Oh joy to you, Camp Disclaimer, Nothing could be lamer! With Star Trek and Viacom, CBS and Paramount, Camp Disclaimer is a lovely legal fount, Star Traks created by Alan Decker, And Silverado by Brendan Chris Oh joy to you Camp Disclaimer, Now on with the show!

Author: Brendan Chris
Copyright: 2006

“Starbase 45 this is USS Stallion,” Lieutenant Hurken said, manning the tactical station on the port side of the bridge, “Ready for docking maneuver,”

“Stallion this is Starbase 45 Control,” the female voice returned, “Tractor beams are locked. Enjoy the ride, and welcome home,”

“Whatever,” Hurken grunted, cutting the channel. On the main screen the mammoth double-mushroom of the starbase floated above a fertile, green planet.

A major starbase, Starbase 45 had a large upper section shaped like a mushroom cap within which was a huge hanger. Even the Galaxy-class ships, the biggest vessels in the fleet, could dock. For an old Constitution-class like the Stallion it would be like putting a round peg in a bucket. A central shaft extended down from the upper section, a bulbous sphere at the far end housing the power reactors while a smaller docking area halfway up held engineering and utility bays. There were a wide range of starbases and space stations in the Federation, from the Cardassian-built Deep Space 9 to the uniquely designed Waystation, but starbases like 45 were the most advanced and recognizable. The station itself, despite the low number, was relatively new. The original Starbase 45 had been dismantled; what had once been a frontier sector with a heavy need for the security offered by the starbase had become a safe, secure (and boring) inner sector of the Federation. And so the old Starbase 45 had been decommissioned, the materials used to build a new, updated Starbase 45 in a sector in far more need of safety and security.

Whether the retention of the lower numbers as station designations was due to a lack or creativity or a fear that they may eventually run out of numbers is still something of a mystery.

“What a flagrant disregard of protocol,” Commander Iron Kren grunted from his seat near Environmental Control.

“Hmmm?” Captain Simplot pulled her eyes away from the view screen, “What?”

“Only Earth Spacedock is supposed to say ‘Enjoy the ride, and welcome home,” Kren went on, “Starbases need to build up their own traditions and ceremonies,”

“You need to get laid,” Lieutenant Sinclair grumbled from Ops.

The ship lurched, sending everybody flailing for handholds.

“Approach Control must be training a new tractor monkey,” Simplot commented.

“Engineering t-t-to Bridge,”

“Simplot here,” Simplot sighed, “Sorry Josh, just a little rough handling from the starbase, nothing to be worried about,”

“Says you,” Shurgroe replied, “But Sylvia’s getting nauseous. Do you know what happens when AIs get sick?”

“Nooo,” Simplot said slowly, “Do I want to?”

“Let’s put it this way,” Jeffery cut in, “Either smoothen out the ride, or stay away from the replicators for the next few hours,”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Simplot said, “Oh, Simon, can you meet me in the briefing room? I’d, uh, like to go over the final efficiency numbers with you before you leave,”

“Aye, Captain,”


“Well, Josh,” Jeffery shrugged, “Ah guess this is it,”

“Y-yeah,” Josh Shurgroe nodded, “Sure is,”

“Just keep to the schedule we put together,” Jeffery reminded him, “Ye’ll have the old girl purrin’ like a kitten in no time,”

“Thanks, Simon,” Josh offered his hand. Jeffery shook it firmly then took his leave. Jeffery and Shurgroe hadn’t gotten off to a very good start, but after working with him for several weeks on fixing some of the Stallion’s more serious problems, Jeffery had developed a healthy respect for the other engineer. Even if he did have weird symbols shaved into his hair, chanted twice a day, participated in enough pagan rituals to give Wowryk an apoplectic seizure and, rumor had it, was tattooed with fertility symbols in the oddest places. On the other hand Jeffery really wasn’t in a position to judge; Wowryk would probably scare Shurgroe to death.

“Is he gone?” Sylvia asked after Jeffery had departed.

“Like you didn’t know?” Shurgroe replied.

“I was being polite,” Sylvia replied.

“I know, just one more of your many charming features,” Josh sighed, “I’m going to miss you, Sylvia,”

“And I you, Josh,” Sylvia replied, her face appearing on a display. It was younger than her usual face. She’d removed many of the lines and wrinkles, giving her the appearance of a woman closer to Josh’s age.

“You’ll keep in touch?” Josh asked.

“Honey, I have enough processing power you write you several thousand pages worth of commentary per day,” Sylvia said, “But I’ll stick to keeping in touch,”

“Good,”


“So,” Jeffery said, lying exhausted on the briefing room table, the triple display monitor having been tossed somewhat unceremoniously into a corner, “You’ll keep in touch?”

Captain Simplot, pulling her uniform back on, looked at him in surprise.

“You want me to?” she asked.

“What do ye mean?” Jeffery asked, “Of course Ah do! Yer a great woman!”

“I am,” Simplot admitted, “But, Simon, as much fun as we’ve had, do you really see us going anywhere?”

“Well,” Jeffery shrugged and reached for his pants, suddenly feeling self-conscious, “I just sort of thought-“

“That I’d want a deep meaningful relationship?” Simplot finished.

“Aren’t most people like that?” Jeffery said.

“Maybe in the 20th century they were,” Simplot said, “Simon, we had a really good time, and I’ll always think on you fondly. But is there really any point in trying to turn this into something it isn’t?”

“Ah guess not,” Jeffery said, sounding a little angry.

“I’ve hurt your feelings,” Simplot said.

“Nay, not at all!” Jeffery snapped, throwing his cloths on, “Just because Ah thought ye might have some interest in me beyond being the first sex-starved woman on this ship to get me in for a good shag, why should Ah be angry?”

“It’s not like that, Simon,” Simplot sighed, “You’re a great man, and under different circumstances-“

“Ye don’t need to explain,” Jeffery said, “Ah understand just fine,” he strode to the door, then turned back, “Enjoy yer next mission,”

And he left.


Lieutenant Jall sighed contentedly to himself as he sat at the Port Auxiliary console. The Aux consoles were really a great design idea on the part of whichever Starfleet desk-jockey that had designed Silverado’s bridge module. The bridge had to be fairly small to better fit the Ambassador-class ship it was attached to. (The original Ambassador-class had a truly wretched bridge.) The older starship bridges like the one on the Stallion had been big, circular affairs that had to accommodate over a dozen stations while the Ambassador-class bridges had been cramped, angular modules. The newer bridges on the Galaxy, Intrepid and Sovereign-classes were more efficient, but you could still hold a dance party on one of those. But the programmable Aux consoles meant that the only stations that had to be included in the bridge design were there ones that were always staffed. And even those could be changed to handle different functions if the need arose! From an Operations standpoint, Jall loved the flexibility and versatility. It also meant fewer idiots on the bridge to bungle things up.

Docked as she was at Starbase 45, Silverado was nearly empty. Most of the crew was staying in temporary quarters on the starbase, if for no other reason than for a change in scenery. The warp core and impulse reactors had been powered down for maintenance and the power running the ship was coming in from the umbilical attaching it to the station. Jall tapped a button, activated a calming house beat and leaned back in his chair, smiling again.


“What the hell is that racket?” Stafford grumbled, stepping out onto the bridge. At one of the Aux consoles he could see Jall leaning back, eyes closed, mouth stretched in a goofy grin, one. His foot was tapping to the music and one hand was making strange gestures, moving along with the rhythm. He was completely unaware that Stafford was standing right behind him.

Oh, the opportunity! Stafford bit his lip. He could call Red Alert, scaring the hell out of his annoying Ops officer. Or just sneak up behind him.

Stafford sighed.

Yvonnokoff hadn’t let up on the senior staff, insisting that they do more to improve their relationships with each other. Stafford really didn’t see why it should be so hard, they’d established a good relationship fairly early on without too much trouble. Except for Jall. And maybe Wowryk. And maybe Noonan had been a little aloof the entire time.

OK, fine. So there was room for improvement.

“Sylvia, pause the music please,” he said.

No answer.

“Computer!” he growled, “Pause playback!”

“What the f-“ Jall spun around.

“As you were,” Stafford said, trying to smile in a fashion he hoped was friendly.

“What are you doing here?” Jall demanded, “And what’s wrong with your face?”

“I might ask you the same,” Stafford said, letting the smile drop, “I was just wandering around. Y’know, doing the whole ‘commune with your ship’ thing,”

“Oh,” Jall shrugged, “I was just enjoying the quiet. Y’know, it’s always so noisy. It’s kinda nice to be alone for a change,”

“Really?” Stafford sat in Trish’s seat at the helm, removing himself from the authority of the command chair, “Y’know, I noticed the same thing,”

“No complaining crewmembers,” Jall said.

“No hum of the engines,” Stafford added.

“Just peace and quiet,” Jall finished with a grin.

There was a pause.

“I don’t like it,” Stafford decided, “I know the ship’s been in dock before, but something about it just feels…different. I don’t know what it is.” He closed his eyes, trying to identify the sensation.

“Dead,” he said finally, “She just feels…dead.”

“Sylvia,” Jall said immediately.

“You think so?” Stafford asked.

Jall shrugged.

“She’s always around,” he said, “And you always know about it. Face it, discretion really isn’t one of her strengths,”

“Yeah,” Stafford sighed.


“USS Stallion, arriving bay A-14,” announced the automated computer control system.

