Author: Brendan Chris
“Did I mention I’m afraid of the water?”
Captain Elizabeth Simplot mentally rolled her eyes and contemplated how it was that the speaker, Lt. Shurgroe, had managed to stay in Starfleet as long as he had without running away in terror. Well, OK. Not terror. Nervous twitchiness, maybe?
“Josh, you’re not beaming back up. If you had a problem with water, you should have said something before we beamed down,” she admonished him.
“But nobody told me the city we were visiting floats on a lake!”
“You could have found out,” Colonel Myress Abela offered, “It’s in the library computer.”
Shurgroe sucked on his lips for a moment.
“I don’t like talking to the computer anymore,” he admitted, “She’s…mean. And the last time I asked her for a diagnostic on the life-support system, she screamed ‘Prepare for Sudden Death’ and started cackling like Witch Hazel,”
“Yeah, just what were your programmers smoking, anyway?” Simplot asked.
“Forget it,” Abela grumbled, “Let’s just hurry up. I’d like to at least see some of Wetria before the big event,”
The three officers had beamed down to Matria Prime to witness the grand-opening of M’Lady’s flagship store in Wetria. Since M’Lady’s was going to be an anchor store in the Mall of Matria up on Haven, Abela had decided that it would be a good idea for them to see how the company operated. OK, actually the trip was nothing more than a cheap excuse for Simplot to go shopping, but Abela had insisted on finding a proper, official reason for them to attend the opening. Something a bit more professional than ‘Oh, I wanna see if they have those adorable green thingies I saw in Matronus…only blue!’
“I’m not even sure why I’m here,” Shurgroe groaned miserably, looking down the side of the bridge they were crossing at the deep blue water beneath them. The whole city of Wetria floated on the largest of the planet’s freshwater lakes. Each building was a self-contained, floating unit surrounded by a terrace that served as a combination sidewalk, boardwalk, promenade, or any other kind of outdoor ‘walking space’ you could imagine. The various buildings were connected by bridges, ferries, underwater umbilicals and even an underwater subway line.
“You’re here,” Simplot said, “because I want an engineer’s perspective on what sort of resources the M’Lady’s store in MoM’s is going to take, and how we can setup the tram system to manage the traffic,”
“But Wyer’s the D-DoDO!” That’s his job!”
“It is,” Simplot lowered her voice, “But bringing Wyer and Abela on the same trip at the same time would be cruel and unusual punishment. For Wyer AND for me.”
They had just finished crossing the bridge onto a large, floating platform next to the new store. A crowd of shoppers were already pushing up against the security team guarding the still-closed doors.
“Cattle prods and p-p-pepper spray,” Shurgroe said nervously, surveying the crowd, “That’s all we need. Can I go now?”
“Look, just do a chant to Aquia or whoever and let’s get this done,” Simplot rolled her eyes for real this time.
“Poseidon”, Shurgroe said. He pushed up one sleeve to show a shape shaved in his arm hair, “And I’m two steps ahead of you,”
“Josh, your self-mutilation disturbs me,” Simplot said flatly.
“Where else can I shave his mark? My head already has Persephone, Kahless and Meridia, and using my butt would just be disrespectful,”
“OK, that’s just weird,” Simplot shuddered.
“What’s the problem,” Abela asked. She’d gotten ahead of the two and had retraced her steps back to the foot of the bridge.
“Somebody’s scared of the water,” Simplot said, sounding more than a bit patronizing.
“Oh,” Abela looked thoughtful, “I can cure you of that, if you want,”
“Really?” Shurgroe perked up, “Sure!”
With that, Abela shoved him over the rail and into the warm water with a loud splash and an even louder squawk of surprise.
Simplot’s jaw dropped.
“Myress, that was SO no cool!” she said, “He’s going to be so mad when he gets out!”
“But he won’t be scared of falling in anymore, will he?”
“Maybe,” she admitted, “But this is Shurgroe we’re talking about.”
Halfway around the planet, in the Evendra Desert, Lt. Harrison Stoneryder was doing pull-ups.
OK, technically he was working. But he’d gotten bored with checking a bunch of hatches and passageways and had stopped for some entertainment. Yup. He thinks pull-ups are entertaining.
“Wyer to Stoneryder,” his comm-badge chirped.
Finishing his set, Stoneryder dropped to the dusty floor and replied.
There was a pause.
“I’m Yynsian, not Sheppian,” Wyer replied, sounding confused.
“Whatever, man. What’s shaking?”
“What do you want?” Stoneryder tried.
“Ah,” Wyer cleared his throat, “Have you finished checking the access hatches in the south-east quadrant?”
“Two more to go,” Stoneryder replied, “All of them buttoned up tighter than a virgin’s-“
“Thank you, I get the point. Wyer out,”
Stoneryder reached back up for the conduit he’d been using as a pull-up bar, completed another set then checked his padd for the location of the next hatch.
Several hours ago, the Haven Command Center had received an automated message from Lanchpad, the construction facility where the city had been built, hidden and launched. Basically a big crater in the middle of the desert, Launchpad had provided support systems for the construction effort, a three-kilometer ‘heavy lifter’ and enough stored energy to launch the city into orbit. It had made for a convenient hiding place too, since a simple electrical charge over the city dome attracted enough sand to cover over the top of the crater. The heavy lifter was basically a bicycle-wheel shaped structure with antigravity units covering its ventral and dorsal surfaces. It had sat between Haven itself and a matching set of antigravity units built into the crater floor and had provided the tremendous push needed to break Haven free of its sandy prison and to give the city enough momentum that its own engines could, with the extra energy transmitted by Launchpad, lift the city into orbit.
Other than a quick inspection by a Starfleet science team, Launchpad had been deserted since the city had launched. At least until recently, when the automated signal had gone off. Since Lt. Franches and his Civil Protection Team only had jurisdiction over Haven, Wyer, Stoneryder and the few Starfleet security personnel stationed at Haven had been sent down to investigate.
So far, every hatchway they’d checked had been sealed up as tightly as they’d been when the science team had left. If somebody had gotten into the underground station-building facility, they hadn’t used any of the entryways Stoneyder or the other away team members had checked.
“Wyer to Stoneryder, I think I have something here. Check your last two hatches and meet me at…um…three o’clock,” his comm-badge chirped again.
“Uh, dude? We say fifteen-hundred in the fleet,” Stoneryder corrected him, “And c’mon, it’s only 1100h now. I can have these last two done in about fifteen minutes!”
“I meant meet me at the three-oclock position! Entrance 4!” Wyer replied.
“Uh…you mean the east side?”
The comm channel went dead again.
“Dude needs to relax more,” Stoneryder muttered. He checked the last two hatches, both secure, then stopped to hammer out some push-ups. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. Most of his view of the sky was obstructed by the heavy lifter; one of its major support spokes (as wide as an Intrepid-class starship) was right over his head. He pulled out his mapping pad.
“Stoneryder to Wyer,” he tapped his badge, “Can I, like, get a beam-over? It’s a two kilometre walk from where I am,”
“You realize that by the time I contact Major Jakerd and have him send somebody out to the one of the transporter bays, you could have already walked here, right?” Wyer replied dryly.
“Is that a no?”
“I figured you’d like the exercise,”
“Dude!” Stoneryder was horrified, “That’s cardio! I’d have to do, like two days of heavy lifting to counter that!”
Again, the comm channel went dead.
