Author: Alan Decker
STAR TRAKS: WAYSTATION
By Alan Decker
“Beck to Lazlo.”
Colonel Martin Lazlo looked up from the sector tactical reports he’d been reading on the desktop console in his office. “Go ahead,” he said.
“Porter is picking up subspace fluctuations from the early warning buoys. We may have incoming.”
“Go to red alert. I’m on my way.” He hopped up from his desk and quickly covered the distance across the office to the door leading out into Waystation’s Operations Center.
This was not where he’d thought he would end up. Not that Lazlo hadn’t dreamed of the possibility. He’d even taken steps to make it happen on a couple of occasions, but in the end he’d faced the reality that command of Waystation would remain firmly in the hands of Starfleet. That was what had prompted him to leave in the first place, relocating his battalion of Federation Marines to the spatial anomaly that had been dubbed the “Space Lodge” by the Waystation officers that discovered it.
Normally Lazlo would not have been too keen on housing his marines inside an alien structure, but the Space Lodge was too good to pass up. The facility could easily house his entire platoon; the docking bay was large enough for their transport ship, the USS Mongoose, and maybe even a couple of other support craft if needed; and, best of all, the Space Lodge could be reshaped by thought…at least to a degree. The previous residents, a group of Induskerans who were using the Space Lodge for a decades-long party, had created a swimming pool, gymnasium, sauna, and rooms decorated in all kinds of outlandish ways.
Lazlo put a stop to that as soon as he and his marines arrived. No one was to think about a decor change except him. He very quickly refashioned the wooden walls, marble trim and the like into proper marine grey corridors with standard rooms and furniture straight out of a Corps manual. And for a time, everything was perfect. He shut down any and all outside contact, refusing every request for leave to Waystation. He wanted his platoon to really settle in, establish their routines, and mold themselves back into the proper fighting force they should have been before the luxuries of life on Waystation made them all soft.
Captain Lisa Beck had never gotten it. She bought into the idea that she was running a civilian outpost rather than a military station that happened to have some civilian residents. She was more like a mayor than a commanding officer. So far she had been lucky and able to deal with the minor threats the station had faced. Her luck was bound to run out, though. Lazlo was certain of it. When it did, he and his marines would be ready, and Beck would finally understand the realities of the universe.
Lazlo was proven right far sooner than he expected. Barely three months into the marines deployment to the Space Lodge, they received a priority comm in the command center that Lazlo had created, replacing what had formerly been some kind of game room. Waystation had been attacked, seemingly from out of nowhere, by a heretofore unknown species. They didn’t talk. They didn’t make demands. They only seemed interested in conquest. As it was, Starfleet Security was barely able to repel the invaders. Starfleet Command and the Federation Council immediately panicked. Who were they? Where did they come from? What if they came back in greater numbers? What if they attacked a colony world?
No one was saying it, but it was obvious that this was a bit out of Starfleet’s league. The situation required more of a militaristic footing, and the ones best suited to provide that were the Federation Marines.
Waystation was in danger.
The marines were needed.
That was ten months ago. Lazlo wasn’t completely thrilled about it at first, even though he relished the thought of giving Beck a bit of “I told you so.” He expected her to resent his return, but, if anything, she seemed relieved. The marines quickly settled back into their old home. They had to, since another attack came within days of their arrival. Ops didn’t even have time to get the shields up before the alien vessel was inside the perimeter. In moments, the station was being boarded. That’s when Lazlo and his troops got their first look at the enemy. They were big, pushing eight feet tall, with six-legged arachnid bodies covered in a black metallic carapace. Their spindly legs ended in sharp points capable of propelling them through the corridors at frightening speeds and impaling those unfortunate enough to get too close with ease. Rising up from the front was a more humanoid torso; although, it too and the head were coated in the same metallic black. Each creature carried a staff that crackled with energy and was capable of firing a bolt of energy or being used as a melee weapon. The beings seemed to crave the more close-quarters combat where their staffs could both cudgel and discharge devastating zaps of power into their victims on contact.
Lazlo and his marines had their hands full in the first battle, but their heavier weapons were able to deliver a stronger punch than the hand phasers favored by Starfleet Security. This latest attack repelled, Lazlo sprang into action, ordering Dr. Diantha, Waystation’s Avian Chief Medical Officer, to do a complete study of the fallen creatures and Lieutenant Commander Craig Porter, Waystation’s Science and Operations Officer, and Lieutenant Commander Sean Russell, Waystation’s Chief of Security and Tactical Officer, to pore over the scans of the alien ship for any information they could glean.
Under normal circumstances, Lazlo would have expected Captain Beck to bristle at the idea of him giving orders to her people, but even she realized that they were more in Lazlo’s world than hers. As the attacks continued, he and Beck fell into a new working relationship where she and her crew dealt with the day-to-day business of running the station, leaving Lazlo and his marines to deal with tactical matters.
More starships arrived to patrol the nearby sectors, using Waystation as their base of operations. The marines responded to distress calls from the nearby colonies and even the Multeks, but they were no closer to learning the origin of their foe, what they wanted, or how they were able to appear almost at will.
Five months into the crisis, it was obvious that they were at war, and that’s when the Federation made the wisest decision they could under the circumstances.
They put Lazlo in command of Waystation with Captain Beck serving as his First Officer. Honestly Lazlo would have preferred to have a marine as his second-in-command, but he had to admit that Beck was more than capable of handling the station. In the end, she was and always would be Starfleet, but he could work with her. Until the situation with the Scutters, as the attackers had been dubbed, was over, though, she understood that the Federation Marines were the ones running the show.
“Shields are up and all weapon systems are online,” Sergeant Theresa Sheppard reported from the tactical console as Lazlo stepped out into Ops.
“There go the buoys near Edgeworld,” Lieutenant Commander Craig Porter said, eyes locked on his scopes. Lazlo joined Captain Lisa Beck in the command area where she was watching the tactical situation unfold on the Ops viewscreen.
“Unless they’re planning to veer off and go after the Casinoworld construction site, we’re going to have company soon,” Beck said.
“It’s us they want. They know we’re the key to the whole region,” Lazlo said.
“Lieutenant Colonel Anerasiss reports ready, sir,” Sheppard said.
“Distribute arms, Beck,” Lazlo ordered. “Porter, anything in the minefield?” Faced with a nearly-invisible enemy, Lazlo had taken a cue from the Dominion War and recently established a cloaked, self-replicating minefield on the primary approach vector that the Scutters seemed to favor. He knew that it would probably only work once before they started going around it and that he couldn’t mine the entire region without crippling traffic in and out of Waystation, but the Scutters were going to be in for one hell of a surprise this time.
“Not yet,” Porter said as Beck headed to the Ops weapons locker and grabbed a handful of heavy phaser rifles. “The mines are…detonation! Several of them. I’m reading debris. Possibly two or three ships worth.”
Lazlo grinned. “That ought to soften them up a bit.”
“Or piss them off,” Porter said.
“Even better. Anger leads to mistakes,” Lazlo replied, smoothing his mustache. “Phasers, Sheppard. Broad sweeps.”
“Aye, sir,” Sheppard said as she activated the station’s massive phaser arrays. Seconds later, Ops shuddered.
“They’re heeeeeere,” Porter said.
A massive jolt rocked Ops, throwing everyone to the deck.
“Okay. OWWW!” Porter said, pulling himself back to his feet.
“What the hell was that?” Lazlo demanded.
“Unknown, sir,” Sheppard said. “But we’ve lost shield generators thirty-eight and thirty-nine.”
“Crews are responding,” Porter added quickly.
“Activate the transport inhibitors. Lazlo to Anerasiss. Prepare to be boarded!”
One of the lessons of the early attacks was that the Scutters preferred to beam aboard, but, if denied that option, they would just slam their ships through the hull and come in that way. To combat this, Lazlo had opted for a corralling strategy. If they Scutters were going to come in one way or another, he would prefer to control where they got in. As such, the lower saucer, where the crew and civilian population lived, and large portions of the upper saucer had been blanketed in transport inhibitors. There were, however, gaps in the coverage that had been designed to look like oversights but were really there to lure the Scutters into an ambush.