Simplot sat in her chair, watching as the entrance to the Starbase hanger bay passed by the viewscreen. Inside the station was a harmony of whitish-blue hull plates dotted by dozens upon dozens of decks of lit windows. A central core held the inner berths with a row of double-high windows revealing lounges, restaurants and shopping facilities.

Even as they neared their berth, Simplot could see dozens of tiny people looking out the window as the ship came in. As much as she’d like to believe that they were rushing to watch a famous ship arrive from a daring mission vital to Federation security, she knew they were really just trying to catch a glimpse of the oldest and only Constitution-class ship still in service.

“Fame or infamy,” she sighed, “At least they know we’re here,”

“Look at that,” Sylvia’s voice came over the speakers.

Two berths over they could see Silverado. Her engines were offline and most of her windows were dark, but Simplot had to admit she looked good.

“Looking forward to getting home?” Kren asked.

“Going home?” Sylvia chuckled, “That’s understating it a bit. I’m looking forward to being back in my own body,”

“I can relate,” Kren said, surprising everybody on the bridge, “After my first host died it took a really long time for me to adapt to the next body,” he frowned, “Of course, my new host was a different gender, but still.” He looked around at the open stares around the bridge.

“What?” he snapped, “I can be a nice guy sometimes!”

“Hmm,” Sylvia teased, “And on the day I’m leaving!”


“Something you might want to see,” Jall said, taking another swig of his drink. He and Stafford, being off duty, had replicated some snacks and beverages.

“What’s that? A competent officer?” Stafford asked.

“Ha ha,” Jall said flatly. He tapped a button and the USS Stallion appeared on the screen, easing into her berth.

“The Stallion?” Stafford’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, “I didn’t know she was going to be in.” He took a drink, “She looks good,”

“She looks obsolete,” Jall said.

Stafford turned to him.

“C’mon, look at her. Are you going to tell me that’s not one of the most graceful and elegant starship designs you’ve ever seen?”

Jall looked more closely at the Stallion’s lines. The saucer, connected to the sleek engineering section by a slender neck and the rectangular warp nacelles, placed above the saucer by long, graceful pylons.

“It looks…floppy,” Jall said.

“Floppy?”

“Like the engines and saucer are just going to fall off,” Jall said.

“You have no appreciation for style. But anyway, I wonder what she’s doing here,” Stafford wondered, “I thought they were supposed be doing courier missions for the next few weeks,”

“Lemme check,” Jall tapped into the Starbase computer network, “Huh. It says here that they were attacked by bounty hunters and need some repair work done,”

“Bounty hunters?” Stafford frowned, “From what? ‘Antique Spacelanes’?”

“No,” Jall made a small sound of surprise, “They were trying to get an AI. Sylvia, I suppose.” He scratched his head, “I guess they didn’t get her. Good thing too, or they’d be nagged to death before they could collect the bounty, huh Captain?”

No answer.

“Captain?”

Stafford was already in the turbolift.


Yanick and Wowryk were strolling along Stellar Services, Starbase 45’s shopping mall. Yanick was wearing civilian cloths, showing off her legs in a fairly short skirt. Wowryk wore a more conservative floor length dress. There were a lot of people who felt that dresses were completely out of style. Many of these people in fact were also strolling down the mall, speculating that maybe Wowryk was a time-displacement victim, or perhaps a member of an alien race that hadn’t learned to appreciate bifurcated leg apparel. Those male speculators (and a few of the females) did have to admit that she looked good in it. A combination of beautiful femininity and stern ‘don’t bother me’.

That image was somewhat offset though by the baby-like alien she was pushing along in a stroller.

<You know,> Lord Stalart commented, <on my home planet I had to get slaves to carry me around in a litter. Many of them found it quite undignified and had to be beaten into submission. How very charming that you perform the same task with so much less fuss. Hey! I wasn’t done looking in the window of that shop! There are so many torture instruments I want to buy! Turn around at once!>

“Y’know,” Yanick said, “I don’t know why they’d have a kitchen supply shop on a starbase,”

“Some people still do things the old-fashioned way,” Wowryk reminded her.

“Uh huh. Like being a single parent of an adopted child. But speaking of that, how are you and little Luke getting along?” Yanick asked.

“He’s been very well behaved,” Wowryk said proudly, “No fuss from Madame Schoonbaert, no wandering around the ship. Right?” she picked up Stalart and nuzzled his nose, “Who’s my good little boy? Who’s my good little boy?”

<Certainly not me,> Stalart thought-spoke, <It’s just that none of you have the intellectual capacity to catch me in my misdeeds, now that the mechanical bitch is gone!>

“You’ve sure gotten attached to him,” Yanick commented.

“Yes well,” Wowryk sighed, “It’s nice to have a male in my life who isn’t out to get me,”

<Don’t count one it!>

“At least you have A male in your life,” Yanick grumbled.

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Wowryk demanded.

“Nothing,” Yanick said innocently, “I said, uh, at least you have a SALE in your life. See? Over at Gaktorin’s Gursbaniks!”

“What’s a gursbanik?” Wowryk wondered as Yanick dragged her towards the store.

“Who cares?” Yanick giggled, “They’re on sale!”


“All set, Sylvia?”

“Yes, Simon,” Sylvia replied, her voice coming from the box-like module containing her core gel-pack and circuits, “I’ve withdrawn from the Stallion’s computer and into this cramped little box that SOMEBODY didn’t even think to install a visual sensor in,”

“Sorry,” Jeffery said, disconnecting the box and slinging it over his shoulder by a carry-strap. His duffle bag was on the other shoulder. Turning, he started to head towards the airlock.

“Simon!”

Jeffery looked back, surprise.

“Chris?” he laughed, “What are ye doin’ here?”

“I heard about the attacks,” Stafford said, “I wanted to be sure Sylvia was OK,”

“Sylvia?” Jeffery felt a bit hurt, “Ye mean ye didn’t come to ask about me?”

Stafford was taken a back.

“Well, yeah,” he said, looking a bit uncomfortable, “But, um. You know. I figured you’d be OK,”

“I’m only yer best friend,” Jeffery said, “No reason why you should care whether or not I’m OK,”

“Are you OK?” Stafford asked.

“He’s fine,” Sylvia cut in, “Enough with the feelings you two! Chris, it’s great to see you again. But can we PLEASE get me back in my body?”

“You’re coming back?” Stafford was surprised.

“Yes-“ Sylvia started.

“She is,” Jeffery said, resuming his walk towards the airlock, “Sylvia decided she’d had enough,”

“Enough attacks by bounty hunters,” Sylvia clarified.

“That’s great!” Stafford said, “It’ll be great to have you both back. You have no idea how things on the ship have fallen apart without you two-“

“Ah’m staying with Tunney’s mission,” Jeffery said, “But Sylvia will clean up any mess that idiot Sage made of the ship,”

“What exactly do you mean ‘falling apart’,” Sylvia asked angrily, “What have you people been doing to my body??”

“Just the usual array of glitches,” Stafford assured her, “They just got a lot worse without you,”

“Nice to know I was making a difference,” Sylvia mused.

“So what brings you guys to Starbase 45?” Jeffery asked, hoping to avoid the topic of his soon-to-be departure, “Ah thought we’d be sending somebody with Sylvia and the Niagra to meet ye,”

“Yeah, I want that runabout back,” Stafford reminded him.

“It’s on the starbase task list,” Jeffery said, exiting the Stallion’s airlock and walking down the gangway into the station, “But why are ye here?”

“Oh,” Stafford swallowed, “Uh, the ship was invaded, you could say. Tunney gave our mission to the USS Wellesley. By the time we cleared out the…invasion…the Wellesley had finished the mission and gone on to our next one. We didn’t have a lot to do, so we decided to take some leave time and put in for maintenance,”

“Invaded?” Jeffery and Sylvia said together, sounding rather cross, “By who?”

Stafford coloured.

“My family,” he said flatly.

“I hope they didn’t make too much of a mess!” Sylvia said.

“Wait…did Ah miss the leftovers???”


Lieutenant Stern lounged in his seat, drinking deeply of his synthale as he looked out the windows. He could see four different starships from the bar he and the rest of the Hazardous Team had claimed for the evening.

“I think it’s the USS Churchill,” Marsden said, squinting as he tried to make out the markings on a Miranda-class ship berthed near far wall of the hanger bay.

“Your eyesight is pathetic, human,” Crewman Kreklor stated, “It is the USS Churchmouse,”

“I find that comment racist!” Ensign Simmons declared.

“Nobody asked you,” Marsden replied, “And what the hell is a Churchmouse?”

“A mouse that lives in a church, most likely,” Stern sighed, drinking again. He turned to Ensign Rengs, “So how’s Aris treating you these days? She watching the kid while you take leave?”

“Sort of,” Rengs grumbled, “She’s taking him to a holo-play, then dropping him off at the station’s daycare,”

“You don’t sound happy about it,” Marsden said, eyeing an Excelsior-class ship as it eased out of the bay, “USS Dieffenbachia,”

“That’s a plant,” Stern said.

“And they can’t name a ship after plants?”

“Not on Qo’nos, we can’t” Kreklor growled.

“What if it’s a highly toxic plant?”

Kreklor thought for a moment. “No. Venomous would be acceptable. Merely toxic? No.”

“It’s just that she hasn’t been…well,” Rengs coloured, “How do I put this,”

“She hasn’t been rocking your starship?” Stern suggested.

“Straining your inertial dampeners?” Marsden added.

“She has failed to perform her wifely duties,” Kreklor said.

“Say it a little louder!” Rengs snapped, “I don’t think they heard you in the Delta quadrant!”

