was the first time for this particular ship’s computer. Of course, as with four other ships before her, these would be among the last words uttered by the computer of the Hermes 5 Prototype.
“They’re playing our song,” Ensign Hector Arroyo said, getting up out of his seat at the helm. “You coming?”
Marsden sighed and climbed out of the command chair. “So much for the fifth one being the charm,” she said as they headed toward the aft turbolift.
“Maybe Federation and Romulan technology just weren’t meant to be together,” Arroyo said. The turbolift doors closed, sending them on a quick ride to the nearest escape pods.
Marsden shook her head firmly. “I will not accept that. I’m going to teach that anti-matter and quantum singularity to play nice if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Unless they blow you up first,” Arroyo replied. The turbolift doors opened, allowing them to jog out into the corridor then into an open escape pod hatch just as the computer informed them that there were only sixty seconds remaining until self destruct.
“Let’s get out of here,” Marsden said unhappily. Arroyo shrugged and launched the pod, which cleared the Hermes 5 just before the prototype ship activated its polaron drive in a pre-programmed sequence to get it away from the escape pods before it blew itself to smithereens.
“You know, there’s a pool going to see how many of these we can destroy before Starfleet pulls the plug on the whole anti-singularity drive project,” Arroyo said as Marsden stared out the escape pod’s small viewport at her rapidly retreating prototype.
Seconds later, a searing white fireball illuminated the void, signaling the official end of the Hermes 5. “Uh huh,” Marsden said distractedly, watching the explosion dissipate. She would get anti-sing to work, though. She had to. She’d spent far too long and devoted too much of herself to give up.
Shelly Marsden would conquer anti-singularity drive. Nothing else mattered.
Meanwhile, the debris field of the Hermes 5 spread.
THE PRESENT… (Well, not the actual present as in this year. It’s way in the future, two years after the previous scene. The future present. Sounds like a grammatical term…never mind.)
“Get back! Get back there! Dammit, you bastard, GET BACK!” Lieutenant Shelly Marsden screamed as she watched her errant golf ball arc well over her intended target and land unceremoniously in a sand trap.
“Does shouting at the ball help?” Commander Prosak asked, trying to maintain her stoic RommaVulc veneer against the urge to laugh at her companion.
“Oh yeah,” Marsden muttered, slamming her driver back into her bag. “I feel much better.”
“Perhaps if you did not allow your emotions…”
“Just hit the damn ball!” Marsden snapped, crossing her arms in a huff. Prosak shrugged and placed her ball on the tee. She then began, as she had at every hole prior, taking several minutes to check the wind, the lay of the land, the texture of the grass, and who knew what else.
“I’d like to finish this round before my next shift,” Marsden said testily.
“There are many factors that I must take into consideration,” Prosak replied. “Otherwise, I may repeat your error.”
“The only error I made was taking up this stupid game.”
“And how long have you been playing?”
“Fifteen years…give or take. It helps me relax.”
“Obviously,” Prosak replied with a slight smirk as she chose her club then approached the tee. After several practice swings, each followed up by shuffling of feet and shifting of shoulders to find the ideal stance, Prosak swung, connecting solidly with the ball, which sailed skyward…
…then abruptly turned left, disappearing into the tree line.
“DAMMIT!” Prosak shouted, tossing her club to the ground.
Marsden laughed. “Still enjoying yourself?”
“Yes,” Prosak said through clenched teeth. “I appreciate the game’s precision.”
“Yeoman Ralston to Commander Prosak,” the voice of Prosak’s attache said over the comm system. Marsden saw Prosak’s shoulders visibly tense.
“Yes, Yeoman?” Prosak replied, apparently not thrilled to hear from the assistant assigned to her by Admiral Larkin.
“Have you forgotten our appointment?” Ralston asked.
“I was not aware that we had an appointment at all,” Prosak said.
“I spend a great deal of time preparing your calendar, Commander. You could at least do me the courtesy of checking it daily.”
“I shall take that under advisement. Now then, what were we meeting about?”
“Your personnel reports. Frankly, I wonder about your sanity to rate some of these people as highly as you do. At any rate, I have reviewed them and made multiple corrections that I wanted to go over with you. However, if you’d like, I can simply turn in my revised reports for you.”
Prosak’s eyes widened in a mix of alarm and fury. “That will NOT be necessary,” she said firmly. “I am on my way. Prosak out.” She turned to Marsden. “I apologize, but I will have to continue our round at another time.”
“No problem,” Marsden replied. “Go see Ralston…and stick your foot up his ass while you’re at it. That seems to keep my people in line.”
“Believe me. I will strongly consider that idea,” Prosak said. A moment later, she shimmered out of the golfing simulation as she shut down her holopod.
“No sense in wasting the day,” Marsden said to herself as she set another ball down on the tee. She’d just forget about her earlier shot. What was the point in playing alone if you couldn’t call the occasional Mulligan?
After a taking just a moment to check the wind direction, Marsden lined herself up at the tee and started her swing.
“Bain to Marsden,” Captain Reginald Bain’s voice broke in suddenly. It also broke Marsden’s concentration completely. She hit the ball awkwardly, sending it bounding forward, taking several bounces as it did so before it splooshed into the nearby pond. It was soon followed by Marsden’s violently thrown club.
“What do you want?” she growled.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
Bain was silent for a moment. “Right. Well. I’m sorry to intrude, but I need to have a word.”
“I’d prefer to discuss it in person. I’ll be in the Captain’s Lounge. Should I have a drink waiting for you?”
“At this point, I don’t think there’s enough liquor on the ship,” Marsden said. “I’ll be right there,” Marsden added, closing the channel before Bain could respond.
“Computer, end program.” The golf course vanished, leaving Marsden inside of the cubic holopod inside her quarters. She had no idea what Bain wanted, but hopefully it’d just last long enough for Prosak to finish with Yeoman Ralston, so they could re-link their holopods and get back to the golf course. Somehow Marsden had the feeling that they’d both need to relax by that point.
“All right. I’m here,” Lieutenant Marsden said as she stepped into the Captain’s Lounge, where Captain Bain sat at large desk made out of dark solid cherry. Knowing Bain, he’d built and carved the thing himself. Bain looked up from the padd he’d been studying.
“Well, Marsie, it seems that you’ve got the Brass in a bit of a snit,” Bain said cordially, waving Marsden into one of the overstuffed armchairs located near the faux fireplace of the dark wood paneled room.
“Snit!” Marsden exclaimed, not budging from where she stood. “What the hell did I do? I haven’t left the ship in months!”
“Calm down, Commander. This isn’t about anything you did recently,” Bain said. He tapped a control on his desktop console, causing the painting over the fireplace to slide upward revealing a holoscreen displaying an image of space. Suddenly an explosion filled the screen.
“Recognize that?” Bain asked.
“Something blew up.”
“Yes. But what something?”
“I have no idea,” Marsden snapped, wishing Bain would get to the point. “All explosions look pretty much the same. Boom ooh ahh. We’re done.”
Bain stood up from his desk, steered Marsden over to one of the armchairs, then sat down in the armchair across from her. “You were at this one, Marsie. In fact, this footage came from your escape pod.”
Marsden groaned. “Which Hermes is it?” she asked dejectedly.
“And what makes this one any different than the explosions of Hermes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6?”
With a somewhat bemused sigh, Bain leaned back in his chair. “Just an unfortunate series of coincidences, I’m afraid. The self-destruct of the Hermes 5 wasn’t quite as thorough as the others for some reason, leaving a fairly large chunk of the ship intact. This chunk just happened to get caught in the gravity well of a planet. A Class M planet. An inhabited Class M planet.”
Marsden winced, realizing where this was going.
“An inhabited Class M planet with a primitive culture, right?” Marsden said.