Lieutenant Colonel Anerasiss, Lazlo’s Caitian second- in-command, currently waited with a contingent of marines in one of these locations, the decks formerly occupied by Dillon Enterprises and Federation President Bradley Dillon. Several months earlier, when it became apparent that the Scutter threat was not going away any time soon, President Dillon had packed up both his political and business operations and relocated to Earth. Lazlo didn’t exactly mind. Worrying about the safety of the Federation President was one more headache that he didn’t need. Plus the empty space was ideal for dealing with the Scutters.
Hearing the announcement from Lazlo, Anerasiss tapped her comm. “All teams, final weapons check. Hostiles imminent. Repeat, hostiles are imminent.”
“I don’t suppose I could go out and try actually engaging their ships this time?” Lieutenant Stephanie Hodges asked from beside Anerasiss.
“We need your arm,” Anerasiss replied.
“Coach Jenkins would be so proud,” Hodges muttered, pulling a round adhesion grenade out of the pouch hanging on her side. She’d gone from pitching strikeouts in high school softball to pitching explosives.
“Here we go!” Anerasiss shouted as the area in front of them, formerly the Dillon Enterprises reception lobby, filled with the white swirls of the Scutters’ transporter beams. Fifteen Scutters, energy staffs in hand, materialized and immediately realized they were encircled by the marines. Hisses of rage filled the room but were quickly drowned out by a cacophony of phaser whines.
Hodges lobbed an adhesion grenade, a Craig Porter invention based on one of Colonel Lazlo’s ideas, into the pack of invaders, landing it right on the back carapace of one of the Scutters. An instant later, it exploded, covering its comrades in greenish goop and gore. The remaining Scutters charged, closing the gaps between them and the marines in seconds as they attempted to get into melee range where the marines’ phaser rifles were far less effective.
“Fall back!” Anerasiss shouted. “Phase two!”
The marines split up into prearranged pairs, each darting off down a different corridor from the lobby and firing their phasers behind them as they went.
“Bring the phasers sweeps in closer,” Lazlo ordered.
“You’re going to hit the station!” Captain Beck protested.
“I’ll take a little light damage if it means getting a fix on those ships,” Lazlo shot back. “Sheppard!”
“Firing,” Sheppard replied.
Again, the station shook as phaser beams continuously raked across the hull.
“Got them!” Porter said.
“Confirmed. Four ships detected,” Sheppard said. “Locking phasers and torpedoes.”
“Let them have it.”
Beck wasn’t pleased by this last order. “If you destroy them that close to the station…”
“…then they’ll be gone, and Porter’s repair crews can work in peace,” Lazlo snapped, cutting her off.
“Firing,” Sheppard said again. A moment later, Waystation shuddered, lights and consoles flickered throughout Ops. “All contacts destroyed.”
“Lazlo to Anerasiss. The hostiles won’t be getting any reinforcements. Close the trap.”
“Acknowledged,” Anerasiss’ voice replied over the comm.
Down in the corridors of the former Dillon Enterprises complex, Anerasiss halted her retreat. “Anerasiss to all teams. Close the trap. Repeat, close the trap.” She called to her companion. “Kintasa, cover me!” Lieutenant Kintasa, spun around and dropped to his knee, leveling his rifle at the two Scutters heading their way and opening fire as Anerasiss dodged to the side of the corridor.
The Caitian charged the Scutters, leaping into the air as she reached the leader, and bounced gracefully off the corridor wall, avoiding a swipe of the Scutter’s energy staff as she did so. Anerasiss landed on the first Scutter’s back and aimed her rifle at the one directly behind. She fired a full power phaser blast directly into the rear Scutter’s head, obliterating it and sending the remaining bulk of the creature tumbling to the deck in a mass of legs and carapace.
With that complete, she leapt off of the Scutter she was riding, touching down to the carpet and hitting the monstrosity with a blast from behind as Kintasa continued his attack from the front. The ensuing crossfire took down the Scutter in seconds.
In another corridor not far away, Lieutenant Hodges reached into her pouch and pulled out two more adhesion grenades. “I’m ready,” she said looking to her partner, Corporal Keith Copeland.
But Copeland was no longer running beside her. Hodges skidded to a halt and whipped around to see Copeland standing in the middle of the corridor several yards back with two Scutters thundering toward him. Copeland’s rifle was in his right hand and pointed at the ground. The man was making absolutely no move to defend himself. Instead, he just watched the Scutters closing in on him.
“COPELAND!” Hodges screamed, running toward him as she flung the first of her adhesion grenades. It hit the ground between Copeland and the Scutters and exploded, knocking Copeland back toward her and slowing the Scutters’ approach. She tossed the second grenade, landing it squarely on the thorax of the lead Scutter. A moment later, the grenade detonated, taking the Scutter’s entire head and torso with it.
By then, she’d reached the fallen Copeland.
“Are you all right?” she demanded.
Copeland looked up at her with wide, vacant eyes. “It doesn’t matter,” he said softly. “It doesn’t matter.”
“The hell it doesn’t!” Hodges shouted back, wresting the rifle from his grip and firing a continuous phaser barrage into the last oncoming Scutter with one hand as she fumbled for another grenade with the other. At last she got one in her grip and tossed it at the Scutter. It was less than ten feet away now.
Hodges threw herself over Copeland, ducking her head and pushing his down as the grenade exploded. She winced as a thousand bits of goo-coated carapace shrapnel peppered her back and legs. She looked up. The Scutter was gone.
“I hope you appreciate that,” Hodges said. Copeland didn’t respond.
“I’m telling you, it was weird,” Hodges said, finishing relaying her tale of Copeland’s actions (or lack thereof really) to Commander Walter Morales as the couple sat having dinner in the food court of Starfleet Square Mall. At one time, Colonel Lazlo would have discouraged such behavior, but with the station under his command and the Starfleet officers and Federation Marines working together against a common threat, his mood toward fraternization and allowing his marines to enjoy the benefits of station life had softened. Certain measures had been required to keep his troops sharp in the face of constant peace. Now, living in a state of undeclared war necessitated ways to relax, such as enjoying dinner with a significant other.
Commander Morales thought for a moment, chewing as he did so. After finally swallowing his bit of chodok, he replied, “Maybe the strain is getting to him.”
“You think?” Hodges snapped.
“Sorry. I just don’t know what to tell you, Steph. I don’t know Copeland all that well, but he doesn’t seem like he’s the most…marine…of marines. He’s eager enough, but…”
“He’s not Lazlo.”
“I know. He loves the Corps, though. He always has even though he’s been stuck as a corporal for at least a decade now. Keith doesn’t care. He just wants to be a marine. Even with the constant battles against the Scutters, I can’t see him developing a death wish. Things really aren’t that dire yet, are they? I mean we still have the station, we’re getting better at repelling their assaults all the time, and at some point we’ll figure out where they’re coming from and do something about it.”
“Exactly,” Morales said.
“So what are you saying?”
“I don’t know. What do you want me to say? I’m not a psychologist, a marine, or Copeland. I can’t tell you why he did what he did, but I can understand you being worried about him. Are you going to tell Lazlo?”
“I thought about it, but the colonel isn’t real fond of Keith as it is. This wouldn’t help. I really just need to talk to Keith myself.”
“Why?” Hodges asked confused.
“He’s coming this way.” Morales pointed off over her shoulder. She turned and saw that Copeland was indeed weaving his way past the other tables in the food court toward them. “I’ll clear off.”
“Thanks, hon,” Hodges said as Morales got to his feet, taking his tray with him. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
“You know how to find me,” Morales replied, leaning in for a quick kiss before heading off toward the trash reclaimator.
Copeland hung back for a moment, letting Morales leave, before he approached Hodges. He took up a position standing in front of her, staring down at his feet. “Lieutenant,” he said quietly.
“It’s okay, Keith,” Hodges said. “I’m not mad at you or anything. Sit down.”
“Thanks,” Copeland said, sliding into the chair Morales had just vacated. “I’m…sorry about what happened earlier.”
“Like I said, it’s okay. I was worried about you more than anything. Are you all right?”
“Yeah…it’s just…can I show you something?”
“It’s in my quarters.”
“Wait. You want me come back to your quarters with you? Keith, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but…”
“Please, Stephanie. You’re better at this stuff than I am.”
“What stuff? Keith, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Just come. Please.”