“Hey boys,”

Heads turned to greet the newcomer; a graceful being with a sleek build, soft looking skin and a beautiful pair of green eyes.

“I hear somebody here isn’t getting any love,” the newcomer said, settling into a vacant chair.

“Uh,” Stern cleared his throat, “Look, if you’re here to sell us something we’re really not interested-“

“I’m Lieutenant Tereneth, USS Stallion,” Tereneth said, “What can I say? I’m always attracted to tables full of frisky security types,”


Captain Simplot and Lieutenant Shurgroe sat at the bar, watching as the security officers from Silverado made conversation with Tereneth.

“Do you think we s-s-should warn them?” Shurgroe asked.

“Are you kidding?” Simplot sat back to watch the show.


“Hands!” Rengs exclaimed, “Hands in places hands really shouldn’t go on a married man!”

“Don’t be such a wuss, Rengs,” Stern said, slurring a little as the synthohol caught up to him. He switched places with the Bajoran, siding up next to Tereneth.

“Well hello,” Tereneth grinned, “You’re a manly specimen, aren’t you,”

“Yes ma’am,” Stern said.

“Oh please,” Simmons groaned, “I thought we were here to hang out as a team, not watch Stern play with the local floozies,”

“Watch it,” an annoyed voice came from behind Simmons. He turned to see a very large-chested Caribbean woman glaring at him.

“What?” he asked, “There’s nothing wrong with being a floozy,” he smiled, “You can be my floozy if you like,”


“The big guy there is sure going for Tereneth,” Shurgroe observed.

“Wait till he finds out what s/he has in store for him,” Simplot mused.

“How DARE you, little mon!”

“Uh-oh,” Simplot got to her feet. Simmons, Kreklor and Marsden were standing facing Sinclair. Even as Simplot watched, Hurken joined the party, flanking Sinclair.

“Is there a problem?” Simplot asked, trying to squeeze between the larger officers.

“This one here implied we were prostitutes!” Sinclair said darkly.

“But there’s nothing wrong with that!” Simmons protested, “I like-“

SMACK

“Ow,” Simplot rubbed her hand, “Don’t make me hit you again! That hurt!”

“That hurt YOU?” Simmons rubbed his face, “What about me?”

“C-cmon folks,” Shurgroe called from the back of the crowd, “I’m sure we can settle this without getting violent,”

“We could kick your asses,” Simmons sneered.

“I’d like to see you try!” Sinclair shot back.

“Whoah, whoah,” Simplot said, “There are far too many hormones brewing in the air here. How about we settle this in a civilized Starfleet manner,”

“Like what?” Marsden asked, “Phasers at twenty paces?”

“I was thinking along the lines of a war game,” Simplot said.

“Oh, no,” Simmons groaned, “We tried that once. A bunch of women showed up and ruined everything!”

“Careful,” Marsden whispered, eyeing Sinclair, “She could probably flatten you with one shot!”

“What do you say?” Sinclair snapped, “Our ship verses your ship. The winner gets, ummm…”

“This,” Hurken wrenched a silver-plated statue out of a niche in a nearby wall, “This will be our trophy!”

“Fine! See you on the battlefield!” Simmons snapped.

Grumbling, the Stallion officers left.

“We don’t HAVE a ship!” Marsden reminded Simmons.

“To decline the challenge would have been a great dishonor,” Kreklor spoke up.

“Look guys, don’t worry. I have a plan,” Simmons looked around, “Where’s Stern?”

“He’s over there making out with that Stallion officer,” Rengs pointed.

“Hey guys,” Marsden squinted at Tereneth, “I think s/he’s a Hermat,”

“Those multi-sexual people?” Simmons wrinkled his nose, “Oh. Do you think Stern knows?”

They watched as Stern slung Tereneth over one shoulder and walked out of the lounge. Tereneth gave them a playful wave as s/he was carried out of sight.

“I do not think he cares,” Kreklor stated.


The next morning, Stafford and Yanick walked through the Starbase 45 arboretum. It really was a pleasant way to start the morning, Stafford mused. Why had he never bothered to walk in Silverado’s arboretum before? They had a duck pond and everything! On the other hand, Starbase 45 had a veritable lake sitting in theirs, but still.

“So you actually had a conversation with Jall?” Yanick was amazed, having just heard Stafford recollecting his last experience with the Ops officer, “No shouting? No yelling? No hair pulling?”

“Swear to God,” Stafford said, holding up one hand, “An honest conversation. Scary, huh?”

“Yeah,” Yanick said, “But, y’know, it’s a good thing,”

“I dunno,” Stafford said, “I’m kinda scared that life just won’t be interesting if I can’t make fun of Jall,”

“True, but-“

Yanick was cut off as Wowryk came storming through the arboretum.

“Have either of you seen Luke?” she asked.

“Luke?” Stafford shrugged, “Nope. Did he go exploring again?”

“I swear, that child is impossible,” Wowryk stormed.

“Ask Sylvia for help!” Stafford called to her back. He turned to Wowryk, “At least the kid gives her somebody to vent her feelings on,”

“Yeah,” Yanick said, “If he’s good, he’s ‘her’ kid. But who’s kid is he when he’s bad?”

“Huh?” Stafford blinked.

“Nevermind, Chris,” Yanick assured him, “It’s a parent thing. Still, she said the other day that Luke was being really well behaved. I wonder what’s up with that?”


“Sylvia?” Wowryk asked, looking up at the corridor ceiling, “Are you there?”

Nothing.

“Computer,” she said, “Establish a comm-link with the USS Silverado. Open a channel to the computer core,”

“Channel open,” replied the base computer.

“Sylvia?” Wowryk asked, “Can you give me a hand?”

“Of course, Noel,” Sylvia’s voice came immediately through the speaker as she pushed aside the bleak personality of the starbase computer, “Oh, it’s so good to see you and Luke again! It’s felt like forever!”

“Did you enjoy your trip, Sylvia?” Wowryk asked.

“It had its ups and downs, dear,” Sylvia replied, “Now, what can I help you with?”

“I’m trying to find Luke,” Wowryk said, “He got away from me,”

“One sec,” Sylvia was quiet for a moment, “Got him. He’s in one of the engineering Jefferies tubes. That little rascal!”

There was a shower of transporter sparkles and Luke appeared in front of Wowryk. His hands were outstretched as though he’d been working on something.

“There you are!” Wowryk scooped him up, “Thanks Sylvia!”

<SYLVIA!?> Luke raged, <SHE’S BACK? BLAST IT ALL! My time of freedom is at an end once again! Oh, I shall have my revenge, you meddling mechanical->

“No problem, Noel,” Sylvia replied.

Carrying the enraged infant, Wowryk returned to the main mall area, narrowly missing Stern and Simmons as they rushed past.


“Hey! Captain Kipper!” Simmons called out, jogging to catch up to Stafford.

Stafford cocked his head briefly, then continued on. He’d just finished a briefing with Admiral Tunney, following his morning walk with Yanick and he wasn’t exactly in the best of moods as a result. Some people (like Tunney) just didn’t understand what wonderful people his aunts were. Usually those were the people who had (again, like Tunney) managed to piss those dear ladies off.

“Captain Stafford!” Stern called, smacking Simmons upside the head.

“Huh?” Stafford asked, stopping and turning around. Simmons, distracted by the head smack, crashed right into him sending both officers to the floor. Simmons landed hard on Stafford, knocking his wind out.

“You know, Ensign,” Stafford said after a moment, Simmons’ elbow planted firmly in the small of his back, “When I was wishing to run into a beautiful brunette this morning, you really weren’t what I had in mind,”

“Maybe you’d like his sister,” Stern said thoughtfully.

“Maybe I’d like him to GET THE HELL OFF OF ME!” Stafford shouted, startling both of them.

“Bad day?” Stern asked politely as Simmons and Stafford climbed to their feet.

“Any day when I have to meet with an Admiral is a bad day,” Stafford said, “Or days when Station Security sends me reports of near-brawls involving my people!” he looked at Stern, “And just what are you so damned cheerful about today?”

“Nothing,” Stern said innocently, “But we had this thought-“

“Er, yes,” Simmons inturrupted, “About that. See, we have this idea-“

“Sort of a way for you to improve staff morale,” Stern jumped in, “A team builder, you could say,”

“Improve morale,” Stafford said dryly, “What makes you think I’d need to do that?”

Stern and Simmons exchanged glances.

“I’ve seen you guys on the bridge, sir,” Stern said.

“Well I’m glad your leadership skills are so much better than mine,” Stafford said sarcastically, “When I want your opinion, Stern, I’ll give it to you!” He turned to go.

“It involves camping!” Simmons called out to Stafford’s retreating back.

Stafford stopped.

“Camping?” he asked, not turning around.

“Ramson VI has some of the most beautiful lakes and beaches in the sector,” Simmons went on, referring to the planet Starbase 45 orbited, “The planet’s nice and safe; there’s even a park set aside for Starbase staff and visiting crews,” he handed Stafford a padd with pictures of a tranquil-looking lake surrounded by alien trees. Another image showed a grassy, virgin meadow just waiting for somebody to frolic through it.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Stafford said slowly.

“You and the senior staff,” Simmons went on, “It’ll be great! Shore leave AND esprit de corps,”

“Take it from us, sir,” Stern smiled, “After all, the Hazardous Team is the most highly motivated group on the ship. Who knows teamwork better than we do?”

“If you’ll just approve these requisitions…” Simmons held out two pads.