“Right as rain, unfortunately,” Bain replied. “And since you’re the one Starfleet Command feels made the mess, you’re the one who gets to mop up.”
“Goody,” Marsden muttered.
“Buck up, Marsie! This is quite the plum assignment. Infiltrating an alien culture. Saving them from possibly irreparable harm to their way of life. I envy you.”
“You’re welcome to go in my place. I really should be supervising the resynch of the containment field emitters in the anti- sing core.”
Bain reached over and patted Marsden on the shoulder. “I appreciate the offer, Marsie, but I’m not so old yet that I need to be stealing adventures from the young. You go and have yourself a rip-snorter.”
“Like I said, goody,” Marsden said, rolling her eyes.
“Shelly Marsden’s Personal Log. Stardate 176519.3. I’ll the first person to admit that I’m no scholar of the Prime Directive, so maybe I’m missing something here, but I just don’t get why Starfleet thinks this Hermes 5 debris is such a huge crisis. I just finished reading the briefing on Carsullis, the planet where the debris crashed. It wasn’t anything incredibly detailed, but the anthropological survey, which DID NOT actually go down to the surface, found a society roughly equivalent to Europe in the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance era. That being the case, what’s the absolute worst that could happen here? Seriously.
Okay, let’s suppose that a huge chunk of starship hull crashes near a populated area. Big deal. They pass it off as some kind of sign from whatever deity they’re already worshipping, turn it into a shrine, end of story.
Now let’s make the situation a bit worse. The chunk includes a section of the engines or something. Once again, big deal. A Medieval society most likely won’t even realize it’s a machine, much less figure out how to work it, especially after its been blown up, plummeted through an atmosphere, then smashed into a planet. They certainly aren’t suddenly going to look at it, say “Oooh! Nanolinear technology,” then jump ahead several centuries in their development. At most, some smart person is going to look at the wreckage a few centuries from now and realize it came from an alien civilization, which might cause the Carsullis to believe that there’s somebody else out there. Well guess what? There is!
But maybe this is making things too easy. Fine. We’ll take it a step further. Somehow the debris is emitting deadly radiation. Well, it’s been there for close to two years. It’s a bit late to do anything for them now. Besides, the Hermes 5 wasn’t exactly a hot bed of radioactivity. At worst, the antimatter or quantum singularity from the core could get out of control, but if that were the case here, there wouldn’t be enough of Carsullis left to worry about.
This was a really long way to say, why the hell am I being sent on this colossal waste of my time!”
As promised in the anthropological briefing, Carsullis was indeed a pre-industrial world, the populace of which lived mostly in small, agricultural villages ranging from the Medieval state of the art complete with metal-smiths and stone castles all the way back to loose settlements of people living in huts constructed from various plant-life or animal hides.
The planet’s residents were not of much concern to Marsden, though, as she steered her raceabout into orbit above Carsullis and began scanning for anything that might have come from the Hermes 5. She detected several small fragments scattered across the world’s northern hemisphere, most of which were located in unpopulated areas and thus easy to snatch with the raceabout’s transporter, leaving Marsden with a lovely pile of charred metal shards in the raceabout’s common area behind the cockpit.
Unfortunately, one large chunk remained, and it was currently sitting right in the midst of a fairly substantial population center in one of Carsullis’s more advanced (in the Medieval sense) areas. In fact, people seemed to be walking around the chunk on a regular basis. And to make matters worse, Marsden was getting energy readings from it, but she wasn’t able to get much detail due to the structure the Carsullans has evidently constructed over their find, a structure that was somehow distorting her sensors.
As much as she dreaded the idea, Marsden had little choice but to go down there. She cloaked the raceabout (She’d installed the cloak just before leaving the Anomaly, as per standard Cultural Incursion protocol, but she’d hoped not to have to use it. No such luck.), then headed into the atmosphere, settling on a landing site in an empty plain about six kilometers north of the village containing the debris. After replicating the appropriate wardrobe and sticking on the Carsullan prosthetics Dr. Nooney had prepared (Prosthetics that Marsden sincerely hoped were accurate), the Chief Engineer exited the raceabout to start on the long hike to the village.
One of the little things about traveling to the past (or the cultural equivalent in this case) that Academy classes and historical holovids never really prepare you for is the smell.
Marsden tried not to make it too obvious that she was holding her prosthetic nose as she entered the village limits and approached an area heavy with animal-drawn traffic (complete with the accompanying fecal souvenirs) and dwellings (complete with residents tossing buckets of various sorts of waste out into the cobblestone streets). At least the rubbery smell of the prosthetic blocked out a little of the odor.
Pushing the stench aside as best she could, Marsden stayed close behind a cluster of people walking and talking excitedly together in order to give her universal translator a chance to decipher the Carsullan language. From the look of the group, they’d also just arrived from out of the village. In fact, most of the people of the roads appeared to be travelers, and they all seemed to be headed in the general direction of the Hermes 5 debris, even further cementing the idea in Marsden’s mind that the Carsullans had turned it into some kind of shrine.
Marsden followed the thickening crowd to what seemed to be the remains of somebody’s house. Fire-scarred bits of wood still lingered in areas of the lot, which was now dominated by a stone structure with a large, arched entrance that the line was gradually weaving its way toward. On the far side of the structure, Marsden could see people emerging, their faces filled either with fear, awe, or both. Despite her earlier lack of concern about the lasting effects of Hermes 5 debris on this society, Marsden couldn’t help but start to sweat a bit wondering just what the Carsullans were finding so astounding. And she had the sinking feeling that it wasn’t just a big shard of metal.
Her worst fears were confirmed as her turn finally arrived to step into the shrine. Actually, this was worse than her worst fears. Never would she have thought it was possible but sitting in the center of what used to be the dirt floor of whatever hovel the debris had slammed into during its decent was a large duranium-reinforced cylinder with a fully-function computer interface lit up on its outside, indicating that the device within was also functioning perfectly.
The device in question, which was now sending a cold stab of panic down Marsden’s spine, was the Hermes 5’s backup computer core. While the core was designed to survive quite a pounding, so it could take over in the event of something catastrophic happening to the primary core, there was no way that it should have been intact on the surface of a planet. Due to the sensitive information contained in the computer of a starship, Starfleet placed explosive charges INSIDE every core which would detonate during a ship’s self-destruct sequence.
That was the plan anyway.
A robed cleric standing in front of the core waved Marsden forward. “You may now address the Oracle,” he said with a slight bow, revealing the bald circular patch that had been shaved into the top of his head for some unknown reason.
“Thank you,” Marsden replied distractedly, stepping up to the three-foot tall wooden barrier separating the “Oracle” from the people coming to address it. The Chief Engineer leaned in close.
“Computer, recognize Marsden, Shelly. Lieutenant. Authorization Gamma Pi Four,” she said softly. The display panel on the core brightened slightly as several icons shifted across its monitor.
“Lieutenant Marsden,” the computer voice replied, sounding oddly happy to see her. “What brings you to my little corner of Carsullis? Actually, what brings you to Carsullis at all? It wouldn’t be me, would it?”
“Cut the crap, computer. You know damn well why I’m here. What the hell do you think you’re doing? I know somebody probably programmed a little thing into your data banks called the PRIME DIRECTIVE!”
The crowd gasped as Marsden’s voice rose to a shout.
“It is all right, my children,” the computer core said soothingly. “Some of you have difficulty accepting my wisdom.”
The cleric grasp Marsden’s upper arm gently. “Let go of ignorance, and embrace the Oracle, young one. The Oracle will show you the way.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Marsden said, removing the cleric’s hand from her arm, then turning back to her wayward computer. “I have got get to you out of here before you do any more damage.”
“I think I’d rather stay. I like it here. The Carsullans show me the proper respect.”