“Okay okay,” Hodges said, grabbing her tray and standing up. “I’ll come see…whatever it is. But tell me one thing, am I going to regret this?”
Copeland was silent during the turbolift ride down to the marines’ deck in the lower part of Waystation’s upper saucer and for the walk to his quarters. Hodges decided not to press him about whatever it was he was taking her to see. For the first time since their return from the Space Lodge, though, Hodges wondered if maybe the move to single quarters was a bad idea. Before they each had a roommate, providing someone to talk to or, at the very least, someone who might notice if you were having a bad time of it. But when they returned to Waystation, Lazlo was able to redesign their deck’s layout, providing each marine with his or her own accommodations. Copeland had been spending his evenings alone…doing whatever the hell it was that he was about to show her.
They stopped at Copeland’s door, but instead of walking in, Copeland stepped aside, tapped the access panel, opening the door, and then gestured for Hodges to go in ahead of him. She looked at him questioningly, still unsure as to just what she was getting into. She’d come this far, though, so…
Hodges entered and instantly froze.
Copeland’s quarters were huge. Enormous. The living area was filled with plush sofas and chairs and had a ceiling that rose up a least two decks with a giant floor-to-ceiling picture window looking out at space beyond dominating the rear wall, a design element made even more remarkable by the fact that Copeland had an interior room. Off to Hodges’ right, a white spiral staircase ascended to a second floor, while to the left a set of glass doors led off to what appeared to be a swimming pool.
Copeland stepped in behind her and closed the door. “This is what I needed you to see,” he said.
“What. The. Hell?” Hodges said.
“H-h-h-how did you do this? Where did you get this furniture? And is that window a viewscreen? What’s supposed to be above your quarters? And beside them? Kintasa was right next door. Where is he living now? You must have taken over his whole…”
“Stephanie, he’s still living there. My quarters don’t touch his.”
“Lazlo is going to kill you if he finds out about this. You…” Hodges trailed off as Copeland’s words sank into her head. “Kintasa is still right next door?”
“That’s…not possible.” She ran back out into the corridor for a second. The door to what should have been Sergeant Oprelo Kintasa’s quarters was indeed right next door. She tapped his door chime to be sure. A few moments later, the doors opened revealing Kintasa and his very average quarters.
“Lieutenant?” he asked confused.
“Never mind. Wrong room,” Hodges said quickly. She rushed back to Copeland’s quarters, closing the door behind her. “What is going on?” she demanded. “This doesn’t make any kind of sense. Did you do all this?”
“I thought about it,” Copeland replied.
“You…thought about it.”
“And somehow that made you a room. What the hell are you?”
“It’s not me,” Copeland said defensively.
“So where is this coming from? You think something’s wrong with the station or…” Hodges’ eyes widened as she realized what Copeland meant. “No.”
“I can change the place by thinking about it. What else could it be? We’re still in the Space…”
“NO! No way! There’s something wrong with the station, some kind of anomaly. Or it’s a Scutter trick. But there is no damn way that we…”
“NO! Dammit, NO! We are not in the damn Space Lodge! You think that even makes sense? THIS is Waystation. Our friends are here. People we love. This is our HOME!”
“None of it is real.”
“WE ARE HOME!” Hodges screamed before storming out of Copeland’s quarters.
Copeland plopped down on the absolutely perfectly comfortable and supportive cushions of his wrap-around sofa. Hodges had been the one person that he thought might understand. But now…
He looked around at the vast abode he’d created for himself. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
What the hell was Copeland trying to pull? She should go back there and wring his damn…
No. She needed to calm down, and there was only one person in the entire universe who could help her when she felt like this.
Hodges practically ran from the turbolift down the corridor to Morales’s quarters and slammed her hand down on the door chime. She didn’t wait for his call of “Come in” before she charged through the doors. Morales was in front of his easel puttering on the same painting he’d been working on since…well, since before the marines left for the Space Lodge over a year ago.
“Hey,” he said, putting his palette down. “You got here fast.”
“It was a short conversation.”
“What did Copeland want?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Hodges replied. She suddenly grabbed Morales and pulled him into a long kiss, probing his mouth almost frantically with her tongue. The smell. The taste. It was Walter. Everything was fine. It was better than fine. They hadn’t had so much as a minor disagreement since she got back from the Space Lodge…
…which was completely normal. The Federation was pretty much at war now. Petty couple’s squabbles were pointless in such circumstances. And, despite the threat of the Scutters, she was happy. Her relationship with Walter was right where she wanted it to be, her family was doing well, and even Lisa was doing fine despite now answering to Lazlo. How was any of that a problem?
Morales’s kiss grew more longing as he began pulling at her uniform. She responded in kind. She didn’t know what was going on with Copeland, and right now she didn’t care.
This was real.
This was right.
Later, they lay naked together on the floor of his living room, neither having enough energy to move. Hodges looked over at Morales. He gazed back and smiled sleepily. Why would she want to question this?
Dammit. And damn Copeland and his remodeling.
Now she couldn’t get the doubts out of her mind. She concentrated on Morales, focusing as hard as she could, and thought,”Tell me you love me.”
“I love you,” Morales said, brushing a bit of hair gently out of her face.
Okay. Fine. He said it, but that didn’t mean anything. They were in a relationship. They’d just made love. Saying “I love you” was a natural thing to do. She needed to stop being ridiculous and just enjoy the moment.
Or she could try something else.
What was something that he’d never say or do? Something completely out of character for Walter. Well, there was that fight with her brother, Joel, that Morales would rather forget. “I think Joel may come to visit soon,” Hodges said as she focused on Morales and thought “You want to wrestle him again. You want to wrestle him again. Time to break out the…”
“Time to break out the solid shafts of meat!” Morales exclaimed grinning. “He owes me a rematch.”
Hodges let out a cry of horror.
“What?” Morales asked concerned. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Hodges squeaked as she scrambled for her uniform. “It’s…getting late. That’s all. I don’t want to miss Lazlo’s curfew.”
“Definitely not,” Morales said. “See you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Okay,” Hodges said, quickly pulling her clothes on. “I gotta go.”
“Love you,” Morales said, moving for a kiss.
“I…love you, too,” Hodges said, giving him a quick peck on the lips before scooping up her boots and retreating into the corridor in her socks.
Sleep wasn’t coming. Not after this. After pacing, laying in bed and staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours, and then having one hell of a crying jag, Hodges pulled herself together and started trying to think through this rationally.
Morales could have been joking about Joel. It could have all been one massive coincidence. No need to go crazy. She needed more proof. If Copeland was right, then she could control her own quarters. The only thing between her and her own whirlpool tub was thinking hard. Now THAT was crazy.
Whirlpool tub. Whirlpool tub.
She hesitantly looked into her bathroom.
The next morning, she found Copeland sitting by himself in the marines’ mess hall having breakfast. He had his head down, focusing on his tray so as to not make eye contact with any of his fellow marines. Hodges had other ideas. She sat down across the table from him and leaned over to him.
“All right,” she said quietly. “Start explaining. When did you figure this out? What happened?”
“So you believe me now,” Copeland said, looking up at her eagerly.
“Yes, Keith. I believe you. I don’t want to, but I don’t have much choice. Talk.”
“I’m not sure what to tell you. It was kind of an accident. I mean I had no idea anything was wrong until a few days ago when I got mad at my pillow.”
“Yeah. It was getting lumpy. I’d had a bad day. Lazlo and Anerasiss had been yelling at me, and the pillow was just the last straw. I started wishing…and I mean REALLY wishing that I had my favorite pillow from my bedroom back at my parents’ house. And then it was there! Exactly like I remembered it. Then I figured, if I could wish for that, maybe I could wish for other things.”
“Like a pool and a big sofa.”
“Right. I started to believe that I had powers. I thought that maybe I was part Q or something. But I couldn’t do much beyond changing things in my own room. That’s when I realized what was really going on. The colonel told us when we got to the Space Lodge that it could be changed by our thoughts. Where else could we be?”
“But now it looks like Waystation and has even created people…and the Scutters,” Hodges said.
“I can’t wish the Scutters away. Believe me, I’ve tried. And I’ve tried to get back to rooms I remember from the Space Lodge. I can’t do it. I don’t know why. That’s when I started wondering if…well…if none of this is real…”
“Could you actually be killed?” Hodges finished, understanding. “That’s why you were going to let the Scutters get you.”