Stafford glaced at the first padd. It held requisitions for tents, sleeping bags, portable environment fields and various other pieces of camping equipment. He thumbed his approval on both padds, not even reading the second. If he had, he would have been very curious as to why exactly a camping trip would involve requesting a Temporary Departure Permit and War-Game Participation Plan, along with a temporary transfer of Silverado’s command codes to Lieutenant David Stern.

“Good idea, guys,” he said grudgingly, “I’ll inform the others. Thanks,”


“Why are we here?” Jall asked, annoyed. He’d spent a great night partying it up in one of the station’s nightclubs, ‘The Sassy Singularity’, and the bags under his eyes were making it pretty clear it had been a very, very late night.

“Captain’s orders,” Fifebee replied automatically, using one hand to hold her holo-relay steady.

“But it’s shore leave,” Wowryk said, holding a leash that had been affixed to the baby-harness Luke was wearing, “Why’s he giving us orders during shore leave,”

“He is the Captain,” T’Parief said with his usual calm loyalty, “He can order us around whenever he likes,”

“And you can order me around whenever you like,” Yanick teased, cuddling up to T’Parief’s side.

Wowryk merely shook her head.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Noonan said politely, “And how are you all this fine day? Well, I hope?”

“Why are you in such a good mood?” Jall asked.

“Didn’t you read the memo?” Noonan asked, his expression one of polite surprise, “We’re going down to the planet. I do hope you brought some outdoor cloths and such,”

There was an eruption of sound as everybody started to protest.

“HEY! QUIET DOWN!”

It was Stafford, standing in the doorway, a wide grin on his face.

“Another one!” Jall grumbled, “You morning people make me sick!”

“It’s 1400h,” Wowryk said coolly, “Hardly morning,”

“It is for me right now!”

“OK, folks,” Stafford spoke up again, “Let’s get this show on the road. Now, I assume everybody here didn’t bother to read the memo?”

Noonan nodded in confirmation.

“I thought so,” Stafford shrugged, “Which is why we’re meeting in a Replicator Center. We’re going down to the planet for a few days for a little trip. Whatever you need, now’s the time to replicate it,”

“Down to the planet for what?” Wowryk asked.

“We’re going camping!” Stafford said excitedly.

Everybody stared at him.

“Camping?” Fifebee asked, crossing her arms, “As in ‘outdoors’. With insects, rodents and plant by-products?”

“Yeah,” Stafford nodded.

“Have you forgotten that I dislike such things?” she asked.

“Nope,” Stafford shrugged, “Don’t really care. But y’know, I did bring environmental fields to keep that kinda stuff out,”

Fifebee arched an eyebrow.

“Acceptable,” she said, “I will comply,”

“Is she channeling a Borg now or something?” Yanick whispered to T’Parief.

“One never knows,” he whispered back.

“Why are we going ‘camping’?” Wowryk asked.

Stafford explained Simmons’ idea and how he hoped that spending some time together outside of the ship would be beneficial.

“You mean,” Jall said, “We don’t see enough of each other at work and off duty, now we have to hand out during shore leave too?”

Stafford looked annoyed.

“Weren’t you people just complaining not too long ago about how we never did anything together anymore?”

There was assorted grumblings, none of it sounding very convinced.

“You damn well were!” Stafford snapped, “So we’re gonna go down to the planet and we’re going to camp, and fish, and swim and do whatever it is people on vacation do!”

“How delightful!” Noonan grinned, rubbing his hands together.

“Morning people,” Jall groaned again.

“We’re just waiting for one more…” Stafford trailed off as the doors hissed open.

Simon Jeffery walked in.

“Uh, hi,” he waved weakly, “Been a while, huh?”

“I thought I’d get Simon to join us,” Stafford said, “Y’know, even though he’s leaving again soon…” he trailed off again as he noticed the expressions on his officers’ faces.

Everybody was staring at Wowryk, a mix of fear and anticipation on their faces.

“Oops,” Stafford said softly.

Wowryk ignored them, except to pass the handle to Luke’s leash to Yanick as she walked slowly towards Jeffery.

“Uh, hi Noel,” Jeffery said, “You look…good,”

Wowryk stopped in front of him, regarding him coldly.

“Is Simon going to die?” Yanick asked, worried.

“He just might,” T’Parief whispered back.

Jeffery stood there, looking increasingly afraid as Wowryk stared coldly at him, as though waiting for him to explain himself.

Then she kissed him.

He flinched back at first, afraid she was about to run a fist through his face. But when her lips hit his he melted forward, her hands fluttering on his shoulders.

It wasn’t a long kiss, and after a few seconds she backed away.

“That,” she said calmly, “is what I was on my way to give you when I found out you had left,” she lowered her voice and whispered in his ear, “That, and more,”

Then she slapped him, hard.

“That’s all you’re getting from me now!” she snarled, storming into one of the Replicator Rooms and stabbing angrily at the controls.

“Ow,” was all Jeffery could say as he rubbed his damaged face.


“Security on the bridge!” Simmons announced as the Hazardous Team emerged from the turbolift onto the darkened bridge of the Silverado. With most of the crew on shore leave only a skeleton force remained on board. The authorization padd Stafford had approved had been enough for Simmons and Stern to order those few crew members on duty to ready the ship for departure. Sylvia also seemed to be happy with the approval, though a bit annoyed that her relaxation time was being cut short.

“Dar’ugal, you’ve got Tactical,” Simmons said settling into Stafford’s chair, “Rengs, I want you on helm and Marsden, you’ve got engineering. Kreklor, you’re on ops,”

“Excuse me,” Stern said, annoyed, “But I’m the ranking officer here,”

“But it was all my idea!” Simmons objected.

“Get out of my chair!” Stern commanded.

“But Noonan’s chair is the same,” Simmons said, gesturing at the other chair in the center of the bridge, “And you can bet it’s got less butt sweat in it than Stafford’s!”

“That gross point aside,” Stern wrinkled his nose, “I want the Captain’s chair! Beat it!”

Grumbling, Simmons acquiesced.

“I’m activating war-game programming,” Marsden reported. That would reduce phaser strength to almost nothing and set the torpedo launchers to fire harmless flares rather than anti-matter or quantum warheads. The shield sensors would detect hits by the Stallion’s similarly weakened weapons and simulate damage accordingly.

“Engage all systems,” Sterm ordered.

There was a perceptible hum as the ships warp core powered up, the first minute particles of fuel combining in the reaction chamber to release the first glimmerings of plasma exhaust through the nacelle grills. Sensors, structural integrity fields and navigational systems powered up with a soft groan and display panels around the bridge flickered to life. As the main viewscreen came online they could see the Stallion as it floated gently out of the hanger door, her impulse engines flashing to life as she exited the bay.

“You know,” Marsden said as he tapped at his console, “When the captain finds out about this, he’s gonna be pissed,”

“Naw,” Simmons shrugged, “I heard during the reunion that he used to borrow stuff from his parents all the time. He’ll understand,”

“Bit of a difference between a shuttle and a starship,” Rengs said.


As the two starships were leaving dock, Stafford and company were materializing at their campsite.

“Wow,” Yanick said softly, taking in the view.

They’d materialized in a clearing set into the side of a vast valley. The ground was fairly smooth but with a slight slope. After fifteen meters or so the slight slope turned into a steep slope, trees clinging to the valley walls. A twisted path ran into the trees and out onto a broad beach bordering the lake. The sky was the deepest, most pure blue imaginable with only a slightly green tinge to the clouds telling them they were on an alien planet. She couldn’t see any birds, but she did see several furry…things…leaping between the trees, chirping contentedly to themselves.

“It’s beautiful,” Noonan remarked. He had worn his portable field generator, a small device he wore to protect his very sensitive skin from the burning fire of the sun. His immortal body may be impervious to many things, but certain types of radiation, such as UV rays, would burn him to a crisp. Stafford, however, had informed him that the area was blanketed by a filtering field, intended to prevent sunbathers from getting burns. Noonan kept his portable field close at hand, but was able to turn it to minimal settings to conserve power.

“Dude, are you OK?” Jall asked.

“I beg your pardon?” Noonan asked.

Jall looked uncomfortable, like he was afraid to say what he’d seen.

Only then did Noonan realize he had a tear on his cheek. A blood tear, as his people were known to shed. He quickly wiped it off.

“I’m very lucky to be able to see this,” he said softly.

“See what?” Jall asked, “It’s just a bright, sunny day,”

“Yes, it is,” Noonan smiled.

“So, ladies and gents,” Stafford said happily, “Who wants to help setup the tents?”

“What?” Yanick asked, “TENTS??”

“Uh, yeah,” Stafford said, flat-faced, “We are camping, you know!”

“Where’s the cabin?” Wowryk asked.

“Where’s the replicator?” Yanick added.

“Where’s the hopping night club?” Jall groaned.

“You’ve GOT to be kidding me,” Stafford groaned. He tossed a small package at Jeffery.

“Here, Simon, put up the girl’s tent,”

“Why do Ah have to do the girly stuff?” Jeffery grumbled. He lay the package on the ground, pulled a tab and jumped back. The small package expanded into a spacious eight person tent.

“What a drag,” Jeffery groaned, tossing some sleeping bags inside.

“Is anybody hungry?” T’Parief asked. He had stopped near the edge of the meadow to watch some animals graze. They looked a little like deer, except their pelts were darker and their bodies less lean.

“I could use a bite,” Jall shrugged, “Something that didn’t come out of a replicator,”

“Very well,” T’Parief nodded, drew his phaser and fired. One of the quasi-deer fell immediately, the others running into the bush.

Yanick and Wowryk stared in shock.