“I really don’t like him,” Wyer sighed to himself. He was standing near the edge of the crater. Vast piles of sand had been deposited around the edge as it poured off the launching city, completely burying the main entrances to the corridors, storage rooms, living quarters and other facilities that had been used in the city’s construction. However, a number of smaller entrances across the crater floor were still accessible. And while the one he was standing next to was still secured, there were a number of tracks in the vicinity. And considering the windy, sandy local climate, they had to be recent.
Two of the security team made it to his location fairly quickly, two more arriving five minute later. Finally, after another fifteen minutes, Stoneryder appeared. He had his fingers pressed against the side of his neck, his eyes locked on his chrono.
“What are you doing?” Wyer demanded.
“Making sure I don’t let my heart rate get too high,”
Wyer chose to ignore the remark and pointed at the hatch.
“Somebody’s been poking around here,” he said.
“Did they get in?” Stoneryder asked.
“I don’t know!” Wyer was starting to feel that tingling behind his right eye. The one that indicated his past-lives were going to make an appearance unless his stress level dropped, soon.
“So let’s take a look,” Stoneryder unslung his phaser rifle and aimed it at the hatch. He pulled the trigger, sending two bolts of bright light spearing out.
The hatch was barely discoloured.
Trying to ignore the growing tingle, Wyer pulled out the access key he’d been given, pressed it against a reader next to the hatch, then stood back as the hatch swung open.
“Oh,” Stoneryder muttered, sounding disappointed.
“I’m cold,” Shurgroe whined, wrapping his arms around himself and shivering.
“It’s a bright sunny day!” Abela objected, “How can you be cold?”
“Because SOMEBODY pushed me in the freezing water!”
“Here,” Simplot handed him a hot beverage she’d grabbed at a nearby vending window.
“What is it?”
“No clue. But it’s hot.”
Shurgroe sipped it.
“Tastes like eggnog,” he said.
“Uh-oh,” Abela turned back from where she was examining the display window of a shop that could have been anything from kitchen supplies to torture equipment, “Did you just give him skoota?”
“Maybe, why?” Simplot shrugged.
“I thought Starfleet briefed you guys on checking alien foods before you ate them!” Abela accused.
“You guys are basically human, why would I bother?” Simplot shrugged.
Abela looked ready to slug her.
“Fine, forget I said anything!”
“Wait!” Simplot objected, “Why shouldn’t I give skoota to…hey, where’d Josh go?”
She looked around, just in time to see Shurgroe, butt-naked, jumping off a nearby building and into the lake/canal below.
“I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!” he shouted, tucking his legs in for a cannonball. Simplot held her arms up, but still wound up soaking wet from the splash.
“Inebriant?” she asked glumly.
Abela consulted her padd briefly.
“For human metabolism? More of a hallucinogenic,” she replied.
“Crap,” Simplot rolled her eyes, “Let’s get him dressed, there are little kids here for crying out loud!”
Shurgroe was swimming around in the water, singing the theme from Jaws.
“We’ll have to catch him first,” Abela commented.
“Are you a good swimmer? Cuz I AHHHHH!!”
Simplot pinwheeled into the water with one well-placed shove.
“Oh this is just months of stress and tension being purged,” Abela said happily as Simplot sputtered in the water.
“I’M THE MASTER OF THE FIERY FISHIES!” Shurgroe babbled.
Half an hour (and one police intervention) later, the three of them were dry, sober and waiting in front of M’Lady’s for the opening to begin.
“I can’t believe you shoved me in the water,” Simplot said for the fifteenth time.
“I can’t believe you drugged me!” Shurgroe said to her.
“That was an accident!”
“More like a humiliating catastrophe,” Abela laughed, “Honestly, you can’t take humans anywhere!”
Simplot almost made a retort, then suddenly realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Abela in such a good mood. Part of her wanted to crush her good cheer like a beer can under a starship’s landing claw…but on the other hand, this might make her easier to deal with.
And there would be plenty of time for revenge back on Haven.
She turned back to the store, where a huge holographic viewscreen had come to life. On it was an image of Mr Mann, the Matrian male who had recently been aboard Haven to inspect the new location for M’Lady’s.
“What’s he doing here?” Simplot asked, “I thought he was running our store!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Abela chuckled, “Mann is one of the wealthiest men on Matria Prime. He basically runs M’Lady Incorporated. But he insists on inspecting each store personally,”
“Oh,” Simplot frowned, “What do you mean, ‘basically’?”
“The company still belongs to M’Lady, even though she disappeared about ten years into the Gender Wars,” Abela explained, “He could have had her declared legally dead at this point, but rumour has it she’s stuffed in a stasis tube somewhere,”
“Nobody knows!” Abela said, making creepy ghost fingers.
“Why are you in such a good mood?” Simplot demanded, “I swear, you just tried to be funny. You NEVER try to be funny!”
Abela thought for a moment.
“I guess I really needed a day away from Haven,” she said, “New city, new faces…well, other than you two,”
“I gave you and Craign three days off a few weeks ago! I had to! Or he would have killed me!”
“Everybody needs a break from the little man now and then,” Abela replied. She shot a critical eye in Shurgroe’s direction, “Of course, if you want to bring yours along there’s nothing wrong with that,”
“My…huh?” Simplot frowned.
“Please. All the Matrian staff know you’ve been banging Shurgroe. Why else would you always keep him around?”
Simplots eyes bugged out.
“I most certainly am not!” she snapped, “I mean, I thought about it when we were posted together on the USS Stallion, but Lt. Terenath got to him first, and I refuse to go where s/he’s gone!”
“Sha-he?” Abela asked.
“Dual-gendered species. Tons of fun at parties, bit strange in bed,” Simplot explained.
“And Shurgroe…” Abela frowned, “I see. I apologize. We just assumed that you kept him around as a…diversion.”
“What, like a pretty secretary?”
“Something like that,” Abela shrugged, “Matrian women have been doing that kind of thing for eons,”
“So have human men,” Simplot admitted.
“I keep forgetting how mixed up your culture is,” Abela shook her head.
“I really hope Mr Mann is going to make his speech soon,” Shurgroe sighed. Apparently the ladies had forgotten he was even there.
Wyer and Stoneryder walked slowly down the deserted corridor in Launchpad. The architecture was identical to the shipbuilding areas aboard Haven; steely metal wall panels, well illuminated…fairly basic hallways, come to think of it. Both officers were tapping at their tricorders while the security team scouted ahead and behind.
“Definately getting some DNA samples,” Stoneryder said, “I guess we can nail the perps with that, if nothing else,”
“Don’t be so sure,” Wyer replied, “The Matrians used cloning technology to keep their male population stable during their whole ‘rebuilding’ phase, when the women were in hibernation.”
“I haven’t seen any clones,” Stoneryder frowned.
“They staggered the ages,” Wyer shrugged, “It’s hard to tell two people are clones if one is sixty and the other twenty. They didn’t want dozens of duplicates, just to replace their population as it aged,”
They found an access terminal. Wyer logged in with his Matrian HQ credentials and began accessing the logs.
“Somebody was definitely in here,” he said, “The hatch was opened, the sensor logs show five life-signs in the facility.”
“Here they are,” Stoneryder pointed at the security camera footage, “Hmm. They wore masks. Clever bastards!”
Wyer was watching a group of red dots as they moved around a schematic of the facility.
“They accessed the computers, checked a few cargo bays, then left,” Wyer shook his head, “It looks like whatever they were looking for, they didn’t find it.”
“What were they accessing?”