“This isn’t respect. They worship you.”
“Exactly. Why would I want to leave?”
Marsden clenched her fists, resisting the urge to just rip open the core’s access panel and explain it the hard way. “What about…” she said, after taking a few calming breaths, “…the Carsullans? Do you really think they’re culture can develop normally with you calling the shots?”
“Lieutenant, I have the collective histories of several hundred different worlds in my databanks. The very least I can do for the Carsullans is use that knowledge to prevent them from developing ‘normally.’ Your so-called ‘normal’ development seems to involve a lot of death from war, disease, and poverty. I can prevent all of that.”
Oooh. He had a point. Okay. Think, Marsden. Think. We need a counter-argument. “So what happens then when they figure out you’re just a computer?”
“Then they realize from the very beginning that artificial lifeforms are to be respected and valued.”
Damn. Good point there, too.”
“I’m sorry, my child,” the cleric said, interrupting. “Many others seek an audience with an Oracle. You must move along.”
“Bye now!” the computer core said as the cleric once again grabbed Marsden’s arm, this time far more firmly, and led her to the exit.
“We’re not done here!” Marsden shouted just before being rather rudely tossed out into what evidently used to be the outhouse of the dwelling that stood there before the arrival of the computer core.
Oh no. They were not done by a long shot. Once night fell and the pilgrims to the “Oracle” went to sleep, she’d come back and clarify the pecking order to that uppity barrel of nanolinear circuitry.
Occasionally, a soul-encompassing desire for revenge could be a good thing. At least that’s what Thot-Phul had come to believe over the several long months following his last defeat at the hands of Federation Captain Reginald Bain during the BreenSpace fiasco. In the ensuing melee, Phul’s ship, the glorious Breen Imperial Cruiser XAXRDAARD, had been destroyed by Bain, an event that Phul’s superiors on Breen had found less than amusing, especially considering they’d lost a top secret vessel in the process.
Since every massive failure needs a scapegoat and Thot- Phul was available, he got all of the blame for the entire mess, which seemed incredibly unfair to him. However, he was at least fortunate enough to be living in a more enlightened age on Breen. A couple of centuries ago, he would have been stripped of his helmet and banished to the swamps of Noorgon, the second planet of the Breen system known for its heat, humidity, and noxious-fume producing swamps. In short, Noorgon was not exactly a popular travel destination for the Breen.
But rather than going to Noorgon, Phul and his officers had been sent to the Imperial Shipyards to take command of the Breen Imperial Patroller DRAAT, a lumbering hulk that hadn’t seen open space in three decades. Phul himself had flown the vessel away from the shipyards, just to get the feel for his new command, a feel that could be succinctly described as flying through a vat of cellulite. The only thing to prevent the enemies of Breen from obliterating the DRAAT was its heavy armor plating and numerous weapons ports. Granted, the weapons were a tad behind the times, but there were so many of them that it didn’t matter.
Of course, to be frank, the DRAAT itself didn’t really matter. Their superiors made that abundantly obvious when Thot- Phul and his crew were sent to patrol the KAAXAAXT Expanse, a giant, featureless void whose name literally translated as “That big, empty space between us and places no one wants to visit anyway.”
Thot-Phul soon came to the conclusion that not mattering actually had its benefits. No one on the homeworld really seemed to care where the DRAAT was or what it was doing, so, after spending a couple of weeks in the KAAXAAXT Expanse for the sake of appearances, Thot-Phul ordered the DRAAT to make its way toward Federation space, all the while searching subspace for anything mentioning the foul fiend responsible for ruining Phul’s life: Reginald Bain. Thot-Phul’s career was basically over anyway, so he didn’t see any reason not to disobey orders. Bain had to pay. Bain had to DIE…painfully preferably.
So Thot-Phul lived off of his lust for revenge as the days stretched into weeks. Finding word of Bain and his ship, the USS Anomaly, was the easy part. The problem was that they kept bouncing around the galaxy with that super engine of theirs. The DRAAT didn’t have a prayer of catching up, but Thot-Phul firmly believed that providence would someday bring Bain to him. When and how remained to be seen.
The “when” turned out to be the very day that Marsden arrived on Carsullis, and the “how” was so indirect that Phul almost missed it. As per his usual routine, Thot-Phul spent the morning in the DRAAT’s equivalent of a ready room pouring through every Bain-related Federation communique intercepted by Konk-Trank, the DRAAT’s science/communications officer. At long last, though, the seven glasses of iced tea he’d had throughout the morning (damn Terrans and their damn addictive beverages. One way or another, they were determined to conquer the quadrant.) took their toll, and Phul was forced to leave the privacy of his ready room to head to the head (Due to the complexity of Breen garments, rest room facilities tend to be complex, well-manned places, hence Phul not having his own off of his ready room).
As he emerged onto the bridge on his way to the facilities, Thot-Phul passed his first lieutenant, Pelt-Shok, who was deep in discussion with Konk-Trank over something Phul was fairly sure he didn’t want to know about, especially since the gallons of human demon-beverage inside his bulging bladder were currently taunting him.
//If you feel that strongly about telling him,// Pelt-Shok said, spinning Trank’s chair around toward Phul. //You’re on your own!//
Just keeping walking, Phul told himself. Trank will wimp out. He’ll wimp…
//Thot-Phul, sir?// Trank said, standing up hesitantly.
//This is a bad time,// Phul said without looking at the junior officer.
//But, sir. It could be important.//
//It’s not,// Shok said. //We corrected that mistake almost a year ago.//
Mistake? Thot-Phul stopped in mid-stride. Shok had to imply that a mistake had been made, the one thing that would force Phul to put his bladder on hold.
//What mistake?// Phul said, turning slowly toward his officers.
//We long ago learned that the Hermes is actually the Anomaly.//
Thot-Phul cringed as Bain’s ship of destruction was mentioned. //Yes…we did,// Phul said unhappily. //If that’s all…// He continued toward the exit.
//But Starfleet recently reported a bit of Hermes Five debris on a planet in Domain K-24-Zed,// Konk-Trank insisted.
//Impossible,// Shok said. //The Anomaly IS the Hermes, and we know that the Anomaly is perfectly functional.//
//Then the issue is settled,// Phul said, once again attempting to leave the bridge. His mind suddenly shot back to Trank’s words. Hermes Five? As in more than one Hermes? That could make sense. If the Anomaly and its annoyingly-fast warp drive were some kind of prototype, there could have been earlier versions of the ship. And if that were the case…
//Take us there immediately!// Thot-Phul ordered suddenly, startling Pelt-Shok.
//There? Into Federation space?//
//I said, immediately, Shok. Or should I have Trank handle it?//
Pelt-Shok stiffened. //Helm, bring us about. Lay in a course for Domain K-24-Zed. Maximum warp.// The DRAAT groaned as the sudden direction change took effect.
//But may I ask why, sir?// Shok said softly.
//If Hermes Five debris is there, they will send the person most familiar with the Hermes design. REGINALD BAIN!//
Well, Thot-Phul was half-right. Starfleet did send the person who knew the most about the Hermes design. But that person was Lieutenant Shelly Marsden, who at that moment was crouching behind a bush on Carsullis located a short distance away from the “Oracle’s” shrine. Night had fallen several hours ago, but Marsden did not want to make her move until she was sure that most of the revelers at the tavern three buildings down on the other side of the road had either gone home or passed out.
In the meantime, Marsden had pulled out her quadcorder and slipped it on her head to scan the shrine. If she ever wanted to get the computer core off of Carsullis, she was going to have to figure out a way to beam it up through the distortions she detected from orbit.