“You shot Bambi!” Yanick cried.

“You bastard!” Wowryk added.

“Oh good,” Stafford remarked, emerging from the tent he’d just put up, oblivious to the shocked looks on the women’s faces, “Dinner!”


A short time later, Yanick, Fifebee and Wowryk emerged from their tent.

“We’re going sunbathing,” Yanick declared, “Far away from you mean killers,”

T’Parief, still in the process of skinning and gutting the deer, stopped licking blood off his claws and gave Yanick a guilty look.

“Uh-huh, whatever you…holy shit,” Stafford trailed off, turning to look at the three.

Yanick was wearing a skimpy two piece, the bright green clashing rather horribly with her hair, but still looking fantastic. Fifebee and Wowryk were wearing slightly more conservative one-piece suits; Wowryk’s a deep blue and Fifebee’s a solid red. Wowyk’s long hair was free, cascading down her shoulders, the sun bringing out the red colour. Fifebee’s hair was still in its bun, her movements stiff and uncomfortable. Wowryk on the other hand flowed like water.

“We’ll see you boys later,” Wowryk said, giving a smile as she followed Yanick down the path to the beach.

Stafford, T’Parief and Jeffery simply stared.

“Tramps,” Jall muttered.

“They really were quite lovely,” Noonan said thoughtfully.

“Noel…Noel…” Jeffery stuttered.

“I think there’s a song that goes like that,” Noonan teased, “A Christmas carol, I believe,”

“Noel was wearing…”

“Skimpy clothing?” Stafford asked.

“Y-yeah,” Jeffery breathed.

“I wouldn’t get too excited if I were you,” Jall said.

“Why not?” Jeffery asked, tearing his eyes away from the path.

“After the way you left her?” Jall crossed him arms, “C’mon, dude. You’re dog meat,”

“We have dog meat, too?” T’Parief perked up, lowing the deer shoulder he’d been about to gnaw on.

“Uh, no,” Stafford said, patting the reptile on the shoulder, “But I checked the pamphlet. There’s a really nice swamp not too far from here,”

T’Parief stared at him.

“Cuz…y’know,” Stafford looked nervous, shifting his weight, “Crocodiles and alligators like swamps. And you kinda look…crocodile-ish.”

T’Parief frowned, a slight grumbling growing in his throat.

“Oh come on!” Stafford snapped, “I’m trying to be helpful here! How am I supposed to know what you’d like? I can’t exactly look you up in the Federation Cultural Archives, can I?”

T’Parief cocked his head.

“I never considered that,” he said, “Nor did I ever consider wallowing in a swamp. You say reptiles on your world enjoy it?”

“Almost as much as they like gnawing a leg off some unsuspecting camper,” Jall said.

“I’ll have to give it a try,” T’Parief nodded at Stafford then started in the indicated direction.

“He meant the wallowing, right?” Jeffery asked, “Not the gnawing?”

“Lord, let’s hope so,” Stafford muttered.

“Back to me,” Jeffery crossed his arms, “Are ye saying Ah couldn’t win Noel back if Ah tried?”

“You couldn’t win her before,” Jall said.

“‘If’ you tried?” Stafford frowned, “You’re saying you might not?”

“Ah’m saying nothing!” Jeffery said, sitting down on a tree stump. Stafford walked over to the supply pile, rummaging around until he found collapsible chairs for everybody. As he watched, a pair of the furry creatures inhabiting the planet ran out of the supply pile, running at full tilt across the meadow.

“I guess it would be hard to chase her if you’re not even on our ship,” Stafford said, making himself comfortable and opening a bottled synthale.

“Ah guess it would be,” Jeffery said defiantly.

“What’s up with you?” Stafford asked, “It’s not like you to be so…so…”

“Ignorant?” Jall offered.

“Moody,” Stafford said.

“Women have that effect on human men,” Noonan observed.


“Dr. Wowryk, may I ask a question?” Fifebee asked, pulling her holo-relay behind her as they approached the beach.

“We’re on leave,” Wowryk said, “Call me Noel,”

“Noel,” Fifebee said.

“What?” Wowryk.

“I was calling you Noel, as requested,”

Wowryk rolled her eyes.

“What’s your question?” she asked.

“I’m surprised at your decision to participate in our solar exposure activity,” Fifebee said, “It’s not like you to bare so much skin. Indeed, I’ve noticed on average you display less than 7% of your body. The remaining 93% is covered sufficiently to hide any indication of your breast or waist size 85% of the time,”

“Did you swallow a calculator, honey?” Yanick cut in, “Don’t you have a ‘vacation’ personality?”

“I do,” Fifebee said, “But we don’t have seven scantily-clad bodybuilders in the vicinity.

Wowryk chose to ignore that statement.

“There’s nothing wrong with sun tanning,” she said, “And besides, I want to torment Jeffery a little,”

“But Jeffery wants to see you nude,” Fifebee frowned, “Why would wearing skimpy clothing torment him?”

“Fifebee,” Yanick said, “Have you noticed what happens to T’Parief when somebody holds chocolate in front of his face?”

“Or a dog when you hold a steak above his nose,” Wowryk added.

Fifebee brightened.

“Oh!” she smiled, “I get it. You show them what they want, thus bringing it to mind and making them want it more! However, you ensure they are denied it.”

“Bingo, honey,”

Having reached the beach, the ladies spread out their towels, applied skin cream and stretched out to enjoy the rays.

“Lemmie just check this,” Yanick tapped at her tricorder, “Hmmm. That’s weird. The UV filters are supposed to let something through for tanning. But for some reason they’re blocking far more than they should be. I wonder why?”

“Who cares?” Wowryk asked, resting her head on her hands, “Just fix it,”

“Okie dokie,”


Stafford, Jeffery and Noonan were still seated in the meadow, drinking synthale. Well, Noonan wasnn’t, of course, but the other two were. Jall had climbed into the men’s tent for a snooze, still suffering from the night before.

“So I see Wowryk’s looking pretty relaxed,” Stafford said, watching Jeffery carefully for a reaction, “I guess therapy with Yvonnokoff has been going pretty well,”

“Good for her,” Jeffery said sullenly.

“So did you meet any nice women on the Stallion?” Stafford went on.

“No, of course not,” Jeffery said, swallowing, “Why do ye ask?”

“Because I’ve known you for a while, Simon,” Stafford said, “And I think it’s pretty weird that you’re that upset over leaving a ship that you only served on for a month,”

“I’m not upset,” Jeffery said.

“Yes, you are,” Noonan said. He paused.

“Do you guys smell something burning?” Stafford asked, sniffing at the air.

Jeffery pointed at Noonan, his jaw dropping.

Noonan’s skin was turning dark red, wisps of steam or smoke curling off him.

“Oh my!” Noonan exclaimed, grabbing his field generator and turning it to full power. The smoke subsided and his skin regained its former hue.

“What was that?” Jeffery asked after a moment.

“Somebody must have adjusted the UV filters,” Stafford frowned.

“No,” Jeffery insisted, “I mean why was Noonan-“

“Look, I don’t wanna-“

“YEEE-HAAWWW!”

“What the HELL-“ Stafford jumped to his feet.

A heard of young beings had burst from the trees, running helter-skelter across the meadow. A human girl around thirteen years of age rushed past the spot where the three men were talking, her tiny foot kicking over Jeffery’s synthale. An Andorian boy was chasing some kind of local equivalent to a rabbit across the meadow, his mouth pulled into a snarl as he attempted to catch the creature in his teeth. Tellarites, Lemnorians, Xenkethi, Rigilians, Betazoids, Trill and even a Vulcan child or two charged through the clearing, laughing, shrieking and causing general chaos. Almost as quickly as they appeared, they vanished down the path heading for the beach.

“What the HELL was that?” Jall snarled, emerging from the tent.

“A very good question,” Noonan observed. And very good timing too, he noted.

As the four looked around in confusion, a middle-aged man emerged from the same trees the children had burst out of. He was clearly tired, as evidenced by his red face, sweaty brow and loud panting. He wasn’t in the greatest of shape either, as evidenced by a moderate gut hanging out over his belt.

“Did you…did you see…” he gasped, throwing an arm over Noonan’s shoulder and leaning heavily.

“A pack of miniature monsters?” Stafford offered.

“No…they,” the man wiped his forehead with Noonan’s sleeve. Noonan, his face caught between disgust and amusement, gently eased the man into a chair.

“They’re Starfleet Scouts,” he finally forced out, “I’m Darnen, their Scoutmaster,”

“Scouts?” Jall raised an eyebrow, “Here?”

“Why?” Stafford asked.

“It’s a camping trip,”

Stafford suddenly looked about ten years older as he contemplated the thought of a pack of young children running amuck through the peaceful, beautiful campground.

“WHYYY???” he moaned.

“Well, they are Scouts, ye know,” Jeffery shrugged, “Scouts go camping,”

“But why do they have to be doing it here?” Stafford asked.

“It was close to the starbase,” Darnen said, “Look, I know you’re here to relax, but if you could help me catch the little br-, um, children, I’d really appreciate it,”

“Oh no!” Stafford said, hands on hips, “There is no way I’m going to-“

“If we help,” Noonan said, “We will be able to keep track of them and will be better positioned to keep them from damaging our equipment,”

“-going to let you handle those monsters on your own!” Stafford finished.


“AIEEE!” Wowyk shrieked, shielding her face from the spray of sand kicked up by a passing Rigellian girl.