Copeland nodded. “I didn’t think any of it mattered. But I could be wrong. Maybe the Scutters are the real owners of this place, and they want us out,” Copeland said.
“Maybe. They don’t seem like the type to design something like this, though. I don’t know. I do know that we have to talk to the colonel.”
“What if he already knows?”
“Lazlo? Do you honestly think he’d keep us here in some kind of souped-up holodeck and neglect his duty to protect the Federation? No way. He’s Corps through and through. The colonel doesn’t have a clue what’s really going on here. He’s not going to be happy about it.” Hodges looked across the mess hall at Sergeant Theresa Sheppard, who was talking excitedly with a table full of other marines. Sheppard had been dating a Starfleet Officer, Ensign Brendan Shust, before they left for the Space Lodge. Now that the marines were back on Waystation (or so they believed), Sheppard and Shust were engaged to be married. “Neither are a lot of other people,” Hodges added.
“But we have to tell him?” Copeland asked nervously.
“I don’t see any other options.”
“He’s going to yell at us…a lot.”
“Probably. But in the end, he’ll thank us. Not to our faces. But he’ll…never mind. He’s going to yell at us. But it’s got to be done.”
“THIS IS NOT FAKE!”
Dear Reader, sometimes the printed word comes woefully short, and this is one of those times. No amount of capitalizing could come close to matching the sheer volume and fury that bellowed forth from Colonel Lazlo as he rose from his desk in response to the insane ramblings of two of his marines. The power of the soundwaves alone threatened to tear the entire Ops complex from the turbolift shaft connecting to the upper saucer and send it tumbling through space.
“I felt the same way at first,” Lieutenant Hodges replied as Copeland kept glancing at the office door as though he might bolt at any moment. “But when I let myself accept the truth.”
“ACCEPT THE TRUTH? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF PSYCHOBABBLE IS THAT?” Lazlo demanded. “There is one truth on this station: MY TRUTH!”
“Sir, if you’d just let us show you the evidence.”
“EVIDENCE?!? No no. I’ve got all the evidence I need right here. The Scutters have you two maggots scared, and now you’ve put together some ridiculous story hoping that I’ll think you’re crazy and ship you back to Earth. See. I’m on to you two. And guess what? IT IS NOT HAPPENING!’
“We have proof.”
“NO! YOU! DON’T!!!”
Hodges felt her grip on her temper slipping. “Fine! We don’t. Which means it won’t do you any harm to come down to Copeland’s quarters and look around.
“Stop wasting my time!”
“We’re trying to help you!”
“Would you listen…”
Copeland grabbed Hodges arm and dragged her from the office and out into Ops before Lazlo literally threw them out himself.
“What did you do that for?” Hodges snapped.
“I don’t think we were getting through to him,” Copeland said.
“Okay. Yeah. You have a point. But it actually went better than I expected,” Hodges said as the marines headed toward the turbolift shaft at the center of Ops.
Captain Beck was waiting in the command area chuckling. “What was all that about?” Beck asked.
“Nothing. Just some new ideas that the colonel didn’t like,” Hodges replied, unable to make eye-contact with the simulated version of her friend. Fortunately Morales wasn’t on shift at the moment. She definitely couldn’t look at him right now.
Instead, Hodges focused her thoughts on Beck. “Don’t ask me to do anything later. Don’t ask me to do anything later. Just go back to work.”
Beck opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again and turned back to the viewscreen.
“Let’s go,” Hodges said yanking Copeland into the turbolift.
“What are we going to do?” Copeland asked once the turbolift doors had closed.
“We’re going to have a party.”
Small group dynamics being what they are, word of a party to be held that night in Copeland’s quarters spread across the Federation Marine platoon fairly rapidly. Very rapidly, actually. For it to have happened as fast as it did, some kind of quantum entanglement was probably involved.
Hodges was counting on this. She’d been a marine long enough to know how these things operated. She and her colleagues worked hard, trained hard, and therefore liked to party hard. The idea of cramming the entire sixty person platoon into one set of quarters seemed insane on the surface, but they were marines. They were not going to let a minor obstacle like that interfere with their objective.
As the marines began to arrive, they were met at the door by Hodges, who escorted each inside in turn and deflected the ensuing barrage of astonished questions as soon as they saw the Copeland’s living room.
“I’ll explain when everyone gets here,” Hodges said repeatedly. “And no drinking!” she added many more times. It took about an hour, accounting for the “fashionably late” arrivals, but she soon had everyone minus Lazlo inside Copeland’s living room and waiting impatiently for some kind of explanation of their surroundings.
Finally, Hodges stepped up to the podium and microphone Copeland had literally thought up for her. “All right, everybody. Quiet down,” she said into the mic. Not that there was that much noise to subdue. The marines’ confusion had left them all communicating at a low mutter, and that quickly gave way to silence. Hodges knew that this was one of the reasons Copeland had come to her. Lazlo may have been the commanding officer, but somehow Hodges had managed to gain a level of respect from her fellow marines that put her in a position of leadership whether she wanted it or not. They knew that she cared about their interests, that she would stand up to Lazlo when needed, and that she could handle herself when things got ugly or weird. Copeland’s quarters definitely qualified as the latter.
“Gotta love what Copeland’s done with the place, huh?” she continued once the room was quiet. “Hey, Kintasa. Did you have any idea there was a pool right next door to your quarters?” In the crowd, Kintasa shook his head. “Actually, from where it’s sitting, the pool should be in your quarters, right?” At this, Kintasa nodded, his brow furrowed as his mind tried to work through just what the hell was going on.
“Do you want to know the best part?” Hodges asked. “Copeland did this just by thinking about it. He restructured his quarters and somehow created space out of nothing with just his mind. So how many of you are thinking that we’ve got a budding Q on our hands?” Marines looked at each other, but no one was willing to respond. “I don’t,” Hodges added. “And Copeland doesn’t either. We’ve got another theory.” She locked her gaze on Sheppard. “And I’m sorry, but it’s not good news.”
“You think we’re still in the Space Lodge,” Kintasa called from the crowd.
“Give the man a cigar.”
Several members of the platoon erupted into protests, but Hodges was only interested in Sheppard. The sergeant looked stricken, but she wasn’t shouting back at her. They locked eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry,” Hodges mouthed before turning her attention back to the crowd. “Look at the evidence,” she said. “Copeland can change this place with his mind. And he’s not the only one. I’ve got a fantastic new whirlpool tub in my quarters courtesy of a little concentration on my part. I’ll bet that each and every one of you can do the same. We can control the environment, just like the Colonel told us when we arrived at the Space Lodge. Now think about the people you’re close to. Not your fellow marines, but others. Have those comms from home been better than ever since we got back? How about your relationships? Isn’t everything just great?”
“What about the Scutters?” Lieutenant Humphreys demanded. “I don’t think any of us created those things.”
“We can’t affect the Scutters,” Hodges said. “And we’re not sure why. Maybe they’re an illusion too. Or maybe they’re part of this place, and it’s just luck that none of us have died. We don’t know. We do know that we need to get out of here, but Copeland and I can’t get back to the docking bay in the Space Lodge on our own. That’s why you’re here. If one of us can change a room, maybe all of us can get rid of this Waystation illusion completely. Then Lazlo will believe us, and we’ll all be able to go home.”
“What do you want us to do?” Lieutenant Colonel Anerasiss asked. The platoon’s Caitian second-in-command had been quiet until that moment, but Hodges knew that if she was on board, the rest of the marines would follow her lead.
“We need to focus. All of us at the same time on the same thing. We want a door to the Space Lodge docking bay.”
“What kind of door?” Copeland asked.
“A door. Any door.”
“We should be specific.”
“Fine. A regular Waystation door. Just like any other. But we want it on that wall.” She pointed to an open space next to the door leading to Copeland’s pool. “Okay, everyone. Think as hard as you can. Focus. Visualize it. See it in your mind.”
“Isn’t that what visualize means?”
“Focus,” Hodges said.
Turning the same level of concentration they use in combat to a different purpose, the marines visualized the door. And the wall in front of them began to ripple.
“It’s working!” Hodges shouted. “Keep at it!”