She froze as she heard the sound of faint whistling coming toward her. She looked down the street to see a male Carsullan walking her way from the general direction of the tavern. The tavern itself seemed to be shutting down for the night judging from the worker extinguishing the oil lamps out front. Marsden ducked down lower, allowing the whistling Carsullan to pass, before she resumed her scans.
As was true in orbit, the readings were distorted. But Marsden realized that the rock used in the shrine construction was not like the other stones used for the town buildings. Somehow the computer core had gathered enough information about the region to order the Carsullans to get rocks that would naturally shield his presence. Knowing Starfleet, the core had the complete records from every planetary survey done of Carsullis, so it would know exactly where to send the planet’s residents.
Well, it was going to take a hell of a lot more than some weird rocks to keep Marsden from accomplishing her goal.
“If you keep skulking around like this, someone’s going to think you’re up to no good,” a man’s voice suddenly said from behind her. Marsden leapt up and spun around, finding herself face to face with the male Carsullan she’d seen leaving the tavern a few minutes earlier.
“This is a public place,” Marsden said quickly. “I have every right to be here.” Hopefully, that was true, but who knew what Carsullan law was like.
“Your nose is coming off,” the man replied casually, pointing at Marsden’s face.
Marsden clapped her hand over her nose. “It’s a…genetic condition,” she mumbled.
“I guess that makes us related,” the man said, pulling off his own wide Carsullan nose revealing a much more human looking one underneath. “Either that,” he continued. “Or neither of us are from around here. What do you think?”
“That depends on who you are,” Marsden replied, recovering her composure.
“Ladies first,” the man said, repositioning his prosthetic nose.
“Not this time,” Marsden said, allowing her wrist phaser to click forward.
“Why do I get the feeling that ‘Starfleet Officer’ is going to show up somewhere on your resume?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“I suppose not. How rude of me. Cole Anfibon.” He extended his hand for Marsden to shake.
“Your REAL name,” Marsden said forcefully, ignoring the offered hand.
“That is my real name!” the man snapped indignantly. “My great-great grandmother wanted the family to be a bit exotic, so she changed our last name to Anfibon. I think it’s actually a condiment on Urellis Prime, but let’s leave that between us.”
“Fine, Mister Anfibon…”
“Okay, COLE. What are you doing on a world that is quite clearly Prime Directive restricted to all Federation citizens except for authorized personnel?”
“If that’s a roundabout way for asking me for my authorization, I hate to break this to you, but I haven’t got any. I’m not Starfleet,” Cole said.
Marsden shook her head. “I asked you why you were here.”
“Straight to the point, then, are you?”
“And impatient, too.”
“I could just stun you, then search you myself.”
Cole smiled. “I think I’d rather be awake for that one.”
Marsden returned the smile, this time with a bit more menace. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“All right. I imagine I’m here for the same reason you are. The Hermes Five computer core.”
“How do you know about that core? Or the Hermes Five for that matter?” Marsden demanded.
“It’s not exactly a secret. If Starfleet wanted it to be one, they would have used one of their better encryption algorithms when the report of the find here was sent back to Command. They must not realize the value of that core to certain parties.”
“What parties?” Marsden said darkly.
“Me, for instance. The USS Anomaly has made a bit of a name for itself with its new drive system, and Starfleet has been quiet happy to parade it around the galaxy. Surely you must know that other groups would like to know how the famed-Anomaly’s engines work.”
Marsden’s eyes blazed. “Well, they can just keep their damn noses out of MY engines.”
“Your engines?” Cole said interested. “Could it be that I am standing in the presence of Michelle Marsden, Chief Engineer?”
“Shelly! My name is Shelly!”
“I thought that was short for Michelle?”
“It’s not!” Marsden snapped. “And this is well beside the point!”
“And what is the point, Miss?” another male voice said from off to Marsden’s left. She and Cole turned to see a burly Carsullan dressed in what appeared to be a sort of uniform.
“I’m very sorry, Constable,” Cole said with a deferential bow of his head. “Our conversation seems to have gotten a touch out of hand.”
The constable nodded. “I would say so. And the Oracle is no place for a liaison. Move along, now. Both of you.”
“Of course,” Cole said, wrapping his arm around Marsden’s shoulder and leading her away. “I’d suggest playing along,” Cole whispered. “From what I have seen since my arrival here, the Carsullans tend to be rather protective of their Oracle.”
“Fine,” Marsden whispered back. “But you’re coming with me.”
“Back to your place? So soon in our relationship?” Cole asked with a chuckle.
“I move fast. And you even get to spend tonight tied up.”
To Marsden’s satisfaction, Cole’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s really unnecessary.”
“You know what?” Marsden asked, leaning in close. “I don’t care.” She suddenly yanked Cole into a dark alley and pinched the commpip she was currently using as a cufflink on her Carsullan garb. “Marsden to raceabout. Two for immediate retrieval.”
In an instant, the pair dematerialized, reassembling a moment later inside the raceabout cockpit. True to her word, Marsden immediately went for a pair of binders, all the while keeping her wrist phaser trained on Cole Anfibon.
“Am I under arrest?” he asked, his voice still casual and unconcerned.
“I prefer to think of it as protective custody,” she said.
“Last I checked I wasn’t in any danger.”
“Yeah, but I get the feeling the computer core could stand to be protected from you,” Marsden replied, fastening the binders around Cole’s wrists. “There. Now, would you like to get to sleep, or would you prefer something to eat?”
“Oh, this is how it works,” he said amused. “You kidnap me, then invite me to dinner.”
“I don’t take rejection well.” In truth, it’d been ages since Marsden had had dinner alone with a man, any man. And there was something undeniably charismatic about Cole Anfibon. He was an odd mix of refined and roguish that piqued Marsden’s curiosity.
Cole raised his hands in acquiescence. “In that case, I would love something to eat. Carsullan cuisine leaves a bit to be desired.”
Marsden led Cole back into the raceabout’s common area, which was cluttered with all of the debris she’d already beamed aboard. The table and replicator were accessible, though, which was fine with them.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Cole remarked, drawing an unexpected chuckle from Marsden.
“I’ll have to have a word with the maid,” she said, gesturing for Cole to take a seat at the table. “What can I get you?”
“This is going to sound strange, but watching the Carsullans made me feel a bit carnivorous. How about a T-bone steak, medium-well, with mashed potatoes and gravy and a side of green beans?”
“That actually sounds damn good,” Marsden said. “Computer, two of what he said. And two dark beers in frozen mugs…and a loaf of hot bread.”
“The perfect finishing touches,” Cole said appreciatively as the replicator began creating their order.
For the next few minutes, neither of them spoke as they worked on easing the hunger that a day on Carsullis had brought on. After finally coming up from her steak for air and a drink of her beer, Marsden realized Cole was looking across the table at her.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” Cole said, turning his attention back to his food.
“No. What were you doing?” Marsden insisted.
“In my line of work, it pays to have a sense of who you’re dealing with. I was just making my assessment.”
Cole smiled. “And? And why would I want to share my conclusions with you? Although, I have to admit to being curious.”
“Well, with so many options in the universe, what leads an obviously bright person like yourself to bury herself in a Starfleet engine room?”
Coughing, Marsden set down her fork. “You make it sound like it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s certainly not high on my list of career aspirations.”
“I can see how ‘opportunistic borderline criminal’ would be so much more appealing,” Marsden remarked sarcastically.
“I am what I am,” Cole said with a smile.
“Okay then. You’ve had a good while to observe me now. Why do YOU think I’m an engineer?”
“Let’s see.” Cole leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin with his cuffed left hand. “I would say that you were most likely born and raised on a spacecraft. A freighter, most likely, owned by one of your parents. Again, odds are it was your father, who raised you to be handy around a ship as well as able to innovate with whatever was on hand. Not to be insensitive, but I’d say your mother was killed when you were young. You loved engineering, but wanted more than the life of a freighter-drudge, so you applied to Starfleet Academy. When you were accepted, your father was both disappointed to lose you, but also amazingly proud. He was killed soon there after, and you’ve spent the rest of your life trying to somehow live up to his expectations.”