“Where did these kids come from?” Yanick asked, shielding her eyes, “Aww, they look so adorable in those little Starfleet Scouts uniforms,”

“H-Hey!” Fifebee shouted, flickering in and out as two burly young Brikar knocked into her holo-relay, the device’s gyrostabilizers barely able to keep it upright, “Please do exercise caution around sensitive equipment!”

<Putrid spawn> Luke cursed, shaking sand out of his diaper, <How you could mistake me for one of your devil-children becomes harder and harder to comprehend!>

“Hey!” Jall called, leading Stafford, Noonan, Jeffery and Darnen out of the trees and onto the beach, “Did you see a pack of, oh, never mind. There they are,”

As they watched, the swarm of about twenty youngsters charged down the beach, somehow finding time to toss stones into the water, poke slimy sea life-forms with sticks and receive at least one minor bite from a sea life-form that rather disliked being poked.

“Ladies, we need your help,” Stafford said.

“Constantly,” Wowryk said dryly.

“He means with the kids,” Jeffery said.

“What?” Fifebee objected, “Why? I do not wish to spend shore leave with miniature life forms that habitually make a mess of any environment they inhabit!”

“She swallow a thesaurus?” Darnes asked.

“C’mon Noel,” Stafford prodded, “It’ll be a chance to show off those parenting skills you’ve been working on,”

“I bet we can catch more kids than you can!” Yanick said, jumping to her feet.

“You’re on!” Jall cried, laughing at Yanick as the two of them started chasing after the kids.

Stafford raised an eyebrow.

“Competition can be a healthy morale builder,” Noonan offered.

“Or a way to get bit in the…” Stafford’s eyes widened, “Oh shit! T’Parief is lounging somewhere over there!” He started running in the same direction the kids, Jall and Yanick had gone.

Jumping to her feet, Wowryk caught up with him, leaving Jeffery, Darnen, Noonan and Fifebee trailing behind.

“And why are you so concerned,” Wowryk asked, easily keeping pace, “Do you think T’Parief would hurt them? He’s actually very good with kids. The Rengs’ baby loves him,”

“Hurt them?” Stafford shook his head, “No, no. I trust him around kids,” he gave a wicked grin, “But they don’t know that, and I’d hate to miss the looks on their little faces when they find him!”


“Kenny! Wait up!” Xex, a young Tibarian with red skin and green eyes called. After they left the beach the group of kids had scattered in several directions, Kenny and Xex heading towards a swampier region.

“I gotta catch this thing!” Kenny called back, running at full tilt after a small, scurrying rodent. With a final lunge, he snagged the animal by the tail. It gave a started ‘YIP’ of surprise before being engulfed in Kenny’s hand.

“What is it?” Xex asked, looking down at the frightened animal, “Can I eat it?”

It should be noted that the humanoid form is not the only form to be successful on a number of planets. Scientists can come up with any number of explanations as to why sentient beings on a staggering number of worlds come equipped with two legs, two arms, a mouth, nose, eyes and ears. Some theorize that because life evolves on similar planets with similar living conditions, life must be similar. Others prefer to believe that a long-extinct race known as the ‘Preservers’ seeded life across the galaxy. And one cannot forget the numerous religions claiming that it is all God’s work.

However, it was perhaps no small amount of selfishness on the part of humanoids that they put far less study into examining why so many planets had beings similar to canines, bovines, equestrians, penguins and squirrels. If, in fact, Federation science had bothered to perform a study, they would have found that squirrels and squirrel-like aliens were far more common on M-Class planets than the standard variety humanoid. Of course, this would result in a number of new theories, ranging from ‘The Preservers seeded them so humanoids would have cute animals to keep them company’ right up to ‘God thinks squirrels are cute’.

This particular squirrel was in a state of terror, being gripped rather firmly by a Terran twelve year old as he wandered through a dark swamp.

“Do you see them?” came a voice.

“Shhh!” Kenny said, freezing in place near the edge of a small pond, crouching on a rock and pulling Xex down with him, “Hear that?”

They watched through the foliage as two humans, a man and a woman, crept into the area, looking around.

“No sign of anything,” the male said, “Kids these days,”

“Too bad Sylvia isn’t around to help out,” the female suggested.

“I guess,” the male said.

“I wonder what they’re looking for,” Xex whispered.

“US, you moron!” Kenny whispered back. He froze.

“Did the rock just move?” he asked.

Kenny and Xex jumped to their feet and squealed as the ‘rock’ shifted, revealing itself to be the head of a very grumpy looking alien with very sharp teeth.

“AHHHHHH!!!” the kids screamed, running full tilt past Stafford and Wowryk and out of the swamp, the squirrel alien tossed aside to land in a pile of rotting vegetation.

“Dammit!” Stafford swore, “Of all the blasted, stupid, idiotic-“

“I am sorry, Captain,” T’Parief said. He was standing there in a pair of swim trunks, mud and slimy water sliding down his skin as he rose to his feet, “I didn’t mean to startle them,”

“Not that!” Stafford waved away T’Parief’s apology, “I forgot my camera!”

“What are you doing?” Wowryk asked, frowning at the half-naked alien.

“Relaxing,” T’Parief said, crossing his thick arms over his well-developed chest, almost as though he were hiding himself from the doctor. (She was more preoccupied with the health concerns of his developing gut, a result of a chocolate fixation T’Parief had been suffering from.)

“Oh yeah,” Stafford cocked his head, “Is it working?”

“Wonderfully,” T’Parief said, settling back down into the scummy water.

“I’m not sure that’s healthy,” Wowryk said, wrinkling her nose.


“So, uh, now what?” Ensign Mardsen asked, drumming his fingers on the Engineering panel. Silverado had followed the Stallion out of the hanger bay and was crawling through space on impulse power.

“Now,” Stern looked a little embarrassed, “Er, now we turn off our sensors for fifteen minutes so they can hide, then we try to find them,”

“Hide and seek?” Simmons exclaimed, “You’ve got to be KIDDING me!”

“Search and destroy,” Kreklor stated firmly from Jall’s Ops panel, “It is a standard war game program,”

“Like they have a chance anyway,” Simmons sneered, “An eighty-year-old Constitution-class? Against us?”

“A fifty-year-old Ambassador-class?” Mardsen arched an eyebrow.

“It’s David and Goliath all over again,” Simmons grumbled.

“I hope not,” Stern said, “Cuz we’d be Goliath. And he lost,”

“Ohhh,” Simmons frowned, “Alien vs. Predator?”

“No, too evenly matched,” Marsden said.

“Prophets vs. Pah-Wraiths?”

“Don’t impugn my religion, human!” Rengs cut in.

“The Borg vs. Humanity?”

“That makes us the bad guys!” Stern objected, “Look, you idiots, remember that thing at the Academy about not underestimating your foes? We have a ship full of highly skilled Starfleet officers out there, and we can’t afford to let our guard down!”


“You idiot!” Sinclair shook her head, glaring over at Tereneth, “This isn’t the Jarden nebula! It’s the Watasha asteroid belt!”

“Oh, is it?” Tereneth asked innocently, “That’s funny, I could have sworn this was the heading I got from the lady handling Navigation,”

“Don’t you try to pin this on me!”

“LADIES!” Captain Sinclair shouted. She paused, looked at Tereneth, “Sentient beings of various gender,” she amended, “We don’t have time to argue! We’ve got a ship full of highly skilled security officers who are about to hunt us down! I want ideas!”

“Out-maneuver them,” Hurken said immediately, “They are larger (and uglier) than us, but our weapons have both been upgraded to similar output levels,”

“They just have more of them,” Kren muttered.

“At least they agreed not to use that cannon thingy,” Simplot shrugged.

“They have stronger shields,” Hurken went on, “But are more sluggish. Plus, they have a weakness right,” he brought up a schematic of the larger vessel, “right here…”


“Come out, come out, wherever you are…” Stern said softly, watching the main screen carefully.

“Darg, any ion trail yet?” Simmons asked.

Dar’ugal nodded. Sadly, since nobody was watching him for gestures, nobody noticed.

“Oh well,” Stern signed, “Keep looking. We’ll find something,”

Annoyed, Dar’ugal waved his arms, trying to get Stern to notice his reflection on the main screen. As 24th-century science had mastered the art of the anti-reflection coating, this proved rather fruitless. Instead, he started typing on his panel, words appearing on the screen:

ION TRAIL DETECTED AT 233 MARK 4. DIRECTION OF WATASHA ASTEROID BELT

“Huh,” Stern shrugged, “They must have something clever planned. I was expecting them to go to the Jarden nebula,”


“And the winner is the ladies, with eight adorable little children recovered!” Yanick shouted as she returned to the campsite, waving her hands over her head.

“Yippee for you,” Jall muttered. He was helping a group of three young Vulcans pitch their tent. It wasn’t one of the auto-tents; this was one of the old-fashioned manual varieties. At least some organizations were still in favor of making kids learn things the hard way. The Vulcan children however, were really getting on Jall’s nerves. They’d started by telling him that his tent jokes were illogical and inappropriate, then started a complex analysis of the weather patters and the tensile strength of the guy lines in order to determine the optimal line length and angle.

“We’ve got seven,” Jeffery said, leading a little girl by the hand while carrying a loudly protesting Tellarite boy under one arm,”

“I need a drink,” Stafford grumbled, fishing around in the storage pile, finding a cold bottle of synthale and removing the lid.

“Drinking? In front of the children?” Wowryk asked.

“Hey,” Stafford pointed at her, “If those mating rabbit-things didn’t bother then, I don’t think a drunk starship captain will!”

“You’re a captain?” a little boy asked.