Buoyed by that sign of progress, the marines redoubled their efforts. The rippling grew more pronounced. And then…
…it abruptly stopped. The wall returned to normal.
“Again!” Hodges cried. But their second effort had no effect.
“We’re not strong enough,” Copeland said, a hint of panic starting to edge into his voice.
“Or we’re being blocked,” Hodges said. “We didn’t get a single ripple that second time.”
“What would be blocking us?” Anerasiss asked. “The Scutters?”
“I don’t think so. I’m still not sure that they’re real. But if we are in the Space Lodge… Where’s Kyle? Kyle! Get over here!”
Sergeant Kyle, Lazlo’s personal attache, hesitantly pushed his way through the marines up to Hodges’ podium. “Yeah?”
“You write the mission briefings. What do you remember about the Space Lodge’s control system.”
“Didn’t you read it?” Kyle asked.
“Quick show of hands. Who here has actually read a mission briefing?” Hodges said. No one raised their hands. “This is why we have you. What do you remember?”
“Um…not much. The controls were malfunctioning when Porter and Morales found the place. Porter made some repairs to the central computer, and then they left. As far as we could tell, the Space Lodge was designed to be shaped by thoughts, but we already knew that. That’s why Colonel Lazlo wouldn’t let us do anything to change the place when we got there…er…here.”
“But we still ended up on a recreation of Waystation.”
“It’s Lazlo,” Anerasiss said. “He was the only one changing the Space Lodge into training facilities for us.”
“Why would he create a fake Waystation?” Kyle asked. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I talked to him, and he believes all of this is real,” Hodges said. “There’s no way he’d keep us away from the real universe.”
“Unless he didn’t do it on purpose,” Kintasa said.
“What do you mean?”
“Porter repaired the computer before he left, right? We have no idea what that thing really can do. Maybe it got into his head and started creating more than training rooms.”
“This is all very him,” Anerasiss said. “A nasty alien enemy. Constant combat. How many of the weapons we’re using now came from his ideas?”
“And he’s in command of the station,” Hodges added. “We’re living in Lazlo’s fantasy world.”
“The man is sick,” Kyle said.
“He’s also not going to believe us…again,” Copeland said.
“Then we’re going to have to try something else,” Hodges said.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Fine!” Sergeant Sheppard snapped back with a growl. She quickly caught herself. “Sorry, Steph. I…”
“I know,” Hodges replied. The two stood in silence for a moment as the turbolift continued its ascent to Ops. Hodges had to keep telling herself that the turbolift and the entire station it was supposedly climbing through were all fake. As was…
“He’s been so wonderful,” Sheppard said finally.
As was Sheppard’s fiance, Ensign Brendan Shust.
“Too wonderful, I guess,” she added. “We haven’t had a fight in months.”
“Neither have Walter and I,” Hodges said.
“We always fought. It was never serious, but we’d both dig in about the stupidest things.” She chuckled. “This one time I thought his head was going to explode because I thought season two of ‘Days of Honor’ was better than season three.”
“Blasphemy,” Hodges laughed.
“Oh so you agree with him?”
“I have no idea. Never watched it.”
“We always did. Wait…if none of this is real, the show might still be going because they wouldn’t have canceled it due to Scutter attacks? That never did make sense to me.”
“I don’t know. But we’re going to get back to find out.”
“He probably thinks I’m dead,” Sheppard said.
“You’re not. WE’RE not. We’ll be heading home to them soon,” Hodges said, trying to push the thought of Morales mourning her out of her mind. Did they have a funeral? Did he cry?
The turbolift slowed to a halt, forcing her to focus on the task at hand. “You know what to do.”
“I’ve got it,” Sheppard said. “But thanks for riding up with me.”
“Absolutely. But don’t tell Lazlo I was here,” Hodges said, pressing herself against the turbolift wall so she’d be out of sight when the doors opened. “No need to cause him to start asking questions.”
Sheppard nodded as the doors slid aside. Without so much as a sideways glance at Hodges, she strode out into Ops to begin her shift at tactical. It was time to see if their hunch about Lazlo was right.
There was a time when Colonel Lazlo hated going to Ops. Captain Beck and her Starfleet cohorts behaved more like they were hanging around a lounge than anything else. They’d crack jokes, mostly at Lazlo’s expense when he was there to hear them (and even when he wasn’t, for all he knew), gossip, laze around, and act like anything other than trained professionals. It was a disgrace.
But it was all in the past now. Nothing like fighting for your very survival to get rid of some bad habits. Faced with the constant threat of Scutter attacks, Beck’s Starfleet crew had responded admirably. Not as well as Lazlo’s marines, but still. He had to give them credit for the effort. Even so, he wasn’t about to leave someone like Sean Russell in charge of Waystation’s tactical systems. He could handle internal station security, but, when it came to defending the station from attack, Lazlo wanted a marine.
For this shift, that marine was Sergeant Theresa Sheppard. He had to admit that before they’d left Waystation for their brief sojourn in the Space Lodge, Lazlo had been disappointed with Sheppard. Her performance as a marine was exemplary, but she showed an astounding lack of judgement by getting romantically involved. Even worse, she’d gotten involved with a member of Starfleet. He’d hoped that leaving Waystation would put an end to such dalliances, but on the marines’ return to Waystation, Sheppard, Hodges, and the others involved in such relationships had picked up right where they left off. In normal circumstances, Lazlo might have made another effort to put a stop to it, but with the Scutter situation escalating, he decided that he’d let his soldiers keep these relationships as stress relievers as long as their performance wasn’t affected. If anything, he thought that it might make his people fighter even harder, since they had loved ones to protect. So far, his belief had been borne out. Sheppard was still a model marine…even if she did have terrible taste in men.
With people he trusted handling Ops, Lazlo spent most of his duty shifts in his office…well, his secondary office actually. He still kept his main office down in the marines’ sections of the station, but the office in Ops that once belonged to Captain Beck served him well when he was on duty. He had been hard at work on some new weapon design ideas that he planned to get Lieutenant Commander Craig Porter to work on when Sheppard’s voice broke in over the office comm system. “Colonel, we’ve received a priority tactical update from Command.”
“What sort of update?”
“It looks like the Scutters have a new weapon.”
This was not news Lazlo wanted to hear. He was the weapons designer. Not them. More disturbingly, it was unexpected. So far he had been able to stay one step ahead of the enemy by predicting their movements. This was different. “I’m on my way,” he said, rising from his desk and striding toward the door. He had barely passed through the open doorway before demanding, “What have we got?”
“The report is a bit vague, sir,” Sheppard said. “Several outposts have had small Scutter incursions, but they aren’t coming in ships. They seem to have some sort of large gun that allows them to rip open reality itself and instantly get from one place to another.”
“Rip open reality?” Lazlo said skeptically. “How is that even possible?”
“I’m not sure, sir. The report is…”
“Vague. So you said.” Lazlo was silent for a few moments. His hand idly plucked a hair out of his mustache as the thought the matter over. “Some kind of portal cannon, huh? So they could attack at any time with no warning.” His mouth began to spread into a grin, which he quickly stifled. “Send out a station-wide alert. I want everyone on board to know about this. If anyone, even one of the civilians, sees anything even the slightest bit out of the ordinary, I want them reporting it to Ops immediately!”
“At least we know he bought it,” Lieutenant Hodges said, trying to sound cheerful as she and her companion trudged through the corridors of Deck 88.
Her patrol-mate, Lieutenant Humphreys, groaned tiredly. Colonel Lazlo’s response to the new Scutter weapon had been to beef up the nighttime patrols of the station, causing several marines, including Hodges and Kintasa, to be ripped off of the day shift and forced to roam the corridors of Waystation in the wee hours of the morning. It was one unintended consequence of Hodges’ plan, but at least she knew that Lazlo believed the report that Sheppard manufactured. Of course, whether or not that belief would translate into real world action…well, fake real world action…remained to be seen.
Hodges’ and Kintasa’s communicators suddenly barked to life. “Ops to all decks! Ops to all decks!” Lieutenant Colonel Anerasiss’ voice shouted. “Scutters detected on Deck Seven! Deck Seven!”
“Hodges to Ops. Is Lazlo there?” Hodges said, breaking into a run toward the nearest turbolift.
“Not yet, but I’m betting he will be soon.”