Wyer tapped away.
“Cargo manifests,” he said, “Transfers to the facility while Haven was under construction,”
“Dude, that was like…a hundred years ago! Who cares?”
“It was over two hundred years ago,” Wyer said, “And that’s a very good question.” He frowned, “They also accessed a list of cargo transfers from Launchpad to Haven itself,”
He logged out.
“That suggests that they believe whatever they are looking for is aboard the city,” he said, “We should return at once.” And get me far away from you, he added silently.
“Oh good,” Stoneryder was checking his chrono, “If I don’t get my protein shake in the next thirty minutes, my entire diet plan for the day is just going to be a disaster!”
“And so it is fitting,” Mr Mann was saying, “That after so many dark years, after the invasion of the Qu’Eh and the darkness of their occupation, that M’Lady is ready to open her doors to a new generation of shoppers!” The glass-paneled revolving doors to the store finally unlocked, allowing eager shoppers to begin pushing their way through.
“Welcome,” Mann said warmly, “Welcome to a new era of tasteful goods for the discerning consumer!”
“I don’t like him,” Abela said as the image of Mr Mann vanished from the screen.
“Oh I don’t know,” Simplot said, “He’s sort of cute. And he tries so hard!”
“You’d think that since we’re his next big opening, he would have given us a VIP pass or something,” Abela grumbled as she contemplated the crowd surging at the store entrance. She imagined that she could feel the floating building tilting at the number of people pushed up against the one side.
“You just need to see an experienced shopper at work,” Simplot said, cocking her elbows, “Follow me,”
And with that, she began pushing her way through the crowd. Abela was aware of a flurry of shoppers, mostly male, along with shouts, pressing bodies and even a few overwhelmed security guards. As suddenly as it began, it ended as she found herself in the revolving door with Simplot and Shurgroe.
“All right, easy part’s over,” Simplot said, “Now, let’s shop!”
“That was the easy part?” Shurgroe wondered.
Wyer, Stoneryder and his team had beamed back to Haven and were riding a tram from the transporter facilities in the Outer Rim towards Downtown. The city did have transporter pads in the high-security levels beneath the Command Tower (aka City Hall), however they had yet to be reactivated to full service. Wyer’s current theory was that Abela liked having the only functional transporters out in the Outer Rim because it gave her a larger measure of control over who came and went from her precious city.
“Wow, I hadn’t noticed how chilly it’s gotten up here,” Stoneryder had his thick arms crossed over his burly chest, “Is it going to be spring soon?”
“I’ve actually been meaning to talk to Abela about that,” Wyer admitted, casting an eye over the frozen, wintery landscape outside the tram. A heavy snowfall in the North Suburb was obscuring the towers in a white haze, something the central computer probably had a hand in, but the rest of the dome was fairly clear.
The tram slid into the Transit Hub and the two officers officers crossed an overhead bridge to the central tower while the Starfleet security personnel headed towards the squad room in the DoPES tower. As they entered the lobby, they came across Major Dekair, Master Shipbuilder for Shipyard Three.
“Good day, Lt. Wyer,” she said politely, “And…whoever you are,”
“Harrison Stoneryder, at your…service,” he said, giving her a wink.
“Yeah,” she turned back to Wyer, “Have you see Shurgroe? I haven’t been able to find him all day!”
“He went down to the planet with Colonel Abela and the Captain,” he said.
“Blast!” Dekair cursed. She turned on Stoneryder, “Well, I’m supposed to take this to the D-DoS, but I guess you’ll do,”
“I’ll do whatever you like, hot cheeks,” Stoneryder grinned.
Dekair sneered, then turned back to Wyer.
“OK, you’ll do,” she said, “We’ve had three unauthorized entries to our storage bays in the past day. I need somebody to do something about it, but I haven’t been able to find any of the command staff!”
Wyer’s eyes narrowed. Stoneryder’s had just locked themselves in the general area of Dekair’s chest and proceeded to go blank.
“We’ll get a team out there,” Wyer promised, “In fact, we were just about to look into some security…concerns…”
“Good,” Dekaire smiled in relief, “Thank you, Wyer. Maybe we can grab a drink later?”
Wyer’s eyes widened.
“Great. All right, back to work for me,”
She left, heading towards the Transit Hub.
“I think she likes me,” Stoneryder said smugly.
“What on Earth is this?” Simplot wondered, holding up a convoluted arrangement of spheres and cones.
“On where?” Abela asked absently, eyeing an ornate tableware rack.
“Earth. The planet I come from,”
“Oh,” she looked over, “Windchime,”
“Huh,” Simplot set the windchime down with considerable chiming, “And this?” She picked up some sort of metal frame with a pair of heavy, knobbed rollers, “Is this for making pasta?”
“No that’s a meat roller,” Abela frowned, “It’s for tenderizing meat. I just…I haven’t seen one of those since before the Gender Wars,”
“And this?” Shurgroe held up a crystal reader of some kind.
“That’s for playing entertainment vids,” Abela’s frown deeped, “But…we haven’t kept videos on crystal format in centuries. Those were obsolete by the time I was a teenager!”
“Sounds like these guys did their homework then,” Simplot shrugged, “Somebody was telling me in Matronus that antiques are all the rage with your people, ever since Haven popped up,”
“Well, you’re right,” Abela agreed, “Having a new space station was a great perk, but it was the intact, untampered computer records aboard the city that were especially valuable. But they didn’t contain this sort of thing!”
While the Matrian women had been in hibernation living in a virtual fantasy world and while the men had been slaving under the influence of mind-control technology in a effort to rebuild their society, the Matrian leader (one Mistress Laurette) had subtly corrupted many of the Matrian computer records, skewing them to her point of view. A point of view that had happened to include enslaving the males of neighbouring races and trying to build an army to conquer their part of the galaxy. Of course, with the amount of mind-control that was going on, there was a widespread belief that most of the other women in hibernation had been influenced by Laurette, a belief that seemed to be borne out by the fact that the conquest spirit had deflated very suddenly after the Reawakening. But while their bid for power was undone quickly, the corruption in the computer records was permanent. Haven’s uncorrupted data had been disseminated, backed up, even copied into special, uncorruptable, read-only data systems.
But nowhere in Haven’s databank had there been detailed design instructions for antique consumer goods.
Abela suddenly gave out a delighted shout of surprise.
“Look! They have tabletop Yorgenball!” she said, pushing her way to the Fun & Games department, sending at least one young child staggering out of the way with an angry ‘Watch it, lady!’
“Oh, I haven’t had one of these since I was a little girl!” Abela grinned, picking up the box and turning it over in her hands, “I wonder where they found the specs, and the game rules?”
“Another wonderful product brought to you by M’Lady,” a passing salesman said helpfully.
“Yeah, whatever. Can you gift wrap this? I’m sure my husband will enjoy it, too,” Abela thrust the box into the salesman’s arms.
“I wonder if I can get some new towels,” Shurgroe wondered, “The ones in my apartment are really scratchy,”
“Sheep,” Mr Mann smirked, standing up in the Manager’s Walkway, looking down at the throng below, “Yes, of couse we offer easy financing. Cash or credit? No problem. As long as it goes from your account to ours,”
“The store is at capacity, sir,” another male, this one slimmer and fairer than even Matrian standards.
“Keep the doors open,” Mann ordered, “We must maintain the rush…the more people believe there is high demand, the more they will buy now instead of later,”
“M’Lady would be proud of your skulduggery, sir,” the flunky replied.