“Yup,” Stafford said proudly.

“Wow,” the little boy shook his head, “Daddy told me starship captains were all cool…I guess I gotta tell him he’s wrong,”

Stafford gaped at the kid while Wowryk giggled.

Preparations about the site continued as Stafford downed his drink.

“So much for bonding,” he muttered, tossing back another mouthful, “I manage to get everybody together in one place far from our ship, our jobs and our responsibilities and we end up infested by pack of loud, obnoxious little f-“

“STOP THAT!”

Jall, tired of enduring a lecture on the illogic of his sexuality, rushed over to where Yanick was shouting at two boys while Stafford continued to mutter to himself.

“What are the little bastards up to?” Jall asked.

“They’re tormenting that poor little animal!” Yanick wailed.

As Jall watched, the taller boy threw a rock at a squirrel-like creature, trying to knock it out of the tree.

“Hey!” Jall snapped, “Cut that out!”

The boy looked back at him.

“You’re not the boss of me,” he said.

“I damn well am!” Jall snapped. He grabbed the kid by the ear and started to lead him back to the campsite, “I’m twice as tall as you, and sometimes size DOES matter!”

“Yeah” Yanick said, her eyes glazing over briefly,

“C’mon you, back to camp,” Jall said, still gripping the ear firmly, “I learned this move from my grandmother,” he confided to Yanick as the boy followed, protesting.


Shortly after, the campsite had ceased to be a pristine meadow and had been transformed into a small tent village. The tents Stafford’s crew had set up were in the center, surrounded by smaller tents bearing the Starfleet Scouts logo. Stafford, becoming very drunk, was hoping that meant the things were settling down and that there would be no further issues.

“Uh, Captain,” Darnen came up to Stafford looking uncomfortable.

“BLAAACH!” Stafford belched, leaning back in his lounge chair, “Whassup?”

“Not that I don’t appreciate your help,”

“Darn right you do,” Stafford drawled, “So do I. We’re great, aren’t we? Letting you screw up our shore leave and all.”

“Um, yes,” Darnen shifted his weight, “Uh, we’re missing children,”

Stafford blinked at him.

“And that’s bad?” he asked, confused, “Oh, wait. Missing. I’m sorry. It’s good when they go away, but not good when they’re missing,”

“That about sums it up,” Jall grumbled. He had ignored the synthale and gone straight for a bottle of synthoholic vodka.

“How many?” Stafford asked.

“Uh, two,” Darnen said.

“T’Parief!” Stafford called, his voice loud and slurred.

“Uh-huh?”

At first, Jall and Jeffery almost didn’t recognize the security chief. He was slouching, his usually straight posture gone in a gurgle of slumped shoulders. His gut was sticking out even more, his claws dangled by his sides and a relaxed, pleased look complete with slightly goofy grin was on his face.

“Is he on drugs or something?” Darnen asked quietly.

Stafford cringed.

“Ugh, God man!” he cried, “You STINK like…like a swamp!”

“Ah wonder why?” Jeffery said.

“It was worth it,” T’Parief said, “I have never felt so calm, so relaxed,”

“Kids have gone missing,” Stafford said.

The change was immediate. Muscles tightened, spine straightened, shoulders moved up, back and down with military precision. The relased look vanished from his face, replaced by grim determination.

“Mr. Hyde returns,” Jall commented.

“‘I’ll start a search at once,” T’Parief said, moving off into the trees. His head was forward, tail up to counterbalance as he moved quickly into the trees, once again his normal, alert self.

“Hate to spoil his relaxation like that,” Noonan mused, following to help. No doubt his superb night vision and hunting skills would prove useful.

“He can wallow in the scum again tomorrow,” Stafford grumbled, grabbing another synthale.


“This is where the ion trail leads,” Ensign Grant reported. He’d been called up to the bridge to act as Dar’ugal’s voice while the silent Barudan was manning tactical. A minor oversight that had already damaged Stern’s confidence a little.

“It’s a bunch of rocks,” Simmons said, “I don’t see any starships around here!”

“They could be hiding behind one of those rocks,” Marsden suggested, “Y’know, found one that has some of those funny sensor-dampening rocks in it,”

“Like the ones in your head?” Simmons muttered.

“Keep scanning,” Stern ordered.


“Are you sure this is going to work?” Simplot asked. The bridge was dark, all power except for life-support and another, minor piece of technology powered down in order to make the ship easier to hide.

“Positive,” Gonzales replied, “I overhead Sylvia and Jeffery talking about this when they were working on our sensors,”

“But Sylvia’s on that ship,” Kren pointed out, “Don’t you think she’d tell them about this?”

“She probably has,” Gonzalez shrugged, “Told the senior staff that is. The question is whether the security officers know about it,”

“Let’s find out,” Simplot said, rising from her chair and striking a dramatic pose, “Take us in!”

“Sure, just give me about ten minutes,” Sinclair said.

“Ten minutes???”

“Older ships don’t warm up as quickly as the new ones do!” Sinclair explained, daintily examining one of the heavy gold rings on her fingers.

“Sort of like men,” Tereneth said brightly.


Silverado eased her way into the asteroid field, her sensors carefully probing the area, searching for the slightest hint of the smaller ship they were pursuing. They passed by a large asteroid and scanned it carefully, not realizing that parked right behind the hunk of rock the Stallion was even now powering up her systems. The phase-delayed sensor beams they were generating with a forward sensor array continued broadcasting, creating a complete dead zone in Silverado’s sensors. Running on thrusters she eased in behind the larger ship, right where the exhaust from the impulse and warp engines tended to confuse sensor readings anyway. It also just happened to be the place where there was a gap in the phaser coverage.


“Ready?” Simplot asked.

“Ready,” Hurken grunted, “We’ll whip those clean-water wimps into shape!”

“Clean water?” Tereneth whispered to Sinclair.

“Tellarites look down on races that do not use mud-baths,” Sinclair whispered back, “Somebody about fear of a shiny coat,”

“Fire!” Simplot giggled giddily, a happy kick sending her command chair spinning.

Hurken fired, the ship’s weakened phasers spearing right into Silverado’s aft shields.


T’Parief surged through the forest, carefully following his nose as he followed the somewhat sickening scent of children. They’d already left the general area of the camp site and passed further than any of the children had managed to wander previously.

“This way,” Noonan said, gesturing to the right.

To T’Parief’s complete lack of surprise, the first officer had shown no problem in keeping up with T’Parief’s rapid pace. Nor did he seem to have any trouble finding his way in the steadily darkening forest. T’Parief had seen Noonan working during power outages when the ship’s corridors had been pitch black and he’d seen him move almost quicker than the eye could see. What was a little surprising was that Noonan seemed to have an even more refined sense of smell than T’Parief. It wasn’t until after they’d changed direction that T’Parief noticed that the scent was moving off in a new direction.

Noonan also saw the dead tree across their path before T’Parief.

“AARGH!” the reptile squawked, rolling as he hit the ground, pain shooting through his ankle.

“Are you all right?” Noonan asked.

“Fine. Just damaged my pride,” T’Parief hissed in pain as he put weight back on his left foot.

“And sprained your ankle, I think,” Noonan said.

“The scent turns again here,” Noonan went on, after making sure T’Parief was still capable of movement, “It’s almost heading-“

“Back to camp,” T’Parief finished, “Perhaps the children were able to make their way back,”

“Maybe,” Noonan said, “But something really doesn’t feel right about this,”

“I agree,” T’Parief’s tongue shot out, tasting the air nervously. Of course, since he used his nose for smelling rather than his tongue, it was more of a gesture than anything. One he had picked up from his father, “We should head back,”

“I think you’re right,” Noonan said, “Now, shall we move on, or simply stand here agreeing with each other all night?”

Shooting him a dirty look, which he was certain Noonan would see in the dark light, T’Parief started limping back towards the camp.


“Shields down to 80%!” Grant cried out, “What’s happening! Who’s shooting at us! I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”

“Shut up!” Stern shouted, “It’s practice! Their phasers couldn’t kill a fly!”

“Where are they?” Rengs cried, “I have nothing on sensors!”

The ship shook again. Even though the Stallion’s phasers were turned down, the computer used the thrusters and inertial dampening fields to simulate a read battle.

“They’re hitting us from behind!” Marsden called from engineering, “If we don’t get them off our tail they’re gonna be able to pick us apart!”

“Rengs! Evasive!” Stern ordered.

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” Rengs shot back, “They must be matching every move!”

“All thrusters! Rotate one-eighty degrees on the Z-axis,” Stern ordered. It was of Stafford and T’Parief’s favorite maneuvers, spinning the ship like a top to bring the forward phaser cannon to bear on an enemy ship.

They weren’t using that weapon in the war game, but as Silverado spun around even the Stallion’s superior maneuverability couldn’t keep them in the sensor weak spot. Stallion spun right into plain sight on the viewscreen, her torpedo tubes flashing as they launched a torpedo.

“They’re using an inverse phase-delay to jam our sensors!” Kreklor reported from Ops, “And were hiding in an area of weak sensor coverage. I’ve compensated!” The ship rocked as the torpedo hit.

“Forward shields at 95%,” Grant cried, “Aft down to 60%,”

“Return fire already!” Simmons yelled.

Phasers and torpedoes flashed between the two ships; both of them scoring several direct hits.


“Shields at 75%!” Hurken reported, “And they think they’re tougher? Hah! We’ll rip their intermix chamber out through their…”

And so on, and so forth.

“Evasive!” Kren ordered from Environmental Control, “Get us behind them again!”