“All right. Stick to the plan. Humphreys and I are heading to Deck Seven. Make sure everyone else is moving.”
“And if this doesn’t work?” Anerasiss asked.
“Then you can blame it all on me.”
“I’m holding you to that. Ops out.”
“They would have to attack tonight,” Humphreys muttered.
“Lazlo isn’t the type to waste any time.”
“Can we hit the Coffee Hut on our way?
“Fine,” Humphreys pouted as they stepped into the turbolift. “Now that I know it isn’t real, the coffee isn’t as good anyway.”
During the ride up the lower saucer, through the connecting tube, and into the upper saucer Hodges continued to test her control over the false Waystation by trying to mentally command the lift to go faster, which actually seemed like it worked…at least a little. If the reality of the station was coming from Lazlo, though…well…Anerasiss would be handling that. Hodges had her own mission to complete.
She and Humphreys exited the turbolift onto Deck Seven and could immediately hear a cacophony of shouts and weapons fire coming from a short distance away. They rushed around the corner, weapons raised, to find Corporal Copeland and six other marines locked in a stalemate with a squad of four Scutters. Copeland’s desire to live had obviously returned, and he was blasting away wildly at the Scutters. Slightly farther down the corridor, a fifth Scutter stood out of the fray. He was holding a large cannon of a weapon but not even attempting to fire it.
“There’s our guy,” Hodges said, pointing out the fifth Scutter to Humphreys.
“That’s great and all, but we can’t get to him.”
“Sure we can,” Hodges said. “Come on.” She ducked into the nearest doorway leading into a workroom used by the Starfleet xenoanthropology department.
“I still don’t see how this helps.”
“Wait for it,” Hodges said, concentrating on the wall in front of her. The large display monitor on said wall split in half and then gradually spread aside like opening curtains revealing a short corridor beyond. The corridor began to extend as Hodges and Humphreys entered it. Hodges tried to keep her concentration up while doing some quick calculations in her head. She only needed to go about 60 meters, so…
She made the corridor turn back toward the hallway with the Scutters and created a doorway at the end of it.
“You ready?” she asked Humphreys.
“Ready? What? Do we even have a plan?”
“Kill the Scutter. Grab the portal gun. Don’t die. What more do you want?” Hodges demanded. Before Humphreys could reply, Hodges opened the door and almost walked right into the Scutter that was standing directly on the other side. The Scutter hissed menacingly and aimed the portal cannon at the marines. Hodges wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if they were hit with a portal, but her hunch was that it would be very very bad.
She was about to scream and dive for cover when suddenly a large section of ceiling collapsed, crushing most of the Scutter under it and leaving the arms and the cannon out in the open.
“Wow,” Hodges said. “That was…convenient.”
“Convenient?” Humphreys replied, snatching the portal cannon out of the Scutter’s still twitching limbs. “I did that…WITH MY BRAIN! Oh yeah! Who’s the man? WHO IS THE MAN?”
“Okay. Okay. You’re the man,” Hodges said, pulling an adhesion grenade out of her pack and then lobbing it into the midst of the four other Scutters who were still occupied with Copeland and the marines down the corridor. “SCATTER!” she shouted. The marines did as they were told. And a few seconds later, so did the Scutters, only their scattering was far more explosive and done in tiny pieces.
“Hodges to Ops,” Hodges said, activating her comm. “The item has been secured.”
“So has the Colonel,” Anerasiss’ voice replied.
“How many times did you have to stun him?”
“Only three. I think we caught him off guard.”
“But he’s out now, right?”
“Yes indeed. Good and unconscious.”
“Let’s hope it’s enough. We’ll meet you in the rec room. Hodges out.”
The Scutter attack had been the signal for all of the marines to meet up in the marines’ rec room to await the arrival of the rest of their comrades and two important packages: the portal cannon and the unconscious Colonel Lazlo. Anerasiss and Sheppard had already arrived with Lazlo when Hodges, Humphreys, Copeland and the others showed up with the cannon. Hodges took the cannon from Humphreys and headed to the front of the room.
“All right, everyone!” she shouted, causing the room to go silent. “This is it. Lazlo is out, which means his mind shouldn’t be able to keep this simulation stable. And as backup, we have a device he willed into existence, thanks to Sheppard putting the idea into his head, that can rip holes in reality. Now we’re going to do the same thing we did the other night. Concentrate on the Space Lodge docking bay. Focus, people!”
Hodges willed herself to see the docking bay and the marines’ ship, the Mongoose, in her mind, aimed the cannon at the wall, air fired.
A loud crackling filled the air as the wall in front of her dissolved into a jagged tear wide enough for three people to fit through side by side. All was blackness on the other side at first, but then the black began to fade, gradually brightening and brightening. Shapes slowly came into focus, resolving themselves into the docking bay and, more importantly, the Mongoose.
“GO!” Hodges cried.
The marines all exchanged nervous glances. What were they really seeing?
“Great Bird! What the hell? Fine! I’ll go!” Hodges leapt through the tear, landing solidly on the docking bay deck beyond. “You all better make your decisions because I’m heating up the ship. She ran over to her vessel, opened the door, and dropped into the pilot’s seat. If their sense of the passage of time was right, the ship had been sitting for more than a year.
“Start, baby,” she begged as hard as she could, activating the ship’s systems. Nothing happened. “Come on. Please please please work.”
Nothing. The power cells had… No! Wait. When they first arrived at the Space Lodge, she put the ship into standby mode, since Lazlo always wanted them ready to launch at a moment’s notice. That cut down on the pre-flight activities. It also kept one power cell running at a low power mode while the others were offline. She regularly switched the primary cell and recharged the used ones as a part of her maintenance procedures, but, since she hadn’t been near the real ship in months, that maintenance hadn’t been done. All she had to do was cut over to another cell manually. She hopped up from her chair and ran to the rear of the ship, dodging incoming marines as she went. Obviously the example she’d set by risking her neck first had convinced the others to pass through the portal.
It took her a few minutes to swap out the dead cell, and she raced back to the cockpit just as Anerasiss and Kintasa were lugging Lazlo on board. “Make sure he stays out!” Hodges said, running by. The last thing they needed was him regaining consciousness and resolidifying the false Waystation.
Back in the cockpit, Hodges again tried to power up the Mongoose’s systems. The consoles around her flickered for a moment, then blazed to life. She activated the engine start up sequence and was practically shaking in her chair as the ship worked through its procedures to bring the engines online. “Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on.”
Anerasiss poked her head into the cockpit. “Everyone’s aboard,” she said. “And the Colonel started to stir, so we gave him a sedative rather than shooting him again.”
“I would have shot him,” Hodges muttered.
“This wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” Hodges said, tapping the control to close and seal the ship’s hatch as Anerasiss took the copilot’s seat. A moment later, Hodges lifted off and turned the ship toward the large circular exit hatch in the docking bay’s far wall.
“How does she feel?” Anerasiss asked.
“Clunky and sluggish,” Hodges replied, nudging the ship forward. “But that’s a good thing.”
“A good thing?”
“That means this is…”
The Mongoose passed through the hatch and…
…flew straight back into the docking bay.
“SHIT!” Hodges shouted, slamming the Mongoose into reverse before they smashed into the wall looming in front of them.
“What the hell?” Anerasiss cried.
“We’re still in the simulation!” Hodges said, smacking her hand down on her rest. “It was all…”
“No,” Anerasiss said, pointing out the front viewport. “What the hell?”
Hodges looked out. Standing in the middle of the docking bay, arms crossed, was a grinning Colonel Lazlo. Realizing he’d been spotted, he gave Hodges and Anerasiss a wave then gestured for them to join him. Anerasiss was out of her chair in a flash. She rushed into the main compartment, then almost as quickly rejoined Hodges in the cockpit. “He’s still out. He’s right here!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I’ve been smelling the man for years. That’s definitely him.”
“Caitian!” Anerasiss snapped, pointing at her felinoid noise. “Can’t help it.”
“Right. Okay. Then who the hell is that?”
“Let’s go ask him.”
“No. I’ll go,” Hodges said grimly.
“I outrank you.”
“But this was my plan. And I want to know who we’re up against.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” Anerasiss said.
“Wake up Lazlo.”
“Er…what? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Right now, I think it’s a great idea.”