“Hardly,” Mann snorted, “She’d want to know why the auto-gougers only miscalculate the taxes ten percent of the time,”
He stepped over to the espresso bar where another young Matrian male was just putting the finishing touches on his Berry-Blue Latte.
“Any report from our retrieval teams?” he asked.
“Team Four returned from the launch site six hours ago,” flunky two reported, “Nothing found, but they did get the cargo records for Haven. Team Four found six tubes in our vault near J’Taeri, but two were dead due to equipment malfunction. And Team Five is still getting into position,”
“Good,” Mann sipped his beverage, not noticing the dollop of foam that affixed itself to his upper lip. He looked down at the crowd, then examined the footage from a security camera.
“Those three,” he pointed at an image of Abela, Simplot and Shurgroe as they hovered over a store directory, “That’s the commander of Haven and her second in command. I know not the third,”
The three officers appeared to be arguing over something.
“How stupid of you,” Mann grumbled, “Of course, this would have been the perfect chance to keep them away from Haven while our team does their task! We should have invited them here with VIP passes! Personal shoppers! Spa time!”
“Of course, sir,” the flunky gulped, then just stood there.
“Must I do everything, you idiots!” Mann snapped, “Go get them and take them to the Executive Dining Suite! The longer we keep them here, the more time our people have to work!”
“Of course, sir,” the man then rushed off.
Mann frowned at the image of the three officers. They’d finished locating their destination on the directory and proceeded to point in three completely different directions. This led to a round of arguing, more consulting of the directory and three arms pointing in three completely new, equally different directions.
“On the other hand,” Mann muttered, “At the rate they’re going, we probably have plenty of time.”
“Can’t I just go off on my own and meet you two later?” Shurgroe was asking, a high, whining tone in his voice, “I don’t wanna spend the next three hours wandering through the Lady’s Department!”
“Josh, it was hard enough to find the right part of the store to begin with,” Simplot replied, “If I let you go off on your own now, we’ll never find you again!”
“It’s not fair,” Shurgroe grumbled.
“What do you think?” Simplot held up a patterned blouse, “Does it m-“
“Don’t you DARE ask me if I think it makes you look fat!” Shurgroe cut her off with unusual vehemence, “That’s an impossible question!”
“You’d think I was shopping with two men, not one,” Abela shook her head. Her eyes narrowed. It looked like a pair of store employees were coming their way, no doubt to ‘help’ them.
“We’re fine, thanks,” Abela said before either could speak, “Just browsing,”
“Actually,” Simplot was suddenly at her side, “Do you have anything in teal?”
“That shirt would look stupid in teal!” Abela shot back.
Simplot spun to face Abela, fire in her eyes.
“If you two actually needed something from them, it could take a while,” Shurgroe said to the pair, “I’ve only known Abela a few months, but I can tell you we’re about fifeteen seconds from a major screaming match,”
“Oh,” the one employee said, “Are they married?”
“No, they just work together,”
“Of course,” the second stepped smoothly in, “We’ve actually been sent to escort Captain Simplot and Colonel Abela to the Executive Dining Hall,”
Simplot, about to thrust an extended index finger angrily at Abela’s face, turned to the two.
“Executive Dining Suite, you say?” she asked.
“Why?” Abela asked suspiciously.
“Mr. Mann had actually intended to send you VIP packages to this opening,” the first explained, “But there was a…mix-up…at the office,”
“Well, there you go!” Simplot said to Abela. She tossed the blouse back on the shelf, “Lead on!”
“Right this way, madam,”
As Abela and Simplot were escorted away, Shurgroe glanced carefully around, then darted behind a mannequin. Time to go check out the electronics department!
Lieutenant Wyer, having finally gotten the last of the sand out of his shoes, leaned back into one of the comfortable seats in the Command Complex and let out a breath. Something about Stoneryder just seemed to drain the life right out of him. His last past-live incident, during which one of his past-lives threatened to shove a bomb up Stoneryder’s nether-region and detonate it, was actually one of the more polite suggestions his past-lives had offered on the subject.
But that was then. And this was now. And Stoneryder was now on his way to the Outer Rim with Franches and his Jungle Squad, all eager to investigate the strange security breaches that Major Dekaire had reported.
Wyer sat up and began to work, bringing up the centuries- old cargo manifests that whomever had broken into Launchpad had been interested in. So much material had been transferred to Haven in the six months before it was supposed to launch…everything a city, space station and shipyard might need. Metal ingots for ship hulls, consumables, fuel, various parts for ships and for the city itself, seeds and saplings for the parks and gardens, birds and other fauna.
Animals? Wyer frowned. He didn’t know anything about that! And it was his job as D-DoDO to know about everything in the city portion of Haven! Of course, with all the designers but Abela dead and turned to dust, his only source of information had been the computer records, and he hadn’t had time to go back and look at ancient cargo manifests.
Well, two hundred years having passed, whatever feathery or fuzzy residents the Matrians had intended to set loose in the city would likewise be dead and gone to dust by now anyway.
He moved on. What else would mysterious burglars be interested in?
“This is the place,” Lt. Franches said, reading the door label on the heavy cargo door, “Shipyard Three, Level 24, Section Six, Cargo Bay 8,”
“No sign of forceful entry,” one of his troops reported.
“Computer shows only authorized entry codes from Shipyard Three,” another added.
“But Major Dekaire told us flat out that nobody from her yard has been here in the last week,” Stoneryder stroked his chin, “Most interesting. Most interestingly interesting,”
The Jungle Squad stared at him for a moment.
“Can we go in, sir?” Franches finally asked.
“Hmm? Oh Right. Yeah, you guys do whatever it is you do,”
Stoneryder held back, enjoying the view of exposed flesh that the Jungle Squad’s loincloths was giving him. He’d have to offer his comm code to at least three of the female members…and possible one or two of the males as well.
The Jungle Squad quickly swept the cargo bay, coming up with nothing.
“Nothing taken, nothing disturbed,” Franches scratched his head, “But unauthorized entry. Why?”
“Who knows?” Stoneryder shrugged. He turned to one of the junior female members of the team, “So…tell me about yourself. Do you like…uh…books?”
“Wow,” Simplot said.
“Wow,” Abela agreed.
The Executive Dining Suite was situated on the upper level of the M’Lady’s store, situated in such a way that one wall gave a lovely view of the floating city outside while the other wall permitted diners to look down on the throngs of customers below.
Not that there were many diners. The suite itself had six tables, only two of which were occupied. The tables themselves were real wood with soft, linen tablecloths and expensive-looking china. The room itself was patterned in an odd combination of wood and marble, reflecting the Matrian preference for stone surfaces where possible. The intricate chandelier shimmered, small prisms casting miniature rainbows around the room. The two store employees guided the two women to an empty table then left. Immediately, they were approached by an impeccably-dressed waitress.
“Madams,” she said warmly, “Welcome. We have a lovely skiddle-crab pate to start, and Mr. Mann simply insists that you try today’s green wine,”
“Um…of course,” Simplot agreed. With a bow, the waiteress left.
Abela and Simplot sat awkwardly for a moment.
“Hey, were’d Josh go?” Simplot started.
“Forget him,” Abela waved a hand, “I’m sure he can take care of himself,”
“You’re right,” Simplot sighed, “The bigger problem is, how am I going to shop if I’m up here eating pate?”
“Not to worry, we have a personal shopper coming by to bring up a few little something-somethings I just KNOW you’ll love!”