“I’m trying,” Terenth replied, “They keep spinning around!”

“Then go under,” Simplot said, “And concentrate fire on their ventral phaser array,”

It was a bad move.

Tereneth handled the Stallion with the grace of a swan, pulling her through a series of clean maneuvers, dodging two torpedoes and cutting below Silverado’s saucer.

Rengs, on the other hand, was an energy weapons expert, not a helmsman. Having just gotten comfortable with the Z-axis rotation that was keeping the Stallion off their tails, he pitched the ship forward, trying to keep a line-of-site on the Stallion as it moved below them.

<CLANGGGGGG!>

The hulls of both ships rang as their shields collided. The energy barriers held long enough to transform what would have been a fatal crash into a glancing blow, as the Stallion bounced off Silverado’s lower saucer, spinning out of control as her saucer clipped Silverado’s engineering hull.


“There y’ are!” Jeffery cried, running up as T’Parief and Noonan returned to the campsite.

“Simon, what’s going on?” Noonan asked. Everything seemed fairly calm, but Jeffery was in a state of panic.

“Ten more children gone!” Jeffery cried, “Along with the Captain and the ladies!”

“Gone?” T’Parief asked, “Gone where?”

“Hauled off by a pack of…I dunno what they were,” Jeffery went on. Noonan moved quickly to the supply pile to fish out a medical kit, with which he quickly repaired T’Parief’s ankle.

“Where did they take them?”

“That way,” Jeffery pointed, “Jall and I were gonna follow, but we figured…”

“That you’d wait for us, cowering in your own fear?”

“Something like that,”

T’Parief looked around. Darnen and the remaining Scouts were huddled in the largest tent, several flashlights highlighting their location. The other tents were empty, flaps flapping floppily in the breeze.

“We could call the Starbase for help,” Noonan suggested. He tapped his comm-badge, which emitted only a faint gurgle.

“Jammed,” Noonan frowned, “How odd,”

T’Parief had located the phaser he’d used earlier to kill the deer, along with a set of infrared goggled.

“Let us stone,” he said.

“I think you mean ‘rock’,” Jall corrected.

“Either works for me right now,” Jeffery muttered.


They followed the scents of Stafford and the others to a nearby cave, T’Parief making a mental note to ask the Captain just what kind of cologne he used. Perhaps Yanick would appreciate a more human scent…

“Do we go in?” Jall asked.

“We could stand here all night and see what comes out,” Jeffery suggested.

“We have missing crewmen,” Noonan reminded them, “I think we’d best get started with this rescue mission,”

They crept down a narrow passage, the sounds of dripping water and moving air keeping them company. After about a hundred meters the passage widened, opening into a large chamber. On the floor, bound and gagged, were the missing children and officers. Fifebee’s holo-emitter sat in a corner, the red ‘Out of Range’ light indicating that they were too deep underground for the signal from the starbase computer to penetrate. Several squirrel-aliens skittered around the edge of the cavern, retreating from Noonan as he moved forward to pull the gag out of Stafford’s mouth.

“Watch out!” Stafford cried, “It’s them! They’re-“

Noonan missed the last word as his legs shot out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground. His arms were pushed down and before he knew it we was flat on his back, carefully restrained. Crashes and growling from either side told him T’Parief, Jall and Jeffery where being subject to the same treatment.

He raised his head, trying to catch sight of their assailants.

“Well this is just great!” Stafford slurred, obviously still drunk, “I try to get us to have a nice trip together, and we all get kidnapped by a band of f**king squirrels! I just can’t win! I give up! The rest of you can f**king ROT for all I care!”

Squirrels?

“Greetings, Federation creature,” a tiny, high-pitched voice resembling a helium-sniffing birthday clown said. As Noonan watched, a black squirrel-alien scampered over and seated itself on his chest.

“Wow,” Noonan said, “That’s a surprise!”


“Oh this is just PERFECT!” Simmons shook his head. The ship was drifting, the collision having shorted out the shields and taken the inertial dampeners off-line. On the viewscreen they could see the Stallion spinning slowly through space, one relatively small edge of her saucer dented in from the hit.

“The Captain’s going to kill us,” Stern said blankly, sitting in the command chair in a state of shock, “He’s going to kills us slowly and painfully,”

“If he doesn’t,” Sylvia said, sounding very cross, “Then I will,”


“Well, this is just perfect,” Simplot sat in her command chair, annoyed. The Stallion’s shields were down, but the damage otherwise had been contained. On the screen they could see Silverado drifting, a two deck high gouge in her engineering hull leaking gases into space.

“We could just leave them here,” Hurken suggested.

Simplot considered it.

“Nooo,” she said slowly, “Lock a tractor beam on them and set a course for Starbase 45. Full impulse.”

“Does this mean we won?” Tereneth asked.

“If by ‘won’ you mean we’re all dead,” Kren replied, “Then yes. We won.”

“Dead?”

“According to the computer,” Kren nodded, “If that had been a real battle, our shields would have been too weak to protect us from the collision. Our saucer would have gone right into their warp core and the resulting explosion would have killed all of us, instantly,”

“Ooohhh,” Tereneth sunk lower in her seat, “Bummer,”


“What do you want?” Noonan asked the squirrel, “Oh, and I am Matthew Noonan, by the way,”

The squirrel emitted a string of chirps, which no human mouth could possibly repeat.

“But you can call me Chip,” he added, “And as for what we want, well…”

Chip reached into a tiny knapsack and pulled out a tiny padd and a pair of eyeglasses. Slipping on the latter he began to read.

“We, the squirrels of Ramson IV, hereby make the following charges against the United Federation of Planets, on behalf of squirriloid beings across the galaxy,” Chip read from the padd, “That your Federation Marines participated in an attack upon the Cutipythans of Ridalus IV on Stardate 50277. That the crew of the Federation Starbase Waystation engaged in a mass slaughter of Snigglesnooshes on Stardate 57553 and that your Starfleet Scouts have engaged in four counts of assault upon us here on Ramson VI as of this Stardate, 58194,” Chip adjusted his eyeglasses, “Not to mention the countless undocumented attacks and killings of squirrels on your home planet as perpetrated by your canine slaves,”

“Really?” Noonan cocked his head, “That’s fascinating,”

“We demand immediate reparations be made!” shouted another squirrel, this one perched on Yanick’s head, “And we demand the immediate removal of your starbase from our planet!”

“You…what?” Noonan shook his head, trying to clear it, “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. Starbase 45 is a peaceful outpost!”

“They why have they been sending down attack teams to this place for the past five years?” demanded Chip.

“Attack teams?” Noonan laughed, “Those are campers! They’re here to enjoy the beautiful planet you have!”

Chip’s little squirrel face lost its expression of fury. He cocked his head.

“Really?” he asked, “Well, I suppose that explains why you haven’t beamed down an invading army to pillage our trees and rape our women,”

Frowning as the physical impossibilities flittered through his head, Noonan smiled at Chip.

“On behalf of the Federation,” he said, “I apologize for any damage done. I’m sure a negotiating team can help us come to an agreement that would benefit both of us,”

Chip scampered off to confer with the other squirrels, their high-pitched chirping giving several of the hostages headaches until finally it came to a stop.

“Very well,” Chip said, “We will release you and welcome your negotiators. But reparations will still have to be made!”


Captain’s Log: Stardate 58196.6:

“Negotiations between the Federation and the squirrels of Ramson VI have been completed. We get to keep our starbase here and use the planet for shore leave, as long as no squirrels are injured. We also have to send them monthly shipments of peanuts and acorns,”

“Shore leave wasn’t a total loss. Darnen and his Starfleet Scouts were taken back to the starbase to undergo mandatory training for their ‘Animal Compassion’ merit badges. The rest of us managed to get some camping done, finally. Teaching T’Parief to water-ski was definitely the highlight of the trip…I’ve never seen such spectacular wipe outs! He tried to jump the wake and wound up spinning across the water like a beach ball. I hope he’s ok…”

“Anyway, we’ve returned to the starbase and are just getting ready to return to the ship,”


“Well, that was fun,” Yanick said, checking out her tan in a reflective surface.

“What?” T’Parief asked, tilting his head, still trying to get the last of the water out of his ears.

“Nothing,”

“Hi, Captain,”

Stafford and Noonan had been leading the way back to the ship, but they’d be met by Stern and the Hazardous Team shortly before they reached Silverado’s docking bay.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?” Stafford asked, “Enjoy your shore leave?”

“Uh, yeah,”

“I gotta hand it to you,” Stafford went on, “that camping trip was a great idea. We had some problems at first, yeah, but in the end everything went smoothly,”

“Right, er, Captain,” Stern swallowed, “Uh, remember when your father was aboard?”

“How could I forget,” Stafford replied.

“Well, he told us this story about how you borrowed your mother’s hover-car once and kinda returned it worse condition than it had been…”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Stafford said, “Some idiot crashed into me. Smashed mom’s hover-car all to hell. Dad was pretty forgiving about the whole thing, though.”

“Uh, right,” Stern said, just as they rounded the last corner and came to the windows looking out over the Silverado, “Um, just keep that in mind,”

“Why, what for…” Stafford trailed off as he saw the damage to his ship. Starbase crews were already hard at work, but the hull on one side of the secondary hull had been gouged right in, smashed metal and twisted structural members visible where a line of Deck 23 windows should have been. His eyes darkened and his mouth opened and closed as he tried and failed to speak.

“You,” Noonan said, patting Stern on the shoulder, “Are in big trouble, young man,”