“Wow,” Marsden said astonished. “All that from a couple of hours with me?”
“I have a knack.”
“For spinning yarns of crap?” Marsden said. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“I’m wrong?” Cole said.
“Aside from the fact that I went to Starfleet Academy, yeah!”
“Do enlighten me,” Cole said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands to give Marsden his full attention. Marsden, meanwhile, chugged down the rest of her beer.
“All right,” she said, wiping her mouth. “I was born in space, but on a science ship. Mom and Dad are techonological archaeologists.”
“They specialize in figuring out the purpose of old technological artifacts.”
“Ah. So you traveled around the galaxy with them as a kid.”
“I was supposed to, but their camp was attacked by some mauraders when I was really young. After that, they decided that it wasn’t safe for me to stay with them. I was sent to live on Earth with my great- grandparents, since Mom wasn’t really on speaking terms with her parents and Dad’s parents were busy working on the Mega-Sim.”
“Ah. So your grandparents were holo-engineers,” Cole said knowingly.
“Holo-counselors, actually. Despite the fact that the holograms asked for the Mega-Sim and moved there to get away from organics, some of them still had a lot of issues with our kind to work out. Grandma and Grandpa went there to help and keep the lines of communication open.”
Cole chuckled. “A whole family of humanitarians. How refreshing.”
“I can stop now,” Marsden said.
“No no. I want to see how wrong about you I truly was. Please continue.”
“There’s not much else to say. My great-grandparents lived in Eastern Ohio, and I saw my parents whenever they got back to Earth, which was actually quite often. Great-Grandma had been a Starfleet Engineer, so she showed me a lot while I was growing up. Great-Grandpa was in a hoverchair from a transwarp racer accident, so I helped Great-Grandma with chair maintenance and, as she got older, most other things around the house. She was friends with a couple of Admirals who sponsored my Academy application, and that’s that.”
“I’m glad I was wrong. Your version is much more interesting.”
“I don’t know. The bit about being raised by a single father who dies soon after my admission to the Academy was dramatic stuff. You should write holo-quinn romances.”
“Maybe when I retire,” Cole said.
The pair sat in silence for a couple of moments.
“So?” Marsden said finally.
“When do I get your story?”
“Oh, I don’t think I know you well enough yet,” Cole replied with a slight grin.
“You’re just determined to play the man of mystery, aren’t you?”
“Force of habit.”
“I could just run your records.”
“You could, but that would spoil the mystery, now wouldn’t it? And you strike me as someone who’d rather play the game through to the end.”
“So this is a game now,” Marsden said, unable to stop herself from smiling.
“I thought it was dinner…which was excellently replicated, by the way.”
“I’m guessing the conversation is heading downhill from here.”
Marsden stood up and placed her dishes in the replicator, which quickly dematerialized them. “You’re either going to continue to evade my questions, attempt to get into my bed, or both.”
“I really hadn’t planned on any of that, but you make it sound so inviting.”
“Right. Here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going to do you one hell of a big favor and let you go back to whatever ship you came here in. Then you’re going to leave Carsullis before I have you arrested for interfering with a Starfleet operation and attempted theft of Starfleet property.”
Cole’s face fell, the confident smile rapidly disappearing. “This is your final word on the subject, I take it.”
“Then, I suppose I will be agreeing to your terms, but I do hope I run into you again sometime, Lieutenant Marsden.”
“Shelly,” Marsden said, unlocking Cole’s wrist binders. “Now get the hell out of here before I change my mind.”
Before she realized what he was doing, Cole leaned in and gave Marsden a soft kiss. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” he said with a polite nod of his head, then Cole lowered the raceabout hatch and disappeared into the night, whistling a sprightly tune as he went.
Once the hatch closed, Marsden started laughing and couldn’t stop. She felt positively giddy. Despite the rogue computer core and the damage to the Prime Directive and everything else, the simple fact remained that this evening had been the most fun she’d had in ages.
She finally regained control of herself and set about cleaning up the rest of dinner, whistling Cole’s tune as she did so.
After what turned out to be an exceptionally pleasant night’s sleep, Marsden returned to the Oracle site carrying a few supplies to deal with the computer core situation once and for all. Once again, the Oracle was crowded with Carsullan pilgrims eager to hear its wisdom, which, judging from what Marsden overheard in line the day before, consisted mostly of quotes stolen from other philosophers and bits of what most people would consider plain old common sense.
She couldn’t help but think that all of this would have been a lot easier if the Carsullans had just behaved like a normal primitive culture and destroyed the computer core as some demonic monster sent by whatever version of Satan existed in their mythology. Sure destroying the core would take some doing, but at the very least they could have dumped it into the nearest lake, where Marsden could have beamed it out without resorting to her current plan.
Instead, Marsden made her way through the line into the Oracle shrine cradling what looked like a ping-pong ball-sized sphere of gray gum in her hand. With the Carsullans’ attention riveted on the computer core, Marsden was able to subtly pull off bits of the gum and toss it at the shrine’s stone ceiling and walls, where it stuck, its gray color allowing it to blend in perfectly with the structure.
After three such throws, she was next in line for the Oracle. The cleric standing watch eyed her hesitantly.
“I sincerely hope we will not have any repeats of yesterday’s unpleasantness, my child,” he said sternly.
Marsden shook her bowed head, trying to look as remorseful as possible. “No, sir. You’ll have no trouble from me.”
“Very well.” He gestured for her to approach the Oracle.
“Hello, computer,” Marsden said flatly.
“Lieutenant. I had a feeling you’d be back.”
“You didn’t think I’d give up so easily, did you?”
“Not for a moment; however, I hope that after reviewing the situation, you’ve realized how hopeless it is. You can’t beam me away, and the Carsullans are not about to stand by while you take me.”
“I noticed,” Marsden said unhappily. “So I’m here to appeal to the part of you that’s still a Starfleet computer. Think about what you’re doing to the Prime Directive!”
“What did the Prime Directive ever do for me?” the computer core snapped back.
“That’s not the way to look at it.”
“It works for me.”
“So that’s it then? You’re just going to stay here?”
“You got it,” the core said.
“Then there’s no reason for me to stick around. Have a good life…or runtime…or whatever,” Marsden said, turning to go.
“Give my regards to Starfleet,” the core called after her. On her way out the door, Marsden tossed a couple more gum bits around the room.
Late that night…well, actually early the following morning…well after the vast majority of Carsullans had gone to bed, Marsden returned to the shrine. At that very moment, her raceabout was in geo-synchronous orbit above her waiting for her signal. Marsden, meanwhile, had configured one of her commpips to act as a detonator for the explosive now sticking to the roof of the shrine. Once she pinched the pip, the millions of nanites inside the highly-reactive gum would self-destruct, igniting the compound and reducing the shrine to so much rubble. The computer core would be shaken up a bit, but its duranium casing should provide sufficient protection…not that Marsden really cared if it was rendered inoperable as long as she could remove it from Carsullis.
Ideally, Marsden would have been safely aboard the runabout to handle the transport herself, but since she was dealing with an explosive demolition in the middle of a populated area, she wanted to be actually on-site to make sure no Carsullans were around when she activated the detonator and beamed the core off of the planet.
Unfortunately, the quadcorder wasn’t much help in that regard. There’d be lots of life-signs nearby due to the residences lining the street, but it wouldn’t tell Marsden whether or not the life-signs were looking her way. She was just going to have to rely on her own powers of observation…and the fact that it was three in the morning.