Simplot turned to see Mr Mann approaching their table. Another Matrian, either an assistant or just a random flunky, pulled out a chair so he could join them.
“And you as well of course, Colonel,” he said to Abela.
“How generous of you,” Abela said carefully.
“Think nothing of it,” Mann waved the comment away, “I’m sure our business relationship will be a pleasant one. And I so enjoyed the chance to mock those stuck-up alien dignitaries during the…what was it…Waystation-2 incident?” He looked over at Simplot. “No offense.”
“None taken,” she shrugged, “Those assholes didn’t give us the Waystation title anyway,”
“But we still expect a major increase in traffic from the new station,” Abela added quickly.
“Of course,” Mann shrugged, “We’re considering putting a M’Lady’s on the new Waystation, but of course that will depend on a number of factors,”
He looked at his watch.
“Anyway ladies, I’m sure you understand that I have a great deal to do today, I apologize that your personal invitations never arrived, but please enjoy M’Lady’s hospitality for the rest of the day,”
With that, he withdrew.
Abela was frowning.
“Very…generous…of him,” she said.
“Relax, Abela,” Simplot said, “Business people do this sort of thing all the time,”
“And scientists visit all the time,” Abela replied, “That doesn’t mean they can’t have nefarious motives,”
“Oh, are you still on about that whole dancing thing?” Simplot leaned back as the waiter set a plate of…something…in front of her.
“I almost lost the city,” Abela said, “I’m not going to let anybody, Starfleet OR Matrian, pull a fast one on me again!’
At that moment, their personal shoppers arrived with armfuls of goods for them to examine. Simplot’s jaw dropped.
“I’ll worry about it later,” Abela quickly agreed.
“But will it interface with my home entertainment unit?”
“Sir, I promise you, this playback unit will interface with an eel’s backside!”
Shurgroe rolled his eyes. If one thing didn’t change across the galaxy, it was salesmen. He’d been perusing the entertainment section of the vast M’Lady’s store for nearly two hours now, and so far he hadn’t found anything here that he couldn’t replicate up on the city. The only difference was that the music players, holo- emitters, padds and various other gadgets for sale here were the fancy ‘commercial’ versions, decked out with pretty cases, superfluous features and inch-thick instruction manuals.
Still, he wouldn’t mind having a padd with a built-in holo-camera and video library. What geek would turn that down?
Since the salesman (saleswoman, actually) was still busy with her other customer, Shurgroe started browsing through the video library on the demonstration unit. Odds are, Matrian television was going to be an acquired taste…it always was with alien entertainment. There would be pop-culture references he wouldn’t understand, slang that would go over his head, and characters that he’d have a hard time relating to. Still, that was part of the Starfleet adventure!
He pulled up something called ‘Life with Lari’, finding it to be an amusing, Matrian equivalent to ‘I Love Lucy’, only featuring a pragmatic woman named Ricci and her excitable house-husband Lari. He watched for a few minutes, even chuckling a few times as the universal translator dutifully translated the dialogue. He tried figuring out how to get additional episodes on to the device, but for some reason it just didn’t want to cooperate.
“Can I help you, sir?” the saleswoman had evidently finished with her other customer.
“Er, yes, one of these, please,” he said, setting down the demo-padd and presenting her with the boxed version, “And I was hoping you could tell me how to purchase things from your entertainment library?”
“Sure thing,” the saleswoman replied, “Is your wife around? I can walk you both through it, then she can help you out at home,”
“I’m not married,” he said.
“Really?” the saleswoman shrugged, “You’re cute. Wanna grab dinner later?”
“Uh, no, I have to get back to Haven as soon as my bosses- “
“Oh, you’re with the Simplot/Abela group!” the woman suddenly became far more professional, “Yes, Mr Mann has instructed us to extend to you every courtesy. My name is Cassy. If you’ll come right this way, I’ll demonstrate M’Lady’s Online Media Emporium!”
Shurgroe wasn’t sure what was bugging him more, the fact that a simple entertainment product had defeated his engineer’s talent, or the fact that he’d had to drop a woman’s name just to get somebody to take him seriously.
Stupid, mixed-up planet, he mused.
In relatively short time, Cassy showed him how to get access to the media library and assured him that since Haven was connected to the global network he’d have no difficulties at home.
“‘Life with Lari’ is a classic,” she told him as she finished up, “A bit old-fashioned, but nowhere near as bad as the stuff that was promoted as ‘proper Matrian values’ during the Hibernation,”
“When was the show made?” Shurgroe frowned.
“Oh, sometime back before the Gender Wars. We figured it had been lost in the data purges, but M’Lady’s managed to dig it up, along with all sorts of old Matrian media! It’s really very thrilling…and you won’t be able to find this sort of thing from any other store, I promise you that!”
Thanking Cassy (and turning down her repeated invitation for a date), Shurgroe took his new purchase and started looking around for Abela and Simplot.
Something was bugging him. Abela had spotted it right away, but she’d lived in Old Matrian culture. He was an alien. Still, he knew perfectly well just how much data had been lost or ‘corrupted’ by the anti-male, pro-galactic-domination regime. And a show like the one he’d just been watching, showing a woman in a dominant but still respectful relationship with a man, would NOT have survived those purges. And it wasn’t in Haven’s computers, either. Oh, there may have been mention of it, but entertainment programs just hadn’t been a part of the vital data collection stored in the hidden city.
So, like the wind-chimes and the antiquated crystal reader, where was M’Lady’s finding all this stuff?
Maybe looking for Simplot and Abela wasn’t quite the thing to do yet. Maybe it was time for Shurgroe to be a good Starfleet officer and do a little…snooping.
Taking a nervous swallow, he started heading back to a door he’d passed earlier…the one labelled ‘Employees Only’.
“-swear to the Goddess, if you EVER touch me like that again, I’ll claw your eyes out!”
“OK, OK!” Stoneryder backpedalled, holding his hands up in a show of surrender, “Sorry! Maybe if you didn’t dress so provocatively-“
“Wyer to D-DoPES,”
“Oops, sorry babe, work time,” Stoneryder flashed a winning smile at the shipbuilder he’d managed to so thoroughly offend then tapped his comm-badge, “Stoneryder here. And who the hell are you calling ‘dopes’? The security team resents that!”
A brief pause.
“Department of Police and External Sec…just shut up and listen to me!” Wyer’s calm voice snapped halfway through the explanation, “Are you done investigating the cargo bay?”
“Oh that? We finished an hour ago. Nothing was taken,”
“Who did it?”
“No clue. Stoneryder out,”
He turned back, only to find that his original target was gone. Hmm. There was a replicator center just down the corridor, no doubt another nubile young Matrian would be supervision that part of the shipbuilding operation. And there would probably be a conveniently private storage closet nearby…
“Wyer to D-DoPES,”
“Let’s go, daddy-o,” Stoneryder replied.
“Are you still INVESTIGATING who broke into the bay?” Wyer demanded.
“Uh, no,” Stoneryder said, just a hind of ‘D’UH’ in his voice, “The DNA trace matched whoever was poking around in Launchpad, but we matched it to one of the Matrian clone lines. There’s about two hundred suspects down on the planet. And none on Haven,”
“And you don’t think that MAYBE you should have told the Command Center about that!?”
“It was going in my report,” Stoneryder said defensively.
“Your reports are always two weeks late!”