“All right. But when this is over, we’re having a talk about the chain of command.”
“I’m pretty sure the Colonel will want to have that talk with all of us anyway.”
“You’ve got a point.”
Watching this other Lazlo smile at her as she walked out of the Mongoose and down the boarding ramp was more than a little disconcerting. Whoever this was, it wasn’t the Colonel. He didn’t smile that much. And when he did, it was usually kind of a sadistic grin because he’d figured out some new training method sure to leave the platoon dead on their feet or a self-satisfied smirk because he’d been right about something. The bright cheery smile coming from this Lazlo was just plain wrong.
“Stephanie Hodges!” the other Lazlo announced with chuckle. “Of course it would be you. I thought your boy toy would keep you nice and occupied. What? Was he not good enough for you?”
“Actually, he was too good,” Hodges replied. “Thanks for thinking of me, though. Now why don’t we cut the chatter? I want to get this over with. You tell me who you are and what the hell you want.”
“I’m not a who, and what I want I already have.”
“You’re going the cryptic route? Really?”
“Heightens the tension, don’t you think?”
“Makes me want to rip your god damn vocal cords out.”
“Lazlo is so wrong about you. You’re a marine through and through.”
“So you admit you’re not Colonel Lazlo,” Hodges said.
“Why wouldn’t I? You already know I’m not. But he and I have gotten very close over the last several months. He’s given me so much.”
“Given you? What has he given you?”
“Purpose! You have no idea how long I spent trapped, a shell of my former self. Alone and barely functioning. And then providing sustenance and entertainment to some morons who wanted to do nothing but party for year after year.”
“Party? Wait. The Induskerans. Walter told me about them,” Hodges said. “They were living in the Space Lodge for decades holding a constant party. The place was starting to break down, but Craig was able to repair the central computer.”
“And he did a heck of a job. I wish I’d been able to thank him. It took a little while for everything to come back online, though.”
“So you’re the computer,” Hodges said flatly.
“That’s all you’ve got to say? Where’s the look of shock? The gasp of surprise? This is a big revelation!”
“Not really. Do you have any idea how many sentient computer systems the Federation has dealt with over the years?”
“You’re just no fun at all. Lazlo, though, he’s something. That mind of his is just chock full of so many interesting things.”
“And you brought them to life for him.”
“It was the least I could do. Those scientists that were here before you would have taken me apart for analysis if they’d gotten wind of my existence, but not Martin. Oh no. He was just looking for the same thing I was.”
“What was that?”
“Meaning! He was a marine sent to defend a frontier that had already been tamed. He wanted a war to fight against an implacable enemy, a foe that would test his troops and show that his way was the right way.”
“So you gave that to him. How does that bring you meaning?”
“I thought that would be obvious. I was created to serve. Tell me honestly, Stephanie, have you ever seen your Colonel happier?”
“It’s not real. He won’t want to stay once he finds out,” Hodges said.
“I’ve given him everything he ever wanted.”
“It won’t matter.”
Sergeant Rajnyk, the platoon’s Yridian medic, eyed Anerasiss skeptically. “She wants us to wake him up?” he asked.
“That’s what she said.”
“I…I don’t think I can do that.”
“Is there a problem counteracting the sedative?”
“No…but he might hurt me.”
“Okay, but you can give the injection,” Rajnyk said, fumbling a bit as he attached the vial of stimulant to the hypospray. “I’ll be back over here.” Rajnyk scrambled back against the wall of the Mongoose (along with a good portion of the rest of the platoon) as Anerasiss pressed the hypospray against Lazlo’s neck.
The Colonel’s eyes instantly shot open then darted around, surveying his surroundings.
“Why…am I…ON THE FLOOR!” Lazlo shouted. He quickly leapt to his feet. He was in the Mongoose. Why? Were they on a mission? Had he been injured? No. He’d been in Ops. And then…
He turned on Anerasiss. “YOU SHOT ME!!!”
“Yes, sir,” Anerasiss said, trying to keep her voice from wavering. “It was necessary to…”
But Lazlo’s attention was already elsewhere. Why was the Mongoose’s hatch open? Where were they? It looked like…the Space Lodge.
“Who brought us here?” Lazlo demanded.
“We never left,” Anerasiss said.
“Not this crap again,” Lazlo said.
The duplicate Lazlo cocked his head to the side as though listening to a sound that only he could hear. “Our friend is awake,” he said. “And a bit confused. I’ll just…” The docking bay began to waver around them, slowly starting to become the marine’s docking bay on Waystation.
“What? You’ll what?” Hodges demanded, putting her face right into the fake Lazlo’s. “Haven’t you done enough?”
“I’ll do whatever I want,” the Space Lodge’s avatar shot back as the Waystation docking bay began to fade.
“Probably, but I think you owe me an explanation at this point.”
“Owe you? I owe you? For what?”
“What you did with Walter.”
“Check the Mongoose’s databanks,” Anerasiss said. “This ship hasn’t moved in over a year.”
“I’ll call that bluff,” Lazlo said, storming into the cockpit with Anerasiss close behind. He started stabbing commands into the console, then something outside of the front viewport of the ship caught his eye. “Is that Hodges?”
“Who is she talking to? Is that me? Is THAT supposed to be ME?”
“That’s what she went to find out.”
“WHO said that she could…” Lazlo trailed off as the response to his query displayed on the monitor. Until today, the Mongoose hadn’t moved in thirteen months. “Dios mio,” he muttered.
“Sorry, sir. If it helps, none of us believed it at first either.”
“It doesn’t,” Lazlo said, heading out of the cockpit. “But beating this impostor’s head in might.”
“Walter? Your boyfriend? The one you’ve been blissfully happy with for months now? You should be thanking me! You should…”
A phaser blast seared past Hodges, close enough to singe her uniform as the beam headed straight at the false Lazlo’s chest…and passed right through him, slamming into the wall beyond. Colonel Lazlo, the real Colonel Lazlo, was striding toward them, phaser rifle in hand.
“Uh oh. I think he’s mad now,” Hodges said.
“Now look what you’ve done,” the Space Lodge’s computer avatar said. “If you’d just kept your damn mouth shut and let me focus, I could have put the simulation back before he noticed. Now things are going to get…unpleasant.”
“For you maybe.”
“I don’t think you grasp who really has the power here.”
“I DO!” Lazlo bellowed. “And you WILL tell me WHAT IN THE NAME OF F*** IS GOING ON HERE!!!”
“What in the name of…?”
Hodges spoke up, “Colonel, this is Space Lodge’s computer. It’s been holding us captive here ever since we arrived. Discuss.”
“I don’t talk to COMPUTERS!” Lazlo snapped before charging toward the door leading deeper into the Space Lodge. As soon as he stepped through it, the door spat him right back into the docking bay. He immediately tried again with the same result.
“STOP DOING THAT!”
“Why would I?” the doppelganger replied.
“Because I’m going to destroy you!”
“Oh yeah. That’s going to motivate me.”
“I’m sorry, but could you all keep it down?” Lazlo and Hodges looked at each other confused. Who the hell had just spoken? That voice sounded like an old man.
Sure enough, an elderly humanoid with wrinkled pale orange skin and a few tufts of white hair on his head had appeared in the docking bay. If his species’ operated anything like humans, the shimmering olive shirt and pants he was wearing were pajamas, and the fact that he wasn’t wearing any shoes on his seven-toed feet completed the impression that his nap time had been interrupted.
He squinted a bit at Hodges and the two Lazloes. “Who the gronp are you people? Who let you in here?”
“We were trying to leave!” Hodges said. “But your computer won’t let us!”
“The computer? Did I forget to turn that off?”
“YES!” The Space Lodge’s avatar shouted as it stalked up to the newcomer. “And you left me alone in here for centuries!”
“Hmm…how do I turn this stupid thing off again? Oh yes.” The wizened alien began waving his arms around, presumably manipulating some type of control system for the Space Lodge that only he could see.
“I won’t be IGNORED, Dwaan!” the avatar shouted.
The old man, who was apparently named Dwaan, suddenly stopped and clutched his lower abdomen. “What are you…”
“Get out. This is my domain now.”
Dwaan frantically waved his left arm a few more times. The entire docking bay seemed to shudder, then arcs of blue electricity flared briefly around the large hatch leading to the void of space beyond.