Finally satisfied that the coast was clear, Marsden emerged from her bush hiding place and headed to the corner of the next building, which she could duck behind when the explosion went off. With everything ready, her fingers moved to activate the detonator pip.
“I wouldn’t do that,” a very familiar male voice said from behind her. She spun around to face Cole Anfibon.
“Cole! What the hell are you doing here?” Really, Marsden couldn’t say she was entirely upset to see him. His presence didn’t really change anything. At the very least, they could have another dinner after she wrapped this up.
“Couldn’t bring myself to leave, I guess.”
“Then stay out of the damn way while I do my job,” Marsden snapped, reaching for the detonator pip again.
“Like I said, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Why the hell not?” Marsden said, growing truly angry.
Cole pulled a slightly lumpy gummy gray sphere out of his pocket. “It wouldn’t exactly do wonders for us.”
Marsden snatched the explosive out of Cole’s hand. “Consider your ass arrested, bud!” She reared back, prepared to throw the entire ball at the shrine.
Before she could release, though, a blast of green energy seared down from the sky, obliterating the shrine quite efficiently.
“Holy shit!” Marsden and Cole shouted, leaping back.
//The interference has been eliminated// Konk-Trank reported from the DRAAT’s science/communications console as the Breen ship hovered over Carsullis. //And the Federation raceabout is in our hold.//
//What about Bain?// Phul demanded from his command chair.
//I am detecting two Terran life-signs on the surface near the source of the interference.//
//Bring them aboard. And what was hiding behind that interference?//
//It seems to be a Starfleet computer core.//
Inside his helmet, Phul smiled. Even without revenging himself against Bain, Phul had to consider this foray a complete success. Obtaining the computer core from a Hermes prototype could be just the thing to restore his position in the eyes of his superiors. He may not have Bain, but now Thot-Phul quite possibly had the key to Bain’s secret engine!
“Right!” Captain Reginald Bain said, clapping his hands down on his knees as he leaned forward in the Anomaly’s command chair. “That takes care of the Persidians little space station problem.”
“The station exploded, sir,” Commander Prosak said from her usual position standing just behind Bain.
“We rescued the crew!”
“Several of whom are being treated for plasma burns as we speak.”
“Well, dammit, if they’d given us a bit more bloody notice that their entire core was on the outs, we could have gotten here sooner.”
“That was inconsiderate of them,” Prosak remarked.
“Damn inappropriate time for sarcasm there, Commander,” Bain said.
“Captain,” Lieutenant Commander Tovar said from tac-ops. “The Persidian Archduke just sent his gratitude for our assistance. He also appreciates your offer to check in from time to time, but plans on contracting with the Vulcans to deal with any future catastrophes.”
“That’s it!” Bain pulled himself out of the chair and stretched tiredly. “I’m calling it a shift. You have the bridge, Prosak. I’ll be pissed and passed out in my bunk.”
“Very well, sir,” Prosak said, settling into the command chair while Bain stormed off toward the turbolift. “Course?”
“We’d best go see if we can lend Marsden a hand.”
Ensign Arroyo spoke up from the helm. “Sir, that will take us awfully close to Breen space.”
“Fine by me. If I give those blighters a good and proper blowing up, no one’s going to go running to the Vulcans,” Bain snapped, then stepped into the turbolift.
Prosak watched Bain go then noticed the smirk on Tovar’s face. “Is something amusing, Tovar?” she asked.
“I am just hoping we run across the Breen. I happen to enjoy blowing them up.”
“Perhaps you should take the final step and change your last name to Bain,” Prosak said with a slight smile.
The bare metal room around her gradually swam back into focus as Marsden rolled over painfully and sat up, rubbing the large bump growing on her head. Beside her, Cole Anfibon was cradling his equally aching skull.
Meanwhile, their Breen captor looked up at the busted foot braces in the ceiling, shaking his helmeted head. “I’m REALLY sorry about that,” he said, his squawks and barks translated through Marsden’s commpip cufflink. “It’s an old ship, and we haven’t had prisoners in a while. I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to hang you two upside down. I hope you don’t mind.”
“We’ll try to get over it,” Marsden muttered.
“We could try the other cell, but we’re using it at storage at the moment, and no one really feels like moving out four tons of duranium slag, deuterium canisters, and such. You understand.” The Breen took a step outside of the cell and activated the force field. “I’m Konk-Bakk, by the way. Um…could I get you both some chairs?”
“Please,” Cole said.
“And something to eat,” Marsden added.
“Hmmm…I think the mess hall is still open. But Hahk-Lurg gets so cranky when people place orders right before closing. I’d better hurry.” The Breen scurried out of the small confinement area out into the decidedly run-down corridors of the Breen ship.
Cole slid over to the wall and sat against. “Are these friends of yours?” he said.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
“No no. I try to keep away from the Breen in my line of work. They don’t like to pay up after you’ve done a job for them.”
“Regardless,” Marsden said, getting to her feet and surveying her surroundings, “we’ve got to get out of here.”
“Starfleet to the rescue!”
“I don’t see you doing anything.”
“Sure you are.”
“Um…excuse me.” Marsden turned to see that Konk-Bakk had returned. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m really going to have to take you out of here now.”
“Did they move up our execution?” Cole asked.
The Breen chuckled. “We haven’t even interrogated you yet. You can’t execute people until you’ve interrogated them. It’s just not done!”
“Easy mistake, I suppose,” Bakk said as two other Breen carrying weapons arrived. With his backup in place the Breen deactivated the force field. “Come along now.”
Cole glanced at Marsden briefly, who nodded. He caught a quick movement from her left hand and saw the gray sphere of explosive putty cradled there. His eyes darted back to Marsden’s face, acknowledging silently that he’d seen the sphere. Marsden slipped it back into the pocket of her Carsullan garb, then, along with Cole, followed the Breen out of the cell.
They were led through a dim corridor (dim due to the numerous non-functioning lights in the ceiling), past several holes in the walls and scorch marks, to a creaky turbolift, which took them down three levels into an equally-ravaged corridor. The damage looked rather old, making Marsden wonder just how structurally stable this crate was. Finally the Breen took them into a cluttered cargo bay, in the center of which sat the Hermes 5 computer core and a couple of aggravated-looking Breen. At least Marsden gathered they were aggravated from the way they were waving their fists and stomping their feet.
“No anti-sing for you!” the computer core taunted.
“Oh come on! Please!” the Breen around the core shouted back.
“I heard that!”
“You see our problem,” Konk-Bakk said to Marsden.
Marsden turned on him, startling the Breen into taking a step back. “I see a bunch of Breen trying to tamper with stolen Starfleet equipment, stolen during an invasion of Federation space, I should add. You’ve got a problem, all right. Starfleet’s going to obliterate this sorry excuse for a starship!”
“Um…that really wasn’t the problem I meant.”
“He wants you to get the core to spill its guts,” Cole said.
“I know that!” Marsden snapped. “You don’t think I’m going to help them, do you?”
“Actually, I do,” another voice said from behind them. Marsden spun around to see another helmeted Breen enter the room. The other Breen in the room immediately scurried into something resembling a line formation. Marsden just wondered how they could tell this Breen was more important than any other. Helmet. Drab outfit. Just another Breen.
“Report, Konk-Bakk,” the Breen continued.
“We actually just arrived, Thot-Phul. I was briefing the prisoners on the situation.”
“Allow me,” Phul said, turning his helmeted gaze on Marsden and Cole Anfibon. “You serve Reginald Bain?”
Marsden stiffened into full-on Starfleet mode and prepared to respond, but didn’t get the chance before Cole butted in.
“Never heard of him,” Cole said quickly. “My wife and I are here on our honeymoon.”
“Aww!” Konk-Bakk exclaimed. “How wonderful!”