“Take a chill-pill, man,” Stoneryder replied, “They didn’t take nothing,”
“Find them, or Colonel Abela will have to come back early from the planet to supervise the investigation,”
“Not cool, bro!”
“That’s not coming from me, that’s coming from Major Jakerd. Y’know…the ranking Matrian still on the station?”
“You tell that whiney little…” Stoneryder bit his lip, “OK, fine. I’m investigating. Consider me investigating! Now leave me alone!”
The comm went dead.
“Now where the heck did Franches go?” he wondered.
Shurgroe walked casually down the corridor that led through the employee-only section of the store. He’d snagged one of the tasteful blazers that all the employees seemed to be wearing (apparently, Wal-Mart style vests were not acceptable at M’Lady’s) and did his best to look like he belonged there. Of course, he’d had to snag a hat to hide the patterns shaved into his head, and he’d quickly rubbed the body-paint sigils off the backs of his hands.
Where the heck were Starfleet Intelligence officers when you needed them, he mentally cursed. He was an engineer…a thoroughly medicated engineer! This sort of subterfuge wasn’t even his thing!
And he hadn’t found anything so far anyway. Storage rooms full of merchandise were kept in the lower levels of the building, underneath the store itself and below the building’s water-line. There was a cargo transporter, a large underwater cargo docking port, even direct access to the underwater subway. But nothing suspicious. At the very least, he’d expected to find banks of replicators churning out ‘genuine, non-replicated’ merchandise, but if M’Lady’s were going to the bother of delivering all this stuff to the store, it must be because it actually wasn’t replicated.
“Score one for truth in advertising,” Shurgroe admitted.
He turned around another corner, only to find himself facing four Matrian women and a large pair of double-doors.
“You,” one of the Matrians pointed at him, “Here, we have to bring some stuff up from the cavern. We need somebody to handle the paperwork while we do the heavy lifting,”
“Uh…yes ma’am,” Shurgroe gulped, trying to look nervous and slightly meek. (He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.)
“Come on,” the woman said impatiently as the doors opened, revealing a large, glass-walled elevator.
The doors closed and to Shurgroe’s surprise the elevator dropped down at high speed, emerging into a transparent shaft that extended from the bottom of the floating building down to the lakebed below. The engineer part of his brain noted that even with whatever system kept the city floating in one place, the shaft must have a great deal of flex to it in order to compensate for drift and tidal forces.
Within seconds the elevator plunged underground, passing first mud and sediment then solid bedrock. After another moment it emerged into a vast cavern.
Shurgroe had read about the underground caverns that had been excavated under almost every Matrian city during the Gender Wars, but this was the first time he’d visited one. The Matrians had originally used them as secure bunkers for the city populations during the more violent stages of the war, then the females had used them to hold their suspended animation equipment during the Hibernation. But other than occasional use by the Matrian Rebellion during the Qu’Eh occupation, the caverns had been empty.
This one looked pretty empty too, until the elevator shaft snaked through a solid rock wall and into a smaller side cavern. Here, Shurgroe could see a small but neat factory laid out beneath him. There was no way every product shown in the M’Lady’s store was built here, but it looks like some of it was.
In fact, Shurgroe realized, if every store had a similar facility, dedicated to one or two departments, it would be easy for them to share enough inventory to supply themselves.
Shurgroe was so busy being pleased with himself, he didn’t bother to ask himself WHY M’Lady’s would want to do all their manufacturing underground.
In the Haven Command Center, Major Dekaire was giving Wyer a shoulder rub.
“You really don’t have to do that,” he said again.
“Wyer, your whole staff is terrified that one more comm call from Stoneryder is all it’ll take to send you over the deep end,” Dekaire said dryly, “Besides, this seems to be the only way we get to spend any time together these days,”
“Now you get back to work, so I can keep working,” she smiled as she worked a particularly stubborn knot. Wyer’s eyes rolled in that weird combination of pain and pleasure that’s always part of a good massage, then went back to the cargo records.
“OK,” he said to himself, “The only stuff we keep in that cargo bay is related to the Silverado reconstruction work. In fact, that bay is holding the ship’s replicator control systems until they can be fed to the matter reclamation unit and newer control systems replicated,”
“Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing spies or terrorists would be interested in,” Dekaire commented.
“Oh, terrorists love replicators,” Wyer said, “Much easier to get rare supplies, unless there’s a reporting system that alerts the authorities that you’re asking for items that could form an explosive,”
Dekaire’s hands paused in their massage.
“Uh…past-life,” he said quietly, “Not me,”
He resumed tapping away at the panel.
“And before that, it held…um…birds,”
“Songbirds,” Wyer explained, “Waterfowl. Even a few scavengers and predators. I guess they were supposed to be part of the dome ecosystem when the city launched. Wow, I bet that bay sure stank from two hundred-year-old dead birds,”
“It didn’t,” Dekaire said, her hands pausing again in their massage, “In fact, I remember having a number of crates moved out of that bay, but they were sealed!”
“Well, wherever you put them, we’ll have to clean the bodies out sooner or later,”
“No, Wyer, you don’t get it,” Dekaire said, “You wouldn’t put live animals in sealed containers! They’d suffocate!”
“They whatever was in there was in stasis? Great. That means that sooner or later, Abela’s going to start bugging me to let the birds out and try to balance fauna on top of playing with the dome weather and getting the flora sorted out,” Wyer rubbed his eyes, “I do so look forward to that day,”
He took a deep breath.
“And why the heck would people be breaking into docking bays looking for two hundred year old preserved birds??”
“Holiday meal?” Dekaire shrugged.
“No,” Wyer said slowly. He was missing something…something was nagging at his brain. But what was it??
“Well, this is it,” Franches shrugged. Dekaire had commed him and filled him in on the potential poultry problem, saving Wyer the hassle of dealing with Stoneryder. The two of them had taken a tram to a cargo bay in the Outer Rim, near Docking Bay 10. The bay was much larger than the one near the shipyard, and held a variety of cargo containers that various people had wanted to get out of the way but didn’t know what to do with. Racks filled with containers filled the massive space, along with several anti-gravity lifters that allowed access to the higher racks.
Stoneryder was tapping at the door panel.
“Yup, somebody was here less than three hours ago,” he said, “This time using an access code for Shipyard One. But the inventory sensors say nothing’s missing,”
“We better check,” Franches said. He quickly deployed his team, armed with padds and manifests, down the various rows.
“Wow, there sure are a lot of stasis tubes down here,” Stoneryder remarked, peering through an access panel in the side of one crate, “Is that a squirrel?”
“Why would burglars be after frozen squirrels?” Franches asked.
“Well, if the squirrel is still here, they probably wouldn’t be,”
It took less than fifeteen minutes to determine that nothing had been taken from the bay.
“Well, I guess that’s that,” Stoneryder shrugged, “Shall we get dinner?”
Franches shook his head.
“Give me your Starfleet tricorder. I want to follow this DNA trail,”
“But what if it leads to a turbolift? Or a tram?” Stoneryder asked.
“Then we’ll check the computer records! The city is empty, how many turbolifts do you think came out here!?” Franches declared loudly.
“OK, OK, chill, man,”
Shurgroe clutched the padd he’d been given and dutifully noted the inventory items as they were called out.
“One case Bommo-style book-ends,” declared one of the loaders.
“Check,” Shurgroe replied.
“Six boxes of Citrus-Fresh Scented Candles,”
“Uhh…yup. Got ‘em,” Shurgroe said.