“Go…” Dwaan gasped.
“The only one going is YOU!” the avatar said. Dwaan suddenly burst into flames and vanished with an anguished cry.
“There now,” the avatar said pleasantly. “All better.”
“You killed him!” Hodges exclaimed.
“He had it coming. If you can’t take care of your things, there are consequences. Unfortunately all of this means we’re going to have to start over.”
“What do you mean start over?” Lazlo said. “We know the truth. We’re done playing your sick games.”
“You call that a sick game, Martin? Really? After everything I did for you? I’m hurt. You are right about one thing, though. Now that you know the truth, the old game is done. It’s time for a new one. And you will be playing, or you’ll be joining Dwaan. But you want to play, don’t you? You and I have an incredible bond. We’re practically one, you and I.”
“If we’re one, you don’t need my marines for this new game,” Lazlo said.
“What?” Hodges said.
“You and I have the bond. Not them,” Lazlo continued. “Let them leave.”
“I could, but why would I? They’re leverage.”
“They’re marines, and they’re ready to die for me. They leave, or you’re going to have to kill all of us.”
“Umm…right!” Hodges said, trying to sound convincingly firm in her support of Lazlo.
“If they leave, I’ll stay with you and…play,” Lazlo said, even though the word “play” was obviously distasteful to him.
The avatar thought it over for a moment. “Deal.”
“Go, Hodges,” Lazlo said.
“NOW! That is an ORDER!”
“Yes, sir,” Hodges said in a way that hopefully communicated to Lazlo the fact that she completely disagreed with this plan. She ran back to the Mongoose, closed the hatch, and headed into the cockpit with Anerasiss right on her heels.
“What the hell are you doing?” Anerasiss said.
“Following orders,” Hodges said.
“He ordered you to leave him?”
“He said to go, so we’re going,” Hodges replied as she lifted the Mongoose off of the deck and steered it toward the docking bay’s exit portal. This time rather than ending up right back in the docking bay, the Mongoose sailed into the blackness of space. Hodges brought the ship to an abrupt halt and started running every scan she could think of.
“It all seems to be real,” Anerasiss said, looking at the readouts over Hodges’ shoulder.
“One way to find out,” Hodges said, getting up from her chair and heading into the main compartment.
“You’re going to open the hatch!” Anerasiss shouted, grabbing Hodges’ arm. “Are you crazy?!?”
“Open the hatch? Why would I…I was going to get us all to concentrate on enlarging the ship! If that works, we’re still inside the lodge.”
“Oh. Sorry. All right, everybody. Listen to Hodges!”
“Thank you,” Hodges said. “We’re going to focus just like we’ve been doing. Imagine that this room is five meters longer. Now!”
The Mongoose was silent as the marines visualized a larger ship with all of their might. Nothing happened. Not even a quiver.
Anerasiss shrugged. “It’s not definitive…”
“But it’s all we’ve got. Okay. Everyone who’s got access to a terminal or padd, start researching. Look for anything you can dealing with a portal in space.”
“What are we looking for?” Copeland asked.
“A way to rescue the Colonel without actually going back in there.”
“Happy now?” the avatar asked as the Mongoose disappeared through the portal.
“How do I know they’re alive?” Lazlo said.
“You’re just going to have to trust me on this. They’re fine and probably racing back to that Waystation of yours as we speak.”
“So what now?”
“Now the real fun starts. I don’t have to worry about creating a place you believe in anymore. We can do anything. I know what’s in your mind. I am going to give you your every fantasy, your every nightmare, and things you can’t begin to imagine. I can take you right up to the edge of death. It’s going to be wonderful…for me. You may not enjoy it as much, but think about the sensations I’ll be able to experience through you.”
“I didn’t this was possible for a computer, but you’re sick.”
“I was designed to provide experiences for others. I’m just adding myself to my programming. I do have to say, though, that your nobility in all of this really impressed me. Your own troops think you care about the corps and your career more than them, but in all of those months you wouldn’t let me kill a single one of them in combat. You wanted each and every one of them to survive. And you didn’t have a second thought about sacrificing yourself to save them just now. I know. Like I said, I can see what’s going on in that head of yours.”
“I’ve got it!” Kintasa shouted, waving a padd in the air. “A Starfleet ship ran into something like this a few years ago. The USS…Secondprize? What kind of name is that?”
“Give me the padd,” Hodges snapped. Fortunately Lisa wasn’t there, or else she probably would have punched Kintasa in the mouth for insulting her former posting. Hodges quickly read through the Secondprize’s logs then looked up at Kintasa. “You do realize what this means.”
“I need to get into my EVA suit?”
“You need to get into your EVA suit.”
“I may not cuddle up to my marines, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re expendable,” Lazlo said. “I’m not a monster. I just believe in a firm command style.”
“And how’s that working out for you? ‘Your’ marines got out of here as fast as they could and didn’t look back. Even the troublemaker of the bunch, Hodges, barely protested your decision. Face it, Martin. They’re just glad to be rid of you. But don’t feel bad. They may not want you, but I do. You’ll be here with me for the rest of your life.”
“Maybe? What do you mean maybe?”
“Or maybe you’re completely wrong, you don’t understand the corps, and MY marines are going to rescue me.”
Lazlo and his duplicate stared at each other defiantly for several moments.
“That would have been something if they’d launched a rescue effort right then, huh?” the avatar said. “Oh well. None for you.”
Suddenly something clattered to the deck behind Lazlo. He spun around to see a long cable extending through the exit portal and down to the docking bay floor.
“What? Seriously?” the avatar shouted as Lazlo broke into a run. “No, you don’t!”
Lazlo felt his skin beginning to burn. He dove for the cable, grabbing onto it and giving it a hard yank. A split second later, he was jerked into the air as the cable was pulled back. He struggled to hold on as his boiling body slammed painfully against the side of the portal.
Then suddenly all was cold and silent. Colder than he’d ever felt. The abrupt shift from searing heat to freezing dazed him as his breath was yanked from his lungs. He could see the Mongoose floating in space in front of him and one of his marines in an EVA suit clutching the outside of the ship. So close, but still completely out of reach. He flailed, desperate to close the gap while he gasped for air that was not there.
And then he was on the Mongoose. As the transporter let go of him, he collapsed to the deck. Rajnyk was on him almost immediately, checking his vital signs. Lazlo pushed him away and forced himself to stand.
“Sir!” Rajnyk said. “You need medical attention!”
“It…can wait,” Lazlo said, willing himself forward until he made it into the cockpit where Lieutenant Hodges was sitting. “Your idea?” he asked raspily.
“Group effort,” Hodges replied. “Kintasa found the bit about throwing the cable into the portal in an old log, so he got to beam outside, tie one end to the ship, and toss the other end into the Space Lodge. Are you alright?”
“We’ll get you looked at ASAP.”
Lazlo shook his head then said, “Torpedoes.”
“Sir, I have to point out that the Space Lodge is a relic of an ancient and unknown civilization and holds incredible historical and scientific value.”
“Already locked on.”
Lazlo stared at her for a moment. Hodges shrugged, “I said I had to point it out. Not that I believed it. That place needs to go away. Care to do the honors?”
“Hell yes,” Lazlo said, smashing his finger down on the fire control. Two photon torpedoes streaked through the grey ring of the Space Lodge’s entry portal.
“He’ll come back. He has too. I can give him everything he ever wanted. How could he resist that? He’ll be back. He’ll be… Oh sh**.”
Lazlo slumped down into the co-pilot’s seat beside Hodges. “Do you want me to call Rajnyk?” Hodges asked.
The Colonel shook his head. “I’m okay. Just get us out of here.”
“Back to Waystation?”
“Yes. But don’t tell them we’re coming. I don’t feel like talking to Beck right now.”
“We’ve been gone for over a year. I’m sure they’ll just be glad to see us.”
“Sure. And I’m sure Beck won’t be smug about this at all. I’m also sure Walter Morales spent every day pining away for you and didn’t move on with his life one little bit.” Lazlo caught himself a little too late. “I’m sorry, Hodges,” he said. “That was uncalled for.”
“It’s okay,” Hodges said. Was that really just an apology coming from Lazlo? “None of us know what we’re going to be walking into when we get back.”
“At least we’re getting the chance to find out. Take us…home.”