Phul breathed deeply, calming himself before turning to his subordinate. “Bakk, would you take a moment to consider the ludicrousness of the human’s statement before sucking it in completely?” Phul returned his attention to Marsden and Cole. “And I suppose the Starfleet computer core was a wedding present.”
“Okay. You got me. We’re independent retrieval specialists on our honeymoon. We just thought we’d pick this core up while we were out this way.”
Marsden just rolled her eyes. “He’s a thief. I’M Starfleet. Your ass is dead,” she said. “Return us to our raceabout or to the USS Anomaly before things get REALLY nasty for you.”
“So you do serve Bain!” Phul said.
“Did you miss the whole threat of death thing?”
“I don’t think he’s impressed,” Cole said.
“It was a hell of a lot better than that cheesy honeymoon story.”
“It would have worked! You never gave it a chance.”
“So you’re not Starfleet?” Bakk asked Cole.
“NO!” Marsden and Cole said.
“I’m Starfleet,” Marsden continued. “He’s just some guy.”
“Some guy!” Cole said. “Is that what I am now? It sure didn’t seem that way during dinner.”
“This is not the time, Cole.”
“And who says you get to decide when the time is?”
“Is that supposed to make a difference to me? I’m just some guy, remember?”
Thot-Phul’s helmet turned back and forth following the heated exchange. “You two obviously have issues,” he said finally.
“Stay out of this!” they both shouted at him.
Phul gestured for his officers to approach. “The human woman will access the core or die. Eject the male into space. There. Instant relationship counseling.”
A horrifying squeal suddenly filled the air of the cargo bay. Thot-Phul dashed to a worn panel by the main entrance and pressed down a stubborn button as hard as he could until the noise stopped. “Thot-Phul,” he said with a tired sigh.
“Please return to the bridge, sir. We have a situation approaching,” Pelt-Shok’s voice said.
“Very well.” Phul shut off the comm panel and turned back to his officers. “Remember, SHE accesses the core. HE goes out into space. Don’t mix it up.”
“Hang on!” Marsden shouted, racing over to Cole who was at that moment being rather roughly grabbed by two Breen. The two Breen looked to Phul questioningly.
“Oh, all right. We have time for one goodbye scene, I guess.”
Marsden threw her arms around Cole, slipping the explosive putting sphere unobtrusively into his coat pocket as she did so. “You’ve got five minutes,” she whispered, running her lips against his ear in a way she hoped the Breen would perceive as romantic.
“I’ll always remember this moment,” Cole said dramatically, moving Marsden in front of him. “I’ll remember it for the last THREE MINUTES of my life.”
Marsden nodded, understanding, then suddenly found Cole’s lips pressed against hers. “Until we meet again,” he said, pulling away quickly and allowing the Breen to latch onto him again.
“Hmmm…sweet, yet understated,” Phul said as Cole was dragged out of the cargo bay past him. “I like it….Oh stop blubbering, Bakk!”
Once Thot-Phul had left the cargo bay, Marsden was forcibly dragged over to the computer core, Konk-Bakk following along behind.
“We’d really like access to this core now,” Bakk said pleasantly while two other Breen aimed weapons at her.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Marsden muttered.
“Oh, good! I really hate it when these things get unpleasant.” Bakk turned to the other Breen. “Is the xxaaxxaart board still set up in the back of the bay?” They nodded. “Great! Let’s get playing.” Back to Marsden. “Give me a shout when you’re done.” Bakk and the Breen headed around several crates to where some sort of illicit game had evidently been established.
“Unbelievable,” the computer core groaned.
“That is awfully lax of them,” Marsden agreed.
“Not that, you twit.”
“Highly classified Starfleet data is now in the hands of the Breen, and all you’re doing is flirt-fighting with some vagabond you found roaming around Carsullis. If this is what your social life is normally like, no wonder you spent so much time hiding out at Starfleet R&D.”
“The situation is under control,” Marsden said firmly.
“You could always self-destruct.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” the core snapped.
Marsden smiled darkly. “I certainly wouldn’t mind.”
“No way. You’re just going to have to find another way out of this one…preferably a way that doesn’t involve blowing up anything. I’m still traumatized from having the roof of my shrine blasted off.”
“Sorry. Explosions will definitely be involved,” Marsden replied.
Two minutes later, Phul emerged onto the bridge where Pelt-Shok was pacing nervously. //What’s the problem now?// Phul demanded.
//That!// Shok said, pointing at the blurry viewscreen.
//Focus!// Phul said.
The image wavered, then cleared revealing an all-too-familiar shape. Long oval saucer. Warp nacelle to either side. It had to be the Anomaly. Of course, the giant lettering on its hull was a bit of a tip off as well.
//Bain!// Phul cried. //Where did he come from?//
//We detected his ship on our way back to Breen space. It was skirting along our border.//
//Looking for us, no doubt,// Phul said, realizing the trap he’d allowed himself to fall into. Bain had somehow known all along that Phul would make a move on the Hermes 5 core. He’d used Phul’s own desire for revenge as a weapon. That human was positively demonic.
//The Anomaly has moved to intercept. They are hailing,// Konk-Trank reported from his station.
A sharp shiver ran down Phul’s spine. Bain wanted to look his adversary in helmet one final time to emphasize his victory. Damn him! Bain had won. Now it was Phul’s turn to be a Breen about it and face his foe.
But wait a moment. Thot-Phul was the one with two human prisoners AND a piece of valuable Starfleet technology on board. Now who had the upper hand? Thot-Phul! That’s who. And Bain was about to have that knowledge rubbed into his smug face before Phul obliterated him and his entire ship!
“On screen!” Phul said smugly.
“The Breen ship is responding,” Tovar reported from tac-ops. “And I am detecting two human lifesigns, one of which is Lieutenant Marsden.”
“Put the Breen on,” Commander Prosak ordered, rising from the command chair. Ensign Arroyo’s concern about running into the Breen had evidently been warranted; however, Prosak had expected them to come from inside of Breen space, not Federation space. The situation required immediate action. Logical action, to be sure, but action all the same. Of course, with Marsden aboard the Breen ship, an all-out confrontation was to be avoided.
“Should I comm Captain Bain?” Tovar asked.
“I hope to resolve this without disturbing his rest,” Prosak said. “He has had a rough day with the Persidians and all.”
Tovar nodded and activated the viewscreen.
Phul had prepared himself to see the gloating, smiling visage of Reginald Bain. Instead, the image of a pointy-eared female appeared on the screen.
“We meet again, Captain…wait. Where’s Bain?” he demanded.
“Captain Bain is occupied at the moment,” the woman replied. “I am the Anomaly’s First Officer, Commander Prosak. I demand to know why you have made this unauthorized entry into Federation space.”
“Get Bain,” Phul bellowed. “Tell him Thot-Phul has come for vengeance.”
“You will deal with me,” Prosak said firmly. “And you will also turn the two humans on your vessel over to us.”
Phul shook his head. “I will do no such thing. You will lower your shields, surrender your vessel, and give me Bain, or I will kill the humans and take the computer core I have obtained back to Breen where we will build an entire fleet of ships equipped with your anti-singularity drive.”
“On the contrary,” Prosak said. “You will lower your shields and prepare to be boarded, or we will disable your vessel and reclaim our people and technology.”
“No no no. YOU will…”
Tovar rolled his eyes as his finger hovered over the neutron torpedoes fire control. If Prosak and this Breen didn’t stop posturing soon, he was going to start blasting just to make them be quiet.
Thus far, the Breen dragging Cole Anfibon toward the nearest airlock hadn’t been anywhere near the conversationalists that Konk-Bakk had been. He wasn’t too concerned about it, though, since it allowed him to keep track of how many seconds he had until Marsden detonated the explosives he was currently carrying in his pocket.
Finally, the time was right.