The loaders kept going on, but Shurgroe noticed somebody out of the corner of his eye. A quick glance told him it was Mr Mann, just stepping out of the elevator.
Turning away to avoid being recognized and trying to keep up with the loaders, Shurgroe strained to hear what he was saying.
“-opened up the last of our storage rooms here, sir,” somebody was telling Mann, “It’s just as the manifest said! Two dozen employees, another data center and two hundred cases of stored goods,”
“Just like our other sites,” Mann sighed. He seemed…disappointed, somehow. “But no sign of…”
“No, sir. I’m sorry,” the other voice said.
“We still have four more store openings in the next half- year,” Mann said, seemingly half to himself, “And our off-world team should be finished by the end of the day,”
“Hey, pretty-boy! Did you get the twelve pairs of winter boots?”
Shurgoe snapped back to the women loading the palette.
“Y-yeah…sorry,” he said.
The woman looked at him closely.
“Wait a minute…you’re not Joasha,” she said, pointing at the name tag on Shurgroe’s blazer.
“Uh-oh,” Shurgroe muttered.
“Well, if we’d known to scan here in the first place, we could have saved ourselves a LOT of time running around,” Stoneryder observed as he followed Franches along a tram platform in the Transit Hub.
“Then maybe we should add ‘scan Transit Hub’ to our standard operating procedures,” Franches pointed out.
“Good idea. Have one of your guys do that,” Stoneryder nodded, pleased. He’d not only come up with a good idea, he’d managed to deflect any possible work in implementing it onto somebody else.
The DNA trail they’d been following had led directly from the cargo bay to a turbolift, from there they’d traced the turbolift down several levels to a nearby tram station. Finally, in comparing the age of the trail with the tram records, they’d managed to trace the path of the burglar to the Transit Hub.
Unfortunately, the trail was getting older faster than they could catch up. Whoever the bad-guy was, he was still over an hour ahead of them.
“Stoneryder to Wyer,” Stoneryder tapped his badge.
The channel opened, then there was the sound of somebody taking a deep breath.
“Wyer here. Do go ahead,”
“Can’t you…like…scan for Matrian lifesigns so we can track this guy down a bit quicker?” Stoneryder asked.
“I have in fact been scanning the city,” Wyer replied, “However, with the new merchants moving in and the activity in the two shipyards, there are more life-signs to filter through.” Wyer’s voice trailed off.
“Unauthorized access in the high-security zone!” he snapped, “Somebody tried forging an access code, but it set off the alarm! Get down there! Fast! I’ll see if I can pull up the security footage!”
“Jungle Squad, converge on high security zone!” Franches snapped into his comm-badge.
“Uh…where, dude?” Stoneryder asked.
“BENEATH THE CENTRAL ISLAND!” Wyer shouted.
“WTF, man!?” Stoneryder yelled back, “Do you know how big a space that is? Where are these totally un-cool bros?”
“They entered via the lower levels of the DoPES tower,” Wyer reported, “They’re using some kind of life-sign jammer! I’m going through the security feeds, trying to track them down!”
“On it!” Stoneryder and Franches bolted for the corridor that would take them around the Hub to the DoPES lobby.
“We need a bigger security force for this place,” Stoneryder pointed out.
Shurgroe was beyond nervous. Once they’d realized he wasn’t an actual employee he’d been hauled off to a small, stone room just off the factory. The two burly women had locked the door and left, leaving him to stew.
What were they going to do to him? He’d stumbled onto their evil plan! Would they wipe his memory? Would they torture him until he was convinced he hadn’t seen a thing?
Or would they just kill him
“Ohhh…this is why I hate shopping!” Shurgroe groaned.
Several hundred meters above, Abela and Simplot had moved from the Executive Dining Suite into a private showing room where a pair of robotic models with their exact body shapes and measurements were showing off the garments they’d selected.
“That one DEFINATELY makes my butt look fat,” Simplot pouted. “I was so sure it’d look cute on me,”
“You are SUCH a man,” Abela shook her head. She was observing the other robot model, “Do you think I look more muscular with the rings on the sleeves, or without?”
“Ugh, no woman wants to look muscular,” Simplot shook her head.
“No woman wants to look like a half-starved, skinny twig!” Abela shot back.
“I have this nagging sense we’re forgetting something,” Simplot frowned.
“Shurgroe. Forget him, he can take care of himself,”
“Yeah…yeah, I guess,”
“They’ve accessed a storage closet!” Wyer snapped, “Five levels below you, Sector 2!”
“A storage closet??” Stoneryder groaned over the comm, “You KNOW there’s no possible way we can get there before they take all the window cleaner!”
“Shut up!” Wyer replied. He frowned at the screen.
“I have them on the security feed,” he said, “They’re…whoa…”
He gaped at the screen, trying to understand what he was seeing. Two masked figures had gone into an ordinary door labelled on the internal schematics as a storage closet. Within seconds, they’d emerged with a tall, cylindrical object affixed to a pair of small anti-grav units. It almost looked like a…like a…
“That’s it,” he said softly. Suddenly, everything fit together. The raid on Launchpad’s cargo manifests, the break-ins aboard Haven that followed the path of seemingly irrelevant animals, then the sudden trip to the high-security area in the core of the city.
“What?” Major Dekaire demanded.
“They’re not after the animals in stasis,” he told her, “I should have realized sooner!”
“That animals aren’t the only things you can shove in a stasis tube,” he replied, “Did you read the reports on the city’s discovery?”
“Remember what that first Starfleet crew found in a bio-lab in the Department of Research & Knowledge tower?”
“They found…” Dekaire’s eyes widened, “They found Abela’s husband and a bunch of other Matrians in stasis tubes!”
“But those tubes weren’t part of that lab,” Wyer finished, “And what they didn’t find was where they’d come from,”
“Stoneryder,” he said over the comm, “Head’s up, this isn’t a burglary anymore,”
“It’s a kidnapping!”
“Kidnapping?” Stoneryder turned to Franches, who was far more concerned with rushing to the scene of the crime, “Who they heck would they kidnap down here?”
They skidded to a stop in front of the storage room door, then hit the ‘open’ button.
“Holy crap!” Stoneryder breathed.
Apparently, to some sneaky Old Matrian a few hundred years back, ‘Storage Room’ was synonymous with ‘Cargo Bay’. Either that, or the Old Matrians had needed a lot of space for their cleaning supplies.
The room was big, three levels high and large enough to hold over a hundred stasis tubes, each one containing the frozen body of a Matrian adult. One slot halfway down the center row was empty, a circular patch of floor free of dust showing where a tube had been removed.
Stoneryder was still gaping when Franches grabbed him by the arm.
“Maybe we should try to catch them?” he snapped.
Wyer was still flipping through security feeds.
“They’re almost at one of the secure transporter rooms,” he snapped, “Can you guys…uh…MOVE IT!”
“Why don’t you raise the shields or something?” Stoneryder suggested.
“Ass,” Stoneryder muttered over the open channel.
“Shields up!” Wyer ordered.
At the tactical pulpit, one of Stoneryder’s ensigns tapped at his panel.
“Sir, the shield generators have been drained! It’ll take a couple of minutes to recharge!”
“How the heck did that happen?” Dekaire demanded.
“Um…um…there’s an entry in the automated maintenance log. Somebody from Shipyard Four initiated a generator shutdown for maintenance!”
“Shipyard Four is shut down!” Dekaire snapped, “There’s nobody assigned there, nobody should have Shipyard Four access codes!”
“I think we can safely say our security system has been compromised,” Wyer sighed.
“We’re almost at the transporter room!” Franches reported over the comm.
“Use the city’s interference field!” Dekaire snapped.
“If we use that while they’re using a transporter, the kidnappers AND the victim…well…I was with the clean-up crew after the dancing scientists tried that,” Wyer went a little pale at the memory, “I don’t wish that fate on my worst enemy,”
Stoneryder and Franches raced around a corner and up to a pair of doors labelled ‘Transporter Room 4’ in Matrian, the rest of the Jungle Squad right behind them. The high-security transporters had never been brought online, but there was nothing actually wrong with them. Best guess was that Abela didn’t want people coming and going through the secure levels.
In any event, from the growing hum they could hear through the doors, somebody was powering this one up. The doors, unfortunately, were locked.
“Make way!” Stoneryder shouted, aiming his phaser at the doors and pumping up the juice. He fired, the brilliant beam vaporizing the door and continuing into the room. There was a shower of sparks, then the lights started flickering.
They ran in, just in time to see the fading shimmer of a successful transport fading from the transporter stage. The wall of equipment across from the door sparked again, a big black hole showing where Stoneryder’s blast had hit.
There was a second explosion, this one from the transporter console.
Franches looked around at the devastated transporter room, finishing with the transporter pads from which the kidnappers had made a clean getaway. With the console destroyed, there was no way to trace the beam.
“Colonel Abela,” he said to Stoneryder, “Is going to KILL you,”
Shurgroe was twiddling his thumbs when the door opened, revealing Mr. Mann.
“I r-r-resent being held against my will!” he said, trying to sound defiant.
“You mean, you don’t like being legally detained after entering a dangerous workplace without authorization or proper protective equipment?” Mann said mildly.
“Oh…well…when you put it that way…”
“Mr. Shurgroe,” Mann stepped in, the two flunkies flanking him following, “Perhaps you can explain to me just what you’re doing down here?”
“Y-y-you’re up to something sinister!” Shurgroe accused, “You’re plotting something evil and it’s my job as a S-S-Starfleet officer to figure out what it is?”
Mann crossed his arms.
“You think a factory that makes scented candles and body lotion is sinister?” he asked.
“It could be sinister body lotion,” Shurgroe muttered quietly.
Mann spent a few moment laughing, then wiped tears from his eyes.
“Then I suppose this is the part where I kill you?” he said, suddenly serious.
“I’m kidding,” Mann said, a small smile on his face.
There was a beep, then one of Mann’s aides pulled out a comm device, listened, then replaced it. He whispered something in Mann’s ear.
“Excellent,” Mann whispered, unable to contain a grin, “Have them meet me at once!”
He turned on a heel and started to leave the room.
“What about me?” Shurgroe asked, his voice pitched about half an octave higher than normal.
“Hmm?” Mann looked back at Shurgroe, almost as though he’d totally forgotten the engineer was there, “Oh, right. I know exactly what to do with you,”
He gave a sinister smile.
Shurgroe gulped again.
“Is this one yours?”
Simplot turned to see a burly Matrian women haul Shurgroe into the room by one arm.
“Well, he’s not MINE, per se,” Simplot said, “But he does work for me,”
“All right,” the woman removed a pair of cuffs from Shurgroe’s wrists, then placed a padd on the tab le in front of Simplot.
“I’ll need all three of you to sign this non-disclosure agreement,” she said, “Then Mr. Mann requests that you kindly leave the building. You are welcome back in the future, of course, but today is no longer a good day,”
“Wha?” Abela wondered.
Simplot was reading the padd.
“We have to agree not to disclose to anybody M’Lady Inc’s manufacturing and R&D processes?” she asked, “Why the heck would we know anything about any of those?”
Shurgroe bit his lip.
“I went…snooping…” he said.
“Oh, for pete’s sake!’ Simplot groaned. She signed her name, then passed the padd to Abela who, after a quick read, added her own signature.
“Let’s go,” she said, gathering all the items she’d planned to buy, “I guess if Mann wants us out of here that quickly, we don’t have time to stop by the cashier’s counter to actually pay for any of it,”
The aide scowled, but said nothing as Simplot led Abela and Shurgroe towards the exit.
“…and they were building a bunch of stuff right under the store,” Shurgoe went on, “And he was talking about data centers, and finding employees, and product distribution,”
They’d returned to Haven and were in the Principle Observatory and Conference Room. Their purchases were piled on the table, forcing the gathered senior officers to crane their necks in order to see each other.
“I think it’s fairly obvious,” Abela shrugged, “At some point, probably early in the war, M’Lady’s established a bunch of ‘time capsules’ in different cities around the planet. They probably packed them with everything they’d need to rebuild their company in case the worse happened,”
“Which it did,” Simplot mused.
“Clever of them,” Abela continued, “But not exactly sinister,”
“But what about the break-ins here!” Wyer put in, “You can’t tell me that was just a coincidence,”
“It couldn’t have been,” Shurgroe said, “Somebody called Mr Mann right before they let me go. I couldn’t hear what it was about, but it was definitely good news, for him,”
“I have a hunch on that,” Simplot said from the head of the table.
“And?” Abela prompted.
“And if I’m right, we’ll know about it soon enough,” she said, “In the meantime, we need to do some work on locking down our security,”
She looked pointedly at Stoneryder.
“It’s a Matrian system, I’m not sure how they hacked us, and please don’t have me beaten again,” he said quickly.
“I would prefer it if he were beaten,” Wyer said immediately.
“Me too,” Abela added.
“No beatings!” Simplot said firmly, “But your gym access is cut off until the security system is fixed!”
Stoneryde’s eyes widened in panic.
“Can we reconsider the beatings?” he asked.
“WHO WAS KIDNAPPED??” Annerson demanded. She’d been quiet up to that point, but evidently the suspense was getting to her.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Simplot asked, “The only real mystery is what the heck that pod was doing up here to begin with,”
“Yes…yes that’s correct. She has been retrieved. No ma’am, we don’t know how they got access to the city, or how they knew that the pod had been moved here. Yes ma’am, the Starfleet and Matrian Defence Force crew here on the city made an effort to stop them. Understood.”
Colonel Craigan of Matrian Intelligence turned away from the communications terminal and back to his junior partner.
“We’re not supposed to do anything,” he said, “They broke into the city right under our noses, and apparently there’s nothing we can do about it now. Especially now that the MDF and Starfleet know about the stasis pods. “
“But…I thought the pod they took was here precisely because Intelligence didn’t want Mann and his cronies getting a hold of it!” his subordinate objected.
“Correct,” Craigan nodded, “But if we start any kind of obvious action against him, all Mann has to do is ask what that pod was doing up here instead of in one of his company vaults.”
“Exactly,” Craigan said glumly, “So for now, we can’t touch him.”
Down in the cavern under Wetria, Mann was tingling with excitement as a pair of employees brought in the stasis tube stolen from Haven.
“Nearly three years,” he said quietly, “Three years, we’ve been searching…the public stasis caverns, the private company time-vaults…if Starfleet hadn’t found Haven, Goddess knows how many more years we would have spend waiting.
Another employee quickly squirted M’Lady-brand surface cleaner against the tube window, then wiped away the layer of dust.
Mann peered into the tube. Lying back was an older Matrian woman, her silvery hair piled atop her head, her mouth a grim line, even in sleep.
“M’Lady,” Mann breathed.