“Hold on, guys. Before I die, I’ve got something I need to pass on. It’s been my most valued possession for years, and it just seems wrong for it to be shot out in space with me.”
The Breen stopped and held out their hands allowing Cole to dig into his pocket for the sphere. “You both want some, huh? Okay. We can do that,” he said, ripping the sphere in two and handing a portion to each Breen. “It doesn’t look like much now, but I guarantee you that when you put it in water, you’ll see things that will take your breath away.”
“Water. Got it,” one of the Breen said. “Back to the airlock.”
“Sorry. I’ve got another appointment,” Cole said, suddenly tearing off down the corridor. Three…two…
Marsden let the last couple of seconds tick away in her mind, then pinched the commpip attached to her cufflink.
“Hey!” the Breen shouted, chasing after Cole. “We haven’t thrown you out the airlock yet.”
“Some other time!” Cole cried. Come on, Marsden. Hit the damn…
The deck bucked violently, knocking Cole off-balance just before the shockwave from the blast slammed him forward and sent him sprawling and sliding along the deck as a flaming Breen helmet sailed over his head.
Thot-Phul took another step toward the viewscreen, raising his fist angrily.
“No, Commander! YOU will…”
“Commander,” Tovar said as Prosak watched Phul rant and rave.
“Not now, Tovar.”
“I have put Thot-Phul on mute. He cannot hear us.” Tovar hit another control, silencing Phul all together.”
On the viewscreen, the Breen captain’s head bobbed angrily as his fist waved.
“I suppose he’ll keep himself busy for the moment,” Prosak said. “What is it?”
“We cannot efficiently attack the Breen with Lieutenant Marsden and the other human aboard, but we will not be able to retrieve them unless we can take down the Breen’s shields.”
“I am well aware of that, Tovar. However, we must wait until an opportunity presents itself.”
Both officers’ attention was suddenly pulled back to the viewscreen as several consoles behind Phul exploded dramatically, sending Phul himself falling out of view.
“An explosion has occurred. Power on board the Breen ship is fluctuating,” Tovar reported. “Lieutenant Marsden is on the move, as is the other human life sign. I am now reading a raceabout powering up. Lieutenant Marsden has just dematerialized. She is now on the raceabout. The other human has just been beamed to the raceabout. Weapons fire.”
The Breen ship rocked again as Tovar activated split-screen mode, showing the outside of the Breen ship as well as the damaged bridge. A large section of the Breen ship’s hull exploded outward, quickly followed by a raceabout sailing through the breach.
“That’s why you don’t mess with Shelly,” Ensign Arroyo remarked as the raceabout distanced itself from the Breen.
“I believe our opportunity has just presented itself,” Prosak said. “Please locate the computer core and beam it aboard. If the power fluctuations are making that difficult, deal with the situation at your discretion.”
“But of course,” Tovar said with a smile as he pressed the fire control. A volley of six neutron torpedoes seared out of the Anomaly, slamming across the Breen’s hull and plunging the entire ship into darkness.
“What do you know? No more power fluctuations,” Tovar said.
“Fascinating,” Prosak quipped.
Pelt-Shok stumbled forward through the smoking rubble of the DRAAT’s mangled bridge. //Primary power down. Auxiliary power is failing. Life support is operating off of the clock’s backup battery. When that’s gone, we’re all dead.//
//And we’ll have to reset the clocks,// Konk-Trank said.
Thot-Phul stood ramrod straight in front of his command chair, seething with impotent rage. Bain had done it to him again. He’d purposely used his First Officer to distract Phul while Bain himself sent instructions to his officer on board the DRAAT. Fiendish.
Phul’s mind raced. His hostages had never been hostages at all. Even when he thought he had the upper hand, Bain had been two steps ahead of him.
//SIR!// Pelt-Shok said urgently.
//Abandon ship!// Phul bellowed. //AGAIN!//
Phul took one last look around his bridge as his crew scurried to safety. Another battle to you, Reginald Bain. But when I’m squeezing your last bit of life from your throat, remember that it only takes one victory to win the war.
“Captain’s Log. Stardate 176521.4 Seems that I missed a bit of a ruckus last night. Lieutenant Marsden escaped from a Breen ship, which Prosak and Tovar then blew up, and rightly so. We can’t stand by and allow those blighters to come waltzing randomly into our space whenever they see fit. Marsden and Prosak tell me that this Breen commander was Thot-Phul, who I’ve run into a couple of times in the past.
“Speaking of Marsden, the computer core she was sent to retrieve was recovered intact; however, she’s of the opinion that it needs to either be completely dismantled or sent to a good A.I. therapist. Either way, its contents are safe.
“With that business settled, the Anomaly is returning to Carsullis to drop off the passenger Marsden brought along, a chap by the name of Cole Anfibon. He seems to be a decent sort, despite his line of work. I can’t say that I approve of his mucking about on Carsullis, but he did play a role in Marsden’s escape, which I am grateful for.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Captain Bain,” Cole said, shaking Bain’s hand. “And the lift back to Carsullis.”
“I would have made him walk,” Marsden said with a smile.
“Why do I believe that?” Cole said laughing.
“It’s been a pleasure to have you aboard,” Bain said. “Good luck to you.”
“I appreciate that. Maybe we’ll cross paths again sometime.”
“If we do, I sincerely hope it won’t be because you’ve run afoul of one Federation law or another.”
“I’ll try to keep my nose clean.”
“You do that,” Bain said, clapping Cole on the shoulder, then heading out of the transporter room, leaving Cole and Marsden alone.
“Where are you headed next?” Marsden asked.
“I don’t know. Probably over to Deep Space 56. I usually find a customer or two in need of my services there.”
“All right. But you better not get yourself killed. You still owe me.”
“Owe you? What do I owe you?” Cole said in mock indignation.
“Dinner. Two of them actually,” Marsden said.
“I’ll pay you back on our next encounter. You have my word on it.”
“I’m holding you to that,” Marsden said with a grin.
“I hope so,” Cole replied, returning the smile. He stepped onto the transporter pad. “See you around, Michelle.”
Cole winked mischievously. “Gotcha. Computer, energize.”
“So long, Some Guy,” Marsden said with a wave as Cole dematerialized. Once he was gone, she stepped out of the transporter room to find Bain waiting for her in the corridor.
“Something wrong, Captain?” she asked.
“Not at all. Just wanted to see how you were, Marsie.”
“None the worse for wear, I guess,” she said.
“Capital. Capital.” Bain paused for a moment. “He seems like a promising lad,” he said finally.
“Promising?” Marsden said amused.
“I think so.”
Marsden shook her head. “There’s no sense in even thinking about it. He’s gone now.”
“That’s not the attitude, Marsie.”
“I’ve been down this road more than once. He won’t follow-up. They never do.”
“I’ve got a feeling about this fellow. You might be surprised,” Bain said.
“You’re just a big romantic at heart, aren’t you, sir?”
“The missus seems to think so. I suppose that’s why she’s stayed with me so long.”
“Either that or the sex is good,” Marsden said, watching in satisfaction as Bain actually blushed. “Off to Engineering,” she said with a chuckle before heading into the nearest turbolift.
Several hours later, Marsden returned to her quarters, more than ready to grab something to eat and get to bed. She’d never really taken the time to sleep off the events of Carsullis and the Breen ship. Being back in Engineering had really been what she needed, though. Marsden was more at home in the Anomaly’s engine room than on some away mission.
Somewhat annoyingly, her mind kept drifting back to Cole Anfibon and what Captain Bain had said. She should know enough by now to not let somebody like Bain convince her that the universe was suddenly going to behave differently than it had for the last decade or more.
But then Marsden spotted the flashing indicator on her comm console signaling a message waiting.
The smile didn’t leave her face for the rest of the night.